14th Sunday after Pentecost
September 10 2017
Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 139; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
We are often tempted to think of the Bible as the pure Word of God, untouched by human hand. But that’s just silly. We know that Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, because he tells us so. We know that Matthew wrote the Gospel that bears his name, because we have agreed that “Matthew” is what we call the writer of this Gospel. And we can see that these two early Christians present the same gospel in distinctively different voices.
Untouched by human hand? We have only to read the Bible with an open mind to see that it is profoundly touched by a myriad of human hands and voices, just as it touches our hearts and minds. It is the Word of God in human form, the Word of God in human words, just as Jesus of Nazareth is the Word of God in human flesh.
I was led to these banal reflections by a verse from our Exodus text this morning.
I must have read this verse many times, but this week it hit me right between the eyes: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals… I am the Lord.”
What kind of God is that?
The Exodus story has always been an inspiration to the downtrodden.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh
To let my people go!
For African-Americans struggling against slavery or Jim Crow, for Latin Americans struggling against national security states, for native peoples struggling against settler colonialism, and for many others, the story of the Israelites and their liberation has been a source of strength and of hope.
For exodus in the Bible account is followed by conquest, a conquest in which God commands the Israelites to exterminate the peoples already living in Canaan. What kind of God commands genocide?
And here already in our Exodus reading, we find God killing the firstborn children of the Egyptians. What kind of God kills children?
On the street where I live, there is a book shelter: two old bus shelters lined with bookshelves and filled with used books looking for a good home. I’m often happy to give them one.
There I found Judy Klitsner’s book Subversive Sequels in the Bible.
We are familiar with the idea of interpreting scripture by means of scripture. Klitsner argues a stronger and more forceful case: she says that scripture corrects scripture.
Take for example, the familiar story in Genesis 22 of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham comes out of this story smelling of roses: he trusts God, as he has from the beginning ten chapters earlier, and God reckons it to him as righteousness.
But God doesn’t come out so well: what kind of God asks a man to kill his own son?
Four chapters earlier, when they are discussing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham insists that a just God must act justly. But the Abraham and Isaac story begins with God acting unjustly, by demanding the death of an innocent youth.
True, God rescinds the demand in the nick of time, but we are still left with the question: What kind of God is this? The book of Job, Klitsner suggests, picks up this question.
When Job loses not one but ten children and his whole life is shattered, he refuses to accept God’s actions as justified. Instead, with ever-increasing audacity, he demands answers from God.
And God reckons this to Job as righteousness. God vindicates Job over against his friends, who spend most of the story trying ineptly to justify God and his actions.
To these false friends, God says flatly: “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.”
In Jewish tradition, it is not just scripture that corrects scripture. In his book Reimagining the Bible, Howard Schwartz points to a paradox at the heart of the writings of the ancient rabbis.
On the one hand, these rabbis, the authors of Talmud and Midrash, firmly believe that the Torah – the first five books of the Bible, in which we find the story of Abraham and God – has been dictated to Moses by God, and that the Torah contains all truth.
On the other hand, they don’t hesitate “to embellish, retell, reimagine, or even radically change the stories of the Torah”.
These rabbis are committed to a Judaism of the dual Torah – the written Torah found in the Bible and the oral Torah, first codified in the Mishnah around 200 CE and further developed in later centuries. This allows them both to treat scripture with deep respect and at the same time to depart from it radically.
We Christians find ourselves, for different reasons, in a similar position. With our Jewish cousins, we share the story of Israel. And with them, we can recognize the subversive sequels within what we call the Old Testament, we can see how one story is corrected by another.
But among ourselves, we have a story we don’t share with our Jewish cousins. We have the story of Jesus of Nazareth.
The story of Jesus is connected to the story of Israel by an umbilical cord. Without Israel’s story, there would be no Jesus story.
But the story of Jesus brings with it something new and utterly unexpected that Israel’s story is not set up to handle. It comes as a surprise ending to that story.
“Israel’s story, taken on its own terms, is not adequate to bear the weight of God’s surprise move of a crucified and resurrected messiah.” This forces the early Christian writers to adapt the story to talk about Jesus, to reshape it around Jesus.
Nowhere is this more true than in Paul, the greatest Christian writer of his generation; and nowhere is it more true than in his magnum opus, the letter to the Romans.
In the sixteen chapters of this letter, Paul strains every sinew to explain to gentile followers of Jesus how they relate to Torah – to what he calls the law – to Jews and to Judaism and to explain the place of Jews and gentiles in God’s plan in Jesus the messiah, Jesus the Christ.
It’s an explanation that makes no sense in terms of Israel’s story as it was told before Jesus came – and makes no sense to Jews today insofar as they stay strictly within their own Jewish tradition – but it’s an explanation that Paul is compelled to make because Jesus has come.
Paul’s Bible is the Word of God. But it is not God’s final word. Jesus is.
We can see this at work in our short extract from Romans this morning. Gentile followers of Jesus are not bound by the letter of the law. They are bound only to love, for love of neighbour is what the law points to. Love is the point of the law.
Today, gentile Christians take this for granted. We feel no obligation to observe the 613 mitzvot codified by Maimonides. But all of us can easily miss the other point Paul is making here.
Obligation looms large in the first-century Roman world. To the emperor, people owed honour and allegiance and worship. To their patrons, clients owed honour and loyalty and debts the patron could at any time call in. Wives owed their husbands submission. Slaves owed their owners service and their very lives.
Paul is not a bomb-throwing anarchist. He is not out to overthrow the Roman world by force majeure.
But when he tells the Romans to “owe no one anything, except to love”, he is gently questioning and quietly undermining every obligation in the Roman world that does not conform to that command to love.
It will take centuries to work through the implications of this. Indeed, we are still struggling to work through them today.
But then as now, love subverts the structures of our society, the patterns of our culture, the habits of our heart. And must do, if God’s kingdom is to come on earth as in heaven.
Last week my colleague Loren preached about the God of liberation. This Sunday I’m preaching about the God of love. It’s the same thing.
God does not liberate us by killing our first born or by commanding us to commit genocide.
God liberates us, subtly but subversively, by loving us, by allowing us to kill his only beloved Son and by raising the crucified Christ from death, so that no one now need kill or enslave anyone any more, however adept we still are at doing both of these things.
God loves us.
This does not spare us the hard work of putting right all that is wrong in our lives or the never-ending work of putting right all that is wrong in our society and culture.
That work is and remains our calling for the whole course of our lives. But it is only because God loves us and seduces us into loving in return that we can even begin.
 Naim Stifan Ateek is the father of Palestinian liberation theology. Others in this line include Munther Isaac, Johanna Katanacho, Mitri Raheb, and Munib Younan.
 Duncan McPherson reminds me, correctly, that I should also have included Michael Prior (see Sources, below).
Dear Lord and father of mankind (CH4 485)
You are before me, Lord, you are behind (CH4 96)
Forgive our sins as we forgive (CH4 486)
The Lord bless you and keep you (CH4 796)
Jesus calls us here to meet him (CH4 510)
Father eternal, ruler of creation (CH4 261)
Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989); A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008)
Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (San Francisco, CA: 2014)
Kyle Fever, “Commentary on Romans 13:8-14”, Working Preacher September 10 2017
Judy Klitsner, Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Bible Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2011)
Jacob Neusner, Foundations of Judaism: Method, Teleology, Symbol (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1983-5) I-III; Judaism in the Matrix of Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986); Judaism and Christianity in the Age of Constantine (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Death and Birth of Judaism (New York: Basic Books, 1987); Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Exile and Return in the History of Judaism (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1987)
Michael Prior, The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997); Zionism and the State of Israel: A Moral Inquiry (London: Routledge, 1999); A Living Stone: Selected Essays and Addresses, edited by Duncan Macpherson (London: Living Stones of the Holy Land Trust, 2006)
Edward W Said, “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading”, in Edward W Said and Christopher Hitchens, eds, Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (London and New York, 1988), 161-178
Howard Schwartz, Reimagining the Bible: The Storytelling of the Rabbis (New York: OUP, 1998)
Stanley K Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews and Gentiles (New Haven, CN, and London: Yale University Press, 1994)
Robert Allen Warrior, “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians”, Christianity and Crisis 49 (12, 1989); reprinted in RS Sugirtharajah, Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006), 235-241