Exodus 16-18, Psalm 22, Matthew 23
Do you ever feel cut off from God?
Exodus 16 – 18
Sometimes you cannot win. You work hard, try you best and all that you get are complaints. The heading over chapter 16 in my New Revised Standard Version of the Bible reads, “Bread from heaven,” but it might as well read, “Complain, complain, complain.” Those who are following Moses are one cantankerous lot. Moses’s followers are complaining. This occurs frequently in Exodus.
Almost 15 years ago, our church hosted Bishop Bill Burrill, who was at the time was among the top stewardship speakers in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Burrill gave a terrific after dinner talk. He words helped to inspire our congregation to grow in gratitude and become more generous stewards.
I still remember him saying, “You are flying in a jet airplane 10,000 feet above the ground to the destination of your choice at 600 miles an hour. They serve you a warm meal as you listen to music or watch a movie with a window view of high above the clouds and drink a martini, but then you notice that they forgot to add an olive. So, what do you do? You bitch, bitch, bitch.” It was a great line.
In a way, it summed up how many of us live. We have more blessings than any generation before us in history, more than we can count. No one in ancient times envisioned flying in a plane, let alone eating a warm meal, listening to music and enjoying a drink. We, however, take it for granted and complain if one small thing is missing.
That’s what the Israelites did over and over again. Moses’s skin had to become thick as leather to lead them. I recall when I first became a Rector I experienced countless complaints about the smallest of things. I inherited a culture of complaining. It took years to transform it, but today I am blessed to serve the same church, where people now are very quick to praise and very slow to criticize. What a joy!
In chapter 16, we learn again that God will provide. When God calls us to mission, God equips us for service and success. It may not be success in the eyes of the world, but it is success for those who see life through God’s eyes. We read, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. .. If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread…” (Ex. 16:4)
Moses must have wanted to spank people for being so ungrateful! We, however, behave just like that at times – grumble, grumble, grumble. St. Benedict had severe words to share about monks who grumbled. Grumbling is like institutional rust. It erodes the lifespan of a healthy family or community.
The good news is that God hears our cries and suffering. God not only hears, but God responds. God responds and provides for the Israelites, offering manna from heaven or an unusual form of food that could be gathered and eaten each day. It could not, however, be preserved and stockpiled.
Hence, God was teaching former slaves who were used to having everything provided for them, how to live one day at a time. God was supplying them with everything that they needed, but only one day at a time. That is the mantra for people in recovery from addiction. Whether or not we are in recovery, living one day at a time it is a good mantra for each of us.
Life is to be led in the here and now. God cannot be found in the future or discovered in the past. God is experienced in the present moment. While we are wise to plan for the future and save and wise to honor our past, today is the day that God offers us. Learning to live in the present moment and let the worries of today suffice so that we can enjoy the company of friends, family and God, is one of the Bible’s most important lessons.
God wanted the Israelites to know that they could not suffice without God’s help. It is a vital lesson for each one of us to learn as we wander through the wilderness of life on our own. Often a person must hit rock bottom, before realizing that we cannot survive, let alone thrive, without God’s blessings and support. We are called to live one day at a time, giving thanks for the gifts of this day.
So God provided manna, which is said to derive from the question man hu, which in Aramaic means, “What is it?” Manna is thought to be crystallized honeydew, which dries rapidly due to the evaporation of its water content, becoming sticky and eventually turning yellowish or brownish. It is considered a form of delicacy in the Middle East, and is a good source of carbohydrates.
The Bible tells us that “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” (Ex. 16:18) This is a sign of the kingdom of heaven, when we learn to be content with what we already have. The secret of happiness is to be content with what we have right in this present moment of life. We need nothing more. If we stop and give thanks and realize that what we now possess is more than sufficient, we will discover deep, lasting joy. By envying others who have more, we will always feel cheated, discontent and angry. The happiest people that I know are not rich. They are the ones who are content with what we already possess.
Moses then took an omer of manna to remember forever the time of blessing when God met their needs in the wilderness. (Ex. 16:32) If we are wise, we will take a souvenir from our journey in the wilderness and carry it with us as a reminder of the time when we hurt badly and God came to us and carried us through the most trying chapter of our lives.
In chapter 17, Moses is about to be stoned by the people, who are dying of thirst. “What shall I do with this people,” Moses asks God. (Ex. 17:4) God instructs Moses to draw water out of the rock, yet another miracle along the way to salvation. Later, however, God will punish Moses for this episode, which appears to be no fault of his own. Moses will be able to see, but not enter, the Promise Land, because he drew water from the rock. It remains one of the mysteries of the Bible.
As if food and water shortages were not enough, the Israelites must now battle the forces of Amalek. Joshua, who will later lead the Jewish conquest, leads the fight. When Moses holds his hand and staff high, the Israelites prevail. When he lowers his staff, the forces of Amalek prevail. As he tires from lifting his staff, Aaron and Hur come to Moses’s aid and lift his hands so that the Israelite forces might prevail. Surely, team-strength is the only way to prevail.
I was blessed to have a wonderful father-in-law. George Maynard, my father-in-law, was a man of even temperament and great wisdom. He was deeply respected in Birmingham, Alabama, where he practiced law and started one of the largest law firms in the South. He usually waited until everyone in the room had spoken, then he added his thoughts, which inevitably were the wisest shared and most compelling.
Jethro offered similar wisdom. He had Moses’s best interests at heart. Witnessing his son sit before huge lines of people who came seeking his judgment day after day, Jethro told him, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out… For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Ex. 18:17-18) Jethro instructed Moses to do what only Moses could do and delegate the rest.
Moses’s mission was to “represent the people before God,” and “bring their cases before God” as well as “teach [the people] the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way that they are to go and the things that they are to do.” (Ex. 18:20) Jethro instructed Moses to select trustworthy leaders, who respected God, and set them over the others as leaders.
This counsel is wise for every Christian to follow. We must ask ourselves, “What is it that I can uniquely do?” “What can I delegate to others around me, who are trustworthy?” Have others around you been offering you similar advice out of a desire to see you shoulder a lighter burden? Do not fail to listen to those in your life, who have your own best interests at heart and can see things that you cannot see.
As we have already noted in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light.” (Matt. 11:30) If we feel crushed by life, chances are that we are not carrying God’s burden, but one that we have manufactured for ourselves or mistakenly picked up. It is time to delegate and focus on what we alone can do and let others shoulder the rest.
This is one of the great psalms. If you find it vaguely familiar, it is probably because words from this psalm were on Jesus’s dying lips. Our Lord recited a portion of this psalm as he hung in agony upon the cross. The cross was not a piece of cosmetic jewelry that people are apt to wear today. It was an instrument of torture – an electric chair, so to speak.
While suffering enormously, feeling betrayed and worrying about his mother’s care and his disciples’ safety and the mission that he had led and feeling abandoned by God, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) They are the Bible’s most heart-breaking words. How many of us have dropped to our knees, not in church, but in our home, work, school or a hospital room or a military outpost and wondered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is a universal cry of anguish when we wonder if there any power from beyond to sustain us in our darkest hour. Why did Jesus pray this prayer? It was probably because he was willing to go before each one of us and experience everything that any of us would experience in life. There is nothing that we can undergo that Jesus has not undergone before us. He was baptized into the muddy waters of human sin and betrayal, hurt, failure, frustration and loss. As the prophet Isaiah said, Jesus “is one acquainted with sorrow and touched by grief.” Jesus is the ultimate Good Shepherd who guides us through the wilderness and lead us into green pastures once again, where we can lay down beside still waters.
The lines of this psalm are so powerful. For many years, I, like many clergy, read them aloud on Maundy Thursday while members of our church and fellow clergy stripped the altar bare in a darkened church. Now, our choir poignantly sings this psalm. It is so powerful. The words are so familiar to me.
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
And by night, but I find no rest. (verse 2)
All who see me mock at me;
they make their mouths at me,
they shake their heads;
Commit your cause to the Lord;
let him deliver –
let him rescue the one in whom he delights (verses 7-8)
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near and there is no one to help (verse 11)
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast… (verse 14)
But the psalm does not end in despair. Perhaps this, too, is why Jesus chose to quote it as he hung from the cross to atone for our sins. Jesus knew that something brighter was about to happen. Resurrection was coming. He knew that the worst things are never the last things. The future is spelled H.O.P.E., as my friend and mentor John Claypool used to say. Hence the psalmist reminds us,
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you… (verse 22)
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek [God] shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever! (verse 26)
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it. (verses 30 – 31)
Reading Scripture aloud is a great way to let the Word of God transform us. I urge you to take time to read this psalm aloud on your own and speak the words with great feeling. It will grip you with it power as you recall that these were among Jesus’s final words, uttered to give us hope as we wander through the wildernesses of life seeking salvation and grace.
Sometimes we just need to vent. In chapter 23, however, Jesus is not just venting; he is directly challenging those who misconstrue religion and mislead those who follow them. Everyone religious follower must feel free to challenge poor leadership and not follow blind guides.
The recent pedophile scandals in the Roman Catholic Church are a case in point. Crimes punishable by jails sentences were committed, and time and time again Church leaders at the highest level including cardinals, archbishops and bishops, allowed for a cover-up to occur. They chose to protect the Church’s reputation and avoid scandals and lawsuits rather than doing the right thing. The result was that the Church’s reputation was gravely hurt, scandal after scandal was uncovered and law suits came in droves.
No leader is above being questioned. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees and hypocrites,” says Jesus, like a refrain to a song, repeated five times in this chapter, adding, ”Woe to you, blind guides,” and “You snakes, you brood of vipers!” (Ex. 23:16, 23:33) Surely, Jesus never read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie’s book was based on a 14-week course that he began teaching in 1934. His book was first published in 1936 and has sold over 15 million copies. It promises to help readers accomplish 12 things, including:
- Get out of a mental rut
- Enable you to make friends quickly and easily
- Increase your popularity
- Help win people to your way of thinking
- Increase your influence, your prestige, your ability to get things done
- Help you handle complaints, avoid arguments, keep your human contacts smooth and pleasant
- Make you a better speaker, a more entertaining conversationalist
- Help you to arouse enthusiasm among your associates
Jesus was clearly the most influential person in history, yet he probably broke every rule that Carnegie suggested. A true religious leader must be willing to challenge other religious leaders to be faithful in leading followers in Christ. I have been amazed at the willingness of clergy and laity to put up with misguided leadership. Clearly, this was not what Jesus modeled.
The word “hypocrites” comes from the ancient Greek word hupokrites, a term derived from the world of theater and drama. A hypocrite was an actor who wore a mask and pretended to be someone they were not. Biblical scholars believe that Jesus and his father, Joseph, were carpenters, who may have worked in Sephoris, a thriving community near Nazareth, where a forum and coliseum were built during Jesus’ time and carpenters were needed. Sephoris had a theater, and Jesus may have been introduced to the world of drama there and witnessed hypocrites in action.
True religion begins from the inside out. It starts with a real, growing relationship with God and transforms a person from the inside out. The scribes and Pharisees were guilty of tithing in “mint, dill, and cummin” while neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith,” notes Jesus. (Matt. 23:23)
The tithe was an essential part of Jewish religious practices. The Israelites were to tithe or set aside 10 percent of all their seed and all the fruit of the land as a gift to God for all that God had given to them. (Deut. 14:22) and (Lev. 27:30) This was especially important to support the Levites, who oversaw the daily operations of the Temple. The Law clearly noted what was to be tithed, and it included everything harvested and eatable.
The Pharisees and scribes, however, were tithing mint, dill and cummin. These were kitchen herbs, which were never grown in quantity. They were failing to tithe of their true wealth and misleading themselves and others. Most clergy have witnessed this among some so-called tithers, who clearly must only be regarding a small portion of their earnings from which they return 10 percent back to God.
In the same way, the Episcopal Church has spent two decades focusing almost obsessively over issues of homosexuality. While great progress has been achieved in creating equality and de-stigmatizing a substantial portion of our population, major issues of inequality such as the gross overpay of executives, entertainers and athletes and the mass proliferation of weapons have been almost completely neglected by Church leaders. All of us, like scribes and Pharisees, often neglect “the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith,” while focusing on other concerns.
Jesus closes out the chapter by lamenting over the city that he loved. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37) This is one of the most poignant passages in Matthew’s Gospel. Pilgrims to the Holy Land can visit the site today, where Jesus lamented and wept over the city that he loved for the people that he cherished.
Jesus offers a feminine image of God, describing himself “like a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” The final verse is now part of the Episcopal liturgy, where each Sunday during the Sanctus of the Eucharist we say or sing, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” (Matt. 23:39) adding, “Hosanna in the highest.”
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22:1)
If you have specific questions about the Bible, contact the clergy at your church. Send an email, call or schedule time to meet and discuss your questions and what you are reading. Your clergy will be honored and enjoy discussing the Bible with you. No one is ordained to spend countless hours in administration, but sadly that is what many clergy must do. Teaching and discussing God’s Word is at the heat of our calling, and it is a gift when others allow us to focus on what unites us in Christian living.
How often to you complain each day? Have you ever taken a piece of paper and noted how many times you complain each day? In what ways to you feel abandoned by God, cut off from your Creator? In what ways are you wearing a mask or pretending to be something that you are not?
Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer God, it is from you that we draw out greatest strength and see ourselves truly as we are as if looking in a mirror when we prayerfully engage in reading your Word. Help us to shed our masks and not to fear to be the person who we actually are. Spare us from being faithful in small things, while neglecting the weightier call to seek justice and mercy for all. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania