The Adventurous Lectionary – August 16, 2020 – The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-31; Matthew 15: 21-28
Today’s readings join reconciliation and grace. They call us to a spirituality of stature that embraces those who have harmed us and persons of other faiths and ethnicities. Largeness of spirit looks for common ground and reconciliation despite past conflicts and then aims at healing in the present and future. This does not preclude protest and prophetic anger. Still, past relationships do not determine future actions. Persons and institutions can see differently and act differently to bring about positive outcomes, saving the earth and bringing healing to relationships. The world depends on us to show alternative to bloviation, bullying, and blustering. The world depends on us repenting our sins of omission and commission, recognizing where we have been complicit in structures of injustice, and made amends personally and politically.
In the Genesis reading, Joseph has become a person of stature. The spoiled brat has grown up, lording it over his brothers has given way to a caring sibling, willing to begin again and help those who had previously harmed him. His visions have taken him beyond self-interest to embrace the well-being of his family. He has let go of the past and is living in the present and the future. His sense of God’s providence enables him to see a pattern in the events of his life. Even the negative events of life, and what persons such as Joseph’s brothers intend for evil, can be used by God to bring forth personal and vocational growth. Joseph is able to save his family precisely because God was present, enabling them to choose not to kill him, but sell him into slavery.
There is a gentle providence moving through all things, seeking good and not evil, a future and a hope. Could God have been present as the quiet voice of moderation? Although God was unable in that particular moment to divert Joseph’s brothers from their evil actions, could God have been able to inspire them to make the most positive decision available among their bad decisions? God does not cause the actions of Joseph’s brothers, but moves within Joseph’s life history toward a positive, life-affirming future for him and his family. Joseph survives in spite of their ill intent and the machinations of Potiphar’s wife in part because of his spiritual resiliency and God’s continued presence in his life as the giver of dreams and interpretations.
Joseph’s vision of God’s providence moving in his life invites us to look for God moments in life’s most difficult situations. God is not the source of evil, but the inspiration to healing and growth in life-denying moments. Could God be present in our response to the diagnosis of cancer? Could God inspire us to leave an abusive marriage, leaving ourselves economically insecure, to seek a better future for us and our children? Could God enable us to make a difficult, indeed painful, decision with hope that something much better is on the horizon? Is God at work in the wise responses to the pandemic, whether at the personal, congregational, or political levels? We might hope for better outcomes, but the best may take us through divorce, conflict, and even forgoing treatments to experience in the final days of our lives. It might also force us to think long and hard about when to regather for public worship. Through it all, we have continued to learn that God is not restricted to our sanctuaries and that worship can be global as well as parochial.
God’s providence is never abstract, but concrete and contextual. God’s providence occurs in the challenges of life and real situations, rather than an ideal world with no obstructions to goodness. In all things, God is working for good, even things God has not chosen and could not have prevented.
The Psalm extols the importance of family unity and invites us to seek reconciliation and common ground despite our differences and personal uniqueness. Brothers and sisters can live in unity. Old problems can be resolved and new possibilities emerge. We can experience healing of relationships, provided we are honest, willing to change our ways, let go of past grievances, and explore new behaviors.
Paul’s affirmation of God’s call to Israel is an antidote to all forms of anti-Judaism. God has not rejected God’s beloved Israel, both the Jewish people and their religion. God is still working within them, inspiring and inviting them to the fullness of life. God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is ultimate; its unique power welcomes rather than excludes the Jewish faith tradition. Jesus’ own Judaism, as well as Paul’s Jewish affirmations, warns us against any ahistorical understanding of salvation. God’s whole-making power is always situational and concrete. Salvation can occur anywhere by God’s grace; salvation also occurs among the Jewish people despite the growth of the Jesus movement. God rejects nobody, including our nation’s opponents. All are addressed, and all may hear God’s call to salvation.
The gospel reading describes the widening of the gospel to embrace the non-Jewish world. In this commentary, I will focus solely on Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. The story initially puts Jesus in a bad light. He appears to internalize the worst attitudes of Jews toward non-Jews. Perhaps, he is weary, but that is no excuse in light of the woman’s need. While we shouldn’t take Jesus off the hook, and we may see this as a time when a foreign woman – two strikes against her as she is both a Gentile and a woman – taught Jesus something important, there are two other plausible explanations to Jesus’ behavior. The first explanation is that Jesus is testing her, trying to ascertain how badly she wants her daughter’s healing. While plausible, does any compassionate person test a desperate mother seeking the healing of her child? No emergency room physician would refuse to treat a child based on her or his ethnicity or demean a parent as a prelude to treatment.
Second, the story can be read as a lived parable: Jesus is purposely articulating his people’s racism and when he gets the assent of everyone in the room, he pulls the rug out from under them by curing her daughter. From this perspective in the course of their verbal sparring match, Jesus may have winked at her, disclosing that there is more to meet the eye than his obvious racism. He will heal her daughter and in the process teach his countrymen a lesson in God’s all-embracing love.
The encounter with this foreign woman also highlights non-local or distant healing. Her daughter is healed, despite her physical distance from the healer. Our prayers and actions radiate across the universe, opening others to God’s healing energy. Our prayers can be a tipping point between health and illness. Prayer knows no distance; it is immediate, creating a positive field of force around those for whom we pray and enabling God’s presence to be more decisive in their lives. (For more on this encounter and Jesus’ healing ministry see “Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel,” Energion, and “God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus,” Westminster/John Knox.)
God seeks the best in every situation, even difficult ones. We can be part of God quest for the best by expanding our horizons concern to embrace strangers and persons who have hurt us. In so doing, we become God’s partners in healing the Earth.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books, including HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC, FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC, and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.