Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Today’s readings integrate issues of providence, grace, and God’s relationship with the Jewish people. The expansion of the gospel beyond the boundaries of Judaism does not supersede God’s love for Israel, but reflects God’s love and inspiration of all people.
The saga of Joseph and his brothers continues. Years have passed and Joseph has become a powerful advisor to Pharaoh. He has a virtual blank check in terms of political and economic leadership. Over the years, Joseph has grown emotionally and spiritually. He has learned to go beyond his own self-interest and narcissism. He has let go of the past and opened to new possibilities for relationships with his family of origin. He reaches out to the brothers who once betrayed him, offering them shelter and food in time of famine.
In his spiritual maturity, Joseph discovers a pattern of grace in his life. He believes that God has chosen him – “sent him before them” – to save his family and their people. The story of Joseph raises the issue of providence – Is God’s providence, God’s intentionality, in the world relational or coercive? Does God determine everything or does God move within our own creativity? Did God determine in advance that Joseph would become a national leader, able to rescue his family?
Further, if God determines our external realities and the events of our lives, does God also determine our internal experiences and our responses to these events, rendering us puppets rather than actors in shaping our lives?
Here is the difference between Rick Warren’s image of the “purpose driven life” and my image of the “holy adventure.” Does God, as Warren asserts, determine all the important details of our lives without our input? Or, does God seek freedom and creativity, working within the context of both freedom and accident? (For more on these positions see Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure; 41 Days of Audacious Living and Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life).
I refer the preacher to the recent film, “The Adjustment Bureau,” in which the primary characters seek to thwart the lines of determinism that are intended to keep them apart. In the course of the film, they discover that although there is an intricate pattern in which everyone has a clear cut destiny, there is a possibility that love may lead to changes in people’s life scripts.
Surely, God was at work in Joseph’s life, luring him forward to possibilities, inspiring him to grow in stature and go beyond his narcissism, and enabling him to respond to adversity in ways that deepened his spiritual maturity. Joseph had choices; he could have seen himself as a victim or sought vengeance. Instead, he widened his circle of care to include those whom had betrayed him.
Psalm 133 was no doubt chosen by the lectionary committee to highlight the importance of reconciliation and common cause in communal life. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” We are blessed with divine energy and power when we are joined in faithfulness and love.
In Romans 11, the apostle Paul affirms God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people. There is no room for anti-Judaism in Christianity. God’s providential gifts of grace are irrevocable. God has made an eternal covenant with the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. God’s revelation in Christ expands God’s covenant to include all the peoples of the earth. God will have mercy on disobedient people everywhere, whether Jew or Gentile.
The question of being chosen once again is ambiguous. An omnipresent and omni-active God, for whom love is the guiding principle, chooses all creation. No one is left out. This is problematic for those who see the Jewish people and nation, or any other nation, as absolutely unique. As some prophetic writings suggest, Israel was chosen for a mission, to be a light to the Gentiles, bringing God’s love to all peoples.
But, all nations are chosen by God. The gospel leaves no room for manifest destiny or imperialism. Our vocation is always wider than our own personal or national interest. If the USA is, in any way, exceptional, it is to be a light to nations, collaborating with other nations in the quest for justice and planetary healing. But, the USA or any other country can only live out its vocation by affirming the vocations of other lands.
The gospel reading places Jesus in an unusual light. When a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus to seek healing for her daughter, Jesus puts her off, apparently excluding her because of her ethnicity from God’s healing realm. The woman persists and eventually Jesus relents, apparently impressed by the depth of her faith and her willingness to experience humiliation for the love of her daughter. Jesus cures her daughter from a distance; his energy transcends the boundaries of space.
This story also portrays another kind of transcendence, the transcendence of ethnic and personal barriers for the sake healing and wholeness. Now, there are a number of ways to interpret the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman. At first glance, Jesus appears to succumb to the racist tendencies that characterized the attitudes of many Jewish people toward foreigners. He puts her off because, as a Canaanite, she is unworthy of God’s love. A second interpretation suggests that Jesus is testing her faith, trying to discern how much she loves her daughter and what she is willing to do to secure a healing for her daughter. Finally, a third interpretation asserts that Jesus may be creating a trap for those who see the woman as an inferior outsider. He acts and speaks like a racist, getting their insider assent, and then pulls the rug out from under them by healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter. From this perspective, the encounter is a parable, a reversal of expectations, a turning upside down of socially acceptable racism in light of God’s realm of inclusion and healing.
However, we understand the meaning of the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, the story portrays Jesus’ eventual inclusion of non-Jewish people into his ministry. God’s healing embraces all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, or sexuality. Mature faith widens the circles of God’s love to go beyond our well-being to embrace and support the various gifts of the earth’s peoples.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, pastor, and spiritual guide. He is the author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed; Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for a Postmodern Age. He may be reached for conversation, lectures, retreats, seminars, and media appearances at firstname.lastname@example.org.