The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, 17 August 2014

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
St. Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Background: Tyre and Sidon

We know that Tyre was in existence from the letters of Mayor Abimilku to the so-called “heretic Pharaoh” Akhenaten sent in 1350 BCE.  Herodotus was of the opinion that the city was founded in 2750 BCE, and we see its name appearing on various monuments around 1300 BCE.  Tyre was a center of commerce, having two excellent ports, and being a center for the trade in purple dye.  The mainland (Tyre was an island off the northern coast of Palestine) had been settled by the Phoenicians, and they along with the Egyptians often besieged the city.  The city is now connected to the mainland by a causeway built by Alexander the Great in order to conquer the city.  Sidon is a city older than Tyre; indeed it is the mother city of Tyre.  Sidon was also a great commercial center, and like Tyre dealt in the costly purple dye.  It became an important Phoenician settlement, and along with Tyre became a center for early Christians.

Track 1
Genesis 45:1-15

Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, `Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there-- since there are five more years of famine to come-- so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.' And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

The lectionary skips over a great deal of the Joseph epic, and we catch up to him after his coming to no small amount of power under the Pharaoh of Egypt.  The last we read of him in the lectionary, he had been mistreated by his brothers, and sold into slavery.  Today’s reading tells of the reunion of the brothers.  There is an unfortunate lack of all the mystery and ins and outs of Joseph’s Egyptian adventure.  Here we see the starkness of the reunion minus the intervening years and Joseph’s penchant for survival.  That is a term that is used in the text, “It was really God who sent me here in advance of you as an instrument of survival.”  This, along with another theologically tinged word, “remnant” reminds us that this is more than a family history, but rather a “history of salvation.”  Just as Joseph is tested in his time in Potiphar’s household (39:1-23), and in prison (40:1-23), so Joseph tests his brothers as they make their first and second trip to Egypt (42:1-38, 43:1-44: 34).  The point of the story, however, is not the covered up lies and deception on the part of so many, but rather the reunion itself, and the saving of a family.  The story is wound between the J author and the E author, who each have a different web to weave.  The redactor has glossed over some of the difficulties, so that we are not distracted by them.  Rather we are bidden to have joy as the “remnant” survives.  This sets the stage for other such stories in the future.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. How is this a story of salvation?
  2. Who or what is “the remnant?”
  3. How is this more than a story about a family?

Psalm 133 Ecce, quam bonum!

Oh, how good and pleasant it is, *
when brethren live together in unity!

It is like fine oil upon the head *
that runs down upon the beard,

Upon the beard of Aaron, *
and runs down upon the collar of his robe.

It is like the dew of Hermon *
that falls upon the hills of Zion.

For there the LORD has ordained the blessing: *
life for evermore.

This psalm is poignant in that it comments quite nicely on the salvation of Israel’s family (in the first lesson) in the midst of a famine.  The psalm rejoices in the beauty of a material world of natural things, oil, dew, and family.  The translation might better be stated, “Look! How good and how pleasant…”  The psalmist asks us to pay attention to the goodness that surrounds us each day.  Three instances of the verb, “runs down” (or stated as “falls) gives us not only a heavenward direction for such blessings, but a sense of abundance as well.  The oil comes down from the head to the beard.  The beard comes down over the robe of Aaron’s high priestly vestments.  Finally the dew comes down on a parched land.  The later is a substitution by translator Robert Alter, who adopts what he calls a “small emendation”[1] namely, substitution tsiyah (parched land) for tsiyon (Zion).  The closing line is quite stunning, “life forevermore.”

Breaking open Psalm 133:
  1. In what physical elements do you see God’s grace and mercy?
  2. How do you make them available to others?
  3. What does “life forevermore” mean to you.


Track 2:

Isaiah 56:1,6-8

Thus says the LORD:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant--
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord GOD,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

Here we venture into what Claus Westermann[2] and other commentators call “Third Isaiah”. Westermann places these oracles and pronouncements during the period immediately preceding the activity of Ezra and Nehemiah, and just before the ministry of Haggai and Zechariah.  It was a difficult time, full of economic uncertainties and political ambiguity.  The first sentence of the reading deals with the notion of justice – a call to adhere to the standards of YHWH in spite of the difficulties of the time.  It also calls the reader to patiently wait, “for my salvation is near to its coming.” 

The last verses, 6-8, expand the universalism of the previous Isaiahs, “And the foreigners who join themselves to YHWH.”  The provisions for these associations seem simple enough, keep the Sabbath, and faithfully hold my covenant.  It is these along with the others, whom God has brought back from exile, who are gathered to “my holy mountain.”  Those who gather under YHWH’s mountain find that their sacrifices and offerings are accepted, “for my house shall be called ‘house of prayer for all peoples.’”  The closing line of the pericope reminds the reader that more is to come, for God “will gather yet others”.

Breaking open the Isaiah 56:
  1. What do you understand by the word “universalism”?
  2. Where in the Bible do you see the nations being brought together?
  3. Is there a universal house of prayer in your city?  Where?

Psalm 67 Deus misereatur

May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.

Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.

Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has brought forth her increase; *
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.

May God give us his blessing, *
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.

Thanksgiving and blessing seem to be the themes here, and a snippet from the Aaronic benediction, “show us the light of his countenance” only seems to underscore this.  Although the phrase concerning “the earth has brought forth her increase” might lead us to believe that this psalm might be a harvest text, the many references to the “nations,” and the “peoples” sends us in a different direction.  It meets the sentiments of the first reading quite nicely.

Breaking open the Psalm 67:
  1. How are this psalm and the first reading (Track 2) well met?
  2. When do you receive blessing in your life?
  3. How do you bless others?

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

This will be our final pericope from Romans and the discussion on God’s election of Israel.  Again, it might be a good practice to rehearse the verses that the lectionary has declined to include here (Romans 11).  Paul revisits the history of Israel and the notion of faithfulness.  The idea of the remnant resurfaces here, just as it was introduced in the Track 1 First Lesson from Genesis.  Paul answers his question, “has God rejected his people? “with an adamant, “Of course not!” He then rehearses all of the reasons, the love for the patriarchs, and the covenants made with them.  To make his point, Paul uses the example of the lump of dough that leavens the whole loaf, or of the olive tree with the grafted on branches.  Here Israel stands divided, yet loved of God.  What is new is that others (see the notes on third Isaiah, above) are now brought into the fold.  To each come the gifts of God, which Paul calls “irrevocable.  God recognizes the disobedience of both, and to both God provides mercy and forgiveness.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What does St. Paul say to you about the Jews?
  2. Do they stand with you in their faith?
  3. Do they stand with you before God?  Why or why not?

St. Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

[Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit." But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us." Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."]

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

We have choices here.  The first pericope is the second half of Matthew 15:1-20.  I recommend that you read the material that introduces Jesus’ explanation of what has gone on before.  It is a confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees who take umbrage at the non-traditional behavior of the disciples, “They do not wash their hands when they eat.”  In his response, Jesus attempts to get them to understand that they are not looking at the whole picture, and summarizes their attitude with a quotation from Isaiah 29:13, which accents their legalism. 

Then follows Jesus’ explanation of his discourse with the Scribes and Pharisees (verses 10-20) to the people (and here the understanding is that the people represent the whole of Israel) and to the disciples.  Jesus is attempting to get them to understand the fine distinction between ritual impurity (the point of the Scribes and Pharisees’ complaint) and what actually defiles a person.  This point leads us to the notion of intent, for Jesus sees that which comes out of one’s heart as that which defiles and corrupts the transaction.  Thus it was not important, from the point of view of the Kingdom of Heaven, as to whether the disciples washed their hands, or not.

The second pericope is the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Its connection with the previous material may not be all that evident to the average listener on a Sunday morning.  As in the discussion about what is “clean” and “unclean” comes to an end, Matthew has us in the midst of Gentile territory, and dealing with a Phoenician (or Canaanite) – a Gentile, but a Gentile of faith, “Have mercy on me Lord, son of David.”  The discrepancy is made sharpened and made more apparent by Jesus’ apparent attitude of indifference toward her, “but he had no answer for her at all.”  The disciples, in turn, repeat the disrespect.  Like Joseph (see Track 1 First Reading), however, Jesus tests her evident faith.  Each assertion by Jesus is met with an equal assertion by the woman, until Jesus has to exclaim, “Woman, great is your faith.” What follows is healing in the several senses of that word.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why does Matthew want us to hear this argument about what is clean and what is unclean?
  2. What in your life do you consider unclean?
  3. Are there certain kind of people who are unclean?  Who?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Alter, R. (2007), The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, New York, location 10146.
[2]     Westermann, C. (1969), Isaiah 40-66, A commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA, page 293.


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