WHAT ABOUT THE EGYPTIANS?
Homily for the 15th Sunday of Pentecost
September 14, 2014
Have you ever noticed that after a televised sports event, the cameras virtually always zero in exclusively on the winners, and the losers, who just moments before were a vital part of the event, are instantly dismissed as irrelevant?
During movies and TV shows about cowboys and Indians, did you ever notice that you felt virtually nothing for the many Indian casualties? Even aboriginal kids have noticed this disturbing tendency.
The Crossing of the Red Sea was a defining moment for the people of God, a moment of deliverance which was believed to have revealed God’s favour toward the people of Israel. But what about the Egyptians?
Because that simple interpretation didn’t necessarily suffice, Jewish rabbis and sages debated for centuries about this event, which liberated Israel but devastated the people of Egypt. In an article in Huffington Post (Does Passover Celebrate the Death of Innocent Egyptians? 03/12/2013) Rabbi Daniel Brenner spoke of a 13 year old named Charlotte who during her bat mitzvah talk reminded her synagogue community of a teaching from the Talmud about God’s reaction when the Hebrews began to sing and celebrate the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. According to this tradition, God is supposed to have said: “How can you sing as the works of my hand are drowning in the sea?”
The fact that a 13 year old would point that out is a sign that young people have begun to question and move beyond many of the old definitions and narratives. They are tending to see things in a more wholistic and inclusive way, and are not tied to many of the old loyalties, stories and sectarian alignments. Post-modern young people tend to be taking a both/and approach to things.
This tendency not only to seek advantage over others, but also to celebrate the misfortunes of others, has rightly been brought under scrutiny, and yet it has been a key element in many religious narratives. Thus an important theme to see in the readings today is that of becoming conscious of the other – becoming aware that you’re not the only one that matters. So the question “What about the Egyptians?” or “What about the others?” needs to be asked in every situation.
Bat Mitzvah (as with Bar Mitzvah) after all is about coming of age, and mature religion is not merely self-centered, and is not merely triumphant when God seems to do my will or appears to be favouring me at the expense of others; mature religion is not obsessed merely with my own salvation and status. Mature faith is always mindful of the quality of our relationships with others. St Paul said that when he was a child he spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child. For a brief time, children need to see themselves as the centre of the universe, and are quite unconscious of much beyond their own needs – they can be extremely demanding, whiney and teary when they don’t get their own way. This is part of the way they establish themselves as individuals, but part of the role of parents is to gently lead and mentor them toward a greater awareness of what’s going on around them and beyond them – to help them realize the world is not just about them.
In his letter to the Church at Rome, St. Paul was dealing with Christian communities that were just beginning to find their way. Extremely diverse, they were odd mixes of former Jews and Gentiles (a term referring to non-Jews). Jews were still inclined to hold on to traditions like circumcision and Sabbath and their dietary restrictions. The Gentiles had come with practices that were all over the map, many of them deeply disturbing and offensive to people of Jewish background. The text implies that the Gentiles had no commitment to the ancient Jewish ways, and were not prepared to be restricted regarding diet and special observances like Sabbath. These people were all new at Christianity and at this point they were not very good at it.
So often religion becomes little more than the quest of the isolated individual for salvation. St Paul shows us the importance of thinking not just communally but globally. Our relationship with God takes us into a whole new place, but just like the people of Israel journeying through the wilderness to the Promised Land, as we journey toward our own sense of utopia, we realize are not there alone.
As was the ancient people of Israel, the Christian Church is about community. One of our main callings in life is to learn how to do that in a way that is beneficial to those around us. In church you will always find people who are different from you, and people you differ with, and that’s not a problem – it’s good for you! As Jesus himself taught, it’s not helpful to associate only with people you like, people you agree with, or people who will tell you exactly what you to hear and never challenge you to really look at yourself, and grow up.
There always needs to be that awareness that asks: “What about the Egyptians?” “What about the others?” What about those people we tend to see as enemies, threats, outsiders – does God care about them as well? Are we obliged to care about them?
The August 18 edition of Macleans ran a really thought-provoking article called “The End of Neighbours” by Brian Bethune. It suggests that we have substantially stopped connecting with people around us. We have become communities of strangers, oblivious of the life going on around us and beside us. He speaks of the growing tendency to do life online and says: “What brings us closer to people halfway around the world also makes strangers of those next door.”
The Macleans article references Susan Pinker, who in her book The Village Effect, argues that people with meaningful relationships and a community in which they meet regularly to connect, converse and eat face-to-face may live as much as 15 years longer than people who are isolated and do not have community. She offers research that shows that such connections strengthen immune systems, balance hormones and increase chances of surviving heart attacks, strokes, AIDS and cancer – and even make us more immune to the effects of dementia.
St Paul says, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” We do not live in isolation – everything we do has an impact on those around us. St Paul tries to teach this disconnected collection of individuals something about living together in mutual respect and acceptance. Apparently he prevailed, as Rome went on to become the Christian capital of the world (and to people in the Roman Catholic Church, it still is).
Which brings us to the Gospel today which speaks about the ripple effects of selfish and ignorant behaviour. Peter has asked a question about the number of times he would be required to forgive someone, and the answer Jesus gives takes Peter right out of the legalistic and perfunctory mindset he had been used to.
Peter only seems concerned about his own part in the equation, and so Jesus seems to be trying to get the disciples to look at life more wholistically. He tells this parable as a way of saying, here’s what life looks like when we live it only from our own point of view, when we don’t consider things from the point of view of the other – here’s what the ripple effects look like, and as they say, “it ain’t pretty!”
Jesus’ story reveals that it’s not just about focusing on what we need to do to get right with God; it’s not about fulfilling the minimum requirement in relating to others. It’s about shifting from external controls to inner motivation; it’s about being liberated from resentment and bitterness toward others; it’s about caring what actually happens to the other person; it’s about creating a community in which love of neighbour is the primary characteristic.
To those in the Christian community who might have been tempted to believe that grace means being free to do whatever you want, the parable says in no uncertain terms, “No, it doesn’t.” A relationship with God doesn’t relieve us of responsibility toward others or justify dismissing them – it makes us more conscious of them and compassionate toward them. As we begin to “see as God sees,” life takes on a whole new perspective.
In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus obliges us to look at the ripple effects of our own actions, whether it is holding on to grudges, or being prejudiced, or operating out of fear or greed, and causes us to think about the people we encounter in our unforgiving or angry or depressed state of mind? What happens to them? What about the Egyptians?
Jesus encourages his disciples to consider the chain reaction, the domino effect, the consequences of our refusal to pass on the grace that has been given freely to us. Jesus urges us to believe that not only do our mean-spirited attitudes cause major problems for the community around us, but ultimately those unhealthy attitudes and actions come back to bite us, as they did with the unrighteous slave.
We may wonder at times about the value of what we’re doing in being part of the Church, but it seems that being in community is essential to our well-being, so it is small wonder that the scriptures teach us that Christians are people who are supposed to know how to “do” community. We are to know how to be truly present to each other, and to take that commitment to relational living out into the wider communities in which we are involved. It seems also that the spiritual and moral teachings we receive on topics like forgiveness have a real impact on our own health and the health of the community.
In our time, people coming into any community, whether a neighbourhood, a parish, or even a country, tend to want to know “How are my needs going to be met?” or “What’s in it for me?” and even churches cater to that mentality. The prevailing value in our culture seems to have become one of succeeding even when it’s at the expense of, or to the detriment of others. It’s not that the needs of the individual are not important, but that, if we had the view that meaningful life, rewarding life, is really about building and being part of community, the world would be a much better place.
“Put on the mind of Christ,” as St Paul teaches, and not only will you be a much better person, but the world will be a much better place. May it be so because you make the choice to make it so.
(The Ven.) Grant Rodgers+
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.
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.
Matthew 18:21-35 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. “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.”