Lectionary Commentaries for March 26, 2016
Easter Vigil

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 24:1-12

Michael Joseph Brown

What we seem to have here is a discounting of eye witness testimony.

[Looking for commentary on John 20:1-18? See this Easter Sunday commentary by Barbara Lundblad.]

We have an untold number of women — three who are named — experiencing an event beyond normal human comprehension and their testimony being dismissed by men, who seem to fall into the same old pattern that attended ancient male-dominated societies. The two verses that stand in conflict are Luke 24:8-9, “Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest,” and 24:11, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Human history is rife with such overt discrimination. Less than a century ago, women and people of color were not considered credible witnesses in American courts. The history of civil rights in the United States is replete with examples of women and men whose truthfulness was discounted or disregarded because an accident of birth made them something other than white men. In short, certain people throughout history, simply because of gender or ethnicity, have been branded deceitful and lacking in credibility for no other reason than prevailing social prejudices. As St. Augustine says in one of his sermons, “Truth became like an idle tale.”

Augustine deals most directly with this problem of social credibility in his preaching on Luke 24:

Just as the fall of humankind came through a woman, so now the restoration is first proclaimed by women. News of Jesus’ resurrection seems like nonsense in light of the horror of his death by crucifixion … The women reported this to men. And what’s written? What did you hear? These things seemed in their eyes like an idle tale. How very unhappy is the human condition! When Eve related what the serpent had said, she was listened to straightway. A lying woman was believed, and so we all died. But [the disciples] didn’t believe women telling the truth so that we might live. If women are not to be trusted, why did Adam trust Eve? If women are to be trusted, why did the disciples not trust the holy women?1

Although we must look beyond Augustine’s own underlying prejudices, we can see how the absence of social credibility can blind us, who hear this eyewitness testimony, to the truthfulness of other’s declarations. When people lack social capital, their voices mean little or nothing to the rest of society.

The truth of the resurrection rests on our social capital as agents of God. That is, at the core of the Christian claim is that our God does things that are grand, large, even revolutionary, in the lives of human beings. In fact, it resonates throughout creation. In view of these actions, we are often “perplexed,” as the women were at the empty tomb (Luke 24:4). We are, likewise, “amazed,” as Peter was when he went to the tomb (24:12). The reality of expressing what has happened in our lives — our religious experience — is something that can risk our social credibility. Celsus, a critic of the Christian claim, in his treatise, On True Doctrine, pointed this out a long time ago when he wrote, “Were [Jesus] a god he should not have died, if only in order to convince others for good and all that he was no liar; but die he did — not only that, but died a death that can hardly be accounted an example to men.2 The death of Jesus is counterintuitive to the expectations of human beings, who believe that only power and conquest can influence people to see the veracity of one’s testimony.

Like the women at the tomb, when we proclaim the powerful experience of the resurrection, we put ourselves in a precarious situation. Our claim may be questioned, but the deeds that flow from our claim provide the support — even the infrastructure — for the truthfulness of what has happened in our lives. The resurrection of Jesus is as perplexing and mysterious to us as it was to those women on that Sunday morning. Nevertheless, they did not let uncertainty rule their lives. They shared the brilliance of their experience with others, even those who did not believe them. And their testimony, even though it did not convince the entire group, did influence one of Jesus’ followers to examine the claim for himself. The lesson in this case may be that revelation, even an outrageous one, cannot erase entirely the unhealthy social patterns that predominate human existence.

Leo the Great, in reading this text, even found something redemptive in the doubt expressed by the eleven. He said, “The Spirit of truth would by no means have permitted this hesitation, wavering in human weakness, to enter the hearts of his preachers, if their trembling anxiety and questioning delay were not to have established the foundation of our faith … Let us give thanks for the divine plan and the necessary ‘slowness’ of the holy fathers. They ‘doubted’ so that we need not doubt.”3


1 Arthur A. Just, Jr., ed., Luke (InterVarsity, 2003), 376.

2 R. Joseph Hoffman, trans., Celsus: On True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians (Oxford University Press, 1987), 65.

3 Just, 376.

Vigil Reading VII

Commentary on Ezekiel 36:24-28

Corrine Carvalho

Ezekiel is not a very pleasant text.

In fact, the book might be the most thorough instance of “blaming the victim” in the history of world literature. Written as a response to the fall of Jerusalem to the neo-Babylonian empire in 587 BCE, the poems that riddle most of the book take great delight in finding ways to blame the Judeans for their own demise. The passages from Ezekiel that are in the lectionary, however, might lead to a different impression.

This brief passage from the second half of the book looks like God’s loving restoration of Israel. Read in isolation from the rest of the book, the text depicts God’s personal care in returning the exiles and settling them again back in their ancestral territory. God even makes sure that they have a heart for goodness. This is a scene that could dot a nursery room. But just like that other text of terror that often is pedaled as infant-appropriate, Noah’s ark brimming with the animals he saves from world-wide divine devastation, so too this image of restoration in Ezekiel insufficiently covers up the divine wrath to which it responds. A close reading of this text reveals these streams of despair.

Not once in the book of Ezekiel, including in this very passage, does God act out of love for Israel. There is a brief mention of God feeling pity (Ezekiel 39:25), but never love. Even in the elaborate scenes from a dysfunctional marriage in chapters 16 and 23 the texts never claim that God loves these wives. Ezekiel’s wife, whose death serves as a metaphor for the fall of the city, is named his “delight” but the prophet, and therefore God, does not love his respective spouse.

The heart transplant at the center of this passage removes humanity’s free will. This image appears twice in the book, first in chapter 11 and here. It differs slightly, but significantly from the new heart passage in Jeremiah 32:39 where the new heart is tied to covenant loyalty and a renewed relationship with God. Here, the purpose of the new heart is to remove choice from humans. They will not choose to sin because they will no longer have the power to do so. In a kind of reversal of Genesis 3, Ezekiel’s resolution of human sinfulness is a complete change of human nature.

Moral behavior throughout Ezekiel is characterized by observance of the ritual laws that governed the temple. To be sure, moral sins, such as lying and dishonoring parents, resulted in ritual impurity, but the emphasis in this passage on the removal of impurities continues the book’s focus on the destiny of the temple as the most essential feature of Israelite identity.

The passage likens this future forced conversion to ritual law as a kind of re-birth. The heart of stone refers to the internal organs of someone who is dead. In fact, in Egyptian burials, in the process of mummification, they replaced the heart with a stone one. In Egyptian burial scenes, the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather. Only if it is lighter than a feather will the deceased be able to enter the world of the dead. Otherwise, their heart is devoured and they cease to exist. For the Egyptians, then, sins weighed down the heart: the heavier the heart, the more sinful a person’s life had been. Against this Egyptian background, Ezekiel’s reference to a heart of stone continues the book’s depiction of the Judeans as inherently sinful. This is a heart weighed down by sin, as heavy as a stone. It is a picture of Israel as deservedly annihilated.

Ezekiel 36, then, depicts restoration as a kind of resurrection of the dead, much like the image of the dry bones in the following chapter. In this passage, there is less focus on the restoration of the body, however, and more on resuscitation. After the heart transplant, God enlivens that body through the infusion of the divine spirit. It is, at first blush, a wonderful portrayal of divine grace, but cheap grace it is not.

The passage is framed by two statements that remind Ezekiel’s audience that this is not about God’s love for them, nor does it really have anything to do with them. This is all about God. The first passage occurs in the verse just prior to this reading. There God states that the motivation for this restoration is simply divine reputation: God will restore Israel so that all of the nations of the world will “know that I am Yahweh” (Ezekiel 36:23). God could care less whether Israel lives or dies. There is no heavenly tears shed for this dead nation. Their restoration is simply a sign to the world that this God can do anything.

This idea is supported by the statement in verse 27 in which God states that the purpose of this new heart is to make the people follow God’s laws: “I will … make you follow my statutes.” Not only will Israel be restored to prove that Yahweh is God, but this restored nation, apparently well known for its disobedience to divine law, will now become the paragon of upright behavior, even if this is accomplished by making them law-abiding automatons. The passage continues, and re-states the divine motivation in verse 32, just in case the reader missed it. “It is not for your sake that I will act, says the Lord.” The text’s message is not subtle.

It is interesting, then, that the lectionary has chosen to ignore the blatant message of this passage, excising the most explicit divine statements, in order to turn this into a benign post-Easter message. Perhaps we need to be reminded that the Easter message is not all about us: it is about God and what that God has chosen to do. Can we live in that reality without our own heart transplant?

Vigil Reading VIII

Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14

Corrine Carvalho

In this well-known passage from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet speaks over a field littered with dry bones, and the dead are resurrected.

The passage lingers over the details: the bones rattle as they align themselves, stitched together with tendons, dressed with muscle, and finally draped with skin. Wrapped in wind, they come to life.

When this text is read in the context of the Easter season, it functions as a foreshadowing of the final bodily resurrection proclaimed as a tenet of faith in the Apostles’ Creed. Within the context of the book of Ezekiel, however, it is a metaphor for the restoration of a nation devastated by war. The bones are those of warriors felled on the battlefield, denied a proper burial, their corpses desecrated by carnivorous animals. This is not a reference to a specific battle. Instead, the prophetic text paints a metaphor for what the Exile felt like to the survivors: they are as good as dead, with all hope lost. They are lifeless and impotent, desecrated and devoured.

It is against this dire backdrop that the text’s narrative functions as a tableau of irrational hope. To be sure, many prophetic books have passages that promise restoration, especially the rich poems of Isaiah 40-55, but what makes this passage so distinctive is the way that it combines a surreal landscape with realistic detail. Ezekiel’s fantasy field feels uniquely tangible and oddly earthy. These details portray restoration not as the result of a sweep of God’s magic wand, but rather as a sequential process where God attends to each step. Bones without sinew would not stand, and muscles without skin would remain vulnerable. God does not just recreate them, but recreates them as messy, complex human bodies. And such a picture connotes the intentionality of our human bodies, which we may at times despair over because they leave us too at risk, but about which God says, I have made them so.

The restoration is a communal one. On the one hand, this is not surprising given the fact that ancient Israelites had a very collective perspective, especially in contrast to our modern individualistic society, but this communal perspective is not just accidental. It forms part of the essential message of this passage. God does not command Ezekiel to resurrect only the heroes, those who had been brave in battle or who had sacrificed themselves to save another. All of the bones come back to life, the bones of those who were not very good with a sword, those of the armor-bearers and servants, those who had tried to desert the battlefield and those who tried to save only themselves, those who begged for mercy and perhaps even those who tried to join the winning side. It does not matter. If there will be a resurrection for Judah, it will be for everyone. The new Judah will not be a society of super-heroes. It will be the same Judah as before, with their vulnerable bodies and their array of human foibles. All of this is worth God’s effort.

The audience experiences this scene through their avatar, Ezekiel, which places a different spin on the material. As audience member, I do not identify with the bones. I do not walk away from the text with a new perspective on what it would feel like to have my scattered bones gathered together and be whisked back into earthly existence. Instead, I identify with this prophet, who reveals a tender moment of existential self-doubt. The passage begins with him (and his audience) dragged onto this virtual field. It is one of only three times in the book that the prophet is literally “brought by God” to a site in order to pronounce or witness something momentous. The first is in chapters 8-11 where the prophet is brought to Jerusalem to witness the sinfulness of the Jerusalemites that causes God to leave the temple. (In chapter 1 he merely has a vision of this temple and is not transported to the site.) The third instance is in his temple tour of chapters 40-48, again connoting a kind of bodily experience of a virtual space. By using the same verb here, the compiler of the book signals this vision as more than mere metaphor. It depicts the virtual reality that is usually invisible to human eyes.

God asks the prophet if the bones can come alive, to which he feebly answers, “Only you know that.” But what God knows is something even more startling. God knows that it is Ezekiel who will bring the bones to life. The text states that he “prophesies” but it does not record what that involves. Does the prophet intone a chant like a would-be Harry Potter? Does he command the bones to move, the wind to come? Does he lie on the bones, foreshadowing Jesus? Obviously it does not matter. What only matters is that God uses this human, doubting prophet to accomplish this amazing feat.

If Ezekiel is our avatar, what does that mean for us as readers of the book? While I admit that there are times when I want to identify with the dry bones, I have to confess that the passage wants me to take responsibility. It is my job to bring hope to hopeless situations, and pour life onto dry fields. It may often seem like an impossible task, but God chooses us to work the magic, even in our own frail, embodied, and unheroic state. That is the true Easter message.

New Testament Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:3-11

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

Krister Stendahl, New Testament professor at Harvard Divinity School, former dean, and one time Bishop of Stockholm, taught “Ten Commandments for Biblical Preaching.”

The tenth commandment was “No moral lesson on high holy days.” With this prohibition Stendahl meant to direct preachers to celebrate the feast, to enter into praise, rather than to explain of the mystery or exhort the congregation to good works. On the high holy day of the Easter Vigil, the lectionary assigns for the epistle reading, Romans 6:3-11, an exultant affirmation of the resurrection in the voice of the apostle, Paul. This exclamation, at once liturgical and celebratory, has ethics and right action built right into it through the comparison between Jesus’ death, death to sin, and the death of the old self. The destruction of sin is one dimension of the rich and multi-layered image of resurrection.

Romans 6:3-11 invites preachers to explore the vivid metaphors of Easter — baptism into Christ’s death, being buried with Christ, united with Christ in death, united with Christ in resurrection, and the dramatic movement from slavery to freedom and from death to life.

Romans 6:3-4
The reading opens with the answer to the rhetorical question posed by the imaginary dialogue partner in Romans 6:1. “Of course!” it is absurd that one should continue to sin that grace may abound all the more! Paul alludes to early Christian tradition that all who are baptized are baptized into Christ’s death. Baptism is associated with death in Mark 10:35-40 when James and John request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory. Jesus’ answer to them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” uses drinking the cup and being baptized as ways to speak of his death. In the early decades after Easter Christ believers performed the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the rituals of Eucharist and baptism. The corporate body — “all of us,” “we” participate in burial with Christ and like Christ was raised, we are able to “walk in newness of life,” moral and existential new life.

Romans 6:5-7
The language of slavery “enslaved to sin” and freedom “freed from sin” is threaded through this passage and the longer one of which it is a part. Slavery and freedom are parallel to death and life. Resurrection overcomes and overwhelms death and slavery. The need to combat and resist sin hovers over these verses even while Paul proclaims that sin is “destroyed” and “dead.”

Romans 6:8-11
“We believe,” “we know,” expresses the conviction of this Easter community in Christ’s life and our future life with God. Death no longer “has dominion” over him; death no longer “rules” or “is master over” Christ. Extending the comparison, Paul concludes that like Christ, “you” are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Although in the verses that follow this lectionary reading, Paul turn to ethical exhortation, in preaching on Romans 6:3-11 at the Great Vigil of Easter, I would obey Krister Stendahl’s commandment. Paul’s jubilant rhetoric that proclaims that “we might walk in newness of life” and that you are “alive to God” arises out of the experience of resurrection known in the Christian community in cities throughout the empire and in Rome in the first century. At the Easter Vigil in the present Christians are retelling the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and through baptism and eucharist they are performing that transformation from death to life. Adults who choose to be baptized, like James and John in Mark 10, are baptized into Jesus’ death. Infants whose parents make promises on their behalf are being incorporated into, are participating in, that story of life from death. They live this story in a culture that both fears and denies death. They live it in a culture where language of “sin” has become antiquated, but where its power is as destructive as ever.

To celebrate the mystery on a high holy day, a preacher might invite the congregation to live more deeply in the imaginative world of the text. Metaphors of being buried, descending, getting covered up, drowning describe visceral human experience and contains the paradox of being exalted, rising, walking in newness of life, begin alive to God. One way to imagine one’s way into a text is to focus on one sense — here I might attend to the physical, kinesthetic dimensions of all these verbs and allow the listeners to “feel” this movement. Being enslaved is a physical state. Being made free is a bodily experience. The experience of resurrection is a corporate one — the people are made new. Paul was calling on and alluding to narratives of creation, combat, deliverance in scripture and from early Jesus traditions. Some of these narratives are contained in the series of Old Testament readings appointed for the Easter Vigil. The liturgical setting of the Easter Vigil calls the preacher to play with these powerful archetypes, to expand and elaborate upon them to move through performance into praise.