If I had asked you last week to tell me everything you know about Ferguson, Missouri, my guess is your answer would have been similar to mine. . . Uh. . . It’s in Missouri. . . And that’s about it. But today: today most of us can probably tell someone what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. It has been all over the papers, the TV, and the internet.
In case you did miss it somehow – this week an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white police officer in the middle of the street in a suburb of St. Louis. Michael Brown was unarmed and was said by witnesses to be backing away from officer with his hands in the air in submission.
As the week progressed, protesters gathered in the streets of Brown’s neighborhood. In attempts to end the protesting, the local police used full riot gear, rubber bullets, and tear gas on the crowds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this turned what started as peaceful marches into full on riots. Late in the week, the state police took over and the situation seemed to be settling down, but as of yesterday evening, things were looking pretty bad again and the governor declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew on the town.
It is difficult to know how to deal with news like this. Many of us have children and grandchildren who have surely heard about this news and are asking questions. There are many reports and articles trying to make sense of every aspect of what happened to turn a suburban neighborhood into a warzone. Everywhere we turn, someone has an opinion on what happened why and who is to blame.
Even though the headlines about Michael Brown are brand new, stories of violence born from misunderstanding, stereotypes, power imbalance, and cultural gaps are old news. They are as old as the hills, as a glance back at the story of Joseph will show us.
We enter Genesis 45 today near the climax of Joseph’s story. We’ve missed the very beginning. It all started when Joseph’s older brothers thought he was a spoiled brat. He was favored because his mother was their father’s favored wife and the brothers did not handle that well. I think most older siblings at some point think their younger sibling is a spoiled brat. That’s been one of the new accusations made by one of my children about another lately and I know I surely accused my own sister of the same thing as a child.
I recently read a hilarious article on the terrible things that older siblings do to younger siblings. I was in tears laughing by the end of it. It was called, “21 signs you were a typically terrible older sibling.” It included gems like, “You made carefully designed wagers with them that they could never win.” “You hid more than a few gross items in or around their bed.” And “You convinced them they were from another planet and that you were just letting them stay with you until the mothership returned.” The best part about the article was that my little sister is the one who sent me the link because so many of the items were nearly word for word things I did to her. . . including the one about the mothership. I’m pretty sure my version involved her being an android, but it was the same basic sentiment.
A bit of sibling rivalry and practical joking is normal and my sister and I are pretty well behaved with one another these days. But Joseph’s older brothers had taken “terrible older sibling” to a whole new level when they sold him into slavery and told their father he’d been eaten by a wild animal. Imagine their surprise and sudden terror when years later, they traveled from their famine struck home to Egypt in search of food and found out the guy they had to talk with to get supplies was none other than Joseph! It had been so long they didn’t even recognize him until he told them who he was.
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. Years ago, your brothers violently assaulted you, tossed you in a pit, and sent you off with slave traders. After all these years – so long ago and far away that they don’t even recognize their own brother standing before them – here they are in front of you begging for mercy. I don’t know that many people would have faulted Joseph for telling them to get out. Most people would say that turnabout is fair play and it serves them right to starve after what they did to Joseph. When he finally tells them who he is, they know they are up a creek. Even they wouldn’t blame him for sending them away empty handed.
But Joseph doesn’t send them away empty handed. He doesn’t let them starve. He weeps. I love the last line of that passage, “And then his brothers talked with him.” It’s an oddly simple and slightly wooden statement after all that drama, but it tells us that then the drama ended. It was awkward, but they were a family again.
There are two versions of the story of the Canaanite women. In Mark, she’s called Syrophoenecian. It doesn’t actually make a big difference in the story which ethnicity you ascribe the woman, though. Matthew and Mark are both making the same point – nobody liked her. She was from a ethnic group that did not get along well with the Jewish people of the time. Matthew’s use of the Canaanite ethnicity is interesting, though. It offers a glimmer of something good in the woman. In Jesus’ own family line there were a few good Canaanite women – Ruth, Tamar, Rahab.
Clearly, the disciples did not see a glimmer in her, though. Here is a mother begging for healing for her child and the disciples tell Jesus to send her away. Send her away!? How could they be so heartless, regardless of who she was?
This is where we’d normally expect Jesus to scold the disciples or say something kind to the woman to make them feel ashamed of themselves for being nasty or missing the point. And Jesus does address the woman. . . he refers to her as a dog. It was a common term for gentiles and it was not a nice thing to say.
Dogs in Jesus’ Palestine were not adorable little housepets. They were more like the street dogs you see in many less developed parts of the world. They were mangy, stinky, disregarded animals that were generally kept around only because they were pretty good at cleaning up the floor. And it’s exactly that point that the woman comes back with. Even the dirty, yucky dogs scavenging under the table have scraps to scavenge.
Some commentaries say that this is a learning moment for Jesus or that he doesn’t really think about the racial slur he uses because it’s so common. Some say the woman essentially caught him in a bad mood – an off day. This passage can really get you down some rabbit holes of theology of the divinity and the humanity of Jesus.
I don’t usually like to fill up my sermons with Greek and Hebrew word studies, even though I love both Greek and Hebrew. You may have noticed this about me, but I’m a bit of a story teller. But this story requires some Greek study in order to get a full picture of what Jesus is up to here, so bear with me for a minute. The Greek for dog is Kunarion and is the root for the word, “cynic.” At the time, “cynic” did not mean the same thing as it does today. Today when we call someone a cynic, we are generally commenting on their somewhat pessimistic or skeptical view. In the Greco-Roman world, however, cynics were a group with a specific philosophy on culture. They were known for not having much regard for common social order and were given their collective name because they were rude and gross and dog-like. They were people who bucked the social order.
While the cynics as a group were a bit extreme, there is no doubt that this unwanted woman was bucking the social order to approach Jesus with her request. In the first place, she was a woman and for a woman at that time to approach a man she didn’t know. . . a rabbi, no less . . . was ludicrous. And she was from a despised ethnic group as well. No wonder the disciples were so wound up! She was really, really rude! The cheek!
Jesus knows what the disciples think of her. They have made that abundantly clear. She’s a gentile dog. Jesus acknowledges that yes, his mission right now is to the Jews. But then Jesus sets up an interesting analogy based, complete with a play on words. He’s picturing a family meal and he says to her, “You little cynic!” The woman, totally unperturbed by Jesus’ response fires right back that even the dogs deserve something to eat.
And this despised, rules-breaking woman was given her miracle. Her daughter was healed because she wasn’t afraid to step over the cultural barriers around her. Her daughter was healed because Jesus didn’t just see a gentile dog – he saw a mother pleading relentlessly for her child.
There is a video out there on the internet in which a biracial German woman talks to participants at racist demonstrations – she even travels to the US to talk to participants at a KKK rally. My initial thought at the beginning of this video was that she’s lost her marbles entirely. It really sounds like a terribly bad idea. But when she approaches folks at the first rally, they react in a surprising way. Nobody tries to hurt her. Nobody slings their nasty racial slurs in her face. Many of the people demonstrating can even look her in the face when she asks them, “Can you tell me what you’re demonstrating about today?” Even at the KKK rally, the responses to her are surprisingly calm and are clearly uncomfortably avoiding the topic of race. By the end of the video, the woman is talking with a man in the deep south of the US. This man is honest about his opinions, but you can still see the confusion in his face when confronted in such a plain manner by this woman’s genuine curiosity about why he thinks she’s some sort of lesser person because of her mixed racial heritage. At the end of their conversation, he has visibly softened and even offers her a hug. Although he does say about the hug, “I hope nobody ever sees this. I’ll never live it down.”
You see, when confronted with the very person they were so dead set against for whatever their reason was, each of these people had to face the fact that we are all human. Joseph’s brothers were awful to him. And they were still his family. The Canaanite woman was from a nation that had a brutal and violent history with Israel. And she was still a human being.
I challenge you this week to think about the people around you. Not just around you like family, friends, or coworkers, but the people you might just walk past or not think of. Who is the Canaanite woman in your world? Who are the brothers who surely deserve to be sent away with nothing? We are all the Canaanite woman sometimes. We are all the brothers sometimes. And we are all given opportunities to reach out to others when they are the Canaanite woman or the jealous brothers.
Today we have the joy of celebrating a baptism. Baptism is a celebration of unity, of Jesus’ mark on our lives, of our Christian community and faith. Baptism is where we say, God is doing something, planning something in this child’s life and we promise to participate in that something. It’s a time to celebrate not just what God is doing in this one little life, but to celebrate what God has done in each of our lives and to celebrate unity over difference and love over hate and indifference.
So today is the perfect time to remember that in spite of any differences, in spite of cultural boundaries, in spite of the past . . . through Jesus we are given unity, a way to step over those cultural boundaries, and we are given healing and forgiveness for the past. We are given a new start – a clean slate. Washed clean by the waters of baptism.