This story [Joseph], like the Gospel story of the Canaanite woman, does not follow the expected path. It proclaims God’s abundance where we human beings see scarcity. Joseph looks at the trembling men before him and still sees his brothers. He recalls the suffering they caused him and he sees God’s hand at work to bring about good.
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
There are some passages in the Bible that make good needlepoint pillows and wall-hangings: “God is love;” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “The Lord is my shepherd;” “love is patient, love is kind;” “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
And then, there are the passages such as we have before us today, strange and difficult stories and sayings that don’t seem to make sense. I call them Crazy Uncle passages because they sound more like the sayings of a Crazy Uncle than the Word of God we have come to know in Jesus Christ. It’s not likely that anyone has ever needlepointed the words of Jesus in Matthew, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
And yet, here it is, in red letters, if that’s the kind of Bible you’re reading.
Two difficulties leap out from this passage. First, it sounds as if Jesus didn’t care much about Gentiles until this Canaanite woman changed Jesus’s mind. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” sounds, well, racist. Is sounds like Jesus planned to exclude you and me until this Canaanite woman talked him into letting us Gentiles have a few crumbs from the table.
Second, I’m not used to reading stories about somebody changing Jesus’s mind. I’m used to reading stories about Jesus changing the minds and hearts of the people around him. I once heard a Native American preacher, Robert Allen Warrior, refer to this passage as “the conversion of Jesus.” That’s a hard concept to get my head around, even if it does describe the story accurately.
A couple of things have helped me find a way into this passage.
First, let’s remember that our theology as early as the Nicene creed has affirmed that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. As Luke reminded us at the end of the story of young Jesus in the temple questioning the synagogue leaders, “Jesus continued to grow in wisdom and in stature.” Jesus was a real human being. He grew up and grew into his understanding of his divine role as the Son of God. And here, according to Matthew, he is still growing in wisdom in his thirties.
Second, the stories in the Gospels were not written by contemporary journalists. They were written by evangelists, and the communities of faith in the first century understood that. They were not listening to the Gospels expecting to hear historical reporting. They were listening for Good News. They were listening to learn who Jesus is and what Jesus calls us to believe and do.
In that context, this story is an effective way of speaking to Matthew’s community about a very difficult subject, the mixing of races in the early church. The presence of Gentiles like the Canaanite woman, or, for that matter, like us, disrupted the first-century church. We can see from the rest of the New Testament, especially the writings of Paul, that some of the original disciples saw Gentiles as invaders of the worship space that they believed should be the territory of Jews only.
Whatever historical encounter of Jesus with a Canaanite woman that Matthew had in mind has been shaped by Matthew’s context by the time it made it into his Gospel. These harsh words of Jesus in this story, as difficult as they may be for us to hear from the lips of Jesus, were surely being spoken by some of the early church leaders—that Jesus came only for the lost sheep of Israel; that it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
That was the first big crisis of the church—coming to terms with the full implications of Jesus rising from the dead; that God’s love is so abundant and so broad that the blessings of the table never run out. Giving crumbs to Gentiles still leaves an abundance of grace for Jews.
The story of Joseph challenges us in some of the same ways. Joseph, a son of Jacob, as Jewish as one can be, doesn’t just mix with Egyptians—he becomes one. He has become so Egyptian by the time his brothers come to Egypt looking for food in the famine that they don’t recognize him. As beloved as this story has become, we can understand how shocking its theology sounded to its first readers.
God does not step in and prevent Joseph’s brother’s from their evil deed of throwing Joseph into a pit from whence he is sold into slavery. God does not prevent the brothers from taking Joseph’s fancy coat that his father had given him, dipping it in blood, and showing it to their father in order to mislead him into believing that Joseph is dead.
Instead, the story progresses under the power of human action and autonomy. Joseph suffers as a slave. He is imprisoned for something he did not do. He is forgotten and alone in a dungeon until Pharaoh has a disturbing dream and someone remembers, “Oh yeah, there’s this guy in prison who has a talent for interpreting dreams,” and they haul him out, clean him up, give him a long-overdue haircut, and bring him before the Pharaoh.
At this point in the story, we might call it a twist of fate.
But, in the reading for today, the story claims what it has left unsaid thus far: It was not fate. It was God who has been at work all along. God has taken the evil of the brothers and turned it around as a force for good. Out of the evil of Joseph’s brothers, God has provided for them abundance beyond their imagining: not only food in the midst of famine, but an extraordinary act of grace and forgiveness.
In many ways, I think this story is more difficult than the story of the Canaanite woman.
When I put myself in the place of Joseph, I am not sure I could make the theological leap that he does. I have struggled to forgive much lesser crimes.
A woman who attended a church I served years ago told me of her spiritual journey after her husband was murdered by someone they had counted as a friend. For years afterward, she said she woke up every day with resentment, even hatred, and a desire to see this man suffer for his crime more than the life in prison that the judge’s sentence gave him.
But, she said, the cognitive dissonance between her faith and her resentment ate away at her. She was as faithful a woman as I have ever met and she took seriously the words of Jesus about forgiveness. She did not think she could ever forgive this man, and knew he did not deserve it. But she entered into a discipline of prayer.
“I could not forgive him,” she said, “but at some point in this journey, it was no longer up to me. I woke up one morning and the burden of resentment had been lifted. It wasn’t I who did the forgiving through sheer willfulness. It was a gift God gave me.”
Not long after that, she went to the prison and visited this man and told him of this gift of forgiveness she had received. He was overwhelmed in the face of such grace and, she said, he could hardly speak a word through his sobs.
Here Joseph is, the victim of a horrible crime perpetrated by his own brothers. And there they are, trembling before him because the tables have been turned. He is no longer the seventeen-year-old bratty brother; he is arguably the most powerful man in the world as they know it. When he tells them, “Come closer. Take a look in my face, I am Joseph,” it is surprising that none of them had a heart attack.
Joseph held the power to have them all executed.
Within the genre that this story comes from, we would expect Joseph to take his revenge and revel in his victory; before their execution, Joseph could remind them of his dreams they thought they had killed and say, “I told you so. Say it now, I was right and you were wrong.”
But, this story, like the Gospel story of the Canaanite woman, does not follow the expected path. It proclaims God’s abundance where we human beings see scarcity. Joseph looks at the trembling men before him and still sees his brothers. He recalls the suffering they caused him and he sees God’s hand at work to bring about good.
Jesus listens to the woman, the mother of a suffering child, and perhaps remembers the cries of his own mother when he was a child and Mary had to take Jesus in her arms and flee to Egypt to escape the murderous rage of Herod. He looks and listens to the Gentile woman’s anguish and, where he at first saw The Other, he now sees his own mother. He remembers, in the economy of God, there is grace and healing enough for all.
“Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”
That’s not exactly a needlepoint passage, but how I hope we can keep those generous words of Jesus before us during these trying times.