August 20, 2023
SEEING EACH OTHER
Genesis 45:1-15 and Matthew 15:10-28
Rev. Bill Buchanan
There is a phrase that professional presenters understand well. Whether you are a teacher, or a trial lawyer, whether you are a story teller or a stand-up comic, if you are smart, you know this phrase and take it to heart. The phrase is this… “Know your audience.” Because if you know your audience, you will have a better sense of what to say, how to say it, and how what you say will land with your audience.
I would argue that when we read and study the gospels, we actually need to know three audiences.
The first audience to consider is the one who is actually watching and hearing Jesus speaking in that moment. Is Jesus sitting in a house telling his disciples a story? Is he preaching to a crowd of poor people gathered on a hillside? Is Jesus rebuking the powerful and the elite in the middle of Jerusalem? Who is Jesus talking to? What do we know about those people and how they would receive his words?
The second audience to consider is the original readers and hearers of this gospel account. Jesus was alive up to around 32 AD. The gospels were getting written down from the late 60s-100AD, so this is a generation or two after Jesus. Who were these folks? What was going on socially, culturally, politically, in that place and time?
Considering this second audience helps us to understand why the four gospels tell things differently, or even choose to tell us different stories about Jesus.
The gospel of Matthew, for instance, is known as a Jewish oriented gospel, written for a Jewish audience and everything in it is considered from a Jewish lens. And keeping that in mind helps us to understand how these things Jesus is saying and doing would land with that audience.
So with this in mind, let’s back up and take a running start into today’s text from Matthew.
The set-up of the text is that Jesus is up in Galilee… poor, rural, Galilee. He’s been preaching there, healing people there, feeding people there.
In the beginning of chapter 15, there are these scribes and Pharisees who travel up from Jerusalem to Galilee because they want to talk to Jesus. They are tracking down Jesus because they want to ask him this question, “why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat.”
It’s important to note that Galilee is not very close to Jerusalem. If Jesus was, say, in Jericho, then this whole scenario would make more sense. Jericho is within a day’s walk from Jerusalem. One could see the scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem saying, let’s go talk to this guy while he’s in the neighborhood. But to go from Jerusalem to Galilee would require days of traveling. So, the writer of Matthew is saying that these big wigs from Jerusalem came all this way to rural, no count Galilee, to track down this poor itinerant preacher, just to ask him why the guys in his crew aren’t washing their hands before they eat dinner?!! Really?!!
If we are only considering the first audience, this whole set up doesn’t make sense. But if we consider the second audience… the original readers of Matthew… it makes a lot more sense.
By second half of the first century, this movement known as “the way of Jesus,” is really starting to grow. And because of Paul’s work it’s growing most rapidly in Gentile areas. I’m talking about Corinth, Philipi, Thesselonica, Ephesus, even in Rome. These are gentile places filled with Gentile people. And as these church communities form, norms are being developed, rules, rituals, etc. So in the early church there is an overarching question: to what degree do our Jewish beliefs, rules, practices, still apply? Do all these Gentile Christians need to eat kosher? Do the men need to be circumcised? Do these folks need to be good Jews before they can be Christian? Through all of Jewish history there was a pretty strict distinction between the Jewish people… God’s chosen people… and then everybody else. A theme in Matthew’s gospel is dealing with this question, and Jesus interpreting, or reinterpreting, and in that way fulfilling Jewish law, The Torah.
To THAT audience, Matthew’s audience, that Jesus says, through this scenario, “it is not what goes in a person that defiles, but what comes out.” In other words, it’s not the kosher food laws that you should be worrying about. It’s what you say to others, how you treat others. It’s your motivation and behavior towards others that identifies you as clean or defiled. It’s a great point. And it makes what happens next a bit ironic.
Jesus then leaves Galilee and goes further north, and west, toward the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is modern day Lebanon. This puts Jesus in a region that is getting less Jewish and more mixed, with Canaanites, Syrophoenicians, other Gentiles, other kinds of people.
Then there is this particular Gentile woman. She’s heard about Jesus, that he can heal people. She needs her daughter healed of a demon – what today we might consider to be mental illness. Jesus tries ignoring her. She is relentless. He finally turns to her and says, I didn’t come here for you. I came here for the lost of Israel. I’m not taking the food meant for the children and throwing it to the dogs.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like Jesus talking this way. It’s rude. He calls her a dog! But again, to Matthew’s audience, this makes all the sense in the world. They would think… Jesus came for us Jews, not all these others that Paul keeps converting. Or if these others are going to be in on this, they have to assimilate to Judaism.
But this woman, in her desperation, and faith that Jesus can help her, won’t take no for an answer. So she plays on his unfortunate and derogatory metaphor, and says, but even the dog can get crumbs from the table.
Then Jesus does this rare thing, for Jesus. He changes his mind. He is, in a way, corrected by her. He gives her what she wants. He says it’s because of her faith, but I’d also say it’s because she pushed Jesus to really see her. To see past the label of Gentile. He finally sees her as another full-fledged human being, someone in need, and worthy of compassion.
We also have this Old Testament text from the end of Genesis. Joseph, the youngest of the 12 sons of Jacob, (also known as the 12 tribes of Israel) Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob. In a long and dramatic story Joseph’s brothers are jealous of him and try and get rid of him. He ends up in Egypt, and ascends eventually into the household of Pharaoh. Through Joseph’s gift of dreams he predicts that there will be a seven year famine in the region. So Pharaoh listens to Joseph and prepares for it. Joseph’s role in all this means that the nation of Israel, all his brothers and their families, can survive the famine. The text we read is this reunion. At first the brothers don’t recognize Joseph. But Joseph makes them really see him. And now they see him, not as some Egyptian. Not even as some rival for their father’s attention. They see him for who he really is, a person with gifts from God, a person who can save them from famine.
- So at the beginning of this sermon I was talking about three audiences: The one Jesus is talking to, and the one the gospel writer is talking to. But there is a third audience… us. What does these texts, have to say to us today, in this time and place?
Friends, we get trained and conditioned basically from birth to differentiate between us and them. We get taught that the goal of life is to look out for ourselves and our family, and let all these other competitors out there fend for themselves. We are taught that there are two kinds of people, us and them. And that “we” are better than “them.” This gets reinforced in everything: the history of race in this country, in our regionalism, in our politics. Even our national obsession with sports is all about divisions and rivalries and domination. Most things in our culture are set up to divide us. But here Jesus himself gets shaken out of this trance and really sees this Gentile woman as a fellow human being, worthy of compassion. Joseph, instead of using this reunion moment to gloat and take revenge on his brothers, seizes the opportunity to save those people who before could only see him as a rival.
When we look at the history of the institution known as the church, boy have we bought into the mentality of division… of us and them. For most of the church’s history we have aligned ourselves in the rivalries of empires and slaughtered countless others throughout the crusades and inquisitions. Much of the church was in lock step with the exploitation of colonialism, and the church has continually created divisions within itself. And in all of it, we have claimed, “God is with us and not with you. These resources and this identity are for us, they are not for you.”
What does it look like for the church and the members of it to change all this? A couple of examples come to mind. One example is found in our fellowship hall. You may have noticed that there are portraits on the walls of our neighbors. These are neighbors that some of us have gotten to know through the church’s Saturday Sanctuary program. It’s an opportunity to really see our neighbors, as people with names, and faces, and stories. People who, no matter their circumstances, are worthy of love, compassion, and support.
We have wrapped up another successful summer of Asheville Youth Mission and all our Youth Mission Co locations. Part of our ongoing work is to help young people really see the person who is struggling with poverty, or addiction, or food insecurity, or mental illness, as more than a stranger who is just trying to take our resources or even harm us. Instead we want youth to grow up understanding them as a full person like them, with a name, and story, and as someone who is worthy of our compassion and advocacy.
If we get into a practice of doing this, then eventually our society gets to a place where we can no longer abide systems that leave people behind. We can no longer abide ways of being a community that turn our backs on the most vulnerable among us during their greatest hour of need.
The truth is all these divisions we have are really just constructs of our own making. And as Paul said, there is no longer Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female. We are one. The truth is we are all God’s children, and we all deserve food from God’s bounteous table.
Some have said our country has never been more divided than we are right now. The good news is that every day God gives us opportunities to practice really seeing each other: walking down the street, in a store, at school, at work. May we use these moments to live out God’s call for compassion, humility, generosity, and for love.