Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sunday 20 July 2014 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): (This is National Bible Sunday). Grace, mercy and kindness. Hope and glory. Patience and eager anticipation. Suffering and hope. Life in the kingdom. Judgment.

A note about National Bible Sunday: there are separate readings provided for this Sunday in the NZ Lectionary and you may choose to use them. However, on the principle of attempting to read the Bible in common with as many Christians around the world as possible each Sunday, following the readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time is a good thing to do. The readings together bear witness to the God whom the Bible proclaims and whose Word is written down for us in the Scriptures: a God of kindness and mercy, patient, yet the one God of the whole world, whose plan for the world is not yet completed, but one day will be, a day both to be looked forward to because the glory of God will be revealed fully and feared and respected as the day of judgment. Only through hearing God's Word and responding to it can we be sure that we will be counted among the grain bearing stalks rather than among the weeds which will be discarded by the harvesters.

Sentence: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).


God of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things,
graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish in us all goodness,
and of your great mercy
keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43


Isaiah 44:6-8

The choice of this reading looks ahead to a challenging (to understand) gospel reading. What God presides over a world in which the plan is to establish a kingdom for that God, yet an evil one is permitted to establish a rival kingdom? The prophet here acclaims the God of Israel as the one God of all the world ('besides me there is no god', 6, see also 8b).

For this God there is no question of a rival, not even an evil one sowing discord in the world.

Thus those who believe in the God of Israel do not need to be afraid (8).

Note a curious phrasing in 44:6, 'Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts.'

In part this is a condemnation of Babylonian claims about multiple gods controlling the world. No, says Isaiah, the LORD is the one God of all.

In another part, a seeming distinction between the LORD as the King of Israel and the LORD of hosts as 'his redeemer' anticipates the later christology in which the God of Israel is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Lord Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of Israel's God, the Son of God.

Psalm 86:11-17

It is sometimes said of the Old Testament that one, single, unifying idea cannot be found within it, which 'organises' its contents. But there is one great idea, one substantive teaching which shines through many of its pages, and these verses give expression to it: God is 'merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness' (15).

It is the God of this kind of love who brings the parable to us in today's gospel reading: a God who withholds judgment rather than hastens it.

Romans 8:12-25

If I am a Christian then I have the Spirit of God living within me (8:1-11). Paul continues to spell out what this means for you and me as Christians.

Essentially, we are under obligation, 'we are debtors' (12), our obligation being to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh (13).

But thinking this way takes Paul on a theological journey as he links one thought to another thought. He will come back to the battle between flesh and spirit (23, 26) but he moves on this journey as follows:

- the Spirit of God is not 'a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear', rather it is 'a spirit of adoption' (15);
-under the Spirit as our spirit of adoption we cry out to God as 'Abba, Father' (15c) which is also testimony that we are 'children of God' (16, also 14);
- if we are children of God then we are 'heirs of God' which also means we are 'joint heirs with Christ' (17a);
- but that last thought raises a 'check in', have we suffered with Christ so that we may be glorified with him? (17b)
- suffering now may be compared with glory to come, with the latter far outweighing the former (18);
- but thinking of what is not yet leads to thinking about 'creation' waiting 'with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God' (19);
- in turn Paul offers a deep reflection on creation as that which currently is subject to 'futility' (20) while yet able to anticipate being 'set free from its bondage to decay and [obtaining] the freedom of the glory of the children of God' (21), with the sense that creation 'until now' 'has been groaning in labour pains' we ourselves are involved as we 'groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies' (22-23);
- such anticipation of a better, fulfilled future is hopeful, in fact, 'in hope we are saved' (24a) which could mean, 'in hope we see what one day will be but which is not yet our completed experience';
- thus as an aside we have a few words about 'hope' (24) and its application 'we wait for it with patience' (25).

What does all this mean for the Christian today?

I suggest at least this: Paul faces the reality that in the battle between spirit and flesh, between living for God and living for self, between achieving ideal holy living and failing to achieve it here and now, it is very tough for believers. We are in the same position as 'groaning' creation. We long for that which we want but do not yet have. Whether this is a matter of suffering in itself (i.e the suffering of patiently withstanding temptation and living rightly) or we suffer as Christians simply for being Christians as enemies persecute us, Paul urges us to 'hang in there'. Hope tells us we will get to the end. The glory in that day will outweigh present trials. Don't give up!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The reading as selected from Matthew 13 focuses on one parable and its interpretation (in parallel with last week's reading, and both parables have 'seed' as a common motif).

Note that if the full reading, 13:24-43, were followed then we would have three parables of kingdom growth (24-33), deliberately joined together in a sequence. Further (and paralleling a missing part Matthew 13 in last week's reading) we would have a brief explanation concerning teaching by parables (13:34-35; parallel, 13:10-17): Matthew is a very sophisticated literary artist!

So, with that in the background, let's look at the 'parable of the weeds'.

The core idea is easy to understand, especially with the aid of the provided interpretation: the kingdom of heaven (= kingdom of God) consists (in this life, on earth) of 'children of the kingdom' and 'children of the evil one' (37).

This fact of the kingdom is visible and gives rise to thoughts of a human solution (27-29). But the master of the kingdom, God directs patience and waiting: the separation of the children of the kingdom and of the children of the evil one will take place at judgment and will be handled by the angels (30, 39-42).

The application of the parable - at first sight, straightforward, Wait and leave judgement to God! - is one tricky matter, another concerns how the kingdom can include both kinds of 'children'.

Clearly, in practical terms, evil people need separating from non-evil people: a murderer should be imprisoned, a paedophile kept well away from children ... a heretic denied a pulpit and a thief kept off the church silver cleaning roster. It would be absurd to suggest the parable means that in specific instances of these kinds, whether thinking of society broadly or more narrowly of congregational life, we should just let people be and allow them to carry on their evil ways.

But, if that is so, are there other 'evil' people whom we can tolerate between now and judgment day? That sounds a bit absurd. Especially if we focus on the life of the congregational church: it is hard work putting up with evil people who (say) disrupt congregational harmony, damage people through (say) gossip and putdowns, manipulatively abuse power. Much easier to expel the troublemakers!

But two such absurdities perhaps will make us think, 'what is the kingdom in this parable?' Perhaps we shouldn't think so much about an equation between kingdom and church (as often Christians have done). Indeed, not far away in Matthew's gospel, chapter 18, we have Jesus giving instruction for how to manage discipline in the church. Further, the emphasis on the judgment in the parable and its interpretation is on final judgment ('furnace of fire,' 42), not the outcome of a church tribunal. So, what is the kingdom in view here?

A strong clue seems to be in verse 38, 'the field is the world.' Jesus has the whole world in view here and the spread of the kingdom of heaven through it. More than church congregational life is being considered in this parable. Life in the world, lived under the rule of God (i.e. the kingdom of heaven) involves the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one mixing together socially. The parable and its interpretation is a specific command for the kingdom children to refrain from attempting to carry out God's judgment (1) before it is due according to God's timetable, (2) when it is not the designated role of the children to do so.

What are children of the kingdom to do? The application is, in the end, plain for us: remain faithful to our calling as children of the kingdom, bearing grain (i.e. living fruitful lives for God) (26), avoid becoming weeds, refrain from playing the role of God as judge, patiently endure the presence of evil people in the world.

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