Thanks be to God -- Lectionary Meditation
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Thanks be to God!
On this Independence Day weekend, when many congregations likely will want to hear a nationalistic word from the pulpit extolling the exceptionalism of America and America’s chosenness, there is little in the lectionary that will uphold these expectations. If we choose to heed the lectionary we likely will hear a message that differs from the dictates of our American Civil Religion. Instead, of a nationalistic pulpit oration, we are simply led to declare: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Even as there is little in this week’s lectionary readings to warrant a nationalistic oration, there is also little that holds together the three readings I have before me. The threads, whatever they may be, are tenuous at best. So, even though I like to look for common threads, this week it’s best that we listen for three different words and seek to understand what they have to say to us in this moment in time.
The context of our reading from Genesis 24 is Abraham’s decision to obtain a wife for his son Isaac, so that he can fulfill the promise with which he was born – that Abraham’s descendents are to be a blessing to the nations. Of course, when last we visited Abraham he was about to murder this very son, through whom God would provide his legacy. In that reading from Genesis 22, after God provided an alternative sacrifice, God also reaffirmed that covenant promise. But even if Isaac lived, he needed a male heir if the covenant was to be fulfilled. In his wisdom, Abraham decided to send for a wife from his kinfolk, so that Isaac wouldn’t marry a Canaanite woman. Note that Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, who was banished with his mother after the birth of Isaac, found a wife among the Egyptians, and while he would be the father of nations, according to Genesis – God had chosen Isaac to be the mediator of the covenant, and this meant that he couldn’t bear a child who was part Canaanite.
So, we come to our text, which is the report of Abraham’s servant, who has been sent to the household of his relative Bethuel to find a wife for his son. Isaac will do the same for his son Jacob as well – though in time there will be mothers of importance whose background is other than from within the tribe (Rahab and Ruth to mention but two). When the servant arrives at the appropriate well – wells have a certain sense of promise and even fertility to them in this context – and he asks that God would guide his steps and prays that the woman who answers his request for water by offering to water his camels would be the chosen one. Sure enough, along comes the very attractive Rebekah, daughter of “Bethuel, the son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore,” and when she answers the question appropriately, the servant places a ring on her nose and bracelets on her arms. The placement of the ring on the nose is a good reminder that the biblical customs are both different from ours, but also a reminder to those who are bothered by nose rings, that there is biblical precedent for such decorations! As one might expect in an age when a woman is the property of her father (or eldest male relative), and it’s not clear from the text whether Bethuel is alive or not, as Laban steps into the conversation and does some of the negotiations. For Rebekah to go with the servant and become the wife of Isaac some business must be transacted and gifts exchanged (though Rebekah gets her share as well). But, what is interesting is that in the end Rebekah is asked whether she wants to go, and when she agrees, off they go to find Isaac who is living in the Negev. Isaac welcomes her into this home, takes her into his mother’s tent and he loves here – “so Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
What is important to hear in this passage concerns the promise of blessing, for without a spouse for Isaac, the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, that their descendants would be vast in number and that they would be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 22:17-18). As we discovered in the earlier text, God will provide a way so that the covenant would continue. Now, as Rebekah agrees to take up the role of Isaac’s wife, her family offers a blessing that is in line with the earlier blessing of God: “May you, our sister, become thousands of ten thousand; may your children possess their enemies’ cities. ” (Gen. 24:60). Yes, God does provide the blessing.
From this joyous account of God’s provision, we turn to Paul’s rambling and rather complex confession of sin, wherein he declares that he’d like to do the right thing, but that just doesn’t seem to be in the cards because sin has taken hold of his life. He speaks of two competing laws that are present in his life -- the law of God, which commands that he do what is right and the law of sin and death. It would appear that the latter is stronger than the former, because he’s finding it difficult to break free from its grip. He is, therefore, a slave to sin, which leads to death. There is a very strong Augustinian feel to this passage. I sin because I can’t help it – or so it seems. Indeed, it does seem as if Paul is making clear that there’s no room in his theology for Pelagius to reside. Sin has control of the will, so doing good is impossible, even if we want to do the right thing. But is Paul really that much of a determinist? Or could Paul have something else in mind than simply stating that as individuals our wills are so fragile that we can’t help ourselves?
As we ponder the traditional deterministic interpretation there is the possibility that there is a word of hope for us to hear. The key is the contrast in laws – we don’t do what is wrong because of the law of God, which exposes sin as being sin (Rom. 7:13-14), but the law of sin, which defines the old age in which we live. In Ron Allen and Clark Williamson’s commentary on this text they suggest that Paul isn’t admitting guilt or even sinfulness (that is, this isn’t an autobiographical statement, but a representative one), but instead declares that sin and death hold sway in our world – at least for now. The write that “sin is a power in which individuals, groups, and nations can become ensnared, like fish caught in a net.” But, it’s not just that we need a bit more will power, what we need is grace, which is why Paul breaks out in praise, declaring his thanks to God in Jesus Christ! (Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Letters Without Dismissing the Law: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 73).
Finally, in a lection that is divided in two parts, so that the congregation needn’t hear words of judgment from the lips of Jesus, we hear a word about trust and comfort, reminding us that the wisdom of God might look somewhat different from human wisdom! I must confess that parts of this passage that is designed to offer me words of comfort makes me uncomfortable – that is the word that the things of good are hidden from the “wise and intelligent and have [been] revealed to infants.” I take great comfort in the message that when I am weary I can trust my life to the broad shoulders of Christ (though this text in its origins points us to Wisdom – Sirach 6:24-28), but I’m troubled by what at least on the surface seems like an anti-intellectual statement. That is not to say that one must be an intellectual to experience the presence of God, but at the same time, in the face of anti-intellectual temptations (such as young earth creationism), we must be careful not to jettison the mind as well as the spirit. I have been, on occasion, accused of being too intellectual and too much of a rationalist, and thus must embrace the heart over the head. My feeling in all of this is that there must be balance. So, I have my issues, but at the same time, I do hear the message present in the text itself, wherein Jesus calls us to consider that God’s wisdom might depart from human wisdom.
In the opening lines of the passage Jesus responds to those who appear to have criticized both John the Baptist and him, but for very different reasons. As for Jesus, the criticism ultimately comes down to the company he keeps, for as we know, “birds of a feather flock together). Of course, in making his argument he speaks of our own inconsistencies, wherein we criticize some for their austerity (John the Baptist) and others for their spendthrift ways (Jesus). One is chastised for not dancing, and the other for drinking and cavorting with the wrong kind of people! This is the problem Jesus has identified as representing human wisdom, whereas God is intent on bringing the alienated back into relationship. Thus, this isn’t a word of support for anti-intellectual measures, but instead is an invitation to look at life differently, in a way that is different from the way the world often looks at things.
For this to happen, then we must trust God to lead us. No one knows the father, but the son, or knows the son but the father – and those whom the son chooses to reveal this knowledge. In other words, to get beyond this impasse we must allow Jesus the opportunity to point us in a new direction. The wisdom of God is a subversive wisdom, one that turns things upside down and upsets our traditions. Indeed, he undermines conventional wisdom. So, be careful in your thinking!
Therefore, he issues the invitation – come to me, all that are weary, and I’ll give you rest. Take my yoke and I’ll take yours. Lay your burdens down, for they are heavy and unwieldy, and take up mind, “for I am gentle and humble in heart.” My yoke is easy and burden light. Yes, trust in me, and I will make the way forward known. Maybe that’s what Rebekah discovered, as did Paul? Could there be a thread here after all? Thanks be to God!