Crumbs and the Covenant

Barbara K. Lundblad
Professor of Preaching, Union Theological Seminary (NY)

Isaiah 56: 1 – 8, Matthew 15: 21 – 28

I am deeply honored that you invited a Lutheran to be part of this gathering – a tangible sign of our full communion agreement. While we may be in full communion, Lutherans and Presbyterians aren’t always on the same page. (You may have experienced that already.) Specifically, I’m talking about the lectionary page.  During this long green season of Ordinary Time, we continue to share the same Gospel reading Sunday by Sunday. But we go our separate ways with the First Reading. You follow the Revised Common Lectionary, reading in a three-year cycle through the great stories of the Old Testament. The Lutheran lectionary appoints an Old Testament text chosen to correspond to the Gospel.

So it was on August 17, we all heard about the Canaanite woman. But while you were reading about Joseph in Genesis 45, we Lutherans were reading the Isaiah text we just heard. Well, not exactly. Our appointed text was Isaiah 56: 1, (comma) 6-8. Why the comma? What didn’t somebody want us to hear? The eunuchs — the eunuchs are in the comma. I guess the lectionary committee decided the eunuchs weren’t necessary because the Gospel was about a foreign woman and —

All of a sudden the Canaanite woman jumps up off the page. “What’s the matter with you Lutherans? Couldn’t you read four more verses?” Well, people get anxious if the service goes longer than an hour. Isaiah and Matthew are both talking about foreigners and the lectionary planners thought eunuchs would just be distracting  “So they put the eunuchs in the comma! Don’t you see? Isaiah wanted foreigners and eunuchs together in this text. He even placed them side by side in the same verse:  “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people;’ and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’” What Isaiah put together let not the Lutherans put asunder.”

I wanted to ask the Canaanite woman how she knew so much about the Hebrew prophet, but I have a feeling that she knew the answer.  After all, she stands in a long line of stories about who can be part of God’s covenant people and who cannot.  Threads of exclusion and expansion are woven together in the great tapestry of the Bible with no attempt to get rid of one or the other. As we heard this morning, “biblical tradition is saturated with contradiction.”

  • Ruth, the woman of Moab, becomes great, great grandmother to Israel’s greatest king, and she lives in the same testament as Esther the faithful Jew who saved her people, God’s chosen people
  • The Ninevites – consummate evil empire — repent and receive God’s forgiveness in the book of Jonah, only a few pages from Daniel, the faithful Jew who refuses to bow to any God but the God of Israel

And Isaiah, writing after exile, seems to open the door to everybody, not only foreigners but eunuchs:
For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. (Is. 56: 4)

How could Isaiah say such a thing? Surely he knew the prohibition: “Those whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23: 1, page 166 in your pew Bibles)  This text isn’t in the lectionary and if it’s ever read aloud, men usually cross their legs! The prohibition was written down. Whether someone was born a eunuch or castrated later in life, the text is clear. Where did Isaiah get this new word? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” said the prophet, “because the Lord has anointed me, and sent me to bring good news to the oppressed…” (Isaiah 61: 1a) That is, the Spirit didn’t wait until Luke chapter 4. Isaiah dared to proclaim a new word different from the word written down. If he had been a literalist, he could not have spoken this expansive word.

The promise of a monument and a name is yad vashem in Hebrew. Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial to those who were lost in the holocaust, especially those who had no children or those whose lives were cut off before they could bear children. The promise to them is yad vashem – “a monument and a name better than sons or daughters, an everlasting name which shall not perish.” This is Isaiah’s word out of exile to the childless eunuch: do not call yourself a dry tree; I have given you a name better than sons or daughters.

Let me be clear:  there is no indication that eunuchs in Isaiah’s text were gay, bisexual or transgender – though it seems likely they weren’t lesbian! In his book The Exegetical Imagination Jewish interpreter Michael Fishbane invites readers to bring their own experiences and questions to the biblical text:

The rhetorical question, ‘to what does this matter compare?’ opens up a hermeneutical space in which similarity is imagined…The significance of a similitude is thus that life serves to explain the text, and it gives a concreteness or directness to the text which it might otherwise not have. (1)

Perhaps the biblical texts are indeed as dynamic as Stacy Johnson told us yesterday afternoon, as dialogical as Walter Brueggemann told us this morning. We’re invited to bring our life stories and experiences to the text, to open an interpretive space in which similarity is imagined. We need not turn the eunuch into a homosexual to see the similitude between his life and the lives of those judged as “other” based on gender identity alone. A eunuch is a man, yet not quite a man. He doesn’t measure up to the culture’s definition of what is masculine. A eunuch is defined by his genitals even if the term “eunuch” is sometimes used metaphorically.  Though eunuchs often hold positions of responsibility in the military, as teachers, as personal attendants to kings and queens, as financial officers – like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter 8 – eunuchs are still seen as “other” in the culture. 

Even if a eunuch has a high position in the military or the king’s court, the written text makes it clear that a eunuch has no place “in the assembly of the Lord.”  Yet, Isaiah promises eunuchs just such a place: a place in God’s house and within God’s walls. Perhaps Isaiah already knew what our brother Walter dared to tell us today: “God violates Torah for the sake of relationship.”

Let me be clear about something else: Isaiah didn’t make this bold promise to eunuchs because they were eunuchs. No, it was because they keep the Sabbath and do those things that please God, because they hold fast God’s covenant. A few years ago a gay Orthodox rabbi wrote an article for the journal Tikkun. For obvious reasons he used a pseudonym Yakov Lavado:

In these verses Isaiah is speaking to his ancient Israelite community and trying to convince them that God’s covenantal plan for Israel is larger than they think…He speaks to two obvious outsider groups…the foreigners of non-Israelite birth, and the eunuchs…In the chain of the covenantal family, the foreigner has no past and the eunuch no future…It is their “exclusion” that the prophet addresses. The prophet comforts the pain of eunuchs with the claim that there are other ways in which to observe, fulfill, and sustain the covenant…(2)

Isaiah’s promise is deeper than a new category of people. For too long, categories have been the beginning and end of our moral deliberations in the church:  heterosexuality is good, homosexuality is bad; heterosexuals are good; homosexuals are bad. But categories alone cannot bear the weight of moral discernment. Isaiah spoke not only of eunuchs as a category, but of “eunuchs who keep my sabbath, who do the things that please me.” Rabbi Levado is clear that Isaiah’s promise goes deeper than category to covenant:

Gay people cannot be asked to be straight, but they can be asked to “hold fast to the covenant.” God will work the story out and link the loose ends as long as we hold fast to the covenant…Holding fast to the covenant demands that I seek a path toward sanctity in gay life…being gay does not free me from the fulfillment of mitzvoth. The complexities generated by a verse in Leviticus need not unravel my commitment to the whole of Torah. (3)

Krister Stendahl of blessed memory spoke a similar word within the Lutheran Church: “We must handle our sexuality responsibly. For Christians that means according to the principles of fidelity and mutuality. Such responsibility applies equally to those who have come to know themselves as homosexual.” (4) Of course, many Lutherans, including bishops, have protested saying, “How can we overturn two thousand years of Church teaching?” Longevity of tradition does not insure its faithfulness. It is possible to be wrong for a long time.

Even Jesus discovered that when he ventured into the region of Tyre and Sidon. He shouldn’t have been surprised to meet a Canaanite woman for this was her home. He was the one out of place. Some have tried to deal with this troubling story by saying that Jesus was testing the Canaanite woman to see if she really had faith. Well, that sometimes works to get Jesus off the hook. But in recent years, many New Testament scholars have dared to stop making excuses for Jesus’ harsh words to this desperate Canaanite mother. Mary Hinkle who teaches New Testament across the river at Luther Seminary speaks directly to the Canaanite woman:

Did you teach the teacher? I think you did. When he finally heard you and saw the face of your fierce need, God’s own Son came to see his life’s work as bigger than before. What he had not thought to look for in someone like you, he saw: faith. He saw your tenacious conviction that he could help, and amazed, he did.

I have thought that fear makes it impossible to imagine things. “Perfect fear casts out all imagination,” I have thought. But you were afraid—you must have been afraid of the demon and of your daughter’s suffering and afraid of all those foreign men and all their insults. You must have been afraid, yet you could see a new thing—“healing—at the same time…You imagined healing before it happened and you showed it to the Healer. (5)

Jesus heard this Canaanite woman and he was changed. Could it be that he also remembered “the covenantal God who is capable of self-criticism” (WB)?  If Jesus could be changed to see and act in a new way, can the Church also be changed? If Isaiah could speak a new word that contradicted the word written down, can we hear God speaking a new word in our own time?  The Canaanite woman dared to claim her right to crumbs that fell from master’s table. Many people in this sanctuary have been given crumbs and have been told to be satisfied. We have lived in the commas of Presbyterian propositions and endless Lutheran sexuality studies. Some have given up and gone away. But some of us stubbornly stay because we believe that “God has determined not to be God without us” (SJ). We believe we have been given a monument and a name, a place within God’s house — not because we are sexual and gender minorities. But because it is possible to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and hold fast to God’s covenant.

Mark Twain was once asked, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” to which he replied, “Believe in it – hell, I’ve seen it.” We’ve seen something, too, haven’t we?  GLBTQ people in congregations small and large who are faithful to God’s covenant – people who believe that “God is for us, that Christ is with us, that the Spirit is present among us” (SJ). People whose committed relationships are marked by fidelity and mutuality, and hopefully blessed by the church even when the state refuses.

Soon we will see something miraculous right here: the eunuch and the Canaanite woman will come off the page to stand with us. Then each of us will reach out our hands for a piece of bread that is barely bigger than a crumb. But we believe it is more than a crumb. This is the Bread of the New Covenant. This is the very Bread of Life given for each of us. This bread will be sufficient tonight and forever.

Notes:

  • Michael Fishbane, The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998) 3
  • Yakov Lavado, “Gayness and God: Wrestlings of an Orthodox Rabbi,” Tikkun, 8:5, 58 and 59
  • Kevado, 59
  • Krister Stendahl, “Can Bishops Tell the Truth as They See It?” in Deborah A. Brown, ed., Christianity in the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2000), 188
  • Mary Hinkle, “Letter to a Canaanite Woman” (sermon preached at Luther Seminary)

Insights from Stacy Johnson’s  and Walter Brueggemann’s presentations at this conference  are identified by their initials.

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