The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'..
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Ordinary 17 - Proper 12 - Year A
[NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL
provides a set of alternate lessons which some
denominations prefer. A summary of these readings is
also included below.]
GENESIS 29:15-28 Fantastic compare to modern marriage customs,
this story seems to have no religious point to it. It was common in
ancient times for sisters to be married to the same husband. On the other
hand, as a tribal legend it does say something significant about Israel’s
later history as the People of the Covenant. It records in story form the
ancient past of the tribe of Jacob and his son Joseph that became
predominant in later times.
PSALM 105:1-11,45b This psalm recites the national ideology and
covenant doctrine as clearly as any passage in the OT. This opening
segment and concluding doxology do no more than introduce the foundational
theme that underlies all of the Hebrew scriptures: Yahweh is not only
Israel's god and covenant lord worthy of praise, but the architect of its
PSALM 128 (Alternate) This is another of the fifteen Songs
of Ascent (Pss. 120-134), a collection of hymns that could have been used
in the New Year festival or as a group of pilgrims approached the temple.
It expressed the hope of receiving simple benefits of trust and obedience
to God: fruitful produce, a large family, a long life, prosperity for
Jerusalem and peace for all Israel.
1 KINGS 3:5-12 (Alternate) Solomon’s prayer comes from the
tradition that he possessed wisdom above all other virtues. The king’s
response to the divine offer to request anything her desired took the form
of a model prayer for anyone assuming a position of power and
responsibility. A tone of humility stands out in the words of the prayer.
Yet that is in stark contrast to what we know of Solomon from the
scriptural record of his reign.
ROMANS 8:26-39 Paul dealt in very succinct, even lyrical, sentences with
several subjects of utmost significance: prayer, the assurance of
salvation, predestination, the sovereignty of divine love, the unbreakable
spiritual bond between the believer and God. The whole reading should be
approached not as systematic theology but as the experience of profound
faith by one who knew whereof he spoke.
MATTHEW 13:31-33,44-52 More parables of the kingdom, obviously gathered
from many occasions point out various characteristics of God’s reign in
human affairs. Many scholars look at these isolated instances as
presaging the time when all humanity will be governed by God’s love.
“Heaven” refers not so much as a place to which the faithful go beyond
death but to a future experience of the whole universe.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:
GENESIS 29:15-28 Does this story seem unbelievable as told here? Would
a father with two eligible daughters trick his prospective son-in-law as
Laban did? Would the son-in-law - Jacob moreover - have been so docile as
to accept such a bad bargain as a seven year delay in wedding his beloved?
[A personal aside: In a memorable pastoral situation many years ago, I was
in a position to mediate in just such a family conflict. The father of
the bride rejected his future son-in-law's desire to marry his younger
daughter because he wanted an elder daughter to be married first. Since
the couple was of legal age, we planned the marriage without his
permission. He threatened to absent himself from the wedding, but
relented at the last minute when the daughter called his bluff. The elder
sister never did marry.]
The story in this reading seems so outrageous. We should not be so
surprised because it was common in ancient times for sisters to be married
to the same husband. So what was really happening here and what lay
behind this legend of Jacob and his two wives?
Scholars agree that in the Jacob cycle of tribal legends we have a weaving
together of traditions emanating from different sources tracing tribal
origins. The personalities represent tribes rather than individuals.
Furthermore, the Israelites were a disparate set of tribal groups who
migrated into Palestine at different times and places. Some also may have
been Canaanites who lived there before the Israelites came and adopted
Israelite religious practices. There is also evidence that the process
worked both ways. Canaanite practices also influenced and were adopted by
the Israelites. This tribal conglomerate did not become politically
unified in any sense until much later in the time of Saul and David, and
then only briefly for about a century around 1000 BCE. The ideology of
national identity as the covenanted people of Yahweh, so evident in the
patriarchal narratives and the Pentateuch in general, conceals these
The key to this story may be found in 29:1 where Jacob journeyed "to the
land of the people of the east" i.e. the northern Arabian desert east of
the Jordan River. As the story continues, Jacob found there a migrating
tribe with vast flocks belonging to his kinsman Laban and fell in love
with Rachel, Laban's younger daughter. This part of the story is excluded
from our reading and comes from the J-document of an earlier, southern
The present reading (vss. 15-30) comes from the E-document which has been
traced to the 8th century northern Israelite tradition with some additions
from the much later priestly P-document. The two traditions had much
earlier origins in different tribal legends passed down from generation to
generation in total isolation. Taken as a whole, the narrative presents
separate stories of tribal origins not just tales of love and deceit by
two potential rogues. When the redactor/editor of the whole Jacob cycle
found these different traditions, he wove them together into the composite
we now read in translation many more generations later.
The author of the earlier story (J) apparently knew nothing of Jacob
serving fourteen years for his two wives. The custom of serving time for
a bride was common among ancient Arabian tribes. The tale about Laban
foisting his elder daughter Leah on Jacob may have been an invention of
the northern tribes designed to defend her descendants’ tribal rights and
downplay the role of the more powerful tribal descendants of Rachel.
Leah's name meant *wild cow* which may have referred to her wilderness
roots. She was reputed to be the mother of the several tribes: Reuben,
Simeon, Levi and Judah. Rachel, whose name meant *ewe*, has a softer,
pastoral referent. She became the mother of the powerful Joseph tribe
which ultimately dominated the whole country. Of course, it is the
winners of such rivalries who record the history.
PSALM 105:1-11,45b This psalm recites the national ideology and covenant
doctrine as clearly as any passage in the OT. This opening segment and
concluding doxology do not more than introduce the foundational theme that
underlies all of the Hebrew scriptures: Yahweh is not only Israel's god
and covenant lord worthy of praise, but the architect of its history.
The basis for this ideology is to be found in Yahweh's deeds. The psalm
begins with a summons to the worshiping assembly to make these deeds known
"among the peoples" i.e. Gentile peoples who do not believe. The psalm
quickly becomes both a hymn praising Yahweh and a proselytizing sermon.
Vs. 4 appears to be addressed as much as much to the outsiders as to
Israelites. One thinks of the design of the temple with its open, outer
court serving as the place where Gentiles could draw near to watch and
hear the liturgies to which only male Israelites were admitted.
Praise often exaggerates a relationship. Such is the case in describing
the covenant Yahweh initiated with Abraham. So in vss. 7-11, not only is
the covenant defined as universal and eternal, it receives such poetic
hyperbole as "the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations." The
same segment contains the Pentateuch tradition of the covenant renewed
with each the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The centrepiece
of patriarchal covenant, of course, was the promise of Canaan as the
patriarch's inheritance (vs. 11). Israel's responsibility for keeping
their part of the covenant receives little emphasis throughout the whole
of the psalm. Praise and thanksgiving to Yahweh for his "wonderful works"
provide the main content.
The psalm forms a liturgical celebration of the covenant. Its existence
was known at the time of the Chronicler(s) who wrote during the latter
part of Persian period of Israel's history (539-330 BCE), or perhaps even
as late as 250 BCE. Ps. 105:1-15 can be found verbatim in 1 Chronicles
16:8-22 as the hymn which David sang when the ark was brought to
Jerusalem. Other remaining parts of 1 Chronicles 16:23-36 can be found in
Pss. 96 and 106. All these psalms have been thought to celebrate the
renewal of the covenant at the New Year festival.
PSALM 128 (Alternate) This is another of the fifteen Songs of Ascent, a
collection of praises that could have been used in the New Year festival
or as a group of pilgrims approached the temple. It expressed the hope of
receiving simple benefits of trust and obedience to God: fruitful produce,
a large family, a long life, prosperity for Jerusalem and peace for all
This is a very simplistic approach to our common spiritual experience.
But life is not always that simple. Good things do not always happen to
good people. The standard alternative religious approach is to either
look ahead to a better life after death; or to seek to draw near to God in
the midst of life’s trials seeking strength to endure or comfort in sorrow
and despair. The exemplary model for Christians is that of Jesus facing
1 KINGS 3:5-12 (Alternate) Solomon’s prayer comes from the tradition
that he possessed wisdom above all other virtues. Accordingly, the
collectors of the Hebrew canon in the 1st century CE maintained the
tradition by attributing to him the Book of Proverbs and the Songs of
Solomon (aka. Song of Songs or Canticles).
The idea of an epiphany in which God speaks to human in common in
religious literature, especially the OT, but not exclusively so. Dreams
are also a common way in which such religious experiences are said to
happen. As is usual, in this case the initiative came from Yahweh who
asked the young king in a dream what he desired. The king’s response took
the form of a model prayer for anyone assuming a position of power and
responsibility. It is said that when Harry Truman was named president on
the death Franklin D. Roosevelt, he offered this prayer in public, which
gained him the much public sympathy.
A tone of humility stands out in the words of the prayer. Yet that is in
stark contrast to what we know of Solomon from the scriptural record of
his reign. The context for this reading is remarkable too. Solomon had
made a political alliance with Egypt through marriage to one of Pharaoh’s
daughters. The narrator of the story, however, gave the rationale for the
epiphany and prayer as the continuing practice adopted from the Canaanites
of offering sacrifices in high places. Such sacred sites where religious
practices had been carried on by many generations are identifiable as far
back as the days of the patriarchs. That the passage had been heavily
influenced by the Deuternomic tradition of centralizing worship in the
temple in Jerusalem can be seen in vs. 14 excluded from this reading.
Yahweh’s response to Solomon’s prayer characterizes the subsequent reign
of the last king of a united Israel as something sublime. If that were
the expectations of the young monarch, he certainly did not live up to
them. The seeds of the nation’s disunity were sown in his time as the
ruler of the disparate tribes of Israel. Some may recall the great
expectations of the British people when Queen Elizabeth II came to the
throne in 1952 in the early years of post-war reconstruction. Even though
she received great respect through the more than 50 years of her reign,
she herself admitted glumly that there were many unhappy times. She
characterized the year 1992, the 40th year of her reign, as the “annus
horribilis.” This was due to two marriage breakdowns and a divorce in her
immediate family and the serious fire in part of Windsor Castle. That is
to say nothing of the vicissitudes of national life through the last half
of the 20th century.
ROMANS 8:26-39 There are so many preachable texts in this passage that
one is at a loss to choose where to place the emphasis. Paul dealt in
very succinct, even lyrical, sentences with several subjects of utmost
significance: prayer, the assurance of salvation, predestination, the
sovereignty of divine love, the unbreakable spiritual bond between the
believer and God.
The whole reading should be approached not as systematic theology but as
the experience of profound faith by one who knew whereof he spoke. On the
other hand, the passage has been frequently misused to debate abstruse
theological points as well as to soft the harsh blows of human tragedies
and accidental deaths. In many respects, this is a meditation on what it
means to have a close, personal, faith relationship with God as one who is
a child of God and joint heir with Jesus Christ.
How do we pray when we don't really know how? That is the first question
Paul answered. The Spirit helps us. William Barclay quoted C.H. Dodd
in putting it as succinctly as possible: "Prayer is the Divine in us,
appealing to the Divine above us." Barclay continued in his paraphrase of
C.H. Dodd's analysis of vss. 26-30: "We cannot know our own real need; we
cannot with our finite minds grasp God's plan; in the last analysis all
that we can bring to God is an inarticulate sigh which the Spirit will
translate to God for us." (*Daily Bible Study: The Letter to the Romans*.
Edinburgh: The St. Andrew Press, 1957.)
Most scholars confirm that John Calvin and those who followed him made a
serious error in basing the theological concept of predestination on this
passage. Gerald Cragg makes the point that "predestination in its various
forms is much less a theory of the relation between the divine initiative
and the human will as an attempt to state the results of an indubitable
experience." (*The Interpreter's Bible*, vol. 9, 526.) It is the
discovery, Cragg asserts, that "life is surrounded by God's love and
transformed by God's grace."
Both Paul and his mid-20th century expositor knew what that was like. The
late Gerald Cragg, sometime professor of systematic theology at United
Theological College, Montreal, and Andover-Newton Seminary, Amherst. MA,
sailed with his family from Britain to Canada on the ill-fated *Athenia*.
A German submarine torpedoed the ship off the Irish coast on the very
first day of World War II. After several hours in the water, the four
members of the Cragg family were picked up by separate lifeboats, but each
was unaware that the others had been saved until they reached safe harbour
in Halifax. The experience not only shaped Professor Cragg's future
ministry as a pastor and teacher, but also contributed to his all too
Vss. 31-39 have been used frequently - perhaps too frequently - to bring
comfort to the bereaved at funeral services. These words are not for
times of mourning, but for every day and for all of life. Their soaring,
lyrical phrases leave one breathless before the imaginative vision of what
faith means for all who struggle with the countless storms with which life
buffets us. The key to this assurance of our faith is God's sovereignty
in life and death revealed for all time and eternity in the death and
resurrection of Jesus Christ, God's Son. "We are not alone. We live in
God's world.... In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us."
Because God loves us, nothing will be able to separate us from God.
MATTHEW 13:31-33,44-52 Jesus' way of telling parables had no equal; yet
by no means were his parables unique. The OT contained many. Jewish
teachers did not clearly distinguish between proverb, allegory, aphorism
or metaphor. Storytelling came as naturally to them as to any tribal
community with a long heritage filled with vicissitudes of tragedy and
triumph. The NT records 30 vignettes which were specifically identified
as parables. If we add other examples which are not called 'parables,'
the number increases to about 80.
Among the five included in this reading, we find parallels not only in
Mark and Luke, but in Ezekiel, Daniel, Paul's Letters to the Corinthians
and to the Galatians, and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. For instance,
the parable of the mustard seed (vss.30-32) shows striking similarities to
Ezekiel 17:23 and Daniel 4:20-22. A possibly earlier form of the parable
of the yeast is found in the Gospel of Thomas (Saying #96). On the other
hand, the saying may reflect the Passover custom of removing all yeast
from every Jewish household mandated by Exodus 12:15. Paul's use of the
same metaphor in 1 Corinthians 5:6 and Galatians 5:9indicates that it must
have been common in Jewish teaching. Again, the parables of the hidden
treasure and the pearl of great price (vss. 44-46) resurfaced in the
Gospel of Thomas (Sayings #109 and #76).
Is it not quite possible that Jesus made use of stories and metaphors
which he found in common currency among his own Galilean people? They
contain the kind of folk-wisdom which developed out of the natural
physical, social and economic environment in which he grew up. Each one
had one simple point to make. They illustrated better than any profound
philosophical utterances the simple truths he wished to convey about God,
God's love and sovereign purpose to redeem the world. As simple stories
from everyday life, they also served to conceal his message from those
hostile to him. He also intended that they disarm his audience, the
better to penetrate their natural resistance to anything which might
change their lives. Finally, to an illiterate audience they were
memorable. All five of the parables in this reading exhibit these
characteristics. That we have them to ponder and learn from nearly 2,000
years later confirms how effective this means of teaching proved to be.
copyright - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.