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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 24 - Proper 19 - Year A
Exodus 14:19-31); Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Alt – Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21 (for Psalm 114) Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 24 - Proper 19 - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  A summary of these readings is 
     also included below.]


EXODUS 14:19-31			The passage tells us that the Israelites 
discovered that God was with them, protecting and guiding them.  All 
Pentateuch documents regard this as a symbol of the presence and 
protection of God as the Israelites made their way through the wilderness 
to the Promised Land.  The phrase “the pillar of cloud and fire” 
symbolized that God was present to Israel.  Told from the point of view of 
a people under constant stress from many external enemies, the story 
elicits a sense of security and trust.  But what of the Egyptians?  Did 
God not care about them too? 


EXODUS 15:1b-11,20-21	[Alternate]  This poem is essentially a victory 
song or psalm celebrating the destruction of the Egyptian pursuers of the 
fleeing Israelite slaves as the will of God.  Though God appears 
throughout the poem only in the second or third person, God is the central 
character celebrated as the providential master of Israel’s fate.


PSALM 114 			This song, also known as “The Egyptian Hallel”, 
may have been composed for the celebration of the Passover.  Another 
possible origin may have been for the celebration of God as the Lord of 
history in an enthronement ceremony at the New Year.  It looks back to the 
great deliverance from Egypt which was the source and strength of Israel's 
faith.  Exactly when it came into liturgical use is unknown.  


GENESIS 50:15-21		[Alternate]  This passage brings the story of 
Joseph to an end interpreting the whole sequence of events that befell him 
as fulfilling God’s purpose.  It carries forward the familiar theme of the 
whole Book of Genesis and the patriarchal narratives that God is the Lord 
of Israel’s history from beginning to end.  This is held to be true 
regardless of the vicissitudes of their individual and by implication 
tribal experiences.  


PSALM 103:(1-7),8-13	[Alternate]  In words that have comforted 
countless generations, the psalmist celebrates divine mercy and grace 
extended to all who pay God due reverence.  


ROMANS 14:1-12			Paul gives more sound practical counsel to the 
Romans.  He touches on dietary customs, marking the Sabbath (difficult for 
many slaves who were forced to work), passing judgment on others, and 
being sensitive to the weaknesses of others.  This advice differs 
radically from how Paul thought and lived before he was converted and 
began to follow Christ.  Just such distinctions mark true discipleship and 
separated the early Christians from Jews.


MATTHEW 18:21-35		The parable reveals a ruthlessness in God's 
judgment that seems uncharacteristic, yet it contains one of Jesus' most 
important teachings.  It also illustrates the principle of forgiveness 
expressed in the Lord's Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our 
debtors.” (Matt. 6:12, 14-15)  It shows how freely and fully God forgives, 
and how much God expects us to forgive others whom we feel may have 
wronged us.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

EXODUS 14:19-31   A pillar of cloud by day and fire by night leading the 
Israelites to the sea through which they passed on dry ground.  Were they 
seeing a volcanic eruption? Were they traveling along the coast of the 
Mediterranean Sea where a mighty wind first drove back the sea, then huge 
waves washed back onshore engulfing the pursuing Egyptians?  Those are the 
most likely natural explanations, but they can never be proved.  Other 
scholars have suggested alternative explanations.  

The idea of the pillar of cloud and fire may derive from the pillars of 
Solomon’s temple or from the smoke that rose from the altar of burnt 
offering, and was borrowed to portray the divine presence during the 
Exodus.  Or it could have been as brazier burning wood which scouts used 
to mark the way for military and commercial trains through unknown 
territory.  It has even been speculated that many of the elements of the 
Exodus story are reworked reminiscences of the immense volcanic explosion 
on the island of Thira in the Aegean Sea about 1470 BCE which gave rise to 
the Greek legend of Atlantis. 
(www.angelfire.com/hi/alhawk/atlanthira.html)

But that isn’t the point of this part of the Exodus story.  It tells us 
that the Israelites discovered that God was with them, protecting and 
guiding them.  All Penteteuch documents regard this as a symbol of the 
presence and protection of Yahweh as the Israelites made their way through 
the wilderness to the Promised Land.  The phrase “the pillar of cloud and 
fire” is repeated in several other places in the J and E documents, in 
Nehemiah 9:12 & 19, and Psalm 99:7.  The Priestly author omits the pillar, 
but wrote of the theophany as “cloud and glory.” Generally, the symbol 
meant that Yahweh was present to Israel.  

Told from the point of view of a people under constant stress from many 
external enemies, the story elicits a sense of security and trust.  But 
what of the Egyptians?  What of the women whose husbands, sons and 
brothers rode in those chariots that became clogged with mud and were 
swept under the returning sea?  An ancient Jewish midrash told of Yahweh 
weeping as the Hebrews celebrated because, "the Egyptians are my children 
too!"  In some respects this is a very sad story, a sadness found in both 
legend and history.

The Jewish religious philosopher, Martin Buber, once said that the stories 
found in our liturgies help us to live on the brink of the holy.  They can 
open evidence for us of the wonder and mystery of true relationship.  On 
October 4, 2005 Jews the world over mark Rosh Hashanah, their New Year, 
when God is praised as the Lord of history and Savior of God’s People, 
Israel.  Nine days later, the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar, Yom 
Kippur, the Day of Atonement, will also be celebrated with fasting and 
prayer.  On October 10, Canadians will be celebrating Thanksgiving and on 
October 18, our Jewish neighbors will celebrate Sukkoth, their harvest 
thanksgiving.  In all these celebrations will any prayers be offered for 
and new relationships created with the suffering poor of the world for 
whom there is no protecting providence or the Promised Land envisioned in 
the story of the Exodus?


EXODUS 15:1b-11,20-21   [Alternate]  This poem is essentially a victory 
song or psalm celebrating the destruction of the Egyptian pursuers of the 
fleeing Israelite slaves was the will of God.  Though God appears 
throughout the poem only in the second or third person, God is the central 
character celebrated as the providential master of Israel’s fate.  The 
latter two verses introduce Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, leading a 
chorus of women essentially repeating the opening words of the song of 
Moses.

There isn’t much to be said for the triumphalism of these poems.  It 
sounds excessively chauvinistic to non-Jewish ears.  On the other hand, 
Judaism can and does celebrate in its religious rituals the providence of 
God in the survival of the Jewish people through unimaginable 
difficulties, exiles, persecutions, pogroms and the Holocaust of the mid-
20th century.  Secular historians do not explain very well how else this 
unprecedented survival may have occurred except as a religious aspect of 
Jewish culture.

Can Christians who share the Hebrew scriptures with Judaism also rejoice 
in the providence of God through millennia of history?  In a memorable 
series of radio broadcasts and subsequently published book, a noted 
British historian, Herbert Butterfield, of Cambridge University, spoke in 
a similar way regarding the Allied victory in World War II.  It is much 
more difficult to see the providence of God in the currently destructive 
war against terrorism early in this 21st century.  Certainly, ideological 
triumphalism is not appropriate.


PSALM 114   “In Jewish practice,” commented W.  Stewart McCullough in *The 
Interpreter’s Bible* Vol. 4, 599 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955) 
“Pss. 113-118 are known as the Hallel and they have long since established 
for themselves a place in the liturgy of Judaism’s great festivals.”  This 
song, also known as “The Egyptian Hallel”, may have been composed for the 
celebration of the Passover.  Another possible origin may have been for 
the celebration of Yahweh as the Lord of history in an enthronement 
ceremony at the New Year.  It looks back to the great deliverance from 
Egypt which was the source and strength of Israel's faith.  Exactly when 
it came into liturgical use is unknown.  

Some very common issues surface in these few verses.  These issues are 
still evident when people of different cultural and ethnic background 
interact.  In vs. 1 we find the problem of communicating when people speak 
different languages.  That is happening in our own country this very day.  
Israel’s faith in Yahweh’s sovereign dominion over its history as 
celebrated in their temple liturgies comes to the fore in vs. 2.  Does our 
worship constantly repeat that refrain or are we so doubtful as to believe 
that God has left humanity to its own violent end?  As a noted British 
theologian once said, “Would God have let mankind get at the matchbox if 
the foundations of the universe had not been fireproof?”

Nor has the psalmist overlooked divine sovereignty over natural forces.  
Vss. 3-8 recognize that in the strange events which some would describe as 
natural, the Israelites saw the mighty acts of God on their behalf.  It 
may be difficult to have faith in God’s sovereignty over the environment 
in the midst of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, volcanic 
eruptions and tsunamis.  Faith may interpret such natural disasters 
differently.  Crossing the sea and later the Jordan, and the shaking of 
Mount Sinai in the presence of Yahweh giving Moses the tablets of the law 
were seen in such a light by this liturgist and all the authors of 
Israel’s faith-history.

A touch of irony appears in vss. 5-7 where the poet teases the mighty sea, 
the Jordan River and the mountains for their reaction to the presence and 
power of Yahweh.  Vs. 8 looks beyond the flight from Egypt to the 
wandering in the wilderness when the Israelites complained that they 
thirsted for good water and Moses struck a rock with his rod to produce a 
flowing spring.  That leads into next week’s lectionary.


GENESIS 50:15-21   [Alternate]  This passage brings the story of Joseph to 
an end interpreting the whole sequence of events that befell him as 
fulfilling God’s purpose.  It carries forward the familiar theme of the 
whole Book of Genesis and the patriarchal narratives that God is the Lord 
of Israel’s history from beginning to end.  This is held to be true 
regardless of the vicissitudes of their individual and by implication 
tribal experiences.  

The incident has a very human touch.  With Jacob dead, Joseph’s brothers 
feared that he might hold a grudge against them and punish them for 
selling him into slavery in Egypt.  Wisely, they sought to make their 
peace with him as Jacob had asked them to do.  Note that it was out of 
fear and for the sake of their father’s memory, not only that they 
themselves had at least some sense of repentance for the evil they had 
done.  The tearful interchange that followed gave the story a final 
emotional twist.  

Joseph’s response states the moral of the whole Joseph narrative: God 
intended it for good.  This can also be used to bring out the providential 
and redemptive nature of even the simplest experiences of human families.  
That too is the lesson to be learned from the whole sweep of Jewish 
history.  


PSALM 103:(1-7),8-13   [Alternate]  In words that have comforted countless 
generations, the psalmist celebrates divine mercy and grace extended to 
all who pay God due reverence.  Extending mercy and forgiveness and 
thereby bringing reconciliation can be a very powerful tool in any 
distressed human relationship.  

The psalmist’s point of view holds that this only reflects what God 
constantly does for us in pardoning our sin and graciously forgiving our 
failures.  Unlike human relations, however, where we often forgive in a 
calculating way, God forgives because it is God’s nature to do so.  It is 
characteristic of the steadfast and constant love God has toward us 
individually and to the whole of humanity.  


ROMANS 14:1-12   Paul gives more sound practical counsel to the Romans.  
He touches on dietary customs, marking the Sabbath (difficult for many who 
were forced to work), passing judgment on others, and being sensitive to 
the weaknesses of others.  This advice differs radically from how Paul 
thought and lived before he was converted and began to follow Christ.  
Just such distinctions mark true discipleship.

The problems for Christians in those days had more to do with Jewish 
dietary constraints rather than the quality of the food.  Because Gentiles 
had few such constraints, they ate more freely than did their Jewish 
neighbours.  These differences gave rise to conflicts within the apostolic 
community and the wider Christian fellowship as several other NT 
references indicate.  (Acts 10:9-16; 11:1-10; 15:29; Galatians 2:11-13) 
Paul had this problem very much in mind as he wrote to this multicultural 
congregation in Rome (vs.1-2).  In vs. 14 he elucidated the basic 
Christian principle regarding dietary laws in exactly the same way Jesus 
had done by his controversial practice of eating with tax collectors and 
sinners (Matt.9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; 7:34).  

In the 19th and 20th centuries the total abstinence movement widened the 
application of this passage to the consumption of alcoholic beverages.  
That issue did not appear to come into Paul’s thinking.  On the other 
hand, vss. 7-12 do present an approach which could well be adopted as the 
rule of life for all kinds of behaviour.  Whatever we do should honour God 
and Jesus Christ who died for us (vss. 8-9).  Furthermore, in vss. 10-12 
he counters our human propensity to be judgmental of one another and sets 
before us personal accountability to God alone.  It seems obvious that 
Paul knew how difficult that would be for most of the Romans - and for us 
in our own time.  It is always so much easier to have strict rules from an 
external authority by which to determine right from wrong.  The truly 
Christ-like life, Paul was saying, is lived solely under the sovereignty 
of God.

The quotation in vs. 11 is from Isaiah 45:23.  There it referred to the 
plea to the exiles in Babylon to return to Yahweh whose desire is that all 
peoples shall worship Israel’s saviour God.  Much the same reference 
reappeared in the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 giving 
strength to the hypothesis that the hymn was Paul’s own composition.


MATTHEW 18:21-35   Let the imagination float on these two pericopes.  What 
caused Peter to ask this question? Was it something related to his 
business as a fisherman? There is an old tradition that Zebedee, father of 
James and John, was Peter’s partner in a contract to supply fish for the 
priests of the temple in Jerusalem.  Had there been a quarrel over some 
spoiled fish due to a late delivery such a long distance from Galilee? 
Peter’s question, however, brings forth a marvellously exaggerated 
response and a parable that teaches true forgiveness: the grace of 
forgiveness has no limits.

The parable of the wicked servant reveals a ruthlessness in God's judgment 
that seems uncharacteristic, yet it contains one of Jesus' most important 
teachings.  It also illustrates the principle of forgiveness verbalized in 
the Lord's Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” 
(Matt. 6:12, 14-15)  It shows how freely and fully God forgives, and how 
much God expects us to forgive others whom we feel may have wronged us.  

Although written nearly fifty years ago, Sherman E. Johnson, former dean 
and NT scholar at The Church Divinity School of the Pacific, commented in 
his exegesis of the passage: “He who forgives is dealt with on the basis 
of mercy, but he who fails to forgive has no right to expect anything more 
than strict judgment on his own sins.” (*The Interpreter’s Bible*, Vol. 7, 
476. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1951)  The person who refuses to 
forgive only does damage to his/her eternal soul.

One point to note is the vast difference in the two debts.  Just the 
numbers alone quite apart from the coinage emphasizes this, a ratio of 100 
to 1.  Ten thousand talents would have a value of millions of dollars 
today.  A hundred denarii (each worth a day labourer’s wage at that time) 
would be worth only a relatively few dollars in today’s currency.  Such 
exaggeration is found in many of Jesus’ parables.  He told these little 
stories in this manner to drive home his point.

This sets the Christian way apart in an age when so many persons and 
groups utter angry denunciations or act violently toward those who differ 
with them.  Is this merely an ideal toward which we should strive?  Or 
could it be the most practical way of settling our differences and living 
together as neighbours in a world which we now realize is increasingly 
pluralistic in so many respects?  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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