Lectionary Commentaries for July 20, 2008
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Dale Allison, Jr.

Matt 13:24-30 and 36-43, the parable of the tares and its interpretation, recall in several respects 13:3-9 and 18-23, the parable of the sower and its interpretation.

Not only are certain motifs–sowing, seeds, soil, kingdom, obstacles to growth, the devil or the evil one–repeated, but both parables stress that while the victorious arrival of God’s good future is assured, the way from here to there is strewn with sin and unbelief. The parallels are due to the fact that both parables and their interpretations address the same problem, namely, the failure of Jesus’ proclamation to win over collective Israel. Just as seed may fall upon different types of soil and just as weeds may be sown among wheat, so too is it with Jesus’ ministry: the good comes with the evil. The chief difference between the sower and the tares is that while the former concentrates on human responsibility, the latter focuses on the devil, who shares responsibility for the negative response to God’s word.

If 13:24-30 relates a parable, 13:37-39 offers a series of equations that explain the meanings of the figures in that parable. Then 13:40-43 uses those meanings to construct a second narrative. The result is that the story in 13:24-30 uses the figures on one side of the equations in 13:37-9 while 13:40-3 uses the figures from the other side:

sowersower = Son of manSon of man
fieldfield = worldworld
good seedgood seed = sons of the kingdomsons of the kingdom
weedsweeds = sons of the evil onesons of the evil one
enemyenemy = the devilthe devil
harvestharvest = judgementjudgement
harvestersharvesters = angelsangels

We have two stories with one meaning.

The parable of the weeds is inevitably about eschatology and the last judgment. This can be a problem for those of us in the mainline churches. We seem to have conceded the last things to more conservative churches, especially those hoping for a near end and reading the sort of popular eschatology represented by the Left Behind series.

The wedding service in the old Book of Common Prayer once had this: “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer in the dreadful Day of Judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you knows any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together, ye do now confess it.” The updated version reads: “I require and charge you both, as you hope for joy and peace in the marriage state….” This dramatic change stands for a host of changes in our liturgies and sermons and theologies. We seem to be more at home in the world than ever before, and so much less interested in the world to come.

Perhaps we have made our own the old Marxist criticism of religion, in which there is of course some truth: the hope of future reward and punishment has too often encouraged toleration of present injustice and diminished Christians’ desire to fix things. Or perhaps we are a bit embarrassed by the simple, conventional dichotomy between heaven and hell, or by the fact that the last judgment seems so unecumenical.

Whatever the excuse may be, our text is the opportunity to rethink the lack of attention so many of us give to eschatology, except maybe at funerals. We know that the meaning of a novel whose ending has been lost is up for grabs. It is the same, as the Bible well knows, with our individual and collective histories. We cannot grasp the meaning without knowing the end. This means for us Christians that we should interpret life according to our faith that God’s kingdom will finally win, that death will be no more, and that every tear will be wiped away.

Furthermore, the notion of a last judgment, which is the focus of 13:40-43, is a vivid way of insisting that what we do really matters, in this world and the world to come. We need very much to worry about this today. We have a tendency to assign less and less responsibility to individuals as moral agents. We are often inclined to suppose that we are largely or entirely the products of our genes and our environment. This is one reason the word “sin” has died out in many circles. It is also why some now affirm that we need to get beyond the concept of personal responsibility, which they regard as merely a cultural construct.

Now we have of course learned much in recent times about human nature, and modern knowledge probably does compel us to confess that we are, as individuals, only partially responsible for our sins. Yet we must not let this circumstance erode our fragile sense of moral responsibility. We, like Adam and Eve, are only too happy to place blame elsewhere. We must, however, resist the superficial proposition that, in general, we are unaccountable for our deeds.

The Bible’s expectation of a last judgment, with its verdicts of reward and punishment, should help undo our frivolity by confronting us with the import of our actions. It is the antidote for the sentimentalism, cheap grace, and lack of seriousness that so often conspire to wither moral responsibility. And it tells us that God is something other than an amiable chap who looks the other way no matter what.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 44:6-8

Juliana Claassens

Trauma theorists tell us that one of the essential steps for trauma victims reconstituting their shattered lives is to repair their narrative identity, i.e., constructing fragments of their former selves into a sense-making narrative.

Isaiah 44:6-8 as part of the larger context of Isaiah 44 seeks to reestablish a new identity for the broken exiles by reminding the exilic community that their own identity should be understood in relation to the character of God. Having received a new name in vv. 1-5, the exiles are reminded that they are witnesses of the Redeemer God. They are called to testify to God’s liberative action in their lives which is a continuation of God’s redemptive action in the past.

The promise of God’s redemptive action to which the trauma survivors are called to witness is a source of great comfort. Speaking to people who have been deeply wounded, the people are consoled with the words: “Do not be afraid” (v. 8). The Redeemer God who has done marvelous things in the past, will once more act to save the exiles from their dire situation.

The image of the redeemer is indeed a powerful image of liberation in Israel’s collective memory. Employing the connotations associated with the institution of the redeemer according to which the closest relative had the obligation to rescue his family member from economic bondage by purchasing the victim from indentured service (Lev 25:47-54), God’s salvific activity is painted in vivid colors. Drawing on God’s redemptive activity in the past, when God redeemed the people out of slavery in Egypt, the image of God as redeemer receives new significance in light of the exile. The exiles are thus encouraged to look to the past but to be open to what the future will bring.

However, in light of everything that the people had gone though, it is understandable that the exiles harbored serious questions regarding God’s ability or God’s willingness to save God’s people. The common belief in the Ancient Near East was that when nations fought, their gods also engaged in battle. After having seen what had happened to their city and its inhabitants, not to talk about the house of God, the only logical conclusion would have been that God had lost the war–that Marduk, the god of Babylon had won. Responding to this profound sense of doubt, Isa 44:6-8 even more strongly asserts that God is the Redeemer God.

In addition, closely associated with the portrayal of the Redeemer God is the overarching affirmation in Isaiah 44 that God is the only God, repeated three times in this short pericope. God alone is the first and the last, or the alpha and the omega as the writer of Revelation many centuries later would formulate this claim (Rev 21:6; 22:13). Referring back to the psalms’ application of rock imagery to denote God as source of protection in times of danger (Pss 18:2; 31-32; 62:7; 94:22), v. 8 proclaims that God is the only Rock–there is no other.

The assertion that God is the only god ought to be understood in terms of the larger context of Isaiah 44 as well as Deutero-Isaiah as a whole. One characteristic of Deutero-Isaiah’s theology is the polemical nature of the prophet’s teaching that tongue in the cheek could be described as “My god is bigger than your god” theology (cf. also a similar theme in Isa 40:18-20 where the question is asked who can be compared with God?)

So one encounters in Isa 44:6-23 a vivid description of idol manufacturing–a detailed and quite humorous account of what one commentator calls a “guided tour of an idol factory” (Blenkinsopp). We read how the prophet makes fun of the creators of these wooden idols (using the same verb to describe the “creative activity” of the idol makers in v. 10 that was used to describe the work of the Creator God in v. 2). These “creators” use one part of a tree to create an idol to which they look for salvation, all the while employing the other part as fuel for a fire to prepare food for dinner. By means of this satire, the prophet wants to say that the idols made of wood and stone are not able to redeem–the one true Redeemer is the Creator God of Israel.

In a multicultural world where people increasingly are living in close proximity to others who do not share their religious beliefs, it is indeed a question of how the appeal to the believer in v. 8 to act as God’s witnesses ought to be understood. In particular, the polemical nature of this text and especially the belittling of the religious beliefs of the other are not very helpful in an environment where religious tolerance is the key to peaceful co-existence. The contentious nature of the prophet’s words is best understood in terms of the trauma the exiles had experienced. Faced with the challenge of living as minorities in a foreign land, fearing assimilation or even annihilation, the intense desire to maintain one’s religious and cultural identity is certainly understandable. However, the lectionary text’s assertion that Israel is called to be God’s witness does not allow the exiles to withdraw in enclaves in a “circling-the-wagons” mentality. This call receives new significance in light of the Servant’s vocation elsewhere in Deutero-Isaiah, according to which the individual or the nation (depending on whether one interprets the servant individually or collectively) is called to be a light to the nations, ministering in justice and compassion to the others with whom the exiles share their world (Isa 42:1-7).

Isaiah 44 offers a good opportunity to talk about issues of identity and otherness, of the challenges and joys of living in a multi-cultural environment. It may be good though to remind one another that one’s struggle for self-preservation does not occur at the expense of one’s vocation to be a witness to God’s salvific work in the world.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a

Esther M. Menn

Jacob finds himself all alone at nightfall. He is on the run from his brother Esau because of a blessing.

As the dim-eyed Isaac embraces Jacob, mistaking him for his favorite son Esau, he exclaims: “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. May God give you the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine” (Gen. 27:27-28).

How hollow this blessing must sound now to Jacob, a fugitive with only a hard stone for a pillow. Esau’s rage over the stolen blessing forced Jacob to abandon his quiet ways among the tents (Gen. 25:27; 27:41). To escape with his life, Jacob had to leave forever the mother who favored him (Gen. 25:28) and who had schemed with him to secure his father’s blessing.

Contrary to appearances, Jacob is not alone. A dream reveals that his resting place is full of busy angels, or more literally divine “messengers.” These beings are purposeful in their ascent and descent on a stepped structure joining earth to heaven. They are on the move doing God’s work in the world.

Jacob also encounters God at this awesome “gate of heaven.” Jacob is surprised to discover that he has been a guest at the “house of God” (Gen. 28:17), which is the literal meaning of the name Bethel (bet-‘el).

Bethel was an important Israelite shrine city, most closely associated with the patriarch Jacob. Before Jacob’s time, Abraham built an altar to the east of Bethel, where he called upon the name of the LORD (Gen. 12:8). Later, Bethel was one of two national shrines of the Northern Kingdom (the other being Dan) set up by King Jeroboam I in the ninth century BCE (1 Kgs. 12:25-33).

Ancient Mesopotamia provides insight into some aspects of Jacob’s meeting with God at Bethel. In cities such as Ur and Babylon there were artificial mountains known as ziggurats that correspond to the stairway in Jacob’s dream. These structures were the place where earth and heaven meet and where the gods dwell. The meaning of the city name Babylon (from the Akkadian bab-ilu) is the “gate of god.” There at the top of a ziggurat a temple was dedicated to the great god Marduk.

Within this cultural context, it seems natural that Jacob should see God positioned at the top of the steps to heaven: “the LORD stood above it” (Gen. 28:13), meaning above the stairway. But in the Hebrew text, God’s location is less than clear. The same prepositional phrase translated as “above it” may also be translated as “beside him,” meaning alongside Jacob: “the LORD stood beside him” (Gen. 28:13). This second translation suggests that, like the divine messengers, God is on the move to accomplish a mission.

God confirms that he intends to accompany Jacob in all of his travels: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15).

In what seemed like a lonely flight, Jacob has discovered that he is in good company. His hasty journey assumes something of the character of the rapid motion of the divine messengers. Just as Jacob left his home in Beersheba, so God departs from his own “house” in Bethel to join him on the road, until they return to this special place of divine indwelling (Gen. 28:20-22; 35:1-15).

Jacob’s journey also receives a larger purpose through this vision. His travels further God’s intention of extending blessing to all the families of the earth. At Bethel, Jacob learns a new way of thinking about blessing. Jacob comes to recognize how his own conflicted story contributes to God’s gracious purposes for humankind.

Jacob’s family of origin assumed that a father had only one blessing to impart as death drew near. Esau can only weep and plan for revenge when he arrives too late and Jacob has already taken the blessing: “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father” (Gen. 27:38).

By contrast, when God renews the covenant with Jacob, the promises of land and descendants are linked to an inclusive and far-reaching concept of blessing. The comparison between Jacob’s descendants and dust establishes this connection: “your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (Gen. 28:14).

The metaphor of “dust” with its innumerable particles recalls similar comparisons between Abraham’s descendants and the stars of the heavens and the sand of the sea (Gen. 15:5, 22:17). The image of dust also conveys a close relationship to the land, in that dust covers the earth’s surface.

Especially suggestive in this discussion of blessing, however, is a different understanding of the Hebrew word translated as “dust” (‘afar). This word can refer to “topsoil,” the rich layer of loose dirt that supports plant growth and sustains life.

When Isaac blesses Jacob, he compares his son to “a field that the LORD has blessed” (Gen. 27:27). At Bethel, God also uses agricultural imagery, as Jacob’s descendants become the topsoil that benefits the families dwelling on the land. God promises that Jacob’s flight and the migration of his descendants in every direction will be a rich source of blessing for all whom they encounter.

In this passage God is revealed as dwelling in Bethel, the “house of God,” only to be identified also as the God who accompanies Jacob on the way. A stone marked with oil, used as a crude pillow for a passing traveler, marks the place of going and coming, of ascending and descending, and of spreading out in the four cardinal directions. The purpose for all of this kinetic energy is God’s blessing of all the families of the earth.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:12-25

Marion L. Soards

Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans are practically a self-contained meditation on the operation of grace. Though many other notes are sounded in these four chapters of the letter, the overriding tone is that of grace.

Chapter 8 is itself a pearl of a passage that deals with grace and brings this portion of the letter to an end. In turn, we should notice that this chapter immediately precedes Paul’s difficult, anguished reflection on the fate of Israel in the outworking of God’s grace. Thus, while the verses for this lesson are part of a beautiful conclusion to a positive portion of the letter, they also come before and anticipate the troubled and troubling reflection that Paul presents in Romans 9-11.

Paul addressed the community of believers in Rome in v. 11 as he offered a theological observation in the form of an “if . . . then” statement (“If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you [plural], then the One who raised Christ from the dead will make also your [pl.] mortal bodies alive through his Spirit that indwells you [pl.]” [trans. mine]). Having addressed the Romans in this manner, Paul begins the verses of our lesson in v. 12 by building on the declaration of v. 11 with a statement that itself opens with the words “So then” or “Then, therefore. . . .” Thus we see that because of what was already said, Paul continues now with additional remarks.

In essence, 8:1-11 treats the theme of Christian life as being life in the Spirit. Then, vv. 12-17 employ the metaphor of “sonship” (obscured in the NRSV) and “childhood” (preserved and amplified to take in sonship) to reflect on the significance of our relationship to God. And then, vv. 18-25 (actually vv. 18-30) bring a pronounced eschatological cast to Paul’s remarks as he writes of future glory, freedom, and hope.

The language of sonship that is lost in many contemporary translations is not in itself a totem to be revered; yet, its use here is important for particular theological reasons. When Paul tells the Romans–men and women alike–that they will become “sons of God,” he is making a statement about status as it was constructed and understood in the ancient world. In the patriarchal culture of antiquity, normally a son or sons were the heirs to the goods of the father of the family. The oldest son received a double share of the goods, while other sons received lesser portions. Women were “married off” and not normally the focus of inheritance. Thus, when Paul declares that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (literal translation of v. 14 mine), he is talking about becoming related to God in such a manner that “we” have an inheritance from God, which is itself an inheritance with Christ.

Yet, there is another note that is struck in Paul’s reflection on inheritance. He writes that if the “children” of God are to be heirs of God and heirs with Christ, then, it is necessary that they/we suffer with Christ in order that they/we may be glorified with Christ. This emphasis often falls out of sermonic re-presentation of the biblical lesson, primarily because it is so hard for us to know how to think and talk about this matter in our world today. While there are Christians who suffer terribly in some places around the globe, the North American varieties of Christians live in essential freedom to believe and to conduct themselves/ourselves in worship and in life as they/we see fit. Two temptations (at least) face the preacher who wants to work with this aspect of the lesson for today: first, it is tempting and easy to remove the issue of suffering from our midst by focusing on Christians in far places who suffer for their faith (this is not to say that remembering these people in our own worship and lives is inappropriate); second, it is tempting and even easy to trivialize the idea of suffering in this text, so that one equates being embarrassed or mildly mocked with suffering. [Paul writes in this text of freedom and perhaps we should be sure to give thanks for the freedoms that we do enjoy and that mean that in our cultural context we do not have to face severe suffering of the sort that Paul wrote.]

As Paul moves ahead in vv. 18-25, he takes a new angle in his reflection by presenting life in the Spirit as a life of hope. Paul had focused on the particular situation of the Romans up to this point, but here he widens his scope to see the Spirit at work at a cosmic level. These verses are challenging, even difficult because we are not really accustomed to thinking in such universal terms, nor are we practiced at thinking about the need of creation itself for redemption. Yet, that is where Paul goes and where he would take us as we follow his reflections.

Remarkably Paul is persuaded that creation, like humanity, is in a very real bondage to sin; so that Paul sees creation as being at odds with God. Our own tendency is to romanticize “nature” and “creation,” to view them as pure and innocent.  But Paul apparently remembered that there were such things as natural disasters and poisonous snakes. He writes that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Paul sees the fate of humanity and the fate of creation as being inseparably bound to each other, for he understands that both are creations created by the one creator God. But, God’s good news has been already given in Jesus Christ, so that the outcome is set in such a way that in the present we may live by hope.