Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2016
Epiphany of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez

“Gospel” originally meant the “good news from the empire” — namely, when a new territory was conquered, when an elite child was born — but Mark changed the meaning to “good news to the poor.”

“Advent” originally meant the coming of a royal person or a high dignitary, but the gospels changed that meaning to the coming of the poor Jesus of Nazareth. “Epiphany” originally meant the abrupt manifestation or showing up of a sovereign to inspect a subordinate; but the gospels changed the meaning to the appearance of the poor Jesus of Nazareth to inspect the powerful.

Up until the 4th century, Jesus’ birth was celebrated on January 6. However, in 325 the emperor Constantine moved that festivity’s observance in the Western Church to December 25, the day of the Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, whom he worshiped. January 6 then became related to Jesus’ baptism.

Three Kings and bondage liberation

In Puerto Rico, the Three Kings Day warrants great celebration, in which businesses are closed and the whole country is feasting. This is a cultural vestige that takes us back to the slavery time when January 6 was the only day off in the entire year for the Afro-Caribbean people. Needless to say, the black king (Melchior) is always at the center.

In the Eastern hemisphere, Epiphany is the celebration of Jesus’ baptism, where the “three magi” became the first liturgists who celebrated the birth of the political Messiah: “the king of the Jews.” These “three scholars” were also the first Gentile missionaries to share the good news to the Gentiles beyond Judea’s borders.

People sometimes joke that this trio was the first and last group of men invited to a baby shower, since their presents were not practical at all!

State paranoia

Herod was an “illegal alien” since he was not an Israelite but an Idumean with many connections with the Roman Empire. Jesus has royal blood (Matthew 1:1-17) but the “alien” Idumean has the sword of Rome in his DNA. When the visit of the three magi took place, Herod was ready to die after 40 years of ruling the Israelites on behalf of Rome (40-4 BCE). He was able to maneuver all that time in power due to police brutality and his cruel profile. And he is still frightened with the news of the magi, the intriguing royal child and the talking stars. Herod considered that news a concern of “national security.” His politics, based on secrecy and terror, are still mimicked by current Herods who don’t listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic speech: “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that the privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”1

Herod, the pious politician

Politicians learned from Herod the language of piety, to grant God’s blessing to the country, to be politically correct and to promote, with the people’s blood, the grandiose temple construction as his majestic work in the capital city. Herod’s Jerusalem temple was the main business of Jerusalem with multi-purpose roles: military fort, bank, IRS, butchery, and also a place to worship God.

Under the guise of “paying homage” to the newborn baby, Herod hides his intentions of expunging the baby from the map, and removing him from history. However, he didn’t live to carry out that killing. That accomplishment belonged to his son, Herod Antipas. What Herod the Great (very proud of his humility) achieved was to massacre the first martyrs of the Christian church with his killing of the innocent children around Bethlehem.

Melchior had means

In today’s culture, Africa is often equated with poverty; however, not all Africans who crossed the Atlantic were slaves. Caribbean hermeneutics reminds us that black Melchior was African and had economic means. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Africans were portrayed as distinguished, with dignity and pride. Africans who were professionals and well to do traveled to the America continent in the European ships and often stayed for business as well.

I buy therefore I exist

The liturgical year has been co-opted by the market year where everything is for sale. “Three Kings Day” is the crowning of the toy race started with Santa Claus. In recent years the bridge between Christmas and Epiphany sees the consumption of 80 percent of the annual toy sales. Instead of addressing the political dimensions of both festivities, folks only care about buying the love of their children through toys. Electronic devices are already hanging in the cradles of months-old babies.

Gospel obedience

The wise men of our story, like our ancestors, got their wisdom also from dreams, where we are more awake than during the vigil. Little wonder, then that on the Day of Pentecost we see “youngsters dreaming dreams” (Acts 2, quoting Joel 2). Maybe while dreaming, the creative unconsciousness of these Easterners allowed them to see the evil that Herod tried to conceal behind a pious mask.

The Magi didn’t pay attention to Herod’s insinuation: “When you find him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” They knew that in politics an insinuation is an order, but our three heroes opted for Gospel obedience. The three kings, like Peter (and us), have a higher loyalty: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29).


1 Martin Luther King Jr., “Equality Now: The President Has the Power,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. James M. Washington (ed.), San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986, 292. Quoted in Brian K. Blount (ed.), True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007, p. 88.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Isa 60:1-6 is a piece of poetry brimming with energy and hope.

Due to the fact that Hebrew distinguishes between a male and a female second person, we can see that the prophet is addressing a feminine “you.” Thus, scholars identify the poem as belonging to a group of poems within Isa 40-66, which are written to Zion, who is personified as a human female (see also 49:14-26; 51:17-52:12; 54:1-17; 62:1-12). “Arise! Shine!” the prophet calls to her, summoning Zion to bear witness both to the wonder of God’s sudden appearance as well as to her own renewal and restoration.

The original recipients of this prophetic word were Jews living in Judah — now the Persian province of Jehud — in the period following the Babylonian exile. Living in reduced circumstances amidst the rubble of a wealthier time, the people’s historical visions of a glorious Zion might have seemed a distant fantasy. Zion, both the geographical locale as well the idea of a sacred bond between people, place, and God, was in ruins. The Zion poems of Isa 40-66 represent an attempt to rebuild the idea of Zion and to infuse her with a new vigor. This effort is not simply to make people feel better nor to reclaim a theological idea for its own sake. The purpose of the rehabilitation of Zion is to inspire and empower the people to help make this glorious vision a reality. Isa 60:1-6 is, thus, not a simplistic prediction of a new age but contains a call, an imperative, to be a part of the restoration of Zion.

The imperatives are what drive Isa 60:1-6. The reader is propelled through the poetic unit by the two imperative pairs that occur at v. 1 and v. 4: “Arise! Shine!” and “Lift up your eyes and look around!” Following these commands, the prophet describes the scene before Zion using verbs in the prophetic present and so adds persuasive force to them: “For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises over you!” The upshot is something like: “Look up! Something is happening right now! Don’t miss it!” If Zion doesn’t look up, she’ll miss the events that are taking place even as the prophet speaks.

Imagery provides the poetic force in vv. 2-3 and vv. 5-6. In vv. 2-3, the prophet describes the light of God in terms so vivid one can almost feel the warmth emanating from the page and uses the image of thick clouds and darkness to powerful effect in the description of the experience of the other nations. Thick clouds connote not just darkness but potentially destructive weather patterns, and, thus, suggest a looming threat to the more powerful nations. In the future, the prophet promises that security and warmth will be the new normal for Zion. The other nations will face insecurity and darkness and so will flood to Zion, seeking to enjoy the benefits of God’s presence just as Zion does.

In vv. 5-6, the imagery of light continues — “Then you shall see and be radiant,” v. 5 — but the source of the brightness is not divine but is the result of joyful reunions and a renewed prosperity. The imagery in v. 5 is very tender; the missing children of Zion will be carried gently home to her. The absence of those who remained in the Diaspora is clearly still a source of pain for the community, but it will be felt no longer, the prophet promises. Nor does the restoration end with reunions. Poverty will be replaced by plenty. The power of v. 6 lies in the sheer volume of the wealth the prophet describes streaming to Zion. By land and by sea, all the wealth of the nations will make its way to Zion, replacing her poverty with what sounds like a suffocating quantity of riches: “A multitude of camels shall cover you … ”

The vision of Isa 60:1-6 and of the other Zion poems of Isa 40-66 is one of complete restoration. The tone is triumphant and tender, and it can be difficult for a contemporary audience with some knowledge of history to reconcile it with the reality of the postexilic period; a period that did not see a dramatic reversal of fortune for Zion. It’s important to remember, however, that biblical prophecy is not flat prediction but is, rather, an invitation to change, to be empowered, and, sometimes, to repent. Within Zion’s call to witness in Isa 60:1-6 is also a call to the community to believe in the vision, to endure the present hardship, and, with God, to bring the vision into reality.

The women of Magdalene House/Thistle Farms in Nashville, TN have a saying that I think serves a similar function to the visions of the Zion poems in Isa 40-66: “Love heals.” As a community dedicated to survivors of prostitution, trafficking, and addiction, they do not take those words lightly. Indeed, Becca Stevens, who founded this community, stresses that “love heals” is not a happy ending but a vow. It’s a vow that they make to themselves and to one another.1 Thistle Farms shares a vision of wholeness that includes socio-economic recovery, family wellbeing, and communal support that finds a number of parallels in Isa 60:1-6. By the grace and glory of God, they work together to bring that vision to life, to make “love heals” a reality.

It can be difficult to preach the triumphant visions of the prophets without sounding like a pie in the sky dreamer. In preaching texts such as Isa 60:1-6, I think it’s important to emphasize that these visions were meant to sustain and empower people to create and to build, to remain faithful, and to love their God and each other. Not one of those acts is passive or dreamy but requires the commitment and courage that a shared vision of a better future can produce.


1 See http://thistlefarms.org and http://www.npr.org/2011/04/27/135702451/a-business-that-helps-prostitutes-bloom-in-recovery


Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Rolf Jacobson

Psalm 72 is a royal psalm — a psalm about the earthly kings of Israel.

Psalm 72 is an odd psalm. And Psalm 72 an important psalm.

Or, for the purpose of considering Psalm 72 on the occasion of the day of Epiphany, we might call it an oddly important royal psalm.

Some Basics

For starters, some basics.

The psalm is unique in that is portrays the role of the king in stunningly positive language. So much of the Old Testament’s commentary on Israel’s kings is negative. But here, note the extraordinarily positive tone — especially the tone of how the king is to do justice and establish a reign of peace and righteousness:

Give the king your justice, O God,

and your righteousness to a king’s son. 

May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice. 

May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,

and the hills, in righteousness. 

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,

give deliverance to the needy,

and crush the oppressor.

Even more, note how the king — responsible in the ancient world for judging the cries for justice of those oppressed — listens and judges wisely on behalf of those oppressed by the powerful:

For he delivers the needy when they call,

the poor and those who have no helper. 

He has pity on the weak and the needy,

and saves the lives of the needy. 

From oppression and violence he redeems their life;

and precious is their blood in his sight.

An Oddly Placed Psalm

Psalm 72 is the only Psalm “of Solomon” in the Psalter — the only psalm that bears the superscription (lishelomoh). Oddly, however, there are two “editorial additions” at the end of the psalm. By “editorial additions,” I mean phrases that most psalms scholars believe were added to the psalm proper by scribes who were compiling the psalms.

The first of these editorial additions is the “doxology” in vv. 18-19. This doxology closes “Book II” of the Psalter. (Doxologies similar to this also appear at the end of Books I, III, and IV of the Psalter == see Ps 41:13, 89:52, and 106:48). The doxology reads:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

who alone does wondrous things.

Blessed be his glorious name forever;

may his glory fill the whole earth.

Amen and Amen.

This doxology marks Psalm 72 as the final psalm in Book II of the Psalter. Some scholars have argued that the transition from Psalm 72 to Psalm 73 is the major “hinge” of the Book of Psalms.

The second of these two editorial additions is the postscript: “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.” The important psalms scholar Gerald Wilson, who did more than anyone else to spark modern scholarly research into the final editing and shape of the Psalter, was emphatic that this scribal postscript to Psalm 72 “is the only explicit indicator of editorial shaping of the Psalter.” 

Two things are odd about this postscript.

First, the postscript follows a psalm “of Solomon,” not a psalm of David. Odd. Second, there are many more “psalms of David” that occur later in the Psalter. Odd.

What Does This Mean?

So, to ask favorite catechetical question, “What does this mean?”

Without boring into pages of scholarly argumentation (you see what I did there I am sure), allow me to cut to the chase.

There are two main lines of interpretation.

A Criticism of Israel’s Kings

A first line of interpretation would hold that this royal psalm of Solomon was placed at this point in the Psalter as a criticism of Israel’s kings.

This line of argument has much merit. So much of the Old Testament is harshly condemning about the self-aggrandizing, self-serving reigns of Israel’s kings. The prophets Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel come to mind. As does the entire Deuteronomistic History, which chronicles the failures of Israel’s and Judah’s kings and essentially blames of the falls of both kingdoms and the Babylonian Exile on those kings.

A Promise of the Ideal Davidic King (The Messiah)

A second line of interpretation would hold that this royal psalm — along with other royal psalms that are placed at key points in the book of Psalms — was placed at the key hinge of the Psalter because Israel believed that God would keep the promises embedded in this psalm.

One thing that is truly amazing about the Psalter is that any royal psalms whatsoever were included in the final Psalter. After all, the last time Judah had a reigning king was c. 587 BCE. The Psalter was clearly collected and then edited many centuries later — long after the post-exilic community had had kings. So why were these psalms retained? Because they bear God’s promises about what a descendant would be like and do.

Note that other key voices in the Old Testament anticipated an ideal Davidic King — The Messiah — who was expected to come. See here Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, and others.

My Final Answer: Jesus 

So, put it all together:

  • the extremely positive view of the king in the psalm (justice and righteousness)
  • the key canonical placement at the hinge of the Psalter, 
  • the odd historical retention of the royal psalms after Judah’s kings had disappeared, 
  • the liturgical placement of this Psalm on the Day of Epiphany, 
  • the canonical criticism of Israel and Judah’s kings, and 
  • the Old Testament promise of an ideal king to come.

And what do you get?


That’s my final answer.

As John the Baptist asked, “Are you the one to come? Or should we expect another?”

And how did Jesus respond? Tell people what you see. The lame walk, the blind see, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news preached to them.

In a word: Jesus. 

In a phrase: Jesus The Christ.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

Brian Peterson

This passage is, to a large degree, a reflection on Paul’s unique role in the church.

However, its theological riches do not simply address one historical figure, even one of Paul’s stature. Nor does this text only address those who, like Paul, find themselves called to be preachers. It also serves as a profound meditation on what it means for the church to be entrusted with the message and the ministry of the gospel. In this time of the Epiphany, we hear in this text that God’s revelation in Christ has made all the difference in, and to, the world.

Ephesians 3:1 begins with a crucial backwards look (“This is the reason … ”). The preceding verse said that the readers have been joined into God’s dwelling place. The church is called to be the community where the world still encounters God in human lives. What does that look like? Paul is described in verse 1 as a “prisoner of Christ,” which may be a usefully ambiguous phrase. It may mean a prisoner “for” Christ” (NRSV), though it could also mean “captured by Christ.” Perhaps we need to hear both possibilities. Though the former may be an unlikely experience for many of us, the latter is a provocative description of what it means to be the church, caught by God’s grace.

In verse 2, the NRSV speaks of a “commission.” A better translation here would be “stewardship” (New English Translation). The thought is not that God graciously gave Paul a position of authority (i.e., “commissioning” him), but that God gave Paul the role of being a servant of grace. God has placed the treasure of the gospel into our hands as its stewards. Being good stewards means, as verse 2 indicates, that this stewardship is for the sake of others, and so we exercise this stewardship of God’s grace by giving it away with bold freedom, through our words and through our lives.

That stewardship of God’s grace also involves living out the “mystery” (verse 3; see comments about the meaning of “mystery” in last week’s exegesis of Ephesians 1:3-14). This mention of the “mystery” looks back to 1:9-10, and God’s intention to bring all things together in Christ. The church is called to be both a promise and a foretaste of that final reconciliation. The gospel has real (and sometimes difficult) social implications, as old cultural assumptions are dismantled. For Ephesians, the crucial divide that has been healed was between Jews and Gentiles. In our setting, there is no shortage of ways in which the “mystery” of the gospel calls us to reconciliation between divisions of race, culture, poverty, and sexuality. The church is called to live out that reconciling mystery with the strangers on our streets, and at our borders, and in all the desperate places of the world.

It may be worth noticing that this text doesn’t give any hint of how serious the disagreement about Jew / Gentile fellowship had been in the early church. The author looks back and says that the unity of the church in Christ was revealed not just to Paul, but to all the apostles, despite the disagreements reflected, for example, in Galatians. There is something hopeful here. Time gives a perspective that is difficult to attain in the disagreements of the present moment. The text reflects on what had been a controversial issue and sees that the church is profoundly one, despite those earlier disagreements. We can hope and pray the same will be true one day about all those things that currently cause division in the church.

This mystery of God’s grace is further described as the “boundless riches of Christ” (verse 8). The language used here indicates not simply that grace is abundant, but that these riches in Christ are incomprehensible. If we think we’ve understood God’s grace, we’ve just been looking at an idol of our own imagination. The wisdom of God is “many-sided” (verse 10; NRSV “in its rich variety”) like a gem with countless facets, sparking new light each way it is turned, so that not only are Jews and Gentiles brought together in Christ, but all divisions will be healed.

Verse 10 contains one of those breathtaking statements about the mission of the church that are part of Ephesians. Here, the purpose of the church is to make this wisdom of God known to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” These are the powers that many believed threatened the world, powers that might be visible in political and social dynamics but that had a reality which was more than human. We might see such powers today in the form of racism, perpetual poverty, oppressive political and economic structures, or the ways in which all systems are bent in favor of the few. In the face of such realities, the church is not called to survive, or to increase membership, or to make people feel better. It is called to be the sign, promise, and embodiment of what God intends for the whole world, and to do so in the face of, and in witness to, the opposing powers of the world. The church is called to be a living declaration that the hostile powers cannot stand; their final defeat is assured.

Perhaps, though, even this fails to grasp the vision of Ephesians. The proclamation of the gospel brings reconciliation; that is the message throughout Ephesians. The claim seems to be, therefore, that through the church, these powers of the world will be brought back into their proper role, their right relationship to God, and thus also to the rest of the world. The church hopes not for destruction, but for transformation and redemption on the widest scale.

In an ancient context in which the church would hardly have measured as a blip in a demographic study, Ephesians sees the church at the center of what God is doing, and this vision of the church’s mission has personal, social, and even cosmic dimensions. How does such a mission statement compare to your congregation’s?