Biblical Words 
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133;
a, 29-32; Romans
21-28. Matthew 15
Israel was first in God’s salvation design, but the goal was an inclusive grace for all people of faith.
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 in need.
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
’ …And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it…” (verses 1-2, me. N). RSV
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 concern in Joseph’s speech (verses 9-13), after he has gained some composure, is to get the good news back to his father in Canaan, and to arrange for Jacob (Israel) to come down into Egypt with all his remaining household 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
– 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
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. Jerusalem
In the second image, the blessing of moisture over an essentially dry land is contemplated. The summit of
far to the north of ,
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 Israel .” There at Zion
the Lord has appointed (literally “commanded”) “the blessing,” which is life
lasting to the end of the age (Hebrew ‘ōlām). Zion
The Epistle reading is taken from the last part of Paul’s long meditation in Romans on the election of
in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Israel
In the entire discussion Paul maintains two things. As of the moment,
(meaning the main Judean 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 ” (verse
28, Israel ,
not in the reading). N RSV
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
“Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until
faith would be revealed.”) Galatians 3:23
The Gospel selection has two parts: an optional reading, followed by the main text.
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: “In vain do they worship me, / teaching human precepts as doctrines” (15:9, quoting
Jesus then offers his counter-teaching: “It 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,
N). The ultimate issues of life are not
religious taboos, but social conduct. RSV
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 Mosaic dietary laws (in the book of Leviticus). This declaration would seem to be a far-reaching liberation from the burdensome restrictions of Rabbinic purity rules! 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
is overridden by a Canaanite woman’s desperate faith. Israel
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 , literal translation). 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 underlined that is found in Matthew’s version only.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and
. 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 Sidon .” 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. ( Israel ) N RSV
In Matthew’s version, the woman recognizes Jesus as the Judean 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
not to the nations. This is a Matthew
viewpoint. Matthew makes a point of
keeping Jesus’ mission directed only to Israel
(see Matthew 10:5-6). 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 Israel 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
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.) Matthew
But here the priority of
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. Israel
One last rejection by Jesus, to defend the priority of
. “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.”