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Bible Study: Proper 8 (A) – 2014
June 29, 2014
This passage has troubled readers for centuries. The image of God asking for the sacrifice of a child is both disturbing and a view of God not universally held by Christians. The passage has provided a number of interesting and varied interpretations from the notion that it is not God testing Abraham, but Satan, to the extrapolation of Jesus as our sacrificial lamb. The passage even inspired the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” where he asks whether one should obey a command from God despite it being morally wrong.
Traditionally, it was believed the text reflected a movement away from the sacrifice of the first-born, which belonged to God, to animal sacrifice instead. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, we read of Abraham’s great faith in God – a faith so strong he would obey any command, including the murder of his child. Following this passage is God’s rewarding of Abraham’s faith by the blessing of all nations through Abraham’s offspring. Isaac’s life is critical for this to occur.
As I write this, Memorial Day activities are being held. One of our local television stations is broadcasting photos of local military men killed in action. It is heartbreaking. And a sacrifice that is almost beyond comprehension.
- Does God ask us to sacrifice as we live our lives as Christian witnesses? If so, how does making a sacrifice for our faith help us grow spiritually? Or conversely, hinder this growth?
- Is there a sacrifice just too great for you to make as a Christian?
This psalm reflects the traditional motif of despairing/trusting/rejoicing. Walter Brueggemann describes this as secure orientation / painful disorientation / surprising reorientation.
In verses 1 and 2, we read of confusion: “God, why are these things happening to me?” In verse 3, the writer asks for God’s help. The pivotal verses are 5 and 6. Here, we find the use of the past tense. The writer “put his trust” in God’s mercy in the past and does so again. This faith results in singing to the Lord because he “has dealt” with him richly. God has been present previously during times of pain and confusion. These “Dark Night of the Soul” experiences when pain and suffering can be overwhelming are also times when our faith can be its most powerful. Our faith will carry us through the pain.
The psalms are such a commonplace part of our personal and corporate prayer that they can be rather prosaic. The power of the psalms, however, is their ability to help when we ask God “Why?” during times of crisis. They can provide comfort, because our pain is reflected in the passages. Additionally, the psalms are not simply a “been there, done that” empathetic writing, but a show of force for what happens when we live our lives within God. We lament, we question, we have faith – and God responds.
This psalm is a wonderful example of a Good Friday experience transitioning to Easter Sunday. Through our faith, we understand that the Good Friday experiences we suffer throughout life end in the Easter Sunday experience of God’s steadfast love.
- Discuss times during your life when you felt distant from God and how his love broke through this pain. How did your faith play a part in this?
Reading Paul’s letters is like listening to one end of a telephone conversation. We have Paul’s responses to situations that various churches and people were experiencing that we can only surmise.
Romans is a letter Paul wrote to a church he did not visit nor found. It is believed a mature Christian community existed in Rome at the time Paul wrote the letter.
Romans is the longest of Paul’s letters and singularly important to an understanding of the fundamental doctrines of Christian life. The central theme is God’s redemption offered to Jew and gentile alike through the faith of Jesus Christ. Because of this, Romans is roundly considered to be the most influential of Paul’s letters.
Despite this fact, scholars disagree on Paul’s purpose for writing to the Romans in response to the conflict between the gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians there. Theories include Paul’s wish to counter the notion that the gentile Christian emphasis on justification by grace apart from works of the law encouraged immoral behavior. Another idea is that Paul’s inclusion of the gentiles reflects his belief that God’s promises to Israel had not been fulfilled. At the time of the writing, the Jewish Christians in Rome were being attacked by their gentile counterparts for being too strict with regard to the law and by their non-Christian Jewish peers for being negligent with the law.
The passage here deals with being “slaves” to sin and the death this brings as opposed to being “slaves” to God and the resulting grace. Paul tells us that God’s grace is bigger than any human sin. In verse 14, he writes that sin no longer has dominion, because we live under God’s grace. We can see in verses 15-19, Paul addresses the question he understood the previous verse would elicit among his readers: “If we live in God’s grace, why can’t we continue to sin?” Paul tells us when we live in God’s grace we have an obligation to participate in this grace, to truly live into that grace. In verse 23, Paul explains what sin offers, i.e., death, versus God’s grace, which is eternal life through Jesus Christ.
An interesting discussion with regard to this reading starts with a focus on verses 17 and 18:
“But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
We can read these passages as our freedom from sin, but perhaps a more interesting view is our freedom not to sin. The latter reading offers a more proactive look at the participatory nature of our living into God’s grace. This grace does not simply offer a passive swipe of God’s hand to provide an alternative to sin and death, but demands our partnership. We must be obedient to and active within the teaching entrusted to us.
- What does living in God’s grace mean to you? How do you participate in this grace?
- Do you see a difference between “freedom from sin” and “freedom not to sin”?
- Is the freedom not to sin a hallmark of being a Christian? Does living into God’s grace and all that that offers us trump our human inclination to sin?
- Is this freedom empowering? Is it burdensome?
Matthew, although appearing first in the New Testament, is believed to have been written after the Gospel of Mark. Matthew’s audience was Jewish, illustrated by a stress on Davidic lineage in the opening verses of the gospel and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and Jesus’ references to Isaiah. In a sense, the Gospel of Matthew acts as a bridge between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Jesus Christ is the authority and the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Jesus is another Moses with a message that extends beyond the Jews to the gentiles as well.
Matthew constructs his gospel around five major points of Jesus’ teaching, including the Sermon on the Mount. These five points reflect the five books of the Pentateuch and Jesus as a new Moses.
The passage here is part of Jesus’ commissioning and sending of the disciples, which is a part of Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus tells the disciples their work is like his work. For example, in verse 40, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” Jesus is imparting knowledge and purpose to the disciples and ultimately to the church. Matthew is the only gospel in which the word “church” appears. The church is the way Jesus is present to us and the way we live out this presence in our interactions with others (“whoever gives even a cup of cold water”) will be rewarded.
In this passage specifically, Jesus reveals the Father and we reveal the Son: Welcoming of disciples = Welcoming of Jesus = Welcoming of the Father.
As we consider our lives as a community of the faithful, this passage can offer inspiration as a corollary to Jesus’ admonition that we love our neighbors as ourselves. A simple act of kindness, which may seem as inconsequential as dropping a small pebble in a pond, may have an exponential effect, just as that small pebble will create ever-larger ripples.
- What implications does this passage have for our work as Christian congregations?
- What does outreach mean to you personally and corporately? Do you reach out to those at the furthest edges of society, the little one Jesus references, with something as simple as a cup of cold water?
- Going one step further, do you welcome “the little ones” as if you were welcoming Jesus? Do you look for Jesus in their faces?
- What are the rewards we experience when we look for and see the humanity of those we serve as opposed to simply meeting a physical need they may have?
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