INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year A - Proper 10
GENESIS 25:19-34. The saga of the patriarchs continues with the story of Jacob. The wily Israelite deceived his brother Esau and stole his birthright thus beginning an intertribal enmity. This passage gives a scriptural interpretation of that hostility which many embrace as the basis for the hostility between Jews and Arabs today.
PSALM 119:105-112. The whole of Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem consisting of 22 sections where the lines of each section begin with the same Hebrew letter. The whole is a meditation on the Torah. In this section each line begins with Nun, corresponding with the English N. It contains six synonyms for the Torah: word, ordinance, law, precept, decree, statute; only the first two more than once.
ROMANS 8:1-11. Complex as it is, its essential message of this passage is clear: the Spirit gives life. Paul gives explicit detail of how this came about: God sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world as an ordinary human being. Jesus’ God-given mission was to deal with human sin and the alienation from God which sin causes. He did this by living our human life and meeting every requirement of the law. The Spirit of God which was in Jesus now dwells in us so that we too may live as he lived in fellowship with God. The power of God that raised Jesus from the dead and now gives us spiritual life. Mortal though we still are, it will ultimately deliver us from spiritual death.
MATTHEW 13:1-9, 18-23. The familiar parable of the sower and the seed describes varying types of spiritual growth and failure to grow. The second part of the reading presents a typical allegorical explanation of it. This way of explaining how scripture should be interpreted was popular in the later part of the 1st century and in the 2nd century. It may have been added to the original parable. It had but one intended meaning: God will bless the work of Jesus and the disciples abundantly, so they need not be discouraged. That speaks well to us when the Christian life is not easy.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:
GENESIS 25:19-34. The saga of Jacob begins with an explanation of the racial history of Israel and its neighboring tribe, Edom. The tribal lands of the Edomites who descended from Esau were in the Negev and eastward to the northern the borders of the Arabian Desert south of the Dead Sea. The story is a folktale which later became sacred scripture, yet it has endured more than three and a half millennia to influence attitudes of Israelis and Arabs toward one another to this day. There is a possibility too that the favoritism of Isaac to Jacob and of Rebekah to Esau represents two different migrations of Semitic tribes which later amalgamated through intermarriage. Their union is symbolized by the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah and the birth of their twin sons.
The character of the two sons is contrasted as two types of society: Esau, the wandering hunter; Jacob, the shepherd living in a more stable, settled stage of social development. G. Henton Davies, of Durham University, pointed out in *The Twentieth Century Bible Commentary* (Harper, 1956, 116) that “Jacob with his ambitious desires and more permanent ideals ... is capable of higher levels of insight and achievement than the happy-go-lucky huntsman whose mind is set on the gratification of the desire of the moment, good or bad.”
Some other interesting features of this passage include the play on two Hebrew words for *red* and *hairy* for which the Hebrew words are *edom* and *seir* respectively. Seir is the poetic name used elsewhere in the OT for Edom. Note also that *red* is the color of the stew that Esau so blithely demanded of Jacob to satisfy his hunger. One might add that this play on the color and name of the tribe may also refer indirectly to the rugged, sparsely covered, but spectacular red sandstone mountains which characterize much of ancient Edomite territory southeast of the Dead Sea in the region around the spectacular ruins of Petra, the capital of Edom, later known as Idumea.
Vss. 22-23 tells of Rebekah going “to inquire of the Lord” and receiving a poetic response predicting Jacob’s superiority. This probably refers to seeking an oracle from a shrine. This divine decree differs radically from the calculating deception of Jacob and Esau’s careless bartering away of his birthright for a bowl of stew in vss. 29-34.
One can see the tensions of contemporary Middle East politics and economics in the ramifications of this folktale. The resistance of many fundamentalist Arab Moslems to modernization and secular democracy has its roots in this ancient story.
PSALM 119:105-112. Whatever else it may be, Psalm 119 is a remarkable literary tour de force. It consists of 176 verses in the English versions, divided into 22 separate poems or strophes, each line of which begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In Hebrew these eight verses all begin with the letter *nun* (= N), which does not translate into English.
The subject of the whole psalm is the Torah. To the psalmist it is more than *Law*; it is the truth from Yahweh, the way of life, and the ground of hope for being in the covenant of Israel’s faith. One significant aspect of every strophe is the number of synonyms and metaphors for Torah the poet invents. Here six synonyms are used: word, ordinance, law, precept, decree, statute; only the first two more than once. The chief metaphor is, of course, the lamp or light. One’s imagination can create an event around which this poem took shape. This is how I saw it in my mind’s eye.
Toward evening, not long before sunset, the narrow streets of Jerusalem had already darkened. A solitary worshiper set out from his meager home to attend the evening sacrifice. He carried a lamp in his hand to show him the way. He needed the light to avoid every obstacle that might render him impure and so prevent his entering the holy precincts. He had taken an oath to be present for the sacrifice and join his praises to those of the chorus of Levites. Perhaps he too was one of their number whose duty it was to provide antiphonal responses to the priestly prayers and hymns throughout the ritual.
As he made his way in the gathering gloom, the lamp in his hand became not only a light on his path. It also symbolized Torah, Yahweh’s gracious instructions for keeping the covenant made generations ago with Israel. Many Israelites had failed to measure up to their obligations; he would not however severely afflicted. Passing along the streets as he did every evening, careless idlers in shadowed doorways sneered at him. Others tried to trick him into breaking his vow by inviting him to turn aside for some distracting hospitality. His greatest joy, however, was faithfully doing whatever was necessary to remain true to the ancient covenant. He would do so to the end of his days.
ROMANS 8:1-11. Paul’s letters, especially this one to the Romans, are often very difficult to read and understand. This passage is no exception. Complex as it is, its essential message is clear: the Spirit gives life. One can grasp this more quickly if one reads it in the Jerusalem Bible, possibly because that version presents it more as a paraphrase in contemporary language whereas the NSRV has a more exact translation of the Greek original.
What Paul is saying is that the Spirit of God which gives us life is nothing less than the same divine power which raised Jesus from the dead. He gives explicit detail of how this came about: God sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world as an ordinary human being. Jesus’ God-given mission was to deal with human sin and the alienation from God which sin causes. He did that by living our human life and meeting every requirement of the law. The Spirit of God which was in Jesus now dwells in us so that we too may now live as he lived in fellowship with God. This is the power that raised Jesus from the dead and now gives us spiritual life. Mortal though we still are, it will ultimately deliver us from spiritual death.
Behind this message lay Paul’s understanding of the OT manifestation of the Spirit of God in creation and in divine initiatives in Israel’s history and prophecy. Coupled with that is the Jewish belief that the Messiah would be endowed with the Spirit. The early Christian community believed that Jesus is the Messiah and that through his resurrection God has given a new manifestation of the Spirit within the life of the believing community. For Paul, the Spirit is now present in the life of every believer. This is evident not only in each person’s faith, but in his/her personal moral conduct in private and public life. While each person remains an imperfect, mortal human being, we live in a new sphere where God-given righteousness pertains.
Note that Paul does not distinguish between the *Spirit of God* and the *Spirit of Christ.*
This is particularly true in vs. 9 where these phrases appear to be synonymous. In vs. 10, he speaks of “Christ in you” as having the same meaning; and in vs. 11 he speaks of “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” giving life “to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Some may argue that the basic concept of the Trinity is found in this apparent tautology. In truth, Paul cannot speak of God without also speaking of Jesus Christ and the Spirit. On the other hand, he has yet made the leap of the 4th and 5th century scholars to identify the *personna* of the Spirit as distinct from or “proceeding from the Father and the Son.” We might say that Paul was much more realistic than theoretical in his understanding of how the Spirit gives life: it changes the ethical behavior of those who believe. The evidence for this is his five references to *law* (Gk. = *nomos*) and ten references to *flesh* (Gk. = *sarx*). For a first century Jewish rabbi of the Pharisees, this was all important.
MATTHEW 13:1-9, 18-23. The parable of the sower is one of those vignettes of rural life so common in Jesus’ teaching. It comes straight out of the Galilean countryside in which Jesus grew up. The Plain of Esdraelon in Galilee (the Greek name for the western part of the Valley of Jezreel) was the granary of first century Palestine and remains so to this day. Nazareth stands on the northern slopes of this rich agricultural valley.
Jesus knew intimately how the peasants of his home neighborhood carried on their annual routine of sowing and reaping. Few people on this continent have ever seen the hand-thrown seeding of a grain crop, although some may have seen pictures of it or the two centuries old symbol of the British and Foreign Bible Society. Jesus also knew the relative productivity of the surfaces and soils on which the scattered grain fell. The gospel description could not be more explicit.
The second segment of this reading is more problematic. It is a typical Hellenistic allegory in which each element of the story symbolically represents a supposedly deeper, hidden meaning. Paul used the term *allegoreumena* in Galatians 4:24, but did not distinguish this method of interpretation from his more common typology. Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, made use of allegory in his interpretation of the OT. It was the later Christian interpreters of the gospel, Clement, Justin Martyr and Origen who brought this method to flower in the Christian church. The Gnostic Christians of the 2nd century also made use of the system.
It is obvious from the passage between the two segments of this reading that the interpretation of vss. 18-23 was intended for a select audience of the specially initiated. The hidden meaning of the parable can only be understood by those especially initiated into its mystery. This separates those inside the enlightened group and those outside. That reflects the esoteric attitudes of gnostic communities.
Further evidence that this allegorical interpretation may have gnostic origins, or at least some gnostic tendency, is found in the apocryphal *Secret Book of James* discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 among a collection of Gnostic texts and fragmentary manuscripts. That book, written in a Coptic translation of a Greek original, relates Jesus’ supposed private revelations to the disciples immediately prior to his ascension. Most likely a 2d century CE document, it contains many of the earlier gospel sayings of Jesus, but transforms them into “a foundational revelation for a community of gnostic Christians.” (Robert J. Miller, ed. *The Complete Gospels.* Polebridge Press, 1992, p. 323.)
In *Secret James* 6:15, the parable of ‘The Seed’ is named with six other well-known parables. These sentences follow in vss. 16-17 of the same text: “Become eager for instruction. For the first prerequisite for instruction is faith, the second is love, the third is works; now from these comes life. For instruction is like a grain of wheat. When someone sowed it he had faith in it; and when it sprouted he loved it, because he envisioned many grains in place of one; and when he worked he was sustained, because he prepared it for food, then kept the rest in reserve to be sown. So it is possible for you, too, to receive for yourselves heaven’s domain: unless you receive it through knowledge, you will not be able to discover it.”
The parallels are too close to be accidental, but it impossible to say which interpretation of the parable in a gnostic framework came first. Matthew 13:18-23, its parallels in Mark 4:13-20, Luke 8:11-15 and Secret James all point to an environment of martyrdom. This was the atmosphere in which Mark’s Gospel may well have been written, but certainly became more prevalent in the 2d century. The original parable of the sower and seed in Matthew 13:3b-9 had but one intended meaning: God will bless the work of Jesus and the disciples abundantly, so they need not be discouraged. That message speaks as much to our time as it did to those who first heard it.