Lectionary Commentaries for January 17, 2016
Second Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 2:1-11

Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez

Even though Jesus arrived at a wedding with a funereal face, he immediately caught the festive mood!

Jesus — following the steps of his cousin John the Baptizer, who de-centralized the temple to the Jordan River — in this story does the same with the wedding at Cana of Galilee. For Jesus, like for Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3), the whole land is holy. There’s no distinction between sacred spaces and secular sites, since God’s presence permeated everything.

God chose a small village in a tiny, insignificant country for the Son’s incarnation. This is precisely where Jesus begins his pastoral work, in order to communicate this message clearly: big is not a synonym of great, small is not interchangeable with insignificant. The Nazarene put Cana on the map! As a result, empires do not have the last word.

Do whatever he tells you

In divinizing Mary some churches miss the point. In invisibilizing Jesus’ mother other churches lose their way. Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Magnificat does justice to this great woman by articulating a liberating Mariology. For instance, Luther reminds us that “a humble servant” (Luke 1:48) is not Mary’s moral attribute. It is her economic and social condition.

Latino culture clicks with this story and Mary’s indirectness, as evidenced in the Spanish phrase a la buena entendedora pocas palabras, (“a good understander only needs a few words”). This is a cultural element of not being so direct, so explicit, so didactic. We Latinos and Latinas feel at home with beating around the bushes — it is a cultural inheritance from our indigenous ancestors, our black roots, our Arab heritage, and our Jewish spiritual legacy. Mary knows that Jesus won’t abandon her, just as she won’t abandon him on the cross (Luke 19:25-27).

Her words “do whatever he tells you” point to Mary’s “discipline,” the same word for “discipleship,” a trait that is displayed throughout her entire life. In spite of the fact that her son is somewhat rude in his response; in spite of being an unwed mother, who could’ve been punished with a death sentence (John 8:41); in spite of the fact that Mary was not allowed to choose the name of her first fruit of her womb (Matthew 1:21); in spite of the fact that Mary had to run away from persecution to her cousin’s home (Luke 1:39-45) — still Mary invites us: “do whatever he tells you.”

Jesus, provider of the most exquisite wine

In Jesus’ time weddings were known as drinking parties. Wine was the celebration drink (Judges 19:4): “No wine, no happiness.” Jesus accepted the invitation of a poor couple from a gray village to remind us that he came to provide a life of plenty for everybody (John 10:10), not just for the jet set. That couple would’ve started their marriage journey badly, they would’ve been the talk of the town by not providing enough wine, but Jesus literally saved them.

Let me hasten to add that Jesus’ public image as a “drunkard and glutton” doesn’t correspond with the disciplined life he had (Luke 9:58). That stereotype is the product of lies from the official media. Any likeness with current vilification of the Latina/Latino community — as fiesta people and mañana folks — is not coincidental. In fact, the opposite is the truth. The agricultural laborers and César Chávez hold the record of the longest USA strike. Those Chicanos denounced the “bloody grapes” that ended up on many tables at the expense of the broken backs of Latinos and their families.

And even more, from the perspective of Latino families, mañana doesn’t translate into procrastination, laziness, “don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” Not at all. Mañana points to the greatest Christian utopia: the banquet. Endure, resist, and don’t give up the fight today: tomorrow will be different.

In those days food and wine were not served indiscriminately to the guests sitting at the same table. It was based on their social status. Some guests got the cheapest wine — a mixture of wine, vinegar, and water — like the one Jesus was offered on the cross (Luke 23:36), while others drank grand reserve. The good news is that Jesus’ wine is for everybody.

To be sure, Jesus neither promotes Rome’s saturnalia nor Greece’s bacchanalia. Jesus takes the side of the poor groom and bride who ran out of wine in the middle of the fiesta. The Nazarene clinks glasses of wine with folks who are exhausted by poverty, telling them salud, cheers, skol, meaning salvation, liberation, humanization, healing.

To the folks whose lands have been plundered by the big vineyard owners, Jesus provided the most exquisite wine. By providing 120 gallons (approximately 450 liters) of the vineyard’s fruit at a premium of $300 dollars per liter, Jesus picked up the bill of $135,000! Little wonder John Calvin demanded one barrel of wine a year for the clergy. The Reformer agrees that wine can be medicinal but, above all, wine is to get merry!1

A happy theophany

The liberating news in this gospel is that the Reign of God has gotten rid of all hierarchies. “Epiphany” is the manifestation of “one of us,” a Nazarene who attends weddings, who celebrates life in togetherness. Jesus is showing us God’s glory, God’s sense of humor, God’s nearness, mingling. God is not an absentee landlord, the metaphysical god of the philosophers, the never-present father. No, Jesus will never say we are “too close for comfort.”


Notes:

1 Commenting Psalm 104:15 in Joannis Calvini Opera, 32:91.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 62:1-5

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Isaiah 62:1-5 is part of that section of the book of Isaiah which is often termed “Third Isaiah” and placed historically in the postexilic period of Judah, although a more precise date within this period is difficult to determine.1

Some scholars read Isaiah 66:1 to mean that construction of the second temple has begun, but this verse is no more than suggestive and might simply indicate that people are making plans to rebuild, not that the process is truly underway.

What is clear from reading Third Isaiah is that the effects of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem are still felt very keenly. The key symbols of Zion theology, the presence of temple and the continued reign of the Davidide king — along with the sense of safety provided by the walls of the city — provided physical as well as symbolic sources of security. Now, although their reconstruction may have started, the symbols are still in ruins. This is the reality with which the prophet is grappling in Isaiah 62: the loss of self-rule and the continued absence of physical and symbolic stability, which suggests that God is absent as well.

Significantly, the prophet’s response to this reality is not to provide a word from God to the people. The prophet’s words are on behalf of Zion and are directed, albeit implicitly, to God (verses 1-4, 5b) and the people (see verse 5a, in which the word translated “builder” actually reads “builders” or “sons” in the Hebrew, suggesting that the human inhabitants of Zion are in view here). The prophet in these five verses stands in stubborn solidarity with Zion, refusing to budge until she is vindicated. In wonderfully onomatopoetic and alliterative Hebrew, the prophet uses two verbs with the “sh” sound which are translated as “rest” and “be silent” by the NRSV. The prophet will not hush or be shushed until Zion is transformed into a beloved and beautiful reality once again.

Through the rich imagery of the poem, ruined Zion begins to live again as the prophet speaks of this sacred place/idea using feminine pronouns and then speaks directly to the sacred place using the second person, “you.” Zion takes on human form and personality through the prophet’s use of personification, a poetic device whereby an abstraction or a non-human object is given human qualities. By referring to Zion as “you” — “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name…” (62:2) — the prophet appeals to the imagination of the reader to see beyond the rubble to the powerful reality that a human figure represents.

The expression, “Where there’s breath, there’s hope,” certainly applies here. By giving Zion breath and personality, speaking as if she were a human being, the prophet suggests to the people that it is not yet time to give up on Zion. There is still reason to hope. She is not dead yet.

She is alone, however, and it is this state that the prophet intends to rectify, calling her “Forsaken” and “Desolate” in the first part of verse 4 but promising that these names will no longer be appropriate in the future. Her current isolation and abandonment will have an end. The prophet’s vision of the future is profoundly intimate, an appropriate antidote to her current existence. Forsaken no more, she will be called Hepzibah, “My Delight is in her,” the prophet writes, and the name underscores the delight and the deep connection between Zion and her God.

“Desolate” is changed to Beulah (“Married”), a name change that also signifies connection and love. I am reminded of the novel Silas Marner, by George Eliot, in which the reclusive Silas Marner takes in an abandoned girl-child and names her Hepzibah. The name proves to be prophetic in the novel, for both individuals are alone in the world at this point and both find joy and strength in their new family of two. Intimacy trumps despair. Alienation and abandonment are replaced by unity and joy.

I think that it is essential in preaching this text to communicate just how necessary it is for Christians to play the role the prophet plays here. The experience of divine abandonment is devastating both for communities and individuals. Just as Zion seemed a sacred place forsaken by the sacred presence, many human beings feel cut off from the love of God, cast off by the divine. In Isaiah 62:1, the prophet promises not to stop talking until Zion is filled with the presence of God once again. In the same way, Christians are called to be just as stubborn in their refusal to allow isolation and hopelessness to have the last word in people’s lives. The solution to darkness and despondency is connection and companionship, a willingness to love and to serve each other.

The creative power of human connection cannot be overstated just as the destructive power of isolation cannot be underestimated. Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and dissident, who speaks out against the human rights abuses in his homeland. He was jailed in 2011 by the Chinese authorities and charged with tax evasion, a charge of which he was most certainly innocent. In response to the charge, a number of people sent money to help him pay the taxes the government said he owed.

Ai Weiwei wrote of these people, “There were thousand of moving messages. People sent money from their first month’s salary. Others said: This is my retirement payment — take it. This is the money for my next pair of shoes — take it. It was very important for me to see and hear those things. Normally you do not see the warmth, humor, care and generosity of the people while writing a blog. You just feel like you are walking in a dark tunnel and you feel alone.”2

Humor, warmth, care, and generosity are the antidotes to isolation and despair. They are the enemy of oppressive regimes and abusive relationships. They are the presence of God shining through Christians in the darkest places.


1 This commentary originally published on this site Jan. 20, 2013.

2Ai Weiwei, Weiwei-isms, edited by Larry Warsh (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 101. 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 36:5-10

Joel LeMon

The God of justice cares for refugees.

This essential affirmation about God’s character emerges over the course of the entire psalm, only portions of which (vv. 5-10) appear in the lection for this Sunday. Since the context is critical, the comments here will include vv. 1-4 and 11-12.1

The structure of Psalm 36

The psalm begins with one of the longest meditations on the nature of wickedness in the entire Psalter. In the first four verses, the psalmist takes us on a tour through the thoughts (vv. 1, 4), words (v. 2-3), and actions (v. 4) of the paradigmatic wicked person.2

The text then moves abruptly to a hymn of praise (vv. 5-9) that describes Yahweh as the perfect foil for the wicked. The hymn explores God’s just character (vv. 5-6a) along with God’s saving and protecting acts (vv. 6b-9) on behalf of those who seek refuge.

With Yahweh’s power clearly in view, the psalmist then utters a petition for protection against the wicked (vv. 10–11) and concludes with a statement of trust (v. 13) in this supreme God of justice. In doing so, the psalmist associates herself with the refugees under Yahweh’s wings (v. 7).  

The nature of the wicked

The psalm presents the wicked one as, ironically, both foolish and cunning. The wicked one is constantly hatching plots (v. 4) even though he completely lacks wisdom (v. 3). He is either unwilling or unable — the text isn’t clear on this point — to acknowledge God and thus, to fear God.

“Transgression,” (Hebrew: pasha‘) which could also translated “rebelliousness” (v. 1), is a force deep within the personality of the wicked person. Transgression is the constant urge to break down relationships by setting one’s own desires as more important than everything and everyone else.

This deep-seated selfishness governs every action and sensibility. In fact, the psalmist highlights the wicked person’s skewed sense of perception by focusing on his “eyes,” which cannot discern God’s power and might (vv. 1-2). These eyes are so blinded by pride and self-absorption (v. 2) that he cannot recognize his own depravity and all its manifestations in his mouth, hands, and feet.

The nature of God

While the wicked are set on destroying relationships through lies, flattery, and mischief, God is committed to preserving and maintaining right relationships. God’s love (vv. 5, 7) manifests an unswerving loyalty. Indeed, God epitomizes righteousness (v. 6), while the wicked are unrighteous in every respect, actively persecuting the righteous (v. 4).

The detailed presentation of the wicked at the outset of the psalm is mirrored by an equally expansive description of Yahweh’s character and actions (vv. 5-9). Each aspect of Yahweh’s character in vv. 5-6 is coupled with a powerful force of nature: steadfast love — heavens; faithfulness — clouds; righteousness — mighty mountains; judgments — great deep.

Here the psalmist provides concrete examples of otherwise intangible aspects of the divine personality by binding them to readily observable elements of the universe. These forces of nature bear witness to the very nature of Yahweh. Indeed, the psalmist suggests that the structures of the world attest Yahweh’s righteousness and justice.

In addition to extolling Yahweh’s characteristics, the psalmist depicts Yahweh in acts of salvation and protection (vv. 6b-7). Through the image of divine “wings,” this incredibly powerful deity creates a vast protective sphere that includes both humans and animals. Yahweh, in a sense, has a giant wingspan.

Everyone and everything under Yahweh’s wings receive illumination and sustenance (vv. 8-9). The psalmist imagines a God who faithfully preserves a well-ordered universe in which wickedness is punished (vv. 12) and the righteous find protection and prosperity (vv. 7-11).

God’s refugees

Two communities appear in this psalm, the righteous who seek refuge in God and the wicked who persecute the righteous. The psalmist counts herself clearly in the first group, a community of faithful that includes both humans and animals (v. 6). This community relies on Yahweh for everything.

Despite the machinations of the self-obsessed wicked, the psalm describes a protective realm in which the whole earth is infused with the saving presence of the deity. God’s care for the refugee will ultimately lead to the end of persecution (v. 12), an end to self-reliance, opportunism, and delusion (vv. 1-4).

This psalm is good news for refugees: “all people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (v. 7). The God of justice is at work in the world bringing about salvation.

To be sure, with its long meditation on wickedness at the outset (vv. 1-4), the psalm acknowledges that evil is running rampant in the world and that refugees are begging for help (vv. 10-11). So the psalm presents a clear challenge to all its readers: when we acknowledge God’s just character and actions on behalf of refugees, we oppose wickedness.

As Christians pray this psalm today, they stand in solidarity with all those seeking refuge. Praying this way also compels us to participate in God’s works of justice and righteousness throughout the world.


Notes:

The following essay draws in part on a more technical discussion of this psalm that I published in chapter 4 of Yahweh’s Winged Form in the Psalms: Exploring Congruent Iconography and Texts (Orbis biblicus et orientalis 242; Fribourg, Switz.: Academic Press; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010).

In Hebrew, “the wicked one” (rasha‘) at the beginning of the psalm is an unnamed male person. Note, however, that the NRSV renders the first four verses with gender-neutral plural pronouns, making “the wicked one” (him) into “the wicked” (them).


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Richard Carlson

This text is about spirituality.

For Paul spirituality entails the ongoing reality and work of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives both individually and corporately. The problem is that some spiritual elitists have really messed this up. They have regarded their gifts of the Spirit as making them superior to other members of the Corinthian community. This text introduces the extended section of 1 Corinthians 12-14 wherein Paul is presenting the proper and improper uses of spiritual gifts. In this introduction Paul emphasizes unified divine action, which empowers diverse human activity for the common benefit of all.

Paul’s opening words in 1 Corinthians 12:1, “Now concerning” introduces the new topic at hand parallel to how he introduces new topics in 7:1; 8:1; 16:1. While almost every English translation presents Paul as introducing spiritual gifts in 12:1, Paul does not use his typical word for spiritual gifts. Instead, the Greek word Paul intentionally uses would better be rendered “matters related to the Spirit.” Spiritual gifts are a particular subset Paul will discuss under the broader topic of matters related to the Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 12:2-3 Paul presents a contrast between the Corinthians’ former and current spiritual realities. Formerly as pagans they were misled to worship speechless idles (v. 2). Now, however, their Spirit-inspired speech is quite different (v. 3). God’s Spirit would never empower anyone to declare, “May Jesus be damned.” Rather, the Spirit empowers the saving confession, “Jesus is Lord!” In this way, Paul reminds his Corinthian audience that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to create faith whose principal pronouncement is the lordship of Jesus. Hence no believer should feel that the Holy Spirit is not at work in them. One cannot believe apart from the direct, empowering work of the Holy Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 Paul constructs three parallel sentences highlighting allotted diversity flowing out of divine unity. Each verse opens with the same Greek word meaning “varied allotments” as he emphasizes how the triune God works in multiple ways. The first diverse allotments of the Spirit involve gifts. Here the Greek word which Paul uses is almost non-existent beyond the Pauline epistles. It is the word charismata (from which comes our English word, charismatic), typically translated as “gifts.” It is important to note, however, that this rare word is a cognate of the Greek word, charis, meaning “grace.” Thus for Paul these diverse gifts flow directly out of God’s grace. Thus one cannot claim them as their own possession or a product of their own innate talents. They always remain divine grace-gifts.

In verse 5 Paul notes that Jesus allots various ministries. Whereas in verse 6, it is God who activates various activities (Paul’s play on words) in everyone. In light of the spiritual elitists in Corinth, Paul is letting them know that not only did the Spirit create faith in everyone, the triune God is at work in and through everyone. No one is ignored or left out. Every single one of them is a charismatic Christian. The implication is also that no one is spiritually superior to others.

Paul emphatically bookends his next section, 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, with the fundamental point that it is the Spirit which works in every single Christian as the Spirit so choses. Likewise, the Spirit works in each Christian not so much for the benefit of any individual Christian but for the benefit of the entire community. Thus the Spirit’s activity is quite diverse; no single Christian receives all the Spirit’s gifts. Yet each Christian is empowered by the Spirit for ministry which builds up the whole community.

In vv. 8-10 Paul elucidates the Spirit’s activity by presenting nine gifts, which the Spirit manifests in the lives of various Christians. The fact that Paul opens his list with the Spirit giving an utterance of wisdom (12:8a) is contextually significant. In 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16 Paul countered the relishing of wisdom by some Corinthians with the foolishness of the cross. Thus an utterance of wisdom involves the epistemology of the cross and an ability to interpret God’s hidden plan as revealed in Christ-crucified as the center of God’s salvific activity.

In this context “an utterance of knowledge” (12:8b) most likely refers to theological discernment for communal benefit (recalling 1:5). This Spirit-imparted knowledge stands in stark contrast to the arrogant knowledge displayed by some Corinthians which lacks theological discernment regarding how one’s actions may be harming one’s fellow Christian (Paul’s argument in chapter 8).

The reference to the Spirit allotting faith to someone (12:9a) is a bit deceptive. Here faith does not relate to core Christian faith since Paul is highlighting varied grace-gifts given distinctively and diversely by the Spirit (opposite of how he highlights the unified confession of faith worked by the Spirit in v. 3). Rather, it refers to a grace-gift empowering one to do some type of miraculous work (as it will also be used in 13:2).

The Spirit’s empowerment of another with grace gifts for healing (12:9b) is a counter-cultural claim. In Corinth (as well as throughout the Greco-Roman world), gifts for healings were deeply linked with the god (and cult) of Asclepius, a son of Apollo. While there was a significant temple to Asclepius in Corinth, Paul is telling Christians in Corinth that true healing does not occur there but here in the midst of their own community as a result of the Spirit’s gifting activity.

The references to the allotment of prophecies and discernment of spirits (12:10a) are interrelated. Prophecy does not involve predicting the future but speaking a message originating with God. Discerning spirits involves determining whether or not the person speaking a prophecy has actually been energized by the Spirit or not. Likewise speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues (12:10b) are also interrelated. Here tongues (the gift of glossolalia) involves the Spirit empowering one to speak in an unknown, heavenly language. Since it is unknown, the Spirit also needs to empower another to interpret the message which has been spoken.

Thus through this text we discover that Pauline spirituality includes:

  • The Spirit generates saving faith in Jesus into every believer;
  • Divine unity engenders spiritual diversity within the community;
  • Spiritual giftedness is determined and worked by the Spirit;
  • Spiritual gifts are not ends in themselves but are for the benefit of the entire community;
  • Each and every person in the fellowship of faith is spiritually gifted and thus charismatic.