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20th August 2017

Date Given: 
18 August 2017

Readings

Geneses 45: 1-15

We have been following the saga of Abraham’s dysfunctional family. We discovered that Abraham sends one son, Ishmael, and his surrogate mother out into the wilderness to die and then attempts infanticide on Isaac, his son by his wife.  Isaac’s sons struggle in the womb and Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright.  Jacob is exploited by his uncle, wrestles with his past and is reconciled with his brother.

However, the intergenerational violence continues and Jacob’s sons deceive him and sell their youngest brother into slavery.  If we base our family values on this part of the Bible we are likely to invite state intervention.  But this is a saga about divine intervention restoring humanity despite themselves. Matthew 15: 21-28

As we read through the saga of Abraham’s family we were continually told that, although they lived in the land of Canaan, the sons of the family were not to marry Canaanite women.  Later when the descendants of Abraham complete their wilderness wanderings and take possession of the land the instructions are to kill every single Canaanite, man woman and child.  This task of ethnic cleansing is not entirely successful because their descendants keep getting into trouble for intermarrying so there were obviously Canaanites that survived the genocide. 

However, the important thing for us to understand as we read our gospel is that the Canaanites were the Jews traditional and despised enemy.  Furthermore, by the time of Jesus there were no such people as Canaanites because intermarrying had succeeded where genocide had not and they had been assimilated into other races.

In Mark, where Matthew takes this incident from, the woman is of Syrophoenician origin, which makes her non-Jewish, but Matthew obviously wants to emphasise the difference by making her an enemy.

He could be doing that to make Jesus’ rejection of her more understandable or to show that in the end, even the most unacceptable of people are acceptable to Christ.

Sermon

As we have followed the saga of Abraham’s descendants we have constantly been reminded that they married, indeed were instructed to marry, within the extended family.  In fact, the stories we have been reading focus on the family with only the slightest hint that the males might have had children by other wives or slaves from other races.  Even when Joseph is sold into slavery it is another branch of the family that take him to Egypt where he gets into strife because his master’s wife fancied him and he would not oblige. 

Now we read about Joseph’s reunion with his brothers and this introduces an issue that is very real in our world.

In amongst the great debate between Trumped up news and fake news there is biased news and news that does not have enough pulling power to give it a place between the commercials.  Sports news up to the end of last week was fixated with the minor ailments of various All Blacks but seemed totally unaware that the Black Ferns are away contesting the woman’s world cup.  The only reason I know that they beat Wales by a substantial margin and went on to annihilate Hong Kong by 121 to nil is because ex Black Fern Louisa Wall put that news on her Facebook page. 

On a more serious note, although the news of the moment is focused on the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un there are still a whole host of wars going on There are still men women and children drowning in the Mediterranean as they make a desperate effort to find a new, safer and more rewarding life somewhere other than where they were born.  Furthermore, slaves are still bought and sold and shifted across international borders for all sorts of reasons. 

Joseph was sold into slavery and dreamed himself into a position of power.  Now in today’s episode Joseph comes face to face with his family who are now economic refugees.

Although the lectionary has yet to take us through Exodus and the journey to the Promised Land we know the story.  The descendants of Jacob settle in Egypt and prosper until they become a significant population of what the Egyptians regard as other.  They are therefore excluded from the mainstream economy and exploited as slaves.  We can guess from our own experience that they were prohibited from owning land or houses because that might inflate the prices and shut out new home buyers.  But even as cheap labour the Israelites kept their own customs and even without democracy their dual citizenship was seen as a threat to the Egyptian way of life.  If Egypt was attacked by people like the Ishmaelites Jacob’s descendants might feel a greater affinity with them and join in the attack.  So, Egypt increases the intensity of the slavery and imposes a regime of limited genocide.  Eventually, like all negative thinkers the Egyptians worst fears are realised and the Israelites make a break for it.  That left a critical labour shortage which distressed the Egyptian Employer’s Federation who demand military action by the Pharaoh.  However, as a much later group of slaves remind us in song ‘Pharaoh's Army Got Drownded.’

Eventually the Israelites arrive in Cana and implement a campaign of genocide against the Canaanites which facilitates their move from wandering nomad to settled agriculture.

Our gospel text is set in a different time and place where the descendants of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph are being exploited by a different and far more efficient imperial power than Egypt, the Romans. 

In that context, the gospels brings us Jesus’ teaching about a concept he calls the kingdom of God.  Matthew’s text refers to the kingdom of heaven and many commentators suggest that is because Matthew’s Jewish heritage makes him nervous about using any divine name.  However, Matthew and the other gospels mean the same thing.  The kingdom of God is a society organised the way God intended, a realm that offers an alternative way of organising human society to the domination of one group by another.  The kingdom of God offers an alternative to the human society that is an ongoing oscillation of fear, dominance and freedom, oppression and liberation followed by the liberated becoming the oppressor. 

What is amazing about today’s reading is that it shows Jesus learning from a woman that to truly promote God’s realm he had to abandon the learned understanding that his race and culture was God’s only concern. 

Matthew describes Jesus answering the woman’s plea for help.

He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ (Matthew 15:24).    

The woman’s metaphorical argument then persuades Jesus to extend his care to this woman who is not only non-Jewish but according to Matthew a descendant of the people his ancestors felt called to annihilate. 

Reading through the Old Testament it becomes obvious that Joshua’s campaign of genocide was not entirely successful.  In Judges we are told that the Israelites lived among the Canaanites, and various others. (Judges 3;5)  In Ezra it is noted that the people had not ‘separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites and a string of other races.’ (Ezra 9:1) 

Needless to say these texts are the happy hunting ground of racists and separatists who want to be called ‘Christian.’  What is significant to us however is that historical commentators tell us that, by the time of Jesus, intermarriage had achieved what deliberate genocide had failed to do.  There was no such people as Canaanites at the time of Jesus.  Indeed, as we pointed out in the introduction when Mark relates this story the woman is of Syrophoenician origin, which makes her non-Jewish and more plausible.  By naming the woman Canaanite Matthew increases the tension by not just naming her a gentile, but also an enemy. 

The other point in this exchange is that an unaccompanied woman is not supposed to speak to a man in a public space and certainly not engage in the rhetorical debate of the cynics.  Intellectual debate and the use of metaphors was a male only sport.

Nevertheless the result is that Jesus is convinced by the woman’s argument and he heals her daughter, thereby extending the kingdom of heaven to non Jews and even enemies.

There are two significant issues in this exchange.  The first is that we are shown a truly human Jesus growing towards his own awareness of the divine within him.  

This fits the Christological and Trinitarian assertion that Jesus Christ is both fully human and divine.   Quite frequently we find people worshiping Jesus as God.  But this passage grounds Jesus in human reality, a person limited by his culture but open to learning in the same way we all are.  Not only is this central to the original Trinitarian debates but it is a reality highlighted in the song written by Eric Bazilian and originally released by Joan Osborne.

What if God was one of us?

Just a slob like one of us

Just a stranger on the bus

Tryin' to make his way home?

However, this incident makes an even more significant point than underlining the Trinitarian doctrine that makes us Christian.  Jesus’ growth towards divinity encourages our own spiritual growth.  This episode instructs us that we are not prisoners of our past, our upbringing, our ethnicity or our culture. 

Like the fully human Jesus we can learn and grow towards the awareness of the divine within each of us.  We too can learn to live as Christ for ourselves and be Christ to others.   

The other significant feature in Matthew’s narrative is that he shows Jesus’ journey bringing the challenge of the kingdom to Jesus’ own people and concludes by the Risen Christ sending out the apostles to all nations.  In that sequence of events this episode gives the reader a warning of those final verses and the great commission to take the Good News to all nations. 

We also need to remember that Matthew is writing in a community of Jesus’ followers who, by the time he was writing, would have included non-Jews. 

What brings these two readings together is first the understanding of how the stories of Genesis and Exodus echo our own fear and slavery to the past and lock us into continued destructive cycles of fear of difference and instinctive desire to preserve our identity. 

We live in a world of violence and a global movement of peoples that threaten our splendid isolation and frighten the living daylights out of our Australian neighbours. 

In our own lifetimes we have moved in a gigantic shift from the standard meal of roast mutton and three vegetables to have debates about eating Chinese or Indian.  I understand people even watch Master Chef on television which is a long way from a family of my pioneering ancestors who mostly ate bread and butter along with eggs boiled in old kerosene tins.

As Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan wrote ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ and it is totally frightening.

But as we see Jesus reassess his own cultural prejudice we get a glimpse of an expanding view of what humanity could be like.  People could live in a realm conforming to divine ideals rather than human fear, domination and slavery in all its variety of manifestations.

The message in our Matthew reading is that we can seek out and expose the divine within us. 

We can find our divine spark by opening ourselves to those we see as different and in doing so we live God’s realm into reality in our world. 

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