A “Good Fairy” Story

Geneses 45: 1-15

We have been following the saga of Abraham’s dysfunctional family. We discovered that Abraham sends one son, Ishmael, and his surrogate mother out into the wilderness to die and then attempts infanticide on Isaac, his son by his wife.  Isaac’s sons struggle in the womb and Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright.  Jacob is exploited by his uncle, wrestles with his past and is reconciled with his brother.

However, the intergenerational violence continues, and Jacob’s sons deceive him and sell their youngest brother into slavery.  If we base our family values on this part of the Bible we are likely to invite state intervention.  But this is a saga about divine intervention restoring humanity despite themselves.

Matthew 15: 21-28

As we read through the saga of Abraham’s family we were continually told that, although they lived in the land of Canaan, the sons of the family were not to marry Canaanite women.  Later, when the descendants of Abraham complete their wilderness wanderings and take possession of the land, the instructions are to kill every single Canaanite man, woman and child.  This task of ethnic cleansing is not entirely successful because their descendants keep getting into trouble for intermarrying so there were obviously Canaanites that survived the genocide. 

However, the important thing for us to understand as we read our gospel is that the Canaanites were the Jews traditional and despised enemy.  Furthermore, by the time of Jesus, there were no such people as Canaanites because intermarrying had succeeded where genocide had not, and they had been assimilated into other races.

In Mark, where Matthew takes this incident from, the woman is of Syrophoenician origin, which makes her non-Jewish, but Matthew obviously wants to emphasise the difference by making her an enemy to make Jesus’ rejection of her more understandable, or to show that even the most unacceptable are acceptable to Christ.

Circumstances bringing Joseph and his family together after years of separation certainly fits the genre of feel good fairy stories.  It is also consistent with the recurring connections and opportunities that happen in our own lives .

My grandson’s high school had a teacher only day recently and it became my responsibility to provide occasional distractions, so he wasn’t continually on his device.  One of my less successful ploys was to show him some old family photographs. That proved more interesting to me than Nico.

Amongst these photographs was a group of NCO’s from my high school’s cadet unit.  I hasten to add that the only reason I was in that photograph was that I was a member of the Air Training Corp which was what we joined if we had no interest in doing military drill.  As there was a good proportion of likeminded boys in the ATC there was not enough boys willing to give up a week of school holidays to march around Ohakea Air Base. Therefore, by the time we got to the 6th form they had to make us corporals and sergeants  anyway.

The one person in the photograph I am still in contact with was the boy who was told to show me around my new school when we moved to Levin about sixty-five years ago.  He was the best man at our wedding and Nico would have met him at our Golden Wedding.

The other was Brian Eagle who I knew vaguely through scouts and shared one year in the same class at High School.  After leaving school I never gave him another thought until I was introduced to him at a General Assembly.  The Rev Brian Eagle was then a Methodist Minister working for an ecumenical organisation.  After I moved to Hamilton, I was asked to join an organisation called Brewersgate, which existed in the Waikato as an opposition to the anti-gay conservative Aldersgate meeting.  I protested that I couldn’t join because I was Presbyterian but was told that as I was liberal, I would fit in just fine.  The regular agenda was a requirement to bring a bottle and something for the evening meal.   So, I agreed and when I got a meeting notice I discovered that Brian Eagle had a parish in Rotorua.  We had an email conversation and promised to call if we ever visited our respective cities.  But we never did.  However, I have subsequently made myself known to Brian’s adopted son Paul, who was a Wellington City Councillor and is now MP for Rongotai and a member of the Maori Caucus.  A further connection is that Paul Eagle would have been on the Wellington City Council with my photography friend Simon Woolf.  Simon is the son of the late Ron Woolf who was also a friend and once worked for my Dad.  Simon’s sister Deborah Hart is Director of ASH NZ Furthermore I recently heard Simon and Deborah’s mother Inge Woolf on the early morning radio news speaking about preserving the memory of the Holocaust which took the lives of many of her family.

We talk about our 2 degrees of separation in New Zealand, but the truth is humanity is an interconnected communal species.  Furthermore, despite the efforts at racial separation we read of in the stories of Abraham’s immediate descendants our connections stretch far wider than clan and race.  Our reading from Matthew subtly recognises that reality and acknowledges God as the God of all people.

As the Old Testament narrative moves from Joseph, bringing his family to Egypt, to Exodus we read of their exploitation by the Egyptians.  But our Gospel text is set in a different time and place where Joseph’s  descendants are being exploited by a different and far more efficient imperial power, the Romans.

In that context, the gospels bring us Jesus’ teaching about a concept he calls the kingdom of God.  Matthew’s text refers to the kingdom of heaven and many commentators suggest that is because Matthew’s Jewish heritage makes him nervous about using any divine name.  However, kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven are the same thing.

The kingdom of God is a society organised the way God intended, a realm that offers an alternative way of organising human society to the domination of one group by another.  Even more importantly God’s Realm moves beyond the ‘in-group’ ‘out-group’ realm of clan, tribe and nation even if some Christians fail to understand that truth.

The kingdom of God offers an alternative to the human society that is an ongoing oscillation of fear, dominance and freedom, oppression and liberation followed by the liberated becoming the oppressor.

What is amazing about today’s reading is that it shows Jesus learning from a woman that to truly promote God’s realm he had to abandon the learned understanding that his race and culture was God’s only concern.

Matthew describes Jesus’ cultural conditioned answer to the woman’s plea for help.  ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ (Matthew 15:24).

The woman’s metaphorical argument then persuades Jesus to extend his care to herself.  She is not only non-Jewish but according to Matthew a descendant of the people his ancestors felt called to annihilate.

But reading through the Old Testament it becomes obvious that Joshua’s campaign of genocide was not entirely successful.  In Judges we are told that the Israelites lived among the Canaanites, along with various other races. (Judges 3;5)  In Ezra, it is noted that the people had not ‘separated themselves from the peoples of the lands and those people’s abominations.  That expected separation was from the Canaanites and a string of other races.’ (Ezra 9:1)

Needless to say, these texts are the happy hunting ground of racists and separatists who want to be called ‘Christian.’  However historical commentators tell us that, by the time of Jesus, intermarriage had achieved what deliberate genocide had failed to do.  There were no such people as Canaanites at the time of Jesus.

Indeed, as we pointed out in the introduction, when Mark relates this story the woman is of Syrophoenician origin, which makes her non-Jewish and more plausible.  By naming the woman Canaanite Matthew increases the tension. She is not just a gentile, but an enemy.

The other point in this exchange is that an unaccompanied woman was not supposed to speak to a man in a public space, and certainly not engage in the rhetorical debating style of the cynics.  Intellectual debate and the use of metaphors was a male only sport.

Nevertheless, the result is that Jesus is convinced by the woman’s argument and he heals her daughter, thereby extending the kingdom of heaven to non-Jews and even enemies.

There are two significant issues in this exchange.  The first is that we are shown a truly human Jesus growing towards his own awareness of the divine within himself.  This fits the Christological and Trinitarian assertion that Jesus Christ is both fully human and divine.   Quite frequently we find people worshiping Jesus as God.  But this passage grounds Jesus in human reality, a person limited by his culture but open to learning in the same way we all are.  Not only is this central to the original Trinitarian debates it is also a reality highlighted in the song originally released by Joan Osborne.

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

But this incident makes an even more significant point than underlining the Trinitarian doctrine that makes us Christian.

Jesus’ growth towards divinity encourages our own spiritual growth.  This episode instructs us that we are not prisoners of our past, our upbringing, our ethnicity or our culture.

Like the fully human Jesus we can learn and grow towards the awareness of the divine within each of us.  We too can learn to live as Christ and be Christ to others.

Throughout the progression of the narrative Matthew shows Jesus’ journey bringing the challenge of the kingdom to Jesus’ own people then concludes by the Risen Christ sending out the apostles to all nations.  In that sequence of events this episode gives the reader a warning of those final verses and the great commission to take the Good News to all nations.

We also need to remember that Matthew is writing in a community of Jesus’ followers who, by the time he was writing, would have included non-Jews.

What brings these two readings together is first the understanding of how the stories of Genesis and Exodus echo our own fear and slavery to the past.  A fear that locks us into continued destructive cycles of fear of difference and instinctive desire to preserve our own identity.

We live in a world of violence and a global movement of peoples that threaten our splendid isolation and the current global pandemic can only enhance such fear.

In our own lifetimes we have moved in a gigantic shift from the standard meal of roast mutton and three vegetables to have debates about eating Chinese or Indian.  I understand people even watch Master Chef on television which is a long way from a family of my pioneering ancestors who mostly ate bread and butter along with eggs boiled in old kerosene tins.

As Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan wrote The Times They Are A-Changin’ and it is totally frightening.

But as we see Jesus reassess his own cultural prejudice, we get a glimpse of an expanding view of what humanity could be like.  People could live in a realm conforming to divine ideals rather than human fear, domination and slavery in all its variety of manifestations.

The message in our Matthew reading is that we can seek out and expose the divine within us.

We can find our divine spark by opening ourselves to those we see as different and in doing so we live God’s realm into reality in our world.