Lectionary Commentaries for March 4, 2018
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 2:13-22

Mary Hinkle Shore

Not long ago, I was walking by the gym on the college campus and I noticed a semi-tractor trailer parked outside the gym.

Generators were running. Several workers were unwinding long electrical cords and hooking them up to stuff. It looked like a game was being televised.

So imagine that picture: electrical cords, TV crew vans, tractor trailer-sized generators. And then imagine someone with a giant pair of hedge trimmers, cutting all the cords outside a basketball venue in the middle of a game. The extra lights in the arena go out. The scoreboard goes black. The cameras stop filming. We would not say that such a person was “cleansing” the basketball venue. We would say he had stopped the game.

In the same way that you need electricity to play a game inside a basketball arena, you need cattle and sheep and doves and money changers to run the Jewish temple. Jesus makes it impossible for people to buy animals for the required sacrifices, and impossible for those who have come from all over the Empire to change their money and pay their tithes. Jesus is stopping the game.

Why? If you were raised in the church, you probably learned somewhere along the line that the problem was corruption: people were not just selling animals, they were cheating other people as they did. The other three gospels help us down the road to this conclusion. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus borrows from the prophet Jeremiah to accuse those who are selling things of making the temple a “den of robbers.” Maybe Jesus raises a ruckus in the temple to protest corruption and to clean it up, if only for an afternoon.

But in the gospel of John, this conflict in the temple takes on a different meaning. Jesus is not acting against corruption, or at least he is not only acting against corruption. He is involved in performance art. Jesus brings temple activity to a standstill in order to point to another holy place altogether. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days, I will raise it up.”

Like a lot of what Jesus says in John, this line from Jesus does not follow from what precedes it. You hear it, and you think, “Huh? Who said anything about destroying the temple?” Even the people listening to Jesus are confused. They point out that the temple has been under construction for decades. “Really, Jesus, you’re going to rebuild it in three days?”

The narrator tries to help us all out. “He was speaking of the temple of his body,” John writes.

“O…K…” If you are a trusting reader of scripture, you are waiting for this to make sense. If you are suspicious one, you may already have left the building.

The temple was the meeting place between the God of Israel and God’s people. Sacrifices were offered during religious festivals and at special times in people’s lives, such as in honor of a birth or in thanksgiving for a harvest. The temple was a holy place. It was a place where human life and divine blessing met.

In John’s Gospel, the body of Jesus is the new “holy place.” “The Word became flesh, and lived among us,” John writes. In the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s dwelling place is with human beings, as a human being. So Jesus baits the Jewish leaders: “I dare you: destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

For Christians (and for Jews) today, scripture about the relative virtues of temple-based worship is pretty far from our experience. But we do care about where precisely our lives might intersect with the divine life. First century Jews are not the only ones to spend time thinking about where the divine and human meet.

Where does God meet you? Is the meeting place a church sanctuary filled with light? Or maybe it is a cathedral that looks completely dark until your eyes adjust to the dimness. Do you see God in a candle flame? Do you know the transcendent through a piece of music? Maybe you recognize God in the water, bread and wine of the Sacraments? Maybe your holy place a hike or a vista that puts you in the presence of God. Maybe it is silence.

The surprise in today’s gospel reading is that Jesus says that the transcendent is present in his body. The gospel of John makes this claim, that a human body — unique but also a lot like your body or mine — is the holy place of God. Jesus was not just “wearing” a human body like a set of clothes. He was a human body, as inseparable from his body as you are from yours. And God was inseparable from him.

During the season of Lent, we follow the body of Jesus as he travels to Jerusalem, as his hands braid pieces of rope into a whip to herd cattle and sheep out of the temple, as his knees bend to the feet of the disciples to wash them. We watch him eat and drink with his friends, and we follow him to the garden, where the bodies of his disciples unsuccessfully fight off sleep while Jesus sweats through a prayer that he might not have to endure the torture in his immediate future. We see him beaten, crucified, taken down from the cross, and laid in a tomb. And in the stories of his resurrection, he is still a body — huggable, touchable, scarred, and eating.

In all these events, the body of Jesus is the location of God, and the point of connection between divine and human life. From John’s perspective, little (if any) of this was clear, even to the disciples, at the start of Jesus’ ministry; hence the need to offer the word twice in this text that “his disciples remembered…” They needed time and more experience with Jesus to understand. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it was not clear that Jesus was both the eternal Word and human flesh — it was not clear then but it was true then, which may explain why John places this story at the start of his gospel, rather than near the end, as the Synoptics do.

Christians are not naive about the trials of being a body, and we have no satisfying description of the miracle it will certainly be for God, after we are dead, to raise us up, incorruptible. Nevertheless, we will not let go of that hope, precisely because God was committed enough to human flesh and blood to become it in Jesus Christ, and committed enough to human flesh and blood to raise Jesus up after his death, as a body able to eat fish, and point out scars to Thomas, and ask Peter to feed his sheep.


First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17

Terence E. Fretheim

The Decalogue was God’s direct address to Israel: “God spoke all these words” (“words,” not commandments).1

God’s own introduction to these words is important for an appropriate understanding: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Ten Commandments are not a law code, a body of laws that are meant to float free of their narrative context. This introductory line about redemption — often omitted from printed versions of the Ten Commandments, unfortunately — is recognized in Judaism as the first word; “you shall have no other gods before me” is the second word.2

This opening word of God accomplishes several things. It keeps the commandments personally oriented: I am the Lord your (singular) God. Obedience to the commandments is relationally conceived. These are words given to you by your God. The law is a gift of a God who has redeemed you. The Ten Commandments, then, are a gracious word of God and they begin with a word of good news about what God has done on behalf of “you” as a member of the community of faith. The commandments are to be read through the lens of that redemptive confession. God’s saving actions have drawn the people of God into a new orbit of life and blessing, to which the people respond by giving a certain “commandment shape” to their lives.3

The Ten Commandments are an integral part of the covenant between God and people at Mount Sinai. This covenant is a specific covenant within the already existing covenant with Abraham. The Sinai covenant does not establish the relationship between Israel and God. Israel has long been God’s people when Sinai happens (“Let my people go”). These commandments are given to an already elected, redeemed, believing, and worshiping community. They have to do with the shape of daily life on the part of those already in relationship with God. The commandments give shape to Israel’s vocation. At the same time, the Ten Commandments specify no judicial consequences for disobedience. Their being obligatory is not conditional on their being enforceable. Their appeal is to a deeper grounding and motivation: these are the commands of the Lord your God, who has created you and redeemed you.

“You shall have no other gods before me” introduces the commandments and gives shape to all the others. Idolatry is the focus. But how will we define idolatry? It commonly has reference to material images; the story of the golden calf comes to mind. In such cases, “other gods” is shaped by the commandment against graven images in Exodus 20:4. “Other gods” could include any person, place, or thing that we hold to be more important or as important as God. These “other gods” could also lift up the long-standing gods who have long been worshiped among us, such as money, property, fame, power … the list is long. The command is to be absolutely loyal to God. In Martin Luther’s language, the call is to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. This commandment is the grounding for all other commandments, which draw out what loyalty to God entails in various aspects of the relationship.

Less well remembered is that idolatry includes the language one uses to speak of God. Might the problem of idolatry for us often be verbal images? Our ideas about God and the verbal images we use for God can be idolatrous; they often have as high a standing in our thinking/speaking about God as does God himself. Or, we can reduce God to a set of fixed propositions and make God into a settled, unchanging God. Is that not to break the first commandment? And negatively affect the way in which the other commandments are kept?

The Ten Commandments are not new commandments for Israel (see Exodus 16:22-30), but they are a convenient listing of already existing law for vocational purposes. Moreover, the Commandments were not thought to be transmitted in a never-to-be-changed form. They were believed to require adaptation in view of new times and places. This is shown by a comparison of the Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5; the latter text contains some important new developments. For example: the wife — on a list of property in Exodus 20:17 — is removed from that list in Deuteronomy 5:21; wife is exchanged with house and given her own commandment, perhaps reflecting a changing role for women in that culture. Might additional changes be made in the commandments in view of changing times and places? Such as, you shall not covet your neighbor’s husband! What commandments might you add to the ten?

Before the Ten Commandments were given, the Bible talks much about law; indeed, laws are already specified in the pre-sin creation accounts (Genesis 1:28). Such commands are reflective of God’s law given for the sake of the world before sin. To obey these commandments and others which follow in their train is to act as one was created to act. And so commandments become an integral part of the life of the community of faith before we get to Mount Sinai.

While the address of the commandments is individual, the concern is not some private welfare. The focus of the commandments is vocational, to serve the life and health of the community, to which end the individual plays an important role. The first commandment lays a claim: How you think about God will deeply affect how you think about and act toward your neighbor.

The first commandment is positively formulated in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Notably, Jesus uses this positive formulation of the first commandment. Luther follows in this biblical trajectory by giving each commandment a positive thrust. The commandment to love one another does not set the Ten Commandments aside, however; it opens up the particularities of the Ten Commandments to limitless, on-the-move possibilities in view of new times and places.


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on March 8, 2015.

2 For more on the numbering of the Ten Commandments in various traditions, see Rolf Jacobson’s 2014 commentary on Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-17.

See Terence E. Fretheim’s 2009 commentary on Exodus 20:1-17.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 19

Shauna Hannan

Preaching on a text about preaching is no small task.1

This is complicated further when it is not a human doing the preaching, but God’s natural creation. Because Psalm 19 tells us more about how to preach than what to preach, the following comments focus on what the preacher can learn from the way nature does its preaching and the ways in which the Psalmist highlights nature’s way of preaching.

The purpose of the heavens’ preaching is to tell the glory of God and proclaim God’s handiwork. To what extent does your preaching tell of God’s glory and proclaim the handiwork of God? Too often preaching becomes (yes, I will say it) boringly didactic. While I would not want to discount the teaching element of preaching, there are times when the purpose of preaching is not for hearers to walk away with new insight. Psalm 19 suggests that the purpose of preaching is for hearers to walk away in awe of God’s majesty. The Psalmist accomplishes this goal by poetically exploring elements in God’s creation — the sun and the law.

Does your preaching employ poetic and, in particular, metaphoric language? Speaking of didactic (hopefully, this will be stimulatingly didactic), let me remind you that a metaphor is “an abridged comparison” which compares two seemingly unrelated things. A metaphor might be used “to fill a semantic lacuna in the lexical code,” or “to ornament discourse and make it more pleasing.”2

While the Psalmist could have used metaphor to ornament discourse, it is perhaps more interesting to consider the first use of metaphor, since the inability to find words for our thoughts might sound strikingly familiar to the preacher. Reading the Psalm through this lens suggests that when we cannot find words to describe God’s magnificence, we might consider allowing creation itself to praise God through its unique ways of expression. When we are compelled to say something, we can employ descriptions of one part of creation to describe the indescribable. “Because we have more ideas than we have words to express them, we have to stretch the significations of those we do have beyond ordinary use.”3 Thus, the Psalmist uses the image of the bridegroom emerging from his wedding canopy and a strong man running his course with joy in order to describe the sun.

You may want to do as the Psalmist does rather than say what the psalmist says. If so, consider the following exercise (as corny and time-consuming as some of you might think this is). Recall your high school creative writing assignment in which you were to take a single orange, explore it, stare at it, live with it — in fact, exegete it. Then you were to describe that orange until all of the descriptive juices are squeezed out of it.

The Psalmist’s object is not an orange, but the sun. Do as the Psalmist did in order to sharpen your poetic writing skills; exegete a part of God’s creation. Whether or not the results of this exercise find their way into your sermon (not all of our exegetical work ever does), you may experience what you want your hearers to experience; that is, the wonder and majesty of God’s creation.

The Psalmist’s second object of exegesis in his creative writing course is God’s law. Note how the Psalmist mimics nature’s way of proclaiming when he poetically speaks of the law. I must admit, I cannot recall the last time I heard a Lutheran sermon (my own included) which addressed the law in a way that was not didactic. Rather than simply giving information about what God’s laws are and why we should follow them, the Psalmist poetically describes the characteristics and importance of God’s law. “More to be desired are [the ordinances of the Lord] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (verse 10).

The Psalmist sees the law as a crucial and beautiful part of creation. The law is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true and righteous. The law has an effect on us and that effect is good. The law revives the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart, enlightens the eyes. The challenge set before you is this: address God’s law in your sermon poetically rather than didactically.

A final curiosity about Psalm 19 is actually a curiosity about how we have appropriated one of its verses. Note that the Psalmist’s petition, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (verse 14), is at the end of the Psalm. Why does the Psalmist pray this at the end? More to the point, why has it become common for preachers to begin their sermons with this prayer when the Psalmist ends with it? Consider doing as the Psalmist does and praying these words at the end of your sermon. 

Whether or not you choose to focus on it for your sermon, Psalm 19 suggests that a purpose of our preaching is to tell of God’s glory and point to God’s handiwork. Examine your preaching (even sermons which address the foolishness of the cross or Jesus’ exchange with the money changers in the temple) in terms of its ability to create awe in your hearers – that is, not awe in your amazing poetic prowess (though that is part of God’s handiwork too), but awe in God’s amazing majesty.


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on March 15, 2009.

2 Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 48.
3 Ibid.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Carla Works

How do you begin a letter to a bickering church?

Paul began it with foolishness — the foolishness of the cross. The passage today is a theological re-centering — a reminder that the gospel does not operate according to the wisdom of the world. The wisdom of the world leads to division, hierarchies in social order, and privileges bestowed on a few.

In contrast, Jesus was willing to die in a humiliating way for the love of others — even his enemies (Romans 5:10). Through the scandal of the cross, Paul argues, God has saved the whole world, but not all will find this news appealing.

“To those who are called”

Paul is writing this letter to address a number of divisions in First Church Corinth. Some of the divisions are around belief. For example, some find the concept of raising corpses to be ridiculous (1 Corinthians 15). But most of the letter is not a discussion of church doctrine. Simply put, the Corinthians are failing to love one another (thus the need for 1 Corinthians 13:1-13).

Social and class divisions are evident. Though they were baptized into a creed of neither slave nor free (see also 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28), the believers are struggling with what it means to live in community with those who are beneath them on the social ladder. For example, Paul has to tell the “haves” to wait for the “have-nots” at the Lord’s table and, not just to wait, but to welcome them (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Filing lawsuits (1 Corinthians 6:1-11), visiting prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), wearing veils (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), consuming idol food in the local temple (1 Corinthians 8:1-13) are all issues that are creating divisions in the community, and they are all matters related to the exercise of social privilege.

Before Paul engages the church on these matters of division — matters that he has heard about from Chloe’s people (1 Corinthians 1:11) and questions that the church has posed in a letter (1 Corinthians 7:1) — he reminds the believers of the topsy-turvy nature of the cross. God chose the most shameful thing in the world, because the values with which the world operates — where some have privilege and status at the expense of others — look nothing like God’s reign.

Foolishness of the cross as the wisdom of God

It is little surprise that a term like “foolishness” might be the first word to come to mind as the Apostle Paul considered the disunity in First Church Corinth. Actually, our translation of “foolish” sounds more polite than a more literal translation. Our English word “moron” is a transliteration of the Greek word for “fool.” Thus, in our text for today, Paul likens the word of the cross to a belief that, according to the world, is moronic.

In our culture of gilded crosses and political correctness it might be hard to hear the scandal of what Paul is saying. God in his wisdom deliberately chose the most scandalous means possible to bring about the world’s salvation — a way that the wisest people in the world would frown upon and the elite would be ashamed to accept. The most knowledgeable in Corinth are using their so-called knowledge and wisdom to alienate and, from Paul’s perspective, to destroy their brother or sister in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:1-13).

The world did not know God through wisdom

The social values of the world are literally destroying First Church Corinth. Why continue to live by the values set by the world? Operating with the world’s sense of who should have status and power has further instilled the world’s privilege system within the body of Christ. Instead, Paul insists that God has deliberately debunked the world’s system in the cross.

To believe in this good news, Paul says, is to recognize that the values of the world are no longer the highest values. The wisest people in the world would not have selected a Jewish peasant from a hillbilly town to die on a Roman cross for the world’s sins. They may have asked for more signs or desired a sage to guide them. Those are, after all, logical ways to proceed in the world.

But wait. The Corinthians have believed in the scandal of the cross. Why is Paul reminding them of what they have already accepted? The problem is that the scandal of God’s wisdom has not been translated into their daily lives. God, in God’s wisdom, chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise. To Paul, that does not just mean the cross.

God continues to display God’s power by choosing even the weak and lowly to be part of God’s church. Paul will ask the believers to consider their own call; most of them are not part of the world’s elite class (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Furthermore, he calls himself unworthy to be called an apostle and likens himself to a fetus who is struggling for life (1 Corinthians 15:8). Yet, God, in God’s wisdom and grace, called him anyway. This God has enough power to choose all in his saving work — including those whom the world has humiliated. In effect, by highlighting the topsy-turvy nature of the wisdom of God, Paul is saying to the church: “Why are you continuing to operate by the wisdom of the world? All that you have and are — your very existence — comes from God!”

Lenten journey to the cross

First Church Corinth was by no means perfect. Fortunately for them and for us, we believe in a God who is not limited by our weakness, social position, wisdom, or strength. In fact, God’s love calls into question how the world creates hierarchies where some thrive and others are cast aside.

The cross with all its shame has left a mark on Paul. Paul finds in Christ the embodiment of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Though he will not call his churches to die for one another, he will call them to think like Jesus — to love their neighbors — beginning with their brothers and sisters in Christ — in such a way that they would rather relinquish their own rights than to see their neighbor harmed or experience anything other than life abundant.

Perhaps, in this Lenten journey, we may struggle to see the pathway or to gain any sense of direction. Paul reminds us that God in God’s wisdom has placed the cross before us as a guide. Thanks be to God.