Lectionary Commentaries for February 24, 2019
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 6:27-38

Ronald J. Allen

This reading continues the Sermon on the Level Place which we introduced in the comments on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Luke 6:17-26.

Three aspects of last week’s exegesis are essential for understanding the passage today. First, the phrase “level place” is a way of speaking about the fractious nature of life in the old age. Second, the teaching of the Sermon has in view the specific life circumstances of the Lukan congregation. Third, the sermon offers guidance in how the congregation can live and witness faithfully in its situation considering the partial presence and final coming of the Realm of God.

In the ancient world, many groups believed that the community was to imitate its leader. The Lukan Jesus draws on this principle when grounding the Sermon theologically in Luke 6:36. The community is to be merciful as God is merciful. Mercy is releasing people and circumstances from recrimination they deserve. Mercy is one of God’s primary qualities (see also Exodus 34:6-7).

The notion of mercy in Luke 6 has an eschatological frame of reference. The world deserves apocalyptic punishment. Instead, God is merciful by offering the possibility of turning away from disobedience and punishment (repentance) and turning towards the movement to the Realm.

Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Level Place show the community how to put eschatological mercy into practice. Luke 6:27-38 does not offer a comprehensive list of ethical maxims for the community but mentions several case studies, focal instances or representative examples of mercy in action in the circumstances besetting Luke’s world. Listeners can then reason their way into how to put the values of the Realm reflected in these imperatives into practice other situations.

Three things happen when the community acts on these directives. First, the witnessing community extends the mercy of God — and the hope of being part of the Realm — to those who otherwise face destructive lives. Second, those who extend mercy (and the Realm) find that their experience of mercy deepens as part of their present, if partial, experience of the Realm. Third, the church models the promise of the Realm for other communities.

Luke 6:27-29 presuppose situations of conflict. Luke perceived many Jewish leaders and many Romans as hateful, even as enemies. Instead of responding to various forms of threat with corresponding recrimination, the Realm calls for attitudes and actions that seek the good of the other, and, hence, that build up the community. Luke’s form of nonviolence in this passage thus goes beyond non-retaliation. The disciples are to take positive steps that promote the welfare of the parties with whom the community is in conflict.

Luke 6:30 presupposes an economic situation in which many people were exploited, lived in poverty, and sought to survive by begging. The instruction to give to those who beg implies that people in the eschatological community have an abundance out of which to share (see Luke 6:39). From Luke’s point of view, systemic economic change will occur only at the second coming.

The “golden rule” of Luke 6:31 has the Realm as the implied reference point. Jesus’ followers are to relate to others according to the perspectives and actions of the Realm. It might be stated this way: “If you want to live in a world that has the qualities of the Realm, then treat other people in Realm-like ways, especially as described in the Sermon on the Level Place.”

A widely accepted idea from the Hellenistic world is in the background of Luke 6:32-34: relationships were viewed as reciprocal. A person behaved generously towards another person in the expectation that in the future, the generosity would be returned. Jesus notes that such relationships are so much a part of life in the level place that even sinners love, do good to, and lend to their friends. If Jesus’ followers relate to others based on nothing more than reciprocity, they simply reinforce the qualities of life in the old age.

Instead, in Luke 6:35, Jesus exhorts the disciples to replace old-age qualities of behavior with those that are characteristic of the Realm. Indeed, in so doing, the disciples imitate God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. To be “kind” does not mean to approve but means to seek the best interest. God wants even the ungrateful and the wicked to repent and become a part of the movement to the Realm. Indeed, the word “kind,” chrestos, is related to the word “grace,” charis.

Christians sometimes mistake the admonition to stop judging and condemning in Luke 6:37 to mean that the church should never make a moral judgment. Rather, in the eschatological context of this Sermon, the saying likely means that the church should not act like it knows the final verdict on those who oppose the Realm of God. Human perception is always finite. Moreover, enemies have the opportunity to repent until the apocalypse.

To be unforgiven and unforgiving is to be imprisoned by the lack of forgiveness. In the security of the Realm, it is possible to forgive, which releases both those who forgive and those who are forgiven (Luke 6:37b).

Per Luke 6: 39, when the community gives, that is, when it lives on the basis of the Sermon on a Level Place, it will be in a position similar to the person who goes to the market for grain. The merchant fills the measuring container to the brim and shakes it down so that every cranny is filled, and then pours the overflowing grain into the apron of the buyer to carry home.  In a similar way, God pours out the power of the Realm on the communities that live into it.

I confess to being perplexed about these practices for today. On the one hand, it is easy to say why Christians sometimes say that these principles, such as turning the other cheek, are unrealistic in such a violent world. The violent often run over those who do not retaliate. On the other hand, meeting violence with violence increases violence.

At the same time, sometimes the only thing that seems to limit violence is a controlled violent response. Those who choose this route should never accompany it with flag waving and bands, but should proceed with mourning, and with an eye for opportunities to exercise mercy.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Alphonetta Wines

Anyone who wants to understand this part of Joseph’s story must consider his whole story told in Genesis 37 and Genesis 39-50.

Reading these chapters makes it clear that Joseph was someone “to be reckoned with,” someone not to take lightly.

From the outset, Joseph dreams big. So big, in fact, his dreams put him at odds with not only his eleven brothers, but with his father Jacob as well. Visions that his entire family would bow down to him prove too much for the jealous brothers, even for the father whose favorite he is.

As with Cain when he slew Abel, and Jacob when he fled Esau’s wrath, it seems that another fratricide is in the works. The brothers’ murderous jealousy is thwarted when they heed Reuben the elder’s suggestion that they throw Joseph in a pit. That way they could pretend he had been killed by a goat, getting rid of him without shedding his blood. Secretly hoping to save Joseph’s life, Reuben found the pit empty when he returned to retrieve him. Judah, the fourth eldest, proposed they could make some money by sell him to the Ishmaelites. Unknown to the brothers, the Ishmaelites later sold Joseph to the Egyptians.

Fast forward, Joseph’s dream becomes reality. He is now second only to the Pharaoh himself. The path to this unexpected blessing was not an easy one. False accusation in response to his repeated rejection of Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances put him in prison and favor with the wardens put him in charge of the prisoners. Correctly interpreting the dreams of a baker and a cupbearer moved him from prison to the palace. His wisdom interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and his gift for administration made Egypt the “breadbasket of the world” during a seven-year famine.

How could anyone (Joseph, his brothers, or his father) have known that this twist of events would be a blessing for all of them? How could they know that not only his family, but, in effect, the whole world would one day bow to him in search of food? How could they have known that his family, divided by jealousy and envy, would be united once again?

Each generation of Israel’s founding family, Abraham (Sarah and Hagar), Isaac (Rebekah), Jacob (Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah), found a way to resolve the dysfunction that tore them apart. In Genesis 25:9 Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham, despite Abraham’s eviction of Ishmael and his mother Hagar at Sarah’s request. In Genesis 35:29 Esau and Jacob bury Isaac, despite Jacob’s stealing both Esau’s birthright and with Rebekah’s help, his blessing from Isaac. In this passage we read of Joseph reconciling with his brothers, despite their malevolent attempt to kill him and their corrupt deal to sell him off to the Ishmaelites.

While we get only a hint of the reconciliation between Isaac and Ishmael plus a few more details regarding Esau and Jacob’s reconciliation (Genesis 33:1-11), in Joseph’s story reconciliation is front and center, a major part of the drama. Of the thirteen chapters (Genesis 37, 39-50) that tell his story, four of them (Genesis 42-45 and a portion of Genesis 50) cover his reconciliation with his brothers.

In a world much in need of healing and reconciliation, what lessons might there be about reconciliation, both for our personal and corporate lives?

First, reconciliation is possible in even the worst of circumstances. Although his brothers wronged him, Joseph, after a bit of making their lives miserable, sought reconciliation with them. No matter what happened in the past, Joseph and his brothers know that, ultimately, relationship is primary. They choose not to let the past stand in the way of reconciliation.

Second, reconciliation requires facing and telling the truth, no matter how difficult or painful it may be. Joseph referenced, but did not dwell on how he had been wronged. The text notes: “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:4-5). Realizing the effects of the famine on the future, not only does Joseph tell the truth about what happened in the past, he also tells the truth about how dire the situation is in the present.

In today’s world, this is the part that people often miss. They want reconciliation without the work of facing and dealing with the truth — the truth about the past, the present, and the future. There can be no healing, no moving forward until the wounds of the past and their effect on the present and future are openly, honestly, and truthfully addressed. Jesus put it best, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Why stay stuck in the past when the truth will set you free?

Third, Joseph does his part to make things right. He sends for his father, promising that he will provide for the entire family. Reconciliation involves action, not just words. Joseph did his part taking care of his family. The brothers did their part acknowledging that they had mistreated Joseph and honoring Joseph’s request to bring the family, including their father Jacob, to live in Egypt.

Fourth, Joseph recognized God’s hand in his life. God is not a character in Joseph’s story. yet, Joseph recognizes God’s role in his life. He understands that everything that happened brought him to this moment of reconciliation and made it possible to him to bless many, including his family, Egypt, and nations beyond.

Although the particulars of our stories may be different, the need for reconciliation is as necessary in today’s world as it was in Joseph’s day. In a world filled with so much pain and division, may we never cease to seek and do the work, to do our part, until reconciliation is a very present reality for one and all.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Neither prayer nor praise, Psalm 37 is an alphabetic acrostic, a form that is often associated with Israelite wisdom circles (see “wisdom” in verse 30).

For this reason, along with the fact that Psalm 37 demonstrates several features that are typical of wisdom literature — an instructional intent, the contrast between the righteous and the wicked, and a concern with the apparent prosperity of the wicked — it is often categorized as a wisdom psalm. In more contemporary parlance, we might label Psalm 37 as a teaching sermon. The subject of this sermon is often identified as theodicy — literally, the “justice of God” (see “justice” in verses 6, 28, 30; and the same Hebrew root underlies “brought to trial” in verse 33) — an exploration of why, if God wills and works for justice, the wicked “prosper in their way” (verse 7). From this perspective, Psalm 37 has affinities with Psalms 49 and 73, as well as the book of Job.

To be sure, Psalm 37 offers no easy nor definitive answer to the issue of theodicy. Rather, it offers assurance that is communicated in the repeated promises that pervade the psalm as something like a refrain — that is, the wicked will “be cut off” (verses 9, 22, 28, 34, 38) and the righteous will “inherit the land” (verses 9, 11, 22, 29, 34). A major interpretive issue hinges on how one understands the phrase, “inherit the land.” This promise is usually understood symbolically or spiritually. Land in the Old Testament represents livelihood and life. Hence, the promise would be that the righteous will live, while the “wicked perish” (verse 20). In this approach, Psalm 37 resonates with Psalm 1:6: “for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

But it is also possible to interpret “inherit the land” more literally. For instance, Ellen Davis reads Psalm 37 as an “agrarian poem,” the “recurrent theme” of which is possession of the land. In this approach, the psalmist speaks on behalf of those who have lost their land as a result of unjust practices (see the narrative account of such injustice in 1 Kings 21:1-16, the story of Naboth’s vineyard). Davis’s agrarian reading is reinforced by her translation of verse 3:

“Trust in YHWH and do good; settle the land and graze on faith.”

“Graze on faith” is, according to Davis, “surely one of the most arresting metaphors in the Bible,” and “the effect of the metaphor is not to spiritualize the divine promise that unfolds here.” Rather, for Davis, the metaphor clearly indicates that Psalm 37 is “offered to people whose food supply is in jeopardy.”1

The two interpretive options have one thing in common — that is, in both cases, the righteous are vulnerable to the violent and unjust practices of powerful oppressors. And regardless of which interpretive option one chooses, there remains another major interpretive issue — namely, the wicked never seem to be effectively “cut off.”

In the many laments/complaints/prayers for help in the Psalter, the wicked or the enemies are always present. The prophets encountered constant opposition, often violent opposition, as did Jesus. And one need not look far today to see pervasive, systemic injustice, including oppressive practices that leave people regularly hungry and malnourished, including 1 in 5 children in the United States of America.

Given the persistence of injustice and oppression, what do we say about the promises of Psalm 37? Are they simply not true? Are they mere wishful thinking? No! The function of the promises is to locate God with those who “do good” (verses 3, 27), who live simply (verse 16), who practice generosity (verses 21, 26), who both proclaim and embody God’s will (NRSV “law”) for justice (verses 30-31). Such postures and practices are their own reward, for they demonstrate connectedness to God and conformity to God’s ways. Furthermore, they constitute life as God intends life to be, and they have the potential to shape the world in the directions that God intends, including the elimination of poverty and hunger. This is what the psalmist calls us to trust (verses 3, 5) and to commit ourselves to (verse 5).

Trust or faith is, of course, inseparable from hope. Psalm 37 contains both the primary Hebrew roots that communicate hope (see “wait” in verses 7, 9, 34; the underlying Hebrew words are better translated “hope”). In the final analysis, Psalm 37 does what all good sermons do; it invites a response. More specifically, it invites hope grounded in entrusting life and future to God amid ongoing injustice and oppression. As Ellen Davis puts it, “the tone of the psalm is encouragement for the dispirited, not contentment with the status quo.”2 As Davis’s comment implies, hope is not passive waiting. Thus, the invitation to hope in Psalm 37 is a call to active resistance. As William Sloane Coffin rightly said, “hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts.”3

So often in so many circles, the church in the United States has offered little more than religious sanction for the status quo. No wonder that writer Walker Percy several years ago described the church as one of “the most dispirited institutions of the age.”4 We need to hear Psalm 37 and its invitation to find our refuge (see verses 39-40) and hope not in the hollow promises of the American Dream, but rather in God’s promise to create a world where, in Jesus’ words, “the meek … will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5; see Psalm 37:11) and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … will be filled” (Matthew 5:6; see Psalm 37:19, 25, 30-31).


Notes

1 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 114-115 (emphasis added).

2 Davis, 115.

3 William Sloane Coffin, Passion for the Possible: A Message to U. S. Churches, 2nd Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 88.

4 Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Washington Square Press, 1983), 178.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50

Carla Works

The previous sections of 1 Corinthians 15 reminded the believers of the centrality of the resurrection to Paul’s calling, to the gospel that he has preached, and to their faith. 

Contra scholarship that assumes the Corinthians do not believe in a resurrected body because they have an over-realized eschatology — that is, a belief that they have already arrived spiritually at the eschaton — this chapter tackles not an over-realized eschatology, but a fundamental lack of eschatology on the part of some in First Church Corinth.

Paul insists that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. When Christ comes again all will be raised, and the living will be transformed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).

This week’s section of text bluntly raises the question that the Corinthians must have been thinking:  “What might a resurrected corpse look like?”  Some of the Corinthians may not have believed in an afterlife at all, while others may have hoped for their souls’ peaceful existence apart from the body.  The Corinthians’ objections to the belief in the resurrection seem to stem, at least in part, from their repulsion of corpses.  If this God insists on raising corpses (and God does), what will those bodies be like?

The concerns of the Corinthians are understandable. In an age without access to healthcare, life in “normal” bodies was not necessarily a healthy existence. Life for the majority in the Roman Empire was hard. Food was scarce for many. With a lack of nutrition, disabilities or conditions that are still common, like poor eyesight, were abundant. Life expectancy was low. Less than fifty percent of children lived to see the age of ten. Death was simply part of everyday life. Hoping to escape a physical body that was less than healthy is not an unreasonable hope. 

It is of little wonder that the moral philosophy of the day tended to denigrate flesh and blood.  It is not necessary to propose that Paul is fighting a Gnostic belief that exalts the spiritual over the physical. In reality, the predominant philosophies of Paul’s day placed no hope in the body. It must have been appealing to think that the essence of who one is need not be tied to an imperfect casing. But Paul is convinced that God made that casing and longs to redeem it.

In affirming a bodily resurrection, Paul is not advocating a zombie apocalypse. The good news is not the resuscitation of decayed corpses. It is the transformation of the body into a body that has not been corrupted by the powers of sin and death. 

For Paul, sin is a superpower that has taken dominion over the goodness of God’s creation.1 It is not limited to human transgression. We might refer to this concept of sin more broadly as systemic evil or injustice. The whole created order has suffered under sin’s superpower.  All creation — human and nonhuman — longs for redemption (Romans 8:18-25). That means that none of God’s creation has remained untouched — uncorrupted — by sin’s reign — including our bodies.  

Paul dares to imagine the transformation of the body — remade and renewed. The language that he uses to describe the transformation forms a stark contrast to bodily existence as we currently experience it — perishable versus imperishable, weakness versus power, dishonor versus glory, natural versus spiritual (verses 42-44). Far from the image of decaying corpses, the resurrected body sounds glorious. It is not the epitome of disease or weakness, but the epitome of strength and power. 

Paul makes an analogy between the first Adam and the last. Quoting Genesis 2:7, Paul notes that the first Adam was a living soul or a living being. The second Adam exceeds that by becoming a life-giving spirit. The analogy here is similar to Romans 5:12-21. The first Adam brought death, but the last Adam brought life for all. 

Paul is convinced that the believers will be transformed as Christ has been transformed. Paul can make this bold claim because he has seen the resurrected Christ (15:8-11). That one revelation changed the course of Paul’s whole life. That revelation caused him to see God’s transformative resurrection power invading life as he knew it. If Christ has not been raised, then that revelation is a lie. If Christ has not been raised, then this gospel offers no more hope than any other religion or philosophy.

“The image of the man of heaven” is the image that Paul is attempting to portray (1 Corinthians 15:49). He has seen the body transformed in his revelation of Christ, and he is struggling to describe the glory of it. He appeals to celestial bodies — the glory of the sun, the moon, and the star — to contrast that with the terrestrial bodies of flesh and blood (15:40-41).

It is not surprising that he makes use of the imagery of celestial bodies in an attempt to describe the splendor of the transformation. Some believed that upon death, the soul dwelt among the stars. The ethereal stuff that made up the heavens was thought to be the same substance that comprised the soul.2 Paul’s language here echoes the glory of that celestial substance but adapts the expectation. Paul does not believe that we go live in the sky as celestial bodies when we die. Rather, the body will be transformed into this glorious state.

Paul insists that this resurrected body will be a body. It may be a fiery substance, like a star, or somehow exude the glow of celestial bodies, but it will be recognizable as a body.  The flesh and blood that had been corrupted under Sin’s power will be transformed to reflect the blessing of abundant life that God always wanted for God’s creation. 

This section of text does not answer all our questions about resurrection. How is it scientifically possible for a body to become imperishable, for instance? What might a body look like that has been untouched by the corrupting and destructive power of sin?

What this section of the text does do is affirm the bodily resurrection as central to the faith. Paul’s language and experience are limited — as is ours. Perhaps, in this time of Epiphany, we might affirm both the revelation of the risen Christ and the mystery that awaits us when Christ returns (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).


Notes:

1 See Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 125-136.

2 For more information, see Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 104-136.