The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, 9 July 2017

Track One:
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:11-18 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Track Two:
Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15

Romans 7:15-25a
St. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Background: Marriage in the Ancient Near East

There was a definite pattern of steps in arranging and celebrating marriage in the ancient near east. There was the deliberative stage during which a family would search for a suitable bride for their son. That was followed by a prenuptial stage during which choices were made by parents, the lead being taken by the father, or the mother or brother in certain circumstances. This might be celebrated by an anointing, or sometimes the bride moved to the house of the father-in-law. She was called a “wife” during this period, and presents would have been given, gold, a ring, or clothing. Men were usually aged from 26 to 32, although the Mishna allows for the age of 18 for men, while the women were aged from 14 to 20. The nuptial stage involved the bride dressed with a band around her head or a veil. The wedding lasted seven days and began with the bride opening the door of her parent’s house. A special room or tent (huppa) was reserved for the first intercourse and the consummation of the wedding. Often the bestman witnessed the consummation so that he might attest to its completion. Following the festivities, the couple would begin living together, the Connubial stage, and would look forward to the birth of the first child, the Familial stage.

Track One:

First Reading: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

The servant said to Laban, “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’

“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” —let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’

“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”

And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way. Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

What we are witnessing here are the Deliberative and Prenuptial stages of an ancient near eastern wedding (see Background, above). Thus Abraham’s agent and servant represents him to the family from who a bride is to be sought. What is unusual is that there is provision for divine guidance and providence in this transaction. All the usual customs are observed: the ring for the nose, and bracelets are given as gifts. A decision is requested, and an assent is given, not from the parents but from Rebekah herself.  Later we see the usual customs, covering with the veil and bringing Rebekah into Sarah’s tent, where Isaac “takes” her. One other detail is that her wet-nurse accompanies Rebekah, a common practice, especially among the wealthy of the period. The rehearsal of common practice is held in the background of divine providence and favor, the wedding being seen as a further completion and unfolding of the covenant between Abraham and God.

Breaking open Genesis:
1.          What does this story say about women?
2.          How is God involved in this transaction?
3.          Who are the decision makers in this story?

Psalm 45: 11-18 Eructavit cor meum

11      "Hear, O daughter; consider and listen closely; *
forget your people and your father's house.
12      The king will have pleasure in your beauty; *
he is your master; therefore do him honor.
13      The people of Tyre are here with a gift; *
the rich among the people seek your favor."
14      All glorious is the princess as she enters; *
her gown is cloth-of-gold.
15      In embroidered apparel she is brought to the king; *
after her the bridesmaids follow in procession.
16      With joy and gladness they are brought, *
and enter into the palace of the king.
17      "In place of fathers, O king, you shall have sons; *
you shall make them princes over all the earth.
18      I will make your name to be remembered
from one generation to another; *
therefore nations will praise you for ever and ever."

This selection from psalm 45, has the author addressing the “daughter”, but actually he is addressing the royal princess, given the earlier context of the poem, in which he addresses the king. Here we see the sexual dynamic as well. The princess is to provide beauty (read desire) and the king will be the master. The promise is, as in the Abraham stories, that there will be future of sons, and thus the covenant with God will be known. Covenantal phrases close the psalm, “I will make your name to be remembered.”

Breaking open Psalm 45
1.     What does this psalm say about the role of women?
2.     What is the divine promise in the poem?
3.     Why is the promise of sons a promise for the future?


Song of Solomon 2:8-13

The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
"Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away."

We are in the midst of life here. There is neither theology nor Torah. It is a fitting accompaniment to the First Reading. That did not deter commentators, however, both Jewish and Christian, who saw these love songs as allegories about God’s love for God’s people. The curiosity of a visiting deer becomes the metaphor for the repartee between the lovers, and the setting is in the springtime, when the whole earth is blooming and giving birth. Thus the groom invites the bride to “come away.”

Breaking open Song of Solomon
1.     What is the purpose of this poem in the Bible?
2.     What parts intrigue you the most?
3.     How are sexual life and faith related?


Track Two:

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

This reading is from a series of chapters (9-14) that was added to the text by a school that followed Zechariah’s teaching. It consists of a series of apocalyptic prophecies. They were likely attached to the Temple, and were followers of the so-called Holiness School. They lived and worked in an uncertain time, however. The mid-fifth century was rife with wars between the Greek and Persian world, and upheaval in the Nile Delta. The rulers of Judah were failing in their following of the God of Israel. You might want to read the initial eight verses of the chapter, which detail and prophets’ hope that God will reestablish an ideal time of security and prosperity in a world that is falling apart.

The hope is centered on a David-like king reentering the rule of Israel. Thus Israel might rejoice at a king entering into the city and establishing peace, “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim.” The centers of power are far removed from Jerusalem, but the School of Zechariah sees peace emanating from the ancient capital. There is a bit of a universalist theme that underlies the hope, “his dominion shall be from sea to sea.” The Israel of exile and diaspora shall be restored, and return to the holy city.

Breaking open the Zechariah:
1.         Why should the daughter of Zion rejoice?
2.         When have you truly rejoiced?
3.         Did you give thanks?

Psalm 145:8-15 Exaltabo te, Deus

     The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
9      The Lord is loving to everyone *
and his compassion is over all his works.
10      All your works praise you, O Lord, *
and your faithful servants bless you.
11      They make known the glory of your kingdom *
and speak of your power;
12      That the peoples may know of your power *
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13      Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; *
your dominion endures throughout all ages.
14      The Lord is faithful in all his words *
and merciful in all his deeds.
15      The Lord upholds all those who fall; *
he lifts up those who are bowed down.

In Exodus 34 we have a listing of divine attributes, which is quoted in the eighth verse of our reading. We have a description of the God-side of the covenant which is celebrated in the First Reading. If the reading from Zechariah is centered on a restoration of the People of Israel, then this psalm is centered on God’s ability and intent to do so. The universalism that is evident in Zechariah is certainly evident here, with God’s love and faithfulness available to all rather than to only Israel. The divine attitude is not only centered on the righteous, but on the fallen as well, as God lifts them up.

Breaking open the Psalm 145:
1.     What do you understand by the word “Covenant”?
2.     What is the agreement you have with God?
3.     What are your expectations from your relationship with God?

Second Reading: Romans 7:15-25a

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul continues his discussion of Law and Sin, this time focusing on the present situation rather than that which obtained in the past. Here we have a window on a tortured Paul, in anguish over his inability to keep the law. But what about the Law that reflects the will of God. Might we still delight in such a law? :For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self.” There is, however, another legal entity, the law that is the product of and under the mastery of sin itself. The complex grammar and sentence structure mirrors to us the psychological and theological anguish that comes from this discussion. Is it a trap that cannot be escaped? Paul sees it as a trap from which we are released through the power of Jesus Christ.

Breaking open Romans:
1.     What do you understand the Law to be?
2.     Is it good or is it bad?
3.     How do you delight in the law of the Lord?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

      ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Today’s reading is contructed from two separate pericopes, “John’s Question and Jesus’ Testimony” (11:16-19) and then “The Son’s Prayer” (11:25-30). The first follows on John’s question, “Are you the Coming One, or are we to look for someone else?” Jesus, almost soto voce ponders how his ministry is perceived – a musing prompted by John’s own stated concern. Jesus uses an everyday scene, children playing “wedding” and “funeral”, two contrasting notions. The reaction of the crowd acknowledges neither. So it was for John and Jesus, presenting two different “takes” on the prophetic moment. Like Jeremiah’s comment on the nature of true prophecy in last Sunday’s lesson, the truth (Wisdom’s truth) will come out in the end – the proof of the pudding.

The second part of the reading, following a pericope entitled “Denunciations” (11:20-24), listens to a prayer by Jesus. Commentators note this as a troubled text, seeing three separate sections: a) verses 25-26, which some have seen as coming from a very early tradition, b) verse 27, which some reject as an authentic saying, and c) verses 28-30, which some see as a reflection of Ecclesiasticus 51:23-27. Matthew surrounds Jesus with themes and tenets from the Hebrew Scriptures, as he has done in the Birth Narrative and will continue to do in the Passion Narrative. Nonetheless, the sayings are helpful and are good grist for the homiletical mill. A helpful conversation might be what constitutes the easy yoke and the light burden?

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Why does John ask his question?
2.     How would you have answered it?
3.     What yoke does faith put upon you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; 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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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