St. Paul’s – Proper 15 – 8/20/2023
For whatever reason, we have frequently and simply misread The Bible. Which would not be so bad if it were not for the fact that our frequent mis-readings have led the Church to doing things we ought not to have done.
Take the Joseph saga, for instance. It is a complex and highly political tale involving a dysfunctional family, palace intrigue, economics, famine and politics. Yet, we have turned it into a technicolor musical making Joseph look like such a great guy. True, after being sold into slavery by his brothers he worked his way up to being lord of all Egypt, perhaps the equivalent of Secretary of State and Interior all rolled into one on behalf of Pharaoh. And in the little snippet of Genesis we get today, he believes God put him there to preserve his family as a faithful remnant of God’s covenant people, Israel – remembering that his father Jacob’s name was changed, by God, to Israel as the name for the entire people descended from great-grandfather Abraham.
The good news is that the people were saved from the famine. The bad news is that their saving, if we dare call it that, involved a series of credit arrangements and mortgage foreclosures that left them in such hock that all twelve tribes of Israel were forced to become slaves in Egypt for generations to come. That is, through the actions of brother Joseph, they were forced to give up their land, their livestock, and their children. Should be sounding familiar. It is like saying that the Africans brought to this continent were saved from any potential drought or famine that might have taken their lives back in their homeland. And as the Florida History books say, they were able to learn new skills. And as we know all too well, life for slaves is not particularly good, and only got worse once a Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. Believe it or not, there were majority voices in the church from the 18th to 20th centuries who would twist this tale to make us believe that God endorsed the institution of slavery.
It got so bad, of course, that the Lord God of Israel had to send another prophet, Moses, to deliver his people to freedom. We sing about his brother Aaron in Psalm 133. Aaron gets pretty good press in Psalm 133, despite his complicity in the Golden Calf incident, but of course that’s another story! Nevertheless, Aaron is lifted up as an archetype for those who are anointed by the Lord to be in sacred leadership positions, thus demonstrating early on that those chosen by the Lord are not necessarily qualified, but that the Lord qualifies them to do the work God needs them to do.
Then there is the severely edited 11th chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans this morning. It is perhaps one of the most important reflections on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Had it been read carefully, and taken seriously, the long and tragic history of Christian Anti-Semitism may have been avoided. Instead, we, the Church, paved the way for endless centuries of pogroms, inquisitions, the Shoah (Holocaust), and much of the trouble in the Middle East today.
Early theologians and bishops of the Church ignored Saint Paul’s understanding: God has not rejected the Jewish people. By no means! Instead, it has been through the grace and mercy of the God of Israel that Gentiles have been grafted onto the true vine of God’s covenant people. Israel maintains, writes Paul, a place of honor and priority in the divine scheme of salvation.
Lest we take such matters in our own hands, Paul warns in verses 33-36 (conveniently omitted!) that only God knows, understands and can adjudicate such matters (quoting Isaiah and Job along the way): O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
And then there is the episode with a Canaanite woman. Ironically, this follows a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over the moral implications of what we do and what we say in which Jesus concludes what we say is far more damaging than omitting certain ritual actions. Parents will be horrified to know that Jesus here justifies not washing one’s hands before a meal!
So how odd is it, and frankly how disappointing is it, to witness our Lord’s response to a mother desperate to have him save her daughter from torment. She, a Gentile, risks everything by calling him Lord, Son of David in the midst of people who reject the Jews. His disciples beg him to send her away. Jesus is harshly dismissive saying his mission is only to the lost sheep of Israel. The woman persists, on her knees, pleading, Lord, help me. He then transgresses all boundaries of decent behavior and calls her and her people dogs. Such was the all too human divide between Jews and Gentiles in the first century.
It surprises us to hear Jesus speak this way. We must remember, however, that no matter how divine we know Jesus to be, at this moment he is fully human, like you and like me. Why are we surprised? Don’t we say such things about others nearly every day? Aren’t the airwaves of radio and television clogged with such epithets, bigotry and worse every hour? Has there not been an overall coarsening of our public and political conversation that is just as bad or worse than this every single day?
The woman, however, has the last word. Even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. She is willing to settle for crumbs. She does not mean to detract from the main meal. She does not ask for a whole loaf. She knows that a few crumbs will be enough to make her daughter’s life whole again.
This is perhaps the most pivotal moment in all the four gospels. Why? Because she changed Jesus’ mind. Jesus was moved to a new place. He let her in. He forgot about tradition for a moment and opened the door and gave her a place at the table. Suddenly he could see only her love for her daughter and the daughter’s need. He could not allow the law or the tradition to get in the way of love and need. He saw her faith. The daughter was healed. But so was Jesus. Jesus was healed of slavery to a tradition, of bigotry and of blindness to the needs of all people.
Jesus learns and changes! We are given a picture of Jesus who learns things and changes for the better. Willing to learn from a Gentile. A Gentile woman no less! A dog! His actions at the end line up with his teaching at the beginning of the chapter. The Buddah, some six hundred years before Jesus said, All things change. Nothing stays the same. Like Jesus we can all learn and change for the better.
And finally, there is the woman. The woman stands in for all Gentiles. We can learn from her faith. We can get down on our knees and pray. We can learn to settle for crumbs. But we can also learn from her humble and honest acceptance of Israel’s priority in the divine scheme of salvation as set out by Paul in the eleventh chapter of his Letter to the Romans. Remember her. She may be the single most important person in human history. We cannot all be like Jesus, but we can all be like her, a humble Canaanite woman, mother and woman of faith who says, Lord, help me. Amen.