28 July 2014

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, 3 August 2014

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22

Romans 9”1-5
St. Matthew 14:13-21

Background:  Foods in ancient Israel
The reading from Isaiah (see Track 2, below) sparks a question – what did people of second Isaiah’s time eat?  What was the food that they had experienced in Babylon, and what could they expect upon their return to the Levant?  In Mesopotamia crops were only possible through irrigation.  The crops common to the Mesopotamian civilization were barley, onions, grapes, turnips and apples. Beer and wine were also made.  Spices were more abundant, and were used in cooking. During times of flooding, back up foods of cow and lamb were used.  Israelite foods depended on whether the settlement was on the coastal plain, or in the hill country.  Basic foods were bread, wine, and oil, and the Bible lists seven basic foods: wheat, barley, figs, grapes olives, pomegranates, and dates.  Milk and honey are also mentioned. The consumption of meat was limited to fowl, lambs, goats, and cows. Pigs were forbidden by the Law, but there is archeological evidence that there was some small consumption of pork as well.  Meat was not a staple of the diet, but was limited to times of slaughter, or to communion sacrifices at holy places.  Later as access to seas became more stable, fish became a part of the diet.

Track 1:
Genesis 32:22-31

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

This is a potent reading, and its purposes are multiple.  It may be an etiology regarding the name “Israel”, or one describing the name “Peniel”, or finally one that explains the dietary restriction regarding the sciatic muscle (read verses 23 and 33 as well).  These however are not the only purposes of the pericope.  The name change from Jacob the Israel is of import, and the wrestling with the unknown “beings divine”[1] adds further twists to the plot of the story.  Let’s begin with the names.  The name “Jacob” has as a part of its structure the Hebrew vocable that indicates “crookedness”, for that is Jacob’s role in his epic. He has deceived Esau, his brother, and his father Isaac as well.  The name “Israel” contains a vocable that indicates “openness,” which gives a more virtuous portrait of Jacob. 

That Jacob wrestles with God is not precisely indicated in the text.  Robert Alter uses that translation[2], but also goes on to describe the ambiguity of the term.  Speiser[3], as well as Alter indicate all the possible translations of “elohim”, such as “divine beings,” “sons of”, “gods” or “God.”  One of the clues is that the contender with Jacob expresses the need to depart, “Let me go for dawn is breaking,” indicating perhaps a “night spirit.”  The point of the story is not to indicate a struggle with God alone, but rather the struggle that has been evident throughout the Jacob saga: Jacob grasping Esau’s heel at birth, the birthright incident, the struggle with Isaac to receive the first born’s blessing, the struggle with Laban, and now this penultimate struggle.  Such is Jacob’s life.  Some commentators see the contender as an avatar for Esau himself.  Jacob is, after all, on a journey to meet up again with his estranged brother.  Once again, however, Jacob contends for a blessing and receives it.  And the name?  Jacob sees the name as meaning, “he strives with God,” the name, however, is better seen as “God will overcome.”  Whatever course or understanding we wish to take, we can by means of this reading see a character of the Bible who has a genuine and honest relationship with God.  It is not all sweetness and light.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. How might the story change in your mind?  Was it God, or an angel, or a divine being?
  2. Have you struggled, as Jacob did, in your own life?  How?
  3. Where have you seen God’s face?
Psalm 17:1-7,16 Exaudi, Domine

Hear my plea of innocence, O LORD;
give heed to my cry; *
listen to my prayer, which does not come from lying lips.

Let my vindication come forth from your presence; *
let your eyes be fixed on justice.

Weigh my heart, summon me by night, *
melt me down; you will find no impurity in me.

I give no offense with my mouth as others do; *
I have heeded the words of your lips.

My footsteps hold fast to the ways of your law; *
in your paths my feet shall not stumble.

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; *
incline your ear to me and hear my words.

Show me your marvelous loving-kindness, *
O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand
from those who rise up against them.

But at my vindication I shall see your face; *
when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding
your likeness.

The superscription of this psalm describes it as “a David prayer” rather than “a psalm.” The body of the psalm described in the supplications of the author indicates a striving with others, “foes”, “wicked”, “deadly enemies”, and indeed the pathway of the author’s journey as well, “Set firm my steps on your pathways, so my feet will not stumble.” The psalm describes God’s role as well: “the Word of your lips”, “you answered”, “incline”, “rescuer”, and “guard”. It is in the final verse that we see the connection with the Track 1 first reading, “But at my vindication I shall see your face, when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.” The psalmist, like Jacob, understands that in his strivings, he will see and behold God.

Breaking open Psalm 17:
  1. What distinguishes this psalm as a prayer?
  2. What active roles does God take in the psalm?
  3. How is the psalmist satisfied?


Track 2:
Isaiah 55:1-5

Thus says the Lord:
"Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you."

Usually the prophet calls upon his reader/listener “to hear”. However, in this pericope the prophet asks for something completely different, “to buy and eat”. Before we engage that imperative and metaphor, it might be good for the reader of this blog to read the entirety of chapter 54 where the prophet dwells on the notion of the Covenant and where the verb “to swear” underscores the intent to look at the covenant of Abraham, et al. in a new light.  On the condition of a new covenant and a permanent promise (like unto the promise made to Noah) this chapter explores the satisfying nature of the relationship with God (hence the “buy and eat.” We are clued into this theme with the question, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The implication is that what God will offer as bread and food will satisfy and make whole.  He intends for his readers to understand that it is not enough just to return home, to the land of fathers and mother.  The return needs to be to the God who “will make with you an everlasting covenant.” This is a covenant that is not made with an individual such as Abraham, or any of the matriarchs and patriarchs, or even David, for that matter.  It is not the monarchy that receives the blessing, but the whole nation – every person.  Monarchs and rulers disappointed.  Davidid kings were conquered, and the rulers of Mesopotamia did not know of or understand the God of Israel.  It is not in them that God sees glory.  Rather it is something different.  “Because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.” The glory is seen in the relationship, in the promises of the Covenant. Now we can be satisfied.

Breaking open the Isaiah:
  1. What is satisfying to you about your faith?
  2. What would be satisfying to the people of our time?
  3. What is the glory of Israel?
Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22 Exaltabo te, Deus

The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.

The LORD is loving to everyone *
and his compassion is over all his works.

The LORD upholds all those who fall; *
he lifts up those who are bowed down.

The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, *
and you give them their food in due season.

You open wide your hand *
and satisfy the needs of every living creature.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways *
and loving in all his works.

The LORD is near to those who call upon him, *
to all who call upon him faithfully.

He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; *
he hears their cry and helps them.

The LORD preserves all those who love him, *
but he destroys all the wicked.

My mouth shall speak the praise of the LORD; *
let all flesh bless his holy Name for ever and ever.

The themes of satiation and food are present here,

“The eyes of all look in hope to you and you give them their food in its season, opening your hand and sating to their pleasure all living things.”

The framers of the lectionary have missed the point in second Isaiah however, in assigning this psalm to accompany the first reading.  The point is not food – but satiation.  It is neither food nor pleasure (needs) that God is want to give, but rather promise and relationship.  Some of those themes are present in this psalm, but the familiarity of the verse above as a table grace may dissuade us for exploring its other blessings.  Other themes are: nearness, fulfilling needs, preserving, and destruction of the wicked.  It is too bad that we are not bidden to say the entire psalms, for Isaiah’s themes ring true in the elided verses: “Let one generation to the next extol your mighty deeds and tell of your mighty acts.” The mighty acts are those promises made to the forbearers – and it is here that the psalm speaks obliquely of relationship and covenant.  Although it is necessary for us to “buy and eat” as Isaiah has bidden us to do, it is more important to remember what it is that God has done, so that we may sit at table with all creation partaking of God’s goodness.

Breaking open the Psalm 145:
  1. What goodness has God bestowed upon you?
  2. What goodness have you bestowed upon others?
  3. How do you share God’s goodness with the next generation?

Romans 9:1-5

I am speaking the truth in Christ-- I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit-- 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. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

This is a chapter of Romans that I wish more Christians were familiar with.  It pauses in its message to look back and to understand how former ages and peoples brought us to “speaking the truth in Christ.” This was the question that Paul first addresses in the first chapters (cf. Romans 3:1-2). In answering his own question, Paul rehearses Israel’s role in salvation history, and trots out a list of virtues that Israel enjoys, “and to them belong the adoption, etc.”  The final virtue, however, is Paul’s saving point, “and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah.” What follows is an exclamation of praise, that is mirrored again in 11:36. The following verses from the chapter are omitted in the lectionary, and it might do the reader/preacher/lector well to rehearse Paul’s argument.  It is not the flesh “of Abraham” that is the gift, nor is it the gift of the Law or of works as Paul would say, but rather the gift faith.  Does that place Israel outside of the gift of salvation?  Well, no, for we need to read again, “and to them belong…” It is God’s gift and God’s act.  Therefore we need to repeat with Paul, “God blessed forever.”

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Are Christians the only ones to experience salvation?
  2. What is Paul really saying about the Jews?
  3. How is God glorified in all people?
St. Matthew 14:13-21

Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The Gospel for today is well tied to the reading from second Isaiah.  Followers of Track 1 might find it beneficial to read that reading and its subsequent commentary.  Both readings address the issue of satisfaction.  The Gospel, however, goes well beyond this understanding, for the satisfaction (“And all ate and were filled”) does not happen in isolation but rather other actions, which we will discuss below.  Perhaps it is better to append a phrase that we have learned in the preceding chapters, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Some commentators describe Matthew’s version of the feeding as “terse.”  That it may be, but we focus better on the actions that give a better hearing of the account. 

If they escaped your notice, listen again to the active verbs in the text, “taking”, “blessed and broke” “gave” and “all ate and were filled.” We look to the account in John for a Eucharistic understanding of this text, but we find it here as well.  It is a sign (even in Matthew) of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The satisfaction that we must address is not that of either stomach or body, but rather of sign and foretelling.  That a great number of people should be fed from simple means is not as compelling as is that a great number of people were fed from simple means and understood in this action the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Talk to those after a celebration of the Eucharist.  How are they satisfied?  How was the Kingdom of Heaven shown to them in this act?  What follows in Matthew, namely a series of teaching and experiences of Jesus interspersed with Passion Predictions, connects this action with Jesus destiny in Jerusalem.  Oblique as these references and relationships might be, they were strong enough to influence several traditions about Jesus.  In Matthew it is repeated twice.  Indeed it was and is a powerful sign, and we, like the disciples, are left to wonder as to what will come next.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How is the Eucharist a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven?
  2. What other signs of the Kingdom evident about you?
  3. How are you satisfied in the Eucharist?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; 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]     Speiser, E. (1964) The Anchor Bible, Genesis, Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, page 254
[2]     Alter, R. (2004) The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, location 4250.
[3]     Speiser, note 29, page 255.

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.