15th Sunday after Pentecast Year A

 Exodus 14:19-31; Psalms 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35.    

          Israelites sang God’s triumph over Pharaoh, and Jesus people were taught to forgive each other.  

This Sunday's readings are about literalists who turn God's poetry into prose (or strict observance of old practices), about acceptance of all within the Christian congregation, and -- about Forgtiveness. 

Exodus 14:19-31.  

The reading from the Torah is the central event of God’s defeat of Pharaoh at the Red Sea (its name in Greek; its Hebrew name is Sea of Reeds).  Strictly speaking, the exodus has already been achieved through the ten plagues and the night of Passover (Exodus 7-12).  The Israelites have left Egypt, taking Egyptian wealth with them (Exodus 12:33-36), the narrator’s summary of their stay in Egypt has been given (Exodus 12:40-42), and the standard features of the Wilderness stories have already been introduced – the guidance by pillars of cloud and fire (13:20-22) and the people complaining that the exodus was a bad thing (14:10-12).  However, even though the Israelite narrators presented the triumph at the Sea as the beginning of the wilderness rather than the conclusion of the exodus, the later world has always regarded the Red Sea as the climax of Israel’s deliverance from slavery under Pharaoh.  

The Song came before the story.  The story given in our reading is a prose version of the victory celebrated in the Song of Moses / Miriam in Exodus 15:1-18.  That Song presents Yahweh’s victory over Pharaoh at the Reed Sea as the triumph of the storm god over Sea, the god of chaos in older Canaanite tradition.  

Pharaoh’s chariots and army he cast into the sea;

      his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.  

The floods covered them; 

      they went down into the depths like a stone.

At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, 

      the floods stood up in a heap; 

      the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.  

                                          (Exodus 15:4-5, 8, NRSV)

The Song shares the language and imagery of other poetic presentations of Yahweh as the triumphant Storm God, passages such as Psalm 74:12-14; 18:13-15; 89:9-11; and 77:16-20, this last referring specifically to Moses and Aaron.  The Song presents the victory of the Lord over his archetypal enemy, who often appears as the Sea, here identifying Pharaoh as the earthly representative of the cosmic power of chaos.  

What the narrative does is turn the poetic language of the song into a prose story.  It turns the poetic images into literal details of the action.  Where the poem says the floods “stood up in a heap,” the story describes “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (14:22).  The “blast of your nostrils” that piled up the waters in the poem becomes a very strong east wind which God sent during the night to blow back the waters and dry out the sea bottom for the people to pass over (14:21).  

The wild dynamic language of the victory Song has become the prosaic machinery of an early Israelite rationalist.  Our narrative is the work of literalists set loose on the ecstatic liturgical language about the kingship of the Lord over all other gods and cosmic powers.  (The kingship of the Lord becomes explicit in the last line of the Song:  “The Lord will reign forever and ever,” 15:18.)  

Though not originally a part of the exodus narrative, in later generations this prose story of the triumph at the Red Sea inevitably became a part of the Passover observance, and thus came to stand for the greatest miracle of deliverance in the Israelite tradition.  

Psalm 114.  

The reading from the Psalms echoes in brief images the spirit of the Song of the Red Sea.  

The sea looked and fled; 

      Jordan turned back. … 

Why is it, O sea, that you flee? 

      O Jordan, that you turn back?” (verses 3, 5, NRSV).  

"Sea" and “Jordan” together stand for the cosmic powers reduced to order by the overwhelming power of God, manifested on behalf of Judah and Israel, who have become God’s “sanctuary” and “dominion.”  

As the story of God splitting the Red Sea was the beginning of the wilderness story, the ecstatic song about Jordan turning back also got its prose rendering as the end of Israel’s wilderness story.  

The song celebrating God’s mastery of THE River (the Jordan) was given a narrative form in the story of the Ark dividing the waters of the Jordan to let the Israelites pass over.  The waters stood up in a “heap” (same word as in Exodus 15:9) to let the people cross on dry land, thus concluding the wilderness period for Israel (Joshua 3-4, especially 3:15-17).  

This psalm, used at the Passover observance, shows the ecstatic mood of celebration because of God’s archetypal acts of power at the beginning and the end of the wilderness period.   

Romans 14:1-12.    

The reading from the Epistle also reflects a tension between the freer (more poetic) and the stricter readings of past traditions.  Our reading is the first half of a longer passage (14:1-15:6) that deals with Christian freedom on one hand and considerate love on the other in the practical living of the church communities.  

This passage emphasizes that practices of the Christian life must be based in the deepest personal convictions of each believer.  Each is accountable to God, not to other people’s opinions or current fads.  “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds….  So then, each of us will be accountable to God [for our convictions about religious practices]” (verses 5 and 12, NRSV).  The most unfaithful condition is hypocrisy – in which our actions betray and corrupt our deepest convictions.  

Christians bring different baggage into the fellowship.  Paul refers here to people who feel it wrong to eat meat that may have been consecrated to foreign gods, as most meat available in the public markets had been.  (This is why Jews had their own butcher shops.)  These people feel strongly enough that they eat only vegetables.  Others, among whom Paul includes himself, do not believe that such meat any longer has religious power.  Christ has put an end to any powers behind such superstitious beliefs concerning foods.  The same thing applies to the observance of the Sabbath, which is the main issue behind the statement, “Some judge one day to be better than another…” (verse 5).  

The people whose consciences hold them to particular ritual practices – such as food laws, Sabbath observances, and rules about clean and unclean – are genuine Christians if they confess Jesus as the Christ of God.  They have equal place in the larger fellowship.  Paul calls them “weak in faith” (verse 1), which does not mean that they do not believe strongly.  It only means that their convictions lead them to hold on to past religious practices while entering the new life.  

These folks are the literalists of the Christian life; they want to continue to observe the traditions of the past along with their confession of Jesus Christ.  Paul insists that they belong to the community, “for God has welcomed them…. It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.  And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (verses 3-4).  

The whole community must encompass in mutual respect a variety of practices, and the current challenge is to find ways to live in harmony, given this diversity of backgrounds and convictions.  A little after our reading, Paul sums up this challenge in echoes of Jesus’ teaching:  “The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17).  

Matthew 18:21-35.  

The Gospel reading is the conclusion of Jesus’ discourse on the internal life of the church (chapter 18).  In its earlier sections the discourse has already dealt with the need to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (18:1-5), with the great offense of putting a stumbling block in the way of “these little ones who believe in me” (18:6-9), the divine care for the one lost sheep (18:10-14), and the procedure for dispute resolution within the congregation (18:15-20, last week’s reading).  The rest of the discourse is about the essential practice necessary to achieve harmony in such a Christian congregation – Forgiveness.  

Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive his fellow Christian – as many as seven?  Jesus says, No not seven, but seventy-seven – which is tantamount to saying “without number.”  

It is likely that this exchange has the ancient claim of Lamech in view (Genesis 4:19-24).  Lamech was a descendant of Cain, before the flood.  After Cain was driven out of common society, God gave him a sign to protect him.  The sign meant that Cain’s clan would be protected by a seven-fold vengeance upon anyone molesting them.  For one Cainite killed, seven of the offending clan would be killed.  (The name “Cain” means “metalworker,” and it is speculated that in ancient society the guild of metal-workers was very valuable to all tribes – so valuable that one of them was worth seven other men.)  Lamech came a few generations later, and boasting to his wives he said, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech [will be avenged] seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24, NRSV).  Jesus tells Peter that this ancient rule of most extreme vengeance is applied in reverse to Christian forgiveness!!  

Jesus expands on the importance of forgiveness by telling the story of the unforgiving servant.  In this story a king is settling accounts with all his servants.  One owed him ten thousand talents.  This is a fabulous amount, showing that the servant, even if he were a vassal king, could never pay it.  (The annual revenue of Herod the Great’s kingdom at its greatest was around 900 talents.)  In the story, after the debtor pleads for time to pay, the king forgives the whole debt.  The servant, on the other hand, refuses to extend the time of a debt of 100 denarii owed to him by a fellow servant.  One hundred denarii was about three months’ pay for a day laborer.  This unforgiving servant was a world-class hypocrite!  

The message of Jesus’ story is:  God has forgiven humans such vast amounts that they can never forgive more than they have been forgiven. 

In view of God’s grace to individual Christians, their forgiveness of their neighbors will never be caught up.  Thus, the Christian community is a congregation of people who forgive each other, in Jesus’ name, without end! 

 

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