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. 

Monday, August 14, 2023

August 20, 2023 -- 12th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                     Biblical Words                                                  [841]

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28. 

Israel was first in God’s salvation design, but the goal was an inclusive grace for all people of faith. 
The readings for this Sunday concern relations of Israelite peoples to other lands, people, and faith communities.  Israel goes to live in Egypt by the providence of God, Israelites by birth are included in the community of faith by God’s grace, and the gospel sent to Israel drops crumbs for non-Israelite people in need. 
Genesis 45:1-15. 
The Torah reading is the climactic moment of revelation in the story of Joseph and his brothers. 
The scene is described as one of great emotion for Joseph. 
“Then Joseph could no longer control himself … and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ …And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it…” (verses 1-2, NRSV). 
And then he blurts out the great secret of his identity – that he is the younger brother they sold into slavery years ago.  The brothers now assembled before him are all the other eleven, including his younger full-brother Benjamin, the consolation of his father’s old age. 
The brothers are so flabbergasted by this declaration that they are speechless.  Joseph must repeat his declaration at greater length, with more details.  Now he even goes into the theology of what has happened.  
“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.  So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (verses 7-8).  
Among the Israelite brothers there is only reason to rejoice in the outcome of things that began in malice and treachery. 
The strongest concern in Joseph’s speech (verses 9-13), after he has gained some composure, is to get the good news back to his father in Canaan, and to arrange for Jacob (Israel) to come down into Egypt with all his remaining household to live through the famine in comfort and plenty.  The brothers celebrate and anticipate a happy conclusion for the worthy old father who suffered so much in bringing into the world the Sons of Israel – whose destiny will ultimately be of world-class proportions. 
Psalm 133. 
The psalm reading is a classic celebration of brothers living in harmony and blessing. 
The opening line could be translated, “Look!  What goodness and what delight!  Relatives dwelling in a single camp!” 
The peace of such brotherly dwelling is like two other special graces that God bestows on fortunate people in Palestine – two graces expressed in strong images. 
Olive oil that moistens the hair and scalp of the head – this luxury evokes the once-in-a-lifetime experience of watching a high priest be installed at the Jerusalem temple.  The anointing oil flows down from the head of the priest, over his beard, and right on down to the special sacred garments with which he has just been robed – garments, priest, and anointing representing a promise of God’s blessing for the realm in that’s priest’s time. 
In the second image, the blessing of moisture over an essentially dry land is contemplated.  The summit of Mount Hermon, far to the north of Israel, was normally snow covered.  That white top was a perpetual reminder of the moisture that was periodically deposited in the lowlands as the vitalizing freshness of morning dew.  This dew was a blessing intended by God for “the mountains of Zion.”  There at Zion the Lord has appointed (literally “commanded”) “the blessing,” which is life lasting to the end of the age (Hebrew ‘ōlām). 
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32. 
The Epistle reading is taken from the last part of Paul’s long meditation in Romans on the election of Israel in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
In the entire discussion Paul maintains two things.  As of the moment, Israel (meaning the main Judean people of the time) has rejected the gospel about Jesus Christ, but, secondly, God’s original promises to the ancestors will not be broken.  “As regards the gospel they are enemies… for your sake;  but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors ” (verse 28, NRSV, not in the reading). 
What has happened, Paul concludes, is a great leveling.  In the past, Israelites had the advantage of the election of their ancestors and the gift of the law, and their charge from God was to be “obedient” to the revelation and the law.   On the other hand, people of the nations (“Gentiles”) lived in “disobedience” because they did not have God’s special direction in the law.  The historic Israelites, however, being human, proved incapable of full obedience to the law – and thus became “disobedient.”  Thus, whether with or without the law, all had become disobedient. 
Through God’s grace, people of the nations became “obedient” to God’s will, through their faith, which reversed the original obedient-disobedient relation. 
Just as you [people of the nations] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their [the Israelites’] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.  For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all (verses 30-32). 
The leveling has occurred.  All have been disobedient but may now become obedient, by faith in Jesus Christ.  (Compare Galatians 3:23, “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.”) 
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28.  
The Gospel selection has two parts:  an optional reading, followed by the main text.
The optional reading (verses 10-20) is a continuation of Jesus’ controversy with the Pharisees concerning their teachings about purifications.  Jesus had condemned the Pharisees’ pedantry about hand-washing before meals by using a scripture quotation in which God declares:  “In vain do they worship me, / teaching human precepts as doctrines” (15:9, quoting Isaiah 29:13). 
Jesus then offers his counter-teaching:  “It is not what goes into the mouth [as in eating with unwashed hands] that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (verse 11, NRSV).  The ultimate issues of life are not religious taboos, but social conduct. 
Jesus mentions seven evils that come from the human heart, most of which are prohibited in the Ten Commandments (verse 19).  And he concludes, “These [wicked actions] are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (verse 20). 
If taken with complete seriousness, this principle eliminates the various taboos making up the Mosaic dietary laws (in the book of Leviticus).  This declaration would seem to be a far-reaching liberation from the burdensome restrictions of Rabbinic purity rules!  But this apparent liberation theology receives an even more shocking challenge in the next episode (the main Gospel reading). 
In the main reading the priority of Israel is overridden by a Canaanite woman’s desperate faith. 
The story of the Canaanite woman is told only in Matthew and Mark – in Matthew she is a “Canaanite,” in Mark a “Greek (woman), a Syrophoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26, literal translation).  Matthew’s version of the story follows Mark in general, but there are several very important twists.  It is worth printing the story with everything underlined that is found in Matthew’s version only. 
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But he did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.  (NRSV)
In Matthew’s version, the woman recognizes Jesus as the Judean Messiah.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”  She names him as his reputation prescribes, but to her his identity seems not to matter much.  If he heals, she needs him!  In Matthew’s version, Jesus deliberately ignores her “shouting,” treating her as a tourist treats a vendor in a foreign country who keeps chanting for a sale.  The annoyed disciples apparently ask him to grant her request – give her some pittance to get rid of her! 
Jesus’ answer to the disciples – note, it is to them, not to the woman – declares that he was sent only to Israel, not to the nations.  This is a Matthew viewpoint.  Matthew makes a point of keeping Jesus’ mission directed only to Israel (see Matthew 10:5-6).  Only after the crucifixion and the resurrection will Jesus’ mission be carried beyond Israel and to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20).  Prior to that, Matthew keeps all of Jesus’ work in Galilee and Judea, that is, among “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”     
(The other story of Jesus healing a non-Israelite is the Centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:5-13.  In both stories, the foreigners initiate the request for the healing and Jesus accedes to it.  In both, the healing takes place at a distance, so Jesus does not have to enter the residences of non-Israelite people.) 
But here the priority of Israel in Jesus’ work is overridden!  This persistent Canaanite woman barges right on, kneels in Jesus’ way and pleads for mercy.  Jesus can no longer ignore her—for theological reasons or otherwise.  He has come into her territory, so she is going to invade his territory.  He is in the healing business, and she must have some healing. 
One last rejection by Jesus, to defend the priority of Israel.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  In God’s household, the Israelites are the children, people of the nations are scavenging dogs.  Actually, the term translated “dogs” is a diminutive, “doggies” or “puppies.”  Most dogs in the ancient world were not pets or house animals.  The term Jesus used (in both Mark and Matthew) refers to domestic dogs, pets who would be allowed to eat scraps from under the household table. 
That term was the opening the Canaanite woman needed.  A. B. Bruce suggested (The Expositor’s Greek Testament, on this passage) that by using this rare word Jesus left her that opening on purpose, and she had the wit to seize it and make her clinching argument.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the [puppies] eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 
The woman’s determination and wit win!  “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.” 
Israel may have the priority in God’s design for salvation, but a foreign lady in the provinces wins an exception by appeal to compassion and the determination of mother love. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

August 13, 2023 -- 11th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words       

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45bRomans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33.
The stories of Joseph and Jesus are simple, but loaded with challenges to faith, past and present.   

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28.  

As the Lectionary readings from the Torah continue with selections from Genesis we come to the story of Joseph. 
This is a straightforward narrative that tells itself.  Unlike much of the Abraham and Jacob story cycles, the long Joseph narrative in Genesis 37, 39-47 is a continuous story, told with almost modern narrative skill.  It clearly comes from literary art in ancient Israel, even if older tribal history and folk tradition have supplied the themes. 
Joseph was the tribal ancestor of a group of clans that in time settled in the central highlands of Palestine and became the dominant tribal group.  Its success led to its splitting into two other tribal powers, Ephraim and Manasseh, which are active tribes in the first glimpses we get of Israel’s pre-monarchic history (see, for example, these two tribes in the stories of Gideon in Judges 6-8).  Thus at the end of the Joseph story, his two sons by his Egyptian wife, Manasseh and Ephraim, are adopted and blessed by the aged patriarch Jacob (Genesis 41:50-52 and chapter 48).  The sanctuary site of Shechem, which was central to the territories of Manasseh and Ephraim, claimed to be the burial place of Joseph’s bones (Joshua 24:32, linked to Genesis 50:25 and Exodus 13:19). 
Thus, out of old tribal lore that linked the ancestor Joseph with Israel’s descent into Egypt (where he got his wife), the narrators give us a sophisticated story of the envy and rivalry of brothers. 
The characters in the story reflect the personalities of the tribes.  For example, Reuben is the firstborn and makes an attempt to save his father’s favorite son, but like the failed tribe, he is ineffective and misses his chance at leadership.  (If the tribe Reuben once led the bne yisrael, it was long before our recorded history.  Nevertheless, that tribe [and its ancestor] retained its place as first-born in Israelite tradition.) 
Similarly, the second brother to take a lead in the story, Judah, represents the aggressive southern tribal group who will always be a competitor to the Joseph tribes.   In later chapters of the Joseph story, the youngest brother Benjamin is a late-comer and dependent on the others.  As a full brother of Joseph, he represents the power that rose late following the dominance of Manasseh and Ephraim, and it is this late-coming Benjamin that actually gave Israel its first king (Saul).  Thus the characters of the story act out the remembered tribal histories. 
There are a few elements of the story unrelated to tribal history. 
Joseph’s special coat – “of many colors,” as it comes out in English – marks the father’s conspicuous favoritism, which is Joseph’s main problem with his brothers.  Joseph is a dreamer of dreams (and later an interpreter of dreams).  The dreams are omitted from the Lectionary’s reading (they are verses 5-11), but they are referred to by the brothers as they plot to kill Joseph (verses 19-20).  Not only are the dreams signs that Joseph will be the supreme power among his relatives, but Joseph in the story is naïve enough to report their contents to the very people who are overshadowed in the omens.  No wonder he fell victim to malicious brothers! 
That episode about his dreams shows that Joseph was completely lacking in street smarts.  He had to spend many years in Egyptian slave quarters and prisons to become a master of clever men and mega-economic programs. 

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b. 

The selection from the Psalm is explicitly about Joseph.  When famine came to Canaan, where Jacob and his sons lived, God had prepared a way to save them.  One might even say that the psalm treats Joseph as a Suffering Servant, from the viewpoint of both the brothers who sold him and the surprised nations who came to benefit from his suffering (compare Isaiah 52:13-53:12). 
He had sent a man ahead of them,
      Joseph, who was sold as a slave. 
His feet were hurt with fetters,
      his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
      the word of the Lord kept testing him. 
The king sent and released him;
      the ruler of the peoples set him free. 
He made him lord of his house,
      and ruler of all his possessions,
to instruct his officials at his pleasure,
      and to teach his elders wisdom.  (Verses 17-22, NRSV.) 

Romans 10:5-15. 

It does not seem a distortion to suggest that the Epistle reading is part of Paul’s hope that the rejection of Jesus by his contemporary Judeans was a part of a Joseph-story drama.  In the end, what was done in malice and envy turned out to be for the salvation of all.  The Judean brothers and sisters have not yet recognized Jesus as Lord, but God is not finished. 
The distinction between Torah-followers and Christ-followers was already clear and sharp when Paul wrote.  It was stated a little earlier in this letter: 
Gentiles [peoples of the nations], who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.  Why not?  Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. (Romans 9:30-32, NRSV.) 
Assuming this sharp distinction, in our Lectionary reading Paul’s argument is based on Deuteronomy 30:11-14.  We need to hear that passage to follow the force of his point here.  Moses speaks to the Israelites: 
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”  Neither is it beyond the sea, …  No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14.) 
This passage really poses the ultimate issue between Paul and his Pharisaic peers who believed that obedience to the Torah is the only route to salvation.  On their reading, the above passage says the divine command can be obeyed.  Paul, on the other hand, believed it is humanly impossible to fulfill the command of the Torah, and that only faith in God’s gracious act in Jesus brings acceptance before God.  (See his statements in Galatians 2:15-21, which describe the situation for Judean believers, before the nations were included.) 
In Paul’s phrasing, the last sentence in the Deuteronomy passage reads, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (verse 8).  He reads this to mean, not that the word in your mouth/lips and heart is a command capable of human performance (as the Pharisees believed), but that God has put the confession of faith on human lips and in human hearts (through the work of the Holy Spirit). 
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead [thus confessing faith], you will be saved.  For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved (verses 9-10). 
Thus, the confession is everything, and in that light one can only conclude that the differences between Torah-confessing and Christ-confessing brothers and sisters would not soon be resolved. 

Matthew 14:22-33. 

While the Joseph story seems a very straightforward and open-faced narrative, the Gospel reading is hardly that. 
This can scarcely be considered as other than a weird story.  Not only is walking on the stormy lake at night pretty bizarre, the story is full of suspicious things and sudden reversals. 
For example, why was it that Jesus “made” the disciples get in the boat and head for the other side, for what is clearly a night passage?  Were they resisting?  Why the implied compulsion?  On what should have been a short lake trip, the disciples battle opposing winds all night, obviously not making good progress.  Jesus sends away the people, goes up in the hills and keeps a personal vigil – all before he eventually goes down to the lake and starts the journey across himself.  What a jumbling of events!  Why all this complication for the disciples? 
But there is more.  When Jesus catches up with the boat – seemingly in a short time – the disciples are terrified and are sure they see a ghost.  From terrifying them, Jesus turns to reassuring words.  “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (verse 27, NRSV).  Then Peter is bold to ask to join Jesus in walking the waves, and does so at his call – until he realizes what he is doing, panics, and is rescued only by Jesus’ extended hand. 
Up and down.  Terror and comfort.  Confidence and panic.  Send them ahead then catch up with them.  Travel all night but get nowhere.  What a confused scenario is presented by this entire passage. 
Such literary features are a sure sign that we are dealing with a simple-appearing narrative that is full of symbolism.  The most obvious symbols are the boat as the church, the storm as the resistance to Jesus’ disciples making their way without him.  Walking on the water is the same mastery of the cosmic powers as in the story of Jesus stilling the storm (Matthew 8:23-27).  This much Matthew took from Mark (6:45-52). 
The Peter episode, however, appears only in Matthew.  Peter tries to walk to Jesus and starts to sink as he loses confidence.  The Gospel According to Matthew has a strong interest in Peter as first of the disciples, empowered with special authority by Jesus (16:17-19), but also as the fallible man who had to experience for himself all the challenges of faith.  Even disciples can master some of the powers of chaos (walk on the water for a little while), at the Lord’s command, but they face the problem of little faith.  “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31). 
Altogether, this Matthew story, like the Joseph story in Genesis, is a literary embellishment of powerful symbolic realities in Israelite and early Christian worlds.  Even Jesus’ actions can sometimes seem erratic, and certainly the voyages he sends followers on can be dark and stormy and loaded with occasions for doubt and panic.  Still, “when they [Jesus and Peter] got in the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”