Weekly Lectionary Commentary Proper 16A / Ordinary 21A

Exodus 1:8-2:10

When a pharaoh came to power who did not know Joseph the psychology of fear and the pride of Egyptian nationalism took over.  Pharaoh saw the Hebrews living in the land and that they were multiplying.  He stood before the people and played on their fears, “The Israelites have become much too numerous for us.  Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”  So Pharaoh oppressed the Hebrews, and by their labor two great cities of Egypt (Pithom and Rameses) were built.

The oppression did not slow down the Hebrew birth rate, however, and as the Hebrew population continued to grow Pharaoh determined it was time to take more aggressive action.  He commanded the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to terminate any male pregnancies among the Hebrew woman.  Shiphrah and Puah did not obey the Pharaoh and complained that the Hebrew woman were too ‘vigorous’ (animal like) and gave birth before the midwives arrived.  A commentary on this passage by Amy Merrill Willis shows how Shiphrah and Puah cleverly used Pharaoh’s own cultural assumptions against him, “In the ruse, they [Shiphrah and Puah] appeal to Pharaoh’s own prejudices.  The Hebrew women are like animals (khayot) and give birth too quickly, the midwives say to Pharaoh (1:19). Indeed, Pharaoh’s genocidal plan indicates that he has ceased to regard the Hebrews as fully human, and the midwives use this to satisfy Pharaoh’s inquiries.”

In the end Pharaoh was forced to take more extreme measures.  He ordered all male children born of the Hebrews to be thrown into the Nile.  One mother, a Levite, defied this order and hid her male child for three months.  When it is no longer possible to hide him she built a boat out of papyrus and placed the child on the Nile (as ordered!).  As luck (providence) would have it the child was scooped up from the Nile by none other than Pharoah’s daughter who was convinced by Moses’s older sister, who watched the child from a distance, to let the child be nursed by Moses’s real mother until weening age when he would become the princess’s son.  Pharaoh’s daughter agreed and the child Moses, who would one day deliver the Hebrew people from Egyptian bondage, was allowed to live.

The providence of God is on full display in this captivating narrative.  It was God who put Joseph in place in Egypt through the treachery of Joseph’s brothers.  It was God who allowed the Hebrews to increase in number, which in turn, spurred on by fear, brought oppression upon the Hebrews.  It was God that provided safe passage for Moses, and gave him the experience of both the Hebrew and the Egyptian worlds, and prepared him for the great task of deliverance he would undertake.  The providence of God remains one step ahead of complete disaster.  It does not, however, keep the Hebrews from experiencing pain and indignities.  One indignity is wrapped up in the name ‘Moses.’  Moses is an Egyptian name.  The name given by his Hebrew mother, who risked her life for three months to protect him, who crafted a plan of escape, and who raised him at her breast before having him torn away, is forever lost.

Psalm 124

The occasion of Psalm 124 appears to be a failed attack on the Israelite people.  We infer that those attacking Israelites were attacking with greater force than Israel had to defend.  The failure of the attack and the successful defense of Israelites is credited to Yahweh.  The psalmist states emphatically, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive.”  The psalmist then praises God for deliverance, and instructs Israel to hope in the LORD who is maker of heaven and earth.

This psalm serves as an appropriate response to the Hebrew Bible reading in that it reminds the Israelites of God’s hand in the deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt.  If it had not been the LORD who was on the the side of the Hebrews they would have never escaped the much stronger arms of the Egyptian empire.  The Psalm asks us to remember our moments of deliverance and to see the mighty hand of God at work on our behalf.

Romans 12:1-8

How blessed the church would be if when it came together each member did not think themselves better or worse than any other member.  This is Paul’s message in Romans 12:1-8.  The old way of thinking that ranked people according to ability, birth status, or achievement is destroyed along with the power of sin that maintained it.  Christians died to this way of life, and we are resurrected to think in Christ-like ways.  We are all gifted, says Paul, and our gifts are not the same, but they are every one important and vital.  Thus when we come together we present our bodies (with all their abilities and grace gifts) as a living sacrifice.  The bodies we present are plural; the sacrifice we offer is singular.  When we accomplish this mutual giving in community we engage in a spiritual act of worship and we refuse to let our minds be conformed by this world (with its old way of thinking) but we are transformed in the renewing of our minds.

Matthew 16:13-20

Matthew is the only gospel writer to use the Greek word ‘ecclesia’ translated in Matthew 16:18 as “church.”  Subsequently Matthew is the only gospel writer to link the church community with ‘kingdom of heaven’ language.  For Matthew the church community, those that share in Peter’s confession, holds the ‘keys to the kingdom’ (cf. Matthew 18:10-35).  The church, as a confessing community of God, is the forerunner of the kingdom of God where everyone will confess the LORD’s sovereignty and abide by the LORD’s will.  The church is a sign that points to the kingdom.  The church does this by participating in the life of the kingdom; a life if justice, equality, and self giving love.

Peter’s confession that Jesus is the messiah and the son of God is the bedrock on which the church will be built.  By confessing this about Jesus, Peter declared that the work and words of Jesus represented the divine will and illustrated the substance of the kingdom.  Coming to this conclusion about Jesus and his work is a ‘blessing’ given to Peter from God.  Likewise, the church is blessed when it recognizes the justice and the compassion of Christ, and declares Christ the messiah (the anointed of God).

Celebration of Worship

As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the work of God in bring about justice and freedom from oppression.  This is how we recognize God and God’s anointed.  God is the one who brings justice, who frees those in bondage, and who gifts the church for its mission in the world.  Without God we would be no match for the foes that assail us.  With God we are so protected even the gates of Hades cannot prevail against us.

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