The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, 13 July 2014
St. Matthew13:1-9, 18-23
Background: Inheritance Rights (Birthright)
Under Jewish law, real property was handed down to the eldest son (who got a “double portion” of the estate with the remaining portion being divided amongst any other sons. If there were no sons, then the daughters could inherit (see Numbers 27:1-4f.) The case set up a hierarchy of heirs: Sons first, daughters if no sons, then brothers if the man had no children. In cases where the daughter wished to marry, she was to marry someone from her father’s tribe, so that the land would stay in the family.
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is to be this way, why do I live?" So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her,
"Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger."
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!" (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, "First sell me your birthright." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Such stories are full of word games and play. We who know the text only in translation miss these puns, and the delight that they bring to the reader. Esau, for instance, is known by another name, Edom (see verse 30, He said to Jacob, “Let me gulp down some of that red stuff; * I am famished.” That is why he was called Edom,) which relates to the red lentils in verse thirty, and to his “ruddy complexion” in verse 25. Also, Esau is described as having a “hairy mantel”, in Hebrew, ‘se-ar’, perhaps a reference to Edom’s (Esau’s nation) ancient name, “Seir”. Likewise the name “Jacob” is a play on the Hebrew word ‘aqeb, “heel”, for he is born grasping the heel of his elder brother Esau.
This reading gives us a broad picture not only of family history, but also of an expanding of the promise first given to Abraham in Genesis 17:5, “here is my covenant with you: you are to become the father of a multitude of nations.” Last Sunday we saw echoes of that blessing given to Rebekah by her brother and her mother in Genesis 24. In this reading the blessing is given by God to Rebekah after the pleading of Isaac to God about Rebekah being barren (a mirroring of Sarah’s situation in the Abraham story). The blessing here telegraphs the end state of the twins,
“Two nations – in your womb,
two peoples from your loins shall issue.
People over people shall prevail,
the elder, the younger’s slave.”
Esau represents all the tribal tendencies and preferences. He is a hunter, while Jacob is described as “a quiet man, living in tents.” Like the Cain and Abel story we may have here a description of the enmity between two styles of life; shepherd’s vs. hunters. Isaac prefers the latter and Rebekah the former and this situation allows for a sense of conflict and tension in the text. Esau, tired and exhausted, demands a portion of the “red red” dish that Jacob has prepared, and Jacob demands and oath, and Esau’s birthright. Esau demeans his birthright (see Deuteronomy 21:15-17) and Jacob substitutes another dish, lentils, for the blood soup that had been originally offered. Thus, this text comments not only on the family history, but also on the inheritance customs and mores of Israel.
Breaking open Genesis:
- How has the promise changed throughout the stories, or has it?
- How does the story go against a traditional understanding of inheritance law?
- Does Esau arouse any sympathy in you? Why?
Psalm 119:105-112 Lucerna pedibus meis
Your word is a lantern to my feet *
and a light upon my path.
I have sworn and am determined *
to keep your righteous judgments.
I am deeply troubled; *
preserve my life, O LORD, according to your word.
Accept, O LORD, the willing tribute of my lips, *
and teach me your judgments.
My life is always in my hand, *
yet I do not forget your law.
The wicked have set a trap for me, *
but I have not strayed from your commandments.
Your decrees are my inheritance for ever; *
truly, they are the joy of my heart.
I have applied my heart to fulfill your statutes *
for ever and to the end.
This reading is from the Nun section of this acrostic poem which is a collection of various and sundry types (hymn, lament, torah, and wisdom) and seems to have been edited by various factions over time, mainly the schools devoted to the deuteronomic movement and wisdom. Of special interest is the fourth line of the psalm, “Accept, O Lord, the willing tribute of my lips,” in which the psalmist requests prayer as a substitution for the usual sacrifice. The line, “my life is always in my hand,” refers to the risk and sense of danger that the psalmist is experiencing. Despite all of life’s vicissitudes, the Law is there as a “lantern to my feet, and a light upon my path.” The Law is seen as a stabilizing force in the psalmist’s situation, a devotion that lasts until the end of life itself.
Breaking open Psalm 119:
- What laws do you set down for your life?
- Are they similar or different from God’s law?
- How do you reconcile the two?
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
The initial chapters of Second Isaiah (40-55:13) are devoted to a series of hymns. The first collection (40-48) is composed of hymns to YHWH as redeemer, with the remaining hymns devoted to the “new Jerusalem.” Our reading today falls in that later section. The implicit question is, “how does one understand what has happened to Israel, especially in these latter days?” It is a natural question for returning exiles to pose, and this second Isaiah attempts an answer. Like the Psalm appointed in Track 1 (see above) the answer has to do with the Law, more specifically the word of the Law. These words and thoughts represent the Word of YHWH, the central focus of life and action. The comparisons that the author uses, nature, plants, bread, serve as a visual and sensual representation of the importance of the Word. These words are the food, grown by nature and harvested by humankind. In the closing verses, it is nature that rejoices in what it is that YHWH proposes for God’s people, “the mountains shall burst into song.” The procession is actually a recession from slavery into a life of freedom and prosperity. These lives, and nature itself shall become a memorial, something that other peoples and nations can see and in which know God’s presence and purpose.
Breaking open the Isaiah:
- How is God’s word a part of your life?
- How is it food our nourishment?
- Why might you ignore it?
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14 Te decet hymnus
[You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; *
to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.
To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.
Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.
You make fast the mountains by your power; *
they are girded about with might.
You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.
Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs; *
you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy.]
You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.
You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.
May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, *
and the hills be clothed with joy.
May the meadows cover themselves with flocks,
and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; *
let them shout for joy and sing.
Our translation misses a line of great profundity. Robert Alter translates the first line of the poem, “To you silence is praise, God in Zion, and to you a vow will be paid.” That silence should be so loquacious is a sign of what others saw in God’s presence. After a series of confessional verses, the psalmist then goes on to see God’s presence in the beauty of creation. These verses are a perfect match to the Isaiah reading above, where nature itself reveals the beauty of God’s plan for Israel. Here also, in the ripeness of both field and stream, nature sings and declares God’s graciousness.
Breaking open the Psalm 65:
- Do you hear God in silence? What do you hear?
- How does silence speak to you?
- When is silence golden for you?
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-- indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
There is a question from last Sunday’s reading from Romans that may have been left hanging in the air, or some preacher may have expounded on the answer. It is good, however, for us to visit it again (Romans 7:24): “Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?” What follows, then in chapter eight is a follow up to that question, and presumably an answer. Verse one, for example, is an elegant answer, There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What follows goes on about Christian freedom, but this phrase is striking in its simplicity – “There is no condemnation.” And here lies the problem for many of us, for we continue to condemn ourselves. Paul goes on to deal once again with the notions of flesh and spirit. Concerning the flesh, a new creation is about to take place, the sinful flesh passing away. Again it is the Spirit who surveys the situation, and breathes into us a breath of life – life in the Spirit. Paul ends this reading with an equation that involves “the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus.” We enter the equation “if Christ is in us.” Paul abandons the duality, in a manner, by finding that even our mortal bodies are given life by the One who raised Jesus from the dead. The question is only answered however, when we live courageously in the Spirit who gives us life, and calls us into the world.
Breaking open Romans:
- Do you identify with Paul’s dilemma?
- What are the aspects of your own conundrum?
- What offers you comfort in these situations?
St. Matthew 13:1-9,18-23
Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!"
"Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."
We have left Jesus’ teachings on the cost of discipleship, and have moved on to a series of parables concerning the Reign of God. The first of these, often titled the Parable of the Sower, is really a parable about the ground upon which the seed is to be sown. The hearers and readers would have recognized the conditions that Jesus mentions, seen as symbolic obstacles to the Kingdom of Heaven that he was proclaiming. Thus the sower is met with the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, and finally the good soil. These conditions outline for us the parts of our own lives as well, in addition to any mission that we might be undertaking. It is clear and elegant in its simplicity. The framers of the lectionary decided, however, not to leave the telling alone, but to attach the later “explanation”, verses 18-23. Most commentators see this explanation as not coming from the lips of Jesus, but rather from the early Christian community, which sought to make sense of the tradition of Jesus’ original teaching. It would be interesting to focus on the initial verses alone, leaving the “explanation verses” for another time. What might you or your hearers see in each of the obstacles?
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How is Jesus the prophet?
- How is Jesus the righteous one?
- How are you the one who offers a cup of water?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through 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