Lectionary Commentaries for August 26, 2018
Fourteenth 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.”1

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.


1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 26, 2015.

First Reading

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

Anathea Portier-Young

Bondage to a lie, or freedom’s integrity.1

The reading makes it seem like an easy choice. Joshua adjures the gathered tribes of Israel to fear and serve Yahweh and turn aside from other gods (24:14). To the people God has chosen, Joshua says, “Choose” (24:15). And the people choose: “We will serve Yahweh” (24:18).

I marvel and even puzzle over the editorial shaping that yields such concise instruction and confident response. It is not hard to spot what the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out: a history of darkness, deliverance, destruction, and gift (24:2b-13) that precedes this new choice; and a startling, even ominous exchange that follows the people’s bold answer to Joshua’s command (24:19-24).

In that elided exchange, Joshua shows the chosen people their future. Joshua does not applaud their discerning judgment or willing hearts, but instead assures them that they will break their promise. You will not be able to serve Yahweh, he says, and Yahweh will not forgive you (24:19). When they repeat their promise, Joshua calls them to witness to their choice (24:22). When they dare to repeat their promise a third time, Joshua records their commitment in scroll and stone (24:26-27).

Why delimit the passage in just this way, omitting reminder and warning? This conscious shaping of the lection directs the attention of the preacher and those who hear the word proclaimed in three ways:

While past and future remain in view, the lection focuses on the present moment.

If I were preaching this passage, I would aim to place my congregation in that moment, to show them that they stand where Israel’s tribes stood, before the warning of failure and before the covenant is made and recorded. I would bring their awareness to the place where Joshua has summoned them and to the moment of decision.

Joshua has gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem, the place where, long ago, God had appeared to Abram and promised the gift of the land (Genesis 12:6-7). Abram built there an altar, the first sanctuary to Yahweh in the land of promise. In the book of Joshua we learn that the Lord has also designated Shechem as a city of refuge, a haven that interrupts and transforms a landscape marred by violence and revenge (Joshua 20:7).

Joshua now gathers the people in this city that orients them to the boundary between justice and mercy and beside the altar that commemorates God’s revelation and promise and their ancestor’s worshipful response.  At the moment of decision the people are surrounded by physical reminders of God’s revelation and promise and oriented by their own shared practices of worship, justice, and mercy.

The leaders of the community are also such a physical reminder. Joshua summons the elders, heads, judges, and officers to station themselves and stand upright in the presence of God (24:1). These individuals possess wisdom and memory, live as visible examples of covenant faithfulness, dedicate their lives to justice, and are entrusted with responsibility for the people’s welfare. They commit their bodies, hearts, and minds to bridge the space between heaven and earth and draw their people closer to God.

The opposition between worship and slavery rises to the fore.

The editorial shaping of the lection moves the hearer past God’s first-person account of what God has done for Israel’s past generations and given to the present generation. The emphasis falls instead on what the people will do.

The threefold repetition in one verse (24:14) of the Hebrew verb ‘abad sharpens the focus. The verb occurs six more times in the lection (24:15-18; the related noun ‘abadim occurs once). The range of meanings for this verb includes “to be a slave”, “to serve”, “to work”, and “to worship.” The conceptual link between worship and slavery may seem obscure or theologically distasteful, but it is critical for understanding the choice Joshua offers the tribes of Israel. They can and will give their whole selves to one kind of relationship only. Worship of false gods is slavery to human artifice and self-interest. Joshua calls Israel out of bondage into the freedom of life in covenant with God.

Joshua’s call to worship Yahweh in integrity therefore entails putting away (vehasîrû)  the gods “your ancestors” worshipped in Mesopotamia and Egypt (24:14). This instruction echoes an earlier command. In the book of Genesis, Jacob instructs his household to put away foreign gods (Genesis 35:2), and he hides the gods beneath the oak at Shechem (35:4), in the very ground on which the tribes now stand. The preacher who now summons the congregation to choose worship of God must also reveal the false gods hidden like landmines in the ground beneath their feet.

The people speak their reasons and tell their story in their own words.

The elided divine speech in Joshua 24:2b-13 offers God’s version of the story and suggests reasons, from God’s point of view, why the Israelites should now choose to serve God. But to arrive at their decision in true freedom and integrity, the people must tell their own story and declare their own reasons.

They begin by naming the relationship that has claimed them and allows them to claim God for their own: “Yahweh is our God” (24:17). They then profess that God brought “us” and “our fathers” up from Egypt, from a house of slaves. The people who stand before Joshua never set foot in the land of Egypt (except possibly Caleb, see Deuteronomy 1:36), but they remember this passage to freedom. They testify to miracles worked in their sight and to God’s care for them on the road and in their crossings.

Only after the tribes have told the story in their own words do they declare their commitment to serve Yahweh (Joshua 24:18). This declaration is climactic, but not the last word. Three words follow, highlighting once again the relationship that is the ground for every free choice this people makes: “Because [Yahweh] is our God” (24:18).


1. Commentary first published on this site in Aug. 26, 2012.

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.1

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.


1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 23, 2015.


Commentary on Psalm 34:15-22

James K. Mead

With the concluding verses of Psalm 34, the author has returned to the subject matter with which he began, namely the suffering from which God delivered him (verse 4).1

Along the way, as we saw last Sunday, the psalmist explored the connection between worship and some of the wisdom principles for right relationships (verses 9-14). It may have been possible, however, to get the wrong impression from those general principles. The way the question in verse 12 is posed — “Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?” — might suggest to us that if we simply uphold the standards of right speech and action listed in verses 13-14, we can count on a long and happy life.

In case we are tempted to follow that logic, the remainder of the psalm brings us back to reality. Today’s psalm lection is fraught with a sense of conflict between good and evil, intense affliction for the righteous, but also the hopeful assurance that the Lord is aware of such trouble and acts to rescue the sufferer. Among the many avenues for reflection available to us in this passage, the following three ideas stand out to me.

The reality of suffering for the righteous
The psalmist unflinchingly holds the traditional wisdom of verses 11-14 together with the fact of suffering for the righteous. Given the reputation of the Book of Proverbs as presenting a simplified view of obedience and blessing, we should notice that the object of oppression and trouble in verses 15-22 are not some group of pretend-worshipers or secret slackers who finally get what’s coming to them. If that were the case, then we could explain their sufferings and take refuge in our tidy theology of prosperity for the righteous.

However, this psalm won’t let us off the hook. Without disparaging the general truth of traditional wisdom, the author nevertheless states that the righteous do indeed suffer. They “cry” and experience “troubles” (verses 15, 17).2 They are “brokenhearted” and have “afflictions” (verses 18-19). It is also likely the case that these righteous ones are “socially marginal,” turning to Yahweh for help instead of to some other source within human society.3  Such a class reading may help to explain a source of their affliction, but the repetition of “righteous” points to a moral/spiritual cause of persecution as well. One thinks, in this regard, of the apostle’s encouragement of those who “suffer for doing what is right” (1 Peter 3:14; 4:15-16).

The reality of evil in the world
As obvious as this affirmation seems, I take the time and space to comment on the “conflict” theology present in the psalm. There are excellent biblical and theological reasons for shunning a world and life view that explains everything in terms of conflict. We live with the increasing potential for demonizing enemies and even average folks who simply disagree with us on politics and religion. A gospel mindset teaches that abundant life isn’t about identifying the “bad guys” in every situation or turning every issue into an ultimate battle between good and evil. That being said, the tone of opposition in our passage is confirmed by human experience.

Thus, in spite of the very real danger of oversimplification, Psalm 34 provides an eloquent Old Testament conversation partner for the New Testament epistle reading this Sunday (Ephesians 6:10-20), with its message of spiritual conflict. The psalmist’s reason for acknowledging such conflict is not to demonize evildoers but to maintain solidarity with the victims of evil. The believer leaves the judgment in the hands of the Lord (verse 16). While this passage is not a mandate to end the struggle for justice, the author prefers to trust the mysterious workings of providence, namely, that “evil brings death to the wicked” (verse 21a). Moreover, the passive sense of verse 21b (“those who hate the righteous will be condemned”) tends to remove personal vengeance from the disposition of justice.

The reality of divine rescue
In spite of the above painful realities, the psalmist nevertheless believes that God is actively present to bless and save the righteous sufferer. This theme is lifted up in manifold ways that all have a vivid, sensory, and personal expression: God’s “eyes” and “ears” which see and hear the plight of the needy (verses 15, 17); God’s “face” which is “against evildoers (verse 16); God’s nearness to and salvation of the “brokenhearted” (verse 18); God’s keeping “the bones” and redeeming “the life” of the righteous (verses 20, 22). Thus, Weiser writes, “The true happiness of a godly life consists in the nearness of God and in the living experience of his help and not in being spared suffering and affliction.”4  This notion dovetails nicely with the sense of “abiding” in the gospel lection for today, John 6:56-69.5

There is a challenge here of translating the truths of an ancient Hebrew worldview into modern Christian categories. To speak of rescue is not to advocate some type of “victorious Christian life.” We are clearly cautioned by the ultimate expression of Jesus as the perfectly righteous sufferer who does not experience God’s rescue on the cross but only from the grave. Even so, we do not have to suggest, with Derek Kidner, that verse 19b “urges the mind to look beyond death.”6

There will be moments in the here and now when the believer asks others to join her in thanking God for answers to prayer, deliverance from illness, provision for the journey, and so on. The cumulative effect of verses 15-22, therefore, is to assure the believer that whatever the outcome of any particular experience of persecution, grief, or pain, God’s nature as a rescuer offers hope and peace.7 And that truth makes possible the act of worship in the midst of suffering.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 23, 2009.

2 In verse 17a, the NRSV follows the Greek by clarifying that it is indeed “the righteous” who cry for help.  The Hebrew has no such noun, simply writing, “they cry . . .” The potential problem is that the immediately antecedent noun in verse 16 is “evildoers.” The Hebrew could imply that those crying out to God in verse 17 are repentant evildoers. In spite of the grammatical openness, such a reading goes against the grain of the whole passage, and verse 15 has just used “righteous” with another noun for “cry.” See W. VanGemeren, “Psalms” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1991), 285. 

3 W. Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Augsburg, 1984), 134.

4 A. Weiser, Psalms: A Commentary (Westminster, 1962), 299; italics his.

5 J. McCann, “Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon, 1996), 816.

6 D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 1973), 141. Still, Kidner is right in seeing Christ’s resurrection as a fulfillment of this hope, given the New Testament’s citation of the psalm with respect to the cross (verse  20 in John 19:36). Patristic interpretation certainly went in this direction. See C. Blaising and C. Hardin, eds., Psalms 1-50, Ancient Christian Commentary (InterVarsity Press, 2008), 19: 266-269.

7 See M. Gilmour, “Crass Casualty or Purposeful Pain? Psalm 34’s Influence on Peter’s First Letter,” Word and World 24 (2004):404-411.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20

Brian Peterson

With this reading, we come (almost) to the end of Ephesians.

Astonishing claims have been made: God unites everything in the universe through Christ (Ephesians 1:10) and has put everything under his authority (1:22). God has created a new humanity out of the old animosities (2:14-16). We, chosen by God before creation (1:4), have not only been raised with Christ but already have been seated with him in the heavenly realms (2:6).

One might conclude from such soaring claims that there is no more struggle against evil, either in the world or within ourselves. Of course, we have ample evidence from daily experience that such is not the case. Even before chapter 6, Ephesians has been clear that evil spiritual forces, though defeated, are still active (1:21, 3:10). God’s victory cannot be snatched away, but the enemies have not surrendered yet. In this text, the church is enlisted and equipped to stand on God’s side in this continuing conflict.

However, this passage contains some potential pitfalls which complicate our ability to hear and to respond faithfully. First of all, there is the militaristic imagery of this text. The language of armor and battle is dangerous in the hands of us humans who have proven ourselves too quick to pick up non-metaphorical weapons of war. The church has too often aligned itself with various empires and military forces. Church history contains too many examples of crusades and of blessing the armies and weapons intended to annihilate other members of God’s creation. A text that seems to blend the church’s faith and military force is a dangerous one, both spiritually and politically.

Despite these dangers, the battle imagery in this passage can helpfully remind us that faith does not mean complacency or ignoring the daily reality of evil. Since we are being enlisted in this battle, it is important that we look to Ephesians itself to understand what sort of action is called for. In Ephesians 6:11 we are told to “put on” the armor of God. That same verb was used in 4:24, where we are told to put on the new self that God created and gave to us in Christ.

The spiritual arming of the church in this text is nothing other than putting into practice the new reality created through Christ that Ephesians has already described. God wins victory in ways that are not our ways, by bringing peace through the violent death of the cross. It is paradoxically crucial that the armor described in our text includes whatever prepares one to proclaim the “gospel of peace” (verse 15). The imagery used here is armor for violent battle; however, the strength advocated is not the might of armies, but the world-reconciling power of God embodied in the cross of Christ.

Another danger with this text’s description of dressing ourselves in God’s armor is that we may automatically imagine an individual preparing for solitary combat. However, the verbs and pronouns in this passage are “you” plural, and that is a helpful reminder that evil is resisted by the church’s life together. The church stands “against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11) by its love and reconciliation, by the peace and righteousness for which it longs and works in the world and within its own fellowship, and by its mutual prayer and proclamation. Furthermore, the opening instruction in verse 10 to “be strong” is a passive verb, a reminder that we are to “be strengthened” by God in all the communal dimensions already described by Ephesians: living with love and peace toward one another, singing hymns to God, speaking truth and forgiving one another, reflecting Christ in our homes and closest relationships.

This “standing firm” (verse 13) is not something that we can do by ourselves, but only as a community. The instruction to “be strengthened” in verse 10 is also a present tense verb which emphasizes the continuing nature of this strengthening. It is not experienced all at once, but is part of the ongoing life of the church together. We might render verse 10’s overarching instruction as “all of you together, keep on being strengthened by the Lord.” It is something with which we are never finished, but which points to the life-long habit of trusting God and finding life, love, and strength there.

A final danger to be aware of in this text is its insistence that the church, in its efforts and witness, does not simply find itself confronting people but demonic forces. We find it too easy to label those with whom we disagree as evil, and so we self-righteously dehumanize those we find on other points of the political, social, or religious spectrum. Another problem is that to some it may seem superstitious to imagine a wily devil. However, Ephesians 6:11 warns about “schemes” rather than frontal assaults, and it is helpful to remember that evil often comes in deceptively attractive forms rather than in the obviously repulsive.

The latter does happen, of course, for example in genocidal violence. But more often evil lurks beneath the camouflage of cultural common sense, compromise in the name of being reasonable, and unacknowledged personal benefit from unjust systems. Despite the ways such language gets abused, this text’s call to “spiritual warfare” can remind us that we are called into a struggle deeper than private temptations, and that we often fail to recognize the true enemy.

Only God can and will finally defeat all the forces of evil. However, the church is already the sign and the promise of what God will do for the world through Christ. We have been enlisted into this mission, and we can respond boldly only because God has already won the war and set us free. Therefore, there is no need for fear in the face of whatever challenges confront the church in our times and places. We have been given all that we need to stand strong against the losing efforts of anything that opposes God’s peace.