Proper 11, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 20, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Genesis 28:10-19aPsalm 139:1-12, 23-24Romans 8:12-25Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

By Marti J. Steussy

It has been said that hope, in the theological sense, is “refusing to despair when optimism isn’t warranted.” Such hope isn’t just wanting something (“I hope I’ll get a red sweater for Christmas”) or having obvious grounds to expect it (“Looks like we can hope for good weather on Saturday”). Theological hope applies in situations where the odds seemed stacked against us and all indicators point the wrong way. In different ways, Romans, Matthew, and Genesis speak from and to such situations.

In Romans, Paul has been talking about the “force field” of death. His addressees are experiencing suffering (8:18), could easily fall into fear (8:15), and are groaning (8:23). This is not just about the experience of the Christian community or a particular social/political context. Although particular experiences are certainly included, Paul’s larger concern is with universal issues of death and decay, sufferings that affect not only humans but animals, in relation to which “the whole creation has been groaning” (8:22). 

Some of Paul’s assumptions about creation’s suffering may be problematic for modern congregations. He seems to think that there was once a golden era of immortality, a time in which there was no evil, violence, or death. He also seems to believe that whatever suffering we experience must be imposed by God.

But there are some factual problems with the idea of a golden era. Death seems to be as old as life on earth, far predating humankind. Even in Genesis, there is no claim that humans were created immortal (although in Gen 2-3 we do lose the chance to become immortal); the idea of being “created for…incorruption” comes from an apocryphal source, Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24. And although Gen 1 and 2-3 imagine that the first humans and animals were vegetarian (see 1:29-30 and 2:9), animals have probably been eating other animals for as long as they have existed.

More importantly, the idea that suffering is imposed by God (8:20) raises theological problems. Later Christian teaching about the Fall responds by emphasizing human responsibility. (A capital-letter Fall doctrine is not obvious in the Hebrew Bible and not shared by most Jews today, although Judaism does have ways of talking about universal sin.) But people wonder, is it fair for later generations and other creatures to die for something that Adam and Eve did (assuming we even believe that Adam and Eve were historical individuals)? And just what is the intersection between human and divine responsibility?

While we may not understand the history or theology of death in quite the same way that Paul does, we can certainly agree with him that life on earth—including but not limited to human life—is hard, full of suffering which is not only painful but often seems pointless. Yet Paul does not want us to despair. He wants us to believe, against the evidence (“who hopes for what is seen?” 8:24), that God intends fullness of life for us. Such hope, as we have said, is not ordinary optimism, but refusing to despair. Even if we sometimes feel doubtful or discouraged, we keep going and we do what we can. To this end, it’s worth noticing that the lection’s final word, which NRSV translates “patience,” also means “persistence”—what Paul asks is that we not give up!

Matthew’s parable, like Paul’s discussion, speaks to a world which contains evil—a level of evil so incompatible with divine governance that it is attributed “an enemy,” “the devil” (13:27, 39). But, Matthew assures us, God nonetheless remains in charge. Like Paul, Matthew promises that in the end things will work out well for the children of God.

But there is an important difference between these two pictures. In Matthew, there are children of God, and then there are “children of the evil one,” who will be thrown “into the furnace of fire” (13:38, 42). Paul, by contrast, is on his way to the conclusion that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom 11:32). Indeed Paul suggests that God will ultimately heal not just humans but all creation (8:21, see also 11:36). Although Matthew’s parable is probably intended to comfort a faithful audience by promising them that they will “shine like the sun” (13:43), it can also be preached as a threat: better be on God’s side or you’ll weep and gnash your teeth!  Paul, on the other hand, invites us to leave behind the language of fear and slavery (Rom 8:15-17).

Today’s Genesis reading, like last week’s, emphasizes God’s choice of the line that will lead to Israel and David. Jacob, on the run from his older brother Esau (27:41-43), now receives promises directly from God. But Jacob does not seem absolutely sure that optimism is warranted. After all, grandfather Abraham and father Isaac got similar pledges, but both struggled to produce children at all, let alone great nations! (Jacob will do a bit better, with a family of seventy according to Exod 1:5, but he dies in Egypt rather than in the land promised to him and his ancestors.)

Jacob’s uncertainty about the promises in the dream shows in the language of his prayer afterwards: “If God will be with me…then the LORD shall be my God, and…I will surely give one-tenth” (28:20-22, emphasis added).  We know that the story’s location, Bethel, will become the most important place of worship in the northern kingdom, but by the time Genesis takes its final form, not only Bethel but Jerusalem will have fallen. When later audiences hear, “I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land,” they will wonder what it means for their own exile.

All three of these lections admit that sometimes optimism doesn’t seem warranted—a point of contact with our own world. Their good news is that God’s force field of life embraces us even when we cannot yet see its results. It may be unrealistic to think we will never experience doubt or discouragement. Hope is when we keep going anyway.

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.