The Flesh is Weak -- A lectionary meditation
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The Flesh is Weak . . .
“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” That’s Paul’s analysis of the human condition. It is a problem we face as human beings – we set our sights on doing great things, but often find ourselves falling short. We get distracted by video games, TV, Facebook, procrastinating, and sometimes just plain rebellion. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I will confess – this is my story. When I think of all the time wasted just putzing around, I wonder what I could have done had I “really put my mind into it.” In our three texts for the week (even if I’m not preaching this Sunday I’ll offer my thoughts), we have texts that witness to this dilemma, but also offer possibilities of hope. All is not lost!
In the reading from the Hebrew Bible – the Genesis reading (24:19-34) – we move on a generation from Isaac – the one Abraham almost sacrificed before God provided the alternative. The covenant has been extended – God still has an opportunity to bless the nations, but the question is – through whom will the covenant extend. Isaac and Rebekah have two sons – twins actually – who even in the womb have struggled for dominance. The parents-to-be are told by God (Isaac had prayed that God would free his wife from her barren state so he might have an heir, and God provided, but with a proviso. These two children will be the father of two different nations and the elder of the two will serve the younger).
The first born – Esau – is born with a reddish complexion and his body covered with hair (these comments help explain why he will be the father of the nation of Edom (from a word meaning red – and the hairiness signifying the crudeness, which the Jews ascribed to the Edomites), and as he grows up he will become a skilled hunter and live in the fields. In other words – this is a man’s man!! And, Isaac will show a preference for the first born (even if only by minutes). The second born is very different from the elder, but he is a fighter. Indeed, he came out of the womb, says the writer of this part of Genesis, grasping the heel of the brother, seeking to supplant his brother (thus the name – Jacob). And the struggle would continue once out of the womb. The second born, whom they named Jacob was, according to our text” quiet and lived in tents. Rebekah preferred the more refined second son!
Now comes the point of the story – Esau is the one who by rights of primogeniture (first born son) is to receive the bulk of the inheritance. He is the heir, but God has already made it clear that the older will serve the younger. When Esau comes in from the fields, he is tired and hungry (famished), and when he sees the stew his brother is cooking he asks for some food. But Jacob, while willing to share, is the supplanter, and even as he was trying to get ahead coming out of the womb, he decides on a new way of accomplishing this goal of gaining the birth right. He preys upon the weakness of the flesh, and tells his brother that he’ll give him a meal in exchange for his birthright – short term gain in exchange for long term gain. Esau has decided that if he doesn’t eat he won’t live, so why not. He even swears an oath when requested. And so the famished one, the older brother, exchanges his future for a bowl of lentil stew. And the writer of this text comments: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Why, because the flesh was weak! And the pathway of blessing will go through the supplanter!
What is described in narrative form in Genesis receives more doctrinal development in this text from Romans 8, a passage that begins with a fairly well known statement – “There is therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” Here is a word of blessing – if you want to live a life free of condemnation, then be in Christ. In him the law of sin and death is overcome by the law of the spirit of life. The flesh – it is weak. It will trade a birthright for a bowl of stew. It will trade the long term for the short term. It thinks with the stomach not the heart and mind. That is the way of the flesh, but the way of the Spirit is different. While the flesh is hostile to God, to be in the Spirit is to have God dwelling within, and thus to be in Christ is to have life in the Spirit – and death will have lost its hold on one’s life, making it possible to live in a way that is pleasing to God.
Finally we come to the Gospel. It too is a well known text. If you’re not sure what Jesus is talking about in the beginning, Matthew offers an official interpretation of the Parable of the Sower. Very simply, the sower sows seed rather indiscriminately, with some landing on the path, where the birds eat it. Some falls in the rocks and while it grows quickly, once the sun comes out it withers and dies, because it doesn’t have deep roots. Then there is the seed that falls amongst the thorns and gets choked out by them (we all know about weeds – nothing seems to be able to outgrow them. Then, finally, some of the seed lands on good soil and the seed produces grain anywhere from 30 fold to 100 fold. So, what have we learned? Perhaps one should be more discriminating where one plants seed if one wants to have a good harvest. Of course that’s not what Jesus or Matthew has in mind.
So, if your ears have yet to understand the issues present in the parable, in verses 18-23 Matthew offers an interpretation. This is, as most parables are, about the kingdom of God. The parable seeks to explain why some hear the message and respond positively and others don’t. It has to do, in large part to the nature of human flesh! So, sometimes, Jesus tells us, the evil one comes along and snatches the word away from us before it has a chance to get planted in our hearts and minds. Or we could say – the recipient of the message simply wasn’t paying attention so it bounced back. Then there’s the rocky ground – wherein the person hears the message and joyfully responds, except that they don’t really plant deep roots and so when difficulty emerges they fall away. This is a very common problem, and requires our attention, for too often a person comes into the community, shows lively interest, we have a need, and we dump a job on them. They take it up, but when difficulties come (and they always do, especially in the church) they simply fall away from faith and community. Then there is that common malady of having our faith crowded out by all the cares of the world. We would walk with God, we would engage with the community, but we have to do this and do that. Thus, the message falls again on deaf ears. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!
Finally there is the good soil – and the one who hears and understands and bears fruit is the one who possesses good soil. This is the one in whom the Spirit is moving, the one who is receptive, the one whose ears are ready to hear.
With the passages from Paul and Matthew in mind, I return to the story of Jacob and Esau. As is often true in Genesis, the narrator is trying to explain the realities of the world. There are two nations that are in competition – Edom and Israel – who have common ancestry, but who have gone different directions. But for us, the question has to do with the short term versus the long term. Esau was thinking short term when he exchanged his birthright for a bowl of stew. The question is – how often do we make the same choice – exchanging long term benefits for the short term pleasure of the moment. I know that this true for me in my diet and many other areas. I fail to look long term. Our nations do the same thing. When it comes to the environment – we hear it said that it will be too expensive, and while this is true in the short term, when we look downstream a few decades it’s clear that what seems expensive now is really not nearly as expensive as trading one’s birth right for a bowl of stew!
So, while the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak! But, in Christ, the law of sin and death gives way to the Spirit of life. So there is hope! Indeed, there is good soil that can produce a bountiful harvest. May Christ prepare the soil of one's life to receive the seed of the Word!