Biblical Words 
The texts for this Sunday present oppression and
. Exodus 1:8-2:10
The Torah reading
is the beginning of the Exodus story
and the birth of Moses. While the
narratives of the ancestors in Genesis were about individuals and their
extended families, from this point on the object of the sacred story is the Bene Yisrael, the children of
At the beginning of the story they are in trouble. They have become enslaved and their owners treat them severely. The narrative emphasizes the oppressiveness of the slavery. “They set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor… The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor” (verses 11-14, NRSV).
The Exodus story is a deliverance story, and the description of the oppression must make clear how desperately the deliverance was needed. Hard labor as such is not what is oppressive; people work slavishly to make their own businesses succeed. What is oppressive is the meaninglessness of forced labor that benefits only others who despise you.
The story moves from oppression as slave labor to oppression as genocide.
This is introduced by the quaint story of the two midwives who were instructed by Pharaoh to kill every male child born to “Hebrew” mothers (-21). This story is actually about a trick played on Pharaoh, not a realistic portrayal of a genocide attempt. The two (!) women serving as midwives deceive Pharaoh—with tales that could obviously have been exposed—and then are rewarded by receiving families themselves among the Israelites (verses 20-21).
The last sentence of this episode, however, has the
horror and dread of a real genocide policy.
“Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the
Hebrews you shall throw into the
The ultimate form of oppression is not simply to kill them (their labor is still useful), but to cut off any meaning for their future. Meaningful life through either work or heirs is cut off. That is the ultimate oppression. (The story is very insightful about human values!)
The command to kill all the Hebrew male children is
the background to the Moses story. He was born to a Levite woman, kept secretly
for three months, then concealed in an “ark” (
All these stories are told with a certain exultant tone, a delight in turning the tables on the ancient enemy. The story never loses its deep seriousness, but the version we read had gone through many centuries of re-telling, during which it acquired some irony, some symbolic meanings, and some notes of sheer triumphalism.
The Psalm reading is an outburst of thanksgiving because the plots of the enemy against the Israelites were foiled!
—foiled, of course, because the Lord was on their side.
Whatever other allies the Israelites might have, it is only the Lord who really counts. “If it had not been the Lord, who was on our side, … they would have swallowed us up alive…” (verses 1, 3, NRSV).
The genocide command in Exodus was to throw the male
children into the
So over the centuries
. Romans 12:1-8
The Epistle reading
continues in Paul’s letter to the Roman church, now moving from his reflections
He has not been to
His opening word is that the Christian life should be a constant presentation of each person as a living sacrifice to God.
The language deliberately echoes the sacrificial actions
done at the altar in the temple.
Christians, like their Judean neighbors in
Though the oldest “churches” were only about twenty-five years old when Paul wrote this letter, his comments show that there was already diversity of functions—which he thinks he can assume in Rome as well as elsewhere. He mentions prophesy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generous giving, diligence in leadership, and cheerful mercy-doing (verses 7-8).
This may start out as a list of offices, but it turns into a list of actions by well-intentioned people. Perhaps the lack of systematic listing is deliberate. Paul may be resisting a tendency to endow “positions” or offices with stated dignities and well-defined boundaries.
Whatever the various functions, they should be carried out in the kind of mutual harmony and support seen in an organism, specifically in a living body. People should think of themselves in their church service as members of the body of Christ, which also makes everyone “members one of another” (verse 5).
All these points support the opening exhortation. “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think… each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (verse 4, NRSV).
With diversity of functions, there is a strong
tendency for each to feel – and soon to expect others to recognize – the
particular importance of their own function.
Why don’t they appreciate what I contribute? Paul assumes that this tendency shows up as
. Matthew 16:13-20
The Gospel reading is the pivot-point in Jesus’ Galilean ministry as presented by Mark and Matthew.
After much teaching and healing among the people,
encounters with demonic powers who recognize Jesus, and other revelatory
moments like Jesus’ baptism, the moment comes when the disciples themselves
make a clear and emphatic declaration of who Jesus really is. It happens in Peter’s words, “You are the
Christ.” After this declaration, Jesus
begins to announce the trip to
Peter’s confession is the hinge between the labors
of the unrecognized Messiah among the people in
The passage is structured to contrast what people
think about Jesus after his work in
In Matthew, however, Peter’s confession is fuller: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” (verse 16).
In Matthew’s church, this was how the decisive confession was made by Christians. These Syrian Christians had come to believe that Jesus gave Peter direct sanctions for guiding the church, that the founding of “my church” was specifically related to Peter. Thus, in Matthew the confession is followed by a long response from Jesus, addressed specifically to Peter. (The “you” in “Who do you say I am?” is plural, addressed to the group of disciples. The “you” in verses 17-19 is singular, to Peter only.)
The first part of this response concerns Peter’s name. We should be aware that “Peter” was not a frequently-used name in either Greek, Aramaic, or Latin (Eugene Boring, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 345). Peter became a popular name only after the spread of Christianity. Jesus calls the disciple by his correct name, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.” But he also gives Simon a new name. “You are Rock (petros), and on this rock I will build my church…” (verse 17).
The Peter who is the Rock of the Church is the Peter who confesses, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” This declaration turns the assembly of followers into the church, and Peter is represented in the Gospels as the first to make this declaration.
Peter became famous as the chief apostle in the
Christian churches of the
But there is more.
Not only is Simon Peter the foundation rock of the church, he is the keeper of its “keys,” meaning one authorized to “bind” and “loose” on
earth with heavenly consequences (verse 19).
The reference to binding and loosing referred at the very least to the
power to make decisions about established practices of the Christian life (later applied to the forgiveness of sins). (The episode reported by Paul in Galatians
2:11-14 seems to indicate that Peter exercised that kind of power in the
In any case, what began in the oral tradition of the Matthew churches (verses 17-19 of our passage) was to have a vastly expanded future, authorizing the powers of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) over the Christian churches for many centuries. Only in the days of Martin Luther and John Calvin was the Matthew text to be deprived of its papal aura, and to receive something of its older and original interpretation.