XI Pentecost, Year A
Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 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; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, `Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there– since there are five more years of famine to come– so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Thus says the LORD:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant–
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord GOD,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
[Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit." But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us." Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 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."]
Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
Jesus does not differentiate here between some things that come from the mouth and others. “What comes out of the mouth… defiles.” What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart (the seat of human desire) and the things that proceed from the heart are uniformly “defiling.” Why is this? Our words find their origin in victimage as both Andrew McKenna (Violence and Difference) and Eric Gans (The Origin of Language) have shown. They cannot but bear witness to the bent desire of the false “logic” of our broken human condition; they are a false word, a false logos, a false logic.
What comes out of the mouth is speech. Speech is verbal action. Mimetic theory teaches us that language, by its very nature, “defiles,” because it is inevitably a form of substitution, the word for the thing, the phoneme for its referent. Its very nature is to obfuscate, to make myth, to hide the victimage mechanism. All language “defiles.”
There is a certain hopelessness to such a declaration, at least on first reading or hearing it. If all language obfuscates, if all language tends to facilitate violence, is there anything we can do that will not be poisoned? If we are to take Jesus’ example as our own, then we will not abandon language all together, but we will, as he did, use it with full regard for its limitations. Jesus tended to teach in ways that made obvious the way that his words actually hid his meaning. He taught in parabole or mashal. The “dark saying” takes as its beginning point the reality that words cannot fully convey truth.
Language hides desire behind masks of “should” and “ought.” Language hides interdividuality behind words like “I” and “mine.” All language, used carelessly, lies. This is most apparent in the use of “spin”, the clever choice to turn what is said into something palatable. Words lose whatever credibility or faithfulness they may have when they are “spun.” Indeed, we might note, for example, the notion of “Justice Sunday” promulgated by certain Christian groups in America. The interpretation of ‘justice’ proffered has nothing to do with biblical justice (dikaiosune) and everything to do with the justification of immoral political positions couched in false religiosity. Worse still is that this ‘spin’ on ‘justice’ is done in the name of the Just One, Jesus!
Modern Christianity is becoming more and more reliant on language to define itself. Issues of “orthodoxy” have been boiled down to ever-more-narrow confessions. We are asked to agree to verbal expressions of faith that make us truly “Christian.” Issues of “verbal inspiration” aside, we are asked to disagree with Jesus and claim that language, that which comes out of the mouth, does not defile, that it can be perfectly trusted. Such talk assumes a world of absolutes. It presupposes a Newtonian worldview, which guarantees a propositional theory of language, a view that has been overturned time and again from Kant to Wittgenstein. But proponents of such views continue to speak as though we have not learned anything about language over the past several hundred years, as though we have not learned about the disjunction between language and ‘reality’ or the false connections made where ‘truth-of-statement = truth-of-being’ (that is, the so-called propositional theory of revelation).
Jesus, and mimetic theory, suggest otherwise. The Gospels make clear that with Jesus we have to do with true speech because we are dealing with the true Logos (note the connection between aletheia and logos in John 1). Only in Jesus are we given authentic speech, speech that can truly be correlated with God’s activity, activity that saves, heals, redeems. This speech is also known as ‘testimony’ (martyria), it has no self- referent, and it can only point to the True Logos who alone utters the words of God. When our speech bears witness to the gospel, when it evokes grace and forgiveness, when it heals wounds and binds darkness, it manifests itself as truly ‘holy.’ When our speech blames, obfuscates, controls, manipulates, accuses or excoriates it defiles inasmuch as it bears witness to itself, to the darkness of the satanic heart, of desire turned in on itself (Luther’s ‘cor curvum in se.’)
The disciples’ speech defiled them when they would send away or scapegoat the foreign woman. Now what is curious is Jesus’ reply, for it would appear that he too has ‘defiling speech’ in his response. But notice: his saying to the Syro-Phonecian woman is a mashal, a saying that evokes from her an authentic response that bears witness to his healing ability, more so to his healing activity. Thus, in the midst of the defiling, because of the scapegoating speech of the disciples, the woman and Jesus manage to find their way to the truth, which is that Jesus can and will heal even those not deemed worthy of healing by those around Jesus.
Some of the issues surrounding the social location and the behavior of the woman approaching Jesus have already been dealt with in Year B, Proper 18.
It is small wonder that people have grown tired of what is known as “political correctness.” It requires a concerted effort to communicate using a tool (language) that is designed to reinforce the place of violence in our world. It takes more time than we are accustomed to giving to it to communicate in ways that do not mask desire, or deflect it onto others, or to communicate in ways that do not do violence to others by labeling, coercing, or threatening. Much of the coercion and threat, of course, is hidden by the nature of our language. For instance, if I say to one of my children “You’d better get this room picked up right now,” it carries an implicit threat, but it does not speak clearly of it. It masks completely the fact that the violence threatened (even “time out” is a mild form of violence!) is linked specifically to my own desire.
As preachers, we are given the opportunity to model speech and behavior that is not coercive, that is not violent. It isn’t easy, but it can be done, as long as we do not spin, deceive or coerce. It can be done when we intentionally chose to utter ‘Gospel’, words that reconcile, heal, redeem. Then our words are empowered by the Word and they will not go forth barren or destructive but will build up, edify and nurture.