Lectionary Commentaries for January 26, 2020
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23

Raj Nadella

Jesus has just been anointed by God and declined the devil’s offer of owning all the kingdoms of the world.

In a dramatic change of fortunes, he withdraws to Galilee apparently fearing for his life. The Greek word anechowreysen connotes fleeing. Matthew employs the term to describe Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing to Egypt because of Herod (Matthew 2:14) and later from Judea to Galilee because of Archelaus, one of Herod’s sons (2:22). The same term describes Jesus moving into the wilderness after John was beheaded (14:13). In each instance, people flee because of imperial violence or the possibility of such violence.

John has just been imprisoned by Herod Antipas for criticizing his immoral life. Extracanonical sources such as Josephus suggest that John also challenged Herod’s oppressive economic practices that had dealt death to many at the margins. The empire did everything in its capacity to eliminate people like John and intimidate potential threats. Jesus would have known that John’s imprisonment was a precursor to something more dangerous.

Coming on the heels of the three-fold temptation where Jesus was repeatedly invited to pursue his own welfare, security and power, one might be tempted to conclude that Matthew 4:12 describes him withdrawing for good. Given the threat of imperial violence, it would have been tempting for Jesus to flee to safety and avoid confronting the empire entirely. But there really was no safe space and avoiding the empire was not an option. This was the temptation after the temptation and Jesus emerges victorious yet again.

Matthew quotes from Isaiah 9 where the prophet introduces the messianic king who will lead people from darkness to light. Writing in the context of Assyrian occupation, Isaiah assures people that the messiah will shatter the yoke that was burdening them. He would reign on David’s throne and ensure justice and righteousness.

The Roman Empire had been subjecting people to darkness and death for generations. It made darkness and death integral aspects of the society and tried to normalize them. In Matthew’s appropriation of Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus will lead people from darkness to light and destroy the power of death that Rome had come to embody. He will expose the destructive ethos of the Roman empire and demonstrate that darkness and death need not be accepted as normal. This is no small task or mere sloganeering. The devil tried to coopt him. The empire tried to threaten him. But nothing seemed to deter him. Jesus withdrew into Galilee spatially but, missionally, he stepped right in the heart of the empire. He boldly stepped into a dangerous space so he can lead others to safety.

How do we respond in the face of various manifestations of imperial violence in our contexts and the empire’s proclivity to punish those who speak up? Do we become complicit in the empire, run to seemingly safe spaces, or confront it? Do we make peace with the powers that be, or confront them to realize the kingdom of heaven?

It is too tempting to make peace with the empire in order to advance our economic and political interests. There is inevitably some cost for confronting the empire but the cost of not confronting it is much greater—the very loss of our identity as church, which was founded on the ethos of challenging the empire. A church that joins hands with the empire, or remains silent in the face of it, is a contradiction in terms.

Like John, Jesus suggests that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The Greek word engidzo suggests that the kingdom is about to break in but has yet to arrive. Both John and Jesus make a connection between repentance and arrival of the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is a state of affairs that will become a reality when people change their ways and work towards making it possible. People are asked to repent not so much to receive benefits of kingdom but to advance it for the benefit of others. They are invited to become agents of transformation.

It is hard to ascertain why Matthew’s Jesus calls it the kingdom of heaven rather than kingdom of God. But the phrase “kingdom of heaven” makes it less about a central figure and more about the characteristics and ethos of the new kingdom. It shifts the focus, if only slightly, to people who work to make it a reality and allows room for human agency too. Accordingly, the question is not so much “what will God do in the face of rampant death?” but “how will people respond?” People are invited to discern how they will confront socioeconomic and political structures that subject so many of their fellow humans to death and deny them basic dignity.

Jesus moves quickly to invite the first set of disciples to join him with the promise of making them “fishers of men.” The phrase connotes challenging structures of power just as John had done and Jesus began to do.1 It is a transformative and dangerous mission that Jesus inherited from John and is inviting disciples into it. And they leave their families, livelihoods and instantly join him for little in return. The disciples were apparently inspired by the mission and made radical commitments to the movement. The Roman empire relied on threat, coercion and enticements to recruit people into its military. The new kingdom, on the other hand, inspires them to participate in it.  

The empire must have concluded that John’s imprisonment would sufficiently deter people from challenging its economic and political apparatus. But it had the opposite effect of strengthening the movement of resistance. The disciples were inspired to join the movement and large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Judea and the region across the Jordan also participated in it.

The good news is that an oppressive empire might succeed in intimidating people by employing excessive violence but an empire built on the foundations of fear will ultimately collapse. A new kingdom that exposes dark aspects of the empire and leads people from death to life will always encourage them to embrace it. It will even inspire them to join its transformative work.

The mission was passed on from John to Jesus to the disciples and eventually to Matthew’s community. And it has been passed on to us. As the Church, we are invited to participate in the transformative work of the new kingdom. But we also have the task of inspiring others to join the movement.

The question is whether and how we are able to inspire people to join the work of transforming communities. How are we succeeding? Where are we failing?


Notes:

  1. See Ched Myers’ commentary on the Markan parallel of this text. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008), 132.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4

Amy G. Oden

These first few verses of Isaiah 9 contrast sharply the previous states of subjection with God’s current, mighty acts of deliverance.1

The back story
The back story is the long-standing domination of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali by foreign states. Because of their locations, both tribes were especially vulnerable to attack. As the northern and southern kingdoms played out their power struggles, both Zebulun and Naphtali had been more or less vassal states to a series of Assyrian kings. Both were eventually taken into captivity during the end of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, leaving them “in anguish” and “contempt.”  As pawns of powerful states, their histories were ones of vulnerability, subjection, and oppression.

The land of deep darkness
The land of deep darkness for these conquered people is a land of brutality, a land of poverty and hunger, a land without hope. A conquered people, subject to the whims and demands of overlords, are powerless. Security and safety are stripped away. Every asset will be usurped by the conquerors. Every child born can be taken by the more powerful into slavery. Every field planted with crops can be harvested by the mighty. Every hope for the future is stolen by masters who have the final say. This is the land of deep darkness.

God is deliverer
In the midst of this world of foreign powers and foreign ways comes a shining light. This light does not come from these foreign powers, or even from the people’s efforts. Not the powerful imposters, but God alone is the deliverer here, the ultimate agent at work in the world. Verse 1 makes clear that even their subjection was by God’s agency that “brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.” So, too, only God “will make glorious the way to the sea.” The experiences of these tribes are set within the framework of God’s power to bind and to release. In verse 2 they “see a great light” only because, through divine agency, “on them light has shined.” The claim of who has the power is reinforced in verses 3 and 4: “You have multiplied the nation,” “You have increased its joy.” The people have not multiplied themselves or increased their own joy.

The decisive victory that only God can deliver against the enemy is invoked through the image of “the day of Midian.” This refers to the defeat of the Midian army by Gideon. In the well-known account (Judges 6), the people of Israel cried out for deliverance from Midian domination. God sends Gideon, who, with clearly inferior military forces, defeats the Midian army. The victory can only be attributed to the intervention of this mighty God.

The active presence of God, then, is recalled for a people who have been reduced by terror to consulting “ghosts and familiar spirits” (Isaiah 8:19). The verses at the end of chapter 8 warn that such people will see only distress, darkness, and gloom. Instead of placing confidence in superstitious idol-making, the people must turn to God, “the great light.” Our text puts God again at center stage as the one, and the only one, who can bring the people from darkness to light, from oppression to freedom.

In a social context in which kings and rulers wielded almost unlimited power over the lands, lives, and livelihoods of conquered peoples, this insistence on God as the ultimate power re-frames political relationships. No longer do political rulers have the final say. God’s sovereignty trumps theirs.

Epiphany: God’s inbreaking
Epiphany is a time of the inbreaking of God once again in human history. The apparent powers of the world are unmasked, revealed to be a sham for all their bluster and posturing. During Epiphany, we recognize God’s inbreaking in Jesus Christ, setting in stark relief the false, worldly powers that claim so much authority in our lives: success, productivity, dominance, self-reliance. They do not have the last word.

Darkness and light provide images of the pattern of God’s inbreaking and our recognition of it. The image of light is central throughout Advent, as we await the coming of the Light, the Christ Child, while days continue to shorten in the long winter darkness until the solstice. We light Advent candles in anticipation of God’s inbreaking through light. And now, in Epiphany, we celebrate the wise ones who followed the light of a star to the manger, and thereby, recognized the Christ Child.

Darkness and light describe human recognition of the inbreaking of God in Hebrew Scripture well before we get to the prophet Isaiah. Beginning with the inbreaking of God into the formless void, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), light is evidence of God’s creative work. We see it again in the rainbow that reveals the entire spectrum of light as a sign of God’s covenant (Genesis 9:13), in the burning bush that confronts Moses (Exodus 3:2), and in the pillar of fire that accompanies the Israelites through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21). 

More than sight
This particular representation of God’s presence–light–is powerful because it appeals to an almost universal human experience: being in the dark.  In the dark, we can’t see where to step, we can’t see the way. Notice, though, that the light in Isaiah is more than being able to see. It is one thing for God to act. It is another for God’s people to recognize it. When the people are in “the land of deep darkness,” they can’t see how the God who has delivered them in the past is at work in the present, and so they seek protection from other gods. When God acts “to break the rod of the oppressor,” the light shines to make it plain. The people recognize God’s saving presence and rejoice.

Recognition is more than seeing. The people don’t just see a light. They recognize who is acting on their behalf. They rejoice in relief and thanksgiving, as they would at harvest time when survival is ensured. They get it. They know God is with them, here and now. Epiphany.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 23, 2011.

 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 27:1, 4-9

Jerome Creach

As much as any psalm in the Psalter, Psalm 27 expresses trust in the lord and claims absolute dependence on God.1

This is apparent in verse 1, which begins the lectionary reading: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

The psalm is a prayer for help. It presumes the psalmist is in some type of trouble (verses 7, 9, 12). Psalms of this type typically contain petition, complaint, and expressions of trust (see Psalm 13 as an example). Psalm 27 is unique in its heightened emphasis on trust.

The opening verse describes the Lord with language that suggests his presence is life-giving and protective. As James Luther Mays says, “The Lord is called ‘light’ because light drives darkness away.”2 Light is a basic category of order and stability that recalls the first act of creation (Gen 1:3; see Exodus 10:21). It is possible that the psalmist perceived and experienced God’s appearance and presence (God’s “face;” verse 8) via sunlight that shone into the temple and reflected off gold decorations (1 Kings 6:20). The reference to God as light (and to God’s face) thus makes the psalm particularly appropriate for the season of epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of God’s presence.

Israel knew God as “salvation” and celebrated that identity in the aftermath of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 15:2). “Stronghold” is a common description of God in the Psalms (Psalm 18:2). The metaphor derives from military situations in which a well-positioned fortress with strong walls provided safety from enemy assaults. These images suggest, therefore, that whatever trouble plagues the psalmist, the Lord’s protection is sufficient to protect the psalmist from it. In times of trouble the natural impulse is to flee to a place of safety (see Psalm 11:1-3 for an expression of that sentiment), but Psalm 27 declares the Lord is the “place.”

Verses 2-3 continue the statement of confidence that began in verse 1. The lectionary reading, however, skips to verse 4. The reason for omitting verses 2-3 is not clear, but verse 4 is certainly worthy of attention. It sums up the faith embedded in the psalm with the declaration, “One thing I asked of the lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the lord and to inquire in his temple.” Here the psalmist identifies the place of God’s protection and shelter as the central sanctuary in Jerusalem.

This identity is evident in the way verse 4 pairs the general expression, “house of the lord” (see also Psalm 23:6) with the specific term, “temple” (hekal). An additional expression “in his tent” here and in verse 6 has the same meaning. This is a poetic name for the temple that conjures images of both protection and intimacy. A tent does not have multiple rooms as permanent structures do. Therefore, the guest in the tent of another naturally participates in the life of those who dwell there (see Psalm 61:4).3

The terms “seek” and “inquire” suggest the presence of a prophet or other cultic official who gave oracles to worshippers who “sought” them. For the psalmist, this is no mere utilitarian practice; the word of God was not something sought simply to gain success in life (compare the kings seeking an oracle in 1 Kings 22:5, 7). Rather, the psalmist’s only desire is to be in God’s presence and to allow God’s word to direct his life.

This remarkable claim of singular desire for God’s presence is similar to the statement in Psalm 23:1b (“I shall not want”) to the effect that the lord’s guidance provides all that is needed for life. The psalm actually petitions God for more, namely for deliverance from an enemy’s false accusations (verse 12), but it suggests that such deliverance comes under the care of God’s sheltering protection. Psalm 27 thus invites the reader to live into such trust that is complete and comprehensive.

Verse 5 continues to express confidence in the Lord’s protection with further descriptions of the safety of the temple. The images continue and expand on the notion of God as stronghold. The psalmist speaks of safety in terms of being hidden, covered, and placed “high on a rock.” “Stronghold” (verse 1b), “shelter” (verse 5a), “cover of his tent” (verse 5a), and “rock” (verse 5b) are expressions related to the overarching notion of refuge that appears so often in the Psalms (Psalms 2:12; 16:1; 18:1-3[2-4]; 31:1[2]; 34:8[9]; 91:1-2; 142:5[6]). That is, the psalmist here and elsewhere speaks of God as a hiding place, a shelter from the storms of life. For other expressions of these images in the Psalms see especially Psalms 61:2b-4 and 63:7.

In verse 6 the psalmist declares the intention to worship with song and sacrifice in response to God’s salvation. But then the psalm turns to complaint and petition for the rest of the lectionary reading and for the rest of the psalm (verses 7-14). The sharp break between verses 6 and 7 has led some scholars to conclude that the two main portions of the psalm were originally separate psalms.

Nevertheless, verses 1-6 and 7-14 hold together around themes of salvation (verses 1, 9), enemies (verses 2-3, 12), trust (verses 3, 14) and seeking God (verses 4, 8).  The psalm closes with petitions that draw upon the language of trust earlier in the psalm: “seek his face” (verse 8 [see verse 4]); “O God of my salvation” (verse 9; see verse 1). Thus, as Mays points out, “the two parts of the psalm are one more way in which the Psalter teaches how closely related are trust and need.”4

 


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 22, 2017.
  2. James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 133.
  3. Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100 (Hermeneia; trans. Linda M. Maloney; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), p. 108.
  4. Mays, Psalms, p. 132.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Jane Lancaster Patterson

It may seem odd to preach Paul during Epiphany, when the Church customarily focuses on the explicit gospel narratives of the revelation of God in Christ.

  • But the sequence of readings from the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians in Year A might help a congregation widen their sense of how Christ might be revealed, not only in the first century, but through the power of their life together now, the shining out of grace through a community of ordinary people called to holiness.
  • Here, in what many scholars have regarded as the thesis statement of 1 Corinthians, Paul exposes the unearthly power and wisdom revealed in the cross, as a basis for calling the church in Corinth to a cruciform ethic: life given over to the well-being of the neighbor.

Diagnosis and treatment

Many people in America today would say that divisiveness is one of the most dangerous issues in our common life, that factionalism and misguided allegiance keep us from being able to address the very serious challenges that confront us today: increasing disparity between rich and poor, climate change, global violence, competition for natural resources, migration due to war and famine.

And of course, each of these issues has its local manifestation:

  • isolation of people in homogeneous neighborhoods;
  • fear of strangers, of other races and nationalities, refugees, the homeless—or the despair of being the stranger, the refugee, or without a home;
  • addiction, mental illness, trauma;
  • a lack of individual commitment to the well-being of an entire town or city;
  • a sense of powerlessness when it comes to self-regulating the use of fossil fuels, water, food.

The logos of the cross is Paul’s attempt to diagnose and treat divisions occurring within one of his most important congregations, a church embedded in a wider social context of injustice, greed, status-seeking, violence; the use and abuse of others; and the poverty and enslavement of some as the foundation of the wealth of others.

  • Preaching this passage today asks the preacher to be a kind of time-traveler, to understand how practical, revolutionary, and important Paul’s approach was in his context, even if the preacher never speaks of these issues directly;
  • to bring the same energetic, practical wisdom to bear on the preacher’s context;
  • and to accomplish all of this without becoming manipulative in exactly the ways that Paul says would “empty the cross of Christ of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17)

The same mind and the same purpose

Paul seeks to mend the splits in the community by counseling the Corinthians to be united in the same mindset (Anthony Thistleton’s translation of nous) and the same intention (gnome).

  • But is this appeal just Paul’s own form of coercion?
  • He interrupts himself by presenting the clear evidence of factionalism (“I belong to Apollos!” “I belong to Paul!” “I belong to Cephas!”), and then picks up the mending thread again in verses 17 and 18, where it becomes clear that the mindset and intention he means are cross-shaped, self-emptying for the sake of something larger than the self.

Strange logic of the cross

The question remains, how can the cross restore people to right relationship with God and neighbor if speaking of it becomes the occasion for a leader’s self-aggrandizement or manipulation? Attending to the translation of some of the key words and phrases may be helpful here.

  • Gospel: According to most English translations, Paul says in verse 17, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel,” whereas the Greek has a simple verb, “to gospel” (euangelizomai): “Christ did not send me to baptize but to gospel.”
  • The difference between proclaiming something and simply doing it allows us to imagine gospeling as not merely speech, but action. Perhaps Paul’s most significant gospeling happened not when he was speaking at all, but in the ways he treated people when they gathered for the Lord’s supper, or in his care for his co-workers (1 Corinthians 9:6).
  • The specific actions of gospeling are spelled out in 13:4-6, where Paul speaks of all the activities that constitute love. Where patience, endurance, hope, humility, forgiveness are embodied by people in community over time, then the gospel sounds forth through them.
  • The logos of the cross: Likewise, translations of the logos of the cross as the “message about the cross” misdirect the hearer toward a preoccupation with how the cross might be explained in powerful speech.
  • The Greek term logos is a way to speak of the deepest forms of wisdom, the wisdom that underlies the making of all that is. The cross, in Paul’s view, is profoundly revelatory of the nature of God, both in God’s willingness to suffer for the benefit of the creation, and also in the power of God to bring life out of death.
  • The cross exposes God’s wisdom for all the world to see; but only those who understand the strange logic of God’s power—perfectly revealed in Christ’s weakness—know what it is they’re seeing.
  • God’s self-giving power through the cross for newness of life is known tangibly by the community in Corinth, as Gentiles are offered a path from death to life, from brokenness to wholeness, from self-serving chaos to holiness and relationship. They are, in effect, new-born through the cross.

The epiphany of the cross

We might say that Paul removes the cross from the hands of Rome, as an instrument of terror, and gives it over to the power of God to re-knit the fabric of relationship. How does a preacher speak of these things without resorting to mere words?

  • This might be a day for telling stories and presenting images so that the congregation can grasp what the lived Gospel, the lived cross, looks like, sounds like, feels like. These are the present-day “epiphanies” of Christ in our midst.
  • Where in your own community do you see people gospeling with their whole way of life? Where do you see the power of God at work among you through the strange logic of the cross?

First Corinthians 1:18 contains a clue to the hopefulness that undergirds this entire passage: “to us who are being saved.” For Paul, salvation is not a once-in-a-lifetime event but an ongoing embodied process of mending the fabric of relationships that stretch across the entire creation, a fabric that is revelatory of God’s grace and power, from end to end.