Lectionary Commentaries for August 23, 2015
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 6:56-69

Susan Hylen

Although Jesus’ words “I am the bread of life” are familiar to many Christians, in this passage the disciples declare this to be a “hard saying.”

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue (John 6:69), where he is interpreting a passage of scripture that was introduced by the crowd in verse 31. They ask Jesus for a sign similar to the one Israel experienced in the wilderness, “as it is written, ‘he gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus goes on to interpret this verse about the manna, and he continues on the same subject through verse 58. He declares himself to be manna, the “bread of life” (6:35). Just as manna gave life in the wilderness, so also Jesus gives life.

Although the crowd was initially enthusiastic about the idea of Jesus as one like Moses who could provide this miraculous bread (John 6:34), they reject the identification of Jesus with manna. In verse 60, Jesus’ own disciples declare his teaching to be “hard,” and in verse 66 many of them turn away from him. What is it about Jesus’ teaching that they find difficult?

Some interpreters think that Jesus’ disciples have only understood his words on a literal level. Although modern readers are conditioned to hear Jesus’ words about those “who eat my flesh and drink my blood” (John 6:56) as a reference to the Lord’s Supper, the disciples at the time would have no experience of the Eucharist. They reject Jesus’ teaching because they think that he is referring to cannibalism. This way of reading the passage approaches the disciples’ rejection of Jesus’ teaching as a question about the logical content of what he says.

However, it may make more sense to think about the narrative logic of what John is doing here. In the original manna story, the people’s response to God’s salvation is mixed. Although they initially herald the triumph of God in the Exodus (Exodus 15:1-21), Israel immediately begins to “grumble” or “complain” against God and Moses in the wilderness (e.g., Exodus 15:24; 16:2). They do not trust God to take care of them. Over and over, with questions of water, food, and physical safety, the Israelites play out the same drama of whether they will trust God to care for them.

Similarly, the group following Jesus initially receives the miraculous food of John 6:1-14 and heralds Jesus as a prophet (v. 15). But they also begin to “grumble” against Jesus following his teaching about the manna. (The word “complain” in 6:42 and 61 is a cognate of the word used in Exodus to describe the Israelites grumbling or complaint). The response of the disciples to Jesus is an example of the irony for which John is well known: the disciples reject the idea that Jesus is manna, but in doing so they display that Jesus is manna by responding to him just as the Israelites responded to manna.

As in the Exodus story, the issue is not simply the grumbling of the people but the lack of trust in God that it represents: “some of you do not believe” (John 6:64). The Greek word pisteuo is a common word in John that is usually translated “believe.” However, its more common meaning is to trust or rely upon someone. Although John certainly also cares what readers believe to be true about Jesus, this more primary dictionary meaning also sheds light on how this word functions in John. The difficulty in John 6 is not simply the cognitive content of believing something about Jesus, but also the lack of trust that the disciples display. Like the Israelites, they have experienced God’s miraculous provision, but they do not trust that God will continue to provide for them in the wilderness.

To partake of Jesus as manna involves a reliance on God. One way John expresses this throughout the Gospel is through the word “abide.” The idea of “abiding” appears throughout John’s Gospel (e.g. 15:5-6). The same Greek word, meno, appears in John 6:56, although it is often translated “remain”: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood remain in me and I in them.” Feeding on Jesus as manna means remaining or abiding with Jesus. It is through this proximity that Jesus brings life to those who eat (v. 57).

But “abiding” with Jesus is difficult. Staying with Jesus and learning from him is a long process. For many, a quick fix would be more attractive. The crowd was initially attracted to Jesus when they saw him as a Moses figure — one who could work miracles and provide political victories. As they continue with him, they learn that Jesus is not offering an easy victory but the long road of discipleship.

On a narrative level, the twelve are shown in this passage as the ones who “abide” with Jesus. They stick with Jesus even though his teaching is difficult. (Although they, too, will scatter instead of remain during the trial and crucifixion.) Here, they recognize Jesus’ words as life giving and do not turn away. In doing so, they represent what it means to trust that God will provide manna. They stick closely to Jesus, who is the manna, and they listen to his words. This is their only real option — much like the Israelites stuck in the wilderness, whose only option is to return to slavery: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

John’s Gospel is written in a way that mirrors this need to “abide” with Jesus. As readers, we can’t absorb all of the Gospel’s meaning the first time. The manna discourse is filled with nuances that take time to understand. The language is multifaceted, so there is not a single meaning that one can digest and then walk away. Readers who come to understand themselves as the Israelites, feeding on Jesus as manna, and who “abide” in that wilderness place, may come to understand what John is getting at here.

First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Scott Shauf

Today’s passage contains one of the most familiar lines from the Old Testament, Joshua’s charge to “choose this day whom you will serve,” combined with his own response, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Probably less well remembered are the context in which Joshua makes the charge and the people’s astonishingly positive rejoinder. The story is without a doubt one of the true high points in the history of the Israelites’ faith. The question for us today is, how can we appropriate such faith?

The place in the story

We are at the end of the story of Joshua and the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land. In fact, we are well after the period of invasion and warfare, “a long time afterward, when the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their enemies all around, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years” (Joshua 23:1). All the tribes have gathered at Shechem, a point right in the middle of the land and right between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, where Joshua had previously renewed the covenant with the people (Joshua 8:30-35). Joshua had already spoken to the leaders of all the people in chapter 23, right before our passage, had given what had seemed to be his final words, in awareness that he himself was shortly to die (23:14). He had given them stern warnings to follow the law of Moses, laying out the severe consequences should they fail to do so, concluding with, “you shall perish quickly from the good land that he [the Lord] has given to you” (23:16).

Yet here in chapter 24 Joshua speaks again. This time he speaks “to all the people” (Joshua 24:2), and he speaks not from himself but as a prophet: “Thus says the Lord,” begins his speech. The speech from v. 2b through v. 13 consists of a first-person narrative — from the perspective of God — of the mighty acts God had accomplished from the time of Abraham through the conquest of the land. It emphasizes throughout that the whole history was God’s doing, not the people’s: “I brought you out” (v. 5); “I destroyed them before you” (v. 8); “I rescued you” (v. 10); “I sent the hornet ahead of you” (v. 12); culminating with, “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant” (v. 13). The speech contains no admonitions, instructions, or warnings, not even including the giving of the law in its account. None of Israel’s failures along the way are mentioned, either. It is a straightforward, powerful narrative of God’s presence with and action on behalf of the people.

The charge

Thus when we get to Joshua’s charge at v. 14, the decision the people have to make is initially based entirely on remembering their own history through the perspective that God through Joshua has narrated it. The charge is simple: “revere the Lord” (the NRSV’s “revere” here has traditionally been translated “fear”) and “serve the Lord.” The decision to serve God is put in the context of an option to instead serve the gods the people’s ancestors had worshiped prior to the call of Abraham (in his land “beyond the River,” i.e. the Euphrates) and in Egypt; v. 15 adds the gods of the Amorites, the people whom the Israelites had conquered and displaced. The expression of the choice is striking in that Joshua does not denigrate these gods at all. They and “the Lord” (Hebrew YHWH, the proper name of God in the Old Testament) are simply given as alternative choices for allegiance.

How do we remember?

The question for the people, then, is how they will remember their history and whether this history of God’s acts will be the basis of their identity going forward. Here we ought to see ourselves in a similar position, for the question of how we narrate our own past and present, and how we see God working in them, is a perennial question for Christians. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we recall Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Is Jesus’ death the ongoing basis for our worship, or did his death mean something else? Was he really raised from the dead, or will we take the choice offered in Matthew’s Gospel, where some believed instead that his body was stolen (Matthew 28:12-15). As we are still in the season of Pentecost, do we remember that event as God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, or as something else, perhaps the disciples being drunk, as some at the time suggested (Acts 2:13)? We have the options. Which will we take?

Moreover, the question is always before us in our daily lives. Can we narrate the story of our own lives as the mighty acts of God? We might think of the question in terms of our individual lives, but Joshua put it to the people as a whole. We thus might better think of the question corporately, as a church. How can we narrate our history as a people and our lives together going forward as God’s work among us?

The response

The people shined in their response to Joshua: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods” (Joshua 24:16). They summarize Joshua’s (God’s) account of their history as their own (vv. 17-18a) and then conclude, “Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (v. 18b). Joshua is not satisfied, for he then goes on to give all the warnings we might have expected already (vv. 19-20), but the people are emphatic in their commitment to the Lord (vv. 21-24), and the exchange concludes with a covenant renewal (vv. 25-28). Nor was this mere lip service, for v. 31 then tells us that “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua.” This was a great moment in the history of Israel, one of those all-too-few times when the people really got it right. The story stands as an example and a charge to us: Will we serve the Lord or the gods of our times?

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11] 22-30, 41-43

Garrett Galvin

When I was 19, I got my first pair of glasses.

That prescription lasted for a long time. Now that I am in my 40’s, I have to make much more regular trips to the optometrist. Things get fuzzy and hazy much more rapidly, and I have learned that I cannot put off these visits. We often have a similar challenge when it comes to the Bible. We live in a culture that occasionally reads the Bible in order to justify negative practices or negative viewpoints. While the Bible can be negative about Solomon and foreigners, the two big themes of our reading, the Bible is more generally positive about them. If we figuratively visit a biblical optometrist, we will discover a much clearer vision of Solomon and foreigners if we view them through the lens of Genesis 1.

1 Kings 8 focuses us on the power of prayer. We have seen the power of prayer numerous times in the Old Testament, but 1 Kings 8 challenges us to move beyond many earlier notions of prayer. We have seen Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Hannah, and David praying in earlier parts of the Old Testament. We have the verb for prayer associated with them, which we find four times in our passage under consideration. Prayer is found here and in its corollary in 2 Chronicles 6 more than anywhere else in the Old Testament. Prayer becomes more closely associated in the Bible with Solomon than almost any other character apart from David, the traditional author of the Psalms. This passage is both commonplace and surprising.

1 Kings 8 participates in a larger homage to Solomon found in 1 Kings 3-10. It ends disastrously in 1 Kings 11 where the author depicts Solomon as concluding his life in the thrall of his relationships with foreign women who were idolatrous. This sad final note is generally not how Solomon is remembered in the Bible as it focuses on his foreign and idolatrous wives. Rather, the Bible generally remembers his wisdom attributes and the important wisdom books associated with him. 1 Kings 8 is grounded in that positive image of a Solomon who matches David’s piety and excels in other areas. David will pray for a temple in 2 Samuel 7, but Solomon builds the temple and prays at its dedication here in 1 Kings 8. We expect that prayer and 1 Kings 8 fulfills these expectations.

The language of relationship dominates the initial part of our reading. Relationship is most clearly seen in the idea of covenant. God has made a covenant with Israel. This can often get misconstrued as a treaty or agreement with God as it may have been modeled on covenants between nations in the ancient Near East. We are still radically dependent on God in spite of any covenant, yet the covenant displays God’s radical commitment to us. This commitment is seen in the language of these opening verses. We hear of God’s “steadfast love.” Here, we are translating the Hebrew word Hesed, which also suggests loyalty and faithfulness. It is a million dollar word suggesting God’s dedication and commitment to us that English cannot fully grasp. The language of faithfulness overwhelms these opening verses as we hear the word “keep” used three times in vv. 23-25. God keeps his promises and is trustworthy as we hear in v. 26. This prayer leads to great reassurance in the audiences listening to it.

The role of the foreigner offers the surprise of 1 Kings 8. Although the Old Testament is far from monolithic, we have seen foreigners associated with many problems in Joshua and Judges as Israel’s early experiences in the Promised Land are described. We have seen brief correctives offered as in the Book of Ruth. I would see 1 Kings 8 as another important corrective to any type of monolithic presentation of the foreigner. While foreigners have played important roles in Genesis, much of the Pentateuch takes a decidedly negative view of them. 1 Kings 8 militates against this type of view and asks us to consider our view of foreigners.

Both the emphasis on relationship and foreigners connotes a hopeful vision of reality. We have a God who desires relationship with us and encourages us to relate to those around us. Israel’s relationship with foreigners suffers from many low points, but we see chapters like 1 Kings 8 pointing us in a different direction. This corrective forces us to consider the Bible as a whole and in what direction the Bible generally points us. While certain stories in the Bible depict foreigners poorly, we must return to Genesis 1 for a more complete theological vision of the world.

Genesis 1:26-27 tells us God created “humankind in his image.” This insight helps us understand the perspective of 1 Kings 8:41-43. There are no limitations on humanity in the sense that we do not hear about the creation of foreigners and the creation of Israelites. We only hear about the creation of humans. This creation describes the world long before the struggles Israel had with foreigners and helps us to understand God’s original intention. All humanity reflects God and it is our struggle to make sure we always see that reflection. When it becomes unclear or difficult to see, we must return to this initial description of the world and correct our vision. 1 Kings 8:41-43 seems to have returned to that original description.


Commentary on Psalm 34:15-22

Eric Mathis

John Goldingay has claimed Psalm 34 possesses an ABC-type of spirituality.

Structurally speaking, Psalm 34 is an alphabetic acrostic (though incomplete because of vv. 5 and 22) in which each verse, or poetic line, begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.1 It is an invitation to praise, it is a testimony of one person’s troubled experience, it is a proclamation of YHWH’s acts, and it is full of teaching that seeks to “wrest some kind of order and coherence out of the variety and seeming disconnectedness of the experiences of everyday life.”2

Vv. 15-22 pick up where vv. 9-14 left off. Vv. 9-14 wove together a series of commands alongside a series of assurances, but these last eight verses are primarily about the assurances from verses 15-22. Furthermore, they are “more about YHWH and less about attitudes toward YHWH,” and they bring together themes from vv. 1-6 which emphasized the corporate nature of this psalm — namely that YHWH will “rescue from all troubles,” protect all bones,” and “vindicate all those who take refuge.”3

Psalm 34: 15-22

After affirming, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry” (v. 15), the Psalmist utters a disturbing word, “The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth” (v.16). Ouch. That hurts. It was Martin Luther in his First Lectures who asked, “If we believed this to be true … who would doubt that we would go about far more carefully?”

Verses 17-18 states two contrasts, however. “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles” (v. 17), and “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (v. 18). Not only does YHWH hear the outward cry, but God also saves the inward spirit. Vv. 19-20 affirm that even those who are faithful to YHWH will also experience bad things, but YHWH will preserve them.

V. 21 echoes the sentiments of v. 17, that the wicked will be condemned, but v. 22 summarizes the whole of Psalm 34: YHWH will redeem the life of those who take refuge in YHWH’s arms. Harkening back to the first six verses of this Psalm, v. 22 says none of those, “none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

Preaching Psalm 34

Helping those with afflictions is a topic we don’t always handle well. We offer distraught or sick friends our own remedies as though we are the experts. We tell them that if they see the right doctor, do the right thing, or follow the right paths, they will get better. We cite old wives’ tales, saying that if you touch your nose with your tongue while using your left hand to hold you right foot, you will get better.

The Christian community also deals with distress and sickness poorly. We ignore the reality of our troubled members by flippantly saying, “God will heal — just pray.” Then, we leave them to do that alone. And sometimes, even after prayer, medicine, and doing the right thing, change doesn’t happen and none of us knows quite what to do. The distraught don’t get better and we can’t explain it. Or, what might be worse — the distraught do get better and we try to explain that.

We’re guilty of reducing trouble to only the physical when trouble might be emotional, mental, relational, or any combination thereof. These are the problems in the world that we don’t describe enough. And, these are the hurts and troubles that plague all of us because we live in a broken world where we all need the redemption that only the kingdom of God can bring. While different parts of scripture can help us with this challenge, Psalm 34:15-22 is yet another place where we can turn to be reminded that while humans don’t always deal well with complications life may bring, God’s people can turn to God who will hear their afflictions because his ears are open to our cry.

When confronted with the reality that all of us — the “faithful — need help in one way or another, questions begin to lurk in the back of our minds, “Does the God of David still come to help?” “And, if God does come to help, will God help me?” “And if God comes to help me, what can I expect?” Psalm 34 is a sure testimony to these questions, and it answers them in the affirmative. The God of David promises help in Psalm 34, and the God of David promises to fully redeem the life of his servants. Not just one, not just two or three, but all of them. And, we are brought full circle to v.3: “Come, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt God’s name together.”


1 John Goldingay, “Psalm 34,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 477.

2 Anthony R. Ceresko, “The ABCs of Wisdom in Psalm xxxiv,” VT 35 (1985): 99-104.

3 Goldingay, 483.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20

Sarah Henrich

As the letter to assemblies of believers in Ephesus and throughout the great cities of Asia Minor draws to a close, the author offers a final extended metaphor for how a person of faith in Jesus as God’s own anointed one, Lord over all, might shape the life of believers.

It is important for preachers to keep in mind that the addressees of this letter were very much a minority group in the first century. The language used to describe their God and Lord was very similar to that used to describe imperial officials, especially the emperor. Even the word for their gatherings, ekklesiae, was a term for political gatherings at the local level. This letter, then, was written for people for whom their allegiance to Christ set them at conspicuous odds with the allegiances of others in their families and cities. Perhaps for these folks a certain kind of armor would be exactly what they craved.

It is impossible to think about this passage in 2015 without thinking of the many minority groups at odds with their overlords throughout the world. For many of these groups, the United States government has been asked desperately for “armor” of a more contemporary sort, armor that will allow such groups either to claim their freedom more aggressively or to defend it simply by standing fast. How would such persons hear this the description of the kind of armor offered here? Can all this translate into our own cultures?

The first point made very directly is that the events of life in this world, especially the conflicts, are truly indicative of warfare in the “heavenly places.” The battle is not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), but with other dark and dangerous powers who do rule the world at the present time. For the Ephesians, no matter what hostility is displayed by their fellow townfolk, they are to understand that hostility as emanating from larger, darker, spiritual forces. Such forces cannot be fought by the believers themselves, but are rather to be resisted. Faithfulness to God places one in the midst of a battle one is unable to fight aggressively on earth.

What good news this might be for those who are no longer able to participate in worship centered on the emperor or any of the gods honored in town, city, or family. Believers do not stand alone and forgotten in the difficult places created by faithfulness to God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Instead, the beleaguered minority dares to trust that they are enrolled with the Lord and the hosts of heaven and protected finally — if not penultimately — by God’s strength and might (Ephesians 6:10). Spiritual hosts of wickedness guide and manipulate world rulers of this present age, but the battle is not with other people. It is with the powers of wickedness in the heavenly places. To quote Martin Luther, the devil’s “doom is sure.” Indeed, the author of this letter is confident that Christ already rules in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:20).

Yes, it is dangerous indeed to classify those with whom one disagrees as agents of the devil. We have three protections against making Ephesians 6 a warrant for warfare or oppression:

  • first, this metaphor was written for minority persons;
  • second, flesh and blood opponents are not those against whom one contends;
  • finally, the very nature of the armor makes clear that the message here is a survival strategy for persons of faith in a hostile world, not a strategy for aggression.

Note that the armor is designed to help folks stand fast: it is not armor for aggressive action. Standing fast does not require a person to hurt a neighbor in any way.1 The “standing fast,” from histemi is repeated in Ephesians 6:11, 13, 14, clearly a very significant thread in this passage. Anthistemi also appears in v. 13. Withstanding (anthistemi) is necessary for standing. The armor is to empower believers to withstand (anthistemi) the evils that surround and threaten them.2

Second, the nature of the armor itself is profoundly defensive. The only equipment for attack is the sword, Even that weapon is a sword of the Spirit, aka, the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Believers are girded in truth, faith, peace, the Spirit through the word, and in prayer for their defense and strength.

Finally, the boldness for which this armor empowers one is the boldness of witness in speech (Ephesians 6:20). Not all are expected to engage in such bold witness. This kind of speech would be a gift granted to some, but not all (Ephesians 4:11). Yet all share in this confident life in the midst of difficulty by perseverance in prayer for everyone. The armor is for individuals and their lives and, perhaps more importantly, the community as a whole is armed with faith, truth, peace, God’s Spirit, and prayer. The words calling upon believers to stand fast are plural. One believer alone does not have to be a kind of Don Quixote for God in the midst of a godless world, tilting at windmills and not taken seriously. This passage calls for considered, corporate resistance to evil when and wherever it is embodied in the structures of the world one lives in, through the power of God. One testifies to that power, confident that the Lord who lives in the heavenly places has already won the battle.

Such a donning of the armor of God on our part does not create us an impenetrable community who does not hear the cries of others. It does not render us invulnerable to change or to hearing the word of God uttered by others. Indeed, in identifying the “mystery of the gospel,” (Ephesians 6:20) and calling upon believers to remain alert (v. 18) and praying for wise speech, the armor of God protects us from confusing standing fast and rigidity. Dark powers adapt readily, eager to draw believers from a life of faithful love. God’s armor empowers believers through the millennia to grasp and resist such manipulation.


1 It is only fair to say that in the ancient world refusal to honor local or imperial deities could be taken as harmful to the corporate whole.

2 References to believers being empowered in Ephesians use dunamai and occur in 3:4, 20; 6:11, 13, and 16. Evil powers are not described in Ephesians 6 using a form of dunamai.