Lectionary Commentaries for February 14, 2018
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Samuel Cruz

In this reading of Matthew Jesus describes as “hypocrites” those who engage in charity work, prayer, fasting, and caring for others for the purpose of making an impression before the public eye.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (Matthew 6:2-4).

We can deduce with some level of certainty that these “hypocrites” to whom Jesus refers are the scribes and Pharisees. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus often refers to the Pharisees and scribes as hypocrites. However, the meaning of the passage does not change much regardless of who may be practicing such “good deeds” before the public eye. Engaging in the behavior described by Jesus of committing good deeds for the purpose of self aggrandizement makes one a hypocrite. Key to this passage being meaningful for us today is that we do not distinguish ourselves from the “hypocrites” called out by Jesus. If we mistakenly assign the term “other” to the hypocrites, this message of Jesus is lost for us today.

I will focus on two reasons why it is easy to fall into the trap of assigning as “other,” the hypocrites Jesus described. First, for too long the church has mistakenly taught that the Pharisees were some special breed of people of faith. However, New Testament scholars have made it clear that the Pharisees and scribes were “average” everyday believers, not to be distinguished from those zealous Christian leaders/believers of the 21st century.

Second, most people are unable to do serious self-analysis and consequently live in denial; it is therefore virtually impossible to see how we, like the Pharisees, interpret our beliefs in ways that make us hypocrites, incapable of seeing our own arrogance. For example, is it possible that as Lutherans we may be so secured in the practice of law and gospel that we may believe that what makes our relationship with God possible is our strict adherence to a contextual doctrinal belief rather than God’s grace?

If this passage is to have any importance, we should instead make the assumption that the Pharisee represents a good person with a sincere desire to worship God correctly. I believe that this passage invites us to look at the contradictions in our “Good Lives.” So for this interpretation, let us assume that if Jesus were sharing this parable today in the 21st century, he might say something like this:

There was a Progressive Christian/Progressive/Mainline Religious Person who prayed like this: ‘Lord, I believe in the sanctity of same sex marriage. Lord, I accept and respect all religious traditions; I advocate for inter-faith dialogue. In fact, Lord, I even advocate for the rights of the immigrant. Lord, I use politically correct language like Latinx. I am not like the homophobic Rastafarian on the corner or the woman from the storefront church — who does not advocate for social justice!!!! I subscribe to good Lutheran theology and/or Liberation and post-colonial theologies.’

Its very difficult to do socio/self-analysis and to take an inner look at ourselves and the communities to which we belong. As we fall into the common trap of looking at “the other” through a critical lens, we are similarly blind to seeing how our communities fail to live up to what God requires of us. Are we capable of asking how, individually and corporately, we mainline liberal and progressive Christians behave like the Pharisees from whom we wish to distinguish ourselves?

Is it possible to turn the theological gaze upon ourselves? Can we scrutinize what we believe and the actions we take? In anthropological and sociological work, we normally objectify the subjects and analyze their behavior; now let us turn that objectification onto ourselves. I had a student named Jasmine Thomisen whom I quote regarding her ethnographic research for my class:

Another aspect of this project I had not anticipated was coming to a realization of my lack of awareness of the power involved in discussions of sexuality across racial borders. I began this project without an appreciation for the critique inherent in my questions to the Rastas about LGBTQ*, a critique that echoed the voices of concerned white liberals who had the luxury of pointing fingers at homophobia without analyzing the racism inherent in their own worldviews.

Jasmine saw the hypocrisy in her judgment of Rastafarians. Are we able to see ourselves as Pharisees? We are well intended, but mistaken in our self glorification. Do we judge our sisters and brothers that still discriminate against the LGBTQIQ communities, while we still have less than 3% people of color in our denominations? Are we parading our openness to people of color on our websites and Facebook posts, falsely advertising or depicting a false reality of racial harmony?

Jesus might be speaking directly to us, saying that if we really support LGBTQIQ people and people of color, we should not make public use of it for church growth and good public relations. We should be truly advocating for the marginalized, because it is moral to do so. Advocacy for the oppressed is not for public relations purposes or for cost benefit analysis. Our love, mercy, and compassion should be shared unconditionally. Our spiritual lives should be lived for our relationships with God, not for our own glorification.

First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Wil Gafney

Joel is a particularly timeless text.

There are insufficient contextual cues to identify its timeframe. There is no mention of a monarch in the opening verse by which to date it as is common in the prophetic canon. (Only Joel, Obadiah, and Malachi do not provide such information initially; however, Obadiah clearly dates itself with its content, the fall of Jerusalem.)

The precipitating event for Joel is slightly clearer, an ecological — and therefore economic — catastrophe in the form of an unparalleled locust plague and the devastation of crops leading to the decimation of livestock (Joel 1:4-7, 11-12, 17-18). The devastation is interpreted as “the day of the Lord” in Joel 1:15, a day of ultimate judgment many associate with the end of the world. In response to this cataclysm the prophet calls for fasting and lamentation, (1:13-14).

The verses assigned for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, anticipate successive waves of calamity. In Joel as in some other prophets there is the sense that the day might just not be the end of the world, that there is a possibility that some might survive the coming apocalypse through God’s mercy (Joel 2:13-14). God bids the people “return to [God]” in 2:12 with fasting, weeping, and mourning, and in verse 13, rending their hearts rather than their garments.

It is important to note that no specific charge is laid against the people for which they need to repent. More importantly, they are not blamed for the catastrophe they have just experienced. (I am writing in the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, José, and Maria, and the earthquake in Mexico City). Unlike some contemporary television evangelists, the prophet does not blame the people for their own suffering, and does not claim that natural catastrophes are divine punishment. While turning to God, particularly turning back to God often signals repentance which is the primary meaning of the verb shuv, here I suggest it be read as rededication.

I read the call in Joel 2 as a call to draw closer to God. That is undoubtedly why the lectionary framers chose this text for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the season in which we as the Church are bid to draw closer to God using the very same spiritual disciplines disclosed in Joel: prayer and fasting. Joel 2:16 calls for the entire community to respond to the call for rededication — infants, children, and elders (making it even less likely they are charged with “sinning”) and wedding parties enjoined to suspend festivities.

Joel 2:14 bids the community to turn to God in the hopes that God will intervene in the ecological catastrophe. The prophet is clear that there is no guarantee. God cannot be bought off. This is not a prosperity gospel or incantational theology in which you can get what you want out of God as long as you follow the rules exactly.

Joel has a special word for priests and “ministers,” those who assist in the service of temple in verse 17. (The Episcopalian in me wants to read them as deacons.) While neither priests nor their assistants are the same as contemporary clergy, the two groups can serve an analog for clergy. The text charges those who oversee the liturgical work of the community with interceding for the community.

They are not charged with pointing out sin in the community, but praying for them, to the point of tears. The prophet even gives them a script, “Spare your people, Holy One, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Reminiscent of Moses, Joel invokes shame as a motivation to move God to act on behalf of her people. (See Exodus 32:12 and Numbers 14:13-16 where Moses tells God what the Egyptians will say if God kills the Israelites or allows them die.)

Joel offers a familiar tender portrait of the God who draws us in, towards her: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). This core description of God is foundational in Judaism and is repeated throughout the scriptures: see also Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; Jonah 4:2. All of these use forms of the root rhm, meaning womb to expresses God’s tender love, often translated as “merciful.” Rahum is the deep love that springs from the womb, no more separable than the heart is from heartache.

It is to that God that the Church turns during Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday. The opening prayer of the day in the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book of the Episcopal Church, translates Joel’s understanding of God into the liturgy:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Eric Mathis

On Ash Wednesday, people in churches, homes, and streets all over the world will receive ashes, beginning a forty-day period the Christian tradition calls Lent.1

Lent is really a journey that takes all of us to a beautiful destination — resurrection morning — but before we can get there, we have to journey, and we have to journey with our sin, the sin that eventually caused Christ shame, torture, and death.

This particular leg of the journey is more like a restless night that is empty, lonely, and downright uncomfortable because we all know that “ … resurrection begins not with triumphantly toppled stones, empty tombs, and the masses agape in amazement, but before that. With death. With woundedness and mourning and betrayal, things done and undone, with understanding that dust and disaster and deceit are where we’ve landed.”2

Overview of Psalm 51

Psalm 51 is a familiar picture of dust, disaster, and deceit at this point in the liturgical year. It falls in the typical category of a Psalmist voicing a lament or complaint to God. What is unusual about this Psalm, however, is that the complaint is lodged over and against the Psalmist’s own sinfulness — not someone else. Of the seven penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), Psalms 38 and 51 are the only two that focus explicitly on confessing sin.3

A dramatic Psalm, names in the heading tell most readers familiar with biblical narratives all they need to know: David, Nathan, Bathsheba. Anyone who knows about the grouping of these three characters will add Uriah as a fourth actor and jump to conclusions that the sin behind Psalm 51’s confession was David’s murder and affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba (1 Samuel 11-1 Kings 1). Although the heading itself may have been added at a later date, in the end the David and Bathsheba story is more about God’s grace and forgiveness and God’s willingness to offer second chances to David. Like the David and Bathsheba story, Psalm 51 is more about the grace of God than the failure of humanity, and this is good news to all of us who stand in a long line of sinners.

God’s character and human frailty

Psalm 51:1-17 can be dissected into four sections: verses 1-6 which address God’s character and human frailty, verses 7-12 which plead forgiveness and restoration, verses 13-15 which look expectantly toward reconciliation, and verses 16-17 which offer closing thoughts on sin, sacrifice, and repentance. In the opening, the psalmist immediately appeals to God whose character is steadfast love and abundant mercy (v.1), and admits to personal sin, transgression, iniquity, and evil (v.2-3). The sin the psalmist describes may be “willful rebellion,” “personal guilt,” or “injurious effects,” but its most significant characteristic is that the sin was not only against humanity but also against YHWH (v.4). Through the psalmist’s vulnerability, we are reminded that none of us can escape sin (v.5). It is not biological or hereditary, but we are born with its accompanying guilt. Yet, God desires that all of us be faithful, and any turn toward faithfulness — whether inward or outward — suggests that sin never gets the final word in God’s desires (v. 6).

Verses 7-12 include prayers for cleansing. “Purging” and “washing” may refer to ritual activity (v. 7), but they most likely imply that only by God’s work can the psalmist be transformed to hear joy and gladness that lead to rejoicing (v. 8). The centerpiece of the Psalm begins with verse 11, arguably the most often quoted portion of the Psalm. The verb “create” is a sparsely used verb in the Old Testament, and it is reserved for “the sovereign power God exercises in doing something impossible.”4 While “create” does not refer to the creation of the world, it does echo prayers where God’s transforming power was referenced with a situation where someone’s life depended on it (e.g.: Moses and Israel in Exodus 34) or where God’s creative work involved doing a new thing (e.g.: Isaiah 60-65). It is clear that the psalmist’s situation demands both (v. 11-12).

The suppliant begins to imagine life after restoration, and vows to change his personal ways. Here, “the reconciled will bear the message of reconciliation” (v. 13) no matter what penalty may be incurred as a result (v. 14).5 Furthermore, the transformation produced internally through contrition and forgiveness will produce an external response as the tongue, lips, and mouth voice the praise of YHWH (v. 15). Contrition and brokenness are both more important than ritual activity to YHWH, and the psalmist commits to make good and deliver as that which will be acceptable (vv. 16-17).

Preaching the Psalm on Ash Wednesday

It was Martin Luther who said of Psalm 51, “A knowledge of this psalm is necessary and useful in many ways. It contains instruction about the chief parts of our religion, about repentance, sin, grace, and justification, as well as about the worship we ought to render to God. These are divine and heavenly doctrines. Unless they are taught by the great Spirit, they cannot enter the heart of man.”6

The easy way for all of us to journey the next forty days would be to travel lightly without knowledge of this Psalm, ignoring and hiding the unpolished places of our lives. Thanks be to God that we aren’t allowed to do that. Not in Lent. This season teaches us that if we hide all of our imperfections, we cheapen the potential for personal and corporate renewal, restoration, and resurrection.

Is there good news to be found sitting and standing in the death, woundedness, mourning, and betrayal that comes with the dying of self on Ash Wednesday? It’s difficult to find, be sure, but Psalm 51 is one of those bold and courageous prayers that contains all the promise we need to begin the process of reconciliation, renewal, and restoration this season offers us.


Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 10, 2016.

2 Joy Jordan-Lake, Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Ten Alarming Words of Faith (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), 2.

3 John Goldingay, “Psalm 51,” in Psalms, Volume 2: 42-89, ed. Tremper Longman, III, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 366-124.

4 Goldingay, 133.

5 McCann, 886.

6 Martin Luther, Selected Psalms, in Luther’s Works, vols. 12-14 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1974-1976), 12:305.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Lois Malcolm

Today’s reading, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, introduces Lent with a call to reconciliation.

A key for interpreting this passage is found in the verses immediately preceding it. There Paul describes how God has reconciled us through the Messiah and given us a ministry—a “service” (diakonia)—of reconciliation. Being reconciled to God is not an escape to some transcendent sphere (an easy ticket to heaven) but a call to serve in God’s reconciling work (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Our reconciliation to God is grounded in God’s reconciling the entire cosmos in the Messiah—in his dying for all so that all might live. Thus, our ministry entails announcing this message—this “word” (logos)—which is always for everyone. In what follows, Paul provides a vivid, multidimensional account of how this “word” and “service” of reconciliation are actually enacted in our lives (2 Corinthians 5:19).

The word of reconciliation

Our being reconciled with God makes us “ambassadors” for the Messiah—political emissaries entrusted with his divine mission. God appeals through us as we urge on behalf of the Messiah: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

This appeal is not merely verbal. It is a liturgical or symbolic act that enacts the reality it depicts: that God reconciles all of us by making the Messiah (the righteous one, “who knew no sin”) “to be sin,” so that “in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

This act of reconciliation—of “at-one-ment” in the old English sense—has roots in the temple practice of ancient Israel, where animal sacrifice was a means for liturgically rendering being cleansed from sin and made holy. But Paul’s more immediate source here is the allusive figure of the Suffering Servant—“the righteous one,” God’s Servant—who bears the iniquities and infirmities of many and in this way makes many righteous (Isaiah 53:4-11).

It is important to stress that God is the subject—not the object—of this reconciliation. It is not we who offer a sacrifice to reconcile ourselves to God (as in 2 Maccabees 1:5; 5:20). Rather, God initiates the reconciliation with us through the sufferings of the Messiah, who is the very Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Moreover, something actually happens to us in this event. In the Messiah, we “become” the actual “righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21)—the divine justice and mercy that brings about reconciliation in the world. In the Messiah, we become the message—the word—we are called to proclaim.

Thus, we now are coworkers with the Messiah, who announce the call to receive this grace. God’s offer is given for all, but it remains empty or vacuous if it is not received. To depict this call, Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8, which echoes God’s listening to and helping the Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out in their affliction and oppression. If Isaiah echoes that earlier day of salvation, then Paul now uses Isaiah to announce that—just as in the past—God’s “day of salvation” and “auspicious time” is always “now,” in this very moment (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).

The service of reconciliation

As we have seen, the announcement of this “word” is inextricably linked with the “service” it embodies in our lives. Thus, we are to avoid putting obstacles in anyone’s way from receiving this word of reconciliation. Our lives, as servants of God, are to commend the truth of who we become in the Messiah in every way possible (2 Corinthians 6:3)

Since this commendation is about the service of a crucified Messiah—and not the promotion of our egos and their achievements—it can only be made without violence, without imposing our will on others. Drawing on ancient patterns, Paul provides an intense, multifaceted account of the vulnerability—and even more explicitly, the passivity—such commendation entails. It involves what we might experience (through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, and calamities), what others might do to us (beatings, imprisonments, riots), and how this work might affect us personally (much labor, sleepless nights, hunger) (2 Corinthians 6:4-5).

Yet these sufferings—and the ego-death they enact in the loss of control we experience through them—are accompanied by actively potent consolations that overflow through us once our egos are out of the way. Paul lists consolations that parallel each of the sufferings. Amid the afflictions we experience are purity, knowledge, patience, and kindness. Amid what others do to us is the potency of the Holy Spirit. And amid the difficulties of our work are genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God (2 Corinthians 6:6-7a).

If we have become the “righteousness” of God in the Messiah, then these multifaceted sufferings and consolations are “weapons” that enact this righteousness. (Weapons are an ancient way of speaking of a sage’s spiritual or sapiential tools). Those for the “left hand” depict our passivity; those for the “right” depict what actively overflows through us (2 Corinthians 6:7b).

To describe how all this is actually embodied in our lives, Paul uses paradoxical language (drawing on the Psalms and ancient depictions of a sage). As ambassadors through whom God speaks, we live with glory and shame, and in ill-repute and good repute. Though treated as impostors, we remain true; in spite of being unknown, we are well-known (2 Corinthians 6:8).

If what lies at the heart of all that happens in our lives is our union with the Messiah—his dying that all might live—then, in him, we too are always dying, yet alive, always being disciplined, yet not killed (2 Corinthians 6:9)

Finally, we announce this call to reconciliation amid our often-difficult relationships with one another. With genuine love, we experience the “pain” involved in addressing breaches with grace, yet are always “rejoicing” when repentance and reconciliation takes place (2 Corinthians 6:10a; see also 2 Corinthians 1:15-2:13; 6:11-7:16). Further, we acknowledge that true reconciliation always entails a reciprocal sharing (koinonia) of “poverty” and “wealth”—whether of material or spiritual resources (6:10b; see also 2 Corinthians 8-9). Last, all this only occurs through the power of God, which paradoxically is only lived out as “having nothing” (“power in weakness”) yet “having everything” (“authority for upbuilding” one another) (2 Corinthians 6:10c; see also 2 Corinthians 10-13).