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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 17 - Proper 12 - Year A
Genesis 29:15-28; Psa 105:1-11,45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
Alt – Psalm 128; I Kings 3:5-12

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) 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 
history.

 
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 
realities.

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 
Israelite tradition.  

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 
Israel.

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 
the cross.


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 
early death.  

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.



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