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Proper 15 | Ordinary Time 20, Cycle A

Sunday between August 14 and August 20 inclusive

The emphasis in these texts is on reconciliation of those who had been estranged in the Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 texts and on openness to people of other groups outside one’s own in the other texts. In these texts there is no missionary command to go out and bring outsiders into one’s community of faith. Instead, these texts urge us to be open to outsiders, to receive and to welcome them into our fellowship of faith. We are told they will come and we are expected to accept them into the religious community that we ourselves by the grace of God enjoy. That is all that is asked in these texts, and it is asked of us.

Genesis 45:1-15
This is perhaps the greatest text of reconciliation that we have in our biblical accounts. After a series of tests of his brothers to determine whether his brothers had changed and improved their moral character since the day in which they had sold him into slavery, Joseph within this highly charged emotional scene, the climax of the Joseph story, reveals his identity as the brother whom they had assumed they would never see again. As developed and presented in this Joseph story, with the power Joseph had gained in Egypt, Joseph could easily have enslaved, tortured, and executed his brothers who had sold him into slavery. Instead, he forgives them and is gracious and kind to them. We are amazed at his total lack of vengeance and intrigued that the storyteller presents Joseph as risking the possibility during the series of tests imposed by Joseph on his brothers’ character, Joseph’s father would die and Joseph would not be able to be reunited with his father. As the story is presented, Joseph himself receives great benefits of joy and satisfaction by revealing his identity to his brothers and forgiving them. There is a message in the story that demonstrates when we are gracious enough to forgive and be reconciled, we ourselves receive wondrous benefits we would never have if we had instead acted vengefully.

Psalm 133
When used with Genesis 45:1-15, as it is here in this lectionary, Psalm 133 is a celebration of the happiness that results when brothers within a family or in a community live together amicably. Instances of sibling rivalry and dissension in our society most often involve, as in the Joseph story, jealousy as result of favoritism, real or imagined, shown by parents of one child over that of their other children, or dissatisfaction over the distribution of the parents’ assets after the death of the parents.

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
According to this text, it is the Lord who does the gathering of outsiders into the community of the Lord. It is said that people who have not previously participated in the Israelite community of faith will come to it. Their offerings and their sacrifices are to be accepted. The house of the Lord is to become and be called a house of prayer for people of all nations. All that is asked of those who are among the People of God is that they be just and righteous in their relationships with each other and with the new people who come into the community of faith.

Is the situation any different for us today? Does not God still do the gathering? Do not the new people still continue to come? Is anything more asked of us than we be just and righteous in our relationships with each other and with the new people who come to us? We and the other People of God in the Church would certainly grow in faith and in grace if we would only consistently be just and righteous in our relationships with each other and with the new people who come to join with us. Why should God bring new people to be joined with us if we are not just and righteous in our relationships with each other and with them?

Psalm 67
As in the Isaiah 56 text, the dispersion of the Israelites and of the religion of the Israelites is highlighted in Psalm 67. In both texts, the perceptions of God by the Israelites are expanded from the earlier tribal and national forms of the God of the family of Abraham and the God of Israel to perceptions of the Lord God as the God of all nations, the “King of the Universe.” Throughout the transition to expanded perceptions of God, the belief was retained that God continues to provide material and spiritual blessings for the Israelite people.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
One of Paul’s primary concerns in his letter to the Romans was the bringing together of followers of Jesus who were of Jewish background with followers of Jesus who were of other than Jewish background into common, shared fellowship in the house church situation there. In the first section of his letter to the Romans, Paul asserted forcefully that all people in both groups are guilty of sin and deserve God’s wrath. All deserve death. Paul made it clear to those to whom he wrote this letter that it is only by the undeserved grace of God that anyone is rescued from sin, condemnation, and eternal death. According to Paul, however, anyone who accepts the grace of God through faith in what God does, particularly through what God does in Christ Jesus, can be saved from sin and death and receive the freely given blessing of eternal life with God.

Within the segments of Paul’s letter that have been selected for reading on this coming weekend, Paul is addressing non-Jewish background followers of Jesus and talking about Jews. In a portion of chapter 11 that is not included in this reading (verses 17-28), Paul used his olive tree analogy to show that Jews as God’s Chosen People have precedence over non-Jewish background followers of Jesus and Jews continue to have life and vitality even after the beginnings of what is becoming the Christian faith. Paul clearly stated his opinion in Romans 11 that Jews continue to have life and vitality even when they do not accept the message Paul proclaimed. In Romans 11 Paul wrote with conviction that ultimately God would show mercy to the Jews who rejected Paul’s message as well as to the followers of Jesus with either Jewish or non-Jewish backgrounds who accepted Paul’s message of the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. For the pioneering exposition of this, see Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), pp. 3-5, 78-96.

It is obvious that Paul did not refrain from being negatively critical of his own Jewish people or of anyone else, but Paul was not viciously anti-Jewish when he wrote the documents that are included in our Newer Testament. (The viciously anti-Jewish condemnation in 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 is an interpolation by a latter editor of Paul’s letters. It is comparable to the condemnation of all Jews in Acts of Apostles in the speeches written for the characters Peter, Stephen, and Paul in that vivid literary drama composed by the Lukan playwright more than thirty years after Paul’s death.)

Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28
Careful attention to the context of this account in Mark and in Matthew indicates this is one within a series of texts in which there are eating and drinking, table fellowship of Jesus with “sinners,” and Eucharistic considerations. This text reveals something very significant, therefore, about the difficulties with which many early Jewish background followers of Jesus accepted non-Jewish background followers of Jesus into their table fellowship. The account is much more than merely the report of an incident that occurred one day during the public ministry of the Jesus of history. The account tells us much about the experiences of early followers of Jesus as they moved from Galilee and Judea into the southern Syrian regions of Tyre and Sidon. It tells us that they found people there who had faith, strong faith, who received the message about Jesus and were receptive to it. It tells us about how followers of Jesus reluctantly at first and then fully accepted people such as the Syrophoenician woman of this text into their table fellowship in Jesus’ name. It tells us something about how rude these followers of Jesus were at first to non-Jews. Instead of speaking directly about their feelings and experiences as Paul did in his letters, they told this story within their ministry of Jesus Gospels.

Of course the Jesus of history may have done everything included in this text. The Jesus of history may have been rude to a Syrophoenician woman in her hour of great need, but would not the Jesus of history have been quite inconsistent had he actually treated a greatly distressed woman in that manner? We can, of course, come up with some kind of reason or rationalization in an attempt to explain or to excuse Jesus’ rude behavior here because we cannot believe Jesus would ever have been so rude. More likely, however, this account does not have its origin and life setting in the life of the Jesus of history. Along with a significant number of other texts that we read in the Four Gospels, this text probably has its origin and life setting in the experiences of followers of Jesus during the first few decades after the Romans had crucified the Jesus of history. It probably had its origin and life setting within the experiences of pre-Markan followers of Jesus as they encountered new situations outside of Jewish areas.

For us as we prepare to proclaim the message of this text this coming weekend, this Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28 account offers valuable insight into some of the adaptation struggles of the early developing Church. It also provides guidance for us as non-Christian background people come to us and to the congregations in which we serve.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen