For July 20, 2014: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11

The Reading            Isaiah 44:6-8

The earliest books of the Old Testament proclaim that the Lord God is the greatest of the gods. Isaiah 44:1-15 relates a different claim: that the Lord is the only god.

The Response            Psalm 86:11-17

Psalm 86 combines elements of lament—begging God for aid against enemies who despise both the psalmist and God—and praise. After extolling God’s graciousness, slowness to anger, and kindness, the psalmist asks for a sign of favor with which to shame the haters.

The Epistle            Romans 8:12-25

The early church in Rome included both Jews and former pagans, though not without disagreements. Paul explains humanity’s common birthright as adopted children of God: we all share in Christ’s glory, but we are also to share humbly in Christ’s suffering while we wait in hope for our redemption.

The Gospel            Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

We continue examining Jesus’ parables that use the imagery of plowing, planting, and harvesting, with his explanations. The “weeds” in this parable would probably have been darnel, a plant that looks a great deal like wheat until it ripens.

 

 

Further thoughts

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is the three-year cycle of Bible readings, followed with more or less fidelity by most Christian churches, that works from first verse to last through most books of the Bible. A challenge for the RCL’s makers is that the Old Testament, even without the psalms, comprises several times more text than do the epistles and the gospel taken together. To even things out, in Pentecost season the RCL splits just the Old Testament readings and apposite psalms into two tracks. Track 1 begins with Genesis and traces the covenants, falls, and redemptions of God’s children, while Track 2 focuses on prophecy, on calls for repentance or proclamations of righteousness. That a given day’s epistle and gospel tend to be about equally complemented by either track’s pair of readings is both intentional and remarkable.

The gospel readings for Propers 10 and 11 reflect a rare but sensible choice and a surprising choice. As the gospel of Matthew has it, Jesus tells a large crowd two parables and then the disciples urge him to interpret them. The rare but sensible choice is by the makers of the RCL, who allot each sermon-worthy parable and its explanation to a different Sunday: the parable of the sower for Proper 10 last week and the parable of the bad seed this week. The surprising choice that Jesus even complies with the disciples’ demand: he almost never explains parables, and these explanations are almost painfully literal and obvious.

How does this square with the other lections? Isaiah testifies that the Lord is not merely the greatest god but the only god, who alone knows the future, and the reason we are not to fear. The psalm celebrates this God’s graciousness and compassion. Yet, as the epistle notes, suffering and decay are inextricably part of this world: from birth onward we learn that there is plenty to fear in pain, sickness, shame, disaster, and death. As I write, we mourn the 295 passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines 17, including almost 100 AIDS experts bound for a conference, sacrificed for a political cause relevant to few or none of them. How can God foresee such evil and not forestall it?

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