Lectionary Commentaries for February 10, 2016
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Cláudio Carvalhaes

It was a very cold afternoon in Philadelphia.

The students of my Intro to Worship class and I went to Logan Square to celebrate Ash Wednesday. We gathered together with the Welcome Church, a congregation made up of homeless people. We gathered around a tilted plastic table and placed the bread and the wine on top of it.1 We heard a sermon, we had communion, we marked one another’s foreheads, and offered ashes to people walking around us and we heard Tyrone Well talk about his life as homeless.2

In his poem Tyrone said, “Nobody really knows I am homeless.” He describes how he is just one more individual turned invisible in our society. He walks around and nobody pays attention to him, he walks around, gets on the train, and no one sees him. Tyrone is like waking ashes while alive. In that worship service, it made no sense to put ashes on the forehead of the homeless people for they know, better than any of us, what it is to remember their mortality, day in, day out. Instead of putting ashes on our forehead we must walk with the homeless, hold their hands, to pay attention to them and work to make them visible in society. In many ways, to pay attention to the homeless is to have ashes placed on our foreheads. They are the sign of our own death, the death of our systems of care and mutuality. They are the presence of our absence in acts of justice, they are the necessary absence of our society so we can feel we can exist.

In this passage, Jesus talks about three important gestures of our piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In Jesus’ context, the falsity of these gestures was such that Jesus had to say harsh things against those who performed the external gestures of a faith that had nothing that resembled any inward belief or conviction. It seems like there was an Olympics of Piety going on where one person fought another to show how pious one could be. Jesus called these people hypocrites, whitewashed sepulchers and demanded a different way of living out their faith.

What do almsgiving, prayer, and fasting have to do with our context today? How should we give our money, pray, and fast in the face of the homeless people of our cities? These pious practices must be manifestations of an incarnate spirituality, a spirituality that happens in our bodies in relation to other bodies, people filled with life and honor given by God. These pious gestures must come from a place where we hold our treasures, our heart, and in our heart we must hold what is important to God: those who are living in difficult conditions.

Thus my giving, my prayers, and my fasting must be offered to God as I stand in solidarity with the homeless, with the incarcerated, with the undocumented, with the poor. For they are the deepest mark of Ash Wednesday in our lives, and if I have them in my heart throughout the year, when Ash Wednesday comes, a sign on our forehead will just be an “outward sign of an invisible grace.” In this way, when the poor becomes a sacrament in our lives, when we give, pray, and fast along side their lives in the midst of their weary days, we are offering God a true worship.

The prophet Amos said (Amos 5:21-24): “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies … Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

When our worship and pious gestures are disconnected from our work for justice, we turn God’s power into congratulatory self-aggrandizing, we confuse God’s glory with self-deception, God’s might with bad psychology, God’s demands with rationalized excuses, and demands to take care of our neighbors as self-pitied individualism. When justice is not on the horizon of our giving, prayers, and fasting, when peace is not a struggle on the streets, when the glory of God is not the bashing of racism, male dominance, sexism, and any form of human degradation, our offerings of worship will be empty. Our giving will mean nothing, the words of our prayers will be nothing more than embellished words of distancing, avoiding, and paralyzing fear and our fasting, if we ever do it, will be just a self-righteous sign of suffering.

What are our treasures? Let us make an inventory of our hearts and discover what our treasures are and ask for God’s grace to bring the poor into our hearts. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Tyrone’s poem ends saying: “Perhaps tomorrow a blessing will come.” The blessing that he needs so much will only come if we are serious with our giving, our prayers, and our fasting. For these pious gestures, when lived in solidarity with the poor, will indeed bring Tyrone and all homeless people such a blessing that they will be homeless no more. Tyrone and the homeless are our dust, his social invisibility our tragedy and the fallacy of our faith, and his mortality our own mortality — ashes to ashes.


You can see a snapshot of this service here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6t63AatspA4

Listen to Tyrone Well here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48yV7ww2l6c

First Reading

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

Terence E. Fretheim

The assignment of this text to Ash Wednesday, while dependent on a long tradition, is problematic. It is unlikely that this text is concerned with the repentance of sin.1

Joel 1 and 2 are probably parallel chapters, referring to the same locust plague. Joel 2 may reflect a fuller experience of the plague; the urgency of the call is intensified and an alarm is sounded (see a similar description of a locust plague in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, 341-352). God calls the community to be on the alert.

God created a world with a potential for natural disasters. In that sense, God “sent” the plague (2:25). The plague is a sign of the coming day of the Lord, a central theme of which God speaks (see 2:1-2, 10-11). The language that the day “is coming, is near” suggests that, if the present severity of the plague continues, it would mean catastrophe (= day of the Lord).  

The sounding of the alarm refers to sentinels on the city walls watching for the approach of the enemy; when sighted, they would blow the ram’s horn (shofar) to alert the city. The sounding of the trumpet could at the same time be a call to worship (1:14; 2:15-16). The one who “sent” the plague warns those who would experience its disastrous effects!  

The imagery for the plague is a day of clouds and thick darkness. This image refers to the effect of swarms of locusts that cover the sky. The scale and density of the plague is likened to a marauding “army” (2:2, 5). The army image for the locusts is continued throughout 2:4-11, ending with a reference to God as the head of the army. Indeed, the locust plague is referred to as God’s army. The locusts leave the land a wilderness, contrasted with Eden (2:3). This lament is not prayed to prevent the plague from happening, but to rescue the community that is suffering through the disaster “as we speak” (see 2:1).

This text is commonly identified as a call to repentance (see especially 2:12-14). But is this correct? When repentance is the point, the explicitness of the sin is usually made clear. But Joel names no sin of which the people should repent and does not cite the reference to forgiveness in the quotation from Exodus 34:6-7 (2:13). Rather, the people are called to focus on God with all their heart and soul and plead for God to act on their behalf (typical of laments, see Psalm 44). They are called to “turn” to God in prayer to save them from the destructive effects of the plague and to restore the situation to normal. 

Such a communal act in a time of crisis would traditionally have been accompanied by “fasting, weeping, mourning, rending of hearts.” The tearing of garments is a sign of mourning (2 Samuel 3:31). The action requested of God’s is relief from the crisis (note the detail of 2:18-27) not forgiveness of sin. The common use of this text in Christian liturgies at the beginning of the Lenten season does consider these words to be such a call, but the absence of reference to sin in the text makes this interpretation unlikely.

The people are invited by God to direct their appeal to a certain kind of God: merciful, gracious, slow to anger, steadfast in love, and ready to relent from doing harm (the NRSV’s “punish,” is not a helpful translation). This well-known passage, rooted in God’s self-identification to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7a (but not 34:7b!), is most fully paralleled in Jonah 4:2, with partial uses elsewhere (Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Nahum 1:3). The use of this creed in varying Old Testament contexts witnesses to its ongoing helpfulness for God’s people in various seasons of life.

“Who knows” how God will respond to this lament (2:14; see Jeremiah 26:2-3). Not even God’s own prophet is certain what the future holds! The “Who knows?” seems to express a tentative confidence. God does not (micro)manage the activities of natural forces. At such times one is simply called to trust in God to be active on behalf of the well-being of the community. 

The plague has occurred because it is part of the way in which the world works and God is the one who enables or mediates such an event. The text does not assume that the people must have sinned to deserve this disaster (see Job 1-2). The prayer is for God to “leave a blessing behind him,” namely, “a grain offering and a drink offering” (2:14); that is, crops from the fields would once again become available for temple offerings (see 1:13, 16). Notably, the offerings are for God’s sake; a reversal of the plague will benefit God! 

The call of 1:14 is essentially repeated in 2:15-16, only with greater specification of the participants. The inclusivity of the invitation matches the range of concern and the issues at stake. The call places emphasis upon turning to God and taking specific liturgical actions. Note the detail: the persons, the place, the behavior of the priests, and the prayer to be spoken. The call is to “sanctify” a fast as well as the congregation. That is, the people are to solemnly prepare for the occasion by abstaining from eating and work and to humble themselves before God. The text does not say whether the people respond.   

The priests are then called to assemble the community and to lead them in the lament (2:17, as in 1:14-20). The language is typical of the laments of the innocent sufferer in the Psalter (see, e.g., Psalm 79:4-10). The issue voiced is God’s reputation among the nations of the world (see Exodus 32:11). If the future of God’s people is threatened, it will become common among the nations to say (= a byword) that this God does not care for God’s own and hence they will be put to shame (see Jeremiah 24:9; Ezekiel 36:20-21). No God “worth his salt” would allow such a thing to happen to his chosen people and come off badly to outsiders. Indeed, 2:17 gives reasons to God to deliver the people because of what the nations might think of Israel’s God. 


This commentary was first published on the site on March 5, 2014.


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.

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.”1

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.2

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.”3 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).4 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.”5

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.


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

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

Goldingay, 133.

McCann, 886.

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

David E. Fredrickson

Paul had a problem.

His way of doing ministry in Corinth was severely criticized by other missionaries who had entered the church from outside Corinth. They were competing with Paul for the church’s loyalty. What were they like and what did they have against Paul? If we believe Paul’s characterization they were uncompromising moralists. In 2 Corinthians 11:5 he sarcastically calls them “super-apostles” and the language he uses to describe them in 11:20 quite likely would have put ancient readers in mind of Cynic philosophers, whose moral criticism bit and wounded those whom these “dog philosophers” (“Cynic” is related to the Greek word for dog) detected living not according to nature. Just to be clear: Paul’s rivals in Corinth were not Cynics, but the apostle used characteristics commonly attributed to this branch of ancient philosophy in order to highlight features of his own ministry (he is gentle, adapts to the needs and circumstances of others, and prizes forgiveness above all) and to dissuade the church in Corinth from following them. They are the “disloyal ones” in 2 Corinthians 6:14 and his plea in this verse for the church not to be yoked with them summarizes one of the purposes in his writing this letter. Take a look at 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 where Paul had previously employed this strategy of contrasting his gentle style of ministry, his desire to impart his very own soul to the church, with the severity of unnamed leaders (who also look a lot like Cynics).

For their part, his opponents thought Paul was a flatter (see 2 Corinthians 1:17) using tricks of rhetoric (2 Corinthians 1:12) to mask his real power. These critics said his forcefulness, which was very much to their liking, was perfectly evident in his letters but not where it belonged, in his physical presence with the community (2 Corinthians 10:9-10). They said in person he lacked the one thing absolutely required for leadership: frank or free speech. Note the instances in the letter when Paul makes the counterclaim that he does indeed have and he indeed does use bold speech: 2 Corinthians 3:12 (though here the NRSV has mistranslated the Greek term parresia); 2 Corinthians 7:4; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:2. So both the critics and Paul are bold speakers. What Paul wants to explore in 2 Corinthians 5-6 is the difference in the way each uses parresia. Paul’s point is this: whereas they speak boldly without caring for the shaming effects of their severity (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 for the possible effects of this kind of frank speech) Paul surrounds his frank speech with affirmations of friendship and love as he exhorts the Corinthian church also to do (2 Corinthians 2:7-8). In 2 Corinthians 6:4-10 Paul parodies the philosophers’ practice of legitimating their leadership by recounting the hardships which have displayed their unconquerable souls; what legitimates Paul’s ministry, however, is the combination of truth-telling with unfeigned love (2 Corinthians 6:6-7). One can of course suspect manipulation in Paul’s approach. Yet it can still be said that in terms of the protocols of speaking frankly in the ancient world he aligns himself with the gentle moral guides in opposition to the Cynics who displayed their own freedom and spiritual sovereignty by wounding and walking away without a care for the shame they have induced.

This care, which Paul embraced and wants to make the centerpiece of his ministry, the opponents called “slavery.” To be so concerned for the effects of one’s words on others restricted the freedom of speech and in their estimation differed in no respect from the obsequiousness of slaves. Note Paul’s defiant response in 2 Corinthians 4:5 when he contrasts himself with the overbearing, lordly “super-apostles”: “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves on account of Jesus.” Although it is beyond the scope of this essay to document, Paul’s likening himself to a slave might be an instance of a motif found in Greek and Latin poetry called servitium amoris, the slavery of love. In ancient poetry lovers were often called slaves of their beloveds. Why? For their devotion and desire bordering on madness and for the demeaning condition of always waiting on the beloved’s word.

Now back to Paul’s problem. He hasn’t made it any easier on himself by preaching himself as a slave to the Corinthians. Even more: whereas the word “ministry” by its association in English with “administration” has a bureaucratic and management ring to it, the Greek term diakonia in 2 Corinthians 6:3 referred unambiguously to slavery, the condition of being owned by another, the lord (kyrios). So, when in 6:3 Paul worries that the ministry (that is, his slavery to the Corinthians) might be faulted it becomes clear that the defense of his ministry is not aimed at the “super-apostles” who are already charging him with flattery, lack of free speech, and servility. Rather, it is to the Corinthians that Paul feels he must make a case for the legitimacy of his leadership. In fact, the NRSV translation of 6:3a (“We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way”) is quite misleading. The Greek term which stands behind “obstacle” is proskope, which is better translated “offense” (as in the KJV) or “injury.” The term was used to describe injury done by severe moral criticism. If this is the case in this verse, then Paul’s ministry opens itself to blame if his words have injured anyone, indeed if his words have taken on the primary characteristic of the speech of the “super-apostles.” If Paul’s speech has left anyone wounded, and if he has not made up with anyone he injured, then Paul’s ministry of grace, forgiveness, indeed his slave like devotion has been shown to be a fraud. No wonder he pleads so vehemently in 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 for forgiveness. What he had done to the Corinthians, what created a time of forgiveness, has to wait until the next essay on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.