Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28.
God’s salvation has critical turning points—a plan to send a deliverer to Egypt, the turn of an Anointed One toward Jerusalem.
The Torah reading is often referred to as “the Call of Moses.” However, it is much more about God than it is about Moses. It is a classic self-declaration of who God is, including the special name by which God is known to God’s chosen servants.
The Divine Turn (Exodus 2:23-25). To grasp the drama of the big picture, we must pause over the short passage immediately before the Lectionary reading.
The story of Israel and Moses has proceeded entirely on the human plane up to Exodus 2:22. The Israelites have been enslaved, Moses was born and saved, got into trouble in Egypt, and fled for his life to the desert country of Midian, where he got a wife and two sons. On the human plane, things had come to a standstill – and not a happy one for the Israelites.
The passage 2:23-25 is a very solemn narrative of God’s movement, of the divine turn to the human dilemma. The narrator directs our attention upward, as it were, following the agonized prayers of the Israelites as they ascend to heaven and there set in motion a four-part response by God. The translations usually smooth over this passage and lose its truly dramatic thrust. The following is a very literal translation of the passage.
The Israelites groaned because of the slavery and cried out.
Their scream ascended to God because of the slavery:
God heard their groaning.
God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
God saw the Israelites.
The agonizing laments of the Israelites were loud enough to ascend to God and attract the Divine attention. God heard. God remembered (reminded by the appeals in the laments). God saw. God “knew.” “God knew” means God comprehended all and took charge).
From this point on the Exodus story is the story of God’s action.
The Call of Moses. The appearance to Moses at the perpetually lighted bush on Mount Horeb is the first step in God’s action. God summons the human agent who will bear both God’s words and God’s power to judge arrogant human rulers. The passage dwells on (1) the holiness of the place, (2) God’s plan of deliverance, and (3) the mystery of God’s name.
The place is God’s holy mountain, signaled by the perpetual flame that does not consume. Moses is lured by this surprising and awesome sight, and then warned of the holiness of that rugged ground (verses 3-5). This holy place (Sinai / Horeb) will be the scene of the later full revelation to the delivered slaves. “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (verse 12, TANAK Jewish Version).
God states for Moses the entire plan for the Israelites, which is now being initiated. The emphasis in this overview is on the end, on the final goal of the deliverance, namely, the Promised Land.
I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (verse 8).
The identification of the future land is drawn out, elaborated by the names of its current inhabitants. There is to be no mistake that the exodus is for the sake of possessing the future land. The current sufferings of the Israelites are to be ended, of course, and Moses is chosen to take care of that (verses 9-10).
Naturally enough, Moses is overwhelmed at this assignment (which is spelled out more fully in verses 16-22), and his objections are dealt with at length later in this divine conference (Exodus 4:1-17).
Finally in our passage, Moses raises the issue of God’s Name. Who can he say has sent him, when the Israelites ask about the secret name of God? The answer in verse 14 does not seem very clear to us, but it embodies some heavy meditation by later keepers of tradition about the inner meaning of the divine name Yahweh.
The name appears related to the verbal root usually translated “to be,” or “to happen.” Therefore, God is the One who truly IS, or the One through whom (decisive) things Happen. What God says, literally, is, “I Am Who I Am.” (The TANAK Version gives a transliteration of the Hebrew words, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” verse 14.)
Not so much an identification as a profound declining to be specified in human terms.
Yet this is the God who will deliver a people from slavery.
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c.
The Psalm reading is from a long hymn of Israel’s thankfulness for God’s great works in the past. Especially praised are the works performed for the ancestors, dwelling on the stories of Joseph and the Exodus. The few verses of our reading state the Egyptian enslavement in vague terms, and conclude with a word about the Torah passage just read. “He sent His servant Moses, / and Aaron, whom he had chosen” (verse 26, TANAK).
The full Psalm goes on to elaborate in detail the work that Moses and Aaron carried out, the “signs” and “miracles” done in Egypt to get the Israelites out. These miracles are the great terrors of the plagues on Egypt – but the Lectionary refrains from having us read this violence out loud.
The Epistle reading is addressed to a people who have already been released from slavery – the slavery of sin and the compulsive powers of a corrupt age and world. Our passage is in the imperative mood. There are thirty clauses in the passage that command or exhort to good action or the avoidance of evil things.
The behavior of delivered ones is to be marked by love toward one another (verses 9-13). The behavior of Jesus followers, however, is not marked only by love of one’s own group; it is to be marked by that greater love to which the wisdom of Israel attained – love of those who hate us and do us harm. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…”; “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, …” (verses 17 and 19, NRSV).
This word about loving the enemy is a gem from the book of Proverbs, given emphasis by Jesus, that is to guide the Christians of Rome. “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…” (verse 20, quoting Proverbs 25:21). Christians are thereby urged to conduct themselves so that people of wicked intent may be stricken in conscience – they will feel like burning coals have been piled on their heads because of their shame and unworthiness (verse 21).
So does Paul sum up the challenge and imperative of the gospel ethic: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The Gospel reading is the immediate sequel to last week’s confession by Peter of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah). That confession represented the culmination of long work in Galilee.
Something else now begins. “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (verse 21). From here on, the passion is the dominant reality.
As Peter was the spokesman for the finally-attained confession of Jesus as Messiah, so he is the vehement spokesman for the very human opposition to this passion trajectory that Jesus has just announced.
Peter does not hear the clause, “on the third day be raised.” None of the disciples hears that clause.
Peter hears a leader who is accepting defeat; who goes to the major leagues with the firm expectation that he will be defeated, punished, and killed. Such pessimism can neither start nor sustain a movement. It is utterly defeatist and futile, and Peter denounces it. “Never, Lord!” “This shall never happen to you!” (verse 22, NIV; “God” is not mentioned directly, as the NRSV suggests).
Jesus’ reply is just as vehement. In fact, it is crushingly violent. “Get behind me Satan! …for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (verse 23, NRSV). The turn of Jesus’ new beginning is completely opposite to human wisdom and common sense. From here on that is the paradox of the true mission of Jesus.
Given this revolution in mission, the question of following Jesus leaps up again. For following now leads to Jerusalem – suffering and death, a destiny shared with the past prophets of Israel. This means, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (verse 25, NRSV).
The last sayings of the passage seem to be aimed at those who choose to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake. Those who continue to follow Jesus may have the assurance that in spite of suffering and death, there will be a reward. “For the Son of Man is going to come…and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (verse 27, NIV; NRSV weakens the individuality of this reward).
Finally, a saying that is very perplexing for modern Gospel readers. “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (verse 28, NRSV).
Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, New Testament scholars at the beginning of the 20th century, discovered the fully apocalyptic Jesus who went to Jerusalem expecting the end of the world to come after he had suffered there. This verse is one of the rocks on which such an apocalyptic interpretation stands. All the Gospels were written after most of those standing with Jesus had in fact “tasted death,” and the next generation found various ways of speaking of the “coming.”
We can see a progression in how each of the Gospels handled this saying about the imminent coming of the kingdom:
Matthew (16:28): “…will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (NRSV)
Mark (9:1): “…will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (NRSV)
Luke (9:27): “…will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” (NRSV)
John (8:52): “…will not taste death for ever” (literal translation; parallel to “will not see death for ever,” in 8:51).
In Matthew, it is the Son of Man who will come; in Mark it is the kingdom in power; in Luke it is simply the kingdom (which for Luke begins to be equated with the church, as Acts suggests), and in the similar saying in John it is eternal life instead of the kingdom that will be experienced. We see an evolution from radical apocalyptic expectation to a mystic union in eternal life.
As life went on for the early Christians, they kept finding ways to live with and by Jesus’ words, understood in the light of what God kept bringing them – or not bringing them – from year to year. So, even through history, the way of Jesus leads on beyond Jerusalem.