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. 


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