Lectionary Commentaries for April 20, 2019
Vigil of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 24:1-12

Holly Hearon

The narrative of the empty tomb signifies overturned expectations, hope renewed, and an invitation to participate in God’s ongoing narrative through Jesus Christ who is risen.

[Looking for commentary on John 20:1-18? See this 2018 commentary by Mary Hinkle Shore.]

Within the unfolding story world of the Gospel of Luke, however, the empty tomb is, as yet, an unrecognized sign. The women and other disciples know tombs. They are sites of memory (literally “a sign of remembrance”, mnema), a way of keeping those who have died physically present in time and space and place. They are also sites of remembering. They evoke stories, another powerful way of keeping those who have died present in our lives. 

The women who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem had watched as the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross. They watched as Joseph of Arimathea took the body, wrapped it in linen, and placed it in a tomb hewed from rock where no other body had previously been laid. They went home to prepare spices that would be needed to complete the proper burial of the body. (A later document, the m. Sabb. 23:5, indicates that this is an activity that was allowed on the Sabbath, although it is unclear whether this applies to the first century.)

The tomb the women approached belonged to the familiar customs and practices that surrounded a death in their community. It was a recognized symbol, a sign of remembrance for the one who had died. It reminds us also of the customs and practices that we associate with death. Such customs and practices provide a visceral way for us to honor the dead and give expression to our grief. They also become a part of our memory and the stories we will recall in association with the one who has died.

As the women approach the tomb in Luke 24:1, they are focused on bringing to completion the burial of Jesus’ body and bringing closure to grief. But as they approach, they find the stone covering the entrance to the tomb has been rolled back. And when they enter the tomb, they do not find the body of Jesus. The reality the women expect is not the reality they encounter. The incongruity, says Luke, leaves them perplexed. Not dismayed, angry, or vexed. Perplexed: at a loss to make sense of the disconnection between their expectations and what they find.

Each of the Synoptic Gospels has the women encounter a heavenly being at the tomb. (Note that in Luke, it is the appearance of the heavenly beings that generates “fear” or perhaps “awe” in the women, not the empty tomb). In Matthew, it is an angel (accompanied by an earthquake); in Mark a young man clothed in white; and in Luke, it is two male figures in dazzling robes (the cosmic effect used also at Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke 9:29). In comparing these three narratives, what is most striking is the differences in what is said by the heavenly being(s).

In Matthew and Mark, the heavenly being addresses the women with very nearly the same words: “do not be afraid; you seek Jesus who was crucified … he has risen.” This is followed by a command to the women to go to the disciples and to tell them to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:6-7). In Luke, the two heavenly figures ask the women a question “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.” Then, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified and on the third day rise again.”

The question, “why do you seek the living among the dead?” draws attention to the incongruity between the women’s expectations and their experience. They came to the tomb expecting to find the dead, because that is the function of tombs: to house the dead. What they discover is that the “tomb” is now an empty tomb. It is a familiar sign transformed by resurrection.

Nonetheless, the now empty tomb continues to function as a place that evokes memories. And this is precisely what the heavenly beings invite the women to do: to remember “how he told you.” Twice, while Jesus was in Galilee, he had told the disciples that the Son of Man would undergo suffering (Luke 9:22 and 9:44; see also 18:31-34). The words spoken by the heavenly being are not a direct quote of either verse and introduce new language: “handed over to sinners.” This new language brings to the fore a theme that runs throughout the Gospel (see 5:8; 7:37, 39; 13:2; 15:7,10; 18:13).

Another ‘theme’ in the Gospel of Luke is that characters don’t understand until they have things explained to them (see 18:34, where understanding is “hidden”). So the fact that the women do not at first remember what Jesus has told them does not show weakness of character; it reveals a pattern in which understanding comes through proclamation. Hearing the words of the heavenly beings, the women do remember (24:8). And, of their own initiative, they immediately seek out the disciples to, in turn, proclaim to them what they have seen and heard.

But the disciples don’t believe them, nor do they remember. Peter is curious enough to go to the tomb, where he sees the linen clothes but no body, and he returns home “amazed” (24:12); yet he does not vindicate the women. In this particular moment in time, this poses important questions for us: whom do we believe and why? Or why not? Within the community of faith, are we prepared to be perplexed (not angry or vexed) when our expectations are not matched by reality? Are we prepared to have traditional symbols transformed? What memories do we recall so that we learn to seek the living rather than the dead?


Vigil Reading I

Commentary on Genesis 1:1—2:4a

Karla Suomala

Translation renders the opening verses of Genesis 1 deceptively clear and straightforward.1

This passage, however, contains a number of words and phrases that are used rarely, if at all, in other parts of the Hebrew Bible, making them more difficult to define with the kind of precision that we might like. Translations smooth out the rough edges of this ancient text, implying a level of understanding that we can’t quite claim.

Tohu va-bohu

Genesis 1:2, for example, says that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Both “formless void” (tohu va-bohu) and “swept” (merahefet) have posed difficulties for translators. The word merahefet appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible and might just as easily be translated as hover, flutter, or move.

Even more problematic are the two words that make up the phrase tohu va-bohu (“formless void”),which appear together as unit in only this verse and in Jeremiah 4:23 that also describes creation. The first word in the unit, tohu, when found by itself in the biblical text, has been translated as “chaos,” “confusion,” “emptiness,” “waste place,” “formless,” and “futile.”

The second word, bohu, occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible; in each case (including Genesis 1:2) it seems to refer to that which is empty or void. In considering the meaning of this unit, then, expressions such as “chaos,” “emptiness,” “nothingness,” and “watery waste,” have also been used to describe the state of things when God began to create. The unit, tohu vabohu, seems to suggest something that is more than simply passive or powerless. It points to what is beyond human control, to that which has power and potential to threaten or act.

God blows a bubble into the watery chaos

Another significant word in the first chapter of Genesis that poses both a conceptual as well as linguistic challenge is rakia, consistently translated as “dome” in the New Revised Standard Version. It appears nine times in the passage (once in each of 1:6, 8, 14, 15, 17, and 20; three times in 1:7), accounting for more than half of all the occurrences in the Hebrew Bible. Year after year in the introductory biblical courses I teach to undergraduates, students ask, “What does the verse that says, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters’ mean?” Their confusion continues as the word is used repeatedly! The image that seems to help them get what’s happening is when I describe God blowing a bubble in the midst of watery chaos. Once the bubble is in place, life can develop in an orderly and systematic way. As the passage proceeds, God connects growth and abundance to order, finally commanding creation “to be fruitful and multiply.”

Along with conceptual issues, the meaning of the Hebrew word rakia is not necessarily straightforward. Instead of “dome,” some translations use “firmament” and “vault” to translate rakia. All three translations, however, point to a solid, even impermeable, barrier. The function of the “dome” or “firmament” or “vault,” then, seems to clearly distinguish as well as separate creation from tohu vabohu and reflects an understanding of the relationship between chaos and life in which the goal is to keep chaos at bay, surrounding but not piercing the bubble. Within the ancient Hebrew cosmology, only God allowed the waters from above and the waters from below into the bubble when needed for rain or rivers.

Words such as “dome” are not the only way to translate rakia, however; one might just as easily translate the word as “expanse,” which is far more vague and may imply a less solid and more porous boundary between the earth and the watery chaos beyond.

Firmament? Expanse? Does it matter?

So, what difference does it make, really, how these words and phrases (i.e., “formless void” and “dome”) are translated? Does it matter whether or not this rakia is flexible and permeable (expanse) or firm and solid (dome or firmament)? Does it change the meaning to use “chaos” in place of “formless void”?

I think it does. Most of our discussions of this passage, Genesis 1:1–2:4, tend to focus more on what is inside the bubble rather than what is outside or beyond it and our relationship to that beyond. Expanding the definition of these words and phrases might permit us to more deeply explore the connections between creation and chaos in theologically important ways.

For most of us, the word chaos has negative connotations. We are constantly seeking ways, both individually as well as communally, to avoid, manage, contain, fight, or escape chaos. We tend to think of chaos (tohu vabohu) as the problem for which solutions, such as keeping it at bay, separating ourselves from it, and the imposition of order and structure, must be found. Translating rakia as dome or firmament tends to reflect this conception of chaos.

Vocation beyond chaos management

Does an image of creation in which chaos is only on the “outside” serve us well, though? Does it reflect our lived experience as human beings? Does it reflect God’s intent for us as God’s creation?

When I think about my own life and that of my family, I’ve begun to realize that chaos, confusion, and emptiness are much closer than I would like. Much of my energy is aimed at setting up barriers (artificial, certainly) to keep my loved ones and me safe. Maybe it works some of the time. Other times it doesn’t. As a child of God, though, is this what I am called to do? Fight chaos with every fiber of my being? I’m beginning to think that vocation is bigger than this! I wonder what might happen if we were to begin to think of life and chaos in a more symbiotic relationship, part of the same fabric of creation.

What if the rakia creates a porous space in the midst of chaos in which humans live in relationship with what they cannot control, what is uncontrollable, as opposed to constantly fighting against it?

What might happen if we use our God-breathed energies and talents in new, less combative ways? Such a model allows for less isolation and deeper connection for all life (human, plant, animal) with what in fact surrounds and envelops us.


 

Notes

1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 8, 2013.


Vigil Reading VIII

Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14

Corrine Carvalho

In this well-known passage from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet speaks over a field littered with dry bones, and the dead are resurrected.1

The passage lingers over the details: the bones rattle as they align themselves, stitched together with tendons, dressed with muscle, and finally draped with skin. Wrapped in wind, they come to life.

When this text is read in the context of the Easter season, it functions as a foreshadowing of the final bodily resurrection proclaimed as a tenet of faith in the Apostles’ Creed. Within the context of the book of Ezekiel, however, it is a metaphor for the restoration of a nation devastated by war. The bones are those of warriors felled on the battlefield, denied a proper burial, their corpses desecrated by carnivorous animals. This is not a reference to a specific battle. Instead, the prophetic text paints a metaphor for what the Exile felt like to the survivors: they are as good as dead, with all hope lost. They are lifeless and impotent, desecrated and devoured.

It is against this dire backdrop that the text’s narrative functions as a tableau of irrational hope. To be sure, many prophetic books have passages that promise restoration, especially the rich poems of Isaiah 40-55, but what makes this passage so distinctive is the way that it combines a surreal landscape with realistic detail. Ezekiel’s fantasy field feels uniquely tangible and oddly earthy. These details portray restoration not as the result of a sweep of God’s magic wand, but rather as a sequential process where God attends to each step. Bones without sinew would not stand, and muscles without skin would remain vulnerable. God does not just recreate them, but recreates them as messy, complex human bodies. And such a picture connotes the intentionality of our human bodies, which we may at times despair over because they leave us too at risk, but about which God says, I have made them so.

The restoration is a communal one. On the one hand, this is not surprising given the fact that ancient Israelites had a very collective perspective, especially in contrast to our modern individualistic society, but this communal perspective is not just accidental. It forms part of the essential message of this passage. God does not command Ezekiel to resurrect only the heroes, those who had been brave in battle or who had sacrificed themselves to save another. All of the bones come back to life, the bones of those who were not very good with a sword, those of the armor-bearers and servants, those who had tried to desert the battlefield and those who tried to save only themselves, those who begged for mercy and perhaps even those who tried to join the winning side. It does not matter. If there will be a resurrection for Judah, it will be for everyone. The new Judah will not be a society of super-heroes. It will be the same Judah as before, with their vulnerable bodies and their array of human foibles. All of this is worth God’s effort.

The audience experiences this scene through their avatar, Ezekiel, which places a different spin on the material. As audience member, I do not identify with the bones. I do not walk away from the text with a new perspective on what it would feel like to have my scattered bones gathered together and be whisked back into earthly existence. Instead, I identify with this prophet, who reveals a tender moment of existential self-doubt. The passage begins with him (and his audience) dragged onto this virtual field. It is one of only three times in the book that the prophet is literally “brought by God” to a site in order to pronounce or witness something momentous. The first is in chapters 8-11 where the prophet is brought to Jerusalem to witness the sinfulness of the Jerusalemites that causes God to leave the temple. (In chapter 1 he merely has a vision of this temple and is not transported to the site.) The third instance is in his temple tour of chapters 40-48, again connoting a kind of bodily experience of a virtual space. By using the same verb here, the compiler of the book signals this vision as more than mere metaphor. It depicts the virtual reality that is usually invisible to human eyes.

God asks the prophet if the bones can come alive, to which he feebly answers, “Only you know that.” But what God knows is something even more startling. God knows that it is Ezekiel who will bring the bones to life. The text states that he “prophesies” but it does not record what that involves. Does the prophet intone a chant like a would-be Harry Potter? Does he command the bones to move, the wind to come? Does he lie on the bones, foreshadowing Jesus? Obviously it does not matter. What only matters is that God uses this human, doubting prophet to accomplish this amazing feat.

If Ezekiel is our avatar, what does that mean for us as readers of the book? While I admit that there are times when I want to identify with the dry bones, I have to confess that the passage wants me to take responsibility. It is my job to bring hope to hopeless situations, and pour life onto dry fields. It may often seem like an impossible task, but God chooses us to work the magic, even in our own frail, embodied, and unheroic state. That is the true Easter message.


Notes:

1. Commentary first published on this site on March 26, 2016.


Vigil Reading X

Commentary on Jonah 1:1—2:3 [4-6] 7-9

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

The Book of Jonah is simultaneously pathetic and hilarious.1

It is pathetic because the character Jonah is so completely unfaithful. It is hilarious, first of all, because the narrator portrays so hyperbolically Jonah’s recalcitrance and the repentance of the people of Nineveh. And furthermore, the joke is on Jonah, since God fulfills God’s purposes by way of Jonah, even though Jonah remains thoroughly uncooperative to the very end.

That the narrator is up to something artistically clever is evident as soon as Jonah is mentioned. He is identified in 1:1 as “son of Amittai,” a name derived from the Hebrew root that means “to be faithful.” But, of course, Jonah proves to be anything but a “son of faithfulness.” Even so, by the end of chapter 1, Jonah has made a boatload of converts! In sharp contrast to the disobedient prophet, the pagan sailors are models of piety and faithfulness, as they honor God, offer sacrifices, and make vows (verse 16; see Psalm 66:13).

To his credit, Jonah does one thing right in chapter 1 — that is, he utters an eloquent affirmation of faith in the “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (verse 9). Of course, the fact that Jonah is trying to flee from this God of all creation makes him look even more comically stupid. As for Jonah’s seemingly magnanimous gesture of requesting to be thrown overboard (verse 12), it is probably more of a death wish, especially in view of Jonah’s repeated requests to die in chapter 4. Jonah could hardly look worse.

But God is not finished with Jonah, as 1:17 makes clear. For many readers, it is precisely 1:17 that makes the Book of Jonah difficult — that is, how could a human survive being swallowed by a big fish? But the Book of Jonah is not meant to be a historical account. Rather, it is something like a theological short story; and this means that the really difficult thing to believe in the Book of Jonah is that God cares about the Assyrians, a brutal and hated enemy that was responsible for destroying the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE (see the Book of Nahum).

Chapter 2, which is not part of the lection, seems to indicate that Jonah has learned his lesson. At least he prays here (in contrast to chapter 1); but his prayer rings suspiciously hollow in verse 4 (Jonah was not “driven away” from God’s sight!) and in verses 8-9 (since Jonah himself had forsaken his “true loyalty,” while the pagan sailors were the ones who had vowed and sacrificed to the LORD!).

But at the beginning of chapter 3, Jonah at least obeys God when given a second chance (verses 1-3). Even so, his effort seems pathetically weak. In contrast to the carefully crafted and insightfully detailed oracles of judgment in many of the prophetic books, Jonah offers a five-word (in Hebrew) proclamation!

Remarkably, however (and this is part of the comic hyperbole), Jonah’s sermon is extraordinarily effective. The Hebrew syntax emphasizes the immediacy of Nineveh’s repentance, since the word “overthrow” that concludes verse 4 is followed immediately by the verb “believed” (verse 5). The response is as thorough as it is immediate, complete with fasting, sackcloth (even for the animals — another aspect of the comic hyperbole), ashes, and exemplary words. In fact, the language of 3:9-10 clearly recalls Exodus 32:14, where God changes God’s mind in order to spare the people of Israel after they had made the golden calf.

There is a major difference between Exodus 32:1-14 and Jonah 3:1-10, however — namely, only God repents or changes God’s mind in Exodus 32, not the people. But in Jonah 3, the people of Nineveh do repent. It is pathetic but true — the Assyrians do what the people of Israel virtually never do in response to the prophetic preaching!

One might reasonably conclude that Jonah would be overjoyed at the incredibly positive response to his prophetic mission, or at least that he might be relieved that a hated enemy had come to the Lord. But no! We are told in 4:1 that Jonah found the whole turn of events to be “very displeasing.” Interestingly, the Hebrew root of “displeasing” is the same one used back in 1:2 to describe Nineveh’s “wickedness.” The repetition presses the question: who is the evil party now?

And the answer is clear — it is Jonah, who gives himself away in 4:2 when he explains why he originally fled to Tarshish. It was not because he feared the brutal Assyrians. Rather, it was because he knew that God is “gracious . . . merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Jonah’s words echo God’s self-revelation to Moses at the conclusion of the golden calf episode (Exodus 34:6).

It is clear that Jonah knows God well! But it is equally clear that Jonah does not like God’s way of doing things. So, in perhaps what is the most jarring juxtaposition of ideas in the Old Testament, Jonah’s affirmation of God’s gracious, merciful, and steadfastly loving character is followed immediately by a request in 4:3 that amounts to this: “So, kill me!”

While Jonah himself had been the recipient of God’s grace, and while the people of Israel were continually forgiven by God, Jonah the Israelite prophet cannot even begin to imagine that God’s grace might extend to “the other,” especially not to the hated Assyrians. So, four times in chapter 4 Jonah expresses the wish to die rather than to “forgive those who trespass against us.”

Of course, Jonah’s opposition to God’s grace is not unusual. Jonah’s response anticipates the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32, especially verses 29-30); it anticipates the workers hired first in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (see Matthew 20:1-16, especially verses 11-15); and perhaps it anticipates those of us who still find it extremely difficult to follow Jesus’ eminently clear and straightforward admonition to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

The Book of Jonah ends with a question that Jonah does not answer, and this open-ended conclusion effectively suggests that the question is now ours to answer. Will we do any better than Jonah when it comes to resisting the pervasive and persistent temptation to restrict the scope of God’s concern to us and to our kind of people?


Notes:

1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 11, 2012.


New Testament Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:3-11

Bryan J. Whitfield

In Romans, Paul declares the good news that God restores and makes right people’s covenant relationships through Jesus Christ’s obedience (Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-26).

In the middle section of the letter, he describes the shape of the new life that comes to those made righteous through Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 5:1-11). As he does so, he interweaves three stories: a story of tragedy, a story of triumph, and a story of choice.

The first story is that of Adam’s disobedience. Because of Adam’s actions, sin enters the world and spreads its control over all people (Romans 5:12-14), ruling the world and bringing punishment. In its exercise of power or lordship, sin enslaves humanity (Romans 6:16-23). Its rule ends in death (Romans 5:14, 21; 6:23).

In contrast to this tragic story, Paul sketches the story of Jesus Christ’s triumph over sin and its consequence, death. Unlike Adam, Christ proves faithful and obedient to God, and his actions lead to grace, justification, and life (Romans 5:15-21). His obedience brings the free gift of restored relationship and righteousness (Romans 5:16-18), making possible a new dominion of grace that leads to eternal life (Romans 5:21).

Paul imagines some people might object to this argument. He has claimed that where sin multiplied, “grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Would his focus on the restored relationship with God that comes as the free gift of grace encourage people to keep on sinning so that grace might also increase (Romans 6:1-2)? To that question, Paul responds with an unequivocal “no!” He lays out his reasons in the complex argument that follows (Romans 6:3-11).

Paul’s third story, a story of choice, unfolds as his explanation of his emphatic response. This final story reveals the conflict which the contrasting stories of Adam and Christ create. Between them, Adam and Christ map out two opposing dominions — a dominion of death and a dominion of life — that stake opposing claims to humanity (Romans 5:17-21). But this story is not only about Adam or Christ. It is a story about Paul and his readers who now face a choice between two masters. The personal nature of this third story comes into focus with Paul’s striking shift of pronouns to the first-person plural (we, us, ours). This story, in short, is about us.

Paul begins by reminding us of what we have experienced in our baptism into Christ Jesus. This ritual act unites us with Christ so that we are co-participants in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3). We now identify with Christ and become part of Christ’s dominion, acknowledging Christ as Lord (Romans 5:1, 11, 21). Baptism incorporates us into Christ’s rule as those who have died and been raised, just as Christ died and has been raised from the dead. Our baptism is the key moment of transition in which we leave behind our old lives when sin ruled over us. We begin a new life, the life that Christ experienced when God’s power raised him from the dead (Romans 6:4). We are people who can behave and conduct ourselves in a new way, no longer under sin’s control.

Baptism marks us as people of new life, because our old selves were crucified with Christ. Since we have died, our sinful body is powerless and inoperable (Romans 6:6). We are no longer sin’s slaves but are free from its control and claims over us (Romans 6:7).

Once Paul has explained the implications of our participation in Christ’s death, he turns his attention to his resurrection. Here the argument is more nuanced, because while our participation in resurrection is real, it is not yet complete. Even though we are now living a new life, we do not yet experience the fullness of resurrection. Paul’s contrasting tenses make that distinction clear. Our being united with Christ’s death is a completed action, while resurrection remains a future certainty (Romans 6:5).  We who have died with Christ “will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). We too will be raised. Our destiny is clear.

But our participation in Christ’s resurrection is not simply a future hope. It changes our present lives as well. To make this point, Paul again underscores what Christ’s resurrection means. As the Risen One, Christ is free from death’s dominion, so death no longer has any control over him (Romans 6:9). His death, once for all time, was a death to sin. But that is in the past. In the present, and for all time to come, Christ lives to God (Romans 6:10).

In the same way, we must reckon or consider that we are “dead to sin and alive to God” (Romans 6:11). That understanding constitutes a choice in the way we understand ourselves and the power that rules over us. That choice is the first step of our response to our ongoing struggle with sin’s power.

Paul will develop his discussion of that fight against sin’s control more fully in the balance of Romans 6-8. But his first step, taken in the words of Romans 6:3-11, is to make clear what God has done through Christ.

As is often the case with Paul, the indicative precedes the imperative. Paul first reminds us of what God in grace has done. Only then does he turn to encourage us to act in faith on the basis of God’s gift. Paul is no moralist who commands us to pull up our bootstraps. Rather he grounds what we must do in what God has already done, assured that God’s power is now available to us.

Here Paul reminds us of the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection. He assures us that baptism joins us to Christ in a profound and lasting way so that we are co-participants in that death and resurrection. Knowing that, in this Easter season, we too find our own identities transformed, our paths straightened, our lives new. Thanks be to God.