Genesis 43-45, Psalm 15, Matthew 15
Genesis 43 – 45
Can literature get any better than this? The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most beautifully written stories in the Bible and in all of literature as well. We discover within it echoes of our own family’s behavior and inter-workings.
My grandmother used to speak regularly to each of her daughters-in-law about the three sons of belonging to her other daughter-in-law. She would praise them and rave about how well their mother was raising them, while rarely if ever mentioning the sons of the daughter-in-law with whom she was speaking or saying kind words about their mother.
Hence, each daughter-in-law thought that the other daughter-in-law and her sons were her favorites. Both daughters-in-law resented this, until one day they compared notes and realized that this was their mother-in-law’s pattern of behavior, a pattern which she was probably completely unaware of doing.
Favoritism in families can have a crippling effect. The unequal distribution of money or possessions, words or praise, time spent with one person as opposed to another, who you spend the holidays visiting or even whom you first relay important news to first in the family can all convey a sense of favoritism.
Throughout the stories of the Patriarchs we see episodes unfolding that convey favoritism. As we read them, we are wise to make a deliberate effort not to emulate this kind of behavior in our own lives lest we inadvertently hurt those closest to us.
In today’s readings we see Joseph mirroring his father’s proclivity for playing favorites. When Joseph’s brothers return to Egypt in the second year of the famine seeking to purchase additional grain and food supplies, Joseph entertains his brothers. But playing favorites, he insures that Benjamin, his only full brother, receives five times the portion of food as is provided to each of his half-brothers. (Gen. 43:34)
Later, when Joseph sends his brothers back to the land of Canaan to collect their father and bring him to Egypt, Joseph provides Benjamin with 300 pieces of silver, 15 times the amount that Joseph’s brothers earned for selling him as a slave to the Ishmaelites, and five sets of garments. Clearly, Joseph, like his father, plays favorites. (Gen. 45:22)
When our first daughter was born, I was immediately enamored with her. She became my universe. When we were expecting our second daughter, I became fearful whether there was enough room in my heart to love another child. Would I have to love our firstborn less in order to have love remaining to love our second-born? It might sound crazy, but this is what occurs within the human heart.
Every parent knows the challenges of avoiding playing favorites with their children. Some do a better job than others of carrying this out. When Bible stories such as the saga of Joseph and his brothers help us to reflect upon our behavior and whether or not we are treating our children and grandchildren impartially, then God can speak through these stories and help us lead better lives.
Favoritism is not, however, the only learned behavior that Joseph models. Like his crafty father, Joseph is cunning. He commands his steward to place his silver cup in the sack of food belonging to his brother Benjamin. He then ordered his steward, “Go, follow after the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you returned evil for good? Why have you stolen my silver cup? Is it not from this that my lord drinks? Does he not indeed use it for divination? You have done wrong in doing this.” (Gen. 44:4-5)
Over and over again, God attempts to help us lead “righteous” lives through engaging God’s Word. The Hebrew word righteous literally means to live in a right relationship, which is the healthiest and happiest way to live one’s life.
The transformation of Judah in this story is worth noting. Judah was Leah’s fourth-born son. As fourth-born, Judah did not have a significant role to play in the family such as his eldest brother Rueben. Nevertheless, Judah emerged as a leader. Earlier in the story, Judah is the one who devises selling Joseph as a slave rather than killing him outright. “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood,” Judah asks. “Come, let us sell him to the Ismaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Gen. 37:26-27) Here we see a sense of compassion mixed perhaps with a desire for financial gain. Judah is complex like each of us.
In today’s reading, we find a more mature Judah, who tells his father, “I myself will be surety for him (Benjamin); you can hold me accountable for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever.” (Gen. 43:9) Judah has become a man who steps forward and takes responsibility.
Later, Judah pleads with Joseph to allow him to return Benjamin to his father. Judah offers Joseph to hold himself as a slave in Egypt in order than his youngest brother may return to their father. “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.” (Gen. 44:34) This was not the case many years before when Judah and his brothers were content to deceive their father into believing that Joseph had been killed by wild beasts. Again, we see the transformation of an individual growing wiser and walking more faithfully before God.
The most powerful passage, however, is found in Gen. 45:3, where Joseph utters one of the great lines of the Bible, “I am Joseph,” as he discloses himself to his brothers. His identity is now revealed. The eyes of his brothers are opened and tears are shed. Joseph acts swiftly to insure that his family will be cared for and notes, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (Gen. 45:7-8)
Here we see a man who can not only overcame anger and the desire for seeking revenge upon those who hurt him, but we witness a display of mercy and see the hand at God at work even in the midst of treachery and betrayal. Can we mirror this in our own lives? Can review the adversities that we have faced and the pains inflicted upon us and find the hand of God at work in these to bring about good?
There are many who believe that nothing occurs by accident. Everything is orchestrated by God. I do not personally believe this, for if I did, then I would have to believe that God orchestrates a school bus overturning and killing children or a tsunami sweeping away thousands of lives. I do not believe that ever orchestrates this. But what the Bible clearly reveals to us is that God can work through illness, tragedy and even the most malevolent of human behavior and bring about good.
God can take the worst of what we can inflict upon one another and transform it into something good. If you have been hurt in a profound way, do not hesitate to ask God to transform your pain and suffering into something that gives live and hope to others, even those who inflicted suffering and pain upon you.
The psalmist wonders, who may dwell in the tent of the Lord? He answers that:
Those who live blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart:
who do not slander with the tongue,
nor take up a reproach against their brothers. (Ps. 15:2-3)
While living “blamelessly” is beyond all of us because we are fallible creatures, the other aspects of these verses are attainable. Then the psalmist adds, “in whose eyes the wicked are despised…” This is something that we must question.
Despising those who do not do what we believe God asks all of us to do led to the intolerant behavior that the Pharisees and scribes displayed towards Jesus, which we will read about in Matthew 15. It is a pitfall common to all religious believers to see themselves as righteous while despising those who act differently. There is no room in the Christian heart to despise, for despising cannot co-exist with love.
In chapter 15, the Pharisees and scribes traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee to question Jesus about the moral behavior of his disciples. While usually portrayed as a man of infinite patience and politeness, Jesus clearly did not suffer fools gladly. He responded, “You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesized rightly about you when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Matt. 15:7-9) His disciples gently warn him that this is not the way to earn friends and win supporters, but Jesus remains steadfast in how he will relate to those whom he believes have greatly distorted religion.
Jesus then instructs the crowd that, “…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matt. 15:11) The great thing about Jesus’ teaching is that it is eternal. Generation after generation discovers that what he taught is invaluable and true.
Yet, what the Church and what religious believers, whether Jewish or Christian, have done with the teachings found in the Bible must always be reevaluated. Clearly, the Pharisees and scribes were spiritually misguided to focus too much upon eating unclean foods.
This focus exists in all three Abrahamic faiths, but especially in Judaism and Islam, where certain foods are deemed unclean and specific instructions concerning how to prepare foods is seen as critical for carrying out the faith. These are at best wallpaper in the house of living faith. What is more crucial is to take care with the words that we utter to one another, which Jesus notes come “out of the heart.”
It is what proceeds from the heart and not what enters the mouth that should concern us. “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander,” notes Jesus. “These are what defile a person…,” he adds. (Matt. 15:19-20)
People living in the ancient Near East viewed the human body in different ways than we do today. Their understanding of biology and anatomy was far different from ours today. They believed that the “heart” functioned in the way that we now know the brain to function. Hence, they believed that the human heart, not the brain, is where decisions are made. The ancient Jews believed that the heart was the “thinking organ” and the “seat of decision-making.”
Despite noting that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” or to the Jews, Jesus wanders into Gentile territory and enters Tyre and Sidon, places where no respectable Jew would travel. A Canaanite woman saw him and shouted at him to heal her daughter, who was tormented by a demon.
Perturbed by her shouting, the disciples encouraged Jesus to send her away. Jesus notifies her that Gentiles like her daughter are not part of his mission. “Lord, help me,” she pleads, acknowledging him as her Lord and Savior. Struck by her faith, Jesus changes his comportment and heals her daughter instantly.
What can we glean from this? Even religious leaders need those around them to guide them to do the right thing and to expand their mission. We are all too apt to limit what God is calling us to do. We need one another to challenge us to remove our blinders and see the unlimited field of love that God longs for us to share.
Early in my ministry at my church, I declined assist a family and officiate at a funeral for a man, who called me shortly after his wife had died in the hospital. He was from an old Philadelphia family, and I sensed that he simply felt entitled. He neither belonged to our church nor supported it financially. He was wealthy, and it turns out that his grandparents had been benefactors of our church.
I offered to get him assistance from another priest, as I was overwhelmed with other commitments. What I failed to do was graciously offer to help him in his hour of need. I was struck that he came to me at the last moment with no warning and no acknowledgement that he was not a member, but would have appreciated being aided nonetheless.
Had I to do it all over again, I would do whatever I could to help him and would be far more gracious and supportive. People rarely forget what we do for them in their hour of greatest need, but they always remember if we have failed them. We all need to expand the circle in which we think that we are called by God to serve.
Immediately, after expanding his circle of love, Jesus returned to Galilee, where he climbed a mountain and a great crowd came to him bringing “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others.” (Matt. 15:30) Jesus healed them all. I doubt he stopped to ask any of those who suffered whether or not they were attending the synagogue or paying the Temple tax. He merely met their deepest need with an outpouring of love and grace.
Matthew drives home the point that Jesus is expanding his ministry beyond the Jews by telling the story of the feeding of the four thousand, which mirrors the feeding of the five thousand, but with important differences. The feeding of the five thousand, which occurred in Matthew 14:15-21 is believed to have occurred in the spring. The feeding of the five thousand is believed to have occurred in the summer, which the grass is now scorched and no longer green.
Most important, Mark’s Gospel (Mark 7:31) informs us that the second major feeding of the multitudes took place in the Decapolis, which was a confederation of ten Greek cities on the east of the Sea of Galilee. This was a heavily Gentile area. Matthew’s first readers would have recognized that Jesus is now traveling where no Jew would normally travel and doing things that no Jew would normally do, namely he is feeding and eating with Gentiles, in order to expand the circle of love.
Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mount that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. (Matt. 15:10-11)
For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile. (Matt. 15:19-20)
When you come to a verse in Scripture that truly speaks to you, pause and mull it over like a cow chewing her cud. You may choose to reread it several times or just let it run through your head and heart. Then offer a prayer to God based on what you had read and how it makes you feel or what it makes you think. Then sit quietly and listen for a few moments to see if God speaks in that still quiet voice within you offering you guidance.
This method of reading Scripture is called lectio divina or sacred reading and you can learn more about it on our website at: www.thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org or by searching the internet or reading: Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures by M. Basil Pennington, or Sacred Reading: the Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey or Praying the Bible: an Introduction to Lectio Divina by Mariano Magrassi.
Do you find yourself speaking words to others that you regret? How can you be more careful with what you say? What is it in your heart and mind that you feel and think that gives birth to these words that pour forth? It is not enough to close our mouths. We must dismantle our inner anger to speak with greater love.
Gracious God, the world invites us to focus on the exterior of life – the beauty of our home, our car or our body, but you constantly look within us and seek to reveal to us that it is from the inside that the things which matter most come forth. Help us to pay closer attention to that which lies deep within us and to nurture our inner life so that what comes forth might be a blessing to all those around us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie