Lectionary Commentaries for July 29, 2018
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on John 6:1-21
Commentary on 2 Kings 4:42-44
This week’s passage is simple and brief. A man brings limited food, but through a prophetic miracle, the meager supplies provide for a much larger crowd. Three verses. Simple, right? Well, yes and no.
Although today’s passage is only three verses, it closes a chapter with three preceding narratives of prophetic provision. These narratives are all connected through the Hebrew device of the conjunctive waw (2 Kings 4:8, 4:38, 4:42), best translated simply as “and,” but signaling syntactical connection across the entire chapter. Thus, the entirety of 2 Kings 4 must shape our interpretation of these final three verses. I encourage you to take a few minutes to reflectively read through the chapter. Pay attention to recurring patterns.
In 2 Kings 4:1-7, a widow cries out to Elisha for assistance during a period of dire need and in danger of losing her children to slavery. Elisha commands her to obtain as many vessels as possible, which then miraculously get filled with oil, which the woman uses to pay her debts (4:7).
2 Kings 4:8-37 presents two different miracles involving a wealthy Shunammite woman. In verse 4:8, she urges for Elisha to accept her hospitality of meals and lodging. Elisha orders his servant to call her (both 4:12 and 4:15) and as a result she received a prophecy of childbearing, which is fulfilled in 4:17 despite the woman’s surprise and disbelief. In the second episode, the grown child dies and the woman calls her husband to prepare the donkeys for her to find the prophet. After coming to her house, Elisha revives the young man, then again commands the servant to call the Shunammite woman, who receives her revived son.
In 2 Kings 4:38-41, in the midst of a famine, Elisha instructs his servants to boil a pot of stew. The do so, but only after protest. On further instruction, they recognize the pot as edible.
In our primary passage of 2 Kings 4:42-44, we see a similar cycle of a need, faith and miracle. A man from Baal-Shalishah takes initiative by bringing barley and grain to Elisha, presumably as payment for the rendering of prophetic services (cf. 1 Kgs 14:3). Elisha then commands a servant to spread this limited supply to the people. But the generosity seems beyond the limited resource of the relatively modest gift. As a result, the man protests, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” The response is both ironic and polemic as the Canaanite Baal is one of fertility and provision.
The protest contains several possible motivations. Perhaps the man was afraid of the response of the people. (Imagine the embarrassment at serving dinner to only two people for a dinner party of twenty!) Perhaps the man was disappointed that Elisha did not receive the gift. Perhaps the man was merely confused. It turns out that the hospitality of the man is received with a parallel invitation of hospitality for the greater community of one hundred. As a result, the people share a plentiful meal. This passage amplifies several themes of this chapter
The concept of hospitality is developed through dialogue. In two cases, the outsider initiates hospitality, by crying out to Elisha (4:1, 8). It is through the dialogue that Elisha issues a command that is crucial for the miraculous provision. In the first episode, Elisha commands for the collection of oil. In the second passage, Elisha mediates commands through his servants. In the final passage, the Canaanite man from Baal-Shalishah initiates by a gift of food. This initiative of hospitality across religious lines magnifies from hospitality to Elisha to hospitality to a large group.
In each of these cases, the recipient casts some doubt. The widow’s doubt is implied as the lack of vessels eventually ends the flow oil. The Shunammite woman mocks. Her husband also questions the deliberate action in pursuing the prophet at the death of the son. Even the company of prophets expressed doubt for provision during famine.
In these cases, doubt may have delayed the miracle, but it does not ultimately dissuade the prophet. In the last passage, the servant merely asks a question, though the text does not indicate whether he asks humbly or forcefully (or even passive aggressively?). Rather than admonish the lack of faith, Elisha “repeated” but adds the security of “for thus says the Lord” and the promise of “They shall eat and have some left.” This is enough for the servant to finally obey.
The word “God” rarely appears in 2 Kings 4 except as a designation for the man-of-God throughout the passage (40:7, 9, 16, 21, 25, 27, 40). Grammatically, the form indicates a level of possession, in that the man is owned by God. It also takes an element of modifier, so a rough paraphrase may be a “godly man.” The word “LORD” appears a few times (40:1, 27, 30, 33), but never as an active subject. In 2 Kings 4, we do not see the “God who acts” as we see in other places of the Bible, but we do see humans who act on behalf of God. In every case, the prophet commands, and the response is to obey or to question. God is still the mighty One, but through the agency of others.
These themes nicely integrate in the outcome of provision in times of want. The entire chapter resides in a setting of scarcity. The widow is in debt with no natural resources to meet the debt. The Shunammite woman is barren, then loses her only son. There is famine. Ultimately the widow receives the oil to free her from debt. The Shunammite bears a child and much later the dead child is revived to life. The prophets eat. The man from Baal-Shalishah is able to join a community through the multiplication of his food. The provision is striking in relation to human agency.
We are vehicles for God’s miracles. Sometimes we doubt and question. Sometimes the commands are nonsensical. But the obedience is still obedience. And in the end, God supplies abundantly.
So hospitality, doubt, human agency, and provision. These themes are simple, right? Well, yes and no.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-15
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks
The appearance of this text at a time when news reports are inundated with stories of the abuse and victimization of women by men of power offers both an opportunity and a challenge for the faithful preacher.
When viewed from the perspective of Israel’s history that the books of Samuel reflect, its focus on the man, on David, the King, is understandable. But in doing so, Bathsheba, the woman in the story, the victim on multiple counts, gets overlooked. She becomes incidental to the story and over time even gets a bad rap from interpreters. This is a story of rape and murder, of sexual misconduct of the highest order and egregious abuse of power. Appearing as it does in the climate of the “Me Too” movement, and the everyday occurrence of powerful men being brought low by similar misconduct, extra care must be given to the interpretation of the text and the development of the sermon preached from this text.
One way of doing that and bringing Bathsheba’s story and the plight of abused women to light is to tell the story from the woman, the victim, Bathsheba’s point of view; to make Bathsheba the primary figure and David secondary. Bathsheba, the victim has a story to tell that also places her solidly in the annals of history. Beyond her victimization, hers is also a story of courage and strength whereby she speaks for all people, both female and male who suffer abuse and have that suffering compounded as they are further victimized, doubly punished for the abuse they suffered.
Bathsheba is in her rightful place. She is having the ritual bath required by law after her period. According to temple laws, she is unclean during the days of her period and must partake of a ritual rite of cleansing in order to return to temple worship. The dichotomy of being gifted by God with the ability to bear children and being branded as unclean because of that gift is an issue that still plagues some churches and cultures. Much later in scripture God cautions Peter to refrain from branding any part of God’s creation as unclean (Acts10:15). Perhaps those who would consider a woman’s natural function unclean, would bear those words in mind, since that functioning is God-ordained. Bathsheba knows the rules and follows them.
David, on the other hand is not where he is supposed to be. There’s a battle going on and he is not at the head of his troops, as his kingly role requires. Moreover, he is taking the opportunity provided by his dereliction of duty to spy on a woman taking care of her private needs. It is an old adage, much repeated in some circles, “the devil finds work for idle hands to do.” Said another way, if we are about the business to which God has set us, there is little room left for us to do what we ought not to do.
Mischief-making is too often the purview of those who are not where God has placed them; who deliberately neglect the task to which they have been called, in order to indulge in activities designed to satisfy their human appetite. When that is done, innocent ones suffer. Bathsheba is innocent of wrong-doing, even to the point of obeying the dictates of the king at the cost of her own peace of mind. As many in society she responds to the voice of authority because she is required to do so, because of the hierarchical structure of her world, which places her on the bottom. When her abuse is compounded by an unwanted pregnancy, Bathsheba turns to David for help and is victimized further as her husband Uriah is murdered.
It is the story of poor women everywhere who because of their poverty must turn for help to their abuser because she has nowhere else to turn. What response is required of us when innocent ones are victimized? How can we, the church, provide a place of safety and become a refuge for those who have been victimized. Sadly, the church itself has become an institution that has succumbed to some of the same challenges found in society. Abusers and victims exist side by side and many victims, like Bathsheba, find themselves seeking help from the very ones who cause their situation. And one wonders if and what God sees; if and when God will act to vindicate victim; if and what God will do to bring justice to the oppressed. How are we or can we be representatives of God’s justice?
The text stops at the point of David’s instructions regarding the method of carrying out the murder of Uriah and Bathsheba disappears from sight. So many victims are “disappeared” as their stories go untold and their pain is unrealized or ignored. In this story, Uriah’s victimization comes to the forefront and although he suffers the ultimate wrong, loss of life, it is also the end of his victimization. Bathsheba continues to be a victim and yet her situation is overlooked.
The text is silent, but we can learn much from listening to the stories told by women who have begun to speak of the mental agony they continued to suffer years after the physical abuse. The memory and effect of their abuse and victimization becomes an ongoing source of pain that impacts their personal relationships and other areas of their lives. It takes little imagination to see Bathsheba’s situation and experience as similar to that of today’s abused women or to see each woman victimized as Bathsheba. To see them must be to hear their cries for justice.
What is our response to those who cry out in pain? How do we see or hear them? Indeed, do we see or hear them? Have we told them God sees and hears them? If we are the hands and feet of God on earth, our responsibility is to see, hear and respond to their pain and be their advocates for justice.
Commentary on Psalm 145:10-18
The main subject of Psalm 145 is the eternal kingship of the Lord.1
The psalm contains a comprehensive expression of praise for God as heavenly king. Perhaps this is why the psalm’s superscription designates it as a “song of praise” (Tehillah). Psalm 145 is the only psalm to be identified this way. The Talmud recognizes its unique identity as a song of praise by saying, “Everyone who repeats the Tehillah of David thrice a day may be sure that he is a child of the world to come” (Berakot 4b).2 What the Talmud surely recognizes is that Psalm 145 invites the believer to praise God in ways that acknowledge God’s exclusive prerogative as ruler of the cosmos and God’s unique care for those who seek him. This central set of concerns is expressed in verses 10-18, the lectionary reading for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost.
Psalm 145 is an acrostic poem. Each successive verse begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostics were perhaps composed for ease of memorization or to make the theological point that what is expressed in the poem aims to be comprehensive. The acrostic style creates a somewhat artificial structure. Nevertheless, the psalm has two distinct points at which the psalmist invites praise of God. In the first verse the psalmist declares “I will extol you, my God and King,” thus giving personal witness to the intention to praise. Then verse 10 expands the voice of praise to “all your works” and “all your faithful.” Hence, verse 10 marks a second beginning of praise in Psalm 145. The initial “I” voice in verse 10 speaks on behalf of all God’s creatures and all God’s people with a similar promise of praise: “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you.”
A key question about verse 10 concerns the identity of “your faithful.” Does this expression refer to a special group within Israel (e.g. “those who love him,” as opposed to the wicked; see verse 20), to all the Israelites, or to some broader constituency? Although the psalm does not make the identity explicit, the pairing of “your faithful” with “all your works” would seem to argue for a broad identity.3 Even if the faithful ones who speak God’s praise do not designate an expanded, inclusive group, however, their praise sends word of God’s grace to all people (verse 12). The message, if not the messengers, includes all who turn to God. The only criterion for inclusion is need recognized and expressed.
An important part of the theology of Psalm 145:10-18 is the location of the psalm in the Psalter. It appears as the last psalm before the final doxology (Psalms 146-150, tied together by “Praise the Lord” at the beginning and end of each). As the final psalm in the last Davidic collection in the book (Psalms 138-145), Psalm 145 is also the last word of David in the Psalter. Here David speaks and praises God, and his praise in turn introduces the praise-filled conclusion to the Psalter in Psalms 146-150. At the center of David’s praise, verses 10-18 declare that “your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (verse 13) and “the Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (verse 17). In other words, God as heavenly king is faithful in a way that no king of Israel ever was, and God’s kingdom of righteousness endures forever, in contrast to the Davidic monarchy that could not last. Perhaps most remarkably, David himself delivers this message. David appears here (as Moses earlier, in Psalm 90) as mediator for and guide to Israel from across the ages. He points the Israelites who have known humiliation and defeat at the hands of the Babylonians to the kingdom of God rather than to the kingdom of David’s descendants. They will find hope and future in the heavenly King rather than in a mortal “in whom is no help” (Psalm 146:3).
It is also appropriate that this final message on the lips of David sums up much of what the Psalter has been expressing in Psalms 1-144. Namely, God is uniquely concerned for the lowly and downcast (see Psalms 1; 34; 37). As verse 14 says, “the lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.” As the psalm expresses this feature of God’s character it also presents a thorough-going understanding of God’s grace available through dependence and faith. As verse 18 proclaims, “the lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” Indeed, the main requirement for getting help from God and knowing God’s salvation is calling on him out of one’s need. In other words, God looks for those open to divine direction and help. Faithfulness is thus defined primarily by dependence.
One final note on the identity of David as “author” of Psalm 145: as suggested already, the identity with David is not meant to be an historical statement about authorship. Rather, David is representative of the people and thus voices their needs. Another way to describe the Davidic identity is to say the people are invited to pray as David. Thus, this psalm anticipates the practice of praying in Jesus’ name. This makes all the more appropriate that the prayer in verses 10-18 looks to God alone as the source of salvation and hope.4
1 Commentary first published on this site on July 26, 2015.
2 Cited in James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 437.
3 Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3:A Commentary on Psalms 101-150 (Hermeneia; translated by Linda M. Maloney; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), p. 599.
4 See Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150: A Continental Commentary (trans. Hilton C. Oswald; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 544.
Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-21
Ephesians 3:14-21 is the conclusion of the first half of Ephesians.
Like Galatians and Romans, Ephesians consists of two fairly distinct halves, with the first half focusing on theological discussion and the second half on moral exhortation. This week’s passage thus wraps up the weighty theological section of Ephesians before the letter turns to more practical instruction. This wrap-up is in the form of a prayer, which concludes with a magnificent doxology. The prayer connects back with the opening section of the letter, the latter having been in the form of a blessing of God (Ephesians 1:3-14).
Like the letter’s opening blessing of Ephesians 1:3-14, 3:14-19 consists of a single sentence in Greek. Most modern English translations break the passage up into several sentences to make it easier to follow for modern readers. The New Revised Standard Version adds “I pray” at the beginning of the new sentences in verses 16 and 18 so that the sense of the continuing prayer is not lost on the reader. The closing doxology (verses 20-21) is also a single sentence.
In the opening of the prayer, Paul emphasizes the unity of humankind under God: “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name” (verses 14-15). The Greek word for “family” here is patria, which can also have the sense of a clan, ethnic group, or even nation. That every patria receives its name from God simply means that God is the origin and head of every community in existence. This expression sums up what has been the chief argument of the first half of Ephesians, that in Christ Jews and Gentiles have been brought together to form one body, the church, which is the temple — the dwelling place — of God.
The language of bowing his knees before God in the opening expression of the passage underscores this unity — the only other two places in the Pauline corpus where knees bend is in reference to the acknowledgement of God by all people at the end times. The reference in Philippians 2:10 is perhaps better known: “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…”; the use in Romans 14:11 is similar. Paul’s bending of his own knee in the context of recognizing God as the universal Father thus looks forward to that end-times moment when God’s glory will be manifest in all and all things will be gathered to him (see Ephesians 1:10). This is the glory that is “forever and ever,” as the last line of the passage expresses it (Ephesians 3:21).
The body of the prayer centers on the Trinity-empowered character of believers. There is a distinctly inward focus to the description. The first petition is for the audience to be “strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit” (Ephesians 3:16), and the second is “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (verse 17). The meanings of these two petitions are very similar, making the dual references to the Spirit and Christ striking in their Trinitarian implications. It is noteworthy here that, while today it is usually assumed that Christ lives in Christians’ hearts from the moment of conversion, Paul here makes it a matter of prayer that Christ should do so — we should earnestly desire it, but perhaps we should not assume it so easily!
The petitions of verses 18-19 continue this inward focus, but here the emphasis is on the mind. Verse 18 petitions for “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” The breadth, length, height, and depth of what? Paul does not actually say, but since the verses before and after both speak of the love of Christ, love seems the best answer, unless what is meant is the even larger “fullness of God” (verse 19). “To know the love of Christ” is the petition of verse 19, which is wonderfully ironic since Christ’s love is described as a love “that surpasses knowledge.” Verse 17 describes Christians as “being rooted and grounded in love.”
While the petitions do have this inward focus, we should not think that they are thus divorced from action. Here we should remember that after this passage comes the second half of Ephesians, where the focus is entirely on how Christians are to treat one another in the community. Love, which has already been an important term earlier in the letter (see Ephesians 1:4, 15; 2:4), is one of the chief virtues of the church as described in Ephesians 4-6.
Christians are to be “bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2); we are to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). Altogether the word “love” (this is agape love) is used twenty times in Ephesians, ten times as a verb and ten times as a noun. For such a short letter it is an impressive frequency. Thus the focus on inward character in our passage should be seen as designed to produce concrete expressions of love in the lives of church members.
The closing deservedly famous doxology continues the focus on God’s work in us but also reminds us of the ultimate goal of such work: the glory of God. Just as Romans tells us that the Spirit prays for us when we do not know how to do so ourselves (Romans 8:26), here we are told that what God can accomplish in us is “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). To such wonderful news we can only reply, echoing the final verse, “To God be the glory!”
Like the earlier figures of Moses and Elisha, Jesus proclaims a message of God’s abundance and power to save.
John renders the feeding of the 5,000 story in a unique way. He combines elements of the Passover story in Exodus and the feeding miracle of Elisha (2 Kings 4) to portray Jesus as a powerful prophet.
This passage crafts its message through allusions to two Old Testament stories. Many ancient readers would have recognized an allusion to Elisha’s feeding miracle, told in 2 Kings 4. Elisha served a large crowd from twenty barley loaves, and they had some left over (2 Kings 4:42-44). Although not identical, the skepticism of Andrew in John is similar to the servant in 2 Kings. Andrew says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9). The servant of Elisha said, “How can I set this before 100 people? (2 Kings 4:43). The parallels in the stories suggest that Jesus’ actions should evoke the memory of the earlier prophet.
The similarity to Elisha’s story may be an important reason it would make sense for John to portray the crowd as recognizing Jesus’ actions to be those of a prophet. “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’” (John 6:14). Their acclamation suggests they interpret Jesus’ actions as similar to the great acts of the prophets.
The people’s recognition shows considerable understanding. Some modern interpreters try to distance Jesus from the Old Testament prophets, claiming that Jesus isn’t “just a prophet” but much more. Without denying that John sees Jesus as more than a prophet, it is important to recognize that John viewed prophets positively and characterized Jesus as a prophet to communicate to the reader about Jesus’ identity. Like the prophets, Jesus was sent by God (for example John 5:23-24), performs signs (for example John 2:11, 23), and has knowledge that goes beyond human understanding (for example John 2:19; 2:24-25). What is more, the work of the prophets was very important because they communicated a divine perspective regarding human events. John characterizes Jesus in this way so that readers will appreciate his high standing as a prophet.
John also conveys Jesus’ unique standing as a prophet by associating him with Moses as well as Elijah. Many of the details of these verses suggest a parallel to the Exodus story. Jesus goes up a mountain (John 6:3). The events are set at the time of Passover (John 6:4), the celebration of God’s triumph in the Exodus story. The order of events: Passover meal, sea crossing, manna discourse, also might cause readers to perceive an allusion to the Exodus. By climbing the mountain and providing the meal, John situations Jesus as Moses, who facilitated the provision of food for Israel. Like Moses, Jesus does signs that lead the people to trust in him (John 2:12; 4:46-54; see also Exodus 4:1-17).
The people respond to Jesus positively, yet Jesus rejects their desire to make him king. This response conveys information about the kind of leader Jesus is. The subject of Jesus’ kingship is taken up more fully in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, during which Jesus says, “my kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). Jesus’ prophetic status does not lead to the direct overthrow of human political systems, though he is still correctly identified as “king of the Jews” (for example John 19:14, 19).
Other elements of John’s story add new information alongside the idea that Jesus is a prophet. The sea crossing story communicates Jesus’ divine identity. When Jesus walks across the water toward the boat, the disciples are not confused about his identity, as they are in the Synoptic accounts, where they think Jesus is a ghost (for example Matthew 14:26-27; Mark 6:49-50). John states, “they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat” (John 6:19). Although the disciples in each case are terrified, John suggests their fear is an appropriate response to a theophany, an experience of God, rather than a misperception of the walking figure.
Thus, when Jesus says, “I am; do not be afraid” (John 6:20; New Revised Standard Version, “It is I; do not be afraid”), John’s readers are prepared to associate the words “I am” with the divine name, I am who I am (see Exodus 3:14-15). The Greek words can mean either “I am,” or “it is I.” In Matthew and Mark, when the disciples do not perceive that it is Jesus, it makes more sense to interpret these same words to mean “it’s me!” But John’s readers already know it is Jesus, and his words instead seem consistent with the power Jesus displays in walking on the water, the power God also showed in the Exodus story in the crossing of the Red Sea. Through the story, John conveys that Jesus embodies the power of the God of Israel.
What difference does it make for modern readers to see these Old Testament allusions in the story of Jesus? There are two important theological connections. First, understanding Jesus as a prophet like Moses or Elijah emphasizes continuity with Israel’s past. Instead of demanding that Jesus be distinctive from the Jewish prophets, John paints a portrait of Jesus as one who steps into these important roles for the people of his present day. God is still the same God who sought Israel through the voices of the prophets, and now God seeks people through Jesus.
Second, the “life” Jesus brings is a life shaped by the ideas of the Exodus and Elisha stories. Just as God provided abundantly for Israel in a time of dire circumstances, so Jesus brings a similar kind of life in the midst of human need. Just as God brought Israel out of slavery into freedom, so Jesus also facilitates a similar transformation (see also John 8:31-32). As Elisha was known for his many miracles of provision and raising from the dead, so Jesus stands in the line of these prophets (see also John 11; compare with 2 Kings 4:32-37). As Elisha stood against the authority of unfaithful king Ahab, so Jesus speaks and acts with power among those who do not accept him. Preachers can assist hearers to understand themselves as recipients of these same gifts through relationship with Jesus’ life-giving power.