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Exodus 14:19-31 * Ps 114 * Rom 14:1-12 *Mt 18:21-35
My themes today are creation, chaos and debt, and no I don’t mean that you can create a lot of chaos by going into too much debt, although that’s true as well. They sound unrelated, right? Well, let’s see how those dots connect.
Perhaps, like me, when you heard that first reading today, you might have thought – oh no, not that again – God clogging chariot wheels, and tossing the Egyptians into the sea! Sheesh! Does that sound like a loving Creator God to you? And then, since Jesus came to earth to help us see what God is like, I tried to think about what Jesus taught us … that could make any sense of that? And I come up with zilch, zero, nothing! In fact Jesus is often doing what looks like the opposite – he shows his listeners how those whom they think of as ‘lesser people’ … end up being heroes in his parables. Let’s remember though, the importance of context, context, context -- when trying to go deeper into understanding Bible stories. So what’s the context or background of our Exodus story? The Israelites had supposedly been servants or slaves in Egypt for about 400 years! Just stop and think for a moment how much things have changed … in our own times in the last 400 years – from 1620 to 2020. For our neighbours to the south – one year earlier in 1619 there was the first arrival of slaves in the Virginia colony, followed by unthinkable suffering for thousands more. So here’s another situation of 400 years of slavery, just like in the Exodus story. Perhaps the huge unrest we’re seeing with the Black Lives Matter protests is partly God’s way of saying that enough is enough!
Instead of sticking to the traditional and overly-literal understanding of this reading, I was delighted to find on the Working Preacher website (for 13 Sept 2020) an interpretation done through a different lens, presented by Michael J. Chan, and based on the earlier work of Terence Fretheim, who wrote a 1984 book called The Suffering of God – a book that shows us how God suffers with the people in the Old Testament too. Chan points out that creational themes are important in Exodus (& I quote):
They remind us that Yhwh’s conflict with Pharaoh is not simply between two rulers. The true conflict is between forces of creation and chaos. Nothing less than cosmic order – the state in which life can flourish – is at stake. From the outset, this pharaoh’s policies of enslavement, domination, and violence have been anti-creational … threatening God’s fructifying promises to Israel and its descendants. God’s decision to confront Pharaoh represents a decision to give the forces of creation a chance to flourish, bringing them out from underneath the suffocating chokehold of pharaonic oppression.
Now that’s what I call brilliant exegesis, although I had to look up ‘fructifying’ which means: to make something fruitful or productive. God’s promises, which express God’s desires for us, are always to allow for our lives to be fruitful and productive. And 400 years of enslavement is the opposite of that. SADLY there’s still a lot of human trafficking in today’s world, plus the enslavement of third world workers making starvation wages while producing so many items for global consumerist cultures.
In our story of how God treats those Egyptians, we have to remember that history is often written by the victors. So there are likely other versions of what happened. Centuries later, after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, some rabbis came up with this lovely midrash – a reflection on what might have happened in heaven after the Egyptian army supposedly drowned in the sea, when the parted waters that allowed the Israelites safe passage, flowed back together to cover the pursuing enemy forces. The rabbinical midrash (b. Sanhedrin 39b) imagines angels in heaven singing praises for God’s decisive victory over the Egyptians, but God responds: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” The Creator understandably laments over all forms of creation’s destruction.
In the creation story in Genesis, God’s desire was to order or organize things in a way that makes earth a good home for all the creatures God has made – not just humans, and certainly not just humans of a certain colour! We know that the Creator loved all colours when we look at deep-sea fishes, and flowers and leaves, and human diversity. Since we know that through creation, God brings order out of chaos, then at some level creation is the opposite of chaos. And of course in the Genesis story humans are made in the image of God, and are asked to be stewards of God’s good creation – holding things in balance, not allowing human greed, for instance, to supersede the basic needs of all God’s living creatures, and of Mother Earth - the home God gave us.
Our gospel today also speaks of slavery, as Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. The slave who owed a huge amount was summoned before him, and he pleaded for mercy since he could not pay this huge debt. At first the king is going to sell this slave and his wife and children and possessions -- in order to get back what he’s owed -- but then the king has mercy and actually FORGIVES, we are told, his whole debt! Wow, talk about a seemingly impossible dream coming true. But soon after, we see that this same liberated slave does not have the decency or grace to forgive or even postpone a much smaller debt owed to him by a fellow slave. Right there is another sermon of course – as it says elsewhere (Lk 12:48): To whom much is given, much is required. Yes the gospel is about forgiveness, but Jesus makes it clear that forgiveness expands into many areas, including forgiving or clearing debts. Apparently Jeff Bezos, for example, could wipe out all student debt in America, if he wanted to, for about 3% of his net worth – $4.7 billion.
Heavy debt can be enslaving of course – crippling those fruitful and productive intentions that God has for us. Even here in Canada which is often listed as among the best countries in the world to live in, we now often have cost of housing and education so steep and debilitating, that many young families in particular live a life of continual stress, in trying to meet their monthly payments on such items. The extent to which such prices have risen is totally out of proportion to the rise in salaries; and it’s mostly happened within one or two generations! Have you seen that cartoon showing a nursing home scene with a big cake being rolled on a trolley towards a very old man, and one nurse says to the other: “Is it his 100th birthday? No,” says the other, “that was last month. This is to celebrate that he’s finally finished paying off his student loans!” Hopefully that scene is not in our grandchildren’s futures!
Dear friends in Christ let us pray for God’s guidance … as we maneuver the ‘smoky waters’ of our times. Knowing of the Creator’s love for all of creation, may we be granted Wisdom to become God’s partners in protecting and restoring creation – not God’s adversaries, but God’s partners -- so that all of God’s creatures might be homed and fed and cherished, Amen.