The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, 3 August 2014
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22
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.
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” 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, but also goes on to describe the ambiguity of the term. Speiser, 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:
- How might the story change in your mind? Was it God, or an angel, or a divine being?
- Have you struggled, as Jacob did, in your own life? How?
- 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
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:
- What distinguishes this psalm as a prayer?
- What active roles does God take in the psalm?
- How is the psalmist satisfied?
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:
- What is satisfying to you about your faith?
- What would be satisfying to the people of our time?
- 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:
- What goodness has God bestowed upon you?
- What goodness have you bestowed upon others?
- How do you share God’s goodness with the next generation?
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:
- Are Christians the only ones to experience salvation?
- What is Paul really saying about the Jews?
- 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:
- How is the Eucharist a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven?
- What other signs of the Kingdom evident about you?
- 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
 Speiser, E. (1964) The Anchor Bible, Genesis, Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, page 254
 Alter, R. (2004) The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, location 4250.
 Speiser, note 29, page 255.