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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 18 - Proper 13 - Year A
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:17,15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
Alt – Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-9,14-21

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 18 - Proper 13 - 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 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.  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.  
The poet used David as the exemplary figure of one who benefited from 
Israel's historic covenant relationship with God.  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 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 motivated by 
popular 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.

                         
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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