Proper 11

July 21, 2002
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 28:10-19a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
Reading 3: 
Romans 8:12-25
Reading 4: 
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
By Tari Lennon

The lections for today move the imagination in so many directions. The continuing high drama and mischief of the Jacob cycle; the profoundly personal and poignant musings of the Psalmists; Paul’s expansive and exuberant adventures in the world of metaphor; and the gospel use of earthy storytelling to deliver a message provide the preacher with a wellspring of bubbling possibilities.

Gen. 28:10-19a
The Elohist and the Yahwist are edited together in this passage to make an etiological point, viz.,the importance of Bethel because of the existence of a sacred shrine (altar). And of course, the area has been sacralized because Jacob had a profound religious experience there. The story also serves to link Jacob’s “old” life in Canaan and his “new” life in Haran.

The combining of E and J is noteworthy in this passage. The Elohist is a great believer in dreams and visions, using them regularly to convey divine intentions and plans, always with more than a hint that certain places and events are more sacred than others. Contrast that with the Yahwist who disavows any such notions, insisting instead that God is a God of a people, a clan, a tribe, a family, and is revealed through the ancestors.

It is important to remember that when Israel invaded Canaan it would have discovered and come upon preexisting altars, shrines, and sites where sacred rituals would have been performed—pagan importance’s, in other words. They would have to have been resignified. The story seeks to do just that.

Also of note in this story is Rebekah’s continuing protection of Jacob and manipulation of Isaac. Is she a surrogate for God? Is she the cause of Esau’s, as well as Ishmael’s second-class citizenship? Is the woman simply being used as a literary device? Or is she a theological foil in the patriarchal presumption of privilege?

Psalm 139 1-12,23-24
The psalmist’s belief that God presides over everything that is and that the world is divided into two camps, the righteous and the sinful, is given personal and moving expression in the simple request to be freed by God of any and all unrighteousness. The psalm combines affirmation, gratitude, lament, confession, petition, acceptance—all the elements of a believer intent on being  open to the chastening work of God, which is the result of such personal involvement and knowledge of the individual on the part of God.

Such spiritual awareness and humility stands in such marked contrast to so much of today’s spiritual engagement wherein feeling good is substituted for being good and the language of self-help masquerades for spiritual discipline.

Another fascinating possibility here is the juxtaposition of Jacob’s incredulity and the Psalmist’s confidence.  Consider these two lines together:

Surely God is in this place and I did not know it…

O God, you have searched me and known me…

There is an entire universe of religious development in those two experiences.

Rom. 8:12-25
Similar to the Psalmist who believes the world is divided between the righteous and the wicked so also Paul believes there is a division. His division is between flesh and spirit. People of the flesh are self-absorbed, reliant on their own abilities exclusively, disinterested in God and see no need for a belief in God. God would never be seen as a personal entity to flesh-bound folks, much less an entity from which that person would seek help.

People in the spirit, by contrast, understand and accept the interconnected and contingent realities of their lives. Through the spirit these people know that they share in nothing less than the life of the Divine, the very same divinity that was in Jesus and brought him back from the dead. To share in that life is to share in Jesus’ (the Christ’s) resurrection as well. Such knowledge presents Spirit-filled people with the recognition that they too, like Jesus, are children of God.

The notion of “children of God,” is presented here for the first time in this epistle. It is important to understand that this concept is anything but sentimental or facile for Paul. To recognize that we are children of God is to enter into the same work as the Son of God, viz., nothing less than the restoration of all flesh-bound creation. All of creation currently groans and struggles because of its flesh-bound condition. To take on that travail to the end of transforming it is to suffer. To suffer for the sake of that transformation, however, is to experience the glory of the risen Christ, i.e., to be glorified by God. (Please note the Greek in vs.17 employs two compound verbs). 

Just within this year, from the smoldering embers of the World Trade Center to the scattered shards of lives blown apart by suicide bombers to images of fulsome tanks surrounding the Church of the Nativity we continue to be confronted with the groaning and wailing of all of creation. Yet to be in Christ, however we express that, is to know that we are not allowed to indulge ourselves with hopelessness (despair). To be spirit-filled people is to continue to partner with God in the work of transforming recreation, however small, however unnoticed, however momentary.

Matt. 13: 24-30; 36-43
Bernard Brandon Scott in his exhaustive and enlightening study of the parables Hear Then the Parable reminds us that after all the study and work on the parables is completed, the challenge of the parable remains the same, “Hear then the parable.” (p.425)

It is important to remember that the Parables about The Kingdom form the third great discourse in Matthew, The Sermon on the Mount and the Blessings being Discourse One and the Missionary Discourse of Chapter 10 being Discourse Two. In the first discourse Jesus is reaching out, connecting, generating interest, creating a community, and building a support system. In the second discourse he sets about describing what is involved in being a part of his community, what the nature of his—and by association their—work is, and what all is involved. In the third discourse Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, viz., the reason for discourse one and two: The Kingdom of God.

The purpose of life, the reason for being here, is to live in such a way as to enter into the Kingdom of God (Realm of God, God’s Domain, Precincts of the Divine, other…?) and the parables seek to make the Kingdom accessible and desirable. Jesus is mindful of the fact that no matter how attractive and desirable he describes the Kingdom as being, only those who have ears to hear will understand and “get (into?) it.” So, between last week’s parable, its interpretation, and this week’s, Jesus quotes from the 6th chapter of Isaiah, essentially admonishing the “crowd” to understand that just because they are present and listening does not guarantee they will discern the meanings and importance’s Jesus is trying to impart.

I think the most important work Bernard Brandon Scott has done through his work on the parables is the work of reclamation. He has retrieved them from the delete pile of dull and repetitious and given them a new sheen and luster. Instead of focusing on “meanings and context” he invites us to see Jesus weaving yarns from the commonplace experiences of ordinary folk in everyday life to the end of grasping their intimate connections to God. Scott is of the opinion that the focus of the entire 13th chapter and the three organizing parables is separation. (p.357). It might be exciting and provocative to give the parable of the wheat and the weeds a technological spin, or a corporation twist, or an entertainment turn—the everyday and ordinary aspects of our lives to make the point of how separated we are from the kingdom of God—without even knowing it.-----Bad ears? Preoccupation? Stress? Depression? Greed? Denial? Escape? Great stuff!

The Rev. Dr. Tari Lennon is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds degrees in theology, ministry and psychology. She retired from parish ministry after 43 years and now convenes Open Gatherings which draws people together from all faiths and nonfaiths to explore topics of spirituality, relationships, and personal ethics.