Lectionary Commentaries for July 19, 2020
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Holly Hearon

Last week’s text, the parable of the sower, focused on the yield produced by the seed that fell on good soil.

In contrast, the parable of the weeds (sometimes called ‘tares’) focuses on the judgment that will befall “all causes of sin and all evildoers” (Matthew 13:41). At first read, the parable of the weeds appears to describe a “them-us” situation, tempting us to fill in who are the evildoers and who the children of the kingdom (an easy trap in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic). A closer read, however, reveals that it is a cautionary tale, as well as one intended to offer encouragement.

In the parable, the one who sows the weeds among the wheat is called an “enemy.” We encounter “enemies” three other times in the Gospel of Matthew. The first time is in 5:43-44, where we are told to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This should give us pause: If these enemies are destined for a “furnace of fire” (13:42), why should we love them in the here and now? Further, God – the one who judges all of us – causes the sun to rise on both the evil and the good (5:45), without distinction. What are we to make of this paradox?

The second reference to “enemies” is in 10:36, where Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them out as sheep among wolves, where “one’s enemies will be members of one’s own household.” This too, may give us pause. What does it mean that deep divisions can occur even among those to whom we feel closest, including our church families? What would make us enemies of one another? And in such a situation, how do we know if we are the enemy or the good? What is it that determines which we are?

The final occurrence is in Matthew 22:44, where Jesus speaks of the prophecy of David with respect to the Messiah, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” (Psalm 110:1). Ultimately, the enemies who sow weeds among the wheat will be defeated. They will be cast out from the presence of God where they will weep and gnash their teeth (8:12, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30)—in frustration at being “caught out”? In remorse for what they have done? In anger at being defeated by their enemy?

Taken together, these several references resist efforts to turn “enemies” into nameless opponents on the other side of a great divide. Rather, they point to something more complex, in which lines are blurred even as ultimate defeat is assured. The complexity increases when we turn to language in the explanation of the parable (Matthew 13:36-42).

In Matthew 13:38-39, the “enemy” who sows the weeds is identified as the devil (also called “Satan”), while the weeds are called “children of the evil one.” The devil appears three other times in the Gospel of Matthew. The first appearance is in Matthew 4, when Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit in order to be tempted by the devil (see also Matthew 6:13). This is a defining moment in the Gospel, in which Jesus must decide whom he will serve: the devil or God, the kingdoms of the world or the kin(g)dom of heaven.

Jesus faces temptation again in Matthew 16, when Peter questions the necessity of the journey to the cross. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23). The very idea that Jesus’ must resist temptation is worth reflecting on. So is the realization that Jesus can be tempted by one of his own disciples.

The final reference to the “devil” is found at the conclusion to the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus turns to the goats, who wonder when they had seen the Lord naked, or thirsty, in prison, or in the guise of a stranger, and condemns them to the eternal fires prepared for the devil (25:41). The goats had thought that they were followers of Jesus; but Jesus’ says their actions (or lack thereof) show them to be “children of the evil one” (see also Matthew 7:21-23).

Other verses in the Gospel point to additional ways in which “children of the evil one” reveal themselves: e.g. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37); and “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (5:19); and “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (18:6).

You would think that the difference between weeds and wheat would be obvious. In the parable, the slaves of the householder notice the difference right away. So why does the householder delay? Is it because we, the servants, are too hasty to judge which is which? Or because we are not in a position to judge (for example, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” [7:1])? Or is it to extend God’s grace still longer? Or is it to allow us time to reflect on whether we are wheat or weeds?

In the end, says the parable, judgment does come, when wheat and weeds are separated. Does that make us uncomfortable or fill us with hope, or a little of both? Justice denied can give way to a rage that burns like a furnace of fire. It can cause us to whither and cease to bear fruit. It can even lead us to become bitter enemies of one another and of God. In the end, judgement is necessary and important. Not as a means of self-satisfaction; rather, as a continuing process of discernment in the here and now.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 44:6-8

J. Blake Couey

Once again this week, the lectionary invites us to reflect on God’s words of comfort to Judean exiles in sixth-century BCE Babylon, as preserved in the middle chapters of the book of Isaiah.

As noted in last week’s commentary on Isaiah 55:10-13, countless people worldwide are currently experiencing physical displacement and emotional disruption from stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, political polarization, violence, and climate change. As we consider how Isaiah 44:6-8 might offer good news to these contemporary exiles, it’s worth considering how the text brought hope to ancient exiles.

Divine identities

Isaiah 44:6 begins with the prophetic formula “thus says the LORD,” identifying the following words as divine speech. As typically occurs in Isaiah 40-55, other titles are added to the formula. The verse identifies God in four different ways:

  • “LORD” (often set in small caps, or in this case, all caps) is the conventional translation of “YHWH” in most English Bibles. It is God’s personal name, evoking the centuries-long covenantal relationship between God and God’s people.
  • “King of Israel” encourages the exilic audience not to despair that they no longer have a human ruler, after Babylon had deposed the last Davidic king. God remains their true ruler and source of hope.
  • “Redeemer” is a favorite metaphor for God in Isaiah 40-55 (see also Isaiah 41:14; 43:14; 54:5). In ancient Israelite society, a redeemer assisted threatened family members by ransoming them from kidnapping or slavery, or acquiring their land if they died without heirs (see the book of Ruth). The term casts God as the exiles’ rescuer.
  • “LORD of hosts” is a military title. “Hosts” are the stars and constellations (Genesis 2:1; Isaiah 34:4), who were imagined as a heavenly army commanded by the deity (Joshua 5:14; Judges 5:20).

Additional divine titles in this text include “first and last” in Isaiah 44:6, which emphasizes God’s eternal existence, and “rock” in 44:8, which depicts God as a reliable source of protection.

It appears that the audience needed to be reminded of the identity of their God. Decades into the exile, all external evidence suggested that Israel’s God was a minor deity who’d been defeated by Babylon and its mighty divinities. Against this claim, the text dares the audience to reclaim faith in their God, to trust that God loves them enough and is powerful enough to bring them home. Instead of assuming that “thus says the LORD” is enough for the audience, the prophet-poet evocatively reminds them who this God is.

Emerging monotheism

For Christian readers, God’s claim that “besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6) seems unremarkable. Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity is staunchly monotheistic. But such language is surprisingly rare in the Hebrew Bible. Although Israel is commanded to worship YHWH alone, many texts leave open the possibility that other gods exist (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:8-9; Psalm 95:3; Micah 4:5). Many scholars call this system of belief “monolatry.”

Claims that no other gods exist first appear in texts from the exile, especially Isaiah 40-55 (Isaiah 43:10; 45:5-6; 49:9, etc.). These claims emphasize God’s uniqueness more than God’s sole existence, but they represent an important step in the gradual emergence of monotheism.1 In their original context, they demonstrated YHWH’s power to restore the exiles’ fortunes. The prophet-poet declares that, compared with our God, these other “gods” might as well not even exist. It’s a polemical claim, developed further in the satire about divine images (or “idols”) that follows in Isaiah 44:9-20. Although rhetorically effective, this passage unfairly distorts the beliefs and practices of Babylonian worshipers.2

More important than the text’s polemical claim, however, is its pastoral claim. These words encourage a marginalized religious minority to embrace and reclaim the dignity of their own traditions. They seek to rekindle dreams of deliverance among an oppressed people who have given up hope. In today’s religiously diverse world, the challenge for Christian preachers is to embrace these pastoral implications of the text, without reinforcing its polemical implications. American Christians using these words from Isaiah to belittle other religious traditions put themselves in the position of Babylon, not the exiles.

God and the future

In Isaiah 44:7-8, God’s uniqueness is linked to God’s knowledge of the future. Again, for Christian audiences that take belief in divine omniscience for granted, this hardly seems exceptional. But the original exilic audience had good reasons to question divine foreknowledge. By all accounts, the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem must have taken God by surprise. Otherwise, why wouldn’t God had tried to stop it?

To counter these doubts, the prophet-poet reminds them that God already “has announced from of old the things to come.” This likely refers to pre-exilic prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, whose warnings of judgment seemed to be fulfilled by the exile. If the exiles can believe that God saw the exile coming, then they can trust God’s promises that it will soon be over and they will return home. By declaring that God knows the future, the text also suggests that God controls it.

But that claim is not without problems. If God controls the future, does that mean pain and suffering are God’s will, and that God intended for them to happen? In response to this disturbing possibility, recent developments in Christian thought, like open theism or process theology, have qualified traditional statements about divine omniscience. On the other hand, the text’s claim of foreknowledge offers profound encouragement to suffering people. It’s the basis for the reassurance in verse 8, “Do not fear, or be afraid.” Keen pastoral sensitivity is necessary for navigating these tensions in this text. This week’s epistle reading in the lectionary, Romans 8:12-25, also wrestles with how God can transform present suffering into future vindication. Putting Isaiah’s and Paul’s words into conversation together could lead to helpful insights into these thorny questions.


  1. See Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

  2. See Michael B. Dick, “Worshipping Idols: What Isaiah Didn’t Know,” Bible Review 18 (2002): 30-37.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a

Esther M. Menn

Jacob’s surprising encounter with God at Bethel leads to reflection about where we as individuals and as congregations meet God unexpectedly on life’s journey.1

In Genesis 28:10-19a, God appears to Jacob en route, as he escapes from his brother Esau’s hatred (Genesis 27:41-45). Jacob, always a “schemer” and “usurper” (meanings of this Hebrew name), has stolen the birthright (Genesis 25:29-34) and the blessing (Genesis 27:1-40) belonging to Esau as Isaac’s firstborn.

Jacob’s grasping for status within the family results also in danger and separation, since to save his life he must leave behind even his beloved mother Rebekah. Jacob’s flight from the southern city of Beer Sheba to the northern city of Haran seems to reverse the celebrated journey of his grandparents Abraham and Sarah, who traveled in faith from their homeland in Haran to the land that God promised their descendants (Genesis 12:1-9).

Mid-journey, at a site chosen because of nightfall, Jacob has an extraordinary dream that changes his life. His dream discloses the hidden yet active presence of God at this chance stop along the way. God’s ongoing engagement in the world and in Jacob’s disrupted life is portrayed through a striking vision of stairs reaching from earth to heaven. This structure recalls the stepped ziggurat or mud-brick mountain uniting heaven and earth prominent in Mesopotamian cities such as Babylon, a city whose name means “gate of the gods.” In Genesis God appears not to royalty or priests, but to a terrified refugee.

A Jacob on the move encounters a vision full of movement. Divine errand runners continually ascend and descend to do God’s work in the world. Only the LORD appears stationed at the apex (reading the Hebrew ‘alav in verse 13 as “above it,” as in the KJV and NEB). Jacob is startled to recognize this place of God’s indwelling as holy ground, as “the house of God” (the Hebrew meaning of “Bethel”) and “the gate of heaven” (verse 17). Consecrating his rock pillow as a commemorative pillar, Jacob fittingly names what will become the major Israelite shrine of Bethel. (See also Abraham’s earlier calling on the name of the LORD at an altar east of Bethel in Genesis 12:8.)

Jacob’s dream is not only awe-inspiring and majestic, but also intimate and personal. In an alternative translation, God stands “beside him” (another reading of the Hebrew ‘alav, as in the NRSV) as he lies on the ground, promising to be with him wherever he goes: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (verse 15). God’s words at Bethel initiate a covenant with Jacob, an enduring relationship committed to his well-being and future.

God’s self-revelation with a personal name, the LORD (YHWH), grounds the covenant relationship with Jacob (verse 13). The very God who in earlier generations established a covenant with Abraham and Isaac now speaks with Jacob about an enduring connection extending to his descendants. Alone and in a strange place, Jacob becomes part of an intergenerational relationship with God. Promises of return to the particular land on which he lies, many descendants, and widespread blessing (verses 13-14) mark the abundance of this relationship.

Ordinary people are the means for God’s widespread blessing. God announces that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (Genesis 28:14). Earlier Esau protests, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” and weeps in frustration at being excluded (Genesis 27:38). The coveted blessing that destroy this family is countered with God’s alternative vision. Rather than a limited blessing won through defeat and humiliation of others, God extends a prodigal blessing to all the families of the earth through Jacob and his descendants.

Blessing will be as widespread as the “dust,” the loose dirt that covers the ground in every direction and provides the thin layer of fertility sustaining all life on earth. Earlier promises compared descendants to stars or sand (Genesis 15:5; 22:17; 26:4), emphasizing vast numbers. The humble imagery of topsoil adds an insight about the productivity of Jacob’s family as a means for God’s blessing of all families. The ground’s fertility is an especially compelling symbol of blessing in our age of environmental concern.

Jacob’s concluding vow (Genesis 28:20-22) is not part of the First Lesson. This vow may cause discomfort since Jacob appears to be bargaining with God, requiring God to fulfill every promise before Jacob will acknowledge him at Bethel. This interpretation of Jacob’s vow as a calculated set of conditions fits well with his character as a striver, one who prevails in his wrestling with humans and with God, to be given the new name “Israel” (Genesis 32:28).

A more charitable interpretation of Jacob’s vow might view it as an appropriate response, since it is wise to test a subjective experience such as a dream. Questioning, doubt, and discernment are all part of the faith journey.

Another interpretation that attends more precisely to the grammar of the vow places the emphasis on Jacob’s intention to return to Bethel, in recognition of what God has done. Rather than setting conditions, Jacob simply paraphrases God’s promises — to be with him in the journey, to protect and provide for him in every way, to return him home finally (Genesis 28:15, 20-21) — in other words, to act as Jacob’s God.

The final conditional “if” clause of the vow in this interpretation consists of a summary, “if [in doing all these things] the LORD shall be my God,” with the resulting “then” clauses beginning with “then this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you” (Genesis 28:22).

Jacob’s vow signals the importance of returning to the place where we encounter God most fully. Although Jacob continues on his journey to Haran, he remains oriented to Bethel, “the house of God,” with plans to return for worship and thanksgiving. Jacob’s descendants throughout the earth also hold this particular place as an orienting center. For Christians, Jacob’s vow resonates with our weekly returning from the journey of our daily lives to the place that we encounter God most fully through worship, word, and sacrament.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 20, 2014.


Commentary on Psalm 86:11-17

Walter C. Bouzard

No small amount of ink has been spilled trying to sort out the structure of this prayer song of the individual.1

Hans-Joachim Kraus believes the poem to be plagued by copy errorswhile James L. Mays sees it as a prayer comprised of snippets from other psalms and scriptures have been crafted into an original creation.2

The present division of the psalm into a pericope comprised of verses 11 to 17 is also difficult to understand. James Limburg divides the prayer into three major sections, each concluding with a doxological statement (verses 5, 10, 15),while Kraus sees two divisions, verses 1-13 and 14-17.5

The present author also sees a break between verses 13 and 14. The first half of the poem is structured as a psalm of individual lament. The anticipated address and cry appear in verses 1 and 2 while the motivations for God to act are signaled by the preposition ki (translated as “for” by the NRSV) in verses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7. An oracle of salvation or word of assurance—missing from the lament psalms (but see 1 Samuel 1:17)—led to the praise and thanksgiving that appear in verses 8 to 13. Verses 14 to 17 return to the subject of lament, now identified as harassment by insolent villains who threatened the psalmist’s life (verse 14).

Given the clumsy division of the lectionary, the preacher may want to concentrate on the relationship between the petitioner and the LORD. Seven times in the psalm the psalmist refers to the LORD as “my Lord,”while three times the psalmist refers to himself as “your servant.”7 This relationship, lord to servant, means that the servant can cry out to his Lord and that he can confidently expect a positive response to his cry.

The Lord will answer (verse 7), he avers confidently, because he belongs to the people who know the constitutive character of this God. The LORD is good, forgiving, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love (verses 5, 15, see Exodus 34:6; Psalm 103:8). God has, moreover, spoken to this servant or, at the least, to his people in the past; Mays notes that verse 2 is the response to the declaration of Exodus 20:2, “I am the LORD your God.”8

Because of this relationship, the psalmist can call boldly to God, confident both of God’s will and of God’s power to help (verses 8-10). On the one hand, the psalmist is a member of the community that is “poor and needy” (verse 1), dependent upon the LORD to keep him from Sheol (verse 13). On the other hand, the petitioner knows himself to be a pious man (chasid, verse 2) who trusts God to respond to his calls for help (verse 7).

As is usually the case with the psalmist, he assumes that his enemies are also God’s enemies. In verse 14, the insolent ruffians who rise up against the psalmist and who seek his life are the very ones who “do not set you before them.” Again, in verse 17, the psalmist wishes for a sign of divine favor so that his enemies will be shamed by the knowledge that the one they despised was aided by the LORD.

If the pious trust of this servant of the LORD serves as a model for us, the one he repeatedly addresses as “my Lord” deserves our praise. If we knew no more about this God than what appears in this psalm we would still know much. This LORD answers the prayers of the poor and needy (verse 1)—a claim that should give pause for thought to those of us who are neither poor nor needy. More, this LORD is known by a character that is good, forgiving, and abounding in steadfast love (verse 5), a God who both in the past and in the psalmist’s experience is known to be merciful, gracious, slow to anger and (again!) abounding in steadfast love (verse 15).

This LORD can deliver us from the gates of Sheol (verse 13). This LORD strengthens and saves us (verse 16). This LORD’s wondrous works distinguish God as the only God worthy of praise (verses 8, 10), a circumstance that will ultimately be recognized by all nations who shall come, bow down, and glorify the name that is above every other name (verse 9, see Philemon 2:9-12; Revelation 15:4).

In short, this psalm praises the selfsame LORD who has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

The response to such a revelation in this psalm is, appropriately enough, characterized by doxology (verses 8-10, 15) and thanks (verses 12-13).

Added to his praise and thanks, however, is the fervent petition of verse 15 to the effect that the psalmist might be instructed to live according to the grace that has been poured out upon him: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”

The psalmist’s requests that the command of Deuteronomy 6:4 (described by Jesus as the “first” of all the commandments) might be his experience as well. He longs for an “undivided heart.” The prayer is for a heart that concentrates its affections in order that God’s name might be revered properly and, with verse 12, entirely.9 Given that Hebrew anthropology generally credited the heart, not the head, with rational reflection,10 this petition summons us to a devotion that is also intellectually engaged and thoroughly concentrated.

In spite of the wish that the psalmist might glorify LORD’s name “forever” (verse 12b), praise dissolves to a plea for help just two verses later. Whether or not this psalm was originally a single composition, the movement from plea (verses 1-7) to praise (verses 8-13), and back again to a cry for deliverance (verses 14-17) reflects the actual faith journey upon which most of us find ourselves. Simply describing the movement from desperate hope to confident praise and back to pleading hope may, by itself, serve as good news for those who are discouraged that their hearts are so often fearful and divided.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 20, 2014.
  2. Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 180.
  3. James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994). 278. Specifically, Mays notes the reuse of the following: Psalm 40:17 in verse 1; Psalm 25:1 in verse 4b; Psalm 27:11 in verse 11a; Psalm 54:3 in verse 14; Exodus 34:6 in verses 5 and 15.
  4. James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 292.
  5. Kraus, Psalms, 181.
  6. Verses 3,4,5,8,9,12, and 15.
  7. Verses 2, 4, 16. In addition, the psalmist refers to himself as the child of your handmaid (leben-‘amateka) in verse 16.
  8. Mays, Psalms, 279.
  9. The Hebrew verb ychd here means to be united and the petition intends that the psalmist’s heart/mind be thoroughly fixated on the LORD and his name. The Septuagint, the Syriac, the Vulgate, and other versions seemed, however, to have had “let my heart rejoice,” perhaps reading an original yichad from chada. Given the wholehearted thanks of verse 12, the Masoretic Text is likely to be preferred, albeit there is certainly something attractive about a joyful heart/mind that reveres God’s name.
  10. Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 46-47.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:12-25

Mary Hinkle Shore

In Greek, even more than in English, the word for “flesh” (sarx) points to something different from that to which the word for “body” (soma) points.1

This is certainly true as the apostle Paul uses the two words. Paul’s gospel is not about fleeing life in the body in favor of existence on a spiritual plane. When Romans 8 is read in worship, it may help to make this point, lest hearers dismiss Paul as an ancient prude or embrace him as a Gnostic guru.

In Paul’s writings, “flesh” almost always signifies a power, along with sin, that resists the Spirit of God and that must be vanquished if human beings–body and all–are to be free from what Paul calls “the bondage of decay” and obtain “the glorious freedom of God’s children” (Romans 8:21, NET). That glorious freedom is not freedom from the material world, but freedom within a restored creation. It is the freedom of an embodied life that reflects, as it had at the first, the image and glory of God (cf. Genesis 1:27). In Romans 8:12-25, Paul points to that freedom and describes what it is like to hope for such a thing here and now.

A cluster of words from the realm of family helps Paul describe the freedom that believers have in Christ and the relationships in which they now find themselves: sons, Abba, Father, children, adoption, heirs, joint heirs. The vocabulary describes relationships within a family and a household. Such language is not particularly common in Romans. Two times in the opening verses of the letter, Paul reminded his hearers of Jesus’ identity as a child of God. He defined God’s good news as “the gospel concerning his Son, who was … declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3-4, NRSV). He refers to Jesus once more as Son in Romans 5:10.

Then, in Romans 8 Paul uses the words for “son” and “child” to refer not to Jesus, but to his siblings who are led by the Spirit. As “flesh” had referred to a power that enslaves humans and keeps them from participating in God’s glory, the Spirit is the power that frees and enlivens humans for a new identity as children of God.

To describe what it means to be children of God, Paul employs a series of compound verbs built on the preposition syn-. We are joint heirs with Christ, suffering with him, and being glorified with him. Readers should not fret over the conditional syntax in verse 17. It is a simple condition in which “since” could be used as well as “if” (cf. the translation of the same Greek word at Romans 8:9). The idea is not that anyone (including Christ) earns glory by suffering; rather, as Paul seeks to describe what it means to be a joint heir with Christ, he notes that the joint heir’s life is characterized by the same pattern that shaped Christ’s life. To be connected to Christ is to know humiliation and exaltation. To be a joint heir with Christ is share in Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.

In the remaining verses of the reading, Paul talks as forthrightly as possible about the suffering of humanity and creation as together we await the revealing of what we are in Christ, that is, children of God. As syn- compounds had described our connection to Christ, now they describe the mutual suffering of all creation: the whole creation, Paul says, groans together and suffers together, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23). James Dunn names the solidarity among Christ, humans, and the rest of creation well when he observes, “Believers are being saved not from creation but with creation…. The sonship they are privileged to share in some sense with Christ, they in turn share in some sense with creation.”

The “eager expectation” Paul refers to in 8:19 is literally the act of craning the neck to get a better look at what is coming down the road. It is the upturned face of the farmer watching the sky before starting up the combine for harvest. It is the leaning forward of a woman on a train platform as she awaits a loved one’s arrival. Paul describes what we are expecting with phrases like “the revealing of the sons [and daughters] of God” (8:19), “the glorious freedom of God’s children” (8:21), “adoption,” and “the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). As we live between hoping for these things and actually seeing them, the tension between the two experiences becomes acute. Dunn again: “The gift of the Spirit reclaims the believer for God and begins or heightens the tension between human belonging to God and human entrancement with the world of human control and success, the warfare between Spirit and flesh” (87).

One of the causes of suffering for those who have received the Spirit of adoption (8:15) is that the Spirit has given us reason to hope for more than we can see. The definition of suffering will be broadened in verses 35-39 to include anything that threatens to separate us from God’s love. For now, the suffering Paul speaks of is suffering that comes from knowing what the world could be, even as we live in the world as it is. To borrow an image from the gospel reading for the day, the field was planted with good seed. It was going to be so beautiful as it grew to maturity, but an enemy sowed weeds among the wheat, and even as the crop matured, the field was a mess; the crop was threatened, and the workers nearly made things worse by trying to take control of the situation. At the owner’s insistence, the field hands endure the wait between weeds appearing and a crop maturing. “Redemption” in the parable of the weeds and wheat comes when the harvest results not only in grain but a batch of kindling besides. “He has both his wheat safe and some free kindling as well,” Dominic Crossan writes. “His enemy is doubly outwitted.”

The details of redemption for humanity and the rest of creation will probably be as surprising to us as the dual harvest of wheat and kindling was to the field hands. And certainly the wait often passes with excruciating slowness. Even so, with a mixture of eagerness and sheer endurance, we hope for what we do not see.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 17, 2011.