Commentary for Pentecost VIII, 26 July 2020
Texts for Pentecost VIII are Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11, 45c, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
By Father Doug Woods
Hi. Good to have you back. How’s your week been? It’s been hot here, but finally we’re enjoying a short cooling spell. Looks like it might rain today.
So we have four more texts for this coming Sunday: Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11, 45c, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. It’ll take you a few minutes to read them.
1) Genesis 29:15-28 Today, we see the story of Jacob unfolding a little further. The story continues a couple of themes. One is Jacob’s escape from Esau’s fury. As we said last week, that’s part of the story of Jacob’s Ladder; he’s out there in the wilderness to get away from Esau. But today, we get another piece: finding a suitable marriage partner. Isaac, Jacob’s father, has expressed the wish that Jacob find a bride, not from the surrounding Canaanites, but from Abraham and Isaac’s people in Paddan-aram, specifically a daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother (see Genesis 28.1ff.). So Jacob’s journey has independent motivation. Under different circumstances, you can almost imagine Jacob saying, “Aw, do I have to go that far?”—but there’s always the conflict with Esau in the background.
We already know that Jacob is a trickster. There are tricksters in lots of cultural traditions. Some of you may have read the story of Br’er Rabbit as a kid. Jack (Jack and the Beanstalk) was also a trickster. In Ghanaian culture, it’s Kwaku Anansi. In some Native American cultures, it’s the coyote. If you read the whole story of Jacob and Laban, you’ll find that Jacob has a worthy competitor in Laban.
So Jacob arrives in Haran and quickly sees Rachel, Laban’s daughter, and falls in love with her. You’ll see from the reading that Jacob enters into an agreement with Laban: he’ll work for Laban for seven years for the hand of Rachel. Imagine that nowadays! How many of us have married our childhood sweetheart? How many of us have known our intended for more than three years before marrying? The way our story puts it is, “ … Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” But here’s where the trick comes in; the sticking point is Rachel’s older sister, Leah.
Jacob has now honoured his part of the bargain, and he goes to Laban and says, “O.K., pay up.” Laban says, “O.K.,” and they have a whiz-bang wedding. Jacob finishes by going to the bridal chamber with his bride, but “Surprise!” He wakes up in the morning, and it’s not Rachel in bed with him; it’s Leah. Jacob goes to Laban and says, “Hey, what’s this?!” Laban says, “Oh, right. Didn’t I tell you? It’s our custom here to marry off your eldest daughter first and then the younger ones, so I gave you Leah.”
The translation of the story from Hebrew leaves some room for doubt about Leah. Our translation says her eyes were “lovely”, but there’s a question of whether the Hebrew word means ‘lovely’ or ‘dull’! That might account for why Leah is still available for marriage—yes, I know. It’s not right—that’s how it was 3+ millennia ago. Is Laban a trickster? Or is he trapped? Or both? If you read all of Genesis 29-31 (about four pages), you’ll see that tricking carries on between Jacob and Laban, and Jacob eventually has to flee from Laban, just as he did from his brother.
Keep in mind, lest we get lost in the story, that there’s a larger story: the Covenant and how it’s honoured. There must be land and heirs, and this is part of the story of how the heritage of God’s people survives and thrives.
2) Psalm 105:1-11, 45c The psalm reading appears at first to be a joyful tumble of praise, but as we read the whole thing, we might get the impression that the reason for the exhortation to praise sits right in the middle of the reading: “Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered … .”
“Remember.” Have God’s people forgotten? Have they gotten so tied up in the affairs of daily life that they’ve lost track? Is that why we have Thanksgiving, the one time of the year when we’re intentional about remembering how incredibly blessed we are?
It’s easy to lose track of the big picture when we have the daily little picture plucking at us. Does it look to us as if we’re on our own, as if we succeed or fail based entirely on our own efforts. Good news, we’re not on our own. If you step back from the daily grind and look at the whole picture, you can see that God is there for us, over and over again.
3) Romans 8:26-39 If this passage sounds familiar to you, it might be because you’ve attended a funeral in an Anglican church. The opening sentences of a funeral include Romans 8.38-39. I love it because of who attends funerals. Many of the attendees aren’t Christians—not really church people at all, so they come to the funeral with questions. The biggest one is “So where’s the old so and so going to end up?” They seem to think our relationship with God is like that between a child and a very strict parent, so you might not measure up. You might find yourself condemned to eternity in the flames of hell.
So if you listen carefully, this reading makes it clear that our relationship with God is really like one between a child and a doting parent. I’m not sure I like what I just said, but you get the point; we have a parent who loves us unfailingly and refuses ever to stop. There may be upset over something we’ve done—because by doing it, we’ve put ourselves in danger of injury—but the upset is motivated in love.
I won’t get into all the fancy ancient world logic, but I will say this: from God’s point of view, there’s NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God. But there’s the other person in this relationship: us. We can always say, “No, thanks. I don’t need you,” and walk away from the relationship.
So as we’re engaged in the funeral, what’s going on between the deceased person and God? You want the honest answer? We don’t know the answer because we don’t how the deceased person has answered God’s greeting: “My beloved child, how good to see you. Come in!”
4) Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 Chapter 13 of Matthew consists of a series of parables. Today’s reading is what we might call Musings on Discipleship. If you know anything about seeds, you’ll know that a mustard seed is very small—about this big: O. If you look back to the Parable of the Sower, you’ll remember that Jesus is saying that even if your efforts bear fruit only a small percentage of the time, the result will still be HUGE. The message in the Parable of the Mustard seed is similar; you never know what effect some little thing you do or say will have. Don’t think it takes extraordinary language or logic or persuasive power. Just some little thing is all you need.
The Parable of the Treasure in the Field and the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price are about the “Aha!” moment that’s at the beginning of faith. Some thing that you never knew about—or never saw—will suddenly pop out at you. I commuted to work along Highway 401 for decades, yet almost daily I’d find myself noticing something I’d never seen before, even though I’d passed that way hundreds of times. That’s how it is with the treasure in the field or the pearl; you don’t see it, and then suddenly “Bang!” there it is! Part of the issue, though, is recognizing it as valuable—and when you do, you’ve GOT to have it, so you give up all the stuff you thought was valuable before in exchange for this one thing. This “thing” is the kingdom of heaven. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know why you’d give up everything to have it.
And if you’ve ever been in the position of just having gotten something really cool, you’ll have been eager to show it to your friends—and that’s where the last section of the Matthew reading goes. As a “scribe”—someone who has been trained about the kingdom of heaven—you’ll want to show off your treasures, things that are new and things that are old. You just can’t help yourself; you HAVE to talk about it. In our case, we’d call that “witnessing.”
O.K. See you Sunday.