Proper 10, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 13, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:Alternate Reading 1:Alternate Reading 2:
Genesis 25:19-34Psalm 119:105-112Romans 8:1-11Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23Isaiah 55:10-13Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13

By Marti J. Steussy

Both of today’s New Testament lections invite us to ponder the mysterious interaction of divine power and human choice.  Romans has been developing the theme of life/death “force fields” (see commentaries for recent weeks), often using the term sarkos (NRSV “flesh”) for the sin/decay field. This terminology reflects the Greek sound byte soma sema, “the body is a tomb.” We should not conclude that human bodies are detestable. Current research suggests that compassion is deeply grounded in the body, as do the Hebrew and Greek verbs for feeling compassion (riḥam, as in Ex 33:19; Ps 103:13; Hos 1:7, and splanchnizomai, as in Mt 14:14; Lk 7:13, 10:33), which are based on words for internal organs. The Common English Bible translates sarkos as “selfishness” in Romans 8, but be careful with that translation also, since a significant number of people in this world (often but not always female) sinless by demanding too much than by refusing to stand up for themselves.

Paul’s point is that there is a human condition in which we do not and “indeed…cannot” (Rom 8:7) make choices that lead to life. It is not our own power but the generous, unmerited gift of God’s spirit that sets us free (8:2) to choose life (see Dt 30:19).  Yet if human will played no role in our attitude, there would be no point in Paul’s raising the issue of whether we “think about selfish things” or “think about things that are related to the Spirit” (8:5, CEB).

I believe that Paul is asking us to consider how habits of mind and heart develop over time and limit or expand our options. Settled into the groove of selfish thinking, we may never realize that life could be different. But we can also, with the Spirit’s help, cultivate a generous hope that makes us more alive and more responsive to others (8:2). Neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, in the final chapter of Self Comes to Mind (Pantheon, 2010), ponders how factors beyond conscious control constrain our decisions in the moment (compare Rom 7:14-25). But Damasio does not conclude that we have no power to decide. Instead, we exercise that power over time, cultivating our minds so that when the moment comes, we will decide rightly. What Romans adds is that we don’t have to go it alone; God’s spirit nudges us along.

Matthew’s parable of the sower also suggests creative interaction between divine prompting and human response. In one way it prioritizes the divine role, for without seed, good soil grows nothing! But the telling emphasizes how different kinds of soil/human response affect the seed’s growth into a productive plant.  Again I would suggest that this is less about how we respond in a single choice than about “cultivating” (!) our attitudes over time. Even those who receive the word with joy will not necessarily bear fruit; for that, we need depth and staying power. Be gentle, though, about the human side of responsibility. If we use these readings to judge and condemn others, we’re neglecting the good news of God at work and the cultivation of our own spirit-led generosity.  

People may hear today’s readings as proof that Christians have a monopoly on deliverance from death. The alternate First Testament readings, Isa 55:10-13 and Ps 65 (I suggest using the whole psalm), show the Jewish people experiencing God as a source of forgiveness (Ps 65:3), joy, and hope centuries before Jesus (see below on “law” in Ps 119). The psalm, like the NT readings, expresses a sense of being specially chosen by God (65:4), but it also speaks of “all flesh” coming to God (65:2), certainly including all humans and possibly nonhumans, in agreement with Pss 36:6-7; 84:3; 104:27-30. Rather than assuming that the “Spirit of Christ” (Rom 8:9) dwells only in Christian hearts, we might suggest that the spirit which we associate with Christ is at work everywhere and always, and that we will recognize it less by the religious labels it claims than by its fruits (which often take time to mature, so again we should not rush to judgment).

Genesis 25:19-34 again tempts us to indulge in smug insider/outsider distinctions. Its original purposes were not religious instruction, but foreshadowing God’s choice of David (a youngest son) and letting Judeans feel superior to the kindred Edomites (compare Gen 19:30-38 on Ammonites and Moabites). Don’t get sucked into this mean-spiritedness by identifying Christians with Jacob and Jews with Esau or even just by making fun of Esau’s shortsightedness. Instead perhaps we need to examine our own consciences. How easy it is to be smug about the superiority of our own traditions, even in preaching this text, and how unthinkingly we can sacrifice the well-being of future generations in favor of our own gratification! Try linking the theme not to the decisions we “should” make but the question of how we nurture a more generous attitude. The word of hope here is that God is always at work, not just in high-minded religious thinking but in the grit of ordinary, not-always-generous decisions.

I would use Ps 119:105-112 to reflect on the process by which we cultivate spirit-filled habits of mind. This psalm contains 176 verses celebrating God’s “word” (along with God’s Torah/law/ordinances/precepts), which is clearly experienced as part of the “life” force field. Students have asked, “Why is the psalm so long? Why can’t they say it once and be done?” What they discover, when they actually pray the psalm, is that Ps 119 isn’t about information, it’s an exercise to help us align our spirits. Its repetitions help us get out of the selfish groove and deepen our sense of life, so that we can be better partners in the intricate dance between divine prompting and human decision.

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.