An Alternative to Revenge

Posted: August 16, 2017 in Uncategorized

An Alternative to Revenge

Genesis 45: 1-15,   Matthew 15: 21-28

Over the last two weeks we have been following the story of Joseph and we have been focusing on the blessing that comes after the struggle, and the consequences of the blessing being communal, collective and systemic in nature. We are all interconnected and so our blessing affects others and ultimately changes the world. Today we revisit the story reminding ourselves that his story speaks of hatred, kidnapping, plots to commit murder, being sold into slavery… In reminding ourselves we are not surprised that with all these things happening to somebody, that it would be logical in most cases to see an opportunity for an act of vengeance against those responsible for causing one’s problems. In Genesis 45, Joseph is finally in a position where he could get revenge on his brothers for everything they have done to him…. The position is that they urgently need Joseph, but Joseph certainly does not need them! The Pharaoh’s dream of famine has become a reality and, thanks to Joseph’s interpretation of this dream, Egypt has an abundance of grain. But rather than seize this golden opportunity to take revenge on his brothers, Joseph, instead, chooses to provide for them and their families in their time of need.

Despite having been treated like dirt and subjected to a catalogue of pain and suffering, Joseph chooses to receive his brothers, embrace them and forgive them. Here in Genesis 45, we are presented with the culmination of Joseph’s rags to riches story as well as a powerful example of forgiveness. We also read of how God used the despicable actions of Joseph’s brothers to pave a way for Joseph’s involvement in the birth of the nation of Israel. If we read on to Genesis 50, we learn that Joseph understands now that his brothers’ actions were ‘intended to harm him, but God intended it for good to accomplish what then being done, the saving of many lives’ (Gen 50:20).

Today we also read from Matthew where we learn of what has been called, The Scandal of the Gospels, “The Pharisees and the Canaanite Woman,” Some lectionaries give the option of including the story of the Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees before his encounter with the Canaanite woman. In that story Jesus says offensive things to the Pharisees, too, but we don’t generally blink an eye at that anymore. For Jesus’ original audience it would have been the other way around: they would have been very uncomfortable with the offensive things Jesus said to the Pharisees, and they wouldn’t have blinked an eye at what he said to the Canaanite woman. The thing is that when we read these two stories together we find quite a contrast: The Pharisees are offended; the Canaanite woman is not offended. The stark contrast is revelatory, for the opposite of offense is faith, but the only way to faith is through the possibility of offense…. The central issue is offense versus faith. And it is posed in a highly offensive way: pious and law-abiding Pharisees lack faith, and a Gentile dog has great faith. What Jesus said to John the Baptist’s disciples in Matthew 11:6 broods over this narrative as a kind of suspended challenge to the characters in the text and to readers of the text: ‘Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ (p. 19)

To gauge the seriousness of this we note that Matthew uses the same word ‘Skandalon’ or as we have said “offense” 19 out of all occurrences with a heavy concentration of it in the middle section. Brian D McLaren in a section from his book ‘Everything Must Change, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope’ makes a similar suggestion. In the section ‘A Radical Assessment of Jesus and the chapter entitled ‘Joining the Peace Insurgency’ he brings in this troubling story of Jesus and the “Canaanite” woman, to undertake the postmodern task of recovering the anti-imperialist readings of the Bible. He begins this piece by saying that, we are in the early stages of a radical reassessment of Jesus. More and more of us realize how religious communities can be complicit with imperial narratives and edit their version of Jesus to fit their narrative. Just look at the colour of Jesus skin in most western images. More and more of us understand Jesus’ life and message as being centered on the articulation and demonstration of a radically different framing story. Most of us now believe that the Jesus story is one that critiques and exposes the imperial narrative as dangerous to itself and others. One could even say that the popularity of facebook and all social media are examples of an attack on empire. More and more of us are discovering a fresh vision of a Jesus who seems less moody, irrational, and bipolar, and more consistent, focused, courageous, subversive, and brilliant. Along with the knowing less about him historically comes the more detail of his message.

Obviously, in this emerging reading phrases like “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), : “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), and “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) are deeply significant. But in this alternative reading, many other stories of Jesus take on a powerful new luminosity as well, charged with mystery and wonder and dynamism in stark contrast to imperial narratives and counternarratives. It is no longer good enough to accept the simple ideologically driven narrative. We know more keenly that life is not like that. It is complex and fluid and subject to perception at the time.

A prime example would be Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28), which has been read provocatively by Grant LeMarquand. (pp. 154-55) where he says that the key to seeing that Matthew might be doing something different here is that he changes Mark’s “Syro-Phoenician” woman to a “Canaanite” woman, which is an anachronistic term in the first century, like calling a modern Norwegian person a Viking. But “Canaanite” fits well to the time of Joshua and his conquest of the Promised Land.

Is Matthew’s Jesus reconstituting that conquest? McLaren has an engaging reading of 15:21-28 itself, but the overall clue as to reconstituting conquest appears through what comes next in Matthew’s story of Jesus: healing of Gentile crowds (Matthew tells us they are Gentiles by remarking that “they praised the God of Israel”; Matt. 15:31) and then a repeat of the miraculous feeding. In the first feeding with Jews (14:13-21), there is a hint of reconstitution by the gathering of twelve baskets leftover, for the twelve tribes of Israel.

In the second feeding with Gentiles (15:32-38), there are seven baskets leftover. If we look for a similar symbolism of reconstitution, we might look to the time of the “Canaanites.” As the people of Israel stand poised for conquest of that land, Moses says to them: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you — and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)


In the first encounter with the seven nations of “Canaanites,” they are to show no mercy. But Matthew’s Jesus has come to teach them something different, to learn what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (with Matthew’s Jesus twice quoting Hosea 6:6 in Matt. 9:13 and 12:7). McLaren concludes: “If Jesus’ first feeding miracle and its twelve-basket surplus suggest a reconstitution of the twelve tribes being led through the wilderness with a new kind of manna, then this second feeding miracle suggests a new kind of conquest — not with swords and spears, but with bread and fish; not to destroy, but to serve and heal. Here, Jesus seizes the old narrative, shakes it, turns it inside out, and offers a new story that reframes a future radically different from the past. (p. 158)

This reconstituting relationships with Gentiles begins with the encounter with the “Canaanite” woman, who seems to remind Jesus of what the promise to Abraham and Sarah is really all about. She doesn’t begrudge Jesus the fact of his mission with his own people who have lost their way (Jesus himself calling them “lost sheep”). But she knows that if he is successful with his own people in helping them to find their way again, that she will at least receive scraps from their table. For the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and Sarah is not for Jews to be blessed for their own sake but that they might become a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3). One might also see this as the suggestion by McLaren that the task is to move beyond believing the faith as a way to the afterlife and move to practicing the faith in ways that make a difference in the here and now.

We might also note here is that the Matthew 15 Jesus is reconstituting Joshua’s conquest of Canaan with healing and food for the hungry instead of militaristic genocide. Jesus and Joshua are the same name, the latter translated into English directly from the original Hebrew and the former filtered through the Greek translation. In short, Matthew 15 is a contrast between the conquering styles of these two Joshua’s. Grammatically, it is said we can see this reading as the subjective reading of the genitive where Jesus is the conqueror. But there is also the objective reading where Jesus is the conquered. In fact, it may be that it is not just the woman who is converted, but Jesus himself. In the midst of his testing of this woman, Jesus’ attitude appears to shift. She is at first a non-entity; she is ignored. Next she is addressed, but Jesus’ words to her are simply an explanation of her exclusion (‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ 15:24). Finally, Jesus hears the faith behind her plea, grants her request, and heals her daughter (15:28). It appears that Jesus has been turned; he has been confronted with and has learned the meaning of his own teaching concerning ‘mercy’ The story of the Canaanite woman is a story of Jesus’ own “conversion.” In this narrative the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite.

Is this an either/or? Do we have to choose between a Jesus who knowingly goes into Gentile land as a different kind of conqueror than the Joshua of roughly fourteen centuries earlier, thus playing games with Canaanite woman whom he foreknows to have faith? Or is the choice a Jesus who is taught a lesson by this Canaanite woman and then puts it to use right away in Gentile territory? Or is there a third choice that is not about reading it as either active or passive, as inflicting violence or suffering violence, but rather about actively choosing to suffer violence rather than inflict it, (as in ‘turning the other cheek’).

“The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus” isn’t simply between Jesus as either the conqueror or the conquered. The distinctive third option would be both: Jesus is first and foremost a conqueror by purposefully letting himself be ‘conquered’. So, yes, Jesus does enter into the conversation foreknowing that this woman’s faith is up to the test. But instead of flaunting this foreknowledge, or intuition, he lets himself look like an abuser. He lets the tables be turned so that, in an act of faith (not violence), “the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite,”. The ultimate turning of the tables — a “subversion from within,” is to subvert the entire process of conquering by letting oneself be conquered. And, as with the cross and resurrection, this conquering immediately shows itself as the power to heal and nourish in the subsequent episodes of Matthew 15 — namely, the power of God’s merciful love.

What happens here is that our experience of God is reconstituted. Instead of a god who shows no mercy through the first Joshua, we meet a God of mercy through a new Joshua, who shows forth that mercy, first of all, through the willingness to suffer violence rather than inflict it, and then, second of all, as the true power of life itself, rather than of death — namely, through the power to heal the sick and nourish a crowd.

Matthew’s version of this story makes a confession: Our ancestors, led by Moses and Joshua, believed God sent them into the world in conquest, to show no mercy to their enemies, to defeat and kill them. But now, following Christ, we hear God giving us a higher mission. Now we believe God sends us into the world in compassion, to show mercy, to heal, to feed, to nurture and protect life rather than take it.

Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past, and it is still all too common in the present. How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent? We must not defend those stories or give them the final word. Nor can we cover them up, hiding them like a loaded gun in a drawer that can be found and used to harm. Instead, we must expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us toward a better vision of kindness, reconciliation, and peace for our future and for our children’s future.

Matthew’s calling the woman a Canaanite was an anachronism that recalled Israel’s historical relationship with this people, in much the same way that calling a contemporary Danish woman a Viking would invoke ten centuries of history for us. Jesus would have grown up absorbing his people’s tradition that the Canaanites were the worst of enemies, enemies to be exterminated by the likes of Joshua, enemies who were periodic oppressors of Israel in the period of the Judges. Worst of all, Canaanites were dangerous because they tempted the Israelites to forsake their God in favor of their idols and sacrificial practices. Mark gave the woman the more up-to-date designation of a Syrophoenician. This meant she was a member of the oppressing class of the Roman Empire, which made victims of the Jews. Starting from early childhood, Jesus would have taken in this adversarial relationship before he knew what had possessed him. With this cultural inheritance, it is understandable, if not commendable, that Jesus would speak harshly to a Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman who came to him for help. Many commentators try to get out of this difficulty by suggesting that Jesus was just testing the woman. That is possible but I would like to follow up the ramifications of accepting the plain sense of this story.

The Canaanite woman’s retort is justly famous for its cleverness and humility, qualities that make her words subversive. Jesus seems as amazed by her faith as he is by the faith of the centurion who asked him to heal his servant. (Mt. 8:10) That the woman asked for the deliverance of a daughter possessed by a demon may have aroused Jesus’ sympathy. The Gerasene Demoniac had shown Jesus how a dysfunctional culture can possess a person and need to be exorcized. That this woman wanted her daughter delivered of the demon possessing her own culture would alert Jesus of the need to eject the demon of hatred of the Canaanites that had possessed his own culture. This understanding of the story has Jesus modeling the ability and willingness to overcome an ancestral enmity by listening deeply to the reality of a person in need so that she ceases to be an enemy. We desperately need to learn to follow this kind of example offered by Jesus today. Especially it seems when we perceive that we are on the brink of a third world war. What is all this violence if not the attempt to impose empire on one another. Is there not another way? Amen.


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