Lectionary Commentaries for September 15, 2019
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 15:1-10

Amanda Brobst-Renaud

Luke 15 begins with the ever-present concern for the company one keeps.

As it is said, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

In the ancient world, as with today, individuals were concerned that those with whom one passes one’s time will naturally have an effect on a person. This concern was present in humorous documents, such as Theophrastus’s Characters, in ancient biographies such as Plutarch’s Lives, and in educational treatises such as Quintilian’s Orator’s Education.

Theophrastus, in his introduction to the Characters, indicates that studying and associating with good characters produces individuals who embody the same (Char. proem. 1.3). Plutarch suggests that his biographies exist “as a mirror” of the audience’s own lives (Tim. 235). Similarly, education was not so much something that student learned, but something that teachers imprinted upon a student, much like the imprint of a coin (see Luke 20:25).

Through imitation of their teacher, students received not only educational but moral imprints. This imprinting occurred within the church as well as those preparing for baptism—catechumens—learned from their priests the core tenets of faith. Imitation of virtue and of faith, in this logic, leads to actual virtue and belief.1

The Pharisees and scribes’ grumbling at the beginning of Luke 15 would have likely been expected among ancient auditors of Luke.

Jesus, however, changes the stakes of the conversation in the parables that follow: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” The implied answer is that Jesus’ auditors would affirm the decision to look for the lost sheep. The parable spares us any indication of the shepherd’s practical considerations.2 The wilderness of Judaea is hilly and has many places sheep could navigate but humans could not, which could make the sheep difficult to find. The myriad predators (jackals, hyenas, leopards, and foxes) would have rendered the sheep vulnerable. The shepherd looks for the sheep with ostensibly little hope of finding it or finding it alive. Against all odds to the contrary, the shepherd discovers the sheep and restores it to the flock.

Likewise, a woman who loses a drachma lights her home and sweeps it until she discovers it. Depending on whom we consult, a drachma is either a half-day or a whole day’s wages. There is considerable debate regarding the relative significance of the drachma to the woman: while some have suggested that the ten drachma represent the woman’s life savings, others suggest the woman is wealthy because she appears to own her home.3 The woman finds the drachma and invites her friends to celebrate with her.

In both parables, the shepherd and the woman are responsible for both the loss and the recovery. Neither the sheep nor the coin repent, nor is it expected that they would. Upon recovering the sheep and the coin, respectively, the shepherd and the woman call their neighbors and friends to rejoice with them. In their joy and in their celebration, one wonders whether they spent more than they gained in the recovery in the lost sheep and coin.4 The measure of rejoicing might suggest to us that the recovered object was irretrievably lost and its recovery was unlikely—if not impossible.

Luke correlates the lost sheep and drachma with sinners and the rejoicing ones with heavenly beings. Commentators frequently associate the shepherd and the woman with God, prudently associating God with these characters after the sought-after object has been lost but not before. If God is the one who searches, is God also the one who loses the objects? While sitting with this question may prove a fruitful endeavor for some, here hearkening to the notion of imprint is instructive. To lose a sinner would be tantamount to losing part of Godself, inasmuch as the sinner bears the imprint of the Creator. The recovery of the sinner is, then, not simply the recovery of something that has been lost; it is the recovery of God’s image-bearer. What is more, it is the recognition that God’s imprint is indelible—even on tax collectors and sinners.

In response to the charge that Jesus associates with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus’s response is, “Obviously.” Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus dines with the poor and the rich, the tax collectors, sinners, and the Pharisees. What, then, might Luke be trying to imprint upon us? In the case of these parables, at least, it seems Luke invites us to the table with the tax collectors and sinners, inviting us to find God’s image in all that seems lost, for “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37, 18:27).


  1. A few recent psychological studies have affirmed this relationship. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier indicates a positive correlation between gratitude and happiness. Other studies offer tentative conclusions that correlate a positive relationship among gratitude, forgiveness, and well-being, and negative relationships among anger and forgiveness (Shraddha Sharma and Ira Das, “Contribution of Anger, Gratitude and Subjective Well-being as Predictors of Forgiveness,” Indian Journal of Positive Psychology 8:3 [2017]: 407-410). Though the sample size is quite small, many would tend to expect such a relationship among gratitude, forgiveness, and happiness and anger and forgiveness.
  2. Some have suggested that the shepherd’s behavior would be expected (Robert C. Tannehill, Luke, ANTC [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996], 238).
  3. As to the former, see Joel B. Green, Luke, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1997), 576. John T. Carroll lists both possibilities (Luke, NTL [Westminster John Knox Press, 2012], 312).
  4. Amy-Jill Levine suggests that mutton is the dish du jour (Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi [Harper One, 2014], 37).

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 32:7-14

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

“I used to think that God never changes,” said one of my seminary students a few years back, “and then I read the Old Testament.”

This story in Exodus 32 is one of the prime examples of what my student was talking about. God tells Moses that God will destroy the people of Israel for their sin of making and worshiping the golden calf, and then God changes his mind.

A fruitful sermon on this story will focus on the main characters in it: Moses and God. I will explore each briefly. But first, it is worth noting that the story of the golden calf is a kind of “fall” story, similar to “the Fall” in the Garden of Eden. In both stories, immediately after the establishment of a relationship between God and humanity, human beings disobey. In the case of Exodus 32, God forms Israel as a new creation and they immediately fall into sin. What is God to do?


The LORD’s initial reaction to the people’s idolatry is to pronounce judgment on them: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely … Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’”

Though this judgment is harsh, it is best understood in light of its context. This sin of idolatry comes after God has freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt with “signs and wonders” (Exodus 7:3). They have seen with their own eyes the deliverance of the LORD. They have passed through the waters of the Red Sea on dry ground. They have heard the voice of God from the mountaintop and have been chosen as God’s “treasured possession” out of all the nations on earth—called to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). And they have received the Ten Commandments, the first one of which is, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).1

And now, because Moses takes too long on the mountaintop, they immediately break the first commandment: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” say the people (Exodus 32:4), and God echoes their words bitterly to Moses (32:8). God will start over with Moses since the people have failed so miserably at being God’s people.

The text gives us some clues, however, that the destruction of the people is not actually God’s desire. “Now let me alone,” says God. It is a curious expression. It is as if Moses has some say in the matter. It is as if God is calling on Moses to play some part in this conversation so that it may result in a different outcome than destruction.


Moses does have a role to play in this situation. Moses is a prophet. In fact, if we take Deuteronomy as our guide, Moses is the prophet: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).

And what does a prophet do? A prophet speaks for God to the people and speaks for the people to God. In this latter role, the prophet is often the one who “stands in the breach” between God and the people. In Ezekiel 22, God pronounces judgment on princes, priests, prophets, and people because of their sins (oppressing the poor, stealing from the foreigner, lying, killing, etc.), and then says this: “And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one” (Ezekiel 22:30). Jerusalem will be destroyed because there is no one to stand in the breach.

The image is that of a defender of a walled city. When an enemy army wanted to take a walled city, they had to starve the inhabitants out and/or make a breach in the city wall. In the case of Ezekiel’s metaphor, the enemy army is God or, more accurately, God’s wrath; and the walled city is the land of Judah and its inhabitants. God wants someone to stand in the breach, to turn away God’s wrath from the land, but no one—prophet, priest, or king—is found.

In the case of Exodus 32, God finds Moses to stand in the breach. The writer of Psalm 106 retells the story:

They made a calf at Horeb
    and worshiped a cast image.
They exchanged the glory of God
    for the image of an ox that eats grass …
Therefore he said he would destroy them—
    had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
    to turn away his wrath from destroying them. (Psalm 106:19-20, 23)

Moses, like a lone soldier defending a city, turns away God’s wrath and saves the people. He does so by using a three-part argument:

  1. Moses turns the tables on God. God had said, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” Moses corrects the LORD: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” These aren’t my people, God, they are yours. It is as if Moses and God are a married couple arguing over the children: “Just wait till you hear what your daughter did today.”
  2. Next, Moses uses the “What-will-the-neighbors-say” argument: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” Think of your reputation, God. You proved yourself more powerful than the gods of the Egyptians. Now what will the Egyptians say if it looks like you saved your people only to destroy them in the wilderness?
  3. Finally, and this third part of the argument is the clincher, Moses reminds God of God’s own promises: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” Moses reminds God of God’s own promises that began with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, and that were reiterated several more times to Isaac and Jacob and their descendants.

God, again

Moses’ argument works. “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

Moses stands in the breach as God wants him to and turns away God’s wrath from the people. And he does so by reminding God of God’s promises to this people. Because here’s the thing: God is faithful. God will keep his promises.

When God promises Abraham that he will become a great nation, that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan, and that he will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth, that promise binds God (Genesis 12:1-3, 7). That’s why, generations later, God “changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

My student was right. God does change in the Old Testament (and the New). God changes God’s mind and often relents concerning judgment because God’s basic character never changes. God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). God changes God’s mind because God’s faithfulness to God’s people never changes. While there are consequences for sin (as it true in this story, too), God will not break promises. Moses knows this about God and it will prove the saving of the people over and over again in the wilderness journey to come.


  1. The Ten Commandments are given in Exodus 20. The internal chronology of Exodus, though, is confusing. The story of Exodus 32 seems to assume that Moses has not yet come down from Mt. Sinai with the stone tablets on which the commandments are written (see Exodus 31:18, 32:19).

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Tyler Mayfield

This reading is the fourth of six consecutive weeks of lectionary readings from the book of Jeremiah.

  • Jeremiah 1       God commissions Jeremiah
  • Jeremiah 2       God entreats the people
  • Jeremiah 18     God the potter
  • Jeremiah 4       Desolation of creation
  • Jeremiah 8       A balm in Gilead
  • Jeremiah 32     Jeremiah buys land

In Jeremiah 1, God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet, a task that requires both uprooting and building. In Jeremiah 2, God takes the people to trial and accuses them of wrongdoing. In Jeremiah 18, God uses the metaphor of a potter shaping clay to persuade the people to turn from their bad behavior.

Jeremiah 4

Our lectionary reading for this Sunday includes nine selected verses from Jeremiah 4. They are chosen from two different sections of this long chapter and at first, seem to be unrelated. However, the literary context of the entire chapter is essential to consider when reading these verses together. Jeremiah 4 continues God’s judgment against Judah by announcing the impending doom brought by the enemy of the north. The entire chapter then contains oracles of judgment. God through the prophet, Jeremiah, commands the people to change their behavior and return to God. Otherwise, the people will need to put on sackcloth to mourn the destruction of daughter Jerusalem by the lion that is Babylon (see also Hosea 5:14-15). This harsh, poetic rhetoric continues in Jeremiah 5-6.

The mood of this chapter is one of an immediate threat. The possibility of repentance is still open to Israel, but the rhetoric makes clear that time is running out rapidly. Plans for death and mourning are already laid.

An invasion is imminent. The people seem doomed.

A hot wind

The first two verses in our focal passage (verses 11-12) speak of a hot, strong wind. It is not a refreshing wind that cools the body and spirit. It is an overwhelming display of strength and force—a whirlwind. Moreover, the origin of the wind is God. God will be in the judgment and destruction. God will be active in the desolation of Judah.

For many, this is a disturbing understanding of God’s involvement in evil and punishment. Jeremiah sees God as an active participant (leader!) in using Babylon to punish Israel for its wrongdoings. To connect God so closely with destruction and chastisement makes modern readers uncomfortable. We do not want to associate the Holy One with natural phenomena such as a strong wind or tornado. And we do not want to associate those types of events with punishment for sin.

How might we reframe Jeremiah’s understanding of God’s activity here? This passage certainly takes up into the difficult questions of God’s relationship to evil. Israel was experiencing a life-changing political disaster. Are there alternative ways to understand this devastation, ways that do not involve God’s punishment or even God’s presence?

A desolate land

The second selection of verses from Jeremiah 4 (verses 23-28) expands the imagery of judgment to include the earth and heavens, the mountains and hills. It is creation run amok.

The passage is structured by four “I looked” sentences.

First, this watcher sees the earth turn back to “waste and void,” an apparent reference to creation in Genesis 1:2. This was the characteristic of the world at its beginning when watery chaos covered the earth. This world had no light because God had not spoken it into existence. The earth is undone and returns to this disordered state as God’s judgment

Second, the watcher sees quaking mountains and rocking hills. Solid terrain becomes unstable.

Third, both people and birds have left because of the earth’s transformation. They flee because of the earth’s devastating transformation.

Fourth, the land that produced fruit and food transforms into an unproductive desert, while the cities are laid to ruin. Arable land becomes barren. Magnificent city structures are torn down.

Creation suffers because of people’s actions. The judgment against the people has a profound effect on the natural world and all of its creatures.

The link between the judgment of the people and the desolation of creation is an essential reminder to us that our actions affect more than just ourselves. They affect more than just other people. The whole world is interrelated.

Yet I will not make a full end

Verse 27 provides a fascinating conclusion to this passage. After all the talk of judgment and the undoing of creation, God notes plainly that the end of the world is not yet. This will not be the destruction of Israel and creation, even if it feels that way. This small promise amid judgment holds out hope for the exilic community. Those who come after this time of judgment will feel the effect of the desolation, but there will be survivors.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-10

Rolf Jacobson

Liturgical context can make all the difference in how a biblical texts sounds, in how it is interpreted, and in how it may be preached.

It is quite common for Psalm 51 to be read or sung on Ash Wednesday, when the liturgical context is obviously about a very somber aspect of repentance.

How different the text sounds in September—toward the end of the Pentecost season and at the start of the church’s program year in North America—as a psalm paired both with the story of God turning away (relenting) from punishing the Israelites for forging the golden calf (Exodus 32) and also with the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Here, the emphasis is on the joy that comes with repentance and forgiveness.

In the first two stories that Jesus tells in Luke 15—the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin—there is no emphasis on repentance. Indeed, neither the sheep nor the coin can repent in any moral or spiritual sense. The emphasis is rather on the tenacity of the searching shepherd and woman. And the emphasis is on the joy that the shepherd, the woman, and the company “in heaven” experience. The shepherd says to his friends, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep that was lost.” The woman says to her friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” And Jesus declares, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”; and again, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The stories do indeed have an element of repentance, because Jesus tells the stories to Pharisees and scribes who grumble because Jesus is eating with “sinners and tax collectors.” But the emphasis in this liturgical context is about the joy that comes with repentance, forgiveness, and the reconciliation that follows.

In this context, Psalm 51 is to be interpreted as a liturgical text that facilitates reconciliation and joyful reunion between a sinner (sinners) and God. The sinner—David, you, me, us—pleads for forgiveness not on the basis of the sincerity of the repentance or the promise to amend one’s life. Rather, the plea for forgiveness is based solely on the penitent’s awareness of the reality of the sin and on the character of God.

The penitent is aware of the reality of sin:

For I know my transgressions,
     and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
     and done what is evil in your sight,
   so that you are justified in your sentence
     and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
     a sinner when my mother conceived me (verses 3-5).

Awareness of sin can come through many different ways. In David’s case, awareness came as the prophet Nathan proclaimed it to him through his parable and his condemnation, “You are the man.” For many of us, awareness of our sin comes through the teaching of the church and personal reflection on our own shortcomings and sins. Awareness of sin can come through hearing the stories of those whom we have sinned against—either directly or indirectly, through systems of sin and oppression. Such awareness is crucial to the process of repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation. Traditionally, preaching “the law” (in its second use) has been an important part of Christian preaching. The preacher announces and explicates the law in order to bring about awareness of sin—so that repentance and reconciliation can follow.

The plea for forgiveness—it is important to note—is based solely on the character of God. Note the added emphasis:

Have mercy on me, O God,
     according to your steadfast love;
   according to your abundant mercy
     blot out my transgressions (verses 1-2).

The very character of God according to the creedal-like formulas in Exodus 34 and other passages is that God is:

The LORD, the LORD,
     a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
   and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
     keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
     forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (verses 6-7).

We approach God and dare to ask for forgiveness not because we deserve it, not because we will do better next time, not because we are truly sincere, not because of anything about us or what we do. We approach God and dare ask for forgiveness because of who God is. Because we dare to believe and hope and cast our entire future on the trust that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”

And God’s mercy, when it comes, washes us in an ocean of forgiveness that makes us clean, that gives us truth in our inner beings, that blots out sins, and most importantly that brings “joy and gladness.” Repentance is not simply somber or about rolling around in misery. It is about the joy of reunion, the gladness of reconciliation, and the celebration of new life. The new and right spirit that the Lord bestows on us is about joy in God’s presence. And if you add two more verses to the psalm reading this week, it is about the joy of salvation itself:

Do not cast me away from your presence,
   and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and sustain in me a willing spirit (verses 11-12).

In the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—there is mercy and forgiveness for all. And where there is forgiveness there is reconciliation. And where there is forgiveness and reconciliation, there is joy in God’s presence.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Benjamin Fiore, S.J.

Teaching morality by proposing striking contrasts has long been an effective strategy, as for example in the Jewish Two Ways moral instruction.

This method sets the alternatives clearly before our eyes so we do not get lost in the nuances and blur the differences between the alternatives. It is like the contrast between Moses wearing a veil on his head and the unveiled Christian (2 Corinthians 3:12-18).

And so in 1 Timothy 1:12-17, the passage presents its message in clear and striking contrasts. The letter’s author, whom I refer to as Paul, acknowledges that he acted arrogantly as he persecuted and harassed Christians. Paul’s arrogance grew out of his pharisaic pride in attending to fulfilling the multitudinous requirements of the Law perfectly.

Subsequently Paul came to know his actions as blasphemous and ignorant. Attention to one’s accomplishments in following the way of virtue can easily lead into claiming the success as one’s own accomplishment rather than the working of God’s help in making choices in the direction God wishes for us. It also could easily lead us to think that we are better than those following another path and seemingly falling short of the goal we set for ourselves and them. In all of this we easily lose sight of God’s action in our lives.

Paul also came to realize his defense of the Jewish faith tradition to be acting out of unbelief and ignorance of true faith. Coming to know Christ and the power of Christ’s resurrection (Philippians 3:10) led him to see all that he previously held and vigorously defended as so much rubbish and loss (Philippians 3: 7-8). It is humbling to come to the realization that the truths that we vigorously maintained and the attitudes and actions that followed upon them are erroneous or incomplete. This, however, rather than a defeat can be the start of new growth and the change of heart that our faith requires of us all (Mark 1:15, Acts 2:38).

His merciless persecution was turned around by God’s merciful treatment of him. The foremost defender of Judaism (see also Philippians 3:4-11) realized that he was the foremost sinner in doing that. Paul’s ruthless and arrogant actions were met with, and transformed by, divine mercy. The searing fire of God’s mercy burnt away the dross of error and self-will from Paul’s character and let his fierce adherence to the will of God and advancement of God’s Law serve the gospel. Paul shows the way that our effort to open our inner selves to the purifying action of God can result in a change in which we use our talents to advance God’s purposes.

His self-willed action became transformed by the empowerment that came from Christ and his missionary activity became dedicated service of Jesus Christ. When Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus demanding to know why Paul was persecuting Christ (in the persons of Jesus’ followers) and when he subsequently received the Spirit at his baptism by Ananias (Acts 9:4-6, 17), the power of the Spirit of God entered him and impelled him on his mission to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. It is this same Spirit that all Jesus’ followers receive at baptism, an empowerment for spreading the gospel message in action and word.

Paul’s blasphemy was really an offense against God. His zeal was an assault on the Christian community. His prideful and arrogant motivation revealed a deep, personal flaw. In the same way, our misdeeds are multidimensional. Their offensiveness to God is a fundamental aspect of them but does not fully characterize them. The social dimension of our sinfulness cannot be overlooked or underestimated. While Paul directly persecuted the Christian community, our own sinfulness is damaging even if this is not readily apparent. In the first place, the toleration of evil in ourselves deadens us to its reality in the community as a whole and might even lead to expressions of toleration of similar sinfulness in others through a perverse effort of self-justification. Such toleration also contributes to the prevailing view that things we say and do are all right as long as they don’t hurt others. In reality, all sin diminishes the holiness of all in the body of Christ and contributes to the atmosphere of a tepid faith that gives the lie to our pretensions of being followers of Christ whether as individuals or as a community.

The mercy of God was revealed to Paul in its transforming forgiveness. The mercy of God, rather than accuse Paul outright, showed him that he was acting out of an ignorant lack of faith. But now he knows the truth and declares it, namely that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. The forgiveness of God does not rest on a blanket condemnation and rejection of us but, like our own efforts at restorative justice, seeks to build on the good that stands alongside and is eclipsed by our evildoing.

In the end we are all creatures loved and sustained by God, who always seeks what is best for us here and hereafter. Jesus’ death on the cross for us is the ultimate demonstration of this patient and forgiving love. As part of our repentant change of heart, we ought never overlook the good in us that God sees and draws out of us into consciousness and action.

Jesus’ divinity is suggested by the title Lord and by a recognition that he came into the world (see also Philippians 2:5 -11). Thus he brought power along with forgiveness. The power echoes 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 in its discussion of the charismatic gifts for the believers. The power or gift has the purpose of service of the gospel here. Again this echoes 1 Corinthians 12:7 “for the common good.” The passage ends with praise of the almighty and unseen God whose plan Jesus the intermediary (see 1 Timothy 2:5) brought to fulfillment.