According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a tribe is “a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers.”
According to my entirely unscientific and utterly subjective recall: I first encountered the word “tribe” in the context of after-school TV reruns of wild West shows from the 50’s and 60’s. To me, it meant those whom today we would call peoples indigenous to what we now call the U. S. It described people who seemed exotic, and certainly “other” to the white Christianity of my childhood. They were often portrayed as hostile to the supposedly good white “settlers.”
Later– much later– I recall the word being used to denote a close group of friends, as in, “I’ve found my tribe.” Here, the word meant people one liked, whom one wanted to be with, with whom one had things in common, such as age, work, interests. Here the word indicated connection and intimacy.
Finally, I found the word in scripture, describing the covenant people whom God drew to Godself, the twelve tribes sprung from the sons of Jacob. Warring as allies and as enemies; negotiating fragile times of peace; suffering at the hands of non-covenant peoples, exacting suffering upon those same outsiders; commissioned with carrying a law and given a relationship with their Creator. In my learning, the word seemed to blur at the edges until I wondered whether it was the right one.
At least three of the lectionary passages for Sunday involve something that could be described as “tribalism,” by which I mean divisions of people into in groups and out groups, in ways that can function for harm. I’ll look briefly at both passages from the Hebrew scriptures and the gospel.
In the Genesis reading the family story of God’s covenant people continues with the crisis and resolution to the conflict-soaked relationship between Joseph and his brothers. The men for whom eleven of the twelve tribes will be named discover that the brother they’d sold to a passing caravan years earlier is a high official in the Egyptian government. The men weep at the discovery, and Joseph offers forgiveness with a powerful proclamation: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5; the sentiment is summarized even more powerfully at 50:20: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”).
Readers of the Torah know that the friction between the brothers ebbs and flows (as in any family); the difference here is that we see how it plays out over generations, and how it influences religious and civic life, even after a monarchy rises and falls.
The alternate reading, Isaiah 56, offers a vision that is either consoling or challenging, depending on your perspective. It is an utter repudiation of tribalism. The oracle provides God’s voice offering welcome to both foreigners (those outside the covenant) as well as the sexually othered, eunuchs. God asks the people for Sabbath observance, covenant-keeping, and righteousness. The Lord seems to regard tribal affiliations as incidental, and places the sexual other on an even footing with the covenant people, promising “an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (56:5).
Then there’s Jesus. Matthew 15 begins with an extended teaching of Jesus’ regarding what is clean and what is unclean that goes directly to the scatalogical. He describes ritual purity as being based in righteousness, the intention of the heart, rather than specific practices. Verses 21-28 find Jesus encountering a woman in need, calling out to him for help (her daughter is tormented by a demon). The woman is a Canaanite, and therefore outside the Abrahamic covenant. Despite his earlier words challenging traditional notions of cultic purity, Jesus ignores the woman, apparently, because she is a Canaanite. His exact words: ““I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (15:24, 26).
Jesus calls the woman, and her daughter, and those like them, dogs. Exegetes have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to make a case that this is actually about the Cynics movement, but I don’t think so. Preachers have claimed this is Jesus testing the woman’s faith, but here’s why I don’t buy that: Matthew explains Jesus, over and over. He never lets an opportunity for an explanation pass him by. No explanation is offered here; therefore, this is exactly what it looks like. Jesus is caught in his own tribalism, and it comes out ugly.
The woman, though, is something of a marvel. She utterly disarms Jesus with– a joke? a bitter retort? Or maybe just the logical extension of his own words. “Even the dogs get to lick up the crumbs,” she says.
And she’s got Jesus, and then, he’s got her– or, her daughter. The unnamed woman pulls Jesus to the door of his own tribal mindset, and helps him to walk through to the mindset of God as expressed in the Isaiah passage.
“Great is your faithfulness,” Jesus sings to the woman. And her daughter is healed.
Some further questions for your reflection:
~ How do you feel about “talking back” to Jesus? I recently learned of a sermon series on “Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said.” This unnamed Canaanite mom may be the patron saint of such conversations (and preaching).
~ How does this story speak to the United States, in our present national conversation around #BlackLivesMatter? Can you see using this story to emphasize that everyone (literally) can grow and learn, especially where race and tribalism is concerned?
~ How is your congregation consoled by a reading like our Isaiah passage? How are they challenged? What is the gift or the challenge for you in preaching such a passage?
~ Have you been keeping up with Abraham and Sarah and Hagar’s brood all summer? How are you approaching this story of reconciliation in a complicated family dynamic? How do the power relationships affect the story? Could you imagine a tearful reunion if Joseph had not risen to such greatness? How do stories of overcoming real hurt inflicted speak to you, or to your congregation?
~ Or…. are you deep in a Romans series? Or preaching the lovely psalm? Share with the class!
We would love to hear from you! Please join us in the comments. And, as ever, every blessing be upon you, in the reading, in the pondering, in the writing, and in the proclamation. God is with us!
Pat Raube has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007. Pat is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She is currently experiencing a newly-re-filled nest (with both adult children joining her and her partner at home in the midst of COVID-time). Her love for reading, writing, film, and good television is proving useful at this time. A native of the Jersey shore, and in love with the New England coastline, she prays she’ll be able to see the ocean this summer.
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