Oppressed Israel hides a Moses, Peter confesses a Messiah, and Paul calls for a spiritual worship.
The texts for this Sunday present oppression and death in Egypt, but also a confessing church founded against the powers of death in Galilee They present Moses saved and Peter empowered. In the middle is the appeal to members of the Body to esteem their gifts appropriately. (Quotations from the Hebrew scriptures, unless stated otherwise, are from the Tanak translation—abbreviated NJPSV—as given in The Jewish Study Bible.)
The Torah reading is the beginning of the Exodus story and the birth of Moses. While the narratives of the ancestors in Genesis were about individuals and their extended families, from this point on the object of the sacred story is the Bene Yisrael, the children of Israel. The ancestral families have become a great population—though hardly a “people” yet, since they have no order or covenant.
At the beginning of the story they are in trouble. They have become enslaved and their owners treat them severely. The narrative emphasizes the oppressiveness of the slavery. “They set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor… The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and with all sorts of tasks in the field” (verses 11-14, NJPSV).
The Exodus story is a deliverance story, and the description of the oppression must make clear how desperately the deliverance was needed. Hard labor as such is not what is oppressive; people work slavishly to make their own businesses succeed. What is oppressive is the meaninglessness of forced labor that benefits only others who despise you.
The story moves from oppression as slave labor to oppression as genocide, or near-genocide. This is introduced by the quaint story of the two midwives who were instructed by Pharaoh to kill every male child born to “Hebrew” mothers (1:15-21). This story is actually about a trick played on Pharaoh, not a realistic portrayal of a genocide attempt. The two (!) women serving as midwives deceive Pharaoh—with tales that could obviously have been exposed—and then are rewarded by receiving families themselves among the Israelites (verses 20-21).
The last sentence of this episode, however, has the horror and dread of a real genocide policy. “Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, ‘Every boy that is born [to the Hebrews] you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live’” (verse 22).
The ultimate form of oppression is not simply to kill them (their labor is still useful), but to cut off any meaning for their future. Meaningful life through either work or heirs is cut off. That is the ultimate oppression.
The command to kill all the Hebrew male children is the background to the Moses story. He was born to a Levite woman, kept secretly for three months, then concealed in an “ark” (KJV, the same Hebrew term as in Noah’s flood). This ark (“wicker basket” in NJPSV) was floated among the reeds by the bank of the Nile river. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the crying baby, has compassion on it, hires its mother to nurse it, and makes Moses—to whom she gives this name—a member of the royal household of Egypt. Thus, like Joseph, Moses was originally a mighty man in Egypt, which, however, he will plunder by taking away their slaves to make them into a mighty people in their own right.
All these stories are told with a certain exultant tone, a delight in turning the tables on the ancient enemy. The story never loses its deep seriousness, but the version we read had gone through many centuries of re-telling, during which it acquired some irony, some symbolic meanings, and some notes of sheer triumphalism.
The Psalm reading is an outburst of thanksgiving because the plots of the enemy against the Israelites were foiled—foiled, of course, because the Lord was on their side. Whatever other allies the Israelites might have, it is only the Lord who really counts. “Were it not for the Lord, who was on our side, / … they would have swallowed us alive…” (verses 1, 3, NJPSV).
The genocide command in Exodus was to throw the male children into the Nile river. “…[T]he waters would have carried us off, / the torrent would have swept over us” (verse 4). Israel may now exult. “We are like a bird escaped from the fowler’s trap; / the trap broke and we escaped” (verse 7).
So over the centuries Israel sang its thanksgiving for escaping Pharaoh—and many later oppressors history would bring upon them.
The Epistle reading continues in Paul’s letter to the Roman church, now moving from his reflections on Israel’s election to more practical matters about church life. He has not been to Rome yet, and thus he does not write about specific events of church life there, as he did in his letters to the church in Corinth. Here are more general guidelines about conducting new life in the Christian faith.
His opening word is that the Christian life should be a constant presentation of each person as a living sacrifice to God. The language deliberately echoes the actions of animal sacrifices presented at the altar in the temple. Christians, like their Jewish neighbors in Asia, Greece, and Rome, rarely if ever presented actual animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple—and any other temple was strictly forbidden. Yet long stretches of the Law of Moses were concerned with such sacrifices and were dominated by the centrality of the Tabernacle worship. (The Epistle to the Hebrews makes a great deal of this.) In place of actual animal sacrifice, Jews and Christians were called to make their whole lives public testimonies to the truth and reality of their God, and thus present themselves as sacrifices for their “spiritual worship.” (Note that verses 1-3 do not mention Jesus Christ. They could be addressed to any Jewish or “god-fearing” group.)
Though the oldest Christian “churches” were only about twenty-five years old when Paul wrote this letter, his comments show that there was already diversity of functions—which he thinks he can assume in Rome as well as elsewhere. He mentions prophesy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generous giving, diligence in leadership, and cheerful mercy-doing (verses 7-8). This may start out like a list of offices, but it turns into a list of actions by well-intentioned people. Perhaps the lack of systematic listing is deliberate. Paul may be resisting a tendency to endow “positions” or offices with stated dignities and well-defined boundaries.
Whatever the various functions, they should be carried out in the kind of mutual harmony and support seen in an organism, specifically in a living body. People should think of themselves in their church service as members of the body of Christ, which also makes everyone “members one of another” (verse 5).
All these points support the opening exhortation. “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think… each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (verse 4, NRSV). With diversity of functions, there is a strong tendency for each to feel—and soon to expect others to recognize—the particular importance of their own function. Why don’t they appreciate what I contribute? Paul assumes that this tendency shows up as much in Rome as in Corinth—or Jerusalem. Its remedy must be to keep the “body of Christ”—a suffering and crucified body—ever before one’s awareness.
The Gospel reading is the pivot-point in Jesus’ Galilean ministry as presented by Mark and Matthew. After much teaching and healing among the people, encounters with demonic powers who recognize Jesus, and other revelatory moments like Jesus’ baptism, the moment comes when the disciples themselves make a clear and emphatic declaration of who Jesus really is. It happens in Peter’s words, “You are the Christ.” After this declaration, Jesus begins to announce the trip to Jerusalem, his suffering death, and his resurrection. This confession is the hinge between the labors of the unrecognized Messiah among the people in Galilee and the mission of the Suffering Servant in Jerusalem.
The passage is structured to contrast what people think about Jesus after his work in Galilee—that he is a powerful figure from the past, an Elijah, John the Baptist, or Jeremiah reappeared—and what the disciples now think about him. “But who do YOU say that I am?” (verse 15, NRSV). The essential word of the answer is “the Christ” (Greek), “the Messiah” (Hebrew), both of which literally mean “the Anointed One.” This much Matthew, Mark, and Luke have in common.
In Matthew, however, Peter’s confession is fuller: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” (verse 16). In Matthew’s church, this was how the decisive confession was made by Christians. These Syrian Christians had come to believe that Jesus gave Peter direct sanctions for guiding the church, that the founding of “my church” was specifically related to Peter. Thus, in Matthew the confession is followed by a long response from Jesus, addressed specifically to Peter. (The “you” in “Who do you say I am?” is plural, addressed to the group of disciples. The “you” in verses 17-19 is singular, to Peter only.)
The first part of this response concerns Peter’s name. We should be aware that “Peter” was not a frequently-used name in either Greek, Aramaic, or Latin (Eugene Boring, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 345). Peter became a popular name only after the spread of Christianity. Jesus calls the disciple by his correct name, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.” But he gives Simon a new name. “You are Rock (petros), and on this rock I will build my church…” (verse 17).
The Peter who is the Rock of the Church is the Peter who confesses, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” This declaration turns the assembly of followers into the church, and Peter is represented in the Gospels as the first to make this declaration. Peter became famous as the chief apostle in the Christian churches of the Eastern Roman Empire: Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18), Samaria (Acts 8:14-25), Lydda and Caesarea on the Sea (Acts 9:32-10:48), Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14), Corinth (I Corinthians 1:10-12), and perhaps the churches in the northern Roman provinces of Asia Minor (I Peter 1:1). (There is no reference in the New Testament to Peter in Rome, unless “Babylon” in I Peter 5:13 refers to Rome.)
But there is more. Not only is Simon Peter the foundation rock of the church, he is the keeper of its “keys,” meaning one authorized to “bind” and “loose” on earth with heavenly consequences (verse 19). The reference to binding and loosing referred at the very least to the power to make decisions about established practices of the Christian life. At the time of the writing of Matthew’s Gospel, those who guided the common life of the Syrian churches must have understood themselves to be following precedents and teachings from Peter, as indicated in Matthew’s Gospel. Perhaps over the years Simon Peter himself had taught others that Jesus had given him such authority.
In any case, what began in the oral tradition of the Matthew churches (verses 17-19 of our passage) was to have a vastly expanded future authorizing the powers of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) over the Christian churches for many centuries. Only in the days of Martin Luther and John Calvin was the Matthew text to be deprived of its papal aura, and to receive something of its older and original interpretation.