Bible Study: 17 Pentecost, Proper 22 (A)

October 5, 2014

Debra GoebelGeneral Theological Seminary

“Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matthew 21:43)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

The Decalogue begins with one of the most powerful statements in Scripture: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (verse 2).

Who was this mysterious voice, this unquenchable flame, this pillar of cloud? What force parted the vast sea, defeated the mighty Pharaoh and caused manna to fall from the sky like snow? It was not unusual weather phenomena or magic or any human endeavor that rescued the Israelites from a life that was more like death. It was the Lord, the creator and ruler of all the world who reveals herself to humankind through acts of power and grace. It was by these words that God gave to Moses on the mountaintop that she revealed to her people who she was and what she was all about.

What follows is traditionally viewed as a list of commandments, which the Israelites must obey in order to live fully into God’s covenant that she was establishing with her chosen people. This is certainly what is implied in the narrative. However, there may be another way to look at these “writings.”

Perhaps we can approach them from another angle. If God opens her proclamation with a description of who she is, why not read the commandments that follow as a description of who the Israelites were and who we are as their spiritual descendants?

We are the people who believe that it is God who rules the universe, not human beings nor anything we have created with our own hands. Not our institutions, not our technology, not the culture or opinions that we have constructed, but God rules over all.

We are the people who believe that God is sovereign; therefore, we do not use her name in an attempt to manipulate her to do our will. God is not magic, God cannot be coerced and God’s ultimate desire for her creation cannot be subverted.

We are the people who believe it is God’s desire that all her children have a time of rest from their labors, during which they may give thanks for her blessings and the goodness of her creation.

We are the people who honor those who made sacrifices for us in our youth, who have acted as parents and mentors, healers and guardians, equipping us to faithfully serve God.

We are the people who do not murder our neighbors. We believe that violence solves nothing.

We are the people who are faithful to those with whom we share vows of commitment for mutual love and support.

We are the people who do not take what belongs to our neighbor, whether it be possessions, relationships, freedom or hope.

We are the people who do not accuse our neighbors falsely for personal gain of any kind.

We are the people who are content with enough and do not look to our neighbor with jealousy or resentment.

The Israelites, wandering in the desert, surely experienced an identity crisis. They were no longer subjects of the Egyptian Pharaoh. They were no longer slaves. They were no longer city dwellers. Who were they? We all experience times like this in our lives. Social or economic upheaval leave us questioning our place in society, our world is turned upside down by natural disaster. We become spouses or partners or parents. We find ourselves suddenly thrust into positions of authority, or perhaps our intellectual or physical capacities become diminished. All these events can leave us questioning who we are.

Even desired events, such as the Israelites’ release from captivity or our advancement from college student to career seeker can leave us questioning our identity. Perhaps we can look at these Ten Commandments not so much as rules to obey, but our God-given identity into which we strive to live.

The final paragraph in our reading describes the people’s fear as the mountain on which God spoke to Moses was surrounded in thunder and lightning and smoke. They were afraid that God would speak to them and they would die. The people agreed to listen to whatever God said, if only she would not speak directly to them. Moses reassures them that God has no intention of bringing about their death, but only wishes to make them fully understand the importance of living fully into their new identity.

Reflect on the thoughts that come to your mind or the feelings that are triggered when you consider the phrases “rules to be obeyed” and “identity to be claimed.”

God encourages us to claim many identities. We are musicians, sons, accountants, mothers and teachers. By what do you define yourself? By your talents? Your career? Your relationships? What would happen if you could no longer be defined by these things? How would your definition of yourself change?

Experiment with rewriting the Ten Commandments in your own words, interpreting them in the context of your own life.

Psalm 19

This psalm opens with the heavens pouring forth a never-ending proclamation that all the world is the result of God’s creative activity. It echoes our reading in Exodus in which God declares that she, not idols made by human hands, is the architect of the universe. This message is broadcast from heaven not by words, but is plainly evident in creation itself.

The psalmist describes how God has placed a sun in the heavens, from where, like the glowing bridegroom, its light and warmth shine out to every corner of the earth.

The law, or fabric by which God sustains his creation and orders human interaction, lacks nothing. He has decreed his law to humans in order to make even the simple wise so that all have equal opportunity to live fully into their identity. God’s law is just and true and eternal. Obedience to it will bring enlightenment, clarity of vision and happiness. Because only God’s law can bring such happiness, it is to be considered more desirable and more valuable than anything else in his creation.

The law also serves as a reminder to the psalmist that God has promised good things to those who live by it. He restates that there are no errors in God’s law, though the insolent may attempt to convince him that there are loopholes. Finally, the psalmist expresses his hope that he is on the same page as God because God law is the foundation for his life.

It can be difficult sometimes to think of the multitude of laws we encounter every day as better than gold and more desirable than the most delicious food. Yet the psalmist understood the value of God’s law and rejoiced in it. Reflect on laws that have had a positive impact on your life and trace them back to their foundation in the Ten Commandments.

How does nature proclaim God’s law without words?

The psalmist wishes to be blameless. Do you believe this something we should pray for or hope to achieve? If not, what do you believe our prayer should be? What goal do you believe God has set for us?

Philippians 3:4-14

Paul and the Philippian church shared a great deal of affection for one another. It must have been a tremendous comfort to Paul to reflect on their friendship as he wrote this letter during his imprisonment. It appears the Philippian church was also experiencing their own challenges, although at this time it seems to have been internal rather than any kind of persecution.

Paul warns the Philippians, mostly if not all gentile, to beware of those who insist that gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised. He insists that circumcision will not provide them with any benefit, or “confidence in the flesh.” He reminds them that if anyone has cause to believe there is some benefit to circumcision it would be him! After all, he was born into a pious Hebrew family with an illustrious lineage. He had been circumcised as prescribed by the law, was well educated in the faith and in fact became a Pharisee. Paul describes himself as having been “righteous and blameless” with regard to Jewish law. He was so zealous for the Law that he persecuted his fellow Jews who had embraced the teachings of Jesus, who was, of course, a Jew himself. If anyone might attest to the importance of circumcision and insist on adherence to this practice, it would be Paul.

And yet, he claims that if there had been any advantage in it when it had been performed on him as an infant, those advantages have since become a loss, a wasted endeavor. Why? Because for Paul, the knowing Christ Jesus has made his circumcision obsolete. Not wrong, but unnecessary, particularly for gentiles.

Paul believes that it is through his faith in Christ that God will resurrect him, not by any symbolic action regarding the law. These actions cannot achieve resurrection. Paul believes that only in proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord will we be resurrected. It is perhaps like parachuting out of a plane and landing in the ocean. Hanging on to your swimming certificate, a symbol of your knowledge, will not save you! And knowing how to tread water or how to avoid sharks may keep you alive for a while, but you simply can’t rescue yourself. In this case it isn’t what you know that will save you, but who. You need to the captain of the rescue ship, who has a handle on your location and can throw you a floatation device. Paul claims that knowing Christ and sharing in his suffering offers the hope of resurrection; circumcision for gentiles is not a necessary stop on this path.

Paul believes that he had not yet achieved his goal. This statement is somewhat confusing, unless there was some question in the mind of the Philippians that his prison term had ended in execution and the letter was being written by the resurrected Paul! He tells the Philippians that Christ has enabled him to forge ahead, forgetting all that had come before (perhaps his persecution of the church) to answer the “call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Paul tells the Philippians that the symbolic ceremony of circumcision is unnecessary for their resurrection. In a world where degrees and resumes and certificates of achievement are essential for our advancement, can you identify with these gentiles who desire “evidence” of their faith? In the Episcopal Church we cannot be confirmed without evidence, in the form of a certificate, of our baptism. Reflect on the many kinds of “spiritual evidence” we possess, or desire to possess, regarding the “status” of our faith.

Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in death.” How might we become like Christ in death without actually becoming martyrs?

Paul gives us good advice when he says he will forget what he has done in the past and focus on path God has put before him. Think of the times you have been discouraged with your progress as you work to respond to God’s call. Reflecting on our missteps is helpful and necessary, but dwelling on our shortcomings can build a wall between us and God’s will for us. The next time you feel overwhelmed by your mistakes, imagine them written on the bricks of a wall, and simply imagine tearing that wall down!

Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus enters Jerusalem. He is very aware that this is the beginning of the end of his life on earth. He could count the hours he has left in which to teach the disciples, to admonish the Pharisees, to proclaim the coming of his Kingdom. The gospel writer recounts a parable that Jesus no doubt hoped would convince the Pharisees to give to God what was properly his.

Jesus tells the story of a landowner (a metaphor for God), who invests much effort into planting a vineyard (a metaphor for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was a visible representation of the Law). He has done everything possible to ensure that this endeavor will be successful. Upon completion, the landowner hires tenants to live on the land and harvest the vineyard. The arrangement (or covenant) would have been that the tenants give the landowner the profits (a metaphor for obedience) due him.

We learn, however, that the tenants are greedy and refuse to give the owner his due. They kill every messenger (prophet) that the landowner sends to collect his due. In time, the landowner sends his own son to come to terms with these tenants, but they murder him as well to prevent him from claiming his inheritance. Of course, the son is a metaphor for Jesus, who is foretelling his own death. Jesus then asks the Pharisees what justice might await these disobedient tenants. They reply the wicked tenants deserve a “miserable death” and that the vineyard should be given to those who will uphold the agreement made with the landowner.

Jesus tells the Pharisees and chief priests that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to others who will obey the covenant or “bear fruit.” The Temple Law was the proving ground, and the Pharisees were tripped up in it. Some suggest that the destruction of the Temple is alluded to in the phrase “and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” We cannot know for sure, however, we are told that at this point the Pharisees realize they are the “wicked tenants” in Jesus story. The Pharisees wanted to have Jesus arrested, but thought better of it when they realized how popular Jesus had become.

God had entrusted the Pharisees with interpreting the Law justly and with compassion and with the goal of building up God’s people. Instead, they used it to increase their own power. The responsibility of interpreting law is a very powerful thing. Law can be interpreted in such a way that it frees people from fear, from poverty, from ignorance. However even laws meant to help people can be interpreted in ways that enslave them, making the world a dangerous place for many, preventing them from prospering and keeping them in ignorance. Those who interpret law wield great power over others. Jesus tells the Pharisees that because they misused the power given to them by God, it would be taken from them and given to others who would use it justly. As powerful as the Pharisees and chief priests had made themselves, God was still sovereign and his Kingdom greater than any sphere of influence they might have carved out for themselves.

Have you ever been in a situation where others misused their power? Reflect on how this situation affected relationships and the ability to accomplish the job at hand.

Jesus said the Kingdom of God would be taken away from the chief priests and Pharisees and given to his followers. How can we, his followers today, prepare ourselves for the responsibility of cultivating God’s Kingdom? How can we guard against using this power to further our own ends?

Think about how you might retell this parable in a modern context, perhaps using a manager of a restaurant or a teacher at a university.

Bible Study: 16 Pentecost, Proper 21 (A)

September 28, 2014

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Exodus 17:1-7

In this passage, the Israelites seem to be ungrateful to both God and to Moses for delivering them from slavery in Egypt. However, they are not mere petulant, complaining whiners. Lack of water in the Sinai Desert is no joke. They are in dire straits. It is interesting that it is Moses who reacts to the people with frustration, while God reacts by calming Moses and providing water for the people. The test seems to be as much of Moses’ leadership as of God’s presence among the people. God is indeed among us in dire straits, and offers guidance to fearful leaders as well as to the congregation. The God of this passage is present and compassionate.

There have more than likely been times in your life when you have been in great need and wondered if God is present. Have there been times when you have been in a leadership position and focused on the complaining and doubts of the people you are trying to lead or help as a challenge to your leadership? Would it have been more helpful to be compassionate and consider the validity of their concerns? Have there been times when God has helped you to lead more effectively?

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Psalm 78 is a “maskil” or teaching psalm attributed to Asaph, a singer at the Jerusalem temple during the time of David and Solomon. The opening verses present the psalmist’s intent, which is to recount the traditional tales of the Lord’s glorious deeds in the times of their ancestors. In verses 12-16, the psalmist reiterates the story of their salvation: deliverance from Egypt and the miracles in the desert, including the story of providing water from the rock that we read in today’s passage from Exodus. By stating in verse 2 that he is offering a parable, the psalmist makes it clear that he is not merely repeating the old tales, but presenting them as riddles that bear reflection. He asks the reader to seek out the spiritual truths behind the stories.

The psalmist refers to stories from the Hebrew Bible that were already ancient and mysterious (dark) in the days of David and Solomon. What might David and Solomon have learned from the old stories of God’s marvels? What might we learn about the journey of faith from these stories today?

Philippians 2:1-13

Today’s passage from Philippians is particularly rich. It opens with Paul’s affirmation of his joy in proclaiming the gospel, even in the imprisonment that he has acknowledged in his greeting in Chapter 1. Paul reminds the community at Philippi of the need for unity and humility in the fellowship they share in Christ. The beautiful Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 is both an aid to worship in community and a reminder that Christ, though equal with God, did not hesitate to take the form of a slave, an example of humility and service. The admonition to “work out your own salvation” continues the theme of community. Not only are the Philippians to work together in humility, they are to work with God for the salvation of all.

In your Bible study or prayer group, meditate on the Christ hymn as an opening for contemplative prayer or lectio divina. How do you use hymn singing as a form of devotion? What other devotional practices in community move or inspire you?

Matthew 21:23-32

This passage from Matthew follows the scene of Jesus driving out those who were buying and selling in the temple in Jerusalem and overturning the tables of the money changers. When the blind and lame come to the temple to be cured, the chief priests and elders become angry. This is the point where they question him: By whose authority are you doing these things? Jesus’ counter question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” implies divine authority and sends the priest and elders into fear, confusion, argument and a desire to save face.

Jesus continues his teaching with the parable of the two sons. The first son changes his mind, which might be seen as repentance, while the second son is shown to be a liar and a hypocrite. The implication is quite clear. Jesus affirms John the Baptist as righteous and from God, while the chief priests and elders are exposed as hypocrites who privilege human authority over divine authority.

The chief priests and elders exercise damage control when they hesitate to answer Jesus’ question. They fear the crowd’s opinion and they fear loss of power. How often do we see our own leaders doing this? Is there a time when you have done this yourself, holding on to power rather than giving an honest answer that might imply that you do not have control? Do you think that we privilege human authority over divine authority?

The first son in the parable changes his mind. While the term “flip-flopper” is a negative term in our political culture, Jesus suggests that change can be preferable to lies and hypocrisy. Can you think of any examples from politics? Can you think of any local or personal examples?

A theme of the passage is belief versus unbelief. Why do you think the chief priests and elders are reluctant to acknowledge the divine authority of John the Baptist and Jesus, while the tax collectors and the prostitutes believe?

What does repentance mean to you? Is it synonymous with change or does it have another meaning?

Bible Study: 15 Pentecost, Proper 20 (A)

September 21, 2014

Nancy J. Hagner, General Theological Seminary

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45Philippians 1:21-30Matthew 20:1-16

Exodus 16: 2-15

Often people are quick to mis-characterize the God of the Older Testament as a “wrathful God.” In today’s passage from Exodus we see again the seemingly tireless patience God continues to bestow on his “chosen” flock who so quickly return to fear and accusation even though they have experienced God’s salvation and mercy over and over. In chapter 14, the Israelites have been miraculously delivered from the army of Pharaoh. Then at the end of chapter 15, they have been camped at Elin in a desert oasis with palm trees and bountiful water sources, provided by God when they were thirsty. Today’s text tells us that they are only two months into the journey (which we know will last 40 years), and are complaining to Moses and Aaron; lamenting that they would have been better off dying in the land of Egypt rather than suffer the fear and hunger they are experiencing in the wilderness.

Moses correctly points out that “your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” He then reminds them to “draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” God then appears in a cloud, assuring Moses that he has indeed heard the complaints, will provide meat and bread sufficiently, and that perhaps this time the people will know that the Lord is present.

Moses’ steadfast faith that God will provide is inspiring, but it is often much easier to relate to the Israelites as they hesitantly and with great grumbling journey further into the desert. Who does not know the fear of the wilderness? The unknown landscape of setting out on the first day of a new school, or the first days of sobriety, or returning home to an empty house after the death of one’s life partner? The wilderness is a scary place, and we are people who require “earthly things” like food and water, comfort and companionship. How do we trust that God will provide? We know the doubt that settles in after the initial exuberance of a courageous decision to escape a bad marriage, an abusive relationship, a boring job, a house too big and too much for an aging widower? Even happy decisions involve risk and a sense of the unknown: to go on a blind date, go back to college as a second career student, take a vacation alone, step into a new ministry, reach out to a stranger.

It is always our human tendency to say, “It was better and safer to stay home, to not risk being vulnerable.” Today’s passage reminds us that God loves us, hears our cries and provides what we need in mysterious and unrecognizable ways. When faced with the food with which God had covered the ground, they still asked, “What is it?” Moses said, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

When have you been in the wilderness?

How has God provided for you in the wilderness?  Did you recognize the “food”?

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

The psalm is a reminder that it is always “right and a good and joyful to give thanks” to God. It is necessary to do this not because God needs our thanks, but we need to “sing praises to him and speak of all his marvelous works” to remind ourselves of what God has done and is doing in our lives. Verses 36-44 recount the story of the Exodus and God’s provision for the Israelites. It is important to say the words aloud, for that is how we remember the story of our faith and the actions of our God. Also note verse 45: God has done all these things so “that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws.” God’s mercy, blessing, and salvation is for a purpose – so that we may live.

Think about writing your own version of Psalm 105. What praises can you sing today? What “marvels” can you recount?

How have you been “satisfied with bread from heaven”?

Philippians 1:21-30

Paul is writing from prison, thinking about death, which is, of course, a possibility. His words are focused, his confidence that he will be with Christ, robust. We have the sense that he is intentionally distilling a few important things; that he wants to convey to the Philippians what matters, in case he does not have the chance to see them again. We infer from Paul’s words that among the congregation there is conflict, divisiveness and persecution. Paul exhorts them to be unified and to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” and not to be “intimidated by opponents.” These are challenging words, but Paul issues them with confidence that unity, courage, and faithful lives, worthy of Christ, are possible.

Paul tells us to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”; and suggests that “striving side by side with one mind” (i.e., unity) is one way to do that. In what ways is our church realizing this or not? Is the unity Paul describes possible? Desirable?

Matthew 20:1-16

The familiar story of the workers in the vineyard is a wonderful parable about God’s sovereignty. The landowner represents God, who, when confronted with the unhappy day workers who started work early and yet received the same wage as the 5 p.m. latecomers who barely worked at all, asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” He then follows up with a second question: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” which implies to the early workers that they are not exhibiting any generosity, but are only concerned with getting what they have calculated to be their due.

We think we know how the world works, what is fair, what is right, who is deserving of work, of inclusion, of love, or respect, and who is not. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God – God’s vision and plan – is not organized in the ways we, as earthly humans, expect. Everything belongs to God, and God will do what God will do. God will be generous beyond our ability to comprehend.

We receive glimpses of the Kingdom and participate in it when we can let go of our anxiety about earthly things and set our hearts to love things heavenly; not eschewing our lives and the very real concerns of our world, but letting go of our rigid and anxious desire to control. Heavenly things such as love, generosity, forgiveness, grace and peace are available through the love of God and his son, our savior, Jesus Christ.

What would be on your list of heavenly things you would like to help realize on earth? In what ways could these gifts be used to bring about the Kingdom of God?

Bible Study: 14 Pentecost, Proper 19 (A)

September 14, 2014

Steven Balke, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’” (Matthew 18:32-33)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Exodus 14:19-31

The Israelites have escaped their enslavers and are on the way to the land God had promised to them. From the Egyptians’ perspective, however, these Israelites are their rightful possessions that have been stolen away from them. On top of that, these Israelites are responsible for plagues that have laid waste to their land and have caused the deaths of many Egyptians. They probably found it quite reasonable to chase Israelites and bring them to justice.

Yet they are baffled when God steps in and serves as a shield for the escaping Israelites. They are caught by surprise when God jams their chariots and throws them into the sea. They cry out because God is siding with the Israelites even though they surely felt they were the wronged party.

Wars are not fought by good guys and bad guys but rather by two sides that both think they are in the right. All of us are sure we are right sometimes, only to find out that we are mistaken. It is humbling to recognize that there is a greater power at work that knows better than we do, and it takes great strength to accept when we are wrong with grace. Righteousness needs to be held lightly, tempered by open-mindedness to others and prayerfulness to God.

Can you think of a time when you were so sure you were right that you were blind to the perspectives of others?

What will help you gracefully accept times when you are wrong?

Psalm 114

Lots of questions surround the parting of the Red Sea. It is easy to get locked into a discussion over if it really happened or how it could have happened, like trying to figure out the trick behind the magician’s act. This is a distraction, however, that draws us away from the point of the story: It is a story about a people who were powerless to save themselves and about God saving them. It is a story of salvation through grace.

This grand event of the splitting of the sea is an example of God’s grace in action. The Israelites could not pat themselves on the back for a job well done. They shouted psalms of praise to God, knowing that no works they could ever do would be payment enough to buy God’s love. God was to thank for all the blessings of their lives, and these blessings were gifts of grace.

It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we have more power over our lives than we really do, forgetting to give thanks to God. Having self-confidence and taking pride in your accomplishments are great, but a healthy recognition that God’s grace in our lives is important too – especially because God’s love is freely given, regardless of anything we do to try to earn it.

When do you find yourself distracted and forgetting to give thanks to God?

When do you find your attention drawn to God’s presence?

Romans 14:1-12

When Paul is writing the letter to the Christians in Rome, he is writing to a divided community: the Jewish Christians who were exiled from Rome and have since returned, versus the gentile Christians who had populated Rome in their absence. If this fledgling church was to survive, they would need to find a way past their differences, yet they struggle as if they were adversaries. Both the Jewish and gentile converts distrust and think themselves superior to the other, which sows disunity all around.

If there is one message Paul wants them to take to heart, it is that they are all the same in the only way that matters: They are God’s beloved, for whom Christ died so that they may live forever. None of their differences compares to their one, essential similarity.

We, too, are faced with people all around us who seem different. We all have different values and can use those to judge ourselves superior to others, but God has already judged us all and found us all worthy of love, compassion and salvation. Let us not focus too much on how our differences stack up against each other, and instead turn our focus toward the God who sees us and loves us all the same.

What differences with others do you find you have a hard time overcoming?

In what ways do you see judgment and disunity getting in the way of the work of the church?

Matthew 18:21-35

Any community needs to determine how it is going to handle judgment and justice. This parable about the two debtors is often used as an illustration about fairness, saying that the first slave should have treated the second slave as he himself had been treated. After all, the debt his lord had forgiven was more than 500,000 times as much money as the other slave owed him (see Coogan’s “New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition,” Oxford Press, 2007), so the first slave’s behavior was hardly fair! This parable, however, is less about fairness than about how, fundamentally, Jesus values forgiveness.

Jesus precedes this parable by highlighting that forgiveness should be an overabundant principle. We should not even be thinking in terms of how much we should forgive; we should just forgive. We, like Peter, are being told that forgiving others – and forgiving ourselves – is never the wrong answer. The lowliest person is still worthy of forgiveness. The gravest transgression should still be forgiven. The most righteous and powerful people still need to forgive. Think of what a radical statement it would be for a society to say that their guiding principle is forgiveness!

If God has already forgiven Christ’s crucifixion, we should think carefully about what we are telling God and each other if we declare something unforgivable. We can have justice without losing sight of compassion, and righteousness without losing sight of forgiveness.

When have you struggled with forgiving someone?

When have you struggled with forgiving yourself?

Bible Study: 13 Pentecost, Proper 18 (A)

September 7, 2014

David W. Peters, Seminary of the Southwest

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Exodus 12:1-14

After reading this text, I imagine flipping through the most recent church recipe book printed to raise money for the renovations to the parish hall. After perusing the “Rector’s Rhubarb Pie” and the three versions of “Heavenly Hash,” I flip the page and discover a recipe for “Passover”: roasted lamb with unleavened bread and biter herbs. Warning! Do not boil the lamb or eat it raw. (I cringe at the thought of a parishioner eating a lamb raw.)

Not only are there cooking directions, there’s even a dress code and disposal instructions. Sandals on, loins girded and a staff in hand – seems like an easy enough outfit to throw together. All the leftovers needing to be burned is also a cinch, since that’s what will happen if I’m roasting anything over a fire. Further instructions make it clear that the food must by eaten in haste, much like a teenager after football practice. All the old jokes about the Episcopalian who used the wrong salad fork are thrown out. There are no salad forks for this meal. In fact, there aren’t any forks at all.

This recipe is certainly for an extraordinary circumstance. That is, the circumstance of getting out of Dodge fast. The original diners were getting out of town to end their long enslavement to the Egyptians. The people of God were to mark their own doors, lest the Lord kill their firstborn along with the Egyptian firstborn.

Suddenly, my comedic musings on this passage grind to a halt. The lamb must be killed, and its blood used to mark the doorposts of each Israelite home so that the Lord would pass over as he struck down the firstborn children and animals in Egypt. This would be a night of death and destruction, of plague and sorrow. The fury of the Lord will rain down on the land of Egypt while the people of God sheltered in their homes, quickly eating a roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Then, when the aftermath of the death and destruction turned each Egyptian home into a morgue, they would slip away into the desert.

The Passover was a feast that commemorates a violent event after a series of violent events in Egypt. As we have learned from our own nation’s history, human slavery does not just fade away with time and good intentions. Slavery is maintained by violence and usually comes to a violent end. The command to remember the slavery and to remember God’s deliverance is a way to remember God’s grace and deliverance.

Do you remember a time when you felt delivered from a place of hardship? How do you commemorate that deliverance?

Psalm 149

This psalm captures the crazy exuberance that is possible for the people of God. The joy in this psalm is shared by the whole community. This is not private revelry; everyone is involved. Music abounds, and everyone whirls around, dancing. The whole community is singing at the top of its lungs when we notice a peculiar thing about the choir. Everyone in the choir is holding a two-edged sword. They have swords to execute judgment on oppressive kings.

This psalm reminds me of the Magnificat, in which Mary sings that God raises up the lowly and pushes down the proud. In Psalm 149, it is the festive choir that introduces God’s justice in the world.

All this leads me to conclude that the praise and worship that we do on Sunday cannot be disconnected from what God is doing in the world throughout the week. God’s interest in justice flows from the praises of his people. For me, this helps connect my worship with real, practical problems in the world that God is moving to fix.

What are some of the issues in the world where we can see God’s justice?

How is your worship of God moving you toward seeing the world’s inequalities?

Romans 13:8-14

Before he became a follower of Jesus, the great father of the church, St. Augustine, read these words of St. Paul. After reading them, he shut the book, then he observed, “By a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”

I confess that I had a different reaction to these words in Romans. My reading of this passage, at first glance, made me feel like the apostle is chiding me about how I spend my free time in the evenings. I confess that his words seem to be rather meddlesome, even 2,000 years after they were written.

How could this rather negative message be to St. Augustine a message of light and serenity? Perhaps I should remind myself that the power of the Holy Spirit is always to bring the right word at the right time. For St. Augustine, these were the right words for that moment.

Perhaps they are the right words for our moment, too. We are reminded in these verses that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Every time we move toward the light of God, we are moving deeper into the Kingdom of God. We are easily distracted by the neon lights that signal the presence of what tourist brochures call “nightlife,” but we never mistake neon lights for the sun.

For Paul, it is still night, but the dawn is almost here. Get ready, he says, to live the way we will live for eternity, in the light and warmth of God.

What are the worthwhile pursuits of life that you might be missing by staying up too late? What distracts you from being a light to a dark world?

Matthew 18:15-20

“Mr. Peters, we apologize for your long wait at the front desk. In order to keep your loyalty here at our hotel we would like to offer you a complimentary three-night stay at any of our worldwide locations. We will also throw in a couple of spa passes and trays of chocolate-covered strawberries.” Indeed, these are words I always like to hear. I also like to hear that I’m getting a big refund from the IRS. What I don’t like to hear is that I sinned against someone. I don’t like it one bit. I’d much rather talk about something else.

One of the most unpleasant activities in human life is confrontation. Especially when a relationship is at stake. I can come up with a million excuses to put off and avoid confrontation with someone who is hurting me or my community. Jesus clearly states that the responsibility to confront lies with the person who is offended. The community is slowly drawn in to the controversy, but not too soon.

The goal of this confrontation is to “gain your brother.” The goal is always reconciliation. Even when a member is declared a gentile and tax collector, the goal is reconciliation.

How does Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? He engages them with truth and love. In fact, Matthew, the traditional author of this gospel, was a tax collector. Jesus called Matthew just like he calls all of us. He calls us to a ministry of reconciliation, even when it’s difficult and painful.

I have observed confrontation many times, and I can report that the goal of the confrontation was rarely restoration and reconciliation. Too often the goal of the confrontation was to initiate a separation so everyone could go on with their lives.

Reconciliation is difficult. The cross, the ultimate symbol of reconciliation, stands before us and behind us as we pick up the phone and ask if we can meet to talk about something that happened.

Can you think of an example of a confrontation that resulted in reconciliation? What are some practical steps to take that may result in reconciliation after confrontation?

Bible Study: 12 Pentecost, Proper 17 (A)

August 31, 2014

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” (Matthew 16:23)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Exodus 3:1-15

Our reading today from Exodus is a text with mystical tones, while also a foundational scripture that holds a clarion commitment by God to the oppressed. Such riches in an economy of verses! Moses’ encounter with, and commissioning by God sets a theme that will run like a thread through the entirety of the biblical narrative.

First, Moses experiences a theophany – a mystical moment of encounter with God. Notice that God’s presence takes the appearance of fire, a device often used in other biblical accounts. Fire has power – to warm, to light, to guide, to comfort, but also to burn, to destroy, to devour. It is an energy that must be treated with respect; it must be approached with the humility of bare feet. Today’s text, for example, reminds us that nature is a holy setting, an indispensable actor in God’s drama of salvation, touched and blessed by God’s energy in an intimate way. It is holy and must be treated as such. And as we have seen in recent times, when we don’t respect the holy energy of God’s creation, it is apt to respond in powerful ways.

Second, the foundational events of our religion rest in this text. In this moment God reveals God’s self and the great action of salvation begins – God will deliver an oppressed people from their misery. That biblical religion has its origin in this moment is not insignificant. God has chosen to take sides; God has chosen to stand with the marginalized, the voiceless, the weak. Recall that at this period in biblical history, the notion of an afterlife has not entered the religious imagination. Salvation will happen in the here and now, or not at all. Religion, for the ancient Israelites, was about proper, ethical living and concern for the poor.

How have we departed from the expectations of biblical religion’s “foundational moment”? How have we remained faithful to that moment?

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c

Praise and ethical conduct are the themes of today’s psalm, which draws from three sections of a longer “history psalm.” The first six verses stand as a call to seek God’s presence. It is fitting that this theme follows the first reading from Exodus – a text that begins with a powerful encounter of God’s presence. Reaching far back into Israel’s history (scholars suggest that this psalm was written after the period of the Exile, i.e., 587 B.C.), the psalmist draws a portrait of setback, deliverance and renewal.

This text reminds us that God will often work in unexpected ways; that God has the power to turn what appear to be defeats and hopeless situations into pivotal moments that bring new life. Just as “Jacob” (Israel) surely saw their enslavement to be a dead end, God transformed that moment into the foundation of salvation by raising up Moses and Aaron who were to be God’s instruments of hope. Furthermore, trough Israel’s terrible experience of servitude and deliverance, God provided God’s people with the sacred Law – precepts that were seen by all as a great gift, for it was through the law that God was teaching them how to live well; how to walk in holiness. Of course the psalmist says “Praise the Lord!” A God who creates hope and life out of darkness is indeed worthy of our praise!

How has God worked in unexpected ways in your life?

Romans 12:9-21

Paul wrote to the Romans from Corinth, a church well acquainted with individualism and factionalism. It was in Corinth that Paul had experienced disruptive, backstabbing people in his congregation, some of whom went so far as to accuse Paul of skimming from the collection basket. It is not surprising then that Paul includes in this passage a list of maxims, as per Greco Roman letter-writing custom, which touch on themes of forgiveness, reconciliation and harmonious living. Paul appears to draw on a variety of sources for these, including the teaching of Jesus, Israelite wisdom literature, and Greco-Roman philosophy.

A modern interpreter will see Paul’s admonitions as a call to tame the ego. The ego wants vengeance; Paul says that belongs to God. The ego wants praise and recognition; Paul counsels humility. The ego wants to see the defeat of one’s enemies; Paul calls for forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul was certainly well acquainted with the darker desires for punishment and getting even, especially after his heart-breaking experience at Corinth. He speaks to the Romans – and to us – as a man who has journeyed through the crucible of emotional pain, but found the strength to put the demands of the ego aside and let something much larger (and holier) guide his response to his adversaries. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said to a later generation, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

Discuss Paul’s call to tame the demands of the ego, and to offer peace and reconciliation to our adversaries.

Matthew 16:21-28

Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel of a great truth about life and the spiritual journey: Your life is not about you.

To follow Jesus is to give up one’s life (perhaps literally, but also to surrender the ego to a much larger identity) and follow in obedience to Jesus. Obedience is a difficult concept for our culture, even in Christian circles. Our innate disposition is to desire independence, personal choice and autonomy. The gospel, especially today’s text, calls for obedience that is certain to lead to suffering – not something anyone wants! But as scripture scholar Dale Allison observed, “Faith is obedience, and obedience is the grave of the will.”

Jesus teaches that the way of discipleship is the way of the cross. To walk behind Jesus is to walk the way of the wound. This paradigm has been repeated throughout the biblical narrative, from Israel in Egypt, to Job on the ash heap, to Jonah in the belly of the fish, to Israel in exile, to Jesus in the tomb. The wound, however, is not the last word; God brings life and salvation even out of a cross. Peter cannot know this at this point, and despite the testimony of scripture, it is difficult for us to internalize and believe this as well, but Jesus asks for faith and trust; he asks us to get behind him and walk his way.

Discuss your reaction to Jesus’ call for obedience.

Bible Study: 11 Pentecost, Proper 16 (A)

August 24, 2014

Lea ColvillSchool of Theology at Sewanee

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:

Exodus 1:8-2:10Psalm 124Romans 12:1-8Matthew 16:13-20

Exodus 1:8-2:10

We enter this reading on the on the happy note of how God saved Israel from hunger through Joseph and enter the story of why Egypt did not remain the home of the fruitful and strong nation. If the nation could have been lost in Joseph’s story by betrayal of brothers, then this story is about the betrayal by others, neighbors really. The death of every boy would also leave mothers and sisters without clans to protect and appeal for them. The women have of their own means of resistance to oppression. We see honor given to the nervy midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Their names are recorded while the Egyptian princess remains unnamed. This time, God would use another son, Moses, lost in Egypt, drawn up from the water (instead of a well) to save his people.

How do we talk about God’s redemption of the bitterness in our lives?

The communion of saints includes the named and unnamed. Are you more comfortable with those whose lives have been recorded or those known only to a few?

Psalm 124

This psalm recounts God’s extraordinary acts to aid the escape of the whole people of Israel. It is meant to comfort the individual in times of trouble and may have been recited by pilgrims headed to Jerusalem. It is a fitting compliment to the Exodus story and it is easy to imagine the Israelites telling similar stories as they walked in the wilderness. There are repeating phrases in this psalm, such as “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,” for poetic emphasis and to aid in recollection. This repetition is common in Hebrew poetry. The phrases that begin with “then” are meant to build on each other. The climatic declaration “Our help is in the name of the Lord” is the thanksgiving for Israel’s deliverance and ours.

Escape is a common biblical theme but not one we speak of often in contemporary culture. Reflect on escape. Did you feel God’s presence more acutely after an escape?

What does the name “Maker of heaven and earth” mean to you? Does that image make God seem nearer or farther from your circumstances? Are you comforted by your understanding of God’s intimacy or holiness?

Romans 12:1-8

This is one of the most beloved passages in the New Testament for its egalitarianism and accessible imagery. It begins Paul’s instruction on Christian community that contrasts our bodies, which stand for our entire selves, with the community as a body. He calls for faithful, sober and wholesome living (often translated as “perfect”) in contrast to the passions in Romans 1:18-32. Paul supports an austere, communal life with times of ecstatic prayer but was not a believer in marriage and family life.

What social structures and practices support Paul’s exhortation for faithful, sober and wholesome living today?

How do we reconcile his image of the church as one body with a variety of household types?

Matthew 16:13-20

This passage is a climax for Jesus’ teaching, healing and feeding in Matthew. The Pharisees and Sadducees want yet another sign at the beginning of the chapter, but ordinary Peter is confident that Jesus is the Messiah.

Peter receives honor in each of the gospels, but in Matthew there is a direct reference to the church. There is no church without the confession of Jesus as the promised Messiah, and even at this moment the church is in conflict with “gates of Hades” (NRSV). Further, the church is aggressive against the gates of hell, entrusted with authority and ultimately victorious. It is done. Death is permanently defeated but continues to terrorize and deceive unaware souls. Fear of death is not the same as death.

Is confession of Jesus as Messiah an aggressive statement in your community or more customary?

In your spiritual imagination, what do you understand to be Peter’s keys?

Bible Study: 10 Pentecost, Proper 15 (A)

August 17, 2014

Christine Havens, Seminary of the Southwest

“Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’” (Matthew 15:10-11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

Genesis 45:1-15

A friend, who is a senior Master of Divinity student, and I had a conversation about veterans today. He and a mutual friend, who is an Episcopal priest in the Austin area, work together on the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship here, planning services and pilgrimages; creating safe space for those who served in America’s wars and military actions. At one point in the conversation, my friend stated that many of the veterans have difficulty with reconciliation. He meant the rite – the ministry – of reconciliation found in the Book of Common Prayer. In so many ways, these men and women already feel excluded, set apart, from mainstream culture – the military subculture that they learn in training separates them at the beginning of service, and the treatment they receive after their service are examples. How much more might they feel excluded in having enacted violence against others in the name of their country?

Reconciling this violence within themselves and with God, with the intention of welcoming them back into church, into society, into humanity, into feeling God’s love, may prove painful and difficult; may exacerbate feelings of exclusion.

How might today’s lesson of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers be used to help a veteran overcome these feelings?

Psalm 133

“When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage) –
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage.”

Those are the first 12 lines from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” written in 1475 in England. In this long poem, an assortment of pilgrims travel to the cathedral at Canterbury, where Thomas Beckett was murdered by Henry II – a very popular pilgrimage. Some people also undertook pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Although the above verses have been translated into modern English, Chaucer wrote in Middle English, which, for us, now, is strange and exotic to the ears when heard and difficult to read. And even after translation, some of the images, metaphors and similes are no longer familiar to us either.

Today’s psalm is one of the Songs of Ascent (in Hebrew, Shir Hama’aloth), which scholars believe pilgrims recited or sang on their way to Jerusalem. Read it aloud once or twice; if in a group, have two different people read it. Maybe even attempt to sing it. Does it also contain, like “The Canterbury Tales,” images that may not be familiar to us?

What is important about the dew of Hermon falling upon the hills of Zion? For what might it be a metaphor? What about oil upon the beard of Aaron?

What are the similarities between Psalm 133 and “The Canterbury Tales”? What do you notice about them? What feelings do they evoke? Why?

Does America have any poems or cultural icons relating to pilgrims? How do we relate to pilgrimages in our Christian lives? How do we relate pilgrimages to Christ?

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” What does Paul mean here? The lectionary omits a large portion of verses in this lesson. How does reading them change your understanding of Paul’s statement, if at all?

Some scholars view Paul’s letter to the Romans, a church he did not found, as an attempt to gain support for a trip he wished to undertake to Spain – a mission trip. Re-read all of today’s lessons. How might they speak to us of the differences between mission and pilgrimage?

What are the differences between a mission trip and a pilgrimage?

How is your life as a Christian informed by mission and pilgrimage?

Matthew 15:10-28

In today’s gospel lesson, Matthew relates two powerful episodes in Jesus’ life. The lectionary treats the first story (verses 10-20) as optional. How do these verses, along with the beginning of the chapter, change your perception of the conversation? How is Jesus choosing to relate to the Pharisees and scribes?

Hand sanitizer has become a ubiquitous part of 21st century American culture. Bottles or wipes are available for consumption just about everywhere; a person can choose to use it before grabbing a shopping cart or prior to taking communion. Cruise ships apparently have crew members standing ready to squirt it on the hands of those in line for buffet; the website on which I read this did not mention whether this was optional for passengers. How many, if any, askance glances might one receive for refusing hand sanitizer? Would you judge someone for not using hand sanitizer before partaking in a communal meal?

The Pharisees take offense at the actions of Jesus and the disciples because they “[broke] the tradition of the elders” (verse 2). This tradition reflects Jewish concerns with ritual impurity and preserving the Law (Torah). The Pharisees did not worry about bacteria and germs in their insistence on washing hands prior to a meal; rather, that is our cultural concern.

Might the use of hand sanitizer be a ritual for some people? How might tradition be related to purity for us as Christians? How might tradition be related to purity in 21st century America or Western culture?

How might purity be related to exclusion? What about tradition? Is “that’s the way we’ve always done it” a stumbling block for your church in terms of hospitality and inclusion?

How might concerns about tradition and purity be related to the story of the Canaanite woman?

Bible Study: 9 Pentecost, Proper 14 (A)

August 10, 2014

Ben Maddison, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31).

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Genesis is an origins story. Through Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, and Rachel and Jacob (Israel), God worked and blessed one family – one dynasty – to set aside God’s people on earth. Chapter 37 is the final story of Genesis – that of Joseph recording how the people of Israel would come to Egypt and inevitably be enslaved, leading to the events of Exodus.

Unlike the earlier patriarchal narratives, Joseph’s story is conspicuously lacking any direct intervention, or disclosure, of God’s will or direction. Several times throughout Joseph’s narrative, God’s absence is noticeable, but never more than during the plot to murder Joseph. However, if we look closely, we can see God working throughout the narrative, especially, in this instance, through Ruben, the eldest of the 12 sons of Jacob. While his brothers plot to kill Joseph, Reuben exerts his right as oldest son to change their plans. In verse 22, Reuben demands that his brothers “Shed no blood,” plotting instead to come later and rescue Joseph.

Despite Reuben’s plans, Joseph is still sold into slavery, and the Joseph narrative continues to Egypt. However, Reuben’s act of compassion (whether out of fraternal love, fear, self-interest or expectation) portends Joseph’s words of forgiveness to his brothers in 50:20, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”

Discuss the roles of various parties in this story (Joseph, Jacob, Reuben, the brothers, etc.)

In what ways do you see God working in this story – directly or indirectly?

Have you experienced times of God’s absence? If you have, how did you look for God working in your life?

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b

In New Testament studies there is German word –  heilsgeschichte – that describes the work of God throughout history; in English, heilsgeschichte translates as “salvation history,” culminating in the redemptive and reconciliatory work of Jesus Christ. However, as Paul shows in Romans, salvation history did not begin with Jesus, but with the dynasties of the Israelite families.

Psalm 105 provides us with a brief and poetic retelling of God’s salvation history for the people of Israel, from Joseph to Canna.

The psalm begins with an exhortation of the work of God (verses 1-6). This psalm of praise clues us into the purpose of the psalm – to thank God for the work God has done, and to be affected by and remember that work. In short, this psalm is a call to remember and a call to respond.

However, what is noticeably absent from the psalm is the disobedience of God’s people – of Joseph’s brothers or the Israelites in the wilderness. All records of history have a lens through which they view past events – sometimes it is a whitewash and other times it is an unfair representation. However, the writer of the psalm makes the lens clear to us: “That they might keep his statutes/and observe his laws. /Hallelujah!” (verse 45). In short, we give thanks to God because God provides for us in the past, present and future.

Discuss the elements of Psalm 105:16-22 in relation to Gen 37:1-4, 12-28. What is similar or different?

Where in your life have you seen God’s hand?

How do you give thanks to God, or respond, when you feel that God is moving and working for your benefit?

Romans 10:5-15

For centuries, Romans was used by theologians as a “Cliff’s Notes” for theology, gleaning singular theological truths from Paul’s first-century letter to the Jewish Christians in Rome. However, scholarship that is more recent understands that Romans is Paul’s creative reimagining of Jewish salvation history, now completed by the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world.

Chapter 10 of Romans is the last chapter of Paul’s second section of reimagining salvation history. In this section, Paul shows how the salvation history of Israel is completed through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Verses 12-13 are central to this radical inclusion: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” In this pericope, Paul shows that faith – which in Chapter 4 Paul showed preceded the Law, because Abraham was justified by his faith prior to the covenant of Moses – eliminates the distinctions that separate Jew and Greek. No longer, says Paul, will some be excluded from God’s plan of salvation; the work of Jesus is for everyone!

Discuss how Paul understands salvation history, and how his narrative is similar to and different from the earlier readings.

In what ways are you, your family or your church living into the truth of Paul’s words that there is no “distinction” between any of us?

Matthew 14:22-33

The writer of Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians and to Jews to help them understand the role of Jesus as the Messiah. In his gospel narrative, Matthew includes many miracles to point to the power and authority of Jesus, God’s Son and the Messiah. One such sign, and one of the most well known, appears in today’s gospel reading: Jesus walking on the water.

In verse 33, Peter proclaims to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.” However, two verses earlier, Peter doubts the power of Jesus, and fails to walk on water. How are we to understand the role that Jesus plays in our lives and his power to reconcile us to God if even the disciples doubted Jesus’ authority?

The most important thing to glean from this story comes from verse 28. When Peter sees Jesus, he is so inspired and moved by his power that he asks Jesus to let him participate in the miracle. As the other verses have shown, God’s plan for humanity is a long one, but God is always there to provide. What the story of Jesus walking on the water does is remind us that we are a part of salvation history. We are not passive participants in the work of God, but we are active co-creators, bringing about the Kingdom and will of God on earth. We are Peter; we want to walk on the water with Jesus.

How do you see this passage illuminating the person and work of Jesus?

Have you ever doubted? How were you able to find faith in times of doubt?

How will you participate in salvation history?

Bible Study: 8 Pentecost, Proper 13 (A)

August 3, 2014

James Miller, General Theological Seminary

“Then Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” (Matthew 14:19-20)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Genesis 32:22-31

In the preceding verses (Genesis 32:1-21) we read of Jacob’s fear of his brother, Esau. This fear was well founded. When they were boys, Esau was hungry and asked Jacob to share his food. Jacob agreed, but only on the condition that Esau sell him his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34). The birthright issue emerged again when their father, Isaac, was approaching death. Jacob disguised himself as Esau and tricked Isaac into blessing him as his firstborn. To Jacob, Isaac said, “May God give you of the dew of heaven; and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let the peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers” (Genesis 27:28-29). Once he realized that he had been deceived, Isaac could not take back his blessing from Jacob. So, to Esau he said, “See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be; and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother” (Genesis 27:39-40).

In our passage for today, Jacob makes plans to appease his brother and sends his wives, children and servants on ahead with instructions to make offerings to Esau. Even so, Jacob was worried, and our text describes his wrestling with someone all through the night: perhaps he was sleeping fitfully and dreaming. In Jacob’s lack of brotherly kindness to Esau he received his birthright. Through trickery he received Isaac’s blessing. However, in wrestling with God – essentially turning to God and refusing to let go – he received God’s blessing (Genesis 32:29).

Clearly, God could have prevailed over Jacob, but chose not to do so. What is the significance of what seems to be a standoff? What is the significance of Jacob’s refusal to let go of God?

Each of us has done or said things in the past that we regret, and at some point these things seem to surface and confront us. How can we apply Jacob’s wrestling with God to our lives when this happens?

Psalm 17:1-7, 16

The psalmist is in some trouble. He is turning to God for protection from those who would rise up and cause him harm. Honesty (verse 1), righteousness (verse 3) and adherence to the law (verse 5) describe the psalmist. There is expectancy: God’s “marvelous loving-kindness” will surely result in granting refuge (verse 7) and vindication (verse 16).

How would you describe the attitude of the psalmist? Is it arrogance or is it possible to understand it as confidence in God’s protection of those who strive to lead a righteous life and turn to God in times of trouble?

Can you identify with the psalmist?

Romans 9:1-5

There is tension here. On the one hand, the Israelites are the heirs. They are adopted by God and are parties to all of the covenants (verse 4). God had made a covenant with Israel through David, whom he took from “the pastures from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” (2 Samuel 7:8). God promised that the house of David “shall be made forever before me, your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). Yet, in the Great Commission, Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Paul knows all of this. In his letter to the Galatians, he states, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the Church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age for I was more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Galatians 1:13-14). Now, however, Paul is a Christian. He has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart (verse 2).

Consider how he ends the passage with “Amen”. Is this a prayer, or is the “Amen” another way of saying “this is most certainly true”?

Consider the covenant to the Israelites in the context of the Great Commission. How do you feel about the concept that Jesus is both the universal and the particular for all creation (“all nations”)? Having considered this, what do you think about the covenant with the Israelites “forever”?

Matthew 14:13-21

We begin on a sad note. Jesus has just been told that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been killed. Moreover, his body has been desecrated: his head being placed on a platter and brought to Salome. Jesus withdraws “to a deserted place by himself” (verse 13), but upon seeing the crowds who needed him, he emerged because “he had compassion for them” and went to cure their sick (verse 14).

Jesus surely felt profound grief over John’s fate, but upon seeing the crowds, his sense of mission prevailed. The crowds needed him. The text says that “he had compassion for them” (verse 14). The Greek word that is translated as “compassion” is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη and refers to a sense of profound emotion. “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition,” edited by William Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000) describes it as a burning in “the inward parts of a body. In the ancient world, inner body parts served as referents for psychological aspects. It could be the bowels or the heart.”  Jesus’ emotions for the crowd, his compassion, eclipsed his personal grief.

This was more than a sense of duty. In the “Theological Lexicon of the New Testament” (Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), Ceslas Spicq notes that “translating the passive ἐσπλαγχνίσθη as ‘he took pity’ is almost opposite the true sense; ‘he was taken by (or moved with) pity’ would be better.”

The Hebrew word associated with ἐσπλαγχνίσθη is רַחֵ֖ם and is understood to be felt in a mother’s womb, such that the entrails are the locus of a mother’s pity for her children. (See Isaiah 49:15.) So, if we combine these understandings, we have an even deeper and richer understanding of what is going on. Jesus is overcome with emotion inwardly, as a mother would feel for her children.

Consider this understanding of compassion. Can you think of examples of this in the lives of the saints? Have you felt it?

This story contains a famous miracle: the feeding of the crowds with seemingly not enough food. In today’s post-modern era, how do you receive this story? If you think it to be merely symbolic but unlikely to be factual, how do you then understand the Eucharistic presence, baptism or the Resurrection?