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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 13 - Proper 8 - Year A
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

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'. This week the first portion is not available.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 13 - Proper 8 - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  This week John has not provided a
     a summary of these readings.]


GENESIS 22:1-14          There are many aspects to this story, not the
least of which is that it is sacred to three living religions - Judaism,
Christianity and Islam.  Today, the great Dome of the Rock, third most
sacred site of Islam, stands on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem where this
sacrifice is said to have taken place.  There too stood the temple of
Solomon and the Second Temple built after Israel's return from the
Babylonian exile.  Herod the Great rebuilt and beautified that edifice only
to have it completely razed by the Romans in 70 CE.  The claim that Abraham
founded the great sanctuary forms a subsidiary message of the passage.

This story has all the elements of a tribal legend.  As it stands now the
patriarchal father and son play only a supporting role.  The central figure
is the Lord God of Israel.  The story emphasizes three fundamental elements
of Israel's religious tradition: revelation of the divine will and purpose
by means of an epiphany; the trust and obedience of the patriarch as the
representative of the whole people of God; and provision of the ritual
needs for true worship.

Nonetheless, the story is told with a genuine pathos, expressed
particularly in the na‹ve question of Isaac (vs. 7).  One can easily
imagine the legend being repeatedly requested by children and narrated by a
grandfather as a family sat around a campfire in the wilderness.  This
would have occurred century after century for a millennium before becoming
the literary masterpiece of the Elohim document in the 8th century BCE.  

From the spiritual point of view, the story has to do with the testing of
Abraham's faith in response to what God required of him.  That
interpretation, however, may be influenced by Paul's theology in Galatians
3:6-9 and  Romans 4:1-12.  Yet Jewish thought did develop the concept of
the covenant relationship having been founded by Abraham's willingness to
offer  Isaac in response to God's command.  The story brings to a climax
the life-theme of Abraham as the man who lived by faith.  This point Paul
so clearly emphasized as a Jewish rabbi converted to a new understanding of
true faith in Jesus Christ, the one sacrifice sufficient for all.  

Another aspect of the story points to the way God requires that humans
worship with whatever God has first given, but it also indirectly rejects
human sacrifice as a form of  worship.  The crucial epiphany occurs in vss. 
11-12 when "the angel of the Lord" (cf. vss. 1-2 where God speaks directly
to Abraham) prevents Abraham from striking the fatal blow.  Child sacrifice
was still a live issue in ca. 800 BCE (2 Kings 3:27) about the same period
when the Elohim document is thought to have been composed.  This legend may
have played some part in ending that vicious practice.


PSALM 13                 We do not know what troubled the soul this
psalmist as he composed these lines.  Its simplicity and beauty have
engaged many who struggled to trust in God during difficult times.  The
form of the psalm is that of a normal lament with three distinct parts: a
complaint; an appeal and an expression of confidence in God.  These can be
easily discerned in the three sets of couplets - vss. 1-2, 3-4, 5-6.

In the first segment, the petitioner voices genuine concern that Yahweh is
indifferent to his struggle against some unidentified enemy or perhaps a
critical illness.  This is not quite the cry of dereliction of Ps.  22, but
does express very deep emotional distress.  His appeal for divine help in
vss. 4-5 suggests a real danger of dying at the hands of a malicious enemy. 
Anticipation of this enemy prevailing and rejoicing over his demise only
increases the intensity of the victim's pain.

One is reminded of the recent televised straggling lines of despairing
victims of ethnic cleansing of both Albanians and Serbs in Cosovo.  Having
faced the prospect of death only once in a relatively long life, it is not
possible for me to imagine how I would face such a situation.  Although the
victim's trust in God expressed in this psalm gives rise to hope, it is not
the Christian hope of resurrection, but a confidence of vindication and
restoration of prosperity.  Such is not always the outcome, no matter how
just the cause or how sincere the prayers.  


ROMANS 6:12-23           Having settled the question how faith in the grace
of Jesus Christ overcomes our sin, Paul now turns to the moral implications
of that victory.  He thinks of sin no longer "exercising dominion" over us. 
The Greek verb for this is *kurieuo,* a derivative of *kurios* (= lord). 
So the issue really becomes, "who is our lord and what does that mean for
the way we live?"

To explain further Paul draws an analogy with slavery, something very
common in the lst century CE and most probably within the Roman Christian
community itself.  After two centuries free from slavery, our society has
little or no concept of what slavery meant.  Modern tourists gawk at the
slave pens still visible in West African ports and the slave markets in
southern cities where those pitiful ancestors of millions of Americans were
bought and sold.  I recall meeting a British psychiatrist who was on his
way to the Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic Ocean off the Carolina coast
where he intended to hold special services for the souls of slaves thrown
overboard to lighten ships in a storm or because they had died en route to
America.  

Until slavery was abolished, belatedly in the USA in 1860 (though still
practiced in Sudan according to news reports), a slave was no mere servant
whose labor was at an employer's disposal for a limited period of time and
specific tasks.  A slave was the absolute possession of his or her master,
having no freedom whatsoever, no matter what the task at any time day or
night for whatever purpose his master chose.  More than that, a slave could
be bought or sold like a piece of furniture, a bushel of grain or a beast
for slaughter without regard of any family connections or the character of
the purchaser.  Worse still, if a slave woman bore children, even sired by
the master, her offspring could be sold like cattle too.  Even the most
courageous of soldiers, if taken prisoner in battle, faced a similar fate.

Paul claimed to be "speaking in human terms" (vs. 19), but the vividness of
his analogy must have been unimaginably clear to his readers who had such
personal acquaintance with that ghastly institution.  Not that a Christian
was totally freed to live in a libertine manner.  Having been freed from
slavery to sin, we are now "enslaved to God." That means nothing short of
sanctification, a wholly different kind of life the end of which is not
death, but eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord"  (vss. 22-23).  

What Christ has done for us in freeing us from slavery to sin can best be
summed up by lines from George Matheson's hymn, "Make me a captive, Lord,
and then I shall be free." The final verse of that hymn reads: "My will is
not my own, till thou has made it thine; if it would reach the monarch's
throne it must the crown resign; it only stands unbent amid the clashing
strife, when on thy bosom it has leant and found in thee its life."


MATTHEW 10:40-42         What does it mean to be received in Christ's name?
That is the thrust of this brief reading at the end of Jesus' discourse of
instructions to his disciples.  Its parallels are found in Luke 10:16 and
Mark 9:37.  It defines what the coming of Jesus meant to the Matthean
community and how the apostles and other early Christian leaders were to be
received.  In some ways it also parallels Paul's "ambassadors for Christ"
affirmation in 2 Cor. 5:20.  An ancient Jewish oral tradition later
recorded in the rabbinical Mishnah ca. 150 CE required that a man's
emissary be received as the man himself.  It would appear that this
attitude is reflected in vs. 40.  But it goes further to extend the
authority of the apostles stated in 10:1 to that of emissaries of God.

Vss. 41-42 identifies three different groups of Christians: prophets,
righteous persons and "little ones." Were these distinguishable leaders of
the church in Matthew's time? If so, what offices and functions did each
have? In his *Church Order in the New Testament,* (SCM Press, 1961) Eduard
Schweizer makes the point that the official religious offices belonged to
the old order of Judaism and paganism.  All authority, including that of
priesthood, belonged to Christ alone.  "It is true that the whole church
shares in it but that does not apply to an individual or group that would
be distinguishable from the other, non-priestly members....As a general
term for what we call 'office', namely the service of individuals within
the church, there is, with few exceptions, only one word *diakonia* (=
service)." (Schweizer, 173-4)

On the other hand, prophecy was as old as Israel's earliest religious
experience.  The prophetic tradition held throughout the NT era.  Jesus and
John the Baptist were considered prophets.  Warnings about false prophets
appear throughout the NT.  Paul dealt actively with charismatic prophets
who spoke in tongues and tried to define how their utterances should be
tested before being accepted as authentic (1 Cor. 14:9; 1 Thess. 5:20-21;
cf. 1 John 4:1).  It was not until the Ephesian letter was composed,
probably by a later disciple of Paul using his name, that we find the
office of prophet set beside that of apostle, evangelist, pastor and
teacher (Eph. 3:5; 4:11).  The distinction is not as clear as one would
like to have it.  According to Schweizer, however, Ephesians "show(s) a
definite development ...  in which the church is seen more and more as a
world-wide unity that attains even cosmic range....  The apostle is no
longer simply the father of a particular local church,...  but becomes the
foundation of an entity that is developing on a world-wide scale."(108-9)

The same analysis applies to Matthew's Gospel written in the ninth decade
of the 1st century CE.  What Schweizer said of apostles can be said also of
prophets, gifted preachers of the gospel whose ministry was not limited to
a single community, but traveled far and wide proclaiming the kerygma of
the resurrection and its meaning for those who believed.  

Then who were "the righteous person" and the "little ones" of vss. 41-42
whose kindly reception would bring the same reward? Sherman E.  Johnson,
exegete of Matthew's Gospel in *The Interpreter's Bible*, suggests that
these were euphemisms for "tested and honored Christians" and "ordinary
disciples" respectively (vol. 7, 377).  The cup of cold water was a
metaphor for any minor service rendered to one of these.  A minister who
had served in a poverty-stricken parish during the Great Depression of the
1930s observed that his reward consisted of scarcely little more than that.

                         
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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