Love Wins -- A Lectionary Reflection
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Not long ago there was a great disturbance in the Christian community. It began when the trailer for a new book by Rob Bell was released. A debate arose as to whether the author was an unversalist. After all, he did raise the question – how do we know for sure that Gandhi is in hell. There were those who bid him farewell from their ecclesial ranks, while others embraced him for the first time. It’s likely that partisans on both sides of the debate misread the book, but the debate did raise an important issue. What is the nature of God’s love? Is it exclusive and conditional is it inclusive and unconditional? For much of Christian history, perhaps of human history, our theological voices have assumed some form of exclusivity, and we have hoped that we are on the inside of the circle and not on the outside. Another reason for our embrace of exclusivity, or a sense of chosenness, is that it gives us a sense of superiority over the other. In other words, “my God’s bigger and better than your God.” But, what if in the end God’s love wins? What if God sends the rains on the just and the unjust and seeks to reconcile all, so that everyone may share in the bounty and abundance that is God’s?
In different ways, these three very intriguing lectionary texts wrestle with these questions. In Genesis, we read of Joseph’s family reunion with the very brothers who sold him into slavery. He has the power to bless them or withhold blessings, so what will he do? Then in Romans 11, we find Paul reflecting on the “fate” of his own people, the Jews. Has God thrown them aside in favor of the church, because they haven’t responded as favorably to Jesus as Paul would like? Or will God draw them into God’s realm anyway, because the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable? Finally, we have one of those texts that upset our picture of Jesus. We want to envision Jesus as loving and welcoming, and yet we have this text where Jesus encounters a Gentile woman and is anything but kind and welcoming. But in the midst of all three texts we’re asked – does love win?
As I almost always do, I begin with the reading from the Hebrew Bible. I’ve been following the Genesis text as much as possible in these reflections, and today we land on the story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. In an earlier chapter, the brothers, perhaps out of jealousy, decide to kill their younger brother, but upon further reflection decide that selling him into slavery would be more profitable, and in their minds more humane. If you continue reading the story, Joseph makes out pretty well, though not without a few scrapes. His ability to interpret dreams and manage households and then nations lead to his rise in political power. Now, after having interpreted Pharaoh’s dream concerning the seven years of abundance and then seven years of famine, he has tasked with over overseeing the gathering of grain and then subsequent distribution of that grain. If only President Obama had such a dreamer in his cabinet! It’s in this context that Jacob, the one who had lost a favored son and faces starvation for his family, decides to send his sons to Egypt to obtain grain. Ten of the eleven remaining brothers go on the trip, with only the youngest, Benjamin, staying behind. When Joseph spots his brothers he is overjoyed, but decides to make them jump through a few hoops, including making them go and get Benjamin, before he reveals himself. Throughout this ordeal the brothers have no idea that it is Joseph who holds their fate in his hands. So, when Joseph finally reveals his identity to them, they pull back in fear and guilt. But Joseph welcomes them and forgives them. Don’t worry, he tells them, for God has sent me here to save lives. What you meant for evil, God has used for the good of all.
There is a way of reading this passage that makes God into the puppet master, the one who determines every step. But, there is another way of seeing this, one that is perhaps more faithful to the meaning of the text, and if I might borrow from Process Theology as a prism to read the text, we can see God as one who draws out, through persuasion, our participation in creating something good, even if it means adapting to what was meant for evil. So, here is Joseph, having been made father over Pharaoh and master over Egypt, living out a role that God has prepared for him, so that he might be the bearer of salvation – of Egypt and of his own family, from whom he had been estranged. The blessing that would come with reconciliation would be the opportunity to live in Goshen, close to Joseph. And as we see in his response to his brother Benjamin, with whom he shared a mother, God is faithful and loving and merciful. Yes, love wins!
In Romans 9-11 Paul wrestles with the status of his own people, the Jewish people, in relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is an important question that has vexed the church for millennia – where do the Jews fit in the realm of God? Is the church the new Israel, replacing the old Israel in the covenant of God? We use the word supersessionism to describe this perspective. That has been a predominant view, but Paul appears to go in a different direction. He makes it clear that God hasn’t rejected the Jewish people, because “the gifts of calling of God are irrevocable.” Once you’re a member of the family, you’re always a member of the family. Even if, as the brothers of Joseph had done, you reject one of your own, that doesn’t lead to your rejection. What it might lead to is blessings for others, outside the family. Yes, Paul may have been frustrated with the “disobedience” of his brothers and sisters in the Jewish community, but in the end he believed that God’s covenant love would win out. In his mind, the covenant of God is unconditional. If it was otherwise then we wouldn’t have confidence in God’s love. It is clear that for Paul, God is not fickle, and in that we can all take solace. Since Paul is writing to Gentile Christians, who may have begun seeing themselves as better than the Jews, Paul offers a reminder that these people remain God’s people. But that reminder should be a welcome one, because it reminds us that God’s love is steadfast, and that God is concerned about the welfare of every person. With this promise in mind we can turn to the final sentence, where Paul states that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (vs. 32). The word about imprisonment should give us pause, for it seems to suggest that God is responsible for our disobedience, but the emphasis needs to be placed on the concluding phrase where we’re told that God will be merciful to all. We may all stand in disobedience, that is, we’re all in this together, but even as God is faithful to this irrevocable covenant with Israel, so God will show mercy to all. Is this a universalist statement? That is a good question. It could simply mean that God will show mercy to those whom God foreknew, a group that isn’t completely defined by this text. But, if we all share in disobedience, can it not be that we all share in this mercy of God? Is this not a reminder that, as Paul noted earlier, nothing can separate us from the love of God? (Rom. 8:39). I find the reflections of Kyle Felder in Feasting on the Word helpful. Reflecting on Karl Barth’s suggestion that Christ is the elect one, the one whom God foreknew, and the one who has been “rejected for our sakes,” he writes: “So Paul ends where began, with the fact that nothing can separate us (and hopefully anyone else) from the love of God” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, p. 354).
As I noted earlier this reading from the gospel, in which Jesus is confronted by the pleas for help from the Canaanite/Cyrophoenician woman, is a bit startling. Jesus is, in the minds of so many of us, the one who welcomes all into his presence (except maybe self-righteous religious leaders), but here we find him first ignoring the pleas of this woman whose daughter is apparently possessed by demons, and then when he finally addresses her, Jesus tells her that he’s only sent to the lost children of Israel. There is in this attitude a real sense of exclusivism. God knows who is in and obviously this woman isn’t on the list.
The woman, however, keeps after him. She won’t let up, and even as the disciples urge Jesus to send her away, he decides to engage her in conversation. But again, this isn’t the loving and welcoming Jesus we all know and love. This is a rather nasty and bigoted Jesus, or so it seems. Why should he attend to her needs, for it’s not appropriate to give the children’s food to the dogs? Does this sound like the Jesus we know and love? How do we account for this Jesus who calls this woman (and the people she represents) dogs? Remember that in this culture dogs aren’t the beloved pets they are in our culture. This is as insulting as one could get. But the woman remains persistent and even accepts Jesus’ description of her, if it will get his attention. She says to him, don’t even the dogs get to share in the crumbs from the table? Could she not at least have a few crumbs for her daughter? What could Jesus say then? How could he push her aside, for there was no answer to her question? And so, Jesus says to her: what faith you have, “let it be done for you as you wish.” At that moment the girl is healed. Some have suggested that this encounter is a conversionary moment – not on the part of the woman, but on the part of Jesus. It is in this encounter that the kingdom vision of Jesus expands beyond the Jewish community to embrace the whole of creation. That may be difficult solution for some to embrace, for how could Jesus need to be converted? But however we answer the question as to why Jesus responded to the woman in this way; it does seem that Jesus has embraced the message of mercy and reconciliation that is present in the Genesis text and in Romans 11. That is, it seems that since mercy has been shown to one who seemed outside the bounds of divine mercy, the door must be open to all and that all are welcome.
Yes, it seems that love does win!