Monday, July 27, 2020

August 16, 2020 - 11th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                             [673]

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28. 

Israel was first in God’s salvation design, but the goal was an inclusive grace for all people of faith. 
The readings for this Sunday concern relations of Israelite peoples to other lands, people, and faith communities.  Israel goes to live in Egypt by the providence of God, Israelites by birth are included in the community of faith by God’s grace, and the gospel sent to Israel drops crumbs for non-Israelite people in need. 
Genesis 45:1-15. 
The Torah reading is the climactic moment of revelation in the story of Joseph and his brothers. 
The scene is described as one of great emotion for Joseph. 
“Then Joseph could no longer control himself … and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ …And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it…” (verses 1-2, NRSV). 
And then he blurts out the great secret of his identity – that he is the younger brother they sold into slavery years ago.  The brothers now assembled before him are all the other eleven, including his younger full-brother Benjamin, the consolation of his father’s old age. 
The brothers are so flabbergasted by this declaration that they are speechless.  Joseph must repeat his declaration at greater length, with more details.  Now he even goes into the theology of what has happened.  
“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.  So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (verses 7-8).  
Among the Israelite brothers there is only reason to rejoice in the outcome of things that began in malice and treachery. 
The strongest concern in Joseph’s speech (verses 9-13), after he has gained some composure, is to get the good news back to his father in Canaan, and to arrange for Jacob (Israel) to come down into Egypt with all his remaining household to live through the famine in comfort and plenty.  The brothers celebrate and anticipate a happy conclusion for the worthy old father who suffered so much in bringing into the world the Sons of Israel – whose destiny will ultimately be of world-class proportions. 
Psalm 133. 
The psalm reading is a classic celebration of brothers living in harmony and blessing. 
The opening line could be translated, “Look!  What goodness and what delight!  Relatives dwelling in a single camp!” 
The peace of such brotherly dwelling is like two other special graces that God bestows on fortunate people in Palestine – two graces expressed in strong images. 
Olive oil that moistens the hair and scalp of the head – this luxury evokes the once-in-a-lifetime experience of watching a high priest be installed at the Jerusalem temple.  The anointing oil flows down from the head of the priest, over his beard, and right on down to the special sacred garments with which he has just been robed – garments, priest, and anointing representing a promise of God’s blessing for the realm in that’s priest’s time. 
In the second image, the blessing of moisture over an essentially dry land is contemplated.  The summit of Mount Hermon, far to the north of Israel, was normally snow covered.  That white top was a perpetual reminder of the moisture that was periodically deposited in the lowlands as the vitalizing freshness of morning dew.  This dew was a blessing intended by God for “the mountains of Zion.”  There at Zion the Lord has appointed (literally “commanded”) “the blessing,” which is life lasting to the end of the age (Hebrew ‘ōlām). 
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32. 
The Epistle reading is taken from the last part of Paul’s long meditation in Romans on the election of Israel in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
In the entire discussion Paul maintains two things.  As of the moment, Israel (meaning the main Judean people of the time) has rejected the gospel about Jesus Christ, but, secondly, God’s original promises to the ancestors will not be broken.  “As regards the gospel they are enemies… for your sake;  but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors ” (verse 28, NRSV, not in the reading). 
What has happened, Paul concludes, is a great leveling.  In the past, Israelites had the advantage of the election of their ancestors and the gift of the law, and their charge from God was to be “obedient” to the revelation and the law.   On the other hand, people of the nations (“Gentiles”) lived in “disobedience” because they did not have God’s special direction in the law.  The historic Israelites, however, being human, proved incapable of full obedience to the law – and thus became “disobedient.”  Thus, whether with or without the law, all had become disobedient. 
Through God’s grace, people of the nations became “obedient” to God’s will, through their faith, which reversed the original obedient-disobedient relation. 
Just as you [people of the nations] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their [the Israelites’] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.  For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all (verses 30-32). 
The leveling has occurred.  All have been disobedient but may now become obedient, by faith in Jesus Christ.  (Compare Galatians 3:23, “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.”) 
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28.  
The Gospel selection has two parts:  an optional reading, followed by the main text.
The optional reading (verses 10-20) is a continuation of Jesus’ controversy with the Pharisees concerning their teachings about purifications.  Jesus had condemned the Pharisees’ pedantry about hand-washing before meals by using a scripture quotation in which God declares:  “In vain do they worship me, / teaching human precepts as doctrines” (15:9, quoting Isaiah 29:13). 
Jesus then offers his counter-teaching:  “It is not what goes into the mouth [as in eating with unwashed hands] that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (verse 11, NRSV).  The ultimate issues of life are not religious taboos, but social conduct. 
Jesus mentions seven evils that come from the human heart, most of which are prohibited in the Ten Commandments (verse 19).  And he concludes, “These [wicked actions] are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (verse 20). 
If taken with complete seriousness, this principle eliminates the various taboos making up the Mosaic dietary laws (in the book of Leviticus).  This declaration would seem to be a far-reaching liberation from the burdensome restrictions of Rabbinic purity rules!  But this apparent liberation theology receives an even more shocking challenge in the next episode (the main Gospel reading). 
In the main reading the priority of Israel is overridden by a Canaanite woman’s desperate faith. 
The story of the Canaanite woman is told only in Matthew and Mark – in Matthew she is a “Canaanite,” in Mark a “Greek (woman), a Syrophoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26, literal translation).  Matthew’s version of the story follows Mark in general, but there are several very important twists.  It is worth printing the story with everything underlined that is found in Matthew’s version only. 
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But he did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.  (NRSV)
In Matthew’s version, the woman recognizes Jesus as the Judean Messiah.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”  She names him as his reputation prescribes, but to her his identity seems not to matter much.  If he heals, she needs him!  In Matthew’s version, Jesus deliberately ignores her “shouting,” treating her as a tourist treats a vendor in a foreign country who keeps chanting for a sale.  The annoyed disciples apparently ask him to grant her request – give her some pittance to get rid of her! 
Jesus’ answer to the disciples – note, it is to them, not to the woman – declares that he was sent only to Israel, not to the nations.  This is a Matthew viewpoint.  Matthew makes a point of keeping Jesus’ mission directed only to Israel (see Matthew 10:5-6).  Only after the crucifixion and the resurrection will Jesus’ mission be carried beyond Israel and to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20).  Prior to that, Matthew keeps all of Jesus’ work in Galilee and Judea, that is, among “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”     
(The other story of Jesus healing a non-Israelite is the Centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:5-13.  In both stories, the foreigners initiate the request for the healing and Jesus accedes to it.  In both, the healing takes place at a distance, so Jesus does not have to enter the residences of non-Israelite people.) 
But here the priority of Israel in Jesus’ work is overridden!  This persistent Canaanite woman barges right on, kneels in Jesus’ way and pleads for mercy.  Jesus can no longer ignore her—for theological reasons or otherwise.  He has come into her territory, so she is going to invade his territory.  He is in the healing business, and she must have some healing. 
One last rejection by Jesus, to defend the priority of Israel.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  In God’s household, the Israelites are the children, people of the nations are scavenging dogs.  Actually, the term translated “dogs” is a diminutive, “doggies” or “puppies.”  Most dogs in the ancient world were not pets or house animals.  The term Jesus used (in both Mark and Matthew) refers to domestic dogs, pets who would be allowed to eat scraps from under the household table. 
That term was the opening the Canaanite woman needed.  A. B. Bruce suggested (The Expositor’s Greek Testament, on this passage) that by using this rare word Jesus left her that opening on purpose, and she had the wit to seize it and make her clinching argument.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the [puppies] eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 
The woman’s determination and wit win!  “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.” 
Israel may have the priority in God’s design for salvation, but a foreign lady in the provinces wins an exception by appeal to compassion and the determination of mother love. 

August 9, 2020 - 10th Sunday after Pentecost

Biblical Words       
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33.
The stories of Joseph and Jesus are simple, but loaded with challenges to faith, past and present.   

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28.  

As the Lectionary readings from the Torah continue with selections from Genesis we come to the story of Joseph. 
This is a straightforward narrative that tells itself.  Unlike much of the Abraham and Jacob story cycles, the long Joseph narrative in Genesis 37, 39-47 is a continuous story, told with almost modern narrative skill.  It clearly comes from literary art in ancient Israel, even if older tribal history and folk tradition have supplied the themes. 
Joseph was the tribal ancestor of a group of clans that in time settled in the central highlands of Palestine and became the dominant tribal group.  Its success led to its splitting into two other tribal powers, Ephraim and Manasseh, which are active tribes in the first glimpses we get of Israel’s pre-monarchic history (see, for example, these two tribes in the stories of Gideon in Judges 6-8).  Thus at the end of the Joseph story, his two sons by his Egyptian wife, Manasseh and Ephraim, are adopted and blessed by the aged patriarch Jacob (Genesis 41:50-52 and chapter 48).  The sanctuary site of Shechem, which was central to the territories of Manasseh and Ephraim, claimed to be the burial place of Joseph’s bones (Joshua 24:32, linked to Genesis 50:25 and Exodus 13:19). 
Thus, out of old tribal lore that linked the ancestor Joseph with Israel’s descent into Egypt (where he got his wife), the narrators give us a sophisticated story of the envy and rivalry of brothers. 
The characters in the story reflect the personalities of the tribes.  For example, Reuben is the firstborn and makes an attempt to save his father’s favorite son, but like the failed tribe, he is ineffective and misses his chance at leadership.  (If the tribe Reuben once led the bne yisrael, it was long before our recorded history.  Nevertheless, that tribe [and its ancestor] retained its place as first-born in Israelite tradition.) 
Similarly, the second brother to take a lead in the story, Judah, represents the aggressive southern tribal group who will always be a competitor to the Joseph tribes.   In later chapters of the Joseph story, the youngest brother Benjamin is a late-comer and dependent on the others.  As a full brother of Joseph, he represents the power that rose late following the dominance of Manasseh and Ephraim, and it is this late-coming Benjamin that actually gave Israel its first king (Saul).  Thus the characters of the story act out the remembered tribal histories. 
There are a few elements of the story unrelated to tribal history. 
Joseph’s special coat – “of many colors,” as it comes out in English – marks the father’s conspicuous favoritism, which is Joseph’s main problem with his brothers.  Joseph is a dreamer of dreams (and later an interpreter of dreams).  The dreams are omitted from the Lectionary’s reading (they are verses 5-11), but they are referred to by the brothers as they plot to kill Joseph (verses 19-20).  Not only are the dreams signs that Joseph will be the supreme power among his relatives, but Joseph in the story is naïve enough to report their contents to the very people who are overshadowed in the omens.  No wonder he fell victim to malicious brothers! 
That episode about his dreams shows that Joseph was completely lacking in street smarts.  He had to spend many years in Egyptian slave quarters and prisons to become a master of clever men and mega-economic programs. 

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b. 

The selection from the Psalm is explicitly about Joseph.  When famine came to Canaan, where Jacob and his sons lived, God had prepared a way to save them.  One might even say that the psalm treats Joseph as a Suffering Servant, from the viewpoint of both the brothers who sold him and the surprised nations who came to benefit from his suffering (compare Isaiah 52:13-53:12). 
He had sent a man ahead of them,
      Joseph, who was sold as a slave. 
His feet were hurt with fetters,
      his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
      the word of the Lord kept testing him. 
The king sent and released him;
      the ruler of the peoples set him free. 
He made him lord of his house,
      and ruler of all his possessions,
to instruct his officials at his pleasure,
      and to teach his elders wisdom.  (Verses 17-22, NRSV.) 

Romans 10:5-15. 

It does not seem a distortion to suggest that the Epistle reading is part of Paul’s hope that the rejection of Jesus by his contemporary Judeans was a part of a Joseph-story drama.  In the end, what was done in malice and envy turned out to be for the salvation of all.  The Judean brothers and sisters have not yet recognized Jesus as Lord, but God is not finished. 
The distinction between Torah-followers and Christ-followers was already clear and sharp when Paul wrote.  It was stated a little earlier in this letter: 
Gentiles [peoples of the nations], who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.  Why not?  Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. (Romans 9:30-32, NRSV.) 
Assuming this sharp distinction, in our Lectionary reading Paul’s argument is based on Deuteronomy 30:11-14.  We need to hear that passage to follow the force of his point here.  Moses speaks to the Israelites: 
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”  Neither is it beyond the sea, …  No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14.) 
This passage really poses the ultimate issue between Paul and his Pharisaic peers who believed that obedience to the Torah is the only route to salvation.  On their reading, the above passage says the divine command can be obeyed.  Paul, on the other hand, believed it is humanly impossible to fulfill the command of the Torah, and that only faith in God’s gracious act in Jesus brings acceptance before God.  (See his statements in Galatians 2:15-21, which describe the situation for Judean believers, before the nations were included.) 
In Paul’s phrasing, the last sentence in the Deuteronomy passage reads, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (verse 8).  He reads this to mean, not that the word in your mouth/lips and heart is a command capable of human performance (as the Pharisees believed), but that God has put the confession of faith on human lips and in human hearts (through the work of the Holy Spirit). 
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead [thus confessing faith], you will be saved.  For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved (verses 9-10). 
Thus, the confession is everything, and in that light one can only conclude that the differences between Torah-confessing and Christ-confessing brothers and sisters would not soon be resolved. 

Matthew 14:22-33. 

While the Joseph story seems a very straightforward and open-faced narrative, the Gospel reading is hardly that. 
This can scarcely be considered as other than a weird story.  Not only is walking on the stormy lake at night pretty bizarre, the story is full of suspicious things and sudden reversals. 
For example, why was it that Jesus “made” the disciples get in the boat and head for the other side, for what is clearly a night passage?  Were they resisting?  Why the implied compulsion?  On what should have been a short lake trip, the disciples battle opposing winds all night, obviously not making good progress.  Jesus sends away the people, goes up in the hills and keeps a personal vigil – all before he eventually goes down to the lake and starts the journey across himself.  What a jumbling of events!  Why all this complication for the disciples? 
But there is more.  When Jesus catches up with the boat – seemingly in a short time – the disciples are terrified and are sure they see a ghost.  From terrifying them, Jesus turns to reassuring words.  “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (verse 27, NRSV).  Then Peter is bold to ask to join Jesus in walking the waves, and does so at his call – until he realizes what he is doing, panics, and is rescued only by Jesus’ extended hand. 
Up and down.  Terror and comfort.  Confidence and panic.  Send them ahead then catch up with them.  Travel all night but get nowhere.  What a confused scenario is presented by this entire passage. 
Such literary features are a sure sign that we are dealing with a simple-appearing narrative that is full of symbolism.  The most obvious symbols are the boat as the church, the storm as the resistance to Jesus’ disciples making their way without him.  Walking on the water is the same mastery of the cosmic powers as in the story of Jesus stilling the storm (Matthew 8:23-27).  This much Matthew took from Mark (6:45-52). 
The Peter episode, however, appears only in Matthew.  Peter tries to walk to Jesus and starts to sink as he loses confidence.  The Gospel According to Matthew has a strong interest in Peter as first of the disciples, empowered with special authority by Jesus (16:17-19), but also as the fallible man who had to experience for himself all the challenges of faith.  Even disciples can master some of the powers of chaos (walk on the water for a little while), at the Lord’s command, but they face the problem of little faith.  “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31). 
Altogether, this Matthew story, like the Joseph story in Genesis, is a literary embellishment of powerful symbolic realities in Israelite and early Christian worlds.  Even Jesus’ actions can sometimes seem erratic, and certainly the voyages he sends followers on can be dark and stormy and loaded with occasions for doubt and panic.  Still, “when they [Jesus and Peter] got in the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

August 2, 2020 - 9th Sunday after Pentecost

                                     Biblical Words                [671] 

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21. 

Israel received its name and destiny in struggle, a struggle that included tension between need and abundance.  

Genesis 32:22-31. 

Today’s reading from the Torah concludes the selections from the story of Jacob included in this year’s Lectionary.  In these selections, the conclusion of the story is Jacob’s wrestling with God – and holding his own! 

Background.  The whole of Genesis 32 is a skillful presentation of Jacob’s anxious preparation to meet his brother Esau, from whom he thinks he has been alienated for twenty years.  Jacob had fled from Esau carrying only his staff (verse 10) but now he is returning with great wealth in sheep, goats, cattle, and camels, as well as having four women who are mothers of his eleven sons and one daughter.  He returns a wealthy man. 

The whole chapter emphasizes Jacob’s wealth and the measures he takes to protect it from Esau’s probable revenge.  Jacob sends news ahead to inform Esau of his coming and of his great good fortune, but the messengers return saying that Esau is heading this way with a force of 400 men (verses 3-6).  Frightened, Jacob divides his great retinue into two camps with the practical idea that if Esau destroys one camp, the other can get away and not all will be lost (verses 7-8).  Finally, as a last desperate measure, he sends gifts to Esau, groups of valuable animals, one flock or herd after another to keep surprising Esau with his generosity (verses 13-20). 

In the midst of these anxious defensive measures, Jacob also prays to God.  “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, … for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children” (verse 11, NRSV). 

The Struggle.  After all others are sent ahead, Jacob spends the night alone by the Jabbok river.  A “man” wrestles with him through the night – the actual fight is not of interest, but the identity of the other wrestler is.  (The verb “to wrestle,” ’abaq, is similar to the name of the river Jabbok.  In the ancient folklore, the name of the river inspired a story about divine wrestling.)  The mysterious “man,” who does not immediately defeat Jacob, is a being of the night, and when the dawn approaches he must leave.  Thus, he bargains with Jacob in order to get away. 

Jacob will not let him escape without a blessing.  The mysterious being asks Jacob’s name, and then changes it.  “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven [sarah, a play on the name Israel] with God and with humans and have prevailed” (verse 28).  More literally this declaration has an interesting ambiguity, “You have striven with gods/God [’elohim] and men and have prevailed.”  (In form ’elohim is plural, “gods,” but over time Israelites came to treat it grammatically as a singular, “God.”)  Through the ages, Israel will fight against polytheism and its representatives.  Jacob’s new name expresses his destiny – and that of his descendants. 

The mysterious being refuses to give his own name, but Jacob realizes that he has dealt with a major divine power.  “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (verse 31).  Thus, the name of the place where the wrestling happened is Peniel, the Face of El, the place where one can get access to the high god of the heavenly world.  (Peniel was a major Israelite sanctuary east of the Jordan river in the monarchic period, I Kings 12:25.) 

The Lectionary selections about Jacob thus end with a statement of Israel’s destiny.  Israel (through the ages) has wrestled with God – as well as with human groups – and has survived! 

Psalm 17:1-7, 15. 

If we hear the Psalm reading as a prayer of Jacob, with his new identity, it is a prayerful affirmation of his righteousness. 

The speaker in this psalm is one of the innocent who has been wrongly accused.  The psalm is the plea before Yahweh for vindication.  “Hear a just cause, O Lord,” is the opening appeal.  The middle part of the reading asks that God search the inner being as only God can do, examining the deep self which no human court can adjudicate.  “…If you test me, you will find no wickedness in me…”  However, this innocence is because the speaker has followed God’s guidance. 

…By the words of your lips

      I have avoided the ways of the violent. 

My steps have held fast to your paths;

      my feet have not slipped (verses 4-5, NRSV). 

The final declaration of the psalm can be understood as the declaration of the Jacob/Israel who saw God face to face. 

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;

      when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness” (verse 15). 

For Israel, there was to be both righteousness and the mystic vision of God’s presence. 

Romans 9:1-5. 

One of Israel’s struggles through the ages would be that between the followers of the two-fold Torah (Rabbinic Judaism) and the followers of Jesus who confessed him as the Anointed One of God.  The Epistle reading is the beginning of a discussion of Israel’s destiny by the great apostle who took Christ to the peoples of the nations, to the non-Judean world. 

Paul was a Pharisee who had received a new interpretation of the Israelite scriptures, received this interpretation by revelation from the risen Jesus himself.  Paul has been carrying this good news about Jesus’ death and resurrection to Judeans and non-Judeans throughout Asia Minor and Greece for many years.  However, the Judean hearers have mostly not responded.  This grieves Paul deeply.  “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (verses 2-3, NRSV). 

Three chapters of Romans (9-11) are devoted to Paul’s reflections on Israel in God’s larger plan of salvation.  (Note:  these chapters are about "Israel," not "the Jews.")  This is a topic he obviously labored over and spoke of frequently in his missionary work.  

Today’s passage is mostly the intense affirmation that Israel did receive the revelation, covenants, worship, and promises – even the Anointed One himself – that the Judean scriptures describe. 

Israel was and is the beginning of salvation, for the nations (non-Judeans) as well as the Judeans.  That is Paul’s firm insistence at the start of the discussion, which we will follow further in coming weeks. 

Matthew 14:13-21. 

The Gospel reading is Matthew’s version of Jesus providing food for a multitude of over 5,000 in the wilderness. 

There are six episodes in the Gospels in which Jesus multiplies the loaves to feed the hungry people, two each in Matthew (14:13-21; 15:32-39) and Mark (6:32-44; 8:1-10), and one each in Luke (9:10-17) and John (6:1-14).  This was clearly a powerful action in the memories and reflections of early Christians. 

This is one of those stories that is told in a straightforward manner but almost certainly has larger, symbolic meanings and connections.  It IS a miracle story.  A tale about enticing people to share their otherwise hidden lunches, as rationalistic interpreters would have it, is really pretty innocuous. 

Bread.  But given the miracle, it is also about a number of larger things.  Most of all it is about the basic need of human life – food.  One of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness was about getting bread from rocks, a temptation to misuse miraculous power.  In that connection Jesus quoted Deuteronomy, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, NRSV).  In our present passage, Jesus is using this miraculous power, but in a way that advances God’s kingdom, not human showmanship.  Here the people have listened to the word all day.  When it is really and truly dinner time, people do live by bread, and Jesus shows that God also provides that. 

Distribution.  Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds” (verse 19, NRSV).  Each detail is deliberate and revealing.  The breaking of the bread is a solemn, sacramental action.  It is from the hands of the disciples, not of Jesus, that the people receive the bread and fish.  And what is provided proves to be very abundant.  There are twelve baskets of leftovers available for distribution to other poor people not at the event. 

Daily.  The giving of bread to the needy people in the wilderness certainly has echoes of the manna story in Exodus (chapter 16).  That story itself is a complex set of lessons about faith, rebellion, and an appreciation of the Sabbath structure of God’s time.  It is the example par excellence of living by “daily bread.”  Needy Israel in the wilderness was the model for followers of Jesus who prayed that God’s kingdom would come and that they would receive what they needed for the journey – one day at a time (Matthew 6:9-13). 

The Israel of history, whether led by teachers of Torah or followers of the Anointed One, share a mission to feed the hungry who have followed God’s word into the wilderness. 

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.