What It’s About: God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
What It’s Really About: The absurd generosity of God toward God’s people. What have Abraham and Sarah done to deserve this?
What It’s Not About: It’s not about earning anything. Sure, Abraham is told to “walk before me, and be blameless.” But there’s precious little evidence that anything Abraham or Sarah have said or done up to this point has earned them this favor. Here is a capriciously gracious God.
Maybe You Should Think About: This year for Lent the lectionary tracks with the great covenants found in the bible. But these covenants are not all identical to each other. God does not act the same in all, and the promises of God differ from one to the other. This covenant is a very personal one, enacted in very personal ways: the reproduction of a particular couple, Abraham and Sarah, and the fruitfulness that will come from that reproduction.
There’s a danger in preaching this text, though, and it’s one that I wasn’t always very aware of. Reproductive fertility—which is the text and subtext of this covenant—is fraught with differing meanings for different people. How will this text sound to people in different reproductive circumstances? How will it sound to the couple that has trouble conceiving or carrying a child to term? How will it sound to people who choose not to have children, or who have children otherwise than by choice? Family and reproduction is a very complicated question for a lot of people, and the way that this text links conception and childbirth with divine blessing can be very painful. It makes sense, given the context in which it was written. But this text can be read and heard in very hurtful ways.
Is there a way to unlink God’s blessing from the promise of heirs and descendants? Chime in down below in the comments to give your suggestions.
What It’s About: All those offspring who were promised in the Genesis text.
What It’s Really About: This is the second part of a two-part psalm. The first part is a lot grittier than this part is, and it describes a person who is afflicted by illness and surrounded by enemies. This half of the psalm is more upbeat, expressing confidence in the power of God to deliver the psalmist from peril. So this upbeat, confident part is really about the context of suffering found in the first 22 verses.
What It’s Not About: It’s not really about the present, is it? It’s really more about the future. Check out verses 30 and 31. That’s a pretty good mission statement for religion.
Maybe You Should Think About: Lectionary readings are always about selection, and it’s hard to fault the lectionary for selecting only these verses. But the psalm really makes more sense as a whole. This is the psalm Jesus quotes on the cross in Mark 15; it’s an expression of intense suffering and even abandonment. This is a common form for the Psalms—a cry from the psalmist to God, lamenting the actions of one’s enemies or the circumstances of one’s life. The Psalms are good this way—they speak to the kinds of loneliness, abandonment, estrangement, and fear that sometimes accompanies our lives. Leaving out that part and skipping to verse 23 is like starting your meal with dessert.
You’re right, bad example. But maybe think about starting with verse 1, for the full effect.
What It’s About: Abraham’s faith.
What It’s Really About: Circumcision! No, really. In his marvelous little book called Final Account, the biblical scholar and clergyperson Krister Stendahl pointed out that Paul’s excitement here—the reason he is so giddy about “his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness—‘” was that Paul had discovered that Abraham’s faith and faithfulness (Genesis 15) preceded his covenant and circumcision (Genesis 17). This, for Paul, opens up a world of possibilities, that faith can be directed to God and rewarded by God outside of God’s covenant with Israel. You should pick up the book to get the whole argument, but the gist is that Stendahl reads Paul here as finding a great “exegetical find,” justifying his work with the Gentiles.
What It’s Not About: It’s not really about faith in the abstract. This is about embodied faith. This is about faith that comes with commitments. This is about faith in action. Sometimes I think Paul would have been very angry with our self-help notions of faith and faithfulness.
Maybe You Should Think About: Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome is one of the most magnificent documents of the New Testament, and also one of the most confusing. This is probably because the purpose and setting of the letter is less clear than it is in others of Paul’s letters. Why is he writing this, and to whom? What does he want from them? Scholars argue over these questions, and about the implications of the answers for our understandings of the letter itself.
Whatever Paul is writing about, though, it’s clear that he thinks Abraham’s example is very important. Abraham’s faithfulness preceded everything else, and so Paul sees that as a model for his Gentile converts. For those of us outside of God’s special covenant with Israel, Paul thought this to be very good news!
What It’s About: This is Mark in a nutshell. Secrecy motif? See verse 30. Idiotic disciples? See verse 33. That Markan brevity and terseness? See the whole thing.
What It’s Really About: Identity. This is about who Jesus is, and what that means.
What It’s Not About: This passage is not about smooth theology. Here, there is a desperation and a raw energy about the way Jesus interacts with his disciples. The disciples all take cracks at figuring him out, and when Peter gets it right, Jesus tells him to be quiet. The section about the Son of Man in verse 31 seems to take Peter (the only one to get Jesus’ identity right!) by surprise, and verses 32 and 33 are about Peter and Jesus having a significant misunderstanding. This whole passage has a buzzy inertia about it, like a car screeching to a halt just before going off a cliff.
Maybe You Should Think About: Why is Jesus asking this question, “who do people say that I am?”
No, but seriously, why?