Proper 12 [17]

April 25th, 2014

The following is an excerpt from the Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary: Preaching Year A edited by Paul Scott Wilson.

The Lessons in Précis

Genesis 29:15-28
Deception is the order of the day as Jacob, who covenants with and works for Laban for seven years as the bride price for Rachel, Laban’s second daughter, is given the first daughter, Leah, as his bride. It is a betrayal of the covenant between Jacob and Laban.

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

This festal psalm calls the people to offer their praises to God because of who God is and particularly what God has done as part of the covenant between God and the people.

Romans 8:26-39

To the church in Rome that is suffering persecution as followers try to live out their faith, Paul offers a much-needed reminder of the promises inherent in trusting Christ. It is the enabling presence of Christ that will support the community through its trials.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Matthew presents five parables whose imagery connects metaphorically the old and new covenants, and reframes the picture of the kingdom of heaven.


God covenants with the community. Living as covenant community is a predominant theme of these texts. For Laban, community practice overrides personal desires. The psalm calls to remembrance Israel’s covenant. Paul claims community as a word of assurance to suffering people. Matthew’s parables address the ultimate community, the kin-dom of God.


In the midst of trial and the seeming litany of suffering that plagues so many of the faithful, it sometimes seems that deception and illusion has hidden the kin-dom of God. The path and the way of fulfillment of God’s promise are neither clear, nor without difficulty. The question that this raises is simply, why? Why is it a challenge for those whom God has, at least according to Christian scripture, chosen for eternal fellowship with God and the church triumphant? Why is it a challenge and not simply in the order of things? More than not in the natural order of things it seems quite the opposite; it often seems that creation and the things of it conspire to impede those chosen by God. Moreover, it sometimes seems that God chooses ways to bring about the promise that mean more “work” for the faithful. Here I am not contemplating the simple and not uncommon experience of the trials and tribulations that attend life in a late modern, over-consumptive society (e.g. debt, obesity-related illness, fractured families, etc.). While certainly these are very real matters that demand both ecclesial and pastoral response, the implication of divine handiwork to them serves only to mask the way that systems coalesce to bring about particular suffering; frequently, undeserved suffering. It is this second sort of trial and tribulation that I think raises the theological question for us, precisely because it is this type of suffering that emerges from the bending of creation such that it seemingly becomes the natural order of things. It is this, the hurdles of this sort that raise the question, as intoned by Anthony Pinn (1996), “Why, Lord?”

One way of making sense of this question is by resorting to the Christian doctrine of the fall. This doctrine holds that creation as we inhabit and experience it, is exactly not what God created things to be. It is important to note before going on that this is a Christian doctrine, meaning that it does not inherently emerge from the Genesis text. Having said that, let us notice that this doctrine holds that the actions of Adam, Eve, and the serpent brought creation under the sway of sin and death. This provides a framework for understanding the trials and tribulations of the faithful.

At a basic level, resorting to the Christian doctrine of the fall does provide a riposte to the quandary of the many hurdles faced by the faithful on their journeys. The appropriation of this doctrine has, however, not been without problems in the tradition. Specifically, it has often facilitated the complicity of Christian communities with the degradation of the planet. Because generations of Christians have devalued the planet as fallen, neither health of the planet nor of those peoples closely identified with it (indigenous and non-Western peoples) have been taken with particular seriousness. Certainly this has begun to change. Theologians such as Sally McFague and Mark Wallace, and movements such as the Evangelical Climate Initiative have called to our remembrance the created goodness of all creation and the need to care for it as stewards. Unfortunately, this is still a minority voice in very many parts of the church. It is my sense that even if it is only as pre-thematic backdrop, the doctrine of the fall still leads to a generally untoward posture toward creation by many in the faith.

So, then, if resorting to the doctrine of the fall provides only a preliminary, and in some ways unsatisfactory, way to account for the trials and tribulations of the faithful in God’s good creation, where might we next turn? My sense is that the question is open and that perhaps there is no adequate answer. It may well be that what we run up against here is the impenetrable veil of finitude. It may be one of matters of existence that is simply a thing of faith. This does not mean, of course, that we overlook the witness of the faithful, who through time have found comfort and an answer satisfactory to their own needs. To do so would be to look away from a great treasure entrusted to us. I do, though, want to resist saying that this witness gives a definitive and generally applicable answer. Any attempt at a comprehensive explanation of why it seems that trials and tribulations beset us makes a mockery of the suffering of those who have faced annihilation in wonder and anguish as the “skies remained silent” (Wiesel, 2006, 69). So, we may say, provisionally, that while there may yet be found testimonies of personal peace in the face of it, the question still remains, “Why, God?” I say provisionally because it may well be that faith points us only to a posture toward the question; not an answer. That posture is one that simply trusts in the face of the inscrutable.


There is a covenant, whether implied or explicit, that holds a community together. For Christians in this postmodern, Internet age, living into that covenant holds serious challenges. In fact, how does one even create community when individuals are physically distant from one another? Social networks have become the starting point for intimate relationships, and many Christians reject the need to gather together as a requirement of congregational membership.

At its foundation, community addresses the need to be loved and connected to others, physically, emotionally, even spiritually. Additionally, Christian community connects us with God through the divine/human covenant that provides direction and support in the midst of life’s trials and attendant suffering. Thus for Christians, the church community is important for living out that covenant. At its best it transcends the differences that make us strangers and guarantees recognition of our individuality as members, even as it celebrates our commonalities for the same reason.

The covenantal love of Christ brings individuals together and enables the church, at its best, to become the beloved community. As the beloved community, Christians live within the covenant of love proclaimed in their baptism. Each member is privy to divine love that provides strength for life’s journey. Members of the beloved community give and receive love that originates from Christ, provide support to each other in times of trial, and welcome others in the hope of expanding the community to the whole world, thus ushering in the kin-dom of God.


“Turnabout is fair play.” Perhaps one might be forgiven for having this response to Jacob’s situation, as he is the victim of Laban’s trickery. Jacob had tricked his brother into giving up his birthright, so having his uncle switch brides on him seems like appropriate payback. Yet Jacob’s anger seems justified when he accuses Laban of breaking his word. Laban’s response, that community norm takes precedence, is unsatisfactory on many counts. It is Laban’s community, so Jacob can have no expectation of support for his rightful claim.

On the other hand, Paul is writing to a community that exists under the Lordship of Christ, so there is expectation of support in their time of trial. That is the assurance Paul intends his letter to deliver, but in the face of persecution is it sufficient to meet their needs? Being part of a community, whether family, church, or any other group, requires that members commit to a covenant that guides their life together. Church systems are complicated because, unlike family systems where choice is not always a factor, Christians become members by choosing to follow Christ.

The Christian covenant that binds the community is intended to offer spiritual strength through Christ’s indwelling presence. Just as the Roman church needed it, so too does the twenty-first century church need the covenantal assurance of Christ’s presence as it strives to exist in the midst of destructive world systems. As head of the church, Christ is the fulfillment of the divine covenant. The love of Christ is assured not only for individuals but also for the whole community. That love is the guiding principle on which the church is built. It is the glue that must hold the community together, in order for the church to be the beloved community, the kin-dom of God on earth.


The church as the body of Christ takes its direction from Christ its head, and the community under the Lordship of Christ calls into living reality the family of God, ruled and guided by Christ’s law of love. Jesus named the great commandments as love of God and love of neighbor, and the church family operates within a circle of love. Christ not only loves us individually and as the church, but the love of Christ in our hearts enables us to be people of love, members of the beloved community. That is the nature and the substance of the new covenant.

Maintaining relationships in any community, especially in the midst of trials requires more than strength of will. As Christians, it is covenantal love that directs us for faithful living as individual members and corporately as the body of Christ. It is the love of Christ and not simply our membership in the church that enables us to be a community of love in the midst of a world that is often unlovely. The eternal love of God gave Jesus Christ to the world so that all may live as one community within God’s covenant of unending love.

Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, Ernest and Bernice Styberg Associate Professor of Homiletics, Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary

Stephen Ray, Neil and Ila Fisher Professor of Theology, Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary

Anthony Pinn, Why Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology, 1999.
Elie Wiesel, Night, 2006.
Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, 1993.
Mark I. Wallace, Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future, 2010.

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