Lectionary Commentaries for June 18, 2017
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Matthew 9:35—10:8 [9-23]
Commentary on Exodus 19:2-8a
In Exodus 19, the children of Israel arrive at the beginning place, Mount Sinai.
Their arrival marks the fulfillment of the promise God made to Moses at the burning bush: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). The promise has come full circle, and, yet, the true journey is just beginning: the covenant relationship between Israel and God.
The first eighteen chapters of Exodus create the setting for the covenant. From the desperate situation of the Israelite slaves in Egypt to their miraculous rescue at the Sea and their terrible hardships in the wilderness, God has met their needs every step of the way. A point God makes in this reading: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (19:4). This is a point that will be driven home time and again throughout the Pentateuch. It is the basis for the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” (20:2). God has proven to be powerful and dedicated to the well-being of the children of Israel as they’ve journeyed to the foot of this holy mountain. The covenant made at Sinai is thus born and nurtured in a matrix of trust and steadfast love.
The content of the covenant unfolds in the chapters that follow. In 19:5-6, the specifics of the covenant are only alluded to: “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant” and “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” These statements make clear that the people will be required to adopt particular behaviors and to follow certain laws as part of the covenant relationship. The purpose of adopting these laws is nothing less than transformation. Look at Deuteronomy 28:15-16: “[T]oday the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.” Obedience to the covenant promises to change the people from helpless slaves to “a people holy to the Lord your God.”
Deuteronomy 28:15 uses the image of the children of Israel as a “treasured people” and our reading from Exodus 19 calls on them to be a “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5). In both cases, the language of being “treasured” (see also Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19; Psalm 135:4) indicates that God accords them a place of special honor among the nations and that the people are to guard their relationship with God above all.
“Relationship” is the key word here. The laws of the covenant establish a dynamic between the people and God that, as Terence Fretheim puts it, is “maximally responsive.”1 The relationship already exists. It was born in the promises made to their ancestors. God was true to those promises when the people cried out in slavery (Exodus 2:24-25). The covenant takes the relationship one step further in seeking to create a nation that is empowered to respond to God’s generous and faithful care. The laws of the covenant will set up a framework for the way the people are to conduct themselves with God and each other. The Decalogue in Exodus 20 is the simplest example of this point with its laws regulating both divine and human relationships. Within this frame, relationships with God and with each other have the opportunity to thrive and to flourish.
For some, using the language of law or covenant or obedience tends to bring up old conversations about “Law and Gospel.” Also, the promise “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples” might sound to some too similar to the promises of those who preach the Prosperity Gospel. Covenant texts do make bold promises based on adherence to the law. The promise, however, that abundant life grows when we are devoted to God and to each other is not preposterous but wise. It is also a wise recognition of human limitations to recognize that only the grace of God makes abundant covenantal life possible.
This reading from Exodus empowers a preacher to call people to Christian community by casting a vision of the life that is possible when we devote ourselves to the relationships we share with God and with each other. Such a devotion will involve immersing ourselves in the communal practices of the church. It will require us to examine the habits of our lives in order to discern which of these habits help and which ones hinder us as we seek to grow as a people dedicated to God and each other. Both of these disciplines will lead to nothing less than the deep fulfillment and healing that are characteristic of abundant life. It is to this vision of abundant life that the people of Israel respond enthusiastically in verse 8: “Everything that the Lord has spoken, we will do!”
1. Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 203.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker
The story for this week is for those who think there is no humor in the Bible.
But first things first: We enter this week right into the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah. Due to the vagaries of the liturgical calendar, we have not heard in the last two weeks the other “semi-continuous” readings that lead up to this story. If Easter (and thus Pentecost and Holy Trinity) had come earlier, we would have heard last week the story of the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. As it is, the preacher should fill in some of the “back story” before talking about this particular text.
The “back story,” of course, is this: God calls Abraham seemingly out of the blue in Genesis 12 to leave homeland and kin in order to go to a land he has never seen. And God makes a three-fold promise to Abraham, or Abram, as he’s called in chapter 12:
1) That Abraham will have many descendants; he’ll be a “great nation” (12:2).
2) That Abraham and his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan (12:7).
3) That they will be a blessing to the whole world (12:3).
There is one major problem with this scenario — Abraham and Sarah have no children. We don’t know much of anything about Abraham before chapter 12, but one thing we do know is this: his wife Sarai/Sarah is barren (Genesis 11:30).
It’s hard to be the ancestor of a “great nation” if you don’t have even one child. As one of my professors in graduate school was fond of saying in regards to this story: “Infertility is hereditary. If your parents didn’t have any children, you won’t either.”
Of course, by the time Genesis 18 rolls around, Abraham and Sarah have solved the problem. They have “given” Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, to Abraham as a concubine. She has borne a son to Abraham and they have named him Ishmael. Problem solved.
Or not. God is a little more specific with his promises in Genesis 17. “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (17:15-16).
That’s a wonderful promise. Except by this time, Sarah is 90 years old. At the thought of Sarah bearing a child in their golden years, Abraham falls on his face laughing (in Hebrew, tsahak) and reminds God that they’ve already solved this problem: “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” (17:18).
God won’t have it: “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac,” (17:19), which, of course, means “he laughs” (yits-hak). And then God goes on to promise that Ishmael will become the father of a great nation, too, but God’s covenant will be with Isaac.
Which brings us to Genesis 18. It seems likely that Genesis 17 and 18 were originally two different stories told to explain Isaac’s name; but as we have them now, they function as “his” and “hers” equal-opportunity annunciations.
Abraham, by the oaks of Mamre, sees three men approaching in the heat of the day. And he seems to know that they are no ordinary strangers. Because, while hospitality is quite literally a matter of life and death in that semi-arid climate, Abraham goes above and beyond the call of duty in his hosting of these guests. He moves as fast as his 100-year-old legs will carry him. He runs to meet them, bows down to the ground, runs to the tent to tell Sarah to whip up a good dinner, and runs to the herd to rustle up some good veal. When he sets this hastily-prepared feast before the strangers, they eat and then ask after the missus — “Where is your wife Sarah?”
As it turns out, Sarah is eavesdropping on the conversation from inside the tent entrance. And when the visitor promises that she will bear a son in her post-menopausal years, Sarah, like Abraham before her, laughs (tsahak) and says to herself, ““After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
Then the LORD (in the guise of the strangers, as it turns out) says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’”
[As an aside, the rabbis noted that the LORD didn’t quote Sarah exactly, having deleted her reference to Abraham being old, and surmised from this that it is acceptable to tell a small white lie in order not to hurt someone’s feelings.]
But then comes the crux of the matter, the question on which the whole story hinges: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”
Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Can God fulfill God’s promises, despite the facts on the ground? Sarah and Abraham don’t believe it. In fact, Sarah, forgetting that she’s not supposed to be listening to the conversation, says from behind the tent entrance, “I did not laugh.” And the LORD, with (I imagine) a twinkle in the eye and a chuckle at the divine absurdity of it all, says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
There is humor here, perhaps even comedy, but it is comedy in the classical sense, in the way that Dante’s great work was titled the Divine Comedy. This isn’t comedy in the sense of stand-up routines or canned laugh tracks, but comedy as something so extraordinarily good that it’s hard to believe, something so out-of-the-ordinary that we laugh until the tears stream down. It’s what Frederick Buechner calls “high comedy”: “the high comedy of Christ that is as close to tears as the high comedy of Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau or Edith Bunker is close to tears — but glad tears at last, not sad tears, tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than at their tragic expectedness.”1
Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Can God bring life even out of the dry husk that is Sarah, not to mention 100-year-old Abraham, he who was “as good as dead,” as the writer of Hebrews acerbically puts it (Hebrews 11:12)?
Another miraculous annunciation, this one to a young woman, answers the question: “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
Abraham falls on his face in a fit of laughter. Sarah laughs behind the tent door. And the LORD (I believe) laughs with them at the divine, wonderful absurdity of it all. Given the humor of the scene under the oaks of Mamre, and the comedy of a God who acts in unexpected ways to fulfill God’s promises, it is entirely appropriate that the child of the promise should be named “Laughter.”
1. Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Harper & Row, 1977), p. 61.
Commentary on Psalm 100
Psalm 100 tells us to shout it out.
Many of us were brought up being told to do just the opposite: “Keep your voices down.” “Keep it under control.” “Don’t raise a ruckus.” Maybe you’ve told your kids—or the kids in your Sunday School class—the same thing.
Make a joyful noise
But when it comes to worshiping Yahweh, Psalm 100 claims that it’s very appropriate to turn up the volume. These five verses roar with praise, employing a series of imperative verbs: shout (verse 1), worship (verse 2), enter (verses 2, 4), praise (verse 4), bless (verse 4). Taken together, these commands compel the community to participate in a high liturgical activity, namely, singing in a grand procession into God’s temple.
Throughout Christian history, this psalm has been employed to summon the community together in robust praise. A famous example is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of “The Old One Hundredth Psalm Tune,” the processional hymn for the coronation service of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in 1953. It’s a big, bold, and stunningly beautiful piece of music well worth a listen.1
When the choir processes singing “All creatures that on earth do dwell,” one gets a sense of the type of ritual that Psalm 100 depicts. A cathedral full of voices along with organ, brass, and percussion have a palpable effect. As the procession moves forward, our emotions are carried along as well. The psalm and Vaughn Williams’s arrangement of it witness the power of sound and movement working together to glorify God.
Know that the Lord is God
Amidst the summons to the procession, the psalm presents another imperative verbal phrase, “know that the Lord is God” (NRSV, verse 3). At first gloss, this command “to know” seems out of place. We typically understand “knowing” to be an internalized mental process rather than a specific action to which one can be summoned. Yet the Hebrew word “to know” (yd‘) actually suggests something more. This term is used in several contexts (Genesis 4:1 and 1 Kings 1:4) to describe an embodied mutual awareness that comes through sexual intercourse. To be clear, a sexual knowledge is probably not in view in this context. However, the larger usage of the verb “to know” in the Hebrew Bible suggests that the people’s knowledge of Yahweh’s identity is not merely intellectual assent. It is a deep and intimate awareness of God’s identity as revealed to a particular people. The community embodies this understanding of God through the ritual of the procession, through shouting, praising, and entering God’s holy places together.
The sheep of God’s pasture
This worship of God shapes the community’s identity. After the first volley of imperative verbs (verses 1-3a), the psalm pauses for reflection on the nature of the people who are praising God. Because God has formed them, they belong to God. No one outside the community can claim such authority. And no one within the community can claim that authority, since the community didn’t create itself (verse 3b).
The psalm describes God’s people as “the sheep of God’s pasture” (verse 3c). This particular metaphor draws upon royal ideology from the ancient Near East, wherein the king is depicted as shepherd. Those in his kingdom are his sheep. From Egypt to Mesopotamia, kings constantly styled themselves as shepherds.
Yet in this psalm, God appears as the divine monarch, the one who created the people and the one to whom the people owe their identity. When considering the way that the psalm reappropriates royal imagery for Yahweh, we realize the deep irony of the use of Psalm 100 in a coronation service. Psalm 100 orients the community toward the authority of God alone.
The pastoral imagery (verse 3) gives way to a description of the constructed space of the city (verse 4) along with a renewed summons to continue the procession: “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (verse 4). The ritual of praise moves through all places, from the fields to the metropolis with its complex architecture. All of these places are appropriate to worship Yahweh, for God is king everywhere.
Yahweh is good
The psalm ends with a simple justification for the repeated call to praise: Yahweh is good (verse 5).
The word tov, translated “good” here, has a wide semantic range in the Hebrew Bible. So we must explore the immediate context to clarify the sense of this word in this psalm. Yahweh’s goodness is seen through the longstanding relationship that Yahweh has with the people. The characteristics of God’s “steadfast love” (chesed) and “faithfulness” (’emunah, verse 5) appear frequently in tandem in the Psalms to describe God’s enduring commitment to God’s people (36:5; 40:10; 88:11; 89:1-2, 24, 33, 49; 92:2; 98:3). What makes Yahweh good is that Yahweh has been reliable for a long time. Thus we can continue to rely on Yahweh into the future.
In a time where Christian communities are increasingly fractured and contentious, it is difficult to imagine a throng of faithful witnesses moving together as one in praise to God. It is precisely at this difficult time, however, when Old One Hundredth should come to our lips.
Whenever we sing this psalm, we join a vast community of praise throughout the course of history. As we bear witness to God’s goodness, we step into a procession that stretches across time and place. We celebrate God’s enduring commitment to the redemption of the world and reaffirm our common identity as God’s people. Our loud shouts of praise announce the coming of God’s kingdom.
Commentary on Romans 5:1-8
We often talk of hope as wishful thinking: “I hope it won’t rain”; “I hope I win the lottery”; “I hope my team wins the Super Bowl” but Paul’s concept of hope in Romans is different.
He introduces “hope” in the story of Abraham’s faith (Romans 4:18), and develops the concept in chapter 5. For Paul, hope isn’t wishful thinking, but absolute certainty about the future because it is grounded in God’s faithfulness to keep his promises. That is, what God will do for the believer in Christ is grounded on what God has done for the believer in Christ.
In Romans 5:1-8 Paul explains the benefits of his gospel (see 1:16-17) for those who are justified by faith and stand in a new relationship to God. Two verb phrases govern the passage and provide the substance of these benefits: We have peace with God (verse 1) and we boast in our hope (verse 2). Although the lectionary limits our passage’s scope to verses 1-8, the content suggests a wider field to verse 11. The verb “boast” acts like a set of bookends in verses 2, 3 and verse 11 to enclose the passage’s subject matter: the believer’s great hope. In verses 12-21, Paul shifts to the story of Adam and Christ.
We have peace with God
In Romans 5:1, Paul explains the first benefit: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This statement recalls the letter’s opening, where Paul greeted his audience, those whom he called to belong to Jesus Christ and to be holy with “grace and peace” (1:6-7). From one vantage point, the letter’s unfolding argument substantiates how it is that Paul can offer such a greeting.
After announcing his gospel in 1:16-17, Paul explains that rebellious humanity is under the power of sin so that no one knows the way of peace (3:17; see 1:18 up to that point). But now, apart from the law, God extends his grace as a gift through Christ’s redemption in order to justify all those who believe (3:24). Paul’s statement in 5:1, therefore, meaningfully calls his audience to appropriate his opening greeting of “grace and peace.”
We boast in our hope
Romans 5:1 also opens with an inference (“Therefore…”) from the preceding discussion about God’s gracious provision of righteousness by faith and not by works of the law (3:21-4:25). Throughout, Paul argues that God’s gracious act in Christ silences any who boast in their own actions, status, or privileges (2:17, 23; 3:27). Now he returns to the subject of boasting in Romans 5 as an act that requires crucial redirection. The rest of our passage develops the object of proper boasting as the second benefit of the gospel, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (5:2).
This language recalls Paul’s portrait of humanity: People exchange the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal creatures (1:22-23). As a result, humanity is out of sync with God, creation, and one another (1:18-32). All of humanity falls short of God’s glory (3:23), but now those who believe are justified through the redemption in Christ that God graciously provides (3:23-24) and may hope in sharing God’s glory (5:2).
Paul develops his statement in 5:2 by proposing that believers boast also in their suffering. In verses 3-5, he builds an argument in which the experience of believers is like a chemical chain reaction, one substance setting off a whole sequence of processes. We know that suffering produces patience, and patience produces character, and character produces hope. Suffering is the catalyst in this process, and hope — the hope of sharing in God’s glory — is the terminal point.
This suffering-fueled-hope does not disappoint (or shame) us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 5). The Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence functions as a guarantee or down payment of believers’ future hope (see also Romans 8:23, 26-27).
Finally, verses 6-11 ground (“for,” verse 6) Paul’s statement in verse 5 about believers’ confident hope. The proof of God’s love is that he sent his son to die for believers “at the right time,” while they were still weak, that is, when they “were neither righteous nor good, but ungodly sinners,” (verses 6, 8). They were like the ungodly who suppress the truth and exchange the glory of the immortal God for mortal beings (Romans 1:18), and like Abraham who learned from experience that God justifies the ungodly on the basis of faith alone (4:5). The rest of the paragraph (5:9-11) looks to the future through the lens of the past and present: if God has already justified and therefore reconciled those who were enemies, then believers can confidently hope in sharing God’s glory (see also 8:31-39).
For the first time in the letter, suffering and God’s love appear. Paul sets them together with God’s grace and the believer’s hope. He develops these themes in Romans 8, where he affirms that the Spirit bears witness, that believers are co-heirs with Christ of God’s glory, and that present sufferings “are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us” (verses 14-18). The Holy Spirit helps believers as they wait expectantly to participate in God’s glory and the redemption of all creation (verses 18-27).
God’s purpose for believers is that they be conformed to the image of Christ so that they might share in the glory that humanity rejected (1:23), of which they fell short (3:23), and for which believers now hope (5:2): “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (8:30). Until this hope is realized, Paul affirms God’s love: “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).
The parallel pattern of behavior between Jesus and his apostles is nowhere more striking than in Matthew’s Gospel.
In this passage the narration zooms in, first on Jesus himself (9:35-36), then on the disciples in general (9:37-38), then the twelve apostles by name and vocation (10:1-8). With the movement from Jesus’ own ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing (9:35) to that of his followers we might expect a thick line to be drawn between him and his “apostles” (the only occurrence of this word in Matthew). There is only one Jesus, after all, and even his closest followers are but a pale reflection.
Just look at the makeup of the twelve: the “first” apostle Peter will deny the Lord three times and the last apostle Judas will betray him to death, while two apostles in between held opposite positions on the Roman occupation (tax collector Matthew worked for them, while Simon the Cananaean or “zealot” worked against them). And yet the passage ends where it begins, but this time with these assorted apostles now entrusted with Jesus’ work of proclamation (10:7) and healing (10:8).
The litany of powers designating the apostles in 10:8 could double for Jesus’ own resume: “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Jesus not only sends them out with power to authenticate the kingdom’s nearness but to announce it by using the very same words as their teacher: “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (10:7; Jesus in 4:17; John in 3:2). In Matthew, Jesus’ followers include the original audience as well as us. We are expected to resemble him in word and deed. To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus.
Naturally, we may bristle at such a thought, ever sensitive to the dangers of savior-complexes and self-aggrandizement. Nevertheless, Matthew does not hold back from reminding us that master and apprentice, while clearly distinct in their roles, inevitably bear a resemblance to one another. In fact, a good teacher should be recognizable in her student as much as a master craftsman’s craft is evident in the work of an apprentice. As Jesus makes clear a bit later: “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master” (10:25).
Sometimes lost in the comparisons and contrasts between the lists of apostles (see Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13) is the fact that the naming scenes occur in quite different settings. After receiving their apostolic commission in Mark’s Gospel, it says quite unremarkably that “Jesus went home” (3:20). Luke’s appointment of the apostles has a bit more detail. Jesus spends a whole night in prayer (6:12-13), yet immediately after they are named Jesus accompanies them down the mountain to begin his “sermon on the plain” (6:20-49). The actual sending of the “twelve” in Luke comes later (9:1-6; cf. 10:1-24). The anticipation with which we may have looked upon their prayerful selection goes unfulfilled, or it is at least postponed.
With Matthew, we encounter something altogether different. Jesus seems to be in the thick of fulfilling his Father’s mission—preaching, teaching, healing—when he inducts his disciples into the same vocation. While the narrator’s word about Jesus’ compassion for his sheep (9:36) reminds us of the foundation of Jesus’ mission, his commission introduces a different image: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (9:37-38). Paired with Jesus’ compassion is a sense of urgency. The time is ripe for their mission, so he summons them and gives them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (10:1).
The language is striking because it is a near mirror image of the words used to describe Jesus’ own practice in 9:35: “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching … and proclaiming … and curing every disease and every sickness.” At this moment the narrator introduces the twelve by name. In other words, the list of names does not stand alone as a mere registry of the twelve but as an introduction to an apostleship “charter.” In this way we recognize that part of Jesus’ own mission is to train followers to join the purposes for which his Father sent him. And the apostles’ very identity is born in the midst of this movement from Father to Son to world. If, at this moment, we remembered Jesus’ words in John, “as the father sent me, so I send you” (20:21), we would not be far afield.
The emphasis on identity in mission continues after the list: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions…” (10:5). Their mission is not one that they must work out on their own. Jesus gives specific instructions on where to go and whom to visit, on what to say and what to do. We are left with the distinct impression that the twelve are defined by their participation in the ongoing movement of the kingdom into the world.
If we were to represent “kingdom” and “world” in a Venn diagram, the apostles—and we by extension—have been selected and instructed to occupy the overlap. Something of the intensity of this overlap is depicted in Jesus’ extended instructions in 10:9-23. Like “sheep into the midst of wolves” (10:16) Jesus is sending them. Where the work of God meets the trajectory of the world resistance is greatest—they will be handed over to councils, flogged in synagogues (10:17), dragged before governors and kings (10:18), families will be divided (10:21), and stigmas borne because of Jesus’ name (10:22).
And yet, with a promise anticipating the very end of the gospel, Jesus reminds his followers “do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say … for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (10:19-20). In the very midst of persecution those obedient to Jesus’ mission will be equipped and empowered with God’s own presence. “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:20). To participate in the proclamation and healing characteristic of Jesus’ own mission is to get caught up in the very life of God’s Son given to the world.
If, with this passage, we see Jesus in the midst of training disciples for mission, by Gospel’s end the scene will have shifted. The instructions on how to be a disciple in mission will, with the backing of the Risen Lord, become instructions on how to make disciples in mission (Matthew 28:18-20).