August 14, 2017
Matthew 15: (10-20) 21-28
Author: Scott Hoezee
Years ago F.F. Bruce published a book titled The Hard Sayings of Jesus. That title prompted a friend of mine to comment, “Hard sayings? I didn’t know there were any easy ones!”
But, of course, it is true that some of what Jesus had to say was easier to puzzle out than some other things. Jesus was prone to uttering some powerfully surprising things, and perhaps nowhere more so than right here in Matthew 15. Preachers and theologians can get into swift trouble when it comes to parsing Jesus’ encounter with this Canaanite woman. The whole incident is only eight verses long, but it takes far more space even to begin addressing the issues raised here.
In recent times various scholarly articles have been published that have suggested that this is a rare (and, for some, a wonderful) story that clearly depicts how a woman actually became Jesus’ teacher. Jesus had been carrying around in his head some incomplete assumptions about who should, or should not, receive his ministry. So this lowly Canaanite woman challenged Jesus, called him on the carpet, and then, amazingly enough, Jesus changed his mind.
In many churches, such a claim could be a bit blood-warming and the cause of considerable theological nervousness. Was Jesus capable of really learning something new? Or did being divine make Jesus immune to any real learning? When Jesus was in Kindergarten, did he only pretend to learn his ABCs for the sake of his teacher (when really he already knew every language in the world)? Could he ever really have been startled or surprised? We’ve all had those times when we’ve been so lost in thought that when suddenly the phone rings or someone taps you on the shoulder, you about jump out of your skin! Could that ever happen to Jesus? Or did he always know ahead of time when someone was going to knock on the front door or quietly come up from behind?
These are sticky questions. And, of course, we should admit that it’s one thing to wonder about whether Jesus really did learn math when he was in school, and it’s one thing to ponder whether or not a loud noise could ever make him jump. But it is quite another matter to wonder whether Jesus could have learned a new thing related to something as vital as the very scope of his own ministry. Yet Matthew 15 foists this issue before us.
Verse 21 tells us that Jesus, for some unexplained reason, wandered into the area of Tyre and Sidon. To most of Matthew’s original readers, that was the equivalent of saying that Jesus had now entered Paganland. He was outside of any recognizably religious area and had entered a kind of spiritual slum, a veritable ghetto of unbelief. This was the kind of place “good” folks did not visit. The disciples were probably nervous being there. To their provincial minds, trotting around Tyre and Sidon made them feel similar to how most of us would feel if we found ourselves in a dark alley in the inner-city around 2am on a Friday night: namely, they were quite uneasy!
And it didn’t take long before their worst fears are realized. Suddenly a crazy woman (a crazy Canaanite woman) runs up, screaming at the top of her lungs about her demon-possessed daughter. Unwittingly, she probably played right into every stereotype the disciples harbored. She was shrill, overly direct, presumptuous, and her family had a problem with a demon. “Well, don’t they all!” Peter no doubt thought to himself.
Jesus himself said zip, which probably made the disciples assume he was thinking the same thing they were: how can we get out of this highly uncomfortable situation?! Since Jesus’ silence gave the disciples an opening, they say to Jesus, “Let’s ditch this woman now! Her screaming is driving us crazy.” And Jesus then says, either just to himself or to the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
In the ears of the disciples, that was the equivalent of Jesus’ saying, “I agree! Let’s get rid of her because when it comes to our ministry, this woman doesn’t count.” We don’t know whether or not she heard Jesus say that. Even if she did, it did not deter her in the least. Instead she assumes a posture of worship (the Greek verb for “kneeling” used in verse 25 is the typical word in the Bible for worship), and she then again begs Jesus to help her.
And that’s when Jesus says it. In the previous chapter Jesus fed bread to 5,000 people. Immediately following this story he will do something similar, feeding bread to 4,000 people. Jesus is the bread of life. His ministry is a kind of extended heavenly feeding. This woman is asking for a place at the table, but Jesus, chillingly, relegates her to the floor of life. “It’s not right to toss perfectly good bread meant to feed children to dogs.”
Jesus calls her a dog. It’s a kind of slur, an epithet, and the disciples no doubt approved.
The woman does not protest her spiritual canine status but instead actually plays on the image once again to press her point. “OK, so I’m a dog, but even they get crumbs and leftovers from the master’s table, don’t they!?” Jesus then expresses what appears to be surprise. “Woman, you have great faith! You’re right, and so your request is granted.” And it was. The daughter was released from her demon at that very moment, Matthew says.
However, that is all Matthew says. Tantalizingly enough, there is no follow-up of any kind here. There is no commentary from Matthew, no subsequent discussion between Jesus and the disciples as to why Jesus gave in after all, no hint as to why Jesus acted the way he did. At first Jesus pretended like he didn’t even see the woman. In fact, this is the only time in all the gospels when Jesus ignored someone’s cry. Then he claimed this woman was outside the scope of his concern. Finally, Jesus went further still by saying that the reason she was outside the scope of his ministry was because she was a lowlife, a dog.
But despite all that, Jesus in the end approves of this same woman. But we have no clue as to the whys and wherefores of any of it! Was Jesus at first merely toying with her (and
the disciples), purposely playing into prejudices as a prelude to undermining those same prejudices? (This is a real possibility in that part of Matthew’s purpose in writing this Gospel was to help Israel re-appropriate the tradition, which usually meant rolling back old stereotypes and prejudices against outsiders.) Or did Jesus really think at first that it was God’s will that he limit himself to Israel? Both options raise questions.
Is it possible that this encounter did help Jesus to widen his own perspective (as some commentators and preachers suggest)? And was Jesus, as God’s only Son, capable of ever harboring attitudes that were not just erroneous but actually sinful? It is very important to make some distinctions here.
It is no sin to make an honest mistake, no sin to get startled, and no sin to be unaware of something. So if Jesus really did think at some point that he was supposed to limit himself to Israel, that was no sin. Maybe part of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human was that he had the genuine ability to learn, that he willingly allowed limitations to be placed on his own knowledge even as, for the time he was on this earth, he allowed himself to be limited to being in just one place at a time (instead of being everywhere at once as is normally the case with God).
We know for sure that by becoming human, God’s Son introduced possibilities into his existence that had not been there before, chief among which was the possibility of suffering and, finally, even of dying. Jesus shared our sinful situation without himself being sinful. That was true in terms of his vulnerability to suffering, and perhaps it was true also in terms of his ability to learn through experience the same as we all do in life.
But as interesting as all of that may be, the real lesson of this incident–the main reason why Matthew made sure to record this story in the first place–is to challenge all of us in the church to imitate Jesus in being willing to extend the gospel to all people, starting with the ones who, for whatever the reason, we may initially deem beyond the pale.
Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner allows that Jesus maybe really did learn something through this Canaanite woman, but what is vital to see is that Jesus’ heart did not change from stingy to loving. Jesus was always loving. It was more a matter of priorities that got shuffled around. Matthew wants us to see that even though we may think we know exactly what (and who) needs to come first in our ministries, the main thing is to remain open to the people God sends our way. We, too, may think that when it comes to “first things first,” taking care of in-house folks has a higher profile than reaching out to the community. But if we, like the Lord Jesus, are going to be open to God’s Spirit, then we need to be willing to change everything if that’s what it takes to be loving toward everyone we meet.
To Jewish ears, the very word “Canaanite” smacked of all that was hostile to Israel, all that they (since the days of Joshua) were supposed to root out and steer clear of if they were to be faithful to God. But here even a Canaanite becomes a beloved character in a story about the Messiah. Certainly for us, and maybe even for Jesus, she becomes an instrument of teaching by reminding us that in the end, the love of God needs to be available to all people.
Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner points out that in the Greek of this pericope, after verse 21 Jesus’ name does not occur until verse 28. Until then, Jesus is referred to only as “he” or “him.” He said . . . . He answered. But then in verse 28, when he extends love to this woman, suddenly the text says again, “Then Jesus answered.” It’s almost as if Matthew is saying that when the words of love and inclusion come into this story, that’s Jesus talking! Now we are hearing from the true Lord Jesus Christ! Maybe at first Jesus had been mouthing the conventional wisdom of his day–and maybe at first even he thought his ministry needed to fit into that somehow–but when the woman’s faith is approved of and healing is granted to her daughter, that’s finally Jesus talking for sure!
Some years ago when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who became Pope Benedict XVI ignited a firestorm of discussion when he issued the declaration Dominus Iesus or “The Lord Jesus.” This document, which received the endorsement of Pope John Paul II, re-affirmed the doctrine that salvation comes only through Jesus. That central thesis did not receive much press, however. Instead, the section which grabbed the attention of so many was the part which dealt with the Church. If only Jesus saves, where can you meet this Savior? Jesus is encountered through the Church, which proclaims the gospel. But to the great disgruntlement of many, Ratzinger refused to call any group outside Roman Catholicism a “church,” opting instead to call non-Catholic denominations only “ecclesial communities.”
There’s just one true Church, Ratzinger claimed, and it’s the one headed up by the pope in Rome. Other groups of Christians “are not Churches in the proper sense.” The closer you are to Rome and to the “fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church,” the closer you are to the true Body of Christ. The farther you are from all things Roman Catholic, the farther you are from being in any sense a “church.”
Well, this angered many people, including a good many Roman Catholics. My guess is that its sets a lot of people off. No one who attends the “First Baptist Church” of Wichita wants to be told that the name has to be changed to “First Baptist Ecclesial Community” of Wichita on account of not being a true church after all!
Insiders and outsiders. Who’s in, who’s out? Unhappily, it is religion that has long been associated with making such distinctions. Historically, religious distinctions have led to a tragic amount of conflict. Catholics versus Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims versus Christians in the Crusades, Christians versus Jews in the Inquisition–on and on the list goes. Lines get drawn, in the name of God walls are built up ever higher, and as a result the idea that religion is mostly about love gets ever more difficult for some people to believe.
Genesis 45: 1-15
Author: Doug Bratt
God always makes the dreams God gives God’s adopted sons and daughters come true. Sometimes, however, it takes so long for that to happen that it seems that the dream, if not the dreamers, dies.
As Genesis 45 opens, God has partially fulfilled Joseph’s dreams by putting him in charge of both Egypt and his family. Our text, however, brings Joseph’s dream to its basic conclusion.
It also finally reveals what has seemed largely hidden in Joseph’s life. In that way our text reminds some of us of the end of Frederick Buechner’s wonderful book, The Alphabet of Grace. In it he compares human life to the Hebrew language. Written modern Hebrew words, after all, contain consonants but no vowels.
So words are spelled just BRK, GDL and BNJMN in ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. Those who read Hebrew, however, know just what vowels to slide in between those consonants to make sense of those words. So, for example, they read BRK as Barak, GDL as gadol and BNJMN as Benjamin.
Beuchner says that in a similar way hard truths get wedged together in our lives. So life doesn’t always make sense, even to the godliest of people. Yet the Holy Spirit graciously inserts “vowels” into our lives’ at just the right points. It helps make at least some sense of the hard things that God’s people experience. In a literal sense, life doesn’t always sound right. God, however, Beuchner suggests, often supplies what’s missing.
The life of Jacob’s family has been, since Joseph’s disappearance into the Palestinian dust, much like a Hebrew word without vowels. It has seemed hard and often pointless. Jacob’s family needs God to supply the gracious vowels that make its life at least a bit easier to understand.
As our text’s Joseph stands in front of his brothers and his servants, he can no longer hold either his tongue or emotions. Yet when he chases his servants out of the room, we can only imagine how wild those brothers’ imaginations must run. What will this unpredictable tyrant do now that he’s finally alone with them?
However, Joseph so shocks his brothers that they could never even have begun to imagine it. After all, when he’s finally alone with them, he reveals his true identity. “I am Joseph,” the Egyptian prince wails. “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt.”
Joseph?!?! That spoiled little brat with the outrageous robe and even more outrageous dreams? The teenager whom his brothers had once hated enough to sell him to some traveling salesmen? The one about whom they felt so guilty that they assumed God was punishing them for their earlier treachery toward him?
Thousands of years later Jesus’ disciples will betray and abandon him in a way that leads to his death. So the risen Jesus’ subsequent appearance to them terrifies them. Is it any wonder, then, that Joseph’s revelation also terrifies his brothers? After all, while they’d betrayed and abandoned him, they’d assumed they’d never have to deal with him again.
That’s part of the reason why Joseph’s revelation seems to freeze and mute his brothers. They’re probably terrified that their powerful brother will take revenge for the brutal way they’ve treated him. We imagine they’re petrified that any life he now builds will rest on the fault line that is their past mistreatment of him.
Joseph’s response to his frightened brothers, however, doesn’t rest on the cracked foundation of brokenness. Joseph, of course, says nothing explicit about forgiveness or reconciliation. He does, however, verbally plant himself squarely back in his family that tried so hard to rip him out.
After all, when Joseph announces himself to his brothers, he doesn’t use his Egyptian name. Instead, probably for the first time in many years, he uses his Hebrew name, “Joseph,” which means, “the one added by God.” After all, God has added Joseph again to his family.
All along Genesis has never even implied that Joseph realized that all the bad things people did to him were part of some divine plan. In its chapter 45, however, God supplies the vowels that make some sense of the string of consonants that Joseph’s life has been. Joseph now recognizes God’s gracious hand in his misery.
Yet Joseph’s moving speech also redefines everyone else’s plight. He does what he can to remove his brothers’ guilty fear. Joseph turns his father’s mourning into dancing. He also becomes far tenderer with his brothers whom he has emotionally and physically battered.
After all, Joseph finally recognizes that God has been vigorously at work in and with a lot of human treachery. So while we can’t declare people like Joseph’s brothers or Potiphar’s wife innocent, we can recognize the tenacity of God’s plan for Israel. Human treachery hasn’t been able to thwart God’s longing for life for Jacob’s family.
Joseph once dreamed that he would be his family’s “ruler.” Now he is “father,” “ruler” and “lord,” not just of his family, but also of a whole empire. Yet Joseph realizes that no one but God could have planned or receive credit for it. Three times, after all, he insists that God, not his malicious brothers, sent him on ahead to Egypt to save lives. What’s more, Joseph also insists that God, not Pharaoh, made him ruler of all Egypt.
We preach and teach in a culture that claims people are responsible and should receive credit for all that happens. We’re part of a society has constructed a kind of closed universe in which everything has a material cause. God’s work in Joseph’s life, however, reminds God’s people that we always have to also somehow take our unseen God into account. God, after all, always fulfills God’s plans through but also often in spite of and against human plans.
Yet while God always graciously does God’s work, Joseph’s story reminds us that God often does it precisely in the context of human choice. Jacob’s sons choose their respective plans and do their respective work. Potiphar, Pharaoh and even Joseph also choose, plan and work. Yet in the end God works in, through and sometimes despite their work to bring life.
God’s purposes and plans, after all, remain finally sovereign. So while God’s children may question them, we can’t finally change them. While human actions may seem to delay it, God’s plan still somehow works in and through them. God even uses the dark side of human action and planning to carry out God’s will.
However, Genesis 45 also reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters that darkness sometimes seems to almost obscure God’s plans for life. So much threatens the lives of first Joseph, then the rest of his family. In fact, God’s purposes are so hidden that virtually no member of Jacob’s family even seems to have a clue about them until near the very end. Yet now Joseph and his brothers realize that the Lord has been faithfully and tenaciously at work all along.
After all, at the heart of both this and Joseph’s whole story is God’s remarkable providence. We can hardly see God’s ways as we read much of this incredible saga. God, after all, doesn’t generally reveal God’s work in Joseph’s life through decisive verbs or dramatic interventions. Yet God’s ways remain completely pivotal.
In Isaiah 14:24-27, God asserts, “Surely, as I have planned, so it will be. And as I have purposed, so it will stand.” In other words, not even human treachery can frustrate God’s purpose. After all, God also almost defiantly insists, “the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?”
God had a plan to give life to Joseph, Jacob and their family. Yet while many people conspired to thwart that plan, God providentially used even their treacherous conspiracies to fulfill God’s plans and purposes.
Neither Joseph who describes it, nor his brothers who hear about nor even God’s people who profess it can claim to understand such divine providence. It is, as Walter Brueggemann, to whom I’m indebted for many ideas for this sermon starter, notes, not for full comprehension, but for praise and profession. After all, God’s ways remain decidedly higher than our ways and God’s thoughts remain higher than our thoughts.
Yet God’s sovereignty doesn’t permit either Joseph or us to be lazy or resigned. God’s plans nearly always involve human action. So the Egyptian prince who now knows God sent him to Egypt to give life vigorously responds to promote life. He issues commands that “hurry back” and “quickly” characterize. After all, while starvation has shoved Joseph’s family to the brink of annihilation, now it has access to Egypt’s prosperity.
And when elderly and still grieving Jacob learns about all of this, the news initially seems to him to be too incredibly good to be true. At first he can’t believe that the reality of death has become the possibility of life. Yet while our text’s original language suggests that the news gives him a heart attack, God revives Jacob as he grasps the news.
Jacob once believed that Joseph would carry forward God’s promise of life. We suspect that when he thought Joseph had died, he wondered how God would ever carry that out. Now, however, Jacob speaks as one to whom God has kept his promise. He knows that his family has a future. “I’m convinced!” Jacob almost seems to joyfully shout at the end of our text.
Genesis 45 invites its preachers, teachers and those who listen to us to share the complete joy of this patriarch for whom the future is now open again. We join Jacob in a doxology of praise to God, because the Lord always raises all those who fall and lifts up those who are bowed down.
God’s hidden, determined work doesn’t just assure that the Pharaoh will give Jacob’s family food. It also brings joy and life to a once hopeless father, as well as to those who read this story in faith. For God has graciously provided the vowels that finally make sense of not just Jacob, but also his whole family’s life.
In her book, Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor, who whose life and writings were very familiar with misery, says, “We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.”
Author: Stan Mast
This tiny, jewel-like Psalm is perfectly suited to our times. Its wise words about the blessings of unity need to be heard and believed and practiced. But even the best preacher will struggle with this little nugget, for two reasons. First, our world is so divided that even the most eloquent sermon will sound like a kitten mewing in a hurricane. The divisions in the world have so fractured the church that you will probably be preaching to folks who literally can’t hear you.
I think of the man with whom I played golf this week. He was apoplectic about the way his grandson has been “polluted” by the liberal faculty of a Christian college; they have turned his grandson into a Democrat. “How can a Christian be a Democrat? They support abortion and same sex marriage.” That rant made me think of a dear friend who cannot fathom how Christians can be blasé about issues like immigration. “Don’t those blankety blank Republicans know that the Bible is full of calls to justice?” she screams. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity.” Fat chance.
The second reason you may struggle with a sermon on this Psalm is that its words are so hard to interpret. What does Psalm 133 mean by “brothers?” And what’s this business about oil and dew, Aaron and Hermon? And what’s the referent of “there” in verse 3. And what is this vaunted ”unity?” I’ve never seen so much diversity of opinion about the meaning of words as I’ve found in my research on this little jewel.
Most of all, this Psalm is difficult because of the claim it seems to make, namely, that unity among brothers (and sisters) is the key to enjoying God’s blessing, even life forevermore. Notwithstanding the impossibility of achieving unity in this world, that claim seems out of touch with what the rest of Scripture says about what it takes to enjoy God’s blessing. Is unity really the key to God’s blessing, as the Psalm seems to claim? What about faith or obedience? If unity is as central as Psalm 133 seems to say, then it will be well worth our time and effort to wrestle with and preach on this Psalm.
Let’s begin by parsing the words of verse 1. “How good and pleasant…” sounds innocuous enough. Unity is a nice thing, though not a necessary thing. Is that the sense here? Not really. Though “pleasant” sounds merely aesthetic, the word “good” is the Hebrew word tov, which is used again and again in Genesis 1. “And God saw what he had made, and it was good.” It suggests perfection, probably of a moral sort. Unity not only makes the world a lovelier place, but it also enables the world to regain the goodness for which God created it. Unity is essential to God’s original design for the world.
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers….” Is this a reference to unity in our nuclear families? Psalm 133 is a Song of Ascent, and there many references to such families scattered through these Psalms (cf. 122:18, 127:3-5, 128:3,6, 131:2). As families made their pilgrimage up to Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals, it is not hard to imagine that the family unit got fractured by the strain of the journey. (I vividly remember my brother and I squabbling on long vacation drives and my father threatening to “turn this car around and go home,” or, worse, to let us off on the side of the road.) So the call to unity issued in Psalm 133 makes abundant sense. Another of the RCL readings for today is the story of Joseph being united with his miserable brothers who had sold him into slavery (Genesis 45:1-15). You could make a whole sermon around such a theme of unity in the nuclear family, and it would be helpful.
But I think it is more likely that Psalm 133 is addressed to the Family of God on pilgrimage from all over the Promised Land, headed up to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple where they came into the presence of God. It’s not about family life, first of all, but about pilgrimage and worship and being in the presence of God as the family that was chosen out of all the nations on earth. Indeed, some scholars believe that Psalm 133 was penned by David at a time of national re-union. II Samuel 5:1-3 tells such a story. After years of internecine conflict, all Israel comes together at Hebron to officially recognize David as God’s anointed King. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers (all the tribes, all the combatants) live together in unity.”
What constitutes unity? That will be the question on the minds of your partisan congregation. Does it mean uniformity, where everyone thinks exactly the same on every issue? Or does it mean harmony, where people get along even though they have different ideas? Is everyone in the church supposed to think the same ideas, or are we supposed to united in faith, hope, and love. Is this a call to have one voice, or a call to be a choir singing different parts in harmony?
The latter seems not only more feasible, but also more biblical. Think of Paul’s insistence that the church is the Body of Christ with many members, a multiplicity of gifts, a variety of ministries, a mystical union composed of male and female, rich and poor, black and white, Jew and Gentile, and every other type of difference you can imagine. That such a diverse people could be united is the miracle of the church.
But the miracle doesn’t always (or even often) happen. Thus, it is the important to preach on Psalm 133. The images that follow in verse 2 are designed to highlight the blessing that comes to God’s people when they are united in their journey into God’s presence. Such unity is “like the precious oil poured on the head, running down the beard, running down Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” Undoubtedly a reference to the anointing of Aaron and his line into their priestly duties in the earliest days of Israel’s national existence, this simile focuses on sanctification. The oil of Aaron’s anointing saturated all the hairs on his beard and even ran down onto his clothing as a sign that he was totally consecrated to holy service (footnotes in NIV Study Bible). Similarly, brotherly harmony in Israel’s pilgrimage and worship sanctifies God’s people to God’s service. That is, without such unity, we cannot serve God as we should.
Further, when God’s people are united it is “as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.” The reference is lost on us, but even the most secular of modern day Israelis know what this means. Hermon is the highest mountain within view of Israel, looming nearly 7,500 feet above sea level far to the north of the Promised Land. It captures moisture like no other geographical feature in that area. Indeed, it is snow covered most of the year; its ski resort is known around the Middle East. In an arid region, its “dew” is crucial, feeding the headwaters of the Jordan River and making Galilee green. Mount Zion is in the middle of dry Palestine.
Thus, when God’s people are united in walk and worship, it’s like the waters of Hermon falling on Zion, making that desert place as fertile and fruitful as the region around Hermon. Unity not only makes God’s people fit for service; it also makes them fruitful in all their endeavors. Even more powerfully, harmony among God’s people is the key to God’s blessings on his creation.
These two similes point to God’s blessing in redemption (through the priestly ministrations at the sanctuary God’s redemptive mercies flow to Israel) and creation (through heaven’s dew on the fields God’s providential mercy flowed in creation’s bounty). When God’s people live in unity, God’s blessings flow upon Israel, both creational and redemptive blessing, not only physical life through creation resources, but also “life forevermore” through redemptive mercy. If verse 1 makes unity sound nice, verses 2 and 3 make it sound necessary to earthly and eternal life.
But can that be? That sounds so, well, exaggerated. Can the unity of the church possibly loom that large in this world and the next? Some scholars say, “No, that’s a misreading of this text.” When verse 3 says that God bestows his blessing “there,” that is a reference to Zion, just mentioned in the previous phrase. God bestows his blessing on Zion where his temple is located, where he is present in a special, redemptive way.
That interpretation makes sense, but it ignores the emphasis on unity in the rest of the Psalm. Perhaps the best interpretation is that God bestows his blessing when God’s people are united as they gather and serve in God’s presence. It’s not that geographical place in the Promised Land that is the focus on God’s blessing, but any and every place where his people are united in faith, hope and love to worship God and serve his world.
And, indeed, the rest of the Bible, especially the New Testament, emphasizes the importance of unity in God’s plan for this world. It was sin that introduced the divisions that now dominate the human scene. It will be grace that restores that unity. “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (Ephesians 1:9,10)
God has already begun his grand re-unification project in the church. “For he (Christ) himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two….” (Ephesians 2:14-15) The unity of the church is absolutely crucial to God’s plan to bring his shattered creation back together into the Shalom that reigned before sin came into the world.
So, it’s no wonder that Jesus prayed as he did just before his death. “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20, 21) The success of God’s mission depends on the unity of the church.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that our unity can save the world. Only Christ can do that. And only Christ can unite the church. Only through his grace and Holy Spirit can we overcome the divisions produced in the Body of Christ by sin, Satan and a splintered humanity. But we must try. No, we must trust the Word of the Lord here in Psalm 133. God’s blessings on his world depend on the unity of the church. So, we must get over ourselves with our cherished opinions, our firm convictions, our self-centered bickering, even when we’re sure we’re right because the Bible backs us up.
Here’s how Paul put it in Philippians 2:1-7. “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others.” In a divided world like ours, how can we possibly do that? “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in appearance as a man….”
“How good and pleasant,” indeed. How Christ-like to set aside ourselves for the sake of the unity of the Body, and the salvation of the world.
The clearest illustration of the unity spoken of in Psalm 133 was seen in the earliest days of the Christian church, according to Acts 2:44-47. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” And, listen to this fulfillment of Psalm 133 and John 17 in response to their unity. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Alas, this unity continued only a little while. It was broken when self-centeredness reared its ugly head in the greedy lying of Ananias and Sapphira and the bickering of the ethnically divided widows (Acts 5 and 6).
Romans 11: 1-2a, 25-32
Author: Scott Hoezee
If you have read my posts here on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website somewhat regularly over the years, then you know I am frequently a bit flummoxed at the text choices made by the folks who oversee the Revised Common Lectionary. Sometimes, though, when they skip over a chunk of a passage, you can sniff out the reason pretty readily. Often they skip over harsher words of Jesus, verses that traffic in darker themes of judgment and such. Other times it’s harder to puzzle out why they chopped up a given text the way they did.
But this reading from Romans 11 is a real doozy in this regard. We get a verse-and-a-half from the opening words of the chapter and then four more from near the end (but not the very doxological end) of this same chapter. One stops you mid-sentence and the other picks up mid-sentence. Even taken together, they do not quite get at the tortured drama of this final chapter in Paul’s three-chapter wondering about what will happen to God’s chosen people Israel now that they have rejected God’s Messiah.
So I don’t get this particular slicing and dicing of the text and I will leave it to my fellow preachers for how you might want to expand the passage as seems right to you.
In any event, this is the climax of Romans 9-11 and Paul’s deeply anguished puzzlement as to what will happen to the Jews if they cannot and will not acknowledge that the Messiah has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul has tried to look at the conundrum from every conceivable angle and has, along the way and also in this chapter, parsed a variety of possible explanations both for what happened and what may yet happen in God’s good grace.
In this chapter Paul wonders if the inflow of Gentiles who have made common cause with former Jews like Paul who embrace Jesus as Lord might be some long-term strategy on God’s part to stir up a kind of holy jealousy among the Jews. What if God’s extending salvation to all kinds of people—people who had from time immemorial been way outside the bounds of the covenant—what if this is a divine tactic to generate conversation and consternation? And what if the discussions among the Jews that might ensue as a result of this actually led some people to examine this whole Jesus thing more thoroughly and what if THAT in turn led to conversion? Could be! Maybe! Here’s hoping!
Along the way, however, Paul has some admonitions for the Gentiles in Rome to whom he is writing. It seems as though Paul wants to say “Don’t be smug now! By the kindness of God’s grace you wild olive shoots have been grafted onto the one true vine. But if for now it seems that Jewish branches have been cut off, don’t be unconcerned about that and for SURE don’t think your in-grafting is on account of your own merit or something. Oh no! Here’s what you Gentile Christians need to think instead: pray to Almighty God that the same kindness that got extended to you will somehow, some way, someday get extended BACK to the Jewish branches too!”
Like I said, Paul tries to cover every possible aspect of all this. It makes for some hard reading in Romans 9-11. It also makes Paul look like a bit of a crazy man at times. He seems very nearly to be ranting and raving here and there. But as noted in a previous sermon starter across this Year A Lectionary stretch when we have dipped into Romans 9, 10, and now 11, Paul’s agonized passion here is something we can all emulate. We should want all people to be saved—including those who rejected and helped crucify God’s Christ—and it should be about as upsetting to us as it was to Paul to ponder those who are not saved, starting with God’s covenant people who trace their ancestry back to Abraham.
But in this particular chapter—again, in verses the Lectionary would have you ignore—there is also a lesson in spiritual humility to learn. If we are believers, then at the bright center of our lives is that kindness of God of which Paul speaks. The Greek word is chrestotes and it is the same word for “kindness” included in Paul’s Galatians 5 list of the Fruit of the Spirit. Paul uses it elsewhere, too, including the landmark “saved by grace” passage in Ephesians 2 in which Paul again locates the source of grace in the “kindness” God has shown toward us.
Mostly in our lives we view kindness as a kind of soft virtue. Someone brings over a plate of cookies to cheer us up after some disappointment at work and we say “Thank you, that’s very kind of you.” Kindness is softy, fuzzy, and nice. It is not usually thought of as a strength. That is why in the rough-and-tumble places of life where hard decisions get made or where the machinations of politics are at work, we don’t think we want kind people but tough people, hardened people, decisive people. No politician would seek high office by coming up with a bumper sticker that said “Vote for Jones Because He’s Kind.” Probably “Make America Kind Again” would not strike most people as terribly robust either!
Yet Paul sees kindness as a fierce strength of God. Kindness is the spring from which saving grace flows into our hearts. Kindness is a disposition of God—that as a Fruit of the Spirit we are to imitate—that makes him prone to reach out to lost sinners such as we all otherwise would be. Yes, Paul also writes here, there can be a severity to God, too, and at the moment, Paul sees the Jews on the receiving end of that severity. But there is little doubting which of the two Paul sees as being the core driving force for God: it’s kindness. Kindness has already won the day and maybe, maybe, maybe even for Paul’s Jewish sisters and brothers it will finally win the day for them too. But for the rest of us: don’t forget that kindness has saved you. Let that set the tone for the rest of your life.
The Lectionary has us stop just short of it but these three chapters end in a doxology that praises the mysteries of God’s mind and his inscrutable ways. Yes, those mysteries and that inscrutability have been what was torturing Paul as he engages in these long ponderings about the fate of Israel. But in the end Paul flips the script and turns those things that can make us a little crazy into something that can make us very joyful after all.
That’s the response of someone who, at bottom, trusts and loves God. No, we may not puzzle it all out but we do trust that God will do right by and by. He just has to. He just will. God is finally too kind to let us believe anything else.
For some reason Romans 11 and its words about God as at once kind and severe put me in mind of the wizard Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Gandalf was often a bit of mystery to the Hobbits who revered him. He could be at turns deeply kind and mirthful and yet sometimes apparently rather severe and curt. Yet in the end the Hobbits learned a deeper truth about Gandalf: he was fundamentally kind and good and if at times there was a severity about him, it did not last long and even this was somehow rooted in Gandalf’s bottom line desire to see everyone flourishing. He was severe about what blocked delight and goodness but it was his basic kindness and love that drove everything he did.