Commentary for Pentecost VI, 12 July 2020
Texts for Pentecost VI: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
By Father Doug Woods
Hi again. I’m glad you’ve come today. We’re working on the scripture for this coming Sunday, Pentecost VI. I’m going to make a cup of tea. Would you like some? We’ll use the time to peruse the readings.
How’s the tea? O.K.? It’s Darjeeling.
Anyway, let’s start with the Genesis reading. It’s a continuation of the story of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The story is beginning to feel familiar—another case of threat to the Covenant through barrenness—and again, Yahweh intervenes in a hopeless situation and answers the prayer for a child, this time in SPADES—there are TWO children! And there’s a further twist: the law of primogeniture is broken. In that culture, the first son was supposed to become the head of the family on the death of the father, but in this case, the SECOND-born will become the head: “The older shall serve the younger.”
If you’ve ever known twins, you’ll know that even if they’re IDENTICAL twins, they’re usually two very different personalities—and that’s the deal with Esau (the older) and Jacob (the younger). Already during her pregnancy, Rebekah senses there’s something going on. Her two babies are very rambunctious. She prays about this—it must have been very uncomfortable—and the answer she gets is that the boys are destined to compete and to go in two very different directions in life. Esau is an outdoors sort—a hunter—while Jacob is an indoors type—a studious kind of guy? Esau is impetuous while Jacob is more thoughtful.
You can see things coming to a head in the story of the stew which Jacob has cooked. Esau comes in, and he’s famished, and Jacob has just made a stew. Esau says, “Hey, give me some of that stuff.” Jacob, without hesitating, says, “Sure. Just one thing. You have to give me your birthright.” Jacob says, “No problem. I’m starving.” And there it is. If you hadn’t been looking on, you’d say, “Where did that come from?” Is that what Jacob, the quiet one, had been thinking about for years? And yet Esau doesn’t hesitate. And now Jacob is the understudy for head of the family.
Our reading from Psalm 119 is just one section of the psalm. It’s the longest of the psalms, and it’s essentially about the Law—the Ten Commandments. Each of the sections consists of eight verses, and each verse begins with the same letter. In this section, the letter is Nun, the equivalent of our letter N. And each verse makes some reference to the Law or some synonym for it—in this section, it’s “word, judgements, commandments, decrees, statutes”. And there are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet—I think. The basic point of Psalm 119 is “I love the Law. It helps me to live a good life. Those who don’t pay any attention to it have a hard time.”
The reading from Romans is vintage Paul. He’s talking about faith versus the Law—again. We’ve just finished talking about what the PSALMIST has to say: “The Law is how I can make my life work well.” PAUL says, “I agree that the Law is good—in theory—but in practice it can make life difficult for people.” If people think they can justify themselves by living according to the Law, they’re headed for disappointment because no matter how hard you try, you always slip up somehow. His alternative solution is faith in Jesus Christ—faith in and faith to—acknowledging that we’ll slip up even there, but also that through the Spirit of God we have support; we’re no longer living in the flesh, but in the Spirit. “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Rom. 8.9-10
The message of the gospel reading is very hopeful. If you look at the story, it might seem pessimistic, but look again. It says, when you tell people about the Kingdom of God, where life is happy and secure and joyful because people live according to the values of the Kingdom—justice and righteousness (or to sum it up in even shorter terms, LOVE—love for God and love for others)—in rough terms, the chances of anyone taking the message seriously is only about one in four. But here’s the thing; it’s not the QUANTITY that counts, it’s the QUALITY.
Jesus puts it in agricultural terms—terms that his hearers will understand; a good yield on seed would be seven or ten to one. For each seed you sow on your farm, your crop will yield seven to ten grains in return. But Jesus says, the yield from what HE'S sowing will be thirty or even sixty or even a hundredfold. At this point, the hearers are aghast; that’s huge! That’s anywhere from four to fourteen times the expected yield! Now he’s got their attention. The message to anyone with “ears to hear” (Mark 4.9) is that when you sow the Word, it will have a gigantic effect.