Saturday, September 30, 2023

October 1, 2023 -- 18th Sunday after Pentecost

                                            Biblical Words                                               [847] 

Exodus 17:1-7Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13Matthew 21:23-32

Water from the rock validates Moses’ authority, and John’s baptism anticipates Jesus’ authority.

Exodus 17:1-7.  

Israel’s trials in the wilderness continue in this week’s Torah reading.  

Last week it was food; this week it is water.  The people in the wilderness come to a camp site where there is no water available.  The people again accuse Moses, challenging the goodness of the exodus.  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (verse 3, NRSV).  This time we hear Moses’ despairing appeal to God.  “What shall I do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me” (verse 4). 

Moses is told to bring several elders of the people as witnesses, to go to a great rock on Mount Horeb, and to strike the rock with his staff to bring water for the people.  This is a dramatic scene, often depicted by artists.  The Lord’s action to sustain the people is clear and powerful. 

"Moses Striking the Rock...," Francesco Bachiacca, Florence, 1494-1557.  
(The artist was more interested in the Renaissance dress of the people than in the actual Rock striking!)  
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library.  

The place is given symbolic names, Massah meaning Test, and Meribah meaning Quarrel (verse 7, NRSV with translators' footnotes).  The Israelites are to remember in the future the times when they did not trust the Lord, but put God to the test. 

At the very end of the episode, the text shows what the most basic issue was whenever someone tested God.  They “tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (verse 7b).  Challenging the very basis of the enterprise, asking whether this entire business is really God’s doing, was the ultimate form of putting God to the test.  Here — and in future times as well (see Deuteronomy 6:16 and 9:22) — to demand some proof of God’s presence was evidence of lack of faith, of unworthiness on the part of the chosen people.  

The hardships of the wilderness were trying times for Israelites in both body and soul. 

There is a significant feature of the “murmuring” episodes that says something important about the revelation at Sinai/Horeb:  When the Israelites murmur before Sinai they are scolded like pre-adolescent children, but nobody dies.  After Sinai when they complain against Moses and the exodus, somebody dies.  At Sinai/Horeb, something important has happened:  the people have become responsible for their conduct in a way they were not before.  Israel received his bar Mitzvah (or bath Mitzvah) at Sinai; each Israelite became a “son” or “daughter” of the Commandment. 

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16. 

This Psalm reading recalls how God saved the Israelites in the wilderness through mighty works in the deep waters.  First God “divided the sea and let them pass through it” (verse 13), thereby saving them from too much water.  Then God “split rocks open in the wilderness, / and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep” (verse 15, NRSV), thereby saving them from not enough water. 

Our reading carefully separates (1) the wondrous deeds of benefit from (2) the complaining of the Israelites, though the complaining is not included in our reading here.  The complaint immediately follows the celebrating of the good deed (verses 17-20).  This whole psalm presents a balance between God’s great saving deeds and the disciplining actions of God, which are the responses to Israel’s complaints and lack of faith.  Israel’s past contained a mixture of salvation and discipline, and the psalm meditates on this mixture of good and evil as a “parable” and as “dark sayings” (verse 2). 

But among the great things to be remembered with celebration was the time when God sent Moses to split the great rock giving water to the people. 

Philippians 2:1-13.  

The apostle Paul, in the Epistle reading, continues his exhortations to unity of purpose and humility of life. 

The Greek of this passage tends toward eloquence at the expense of clarity.  “Encouragement in Christ,” “consolation from love,” “any compassion and sympathy” are phrases that take flight in high-sounding associations instead of concrete meanings (verse 1, NRSV).  Concrete meanings here are elusive. 

Paul does produce one straightforward sentence, one that summarizes his appeal in the whole passage.  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (verse 3).  One heeds this summons to avoid selfish ambition by following the supreme model given in Christ.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (verse 5). 

To elaborate this Christ-model, Paul uses the lofty and solemn words of a hymn that confesses and praises the redeeming work of Jesus the Christ. 

Verses 6 through 11 are thought by Biblical scholars to contain such an early Christian hymn describing how the divine Christ emptied himself to become a slave, but was raised up and exalted by God over all oppressive powers in the universe.  The outcome, that “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” is the reality in which Christians find a new unity and blessing.  They are to live united in their service to this Lord and ever subordinate themselves to his rule, and his rule only.  They carry out that service by imitating Christ’s self-emptying life. 

Paul’s final summons to persist in that service is a profound challenge.  “Therefore, beloved, … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (verses 12-13).  What an awesome summons from the apostle! 

Matthew 21:23-32.  

The Lectionary selects the Gospel readings for our current period from the climactic stage of Jesus’ mission, that time near the end when he is publicly presenting his message at the center of power in the Judean world.  The actions of this period are set not only in Jerusalem but in the temple.  (On all these Gospel readings until Advent, see the Special Note in last week’s Biblical Words.)  

Jesus has just made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem — the event of Palm Sunday — which was a provocative act to the Jerusalem leadership, and now he is challenged by the various authorities and religious parties at the religious center. 

In this Sunday’s reading, the question of the authority for Jesus’ action is raised but left unresolved.  No direct answer to the question is given in the public discourse. 

The priests and elders put the question to him formally, but he answers them only conditionally.  If they will first answer a question he has for them, he will tell them by what authority he acts.  His question to them puts them on the spot, however, and they do not answer it.  Thus, Jesus also does not publicly answer the question of his authority. 

The question Jesus puts to the priests and elders ties Jesus’ activity to that of John the Baptist.  “The baptism of John, what was its source?  Was it from heaven or from humans?” (verse 25, my literal translation).  For their own reasons — theological and political — the leaders will not publicly declare themselves on this question.  The implication is that Jesus’ authority is the same as John’s.  The reasoning of Jesus’ tactic is this:  If the leaders accept John’s authority, they must — for public purposes, at least — accept his.  Or if they deny Jesus’ authority they must also deny John’s authority.  

Jesus uses this device to prevent his opponents from simply pigeon-holing him, from lining up current parties for or against him without attending to what he is saying.  His response tries to insure that his message will be listened to and responded to in its own terms. 

Jesus continues the dialogue, in Matthew’s account, with a parable — or a test example.  It is a curious parable that, like the question about authority, does not deal in direct answers. 

The underlying issue is still authority, or at least a claim to represent God’s will.  Jesus tells of a man with two sons.  He asks them both to go work in the vineyard.  One son says he will, but does not go.  The other son says he will not go work, but later changes his mind and does go and work.  Jesus’ question is, which one does the will of the father?  The difference is between talking the talk and walking the walk.  The son who does the work obviously does the will of the father. 

Then Jesus applies the parable to the current situation by identifying the religious authorities as those who talk the talk.  They are expert at defining God’s righteousness, but they do not do it (an accusation repeated against the Pharisees in 23:2-3).  There are also others, Jesus says, who say “No” to God’s demand for righteousness.  These are, preeminently though not exclusively, the tax collectors and the prostitutes.  And as in the question about authority, John the Baptist is the test case for the issue.  “For John came to you [authorities] in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (verse 32, NRSV). 

On this understanding of the parable, those who walk the walk are those who repent and change their lives in response to the judgment/gospel message — those who change their lives as much as tax collectors and prostitutes must change in order to live “in the way of righteousness.” 

Jesus’ personal authority comes from the same source as the prophet’s word of righteousness.  Jesus’ presence, like the prophet’s judgment talk, tends to reverse what people say about themselves and God’s righteousness.  Those who have been saying “Yes, Yes” (meaning we are righteous) are shown to be talkers only, and those who by their earlier lives were saying “No, No,” will turn and find themselves in fact doing God’s righteousness. 

The reality and power of these changed lives is the validation of Jesus’ authority. 

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.