During Pentecost Season 2023, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two “tracks” of readings from the Hebrew Bible. Congregations may choose either track.
The first track of readings follows major stories and themes, read mostly continuously from week to week. The second track of readings thematically pairs the reading from the Hebrew Bible with the Gospel reading.
The readings from the Epistles are the same in both tracks.
19 These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Genesis is the first book of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Torah also called the Pentateuch (“five books”) in Greek. Genesis covers the period from Creation to the deaths of Jacob and his 11th son, Joseph, in about 1650 BCE, if the accounts are historical.
The Book of Genesis (like the Torah as a whole) is an amalgam of religious traditions, some of which are dated to about 950 BCE and some of which were developed as late as 450 BCE. Since the late 19th Century, Biblical scholars have recognized four major “strands” or sources in the Torah called “J” (Yahwistic), “E” (Elohistic), “D” (Deuteronomic) and “P” (Priestly). These sources are identified (among other ways) by their different theological emphases, names for God, names for the holy mountain, and portrayals of God’s characteristics.
The first 11 Chapters of Genesis are called the “primeval history” which ends with the Tower of Babel story — an “etiology” (a story of origins, in Greek, “etio” means a beginning and “logo” is a story) – relating to the scattering of humankind and the multiplicity of languages. The last chapter of the primeval history also traces Abram’s lineage back to Noah’s son, Shem (which means “name” in Hebrew and from which we get the word “Semites”).
Today’s reading comes after the burial of Abraham by his sons Ishmael and Isaac (25:10), and a list of the 12 tribes descended from Ishmael residing in the deserts on both sides of the Red Sea (25:13-15).
Rebekah’s barreness for 19 years put her in the line of “barren matriarchs” (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Hannah). The LORD’s response to Isaac’s plea is intended to show the power of God, just as it had in the story of Sarah.
The birth of Jacob and Esau is also an etiology a story of the origins of the Edomites and the Israelites. An anthropomorphic YHWH told Rebekah she had two nations in her womb (v.23). In these accounts, Jacob (whose name means “supplanter”) will become the father of the 12 tribes of Israel, and Esau (whose land, Edom, is a play on the word “admoni” which means “red”) will become the father of the Edomites, traditional enemies of Israel. Esau is described as “hairy” (v.25), and the Hebrew word for hairy (se’ar) is a play on the word “Seir” – a region in Edom.
In the story, the younger son Jacob bought Esau’s “birthright” (blessing, family leadership and a double share of inheritance when Isaac dies) for a bowl of stew. Esau was presented as dull-witted and willing to give up his birthright because he was temporarily famished. This was a slap at the Edomites whom Israel dominated during the reigns of David and Solomon (1005-930 BCE), but who pillaged Jerusalem during the middle years of the Babylonian Exile (587-539 BCE).
The Jewish Study Bible sees this story as another case of God’s being perceived as favoring the younger son, as with Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Joseph and his 10 older brothers.
10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Ancient Israel’s history. The writings were compiled from about 700 BCE to about 300 BCE.
Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and are the words of a prophet (one who speaks for YHWH – translated as “LORD” in all capital letters in the NRSV) who called for Jerusalem to repent in the 30 years before Jerusalem came under siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55. In these chapters, a prophet brought hope to the Judeans during the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they had suffered enough and would return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 in which a prophet gave encouragement to the Judeans who had returned to Jerusalem (which was largely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE) after the Exile had ended.
Today’s reading is the closing verses of Second Isaiah. It emphasized the effectiveness of YHWH’s word (v.11) and the joy the people would experience (v.12) when the Exile ended when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Babylonians in 539 BCE and allowed the Judeans to return to Jerusalem.
The Jewish Study Bible notes that this reading reflects the indirect manner in which God’s promises and prophecies are fulfilled. “The metaphor is significant: God sends rain which inevitably falls to the ground; then it is absorbed by soil and nourishes vegetation. Humans in turn harvest the vegetation and transform it into food. Similarly, God’s word is sure to have a series of effects, the most important of which are indirect and involve human input.”
The JSB goes on: “The nature of the fulfillment of restoration may be indirect and will depend on human response to God’s invitation. The prophet may be responding to the failure of most Judeans to move back to Zion after the Persian king Cyrus allowed them to do so in the 530s BCE.”
1 There is [therefore] no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was his longest, last, and most complex letter. It was written in the late 50s or early 60s (CE) (about 10 years before the earliest Gospel (Mark) was written) to a Jesus Follower community that Paul did not establish. Among many messages in the letter, Paul sought to encourage respectful and supportive relationships between the Gentile Jesus Followers and the Jewish Jesus Followers in Rome.
The “backstory” is that in 49 CE, Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome, including Jewish Jesus Followers. The next Emperor was Nero who reigned from 54 to 68 CE. Nero reversed his predecessor’s decree and allowed Jews to return to Rome. This return caused tensions within the Jesus Follower Community in which Gentiles had become prominent.
Paul died in 63 or 64 CE. Accordingly, the Temple in Jerusalem (which was destroyed in 70) was in full operation all during Paul’s life. As a Jew who was also a Jesus Follower, Paul saw the Jesus Follower Movement as part of a broader Judaism and continued to have expectations about the fullness of the Coming of the Messiah/the Christ. The term “Christian” had not been invented in his lifetime.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament observes that portions of the Letter to the Romans are written as a diatribe, a rhetorical technique using questions and answers and changes in voice to represent different points of view. The use of this technique makes it difficult to distinguish whether we are encountering Paul’s views directly or those of others as presented by Paul.
Today’s reading continues Paul’s extended discussion of law, sin, the flesh, and the Spirit. For Paul, “the flesh” is not our bodies as such, but our human tendency towards self-centeredness and self-interest. “Sin” for Paul is our personal egoism that leads to “death,” both spiritual and physical (v.6). (Paul saw, as was common in his time, the story of Adam’s disobedience as the cause of human mortality.)
Paul uses “law” in diverse ways – in some places, it means the Torah, the Jewish Law (v.3), but in other contexts it means a “way of living” as in “the law of the Spirit in the life of Christ Jesus” (v.2) and “the law of sin and death” (v.2).
Life in the Spirit leads to wholeness and Eternal Life (v.10). The JANT sees the thrust of this chapter as follows: “Although still in the body and thus subject to human limitations, God’s Spirit lives in those who set their minds on things of the Spirit in faithfulness to Christ. Conflict between spiritual conventions and human limitations will continue, for Christ followers are still living in bodies (i.e. in the present age), but victory is assured for all creation which will be rescued when the awaited age arrives fully.”
Regarding verses 4-6, The JANT says: “Paul moves from declaring a state of change already accomplished, to a conditional state that one can accomplish in a new way, but one that requires ‘walking’ or ‘norms for living’ (i.e. ‘halakah’) to accomplish it.”
1 Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
The Gospel of Matthew highlights Jesus’ origins and identity. Written around 85 CE by an anonymous author, the Gospel began Jesus’ genealogy with Abraham and depicted Jesus as a teacher of the Law like Moses. More than any other Gospel, Matthew quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures (using the Greek Septuagint translation) to illustrate that Jesus was the Messiah.
Because it was written after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Gospel reflected the controversies between the Jesus Followers and the Pharisees for control of Judaism going forward. Accordingly, the Gospel contains many harsh sayings about the Pharisees. The Gospel is aimed primarily at the late First Century Jewish Jesus Follower community.
The Gospel relied heavily on the Gospel of Mark and included all but 60 verses from Mark. Like Luke, Matthew also used a “Sayings Source” (called “Q” by scholars) which are stories and sayings found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark and John. There are also a substantial number of stories that are unique to Matthew: the Annunciation of Jesus’ conception was revealed to Joseph in a dream (rather than by an angel to Mary as in Luke); the Visit of the Magi; the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod; the Flight to Egypt; the Laborers in the Vineyard; and the earthquake on Easter Morning, among others.
Today’s reading is the familiar parable of the sower and the seed, one of a series of parables in Chapter 13. The New Oxford Annotated Bible describes parable (“mashal” in Hebrew) as a story, fable, proverbial saying, or a riddle. It goes on: “Narrative parables involve analogy or comparison between the situation and the subject being discussed.” This parable is also in Mark and Luke and is one of the few parables in the gospels for which an interpretation is given in the gospels.