Proper 17, Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 31, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Exodus 3:1-15Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45cRomans 12:9-21Matthew 16:21-28

By Russell Pregeant

The gospel lesson expresses the ultimate paradox that lies at the heart of the New Testament message: we must lose our lives in order to find them. This paradox is essential to Christian faith, but it must be treated with the utmost care; for it can be, and too often is, interpreted in a destructive way. Directed to persons with control over their own destinies, it is a legitimate call to self-sacrifice on behalf of others and the common good. Directed to persons who have been marginalized, in one way or another, it can become a tool of oppression. And that it has been used in the latter way is indisputable. Women, slaves, the poor, gays and lesbians, persons trapped in bodies that do not correspond to the gender they know themselves to be—all these and others have been forced to conform to societal expectations concocted and enforced by an insensitive majority or a ruling elite. It is the height of hypocrisy for those in comfortable positions with regard to socioeconomic standing, sexuality, gender, or gender identification to ask others to bear burdens they do not accept for themselves. So let us, then, look carefully at this passage in order to see as clearly as we can the nature of its actual demands.

It is important, to begin with, to understand verses 24-28 in light of verses 21-23. In 16:21, the phrase apo tote (“from that time”) signals a major turn in the plot. The same phrase appears in 4:17: “From that time (apo tote), Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” The gospel is thus divided into three major sections. From 1:1 to 4:16, we have an account of Jesus’ origin and preparation for ministry; from 4:16 to 16:20, Jesus proclaims the message that God’s Rule or Reign is now breaking in; and from 16:21 on Jesus’ death and resurrection take center stage—first as a theme in his teaching, then in an account of the events that fulfill his predictions.

Verses 21-23 thus define the theme of the rest of the gospel: Jesus must go to Jerusalem, undergo suffering at the hands of the established powers, be crucified and then raised from the dead. And Jesus’ harsh reply to Peter’s objection underscores the necessity of this course of events. To call Peter a “stumbling block” is to parody the earlier positive use of his name (petros=rock), and to call him Satan and accuse him of thinking in human rather than divine terms is to say that he is standing in the way of God’s plan. The reason for Peter’s objection is never stated, but we can imagine three possibilities: his love for Jesus, his own unwillingness to suffer, and his misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus’ messianic mission. The latter is probably the controlling element, but the other two may play a part as well.

The Bible is pervaded by a paradox of free will and determinism. It is clear in this passage that Jesus’ death is an essential part of God’s plan. It is equally clear throughout Matthew’s gospel, however, that those who put Jesus to death do so freely and are thoroughly responsible for their evil actions. Unfortunately, Christian theology and Christian preaching have all too often obscured the latter pole of the paradox by speaking far too glibly of God sending Jesus in order to die for our sins. And the result is that we miss the socio-political dimension of the story and settle for a cosmic drama of other-worldly salvation that leaves the oppressive structures of society unchallenged. There is an element in this text, however, that can help recover the socio-political dimension; and that is the reference to Jesus’ suffering “at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes.” The unworthy motives of the political establishment are made clear throughout the gospel in various ways. Jesus devotes nearly all of chapter 23 to lambasting the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, and in 26:3-5 we see the chief priests and elders plotting to arrest Jesus and kill him. Nor does the narrator let Rome off the hook, as is often charged. Pilate’s hand washing is no sign of repentance but a pathetic and ironic denial of responsibility—after he has ignored a potent warning from his wife! Roman soldiers, moreover, taunt Jesus and abuse him in 27:27-31. And both Herod and Herod Antipas, who are agents of Rome, appear in a negative light. It is thus undeniable that Jesus’ mission is not simply to die as an act of atonement for human sin but to confront the oppressive and sinful structures of an unjust world. This is particularly clear, moreover, if we pay attention to the way some recent interpreters have come to understand Matthew’s beatitudes. The phrase “poor in spirit” in 5:3 probably does not mean “those who confess their need of God,” as some have it, but as those whose spirits have been crushed by oppression. And dikaiosyne in vv. 6 and 10 would be more appropriately rendered “justice” than “righteousness,” so that v. 6 blesses those who cry out in the face of oppression and v. 10 blesses those who are persecuted precisely because they seek to do justice for the poor. It is not just a particular generation of leaders that Jesus opposes but unjust social and economic systems.

But if Jesus’ mission entails a confrontation with the political establishment—the “powers that be”—then it seems clear that the same applies to the disciples. To deny this would be to reduce the ubiquitous call to “follow” him to a “spiritual” dimension unconnected to life in the world. What does Jesus mean when he tells Peter to “get behind him”? The command is most logically a call to get in step with “the program,” to follow behind him precisely by carrying out his mission. In the immediate situation, this means to accept his death as part of that mission. But vv. 24-26 point beyond the immediate situation. Jesus does not expect his followers to die with him, for that would make the post-resurrection mission impossible. What he does expect is a metaphorical giving of their lives, their all, to that mission. And this means that they must take upon themselves the task of doing what he did—making a proclamation to the world that will land them in trouble with “the powers that be.” It will mean sacrifice and risk, including risk of the loss of life. But he is asking no sacrifice of them that he did not in fact make himself. And in any case, the giving of their lives is not the sacrifice of who they are for the sake of social convention but a confrontation with oppressive power—a confrontation that in fact affirms their selfhood in its deepest sense. When Jesus asks the rhetorical question, “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”, he is underscoring the fact that the giving of life in one sense leads to self-fulfillment in another sense. Verses 27-28 suggest that this other sense includes the resurrection of the dead, but this would be meaningless apart from the assurance that it is one’s true life that is in fact preserved.

The Greek word translated here as “life” is psyche, which has a broad semantic range, including physical life, the life principle, and soul in the sense of that which can survive death. Although it sometimes refers to a part of a human being, here, as in the New Testament generally, it clearly refers to one’s entire being, or “self.” The paradoxical saying thus forces the reader/hearer to choose how she or he will understand one’s self—as a self-contained entity devoted to the preservation of one’s physical existence or as a being responsible to God and God’s system of values. To think in the first way is to think, as Peter did, in human terms; to think in the latter way, God’s way, is to be willing to sacrifice what appears on the surface to be the “normal” human way of pursuing life for the way of self-sacrifice. But the paradox is that it is those who choose the latter way, not the former, who find true self-fulfillment. Those who interpret Jesus’ call to self-sacrifice as the total obliteration of the self thus subvert the paradox; for to lose one’s life in order to save it is still, in a sense, to seek to save it—albeit in the exact opposite way. One can think of this, in process terms, as the difference between seeking self-fulfillment as an isolated entity on the one hand and seeking self-fulfillment, on the other, as a part of a greater whole—that is, through a commitment to the common good rather than the individual good.

So what, then, would it mean for a person in a position of power to lose himself or herself? Perhaps it would mean that a slaveholder would release those held in bondage, even at the risk of one’s own financial ruin. Perhaps it would mean that an employer would pay just wages even at the expense of significantly reduced profits. But what about those deprived of power? Does the saying have any meaning for them? I think so. For a poorly paid worker it might mean giving up the (false) security of silence to fight for justice, even at the risk of losing one’s job, not just for personal gain but for all underpaid workers everywhere. For a lesbian or gay person it might mean giving up the (false) security of a closeted existence in order to fight for the rights of all who stand outside the humanly-prescribed standards of “normal” sexuality.

The reading from the Hebrew Bible is a textbook illustration of what Rudolf Otto meant by the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the “awesome and fascinating mystery” or sense of absolute otherness that accompanies some disclosures of the divine. The bush that burns without being consumed is itself eerie, unearthly, outside the realm of ordinary experience, and two other elements increase the sense of mystery. First, God commands Moses to take off his sandals to stand on holy ground; and second, Moses is struck with such fear that he will not look upon God. Unseen, God remains mysterious; and yet disclosure takes place. God and Moses converse, and God reveals an essential element of the divine character—concern for the people who are heavily oppressed. The divine purpose is also disclosed—to bring the people into a land of their own. More than that, when Moses objects on the basis of his inadequacy, God promises to be with him. Thus, although in one sense ultimately unknowable, God is presented as companion and helper.

The paradox of disclosure or revelation and mystery continues as the conversation turns to God’s name. The caginess with which God discloses the name reflects the notion that to know the name of a deity gives the knower power over that deity. In the end, however, God does reveal the name “Yahweh” (although in keeping with Jewish tradition it is rendered as the LORD) and declares, “This is my name forever.” The disclosure is preceded, however, by a play on the Hebrew verb of being, hayah: “I am who I am.” Most interpreters now agree, however, that a better translation would be “I will be what I will be,” which connotes not static being but dynamism. The phrase thus seems to indicate God’s active presence with the people and an active, creative engagement with the world that brings about what is new. And this would seem to be consistent with the mission on which God sends Moses. It will, in defiance of the established power of Pharaoh, fulfill the ancient promise to give the descendants of Abraham and Sarah a land and make a great people of them—an astonishing reversal of their present status. This understanding of God as bringing about what is new is also found in passages such as Isaiah 43:19 (“I am about to do a new thing…) and Revelation 21:5 (“See, I am making all things new…) and in Paul’s concept of the new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

In last Sunday’s epistle lesson, Paul enjoined his readers to undergo a transformation of their minds in order to discern the will of God and then presented an image of the church as the body of Christ, an organic unity in which each member plays an essential role. In this Sunday’s selection, he builds on all this, first by defining the virtues needed for life of the church (12:9-13) and then turning to the community’s relations with the world outside (12:14-21). Although some of what is found in the latter section could apply to life in the community, N.T. Wright is probably correct in identifying a break at v. 14, where Paul’s grammatical constructions undergo a shift “from the string of participles to a pair of straight imperatives, with a string of participles dependent on them.”1 The focus, at least, is on now on matters such as persecution and conflict with genuine enemies.

As David Lull comments, nothing in Paul’s list of virtues “was, strictly speaking, exclusively ‘Christian,’ in the sense that each virtue can be found in ancient pagan and/or Jewish moral writings.” Some of his precepts, however, “were found only in Jewish writings and contrasted sharply with classic virtues.” To this latter group belong those having to do with kindness toward enemies—e.g., v. 20, which quotes Proverbs 25:2: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them….” Of course, this also reflects Jesus’ teaching, and “[t]he principles that framed the whole (vv. 9 and 21) were consistent with Paul’s understanding of the gospel. It was no accident that God’s love in Christ Jesus was the center of the gospel (8:39) and that ‘genuine love’ was the leading value in the list.”2 For Paul, life in Christ is indeed a “new creation,” but it is not completely discontinuous with what human beings have generally defined as the good life throughout human history. We should, in fact, understand the relationship of both Judaism and Christianity to religious and ethical teachings from other faiths and philosophies in terms of both continuity and discontinuity. And this is consistent with a theological perspective that rejects the notion of revelation as a communication from the divine that breaks into the world, building all its own bridges, and effectively negates prior human experience. Such a perspective, by contrast, understands “special” revelation as always building upon a “universal” revelation available to all persons in all times and circumstances.

Christians should thus have no problem in cooperating with persons of other faiths or philosophies, who hold similar values, as they seek to work on behalf of the common good. But this should not obscure the ways in which authentic Christianity remains counter-cultural—e.g., promoting reconciliation rather than belligerence in both the personal and the political realms, pursuing the common good rather than personal gain, and fostering human solidarity rather than zealous nationalism or ethnic exclusivism. Some other perspectives are counter-cultural in similar ways, and we should celebrate this fact. Nor do we need to flaunt our belief in the empowerment offered by the Spirit to those who are in Christ, as if God could not offer such gifts to others. And yet it is constitutive of Christian faith to believe that to be incorporated into Christ is in fact to be drawn into a “force field” in which the Spirit is in fact at work. We all know, however, that Christians have attributed many destructive attitudes to the work of the Spirit, which is one reason that listings of virtues such as we have in Romans 12:9-21 remain important and why love must always remain central.

Psalm 105 is a celebration of God’s mighty acts on behalf of the chosen people. The deterministic note in v. 23, which attributes the Egyptians’ hatred of the Israelites to God’s own prompting, is problematic but is reflective of a paradox of freedom and determinism than runs through biblical thought generally. Much of what the selection deletes from the psalm is problematic in a different way, exulting in God’s harsh treatment of the Egyptians. The selection jumps from v. 26 to v. 45c, but the first part of the latter verse makes a fitting complement to vv. 1-6, 23-26, by stating the reason for God’s gift of the land: “that they might keep his statutes and obey his laws.” It is difficult to use 45a-b without 44, which is again problematic, but I think one might be justified in combining it with 43. Following 26, then, we would have “So he brought his people out with joy, his chosen ones with singing…that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws.” For the purposes of a sermon, one could then interpret Israel’s chosenness in light of moral purpose. God makes Israel a nation and gives it land in order to establish the kind of justice envisioned, for example, in the Torah’s remarkable provisions for the alleviation and prevention of poverty.

1N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 713.

2David J. Lull, Romans (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 164-65.

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 Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).