- Genesis 25: 19-34
Isaac’s story continues. Last Sunday’s reading relayed how Rebekah was found among his father Abraham’s people as a wife for Isaac. Now we are told the story of their marriage and “the descendants of Isaac.” Rebekah was “barren,” but the Lord granted Isaac’s prayer and she conceived twin sons who “struggled within her.” Distraught, Rebekah hears from the Lord the reason for this troubled pregnancy: “Two nations are in your womb, and two people born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” At birth, the first born is “red and hairy,” so he was named Esau; the second born came out of the womb “gripping Esau’s heel,” and was named Jacob. Their father came to favor Esau, who was a hunter and an outdoorsman over Jacob, who was a “quiet man, living in tents,” and he became his mother’s favorite. One day, Esau asked Jacob for some of “that red stuff” he was cooking. Jacob seized the opportunity and offered his brother a deal: he would give him some of the stew if Esau would sell his birthright as the first-born son. Esau casually agreed, saying “I am about to die; of what is a birthright to me?” In this way, the narrative concludes, “Then Esau despised his birthright.” Thereafter, Esau was given the nickname Edom. As the Lord had promised, each was the father of a separate tribe or nation; Esau the Edomites and Jacob, who is still celebrated in Jewish folklore for his cleverness.
- Psalm 119: 105-112
The psalmist testifies to his personal loyalty to the Lord’s just laws, even when his life is at risk, or perhaps especially when it is at risk!
- Isaiah 55: 10-13
Isaiah declares on the Lord’s behalf: Just as the rain renews and sustains the earth, so shall my word that goes forth out of my mouth.
- Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14
After acknowledging that silence might be the best response to the God’s splendor and always reliable justice, the psalmist finds a metaphor to express his praise in the way the earth is “soaked” so that the earth flourishes in beauty and bounty.
- Romans 8: 1-11
Paul draws a thin but unbreakable distinction. On one side are our instincts– fear, jealousy, self-absorption, self-aggrandizement, indifference. On the other are love, forgiveness, compassion, all those qualities Jesus embodied extravagantly. In Paul’s parlance: the one side is “flesh,” the other “spirit.”
- Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
In this extended excerpt, Jesus tells the growing crowds following him “many things in parables,” (which only Matthew writes [13:34-35], is a fulfillment of scripture, [Psalm 78:2],) because it is obvious some hear and see but do not understand Jesus or his message, (which only Matthew notes is the same insight Isaiah had [6: 9-10]). The parable itself and the pedantic explication that follows is pretty straight-forward, on one level: lack of “understanding” after one has heard “the word of the kingdom” means it has not taken root, withers quickly “when trouble or persecution arises,” and produces nothing. “But as for what was sown in good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case, a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Frank Kermode provides an extensive, stimulating comparison between Matthew’s and Mark’s treatment of these passages in the Norton Lectures, subsequently published as The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative, p. 28 ff.)
The ministry of Jesus was not successful. As all four gospel writers are at pains to point out there was mostly confusion or outright hostility to him and his work. There was always confusion even among those who wanted to follow him. Was he the Messiah or not? Is this really what was expected of the Messiah? Should I trust him, especially when it seems as if most people do not understand him or are threatened by him? Is he the anointed One or should we wait for another?
Jacques Derrida has ruminated over a story told by Maurice Blanchot near the end of The Writing of the Disaster, a response to the Holocaust. As Blanchot tells the story, the Messiah just shows up one day among the beggars and other rejects who live at the city gates into Rome where they can beg. At first, the Messiah blends in. But eventually someone recognizes him and asks him, “When will you come?” The Messiah replies: “If anyone will heed my words, (emphasis added) I will come today.” John Caputo, Derrida’s American interpreter reflects on this story and Derrida’s treatment of it:
“The Messianic ‘today’ means: if you will begin, now, to respond to the call for the Messiah not with hollow words but with virtue. There is a way of waiting for the future that is going on right now, that begins here and now, and places an urgent demand upon us at this moment.” (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, p. 80)
In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus has said that those in whom is words take root will “bear fruit.” Hence, although fleetingly and precariously in each human being, the Messiah comes: “If anyone will heed my words, I will come today.” How do the words of Jesus take root and flourish and eventually bear the fruit of compassion and justice? It happens in a response, a response to an over-the-top gift. Adriene von Speyer, the partner and inspiration of Hans Urs von Balthasar, captured this dynamic when she wrote:
“…This is the essence of the Lord’s gift of self: it is a full gift, knowing no measure, poured out extravagantly. And when the Lord shows this gift of himself to people, he awakens in them the understanding of such a gift as self, he makes it possible for them to imitate him. He awakens in them the yearning to to give more than they themselves possess. He draws forth from them an inclination to pass beyond boundaries.” (Quoted by Michelle Schumacher, Modern Theology, June 2011, p. 363)
The one who has “ears,” let that person “hear.” When will the Messiah come; has the Messiah come already? “If anyone will heed my words, I will come today.”