Lectionary Commentaries for March 1, 2020
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11

Melinda Quivik

We know this scene too well.

Matthew puts Jesus in “the wilderness” immediately after his baptism and confronts him with options that will address all the desires of a normal human: food, simplistic thinking, and power. The pastor’s challenge is to work at making a familiar text strange, at least to you, so that you can see into it in a new way. Tell yourself what you think this scene is about and then ask yourself why enough times until you get to a new insight for yourself. The people in the assembly will be glad to be taken to a new thought and a new emotional connection to Jesus’––and their own––situation.

I see a move in this First Sunday in Lent away from pious admonitions in the Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday––to do more giving, praying, and fasting. Even while we are being exhorted during Lent to deepen our commitments to faithful living, Lent calls us to focus not on what we are doing but to focus on Jesus. The point in this text is not that we ought to take on the same fast as Jesus did in the wilderness (forty days means not exactly that number but a long time … longer than is comfortable) or that he was strong enough to say no to the devil despite what the story suggests is extreme hunger. Oh, see how he resisted an easy out! Instead, a question is posed through the interaction between Jesus and the Great Tempter that gets at the question of Jesus’ identity.

The Tempter confronts Jesus with the opportunity to differentiate himself from what is not life-giving. By denying the goodies he could have, he articulates the parameters around who God is. In other words, what is truly life-giving resides inside certain boundaries. It doesn’t feed itself at the expense of its proper allegiance. What gives true life does not take a short-cut to wisdom (latching onto a simple way of interpreting Scripture, as if a literal understanding was appropriate to its profundity) or grasp for power.

We know Jesus’ identity is the matter at hand because the offering the Tempter puts to him is a kind of snotty challenge: “If you are the Son of God …” It’s as if someone has whispered to the Tempter, “Psst. Hey! That guy over there thinks he’s God’s Son. Shake him down! See what you can get out of him.” The story doesn’t tell us how this knowledge came to the Tempter. It is an assumption in the narrative. The Tempter just shows up there in the wilderness––defined as a place without sustenance or comforts––and immediately begins to find a chink in the armor of God’s Son.

To make food appear when one is famished is a primary hunger, as it were. To let go of one’s sensibilities in a situation where falling from a great height means death (standing “on the pinnacle of the temple” in verse 5) would be to abandon deep reading of God’s word by taking it literally. To take power over others feeds the ego. Food, simplistic thinking, and self-importance are what is at stake here.

Jesus sees through the attempted traps. He will not let the Tempter make himself give up his self for the sake of assuaging his physical desires, his hunger. He will not let the Tempter narrow his understanding of God’s word so that it becomes a litmus test for faith. He will not yearn for or grab influence in the way of human beings who find themselves unsatisfied unless they have status that is admired by other humans. In short, Jesus will not yearn primarily to be given what feeds the physical body or hunger to know fully what God’s word means or grab importance.

The result of these denials is that “angels” visit Jesus in verse 11. I imagine them doting on him as does a parent when a child recovers from a dangerous illness or has been lost and is suddenly found. They wait on him, which in the parlance of a fine restaurant, means they have an eye for his needs and are ready to provide whatever that is. They are from God as messengers who come because Jesus is recognized through his refusals as one who is devoted to truth and goodness.

The question for the assembly gets at how we are to understand these denials in our own lives. If I find myself moved to eschew physical pleasures or to keep myself from latching onto a too-glib understanding of God’s truth or stop myself from giving in to my desire to be well regarded by others, how do those angels manifest for me?

The question in the text that is the most difficult to answer is precisely the question in the text that the preacher ought to tackle. The answer about the angels could be a journey through imagined possibilities about what sort of form the “being waited on” might take in our lives. I think of the relief I feel when I have stopped striving after something too hard to achieve, when I let it be enough in my life that I am a beloved child of God just as Jesus was addressed by the voice that named him Beloved. How good it is to know my strength when I have turned away from a damaging pattern of behavior! How much more interesting my searching can be when I keep asking why instead of settling for an easy and widely approved interpretation of something.

We hear of the snake’s apple on this day, as well, because what happens to Jesus in his encounter with the Tempter is an elaborate additional description of how the knowledge of good and evil can twist our minds and hearts––how stuck we are each day with the Tempter in the guise of a snake and an apple.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Alphonetta Wines

Today’s text comes from Genesis 3, the story of the Garden of Eden, one of the first three chapters in the Bible.

Taken together these chapters are likely to form the lens through which one reads the biblical text. By the time one gets to the end of this story, humanity, first assessed as very good, not only has to live with the consequences of having made a terrible mistake, but also has been cursed and evicted from the Garden by God. Such a reading, based on years of traditional and cultural misunderstandings of the text, I submit is not only detrimental, it is not what the text says or intends. If one is to get the import of this passage, one must look at this passage in the context of Genesis 1-3.

Recall that Genesis 1 says that creation, which was good before humanity showed up on the planet, is now “very good.” This good is not earned. It is, rather, an inherent part of being human. This goodness is not some sort of afterthought. Rather, the mere presence of humanity in creation is sufficient for God to see that the good of creation is now very good.

The second creation story, in Genesis 2, continues in this goodness. This time, rather than male and female being created simultaneously, they are created separately. During the time between the creation of the two, the man is busy doing the work commanded by God, that of tilling and keeping the garden and of naming cattle, birds, and every animal of the field. This naming is done in search of a companion for the man. Finding none to the man’s undeniable delight, God’s performative surgery creates the perfect companion, a woman out of the man’s rib.

Endless volumes have been written declaring the woman as somehow inherently second class, less than, inferior to the man because of the time lapse between creation of the two beings. These assessments, I suggest, miss the point. Rather than representing a relationship of superiority/inferiority, use of the rib represents the idea that “you can’t have one without the other.” The rib is an indication of the closeness and connectedness of the two human beings.

If one comes to chapter three thinking that the women is somehow less than the man, that negative assessment continues to the detriment of all. She who is created second, is now first to eat of the forbidden tree. Intuitively, they knew that something in their world had changed. Immediately their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked.

It is interesting to note that at this point in the story, their circumstances have not changed. They were naked before eating of the tree of good and evil and remain so after eating thereof. The only change thus far is their understanding of their circumstances. Their understanding prompts them to use fig leaves, ineffective as they may be, to cover their nakedness.

Their ineffective cover-up is now an even more futile attempt to hide from God and from accountability. God’s presence only makes things worse. The ensuing conversation with God would be comical for the man blames the woman, and the woman blames the serpent. This, however, is no laughing matter.

Often misunderstood as God cursing humanity, a close reading of the text reveals that only the serpent and the ground are cursed. Even so, the failure to accept responsibility results in dire consequences for the woman regarding childbirth, for the man regarding work, and for the serpent regarding its limited mobility on the earth.

Carol Meyers suggests that the woman’s pain of childbirth is not so much about physical pain, but is a reference to God’s saying “I will greatly increase your work and your pregnancies,”[1] that women would be expected to “have large families and also work hard.” Women, Meyers suggests, might resist the idea of having so many pregnancies. Meyers continues: “Male rule in this verse is narrowly drawn relating only to sexuality, [however] male interpretive traditions have extended that idea by claiming that it means general male dominance,” a dominance that was never meant to be.1

For the man, the job of naming became the responsibility to earn a living, work would now be a struggle for the earth, the source of the resources needed to earn a living would not give up her bounty easily.

The talking serpent, (not Satan, but a talking serpent akin to the talking animals such as one might find in Aesop’s fables), so eager to spout reasons why the woman need not fear eating the forbidden fruit, is now silent, resigned to its fate of crawling on its belly.

Many have, because she ate first, blamed the woman for all the world’s troubles. Even today, many think the woman is somehow second class, less than, inferior to the man. That is not the point of this story. This chapter reflects on the tragic reality of brokenness in relationships between God and humanity, among human beings, and between humanity and the earth.

This text reminds me of Judges 19-21, wherein the mistreatment of one woman leads to the mistreatment of six hundred women, which represents a community at its worst. The worst is so bad, the community realizes something has to change. Consequently, they begin to seek a new form of government, kingship.

In this season of Lent, today’s text is a reminder that something has to change. Rather a description of how things must forever be, it silently implores its readers to live beyond the strictures of Paradise Lost. Instead, this text is a call to repent, rethink, do the work, and become the kin-dom of God. May it be so.


Notes

  1. Carol Meyers. “Eve,” Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Names and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible and Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, eds. Carol Meyers General Editor, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 81.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 32

Cameron B.R. Howard

In Christian tradition, Psalm 32 has long been classified as one of the seven “penitential psalms,” which are often read during the liturgical season of Lent.1

As a season of repentance, discipline, and preparation, Lent brings themes of sin, confession, and redemption to the forefront of our thinking. Reflecting on Psalm 32 is particularly appropriate for this first week of Lent, as this text provides instruction on the means and results of confession. The psalmist testifies to the relief, both physical and spiritual, that came to him when he confessed his sin to the Lord, and the Lord forgave him.

The many changes of address in this psalm, combined with the three uses of the mysterious but probably musical term “selah,” remind us of the liturgical foundation of the psalms.  We can imagine that this poem was sung, perhaps with alternating voices, as part of a worship experience in ancient Israel or Judah. The opening verses lay out the theme for the rest of the psalm: forgiveness yields happiness. They serve as declarative wisdom sayings. The beginnings of verses 1 and 2, “Happy are those…,” recall the wisdom phrases bracketing Psalms 1 and 2 as the introduction to the Psalter.

In fact, the relationship between those psalms and Psalm 32 is complementary. As J. Clinton McCann, Jr., points out, “By defining happiness in terms of forgiveness, Psalm 32 functions as an important check against any tendency to misunderstand Psalm 1. That is, to be righteous is not a matter of being sinless but a matter of being forgiven, of being open to God’s instruction (Psalm 1:2; see 32:8-9), and of trusting God rather than self (verse 10; see Psalm 2:12).”2

In verses 3-7, the psalmist addresses God in a prayer that also serves as instructive testimony for his listeners. Silence had brought him suffering; confession brought forgiveness, and with it, relief (verses 3-5). What he has learned from his experience, and what he wishes to share, is that the faithful should turn to God in times of suffering in order to find deliverance (verses 6-7).

The voice of the psalm then shifts from addressing God in the voice of a supplicant to addressing the pupil in the voice of a teacher (verses 8-9). The identity of the first-person speaker is unclear. Perhaps God is speaking to the psalmist; perhaps a teacher is speaking to the psalmist; perhaps the psalmist himself is a teacher addressing a student. I find the latter possibility most compelling, as it fits well with the testimonial nature of verses 3-7. In any case, though, the didactic motivations of the psalm come into full view in verses 8-9.

Like any good teacher, the speaker makes an analogy to something the student already knows well in order to illustrate the concept she or he is trying to communicate. “Do not be like a horse or a mule,” says the teacher (verse 9). Discipline of those animals, so that they might follow in the right path, requires physical restraint. They lack understanding. The pupil, on the other hand, has the opportunity for understanding, if only the pupil will be surrender to the tutelage of the speaker.

This metaphor of the stubborn horse or mule contrasted with the obedient student is helpful for us today as well, especially as students of scripture entering into the season of Lent. We are called to be renewed, even intensified discipline throughout these forty days. That discipline is not something that can be forced upon us with bit or bridle, but is rather something we must submit to freely. It is popular these days to think of Lent as a time to take on a new spiritual practice rather than simply give up a vice, and this psalm helps us in that embrace of new habits. Perhaps we will begin a new discipline of daily study of the Bible, or perhaps we will reinvigorate our daily prayer lives. Whatever practices Lent brings to us, we should submit to them with the joy of those who are being instructed in the gladness brought on by God’s forgiveness.

Psalm 32 ends similarly to the way it begins: with an address to the general audience, declaring a wisdom saying (verse 10). The very last verse, though, is neither instruction nor testimony, but rather a quick series of three exhortations: “Be glad!” “Rejoice!” “Shout for joy!” Joy is not an emotion often associated with Lent, when we silence our Alleluias until Easter. But this psalm, which at its heart is about the uncomfortable topics of sin and confession, begins and ends with references to happiness, not misery. To acknowledge and repent of sin is to receive God’s forgiveness. There is no response but joy, even in the somber season of Lent! During Lent, we await Jesus’ death, but we also await his resurrection. Even now, sin gives way to forgiveness. Death gives way to life. God’s steadfast love continues to surround us (verse 10).

The psalmist’s testimony continues to instruct us today: silence is death-dealing, but confession gives life. God forgives. In response to the grace we have received, we submit ourselves willingly to the disciplined study of how best to follow God, rejoicing continually in gratitude for the love poured out upon us.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on March 13, 2011.
  2. J. Clinton McCann, Jr. New Interpreter’s Bible 4:805.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:12-19

Israel Kamudzandu

In our quest for human existence and meaning, we often forget where our desire to be on our own started and in Romans 5:12-19, one cannot help but hear Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 3.

Of particular significance is the perennial question God raised with both Adam and Eve, when God said, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9b). Whether it is Easter, Christmas, baptism, or joining a church, the voice of God in this question should always be heard because in whatever human predicament, God calls on humanity to answer this question and also to experience the compassion of God in all of what we go through in life. In other words, it is not a question of hiding because God knows that human beings are gifted with hiding, but the message is that God wants us to be open, bring ourselves to accountability, and be assured of a God who is always following and looking after humanity.

While our human predicament cannot rescue us, just as with Adam and Eve, Paul uses the original human failure as a pathway to envision ways through which God worked in Jesus Christ to bring us back to reconciliation. It’s through the death and resurrection of Jesus that God’s grace becomes the space open to all who seek to live in relationship with God and one another. For the apostle Paul, authentic relationships are only possible through grace.

Humanity justified by God’s grace: Romans 5:12-19

The human family has its roots in Adam and Eve, and our original relationship with God has meaning, purpose, and foundation in the first couple, who first experienced God’s compassionate voice of grace (Genesis 3:9). Although they fell short in whatever they did, God still came back to them and had a plan for the human family, and that plan manifested itself in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Consequently, that plan should be present in the church, and in some way, the ecclesia is God’s plan of serving and reconciling the world. God’s plan of salvation was and is still revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Life was distorted in what Adam and Eve did, but Jesus Christ reversed our sin by giving us new life through resurrection.

While resurrection is new life in Christ, Paul calls on 21st-century believers to see God’s grace that was embodied in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:15). What humanity continues to distort is the authentic relationship between God and each other, so Paul calls both clergy and lay believers to embrace each other in grace-filled ways, just as God showed mercy to Adam and Eve.

In theological and spiritual ways, the death and resurrection of Jesus is still the gospel needing to be proclaimed to all humanity. The impact of the gospel on human relationships and in justifying all humanity whose faith is in God is what the apostle Paul hopes Christians in Rome, and consequently in the 21st-century world, hear. Jesus’ death and resurrection is indeed a reversal of what Adam and Eve did when they sought to disrupt their dependence on God. It is probably reasonable to see the garden in Genesis 3 as a metaphor signifying that humanity is called to be obedient to God’s generous offer of grace, then, now, and in the future.

Unfolding of theological themes in Romans 5:12-19

Several themes deserve our theological notice and these build on the grand idea of God’s generosity. First, we have grace as the underlying theme of which the gift of God’s love undergirds all other relationships. It is this love of God that is poured into the hearts of believers that Paul expounds on from Romans 5:1-11 and in the rest of Romans 5. Having been set into the right relationship by God’s offer of salvation (Romans 5:9-11), humanity must also respond by extending love to others who feel alienated or are in the church but not of the church. In practical ways, the loving actions of the church will indeed bring hope, transformation, and renewal into a world under desperation. Individualism has become the enemy of humanity, and Paul, in verses 12-19, invites the human family to be builders of communities of all people.

In our original humanness, we cannot do anything right, but when our humanity is baptized in the events of the cross and resurrection, a new family will emerge. As Adam was the leader of the human family, his sins affected all others, and in a similar way, if our 21st-century clergy leaders fail to lead, the church and all who attend its worship will also fail. It is in our failure that God comes to rescue us and offer us a new path. While humanity is bent on embarrassing those who fall short, God is on the other hand, filled with mercy and compassion, and all who believe in what happened on the cross will be restored.

In verse 17, the apostle Paul focuses on “those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness,” as the ones who most likely embody Jesus Christ in ways they seek to restore others. In the entire chapter, the church is called out to be the space where God’s gracious purposes unfold. However, with sin as the present reality in human life, with people refusing to live within the bounds God established in the garden or the world, the work of proclaiming the gospel is urgently needed in the 21st-century world. The theme of sin is generally overlooked by so many Christian denominations, and yet, the apostle Paul argues in this chapter that as offsprings of Adam and Eve, humanity has an entrenched tendency to rebel against God, and everyone is a candidate for sinning.

Implicitly and at times explicitly, the human family builds walls of separation with others, with the intent to control, silence, and marginalize others. Embedded in this chapter is both humanity’s failure to live by God’s offer of love to all and the ever-present reality of God’s generosity in terms of mercy, justice, and grace of which the church is the instrument of God’s garden in which compassion is manifested.