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Proper 9 | OT 14 | Pentecost 5

Preaching and Reading the Old Testament Lessons
With an Eye to the New
God has promised Abraham that he will be the forebear of many descendants. To begin to fulfill that promise, God has granted the aged Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac. That is the context of this story that must never be forgotten.

But now Isaac is grown to marriageable age and Abraham must find a suitable wife for him, as was the custom. Abraham is probably at Hebron in this story, but Isaac must not be wed to a Canaanite woman who worships the foreign fertility gods of the region. Abraham therefore binds his servant (a steward here) by an oath (24:1-9) to seek out a woman from Abraham's own clan in Haran in upper Mesopotamia, from which Abraham had migrated.

The emphasis of the story is on the hidden guidance of God. The verses of our passage repeat the account of the events that take place in verses 10-33, and at every point, God's influence determines what happens. Abraham's wealth has been a gift from God (v. 35). God's angel accompanies the servant and "prospers" his way (v. 40). God gives heed to the prayer of the servant (vv. 42-44) and prompts Rebekah's actions to be the sign that identifies her as God's appointed wife for Isaac (vv. 42-46).

Once Rebekah is identified as the chosen wife, every character in the story acknowledges that God's has been the guiding hand -- the servant (v. 48); Laban, Rebekah's brother, and her father Bethuel (v. 50); by implication, Rebekah in her willingness to depart immediately for Canaan rather than to wait the accustomed ten days (vv. 56-59); and finally Isaac who, upon hearing the servant's account of the journey, immediately takes Rebekah as his wife (vv. 66-67). This is not merely a charming human story, but a testimony to the specific acts of God as he works to fulfill his promise. Thus does the God of the Bible work his hidden will in the lives of his chosen people.

The character of Rebekah is revealed. She is not only beautiful (v. 16), but unselfish. To water the servant's camels, she repeatedly must climb down stairs to the hole from which the spring flows, and then carry the heavy water jar back up and empty it into the watering trough beside the well. She also is pious, trusting that the servant is in fact following God's leading, and placing her future in his hands. And Rebekah is loving (v. 67), a wife who merits Jacob's love and gives him comfort after the death of his mother (v. 67).

Note that there is no thought here that a wife is simply property to be bought by a man -- a common misconception about marriage in the Old Testament. Isaac pays the accustomed bride price with the jewels that the servant gives to Rebekah (v. 22) and to her mother and brother (v. 53), but this is a marriage of love, not of convenience or commerce. Many passages in the Old Testament hold marriage in high regard (cf. Genesis 2:23-25; 29:20; Malachi 2:14).

The blessing that Rebekah's family gives her as she departs forms an ironic touch to the story. They wish her multiple descendants (v. 60), but she is initially barren (Genesis 25:21), an obstacle to the fulfillment of the promise that God himself must overcome, in answer to Isaac's prayer. Throughout these patriarchal narratives God is the principal subject, as indeed, he is the principle actor throughout the scriptures and in our lives. God is continually at work to keep his word. We can count on it.

Lutheran Option: Zechariah 9:9-12

This passage which is often used in connection with Palm Sunday, but which also finds its place in this Pentecost season in connection with the latter part of the Gospel lesson of Matthew 11:25-29, is sometimes misinterpreted. The passage forms an announcement of the coming of the davidic messianic king to Jerusalem, and that which sermons often emphasize is the humility of that king. Thus, the reading is made to fit nicely with Matthew 11:29-30. But the error that is made is to say that the Messiah comes humbly because he is riding on a lowly beast of burden, on an ass. (One can even find choral songs and imaginative stories celebrating that fact.)

That which is not realized is that riding on an ass was not a sign of the Messiah's humility, but of his identity. Princes rode on asses, according to Judges (5:10; 10:4; 12:14), as did King David (2 Samuel 16:2). But most telling, it is promised in Genesis 49:10-11 that the Messiah would ride on that beast. Thus the Messiah can be recognized!

The promised messianic ruler is humble, however, because he is completely dependent on God. In verse 10 of our passage, it is not the Messiah who speaks, but God. And God is the one who will banish all weapons of war and enable the Messiah to establish a reunited Israel that will enjoy peace from the Reed Sea to the Mediterranean, and from the wilderness of Sinai to the Euphrates. In short, the Messiah will have his universal reign from the hand of God, as for example in Isaiah 11:1-9.

Similarly, verse 9 of our passage is translated in the RSV, for example, as "triumphant and victorious is he." But a better translation is "righteous and saved is he." Throughout the scriptures "righteousness" is the fulfillment of a relationship, and the Messiah will be righteous because he trusts God and rules as a king should rule (cf. Isaiah 11:3b-4a). He will protect the helpless and prosper the good and be like "the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land" (Isaiah 32:2), but he will do such things because God will enable him to do them (cf. Psalm 72:1). Similarly, he will be "saved" from his enemies, because God will save him.

The Messiah is "humble" therefore, because his life and reign and abilities lie solely in God's hands, upon whom he is totally dependent for the success of his kingship and for the peace of his kingdom. He has no authority except that given him by God (cf. Psalm 110:1-5; 2:6-9). The picture is consonant with everything said about the Messiah in the Royal Psalms and in the prophetic writings.

That our Lord fulfilled this prophecy and was God's promised Messiah cannot be doubted. The New Testament affirms that fact throughout its pages. But it also affirms this portrayal of the Messiah in Zechariah. Christ relies on his Father for everything. He does nothing on his own authority, speaks only the words given him by his Father, follows not his own will but that of his Father, and points always to the goodness and glory of God and not to his own. That is true humility, and our Lord is, indeed, as Matthew writes, "gentle and lowly in heart," who can give us "rest for (our) souls" when we "labor and are heavy laden."
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