... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

PENTECOST 9 Year A, Message Aug 14th, 2011

God's Mercy and the Consequences of Faith

Text: Gen 45:1-15; Psalm 133
Text: Romans 15:10-28

There are several Sundays in the Church's year where the lectionary readings seem to have very little in the way of congruency of themes or similarities for moral edification. Today is one of those Sundays. From the melodramatic revelation of Joseph in front of his brothers to the dialogue between Jesus and the Canaanite woman or from the ode in praise of unity to the rhetorical question of Israel's rejection by God we are tossed from emotion to emotion and from challenge to challenge without any seemingly unity of purpose. Yet on closer examination of those passages we are struck with the way in which God's mercy shines forth and how it results in and subsequently displayed through human faith.

The reality of human life, which seems to have remained a constant since the beginning of time, forms the back-drop of the Joseph cycle in the Book of Genesis. Avarice, greed, malice, jealousy, sex, political scandals and intrigue at every turn are the ingredients surrounding Joseph's life. Like a ripple in the pond of human history Joseph creates a new pattern in all that he contacts and in all who come into contact with him. He is the object of jealousy, sibling hatred, sexual desire and fear. As the favourite son of his father Jacob, Joseph was despised by his older brethren and sold into slavery. Through intrigue and misadventure and subsequent betrayal, Joseph again found himself in dire straits. But ever faithful he rises to fulfill his prophetic calling and becomes the most powerful man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. In this position of control he now faces his brothers who have come to beg Pharaoh's mercy to help them overcome the ravages of the famine. As these brothers stand before Joseph we delight in the juicy turn of the tables especially as the brothers do not recognize who it is that stands lord over them.

Every fibre of our sense of propriety shouts revenge: now is moment for revenge the chance to get even! With but a nod of his head or a word to the guards these erstwhile brothers could be imprisoned, sold into slavery or worse. But that is not Joseph's way because that is not God's way! Joseph had always been God's emissary and prophet through whose visions God spoke warnings of things to come and promises of blessings yet unmeasured. As Joseph reveals himself to his brothers amid tears of joy on Joseph's part and reactions of disbelief and fear on the brothers' part, Joseph highlights the true theme behind his life. "And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life." Four times in this passage Joseph explains how all that had happened was due to God's greater plan for the preservation of life of a faithful remnant and that he, Joseph, was the servant albeit at times the unknowing pawn. In his faithfulness Joseph saved his people.

Equally as poignant and colourful is the meeting of Jesus with the Canaanite woman. To modern 21st century ears this story causes great anguish as we hear the racial slur of bigotry and racism levelled at this poor woman as she begs for her daughter's life. The harsh metaphor Jesus uses for the woman as a non-Jew cannot be skirted or dismissed. He has labelled her as a dog at the table of the Jewish children and taken on its own this becomes a scandalous indictment concerning Jewish social and racial bigotry. Yet this is not what Jesus had in mind or what the author of the story wanted to convey.

To see beyond the racial slur we have to place the meeting in both its time/cultural milieu and in the context of verses 10-20 where Jesus had been speaking with the crowds concerning what defiles a person in relation to the observed Jewish food laws. The time frame was a time of Jewish racial elitism in a land occupied by Gentile armies. The context of the larger story is an educated but uncomprehending Jewish people. The Pharisees, the leaders, the disciples and even Peter failed to comprehend what Jesus was trying to convey. However, the Canaanite woman, the one below even the lowest rung of the social ladder understands. She sees that God's mercy extends beyond the bounds of the select to be available to everyone and that true defilement comes from within. The metaphor that Jesus applies to this woman serves to highlight her social standing, or rather lack thereof, and in doing so makes her the foil over against the uncomprehending crowds including the disciples. Her witty banter is much more than a humourous retort as it shows her to be fully cognizant and accepting of who she is and of her relationship to God and society. She is faith-filled and will not be deterred. As a consequence, her petition is granted and her child healed while the disciples are left in humiliated dismay.

Psalm 133 elaborates on the story of God's blessings and the consequences of faithfulness as it expounds on the beauty of unity, harmony and fellowship. It is a just commentary on the Joseph cycle conclusion. It is an ode to the delights of reconciliation, reunion and restoration under God's direction. It is the song of praise that delights in the oneness of family and the harmony and peace which might be experienced as a blessing from God. One in faith in a community of family is like the precious anointing oil, fragrant and appealing but with the symbolism of divine sanctification. The psalmist wishes the audience to comprehend than this unity in peace is a blessing from God and that in turn it will result in the dispelling of the natural human tendency toward dissent, jealousy, avarice, greed, lust and all forms of hostilities. The emphasis is on a vision of communal harmony which can only be seen as a gift from God's storehouse of mercy.

In what appears to be a contrast to this idyllic poem in praise of harmony, Paul raises the thorny issue of Christian covenant over against Jewish covenant. Needless to say that as Christianity became more appealing and main stream there arose the inevitable clash of ideologies concerning the relationship between God and the chosen. If Christians were the new chosen did that relegate Judaism obsolete? The Jewish religious leaders dismissed Christianity as a misguided sect while on the other side of the equation Christian theologians saw Christianity as superseding the old Jewish covenant. Paul's argument was that in no way had God rejected the old covenant. In a rather long and convoluted explanation Paul lays out a treatise showing how God's mercy has brought into the Kingdom of God both Jew and Gentile and that the covenants were not an 'either-or' arrangement but mutually beneficial contracts which could act to bring harmony to a whole world rather than a division of it. With such an understanding of the covenants the Psalm for today becomes Paul's vision of a world community where all brothers and sisters dwell in unity and harmony.

Part of Paul's admonition to the Christian community is that they have no right to boast in its election by God or to exalt themselves above the Jews. Gentiles came into the household of God by the covenant brought into being through Christ Jesus and even though Christ may have been rejected as the Messiah by the Jewish leaders, the old covenant made by God with the patriarchs was still valid and irrevocable. Israel had been called by God to be a chosen people and despite their often-times rebellious adventures; God had always chosen various means to redeem a faithful remnant. Paul states that God would not abandon that covenant for God's word stands fast and God is the epitome of faithfulness. Has God rejected Israel? NO WAY! God continues to honour the old covenant but because part of Israel's mission was never fulfilled a new covenant was made in Christ Jesus and the faith of Jesus as well as His followers will become the means whereby Israel will once again remember its call. And to protect against a Christian sense of superiority, Paul notes we have all been disobedient and all people need God's mercy. We become mutually dependent upon one another as foils toward faithfulness so that the vision as expressed in Psalm 133 might become a universal picture of human society.

God's mercy as voiced by the Canaanite woman extends to all people none of whom can claim it by virtue of their own goodness. We cannot bpoast in our superiority for we have not come to this state through our own capabilities but rather through the mercies of God. Yet in faith might we accomplish the mission God has set before us and bring into being the vision of the author of Psalm 133 for all peoples.