The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, 16 August 2020
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.
Background: Tyre and Sidon
It is often in the genealogies of the Pentateuch that we can get a feel for the movements of peoples and cultures in the ancient near east. Genesis 10:15, 19, gives us a clue about why Matthew calls the woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon a “Canaanite woman.” “Canaan became the father of Sidon, his firstborn, and of Heth…so that the Canaanite borders extended from Sidon all the way to Gerar, near Gaza, and all the way to Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, hear Lasha.” The Phoenicians, whose city/states governed this territory north of the Canaanite and Israelite lands, are best known to us in the alphabet that they supplied to the Greeks, which was later adopted by the Romans.
We first hear of them in the conquests of Thutmose III (1479-1425 BCE). The port cities of these lands provided the Egyptians with access to the Mesopotamian trade routes. The Hittites and Amorites besieged these cities, and control of these places rocked back and forth between Egyptian and Anatolian powers. Around 1200, the Phoenicians city/states seem to have survived the devolution of power that affected Egypt and the cultures of the upper Levant. During this period they developed their seafaring abilities, mining and dye industries, and their merchant networks with surrounding cultures. There were periods of heavy Assyrian and Babylonian influence (900-538 BCE) and then a Persian and Hellenistic period from (539 through 63 BCE).
One of the greatest influences that Phoenicia had on the Mediterranean world was the establishment of a colony in Northern Africa, Carthage. It became an independent city/state in 650 BCE, and was a power to be reckoned with until it was destroyed by the Romans in the Third Punic War (146 BCE). The Roman influence would soon extend to all the Mediterranean shores, and would set the dramatic stage for the Gospels. If Mesopotamia and Egypt set the stage for the Hebrew Scriptures, it was Greek, Phoenician, and lastly Roman culture that formed the platform in which the Gospels would thrive.
First Reading: 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.
Although the Flood story is the primary example of the weaving of texts and traditions by the editors of the Hebrew Scriptures, this scene from the Joseph story is also a good example. These verses from the J document (1, 4, 5a) tell of one aspect of the story:
1) Joseph could no longer restrain himself in the presence of all his attendants, so he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So no one attended him when he made himself known to his brothers. 4) “Come closer to me,” Joseph told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” 5a) “But now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here.”
These verses are combined with the E telling of the story, verses 2, 3, 5b:
2) But his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians heard him, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s house. 3) “I am Joseph,” he said to his brothers. “Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could give him no answer, so dumbfounded were they at him. 5b)
The doubling up of Joseph’s response, and the multiple reasons given for the invitation to Jacob to move into Egypt give us a clue as to the several traditions that were gathered together to tell the story. We have two aspects here that need resolving. The first is Joseph’s own psychological state that is somewhat different than the despair of the brothers. We are wrenched back and forth between these two aspects – it is very human. And perhaps that is the real point of this story – the restoration of the family, as opposed to an understanding of how Israel came to Egypt. The relationship between Joseph and Benjamin, and earlier (not in our reading) when Judah protects Benjamin who is falsely accused of stealing, underscore the familial and relational aspects of this story.
Breaking open Genesis:
1. When have you been reconciled to someone?
2. How might you describe your emotions?
3. Who is the absent but really important character in this story?
Psalm 133 Ecce, quam bonum!
1 Oh, how good and pleasant it is, *
when brethren live together in unity!
2 It is like fine oil upon the head *
that runs down upon the beard,
3 Upon the beard of Aaron, *
and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
4 It is like the dew of Hermon *
that falls upon the hills of Zion.
5 For there the Lord has ordained the blessing: *
life for evermore.
If one of the purposes of the first reading is relating the importance of familial relationships, it is certainly evident in this psalm. The wisdom that surrounds these few verses is found not only in the Psalter (Psalm 127:3ff.) but in Egyptian literature as well – a couple of examples: “How wonderful is a son who obeys his father”, or “Do not blame those who are childless, do not criticize them for not having any, and do not boast about having them yourself.” We have many examples in the Hebrew Scriptures of fraternal or familial enmity, such as Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Esau, and the brothers of Joseph. Here the opposite is upheld, the loyalty to family and the blessedness of family unity.
First Reading: 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.
This is such a timely text, especially considering the national debate about immigration, the resurgence of anti-Semitism, outspoken racism, and the themes that Paul explores in the second reading for today. The touchstone for Second Isaiah is the covenant, not with just a particular people, but with any who would be led by it. Hear this, “The foreigners…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.” This is the vision of a prophet who had seen the peoples of other lands and tongues. His spirit was one of inclusion and welcome. Not only as God brought back the people from exile, but God also “will gather others to them.” This topic will also be discussed in Ezra (see 10:6-44) and Nehemiah where their solution was that gentile women and their offspring should be removed from Jewish society. Second Isaiah obviously has a different point of view. The reading for this morning calls us to have honest conversations about who needs to be welcomed into our communities, and assemblies.
Break open II Isaiah:
1. Who is a foreigner to you?
2. How does II Isaiah inform you as to how to welcome and treat them?
3. Do any individuals come to your mind?
Psalm 67 Deus misereatur
1 May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
2 Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.
6 The earth has brought forth her increase; *
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.
7 May God give us his blessing, *
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.
The common verb in this psalm is brk “to bless”. The thanksgiving and requests for blessing occupy the initial 6 verses. Like the prophet in the Track One first reading, the psalmist sees this blessing and praise given and raised not only by Israel, but by all, “all peoples will praise you.” It is a refrain that is repeated twice in the psalm. The last two verses puts something material into the requested blessing. There the blessing is seen in a productive earth, and the blessings, and praise of God be to “the ends of the earth.” The second verse is a reflection of the Aaronic benediction (Numbers 6:24-26), where God’s blessing is seen and known in God’s shining face.
Breaking open Psalm 67:
1. What blessings have you received?
2. Who has been a blessing to you?
3. What blessings have you given?
Second Reading: 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.
It is always a bit disconcerting when encountering the south entrance to the Cathedral in Strasbourg, France; one sees two statues, one representing the Church, and the other the Synagogue.
It is the image of a blindfolded woman, and reading through today’s lesson from Romans, we can see where the artists derived their inspiration. Paul quotes the tenth chapter of Isaiah in Romans 11:8, “As it is written: ‘God gave them a spirit of deep sleep, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.” There is another element, however that Paul makes us aware of, and that is the element of mercy. After a discussion of the Jews and Gentiles in the intervening verses Paul says, in the final verses of our reading, “Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy…they too may now received mercy.” Like disobedient Jews and Gentiles, Paul struggled against God’s mercy, but was shown it in a blinding flash. It is a gift, a grace that has not been earned, but one that is given.
Breaking open Romans:
1. What do you really know about Judaism?
2. Have you ever been to a Synagogue service?
3. How does God see you – see Jews?
The Gospel: 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 that place 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.
In these two pericopes, Matthew gives us a Jesus who speaks out on two related themes. The first (verses 10-20), explores the notion of defilement. Moving off of the Jewish dietary laws, Jesus reverses the order of things, and discusses the possibility that it is what comes out of the mouth (the heart) rather than what goes into it that makes for defilement. In his rebuttal to the Pharisees, Jesus echoes the parable of the weeds sown with the wheat. “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.” Even Peter finds it difficult to understand the point, and Matthew has Jesus sum it up quite nicely in verse 20.
Then there is the case of implied defilement, and here Jesus himself becomes the primary evidence. Confronted by a gentile woman who requests healing for her daughter, Jesus ignores her, and Matthew notes the annoyance of the disciples. Then Jesus explains that he was sent “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That words that follow, “Lord, help me” betray the faith that she has in Jesus. This, however, is not enough for Jesus for he still does not answer her request. It would be as if the food for the children was given to the dogs – a rude insult.
At the last, we see the woman as the mirror of the people that Second Isaiah refers to in the Track Two first reading – those who are not of Israel, but recognize the covenant – in this case, the Messiah. Now Jesus has to respond for he has encountered a woman with faith – a person that God has promised to gather along with Israel. For some this will be a lesson in prayer – how to request something of God and be persistent about it. For others it will be a lesson in acceptance. Who is welcome in the assembly, who can come to the table?
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. Do you see the full rudeness of Jesus in this story?
2. Have you ever dismissed someone who asked a blessing of you?
3. How did you redeem the situation?
General idea: Accepting those we would prefer to ignore
Promise One: The brothers and sisters who have sinned against you. (Track One First Reading)
The nations who have seen the mercy God has shown to you (Track Two First Reading)
Promise Two: Our Families (Psalm 133)
All who are called by God (Psalm 67)
Promise Three: The Jews and the Gentiles (Second Lesson)
Promise Four: Those persistent in their requests (Gospel)
All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller