Lectionary Commentaries for August 17, 2008
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Marilyn Salmon

Preachers face a serious temptation with this week’s reading from Matthew.

We quite naturally expect the gospels to portray Jesus as the one in the story who displays wisdom, compassion, and godly virtues. Jesus will expose deceit and self-interest. But quite frankly, Jesus does not come off well in this encounter with the Canaanite woman. It is tempting to justify Jesus’ unseemly behavior or pretend we did not see it. If we can resist this temptation to save Jesus, and us, from embarrassment, we might discover some new insights in the Gospel story of Jesus as Matthew tells it.

First, Jesus ignores the Canaanite woman’s plea for mercy for her daughter. He responds to her by saying, in effect, that her needs are not any concern of his. When she persists, he insults her with a derogatory term that displays ancient hostilities toward one of Israel’s ancient enemies. He likens this woman, her daughter, her kind, to dogs begging for scraps from the table. According to Mark’s version of this story, the woman is identified as a Syro-Phoenician woman. Matthew’s account features a Canaanite woman. The reference to “Canaanite” evokes deeply ingrained national prejudice.

Some commentators suggest that “Syro-Phoenician” or “Canaanite” indicate merely that the woman is a gentile, and both descriptions evoke Jewish antipathy to gentiles. But this view implies that all Jews loathed and avoided all non-Jews. First-century Jews were diverse in their attitudes toward gentiles and interactions with them in Jesus’ time, as well as when the Gospel of Matthew was written late in the first century. Matthew’s Gospel story has many references to gentiles, some positive and some negative. The gospel writer displays common Jewish attitudes by describing gentiles as exhibiting despicable behavior. For example, Jesus says, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do.” (6:7). When admonishing disciples not to worry about food or drink or clothing, he says, “For it is the gentiles who strive for all these things.” (6:32) But in the parable of the last judgment, when all the gentiles are gathered before the Son of Man, he separates the sheep from the goats. Some gentiles are “sheep” who inherit the kingdom and some are “goats” who do not. (25:31ff) And at the end of Matthew, the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples forth to raise up disciples among the gentiles. (28:19)

Matthew’s usual term for gentiles, sometimes translated “nations,” is ethnē or panta ta ethnē. This is the common term for gentiles, or non-Jews, in Jewish literature written in Greek during that period. It may have negative or positive connotations, or it may be neutral. The designation “Canaanite” certainly defines the woman as a gentile, but not just any gentile. The term conveys deep-seated historical biases that “Syro-Phoenician” does not. The referent is biblical. There were no Canaanites living in the first century, so the label does not describe present-day encounters. The label evokes historical conflicts and thus defines the woman in terms of age-old prejudices a first-century Jewish audience would understand. This distinction is important for two reasons. First, it challenges a common Christian assumption that Jews shunned all interaction with non-Jews. Second, it gives a different slant to Jesus’ actions.

We know the gospel narrative is about Jesus and look to him for the meaning of this story. We would be amiss, however, if we did not pay close attention to the woman in this story. The Canaanite woman models the most admirable human behavior, not Jesus. She shows willingness to be vulnerable by seeking help from a longstanding foe whom she knows despises her because of national and racial divisions. She asks for help for her daughter, not for herself. She is persistent in the face of insults and rejection, for her daughter’s sake. The Canaanite woman has the best lines in the story, especially her last one. “Call me dog,” she says, “but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.” She is the clear underdog (pun intended) who wins the prize of highest value for any mother, Jew or despised Canaanite — her child’s health and well-being.

Of course the story is about Jesus. We see a very human Jesus. We see ourselves mirrored in Jesus’ attitude toward the Canaanite woman, but not our best selves. We know very well the tendency to define and fear an “other” on the basis of skin color, nationality, class, or creed, deeply ingrained stereotypes that go back generations or even centuries. We resent being bothered by the concerns of those people. We have our own children to care for. When they persist, insisting on equal treatment and justice for their children, we resort to racial slurs and insults. And we are very good at justifying our actions rather than admitting the prejudice that persist.

The story is about Jesus, and in Jesus we see the very best of human potential in relationships with others, even those we avoid and fear. We see in Jesus the possibility of perceiving common humanity where we could see only difference. And when we encounter the “other” as one who shares our humanity, we can never see them as “other” again. The Canaanite woman has the best lines in this story, but Jesus has the last word: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Not “Canaanite woman” but simply “woman.” She will never be defined by national or racial or religious prejudice again. She is now a mother like any other who desperately seeks help for her child. And for this mother’s sake, Jesus heals her daughter. And perhaps Jesus heals us, too, from the temptation to hang on to old stereotypes and habits that prevent us from embracing our common humanity.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Richard W. Nysse

“The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord” and “eunuchs who keep my [the Lord’s] Sabbaths…and hold fast my covenants” are the particular marks of the salvation and deliverance that God will perform and reveal.

The salvation and deliverance of God are near (NRSV translates “soon” and the NIV “close at hand.”) and the inclusion of eunuchs and foreigners are a constitutive part of God’s gathering of the outcasts of Israel. God, the primary agent in this lectionary unit, is characterized as a gatherer. God overcomes outcast-ness in whatever form it takes.

Despite recent renewed emphasis on reading the book of Isaiah as a whole, it is still common to distinguish chapters 56-66 from 40-55 and those in turn from 1-39. On the one hand, the interconnections within the book as a whole do not necessarily imply a single historical author. If there were multiple “original” authors, it does not mean, on the other hand, that editorial work was haphazard. In antiquity, the production of textual material extended into the period of editorial work and the initial transmission of texts. Texts were not merely copied. Editorial work had “authorial” impact on the works being shaped and transmitted.

One example, Isaiah 48:18-19, points out how the exile could have been avoided by paying attention to the God’s commandments. Israel’s offspring and descendents would have been numerous (an intra-biblical echo of the promises made in Genesis); “their name would never be cut off (48:19).” This alludes back to the time before the cutting off that exile entailed and which only the restraint of God kept from being total and final (compare 9:14 with 48:9). The return from exile announced throughout chapters 40-55 is termed a “memorial [name]…an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” in 55:13. A mere four verses later the Lord announces that eunuch will be given a “name…an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” “Name” and “not cutting off” reverberate across preexilic, exilic, and postexilic contexts, and the exilic promise and its postexilic extension are linked by the word “everlasting.”

That foreigners would join Israel had been envisioned earlier in the book of Isaiah although not with the specific Hebrew word used in 56:3 and 6. According to the vision in 2:2-4, all the nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house to receive instruction (repeated in Micah 4). Torah will go forth from Zion (2:3). Chapter 56 acknowledges that there are foreigners who are compliant with the Torah. (The opposite within Israel is stated in the extreme in 56:9-12.) Not every depiction of the future in Isaiah embraces the foreigner as fully as here. At times they are joined, but subservient (e.g., 14:1-2; 45:14; 60:5 and 61:5). The counter strain grows out of the vocation announced in the exile to be a light to the nations (49:6).

In the exile, Israel was an outcast among nations, but God gathered the exilic outcasts. Exilic Israel had imagined that there was no future beyond their judgment (see 40:27 and 49:14). They were like children abandoned by a nursing mother (49:15ff), like prey in the hands of the mighty (49:24ff), like ones abandoned in divorce (50:1ff). Their self-perception was that of outcasts in every respect. Israel should hear its own alienated pleas in the words of the foreigner: “The Lord will surely separate me from his people” (56:3). But gathering outcasts is characteristic of God and that characteristic created new life for Israel when it was exiled for its deathly disobedience. Compare St. Paul depiction of our condition in Romans 5:10 (“While we were enemies…”).

The “gathering” that was the return from exile was a deep and unexpected future for exilic Israel. When God’s grace breaks in, there is no limit. Boundaries, even once necessary boundaries, explode. Isaiah 56 is the Old Testament equivalent of Galatians 3:27-29: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ…there is no longer Jew or Greek….”

In an election year like 2008, it is hard to avoid the questions of immigration that form a part of our context for reading Isaiah 56. Preachers will have to find ways to address the particular shape of the immigration question among their listeners. Facile parallels should be avoided. The foreigners of Isaiah 56 are not immigrants in general. They:

  • Are joined to the Lord
  • Minister to the Lord
  • Love the name of the Lord
  • Are servants of the Lord
  • Keep the Sabbath
  • Do not profane the Sabbath
  • Hold fast God’s covenant

The latter three items are what typifies a “happy” mortal (56:2). Isaiah 56 is first about the inclusiveness God has created in the community of faith. God promises to bring the foreigner to the holy mountain, make them joyful in the house of prayer and deem their offerings and sacrifices as acceptable (56:7). The inclusiveness of this text has a degree of particularity as well. Any parallels to contemporary politics will need to be nuanced. The text is not a simple prooftext for contemporary agendas.

Yet, maintaining justice and doing right are not to be evaded. The text opens with imperatives to do both. Why? Because God is bringing salvation and deliverance. The eunuchs and foreigners are coming. God has promised. So, maintain justice and do right. Doing so anticipates the future God has promised.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

The text for today describes a moving scene of reconciliation, the self-revelation of Joseph to the brothers who sold him into slavery many years before, and gives us the theological lens through which to view the whole story of Joseph.

This scene of reconciliation comes right after an eloquent and extended speech by Judah. It should be noted that Judah was the brother who had the idea to sell Joseph into slavery in the first place, though by doing so he saved Joseph from the murderous intentions of his other brothers (37:26-27). Now, in chapter 44, Joseph has framed his brother, Benjamin, for stealing his silver cup. This is the last of a series of deceptions through which Joseph (in his position as an Egyptian ruler) has manipulated his unsuspecting brothers, causing them a good deal of consternation.

In this last deception, then, Joseph frames Benjamin, his full brother, who is innocent of any wrongdoing. Joseph claims him as a slave and offers to let the other brothers go free. One could interpret Joseph’s actions here as revenge for the pain his brothers caused him. A more sympathetic and (I would argue) more accurate interpretation is viewing Joseph’s actions as a sort of test. Will the brothers sell Rachel’s other son into slavery, just as they sold Joseph? Will they buy their own freedom at the expense of Jacob’s remaining beloved son?

If this interpretation is correct, Judah–and, presumably, the other brothers–pass the test. Judah will not abandon Benjamin. In a moving speech, he describes how he swore to their father, Jacob, that he would bring Benjamin back. He tells Joseph that their father has already lost one beloved son, and that if he loses another, he will die. Judah then offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin: “Now therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father” (44:33-34).

It seems that Judah and the other brothers have changed over the course of the story. Gone is the intense hatred they once held for the favored son of their father. There is no hint that they envy or hate Benjamin for the special place he holds in their father’s heart. They bear the guilt of what they did to Joseph, interpreting the trouble they’re experiencing as punishment for their sin long ago (42:21-22). Now, they have repented and are determined to save Benjamin.

It is this change of heart, and the compassion they show for their elderly father, that finally moves Joseph to reveal himself to them. He has been speaking with them through an interpreter, pretending that he doesn’t speak Hebrew (42:23). Now, he sends all the Egyptians away and speaks directly to his brothers: “I am Joseph.” And he adds a concern close to his heart: “Is my father still alive?” Too dumbfounded to speak, they stand dismayed. So Joseph calls them closer to him and says again, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Then he moves quickly to reassure them: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:3-5, 8).

Eventually, the brothers are able to absorb this stunning revelation. Joseph weeps loudly, embracing his brother, Benjamin, and then kissing and weeping over his other brothers. Then, at last, they find their voices. We are left to imagine what they say. Perhaps, like their father Jacob in his own reconciliation with his wronged brother Esau, they speak of seeing the face of God (33:10). Perhaps they say now what they will say to Joseph years later, after Jacob’s death: “Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father” (50:17). Whatever they say, Joseph reassures them; he urges them to fetch Jacob and to come and live in Egypt, where he will care for them. The scene is one of reconciliation, of forgiveness, and of grace.

Joseph’s words to his brothers also give us the theological lens through which to view his whole story. “God sent me before you to preserve life . . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God.” Joseph makes the same statement to his brothers years later, after their father’s death: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (50:20).

Note that Joseph does not attribute the brothers’ sinful actions to God. God did not make them sin: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (emphasis added). Joseph does, however, affirm that God was able to use those sinful actions for God’s own purposes. The brothers devised evil, but God turned it to good. Note also that God’s will is for the preservation of life, the life of the family of Jacob (45:7) and, indeed, the lives of many people, including the Egyptians (41:56-57; 50:20). Joseph’s presence in Egypt is the means by which God ensures that human life will go on, even in the face of famine.

In these last chapters of the Joseph story, we see that God has been at work all along in the events of Joseph’s life. God has not spoken to Joseph directly as he did to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but God has been at work behind the scenes, so to speak, preserving life in spite of (and even by means of) human sin. The descendants of Abraham (and all humanity) continue to be deeply flawed, but through it all, God fulfills God’s promises and provides for God’s creation.

As we finish reading this series of texts from Genesis, it is also worth noting that God’s initial promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 have begun to be fulfilled in Abraham’s descendants. In Jacob’s family–the 70 people who come to live in Egypt (46:27)–is the beginning of the “great nation” promised to childless Abraham (12:2). In Joseph, we see the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3). God makes everything Joseph does prosper, even in slavery (39:2-3); even in prison (39:23). And, when Joseph ascends to be second-in-command in Egypt, God uses him to save the whole world (41:57). The only promise remaining to be fulfilled at the end of Genesis is the promise to Abraham that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan (12:7). It remains, then, for the rest of the Pentateuch to tell the story of the return to that promised land.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Paul S. Berge

Paul continues to draw upon the whole of scripture, the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms to show that his kindred by race have heard the gospel but remain unbelieving: “But I ask, have they never heard?

Indeed they have; for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world'” (10:18 citing Ps 19:4).

Not only have they heard, but they have understood as Paul refers back to Moses in the Law: “Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry'” (10:19 citing Deut 32:21). And another text from the Prophets: “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me'” (10:20 citing Isa 65:1).

The anguish of Paul comes forth in a final citation from Isaiah: “But of Israel he (God) says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people'” (10:21 citing Isa 65:2).

Paul has drawn upon these texts to show that God has not withheld his promises to all people on earth, to those who continue to disbelieve, to those who have understood, to a disobedient and contrary people, and even to those who didn’t ask for God. In light of God’s purpose of salvation, Paul asks the rhetorical question: “Has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11:1a). Paul knows the reality of God’s promise and word of revelation as “an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” (11:1b). Paul, the former persecutor and called by God to proclaim the gospel of his Son, knows that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (11:2a).

In the verses that follow, leading up to the continuation of our text in Ro 11:29, Paul brings forth several citations from scripture to show that God has not rejected Israel then and now. In Elijah’s time God preserved a remnant that did not bow down to Baal (11:2b-4): “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5).

Paul continues to draw upon the whole of scripture, the TANAK, the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (11:8-10 citing Deut 29:4; Isa 29:10; Ps 69:22-23; Ps 35:8), which give witness to Israel’s hardness. And so Paul asks the question that leads to yet another stage of the argument from scripture: “Have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means!” (11:11a). Paul’s response is to show that “through their (Israel’s) stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (11:11b).

God’s purpose with Israel is an inclusive reality for all people: “Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their (Israel’s) full inclusion mean!” (11:12). Paul has been called by God to a servant ministry of the gospel to the Gentiles that will eventually make Israel jealous, “and thus save some of them” (11:14).

The analogy of the olive tree with its branches of both Jews and Gentiles expresses the providence of God’s salvation. The natural branches (Israel) have been broken off, and the wild shoots (Gentiles) have been grafted in. However, the warning that Paul must bring to the Gentiles is, “Do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you” (11:20-21). Yet even now, Paul bears witness that “God has the power to graft them (Israel) in again” (11:23).

The mystery of God’s saving grace is that “a hardening has come upon Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25). In this hope “all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (11:26 citing Isa 59:20-21). And another word of promise from Isaiah: “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins” (11:27 citing Isa 27:9). Paul sees the one whom Isaiah calls “the Deliverer” fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

God’s covenantal promise with Israel stands from of old, “as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:28-29). Paul expresses that the Gentiles are likewise enemies of God: “Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their (Israel’s) disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you (Gentiles), they too may now receive mercy” (11:30-31).

Paul has worked his way through countless scriptures to unravel the mystery of God’s election for the salvation of all people, Jew and Gentile. As he comes to the conclusion of his argument from scripture concerning the providence of God, Paul rests the mystery of election and salvation in the only way possible–a doxology of praise to God.

There is nothing in all creation that can fathom “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (11:33). God is beyond human ability to know his ways. God is God. There is nothing in all creation that can call the potter into question concerning his judgments and ways.

Paul follows with three rhetorical questions which uphold his doxological words of praise: “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” (11:34-35). Paul’s questions proclaim the reality that indeed God is God in his dealings with Jew and Gentile alike.

The final words of these three remarkable chapters in Romans bring this section of the letter to a resounding conclusion that rings throughout the ages: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (11:36).

What could be more central to the faith of all people in Paul’s time and in our time than to proclaim the richness of these words? They are words of God’s covenantal faithfulness in spite of our willful and self-centered ways. God will not give up on us. His promise of life is centered in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the Deliverer from sin, death, and the power of the devil for Jew and Gentile alike.