Thursday, July 9, 2020

July 26, 2020 - 8th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                              [670]

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

Life brings reversals, in marriage and in parables, but God promises unending love.  

Genesis 29:15-28. 

The Torah reading is a piece of Jacob’s adventures in the old country where he has gone to get wives and wealth.  The theme of this episode is that the trickster gets tricked. 

In earlier times we heard about Jacob deceiving his brother Esau to steal his birthright and his blessing, but after Jacob encountered God at Bethel he was a changed man.  Now when he comes into the land of his distant relatives, he proves himself a helpful hero by removing a great stone from the well — inspired, it must be said, by Rachel’s beauty (Genesis 29:1-12).  He enters into a bargain in good faith with Laban, Rachel’s father, to work seven years to get her for his wife.  The narrator adds a romantic touch:  the seven years “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for” Rachel (verse 20, NRSV). 

Now, however, he gets some of his own deceptive treatment.  On the wedding night, Laban substitutes the older daughter Leah in place of Rachel, and the marriage is a done deed before Jacob catches on.  So much for that seven years.  If he works yet another seven years, Laban will give him Rachel also.  In spite of sharp complaints to Laban, Jacob seems to know when he’s been had, and he works another seven years and finally gets his true love Rachel as his second wife. 

The rest of the story (omitted from this reading) is the foundation legend of the tribes of Israel.  That is to say, Jacob – who will be named “Israel” in next week’s reading – fathers all the sons (tribes) who will make up the history of Israel. 

Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, have two slave girls, each of whom bears two sons to Jacob on behalf of her mistress.  In the tribal lore, spun out with playful take-offs on the tribal names (29:29-30:24), it will take all four of these women to produce the entire people of destiny, the twelve “sons of Israel.”  (Benjamin, the last son,  has his own story in Genesis 35:16-20.)

In time, of course, Laban will get his comeuppance, and Jacob’s wives will help him pull it off (the story in Genesis 31).  In the end, Jacob and Laban make a covenant to stay out of each other’s territory, and they set up a mizpah (a watch-tower) as a witness to keep them both honest (Genesis 31:44-54). 

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b. 

The Psalm reading this time does not fall into place as the voices of the people in the Torah reading.  The voice here is rather the Israel of later times celebrating the continuity of God’s covenant from generation to generation of the ancestors. 

They who are “offspring of his servant Abraham, / children of Jacob, his chosen ones” are called to remember God’s great deeds (verses 5-6, NRSV).  God is celebrated because he remembers

The covenant that he made with Abraham, 
    his sworn promise to Isaac,
which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
   to Israel as an everlasting covenant (verses 9-10).

What seems to be the punch line of this remembering of covenant faithfulness is a bit chauvinistic.  God’s solemn promise down through the whole string is, “To you I will give the land of Canaan / as your portion for an inheritance” (verse 11, italics added). 

In the long run, the land would bring Jacob’s descendants about as much trouble as he endured with Esau and Laban.  Nevertheless, the descendants, like Jacob himself, always pressed on to make the land their own. 

Romans 8:26-39. 

The Epistle reading is the climax of Paul’s teaching about the Spirit in this letter.  All of the contrasts with the life of the world and the “flesh” are finished.  Now he speaks of three miracles and blessings of the new life in the Spirit. 

The first thing is the life of prayer.  “...For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  The life of prayer is one of soul-searching.  We search our hearts and souls, but it is God who truly plumbs the depths of our selves, and therefore it is the Spirit of God that teaches us how we in fact need to pray.  “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit…” (verses 26-27, NRSV). 

Secondly, Paul writes a script that would be intensely followed fifteen centuries later by John Calvin in his doctrine of predestination.  The basic principle is that “all things work together for good…” (verse 28).  Believing that profoundly, one begins to catch a vision of the entire drama of salvation – which must have been in God’s control throughout. 

For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified  (verses 29-30). 

When the horizon is high enough, the view encompassing all of time and eternity, God is the principal actor from pre-creation to consummation. 

Finally, there is a Coda of ecstatic gratitude because God has taken the blessed ones into God’s realm.  “If God is for us, who is against us? … Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies” (verses 31-34).  This take-over by God, the Lord of creation and the Almighty, is conclusive.  Given God’s love, nothing can separate one from it.  And the highest reach of the ecstasy exults in the all-conquering love of Christ Jesus. 

…For I am convinced that 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 in Christ Jesus our Lord (verses 38-39). 

The life in the Spirit finally leads to a union with God the Father and the Son in the consummation of God’s love. 

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. 

The Gospel reading completes the discourse in which Matthew collected Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of heaven.  Here we no long have parables accompanied by seminars to explore their interpretations.  No interpretations of these parables are given, except the brief continuation of the parable of the net.  Here are small parables – short, graphic, cutting. 

The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (verses 31-33) are a matched pair.  They are true parables that have a single point.  The astonishing expansion of the tiny mustard seed that grows into a huge tree-like plant, and the small little pinch of fermented dough that can cause several loaves to rise and become soft and airy — these images speak of the exuberance and compelling expansiveness of the kingdom of heaven.  No allegories are offered here, and there is no need for any. 

Similarly, the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great value are another matched pair (verses 44-46).  They also have a single point.  When the supremely valuable item is found, all else is sacrificed to procure it.  That is what the kingdom of heaven is like.  It is like the greatest thing anyone could imagine.  It makes one forget all other less perfect treasures.  It is the one thing of supreme worth.  Anything less is not the kingdom. 

The parable of the net that collects all kinds of things from the waters of the sea (verses 47-50) could have a single point, namely, that a great sorting out (a judgment) is certainly coming.   It is the way of the world to sort out any great mixture that contains both valuable things and worthless things.  Only the valuable things will be cared for and saved. 

In this case, however, the parable is also given an allegorical reading, like the parable of the weeds that was read last week.  “So it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verses 49-50, NRSV). 

Understanding — or not.  At the end of this long discourse on parables of the kingdom, Jesus asks the disciples, “Have you understood all this?” (verse 51). 

Perhaps to our astonishment, they reply, “Yes.”  This is certainly not the Gospel According to Mark, where the disciples almost always fail to understand what Jesus says in the most straightforward terms.  Matthew insists that there was some comprehension on the part of the disciples (who later became apostles).  If they failed to understand the major thing about Jesus having to die, they still caught on to much of his teaching — Matthew would have us know. 

At least we can be assured that the disciples learned to do what modern scholars despise them for — they learned to develop allegorical interpretations from Jesus’ provocative parables of the kingdom of heaven! 


Sunday, July 5, 2020

July 19, 2020 - 7th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words                                              [669]

Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Holy places are hidden from profane eyes, and people blessed by God’s Spirit live side by side with the unrighteous. 

Genesis 28:10-19a. 
The Torah reading presents Jacob’s dream – and his “ladder” – at Bethel. 
Last Sunday’s reading showed Jacob outwitting his not very bright brother Esau, but now he has had to run away from Esau and his parental home to save his life.  That brings him to spend the night at a place that is secretly holy, a place later called Bethel, that is, beth-El, the “house” of the high-god El. 
The Holy Place.  The ancestor stories in Genesis not only established kinship lines and tribal friends and enemies in the greater Israelite world, they also identified and sanctioned holy places.  In the critical events of their wanderings the ancestors encountered awesome and numinous powers.  To name such powers and to mark them as sacred places was work that belonged to the ancestors.  Later generations did not discover new holy places; they were guided by those ancient encounters with the holy, and they revered and enhanced the great sanctuaries that the ancestors had discovered. 
Jacob’s vision at Bethel is an archetypal example of a sanctuary legend.  In the dream Jacob sees a sullam, a word occurring only here in the Hebrew Bible.  Let’s dwell a little on this word that gave us “Jacob’s Ladder.” 
The Greek translators used the word klimax, which means a scaling ladder (which was slanted toward the wall of the besieged city) or a stairway, and that Greek is probably the source, through Latin, of the English “ladder.”  For the Hebrew sullam, the older Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (1906) gave simply “ladder” as the meaning, but more recent Hebrew lexicons, with more comparative material from other Semitic languages, give the meaning “stepped ramp, flight of steps” (Koehler-Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Study Ed., tr. M.E.J. Richardson, Leiden:  Brill, 2001, Vol. 1, pp. 757-58.)  What the word probably meant in Israelite times was a staircase running from the ground up the side of a temple tower, perhaps to some landings part-way up, and then to the most holy sanctuary on the very top of the sacred mountain.  The model is the Mesopotamian ziggurat, which is also reflected in the plan for the tower of Babel “with its top in the heavens” (Genesis 11:4). 
In Jacob’s dream the top of this staircase (“ladder”) reached to heaven – the most holy place at the top – and the messengers of the gods (“angel” means messenger in both Hebrew and Greek) went up and down this stairway carrying orders from the heavenly council to all parts of the land.  This was the vision in Jacob’s dream, that this very spot was secretly the place where the high god of heaven conducted business, where all the critical decisions for the human realm were made and set underway. 

Reconstruction of a Mesopotamian ziggurat, based on surviving ruins. 
Jacob makes the appropriate responses.  He confesses the revelation.  “Surely there is Yahweh in this place — and I did not know it!” (my translation).  He has the appropriate fear before the numinous.  “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God [Elohim], and this is the gate of heaven” (verse 17, NRSV). 
Jacob then set up the stone that had been under his head and made it a maṣṣṣebah (“pillar”), one of those sacred standing stones that the Judeans would later hate and destroy.  And he poured oil on the top of this stone, anointing it as Moses anointed the Tabernacle when he sanctified it for holy use (Exodus 40:9). 
Bethel.  All these elaborate references to the holiness of the place were appropriate, because this holy place, Bethel, was to become the major pilgrimage sanctuary of the kingdom of Israel on its southern border.  For over two hundred years Bethel would be a royal sanctuary of the kings of Israel, competing with and at times overshadowing Jerusalem just 10 miles to the south.  It was elevated to world-class prestige by Jeroboam I, who had founded the northern kingdom around 930 BCE (I Kings 12:25-33); it was still a royal sanctuary three dynasties later in the time of Amos, around 755 BCE (Amos 7:12-13); and it was violently destroyed by the reforming King Josiah of Judah around 622 BCE (II Kings 23:15). 
The Promises.  In the midst of all this sanctity of the place, however, the Lord had spoken some powerful words to Jacob in the dream. 
Everything that had been promised to Abraham is here promised to Jacob, as if for the first time:  (1) “…the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring”; (2) “your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you [they] shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south”; and (3) “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (verses 13-14).  With this IOU in hand, Jacob can set himself up as a great figure of destiny without reference to Abraham. 
There is, of course, a promise more specific to Jacob’s own situation – as Abraham had a promise specifically about his own son. 
Jacob’s promise is that God will take care of him and give him prosperity on his journey to the old country, which lies ahead of him (verse 15).  In the ending of the passage, not included in the Lectionary reading, Jacob makes a deal with the God of Bethel.  If he will protect Jacob and bring him back safely to Bethel, Jacob will establish that sanctuary and support it with a tithe of his goods (Genesis 28:20-22). 
Twenty years later, when Jacob is rich and has a large family, he makes a proper pilgrimage to Bethel, builds an altar, and worships the God who did it all for him (Genesis 35:1-15).  The promise to the fleeing refugee had been fulfilled, and he in turn paid his dues. 
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24.  
The Psalm reading is very appropriate to the Jacob story, appropriate to a character who has formerly practiced deception (in his relations with Esau) but is now ready to take a new path. 
This psalm is a profound meditation on the God who knows the whole of the inner person, the God who searches hearts.  At Bethel Jacob realizes that he can have no secrets from God.  “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; …You search out my path and my lying down, / and are acquainted with all my ways” (verses 2-3, NRSV). 
The speaker also realizes that there is no escaping from God.  “Where can I go from your spirit?” (verse 7).  Up to heaven, down to Sheol, off to the vast distances of the east (“the wings of the morning,” KJV) or to the far west (“the furthest limits of the sea”) – none will succeed.  “Even there your hand shall lead me, / and your right hand shall hold me fast” (verses 8-10). 
Finally Jacob surrenders.  “Search me, O God, and know my heart; ... See if there is any wicked way in me, / and lead me in the way everlasting” (verses 23-24). 
He is now ready to travel to the distant land and trust entirely and without reservation to God’s care while there. 
Romans 8:12-25. 
The Epistle reading continues Paul’s exposition of the new life in the Spirit. 
He finishes the contrast between life in the Spirit and the old life in the flesh.  Here the old life is the life of slavery, while the new life is that of children who are members of the family, rather than slaves.  Those living in the Spirit are children of God by adoption, and in the Spirit they are empowered to cry out “Abba” to the Father, virtually calling God “Daddy.”  Only privileged children of the household can take such liberties, and it is the power of God’s Spirit dwelling in one that bestows such privileges (verses 14-17).  (Paul's world was very charismatic, filled with outbursts of spiritual ecstasy.  See I Corinthians 14:1-33.) 
In the middle of the reading there is a transition, a transition from the present freedom from slavery to the glory that lies ahead.  In the present, those living in the Spirit still share the sufferings that the world lays on Jesus and his followers, but Paul urges that those sufferings are nothing compared to what awaits them.  The created world, which has been confined to frustration by the era of sin and wickedness, yearns to “be delivered from the bondage of corruption” so that it can obtain “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (verse 21, NKJV). 
Thus the whole creation – the good earth – shares in the hope of the Spirited ones, and together they look for the glorious consummation (of which we will hear more in next week’s reading). 
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. 
The Gospel reading continues Matthew’s parables of the kingdom. 
We are in that section of Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 11-13) in which sharp opposition has arisen against Jesus.  The Pharisees have begun to plan how to kill Jesus (12:14) and Jesus has begun to teach that many are doomed to exclusion from the blessings of the kingdom.  The parables are appropriate to this section of the Gospel because they repeatedly show the division between the lost and the saved. 
The original parable of the Weeds.  (The weeds are called “tares” in the King James version.)  If this parable has a “single point,” as good parables are supposed to, it must be that the good and the wicked grow together in the world until the judgment of the kingdom comes.  All preliminary attempts to separate the righteous from the evil cannot succeed, or are not in accord with God’s will, though one may be confident that there will be a time of separation, a final judgment.  This is the parable as originally told by Jesus to all hearers in verses 24-30. 
The parable allegorized.  Later Jesus holds a closed seminar in which he explains the more secret meaning of the parable (verses 36-43).  This secret meaning explicitly turns the parable into an allegory.  Jesus provides a set of equivalents for the actors of the parable. 
The one planting the good seed in the field in the first place is the Son of Man.  The field itself is the world, the good seed are “the children of the kingdom” while the weeds are “the children of the evil one.”  The enemy who sowed the weeds is the devil, the harvest is the time of judgment, and the harvesters who separate the weeds and burn them are the angels commanded by the Son of Man.  The conclusion (verse 43) is a shining world freed of the evil-doers who until then have lived in the world in safety side by side with the righteous. 
If the parable was not told in the first place to suggest something like this allegory, it certainly invited development in that direction.  Jesus certainly did proclaim a coming judgment.  He also insisted that many people whom the world takes for “sinners” are in fact those qualified for the kingdom – that is, are mixed with everybody else in the world at large.  Thus, there is no easy way to tell sinners from saints.  The good people spoken of in the Beatitudes will certainly be separated from the haughty, the self-righteous, the violent – and possibly even the “rich,” as Luke heard the Beatitudes – when the time comes. 
The parable giver and the parable interpreter are not in two different camps.  The interpreter may have his opponents more sharply in sight, and he may think the harvest is delayed a bit more, but he seeks to keep Jesus’ teaching true to the kingdom message. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

July 12, 2020 - 6th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words                                            [668]
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.
People feel bound by their tribal ethos, but life in the Spirit can lift them beyond such boundaries.    

Genesis 25:19-34. 

After several weeks of readings about Abraham’s life, our readings in Genesis now turn to Jacob, the even more immediate and rowdy ancestor of Israel. 
While the Abraham stories in Genesis usually maintain a proper dignity and reverence for the worthy old ancestor, the Jacob stories present the main character in a more boisterous and not very respectful light.  What we have in these stories, of course, is tribal lore, a kind of folk wisdom compounded of earthy insights about tribal characteristics. 
Old folks tend to comment on how you could see the personality traits of a prominent person showing up already in that person's childhood.  Out of such comments come stories of tribal fathers and mothers.  They are earthy, pretty blunt, and very ethnic.  They are tribal. 
The birth story, verses 19-26:  The destinies and behavior traits of two peoples are projected back to the circumstances of their birth.  Jacob was a fighter.  He was fighting in his mother’s womb – with his brother who may have gotten out of the womb first but not without Jacob hanging on to his heel, symbolizing that Jacob would eventually “supplant” [a play on the name Jacob] his older brother (verse 26). 
The birthright story, verses 27-33.  When they were young men, the older brother Esau was a hunter while wily Jacob was more agricultural, raising lentils to make delicious stew.  Jacob catches Esau in a moment of desperate hunger and forces him to sell his “birthright” before he will give him any food.  For the old folks telling the stories, this is the same punch-line as in the birth story – the younger son supplants the older.  What in the natural course of things would have been Esau’s has become Jacob’s.  Jacob got the birthright, the normal inheritance of the firstborn son. 
In yet another story, which our Lectionary readings skip, it is told at even greater length how Jacob cheated Esau out of their father’s final powerful blessing, the blessing that would pass along the charismatic power of the ancestor to the next generation (the story in Genesis 27). 
In all these ways, the old folks looked back from the days when Israel dominated its neighboring kingdom of Edom and said, It was written in the stars – or in the signs at birth, in the foolish selling of birthrights, and the crafty manipulation of blessings – that Israel would be the great power over its brother tribe to the south. 
So was tribal history shaped.  So is tribal history still shaped. 

Psalm 119:105-112. 

The tribal destinies foretold in portents at birth, and in surprising reversals in formative years, came in time to be understood as divine decisions gradually worked out in human experience. 
In later times and other settings, the tribal mode of wisdom was replaced by the revelation mode of wisdom.  Thus, finally, even the descendants of Jacob came to understand that it was the word or decree of God that ruled human life.  This insight the devout teachers and poets of the wisdom tradition in Israel expressed in this great psalm, all 176 verses of it, making it a monument to their belief in God’s torah as the key to history. 
If we listen to this stanza created by the devotion of the torah-lovers and hear it as the speech of Jacob, the beneficiary of the twists and turns working in his destiny, then we learn that it is not tribal history that matters in his life but only God’s “word,” “ordinances,” “law,” “precepts,” “decrees,” and “statutes” that guide and determine his life.  “Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.”  (Verse 111, NRSV.  Note that the exact terminology here varies in different English translations.  All the terms quoted are, however, synonyms for “torah,” law. ). 
This is the Jacob no longer shaped by tribal lore.  It is the Jacob revered as ancestor by those who knew and loved what God had given through Moses. 

Romans 8:1-11. 

The Epistle reading shows that for those who are “in Christ Jesus” it is not destinies, birthrights, or ancestral blessings that make our fate; it is the Spirit of God. 
“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death”— free from the tribal bondage and determinism of the past (verse 2, NRSV). 
Paul has passed through (in chapters 3-7) the discussions of justification by faith, of original sin, and of the personal bondage of life dominated by “the flesh.”  Now he unfolds the positive side of the drama of salvation in Christ, the life in the Spirit.  
“Spirit” was mentioned five times in the Letter to the Romans prior to this chapter; here it is used over twenty times. 
[Should it be “Spirit” or “spirit”?  Translators get to decide this, since the ancient Greek has no such distinctions.  The original KJV (1611 Facsimile) uses “spirit” throughout this passage; New KJV makes it “Spirit,” NRSV footnotes give you a choice.] 
“By ‘spirit’ Paul means the supernatural or divine element in human life, and his test for it is the presence of a love like the love of God in Christ” (C.H. Dodd, Romans, Harper, 1932, p. 118.) 
In our reading there are two points(1) The life in the Spirit is very different from the former life lived “in the flesh.”  The flesh is death; the Spirit is life and peace (verse 6).  (2) The new life is the life of God’s Spirit.  “You are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (verse 9). 
Though in the past the body was dead “because of sin,” now the Spirit is alive “because of righteousness.”  If in the old life our dead condition showed up through sinful actions, now the life of the Spirit shows up through righteous actions. 
The Spirit creates a sharp contrast between life and death, and therefore a sharp contrast between sinful and righteous acting. 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. 

Today’s Gospel reading begins three Sundays of readings from Matthew’s third collection of Jesus’ teachings, the parables of the Kingdom. 
Modern Study of the Parables.  In the last hundred plus years of New Testament scholarship a sharp distinction has been made between what Jesus originally meant by his parables and what his followers and later church teachers made of them, not just in their teachings but right in the Gospel texts.  The early followers had changed the meanings of the parables before the Gospels were written. 
The scholarly emphasis has especially been on the difference between a parable and an allegory.  A parable has one main point to make and all details are subordinated to that point, while an allegory assigns significance to each of the details separately.  If one allegorizes the Good Samaritan, the inn to which the wounded man is taken is the church, the robbers are the powers of Satan, the medicines given the man are the sacraments, and so on.  That is an allegory.  The single point of the parable, on the other hand, was simply who is a neighbor to the man in need. 
On this scholarly view of Jesus’ parables, the allegorizing tendency began already here in our reading, with the parable of the Sower.  Mark’s Gospel, which Matthew follows closely, had already made the fatal shift from parable to allegory. 
However, the Sower (or the parable of the Soils) is perhaps one of the weakest places to apply this theory.  That some of the parables may have been allegories from the beginning seems clear from the parable of the Wicked Tenants, used in all three Gospels (Mark 12:1-12; Matthew 21:33-41; Luke 20:9-19).  There the vineyard is the promised land, the tenants are the Israelites, the early messengers are the prophets, and the son who is finally sent is the Suffering Servant (or Jesus).  The rejection of the prophets and the Son/Servant will produce judgment and loss of the promised land.  That is an allegory rather than a parable – when the two are sharply distinguished.  Many scholars deny, of course, that Jesus himself told the parable of the Wicked Tenants, but that is where the theory begins to twist the evidence rather than illumine it. 
Concerning the Sower.  The parable tells how the sower scatters the seed so that it falls on all sorts of soil.  Three kinds of soil are unproductive.  On good soil the seed is very productive, so much so that the loss to the poor soils is negligible.  The point of the parable –  when one is certain it cannot be an allegory – is the abundance of the crops that do produce.  Even the details of what happens to the seeds on bad soils are only for the sake of this one point about the abundance produced by the word of the kingdom when it is fruitful. 
To which Floyd Filson commented, “Does this parable teach only that in spite of loss of labour and seed the sower still reaps an abundant harvest?  No; the varied soils in which the seed falls also have point…” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, “Black’s New Testament Commentaries,” 2nd ed., London:  Adam & Charles Black, 1971, p. 160.)  That single-focus theory of parables cannot suppress the fact that – in this parable – the different soils in fact “stand for” something — and from the very beginning stood for something.  
If the parable is more of an allegory, it is about responding to the message of God’s kingdom – as is all this section of Matthew’s Gospel.  The point of the parable then is that indeed there will be losses, represented by each kind of soil.  Not all who have the chance will respond productively to the good news of the kingdom.  This parable tells you some of the reasons. 
There are three kinds of failure to make the kingdom message one’s own. 
First, there are those who just don’t get it – one “does not understand it” (verse 19, NRSV). 
Secondly, there are the quick starters, enthusiasts who turn out to be rootless and fall away before closing time. 
Thirdly, there are those with agenda paralysis.  They have so many things demanding their resources that the gospel message is squeezed out and they are smothered by the thorns of the world. 
The fourth option is when the seed grows to abundance and the energies of life become extravagantly productive – though it is a productiveness defined exclusively by the life of the kingdom of heaven (and not necessarily by the world in general). 
If Jesus himself didn’t teach the parable this way, the experience and understanding of his disciples quickly showed that it has more relevance and truth this way than otherwise!  
The parable of the Sower is about life as open to a new message.  It insists that life is not necessarily confined by past birthrights and birth accidents, though people may allow such things to smother their lives.  The parable insists that the power of God’s word will find its productive reception.  The hearers of the word have a genuine choice, a chance to grasp the heritage of a new life, a life of the spirit/Spirit “that blows where it wishes” (John 3:8), and that brings blessing and righteousness in its breeze. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

July 5, 2020 - 5th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words                                         [667] 

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. 

The cycles of the generations and the struggles of the soul are promised rest at the end of the journey.  
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67. 
The Torah reading is selected verses from the long story of the finding of Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. 
Stages of Abraham’s Life.  The last stage of Abraham’s life (Genesis 22:20-25:11) is introduced by “Now after these things…” in Genesis 22:20.  That formula occurs only at three places in the Abraham narrative:  Genesis 15:1; 22:1; and 22:20, dividing the entire Abraham cycle into four parts, concerned respectively with wealth, getting a son, sacrificing that son, and tasks of old age.    
This last stage is concerned with the final life-tasks of the elderly head of the household.  (1) He keeps in touch with his close relatives in the old country (Genesis 22:20-24), (2) he procures a proper burial place in the new country for his wife (Genesis 23), (3) he finds an appropriate wife for his main son and heir (Genesis 24), and (4) he provides for other wives and their offspring (Genesis 25:1-6).  After that he dies and is honorably buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael (25:7-11). 
The story of Rebekah is an unusual narrative in Genesis.  This is an actual narrative, told at length, not just a brief statement of the essentials needed for a story-teller’s repertoire, as are most of the episodes told about Abraham and Jacob. 
This narrative takes an entire chapter of  67 verses to relate an episode that could have been told in just a few verses.  After all, all that happens here is that the old faithful servant of Abraham (whose name we never learn!) goes to the old country and, after appropriate tests for God’s guidance, finds a beautiful girl from a related family who is willing to go to Canaan and marry her distant cousin Isaac.  There is not even any space taken up with the marriage itself! 
This story is told with careful elaborateness.  One must read the entire story and not just the Lectionary’s selections, to get the full force of this.  In the opening of the story Abraham gives careful instructions to the servant, making him swear an oath not to allow Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman (verses 2-4).  The servant discusses the options he might have to deal with but sets out to do as he is told.  The whole exchange is marked by formality and courtesy, and this style and mood will be preserved throughout.  There is great dignity and propriety pervading the life of these ancestors of Israel. 
An essential piece of the story takes place before the first Lectionary selection.  That is the servant’s commitment of the entire enterprise to God’s providence.  The servant specifies that the woman that God designates for Isaac’s wife will be the one who offers to give water not only to the traveling man, but also to his camels.  (Realistically, that would not be a minor item.  The camels would require many more jars of water from the well than the man.) 
As the selected readings begin we have already had all the introductions and the servant is making his offer – an offer that can not be refused – to Rebekah’s brother and family.  He explains Abraham’s great wealth and his determination to avoid intermarriage with the Canaanites.  He also explains God’s providential guidance in identifying Rebekah.  What can the family say?  They bless Rebekah and send her on her way.  When she is approaching Isaac, the husband-to-be, she discretely veils herself and is received by him to comfort him after the death of his mother.  That is, she becomes the matron of the nomadic clan. 
The immigrants observe all the proper addresses and courtesies in arranging a marriage for the boy of the promising future with the proper girl from the old country.  Abraham’s seniority is also blessed as a new bride enters the clan, promising another generation to inherit the promise. 
Psalm 45:10-17. 
The psalm reading is the last half of an ode to the king and queen at a royal wedding in Jerusalem.  It reflects the days of glory and wealth when the marriage of the Davidic king to the daughter of another ruler or of a great noble was an event of major importance in the diplomatic and political world. 
Our verses are the poet’s address to and description of the bride.  She is charged to forget her past identity as a daughter and devote herself to her future as queen mother, whose favor will be sought by the wealthiest and most influential powers of their world (verses 10-12).  Her fantastically rich wedding garments are celebrated (verses 13-15). 
In the conclusion, the king too is called upon to look toward the future rather than the past.  “In the place of ancestors …you shall have sons, / you will make them princes in all the earth” (verse 16).  The psalm celebrates the fulfillment of what was only a promise in the time of Isaac and Rebekah, though it was anticipated in the blessing given her by her family (Genesis 24:60). 
Romans 7:15-25a. 
The Epistle reading is a complete contrast to the irenic providence of God described in the Rebekah story and the joyful celebration of the royal wedding of the psalm.  Paul’s long description of the plight of the sinner before salvation, which really began in chapter 5 of the letter, here reaches the nadir of despair. 
He graphically describes the divided self, the self that wants desperately to do the good but only finds itself caught in the bondage of Sin, which is exacerbated by the law of God itself.  “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (verses 22-23). 
C.H. Dodd argued that in this chapter Paul was reading his own experience – and the typical human experience – in terms of the story of the fall of Adam in Genesis 3. 
Paul read in Genesis how Adam at first lived in innocence.  A command was given to him, intended to prevent him from forfeiting his immortality, according to the rabbinic interpretation.  The serpent, subtly turning this command to his own ends, seduced Adam (through his wife — but, for Paul here, that is not significant).  He transgressed the command, and death was the result…  Translated into terms of individual experience, the story runs:  “I lived at one time without law myself, but when the command came home to me, sin sprang to life and I died; the command that meant life proved death for me.  The command gave an impulse to sin, sin beguiled me, and used the command to kill me.” [quoting Romans 7:9-11 in the Moffatt translation]  It fits like a glove; and there are enough verbal echoes of the Greek translation of Gen. iii to make it likely that Paul actually had the passage in mind.  (Romans [“The Moffatt New Testament Commentary”], Harper, 1932, pp. 105-106.) 
The apostle concluded his description, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (verse 24, NRSV). 
When confessing this miserable condition, Paul knew that there was an answer. 
There was a union available that would both rescue him from his lonely struggle and complete his life as the good Lord had intended it.  His soul waited for the union that would deliver and comfort it.  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25). 
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. 
The Gospel reading has two contrasting parts.  The first is a despairing judgment on the present generation that will not respond to God’s summons, and the second is a declaration of the availability of intimate knowledge and comfort through the Lord. 
The previous parts of the chapter have talked about John the Baptist, the one bringing God’s word in preparation for the Messiah.  The common folks will not respond to John’s call for rigorous self-restraint, and the learned religious leaders condemn Jesus because he associates with the ordinary folks of the rude and crude world. 
“We played you a wedding tune, but you would not dance; we sang a funeral dirge, but you would not mourn.”  Such is the meaning of the saying about the children playing in the market-place (verse 17).  People at large want their religious leaders to dance to the tune that they play – not to learn new songs and lessons. 
The last part of the reading begins, “At that time...,” as if emphasizing that Jesus’ following words of revelation and comfort were spoken just when the hopeless resistance of the people had become absolutely clear.  In the face of such stubborn opposition from people and leaders alike (expressed even more intensely in the verses omitted from the reading, the condemnation of the Galilean towns, verses 20-24), Jesus speaks this “bolt from the Gospel of John” that appears in the middle of the Gospel According to Matthew. 
“All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (verse 27, NRSV).  There is only one route to an intimate communion with the heavenly parent, and such intimate communion is the supreme good for all human living. 
But there IS one route – the Son who, speaking in the voice of Wisdom, says to the simple and uneducated folks, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (verses 28-29).  In the face of all opposition and rejection by the worldly folks, there is a comfort and a rest available to the truly humble who wait upon the Lord. 
At the end of the journey for a new union, at the end of the struggle against the bondage of divided selves, there is comfort, there is rest. 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

June 28, 2020 - 4th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words                                           [666] 
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42.
The life of faith leads to sacrifices – sometimes beyond belief, but finally as God provides. 

Genesis 22:1-14.  

The Torah reading is the famous, or infamous, narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac. 
The opening phrase, “after these things,” marks a new beginning in the Abraham cycle.  This phrase last occurred at Genesis 15:1, where it introduced the topic of getting Abraham a son of his own.  That topic was completed in its fully developed form in Genesis 21, where Isaac was born to Abraham from Sarah and the other son, Ishmael, had been sent away.  The promise of the heir was fulfilled! 
Now, the whole heir-promise is jeopardized by a command from God (it is “God,” not Yahweh, until verse 11).  This divine command is to sacrifice the heir – to bind him, cut his throat, bleed him, and burn his body on a mountain-top altar.  The specialness of the son is emphasized.  “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” (verse 2, NRSV).  
The story then draws out the details of Abraham’s actions, to build suspense.  He “rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him… he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him” (verse 3).  Abraham speaks to others as if they are simply carrying out a standard act of worship to God (verse 5). 
Isaac is a dutiful son, carrying the wood on his back while Abraham carries the fire and the knife.  The son asks innocently where the sacrificial animal is, which they will need to complete the worship.  Abraham says that God will provide the lamb.  After they get there, build the altar, and arrange the wood, it becomes obvious to Isaac how God is providing the lamb.  It is he himself who gets “bound” with ropes (the traditional Jewish name of this passage is “the binding,” the ‘aqedah) and placed on top of the pile of wood.  As Abraham is about to cut his throat, the messenger of the Lord (Yahweh, not God) intervenes.  
What the messenger says shows that all this has been a test of Abraham’s faith.  “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (verse 12). 
This is a powerful story, told remarkably well.  However, it is an ancient story, not a modern one.  The story is so well told that it constantly seduces the modern reader into projecting Abraham’s or Isaac’s thoughts during the action – though the story itself, in the usual style of Hebrew narratives, keeps us strictly out of the heads of the characters.  
The story, nevertheless, has been modernized, psychologized, theologized, and apologized in a myriad ways, almost always to its loss as an ancient story.  
Its one sheer, stark point, however, is the threat of the loss of all meaning to one’s earthly pilgrimage.  What would it be like to lose all that you have held worthwhile?  Or at least the key to the future on which you have staked your whole life work?  And not only to lose it, but to destroy it with your own hand – because God asked for it.  
That is the horror.  That is the despair.  That is the ultimate temptation to apostasy – better no God than a God like this!  
This text stands as an awesome model of Jesus’ saying, as given in the peroration of his Mission speech:  “whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).  
To the great perplexity of the ages, Abraham proved worthy of the God who gave the one beloved heir.  

Psalm 13.  

Hebrew narrators do not take us inside peoples' minds.  Psalmists, however, have no hesitation about showing us peoples' most intense feelings! 
Reading this psalm after hearing the story of the sacrifice of Isaac invites us to hear two praying voices, those of Abraham and of Isaac.  
First Abraham, his interior dialogue despairing at what is about to become an empty and abandoned life.  
How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever? 
      How long will you hide your face from me?  
How long must I bear pain in my soul, 
      And have sorrow in my heart all day long?  (Verses 1-2, NRSV) 

And Isaac’s voice as he awaits his fate.  

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! 
      Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; 
      my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  (Verses 3-4.) 

The final word of the psalm, however, is Abraham’s, after the release, after the “unbinding” of Isaac.  
But I trusted in your steadfast love; 
      my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  
I will sing to the Lord, 
      because he has dealt bountifully with me.  (Verses 5-6) 

Romans 6:12-23.  

The reading from the Epistle follows the profound passage about dying and rising with Christ:  “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (6:4, NRSV).  
Today’s reading, accordingly, presents the life of the new believer as dead to the bondage of past sin and now living as the creature of God, a creature belonging wholly to righteousness.  The life of dying and rising with Christ is a life of becoming a living sacrifice.  
“For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (verse 19).  As in the past you presented your bodies to evil things for evil, so now present your bodies as sacrifices of righteousness.  The verb “presented” is the one also used in Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you… to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  
The life of the one raised to “newness of life” (6:4) is one of living as a continuing offering of righteousness in whatever places the Spirit leads one.  This is the new life opened up by the new sacrifice, greater even than the sacrifice of Isaac, the sacrifice of Christ, “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  

Matthew 10:40-42.  

The Gospel reading is the very last word of Jesus’ Mission speech, the discourse in which the disciples of Jesus were sent out as apostles to Israel, and in time to all the nations (chapter 10).  
This conclusion is a warrant from Jesus that the work of the apostles is the work of Jesus, and of the One who sent Jesus.  As the disciples go through the towns and homes of the people, they are in fact the coming of God to test those who wait for righteousness.  “Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of [that is, simply as] a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous” (verse 41, NRSV).  
This entire discourse about the mission among the needy, among the hospitable and the persecutors, among those who war among themselves – all this enterprise concludes with a soft and gentle touch that is remarkable:  “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of [simply as] a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (verse 42).  
What a quiet note on which to end!  After vast challenges, trials, and sufferings anticipated for the faithful workers, a cool drink at the end of the day from a kindly stranger – the work of the gospel includes that also!