Lectionary Commentaries for November 3, 2019
All Saints Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 6:20-31

Matt Skinner

Saints come in many varieties, but in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain Jesus focuses on certain kinds who receive his attention throughout his ministry: the poor, the hungry, the crying, and the hated or ostracized.

All of those people, he promises, are “blessed” (makarios in Greek).

Blessed and woe

“Blessed” has become a very churchy word with little meaning for most people. “Happy” is another common translation of makarios, but that word has grown too small in contemporary usage, I fear. Think of makarios as “unburdened” or “satisfied.”

Jesus also addresses people who are the opposite of the first groups: the wealthy, the satiated, the laughing, and the acclaimed. To all of these he cries out, “Woe!”

In this context, “woe” functions as a sharp contrast to “blessed,” yet the Greek word ouai does not mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” Certainly not “damned.” Like the English word yikes, it is more of an attention-getter and emotion-setter than a clear characterization or pronouncement.

Jesus therefore promises relief to some groups, to those people who travel rough roads through life. To others, to folks who find existence rather enjoyable or easy, he cries, “Look out!”

The big question for the preacher to consider is why those comfortable people should look out. What’s wrong with health, wealth, and merriment? Hold onto that question for a few paragraphs.

The passage’s rhetoric of binaries and reversals needs to be taken seriously. But at the same time interpreters should not overstate what Jesus is up to and assume the blesseds and woes are clear promises about rewards and punishments coming in the future. If the reign of God “is among you” (Luke 17:21) already, even now, then the blessed and woe statements signal something for people to experience in the present.

Jesus sees the world through glasses that distort the conventional values everyone else sees. His spectacles turn everything upside-down, just as Mary’s prophetic vision does in Luke 1:46-55. Things operate differently in the reign of God, as seen while that new state of affairs becomes manifest in Jesus’ ministry. His work and message actively benefit the disadvantaged, not the privileged (cf. Luke 4:16-19; 5:30-32).

He brings satisfaction and belonging to those who suffer from poverty—which includes more than the people who lack money but also the powerless and the disenfranchised.1 His ministry feeds the hungry, which likely anticipates the wondrous deed he performs in Luke 9:12-17 and his penchant for eating with others. It also lays a foundation for the hospitality and meal-sharing that are hallmarks of the community he creates. The people who cry, who live in perpetual loss and grief and who have lost hope, will not be forgotten but will experience joy (e.g., Luke 7:13; 8:52; 23:27-28; 24:52). Exclusion and persecution prove to be no match for those who share in Jesus’ prophetic, liberative ministry.

Focusing on Jesus’ good news for the distressed brings us back to the question of why other people need to watch out, or why they should be pitied. Don’t they already enjoy the satisfaction and the blessedness that Jesus promises others? Why doesn’t Jesus just say that everyone will receive plenty and security? Is he suggesting that the reign of God operates as a zero-sum game in which every winner corresponds to a loser or every one of today’s pleasures will get repaid with a punishment tomorrow?

No, not if the woe statements signal a reality that already exists. Jesus urges his hearers to reassess their lives in light of God’s unfolding reign. It seems to me that Jesus’ woe statements are revealing something—that the things we assume are advantages are actually illusory. What if money, food, comfort, self-won security, respectability, and the like are things that kill our souls—not just in some far-off afterlife but right here, right now? What a tragedy to mistake them for benefits given by God, then.

As the passage continues, we get a better sense of how to keep our souls alive and not be tricked by counterfeit blessings.

A theology of love, nonretaliation, and solidarity

The lectionary reading ends with commands about love and nonretaliation, even though Jesus’ sermon itself continues beyond verse 31. His words in Luke 6:27-30 are much more general than those in the parallel passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:39-40, 42, 44). Details in the Matthean version set Jesus’ commands in a context of unjust or humiliating demands placed upon a person. The absence of those details in Luke makes for a much stronger focus on nonretaliation as a virtue in any and all circumstances. (The so-called Golden Rule in Luke 6:31 is quite similar to what appears in Matt 7:12.)

Many hear Jesus’ words about unlimited generosity and become worried—with good reason—about whether these teachings encourage victimization. It takes little imagination to see the damage these verses can cause when plucked from context and made to overlook domestic abuse and economic exploitation. Plenty of other biblical passages suggest that Jesus would agree with that concern. The task for preachers is to figure out exactly how Jesus’ radical ethic of self-giving applies and does not apply, without stripping away everything remarkable or challenging about his notion of generosity. His point isn’t to deprive anyone of their dignity; it is to demonstrate the mercy of God (Luke 6:36), which is a mercy so extravagant it looks foolish by our conventional measures.

Do not run too quickly past the explicit and implicit ways in which Jesus’ sermon invokes the compassion and mercy of God. Jesus is doing theology here, not ethics rooted in abstract notions of obligation or decency. He is describing ways of living that conform to God’s commitment to see the poor and unprivileged raised up.

The communion of saints—that intimate unity we share through Christ with one another, including those who have finished their race—creates a community, a new social reality. Jesus’ sermon describes that community as odd. Its values do not match life experience, in terms of who typically experiences happiness and how. Nor do they conform to the cold logic of cost-benefit analyses. Jesus calls the church to more than acting differently or seeing the world differently. He calls us, each of us, to a new existence in which God’s generosity benefits the downtrodden. That generosity creates a culture formed and sustained by the mercy of God. Woe to those who are missing opportunities to experience tangibly the giving and receiving of that mercy.

Rich, satiated, carefree, and respectable people can share immediately in the new existence God has instituted, but only to the degree to which they participate in Christ’s calling to enter into true solidarity with those who find themselves destitute, underfed, mournful, and vilified.

Woe to those who refuse to risk that solidarity. Look out! What blessedness we are missing.


Notes:

  1. On the connections between Luke’s language about wealth and issues relating to power, privilege, and social standing, see Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 79-84, 113-17.


First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Kristin J. Wendland

Though general wisdom counsels one to preach the text rather than the day, this text—both in content and in genre—fits the day of All Saints quite well.

Daniel’s dream

Daniel 7 recounts the dream of Daniel, described as a young Judean exile in the Babylonian court, though Babylon here acts as a cipher for the Greek Empire, the super-power of Daniel’s day. The portion of the chapter assigned for All Saints Day describes only the beginning of Daniel’s dream, in which four great beasts arise out of the sea (Daniel 7:3), and the interpretation of the dream by a heavenly being (7:15-18). In response to Daniel’s terror and misapprehension at the end of his dream, this heavenly being explains that the four beasts represent four kings (or kingdoms) but that the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom in the end. The “holy ones” likely refers to heavenly beings, though their exact identity remains disputed. 1

What is clear is that they are on the side of God and on the side of good. Neither the beasts nor the empires that they represent will be victorious in the end. Although the four kings/kingdoms are not identified in the passage, history shows them to be the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks.

The redacted description of the dream includes not only descriptions of the four beasts and their terrifying power, but ten horns arising from the fourth beast, with an eleventh horn erupting noisily at the end. In response to this last beast with its mouthy eleventh horn, the Ancient One appears to put the beast to death and to deprive the other three beasts of power. Then, a human figure descends from the heavens to reign, at the behest of God, the Ancient One. 

Should one decide to preach on Daniel 7, one might decide to read the redacted verses or to describe them in the sermon. While the “message” of the dream is captured in the verses selected, the experience of the apocalypse is missing and thus the whole—with its strangeness and its terror—is not fully communicated, making the interpretation somewhat less than the hopeful news that it is.

Daniel 7 as apocalypse

As an apocalyptic text, this chapter describes earthly political matters, particularly as they pertain to the people of Judea, in light of a larger cosmic narrative in which the outcome is already certain. Daniel 7 is set in light of the harsh Hellenization efforts of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek king of the Seleucid Empire and ruler in Judea from 175-164 BCE. The apocalyptic material in the book of Daniel provides hope for a rather powerless people who have experienced affronts such as having their observations of Torah forbidden and the cult of Zeus set up in their Temple in Jerusalem. Their faithfulness may have been under attack, but they could look forward to a day when they will be victors, thanks for the faithfulness of God.

Scholar Anathea E. Portier-Young maintains that one of the roles of apocalyptic writings is to make visible a system of imperial domination and hegemonic discourse that would have preferred to operate under the cloak of darkness and to counter the totalizing discourse of that imperial power with an alternative vision. 2 In other words, a savvy empire will work its machinations in such a way that its people will accept the empire’s requests for fealty as normal and reasonable. An apocalypse cries, “This is not reasonable!”

It is ironic that the apocalyptic writing meant to make an oppressive force visible would be written with such strong recourse to symbol and metaphor. Yet, such associations do more than offer a cloak of plausible deniability against treason or slander. The genre allows one to represent the oppressor in ways that are dangerous, and chaotic. So, for instance, Daniel depicts the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks as monsters in Daniel 7, veiling their identity but also using metaphor to communicate the monstrous extent of the situation (Daniel 7:4-8, 17). They arise out of chaotic waters, suggesting their obstruction to God’s good ordering of creation (see also Genesis 1; Exodus 15).

With the true motivation of their rulers revealed, albeit symbolically, the opposing vision of the Ancient One handing over the kingdom to the Holy Ones cuts through the attempted obfuscation of the empire. The real, reasonable, faithful vision of God’s world is this one, and it will come to pass.

Death and promise

At least two possibilities for preaching this text with an eye to All Saints Day present themselves.

First, part of the work of All Saints Day is naming the reality that is death. One could even call it a hegemonic discourse. Each one of us will one day die. We mourn it. We may even fear it, envisioning it as a beast rising up out of the waters. Yet, the larger truth is that in Christ Jesus, the firstborn of the dead, death has been overcome. Ultimately, the saints—the holy ones—will sit as inheritors of God’s kingdom, with death no more a threat.

A second possibility is to consider not just death itself but a death-dealing culture or world. What are the messages that, like the empire of Daniel’s time, try to make sin and evil the more reasonable reality? In what ways does the world around us subtly turn us from the radically inclusive and grace-filled love of God toward a vision that looks more like the beasts rising up out of the sea? For saints—the holy ones of God—living yet on this side of the resurrection, the alternate vision in Daniel’s dream gives hope for a different future and perhaps confidence to work in God’s name for such a future, such a vision, in the here and now.


Notes:

1 John J. Collins, Daniel, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 313-17.

2 Anathea E. Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 35.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 149

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 149 is the fourth of the five “Final Hallel” psalms (Psalms 146-150) that form the closing doxology of the Hebrew Psalter.

It begins and ends with “Praise the LORD!,” as do the other four Final Hallel psalms; but it seems somewhat out of place in this collection of psalms, since its focus is on God’s vengeance on the nations in defense of God’s people. In The Message of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann states simply, “I do not know what to make of this, for it is quite unexpected in the hymns.” 1

The tone of the first four verses of the psalm is much in keeping with the tone of the other Final Hallel psalms. In Psalm 149:1, the psalm singer calls on the “assembly of the faithful” to “sing to the LORD a new song.” The word translated “faithful” is hasidiym, formed from the word hesed, which refers to the covenant faithfulness between God and the people of Israel. Those who honor the covenant established between Israel and God are thus called to “sing.” The call to sing a “new song” occurs as well in Psalms 96 and 98, and in each instance of its occurrence, seems to refer to some sort of new beginning or new insight into the relationship between God and the people.

Psalm 149:1-3 are filled with images of singing, celebrating, and dancing—“a new song” and “praise” in verse 1; “glad” and “rejoice” in verse 2; “praise,” “dancing,” “making melody” in verse 3. Singing and dancing were common parts of cultic activity in the ancient Near East. In Exodus 15, Miriam “took a tambourine in her hand” and all the women followed, “with tambourines and with dancing.” In 2 Samuel 6:14, we read that when the ark of the covenant was being brought into Jerusalem, “David danced before the LORD with all his might.” According to 1 Chronicles 25:4-6, David appointed temple musicians like the sons and daughters of Heman, who were “under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God.”

Psalm 149:4 announces the two-fold reason for praise. First, the LORD takes pleasure (rasah) in his people. The word means as well “be favorable to, be well disposed toward.” Second, the Lord “adorns (pa’ar) the humble with victory.” The word comes from an Egyptian loanword that means “headdress, head wrap,” and is used to describe the head coverings of upper class women of Jerusalem in Isaiah 3:20; priests in Exodus 39:28 and Ezekiel 44:18; and of a bridegroom in Isaiah 61:10. Here is a wonderful picture of God rewarding the humble (the Hebrew word is also used to describe the “poor”) with the trappings of victory over those who oppress them. One commentator writes, “YHWH chooses the “poor,” that is the despised, the oppressed, the powerless, and the degraded in order to reveal his glory in them and so to give them … honor and dignity.” 2

Psalm 149:5-6 resume the call to praise begun in verses 1-3 and summon the faithful to “exult” and “sing for joy,” with the “high praises of God in their throats.” But in the middle of verse 6 comes a radical and disturbing shift in the tenor of the psalm. Along with the praise of God in their throats, the faithful are to have “two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations.”

The word translated “vengeance” is from the Hebrew root naqam, and may be defined as “an invocation of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one’s enemies, or the enemies of God.” While it is used in the biblical text in reference to human revenge, most often in speaking about the vengeance of God upon those who violate the basic order and balance of the created world. In Psalm 149 this divine prerogative is meted out to the “faithful.” Verse 9 gives the reason for the vengeance outlined in the previous verses: “to execute on them the judgment decreed.” The word translated “decreed” is “written” in Hebrew, likely referring to the instructions written in the Torah regarding right living in relation with others and God. The idea of vengeance is difficult for many twenty-first-century Christians to embrace. James Mays reminds us that the vengeance called for in Psalm 149 is not “the emotion of a hate reaction but in the sphere of legal custom. Vengeance was an act to enforce or restore justice where the regular legal processes were not competent or had failed.” 3 And the Old Testament tells us repeatedly that vengeance is not the prerogative of the people, but belongs to God (see Deuteronomy 32:35-36; Jeremiah 46:10; and Psalms 94:1 and 99:8). The end of verse 9 declares that the “judgment decreed” upon the nations, peoples, kings, and nobles is the “glory” for the faithful.

The words of Psalm 149 have been used to incite and justify war against those deemed to be the enemies of God. It was used to provoke the Peasant Revolt in Germany in the sixteenth century and to call the Roman Catholics to a holy war against the Protestants, beginning the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. The author of the book of Hebrews writes, however, that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). As Christians today seek God’s justice in the world, words can be a powerful weapon in the hands of the “faithful” against those who cause or allow others to suffer injustice.


Notes:

1 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), p. 166.

2 Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3, Hermeneia, ed. Klaus Baltzer, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 650.

3 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation : A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James L. Mays (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 302-3.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:11-23

Emerson Powery

In the western portion of the northern hemisphere, the church has lost much of its clout.

Some of this loss is due to a less religious age, in which people’s needs (spiritual and otherwise) are met in other ways besides the local, ecclesial community. Declining attendance throughout the nation is one outcome of this situation. Equally significant is the presence and effect of scandals that plague the church community. From child abuse to support of unethical political leaders, the church has misplaced its loyalties unable to match its actions with its verbal commitment to follow the Jesus who resides on the side of the least of these. 

There are many ways to respond to this new environment. Recognizing the diminishing influence is a first step. Some, sadly, go on the defensive. This general “letter”—if indeed “Ephesians” should be classified as such in light of its generic opening and unclear references to any specific crisis as is often the case in the indisputable Pauline letters—may emphasize the prominence of the church’s place more than any document in the early Christian writings. Writing in the name of Paul, the author wishes to remind his audience of their place in the world.

In many ways, this is the perfect passage for All Saints Day. It may be time to remember “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) and live in such a way that is worthy of that high calling. With Christ as the “head,” the church—“which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:23)—is called on to represent the Christ figure in the world. What should this representation look like?

The lectionary passage offers few details about what the church will do, even while encouraging it to remember its source. Christ is the head of the church and Christ’s authority resides in authoritative spaces far above earthly powers that we may see and recognize. And, from this position the church must find its stability, so that Christ’s “wisdom and revelation” (Ephesians 1:17) might flow through it.

In the ancient world, the language of empire was common fare for many thinkers and writers. This is no less true for the Ephesian writer. Christ’s appointment to be “seated at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places” would recall for the audience an environment in which eastern potentates reigned—following their deaths—through their heirs. Most importantly, people expected their kings to ensure justice in the land for all of its subject citizens. During the first century, Ephesus and its citizens would have been under Roman rule for some time. So, their knowledge of eastern kingship practices would have been less by experience—unless some of them had moved from the East—and more by tradition. In any case, the Ephesian theologian acknowledges that death was unable to hinder God’s will, as God raised Christ “from the dead and seated him” in his ruling position above all authorities.

So what difference does Christ’s position make for the church? The use of the term “church” (ekklesia) is highly cosmic, as the church connects to its “head” (as both source and guide), who, in turn, sits in power and authority over all. The meek and lonely church (in which there are occasional “divisions” among believers, as in 1 Corinthians 11:18) is far removed from the Ephesian portrayal in this document. God’s wisdom is expressed through this church (Ephesians 3:10). God is glorified through this church and through its head, Christ (3:21). Appropriating a marriage analogy, the writer emphasizes Christ’s love for the church, sacrificing for it (5:25) and caring for it (5:29), while calling simply for the church’s submission. The hierarchal language (rightfully) disturbs many contemporaries with our democratically leaning practices. How a church “submits” to its Lord is less troubling—than the gender abuse often associated with the marriage analogy of this passage—partly because the “submission” to Christ is open to interpretive options.

With Christ as “head”—who sits at the right hand of God—followers of Jesus should reflect on their own position in the world. How can the church reside in a pluralistic society and honor Christ’s headship? The challenge, here, is humility, of course, but a person who rests comfortably in authority should be able to aim for fairness because they should have no “beef to pick” (so to speak). The church must find its place in a contemporary world in which pluralism is (or, honestly, should be) the way of the land, at least, within the experiment we call a democracy. (Whether that is always the case is another issue altogether.)

The author, however, goes one step further as he envisions a struggle for the church against more than earthly powers, since that struggle occurs “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And, indeed, it is a struggle that stretches Jesus’s followers to think beyond their local (or, often, individualistic) struggles in order to participate in larger challenges that the “forces of evil” bring. After hearing this message of “evil” represented in this “spiritual” manner, the tendency may be to go inward and only wrestle against such forces with traditional spiritual practices and not utilize resources (which may appear mundane)—such as the political wherewithal—to challenge the earthly ramifications of such perceived evil. Such quietism often enraptures the church, during distinct moments in history, as they turn inward. This can often present itself as advocacy for peace for the sake of peace without the evidence of clear justice for those most vulnerable to the “spiritual forces of evil” in the earthly realm.  

One of the grand challenges of the contemporary church is not to regret its loss of status in the history of the Western world and attempt to reclaim it. Rather, this is an opportunity to return to (first-century) roots, when the Christian ecclesia held no influence. In fact, letters such as this one were sent to these small, surviving believing communities primarily to reassure fellow believers so that they would persevere in their faith. Even this letter written to a second (or, third) generation community—notice the language of Ephesians 1:12-13—was intended to inspire believers to remain faithful as people of the “pledge.”

Inheritance laws can get particularly complicated in the U.S. when there are larger estates bequeathed and family challenges to the (supposed) will. In any case, the author of Ephesians is also concerned about inheritance (Ephesians 1:14). Despite the language of those who were “first” (as a kind of distinction in this inheritance) and, apparently, those who came to faith later, all believers receive the “pledge” of the Spirit, a present sign of the future goal. One sign of this early church’s commitment was its love for “all the saints,” a practice for which they were remembered and a worthy legacy to pass on to future generations.