10th Sunday after PENTECOST (August 17 • 2014)
‘Brothers and Sisters in God’
A family in Aceh, Indonesia, has recently been united again with their lost daughter. When she was only seven years old, Raudhatul Jannah, and her brother, were separated from their parents. They slipped from their parents’ grasp when the massive tsunami hit Aceh in 2004. After about a month looking for them, her parents finally gave up and believed that Raudhatul and her brother had been killed in the tsunami, even though they never found their bodies.
In a strange twist of fate, in June this year, ten years after the tsunami, Raudhatul’s uncle told her parents that he had met with a teenage girl who looked like their missing daughter. He asked around and finally, with Raudhatul’s mother, visited the girl.
At first, Raudhatul's mother didn’t believe that the girl was Raudhatul, her missing daughter. But, after seeing the girl's face, that bore resemblance to her own, Raudhatul's mother was convinced that the girl was indeed Raudhatul, her missing daughter.
Apparently, after being separated from her parents, Raudhatul and her brother were stranded in a village where a family of fishermen adopted her. She was raised by the grandmother of the family and was given a different name. The two families have now become one and they hope that they will be able to also find Raudhatul’s brother somewhere in the surrounding villages.
A similar twist of fate happened to a different family, namely the family of one of Israel’s forefathers, Joseph. Last Sunday, we heard how his own brothers sold Joseph as a slave in Egypt. They then lied to their father, Jacob, by telling him that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal (Genesis 37:32-33). Today, in a story no less dramatic than Raudhatul’s story, Joseph was finally reunited with his brothers and, soon, with his own father who had always believed that he had died.
Joseph must have looked very different to his brothers (they didn’t recognise him when they met him). The brothers themselves must have looked very different to Joseph. Yet, apart from physical differences, time seemed to have changed something more significant in their lives: their animosity towards one another.
Hearing this story today is like hearing about a completely different family from the one we heard about last week; the one filled with jealousy and hatred. Today, love and forgiveness prevailed and we are indeed witnessing again the same pattern that has repeated itself in the stories of the forefathers of Israel.
Yes, the book of Genesis is full of stories of rivalries, even violence, between siblings. Yet, in many cases, the rivalries and animosities would finally give way to reconciliation. As we heard it a few weeks ago in the story of Jacob, who was reconciled with his estranged brother, Esau, today we hear how Joseph was finally reconciled with his estranged brothers.
Yet, the story of Jacob’s family is not simply an isolated story about one particular family. Each of his sons would become the forefather of each of the tribes of Israel. Thus, for the people of Israel who heard this story for the first time, the story was not only the story about one family; it was the story of a nation. The different tribes in Israel, each with its own distinctive character, culture, even, perhaps, skin colour and language, were all united because they were all brothers and sisters of the same father. And, most of all, they were children of One Parent, the Holy God of Israel, who had called them to the land where they lived.
Friends, hearing this story, I can’t stop myself from thinking about the conflict that has been raging for years between the Jews in Israel and the Arabs, especially the Palestinians. I believe it is time for the Jews and the Arabs to look back again to their shared tradition and remember that they also are all brothers and sisters.
The Arabs have always traced their ancestry back to Ishmael, Abraham’s son from his slave-girl, Hagar; while the Jews still trace their ancestry back to Isaac, Abraham’s son from Sara, his wife. Even people in the past, who heard about the story of Abraham, would know that the Jews and the Arabs were brothers and sisters, the same descendants of Abraham. How can such insight have been forgotten in modern times?
But, there is still hope. Missing in the clamour of arguments and counter-arguments about the conflict in Gaza are the people, Jews and Arabs, who refuse to be put into two polarising sides. The Internet is filled with heart-warming stories and photos of Jews and Arabs holding hands, embracing, even kissing one another, refusing to be enemies.
An Arab-American reporter, Sulome Anderson, posted, on her Twitter account, a photo of her and her Jewish boyfriend, kissing. She was holding a piece of paper with the words: Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies. Below the photo was a caption:
He calls me neshama, I call him habibi.
Love doesn't speak the language of occupation.
In another photo, a Jewish Orthodox man was carrying, on his shoulder, a little Palestinian boy with a Palestinian flag draped around his head.
Another photo shows a Palestinian boy and a Jewish boy smiling as they embrace one another.
A young woman posted on the internet:
My mum is Jewish,
My dad is Muslim,
How can I be enemy of myself!?
If she asked me the question personally, I would answer her, “No, you can’t be the enemy of yourself because you’re a product not of hatred, but of love.”
In yet another photo, a young Arab woman, wearing a hijab, and a young Jewish man smiling in front of the Arch of the Triumph in Paris. The woman was holding a piece of paper with Hebrew words written on it, while the man was holding a piece of paper with Arabic words on it. Under the photo was the caption:
Refuse to speak the language of hatred
If hatred prevails the world is a lost place.
It is heartwarming to know that there are still plenty of people out there who refuse to be drawn into further hatred and violence and choose, instead, to spread the language of love, of peace, and of reconciliation. I thank God for giving us this people as a proof that hatred does not have the final word in God’s world, not in the past, not today.
In Matthew, Jesus also extended his ministry to a foreign woman who was seen by his society as having no more value than an animal. We can see his society’s attitude towards people like her in his disciples’ respond to her plea: they ignored her plea as if she didn’t exist.
Jesus, however, was different. Yes, he likened the woman to a dog, but he said it in irony to tell the woman what the society thought of her. No, in Jesus’ eyes, the woman was not a dog. In Jesus’ eyes, she was a child of God who deserved to receive God’s mercy like every one else. When the woman held on to her dignity, Jesus rewarded her by granting her wish, thus affirming her humanity.
Previously, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, who were offended by Jesus flaunting the Jewish religious law. For Jesus, what made a person unclean was not what came into that person, but what came out of that person. Following or not following a particular set of rituals or tradition or culture did not make a person good or evil. What made a person good or evil was what came out of that person’s life: his thought, his behaviour, his speech, his action
When she visited the Yongah Hill Immigration Centre, Ashley Macmillan was nervous about what she was going to find there. But her nervousness subsided when he entered the facility and waited in the visiting area. The room was full of laughter; similar to the laughter she often heard when she attended a gathering of her friends or family.
To her own surprise, she got along well with the detainees and found that there was nothing special about them. They were so much like every one else that that she had known before! So she reflected on her experience in her writing:
Clothing preferences, food styles and accents mean very little in the face of our common humanity: our laughter, tears, hopes and dreams.
She is now a representative of Amnesty International and a strong supporter of respect and dignity for all people regardless.
Jesus too saw behind the veil of rituals, skin colour, gender, language, and culture, and saw the Canaanite woman as who she was: a human being in distress. He and she shared the same thing: their humanity, the tent that the Son of God had chosen as his dwelling place on earth.
The Greek word for the world is oikumene. It is derived from the word oikos, which means a household or family. The world is indeed our family, God’s family, where we are all brothers and sisters. When we kill or persecute or ignore people simply because they are different from us, whatever the differences are, we kill or persecute or ignore our own brothers and sisters. But when we treat them with dignity, then we are treating ourselves with dignity because we all came from the same Source.
 Barney Henderson, Indonesian Girl Swept Away by 2004 Tsunami Reunited with Parents after 10 Years, on www.telegraph.co.uk (August 8, 2014).
 Eryk Bagshaw, Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies, on www.smh.com.au (July 24, 2014).
 Ashley Macmillan, Stop Playing Politics with Live, on Revive Magazine: Issue 37 - August 2014 (p. 9).