Joseph is quite the character in the Bible. His story takes up thirteen chapters in Genesis—a fifth of the book! But last we left him, he was not in a good place. Joseph, after thoroughly annoying his brothers and becoming the unfortunate target of their misplaced anger at their father, was sold to slave traders on their way to Egypt. It wasn’t a good look for the sons of Jacob.
Well, in the intervening chapters (from last week’s reading where he was sold to this week’s reading where everything has changed), a lot has happened. Joseph was sold to an Egyptian as a house slave; he was imprisoned after his master’s wife made a false accusation against him; he languished for a while there until his ability to read dreams landed him in front of the king; and now he had been promoted to the Grand Vizier of Egypt—second only to the king himself. Now he was successfully managing Egypt through a seven-year famine.
It’s this famine that brought Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy grain, and because of how much had changed, they didn’t recognize their brother. And after some hijinks using his position of authority to see if his brothers had changed at all, we arrive at this scene in today’s reading. Joseph simply can’t contain himself anymore. He hadn’t seen his family in so long, and now he chose to reveal himself. He forgave his brothers, and then he said this line that, regardless of whatever else we know about Joseph we know this part: “it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God.”
And I have to wonder, how? How did God send Joseph there when it was the brothers who sold him? Did God make the brothers do it? Is God a puppet master pulling strings to make things happen? Is free will just an illusion? Does God make everything happen, good or bad? I don’t really think so. God doesn’t work that way. So how could it be God that sent Joseph to Egypt?
A friend and colleague of mine pointed out a very, very small detail in the Joseph story from last week that changed the way I read that line. She reminded me to pay attention to the man in the field that Joseph ran into on his way to find his brothers, the man who said “I think they went to Dothan.” It was a real “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of moment in the text. That man, who shows up so incredibly briefly in the text—that was God sending Joseph. Because think about it: if Joseph hadn’t met that man, he would never have known his brothers went to Dothan, and he would never have been set on a collision course with Egypt at just the right time.
God tends to send people our way, to give us direction, to get us where we need to be. God isn’t a puppet master, taking over our minds and bodies to do what God wants. God isn’t interested in the blunt force of overtaking our wills to get us to do whatever God intends for us to do. Instead, God is far more subtle: showing up to give us directions, offering a changing thought in a random conversation, or even blocking our way so we have to pay attention. And it’s this last thing that happened in our gospel reading.
See, Jesus was fully human. That’s part of our confession as Christians. Even if he was without sin, he was still finite like the rest of us. He was still limited to what he could perceive with his own senses. And because he was finite, it means he had room to grow—room to learn, to do his mission better, even to be corrected.
See up until this point Jesus had believed his mission was to the Jews first, and only when he was done there would he go to the Gentiles. And this woman, this Gentile woman, this Canaanite woman, was exactly the person God the Father had sent the Son to correct his understanding. She got in his way. She called him out for missing the part where grace is for everyone, everywhere, for all time. And this is where we can truly say Jesus was finite, but he was still without sin: he let himself be corrected. Rather than digging in his heels and ignoring the person God the Father had sent him to teach him, Jesus had the humility to recognize his blind spot. He saw the person God had sent him, and he listened.
That’s how God changes the world. God sets us up to meet people or be in places that will widen our understanding of grace and love, or lead us to places where we can help others in ways we couldn’t have imagined before. And they come in all different forms.
Sometimes it’s a man pointing us to Dothan. God nudges us with an unexpectedly clear piece of advice from an acquaintance, or opening an opportunity to do something that reveals our passion and vocation, or a fork in the road where we “go with our gut.” It’s a moment, a blink of the eye, so fleeting that you’ll quickly forget the moment the course of your life changed forever. When God leads us this way, it’s only by looking back—sometimes really far back—that we even know it was God at work to begin with.
And sometimes it’s the Canaanite woman putting her body between us and where we think we should be going. God sends people to get in our face, to challenge our core assumptions: people who force us to notice where we haven’t extended grace, where we’ve limited the mercy God has given us, or where we’ve ignored the justice God is calling us to embody. It’s times like these that we’re called to have humility, to recognize that God is getting our attention, and to be open to correction. When God leads us this way, it takes humility—not so much time—to recognize God is at work.
So who have been the men sending you to Dothan in your life? Who are the Canaanite women challenging your idea of who deserves grace and mercy? God communicates with us this way: by sending people our way who will help us change our course to do what God is calling us to do in the world. Whether it’s as simple as a well-timed piece of advice or as difficult as a heated argument about what goodness looks like, we’re called to look for God at work in ordinary people. Because God isn’t pulling strings or forcing us to do anything.
May we be open to that direction, whatever form it might take. Because who knows? It could save a nation from disaster, or open salvation to the whole world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.