Proper 12A: Beyond Mere Words

Mustard TreeOLD TESTAMENT:  Genesis 29: 15-28

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Leading up to this passage, Jacob meets Rachel first while she is shepherding her father’s flocks. He tells her and eventually her father who he is and who his mother is, identifying himself as Rebekah’s son but, interestingly, never as Isaac’s son. And he spends a month or so with them before the subject of marriage is mentioned. At some point during that month Jacob decides that he wants to marry Rachel, but the text tells us nothing about their relationship or her feelings about the matter. Rachel and Leah’s mother is missing from the story; it is not clear whether the authors and editors found her irrelevant or whether she was truly absent, either through death or some other circumstances.

Laban essentially invites Jacob to name his own “salary” as payment for working for Laban and receiving his daughter.  The seven years that Jacob must serve Laban seems excessive to us but was an acceptable dowry in this context.  It also shows how much Jacob truly loved Rachel.  Now, considering Jacob’s history, it was not surprising that Laban would be distrustful of him.  At the end of the seven years, Laban appeals to the normal tradition of marrying off the firstborn.  While this seems underhanded to us, perhaps it also points to Jacob’s deception in the matter.  Leah, we are told, has rakkuth eyes.  Although classic interpretations have depicted Leah as weak or ugly—“cow-eyed” is the classic interpretation—it could also mean “delicate” or “lovely”. So, from that standpoint, picture Rachel as the classic beauty and Leah as the sweet, tender one.  So, Jacob agrees to seven more years so that he could take Rachel as his second wife.

Even though we recognize that both Jacob and Laban were, in their own way, deceptive God’s plan is mediated through human activity and through Jacob’s service.  Interestingly enough, what this story DOESN’T deal with is how Leah and Rachel feel.  We are only told about Jacob and Laban.  In our view, Rachel and Leah are treated like property or chattel (and, sadly, that one was deemed to be more highly valued than the other).  But keep in mind that this was not written in the twenty-first century.  That was acceptable for the time.

For the first time here, most of us probably side with Jacob.  The trickster had finally been tricked.  The one who had deceived his blind father had himself been blinded to the truth.  Perhaps he had seven more years to think about his own life while he ached for the one that he really wanted.  But, regardless, once again, the promises that God has given are still delivered.  God still works even when we humans try to fulfill our own agendas and pad our own lives with more than we are due.  God still works, somehow eeking out the best of humanity and the best of God’s promise from even the worst that we offer.  And Jacob, it seems, is continuously being remade, always one rung at a time.  It all goes in to making this shallow, selfish, thoughtless young man into the Father of Israel.

When it was all said and done, both Rachel and Leah play a part in the Genesis history.  The two of them, along with their maids Bilhah and Zilpah would give birth to the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  (Leah would give birth to more than half of the children.)  Both were used to fulfill the promise of life that God had promised.  They would spend their lives together.  But in death, Rachel would be buried alone on the road to Bethlehem and Leah would be buried in the ancestral tomb with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, and Jacob.

So, regardless of how we got there, the Abrahamic history continues…





   “see, a son!”



  Disqualified for sexual immorality with Bilhah (Gen. 35:22)
(1) Simeon

   “he who hears”




   “he will be joined”





John the Baptist

The priestly Levites are not later included in the tribes.
(2) Judah

   “I will praise”



David monarchy


Jesus Christ

(Probably the best-known of the tribes)
(3) Dan



Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden

Samson Conquered by the Assyrians and then were essentially lost in history.
(4) Naphtali



Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden

  Lost tribe.
(5) Gad



Zilpah, Leah’s handmaiden

  Lost tribe.
(6) Asher



Zilpah, Leah’s handmaiden

Anna, the prophetess Lost tribe.
(7) Issachar




  Traditionally dominated by religious scholars. (Symbiotic relationship with Zebulun Tribe)
(8) Zebulun




  Traditionally dominated by merchants. (Symbiotic relationship with Issachar Tribe)




(9) Joseph




  Jacob’s favorite son. His two sons were made into separate tribes of Israel.

The House of Joseph was the most dominant in the Kingdom of Israel.

(10) Benjamin




Israel’s first King, Saul

The Apostle Paul

(11) Ephraim



(Son of Joseph)

  Younger son, but ranked higher (AGAIN!)
(12) Manasseh



(Son of Joseph)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is most bothersome about this passage?
  3. Where do you see God’s presence in this story?
  4. This story is often touted as a “great love story”.  What do you think of that?  Where does Leah figure into this love story? 


NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 8: 26-39

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Here, Paul intends that the “groaning” of the church and the “groaning” of the world be seen as parallel.  The “weakness” that he talks about is essentially the fact that in this world, we are still subject to pain and despair, death and decay even as our souls are set for redemption.  The problem is that we don’t even realize what it is that we should be praying for.  In other words, we are so wrapped up in our life in this world that we don’t know what it is that we really want.  But Paul is claiming that through our weakness, the living Christ is revealed.  That is God’s ultimate purpose.  Paul depicts the process whereby God’s adopted children are shaped into a likeness of the image of Christ, God’s son.  The predestination language is referring to “those whom God foreknew”, implying all of us.  So, yes, we are “predestined” to become who God calls us to be.  Predestined is not meant to mean just some of us.

Within these verses are also a hint of Paul’s attempt to depict an “alternate existence”, above and beyond, and greater than, the Roman culture and empire that surrounded those to whom the letter was addressed.  Essentially, God is reshaping the world just as God is reshaping each human being in it.

The language toward the end of the passage is familiar to all of us.  Nothing will separate us from the love of God, no matter how awful things get.  But, it says, we are “more than conquerors”.  We are not called to wipe away all of those things on earth that we deem bad or evil or just not “up to snuff” based on what we have figured out is right. And we are not stoics sitting there taking the pain with no emotion and no involvement.  Rather, we know that God is walking us through everything, transforming it as we go.

From that standpoint, we, as Christians, are invited to live with God’s new creation on the horizon.  This great project, begun with the resurrection of Jesus, will continue until the whole world is transformed into what God envisions for it.  We are, then, called to live in an overlap of two creations—one old, one new, and to work for the new.  The vocation of the church is to, in essence, live within a “wrinkle” in time.  Our world is fraught with ambiguity.  We live in the midst of joy and pain, good and evil, life and death.  God is in the midst of it all.  Once again, Paul equates current suffering with God’s work. From that standpoint, Paul saw the suffering of Christians as redemptive.  God did not “pre-ordain” the suffering that happens.  Sadly, stuff just happens.  But God can still use it and transform it into life.  NOTHING will separate us from the love of God.

Maya Angelou, the great and prolific African-American poet, went back to her hometown in Stamps, Ark., with the television commentator Bill Moyers to meet with a group of children in the elementary school that Angelou had once attended. Maya Angelou looked into the eyes of those young children, and she said to them with honesty and with humility, “When I look at you, I see who I used to be. When you look at me, I hope you see the person that you can become.”(From “In God We Trust”, a sermon by Rev. Dr. George B. Wirth, available at, accessed 18 July, 2011.)

Maybe this passage speaks more to us about hope than anything else.  Perhaps Paul was trying to help us learn to hope.  True hope is for what is beyond our control, for what is really beyond what we know.  Maybe it’s a calling to think bigger, to actually dare to hope that God will redeem even this messed up world in which we live.  Do you really believe that?  That’s what it’s all about. 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How easily do we accept that nothing, I mean NOTHING, separates us from the love of God?  What would our lives be like of we really, really believed that?
  3. What gets in the way of us believing that?
  4. For what do you hope?
  5. What do you think this, then, calls us to do? 


GOSPEL:  Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The Parable of the Mustard Seed played upon an image that was popular for the time of a grand imperial tree image against the image of the lowly mustard seed and plant.  The mustard seed is an annual herb, whose small, almost microscopic, seeds, can produce a plant that is at the most six feet in height.  It is not a majestic tree.  From that standpoint, the “tree” image becomes inappropriate.  In its place is an ordinary plant from an ordinary seed.  It is a larger message than merely “from small things come great endings”.  Remember that mustard probably more closely resembles weeds.  So in Jewish law, you could not sow it just anywhere.  That would be against the laws of separateness and purity.  So why wouldn’t Jesus have used a noble cedar tree or the amazing olive tree that lives for centuries for the metaphor?  Why did Jesus use a then-little-used weed?  (And, after three weeks, I’m wondering what this obsession that Jesus had with weeds was all about!) The point is that God’s vision is not what we expect or what we’ve figured out that it should be.  It is not something that we can control (like weeds) and not something that we can determine where it will grow (like weeds).  Here, something ordinary becomes not just extraordinary but part of an alternative vision of the way things should be.  The ordinary (and the unwieldly!) becomes holy.

The Parable of the Yeast is also a play on the cultural “norm” of the day.  Yeast was often used as a symbol for corruption.  The yeast of the day is not in those little packets that make the bread smell so good as it rises.  Leaven was a molding, rotting lump of bread.  (Remember that “unleavened” implied purity.)  The focus of the parable is not merely the spread of Christendom throughout the world, but the surprising and unexpected spread of God’s Kingdom.

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl both focus on things of immense worth, perhaps things that you would find in the midst of something else.  It depicts finding something in an unexpected place, something that you hold more dear than anything else that you could possibly imagine.

The Parable of the Net is not merely a parable of evangelism—“fishing for people”—but of a sorting of things into their proper place upon the coming of the Kingdom of God.  It catches all (nets are not really very selective, if you think about it), but then needs some “sorting out”.  Now, I’m not convinced that this sorting into “good and evil” is really Jesus-like.  Many interpreters think that this section might have been added by later redactors that were a little over-zealous.  After all, remember from last week that it is not our job to lie in judgment.  Maybe this is more of a “sorting out” rather than a separation into “good” and “bad”.  After all, what if that which looks like disorder to us is actually in the midst of transformation?  Maybe the sorting has more to do with transformation than it does with exclusion.  That seems more “Jesus-like” to me.

Now understand that these are not full descriptions of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus was just trying to put it into some terms that we could understand.  The coming of the Kingdom of God is only understood through true discipleship.  I think that at their most basic, these parables are saying that we cannot DO anything to inherit the Kingdom.  It is not what is expected.  We just have to understand to whom we belong.  And we also have to remind ourselves that God is God and we are not, that our view of the way things should be may or may not be God’s vision of glory for which we hope.  Maybe Jesus was up to a little mischief here, trying to shake us up a bit, trying to shake some sense into us.  Maybe the message was to quit trying to fix it or figure it out and begin to live into it.

In “The Seeds of Heaven,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes movingly about the power of parables: “How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?” Perhaps we do best if we use the most ordinary things, as Jesus did, and “[trust] each other to make the connections…We cannot say what it is, exactly, but we can say what it is like, and most of us get the message…” And her most keen observation is about the “hiddenness” of the reign of heaven in these stories, all of them, and what that hiddenness may teach us about our own seeking: that in the most ordinary, everyday things and experiences are “signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullness of our days…[it is possible] that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives…” Where do you find the kingdom of heaven, and how do you experience it?

Alyce McKenzie says it like this:  A rule of thumb of parable interpretation is this: identify what is strange about the parable. It is your window into the kingdom of God. (Alyce McKenzie, “Strange Scripture”, available at, accessed 18 July, 2011.) 


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Which of these parables speaks to you and depicts what your image of God’s Kingdom is like?
  3. Are there any that are difficult for you?
  4. Where do you find the Kingdom of God and how do you experience it? 


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world.  But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two.  Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars. (Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World:  A Geography of Faith, p. 15.)


Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.  But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright.  And then you ask yourself in amazement:  Is this really my own life I see before me? (Albert Schweitzer)


The marvelous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey) 



Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me, save that thou art. Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word; I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;Thou and thou only, first in my heart, great God of heaven, my treasure thou art.Great God of heaven, my victory won, may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all. Amen.Ancient Irish words translated by Mary E. Byrne, 1905 (UMH # 451)