Reconciliation: Two Tales and a Confession
A brother and a mother. Joseph and an un-named Canaanite woman. What can their stories tell us? Can they help us here and now?
Jacob’s youngest son, at the time, Joseph, was sold into slavery by his eleven brothers. He ended up in Egypt where through a series of events he became something like the Secretary of the Interior/ Secretary of State and de facto ruler on behalf of Pharaoh. A shrewd business man, he had accumulated enough agricultural product to get through a long period of famine.
Enter, his brothers. Canaan is hard hit with famine. Some brothers are sent to Egypt by father Jacob to beg for assistance. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not know he is their brother they sold into slavery. Through a series of negotiations, and some trickery on Joseph’s part, no doubt inherited from his father Jacob The Trickster, food is provided over several years and his family is saved from the famine. In Genesis chapter 45 we are told he can no longer play the charade – he makes himself known to his brothers. He weeps so loudly, we are told, “That the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” He identifies himself, and his brothers are silent in abject fear.
Yet, something has happened to Joseph. Instead of becoming proud of himself in the kind of power and influence he has amassed; instead of being bitter and revengeful against the very brothers who first conspired to kill him and later sold him into slavery. Joseph has come to understand that there is a greater purpose at work in his life and the life of his family: the God of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he says, “sent me before you to preserve life; 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…. God has made me lord of all Egypt.”
“’Hurry and bring my father down here,’ he says. 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.” This is an extraordinary tale of reconciliation wrought through the mercy of God. Joseph has every right to be angry; every right for revenge; every right to allow his brothers and their families and flocks and herds to be devastated by the famine. But he has been infected with the mercy of YHWH, the God of his forefathers and mothers, the God of the promise, the God of the commandments that instruct on how others are to be treated with God’s mercy. Success like Joseph’s is not a license to do what you want. Joseph understands that God’s mercy spared him and God’s mercy must be evident in how he in turn treats others. It is a story for our time.
Then, in Matthew chapter 15 we find the story of a remarkable woman – a Canaanite woman we are told. A confession: In the past I have taught that a) it was unusual and forbidden for a male to be seen talking to a woman not his wife in that time, b) that Jews at the time of Jesus would have nothing to do with Gentiles, ie non-Jews, and c) that therefore Jesus moves from a place of particularism, addressing his mission only to “the lost sheep of Israel,” to a place of universalism, addressing his mission to all people. A chance meeting, like that between this woman and Jesus, with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt University, has removed the scales from my eyes to reveal the kind of hidden anti-Semitism I was unaware that I was sowing. Unfortunately, unlike the seed that falls on rocky soil, implying that Jesus was in some way charting a path against and beyond the Judaism of his time does not shrivel up – and we can see the results of such incorrect teaching in the events of the past week.
A glance at the whole of the Gospel witness and proclamation, one not only sees Jesus frequently speaking with women, we know there were women traveling with him and his disciples supporting the mission. And in chapter 8 of Matthew we have already seen Jesus heal another Gentile child. Dr. Levine also observes that the Genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew includes the names of at least five gentiles among his ancestors: Abraham, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah the Hittite – and three of them are Gentile women. Israel has a long history of honoring righteous gentiles. Perhaps most interesting for us is Rahab, “the harlot.” Rahab had hidden Israelite spies on the promise that when Jericho fell they would rescue her and her family; not unlike our Canaanite woman who will do anything to rescue her daughter from “a demon.”
Just what does she do? Evidently, she walks out the door to meet him along the way. Then she recognizes Jesus as a son of David and begs for mercy for her daughter. Jesus ignores her plea. The disciples want her sent away. Jesus appears to concur in stating, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This hesitation on Jesus’ part strikes many of us as odd. Perhaps it is a matter of resource allocation – as Paul puts it, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” For Matthew, the launching of the Gentile mission begins at the very end of the gospel with proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.
Then the Canaanite woman kneels before him and pleads for help once again. Dr. Levine suggests that rather than worship, she subordinates herself to him, but also blocks his way forward. She confronts him head-on. She is determined to have her case heard. Then, he calls her and her people dogs: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This was not some special epithet of the Jews for non-Jews. In fact, in the Sermon On The Mount Jesus uses it against other Jews who will not accept his message. It was a common Mediterranean insult as far back as Aristotle and others. This is utterly unlike what we heard last weekend in Charlottesville: all the chanting of the “unite the right” folks were anti-Semitic – “blood and soil,” an old Nazi slogan, and morphing “you will not replace us” with “Jews will not replace us. No doubt many of these marchers were raised in churches hearing sermons that cleanse Jesus of his Jewishness and set up “the Jews” as the enemy of Christianity. Sermons filled with the very misconceptions I had been taught in seminary and commentaries. Indeed, it was not until Vatican II and Nostra aetate that the church began to admit its errors in this regard.
Then it happens. She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Levine sees this woman as perhaps the only person to get the better of Jesus! And her response puts her in the good company of Abraham, Moses, Job and others in the Biblical tradition who argue with the God of the Covenant! Yet, even in her retort she subordinates herself to him. Jesus says it is because of her “faith.” Yet, she is not required to convert. We don’t know if her faith is in God? In Jesus? In the power of prayer? I will suggest it is a faith like Rahab’s: her willingness to put her body and her life on-the-line, and even risk insulting the man standing before her with her retort to deliver her daughter from her distress. Faith is not necessarily a belief, but a way of acting in hope that positive change can and will come.
As to universalism, the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, can be seen as one long argument of the particular vs the universal. Yet, the covenant from the outset is to lead to blessings for all people, all nations. Jesus already stands squarely in the long standing Jewish tradition of reaching out to all people. Not to mention the risk it took for the Canaanite woman to risk approaching someone outside the safety of her own people. She too demonstrates an understanding of the universal need to reach out to others – Jesus the Israelite is “other” to her.
Really, this is her story more than Jesus’ story. We have seen such faith in action. I recall meeting a girl of fifteen from Afghanistan who was willing to blog about women’s education and empowerment in the face of retribution from the Taliban. And we all saw Heather Heyer step out in faith to confront hate, bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism. Her final internet posting said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Hearing thunderous shouts of “blood and soil,” and “Jews will not replace us” tells us what the “unite the right” folks are all about. Heather is right – we ought to be outraged. Heather, like the Canaanite woman took to the streets to confront this wrong
Joseph and his brothers were reconciled by the grace of God: those of us who share in God’s mercy need to reflect that mercy in all that we say and do. The Canaanite woman and Jesus were reconciled by her willingness to risk it all for her daughter. Sadly, our nation seeks and desperately needs reconciliation in so many areas of our common life. Our demons are on display. Heather Heyer, like the Canaanite woman, walked out the door and took to the streets to seek justice. To silence the voices of evil. We see what acting in faith looks like. The time has come to act in faith, not talk about it.