The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, 26 July 2015
II Samuel 11:1-15
II Kings 4:42-44
St. John 6:1-21
Background: First Fruits
The notion of offering the first products of the agricultural harvest is common to the religions of Greece, Rome, Judaism, Africa, and Christianity. The offering of the first fruits in Greece provided sustenance and goods to the temples of Kore and Demeter. Some of the foods were used to feed the temple staff while the remainder was sold to provide currency for the other needs of the temple. This practice was usual during times of peace, but during war, the excess funds in the temple treasury would be used to support the city-state. Amongst Hebrews, such gifts were offered for the use and support of the temple and were offered from the festival of Shavuot until the festival of Sukkot. The gifts were limited to wheat, barley, grapes (wine), figs, pomegranates, and olives (oil). Such practices are not commonly known amongst Christian Churches, although the Orthodox observe a Great Feast at the Transfiguration of our Lord (6 August) when such gifts may be offered. In western Christianity the notion of the “tithe” developed from these feasts, and was seen as a means for the support of the Church.
References in the New Testament are largely a departure for Jesus’ teaching about the last judgment as a harvest during which weeds and tares are separated out and burned in a fire. Jesus is referred to as a “first fruit” by Paul in I Corinthians 15:20.
2 Samuel 11:1-15
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, "This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite." So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, "I am pregnant."
So David sent word to Joab, "Send me Uriah the Hittite." And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, "Go down to your house, and wash your feet." Uriah went out of the king's house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king's house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, "Uriah did not go down to his house," David said to Uriah, "You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?" Uriah said to David, "The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing." Then David said to Uriah, "Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back." So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die."
Here we meet an older David who no longer takes to the field for military purposes. There are others to perform those tasks. There is a wistful sense to this reading with a sedentary king who is looking for intrigue and amusement. David is taking a nap, and when evening roles around he walks around seeking something to engage him. It is at this moment that he sees Bathsheba. Through Bathsheba we become acquainted with her father, Eliam, and her husband Uriah, who is described as a Hittite. The irony of this story is that Uriah, the Hittite, who is a Gentile Believer, is the faithful one, while David is not. While David becomes the focus of this story, and later the prophet Nathan’s wrath, the text and subsequent stories find Bathsheba not to be merely a passive participant, but rather one who grabs at chance (she will argue for the succession of her son Solomon).
David, upon discovering Bathsheba’s pregnancy does a dance of machinations to have Uriah impregnate his wife – but Uriah, the faithful one, does not. Instead David instructs his men to put Uriah into the path of danger so that he might die. The pericope described by the lectionary leaves us at this point, but we can surmise the story that succeeds this last incident. Now David is complicit not only in adultery but also in murder as well. The story will continue.
Breaking open II Samuel
- Who would you characterize David in this story?
- Is Bathsheba the innocent? How is she, or how is she not?
- In what ways is Uriah the righteous one?
Psalm 14 Dixit insipiens
The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." *
All are corrupt and commit abominable acts;
there is none who does any good.
The LORD looks down from heaven upon us all, *
to see if there is any who is wise,
if there is one who seeks after God.
Every one has proved faithless;
all alike have turned bad; *
there is none who does good; no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers *
who eat up my people like bread
and do not call upon the LORD?
See how they tremble with fear, *
because God is in the company of the righteous.
Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, *
but the LORD is their refuge.
Oh, that Israel's deliverance would come out of Zion! *
when the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice and Israel be glad.
Earlier as we followed the arguments in Samuel about monarch, the prophet tries to tell the people what their life will be like under a king. They will become nothing more than passive pawns and a resource available for the king’s pleasure. This psalm offers and excellent commentary on the story of Bathsheba, who is not only used by David, but uses him as well. There is no little cynicism in this psalm, “Everyone has proved faithless.” Thus this poem becomes a study of the human conscience, and responsibility. It asks for nothing, but only shines a sharp light on human foibles. The psalmist in observing the despicable behavior of his fellows also observes the faithfulness of God. The fool says that there is no God, and yet there is God, looking down on creation and humanity and the difficulties of a faithless life. The commoditization of people, as evidenced in the Bathsheba story, has an excellent line in this psalm, “These evildoers who eat up my people like bread.” The hope of the last verse seems antithetical to the picture that has been drawn of the monarchy and its ennui. From Zion comes help and deliverance. Is it from the Temple or from the Palace? Ideally, both would be the hoped for answer.
Breaking open Psalm 24:
- Is to wonder about God idle speculation? Why or why not?
- Do you agree with the poet’s cynicism? How?
- Who are present-day evildoers who “eat up my people like bread”?
II Kings 4:42-44
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat." But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, `They shall eat and have some left.'" He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.
Here we have an example of the tithe of the first fruits, which does not accrue to the temple but rather to “the man of God”, namely Elisha. What follows is a story not all that dissimilar to the feeding story of the Gospel. There is the need of the many, the argument of the disciple, and the gift of food, and the accompanying surplus. This reading would serve to wrap a prophetic mantle around the acts of Jesus when met with similar circumstances.
Breaking open II Kings:
- In what ways is this reading similar to the feeding of the five thousand?
- What is different?
- Where have you had abundance appear out of nothingness?
Psalm 145:10-19 Exaltabo te, Deus
All your works praise you, O LORD, *
and your faithful servants bless you.
They make known the glory of your kingdom *
and speak of your power;
That the peoples may know of your power *
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; *
your dominion endures throughout all ages.
The LORD is faithful in all his words *
and merciful in all his deeds.
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.
This psalm sees the God who provides for all, as opposed to a God who only has the interests of Israel at heart. The kingship of God as posed in the first verses of the psalm is seen as more cosmic and universal than local. It is the latter verses that have often formed mealtime prayers for both Christians and Jews. The waiting is juxtaposed to the opening hands filled with whatever will satisfy the longings of the people. Perhaps these open hands are filled with more than food and the things of life. Perhaps they are filled with righteousness and faithfulness as well.
Breaking open Psalm 145:
- What is your table grace?
- How does God satisfy your needs?
- How do you satisfy others?
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Following the cosmic attitude of the psalm, we meet Paul who sees God’s participation in the life of everyone, “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” This is a perspective that is above family, tribe, and nation. Paul wants us to understand the geometry (perhaps the volume) of God’s beneficence, “the breadth and length and height and depth.” In these verses Paul returns to his initial intent in Ephesians, namely the bridging of Jewish and Gentile life in Christ. So again, there is the earthly accompanied by the heavenly.
Breaking open Ephesians:
- How does God make one family of us all?
- How do we (or how do you) resist?
- How can you overcome this resistance?
St. John 6:1-21
Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
In the fifth through the tenth chapters of the Gospel of John, we have Jesus portrayed against the character of the Jewish festivals: the Sabbath, 5:1-47, the Passover, 6:1-71, the Tabernacles, 7:1-51, 8:12-59, and 9:1041, and the Dedication, 10:1-42. Our reading today is a study of the Passover and the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Jesus is described by John as the Bread of life, and so the pericope of the feeding becomes background for such a designation. Almost following the pattern in Luke, the bread that Jesus distributes here is the bread (barley) of the poor. In John, Jesus is both host and distributor. Like the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, there is an over abundance of what was offered. One wonders if this was seen by eyes of faith - the opened up hands of God providing what was necessary.
I wan asked once to preach at Most Holy Redeemer, the Roman Catholic Church in the Castro in San Francisco. The Gospel was this reading, and so I expounded on it as best I could. I could not, however, ignore the Eucharistic implications of this text, and commented to the congregation about the sadness that would come when they would gather around the feast, and I would be sitting it out. I am still greeted by members of that congregation who remember that reminder of our Christian dysfunction and separation. The preacher for this text should not be forgetful of this aspect either. The bread of the pour is given by the Bread of Life. Such images ought to draw us together.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- In what ways was John the Baptist a prophet?
- When have you had a courage like his?
- What characters from our time could stand in for Herod?
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 © 2015, Michael T. Hiller