Living parables

Today’s readings include the story of the birth of Moses, the baby in the bulrushes.

The story of Moses’ genesis reads like a parable (Exodus 1:8-2:10).

There are times when I wish I had been a better student of Hebrew. Times such as when I read that the words that Moses’ mother used to describe her child were actually the same words that God used in the act of creation: God created, and saw that it was good. Moses’ mother gave birth to a son, and she saw that the child was good.[i]

And then there is the basket into which she placed him, entrusting him to the river. It is the same word as is used for only one other watercraft in the Bible: the Ark. Noah built an ark, on instructions from God, to save the remnants of humanity and of all creation from the Flood. Moses’ mother built an ark to save her son, the remnant of the sons of her people, from the Pharaoh.[ii]

It is almost as though the birth of Moses recapitulates the whole prehistory of Genesis; as though God were once again creating something new, something good, something worth saving.

But Pharaoh did not know the stories of Genesis that began with creation and ended with the saga of Joseph and his brothers. The Pharaoh failed to recognize the divine salvation history that was being played out in real time, in his time; and so he violated that creation, abused God’s people, and rejected God’s love, mirrored in the love of a mother, Moses’ mother, for her child.[iii]

The Pharaoh failed to see what was good: what God had made and called God’s own; what his mother had loved and saved and sacrificed. Pharaoh failed even to notice the irony that while he considered himself strong, and subjugated the Hebrews to oppression and forced labour; still he declared himself to be afraid of them. Pharaoh gave himself and his own the power of life and death over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and yet he lived in dread of them.

Such is the injury that we impose upon ourselves when we fail to recognize, to honor God’s image in one another.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2)

Pharaoh failed to see what was good, because he would not see God at work in the world around him, creating, redeeming, sustaining God’s people.

We are not to be conformed to this world, like Pharaoh, trapped in the trappings of power and authority, and forever afraid that someone would take them from him. We are to be transformed by the knowledge that no one, and nothing, can separate us from the love of God; that there is nothing we can grasp that hasn’t already been given to us by God; that God is already, and still, and forever writing the parables of our lives, and of the lives we have yet to recognize.

“Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)

When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was (Matthew 16:13-20), he set the question in the context of a tradition, a faith history that expected the Son of Man, the Messiah. That faith history helped them to recognize him. Their practice of prayer and their reading of Moses and the prophets set them up to see God’s work in the world, God’s new creation in the ongoing salvation history, in real time, in their time.

But he ordered them not to tell others that he was the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God, because he wanted them to see in him not simply a story, or a symbol, or a parable. He wanted them to see him for what he was: a person, a full human being, born in the image of God; and the embodiment, the Incarnation of God’s love for the world. No one could see Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love unless they saw him first as a person, a human being, born of a woman who looked at her son and saw that he was good. No one could recognize God’s love unless they would see God’s work in the world around them, in the people of God. No one could recognize God’s Christ, God’s Son unless they would allow their imaginations to be transformed, re-created to see what is good.

On this rock I will build my church (Matthew 16:18)

The church is built on this knowledge and transformation of will that finds what is good in the world, and acceptable, and perfect, and remembers that we live within God’s story, the divine salvation history. The church is built on the rock that recognizes love when it sees it, and humbles itself before the broad and deep mercy of God. This is the story that we have to tell to the world: not one of imperialism and oppression; not the fear and loathing of Pharaoh; not living in the past, conjuring up dead prophets to define the living.

The story that we tell, the parables within which we live are those of the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who resist evil, unwilling and unmoved from their vocation, which is to deliver life. They told Pharaoh a story in which the mothers of Moses and Jesus had strength beyond his imaginations of armies: the strength of love, of creation, of life.

The parables within which we live are those of Moses’ mother, who shares in the history of God, remembering creation, rebuilding the ark, reclaiming her son to raise and to nurse, her love subverting the powers of imperialism even in its most beautiful and seductive form, the young woman bathing by the river.

She would have told Moses the stories of his people at her breast, taught him the songs of her own childhood. He would not grow up without knowing Joseph, and Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. He would know his place in the divine drama, the history of God that begins with creation, which is replete with revelation, which ends always in our salvation; the undercurrent to all rivers, that is the grace of God.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

I was in the grocery store the other day, and a man was struggling with the self-checkout machine. A couple more of us were in line, shifting from foot to foot. The man in front of me looked around and caught sight of the box of seltzer water under my arm. “Go ahead,” he said, “set that down.” He ushered me in front of him. I told him it was fine, but he looked me in the eye and said, “I wouldn’t feel right going ahead of you.”

He was a young man of a different generation, a different race, a different background than my own, and I wondered how he saw me: middle-aged, tired and pale, no doubt; no matter, he decided that in this moment of very mild shared frustration, while another man struggled against technology, he had the power to do something to ease the situation, something to make it a little more human. He chose to look for something good to do. He chose to tell the parable of the patient man, and the graceful grocery store encounter.

It is not always so easy to transform a situation. Shiprah and Puah risked their lives for their vocation to care for the mothers and children in their midst. Jesus went to the cross. His disciples spread the gospel of his embodiment of the love of God at great personal cost and crisis. Still, we live within this parable of creation, redemption, and continuing grace, and it is possible for each of us, in any given moment, to write another chapter, another small parable of mercy.

Pharaoh failed to recognize God, and the people of God. He tried to murder them out of existence, to take away their future. But Pharaoh failed to recognize his own place within God’s salvation history. Nothing, and no one:

neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which has been manifest to us in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

That is our foundation. That is our story. That is the hope that will transform our world.


[i] The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition (Oxford University Press, 2001), text notes

[ii] ibid

[iii] From Eucharistic Prayer 1, Enriching Our Worship 1 (Church Publishing Inc, 1998): “But we failed to honor your image in one another and ourselves; we would not see your goodness in the world around us; and so we violated your creation, abused one another, and rejected your love.”

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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