Lectionary Commentaries for September 14, 2008
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35
Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21
Jacob showed special favor to his young son Joseph, the child of his old age (Genesis 37:3).
Ten older brothers hated the one who possessed the love they could not have (37:4). Joseph had something else they did not have: the gift of dreams, visions into a future where he would be their master, and they would fall down before him (37:7,9). Even his father knew that such dreams did not bode well (37:10). Visions of mastery and service soon elicited a murderous plot. The brothers sold Joseph into slavery.
Joseph rises from slavery to mastery over all Egypt, where he saves countless lives, including his family’s (47:12). But when Jacob dies, guilt begets fear (50:15). Perhaps Joseph only sustained his brothers for the sake of their father. The powerful Joseph might now seek vengeance for their crimes.
The brothers voice their anxiety. The ambiguity of their words speaks to the complexity of guilt: “What if Joseph…pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” (50:15). The first word, lû, translated here “what if,” in fact means “if only,” or “would that”–it expresses a wish. Nowhere else in Scripture does this word introduce an outcome that the speaker does not want to happen. We must ask: do the brothers hope for absolution through punishment? If so, what grace is needed to move from the cycle of retaliation and abuse–abuse of self and others–to the place of true forgiveness?
Their next action again signals something out of joint: their bid for forgiveness begins not with a confession, nor even a request, but with a command (50:16). NRSV translates “they approached Joseph.” The Hebrew states: “they commanded to Joseph.” Many interpreters suspect an ellipsis here: “they commanded someone to go to Joseph.” To whomever they issue the command, such an exercise of power–an insecure bid for mastery already denied them–seems out of place. Their wound still festers.
Their command reaches Joseph: we do not know whether they speak to him in person or through an intermediary. Their first words tell Joseph of another command, issued by “your father” before he died. They have distanced themselves from Joseph. They do not make a personal claim on him. In their guilt they take refuge behind the dead father whose testament, they say, commanded his brothers to seek forgiveness and asked Joseph to give it (50:17).
As the speech continues the brothers retreat still further away from Joseph. They beg forgiveness for “the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” They do not name themselves. They do not call themselves his brothers. They do not invoke their common bond by the language of “our father” or even “our God.” They abase themselves as servants, or slaves, of the God of Joseph’s father.
We see in these layers of indirection the fear that prevents ten brothers from coming face to face with their crimes and face to face with the one brother they have wronged. Their appeal for forgiveness is awkward and complicated. They do not fully own their confession. It is not “our crime.” Their words and actions vacillate between command and subservience, between acknowledging Joseph’s freedom and attempting to constrain him by appealing to powers greater than his own.
Joseph weeps, as he has done so many times before. What do these tears signal? As we move backward into the story of Genesis, we witness Esau’s tears at the loss of his father’s blessing (27:38) and again at his reunion with the brother he had forgiven (33:4). We hear Hagar’s weeping for Ishmael, when she is sure he will die (21:16), and Jacob’s wailing when he believes Joseph has already died (37:35). We find Joseph, confused in his pain and longing, weeping even as he cruelly binds his brother Simeon into captivity (42:24). Later Joseph is overcome with tears when he first sees Benjamin, his younger brother (43:30), and when he embraces each brother in turn (45:14-15). He weeps when he is reunited with Jacob (46:29) and when he embraces his father on his deathbed (50:1).
At each moment the fear, memory, or certainty of a loss–loss of a relationship, a dream for the future, a loved one–is overwhelming. Equally overwhelming is the moment of regaining, the barely hoped for possibility of a new beginning. The simple statement, “Joseph wept when they spoke to him” (50:17), helps us to see the depths of emotion that so often lead us on the path both toward and away from forgiveness.
The wounded penitents now fall weeping before Joseph and declare themselves his slaves (50:18). The dreams are fulfilled, recapitulating harsh dramas of slavery and mastery. As I read this verse, I ask again, what grace is needed to move from this abusive cycle to the place of true forgiveness? Joseph’s words pave the way: “Do not fear” (50:19,21). Fear has been the obstacle to confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and freedom.
Finally, Joseph can recognize and reveal that he is not in the place of God (50:20). Punishment is not his to mete out. If Joseph has yet failed to acknowledge his own wrongdoings, he points to God’s will and ability to transform evil into good (50:20). God’s plans for good and for life trump the plots of fearful and wounded hearts. God’s grace creates the space for forgiveness that will break the cycle of retaliation and abuse, setting slaves and prisoners free.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31
Just as the central New Testament story of Jesus’ death and resurrection comes to us in four different versions (the four Gospels), so the central Old Testament story of the exodus and Red Sea event in Exodus 14-15 comes to us in three different versions that have been woven together and placed alongside one another.
The first, and probably earliest version, is the so-called Song of Moses in Exodus 15. Exodus 15 retells the Red Sea event in the poetic form of a hymn of praise. The preacher may want to begin preparation by reading Exodus 15 as background to Exodus 14:19-31.
Two Prose Versions of the Red Sea Event
The other two versions of the Red Sea event are not poetic but prose or narrative retellings, one earlier and one later. These two prose versions have been combined to form the present form of Exodus 14, with the presence of these two strands being suggested by certain doublets as well as distinctive motifs, themes and vocabulary that distinguish these different traditions elsewhere in the Pentateuch. The inclusion of three different versions together in Exodus 14-15 testifies to the importance of the exodus event in different traditions in ancient Israel over a long period of time. Different perspectives on the same event needed to be included to understand the full theological significance of the Red Sea event.
In Exodus 14:19-31, the earlier prose version roughly consists of vv. 10a,c; 11-14; 19-20; 21b; 24-25; 27b; 30-31. If you read these verses alone, you have the elements to make a coherent story. The other verses belong to a second and later so-called Priestly version which also can be read as its own coherent version of the story (vv. 10b; 15-18; 21a,c; 22-23; 26-27a; 28-29). Once separated out, a summary of the two accounts would look like this:
Early Non-Priestly Version
−The divine cloud moves between Egyptians and Israelites
−The LORD drives the sea back by a strong east wind all night (no account of Israel’s crossing or any action at all by any of the Israelites, including Moses (see 14:14–“The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still”)
−Somehow through the pillar of fire and cloud, the LORD throws the Egyptians into a panic and they go into the sea and are drowned
Later Priestly Version
−The Israelites see the advancing Egyptians and cry to the LORD
−The LORD commands Moses to raise his staff over the water and the waters divide
−A path of dry land opens up through the sea with walls of water on both sides
−The Israelites walk safely through the Red Sea to the other side
−After the Israelites have crossed, Moses stretches out his staff and the sea waters return, killing the pursuing Egyptians
The Theologies of the Two Versions
In the earlier non-Priestly text, God is the subject of all the action. God is intimately involved in defeating the Egyptian army, while Israel watches passively on the sidelines. God uses common elements of nature (the cloud, the pillar of fire, the east wind, the sea), as well as the Egyptians’ own psychological vulnerability (“panic”) to overthrow the Egyptian army. In the later Priestly version, God appears more removed from direct intervention. God uses a human being, Moses, as God’s special mediator of God’s saving action. Moreover, the people actively cry out and then actively march on dry land through towering walls of sea water on either side until they reach the other shore.
Resulting Theological Polarities
The end result of this blending of two prose versions of the Red Sea event is a fruitful set of theological affirmations and tensions that need to be held together as we reflect on and proclaim this text.
1) God is intimately involved in the details and forces involved in the struggle of God’s people, intervening at times directly on their behalf against forces of bondage and oppression. God can “get down and dirty.” At the same time, God may sometimes work in more indirect and mediated ways. God may at times rely more on human action, working in, with and through the human agency and decisions of God’s own people to achieve God’s purposes in the world.
2) God uses “natural” means of creation for both judgment and salvation. Egypt’s long history of human injustice and oppression against the Israelite slaves resulted in a climactic “ecological disaster” at the Red Sea, a disaster preceded by a series of ten warning signs of growing ecological disruption in the ten plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7-13).1 At the same time, God also uses “hyper-natural” wonders and signs, uses of nature that seem out of the ordinary. Moses raises his special staff, and the dramatic walls of water rise up almost magically to form a pathway of dry land that opens up through the sea. God working through the ordinary world of science and nature is held together with God working through the wonders of dramatic signs and wonders, miracles of God’s direct intervention that may be seen by the eyes of faith.
3) The Red Sea event is portrayed as happening at one historical moment in a particular location known from ancient history (whether it is the relatively larger “Red Sea” or a smaller and marshy “Reed Sea,” as some scholars argue). At the same time, the use of the sea imagery resonates with other more cosmic creational traditions in the Bible. These cosmic traditions portray God as a cosmic and heavenly Divine Warrior who struggles against and defeats the forces of chaos and evil embodied in the sea and waters of chaos that are hostile to God’s rule in the world (Psalm 77:16-19; 114:3-6; Habakkuk 3:8-11). The New Testament stories of Jesus and the disciples in a boat on the stormy sea and Jesus’ ability to calm the winds and the waves draw from this same set of cosmic and creational images (Mark 4:35-41; Matthew 8:18, 23-27; Luke 8:22-25). The Red Sea story assures us that the relatively small and mundane acts of ministry done by God’s people in particular times and locations participate in a larger cosmic drama involving God’s defeat of evil and redemption in the world (see Luke 10:1-20).
1Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 105-132, 152-161.
Commentary on Romans 14:1-12
This section of Romans makes it clear that divisions in the church go back to the earliest churches.
The “strong” who are mentioned here apparently eat everything, observe all days as the same, and perhaps drink wine. The “weak in faith,” mentioned in the first verse of this reading apparently abstain from meat, observe one day as more sacred than others–this was probably the Sabbath–and abstain from wine. More significant than these differences in lifestyle, however, were the attitudes that were dividing the church. Paul’s commands toward both groups make it pretty clear that the “strong” were despising the “weak,” while the “weak” were judging or condemning the “strong.”
The behavioral differences in view here are adiaphora, “indifferent things,” or “things that don’t matter.” These behaviors are not explicitly prohibited or commanded by scripture. They lie in a moral zone where each person must exercise conscience to decide how to proceed.
Differences in how we follow our consciences always have the potential to threaten our fellowship as believers in Christ. A story about Ruth Graham, wife of the famous evangelist, illustrates how differences can threaten our unity. Mrs. Graham, dressed and made up as would seem fitting for any American woman in the 1970s, attended a luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany. These German Christians had more conservative ideas regarding how women should look. They did not believe that married Christian women should wear makeup or clothing that made them look too much like the world. As a result, a German pastor’s wife, sitting across from Ruth Graham, became very upset. She thought it was shameful that the wife of this famous evangelist looked so worldly. Why, Ruth Graham was even wearing mascara! The German pastor’s wife became so angry that she started crying right into her beer. Meanwhile Ruth Graham couldn’t understand why the woman was crying, although it bothered her that a self-respecting pastor’s wife was drinking beer at a meeting to prepare for an evangelistic crusade where Christians come together as the unified body of Christ.
In this text and what follows, Paul shows no sign he recommends that people who are more liberated in conscience teach those with more sensitive consciences to change their positions. In fact, he sounds postmodern in 14:14 when he says that for the person who thinks a certain food is unclean, it is unclean. This leads him to say in the next verse, “I am not walking in love if what I do or eat causes a fellow believer to be grieved.” Notice he makes no allowances for what I intend or don’t intend to do. If I have a more robust conscience and a believer around me is grieved, then I have not been acting in love by first asking how my behavior will affect others around me.
One summer I went on a short missions trip to rural Guatemala. I knew that men weren’t supposed to wear short pants, so on the first day at our ministry site–a Sunday–I was out in long pants, playing soccer with some village boys. My team leader came out and said, “Mark, there are some pastors here who are asking why you, a participant in this conference, are playing a competitive game like soccer on a Sunday.” It turned out that the believers to whom we were ministering thought there was something wrong with competitive sports. They would not think of playing soccer on a Sunday! It was like Paul said here in 14:5–one person places one day above the others while another person views all days alike. On that Sunday in Guatemala, I had to respect the sensibilities of the pastors who were there and walk off the field.
Paul says that if both sides are doing their action “for the Lord,” then both positions are valid and must be respected (14:6). Is Paul saying that I have to curtail my freedoms because of others’ sensitivities? For relationships within the church, this is exactly what Paul is saying and confirmed by his words on verses 7-9, that we, like Christ, are not living for ourselves. We are here to live for the Lord.
Another reason Paul gives for respecting the behavior of others’ in indifferent matters is that each believer will stand before God in judgment. It is not for us to judge other people. If they can perform their activities in good conscience for the Lord, then we can let them continue.
Indeed, the theme that God will finally judge is not just an idea that keeps us from taking revenge, as we see in Romans 12:19. God’s judgment is also a powerful idea that keeps me from judging or despising those who live out their Christian convictions in ways different from how I live (14:4, 10-12). Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Paul is applying Jesus’ words to differences within the church. His goal for our church is presented in his benediction in Romans 15:5-6, that instead of using our words to despise or judge others in our fellowship, we glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ “with one voice!”
There is an episode that occurs before this pericope which sheds light on Peter’s question about forgiveness.
In 16:13-19, Peter surprisingly declares that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah. In response, Jesus calls Peter the rock and promises to build the church upon his leadership. It is helpful to remember that episode in which Peter is identified as a leader when looking at our appointed lesson here. In this reading, Peter comes to Jesus seeking clarity on what seems a simple question. “How many times should a person forgive a brother or sister?”
By this time in Matthew’s telling of the story, Peter seems to be catching on a bit about Jesus. He knows that Jesus is a Messiah and doesn’t think or act like other people, so he shows the master that he is learning. If he would have approached the question in the usual way, he would have said, “Shall I forgive as many as two or three times?” This would have been the rabbinic approach: to forgive, yes, but prudently. To forgive once is generous. To be let down by the same person and forgive a second time would be exemplary. To be fool enough to get hurt by the same individual a third time and to forgive even then: this is bordering on the obsessive. But, Peter knows that Jesus thinks big. He makes a bold move: “Forgive as many as seven times?” This would be absurd by rabbinic standards, but it might just be the number Jesus would like. It’s a holy number, and it has the kind of exaggerated quality that Jesus likes (go the second mile, give your cloak as well, etc.). Surely, we imagine Peter thinking, Jesus will like this answer. Surely this shows strength of leadership, holy insight, generosity of spirit. Surely, this is an impressive demonstration of all that Peter has learned from the great teacher.
But, Jesus disappoints him. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Nice try, Peter. You are moving in the right direction. You just have a long way to go, yet. Four hundred ninety. This is the number, if you have to have a number, but it is an impossible number. Completely unthinkable. Jesus uses an absurd exaggeration. What it means is this: forgive your brothers and sisters beyond your ability to keep track. If you are keeping track, it is not really forgiveness at all. You may seem to be kind, but keeping track simply means that you are waiting for your neighbor to cross some line–generously drawn, perhaps–but a line nonetheless. Beyond the line you are no longer willing to forgive. Jesus calls into question the entire game. If you keep count, it is not called forgiveness.
Then, to reinforce the lesson, Jesus tells this parable. Note again the amazing exaggeration. The servant owes ten thousand talents to the king. Calculating this number (always tempting to do in a sermon on this parable) is nearly impossible. One quickly finds that Jesus is using a number that has no realistic present day equivalency. Further, no king would loan an incalculably large amount to a servant. But, that is what this king is willing to loan and to forgive. When the servant then fails to forgive another for a remarkably small debt, his forgiveness is withdrawn and the king has him thrown into jail. Again, exaggeration seems to be the way Jesus makes his point here. He is using hyperbolic language to teach Peter and to teach us about the true nature of forgiveness.
But, there is a great irony in this. Peter heard hyperbole in Jesus’ answers, but, he could not know that ultimately, this was the size of debt Jesus would soon forgive. All the sins of all believers in all the world through all of time. An unbelievably large debt. This is the way to conceive of the debt of ten thousand talents owed the king. There is no way that Peter, the one who tried to stop Jesus from facing toward sure crucifixion in Jerusalem (“God forbid it Lord,” 16:22), could foresee that this was the debt Jesus was to pay on the cross. The King of creation would pay with his life, so that the incalculable debt would be erased. Peter ultimately came to see this and preached this message to the church founded upon his leadership.
The lesson for readers today is still the same. Forgive without calculation or reservation. Of course, this is not easy to do. Each failure to do so is another talent piled onto the sin-bearing cross. The life of discipleship is a balance: we do not aggrieve the king to pile up our debt simply because we know it will be forgiven; we love and offer forgiveness even when we feel unable because the forgiving king loves through us. Failing to do so is to challenge the king to reverse his grace and substitute the judgment we deserve.