Commentary for Pentecost V, 5 July 2020
Texts for Pentecost V are Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
By Father Doug Woods
Hi there! One day late this week. It was my grandson’s birthday yesterday—he’s nine now. And it was Canada Day—our family gets two for the price of one!
So our texts this week are Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Psalm 45:10-17, Romans 7:15-25a, and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. Unless you spend considerable time looking at them, you’d probably say they’re a pretty disparate lot. There’s one weak cross-reference: Romans 7:22-25a and Matthew 11:28, but to me it looks like a bit of a stretch. With a little imagination, though, the Genesis reading and Psalm 45:10-17 are at least thematically related. We’ll talk more about that.
To get the point of the Genesis reading, you have to go back a few chapters in Genesis to the covenant God makes with Abraham. Let me refresh your memory:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3, NRSV.
The covenant has already been in jeopardy at least once so far in the story of Abraham and Sarah. You remember they’d reached old age without having any children. Well if they’re childless, what about “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing”? Abraham and Sarah have certainly been blessed—long life, material wealth, and a son. Now Abraham decides it’s time for Isaac to end his bachelor life—at a somewhat advanced age, I might add—so he sends a trusted servant to his father’s kin to seek a suitable wife. He feels it’s important to have a woman from HIS kin, not from the surrounding Canaanites (customs surrounding a suitable wife in Abraham’s culture were fairly complicated).
The servant goes back to Abraham’s native land—a trip of some weeks on foot—and, as if God had led him personally, he finds a good woman: Rebekah. It’s interesting that the marriage is not an arranged one; the bride actually has a say, and Rebekah decides to go to Isaac. Rebekah’s family’s prayer for her reminds us of the Abrahamic Covenant: “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.”
As they draw near to Abraham’s home, Rebekah sees Isaac coming to them through the field:
And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” Genesis 24.64-67.
In some ways, this reaction reminds us of Psalm 45. At the very least, the Covenant remains intact.
Now we move to the psalm. This is, of course, a “royal psalm”. It paints a beautifully elegant picture of the wedding of the king. The young princess is advised to forget her father’s house; she is now the king’s wife. As he is the king, he is her lord, but that goes with incredible advantage: “Since he is your lord, bow to him; the people of Tyre will seek your favour with gifts, the richest of the people with all kinds of wealth.” Psalm 45.11b-13. Just a little note: there’s none of the sexual equality here that we saw in the story of Rebekah’s decision to marry Isaac.
With a little imagination, this could be the wedding of Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac isn’t the king, but Rebekah is marrying into a very wealthy family, and as the story goes, this is a very significant wedding.
Now I have to talk about something many people would rather not hear about: sin. That’s what’s going on in the passage from Romans. Don’t give up yet; I think there’s good news. In verses 15 to 21, Paul carries on a discussion of a topic that comes up repeatedly in his writings: the Law versus faith. He acknowledges something about his life: he knows that the Law is good, but that he’s an abject failure when it comes to living up to it. Sound familiar? I’m in the same boat as Paul. He says that the reason is the “sin that dwells within me.”
Let’s pull this apart a little bit. We normally think of sin as something we DO. I’d say “No.” I’d say that sin is way bigger than that. Things that we do that are wrong are sins—with a lower-case s. They’re actual physical manifestations of Sin—please note the upper-case S. I had this revelation as I was out camping with my family.
We were awakened one night by what sounded like a woman who was screaming in fear for her life. I crept cautiously to the entrance to the tent and carefully opened the tent flap to see what was going on. It was two racoons fighting for our food pack—which was properly hoisted off the ground, out on a tree limb. The racoons were fighting over who was going to shinny out onto the tree limb to jump onto the food pack.
And then it hit me. That’s just like what we humans do as we compete for wealth and resources. The fighting and violence—whether physical or metaphorical—is hair-raising and at times terrifying. I see it as completely natural in wild populations; it’s just a matter of survival of the fittest. Whoever fights hardest wins—and survives. This competition is inborn. It’s part of each racoon. What about that very same competition that’s a part of US? It’s a tendency to put OURSELVES first, and the devil take the hindmost. We call it selfishness, self-centeredness. And it hit me then: that’s the Sin that Paul says “dwells within me.” It’s there from the moment of conception; it’s hereditary. Yes—you’ll hate this—it’s there in newborn babies. I didn’t say they’d sinned; I said they have Sin. Sin is the instinct we have to do whatever we have to to survive. Yes, I know it sounds brutish, but we have a choice. We’re human; we can decide not to act on that instinct. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s what Paul is talking about. At times, though in his heart he really wants not to be that way, it just overwhelms him. I know exactly that conflict. I act in ways that I don’t want to, I say things I know I shouldn’t.
Paul puts it down to 1) loving the Law, but 2) being helpless at times in the face of Sin. He just can’t live up to the Law; not without help. His solution? Faith in Jesus Christ.
O.K., we’ve talked about this already. Step 1 of faith is “getting it”—seeing that the person you’ve listened to has something good for you. By the way, that’s an important part of the message from the Matthew reading for this Sunday. Faith isn’t something that you seek with your head. It’s not something that you can encompass by your intelligence. It’s a gift—you just “get it”—and it’s regularly given to the “simplest” of people—“infants”. And here’s Step 2 of faith: the point when you say, “I want to be with that person; s/he has something of real value, real importance, to give me.” Jesus puts it this way:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11.28-30.
In other words, “Try my way. I’m there for you.” And that’s just what we said we needed: a helper.
But here’s a snag. Is it possible to fail at this? I’d say “Yes.” Just as Paul looks at the Law and says, “In my heart, I know it’s right, and yet I’m powerless at times in the face of Sin, and I do what I hate,” so that can happen, even when you have faith IN Jesus.” The tricky part is Step 3 of faith: faithfulness TO Jesus. “So we’re back to square one,” you say? I don’t think so. The thing about Jesus as a friend is forgiveness, grace. Jesus says, “Here, I’ll hold the horse for you while you get back on.” And Jesus never quits doing that.
And suddenly, you see the common denominator in all of this Sunday’s scripture: faith. Rebekah has faith that things will be good in the tent of Isaac. The princess has faith that the marriage to the king will be good. Paul has faith in the grace of Jesus Christ. And we have faith in Jesus Christ, that he’s giving us a lighter yoke—and he stands by his promise.