The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, 13 September 2020
O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Background: ForgivenessToday’s readings, at least in Track Two, center on the notion of forgiveness. The first reading in Track One, seems to be the opposite. Since forgiveness seems to be central in Christian theology, how is it considered out in the real world, where forgiving and forgiveness is necessary, but sometimes rare? In an article,
“The Myths of Forgiveness”, Dr. Tian Dayton, outlines five stages of forgiveness, and in the stages reveals the benefits of forgiving others, and I suspect, forgiving ourselves as well. Here are the stages:
1. Waking up: realizing that there is something that is really bothering us, that is getting in the way of living a wholesome life.
2. Anger: Reacting to past hurts in a way that doesn’t allow us to both forget and to heal.
3. Sadness and Hurt: Moving away from anger but realizing the pain of an unforgiven event.
4. Acceptance and Letting Go: Giving up the bad thoughts and reactions – getting ready to forgive.
5. Reinvestment: In our own lives, post forgiveness, and perhaps in our relationship with the person that we have forgiven.
Relationships are work, and they are made more difficult if we fail to deal with the usual hurts and troubles that accompany them. Forgiving is not only a good religious practice, but good mental health as well.
First Reading: Exodus 14:19-31
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
I always get a bit nervous when I make reference to the various strands (source criticism) in the Pentateuch. It seems to be unfashionable these days, but I took heart when I read this in Theodore Lewis’ book, The Origin and Character of God.
"Given the widely different conclusions of today’s source critics and the massive amounts of minutiae, pondering a retreat from using source criticism is understandable. Yet such a flight is neither wise nor helpful. For source criticism, even with all its flaws and irreconcilable debates, is the best mechanism to show how the Hebrew Bible is not static.”
In the twisted strands of J, and E-P, we have the remembrance of traditions, that sometimes differed. These multiple layers of the story remind us that these events, visions, and understandings came from the hearts and minds of different peoples, as they told their story in order that it might be remembered. Untwisting the text may help us understand the import of the story better.
According to J:
1. Departure from Egypt led by the cloud, and a pillar of fire.
2. Reason for departure – celebration of a desert festival.
3. Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues them.
4. At the sea Israel sees the Egyptians behind them, they panic.
5. Moses points to YHWH.
6. The cloud moves behind the company, shielding them from the Egyptians.
7. The strong east wind at night lays bare the seabed. (J has no crossing)
8. The Egyptians panic, and are overwhelmed by the sea.
9. Israel sees the results and believes in YHWH and Moses.
According to P(E):
1. Pharaoh allows Israel to leave.
2. They do not take the main highway along the coast but change the direction of their travel (two different routes are described).
3. YHWH hardens Pharaoh’s heart.
4. The Egyptians overtake them camped by the sea.
5. Israel sees the Egyptians and beseech God.
6. Moses is commanded by God to lift his staff over the sea.
7. (In E, the angel of YHWH moves to a position in front of the Egyptians, thus shielding Israel).
8. Moses raises his staff and the waters part.
9. Israel walks through the midst of the sea.
10. Moses raises his hand, and the waters cover the pursuing Egyptians.
11. Israel proceeds in safety.
In each of the versions, there is a different actor, Pharaoh in J, and YHWH (who hardens Pharaoh’s heart) in P(E). In P(E), Moses has a greater role, doing signs, and allowing, at YHWH’s command, the safety of Israel. In a way we have two very different images of how God worked in this situation, either seen as a director actor, or as an influence. Isn’t that like the life we are living in these days, many events, and many opinions about them – and God’s role in them.
Breaking open Exodus:
1. How does God intervene in your life, subtly or with drama?
2. When has God stood behind you to shield you from evil?
3. What parted seas have you crossed in your life?
Psalm 114 In exitu Israel
When Israel came out of Egypt, *
the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech,
2 Judah became God's sanctuary *
and Israel his dominion.
3 The sea beheld it and fled; *
Jordan turned and went back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams, *
and the little hills like young sheep.
5 What ailed you, O sea, that you fled? *
O Jordan, that you turned back?
6 You mountains, that you skipped like rams? *
you little hills like young sheep?
7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, *
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 Who turned the hard rock into a pool of water *
and flint-stone into a flowing spring.
In the J account of the Exodus (see above), Israel observes what happens to them and how they are protected, and they then believe. “So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” There is a similar sentiment in Psalm 114. A lot of things accompany the liberation of Israel from Egypt, “a people of strange speech.” They believe, and all of nature believes as well. The psalm enumerates the various aspects of creation that “behold” God’s acts: the sea, the Jordan River, the mountains, the little hills, the whole earth. The psalm looks ahead in Israel’s adventure noting the hard rock turned into a pool of water. This is a psalm that remembers the past, and then, in faith, walks into the future.
Breaking open Psalm 114:
1. In what ways do you live in a foreign society?
2. How is God with you in the midst of things you don’t understand?
3. How does nature give witness to God’s protections?
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father's God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.
“Pharaoh's chariots and his 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.
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power--
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
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.
The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’
You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?”
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.
And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
This hymn, sung by Israel, and Miriam, is characterized by one commentator as “rich in imagery, hyperbole, and poetic license.” These descriptors give evidence to the exuberance of the poet, and the celebration of the event. It is divided into three sections: 1) 1b-5, 2) 7-10, 3) 12-16. The intervening verses 6, 11, and 18 are verses that celebrate God, evident in the acts of kindness toward Israel. The first intersection (verse 6) celebrates the hand of God, the second (verse 11) wonders who “is like you among the gods, O YHWH?, and the final intersection (verse 18) gives a blessing to the God who has delivered Israel, “May YHWH reign for ever and ever!”
The final section of this pericope is the brief hymn attributed to Miriam, sung by the women of Israel. In the Bible, we see other examples of women singing and dancing following a battle. Her song seems to be a refrain, perhaps sung in conjunction with the first eighteen verses.
Breaking open Exodus 15:
1. What hyperbole or exaggeration do you see in the song?
2. In what ways does this song function as a type of creed?
3. Is Miriam merely a song-leader or something more here?
First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
The following is commentary I wrote when this pericope appeared on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Track One.
Although the Flood story is the primary example of the weaving of texts and traditions by the editors of the Hebrew Scriptures, this scene from the Joseph story is also a good example. These verses from the J document (1, 4, 5a) tell of one aspect of the story:
1) Joseph could no longer restrain himself in the presence of all his attendants, so he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So, no one attended him when he made himself known to his brothers. 4) “Come closer to me,” Joseph told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” 5a) “But now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here.”
These verses are combined with the E telling of the story, verses 2, 3, 5b:
2) But his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians heard him, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s house. 3) “I am Joseph,” he said to his brothers. “Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could give him no answer, so dumbfounded were they at him. 5b)
The doubling up of Joseph’s response, and the multiple reasons given for the invitation to Jacob to move into Egypt give us a clue as to the several traditions that were gathered together to tell the story. We have two aspects here that need resolving. The first is Joseph’s own psychological state that is somewhat different than the despair of the brothers. We are wrenched back and forth between these two aspects – it is very human. And perhaps that is the real point of this story – the restoration of the family, as opposed to an understanding of how Israel came to Egypt. The relationship between Joseph and Benjamin, and earlier (not in our reading) when Judah protects Benjamin who is falsely accused of stealing, underscore the familial and relational aspects of this story.
Breaking open Genesis:
1. When have you been reconciled to someone?
2. How might you describe your emotions?
3. Who is the absent but really important character in this story?
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 Benedic, anima mea
1 [Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and forget not all his benefits.
3 He forgives all your sins *
and heals all your infirmities;
4 He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
5 He satisfies you with good things, *
and your youth is renewed like an eagle's.
6 The Lord executes righteousness *
and judgment for all who are oppressed.
7 He made his ways known to Moses *
and his works to the children of Israel.]
8 The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
9 He will not always accuse us, *
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, *
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
12 As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
13 As a father cares for his children, *
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
The Lectionary’s recension of this psalm has us singing two and a half sections of the four sections of the psalm. The first section (optional in our reading) characterizes the goodness of God, beseeching us to “not forget all (God’s) gifts.” What follows in section two provides ample commentary on the Track One first reading, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. It also introduces a broader theme, that connects it to the compassion of Joseph in the Track Two first reading. I like the NAB translation of verse 9, “(God) will not always accuse, and nurses no lasting anger.” That seems to be the theme for this day, born out both in the first and second readings and in the Gospel for this day. The third section of the psalm adds a spatial dimension to its teachings about God’s mercy. “For as the heavens are high above the earth.” “As far as the east is from the west.” Such comparisons dwarf our little slights, or our sins. That is the poet’s point – God’s mercy is much greater than what we lay at God’s feet.
Breaking open Psalm 103
1. How has God made known God’s ways to you?
2. What ills do you need to have healed?
3. In what ways has God nursed you?
Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? 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.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God."
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
If there is any phrase that seems to have characterized the last decade or so it is the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD). Now that sentiment seems to have been changed into one that is totally focused on self. (Why must I wear a mask?) (Why are you leaving out me? – All lives matter) In this reading Paul makes some corrections, specifically noting the controversies about diet. Paul’s concern is for the week one, the one who will be hurt over our quarrels over lessor things. So, he looks at food, he looks at the liturgical calendar, and then he asks us to look beyond ourselves. He sees both life and death as something that is beyond us and that is centered in Christ. “Whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s.” This last Sunday, The New York Times Magazine published an article and photographs on hunger in the United States, stating, “A shadow of hunger looms over the United States.” All of our various controversies should fall away in the face of the needs of our neighbors, our brothers and our sisters. Thus Paul, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” It’s not about socialism or any other kind of “ism”. It is about being God’s own and serving God’s people.
Breaking open Romans:
1. Is there dissension in your family?
2. How are your judgments about others diminished by their need?
3. How do these times challenge your generosity?
The Gospel: St. Matthew 18:21-35
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
This Sunday’s Gospel falls immediately upon last Sunday’s, the Matthean understanding of how to approach someone who has sinned. Our reading, a parable that Jesus uses to answer Peter’s question, “The Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” We might ask, why does Peter use the number seven in asking his question of Jesus? The number seven is a symbolic number, the number of perfection. Peter might have asked, what is the perfect kind of forgiveness, how can I do that? We can see that sentiment in the Hebrew Scriptures in Genesis 4:24, where Lamech says, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” So, Jesus tells a story about a debtor.
Jesus takes us to the Kingdom of Heaven, where there is a king (God) who is “settling accounts” (in other words, making judgments). The vocabulary that Jesus uses (debt and debtor) is in Aramaic a signifier of both financial concerns, and sin. The judgment to sell family and possessions was both real in Jesus’ time, and a device to heighten the drama of the situation. The drama is further heightened by the example of the other servant, who does not model the kindness and graciousness of the king. The question given to him, is given to us as well, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And that is the point – the difficult point. The expectation is that we should act as God would act.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1) How do you identify with the first debtor?
2) Do you identify at all (be honest) with the second debtor?
3) Whom might you need to go out and forgive?
General Idea: Forgiveness in Difficult Times
Example 1: Our situation with God is one of Forgiveness and Salvation (“Thus the Lord saved Israel that day – Track One, First Reading)
His brothers sinned against him, yet Joseph forgave them (Track Two – First Reading)
Example 2: Learning not to despise “the weak”. (Second Reading)
Example 3: Understanding the Perfection of Forgiveness (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller
 Dayton, T. (2011), The Myths of Forgiveness, Huffpost.com.
 Lewis, T. (2020), The Origin and Character of God, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Kindle Edition, page 62.
 Berlin, A (Ed.), (2014), The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, page 127.
 Section I, verses 1-5, Section II, verses 6-10, Section III, verses 11-18, and finally Section IV, verses 19-22
 New American Bible (NAB) translation.
 Click on the New York Times Magazine link above.
 St. Matthew 18:21 NAB translation.