Israel has a priority in God’s salvation design, but other people of faith may also find an inclusive grace.
The readings for this Sunday concern relations of Israelite peoples to other lands, people, and faith communities. Israel goes to live in Egypt by the providence of God, Israelites by birth are included in the community of faith by God’s grace, and the gospel sent to Israel drops crumbs for non-Israelite people of faith.
The Torah reading is the climactic moment of revelation in the story of Joseph and his brothers. The scene is described as one of great emotion for Joseph. “Then Joseph could no longer control himself … and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ …And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it…” (verses 1-2, NRSV). And then he blurts out the great secret of his identity—that he is the younger brother they sold into slavery years ago. The brothers now assembled before him are all the other eleven, including his younger full-brother Benjamin, the consolation of his father’s old age.
The brothers are so flabbergasted by this declaration that they are speechless. Joseph must repeat his declaration at greater length, with more details. Now he even goes into the theology of what has happened. “God 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” (verses 7-8). Among the Israelite brothers there is only reason to rejoice in the outcome of things that began in malice and treachery.
The strongest emphasis in Joseph’s speech (verses 9-13), after he has gained some composure, is on taking the good news to his father back in Canaan, and on arrangements for bringing Jacob (Israel) and all his remaining household down into Egypt to live through the famine in comfort and plenty. The brothers celebrate and anticipate a happy conclusion for the worthy old father who suffered so much in bringing into the world the Sons of Israel—whose destiny will ultimately be of world-class proportions.
The psalm reading is a classic celebration of “brothers” living in harmony and blessing. The opening line could be translated, “Look! What goodness and what delight! Relatives dwelling in a single camp!” The peace of such brotherly dwelling is like two other special graces that God bestows on fortunate people in Palestine—two graces expressed in strong images.
Olive oil that moistens the hair and scalp of the head—this luxury evokes the once-in-a-lifetime experience of watching a high priest be installed at the Jerusalem temple. The anointing oil flows down from the head of the priest, over his beard, and right on down to the special sacred garments with which he has just been robed—garments, priest, and anointing representing a promise of God’s blessing for the realm in that’s priest’s time.
In the second image, the blessing of moisture over an essentially dry land is contemplated. The summit of Mount Hermon, far to the north of Israel, was normally snow covered. That white top was a perpetual reminder of the moisture that was periodically deposited in the lowlands as the vitalizing freshness of morning dew. This dew was a blessing intended by God for “the mountains of Zion.” There at Zion the Lord has appointed (literally “commanded”) “the blessing,” which is life enduring to the end of the age (Hebrew ‘olam).
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32.
The Epistle reading is taken from the last part of Paul’s long meditation in Romans on the election of Israel in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the entire discussion Paul maintains two things. As of the moment, Israel (the main Jewish people of the time) has rejected the gospel about Jesus Christ, but, secondly, God’s original promises to the ancestors will not be broken. “As regards the gospel they are enemies… for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors [fathers]” (verse 28, NRSV, not in the reading).
What has happened, Paul concludes, is a great leveling. In the past Israelites had the advantage of the election of their ancestors and the gift of the law, and their charge from God was to be “obedient” to the revelation and the law. On the other hand, people of the nations (“Gentiles”) lived in “disobedience” because they did not have God’s special direction in the law. The historic Israelites, however, being human, proved incapable of full obedience to the law—and thus became “disobedient.” Thus, whether with or without the law, all had become disobedient.
Through God’s grace, people of the nations became “obedient” to God’s will, through their faith, which reversed the original obedient-disobedient relation.
Just as you [people of the nations] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their [the Israelites’] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all (verses 30-32).
The leveling has occurred. All have been disobedient but may now become obedient, by faith in Jesus Christ. (Compare Galatians 3:23, “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.”)
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28.
The Gospel selection is an optional reading with the main text following it.
The optional reading (verses 10-20) is a continuation of Jesus’ controversy with the Pharisees concerning their teachings about purifications. Jesus had condemned the Pharisees’ pedantry about hand-washing before meals by using a scripture quotation in which God declares: “[I]n vain do they worship me, / teaching human precepts as doctrines” (15:9, quoting Isaiah 29:13).
Jesus then offers his counter-teaching: “[I]t is not what goes into the mouth [as in eating with unwashed hands] that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (verse 11, NRSV). The ultimate issues of life are not religious rituals, but social conduct. Jesus mentions seven evils that come from the human heart, most of which are prohibited in the Ten Commandments (verse 19). And he concludes, “These [wicked actions] are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (verse 20). If taken with complete seriousness, this principle eliminates the various taboos making up the religious dietary laws. This declaration would seem to be a far-reaching liberation from the burdensome restrictions of Rabbinic dietary laws! But this apparent liberation theology receives an even more shocking challenge in the next episode (the main Gospel reading).
In the main reading the priority of Israel is overridden by a Canaanite woman’s desperate faith.
The story of the Canaanite woman is told only in Matthew and Mark—in Matthew she is a “Canaanite,” in Mark a “Greek (woman), a Syrophoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26, literally). Matthew’s version of the story follows Mark in general, but there are several very important twists. It is worth printing the story with everything that is found in only.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a woman my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs Then Jesus answered her, Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)
In Matthew’s version, the woman recognizes Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” She names him as his reputation prescribes, but to her his identity seems not to matter much. If he heals, she needs him! In Matthew’s version, Jesus deliberately ignores her “shouting,” treating her as a tourist treats a vendor in a foreign country who keeps chanting for a sale. The annoyed disciples apparently ask him to grant her request—give her some pittance to get rid of her!
Jesus’ answer to the disciples—note, it is to them, not to the woman—declares that he was sent only to Israel, not to the nations. This is a Matthew viewpoint. Matthew makes a point of keeping Jesus’ mission directed only to Israel. When Jesus sent out the disciples to expand his work, only in Matthew does he say, “Go nowhere among the nations, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5-6, “Gentiles” altered). Only after the crucifixion and the resurrection will Jesus’ mission be carried beyond Israel and to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). Prior to that, Matthew keeps all of Jesus’ work in Galilee and Judea, that is, among “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
(The other story of Jesus healing a non-Israelite is the Centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:5-13. In both stories, the foreigners initiate the request for the healing and Jesus accedes to it. In both, the healing takes place at a distance, so Jesus does not have to enter the residences of non-Israelite people.)
But here the priority of Israel in Jesus’ work is overridden! This persistent Canaanite woman barges right on, kneels in Jesus’ way and pleads for mercy. Jesus can no longer ignore her—for theological reasons or otherwise. He has come into her territory, so she is going to invade his territory. He is in the healing business, and she must have some healing.
One last rejection by Jesus, to defend the priority of Israel. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In God’s household, the Israelites are the children, people of the nations are scavenging dogs. Actually, the term translated “dogs” is a diminutive, “doggies” or “puppies.” Most dogs in the ancient world were not pets or house animals. The term Jesus used (in both Mark and Matthew) refers to domestic dogs, pets who would be allowed to eat scraps from under the household table.
That term was the opening the Canaanite woman needed. A.B. Bruce suggested ([The Expositor’s Greek Testament, on this passage) that by using this rare word Jesus left her that opening on purpose, and she had the wit to seize it and make her clinching argument. “Yes, Lord, yet even the [puppies] eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
The woman’s determination and wit win! “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Israel may have the priority in God’s design for salvation, but a foreign lady in the provinces wins an exception by appeal to compassion and the determination of mother love.