Some years ago, I had to make regular trips from Indiana, where I was serving a church, to Tennessee where my aging parents lived. It was a long drive, so I had plenty of time to think and observe the world around me. One time, I remember seeing that the Ohio River had overflowed its banks to a significant degree. It was quite a sight, almost chilling in a way, as you could tell that there was destruction in its wake. Families were displaced, crops destroyed; and there was devastation on multiple levels and varying degrees. If not right there on US41 South, then somewhere else, up and down the river.
It certainly wasn’t the first time the Ohio River had overflowed its banks. I’d seen it that high before. My Dad grew up in Memphis, which was a river town. I remember him telling me of the folks who lived along the Mississippi River and how they would regularly lose the simple shacks they lived in because the flooded river would wash them away in the rainy season. But what amazed me about the story was that these people would return and build, again and again, despite the destruction the river brought. I couldn’t comprehend that. Why not move away, to someplace safer, someplace drier? “Well,” dad would explain, “some of these folks were able to make a living on the river, fishing, scavenging, transportation. It wasn’t just destruction that the river brought, it was life too.”
Egypt was a river-based nation. The people were used to the rhythms of the Nile and were able to make good use of it. It was a source of life—a dangerous source of life to be sure, but a blessing, nonetheless. At least until those in power sought to change it from a source of life and place of blessing to an instrument of death and a symbol of terror.
That is exactly what the unnamed Pharaoh tried to do in our Hebrew scripture text for this week. “Throw them in the river.” That seems incomprehensible, really—that a leader would be so afraid of these immigrants that he would recommend throwing them in the river. And this was a general edict. Did you notice that? He told all his people, “Whenever you see a Hebrew baby boy, throw it in the river.” He was appealing to mob action and inflaming prejudice and suspicion. He was stirring up the populace with fearmongering and threats.
“But let the girls live,” he said. “Why was that?” you wonder. Let the girls live because they couldn’t do much? Because no one worries about girls? Because, well, because they are girls. Isn’t that enough? No one can be so mean as to kill baby girls, could he?
I doubt that it was sentiment that caused Pharaoh to spare the girls. He spared them because he didn’t think they were capable of causing him trouble. That means he wasn’t paying attention, because two women got in the way of his first plan, and it was two women — one from his own household— who caused his ultimate downfall.
Pharaoh was just off base from the beginning. He wanted to turn the river, which was a source of life, into a place of death. That didn’t work. He also wanted the women, the midwives who are bringers of life, to be instruments of death; and that didn’t work. The little girls he didn’t think worth his consideration stood sentinel over a baby in a basket, floating on the river of life, a river of hope.
Now, this doesn’t mean that what God intends for good, human beings can’t turn to evil. Oh, how we wish that were true. But it does mean that if those who fear God, as Shiphrah and Puah did (and no, it doesn’t mean that they were more afraid of what God would do to them than what Pharaoh would do to them - in fact it means that they trusted in God’s power and presence more than in Pharaoh’s power and presence) can work to foil those who would misuse the blessings of God—if they are willing to take the risk and if they are willing to work for life and not for death.
I always thought the song “Down by the riverside” was about stopping work. But now I wonder if it is about changing the kind of work you choose to do. Maybe “gonna lay down my sword and shield” and “gonna put on my long white robe” is not really about being in heaven but about choosing to do the work of life and not of death. Maybe it is about making the choice to fear God and not Pharaoh.
“Down by the riverside… Ain’t gonna study war no more… Ain’t gonna work from hate no more. Ain’t gonna ...” well, you decide. It’s dangerous down by the riverside. But it is where life is. Let’s go.
But if we are going somewhere of significance, we need a direction. Often, we need a guide or a leader, someone we can follow. As Christians, while we are sometimes called to be leaders, more often we are called to be followers. We have a leader, the one who shapes our lives and our mission and our ministry— the one who asked us who we said he was.
“Who do you say...” What better question could he ask? It is one of those “lay it on the line, put your money where your mouth is” kind of questions. Jesus draws a line in the sand and then asks us where we want to stand. We are a “take-a-stand” kind of people. We like the hero who will stand up in the face of opposition, the leader who will not waver. A common political liability is a capacity to “flip-flop.” We want to vote for people who don’t change their mind on issues of importance. (Never mind that it might imply holding on to something you realize is wrong - stand firm!! Shouldn’t we allow people to grow and change and learn? Shouldn’t we be relieved to know that even politicians can make mistakes and grow from them? – Sorry, editorial political comment there. I’ll get back to the subject at hand.)
Certainly, taking a stand and making a claim is part of what is going on in this encounter between Jesus and his closest followers. But isn’t there something more? The claim is only the beginning. And in fact, if you look closely, Jesus doesn’t want Peter to take too much credit for his claim. You didn’t figure this out on your own, Peter, you had help. The only way you are able to make such a claim is because God helped you. Even our fundamental statements of faith come as gifts from God, not from our own effort and our own knowledge or detective analysis. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” your own or anyone else’s, “but my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:17).
Any voice can be an instrument of God. This means that our default position ought to be one of openness and hope. We can’t dismiss anyone, no matter how unlikely a vessel of the truth of God the person may appear to be. We need to listen; we need to strive to hear God speaking; we need to get beyond our own limitations, our own prejudices, our own fears and hear God.
Now, Jesus doesn’t ask us for an uncritical hearing and acceptance. We can, and should, discern the words we hear to test and see if the Word is within the words. Sometimes it is not, we all are aware of that. I believe that what Jesus had in mind with the keys of the kingdom was not a position of authority or power, but one of accepting a task. We are to constantly be searching to find that which is bound and that which is loosed in heaven. We are in the business of discovering and then reflecting the kingdom of God in our everyday lives. Jesus gave to Peter, and through him to the whole church, the responsibility of listening for and identifying with the kind of life that builds up, that makes whole, that leads others to a relationship, a partnership with Jesus. The keys of the kingdom ought not to be the weapons by which we keep people not like us out of the community. Instead, they are the tools of faithful living that abide in generous hospitality and invite others to know the way that we have found.
“But if that is the case,” you might now be saying, “Why did Jesus end the episode with a warning not to tell?” Hmm, good question! I don’t know. Sorry, not the answer you were expecting, I’m sure. I believe that there are two answers to the question you raised. First, there is the original answer. Jesus had a specific plan in mind for his own life and ministry. The disciples were participants in that plan, often without realizing it. And a part of the plan was the timing. Jesus was saying to the first followers that it wasn’t the time for them to be announcing to everyone what they had been given to know. That time will come later. For now, it is sustaining knowledge for them. He seemed to be saying, “Hold on to it, remember it, it will save your life later.”
We can’t claim the same meaning. We can’t be hearing Jesus saying to us, “It isn’t time to tell the world what you know.” In fact, to us, he has said the opposite: “Get on out there and tell.” Young and old are called to the business of telling. So, we are supposed to just dump this verse, right? Well, dumping verses always makes me nervous. Instead, we need to rehear this verse. Maybe for us, it could mean what St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said: “Preach always; use words if necessary.” Maybe Jesus’ stern warning to us is to not be casual with his name. Don’t tell unless you are willing to live. Don’t announce if you can’t reflect. Don’t bear witness with your words if your habits won’t witness to him too.