Psalm 19:8–15; Genesis 35:1–36:8; Matthew 12:46–13:9

Psalm 19:8–15: The psalm switches gears from praising the magnificence of the sun and heavens to a reflection on God’s commandments. One has the feeling this could be an entirely different psalm that was appended to the first half. The beginning of the second half are almost a laundry list of God’s qualities insofar as his commandments and laws are concerned and their beneficial impact on us. This list is highly reminiscent of Psalm 119 (although thankfully briefer):
• The Lord’s teaching is perfect,/ restoring to life. (8a)
• The Lord’s pact is steadfast,/ it makes the fool wise. (8b)
• The Lord’s precepts are upright,/ delighting the heart. (9a)
• The Lord’s command unblemished,/ giving light to the eyes. (9b)
• The Lord’s fear is pure,/outlasting all time. (9b)
• The Lord’s judgements are truth,/ all of them just.

Not surprisingly, this list is also a list of the qualities we should persevere ourselves; a list for the ethical man. The poet then praises these ethical qualities as “more desired than gold,/ than abundant fine gold,/ and sweeter than honey,/ quintessence of bees.” (11) Gold and honey suggest a sensuous aspect to these qualities. Following God and imitating him is not a dry, dusty academic exercise. Following God in righteousness brings a richness (gold) and sweetness (honey) to our lives that would be tragic to have missed.

And we are are to treat them as the precious gifts from God that they are: “Your servant, too, takes care with them.” (12) And in so doing: “In keeping them—great reward.” (12) For me, this verse is the centerpiece of this part of the psalm: the reward here is not necessarily that God responds positively because we are a good and righteous person, although I’m sure that deuteronomic idea was on the poet’s mind. It is also that a life lived by following God’s teaching and righteousness is in and of itself highly rewarding.

The poet knows that he will sin and begs “pre-forgiveness” for having done so “Unwitting sins who can grasp? / Of unknown actions clear me.” (13) as well as from the depredations of those around him: “From willful men preserve me Your servant.” (14a) And with his heart aright, he concludes his prayer with the verse that concludes most Jewish prayers even today:
Let my mouth’s utterances be pleasing
and my heart’s stirring before You,
Lord, my rock and redeemer. (15)

Genesis 35:1–36:8: Given the events at Shechem, God wisely comes to Jacob and advises him to “Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” (35:1) It’s clear that up to this time God was just another divine being in the religious mix that seems to characterize Jacob’s household and God instructs Jacob to rid themselves of all those impure things: “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes;” (2). The family complies: “So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears.” (4)

This purging is more than merely symbolic; it is repentance: the turning around and rejection of the old beliefs and treasures, and even where they lived. Jacob and his family leave and happily, “a terror from God fell upon the cities all around them, so that no one pursued them.” (5) God once again comes to Jacob and reminds him that he has a new name: “No longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” (9) [It’s interesting that even though his name has been changed, the authors continue to call him ‘Jacob.’] God then reiterates the Covenant that he gave to Abraham and Isaac: “be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” (11b, 12)  Jacob then renames Bethel, Bethel. (?)

After arriving at Bethel, one final tragedy awaits Jacob: Rachel dies while giving birth to his last son, Benjamin. Although we read nothing of Jacob’s reaction to Rachel’s death, it had to be heart-breaking for she was his one true love. Rather than a tender scene, the authors rather abruptly note, “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.” But again, we learn nothing of Jacob’s reaction although it had to be bitter coming so soon after Rachel’s death. Instead, the authors helpfully give us the final tally of Jacob’s children.

At the ripe old age of 180, Isaac finally passes away and “his sons Esau and Jacob buried him,” suggesting that reconciliation between the brothers is now complete. The authors then list Esau’s heirs. He is as rich as Jacob and because of their great wealth measured in cattle and sheep they must move apart from each other. Jacob stays in Canaan but “Esau settled in the hill country of Seir.” (36:8) We encounter three words that will have great impact down the road: Esau is Edom.” As we will learn, the strife between brothers lives on down through the centuries.

What do we take away from Jacob’s story thus far? All families are dysfunctional and endure tragedy. But despite our sins and our wanderings from place to place, God remains faithful.

Matthew 12:46–13:9: Upon being informed that his mother and brothers “were standing outside wanting to speak to him,” Jesus says something that despite all the theological efforts to justify it and despite the correctness of Jesus’ point that Kingdom work has the highest priority, still sounds pretty heartless to me. He answers his own rhetorical question, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (48) by looking around the room at his followers and saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (49, 50).

Matthew is obviously making the point about “Kingdom priorities,” and we know that Jesus still had a good relationship with his mother when he asks for her to be taken care of as he dies on the cross.  So I will take Jesus’ statement as more metaphorical than actual. Nevertheless, it is one of the more shocking things he says.

As is usual for Matthew, juxtaposition is everything. Following his harsh pronouncement about mothers and brothers, Jesus tells the parable of the sower. He clearly understands that his requirements for Kingdom priority above all won’t be popular—much less followed—by everyone. And at the end of his ministry on earth as he hangs dying on a cross, Jesus ends up with exactly zero followers. Good soil indeed!

The traditional interpretation of this parable is that each of us needs to consider how we respond to the seeds. ignore it altogether (the birds eating the seeds); rapid enthusiasm followed by indifference (rocky ground and no roots); led astray by false religiosity, becoming choked in the theological weeds or false gospels (of which Paul and Peter have a great deal to say!) Or are we fertile soil and the gospel grows within us as we become dedicated Kingdom workers?

I think the other key point is that Jesus is making is that we cannot choose what soil we are. The seed goes where it will, but if I’m rocky ground I cannot choose in and of myself to become fertile soil.

Finally, if as Christians we wish to be sowers, we must also understand that sowers do not make the seeds grow. That power is contained within the seeds themselves. The seeds are the metaphor for the Holy Spirit; and it is the Spirit that initiates growth. Beyond sowing the seed, we have no other role in the spiritual growth of anyone else. That is strictly between the individual and the working (or non-working) of the Holy Spirit.


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