Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7); Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23).
Awesome Visitors and Traveling Apostles bring good news to the faithful and humble.
During “Common Time,” following Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary in year A begins selected readings from major Biblical books in sequence. Between now and Advent, the readings include most of Genesis and Exodus; the Pauline letters of Romans, Philippians, and I Thessalonians; and most of the Gospel According to Matthew. How early or late Easter comes each year determines where the readings in each Biblical book now pick up.
· In Genesis we skip the Flood story and the call and covenant with Abraham and first hear of the visit to Abraham at Hebron.
· In Romans we skip the sinfulness of all (chs 1-3), Abraham’s righteousness (ch 4), and start with the corollaries of justification by faith in chapter 5.
· In Matthew we are past the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s Call and some healing miracles, and pick up with Jesus sending the disciples to proclaim good news to Israel.
The readings now pick up, more or less assuming that we are familiar with all those preceding materials.
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7).
The Torah reading carries forward Abraham’s story of getting a true heir with his wife, Sarah. This episode is the visitation by the mysterious figures who announce that Sarah – long past menopause in this story – is going to conceive a son from Abraham within the year. This announcement of a miraculous birth in the Abraham story corresponds to the announcement of the virgin conception in the Jesus story (Luke 1). Peoples of traditional cultures seek such divinely guided birth events for the destiny-making figures of their tribes, kingdoms, or world eons. New turns in human events are marked by divine signs – the meanings of which are known to keepers of tradition and to the scriptures.
The first half of the reading – the narrative of Abraham’s eager and fastidious hospitality – is one of the most anthropomorphic presentations of the God of Israel in the scriptures. It therefore gave rise over the ages to Rabbinic homilies about these human features of God, about Abraham’s hospitality to the Almighty, and Sarah’s mixture of mockery and praise at the promise of a son.
On their part, the early Christian theologians emphasized the fact that this passage presents three divine figures as if they were one, revealing God’s triune character. (Thus, “the Lord appeared [singular] to Abraham,” verse 1, but “three men” show up; Abraham addresses them as “my Lord” [’adonai], singular, followed by singular pronouns, verse 3; when the deity speaks there is first a plural verb, “They said to him…,” verse 8, followed by God’s solemn speech in the singular, “I will surely return to you…,” verse 9.) These clues were sufficient to convince Christian theologians that here the Triune God appeared to Abraham!
The story’s ending has a word-play that explains Isaac’s name (yitsḥaq). The name is built from the root TS-Ḥ-Q, which has a range of meanings from “laughing” to “joking” to “making fun of” to sexual “play” (used to describe Isaac “fondling” his wife Rebecca in Genesis 26:8). The verb is first used here in verse 12, “And Sarah laughed to herself…” This laughter would prove to be both mocking – hardly in my old age – and secretly hopeful and joyful. It later became openly joyful when Isaac was born and named in 21:1-7, with Sarah’s laughter elaborated in 21:6.
The matrix of hoary antiquity, divine power, sexuality, and laughter in this passage has led some subtle interpreters to learn from it profound secrets about the deep psychic worlds of Abraham or of the whole of Jewish culture. It is, in fact, an idyllic tribal picture of the patriarch and matriarch entertaining angels – not so unawares – and receiving the gift of a destiny-making son of their own.
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19.
The Psalm reading is from a psalm of thanksgiving. In general terms the speaker insists that God has answered past pleas for help. Now there is liturgical celebration at the sanctuary where the speaker lifts a toast to the God who saves (verse 13) and declares that all past vows – uttered in times of distress – will now be fulfilled. This is good news to the poor of the land, who get their periodic feasts from such thanksgiving banquets of the well-to-do.
The whole psalm is designed to be spoken by a king, here declaring himself to be a servant of God, the son of a queen-mother, God’s “serving girl” (verse 16). The conduct and attitude of the king, however, sets a pattern for all the worthies in his realm, and the faithful will learn from it as they do from the model of Abraham’s hospitality to God.
[An Introduction to the Epistle to the Romans, by this writer, has recently been posted on the Community Renewal Society online Blog for Study Bible reviews.]
The Epistle reading is a kind of summary and transition passage. The transition is between the view just developed that believers are “justified” before God by God’s own grace (chapters 3-4) and the elaboration, yet to come, of the life lived by those who have received God’s grace (chapters 6-8).
The summary declares, “we have peace with God” (verse 1, following the NRSV reading). This peace makes possible a totally different attitude toward sufferings. Because of this peace with God, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (verses 3-4). We have an orientation, a profound sense of direction, because God’s love has been given to us through the Holy Spirit (verse 5). This last part will be fully developed in chapters 6 through 8.
This new condition is only possible, however, because of the death of Christ.
Paul pauses to ponder the gravity of this. “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But … while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (verses 7-8). This dying is itself the expression of the love of God for us, and we shall see how the dying is the key to our transformation as we read chapter 6 in the next two weeks.
Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23).
The Gospel reading introduces the second great body of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel According to Matthew.
The Sermon on the Mount had elaborated the blessings and the challenges of those included in the newly arriving Kingdom of Heaven (chapters 5-7). After a series of miracles and sayings about discipleship (chapters 8 and 9), Jesus presents a full range of instructions for those who will be sent out and will live as apostles. This full discourse on the Apostolic Mission (chapter 10) will occupy the Gospel readings for the next three weeks.
Actually, the preferred term in Matthew is “disciples” rather than apostles. Elsewhere Matthew describes how five of the disciples were called by Jesus (Peter, Andrew, James, and John in 4:18-22, and Matthew in 9:9). Here (in 10:2-4) the disciples are twelve in number, and their names are given, though nothing further is known of most of them. (Essentially the same list of twelve is given in Mark 3:16-19, in Luke 6:13-16, and in Acts 1:13.)
The word “apostles” is used only once in Matthew, and that is in the heading of this list of the twelve names (10:2). The term probably belongs to that list as Matthew received it and chose not to change it. Otherwise, his term is “disciples.” It is the eleven “disciples” who receive the final commission to the world in 28:16. In the later history of the Church, however, it is the mission and status of the “apostles” that is very important.
The reading shows strong compassion on Jesus’ part for the neglected folks of Israel. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36, NRSV). The literal meaning of “harassed” is “skinned, flayed” as of animals, and the literal meaning of “helpless” is “cast down, prostrate,” as those who have been beaten and knocked down. Jesus’ compassion is for those who have been skinned and stomped, quite literally the downtrodden.
The first word of Jesus’ instruction to those going on mission is to go to Israel only. The opening words literally are, “Do not take any road of the nations, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans” (10:5b, my translation). The mission is to be strictly confined to Galilee. Within the Gospel According to Matthew, this is a limitation applying to Jesus’ time only. Later the apostles will go far and wide, well beyond Galilee.
But confined to Galilee, the disciples are to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom in the same terms used by John the Baptist and by Jesus earlier (Matthew 10:7, compared to 3:2 and 4:17). The power of the coming Kingdom has already begun to work. That is why the disciples, like Jesus earlier, can heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out the powers of evil, the demons (verse 8). The mission of the apostles is a healing ministry, which will bear its own testimony to the coming of the Kingdom.
Included in the optional reading (10:9-23) are many details of how the apostles should conduct themselves during their mission work. They are to be itinerants, staying no place very long, and without possessions – no traveling bag, no extra suit, no dress shoes, and no cane for walking or protection (verses 9-10). They will live off the people they visit and serve. This may seem hazardous for the missionaries, but it was also subject to abuse.
Such traveling ministers were well known in the rural churches of Syria just a few years after the Gospel of Matthew was completed in that area. The Didache gives the following instructions.
Now about the apostles and prophets: Act in line with the gospel precept. Welcome every apostle on arriving, as if he were the Lord. But he must not stay beyond one day. In case of necessity, however, the next day too. If he stays three days, he is a false prophet. On departing, an apostle must not accept anything save sufficient food to carry him till his next lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet. (Didache 11:3-6, trans. Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, Westminster Press, 1953, p. 176.)
Jesus’ compassion was for the needy and the downtrodden, and his disciples were to heal and help, not become an additional burden upon their flocks. They were to live by faith and bring the good works of God.