July 26, 2020
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Genesis 29:15-28||Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128||Romans 8:26-39||Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52||1 Kings 3:5-12||Psalm 119:129-136|
by Nichole Torbitsky
Setting and Historical Background:
In our text for this Sunday, Jacob has arrived at Haran from Beersheba by way of Luz/Bethel. Jacob left Beersheba for two reasons. We are told in Genesis 27:41-45 that he leaves Beersheba to escape Esau’s anger and in Gen 28:1-2 that he leaves, as his father Isaac’s behest to find a wife from among his Grandfather’s people. On the long journey north, in Bethel, Jacob was visited in a dream by God who promised good to Jacob. Outcast and basically on the run, Jacob arrives at his Uncle Laban’s house in Haran on the Turkey-Syria border. This journey from Beersheba to Haran takes about 20 days on foot. The interlude at Bethel tells us that Jacob was traveling alone and sleeping rough. This would have been a very tough journey, especially for a man who “was a quiet man, living in tents” (Genesis 25:28).
Marriage: So much has been said in recent years about “Biblical” marriage as narrowly defined to fit a particular set of social rules that exist among some groups in the US. Our passage for today demonstrates that marriage in Jacob’s day is pretty different from the standards of today’s so-called “Biblical” marriage. Jacob marries his first cousins. Yes, that is plural, both Leah and Rachel are his first cousins. Implied in the text is that since Jacob has sexual relations with Leah then a marriage is sealed and irrevocable. Jacob also takes Leah and Rachel’s slaves as sexual partners and gets four children from these women who are not his wives. If having sexual relations does not automatically make people married, as in the case of Leah and Rachel’s slaves Bilhah and Zilpah, what does? Somehow a marriage is binding even if one partner has been tricked into it and therefore has not consented to the marriage. Consent apparently, for both men and women, is not absolutely necessary in order for a marriage to be binding. Love also does not appear to be the defining factor, as Jacob loves Rachel, but not Leah, and none of the four women mentioned are said to love Jacob. So as far as ‘traditional’ marriage goes by today’s standards, Jacob’s marriage includes incest, polygamy, adultery, and lack of consent (if we read Gen 30:15 as indicative of Leah’s feelings on the subject, it appears that she was not in on the deception, but believed the Jacob was supposed to marry her.) All of these things, except adultery, would prohibit marriage in this day and age.
God’s Presence, Our failures, Grace Abounding
God is present in human weakness, in our sinfulness and failure to work toward good, but God’s presence does not prevent these things.
Jacob’s story is sordid. Even when we give a charitable reading, Jacob did things he knew to be devious. His mother Rebekah did devious things. His brother Esau threatened murder. In today’s text, Jacob gets his karmic payback. His even more deceptive Uncle, Laban, tricks him into 14 years of indentured servanthood and into a marriage to which Jacob did not consent. It is possible that his first wife, Leah, was also in on the deception. And, as we read on in the story we see that there is more trickery, theft, deception, and heartbreak to come.
All too often, we read this as a kind of disconnect. Somewhere in our collective understanding, we carry the belief that the ‘good guys’ in the Bible, ought to be good. I, at least, still carry a semi-conscious desire to attempt to justify Jacob’s actions as somehow, ultimately ok, because otherwise God would not have called him to be a Patriarch. I want to believe that God only uses the ‘good people’ and therefore those who God would use are the good guys. Perhaps you can sympathize with my desire. Maybe you’ve come to integrate something about God and God’s actions in existence that I am still integrating as I read the Biblical stories. One of the great truths of these stories is that God is present in our ugliness and our messiness.
Our horrible choices will not overcome God’s good intention for the world. Now, just over two months after the death of George Floyd and nationwide calls for justice for Mr. Floyd and all of our African American citizens, I have to ask where was God?1 As Mr. Floyd lay pinned to the ground struggling for breath, life ebbing from him, calling out for his mother, his dead mother, where was God? There God was, pinned to the ground, hung on a cross, lynched on a tree, lynched on a sidewalk. We as Christians understand that God can be in the midst of a mockery of a trial and a travesty of justice, God can be there in the persecution and unjust death of a beloved son. God hung from a cross calling out for his father, God suffocated under a knee calling out for his mother.
These injustices are condemned by God, and they will not have the last word. The last word, the first word, The Word, is Jesus Christ. And what we know from him is that God wills the best for us. God sees and cares for the voiceless and the silenced and the oppressed even if the world does not.
Rachel and Leah’s slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah gave birth to four sons—Naphtali, Dan, Asher, and Gad—fathered by Jacob. These sons of slaves became the heads of four of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the descendants of (each of) these women became the Jewish people. This happy outcome, the weaving of Bilhah and Zilpah’s descendants to constitute the very fabric of God’s people, does not negate the suffering Bilhah and Zilpah experienced. It does not redeem that suffering or make it all worth it. And in the midst of that truth, God will wrest what good can be saved from even our most tragic events. The God who suffers with us will not allow the horror and evil of this world be the final word.
Jacob’s messy and sometimes ugly story can be an invitation to talking about how God is present in our own messy stories. God is present with us as we work to accomplish God’s good will for this world. If we, especially as those who are privileged, are willing to put some ‘skin in the game’ as it were. We are not working for justice if we are not willing to risk. Risk is hard and scary and its rewards may not bear immediate fruit, but we can risk, we must, if we are to follow God’s call for justice.
Let me tell you a story of my risk and failure. I wish I was the ‘good guy’ in this story. I am sorry to say that I am not. I am a professor at a small, private university just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. We are just a few miles down the highway from Ferguson, Missouri where Michael Brown was killed and yet worlds away. One of my students came in to talk with me about her hurt feelings over a racist experience she had with another student. While I count myself as an ally, I have to admit that I put my foot in my mouth. My response was tone-deaf. I cannot blame her for leaving my office feeling no better than when she came in. Life is messy and in that moment, I failed to live up to the best for that situation. God is with my student in her frustration and anger. God is with me in my failure. God is with us in different ways. God calls me to do better, to be better. God holds up the best possible for me and shows me how I missed the mark. God invites me to try again. This is God’s compassion for me. God’s compassion for my student is one of solidarity, strength, and insistence on justice. She has not been back to my office. Frankly, I don’t blame her. I want there to be moral, a happy ending to this story. There is not. I messed up. Life is messy. And God is with us in the mess. For my part, and thanks be to God, I have the chance to learn and grow to become a better ally. That does not redeem this situation. But, it does not leave either of us stuck there. This messy meeting was not the last word. God calls me to do better. God call us as a nation to do better, just as God called Jacob and all of the Matriarchs to more and better.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Historical Background and setting:
Goodness there is a lot going on in the lectionary reading for today. If I count correctly, Jesus gives five quick analogies describing the Kingdom of Heaven and ends with supportive words about scribes.
Jesus tells the first two parables from today’s text to the gathered crowd on the shore from a boat just off shore on the Sea of Galilee. The text does not give a specific location, but tradition holds that the house mentioned in the first verse is Peter’s house in Capernaum. Capernaum is located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and is thought to be Jesus’ “home base” during his ministry in Galilee. Tradition holds that there are a few coves around Capernaum with great acoustics that would have served to amplify Jesus’ voice to the crowd. (Perhaps someone more in the know than me can affirm the truth or falsity of this claim in the comments.) Whether for safety or clarity of a line of sight or amplification or for the gorgeous backdrop of the Sea of Galilee or any combination of these, Jesus delivers the first of these parables from the boat. From this day until the end of his ministry in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will only speak in parables to large crowds. The last three parables from today’s text and the talk on the scribes, is given from inside the house, just to the disciples. Presumably, this is the same house that Jesus left before he got on the boat.
The mustard plant grows like a weed in Israel. It produces abundant, tiny seeds which have no problem growing in many of the arid places in Israel. These seeds can remain dormant in the soil for years, waiting to germinate until conditions are right. The seeds, greens, and flowers can be eaten. But cattle have been known to get sick from eating too much. Without constant and relatively aggressive pruning, a mustard bush can quickly take over an area where it takes root. It is both hardy and prolific. The seeds are used to make the condiment we know as mustard by grinding them and mixing them with oil, vinegar, and salt.
Yeast is a tiny organism used to help bread rise and ferment things like fruits and grains into wine and beer. If yeast used in a kitchen for baking, comes into contact with other foods it can cause those foods to ferment and/or spoil. In Judaism, where people celebrate Passover, one important tradition is to remove all yeast from one’s house. This means removing all baked goods that use yeast, and also giving one’s kitchen and eating areas a very thorough scrub to be sure that all of the yeast is gone from one’s home before Passover.
In Jesus’ day, Scribes were a particular, highly educated, and highly esteemed job. The job of a scribe is to write documents and record contracts. This skill also made them experts in the law. Jewish scribes were often associated with the High Priest and the Pharisees, because their services were needed by these highly educated groups of the religious officials and scholars. Their importance to the educated and powerful Jewish groups along with their education and particular knowledge of the law made them into their own group, The Scribes. A scribe could also be a Pharisee or Priest, but not necessarily. Here is an analogy, albeit and imperfect one. It is possible to be an accountant and a notary public. It is also possible to be a notary public without being an accountant and vice versa. But, often the jobs overlap. Being a scribe works in a similar way. One can be scribe without being a religious scholar or official, but often the jobs overlap. Often, the gospels have negative things to say about the Scribes, but in today’s text, Jesus says that it is possible for scribes to train for the kingdom of heaven (Matt 13:52).
Of Seeds and Pearls
Jesus tells two parables to the gathered crowd, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast. Both of these parables describe the kingdom as small but powerful. Mustard seeds are tiny seeds that can grow under difficult conditions to nearly uncontrollable size. Yeast is a tiny organism and only a small amount can raise a great deal of dough. While we think of yeast as relatively harmless, yeast left on an uncleaned surface can easily and quickly cause other foods it comes into contact with to ferment. When Jesus speaks to the crowds he talks about how the small things, the seemingly powerless things, can be a powerful force to reckon with. In the last three parables are given just to the disciples. In the first two of these private teachings, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to treasures worth giving up everything for. Then, in the final parable for this series, he describes the kingdom of heaven like a massive catch of fish, with the good sorted from the bad. He gives different but compatible messages to different groups.
As I have worked with these passages for this Sunday, I’ve wondered about something about what he teaches the disciples. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like,” a treasure, a merchant, and a net; it is like someone who finds, hides, and gives up everything for, like someone who searches and finds and gives up everything for, like something that makes a great catch of both the good and the bad. In each of these parables, what exactly is the kingdom of heaven? It seems from these parables that the kingdom of heaven is a complexity. It is both a thing to be found, a treasure, and it is something that actively searches, a merchant. It is the means by which a great bounty is caught, a net. It is achieved by valuing it above all else. It is a good investment. It involves justice. The kingdom both seeks and is found, both catches and gets caught, both values and is valued, both demands investment and pays off, that requires risk and grants security.
When Jesus teaches the disciples, it seems like his description of the kingdom of heaven is a lot like Whitehead’s theory of organism. These parables seem to describe the kind of flux and dance and lure that Whitehead describes between the past and the present and the future, between the events of the world, and between the events of the world and God. These parables seem to describe a kingdom of heaven that is not a far away, rarified place. It is something both here and becoming. It describes a God who actively seeks us, and a God that wants us to come seeking.
Let me tell you a story. Williams Jennings Bryan, was a lawyer and congressman from Illinois who spent the later years of his life dedicated in the then new religious movement known as fundamentalism. Most of us know him from the now infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial.” In 1925, when Bryan was an associate prosecutor in the trial of John Thomas Scopes. Scopes was a school teacher in a Tennessee school district and had taught the biological theory of evolution to his students. This broke a state law that prohibited the teaching of ideas contrary to the Bible, evolution was thought to be one of those ideas. Clarence Darrow was Scopes attorney and became famous for his courtroom antics. Most of us do not remember that Bryan won that trial and Scopes was fined $100. Even though Scopes and Darrow lost, the trial humiliated Bryan and caused sweeping changes in our nation’s education system. Just a few days after the trial ended, Bryan died heartbroken over the loss and what it symbolized to him.
The play, “Inherit the Wind,” is a dramatic telling of the Scopes trial. In the play, a reporter when hearing of Bryan’s death, seeks a comment from Bryan’s nemesis, Clarence Darrow. After getting an unexpectedly compassionate comment from the lawyer, the reporter asks, “Why should we weep for him? You know that he was a Barnum-bunkum Bible-beating blowhard.” Darrow responds, “A giant once lived in that body. But the man got lost – lost because he was looking for God too high up and too far away.”
It is easy to look for God too high up and too far away, impassively gazing down at us from on-high. What if the Kingdom really is like a mustard seed? Then maybe, God could be found in the evolutionary process of becoming. The majesty and glory of God could be seen in a tiny seed that, given the right conditions, can grow to be a tree twenty feet tall, so that the birds come to nest in its branches. If we start looking for the kingdom of Heaven here, in the give and take between people and between us and God, if we can see this here and now and what we can aspire to be as the kingdom of heaven, then we are capable of achieving Christ’s vision for us.
1 If you, dear Preacher, feel like the world has moved on, and that this is old news, something we should leave well enough alone, I ask you to reconsider. If you have fatigue talking about it, hearing about it, thinking about it, think about the fatigue people who experience unrelenting racism feel. Hopefully, by the time you read this, the news cycle has not moved on to churn out some new distracting salaciousness or horror. Now, that nearly two months have passed since Mr. Floyd’s death and the initial shock of grief and anger have passed, the real and very hard work of calling ourselves, our congregations, and our nation to account and action must begin. Now is exactly the time to talk about this Calling for justice can be tricky to preach in certain settings, but in faithfulness to Christ, it needs to be done. As those charged by God to help lead God’s people, we are required to stand with Christ for justice for all of God’s children. My hope is that today’s text can help in that conversation with our congregations. We are not necessarily here to ‘call out’ our congregations, but to invite our congregations into new ways of thinking of Christ’s grace around matters of anti-racism.
Nichole Torbitzky earned a doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA and her Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Her current research investigates Whiteheadian notions of subjective form and the internal relations subjective form has on the ordering of eternal objects in the primordial nature of God. Torbitzky is an assistant professor of religion at Lindenwood University and teaches courses on World Religions, Islam, Indian Religions, History of Christianity, Women and Religion, African Diaspora and African American religion.