Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad. Behold! How good it is when brothers and sisters gather together in community.
I have been wrestling and praying through this morning’s Scripture readings for the last couple weeks while also lamenting and grieving over the horrific violence and hatred we have witnessed in our country and in the world. And the good news that shimmers throughout these texts and is expressed best in the Psalm, which essentially says, “Behold the healing power of a community that gathers together in love and reconciliation! It is like oil that heals and soothes and relieves our broken hearts and our fragmented selves.” We need that healing oil to cover us, to fill us, to drench us like the oil running down Aaron’s beard. I invite us to simply receive and rest in the healing power of this beautiful gathering of God’s beloved children. Let the healing power of this community right now fall gently upon you like the dew of Mount Hermon upon the hills of Zion. Let it heal you and anoint you. Lord knows we need it. Breathe it in deeply. Drink deeply from this well. The healing power of this beloved community. The healing power of our Redeemer. Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad. Behold! How good it is when brothers gather together in community and reconciliation, in the name of Christ.
In our reading from Genesis, a community of reconciled brothers is made manifest and possible by Joseph who embodies the love and forgiveness of God. Several years before this reconciliation, Joseph had opened up to his brothers by sharing with them his personal dreams; and they responded with jealousy and hatred. They mocked him by calling him a “dreamer” (37:19). The great songwriter John Lennon shared this moniker when he sang, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.” Behold how good it is when people live in unity! Just like his fellow dreamer John Lennon, Joseph in the Bible tragically suffered lethal violence from the hands of hateful humanity. Joseph’s brothers initially conspired to murder him and hurl his corpse into a pit to rot and then lie to their father Jacob about how he was slaughtered by a wild animal. But then they decided it would be more appropriate to essentially bury him alive; so they throw his body, still alive, into a waterless pit. And then they start thinking like brilliant capitalists and wonder how they can monetize. They see a caravan passing by and decide to sell their brother’s body as human chattel; and they successfully become profiteers of slave trade, selling their brother for 20 pieces of silver.
Miraculously, after a series of adventures and misadventures, Joseph not only becomes a freed slave but also rises to the highest office in the world’s most powerful empire. He basically becomes the Prime Minister of Egypt.
When Joseph’s brothers begin to suffer famine in their land, they are forced to got to Egypt to buy food; and when they meet the prime minister, they don’t recognize that it’s their brother Joseph but Joseph recognizes them; and he tests them to see whether or not they are still being driven by hatred, jealousy and greed. After they surprisingly pass the test, Joseph reveals himself to them when he says, “Come closer to me. I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed…because I have forgiven you. Even though your intentions towards me were pure evil, God’s intentions for me were good (50:20). And God has won the day.” And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. And they were healed and anointed by his tears. Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad. Let the healing power of the beloved community of reconciled brothers wash over you.
In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul invites us into God’s beloved community by first reminding us that God’s covenant with the Jews is still valid. The Jews are still God’s chosen people; it’s just that now, in Christ, that “chosenness” and the blessings of that “chosenness” have spread out to all of us, who want to share in it. Paul says, ‘Don’t think for a moment that God has rejected the Jews.’ Anti-semitism in any form is a complete distortion and perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s vision is for his chosen people, the Jews, to dwell together in unity with those of us who participate in that chosenness through Christ. Hine ma tov uma nayim shevet achim gam yachad.
Our Gospel reading this morning also invites us to experience the healing power of the beloved community. Although it includes one of the most challenging and initially disturbing stories about Jesus, the message of hope and reconciliation and anti-racism still resound clearly, perhaps more clearly than ever! Earlier in the chapter (Matthew 15), the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus why his disciples are breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating. Now it’s easy for us to demonize the Pharisees as the legalistic Jews who appear to be obsessed with external forms of purity. And that way of reading has unfortunately fueled the very antisemitism that Paul clearly condemns.
Although I won’t deny that there is likely a hint of criticism in the Pharisees’ question to Jesus, I hear them genuinely wanting to engage Jesus in a rabbinic discussion about his halakhah, which is the Hebrew word for ‘how one follows the Torah.’ Halakhah. There’s a great book called The Halakah of Jesus of Nazareth According to the Gospel of Matthew written by a Jewish scholar named Phillip Sigal. This is an appropriate way to read Matthew since it is generally considered the most Jewish of the four Gospels.
The portion of the Gospel today is part of Jesus’s response to the Pharisees’ question. Now I can say with some confidence that Jesus in Matthew is not opposed to people washing their hands before eating. In fact, I’m sure he’s all for it. It’s just not necessarily something that he emphasizes with his disciples when it comes to following the Torah. He seems to be much more concerned with teaching his disciples how to follow and obey the Torah in their hearts. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ but I say to you, ‘Don’t even look at someone with lust’”; And “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t murder’ but I say to you, ‘Don’t even be angry with anyone.’” He is concerned primarily with the halakha of the heart.
So Jesus explains, “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, [racism, white supremacy, bigotry, homophobia, hate-crimes, terrorism].” Unlike some people, Jesus is not afraid to call a spade a spade; he is not a coward; he is not afraid to peer deeply and directly into the human heart and name the sickness that infects all of us. And there is no denying that a vile sickness infects and poisons the heart of our country. For out of the heart of our country, what monsters have come! For out of the heart of the sick people who have hijacked the beautiful faith traditions of Christianity and Islam, what terrifying violence has come! This is what defiles a person and a nation: the sick heart that destroys the healing power of the beloved community. It’s not about forgetting to wash your hands.
Although we are all indeed made in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, brimming with heavenly potential, we also all have some sickness in our hearts. We all need healing. I can point out the evil of white supremacy, racism and bigotry and I do and I will; yet I can’t point my finger at someone else without also pointing three fingers back at myself. I have to acknowledge the sickness of my own heart; my own racism and bigotry; the many ways that I have benefitted and still benefit from systemic racism. The sickness infects us all.
According to the second part of our Gospel reading, even Jesus seems to suffer from the sickness of racism. I don’t think Jesus is just testing the Canaanite woman when he essentially calls her a dog. He is genuinely being exclusive and racist. That may sound alarming, but remember, although Jesus is divine, he is not omniscient. He himself admits that there some things he doesn’t know (Matt 24:36). Luke describes him growing in wisdom and it appears that here is another case in which Jesus needs to grow in wisdom, to grow out of his ethnocentric racism towards the Canannite woman, whom he ignores and then insults. But nevertheless, she persisted. She says, “Alright, if you’re going to call me a dog, at least recognize that even dogs get crumbs!” And here is where the hope of the Gospel story resounds: Because of these audacious words of a bold and brazen woman who is not afraid to suffer humiliation in order to bring healing to her beloved daughter; because of these words, Jesus seems to recognize his own sickness. He seems to realize that what he had just previously said to the woman came out of the sickness of his own heart. And because of her words, he seems to have a change of heart and mind and he sees her no longer as an inferior animal but as a human being, a woman beaming with the image of God. He says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. And so was Jesus. Hine ma tov…
The Gospel story demonstrates how prevalent and pernicious racism can be, even Jesus can succumb to it. And yet, it also shows how quickly healing can come if we let go of our prejudice and open our eyes to see the person in front of us, beaming with the image of God. That is what we do when we gather on Sunday mornings. We are training ourselves to see and honor the image of God in one another. That is part of the purpose of the Eucharist. To train ourselves to see Christ among us. As C.S. Lewis says, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Every time we gather here in the name of Christ, we are part of constructing a global community of love and reconciliation in which we learn to see and honor the image of God in one another. Through Christ, we are part of making the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. Yesterday, I attended a nonviolence training workshop at an Episcopal church in Berkeley and the leader told us that Gandhi (the great teacher icon of nonviolent resistance) said that resistance and protest, which are crucial, should only make up 20% of our work, while 80% of our work should be devoted to constructing a new reality, constructing the world in which we want to live, building up the beloved community. And that is what we are doing right now; building up the kingdom of God on earth. Next Sunday I will participate in a nonviolent demonstration in Berkeley, but I might be a little late, because I will be busy doing the important work of constructing the new reality here with you. Let us not underestimate the healing power of a community that gathers together in love, in the name of Christ. Behold how good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity. Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad.
Oh, how good and pleasant it is,
When brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head
That runs down upon the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron
And runs down upon the collar of his robe.
הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד
כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב עַל-הָרֹאשׁ
יֹרֵד עַל-הַזָּקָן זְקַן-אַהֲרֹן
שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל-פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו
Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad
Kashemen hatov al harosh yored,
al hazakan zukan-aharon sheyored
Al pi midvotaiv
It is like the dew of Hermon
That falls upon the hills of Zion
For there the Lord has ordained the blessing
Life for evermore
כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל-הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן
כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה
k-tal chermon sheyored, al harrei tsion
ki sham tzivah Adonai, et habrakah
chayyim ad ha-olam