Lectionary Commentaries for November 24, 2019
Christ the King

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 23:33-43

Emerson Powery

This passage seems like an odd selection for Christ the King Sunday.

Indeed, the inscription above Jesus’ head reads “This is the King of the Jews.” But this was placed over his head as public irony, an act of public shaming for the entire Jewish people. Roman soldiers mock him; Jerusalem leaders ridicule him. This is no “king” in the traditional sense. How true that is!

The chapter begins with a series of trials, in which Jesus appears before Pilate, then Herod, and, finally, Pilate again. What the trials prove is Jesus’ innocence, a theme that is repeated (see Luke 23:4, 14-15, 22). Yet, the crowds and the Jerusalem leadership persist and, finally, Pilate “handed Jesus over as they wished” (23:25). Before arriving at the place called “The Skull,” one Simon of Cyrene is tapped to assist Jesus in the carrying of his crossbeam to the place of his crucifixion. The lectionary selection begins after this walk of shame.

As if a death among “criminals” was not sufficient, Luke describes the Jerusalem leaders “scoffing” at the so-called “Messiah” who was unable to save himself: what kind of messianic pretender could this be? Then, the narrative provides reactions from five groups:

  • The crowds watched (a neutral stance?) (Luke verse 35);
  • The leaders scoffed (verse 35);
  • The soldiers mocked (verse 36);
  • Rome announced its public position with an inscription (verse 38);
  • The criminals disagreed over his identity (verses 39-43).

The disagreement between the two criminals may be the most revealing segment of the story. It receives more narrative attention than the other reactions. In the other two synoptic Gospels, the two criminals each “revile” Jesus (see Mark 15:32; Matthew 27:44). Following the direction of the Jerusalem leaders in Luke’s account, only one criminal continues to ridicule Jesus wondering about Jesus’ messianic capabilities: “Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). His request, of course, is as selfish as his life probably was: “don’t just save yourself; save also us.” The desire to turn the messianic identity into a useful resource for personal gain is as old as the biblical story itself. But Jesus says nothing to him in response. 

The second criminal takes a different tack. Although his “rebuke” of his comrade may recall earlier scenes of violent exorcistic encounters (for example, Luke 4:35, 41; 9:42) in which Luke uses this verb, it may also be a simple practice of Luke 17:3: “If your brother or sister commits wrong, rebuke them; if they repent forgive them” (my translation). Unlike in Mark’s Gospel, Luke uses this intense verb in many instances of common human encounters (see Luke 9:21, 55; 18:15, 39; 19:39). Here, in Luke 23, the second unnamed man recognizes the distinction between their crimes and the one crucified in their midst: “this man has done nothing wrong” (23:41). 

This prisoner’s announcement of Jesus’ innocence is unique to Luke’s Gospel. Here, in a more prominent way, Luke wishes to stress the crucifixion of innocent Jesus. Pilate “found in him no ground for the sentence of death” (Luke 23:22). Herod would agree with Pilate’s assessment (23:15). And, in our passage, the second criminal offers his own intuition on the situation: “this man has done nothing wrong” (23:41). When Jesus dies, the centurion’s confession sums up all the others in the chapter: “Certainly this man was innocent (23:47). 

Finally, Luke explores the criminal’s one-on-one encounter with the innocent one, recognizing the true identity of Jesus as the messianic one: “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). If the words of verse 34 are not part of the original story—as many ancient manuscripts attest—then the ending comment is Jesus’ only spoken words in this entire (lectionary) passage, words that acknowledge Jesus’ real identity: “today, you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). 

Whatever else might be the meaning of the crucifixion in the first-century, crucifixion was a public performance in order to produce a public shaming. Even his clothes were, immediately, accounted for (via the casting of lots). With its inscription over Jesus’ head, Rome announces, “This is the King of the Jews.” The Jerusalem leaders would not be pleased with this part of the Roman-organized performance, since it was an embarrassment for all Jewish people. But crucifixion was Rome’s method of execution and this was their public show.

As the public drama continues in Luke’s version, Jesus is associated with “criminals,” but references to blood fail to appear (compare John 19:34). It was not about “blood” (or, gore) despite how the medieval church (and, some contemporary film producers) might have imagined the scene. Although Jesus received sufficient abuse throughout the trials, Luke concentrates his audience’s attention on the public shaming rather than the individual brutality he would have certainly received.

Perhaps, this is the best passage for Christ the King Sunday. It is a story of the crucified Christ. It is the story of how Rome treats defeated kings with public performances of humiliation. What they do not realize is that their action works into God’s story. Only those on the margin can testify to its truth. One of the criminals, rightfully condemned, recognizes his innocence and begs for mercy. One Roman centurion acknowledges the truth of what appears to be a loss as a victory. It is a story in which Jesus’ messianic identity is called into question. It is a story in which Christians throughout the ages call his identity into question. What kind of king will he be? Posing the question in this way is really another way of asking a more personal question: what kind of church should we be? 

Might Jesus’ innocence (and, yet condemnation and death) speak to our contemporary situation in a new way? Does such a portrayal of unlawful condemnations speak to the American prison system that continually houses millions on lengthy sentences due to “crimes” of improper drug use? 

The two criminals represent two “groups” of people, those who join the empire’s testimony against the innocent and those who identify with the innocent ones. Jesus, too, will identify with marginalized groups who are able to reflect critically on their situation in this American context and recognize the truth: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Perhaps, this is the best passage for Christ the King Sunday.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6

J. Blake Couey

The book of Jeremiah is set during a turbulent period when Babylon twice invaded Judah (598 and 587 BCE), destroying Jerusalem and its temple and deporting large numbers of Judeans.

Much of the blame for these traumatic events is placed on Judah’s failed leadership.

Immediately before our passage, God condemns the three prior kings of Judah, who had governed unjustly and exploited their people (Jeremiah 22:1-30). Jeremiah 23:1-6 continues these reflections on the future of the Davidic monarchy. Verses 1-4 promise to remove the current failed leaders and replace them with better ones. Verses 5-6 look forward to the appearance of a new, righteous king.

The shepherds

“Shepherd” was a common metaphor for kingship in the ancient world (for example, 2 Samuel 7:7-8; 1 Kings 22:17-18). Just as shepherds care for their flocks, so rulers should ensure the wellbeing of their people. Jeremiah 23:1-2 uses this metaphor to denounce the leadership of recent Judean kings. Instead of keeping their sheep together, they “scatter” and “drive them away.” The latter verb (Hebrew n-d-kh) works at both levels of the metaphor. It can refer to sheep who are separated from their flock (Deuteronomy 22:1; Ezekiel 34:4) and also to political exiles (Deuteronomy 30:1, 4; Isaiah 56:8). Its use in Jeremiah 23 suggests that the Babylonian exile has begun and blames it on Judah’s leaders.

Jeremiah 23:2 contains other wordplays. The same Hebrew verb (p-q-d) denotes both the shepherd’s lack of care for the flock and God’s punishment of the shepherds. (It appears again in verse 4, with the meaning “be missing.”) The NRSV nicely translates the wordplay: “You have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings” (emphasis added). As frequently happens in biblical prophetic literature, God’s punishment is tailored to fit the crime.1 In the same line, the word “evil” sounds a lot like the word “shepherd” in Hebrew (roa‘/ro‘eh). The pun emphasizes how badly Judah’s shepherds/rulers have perverted their authority.

With the evil shepherds out of the picture, God acts as shepherd in Jeremiah 23:3. Like “attend to” in verse 2, the verb “gather” (q-b-ts) can be used for both sheep (Isaiah 40:11; Micah 2:12) and exiles (Deuteronomy 30:3-4; Isaiah 56:8). Surprisingly, God now claims to have “driven” (n-d-kh) the sheep/people away—the action which for which the rulers were blamed in verse 2. This paradox lies at the heart of Jeremiah’s theological reflection. The exile happened because of the sins of the people and their rulers, yet God is also responsible for its destructiveness. Because the flock has been reduced to a “remnant,” God will give them pasture where they may “be fruitful and multiply.” This allusion to Genesis 1:28 portrays the restoration of the exiles as a new creation. Having restored the exiles’ fortunes, God promises to raise new shepherd/rulers in Jeremiah 23:4. Although the text recognizes all too well the dangers of unjust human leadership, it still dares to imagine that just leadership is possible, and that humans may thrive under it.

The branch

In Jeremiah 23:5-6, God promises a new king in the Davidic line, referred to metaphorically as a “branch.” (NRSV capitalizes “Branch” as if it were a name, perhaps influenced by Zechariah 6:12, but nothing in Jeremiah 23:5 demands this interpretation.) Although this single ruler contrasts with the plural “shepherds” in the previous verses, the two prophecies share the same underlying promise of future leadership. In both cases, it is brought about by divine action (“I will raise up,” verses 4 and 5).

The arboreal metaphor in Jeremiah 23:5 is influenced by Isaiah 11:1, which promises “a shoot … from the stump of Jesse [David’s father].” Both texts emphasize that the new king’s reign will be characterized by “justice” and “righteousness” (Isaiah 11:4-5; Jeremiah 23:5). Throughout the Hebrew Bible, this pair of words describes an equitable social order in which everyone has access to the resources needed to thrive, and members of socially vulnerable classes are protected from exploitation. Kings are responsible for maintaining such a social order (see 2 Kings 10:9; Psalm 72:1-2). As made clear throughout Jeremiah, however, the Davidic rulers leading up to the exile failed to create this kind of society. To emphasize the different character of the new king, the root ts-d-q (“righteous”) is repeated three times in Jeremiah 23:5-6. In fact, the king’s throne name will be yhwh-tsidqenu, “the LORD is our righteousness.” This is a subtle critique of Zedekiah, the final king of Judah, whose name means “the LORD is my righteousness,” and who is frequently condemned by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 21:7; 24:8; 32:3-5).2

Several decades later, Jeremiah’s promise influenced another prophet. Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12-13 announce the coming of God’s servant, named “Branch,” who would rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. These texts expressed hope that Zerubbabel, a descendant of David and post-exilic governor of Judah, would become king and restore the Judean monarchy. Those promises never materialized, and Judah remained part of the Persian empire for another 200 years. Indeed, the hopes for just leadership expressed in Jeremiah are seldom fulfilled by real humans. In our current historical moment, we face an acute crisis of corrupt, unjust governance worldwide. As we reflect on Jeremiah’s words on Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, our perpetual disappointment in our leaders only increases our longing for the promised rule of God and a truly transformed world.

But we must continue to strive, however imperfectly, to achieve justice in this world on this side of the consummation of God’s reign (or eschaton). Wise and equitable human leadership is essential to this endeavor. Jeremiah 23 offers a model for criticizing leaders who fall short of this standard, and it challenges us not to succumb to cynicism but to maintain hope for the possibility of leaders who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.”


Notes:

1 Patrick D. Miller Jr., Sin and Judgment in the Prophets (Atlanta: SBL, 1982).

2 Leslie C. Allen, Jeremiah, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 258.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 46

Joel LeMon

Psalm 46 is a song of trust in Yahweh.1

Its three major sections (verses 1-3, 4-7, 8-11) describe Yahweh’s defense of the people against cosmic and geopolitical threats. In the face of these dangers, the community reiterates its fundamental claim: Yahweh is with us (verses 1, 7, 11).

“Though the Earth Should Change”
The first section of the psalm (verses 1-3) testifies to the people’s confidence in Yahweh in the midst of cosmic turmoil. Verses 2-3 depict creation in utter disarray: earthquakes, storms, floods, even a tsunami.

Ancient peoples understood all of these natural phenomena as forces of chaos. As such, they convey an anxiety that the world is slipping out of control.

The roaring sea is one of the stock motifs for chaos throughout the Psalter. Elsewhere, we read of God founding the world amidst or on top of this watery chaos (see Psalm 24:1-2; 104:5-9). In the first verses of this psalm, the churning water threatens to overwhelm the order that God established at creation.

However, in the city of God, where peace and order reigns, the waters run in well-marked channels, nourishing the city (verses 4-5). Yahweh tames the watery chaos.

The psalm evokes another element of nature, the sun, to describe the order that God brings to the city (46:5b). The constant, unyielding movement of the sun across the sky provides the perfect picture of order.

Thus, throughout the ancient Near East, sun gods were understood to be gods of order and righteousness. That tradition lies in the background of this psalm, which contends: as sure as the sun rises at dawn, so certain is God’s rule.

The Roaring Nations
Two types of the threats seem to challenge God’s rule: cosmic disorder, epitomized by the roaring waters (verses 2-3), and political ones, those nations who seek to destroy God’s people (verses 6-7).

These forces are simply different manifestations of the chaos God has already conquered at creation and continues to keep at bay. As such the psalmist uses the similar vocabulary to describe the threats.

As the waters roar (Hebrew hmh, verse 3), so “the nations are in an uproar (hmh)” (verse 6), and as the mountains totter (mwt, verse 2), so “the kingdoms totter” (mwt, verse 6) when they encounter the voice of God. Through all this tumult, the holy city will not totter (mwt, verse 5), for Yahweh is in her midst.

The Reign of Yahweh
In the final section of the psalm (verses 8-11), the faithful community exalts Yahweh and declares God’s dominion. Yahweh exercises power to such an extent that Yahweh obliterates war itself and unbuilds the technology of combat (verse 9).

Following the community’s testimony of Yahweh’s universal disarmament program, the psalm introduces the very voice of God with the command “be still, and know” (verse 10). The audience for God’s words is open and includes both the faithful and the forces of chaos that threaten them. As such, God’s command reminds us of Christ’s words to the raging sea (Mark 4:39).

The psalm ends with the refrain that also appeared in verse 7: “Yahweh of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” This refrain echoes verse 1 in describing God’s strength and his ability to afford protection. While verse 1 highlights God’s protecting presence, the refrain in verses 7 and 11 place the accent on God’s identity.

Two titles appear in the refrains. The first, “Yahweh of hosts,” signifies Yahweh’s control of the heavenly armies and refers to God as the supremely powerful deity (cf. 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; Isaiah 37:16). The second, “the God of Jacob,” recalls Yahweh’s history with a particular people.

Thus, the psalm asserts that the god of the patriarchs and matriarchs is none other than the god who commands the hosts of heaven. The people have had a long history with this God-a history that reminds them that God is trustworthy.

The True Source of Our Trust
The particular name of the “city of God” (verses 4-5) does not appear in this psalm, lest the readers confuse the source of the protection with an easily identifiable location. To tie Yahweh’s protective power to a specific locale, risks the vanity of trusting in human power.

This psalm exhorts its earliest audience not to base its confidence on high, thick walls and expert archers manning the balustrades. It is only God’s presence that promotes security.

Today we can hear the psalm’s message clearly, but many find it difficult to believe. We much prefer to trust in that which we can see: a strong military and a robust economy. or full savings accounts and solid resumes. But these “defenses” ultimately prove unreliable.

God is the only sure defense. On Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church reminds itself once again of God’s ultimate power over all. Our salvation comes not through military, economic, or physical strength, but through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, this psalm has been an anthem of the faithful throughout Christian history. In the turmoil of the Reformation, Martin Luther turned to Psalm 46 for courage and comfort. His robust melody and stirring lyrics became the definitive hymn of the Reformed tradition, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (Ein’ feste Burg, ca. 1529).

Today, when faced with difficult situations, all Christians—both Protestants and Catholics—do well to remember the central message of the psalm.  We are inclined to place our trust in our own resources or in the world’s mighty institutions. Yet these cannot remedy our fear, for they are unable to match the power of God.

The psalm guides us to faith and encourages us to claim: “A mighty fortress is our God.”


Notes

1. This commentary first published on this site on Nov. 21, 2010.


Alternate Psalm

Commentary on Luke 1:68-79

Yolanda Norton

Luke 1:68-79 marks the Benedictus—also known as the song of Zechariah.

It is one of three canticles—the other two being Mary’s Magnificat and the Song of Simeon—in the first chapter of Luke. This song pronounces praise for the birth of John the Baptist. John’s birth marks a reversal of fate for Zechariah and Elizabeth after their period of lack, and it announces the beginning of a reversal of fate for humanity, who stands in a period of spiritual lack in need of God’s deliverance.

The Benedictus receives its name because of its beginning with “Blessed be…” (helogetos).

The liturgical format is reminiscent of the barakah formula in the Hebrew Bible which begins with an initial statement of praise (Luke 1:68a) followed by the reason for said praise (1:68b-74) and concluding with a formula for praise (1:75-79). Francois Bovon’s observation that the passive verb “blessed” leaves the subject of the blessing in “theological suspense.”1 Consequently, both the works of God and the audience of God’s work can express praise.

Here, the works of God are not only God’s blessing of Israel and their deliverance from enemies but also the maintenance of the covenant and the birth of John. In this way the author signifies human capacity to be God’s praise in our ability to live in communion with God. Similarly, but with some nuance, we as human beings have the ability to bear witness to God’s work in history. We see God’s ability to step, to be attentive, to deliver, and redeem; and as a result of what we see, we are able to offer praise. In this text, such praise unfolds in three parts in this Lukan text—through God’s visit, God’s deliverance, and God’s might.

In verse 68 the verb (episkeptomai) often translated “looked favorably upon” may also be translated as “to visit.” This verb appears in the Septuagint (LXX) in Genesis 21:1 when God shows up for Sarah and interrupts her prolonged season of bareness. In like manner it is the same verb in Ruth 1:6 when God ends the famine in Bethlehem. God’s visit is something more than simple presence; it is about more than merely seeing. When God visits God’s people, God makes God’s self manifest in their lives. God shows up to interrupt misery and lack with an intention to restore and sustain the people.

And so, the author reminds us that God visited Israel and “redeemed them” (Luke 1:68b). This redemption takes the form of a raising up a “horn of salvation” (commonly translated as “might savior”). The horn in ancient Israel signifies a show of strength. Most often this strength was demonstrated in military might. For example, in Deuteronomy 33:17, the author says of Joseph, “his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he gores people.” Here the author signifies God’s chosen as having a superhuman strength that pushes back their opponents. Joseph’s victory is assured because God has endowed him with these horns of strength. In a more militaristic context, in Joshua 6:20 the priests’ blowing of the horn is a sign for the people that there is an impending sign of God’s might. Following this sound, the walls of Jericho fall. The horns are signal of Israel’s strength as they prepare to invade this territory. There is no counter-response significant to subdue them.

In Luke 1 the horn is placed in the “house of his servant David.” Such an allusion points the reader to 2 Samuel 2; in Hannah’s prayer, she speaks of God’s ability to reverse fortunes and bring about unexpected outcomes for those who live for God. This prayer culminates with 2 Samuel 2:10 with God’s horn (LXX) resounding which is a sign of the king’s strength on earth.

In Luke 1 the horn become a signification of a different manifestations of God’s strength. Here God’s might is a signal of redemption and salvation.

All of this theological reflection in Luke 1:68-79 happens outside of time. Prior to this text and following it there is a narrative chronology. However, in this moment the author breaks time to speak to God’s amazing capacity to operate across and within chronological time. This brief text takes it reader through the exodus, into the monarchy, across the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel and into the hope for a new promise fulfilled first through John the Baptist and then through Jesus. As such, the text reminds us that we live in a cycle of both the declaration and fulfillment of God’s promises in prophetic utterances.


Notes:

1 Francois Bovon. Hermeneia: Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Helmut Koester, ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 72.


Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:11-20

Timothy L. Adkins-Jones

Christ the King Sunday closes out the liturgical year with an emphasis on the divinity of Christ and Christ’s kingship of the universe.

A king on the ground

It is a day, liturgically speaking, that magnifies the otherness of Christ, reminding us of who has the final say in our lives. It is a fitting reminder of who God is in Jesus right as we are beginning to prepare to celebrate his arrival in a manger. It is tempting then, in emphasizing the supremacy of Christ’s kingship, to downplay his humanity. Maybe today is a day to wrestle with the expectation of a sermon about the work that Jesus Christ did in the heavens to reconcile us to himself. Naming and asserting Christ’s kingship should have real-life implications for those that are experiencing the sermon.

Today’s lection is one traditionally used for Christ the King Sunday and as such has lofty language about Christ’s kingship. However the fullness of who Christ is to us is seen through Christ’s humanity, and it is his humanity, his creaturely presence that serves as the evidence of his holiness.

The heart of this passage is Colossians 1:15, which tells us that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.” This phrase is by definition paradoxical, but its poetic nature helps us envision a God who is beyond our words. What we can know about a God that is beyond our sight, is seen in Jesus. This Jesus is the firstborn of creation (verse 15), the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him (verse 19), and Jesus has rescued us from the power of darkness (verse 13).

These are all lofty theological concepts, but this passage in Colossians does not disconnect Jesus’ salvific, kingly responsibilities from the fact that that he was here on the grown, as a flesh and blood man walking among us. Christ is the king, but this king lived on earth. Even with the beautiful hymn or at least hymn-like section of Colossians 1:15-20, the writer does not avoid language that puts Jesus amongst us. Creation was made through him (verse 16). He holds things together (verse 17). He is the head, or the source of the church (verse 18) and God reconciles through his blood (verse 20).

This passage opens up the opportunity to preach about a king that is on the ground with us. As a transition to the upcoming Advent season, how might this passion help us assert the kingship of Christ while affirming that his holiness doesn’t solely come from reign over the universe but also from his desire to be on the earth? This passage suggests that we have been given power, but to endure life here and now.

Preachers would do well to talk about power in tangible terms, so that the notion of Jesus offering us power does not remain an abstract concept. What really does it mean to have power? Power to do what exactly? And who or what does this power allow us to free ourselves from. Fredrick Douglass said that, “Power concedes nothing without demand.” Sermons on this passage might help congregations wrestle with who or what exactly Christ’s kingly power helps free us from.

Joyful power

This passage also presents an opportunity for preaching that explores what it means to have power to endure difficulty with joy (Colossians 1:11). Is it our new citizenship in the kingdom of Jesus that gives us the power and joy to survive (verse 13)? Is it the assurance that our sins are forgiven that gives us joy (verse 14)? Preachers might help the congregation wonder what aspects of their salvation give them the power to have joy as they endure. There is also room to explore in these first few verses the benefits of being transferred into the kingdom. Redemption and forgiveness of sins seem like such otherworldly rewards; is there anything in this life that comes from being in the kingdom? Indeed. We ground our kingdom citizenship in the lived reality of the community.

Saints in the light

Christ’s kingship has the benefit of bringing those that follow him out of the darkness. What is unclear and a great source for sermons from this passage is exactly what kind of darkness is being described.

Is the darkness that we are freed from a darkness of sorrow? Does our membership in the kingdom aid our ability to handle sadness as it creeps? Possibly the power to have joy speaks to the breaking of this kind of darkness.

Maybe darkness here is a signifier of sin, and that the power that Christ offers through membership in the kingdom breaks the power that sin has over our lives.

Darkness also regularly signifies a lack of awareness in biblical parlance. What do saints in the light (Colossians 1:12) not recognize that they were not able to before following Christ?

There is space here to wrestle with what we become aware of once we come to Christ. If everything is made through Jesus and for Jesus, then the implication is that those that follow Jesus are “remade” through him as well. This still begs the question: What do we know see in the light that we were dark to before?