Lectionary Commentaries for August 2, 2015
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 6:24-35

Craig A. Satterlee

The hymn powerfully portrays the plight of so many of God’s children: “Across the world, across the street, the victims of injustice cry for shelter and for bread to eat, and never live before they die” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #729).

And never live before they die. The reality becomes all the more poignant when I allow myself to linger on and ponder the word children. How many kids go hungry in the world and in our nation, in your community and even your congregation? With the crowd chasing after Jesus, I want a sign that God is doing something new — that human-created circumstances and conditions cannot undermine or negate.

As someone familiar with how Bible stories end, I am sometimes impatient with the crowd chasing after Jesus. How can people bother Jesus for another round of loaves and fishes, when Jesus is going to serve up his very life on a cross to draw all people to himself and take away our sin and the sin of the world? With Jesus, I find myself thinking, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Humanity will give you” (John 6:27).

Then I contemplate this story through the realities of our world. As long lines for humanitarian aid demonstrate, eating your fill one day does not mean that you will not be hungry the next. When there is no food, and you do not know how you will sustain your life today, what is the point of working for eternity? Think parents whisking their children out of their beds in Egypt — or Central America — on the promise of a better life, only to watch their kids starve to death (or get blown to bits) in the desert.

Some things are worth complaining to God about. Sometimes, asking God for assurance that God is still with us is understandable, even appropriate. When Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26), I do not think Jesus was scolding the crowd for seeking bread because they were hungry. I think Jesus was disappointed that the crowd did not expect more, not more bread but something more. Perhaps Jesus was thinking more about ending hunger than serving up more bread. Moses and Aaron, not to mention God, may have been disappointed that Israel did not expect more, not an Egyptian deli in the desert, but that the God who delivered them from slavery would also sustain them in the desert.

This is easy to see and even easier to say because we know the end of God’s story, for us and for the world, as well as for the people in the Bible — manna, quail, promised land; suffering, death, resurrection; water, word, table; abundant and eternal life. So why don’t we expect more from God? Why do we settle for signs of God’s grace — bread from whatever source — rather than seeking and expecting God’s immortal love for us? Could it be that we work for the food that perishes, rather than the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Humanity gives us, because we are unwilling or unable to name what we truly hunger for and seek? Why do you suppose this is? Fear of being disappointed, a need to somehow protect God, and clarity that we are not deserving all come to mind.

And why do we assume that we have to work to get what we truly hunger for and seek? With the crowd, we assume that the key question when we encounter God is, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28) Along with, “How much is enough?” and “How do we make sure we do it right?” These questions press even harder when the stakes are war and peace, safety and security, food, water, and health care, the economy and the environment. “What must we do to perform the works of God?”

Jesus responds to us as he did the crowd: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent” (John 6:29). To believe is to trust that God is doing something new that human-created conditions and circumstances cannot undermine or negate. To believe is to submit everything, even our highest-stake issues, to God’s saving work in Jesus. To believe is not so much what we do as being open to what God is doing.

Of course, being open to what God is doing and submitting everything to Jesus means we might not do what is wise, practical, advantageous, safe. In fact, being open to God and submitting everything to Jesus means that our doing is less important because we are not in charge, let alone in control.

Now if we are going to give up all control, we need some assurance, some guarantee. Perhaps we can understand the crowd asking, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” (John 6:30). Since the crowd is looking for a political king like David and a prophet like Moses, what better sign than manna in the wilderness? Moses gave manna to their ancestors, and their ancestors believed. But Jesus points out that God rather than Moses fed the people in the wilderness. What made the feeding a sign was not the manna, but that the manna came down from heaven. The manna was only an appetizer for the true bread that came down from heaven, Jesus, who gives life through his teaching and his flesh, because God sent Jesus.

Jesus is the bread that fulfills all our hunger and thirst. Jesus frees us to follow him not to achieve self-satisfaction, not to get anything that is in it for us, not even to attain or maintain peace of mind. Jesus frees us to embrace God’s redeeming will to restore the cosmos to what God created and humanity to what God intends. Such faith does not mean separating the spiritual out of the social. It means putting God rather than us at the center of both. When we do, we can and will expect more.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Wil Gafney

Exodus might be regarded as the beginning proper of the Israelite story.

Now they are more than an extended family, they are a “congregation,” a single body united by ties of kinship, and affiliation by choice on their way to becoming a nation. Israelite identity is complex. Their founding family comes from what will become Babylonia (and later Iraq). They practice “internal” marriage, a euphemism for incest. Abraham marries his (half-) sister (Genesis 20:12); his uncle Nahor marries a niece, Milcah (Genesis 11:27, 29). The desire to marry only within the family sends Abraham’s servant in search of a blood relative, Rebekah, in Genesis 20:4. Her branch of the family is described as “Aramean,” (Genesis 25:20). In a generation marriage patterns change, Judah and Simeon produce heirs with Canaanite women, Tamar and her unnamed sister-in-law (Genesis 38:2 and 46:10), and Joseph marries and fathers children with an Egyptian woman, Asenath (Genesis 41:50). Joseph’s half-Egyptian children Ephraim and Manasseh will essentially become tribes in their own right. The scholarly designation for the ethnicity of ancient Israel is for this and other reasons, “Afro-Asiatic.”

To this multicultural mix is added an unknown number of persons of unknown ethnicity and nationality who escaped Egypt with Israel, (Exodus 12:38). All of these people are in the process of becoming a single nation, ritual actions like circumcision and covenant ratification will cement them together. Religious and cultural practices will help to differentiate them from other nations with whom they will share land and (similar) language.

In the period of wilderness wandering, the “entire congregation” grumbles repeatedly against Moses (and Aaron though Miriam has been rendered invisible). The word “entire” here should be read as literary exaggeration for effect: every one grumbles the exact same speech. In some rabbinic readings only the non-Israelite elements murmur. The word “entire” is also a marker of inclusivity. No matter how they got there, they are becoming a singular people with a singular lament.

It may be tempting to condemn the lack of faith the Israelites display in the God who has demonstrated such great power in the plagues on Egypt and the parting of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea). It may be helpful to remember that those miracles were now more than six weeks past according to the chronology of v 1. Also six weeks behind them was the oasis of Elim with fresh water and date-laden palm trees. Six weeks later, their promised land was nowhere in sight and their provisions were being consumed at an alarming rate. And, the only thing the pillar of cloud and fire was leading them to was more sand.

In this text God is both attentive and apparently exasperated. God’s response to her whiny children will be familiar to many parents (and many raised by parents) — I’ll give you exactly what you’re asking for, so much so that you’ll lose your desire for it and learn a lesson. Even so, God appears to take the complaint in stride, raining food from the sky. (Lechem is both “bread” and “food.”) But this will be a test. Will the Israelites obey instructions they may not understand? Blind obedience is not always a virtue in our world. In fact, when such allegiance is placed in religious figures, it can be dangerous, even deadly. However, in the world of the text unquestioning obedience was prized.

In this story God is the One Who Hears, the One Who Provides, and the One to whom obedience is due. These characteristics are integral to the portrayal of God throughout the scriptures. God is also the Accompanying One, companioning and shepherding Israel through the wilderness in the form of the pillar that was cloud by day and fire by night. In the face of the people’s complaint God also reveals a bit more of the divine self, allowing a glimpse of divine glory to show through the cloud in v. 10. The broader lessons are that God is attentive to the needs, wants, and even complaints of God’s people. The provision of quails and manna demonstrate that will provides for God’s people, again and again, using extraordinary measures when called for. For Israel, all of this takes place in the bounds of a relationship that is being inscribed with each step of their journey.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:26—12:13a

Ralph W. Klein

In last Sunday’s semi-continuous First Lesson (2 Samuel 11:1-15), we learned about David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the pregnancy that followed, and David’s attempt to get Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to sleep with her and thus cover up the crime.

The intervening verses between that First Lesson and this one tell how David sent Uriah back to the battle line, carrying a letter that would lead to his death. While David’s general Joab feared how David might react to the wider casualties that resulted from Joab’s plan to kill Uriah, David waved off such concern with a breezy comment that there are always casualties in war (2 Samuel 11:16-25).

In this Sunday’s First Lesson, Nathan tells David a story that tricked the king into condemning himself. A rich man had many flocks and herds, and a neighboring poor man had only one little ewe lamb. The poor man turned this lamb into a household pet that became almost like another daughter. When the rich man got unexpected out-of-town company, the rich man seized the poor man’s lamb and served it up for dinner. David was outraged and swore an oath that the rich man deserved to die and ought to give the poor man four lambs in restitution. In addition to this blatant crime, David noted that the rich man had shown no compassion.

Nathan shouted: “You are that rich guy!” Nathan reminded David that Yahweh had anointed him as king, rescued him from Saul, given him Saul’s dynasty and his concubines, and the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In addition to showing no compassion, David had stolen Uriah’s wife and killed her soldier husband, both of which are capital crimes in the Hebrew Bible and constitute explicit violations of two of the Ten Commandments. David was to face a series of endless wars, rebellion in his own household (the story of Absalom), and the public sexual violation of members of his own harem (2 Samuel 16:21-22).

The First Lesson ends with David’s confession of his sin. Many readers find Nathan’s subsequent absolution of David much too quick and the death of the illegitimate child of David and Bathsheba unfair (2 Samuel 12:13b-15). The birth of Solomon after the marriage of David and Bathsheba is accompanied by God’s love for him.

What might preachers say about this First Lesson?

  • Many of the heroes in the Old Testament were flawed people, brazen sinners. God chooses similarly flawed people today — us! Any claim by us of perfection or of meriting our place in the church and in the waiting line for heaven is easily exposed by a close inventory of our behavior. We begin many of our services with confession and absolution — for good reason.
  • There is no sin that cannot be forgiven. We all sin against God, the members of our communities, and against our better nature. Sometimes we underestimate the depth of our misdeeds, and sometimes we have a hard time believing that God’s love in Jesus Christ does wipe out our sins. The grace we receive is costly grace.
  • Does the Old Testament cut David too much slack? Did this politician get away with both adultery and murder? Do the wealthy and powerful in our society get a break from the criminal justice system? The high rate of incarceration among the poor and ethnic/racial minorities in the United States stems in large part from the unfairness of our court system.
  • Nathan spoke truth to power. He did so in a clever way that caused David to convict himself, but he did speak truth to power. We are often intimidated by the status or power of sinners or sinful institutions. Dare we say, “You are the one!”
  • Sin has consequences. In David’s case it messed up his family and his royal administration. Sin can divide our congregations, our families, and our society. That is especially true of sins like racism or failure to accept people for what they are.
  • Preachers on this text must recognize their own vulnerabilities, their own sins. “I confess to God almighty, before the whole company of heaven, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed.”


Commentary on Psalm 78:23-29

Jerome Creach

Psalm 78 is the second longest psalm in the Psalter (next to Psalm 119) and by far the longest psalm that rehearses Israel’s history (Psalms 105 and 106 are two other examples).

The events of the past are presented as a lesson for the present generation. The period of wilderness wandering is the focus. God rescued the Israelites from Egypt (vv. 12-13) and led them safely through the wilderness (vv. 14-16). The psalm is for “teaching” (v. 1), a “parable” (v. 2) of what God has done for Israel’s ancestors so members of the present generation may “set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God” (v. 7).

The section of the psalm set apart in the lectionary reading has a distinct place in this poetic report of Israel’s past. Verses 23-29 appear within a larger section that reports God’s anger over Israel’s rebellion and lack of faith (vv. 21-22 and the larger account in vv. 9-22). In fact, the psalm in some ways is dominated by this theme. As the account of the ancestors unfolds, it goes quickly to their rebellion so the present generation “should not be like their ancestors” whose “heart was not steadfast” (v. 8). The Israelites of the past “refused to walk according to his law” (v. 10). The entire psalm is thus punctuated by this characterization of the forebears in faith who failed in their walk with God: “they tested God” (v. 18); “they spoke against God” (v. 19); “they had no faith in God” (v. 22). After the lectionary section there will be more of this: “they tested God again” (v. 41); “they did not keep in mind his power” (v. 42); “they tested the Most High God, and rebelled against him” (v. 56). Thus, the upshot of the historical recollection is that the ancestors were faithless and those reading the psalm now should see the ancestors as a negative example and live differently.

Despite this extensive denunciation of the Israelites from the past, the psalm as a whole accents God’s grace and faithfulness. The larger point is really that the present community of faith should remember God’s goodness. Indeed, the ancestors’ lack of faith is set in contrast to God’s constant faith and continuous acts of salvation, and this is the focus on verses 23-29.

Verse 23 in Hebrew begins with a conjunction-verb combination that communicates simple action in past time and action that follows upon the action of the previous verb. The relationship of the opening verb of verse 23 to the previous verb is rightly communicated by NRSV: “they had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power” (v. 22); “yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven” (v. 23).

The verses that follow rehearse the story of God’s provision of manna and quail in the wilderness reported in Exodus 16. Although verses 23-29 are inspired by the Exodus story, however, the psalmist describes the food provided and the manner in which it came to the Israelites with poetic flourish. The manna “rained down” (v. 24), and “mortals ate the bread of angels” (v. 25). Similarly, the psalmist declares concerning God’s provision of the birds that “he rained flesh upon them” (v. 27). The psalmist also emphasizes the abundance of what was provided. God sent them “food in abundance” (v. 25); “he rained flesh upon them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas” (v. 27). The constant unfaithfulness of the Israelites is matched by God’s superabundant provision for them. The impact of verses 23-29 therefore is an overwhelming sense of Israel’s foolishness on the one hand and of God’s goodness on the other hand.

In order to capture fully the message of verses 23-29 it is crucial to acknowledge what comes immediately after, in verses 30-31. Following the report of God giving bread and flesh in the wilderness the psalmist recalls that “while the food was still in their mouths” (v. 30) “the anger of God arose against them and he killed the strongest of them” (v. 31). Although this may sound like a contradiction to God’s earlier provision, it actually reinforces the point about God’s care for the Israelites. God’s purpose with the Israelites in the wilderness was not just to feed them, but to make them a faithful and obedient people. God’s punishment of them was, like the provision of food, meant to draw them back into relationship with the one who brought them out of Egypt. This is apparent in two ways in Psalm 78. First, Israel’s response to God’s punishment was ultimately the same as it was to God’s provision of food: “they still sinned” (v. 32). Second, the remainder of the psalm (after vv. 30-31) reinforces the message about God’s grace that appears in verses 23-29. While the Israelites repeatedly fell away from God’s grace (for example, vv. 36-37), God time and again responded with compassion. Verses 38-39 captures well the overarching mercy of God: “yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and he did not destroy them” (v. 38). Indeed, “he remembered that they were but flesh” (v. 39).

This highlight of God’s grace also pervades the rest of the psalm and forms the real point: “he remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again” (v. 39). The lectionary reading nicely encapsulates this point about the nature of God and of the humans God calls into covenant. Humans are “but flesh,” and are bent toward sinning and toward rejecting the One who saves them, but God is merciful and gracious and offers the rebellious creatures every good thing. This message is particularly suited to the season after Pentecost when the church celebrates being empowered by the Spirit to proclaim the good news. Psalm 78:23-29 expresses the good news as profoundly as any Old Testament text.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 4:1-16

Sarah Henrich

This section of Ephesians begins a series of ethical instructions firmly based on the preceding three chapters.

In those early chapters, the author has laid out the new reality, that in Jesus God has broken down the “wall” between Jew and Gentile, now offering through the blood of the new covenant, salvation and koinonia to all persons. The letter speaks directly to its Gentile audience (Ephesians 3:1), believers gathered in communities in cities throughout ancient Asia Minor. These cities, already ancient in Paul’s day, were major urban areas with all the diversity of population, trade, religious groups, and social classes that was typical of a Greco-Roman city. Ephesus in particular held an important place in Asia Minor as city of substantial population, the location of the great temple of Artemis, and the place where great Asian games were held. During the reign of Augustus (after 27 BCE) Ephesus was made the proconsular capital city of the Roman province of Asia.

In the midst of this city, the claim that believers “have been joined together into a holy temple in the Lord, … a dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:21-22)” is a major claim over against the worship of Artemis or the emperor. In this letter, the writer calls upon these believers to abandon their old ways as Gentiles (Ephesians 4:17) and live in accord with the new “temple” they have become.

Our passage begins with “therefore” which implies that the earlier material in the letter leads directly to the “architecture” of this new life, a life worthy of their having been called into new life (cf. Ephesians 4:1 with Philippians 1:27).

In the sixteen verses considered here, believers are called to a unity that is created by and grows in love. The unity is based not in similarity of gifts, but in connections created by the Spirit given and shared in baptism. All has been given; believers have not attained or reached or otherwise brought upon themselves the great gifts of God. (Notice the passive verbs in Ephesians 4:1, 4, 7, and 16.) Even as all has been given, the one Spirit, Lord, baptism, and so forth (Ephesians 4:4-6) such that everyone has been filled with a whole new life (see especially v. 6 in which this uniting bond of oneness is above all AND through AND in all), there is a calling inherent in the bond.

The activities of those called and in-spirited by God, summarized by living worthily (Ephesians 4:1), include bearing with one another, maintaining the unity of the Spirit, speaking the truth in love, growing up into Christ.

Why, one might ask, would a body truly united in one Spirit with one Lord, thoroughly permeated by Godself, need to be reminded of this calling? There are several possible answers, both of which continue to pertain in our own time. The first is rooted in the self-consciously hierarchical nature of ancient societies based on familial and also patronal loyalties that were seen to serve the general welfare. Benefits and obligations made the ancient world go ‘round. Loyalties and rivalries were taken for granted as part of daily life in the ancient political, social, religious, financial economy. To set such matters aside in this unified body or persons not related by blood or patronage would be very difficult.

A second problem is the one addressed in Ephesians 4:7-13. The NRSV translates the de at the beginning of v. 7, giving it a full adversative force. These verses explore the gifts given by the ascended Lord to his people. Disunity emerges from the differences among the gifts, differences that could result in competition for authority. Surely such competition (turf wars?) is not unknown among us. The writer reminds us by means of an inclusio using the words metron … tou christou in vv. 7 and 13 that all the gifts God’s people receive were given according the “measure of Christ’s gift”(v. 7) and for the sake of growing into the “measure of the full stature of Christ (v. 13).” Gifts are given to us that enable us and call upon us, the recipients, to grow in Christlikeness, “created in Christ for good works (Ephesians 2:10).”

A third issue is able to be read in Ephesians 4:14 where believers are seen to be in need of a warning to “grow up.” Growing up in Christ is a very interesting idea for us. If anything, in our age of rapid and unedited communication, the winds of opinion and doctrine fly faster than we can keep up. Scientific studies, poorly reported, spin us from one healthy option to the next without time for reflection and good decision making. How do we slow down enough and build enough trust with one another to speak the truth in love?

Perhaps the most important thing for us in these verses is the clarity of purpose in the lives of believers. In Ephesians 4:12 there is a simple statement of the purpose of God’s gifts, given to believers (not attained or earned by them): to equip the saints for ministry and almost in apposition with that, “to build up the body of Christ.” All gifts are given for the sake of the increase of the whole. Rivalries, competition, judgmental evaluations are precluded.

The preacher does not have to look very far to see the destructive power of factionalism. Within faith groups, within nations, between nations, lack of concern for building up the body results in suicide bombers in the midst of a congregation at prayer, refugees on boats being thrust out to sea by the countries they are trying to reach, an explosion of rage in Baltimore or Ferguson. What might it look like if we lived worthily of the life of the one who gave himself to and for us? Imagine that.