The theological lessons associated with the eighth Sunday After Pentecost are so plentiful, they defy facile assignment to a few over-arching themes. Accordingly, I offer a “grab bag” of a half-dozen heterogeneous lessons among the many in the lections recommended for this Sunday. And yes, the reference to a “grab bag” is intended to offer the attentive among us a pun.
Some will note that these lessons begin with Genesis accounts of vignettes in the life of the well-known “grabber” himself — the would-be birthright usurper, Jacob. Some will remember that Jacob’s name in Biblical Hebrew is “Ya’akov” meaning one who grabs the heel or who usurps, which we might loosely render in today’s English as “grabber.”
So let’s start digging into our “grab bag” with a continuation of our study of the instructive life of the grabber himself, Jacob.
1. Having fled the wrath of his older twin Esau — after tricking the latter into exchanging his birth right of the eldest for a “mess of pottage” — Jacob in Genesis 29 has settled down with his uncle Laban in Haran and wishes to marry one of Laban’s daughters: the “graceful and beautiful” Rachel, whom Jacob passionately loves. Laban gives his permission, but he exacts a lofty price. He requires that Jacob first work for him for another seven years. Jacob hastily agrees. The lessons for us?
• We should not expect great reward unless we are willing to pay a great price.
• Just as Jacob finds the great price a joy to render since he is buoyed by his passionate love for Rachel, so should we be certain to invest our time, talent, and treasure where our true passion lies.
• Just as Jacob was engaged in solidifying his commitment to his family’s community of faith in the God of Abraham and Isaac (Jacob’s grandfather and father), so should we conceive and define our passion in terms consistent with effectual commitment to the Divine and specifically to God’s will.
2. In due course, Jacob prepares to ascend to leadership in the community of faith, but only after suffering, over and over, from Laban’s chicanery. The lessons for us?
• At all times, be cautious; be alert; do not fall prey to others’ chicanery.
• Recognize that inasmuch as Jacob’s flight to Haran, to the house of Laban, came on the heels of Jacob’s great chicanery, our own great misdeeds and gross neglects often warrant at least some punishment and/or atoning price or fine.
3. The lesson in 1 Kings 3, in and emanating from the young King Solomon’s somnolent vision of Divine instruction at Gibeon, is explicit, clear, and of timeless value, as much today as in the early years of the first millennium before the common era.
Solomon has been faithful and exemplary in his worship of the God of his forbears. So it is that God asks Solomon, “What then shall I give you?” After hearing Solomon’s response, God commends the young ruler, observing that when by God’s grace we are blessed with honor and ability (as, I believe, all are to some extent), we should pray to God — not for long life or riches for ourselves or victory over our enemies, we should instead pray to God for wisdom, for “understanding to discern what is right.” And God will reward us, giving us the great, necessary gifts of wisdom and discerning minds, sure keys to earthly and heavenly success.
4. In his all-embracing Letter to the Romans, the Great Apostle Paul in chapter 8 penned these five exquisite, truly timeless passages of comfort, which can surely be used by lay and ordained pastoring ministers addressing modern-day travails (or modern-day versions of ancient travails) of all sorts:
• “All things work together for good for those who love God, (and) are called according to his purpose.”
• “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
• “Who can bring any charge against God’s own (for) it is God who justifies and who can condemn, (for) it is the atoning Christ who died … (and) was raised … (and) is at the right hand of God interceding for us.
• “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
• “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
5. The Gospel passage appointed for this eighth Sunday After Pentecost unfortunately does not include several important verses: Matthew 13:10-17 and 34-35. They help explain why Jesus so often spoke in parables. Jesus is reported to have explicitly instructed his disciples that these short, down-to-earth stories called “parables,” set in familiar surroundings, were intended to aid understanding.
And what is the lesson for us — and especially for me — in Jesus’ attentiveness to the needs of the people around him? We must remember that deep insight is of no import if it is not expressed with unmitigated clarity, and if it is not tied to the circumstances of people’s lives, including their history and accumulated communal wisdom and traditions, as well as to their current-day challenges and needs.
6. The concluding verse, number 52, in this case actually among those recommended in Sunday’s Gospel passage, states in essence that we preachers, teachers, and students of God’s Word should be like “the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
The lesson is crystal clear: Take account of the history and accumulated communal wisdom and traditions, but also bring to bear the fruit of fresh discovery, of ongoing scholarship, and of deeper understanding of the actualities of our congregants’ psychology, sociology, and position and stake in the geo-political make-up of their near and far-distant worlds (all manner of contexts).
Let us, in our preaching and teaching remember to rescue from our treasure troves evolved familiarity with ever-evolving tastes in earmarks of culture – with new frames of reference and, of course, new musical content and instrumentation. Amen.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams, Jr., K.St.J., is Bishop’s Regional Sub-Dean for St. Thomas & St. John and Vicar of Nazareth By The Sea Episcopal Church in the Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. & U.K.), and also Chairman, SRMC All Faiths Hospital Chaplaincy.