- Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28
Patriarchal and matriarchal and sibling rivalry continues into the next generation, but God finds a way to extend the covenant. Jacob/Israel and Rachel’s seventeen year old son, Joseph, was assisting his brothers in shepherding the flocks of their extended family. He returned home to tell his father,”who loved Joseph more than all his sons,” some sort of tale that put his brothers in a bad light. The fact that their father had shown favor for Joseph by giving only him “an ornamental tunic” just exacerbated their jealousy; “they hated him….” On a later occasion, Jacob/Israel sent Joseph to join his brothers who were now tending the flocks somewhere near Shechem. On the way to find his brothers, “a man” discovered Joseph wandering and asked, “what is it you are seeking?” He said he was looking for his brothers. “The man” directed him to where they had gone. When they saw Joseph approaching, they hatched a plot “how to put him to death.” They decided to kill the “dream master” and throw him in “a pit” where wild beasts would surely come along and devour him. But another brother, Ruben, said they could not be responsible for murder. Instead, they stripped him of the elaborate cloak their father had given him and threw him into a pit that was empty of water. As they ate, they saw an approaching caravan on its way to Egypt. Another brother, Judah, proposed they sell Joseph, rather than murder him, because “he is our brother and our flesh.” The traveling merchants bought Joseph for twenty pieces of silver and took him to Egypt, (where, of course, the next chapters in these amazing stories will unfold).
- Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
The psalmist rehearses the Lord’s great “deeds among the peoples,” beginning with Abraham and Sarah, continuing with Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, who was sold as a slave and taken into Egypt. He was shackled and tortured until “the king” had him freed. He became master of his own house and flourished and prospered in Egypt. (This is the only mention of Joseph in the entire psaltery.)
- I Kings 19: 9-18
The prophet Elijah had a long history of conflict with the reigning King and Queen of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel, who promoted the cult of Baal. Fleeing from the vengeance of Jezebel, Elijah “came to a cave and spent the night there.” During the night, “the Lord came to him,” asking what he was doing hiding in a cave. Elijah forcefully replied: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forgotten your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.” Elijah continued his accounting of himself: “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” The Lord told Elijah to leave the cave and “stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” At first, there is a wind strong enough “to split mountains and shatter rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind.” Then followed an earthquake, but the Lord was not there; then fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, “a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah “heard it” and “wrapped his face in his mantel….” “A voice ” asked Elijah for an accounting, and he repeated his prior report of service and loyalty to the Lord. The Lord told Elijah to go and anoint new leaders: Hazale as king over Aram; Jehu as king over Israel; and Elisha as your successor. The two new kings will take up the sword against Ahab, leaving “seven thousand in Israel… that have not bowed to Baal.”
- Psalm 85: 8-13
The psalmist gives thanks that the Lord forgave “Your people’s crimes” and continues by asking for the Lord’s “enduring kindness.” “Let me hear the Lord God speak,” because when the Lord speaks, “kindness and truth have met/justice and peace have kissed.” Truth “springs up” from the earth as justice “looks down from heaven.”
- Romans 10: 5-15
Paul expounds on a frequent theme is his writings: the difference between God’s gift to Moses of the Law, as literally written in stone, along with all the written and oral commentary it has inspired over the centuries, vis a vis God’s new gift in Christ. The “words” of faith are no longer distant in any way, they are “on your lips and in your heart, ” beginning with the personal testimony “that Jesus is Lord.” and “that God raised him from the dead.” The dynamic of faith now becomes a direct connection between what is in one’s heart and what one speaks. Paul quotes the prophet (Joel: 2:32) to underline that essential act of speaking: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But a dialogue/conversation/call-response does not happen unless someone initiates it: “how are they to hear without someone to proclaim….”
- Matthew 14: 22-33
After miraculously feeding well more than 5,000 people, Jesus “immediately” ordered his disciples to get in a boat and “dismissed” the crowds. He went by himself up the mountain to pray. Overnight, while Jesus was on the mountain, strong winds had taken the boat with his disciples in it out into the sea and buffeted them. At morning, Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. When they saw him, the disciples were “terrified,” convinced they were seeing a “ghost.” They “cried out in fear.” But Jesus spoke: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Here Matthew inserts a dialogue with Peter not included in Mark’s version.) Peter requests, Lord if it is you, let me come to you on the water. Jesus tells Peter to come. He starts out confidently, but soon begins to sink. He cries out, “Lord save me;” Jesus rescues Peter, but chastises Peter for his “little faith.” After Jesus and Peter are safely in the boat with the other disciples, the winds die down and the sea becomes calm. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.” (A title very rarely used in the gospels, but used here perhaps to emphasize that Jesus has power over the elements, which had been presumed to be a power exclusive to God. (Daniel Boyrarin has written a highly original discussion of the titles “Son of Man” and “Son of God” as used in Christian scriptures: The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. See also Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, by Geza Vermes, who traces the evolution of various titles for Jesus in scripture and the early church councils )
The received text of Elijah’s encounter with “the Lord, the God of Hosts,” nonchalantly includes two totally opposite experiences of God: “sheer” silence and then direct conversation. The psalmist (85) hopes and prays that she will “hear the Lord God speak,” because when the Lord speaks, inevitably kindness, truth, and justice spring to life in human affairs. The psalmist (105) transforms the prose story of Joseph into poetry, which can also be put to music. Paul, the highly trained rabbi, insists that the same God who gave the gift of the Law in stone also gave the gift of Christ in the flesh, meaning that the “words” of faith are no longer distant, but “on your lips and in your heart.” He then establishes a rule– anyone “who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But he also declares that no one knows on whom to call or what to actually say unless someone else tells them. Unnerved by being buffeted by life-threatening winds all night long, the disciples of Jesus are at first “terrified” when they see him coming across the water until he speaks the words: “do not be afraid.” After an initial outburst of enthusiasm, Peter begins to sink and cries out spontaneously the words that redeem the crisis, “Lord save me.” When the sea is calm and all are safe, the disciples “worship” Jesus with the honorific title, “Son of God.”
The uniquely human activity of language reveals, enables, initiates action, connects, imparts, bestows meaning. For Jean-Louis Chretien human language is where “spirit erupts.” In The Call and the Response, Chretien writes:
“This voice, our own, the human voice where we listen forever to what beckons us, is the very place where spirit erupts into the world. In the timbre of the voice, spirit manifests itself the only way that it is possible for it, which is body and soul. It gives itself by uttering itself.”
Paul writes that, because of Christ, the words of faith are no longer distant, but “on your lips and in your hearts.” Speaking the words of faith has consequences: it reveals the heart, testifies, teaches others, inspires congruent action. Although the only way we learn the words of faith is from others, when we utter the words for ourselves, they become our own. Again Chretien: what we say is “intimately our own insofar as it reveals something to us about our own utterance and its meaning.” When Peter was panicked, as he was sinking into the sea, he did not painstakingly construct a treatise, he blurted out, “Lord save me.” It probably surprised him as much as anyone else. Where did he learn those words? The seeds had been planted after listening to all the public teaching and the private conversations with Jesus. We do not make up the words of redemption by ourselves. We learn them from someone, somewhere. And now we hear Peter blurt them out.
However, language is only possible because we have listened. Chretien continues: “To speak is to have listened and to be listening still….” We speak because we have listened and learned. Regarding the gospel specifically, Paul asks, how can anyone hear it unless someone tells it to them?
Listening then speaking words on our own reveal and, at the same time, shape who we become. Chretien again: “Our voice does not constitute itself by itself, does not give itself since it always responds, but it does give voice to whatever calls it….” (pp 44-45)
Knowing what to say because we have listened and learned applies to all human language. The peculiar language we have learned from scriptures always has the same, distinctive effect on ourselves and others– justice, truth and kindness “spring up” in human affairs, the psalmist testifies. It is language we mimic from God who, although shrouded in “sheer silence,” also has chosen to speak clearly and directly through the words and the Word made flesh. If we make the decisions to pay close attention to those peculiar biblical words– reading, listening, interpreting them over and over throughout a lifetime– we will be fundamentally changed, becoming a very different person than if we had never heard them nor learned to speak them for ourselves. Chretien finally: “In calling me, the call does not leave me intact: it surges only by opening a space in me to be heard, and therefore by shattering something of what I was before I felt myself to be called.” (p. 48)
It is obvious but still worth noting: Elijah, the psalmists, Paul and Peter became who they were because they made the intentional choice to pay close attention to the words of faith they had heard and eventually to utter the words on their own. And so can we.