Lectionary Commentaries for March 10, 2019
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 4:1-13

David Schnasa Jacobsen

The problem with the temptation narratives at the beginning of Lent is the reductive view of all temptations as garden-variety challenges to individual faith.

How many times do we need to elide Jesus’ desert temptations with our Lenten disciplines concerning chocolate or coffee? To preach temptation narratives it is helpful to understand their unique role in each Gospel. Although all three synoptics put the temptation narrative shortly after Jesus’ baptism, only Luke follows his with Jesus’ hometown sermon-gone-awry in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30).

For Luke, the issue is not equivalent to personal temptations around faith, but to Jesus’ unique vocation as Spirit-anointed Son of God. Jesus’ vocation is grounded in his baptism story with all that Holy Spirt (Luke 3:21-22) and described as the Spirit’s anointing work of good news for the poor at Jesus’ home-town sermon (Luke 4:18-21). Luke’s temptation is about how Jesus will fulfill his Spirit-anointed vocation as Son of God.

How do we know? Luke’s temptation narrative starts with lots of Holy Spirit. The description of Jesus in verse 1 as “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Holy Spirit in the wilderness,” hearkens back to the baptismal scene. Whatever temptation means here, it connects deeply with the Spirit that alighted bodily like a dove on Jesus in 3:21-22 and the Spirit that animates Jesus’ synagogue preaching from the scroll of Isaiah in 4:14. It is Jesus’ attunement to and relationship with this same, purposeful Holy Spirit that drives the wilderness temptation narrative in Luke.

That said, the temptation narrative does not also begin with equilibrium on Jesus’ part as it segues into verse 2. The text notes that Jesus was in the desert, a place of divine meeting and demonic danger, for forty days. By this time, Jesus’ hunger meter had been fully activated. The Greek indicates that “Jesus did not eat nothing” and was famished. This Jesus is vulnerable. The one who meets Jesus in this vulnerable situation is the devil. As the demonic was part and parcel of the desert/wilderness context, it only underlines the disequilibrium in the story. These temptations are not garden variety, but targeted on this vulnerable Jesus as Son of God.

With verse 3, we see the first of the three temptations. This one builds off of Jesus’ vulnerability and goads him to turn stones to bread. Please note, however, the tone of the temptation. The devil says “If you are the Son of God … ” This if (Ε?) is not hypothetical, nor is it a kind of short-hand for “whether,” but more like “since.” Both the devil and Jesus know the reality of Jesus’ identity — as does the reader who has overheard Jesus angelically so named to Mary since Luke 1:35.

The issue is not whether Jesus is Son of God, but how he will carry out his Spirit-anointed vocation. That is what is at stake in the devil’s “if.” Jesus responds with scripture, a familiar quote from Deuteronomy 8:3. The first temptation of a different way of being Son of God is turned away.

In verses 5-8, the second temptation comes to the fore. The devil shows him all the kingdoms of the inhabited world and offers their authority and glory. The “if” of this temptation is a bit different: it is a conditional if (Ean) that operates like “Grandma’s rule:” If you do X, I will give you a cookie. But here’s the strange part: why are the kingdoms of this world, their authority and glory for the devil to give? The ancient world often thought of such things as God’s to give and God, well, God has no rival in the power department.

The Greek verb in verse 6 is rendered in the passive which may actually be divine: for whatever reason, God has “given over” such power to the devil. What it may also imply, however, is that the ultimate power is not actually the devil’s at all — it is rather the devil’s temporary demonic holding in the present order. This second temptation dances and darts with the passive voice and future tense verbs in Greek. Could it be that it is actually just a flimsy worship contract with a party with no real standing in the present? Whatever it means, Jesus refutes it again with scripture — now with Deuteronomy 6:4.

With the third and final temptation in verses 9-12 both the devil and Jesus turn the tables. The devil does it by starting with scripture. He quotes Psalm 91:11-12, also in the future tense, as a way of goading Jesus to jump off the “tip” of the Temple in Jerusalem, where the devil has brought them both. Now the devil returns to “if” in the first sense: since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here and show me and all of Jerusalem what you got. Provoke God’s action in your own interest at the Temple — as the Psalms themselves intimate that you are God’s own precious concern.

Jesus, however, is not interested in being Son of God in a way that vindicates him here and now in the presence of the Temple and of Jerusalem itself. He not only turns away this final temptation with another scripture reference, Deuteronomy 6:16. But Jesus turns the tables on this scripture-quoting devil. This last temptation is less a temptation for Jesus than an attempt to tempt God. God is not to be managed or provoked, even for the sake of the Son of God. And this is not just important here in Luke 4, but even more so in Luke 23:35-39 where this particular temptation will appear one final time in the Lukan narrative.

All this is to say that these temptations belong to Jesus as Spirit-anointed Son of God. He has a vocation, which is revealed after his baptism in prayer in 3:21-22 and described in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth in 4:14-30. Given that the final temptation goes away, like the devil himself, only to return at a later time at Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke 23, it is helpful to note that the work of the Spirit is not conducted in happy times only. Jesus’ own sermon almost gets him thrown over a cliff in Luke 4:29-30. Luke is just reminding us that these temptations are part of a struggle that belongs to what it means to be Son of God who is led by the Spirit … in the wilderness.


First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Brian C. Jones

Deuteronomy is presented as a single long sermon by Moses.

In reality, it is a collection of laws and exhortations that grew over a period of about 150 years. Today’s reading is the conclusion of the covenant laws that comprise the heart of the book. The subject matter of this conclusion is instructions for offerings and tithes at the beginning (first fruits) and conclusion of harvest. It may surprise contemporary readers to find that the offerings are not given to support the temple but to support those who are landless and thus lack self-sufficiency — widows, orphans, resident aliens and Levites. Because the latter group received no allotment during the division of the land, they have no independent means of support.

The focus of the passage is a ritual of presentation that is to take place at the beginning of the first harvest, “When you have come into the land.” This offering is not a tithe, such as is described in 26:12 (see also 14:22-29); it is an offering of an unspecified amount of the “first fruits” of harvest, though it must be of sufficient quantity to supply a feast for the farmer and those associated with his estate, presumably his laborers and those under his protection (verse 11).

The ritual, a liturgy performed by the individual landowner before the altar, acknowledges receipt of the land promised to the ancestors and recalls the history of the people from the time of the ancestors until the present moment when the foundational oath of God is fulfilled, embodied in a basket filled full. The prescribed recitation recounts a communal faith journey spanning centuries. It begins with a landless ancestor and concludes with his descendent presenting the first fruit of the gifted land. Presumably, the community witnesses this testimony to God’s faithful deliverance and provision.

The recitation is confession of faith similar in form to the Christian creeds, which are also structured as narratives. Gerhart von Rad identified this passage as a central “credo” of Israel’s faith. With this credo the community of faith remembers itself by recounting its story. Our stories define us, both individually and as a community, for memory is the substance of identity. When we forget, we are diminished and our self shrivels, as those who have tended a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease are painfully aware. When we forget our faith stories, the religious self formed by those stories shrinks and is replaced by another self, the self produced by competing cultural stories.

The writers of Deuteronomy were keenly aware of this. Over and over again, the book commands the community to remember who and whose it is. Admonitions to remember and to teach the stories of God’s past faithfulness and commands occur over thirty times in the book, a drum beat so insistent that the reader senses that Moses knew that the people once settled would forget themselves and their God. This forgetting and its consequences — exile — feature prominently in Deuteronomy 4 and 28-31, parts of the book written in the post-exilic period.

The epithet “wandering Aramean” refers to Jacob rather than Abraham, for it was Jacob and his family who took refuge in Egypt. But Abraham is depicted wandering far more than Jacob, and it seems that their identities merge in the credo. The Hebrew word translated “wanderer” (abad) almost always refers to someone perishing and desperate, cut off from the community, and fading away. It is used elsewhere several times of strayed sheep, which clarifies the connection between wandering and perishing since a wandering sheep is very soon a dead sheep. Furthermore, in author’s time, the term Aramean had a derogatory connotation. An equivalent expression today would be, “A destitute vagrant was my ancestor.”

The credo recounts how the ancestor’s fortunes changed when his small clan migrated to Egypt to live as “aliens” (Hebrew ger), a term that denotes both social and legal marginality and would today be better translated as “immigrant.” The ancestral clan prospered and became a great nation. But success led to oppression, as is often the case for outsider groups that lack the legal protections enjoyed by citizens. Prosperity did not diminish marginalization. Oppression led to petition; the people cried out to God.

God saw and heard. These verbs are prominent also in the exodus tradition. They define the character of the God of Israel as a God who pays attention to the oppressed, feels compassion, and acts on their behalf — to the dismay and discomfiting of the oppressor. The claim made by liberation theologians that “God sides with the oppressed” is nowhere more obvious than in the exodus story. God’s compassion leads God to action. The compassion of a mighty God moves the wheels of history and lifts the oppressed from their misery.

The final act in the credo drama is the gift of the land, a home for homeless immigrants, a place of their own. But not a place they owned in an absolute sense. The gift of the land is both certain and conditional. God is faithful to give what is promised, but the people must respond to this gift with faithful obedience. Ultimately, the land is God’s to give or to take away. The land is never less and never more than gift and comes with a proviso (Deuteronomy 29:24-28; Leviticus 25:23).

Not all in the society shared in God’s gift of land, but all were to share in its bounty. Those without property to support themselves were bidden to enjoy the land’s bounty at the same table as the landowner and his family, not because of the landowner’s benevolence but because of God’s command. Deuteronomy repeatedly demands that the economically marginalized — the poor, widows, orphans, immigrants and Levites — be supported and protected. This demand is justified in Deuteronomy by an appeal to Israel’s memory of oppression and slavery in Egypt (10:17-19; 15:15; 16:11-12; 24:17-18, 21-22).

The command in Deuteronomy 26:11 to provide a celebratory meal that is inclusive of those on the margins flows naturally from the memory of Egyptian oppression lying at the center of worship. Presentation of offering, liturgical recitation of sacred history, celebratory meal — Christians will recognize this sequence. Sharing the fruits of our labor with those on the margins is obedient, perhaps even sacramental.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Amanda Benckhuysen

Israeli scholar Yair Hoffman once characterized Psalm 91 as an “amulet psalm.”

The term originated from a practice that developed in both early Jewish and Christian communities of placing bits of Psalm 91 in amulets so that the wearer would feel God’s nearness and be reminded of God’s providential care in times of trouble.

While today we might consider such a practice superstitious, this custom draws attention to the heartbeat of this psalm, the unwavering testimony of the psalmist that God is our refuge and our strength, the one in whom we can put our confidence. An individual psalm of trust, the psalmist pulls out all the stops and holds nothing back in this confession that God will indeed cover the psalmist with divine protection such that “no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent (verse 10).”

It is not immediately clear what precipitates the psalmist’s song. The psalmist opens with images related to military protection — “refuge” and “fortress” (verse 2a), which would suggest that the psalmist is under attack and physically threatened. Verse 6, however, moves beyond military threat to include “pestilence that stalks in the darkness” and “destruction that wastes at noonday.” The impression given is that whatever danger the psalmist may encounter in this life, whether it be persecution, physical or mental threat, or even illness, the psalmist will find safety and shelter under the wings of the Almighty God.

Some have struggled with the hyperbolic language of this psalm and its strong statements about God’s saving action. Certainly, our earthly experience, which is full of trials and tribulations, doesn’t seem to reflect the psalmist’s testimony. A few notes, however, may help to clarify what the psalm does and doesn’t say about God’s care for his people:

  1. Psalm 91 is not a doctrinal statement. The psalmist isn’t teaching a course on the Doctrine of God. Instead, the psalmist is professing faith in the same God who has shown himself to be faithful throughout the history of God’s people, delivering them from slavery in Egypt, from their enemies in the land of Canaan, and from all who would seek to destroy them as a people. Through the ages, God remained faithful to his covenant so that the psalmist can say with confidence that God will continue to sustain his people. The point is that while God’s protection did not mean that Israel never suffered pain or went through difficult times, in the broad scheme of things, God did “guard his people in all their ways” (verse 11).
  2. Reading this psalm in its literary context and particularly in relation to Ps. 90 lends nuance and perspective to Psalm 91. Psalm 90 begins Book III of the psalter. The superscription associates this psalm with Moses, reflecting on the fragility and brokenness of human life in relation to the eternal goodness and grace of God. Psalm 90 ends with the cry, “Have compassion on your servants! … Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands” (verse 13b, 17a). Psalm 91 is a response to this prayer. It is a statement of conviction and trust that though we are dust and “our years come to an end like a sigh” (verse 9b), yet God, the Most High, invites us to take up residency in the shelter of the Almighty. Reading these two psalms together shifts attention away from the distress of the psalmist to the astonishing fact that the Most High, the Almighty and everlasting God notices, responds to, and cares about our suffering. Though we are dust and our life is but a fleeting moment, still the Creator of the universe commits himself unfailingly to his people so that the psalmist can say with confidence, “he is my refuge and my fortress.” The remarkable truth that the psalmist professes is that through the trials and challenges of life, we are not alone. God is on our side.
  3. When the evil one quotes Psalm 91:11, 12 to Jesus in the wilderness, goading him to throw himself off the temple, Jesus rejects any notion that God is at his beck and call. Responding with Deuteronomy 6:16, “do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus spurns the suggestion that one can presume upon God’s saving power for one’s own gain. The testimony of Psalm 91, then, is not that God’s people are immune to suffering, especially when that suffering comes as a result of folly or sin. Instead, it is that God will not ultimately let suffering or even death separate us from his love and care.
  4. And this is certainly the emphasis at the end of the psalm. Structurally, the psalm can be divided into two main sections: verses 1-13 and verses 14-16. The first section is the psalmist’s confession of trust. The second, however, reflects not the psalmist’s voice but God’s. Strikingly, God’s words assume that his people will experience hardship and suffering. “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble” (verse 15). In some ways, God seems to be offering a bit of a corrective here to the psalmist’s theology, redirecting the psalmist toward a conception of God’s providence as protection and presence, not necessarily immunity from suffering.

As we read this psalm during the season of Lent, it serves as a reminder that with God at our side, our trials and tribulations won’t overcome us. More than that, as we look to Jesus and his journey to the cross, we are reminded again of how seriously God took his word to be with us in our suffering. Taking on our sin, our sorrows, and our suffering, Jesus bore them on the cross and laid the foundation for their ultimate defeat. In Christ, God truly has rescued us and shown us his salvation.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 10:8b-13

Yung Suk Kim

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is about “the good news of God” (euangelion theou) for which he was called as an apostle and set apart.

“The good news of God” (or “the gospel of God”) means that God is the good news because he is righteous, merciful, steadfast and caring. In a chaotic, unjust, uncaring world, Jesus proclaimed this good news of God and disclosed God’s righteousness through faithfulness (Romans 3:21-22). His faithfulness proves that God is righteous. Now God justifies those who share the faithfulness of Jesus. Paul is not ashamed of this gospel of God proclaimed by Jesus because it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). He goes on to say: “For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:17).

By this letter, Paul aims to correct some misunderstandings about the gospel he proclaims. In fact, some Roman Christians thought that his gospel was law-free (an antinomian attitude) or anti-Jewish. But he vehemently rejects such a view, saying that faith cannot overthrow the law, which is holy and good (Romans 3:31; 7:12) and that the faithlessness of Jews cannot nullify God’s faithfulness (Romans 3:3; 11:1-10). Eventually, in Romans 9-11, he deals with the place of Israel and the gospel of faith.

Romans 10:8b-13 is part of Romans 9-11 that deals with the salvation of Israel and faith. While Paul hopes that “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26), he, nevertheless, maintains the same ground of faith for all, Jews and Gentiles, as he said earlier in Romans 3:30: God “will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”

In Romans 10:8b-13, he deals with this same condition of faith for all. Jews are no exception to this. Earlier in Romans 10:1-7, he points out the problem of Jews. That is, they sought to establish their own righteousness, not based on faith. He contrasts “the righteousness that comes from the law” with “the righteousness that comes from God” (Romans 10:3-6). The former implies that Jews have “a zeal for God,” which is not enlightened (Romans 10:2). That is, the problem is their absolutizing of the law without submitting to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:3).

In contrast, “the righteousness that comes from God” means all things are done through faith in God, which means trusting God and submitting to his righteousness. In Romans 10:6, this righteousness is said to come from faith. Faith is God-centered, and it is not law-centered. The law can be fulfilled through faith and love (see also Romans 10:4).

Then, in Romans 10:8b-13, Paul reinforces faith by talking about its content and benefit. First, in 10:8b, he uses rema (“the word”) to explain faith. He says rema is “the word of faith” that is proclaimed by the followers of Jesus. Rema is different from the law or works of the law because faith informs “the word.” In other words, all sayings and deeds must be done through the lens of faith, which orients a person’s mind and heart toward God. Also, this lens of faith must see what Christ has done for God’s righteousness. Christians proclaim what God has done through his Son Jesus.

Second, Paul says this word is “near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). This means that “the word of faith” must be part of everyday life. “Near you” means Christians must live with it in their workplace. “On your lips” means that the truth of the gospel must be spoken boldly in public space, in streets or in shops. But this proclamation of the word comes out of the heart (kardia) because the word is “in your heart” (Romans 10:8). This implies that every spoken word of faith must reflect the deep inside of the heart where the Spirit dwells.

Third, in Romans 10:9, Paul explains what it means to have faith: “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Faith involves specific content and action. A person must confess that Jesus is Lord (kyrios). This means the real Lord is not the emperor or any human master but Jesus Christ who exemplified God’s love and his righteousness. Because of this confession, a person must live by the spirit of Jesus. Likewise, a person must believe in his/her heart that “God raised him [Jesus] from the dead.”

Here faith means to acknowledge the power of God and to trust him. God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him. Jesus did not fail on the cross; he revealed God’s righteousness. In sum, faith means to trust God and to live with the lordship of Christ. Christians must be ruled by Jesus or his spirit, not by their sinful passions (Romans 6:6; 7:5). Then, they “will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Salvation is not a once-and-for-all event. Justification and salvation have to be worked out in everyday life until the Parousia. Romans 10:10 emphasizes this point: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” Notice here that justification and salvation are made with the present tenses (“so is justified” and “so is saved”).

Fourth, in Romans 10:11-13, Paul states the power of the gospel of faith. In Romans 10:11, he quotes from Isaiah 28:16: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” This verse also echoes Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” “Believing in him” in Romans 10:11 means recognizing the works of Jesus for God’s righteousness and following his spirit. Those who are in Christ are not condemned because they live in the Spirit.

In Romans 10:12, Paul says: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” This verse refers to what he said earlier in Romans 1:16 and 3:29-30 where he emphasized the gospel of faith for all. In Romans 10:13, he quotes from Joel 2:32: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This verse means that the gospel of faith is open to all, but there must be a proper response, which is to call on the name of the Lord. Obviously, “to call on the name of the Lord” means understanding Jesus’s work, following his spirit, and living under the lordship of Christ.