The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
– Exodus 1:15-21
One can imagine the midwives saying to Pharaoh, “There are thousands of Hebrew women giving birth, but only two of us.” But they didn’t. They simply disobeyed orders and then, when confronted, told the truth. And, of course, there weren’t just two midwives in all of Egypt; they are emblematic of what to do in the face of imperial authority that demands injustice of its subjects. Refuse.
Shiphrah derives from Hebrew meaning “beautiful,” “fair,” and perhaps “improved.” Puah, depending on who you ask, might be derived from the Hebrew meaning “cry out” or “groan.” These two did a beautiful thing amidst those who were crying out, groaning – both in the national sense of the people crying out under the yoke of slavery, and in the personal sense of those crying out, groaning in childbirth.
So this is, in effect, the Bible’s first story of faith (“But the midwives feared God.”) as civil disobedience. It might also be, by extension, a lesson about how every position, no matter how humble, can be a platform for doing justice. Every person, no matter how insignificant, has the capacity to confront the system, to refuse to go along to get along.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
– Matthew 16:13-21
Biblical scholars have debated for centuries about why Jesus would have ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. The most obvious reason, though, is apparent once we strip away the accretions of church dogma: Jesus never intended that anyone outside the church should think of him that way.
This is, as I’ve said before, one of only two places in all the four gospels that Jesus says anything about church. Jesus’ blessing Peter for making the assertion and tying that assertion to Peter’s cornerstone foundational position in the building of the indestructible church indicates that the messianic understanding of Jesus is tied specifically to the church. It was never intended that it should apply to anyone else’s. Jesus is specifically the church’s messiah, who in turn passes exclusive messianic power to the church.
The consequence of this connection is, however, that the only legitimate basis for the church’s existence is the community carrying out the messianic purpose of God’s. In today’s world, that messianic purpose is often misunderstood, even by the communities claiming to be the church. (Indeed, it’s an open question, given Peter’s objection to Jesus’ next pronouncement about going to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed, whether even Peter knew what he was talking about.) God’s messianic purpose is misconstrued to confer powers and privileges that are unintended.
Inasmuch as Jesus embodies God’s messianic purpose, that purpose is self-sacrificial, as his subsequent statement indicates. Therefore, the church referred to here, unlike most churches we’re familiar with in North America, is the community that really and correctly understands its basis for existence in its self-sacrifice. Over the years, the so-called marks of the true church have been misplaced in piddling arguments about correct worship and observation of rites and sacraments and ordinances and all manner of arguing over polity. On the basis of this passage, some have claimed that to really be the church there has to be some kind of linear decent from Peter. It’s all crap.
The only way to tell that a church is really the church in the sense Matthew’s Jesus is talking about is when you see it die to give life to someone else.
It’s not glorious or triumphant. It makes no claims about what anyone else should do to achieve salvation. It seeks no worldly recognition or consideration or privilege. Nor does it ask for anyone’s approval. It simply goes wherever people need saving and gives everything it has away in the faith that binding what it does on earth, it will find its reward in heaven. A church that really understands messianic power doesn’t talk about it. It just does it.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
– Matthew 14:22-33
As Matthew tells it, the care and feeding of multitudes happens twice. Once, already in Matthew 14:13-21, and again, in Matthew 15:32-39. What takes place between the first time something happens and the second instance is key to how the instance is meant to be understood. Like explaining a magic trick or the solution to a math problem: first, I show you the trick, then I explain how the trick is done, then I show you the trick again. The object is for you to be able to do it yourself.
Between these we have three scenes:
The crossing of the sea (in which our present story takes place)
Matthew is trying to teach us how the trick is done in three steps. Today the first step: you’ve got to cross the sea when the wind is against you.
It’s well established that crossing the sea is more than just crossing the sea. The sea represents the chaotic barrier between the current situation and its resolution, between where the people are and where they are “destined” to be. We have seen water used this way in countless other instances in the Bible itself:
The river flowing out of Eden;
Moses in the bulrushes;
Crossing the Red Sea;
Crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land;
Elijah crossing the Jordan on the way to his ascension (2 Kings 2:6ff);
Jonah and the whale;
Jesus at his baptism
The list goes on, but the symbolic use of water in this way transcends Biblical literature: The Odyssey, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Moby Dick.
So the disciples crossing the stormy sea is immediately to be understood as an epic crossing. And the first step toward the ability to care for and feed the multitudes turns out to be crossing the stormy sea of doubt. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Not “Why did you fear?”
The reason Peter was sinking is that “he noticed the strong wind and became frightened.” But the reason Peter got out of the boat was that he doubted who Jesus was: “If it is you, command me to come to you.” After it is all said and done, Jesus will ask Peter (Matthew 16:13ff), “Who do you say that I am?” It is a question of identity here, and while fear is to be expected, what Jesus demands is faith.
But now, we need to get straight what that faith is. It is emphatically not the kind of checking your brain at the door in order to believe the ridiculous. Faith is not about suspending the laws of physics to do parlor tricks. Remember, the point, the trick Matthew is trying to demonstrate, is not to show the disciples how to be able to walk on water; it’s to show the disciples how to be able to care for and feed the multitudes.
The goal, the instructions Jesus gave the disciples at the outset was to “go on ahead to the other side.” The goal of step 1 is to get across with the wind against you, to proceed in spite of fear, and when you see Jesus in the middle passage, to recognize him.
In other words, the challenge of this step has to do with getting through the internal resistance that arises when you undertake Kingdom projects. In their seeing Jesus as a ghost, the disciples are dealing with their self doubts, as surely as Hamlet’s self-doubt conjures up the ghost of his father, or Scrooge conjures up Marley. The doubt that must be overcome is not doubt about Jesus, but self-doubt. Once you can say who you are, then you will be able to say who Jesus is. (And this is exactly the opposite of the usual drivel about needing to figure out who Jesus is and then Jesus will tell you the rest.) Peter figures out who he is, and only then can he confess Jesus is the Messiah. To do the really great kinds of things Jesus wants his disciples to do, you need to know the power of faith rooted in being sure of your own identity. Without that, there’s no use in going on to steps 2 (resistance from people who are supposed to be for you) and step 3 (resistance from people who are supposed to be against you).
People will try anything to avoid confronting their own self-doubt. Sometimes, convincing ourselves that we can suspend the laws of nature and calling that faith is just easier. But Jesus wants us to know that the first step toward doing great Kingdom work is to learn to have faith – in yourself.
What distracts you from overcoming your internal resistance? What ghosts are you living in terror of? Where do you find Jesus in the middle passage?
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
– Romans 10:5-15
To make sense of this passage, you need to know that Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 30:12-14. Here it is:
It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
First the context for the quotation from Deuteronomy. The people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness around the Sinai peninsula for 40 years and they are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Moses is recapping the Law as it has been given to them over these 40 years of wilderness time. Entering and staying in the Promised Land, as Moses outlines it, is contingent upon the people continuing in obedience to this Law. It’s a covenant, similar to the kinds of agreements between a king and a king’s subjects. Or, perhaps similar to the kind of agreement parents make with their grown children who can’t seem to move out of the house: “You can live here, but as long as you’re under my roof, even though you’re all grown up now, you still have to live by my rules.”
Moses is recapping the law, the rules these people are required to live by if they want to continue to live in this place, and by way of assurance, tells them, “Look, this is not really that hard. You know what you are required to do, and you don’t need anyone to go to heaven to get it, nor do you need to travel to some far away place across the sea. You don’t need anyone to tell you what to do. Just talk it over together and follow your heart.”
So much for Deuteronomy. Paul is re-applying this same idea to following Jesus. In Romans 10, Paul is in the middle of trying to explain why the Jews won’t follow the Jesus program. He had concluded in the previous chapter that they couldn’t follow the Mosaic law “because they didn’t strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works.” (Romans 9:32). In other words, they didn’t take Moses’ advice to talk it over and consult their hearts.
In these verses, Paul links that “failure” to follow the law to a similar failure in the Christian program. You don’t need to look to the heavens for advice (or wait for Christ to return), nor do you need to search the depths of the earth (you don’t have to bring Jesus back from the dead on your own). You can talk it over and follow your heart. It’s not rocket science. You don’t need to be a professional theologian to follow Jesus. In fact, you’re probably better off if you’re not. Everyone and anyone can do it. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” between the thoroughly indoctrinated and the rube on the street.
That said, however, you can’t just go do whatever you want and call it Christian. Anyone can work the Jesus program, but you have to know what the Jesus program is. So the last few verses here affirm the importance of those who bring the gospel. Somebody has to keep the Jesus story alive by re-telling it.
So, here’s the question:
In what ways have you been over-thinking the Jesus program? And, where do you find a community to talk it over and consult your heart about things? And, after you’ve talked it over and consulted your heart, what do you see is the Jesus program in your part of the world?
If you’re Christian, how would you (or can you) explain this passage to a Jew? Or, if you’re Jewish, how do you explain to a Christian where Paul went wrong in his assessment of the Jewish situation?