Lectionary Commentaries for February 17, 2019
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 6:17-26

Ronald J. Allen

The “sermon on a level place” (Luke 6:17-49) is one of the longest teaching discourses in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

Luke portrays Jesus as the final eschatological prophet who announces the partial manifestation of the Realm of God in the present and points to its completion at the apocalypse. While the early church expected that coming to take place fairly soon, Luke prepares the community for a delay.

Jesus’ followers are to live in the present on the basis of the values and practices of the Realm. In Luke 6:17-49, the Lukan Jesus spells out representative qualities of living as eschatological witnesses of the Realm of God in the midst of the old-age. However, people do not live in the Realm on the strength of their own will. God empowers the eschatological community with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus stands on “a level place” (or “a plain”). Matthew sets a similar sermon on a mount to emphasize that Jesus received those teachings from God (Matthew 5-7). The geographical setting has a different function in the Gospel of Luke. Some prophets use the word “level” that provides the background for its use in Luke-Acts (pedinos in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings). The word “level” often refers to places of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning (see Jeremiah 9:22; 14:18; 30:4; Daniel 3:1; Joel 1:10, 20; 2: 22; 3:19; Habakkuk 3:17; Zechariah 12:11). Jesus teaches the way of the Realm in the midst of the world as such a level place.

At the same time, the prophets foresaw God renewing the level places. The glory of God (salvation) would be revealed in them (see also Isaiah 40:4, 18; Ezekiel 3:22, 23; 8:4). While standing in a broken level world Jesus teaches the ways of the present and coming renewal via the Realm of God.

Today’s preacher might trace continuities between life as broken level world then, and life in the broken level places of today. How is our world similar to the level places of the prophets and Luke? As the text unfolds, of course, the question becomes, “How do we manifest the values and practices of the Realm in the midst of the level places of life?”

Whereas Matthew begins the sermon on the mount with nine beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), Luke 6:20-26 begins the sermon on the plain with four beatitudes and four woes. The word “blessed” here refers to being aware in the present of having a place in the movement towards the Realm. To be “blessed” does not mean an absence of struggle. Indeed, as 6:22-23 indicates, to be in the community moving towards the realm can invite hatred, exclusion, being reviled, and being defamed as others reject the Realm and its witnesses. To be blessed is to live through such opposition aware that the struggle is temporary and that “your reward is great in heaven,’ that is, that God will gather the faithful into the Realm.

To live under the verdict of “woe” means condemnation — suffering under curse in the present and receiving final consignment to eternal punishment after the apocalypse. The woeful may not experience apparent discomfort during this life. But they mistake the wealth, overflowing tables, good times, and clubby relationships for God’s highest purposes. Like the rich person of Luke 16:19-31, they will awake to a fiery existence.

Although the Lukan Jesus does not directly urge listeners to make a choice between the ways of blessing and woe, the fact of these two possibilities implies such a choice. Luke wants listeners to choose the way of blessing.

In my view, the references to poverty, hunger, and weeping in Luke 6:20-21 are double entendres. At one level, Luke has in mind people in these broad social categories. At another level, we see from the parallel beatitude in 6:22-23 that Luke also has the followers of Jesus in mind.

The church includes people who are poor for whom the community sharing all things in common is the means whereby God provides for them (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34). Although Luke rarely uses the vocabulary of “hunger,” Luke pictures people “hungering” for the Realm (see Luke 13:22-29; Acts 2:37; 8:31-38; 10:30-33; 13:42-52). Like other end-time writers, Luke depicts people weeping because of the qualities of life in the old age (see Luke 7:13, 32, 38; 19:41; 22:62; Acts 9:39; 21:12). Jesus himself is hated, excluded, reviled and defamed, as is the church in Acts, especially Paul.

A preacher needs to handle Luke 6:24-26 carefully. A temptation is to pose a simple reversal as if those who now have wealth, eat well, laugh, and enjoy high standing according to the standards of the old age, will be hungry, and will mourn and weep in punishment (see also Luke 13:28).

To be sure, condemnation awaits those who do not repent. But a longer view of Luke’s attitude towards persons with wealth and high social standing reveals a pastoral concern: Luke wants such folk to avoid condemnation by repenting and joining the movement towards the Realm, which means putting their material resources at the service of the community (see Luke 3:10-14; 8:1-3; 12:13-21; 18:18-27; 19:1-10; Acts 2:42-47; Acts 4:35-5:11; 6:1-6; 20:33-35). Luke intends to shock persons with wealth into repentance and sharing their money and goods.

Many Eurocentric congregations in the long-established denominations are in a peculiar relationship to this passage. For many are aware that today’s world is a fractured “level place” in the Lucan sense described above. But few such congregations are deeply hungry for (much less weeping for) the level of social transformation implied in the Realm. Only a few contemporary Christians and congregations are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed because of their witness. Indeed, my impression is that most congregations today in the long-standing denominations are in situations more like that of those of Luke’s world who had wealth, were full, and laughing, and were in good social standing according to the standards of the old age.

In such a context, the preacher’s calling may be to help the community to recognize its actual point of identification with the text (with those of means, etc.), to realize the consequences of continuing that identification, namely punishment, and to think afresh about how it might begin to move more towards witnessing to the Realm. To do so is to experience the blessing of Luke 6:20-23.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 17:5-10

Bobby Morris

The book of Jeremiah is a complex admixture of literary genres, voices, disordered chronological segments, and perhaps even authors.

It is also the longest book in the canon, as determined by the most accurate measure of length — the number of Hebrew words comprising the book. Therefore, it is wise especially here to bear in mind that the first impression made by a small passage like this one is likely not to be wholly illustrative of the book from which it is taken.

These verses, as well as a great many more selections of verses throughout the book could easily lead to the conclusion that Jeremiah is a harbinger of only curse and doom; that the God to whom the book bears witness is completely content with an eternal agenda of punishment and vengeance upon humans, whose hearts are, after all, “devious above all else.” Such, however, would do a tragic disservice to the book and the testament to which it belongs, relegating them, as some Christians from antiquity to modernity have done, as irrelevant to if not at odds with the second testament of the canon.

To the contrary, as a closer look at this pericope will reveal, Jeremiah provides an indispensable witness to the complex reality, difficulty, and often misguidedness of the human experience, as well as to a God who enters undeterred into and faces all the complexity and messiness thereof. The human life which Jeremiah sees and experiences includes hardship and difficulty, often exacerbated by choices and inclinations emerging from the depths of the human heart. Rather than simply turning away (as verse five indicates humans are prone to do), God chooses instead to interact with humans and work in the midst of, even despite, and with a vision beyond our often-misguided choices and inclinations. God’s interactions certainly may include fierce anger toward and even harsh punishment upon humans, but never does God ultimately and finally turn away from those created in the divine image.

The construct of two ways contrasted in Jeremiah 17:5-8 bears great similarity to the construct presented by the book of Proverbs — the way of wisdom versus the way of folly, each with its own predictable and corresponding set of outcomes. A slight hitch that is especially apparent in Jeremiah, however, is that humans don’t always make the right choices and thus the outcomes are not the desirable ones.1

The Babylonians are coming and will wreak havoc upon Judah and Jerusalem. Most readers of Jeremiah see the totality of the Babylonians’ intentions and actions as the direct result of God’s anger and vengeance toward Judah. The text makes clear that God was most certainly involved in the coming of the Babylonians.2 This does not mean, however, that God created the Babylonian empire and armies and instilled therein a sense of vicious imperialism, all so it could be unleashed upon the God’s people at their first misstep.

Instead, God makes use of the already established regional policies and practices of the Babylonian empire as an instrument of God’s own judgement and punishment against the deep and ongoing offenses of the people of Judah.3 The people have invited the impending havoc upon themselves by their choices to turn away from the God of their ancestors, who created them, freed them from slavery, and gave them the land they inhabit. Adding insult to injury, the people have gone after other gods, effectively desecrating and breaking the covenant relationship God had established with them.

The use of the Babylonian war machine upon the people may seem harsh. However, it actually points to a God who will not ultimately be deterred by their bad choices. Rather than simply turning away, God stubbornly opts to continue offering God’s covenant people opportunities for new choices rather than to simply and forever turn away from them. The threat is real, the armies are coming. How will the people respond?

There are two options. In the face of the approaching might of Babylon, the people can choose to trust in human might, to seek strength in mortals and flesh, remaining turned away from God and all that God offers. The result is that they are cursed. In other words, they’ve had it. They will be like a shrub trying to survive in a desert, a parched place, a salt land. (Although there may even here be a hint at possible restoration in the phrase “when relief comes” in verse 6.)

Then there are those who will trust in the Lord. These shall be blessed. In other words, they will make it. As indicated by the phrases “when heat comes” and “in the year of drought” (verse 8), these will not be sheltered from all difficulty. However, because their ultimate source of trust and strength is the Lord, they shall be as a tree who can endure such things because its roots are near a stream. Thus, its leaves stay green and it does not cease bearing fruit.4

Verse 9 does not inspire much hope or confidence in the choices of humans. The heart, the deepest, most inner and directive part of the person, is described as “perverse,” such that no one can understand it. That is, no one except God. It is a bit unnerving to realize that God is able to look into the innermost part of our beings and see, totally uncensored, what’s there. But once again, this is a God who, thankfully, does not turn away from us. As painful as the covenant injuries we inflict are, as terrible as they must be to look upon in our heart of hearts, God continues to refuse to turn away.

Sin makes its mark upon the human heart, even with the force of an iron pen and the depth of a diamond point.5 Nevertheless, Jeremiah also testifies to a promised day when God will overwrite those marks with a new covenant, inscribing God’s law upon the human heart so that humans will no longer turn away from the God who never turned away from them.6


Notes:

  1. The book of Job vividly illustrates another problem with the apparent simplicity of the two-ways view of life. Even if the “correct” way is chosen, the outcomes are not guaranteed to correspond with what would be expected.
  2. See for example Jeremiah 1:15, 4:6, 5:15 where God “calls” and “brings” the threat from the north.
  3. Very noteworthy at this point is that God later will in fact stir up and bring an army against Babylon as a means of accomplishing God’s purpose relative to God’s chosen people. See Jeremiah 50:9 and 51:1.
  4. Interestingly, the verb here, though of a different root than the one used in verse five, also means “depart” or “turn away.” Thus, the tree experiencing drought, but whose roots are near a stream, will not “turn away from making fruit” (my translation).
  5. Jeremiah 17:1
  6. Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 1

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

The poets and compilers of the Book of Psalms were clearly in touch with a perennial human issue — happiness.1

“Happy” is the very first word in the Psalter, and the repetition of “happy” in Psalm 2:12 provides an envelope-structure for the two psalms that introduce the book. Given this introductory function, it is not surprising that “happy” will occur over twenty more times in the Psalter; and indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the whole Book of Psalms offers a commentary on the single word “happy.”

Some 2,500 years or so after the origin of Psalm 1, we are still thinking about and talking about happiness. There has even emerged in relatively recent years an academic discipline within the social sciences called “happiness studies,” and there is now a Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. As the word “subjective” in the title of the journal suggests, happiness scholars are interested in what people think and feel about various aspects of their lives — income level, relationships, health, career, and so on. While this approach is interesting and important, it is fundamentally different from the psalmists’ approach to happiness. For the psalmists, the primary subject is not the human being, but rather God! So, happiness is not primarily about what we human beings feel, desire, or accomplish. In short, and in contrast to much of what our society tells us, happiness is not about doing what we want to do. Rather, happiness is about doing what God wants done.

The God-driven life

The repetition of the Hebrew torah in verse 2 reinforces this conclusion. The traditional translation “law” is quite misleading; and in the history of interpretation, it has led to very negative assessments of Psalm 1, which many commentators have construed as legalistic and retributional. But torah does not mean “law.” Rather, it means “teaching” or ‘instruction” (see the Common English Bible’s “Instruction”); and in the broadest sense, it suggests God’s will.

So, Psalm 1 does not mean that happiness can be reduced to a mechanical process of following a set of rules, for which one is duly rewarded. Instead, happiness is a dynamic process that involves — indeed requires — constant meditation (“day and night”) upon God’s will, in order to discern what God would have us do in any and every situation. In short, as Jesus would later summarize the torah, happiness derives from discerning what it means at all times and in all places to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … And … your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).

The translation “prosper” in verse 3 has also contributed to the misunderstanding of Psalm 1, since it has suggested to many commentators the promise of a reward for obedience — even a material reward, since “prosper” in English almost inevitably connotes money or material wealth. A better translation is “thrives” (Jewish Publication Society Bible). If there is a reward involved, that reward is the stability and strength derived from connectedness to God that offers the opportunity to grow and bear fruit. This understanding of reward is, of course, not tied to a retributional system (or a retributional God).

In a similar direction, verses 4-5 do not portray a retributional system whereby God punishes “the wicked.” Rather, by their own choice, “the wicked” separate themselves from God. Verse 5 could be translated, “The wicked do not stand up for justice.” Why? Because, unlike “the righteous,” they do not attend to God’s torah. In other words, God does not exclude “the wicked” from “the congregation of the righteous.” Rather, “the wicked” choose not to be there. To be sure, one may conclude that the consequences of this choice are “punishing.” But if so, this is not a punishment that God intends.

The choice is ours

In the final analysis, Psalm 1 invites a choice — our choice. There are clearly two ways. Note the repetition of “way” in verse 6, and see also “path” in verse 1 and “way” in Psalm 2:12. The contrasting ways yield sharply different consequences that are emphasized by the first and last words of the psalm — “Happy” and “perish.” “Happy” begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and “perish” begins with the final letter. The rhetorical style emphasizes the comprehensiveness of the choice. Will we choose God’s way, which promises life? Or will we choose to go our own way, which promises death?

Can we be more specific? Are there guidelines or criteria to assess whether we are genuinely choosing and following God’s way? Yes! In fact, two key Hebrew roots in Psalm 1 are suggestive in this regard — the roots underlying “justice” (New Revised Standard Version Bible “judgment”) and “righteous.” These two roots constitute a summary of what God wills; and it is likely that the introductory Psalm 1 intentionally anticipates what many scholars consider to be the theological heart of the Psalter — that is, the enthronement psalms (Psalms 93, 95-99). The core-psalms of this collection (Psalms 96-99) all mention “justice” and “righteousness.” Psalms 96 and 98 even say that God “is coming (a Hebrew participle indicating continuous action in the present into the future) to establish justice on the earth … with righteousness” (my translation; see also the Common English Bible). Other key psalms, especially Psalms 72 and 82, also feature “justice” and “righteousness” as basic articulations of God’s will, defining them as attendance to and provision for the poor, the weak, and the needy.

If there is a law involved, it is the law of love (see Romans 13:8-10). The promise of Psalm 1, reinforced by Jesus and Paul, is that the God-directed and neighbor-oriented way is the most rewarding and happiness-producing life possible. The choice is ours.


Notes

1 Commentary adapted from a version first published on this site on May 17, 2015.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Carla Works

For Paul, belief in the bodily resurrection is not optional.

It does not matter to him how scandalous it sounds. The scandal is part of the good news. Nonetheless, some of the Corinthians must have winced at the idea of a God who raised corpses. Why would God want these bodies? Why can we not just believe that God is powerful and follow Jesus’s teaching to love one another? Do we really need to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? Do we really need to live in hope of Christ’s return?

Paul does not budge. If there is no resurrection, there is no hope. If there is no resurrection, then everything we thought we knew about God is a lie. If there is no resurrection, then all we have is this life. And the so-called gospel is not really “good news” at all.

The text does not specify how Paul discovered that the Corinthians were doubting the resurrection, but the apostle does not sugar-coat his response. The word that Paul uses to describe what is being resurrected is nekros, a corpse. He does not say that the person’s spirit is resurrected, or that the soul will go on and be with Jesus. He does not talk about loved ones looking down from heaven or floating around. The focus is on corpses.

The emphasis in this whole chapter of the letter is on a bodily resurrection. This is a God who cares about the physical stuff of the body. Though the text does not specify what the Corinthians’ concerns are, their main objection to the resurrection appeared to center around the body since that is the focus of Paul’s argument.

There are many reasons why a first century audience might not find belief in a bodily resurrection appealing. Even in Greek culture, that celebrated the body in its art, there were still strands of philosophical thought that vilified the body and cautioned against giving into its desires. The body, after all, was corrupt, physical matter. According to Plutarch, death was simply the release of the soul from the body. Marcus Aurelius taught that at death the body goes to the earth and the soul to the atmosphere.1 The separation of the soul from the fleshly matter of the body was a widespread belief.

If the soul, which was considered pure and heavenly or celestial in substance, longed to escape the corrupt body, why would this God raise corpses? This must have seemed counterintuitive to Corinthians who had thought of themselves as educated, sophisticated, and wise. Why couldn’t they place their hope in their souls going to be with the Lord?

Paul does not invent hope in the resurrection. Strands of Jewish thought hoped for resurrection. Paul was trained as a Pharisee and, according to the author of Acts, used the belief of resurrection to cause an uproar among the Jewish leaders who were considering his case (Acts 23:6-10). It was not hard to cause a disturbance over resurrection since the Sadducees, who were present at his trial, did not believe in the resurrection. Yet, like the Pharisees, many Jews maintained hope in resurrection.

Texts like 2 Maccabees 7 long for a bodily resurrection. Other Hellenistic Jewish literature hoped in a redeemed and renewed world (see, for example, 2 Baruch 44:12-14; 51:3; 57:1-3; 4 Ezra 7:9; Sibylline Oracles 3:767-795; see also Isaiah 11:6-8; 65:17-25). Paul shares this hope — that God will renew all of God’s creation.

Paul’s experience of seeing the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:8-11) changed his perspective on when and how God was renewing God’s creation. Paul’s hope for resurrection was no longer a distant future dream. God’s life-giving power had invaded the cosmos and conquered death by resurrecting Jesus. With this act, God declared certain victory over death.

Paul does not care that the hope of a bodily resurrection might be repulsive. Christ’s resurrection is non-negotiable. It has to be for Paul’s gospel to work. At the heart of this good news is the resurrection of Jesus. If God did not actually raise Jesus from the dead, then God is not stronger than death. 

Death, for Paul, is not a neutral force. Death is an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is an anti-God power that must be destroyed if creation is to experience abundant life (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). This is a God of life.

Paul’s gospel promises abundant life. How can there be a promise of abundant life if God is not stronger than Death? If God has not raised Jesus from the dead, then there is no hope that God will raise anyone else. Then, Paul’s preaching is in vain; the Corinthians faith is in vain (15:14). And all who have hoped in Christ are to be pitied (15:19). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17).

For Paul, the great enemy, “Death,” is the sidekick of sin. A little later in the chapter he writes that the sting of death is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56). Likewise, in Romans 6:23, Paul says that the wages of sin are death.  According to Romans 5, sin has reigned from the time of Adam, and no one has been able to escape sin’s power. All have been enslaved to the superpower of Sin, with a capital “S.”2

For God to defeat Death is the signal that God has defeated the power of Sin. God’s resurrection of Jesus is the surety, the first fruit, that God will defeat the powers of Death and Sin for all creation. It is the decisive act that has determined God’s ultimate victory.

In an age where many churches are experiencing decline in attendance, some have intentionally decided to share only portions of the gospel that are “seeker-friendly.” In other words, advice that sounds like wise council for living, like being kind to one another and living peaceably. While these are worthy goals, the gospel demands more. At the core of the gospel is a God who refuses to abandon creation to the corrupting powers of sin and death. This a God of life. And that is good news indeed.


Notes:

  1. For more on views of the body and death see Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 104-136.
  2. See Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 125-136.