Exodus 2-4, Psalm 18, Matthew 18
God – the great cosmic investment banker
Exodus 2 – 4
Today’s readings are some of the most colorful and edifying of the entire Bible. The readings range from stories that seem unbelievable to teachings rich in wisdom for our daily living.
I attended the Yale Divinity School and its Episcopal counterpart – the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Each year, my seminary holds a convocation, when guest speakers as well as professors offer talks and sermons and there is are meals, worship and fellowship. One year during convocation, I arranged to have lunch with an elderly Episcopal priest, who was in charge of Berkeley’s field education program, which helped place seminarians in local churches to serve and learn. His name was Roddy Reid.
Roddy seemed like an ordinary, gentle priest. I had no idea that he been an eyewitness to an incredible chapter of history. Over lunch, I asked Roddy how he became a priest. He shared with me several stories about his life’s journey. After finishing college, Roddy returned to Arkansas to work for his father’s company, but he found it to be unsatisfactory.
He decided instead to travel throughout Europe, and he spent the summer of 1939 back-packing and staying in hostels throughout Europe. Roddy traveled through Poland and was in Danzig, now known as Gdansk, on September 1, when the Germans invaded Poland. Danzig was the first city attacked. After the Germans took control of the city, the high commissioner was given two hours to leave.
“By sunset, there was a Nazi swastika in every window in the city,” Roddy recalled. While staying in occupied Danzig, Roddy and a traveling companion decided to attend an opera. They went to the Grand Plaza, where German soldiers and armored vehicles were in each corner of the plaza. A man, whom Roddy described as the most elegant man he ever saw, dressed in a black cape with a white silk lining, a top hat and carrying cane, offered Roddy and his friend opera tickets. “Take these,” he said, always throwing the tickets at Roddy and his friend. “I do not want them.”
Roddy and his friend entered the opera house, thinking that they had two normal opera tickets, but they turned out to be seats in the second finest box in the opera house. Right before the opera began; Adolf Hitler and his entourage arrived and took their seats in the box next to Roddy’s opera box. The entire cast came out and gave the Sieg Heil and to the Furher , and the opera began.
During intermission, Roddy discovered that his opera box and Hitler’s opera box were connected to a small bar, where spectators from both boxes could enter and have a libation during intermission. “For a brief time I was in the same room with Adolf Hitler,” said Roddy. “Had I had a gun, I could have changed the course of history,” he added. It was one of the most remarkable stories that I ever heard. Roddy could have altered a war that cost 22,000,000 lives.
So, too, today’s story about the miraculous salvation of Moses seems unbelievable, like something out of a movie or a novel. It is one of the greatest stories told in the Bible. Paranoid that the growing Hebrew population would be a threat, Pharaoh ordered the Egyptians to drown all male babies born to the Hebrews. When Moses’ mother gave birth to a son, she nurtured him for three months in secret and then sent him afloat in a small basket on the river, hoping that he would miraculously survive.
Pharaoh’s daughter saw the child and rescued it. She summoned Moses’ mother and asked her to nurse the child until it was old enough for Pharaoh’s daughter to take the boy into Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh’s daughter named him “Moses,” which means “drawn out,” for he was drawn out of the water. Water often symbolizes chaos in the Bible. So, Pharaoh’s daughter rescues Moses and the Israelites, too, from the chaos and slavery by saving Moses and raising him in Pharaoh’s palace.
The Bible tells us that Moses lived to be 120 years old. His life was neatly divided into three 40-year segments. The first 40 years were spent being raised in Pharaoh’s house. Then Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and responded in anger by killing the Egyptian. (Ex. 2:12-15) This story is reminds us that one of the founding father of Judaism was actually a murderer. Truly, God can do remarkable things with people who have exercised horrific judgment and have done evil. God can salvage us, too.
Realizing that others know of his crime and fearing Pharaoh, who wanted to kill him, Moses fled into the desert. While providing water for the flocks of seven shepherdesses, Moses drew the attention of Jethro, the priest of Midian, who offered him the hand of his daughter Zipporah in marriage. Moses spent the next 40 years of his life serving Jethro as a shepherd in the wilderness.
It is important to recall that shepherds were the least regarded of all laborers in the ancient Near East. Moses worked for 40 years, or a time that seemed to have no end. The number 40, as we have noted already, is a Hebraism that connotes a time that seemed to go on forever. One day, Moses ventured to the edge of the wilderness. Recall that most figures in the Bible and even today, who are used greatly by God, first pass through a wilderness experience of trial and suffering that transforms them.
Moses then climbed atop called Mount Horeb, which in Hebrew means “the wasteland.” Hence, it was only after enduring a time that seemed to have no end and traveling to the very edge of the wilderness and climbing the wasteland while serving in the worst possible job that Moses had an epiphany, which helped him to turn his life around. If you are going through difficulties in your life that seems to have gone on forever and are wondering when your luck will change, take stock from this story.
God caught Moses’ attention when he set a bush on fire, and the bush was not consumed by the fire. There are desert plants in the ancient Near East which secrete oils. In the intense desert heat these plants can self-combust. What was striking is not that the bush burned, but that the fire did not consume it. God is often tries to communicate with us. The problem is that we are so often blinded by the direction we are set on taking that we do not see the ways in which God is trying to speak to us.
Then God spoke to Moses and ordered him to remove his shoes, for “the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:5) God informed Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry…” (Ex. 3:7) What is crucial here is that God knows our plight and hears us when we pray, when we suffer and when we cry out. God not only hears, but God responds. God does not prevent all suffering, but God responds when we suffer cry out for help.
As in most cases throughout the Bible, God seeks a partnership to carry out his work, just as when God informed Mary that she was going to bear a Son, who was to be called Jesus. Remember that God almost always works in partnership with human beings in order to care for those in need.
God called Moses into service, but Moses, like most figures in the Bible, reacted in fear. Moses thought of every excuse that would prevent God from using him as God’s chosen instrument. Whereas other figures in the Bible responded to God, “Here am I,” Moses responded, “Who am I?” They will not listen to me? I am not an orator? I cannot convince others. What if they ask me for your name, O God?
One by one, God responds to Moses’ concerns, fears and excuses. Yet, God does not take “no” easily for an answer. God often hounds us until we bend our will to coincide with God’s will. God offers to utilize Moses’ brother, Aaron, a skilled communicator, to speak on Moses’ behalf. When God has a plan, God insures that it will come to fruition.
A most unusual story is inserted in Exodus 4:24-26. We read, “…the Lord met him and tried to kill him.” (Ex. 4:24) Not every thought ascribed to God can be trusted in the Bible. Many words and deeds said to have been said or done by God in the Bible must be questioned, if they go against what the New Testament has revealed to us about the patient, loving and forgiving character of God.
Psalm 18 offers some of the richest images of God in the Bible. God is our “strength,” our “rock,” our “fortress,” our “deliverer,” our “refuge,” our “shield,” our “salvation,” and our “stronghold.” (Ps. 18:1-2) We can trust in God to watch over us.
Verse 6 echoes Exodus 3:7, reminding us that God hears us when we pray and when we cry out in pain and misery. God is listening, and God truly cares for us. “In my distress I called upon the Lord… and my cry to him reached his ears.” (Ps. 18:6) God is anthropomorphized and given human features such as “ears;” but the important point is that God listens and responds to our pain.
God’s holy indignation at those who harm others is then given graphic imagery. “Smoke went up from his nostrils…” (Ps. 18:8) God is angry and reacts. The psalmist reminds us that God is not the passive, stand-on-the-sidelines of life kind of God depicted by the Deists, but rather a God who intervenes to restore justice, to punish the oppressors and to lift up those who have been oppressed.
In verse 16, we have a flashback that while necessarily not meant to signify Moses’ rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex. 2:5), seems to recall this saving act as we read, “…he drew me out of mighty waters.” (Ps. 18:16) Even more compelling are the verses found in Ps. 18:25-26, where we are reminded that our character determines what we can understand about God’s character.
With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
with the pure you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you show yourself perverse. (Ps. 18:25-26)
If we struggle to see God clearly, perhaps we need to examine our own life. If we are living in a wrong relationship with others, it will hinder us from seeing God’s loyal, blameless and pure nature.
While many find violent imagery of God in the psalms offensive, many Bible readers are equally offended or challenged when they read about the psalmist conveying actions of violence and revenge. “…those who hated me I destroyed… I beat them fine, like dust before the wind…” (Ps. 18:41-42)
Readers of the Psalms are wise to pick and choose what portions of the psalms to accent and follow. What matters most is the underlying theme conveyed in verse 50 reminding us that God’s love is “steadfast.” God stands by his covenant with King David and with each of us. God is faithful. We are in good hands, the best hands possible.
This chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is extremely rich in insight. When Pablo Picasso, the Spanish painter, visited the caves of Altamira in Spain, his artwork underwent a major transformation. The caves of Altamira are located in the mountains of northern Spain. They were first discovered in 1879. Inside there are paintings made during the Ice Age or Upper Paleolithic Period, which were painted between 110,000 – 19,000 B.C. The paintings depict domestic scenes and hunters killing bulls and other animals.
Because bacteria from countless tourists who visited the caves threatened to destroy them, visitors today must visit a copy of the original cave adjacent to the cave where the paintings were discovered. Witnessing this is still a very powerful experience. Some believe that Picasso’s artwork was drastically altered after viewing these paintings.
“After Altamira all is decadence,” Picasso reportedly said. Others quote him as saying, “We have invented nothing” and “None of us can paint like this,” after touring the prehistoric caves. Picasso’s 1932 painting Girl before a mirror is directly influenced by the paintings in Altamira. What is clear is that as he aged, Picasso strived to paint like a child in a way that mirrors these prehistoric cave paintings.
In Matthew 18, we read that Jesus told his disciples that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes once such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matt. 18:3-4)
Pride is said to be the chief sin and the first sin that leads to other sins. One of my spiritual directors in seminary told me that pride is the most basic sin. If we are struggling with it, she said, it is a sign that we have not made a lot of progress on the spiritual journey and have far to go in our journey. Hence, I knew that I was a neophyte with God.
Jesus informs us that unless we recapture our ability to wonder and be enthralled with life like a child and see God life as a gift, then the kingdom of heaven will elude us. As I noted before, the church does not view “heaven” as a destination. Heaven is not a place like Tahiti, although we hope that there are similarities. Hence, Jesus is not suggesting, “If you fail to do this, you will not enter heaven.” Rather, Jesus noted that if we overcomplicate our lives, live with crushing stress and lose our way the ability to live like a child with joy, wonder, laughter, playfulness and a smile, the state of being known as heaven will elude us.
God and Jesus are always looking out for us, not looking to punish us. They simply want what is best for us and for those around us. Jesus therefore told the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt. 18:10-14), noting that just as a good shepherd will leave 99 sheep that are safe in order to rescue one lost sheep, so Jesus and God will seek us out at all cost until we are safe and sound. Of course, some people evade all the help that God’s sends their way. God will do everything possible to partner with us, but God will not coerce us. We are always free to accept or turn away from God’s offer to assist us.
Matthew 18:15-17 is the most specific text in the New Testament about seeking reconciliation with others in the church. This text greatly impacts our worship. Before coming forward to receive the Eucharist each Sunday, we recite a General Confession together and a priest pronounces absolution. Only after we have taken stock of whatever has caused separation between ourselves and others does the Church invite us to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Above all, this teaching is fundamental to living in community. We cannot experience full Communion – union with God – if we hate our brother or mother, a colleague at work or classmate at school. If anger fills our heart or we deny forgiveness to someone, we hurt ourselves. Refusing to forgive another ultimately diminishes us and lessons our ability to commune with God, because the essence of God is love and when we fail to forgive others we create distance between ourselves and God.
Wanting to score points with Jesus, Peter than asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? “ (Matt. 18:21) Jewish law required a person to forgive another three times. Here, Peter increased the number to seven. Jesus, however, speaks down through the centuries with wisdom that is as relevant today as it was the day that he uttered it to Peter, saying, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Elsewhere we read that Jesus said, “Seven times seventy,” which is an ancient Jewish formula for infinity or saying, “forever.” God wants us to keep on forgiving others as long as God continues to forgive us. God wants us to never stop forgiving.
This is not easily done when you have a family member or friend who has been battling an addiction for decades and continues to operate with the same behavior. We may have to make enormous changes in our relationship to protect ourselves from certain people, but we are still called to love and forgive them, even if at times we want to wring their neck.
Jesus closes out by telling the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, a tale about a person who owed 10,000 talents or a sum so great that he or she could not work this debt off many lifetimes. The entire annual revenue of Galilee was only 300 talents. Jesus uses a grossly exaggerated amount in order to drive home his point. In the story, the person who owes 10,000 talents is forgiven by the king – or by God. This person then refuses to forgive a man who owes a small debt and throws him in prison.
Again, Jesus is stressing the importance of forgiving everyone, not most people except for whom we despise. Only total forgiveness will bring us total wholeness and the inner peace allows the peace that passes all understanding and the image of God to fill us.
The Rev. Tom Tewell used to serve as the Senior Pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. Preaching before a congregation full of successful business executives, Tewell described God as the “greatest investment banker of all.” “God,” said Tewell, “helps us to take control of our lives when the weight of our sins and debts so vastly outweigh the good that we have done that it appears impossible for us to repay God. Like a great investment banker,” said Tewell, “God restructures our debt through Jesus’ death and resurrection so that we might have a bright future.” Ponder that good news! God and Jesus are working out the balance sheet of our life so that our future is full of hope.
With the loyal you show yourself loyal; with the blameless you show yourself blameless; with the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse. (Ps. 18:25-26)
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 18:3)
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘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.’ (Matt. 18:21-22)
Stay the course. Make it fun. If you have a favorite chair or place to read, read your Bible there. The sooner you read the Bible each day, the more likely you are to do it. If you miss a day, do not feel guilty. Just pick up the Bible the next day and start reading again.
Who do you struggle most to forgive? Do you accept God’s acceptance of you? Have you truly taken stock as to how much you expect God to forgive you? Have you ever written a list of the things that you know that you have done or failed to do, said or failed to say and for which you hope God will say, “I forgive you.”
Gracious and Forgiving God, we cannot forgive others if we are unwilling to receive your forgiveness and unable to forgive ourselves. The gift of forgiveness is meant to cleanse us and flow through us as a gift to others. Help us to forgive those whom we struggle most to forgive. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania