by Rev Shaun Cozett, South Africa
Protecting the Commons
Hearing the Word – Exegetical
Comments on Exodus 14:19–31
The Book of Exodus records the story of God leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. We about Moses approaching Pharaoh and the hardness of the heart of Pharaoh in not wanting the Israelites to leave. We read how God brings plagues onto the Egypt culminating in the death of all the first born. One of the key moments in the story is recounted for us today as we read about the Israelites passing through the Red Sea. We read that the pillar of fire that had lead them at night was placed between the Israelites and the ensuing Egyptians so that the Egyptians could not see where the Israelites were. God, through Moses, parted the sea so that the Israelites were able to cross to the other side. As we read the text there is a clear picture of two distinct groups. Reading the text within the Jewish tradition one would be acutely aware that God acts on behalf of the Israelites as part of God’s promise to Abraham that they would be God’s people. The Abrahamic covenant also indicates that God would give the Israelites the land that was being occupied by the Canaanites and the exodus from Egypt begins the journey by which the people are to receive that portion of the covenant and be established in the Promised Land.
Comments on Psalm 114
Psalm 114 retells the story of the exodus from Egypt. Although not considered one of the historic Psalms that is focused on recounting the history of Israel, Psalm 114 tells the story of the night the people of Israel escaped from Egypt. The Psalmist focusses here on the parting of the Red Sea and questions how it was done. Theologically, much of the debate on the how focused on three theories; (i) aim of the story is not that it is fact but rather that it wants to convey a message about the establish of the Israelites as a nation, (ii) the story is true and God performed a great miracle, (iii) there is a scientific explanation for why the sea divided on that day. The Psalmist however, although asking why the sea divided, doesn’t focus on the answer the question but rather points us to the God who is able to do all things. This story mixes the past and present tenses as way of blurring the lines between what has done in history and what God is able to do today. Thus story of the Israelites moving to freedom is significant only in as far as it helps us to see that God is able to act for us today.
Comments on Romans 14:1–12
St Paul makes a power case concerning personal pity and group cohesion. As with all Pauline writing we are not sure what the question or situation was that Paul was addressing, all we have is Paul’s response to the situation. From the response, it is likely that Paul had to address the question of religious dietary laws; should the new followers of the way be adhere to the dietary laws. Paul explains that some will choose to obey the laws and others will choose to forgo them. What is important is not whether we choose to adhere or forgo the rules but rather that in eating or not eating we do so in order to honour God. Paul reminds us that our aim is not to be right and judge those who are wrong, our aim is to be faithful to God and to our calling.
Comments on Matthew 18:21–35
The eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is considered to be the fourth discourse/narrative within the Gospel, according to the five narratives theory. This discourse is described as the narrative to a divided community, in which Matthew describes to the new community of faith what their relationships to each other should be. Beginning with the question of who will be the greatest in the kingdom, Matthew discusses ensuring that others don’t stumble, how sin is to be dealt with and the role of God as the Shepherd of the flock. In this part of the chapter Matthew discusses the important of forgiveness. Using parable of the forgiving king, Matthew juxtaposes the king with a servant who was unable to forgive. In doing so, Matthew instruct the community to follow the example of the king for forgives and not that of the servant who is unable to forgive. Matthew also places the king in relation to God, so that like the shepherd in the parable earlier in the chapter, the faithful should aim to be like God if they are to live well in community with each other.
Interpreting the Word
How would you define a successful person? Most of us would probably use terms like rich, flashy cars, big houses and so on. Our current worldview is based on Economics. The pursuit of money and goods dominates our thinking and determines our behaviour. It determines aspects of our identity; including where we live, what health care and education we have access to and who we associate with.
In ancient cultures this was not the case, success was determined not by what you have, but by the opinion that the community had of you. In order to be seen as successful, the community had to have a positive opinion of you, called honour. The opinion of the community was formed primarily based on the family you came from; if the family was wealthy or powerful then all the members of the family were seen as honourable. A child born into this society is therefore regarded as honourable if the family into which that child is born is seen as being honourable. Another way to acquire honour was to do an honourable deed, for example giving to the poor or saving a life.
If the community had a negative view of a person’s status, that would be called shame. As is the case with honour, it was possible for a person born into a shameful family and to thus be seen as shameful, or to do deeds that destroy and thereby be regarded as shameful. The low status of shame was apportioned based on the social categories family, tribe, gender, slave vs. free etc. A person could also be seen as shameful if they committed shameful act. The thinking and behaviour of people within honour and shame cultures was driven by the desire refrain from being seen as shameful and if honourable to maintain that status at all costs.
The culture of honour and shame is important for us to understand as we preach this week’s sermon. We could easily take this parable about money and make money itself the centre of our sermons, as a reflection of our current society, but in the Biblical context money and forms of exchange were far more about ensuring a positive opinion from the community than about acquiring wealth. As we read the texts today we use the historical lens and gaze back at what it might have meant in the context and then draw lessons on what it could mean for us.
Today’s readings aim to show us that true honour comes not from being born into the right family, but rather in how we treat each other. The person for failed to forgive the debt of another failed to understand the importance of community and would have been seen as self-interested. Peter would have understood that such a person is not favourably viewed or considered successful.
Preaching the Word
In 1964 Garit Hardin wrote his famous piece “Tragedy of the Commons”. In it Hardin tells the story of two adjacent properties, one privately owned and one common property. Hardin observes that the state of the private farm is much better than that of the common. He explains that the owner of the private property understands that grazing his cattle on a certain patch until the patch is fully grazed and then moving the cattle along to another patch in order to allowed the grazed patch to recover is important because the owner has a personal interest in the longevity of his property. At the same time, the common is overgrazed because herders have no personal interest in protect what is held in common.
This story of the tragedy of the commons has become an important story in understanding how we are to care for the environment. Hardin’s story tells us that unless we begin to care for common property as shared property for the benefit of all we will suffer the consequences of systems breaking down. Already we are beginning to see the impact that our use of fossils fuels has on the climate. For the past two decades the leaders of the world have been meeting to discuss how best they might respond to the impending climate crisis. The basis of all these talks been that every country is focussed on what they need and talks have often stalled because one country waits for another to make the first move. All this while carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increases, storms become greater in number and severity and record high and low temperatures are set on an almost annual basis. The same can be seen in other systems such as the oceans, which are becoming more acidic, forest that are being felled, water resources drying up and arable land becoming deserts.
Living the Word
This week’s texts remind of the importance of community. We are reminded of God establishing the people of Israel as God’s own people and how God acts for them in order that the covenant that God made with Abraham may be fulfilled. A common theme across the texts tell us to value community and to do all we can in order to protect our lives together. As we focus on the environment during the Season of Creation, we are called also to look at common property within the community and on the planet for example the oceans, the air, fresh water and open spaces. These places are not owned by anyone, but their survival depends on all of us working together. Our failure in the past to protect common property has lead the near-collapse of ecosystems throughout the world. Who cares for common property? Do we have an interest in the places we do not own? Do we recognise the importance of common property for the good of the community?
by Rev Shaun Cozett, South Africa
Hardin, G. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 1243 – 1248.
Malina, Bruce J. 2001. Honor and Shame: Pivotal Values of the First-Century Mediterranean World. In The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. 3d ed. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 27–57.