- Genesis 29: 15-28
The intrigue and duplicity among the patriarchal and matriarchal families continue, but God finds ways for the Covenant to be preserved and renewed. Jacob has fallen for Rachel, the younger daughter of his uncle, Laban. To win her, Laban asks for seven years service from Jacob. He accepts the terms, which “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” When the seven years are completed, Jacob tells Laban: “Give me my wife that I may go with her…” Laban puts on an elaborate party, promising Rachel to Jacob that night. However, under the cover of darkness, Laban took his older daughter, Leah, to Jacob instead of Rachel. In the dark, using only his sense of touch, Jacob could not tell the difference between the two sisters. But the next morning, when he realizes what has happened, Jacob confronts Laban: “Why then have you deceived me?” Laban responds that the custom in his country is that the younger daughters are not married before the “first born.” Laban now proposes that for one week’s more labor, he will give both his daughters to Jacob. Which is what happened. In this convoluted, human plot of both dishonesty and sincerity, God’s covenant continued for another generation.
- Psalm 105: 1-11
The psalmist recalls God’s mighty acts, beginning with God’s initiating a covenant with Abraham and Sarah, which the Lord renewed with Isaac and then Jacob.
- Psalm 128
This “Wisdom psalm” identifies a happy home life as one of the blessings of those “who fear the Lord/who walk in His ways.” Enjoying the food that comes from “the toil of your hands” at table with parents and children is its own blessing. The psalmist concludes with a benediction: “may you see children of your children.”
- I Kings 3: 5-12
The narrative of I Kings highlights Solomon’s “wisdom.” At Gibeon, a place of worship in Benjamin, the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream, addressing him: “Ask what I should give you?” Solomon responds first by acknowledging a gift that God has already given him– the “great and steadfast love” shown to his father, David, and to the son soon to succeed him on the throne. Solomon asks God for “an understanding mind… to discern between good and evil….” The Lord promises to fulfill Solomon’s request as no one before or after him. (Walter Brueggemann describes the particular understanding of “wisdom” in the Hebrew scriptures and Solomon as an exemplar this way: “An Old Testament articulation of humanness does not flinch from celebrating shrewdness and insight of a tough-minded kind. But the discernment to which human persons are enjoined is not simply technical knowledge. It is, rather, a sense of how things work in God’s inscrutable deployment of creation. It is the delicate recognition that reality is an intricate network of limits and possibilities, of givens and choices that must be respected , well-managed and carefully guarded in order to enhance the well-being willed by and granted by Yahweh for the whole earth.” (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 465)
- Psalm 119: 129-136
The psalmist compares the Lord’s “precepts” to light that can make even the “simple” to understand. The psalmist “pants” and “craves” the Lord’s “commands.” “Shine Your face upon Your servant/and teach me Your statues.”
- Romans 8: 26-39
Paul acknowledges his “sighs too deep for words.” But then he discovers that God “stretches the heart.” After he repeats the creed– “Christ Jesus who dies, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us”– Paul finds his voice and becomes bold, confident and articulate. “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
- Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
Matthew’s narrative examines in considerable detail the extent and the ways in which Jesus was misunderstood and rejected. In this series of comparisons, God’s word and work in Jesus is depicted as small, humble, and buried but not impossible to seek and to find. The individual must take the initiative to seek and find. But once Jesus’ message is found, it is prized. Who has found it authentically? Leave that judgment to God. Each of the five short parables in this very compact excerpt is meant to provide a different glimpse of the central theme of Jesus’ teaching about “the Kingdom of God.” It can start out in someone’s imagination and heart as small as a “mustard seed,” yet grow mightily. Or, like yeast which causes dough to rise and expand, it can transform and enlarge. Or, it is like a unique discovery one makes and sells everything else to possess it. Or, like a jeweler, who finds the most exquisite pearl she has ever seen in her life and sells all her other possessions to have it. This excerpt closes with an eschatological proviso: it is also like a fisherman’s net, which scoops up everything in the sea, but when brought to shore the “good” are separated from the “bad.” “So it will be at the end of the age.” “The angels” will do the sorting. A statement unique to Matthew’s narrative appears next. One who is “trained” [in the ways] of the Kingdom is like a householder who brings out of her possessions “what is old and what is new.”
The texts of the Christian scriptures insist that following Jesus does not require sophisticated nor esoteric knowledge. The tendency is to over-complicate the project, turn it into abstract, theological arguments, or to shellac it over with piety. The practice of God’s wisdom, clearly seen in Jesus, can be as routine as daily life. Entrance into “the Kingdom of God” is that direct.
Writing about the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fergus Kerr observes: “What is primary and foundational, according to Wittgenstein, is, however, neither ideas nor beliefs nor any class of mental events, but human beings in a multiplicity of transactions with one another.” On the preceding page, Kerr quotes Wittgenstein: “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something– because it is always before one’s eyes.”) (Theology after Wittgenstein, pp 119 and 118)
Also inspired by Wittgenstein, Henry Staten notes: “Language stores up insights for us, but saves us the trouble of actively bringing them into being; it is our ethical responsibility to quicken them with the constitutive activity of our minds.” (Wittgenstein and Derrida, p. 32)
The “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s text has acquired the skill to sort through her “possessions” and keep some old, familiar things and to acquire some entirely new things. The more one ‘does’ kingdom things, the more one understands its peculiar perspective; the more one sees from God’s perspective, the more one performs ‘kingdom’ deeds. The stronger the insight, the more deeds proliferate. One’s life becomes a self-fulfilling activity. This ‘kingdom’ perspective can begin small– as “small as a mustard seed”– but grow into a life-transforming event that causes one to jettison some [old] “treasures” to acquire and hold other [new] “treasures.” (This seems to mimic the same peculiar “wisdom” Solomon requested.)
We tend to encrust biblical insights with extraneous questions and issues, (perhaps as an avoidance of their “simplicity and familiarity”). The actual barrier, however, is not understanding, but the compulsive priorities of our deeply complicated human nature. But as both readings and psaltery responses from the Hebrew scriptures for today vividly illustrate, God’s ways can prosper despite and even through human frailty. So, the bad news is human beings are very clever at avoiding wisdom of any kind– common sense wisdom or “God’s wisdom.” But the good news, as today’s gospel makes clear, is that when and where God’s “wisdom” is sought and, as importantly, practiced, it can flourish, even if it starts out so small it is hardly noticed at first; as tiny as a “mustard seed.”