God's All Inclusive Mercy - August 21, 2017

Boo at altar.jpg

God’s All Inclusive Mercy

 It sure is easier to get up and get to church when we don’t have to get dressed, isn’t it?  I look forward to Pancakes and Pajamas Sunday as much as the kids do! 

Today’s readings call our attention to God’s all-inclusive mercy. In Genesis, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. Paul reminds the Roman community that the hopelessness of our disobedience lets God have mercy on us all. In the gospel, a bold Canaanite woman earns Jesus’ approval by clinging to his mercy.

In today’s reading, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. You may remember this story.  There was a famine in the land of Canaan and Jacob heard there was grain to be bought in Egypt.  He sent his older sons to buy grain to keep them from starving.  Jacob was glad that he had a large family but Rachel was the only wife he loved.  He was very sad when she died at the birth of her second son, Benjamin.  Because of his love for Rachael, he treated Joseph as his favorite and gave him that special coat of many colors.  This made the older boys, who were his stepbrothers, jealous and they threw him in a pit and he was picked up by the Midianite traders and sold as a slave to Egyptians.  Time went on and Joseph was raised in the house of the pharaoh and put in charge of all the grain.  Because Joseph realized that famine was coming he stored up grain to be able to feed the people. 

When his brothers, who had sold him into slavery arrived to buy grain, Joseph recognized them.  As they left he had his servants plant his silver cup in his youngest brother Benjamin’s food bag. Benjamin was Rachel’s other son. When the cup is conveniently “found,” Joseph demands that the boy remains as a slave in Egypt. The brothers are filled with sadness because they know that if anything happens to Benjamin, the aged Jacob will certainly die of sorrow.  Judah, one of his brothers, pleaded with Joseph to let him stay instead of keeping Benjamin.

Joseph is overcome with emotion when he sees the repentance of his brothers. He then tells them that he is their long-lost brother. He does not harbor any ill will toward them because he knows that his enslavement in Egypt was God’s way of ensuring their survival from the famine. This makes sure that God’s promises would be fulfilled.

I wanted to remind you of the details of this story to make the point that life is complicated.  It is hard to have a family member turn on you for whatever reason.  In this case, which is so true in many families, the jealousy started with Jacob and Essau and who was to receive the blessing from their father.  That went on in the next generation also, but God was with Jacob even throughout his whole ordeal.  Jacob did not know it at the time.  Think about his journey. 

First, his brothers wanted to kill him but instead they threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery, telling their father, he had been killed.  Then as time went on God provided.  Later in Joseph’s life, he was imprisoned on false charges.  Finally, when the Pharaoh had bad dreams and grew very worried and despondent, he asked if there was anyone who could interpret his dream.  Joseph was let out of prison to do this.  There would be 7 years of plentiful harvests followed by 7 years of no or very little harvest and a great famine in the land would occur.  It was Joseph who told the king of his plan to store grain in the times of bumper crops so that there would be enough to feed everyone during the years when the crops fail.  So Joseph was chosen to be in charge of this.

Joseph had learned to trust God and to do his will.  He did this throughout his life, in time of trouble and also when he was the second in command under the king.  That is our message for today.  We must trust God in all times.

Now let’s look at the woman in our gospel.  This story takes place in the region of Tyre and Sidon which was a Canaanite territory.  A woman from that territory came to Jesus, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!  My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”  We don’t have other details about the daughter.  Perhaps she suffered seizures from epilepsy.  If you have ever seen someone who is having a seizure, you know how scary it can be. Imagine what that might have been like in pre-scientific times.

What we usually think Jesus’ reaction might be was not what it was here.  He did not even respond at all.  Seems very out of character, doesn’t it?  His disciples certainly did not want to have anything to do with his woman and urged Jesus to send her away.

Then, as if things could not get any worse, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

This is a quotation that scholars have researched and discussed for 2,000 years. Why did Jesus respond in that way?  One theory is that when Christ came into the world he totally emptied himself and became as we are.  That is, as a child and as a youth, he grew in his understanding of his relationship to God as he grows up and that understanding continued to grow even as he went about this ministry.

Maybe at this stage of his ministry, he believed that he had been sent only to the Jewish community.  Maybe this Canaanite woman was sent to him by God, the Father, to show him that he had come not for Jews only, but for the salvation of the entire world.

In this passage, Jesus discusses dietary laws of the inherited tradition.  For Jesus’ first followers as well as Matthew’s later Jewish audience, this teaching would have re-interpreted familiar purity customs regarding food, putting Jesus at odds with the religious authorities of his day and reflecting the tensions between early Jewish- and Gentile-Christian communities over the importance of these observances. 

Jesus lifts up the importance of behavioral standards that transcend Jewish-Gentile differences. Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman foreshadows the offer of salvation beyond Israel to the Gentiles. This exchange was amazing. Historically, men of the Jewish faith were not allowed to speak to women in public.  This was especially true of rabbis, like Jesus.  The center of interest is not the miracle but Jesus’ attitude toward Gentiles.

This woman was brave and courageous and was not put off by Jesus’ remark.  She knelt down in front of him and said, “Lord, help me.”  Then Jesus says, “Woman, you have great faith.”  Then her daughter was healed.

The incident exemplifies the form of argument that was common in Jesus’ day. The argument was carried on by citing proverbs. The person who cited the best proverb was recognized as the winner.

The woman’s quick-witted reply exemplifies the kind of verbal cleverness admired in the Middle East. She is not satisfied with his reply and responds with another proverb, reinforcing her request by citing a different proverb that re-frames the whole situation: even the puppies get the scraps that are leftovers. Jesus realizes that in this argument her proverb outdoes his.  So he lifts up her faith and heals her daughter as she had requested.

Remember making our bags of blessing each year?  Not only are we supplying the need to those who are less fortunate than we are, but it reminds us not to be judgmental.  There are many who live on the street because of life’s circumstances, and not because they just don’t want to work.

What does that mean for us today?  The Canaanite woman had great faith which made hear a woman of great courage.  Can that be said of you?  Are you a person with great faith and therefore, of great courage?  Or…are you satisfied to simply to another nice, sweet person who never speaks up for what is right?  This week let us not judge others – at all!!  Let us also have the courage to stand up for other who need it even if it makes us a bit uncomfortable.  God is with you!  AMEN