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This Week's Commentary
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 24, 2014Exodus 1:8-2:10 | Psalm 124 | Romans 12:1-8 | Matthew 16:13-20
The gospel lesson is a focal point for two key Matthean themes, one of which is the identity of Jesus. The reader, of course, knows who Jesus is from the beginning. In chapter 1, the narrator identifies him as “the Messiah, son of David, and son of Abraham” (1:1), whose mission is to “save the people from their sins.” (1:21) Actual divine sonship, however, is disclosed in steps. It is first hinted at in the name “Emmanuel,” which is applied to him in 1:23, although the term is best translated (in keeping with Hebrew theophoric names) as “God is with us,” rather than “God with us.” Hosea 11:1, originally referring to Israel as God’s son, is reinterpreted as a reference to Jesus in 2:15, and then in 3:17 the voice of God makes the point explicitly: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The forces of evil also know who Jesus is. The devil tempts him with the taunt, “If you are the Son of God,” and a demon applies the title to him unquestioningly in 8:29.
The human characters in the story, however, present a more complex picture. Jesus is rejected by the Jewish establishment from the beginning, but the question of whether he is “the Messiah, the son of God” does not figure explicitly in their evaluation until the trial scene (26:57-28); and they take his apparent acceptance of the title as blasphemy. John the Baptist seems to accept his messianic status in 3:11-17, where he heralds Jesus’ arrival and is reluctant to perform the baptism; yet in 11:2-7 he has to ask whether Jesus is in fact “the one who is to come.” For the most part, the responses of the Israelite people to Jesus vary from accepting him as healer and teacher on the one hand (e.g., 4:23-25, 7:28-29) to hostility on the other (11:20-24, 13:54-58). At some points, though, they address him as Son of David (e.g., 21:9; 20:22). As for Gentiles, the Canaanite woman whose great faith Jesus praises in 15:21-28 also uses this term, and at the cross a centurion and others with him proclaim him “God’s son” (27:54).
The disciples present a special case regarding Jesus’ identity, in that their understanding goes through considerable development and is crucial to the progression of the plot. This Sunday’s gospel reading portrays a critical moment in that development. In 8:23-27, the story of the stilling of the storm, they call him “Lord” (as does the leper in 8:1-4), but the Greek term (kyrios) had a wide range of usage and does not necessarily have divine connotations when employed to address Jesus. And at the end of this account, they express complete bafflement regarding his identity: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” By 14:22-33, however, we can see a monumental change. After Jesus rescues Peter from his attempt to walk on the water, and the wind has ceased, they not only proclaim him Son of God but worship him. (14:33) This declaration simply hangs there, however, without further development; but in 16:13-20 we find a definitive statement of Jesus’ identity as well as a crucial moment in the disciples’ grasp of the matter. The importance of the scene is underscored by the fact that Jesus himself raises the issue, signaling that he is now ready for full disclosure of his identity to his inner circle. First asking who people say he is, he moves quickly to the real question: “But who do you say that I am?” Apparently, the disciples’ understanding on this point is a prerequisite for what he must now teach them (concerning his death and resurrection) as well as for the mission he intends to accomplish through them. And his unqualified approval of Peter’s answer shows that their understanding is now correct. This does not mean that their faith is complete, as we will see in the pericope that follows and in Jesus’ need to once again accuse them of “little faith” in 17:20. But they do, at last, know precisely who he is.
Another key theme is the church. Jesus’ commendation of Peter for his declaration is followed immediately by his founding of the church, which suggests that an understanding of Jesus’ identity is in fact a necessary component of the church’s life. And in terms of the structure of Matthew’s gospel, the placing of this pericope at this point is important. On the one hand, enough events have unfolded to give the disciples’ understanding time to develop; on the other, Jesus can now proceed to deliver the fourth of his five great discourses, this one specifically on church life (18:1-20), before the beginning of the passion narrative. This, together with the fifth discourse (23:1-25:46 [or 24:1-25:46], on judgment), will prepare the disciples for life in the post-resurrection situation in which the church will be in mission to the world.
This much is clear, but there are disputed issues of interpretation regarding this passage. First, what did Jesus mean by repeating Peter’s name and saying he will found his church on this “rock”? The traditional Roman Catholic position was that Peter himself was the rock to which Jesus referred and that in making this statement Jesus appointed him as the first pope. The traditional Protestant view, however, was that the rock was not Peter himself, but his faith. In more recent times, most Protestant and Catholic scholars have abandoned the traditional positions and have agreed that the rock was in fact Peter, who was given a special role but was not actually appointed to a formal and continuing office. There is another view, however, which I find convincing: the “rock” is Peter’s statement, his declaration of Jesus as “the Messiah, the son of the living God.” This view was first suggested by Chris Caragounis in a book entitled Peter and the Rock. His argument hinges on the fact that the Greek text uses two different nouns that translate as “rock”—the masculine petros, for Peter’s name, and the feminine petra for that on which the church was founded. Even though in more ancient Greek petros meant “stone” (a small object) and petra referred a larger geological configuration, by New Testament times the distinction had blurred. Thus, if an exact equivalence between Peter’s name and that on which the church was founded had been the intention, petros would have been the better choice for the latter. The use of petra instead is therefore a sign that the intention is not exact equivalence but similarity, which is in fact the usual way a word-play works. Caragounis thus suggests this paraphrase: “As sure as you are [called] Peter, on this rock [i.e., of what you have just said…] I shall build my church.”
Other issues are the meaning of “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” and the power to “bind and loose.” The first point to be made is that “the kingdom of heaven” does not mean either heaven or the church; it is rather the Rule or Reign of God that is breaking into the world as Jesus carries out his messianic ministry. To give the “keys” to Peter is thus to confer on him the power to grant people access to that inbreaking Rule or Reign. And the terms “bind” and “loose” in rabbinic thought referred to interpretation of the law, distinguishing between what is forbidden or permitted. It is important, however, to be clear about the recipient of Jesus’ conferral of authority here. Although in this pericope Jesus seems to single Peter out—and there is no question that he plays a central leadership role in Matthew—in chapter 18, the church discourse, he grants the power to “bind and loose” to the church community collectively (18:15-20). And this can be a very important point for the contemporary church as it wrestles with issues such as gay marriage. Although the gospel of Matthew takes great care not to undermine the authority of the Jewish law (see especially 5:17-20), it depicts Jesus not only as challenging the “traditions of the elders” (15:1-20) but as contravening a Mosaic provision regarding divorce (19:3-9). Even though the specific position the Matthean Jesus takes on this matter is in a sense conservative, the fact of this contravention and the conferral of authority to interpret the law on the church in chapter 18 opens the way for re-thinking traditional views on many ethical issues in light of new knowledge and differing circumstances.
The epistle lesson, Romans 12:1-8, can also contribute to this process of re-thinking. In v. 2 Paul enjoins his readers to become transformed by the renewal of their minds in order to discern what the will of God is. He is thus urging an ethic focused not on the rigid adherence to stated rules but on a process of discernment rooted in the transformative power of the Spirit that comes with incorporation into Christ. We see this sense of incorporation in the verses that follow, as Paul speaks of the members of the community as Christ’s body. And we know from passages such as Galatians 5:16, where Paul urges his readers to “walk by the Spirit” (RSV) as a preface for ethnical instructions, that the Spirit guides the process of puzzling things out. This latter passage is preceded, moreover, by a description of life in Christ as freedom constrained only by the love command, which he considers a summation of the entire law (Galatians 5:13-15). We can thus characterize Paul’s entire ethic as a Spirit-guided ethic of discernment with love as its focus. And if we must also say that on many occasions he seems to lay down absolute rules, his own emphasis on a more open-ended process can sometimes call these into question.
(A Note on Translation: That v. 2 proposes an ethic of discernment is clearer in some translations than in others. The key issue is how to render the verb dokimazein. Its semantic range is usually defined as including testing or examining on the one hand and proving or accepting as proved on the other. The NIV thus has “test and approve,” and the RSV has simply “prove.” Precise meaning is always determined by context, however. And both of these renderings, in my estimation, are ambiguous and misleading. Because the Greek sentence clearly indicates that the issue is not approval of God’s will but what the will of God is (ti to thelema theou), the sense of “testing” slides over into a process of ascertainment. The NRSV thus has “discern” and the CEB “find out.” Nor is this the only passage in which dokimazein has this sense. In Philippians 1:10, for example, the NRSV has “to help you determine (dokimazein) what is best,” following upon a preceding clause that explicitly mentions discernment (aisthesis). Here again, the RSV has “approve” for dokimazein, but the NIV, significantly, has “discern.”)
Both Paul and Matthew are clear that this process of discernment is communal rather than individual. Nowhere are individual Christians given permission to make up their own ethical codes; it is the church community that is the body of Christ for Paul and that has the power to “bind and loose” for Matthew. It is inherent in the process of communal discernment, however, that changes take place only through a difficult process in which members are in fact free to propose new answers. And although individuals or small groups should engage in deep soul-searching before acting upon departures from traditional answers, in the end individuals do have to answer to their own consciences. Paul’s organic view of the community as Christ’s body, however, should stand as a constant warning against arrogance. In such a community, disagreements will inevitably arise. What is needed is neither unthinking submission to authority nor belligerent individualism but mutual respect and, to use Paul’s term in v. 3, “sober judgment.”
The oppressiveness of tyrants, the courage of those who resist them, and the too often untold story of women whose brave actions affect the course of history—such are the rich themes of the reading from Exodus. Rulers such as Pharaoh rightly fear the power of those whom they oppress, knowing that dreams deferred may not simply shrivel “like a raisin in the sun” but can eventually explode. That the latter happened in the case of the enslaved Hebrew people was due not simply to the imposing figure of Moses but also to the mother who defied Pharaoh’s murderous decree, the sister who watched protectively as his little basket floated on the Nile, and even Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him. The midwives Shifrah and Puah also appear as heroic figures, who earlier disobey Pharaoh’s order to kill the male babies and help the Hebrews increase in number. The story told in this reading is thus very much a story of women—courageous women who play key roles in the survival of God’s chosen people and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.
Another theme in this account is how the course of events can turn on a dime. The Joseph cycle in Genesis ends with the Hebrew people living prosperously in Egypt, but with Exodus 1:8 everything changes. This should serve as a warning not only against complacency but also against trusting in the power of overlords, no matter how beneficent they might appear at any given point. I can imagine a powerful sermon based on the question, “What if Pharaoh Had Not Been a Tyrant?” One answer, of course, is that if the people had remained content with their favorable position as guests in Egypt the promise to Abraham would never have been fulfilled. And that means that Israel’s mission as a “light to the nations” would have been sidetracked. On a broader level, we could also say that the people might have settled for a static and seemingly (but deceptively so!) secure existence instead of a dangerous, risk-filled, adventurous historical journey with God. The dangers of the journey they actually took were of course real, and they often experienced disaster. Any person of genuine biblical faith, however, would not hesitate to say that the journey was nevertheless worth the trouble.
Psalm 124 is a powerful reminder of ancient Israel’s indebtedness to God and can serve as a similar reminder to both Christians and Jews today to give thanks to God for the sustenance to continue in the face of grave difficulties. The “God is on our side” motif, however, is fraught great danger and has in fact fed an arrogant, zealous nationalism that has led nations into foolish military adventurism that subverts the biblical ideal of universal peace. Applied to the exodus from Egypt, it is a legitimate expression of gratitude for liberation from oppression. But when any nation comes to see itself as God’s appointed instrument for settling all conflicts in the world under the illusion of pure beneficence devoid self-interest, for appointing and bringing down leaders and governments around the world, and for drawing boundaries for other nations, then it is setting itself up for “reaping the whirlwind.”
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, and Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale DivinitySchool, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern LouisianaUniversity (B.A., 1960).