The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, 16 July 2017

Track One:
Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 119:105-112

Track Two:
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:[1-8], 9-14

Romans 8:1-11
St. Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Background: Water as a sign of abundance

A great deal of the biblical texts deals with water as a sign of destruction or death. Notable are the Flood texts, and the various psalms in which death is viewed as the overwhelming waters of the sea. These metaphors are not the only biblical references, however. Water is also seen as a sign of abundance, seen in the product of the rain-watered field or orchard. This attitude may come from the viewpoint of the farmer hoping for a fruitful harvest, or the nomad both fearing/seeing the rainwater rushing down the course of the wadi. These attitudes probably traveled with these ancient peoples as they moved out of the Mesopotamian region into the Levant where the sources of water were markedly different. In the Mesopotamian creation myths it is the absence of water that characterizes the very beginning. As opposed to the creation story of the Hebrews, and the mythology of the Canaanites where water was symbolic of the chaos that needed to be ordered, in Mesopotamia it was the absence of water that needed to be corrected. The images are both real in terms of their reference to the irrigation systems of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, and they are evocative of the signs of sexuality and fertility that these images present. The waters are semen, and the furrows the womb. Thus, engendered within the waters are family and civilization. These motifs were carried into other civilizations as well, Mari, Aššur, Canaan, and the Hebrew Scriptures. These themes will be explored in some of the readings for this day.

Those interested in a full review of these ideas and their history should visit Stéphanie Anthonicz’s article, “The Water(s) of Abundance” available at

First Reading: Genesis 25:19-34

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.

We continue the story of Isaac, and here the birth of his two sons Jacob and Esau. This is not just a story but rather an outlining of a lineage, but one in which there is an interruption – a divine interruption. That is the reason for its inclusion in the Scriptures. There are familiar themes here, namely the “barrenness” of Rebekah, who is prayed for by her husband Isaac. This theme is borrowed from the Sarah story and will be played out in the future in Hannah’s story. Here there is an annunciation to the mother herself, in which the Lord explains the nature of the twins and the destiny of each. That the younger should receive the greater inheritance runs contrary to social custom, and is a sign of the Divine intervention. Rebekah does not laugh as Sarah did, but is in distress, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”

There is a great deal of punning in the texts relating to the birth: ruddy (red) =  ‘adom = Edom (another name for Esau, and the name of a nation), hairy = se’ar = Seir, (a territory of Edom), and Jacob = ‘aqeb = heel. Thus the naming and the events of the birth carry within themselves the future struggle between the two men (nations). There is a flavor here of the contest between Can and Able but without the disastrous consequences. The loss here, or perhaps the gain, is the birthright itself, and is the point of the story.

Breaking open Genesis:
1.          What is the point of this story, other than the beginning of two nations?
2.          How have you been like Esau?
3.         Have you ever cheated like Jacob?

Psalm 119:105-112 Lucerna pedibus meis

105  Your word is a lantern to my feet *
and a light upon my path.
106 I have sworn and am determined *
to keep your righteous judgments.
107 I am deeply troubled; *
preserve my life, O Lord, according to your word.
108         Accept, O Lord, the willing tribute of my lips, *
and teach me your judgments.
109         My life is always in my hand, *
yet I do not forget your law.
110 O The wicked have set a trap for me, *
but I have not strayed from your commandments.
111 Your decrees are my inheritance for ever; *
truly, they are the joy of my heart.
112 I have applied my heart to fulfill your statutes *
for ever and to the end.

Here the theme is sacrifice, but not the sacrifice of a thing, but rather the sacrifice of the lips – prayer. The psalmist sees God’s word as insinuating itself into the midst of life, into its sorrows as well as its joys. The psalmist is in a sense of distress and trouble, “my life is always in my hand (at risk).” Nevertheless, prayer is present here in the time of trouble.

Breaking open Psalm 119
  1. In what ways do you use your Bible?
  2. If you don’t use it, why not?
  3. From where does your wisdom come?


Track Two:

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-13

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.

This reading is composed of the part of one pericope (Isaiah 55:6-11) “The word that goes forth from my mouth,” and the one immediately following (Isaiah 55:12-13) “You shall go out in joy.” The initial verses (6-9) set up a contrast between YHWY and humankind. It is a request to return to God, “for (God) is abundant in mercy. The author then outlines this mercy in terms of the word, which like the rains of the summer makes the earth fertile and abundant (see the Background material above). The decision on the part of humankind is whether or not to accept this word (water), which is rained down in abundance. That is the question that this Isaiah poses to Israel.

The initial line is a direct consequence of the acceptance of what God has to say, “You shall go out in joy.” All manner of things come up when rain waters the earth – thorn and cypress, brier and myrtle. Life to the exile must have been seen as both, thorny problems in the midst of the joy of divine protection. Briar and thorn had their own usefulness to the people, as cypress and myrtle brought joy. God’s word is present in all of life. Thus the exiles are invited home.

Breaking open the Isaiah:
1.         How did you deal with the recent drought?
2.         What were your feelings when it began to rain again?
3.        Does Isaiah’s use of these images work?

Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14 Te decet hymnus

[1     You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; *
to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.
2      To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
3      Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.
4      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.
5      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.
6      You make fast the mountains by your power; *
they are girded about with might.
7      You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.
8      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.]
9      You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.
10    You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.
11    You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
12    You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.
13    May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, *
and the hills be clothed with joy.
14    May the meadows cover themselves with flocks,
and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; *
let them shout for joy and sing.

The first line of this psalm has a more interesting translation from the hand of Robert Alter, “To you, silence is praise.” [1] The verb indicates silence, and so the psalm begins with the notion that our words are incapable of describing the God worthy of our best words. The verses of the optional section describe the multi-faceted relationship of God and people. The God depicted is the God of creation, maintaining and protecting that which was made with the Word. At the ninth verse we encounter a series of verses that mirror some of the images used in Second Isaiah. There is abundance and there is water and all the things that flow from it. The image of the well-drenched furrow and the abundant grain are a part of the continuing creation that God effects. The silence of field and meadow praises God. The noise of bird and animal praises God. Thus the silence of time and space is filled with God’s creative word, and the praise that emanates from the created.

Breaking open the Psalm 65:
1.     What do you understand by “Silence praising God”?
2.     How do you make up your words of praise -  or are they not words?
3.    How does creation praise God?

The Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11

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.

Paul once again uses the contrasting nature of two elements, here “things of the flesh” and life lived “according to the Spirit.” The flesh is nothing negative, but it is limited – it goes no farther than what we as fleshly individuals contain and think. The Spirit, however, is something more. The real contrasts with which Paul urges us to wrestle are death and life itself. The resurrection becomes more than a simple event that exists only it time, rather it is an influence, a reality that “dwells in you.” What God has done in Christ, God will accomplish in our mortal bodies as well.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. In what ways are you of the flesh?
  2. In what ways are you of the spirit?
  3. How do the two come together?

The Gospel: 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.”

This pericope consists of a parable (verses 1-9), a question from the disciples about parables (verses 10-17) and finally an explanation of the parable (verses 18-23). Our reading this morning consists only of the first and last segments. The form of the initial verses is the parable, a figurative story, distinct from fables in that parables are concerned only with human characters. Some commentators have seen in the parables a type of Mashal, a Hebrew parable with a moral lesson or religious allegory. The Mashal is seen frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is a form that Jesus uses to effectively get across his message.

In this parable Jesus uses a familiar agrarian image, one that would have a wide audience. He also uses an image that has its provenance in the works of Second Isaiah: seed and soil, but absent the water. If you have traveled around the area surrounding Jerusalem, these images will be vivid and recognizable. Stony ground, thorns, and the well-tended plot of good soil are all evident in the area. God’s word may be like rain upon the earth, but its reception is both spotty and less than effective.

The final section of our reading, “Hear then the parable of the sower,” depicts the reality of the parable in the life of those who chose to follow Jesus. It was a process, and a movement within understanding the sayings of Jesus. While these might not be the words of Jesus himself, they do reflect the active inquiry and explanation of the early community. William Albright, after some study of the same parable in the Gospel of Mark, concludes that there are two different traditions of these words of Jesus. One is centered on the seed and another focus on the soil. Thus we can explore a double track of the Divine Word and of the suitability of the soil, and thus the effect of the soil on the Word so prodigiously scattered.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What kind of soil are you?
  2. Where and how do you receive the seed?
  3. Who is the sower for you?

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]  Alter, R. (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 5172).


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