Lectionary Commentaries for August 4, 2019
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Luke 12:13-21
Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
I love “ordinary time” on the Christian calendar.
The holy days and festivals are riveting and awe-inspiring. But “ordinary time” is for the common us who just want to live our lives in a way that pleases God, is imbued with joy, and helps people. Ordinary time, the season after Pentecost, can be the best time(s) of the year.
My reason for loving this time in the Christian cycle is in this truncated portion of Ecclesiastes, the words of a royal connoisseur of life. In my mind, he accurately describes the happening of life; I am not convinced he persuasively describes the meaning-making possible in life. Here is a man who has seen it all, done it all, tried it all, according to this text. The lectionary skips the “who,” which the text identifies as Qoheleth, “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (verse 1). Reading through the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, one could become depressed, if one takes only the word of Qoheleth. Because according to him, life is monotonous, tedious, and futile, at first glance. And, “what has been will always be” (verse 9). That’s a “no good news” report!
After we read a litany of the way life is dreary in verses 2-11, we come to the second portion of the lectionary text, Ecclesiastes 1:12-14, where the teacher says that applying wisdom leads to the conclusion that God has left humans with a hard task. And this assessment is at the core of Ordinary Time. The task of living is ours, and sometimes, life just is hard. Things happen over when we have no control — sickness, job losses, the end of significant relationships. Life can be hard and it could, if we succumb to that sentiment, take us out. The preacher who faces this text could merely agree with Qoheleth that chasing “vapors” or “wind” is futile, or the 21st-century preacher might come to an idea that chasing could be a whimsical exploration of life, a way to consider how we might enter the human project beyond the drudgery of get up, go to work, go home, then go to bed. We could turn “vanity” (futility? fancifulness?) on its end. What if paying attention to the details of one’s life make even the most tedious activities a prayerful reflection on being in community, on being fully human. We could dismiss “this life” in favor of one we might consider “above” or more spiritual. But what if, say, washing dishes in a thoughtful way leads to wonderment and not weariness. What if the commute to work could provide us insight on human life, or a list of things to pray about if nothing else.
I am suggesting a different kind of “getting wisdom.” And perhaps the Teacher is right that gaining wisdom brings vexation and more knowledge increases sorrow (verse 18). But from my vantage point this text begs a “reading against” its grain. I don’t mean that a preacher who decides to use the text merely says the Preacher is wrong; Qoheleth is not wrong. An unexamined life, lived in an unconscious or even selfish way does lead to the conclusion that it is all futile, a waste of time, a chasing after wind. But “time” and pursuing life is all humans have.
And Ordinary Time means we have to intentionally watch for the center of life in a different way from what happens during the holy days, where ways to encounter God is prescribed. Any preacher who decides to preach this text might consider what humans have with which to make life meaningful despite Qoheleth’s reflections.
It is true that we work hard, then die and someone else benefits from our labor (Ecclesiastes 2:18-23). But despair (verse 19) is not the only possible response to the fact that we will all die and leave whatever we have accumulated to someone else to enjoy. Our leaving includes what wisdom we have gained from our living. And, for me, the preacher who chooses this text — if they will present good news — must argue with Qoheleth about what that fact means. It could be “vanity,” i.e., foolishness, or it could be a part of joyful living should the benefactor believe that leaving a legacy from one’s sweat equity is a worthy thing. Death is inevitable and no amount of work will change that fact. So, working to both enjoy the fruits of one’s labor and make peace with dying. One may not be able to work one’s way to joy, but one should be able to figure out if the tedium of one’s current life is all there is, or whether there is a dream, a wind worth chasing.
In any event, the Preacher comes to the conclusion later in the book that laborers should “eat and drink and find enjoyment among friends” because death comes to all of us (see Ecclesiastes 2:24, where he says enjoying “toil” is “from the hand of God.” See also Ecclesiastes 3:13, 5:18, and 8:15. Is it possible, then, that all that gloom and doom from the king’s “wisdom” is a foil for the recurring theme in the book to enjoy life? Is it possible that he starts with what people with a lesser vision believes about life, then offers the solution: “enjoy life,” for life is the ordinary and constant gift of God.
What we do with the hard places and times, the dreariness and sameness, is ours to fashion a life. And maybe the 21st-century preacher can make good fodder from that. I think this counter narrative is important, especially for people who grew up with an ethic that does not include “joy” and enjoying life as a noble pursuit, a wind worth chasing.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Hosea 11:1-11
J. Blake Couey
Hosea 11 depicts God’s compassion for God’s people despite their rejection.
It offers a fresh take on the sometimes-stale metaphor of God as parent, and it daringly explores the possibility of divine emotion and even pain. There is much here for the preacher to chew on.
Metaphors for God and humans
The book of Hosea contains a remarkable variety of metaphors for God and human beings. In addition to the marriage metaphor that dominates Hosea 1-3, many less developed metaphors appear throughout Hosea 4-14. God’s people are compared to a cow (4:16; 10:11), dew (6:4, 13:3), an oven or a cake (7:4-8), a dove (7:11), and a variety of plants or fruits (8:10; 9:13, 16; 10:1; 14:5-7). God is likened to maggots (5:12), a lion and other wild animals (5:14, 13:7-8), and dew (14:5).
So, it’s no surprise that Hosea 11 uses metaphor to depict the divine-human relationship. It begins with familial imagery, with God as the parent and Israel as the beloved child whom God rescued from slavery in Egypt (verse 1). The poem describes God’s care for Israel in verses3–4 with tender language (“loved him,” “took them up in my arms,” “bent down to them,” “lifted to the cheeks”). In settings in which such actions are stereotypically associated with mothers, these verses offer implicit feminine imagery for God (compare Isaiah 66:13). Yet Israel’s response to this devotion is rebellion. Rather than acknowledging their divine parent, they worship other deities like the foreign storm god Baal (Hosea 11:2). God’s threatened response of abandonment and violent reprisal seems harsh (verses 5-7), but within the world of the metaphor, it is born of the deep pain of a rejected parent, who can only watch helplessly as the child makes poor choices that will ultimately harm them. In a contemporary context, one thinks of parents whose children struggle with addiction. They often face a difficult choice between unconditional but perhaps enabling acceptance, or tough love and firm ultimatums that might encourage the child to seek help.
Following God’s decision to forgive Israel (verses 8-9), the imagery takes an unexpected foray into the animal world. Although still a parent, God becomes a lion who summons its errant cubs by roaring for them (verse 10). This is one of the only cases in the Bible where lion imagery for God has positive connotations (contrast Hosea 13:7-8). Elsewhere, the lion’s roar evokes terror (see Amos 3:8), and even here the roar causes the lion’s children to “tremble.” A final metaphorical shift occurs in Hosea 11:11, as the Israelites are transformed from trembling lion cubs to trembling doves, emphasizing their vulnerability. Although these animal metaphors are less personal, they convey the deep gulf between divine power and human frailty. Like Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels, God the parent-lion in Hosea 11 can be merciful and compassionate, yet remain fearsome and dangerous.
Some recent theologians have argued that all language about God is metaphorical, but no single metaphor can adequately describe God. As a result, one should use a variety of different images to capture something of the complexity of God’s nature. Hosea 11 supports these insights. Its metaphors offer multiple perspectives from which to consider God’s relationship with God’s people. At the same time, verse 9 asserts the fundamental difference between the divine and human realms: “I am God and no mortal.” This statement relativizes the very metaphors on which the poem depends for its portrayal of divinity. And yet, following this verse, the poem returns to metaphorical language, suggesting that for all of its limitations, such language remains an important tool for imagining the God who ultimately transcends comprehension. Hosea 11 calls us to reflect upon our own metaphors for God, to identify their value, their limitations, and even dangers, while acknowledging the inadequacy of all human categories for thinking about God.
“To forgive, divine”
Hosea 11 also paints a complex picture of God by giving voice to a remarkable divine confession in verses 8-9. Despite the pain of rejection, God admits feeling internal turmoil at the thought of disowning God’s children: “My heart recoils within me / my compassion grows warm and tender” (verse 8). This is no aloof, detached deity. Rather, God’s relationship with humankind involves emotional risk. The choice to love is the choice to open oneself to pain. Despite the very real dangers of Hosea’s familial imagery for God, it is a powerful tool for expressing this shocking divine vulnerability.
These verses depict a tension between divine anger and divine compassion, which the English poet John Milton would much later describe as “the strife / Of Mercy and Justice in [God’s] face discern’d” (Paradise Lost, 3.406-7). This tension is a consistent characteristic of the God of the Bible. An oft-repeated theological statement in the Hebrew Bible describes God as “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness … forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty” (Exodus 34:6; see Numbers 14:18-19; Jeremiah 32:18; Nahum 1:3; etc.). These dueling tendencies are associated with the very name of God–that is, they are fundamental to God’s identity.
While acknowledging the same tension, Hosea refuses to leave it unresolved. Compassion wins out in verse 9. It is the triumph of mercy over justice (see James 2:13) that is fundamental to God’s identity, not the tension between these attributes. God can choose “not [to] exercise my fierce anger” precisely because God “is God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:9; compare Isaiah 54:7-8). Although the threat of judgment returns in subsequent chapters in Hosea, God’s compassion has the final word in the book (Hosea 14:1-8). Too often, contemporary Christians accept the false and unhelpful dichotomy between the “Old Testament” God of wrath and the “New Testament” God of love. Hosea 11 offers a more compelling portrait of a divine tension that gradually but decisively resolves itself on the side of mercy.
Commentary on Psalm 49:1-12
For many readers, the book of Psalms is a collection of songs or hymns and prayers. Fewer might be aware of the different types of psalms.
Therefore, the reader might be surprised to find that there are what are referred to as “wisdom psalms,” wise sayings accompanied by music.
Wisdom in the Psalms
Wisdom has been defined both as knowledge, experience, and good judgment and the teachings of ancient wise men.1 Wisdom literature is found throughout the ancient Near East, to include the Bible. Wise men or sages in ancient Israel wrote and preserved the wisdom material in the Hebrew Bible over a thousand-year span. Sages were mostly members of elite society, whose social position afforded them the luxury to pursue knowledge and understanding of human nature and how the universe operated. They believed that there was an orderliness to how the world operated that could be understood by observable discernment. Wisdom comes with experience and experience usually comes with time and contemplation, both of which the commoner didn’t usually enjoy. This doesn’t mean that the common man and woman were not privy to knowledge and understanding.
The three biblical books that are regarded as wisdom literature are Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth). However, in the deuterocanonical books that are part of the Catholic and Orthodox canons this list is expanded to include Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. Yet, there are other writings throughout the Bible that share elements in structure, form, and purpose with wisdom literature, especially their poetic form, to include writings in the books of Psalms, Song of Songs, and Lamentations.
In the Psalms these include Psalms 1, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128, and 133. Wisdom psalms share with other wisdom literature instructions on how to live wisely before God. They are often comprised of short, pithy statements. Unlike other psalms, the wisdom psalms often lack a crying out to God as the lament psalm or the hymns of praise or thanksgiving. Given their didactic function, they are usually addressed to humans rather than God.2 In Psalm 49, the use of such words as wisdom, meditation, proverb, riddle, and the wise supports its inclusion in this category.
Psalm 49:1-12 is a longer meditation or proverb (Heb. mashal) on wisdom and the limits of wealth. Addressed to the leader of the Korahites, Psalm 49 was intended to be sung. The Korahites were descendants of the levitical Korah. According to tradition, David set the sons of Korah over the service of song at the tent of meeting (1 Chronicles 6:31, 32) and the temple during the postexilic period (1 Chronicles 9:19). The Korahite singers appear in the superscriptions of a number of psalms, including Psalms 42, 44-48, and 84-85, suggesting that they were the composers. However, among the psalms attributed to them, only Psalm 49 is a wisdom psalm suggesting that it was collected by or given to them to sing rather than composed by them.
Death doesn’t play favorites
The psalmist instructs the listeners to incline their ears to hear words of wisdom that express his or her innermost thoughts for their edification (Psalm 49:1-3). Thus, the psalm has a didactic function. The psalm is addressed to all the inhabitants of the world, regardless of their status in society. As if to emphasize this point, the psalmist includes the parallel phrases “low and high,” “rich and poor.” The phrase translated in English as “low and high” in Hebrew is the bene ’adam, “sons of adam” and bene ’ish, “sons of man.” Both are literally translated “sons of man.” The former is a generic term for human; the latter refers to the individual man. Thus, this is a poetic way of addressing everyone.
The psalmist relies on the instruction of those wisdom teachers who came before, as well as from their own meditations. Here the psalmist reveals the answer to the riddle that had been vexing her or him accompanied by a kinnor, Hebrew for a ten-string instrument that is often translated in English as harp (KJV and NRSV) and lyre (RSV) (Psalm 49:4). After much study and contemplation, the psalmist has come to the awareness that the wealthy eventually will die just the same as the poor. Put another way, all the wealth in the world cannot save the wealthy from the finality of death. This might not seem like news to us. However, for the psalmist who wrestled with the question of why the wealthy could persecute him or her with impunity, the realization that the one equalizer in life was death brought comfort and relief (49:5-6).
The psalmist seems to appreciate the fact that there is no price that the wealthy could pay to redeem themselves from the fate of death. The word “ransom” here (Hebrew padah) refers to the practice of paying a person’s debt to free them from the penalty of that debt. If a guilty person had the means, he could pay a ransom and receive a reduced sentence or someone else could take his place and serve the sentence. This is more evidence of the socio-economic divide that the psalmist complained of.
However, the wealthy will find that there is no ransom that they could pay God — not even their own lives — to redeem them from death (49:7-9). Wise or foolish, the wealthy their final resting place will be their tombs while others benefit from their accrued riches. The psalmist sums this up with the refrain, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish” (Psalm 49:12; see also verse 20). The wealthy can boast all they want, but all creatures eventually die. We can all learn from this lesson.
Although the Hebrew Bible records examples of women in the office of scribe, prophet, as well as singers and musicians, there is no evidence of professional female sages.
James Limburg, “The Book of Psalms,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, edited by David Noel Freedman (Doubleday: New York, 1992), 4:522–536.
Commentary on Colossians 3:1-11
The last in a four-part series on Colossians, this passage gives practical counsel on how to enact the letter’s theological themes in everyday life.
Using metaphors related to spatial location, and stripping off and putting on clothes, it portrays how we might actually live into our baptismal union with the Messiah’s death and resurrection.
Seek the things that are above
As scholars have noted, Paul’s undisputed letters use temporal terms to depict the call to live into baptismal identity: The Messiah has been “raised from the dead,” thus “walk in newness of life” in light of your future resurrection with him (Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 15:22-23; Philemon 3:10-11). By contrast, Colossians uses spatial metaphors. Presupposing that “you have been raised with the Messiah,” it urges you to “seek” and to “set your mind on” things that are above — where the Messiah is, at the “right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1-2).
However, this reference to what is “above” is not simply a negation of earthly and material existence. Rather, with its messianic allusion in 3:1 to a king-priest standing at the Lord’s “right hand” in Zion (Psalm 110:1), it spotlights how God has already rescued us from destructive powers through the Messiah’s death and resurrection and transferred us to the reign of this beloved Son — even now amid whatever we are facing (Colossians 1:13).
Recall that as the “firstborn of creation,” the Messiah has not only created all things — in heaven and on earth — but also holds them together as the ubiquitous and personal presence of divine Wisdom within all of creation (Colossians 1:15-17; see Proverbs 8; Wisdom 7; Sirach 24). Further, as the “firstborn from the dead,” this Messiah is now the head of the body — the church — and as its beginning has a first place in everything (Colossians 1:18). Indeed, the “entire fullness of deity dwells bodily” in this Messiah and Wisdom of God, in whose death God has reconciled all things — again in heaven and on earth — making us alive together with him so that we, in turn, might come to bodily fullness in him (Colossians 1:19-20; 2:9-10).
Thus, when this passage urges you to “seek” (zeteo) and to “set your minds” (phroneo) on things “above,” it is urging you to further heighten your attention on the Messiah. Amidst whatever is happening to you, become aware of how the Messiah, as the Wisdom of God, not only holds all things together, but also is the one through whom God reconciles all things and raises them to new life.
Live your life as one hidden in the Messiah in God
The writer shifts spatial metaphors in 3:3, from above to within. “You have died” (in your baptism). “Your life is hidden with the Messiah in God.” The mystery, the secret, of your life now lies in the “Messiah in you” (Colossians 1:27).
Moreover, when the truth about this Messiah, who is your life, will be fully “manifested” as the divine Wisdom that permeates the cosmos, then your life — who you really are — will also be “manifested” in this truth (Colossians 3:4).
Of course, divine mystery is different from mysteries about empirical facts (which are resolved once we have all the evidence). The full manifestation of God’s mystery will only continue to unfold “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Filling all with knowledge of God’s loving intentions, it will disclose — with ever-increasing fullness — the spiritual wisdom and understanding needed to perceive our profound connection with God, one another and, indeed, the entire cosmos through the Messiah, God’s Wisdom (see Colossians 1:9).
Strip off dysfunctional and destructive practices
Thus, since your life is already “hidden with the Messiah in God,” shed everything that contradicts “the Messiah in you.” However, when Colossians 3:5 says, “Put to death whatever in you is earthly,” it does not mean repudiating your bodily or material existence. Rather, like the “body of flesh” in Colossians 2:11, “earthly” here refers to all that destructively consumes and corrupts God’s good creation, serving only capricious desires or the interests of a few.
Though you once were possessed by these things, you can now do away with abusive uses of sexuality, moral corruption, evil passions and desires, and greed, which is just another form of idolatry (Colossians 3:5) — and the anger and rage, and mean-spirited, slanderous, and foul-mouthed talk they engender (Colossians 3:7-8). These things only perpetuate dysfunction, creating yet further systemic damage within the biological and social networks that connect us.
Clothe yourselves with a new identity in the Messiah
So, stop lying about who you really are. In baptism, you have stripped off the old self with all its dysfunction and have clothed yourself with a new self, which is continually being renewed as it recognizes more fully that it is, in fact, created in the image of God (Colossians 3:10).
Distinctions based on things like ethnicity, religious practice, level of cultural sophistication, or class no longer define who you are. Instead, you now have an identity that is at once unique and individual — through “the Messiah in you” — and yet profoundly connected, and equal, with everyone else — since “the Messiah is all in all!” (Colossians 3:11; 1 Corinthians 12:13).1
Live as a community held in love
So how does a community — called, and made holy and beloved — live into this new identity? By clothing yourselves, within the very bowels of your being, with compassion, mercy, goodness, true humility, gentleness, and patience (Colossians 3:12). Tolerate one another’s idiosyncrasies. If anyone has a complaint against another, be forgiving, just as the Lord has forgiven you (Colossians 3:13).
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together into fullness and maturity. Called into one body, allow the Messiah’s peace to have sway over your hearts. Finally, live in gratitude (Colossians 3:14-15).
- Gender is missing from this list (see Gal 3:28). Note also that Colossians appropriates Roman household codes in 3:18-19 (which subject women to their husbands), in spite of its appropriation of traditions that link the Messiah with the female personification of divine Wisdom throughout the letter. Go figure!
Many who hear this parable, especially in a North American context, may wonder: Why is the rich farmer called a fool?1
One could easily argue that the rich man is a wise and responsible person. He has a thriving farming business. His land has produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space in his barns. So he plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his grain and goods. Then he will have ample savings set aside for the future and will be all set to enjoy his golden years.
Isn’t this what we are encouraged to strive for? Isn’t it wise and responsible to save for the future? The rich farmer would probably be a good financial advisor. He seems to have things figured out. He has worked hard and saved wisely. Now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right?
Not exactly. There is one very important thing the rich man has not planned for — his reckoning with God. But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20)
Saving for the Future
The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.
When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’” (Luke 12:17-19).
The rich man’s land has produced abundantly, yet he expresses no sense of gratitude to God or to the workers who have helped him plant and harvest this bumper crop. He has more grain and goods in storage than he could ever hope to use, yet seems to have no thought of sharing it with others, and no thought of what God might require of him. He is blind to the fact that his life is not his own to secure, that his life belongs to God, and that God can demand it back at any time.
The rich man learns the hard way what the writer of Ecclesiastes realized — quite simply, that you can’t take it with you. All that we work so hard for in life will end up in someone else’s hands, and as Ecclesiastes puts it, “Who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:19).
Vanity. Emptiness. A preacher would do well to name this feeling that washes over all of us who are enticed by materialism. Our reality is that no matter how much we have, we are always aware of things we don’t have. We are bombarded by marketing wizards whose job it is to convince us of all the products we need to complete our lives. And so we never quite feel that we have enough.
Like the rich farmer, we are tempted to think that having large amounts of money and possessions stored up will make us secure. Sooner or later, however, we learn that no amount of wealth or property can secure our lives. No amount of wealth can protect us from a genetically inherited disease, for instance, or from a tragic accident. No amount of wealth can keep our relationships healthy and our families from falling apart. In fact, wealth and property can easily drive a wedge between family members, as in the case of the brothers fighting over their inheritance at the beginning of this text.
Most importantly, no amount of wealth can secure our lives with God. In fact, Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth can get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
It is not that God doesn’t want us to save for retirement or future needs. It is not that God doesn’t want us to “eat, drink, and be merry” and enjoy what God has given us. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent time eating and drinking with people and enjoying life. But he was also clear about where his true security lay.
It is all about priorities. It is about who is truly God in our lives. It is about how we invest our lives and the gifts that God has given us. It is about how our lives are fundamentally aligned: toward ourselves and our passing desires, or toward God and our neighbor, toward God’s mission to bless and redeem the world.
A seasoned pastor once said, “I have heard many different regrets expressed by people nearing the end of life, but there is one regret I have never heard expressed. I have never heard anyone say, ‘I wish I hadn’t given so much away. I wish I had kept more for myself.’” Death has a way of clarifying what really matters.
Our lives and possessions are not our own. They belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. We rebel against this truth because we want to be in charge of our lives and our stuff.
Yet this truth is actually good news. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. So Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 4, 2013.