Thursday, September 21, 2023

September 24, 2023 -- 17th Sunday after Pentecost

                                             Biblical Words                                                     [846]  

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30Matthew 20:1-16

God provides food to a doubting people, and a Generous Employer pays incommensurate wages. 

Exodus 16:2-15.  

The Torah reading for this Sunday is about food in the wilderness. 

After the Israelites get out of bondage in Egypt they are subject to the hardships of life in the wilderness.  These hardships are occasions for “trials” or “tests.” 

From God’s viewpoint, these are tests of the people’s faith in the enterprise God has launched under Moses.  From the people’s viewpoint, these are tests of whether God will really sustain them in hard times.  Moses — and sometimes Aaron with him — is always at the center of the trial, and the “complaint” of the people challenges the validity of Moses’ leadership — which means challenging the goodness of the exodus

The people’s opening complaint in our passage demonstrates these elements. 

If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you [masculine plural] have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger (verse 3, NRSV). 

Thus the exodus was a wicked plot by the leaders rather than the doing of the Lord. 

God’s response to the complaint is to supply food.  After telling Moses in detail what he is going to do, God brings quail in droves in the evening and in the morning the dew leaves behind a strange wafer-like substance which was a substitute for bread (verses 11-15). 

In the first place this response satisfied the people’s hunger.  The story does not elaborate the severity of the hunger, but hunger is the human need at the core of the story.  They were hungry and God supplied the food.  In the second place, the enterprise of the exodus is sustained.  God is saving the people, not leading them into worse and worse sufferings.  In the third place, their charges against Moses and Aaron are refuted.  Their leadership is vindicated in the saving enterprise that leads from bondage to the promised land. 

There is a final level of the story that is midrashic, that is, it spins out the piety of the Torah rather than simply providing instructions or narrative. 

This special bread is “daily bread.”  “Each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.  In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.  On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days” (verses 4-5, NRSV).  This bread is not only daily bread, it also observes the Sabbath.  The sixth day gives a double supply so no one needs to work gathering food on the seventh day. 

This final level of instruction sees the bread as an occasion of testing the people — whether they will live by the wisdom of the Lord who gives them the Sabbath, even though the Sabbath commandment is not given until Sinai. 

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45. 

The Psalm reading is a final selection from this great hymn to God’s mighty deeds in Israel’s early history that we have been hearing in recent weeks. 

After a long call to worship (verses 1-6), the psalm celebrated the covenant with Abraham, the providential care shown to Joseph, and the mighty deeds by which Egypt was subdued under Moses’ command.  Now, as the last stage of the saving work for Israel, it celebrates how Israel was brought from Egypt to the promised land.  The delivering deeds in the wilderness are only alluded to.  “They asked, and he brought quails, / and gave them food from heaven in abundance” (verse 40, NRSV). 

This psalm does not include Israel’s resistance to God’s or Moses’ leadership in the wilderness.  It’s mood is only celebrative.  Only the things good for Israel are included.  Other psalms dwell on the trouble Israel gave God in the wilderness and their resulting punishment (e.g., Psalms 78 and 106).  Here even the wilderness is only a place of good things. 

In this hymn, the wilderness deeds are done because “he remembered his holy promise, / and Abraham, his servant” (verse 42).  All the deeds in Israel’s sacred history are rooted in God’s original promise to Abraham. 

Philippians 1:21-30.  

After twelve Sundays of Epistle readings from the Letter to the Romans, we shift for the next four Sundays to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

Our reading skips the opening greetings and thanksgiving (1:1-11), in which Paul is grateful for the continuing loyalty of this earliest church founded by him in Europe.  Traditionally, this letter comes late in Paul’s career, many years after he started the assembly in Philippi.  There is no evidence that Paul ever had serious difficulties with this church — one of the few.  They not only had remained loyal to his version of the gospel, they had repeatedly sent him material support over the years (see 4:15-18). 

In our reading Paul views his life and missionary work as going on in a kind of wilderness period (like the Israelites, between deliverance and the Promised Land).  There is labor and hardship in the present — as he dictates, he is in prison for the gospel — but there is a great fulfillment that lies just ahead. 

He reflects on whether he will die — be executed — at this point in his work or whether he will be kept alive to work further with the churches.  “It is my eager expectation … that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (1:20NRSV, immediately preceding our reading). 

Paul muses with his hearers on whether he would prefer to be killed now and go on to his union with Christ, or whether he would prefer to continue the missionary work with its suffering and its joys.  “I am hard pressed between the two:  my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better…” (verse 23).  Yet, before he finishes the sentence, he realizes that God’s will may be otherwise.  “…but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you …” and he concludes in confidence that he will survive his captivity and return to the Philippians (verses 25-26). 

This is no longer the earlier Paul who thought he would be around when Jesus came in his final glory (I Thessalonians 4:17); this is a Paul who has worked long with large results and who now allows for the possibility that missionary work may go on after he is gone.  But he urges the church to stand faithful to the gospel that has brought them this far in their journey of a new life:  “whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (verse 27). 

Paul’s word to the church in the wilderness of their world is “Keep the faith!” 

Matthew 20:1-16.  

[For a survey of the Gospel readings for the rest of this year, and their apparent "anti-Judaism," see the Special Note below.] 

The Gospel reading is the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.   

This parable is found only in Matthew, but even in Matthew it does not fit its immediate context.  It is surrounded by two forms of the “first shall be last” saying (verses 19:30 and 20:16), but the parable is in fact not an example of the reversal of fortunes of that saying.   The “first shall be last” saying refers to such reversals as those richest in this world will be poorest in the next world, and those who are ambitious for leadership in this world will be the lowest servants in the world to come.  Our parable does not illustrate that kind of reversal. 

In the first part of this parable the landowner is anxious to get as many workers for his vineyard as possible.  He seeks more workers at every period of the day, including the eleventh hour of a twelve-hour day. 

The latter part of the parable turns to the question of compensation.  The workers hired at the beginning of the day agreed to the standard daily pay — one denarius.  The rest are promised only “whatever is right.”  At the end of the day, the landowner has them paid in the reverse order of their hiring — this is the only “last shall be first” in the parable.  Every worker gets the same full day’s pay — that is the punch line of the story.  In a final dialogue of the landowner with the 12-hour workers, he emphasizes that their original bargain was kept and that he disposes of his wealth as he chooses. 

It is important to remember that the parable is about the kingdom of heaven, not about wages or work in the regular world.  Receiving the denarius is the admission to the kingdom of heaven.  Some get it after a full life of righteous living; others get it by grace at the last gasp.  So God disposes entrance to “life eternal” (19:16). 

As some commentators have pointed out, the thrust of this parable is like that of the Prodigal Son.  One loyal son stays home and serves the father throughout his life; the other son runs away and wastes his inheritance.  At the end, the father urges the older son to join the rejoicing when the younger son is accepted back with feasting.  In our parable, the 12-hour laborers are like the older son, and the eleventh-hour workers are like the lost son who returns finally to the house of the father. 

God’s grace does not promise equality in worldly terms, but a waiting and patient care for the return of the lost — to be united with the previous workers in a common household. 


Special Note.  Gospel Readings from Now to Advent – Separating from Judaism. 

[This is a low-key protest against “anti-Judaism” in this Gospel, first written in 2008, “Biblical Words,” for Protestants for the Common Good.]

The Gospel readings in the Lectionary for the coming ten weeks are as follows: 

(AP = After Pentecost, 2023.)

16th AP - Sept 17      Matt. 20:1-16      Parable of Workers in the Vineyard

                                                            or The Generous Employer

17th AP - Sept 24      Matt. 21:23-32    Authority of Jesus Questioned &

                                                            Parable of the Two Sons

18th AP - Oct 1         Matt. 21:33-46    Parable of the (“Wicked”) Tenants

19th AP - Oct 8       Matt. 22:1-14      Parable of the Wedding Banquet

20th AP - Oct 15       Matt. 22:15-22    Paying Taxes to Caesar

21st AP - Oct 22       Matt. 22:34-46    The Greatest Commandment &

                                                            The Question about David’s Son

22nd AP – Oct 29       Matt. 23:1-12      Denouncing Scribes & Pharisees

23rd AP - Nov 5        Matt. 25:1-13      Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

24th AP - Nov 12      Matt. 25:14-30    Parable of the Talents

25th AP - Nov 19      Matt. 25:31-46    The Judgment of the Nations

                                                            (“…to the Least of These…”) 

These readings in the late parts of the Gospel According to Matthew very much hang together and share an overall perspective which it may be useful to discuss as we enter this period.  [I follow New Testament terminology, using “Judean” instead of “Jew” and “Jewish,” except in quotes from other writers.]

·        These readings are almost all teachings of Jesus.  Most of their text is in red ink, in those Bibles that print Jesus’ words in red. 

·        These teachings of Jesus consist mainly of parables.  Six readings are identified as parables either directly or by such clauses as “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  (Workers in the Vineyard, the Two Sons, the Tenants, the Wedding Banquet, the Ten Bridesmaids, and the Talents).  A seventh, the Judgment of the Nations, is not identified as a parable but is commonly thought of as one.  The parables included here are among the more complex of the parables to interpret.  That is so because of the next two points. 

·        These readings present mostly controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem.  Besides the several parables that impugn the religious claims of the leaders, there are direct questions about the authority of John the Baptist, about paying Roman taxes, and about the titles of the Messiah (all hot button issues in Jesus’ time).  And one passage is a direct attack on the Scribes and Pharisees.  Some parables condemn Jesus’ opponents— that is, the current Judean authorities are portrayed as active enemies of Israel’s Lord. 

·        These readings exhibit the state of conflict as the Jesus movement, itself a Judean movement, was evolving into the Christian church.  This evolving church was explicitly separating from the Judaism of the Pharisees as they evolved toward the later forms of Rabbinic Judaism.  “Matthew presupposes Christians and Pharisees as two Jewish sects competing to offer the most authentic version of Jewish life and belief…. All Matthew’s threats and fulminations [in the readings listed above], culminating in an announcement that the kingdom of God will be taken away from this nation and given to another [Matthew 21:43], acknowledge that, in the end, his community’s future will lie among the Gentiles [the nations].  The parting is no less bitter for being inescapable.”  (Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting:  How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book, HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, p. 60.) 

A progressive perspective on this group of readings for the next ten weeks should recognize that the Gospel of Matthew embodies the evolution of religious movements over three generations (1, 2, and 3 below): 

(1-A) John the Baptist headed a Judgment Movement to restore Israel to God’s requirements. 

(1-B) Jesus, beginning as a disciple of John, came to recognize through his healing powers and other signs that the Kingdom was in fact beginning to appear in the lives of John’s followers.  He launched a Kingdom Movement in which, not baptism, but believing in and experiencing the secret reality of God’s Reign was the center piece.  (See the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12, and the answer to John in Matthew 11:1-6.)  Crucifixion of the leader did not destroy this Movement, but transformed it into an even wider one in the next generation. 

(2) After they experienced the Risen Jesus (I Corinthians 15:3-8, not the empty tomb stories), the first generation of disciples/apostles led a Jesus Movement, in which the special status of Jesus as the Messiah, Son of God, and (for some, at least) heavenly Son of Man was the inside secret about Jesus of Nazareth – the very Jesus who got crucified by the Romans.  It is important to recognize that the Jesus Movement (first generation) was a Judean movement.  It was a Judean movement, even in distant provinces, because it assumed (1) the Judean heritage of scriptures, (2) one only covenant God, (3) a divine moral code, (4) eschatological hope, and (5) a Judean prayer and worship life.  Even though it gradually accepted non-Judean people into communion without requiring them to become practicing Judeans, it remained a Judean movement throughout the first generation (even in Paul’s churches).  There was no separate “Christianity” until late in the second generation after Jesus’ death. 

(3) Finally, after the Son of Man did not come in glory during or following the Roman-Judean war of 66-73 CE, the second generation of disciples/apostles increasingly recognized that the Jesus-Movement-become-Church was here for the long haul, and in a fairly short time (between 70 and 100 CE) they wrote down the Gospels from the most authoritative reciters in their various metropolitan centers.  They also adopted leadership structures not subject to the near-anarchy of uninhibited charismatic movements, including methods for disciplining members, even to the point of exclusion from the group. 

In this second generation, the Jesus followers began to be rejected from the synagogues by a newly-consolidated Rabbinic Judaism, and some of the newly-aware “Christians” began to denigrate “Jews” as a group as they continued to shape their versions of the Jesus story for their own times. 

All these developments are reflected in the Gospel According to Matthew.  We see in this Gospel what the Jesus Movement(s), now becoming Christian churches, had become, perhaps in Galilee where the Rabbinic Movement was growing strong or, more likely, in Greek-speaking Syria, around the metropolitan center of Antioch.  (Matthew is not, like Luke, a Jerusalem-centered writing.) 

The Lections from here to Advent.  We will find in the Gospel readings of the Lectionary for this season traces of each stage of the evolution of the faith – from the unqualified good news of the Beatitudes to the condemning “Woes” on the scribes and Pharisees.  We will hear the second-generation Christian community reporting how they remember the teachings of Jesus, and in their remembering we see them at their best — but also at their worst. 

A progressive hearing of the scripture must sift the tradition. We seek to discern words for our times from the tradition’s own best expressions of the goodness and grace of God — recognizing that much that we find in the scripture is the deposit of unworthy motives in stressful and hostile human conditions. 

We must have the courage to deny that such unworthiness (“anti-Judaism”) is really part of the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We must insist that the Jesus who initiated the movement of God’s Kingdom was sometimes betrayed by his later followers’ zeal to condemn and exclude his opponents and enemies. 


Thursday, September 14, 2023

September 17, 2023 -- 16th Sunday after Pentecost

                                           Biblical Words                                             [845] 

Exodus 14:19-31Psalm 114Romans 14:1-12Matthew 18:21-35. 

Israelites sang God’s triumph over Pharaoh, and Jesus people were taught to forgive each other. 

Exodus 14:19-31. 

The reading from the Torah is the central event of God’s defeat of Pharaoh at the Red Sea (its name in Greek; its Hebrew name is Sea of Reeds).  

Strictly speaking, the exodus has already been achieved through the ten plagues and the night of Passover (Exodus 7-12).  The Israelites have left Egypt, taking Egyptian wealth with them (Exodus 12:33-36), the narrator’s summary of their stay in Egypt has been given (Exodus 12:40-42), and the standard features of the Wilderness stories have already been introduced – the guidance by pillars of cloud and fire (13:20-22) and the people complaining that the exodus was a bad thing (14:10-12). 

However, even though the Israelite narrators presented the triumph at the Sea as the beginning of the wilderness rather than the conclusion of the exodus, the later world has always regarded the Red Sea as the climax of Israel’s deliverance from slavery under Pharaoh. 

The Song came before the story.  The story given in our reading is a prose version of the victory celebrated in the Song of Moses / Miriam in Exodus 15:1-18.  That Song presents Yahweh’s victory over Pharaoh at the Reed Sea as the triumph of the storm god over Sea, the god of chaos in older Canaanite tradition. 

Pharaoh’s chariots and army he cast into the sea;

      his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. 

The floods covered them;

      they went down into the depths like a stone.

At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,

      the floods stood up in a heap;

      the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. 

                                          (Exodus 15:4-5, 8, NRSV)

The Song shares the language and imagery of other poetic presentations of Yahweh as the triumphant Storm God, passages such as Psalm 74:12-14; 18:13-15; 89:9-11; and 77:16-20, this last referring specifically to Moses and Aaron.  The Song presents the victory of the Lord over his archetypal enemy, who often appears as the Sea, here identifying Pharaoh as the earthly representative of the cosmic power of chaos. 

What the narrative does is turn the poetic language of the song into a prose story.  It turns the poetic images into literal details of the action.  Where the poem says the floods “stood up in a heap,” the story describes “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (14:22).  The “blast of your nostrils” that piled up the waters in the poem becomes a very strong east wind which God sent during the night to blow back the waters and dry out the sea bottom for the people to pass over (14:21). 

The wild dynamic language of the victory Song has become the prosaic machinery of an early Israelite rationalist.  Our narrative is the work of literalists let loose on the ecstatic liturgical language about the kingship of the Lord over all other gods and cosmic powers.  (The kingship of the Lord becomes explicit in the last line of the Song:  “The Lord will reign forever and ever,” 15:18.) 

Though not originally a part of the exodus narrative, in later generations this prose story of the triumph at the Red Sea came to stand for the greatest miracle of deliverance in the Israelite tradition. 

Psalm 114. 

The reading from the Psalms echoes in brief images the spirit of the Song of the Red Sea. 

The sea looked and fled;

      Jordan turned back. …

Why is it, O sea, that you flee?

      O Jordan, that you turn back?” (verses 3, 5, NRSV). 

Sea and “Jordan” together stand for the cosmic powers reduced to order by the overwhelming power of God, manifested on behalf of Judah and Israel, who have become God’s “sanctuary” and “dominion.” 

As the story of God splitting the Red Sea was the beginning of the wilderness story, the ecstatic song about Jordan turning back also got its prose rendering as the end of Israel’s wilderness story. 

The song celebrating God’s mastery of THE River (the Jordan) was given a narrative form in the story of the Ark dividing the waters of the Jordan to let the Israelites pass over.  The waters stood up in a “heap” (same word as in Exodus 15:9) to let the people cross on dry land, thus concluding the wilderness period for Israel (Joshua 3-4, especially 3:15-17). 

This psalm, used at the Passover observance, shows the ecstatic mood of celebration because of God’s archetypal acts of power at the beginning and the end of the wilderness period.  

Romans 14:1-12. 

The reading from the Epistle also reflects a tension between the freer (more poetic) and the stricter readings of past traditions.  Our reading is the first half of a longer passage (14:1-15:6) that deals with Christian freedom on one hand and considerate love on the other in the practical living of the church communities. 

This passage emphasizes that practices of the Christian life must be based in the deepest personal convictions of each believer.  Each is accountable to God, not to other people’s opinions or current fads.  “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds….  So then, each of us will be accountable to God [for our convictions about religious practices]” (verses 5 and 12, NRSV).  The most unfaithful condition is hypocrisy – in which our actions betray and corrupt our deepest convictions. 

Christians bring different baggage into the fellowship.  Paul refers here to people who feel it wrong to eat meat that may have been consecrated to foreign gods, as most meat available in the public markets had been.  (This is why Jews had their own butcher shops.)  These people feel strongly enough that they eat only vegetables.  Others, among whom Paul includes himself, do not believe that such meat any longer has religious power.  Christ has put an end to any powers behind such superstitious beliefs concerning foods.  The same thing applies to the observance of the Sabbath, which is the main issue behind the statement, “Some judge one day to be better than another…” (verse 5). 

The people whose consciences hold them to particular ritual practices – such as food laws, Sabbath observances, and rules about clean and unclean – are genuine Christians if they confess Jesus as the Christ of God.  They have equal place in the larger fellowship.  Paul calls them “weak in faith” (verse 1), which does not mean that they do not believe strongly.  It only means that their convictions lead them to hold on to past religious practices while entering the new life. 

These folks are the literalists of the Christian life; they want to continue to observe the traditions of the past along with their confession of Jesus Christ.  Paul insists that they belong to the community, “for God has welcomed them…. It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.  And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (verses 3-4). 

The whole community must encompass in mutual respect a variety of practices, and the current challenge is to find ways to live in harmony, given this diversity of backgrounds and convictions.  A little after our reading, Paul sums up this challenge in echoes of Jesus’ teaching:  “The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17). 

Matthew 18:21-35. 

The Gospel reading is the conclusion of Jesus’ discourse on the internal life of the church (chapter 18).  

In its earlier sections the discourse has already dealt with the need to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (18:1-5), with the great offense of putting a stumbling block in the way of “these little ones who believe in me” (18:6-9), the divine care for the one lost sheep (18:10-14), and the procedure for dispute resolution within the congregation (18:15-20, last week’s reading).  The rest of the discourse is about the essential practice necessary to achieve harmony in such a Christian congregation – Forgiveness. 

Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive his fellow Christian – as many as seven?  Jesus says, No not seven, but seventy-seven – which is tantamount to saying “without number.” 

It is likely that this exchange has the ancient claim of Lamech in view (Genesis 4:19-24).  Lamech was a descendant of Cain, before the flood.  After Cain was driven out of common society, God gave him a sign to protect him.  The sign meant that Cain’s clan would be protected by a seven-fold vengeance upon anyone molesting them.  For one Cainite killed, seven of the offending clan would be killed.  

(The name “Cain” means “metalworker,” and it is speculated that in ancient society the guild of metal-workers was very valuable to all tribes – so valuable that one of them was worth seven other men.)  

Lamech came a few generations after Cain, and boasting to his wives he said, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech [will be avenged] seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24NRSV).  Jesus tells Peter that this ancient rule of most extreme vengeance is applied in reverse to Christian forgiveness!! 

Jesus expands on the importance of forgiveness by telling the story of the unforgiving servant. 

In this story a king is settling accounts with all his servants.  One owed him ten thousand talents.  This is a fabulous amount, showing that the servant, even if he were a vassal king, could never pay it.  (The annual revenue of Herod the Great’s kingdom at its greatest was around 900 talents.)  In the story, after the debtor pleads for time to pay, the king forgives the whole debt.  The servant, on the other hand, refuses to extend the time of a debt of 100 denarii owed to him by a fellow servant.  One hundred denarii was about three months’ pay for a day laborer.  This unforgiving servant was a world-class hypocrite! 

The message of Jesus’ story is:  God has forgiven humans such vast amounts that they can never forgive more than they have been forgiven. 

In view of God’s grace to individual Christians, their forgiveness of their neighbors will never be caught up.  Thus, the Christian community is a congregation of people who forgive each other, in Jesus’ name, without end! 


Friday, September 8, 2023

September 10, 2023 -- 15th Sunday after Pentecost

                                            Biblical Words                                                         [844] 

Exodus 12:1-14Psalm 149Romans 13:8-14Matthew 18:15-20.

Deliverance involves both the redeemed and their enemies, and even the community of love needs ways to keep its boundaries. 

These readings are about in-groups and their opponents or enemies.  About “them” and “us.”  They present extreme actions between the in-group and its enemies or deviants.  In a world of oppression, deliverance means somebody is going to really hurt – often die.  Coming up this week is the anniversary of Nine-Eleven, when Americans contemplate losses from agents of vengeance.  These are serious readings! 

Exodus 12:1-14. 

Though it is not the season for it, the Torah reading presents the detailed instructions for how to observe the Passover in Israelite homes. 

In the narrative line of these selected readings from Exodus, we have leaped over the great scenes of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh with God’s command, “Let my people go!”   We have also skipped the complex drama of God’s systematic overpowering of Pharaoh by delivering one plague after another on the people of Egypt, who suffer because of Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance. 

When, during this ordeal, God occasionally “hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (e.g., 9:12), it means that God gave Pharaoh the courage of his own convictions.  Pharaoh is the archetype of every great power that oppresses the people of God, and the conflict between the forces of oppression and the forces of liberation is terribly serious and must be forced to a complete conclusion, even if God has to lend Pharaoh support! 

(For a rather long discussion of the Exodus story and the Passover, see my Study Bibles Blog at this link à Exodus Story  )

The climax of the entire power struggle is on the night of the Passover.  All the Israelite firstborn will be saved – by the Passover ritual – and all the Egyptian firstborn will die – a final overwhelming proof of God’s power over the gods of Egypt, and over Pharaoh their earthly agent. 

Liberation does not come cheaply.  The ones to be liberated prepare in anxiety and darkness, sacrificing the selected and watched-over lamb (or kid) and eating its meat as a group ritual with numerous taboo details.  Especially solemn and numinous is the blood ritual.  A branch from a hyssop plant is used as a brush, dipped in the basin of lamb’s blood and daubed on the doorposts and lintel of the house.  (The full details are in 12:22, not included in the reading.) 

This blood framing the doorway of the house is each family’s only security from the “plague” that will pass through at midnight.  All around these anxious Israelite slaves Egyptian households are struck with horrifying grief.  There is death and agony over the land. 

As the cosmic powers contend for the destinies of human groups, it is a matter of life and death for all parties involved. 

The exodus story is not just joy; there is also human cost and a death to an old order.  All of that is symbolized by the blood of the Passover lamb.  The death is represented by the blood; the hope and new beginning is represented by the extended family eating the meal on the eve of liberation from slavery. 

Psalm 149. 

If the Passover ritual combines the death of the powers of evil with the liberation of the enslaved, the Psalm reading is unabashed triumphalism.  It exults in the God who sends the faithful to crusading victory over the peoples and their kings.  “Let the high praises of God be in their throats / and two-edged swords in their hands, / to execute vengeance on the nations / … to execute on them the judgment decreed” (verses 6-9, NRSV). 

This is the viewpoint of, among others, the Hasmonean – Maccabean – priest-kings as they mobilized a newly-independent Israel to conquer and convert their neighbors, the Edomites and Samaritans, during the second and first centuries BCE (Josephus, Antiquities, book 13). 

It is the viewpoint of Christian crusaders in the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries CE in the Muslim lands of Palestine, as well as in a number of unfortunate Jewish communities – and even the fellow Christian great city of Constantinople – on the way to the Holy Land. 

For chastened Christians of the twentieth-first century, it is impossible that these could be useful words. 

Like the portrayal of Passover eve, these are the words of people who have known bitter oppression and yearn to witness a total reversal.  Let the oppressors suffer and die as we have suffered and died for so long!  That MUST be God’s will! 

These are the words of vengeance, and as such best left in silence by those who pray for peace, peace even at the cost of suffering and humiliation – in the way Christians know as that of Jesus. 

Romans 13:8-14. 

The Epistle reading continues the “ethical” section of Paul’s letter to the Romans. 

The first part of this reading urges that the commandment to love one’s neighbor, if fully observed, would fulfill all the commandments of the law.  “For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” including the Ten Commandments, several of which are cited.  “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (verse 10, NRSV). 

Paul adds to this that we live in an end-time.  “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…” (verse 11).  While usually Paul enters into no calculations about the end of the age, his counsel for Christian conduct regularly appeals to the short time remaining to the believer. 

The Christian lives and acts as if the world we have known is no longer our future.  We have only a present, in which to live in love for our neighbor, and a hope that is wholly with Christ. 

Paul’s reading of Christian hope also places the attitude toward worldly enemies in proper perspective. 

Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution…?  As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  (Romans 8:35-37.) 

The followers of Jesus are conquerors, not with two-edged swords, but with the love of Jesus Christ. 

Matthew 18:15-20. 

The Gospel reading presents one of the special emphases of the Gospel According to Matthew – the assembly of followers that became “the church.”  The word “church” is used only in Matthew among the Gospels, and in Matthew only in the blessing on Peter (16:17-20) and here on the internal discipline of “the church.” 

The instructions are to keep internal conflicts as contained as possible.  

When the need for conflict resolution arises, first try one-on-one.  If an alleged offending party refuses to come to agreement, try meeting with one or two more, enough to provide witnesses about the matter.  If that does not restore harmony, final resort is to the full group – with no clues here as to how that would actually be done.  Presumably it would come before what we might call a “congregational meeting.” 

There is a final measure that the church can take.  “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile [a person of the nations] and a tax collector” (verse 17, NRSV). 

Gentle-minded persons have sometimes said that treating someone like a Gentile or tax collector means accepting them, as Jesus did at the beginning. 

However, that probably does not take seriously what the passage is about.  It is, in fact, about maintaining some degree of order and dispute resolution within the larger community.  That is why the next words empower the church to “bind” and “loose” things on earth (verse 18).  The life of the community of faith eventually requires enough cohesion and mutuality to follow and serve its Lord effectively and harmoniously.  Therefore, the decisions of the full congregation about who is in and who is out are ratified in heaven. 

But the community – the church – is the body of people to whom the Lord Jesus is present.  (“And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age,” the final words of the Gospel, 28:20.)  And the discussion here concludes with the promise that that presence will continue even without any substantial quorum.  “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (verse 20). 

Even those sent packing by the whole congregation may yet find others with whom they can experience the presence of the risen Lord. 


Tuesday, August 29, 2023

September 3, 2023 -- 14th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                   Biblical Words                                              [843] 

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21Matthew 16:21-28. 

 God’s salvation has critical turning points—sending a deliverer to Egypt, an Anointed One turns toward Jerusalem

Exodus 3:1-15.  

The Torah reading is often referred to as “the Call of Moses.”  However, it is much more about God than it is about Moses.  It is a classic self-declaration of who God is, including the special name by which God is known to God’s chosen servants. 

The Divine Turn (Exodus 2:23-25).  To grasp the drama of the big picture, we must pause over the short passage immediately before the Lectionary reading. 

The story of Israel and Moses has proceeded entirely on the human plane up to Exodus 2:22.  The Israelites have been enslaved, Moses was born and saved, got into trouble in Egypt, and fled for his life to the desert country of Midian, where he got a wife and two sons.  On the human plane, things had come to a standstill – and not a happy one for the Israelites. 

The passage 2:23-25 is a very solemn narrative of God’s movement, of the divine turn to the human dilemma.  The narrator directs our attention upward, as it were, following the agonized prayers of the Israelites as they ascend to heaven and there set in motion a four-part response by God.  The translations usually smooth over this passage and lose its truly dramatic thrust.  The following is a very literal translation of the passage.  

The Israelites groaned because of the slavery and cried out. 

Their scream ascended to God because of the slavery: 

      God heard their groaning.

      God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 

      God saw the Israelites. 

      God knew. 

The agonizing laments of the Israelites were loud enough to ascend to God and attract the Divine attention.  God heard.  God remembered (reminded by the appeals in the laments).  God saw.  God “knew.”   “God knew” means God comprehended all and took charge. 

From this point on, the Exodus story is the story of God’s action. 

The Call of Moses.  The appearance to Moses at the perpetually lighted bush on Mount Horeb is the first step in God’s action.  God summons the human agent who will bear both God’s words and God’s power to judge arrogant human rulers.  The passage dwells on (1) the holiness of the place, (2) God’s plan of deliverance, and (3) the mystery of God’s name. 

The place is God’s holy mountain, signaled by the perpetual flame that does not consume.  Moses is lured by this surprising and awesome sight, and then warned of the holiness of that rugged ground (verses 3-5).  This holy place (Sinai / Horeb) will be the scene of the later full revelation to the delivered slaves.  “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you.  And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (verse 12, TANAK Jewish Version). 

The Plan.  God states for Moses the entire plan for the Israelites, which is now being initiated.  The emphasis in this overview is on the end, on the final goal of the deliverance, namely, the Promised Land. 

I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (verse 8). 

The identification of the future land is drawn out, elaborated by the names of its current inhabitants.  There is to be no mistake that the exodus is for the sake of possessing the future land.  The current sufferings of the Israelites are to be ended, of course, and Moses is chosen to take care of that (verses 9-10). 

Naturally enough, Moses is overwhelmed at this assignment (which is spelled out more fully in verses 16-22), and his objections are dealt with at length later in this divine conference (Exodus 4:1-17). 

The Name.  Finally in our passage, Moses raises the issue of God’s Name.  Who can he say has sent him, when the Israelites ask about the secret name of God?  The answer in verse 14 does not seem very clear to us, but it embodies some heavy meditation by later keepers of tradition about the inner meaning of the divine name Yahweh. 

The name appears related to the verbal root usually translated “to be,” or “to happen.”  Therefore, God is the One who truly IS, or the One through whom (decisive) things Happen.  What God says, literally, is, “I Am Who I Am.”  (The TANAK Version gives a transliteration of the Hebrew words, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” verse 14.) 

Not so much an identification as a profound declining to be specified in human terms. 

Yet this is the God who will deliver a people from slavery. 

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c. 

The Psalm reading is another selection from the long hymn of Israel’s thankfulness for God’s great works in the past.  Especially praised are the works performed for the ancestors, dwelling on the stories of Joseph and the Exodus.  The few verses of our reading state the Egyptian enslavement in vague terms, and conclude with a word about the Torah passage just read.  “He sent His servant Moses, / and Aaron, whom he had chosen” (verse 26, the Jewish TANAK translation). 

The full Psalm goes on to elaborate in detail the work that Moses and Aaron carried out, the “signs” and “miracles” done in Egypt to get the Israelites out.  These miracles are the great terrors of the plagues on Egypt – but the Lectionary refrains from having us read this violence out loud. 

[There is now an essay in my Study Bibles Blog on The Exodus Story and the Passover.  Click on this link Exodus Story ]

Romans 12:9-21. 

The Epistle reading is addressed to a people who have already been released from slavery – the slavery of sin and the compulsive powers of a corrupt age and world.  Our passage is in the imperative mood.  There are thirty clauses in the passage that command or exhort to good action or the avoidance of evil things. 

The behavior of delivered ones is to be marked by love toward one another (verses 9-13).  The behavior of Jesus followers, however, is not marked only by love of one’s own group; it is to be marked by that greater love to which the wisdom of Israel attained – love of those who hate us and do us harm.  “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…”; “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, …” (verses 17 and 19, NRSV). 

This word about loving the enemy is a gem from the book of Proverbs, given emphasis by Jesus, that is to guide the Christians of Rome.  “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…” (verse 20, quoting Proverbs 25:21).  Christians are thereby urged to conduct themselves so that people of wicked intent may be stricken in conscience – they will feel like burning coals have been piled on their heads because of their shame and unworthiness (verse 21). 

So does Paul sum up the challenge and imperative of the gospel ethic:  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  

Matthew 16:21-28. 

The Gospel reading is the immediate sequel to last week’s confession by Peter of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah).  That confession represented the culmination of long work in Galilee. 

Something else now begins.  “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (verse 21).  From here on, the passion is the dominant reality.

As Peter was the spokesman for the finally-attained confession of Jesus as Messiah, so he is the vehement spokesman for the very human opposition to this passion trajectory that Jesus has just announced. 

Peter does not hear the clause, “on the third day be raised.”  None of the disciples hears that clause. 

Peter hears a leader who is accepting defeat; who goes to the major leagues with the firm expectation that he will be defeated, punished, and killed.  Such pessimism can neither start nor sustain a movement.  It is utterly defeatist and futile, and Peter denounces it.  “Never, Lord!”  “This shall never happen to you!” (verse 22, NIV; “God” is not mentioned directly, as the NRSV suggests). 

Jesus’ reply is just as vehement.  In fact, it is crushingly violent.  “Get behind me Satan!  …for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (verse 23, NRSV).  The turn of Jesus’ new beginning is completely opposite to human wisdom and common sense.  From here on that is the paradox of the true mission of Jesus. 

Given this revolution in mission, the question of following Jesus leaps up again.  For following now leads to Jerusalem – suffering and death, a destiny shared with the past prophets of Israel.  This means, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (verse 25, NRSV). 

The last sayings of this passage seem to be aimed at those who choose to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake.  Those who continue to follow Jesus may have the assurance that in spite of suffering and death, there will be a reward.  “For the Son of Man is going to come…and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (verse 27, NIVNRSV weakens the individuality of this reward). 

Finally, a saying that is very perplexing for modern Gospel readers.  “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (verse 28, NRSV). 

Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, New Testament scholars at the beginning of the 20th century, discovered the fully apocalyptic Jesus who went to Jerusalem expecting the end of the world to come after he had suffered there.  This verse is one of the rocks on which such an apocalyptic interpretation stands.  All the Gospels were written after most of those standing with Jesus had in fact “tasted death,” and, therefore the next generation found various ways of understanding this “coming.” 

We can see a progression in how each of the Gospels handled this saying about the imminent coming of the kingdom: 

Matthew (16:28):  “…will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  (NRSV)

Mark (9:1):  “…will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  (NRSV)

Luke (9:27):  “…will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”  (NRSV)

John (8:52):  “…will not taste death for ever” (literal translation; parallel to “will not see death for ever,” in 8:51). 

In Matthew, it is the Son of Man who will come; in Mark it is the kingdom in power; in Luke it is simply the kingdom (which for Luke begins to be equated with the church, as Acts suggests), and in the similar saying in John it is eternal life instead of the kingdom that will be experienced.  We see an evolution from radical apocalyptic expectation to a mystic union in eternal life. 

As life went on for the early Christians, they kept finding ways to live with and by Jesus’ words, understood in the light of what God kept bringing them – or not bringing them – from year to year.  So, even through history, the way of Jesus leads on beyond Jerusalem.  

Monday, August 21, 2023

August 27, 2023 -- 13th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                Biblical Words                                             [842]

Exodus 1:8-2:10Psalm 124Romans 12:1-8Matthew 16:13-20.

Oppressed Israel hides a Moses, Peter confesses a Messiah, and Paul calls for a spiritual worship.

The texts for this Sunday present oppression and death in Egypt, but also a confessing church founded against the powers of death in Galilee  They present Moses saved and Peter empowered.  In the middle is the appeal to members of the Body to esteem their gifts appropriately. 

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 Israel.  The ancestral families have become a great population—though hardly a “people” yet, since they have no order or covenant. 

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 (1:15-21).  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 Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’” (verse 22). 

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” (KJV, the same Hebrew term as in Noah’s flood).  This ark (“papyrus basket” in the NRSV) was floated among the reeds by the bank of the Nile river.  Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the crying baby, has compassion on it, hires its mother to nurse it, and makes Moses—to whom she gives this name—a member of the royal household of Egypt.  Thus, like Joseph (the son of Jacob), Moses was originally a mighty man in Egypt, which, however, he will plunder by taking away their slaves, whom he will make into a mighty people in their own right. 

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. 

Psalm 124. 

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 Nile river.  “…the flood would have swept us away, / the torrent would have gone over us” (verse 4).  Israel may now exult.  “We have escaped like a bird / from the snare of the fowler; / the snare is broken, and we have escaped” (verse 7). 

So over the centuries Israel sang its thanksgiving for escaping Pharaoh – and many later oppressors history would bring upon them. 

Romans 12:1-8. 

The Epistle reading continues in Paul’s letter to the Roman church, now moving from his reflections on Israel’s election to more practical matters about church life. 

He has not been to Rome yet, and thus he does not write about specific events of church life there, as he did in his letters to the church in Corinth.  Here are more general guidelines about conducting new life in the Christian faith. 

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 AsiaGreece, and Rome, rarely if ever presented actual animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple – and any other temple was strictly forbidden.  Yet long stretches of the Law of Moses were concerned with such sacrifices and were dominated by the centrality of the Tabernacle worship.  In place of actual animal sacrifice, Judeans and Christians were called to make their whole lives public testimonies to the truth and reality of their God, and thus present themselves as sacrifices for their “spiritual worship.”  (Note that verses 1-3 do not mention Jesus Christ.  They could be addressed to any Judean or “god-fearing” group.) 

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 much in Rome as in Corinth – or Jerusalem.  Its remedy must be to keep the “body of Christ” – a suffering and crucified body – ever before one’s awareness. 

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 Jerusalem, his suffering death, and his resurrection. 

Peter’s confession is the hinge between the labors of the unrecognized Messiah among the people in Galilee and the mission of the Suffering Servant in Jerusalem. 

The passage is structured to contrast what people think about Jesus after his work in Galilee – that he is a powerful figure from the past, an Elijah, John the Baptist, or Jeremiah reappeared – and what the disciples now think about him.  “But who do YOU say that I am?” (verse 15, NRSV).  The essential word of the answer is “the Christ” (Greek), “the Messiah” (Hebrew), both of which literally mean “the Anointed One.”  This much Matthew, Mark, and Luke have in common. 

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 Eastern Roman Empire:  Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18), Samaria (Acts 8:14-25), Lydda and Caesarea on the Sea (Acts 9:32-10:48), Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14), Corinth (I Corinthians 1:10-12), and perhaps the churches in the northern Roman provinces of Asia Minor (I Peter 1:1).  (There is no reference in the New Testament to Peter in Rome, unless “Babylon” in I Peter 5:13 refers to Rome.)

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 churches of Antioch around the year 49 CE.) 

Elizabeth Stilton, "Keys of St. Peter," Courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

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.