Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
The Canaanite woman.
The gospel fairly spits out the words with a tone of dismissal and disdain. Imagine a similar insult today, hurled at someone “other” than us, different than us, someone we do not want to take seriously.
Curiously, by the time this gospel was written, or even by the time of the events it describes, “Canaanite” was a term long out of use. It was an antique insult, used to place this woman among the enemies of Israel’s far distant past. It is a term from the Genesis days, a term those double-dealing brothers of Joseph would have known, like when they sold him to the passing “Ishmaelites.”
Even more curiously, the “Canaanite woman” does not play the role assigned to her in the vicious game of insider/outside that the disciples and Jesus have set up. The Canaanite woman knows God’s true agenda and purpose in sending Jesus to the human community. The Canaanite woman knows Israel’s religious language and uses it. “Lord, have mercy,” she says. Kyrie eleison. Even though the Jews’ ancient language was Hebrew, everyone in those days spoke Greek. If we could hear this gospel in Greek, we would hear an antiphonal, and yet dissonant chorus: the woman crying “eleison” – mercy. The disciples crying “apolyson” – get rid of her!
The Canaanite woman knows that Jesus has taken the wrong side in this dispute. A short time before this story takes place comes the story of the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle which showed God’s overwhelming and overflowing abundance. Five thousand were fed from mere loaves and fishes and there were baskets of crumbs left over. The Canaanite woman, in essence, throws these crumbs back in Jesus’ face. She throws the proof of the reality of God’s abundance back at him, and her faith and courage cause Jesus to change his mind. His heart is converted. He returns to his true self. The woman is blessed. The daughter is healed.
These gospel healings, you know, are about more than the physical or emotional healing of the person. Healing, as people understood it in those days, was about restoration. The healed person is restored to the community, to the family, to his or her full functioning; the person returns to being a contributing member of society.
So who is healed in this story? And not only healed, but transformed? The daughter, yes. No doubt the woman; her dignity as a human being, loved by God, is restored; the rest of the community sees that. But is not Jesus healed, strengthened, recommitted to his radical mission of showing people just how abundant God’s mercy is? After this story, he goes out and performs another feeding miracle, and more healings, and more amazing new signs of God’s grace. Eleison – mercy – abounds in a new and vigorous way after the Canaanite woman brings Jesus to his senses.
Our two stories today – that of Joseph reconciling with his brothers, and this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman – bring to mind that troubling question of “the will of God.” Could it really be God’s will that the young Joseph was sold into slavery? And yet, see how it has worked out in such an astounding and surprising way! God’s purposes are hidden, and if we are blessed we may have the opportunity, like Joseph, to look back and see God’s hand at work in the world around us. Walter Brueggemann, the insightful scholar of the Hebrew Bible, puts it this way:
Joseph, man of faith, takes a second hard look at his life. He is willing to host the hidden, inscrutable, unresolved purpose of God for his life that is beyond his control….he is willing to trust a purpose for his life that is larger than his own horizon.
Perhaps Joseph’s brothers, like Jesus’ disciples, needed a sledgehammer to break them open. They were so consumed by their stuff: their possessions, their position in the family, their status – and they hoarded all this stuff so jealously – that they got rid of Joseph, thinking that by getting rid of him there would then be enough of that “stuff” to go around. But the famine, like any other global economic disaster, showed that their hoarding did them no good. Joseph was God’s sledgehammer, opening their hardened hearts to God’s love and generosity. Joseph looked back and saw that hoarding and keeping and resenting did no good. Joseph saw that only by giving away all that he had that he knew the true abundance of God. Joseph was truly the good steward – of Pharoah’s lands and riches, yes, but also of God’s. When his brothers came back, Joseph knew that the only way to keep all the good things that God had given him was to give them all away.
The only way to keep all the good things that God has given us is to give them away.
Joseph’s brothers and Jesus’ disciples had to be tricked and teased and given their comeuppance – in a gentle and ultimately loving way -- to learn this lesson. Think about your own life: look back at God’s hand at work in the world around you. What have you been afraid to give up? What have you hoarded, for fear, or for jealousy? When have you given it all away – taken a risk, lost your heart, emptied your coffers – only to realize that you have everything you need and more, in abundance overflowing?
 From "Taking a Second, Painful Look" in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness; quoted by Kathryn Mathews Huey, in Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/august-14-2011-twentieth-sund.html