Lectionary Commentaries for October 27, 2019
Reformation Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Judith Jones

Believers, “the truth will make you free.” What an appropriate Gospel reading for Reformation Sunday!

What frees us? Not our works. Not groveling before God. Not institutions, whether political or religious. Only the truth. Yet surely Pilate is not the only one who wonders, What is Jesus talking about? What is truth?

Jesus’ claim that the truth will set his disciples free is part of a longer conversation with the Judeans.1 Although John’s Gospel sometimes treats the Judeans as if they were a monolithic block of people opposed to Jesus, in this part of the Gospel it is clear that the Judeans are divided (John 7:43-44). Not all resist him. On the contrary, many have come to believe in Jesus (8:30).

Jesus tells this group of Judeans who believe that their faith alone does not make them his disciples. That’s an unexpected message on Reformation Sunday. Yet there it is in black and white: They are already believers, but if they are truly to become his disciples, they must remain in Jesus’ word. Only then will they know the truth that frees.

What do they need to do in order to remain in Jesus’ word? Like so many other terms in John, “word” (logos) is ambiguous, multifaceted, and rich in nuances. Jesus himself is the logos that God speaks, through whom God created the world. He is God’s word made flesh (John 1:1-14). Yet logos can also refer to Jesus’ teachings or to any ordinary word.

How should we understand it here? Logos is singular in John 8:31 (“word,” not “words”), so the emphasis seems to fall on Jesus himself as the Word. Yet John 15:7 shows how closely the Word and his words intertwine: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you …” Those who want to be disciples (remembering that the Greek word for disciple means “learner”) must remain in Jesus and make room for Jesus’ words govern their actions, because the Word of God speaks the words of God. Jesus embodies, reveals, and teaches God’s word. To paraphrase Julian of Norwich, Jesus is God’s meaning.

Jesus promises his hearers that if those who believe remain in his word, they will know the truth, and the truth will make them free. Just as Nicodemus thinks that Jesus is talking about physical birth and the Samaritan woman thinks that Jesus is talking about literal water, the listening Judeans immediately assume that Jesus is suggesting that they are slaves who need to be freed from their earthly masters.

They protest that they are the offspring of Abraham, and that they have never been enslaved to anyone. Confident of their heritage and identity, they are sure that they are already free. Jesus promptly challenges their claim, pointing not to their heritage but to their actions: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). They have squandered their birthright. Because they have followed their own desires instead of God’s word, they have become slaves to sin.

Jesus’ next words (John 8:35-36) are a bit puzzling. He says that slaves don’t remain in the house forever, but the son does, and therefore the son is the one who is able to set people free. The image he uses is not immediately clear. In her commentary on John, Marianne Meye Thompson suggests that, given the Judeans’ appeal to their status as offspring (sperma, “seed”) of Abraham, Jesus may be alluding to the story of Ishmael and Isaac.2 Both Ishmael and Isaac were sperma of Abraham. But Ishmael was treated as a slave and cast out of the house, while Isaac remained in the house as son and heir. Jesus seems to be saying that ethnic heritage is not enough. Being the seed of Abraham is not enough. Only the son can liberate them from their slavery to sin. He is the truth who will set them free.

Knowing the liberating truth, therefore, is not a matter of head knowledge. It does not mean learning facts or agreeing with doctrines. As the continuation of the conversation shows, such agreement can quickly turn to opposition (John 8:37-40). When Jesus challenges the Judeans’ worldview and their cherished identity, some of these same believers will try to kill him (8:59).

Knowing the truth means knowing Jesus Christ. It is relational knowledge, trust in a person rather than belief in a set of ideas. We can study a person’s teachings and know all about their life, their habits, and their history, but that doesn’t mean we know the person. To know them we have to spend time with them, listen to them, and share ourselves with them. As Jesus prays in John 17:21, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Believers become disciples by remaining with Jesus, staying in relationship with him, and letting his words and his presence challenge and change us. Jesus is God’s truth incarnate, and he exposes the hatred, the selfishness, and the lies that enslave us. He does not merely forgive our sins; he promises to liberate us from them and make us free to follow him instead.

If slaves are pronounced free but still wear their chains and serve their masters without pay, their freedom is meaningless. When we listen to Jesus and trust him to name our sin and free us from it, he transforms our lives. He invites believers to know him so deeply that his truth sinks into our very being. He calls us to embody his truth in our lives, so that we walk his way of love in the world. He is the Son who shows us how to find our home in God.

And if the Son sets us free, we are free indeed.


1 Many recent commentaries contend that the Greek word Ioudaioi, which is often translated as “Jews,” should be translated as “Judeans” instead. The term does not refer to all Jewish people, but to the Judeans—the residents of Judea—with whom Jesus was in conversation. Furthermore, many of them were not the ordinary people of Judea, but the religious leaders. Translating the term as “Jews” has too often led Christians to use biblical texts as a pretext for persecuting Jews.

2 Marianne Meye Thompson, John. A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), pp. 190–191.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

J. Blake Couey

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is part of a collection of hopeful words addressed to exiled Judeans in Babylon in Jeremiah 30—33, which is sometimes called the “Book of Consolation” (see 30:2).

This collection begins and ends with speeches introduced by “the days are surely coming” (30:3; 33:14), and the same phrase links three additional promises at the center of the collection in Jeremiah 31, including today’s text.

The exilic audience of Jeremiah had suffered the traumatic loss of many venerable religious institutions, including the Davidic monarchy and Jerusalem temple. In the face of rapidly developing uncertainty about the future, Jeremiah proclaimed the emergence of new possibilities, a new covenant with new ways of relating to God. The exilic prophet of Isaiah 40—55 similarly declared, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

In the Christian tradition, Jeremiah’s promise of a New Covenant is associated with Jesus’ ministry of radical transformation (2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 9:15), in particular with the institution of the Eucharist (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). By assigning Jeremiah 31:31-34 to Reformation Day, the lectionary suggests another new context for these ancient words. Although this text wasn’t especially influential for the early reformers, it resonates powerfully with some of the central themes of the Reformation. At the same time, we must remain vigilant against the persistent danger of anti-Judaism that lurks behind Christian appropriations of Jeremiah’s promise.

Individual freedom and responsibility

Immediately prior to this passage, Jeremiah declares that individuals are accountable for their own sins, not someone else’s (Jeremiah 31:29-30; compare Ezekiel 18). This contradicts the belief that future generations could suffer for the sins of their ancestors, as expressed frequently in the Hebrew Bible (for example Exodus 20:5; 34:7). There is certainly truth to the notion of intergenerational punishment. Cycles of abuse or addictive behaviors manifest themselves across many generations, and contemporary societies continue to grapple with the consequences of injustices committed centuries ago. At the same time, one can use this idea as a strategy to deflect blame. “It’s not my fault—it’s just the way I am! I can’t help it!” To combat this strategy, Jeremiah insists upon personal responsibility for one’s actions.

This individualism also characterizes the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34. The requirements of the old covenant stood outside of the individual, as external teachings that had to be passed on communally. But if a new generation was not properly initiated into the covenant—not adequately catechized, we might say—then the covenant could be broken. By contrast, the requirements of the new covenant reside “within” each individual (verse 33), no matter what their social standing (“from the least of them to the greatest,” verse 34). As a result, they no longer have to be taught. This internalization shifts authority from a communally shared body of tradition to the transformed individual conscience. This is still a long way from the radical individualism of many contemporary Western societies. Like its predecessor at Sinai, the new covenant remains a collective relationship between God and the “house of Israel of and the house of Judah” (verse 31). Nor can any individual take credit for their participation in it. The sole basis for the new covenant is God’s gracious initiative and unmerited forgiveness, as made clear by verse 34. Still, Jeremiah’s denial of intergenerational punishment and promise of an internalized Torah together offer a degree of individual freedom and responsibility that is nearly unprecedented in the Hebrew Bible.

The Reformation also brought new emphasis to God’s promise to individual believers. Like Jeremiah 31, this expanded the role of the conscience in perceiving God’s will, as seen in Martin Luther’s famous statement from the Diet of Worms in 1521: “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” And like Jeremiah, the Reformation’s empowerment of the laity upended ecclesial hierarchies, granting all individuals equal standing before God. Although neither dismissed the value of community, the authors of Jeremiah and the reformers alike envisioned a new spiritual order, marked by a more direct relationship between worshipers and God.

Danger of supersessionism

Of course, the proclamation of a new covenant raises questions about the ongoing validity of the old one. According to Hebrews, “In speaking of a new covenant, [God] has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13). If one equates the first covenant with Judaism, this line of reasoning leads to the problematic belief that Christianity has replaced Judaism, which no longer has reason to exist. This belief, known as supersessionism, fosters negative attitudes and disparaging rhetoric toward Judaism. At its worst, it leads to acts of violence against Jews. It is important to remember on Reformation Day that many early reformers advocated such violence, with Luther’s treatise On the Jews and their Lies among the more extreme examples. The threat of such rhetoric remains current; the perpetrator of a recent synagogue shooting in San Diego used explicitly supercessionist language to justify his crime. 1

The supersessionist interpretation of Jeremiah 31 isn’t the only one, however. After all, Jeremiah’s new covenant is part of God’s ongoing relationship with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” as verse 31 makes clear. The Hebrew Bible contains many divine-human covenants that coexist rather than replacing each other, including the covenants with Noah (Genesis 9), Abraham (Genesis 15, 17), and David (1 Samuel 7). The emphasis in Jeremiah is hope for the future, not contempt for the past. Preaching from this text on Reformation Day is an opportunity to celebrate God’s many acts of bringing newness into the world, whether in exilic Babylon, early modern Europe, or our own time and place.


1 See Julie Zaumer, “Alleged Synagogue Shooter was a Churchgoer who talked Christian Theology,” Washington Post, May 1, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/05/01/alleged-synagogue-shooter-was-churchgoer-who-articulated-christian-theology-prompting-tough-questions-evangelical-pastors/


Commentary on Psalm 46

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 46 is a community hymn that is more specifically classified as a “Song of Zion.”1

While it never specifically mentions the city of Jerusalem or Zion, its content and structure suggest that it may have been sung liturgically by the community of Israelites as a confirmation that God was enthroned in Jerusalem/Zion and would protect the city and the people from all threats. Zion theology did not intend to confine God to Zion, but it viewed Zion as God’s special place. In Psalm 46 and in other “Songs of Zion” (see Psalms 48, 76, and 87), “the city of God” is symbolic of God’s presence.

The psalm consists of three sections: verses 1-3; verses 4-7; and verses 8-11. The second and third sections each end with the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge (verses 7 and 11, NRSV).” The first section is missing the refrain, and because of the very well-formed structure of the psalm some scholars suggest inserting the refrain at the end of verse 3. The omitted refrain may be a rhetorical device, though, that moves the reader/hearer from the opening verses of the psalm into the heart of the psalm’s message in verses 4-5: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.”

The focus of verses 1-3 is God. In verse 1, the psalm singer characterizes God as a “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” God as “refuge” (mahseh) is a common designation for God in the Psalter, occurring twelve times (see, for example, Psalms 14:6; 62:9; and 94:22) and best understood as a physical place of safety. It is often paired with “strength” (‘oz, see Psalms 61:4 and 71:7 and especially Isaiah 25:4). Verses 2-3 provides assurance that there is no need to fear even if, as the Common English Bible says, “the world falls apart.” The shaking and trembling of the mountains most likely depicts an earthquake, a common but unsettling phenomenon for the inhabitants of ancient Syria and Palestine. Water, described as roaring and foaming, is a common metaphor for chaos in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.

The scene changes in verses 4-7, focusing on “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” The roaring and foaming waters of verse 3 are transformed in verse 4 to a river whose streams make the city of God glad. God dwells in the midst of the city, and the shaking and the trembling of the mountains have ceased. Even though the nations are in an uproar and kingdoms totter, God utters his voice and the earth melts. All of the geographic elements (the earth, mountains, and waters) and two of the verbs (mot—translated as “”shake” in verse 2, “move” in verse 5, and “totter” in verse 6 and hamah—translated as “roar” in verse 3 and “uproar” in verse 6) used in verses 1-3 are present in verses 4-7, but in the latter verses, the chaotic elements have been transformed to peaceful symbols of the presence of God.

The water imagery used in Psalm 46 may be compared with that used in Psalm 42. In Psalm 42, the singer begins with calm images of water—flowing streams of water and tears in verses 1-3—and moves to chaotic images—thundering cataracts, waves, and billows in verses 7-8. In Psalm 46, in contrast, the imagery moves in the opposite direction, from chaos—mountains shaking in the heart of the seas and roaring and foaming waters—to calm—a river with streams. In each instance, the presence of God signals calm and order, while God’s absence or distance from the psalmist elicits images of chaos.

The second section of Psalm 46 ends with the refrain in verse 7, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (verse 7). The phrase “the Lord of hosts” (yhwh seba’ot) occurs some 285 times in the Hebrew Bible, but only fifteen times in the Psalter (see, for instance, Psalms 24:10; 59:5; 80:7; and 89:8). “Hosts” is a word often connected with military undertakings, in both the human and cosmic realms. Many commentators understand the phrase “the LORD of hosts” as descriptive of the God who commands the heavenly army; others view it as an epithet for the God who rules over a heavenly council (see Job 1:6). Whatever its meaning, the phrase “LORD of hosts” most likely has its origin in the cultic life of Jerusalem, and refers to the God who sits enthroned upon the cherubim in the inner sanctuary of the temple.

The final section of Psalm 46, verses 8-11, is a call “Come, behold the works of the Lord’” (verse 8). The God who instills trust in the midst of the fear of earthquakes, floods, and a changing earth and who sits enthroned in the city of God will also cause wars to cease by breaking bows, shattering spears, and burning shields with fire. The words of the second half of verse 8—“see what desolations (sammah) he has brought on the earth”—are disturbing at first glance. One commentator writes, “The ‘desolations’ that God brings, in contrast to human efforts, involve the cessation of war and the destruction of all human implements of destruction.”2 The image of God as warrior provided the ancient Israelites with a powerful picture of protection and defense in the midst of the chaos of the natural and political world in which they lived.

Verse 10 issues a simple imperative: “Be still and know that I am God.” In the midst of the changing earth, the shaking and trembling mountains, and the roaring and foaming waters of the world in which we live, to heed the words of verse 10 is difficult. In the midst of campus shootings, houses of worship targeted for hate, the exploitation of the weak by those in power, the unimaginable neglect of the most vulnerable of our populations, sometimes we need to “Be still” and know that God is still there, in Zion, with “a river whose streams make the city glad.” Be still for a while, regain confidence in the goodness of God and then move back into the world to do what we can to stop the change, the shaking and trembling, and the roaring and foaming.


  1. Incidentally, Psalm 46 was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Luther wrote both the words and the music sometime between 1527 and 1529.
  2. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 866.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Jin Young Choi

Our lectionary text belongs to Romans 1:18—4:2, in which Paul presents the thesis of “God’s righteousness revealed in the gospel of Christ crucified.”

In 1:18—3:18, Paul notes that the entire human race is “under the power of sin.” And 3:19-20 not only functions as the conclusion of the argument, but also connects to his following argument on the theme of “being justified without works of the law.”

  • Romans 3:19-20 For “no flesh will be justified in his sight” by works of law (ergon nomou)…
    • 3:21-22 “…the righteousness of God has been disclosed … through faith in/of Jesus Christ (pistis Iesou Christou )”
      • 3:24-25a “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus … through faith.”
    • 3:25b-26 to show/prove the righteousness of God … (who) is righteous and justifies the one who has faith in/of Jesus Christ (pistis Iesou Christou).
  • 3:27-28 … For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law (ergon nomou).

Here we see how the themes of “justify” (dikaioo), “righteousness” (dikaiosyne), “faith,” and “law” are intertwined.

Justification by faith—whose faith?

Martin Luther is the forefather of the Reformation tradition who formulated the essence of Paul’s theology in terms of “justification by faith.” Since Luther interpreted “justification by faith” in judicial terms, this tradition has dominated Western standard interpretation of Paul. Human disobedience brought a death penalty, but the death of Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and satisfied the wrath of God. Reflecting this dominant interpretation, many translations adapt the word “propitiation” for hilasterion in Romans 3:25 (ESV, KJV, NASB; or “sacrifice of atonement,” NIV, NRSV). Justification is a once-for-all act of declaring acquittal through Jesus’ death, and what is needed is each individual’s acceptance of that declaration through faith—faith “in” Christ. In Luther’s interpretation, the genitive form in pistis Iesou Christou is viewed as the objective genitive, meaning belief in Jesus Christ.

For other interpreters such as the New Perspective on Paul scholars, this reading can imply that the effect of salvation is brought by the human act of faith. They understand “justification” in terms of right standing before God based on the covenant understanding of salvation. Believers are made right before God or set in a covenantal relation with God through faith. They read pistis Iesou Christou as the faith “of” Jesus Christ. 1

In this subjective genitive interpretation, the role of Christ is critical: his faithful obedience to the will of God through his death. And God presented this Christ as a “mercy seat” (hilasterion). The believers are justified when they participate in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ by following his example.

God’s impartial righteousness as grace

Still emphasizing the saving faithfulness of Christ, there is a third way of looking at justification by faith. Such an interpretation stresses God’s righteousness demonstrated in the act of justifying people disenfranchised by the cosmic power of sin, rather than justification by faith as opposed to works of law. God’s redemption is found in Jesus’ death that defeated the power of sin. The following translation presents this view: “[Christ Jesus] whom God publicly displayed (proetheto) at his death through faith to demonstrate the justice (dikaiosyne) of God…” (Romans 3:24; see NET). God’s righteousness/justice is manifested in the unprecedented way that the shameful death of Christ on the cross was God’s final blow to rampant injustice of the Roman Empire, the world dominated by evil powers. Justification is participation in God’s victory by being united in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God is both “just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness” (verse 26, NET).

Since both Jews and Greeks are all under the power of sin (Romans 3:9), no one can be made right before God—by law or its performance. Here Paul is not just speaking about the Jewish law, which he affirms elsewhere in his letters and in 3:21. Paul’s use of law, with or without the definite article, can mean a cultural system that defines a group’s identity and organizes the society. While keeping the law may make a person be a member of the covenant people or a good citizen, it does not free that person from the bondage to the power of sin. Moreover, despite of benefits of law, it often appears to be oppressive, most representatively seen in Jesus’ crucifixion under Roman imperial law. Although the function of law is good, sin nonetheless works death through the law (Romans 7:12-13).

However, through Jesus’ redemptive death all have been freed from sin, and this is grace (charis) as a gift (charisma). Since the righteousness/justice of God is impartial, no one person, group, or nation can claim to be exceptional or superior over others because of status or performance (Romans 3:22-23, 27; 10:12). While law necessarily excludes those outside the law, the law of faith or the faithfulness of Jesus Christ does not discriminate. Embodying that faith is an ongoing journey in which believers have been justified through the redemption in Jesus Christ and also discern the groaning of other fellow human beings and the creation in solidarity, all of whom are still waiting for the ultimate redemption of our bodies in hope (Romans 8:23).

Toward the ongoing reformation and redemption

Just as faith comprises individual, communal, and cosmic dimensions, so each interpretation has its truth and strength. Situating all interpretations in their own social and cultural contexts and reflecting on their implications are a part of interpretive process. As a part of his radical response to the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine and practice, Luther engaged the public. However, Luther’s judicial interpretation of “justification by faith” gave rise to the standard Protestant interpretation of Paul as anti-Jewish and as focused on individual salvation. At the heart of the Reformation tradition is the intent to reform and transform church and society, as well as the tradition itself. Our interpretation of the scripture on Reformation Sunday should serve to provide a hopeful, inclusive vision of the redemption of humanity and the creation by proclaiming God’s impartial gift of grace publicly displayed in the gospel of Christ the crucified and resurrected.


1 See also my Working Preacher commentary on Romans 5:1-5 from June 2019.