Old Testament: Genesis (45:1-15)
Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 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; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
The Response: Psalm 133
1 Oh, how good and pleasant it is, *
when brethren live together in unity!
2 It is like fine oil upon the head *
that runs down upon the beard,
3 Upon the beard of Aaron, *
and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
4 It is like the dew of Hermon *
that falls upon the hills of Zion.
5 For there the Lord has ordained the blessing: *
life for evermore.
The Epistle: Romans (11:1-2a, 29-32)
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their 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.
The Gospel: Matthew (15:21-28)
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 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 that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
The story told in the reading that we just heard is one of the most shocking narratives in the gospels. A mother is frantically trying to find a cure for her seriously ill daughter. She comes to Jesus for help. He not only rejects her plea but responds to her with a cruel epithet. He obviously considers his fellow Jews to be children of God, but excludes those who are not Jewish, including this desperate woman. It is not until she stands her ground and, humbly but firmly, refuses to take “No” for an answer, that Jesus is forced to rethink his narrow view of God and of God’s human family.
Jesus, like all of us, was a product of the time and culture in which he lived. It is part of being human. And, like all of us, he had to learn. This time, his teacher was an unnamed Canaanite woman. Among other things, she led him to accept, at least in a preliminary way, that she, along with him, was a child of God. That might have come as a shock to him.
Recognizing and acknowledging who we are, and who other people are in relation to us, is not always easy. Sometimes, it necessitates letting go of old assumptions and attitudes and of old resentments and grudges as well. And sometimes, it requires forgiveness.
That is what happens in today’s first reading, the culmination of the Joseph story. In the section that we heard last Sunday, the beginning of the narrative, the brothers are plotting to kill Joseph; but one of them, Judah, intervenes. He urges them (Gn 37:27), “Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” He at least acknowledges him as their brother, but obviously without accepting the full implications of that title.
In today’s reading, at the end of the great narrative, that term “brother” returns; only this time, it is Joseph who uses it. And, in doing so, he does accept the full import of that relationship. After all that he had suffered at his brothers’ hands, Joseph now had it fully in his power to exact revenge. Years earlier, they had rejected him; and now, at last, he had the opportunity to retaliate, using his almost limitless power as ruler over Egypt. But instead of taking vengeance, making use of his now dominant position over them, he identifies himself simply: “I am your brother, Joseph.” He accepts them as his brothers even though they had rejected him as their brother. Here, the healing power of forgiveness sets everyone free and opens the way for a new relationship and for new life.
Forgiveness, full and complete acceptance of others, can be difficult. It is not always the case that we consciously reject others. It often happens inadvertently unless we make a concerted effort to reflect on our attitudes and actions.
That seems to be what happened to the early Christians in Rome. At first, it was most probably a group of Roman Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. They would have accounted for most members of the nascent church there, and they may well have relegated non-Jewish believers to a subordinate role in the church. But then in the year 54, came an edict from the emperor, Claudius, expelling all Jews from Rome. Quickly, the church in the great city had come to consist almost exclusively of Gentile, or non-Jewish believers. The tables had been turned; the Jewish Christians were now in the minority, and they likely found themselves in the subordinate position to which they had recently relegated the Gentile members of the church. St. Paul, in the reading that we heard today, rejects their inverted snobbery. He reminds those Gentile, Roman Christians that God had not rejected their Jewish sisters and brothers, and that all were fellow members of God’s church and of God’s one family. Bigotry is still bigotry, no matter which direction it goes.
From which of our sisters and brothers, our fellow human beings, are we separated, whether intentionally or unintentionally, whether consciously or unconsciously? Where do we need to allow God to change our attitudes and assumptions? Where do we need to offer forgiveness: the gift that sets many people free?
Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, comments on the need that ancient Israel had to forgive even the Egyptians, who had treated them so harshly, as we will be hearing in our first readings over the coming weeks. In Dt. 23:7, Moses instructs them, “You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land.” Rabbi Sacks reflects (Not in God’s Name, pp. 239-240), “To be free, you have to let go of hate. That is what Moses was saying. If the Israelites continued to hate their erstwhile enemies, Moses would have succeeded in taking the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would have failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites. Mentally, they would still be in there, slaves to the past, prisoners of their memories. They would still be in chains, not of metal but of the mind. And the chains of the mind are sometimes the worst of all.”
What sort of “chains of the mind” hold us back from accepting particular other people, or maybe entire groups of other people, as our sisters and brothers, with all that that implies? It is safe to say that our negative attitudes don’t approach the level of evil advocated by and demonstrated by the Neo-Nazis, the KKK, and the white supremacists in Charlottesville. Yet sometimes, like those early Christians in Rome, and maybe even like Jesus himself, we have a need to learn: to allow God to open us up to new ways of seeing those whom, for whatever reason, we hold at arms-length in life. We need to allow God to help us probe the depths of our affirmation that all people are our sisters and brothers, and that we are all truly children of the one God.