On Thursday, Mary Beth and I attended a conference on Alcoholism and Recovery. One of the keynote speakers is a recovering alcoholic and son of an alcoholic father. This middle-aged man had become addicted to alcohol by the time he was fourteen. He credited the Church with the impetus for his recovery. As a teenager, he had been invited to attend church by a friend’s family. He had never forgotten being greeted with hospitality, being called by name, and being embraced by that church family. This experience would plant the seeds that would give him the strength and courage in faith to redirect his life.
This impact of being embraced in unity with God’s people has remained in my thoughts as we consider today’s lessons and as we consider the unsettling environment that seems to prevail in our country.
Time and again through Matthew’s Gospel we encounter biting criticism directed at the Pharisees and other religious leaders. In our lesson today, Jesus condemns the Pharisees as blind guides leading the blind. Jesus, throughout his ministry, has his harshest words for these religious leaders called to represent God among the people. Jesus rebuked them for using their positions to show preference to those of higher social status and to exclude and show contempt for those they considered less favored by God – those who most needed to hear the message of God’s mercy. As representatives of God, these leaders had distorted the image of God; they had not embraced God’s people; their irresponsibility was inexcusable.
Jesus bravely and consistently confronts the contemptuous actions of the Pharisees, knowing these reprimands will foster the toxic environment of collusion against him.
We, the Church, cannot let this message fall on deaf ears; we need not dismiss Jesus’ harsh words as a message meant for these 1st century religious leaders only. We digest these words and evaluate our own unjust tactics that distort the message of God’s mercy and exclude those we might consider undesirable.
And, yet, in this strange twist of activity, Jesus seems himself to be caught up in a demonstration of exclusivity. His words to the Canaanite mother of the demon-possessed daughter are harsh and shocking to us. As a Canaanite non-Jew, it would not be uncommon for her to be labeled a “dog.” Gentiles by definition were non-believers, no better than dogs in the eyes of faithful Jews who by law were not to interact with them. Yet, does Jesus consider her to be a dog? Does Jesus truly believe that this woman is not entitled to mercy – that only his own people – the Jews – are embraced by God’s mercy?
We could speculate that Jesus responds with extreme satire in an intentional attempt to attract his audience’s attention with his outrageous words – thus making his point in a much more powerful way. Regardless of Jesus’ motive, he does get our attention, and he raises our apprehension in a way that draws us into the need to seek further understanding. We immediately tune into the message; we look on in amazement as the woman’s desperate assertiveness prevails over Jesus’ initial refusal to show her mercy; Jesus’ actions are redirected, not just in this encounter but from this point forward. No longer would the mission be confined to Jesus’ own people to the exclusion of Gentiles.
The message is clear; there is no exclusivity in God’s mercy. Jesus’ mission as recounted for us by Matthew would, from this point forward, be expanded to the Gentiles – embracing any and all who came seeking redemption and healing. God, through Jesus Christ has redeemed all creation – all are drawn into the embrace of his mercy.
This message is reinforced in the events of our saga from Genesis in which we find Joseph demonstrating God’s unrestrained mercy when confronted by his brothers. These were the same brothers who had so cruelly sold Joseph into slavery and convinced his father Israel that he had been killed by a wild beast. Joseph, carried to Egypt by the slave-trading caravan, had risen to great prominence in the court of the Pharaoh.
The scripture tells us that, as Joseph’s true identity was revealed, the brothers were “dismayed.” Understandably, they would have reacted with fear when realizing that this high-ranking officer of the Egyptian court was indeed the brother whose life they had sought to destroy. Now, their lives were held in his hands as he, only, could provide the grain they needed to save the House of Israel from obliteration by famine.
Joseph looked realistically at the past, surely remembering the turmoil he had suffered as the result of the evil deeds of his brothers. But, Joseph recognized that God had converted these evil deeds into good far beyond human ability or ingenuity. The culmination of the brothers’ evil deed, converted into God’s good, allowed for Joseph to be the remnant that would preserve his people. Joseph gave thanks to God for his mercy and, in turn, showed that same mercy to these brothers who had come seeking sustenance. In a position to seek horrendous retribution, Joseph chose instead to embrace his brothers, restore the broken relationship, and provide the means of a prosperous future for his people.
Joseph could not wipe away the anger and suffering of the past; but, Joseph with steadfast faith in God’s guidance found spiritual healing and growth that led to restorative justice for his brothers.
Jesus’ initial outrageous response to the Canaanite woman draws our attention to our own unjust treatment of others. As Jesus’ subsequent reaction highlights the turning point in his mission, our own spiritual growth comes to turning points, challenging us to put away our prejudices and embrace one another in unity as God’s children.
These words of scripture carry a pertinent message for us today in regards to the frustrating and frightening events in our country. The Bible is a living organism; from these words of eternal wisdom, there is constantly refreshed guidance that remains relative regardless of the passing years.
I shutter at the thoughts of the environment that breeds the superficial arrogance and hatred of white supremacists. In what sort of families and households must these misdirected individuals be reared? Where was the Church in their childhood? I’m told they represent far less than 1% of our population; why are they given a voice to inspire violence?
And, I shutter at the sight of non-white youth rushing city streets with their faces taunt with anger and hatred, heavy pieces of chain and crowbars drawn back ready to strike in anticipation of their perceived enemy. Where did they learn such fear-inspired hatred; who fostered such anger in them; how did they inherit such little value for their lives and the lives of others? Where are the religious leaders who are called to be representatives of God in the lives of these young people? We, the Church, bear that responsibility.
Somehow, we must have the courage to take on the task of addressing the true underlying causes of this violence with all parties taking appropriate responsibility for wrong actions. Like Joseph and his brothers, we cannot erase the evil deeds in our past – whether in our personal family history or our country, and any efforts to do so can only be detrimental. Rather, we reexamine our history realistically with God’s guidance and we move forward toward spiritual healing and growth. It’s hard work that must be done; it must be done with open hearts and lowered voices and a willingness to be listeners.
Only the mercy of God through the grace of Jesus Christ can lead us to restorative justice. Only the mercy of God through the grace of Jesus Christ leads us to embrace one another truly in unity as God’s people now and forever.