- Genesis 45: 1-15
Joseph has risen to great power in Egypt; the foreigner becomes the ultimate insider. Desperately seeking food during a famine, Joseph’s brothers journey to Egypt and are taken to Pharaoh’s deputy. They do not recognize their brother, but he knows them immediately. 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 for his forgiveness, he assures them he has already forgiven them for selling him into slavery when he was a teenager. Through their evil, he tells them, “God sent me before you [into Egypt] to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to keep alive for many survivors…” Their evil and the convoluted machinations actually become the way “to preserve life.” He tells them to bring their father and their 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. (The text does not report what they said: what could they have said?)
- Psalm 133
The psalmist rehearses three disparate signs of abundance– reunion after exile or alienation; a full, flowing beard; and dew that appears in a season of drought– and then speaks of the Lord’s permanent blessing and “life forevermore.”
- Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8
It is generally recognized that a third iteration of the Book of Isaiah that is a commentary on the previous two sections begins here: “Thus says the Lord…” Because the Lord’s “salvation will come and my salvation will be revealed,” there is only one appropriate response to this announcement: “Maintain justice and do what is right….” Who will be eligible for the Lord’s “salvation?” Anyone– including “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 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.
- Psalm 67
The psalmist asks for God’s favor/blessing on the whole earth, even among all nations. The global 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 over the whole earth, even all peoples.
- Romans 11: 1-20, 29-32
Writing to Christians in Rome, the seat of international power, Paul considers the position of “God’s people” for whom Jesus has become the Christ in the increasingly diverse communities throughout the Empire. He reminds his readers of his own personal heritage, which descends directly from Benjamin, (who plays such a prominent role in the story of reunion and reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, which is the first alternative reading from the Hebrew scriptures today.) “God has not rejected his people, whom God knew and loved for generations, Paul declares. “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.”
- Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
A contrast between outward piety, as caricatured by “the Pharisees and scribes” and our actual words (and deeds) is made within the context of an urgent question in the early church: the status of Jews and non-Jews who have become members of the community of believers. In this incident, Matthew implies “the Pharisees and scribes” made a journey from Jerusalem specifically to interrogate Jesus: “Why do your disciples transgress the traditions of the elders?” For example, they do not wash their hands before eating (10: 1-2). After Jesus challenges their own serious failures to fulfill the Law (vv 3-9), he turns to the crowd, who presumably have heard this heated exchange, and repeats an aphorism: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” When Jesus is told “the Pharisees and scribes” are offended by what he has said, Jesus offers another aphorism: they are the blind leading the blind. Peter, only in Matthew’s version, asks Jesus to elaborate. What goes into the mouth passes through the body and “into the sewer.” But, the words that come out of the human mouth can “defile,” because out of the human heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” The next event takes place in “the district of Tyre and Sidon,” and presents a new character, a “Canaanite woman;” (Mark identifies her as “Greek.”) She 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, (blocking his path?) and begs, “Lord, help me.” Coldly Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman rejoinds, “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 of her persistence by 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 sold him into servitude to a band of merchants on their way to Egypt. They did know without any doubt, however, that they were standing before a very wealthy, powerful man, Pharaoh’s deputy, whose decision might mean life or death for them and their families. It was only because of Joseph’s immediate and unmerited forgiveness and compassion that they will survive this famine and be reunited with him under his protection in Egypt. (In this convoluted way with a crucial, surprise act of forgiveness, God’s covenant survives into another generation.) By the time of the third iteration of the Book of Isaiah, God’s promises are explicitly extended to more than those 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 for God’s people on “the holy mountain” from now on will be known as “a house of prayer 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.” And, now, through Christ, God is “merciful to all.” Matthew’s narrative describes a confrontation between “the Pharisees and scribes” with Jesus, which culminates in an important teaching– “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles… but what comes out.” After another confrontation, Jesus encounters a “Canaanite woman” whose persistence seems to throw him off balance. She pesters him until he caves and assures her that God’s “healing” extends to her, too. Her powerful rejoinder that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs under the table forces Jesus to expand his ministry! Reflecting on this encounter and the confrontation that preceded it (and Mark’s parallel version), John Caputo notes: “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 gets very confusing for those who want to be gatekeepers, especially when it comes to religious matters. In the Joseph story, the alien becomes the ultimate insider who saves the heirs of the covenant. Third Isaiah opens the Temple to any and all sincere worshipers who love the Lord and align with the Lord’s ways. Paul honors those with historic privilege, but then declares that because of Jesus, the Christ, there are no barriers to God’s love left standing. Jesus wrangles with the religious leadership and teaches a far more expansive understanding of God’s priorities only to get into a tug-of-war with a non-Jewish woman whose persistence gains for her God’s “healing” for her tormented daughter. Just exactly who are the “insiders” and “outsiders” when it comes to God’s grace? Do such radical re-definitions of God’s parameters continuously catch us off guard, as even Jesus was with the “Canaanite” woman, when even Jesus was reluctant to practice what he had been preaching? Caputo again: “The conditions 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.” (pp. 262-263) Amazing! Amazing grace!