Bible Study: 12 Pentecost, Proper 17 (A)

August 31, 2014

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” (Matthew 16:23)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Exodus 3:1-15

Our reading today from Exodus is a text with mystical tones, while also a foundational scripture that holds a clarion commitment by God to the oppressed. Such riches in an economy of verses! Moses’ encounter with, and commissioning by God sets a theme that will run like a thread through the entirety of the biblical narrative.

First, Moses experiences a theophany – a mystical moment of encounter with God. Notice that God’s presence takes the appearance of fire, a device often used in other biblical accounts. Fire has power – to warm, to light, to guide, to comfort, but also to burn, to destroy, to devour. It is an energy that must be treated with respect; it must be approached with the humility of bare feet. Today’s text, for example, reminds us that nature is a holy setting, an indispensable actor in God’s drama of salvation, touched and blessed by God’s energy in an intimate way. It is holy and must be treated as such. And as we have seen in recent times, when we don’t respect the holy energy of God’s creation, it is apt to respond in powerful ways.

Second, the foundational events of our religion rest in this text. In this moment God reveals God’s self and the great action of salvation begins – God will deliver an oppressed people from their misery. That biblical religion has its origin in this moment is not insignificant. God has chosen to take sides; God has chosen to stand with the marginalized, the voiceless, the weak. Recall that at this period in biblical history, the notion of an afterlife has not entered the religious imagination. Salvation will happen in the here and now, or not at all. Religion, for the ancient Israelites, was about proper, ethical living and concern for the poor.

How have we departed from the expectations of biblical religion’s “foundational moment”? How have we remained faithful to that moment?

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c

Praise and ethical conduct are the themes of today’s psalm, which draws from three sections of a longer “history psalm.” The first six verses stand as a call to seek God’s presence. It is fitting that this theme follows the first reading from Exodus – a text that begins with a powerful encounter of God’s presence. Reaching far back into Israel’s history (scholars suggest that this psalm was written after the period of the Exile, i.e., 587 B.C.), the psalmist draws a portrait of setback, deliverance and renewal.

This text reminds us that God will often work in unexpected ways; that God has the power to turn what appear to be defeats and hopeless situations into pivotal moments that bring new life. Just as “Jacob” (Israel) surely saw their enslavement to be a dead end, God transformed that moment into the foundation of salvation by raising up Moses and Aaron who were to be God’s instruments of hope. Furthermore, trough Israel’s terrible experience of servitude and deliverance, God provided God’s people with the sacred Law – precepts that were seen by all as a great gift, for it was through the law that God was teaching them how to live well; how to walk in holiness. Of course the psalmist says “Praise the Lord!” A God who creates hope and life out of darkness is indeed worthy of our praise!

How has God worked in unexpected ways in your life?

Romans 12:9-21

Paul wrote to the Romans from Corinth, a church well acquainted with individualism and factionalism. It was in Corinth that Paul had experienced disruptive, backstabbing people in his congregation, some of whom went so far as to accuse Paul of skimming from the collection basket. It is not surprising then that Paul includes in this passage a list of maxims, as per Greco Roman letter-writing custom, which touch on themes of forgiveness, reconciliation and harmonious living. Paul appears to draw on a variety of sources for these, including the teaching of Jesus, Israelite wisdom literature, and Greco-Roman philosophy.

A modern interpreter will see Paul’s admonitions as a call to tame the ego. The ego wants vengeance; Paul says that belongs to God. The ego wants praise and recognition; Paul counsels humility. The ego wants to see the defeat of one’s enemies; Paul calls for forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul was certainly well acquainted with the darker desires for punishment and getting even, especially after his heart-breaking experience at Corinth. He speaks to the Romans – and to us – as a man who has journeyed through the crucible of emotional pain, but found the strength to put the demands of the ego aside and let something much larger (and holier) guide his response to his adversaries. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said to a later generation, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

Discuss Paul’s call to tame the demands of the ego, and to offer peace and reconciliation to our adversaries.

Matthew 16:21-28

Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel of a great truth about life and the spiritual journey: Your life is not about you.

To follow Jesus is to give up one’s life (perhaps literally, but also to surrender the ego to a much larger identity) and follow in obedience to Jesus. Obedience is a difficult concept for our culture, even in Christian circles. Our innate disposition is to desire independence, personal choice and autonomy. The gospel, especially today’s text, calls for obedience that is certain to lead to suffering – not something anyone wants! But as scripture scholar Dale Allison observed, “Faith is obedience, and obedience is the grave of the will.”

Jesus teaches that the way of discipleship is the way of the cross. To walk behind Jesus is to walk the way of the wound. This paradigm has been repeated throughout the biblical narrative, from Israel in Egypt, to Job on the ash heap, to Jonah in the belly of the fish, to Israel in exile, to Jesus in the tomb. The wound, however, is not the last word; God brings life and salvation even out of a cross. Peter cannot know this at this point, and despite the testimony of scripture, it is difficult for us to internalize and believe this as well, but Jesus asks for faith and trust; he asks us to get behind him and walk his way.

Discuss your reaction to Jesus’ call for obedience.

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