Exodus 5-7, Psalm 19, Matthew 19
Living in an upside down world
Exodus 5 – 7
There is an old adage, “Don’t believe everything that you read.” It’s worth keeping that in mind as we read through the book of Exodus. In 1901 Hermann Gunkel wrote a famous book called The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History. It has endured the test of time and was still assigned reading when I was in seminary. A huge amount of new scholarship has taken place since it was written and archeologists have unearthed many new discoveries about the ancient Near East.
What has not changed for thoughtful students of the Bible is the belief that a significant amount of material in the Bible, especially in Genesis and Exodus, is written in the form of legends, which is Gunkel’s point. These legends were preceded by a great amount of oral tradition or story-telling.
When I was growing up my grandfather used to share stories with me about World War I. He was a fighter pilot stationed in France. It thrilled and intrigued me to hear his stories. Later as a newspaper reporter I had the privilege of interviewing Robert Penn Warren, the only American author to win the Pulitzer Prize for both prose and poetry. He told me that when he was growing up, his grandfather, who fought with the confederate commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, used to sketch civil war cavalry battles in the dust of his Kentucky farm, as his young grandson listened intently.
The crucial thing to elicit from these stories is that God is faithful and equips us when he calls us to serve. Moses again and again speaks about his own inadequacies to serve God. God patiently reminds him that God will use Aaron’s gifts as well to make up for Moses’ inadequacies. God does this with each of us as well.
I once read a letter from the head of the Vestry in a large Episcopal Church celebrating the call of their new Rector. The Senior Warden described their new Rector as “the complete package.” I laughed out loud as I read it. No one is the complete package. In this case, the complete package lasted ninth months, before the church and he parted ways. Each Christian needs the gifts of those around him or her to fulfill the mission that God calls him or her to do. We are not complete in ourselves, but we are complete as part of the Body of Christ, where each plays our unique role to serve.
What we can enjoy reading, but need not believe is that the magic staff of Moses and Aaron turned into a snake and that the rods of Pharaoh’s sorcerers and magicians did the same. This is wonderful for Cecil B. DeMille and Disney movies, but it is not crucial for our faith to believe that this actually occurred. What is helpful to believe and understand is that when God takes initiative, God follows through and delivers. We must also be persistent and play our role faithfully as God’s faithful partners.
I really enjoy doing pre-marital counseling and meeting with couples who are looking forward to getting married. It is an exciting time in their lives, and it is fun to share it with them. One of the things that we always do is carefully read through the wedding service and note what the Church teaches about marriage and commitment that the couple will be making with each other and with God.
In the second paragraph of the liturgy, the celebrant reads, “The union of husband and wife in heart, body and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 423)
I explain to each couple that ultimately what we want to provide for our children are values, character and moral values that will last them a lifetime. We can provide our children with the best education, fancy vacations and all sorts of material blessings, but if we have failed to instill character, values, a knowledge of God and the gift of unconditional love, then we will have failed them.
The psalmist reminds us today that:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the degrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes…
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb. (Ps. 19:7-10)
Many Church leaders have erred throughout the centuries by focusing on “law,” as if the Bible were a collection of moral codes and regulations that needed to be enforced. To view it as such is a failure to understand the Spirit of God that inspired each of the writers of the Bible.
These precepts are not laws and doctrines to be forced upon people. Rather, they are vital and the wisdom of the Bible is eternal because God’s teaching speaks to how we were designed by God. God offers guidance for daily living. God’s wisdom helps us to forge healthy relationships and to navigate successfully through life so that we may discover peace and joy as we serve the Lord who created us.
Psalm 19 closes with words that many a preacher uses before beginning a sermon:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Ps. 19:14)
These words are good for each of us to ponder on a daily basis.
Matthew begins this chapter by once again noting that Jesus “cured” many who followed him. Jesus indeed was the great physician. The Church must ponder how our churches and how each Christian can continue to carry out his ministry of healing. Stephen Ministry is one of the great examples of how we continue to carry out Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus then launches into teaching about divorce, after some Pharisees put him to the test. It must have been difficult living with religious leaders, who were always trying to trap him. Jesus, however, was wise and incredibly intuitive.
Today, he offers that famous quote, which is part of the Episcopal wedding service, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matt. 19:6) This is said by the priest immediately after pronouncing a man and woman husband and wife.
Jesus also raises the bar for his contemporaries saying, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (Matt. 19:9) In the ancient Near East, a man had the right to divorce his wife for almost any indiscretion including burning the toast. No excuse was too small. Jesus wanted to restore integrity to marriage, and he wanted to protect women from being treated as chattel. At the same time, we need to comprehend his intent and how it affects us today.
My parents divorced when I was in college, and each member of our family learned firsthand the pain that divorce brings. As a priest, I have also seen relationships of people who stood at the altar and pledged to spend the rest of their lives together become toxic or abusive. I always urge anyone that I counsel to work and pray as much as possible and do all that they can to try to sustain, nurture and turn around their marriage, if at all possible.
When one party refuses, becomes abusive, leaves for another person, develops a highly destructive addiction or when the children are becoming damaged by the destructiveness of their parent’s marriage, I support persons who seek to divorce. God does not draw lines in the sand, and the Church must be careful not to do so as well.
Every situation is unique. The Church also needs to be a place of second chances, for we worship a God of second chances. I have rejoiced with many individuals who after going through a very painful divorce discovered love again and were able to make a commitment and remarry. Officiating at their marriages has been a privilege and a joy.
My wife had been previously married. Before getting married, we entertained a bishop from Uganda and his wife for dinner. I had met the bishop while in Africa and greatly enjoyed his friendship. After a lovely dinner, he took me aside privately with his wife and said, “Bwana,” which means “old wise man” in Swahili, “You are engaged to a lovely woman, but you do not want to marry her. The Bible commands us not to marry a person who has been married.”
Fortunately, I did not take his advice. Divorced people are not damaged goods or lepers. They often have more substance and know more about the challenges and what it takes to have a good marriage than people entering marriage for the first time. Fortunately, the Episcopal Church has made great strides in this area. The Roman Catholic Church continues to promote annulments, which I strangely find reminiscent of medieval indulgences. The practice is foolish at best.
The point that Jesus was making is that marriage is not to be entered into lightly, but with our whole heart, mind and soul. It takes “steadfast love” to honor, keep and nurture our marriage. It takes three persons to make it work, a husband, wife and God. Jesus reminds us that divorce should never be taken lightly, but only as a last resort.
As if to make things even more challenging, Jesus teaches us about handling wealth and not amassing riches. This is a challenge for my family and me and for many Christians. We want to be financially secure and to enjoy travel, possessions, vacations and entertainment. The call to be a Christian is never a call to indulge oneself. Many of us in America live at an extremely high level. Our self-indulging ways must break the heart of God.
In today’s lesson a rich man comes before Jesus and asks what “good deed must I do” in order to inherit eternal life. (Matt. 19:16) The question is ludicrous. “Eternal life” is not an insurance policy that can be bought and sold. As we have noted, eternal life is a “state of being.” Heaven is not for sale. It is free, but it comes with a great price. It demands a “conversion of life” as St. Benedict says. We must surrender ourselves to God and allow God to transform us into servant leaders, if we want to discover it.
Jesus reviews the Ten Commandments with the rich young man. “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal…” (Matt. 19:18-19) The young man notes that he has kept all of these.” Then as if to test him, Jesus says, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21)
This verse is part of the “Divine Counsels,” which the medieval Church applied to monks, but not to lay persons. These counsels were only for the Green Berets of Christianity so to speak. Normal Christians could live by less demanding standards. This verse helped to spark the widespread growth of convents and monasteries throughout Europe. Ironically, these monasteries and convents often accumulated vast wealth and many were among the largest landholders in the Middle Ages.
Did Jesus really intend for all of us to sell all that we have and give it to the poor? Most commentators doubt that Jesus was making a universal decree. For whatever reason, he challenged this young man to give away everything that he had, perhaps knowing that possessions and wealth were the very idols that stifled spiritual growth in this young man. Sadly, the young man chose his wealth over the opportunity to become one of Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus then adds that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24) Cities in the ancient Near East often had two gates. The large gate was used for most traffic. At night, this gate was always locked. The second gate was extremely small in order to prevent enemies riding camels from entering the city by storm. In order for a camel rider to enter, the owner had to dismount from the camel and unload all that it was carrying. In a similar way, all of us have to shed our dependency on possessions and lighten our load if we are going to experience that peaceful and joyful state of being called heaven.
Jesus informs Peter and the disciples that anyone who leaves family and work behind to follow him will be blessed by God. For “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matt. 19:30) Surely, the kingdom of God is counterintuitive.
If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. (Matt. 19:21)
Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Matt. 19:23-24)
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Matt. 19:30)
Look for aspects of the text that speak to your daily life. God is far more interested in having you focus on this and apply what you learn to daily life rather than focusing on historical questions that have little impact on how you will live and act.
What do you place ahead of God in your life? If Jesus were to come to you and ask you to give up something in order to follow him, what would he ask you to surrender? What would be hardest for you to give up? What can you give away in order to travel more lightly and to bless others in the process?
Gracious God, help us to listen to that still small voice within us and to the voice of Scripture that you use to speak to us and call us in the direction where you long for us to experience that state of being called heaven. Help us to reduce our possessions and our need to accumulate, so that we might travel lightly, gently through life and not be shackled to possessions, which ultimately come to possess us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania