The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, 20 July 2014
Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8
St. Matthew13:24-30, 36-43
Background: Ancient Shrines in Israel
In the history of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs we have remembered for us, since these histories were written down at the earliest in the seventh century BCE, the shrines, holy places and “high places” that were either abandoned and destroyed in Israel’s march toward monotheism, or were subsumed in the cult that David (presumably) centered at the Temple in Jerusalem. The reading from Track 1 reminds us of the strength of these traditions with its story about Beth-El. Was the matter really all that black and white when it came to the consolidation of the cult under David, or was there a great deal more grey? Of help to us in understanding the complexity of this time period, and the practices that preceded it as reported in patriarchal memory are two resources. There are many more, but these are immediately available and are quite useful if you are interested in this sort of thing. The first is Simon Schama’s History of the Jews, which recounts for us the community living in Elephantine in Egypt, and other shrines, holy places, and practices that have become available to us through continuing archeology. The second is any material that you can fined by combing the Internet for Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortress that flourished around the time of David on the Judean frontier opposite Gath in the Elah Valley. There they have uncovered standing stones, altars of basalt, libation vessels, and portable shrines. One of the shrines (stone) has features that bear a resemblance to the Jerusalem Temple (two pillars, and a textile). Readers may want to do some study of II Samuel 6, to get the flavor of shrines in a private dwelling. I have only touched the surface here, and have hopefully touched your biblical curiosity.
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.
Track 1, at least in this series, skips the drama and subterfuge that unfolds as to Jacob receiving the first blessing from Isaac instead of the first-born Esau. You might want to go back and read chapter 27, so that the full psychological impact of Jacob's predicament might not be lost on you. The purpose of his trip, like that of Abraham’s servant earlier, is to find for him a wife. Isaac repeats his father’s cautions in 28:2: “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan.” Jacob retraces the steps that Abraham and Sarah had trod earlier as they moved from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, and from thence down into Palestine. It is at Beth-El that Jacob decides to spend the night. In the text it is not a place of note. However, we now know that this place (the word appears six times in the text) was far from anonymous, having served as a holy place for the Canaanites for centuries prior. In a way this story blesses this place with the “true Divine”, and knowledge that the “El” of Beth-el is none other than YHWH, the God of Israel.
The other telling word is stone. The stones that marked the place as holy are seen by Jacob as “a pillow”, albeit a rather uncomfortable. The fact that Jacob has a dream on one of these stones (presumably set up here in earlier times to mark the holiness of the place) is not a surprise to either the earlier reader or to us. Stones will become an important theme in the on-going story. You will want to look for them. The ramp that Jacob dreams of would not be lost on anyone familiar with the ziggurat of Mesopotamian culture, for here and there it indicates a passage from earth to heaven, and heaven to earth. It is here that Jacob hears the promise that was uttered to Abraham as well, “and your seed shall be like the dust of the earth.” Now the earlier cultic stone is repurposed as Jacob takes it and “sets it up as a pillar.” He pours a libation of oil, and the place is renamed Beth-el (House of El (God)), “Surely the Lord is in this place.”
Breaking open Genesis:
- What are your holy places? Where are they to be found?
- How do you mark a holy place?
- Where is a holy place for you in your church?
Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 Domine, probasti
LORD, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O LORD, know it altogether.
You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,"
Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.
Search me out, O God, and know my heart; *
try me and know my restless thoughts.
Look well whether there be any wickedness in me *
and lead me in the way that is everlasting.
Readers may want to make a quick referral to Job 10, to see the tradition that either flows from this psalm, or that flows into it. It is an intensely personal and interior psalm rejoicing in an all-encompassing relationship with God. There is a multitude of images and metaphors that describe this relationship, from knowing the place where the psalmist beds down at night, “you trace my journeys and my resting places,” to using verbs and situations that remind of a potter shaping her wares on a wheel. Even mythological images obtain here, “If I take the wings of the morning” has the air of Apollo all about it. Where other psalmists using these same images also see the presence of God even in Sheol (the place of the dead) here the author blunts the image with a subtle passage “Surely darkness will cover me.” There is the courage of redemption and righteousness in the psalmist’s heart, “Search me out, O God, and know my heart.” If there is wickedness there, the poet is not concerned but rather trusts that God “will lead me in the way that is everlasting.”
Breaking open Psalm 119:
- In what places does God come to you?
- Do you ever dream about your faith?
- How has God “searched you out and known you?”
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
There is no god besides you, whose care is for all people,
to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly;
for your strength is the source of righteousness,
and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
For you show your strength when people doubt the completeness of your power,
and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.
Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us;
for you have power to act whenever you choose.
Through such works you have taught your people
that the righteous must be kind,
and you have filled your children with good hope,
because you give repentance for sins.
In this reading, the author discusses the notion of divine justice in the story of Exodus, here a tangent on the nature of divine justice. Following as it does on a discourse on the trials of Israel in their journey in the Sinai, this discourse unpacks for its readers the intricacies of God’s judgment of the peoples. Here it is the verbs “to care” and to “judge” that form the backbone of the argument. It is God, the sovereign, who deigns to “spare all.” It is this graciousness of God that this wisdom poem celebrates, and because of this graciousness, the people are filled with hope.
Breaking open the Wisdom of Solomon:
- How does God judge you?
- How does God care for you?
- How are they similar or dissimilar?
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.
This reading comes from a an eight chapter segment that celebrates “Israel during the rule of Cyrus.” For an expansion of this discussion, the reader may want to go back to Isaiah 43:8-13, which serves as an initial development of the theme of monotheism that is treated in this reading, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” The hearers of these sayings by second Isaiah would have been familiar especially with the claims of the Babylonian god, Marduk, and his cult may have seemed attractive to them. They were a people, remember, whose God had no name, and had no image, only a word for them. The argument that Isaiah uses here is that the word of this God, the true God – YHWH, makes things happen. Such a claim could not be supported by the other gods that this reading discusses. And this is not a new behavior on the part of God, but rather an established patter, “who has announced from of old the things to come.” This was an important distinction as people are led from a place that was their home in exile, to the place that was the home of their fathers and mothers. What was to happen now? Isaiah sees the God who protects them with godly words as “a rock.”
Breaking open Isaiah:
- What does it mean when God says, “I am the first and the last.”
- Is God’s word just a book? Why? How?
- How does God announce things to you?
Psalm 86:11-17 Inclina, Domine
Teach me your way, O LORD,
and I will walk in your truth; *
knit my heart to you that I may fear your Name.
I will thank you, O LORD my God, with all my heart, *
and glorify your Name for evermore.
For great is your love toward me; *
you have delivered me from the nethermost Pit.
The arrogant rise up against me, O God,
and a band of violent men seeks my life; *
they have not set you before their eyes.
But you, O LORD, are gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger, and full of kindness and truth.
Turn to me and have mercy upon me; *
give your strength to your servant;
and save the child of your handmaid.
Show me a sign of your favor,
so that those who hate me may see it and be ashamed; *
because you, O LORD, have helped me and comforted me.
Unlike Psalm 139 (see above) that celebrates the ubiquity of God, this psalm, in a similar fashion, celebrates the relationship but evidenced in love, protection, and mercy. Here the psalmist does not see the inevitability of Sheol, “you have delivered me from the nethermost Pit,” but rather redemption from it. All that threatens is dealt with by God’s graciousness and compassion. Earlier in the psalm, in a section that is not read this morning, the psalmist refers to himself as “a servant”, and in the final verses he doubles that description with the phrase, “and save the child of your handmaid.” This is the servant, and the son of a servant, who expects salvation and comfort from God.
Breaking open the Psalm 86:
- What does the word “compassion” mean to you?
- How do you practice compassion?
- How is God compassionate with you?
Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
We move from Saint Paul’s discussions on Law and Sin to a section devoted to Life in the Spirit, and an Assurance of God’s love. Paul’s concerns over the conflicts of flesh and spirit give way to a discussion of our role as God’s children. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” All of these points are distinctions and connecting points that lead us back to our connection with Christ. Here there is no flesh that is caught up in sin, but only the flesh that lives in Christ – filled with the Spirit.
Now Paul takes up the notion of suffering. He and his readers would have been aware of the suffering of their own time, and the suffering of past and future times as well. Again, a comparison is made between the present sufferings as a descriptor of magnitude, and the glory that is to come. Here he goes beyond the daily suffering that all of us endure, to a cosmic suffering – a creation awaiting wholeness, redemption, and adoption (a theme taken up again). One wonders if Paul’s own body were giving witness to these notions of pain and decay? Waiting seems to be the present state of God’s people, as Paul sees it. It is not, however, a desperate waiting, or a waiting in despair, but rather a waiting in hope, “for in hope we were saved.”
Breaking open Romans:
- Who are your children in this world?
- What kinds of feelings do you have toward them?
- How is God a parent?
St. Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
Jesus put before the crowd another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, `Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, `An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"
This Sunday’s Gospel continues the Parables of the Kingdom that began in last Sunday’s Gospel. It is good to point out that a theme of “division” that was raised in the preceding chapters (11-12) continues here with the “divisions” of path, rocky soil, etc. In these parables for today, there is a less passive situation, for here it is the “enemy” who sows weeds (weeds that would insinuate themselves into the root systems of the wheat, thus requiring that both of them would need to be pulled up either in weeding or at harvest time). The wheat goes to the barn for future meals, but the darnel is thrown as fuel into the fire.
The second parable concerns the mustard seed, but it is skipped over for use on another Sunday, as well as the parable concerning yeast. What continues is an explanation of the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds. Like the explanation to the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-13, see also last Sunday’s study) the scene of Jesus’ explaining the parable to the disciples is likely a later addition to the Gospel.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Who might be the “enemy” to the Word?
- How are you the Word’ friend?
- What are the weeds in your life of faith?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller