Lectionary Commentaries for July 27, 2014
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Warren Carter

The parables assigned for the last two weeks comprise a narrative of moderate length followed some verses later by interpretations.

Not so the five short parables assigned for today. They are all very brief and have no section of explicit interpretation.

The absence of the latter feature requires us as readers to make sense of the comparison with “the empire of heaven” that introduces each parable (13:31, 33, 44, 45, 47). In addition to the scenario that each parable constructs, connections with what we have learned about God’s empire in the Gospel’s previous chapters provide a key step in making meaning.

So in the first of the parables, the empire of heaven is compared to a mustard seed that, when sown, grows into a tree in whose branches birds come to nest. The image of the mustard seed highlights initially its smallness and its invisibility when it is sown. Then the image expands to include its inevitable growth and flourishing, its resultant large size that contrasts with its small beginning, and its hospitable environment that sustains nesting birds.

How does this scenario help readers understand God’s activity that Jesus manifests as the empire of the heavens? First is the affirmation that that empire is present, though the sown small seed suggests its presence in small and invisible ways. The smallness anticipates the subsequent large tree, but it also reflects on the activity of Jesus.

Though the Gospel narrative presents him doing many works of preaching and healings that manifest God’s empire (4:23; 9:35), there is only so much one person can do. His activity is confined to Galilee (mostly) and for a limited period of time. Some people, notably the Rome-allied elites, do not seem to embrace his ministry and do not discern anything of God’s purposes in him, preferring to think of him as an agent of the devil (12:22-24). To some, God’s empire or saving presence is invisible.

The parable affirms that God’s empire is nevertheless at work and that it grows inevitably to become a bush and a tree, large enough for nesting birds. There is contrast between the small beginnings and a large culmination. Those who think God is absent from the world or ineffective or impotent, the parable engages with a contrary affirmation and vision of God’s present activity and endgame.

It encourages those discouraged by the apparent unchanging destructiveness of human interactions and structures. It offers a reframing for those perplexed by the overwhelming suffering of our lives and world to which God seems so often to be indifferent. It suggests to those who ask the age-old question of lament, “how long, O God, how long?” that the question is not rhetorical.

Stories of trees in the Hebrew Bible often concern power and rule. Jotham tells a story of trees anointing a king against his brother Abimelech who is staging a coup (Judges 9:7-15). Prophets use tree images to announce God’s power and rule over the imperial powers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon (Ezekiel 17:22-24; 31:1-18; Daniel 4:10-26). The mustard tree then depicts God’s empire that both resists and mimics all other empires to rule over all in a way that promises justice and life rather than oppression.

The nesting birds point to the same vision. The “birds of the heaven” symbolize the people of the nations who have lived under oppression (Ezekiel 17:23; 31:6; Daniel 4:12). In this mustard seed they find welcome and hospitality that supports life rather than destroys it. The parable is a prophetic word both reinscribing and resisting Roman imperial visions.

The second parable concerning yeast that a woman mixes with flour to leaven the whole batch demonstrates some similar emphases. Relative to the larger amount of flour, suggesting the final eschatological vision of abundant food (Isaiah 25:6-10a), the yeast is only a small quantity. Yet its small presence has big effects. The woman literally “hides” the leaven in the flour. That which seems to be invisible is in fact mysteriously and inevitably performing its leavening work. The status quo does not remain unchanged. By means of a time-consuming process, all of the flour “was leavened.” The passive voice indicates God’s transformative work in the world.

The third and fourth parables — the treasure hidden in a field and the very valuable pearl — continue some of these emphases (13:44-45). The element of the relative smallness of the present form of the kingdom continues. In 13:44 it consists of treasure in a much larger field. In 13:45 it consists of just one pearl.

Likewise, there is continued emphasis on the element of hiddenness. The treasure is hidden in the field while the pearl is not initially obvious. The repetition serves to underscore the importance of these perspectives.

But new emphases emerge, particularly the interplay of searching, finding, celebrating, and selling all in order to possess something of great value. The person who finds the treasure joyfully “sells all” to buy the field (13:44). The merchant “sold all” to buy the pearl. The discoveries disrupt normal daily life and priorities; they require risk and sacrifice. In these actions, the power of that which has been found is seen to be at work. The treasure and pearl possess the finders and shape their lives. So it is to participate in and be possessed by the empire of heaven; it is worth everything.

The final parable of Matthew’s chapter returns to an eschatological emphasis on the division of judgment evident in the weeds and the wheat (13:24-30). It turns from farming and trading to fishing to depict the future establishment of God’s reign and its victory over evil. The scope of God’s empire is universal (“fish of every kind”). Judgment at the end of the age separates the evil and the righteous who coexist up to this point, including in the church. The scenario reminds readers how important it is to “do the will of my Father in heaven” (12:50).

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12

Roger Nam

“Ask me, what would you like me to give you?”

Solomon is at the crucial beginnings of his kingship when God poses this generous question. The divine question is particularly meaningful when considering the circumstances regarding the royal succession from his father David. Solomon was not the heir apparent to the throne.

That rite traditionally would go to the eldest living son Adonijah, as brothers Amnon and Absalon had already died. But Nathan and Bathsheba convinced a dying David to proclaim Solomon’s rights to the kingship. Furthermore, the theophany occurs at a high place (i.e, worship center) in Gibeon, significant for its role in both worship and the consolidation of the throne. The temple in Jerusalem has not yet begun construction.

Within such uncertainty, God’s question presents an opportunity that would soothe, comfort and assure a young king. God offers to give anything to Solomon to help secure his reign with an honest, “What do you want” (paraphrase mine)?

Imagine hearing such a request from a company CEO or billionaire philanthropist? If we are honest, many of us would want to respond to such a generous prompt with some sort of material riches. Similarly, Solomon could have justified a similar response, considering the needs of the young king. Thanks to the archaeology of the Near East, scholars understand that monarchies spent enormous efforts to create and maintain their own political legitimacy like this one. They built enormous monuments to display their great authority at sacred sites.

They commissioned royal inscriptions to narrate their tales of splendor.

They gathered luxury goods to feed the upper class of their constituents to win political approval as documented in these texts.

All of these efforts were especially vital during the succession period. So naturally, the king would seemingly respond to God’s generous prompt with elements that would insure a long, continued reign.

But Solomon delivers a remarkable reply to such generosity in verses six through nine:

  • Praise for God’s actions: “You have shown great and steadfast love … you have kept for him this great and steadfast love” (verse 6).
  • Humility: “I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in” (verse 7).
  • Recognition of inadequacy: “And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted” (verse 8).

This prayer to God then culminates in a surprising response to God’s offer. Solomon implicitly recognizes that for a king, such requests for worldly security violates earlier warnings from both Moses (Deuteronomy 17:16-17) as well as Samuel (1 Samuel 8:11-18). And with a wisdom more akin to the young Solomon requests:

“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people” (verse 9)?

Solomon knows that a listening heart and an understanding mind are more valuable than traditional signs of kingship. The Hebrew words help unpack the richness in Solomon’s response. In Hebrew, the word “to listen” is the same word for “to obey.”

Also, the concept of “understanding” is not mere cognition, but integrates morality as seen with the clarification “able to discern between good and evil.” Solomon shuns disregards traditional royal culture of material and political favor, and asks for goodness over his ruling instruments to perpetuate God’s sovereignty.

God is pleased with earnest request for a listening heart and an understanding mind and commends the young king for not asking for life, riches, and safety from enemies. Interestingly, the requests for long life (Psalm 72:15), riches (Psalm 21:3, 5; 72:15-16) and death to opposition (Psalm 21:8-12) are actually biblical elements of a sustaining royal ideology. They are natural petitions for a young king, trying to legitimize a succession. But Solomon’s request is met, with the additional promise of “riches and honor.”

The conclusion of the passage must be carefully understood. How are we to theologically consider the role of “riches and honor” granted to Solomon from God, presumably as a blessing in response to Solomon’s good faith? This is where many modern interpretations fail us. In ancient Israel, riches are a sign of divine blessing, but remember that material riches look very different during the age of Solomon.

In our current monetary society, riches are often equated with individuals with assets many times more than the average household income. A monetary society allows us to stockpile and hoard such riches, and often riches are accumulated through unethical or minimally non-generous means. In a monetary society, riches are not always a blessing. In examining a theology of riches, the words of Jesus from the context of a more monetary Greco-Roman world, may better reflect our present day.

But Solomon ruled an agrarian kingdom. Coinage had not yet been invented and most scholars suggest that trade was based on duty, obligation through reciprocity, and not supply and demand of today’s societies. Riches for Solomon’s kingdom meant abundant harvest, protection from pestilence and adequate rainfall. All of these factors to production are difficult to stockpile. The agrarian life forced year after year dependence of God.

It is precisely this dependence on God that Solomon shows in his response. And God answered. Despite the warning in verse 14, Solomon’s line would eventually last over four hundred years, one of the longest, single-family reigns in known history. Although the economy has changed remarkably since the time of Solomon, a listening heart and understanding spirit still takes prime precedence for God’s people.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28

Esther M. Menn

Love stories in the Bible, such as this First Lesson where Jacob marries his beloved Rachel (and unexpectedly her sister Leah as well!), reveal how much has changed since biblical times.

Yet, aspects of this family tale with its strong emotions, sibling rivalry, deception, and loyalty continue to resonate, challenging us to think more deeply about our lives together and how God works even through our flawed interpersonal relations and most ordinary activities.

The classic Hebrew love story portrays a young man meeting his future spouse at a well. When Jacob sees his cousin Rachel approaching a well to water the family flock (Genesis 29:9-12), we anticipate romance! The woman at the well motif also foreshadows marriage elsewhere in the Bible, as in the cases of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24:10-67) and Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2:15-22). (Compare also the striking variant of the woman at the well motif in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4:10-42.)

The intrusion of Rachel’s older sister Leah (“When morning came, it was Leah!” Genesis 29:25) highlights additional dynamics that connect this story to previous events. This instance of mistaken identity turns the tables, as Jacob who earlier deceived Isaac by impersonating his elder brother (Genesis 27:1-40) now finds himself deceived by Laban’s substitution of his elder daughter in the marriage bed.

The competition between the two sisters for the affection of their husband and for children parallels the earlier sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob for the birthright and blessing (Genesis 25:29-34; 27:1-40). Rachel’s boast that she has wrestled mightily with her sister and has prevailed (Genesis 30:8) foreshadows her husband Jacob’s wrestling with the divine being before being renamed “Israel,” the one who strives with God and with humans and prevails (Genesis 32:28).

Much about this narrative reveals the distance between the biblical world and our own twenty-first century context. The patriarchal, tribal society in Genesis assumes that marriage is first and foremost an alliance between men involving the exchange of women, here between an uncle and the nephew he calls “my bone and my flesh” (Genesis 29:14, 19). It is not primarily a commitment between individuals intending to share their lives as today. Laban and Jacob work out the marriage price of seven years of labor, and there is no consultation of the bride to be (unlike Rebekah who gives her consent in Genesis 24:58).

Polygamy is portrayed as an unobjectionable arrangement, with two sisters given in short succession, after only a honeymoon week for the first. (Note, however, that a man’s marriage to sisters is a prohibited practice even in ancient times, according to Leviticus 18:18.) Clearly, we cannot read Genesis 29 as a programmatic description of how our society and marriage laws should operate, nor as a moral template for our own cultural context and family dynamics.

Despite the differences, similarities of human nature establish an empathy with the imperfect members of this family. The intensity of Jacob’s love for the beautiful Rachel is emphasized three times (Genesis 29:18, 20, 30), which is especially remarkable given the usual taciturn narrative style of the Bible. Jacob’s ardor is also indicated by his super human feat of lifting the massive rock covering the well upon seeing Rachel for the first time (Genesis 29:3), and by his heedlessness of the passage of time while working to earn her in marriage (Genesis 29:20).

This very human tale of intense love has its complications. Jacob’s singular passion for Rachel strands her older sister in the loveless marriage that Laban has orchestrated to provide for his eldest daughter (Genesis 29:26). God favors Leah as the unloved wife by giving her many children (Genesis 29:31; cf., Deuteronomy 21:15), but still the tragedy continues. Leah names her sons to express her unfulfilled desire of gaining her husband’s affection through childbearing (Genesis 29:32-24; 30:20). Only with her fourth son, Judah, whose name is based on a Hebrew root meaning “to praise” or ”to thank,” does Leah cease her striving to please her husband and give thanks to God instead (Genesis 30:35).

Rachel, for her part, envies her elder sister’s fertility, as she herself desperately tries to conceive (30:1). Through their unrelenting jealousy and competition, the two sisters and their servant women raise up a large family capable of fulfilling God’s promise to Jacob that his descendants would be as abundant as the dust or topsoil, covering the ground in every direction for purpose of blessing all the families of the earth (Genesis 28:14).

Many in the congregation will identify with the intense emotions in this family tale of inexplicable preference, deception, competition, and jealousy. Women in particular may resonate with the feeling of being judged by their appearance, the despair due to infertility, or the ecstasy over a baby’s birth, all so poignantly depicted. Leah and Rachel’s central roles in the emergence of the people of Israel highlights women’s agency as an important means through which God continues to work today.

The casual introduction of servant women in this narrative raises issues of social class, slave and domestic labor, reproductive rights, and sexual trafficking and abuse with which we still wrestle in the twenty-first century. Although they hold a lowly position, the handmaids are treated with dignity through their introduction by name, Zilpah (given by Laban to Leah upon her marriage, Genesis 29:24) and Bilhah (given to Rachel, Genesis 29:29).

These women have an important role in the emergence of the people of Israel, giving birth to four of Jacob’s thirteen named children (Genesis 30:3-13), which include the twelve sons who stand for the twelve tribes as well as his daughter Dinah. The almost invisible presence of Zilpah and Bilhah in a passage that includes discussion of appropriate wages (Genesis 29:15) encourages reflection on the precarious status of minimum wage earners, surrogate and birth mothers, domestic workers, and others who perform vital but largely underappreciated work in our society.


Commentary on Psalm 119:129-136

Shauna Hannan

God’s decrees are wonderful. What else can be said? For this Psalmist, nothing really. But there are a variety of ways to say it.

Is this not the task of the preacher? That is, to take the same message, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” and present it at least 52 ways per year and potentially up to 2,000 ways in the expanse of one’s preaching ministry. Now there’s a task.

The author of Psalm 119 serves as a model for this task as he (most likely “he”) describes God’s wonderful decrees in the eight lines of the Psalm’s twenty-two stanzas. Even in this 17th of the 22 stanzas there is repetition and variety.

While some might consider repetition boring, consider the ways it serves us. All you runners know the importance of the repetition of one leg in front of the other and one breath after another in order to clear the brain, to build the capacity and stamina that lead to health and maybe even triumph.

Liturgically speaking we know that repetition serves us as well. There must be a reason we have recited the same prayer for centuries: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name … ” There is something to reciting the Apostle’s Creed on a regular basis. Why would we regularly confess our sins and hear the proclamation of forgiveness if such repetition were not life-giving?

The repetition in this Psalm summons for me images of Jewish people praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem by bowing in a most committed rhythm. We sense this rhythm in Psalm 119 as the Psalmist leans in, “Your decrees are wonderful,” and straightens back, “Therefore my soul keeps them,” and leans in again, “The unfolding of your words gives light,” and straightens again, “It imparts understanding to the simple.” The repetitive rhythm of reciting his reflections on the Torah guide the Psalmist’s concentration on this most important gift, God’s precepts.

The structure of the Psalm is rhythmic in a number of ways. In addition to comparing the content of each of the 22 stanzas, it is also important to note the form. Each stanza represents a letter in the Hebrew alphabet (which is why there are 22 stanzas), and each of the 8 lines within the stanzas begins with the same letter (even if you’ve forgotten the intricacies of the Hebrew grammar you learned in seminary, this feature will be noted with only a quick glance at the Hebrew version).

Since various elements of the structure of Psalm 119 are lost in translation from the Hebrew to the English, you may consider trying this for yourself using grace as your topic. Or, better yet, focus on the kingdom of heaven as the gospel writer does in today’s reading from Matthew. Chapter 13 can serve as your prompt:

  • “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (13:31)
  • “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (13:33)
  • “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (13:34)
  • The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls” (13:45)
  • “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind” (13:47)

The gospel writer is essentially saying the same thing in number of different ways. Both repetition and variety serve us.

While writing a Psalm based on the structure of Psalm 119 would be an impressive feat, I recommend it in order to help you live the structure of this striking Psalm. Better yet, do this communally. Find 26 congregation members who would be willing to write 8 lines of reflection on the kingdom of heaven. Each person is assigned a letter of the English alphabet and then begins each of the 8 lines with that letter. This will certainly be helpful fodder for your sermon; it may even be the sermon! (If anyone does this, I’d love to read it and hear about the process.)

“The dramatic intent [in Psalm 119] is to find a form commensurate with the message. The message is that life is reliable and utterly symmetrical when the torah is honored. And so the psalm provides a literary, pedagogical experience of reliability and utter symmetry” (Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 40).

While I usually encourage the preacher to stay within the Psalm itself, in this case I imagine if the Psalmist could go on and on about Torah/Word, how much more could we go on and on about Word/Logos/Jesus. This Psalm is about the extensiveness, fullness and completeness of what God offers for us.

James Mays reminds us of the importance of this Psalm’s possessive pronoun “your.”

“The unfailing repetition [of this] … emphasizes with an unwearied insistence that what matters is God’s use of these modes of language as divine communication” (James Mays, Psalms). The repetitive rhythmic recitation of God’s word connects us not only to that word’s structure and content, but also to the one who is represented by each appearance of “your,” God.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:26-39

J.R. Daniel Kirk

The surprise of last week’s reading included the idea that our share in the glorious inheritance that lies ahead is to be had only along the way of the cross.

We must put to death the body’s deeds. We must suffer together with Christ. This is how the new age dawns.

The depth of our participation in Christ’s suffering wells up in “groaning,” as we await our final hope of resurrection (8:23). But our groaning is not alone, it joins the chorus of groans raised by the created order that has gone the way of its rebellious human overlords and now awaits its own redemption (8:22).

Today we learn that this chorus of groans is actually a trio, and that the divine Spirit is the third member. The Spirit’s groans, however, are different. Whereas our groans and those of creations are signals of our own suffering and need of redemption, the Spirit’s groans are unspeakable words of intercession for those of us who groan in weakness.

The destiny toward which the Spirit is ushering us through its prayers is God’s plan for a new humanity. Romans 8:28-30 has been fodder for hundreds of years of theological debate over foreknowledge and predestination. But at the heart of these verses is the Father’s yearning for God’s people to be formed after the image of the Son.

This “image” language reaches deep into Israel’s story, back to the very beginning. Humans are created according to the image of God. This hints at the idea that salvation in Christ is a new creation project, one in which God is recreating humanity. Jesus is a second Adam figure (see 1 Corinthians 15:49, Colossians 3:10) who holds in himself the future that God has in store for us.

This new humanity comes about with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In Romans 1:4 Paul says that Jesus was appointed son of God by the Spirit of holiness. The word he uses in 1:4, horizo, is the same root as the word we translate “predestined” (proorizo) in 8:28. What God appointed for Jesus at his resurrection God also pre-appointed for the rest of us: being raised to divine likeness and “sonship.”

These verses weave together eternity-past and eternity-future: from God’s knowing in advance through our receiving the glory of God’s beloved children (8:17, 21). The loom of this tapestry is the resurrected Son, the firstborn of the new humanity, the first human justified by resurrection, the first human glorified with the glory of God’s children.

This integration into the family of God provides us with the bedrock reality that withstands and has the power to overcome all our fears, doubts, and insecurities: God is for us. God is on our side.

Once again, Paul propels his case with Christological force: we know the depth of God’s passion for us because God did not spare God’s own son (8:32). The verse echoes God’s praise of Abraham in Genesis 22, when the patriarch “did not spare” his own son, Isaac.

Abraham’s act was the very picture of human fidelity to God, but Romans 8:32 reverses the story: the offering of the Son becomes the very picture of God’s fidelity to humanity. The death of Jesus is the assurance for us that God will fulfill all God’s covenant promises, giving us “all things” (8:32).

Romans 8 piles up eschatological imagery: hope for future resurrection, visions of a restored cosmos, anticipation of full glorification. Another dimension of the coming future is the final judgment.

Here, too, God and Christ work in concert to ensure that this vision of the future is not one of foreboding, but of hopeful confidence. The power of the accuser has been undone by the idea that the judge has given up his own son so that he might freely justify rather than condemn (verses 33-34).

Moreover, the resurrected Jesus at God’s right hand ensures that final vindication is not some cold transaction completed through a deed in the far off past. The living Jesus (in addition to the Spirit) intercedes for us at God’s right hand.

Embodied at God’s right hand is not only the “price paid” for our salvation, but the goal God has in mind for us as well, the image to which God has planned to conform us, the first embodiment of the true humanity who will at last reign over this world as God desired from the beginning (Romans 5:17; Genesis 1:26-28).

Sitting at God’s right hand is the love that God has always dreamed that humanity would embody.

The love of Christ, which is nothing less than the love of God at work in Jesus the Messiah (8:39) undergirds the great victory that Paul anticipates in verses 35-39. Here he takes up his mantra that the Christian life entails suffering, not primarily because we must overcome our sin, but because the world is full of persecutions awaiting the faithful. It is for God’s sake that “we are put to death all day long, considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (verse 36).

But the victory is assured not only through the one who loved us (8:37), but through the very love of God itself (8:39). God’s love resolves in resurrection life for us that overcomes the greatest defeat we might face, being conquered by death.

In Romans 8, the work of Father, Son and Spirit are put on display in a kaleidoscopic vision of the coming turn of the ages. Jesus holds in himself the eschatological destiny of humanity and the cosmos as a whole, a purpose envisioned and enacted by God, and one that began through the Spirit who not only raised Jesus but will also raise us up through his power.

This is the story of God’s love. It is the story into which we are written as daughters and sons of God.