In short, the word "passover" is a reference to the 10th plague in Egypt, where, according to the Exodus narrative, all of the first-born of Egypt were killed; But, as the story goes, the angel of death 'passed over' the houses of the Children of Israel, and their first-born were spared, because they observed a ritual feast and marked their doors with the blood of the sacrificial lamb as Moses commanded them. This last plague finally convinced Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. So, the passover marks the beginning of the Israelites' freedom from slavery in Egypt.
How bad was slavery in Egypt?
Exodus 1: 11-14 says the Egyptians "set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor,” and “became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” In Exodus 1: 22 we learn that Pharaoh decreed that all of the male infants of Israel should be thrown into the Nile to drown. One of these infants was rescued and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter; she named him Moses (Exodus 2:1-10). Although he was himself privileged, Moses felt compassion for the Israelites. He was so appalled by their physical abuse one day that he killed and buried the offending Egyptian. As a result, Pharaoh “sought to kill Moses,” and Moses fled to the land of Midian for safety (Exodus 2: 11-15). So, things were pretty bad. “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of … slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning… God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exodus 2: 23-25).
In chapter 3, the LORD appears to Moses in the vision of the burning bush and declares,
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
(Exodus 3: 7-8)
Compelled By A Mighty Hand:
In addition the LORD wisely observes,
“I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.”
(Exodus 3: 19-20)
So, Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded them and related God’s word to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” They informed Pharaoh that the festival involved a “three days’ journey into the wilderness” and warned him of pestilence should he refuse to give them leave. As you might expect, Pharaoh did not respond favorably. Not only does he refuse to let them go, he called them “lazy” and ordered their taskmasters to double their work load (Exodus 5: 1-7).
As a result, terrible plagues followed, 1st) the Nile River is turned to blood. Then, as Pharaoh refused to let them go, despite repeated warnings, the plagues rolled on: 2nd) the land is overrun with frogs; 3rd) Gnats or lice; 4th) Flies; 5th) Diseased livestock; 6th) Boils; 7th) Hail; 8th) Locusts; 9th) Darkness; and 10th) the death of all the first born. (See Exodus chapters 7-12)
Interestingly, there are several moments during these plagues in which Pharaoh actually agrees to give them their week off to observe the festival – after the frogs, flies, and hail – but he reneges every single time. Similarly, when Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh about the locusts ahead of time, Pharaoh tried to negotiate with them. He would give them their time off, he said, but only if they agreed to leave their Children behind. Moses and Aaron refused these terms, and Pharaoh’s negotiations fell through, bringing the plague of locusts as promised. Finally, Pharaoh agreed to let them go after the death of the first born, but he reneged on this agreement as well, and instead sent his army after them. By the time Pharaoh’s army caught up with the Israelites, however, it was too late. The Israelites were already safely crossing the Red Sea (“Or Sea of Reeds”). And as you know, when Pharaoh’s army tried to cross the Sea, they weren’t so lucky (they drowned - see chapter 14).
We Should Become That "Mighty Hand":
So far, I expect the elements of this story to be pretty familiar to my audience. But I wonder if we really think about what it could mean for us to take time out of each year to remember this story. By observing passover each year, the Jews are commemorating, and even participating (in a ritual way), in the event that marked the beginning of their freedom from slavery. Wow. Beginning in chapters 12-13, when passover is first instituted, and many times in the Torah thereafter, the Israelites are commanded to "remember."
Reflecting on this story can serve many important purposes. Later Jewish tradition has given this story individual significance through a discussion of inner bondage, turmoil, liberation, wandering, and finding hope through covenant, etc. These interpretations are beautiful and very useful in our personal spiritual lives. so I don't want to diminish them in any way. Today, however, I encourage you to focus on the social aspect of the story. It is primarily a story about the fundamental rights of labor and oppressed minorities, and about seeking social justice for these “chosen” people. This story is one of many in the Bible that properly illustrates God's tendency to side with the oppressed, and NEVER with oppression. God's "chosen" people are usually the underdogs. Also, God is not only concerned about the Israelites' freedom from oppression, for we read in Exodus 12:38, "a mixed crowd also went up with them." He knows their sufferings. He has heard their cries. He will deliver them. And if we know anything about discipleship, we will seek to become the means of that deliverance.
If we lead privileged lives, the memory of our people's former bondage calls us to empathize with those who are underprivileged.
"When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."
Are We the Egyptians?
To put an end to oppression by others, and to avoid participating in people's oppression ourselves, we must first identify it. Pharaoh's behavior mirrors that of modern corporations, imperialist nations, and others who exploit the labor force and suppress freedom and democracy. Examples of modern day oppression abound.
- Every firm that engages in predatory lending.
- Every corporation that pays less than employees deserve and demands ever increasing productivity from them.
- Every corporation that uses loopholes to avoid paying for the overtime that their employees routinely work.
- Every company that engages in wage theft of any kind (unpaid breaks, unpaid training and other mandatory meetings, docking pay, rounding down their hours, etc.).
- Every company that schedules people to work without regard for their sabbath or other holidays.
- Every company that keeps as many of its employees "temporary" as possible, for as long as possible, in order to avoid paying benefits.
- Every company that pays less than a living wage (whether in the US or in its overseas operations).
- Every company that has unsafe working conditions, and does not take action to avoid preventable risks, or does not provide adequate safety equipment (whether in the US or in its overseas operations).
- Every company that punishes its workers for petitioning for better treatment, pay, etc.
- Every company that pollutes or destroys the earth unnecessarily.
- Every company that uses its influence with government (in the US or overseas) to monopolize natural resources that should belong to everyone, without properly compensating the people for the use of those resources and the profits they generate.
- Every company that uses its influence with government (in the US or overseas) to suppress and control its labor force (historically this has often been accomplished through violence or at least the threat of violence).
When corporations show a disregard for their workers' basic rights, and an unwillingness to fulfill their basic social responsibilities, they are effectively saying, as Pharaoh said: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.” Whether Pharaoh or these corporations "know the Lord" isn't the point. Moses didn't expect Pharaoh to observe Israelite religious tradition and workers around the world don't expect religious piety from their employers. In each case, the workers are simply want to see some basic human decency.
Now, let me push the comparison one step further. Pharaoh employs two strategies in responding to Moses and Aaron's request. First, he tries to silence dissent by piling more work on them, thereby keeping them too busy (and too desperate) to protest. Second, he makes disparaging remarks about them. When Pharaoh says in Exodus 5:17-18, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now, and work;" this is eerily reminiscent of the way conservative commentators make disparaging remarks about WalMart and McDonalds employees whenever they demand a basic level of respect and human decency and adequate compensation from their employers.
So, this is how we treat people (and allow people to be treated) in our own country. What's even more tragic is how we allow people to be treated in other countries. I haven't said nearly enough about the way workers are treated in sweatshops and on plantations around the world. It's these unfortunate human beings that supply the consumer goods that line our shelves here in the U.S. and in other developed countries. We don't comprehend their suffering... but God does. If we realized how much people are hurting, we wouldn't shop the way we shop, and we wouldn't vote the way we vote - not if we know anything about discipleship. In some very real ways, I am afraid we are more like the Egyptians than the Israelites in this modern Exodus story. But it's not the plagues that keep me up at night, it's the cries of those who are suffering - God's chosen people.
Easter and Social Justice
How are Easter and Passover related? And what does this have to do with social justice? The connection between Passover and Social Justice is pretty intuitive if you think about it; but the connection between Easter and Passover (and between Easter and social Justice) may not be as immediately obvious. There are many reasons we might miss these important connections, I will briefly address 4 possible reasons:
First, I suppose the main underlying reason that Christians are unaware of a connection between Easter and social justice is that most Christians don't realize how emphatically Jesus stressed the importance of compassion and social justice during his entire earthly ministry. Social Justice is central to his gospel, and at the core of what it means to be a disciple. As we shall see, this message is a big part of the reason he gave up his life. When Christians fail to realize this, the consequences are really tragic.
Secondly, I suppose some Christians don't quite realize what Jesus was even doing in Jerusalem just prior to his crucifixion. It is no accident that He went to Jerusalem during Passover week. His "last supper" with his disciples was a passover feast (see Mark 14, Matthew 25, and Luke 22).
Third, when we tell the Easter story, we often begin with Jesus' crucifixion rather than talking about all of the significant events of his Last Week. In other words, we often start telling the story on Good Friday, rather than on Palm Sunday. When we do this, we are leaving out the components of the story which explain why people in positions of power wanted to kill him.
Fourth, when we tell Easter stories, if we do recount the significant events of Jesus' last week (like his entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, or his demonstration in the Temple) we might not understand them adequately because we lack a basic understanding of the historical context in which these events occured.
- For example, many Christians don’t realize how tumultuous a time of year Passover was during the Roman occupation of Palestine, especially at the temple site! Think about it. Passover was a time when Jews celebrated liberation from an oppressive foreign Kingdom. And in this heightened state of consciousness about foreign domination and their own status as a people who God redeems from oppression, they gathered in large numbers at the temple in Jerusalem. The Roman authorities were incredibly nervous during this time of year, and so were the Priests of the Temple. According to Mark 14:1-2, the chief priests who planned to have Jesus arrested and killed said among themselves, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people." I should point out that the potential for a riot was not merely hypothetical, as the prominent New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan noted:
"At Passover, thousands of Jews concentrated in a rather small area in and around the temple to celebrate, while under Roman rule, their deliverance from ancient Egyptian bondage. From an imperial viewpoint, the atmosphere was that of a tinderbox, the toleration for disturbance was zero, and the governor was in residence to ensure order. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, "about three thousand" died during one Passover riot in 4 BCE and "upwards of thirty thousand perished" in another one around 50 CE."
- In addition, many Christians don't realize that the Temple Priests were closely associated with Roman authorities, and that they were charged with keeping the Jews under control. For performing this service, they were afforded great privilege and lived lives of luxury while the vast majority of Jews struggled to survive. Because of this alliance between the Priests and the Romans, a protest against the Temple was viewed as a threat against the Empire.
"your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey"
With these pieces of the historical context in mind, let's again consider a couple of the important events in the last week of Jesus' mortal life. First, we read that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem in a kind of royal procession. Crossan remarks of this event:
"The first demonstration was programmed for (our) Palm Sunday and it was not just a criticism but a lampoon of Roman power. For security and crowd-control at Passover, Pilate came up to Jerusalem with extra troops from his base at Caesarea on the coast. Imagine him coming in from the west on a powerful stallion as Jesus was coming in from the east not just on a donkey but on a nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her."
Matthew 21:10 notes that "the whole city was in turmoil" over this demonstration. If the purpose of this demonstration was to simply announce, "I am the Messiah, and I am here to save you from your sins" and nothing more, this wouldn't have caused too big a ruckus. But nobody in Jerusalem would have seen it that way. As much as this was a statement about himself, it was also a statement against the Roman Empire. The people in Jerusalem knew it, and Jesus knew they knew it.
Next, we find Jesus forcefully protesting in the Temple, Matthew 21:12,
"Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”"
"The second demonstration came on (our) Monday. Once again it was an action clarified by a prophetic word, that is, an action-parable. The Temple was, of course, the House of God -- for all the nations, in fact, within Herod's huge Court of the Gentiles. But it was also the House of Rome as symbolized by imperial control of the high-priest's sacred vestments and the great golden eagle above its western entrance from the Upper City.
"In an earlier demonstration, around the time Jesus was born, a Pharisaic group had been martyred for their attempt to remove that golden eagle. Jesus's own demonstration against Roman control of God's House was accompanied by a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah. He had warned against using worship to replace justice, against turning the Temple into a "den," that is a refuge, safe-house, or hideaway for "thieves." If it continued, said Jeremiah, God would destroy the Temple itself (7:1-15). And that divine threat almost cost Jeremiah his life (26:1-14)."
As with Jeremiah, it was precisely this protest against Priestly and Roman Imperial authority that ultimately angered them enough to take Jesus' life. This was the last straw, and before the week was over they would carry out their plans to have him crucified.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
In addition to the other reasons we celebrate Easter, my hope is that we will appreciate the fact that in a very real and direct way, he gave up his life in an act of protest against unjust authority and against the oppression of his people. What a terrible tragedy it would be for us to forget something that obviously meant the world to him!
When we, as Christians and Mormons, fail to make social justice a priority, when we fail to seek it, to advocate it, to sacrifice for it, we are failing to appreciate a vital aspect of His sacrifice. For the purposes of this post, I have emphasized only the forgotten social aspect of his sacrifice, but before I finish, I invite my readers to remember and cherish ALL of the reasons Jesus 'laid down his life for his friends.'
His sacrifice for social justice is the one we can really DO the most about. In my opinion, it is the strongest motivator for action and positive change - first in ourselves and then in the world. The atonement makes this radical change possible. And the resurrection gives us hope in times when we fail, and ultimately we will all experience these moments of failure. Because Jesus' approach was one of nonviolent resistence, even HE submitted to the harsh realities of this world, but the story doesn't end there.
The story has continued in the lives of His disciples, as they respond to the call of the living Christ. The story goes on with us. This Easter, in Jesus' name, remember to push back against unjust authority. To the extent that we behave as Romans or as Egyptians and participate in the oppression of other people, it has to stop, or we cannot continue to call ourselves Jesus' disciples without being guilty of the worst kind of hypocrisy. In our core, I believe we are better than that. I believe we have been touched by an experience of God's love for us, and it is changing the way we see ourselves and others. I believe Christians are people who have begun to see that all of the people of the world are God's children, equally deserving of our love and respect and assistance, Given the position of power Christians have enjoyed for centuries, I pray that we will one day soon learn to use that power righteously. As citizens of developed nations, I urge Christians to use their influence to become the means of deliverance from oppression caused by our own governments and corporations. If this sounds like a radical message, who can blame me? It was written long ago in our Passover and Easter narratives.