Reading Ramblings – July 30, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 30, 2017

Texts: Deuteronomy 7:6-9; Psalm 125; Romans 8:28-39; Matthew 13:44-52

Context: The readings today focus on God’s love and care for his people. This is love and care not based on population size or meritorious conduct, but solely on the love and grace of God. This love of God’s far surpasses our own capacity to love, and our deepest commitments pale in comparison to the sacrificial commitment of God to his creation.

Deuteronomy 7:6-9 – The reading starts with the declaration that God’s people are holy in the sight of God. We might expect that this would then proceed to a declaration of how good they have been or the particular actions and qualities that merit them this holiness in God’s eyes. Instead, the passage emphasizes not the people but rather God. It is God who has decided to make his people holy, based solely on his love and graciousness rather than on their merit. While much of contemporary worship seems focused on repetitious declarations of love and adoration for God, what makes us his people is not our love for him but rather his love for us. We more rightly emphasize his steadfastness rather than our own, his commitment rather than our own, and his glory rather than our own.

Psalm 125 – Those who put their faith in God oftentimes seem weak by the world’s standards. In the face of violent opposition, Christians have often gone to their deaths, been imprisoned, and suffered myriad smaller-scale persecutions. After all, our kingdom is not of this world, and those who are intent on claiming this world in the short term are apt to look at Christians as easy targets. But the reality is far different. God is always with his people. And while his people may be allowed to suffer and die, these things are only temporary inconveniences compared to the eternal joy we are promised in the grace of God. As such, God’s protection is not temporary but eternal (v.2), and evil will not be allowed to rule indefinitely over God’s people or they may be tempted to think that evil has won and there is nothing left to do but give in and participate in evil. While evil may hold the day – may hold the day for months and years and even decades at a time, it is not permanent, and its rule is always held in check by the power of God and his love for his people. It is in this assurance that we are to find our peace. Oftentimes peace on our own terms – financial, political, cultural dominance – is impossible. But our peace is in God who created us, redeems us, and has promised to bring us to his kingdom eternally.

Romans 8:28-39 – We come to the end of this section of Romans. In last week’s section, Paul had laid out the first two of three reasons why the Christian can endure the suffering of this world. The first is that the suffering of this world is momentary compared to the vast expanse of eternity. The second is that the Holy Spirit of God within us intercedes on our behalf in the midst of our suffering, even when we ourselves aren’t consciously able to find the words to pray. The last of his three reasons is that God works all things for good for those who love him (v.28). This is not saying that suffering is not real, or that there is not actual evil in the world. Rather, it says that while there is suffering and evil in the world, the Christian rests in the assurance that they are God’s, and as we have already received reconciliation and grace through the sacrifice of the Son of God, we know that our eternal condition has been declared. We might have to suffer here and now, but that suffering is for a limited amount of time (v.18), and we do not suffer alone (v.26). The Christian does not seek out suffering, but if and when it comes we don’t simply endure it but we look for God to be at work in, through, and despite it. Paul has already touched on this topic in 5:1-5. God can make us better and stronger through our suffering if we will trust in him and allow him to. This is working towards our good both here and now, as his children and as witnesses to his love and glory, and as we are shaped more and more, molded and prepared for the eternal weight of glory that we are promised through faith in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 13:44-52 – Throughout this chapter Jesus has been describing the kingdom of God, showing how it differs from our understanding of power and dominion. As this section of Matthew draws to a close Jesus concludes with three very brief metaphors for the kingdom of heaven – far briefer than the previous ones in this chapter.

It is tempting to hear these as descriptions of how we are to be about the kingdom of heaven, as though we are the active characters in each. However the last of the three parables makes it clear that this is mistaken. These are parables about the kingdom and rule of God and how He goes about things. In each case God is shown to be unlike any other king we might ever have heard about on earth.

In the first parable, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a field with a treasure buried in it. The confusion comes in when we presume that the kingdom of heaven is being described as something hidden in a field, waiting to be discovered by you and I who are glad to sacrifice everything in exchange for it. Traditionally this parable has been turned into an exhortation about what kind of disciple we are to be – what sort of citizen is worthy of the kingdom of heaven. Only the one who gives up everything else in order to possess that citizenship.

But this is problematic, in that in our sinful nature we are incapable of giving up everything else and wholeheartedly embracing the kingdom of God. We can never be deserving of citizenship there if that is what the parable is saying. But I side with those scholars (few in number) who interpret this parable in reverse. It is we who are the buried ones (as in death), that God gives up everything (his Son) in order to possess us forever. In this way, the parable really is about the kingdom of God and the sacrificial love of our God for us. Some object that we would be compared with a treasure, but isn’t this how God sees us? Isn’t this why He sends his Son to die on our behalf, because He loves us and his love is what conveys value?

Similarly in the next parable, it is God seeking out valuable pearls and selling everything in order to possess it. In both cases the parable is not literal – God does not give up everything, but He did give up a great deal to cause his Son to become one with us and to suffer and die.

The final parable makes it clear that these interpretations of the previous two are reasonable, if not historically popular. It clearly describes the active work of God and his angels in sorting through humanity like fish, keeping the righteous ones and casting out the evil ones. What determines righteousness vs. evil? Whether we recognize how God has sought us out and died in order to claim us as his own forever.

Unlike earlier parables, Jesus’ disciples are able to understand these. Jesus seems pleased, as it is his job – and will be their job – to continue to share truths both known and unknown. This continues to be the role of the Church in the world – witnessing to the outrageous love of God for each person as attested to by his Word to us in the Old and New Testaments.

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