Season after Pentecost (Proper 10 [15]) : The Gospel Passage – Growing in and with the Lord God Jesus Christ

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.” (Matthew 13: 1-4)

I have commented a few times about the modern person’s ability to understand basic theological concepts that people back in Jesus’ day may not have comprehended. And in considering this telling of the parable about the sower, maybe it is more accurate to say that people in the current age understand and can perceive the message in parables and stories. It is an easy connection to make when you understand that the seeds in the parable is the good news of Christ, and that the sower is Christ or one of the disciples/apostles. From there one can determine the meaning of the seeds not taking root for one reason or another.

“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.” (Verses 5 – 6)

The middle verses of this passage, verses 10 to 17, tell what happened when the disciples came to Jesus and asked him why he told things in parables. Basically Jesus said some people will understand and others wouldn’t simply because they refuse to see what is before them. In essence, the message in the parable about the sower is the reason Jesus used parables, so that those who were ready to receive and understand the message would, and those who were not ready would not understand.

“Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Verses 7 – 8)

Jesus explained specifically to the disciples the meaning of the parable – which sort of raise the question as to whether the disciples would have understood the meaning on their own. And if my premise is correct, that our modern system of education readies us to more easily understand metaphors, allegories, analogies, and metaphors – then perhaps the disciples needed the extra help to understand what Jesus meant.

“Let anyone with ears listen!”(Verse 9)

Does this mean our modern society is more able to assimilate Christian understanding and living into their lives? Um . . . no.

“Hear then the parable of the sower.
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” (Verses 18 – 22)

Our modern understanding how parables can teach us does not mean the meaning and the lesson of the parable ‘take root.’ That is, just because we understand the concept or meaning does not mean it has and does influence our lives. This parable, then, talks about how the parable itself might function, or not function, in our lives.

“But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Verse 23)

I want you to make special note, beloved reader, that there is not the same result in each case. Some bear more “fruit” and some bear less “fruit.” The point is not how fruit or result there is; the point is that there has been growth and development. The Lord God does not insist that all believers grow and mature in the same way, or yield up identical lives. That is not expected; what is expected is that you will make sure your lives and living are futile ground where the Lord’s words can grow. That, beloved reader, is the whole point. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 10 [15]) : The Epistle Passage – Wrestling with Paul’s theology again

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1 – 4)

If you have been following along, beloved reader, with my commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, you have read/heard how I have been wrestling with Paul’s theology. It is helpful in my wrestling to read that according to Paul the law has been weakened by the flesh. I am not sure why Paul has this few of the law. From previous comments Paul has made I have understood his perspective to be that the law defines what sin is but is not helpful in determining how would should live. Or perhaps Paul is echoing some of Jesus’ perspective on some of the Jewish leaders of his time, that they have sought to circumvent the spirit of the law and have so weakened it by reinterpreting the letter of the law to the Jewish leaders’ own advantage. The law, neither in it letter nor in its diluted spirit can save us; only the Spirit of God brought to us through Jesus can do that.

Do not forget that when Paul was Saul, he strove to up hold every letter of the law, but it did not set him right with God. His encounter on the road to Damascus might have impacted his theology a great deal.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Verses 5 – 6)

To Paul, then, the law represents things of the flesh – prohibitions and regulations. The Spirit represents life and correct living. It is also helpful to remember that Paul and his teachings were on the leading edge of Christian living; introducing new ideas and concepts that we in our modern time have come to understand and incorporate into our world view of Christian living. That is why I think, and said what I said concerning what Paul might have to say to our modern world. I think Paul would have been savvy enough to know that his world is not our world, and that his message and letters might have been different for our modern age. But some things would have remained the same.

“For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law–indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Verse 7)

Our modern world is consumed with the “flesh”, worldly things and worldly agendas. Not as it was back in Paul and Jesus time, but according to modern definitions. The message to Christian now would still be . . .

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Verses 8 – 9)

This perspective also relates back to what I was trying to emphasize yesterday, that the definition of lineage has changed and that the determinant of being in the family of God has been broadened to encompass all people.

“But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Verses 10 – 11)

Paul is speaking about which law, the law of flesh or the Law of the Spirit, should be used as the determinant for correct living. That the law of the flesh should not have hold on you, but the law and example of the Spirit should. I add to this that living according to the Law of the Spirit, we are apart of the same family. I do not think Paul would disagree.

Paul’s dividing of the flesh and the spirit (meaning the human spirit) has caused problems, setting the body against the human spirit/psyche, condemning the physical while elevating the mind. We know that the body and the mind are so intertwined that one can not neatly divide one against the other.

Oh beloved reader, theology can be such a mishmash – terms and definitions changing and evolving. Praise to the Lord God that the Divine is a sturdy concept, including all peoples and all ways of living, holding them to the standard embodied in Christ. May the Spirit of the Divine be with you as you wrestle with the issues in your life. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 9 [14]) : The Psalm Passage – Being wooed to a new and different kind of love

Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him; the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many-colored robes she is led to the king; behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.” (Psalm 45:10 – 14)

It would seem that the theme for this week is blushing brides coming to their groom. We have Rebekah coming to Isaac; Paul coming willingly but with mixed motivations to Jesus; and the people from the time Jesus walked on earth greeting the Messiah with contrary responses. Well, no one said that marriage and Christian was easy and automatic! There is the newlywed honeymoon period where emotions and starry glow obscure the hard work that needs to be done. The same is true when new believers come to faith, or when established believers go deeper into their faith. But I really do not want to dim the beauty of that moment, coming new understandings.

“With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king. In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.” (Verses 15 – 17)

This last portion is not directed to the consort of the king, but to the king himself; that his fame and glory will come from his descendants and not his ancestors. This would lead one to believe, in the context of the passage, that this is a new king, one that does not owe his ascent to previous rulers but has on his own established dominion.

This underlines the direction of the commentary to be towards the understand that the King is the Messiah; and if so, the church is the Bride or consort. And that actually is one image of Jesus Christ and the church which appears several times in the New Testament. But do not let us get side tracked into Christology or theology. We are in a praise passage; and moreover, I not are focusing on the Divine Object of the praise but the one who is praising. The other possible substituted psalm passage fits the direction of my thinking here.

“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-13)

We, beloved reader, are precious to our Lord God and Jesus Christ. Jesus and the Lord God sing a love song to us, and woo us with grace and compassion, love and caring, mercy, forgiveness and grace. Let us not forget one of the main reasons that we come to faith. The love that the Divine shows us draws us in, and the faithfulness that the Divine has towards us binds us in that love.

Yes, as Rebekah showed faith and followed what was the Lord’s plan for her; yes, as our desire to follow the Lord leads us to make choices that our human will would not have thought to do; and yes, we are drawn to a faith that does not seem to coincide with the world is now. Many unusual things are done for love. But the most upside down contrary things are down because of the love of and for the Lord. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 9 [14]) : The Epistle Passage – Paul leads us through an obstacle course of theology

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

What Paul, the writer of Romans, wants to do is follow God’s will. What he says he ends up doing is the opposite of God’s will and that is human willfulness. Now to be clear, we have free will and can do whatever we please – as long as it is within human capability. And it is clear enough that humans can do God’s will; it is a choice, just as following human will is a choice.

“Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.” (Verse 16)

If you feel a little confused, beloved reader, do not feel bad. I am a little confused too. I am familiar with the “not doing what I should; and doing what I should not” discussion, but this seems a little bit different. So I am going to carefully work my way through the verses until it becomes clear in my mind. I owe any clarity to Albert Barnes’ careful work on this passage.

When I referenced various translations, it seem that Paul is saying rules and laws are a good thing because they function to keep him in line. And God’s rules and laws tell Paul exactly what he should not do, and teach him what he should do.

“But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Verse 17)

Paul states that he considers himself saved and redeemed, but within his human nature, and every human nature, is the impulse to sin.

“For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Verse 18)

It is here that Paul puts forth his theory that humankind is sinful, and it is only because of the intervention and teaching of Christ that he (or anyone else) does good.

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Verse 19)

Now here is the clearer statement that I am more familiar with. It would seem that the verses that came before are a build up (in my perspective) to the clearer statement that is in my memory.

“Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” (Verses 20 – 21)

Here again, Paul sets forth the idea that the law (that is, strict rules and regulations) are more apt to tell us what we did wrong, and entice the imagination to do wrong!

“For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Verses 22 – 23)

It is unfortunate that in our English language the word “law” does not have the nuances Paul gives the word in Greek. Or maybe Paul is inserting his own nuanced meanings when he uses it in different contexts. “Law of God”, “law at war”, “law of my [Paul’s] mind”, and “law of sin”; for Paul these seems to have different shadings and meanings. Yes, actually, we know what he means. Paul loves the guidance and instruction of the Divine, but his baser impulses gravitate to human weakness and tendency toward sin which means the strict laws of forbidding certain actions are more apt to rule his thinking than God’s grace and mercy.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Verses 24 – 25a)

Paul does seem to have placed himself in a muddle, and we as readers battle to find understanding, and then battle to find our way through it. But you know, beloved reader, there is an easier way. Just follow the example of Christ, and take your guidance from the Lord God. And depend on the mercy and grace that is ours. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 8 [13]) : The Gospel Passages – Whoever

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)

Simple kindness and hospitality. Unconditional acceptance. Care and compassion. These are things that do not cost much, but are priceless when given freely.

One of the things the Pharisees could not understand, with all their laws and rituals, was that the Ten Commandments were based on simply caring about another person and caring about God. We get so bogged down about doing the right thing, that we forget that it is really about doing the good thing. So, now that I have reminded you about that, don’t sit here and keep reading, but go out and welcome into your home and your heart . . . . whoever! Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 8 [13]) : The Epistle Passages – Paul discerns between law and grace

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.
No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:12 – 14)

On the one hand, Paul (the attributed writer of Romans) is a stickler for details and all things proper and in order; he rarely allows any wiggle room on any issue. On the other hand, he is such a idealist! Now, if he means that sin will no longer hold us back from unity with the Lord God because our sins have been and will be absolved, then I would agree. But the issue of whether sin has control over us in as far as our actions, that is a tougher one to figure out. My favorite commentator, Barnes, said it was Paul’s aim not to appeal to law and legalistic reasoning to avoid and stay away from sin. But to appeal to the human conscience and convictions under the terms of grace. Perhaps that law invites to skirt it or defy it, thereby leading to sin. But grace understands and forgives so there is no need to defy authority.

Paul then goes on to ask a familiar question . . . .

“What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Verse 15)

“Me genioto” which in the ancient Greek means “by no means!”

Again, grace does not encourage acting out but in fact gives reason not to challenge the Divine but to comply with the Divine’s guidance. At least, that is Paul’s reasoning. He goes on to explain how grace has hold of us.

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Verses 16 – 18)

I really wonder sometimes what Paul would make of our modern world. Which side of him would be more forthright: the legalist who expected that every part of wise Christian living would be adhered to; or the pleader of grace and mercy, under which he placed himself.

“I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Verses 19 – 23)

Things were so clear to Paul; good and evil, sin and righteousness, grace and law. We live in a world, beloved reader, that is filled with murkiness, gray areas, and half truths that bleed into both pure truth and clear evil. And let’s not forget “fake news” and other the other derivatives of that. Maybe we need a little “Paul” to clear away the uncertainties. But, if we need a little Paul, we need a whole lot of Jesus! And I would say, that sounds like the correct kind of proportions! Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 7 [12]) : The Psalm Passages – A “Shout Out” to the Lord God

If the Old Testament passages take up the plight of those used and downtrodden, subject to censure and disdain, do not be surprised that the Psalm passages are where they ask for help because of their situation. First is the Psalm passage for Hagar’s plight.

Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God;
be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.” (Psalm 86:1-3)

Now Hagar might not have seen herself under the Lord’s protection. She may have thought believe in an all-seeing monotheistic God was Abraham’s thing and not hers. The Genesis passage does NOT say she lifted up her voice to God but that she lifted up her voice and wept.

Although – thinking about it – she was alone, and she and her son were not seen again in the Old Testament . . . how does the writer of Genesis know what became of them? However, if all these things were done under the eye of God, and the writing of them was inspired by the Divine, then we can and must believe that somehow it was known. And that same belief, beloved reader, can allow us to give to Hagar this plea to the Lord.

“Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.” (Verses 4 – 5)

It also occurs to me that this Psalm would work just as well for Abraham and Sarah, at whose hands Hagar and her once-welcomed now disposed of son suffered so much. None of us, beloved reader, live our lives so perfectly that are not in need of the forgiveness of the Lord. That was the alluded to point of what I wrote yesterday. For now though, we are undertaking of Hagar’s cause.

“Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.” Verses 6 – 7)

The Psalms are oft times used for praising the Lord God and giving thanks for what the Divine has done. But there is also a strong tradition of the Psalms being used for supplication and petition. And for many such as Hagar who only have the Lord to appeal to for help and deliverance.

“There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.” (Verses 8 – 10)

Maybe Hagar did left up her voice to the Lord God her master, Abraham served. Maybe she did from him faith in the Divine. It is a lesson to us, beloved reader, in our times of despair to turn to the One who will never abandon us, no matter what our present circumstances or the outcome for our human lives.

“Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.
Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.” (Verses 16 – 17)

It is at the end of this passage that the desire is spoken that those who oppress might be made to change their ways. And this desire brings us to the plight and situation of the writer of Jeremiah. As you may remember, Jeremiah was bemoaning his situation in the Old Testament passage of this week.

It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.
It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so.
When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.
I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.” (Psalm 69: 7-12)

Now, if we are to go along with accepted interpretation, many of the psalms were authored by King David. And he too suffered for living his life according to the word of God. Also true was that he suffered when he deviated from the word of God. His coming back to God was also fraught with difficulty.

“But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress–make haste to answer me.
Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.” (Verses 13 – 18)

It seems to me that both men and women who follow God’s call and set out to live their lives according to God’s leading are subject to problems and difficulties. It seems obvious that when one is living according to the Word of the Lord that one would call upon that same Lord when difficulties and problems arise. May it be true in our lives, that where God leads, we go; and what God calls us to, we do. And so that in times of trouble we call upon that same God, and God will deliver us. Selah!