Lectionary Commentaries for July 27, 2008
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Dale Allison, Jr.

The parables of the mustard seed (13:31-32) and the leaven (13:33) are twins. Both recount the story of something small and hidden that, through an organic process, becomes great.

The similarities coincide with an identity of theme. The two parables illustrate, by reference to the growth of a mustard seed and the expansion of leaven, a vital truth about God’s kingdom: a humble beginning and an almost secret presence are not inconsistent with a great and glorious conclusion.

The focus is neither on the smallness or insignificance of a present circumstance nor on the greatness of God’s future, both of which are taken for granted. The emphasis rather falls upon their juxtaposition, on two seemingly incongruent facts, the one being the experience of Jesus and his followers in the present, the other being their future in the kingdom of God. Our parables are then invitations to recognize that, between the minute beginning and the grand culmination, there is, despite appearances, continuity. Indeed, the one is somehow an effect of the other, so that the end is in the beginning. It may be that, for the present, the kingdom is obscure and without much influence. What matters, however, is not the beginning but the end. The kingdom may not open with great success, but success is its divinely ordained destiny. If leaven leavens the whole lump, and if a little mustard seed becomes a tree, similarly will the kingdom become, in the end, the measure of all things.

With the parables of the treasure (13:44) and the pearl (13:45-46), the theme shifts. They have to do with finding the kingdom and giving all one has to obtain it. So the focus of 13:44-46 (unlike the focus of 13:47-50) is on the present, not on the future, and readers are led to envision the actions of believers, not the deeds and fate of unbelievers. Both parables, by reference to a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, to an event one only dreams about, express the incomparable worth of the kingdom and the necessity to do all one can do to gain it. One gladly risks everything to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity presented by the presence of God’s salvific kingdom with all its blessings.

Our two parables are expressions of the conviction that meaning resides principally in God and in the world to come, and they encourage us to understand everything else in their light. This is consistent with what we find throughout the gospels, wherein Jesus views earth from the vantage point of heaven and interprets the present by projecting himself into the future and then looking back. The world’s chief values are not intrinsic but extrinsic; they reside in the God who is above the world and within the world and waiting at its end.

Because his God is in heaven and because the world to come has not yet come, neither reality is visible. So Jesus is always talking about things that eyes have not seen. He, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:18, looks not to the things seen but to the things unseen. It is understandable then that Jesus is above all an author of parables and a devotee of the imagination: he cannot report but only imagine. It is also understandable that he does battle with the ordinary.

Everyday life is ruled by custom, habit, and routine, and these can all-too-readily cultivate a God-obscuring stasis. Unless one realizes that things are not what they seem to be and that they will not be as they are forever–as the leaven and the mustard seed reveal–one will miss what matters most–the pearl, the treasure–and substitute a god of lesser value and meaning. People can gain the whole superficial world and yet lose their own souls.

Because he believes that one cannot serve God and mammon, or God and anything else for that matter, Jesus proclaims the one thing needful. His teachings consistently reveal that the heavenly trumps the earthly, that the future will trump the present, and that we are surrounded by empty and dangerous distractions. To choose the pearl of great price or to dig up the treasure hidden in a field is to obey Jesus’ imperative not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus urges us to cast aside all but the single-minded pursuit of what should be our ultimate concern.

How does he do this? Persuaded that the true nature of things is not obvious, Jesus sets out, in word and deed, to fracture the hypnotic hold of life-as-it-has-always-been. He seeks to shift our attention, to alter our perception, to expand our awareness, to change our behavior. Because he sanctions not the world as it is (where the kingdom is obscure) but only the world as it should be, when the kingdom will be all in all, he dislikes the default setting of our ordinary consciousness, whose defect is precisely that it accepts the present world as the real world. He is disconcerted that we see without seeing and fail to strive to enter through the narrow gate and that we are so wedded to everyday life and find so much comfort in material trinkets and the unstable circumstances of fleeting lives. So he constructs these parables, in the hope that we might begin to ponder soberly God’s reign, and perhaps even to seek it, and perhaps even to seek it above all else.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12

Juliana Claassens

It would certainly be easy to preach this week’s lectionary text as offering contemporary believers a model of faithful prayer.

Indeed King Solomon, who when God offers him the opportunity to have any wish fulfilled asks not for glory and worldly success but for wisdom, is often held up as an example of a faithful believer who recognizes the importance of putting God’s kingdom first (cf. Matt 6:33).

The request for a “listening heart” (cf. the NRSV’s translation of an “understanding mind” that draws on the Hebrew meaning of “heart” as the center of thought and will), suggests that the pious king intends to be truly receptive to the needs of the community. The portrayal of the “ideal king” in this text offers a close parallel to the ideal king held up in Psalm 72–a king who will rule in justice and righteousness, paying special attention to the poor and needy.

Moreover, if one reads the story immediately following the lectionary text in vv. 16-28, the picture of King Solomon as the wise king receives further validation. In the story of the two women before the king, the king’s “listening heart” is demonstrated, showing how the plight of the most vulnerable members in the community does not go unnoticed.

Even though this would be a valid interpretative option to pursue, 1 Kings 3, as in life, is more complicated. In order to do justice to this week’s lectionary text, one has to recognize the ambiguities and complexities associated with this text.

First, the choice of the lectionary reading to only focus on vv. 5-12 is interesting. The lectionary reading chooses to omit vv. 13-14, abruptly breaking off in the middle of Solomon’s dream. It is indeed a question why the lectionary reading would decide to ignore the verses that refer to Solomon also receiving riches and a long life in addition to the wisdom that he requested from God. After all, this link between prosperity and obedience is very much at the heart of the deuteronomistic as well as wisdom traditions (cf. Prov 3:13-18 that maintains that wisdom is followed by all the other gifts initially offered by God). May it be that the promise of wealth counters the image of the faithful pious king who is not interested in worldly goods or fame? Or did the compilers of the lectionary feel uncomfortable with the connection between wealth and faithfulness that is very much proclaimed as gospel in recent strands of prosperity theology? Even though increasingly popular, the uncritical application of these traditions may be harmful and even dangerous to contemporary believers. Reading the lectionary text in terms of its larger context would offer a good opportunity to identify the inherent problems with such a position, referring to other biblical texts that constitute an important countervoice–texts that challenge the act/consequence or punishment/reward schema prevalent in much of the biblical tradition (cf. in particular the book of Job).

Second, limiting one’s attention to the verses suggested by the lectionary reading, which incidentally only focus on the positive aspects of Solomon’s rule, misses the theological tensions inherent in this text. Immediately preceding Solomon’s dream in vv. 5-14, one finds allusions that hint at some of the negative aspects of Solomon’s reign. So the reference to Solomon worshiping at high places such as Gibeon (vv. 2-5) hints at Solomon’s future problems with high places, namely, worshiping at the local sanctuaries rather than heeding the deuteronomistic tradition’s commitment to centralized worship (1 Kgs 9:6-9; 11:7-13). Moreover, the reference to Solomon’s marriage alliance with the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh foreshadows the deuteronomistic concern that foreign wives were responsible for leading the kings astray (1 Kgs 11:1-8).

This other side of King Solomon’s reign is a good reminder that the leaders in the biblical tradition, as in life, more often than not are a mix of complex motives. So, one should not romanticize political power, seeing that any leader has the potential to be corrupt and to abuse power. For instance, Solomon’s assertion in v. 7, that literally translated would read: “I do not know how to go out or come in,” is typically used in a military context to denote the king’s participation in war. This reference serves as a sobering reminder that it is within the power of kings to destroy innocent lives. Moreover, in subsequent chapters, King Solomon will be remembered as the one who built the temple for God (1Kgs 3:1; 7:51; 9:1). Nevertheless, this act of piety is accompanied by the reality that forced labor is used in all of the building projects of the kings (1Kgs 5:13-14; 9:15). Once again one should not forget that numerous innocent people are harmed in political leaders’ attempts at greatness.

Reading the lectionary text in terms of its larger context, not shying away from the complexities associated with this text, may help us to develop theological perspectives that are sensitive to the very real challenges presented by the context in which we proclaim God’s word. Two perspectives come to mind: First, we know that most people are a mix of good and bad motives or intentions. People have the potential to do good, but also much harm. Solomon’s request for a “listening heart” may encourage its hearers to do what is right–as in the case of the two women before the king–to listen to the voice of the voiceless, and to do what one can to preserve life.

Second, it is significant to note that it is exactly within the unresolved tensions of this text, which mirror the messiness of life that God acts. It is significant that it is God who approaches Solomon, regardless of his failures and frailties as a human being. God’s initiative suggests that God’s grace breaks into the midst of the everyday realities of life and politics that are by no means straightforward or uncomplicated–a message we with confidence can proclaim as the good news of the Gospel.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

Our text for this week is a continuation of the story of Jacob.

Last week, we heard about Jacob at Bethel and the promise God made to him there, the same promise God made to his grandfather, Abraham, (Gen 12:1-3, 7) and to his father, Isaac, (Gen 26:1-5): land, offspring, and blessing. God also said, “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). It is a very gracious promise indeed for a man who is running for his life, a man who is going into exile from his homeland and from everyone he knows and loves.

In the reading for this week, then, we begin to see the fulfillment of God’s promises to Jacob. He has come to his mother’s homeland and he has been welcomed by Laban, his uncle. When Laban asks him what his wages should be, Jacob asks for Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter, in exchange for seven years of labor. In a lovely turn of phrase, the text says that those years “seemed to [Jacob] but a few days because of the love he had for [Rachel]” (Gen 29:20).

The seven years end, and Jacob is eager to claim his bride. Then, on the wedding night, the trickster is tricked: Laban gives Jacob his older daughter Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob’s shock is evident in the text: “In the morning, behold, it was Leah!” (One could mentally substitute an expletive here for “behold” to get the full effect of the Hebrew text.) The man who deceived his blind father is himself deceived while blinded by night, or by too much celebrating.

The sense of poetic justice goes farther than saying the deceiver was deceived, however. Jacob had broken the law of the firstborn when he tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright (Gen 25:29-34) and his blessing (Gen 27:1-40). (The law of the firstborn mandated that the firstborn son got two-thirds of the inheritance; see Deut 21:15-17.) Now, Jacob is caught by another “law of the firstborn.” Laban explains that the younger daughter cannot be married off before the firstborn daughter. The trickster is tricked, and the punishment fits the crime.

The situation is resolved by Laban’s deal with Jacob: After the marital week with Leah is finished (cf. Judges 14:12), Jacob can also marry Rachel, if he agrees to work for Laban another seven years. Jacob agrees, and the lectionary text ends: “Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.”

What follows the lectionary text is the account of the births of Jacob’s children. Leah, seeing that she is unloved, takes comfort in the four sons she bears Jacob. Rachel, like Sarah and Rebekah before her, is barren, and gives her handmaid to Jacob. Leah eventually does the same. Sister struggles with sister for the love of their husband, but out of this rivalry and familial strife, Jacob and his wives eventually become the parents of twelve sons and one daughter. At last, for the first time in Genesis, it looks like God’s promise to Abraham of innumerable offspring will be fulfilled. The “great nation” God promised to Abraham all the way back in Genesis 12:2 will spring from these twelve sons.

Granted that this is a good story on its own merits, the question remains: What is a preacher to do with this text? The swapping of brides on a wedding night (not to mention the fact that Jacob doesn’t notice the switch until morning) would seem to be strange fodder for a sermon.

First of all, the preacher must put this text in the context of the larger story of Jacob, indeed, the larger story of the family of Abraham. Many adult parishioners will not have heard Jacob’s story since Sunday School days (if then). The semi-continuous Old Testament lessons this summer offer a wonderful opportunity to remind people about the stories of Genesis, the foundational stories for the birth of the nation of Israel. A significant portion of the sermon, then, should be spent in simply re-telling the story of Jacob. Such a re-telling engages one’s congregation (including children) and allows important themes to emerge from the larger story surrounding the text.

Those larger themes might include a focus on God’s promises, promises that are fulfilled in spite of and even through the less-than-admirable actions of the human beings in the story. Though Jacob is a liar and a trickster, God graciously gives him the blessing God gave to Abraham and to Isaac. In addition, God promises to be with him and to bring him back to his homeland. The scene at Bethel is a profound illustration of God’s grace, and it starts to be fulfilled in our text for this week. Specifically, the long-standing promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a “great nation” starts to be fulfilled even through Laban’s trickery and the rivalry that develops between Leah and Rachel. God is faithful, and God fulfills his promises, even through very flawed human beings.

Another theme that emerges from the story of Jacob has to do with the relationship between God and Jacob. Though the text does not say this explicitly, it seems that God is working with this flawed man to re-make him. Jacob, after stealing Esau’s blessing, is caught in a net of his own making. The deceiver is deceived, and the one who broke the law of the firstborn is caught by another version of it. Jacob lives in exile from his homeland, and has to work for fourteen years without wages for love of Rachel. All these experiences will help to re-make the shallow young man we first met in Genesis 25 into the father of the nation Israel. That re-shaping will take a dramatic turn, of course, in next week’s lesson, the story of Jacob’s wrestling with God at the River Jabbok.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:26-39

Paul S. Berge

Paul brings the first eight chapters of Romans to a resounding conclusion in these verses before going on in 9:1-11:36 to that which weighs so heavily on his heart, rejection of Christ by his own people, the Jews.

We will focus on three texts (9:1-5; 10:5-15; 11:1-2a, 29-36) from this section in the following three Sundays, but for now we focus on the breadth and depth of the conclusion of Romans 8.

When I was a senior in high school I attended a youth convention in San Francisco around the invitation, “You Have a Date with Romans 8 at the Golden Gate.” Little did I realize at eighteen years old that the theme of this convention, “More Than Conquerors in Christ,” would stay with me in such a significant way the rest of my life.

Paul begins Romans 8 with the keynote of the chapter: “There is therefore now 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” (8:1-2). The mark of our identity that God has established is expressed in our child-like intimate address of God–“Abba”: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (8:15-16).

As with all creation, we too “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). Hoping for that which we do not as yet see, “we wait for it with patience” (8:25). In the middle of these words of identity, the working of the Spirit, and waiting in hope, we enter into the words assigned as our reading for this Sunday. The assurance in all of this is that we have not been left on our own. The Spirit intercedes in our weakness “with sighs too deep for words” (8:26). And in this intercession we know that “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:27).

In this assurance, Paul proclaims that in a world of ambiguity about the existence or even presence of God in human affairs, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). God is present in the matters of this life. This is true as God is the God of all creation and has brought all things under the lordship of his Son.

In the foreknowledge of God we have been “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he (Jesus Christ) might be the firstborn within a large family” (Greek text: “among many brothers”) (8:29). God has created us sisters and brothers of his Son; we are the chosen children of God in Christ. From the very beginning of all time, God has seen the consummation of salvation in Christ, and has determined, called, justified, and glorified this large family made up of the children of God (8:30).

In light of these words, Paul now raises a series of rhetorical questions: “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31). In light of God’s sovereignty in all creation, who is to question what God has seen from the beginning as the consummation of all things? The God of creation has claimed his own from the beginning; how can any power or force in creation stand against God?

Paul goes on to proclaim and question: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (8:32). The answer is present in Paul’s proclamation that God did not withhold his Son but gave him up for us. Since this is true it is also true that God will give us everything else.

In light of this assurance the next rhetorical questions follow: “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?” (8:33a). We heard earlier in this text how God has determined, called, justified and glorified his elect children (8:33b). What power can stand against such a God?

Another question follows “Who is to condemn?” with the response: “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (8:34). Condemned to death for us, God has vindicated his Son by raising him to the place of highest honor at God’s right hand.

Finally Paul brings forth the final two questions in rapid succession: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (8:35). These questions have moved in crescendo fashion to the witness of the Psalmist: “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Ps 44:22). The lament of the Psalmist expresses the reality of the faithful with the assurance that there is no separation from God’s love.

To this end, Paul draws this section of the letter into a resounding doxology of praise to the sovereignty of God in Christ. We are more than conquerors through the God who has loved us with an eternal love. In this Paul is convinced and assures the first recipients in Rome and us today that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).

This all comes down to the question, how do we proclaim the richness of such a text? Placed as the climactic words within the first eight chapters of Romans, these verses assure and announce one of the finest and most profound expressions of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are magnificent words in their assurance and proclamation of the sovereignty of God who has made known salvation for all in Jesus Christ. Through these verses the work of the Holy Spirit speaks these words through our words: “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37).