Thursday, July 21, 2011

Proper 15 Year A

Proper 15 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133


Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8; Psalm 67

Romans 11:1-20, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Joseph rises to great power in Egypt-- the foreigner becomes the ultimate insider. Desperately seeking food during a famine, Joseph's brothers go to Egypt and are taken to Pharaoh's deputy. They do not recognize their brother, but he knows them.  They mistake the identity of the one who will rescue them and through whom God's covenant will extend to another generation. Finally Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers when he asks if their father is still alive. Before they even have a chance to ask, he assures them of his forgiveness for selling him into slavery when  he was a teenager. Through their evil, he tells them, "God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to keep alive for you many survivors;" "to preserve life."  He tells them to bring their father and families to Egypt where he can assure their survival. He clasps his brother Benjamin and kisses him on the neck, weeping.  They all weep. The brothers regain some composure and begin to speak. (What could they have possibly said?)

The psalmist rehearses three
disparate signs of abundance-- reunion after exile, a full, flowing beard and dew in a season of draught-- and then speaks of the Lord's permanent blessing and "life for evermore."


It is generally recognized that a third iteration of the Book of Isaiah that is a commentary on the two prior sections begins here.  "Thus says the Lord..." it begins.  Because the Lord's "salvation will come and my salvation will be revealed," there is only one appropriate response to this news: "Maintain justice and do what is right...."  Who will be eligible for the Lord's "salvation?"  Anyone-- "foreigners" or any others-- "who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servant, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant...."  All these the Lord will bring to "the holy mountain" on which sits "my house of prayer...."  Their offerings will be accepted there, "for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."  The Lord will "gather" the "outcasts of Israel" and "others" together.

psalmist asks for God's favor/blessing on the whole earth, among all nations.  The 'global' (to use our contemporary word) theme is sounded twice, verbatim (for emphasis?) in v.4 and again in v.6" Nations acclaim You, O God/all peoples acclaim.  The "yield" of the earth inspires us to ask for God's blessing for the whole earth, all peoples.

Writing to Christians in Rome, the seat of international power, Paul considers the position of "God's people" in the rapidly and increasingly diverse communities for whom Jesus is the Christ.  He first reminds his readers of his heritage, which descends directly from Benjamin, (who plays such a prominent role in the story of the reunion between Joseph and his brothers; see the first alternative reading from the Hebrew scriptures).  "God has not rejected his people," whom God knew and loved for generations.  "For the gift of the calling of God are irrevocable."  Their "disobedience" prompted God's mercy, of which non-Jews are the beneficiaries, too.  "...God is merciful to all."

A contrast between outward piety, as caricatured by "the Pharisees an scribes,"  and actual words (and deeds) is made within the context of the burning, urgent controversy within the early church: the status of Jews and non-Jews.  Matthew implies "the Pharisees and scribes" made a journey from Jerusalem specifically to interrogate him: "Why do your disciples transgress the traditions of the elders?"  They do not wash their hands before eating (10:1-2).  After Jesus challenges their own more serious failures to fulfill the Law (vv3-9), he turns to the crowd who, presumably, have heard this heated exchange.  He tells them an aphorism: "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth  that defiles."  When Jesus is told "the Pharisees and scribes" are offended by what he had said earlier, Jesus offers another aphorism: they are the blind leading the blind.  Peter, only in Matthew's narrative, asks Jesus to explain.  What goes in the mouth "goes into the sewer," Jesus elaborates, but words can "defile," because"out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander."   The scene that immediately follows is in a different place, "the district of Tyre and Sidon," and with a new character, a "Canaanite woman," Matthew writes, (Mark identifies her as "Greek"),  who shouts at Jesus:  "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."  Jesus ignores her.  The disciples urge Jesus to "send her away."  Turning a cold shoulder to the woman, Jesus declares: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."  She kneels in front of Jesus and begs, "Lord, help me."  Coldly he answers: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  The woman calls out Jesus, "even dogs eat the crumbs" that fall under the table.  Jesus relents: "Woman, great is your faith!"  He tells her what she so desperately wanted to hear:  "Let it be done for you as you wish."  Matthew highlights the immediacy of the result be writing simply:  And her daughter was healed instantly."

That Joseph's brothers did not recognize him is not surprising.  The last time they saw him was when he was seventeen and they had sold him into servitude to a band of merchants on their way to Egypt.  As far as they knew, they were standing before a very wealthy man, Pharaoh's deputy!  Yet, it was only because of their brother's unmerited forgiveness and compassion that they would survive the famine.  Joseph chose to see everything that had happened between them as God's way to extend past promises into the future.  By the time of the third iteration of the canonical Book of Isaiah, God's promises are now available to more than the historically chosen; they are available to any and to all who "join themselves to the Lord" and "hold fast my covenant."  The place of worship on "the holy mountain" from now on will be known as "a house of prayer for all peoples."  The psalmist (67) intercedes on behalf of "the whole earth/for all peoples."  After reminding his readers of his own lineage, Paul asserts that God did not "reject" the chosen people of the historic covenant, which is "irrevocable."  Through Christ, God is now "merciful to all."  Matthew's narrative describes a confrontation between Jesus and "the Pharisees and scribes" which culminates in an important teaching-- "it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles... but what comes out."   But after this confrontation, Matthew depicts that even Jesus is caught off balance.  A "Canaanite" woman pesters him until he caves and assures her that God's "healing" extends to her, too.  Reflecting on this encounter, (and Mark's parallel version), John Caputo notes something still unsettling: "there is nothing about one's external situation that makes one unclean-- or a 'dog'-- but only what proceeds from the heart-- and the heart of this non-Jewish woman melts him [Jesus] down."  (The Weakness of God: A Theology of Event, p. 261)

This can get very confusing for those who want to be gate keepers, especially when it comes to religious matters.  Are there some with the advantages of 'insiders' or the inherent disadvantages of being 'outsiders' when it comes to God's grace?  What would such assumptions mean in a story like Joseph's reunion with his brothers, who thought they were dealing with a foreigner, who is actually the ultimate insider, and whose forgiveness literally saves their lives and allows God's covenant to pass to the next generation?  Do such radial assumptions about God's grace continue to catch us off-guard, as Matthew (and Mark) depict even Jesus was unprepared to practice what he had been preaching?    Caputo again,  "The condition of admission to the kingdom are quite unaccountable: the ones who get in are the ones who are out; on the other hand, the ones who end up left out are the insiders who did not take the invitation [of Jesus] to heart."  (pp262-262)