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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 15 - Proper 10 - Year A
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

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 15 - Proper 10 - 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 25:19-34           The saga of the patriarchs continues with the 
story of Jacob.``The wily Israelite deceived his brother Esau and stole 
hisbirthright thus beginning an intertribal enmity.  This passage gives a
scripturalinterpretation of that hostility which many embrace as the basis
for the hostility between Jews and Arabs today.
       

PSALM 119:105-112          The whole of Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem
consisting of 22 sections where the lines of each section begin with the 
same Hebrew letter. The whole is a meditation on the Torah.  In this 
section each line begins with Nun, corresponding with the English N.  It 
contains six synonyms for the Torah: word, ordinance, law, precept, decree,
statute; only the first two more than once.
       

ROMANS 8:1-11              Complex as it is, its essential message of 
this passage is clear: the Spirit gives life.  Paul gives explicit detail 
of how this came about: God sent his Son into the world as an ordinary human
being. Jesus' God-given mission was to deal with human sin and the alienation
from God which sin causes.  He did this by living our human life and meeting 
every requirement of the law.  The Spirit of God which was in Jesus now 
dwells in us so that we too may live as he lived in fellowship with God.  
The power of God that raised Jesus from the dead now gives us spiritual life. 
       

MATTHEW 13:1-9,18-23       The familiar parable of the sower and the seed
describes varying types of spiritual growth and failure to grow.  The second
part of the reading presents a typical allegorical explanation of it.  This 
way of explaining how scripture should be interpreted was popular in the 
later part of the 1st century and in the 2nd century. It may have been added 
to the original parable.  It had but one intended meaning: God will bless the 
work of Jesus and the disciples abundantly, so they need not be discouraged.  
That speaks well to us when the Christian life is not easy.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

GENESIS 25:19-34   The saga of Jacob begins with an explanation of the
racial history of Israel and its neighboring tribe, Edom. The tribal lands
of the Edomites who descended from Esau were in the Negev and eastward to
the northern the borders of the Arabian desert south of the Dead Sea.  The
story is a folktale, but it has endured more than three and a half
millennia to influence attitudes of Israelis and Arabs toward one another
to this day.  There is a possibility too that the favoritism of Isaac to
Jacob and of Rebekah to Esau represents two different migrations of Semitic
tribes which later amalgamated through intermarriage.  Their union is
symbolized by the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah and the birth of their twin
sons.

The character of the two sons is contrasted as two types of society: Esau,
the wandering hunter; Jacob, the shepherd living in a more stable, settled
stage of social development.  G. Henton Davies, of Durham University,
pointed out in *The Twentieth Century Bible Commentary* (Harper, 1956, 116)
that "Jacob with his ambitious desires and more permanent ideals... is
capable of higher levels of insight and achievement than the happy-go-lucky
huntsman whose mind is set on the gratification of the desire of the
moment, good or bad."

Some other interesting features of this passage include the play on two
Hebrew words for *red* and *hairy* for which the Hebrew words are *edom*
and *seir* respectively.  Seir is the poetic name used elsewhere in the OT
for Edom.  Note also that *red* is the color of the stew that Esau so
blithely demanded of Jacob to satisfy his hunger.  One might add that this
play on the color and name of the tribe may also refer indirectly to the
rugged, sparsely covered, but spectacular red sandstone mountains which
characterize much of ancient Edomite territory southeast of the Dead Sea in
the region around Petra.

Vss. 22-23 tells of Rebekah going "to inquire of the Lord" and receiving a
poetic response predicting Jacob's superiority.  This probably refers to
seeking an oracle from a shrine.  This divine decree differs radically from
the calculating deception of Jacob and Esau's careless bartering away of
his birthright for a bowl of stew in vss. 29-34.

One can see not only the tensions of contemporary Middle East politics and
economics in the ramifications of this  folktale.  The story also
prefigures some of the present struggles of Yugoslavia and Cosovo, and the
tragically widening gulf between the rich, highly developed northern
hemisphere and the poorer, less technologically developed, southern
hemisphere of the globe.
  
   
PSALM 119:105-112   Whatever else it may be, Psalm 119 is a remarkable
literary tour de force.  It consists of 176 verses in the English versions,
divided into 22 separate poems or strophes, each line of which begins with
the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  In Hebrew these eight verses all
begin with the letter *nun* (= N), which does not translate into English.

The subject of the whole psalm is the Torah.  To the psalmist it is more
than *Law*; it is the truth from Yahweh, the way of life, and the ground of
hope for being in the covenant of Israel's faith.  One significant aspect
of every strophe is the number of synonyms and metaphors for Torah the poet
invents.  Here six synonyms are used: word, ordinance, law, precept,
decree, statute; only the first two more than once.  The chief metaphor is,
of course, the lamp or light.  One's imagination can create an event around
which this poem took shape.  This is how I saw it in my mind's eye.

Toward evening, not long before sunset, the narrow streets of Jerusalem had
already darkened.  A solitary worshiper set out from his meager home to
attend the evening sacrifice. He carried a lamp in his hand to show him the
way.  He needed the light to avoid every obstacle that might render him
impure and so prevent his entering the holy precincts.  He had taken an
oath to be present for the sacrifice and join his praises to those of the
chorus of Levites.  Perhaps he too was one of their number whose duty it
was to provide antiphonal responses to the priestly prayers and hymns
throughout the ritual. 

As he made his way in the gathering gloom, the lamp in his hand became not
only a light on his path.  It also symbolized Torah, Yahweh's gracious
instructions for keeping the covenant made generations ago with Israel.
Many Israelites had failed to measure up to their obligations; he would not
however severely afflicted.  Passing along the streets as he did every
evening, careless idlers in shadowed doorways sneered at him.  Others tried
to trick him into breaking his vow by inviting him to turn aside for some
distracting hospitality.  His greatest joy, however, was faithfully doing
whatever was necessary to remain true to the ancient covenant. He would do
so to the end of his days.


ROMANS 8:1-11   Paul's letters, especially this one to the Romans, are
often very difficult to read and understand.  This passage is no exception.
Complex as it is, its essential message is clear: the Spirit gives life.
One can grasp this more quickly if one reads it in the Jerusalem Bible,
possibly because that version presents it more as a paraphrase in
contemporary language whereas the NSRV has a more exact translation of the
Greek original.

What Paul is saying is that the Spirit of God which gives us life is
nothing less than the same divine power which raised Jesus from the dead.
He gives explicit detail of how this came about: God sent his Son Jesus
Christ into the world  as an ordinary human being.  Jesus' God-given
mission was to deal with human sin and the alienation from God which sin
causes.   He did that by living our human life and meeting every
requirement of the law.  The Spirit of God which was in Jesus now dwells in
us so that we too may now live as he lived in fellowship with God.  This is
the power that raised Jesus from the dead and now gives us spiritual life.
Mortal though we still are, it will ultimately deliver us from spiritual
death.  

Behind this message lay Paul's understanding of the OT manifestation of the
Spirit of God in creation and in divine initiatives in Israel's history and
prophecy.  Coupled with that is the Jewish belief that the Messiah would be
endowed with the Spirit. The early Christian community believed that Jesus
is the Messiah and that through his resurrection God has given a new
manifestation of the Spirit within the life of the believing community. 
For Paul, the Spirit is now present in the life of every believer.  This is
evident not only in each person's faith, but in his/her personal moral
conduct in private and public life.  While each person remains an
imperfect, mortal human being, we live in a new sphere where God-given
righteousness pertains.

Note that Paul does not distinguish between the *Spirit of God* and the
*Spirit of Christ*.  This is particularly true in vs. 9 where these phrases
appear to be synonymous.  In vs. 10, he speaks of "Christ in you" as having
the same meaning; and in vs. 11 he speaks of "the Spirit of him who raised
Jesus from the dead" giving life "to your mortal bodies through his Spirit
that dwells in you."  Some may argue that the basic concept of the Trinity 
is found in this apparent tautology.  In truth, Paul cannot speak of God
without also speaking of Jesus Christ and the Spirit.  On the other hand,
he has yet made the leap of the 4th and 5th century scholars to identify the
*personna* of the Spirit as distinct from or "proceeding from the Father
and the Son."  We might say that Paul was much more realistic than
theoretical in his understanding of how the Spirit gives life: it changes
the ethical behavior of those who believe.` The evidence for this is his
five references to *law* (Gk. = *nomos*) and ten references to *flesh* (Gk.
= *sarx*).` For a first century Jewish rabbi of the Pharisees, this was all
important.


MATTHEW 13:1-9,18-23   The parable of the sower is one of those vignettes
of rural life so common in Jesus' teaching.  It comes straight out of the
Galilean countryside in which Jesus  grew up.  The Plain of Esdraelon in
Galilee (the Greek name for the western part of the Valley of Jezreel) was
the granary of first century Palestine and remains so to this day. 
Nazareth stands on the northern slopes of this rich agricultural valley.

 Jesus knew intimately how the peasants of his home neighborhood carried on
their annual routine of sowing and reaping.  Few people on this continent
have ever seen the hand-thrown seeding of a grain crop, although some may
have seen pictures of it or the two centuries old symbol of the British and
Foreign Bible Society.  Jesus also knew the relative productivity of the
surfaces and soils on which the scattered grain fell.  The gospel
description could not be more explicit.

The second segment of this reading is more problematic.  It is a typical
Hellenistic allegory in which each element of the story symbolically 
represents a supposedly deeper, hidden meaning.  Paul used the term
*allegoreumena* in Galatians 4:24, but did not distinguish this method of
interpretation from his more common typology.``Philo of Alexandria, a
contemporary of Jesus and Paul, made use of allegory in his interpretation
of the OT.  It was the later Christian interpreters of the gospel, Clement,
Justin Martyr and Origen who brought this method to flower in the Christian
church.  The Gnostic Christians of the 2nd century also made use of the
system.  
                                                    
It is obvious from the passage between the two segments of this reading
that the interpretation of vss. 18-23 was intended for a select audience of
the specially initiated.  The hidden meaning of the parable can only be
understood by those especially initiated into its mystery.  This separates
those inside the enlightened group and those outside.  That reflects the
esoteric attitudes of gnostic communities.  

Further evidence that this allegorical interpretation may have gnostic
origins, or at least some gnostic tendency, is found in the apocryphal
*Secret Book of James* discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 among a
collection of Gnostic texts and fragmentary manuscripts.  That book,
written in a Coptic translation of a Greek original, relates Jesus'
supposed private revelations to the disciples immediately prior to his
ascension.  Most likely a 2d century CE document, it contains many of the
earlier gospel sayings of Jesus, but transforms them into "a foundational
revelation for a community of gnostic Christians." (Robert J.  Miller, ed. 
*The Complete Gospels.* Polebridge Press, 1992, p. 323.) 

In *Secret James* 6:15, the parable of 'The Seed' is named with six other
well-known parables.  These sentences follow in vss. 16-17 of the same
text: "Become eager for instruction.  For the first prerequisite for
instruction is faith, the second is love, the third is works; now from
these comes life.  For instruction is like a grain of wheat.  When someone
sowed it he had faith in it; and when it sprouted he loved it, because he
envisioned many grains in place of one; and when he worked he was
sustained, because he prepared it for food, then kept the rest in reserve
to be sown.  So it is possible for you, too, to receive for yourselves
heaven's domain: unless you receive it through knowledge, you will not be
able to discover it."

The parallels are too close to be accidental, but it impossible to say
which interpretation of the parable in a gnostic framework came first. 
Matthew 13:18-23, its parallels in Mark 4:13-20, Luke 8:11-15 and Secret
James all point to an environment of martyrdom.  This was the atmosphere in
which Mark's Gospel may well have been written, but certainly became more
prevalent in the 2d century.  The original parable of the sower and seed in
Matthew 13:3b-9 had but one intended meaning: God will bless the work of
Jesus and the disciples abundantly, so they need not be discouraged.  That
message speaks as much to our time as it did to those who first heard it.

                         
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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