Lectionary Commentaries for February 16, 2020
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37

Eric Barreto

The Sermon on the Mount only turns up the theological pressure as we turn to its closing verses.

Here, difficult, complex, and challenging teaching concludes a sermon that began with a radical assigning of blessing upon the wretched and despised and moved through the alarming images of salt having lost its essence and light’s shine muted. Once again, Jesus’ preaching is not characterized by easy aphorisms but by a faithful recalling of and reinvestment in ancient, trustworthy tradition. Such a tradition is trustworthy to Jesus precisely because these commandments are voiced by God.

Scholars call the rhetorical center of our passage the antitheses. Jesus points to commandments and then suggests something otherwise. “You have heard it said … but …” This pattern continues throughout our passage and even beyond it. The pattern’s function should likely be central in our preaching; preachers may even mirror or echo this antithetical rhetoric in our preaching today. But what is the weight of the contrast carried by the word “but” in our translations? What is the comparison Jesus is drawing here?

I worry that those of us who preach may be tempted to see the contrast as one of replacement. We might mistakenly hear Jesus proclaiming, “You previously have heard this commandment, but now I am setting a new one before you, for the law was inadequate, insufficient, and is thus now no longer applicable; here are a new set of commandments to replace the supposedly outdated ones you previously followed.”

However, if we preach this text in this way, we miss Jesus’ clear admonition that his teaching would not efface the law and the prophets, even in the slightest (see verse 18). Instead, the contrast here is not of replacement but intensification. Jesus here calls his listeners not to avoid these calls to righteousness but to dig that much more into them, to align our lives that much more with the abiding divine values these commandments communicate, to commit ourselves to the transformative power of God’s law and commandments.

So, Jesus teaches, it is insufficient to avoid murdering someone; certain kinds of anger and insult can themselves be a form of violence to eschew. We might note how the power and privilege of some can affect death on our neighbors, whether intended or not. The prohibition of taking someone’s life has always extended to include a prohibition against dealing in death in less explicit but no less destructive ways.

But then Jesus raises the stakes here even more. Reconciliation is a prerequisite for coming before God at the altar. That is, what if broken relationships among neighbors, family, and friends are not just social obstacles among us but a barometer for our relationship to God too? What if the obverse of murder is not just avoiding killing but reparative reconciliation? That is, the command not to murder extends even beyond the taking of life. The rejection of the deterioration of someone’s character is essential in embodying the command not to murder.

Relationality is itself a way to draw near to the God who calls us to righteousness.

So also, the prohibition of adultery extends beyond any single act to a whole orientation around relationships. Here, preachers have an opportune biblical context within which to turn the page on an assumption in too many Christian communities that it is the duty of women to shield their bodies so as to avoid tempting men. Here, Jesus teaches that it is the call of those who gaze, not those upon whom one gazes, to discipline one’s mind and desires.

Again, what matters most here is not behavior but relationality. An objectifying gaze is an obstacle to authentic community precisely because such a gaze treats the other not as a child of God, a bearer of God’s image, but as a mere object.

Thus, the call to avoid adultery is, to be sure, a way to extol the preservation of commitments we have made in romantic relationships but also a commitment to the flourishing of all those other kin we meet in non-romantic contexts. We owe it to one another to treat and see our neighbors as if they are the bearers of the image of God, for indeed that is who we all are. To boil down this revolution of relationships to dogmas of purity misses the point entirely. And once again, the stakes of such a call are so high. Better to lose a part of my body than to treat my neighbor, my kin as a mere object of my gaze and power.

But preachers also have to deal with a critical problem. In the case of both the commandments around adultery and divorce, a single perspective is taken into account: that of a man. Here, preachers have an opportunity to re-mix these ancient Jesus traditions and center the perspective of people of various genders.

In short, in your community, what obligations are Jesus’ sermon calling us to embrace? What kind of relationality is Jesus exhorting in our midst today? The #metoo movement is critical in such reflections today as is the nurturing in community of those whose gender identity complicates previously assumed binaries. In short, Jesus here centers the construction of a particular kind of community, one organized around love and not power.

It is also a community that centers trust, a trust that does not rely on oaths but on the deep commitments God’s children make to one another. Such trust, such commitment is not born of human will but of God’s gift as reflected in “the throne of God,” God’s “footstool,” and “the city of the great King” (verses 34-35). Indeed, Jesus implies, only God can “make one hair white or black” (verse 36). Only God calls and makes possible such belonging.

In the end, to what are these commandments calling us? Not to a checklist of morality but to a flourishing of life. Not to a baseline of decency but to an embodied, relational, transformative encounter with all whom we meet. Not to a sufficient set of hurdles for righteousness but to a path of wholeness with creature and creator alike.

Jesus makes these calls not over against the traditions of Israel, not in upturning the law and prophets but precisely in reveling in the witness to God’s righteousness preserved therein.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Tyler Mayfield

It’s time to make a choice.1

Today is decision day. And the choices are limited.

As Moses’ third speech in the book of Deuteronomy winds down, our passage calls for a selection between two options: life and death. The Common English Bible translation stays close to the Hebrew wording: “life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong.”

So, that’s a rather easy choice, right? Surely if given the option of life or death, we would naturally and enthusiastically choose life. Unless we find ourselves in dire circumstances, the urge and desire to live, to survive, is quite strong. Creatures large and small go to great lengths to remain alive.

But Deuteronomy’s choice does not concern mere existence. We are not talking about simply a decision to subsist. To be or not to be: that is not the question really. God’s admonition to choose life, as we find it in this passage, is defined rather clearly here and within the whole book of Deuteronomy.

What does it mean to choose life or to choose death?

Deuteronomy’s answer concerns religious practices such as obedience to God’s torah (teachings) and loyal worship of God. These practices have been reiterated throughout Deuteronomy to this point; they have been examined in some detail so that it is now clear to the readers and hearers of the book what constitutes correct worship and a faithful lifestyle. It is becoming clearer and clearer what all life involves.

The answer to the above question also involves the covenant relationship between God and God’s people. God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God (Deuteronomy 7:9) who has established a covenant not just with the ancestors of old (such as Noah and Abraham) but with the people alive during this time as well (Deuteronomy 5:3). Incidentally, contemporary Jews understand this same covenant to continue to this very day.

And the answer to the question concerns the land (the opening verse of our passage here, verse 15, echoes Deuteronomy 1:8, “See, I have set before you the land.”). This land of promise has been promised already to Israel so that their possession of it in the following books of Joshua and Judges represents God’s fulfillment of God’s intentions (Deuteronomy 1:21). These three elements — torah, covenant, land — are definitely ways to choose life.

The six verses of our passage provide a quick summary of the major theological points of this covenant including the central notion that obedience brings blessings and life, while disobedience leads to curses and death.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 presents two separate sequences of three infinitives that speak to the relationship between life, covenant, and the teachings of God. Verse 16 lays out a triad of commands:

  • to love God,
  • to walk in God’s ways,
  • to keep God’s commandments, statutes, judgments.

Verse 20 presents a slightly different triad:

  • to love God,
  • to hear God’s voice,
  • to cling to God.

The two triads form a beautiful synopsis of life.

First, choosing life involves loving God. Deuteronomy presents this love as more than an emotion and certainly not an infatuation. The ancient reader (and perhaps the modern) is reminded of an earlier statement from this biblical book: “You shall love The Living God, your God, with all your heart, and with all your self, and with all your might.”

Love is depicted as a whole person experience involving heart, the seat of intelligence and conscience (not emotions as in modern usage), as well as body. To love God is not to have a purely intellectual or emotional experience. Likewise, choosing life involves more. It involves a holistic commitment to be and to do.

Second, choosing life involves walking in the ways of God and listening to the voice of God. Here we have general, biblical images of discipleship. Psalm 1 uses this same image of walking to conjure up notions of following and listening: “Happy are those who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers.”

The link between hearing the voice of God and obeying it is so established in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Bible that some modern translations (NRSV, CEB, NAS) simply translate “obey God.” In our contemporary context, obedience, especially unexamined obedience to authority, can get a bad reputation. We often view it as submissive or uncritical in nature. Yet, Deuteronomy envisions obedience as a respond to God’s covenant. It is active — walking and listening.

Third, choosing life involves keeping God’s commands and clinging to God. This admonition reminds us that the Israelites were also expected to act in appropriate ways toward each other and God. The commands were not burdensome or impossible, as they are often viewed in Christianity, but a way to remain faithful, to mark religious identity, and to respond to God’s initiative.

  • To love God with our whole selves.
  • To follow God’s voice as we walk.
  • To cleave to God by keeping commandments.
  • This is the way to life, not death.

The Gospel Reading for this Sunday, Matthew 5:21-37, has Jesus engaging the Ten Commandments and, although Deuteronomy 30 is not referenced, we can see that Jesus’ interpretation of these commandments stands on the side of life. Jesus and his followers, as Jews, are well aware of the requirements of Deuteronomy; therefore, he calls them to act and to obey as a way to choose life.

So, choose life!


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 16, 2014


Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

Joel LeMon

Most modern Christians find Psalm 119 rather difficult to engage.1

After all, at 176 verses, it is extraordinarily long. Moreover, mainline Christian theology might seem at odds with the central theme of Psalm 119. Christians today do not typically share the psalm’s unflagging insistence on (and celebration of) strict adherence to the “law” or torah.

Ancient readers, however, would have found this psalm utterly compelling because it makes bold claims about how to live a happy life and have a healthy heart.

Psalm 119 is an alphabetic acrostic poem, one of several poems of this type found in the Psalms and Lamentations. In these poems, each verse typically begins with a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, the first verse would begin with aleph and the second with beth, and so on, until the poet reached the end of the alphabet.

Psalm 119 is a singularly complex alphabetic acrostic in that every line in an entire stanza begins with the same letter. So not just one verse, but eight verses start with the letter aleph — the next eight with beth, and so on, all the way through the Hebrew alphabet.

So why would a poet bother to write a psalm this way?

The ancient Israelites had to learn their alphabet just like we all did. Reciting and writing the alphabet were fundamental aspects of one’s education. In fact, archaeologists have discovered numerous abecedaries — lists of letters in alphabetical order — from the ancient Near East. Abecedaries have been discovered on shards of pottery, carved into stone, and pressed into clay. Since learning the alphabet was a critical element in ancient education, students practiced writing the alphabet all the time.

For ancient Israelites, another critical aspect of one’s education was, of course, learning the law of God, the torah. Grammar and spelling lessons were as important as learning the law, because the written alphabet was the medium through which the law of God was transmitted. So learning the law and learning the written language of God’s law were bound together.

We should not be surprised, then, that the alphabet serves as an ordering element in this psalm celebrating God’s law and all the good that comes from keeping it. From aleph to tav (that is, from A to Z), Psalm 119 is a song about the law. Its complex alphabetic structure presents an orderly presentation of “order” itself — God’s law, God’s very word to Israel, extolled in a most orderly way.

This long poem begins with a double blessing, using the formula “Happy are those who” (verses 1-2), sometimes translated “blessed is the one who” (NIV, KJV). This same blessing formula appears a number of times in the Psalter (1:1-2; 34:8; 40:4; 41:1; 84:4; 106:3; 112:1) and Proverbs (3:13; 8:32; 14:21; 16:20; 29:18). It also forms the basis for the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Throughout the Bible, the phrase functions simultaneously to encourage the righteous and to call for those who are not living righteously to change their ways. Psalm 119 is no exception.

Verse 1 describes this blessed, happy person as one who “walks in the law.” This might sound odd to modern readers. One could certainly imagine what it means to “keep,” “read,” or “obey” the law, but the image of “walking in the law” prompts us to wonder just how such a walk would look. The psalmist is actually trying to prompt just such a reflection from the reader. And, indeed, the next 175 verses of the psalm aim to answer the question: “what does it mean to ‘walk in the law?’”

The metaphor of walking appears throughout the psalm to express the totality of one’s behavior and activities (cf. esp. verse 105). Thus, to “walk in the law” is a lyrical way of describing what it means to follow the law in every respect. According to Psalm 119, this type of walking — consistently choosing to follow the path that God has revealed through the law — leads inexorably to a happy, blessed life. However, walking contrary to the law only causes trouble and suffering (verses 6, 8; cf. Ps 1).

The first verses of this psalm also highlight the importance of a healthy heart. The happy ones are known by the way they walk and by the nature of their hearts.

A literal translation of verse 7a reads “I will praise you with straightness of heart when I learn your righteous laws.” This image also piques our imagination: what in the world does a straight heart look like? Again, this is just the type of question that the psalmist wants the reader to ask.

Moderns typically understand the heart to be the seat of one’s emotions, especially romantic love. But the ancient Israelite understanding of heart would be most similar to our concept of the mind: the seat of our will, convictions, and intellect. So we could understand verse 7 to mean that learning God’s law produces “straight minds.” These minds comprehend the word of God clearly and allow that law to direct their actions. By contrast, a crooked mind, like a crooked path, leads one into trouble.

The psalm also describes the heart of the righteous as “whole” (verse 2), which is to say, undivided. If someone were to have a divided heart, that person would have his or her focus and attention split between God’s law and something else. By contrast, Psalm 119 suggests that true happiness comes to those whose whole heart, or even better, whose whole mind is completely dedicated to understanding God’s word. 

In the introductory stanza to this monumental hymn to the law, we find a crystallization of the psalm’s major themes. The psalmist exhorts readers to walk in the law, for this way of life is the key to happiness and blessedness. Walking the straight path of obedience to God’s law requires a straight heart even as it creates such a heart. The psalm proclaims that God’s word guides and sustains all those who attend to it carefully.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 14, 2014

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Richard Carlson

This passage, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, is intimately intertwined with Paul’s argument stretching back to the letter’s theme verse in 1:10:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

Throughout this letter, Paul is combating various elitist attitudes and actions by some of the Corinthians that have damaged the unity they share in Christ. In this section, the major theological fulcrum for Paul’s argument has been the cross and its reality, which is the opposite of their elitism (1 Corinthians 1:13, 17-28; 2:1-5, 6-13).

These elitists regard themselves as spiritually mature (especially compared to others in their community) because of their advanced use of the ways and means of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:17-25). Paul has flipped such categories upside down by presenting God’s wisdom as the cross and defining mature and spiritual people as those discerning God’s salvific plan centered in the cross as empowered by the Spirit (2:6-16).

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-5, Paul continues to show these Corinthian elitists that they are anything but mature and spiritual. Instead, Paul categorizes them as fleshly babies in Christ (3:1). In this context, the word fleshly (sarkikos; verses 1, 3, 4) has a pejorative tone and stands in direct contrast to those who are spiritual (pneumatikos; 2:13, 15; 3:1), as in, those enlightened and empowered by the Spirit (2:10-16).

These elitists are fleshly because they operate with the criteria of this age (1 Corinthians 1:17-25; 2:4-5, 6-14). The term “babies in Christ” (the NRSV translation “infants in Christ” robs Paul’s phrase of its edge) is multivalent:

  • First, Paul is including them within the body of Christ even if they immaturely use the ways and means of this age to evaluate themselves and others in their Christian community.
  • Second, it is polemical by categorizing them as childish, as in, these elitists are a bunch of big babies.
  • Third, by extending the imagery in 3:2 to include, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food” (3:2a), Paul has imaged himself as their mother who has been nursing them.

On the one hand, Paul will return to the imagery being the parent of the Corinthians (through his God-given ministry, the Christian community in Corinth was birthed in 4:14-17), only there he presents himself as their father. On the other hand, by the standards of this age, Paul’s self-image of being their nursing mother is shocking and shameful.

In this way, Paul continues to pit the standards of the elitist Corinthians against the standards of God and God’s apostle (see also 1 Corinthians 1:17-31; 2:1-5, 6-13). Finally, the contrast of their being fed with milk by Paul and their inability to digest solid food reiterates that they were able to receive some basics of Paul’s message (for what this entailed, see 1 Corinthians 1:17; 2:1-5; 11:23-26; 15:1-5), but they have yet to discern the standards and measures of the cross (2:6-16).

Using twin rhetorical questions, Paul explains why they are fleshly babies, unable to take in solid and mature theological nourishment. Indeed, Paul intentionally phrases each question to expect an affirmative answer. Their jealousy and quarreling with other members of the community is proof that they are fleshly and operate by human criteria (1 Corinthians 3:3b). Similarly, their slogans about having either Paul or Apollos as their Christian patron are evidence how they use human norms with regard to the meaning and importance of leadership within the church (3:4). Both questions reiterate what Paul originally said about quarrels over Christian patrons in 1:11-12, which were immediately followed by three rhetorical questions (1:13).

If we were to base our view of Apollos only on the account given in this letter, we would not know very much about Apollos other than that Paul considers him a co-worker and Christian leader who helped nurture the Christian community after Paul established it (1 Corinthians 3:5-9; 4:1-7). Some of the Corinthians regard him as their superior religious patron (1:11-12; 3:4, 21-23), and that he was in close proximity to Paul when he wrote this letter but has chosen not to visit the Corinthians at this time despite Paul’s urging (16:12).

However, there is an expanded picture of Apollos in Acts 18:24—19:1. He is Jewish. His hometown was the metropolis of Alexander (a center of Jewish wisdom traditions), but he subsequently arrived in Ephesus. He was eloquent, scripturally adept, instructed in the basics of Christianity but knew only John’s baptism, quite enthusiastic and bold, and carried out evangelism in the synagogue.

After being acutely schooled by Priscilla and Aquila, he traveled across the Aegean to the Roman province of Achaia and its capital, Corinth. There he had the twin ministries of helping members of the Christian community and refuting Jews in public by using the Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the Messiah.

While this does not contradict what we know about Apollos from 1 Corinthians, it does not establish his theology or his appeal to some elitist Corinthians. Could it be because of his rhetorical eloquence or the fact that he was steeped in Jewish wisdom traditions (1:17-25; 2:1-5, 6-13)? It is quite possible, but we cannot definitively say.

Paul’s theology of leadership emerges in sharper focus in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 and will be developed into a broader theology of the Spirit-giftedness of all Christians in 1 Corinthians 12.

Leaders such as Paul and Apollos are servants (diakonoi, verse 5) who are given certain responsibilities by the Lord. In this specific case, Paul’s responsibility was to establish the church in Corinth whereas Apollos followed by helping nurture the community (verses 6a, 8a).

Paul’s syntax in 1 Corinthians 3:6 is emphatic but not fully captured by the NRSV. Paul uses the simple past tense (aorist) for the first two verbs (“I planted, Apollos watered”) showing that each leader had a particular but limited ministry.

Paul then switches to an ongoing past tense (imperfect) to depict God’s activity (“But God kept giving growth”) to highlight how God keeps working through the ministries of various leaders. In 1 Corinthians 3:8 Paul highlights two more aspects of leadership. First, various leaders have a common purpose for the common good of building up the community. Thus ministries differ but the goal remains the same. Second, leaders will be eschatologically accountable (“wages according to the labor of each”), a point which is more fully explicated in 3:10-15 (also see Paul’s claims in 4:1-7).

Paul closes the paragraph in 1 Corinthians 3:9 by declaring that leaders are co-workers who belong to God, and then he transitions from agricultural imagery to architectural imagery by declaring that the Corinthians are both a field and a building which belong to God. In each of the three images, “belonging to God” is emphatic.

A sermon on this text could well develop around the interrelationship between leadership and followership within the Christian community:

  • What makes followers mature and Spirit-ual?
  • What makes leaders mature and Spirit-ual?
  • How are both followership and leadership counter-cultural in terms of criteria, standards, means, and goals?
  • How are leaders to relate to other leaders?
  • What happens to and in the community when there is an elitist attitude among some of the followers?
  • What happens to and in the community when there is an elitist attitude among some of the leaders?
  • What does cruciform followership entail?
  • What does cruciform leadership entail?
  • How are leaders called to relate to followers, and how are followers called to relate to leaders?