Lectionary Commentaries for April 15, 2017
Vigil of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 28:1-10

Judith Jones

Matthew’s resurrection story contrasts the life-giving power of God with death-dealing human authority.

[Looking for commentary on John 20:1-18? See this commentary for Easter Sunday by Robert Hoch.]

Just as the crucifixion narrative echoes Jesus’ temptation in Matthew, so the resurrection highlights themes first raised at Jesus’ birth. Herod reacted to the threatening announcement that a new king had been born by trying to exterminate him, sending soldiers to kill all the babies in the region.

After the crucifixion, when the religious and civil authorities have at last succeeded in their quest to kill Jesus, they react to the threat of his resurrection by sending soldiers to seal the tomb and guard his dead body. But the God who shakes the earth cannot be stopped by armed guards and an official seal. The story that begins with fear ends with overwhelming joy. Jesus’ birth is shadowed by many deaths, but Jesus’ death brings the promise of resurrection life for all.

Matthew’s version of the resurrection story is distinctive in several ways, including the detail about the guards at the tomb and the earthquake, the conversation with a single angelic messenger (rather than with the young man described in Mark or the two angels mentioned in Luke and John), and the identity of the first people to hear the news of the resurrection. In John, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone (John 20:1, 11). In Mark, she is accompanied by Mary the mother of James and by Salome (Mark 16:1). Luke agrees that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James were there, but he has Joanna and the other women with them present as well (Luke 24:10).

According to Matthew, the first witnesses to God’s triumph are two of the same women who watched Jesus die. Having seen Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” now come again early on the first day of the week to look at the tomb (unlike the other Gospels, Matthew says nothing about their bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body). Mary Magdalene’s identity is clear, but who is “the other Mary”?

Earlier Matthew described her as “Mary the mother of James and Joseph” (Matthew 27:56). According to Matthew 13:55, two of Jesus’ brothers are named James and Joseph. In all likelihood, then, “the other Mary” is Mary the mother of Jesus. Though the evangelist’s decision not to identify her explicitly as Jesus’ mother may seem odd, the effect is to emphasize not her biological relationship to Jesus, but her role as his disciple.

In both Mark and Luke, the women find the stone already rolled away from the tomb when they arrive. In Matthew, however, the women experience the earthquake and see the angel descend, roll away the stone, and sit on it. The guards quake with fear at the events unfolding before them. Ironically, they react to the opening of the tomb by becoming like dead people.

The angel’s first words, expressed with a present imperative in Greek, strongly contrast the guards with the women: “Don’t you be afraid,” or “As for you, stop being afraid.” The angel is commanding them to reject their current state of fear, for his news brings great joy: “I know that you are looking for Jesus the crucified one. He is not here, for he was raised just as he said.” The resurrection has already happened. The stone has been rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in.

The angel sends the women to bear the news to the disciples, along with an additional message: Jesus is going ahead of them into Galilee, and they will see him there. The angel does not specify exactly which disciples they are to tell, though interestingly, he does not single out Peter (compared to Mark 16:7).

Matthew 27:57 describes Joseph of Arimathea as “discipled to Jesus,” using the verb from the same root as the Greek word for disciple, and Matthew 27:55-56 identifies the group of women who witnessed the crucifixion from a distance as “those who followed Jesus from Galilee to minister to him.” Throughout the Gospels, following Jesus means becoming a disciple. Luke says that the women told the news “to the eleven and to all the rest” (Luke 24:9), and Matthew may also have this larger group of disciples in mind.

In any case, the women immediately, “with fear and great joy” obey the angel’s command. Mark has them reacting with fear and silence, but in Matthew they run to announce the world-changing news. On the way, Jesus meets them and reiterates the angel’s command to stop being afraid. He is alive and present with them. Why should they fall prey to fear? Why should they leave room for anything except worship and overwhelming joy?

Jesus has one final command for them: “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10). But whom does Jesus mean by “my brothers”? The final scene in Matthew shows the eleven disciples meeting with Jesus in Galilee, so at minimum Jesus is sending the women to tell the eleven. Given that one of the women is Jesus’ mother, it would be quite natural to assume that he means for her to tell James and Joseph and Simon and Judas as well (see 1 Corinthians 15:7, where Paul says that Jesus appeared to James). But are the women bearers of a message intended only for men?

It is important to point out that grammatically the Greek word translated as “brothers” could equally well be translated as “brothers and sisters.” Greek uses masculine plurals for any group that includes males, even if the group is comprised of nine women and one man. Though there are no women among the eleven, Matthew clearly includes women in the larger group of Jesus’ disciples. Furthermore, the shift in language from “disciples” to “brothers” recalls the scene in Matthew 12:46-40, where Jesus asks who his mother and brothers are and then answers his own question by saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (26:50). Disciples have become family.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus, commissioned by Jesus himself, become the first apostles. With great joy, they obey Jesus’ command, bearing witness to the risen Christ. The Gospel that began with a man afraid to marry his disgraced betrothed and a fearful king who tries to kill potential rivals ends with overwhelming joy. Jesus’ command to the women becomes a command to all of us: Stop being afraid! God has defeated death. Rejoice, and share the good news!


Vigil Reading II

Commentary on Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13

Patricia Tull

The ancient story of Noah recounts a devastating flood — a flood that begins with problems very much like those in our world.

It begins when God sees that violence has been spreading among humans, and tries to figure out what to do. It’s a story about God’s desire for a better world than humans were creating. A story about change. First God’s change, and then, over the centuries, a hope for human change.

The story begins with God seeing “that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). And God, grieved to the heart, regrets having made humans, and decides to get rid of them. So to start over, God warns Noah to build an ark to preserve his family and a few of every animal species. And it rains.

Midway through the narrative, God remembers Noah and all the animals, and the waters recede. Noah opens the window and sends out a raven, and then a dove, to see if they can find land. And when all finally step out of the ark, Noah sets the animals free, and worships. And God speaks again, recognizing that humans will still do evil, yet pledging never again to flood the earth. The people who emerge from the ark aren’t changed. Instead, it’s God who decides to do something different.

The story features some interesting problems with divine decision-making. One ethical problem is that God’s plan for doing away with the guilty destroys the innocent as well — infants too young to have done anything but cry, and animals who are accused of no wrongdoing. One strategic problem is that God decides to keep a sample so that no species goes extinct, including a sample of the humans who caused the trouble. So the flood didn’t solve the problem of evil.

To understand the ethical problem in its context, it helps to examine the story’s origin in history, in the literature of the surrounding world. Archaeologists have discovered and translated other flood stories, ancient stories from Sumeria and Mesopotamia, centuries older than the Genesis account. The best preserved version is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which features someone named Utnapishtim.

When the gods (plural) decide to destroy the land with a flood, a god who objects to this decision warns Utnapishtim to build a ship to preserve his family and some animals and grains. The flood lasts twelve days. As the waters recede, Utnapishtim sends out a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven. When he at last leaves the boat, he sets the animals free, and makes an offering to the gods who, it turns out, have differing opinions about the ethics of what just happened.

Scholars see the Genesis writers as having adopted and adapted this story, which was widely known at the time. As with all adaptations, the biblical writers introduce some changes in the plot. Genesis doesn’t presume a pantheon of gods, of course, but one God. So instead of an ethical dispute among the gods about divine actions, the story becomes a tale about what God does, and regrets doing, and ought to do, about human violence.

I read the flood narrative as being, at least for us, a “what if” tale, a thought experiment: What if God saw the mess humans made and decided to stop forgiving? What if God, grieved at human violence, tried one solution that turned out not to work either ethically or practically, and then tried something else, deciding never again to give up on humans, but instead to take a long, patient, forbearing path with us?

As a result of this choice, the story implies, divine grace surrounds us. It’s the air we breathe. We have never known a moment in which God did not forgive evil, sustaining us on pure grace; no moment when we weren’t, on some level, getting much better than we deserve. And we can’t take that for granted.

In the end God promises, twice, never again to destroy the earth with a flood. Some have suggested this means that God won’t let us destroy the world, by flood or fire or nuclear war or climate change or any other means. But it doesn’t say God will keep us from destroying. In fact, it tries to account for the fact that we can destroy one another and creation, and that even a grieving God doesn’t intervene to stop our madness. Individually and collectively, we — and nature, and future generations — do suffer the consequences of human actions.

But there is another lesson in God’s post-flood promises that is usually overlooked. Reading God’s words in chapter nine in full, down to verse 17, we see that the passage says six times that God’s promise of grace is not just for humans, but for everything living on earth.

First God specifies that the covenant is with “you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark” (Genesis 9:9-10). Then God repeats five more times that the covenant is with every living creature, repeating “the earth” four times, “all creatures” four times, and “all flesh” five times. Not once is the covenant with humans only. God’s covenant is with all. It’s as wide as the earth and as deep as all time.

When ancient scriptures were hand-lettered on parchment and hand copied from one scroll to the next, repeating something six times was very expensive, so when it happens, it must be important. This loving bond between God and humans, this gracious covenant of unmerited grace, is not just between humans and God. We are bound up in covenant with the whole living world. And if we are bound up in such a covenant, we are obliged to preserve all life as thoughtfully as God has preserved ours.

Scripture’s writers draw attention repeatedly to the natural world. They imagine human civilization not as separate from but living inside of nature. Psalm 147 intertwines the two, saying: “God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. God determines the number of the stars; and gives them their names.”

The sad, the sick and the stars are all God’s realm of concern. “God covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.” God hears human cries, God also hears the ravens’ cries. If we are bound in covenant with all that live on earth, we too are obliged to hear the ravens cry, just as the psalmist says God does.

The violence humans do to one another and the violence we do to the natural world come from the same place in the human heart. Scripture says that a good and wise God created us good. We’re capable of great evil, as the flood story says and as we know every day. But God means for us to be transformed, just as the flood transformed God’s intentions.

The story tells of a transformative decision long ago that bound us up in promise with all creation. If, as the psalm says, God hears the young ravens when they cry, if God can be imagined hearing that raven as it flew to and fro searching for land, we humans cannot do any less than listen too. God promised not to destroy the world. Now it’s our turn to promise the same.


Vigil Reading VI

Commentary on Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6

Walter C. Bouzard

The portion of Proverbs before us constitutes the sixth of twelve readings for the Vigil of Easter where, in some liturgies, it is accompanied with the descriptor, “The wisdom of God.” The response is Psalm 19.

Not every Easter Vigil, however, includes Proverbs. On the one hand, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., does include the reading.1 The Episcopal liturgy, on the other hand, inserts Isaiah 4:2-6 as a forth reading and eliminates Proverbs altogether.2 The Roman Catholic Easter Vigil substitutes Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4, another passage treating the presence of Wisdom in the world.3

Nor is the reading’s place in the liturgy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America particularly secure. The rubrics indicate that, of the twelve readings appropriate for the Vigil, “The four readings marked by an asterisk are not omitted.” Proverbs 8 and 9 are not asterisked and, moreover, the Baruch reading described above is offered as a substitution.4

The working preacher might, therefore, be tempted to search for a text that is easier to mine at the end of a busy — perhaps frantic — Holy Week. This is especially the case considering the following difficulties:

  1. The assigned reading is awkwardly divided. There is, of course, the obvious problem of simply skipping from Proverbs 8:8 to verses 19 to 21, and then again to 9:4b. One might rightly presume that such a digested reading loses important declarations about God’s wisdom including, a.) the benefits of acquiring wisdom (especially verses 11-21) and, b.) the role of God’s wisdom in the creation (verses 22-31). Beyond that, however, the lection breaks up the poetry. Proverbs 8:1-3 describes the public availability of wisdom who “calls” and “raises her voice.” The whole of verses 4 to 11 comprise the direct speech of that summons. Wisdom urges the invited to hear and learn since what she offers is both righteous and of inestimably more value that silver, gold, or jewels (verses 10-11). Likewise, verses 1 to 4a are a part of a larger poem (9:1-6, 13-18).5
  2. There is the perineal scholarly dispute about the identity and nature of this feminine figure who summons people to her house and meal from which they might obtain both insight and life. Who or what is this Lady Wisdom? Richard J. Clifford helpfully articulates four headings by which Lady Wisdom has been understood: 1) Wisdom as a hypostasis of Yahweh; 2) Wisdom as a Syro-Palestinian or Egyptian goddess; 3) Wisdom as the Mesopotamian divine or semi divine ummanu; 4) Wisdom as a pure literary fiction. Clifford favors the third view.6 The late Roland E. Murphy, on the other hand, remarked, “Is Wisdom not the LORD, who turns towards creatures and summons them through creation, through the wisdom experience?”7

It seems unlikely that any of these problems will be worked out in a fifteen-minute sermon in the Easter Vigil — nor should they be! Why then preach on Proverbs 8 and 9 on that hopeful eve? And what might one say?

They “why?” question is answered by the placement of the text in the context of the other readings assigned to the Easter Vigil. The texts lead the worshipping congregation from the creation through the great stories of God’s redemption and deliverance of God’s people and, thus, of the world. The summons of God through Woman Wisdom is a part of that larger story of God’s redemption of all things.

Whatever the ancient origins of Woman Wisdom may have been, the observation that the invitation of Woman Wisdom is enveloped in the person and the summons of the LORD can hardly be gainsaid. Beyond the description of Wisdom’s participation in the creation (Proverbs 8:22-30), Woman Wisdom—like none other than the LORD– offers life (Proverbs 9:4; see 8:35; 9:11). To respond to the invitation of this summons leads to participation in all that is noble, right, and righteous (Proverbs 8:6, 8). It is a call to life.

The “how” to preach this text — or at least one approach — might be at this very juncture. The gospel story is the story of God’s ultimate redemption of the cosmos, a story that begins shortly after creation and which reaches a climax in the story of Jesus’ resurrection. But that summons to life has been present all along. For the Jews, Woman Wisdom, present at the creation, came to reside in the Torah (Sirach 24:1-23; Baruch 4:1).

For the rest of us, Paul declares that God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they be, are clear enough in the creation — even if Gentiles missed the obvious!8 Similarly, and in an echo of Proverbs 8:22ff., John reminds us “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John. 1:3-4). And yet, the world neither received him or knew him (John 1:10-11).

God’s way with the world is, it appears, completely consistent. While the summons of Woman Wisdom is embedded in a book full of specific (if often enigmatic!) aphorisms, she herself does not offer specific information. She simply calls human beings, inviting them to eat her bread and drink of her wine and thus to live.

So too with Jesus. Rudolf Bultmann long ago noted of John 17:6 (“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world”):

“ … still he has imparted no information about God at all, any more than he has brought instruction about the origin of the world or the fate of the self. He does not communicate anything but calls men to himself.’ Or when he promises a gift, he is, himself, that gift; he himself is the bread of life that he bestows (6:35); he himself is the light (8:12); he himself is life (11:25; 14:6).”9

Like Woman Wisdom, Jesus calls human beings to himself. Like Wisdom, Jesus Christ comes from the LORD; one may find him and his life only when the LORD offers him. But there is good news that transcends Proverbs in the dark night of an Easter Vigil — or in any other darkness into which we may stumble. God has not only offered his Son, but that living, resurrected Jesus Christ seeks us out. We cannot find him in our darkness or with eyes blurred by tears. Mary knew the pain of that. In the assigned Gospel reading we hear her cry, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13).

Then Jesus called her by name. And then, Mary came alive.

With the resurrection of Jesus, we hear no general summons to Wisdom’s discipline or a vague invitation. We cannot find the Wisdom of the Ages on our own. Jesus seeks us out. Jesus calls us by name, and makes us God’s own children in the waters of baptism. Because Christ lives, we too are allowed to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Christ is risen! Alleluia.


Notes:

See the links to the Lectionary Readings for the Easter Vigil for years A, B, and C at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/christianyear/easter-vigil/.

2 www.liturgies.net/Lent/EaasterVigil.htm.

 3 www.usccb.org/bible/readings/041914.cfm.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 269.

Verses 7-12 appear to be an insertion.

Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 23-28.

Roland E. Murphy, “Wisdom in the Old Testament” ABD 6 920-931 and especially the section, “The Personification of Wisdom,” pp. 926-7. The quote above is from page 927.

Rom 1:20.

Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol. 2, trans. by Kendrick Grobel (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1955), p. 41 (emphasis original).


New Testament Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:3-11

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

Krister Stendahl, New Testament professor at Harvard Divinity School, former dean, and one time Bishop of Stockholm, taught “Ten Commandments for Biblical Preaching.”1

The tenth commandment was “No moral lesson on high holy days.” With this prohibition Stendahl meant to direct preachers to celebrate the feast, to enter into praise, rather than to explain of the mystery or exhort the congregation to good works. On the high holy day of the Easter Vigil, the lectionary assigns for the epistle reading, Romans 6:3-11, an exultant affirmation of the resurrection in the voice of the apostle, Paul. This exclamation, at once liturgical and celebratory, has ethics and right action built right into it through the comparison between Jesus’ death, death to sin, and the death of the old self. The destruction of sin is one dimension of the rich and multi-layered image of resurrection.

Romans 6:3-11 invites preachers to explore the vivid metaphors of Easter — baptism into Christ’s death, being buried with Christ, united with Christ in death, united with Christ in resurrection, and the dramatic movement from slavery to freedom and from death to life.

Romans 6:3-4
The reading opens with the answer to the rhetorical question posed by the imaginary dialogue partner in Romans 6:1. “Of course!” it is absurd that one should continue to sin that grace may abound all the more! Paul alludes to early Christian tradition that all who are baptized are baptized into Christ’s death. Baptism is associated with death in Mark 10:35-40 when James and John request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory. Jesus’ answer to them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” uses drinking the cup and being baptized as ways to speak of his death. In the early decades after Easter Christ believers performed the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the rituals of Eucharist and baptism. The corporate body — “all of us,” “we” participate in burial with Christ and like Christ was raised, we are able to “walk in newness of life,” moral and existential new life.

Romans 6:5-7
The language of slavery “enslaved to sin” and freedom “freed from sin” is threaded through this passage and the longer one of which it is a part. Slavery and freedom are parallel to death and life. Resurrection overcomes and overwhelms death and slavery. The need to combat and resist sin hovers over these verses even while Paul proclaims that sin is “destroyed” and “dead.”

Romans 6:8-11
“We believe,” “we know,” expresses the conviction of this Easter community in Christ’s life and our future life with God. Death no longer “has dominion” over him; death no longer “rules” or “is master over” Christ. Extending the comparison, Paul concludes that like Christ, “you” are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Although in the verses that follow this lectionary reading, Paul turn to ethical exhortation, in preaching on Romans 6:3-11 at the Great Vigil of Easter, I would obey Krister Stendahl’s commandment. Paul’s jubilant rhetoric that proclaims that “we might walk in newness of life” and that you are “alive to God” arises out of the experience of resurrection known in the Christian community in cities throughout the empire and in Rome in the first century. At the Easter Vigil in the present Christians are retelling the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and through baptism and eucharist they are performing that transformation from death to life. Adults who choose to be baptized, like James and John in Mark 10, are baptized into Jesus’ death. Infants whose parents make promises on their behalf are being incorporated into, are participating in, that story of life from death. They live this story in a culture that both fears and denies death. They live it in a culture where language of “sin” has become antiquated, but where its power is as destructive as ever.

To celebrate the mystery on a high holy day, a preacher might invite the congregation to live more deeply in the imaginative world of the text. Metaphors of being buried, descending, getting covered up, drowning describe visceral human experience and contains the paradox of being exalted, rising, walking in newness of life, begin alive to God. One way to imagine one’s way into a text is to focus on one sense — here I might attend to the physical, kinesthetic dimensions of all these verbs and allow the listeners to “feel” this movement. Being enslaved is a physical state. Being made free is a bodily experience. The experience of resurrection is a corporate one — the people are made new. Paul was calling on and alluding to narratives of creation, combat, deliverance in scripture and from early Jesus traditions. Some of these narratives are contained in the series of Old Testament readings appointed for the Easter Vigil. The liturgical setting of the Easter Vigil calls the preacher to play with these powerful archetypes, to expand and elaborate upon them to move through performance into praise.


Notes

1. This commentary first published on this site on March 26, 2016.