You have only to be still

Preacher: Nathan Hosler Scripture: Exodus 14:19-31 & Matthew 18:21-35

Themes of liberation and forgiveness; questions of suffering and divine violence. Theodicy as well as the question of God’s use of violence appear in some form in both these passages. These questions have also taken main stage in some of our recent church discussions, sometimes in the sermons and sometimes in the conversation afterwards.  Properly speaking, theodicy is the “problem of suffering” with the presence of a good and powerful God. We see and experience these but also read in our scriptures.

In our Exodus passage the Israelites are fleeing Egypt—where they had been enslaved and brutalized for centuries. To get them out, the mounting intensity of plagues leaves all first-born dead—though Egyptians were oppressively extracting labor, and as such were guilty, one can’t really put agency on first-born people who were children. Additionally, God is the one who causes this death.

Just before our passage, which is still part of this narrative chunk (the technical term), We see God actively bringing about the destruction of the entire Egyptian military. While these fighters may have had some agency and ability to not participate, surely their surviving families were less culpable.

In verse 4 we read that God “will harden heart” of Pharaoh and “will gain glory” by the destruction of the Egyptians. It appears that God is not just protecting the vulnerable but provoking Egyptians for the purpose of destroying.

Verse 14 “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” After this great act Israel saw and feared and believed (vs 31).

God was not neutral but was clearly for Israel and against the Egyptians. God wasn’t passive but actively engaged in liberation. However, as one commentator observes this liberation is not the stated purpose in the particular narrative. It is God’s status and relationship to the Egyptians (Fretheim, 154). The story, however, is their way on the road to freedom, to the promised land.

This text can be read in many ways. For example, we can read it searching out and distilling general ethical principles and theological descriptions of God. Who or what is God? What kind of God is this? How does this violence relate to clear calls for justice and mercy and reconciliation?

We can also read texts liturgically and being animated by them. We can allow the texts to breath life into our lives as individuals and a community. Liberation theologians and the Black church in the US, for example, have read themselves into the story of God’s liberating action. God has delivered, has saved, has liberated. On the flip side, colonizing European-Americans have understood their mission as a “new Israel” ethnically cleansing the new Promised Land of what became known as north America.

In Matthew, the turning the other check and loving one’s enemy is based on the character and action of God. So, while passages that refer to God’s wrath, judgement, violence, or threat of violence don’t recommend it as a human response, it does raise some questions.

Matthew 18 begins with the responsibility and call for dramatic forgiveness. After a description of the process for confronting and peacemaking earlier in the chapter, Peter asks—“How many times should we forgive…7 times?” This is a very generous and aggressive number. Jesus says, not 7 but 7 X 70… “innumerable” as we say about things that are beyond our toddler’s range of counting.

Then, to highlight and bold this, Jesus tells a parable. In it a great debt is forgiven. 10,000 talents is a fantastic amount—the annual tax income from all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents (Boring and Craddock, 77). The forgiven person does not do the same and has someone who owes him a much, much smaller amount locked up. Upon hearing this, the once forgiving ruler has the unforgiving fellow arrested and tortured. The parable ends with 18:35 “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A radical call to forgiveness—which one can say is a part of peacemaking—seems to be clearly backed up with threat. The threat certainly carries rhetorical value in that it clearly adds seriousness to this teaching. It does, however, feel like it undercuts a call to forgiveness. Or at least raises a heavy question.

Interpretive principles

Principle #1

Pay attention to the purpose of the text. In this Exodus case we could argue that the purpose to build or deepen Israel’s trust in God while also forming its identity as a spiritual and political entity. This text and experience functions within and in relation to the other Ancient Near East (as Western scholars have dubbed it) societies and cultures.

This is the powerful God that outshines, outperforms, and triumphs over “lesser gods.” The point is that God cares for God’s people. How God does this is relevant theological “data” but not a primary focus.

[Time for discussion]

Principle #2

There is coherent direction and witness of scripture even in the face of plural voices. The process of hearing, witnessing, and reporting out God’s presence and word as well as compiling these books, letters, speeches, and vision was long. Certain unexpected works have been included and much was not. As a Quaker translator of classics turned Bible translator notes, though this process was very human, over time “scripture reveals God’s will.” (Ruden, The Face of the Water, xxxvi). This is also the importance of our Brethren emphasis on reading and discerning as a community.

While preachers are (hopefully) useful members we don’t rely solely on their proclamations and understanding. While academic researchers do valuable work, they are not the end of authority. There is coherent direction and witness of scripture even in the face of plural voices and we discern it as a community.  

 At times we allow tension to remain. At times we dig deeper seeking to explain apparent contradictions. And at times we work to discern the common thread or word of witness. And we read parts in light of the whole. For Brethren we read through the lens of Jesus. God didn’t leave us alone but through Jesus participates in and overcomes suffering and death. Jesus overcomes violence with radical forgiveness and prophetic peacemaking.

[Time for discussion]

Principle #3

God shows up as a liberating (saving, delivering, reconciliating) force. While the people gain from this liberation and salvation, it is not only (or perhaps even primarily) about them. While there is human agency and action—both by the Israelites as well as Egyptians—God’s glory and reputation is a driving factor.

Humans, and all of creation, matter, however, the world is not human-centered. We are not at the center of everything. God is not here merely to care for us—though this certainly happens. The rest of creation is not merely for our consumption—though we, as well as all living material beings must take in to survive. God liberates and delivers and invites us to participate in this good and joyful vocation.

In Romans 11:36 we read, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.”  “Paraphrasing this all-encompassing claim, we can say: all things are created by God; all things continue to exist through God; and all things are destined to become God’s home.” (Volf and Croasmon, For the Life of the World, 70).

We are invited to live with God and be sustained by God and to participate in the reconciliation of all things to and through God.

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