Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, October 1, 2023: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

The Israelites are still in the desert, and they are camping in a place with no water. The writer of Exodus tells us that “the people quarreled with Moses”, because without water they would die. Why did we leave Egypt, they wondered, just to die in the wilderness? Moses reports the quarrel to the Lord, who rather than rebuking the people, provides water: if Moses will use the staff he used to part the Red Sea to strike a particular rock, there would be water. And so it was. Whatever he thought of their complaints, the Lord knew that the Israelites needed water.

“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” This command from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one many have taken to heart, but which has also been the source of great harm. Some have read this verse, and others like it, as making it an obligation to not think of yourself. This reading has especially been directed at those without power; in doing so, it has enabled many kinds of abuse.

I have often read this in light of my understanding of the great commandment: to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. At some point, someone pointed out to me that you had to love yourself well to love your neighbor well. Yet we do not talk much about what it means to love yourself. What are we allowed? At the very least, we are allowed water in the desert.

I was intrigued this week to read that Greek texts have a word that is often omitted in English translations: “also”. Philippians 4 would then read “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This shifts the focus, and makes more sense with Paul’s message, which is how the church at Philippi could flourish as a healthy community. To flourish, to be a community of compassion whose love overflows, members need to be able to care for themselves and for others. Like the Israelites, they need to be able to ask for water in the desert.

Modern Christians have had trouble with the idea that we should think of ourselves, that our own needs are important. We pay attention to the need for service, to give of ourselves to others. To do this without attending to our own needs leads to people burning out. The needs of the world are great, and none of us can attend to all of them. And unless we have the water we need to live, we will not be able to respond. There is a difference between acknowledging our own needs and being full of “selfish ambition”.

It is easier to make a simple statement: think of others first. But both the writer of Exodus and Paul suggest a more complex situation. We need to attend to our own needs in order to respond to others. Only then can we be part of a community, as Paul suggests in verse 15, that will “will shine among them like stars in the sky”.

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