The Gates of Hades Shall Not Prevail
Jesus surprises the disciples with a pop-quiz: who do people say that I am? That’s the easy question: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. Those who remember their history know all three were constantly threatened: Jeremiah was tossed to the bottom of a well and left to die (like Joseph); Elijah was threatened by the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and by king Ahab, his queen Jezebel, and his son Ahaziah; and John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod and eventually lost his head. Suggesting that the disciples and the people already sense the impending danger in the air surrounding Jesus the Christos. To be God’s anointed is fraught with danger as you challenge the status quo and the powers in charge.
Question number two goes deeper: Who do you say that I am? Peter blurts out, “You are the Christos, the Son of the Living God.” Yes, Peter, Petra – and you shall be the rock, petros, upon which I assemble my community. Jesus introduces a play on words either in the Greek, or the Aramaic: Kepha you are the Kepha upon which I will assemble my community. A moment to laugh, to chuckle at the joke. But then. He says. “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against my assembled community.” The ominous sense of danger reasserts itself. Either, Hades and Death are on the offensive and the community of Christos shall prevail. Or, the community shall storm the gates of Hades and Death liberating those held captive by the Empire of Death. [Matthew 16:13-20] No cheap grace either way.
Surely those first hearing this proclamation in Matthew recall these words: “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Exodus 1:8-2:10] With a change of administration comes danger, oppression and ruthlessness. As long as Joseph was there, the people were safe. The new king, however, not only does not “know” Joseph, but is insecure with the number and power of Joseph’s people. Let’s work them to death. Doesn’t work. Let’s make it impossible for them to reproduce by ordering the midwives to kill all the baby boys. Doesn’t work. The new king his assault on one specific gender: all the people are commanded to throw the baby boys in the Nile. Both the future of Israel and the future of God’s plans for all humanity are imperiled. All because of a change of administration and its inherent insecurities and lack of knowledge.
Life is so hard for the people of God such that they have no time to call upon the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Perhaps the ancestors have been forgotten not just by the new king, but by the people themselves. “Yet, uninvited, God intervenes anyway. The mercy of God is not simply reactive, returning love for love. It is proactive—seeing human need even more profoundly than they who endure that need, and benevolently intruding into their lives even when unbidden.” [Texts For Preaching, Walter Brueggemann et al, John Knox Press: CD-Rom Edition, p 454] What appears to be the story of Moses is revealed to be about five women as woman after woman after woman steps forward with courage, passion, ingenuity and acts of civil disobedience to frustrate the commands of the new king.
First up, Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives. What can we say about the courage of these two women and their trust in God? They “do not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.” When summoned by the new king who did not know Joseph, they say, it’s not our fault that these “Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them!” We are told that for their bold deception God gave them families!
Next up, an unnamed Levite woman who bears a baby boy and hides him for three months. Again, an act of courageous civil disobedience. When she could hide him no longer, she makes a basket and floats him on the Nile, thus somewhat obeying the new king. Yet, another deception. Next up, the baby boy’s for now unnamed sister stands by to see what will happen. Along comes the Pharaoh’s daughter who saves the child. “This must be one of the Hebrew children,” she says. His sister cleverly suggests, “Should I find a Hebrew wet nurse for you.” And fetches his mother! Even the “daughters” of Jacob inherit the Trickster gene!
Imagine how divine and at the same time painful it must be for his mother to be reunited with her baby boy, and yet know that she shall not see him grow up. And that he is to live in the palace of the new king who did not know Joseph; the new king who ordered the ruthless oppression of her people; the new king who ordered the death of her child. And then to stand by and listen as the new king’s daughter gets to name him – Moses, “for I drew him out of the water.”
But for these risky, courageous and deceptive acts of civil disobedience of five women, the covenant and the future blessings for all humankind would have vanished among the machinations of the new king and his Empire of ruthless oppression and death.
Years, perhaps centuries later, the people reflect in a song, Psalm 124:
If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us up alive
in their fierce anger toward us;
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
and the torrent gone over us;
Then would the raging waters
have gone right over us.
Blessed be the Lord!
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler;
the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
Our help is in the Name of the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.
These songs of Israel are meant to bolster our hope and our trust and fear in the Lord who inspires five women to break the snare of the hunter so we might escape to live in the promises and blessings made first to Abraham and handed down all the way through Jesus and beyond among his gathered community. We are to remember their courageous acts of deception and civil disobedience when faced with the Empire of Death-dealing. We are to re-member these things and live into the promises and blessings no matter what the new king threatens. No matter that the waters rage, no matter what enemies rise up against us. The Gates of Hades shall not prevail. Empires of ruthless oppression and Death shall not prevail. The new king shall not prevail. For our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. And in the women our Lord keeps sending to save us. Amen.