Lectionary Commentaries for October 25, 2015
Reformation Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Ginger Barfield

Chapters 7 and 8 in the Gospel of John situate Jesus in the midst of reform.

These are hard chapters full of hostility on several levels. The initial layer of hostility is created by the complexity of the relationship between Jesus and the Jews of his own day. A second level of animosity has to do with the confusion of the gospel writer’s own community over its relationship with the post-temple Jewish movement.

The starkness of this hostility and the continuous dialogue that issues from John 8:31-59 should lead us to a cautionary preaching of the text. It is of paramount importance that we do not remove any of the subtexts of these two chapters from their socio-cultural and historical contexts. The context is that of identity. Who belongs inside and outside the true followers of Jesus? This is the chief question on this Reformation Sunday.

For liturgical churches, the color for Reformation Sunday is red. Red for the blood of the martyrs who stand within the line of reformist thinking. Reform sometimes causes the powerful to kill those with whom they disagree.

There is Jan Hus, the pre-reformist whose writings inspired much of Martin Luther’s thinking. Huss would not recant the writings about, among other things, the scriptural idea that Christ alone was head of the Church and the denouncement of the supremacy of the Pope. He was martyred by fire on July 6, 1415.

Perhaps, a more familiar martyr is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who resisted the schemes of Hitler from his firm commitment to “the cost of discipleship.” He was executed on April 9, 1945.

Reformation. Tension. Misunderstanding. Identity. Belonging. Kinship. These are the themes of this passage.

Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (remembering God’s care for the children of Israel in their wilderness wanderings), and hostility is mounting. The chapter ends with the Jews picking up stones to kill Jesus. Hostility in relationship to theology sometimes has murderous consequences.

Discuss: Where is there evidence of literal and figurative murder for the sake of theology in our world?

Our text follows Jesus’ teaching the Jews in the temple about his own identity. John 8:31-36 begin a dialogue that is a response to those of the Jews who had believed in the things he said. The NRSV translates the first word in verse 31 as “then.” That is not strong enough for the context of this dialogue. The verse should read: “Therefore, Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him … ”

There is often a pattern in John where Jesus says something and it is misunderstood. Jesus is attempting in the conversation with the believing Jews to clarify what it is that they purportedly believe in. 8:31-37 is the first of five of these patterns that recur until the end of the chapter.

Jesus is essentially testing the new believers as to the sufficiency of their faith — faith forms identity. Or so Jesus is trying to teach them. The Greek word for “truth” is essential to the faith that Jesus is conversationally uncovering.

If “they” continue forward in Jesus’ word, “they” are truly disciples of him. Furthermore, “they” will know the truth, and the truth will free “them.” This promise uttered by Jesus is the entry point of the misunderstanding.

The Jews seize onto the wrong concept of the truth about freedom. They are descendants of Abraham and are free. The phrasing here is emphatic, what we might classify as bad grammar in English: “We have never by no means ever been slaves to no one.” This assertion of never having been enslaved is ludicrous in the context of these chapters. The very feast they are observing is that of God’s graceful deliverance of them in the wilderness as they made their way from Egyptian slavery to the promised land.

Jesus answers the ironic nature of their misunderstanding with some words that are almost a riddle. When we read “truly, truly I say to you,” in John, this is something of an emoticon — the words are a language picture to show that the next thing is important.

Slavery is about what one does — sin. The slave to sin does not have a permanent place in the kind of faith identity that Jesus is proposing. The only way out of that loop of slavery is to be made free by the son. Only the son can gift this kind of freedom.

Jesus is going against the conventional wisdom of his day (and ours, at times) that one’s birth status — slave or son/daughter — determines one’s character, value, or status. “Who’s your daddy” is the question that is behind this confrontation. Jesus says that being a descendant of Abraham is not enough. Jesus is the “Son of Man.” (v. 28) Jesus is a descendant of God (vs. 28 and 42). Only the son can grant the kind of freedom and place that they think they have claimed by believing.

The supreme misunderstanding of identities and place is the core misunderstanding of Jesus and his mission. Jesus is reforming the thinking of the Jews of his day, and they simply do not yet seem to comprehend.

Discuss: Where are there notes of reformation and rethinking of our religious heritage today? What do these reforming ideas have to offer our context?

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Margaret Odell

Early Christians recognized God’s utterly new and transformative work in Jesus Christ in Jeremiah’s description of the “new covenant.”

Jesus refers to it in the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:28), and it is the basis for the Christian designation of the scriptures as the Old and New Testaments. Old and new fit together like promise and fulfillment, and to say that God had done a new thing was to say that God had found new ways to be faithful to Israel. Remarkably — and somewhat paradoxically — God’s faithfulness to Israel meant the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God. Gentile Christians could therefore see themselves in Jeremiah’s promise of the renewed covenantal relationship with Israel, “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Because of this linkage to the old, something utterly new was possible.

Although the relationship between new and old originally implied continuity, the “new” came to be regarded as superior to the old, and Christians came to see themselves as the New Israel displacing the Old Israel in God’s economy of salvation. The horrors of the Holocaust in the twentieth century forced Christians to come to terms with the unintended consequences of this rhetoric. The challenge after the Holocaust is to find new ways of speaking about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in ways that affirm the validity of both ways of knowing and worshiping God. This is not easy, particularly when the old/new contrast is so deeply embedded within the scriptures themselves. Indeed, today’s New Testament lessons reinforce the contrast. In Romans, for example, Paul asserts that God has now accomplished that which the law, the old covenant, could never do. In John 8:31-36, meanwhile, Jesus could be taken to mean that Jews have remained slaves to sin — as if they had never experienced the forgiveness so clearly promised in Jeremiah 31:34. Although this is not the place to take up the problems posed by these, it is important to point out that their pairing with Jeremiah 31:31-34 follows a well-worn and now slippery path in Christian rhetoric.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 helps us to see that the new requires and depends on the old. Admittedly, this text also employs the language of discontinuity. The new covenant will not be like the old one (v. 32); and twice in v. 34 the expression “no more” is used to indicate a decisive change. Yet the relationship between the old and new suggests that the old is not replaced but reaffirmed and, more importantly, made permanent. It cannot be displaced or replaced, because it is the bedrock on which all else rests.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is one of three concluding speeches in the Book of Consolation (Jeremiah 30-31), a collection of oracles seeking to address the lingering trauma after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Responding to Israel’s cries of terror, pain, and grief, God speaks directly to Israel, promising to save, restore, and heal. At the heart of these assurances is the conviction that Israel will once again know God’s favor: “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” This is not simply a new thing, a capricious decision on God’s part to let go of wrath and become merciful again. Rather, Israel was to discover what had always been true: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (31:3).

The new covenant ensures that this understanding of God will never be lost. God’s character does not change; even in the old covenant, God showed care and concern for Israel, taking it by the hand to lead it out of Egypt (v. 32). What is new is that God’s torah (NRSV: law) is written on the heart. Underlying this metaphor is the ancient Near Eastern practice of treaty-making, in which covenants/treaties were inscribed in clay or stone and would be read regularly as reminders of obligations which covenant partners had sworn to uphold. They were also easily broken, as the turbulent history of Israel and Judah makes abundantly clear. “Jeremiah’s audience knows that stone tablets can be broken (Exodus 32:19; Deuteronomy 9:17) and that scrolls can be lost or ignored (2 Kings 22:8), and burned (Jeremiah 36:23) or drowned (Jeremiah 51:63).”1

Even if the texts themselves were not defaced or destroyed, there was still the problem of compliance. Ancient Near Eastern treaties and covenants forged artificial relationships, which by their nature were easily broken. By contrast, the covenant written on the heart describes a natural, not an artificial relationship, one that proceeds from innate knowledge. Because it is God’s torah that is written on the heart, the ability to respond to God becomes natural. Certainly such responsiveness would be a necessary corrective to the old covenant that was broken by Israel’s disobedience. Even so, what is emphasized here is not that Israel will know and observe God’s law, but that it will know God: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest” (v. 34). Although the oracle formula in v. 34 somewhat disrupts the flow, it is important to recognize that this knowledge is derived as much from Israel’s direct experience of God’s forgiveness and mercy as it is from the implanted torah: “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

What is imagined here is a resilient relationship of trust and mutuality, in which Israel responds to God from the heart, and God accepts Israel freely, with mercy and forgiveness. But what makes the new covenant possible is what had always been true but needed to be learned again. “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” This love, suggests Jeremiah, is nothing new.


1 Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise, and Thomas G. Smothers, Jeremiah 26–52 (WBC 27; Dallas: Word Books, 19950, 133.


Commentary on Psalm 46

Mark Throntveit

Luther was right!

Psalm 46 is usually classified as a Song of Zion that along with Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, and 122 delights in the special place reserved for Jerusalem as the center of the world, chosen by God as the earthly center of the divine presence. That this is so, may be seen from the phrases, “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city,” (vv. 4-5). But, the psalm seems to be concerned with more than this.

Others, of a more literalistic bent, unconvinced of the classification Song of Zion since neither Jerusalem nor Zion is explicitly mentioned, regard Psalm 46 as a Hymn of Confidence in which the psalmist expresses trust in God in the midst of adversity. This, too can be seen in the phrase, “we will not fear,” (v. 2). But, again, the psalm, which does not follow the usual outline of the hymn, seems to be concerned with more than this.

Martin Luther, in A Mighty Fortress is our God, his momentous paraphrase of the initial verses of Psalm 46, draws our attention away from both the city of Jerusalem and the trusting response of the people and focusses upon the activity of the “Mighty Fortress” that is our God.

We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because He is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends His church and His word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin.1

Even a cursory reading of the psalm, paying attention to its own structural markers suggests that Luther has correctly discerned the essence of this powerful hymn. First, we must account for the repetitions that so often provide the structural matrix of the text:

“Change [nrsv]” (v. 2), “move” (v. 5), and “totter” (v. 6) are all mot, “totter”

“Earth” (vv. 2, 6, 9) erets

“In/on the earth” (vv. 8, 10) baarets

“Roar” (v. 2), and “in an uproar” (v. 6) are from hamah “roar”

“Our” (v. 1, 7, 11) lanu

When it is recognized that “refuge” machaseh (v. 1) and “refuge” misgav (vv. 7, 11) are a common word pair in poetic texts we can dispense with Gunkel’s earlier proposal, followed by the Lutheran Book of Worship, the New American Bible, and the New Jerusalem Bible, that we insert the “refrain” of verses 7 and 11 after verse 3, the following structure presents itself:

God is our refuge (machaseh “refuge”; lanu “our”) v. 1

We will not fear natural calamities (mot “totter”; hamah “roar”; erets “earth”) vv. 2-3

                        The city will not totter because God is there (mot “totter”) vv. 4-5

            We will not fear political calamities (mot “totter”; hamah “roar”; erets “earth”) v. 6

God is our refuge (misgav “refuge”; lanu “our”) v. 7

            See what God has done on the earth (Imperative; “on the earth”) v. 8

                        War and weapons destroyed my God (erets “earth”) v. 9          

Know that God is exalted in the earth (Imperative; “in the earth”) v. 10

God is our refuge v. 11 (misgav “refuge”; lanu “our”)

The first section, verses 1-7, framed by “our refuge” depicts a secure city that will not ‘totter’ (vv. 4-5) further framed by the ‘tottering’ terrors of nature (vv. 2-3) and the ‘tottering’ kingdoms that surround it (v. 6). The steadfast declaration of the opening verse coupled with the presence of God in verse 7 explains the serene nature of the city unthreatened by the (insert your choice of natural disaster here … whether tsunami, volcano, or earthquake) below or the political plots and conspiracies that dissolve even as God speaks. These terrors of nature reflect current or future threats to the city, not the biblical creation traditions or the primordial chaos battles of the ancient Near East that are frequently seen in these verses. There is no battle here, no mention of creation, and the people declare, “we will not fear” (v. 2a), supposedly when and if these events occur. The machinations of history depicted in verse 6a are similarly concerned to portray God as the God of history.

If water, both as a destructive and a positive force was the dominant metaphor of the first section, the second section, verses 7-11, again framed by “our refuge” centers on the fiery destruction of earth’s weaponry as a means of abolishing “earth’s” warfare (v. 9) further framed by the imperative to “come, see … God’s desolations ‘in the earth’” (v. 8) and the imperative to “desist and know that (God) is God … ‘in the earth’” (v.10). But to whom are these commands addressed? Israel, or the nations? The negative character of the horrors they are commanded to see as well as the tenor of the Hiphil of raphah “desist, abandon, leave off” (not the pious “be still” of the translations) suggests the nations are being called to task before God is exalted by them (v. 10b, see 66:5). The staggering portrayal of smoking destruction is apocalyptic, or at least eschatological, suggesting that the psalm speaks of God’s final victory over nature and the nations.

Yes, Luther was right. The psalm is best seen as a psalm about God and the divine presence, not Jerusalem. It functions as a declaration to God’s people concerning the unimaginable source of strength that is theirs, and ours, in God … or as Luther’s hymn makes clear, in Christ.


1 Martin Luther, A Manual of the Book of Psalms, or, the Subject-Contents of All the Psalms; now first translated into English by Henry Cole (London: R.B. Seeley & W. Burnside, 1837), 132.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Emerson Powery

This passage — and much of Romans for that matter — reveals an ethnic conflict within the Christian community in Rome (cf. Romans 14:1-15:6).

How should non-Jewish believers (i.e., the ethnoi, in Greek) relate to the religious traditions of Israel? Can they become linked to the “one body in Christ” (cf. 12:5), if they do not have the same religious sensibilities as others within the community? Paul would, of course, respond “yes” to the last question. But Paul did not conclude that the religious traditions (or, more specifically, the significance of the Torah) should be disregarded by Jewish Christians. What he questioned was the theological idea of Israel’s covenant, a religious claim about God’s preference for Israel. The covenant was an ethnic claim about God’s choice for one particular group of people. Paul’s letter addressed this ethnic conflict, which was also a religious one.


Following our section under discussion, Paul used “Abraham” — as any wise Jewish thinker in the first century would — as an example of securing “righteousness” through faith and not by Torah obedience (Romans 4:1-25). Abraham, in Israel’s tradition, was the father of “many nations” (cf. 4:16-17), a major factor for Paul’s argument when discussing the inclusion of Gentiles.

The main issue, in this section, was not human faith but God’s righteousness. In Romans 3:19-28, Paul attempted to account for God’s revelation of God’s self to humanity. “God” was the main character in Paul’s theological reflection and human faith was a secondary action, and even then it was an action modeled by Jesus Christ, God’s agent (3:22, 25, 26; see below). God put “Jesus” forward as an expression of God’s righteous character (3:25, 26); so, God acted through Jesus to express his commitment to reconciliation. For his part, Jesus succeeded by demonstrating his faithful, righteous actions (cf. 3:22, 25). By Christ’s action, as Paul reasoned, God’s “righteousness” or “justice” (Gr. dikaiosune) has been disclosed to the world.

Paul set out, in Romans 3, to discuss the “advantages” of the Jewish people, but focused primarily only on one advantage here: they possess God’s logia, translated as “oracles” (NRSV). In light of religious “faithlessness” (3:3), God’s logia probably referred to the Torah (cf. 3:19); or, perhaps the term was more inclusive, representing “the law and the prophets” (cf. 3:21). In any case, it was one of the advantages, according to Paul, the people of Israel held. This advantage did not relieve religious Jews from responsibility to others, since no one — except God — could claim to be righteous (3:9-18).

For Paul, the law was not the problem. It “speaks” to Israel (and, thereby, Jewish Christians; Romans 3:19), not to Gentile Christians, so Paul could continue to claim the Torah as “holy, just, and good” (7:12). Yet, even Gentiles — who were without access to the law — were blameworthy since all humans were morally culpable (3:23).

Furthermore, practicing the requirements of the law was simply an act (that made one part of the covenant) that allowed its followers to recognize wrong doing (Romans 3:20). It did not, in and of itself, make its adherents “righteous”; rather, inclusion in the Covenant made Israelites God’s people (cf. 9:5). So, a Gentile may be considered “righteous” before God “apart from” Israel’s Law (3:28). This was through the faithfulness of Jesus.

Here, Paul argued that Jesus Christ’s faithfulness “revealed” God’s justice plan. This plan did not eradicate the Law’s usefulness in the life of Israel (or, in the lives of Jewish Christians). Rather, to be clear, he would reiterate at the end of this section: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). The focus in our passage, however, was on the inclusion of the Gentile believer. And, Paul argued that Gentile inclusion was an original part of the divine plan, since Abraham.

Was Jesus faithful?

One of the interesting, recent discussions in biblical scholarship is whether the phrase — Dia pisteos ‘Iesou Christou — referred to Jesus’ own faithfulness or faith in Jesus Christ. The NRSV chooses the latter more traditional translation in Romans 3:22. One recent translation, the Common English Bible, takes the former approach translating the Greek in the following way: “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction.” Along these lines, if we accept the NRSV’s footnote in verse 26 as what the Greek meant, then Paul also wrote that God “justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus.” The traditional rendition places the stress on human faith in Jesus (i.e., “through faith in Jesus Christ); the more recent emphasis falls on Jesus’ own activity. If the more recent approach depicts Paul’s thoughts more accurately, then the entire passage accentuates not only God’s faithfulness in the divine plan but also Jesus’ faithfulness in carrying out God’s plan.

Ultimately, Paul was more concerned with the revelation of God’s “justice” (dikaiosune) than in the faith of individual believers. Of course, the two need not be juxtaposed in this way. For Paul, God’s actions were revealed in the “gospel” (Romans 1:17), or, to put it in another way, God was revealed in Jesus (cf. 3:21-22, 25, 26). By emphasizing Jesus’ own faithful actions, Paul stressed that God’s diakaiosune was not dependent on human activity (or, the human act of faith) but on Jesus’ steadfast commitment and righteousness actions.

So, what now?

What ethnic and religious differences divide us?

Paul’s use of his theological imagination to discuss this one ethnic and religious division has freed the contemporary church to think imaginatively about the other divides he listed in Galatians 3:28 (e.g., male/female; slave/free). We must also impose creative theological resourcefulness in order to think through the more recent borders that have separated us, along racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, and religious divisions in the contemporary world.

God acted through Jesus Christ to express his commitment to reconciliation; God put “Jesus” forward to show off God’s desire to set things right in the world (Romans 3:25, 26). A just God acts! So do people who love to express their love, especially when estranged from the ones they love. So, what must the people of God do in a world so full of injustice? How might our actions match our confessions?