Lectionary Commentaries for March 6, 2019
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Greg Carey

Does Beyoncé need an introduction?

Does Jesus’ teaching on practicing our piety before others require commentary, particularly on Ash Wednesday?

Jesus seems to mean pretty much what he says, going especially hard upon those who receive credit for their public religiosity. We who write commentary receive small checks, along with brief bibliographic sketches and inclusion in an online index that seems eternal. Preachers make their livings, however modest, by expounding upon Jesus’ words. We have little choice but to make meek in our public reflections upon these words.

These admonitions are as characteristic of Jesus and his ministry as anything else he says or does. Only a few particulars set Jesus’ ministry apart. Rather than setting up a base of operations, he traveled, building community wherever he went. He gathered disciples, setting twelve apart as apostles. He built a reputation as a healer and exorcist. His teaching gathered crowds and provoked controversy, especially because he possessed no central base of operations authority, no traditional foundation for authority. Something was up with food: Jesus sparked controversy when he was invited to meals, people complained about his table company, and he associated eating with the reign of God. For a religious leader, Jesus seems remarkably suspicious of the marks of religion.

With respect to the passage under consideration, Jesus may or may not have been particularly pious. Some Gospels emphasize his prayer life, some suggest he routinely attended synagogue, John presents him as a regular at the Jerusalem festivals. But the Gospels all show Jesus in conflict with the Temple authorities. To the point of those reading: Jesus received criticism for keeping company with tax collectors and other kinds of sinners, but he initiated all sorts of conflict with the publicly righteous. Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus informs would-be disciples that those who wish to know the kingdom of heaven must attain a righteousness higher than that of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20).

This reading from Matthew crashes into our current cultural moment precisely on this point: public righteousness. It is easy to mock ostentatious piety of the individualized variety. I don’t put religious decals on my car because I’m bound to cut someone off in traffic, prompting them to associate my public display of Jesus love with my moment of thoughtlessness. Better to turn down the volume than to create an opportunity for offense.

We can imagine easier targets. As I type this morning, a friend just quipped that his ability to book a flight under winter storm conditions proves there is a God. We hear the same from people who are not joking, people whose public displays of piety are self-congratulatory more than anything else. It is as if Jesus’ words should accompany their lives as annoying subtitles.

But something more dangerous is at stake. More than ever before, the discourse of piety has become a weapon of social advantage. It’s used to enfranchise some people and disempower others. Here we preachers had best be alert: “Watch out!” says Jesus (Matthew 6:1). In this instance we should practice restraint, castigating those who disagree with us as little as possible, even the powerful ones.

Let the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount be our guide. First, however forbidding Jesus’ words, it appears he really means what he says. “Don’t even think I’ve come to abolish the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17), in case we were wondering. “You have heard it said … but I tell you.” Immediately prior to our reading we hear, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Christians have spent centuries spiritualizing our way around Jesus’ words, but the Sermon closes with the parable of the houses built on the rock and on the sand. Maybe he means it.

At times, however, we must pray out loud. The gay or lesbian teen who has been rejected by Christian parents needs our out loud Christian blessing. Welcoming Syrian refugees, let us wear our church t-shirts and bless them in the name of Jesus. The point of discernment lies earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes: who benefits from these public displays? If they contribute to our spiritual bona fixes, let us dispense with them. If they bless the lowly, comfort the grieving, or do right by those who hunger and thirst for justice, then let us sin boldly.

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount locates us at the vanishing boundary that distinguishes the attitudinal from the behavioral. The psychologists say we can change our behaviors by changing our attitudes, and we can transform our attitudes by reforming our habits. This reading from Matthew begins and ends with the attitudinal: Jesus warns would-be disciples to “Watch out,” and he instructs them where to store their treasure. When it comes to public piety, discernment lies in the attitudinal. There’s no dodging discernment, but Jesus does provide a rule of thumb: Watch out.


First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Wil Gafney

Joel is a particularly timeless text.1

There are insufficient contextual cues to identify its timeframe. There is no mention of a monarch in the opening verse by which to date it as is common in the prophetic canon. (Only Joel, Obadiah, and Malachi do not provide such information initially; however, Obadiah clearly dates itself with its content, the fall of Jerusalem.)

The precipitating event for Joel is slightly clearer, an ecological — and therefore economic — catastrophe in the form of an unparalleled locust plague and the devastation of crops leading to the decimation of livestock (Joel 1:4-7, 11-12, 17-18). The devastation is interpreted as “the day of the Lord” in Joel 1:15, a day of ultimate judgment many associate with the end of the world. In response to this cataclysm the prophet calls for fasting and lamentation, (1:13-14).

The verses assigned for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, anticipate successive waves of calamity. In Joel as in some other prophets there is the sense that the day might just not be the end of the world, that there is a possibility that some might survive the coming apocalypse through God’s mercy (Joel 2:13-14). God bids the people “return to [God]” in 2:12 with fasting, weeping, and mourning, and in verse 13, rending their hearts rather than their garments.

It is important to note that no specific charge is laid against the people for which they need to repent. More importantly, they are not blamed for the catastrophe they have just experienced. (I am writing in the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, José, and Maria, and the earthquake in Mexico City). Unlike some contemporary television evangelists, the prophet does not blame the people for their own suffering, and does not claim that natural catastrophes are divine punishment. While turning to God, particularly turning back to God often signals repentance which is the primary meaning of the verb shuv, here I suggest it be read as rededication.

I read the call in Joel 2 as a call to draw closer to God. That is undoubtedly why the lectionary framers chose this text for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the season in which we as the Church are bid to draw closer to God using the very same spiritual disciplines disclosed in Joel: prayer and fasting. Joel 2:16 calls for the entire community to respond to the call for rededication — infants, children, and elders (making it even less likely they are charged with “sinning”) and wedding parties enjoined to suspend festivities.

Joel 2:14 bids the community to turn to God in the hopes that God will intervene in the ecological catastrophe. The prophet is clear that there is no guarantee. God cannot be bought off. This is not a prosperity gospel or incantational theology in which you can get what you want out of God as long as you follow the rules exactly.

Joel has a special word for priests and “ministers,” those who assist in the service of temple in verse 17. (The Episcopalian in me wants to read them as deacons.) While neither priests nor their assistants are the same as contemporary clergy, the two groups can serve an analog for clergy. The text charges those who oversee the liturgical work of the community with interceding for the community.

They are not charged with pointing out sin in the community, but praying for them, to the point of tears. The prophet even gives them a script, “Spare your people, Holy One, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Reminiscent of Moses, Joel invokes shame as a motivation to move God to act on behalf of her people. (See Exodus 32:12 and Numbers 14:13-16 where Moses tells God what the Egyptians will say if God kills the Israelites or allows them die.)

Joel offers a familiar tender portrait of the God who draws us in, towards her: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). This core description of God is foundational in Judaism and is repeated throughout the scriptures: see also Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; Jonah 4:2. All of these use forms of the root rhm, meaning womb to expresses God’s tender love, often translated as “merciful.” Rahum is the deep love that springs from the womb, no more separable than the heart is from heartache.

It is to that God that the Church turns during Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday. The opening prayer of the day in the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book of the Episcopal Church, translates Joel’s understanding of God into the liturgy:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Notes:

1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 14, 2018.

 


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-12

Samuel Giere

Ash Wednesday carries with it an annual tension between empty, external and genuine, radical acts of piety.

With ashen crosses smudged on our foreheads, we hear Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others … ” This same tension is a central aspect of Isaiah 58.

Textual Horizons

Isaiah 58 is a call to preach. The gist of the sermon is a call to substantive faithfulness. What does this sound like, this preaching? Like the blast of the shofar (“trumpet”), associated with the voice of the Almighty,1 the word of the Lord warns the hearer: intent matters.

The Lord comes down hard and unequivocally on the poorly intentioned praxis of the religious types. Specifically, the manner of the fasting does not sit well with the Lord. It’s a case of metaphorical (of course!) divine heartburn. In the eye of the beholder, the people’s practice is impeccable. For all intents and purposes, the people are seeking after the Lord. The casual observer might think this is a case study of religious praxis well-done.

Isaiah 58.3 encapsulates the rub that runs throughout the pericope. The will of the “religious” and the will of the Lord are at loggerheads:

Religious folks: Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

The Lord:            Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.2

The first half of the verse captures how the people are miffed at the Lord’s lack of response. Why do we fast if you’re not going to pay attention? This is for show, after all. With bitter irony comes their second question: Why do we humble ourselves, but you don’t see it? If there is humility in their questions, it is merely a thin veneer covering self-interest. The people’s fasting is duplicitous. No matter how it looks from the outside, this fasting is condemned for being curved inward — for being disingenuous, seeking the Lord’s favor all the while oppressing the laborer, the employee, the worker.

In short, the substance of shofar’s blast is clear. There is an incongruity between what the Lord desires and what the people offer. Fasting, no matter how “good” it looks or who well it is done, if piety is turned inward and not accompanied with fair treatment of others, is empty.

Rather than perpetuate vacuous religious praxis, the Lord calls the people to a different kind of fast — a different kind of faithful praxis.

            Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

            Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 3

The contrast here is clear between the people’s intentions and the Lord’s will. Bring your praxis into line with your heart, and vice versa. Religious praxis, no matter how beautifully executed, is meaningless when the love and mercy of the Lord are not extended as our own love and mercy.

Homiletical horizons

Religious folks of all stripes and patterns ought to pay close attention to this text. Religious practice without the heart of God’s love and mercy is empty.

One of the definitions of sin used by Martin Luther, rooted in Paul’s letter to the Romans, is incurvatus in se — being curved in on oneself. To say it differently, to put oneself at the center of the universe is sin. Being turned in on oneself leaves little room for God, as God becomes a means to an end — an object used to secure happiness, wholeness, or wellbeing for our plastic piety. God is not encountered as Eternal You (Buber) but as Eternal It — Eternal Vending Machine — Eternal Means to some selfish, self-serving end.

Being turned in on oneself impacts the individual’s vision.4 The other — whatever species of fellow creature — becomes a means to my individual aim. The vision to which the Lord calls us (through Isaiah) is one not of self-concerned navel-gazing but of outward care for the other.

It is important to be clear. The Lord’s big complaint here is not so much about fasting itself. It is inwardly-turned fasting and with inwardly-turned fasting any inwardly-turned piety that focuses on the self without turning the gaze outward towards the living God and the neighbor.


Notes:

  1. See also Exodus 19, wherein the sound of the Lord’s speech is associated with the blast of the shofar.
  2. Isaiah 59.3a
  3. Isaiah 58:6–7
  4. Of course, being turned in on oneself is not limited to the individual. Communities, congregations, political parties, businesses, systems are all susceptible to turning inward. Given the Ash Wednesday context, I’ll focus on the individual, each of whom will receive an ashen cross on their brow.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Almost no historically-trained biblical scholars conclude that David wrote any of the psalms.

Rather, the superscriptions of the psalms were added late in the process of the formation of the Psalter; and as regards the thirteen psalms that identify a specific occasion in David’s life, the editors chose psalms that they thought fit a particular occasion. When it comes to Psalm 51, it seems to me that the editors of the Psalter were right on-target. Or, as I like to put it, if David did not pray Psalm 51 at the conclusion of the episode described in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:15, he certainly should have!

In any case, it is helpful to hear Psalm 51 in the context of 2 Samuel 11:1-12:15, as the editors of the Psalter apparently intended (see especially 2 Samuel 12:13). One effect is to emphasize the monstrous nature of the sinful behavior on the part of David/the psalmist. After all, in the Bathsheba-episode, David did not just break a minor commandment or two; he obliterated the Decalogue, as he engaged in coveting, stealing, adultery, false witness, and murder.

While one effect of hearing Psalm 51 in conversation with 2 Samuel 11-12 is to indicate the magnitude of sin, the really startling thing about the juxtaposition of the two texts is that David is forgiven! To be sure, there are the disastrous consequences narrated in the remainder of 2 Samuel; but David is not indicted, impeached, nor removed from office. The cynical side of us might say, “Well, of course not; powerful men can always get away with murder.” But that is not the conclusion that the editors of the Psalter were going for. Rather, the ultimate effect of hearing Psalm 51 in conversation with 2 Samuel 11:1-12:15 is to emphasize the magnitude of God’s amazing grace.

Not coincidentally in this regard, Psalm 51 starts with the vocabulary of grace in verse 1 before it mentions sin — “Have mercy,” “steadfast love,” abundant mercy.” By using “mercy” twice, the NRSV obscures the fact that three Hebrew roots are represented here; and they are three of the most important in the Old Testament, occurring together in Exodus 34:6 where they define God’s essential character (see “merciful,” “gracious,” and “steadfast love,” and see also Joel 2:13, part of the Old Testament lesson for the day). Exodus 34:6 concludes the Golden Calf episode in which, like David in 2 Samuel and the psalmist in Psalm 51, the entire people of God are forgiven after sinning grievously (see Exodus 32:1-14).

Of course, the vocabulary of sin figures prominently in Psalm 51, especially in verses 1-5 (see “transgression, which connotes willful rebellion, in verses 1,3; “iniquity”/ “guilty,” which represent the same Hebrew root, in verses 2, 5; “sin”/ “sinned”/ “sinner” in verses 2, 3, 4, 5; and “evil” in verse 4). The range of vocabulary and the sheer repetition communicate the pervasiveness of sin. But as the psalm proceeds, the psalmist’s pleas for forgiveness become dominant (see verses 6-9), and the vocabulary of sin recedes (see verse 9). By the time one gets to verse 13, while the vocabulary of sin is present, the focus has shifted dramatically. Here the psalmist anticipates being a teacher of “transgressors” and “sinners,” and the psalmist’s curriculum will certainly focus on divine grace.

The message is clear — that is, grace is powerfully transformative. Between the final two occurrences of “sin”/ “sinners” (verses 9, 13) lies the pivotal section, verses 10-12. The verb translated “create” in verse 10 occurs in the Old Testament only with God as its subject; and when it occurs with the three-fold mention of “spirit” in verses 10-12, there is at least a hint of Genesis 1 (see “created” in Genesis 1:1 and “wind,” which could also be translated “spirit,” in Genesis 1:2). The word “spirit” can also mean something like “animating force.”

In short, God’s willingness to forgive creates a new life for the psalmist (see “new” in verse 10). At this point, Psalm 51 anticipates the experience and the message of the Apostle Paul, who, like David, was a famous murderer. But “in Christ,” according to Paul, “there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This “new creation” is predicated upon forgiveness; and as is the case in Psalm 51, the forgiven sinner shares “the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

The transformative power of grace is marked too in Psalm 51 by the transition from petition (verses 6-14a) to praise (verses 14b-15). Every organ of speech is involved — “tongue,” “lips,” and “mouth” — and what the psalmist celebrates is “salvation” and “deliverance.” In short, the psalmist has moved from death to life. The word that NRSV translates “your deliverance” is more literally “your righteousness.” God has set things right, not by giving the psalmist what is deserved (see verse 4), but rather by forgiving. The psalmist, David or otherwise, is saved by grace. The appropriate response is praise, which is not only a liturgical act but also a way of life.

The shape of a praise-oriented life comes into focus in verses 16-17. Ordinarily a sacrifice of thanksgiving might be offered in response to God’s saving work (see Psalm 116:16-19). But here, as verse 16 indicates, gratitude is to be expressed differently. It is probably not coincidental that “spirit” and “heart” occur in verse 17, recalling the psalmist’s prayer in verse 12 where both words also appear.

The acceptable sacrifice is the psalmist’s transformed life, a life lived with gratitude and humble submission to God. Presumably, what the psalmist will teach others (verse 13) is that grace invites gratitude and humility. At this point, Psalm 51 anticipates again the Apostle Paul who, after proclaiming that sinners are saved by grace (Romans 1-11), appeals to his readers to offer their whole lives and selves “as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:2), thus demonstrating conformity not to the world but to the word of God. As the psalm for Ash Wednesday, Psalm 51 outlines the appropriate posture for the season of Lent — pervasive gratitude and the humble submission of life and self to God.


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Frank L. Crouch

Whenever we come across the pronoun “we” in the epistles — any of the New Testament epistles, not just the Apostle Paul’s — it is helpful to ask who is included when “we” is used.

Often, “we” refers to all followers of Christ or to humanity in general. In 2 Corinthians, however, a letter in which Paul is significantly at odds with the Corinthian community, it tends to refer to Paul and a small group of fellow travelers and leaders. It typically sets “we” and “us” against “you,” the people with whom Paul is in conflict. In this letter, “we” generally is a term of distinction, including only Paul and Timothy (1:1); or Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus (1:19); or perhaps adding Titus and “the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news” (6:16-22).

This use of “we” plays an important teaching role in this letter, where Paul holds himself and a few others up as distinctively good role models for the Corinthians (and other readers/hearers of this letter) to imitate. In the rhetoric of this letter, not all followers of Christ are equal. In fact, in this pericope in particular (also in 2 Corinthians 4:1-12) Paul points to a list of the afflictions he has suffered for the sake of the gospel in order to distinguish himself and his group from opponents in the community who criticize and attack him without cause.

He acknowledges the risk of doing this — being seen as self-righteous, boastful, and foolish — but sees that course as the only way to demonstrate that he is not enduring hardships and sufferings for his own sake, but for the sake of others and the gospel (2 Corinthians 10-12). As a side note, although Paul’s words here and in other places lead people today to criticize him for being too full of himself, in first century Greco-Roman culture, leaders were expected to be able to point to themselves as role models.

Making distinctions between ourselves (the good guys) and others (the bad guys) in the body of Christ can, indeed, be risky and destructive. We (all of us) are so prone to self-deception and self-justification that we must always guard against thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). At the same time, not all power struggles are created equal. As was true in first century Corinth, it remains true today, that sometimes within the body of Christ — locally in a congregation or nationally in a church body — people try to sway the beliefs and practices of the church on the basis of their own twisted understandings or their own raw desire for influence and power. People can lock into opposing camps for the worst possible reasons, motivated by the basest of motives.

During conflicts such as these, one can only find the best ways to go, the truest paths to resolution and faithfulness by examining the actual lives and character of those seeking to lead. Paul in his day and we in ours can find ourselves or our communities pushed to the point where we cannot argue on the basis of doctrine, adherence to tradition, theology, philosophy, ideology, reason, or official policies but only on the testimony of character and the cumulative witness of people’s lives. In these times, we find guidance and direction, almost always, not in the seats of power, influence, and money.

We find guidance and direction by attending to the wisdom of those who have endured and learned from “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). And we test the validity of everyone’s guidance and so-called wisdom by examining their words and lives in light of “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” (6:6-7).

The farther away anyone’s words and actions lie from those guiding lights, the farther those people are from the truth, and the smaller the likelihood that they will lead us anywhere close to where God desires us to go. This holds true when we assess leaders both inside the church and outside the church.

This pericope lines up with a theme found throughout scripture — in the Psalms (Psalm 40:3-4; 118:8-9; 146:3-7), the prophets (Jeremiah 17:5; Isaiah 31:1, Zechariah 4:6), the histories (1 Samuel 8:10-20), the gospels (Luke 1:51-53, Mark 13:1-2 and parallels) and the epistles (1 Timothy 6:10, 17, James 5:1-6, Hebrews 13:5): do not put your faith in rulers, in money, in the powerful, in the mighty. Almost inevitably, money, power, and might become ends in themselves, with their benefits accruing to those who already have them far more than finding their way into the lives of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

These views on where the source of life, truth, and trustworthy leadership lies — in God, not in money, power, or might — call for extended consideration during the season of Lent. Lent stands as a season of reflection, a time for relentless honesty about ourselves and what actually motivates our daily lives and actions, seeking also the same honesty about what actually motivates the daily life of our faith communities.

As Paul says, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). “Now” is always the time for reflection on who we have been, who we have become, and who we might become. Now, during this Lenten season, is the time for assuring that “we are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry” (6:3).

As so many individuals and faith communities seek to find their way forward in the midst of competing claims for guidance and leadership, we do ourselves and those we serve the greatest service when we argue along the lines of Paul. Do not look to power, money, might, and influence. Seek “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” for ourselves, our communities, and for those we serve.