Proper 19, Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 14, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Exodus 14.19-31Psalm 114Romans 14.1-12 Matthew 18.21-35

By David J. Lull

Unless otherwise noted, the biblical quotations are from the NRSV.

Exodus 14.19-31 and Psalm 114

See Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus,” pp. 792-96, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), vol. 1.

Both today’s Exodus reading and today’s Psalm are about how God helped ancient Israel’s Hebrew ancestors escape from slavery in Egypt. Like last week’s segment of the “Exodus” narrative, the story of God’s liberation of the Hebrews from slavery is at the same time the story of God’s fierce destruction of Egypt’s armies. That means that this God is a powerful liberator, but also a powerful destroyer of human life.

The rest of this story is about how God gave to the Hebrews a land that belonged to others, which they would occupy and which they would establish as the land of Israel (Exod 23.20-33). That means that it is the story of God’s providence for Israel’s Hebrew ancestors at the expense of “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exod 3.8), whose land God gave to the Hebrews. In time, they and this land became Israel. In short, we might say that ancient Israel’s narrative is a story of how many people paid the price of God’s providential care for “God’s chosen people” by giving them a land that God promised to give to them even though it belonged to others!

After reading Itumeleng Jeremiah Mosala’s Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa(Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1989), I can no longer ignore or be silent about these elements of the “Exodus” story. The theology of this narrative was the foundational narrative that justified Apartheid in the Republic of South Africa. Professor Mosala’s thesis is that supporters of Apartheid South Africa read this story correctly as a story of God’s granting Israel land that belonged to others. The white, European settlers/occupiers understood themselves as prefigured in the ancient Israelites of this narrative.

In the same way, this narrative played a role in the expansion of the American colonies south and west across lands that belonged to others. The early Americans played out the “conquest of Canaan” by purging the land of most of its original inhabitants. Then they sequestered the remnant people of the first nations into reservations. Again, it seems like God showed favor to immigrants who claimed land belonging to others for the United States of America. Again, it seems like God exacted a price from the people of the first nations for the sake of “God’s [newly] chosen people.”

The same drama is playing out on the ancient land of “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” In the early decades of the 20th century, the indigenous Palestinians resisted the attempts of European nations to give land belonging to thousand-year Arab inhabitants to Jewish immigrants. After the French and British mandates following WWI, and then after the U.N. plan to partition Palestine in 1947 (U.N. res. 181), Jewish immigrants declared the independence of Israel in 1948. The narrative from 1948 to the present has been the story of Israel’s expansion into occupied Palestinian territories and the flourishing of Israel’s economy—all with the aid of the United States, Israel’s strongest military and economic ally. At the same time, it is a story of the price that Palestinians have had to pay for Israel’s success: the loss of land, the inability to travel within and between their territories, and the consequent, catastrophic collapse of their economy. Unless “facts on the ground” change dramatically, it looks like God will again show favor to immigrants who established the state of Israel. Again, it looks like God will exact a price from the land’s indigenous people for the sake of “God’s chosen people.”

What can—what should—we say about these ancient and modern narratives? The biblical story is about God’s fierce opposition to the oppressive actions of an empire, in this case Egypt. Its purpose is to instill, in Israel, “fear of God,” and “faith” in God and God’s servant Moses (14.31). In this narrative, the “fear of God” is not just synonymous with “faith in God”: it is fear of a fierce God! Faith in God is faith in God’s power and will to act fiercely to protect Israel from its enemies. As such, this story is about God’s liberation of fledgling, rag-tag tribes, with no military and little or no economic power. As such, it is a story about God’s preferential care to protect the powerless from a world power. It is not about God’s fierce protection of world powers with superior military and economic power, like the modern United States, South Africa, and the modern state of Israel!

In ancient Israel’s history, God’s protection of Israel was temporarily successful, after repeated setbacks. The longest setback was from the catastrophe of the Judean revolt against the Roman Empire in 66-70 c.e. until 1948. Now that the modern state of Israel is a Middle East superpower, and the Palestinians are virtually powerless to determine their own future, this biblical story could be a warning to Israel, calling it to “fear God and believe in God” in its new status as a world power capable of controlling the future of the militarily weaker Palestinians. Just so, it was a warning that South Africa failed to heed. So too it is a warning to the United States, confident in its superpower status and assets!

Romans 14.1-12

See John B. Cobb, Jr., and David J. Lull, Romans, Chalice Commentaries for Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 175-81.

In 14.1-15.13, Paul turns to a discussion of “welcoming” one another (see “welcome” in 14.1 and 15.7). In 14.13 and 15.7, the conjunction “therefore,” which signals a conclusion drawn from the preceding, divides this discussion into three sections: 14.1-12, 14.13-15.6, and 15.7-13. All three sections build on the principles Paul laid out in chapters 12-13, especially 13.8-14. When those who “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13.14) welcome one another, they reflect the way “Christ has welcomed you” (15.7). Welcomingone another is a way of loving one another (13.8).

We do not need to imagine that Paul is dealing with an actual problem among “God’s beloved in Rome” (1.7). Paul resented it when interlopers interfered in the communities that he established (see 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and perhaps Philippians), so that it would be inconsistent if Paul were to be meddling in a community others established. It would be surprising, however, if “God’s beloved in Rome” did not occasionally experience disagreements that divided the community.

In any case, Paul takes up a universal topic: welcoming one another is incompatible with enforcing commandments as if they were absolutes that require obedience by everyone. Paul does not take sides on the specific issues; rather, he advises strongly against passing judgment on one another (14.3; see 2.1). Sadly, many Christians think that it is their God-given calling to judge others. That is a violation not only of Paul’s strong “advice”; it is also a violation of one of Jesus’ core teachings (Mt 7.1-5 and Lk 6.37-42)! As a corrective, Paul reminds us that judgment is God’s business.

In addition to “welcome one another,” Paul lifts up the principle that different and even opposite rules can share a common goal: honoring and thanking God. Christian churches would do well to remember that whenever disputes erupt in congregations over the “right” way to do things, whether it is over trivial local issues or big, hot topics. For at least 30 years, I have been an advocate for removing language in the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline declaring “homosexual practice” incompatible with Christian teaching and prohibiting full participation of homosexuals in the ministries of the United Methodist Church. Over the years, I have come to know some advocates for the status quo who genuinely, thoughtfully believe that the current language and policies “honor God.” I wonder how long it will be before “we” and “they” will be able to say that “they” and “we” share a common goal: to honor God, and to thank God for authentic, intimate love between two persons. Will someday “they” stand by their convictions without condemning “us”? Will someday “we” stand by our convictions without condemning “them”? Will someday our church allow both strongly differing convictions until the Spirit moves the church to be of one mind? Meanwhile, “we” and “they” would do well to listen to Paul (and our Lord Jesus Christ!) and refrain from passing judgment on one another, for it is God alone who holds us accountable.

Having said that, I wonder when strongly differing convictions on a specific issue should be “church dividing.” When harmony and consensus are not possible, would it be better for the church to divide and thereby allow like-minded persons to form new communities of faith. When would God’s righteousness and justice trump “harmony” in the church or congregations? Who has the authority to discern God’s righteousness and justice in a specific controversy? Throughout its history, the church has reached broad consensus on a variety of church-dividing issues. The clearest example is slavery. It came to be clear that the church could not “welcome one another” as God and Christ have welcomed us as long as slavery was permitted. Another example is racism. It came to be clear that the church could not “welcome one another” as God and Christ have welcomed us as long as churches were permitted to exclude persons based on their “color,” “race,” or national/ethnic origin. In addition, a consensus is growing that the church could not “welcome one another” as God and Christ have welcomed us as long as women were not permitted full participation in the life and ministries of the church. On none of these issues can we declare “Mission accomplished!” Nevertheless, there is considerable progress toward more complete “welcoming one another.” We are far from a consensus when it comes to how to “welcome” GLBT persons in our churches, but it would be good to see whether Paul’s remarks in Rom 14.1-15.13 might help us discern the movement of the Spirit away from judging those who love “differently” and toward more inclusive “welcoming one another”!

Matthew 18.21-35

The dialog between Peter and Jesus and the parable in 18.21-35 call those who desire or experience God’s extravagant forgiveness to show the same extravagant forgiveness to others. Nevertheless, Jesus’ response to Peter is in tension with the parable. Let’s examine them separately and then explore the tension between them.

In verse 21a, Peter’s question is whether there is a limit to the number of times he must forgive a brother or sister who sins against him. Some readers might think that, in verse 21b, Peter suggests a limit of “seven times.” However, seven is the number for perfection, so that “seven times” implies that he is really asking whether Jesus expects of him perfect forgiveness—that is, forgiveness characteristic of God, who is “perfect,” namely, unlimited forgiveness, not just for a “brother or sister” who sins against you, but also your enemies and persecutors (5.43-48). Jesus’ answer, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven [or seventy times seven] times” (18.22 NET), implies an infinite number of times. So the number of times a brother or sister sins against you is irrelevant, because Jesus expects Peter and members of the Matthean community to forgive one another—and even their enemies and persecutors—indefinitely. This is astonishing: Jesus does not require acknowledgement of wrongdoing and repentance prior to forgiveness (as in 18.5-20, last Sunday’s Gospel)!

In the parable (verses 23-35), on the other hand, after illustrating extravagant forgiveness, the king in the end shows no mercy to the unforgiving slave. Apparently, the failure to forgive is unforgivable (see Mt 6.14-15)! The slave’s master allows no opportunity for the slave to acknowledge that the failure to forgive was wrong and to repent, as 18.5-20 (last Sunday’s Gospel) would seem to require. Instead, the master hands the slave over to torturers “until he would pay his entire debt” (verse 34). The size of the slave’s debt—“ten thousand talents” (verse 24), equivalent to over 650 years’ wages—magnifies the fierceness of the slave master’s unforgiving action! This use of hyperbole conveys the message that the failure to forgive is like a debt so big that it would be impossible to “pay the entire debt.” This parable demonstrates perfectly fiercevengeance, instead of forgiveness “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”! The fierceness of the unforgiving king/slave master offers an astonishing contrast with verses 21-22.

Matthew does not resolve the tension in this contrast. In fact, it exists throughout Matthew’s Gospel. On the one hand, Matthew’s Jesus repeatedly voices God’s fierce judgment, which is sometimes excessive and unjust (e.g., 18.34; 22.1-7 and 11-13). On the other hand, Matthew’s Jesus is a forgiver of sins (e.g., 9.2-8 and 26.28) and will sort out the mixed Matthean community at “harvest time” (13.24-30).

We could simply leave this tension unresolved and learn to live within its ambiguity. On the other hand, we could propose a way to resolve the tension. For example, we could interpret the fierceness of the king/slave master’s vengeance rhetorically—that is, as a way to underscore the importance of forgivingperfectly “as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Or we might say that we are expected to show perfect forgiveness but God, in God’s wisdom and love, is free to decide when to show perfect forgiveness or fierce vengeance. Jesus’ faithfulness in life, even to the point of death on a cross, is the source of an even better resolution of this tension. For Matthew proclaims that Jesus poured out his life “for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26.28), and thereby bore witness to forgiveness “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”!

David J. Lull, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, (Dubuque, IA), is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College (Mt. Pleasant, IA)a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX), and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA)An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, David taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School (New Haven, CT), and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, GA). As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (New York City), he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock), an interpretation of pneuma in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock)His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.