Lectionary Commentaries for September 17, 2017
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35
Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21
Family harmony is definitely not one of the themes in Genesis.
Relationships between siblings are particularly fraught, beginning with the first sibling pair, Cain and Abel. In fact, the narrative moves directly from their birth announcements to jealousy and murder. God punishes Cain saying, “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12).
As the ancestor stories begin with God’s call to Abraham, we soon discover that the founding families of Genesis are not immune to conflict either. In every generation, discord is the rule rather than the exception: Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and then Joseph and his brothers.
Very little is said about what happens between Ishmael and Isaac as adults, although some interpreters suggest that they may have achieved a peace of sorts by the time their father Abraham dies, based on the verse that reads: “[Abraham’s] sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah” (Genesis 25:9).
In the cases of Jacob and Esau and then between Joseph and his brothers, there are dramatic forgiveness and reconciliation scenes in which broken relationships are restored. It takes two entire chapters, Genesis 32-33, to describe the encounter between Jacob and Esau, decades after Jacob has stolen Esau’s blessing and fled.
The reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, years after they sold him into slavery and when Joseph has reached a high position in Egypt, unfolds over four chapters in Genesis 42-45. Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers when they come down to Egypt to buy grain during a famine in Canaan but before he reveals himself to them, he tests them — accusing them of being spies, imprisoning some of them, etc. It is not until the brothers “pass” all of the tests that Joseph finally breaks down, weeping “so loud that the Egyptians heard it,” and finally announcing: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45:2-3).
Given this chain of relationships between brothers throughout the Book of Genesis and how the stories of forgiveness and reconciliation become increasingly drawn out and dramatic, Genesis 50:15-21 seems to be a bit of an afterthought. In the text immediately preceding this passage, Jacob has died and Joseph and his brothers have buried him, also in the cave of Macphelah. This seems like a very clear resolution to the ancestor stories.
But no, there is one last issue that has been worrying Joseph’s brothers. “What if,” they ask themselves, “Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” (Genesis 50:15). In other words, now that our father Jacob is dead, will Joseph change his mind? Or, now that our father is dead, will Joseph show us what he really thinks?
These are legitimate concerns on their part. After all, they had plotted to kill him and as a compromise, sold him into slavery. Even though Joseph has done well for himself and been generous with his family up to this point, what stands in the way of taking the revenge to which he is entitled?
The brothers are a bit sheepish in returning to the issue, not quite sure how they should bring it up again after all these years. So they come up with an interesting ploy. One of the primary motivations, it seems, for Joseph to make himself known to his brothers and forgive them in Genesis 45 was his concern for his father, Jacob. “Is my father still alive?” is the first thing he asks them, after all. So now the brothers come to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father” (Genesis 50:16-17).
What’s interesting about this tactic is that Jacob never seems to have said any such thing to the sons, at least not in what’s available to us in the text. And it’s not as if Jacob didn’t have the opportunity to do so since his final speech to his sons is both lengthy and detailed (Genesis 48-49). In the ancient Jewish tradition, this passage caused the rabbis considerable concern. They wondered whether it was a problem if the brothers did indeed lie to Joseph to assuage their own anxieties. Ultimately, the consensus view was that sometimes it’s alright to fabricate in order to achieve peace.
Whether or not Jacob made this statement to his sons is beside the point, though. The sons are clearly concerned about what will happen to them and they cite the authority that they know Joseph respects. In response, Joseph assures them, once again with much weeping on both sides, that they are indeed forgiven. Joseph addresses their concern directly, saying, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:19-20).
Joseph’s statement is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his willingness to place his brothers’ actions into the realm of God’s work! Joseph recognizes that even though they acted with ill intent, God used those actions for the good. This is indeed a gracious response.
This “extra” forgiveness/reconciliation scene at the end of the Book of Genesis is also significant to the larger story of the great family that began with Abraham and Sarah. Despite the conflicts throughout the generations, this scene brings the family stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to a close with the final word being one of grace and generosity. It also sets the stage for the Book of Exodus which goes on to tell a new story, the formation of a nation, the Israelites.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31
Casey Thornburgh Sigmon
Three steps forward … two steps back …
After the tenth and final plague — the murder of the first born of every Egyptian household — the Egyptians were terrified of what might happen next. They “urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, ‘We shall all be dead’” (12:33).
So the Israelites leave.
But, where this text picks up, Yahweh has one last miracle to perform, one that would forever establish that the God of the Israelites had power over two great enemies: chaos and tyranny. So, the Lord tells Moses to cross back toward Egypt so Pharaoh’s horses, chariot drivers, and army could pursue the Israelites and place them in a predicament that only divine intervention could save them from.
Power over the monster of chaos
You may have visions of Charlton Heston in your heads as you read this passage. Indeed, the drama of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments fits the drama of this event. Imagine — the waters dividing, splitting, parting so that thousands of Israelites could walk on dry land. Imagine the faith and fear and awe in their eyes as they made that journey, perhaps reaching out to touch the waters held back by Yahweh’s mighty hand.
This scene would call to mind an Israelite creation or combat myth for its first audience, one in which God cuts through the primeval sea monster, Leviathan (chaos). Isaiah evoked this creation myth in chapter 51, in order to convince the prophet’s congregation that the God who “pierced” the sea “dragon” and “dried up the sea” to make a way for Israel out of Egypt would do the same for those in Babylonian exile (Isaiah 51:9-10).
And of course, this evokes Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind form God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2). In the exodus event, God is creating a new identity for Israel, one that is distinct from the slave identity imposed on them by Egypt. The people, through the wilderness wandering, will be recreated.
This demonstration also reveals Yahweh as being more than the god of one nation. Yahweh instead is revealed — to the horror of Egypt and the delight of Israel — as the God of the whole universe. This then relates to the second message embedded in the reading for this week: that Yahweh has power over national tyrants and their weapons of war.
Power over the weapons of tyranny
What is a tyrant? A ruler who acts without concern for checks and balances. One who uses power oppressively and absolutely. Pharaoh is such a tyrant.
“Tyranny,” according to Michael Walzer, “is symbolized by Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, the core of his army and the source of his power.”1 It may be hard to imagine horses as being weapons of war, but in the scriptures, nearly all references to horses are associated with war. When Israel saw Pharaoh’s army on horseback, they were horrified. Israel, with flocks and families, was on foot and could not move very fast. The cards were stacked against them.
But Israel does not need to overthrow the enemy. Note that this is God’s doing (as the songs of Moses and Miriam reiterate). God alone has the power to cast the tyrant’s weapons of mass destruction — horse and rider — into the sea.
Picture Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Recall the meaning behind God’s choice not to enter into the holy city on the equivalent of a tank. Although there is violence in this text, through Christ, we glimpse the will of God that all weapons of tyranny and war be destroyed at last, be they horses and chariots, or guns and drones.
The process of revolution
Now the great external impediment to liberation had been removed. Physically, their bodies have left Egypt and the tyranny of Pharaoh. However, as we shall see in the passages ahead, it will take some time for Israel to spiritually remove themselves from slavery and slave identity and to live into the responsibility of being tethered to Yahweh’s spiritual and ethical codes.
We have a prelude to this struggle in verses 11-12 before the parting of the sea: Why are you doing this to us Moses? Wouldn’t it be better to stay in Egypt and at least know our fate? Wouldn’t it be better to be close to the riches of a wealthy nation than to be lost in the wilderness? Without the external tyrant preventing the people from living into liberation, small counter-revolutions2 will begin to pop up within the camp, leading up to the Golden Calf episode (Exodus 32).
Preaching against the text
As I said in my commentary on the Passover last week, some preachers will feel the need to preach against this text. Or at least to complicate the notion that Pharaoh’s army does not consist of persons who are victims of tyranny in their own ways. The army is made up of people who have hopes and dreams and families and inside jokes and, perhaps, questions about their role in life as soldiers. We may have veterans in our congregations, as well as parents of soldiers. How would they hear this text? Where is God in war today? What good news can you offer them?
And of course this event begins with God once again hardening Pharaoh’s heart (verse 4), so that he changes his mind about letting his cheap labor go free. And then God hardens the hearts of the army (verse 17) so that they set their sights on annihilating the escapees. Is God then responsible for the deaths of the soldiers thrown into the sea? There are congregants who may ask this of you. How would you respond?
1. Michael Walzer. Exodus and Revolution. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985), 32.
2. George V. Pixley. On Exodus: A Liberation Perspective. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), 82.
Commentary on Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13
Paul O. Myhre
What are the contours of praise for God?
How do we know it if we are actually engaged in it? Is it simply a matter of the emotions somehow reaching out to the creator of life in some message of thanksgiving? Is it more than emotions? Is the body involved in ways that transcend the mind to give forth something of gratitude to the God of all that is, ever was, and ever will be? If someone asked you to pick up a pencil and draw on paper a picture of praise, what would it look like and why? I think the very request to praise God invokes something deep within sinew and bone, molecule and atom that desires to express recognition for life caused by a power greater than what we can evoke or manufacture.
In Psalm 103, the writer contends that praise is something to be called forth from the people. It is an invitation to all who would listen to join with the writer in offering praise to the living God. But, what is praise? Of what does it consist? Is it something that only people can offer? Can animals and even plants offer praise? Do they have a capacity to render praise to God for life? Do we run the risk of anthropomorphizing everything if we even ask the question? Yet, there is something about the essence of praise that tugs at one’s skin, moves beneath the surface like blood through veins, and touches the sparks that travel along our brain’s axon and dendrite trails.
The question of an animal’s capacity to feel and think has long been debated. Carl Safina, in Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, contends that human beings are not the only living things that have emotions or think. Some would contend that animals dream and thereby share something in common with humans. Anyone who has owned a dog knows the capacity of a dog to dream, show affection, and exhibit fear or courage. This isn’t simply a matter of anthropomorphizing them to make them seem somehow more human. For Safina, the declaration that animals have emotions and think is based on scientific observation and evaluation. For him, humans and animals also share a capacity for empathy. Safina isn’t alone. There are scores of scholars who are exploring the layers of consciousness among animals and even considering animal spirituality. A few authors that are asking such questions include Richard Nelson, Dave Aftandilian, and Donovan Schaefer.
So what does this have to do with Psalm 103? I think it has everything and nothing to do with it. The psalms were written as poetic exhalations or inhalations that disclose something of the writer’s emotions and thinking at the time of their composition. They display something about the human capacity to reflect and imagine the greatness of God as one who is as intimate as breath and as distant as the farthest galaxy from human experience. God is both known and unknown at the same time. There is both an intimacy that transcends language and a distance that escapes human abilities to discern.
We share something with animals in this regard. Neither of us can determine the exact contours of God, nor can we discern the depth of God’s activity within and among us. Perhaps we can see glimpses, hear fleeting notes, or plumb the depths of imagination and critical reflection to discover something about God. However, all of human musings ought to be subject to careful examination and reflection. People also have a great capacity to believe what they want to believe regardless of what may be discernable or particularly evident in the facts spread before them. They choose at any moment to claim various degrees of certitude, but language breaks down quickly as it cannot carry the breadth nor depth of what draws forth praise from the living.
Psalm 103 inhales and exhales praise. It is a reflection on the contours of human capacities to know God and to exclaim that God has done and that God continues to do amazing things. Where is one’s inmost being? Is it lodged within sinew and bone or does it reside somewhere less material? Does it rest uneasily at some place in the mind where the past, present, and future are continually colliding to declare and dismiss at the same time the activity and presence of God?
Psalm 103 can be read like a reflecting pool that shows the clouds overhead and distant stars so that we might reach down and touch them. They are not the actual objects, but reflections of them. As such we are able to grasp something of their essence and as such they can push inward reflection on what they may mean. The Psalmist recounts the various activities of God and invites people to reflection about them. This reflection brings forth praise like the heat beneath the geysers of Wyoming.
God heals diseases, redeems people from pits, crowns people with love and compassion, gives good things for human desires, renews one’s youth like the eagles, and works righteousness and aims toward justice for all of the oppressed. This image of God is one that comprises a theology of hope in the midst of hardships. It is a perception of God that provides courage to face the trials of the day be they war, disease, despair, loneliness, unjust systems of oppression, or anything that would cause human life to be diminished in some way.
Human experience is something that is ever changing as one life event slips into another and those into yet another. Each one carries with it a range of possibilities and dangers. A capacity to chose right and wrong or something that exists between the two is ever possible. The missteps are as present as the correct ones. Yet, for the Psalmist, the God who is to be praised is more than an accountant keeping a tally of all the right and wrong steps. This God is an active loving presence that removes the impediments to full relationship with God and what might contribute to an abundant life.
The Psalmist in these verses provides a type of heat to the waters of personal experience and declares to those who would hear something about a God that is not only worthy of praise, but who can and does meet people in the contexts of life to provide solace, comfort, and strength. This recognition alone when coupled with personal experience draws forth from people something deep within and expels it outward into the sky as activities of praise.
Commentary on Romans 14:1-12
An English proverb says, “Faults are thick where love is thin”; but God demonstrates the opposite and to a greater extent: “faults are thin where love is thick.”
In the first half of the letter to the Romans, Paul focuses on God’s love for believers: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Now, in the second half of the letter Paul emphasizes the love that believers must show towards each other because of the love they have received. For example, “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8-10). The exhortations of chapter 14, however, suggest that in this community, love is thin because faults are thick.
Our passage belongs to a series of ethical exhortations in which Paul brings God’s gift of redemption in Christ to bear on the life of the Christian community in practical ways (Romans 12-15). Some believe that the section spanning from 12:1–15:13 addresses a series of hypothetical situations, because Paul does not give specific details about his audience and because the text shares some content with 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. But this section of Romans differs from the Corinthian correspondence, for example, in Paul’s lack of attention to idolatry. It also contains content that points back to earlier parts of Romans, which suggests that Paul is not merely giving general exhortations but speaking to particular situations facing the community.
At the beginning of this section (Romans 12-15), Paul calls his audience to offer their bodies as a (collective) sacrifice and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds (12:1-2). The actions and attitudes about which Paul subsequently exhorts his audience provide examples of what it looks like for them enact this calling. With their Spirit-transformed minds, they are to think rightly about themselves and each other as members of the body of Christ and individually members of one another (12:3-8). Their actions are to be fueled by love and enacted in such a way that takes account of others.
In Romans 14 Paul addresses conflict in the body of Christ about ceremonial practices that are peripheral to the gospel. Some — whom Paul calls the “weak” — believe that, according to Jewish tradition, certain foods are to be avoided and certain days are holy. Others — normally called the “strong” by way of contrast — believe that all foods and all days are equally fitting for believers to enjoy.
Paul is not addressing the issue of righteousness by works of the law or suggesting that the weak are somehow seeking a “works-righteousness.” Rather, he sees the choice about practice as of a matter of conscience and an expression of faith (Romans 14:5-6). Paul largely directs his words to the “strong” because the issue with which he is concerned is the absence of love and unity in the body of Christ. While the practices regarding food and days are peripheral to the gospel, the way believers in the community treat one another is central to it.
Thus, Paul repeatedly warns these believers not to judge others in the community of faith, in Romans 14:3, 4, 5 (twice), 10. He reminds them that when they pass judgment on others, they assume a role that belongs to God. He asks them why they take the role of judge over other peoples’ servants (verse 4). By acting as judge, the “strong” fail to acknowledge that only the servant’s master has the right to assume this role (verse 4). In fact, God, the master of all believers (see Romans 6:20-23) “is able to make them [the weak] stand” at the judgment (14:4b). Paul then asks his audience why they stand in judgment over their brother or sister (verse 10). He reminds them that no one has the right to this role because “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (14:10).
We ought to read these words in light of 5:2, where Paul writes that, “through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” On the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection, God welcomed all believers as those who were weak and sinful (Romans 5:6-10). From this perspective, no one approaches God in the “strong” category. The point in chapter 14 is that all believers are together the weak-made-strong who stand in God’s grace now, and who will be made to stand confidently at the judgment because of God’s gift of redemption in Christ. Since this is the case, who are we to sit in judgment over one another?
So Paul exhorts his audience to take on the role or calling that does belong to them as members of one body in Christ (see Romans 12:5). In this role, their task is to manifest love and unity as Christ’s servants (see Romans 12:9-10; 13:8-10). Like Christ, Paul writes, “we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves” (14:7). Rather, we live and die to the Lord and so belong to him (verses 8-9).
Paul’s exhortations in chapter 14, to build unity rather than pass judgment, contribute towards his larger vision of the goal of the gospel. He envisions Jews and Gentiles transformed into the image of Christ, together worshiping and giving glory to God: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together with one mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6; see also verses 7-8). In order to realize this vision fully, the church has a unique role to play in a world rife with disunity, criticism, and blame. We may reflect the love of God in Christ by living among our brothers and sisters as those who are thick with love and thin with faults.
What might the practice of limitless forgiveness look like in a modern capitalist economy? Is it even possible?
The economy of forgiveness Jesus announces is congruent neither with the values and assumptions that govern human economies nor the relentless pursuit of power and privilege that drives our daily social relationships. The pursuit of unlimited forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22) requires a definitive break from the tacit arrangements that govern everyday life, whether ancient or modern.
When Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive a brother who sins repeatedly against him — as many as seven times? — Jesus explodes Peter’s magnanimous offer: not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Jesus’ number is not drawn from the air. It mirrors the boast of Cain’s descendant, Lamech, in Genesis 4:23-24, who brags that the mortal vengeance he has extracted against a young man who hurt him far exceeds God’s promise of seven-fold punishment against anyone who might kill Cain. Jesus is calling his community of disciples to participate in undoing the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in spasms of envy, hatred, violence, and retribution across the generations to this day.
The parable of the unforgiving servant serves as a sobering counterpoint — a sharp warning — to those who might think forgiveness is possible on limited terms. The parable illustrates with painful clarity the difficulty of practicing forgiveness in a social system built for different purposes. It may also illustration the power of “binding and loosing” (Matthew 18:18): even heaven has a hard time undoing the damage wrought by human choices and the intractable systems we build to sustain our places in the world of Cain and Lamech.
Despite the suggestion at the end of the parable that God will act as the king in the parable does (Matthew 18:35), we should resist the inclination to read the parable as a simple allegory, in which the power figure, in this case a king, represents God, and the servant who is forgiven much but refuses to forgive another stands for Israel or some other too easily vilified social group. Parables work best when they are read primarily as simple, integral stories, rather than as ciphers to be decoded in terms favorable to Christians. In any case, parables do not usually convey a simple moral point so much as they are meant to induce critical reflection and to pull the blinders from our eyes.
Although the figures in this parable are exaggerated, as so often in parables, the king and his slave represent and follow scripts that would have been familiar to ancient Mediterranean audiences. Kings used agents like the “unmerciful servant” to organize lower levels of agents, from tax-farmers to torturers (Matthew 18:34), who together made up a system that ensured the continuous flow of wealth, power, and honor to the top of the pyramid.
The unforgiving servant is apparently a manager of the highest level, effectively a CFO, with control over the movement of vast wealth. The astronomical “debt” or “loan” he owes may represent the income he is responsible for producing from those lower on the pyramid of patronage. In the Mediterranean economy, the goal was to pass a steady, acceptable flow of wealth further up the pyramid, while retaining as much as one could get away with for oneself, to be used to grease one’s own way further up the pyramid.
This slave, who works near or at the very top of the pyramid, may have taken too large a share for himself. The reckoning described early in the parable is meant to correct any wrongdoing on the part of the slave, but also to send a message to the whole system to limit such “honest graft.” In such a case, the only recourse on the servant’s part would be to beg for mercy, as this one does to good effect. Disciplining and then restoring such a slave might be a better move on the king’s part than finding a replacement. Although the king forgives the slave’s enormous “loan,” the slave’s obligation to the king is actually intensified. He is likely to be more loyal going forward than less.
The king’s stupendous act of mercy is, however, neither a private matter nor an act with consequences for this slave alone. Wiping this debt off the books has implications for everyone down the pyramid, a fact certainly noted by all the clients of this servant. The king effectively inaugurates a regime of financial amnesty, a jubilee, not only for one slave, but for everyone in his debt.
The economic revolution, however, makes it not much further than the door. The slave’s immediate encounter with one of his client-slaves, someone with a much smaller obligation, demonstrates that the forgiven slave intends to revert to business as usual. He gives no heed to the second slave’s appeal, although it is nearly identical to the one he had just given the king. His failure to carry on the forgiveness the king granted him not only halts the spread of financial amnesty in its tracks, it also mocks and dishonors the king himself. The king cannot ignore such an affront. The unforgiving slave binds himself not to the king’s mercy, but to the old system of wealth extraction and violence. He thus binds the king in turn to deal with him once again within the confines of this system.
Matthew’s Jesus seems to tell us that God’s forgiveness has necessary limits, but perhaps these are the limits we set. The unforgiving slave brings judgment on himself by treating his own forgiveness as a license to execute judgment on others. He thus transforms a merciful king into a vengeful judge. The problem lies not with the king, or even by analogy with God, but with the world the slave insists on constructing for himself, under which terms his fate is now set. With whom, and to what systems, do we bind ourselves each day?