Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
I wonder what St. Paul would say to the women in our first reading. Just verses after the ones we hear today from Romans, Paul tells us: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.” Oh really? Tell that to our women from Exodus. It’s striking that Pharaoh sees no threat in the girl babies of the ancient Hebrews and lets them live; it’s the women in this story who resist and, ultimately, bring about his downfall. Their civil disobedience helps to dismantle evil and bring about a new birth of freedom. So who’s right – Paul or the women? At a time when we all might be tempted to bend the law for what we think is justice, who’s calling the right play here?
Let’s start with Exodus. First, we have Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who break the law set by Pharaoh, who refuse to kill the Hebrew boys. They lie to Pharaoh’s face, using his fear of the Hebrews’ strength against him. “These Hebrew women, they’re just so strong and vigorous, they give birth before we even get there.” They fear God more than they fear what their government could do to them, and so they break an unjust law for the sake of life.
But they’re not the only ones who resist authority to keep Moses alive. Moses’ mother and sister are lawbreakers too. After hiding Moses for three months, they, ironically enough, follow Pharaoh’s instructions and throw the baby in the river. Only they create a basket for him first. Deliverance in this case comes from the supposed enemy, Pharaoh’s daughter. She too resists her father’s authority to keep this child alive. It’s not like Moses’ mother concocted a particularly clever ruse. Miriam shows up at just the right time and just happens to know the perfect woman to nurse this child. Yet by agreeing to adopt Moses, Pharaoh’s daughter insures that his life will be spared, that the one who will one day lead his people out of slavery will at least make it to adulthood. Even if the story isn’t that simple, even if as some suspect, the ruse actually begins with Pharaoh’s daughter and a child she can’t raise, she’s still subverting the law to make sure this child survives.
So what do we conclude from this? Maybe Paul is simply wrong. Are the governing authorities in our lives really instituted by God, no matter how ludicrous or unjust they may seem? In Romans 13, Paul says that those who resist incur judgment. Yet we know what would have happened if Pharaoh was merely followed without resistance. Was Paul just sucking up to the empire of his day? Perhaps he was just quoting the approved script, saying what they wanted to hear, hoping that he and his followers might be left alone to practice their faith in peace.
But it’s not like he never challenged the powers that be. Lord knows, he skirted the edges of any law that would have prevented him from preaching about Jesus. He’s not naïve about the government’s potential to abuse power and, in fact, found himself on the receiving end more than once. He was jailed how many times? The last we hear from him, he’s under house arrest. So whose call do we follow here? What might a faithful response to our government look like?
By now, it should be clear that the Bible doesn’t speak with a single voice. We can’t take one passage in isolation and base our actions on that alone. It’s the conversation over the centuries that’s holy and inspired here – the wrestling with what God would have us do across different times and cultures, across all different forms of government. The truth is - we can’t make easy equivalences between the Pharaohs and Emperors of biblical days and our own leaders – tempting though that may be. We can’t simply recast the roles with our heroes and villains and assume we’re not being self-serving in the casting. The work of discerning the next right step is more complicated than that, as Paul points out in today’s reading from Romans.
He begins by telling us to “present (our) bodies as a living sacrifice.” Given the number of suicide bombers who think they’re doing precisely that, it’s worth unpacking this a bit. First, note the word in front of sacrifice – “living.” The call here is not necessarily to get ourselves killed, although that may happen when we stand with the vulnerable as Jesus did. Perhaps it means that whatever risks we take for God – and yes, we are called to take risks for vulnerable people – they’re meant to be taken wisely and in the interests of preserving life.
Next, it means we’re presenting our bodies as well as renewing our minds. In other words, I doubt we’ll ever discover our role in creating justice or peace if we never have any skin in the game. As Christians, we’re not meant to be armchair quarterbacks. Some action is required. It might be protest, or it might be working within the system to change things. Both choices can be courageous and faithful.
To assume otherwise goes against Paul’s next piece of advice – i.e. not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. I know it’s a little funny hearing that from Paul. But there are lots of ways to think too highly of ourselves. There’s boastful pride, sure, but there’s also the trap of thinking that we’re the only ones smart enough or committed enough to respond appropriately. Paul counters with the image of a body. By being part of the body of Christ, by definition we’re not all meant to have the same role. We need others to help us see what we can’t – whether that’s opportunities for courage or our own blinding prejudices. We have partners in this work by default; we might as well value them.
I think our Exodus story tells us something else though about what clouds our vision. If what’s driving us is fear, then we’re probably headed in the wrong direction. Pharaoh’s fear leads him to actions that are not only evil, but against his own best interest. He ends up trying to kill the very people he’s afraid of losing. The ones who do the right thing here aren’t controlled by fear, but by hope. The midwives fear (or reverence) God and God alone, so they risk their own lives in hope that others may live. Likewise, Moses’ mother and Pharaoh’s daughter are more moved by love and compassion than fear and so end up being part of God’s salvation – even if it will take at least another 40 years to see much return on that investment.
That might be the most important thing to remember today. Sometimes we need to wait for the results of our actions. Whatever we see in any given moment is incomplete. We don’t get the whole picture now. That doesn’t mean we’re ineffective. Just because we can’t see past the next bend doesn’t mean we’re on the wrong path. In the silence that follows, consider this: If we’re standing with the vulnerable, if we’re willing to act even when we can’t see everything, if we let others call us out on our own blind spots, and if we let our hopes drive us instead of our fears, we might be exactly where we need to be to hear God call the next play. In the Name of the One who gives us eyes to see, ears to hear, and minds and bodies to follow – Amen.