17th September 2017 - Hugh Perry
Exodus 14: 19-31
In this section the Yahwist writer has God act through the natural forces, the East wind, while the priestly writer stresses Moses stretching out his hand over the sea. Both writers are driven by their own agenda, the Yahwist see the creator acting through natural events and the priestly writer stresses the intermediary role of the priest, who in this case is Moses, bringing the people’s needs to God and acting on behalf of God to fulfil the divine purpose.
However both visions express faith—God saved the people from the Egyptians. We can understand that there may have been a tradition that the freed slaves had a narrow escape from the Egyptians and looking back it is clear that God was with them.  Many of us will have experiences in our own lives where we have worked through difficult circumstances or decisions and with hindsight realised that despite the challenges God was with us on that journey.
Another point we should not miss is the link in this Exodus narrative to the stories of creation and flood in Genesis. The sea, the symbol of chaos, is parted in the darkness of night by the mighty wind raised up by God. The Israelites go through the sea on dry ground while the army of Pharaoh is overcome by the waters. These echoes of the creation and flood stories bring the ideas of God as creator and redeemer together. Redemption and creation are two sides of the same coin.
God’s redemption of his people is that final act wherein God is seen as creator, the one who is God over all who can subdue both the Egyptians and other powers of chaos represented by the sea. Yahweh is indeed God – the one who creates and redeems.
Matthew 18: 21-35
The context of this reading is very much part of last week’s reading about settling disputes within the church. In that reading someone who cannot be reconciled is to be treated like a gentile or a tax collector and although the wider community rejected such people Jesus encouraged his community to forgive them and include them. Therefore Peter’s question is very much our question, how long do you have to put up with these people, and the parable is very applicable to our life as a Christian community along with the wider community.
Warren Carter notes that to prevent exclusion from the community or to effect reconciliation within, it requires constant and repeated forgiveness and he suggests the number seven simply denotes many times and then seventy times seven effectively names no limits to forgiveness. 
Forgiveness is facing realities and doing something which changes the equation but people are afraid of forgiving and being forgiven because that is about letting go of control and accepting that debts can never really be squared. 
In relating our Exodus readings to our world we can see the Hebrew people as refugees from oppression in Egypt. The decree to kill all male children gives us an indication of both the degree of oppression and the desperation of the oppressed. It also identifies them with many of today’s refuges. Those at present fleeing from Myanmar are descendants of people who arrived in the fifteenth century and now appear to be seeking to escape from ethnic cleansing. The government of Myanmar see them as terrorists and their military are burning their homes and systematically killing men women and children.
The sad reality of our world today is that the exodus from Myanmar is just the latest crisis to capture the attention of world news media. Behind those brief images on the evening news there is an ongoing desperate struggle for new beginnings in the escape from seemingly endless atrocities.
Remembering desperation in our world helps us to picture the desperation when the Hebrew refugees realise that the Egyptian army is pursuing them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to Yahweh. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?’ (Exodus 14: 10,11)
That must be a cry echoed around the globe by many refugees today but to make matters worse the wilderness has now been replaced by detention camps and open ocean.
It is also a cry prompted by our fear of change and we will look at it in more detail next week. But in many ways this is an example of extreme choice between death at the hands of hostile forces behind them or death in the unknown wilderness. Even Egyptian graves looked better than those choices but the way forward was about to open for the Israelites and today’s reading is a reading of deliverance. This is the story of a liberation journey which begins with the cloud and the pillar of fire separating the Israelites and the Egyptians. It is also worth noting that the angel depicted as both cloud and fire separated two armies.
‘It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel.’ (Exodus 14:20)
The brief biblical narrative gives the impression of a short time between escaping from Egypt at the time of the first Passover and the crossing of the sea, but in reality some considerable time may have elapsed. That idea is backed up by the use of the word army to describe both parties which would indicate that they had time to form themselves into at least a defensive force. Furthermore the images of the Egyptian army in disarray and their chariot wheels getting stuck in the mud could well be an indication of a military tactic often used by small armies to overcome a vastly superior force. The inferior army picks a battle field that favours them and disadvantages the enemy. Last Sunday, in the first episode of the second TV series of Victoria, the viewer learned how Afghan tribesmen all but wiped out a regiment of the British Army by forcing them to retreat in single file through the Khyber Pass in the middle of winter. The tribesmen mounted ambushes at various points and there was no way the British could bring their whole force together. Victoria of course ‘was not amused ‘and Prince Albert even less and they may well have known that Robert the Bruce had used the same tactic against the English in the past. Robert the Bruce also lured English Knights into a bog where their heavy horses got stuck in the mud and Bruce’s men emerged from trenches to claim victory. Maori were also very good at picking the places they chose to fight and disappearing from places that favoured colonial forces.
In the recent hurricanes in Florida we have seen pictures of the wind sucking out the sea and exposing land that will just as suddenly be inundated with raging water. However if this Exodus episode involved a deliberate military strategy it was likely to be somewhere the Israelites knew about that was regularly affected by wind, tide or both.
What is of course much more important is that the writers of Exodus want to show God working in the story. Furthermore, by reading this part of Exodus our quest is to open our minds to the possibility that God is also working in our story.
Maurice Andrew pointed out in our introduction to the reading that scholars are able to identify two writers or streams in this section. One author the scholars name the Yahwist and the other the priestly writer. Both writers are driven by their own agenda. The Yahwist sees God as creator who continues to act through natural events, such as the East wind, in an ongoing creation. That writer’s vision would suit the previous hypothesis of a cunning plan that takes account of local geography. Seeing God in such a plan helps us understand God in our own plans and serendipitous events.
The priestly writer stresses the intermediary role of the priest, who in this case is Moses and is perhaps less helpful in reflecting on God’s action in our own lives but pushes the importance of organised religion. Nevertheless such an agenda can help people to engage in prayer and seek advice and mediation of a qualified person when they need to appreciate God’s action in their lives.
The virtue in reading this story as a decisive military action is that the military encounter marks the end of any further engagement with Egypt. Having conspired with geography and natural forces to defeat the Egyptian army the Israelite army resisted the temptation of returning to Egypt to exact revenge on the Egyptian people for pursuing them or for retribution for the years of slavery they had endured. Instead Moses leads the people on from this point, the past is finished and gone and they move on to the limitless possibility of the unknown wilderness.
Our Gospel reading follows a similar concept but in the realm of personal relationships rather than grievances between nations.
Peter understands that Jesus has been talking about forgiveness but, like all the people interviewed on television after a high-profile trial, he undoubtedly feels that at some point there has to be punishment to achieve closure. So he came to Jesus and asks just how often he has to forgive someone and gives what he thinks is a generous option. Seven times!
Matthew frames that question as applying to a member of the church but we could also understand it in terms of whatever community we feel comfortable in. Therefore not only is Peter looking to numerically restrict his forgiveness but we could also assume that he never gave any thought to forgiving those he regards as ‘other’.
It is quite a common occurrence for people to hold grudges for past wrongs for decades and even generations.
I once photographed a wedding where they had security guards because the groom’s father had threatened to shoot the bride because she was Japanese. In complete contrast I loved the story on TV’s Sunday programme about the Austrian SS soldier who was wounded on the Russian Front. He then through a series of serendipitous events became the architect of the Mount Hut ski field. He is a 93 year old Austrian who still lives in Methven with his English wife, skis regularly and is anticipating holding his 100th birthday at Mount Hut.
The Good Samaritan is the best example that ‘other’ is also neighbour and affirms the concept of ‘the kingdom of God’ embraces all people in the human community.
But from the child who repeatedly fails to follow instructions to the recidivist criminal we all face the problem of how much forgiveness is too much. Due to extensive lobbying from people seeking closure for crimes committed against them and fear for the safety of others we now have a three strikes sentencing law. Peter’s seven times is certainly more forgiving than that.
However, Jesus’ seventy-seven or seventy times seven, depending on translation, is certainly even more generous. In fact, there is also a thought that either number would be beyond the comprehension of Jesus’ audience who didn’t have the benefit of National Standards or, more significantly, Arabic numerals. Just imagine multiplying seventy times seven in Roman numerals.
Jesus’ behavioural code for the kingdom of God was to always be prepared to forgive. Personal relationships always need to be repaired and seeking revenge is counterproductive. Punishment does not curb crime and although rehabilitation and removing the reasons for crime, or even the reasons for personal disputes, can be difficult, long winded and costly the results can also be spectacular.
Forgiving and leaving the past behind can open the waters of chaos and give us a clear passage to new beginnings and a brighter future.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999)pp.98,99.
Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.369,371.