Exodus 8-10, Psalm 20, Matthew 20
Battling against addictive behavior with God on our side
Exodus 8 – 10
Sometimes it is hard to know what to do as we read various portions of the Bible. Today, for example, we must wonder whether to laugh, get engrossed, research about frogs and locusts in ancient Egypt, believe or doubt or merely skim through the stories of the plagues in Egypt. On one level, the story is straight-forward, but the riches of the Bible are discovered by digging deeper.
For many, this means “studying” the Bible in a course, with a study Bible, or with commentary in one hand and a Bible in the other hand. Some commentaries or books about the Bible will explain about the frogs and locusts, boils, famines, blights, animals dying in mass, etc. They will offer archeological insights and learnings from history and ancient writings. Some will try to explain how the plagues happened and others will argue that they never occurred at all.
So, what do we make of it? First, the Bible is not a study book. It is a book full of history, but much of its history needs to be questioned in terms of accuracy and details. We forget that throughout much of history, stories were told to convey truths that people wanted others to believe, even if these things never occurred or occurred in ways very different from how they were recounted.
For example, in 813 A.D., the Christian hermit named Pelayo heard some ethereal music at night and saw bright lights under a field of stars shining over a cave in Spain. He dug in the ground and found bones and parchment, which he took to his bishop, who authenticated that these were the relics of St. James the Greater, one of Jesus’ disciples.
Before long, the tomb started to attract pilgrims, and the location became known as “Santiago (St. James’s) de Compostela (Field of Stars).” In time, a cathedral was built over the location. Pilgrims began trekking to Santiago de Compostela from across Europe in hopes of receiving a special blessing or healing for having made the journey to see the relics of the only disciple of Jesus allegedly buried in Western Europe.
When the Moors invaded Spain in 711 A.D. they reportedly carried with them the relics of the Prophet Muhammad with them to inspire their conquest. Christians meanwhile were delighted to enlist the divine aid of Santiago to support them in their battles against the Moors.
Allegedly Santiago appeared to Christian soldiers during the decisive battle of Clavijo near Logroño. The warrior Santiago appeared on a white horse, leading the Christian armies in slaughtering their Muslim enemies. He became known as Santiago Matamoros or “St. James the Moor-slayer” or “Muslim killer.” Today, visitors and worshippers across Spain will find statues of Santiago Matamoros riding his horse, brandishing his sword and trampling over the heads and bodies of Moors in many churches and cathedrals.
The only problem is that not only do many doubt that the bones found by the hermit Pelayo were those of Santiago, but most doubt that Santiago actually appeared to soldiers fighting the Muslims, and many scholars now doubt whether there was actually a battle fought at Clavijo near Logroño.
Hence, these stories from the Bible, which were written possibly 1,500 years before the appearance of Santiago Matamoros was seen riding his horse, should not be read as factual reports. A more fruitful approach is to look for patterns of behavior in human behavior that speak to our lives today.
Several times we read that God “will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Exodus 7:3 is just one of them. Why would God do such a thing? How could somehow we held accountable for evil, if God had predetermined their behavior in advance? This is an important question to ponder. I personally do not think that God acts in this way nor does the Episcopal Church subscribe the theory of pre-destination, which is important to Presbyterians.
As we read through the story of the plagues, however, something becomes apparent. Pharaoh is extremely stubborn, and his advisors and he do not believe in Yahweh, the Hebrew God. On a deeper level, however, Pharaoh and his cohorts appear addicted to slave labor. After having enslaved the Hebrews, Egypt now depends on cheap, forced labor. The economy is structured around it. In order to abolish it, enormous changes would have to take place, and everyone would be affected.
There are many parts of the world today that are dependent upon exploiting children and adults to work in oppressive conditions similar to slavery. While we may abhor these, Americans have grown accustomed to purchasing cheap commodities that flow from these countries. If the oppressive conditions were changed and the workers earned more, it would affect our lives and costs would soar. Hence, all of us benefit from a world that oppresses and exploits workers.
Another way to read this story, however, is to note the addictive behavior of Pharaoh and to use it to examine our own addictive behavior or the addictive behavior of someone we know – perhaps a friend, family member, colleague or fellow student. Each time that Pharaoh is given an opportunity to break the addiction to forced labor, he reneges like an addict promising to stop drinking, popping pain pills, taking drugs, viewing pornography, shop-lifting, running up credit card bills or lying.
One could even say that Pharaoh cannot help himself, because God is controlling his behavior and has hardened his heart. We now know that addiction is like a disease. It grips a person, and they lose control. Over time it can seem as though a demon has taken over and only a portion of that person now exists. The demon controls the rest of what is left. An addict will manufacture all sorts of lies to him or herself and to others and use manipulative behavior in order that he or she may continue to live in self-denial and avoid making painful changes. Is this not what Pharaoh faced?
As you read this story, think about what has a grip on you that you cannot escape. What kind of lying, manipulative behavior and denial to you have to go through in order to justify whatever has you hooked? Do you know someone in a situation like this? What does this story reveal about their behavior, and about how we and they might take steps to break the cycle of addiction?
The good news is that God is on our side. God is always ready and willing to help those who reach out for divine assistance and overcome the cycle of addiction. God’s love is steadfast.
The Rev. Sam Shoemaker was an Episcopal priest, leader of the Oxford Groups in America and Rector of Cavalry Church in New York City. He wrote over 30 books, but he is best remembered not for one of his books, but rather for a book written by Bill Wilson, which Shoemaker edited and advised on. This book changed the world and gave birth to Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Step Programs. Wilson wrote:
It was from Sam Shoemaker, that we absorbed most of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, steps that express the heart of A.A.’s way of life. Sam Shoemaker had given us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it, he passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated. The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledge of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America…
Shoemaker worked with Frank Buchman to lead Oxford Groups in America, which offered spiritual guidance to help many live a more moral and religious life. Shoemaker wrote a powerful message called “I Stand by the Door.” I will only quote a portion of it, but it is well worth googling and reading the message in its entirety. In many ways, it epitomizes the call of every follower of Jesus:
I Stand at the Door
I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.
The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.
Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.
Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood…
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.
…I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.
Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
‘I had rather be a door-keeper
So I stand by the door.
Having written much about Exodus, let me speak only briefly about Psalm 20. Verse 4 is a powerful blessing that we might write down and reflect upon. It sounds like a parent’s blessing upon a child or for a couple at their wedding. “May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill your plans.” (Ps. 20:4)
This only problem with this is that most of us try to co-opt God into coming on board with our agenda and plan for life. We beseech God through prayer to make something happen for us or negotiate and bargain with God hoping that if we do one something or give up something then God will carry out our wish. Unfortunately, God does work like that.
God is not looking to be our butler or servant, readily taking orders from us. God is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of the Universe. Our lives revolve around God. God’s life does not revolve around us. Hence, even the Buddhists have noted that we are never closer to Enlightenment than in the moment when we are most willing to change.
For Christians, this moment is called “surrender.” I recall men in one of my classes, who had served in the military, saying that agreed with everything that I had been saying, but that they disdained the word “surrender” and did not believe in it. I respect where they are coming from, but when it comes to partnering with God we must surrender our will in order to come into union with God’s will.
This is what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed to God, “not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) or “”not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36) This is the great moment when we come closest to God. When our will becomes unified with God’s will, we experience heaven or that state of being where God’s will and our will are the same.
While others entrust in military might, economic power or fame or fortune, the psalmist notes, “our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.” He closes by beseeching, “answer us when we call.” It is the prayer on the lips of every person who acknowledges that there is a force far greater than human force in the universe.
According to the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, some people are hard-wired because of their personality to desire justice and fairness in all situations and relationships. They cannot stand if their spouse, partner, parent, child, friend, boss or a teacher at school treats people unequally. They will, therefore, dislike the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
Here is a story about God masked in the guise of a landowner, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. During the course of the day, he hired more laborers, and they arrived at various times and began to work. At the end of the day, he paid them all the same amount, regardless of how many hours they worked.
Those who arrived first, were not short-changed, but they were not rewarded more than those who arrived late. This seemed unjust to those who labored all day. We can empathize with them. After all, the world is not supposed to function like this, but God bestows grace in ways that are counterintuitive to us. Life, too, is often unjust.
While companies and managers are supposed to reward their employees fairly, many workplaces remain unfair. Women continue to be paid less than men in many arenas for doing the same work. This is not only wrong, but it is immoral. Take heed Christian employers, including the Church.
God’s grace appears to fall upon both the good and the bad. Just because we follow all the rules, work hard, attend church, read our Bible, say our prayers and live a moral life does not insure that we will not succumb to a tragedy or a painful or life-debilitating illness. Jesus is warning his disciples that God’s ways are not our ways. God dispenses grace far differently than you or I would.
God’s justice, mercy and grace are greater than anything that we can imagine. God’s love knows no bounds. Even the wretched and evil may receive blessings from life that match or exceed the blessings bestowed upon the good and the moral. I do not believe that God ever intentionally blesses the wicked or evil. We will, however, never in this life fully understand our own fate and the fate of other individuals.
But Jesus notes as he did earlier (Matt. 19:30), “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:16.) By restating this point and telling a powerful parable to underscore it – the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard – it is evident that Jesus wants us to get the point.
This is underscored in the ensuring story when the unnamed mother of the sons of Zebedee comes to Jesus in hopes of securing a privileged place of leadership for her sons, James and John, whom we read about in Matthew 4:21-22. These young men reportedly “left the boat and their father, and followed” Jesus, probably leaving their parents flabbergasted, baffled and angry.
Now, however, after its clear that Jesus is going places and enormous crowds are drawn to him and he might even lead a movement to overthrow the Roman oppressors in Jerusalem and become king of the Jews, their mother’s tune changes. “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (Matt. 20:21)
Interestingly, Mark tells the story differently. In Mark’s Gospel, we read, “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus] and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And [Jesus] said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, ne at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” (Mark 10:35-37)
Scholars speculate that this grossly self-serving request made the disciples appear too selfish. Since most scholars believe that Matthew’s Gospel was written later than Mark’s Gospel, the general consensus is that Matthew tried to portray the disciples in a better light. Here, Matthew makes the mother of James and John appear in a bad light; thus, sparring her sons from seeming to be selfish.
In both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink,” referring to the Last Supper and the cup with wine that he blesses and likens to his own blood which will be shed for the disciples. In both of these gospels, James and John say, “We are able.” (Matt. 20:22, Mark 10:39) What is clear is that James and John have accompanied their mother when she came to beseech Jesus for a privileged position for each of them. How gosh!
This is a sadly misguided understanding of Jesus’ mission and reason for coming among us. It does, however, remind us that members of every Church and people throughout the world who profess to follow Jesus can be guilty of using Jesus to further their careers and benefit themselves. In some ways, each of us has done this, but hopefully it is not our driving force for following Jesus and serving God.
“We must be careful what we ask for” is an old age. It proves to be true here. Jesus assures the mother of the sons of Zebedee her sons will indeed drink of his cup, but, he notes, “to sit at my right hand and at my left, is not mine to grant, but it is for those whom it has been prepared by my father.” (Matt. 20:23) This text has been used by Presbyterians and others to justify the Doctrine of Predestination, a belief that God has determined ahead of time who will be saved. The Doctrine of Double Predestination affirms that God not only determines who will enter heaven, but also who will perish in hell. The Episcopal Church subscribes to neither of these doctrines.
Oddly, the mother of the sons of Zebedee had her wish fulfilled, but not as she had expected. James drank the “cup” the cup that Jesus drank, and died as a martyr in Jerusalem in 44 A.D., after having reportedly traveled throughout Spain and being the first to share the Gospel in the Iberian Peninsula. John, his brother, was charged by Jesus to care for his mother, Mary, who in 54 A.D. in Ephesus.
John was reportedly imprisoned in Rome during the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian, where he was sentenced to be boiled in oil at the Coliseum. Legend has it that he endured no harm from the scalding oil. Roman authorities then sent him to the Greek island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation and was later freed. John is believed to have lived to an old age and died in Ephesus in 98 A.D. He is the only disciple, apart from Judas, who did not die as a martyr.
Matthew 20 closes with Jesus yet again physically healing two blind men, who were sitting by the roadside. Like others, they must make an effort to get Jesus’ attention and be part of their own healing. While the crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet, they shouted out even more to get Jesus’ attention so they might be healed. Their plea was not, “Heal us,” but rather, “Have mercy on us…” (Matt. 20:31)
Then they added, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” (Matt. 20:33)
Their words “let our eyes be opened” travel down through the centuries and should be on our lips each time we open the Bible and prayerfully engage the Word of God. Nothing pleases God more than to open our eyes so that we might see God more clearly and love God more dearly.
May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill your plans. (Ps. 20:4)
So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matt. 20:16.)
Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink. (Matt. 20:22)
Lord, let our eyes be opened. (Matt. 20:33)
Learn to read the text creatively or perhaps better said, “Learn to let the text read you.” The key question is not, “What did this text mean in the original community in which it was spoken?” This is a question for biblical scholars to ponder. The key question for a Christian to ask is, “What is the Holy Spirit revealing to me through this text in order to help me become a more faithful disciple and a better spouse, parent, child, friend, student, worker, neighbor and volunteer and human being?
It what ways to you use Christianity to “get ahead in life” or “to serve your own purposes?” In what ways are you a servant leader, and where do you see God inviting you to go further in becoming a servant leader? What things might you be addicted to so that they exercise control over you? Are you willing to turn to God and ask for the power to overcome the grip of addiction?
Gracious, Awe-Inspiring God, help us not to use the Church and Christianity to further our needs and desires, but to use us to further the Church as the Body of Christ and as your missionary vessel for proclaiming and living out the Good News of Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania