INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year A - PROPER 13
GENESIS 32:22-31. This is yet another instance of the renewing of the covenant between God and Israel. The story describes how Jacob was fitted to enter the land from which he had fled. As a result of this experience he became a different person with a new name and a new character. From this point on in the saga he appears no longer as the deceiving trickster, but as a God-fearing Israelite. He is disabled by the struggle, but still enabled to be the leader of his tribe and the agent of divine purpose. In other words, this is a conversion story in which divine grace transforms a man to carry the tribal tradition to a new stage.
PSALM 17:1-7, 15. The form of the prayer is that of a traditional lament: an appeal to God for help, the reason for the petition, and finally the anticipated vindication. This reading includes only the first and the last parts of the lament. For those who question whether their prayers are heard, vs. 15 offers some reassurance.
ISAIAH 55:1-5. [Alternate] This lyrical poem ends what scholars call the prophecies of Second Isaiah (Isa. 40-55). The New Revised Standard Version calls it “an invitation to abundant life.” It appeals to anyone to place their trust in God using David as the exemplary figure of one who benefited from Israel’s historic covenant with God.
PSALM 145:8-9, 14-21. [Alternate] Reiterating the theme of the Isaiah passage, this excerpt characterizes God as one who is gracious, merciful and faithful to all.
ROMANS 9:1-5. Though Paul remained a faithful Jew throughout his life, he had a deep anxiety and compassion for his fellow Jews long after his conversion to the faith that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s true Messiah. This comes to the fore in this brief passage at the beginning of a new section of his letter. He knew, moreover, that there were Jews in the Roman community who had many reservations about this new approach to their traditional faith which so many of their fellows Jews had embraced. It was to them in particular that Paul addressed these words.
MATTHEW 14:13-21. The preceding passage tells of the execution of John the Baptist. Withdrawing from that region in grief, Jesus felt deep compassion for the multitudes that followed him. The feeding of the five thousand may have been both an expression of his feeling and also a sign (at least in Matthew’s mind) that he had now taken John’s place as the spiritual leader of a new approach to the traditional Jewish understanding of their relationship with God.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
GENESIS 32:22-31. This passage has a very special meaning beyond the simple legend of two men (or a man and a god) in an all-night wrestling match, the wounding of one of them, and the wounded man’s subsequent change of name. It is yet another instance of the renewing of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. The name given to the site, *Peniel* (or Penuel, Hebrew = *the face of God*) may have been a tribal sanctuary where certain rituals such as a limping dance were performed to re-enact the theophany.
The story describes how Jacob was fitted to enter the land he had left. As a result of this experience he became a different person with a new name and a new character. From this point on in the saga he appears no longer as the deceiving trickster, but as a God-fearing Israelite. He is disabled by the struggle, but still enabled to be the leader of his tribe and the agent of divine purpose. In other words, this is a conversion story in which divine grace transforms a man to carry the tribal tradition to a new stage.
The Jacob saga as a whole tells of the departure from the sacred land because of sin and the return to it after the struggle at Peniel. Scholars believe that the various stories probably circulated as independent legends, but expressive of a common theme. Israel’s inheritance of a sacred land can be traced through the patriarchal narratives all the way back to the wandering pastoral life of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the third quarter of the second millennium BCE. The theme of inherited land is alive today as Israel’s claim to the land Yahweh gave to their ancestors. The modern nation state created by the United Nations only half a century ago as the homeland of the Jewish people recognizes this theological interpretation of their history.
PSALM 17:1-7, 15. The form of the prayer is that of a traditional lament: an appeal to God for help, the reason for the petition, and finally the anticipated vindication. This reading includes only the first and the last parts of the lament.
One expositor called this psalm a dramatic monologue in which the petitioner appeals to a court for supreme justice. (J.R.P Sclater in *The Interpreter’s Bible,* IV, 86.) In a truly remarkable way, however, it appears to have picked up the theme of Jacob’s struggle, then translated this into the prayer of a righteous worshiper acknowledging dependence on God’s steadfast love. The difference between this petitioner and Jacob lies in the psalmist’s protestation of innocence and faithfulness (vss. 1b, 3-5). “He is the epitome of the upright citizen of the Victorian period.... This comes near the picture of such a man as Sir Walter Scott walking in his field ‘thinking wise thoughts and good,’ wrote the same expositor. A phrase in vs. 8 describing him “as the apple of the eye” has come into common speech in the English language.
For those who question whether their prayers are heard, vs. 15 offers some reassurance. “Beholding the face of God,” however, does not mean hoping in life after death, but preserving life here and now with one’s cause vindicated. The theme of Jacob’s struggle at the Jabbok River also returns in this final verse. While no mention is made of the patriarch, one has to wonder of he was indeed the model for this lament.
ISAIAH 55:1-5. [Alternate] This lyrical poem ends what scholars call the prophecies of Second Isaiah (Isa. 40-55). The New Revised Standard Version calls it “an invitation to abundant life.” James Muilenburg in The Interpreter’s Bible (V.642) entitles it, “Grace Abounding.” He claims that it was written “for the consolation of Israel” during the Babylonian exile. All the themes identified in the opening poem in 40:1-11 as well as the major emphases of all subsequent oracles echo through this composition.
This excerpt contains the first two of the five strophes of the poem. Muilenburg’s exegesis regards of the poem as having the form of wisdom’s invitation to a banquet similar to Proverbs 9:5-6. He also compares it to Matthew 11:28-29. “The poet symbolizes the gifts of the new covenant by the figure of food and drink which give life to all who partake of them.
The message of this excerpt appeals to anyone to place their trust in God. Gracious, merciful acceptance by God for all who seek such a covenant relationship stands out in these magnificently poetic lines. The poet used David as the exemplary figure of one who benefited from Israel’s historic covenant relationship. But the symbols of food and drink are to be interpreted as spiritual blessings as well as, and perhaps rather than, material gifts.
PSALM 145:8-9, 14-21. [Alternate] Reiterating the theme of the Isaiah passage, this excerpt characterizes God as the One who is gracious, merciful and faithful to all.
This could be seen as very apt counsel at a time when the leaders of the richest nations on earth are turning their attention to the disastrous circumstances under which millions of sub-Saharan Africans live. Millions from these same richest eight countries are also being pushed by popular rock singers and band leaders to press their elected politicians from the G-8 to change their policies and free the poorest of the poor Africa people from indebtedness which can never be repair.
Is this not God’s Spirit in action in the history of our time in the same way that the psalmist saw God’s beneficence poured out on the exiles returning from Babylon.
ROMANS 9:1-5. Paul remained a faithful Jew throughout his life. He could never break away from his religious and cultural heritage as a ‘son of the covenant’ (Heb. = b’nai b’rith). This accounts for his deep anxiety and compassion for his fellow Jews long after his conversion to the faith that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s true Messiah. This comes to the fore in this brief passage at the beginning of a new section of his letter. He knew, moreover, that there were Jews in the Roman community who had reservations about this new faith which so many of their fellows Jews had embraced. It was to them in particular that Paul addressed these words.
Note that Paul approached this new theme from a completely Christian standpoint. His assertion in vs. 1 that he spoke “the truth in Christ” (the Greek term for the Hebrew *masiah*) and his appeal aside to his “conscience ... confirmed by the Holy Spirit” signified the depth of his mental anguish (vs. 2). Yet having just proclaimed (in 8:39) that nothing could ever separate him from the love of God in Jesus Christ, he now uses what appears to be an extreme exaggeration: he is willing to be “cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people.” But was this not identical to what Jesus had said to his disciples in Matthew 16:24-26 and parallels in Mark 8:34-38 and Luke 9:23-25 about losing one’s life for Christ’s sake?
Paul went on to emphasize his Jewishness in the phrase “my kindred according to the flesh.” The universal Jewish practice of circumcision symbolized membership in the covenant community. This communal identity brought with it certain rights and responsibilities which Paul then enumerated. As Israelites they had been adopted into family of God. The Hebrew scriptures affirmed this in passages such as Deuteronomy 14:1 and 32:6, Exodus 4:22 and Hosea 11:1. In fact, the Hebrew scriptures throughout proclaimed this idea of a special relationship between God and Israel. To isolate himself from this community was beyond Paul’s ability to conceive.
More than that, Paul claims that to Israel belongs “the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, (and) ... the patriarchs.” These are the basic elements of Israel’s religious tradition clearly set forth in the scriptures Paul and every Jew like him knew so well. “The glory” was a term that occurred again and again in Israel’s history. It meant that they had seen the revelation of God’s true nature, an experience codified for future generations in the first commandment. This revelation had brought with it all the privileges and duties that such an experience implied: faithful obedience to the law of God and worship of God. The special relationship between God and Israel included God’s promises of protection, providence and redemption which had been the living experience of the ancient patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Is there any other passage in the whole NT where the Jewish religious tradition is so succinctly summarized?
Paul’s final, triumphant claim came in vs. 5 where he reiterated his initial conviction that he fully identified himself as a Jew who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. From the same Israelite tradition which he embraced so completely had come the Messiah “according to the flesh,” i.e. by natural birth. The Hebrew word *masiah* meant *anointed*, as the kings of Israel had been anointed from the time of Saul in the 11th century BCE. The act of anointing implied that the monarch now held dominion over all of Israel’s diverse tribes. This may well have been in Paul’s mind, but he also thought of a far wider dominion which pertained to Jesus, the Messiah to whom he had given his allegiance. Such is the intent of the final doxology ending this reading. God had given to Jesus, Israel’s true Messiah, sovereignty over the whole world. Think of what that must have meant to Jews living in Rome, the capital city of Nero, the insane Roman emperor who also claimed such sovereignty.
MATTHEW 14:13-21. Perhaps we moderns may tend to focus too much on the miracle of the loaves and fishes when we should look more closely at what it expressed. That appears to have been the more prominent aspect of the incident in Matthew’s mind.
Jesus had just heard about the execution of John the Baptist. It was an ominous turn of events. Whether or not we accept the tradition that John and Jesus were related doesn’t mean as much as the fact that Jesus grieved for John’s death. We might even think of John as Jesus’ mentor with whom he had had close association at the time of his baptism and possibly before that. He wanted to be alone not only to mourn but probably to talk with his disciples privately about the dangers he now expected lay ahead for himself and for them.
A colloquial translation of vss. 13-14 implies that his departure in a boat was secretive, but that the crowds “got wind of it” and followed him on foot. The traditional site shown to tourists at Tabgha (pronounced Tavgah) was not far from the villages of Capernaum, Gennesaret and Magdala, although it is an even shorter trip by boat across the northwest bay of the lake. When Jesus saw the crowds who had gathered on the lakeshore, “he had compassion on them.” The Greek word so translated comes from the common word for the spleen or intestines. We might say, “He felt it in his gut.” No matter how great his own need for privacy and time to grieve, he felt that their need for his attention was greater.
This very human setting places the feeding of the multitude - a miracle story repeated six times over in the four gospels - in the context of a messianic meal. In all the gospels, eating and drinking is frequently described in relation to spiritual need. At the traditional site, sacred to Christians to this day, a small chapel shields a beautiful mosaic of the loaves and fishes in the floor beneath a communion table. The mosaic is reputed to date from the Byzantine era in the 4th century. Christian faith has hallowed the site with eucharistic significance.
We must never forget that our modern eucharistic celebrations not only recall the Last Supper, but many other occasions when Jesus gathered with his disciples for a fellowship meal. The enlarging of the multitude by adding the note “besides women and children” (vs. 21), excluded from the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, may have had special meaning for the community for whom Matthew wrote. Those who follow the traditional Protestant practice of excluding some people, especially children and unbelievers, from our celebrations of the Eucharist, might well ponder who really made up this crowd on whom Jesus “had compassion” and fed them.