Readings for Proper 15 (20) 17 August 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Proper 15A/Ordinary 20A/Pentecost +14 August 17, 2008 Textweek

Genesis 45: 1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Last week we entertained the idea of Joseph being an archetype of Christ, a revelation of the Divine in humanity, and it’s good also to just hold in mind that the purpose of scriptures, the purpose of the readings that we come to Sunday by Sunday is to provide us with a reflection of the Divine in all life, not to listen to stories about people of long ago. The themes in today’s narrative of Joseph again provide us with insights into divine orientation, into what does it look like, feel like, was is it, when God enters humanity, or when we embrace and encounter our divine gifted selves?

The orientation to the Divine is a way of seeing and it’s a way of being, a way of being that knows life not as a journey towards death, but rather as a movement into the divine life. The purpose of Joseph’s journey, his life and our life, is revealed today in verse 5: ‘God sent me before you to preserve life’, God sent me to lead away from death, to preserve life. Joseph’s journey is a journey towards reconciliation with his brothers and with his father. Benjamin is highlighted in the narrative, the son of Jacob’s first wife and so Joseph’s full-blood brother, a representation therefore, of the divine inheritance, that which is handed from the father to the son, the gift that we celebrate each Christmas. Today’s narrative is filled with anguish, with tears and with joy; it’s a story of life’s movement into wholeness. It has the passion of Easter and its orientation is towards Resurrection.

On first reading, the story seems to identify or to analyse the divine purpose in hindsight, in other words, as the story unfolds, we’re looking into the story from the outside, and as it unfolds so you have Joseph saying, ‘It’s okay, God led me here. You didn’t know it at the time, but God led me here, this was God’s purpose, God had a hand in all that unfolded”. And if we witness the story from that perspective then it’s easy to understand how the early theologians and interpreters came to an understanding of God as the divine puppeteer, controlling a Hollywood ending, even when things looked bleak from the point of view of the puppets. It was no fun for Joseph getting from where he was to where he is, but the divine puppeteer sits there knowing all that, moving all the pieces on the chessboard and the outcome is pure Hollywood. That’s a classic reading and a classic perspective to take in relation to this and pretty well every story in the Bible. But the story makes sense from the point of foresight as well. Look at the character of Joseph and forget the puppeteer, we find someone going forward in harmony, someone moving with the creative energy, for ever open to bring fullness and wholeness to all. This is not someone who walks forward with bitterness, with resentment, with a need to get revenge; this is someone who crosses boundaries with an openness to what might be experienced, someone who doesn’t fall into a pit and sit there whining, waiting for some psychotherapy to get them out. Someone who moves forward constantly, open.

What we find then when we come to the Romans reading – these parts of Paul in Romans are quite difficult; they’re the switch-off points in the Bible. Paul is wrestling with the enormity of the Joseph story; he’s also wrestling with his orthodox understanding and is seeking to make sense of the activity of the Divine. It’s great to actually find Paul again as being a lot more human than his veneration gives him. Paul, I think, is very often like us, trying to make sense. The conclusion that he comes to in verse 32 is not a conclusion I would come to and I think it betrays the confines of his past with his legalistic frame of reference. It says in verse 32, ‘God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all’ - the reason that we suffer is so that we can appreciate good things? I just can’t make sense out of that sort of mathematics, and sadly it’s those simple conclusions seeking to wrap up the mystery of faith, it’s in those that we just lose the essence, we lose the mystery.

Those sorts of conclusions are dotted throughout the Bible and even more so in the interpretation of the Bible through the fathers of the church - simplistic conclusions. What they do is provide a neat solution, but they maintain a simplistic understanding as well, because they’re based on an understanding of God in control of each and every activity. Paul seems to hold that God and man have a one-to-one interaction. Now we probably would all say, ‘Yes that’s okay’, because we’ve all experienced something that feels like a one-to-one interaction. Paul also seems to hold that God intervenes in history in specific and selective times and places, and there's a sense that I don’t know that I’d disagree with that, because we’ve all either witnessed or heard testimony of exactly that. And so it’s very easy for the theologians and the creators of church liturgy and orthodoxy to follow those threads and to say this does make sense, let’s keep it wrapped up in that little neat box. The beauty and the mystery and the profound reflections of scripture take on new dimensions when we see the divine relationship as a dynamic that embraces all, not a one-to-one relationship. If you read the scriptures and see that the place of humanity is always the all, then not only do those simplistic conclusions hold, but they hold with more depth, they hold with more depth. Of course we will glimpse one-to-one relationships with God, but know they are always with the whole of humanity.

When we then read back, I think the scriptures make a lot more sense. The dynamic between divinity and humanity is always the collective. It also makes more sense then, because it enables us to lose that image of the divine puppeteer. We’ve got to leave God in control if we see that God and humanity have a one-to-one relationship, because if only I have a relationship with God and the rest of humanity doesn’t, the world looks to be a very threatening place, so I do want to leave God up there in control. But if the gift, if the divine is given into the common, then no longer is humanity a threatening place - somewhere in the common, in the whole, is the Divine. It actually encourages me to seek that in all, rather than to be afraid of all. Joseph, like Christ and like you and like me is sent to preserve life, to lead creation away from death and into fullness and wholeness.

I think that's then underlined as always in the Gospel. We’ve got two gospel readings today, and it’s a bit weird having them together because they deserve their own space. The first one, verses 10-20 we can almost skip over that, it’s very clear. It makes sense, I know what that’s about. Just to add a little more depth to it, we should also appreciate that the teaching is Jesus teaching against the orthodox teaching. He’s speaking in direct opposition to the religion of the day; he’s actually speaking a new perspective, a new way of seeing and of being. And it’s the second gospel reading that gives us another appreciation of the divine interaction, what Paul was wrestling with and what is revealed in the narrative of Joseph. What the Gospel does is it opens up the reality of our participation in the divine unfolding. Once again Gabby has put a great picture with the Gospel – a picture paints a thousand words. We’re familiar with the image of Mary at the feet of Jesus, the delightful images of washing feet with tears, wiping perfume with hair. Look at this image – here the woman is face to face. She stands, she stands before Jesus, she speaks; the position of their hands shows that this is an interaction and an interaction of equality. Jesus is moved, there is a change in the divine – bang goes the divine puppeteer! We’ll find the same in the Old Testament – Moses was pretty good at changing the mind of God.

It’s important to get that interaction. There’s a creative dynamic of humanity and divinity, a divine dialogue and in that divine dialogue what we hear in the Gospel is that that divine dialogue has opened the way for healing, for life to be found; it is the energy of reconciliation, it is the movement from scarcity to abundance. Jesus moves from owning the lost sheep, the children, to include also the Canaanite woman, the dogs. It’s a movement from a few to a sharing with all; it’s a movement from family and national boundaries to an embracing of all. And it’s that embracing that is one of the keys to preserving life, to participating in the unfolding of creation. And that embracing isn’t as simple as a hug, rather it’s an opening of the heart and an orientation towards participating with the Divine. Once again if we remember the image from last week, this is stepping out of the boat and walking on the water, this is getting off our knees and standing before Jesus with our hands and our face fully engaged with the Divine.

We can imagine when we look at that picture following the conversation the two walk together, they walk as one. That is our journey, it’s Christ’s journey, it’s Joseph’s journey. May we always and forever see ourselves reflected in the scriptures.

Peter Humphris <