August 20, 2017
Proper 20 Year A
Genesis 45:1-15 Psalm 133 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15:10-28
Last week, Lissa began her sermon by posing the “million dollar question”: who is God? Well, here’s another one: does God make bad things happen?
That’s a question that has been asked ever since humans acquired the capacity to wonder about the world around them and their place in it. Why do bad things happen? Why is there suffering, illness, death, natural disasters? As a priest, pastor, and hospital chaplain, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with people who were wrestling with these questions. Why has this happened to me? And for some, it goes beyond “why me?” to ask, “why anybody?” I think it’s especially difficult for the faithful souls who have followed “the rules” as they’ve understood them. I’ve gone to church. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve prayed. I’ve followed the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. How can this be happening to me now?
Sometimes, people begin to believe they’re being punished for some unknown, unremembered offence. “I must have done something to deserve this,” they say, even though they can’t figure out what that might have been. Then guilt enters the picture, as the person remembers the times when they did do something they shouldn’t have, or didn’t do something they should have. Others are like Job, insisting, “I did nothing to deserve this and I demand an explanation!” And sometimes God begins to seem arbitrary and capricious, dealing out punishments way out of proportion to whatever wrongs might have been committed. And sometimes, a person who sees no reason for their suffering gives up on God. Either God is powerless to stop suffering, or God is the author of suffering and the person wants nothing more to do with such a God. And sometimes, with or without turning away from God, the person becomes very angry. And then another layer of guilt enters the picture, because many of us were raised with a belief that it’s wrong or sinful, or shows a lack of faith, to question God or express anger with God. And it’s not surprising that we might carry around a mental image of God as a combination of judge, cop, and divine accountant with his ledger of good and bad deeds.
So, back to the question: does God make bad things happen? I think this question is behind all three of our readings today.
For the last couple of months, ever since the Sunday after Trinity Sunday, we’ve been following the story of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants through the pages of Genesis. We’ve been tracing the theme of God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the ancestor of a nation through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. We have seen how that promise was repeatedly threatened and renewed in each generation. And now we come to Joseph, Jacob’s son and Abraham’s great-grandson.
A little background – the lectionary gives us just highlights and I would encourage you to read the whole Joseph sequence at some point. Our reading last week ended with Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers. Joseph ended up in the household of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Through the machinations of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph was imprisoned but eventually freed when he was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh was so impressed with the accuracy of Joseph’s predictions that Joseph became Pharaoh’s second in command. Some years later, a famine gripped the whole region, and Jacob sent his sons to Egypt because he had heard there was grain for sale. When the brothers appear before Joseph, he recognizes them but does not reveal himself to them right away. Instead, he tests their honesty and their loyalty to their father. He demands that they return with their youngest brother, Benjamin, and as a surety imprisons Simeon, basically making him a hostage. Jacob will not let Benjamin go back to Egypt with his brothers, but when the grain runs out, reluctantly sends his youngest son back to Egypt with the rest. They buy their grain, and then Joseph instructs his servant to hide his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph then confronts the brothers about the alleged theft. The brothers beg him to release Benjamin back to his father, and Judah volunteers to take his place as Joseph’s slave. And it is at this point that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and asks about their father.
What happens next is instructive. Joseph does not shy away from the truth when he says, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into slavery.” He does not forgive his brothers. Instead, he interprets their actions as God’s intervention. “It was not you who sent me here, but God. God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph does what so many other people do. Faced with the wrong done to him, holding all the power in this situation, he tries to make sense of all that has happened by drawing on his understanding of God. The evil intentions and actions of his brothers have unintended and unforeseen consequences for good. Life is preserved. The promise is preserved. Jacob moves down to Egypt with the rest of his family, flocks, and herds. They settle in the land of Goshen and over time become strong and numerous, so much that a later Pharaoh, one who “did not know Joseph”, perceives them as a threat. And here is where the unintended consequences have consequences of their own. Joseph rose to absolute power as Pharaoh’s right hand man. He controlled the supply of grain while the famine lasted. He took everything the Egyptians owned in exchange for grain: their money, their livestock, their land, and finally, their freedom. Joseph developed and implemented the very system of slavery under which his own people would later be oppressed. And God would have to intervene again to bring good out of evil.
Does God make bad things happen? The Canaanite woman who came to Jesus might have asked that question. Her daughter was suffering grievously. She acknowledges Jesus by two titles: Lord and Son of David, and begs for mercy. According to Matthew’s genealogy, Jesus is the Son of David. Three women in that genealogy are Canaanites: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth. Perhaps this woman is making a claim of kinship with Jesus. With the combination of titles, Lord and Son of David, she is acknowledging his sovereignty and his role as Messiah. She states her problem clearly and succinctly: “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” She does not request healing. She asks for mercy, because she has heard that Jesus responds with compassion toward all who come to him in need. She does not bring her daughter with her; she expects something to happen where her need and Jesus’ mercy meet.
How then should she feel when her request falls on deaf ears? Jesus simply ignores her. The disciples want him to send her away because she keeps shouting after them. Evidently, she is not giving up. She is not taking silence for an answer.
Jesus’ words seem to affirm the disciples desire to get rid of her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She persists. She won’t go away and she won’t be dismissed. She kneels right in front of him, blocking his way. “Lord, help me.” Her plea is met with language of difference and distance. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” To our ears, Jesus’ words sound harsh and offensive. They do not fit our picture of the kind, compassionate Jesus who accepted everyone who came to him and who actively sought out those whom others rejected. We would regard it as reprehensible to refuse help to someone who was not of our race, and we would regard it as a deliberate insult to refer to them as dogs.
There are cultural and religious differences at work here. Jesus was a Jew, a Galilean of peasant stock, a product of his time and place. He was a real human being. His reaction to the woman is the expected response of a Jewish male to a foreign female. There is a barrier between them and they both know it. But the woman gives as good as she gets. Where Jesus may be thinking of strays and curs slinking around looking for scraps, the woman is probably thinking of pets that get to pick up what is dropped from the table. You can feed the children and the pets at the same time!
I think that in this encounter, Jesus had his boundaries stretched and his vision expanded. And historically, the ministry of Jesus really was to his own people. It was his followers who later expanded it, and we can see in this story the reflection and perhaps the struggle of a church coming to terms with the kernel of Jesus’ inclusivity and acceptance. In the end, the woman’s persistence wins Jesus over. Does faith give birth to persistence, or does persistence feed faith? Probably both, and together they make a powerful combination.
Jesus was a Jew; the apostles were Jews and so were the first converts. The gospel was tailor-made for Jews. The Messiah was promised to and sprang from the Jews. But contrary to their expectations, the followers of Jesus found their message largely rejected by their own people while Gentile outsiders proved eager recipients. The early church – a Christian sect within Judaism – was literally split over the question of admission of Gentiles. Should they be admitted at all? On what terms and with what conditions? It caused a serious rupture between Peter and Paul. In today’s epistle reading, we hear Paul agonizing over his people. It’s unfortunate that the lectionary gives us only the opening question and the tail end of an answer, and I encourage you to read the whole of chapter 11 to get the whole of Paul’s argument.
In the omitted verses, Paul starts with his own genealogy, establishing his credentials as a Jew. He winds his way through Elijah, the Exodus, the Prophets and the Psalms. He states that Israel’s stumbling efforts to follow God have opened the door for Gentiles to benefit from God’s grace. He uses the metaphor of an olive tree, with one root that supports both natural and grafted branches. God has grafted the Gentiles onto the tree of the chosen people. Paul warns his Gentile readers not to think that because God has extended salvation to them, God has therefore cut out Jews. He repeats: “if their (Jews’) stumbling means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” God intends that no one be left behind.
Has God rejected his people? Absolutely not, says Paul! As convoluted as his argument is, Paul in the end falls back on God’s faithfulness. “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” – something we would do well to remember today as we grapple with the re-emergence of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and white supremacy from the shadows – and I’m not just talking about south of the border but right here in our country, in our own city and neighbourhood. Chapter 11 of Romans offers us a God of promise, invitation, and mercy, not a God of threat, judgement and wrath. Paul’s sternest warnings are directed at Gentile Christians (us) who might think more highly of themselves than they should when they consider God’s love for the world and everyone in it. Did God make the chosen people stumble? No, but their stumbling is an opportunity for grace, mercy, and salvation to be extended to all people.
Back then to our original question: does God make bad things happen? Let’s listen to the words of Jesus as he challenges the purity code of his own tradition: “Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” But I think it’s safe to say that much of the suffering we experience and that our world experiences, is the result of human intention and action. It is not failure to abide by rules and traditions that defiles, but what comes from within each person. What about the suffering that results from earthquakes and natural disasters like floods and mudslides, drought, famines and forest fires? With the exception of earthquakes, I think the suffering is made worse by humans – by stripping the trees from hills for fuel, by inequities that multiply suffering for poor and marginalized people, and by climate change which is the result of human, not divine, action.
Understanding suffering and evil in creation is complicated, and I sure don’t have all or even many of the answers. Asking and wondering about the causes of suffering takes us straight into the mystery of God and God’s dealings with the world. Does God make bad things happen? No, I don’t believe so. Did God make Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery? No, it was their envy and spite, not helped by Joseph’s bragging or his father’s very unwise favouritism. Did God make the Canaanite woman’s daughter sick? No, but God in Jesus reached out and healed. Did God make God’s own people disobedient? No, but disobedience becomes an occasion for grace to be multiplied. Can God bring good out of something evil? Thank God, yes! Ultimately, we can only fall back on the mystery that despite our bondage to decay and our imprisonment in disobedience, the God of creation wants most of all for us to have life and wholeness, free from both, whether that is in the global picture or in the struggles and disappointments of our own lives. And the God who called the universe into being ultimately set it up so that justice and mercy might prevail for all. And so we say, “Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God, in the church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever.” Amen.