The passages about the Exodus from Egypt raise some puzzling questions. Why did God harden Pharaoh’s, heart? Why should we celebrate the slaughter of the Egyptian army? Viewed from our post-Jesus perspective these are the acts of a barbarous tribal God. So this is perhaps the point.
These are the actions of God filtered through early and early Hebrew tribal and a later nationalist vision. When reading from this perspective the needless suffering God seems to inflict on the Egyptians is the device for the main point of the text. This is a text to remind the Israelites that God has heard us, God has freed us. Ours is a God who has taken the events of our captivity and freedom as occasions to show us his glory. We are now in no doubt that it is this God we must now love and worship.
It’s important to note our need to judge the text when it horrifies us. Yet, we need to move beyond this reaction and look behind the presentation to ask the question: what might this text mean to those for whom it was initially recorded? The subtext running at the heart of the Hebrew epic is that God has heard us, God has free us, God continues to preserve with us despite our trying of his patience in every conceivable way.
This subtext carries over into the Gospels. Throughout his ministry, and more so in the days leading to his death, Jesus is guided to act or not act by his mission that God will be fully revealed through him.
Matthew is my least favorite gospel because I experience Jesus at his most didactic and somehow detached. This, of course, is in keeping with Matthew’s view of Jesus filtered through the prototype of the greatest teacher of all, Moses. Am I able to get behind my personal reaction to Matthew to experience the words of Jesus as invitations for metanoia,i.e. the turning inside out or upside down of my heart. Jesus teaches through parables. Parables are stories drawn from everyday life in which everyday events are presented in order to challenge our default worldview. The parable of the workers in the vineyard in Chapter 20 is a case in point. Jesus conclusion is counter-intuitive to the way we normally understand just deserts. God’s sense of fairness confronts our notion of who is deserving and undeserving. Those who are important must behave as if they are the least in importance. This is a principle, whether we observe it or not in our living, that is deeply ingrained in us and so we can’t easily appreciate the radical challenge of this idea in a hierarchical world where power always went unchallenged and powerlessness was always exploited and despised. There is the simple story of the two sons, one who says yes but does not follow through and the other who says no, but then acts out his yes. How easily I see myself in this challenging story. This story then becomes the lens through which Jesus identifies through hypocrisy- appearing one way but in reality being its opposite, and all kinds of transactional thinking- acting in self-interest, or splitting hairs so as to absolve oneself of responsibility which in Chapter 23’s seven woes, so named because each begins with ‘Woe to you -‘. Here Jesus identifies the scribes and Pharisees as prototypes for these temptations in all of us.
Psalm 16 is perhaps my favorite psalm because of the lines because during what I look back on as a difficult time of life I was able to affirm the lines: The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. In the psalms, we find the myriad echoes of our own thought and feelings.