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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 20 - Proper 15 - Year A
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a,29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20),21-28
Alt – Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Psalm 67

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 20 - Proper 15 - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  A summary of these readings is 
     also included below.]

     
GENESIS 45:1-15		This incident in the long story of Joseph in 
Egypt follows the classic model of dramatic storytelling a tale of 
reversal and recognition exhibited by all ancient Middle Eastern mythology 
and legend as a means of communicating living truth.  The passage, 
entitled in the NRSV as “The Truth Revealed,” came from two different 
versions from the 9th and 8th centuries BCE respectively.  So vss. 7 and 8a 
appear to be repetitious, but in fact came from two original documents.  
Although there is relatively little mention of God throughout the Joseph 
cycle, both versions express the same theology of history that God is Lord 
of history as does the pathos of this incident of Joseph revealing himself 
to  his brothers.  


PSALM 133				Two beautiful metaphors brilliantly illustrate 
this brief psalm.  It is one of fifteen in a collection known as “Songs of 
Ascent” (Pss. 120-134) incorporated into the Psalter.  These hymns of 
praise may have been sung by pilgrims or the companies of Levites assigned 
to a regular period of service in the temple as they approached the temple 
courts.  The theme of this little gem is not only the solidarity of the 
family, but of the whole nation.
 
 
ISAIAH 56:1,6-8  		[Alternate]  This hymn celebrates the spirit of 
universalism, one of the main themes of Israel’s unknown prophet of the 
Babylonian Exile whose works form Isaiah 40-55.  Not only Israel but 
people of all nations will be welcome to worship in God’s rebuilt temple 
in Jerusalem.


PSALM 67				[Alternate] This short psalm also celebrates the 
hope that all peoples will worship Israel’s God and receive God’s full 
blessing.


ROMANS 11:1-2a,29-32	Countering the fear of many of his contemporary 
Jews, Paul sought to remind them that God had not rejected them by 
bringing Gentiles into the developing tradition that Jesus Christ is the 
true Messiah.  Rather, Jews and Gentiles alike have now received the full 
measure of God’s mercy through Christ.

 
MATTHEW 15:(10-20),21-28	  There seems little doubt that Matthew fully 
intended to link of the parable and teaching in 15:10-20 with the story of 
Jesus healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman in a foreign country as 
two expressions of the universal love of God for all peoples.  This 
important lesson touches us pointedly at a time when we too are all prone 
to divide the good from the bad, our race, our country, our tribe, our 
folk, our faith from all those others.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

GENESIS 45:1-15   This classic model of dramatic storytelling named by 
Aristotle as a tale of reversal and recognition is found in all ancient 
Middle Eastern mythology and legend.  It communicated living truth - and 
still does.  This passage, entitled in the NRSV as “The Truth Revealed,” 
consists of a conflation of the J and E narratives from the 9th and 8th 
centuries BCE respectively.  Vss. 7 and 8a appear to be repetitious, but 
in fact come from the two separate documents.  Both express the theology 
of history exhibited in these narratives, although there is relatively 
little mention of Yahweh/Elohim throughout the Joseph cycle.

Having lived through the tumultuous 20th century CE, we may find it more 
than a little difficult to conceive of God as Lord of history.  This was a 
fundamental article of faith in Hebrew theology which the Christian church 
adopted without question.  The eschatology of the four gospels, the 
Pauline corpus, the general epistles, and especially Revelation, show how 
extensively the apostolic church shared this world view.  The story the 
ascension in Acts 1:6-11 and the expectation of the imminent return of 
Christ in power and glory make this perfectly clear.  But it is a matter 
of faith in the providence of God and not obvious to and frequently 
denounced by those who do not share this conviction.  

Note that the way Joseph addressed his brothers (vss. 4-11) almost places 
the blame on God for their sin.  Such an attitude regards God as an 
authoritarian bully, manipulating human lives for God’s own purposes, 
albeit to human benefit.  Would it not be better to see this as a 
redemptive experience rather than to lay blame as where it surely did not 
belong? 

Nonetheless the joyful reunion of the brothers is heartwarming and told 
with all the power of a great climax to the story.  The settlement of the 
tribe of Jacob in Goshen by direction of Joseph differs from the later 
account of Pharaoh’s order to this effect (45:28-47:12).  Scholars presume 
that vs. 10, therefore, may be a gloss added when the combined narratives 
were being edited or copied by later scribes.  Such ‘corrections’ were not 
considered inappropriate in the ancient process of transmission.

We must not forget that this story is a tribal tradition sacred to the 
powerful alliance of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of 
Joseph.  These were the dominant tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel 
between the end of Solomon’s reign (circa 922 BCE) to the Assyrian 
conquest of Samaria and exile of the northern tribes in 722-721 BCE.  It 
is not surprising that these stories should exalt their ancestral hero.  
During this same period, the J and E documents came into existence.  The J 
document appears to have originated in the Southern Kingdom of Judah while 
the E document came from the Northern Kingdom.  Their combination into one 
text probably took place in Judah in the 7th century as a means of 
preserving the sacred story of the covenant people.  

Scholars have long recognized that there may have been an Egyptian model 
from which many details of the story were taken.  (See commentaries by 
such luminaries of the early 20th century as Skinner and Gunkel.) Such 
borrowing was common in ancient storytelling.  In no way does this 
diminish the significance of the Israelite tradition and its greatly 
enhanced theological interpretation.  Israel’s faith that God intervened 
providentially time and again in the history of Israel is a relevant part 
of the history of the human race.  In the age of pluralism in which we now 
live, this faith could become an important element of a developing global 
theology inclusive of the history of all faith traditions.


PSALM 133   Two beautiful metaphors illustrate this brief psalm.  It is 
one of fifteen in a collection known as “Songs of Ascent” (Pss. 120-134) 
incorporated into the Psalter.  These hymns of praise may have been sung 
by pilgrims or the companies of Levites assigned to a regular period of 
service in the temple as they approached the temple courts.  The theme of 
this little gem is not only the solidarity of the family, but of the whole 
nation.

On this characteristic of kinship in tribal life, the security of the 
nation depended.  Particularly during the Hellenistic period (circa 330-
165 BCE), the threat to Hebrew traditions  increased greatly as the 
economy became commercialized and the whole Middle East came under the 
political domination of militaristic and secular overlords, Alexander and 
his successors, the Seleucid dynasty.  Religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem 
became a significant aspect of the culture of the Jewish Diaspora.  The 
story of boy Jesus and his parents attending the Passover in Jerusalem 
exemplified its meaning in Jewish life.  (Luke 2:41-52) With the 
restoration of Israel’s national statehood in the latter half of the 20th 
century and the availability of air transportation, the importance of this 
custom has been revived.

The two metaphors come from very different realms of human experience, but 
still have much in common.  They share the common symbol of pouring, as in 
an anointing.  Vs. 2 specifically describes an anointing with precious 
oil, as Jesus was anointed on two occasions.  This practice formed part of 
the daily toilet of the rich, usually with scented olive oil or a perfumed 
ointment.  This had both cooling and analgesic effect as well as covering 
unpleasant body odours in the hot climate.  It was also widely practiced 
on festival occasions.  It was customary to anoint the heads of important 
guests at feast (cf.  Luke 7:46).  The coronation of a new king also 
included an act of anointing symbolic of the monarch’s role as the servant 
of Yahweh.  (The Hebrew/Aramaic  *mashiah* meant ‘anointed’ and was 
translated into Greek as *christos.*)

The other metaphor in vs. 3 recalls two important sources of water: dew 
and Mount Hermon.  From that mountain in Lebanon flows virtually all the 
fresh water in Israel.  It is the source of the Jordan from which Israel 
still draws most of its water for irrigation and public consumption.  One 
of the places where dew falls more plentifully on clear, humid nights is 
on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  This meteorological phenomenon provides 
another important source of moisture for the vegetation on these mountain 
slopes.

The metaphors refer, of course, to the life-giving blessings of Yahweh 
(vs. 4).  They vividly portray the pilgrims’ praise on approaching the 
sacred temple precincts.


ISAIAH 56:1,6-8   [Alternate]  This hymn celebrates a spirit of 
universalism, one of the main themes of Israel’s unknown prophet of the 
Babylonian Exile whose works form Isaiah 40-55.  Not only Israel but 
people of all nations will be welcome to worship in God’s rebuilt temple 
in Jerusalem.

In many respects, the suggestion that non-Jews would be acceptable in the 
courts of the temple was anathema to strict orthodoxy.  The Second Temple 
built by Zerubbabel among the ruins of Jerusalem after the return form 
exile could not have been a very elaborate structure as was Herod’s 
reconstruction of it.  Although exact archeological and literary evidence 
is lacking, it would appear to have had separate courts as did it later 
successor.  The purpose of the courts was to prevent everyone but male 
members of the covenant community from approaching the Holy of Holies.  In 
this way, the vision of Isaiah 56 was therefore denied.  No Gentile could 
approach the inner temple closer than the outermost court.

The great travesty of Jewish religious sentiment occurred when in 167 BCE 
Antiochus IV surnamed Epiphanes violated the temple, set up an altar to 
the Greek god Zeus over the altar of burnt offering and forced Jews to 
take part in the festivities on pain of death.  The rebellion of 
Mattathias and the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty enabled the 
rededication of the temple in what is now celebrated in Judaism as the 
Feast of Hanukkah.  

The vision of the ancient site of temple as the place for universal 
worship of the one true God remains undiminished although not yet 
fulfilled.  Moslems regard it as equally sacred as the Jews.  Over the 
centuries since Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven from the 
site, have built two of their most sacred mosques where Herod’s temple 
once stood.  Because of its association with Jesus, Christians also regard 
it as a holy site and frequently join with Jews in prayer at the West 
Wall, the only part of that structure remaining.  


PSALM 67   [Alternate] This short psalm also celebrates the hope that all 
peoples will worship Israel’s God and receive God’s full blessing.


ROMANS 11:1-2a,29-32   We read this segment of Paul’s diatribe as 
Christians; a Jew would read it from a very different point of view.  Jews 
then did not and now do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah/Christ.  Yet 
Paul could never have rejected the historical faith of every Israelite 
that the Jews were God’s chosen and covenanted people.  Rather, he cast 
this conviction in the mold of a virtual double predestination (vss. 2a, 
28b, 32).  

However difficult it may be for us to recognize how a loving God could 
condemn everyone so that God’s grace and mercy might be extended to all 
through election, that is what Paul seems to be saying in this passage.  
This avoids the problem cited in vs. 1 as to whether or not God has 
rejected Israel.  For Paul, such a rejection would be impossible as long 
as there is a remnant of Israel “in Christ” (i.e. accepting the gospel and 
thus being part of the *ecclesia*, the church).  Thus, those who have been 
called and have responded to the gospel in faith have become not only the 
remnant of Israel who were God’s elect in ancient times, but the new 
Israel God has now created in Christ.  Sadly, he relegates those who have 
not so responded to the category of “enemies of God” (vs. 28).  They are 
still the elect, because the gifts of such a calling are irrevocable 
(vs.29); but they are disobedient to their call (vs. 30).  

Paul’s argument moves on to complete his discussion of the Jews’ 
disobedience.  He separates “the sheep from the goats,” as it were, the 
obedient from the disobedient.  He concludes that God’s purpose in doing 
so was that God’s mercy might be shown to those who are in Christ (vs. 
31).  Does this not blame God for the disobedience of Israel? Is this what 
double predestination really means? God predestined Israel to disobedience 
so that he might then elect all those who have now responded to the 
gospel? 

Nowhere in this passage does Paul use the word *predestination,* although 
that may well be what he is implying.  Or is he no more than fixing a 
place for the Jews in God’s plan of salvation? Remember what has gone 
before in this letter: all humanity have sinned; all will be saved by 
grace through faith.  Despite every advantage the moral law of the 
covenant gave them, the Jews had failed in their moral obligations.  So 
they were now, like everyone else, wholly dependent on the grace of God 
for their salvation.  As William Barclay has commented: “The whole process 
was designed to show that neither Jew nor Gentile could ever be saved 
apart from the mercy of God.” (*Daily Bible Study: The Letter to the 
Romans*, Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1957, 164.)

However ambiguous this may appear to us, it does clarify Paul’s absolute 
conviction that God is in sovereign control over history, past, present 
and future.  Barclay’s poetic words are noteworthy: “There was nothing 
which moved with aimless feet.  Not even the most heartbreaking event or 
series of events was outside the will and purpose of God.  Events can 
never run amok.  The purposes of God can never be frustrated.  It is told 
that a child stood at the window on a night when the winds were raging on 
the face of the earth, and when the gale was terrifying in its savage 
velocity.  ‘God,’ she said, ‘must have lost grip on the winds tonight.’ To 
Paul, that was precisely what never happened.  Things and men, and 
processes and nations were never out of control, as he saw it.  Everything 
was serving the purpose of God.  ...  He would have insisted that in it, 
and through it all, God’s purpose was a purpose of salvation, not a 
purpose of destruction.” (ibid., 165)


MATTHEW 15:(10-20),21-28   At first reading these two pericopes appear to 
us to have no  relation; but they must have had for Matthew.  In vss. 10-
20 he gives us Jesus’ attitude to the strict interpretation of the 
Holiness Code found in Leviticus.  The Pharisees of Jesus’ time held that 
whatever rules of ritual cleansing were good for the priests (Lev.  22:1-
16) were also applicable to lay people who earnestly kept the covenant 
laws.  For them, the Levitical code was designed to make all Israel a holy 
people.  Jesus did not cast the whole law aside, but only sought to make 
it subservient to human need.  The rules of ritual cleanliness must give 
way if they served only to inhibit the meeting of real human need and 
genuine moral obligation.  This included application of the law to all 
aspects of human relations.

The sayings of Jesus quoted in vss. 11, 13 and 14 may come from an early 
source since they also appear almost verbatim in the sayings gospel known 
in its 2d century Coptic translation of a Greek original known as the 
Gospel of Thomas.  Vs. 14 also appears in Luke 6:39 and is presumed to 
come from the hypothetical tradition known as Q.  No sooner had Jesus said 
these things in Matthew’s account, however, than he faced an actual 
situation which called for real life practice of them in relation to a 
foreign woman.  

The district of Tyre and Sidon was Canaanite territory on the 
Mediterranean coast to the north and west of Galilee.  The citizens were a 
greatly mixed people who may still have had some Canaanite blood, but also 
well diluted by infusions of Syrian and Phoenician elements.  They were 
Gentiles, of course, and thoroughly hellenized since the time of Alexander 
the Great.  The designation of a Canaanite woman in vs. 22 was a typically 
Jewish term of reproach and disparagement, as is the troubling reference 
by Jesus to dogs in vs. 26.  Troubling as such words may be coming from 
Jesus’ mouth, Jews did speak of their Gentile and pagan neighbors in such 
terms.  Matthew undoubtedly used the quotation for dramatic effect.  His 
obvious intent was not to categorize the woman or her ancestry, but to 
sharpen the contrast and to show how Jesus changed his mind with regard to 
this woman’s need.  

Matthew wrote from a Jewish point of view for a predominantly Jewish 
audience, but also for Jews who met in the church fellowship with many 
Gentiles and sat with them in the agape meals preceding the Eucharist.  
This story would have special meaning to such an audience.

Many scholars have proposed that the provenance of the gospel was actually 
in Antioch, Damascus, or some other Syrian city with a mixed population 
very much like this particular situation.  The impact of the story to such 
a congregation would be nothing short of astonishing.  In effect, Matthew 
here opened the door of freedom to both Jews and Gentiles in the same way 
that Peter’s dream at Joppa and Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road had 
done.

Jesus’ comment on the woman’s faith requires special note.  She obviously 
saw in this “son of David,” a synonym for a Jew, someone with a special 
gift for healing.  Three times she addressed him as “Lord,” but is this 
Matthew’s designation emphasizing the sovereignty of Christ?  As 
Christians, we may think so; but did the Syro-Phoenician woman?  Is it not 
possible for people outside our tradition to have faith, “saving” faith - 
Moslem faith, Hindu faith, Jewish faith, even Buddhist faith, although 
Buddhists are not theists as those other traditions?

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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