21 July 2014

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, 27 July 2014

Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105:1011, 45b or Psalm 128
I Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136

Romans 8:26-39
St. Matthew13:31-33, 44-52

Background: Parables
Parables ask hard spiritual questions, or highlight pertinent spiritual issues, and yet they are immensely popular.  They are known prior to their use by Jesus.  A primary example of parabolic teaching in the Hebrew Scriptures is the parable that the Prophet Nathan uses to chastise David after his affair with Bathsheba (II Samuel 12:1-6.)  Unlike a fable, which often uses animals to teach a human lesson, or allegory which substitutes symbols for the main idea of the lesson, the parable here gives the reader, and David, a conjectural case worthy of the law courts and a guilty or not guilty verdict.  The parable leads David to recognize his own guilt in the situation that the prophet speaks against.  This connection between the Law and the parable helps us to understand the role that Jesus would play as he used the parable as a device for personal or public instruction.  In a sense, the parable underscores Jesus role as “Rabbi” – the interpreter of the Law.  Whether or not this term was even known or used by Jesus, (some argue that it only emerges as a title following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) the connection between Law and teacher/interpreter still holds.

The audience of Jesus’ parables, however, could range from those who followed him, either disciples or those interested in his teaching, or those who opposed Jesus’ teaching.  Either was game to receive the parabolic point that he wished to make.  In Matthew, the parables fall generally into one of three areas: a) broadly dealing with the Kingdom of Heaven, b) teaching the detailed connections of covenant and the Kingdom of Heaven, or c) dealing with the decision to go to Jerusalem and the destiny that awaits him there.  Examples of each are: a) The Parable of the Sower (St. Matthew 13:3-8) with its addition themes of harvesting and winnowing, b) The Parable of the Lost Sheep (St. Matthew 18:12-14) where Jesus explores the value of the one in contrast to the many, and c) The Parable of the Tenants (Saint Matthew 21:33-41) placed after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, fully describing in parabolic form what awaits him there.  William F. Albright makes some interesting comments about the connection of Covenant (Law) and Jesus’ teaching,

“It seems likely that any reflection on covenant by Jesus would mean that he had considered the implied claim that any “New” Covenant must have God as author, and the OT requirement that it be sealed in blood.”[1]

Preachers or interested readers might do well to read Albright’s excellent article on the Parables, as they appear not only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but parallels in the Gospel of Thomas as well.  See the footnote below.

Genesis 29:15-28

Laban said to Jacob, "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?" Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah's eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, "I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel." Laban said, "It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me." So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed." So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?" Laban said, "This is not done in our country-- giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years." Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.

Michelangelo - Rachel and Leah

It is too bad that in this track of readings we are skipping around, missing crucial texts and developments.  Following Jacob’s deceitful behavior over against Esau (substituting the “red red stew” for a mess of lentils and bread) both Rebekah and Jacob trick Isaac into giving a blessing to Jacob that was meant for the firstborn.  Now in this reading, Jacob receives his comeuppance.  After working for seven years (seven is a number given to completeness or perfection in the Hebrew Scriptures) for Rachel, whom he loved, Jacob is surprised when Laban gives to him Leah rather than Rachel.  The explanation is easy enough for she is the first-born and she is exercising her rights.  The text does not comment on whether Jacob gets the point, but merely moves on to his seven years of additional labor (due to the lack of the bride price) for the hand of Rachel. 

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. Why does Jacob not comment on his being given Leah instead of Rachel?
  2. Is this karma?  Why or why not?
  3. Where have the tables been turned on you?

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b Confitemini Domino

Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.

Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.

Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.

Search for the LORD and his strength; *
continually seek his face.

Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,

O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.

He is the LORD our God; *
his judgments prevail in all the world.

He has always been mindful of his covenant, *
the promise he made for a thousand generations:

The covenant he made with Abraham, *
the oath that he swore to Isaac,

Which he established as a statute for Jacob, *
an everlasting covenant for Israel,

Saying, "To you will I give the land of Canaan *
to be your allotted inheritance."


Were we to read the entirety of this historical psalm, we would see rehearsed for us in its many verses the history of Israel.  Our particular section for today reviews the history of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the promise made to them that is recapped in the final verse of the psalm, “To you will I give the land of Canaan, be your allotted inheritance.”  What is crucial in this reading (and relates to comments made on parables in the introductory section above) is the Covenant that God has made with Abraham.  The verses of the psalm illustrate not only the recipients of theses promises, but its summary detail as well.  To understand the psalm fully and to catch its complete gist, one might want to read the missing verses that will give additional meaning to the promise repeated in verse 45.

Breaking open Psalm 105:
  1. How has God lived out the Covenant with you?
  2. What kind of covenants have you made in your life?
  3. How have you honored them?


Psalm 128 Beati omnes

Happy are they all who fear the LORD, *
and who follow in his ways!

You shall eat the fruit of your labor; *
happiness and prosperity shall be yours.

Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house, *
your children like olive shoots round about your table.

The man who fears the LORD *
shall thus indeed be blessed.

The LORD bless you from Zion, *
and may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.

May you live to see your children's children; *
may peace be upon Israel.

The use of this psalm seems to work against the theological sense of the first reading, instead asserting its romantic nature.  I, for one, will not use it in that Psalm 105 has a great deal more to say.  This psalm comments obliquely on labor such as Jacob performed for Laban, but more succinctly comments on the role of woman at this time.  “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house.”  There is no public place for the wife, or for women in general, in this psalm.  It is the man, “who fears the Lord (and) shall thus indeed be blessed.  Perhaps this is an interesting text to preach on, but certainly not to read without accompanying comment.

Breaking open Psalm 128:
  1. What are your thoughts about how women are pictured in this psalm?
  2. How might you explain the “fruitful vine” verse to others?
  3. If you are a woman, what is your role in your household and faith.  If you are a man, what are your thoughts on this psalm.

Track 2
1 Kings 3:5-12

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you." And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?"

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

Marc Chagall - Solomon's Prayer

Last week we commented on the various holy places in Israel as an explanation about the importance of the incident at Beth-el in the Track 1 reading.  You may click here to see that article.  Here the shrine is at Gibeon, a “high place” that indicates that in spite of David’s insistence (and we might assume Solomon’s too) on the use of Jerusalem as the sole place for cultic activity, this ancient high place is used by Solomon as well (see the preceding verses).  The Deuteronomist author of this section offers a somewhat embarrassed reply, “For a house had not yet been built for the Lord.”  The real point here, however, is the monarchy’s (Solomon’s specifically) relationship with God.  Here, like prophets of old, Solomon has a “night dream”, a revelation.  This vision is unusual in that it is actually a conversation or a prayer in which Solomon asks for wisdom for his coming reign.  This is probably the connection that this reading has to the Gospel for this day – a collection of pieces of wisdom about the Kingdom of Heaven.  God replies and offers to Solomon great wealth and wisdom.  It is the common wisdom, however, that will be his reputation in the ages to come.

Breaking open the I Kings:
  1. What do you wish God would give to the rulers of this world?
  2. What do you wish that God would give to you.
  3. In what ways are you wise?

Psalm 119:129-136 Feci judicium

Your decrees are wonderful; *
therefore I obey them with all my heart.

When your word goes forth it gives light; *
it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; *
I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, *
as you always do to those who love your Name.

Steady my footsteps in your word; *
let no iniquity have dominion over me.

Rescue me from those who oppress me, *
and I will keep your commandments.

Let your countenance shine upon your servant *
and teach me your statutes.

My eyes shed streams of tears, *
because people do not keep your law.

We have been reading from this acrostic psalm devoted to the Law for several Sundays now.  Here the psalm comments on the intents of the first reading regarding the Wisdom that Solomon requests from God.  The author is in an ecstasy about the Law and Word that God gives.  In the verse, “it (your decrees) gives understanding to the simple.”  Thus the wisdom that Solomon requests is not only something available to the rich and powerful, but to “the simple” as well.

Breaking open the Psalm 119:
  1. When and where do you read the Bible?
  2. If not, why not?
  3. What wisdom does the Bible give to you?

Romans 8:26-39

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

"For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered."

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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.

Paul often makes effective use of the notion of “weakness”.  Here weakness becomes an invitation for the entrance of the Spirit into our speaking and praying.  Paul assets our inclusion in the family of God in spite of our weakness, and then wonders what we are to say about this relationship.  God is seen as a companion, someone standing by us in all things.  He imagines that no one can accuse us for we are allied with God.  Is this a fool’s paradise?  No.  Paul outlines that we yet encounter difficult times and decisions.  He uses a quotation from Psalm 42:22 to underscore our strength standing in the face of difficulties, “For your sake we are killed all day long, we are counted as sheep for slaughter.”  People of faith, including Christians and Jews have stood and will stand in the face of danger and threats.  Nonetheless, God it is who stands with us.

In the final verses, looks away from the difficulties to once again perceive the love of God, and the tight relationship of God and those God calls as God’s own.  In this hymn, all the powers that might threaten us are rendered useless in the faith of the love that God bears for us and that we in faith bear toward God.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What are your weaknesses?
  2. How do they give you strength?
  3. How do you stand up to the powers of this world?

St. Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 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.
"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Again, today, we have more parables to sharpen our understanding of the Kingdom of heaven.  The devices are simple: mustard, yeast, treasure, pearls, and a fishnet.  The themes are there to illustrate the scope of the kingdom, from the very small to the very large.  Of special interest are the birds that rest in the “mustard tree” that represent the nations of the earth (cf. Daniel 4:7-9, 17-19).  Thus the kingdom is more than we can or want to perceive.  It includes more than we can imagine.

There are other contrasts related to value, the treasure, and the pearl, which require us to give up all that we have in order to gain more.  The image of the fishing net is especially valuable in that all sorts and condition of sea life is captured in the net.  Some will be useful, and some will not.  Some will be a sign of the kingdom, and some will be cast into the fire – a sign of condemnation and damnation. 

The final comment has reference to the scribes “who have been trained for the kingdom.”  These are not the old scribes, who only bring out the old, but scribes of the Kingdom of heaven, who bring out the new (good news) as well as the old (the law and the prophets).  These images strike an inclusionary note that is good for us to see.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is the depth and breadth of your faith.
  2. What about the Kingdom of Heaven is valuable to you?
  3. What are your old things, and what are the new things of your faith?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Albright, W, and Mann, C. (1971) The Anchor Bible Matthew, Introduction, Translation and Notes, Doubleday and Company, Inc. New York City, New York, p. CL.

16 July 2014

Saint Mary Magdalene, 22 July 2014

Judith 9:1, 11-14
Psalm 42:1-7
II Corinthians 5:14-18
St. John 20:11-18

Note:  This commentary on the propers for Saint Mary Magdalen was written especially for Saint Mark's Church, Santa Clara, California, who will be celebrating her day on Sunday, 20 July 2014.  If you would like to see the commentary on Proper 11, please click here:

Background: Mary Magdalene
Considered a peer of the Apostles in the Eastern Church, it is time for a renewal of thanksgiving and consideration for the life and ministry of Mary Magdalene in the West.  She was one of several women who followed Jesus and was involved with the community that gathered about him.  A great deal of legend and speculation has attached itself to her story, not all of it edifying or appreciative.  Most telling of her is her presence at the Resurrection.  Her connection to health and healing through Jesus commends her well enough, but her witness to the Risen One is her supreme commendation.  It is her witness, “I have seen the Lord”, that propelled the Easter Message not only amongst the disciples, but throughout the world as well. 

The involvement of her story in the fiction of Dan Brown and others has brought attention to her, but much of it the attention of controversy and speculation.  Such ideas have not been limited to our time.  Earlier times speculated on her importance, influence, and role, and she has not been well served by it.  In our time it seems that she serves as a good focal point for discussion and discovery of the ministry of women in the church.  That is the reason why we have moved this feast day to a Sunday, to rejoice and give thanks for the ministry of Mary Magdalene and other women.

First Reading: Judith 9:1, 11-14

Judith fell prostrate, put ashes upon her head, and uncovered the sackcloth she was wearing. Just as the evening incense was being offered in the temple of God in Jerusalem, Judith cried loudly to the Lord: “Your strength is not in numbers, nor does your might depend upon the powerful.  You are God of the lowly, helper of those of little account, supporter of the weak, protector of those in despair, savior of those without hope. “Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Master of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of all you have created, hear my prayer! Let my deceitful words* k wound and bruise those who have planned dire things against your covenant, your holy temple, Mount Zion, and the house your children possess. Make every nation and every tribe know clearly that you are God, the God of all power and might, and that there is no other who shields the people of Israel but you alone.”

Gustav Klimt, "Judith"

Originally written in Hebrew, this Jewish book (novel, as some call it) has only come down to us in Greek and Latin editions.  Written around the time of the Seleucid domination of Palestine in the second century BCE, this work looks back to an earlier time to tell a story at the time of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.  The message of the book is quite simple – a message of God’s protection of the Jewish people in all kinds of adversities.  That a woman (in her time a weak vessel of God’s grace and a widow as well) becomes a tool of God’s protection should not be lost on us. 

Our reading for today consists of prayer that Judith makes in advance of the real adventure of the book – her defeat and murder of the General Holofornes.  The prayer is important, however, for assigning to the “weak and lowly” (a theme enjoyed by Luke) victory and defeat of the enemies of the Jewish People.  She becomes God’s justice and agent, and yet she assigns the success to God’s doing, not her own.

Breaking open Judith:
  1. Why does the author of Judith pick a widow to be his heroine?
  2. What does Judith’s prayer say about her faith?
  3. What do you think of her actions?

Psalm 42:1-7 Quemadmodum

As the deer longs for streams of water,*
so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God, the living God.*
When can I enter and see the face of God?

My tears have been my bread day and night,*
as they ask me every day, “Where is your God?”

Those times I recall as I pour out my soul,
When I would cross over to the shrine of the Mighty One, *
to the house of God, Amid loud cries of thanksgiving,
with the multitude keeping festival.

Why are you downcast, my soul;
why do you groan within me?*
Wait for God, for I shall again praise him,
my savior and my God.

My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I remember you*
From the land of the Jordan* and Hermon,
from Mount Mizar,

This psalm, which seems to be filled with sorrow, also anticipates great joy.  It seems the perfect accompaniment to the story of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel for today.  What are present in the psalm: a thirst for God, tears, crying, groaning, and finally praise.  All could be assigned to the Magdalene as well.  There is also a theme of waiting, appropriate to the cause of Mary, who has waited for ages to recognize her ministry and apostleship.

Breaking open Psalm 42:
  1. Do you have a “thirst for God”?  Why?  Why not?
  2. How does the theme of waiting have a presence in the psalm?
  3. Does faith sometimes lead to depression?

Second Reading: II Corinthians 5:14-18

For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation.

In this reading St. Paul moves beyond the materiality of the Incarnation, recognizing that we know “Christ according to the flesh,” realizing that the Risen and Ascended One is no longer in the flesh of this life.  Like the Risen One, we are a new creation.  Perhaps this is why Mary didn’t recognize the Lord – he was now something new and different, as was she.  Paul doesn’t want us to weep, as Mary did, over the loss of the past.  What was expected was not seen – something over and above that was what was expected.  Now we are in relationship with God through Christ.

Breaking open II Corinthians:
  1. What does it mean to you that God was incarnate in the flesh of Jesus?
  2. What does your body mean to you?
  3. How does your body embody the faith?

The Holy Gospel: Saint John 20:11-18

But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping.  And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,”* which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and what he told her.

What are the themes that bubble up from the ministry of Jesus with the disciples that are encapsulated here?  First there is the theme of misunderstanding, or not recognizing.  How often had the disciples not gotten it, and misunderstood the intentions of Jesus.  So here, Mary weeps over the lost body of Jesus, and does not recognize him when he appears.  A second theme is the recognition of the voice calling your name.  Jesus does not explain to Mary what had happen, nor does he describe to her who he really is.  Jesus merely says, “Mary,” and she knows and recognizes him.  The final theme is absence.  Mary cannot touch but only see the One who is to return to the Father.  Her response, however, is exemplary.  “I have seen the Lord.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are Mary’s tears all about?
  2. What describes Mary’s courage best?
  3. What leaders to make the confession of Jesus at the end?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, how and for ever.  Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller