Due to recent tragic events, offering reflections on the lectionary texts for this week is a daunting task, perhaps only eclipsed by the pastoral task of ascending into the pulpit last Sunday to name the powers and declare the fullness of the gospel. In times like these, we can often struggle to find the words to say. It seems to me that this is the beauty of the lectionary, though. When our words struggle to take shape and emerge, the lectionary calls us back to the story of God’s work in the world, a story that we must continually recount and rehearse because we will not find it anywhere else. These texts call us to remember and embrace that story.
In the Genesis passage, we are at the climax of the Joseph cycle. He has confronted his brothers by accusing them of stealing and treachery. The brothers, who do not realize they are speaking with their lost kin, are terrified. They cannot imagine a scenario worse than their current predicament, at least until Joseph confesses, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (45:4). Before their new sense of dread can set in, Joseph declares that his arrival in Egypt was an unforeseen blessing—“to preserve life,” he says (45:5). He even says that it was God, not they, who sent him to Egypt.
Later, after Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers will become concerned again that Joseph will seek revenge. There, he will say to them: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). In both moments, Joseph embraces his family and weeps with them. As Psalm 133 declares, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (133:1).
This same emphasis on unity is found in the New Testament passages as well. In Romans, Paul comments on the state of Israel after the advent of Christ. He notes that the shared state of disobedience has made possible a shared state of mercy. While the Gospel lesson certainly speaks with the same voice, it is much trickier.
In a story of Jesus traveling outside of Israel, he encounters a Canaanite woman who wants relief from a demon plaguing her daughter. As is usual, the disciples have no time for her and her problems. Jesus, though, seems equally indifferent, first offering silence, then saying that his mission is to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and finally telling the woman when her persistence brings her to Jesus’ feet, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:23, 24, 26).
To be sure, his response to her is troubling to our ears. Some readers might ask, “What did Jesus just say?” Because of this, many commentators have tried to soften his language by reminding us of its first-century context or explaining that the Greek term used is not the worst possible. This might qualify Jesus’ statement to some degree, but Jesus referring to this Gentile woman as a dog is unsettling, especially after recent racially charged events.
Of course, the woman turns the derogatory term on its head: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27). She is making an important claim: she belongs at Jesus’ table, even if in a dependent manner. And she’s right, which Jesus makes clear in a response that contrasts Peter’s little faith in last week’s Gospel reading. Indeed, regardless of whether Jesus was playing hard to get in this exchange, the woman wins the argument with him, and he praises this woman in a way that few are praised in Matthew’s gospel.
The Revised Common Lectionary gives an option to read the preceding passage as well, where Jesus discusses what makes someone unclean. In contrast to the Pharisees, Jesus says that “it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. . . . [W]hat comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:11, 18-19). In this light, we see Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman as a commentary on this statement. What comes out of her mouth is a profession of faith in Christ as Lord (three times in fact). Despite the ethnic difference, she is clean.
Taken together, these passages give a picture of kinship. Joseph and his brothers (and eventually his father Jacob) are reunited and brought together in Egypt during the famine. The Canaanite woman’s argument echoes the covenant with Abraham, who was told that in him, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). She is part of God’s economy; she is included. She says as much when she mentions the table. She is part of God’s family.
It is hard to miss that both Joseph and the Canaanite woman are presented with obstacles to their journey of faith, yet in each case they respond to those obstacles in a transformative manner. Joseph appeals to God’s intentions for his travels, and Paul refers to Israel as those that God foreknew. These references might lead us to reflections on God’s sovereignty. This is reminiscent of Rowan Williams’s discussion of God’s omnipotence (or “almighty-ness”, if you will). Rather than viewing this attribute as God’s ability to do anything and everything, he writes that this “means that there is nowhere God is absent, powerless or irrelevant; no situation in the universe in the face of which God is at a loss. . . . God always has the capacity to do something fresh and different, to bring something new out of a situation—because nothing outside himself can finally frustrate his longing. So almightiness in this sense becomes another reason for trust” (Tokens of Trust).
This trust is what pushes us to recognize the breadth of the family of God and sustains our embrace of the fullness of the gospel in trying times. We claim the story of kinship and unity found in these passages as our own, and we must bear witness to it, even in the face of persistent hate and evil.