Illuminations on Sunday’s Readings – Pentecost 4B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for June 17, 2018

The Sower

The Sower (1850), oil painting on canvas by Jean François Millet (1814-1875). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading (Track One): 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Saul, named king of Israel amid great hopes, hasn’t worked out. In fierce and bloody verses just before this reading, God had ordered Saul to gather an army and attack the neighboring Amalekites, utterly destroying all that they have and killing all their people and livestock. But against God’s command Saul spared the king and kept the best spoils for himself. Now God regrets having made Saul king, and rejects him. In today’s reading God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to find the next king from the sons of Jesse. Much to everyone’s surprise, God passes over seven strong, handsome sons to choose the youngest, David.

First Reading (Track Two): Ezekiel 17:22-24

It is only a few days until the Summer Solstice, and all nature has turned green and lush at last. How fitting that many of Sunday’s readings touch on planting, growing, and new life! Much of the prophet Ezekiel’s writings are filled with angry recriminations to a people in exile, but today’s passage looks forward more gently toward a restored Israel, using the metaphor of a mighty cedar, a lofty tree that provides nesting space for birds and shade for many creatures. The prophet’s words offer an inspiring reminder that, with God’s help, a mighty tree can grow from a sprig. In the beauty of creation, we know that God is good.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 20

Fitting with the militaristic theme of Israel’s kings and their call to holy war against their neighbors, the Psalm for Sunday’s Track One option is understood as a prayer for victory, a blessing before battle, calling on God to defend the people, send help and strength, accept their offerings and advance their plans. Rather than trusting in chariots and horses, the people call on the name of God to give victory to Israel’s king.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 92:1-4,11-14

Echoing the promise in our first reading of the mighty cedar that grows from a sprig, this Psalm of praise and thanksgiving sings of mighty trees, too – cedars of Lebanon and lofty palms – standing for those who grow and flourish under God’s nurturing care. Through righteousness, justice, and faith in God’s loving kindness, we hope to remain ripe and fruitful all our lives.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:1-17

The metaphor of growth and fruitful harvest doesn’t jump right out at us in these verses from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, but look closely and perhaps we can catch a glimpse of it in the last verses: When we choose to live in Christ, our lives change. Just as the leaves fall in autumn and our flowers and gardens die, only to return full of life in the spring, everything that is old passes away in Christ’s new creation. Everything becomes new for us again in the life we gain through Jesus.

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34

Like so many of Jesus’ parables, the two featured in Sunday’s Gospel draw metaphors from seeds and sowing, tiny beginnings that grow up to yield food from the earth. But something more is happening here: These are the first of 18 parables in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus tells stories that hint at the nature of the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom is like” is surely the most frequent introductory phrase in the Gospel. Here, too, begins another recurring theme in Mark: Jesus tells mysterious parables that intentionally disguise his mission, and he tells his followers to keep his healings secret. Was Jesus’ call for a Kingdom of God, a kingdom that might replace Roman rule, too dangerous an idea to bring up in public?

What are “Track 1” and “Track 2”?
During the long green season after Pentecost, there are two tracks (or strands) each week for Old Testament readings. Within each track, there is a Psalm chosen to accompany the particular lesson.
The Revised Common Lectionary allows us to make use of either of these tracks, but once a track has been selected, it should be followed through to the end of the Pentecost season, rather than jumping back and forth between the two strands.
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