Proper 8, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – June 29, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Genesis 22:1-14Psalm 13Romans 6:12-23Matthew 10:40-42

By Ron Allen

The Priestly theologians gave Genesis 22:1-14 its present shape in the shadow of the exile. Two themes are especially important. First, the text rejects child sacrifice. Some of Israel’s neighbors followed this practice (e.g. Deut 12:31; 2 Kgs 16:3; 21:6; 23;10; Isa 57:5; Jer 7:31; 19:5; 32:35), but according to Genesis 21:1-14, God never intended child sacrifice (cf. Lev 18:21; 20:2-5). A preacher might as,, “Where in our culture do people, like Israel’s neighbors, mistakenly believe that practices of death (like child sacrifice) can lead to life?” By contrast, the text affirms that life leads to life.

Second, some scholars see the story as an explanation of what had happened to Judah. From the Priestly perspective, prior to the exile, the community had violated covenant with God, and, as a consequence, God punished the community through the Babylonians conquest and exile. It appeared that Isaac’s life—and the promises God had made to Sarah and Abraham—were over. Similarly, when Judah lay in defeat and exile, it looked like the community’s life was ending. Instead, God provided the unexpected ram and the unexpected deliverance by Cyrus the Persian. The community should thus learn to trust God’s faithfulness even in trying situations. The preacher might identify circumstances today in which God’s purposes appear to be threatened in ways similar to the situations of Isaac and Judah. Where does the preacher hear the voice of the ram? The coming of Cyrus?

However, the story has theologically troubling elements. It is horrific to picture God ordering parents to sacrifice a child. To me, this picture is inappropriate for a God of unconditional love who works for inclusive well-being. Moreover God would never “test” individuals or communities to see whether they pass or fail. It is one thing to think that particular circumstances in life have the effect of prompting a community to think about its faith, but it is another to think that God actively seeks to orchestrate such circumstances.

A preacher might use Psalm 13, an individual lament, to help the congregation recollect when they feel as though God forgets them or hides from them (v. 1). The psalmist hopes for salvation, i.e. a dramatic change of circumstances (v. 5b; cf. vv.3-4). Such a change is necessary for God to show that God manifests steadfast love (hesed) (v. 5).

With many other preachers in the process tradition, I do not think God actually forgets or hides from us. Moreover, despite pleas such as v. 1, sorrowful circumstances do not always change. As a preacher, I would affirm the feeling of being forgotten, but then gently go beyond the psalm to assert, gently, that even when we are not aware of it, God is always present, offering relevant possibilities for well-being. In such situations, God’s steadfast love (hesed) is expressed not through change of circumstances but through solidarity.

In a sense, Romans 6:1-11 is an indicative (immersion assures us that God claims us) while Romans 6:12-23 is an imperative that follows from the indicative (how to live in response to the indicative). Romans 6:1-11 is discussed on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 22, 2014.

Romans 6:12-23 presumes a cultural value that was different from today. The ancients typically assumed that everyone served some higher power. Their question was less “Which higher powers do you serve—God, the gods, or other higher entities?”

For Paul, sin was such a power, a personified entity which had its own force field. Sin sought to enforce the brokenness of the old age. By contrast grace and righteousness are among names for the force field of the Realm of God.

Romans 6:12-23 assumes that the congregation has an element of choice in whether they serve the old age or whether they serve grace and the Realm of God.

When buffeted by sin, the immersed Romans were tempted to turn away from grace and righteousness, and instead to live in the old ways. Romans 6:1-23 admonishes the community to remember that God has marked them with immersion. When confronted by the possibility of complicity with the old age, they have the power to say “No,” and, instead, to serve the new.

Many congregations today feel caught in the conflict of the force fields of the two ages. Romans 6:1-11 reminds us that God claims us for the Realm. Romans 6:12-23 urges us to choose to serve the values and practices of the new world. Romans 6:23 paints the consequences of our choice in a stark way.

For Matthew, Jesus is the risen Jesus continuing to speak to the congregation (Matt 10:42; Matt 28:20b). In 10:1-42, the risen Jesus prepares members of the Matthean congregation (80-90 CE) for the conditions they will face as they seek to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20a).

Elsewhere, Matthew indicates that the “prophets” are prophets within or near the Matthean community (Matt 7:15-20; 13:17, 57; 21:11; 23:29, 34). The same is true for the righteous (Matt 5:20, 48; 13:43, 49; 25:37, 46). The expression “little ones” is similar to other Matthean references to disciples (Matt 18:6, 10 14; 25:40, 45).

To “welcome” was to manifest hospitality in the ancient sense: to provide food, shelter, and a place to rest. In semi-arid Palestine, giving a cup of cold (refreshing) water was a vivid image of hospitality. The “reward,” of course, is being included in the Realm of God.

In those days, missionaries typically carried few supplies. They depended on the hospitality of those to whom they went. Indeed, many in that culture considered such behavior not freeloading but faithfully trusting in God (or the gods) to supply their needs.

At the obvious level, Matthew 10:41-42 assures those who welcome the witnesses of the Matthean community that the hosts and hostesses will share in the coming Realm (“none of these will lose their reward”). At the less obvious level, it assures the missionaries that God will provide hospitality for them. They can witness boldly because some people will welcome them.

A preacher might help a congregation identify individuals, communities and movements who can support the congregation’s witness in the way similar those who received the Matthean missionaries welcomed the ancient witnesses. With whom might the congregation enter into partnership to enhance the witness to the Realm? Being aware of the support of others might enhance the congregation’s willingness to extend itself. A preacher might also help the congregation ask, “To whom might we give a cup of cold water?” that is, “With whom might we enter into solidarity as part of enlarging the witness to the Realm?”

Ron Allen is Professor of Preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary and co-editor, with John S. McClure and O. Wesley Allen, Jr., of Under the Oak Tree: The Church as Community of Conversation in a Conflicted and Pluralistic World (Cascade Books, 2013).