Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart
July 19, 2020 is Pentecost 7A/Proper 11A/Ordinary 17A
Genesis 28:10-19a – JACOB’S LADDER. His dream at Bethel. The promise of offspring. He puts up a standing stone to commemorate the Lord’s presence in this place.
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 – There is no god but you. You show your might. You condemn the proud.
Isaiah 44:6-8 – Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 – THE INESCAPABLE GOD. O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. Where can I go to flee from your spirit? Even if I go to the depths of Sheol, you are there.
Psalm 86:11-17 – But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Romans 8:12-25 – For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 – PARABLE OF THE WHEAT AND THE TARES. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.
Prayer of the Day Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Gospel Acclamation Alleluia. My word shall accomplish that | which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for | which I sent it. Alleluia. (Isa. 55:11)
Genesis 28:10-19a – Jacob’s Ladder
The last few weeks the semi-continuous Old Testament reading has been in Genesis. Two weeks ago, we encountered Rebecca, who traveled 500 miles to marry a stranger. Last week we learned that after marrying Isaac, she conceived and gave birth to Jacob and Esau. We heard the story of a famished Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for some stew. This we week encounter Jacob on the run.
10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
Dreams figure large in the Bible. Consider Abimilech, Jacob’s three dreams, Laban, Joseph, Pharaoh, Samuel, Daniel, Joel (your young will have visions, your old dreams, women, slaves), Joseph (Mary’s husband), the magi, Paul and others.
Jacob is running for his life. He has cheated his twin brother Esau not once, but twice, first out of Esau’s birthright, then out of his blessing on his blind, aging father’s deathbed. He’s no hero. He’s a deceptive cheat. Esau has it out for him: “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41) When we are in trouble, or feeling guilty, or afraid, we sometimes have restless sleep and vivid dreams.
Jacob is on the border, between Canaan and Israel, as well as between heaven and earth. He is in liminal space. Liminal means at a threshold or a doorway. You’re no longer in the old room, but you’re not yet in the new room. Sound familiar? These days, we’ve been deprived of our old way of life, but the crisis is still on. The new normal is yet to come. Jacob is in his own personal exile.
Being on the border, in liminal/thin space, is unsettling. It’s a dangerous place, but it’s also a place of great possibility. Life is often what happens when you’re on your way to do something else.
Jacob ended up at a place called Luz. Exhausted, he grabbed a rock for a pillow and fell into a restless sleep. In his dream, heavenly beings were moving up and down a staircase. God was at the top. If you were God, what would you have to say to Jacob? “You despicable, good-for-nothing cheater, incur my wrath…?” Instead, Jacob hears a word of grace: promise and blessing:
- Patriarchal promise: Your descendants will number like the dust of the earth.
- Patriarchal blessing: I will be with you. I will protect and make good on my promise.
When have you been surprised by a word of unconditional love and grace? Up the ladder goes Jacob’s guilt and fear. Down come the promise and blessing: offspring and presence.
Jacob responded curiously: Well, what do you know? God’s in this place! He poured oil on his rock/pillow and stood it up. There are standing stones all over antiquity. If a great battle is won, a stone is stood up. Or a vision, or a holy place. Some say these standing stones are the predecessors of our gravestones.
Jacob renamed the place (Luz) to Bethel, Beth-El, which means “house of God.” Then, after receiving an unconditional and undeserved blessing, he made a conditional vow: “If God will give me food, clothing, shelter and protection, then the Lord will be my God, this place will be God’s house and I will give back one tenth of everything you give me.”
What strange dreams have you had? What recurring dreams do you have? What if dreams are a stairway to heaven, a way God speaks in the deepest places of our psyche? How do you understand dreams? Do you write them down? Have your tried to explain a dream to someone? The language of dreams is non-linear.
A key to coping with difficulty, with making a breakthrough, and with creativity may be getting in touch with our dreams, where we encounter thin space. Start a dream journal. Share a dream you had recently. Listen. God speaks.
God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel.
God of the exile,
God of all who cannot go home.
You show up in the in-between places of our lives, speaking a word of undeserved, unconditional love and grace, in spite of our brokenness. What wondrous love is this?
Be present with us in the liminal space of this pandemic.
Show up in surprising ways, with surprising words. Be thou our vision.
Open the eyes of our hearts. Give us eyes to see, ears to hear.
Matthew 13: The Wheat and the Weeds
Let’s talk about judgment, in the context of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, otherwise known as The Wheat and the Tares. We are walking through Matthew, and we are amidst three weeks in Matthew 13’s intriguing Parables of the Kingdom, the third of five great discourses in Matthew’s gospel. This parable is an inclusio, which we discussed last week. First, Jesus tells the parable, then he changes the subject, then he returns to the parable to explain it.
In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells a story. The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sowed good seed in a field. Then, while everyone was sleeping, an enemy sowed weeds. This is a truly diabolical act. Can you imagine a more cut-throat way to undermine the competition? Sow weeds in your neighbor’s crop.
The owner’s slaves want to pull the weeds, but the owner says, “No, you might unintentionally pull up the wheat too. Leave them to grow together. We will sort it all out at the harvest.”
Then Jesus drops the story and moves on. We won’t read verses 31-34 until next week, but they are the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus compares the kingdom to things that grow? Wheat, mustard plants, yeast. More on that next week.
Then Jesus goes back into “the house.” (Since the beginning of chapter 13 Jesus has been preaching from a boat. Jesus had stepped out of the house to the lake, and the crowds pressed him into the boat. Check out last week’s post.) Now back in the house, and away from the crowds, the disciples ask Jesus to explain his parable to them privately. It is a great literary device on Matthew’s part. The crowds don’t get to hear Jesus’ explanation, but we the listeners do. The reader of the gospel gets to listen in on Jesus’ private instruction with his inner circle of disciples.
Luther (in a 1525 treatment of this passage) points out that Jesus explains the parable in seven points:
- The sower is the Son of man.
- The field is the world.
- The good seeds are the children of the kingdom.
- The tares are the children of the evil one.
- The enemy that sowed them is the devil.
- The harvest is the end of the world.
- The reapers are the angels.
(We never learn who the owner’s slaves are supposed to be.)
Therefore, we shouldn’t burn heretics at the stake, Luther concludes, but rather leave them time to repent. It is a somewhat self-serving passage, since Luther-himself has already been declared a heretic by this time. In fact, it would seem Luther uses this very text to question the inquisition and other forms of religious persecution:
From this observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus uproot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God’s Word alone must do. But by murder we separate the people from the Word, so that it cannot possibly work upon them and we bring thus, with one stroke a double murder upon ourselves, as far as it lies in our power, namely, in that we murder the body for time and the soul for eternity, and afterwards say we did God a service by our actions, and wish to merit something special in heaven.
This is a refreshing view for a Medieval mindset. The parable itself is troubling though. So, some people are children of the kingdom, and others are children of the evil one? Hmm. Who to trust? My dad used to jest, “I trust everyone but you and me, and lately, I’ve been wondering about you.”
Jesus usually puts things in extreme terms to get our attention. “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…” So this shouldn’t surprise us. But there are questions. What makes one a child of the kingdom? What makes one a child of the evil one? What if one has both the tendency toward good and evil? If one is mostly evil with a little bit of good is one a child of the evil one? And if one is mostly good, with some mild tendencies toward wrong, is one a child of the kingdom? M. Scott Peck would tend toward such an interpretation. He says that some people are so caught up in evil, that every decision, thought, action stems from it.
Martha Stout, in The Sociopath Next Door, claims that 4% of the population, one in twenty five people, are sociopaths. A sociopath is someone with no conscience, who can do wrong to another or see them suffer without feeling remorse.
I heard one preacher say the children of the kingdom are the followers of Jesus. This sounds good at first, but play it out. Are we saying that those who don’t follow Jesus are children of the evil one? Are all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, agnostics, atheists and the like children of the evil one? That would be an awful perspective, but sadly, one that has been held too often by Christians. I have non-Christian friends who aren’t children of the evil one. And I have some Christian friends who very well might be.
Here’s another question. How can we tell the children of the kingdom from the children of the evil one? I’m thinking of some of my neighbors right now. I think I have a pretty good idea, but, you know, it would be really nice to have some confirmation. (Tongue in cheek.)
This parable seems to recognize that it really is hard to tell. The word for “weed” in this text (ζιζάνια, zizania) refers to a weed (a darnel grass, sometimes poisonous) that looks very much like wheat. It mimics wheat.
The text also suggests that in overreacting to evil, we might do more harm than good, ruining the harvest, by uprooting the good as well. Indeed, many an effort to root out evil have proven disastrous, creating more misery than would have been otherwise. These are wise words.
What would Matthew say makes one a child of the kingdom? Paul would say those who are “in Christ” or those who are justified by faith in Christ. What would Matthew say? Powell (God With Us) is a big help. In Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for the righteous (13:43, 25:34, 37). Anyone who obeys God’s commandments may enter (5:17, 19:17, 25:46). Not everyone in the church will be saved (“not all who call me Lord, Lord shall enter the kingdom…”)
It will not work to superimpose a Pauline theology on Matthew, and yet we have to land somewhere don’t we? Wouldn’t it be fun to have Paul and Matthew in a room together and hear them argue. Matthew himself may suggest a way through. Matthew’s Jesus not only uses the phrase “children of the evil one,” but even the phrase “children of hell” (Matthew 23:15), though he reserves it for the Pharisees. In fact, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day are shown to be evil persons throughout Matthew’s gospel (9:4, 12:34, 39, 45, 16:4, 22:18). One would think, if righteousness gets you into the kingdom, the Pharisees would be the first through the door. They are law-keepers to the nth degree, adhering to every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law. But apparently for Jesus this is not enough.
Maybe there is more Pauline theology in Matthew than we see at first glance. In Matthew Jesus views the Pharisees as missing the forest for the trees. They tithe of their herbs, but have forgotten the weightier matters of the law, justice and compassion, Micah 6:8 stuff. Justice for the orphan, widow and alien is a more critical matter than whether or not your pull your donkey out of a ditch on the Sabbath in terror of actually working. Loving your neighbors is more important than ostracizing them if they don’t live up to your moral standards. In fact, for Jesus, loving God and neighbor embodies all the law and the prophets. If you keep the law, but have no compassion in your heart, you may be a child of the evil one.
Sounds like a fun confirmation game. “Hey kids, tonight we’re going to play a fun new game called You Just May Be a Child of the Evil One. Now, question number one. Jeffrey?
The wolves in sheep’s clothing comment in Matthew also seems to indicate that perhaps it’s not too easy to tell one from the other. Just as the weeds are disguised as wheat, the wolves are disguised as sheep. This is why it is so critical to not judge. The one you judge may have been in a very difficult spot. Judgment is God’s business, at the end of time. Not ours, for right now. Matthew 7:1 ff and Romans 2:1 ff. make this perfectly clear.
Parables are not meant to be parsed word-for-word. They convey a sense. They are allegory. Even Chrysostom says as much, “And, as I am always saying, the parables must not be explained throughout word for word, since many absurdities will follow…” (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf110.iii.XLVII.html) So what is the “sense” of this passage?
Expect good and evil to be jumbled together in this life. It won’t get sorted out until the eschaton. That seems to be the point.
The next question, then, is “So what?” What is the good news of this passage for the faithful, striving to live lives of faith, hope and love in daily life?
There are those who struggle with doing the right thing in a business world that is corrupt. Perhaps the preacher could tease out the challenges of living a moral life in a morally compromised world. We can teach people how to sin boldly when facing moral dilemmas and making difficult decisions between what may very well be the lesser of two evils.
There are those out there who wrestle with heaven and hell, and what happens to people when they die. Did Uncle Fred go to heaven? After all, we all know he was no saint. What will judgment day look like? I know a man whose son committed suicide. He’s worried that his son might be in hell, in spite of gracious conversations he’s had with many people. It might be worth wrestling with different concepts of judgment.
What if on Judgment Day all that is evil, all that is bad in you gets burned up, and all that is good in you continues on into eternity? What if everything that is against God gets cast into the proverbial fire, and all that is for God, endures? What if, like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, nothing endures except faith, hope and love, these three, which abide forever.
If all that was bad in you was burned up, how much of you would be left? What percentage? How much of you is faithful, hopeful and loving? How much of you is self-centered, angry, hateful and greedy? How is God transforming one into the other?
What if good endures, and bad is cast into the fire? Because none of us are all good, and none of us are all bad. We are what Luther called a “corpus mixtum,” a mixed bag, if you will. We are simul justus et peccator: at the same time both saints and sinners.
Who knows? We speak of things beyond our comprehension, but here’s what it could mean. It could mean that if we are mostly caught up in greed, anger and hatred, if we are 95% against God, after Judgement Day there might not be much left. Perhaps this is what Jesus means by “children of the evil one.”
The prophets talked about the refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2). A really hot fire can burn off the impurities in a metal, leaving behind only the pure precious metal. What if only righteousness lasts, and unrighteousness is destroyed?
Then the questions becomes, how do we get righteous? How do we get right with God, in line with God? Lutherans believe that you cannot get right with God by trying harder, or by being good enough, or pure enough. We believe even our good deeds are corrupt, often growing out of selfish motives and self-serving tactics. Like Paul says in Romans 7, the harder I try to be good, the more I realize evil is close at hand.
We believe that the law, tradition, and superstition have no transformative power. The only thing that gives us wings is following Jesus, trusting Jesus, living in the Spirit, as Paul says in Romans 8. We believe Jesus’ way is the only hope for the world. It has the power to heal and change lives. If we are “in Christ” we will act and live out of a spiritual center that will give life to us and to others. We will be transformed, over time, from being self-centered to Christ-centered. And when we turned from serving ourselves to serving others, we will find a joy that will sustain us in this morally jumbled up world of wheat and weeds, good and evil.