The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9, Year A), 5 July 2020
July 5, 2020 | by Nichole Torbitzky
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67||Psalm 45:10-17 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13||Romans 7:15-25a||Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30||Zechariah 9:9-12||Psalm 145:8-14|
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49
Our first lesson for this Sunday demonstrates God’s presence in and care for the events of our everyday living.
The story for today begins with Abraham’s servant arriving in the city of Nahor (also called Haran) sits close to the border of what are now Turkey and Syria. Sarah, Jacob’s mother has already died, but Jacob’s father, Abraham, is still alive. Abraham’s servant has traveled from Hebron (about 18 miles south of modern Jerusalem in Israel). It is a long journey from Hebron to Nahor, and the servant and his caravan of ten camels loaded with gifts and other servants, would have been traveling for about two weeks. The servant, who remains nameless throughout the story, has made a vow to find a wife for Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, from Abraham’s extended family who still live in Nahor. The story we read for today is told from the servant’s perspective.
When the servant reaches the outskirts of Nahor around dusk, they stop at a well. The text tells us that the women go out to draw water. The servant asks for God’s help in finding the right wife for Isaac. His request is simple and straightforward. He prays that the first girl who responds positively to his request for a drink and also offers to water the ten camels be the one for Isaac. But, before he has even finished his prayer, Rebekah appears at the well with her jar. The servant asks for a small drink and she responds with the invitation to drink, rather than sip. When she had “finished giving him a drink,” she offered to water the 10 camels as well. This image of Rebekah giving the servant a drink caught my imagination. We can only assume that Rebekah does not have cup with her. Rebekah has, as far as I can tell, stood there, holding a two gallon pottery jug up so a man can drink from it. Maybe she handed the jug to him, but the image I got from the text is a slightly funny “cute-meet” where Rebekah kinda awkwardly holds a giant, heavy jug of water up for this man to drink from. I wonder how awkward it was to drink directly from that jug? I wonder if it sloshed a little? I wonder if he dribbled a bit? Often, this scene is envisioned as one where the servant has all of the agency and Rebekah has very little. She is often envisioned as demure and passive. While she may indeed be modest, this is no shy, reserved young woman. She is strong and generous, and smart enough not to let a stranger take her water jug from her hands. Perhaps smart enough to recognize that this guy traveling with ten camels might very well be an important contact for her already wealthy family.
After she finishes watering the servant, she offers to water the camels. This is no small feat, and through the ages, scholars have remarked on this. Needless to say, the process of carrying two gallons of water at time from the spring to the watering trough for ten camels that drink about 25 gallons apiece is a long and physically demanding process. After she is done, the servant produces a nose ring (commonly worn by women of her day) and bracelets. He then asks who she is and if her family has the ability to put them all up for the night. Her answers indicate that she is from the right family (Abraham’s brother’s family) and they are wealthy enough to host, without warning or preparation, the servant and his entourage, along with feeding and sheltering ten extra camels.
After they get back to Rebekah’s house, and the necessary hospitality is offered to the visitors, the servant gets right down to business. Even before having a meal, he insists on laying out his case, explaining to Rebekah’s brother and father that he is here on an errand from Abraham to find a wife for Isaac. He explains that Abraham is wealthy too and favored by God. He also explains that he has asked for God’s help in finding the right woman and that Rebekah exactly fit his request.
It was not at all uncommon for cousins and to marry. But, perhaps more significant, in order to keep up his end of the bargain, Abraham needed to find a wife for his son who also believed in God rather than worshipping Canaanite gods. Outside of Abraham’s family, there were very few others who worshipped God at this time, so it stands to reason that a suitable wife could only be found among the cousins. In a remarkable act of agency, Rebekah agrees to the match, and contrary to her family’s wishes, she agrees to leave right away with the servant. Much like Abraham himself, following a call to trust God and leave Nahor, she begins her own adventure.
The next morning, she gathers her servants and heads out with Abraham’s servant to the Negev. Isaac and Rebekah marry with very little fanfare. Verse 24:67 describes it simply. Isaac brought her to Sarah’s tent, where they consummated and therefore sealed their marriage. Bringing her to his mother’s tent signifies her place in the family, the power and respect that comes with the position wife. And, in a rare, tender insight, we are told that this is a love story. Not only is this a good match in practical terms, it is also an emotionally fulfilling match (presumably for both of them, even though the text only gives insight into Isaac’s emotional state).
What a lovely story, complete with a kind of cute-meet and a happy ending. It is one of the few love stories in the Bible and it demonstrates how God takes human experience seriously. It shows how God can be present into our everyday lives. This can be a tricky theme to preach, as it can easily spill over into predestination and determinism. It can also turn easily to a kind of magical thinking, that if we just pray hard enough, God will solve all of our problems. Or, it can turn to fatalism. How do we talk about God’s active presence in our everyday lives and still avoid these kinds of theological mistakes? We have to take seriously the partnership and relationality between all of the people involved in this story and God.
God did not orchestrate this love match all alone. People with agency were involved. The servant asks for guidance and invites God into the situation. Rebekah acts according to her own personality, influenced by God’s aims, with generosity and pluck. God who wants the best for us in every moment of our becoming, will be present aiming at the best possible. It seems that the Bible reports one of those rare instances where everyone involved felt God’s call for the situation and followed to the best of their ability. Not every circumstance will turn out for the best, because we are not coerced by God. But, when we are capable of grasping God’s good aim, together we can bring about good things, even in our everyday lives.
Maybe you can think of a time in your life, when it seems apparent to you that God was involved in an everyday event. Did you cute-meet your spouse? Have you watched people in what could have been a disaster behave in ways that brought out the best in them and others? Let me tell a brief story that stands out to me. I remember sitting at a very busy, heavily trafficked intersection one evening. Everyone was in a hurry to get home during rush hour. I was cranky from the drive and exasperated with the other drivers on my commute. My light had just turned green when the lights and sirens of an approaching ambulance appeared. This ambulance was moving fast, weaving through lanes of traffic. I knew somehow, that the person inside was in trouble (maybe that is true and maybe not, there is no way for me to verify my perception). But, what happened next was remarkable (although it shouldn’t be). Every car stopped to wait. Every one. No one tried to beat it through the intersection or sneak around other cars to get a better place in traffic. We all waited, just where we were. The ambulance blazed safely through what is often otherwise a relatively dangerous intersection in the middle of the worst traffic. I know, I know. This is the way it is supposed to happen. Yes. And, also, it seems like it is rare that it does actually happen this way. The kindness of all of these people brought me to tears. My faith in humanity restored (at least for a little while). God’s presence in that moment was apparent to me. Working through the actions of all of the drivers, through the actions of those who passed laws to give ambulances the right of way, though the actions of those who developed and implemented lights and sirens, through the actions of countless others, God has worked up to this moment and in this moment for the good. I don’t know about the patient in the ambulance, but I do know that everyone else came away from that moment safe. It is an everyday event. And, God was there.
Together we worked with God for the good. Like God’s actions with the people in Rebekah’s story, God works with us to bring about the best possible. Like this sweet and kind of funny story, God is interested in the everyday events of our lives. In this way, our everyday events are a little miraculous.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Our Gospel lesson for this Sunday describes God’s relationship with humanity as one of both judgment and mercy.
The Revised Common Lectionary reading for this Sunday can leave preachers with an interesting choice to make. Verses 16-19 describe judgment and woe, verses 25-30 describe the Son’s relationship with the Father, and the Son’s relationship with humanity and therefore the Father’s relationship with humanity as one of ease and comfort. Often, as preachers, we like to emphasize one part of the reading over the other. To be fair to the Good News, we cannot separate them. They are two sides to the same coin. To be honest, my preference has been to emphasize the mercy and ease part of the Good News and to reserve discussions of judgment for Lent. Perhaps you, like me, feel like there is more than enough talk in modern American Christianity about judgement and sin. Perhaps you too feel like most of us have a pretty well develop sense of our own faults and failures. Perhaps you might feel like there is so much anger and hostility in the world today, we are better emphasizing the mercy. Me too. And also, perhaps we do a disservice to the readings for today, if we avoid explaining to our congregations how these topics hold together and inform each other.
Before we jump in, let’s do a little context work on this passage. In, Matthew 11, Jesus is in the area of the Galilee. He has just sent the disciples out to preach and is probably making his way and preaching without them. Commentators often presume that he was alone, but it is possible that the women who supported Jesus’ ministry were with him as well as other followers who were not considered disciples. We were told back in Chapter 4 that John the Baptist is in jail for criticizing Herod’s divorce and remarriage to his brother’s (newly) ex-wife. John the Baptist’s disciples have come to Jesus on John’s behalf to ask him to explain whether his is the messiah or not so they can tell the imprisoned prophet. Jesus’ answer to them is typically cryptic — neither a definite yes nor no, but a long list of miraculous things he has done. After John’s disciples depart, Jesus addresses the gathered crowd telling them that John the Baptist is Elijah.
The text for today picks up with Jesus’ continued address to the crowd. Jesus compares “this generation” to children who play at the gates. Much ink has been used over the centuries to offer explanatory interpretations. Some of them are pretty interesting. Here is a good summary if you’d like to learn more. It seems to me that most of these explanations are needlessly complicated. Jesus is indicting the people of his generation. He compares them to rowdy, unsupervised, annoying children who cannot get along even with each other to the adults who condemn both John and Jesus; the first as too austere and focused on judgment and the next as too indulgent and focused on mercy. There is no pleasing them. He says, Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
He then points out that three cities in the general area of his current location have demonstrated their lack of wisdom by their deeds. Outside of this mention of Chorazin, we know nothing else about Jesus’ ministry there. Although Matthew’s gospel does not contain stories of miracles in Bethsaida, it is where Jesus heals a blind man (cf Mark 8:22-26) and heals before the miracle of the loaves and fishes (cf Luke 9:10-17). Capernaum according Matthew is where Jesus set up ‘home base’ for a while, and healed the Centurion’s servant (in Mark and Luke, Capernaum is where Jesus heals a paralytic and exorcises a man with an unclean spirit, in John it is where he also seems to have set up a ‘home base’ and he heals a Roman official’s son). The people of these cities have seen Jesus’ deeds of power. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Jesus’s deeds of power would indicate his wisdom, the rejection he experienced by the people of these cities indicates their lack of wisdom. He compares these cities to the most notoriously sinful places, Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom. Saying, even these cities would have had the wisdom to repent if they had witnessed Jesus’ deeds, but the people who do believe in God, who should be able to recognize wisdom when it comes healing the sick and feeding the hungry fail to see. This failure will have seriously negative consequences. And here, people have been saying that Jesus errs on the side of enjoying too much!
Our text for today skips to the end of the pericope. Jesus invites those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come to Jesus for rest. Jesus affirms that he is gentle and humble in heart. In him we can find rest for our burdened souls, because his yoke is easy and the burden in following him is light.
For those of us who view God’s power as non-coercive, how do we understand the God’s power to judge? Whitehead writes of God’s judgment that it is, “the judgement of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved” (Process and Reality, 346). In God’s consequent nature, all that can be preserved in the harmony and perfection of God’s everlasting life, will be. Those things that cannot be preserved will not be. The value of those evils that cannot be preserved or transformed in God’s harmony fade from importance and lose value to existence like to so much chaff in the wind. Worse even than the destruction of Sodom is the meaninglessness of Chorazin.
It is always tricky to talk about judgment among people of faith, dear preacher. To say that the judgment of God is to be excluded from God’s everlastingness is not to say that other, horrible things are not bad. It is to say that in this pericope, Jesus does not actually invoke hell fire, destruction, wrath, and vengeance. Instead he says, judgment will be like being brought down to Hades. Hades in Greek religion and Sheol in Judaism, are not places of torturous punishment, they are shadowy worlds where the dead are aimless, irrelevant, and cut off from the world of the living. Ps 88:5-6 says, “I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.“ This irrelevance, meaninglessness and lack of value is God’s judgement.1 God will wrest what good can be wrung from the evil of the world. But, those things that cannot be saved will be lost and gone from God’s everlasting life.
So, what do I have to do to be preserved in God’s everlastingness? Easy, says Jesus. Learn from me, follow me, and you will find rest. This is a great place to preach some of the basics of Christ’s teachings. Even those of us who are long-time believers and faithful church goers can benefit from a good reminder of the basics of following Christ. The easiest place to start is to turn to the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:35-40. If you have the technology to watch a short video, I’d suggest this one. But, there are many ways to remind our congregations that Jesus’ yoke is light, the good news is actually good. Tell them about a time in your life when doing things that make the world better was joyful. No need to be profound or grand. Just describe when you made the world a little better? Let me close with one pretty mundane story from my family. I belong to a social media platform that limits membership to people from our neighborhood. I don’t spend a lot of time on it, but I like to check in and see if I missed anything important. Usually it is just people complaining about dog walkers who do not pick up after their dogs. But, on one occasion, an elderly couple asked for help getting groceries during our quarantine. Because of financial and medical restrictions they couldn’t get out. I asked though the platform if I could pick up a few things, bread, cereal, milk and drop them off. Then, I connected them with some social services since their need was a greater responsibility than my family could take on all by ourselves. This was no giant feat of self-sacrifice. But, I hope that we helped a family in need and I hope that in following Christ’s command to love others, I contributed to God’s Realm. I hope that any good created will contribute to God’s everlasting life, which flows back to this life in ripples of good. In this hope lies (some of) the good news in today’s passage. Our evil will pass away into nothingness but goodness will continue eternally. Work for the good.
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1 An interesting fact about the cities of woe, is that none of them exist as functioning cities anymore. Archeologists are pretty sure they’ve found the remains of all three cities, but unlike other cities that sit on the banks of the sea of Galilee or in the surrounding hills, like Tiberias, these three did not make it to modern times.
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.