16 Pentecost, Year A: Death, Life, and Forgiveness

16 Pentecost, Sept. 17

Ex. 14:19-31 or Gen. 50:15-21
Ps. 114 or Ex. 15:1b-11, 20-21
or Ps. 103:(1-7), 8-13
Rom. 14:1-12Matt. 18:21-35

Stained-Glass Tryptich of Tryptichs: Parting the Red Sea, Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, The Temple in Jerusalem | Chic Bee/Flickr

The defining story of the children of Israel’s exodus from their bondage in Egypt is rightly remembered not as a single story confined to a specific time, a precise moment, and a perennial conflict between two peoples, though it is summarized in such terms. “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians, and Israel saw Egyptians dead on the seashore” (Ex. 14:30). It is possible to read this story as God’s “preferential option for the poor” in a way that stigmatizes the Egyptians for all time. Yes, God acts on behalf of the oppressed, but this will and must mean that God works to accomplish the salvation of the entire created order, all of which is fallen. Even the oppressor, utterly on the wrong side of justice, is trapped by a dehumanizing force. Indeed, the oppressor is the one who gains the whole world and loses his own soul and so stands in need of deliverance.

The story is about the human family. In a sense, Egypt and Israel are a single human soul, or perhaps every soul. This is how the early theologians read the story. The whole Egyptian army — Pharaoh’s horses, the chariots, and the chariot drivers, are sin, the flesh, and the devil. The avenging army represents “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God,” “the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” and “all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God” (Holy Baptism, the Book of Common Prayer).

To cite one fourth-century example, the Catecheses of John Chrysostom, “The Israelites witness marvels; you also will witness marvels, greater and more splendid than those which accompanied them in their departure from Egypt. You did not see Pharaoh drowned with his armies, but have seen the devil with his weapons overcome by the water of Baptism. The Israelites passed through the sea; you have passed from death to life. They were delivered from the Egyptians; you have been delivered from the power of darkness. The Israelites were freed from slavery to a pagan people; you have been freed from the much greater slavery to sin” (Cat. 3, 24-27).

Another example, contemporaneous with Chrysostom, is St. Ambrose’s teaching on the sacred mysteries, that is, the sacraments. “You observe that even then holy Baptism was prefigured in that passage of the Hebrews, wherein the Egyptian perished, and the Hebrew escaped. For what else are we daily taught in this sacrament but that guilt is swallowed up and error done away, but that virtue and innocence remain unharmed?” Again and again, we encounter this teaching: We are the Egyptian and the Hebrew; we die in the water and are raised up from the water.

In the Christian dispensation, the exodus story becomes a story about baptism, and among the rich layers of meaning associated with baptism, forgiveness is of special importance. Sins are washed away, and guilt is swallowed up. The old Adam dies and a new being is born.

While baptism is never repeated, its themes are recurrent. Every day is a day when death and new birth unfold as the deepest mystery of the Christian life. Every day is a day of forgiveness. From this truth follows an admonition: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or why do you despise you brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 4:10). Standing there, we will need forgiveness. And because we have been forgiven, we are called to forgive from the heart “seventy-seven times,” that is, always (Matt. 18:21-35).

Look It Up: Romans 6:4

Think About It: Buried and raised, we walk as those who are forgiven and, therefore, freely forgive.


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