Lectionary Commentaries for March 8, 2015
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 2:13-22

Karoline Lewis

The first thing to notice when interpreting and preaching the temple incident in the Gospel of John is its different location compared to the Synoptic Gospels.

Whereas in Matthew, Mark, and Luke the temple scene follows Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, in John the episode is moved to immediately after Jesus’ first sign, the wedding at Cana. As a result, another circumstance will serve as the impetus for Jesus’ arrest in the Fourth Gospel. If the temple skirmish functions in the Synoptic Gospels as the final public act whereby the authorities make the decision to arrest and kill Jesus, there will be a different confrontation that will secure Jesus’ fate in John. That act in the Gospel of John is the raising of Lazarus. To bring someone back from the dead will elicit the desire to kill Jesus. Life begets death, which ironically underscores the truth of the incarnation.

Details matter

The levels of meaning of the temple incident in John are also found in the details in how the incident is told. Jesus enters the temple and finds what one would expect during a pilgrimage festival. The vital trades are in place for the necessary exchange of monies, animals, and grains for the required sacrifices. Nothing is out of order at this point. The narration happens in real time, as if the reader can see everything that Jesus sees. Yet, Jesus’ command to the dove sellers differs strikingly from the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48). Instead of a concern for temple malpractices (“den of robbers”), Jesus orders that his Father’s house not be made a marketplace. For the temple system to survive, however, the ordered transactions of a marketplace were essential. The temple had to function as a place of exchange for maintaining and supporting the sacrificial structures. Jesus is not quibbling about maleficence or mismanagement but calls for a complete dismantling of the entire system. Underneath this critique lies also the intimation that the temple itself is not necessary. At the center of such theological statements is the fundamental question of God’s location, which will be confirmed in the dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.

The presence of God

The authorities essentially ask for some sort of proof that Jesus has the right to do what he just did and say what he just said. They ask for signs, recalling the wedding at Cana and foreshadowing the next six signs that Jesus will perform during his public ministry. The signs that Jesus performs are in and of themselves not revelatory of Jesus’ glory. Rather, they point to or indicate an aspect of who Jesus is that the believer needs to recognize.

Jesus’ response to the request of the Jewish authorities is typically enigmatic. The perplexities of Jesus’ answers are invitations, drawing the reader into the narrative, the dialogue, so as to figure out for oneself who Jesus is and what Jesus means. This deeper engagement also underscores the Johannine theological theme of abiding. The response of the Jewish authorities will be emblematic of the reactions to Jesus’ cryptic statements. They interpret Jesus’ declaration literally, that the temple of which Jesus speaks is the one Jewish temple in which they are standing. We find out, however, that the temple to which Jesus refers is not the temple in Jerusalem but the temple of his body. This reworking of the temple incident is decisive for understanding the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman about worship (John 4:19-24). When the women at the well inquires of Jesus where should be the proper place of worship, Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem, his answer, “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem,” assumes this interpretation here of the temple incident. When the blind man “sees” who Jesus is, his response is to worship Jesus (John 9:35-38). Jesus himself is the presence of God.

The reference to the three days is a foreshadowing of the resurrection but also the ascension. As a result, Jerusalem is at once the location of the completeness of Jesus’ ministry — his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension — not just the place of his death. If the temple symbolizes the location and presence of God, Jesus is essentially saying to the Jewish leaders that he is the presence of God. Where one looks for God, expects to find God, imagines God to be are all at stake for the Gospel of John. In Jesus, God is right here, right in front of you. That Jesus is the revelation of God, the one and only God (John 1:18), will be repeatedly reinforced with different sets of images, different characters, different directives, all pointing back to this essential truth.

At the same time, moving Jerusalem to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (in fact, in John, Jesus is back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee throughout his three-year ministry) also situates conflict at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As it should. As soon as we are comfortable or complacent with God moving into the neighborhood (Peterson, The Message), we ignore the radical, unbelievable claim of the Word made flesh.

(For further discussion, see Karoline M. Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries, http://store.fortresspress.com/store/search?ss=Karoline+M.+Lewis&c=-1)


First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17

Terence E. Fretheim

The Decalogue was God’s direct address to Israel: “God spoke all these words” (“words,” not commandments).

God’s own introduction to these words is important for an appropriate understanding: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Ten Commandments are not a law code, a body of laws that are meant to float free of their narrative context. This introductory line about redemption — often omitted from printed versions of the Ten Commandments, unfortunately — is recognized in Judaism as the first word; “you shall have no other gods before me” is the second word.1

This opening word of God accomplishes several things. It keeps the commandments personally oriented: I am the Lord your (singular) God. Obedience to the commandments is relationally conceived. These are words given to you by your God. The law is a gift of a God who has redeemed you. The Ten Commandments, then, are a gracious word of God and they begin with a word of good news about what God has done on behalf of “you” as a member of the community of faith. The commandments are to be read through the lens of that redemptive confession. God’s saving actions have drawn the people of God into a new orbit of life and blessing, to which the people respond by giving a certain “commandment shape” to their lives.2

The Ten Commandments are an integral part of the covenant between God and people at Mount Sinai. This covenant is a specific covenant within the already existing covenant with Abraham. The Sinai covenant does not establish the relationship between Israel and God. Israel has long been God’s people when Sinai happens (“Let my people go”). These commandments are given to an already elected, redeemed, believing, and worshiping community. They have to do with the shape of daily life on the part of those already in relationship with God. The commandments give shape to Israel’s vocation. At the same time, the Ten Commandments specify no judicial consequences for disobedience. Their being obligatory is not conditional on their being enforceable. Their appeal is to a deeper grounding and motivation: these are the commands of the Lord your God, who has created you and redeemed you.

“You shall have no other gods before me” introduces the commandments and gives shape to all the others. Idolatry is the focus. But how will we define idolatry? It commonly has reference to material images; the story of the golden calf comes to mind. In such cases, “other gods” is shaped by the commandment against graven images in Exodus 20:4. “Other gods” could include any person, place, or thing that we hold to be more important or as important as God. These “other gods” could also lift up the long-standing gods who have long been worshiped among us, such as money, property, fame, power … the list is long. The command is to be absolutely loyal to God. In Martin Luther’s language, the call is to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. This commandment is the grounding for all other commandments, which draw out what loyalty to God entails in various aspects of the relationship.

Less well remembered is that idolatry includes the language one uses to speak of God. Might the problem of idolatry for us often be verbal images? Our ideas about God and the verbal images we use for God can be idolatrous; they often have as high a standing in our thinking/speaking about God as does God himself. Or, we can reduce God to a set of fixed propositions and make God into a settled, unchanging God. Is that not to break the first commandment? And negatively affect the way in which the other commandments are kept?

The Ten Commandments are not new commandments for Israel (see Exodus 16:22-30), but they are a convenient listing of already existing law for vocational purposes. Moreover, the Commandments were not thought to be transmitted in a never-to-be-changed form. They were believed to require adaptation in view of new times and places. This is shown by a comparison of the Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5; the latter text contains some important new developments. For example: the wife — on a list of property in Exodus 20:17 — is removed from that list in Deuteronomy 5:21; wife is exchanged with house and given her own commandment, perhaps reflecting a changing role for women in that culture. Might additional changes be made in the commandments in view of changing times and places? Such as, you shall not covet your neighbor’s husband! What commandments might you add to the ten?

Before the Ten Commandments were given, the Bible talks much about law; indeed, laws are already specified in the pre-sin creation accounts (Genesis 1:28). Such commands are reflective of God’s law given for the sake of the world before sin. To obey these commandments and others which follow in their train is to act as one was created to act. And so commandments become an integral part of the life of the community of faith before we get to Mount Sinai.

While the address of the commandments is individual, the concern is not some private welfare. The focus of the commandments is vocational, to serve the life and health of the community, to which end the individual plays an important role. The first commandment lays a claim: How you think about God will deeply affect how you think about and act toward your neighbor.

The first commandment is positively formulated in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Notably, Jesus uses this positive formulation of the first commandment. Luther follows in this biblical trajectory by giving each commandment a positive thrust. The commandment to love one another does not set the Ten Commandments aside, however; it opens up the particularities of the Ten Commandments to limitless, on-the-move possibilities in view of new times and places.


Notes:

1 For more on the numbering of the Ten Commandments in various traditions, see Rolf Jacobson’s 2014 commentary on Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-17.

2 See Terence E. Fretheim’s 2009 commentary on Exodus 20:1-17.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 19

James Limburg

It was a beautiful September day in Iowa and a group of students had gathered on one of the hills near the college.

The event was the regular Sunday evening meeting of the Lutheran Student Association (LSA). The LSA met outside during the fall, taking advantage of the beauty of Decorah until the weather turned cold. I attended the sessions regularly, partly because the dining hall was closed on Sunday evening and food was available for 50 cents a plate, and also because I knew that a particular freshman woman was a faithful LSA participant.

The speaker for the evening was the college president. I remember him talking about the two books which told about God and creation. One book was the Bible which he held in his hand. He read from Psalm 19, “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” The other book, he said, was the book of nature. He paused and pointed at the red, green, and yellow trees surrounding us and at the Oneota River moving through the valley below. Those were the two books: the book of Scripture which used words to tell about God and creation and the book of nature which through its own beauty praised God. Such is my first memory of the psalm assigned for this Sunday.

Book I: what the heavens tell (Psalm 19:1-6)

Psalm 19 falls into three parts. The words of part one (vv.1-6) recall the story of creation in Genesis 1, declaring that the heavens and the “firmament” (NRSV footnote “dome”) tell about the glory of God (Genesis 1:6-8). The biblical worldview at that time imagined the earth as flat, covered by a huge, plexiglas-like dome called the “firmament.” Beneath the flat earth was water, as was obvious every time one dug a well. Above the dome was more water, which accounted for the blue of the skies. Openings in the dome allowed the rain to pour through. When the great flood came “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11; see also Psalm 148:4).

Notice that the heavens and the earth are identified as the “handiwork” of God (NRSV; NIV has “work of his hands”). The Hebrew word for God in Psalm 19:1 is El which, like “God” in English, is a generic word for a heavenly being, not the special word for the God of the Hebrews (Yahweh or LORD, as in vv. 7-9 and 14). Note also that the heavens and the “dome” are not to be identified as “gods.” Here is neither polytheism, naming the heavenly bodies as gods, nor pantheism, viewing all that exists as “god” or a part of god. Rather, the God of this psalm is the Creator, distinct from creation, and the earth and the heavens — the universe — are “the work of his hands” (NIV).

Psalm 19:4b-6 refer to the sun. Again, the sun is not a heavenly being, a “god” to be worshipped. No, God has created the sun and put it in its place. In the poet’s imagination the sun emerges each day with the freshness and happiness of a bridegroom on the first day of married life. Joyfully it runs its course, from one edge of the dome to the other, like a perpetually jubilant celestial jogger.

Book II: what the scriptures teach (Psalm 19:7-10)

With verse 7, the psalm moves out of metaphor and modulates into a more prosaic key. The focus is no longer on the world and the heavens (v. 4) but on words. The spotlight is no longer on God’s handiwork in space, but on created humans and speech. For the first time the name “Yahweh” (NRSV, LORD) is used for God. The section begins, “The instruction (Hebrew, torah) of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.” The psalm then fires off a series of six statements referring to God’s instruction as found in Scripture. Here are several words used to designate Scripture or Torah: decrees, precepts, commandment, ordinances. These words will revive life and provide wisdom (v. 7) and supply joy and enlightenment (v. 8). The biblical expression “fear of the Lord” (v. 9) refers to respect and trust in the Lord; the expression occurs frequently in Proverbs (1:7; 1:29, etc.).

What are these words of the Lord’s instruction worth? “They are more precious than honey, or even fine gold (10)!” declares the psalmist.

A prayer for telling and teaching (Psalm 19:11-14)

When I took required classes in Bible and in religion at college, the professor always began the class with prayer. The same was true in the classes I attended at the seminary level. When I became a teacher and pastor, I began my biblical classes the same way. Most often I used verse 14 of this psalm as the opening prayer.

Considering Psalm 19 as a whole indicates that it deals with essential themes of biblical faith. The psalm tells of nature’s praise of God the Creator (vv. 1-5). It also affirms trust in God the Forgiver (v. 12) and rock-solid Redeemer (v. 14). Finally, the psalm offers an invitation to lead a life directed by God’s torah or teaching (vv. 7-10). This final verse of the psalm remains an appropriate prayer for meditating on God’s book of nature, or God’s book of Scripture.

I conclude with some wise words from Professor Claus Westermann in comments on this psalm:

There remain only two alternatives: materialism or faith in the Creator.

Either the stars, the atoms and the earth are only matter — then we human beings must be understood as coming from matter and consisting of matter — or else the sun and earth are related to God just as we are; they are creatures. In that case the ultimate meaning of their existence is the same as that of humans: existing to the praise of God’s glory.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Kyle Fever

This is one of those New Testament passages many of us know.

If we’re honest, we have this nagging itch that perhaps it hasn’t sunk in completely. I am inclined to think of the disciples in Mark 8-10. After Jesus had been going over the significance of suffering, reversal, and bearing one’s cross, they chime up — more than once — asking about their 15 seconds of fame. Jesus’ message of kingdom reversal stands right in front of them, yet they can’t quite climb out of their present-world-shaped-reality to plant both feet into it.

The NRSV reads: “for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … we proclaim Christ crucified … the power of God and the wisdom of God; for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

To this perhaps we are inclined to give a resounding, “Yes!” When the world around does not prize the church and its message as much as it does the newest Super Bowl commercial, we can hold our heads high: we’re on the side of God’s foolishness! We will win! It’s easy to find hope and promise in this passage. It’s much more difficult to let its startling message shape our lives.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul faces commonplace attitudes and praxis — the stuff that flies under the radar most of the time. This is exactly what makes this passage so difficult to employ, because its message will threaten our very modes of thinking about things.

Paul writes these words in a section of 1 Corinthians that interpreters have had difficulty situating. Is this part of Paul’s first main argumentative movement? Or perhaps Paul is establishing the overall thesis and theme of the letter. How we understand where these words fit makes some difference. For if Paul is setting out something significant thematically for the rest of the letter, this section bears a different significance than it would if it only pertained to the one issue of factionalism (1:10-17).

I am inclined to see this section in 1 Corinthians in a more complex way. Paul clearly addresses the issue of factionalism in 1:10-17, and it carries through to chapter 4. But Paul constructs the entire letter so that this first section builds a foundation for the rest of the letter. Presumably Paul could respond in any number of ways to the problem of factionalism. But what’s he to do? He draws attention to baptism, the entrance into life in Christ. When we jump to the end of the letter, we see that Paul takes up the issue of belief in the resurrection of the body. Paul bookends 1 Corinthians by discussing the entrance into the life of faith at the beginning, and the completion of the faith life at the end. In the between chapters he deals with all sorts of issues relating to the life lived “in between.”

Paul addresses factionalism through the lens of baptism to say something about the very nature of the life into which the Corinthian believers have been baptized. Our passage here stands as a central part of what Paul says about the nature of the life of faith. Paul is clear: “Foolishness! That’s the nature of the life into which you’ve entered! It’s foolishness, I tell you! Hahahaha!” (cue maniacal laugh.)

The overall ‘thesis’ of 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 is found in verse 18. Notice the contrast: the message of the cross is either seen as “foolishness” or as the “power of God.” Not much room for the favored postmodern grey. The contrast posits two completely different ways of reading the world and living in it. The life of faith into which those in Corinth have been baptized participates in an entirely new thing brought about by God, and it overturns long established categories and evaluations of “wisdom” and “power.” I think of Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters. When talking about the impending invasion of the evil supernatural world and its consequences, Venkman exclaims, “Dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!” Of course Paul is not talking about the entrance of evil into the world, but they share the point that things taken for granted as “normal” are overturned. The cross of Christ does this. As Roy Harrisville writes (in a very clearly and effectively argued book), “the death of Jesus … was the ‘anomaly’ that threatened allegiance to whatever language- and thought-forms (the New Testament writers and their audiences) may have inherited, and that required a new model, or ‘paradigm,’ by which to see themselves, to see others, and to see God.”1

Importantly, Paul does not abandon common ideas of the day, even when overturning them. Paul uses the word “wisdom” and its cognates nine times in these eight verses. It was commonly associated with the divine ordering things and a fundamental grasp of reality — “knowledge of things human and divine.”2 This “knowledge” does not belong merely in the cerebral realm. “Wisdom” and its pursuit fundamentally had to do with daily life; knowledge of things human and divine only mattered because it set the course for how to exist. Second Temple Jewish writers inserted the Torah into this equation.

Paul takes the language of “wisdom” and subjects it to the cross, which now has become the criterion, the benchmark, for understanding and for grasping reality. The “foolishness of the cross” redefines nothing less than the ordering of the world. One can imagine the response: “You mean to say that the way we’ve been doing things, the lens through which we’ve been interpreting the world around us is … NOT wisdom?” Yes. Paul means just that. Through the human-devised world’s “wisdom” God revealed in Christ is unknowable.

How does this play out? Well, in 1 Corinthians Paul wrestles against the very fabric of first century worldview and praxis — the ways they had always known to operate in this world. Such wisdom might have looked like this: Those with the most flair and persona of authority will come out on top. Look out for yourself and the honor of your own group. Whatever you do, just be sure to make your social class known. Make sure those below you remain there, but at the same time make yourself look good and benevolent. If you have “knowledge,” it means you can really act as you please, especially if your social class helps you. You who are of greater status in this community — you should have greater influence and the first seat in the community’s gatherings. Pursue the things that are viewed as more “spiritual” and make sure it is known to all — this means you are closer to God.

How does it play out for us? Where do we naturally find “wisdom” today, where do we recognize power and prestige? Spirituality? Closeness to God? What is the “wisdom” that drives our church ship? Do we follow the cultural “wisdom” that better and more attractive use of technology will help with numbers at church? Do those who have been “members” longer have more say? Do those who contribute more financially have more influence? Is it important to make your status as clergy known where you go? How do we live out “church leader” status in our communities? Do we value the business-savvy people who have “made it” more than others? Do we seek to build relationships with those in the community who will only benefit our congregation? Are we living displays of God’s foolishness, in ways that really play out as “foolishness” in our world?


 Notes:

1 Roy A. Harrisville, Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) 271.

2 Cicero, De Officiis, 2.2.5.