Lectionary Commentaries for July 13, 2008
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Dale Allison, Jr.

The main point of Matthew’s version of the parable of the sower is to offer an explanation. In order to see this, one needs to review the narrative logic of the entire Gospel to this point.

The first four chapters of Matthew introduce us to the main character, Jesus. They tell us who he is–Son of David, Son of God, Messiah–and how he came into the world, how his ministry got started, etc.

Next we have chapters 5-7, the sermon on the mount. Here are collected Jesus’ ethical teachings, the demands he made of both the disciples and Israel–do away with anger, forsake oaths, turn the other cheek, love enemies, and so on. Next come chapters 8-9. Here the focus shifts from word to deed, and we see Jesus’ compassionate healing work in Israel. In other words, if chapters 5-7 recount the sorts of things that Jesus said, chapters 8-9 tell us primarily the sorts of things that he did.

Following this is chapter 10, the missionary discourse, where Jesus commissions his disciples and instructs them to say what he has said and to do what he has done: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (10:7-8). In short, the disciples are to say and to do what Jesus has said and done in the previous chapters. As 10:25 has it, “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.”

The chapters on the words and deeds of Jesus (5-9) and the words and deeds of the disciples (10) lead up to chapters 11-12, which record primarily the response of “this generation” to John the Baptist and Jesus, especially its reaction to “what the Messiah was doing” (11:2). This is what the material on the Baptist (11:2-6, 7-15, 16-19) is all about as well as the woes on Galilee (11:20-24) and the conflict stories in chapter 12 (1-8, 9-14, 22-37, 38-45). Unfortunately, it all adds up to an indictment: many of the people, under the sway of their hard-hearted leaders, have decided not to join Jesus’ cause.

Given that the eschatological expectations of Judaism envisage–and indeed are all about–the salvation of God’s people, the failure recorded in chapters 11-12 poses the same grave problem as does Romans 9-11: How is it that so many in Israel have rejected the Messiah? How did his own receive him not? Chapter 13, which opens with the parable of the sower, addresses the issue. It supplies a sort of mini theodicy–not a solution to the problem of evil in general but a solution to the rejection of Jesus in particular. The chapter teaches that there can be different responses to one and the same message (13:1-23), that the devil works in human hearts (13:24-30), and that all will be well in the end (13:31-33, 36-43, 47-50). Read in its larger context, the whole chapter grapples with the Messiah’s unexpected reception, or rather lack thereof.

Just as alleged solutions to the problem of evil never come close to answering all of our questions, so is it with Matthew 13. We may grant the important point that different people respond to the very same message differently, but then why is the devil successful with one person, unsuccessful with another? What are the root differences between those who sprout up and quickly fade and those who stay the course? Why is it that some are not overcome by worldly cares and others get lost in making money? Human beings are containers of mystery, and Matthew 13 does nothing to undo that.

Although the parable of the sower is first of all a sort of explanation of what happened when Jesus appeared in Israel, it implicitly exhorts believers (who should recognize a bit of themselves in all four seeds) to join the fourth sort of hearer, represented by the good seed. For many of us, this may mean above all heeding v. 22, which speaks of the seed that fell among thorns and how “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” We are likely to respond that we must, if we are to be responsible, worry about money, because without it we will not have food, drink or clothing, nor will our loved ones. How can we not serve God and mammon (6:24)? How can we not worry about our lives, about what we will eat or drink or what we will wear? Will God really take care of these matters for us (6:25-34)? How can we not worry about tomorrow, or suppose that tomorrow will take care of itself (6:34)?

Perhaps it will help to remember the story of Jesus’ burial in 27:57-61, for this labels Joseph of Arimathea as both a rich man and a disciple, as well as 6:2-4, which presumes that Jesus’ hearers will have money to give alms. If we are to interpret Matthew by Matthew, it would seem that Jesus calls only some to abandon their livelihood and do away with money altogether.

Yet the lesson for everybody else is still radical: riches are seductive and dangerous and can readily become an obstacle on the way to God. Even when we seek to use wealth for good, we too often end up being its slave rather than its master. We become like the rich man in 19:17-22, who could not follow Jesus because in truth he did not own his possessions: they rather owned him. While our gospel does not demand poverty of all, it does require freedom from whatever hinders obedience. So although we may find, living as we do in a modern capitalistic society, that it is seemingly inevitable to make friends of “dishonest wealth” (Luke 16:9), we must not be seduced into amassing goods because we find security in them. Our security needs to lie elsewhere; and our use of money must be determined by Jesus’ demand to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds and our neighbours as ourselves.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:10-13

Juliana Claassens

The job description of the prophet contains among other less than coveted tasks the ability to speak a life-giving word of hope when all the events seem to point to the contrary.

In Isa 55:10-13 one sees the prophet performing this task particularly well when in but a few short verses, the prophet is able to conjure up a world where the impossible seems possible again. Ever since chapter 40, the prophet has been seeking to provide his fellow exiles with much-needed perspective, helping the survivors to look at their broken world with new eyes.

The people to whom the prophet is speaking were in desperate need of such a word. The trauma of the Babylonian Exile they had lived through was too much to bear. After seeing their beloved city destroyed; families torn apart; houses demolished; their country lost, it was not surprising that members of the prophet’s audience were not so sure anymore whether they still believed in the God of their ancestors. In an exuberant lyrical conclusion to not only chapter 55 but also to the whole of Deutero-Isaiah, the prophet is presenting these doubters with a word of hope from the Lord that has the purpose of transforming the exiles’ fractured lives.

Reminiscent of the earlier claim in Isa 40:8 that even though the grass withers and the flower fades, the word of God will endure forever, the prophet describes the word of God in v. 10 as substantive and life-giving. Like rain and snow that waters the ground, causing nourishing food to grow that sustains the body, the words to which the prophet refers feed the soul. The Word of God will achieve its purpose; it will not return empty (v. 11).

The metaphor of rain and snow would have been particularly effective for people accustomed to arid conditions. The prophet’s audience would most likely have understood the vital importance of rain and snow to transform dry land into conditions able to sustain the vegetation necessary for human survival. Rain and snow ensured food for the next year as well as the seed that would secure subsequent crops (v. 10). Within such conditions, precipitation indeed meant the difference between life and death, thus serving as an apt description of the ability of God’s word to have a transformative effect on the lives of the exiles.

So sure is the prophet of what he is saying that he all but bursts out in song. Immediately following the statement about the efficacy of God’s word, the prophet employs imaginative words that conjure up a world where the mountains and the hills break out in song and the trees of the fields clap their hands in accompaniment. The prophet’s words envision a world where the thorn trees and briers that throughout Isaiah were used as a symbol of judgment (5:6; 7:23-25; 32:13) now will be transformed into luscious green myrtles and cypresses. This radical transformation serves as a powerful symbol for the new life that lies ahead for the exiles after the devastation brought about by the Babylonian exile.

Within this exuberant display of joy with all of creation joining in song, the return of the exiles is imaged in terms of a festive procession. The term “to go out” in v. 12 is reminiscent of the paradigmatic account of the Exodus of God’s people (Exodus 14-15). This original exodus account became a way of talking about freedom from bondage and despair–freedom from settling for less than what God intended creation to be. And it is not just the exiles who are affected. One tends to forget that the brutal scorched-earth policy of the empire that destroyed everything in its way also had an effect on nature. But now the promise of God’s restoration, healing, and peace also impacts the trees of the field; the mountains and the hills that now joyously can sing about the powers of chaos that have been defeated.

This week’s lectionary text ends with the promise that the word of God will be a memorial–an eternal sign that shall not be cut off. Referring back to God’s covenant with David that formed a central theme earlier in this chapter (vv. 3-4), the prophet once again reminds his audience of God’s loyalty and steadfast love. It is with this promise of the eternal God that the prophet concludes his words to the people in exile. It is a promise of a God that is with God’s people always–even in exile; even though they may sometimes feel very much alone in the foreign land in which they were forced to dwell.
The prophet did not have an easy task to speak a word of hope when everything around him seemed hopeless. However, he succeeds in proclaiming a word that is counter to the words of the world; a word that stands over against the policies of the empire whose intent is to kill and destroy; a word that is able to imagine a world where everything is possible, where all of creation is mended and restored, where the exiles can go home and live in peace.

Even more challenging than speaking a word of hope in an improbable situation is to hear and to embrace this word, so living into the promise. Similar to the image of eating that was used in the beginning of this chapter (vv. 1-2), the people had to make the life-giving word from God their own. The ultimate intention of the prophetic word is that the exiles must take the first steps home by breaking with the empire and by joining the alternative world imagined by the prophet.

Centuries later, this point is still valid. It is true that if one cannot imagine it, one cannot live it. In actualizing this prophetic word for a contemporary context, the preacher once more has to engage in the prophetic task of painting a picture of the world as it ought to be, which seeks to transform the world as it currently is.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34

Esther M. Menn

God may be commonly associated with the gifts of peace and unity, but this story of the struggle between Jacob and his brother, Esau, highlights family conflict as a context within which God also works.

The First Lesson for this Sunday tells about the origins of Israel and its closest neighbor, Edom, through competition and adversity. More generally, its honest portrayal of sibling rivalry provides an opening to address this common family dynamic and to reflect on God’s presence even through times of strife and disagreement.

What appears initially as a male genealogical list of fathers and sons beginning with Abraham and Isaac suddenly takes unexpected direction, with attention to the lineage of a woman (Gen. 25:20)! Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, introduced in last Sunday’s First Lesson, becomes central in determining the direction of the covenantal promises in the following narratives (Genesis 25-28).

As Sarah before her and Rachel after her, the matriarch, Rebekah, is unable to have children. The motif of the barren wife in the ancestral narratives places the divine promise of descendants at risk and stresses God’s control over the future.

The word “barren” to describe a woman without children comes from a pre-scientific understanding of human reproduction. Using an agricultural analogy, people of the ancient Near East understood that the “seed” of the father was planted in the fertile field of the mother’s womb, where it grew into a baby. If the male seed did not take root, it must have been the fault of the mother’s “barren” womb.

In this passage there is no blaming of Rebekah. Instead, Isaac turns to God and intercedes on his wife’s behalf. The narrative moves quickly to the answer to his prayer, showing that God alone is responsible for the birth of children.

The focus then shifts to Rebekah’s suffering in pregnancy. While in the next generation Rachel will lament that death is preferable to infertility (Gen. 30:1), here Rebekah’s difficult pregnancy causes her to question the value of living.

In her suffering, Rebekah also turns to God and inquires about the tumult within her. The divine oracle interprets the struggle in her womb as a conflict between two nations, in which “the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).

While the story recounts events in the life of one family, the oracle makes clear that more than personal biographies are concerned. Esau and Jacob are identified as ancestral figures standing for whole peoples. This story preserves the folk-memory of the origins of two closely related nations, Edom and Israel.

Some of the details of the narrative make sense only when the story is considered in this way. When Esau comes out of the womb “red” (Hebrew, ‘admoni, Gen. 25:25), this is a wordplay on “Edom” (Hebrew, ‘edom). This connection is confirmed later when Esau sells his rights as a firstborn to Jacob for some “red stuff” (Hebrew, ha’edom ha’edom) and the text explains “Therefore he was called Edom” (Hebrew, ‘edom, Gen. 25:30).

Jacob’s name (ya’aqob) is related to the heel (Hebrew ‘aqeb) that he grasps as the twins emerge still jockeying for first position (Gen. 25:26). Jacob’s name is also related to the verb “to supplant” as indicated in Esau’s lament after his younger brother has taken both his birthright and his blessing: “Is he not rightly named Jacob (ya’aqob)? For he has supplanted me (wayya’eqebeni) these two times!” (Gen. 27:36).

Jacob is later renamed “Israel,” since he has “striven with God and with humans” and has won (Gen. 32:28). Against all odds Jacob always comes out on top. His assertive and opportunistic character reveals something about Israel’s self-understanding as a small and seemingly insignificant nation, charged with manifesting their identity as God’s covenant people.

The unexpected ascendancy of the youngest son is a common pattern in the Bible. It is Isaac rather than his older half-brother, Ishmael, who remains the focus of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:18-19). It is Jacob’s son of his old age, Joseph, who sees his dreams fulfilled when his older brothers bow down to him in Egypt (Gen. 42:6-9; cf., Gen. 37:5-10). David, the youngest of all of Jesse’s sons, is anointed king by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:10-13). When his elder brothers cower in fear, the boy David emerges as the amazing victor over the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Sam. 17:33, 50).

These and many similar biblical stories of the youngest son rising to prominence contradict the expectations, laws, and conventions of society. The weak and marginal become the surprising means through which God works in Israel and in the world.

The different lifestyles of Esau and Jacob, as well as the peoples that they represent, are indicated in this passage. Esau is an outdoorsman and a hunter, whose game wins the favor of his father. Jacob is an introvert who prefers staying at home close to the mother who later helps him to steal the blessing Isaac intends for Esau (Gen. 25:27-28).

Jacob exploits these differences when his brother returns home exhausted from his exploits in the field. The concluding verse implies that Esau himself was to blame for his loss of status because he did not value it more highly than lentil soup (Gen. 25:34).

But God is generous to both brothers. Like Jacob, Esau becomes the ancestor of a multitude (Genesis 36). Like Jacob, Esau is blessed with abundance to meet his family’s needs (Gen. 33:9-11). In their reunion, Jacob recognizes the face of God in the face of his brother, Esau, because of the positive reception that he receives (Gen. 33:10). The brothers’ reconciliation continues as they bury their father, Isaac, together (Gen. 35:29). Ultimately, this story of sibling rivalry ends with reconciliation and blessing.

Conflict is often viewed as something to be avoided, ignored, or quickly resolved. The story of Esau and Jacob challenges us to acknowledge rivalry as a part of life. Even through our struggles, God is present and active extending blessing to all peoples.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:1-11

Marion L. Soards

The transition between chapters 7 and 8 presents interpreters with a challenge, namely, to know exactly where one of Paul’s thoughts leaves off and another of his thoughts begins.

Moreover, one is left wondering how Paul’s thoughts relate to each other. The lectionary recognizes this difficulty and presents one solution by ending the reading Pentecost 8, Year A with Rom 7:25a and, then, beginning the reading Pentecost 9, Year A with Rom 8:1. In this approach, however, Rom 7:25b gets left out of the reading altogether. While not attempting to solve the matter here (it is a point that merits/requires extensive reflection), one should at least be aware that Rom 8:1-11 is not “context-less.” This passage follows (closely) on the heels of the text of last week’s lesson.

Romans 8:1-2 form a thesis statement that is explained in 8:3-8; then, 8:9-11 present a further explanatory statement that contrasts the situation laid out in vv. 7-8. Noticing and reflecting on this structure goes a long way toward (1) understanding this demanding passage of Romans, and (2) discerning an outline or method for re-presenting the text in preaching.

Just as in Rom 7:25b there is a pointed contrast made between “mind” and “flesh,” so all through 8:1-11 there are a series of dramatic dissimilarities sketched out by Paul:

  • law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus/law of sin and of death;
  • law “weakened by flesh”/Son sent to deal with sin;
  • flesh/Spirit;
  • death/life and peace;
  • in the flesh/in the Spirit;
  • according to the flesh/according to the Spirit;
  • sin/righteousness.

Interpreters sometimes refer to these pairs of ideas or entities as “antinomies,” thus recognizing that Paul’s view of the world brought him to identify pairs of opposites that together composed reality, as Paul understood it. In essence these pairings are typical of an apocalyptic eschatological outlook wherein there is an ultimate contrast between opposing forces: good and evil, darkness and light, etc. Paul’s contrasts fit into this kind of “apocalyptic” thinking.

Thus, as Paul recognizes these opposites, so too the preacher can recognize and speak about the opposing forces that challenge our existence today. Here, it is helpful to note that Paul’s language of “the flesh” can essentially be taken up in language related to “a human point of view.” In fact, some contemporary translations render Paul’s talk of the flash with phrases like “a human perspective” or “a human point of view” or “human nature.” In the places where Paul juxtaposes flesh to Spirit or mind, this “translation” is helpful (though there are other contexts in Paul’s letters where “flesh” merely means a part of the human body–discerning the differences can sometimes be tricky).

One of Paul’s pairs of contrasts in particular needs attention. In v. 3 Paul juxtaposes “the law, weakened by the flesh” with God’s own Son, sent in the likeness of sinful flesh, to deal with sin. Here Paul presents

  • the law as unable to bring about the salvation of humankind on the one hand, and
  • God’s own attainment of salvation for humanity by sending the Son on the other hand.

The idea of a “saving sending” was one of the ways that ancient Judaism thought and taught about the law and wisdom, as God’s own gifts to humanity meant to accomplish the salvation of humanity, particularly the children of Abraham. Paul seems to have picked up this pattern of thought and to have used it to express his (and other early Christians’) conviction that God had acted in sending Jesus Christ to do for humanity what humanity cannot do for itself. According to Paul, as God sent Jesus Christ, God accomplished what the law itself could not achieve. Human effort (“flesh”) could not combine with the law (holy and just and good as it was/is) and win a right standing with God, for humanity was hopelessly in bondage to sin. In sending the Son, God defeated sin and freed humanity to live freely “according to the Spirit,” i.e., under the gracious leadership of the Spirit.

Ultimately, in vv. 9-11 Paul presents his concerns in a predominantly positive way. He states who Christians are–they/we are in the Spirit and the Spirit is in them/us. This condition is the distinguishing characteristic of Christian life. Paul brings this emphasis for a purpose: With all the foregoing talk about the Christians’ setting their minds on the Spirit rather than the flesh, it might be easy for Paul’s reader to conclude that salvation itself is nothing more than making the right decisions in life. Yet, while we do have the responsibility to focus our lives on and in relation to God, the good news of the Gospel is that not only are we called to be “in the Spirit,” but also the gracious gift of God to us is that the Spirit of God dwells in us. The paradox of Christian faith is that gift and demand go hand in hand: What God demands of us is what God has already given to us, namely, that we abide in the Spirit who indeed abides within us. There are both external and internal dimensions of the experience of grace that take shape as we abide in the Spirit and the Spirit abides in us. Indeed, in the final verses of this week’s lesson, we encounter a collection of Paul’s phrases along these very lines that sometimes confuse as much as they clarify: “in the Spirit”; “the Spirit of God dwells in you”; “the Spirit of Christ”; “Christ is in you”; “the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead is in you . . . his Spirit that dwells in you.” The language smacks of a kind of proto-Trinitarian thought, but without articulating a doctrine of the Trinity. What is clear, however, is that God has brought about an intimate relationship between the divine and the human that had never existed before and that exists now only as a result of what God has done in Jesus Christ.