Lectionary Commentaries for February 10, 2019
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Commentary on Luke 5:1-11
Ronald J. Allen
Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]
In terms of lasting impact on the imagination and piety of both Jewish and Christian tradition, there are few texts with greater reverberations than Isaiah 6.
This text, throne vision and call story, is a mind-blowing, trippy, sensual vision beyond the veil of the Temple. Distinct, but not unique, such visions1 have grabbed the imagination of people in both Judaism2 and Christianity. Probably the most lasting and impactful reverberation within the imagination for Christians is the song of the Seraphim:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.3
This hymn of the Seraphim around the presence of God can be heard whenever the Christian assembly (of both Western and Eastern liturgical traditions) is sung by the Christian assembly whenever the Eucharist is celebrated.
Set in the eighth century BCE,4 the text is Isaiah’s first-person recollection of his call story, which happens in immediate proximity to the presence of God. He recalls: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6.1). That Isaiah saw the Lord is in itself remarkable, especially given the Lord’s words to Moses: “ … no one shall see me and live.”5 Isaiah’s vision is unusual and dangerous. The holiness of the Lord is nothing to be taken lightly.
This glimpse behind the veil includes a vision of the seraphim — fiery, winged creatures who serve at the throne of the Lord. While the cherubim were (and are) often mistakenly portrayed in Baroque art as the naked, chubby little putti, winged, cupid-like creatures floating the corner of paintings, the seraphim are unmistakably frightening. Seraph roughly translates as ‘fiery.’6 And what is the vocation of these creatures? They sing. They call to one another around the throne:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
Under our feet their song shakes the very foundations of the temple thresholds. In our eyes and noses, there is smoke, which fills the temple.
Overawed by this and perhaps aware of the Lord’s words to Moses,7 Isaiah speaks. He confesses. His words full of dread. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”8 Isaiah acknowledges the truly awe-full nature of the Lord’s holiness. There is a recognition that coming into the unmediated presence of the Lord is not something to seek, for it yields terror and death. The Lord is God. Isaiah is not. We are not. In any such encounter, there is danger.
The encounter gets weirder.
One of the fiery seraphim flies from the throne to Isaiah carrying with a pair of tongs a coal from the altar of the Lord. The coal is aflame. The seraph — without asking — touches the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips, saying: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed, and your sin is blotted out.”9 The cleansing action and pronouncement of absolution by the seraph make way voice of the Lord: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” This in turn engenders Isaiah’s simple reply: “Here I am. Send me.”10
The content of Isaiah’s first utterance rounds out the chapter. After this terrifying awakening of Isaiah’s call, after his simple acceptance, the prophet’s first job description is not so appealing. The basic gist is that Isaiah is supposed to tell the people that they don’t get it. “How long, O Lord?” Isaiah asks (verse 11a). Until the whole thing crumbles. Not just 90%. Everything. So, Isaiah’s commission — who wants it? Reading Isaiah’s call story is not likely to raise the number of admissions applications to seminaries. Recall Luke 13.34.
As one called to teach in a seminary context, I hear many a call story. It is a privilege to be invited into such personal stories.
Call stories — as varied as they are — are stories of intersection. In particular, the intersection of God’s providential care for and reconciliation of the cosmos and an individual’s sense of being and purpose in the world. The stories that we hear in seminary contexts are often those of folks who have discerned the locus of this intersection somewhere near or in a church. Pastors. Deacons. And yet, the reality is that all Christians have a vocation.
Given the complicated composition of the book of Isaiah and the significant stretch of time for its composition — from near the end of Uzziah’s reign in 742 BCE to the first returnees coming from the Babylonian exile in the early to mid-530s BCE — it is difficult to focus with any clarity on the ‘historical’ Isaiah.
His father’s name was Amoz.11 Other than this, we know next to nothing of the particulars of Isaiah’s story. He could well have been a pipefitter or a postal carrier or pediatrician.
There is a beauty in not knowing. This person, whatever his qualifications or lack thereof, was given this awestriking vision and holy calling. The call to be a prophet is, perhaps, nothing to be cherished. We should have sympathy for those who protested such a call, such as Jeremiah and Jonah. And yet, the book that bears Isaiah’s fingerprints and name and school was not only doom and gloom. This is the book early Christians referred to as “the fifth gospel.”
In reality, most call stories follow a less terrifying path, which is normal and good. Being scared shitless is not a prerequisite to have a true and proper calling. It is good for all Christians — and really for all people — to consider this intersection. It’s not always in or even around a church. To put more secular language on it — everyone is invited to look for the intersection of their passions and talents and the world’s need. God calls and equips the baptized for ministry.
Another important aspect of this pericope is its place within Christian imagination and practice. Many Christians hear the thundering song of the seraphim every week. In liturgical lingo, we call it the Sanctus (West) or the Epinikios (East). For centuries, perhaps from the earliest days of the church, Christians have joined their voices to this heavenly song.
Just how big is our imagination of the reach of this little but fiery tune?
The Septuagint interprets Isaiah 6.1b as: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne lofty and raised up, and the house was filled with his glory.”12 The hem of the royal robe is understood to be the glory of the Lord. Given that the temple was understood to be a microcosmic representation of the whole of the cosmos, this interpretation is not surprising.
The throne is associated with the Holy of Holies. The veil in front of the Holy of Holies is the barrier between heaven and earth. The remainder of the Temple is understood, by Josephus and others, to represent the whole of creation. The Septuagint rendering of verse 1b, clarifies that the whole temple (oikos) is filled with the glory of the Lord. When we hear the song of the seraphim, then, this understanding of the temple becomes even clearer:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
This awestriking, gob-smacking encounter with the very presence of the Lord reveals the full extent of the Lord’s glory: the whole earth. How do we imagine, encounter, and interact with the world around us? As if it is filled with the glory (read: presence) of the Lord? Before we arrive. After we leave. Over the horizon which we cannot see. Among those who are similar to us and among those who are different. The glory of the Lord is already there, as it is already here in the bread and wine.
- See also 2 Chronicles 18.18, Ezekiel 1 and 10; Daniel 7.9-14; Acts 7.55; Revelation 4. There are also a number of such visions in apocryphal and pseudepigraphic texts, e.g., 1 Enoch 14.9ff.
- Consider the prohibition of studying the vision of the throne in Ezekiel 1 by one’s self in the Mishnah (m.Hag. 2.1), as it was too dangerous. Later in the development of Judaism, there are also significant bodies of mystical literature, often referred to as Hekhalot (Hebrew for palaces) or Merkabah (Hebrew for chariot) texts, that radiate from the power associated with these visions.
- Isaiah 6.3 (RSV)
- This vision is specifically set in 742 BCE, the year King Uzziah died.
- Exodus 33.20b (NRSV)
- The verbal root of seraph translates “he burns.”
- Exodus 33.20b. Also, cf. John 1.18.
- Isaiah 6.5 (NRSV)
- Isaiah 6.7b (NRSV)
- Isaiah 6.8. With regard to the Hebrew word hinei that initiates Isaiah’s response, listen to the title track from Leonard Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1avQWtV-DY.
- Isaiah son of Amoz is referenced Isaiah 1.1 and at a few other points in the prophet’s book. Isaiah is also referenced as “son of Amoz” in 2 Kings 19-20, as well as in the redacted version in 2 Chron 26 and 32.
- SG translation.
Commentary on Psalm 138
J. Clinton McCann, Jr.
Psalm 138 is almost always categorized as a song of thanksgiving.1
God has answered the psalmist’s prayer (verse 2a); and quite appropriately, the psalmist thanks God enthusiastically (verse 1a), including apparently a visit to the Temple (verse 2). The focus on thanksgiving is reinforced by the three-fold repetition of the Hebrew root that is translated “give thanks” in verses 1 and 2, and “praise” in verse 4. Clearly, the psalmist gives God the credit for the gift of life: “you give me life” (verse 7b; NRSV “you preserve me”) and “your right hand delivers me” (verse 7d). In contemporary terms, we might say that the psalmist displays an attitude of gratitude. In the entitlement-oriented culture in which we live, Psalm 138 might helpfully be appropriated as an example of living gratefully — that is, receiving life as a gift instead of concluding that we have simply “made a living” for ourselves.
While it is helpful to discern and reflect upon what is typical about Psalm 138 as a song of thanksgiving, it is also profitable to note what is unique about the psalm. For instance, although the psalmist affirms that his or her prayer has been answered (verse 3), he or she seems still to “walk in the midst of trouble” (verse 7a); and the final line of the psalm is a petition that communicates ongoing neediness: “Do not forsake the work of your hands” (verse 8c).
To be sure, Psalm 138 is not the only song of thanksgiving to juxtapose grateful celebration with petition — see, for instance, Psalm 118, in which the expression of thanks and the description of deliverance (verses 1-24) are followed by the request, “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! (verse 25). In any case, the juxtaposition is significant, since it rings true, both existentially and theologically. In terms of human existence, there is never really a time when everything is all right. And theologically, the juxtaposition of thanksgiving and petition is a reminder that attempting to embody “the ways of the LORD” (verse 5) actually evokes opposition, as we know from the testimony of the psalmists (see, for example, Psalms 22:7-8; 69:7-8), the prophets (see Jeremiah 15:15-18), and Jesus. In short, as people of faith, we shall always be in a position of both celebrating God’s gift of life and needing to continue to pray for God’s help, as Jesus taught his disciples — after all, “thine is the kingdom” and “thy kingdom come” are part of the same prayer.
The juxtaposition of celebration and petition in Psalm 138 is a characteristic of the Psalter on several levels. The individual laments, for instance, regularly contain descriptions of distress, followed by petition and then by expressions of trust and/or praise (with the exception of Psalm 88). On a macro level, the first three books of the Psalter (Psalms 1-89) are dominated by the voice of lament, whereas the final two books are characterized primarily by the voice of praise. And in the more immediate context of our psalm, Psalm 138 introduces a final Davidic collection that contains a core of laments (Psalms 139-143); and this collection is followed by a collection of songs of praise that concludes the Psalter (Psalms 146-150). What is the effect? It seems that readers in every generation are invited to live with gratitude to God for the gift of life, even amid trouble and opposition, all the while relying on God’s help and entrusting the future to God’s care. This final note is sounded by the psalmist’s affirmation in verse 8, ‘The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me” (see Psalm 57:2).
The ability to live thankfully at all times and to entrust life and future to God is grounded ultimately in the conviction that God is sovereign – that is, that God is the ultimate reality, and that God’s will (God’s “word”/”words” in Psalm 138:2, 4 and “the ways of the LORD” in verse 5) constitutes the genuine path to a fruitful and satisfying life. The very acts of thanking and praising God, including bowing down and singing (verses 1-2, 4-5), affirm God’s sovereign claim. The fact that the psalmist’s thanksgiving to God is articulated “before the gods” (verse 1b) underscores that sovereignty belongs to God alone; and God’s sole sovereignty is to be universally acknowledged, evidenced by praise from the most powerful of earthly rulers (verse 4a; see Psalm 2:10-12, which perhaps not coincidentally is echoed here as the Psalter moves toward its conclusion). While it is possible to hear Psalm 138:4 (and Psalm 2:10-12) imperialistically — that is, “the kings of the earth” will be forced to worship the God of Israel — this need not be the only interpretive option. Rather, verse 4 may be understood as an articulation of the psalmist’s (and/or God’s) vision of a world unified around God’s purpose to set things right for the benefit of all humanity (see Psalms 72:11-17; 96:10-13; 98:4-9; 150:6; Isaiah 2;2-4).
Lest God’s sovereignty be misunderstood to be something like unbridled power or force, verse 6 offers a helpful clarification. God exercises God’s power not as sheer force, but rather as something like sheer compassion. God’s concern for “the lowly” (or “the humiliated,” as I prefer to translate the word) and God’s distancing the divine self from “the haughty” means that the proud, the prosperous, and the powerful cannot properly claim that “God is on our side.” The theological, ethical, and missional implications are profound (see also 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Psalm 113:4-9; Luke 1:51-53). God’s power consists of love (see “steadfast love” in verses 2, 8); and the implication is that genuine praise and gratitude — and indeed, genuine power — will ultimately take the form of regarding “the lowly,” as God does.
The repetition of “your hand(s)” (verses 7-8; see also “right hand” in verse 7) at the conclusion of the psalm is particularly worthy of note, since1. the verb translated “forsake” in verse 8 means more literally “drop, let fall.” The phrase, “the work of your hands” (verse 8), can refer to the psalmist; but it could also suggest the whole of God’s creation (see Psalm 104:24). Even though it is framed as a petition, the last line of the psalm communicates faith. Ultimately, the psalmist’s gratitude, praise, and trust are grounded in the conviction that God has “got the whole world in his hands.”
1. Commentary adapted from a version first published on this site on July 24, 2016.
Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
At the heart of the gospel lies a scandalous claim: The ancient God of Israel raised Jesus — a first century Jew — from the dead.
This message must have been a tough sell among the nations who had their own ancient gods with spectacular temples and golden statues. Corinth was no exception. Temples to other gods surrounded the center of the town and towered over the marketplace. Religion was at the heart of everyday life. And yet a church formed around the scandalous claim of the bodily resurrection of a Jewish peasant from a backwater region of the Empire.
Perhaps the Corinthians had an easier time believing the claim when Paul was with them. After all, Paul was convinced that he had seen the risen Christ. Indeed, it is hard to account for his radical life change otherwise.
In our text this week, we find some in First Church Corinth in doubt. Why would this God raise the dead? Couldn’t we just follow Jesus’s teaching without talking about resurrection? For Paul, there is no good news unless God has raised Jesus from the dead. If God has not raised Jesus, if God has not claimed victory over death, then the gospel is a sham.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul addresses the Corinthians’ concerns over resurrection. He spends more time on this topic than any other topic in the letter. Given the importance of this belief to the heart of the gospel it is not hard to see why it is critical for the apostle to remind the church of the gospel that they had believed.
The text begins with a reminder of the message that Paul has passed on to them — a message that he did not invent but received from God. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul rehashes the gospel in a nutshell. Christ has died for our sins. He was buried and raised on third day. There are some noteworthy emphases in Paul’s retelling. He notes that the life and death of Christ were related to scripture; in fact, he makes this claim twice. Second, he emphasizes post resurrection appearances — a point that is less surprising since he is going to reiterate that the resurrection did occur.
Why might he emphasize scripture? First Church Corinth, though it does appear to have a few Jewish believers, like Crispus, for instance, is a church mainly composed of Gentiles. There is no guarantee that the non-Jews know scripture well or even consider it authoritative. Paul would have instructed them in scripture while he was with them. The references here though remind the Corinthians that this God is not an upstart God. The God who raised Jesus has been active a long time. This is the work of an ancient God. And this God is faithful and trustworthy (1 Corinthians 1:9; 10:13).
The resurrection appearances also lend credibility to the story. Cephas and the twelve would be considered authoritative. It seems that the church has at least heard of Cephas, given Paul’s recounting of possible divisions in the beginning of the letter (1:12). If twelve apostles are not enough, Paul cites a resurrection appearance to more than five hundred people — some of whom were still alive at the time of his writing. Then he cites James and all the apostles. Clearly, he is using the designation of “apostle” as inclusive of more than the twelve, since he himself is among them.
Paul does not deserve to be among them — at least he does not think so. The language that he uses to describe himself gets lost in translation. Our English translations often say something to the effect of an untimely birth: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (verse 8). This makes it sound like he was just born at the wrong time — as though he was born too late to be among the twelve. But this is a misinterpretation.
The word that Paul uses to describe himself is a premature birth — a birth that usually results in death. It is the epitome of weakness. In a world where only fifty percent of full-term births reached the age of ten, the premature baby had little to no chance of survival. This is the same term used to describe a stillbirth. Christ’s narrative is not the only resurrection story in this passage.
Paul so firmly believes the resurrection because he was as good as dead when Christ appeared to him. He was killing the church of God. He was doing everything in his power to end the Jesus movement. He was a murderer and a persecutor and completely unworthy of God’s grace. And God chose him anyway.
Whenever Paul recounts his pre-conversion life, he notes his time as a persecutor of the church (see Philippians 3:4-6; Galatians 1:13, 23; see also 1 Timothy 1:13). He remains overwhelmed by God’s grace that God could forgive him for such atrocities. And he returns that gratitude in service to God. He notes how hard he labors for this gospel. He was the least likely candidate for God to choose. If God can do something good through Paul the murderer, surely that God has the power to work wonders in the lives of others. The fact that the Corinthians have believed the scandal of the resurrection demonstrates that they too have been touched by God’s grace.
In this season of Epiphany, we are reminded that seeing the resurrected Christ changed the trajectory of Paul’s life. Without the revelation of Christ, there is no good news. When God reveals God’s self, our little worlds are transformed. We cannot go on with life as normal, because we cannot un-see God in our midst. Like Paul, we are unworthy of this life-changing revelation. May we work tirelessly — as Paul did (1 Corinthians 15:10) — to extend God’s grace to others.
Most scholars think that Luke did not simply record a biography of Jesus when Luke wrote about 80-90 CE, but shaped the story of the Gospel and the Acts to address circumstances in the church of Luke’s time.
Consequently, we should attend to the call of the first apostles in Luke 5:1-11 from the viewpoint of how Luke intended this passage to function in the larger narrative and purpose of the Gospel and the Acts.
Two important issues in the community to which Luke wrote are in the background of Luke 5:1-11: authority and mission. Authority: who should the community believe? Mission: what should the community do in its context? These questions were important, as Luke’s congregation was in a network of competing claims and tensions regarding traditional Judaism, the Roman Empire, and within the congregation itself.
Luke has introduced Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet whose mission is to announce the coming of the Realm of God and to invite people to repent and join the movement towards the Realm (Luke 4:14-30).
Leaders in antiquity often gathered followers who could further the leader’s mission by learning the content of the leader’s teaching, the way of life appropriate to it, and how to adapt the leader’s teaching to fresh circumstances. Jesus chose twelve such figures whom Luke designates “apostles.” (For Luke the term “disciples” refers to the much larger group of Jesus’ followers among whom the twelve play a special role.)
The first four apostles were in the fishing business. With their own boats, they were similar to middle class business owners today. They had no particular religious credentials to commend them to Jesus. Instead, they were typical representatives of the broken old age — living under Roman oppression, including taxes, and beset by other forms of social conflict and economic distress. Many Christians in the historic denominations today can identify with the situation of the apostles.
Today’s listener wants to know, “Why did Jesus choose these twelve?” For Luke, Jesus evidently chose them under prophetic inspiration. Since Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, he could still work through the apostles through the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1: 1-11; 7:56).
The earliest church expected the second coming to occur soon, but it was delayed. Luke uses the figures of the apostles to represent the continuation of Jesus’ authority in the church in the delay. Jesus directly calls the first four apostles in Luke 5:1-11. This call authenticates the twelve as authorities for the church in Acts and, consequently, for the church in Luke’s later day.
Luke portrays the apostles in Acts as guiding and authorizing the church’s responses to Judaism, Rome, and its own internal conflicts. For example, Luke uses the figures of the apostles to offer the paradigm for witness and common life (Acts 2:1-47); they set the pattern for responding to Jewish criticism (Acts 4:1-22); they organize the congregation (Acts 6:1-7); they legitimate the gentile mission (Acts 10:1-11;18), and they certify Paul as great missionary to the gentiles (Acts 15:1-29).
Jesus directed Simon to put down their nets in the deep water. Simon’s response begins with an old age point of view: they had fished all night and caught nothing, so why should they expect anything different? Yet they do what Jesus says to do. In the midst of an unpromising situation, the future apostles let down their nets. When they do so, they catch a super-abundance of fish. Their nets — made of old-age materials — cannot handle the catch and begin to break.
This event helps both establish apostolic authority and model what the apostles — and the church — are to do. The soon-to-be-apostles indicate their willingness to follow Jesus by doing what he said to do. Jesus verified their identity — and demonstrates the nature of the Realm — by giving them the abundant catch. Moreover, the four people model what the disciples and the church are to do: they are to do what Jesus says, even in the face of unpromising circumstances.
Why should Luke’s church pay attention to the apostolic tradition as interpreted by Luke? Because that tradition was confirmed in the experience of the apostles from their first encounter with Jesus.
There is a subtle aspect to this narrative connected to the “deep water” (bathos). This theme occurs several times in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Torah, Prophets and Writings) in connection with the primordial sea, a powerful Jewish symbol of chaos (see also Psalm 68:2; Ezekiel 26:20; 32:18-24; Sirach 24:5; 51:5). Luke perceives his world as a chaos: hostility between traditional Judaism and the followers of Jesus, the repressive behavior of the Empire, and conflict within the church.
Luke spells out the mission of the apostles in a well-known image: “from now on you will be catching people.” This image of fishing recalls earlier instructions from God to prophets to bring people together (to catch them) for judgement (see Jeremiah 16:16; Amos 4:2; see Habakkuk 1:14-15). The paradigmatic instance of such fishing is Acts 2:38 where Peter invites the Jewish crowd to repent, to be immersed into the eschatological community, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke affirms this style of fishing for gentiles in Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:1-29. The ministry of the apostles becomes the model for the disciples and the church: as the apostles pulled their nets from the sea teeming with fish in Luke 5:1-11, so the church in Acts fills its nets (so to speak) with both Jews and gentiles in eschatological community
To be sure the image of “catching people” is troubling today because of its violence and its one way of mode of relationship. Nevertheless, its function is one that the preacher might take as a purpose for the sermon: to encourage the church to drop its nets into the chaos of life today, that is, to witness to the Realm of God and to invite people into the movement towards the Realm. The threat of chaos is self-evident in early 2019 in national politics, relationships among races and ethnic communities, international relationships, and many other places. According to Luke, the church continues the apostolic tradition when it offers individuals, households, and communities the values and practices of the Realm of God as an alternative way of life.