Lectionary Commentaries for February 26, 2020
Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
There are many reasons why the Bible is such a fascinating read.
Use of vivid, unforgettable imagery, especially in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, surely is one reason. Joel’s use of locust imagery is a perfect example. When I read and see pictures of recent news reports that the Horn of Africa, especially Kenya, is experiencing its worst invasion of desert locusts in 70 years, I can understand why Joel used vivid locust imagery to warn Israel of impending danger.
Today’s texts are from one of the shortest books in the Bible. Taken from the second of its three chapters, Joel speaks of the blessing that is possible for Israel, if only they would repent. Considering the blessings that come with repentance, one might think that people would eagerly, without hesitation, run to God’s open invitation to penitence. Despite its potential for blessing, unfortunately, people, including ancient Israel, resist repentance with every ounce of their being.
The lack of response leads one to ask, “Why? Why are people so reluctant to repent even when they know that blessings are waiting?” Repentance necessitates recognition and admission of guilt, of having done wrong, of being sorry for the hurt one caused another. Individually or collectively, propped up by a false sense of self, people would rather live in denial than have a contrite spirit, admit they were mistaken, and say “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
Joel is among the biblical prophets who repeatedly, to no avail, entreated Israel to turn to God and leave its faults and failures, its sins, behind. Scholars debate the time when Joel lived. If he lived before or during the exile, he warns Israel that war with Assyria or Babylon, a war that the reader knows Israel will lose, is on the horizon. If he lived during the time of the Second Temple, his imagery is a reminder of Israel’s covenant with God. Either way, Joel writes to warn Israel that communal sin has consequences.
Joel uses the image of an invading army of locusts to get the attention of a nation whose short-term perspective made it oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead. To get the full impact of this imagery, one needs to recall Joel’s words in chapter 1:
“What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4).
The image is one that all is lost and that there is no hope for restoration. The situation is so hopeless that even the animals groan and cry out to God (Joel 1:18, 20). This description of the “day of the Lord” is not what Israel expects or wants to hear. Founded by Abraham, to whom God promised blessing so he could be a blessing to others, Joel’s description of the “day of the Lord” would be impossible for Israel to imagine, let alone accept. This depiction of total loss was unfathomable.
In chapter two, Joel leaves no doubt as to the reality of devastation, for the locusts of chapter one have turned into the relentless army of chapter two. Fearless, this numberless army stays the course and is worse than any armies that have gone before or might come afterwards.
In 2:12-17, Joel returns to the call to repentance issued in chapter one (1:13-20). However, this time the sense of hopelessness is replaced by a glimmer of hope in God, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13b). There is, however, a catch. Reprieve is a contingent blessing, one that depends on how Israel responds to God’s call to return. Joel makes it plain that a change of heart and a commitment to follow God is the requirement for the reprieve. With a cry of desperation that one more appeal could make a difference, God pleads: “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (2:12-13a).
With a strong sense of urgency, Joel calls on Israel to, in the words of an old gospel song, “Give God a Try.” There’s no guarantee, but “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him …” (2:14a, b)? Or as the NLT puts it in 2:14a, b, “Who knows? Perhaps he will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse.”
Joel calls for the entire community to gather, suckling infants, children, and aged alike, to fast, weep, and plead for God’s mercy. This appeal to God is accompanied by a reminder to God that Israel is God’s heritage. The reminder is an impetuous plea since Israel has not followed God’s commandments and can only hope that God will respond with an undeserved kindness—a kindness based on God’s grace and character—the same character presented to Moses so many years ago (Exodus 34:6).
The good news is that later in chapter two and in Joel 3:17-21, the vision of restoration matches and surpasses the vision of devastation. In fact, Joel will use the same locust imagery to describe the blessings that are to come. In chapter 2, Joel writes:
“I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you” (Joel 2:25).
What a powerful confirmation that our worst days contain the seed for our best days. For this reason we can always find hope in God.
In this season of Lent, is not Israel’s plea our plea too? Should not we also fast and cry out to God? Should we not recognize that any reprieve God gives is neither earned entitlement nor priceless privilege? Rather, God’s forgiveness is a manifestation of God’s grace, of God’s love and care for humanity. Without a doubt, Joel would agree.
Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17
Psalm 51 lays bare the depths of the human condition and the equally profound need for the redeeming intervention of God.1
The Hebrew text begins by attributing this psalm to David when the prophet Nathan confronts him about the affair with Bathsheba. Most scholars would assign the text a much later date, given striking parallels with the thought of several of the prophets such as Jeremiah. Regardless of the historicity of the Hebrew ascription, it does provide an appropriate lead-in to the character of the emotions and petitions that the writer presents, whoever that person may have been.
Even without the Hebrew ascription, the psalm immediately and dramatically sets the tone for what will unfold. The first verse begins with a plea for God to “have mercy” (the Hebrew verb could also be translated “be gracious”). This is more than a simple cry for help. The cry carries with it the implication that the one from whom mercy is asked has been wronged in some way by the one who is asking. Graciousness and mercy are things asked of someone significantly involved in a given situation.
The petitioner further reveals the precarious position of distress from which he cries out by appealing to God’s “steadfast love” and “abundant mercy” (verse 1). These entreaties also provide us with an intimate glimpse into the core of God’s nature. “Steadfast love” translates the Hebrew word khesed, which describes God’s limitless, unconditional love. Tandem with this concept is that of God’s rakham. Translated here by the NRSV as “abundant mercy,” the term more specifically refers to “womb-compassion.” We are speaking here of the deep, compassionate love a mother has for her children. Such are the characteristics that serve as God’s departure points for responding to one who cries for mercy.
The cry, we learn next, is a plea for the blotting out of transgressions (verse 1), washing from iniquity, and cleansing from sin (verse 2). These are the descriptors of the human condition, in sharp contrast to the khesed and rakham of God. Not only is the knowledge of this condition ever before the petitioner (verse 3), he understands it fundamentally as offense against God (verse 4)!
What is one to do?! The condition of transgression, iniquity, and sin would seem unavoidable, since one is born guilty, a sinner even when conceived (verse 5). The petitioner’s assertion here need not cast a negative shadow on the act of conception or even point to a genetic transference of sin. Instead, birth brings us all into an environment already so thoroughly saturated with the marks of our petitioners condition, that we can not help but succumb to their influence.2
Given the perceived depth and seeming inescapability of the petitioner’s condition, and that over against this God still desires “truth in the inward being” (verse 6), there emerges only one possible solution — a miraculous intervention by God (verse 10). God must bring about the new creations of a clean heart and a right spirit. The text leaves no doubt that God alone is able to accomplish these things. The Hebrew term for “create” is the same one used of God in Genesis 1:1. Even more significantly, God is the only subject ever given this verb in the Old Testament. The petitioner’s hope is in the unique creative ability possessed only by the God of Israel.
Humanity’s total dependency on God for sustenance and rebirth is further highlighted by our need to be in God’s “presence” and to have God’s “holy spirit” (verse 11). It is the salvation of God (“your salvation”) that alone can sustain a sinner’s spirit (verse 12).
The new life brought about by God’s creative and redeeming work quickly becomes visible. The one who had cried for mercy anticipates being freed to teach others the ways of God (verse 13). The one redeemed will be able to speak from personal experience of the triumph of God’s khesed and rakham over the condition of transgression, iniquity, and sin. The delivered tongue will “sing aloud” (verse 14) and declare God’s praise (verse 15). As a result, other sinners will return to God (verse 13).
Through this all, the psalmist comes to what is likely a startling realization. God has no delight in sacrifice (verse 16)! A burnt offering does nothing to please God. By extension, neither do these traditional practices do anything beneficial for the human condition that the psalmist has experienced and wrestled with. The only sacrifice we are truly able to offer, and which God will not despise, is “a broken and contrite heart” (verse 17). Traditional sacrifices and religious rituals can be misappropriated for deceptive ends. But a distressed heart seeking renewal at the divine throne of mercy pulls no punches.
As the popular hymn expresses so beautifully, we do ultimately come to God just as we are, bearing transgression, iniquity, and sin. We return, however, not as we were, but as recreated and redeemed children of God called to sing aloud of God’s deliverance and to declare his praise.
- Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 13, 2013.
- Cf. Weiser, Artur. The Psalms: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 405.
Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 1-59: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 503.
Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Today’s reading, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, introduces Lent with a call to reconciliation.1
A key for interpreting this passage is found in the verses immediately preceding it. There Paul describes how God has reconciled us through the Messiah and given us a ministry—a “service” (diakonia)—of reconciliation. Being reconciled to God is not an escape to some transcendent sphere (an easy ticket to heaven) but a call to serve in God’s reconciling work (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Our reconciliation to God is grounded in God’s reconciling the entire cosmos in the Messiah—in his dying for all so that all might live. Thus, our ministry entails announcing this message—this “word” (logos)—which is always for everyone. In what follows, Paul provides a vivid, multidimensional account of how this “word” and “service” of reconciliation are actually enacted in our lives (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The word of reconciliation
Our being reconciled with God makes us “ambassadors” for the Messiah—political emissaries entrusted with his divine mission. God appeals through us as we urge on behalf of the Messiah: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
This appeal is not merely verbal. It is a liturgical or symbolic act that enacts the reality it depicts: that God reconciles all of us by making the Messiah (the righteous one, “who knew no sin”) “to be sin,” so that “in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
This act of reconciliation—of “at-one-ment” in the old English sense—has roots in the temple practice of ancient Israel, where animal sacrifice was a means for liturgically rendering being cleansed from sin and made holy. But Paul’s more immediate source here is the allusive figure of the Suffering Servant—“the righteous one,” God’s Servant—who bears the iniquities and infirmities of many and in this way makes many righteous (Isaiah 53:4-11).
It is important to stress that God is the subject—not the object—of this reconciliation. It is not we who offer a sacrifice to reconcile ourselves to God (as in 2 Maccabees 1:5; 5:20). Rather, God initiates the reconciliation with us through the sufferings of the Messiah, who is the very Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Moreover, something actually happens to us in this event. In the Messiah, we “become” the actual “righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21)—the divine justice and mercy that brings about reconciliation in the world. In the Messiah, we become the message—the word—we are called to proclaim.
Thus, we now are coworkers with the Messiah, who announce the call to receive this grace. God’s offer is given for all, but it remains empty or vacuous if it is not received. To depict this call, Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8, which echoes God’s listening to and helping the Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out in their affliction and oppression. If Isaiah echoes that earlier day of salvation, then Paul now uses Isaiah to announce that—just as in the past—God’s “day of salvation” and “auspicious time” is always “now,” in this very moment (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
The service of reconciliation
As we have seen, the announcement of this “word” is inextricably linked with the “service” it embodies in our lives. Thus, we are to avoid putting obstacles in anyone’s way from receiving this word of reconciliation. Our lives, as servants of God, are to commend the truth of who we become in the Messiah in every way possible (2 Corinthians 6:3)
Since this commendation is about the service of a crucified Messiah—and not the promotion of our egos and their achievements—it can only be made without violence, without imposing our will on others. Drawing on ancient patterns, Paul provides an intense, multifaceted account of the vulnerability—and even more explicitly, the passivity—such commendation entails. It involves what we might experience (through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, and calamities), what others might do to us (beatings, imprisonments, riots), and how this work might affect us personally (much labor, sleepless nights, hunger) (2 Corinthians 6:4-5).
Yet these sufferings—and the ego-death they enact in the loss of control we experience through them—are accompanied by actively potent consolations that overflow through us once our egos are out of the way. Paul lists consolations that parallel each of the sufferings. Amid the afflictions we experience are purity, knowledge, patience, and kindness. Amid what others do to us is the potency of the Holy Spirit. And amid the difficulties of our work are genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God (2 Corinthians 6:6-7a).
If we have become the “righteousness” of God in the Messiah, then these multifaceted sufferings and consolations are “weapons” that enact this righteousness. (Weapons are an ancient way of speaking of a sage’s spiritual or sapiential tools). Those for the “left hand” depict our passivity; those for the “right” depict what actively overflows through us (2 Corinthians 6:7b).
To describe how all this is actually embodied in our lives, Paul uses paradoxical language (drawing on the Psalms and ancient depictions of a sage). As ambassadors through whom God speaks, we live with glory and shame, and in ill-repute and good repute. Though treated as impostors, we remain true; in spite of being unknown, we are well-known (2 Corinthians 6:8).
If what lies at the heart of all that happens in our lives is our union with the Messiah—his dying that all might live—then, in him, we too are always dying, yet alive, always being disciplined, yet not killed (2 Corinthians 6:9)
Finally, we announce this call to reconciliation amid our often-difficult relationships with one another. With genuine love, we experience the “pain” involved in addressing breaches with grace, yet are always “rejoicing” when repentance and reconciliation takes place (2 Corinthians 6:10a; see also 2 Corinthians 1:15-2:13; 6:11-7:16). Further, we acknowledge that true reconciliation always entails a reciprocal sharing (koinonia) of “poverty” and “wealth”—whether of material or spiritual resources (6:10b; see also 2 Corinthians 8-9). Last, all this only occurs through the power of God, which paradoxically is only lived out as “having nothing” (“power in weakness”) yet “having everything” (“authority for upbuilding” one another) (2 Corinthians 6:10c; see also 2 Corinthians 10-13).
- Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 14, 2018.
Ash Wednesday each year sets before us the gifts of Lenten devotion, disciplines that are crucial for faith: “give alms … pray … fast.”
These disciplines stress increasing what we are already doing, of course, because we expect ourselves to be giving a percentage of our means, holding in our hearts the needs of others, and discerning what is “enough” and what is “too much” in our lives. In other words, we are:
The Gospel reading lays out our course for the coming forty days to ward off ostentation. They are part of the Sermon on the Mount which Jesus preaches to “the crowds” and to his disciples, giving blessings (makarisms) that identify and honor the people. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is a physical healer, responding to the great poverty and malnourishment of the peasant population. Jesus sees the crowds that follow him as people in need from social and economic exploitation.
Scholars believe Matthew was written in Antioch, Syria and that it gives us a picture of that time and place where John and Jesus lived. Antioch then had about 150,000 people in about two square miles. These were dense living conditions. About 13 percent of the population––20,000 of them––were heavily armed Roman soldiers. The city was one mile wide. The main street––more than 2 miles long––was paved with marble (a gift from Herod). Huge sculptures stood everywhere. The emperor Tiberius had built a gate on one end of the main street that served as the base for statues of Romulus and Remus, two wolf cubs: Rome’s legendary founders. Biblical scholar Warren Carter says, “To leave or enter the city meant literally to pass under this billboard that proclaimed Rome’s sovereignty.”1 You could not avoid knowing who was in charge.
In that Roman-occupied land, Jesus saw great disparities: the 2 percent with wealth and power had peace and plenty under the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) while the 98 percent were oppressed politically, economically, theologically, and militarily. About 10 percent of the poor were always on the edge––beggars, sick, people with handicaps, and criminals. Those who had access to land grew food for the wealthy. The Peace of Rome was only for a very few. Because those who lived at subsistence levels were illiterate, they left little record of their lives. But scholars using sources outside of the Bible are able to determine what was going on.
The Roman Emperor Domitian (famous for persecuting Christians), for example, wrote a letter to the Syrian treasury official about dealing with the people:
It is just to come to the aid of the exhausted provinces which with difficulty provide for their daily necessities … If the farmers are snatched away [to do forced labor, build bridges, etc.], the lands will remain uncultivated.2
His words may seem to be in defense of the poor peasants, but even a cruel emperor could see that his government was working people to the bone and that they had better be careful or he and his cronies would lose their food source. In other words: Keep these folks alive; we need to exploit them for our stomachs.
Accordingly, the peasants suffered from malnutrition, disease, overwork, taxation, economic marginalization, and exploitation. No wonder, then, that healing is Jesus’ primary work––evidence of his identity! As we know from Jesus’ ministry, the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor get good news preached to them. Jesus begins his sermon by blessing the people who are hurting and those who live with compassion and lays out the foundation on which our lives are best structured for the sake of the life of the world: giving, prayer, and discernment about what is needed to pare one’s life down to its most significant core.
Jesus’ exhortations curiously and wisely encourage a distance between a person’s own faith practices and awareness of them. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing … go into your room and shut the door and pray … do not look dismal like the hypocrites.” In all that we do to embed faith into our lives, Jesus calls for a kind of un-self-consciousness.
It may be tempting to think that Jesus is “laying down the law” here with these commands. Instead, we need to hear his words as offering freedom from self-criticism. If you do not let your left hand know what the right hand holds out for others to receive, you are not focusing on how wonderful your giving is but you are building up “treasure in heaven.”
The lasting, truly rewarding gain in our lives comes from our relationship with God which, on this day, is defined as living in trust that all is well. Whatever gets in the way of that relationship is swept away by looking to the care of others, praying, and denying one’s own greed. The Gospel promises rewards in accord with these disciplines.
Because this is the day of ashes, the beginning of Lent, the time to set one’s vision on the enormity of Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension, this is also a day to talk about death––what we are made of and what we will become. It is a day of utter honesty. Remembering Jesus’ context––being sought out by people in pain and hunger, sickness and despair––we are urged to ask ourselves, as well, what maladies afflict us and to see that the struggles in our lives are, like those of our neighbors, the birds and animals, plants, water, and air, in need of redemption by the dust-shaper.
Warren Carter. Matthew and Empire. (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001), 43.