24 August 2008
Proper 21, Year A
The Sentence, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, chosen from the Gospel, gives the theme for the day.
The Collect is an adaptation of the collect in the Book of Common Prayer for Quinquagesima Sunday, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday:
O Lord who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: send thy Holy Spirit, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee, Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake.
The changes in the new collect prompt a few questions for which there are no definite answers. What is the difference between saying that “God has taught us“ and that “we are taught by God’s word”? Is the omission of the final clause of the original prayer (“without which ….”) a substantial change? If so, does it strenghten or weaken the prayer. Note the changes meant to use contemporary idiom: the change of ‘very’ to “true” makes sense, since the origin of “very” is largely forgotten. The change of “nothing worth” to “worth nothing” strikes me as less happy. because it affects the rhythm of the words.
The First Reading: Exodus 1.8-2-10. Here we have the beginning of the story of the Exodus; which we wil be following in highlights in the first readings for the next few weeks. In the first part we hear of the oppression of the Israelites under a new Pharaoh, who from fear attempts to crush them by forced labour. Despite this, they multiply and grow, and Pharaoh turns to a truly wicked scheme, the annihilation of all male children of the Hebrews. Through the honesty and virtue of the two widwives, this plan is foiled. (Pharaoh is foolish as well as wicked: by killing the male children, he is destroying his slave labour.) The Lord God is planning not just to save the children, but to bring a greater good out of Pharoah’s evil. In the second part we read of the birth of Moses, who will lead the people of Israel out of Egypt.
An historical aside might be of interest here. The sixteenth-century translation known as the Geneva Bible noted that the midwives’ “diobedience herein was lawful”. At the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 King James I mentioned to show that that translation had “some notes very partial, untrue, seditious, and savouring too much, of dangerous, and traitorous conceits”. This is why the new translation he authorized was to have no notes.
The stage having been set, Chapter 2 opens with the story of Moses’ birth. Although we are later told that his parents were Amram and Jochebed (6.20) and his sister Miriam (Num 26.59), none of the characters in the story are named (Pharaoh is a title). This keeps the focus on Moses himself.
The story of an infant saved from danger by being put in a box or basket in the water is found in legends of many heroes, such as Sargon of Akkad, Kama in the Mahābhārata, and Romulus and Remus. The story of Moses turns this motif upside down. Instead of a royal infant found and fostered by commoners before discovering his true heritage, Moses the child of slaves is born an oppressed slave but adopted by the king’s daughter. Furthermore, it is known from the outset that he is a Hebrew, a fact which is apparently not hid from him. It is presumably because he is to be raised by the princess and apart from his people that he is permitted to live.
The “basket” itself has symbolic value: the original apparently means “little ark” and connects this story to that of Noah: it foresdhadows that God will save his people as he saved Noah. Indeed the theme of saving through water foreshadows the might deed of the Exodus.
By puttting the infant into the river in a basket, his mother and sister obeyed quite literally Pharoah’s command that all male children of the Hebrews be thrown into the Nile.
The text explains the name “Moses” as being from the Hebrew mashah, to draw out, but it is more likely to be an Egyptian name, the same as the element –mose in such names as Thut-mose.
Fifteen of the Psalms (120-134) bear the inscription variously translated as Song of Ascents, Song of Degrees, or suchlike. This inscription likely reflects the use of these psalms by those going up to Jerusalem for the three Pilgrim festivals (see Deuteronomy 16:16). Psalm 124, is characterized as a thanksgiving for a national deliverance [NOAB] and is thus an apt reflection as we begin to read the account of the greatest deliverance, the Exodus.
The Epistle: Romans 12. 1-8. After a long meditation on the place of Israel in God’s plan comes the last major part of the letter to the Romans, an instruction on the Christian life. St Paul has described God’s mercy and his saving acts; Therefore, he now writes, present yourselves as a offering (sacrifice) to him, but a living one. To do this. your lives must not be based on the ways of this world but on the ways of Christ: Be not conformed but transformed.
Whe we hear this we are called to consider how we often unthinkingly take the ways of the community around us as a standard, rather than judging it against the standard of the Gospel of Christ.
There is a useful comment on how we go about doing this at the Commentary on the RCL http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/apr21m.shtml, and I will not steal it.
The Holy Gospel: Matthew 16.13-20. I sometimes feel that this passage comes up so regularly in the lectionary that I am always commenting on some aspect of it! However, one point should be mentioned that links this reading with the passage from Romans.
The regions of Caesarea Philippi were in the very far north of Israel. at the southern slopes of Mount Hermon and the sources of the Jordan. It had anciently been a centre of the worship of Ba’al, taken as Pan by the Greeks. Hence the name of the place was Panyas or Paneas, modern Banyas. The region had been given by Augustus to Herod the Great, after whose death it passed into the tetrarchy of his son Philip, and who expanded the city and named it Caesarea, to honour the emperor, and Philippi, to honour himself and distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima over on the coast. It has been noted that “Formerly it was known as Paneas, where Baal, the Syrian Pan, was worshipped. The sinister shadow of Herodian Romanism was over the place. The signs of the great world-powers were all aout them, and it was time that the disciples had faith in the Messiah who had come” You can find pictures of the area, and in particular the great Grotto of Pan at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banias. This is not simply an historical aside; by putting the Lord’s question, Who do you say that I am? against the background of the civil and military power of the Roman world —church and state, as it were—it links to St Paul’s challenge to be transformed and not conformed to the world.We will not comment now on the Petrine Text (Thou art Peter, &c.,) which opens up too many important and difficult questions. For one take on this verse, you might refer to the RCL Commentary for this Sunday.