Proper 15, Year A
Have mercy on us Lord…
For those who have been to an Episcopal general convention or EYE 2014 (in person or through You Tube broadcast), you have had the experience of hearing the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry preach. When the Bishop gets up to preach, you settle in because he is going to speak for a while – a long while in Episcopal terms. But he is going to come at you with energy and passion.
(Describe the experience at EYE in Philadelphia – one word “go”)
The word this morning is mercy. It runs through our lessons and our hymn selections at the 10 o’clock service. Now I thought that the reading from Genesis, the end of the Joseph story, was about forgiveness, which is different than mercy. But Joseph plays two roles; publically he is a ruler in Egypt and controls who gets food and how much in these years of wide spread famine. Privately, he is the little brother that was sold into slavery by his siblings. Okay, Joseph does have his fun when he accuses them as spies and has them put in prison for a few days. He orders one brother to remain in prison while the others go back to Canaan, with full sacks of grain, and to prove they are not spies, to bring his brother Benjamin back with them to Egypt. As a ruler, Joseph shows mercy to his brothers; as a sibling, he shows forgiveness.
What is mercy? What does it mean? Checking the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, “Mercy is an attribute of both God and the good human being. Hebrew uses several words for “mercy,” of which the most frequent is hesed, which mean loving-kindness, mercy, love, loyalty, and faithfulness. Another Hebrew word and the Greek word for mercy in the New Testament refer to the emotion aroused by contact with undeserved suffering, that is, compassion and a deeply felt love for a fellow human being…grace is also another word used to mean mercy…Divine and human mercy are closely associated with justice and righteousness because all refer to behavior appropriate to a relationship…Jesus shows mercy to the needy…” Mercy is an attribute, showing compassion for someone suffering undeservedly. Joseph as a ruler is providing grain to all the people who are suffering the famine, even those who are not from Egypt, because the whole area will suffer from the seven year famine. Joseph recognizes that God has turned their actions – selling their brother into slavery – as a way to save the famiy; “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” In Egypt the Israelites will have a place to live and work and multiply; without it Israel’s (Jacob’s) family would perish. Mercy, compassion for the underserved suffering.
The Gospel for this morning has an interesting and uncharacteristic story of Jesus encountering someone asking for help and his ignoring them. We left out reading the optional story this morning of the encounter with the Pharisees where they challenge Jesus about dietary laws. He tells the disciples that it is not what goes into a person that defiles them, but it is what comes out of a person’s mouth via their heart that defiles them. Some time passes as they walk 25 or 30 miles over the next couple days. Jesus must be contemplating the recent events. A Canaanite woman comes to their group and shouts for help and mercy. Jesus ignores her. Then the disciples ask him to send her away; they too assume that he will help her and send her on her way. But he tells them that he was only sent to help the house of Israel, but he has healed outcasts and Gentiles before. His refusal to help her, even when she comes and kneels before him begging for help, isn’t what we expect.
Jesus dismisses her with “it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman replies, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”. You can almost see his face break into a little smile as he tells her that her request is granted. The woman notices that Jesus used the word, not for stray dogs that wander the streets, but for household pets. Pets are not outsiders but insiders. The pets do get to lie under the table and eat scraps that fall or are tossed to them. This foreign woman asked Jesus for mercy, the same mercy Jesus had asked the Pharisees to show.
We can have fun speculating on why Jesus acted the way he did with this woman. Has he decided that he must give all his time and energy to his own people? That he needs to really concentrate on helping the religious leaders to ‘see’ what God originally planned for Israel and how they may have erred? Is it the human behavior of frustration and tired of dealing with those who just don’t get it? Did he know that her faith was strong and that this would be a good learning exercise for his disciples and for us?
Yes, for us. Because we are challenged daily to be merciful. At times, showing mercy to someone we love is not the same as being nice. The phrase ‘tough love’ comes to mind. When our behavior is enabling or co-dependent, we are not being compassionate to one we care about. We are not showing mercy and love because it is not a behavior appropriate to our relationship. It is hard to change. We, like Jesus in the gospel, are challenged to be merciful with the stranger. One afternoon, a man pulled into the office parking lot in an old car and he looked – well – scruffy. My first thought was ‘What now?’ But as he came to the door, I smiled and said hello. He needed help with an address – that’s all. He was looking for 1032 Lincoln at which point I knew he was probably looking for Lincoln Street. But it began a very short conversation and my attitude was changed; he was not a stranger, he was a father looking for a son who was dying…so he could say good-bye.
Lord, grant me the grace to get past the ‘what now’ and be open to hearing the request for mercy. Let your wisdom guide my responses, and may I strive to be merciful in my encounters. AMEN.