When you focus only on what counts, you’ll end up losing track of what really matters. That’s the lesson Pharaoh learns, the hard way, in Exodus 1 and 2, our Old Testament reading for this morning. Years have passed since Joseph, the great prince adviser of Egypt, died. Once welcomed with open arms, the Israelites, or the Hebrews, have become a nuisance to the Egyptian monarchy. Pharaoh, a new Pharaoh, fears the Israelites. There’s no reason to fear them—they’ve done nothing, as far as we can tell, but live peaceably in Egypt. Like every other Pharaoh, Egyptian or not, this new king invents a problem so that he can satisfy his bloodlust.
Pharaoh’s solution is horrifying. First, he orders hard labor for the Hebrews, forcing them to build new cities. But it’s not enough for Pharaoh. Next, he commands the midwives to murder Hebrew boys at birth. When that plan fizzles, Pharaoh orders every male Hebrew child tossed into the Nile.
As cruel and inhuman a plan as it is, Pharaoh’s approach makes sense in the ancient Near East. Boys were the only ones who counted. Lineage was passed down from father to son; mothers and daughters were worthless. Get rid of the Hebrew males, and you eliminate the Hebrew people. But if you focus only on what counts, you’ll end up losing track of what really matters. And that’s exactly what happens to Pharaoh. Only the boys counts, so Pharaoh focuses on them. The real threat to Pharaoh is not from the men—it’s from the women.
Again and again, so many times in this relatively short passage, the women in Egypt undermine Pharaoh’s genocidal intentions. First two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, refuse to kill the Hebrew boys. They know what matters, not just what counts. They fear God and disobey the king, even lying to his face: “The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them,” they say. God does not reward their lying, but God does honor their refusal to kill and grants each midwife a family of her own.
Stymied by the midwives, Pharaoh orders all male Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile. So a Hebrew woman, Jochebed, marries Amram and bears a son. After hiding the child for months, she obeys the king’s command and throws the boy into the Nile. Oh, the Pharaoh thinks he’s so smart; he will “deal shrewdly” with the Israelites. Jochebed, though—she’s the crafty one. Pharaoh only said the Hebrew children had to be thrown into the Nile. Pharaoh never said the boys had to be thrown in without any help. And he didn’t say anything about pulling them out again. So Jochebed outsmarts Pharoah. And, by the way, let me say that 3000 years later there are men who still haven’t learned Pharaoh’s lesson, who still treat women as inferior, as second-class citizens at work, at home—even at church. Thank God that God knows better than Pharaoh and us men. But I digress.
Jochebed outsmarts Pharaoh. She puts her son into a homemade boat, an ark, really, and sends him down the river. Surely Jochebed trusts in the Lord as she gives up her son.
A fourth woman now enters the conspiracy against Pharaoh: Miriam, Jochebed’s daughter. Miriam follows the reed boat as it sails along until it reaches—Pharoah’s daughter. And Pharoah’s daughter, she picks up the child from the boat, recognizes him as a Hebrew boy, and keeps him anyway. Pharaoh’s daughter becomes the fifth woman to stand up to Pharaoh. And as soon as she’s pulled the boy from the water, Miriam boldly steps out from the shadows and offers to find a wet nurse for the child—his own mother. Pharaoh’s daughter names the boy Moses. This might be the funniest story in the entire Bible. Think about it: by the end of our passage, Moses, the boy who will one day lead Israel out of Egypt, just as Pharaoh had feared, is living in Pharaoh’s house, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, who is paying Moses’s mother to nurse her own child, whom she was supposed to kill. All because Pharaoh focused only on the boys who counted and ignored the women who mattered. Pharaoh feared the thousands of boys growing up into warriors and rebels, but it was five “insignificant” women who brought him down.
God, on the other hand, does not care about what counts according to human standards. God cares about what matters. God cares about the faith of these women, who trusted God enough to stand up to oppression and injustice, women who risked their lives and their children to thwart the cruel intentions of a powerful ruler. God cares that these women respect and love him more than they fear the Pharaoh on the throne. God does not focus on what counts; he keeps track of what matters.
You know, there are so many examples from today, right now, of people focusing on what counts and losing track of what matters—I could go on all day. But let me bring this home to our church, the United Methodist Church, and to our congregation, Centre UMC. I love the United Methodist Church. I don’t always like it, but, God help me, I do love it. Our denomination, the United Methodist Church, loves things that count. We count every dollar to make sure our apportionments are sufficient. We count every church, every congregation, every Annual Conference member. Above all, we love to count members. Our church is obsessed with new members, losing members, big member churches—we love to count members. And I am convinced that our love of counting members distracts us from tending to what really matters.
Today at Centre we are about to welcome three new members to our congregation. So what? If we don’t provide discipleship opportunities for Ann, Libby, and Nathaniel, who cares whether or not we added them to the rolls? If we don’t let them challenge us in our journey as disciples in Christ together at Centre, who cares if we can report our membership gain next month at Charge Conference? And if Ann, Libby, and Nathaniel force us to grow deeper in our faith, how do we count that in our record books? If they teach us to stand up to injustice and oppression, what number do we put for the Charge Conference report? If God works through them to lead us to the cross of Jesus Christ, what line number do we enter that on?
Now before we get too judgmental of our denomination’s love of counting, let’s remember that we can fall into the same trap here at Centre. I’ve spent a lot of time in my first eight weeks here talking about how we need to focus on this problem or that repair. Stewardship of our resources, including our buildings, is one thing. If we’re not careful, it’s easy for these conversations to take over, for all our attention to be devoted to things that count. Are we sure we aren’t also letting what counts keep us away from what matters?
In preparing for the exodus of his people Israel from Egypt, God looked for what mattered. Pharaoh looked for what counted. May we today be found insignificant enough that God would call us, also, to great faithfulness. Amen.