Life brings surprising reversals, in married life and in parables, but also God’s promise of unending love.
The Torah reading is a piece of Jacob’s adventures in the old country where he has gone to get wives and wealth. The theme of this episode is that the trickster gets tricked.
In earlier times we heard about Jacob deceiving his brother Esau to get his birthright and his blessing, but after Jacob encountered God at Bethel he was a changed man. Now when he comes into the land of his distant relatives, he proves himself a helpful hero by removing a great stone from the well—inspired, it must be said, by Rachel’s beauty (Genesis 29:1-12). He enters into a bargain in good faith with Laban, Rachel’s father, to work seven years to get her for his wife. The narrator adds a romantic touch: the seven years “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for” Rachel (verse 20, NRSV).
Now, however, he gets some of his own deceptive treatment. On the wedding night, Laban substitutes the older daughter Leah in place of Rachel, and the marriage is a done deed before Jacob catches on. So much for that seven years. If he works yet another seven years, Laban will give him Rachel also. In spite of sharp complaints to Laban, Jacob seems to know when he has been had, and he works another seven years and finally gets his true love Rachel as his second wife.
The narrator has slipped in mention of two slave girls whom Laban has given as maids to his daughters, Zilpah as maid to Leah and Bilhah as maid to Rachel. In the tribal lore, spun out in the following chapters, it will take all four of these women to produce the entire people of destiny, the twelve “sons of Israel.” In time, of course, Laban will get his comeuppance, and Jacob’s wives will help him pull it off (the story in Genesis 31). In the end, Jacob and Laban make a covenant to stay out of each other’s territory, and they set up a mizpah (a watch-tower) as a witness to keep them both honest (Genesis 31:44-54).
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b.
The Psalm reading this time does not fall into place as the voices of the people in the Torah reading. The voice here is rather the Israel of later times celebrating the continuity of God’s covenant from generation to generation of the ancestors.
They who are “offspring of his servant Abraham, / children of Jacob, his chosen ones” are called to remember God’s great deeds (verses 5-6, NRSV). God is to be celebrated because he remembers “the covenant that he made with Abraham, / his sworn promise to Isaac, / which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, / to Israel as an everlasting covenant” (verses 9-10).
What seems to be the punch line of this remembering of covenant faithfulness is a bit chauvinistic. God’s solemn promise down through the whole string is, “To you I will give the land of Canaan / as your portion for an inheritance” (verse 11). In the long run, the land would bring Jacob’s descendants about as much trouble as he endured with Esau and Laban. Nevertheless, the descendants, like Jacob himself, always pressed on to make the land their own.
The Epistle reading is the climax of Paul’s teaching about the Spirit in this letter. All of the contrasts with the life of the world and the “flesh” are finished. Now he speaks of three miracles and blessings of the new life in the Spirit.
The first thing is the life of prayer. “…[F]or we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The life of prayer is one of soul-searching. We search our hearts and souls, but it is God who truly plumbs the depths of our selves, and therefore it is the Spirit of God that teaches us how we in fact need to pray. “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit…” (verses 26-27, NRSV).
Secondly, Paul writes a script that would be intensely followed fifteen centuries later by John Calvin in his doctrine of predestination. The basic principle is that “all things work together for good…” (verse 28). Believing that profoundly, one begins to catch a vision of the entire drama of salvation having been in God’s control throughout.
For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (verses 29-30).
When the horizon is high enough, the view encompassing all of time and eternity, God is the principal actor from pre-creation to consummation.
Finally, there is a Coda of ecstatic gratitude because God has taken the blessed ones into God’s realm. “If God is for us, who is against us? … Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (verses 31-34). This take-over by God, the Lord of creation and the Almighty, is conclusive. Given God’s love, nothing can separate one from it. And the highest reach of the ecstasy exults in the all-conquering love of Christ Jesus.
…[F]or I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (verses 38-39).
The life in the Spirit finally leads to a union with God the Father and the Son in the consummation of God’s love.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.
The Gospel reading completes the discourse in which Matthew collected Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of heaven. Here we no long have parables accompanied by seminars to explore their interpretations. No interpretations of these parables are given, except the brief continuation of the parable of the net. Here are small parables—short, graphic, cutting.
The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (verses 31-33) are a matched pair. They are true parables that have a single point. The astonishing expansion of the tiny mustard seed that grows into a huge tree-like plant, and the small little pinch of fermented dough that can cause several loaves to rise and become soft and airy—these images speak of the exuberance and compelling expansiveness of the kingdom of heaven. No allegories are offered here, and there is little room to develop any.
(The Orthodox Study Bible, which loves allegories throughout, can find an allegorical treatment of even these: “The mustard seed and the leaven represent the disciples who, according to Theophylact, began as just a few men, but ‘soon encompassed the whole earth.’ These also stand for faith entering a person’s soul, which causes an inward growth of virtue.” OSB note on verse 31.)
Similarly, the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great value are another matched pair (verses 44-46). They also have a single point. When the supremely valuable item is found, all else is sacrificed to procure it. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is like the greatest thing anyone could imagine. It makes one forget all other less perfect treasures. It is the one thing of supreme worth. Anything less is not the kingdom.
The parable of the net that collects all kinds of things from the waters of the sea (verses 47-50) could have a single point, namely, that a great sorting out (a judgment) is certainly coming. It is the way of the world to sort out any great mixture that contains both valuable things and worthless things. Only the valuable things will be cared for and saved. In this case, however, the parable is also given an allegorical reading, like the parable of the weeds that was read last week. “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verses 49-50, NRSV).
Understanding—or not. At the end of this long discourse on parables of the kingdom, Jesus asks the disciples, “Have you understood all this?” (verse 51). Perhaps to our astonishment, they reply, “Yes.” This is certainly not the Gospel According to Mark, where the disciples almost always fail to understand what Jesus says in the most straightforward terms. Matthew insists that there was some comprehension on the part of the disciples (who later became apostles). If they misunderstood the major thing about Jesus having to die, they still caught on to much of his teaching—Matthew would have us know.
At least we can be assured that the disciples learned to do what modern scholars despise them for—they learned to develop allegorical interpretations from Jesus’ provocative parables of the kingdom of heaven!