Lectionary Commentaries for March 17, 2019
Second Sunday in Lent
Commentary on Luke 13:31-35
David Schnasa Jacobsen
Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
This week’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis 15 is a passage pregnant with promise (ironic pun intended) and almost literally dying to be preached.
In order to get into the lesson, the text must first be set in its context.
The Context: The Lord’s Promise of Many Descendants
At the end of Genesis 11, Abram and Sarai are introduced. It is notable that in a creation teeming with life and in which God had commanded the people to “be fruitful and multiply” that Sarai is the first person to be “childless” (11:30).
Now, according to the narrative of Genesis, the Lord had a problem. Having scattered people into many nations with many languages, so that people would not understand each other, the Lord decided to choose one people to become a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) — a nation through which the Lord might bless all the other nations.
So — in typical divine fashion — the Lord chose the most unlikely couple — an aging, childless couple — to become the ancestors of this priestly, blessing nation:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
And so, Abram and Sarai went. They journeyed to the land. They waited for a child — a child who would become the first of their many descendants, who would in turn become a great nation, blessed to be a blessing.
Time passed. They went to Egypt. They came back. No child.
They became prosperous, even wealthy. No child.
Their nephew Lot separated from them. Lot was captured. Lot was rescued.
And still, no child. And then, finally, the Lord broke the silence.
“Do Not be Afraid:” More Good News from the Lord
The first words of Genesis 15 are, “After these things” — and after a great deal of time — “the Lord spoke to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid.’”
The words “do not be afraid” (al-tira’ in Hebrew) comprise a stock phrase meaning, “You are about to hear good news.” Throughout the prophetic books and into the New Testament, when a message from God starts with “do not be afraid” it means that good news is about to be heard. (Correspondingly, when a message from God starts with “woe,” well, it is not going to be good news).
And what was the good news the Lord spoke? “I am your shield, your reward will be very great.” The choice to translate the Hebrew term sakar as “reward” is not ideal. The best way to translate the phrase would be, “What you will receive will be very great.”
To put it all together: “Good news, Abram! You are going to get something totally awesome!”
A second promise from the Lord! How cool is that? Well, Abram didn’t think so!
Abraham’s Response: Lament!
Abram’s response to the Lord’s second promise? Lament!
Rather than praising God for this new promise, Abram cried out in pain regarding the deepest hurt and unfulfilled hope in his life: He and Sarai were still childless. To put Abram’s lament in the form of a psalm:
O Lord God, what shall you give me?
For I am still childless!
And the heir of my house,
He is Eliezer of Damascus.
You have given me no seed,
Thus a “son of my house” will inherit from me!
Abram’s lament is personal, full of poignant symbolic language. Abram basically says, “What do I want from you? I have no child.” He’s already prosperous and wealthy, as we know from Genesis 13-14. Abram doesn’t need any more stuff. The term “son of my house” means a slave — one who comes not from the seed of one’s body, but is part of the stone of the house.
What Abram desires so deeply is an heir — a “seed.” A “seed” (Hebrew zera’) means “offspring.” But it means more. It is sperm. It is progeny. It is the continuation of creation!
Abram is looking inside himself, into the deepest hurts and hope of his body — where his “seed” comes from.
And in his pain, he accuses God and reminds God of the divine promises in Genesis 12:
“YOU HAVE GIVEN ME NO SEED!”
Lament: Making Our Problems into God’s Problems
Before continuing with the story, a word about the power of lament. In the Bible, God does not desire followers who are meek and mild, compliant and quiet — at least not in relationship to God. God wants sufferers who fight back. God invites us to own and be in touch with the deepest hurts and brightest hopes in our souls. For Abram, this hope was to have a child. And after all, the Lord has promised.
When we lament or “complain” to God — the word complain is better — we do many things. I will mention just three of those things here.
First, we make our problems into God’s problems. To tell God about our deepest hurts and unmet hopes is to implicate God in those hurts and hopes. It is — rhetorically — to align God’s desires with ours and to make our problems God’s problems.
Second, when we complain we cry out to God in the belief that God can and perhaps even will respond to our cries, our wants, our needs, our desires. God has the power and ability to respond. To complain to God is to have faith that God is faithful both to the creation and to the divine promises — in spite of present circumstances in which it certainly appears and feels from our perspective that God is not being effectively and faithfully present.
Third, in the context of matters about which the Lord has made a promise, to complain is to remind the Lord of those as yet unmet promises. In his lament, Abram was implying — and more — that God had not kept his promises. That God had not yet proven faithful.
The Lord’s Response to Lament: Expanded Promise
So how does God respond to rhetorical attacks that suggest the Lord hasn’t been faithful, to an angry servant who reminds God of certain unkept promises — such as many descendants? How does God respond to complaints that border on the aggressive?
God responds by renewing the promise of many descendants. In fact, God responds by expanding the promise! Again, translating the Lord’s response in the poetic form of a divine promise of good news:
This one shall not inherit from you,
Indeed that which comes from within you
He shall inherit from you!
Gaze up at the heavens
And count the stars if you are able.
So shall your seed be!”
As many descendants as there are stars! As there are galaxies! Abram had looked inside himself — to his “seed” — and gotten in touch with his deepest, buried hurts and hopes. The Creator responded by telling Abram to look up! To gaze outside of himself to the heavens, that the Lord had created. And then God renewed the promise and expanded on it.
God doesn’t mind being implicated in our problems. In fact, God welcomes it. Our problems are God’s problems. Prayer is in part a way of speaking to God that implicates God in our promises. And in prayer, we remind God that God has promised to be faithful to the divine promises. And this story tells us that God doesn’t mind being held accountable to the divine promises.
Keeping promises is kinda God’s jam.
Abram’s Response: Trust
“And Abram trusted.”
Abram believed and trusted the promise. Enough said.
The Lord’s Response to Abram’s Trust: Cutting a Covenant
The Lord evaluated Abram — both his act of complaining in prayer and the reality that Abram trusted the divine promises — and God said, “Righteous!” (Sort of like Crush in “Finding Nemo).
And then the Lord made a promise to Abram that is breathtaking in its commitment. A commitment that is so absolute that the Lord ritually commits to die rather than forsake the promise. The Lord repeats the promise of the land, then says,
“Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two …
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made [literally “cut” in Hebrew, carat] a covenant with Abram. (15:9-11, 1-18)
The ritual was literally the “cutting of a covenant.” To make a covenant in the ancient world, animals were cut in half, and then the one(s) making the covenantal commitment walked down the middle between the animals. Note that in the ritual, it was the Lord — in the form of a smoking pot and a flaming torch — who passed down the middle and thus was the one making the promise. It was the Lord who “cut a covenant” with Abram.
In order to understand the meaning of the ritual, a story of a covenant between groups of humans is instructive. In Jeremiah 34, slave-owning Judeans set their slaves free by cutting a covenant of freedom — they set their slaves free when the city of Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian armies. As part of the covenant, the slave-owning authorities cut a calf in half and passed between the halves.
But when the Babylonian army suddenly departed (temporarily as it turned out), the slave owners re-enslaved the free people. Against the freed people’s will, the slave owners proved faithless to the covenant they had cut.
The Lord was not pleased. The Lord said,
Those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts: the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf. (Jeremiah 34:18-19)
This scene shows that the symbolism of the covenant ritual is that the ones making the promise passes between dead animals as a ritual promise that should they be unfaithful to the terms of the covenant, they are to be cut in half just as the sacrificed animal.
In other words, when the Lord passed between the cleaved goat, sheep, ram and between the dead birds, the Lord was saying to Abram, “I promise to give you both descendants and the land. I pledge my very life — the life of God — as surety of this promise. If I fail to keep this promise, let me be slain just as the goat, the sheep and the ram were slain.”
The Gospel: A Promise That Requires the Death of God
My retired teacher and colleague Professor Patrick Keifert used to say, “The gospel, strictly construed, is a free promise that requires the death of God.” That is, the gospel in its most narrow and precise sense is an unconditional promise that requires the death of God.
In the Old Testament, we see such a promise in the Lord’s commitment to Abram in Genesis 15.
This promise — Christians believe — ultimately led to the very death of the Son of God, Jesus. In order to be faithful to creation, to Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, and to the promises to David, the Creator ultimately took on human flesh, walked down the lonely path, and died. He did so that we might have life.
Commentary on Psalm 27
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” the psalmist declares. “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
I remember the first time I took notice of this psalm. The choir director had chosen a setting for Psalm 27 that was deep and rich in tone. The music was slow and penetrating and full of conviction. It was beautiful and captured the gravity of the psalmist’s words. In a world full of troubles and hardships, we need not be afraid because God is with us. God is for us. And God will protect us.
But while the first half of this psalm exudes confidence and trust in God’s providential care (verses 1-6), the second half (verses 7-12) carries a very different tone. Here we encounter lament, the psalmist’s pleading with God to turn his face toward him. “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! … Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me” (verses 7, 8b-9a). In fact, the tone is so unlike the previous verses that scholars have wondered whether these verses comprise a different psalm, that what we have in Psalm 27 was originally two separate psalms that were later put together.
Whether or not this was the case, these two parts of the psalm clearly belong together. Repetition of words like “seek,” “heart,” “adversaries,” and “salvation” provide linguistic unity while the confession of trust at the beginning and end hold it all together. The theological significance of this lament in the context of trust ought not to be missed.
Trust does not preclude lament. Confidence in God’s ability to overcome the darkest of evils does not require holding back our tears, our disappointments, our deep longing for more of God. Faith does not rule out doubt. Both trust and lament are proper expressions of faith in the context of hardship and suffering and often they go hand in hand. What they share in common is an unwavering conviction in the reality, the goodness, and the power of God, who is both worthy of our confidence but also attentive to our cries for help.
It is not clear what hardship the psalmist is experiencing though trouble runs through the entire psalm. At the beginning, the psalmist mentions evildoers who assail and devour the flesh and an army encamped against the psalmist, suggesting the psalmist is under military threat (verses 2-3). Later, the psalmist references false witnesses who are “breathing out violence” against him (verse 12). The metaphorical and poetic nature of the language makes it difficult to identify with certainty the nature of the trouble that has overcome the psalmist but there is little doubt that it is all-consuming, attacking the psalmist physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Against this backdrop, the psalmist begins with a confession of trust. Because the Lord is on his side, because the Lord is his light and his salvation, he need not worry. For the Lord will hide him from his enemies in the shelter of his tent (verse 5).
The temple in ancient Israel was not only a place of worship, but it was a place of political refuge. So, the psalmist longs for the Lord’s house knowing that there the psalmist will experience, in very tangible ways, God’s protection from physical but also mental and spiritual assault. In God’s house, in God’s presence, is the promise of beauty and the recovery of joy. The contrast here between the world outside and the world within God’s presence is stark. Here we see vividly that for the psalmist, God alone is the source and sustainer of life.
It is precisely for this reason that the psalmist, in verse 7, cries out to the Lord in lament. “Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, … do not cast me off, do not forsake me” (verse 9). The psalmist doesn’t ignore his suffering or minimize it. He does not check it at the door so to speak as he comes before God.
Rather, he tells his story. He speaks of his pain. He calls out to God with all the rawness and honesty of someone who has been pushed to the limit. He doesn’t hold back. He pours out his complaint to God, not to push God away but rather, to plead for more, more of God’s presence, more of God’s instruction, more of God’s protection. “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path.”
He tells his story in the confidence that though parents may forsake their children, the Lord will never abandon him. The Hebrew root here is ’asaph, conjuring up the image of the Lord gathering or receiving the psalmist into his presence. It is a tender image portraying the Lord not just in terms of strength but also gentleness, as a God of compassion and comfort. Certainly, this is the image of God that Jesus projects in Luke 13 when he says, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings …” (Luke 13:34b)
The psalm closes with a return to the conviction and confidence voiced at the beginning — that the Lord will indeed turn his face toward the psalmist such that he will see the goodness of the Lord. It is difficult to know at this point to whom the psalmist is speaking. It may be helpful, however, to imagine that the psalmist is addressing his audience, exhorting them to hang in there, to stand firm in their faith (Philippians 4:1), to be strong and take courage, to wait for the Lord. Because at the end of the day, the Lord is our light and our salvation, the one in whom we can trust.
This season of Lent is typically a time of soul-searching, reflection, penitence, and drawing close to God. This makes it an especially good time for those raw, honest conversations with God that the psalmist models, conversations grounded in the conviction that God is real and powerful and good and has sent his son into the world that world may be saved through him.
Commentary on Philippians 3:17—4:1
Paul begins this section by encouraging his family in Philippi to imitate him and others like him.
There is relationship. Moreover, it is in their togetherness and community that they will have the strength through encouragement to walk the way of Christ.
More important than pinning down exactly who these ‘enemies of the cross’ are, is understanding what it means to be an enemy of the cross. After all, Paul does not bother to highlight who they are; either everyone knows who they are or in the context of what Paul is now seeking to communicate to the church at Philippi, it is not important.
Sometimes we can make the mistake of noting who someone is and thereby give them a measure of respect, rather than highlighting what we should avoid about their lifestyle and behavior.
They are enemies of the cross … not necessarily your enemies. And even if they are your enemies, then the way of the cross is ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 4:23). They should be treated with love. The emotion with which Paul speaks about them may give us a clue as to who they are — or perhaps who they were. It may well be that they were at some point fellow brothers and sisters in the gospel, seeking to follow Christ.
To be an ‘enemy of the cross’ is quite a curious statement. After all, why would you not be an enemy of the cross? The cross was the ultimate in the imperial toolbox of intimidation. The Romans were well practiced in the malevolent art of torture, intimidation, and terrorization. They utilized various tools which had been perfected over years of dealing with wars, uprisings and rebellions.
When people were crucified, the Romans made sure that it was carried out in the open, in the public space, at crossroads where the maximum number of people would see and understand their message: mess with the Empire and this is where you will end up. And so, in some ways we might anticipate that to be an ‘enemy of the cross’ is a natural, obvious, and sane response.
But Paul sets out a contrasting perspective.
Those who are ‘enemies of the cross’ are set for ‘destruction, their god is their belly; and their glory is their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.’ It seems then that there is a Pauline expectation that those who are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will, in some way, be ‘friends of the cross.’ To be an enemy of the cross is to live on a path that would not be familiar to the Lord Jesus.
- Self-preservation: ‘Their end is destruction’ — the destiny of those who are enemies of the cross is ruin. This is a somewhat ironic statement. Those who are living as ‘enemies of the cross’ — who are cohabiting with the powers of the imperial state — ‘think’ that they are preserving themselves, they are doing the obvious thing to look after themselves — and possibly, in their view, to give opportunity to present the gospel. But Paul is scathing — even in their attempt at self-preservation they will meet destruction.
- Self-satisfaction: ‘Their god is their belly’ — Choosing a way of life that is immediately satisfying, filling in the here and now. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die … It may be that we would want to pin down their behavior and habits to something quite specific, perhaps their food practices or maybe even a reference their insistence upon circumcision, but none of that is certain. What is in view is their self-serving practices. This is in stark contrast to the way that Paul and his companions have lived with a quiet acknowledgment of an acceptance of suffering — imprisonment (1:17), death (1:21), sacrifice (2:17), the loss of all things (3:8).
- Self-obsession: ‘their glory is in their shame’ — Paul contrasts the self-obsession of the ‘enemies of the cross’ who no doubt present themselves and their bodies as something worthy, and to be admired, with the transformation of the body that will come with the resurrection of those who are faithful to Christ. We see this contrast in 3:21, ‘He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.’
- Finally, Paul sums up his critique, ‘their minds are set on earthly things.’ The charade presented by them is that they are servants of Christ, acting in a pragmatic manner to preserve themselves (and the gospel) in a time of instability, fear, and terror for followers of Christ. Yet Paul points out that their true focus is on earthly things — contrasted with the citizenship of faithful imitators of Christ, which is in heaven. Interestingly, Paul has himself claimed citizenship of Rome (Acts 16:37: But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens), but now he dismisses all subjection and subservience to the Imperial powers and holds to a higher loyalty, to the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s confidence is held by the way in which Jesus approached the cross. Jesus faithfully loved. Even as he died he continued to love and to trust in his Father. It was in love that his Father raised him from the dead. It is this power of love that is the greatest power. It is in this power that Paul appeals for his Christ-following family to stand firm. To follow the way of Jesus is to love and to accept the death imposed by the Imperial power. Yet to love whatever the cost is a refusal to accept and bow to the values of the empire … they have not turned you into one of them.
- Love is not passivity.
- Love is active — forgiveness, mercy, kindness.
- Love is creative … even in the midst of destruction.
- Love is relational, even as relationships are broken, and death ensues.
- Love is hopeful, even in the midst of despair.
- Love is trusting.
The Gospel lection for this Sunday represents a challenge for preachers on several levels.
Many Biblical scholars break the pericope into two units. They argue that verses 31-33 offer an apothegm (a saying) that ends with the word Jerusalem while verses 34-35 voice a lament that begins with a two-fold repetition of the word Jerusalem. Some exegetes puzzle over the near repetition of the triad “today, tomorrow, and the next/third day” in verses 32 and 33. Could it be that scholars have two textual units here, barely hanging together by a repeated keyword and a duplicated triad that sounds like a passion prediction? Many exegetes are also baffled by the role of the Pharisees who issue the warning to Jesus about Herod in verse 31 — are the Pharisees acting as friends, foes, or somewhere in between?
So many scholarly questions; so few verses! What is a Gospel preacher to do?
We begin by trying to read Luke 13:31-35 hermeneutically within its narrative context: from parts to whole, as it were. We note first of all that these five verses are situated in a Lukan journey from Galilee that begins at Luke 9:51, when Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The apothegm, the repeated triads about days, the lament, the multiple references to Jerusalem begin to make more sense if we don’t treat them antiseptically. Instead, we can allow them to do their puzzling work in the midst of the several-chapters’ long journey that is Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem. Whatever these five puzzling verses are about, they are set within an intentional Lukan narrative set in Galilee, but looking toward Jerusalem, and all that the city means to Luke.
This hermeneutical frame begins to help make sense of the beginning of Luke 13:31-35. Pharisees approach Jesus, warn him about Herod, and urge him to move on. The text does not speculate on the motives of the Pharisees (at other points, Luke seems willing to disclose their motives), so we do not need to assume deception on their part. In verse 32, Jesus turns to compare the necessity of attending to Herod’s threat to kill as opposed to what God deems necessary for Jesus to do. The fact that Jesus views it more urgent to go to Jerusalem because of God’s will than to heed warnings about Herod, seems to indicate that the ultimate concern is theological.
This theological perspective is indicated first in the little passion prediction of verse 32 by the presence of a divine passive at the end of the first triad: today, tomorrow, and “finished” on the third day. The things being finished are Jesus’ day-by-day works of God’s kingdom: healings and exorcisms. Herod is just a clever little fox; God is in charge.
That said, verse 33 picks up the triad of days and takes them to the ultimate destination: Jerusalem. Here Luke indicates the divine will through his use of the Greek word “it is necessary” (dei), a term typical of the evangelist’s theological narrative. The contrast here is not simply repeated triads about days, or even relative threats from local rulers like Herod, but an inexorable divine will. For it is God’s concern that impels Jesus to the journey’s end in Jerusalem, where he fulfills a prophet’s destiny.
This theological coupling of divine will and the prophet’s role helps to smooth over the rough boundary between the apothegm of 13:31-33 and the lament of 13:34-35. Both are concerned with Jerusalem because they in turn confront the city and grieve its pain. In the lament of verses 34-35, Jesus’ words compare his desire to shelter with a mother hen’s poignant attempt to protect her brood with extended wings — no matter the threat.
Please note, the prophetic voice of Jesus’ lament is in the second person: Jerusalem and its unwilling children are addressed as “you.” Here, the lament extends the prophetic word of the inexorable divine will in 13:31-33 into the equally prophetic divine pathos that lies in the heart of the prophet who speaks for God. The lament is rounded out with a faint hope reminiscent of Psalm 118:26. Jerusalem’s people will not recognize him until they one day acclaim him themselves, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Luke joins together in 13:31-35 what seems to us units of tradition that do not really follow. Set in the extended story that begins with 9:51 and ends in Jerusalem, however, and with attention to Luke’s theological way of narrating, the puzzling fragments begin to make a bit more sense. Jesus’ future is not Herod’s to decide. God is setting the travel agenda. Thus, for prophets like Jesus, Jerusalem is the place to move toward: both the focus of his prophetic task and the object of his prophetic pathos in lament.
Preachers would be well advised to mind what the pericope both says and does not say. The text joins together Jesus’ prophetic resolve with his equally prophetic pathos of the mother hen. The image Jesus invokes is both fierce and vulnerable. The hen iconically holds together the tensions of the prophetic tradition as a whole even while it underlines the scandal of Luke’s vulnerable crucified Lord.
What Luke 13:31-35 does not say, however, is just as important. The rejection of the prophets is part and parcel of the Jewish tradition. It is not a license of contemporary interpreters to turn Jerusalem into Jesus’ enemy, or to treat Judaism in any sense that contradicts Jesus’ own maternal concern and embodied engagement for Jerusalem’s children. Gospel preachers need to know and name the difference.