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This Week's Commentary
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 27, 2014Genesis 29:15-28 | Psalm 105:1-11,45b | Romans 8:26-39 | Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Today’s Genesis reading continues a focus on Israel’s ancestors. This story, written before the idea of “Bible” was invented, probably wasn’t intended as religious instruction. It doesn’t mention God, doesn’t present us with good role models, and doesn’t have a lesson beyond “what goes around, comes around.” It’s a family story: “Remember old Jake? He was a real scrapper! Why, he’d even wrassle with God if he had the chance! But Uncle Laban took him down a notch…”
Jacob proved in Gen 27 that he would deceive to advance his own interests. Now Laban does the same, and to highlight the connection with Jacob’s machinations against Esau, Laban remarks that a younger child should not be put before the firstborn (29:26). As in Gen 24 we get romantic motifs: Jacob meets just the right girl at a well, she is beautiful, and he loves her. Be thoughtful, however, about how women who aren’t pretty (or think they aren’t) will hear this story. Some translations say Leah has “weak” eyes (27:19, NIV), but the Hebrew word can also mean “tender” or “refined” (see Gen 18:7, Dt 28:56, Prov 4:3). If Leah looks tenderly at a Jacob who has eyes only for Rachel’s curves, the story becomes sad indeed.
Listeners may wonder how Jacob fails to notice which sister he is having sex with. Commentators have suggested that he’d partied hard, or she was entirely covered in veils, but we don’t know—this story may actually be symbolic (not historical), coding the later fates of tribes by associating them with more or less favored wives and concubines.
Like other recent lections, Gen 29 shows that God’s plans involve very imperfect people. For those who have been hurt by or are ashamed of their families, it’s good news that God doesn’t cast us aside on that account and may even have special gifts for the offspring of problematic parents.
The language of today’s Romans lection often pushes theological buttons. The trick is to hear it less in the context of Reformation controversies and more within the context of Paul’s own agenda. I’ll pull out four themes that help us understand the passage; for a more detailed treatment, see the Romans commentary by John Cobb and David Lull in the Chalice Commentaries for Today series (St. Louis: Chalice, 2005).
Firstly and most importantly, Paul underscores God’s love and determination to save. Implicit in NRSV’s translation of 8:28 and explicit in the footnoted textual variant is that God is at work in “all things.” God is “for us,” “loved us,” and sends the spirit and Christ Jesus to help us. Paul insists that in heavenly legal process God is not the accuser or an angry judge, but our advocate: “for us,” “did not withhold his own son,” “justifies.” How could we think that this God, who works so energetically to save us, would try to condemn us? It is God’s own love that we encounter in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:39).
Second, are goodness and God’s love only for a Christian “elect”? Reading just today’s lection, we might think so. But Paul has specified that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage” (8:21), and he will soon tell us that God intends to be “merciful to all” (11:32). Today’s verses focus on God’s particular work with the Christian community, but in the larger context of the letter to the Romans, Paul seems to believe that God’s plans for salvation are very wide.
What then does it mean to be “called” and “elect”? Eklektos means “chosen” or “choice,” and is used in the Septuagint to translate terms derived from the Hebrew verb bḥr (“choose”). In Jewish thought (and Paul was Jewish), being “chosen” implies a special relationship—special responsibilities as well as special care—but it does not imply a monopoly on salvation. Genesis 12:3 says that God’s blessing on Abraham will lead to blessing for “all the families of the earth” (compare Gen 18:18, 22:18, and 26:4). The “eagles’ wings” passage (Exod 19:4-6) describes Israel’s role as “priestly” in a whole world that belongs to God. If we Christians are elected “to be conformed to the image” of God’s Son, we are elected to align ourselves with Christ’s interceding love, not simply to be the recipients of glory.
That brings us, finally, to the question of predestination. Does God dictate every event of history or do creatures make real choices, sometimes even against God’s plan? Paul clearly wants to affirm that God has a “purpose,” an intention to save the world (8:21, 11:32). But clearly, Paul also believes we have choices about our participation—indeed, he devotes the last five chapters of Romans to advice about Christian attitudes and behavior. Process theologians can easily affirm that God intends good for creatures (“purpose”), “foreknows” our possibilities, and takes initiative in offering courses of action, even customizing them for us (“calling,” “election”). The cumulative impact of such divine action in “all things” makes it meaningful to speak of God’s power, without needing to assume that such power is coercive, much less that it “predestines” certain people to hell.
In recent lections both Matthew and Paul have assured their audiences that (1) God is at work even in ordinary or unclean things like mustard seeds, yeast, and fields, even when we can’t see it, and (2) we need to align our attention and desires to God’s realm rather than worldly distractions (although past tradition remains valuable, Mt 13:52). But the net parable’s tone of threat (if we think the net is the church) or gloating (if we think the furnace is for someone else) shows how easily we lose the spirit of love, especially in hard times. “Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become like them”: your challenge is to preach against judgmentalism without simply demonizing those who fall into it!
Marti J. Steussy is MacAllister-Petticrew Professor of Biblical Interpretation Emerita at Christian Theological Seminary and an active member of the Network of Biblical Storytellers and its seminar.