Lectionary Commentaries for August 9, 2015
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51

Craig A. Satterlee

People complain that, in my preaching, I do not tell them what to do.

Last week, I left you with a list:

  1. Trust that God is doing something new, which circumstances cannot undermine or negate.
  2. Submit everything, even our highest-stake issues and our most pressing concerns, to Jesus.
  3. Be less concerned about what we do and more open to what God is doing.

It sounds so good. But how does it really sit with us? We wistfully tolerate this to-do list until something happens — a plane crashes, a war erupts, a toddler is diagnosed with cancer, a teenager experiences discrimination firsthand, a grandparent is stricken with Alzheimer’s, a church leader crosses a boundary, or a police officer fires his or her weapon. And we know God not to speak up, let alone to step up. And leaving everything up to God seems naive, if not ridiculous. We have had enough of silly church talk. We just know too much for it to be true.

Perhaps this is what happened to the crowd with Jesus; they knew too much for Jesus’ words to ring true. Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41). The Judeans object. They murmur among themselves. These are the insiders, the ones who know the history — they know how God does things and how things should be done. They also know Jesus’ origins. “Who does he think he is?” They mutter, “Claiming to have come down from heaven? We know his folks. We know he came from Nazareth, not from heaven!” (verse 42) These Judeans also know their scripture. “The bread from heaven was the manna fed to our ancestors back in the time of Moses,” they correctly point out. And these Judeans know the law. “The Lord God said, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods.’” They know it all.

Maybe they know too much. Or perhaps they really don’t know enough. When I was in seminary, I took a trip with then president of a Lutheran college. He was driving and I was reading the student newspaper to him aloud. A pre-seminary student had written an editorial espousing the use of doughnuts and coffee or pretzels and beer as the elements in the Eucharist. When I started to audibly protest, the president raised his hand, smiled, and quietly said, “Remember, Craig, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it can lead us to the wrong conclusions.” The student only knew a little. In retrospect, so did I.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it can lead us to the wrong conclusions. When it comes to God, and even to the Church, we know only a little. Like all living things, the Church — and our understanding of God — continues to grow and to change. And so to know only a little, and to think the little that we know is all that there is to know, can be fatal. These Judeans had some head knowledge about God; perhaps they did not know God by heart or by trust.

Jesus says to them, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45). The Judeans knew some things, but their knowing was limited, and they let it close their ears, shut their hearts, and limit their vision. They were unable to hear and know what God was trying to show them. They had made up their minds and did not want to be confronted with what Jesus tried to teach them. Now that rings true for us!

So when are we like those Judeans? What issues reveal that we know too much about the Jesus of our traditions and not enough about the living Word God speaks to us now? When do we allow our knowledge of the history of the past to close our eyes to the working of God in the present? When are we looking and listening with open hearts? When are we willing to be drawn to the Bread of life, rather than put our trust in what we know?

What do we do when have we known God not to speak up, let alone to step up? What do we do when leaving everything up to God seems naive, if not ridiculous? What do we do when we have had enough of silly church talk because we just know too much for it to be true?

Jesus is not calling us to abandon our knowledge and tradition as if they still cannot teach, help and guide us. Jesus cautions us that our knowledge will not give us absolute answers or a foolproof plan to make things right. God’s answer is rarely to reassure us that our knowledge and understanding are correct. If anything God uses our knowledge to give a purpose, a journey, and a direction — namely, to trust and follow Jesus. Whatever the details of this journey are for us, its purpose is to draw us into life as part of God’s coming reign, which human-constructed circumstances and conditions cannot undermine or negate. The risk of setting out on the journey, which is trusting and following Jesus, is that, even when we think we have a map or a plan, we do not really know where we are going or where we will end up.

The good news is that Jesus, rather than our knowledge and understanding, is the source of our calling and the source of our strength. What makes it good news is that, in those moments when we understandably have enough of this life that we cannot trust Jesus, Jesus has not had enough of us. So, rather than turning to our knowledge, perhaps we can turn to Jesus, recognizing that we certainly cannot have enough of him. When put that way, it is a wonder that we aren’t so drawn to the Bread of Life that we double back into the line for communion in order to get seconds.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 19:4-8

Garrett Galvin

When I was working my way through college, I was forced to take a year off to pay debts and start at a new school.

I worked in two restaurants during that year. In the evening I worked at an elegant restaurant and in the mornings I worked at a diner. We referred to the morning shift as “slinging hash.” I was really bad at it. I am not a “morning person” to start with, and I often was up pretty late at the other restaurant, so I was definitely bumbling my way through the shifts. I messed up order after order or arrived late and was on the receiving end of a lot of short tempers. Finally, one of the veteran waitresses who worked the counter pulled me aside. She said that it looked like I was having a lot of problems and I agreed with her. She told me that I could make a lot of mistakes during the morning shift, and they would be quickly forgiven. I could burn toast, I could be late with the food, I could get the order wrong, but the one thing I could not do is be late with the coffee. I had to get coffee to them immediately and I had to promptly refill the coffee. If I did this, all other mistakes would be forgiven. She was absolutely correct and my job went much more smoothly after this corrective. I got out of the wilderness and could proceed on my journey back to college.

Elijah literally finds himself in the wilderness in this reading, but he also seems to be figuratively in the wilderness as he asks the Lord to take his life. Elijah has endured a traumatic episode with the prophets of Baal and Asherah up in the northern region of Carmel. Although he successfully dispatched the prophets and demonstrated God’s power to Ahab, something is wrong. Elijah experiences a sense of shame or failure or some type of emotion on which we cannot quite put our finger. It leaves him deflated, despondent and depressed. We may never know what exactly led to this situation under the broom tree in the wilderness, but I imagine we can all think of difficult situation like this. We can think of Hagar in the wilderness with her young boy, but God would not allow that situation to endure. We can think of Jonah under his own tree in faraway Nineveh, equally despondent.

The Bible presents these scenarios to us in order to highlight the travails of God’s people. Whether they be a foreign female slave, a runaway prophet, or perhaps the most famous prophet, there will be bumps in the road or perhaps chasms in the road. Our Scripture focuses on “the way.” At times that way is crystal clear. 1 Kings has previously presented Elijah as assured and triumphant. He seemed to have no problem finding his way, yet now we see a very different Elijah, an Elijah sharing more in common with Hagar and Jonah than Elisha and Isaiah. While we meet a very different Elijah here, we meet the same Lord here who ministered to Hagar and Jonah.

Elijah’s struggles with many things, but nothing more than himself. We can all probably recognize how we can be our own worst enemy. 1 Kings 19 clearly demonstrates Elijah’s demons bringing him to a standstill. Oftentimes, it is easy for us to see the source of other people’s problems. We have seen many triumphs of Elijah before this event, and we know that there will be many triumphs to follow. With all of this in mind it can be hard to understand how things went so wrong so quickly for Elijah. Yet that is part of Elijah’s story just like it can often be part of our story. We can often find ourselves most at risk, when we are feeling most invulnerable.

God sends unexpected help to Elijah during his time of great vulnerability. Elijah is able to overcome his great sadness through the care of the angels and the nourishment of their food. This story invites us to see how the Lord has been present to us in difficult moments. It also invites us to view our problems through a lens able to see God’s divine presence in the world. Just as God is clearly present to Elijah in order to help him overcome his travails, we must have the same confidence that God is present and will be present in our lives. We know the whole of the Elijah story and can see this as just a blip in the story. We must also have the awareness that our travails and troubles are far from the whole of our story. Just as God has been present in our past, we must persevere in the hope that God will be present in our future.

We find a compassionate God here sending an angel to Elijah in his hour of need, and sending an angel again to Elijah in the following verse. As God accompanies Elijah, Hagar, and Jonah on their journey, Scripture invites us to consider how God has accompanied us on our journeys. We can think of Elijah going from mountain top to mountain top on his journey from Carmel to Horeb. Those mountain experiences are memorable and often fill us with life, especially when we have transcendent experiences of God. Yet Scripture stops here to focus on the horizontal experience rather than the vertical experience. This reading challenges us to see how God was present to us in the boring parts of our journey. Elijah teaches us to bring all our emotions to God. God will be present to us in different ways on different parts of the journey. We cannot experience the theophany of a storm cloud and deluge in the middle of the desert, but God finds a different way to be present to us. Our reading assures us that God makes the entire journey with us.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

Ralph W. Klein

The story of the conflict between David and his son Absalom takes up 6 chapters (2 Samuel 13-18) and is full of intrigue and moral failings by both David and Absalom.

It all started when David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. David would not punish Amnon because he was his firstborn, leading Absalom to avenge his half-sister by killing Amnon himself. After Absalom had fled into exile, a wise woman from Tekoa told David a story that convinced him to bring Absalom back. Upon his return Absalom promised people that he would be a more just and righteous king than David, and after four years of political counter-counseling, he went to Hebron, David’s first capital, and raised an army that forced David to flee Jerusalem and go across the Jordan River to Transjordan. I’ve left out many of the twists and turns in this fascinating story, including Absalom’s public raping of ten of David’s concubines to show who was the real king (2 Samuel 16:20-22).

In 2 Samuel 18, from which the First Lesson quotes nine verses, David is urged by his officers not to participate in the battle against Absalom lest the king be killed and send the whole country into chaos. David went out of his way to urge his three officers, Joab, Abishai, and Ittai to treat Absalom kindly, and all the people heard these orders (v. 5). David’s army, called “the servants of David,” killed twenty thousand from Absalom’s army called Israel (vv. 6-8). Riding a mule, Absalom got his head caught in an oak tree, apparently by his hair, of which he was very proud (2 Samuel 14:25-26). A witness told Joab what had happened, and Joab scolded the man for failing to kill Absalom. The man rebuked Joab and reminded him of David’s command to protect Absalom. Joab took this rebuke as a waste of time and stuck three spears or daggers into the heart of Absalom (vv. 10-14). Ten armor-bearers of Joab were actually the ones who killed Absalom (v. 15). After burying Absalom unceremoniously, Joab sent a Cushite messenger to tell David what happened, but another messenger outran him and told David about the military victory, but claimed he did not know what had happened to Absalom (vv. 16-30). When the Cushite messenger finally arrived, he told David the bad news, wishing that all of David’s enemies would wind up like Absalom (vv. 31-32).

David showed uncontrollable grief: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son” (v. 33)!

Throughout these six chapters David, Joab, and Absalom are highly flawed characters, and many readers suspect that David’s publicly witnessed admonitions to his commanders not to harm Absalom may have been attempts to cover up his own involvement in Absalom’s death. Still anyone who has ever lost a child can empathize with David’s moving lament.

David should have disciplined Amnon, and Absalom should not have compounded Amnon’s violence by murdering him. Joab used the wise woman of Tekoa in an attempt to repair the broken relationship between father David and son Absalom. Absalom initiated a civil war and himself was guilty of sexual violence. David’s army killed twenty thousand of Absalom’s men, and Joab ignored three warnings not to harm Absalom. Talk about a dysfunctional family and a dysfunctional royal administration.

Preachers often address somewhat dysfunctional families and somewhat dysfunctional congregations. We all weave tangled webs of alienation with those most close to us. How do we keep from responding to violence with violence of our own — as individuals, families, and a nation?

If the Gospel is God’s good news for our bad situations, how do we use forgiveness and reconciliation to break chains of dysfunction and violence? How did God do so in sending Jesus to bring healing and wholeness and to proclaim that there is no sin too large to forgive? The preacher can hardly “fix” all the violence out there, but he or she can urge people to step out of conflicted situations and seek help from God and from brothers and sisters. Can prodigal fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters find welcome in the church?


Commentary on Psalm 34:1-8

Eric Mathis

I work with college students in a Baptist university.

Telling our story, what Baptists call a “testimony,” is a common practice in campus worship, and not long ago I worked with a group of students to craft a small portion of their story to be told in worship.

As we were working on their story, one of them looked up and said, “I’m not sure my story — my testimony — is that exciting.” I think that’s the way a lot of us might often feel. We feel like one of these college students, or we feel like the author from the article “My Boring Christian Testimony” who claimed that her testimony was boring because nothing dramatic had ever happened in her life of faith.1 She went to Sunday school where her charts were dotted with stickers, she memorized scripture, sang hymns, never strayed from the church, and never had a moment she could describe as a “specific day of spiritual awakening” that most testimonies point to.

In the article, she claims it wasn’t until she was in her forties that she realized, “There is no dull salvation. The Son of God took on flesh to suffer and die, purchasing a people for Glory … the idea that anyone’s testimony could be uninteresting or unspectacular is a defamation of the work of Christ … When I don’t tell my story, I deprive the church of what should be one of its sweetest gifts. Boring stories like mine are just what the church, especially its young people, need to hear. Testimonies of childhood faith have all the elements of God’s amazing grace — beginning, middle, and end.”

Psalm 34: Overview

Psalm 34 is a testimony embedded in the narrative of scripture. Like any testimony, it gives the narrative of God and the narrative of David, the Old Testament protagonist or antagonist — depending on which part of his life the reader is considering. In Psalm 34, David gives testimony of a time when he fled Saul, took refuge with the Philistines, and came to be afraid of King Achish, the king of Gath (1 Samuel 21:10-12).

The structure of the first eight verses of this Psalm does two things: it establishes the author’s intention to give a testimony (v. 1-3) and it provides details of David’s experience that prompted the testimony. Although this week’s lectionary reading includes vv. 7 and 8, any division of verses 7-14 could be characterized as nebulous. Because they are included here, it could be that they are intended to foreshadow the message the Psalmist will emphasize through the remainder of the Psalm, that doing good is a matter of following the ways of the Lord.

Psalm 34:1-8

David begins his testimony in Psalm 34 by stating his intent: to worship YHWH at all times (v. 1). This praise, however, is not passive; it is an intentional commitment to extol the name of YHWH in an ongoing manner. This praise is to be continuous. It is to happen at all times. The author then invites, even commands others to listen (v. 2), particularly those who are weak. What is the cumulative result? The assembly will worship YHWH together by offering praise, so that what began as one individual’s praise has now become a corporate reason to praise (v. 3).

Verses 4-6 are a more specific account of the general introduction to Psalm 34. Here, the Psalmist doesn’t tell the whole story, but he does say that he prayed to YHWH, YHWH heard, and YHWH rescued him from what may have been a terrifying experience (v. 4). YHWH delivered him from the “object” of the fear, not only the feeling of fear. Looking to YHWH will do for others as it did for the Psalmist: give a new appearance (v. 5). In this particular instance, the new appearance was one of radiance, of shining. Verse 6 provides a recap of the Psalm: a weak man called to YHWH, YHWH listened, and YHWH delivered.

Preaching the Psalm

Thomas Long has said, “To be human is to live a story.” Psalm 34 reminds us of this. Psalm 34 also reminds us that sharing that story through the practice of Christian testimony is deeply embedded in the narrative of scripture and in the narrative of God and God’s people.

Here, we see David’s testimony embedded in the narrative of scripture, of God, and of God’s people. Through David, we are reminded that as Christians our testimonies are not boring because they involve the action of God, the one whose ears are turned to us, the one who has delivered our forebears, and the one who is ready to deliver us if we are bold enough to ask. And, we are reminded that when God does deliver us, we are to share that story so that our individual praise can become a communal praise.


1 Megan Hill, “My Boring Christian Testimony: How I Know It’s Nonetheless Real,” Christianity Today (December 31, 2014), <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/december/how-i-know-my-testimony-is-real.html, (accessed May 5, 2015).

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Brian Peterson

A traditional part of the baptismal liturgy is the renouncing of all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises.

As we enter into the new life in Christ, we enter into a new community and a new culture with a particular way of living with one another. Though this text does not place these instructions in an explicitly baptismal context, it is that new life as God’s people in Christ that this text describes and urges upon us. This is, in more detail, what the author meant in the earlier instruction to “put away the former way of life” (see Ephesians 4:22). The new life means, first of all (verse 25), relinquishing what is false, and a commitment to speak the truth to one another (see 4:15).

It may not be a coincidence that this call to speak truth is followed by a call not to let anger become the occasion for sin (Exodus 4:26). The church ought to be the place where the truth can be spoken: the difficult truths about our world and about ourselves, and the gracious truth about the God who has redeemed us. We are, however, rather skilled in using a self-justifying excuse of “speaking the truth” as a cover for our efforts to manipulate, retaliate, and tear down others. All such behavior is simply a lie masquerading as the truth.

There are times when not being angry would be sin. There should be anger against all the effects of injustice and oppression, both inside and outside the church. At other times, our anger is simply our last desperate attempt to defend ourselves against the new world that God is calling forth and against God’s servants who are urging us into that new kingdom. Even though some anger might be justified, we should not read verse 26 as an excuse to feel angry, and certainly not as an excuse to feed and nurture such anger. Indeed, we are to put away all anger (verse 31), which seems to contradict the imperative to “be angry” in verse 26. The tension suggests that the force of verse 26 may be something closer to “when you are angry, do not sin.” We are called to speak the truth, but not to let whatever anger we experience linger and fester, because we belong to one another. We may not be able to avoid anger, and indeed there may be times when anger is not only understandable but also appropriate. However, we also ought to recognize that anger is always disruptive and can quickly become corrosive to the community that God is calling forth.

Rather than taking from others (which would certainly have a negative effect on the honesty and truth with which we are called to deal with one another), the members of the church are called to work so that they are able to pass something along to the poor. In verse 28 the NRSV talks about working “honestly,” but that may be a rather pale reflection of what the text is getting at. More precisely, the text speaks about doing “the good.” This is not a call to keep your head down and just pay attention to your own “honest work.” Rather, it is a call to pay open-eyed attention to the needs of those around us, so that we can discern the good thing that our neighbors need and then do it. Thus both in our actions (verse 28) and in our words (verse 29), our lives become conduits for the grace of God to others. In this passage, it is especially our words that receive attention. Our words to one another matter. The words to be avoided in verse 29 are not simply “evil” (NRSV), but rotten, decaying, and corrosive. In verse 31, the vices to avoid are particularly those things that are expressed in destructive speech. All these things that would tear down relationships have no place in the church, and they are contrary to the Spirit’s intent, not only because they impede our ability to engage in the mission to which God has called us, but because they are a failure to reflect Christ himself, who is the foundation of this new life.

In a remarkable move, the author calls us to nothing less than a life of imitating God (Ephesians 5:1). Such a call may seem absurd; to think that we could “imitate God” might be the height of arrogance. However, this call to imitation is founded on the love of Christ for us. Jesus himself is the footsteps of God through this world, not simply giving us an example to follow by our own determination, but cutting the path for us and then pulling us along. We imitate by grace, not as those who are goaded and threatened into stepping in only the right places, but as those who are loved into walking this path.

It may be significant that the imperative in Ephesians 5:1 indicates that this imitation is an ongoing process. We might translate it as “Keep on becoming imitators of God … ” It calls to mind the words of Martin Luther:

This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.1

Undergirding all of the exhortations in this Ephesians’ pericope are the supporting and motivating claims about God’s forgiveness (4:32), Christ’s self-sacrifice (5:2), and the Spirit’s sealing (4:30). It is the Triune God who is at work to shape the church into a people who actually inhabit the new reality described in 4:25-5:2.


1 “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles”, transl. Charles M. Jacobs, in Luther’s Works, Volume 34 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), 24.