Friday, June 6, 2008

Some Notes on the Readings of Proper 10, Year A

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
The main theme of today’s reading is “living by faith”. In order to keep the notes manageable and brief, I must be selective. So I recommend that you also refer to the comments for today at the RCL comments page (the link is to the left), or to any other good Bible commentary you may have.

The First Reading: Genesis 12.1-9
Chapter 12 of Genesis begins the story of Abram, later named Abraham, ancestor of the people of Israel and of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We should note before all else that the story begins with God’s action. A far as we are told God calls Abram unexpectedly and without preparation. All we know about Abram we learn from the tale of the new life he entered into in response to this call. In fact, little or nothing in the biblical history speaks of human beings seeking God; from the moment of the first sin that estranged us from God, it is the story of God seeking, calling, and saving. While it is true that knowledge of the world may lead the thoughtful person to a knowledge of God (what is called “natural theology”) this is not the purpose of the Bible
In this passage we learn that at God’s command Abram left his home and journeyed to the land of Canaan, where he erected altars at Shechem and Bethel. From Bethel he migrates to the south, to the Negev.
We should note the pathos in the lingering description in verse 1 of the well-known things he is to leave, country, kindred and home, and the contrasting vagueness of the promise. He is to go to “the land that I will show you.” He is to become a great nation, even though he is seventy-five years old and has no son. In all this. Abraham typifies the man of faith (on this see Acts 7:2f; Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:1-29; Hebrews 11:8: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going”). In verse 7 the Lord adds to the promise: “And the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him: To thy seed will I give this land.”
The final clause of verse 3, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” may also be rendered as “by thee shall all … bless themselves.” It has been suggested that this is the better translation, the idea being that because of the blessing on Abram people will use such words as ‘God make thee like Abraham, &c.’ when they bless one another. In our reading of the passage we do well to keep both interpretations in mind, for it was indeed through Abraham’s seed that blessing has come to all the world. It is often the case that new meanings are opened in a passage of scripture by the work of God recorded in a later passage, or later interpretations revealed through God’s people.

Psalm 33 is a hymn of praise to God as creator and as lord of history. Praising God is a fitting activity for the righteous, the upright. A song of praise, therefore, is always a song of faith. In the the letter to the Romans which follows this St Paul says of Abraham, “No distrust made him weaver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.”

Epistle: Romans 4.13-25
Because we kept Corpus Christi at Saint Matthias’ last Sunday, we missed an earlier reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans [1.16-17; 3.22b-28(29-31)]. In that section Paul began to write on the theme that righteousness comes through faith, and life through righteousness (1.17). After a discussion of the spiritual state of Jews and Gentiles, he concludes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” justification comes “by his grace as a gift”. Therefore, justification depends not on the works of the law, but on faith.
In Chapter Four Paul considers Abraham as an example of faith. Chris Haslem notes (in the Comments on the RCL), that “At the time, rabbis argued that God’s blessings came to Abraham because he kept Mosaic Law (which, they said, he knew in advance – before Moses received the tablets on Mount Sinai).” This idea Paul rejected, showing from texts in Genesis that it was Abraham’s faith that was “reckoned as righteousness” (4.5, 22-23).

The Holy Gospel Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26
At first sight the Gospel passage appointed for today seems to have two separate and distinct passages. First we have the call of Matthew from the customs office and its sequel, a dinner at Matthew’s house where the Pharisees complain the Jesus welcomes tax collectors and sinners. Then four verses are omitted which tell of the disciples of John Baptist ask about fasting. Then we have the story of the ruler of the synagogue who calls on Jesus to save his little girl, who is dead. This story is interrupted by the incident of the woman who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment to be healed.
Two themes might be identified to link the two parts.
The first is healing. In verse 12 Jesus speaks of his work in calling sinners as healing: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Both the miracles of the second part are concerned with healing. We must remember in this context that the ideas of healing, being well, and saving from evil an sin are all wrapped up in the word salvation
The other is faith, the theme that runs through all of today’s readings. Matthew’s response to Jesus’ call is immediate trust. The commentaries all say that he must have had some acquaintance with Jesus before, and that Jesus calls at the decisive moment. This is likely enough, but the Gospel does not tell us so, and we might think it likely that Jesus called Matthew quite unexpectedly. One is reminded of the famous painting of the call of Matthew by Caravaggio, where Matthew responds to the call pointng to himself with an expression that clearly says “Me?!”
. However that may be, when he hears Christ say, “Follow me,” Matthew simply follows, just as Abram immediately obeyed the call in his day; like Abram, Matthew was given no information about where Jesus was going.
We may not immediately think of the publicans and sinners as examples of faith. They may have flocked to Jesus because no one else would welcome them. But who are the people of faith: those who know they are sinners and outcasts, and come to one who offers aid and healing, or those who are sure of their righteousness?
The ruler of the Synagogue and the woman with the haemorrhage both had faith.
Something else that we must note in this Gospel is the claim to God’s authority that Jesus makes. When he quotes the prophet Hosea (6.6) to show the pharisees God’s true demand, he then adds “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”, elevating himself and his work to the level of the Lord’s word.
Another interesting point: Jesus rather ironically concedes the pharisees their own self-description by speaking of them as “righteous” and the people who come to him as “sinners”

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