Lectionary Commentaries for January 31, 2016
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 4:21-30

Ruth Anne Reese

The whole passage (Luke 4:14-30) is structured around a pattern of proclamations by Jesus and responses from the hometown synagogue audience.

First proclamation: In last week’s reading (Luke 4:14-21), Jesus announced the inauguration of his ministry with a synagogue reading from Isaiah and the assertion that there is good news for the poor, release for captives, sight for the blind, and freedom from oppression (v. 19). He finished up by proclaiming that this was the year of God’s favor (v.20) and that today this anticipated prophecy was being fulfilled in their hearing (v. 21). Jesus points to himself as the fulfillment of the prophecy and as the one able to offer salvation to all who hear him. Such salvation should be understood broadly as God’s redemptive work through Jesus with special attention given to those who are marginalized. When we think about our own proclamation of the good news of Jesus, we might ask ourselves “Is our message good news for the poor? For the captive? For the oppressed? Does our proclamation envision that all can be saved?” If our message is not as broad as Jesus’ message, then we must ask “How can we proclaim the good news of Jesus so that it is good news for the very people whom Jesus pointed towards in his announcement of the gospel?”

In this week’s reading we find out what the synagogue audience thought of Jesus’ prophetic declaration and explore the rest of the dialogue between Jesus and his audience.

First response:
Notice how the whole group reacts as one. All who witness this message respond in the same way, with wonder — with admiration or amazement. This is not the first time in Luke that people respond with wonder to the message about Jesus. In Luke 2:18, all who hear the shepherds’ story respond with wonder. Jesus’ parents respond with wonder to Simeons’ declaration that Jesus is God’s salvation for both Gentile and Jew (Luke 2:33). The proper response to the good news of God’s at work in the world through Jesus is wonder and amazement. Can you hear the synagogue buzzing with the voices of those saying, “Wow, what amazing news. Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” The synagogue audience is right, this is Joseph’s son; however, the reader knows what the audience in the synagogue does not. The reader of Luke knows that this is the one true son, the Son of God (Luke 3:38), and not simply the biological son of Joseph.1

Second proclamation:
Jesus interrupts the wondering voices with a second proclamation in two parts.

Part One — Proverbial Sayings (vv. 23-24): Jesus describes the desires of the hometown crowd using two sayings that he interprets. The first popular classical proverb probably means, “Well, if you are the fulfillment of this amazing proclamation of good news, then show us signs that this is the case.” The crowd wants Jesus to do the same miracles in Nazareth that he did in Capernaum. There may be some rivalry between the towns but most likely the people of Nazareth feel that the hometown son should show them special favor and consideration, especially if he is the messenger and fulfillment of such good news. Jesus continues his proclamation with a second saying, “No prophet is acceptable in his home country” (v. 24). For the first time in Luke, Jesus is identified as a prophet, but this will bring rejection rather than acceptance in the place where he is well known.

Part Two — Prophetic Stories (vv. 25-27): Jesus continues his proclamation by alluding to two famous prophets: Elijah and Elisha. Of all the stories about these two famous prophets, he picks two about prophetic ministry to people who were not part of the people of Israel — ministry done on behalf of those who are not part of the hometown crowd. The implication is that Jesus too has a ministry that is directed at those beyond the borders of his hometown. Once again, Luke is reminding his readers that Jesus’ salvific ministry is available to all — in Luke’s gospel there is an emphasis on salvation for both the Jew and the Gentile (e.g., Luke 2:31-32; 3:6). And here in Jesus’ initial proclamation of good news, he makes it clear that he will not be a prophet who serves the special interests of his hometown but rather a messenger of good news for the whole world and especially the vulnerable.

Second response:
Just as in the first response, all of them have the same reaction. The hometown crowd is full of anger. They heard Jesus proclaim good news; they want proof (in the form of signs) that Jesus is the prophet he claims to be; and they hear, with anger, his declaration that his ministry is directed to all. So, they respond with anger, and as a group they rise up and try to kill him (v. 29). Jesus’ ministry begins with the proclamation of good news; his proclamation is ultimately rejected; and the crowd attempts to kill him. In many ways this is a foreshadowing of the way that Jesus’ ministry will unfold in the years ahead.2 Jesus’ proclamation of a kingdom in which the poor inherit a kingdom, in which the hungry are filled, and in which the rich and full are pulled down ultimately will lead him to the cross.

But for now, just as Jesus came (Luke 4:16) to the synagogue with a proclamation of good news, so now he goes away (4:30), and in the verses that follow we find Jesus continuing to teach and heal in the places that he goes.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this passage is that Jesus does not do any miracles in his hometown. Why should they not receive a little benefit from Jesus’ ministry? Yet this very sense of being disturbed can be a helpful pointer for our own preaching and teaching. Do we feel entitled to the work of Jesus among us? Do we think that Jesus should do ministry for the church first? Or, do we share with Jesus his concern for the marginalized and vulnerable and for those beyond the boundaries of our local congregation?


Notes:

1 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 1997, 215.

2 Ibid.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10

Patricia Tull

Jeremiah’s first-person poetic account of God’s calling him as a prophet echoes in brief, elliptical form the narrative of Moses’ commission to lead the Israelite slaves from Egypt in Exodus 3. 1

God’s providential rescue of Moses as an infant eighty years before (Exodus 2:1-10) preceded his commission. God likewise refers here to Jeremiah’s prenatal calling (Jeremiah 1:5; see Psalm 71:5-6). Like Moses, whose many objections include his own ineloquence (Exodus 4:10), Jeremiah protests that he does not know how to speak (Jeremiah 1:6).

As with Moses, God does most of the talking, describing sending Jeremiah and giving him words to speak, though not yet mentioning that, like Moses, Jeremiah would be addressing rulers. Like Moses, Jeremiah is appointed the task of nation building (4:10). Like Moses, he is given a preview of the rough path ahead. As with Moses, a foreign oppressor will figure prominently in the story. But whereas Moses’ God fought the Egyptians to free the Israelites, in Jeremiah’s time God will use the Babylonians as tools in a conflict with the Israelites themselves. Ultimately, though, Jeremiah’s calling, like Moses’, serves to bring the nation to a better place.

This passage, placed on the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, accompanies the story of Jesus’ own announcement of his ministry in Nazareth, and of his near demise at the hands of townspeople (Luke 4:21-30). Like Jeremiah, Jesus is understood as a prophet (Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 4:24). Like Jeremiah, he is questioned and rejected by his own people, who attempt to kill him, though he survives to continue preaching (Luke 4:29-30). Like Jeremiah, Jesus gets into trouble over foreigners (Luke 4:25-27).

In short, Jeremiah’s calling distinctly echoes the story line of Moses, and is in turn echoed by that of Jesus. At least according to one prominent biblical stream, therefore, to speak prophetically is to follow God into a calling one would not necessarily have chosen, saying and doing things that anger one’s own neighbors, things that, though supported by God, will only be seen as fruitful later on, following trials and tribulations. No wonder Moses and Jeremiah hesitated.

Prominent change agents throughout history have encountered similar scenarios, whether they viewed themselves as sent by God or not, whether they would have retold their own beginnings in similar ways or not. Some more or less universal themes emerge among such leaders: their vocation as an outgrowth of early experience and sensibilities; a sense of humility before a task that is unwieldy precisely because it is innovative, precisely because it does confront entrenched but unjust societal norms, precisely because the job description cannot be found as such in any vocational counselor’s manual.

I cannot count how many times aspiring divinity students have related similar stories to me, often with direct quotes from God in dialogue with themselves as Jeremiah does here. The themes are usually the same — they wanted to do something else, but God dragged them kicking and screaming into ministry, over strenuous objections and sometimes after many years. Very few tell stories like that of Isaiah who, in stark and often unnoticed contrast to Jeremiah and Moses, volunteered with his hand held high (“Pick me! Pick me!” cf. Isaiah 6:8). Nor do they note that Jesus himself never raised any objections to his calling, nor did Paul, nor did Mary, nor did, before them, Noah, Abraham, Isaac (who really should have), Jacob, Joseph (who seemed to thrive on ambition), Deborah, Esther, or Judith.

I have often wondered what experiences, or perhaps anxieties, underlie these contemporary narratives. Does the belief that God overrode rational objections justify uprooting a young family or taking leave of a promising job or, perhaps, of one’s senses? Is the claim that this was God’s choice and not their own a no-fault clause in case things go badly? Or is it sincere deference to divine will and preparation to follow through in work that, like all work, will prove demanding? I like to think the latter. But though I rarely question their stories, I worry that narratives in which God speaks so explicitly — more explicitly, I must admit, than I have ever been talked to by God — may set some people up for faith crises when doors to ministry fail to open.

A major difference between the prophets Moses and Jeremiah and most of these aspiring pastors is, as I hinted at above, that the biblical figures were not called into any predetermined career path. They were called by God to break new ground with creativity, over objections, with no certainty except the word of God, with which they argued constantly not only in the beginning but throughout their lives. A further distinction between the biblical figures and most contemporary pastors is that they received no salary, benefits, and retirement for what they did.

Most people I have ever heard speaking of their start in vocations similar to those of Moses and Jeremiah begin not with a burning bush or an audible voice, but with a deep conviction that whatever else they may do, and no matter how they might or might not establish their 403Bs, it is the task itself that draws them in. Eula Hall, who describes herself as a “hillbilly activist,” an Appalachian woman with an eighth-grade education and a burning sense of purpose, told me many years ago how she came to found the Mud Creek Clinic in southeastern Kentucky to provide health care for the poor: “I looked, and I said to myself, ‘taint right like this, no medical service here, taint right. Somebody needs to act.’ I guess that somebody was me.”


Notes:

This commentary was originally published on the site on February 3, 2013.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 71:1-6

Eric Mathis

In the well-loved Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott writes:

“It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools — friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty — and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”

Overview of Psalm 71

Could Psalm 71 be one of those rusty, bent, old tools for Christians, no matter where we find ourselves in life? It may not be a stretch to claim this Psalm as such, particularly since it borrows lines from other Psalms with frequency (e.g.: Psalm 22, 31, and 38). And, like so many other Psalms in the Psalter, Psalm 71 makes use of the familiar prayer pattern that moves from petition to declaration.

Though construed as a prayer, this Psalm is primarily a declaration of an individual’s trust and hope in God that can be voiced in various life stages: birth (v. 6), youth (vv. 5, 17), and old age (vv. 9, 18). No matter when it is voiced, one thing is sure: the Psalm’s message of trusting and hoping in a faithful God is capable of enduring throughout the long-haul of life.

Compared to its predecessor Psalm 70, Psalm 71 is a less urgent plea for help and a more sturdy statement of hope and trust. While the suppliant is not immediately apparent, it may be that the Psalm is voiced from the perspective of an individual in a latter stage of life capable of reflecting on all stages. That individual could be David in old age shortly after Absalom’s revolt, or more likely a member of the Rechabite community in exile (see Jeremiah 35).1 Verse 21 suggests the author of the psalm could have been a leader.

A psalm of hope

The six verses laid out in this week’s lectionary passage introduce a structure that will be maintained throughout the remainder of Psalm 71. The Psalmist issues an opening statement requesting help (v. 1-4), and follows with a statement of trust (v. 5-8). This pattern repeats itself in verses 9-13 and 14-17, as well as in verse 18 and 19-24.

From the opening four verses, it is clear that the Psalmist is entirely dependent on God (v. 1) because of God’s righteousness (v. 2). In contrast to other passages of scripture that speak metaphorically of YHWH as a high cliff or ask to be taken away to Zion, this Psalmist claims YHWH is an abode under which to take refuge (v. 3).Perhaps a victim of some sort, the Psalmist trusts that God has the ability and the power to set the wicked, the unjust, and the cruel right (v. 4). Here, the Psalmist is making an eschatological statement that even in the midst of powerful opposition, God will rule and prevail over that which is unjust in both the short-term as well as the long-term (v. 3-4).

Verses 5 and 6 make clear that any strength the Psalmist will have does not reside in self, but in God. How does the Psalmist know this? By experiencing YHWH’s protection and deliverance throughout a lifetime. In other words, from the womb until old age, the Psalmist has always, and will always belong to God (v. 5-6a). Praise, then, is the most appropriate expression to God. This praise is not a once-in-a-while liturgical action, but an action that imitates God’s care over the Psalmist’s lifetime. Thus, praise becomes an ongoing, continual action of living a sacrificial life of worship (v. 6b).

Preaching the psalm

This week’s lectionary passages are filled with imagery of life stages: birth (Jeremiah 1:5; 1 Corinthians 13:11) and youth (Jeremiah 1:6; Luke 4:22) and old age (1 Corinthians 13:11; Luke 4:25). They are also filled with imagery of courageous spokesmen speaking prophetic words: Jeremiah in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament. And, the Epistle includes Paul’s admonition for how we ourselves are to speak.

In the context of these passages, this Psalm reminds us that those who orient their lives toward the ways of God and the kingdom of God will face hardships. The good news, however, is that those hardships are not lasting, but the strength of God is: from age to age. “Faith lives amidst adversity, [but] praise is not the celebration of the powerful and the prosperous; rather, it is the language and the life-style of those who know at all times and in every circumstance that their lives belong to God and that their futures depend on God.”3 Whatever we do in word, action, thought, or deed, is to reflect a lifetime of learning through experience — as the Psalmist has — the goodness of the God in whom we place our hope and trust.


Notes:

John Goldingay, “Psalm 71,” in Psalms, Volume 2: 42-89, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker 366-367.

Goldingay, 369.

J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:960.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Brian Peterson

This is perhaps the most widely recognized and quoted passage anywhere in the Pauline letters, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity for preachers.

Of course, the text is used often at weddings, because it is (incorrectly) understood as praising the value of romantic, human love. What is often missed, and perhaps actively ignored, is that this text was first written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. Perhaps preached with that in mind, it makes a surprisingly helpful text for a wedding! It is in the difficult realities of relationships and communities that the love described by Paul needs to be lived out in costly ways, and because of that dynamic this text holds promise for preaching to the gathered people of God this Sunday.

Last Sunday’s text from chapter 12 discussed the various gifts of the Spirit given to the church; that topic will return in chapter 14. The intervening chapter 13 only seems to be an interruption. In fact, chapter 13 is the key. It is unfortunate that the lectionary omits 12:31b. This Sunday may be the time to reach back and pick up that crucial half verse. There, most translations come close to the expression of the NRSV, in which love is introduced as “a still more excellent way.” It certainly is that. However, such renderings do not really capture the point. New English Translation translates the phrase as ‘beyond comparison,” and that is better. More precisely, the Greek phrase indicates something like “beyond measuring,” and hearing that is important because measuring themselves, their abilities, and their status relative to one another seems to have become something of an obsession within the Corinthian church. Paul wants to move them past all of this to a way that is “beyond measuring.” Love is the shape of life that has been set free from the competition that is disrupting the Corinthian church.

The Corinthians were actively pursuing some of the things that Paul mentions in the opening verses of chapter 13 such as speaking in tongues and knowing “mysteries.” There may be nothing wrong with such things in themselves, but if in the process people forget about loving their brothers and sisters, such things end up being worthless. Without love, it does not matter what budgets, buildings, or missional strategies we have. Such things do not give the church the shape that God desires. We may pursue various forms of spirituality, or proper doctrine, or activism in the name of justice. However, in our pursuit of these otherwise fine things, we must not forget that the church is called to be a community that practices love.

In verses 4-8a, “love” is the subject of 16 verbs in a row; it happens in every phrase. That may not come through clearly in English translations, where love is described by some rather static adjectives (“love is patient, love is kind”). Instead, Paul’s claims are that love “shows patience” and “acts with kindness.” Here, love is a busy, active thing that never ceases to work. It is always finding ways to express itself for the good of others. The point is not a flowery description of what love “is” in some abstract and theoretical sense, but of what love does, and especially what love does to one’s brother or sister in the church.

As the last element in this parade of love’s activities is the claim that it does not end (literally, “it does not fall”). Paul names 3 things which are of central value to the church: faith, hope, and love (verse 13). These three form a brief summary of the life of the church, repeated elsewhere in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 1:3, 5:8; Colossians 1:4-5; Hebrews 10:22-24; 1 Peter 1:21-22). Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment (Romans 8:24-25). Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will not fall, fail, or falter. We are drawn into that love of God, and we are remade by that love so that we become lovers.

Paul never says that such love feels good, and this is where the typical use of this chapter goes off the rails. Such misunderstanding creates trouble not only for expectations regarding the day-to-day realities of marriage, but also for the realities of the church. Because of our disordered assumptions about what love actually is, we often act as though the mission of the church is to gather like-minded and likeable people together. We think that in such a community it will be easy for us to love or, more honestly, to “feel the love.” But true love is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In the context of 1 Corinthians, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.1

If the preacher succeeds in rescuing this chapter from its romantic captivity, a second danger presents itself. This description of love could be heard (and even preached, much to the preacher’s shame) as a burden placed upon us. But who can love so selflessly as this chapter’s description? At this point, sometimes an escape is tried by claiming that this is a description of God’s own “agape” love, and that there is not an imperative directed at us anywhere in the chapter. That may be true, but it is not sufficient. Paul certainly expects that this love will be lived out by the church; that’s the whole purpose of this chapter. There is good news here, though. Verse 12 affirms that we have already been fully known, i.e. by God. We are not simply left to our own capacity for love. We can love because God has already fully known us and loved us anyway, and is working to make our lives and our communities look more and more like this busy, active, tireless love.


Notes:

1 See Krister Stendahl, “Preaching from the Pauline Epistles,” in Biblical Preaching: An Expositor’s Treasury (Westminster, 1983), pp. 306-326).