Lectionary Commentaries for October 30, 2016
Reformation Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Gilberto Ruiz

The Gospel of John contains many memorable phrases that are revered as classic Christian statements (for example John 3:16; 6:35; 8:12; 13:34; 14:6).

We find one of these in John 8:31-36: “The truth will make you free” (8:32). As poetic as John’s famous “one-liners” sound, reading them in context can be disorienting. Jesus’ proclamation that the truth sets one free appears in a tense discussion between Jesus and his Jewish audience. Not long after he says it, Jesus calls “the Jews” children of the devil (8:44) and they try to kill him (8:59). It’s no wonder proof-texting is so attractive! Who wants to deal with the messy particularities of John 8 when the line by itself sounds so good? Even the lectionary tactfully avoids 8:37, where Jesus accuses “the Jews” of looking for an opportunity to kill him “because there is no place in you for my word.” Stripped from its context, Jesus’ statement on freedom more readily appeals to whatever we think freedom means, which for those of us in the United States context often has to do with personal liberty and autonomy.

The full statement that Jesus says in John 8:31-32 is, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” He says this to Jews “who had believed in him” (8:31). According to John 8:30 many among Jesus’ Jewish audience came to believe in him, but 8:31 and the conversation that follows indicates that their belief was short-lived. Jesus uses their example of lapsed faith to assert that true disciples “continue in my word.”

We can begin to see that “the truth will set you free” is not an affirmation of personal independence or autonomy. In context, what is in view is the idea of faith as a continuing relationship. The verb translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “continue” in John 8:31 is meno, a key term in John’s Gospel that is often translated as “remain” or “abide” and points to the permanent or enduring nature of the relationship between Jesus and the believer (for example John 5:38; 6:56; 14:17; 15:4-7; 15:9-10). In 8:35 this term appears twice, which we would more readily see if the text were rendered as, “The slave does not remain [menei] in the household; the son remains [menei] there forever.” By taking into consideration that Jesus’ language focuses on “remaining” and that his audience is a group whose faith in him did not “remain,” we see that this passage presents faith as a continuing relationship. The true disciple “remains” in a faith relationship with Jesus, and it is this disciple who will be set free by knowing the truth revealed by Jesus.

In John 8:33 “the Jews” question Jesus about the freedom he offers because, from their point of view, their Abrahamic lineage means they do not stand in need of the freedom provided by Jesus. In response, Jesus explains that the freedom he offers is freedom from sin (8:34-36). Jesus first asserts that actions (committing sin), not genealogical descent, determine whether one stands in need of the freedom from sin that he can give (8:34).1 Then he returns to the concept of “remaining” using an analogy drawn from the household hierarchy (8:35). A slave does not have the same permanent status in the household as does the son of the head of the household because a slave could be sold or perhaps even set free. The son, on the other hand, has a place in the household forever and even has the authority to carry out his father’s commands, which is why in 8:36 Jesus can boldly say that “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”2 Freedom from sin is a gift given by the one who has the authority to give it.

Since believers in Jesus get from him the power to become children of God (see John 1:12-13),3 Jesus grants freedom from sin by bestowing on those who believe in him — and remain in that belief (John 8:31) — the same status as child of God that he has. By transforming their status from “slaves to sin” to “children of God,” Jesus gives believers a permanent place in the household of God, where they are free from sin’s bondage and from sin’s most destructive consequence, death itself (see 8:21, 24, 51).

According to John 8:31-36, then, freedom does not mean that one is free to do what one wants, as much as notions of independence and autonomy may inform our own cultural understanding of what it means to be free. Rather, freedom means to be bound to a relationship with God, a relationship that is marked by personal intimacy (as a child is intimately related to his/her parents) and by freedom from sin and death.

Since this passage constructs freedom in terms of being in a relationship marked by liberation from sin and death, John 8:31-36 challenges us to examine the current state of our personal and social relationships. What relationships in our lives are liberative and life-affirming for us and for others? What relationships do we participate in that sustain the oppressing bondage of sin and result in death and destruction on personal, social, and even environmental levels? What can we do to transform destructive relationships in our lives and in our world into relationships that liberate instead of oppress? If Jesus as Son has authority to make believers free, then as children in the household of God don’t believers have authority and power to set others free as well (John see also 14:12)? How can we reimagine our social structures so that they generate liberating relationships among persons in our communities and beyond?


1 Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina 4 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998), 276.

2 Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 145.

3 Moloney, John, 275.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Kelly J. Murphy

Rembrandt’s famous Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem captures what most of us picture when we think of the biblical Jeremiah: the prophet, forlorn, painted against a dark background, leans his head on his hand.

It’s an image of abandoned hope, one that reflects the noun created out of Jeremiah’s name: jeremiad, “a long, mournful complaint or lamentation” (see Figure 1). Jeremiah, after all, is the prophet who tradition credits with writing the book of Lamentations, whose mournful tone is also reflected in the sorrowful book that bears the prophet’s name. This is the prophet who cries, “Therefore thus says the LORD: See, I am laying before this people stumbling blocks against which they shall stumble; parents and children together, neighbor and friend shall perish” (Jeremiah 6:21) and “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1). It’s no wonder that Jeremiah is often called the “Weeping Prophet.”

Yet despite Jeremiah’s nickname, we find in the middle of the book a passage with a very different tone: Jeremiah 30-31. These chapters often take the reader by surprise, for they are filled with comfort, hope, and optimism. Following such dire pronouncements such as “I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:2), the promises found in what is often called the “Little Book of Comfort” are both surprising and welcome. Within sits Jeremiah 31:31-34, often-labeled “The New Covenant” in study bibles and commentaries. These four verses brim with faith for the future: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … ” and, perhaps most strikingly, an astonishing divine promise: “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

If the particular pericope from Jeremiah 31:31-34 sounds familiar, it is likely because we’ve heard it before, but perhaps not from the book of Jeremiah. Rather, our familiarity with the passage might stem from Hebrews 8:8-12, where the Jeremianic passage is reused. (Readers should note, however, that the author of Hebrews appears to draw on the Septuagint [LXX] rather than the Masoretic Text [MT] of Jeremiah — especially in the change from 31:32, “though I was their husband, says the Lord” to Hebrews 8:9, where the text reads instead, “and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord.”) Set within the context of the New Testament book of Hebrews, the passage from Jeremiah 31:31-34 is fundamentally reinterpreted: the “old” is now overturned and replaced by the “new,” and suddenly God is turned from Israel’s husband to one who has no concern for the people. Hebrews 8:13 summarizes this reading: “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” Yet this is not what the hopeful passage from Jeremiah means in its original context.

According to the book that bears his name, Jeremiah’s call occurs in the “thirteenth year” of King Josiah’s reign (Jeremiah 1:1), approximately 627 BCE, and he is active through the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 BCE, remaining in the land until after the assassination of Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41), at which point he is forced into exile in Egypt and the book ends without recounting the prophet’s ultimate fate. In other words, according to the book, the prophet is active centuries before the author of Hebrews put pen to papyrus, and lives through one of the most turbulent and catastrophic moments in ancient Israel’s history. So what place does such hope have in the book of Jeremiah, and what might a “new covenant” have meant?

To begin, in the Jeremianic passage the promise of a new covenant is not something entirely different from the preceding covenant between God and Israel, but rather a reformulation of what came before it, one linked with it. After all, God promises “I will put my law (to^ra¯t_i^) within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). “My law” is perhaps best translated as “my teaching” or “my Torah,” and connects the promise of this new covenant with the preceding covenant between Israel and Israel’s God. The covenantal arrangement promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 will be different, to be sure (“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” compared with the commandment of Deuteronomy 11:18, for example, where humans must fix God’s words into their hearts and minds). Yet for the author of the passage, Yhwh remains Israel’s God, and Israel remains Yhwh’s people, just as before. The continuity of the promise is further stressed in the opening of Jeremiah 31:34, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me … ” This new covenant continues the story of Israel from before. In this new formulation of the covenant, everyone, “from the least of them to the greatest” will have equal access and, unlike for those who lived in the world of pre-587 BCE, forgiveness is assured for all: “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).

The astounding promise of forgiveness returns us to Rembrandt’s Jeremiah, forlorn, painted against a dark background, head on hand. The promise of such a radically new and hopeful covenant does not sound like words that Rembrandt’s grim Jeremiah might utter, yet Rembrandt’s Jeremiah is only one snapshot of the book. Equally complex is the portrait of God in the book of Jeremiah (and in the Hebrew Bible more broadly). The depiction of God that emerges in this passage is one of a healer, who forgives and restores a broken relationship, even if the fault for the break might rest on the people. For the first audiences of Jeremiah 31:31-34, the divine promise of “the new covenant” might be set in the future, but it does not seem to be a far-off future.

As we consider this passage, we might try to imagine being exiled, far from our home and wondering what will become of us. The “new covenant” of Jeremiah 31:31-34 might seem strangely hopeful and consoling in the book of the “Weeping Prophet,” but the passage is a reminder that Jeremiah’s book offered the ancient Israelites the hope of a new covenant and a continued relationship with Yhwh, even in the midst of exile. For the original survivors, such a promise must have provided balm and comfort in the face of despair.

The book of Jeremiah was written in a specific place and context, offering hope to the exiled Judeans that the covenant with their God would continue in a new fashion, mended after the disaster of 587 BCE. Yet the book of Jeremiah also transcends its context. The words of comfort in Jeremiah 31:31-34 can speak to all of us who are suffering in the world now, to all of us who might feel like Rembrandt’s Jeremiah. After all, no matter how broken the world might seem, “the days are surely coming, says the LORD … ”


Figure 1: Rembrandt van Rijn, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630

“Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1630. Public domain image accessed at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_-_Jeremiah_lamenting.jpg


Commentary on Psalm 46

J. Dwayne Howell

Psalm 46 provides the basis of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God” — Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.

These words encircle the tower of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Ironically this is the same church that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to almost 500 years ago beginning the Protestant Reformation. On one level Psalm 46 speaks of the stronghold of Jerusalem. However, on a higher level it praises God’s protection as being greater that any earthly fortification: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (v. 1).” The steadfast protection of God is also in the repeated chorus of verses 7 and 11: “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

These are words of hope voiced in the midst of surrounding chaos. Though creation falters, earthly strongholds fail, and our world seems to collapse, we are called upon to trust God. The psalmist first describes the collapse of creation around us.

                2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
                        and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
                3 though its waters roar and foam
                        and the mountains quake with their surging.

An ancient concept of creation is that chaos surrounds us, ready to collapse upon us at any time. These primordial waters of creation are held back by God. It may seem that we are drowning in the worries around us. Yet, there is no need to fear the powers of chaos since we worship the one who brings order in the midst of chaos, the one who brings life in the midst of despair. While the primordial sea represents chaos, God offers the river that brings life. Reminiscent of Ezekiel 47:1-12, the psalmist speaks of the life giving waters that flow from the Holy of Holies: There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells” (Psalm 46:4). Life and civilizations develop around rivers. Even my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, developed as a portage around the falls of the Ohio River.

The psalmist next describes political turmoil and nations at war: “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.”(Psalm 46:6) Using the image of the desolation of a battlefield in verses 8 and 9, the psalmist describes God as the one who defeats the armies and destroy their ability to make war again: “Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.” Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) share the vision of weapons of war being turned into tools of peace and of a time where war no longer needs to be studied.

The psalmist reminds us that God is in our midst, acquainted with our lives, our sin, and our sorrows. In the reports of instability in the world around us — creation in turmoil, nations at war, and kingdoms falling, the psalmist reminds us that God still rules.

                            10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
                                    I will be exalted among the nations,
                                    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The call is to have confidence in God, but too often we put our confidence in ourselves. Isaiah 30:15 echoes our inability to be still and have confidence in God.

                        “In repentance and rest is your salvation,
                                     in quietness and trust is your strength,
                                                 but you would have none of it.”

Kerak Castle in al Kerak, Jordan is a stronghold built in 1149 CE. Sitting high above the surrounding area it is protected by deep ravines. It was constructed by the Crusaders and later captured by Muslim forces under Saladin in 1189 CE. The castle has changed hands over the centuries and was used as late as World War I. Though the castle has stood all this time, it was damaged by a recent earthquake. The ravines, once a part of its strategic strength, now could be the cause of its destruction as the earth continues to shift underneath its foundation.

Some of our biggest mistakes come when we are tired, under stress, and inattentive. We are not acting out of confidence. Instead we react out of fear. Rudyard Kipling said, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, … Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”1 Matthew puts it another way: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”(Matthew 5:6) Righteousness comes from a right relationship with God, trusting that there is one greater than us; having confidence in God. It is out of this confidence that one can join in the refrain of the psalmist. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”


1 Rudyard Kipling, “If”, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46473

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

Krister Stendahl, a teacher and mentor, worked to “undo” the introspective Lutheran-Augustinian reading of Paul and to read the letters of Paul in their historical context of the first century — Stendahl put Paul back “Among Jews and Gentiles.”

When preaching on Romans 3:19-28 on Reformation Sunday, it might be tempting to let the liturgical-historical occasion overwhelm the text and to preach the Lutheran Paul of the West. However, one of the gifts of the Reformation is the principle of self-critique and requirement of ongoing repentance and renewal, therefore we hear this text afresh, drawing on scholarship on Paul in the first century and in the light of the ethical urgency of our own time.

There are well-traveled hermeneutical paths to avoid the radical proclamation of this text. One is to assign the call to repentance and reform to someone else — the Papacy, or the Jews, or legalists, or fundamentalists, or whoever is our nearby enemy or rival. We can capitulate to the powerful rhetoric of “othering” and create another object of address for Paul’s words besides ourselves. For those we “other,” these readings are dangerous and even deadly. For us, we miss the gift of freedom on the other side of repentance.

Another hazard is to read Paul’s contrast between “faith” and the “works of the law” so starkly that “faith” is emptied of its practical content. “Spiritualization” can lead to irrelevance, innocuousness, impotence, ineffectiveness. We so stress “newness” that we overlook the blessing what makes the new possible. A kindred peril is to hear the text addressed to “me” not to “us,” demanding individual assent rather than calling for corporate response.

In this election season amid the clamor of competing campaigns, let us hear the text proclaiming God’s inclusive justice and summoning the peoples of the earth to a concrete way of faithfulness.

Contemporary political rhetoric exploits the language of apocalyptic to construct reality — “the war on terror,” to summon fears of impending disaster, and to invent enemies on which to project our hatred and fear. Election logic divides and separates victors from victims. How startling that Paul speaks out of the thought world of apocalyptic of his time, but what is disclosed in the present pregnant moment — “but now” — is not division, but a vision of open access to grace and of expansion of divine mercy. Definitive and non-negotiable boundaries, epitomized by the peoples, Jew and Gentile, have been crossed in Christ Jesus. “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” God’s mission of world-wide rescue leaves no one out. What iron-clad definitions today are comparable with that of Jew and Gentile in the world view of the first century?

In a culture of self-justification, Paul’s ancient argument demonstrates that “all fall short.” Universal sinfulness might sound strange and hopeless, but it evokes a response of ongoing humility — for ourselves and our own in-group as well as for others. It induces an awestruck “silence” in a cacophony of “mouths.” What if we approached our neighbor nations and creeds with a posture of shared sinfulness, rather than self-righteousness and hostility?

Early Christians spoke of God’s rescue of humankind with images and metaphors, drawn from scripture and from their social experience. Paul employs and elaborates upon this language in the argument in Romans and calls upon the deep and powerful associations of this language for his audience. “Justification,” “redemption,” and “sacrifice of atonement” describe God’s deliverance of humanity through Jesus’ death and resurrection. With distinguished history in theological thought, these terms are familiar and resonant for some in the congregations to whom we preach. Many others would be grateful for preaching that showed how these metaphors interpreted Jesus’ crucifixion by the Roman authorities, how they understood it in terms of God’s justice, and God’s work to save Israel and through Israel all of humanity. Then in the spirit of repentance, renewal, and reformation preaching would bring these metaphors into the present. Romans presents a diagnosis of the disharmony and discontent that peoples experience and proclaims that through Christ God has provided the “cure” — making them “right” before God (justification), and buying them out of slavery (redemption). How does redemption from slavery resonate in a world where sex trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry and where hundreds of refugees drown in leaky ships fleeing from violence?

In a recent book, Jane Patterson, explores how Paul uses sacrifice as a metaphor to interpret Jesus’ death. In Romans 3:25 Paul describes the crucifixion, a terrifying event, not in the language of violence and death, but in the cultic language of the Yom Kippur sacrifice: “But God proposes a different view: a display of God’s gracious justice, as the blood of life splashes upon the hilasterion within the holy of holies.” (Jane Lancaster Patterson, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors of Sacrifice in 1 Corinthians and Philippians [Atlanta, Society of Biblical Literature, 2015] 166). By joining their faithfulness to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, all the people of the world may join with this manifestation of God’s justice (164). In Romans 3:19-28 Paul offers a cosmic vision and an invitation to faithful practice that is as beautiful, challenging, and effective today, for those who preach and those who hear, as it was at the time of the Reformation and throughout the long history of its reading.