The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, 19 July 2020
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.
Background: Sowing Seeds
Sowing in the ancient world was done by hand, although there were tools that made it somewhat easier. Before plows were used, digging sticks, mattocks (something like a pickax), and hoes were used to loosen the soil. Another tool was the ard, which was a precursor to the plow. Ards were attached to a draft-pole (beam) which could then be dragged through the soil, turning it over. When sowing the seed was often broadcast, that is thrown by hand over the plowed or overturned field. This method was not all that efficient in that weeds were insinuated amongst the plants that were desired. Later dibbers would be used. The dibber was a stick that was used to dig a hole in the soil, and then a seed would be passed down into the hole made by the stick. Tubes would also be used to dig the hole and place the seed. This was first used in Mesopotamia around 1500 BCE.
First Reading: Genesis 28:10-19a
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.
The story that precedes this event is the story of Jacob’s deception of Isaac, Rebekah recommending him to flee (Genesis 27:1-45). We should remember that this action caused Isaac to give his blessing to Jacob rather than to the first-born Esau. Our pericope this morning serves as a divine confirmation of the stolen blessing. The story is told by the Elohist (verses 10-12, and 17-18, 20-22) and by the Yahwist (verses 13-16, and 19). We are in a sense looking backward to discover not only the Patriarchal History here, but also to understand the background of the great shrine at Beth-el. Here the history of the patriarchs and the shrine are linked in the story about Jacob taking a rest in a place where he encounters God. There are two experiences, “The Ladder to Heaven”, and a theophany in which God speaks a promise of longevity and descendents to Jacob. The notion of God or YHWH being the “God of the Fathers” (and mothers, should be added) is seen in our pericope, and again in Genesis 26:24, where YHWH makes a similar appearance.
Jacob appears to have had great strength. In the final verses he erects a stone, a massebah. Such stones, common in the Ancient Near East, were often seven feet high. Perhaps this is really an etiology that both explains the presence of this stone, and the great shrine that it would become in the future. The reality of the shrine is that it was a great center for pilgrimage, dating from around 926 BCE (see I Kings 12:26-29) when founded by Jeroboam I. Our editors, J and E also date from roughly this period, so the story and its interpretation would have been relevant to the situation.
Breaking open Genesis:
1. How has your family been blessed by God?
2. What in your mind is behind the symbol of the ladder to heaven?
3. Is there a special physical place in your life where you think on God?
Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 Domine, probasti
1 Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
2 You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
3 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
4 You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.
5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
6 Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
7 If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
8 If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
9 Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.
10 If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,"
11 Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.
22 Search me out, O God, and know my heart; *
try me and know my restless thoughts.
23 Look well whether there be any wickedness in me *
and lead me in the way that is everlasting.
The theme of this paslm is the ubiquity of God, God’s presence, knowledge, and power. It’s themes are known in the religious literature of other peoples, as in Islam, Canaan, Greece, or in the Altharva Veda IV,16. Here, in the psalm, we have a poet who is perfectly comfortable with the presence of and protection by God in the poet’s life. In the elided verses (12-21), we have familiar phrases about God knowing the psalmist in the poet’s mother’s womb. God’s attributes are spoken about in the verses of the psalm: a) God’s omniscience in verses 1-6, b) God’s omnipresence in verses 7-12, and c) God’s omnificence in verses 13-16. The last verses are a prayer inviting an intimate relationship with God, and looking to confession and redemption.
Breaking open Psalm 139:
1. What does God know about you?
2. What power does God have in your life?
3. What has God given you?
First Reading: 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.
It will be helpful for those of you unfamiliar in general with the Wisdom of Solomon, or for those unfamiliar with this text to look at what leads up to this pericope. You can do that by going to a pericope entitled “Digression on God’s Mercy” (Wisdom 11:19 – 12:12). What we see in these verses is a look back to Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. Our reading is a reverie on God’s mercy as opposed to the inactivity of other gods. The powerful verse that can be the lesson for today is that of verse 19:
“You taught your people, by these deeds,
that those who are righteous must be kind;
And you gave your children reason to hope
that you would allow them to repent for their sins.”
The example that the author uses is the freedom from Egypt, and the continuing mercy of God, which then serves as an example for those in relationship with God. Kindness (and tolerance?) are linked to the forgiveness so freely given.
Breaking open Wisdom:
1. Where do you find mercy given in your life?
2. How do you give mercy to others?
3. What does the mercy of others instill in you?
First Reading: Isaiah 44:6-8
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.
What links these two readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is the theme of Israel’s freedom from Egypt, as a spiritual exercise as well as physical freedom. It is God’s mercy that tells the tale here. The important concept here is stated in verse six, “and his redeemer, the Lord of hosts.” Second Isaiah wants us to look and see if there is anything like the God that we know, the God of our freedom. The question that the text asks is simple, “Who is like me?” Our experience of redemption will have to answer the prophet’s question. Other comparisons are made – God is described as a “rock”, an allusion to Psalm 18:32. Since the verses of the psalm are set in the context of a battle, the rock must symbolize a “hard place” or a height from which the king/God operates. The flight from Egypt was redemption, but the second of the Isaiah’s sees more coming.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. What are the freedoms in which you rejoice and give thanks?
2. Are any spiritual freedoms?
3. What freedoms do you need to announce to others?
Psalm 86:11-17 Inclina, Domine
11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
and I will walk in your truth; *
knit my heart to you that I may fear your Name.
12 I will thank you, O Lord my God, with all my heart, *
and glorify your Name for evermore.
13 For great is your love toward me; *
you have delivered me from the nethermost Pit.
14 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.
15 But you, O Lord, are gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger, and full of kindness and truth.
16 Turn to me and have mercy upon me; *
give your strength to your servant;
and save the child of your handmaid.
17 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.
It is a shame that the entire psalm isn’t given to us to be sung on this day. The initial verses tie so well into both of the options for a First Reading. It is a prayer that follows from the emotions and psychology of the first readings. Our verses are a prayer for guidance, an individual lament. It is a compilation of ideas, and phrases from other psalms and literature. If this is indeed an individual lament, it stands to reason that the composer would have used familiar passages and quotations from his spiritual life to frame the prayer that the psalm represents. Again, God is the merciful, gracious, and full of compassion. The author asks for a sign, not for the author’s own sake (for the author is already a believer) but for the sake of the enemy, so that they might understand God’s protection and favor.
Breaking open Psalm 86:
1. What are the laments of your life?
2. How do you propose to heal them?
3. What do you see God doing?
Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25
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 continue a lectio continua in the eighth chapter of Romans, where Paul explores the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. The first readings in Track Two explore the idea of redemption, being bought back. Here in Romans, Paul begins this pericope by calling us “debtors” – we owe something to somebody. If it is the flesh, then we will die, but if it is owed to the Spirit we shall live. Paul sees those who follow Christ as having a different heritage – one of adoption. We are no longer slaves, but free (listen to those first lessons again), and not only free but in a real relationship with God. Paul cites a progression: children, then heirs, joint heirs.
The second half of the reading is all so appropriate for the times in which we are living. Here Paul compares the “sufferings of this present time” (which are considerable) to the glory that will come. He sees an advent of sorts, and advent in which creation waits upon God and salvation. The slavery of Egypt becomes freedom in Christ. It is, in Paul’s mind, all about hope, and about faithfully waiting.
Breaking open Romans:
1. What gifts (spiritual gifts) did you get from your parents?
2. What gifts does your flesh give you?
3. What kinds of hopes do you have?
The Gospel: 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 particular parable is unique to Matthew. What is interesting is that the weed designated by Jesus is of a more specific nature. “Darnel” is a weed that resembles wheat, so that to weed a field of wheat would be terribly difficult. How might one know the good from the bad? In the parable it is not nature that has sown these difficult seeds from the darnel, but an enemy – someone at cross purposes with the sower. The answer that Jesus proposes is patience, letting them both grow together, and separating them at the harvest.
What follows is an allegorical explanation to the parable, which seems to have been specifically constructed for such an interpretation. In this parable the seed that is sown are the sons and daughters of the kingdom, and the weeds that have been sown are Satan’s own. There is an eschatological cast to the parable. The angels come and have judgment at the harvest. Good and bad receive their rewards.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. Are there weeds in your spiritual life, your church?
2. How do you recognize them?
3. Do you have the patience to wait?
General Idea: Redemption and Our Time
Looking back 1: Promises given to Jacob (First Reading Track One)
Promises given to Israel (First Readings, Track Two)
Looking back 2: Prayers given (Psalms)
Looking back 3: Knowing our inheritance of redemption (Romans)
Now: Realizing that we are the seed (Gospel)
All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller
 New American Bible