Lectionary Commentaries for February 18, 2015
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Stephen Hultgren

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 is the traditional gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, being read each year.

It includes Jesus’ teaching on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, which became penitential practices especially associated with Lent, as well as a saying about earthly and heavenly treasures. This commentary will focus on 6:1-6, 16-18.

The structure of these verses is clear. Matthew 6:1 can be seen as a general introduction to 6:1-6, 16-18, sounding the main themes in the sections on almsgiving (6:2-4), prayer (6:5-6), and fasting (6:16-18), namely, a warning against demonstrating one’s “righteousness” (dikaiosyne) before others, lest one lose one’s reward with the Father in heaven. Each of the following three sections will warn against showing one’s piety before others, encouraging one to exercise it in secret, so as to receive a reward from God.

Intervening between the first and second sections is further instruction on prayer, including the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:7-15), which is not part of the day’s reading. There is reason for this. The warning against long-winded (rather than ostentatious) prayer in 6:7 and the motivation given for simplicity in prayer in 6:8 diverge from the pattern in 6:1-6, 16-18. Moreover, whereas most of the material in 6:7-15 has parallels in Mark 11:26-27 and Luke 11:2-4, the material in 6:1-6, 16-18 has no synoptic parallels, which suggests a different source. Finally, the practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting appear together in earlier Judaism (e.g., Tobit 12:8), which indicates that Jesus is commenting on traditional practices of Jewish piety. All of this together supports taking 6:1-6, 16-18 together as a single thematic unit.

The reference to Tobit is an important reminder that it is all too easy to (mis)read the Sermon on the Mount, including this section, in an anti-Jewish way, as though Jesus is establishing a completely new, “Christian” piety differing from all other kinds of piety, including Jewish piety. In fact, Jesus is commending a kind of piety already found in ancient Judaism. Moreover, although one does not need to doubt that there were Jews in Jesus’ day who exercised such ostentation as Jesus condemns here — pious practices in any religion are vulnerable to excess — even Jesus’ warning against ostentation is actually deeply rooted in Judaism; for we find in ancient Judaism cautions against ostentatious piety similar to what we find here.1

It is important when interpreting these verses to keep the larger context in view, especially the Sermon on the Mount. In 5:20 Jesus admonishes his disciples that, unless their righteousness (dikaiosyne) exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Although Jesus’ teaching should not be seen as a polemic against Jewish piety as such, it is likely that the condemnations of hypocrisy and ostentatious piety in Matthew 6:2, 5, 16 are an implicit reproach of the scribes and Pharisees, since elsewhere in Matthew Jesus reproaches them for the same reasons (cf. 23:5-7, 28), as Matthew 5:20 also suggests. As can be seen from the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthes 5:21-48, Jesus’ teaching aims at sincere motivation from the heart. The Pharisees are presented as those who lack such sincerity (cf. Luke 16:15). Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 can be seen, then, as an example of the “higher” righteousness that Jesus demands, a purity of heart preceding and informing external demonstrations of piety.

Another verse to keep in view is Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” At first this verse may seem precisely contrary to our verses: Does not Jesus say that one should hide one’s righteousness? What unites our verses with Matthew 5:16, however, is the motivation: If one does good works before others, it is to bring glory to God, not to ourselves. Might that also hint towards what the “reward” is for our secret piety — not our own glory, but something else entirely, something to do with God and our relationship to him?

The talk of “rewards” for our piety may be off-putting to us at first. Should one not exercise piety precisely without the expectation of reward (cf. Luke 17:7-10)? Does this talk of rewards for our piety undermine the biblical teaching on grace? Two things should be said. First, one notes that, despite the talk of heavenly rewards in our passage, the emphasis falls primarily on motivation: one should not perform acts of piety in order to win praise from humans. The relationship to God should be primary. Our piety or righteousness should be visible to God and should be so self-effacing and invisible to humans that it is even invisible to ourselves! (Matthew 6:3). Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus teaches a similar self-forgetfulness (Mark 8:35; Matthew 25:37-40). Second, one notes that Jesus does not actually say what the reward for our piety is, and we probably should not speculate about it. It should be said, however, that there is a strong sense in the New Testament that the “reward” for our good works somehow lies inherently in the works themselves (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 9:16-18; Gal 6:7-8). (As the saying goes, virtue is its own reward.) The more deeply we live in God’s love, the more deeply we live in and towards that which endures forever (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13), and that itself is a reward. If our deepest desire is for God and his love, then there can be no greater reward than to live in God’s love. That is its own reward.

Which leads to the question: Why gives alms? Why pray? Why fast? Why do it all in secret? And what is the reward for these things? Obviously when we give alms we love others. But beyond that, the reason for doing these things can hardly be anything other than that, through repentance and self-denial, they bring us closer to God. According to the gospels, when Jesus prays and fasts — alone, in “secret!” (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 14:32-42) — his prayer and fasting become channels through which he comes closer to his Father. Prayer and fasting align his will with his Father’s will. They can do the same for us. Fasting (or abstention), not just from food but from any of our desires, reminds us of our complete dependence on God. Fasting and self-denial can also purge us of desires that are not aligned with God’s will. For the God who sees in secret sees even those desires. To be drawn closer to God by being freed from those desires is, again, its own reward.


1 W.D. Davies and Dale Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988-97), 1.579-80; Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary (3 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 1.300-01.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-12

Christopher B. Hays

A prominent strand of Old Testament theology portrays the history of God’s people as cyclical — a cycle in which the people cry out for help, God saves them, but then they forget, go astray, and find themselves in trouble again. (Judges 2:18-20 offers a concise and paradigmatic summary.)

[Find commentaries on Joel 2:1-12, 12-17, by Terence Fretheim (2014)Esther Menn (2013), and others.]

The book of Isaiah has a similar shape: the earliest portions of the book report God’s judgment against Israel and Judah in the eighth century, then after the devastation Babylonian exile (which is hardly reported at all), chapters 40 and following offer comfort and restoration. But the final chapters of the book (56-66) reflect still another historical situation, in which the prophets’ hopes for the restored Judah and Jerusalem have been frustrated once again. Where Isaiah 40 had invited a herald of good tidings to offer comfort to the people, Isaiah 58 begins with a command to “announce to my people their transgression.”

There are strong echoes of the book’s early oracles, such as Isaiah 58:2’s references to the same righteousness (sdqh) and justice (mspt) that the Lord was said to expect in 5:7. Much of the chapter in fact condemns similar kinds of social injustice, such as the abuse of workers and failures to free the oppressed, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and oppose affliction. The recurrent image of the yoke (mwth vv. 6, 9) is a symbol of subjugation, especially in economic forms. It functions in this way in native Assyrian texts, in which the “yoke of Assyria” means the heavy burden of taxation imposed on conquered nations, a reality that is reflected in Isaiah 9:3 and 14:25. Jeremiah’s public sign-act about Babylonian domination in Jeremiah 28 also employs the yoke as a symbol. Another term for yoke (‘l) is used in 1 Kings 12 of Rehoboam’s ill-advised oppression of the northern tribes through forced labor. The use of this image for both foreign and domestic forms of economic oppression is significant; in the Old Testament’s moral universe, the one who oppresses his fellow Israelites or Judeans is seen as no better than an oppressive foreign emperor.

Isaiah 58:3 also echoes other portions of the book, drawing on the characteristically Isaianic theme of seeing (r’h) and knowing (yd’). For example, Isaiah 29:15 caricatures those who think God does not see or know their evil deeds; 41:20 says that God’s power is seen and known; 44:18 contrasts God with idols who neither see nor know; 61:9 and 66:14 proclaim that God’s work will be seen and known. See also 5:19; 6:9.

For all these similarities, there is a different angle to the chapter’s critiques: the people at whom they are aimed are concerned to seem outwardly righteous. It quickly becomes apparent that the prophet is sarcastic when he says, “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways” (Isaiah 58:2). Their outward piety is on display when they are portrayed as asking, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3). It seems that the people are, as so often before, dissatisfied with God. It is not noticed enough that ancient Israel and Judah were every bit as much religious “marketplaces” as our own cultures, and the temptations of Baal (Hosea 2), various goddesses (e.g., Jeremiah 44), and the divinized dead (Isaiah 8:19-20) were strongly felt.

There are various indications that fast days were kept regularly after the destruction of Jerusalem (e.g., Zechariah 8:19). These were intended to supplicate the Lord for forgiveness and blessing (Ezra 8:21). But the prophet describes the fasts as full of violence and oppression of workers (perhaps they were not given rest as the Sabbath commandment orders). Therefore he condemns the fast days — “the fast that I choose,” says the Lord, “is to loose the bonds of injustice” (Isaiah 58:6). This is quite reminiscent of the condemnation of sacrifices in Micah 6:6-8: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

The clearest indicators in the passage of its late provenance are the references to rebuilding in Isaiah 58:12: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach (???), the restorer of streets to live in.” Holes in the walls of Jerusalem were among the problems that reportedly faced Nehemiah when he returned to govern the city (Nehemaiah 4:1; 6:1), and these may also have been the subject of this exhortation.

This passage resonates with various aspects of our own times. Like those who claimed to keep the fast but did not practice peace and justice, many self-professed Christians are now happy to enjoy their rest at the expense of exhausting their fellows, at home and abroad. The international economy has become a finely tuned machine for exploiting and disempowering labor in favor of capital. Under such conditions, the outward practices of piety are hollow shells; the community of faith does not flourish because it is recognized as hypocritical — or as Jesus put it, its people are “whitewashed sepulchres” (Matthew 23:27).

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Christian tradition. It is fitting, therefore, that even as the text calls for repentance, it also looks forward with hope, much as Lent looks toward the renewal of Easter. The promise in Isaiah 58, the people are told, is that is that if they practice righteousness and justice, “your light shall break forth like the dawn” (v. 8), and “your light shall rise in the darkness” (v. 10). The theme of light and darkness is another one that is pervasive in Isaiah (2:5; 5:20; 9:2; 13:10; 42:16; 45:7; 50:10, etc.), and culminates in some of the book’s most glorious promises, e.g. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (60:1). This light is interpreted in the New Testament as the light of Jesus Christ, which “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

It is not surprising, then, that there are profound resonances between Isaiah 58’s call on the people and the mission of Jesus to “bring good news to the poor … proclaim release to the captives … to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18; cf. 1:52-53). Jesus is the light, but those who would follow him are called to reflect his light: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16; cf. John 1:7).


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Fred Gaiser

If my commentary on Psalm 50 for the Festival of the Transfiguration (three days ago) is correct, everything hinges on Nathan’s oracle calling David and us to see ourselves as others see us — indeed, as God sees us.

“You are the man.” “You are the woman.” We are David. We are Israel (2 Samuel 12:7).

Psalm 50 condemned Israel for the blatant abuse of the sacrificial system to try to buy off God, and now David — representing Israel in his royal person — has heard at last and turns to God for renewal. Maybe we can too. The preacher can help us do that.

The Transfiguration story proclaims that, in Jesus, the full glory of God is revealed. But Psalm 50 reminds us that the glory of God not only saves, it burns — to ashes. Thus, the need for Ash Wednesday.

Both Psalm 50 and Psalm 51 condemn false sacrifice, but Psalm 51 goes further. For the kind of sin exemplified by David’s abuse of power — the thoughtless use of another to satisfy one’s own desires — no sacrifice will do. We are left powerless. There is no “means” of grace that we can exercise here. Only God’s own cleansing will suffice. And we might want to be prepared for something even stronger than “Grandma’s Lye Soap” (it’s an old song, but you can still buy it!).

If the David of the psalm has abused another (or, in this case two others: Bathsheba and Uriah), why the outburst, “Against you, and you alone, have I sinned”? Certainly, there is no sense here that Bathsheba and Uriah don’t really matter, or any other recipients of our abuse and offense. Here, David doesn’t go around Bathsheba and Uriah (nor should the preacher); David goes beneath them, to the foundation, recognizing that all sin is ultimately against God. More, David responds here to the fierce condemnation of God in Psalm 50:22: “Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.”

Dear God, says David, that’s me God’s talking about! That’s Israel. That’s all of us. And there will be no business-as-usual view of life and worship that can deliver us. Now, we will need to start over — simply and completely to begin again. We need nothing less than new creation (Psalm 51:10). We need the rebirth of the Holy Spirit (v. 11). We need to be shut down and rebooted. This program has stalled, so please “end task” and start again. Well, we might be able to do that in Microsoft Word, but not with the almighty Word. We can’t begin anew; but God can. And that’s the promise that awaits us through the mercy of God.

Anticipating the promised re-opening of his eyes, lips, ears, and heart, David declares: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15). New life, new lips, new creation, new birth. Only God can do that — and it is exactly that which God promises. And then praise will ensue (the “right sacrifices” of v. 19) simply because it will, not because, now, at last, we are able to do something for God. No sense of “Praise the Lord, you should.” But “Praise the Lord, you can, you will!” As Robert Lowry asks in his hymn, “How can I keep from singing?”1

It should be said that the new beginning promised here for historical Israel will entail the end of worship as usual because it will entail the destruction of the temple. The Deuteronomists knew full well that Israel had painted itself into a corner, and there was no way out. As we sing Psalm 51, we put ourselves in the same place: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (v. 3). We are not talking about peccadillos here, about taking another’s parking place or failure to sit up straight at the table. We’re not talking about wallowing in some vague feeling of guilt. God has, in effect, just rattled off the whole Decalogue (Psalm 50:16-21) and declared us “wicked” (or guilty). Back to the Deuteronomists (the teachers of Isaiah and Jesus): we have failed to care for the widows and orphans, to free the oppressed, to welcome the stranger. We have failed to understand that the purpose of the law is life (Deuteronomy 30:19), that it is ourselves we are killing here. “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Nothing less than this is the promise God offers. Don’t throw it away in the pursuit of momentary pleasure.

David abused the privilege of the rooftop. He saw what he wanted, and he took it, because he could. He was sure no one was watching. But God was watching, from a higher “rooftop,” and now, through the gift of the narrator, so are we. We see David as Nathan will eventually enable David to see himself. Worse, in David, through Nathan, we see ourselves. That’s the gift of biblical narrative and biblical poetry. In retelling, rehearing, resinging the story, we come to know God and to know ourselves. And then we are sent to the ashes for the gift of renewal.

For us, as for David, renewal comes, as God has promised. “Life can begin again” is the title of Helmut Thielicke’s collection of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount.2 It is the promise of Psalm 51, of Ash Wednesday, and of all preaching.


1 Robert Lowry, “My Life Flows On in Endless Song,” in, for example, Evangelical Lutheran Worship #763.

2 Helmut Thielicke, Life Can Begin Again: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount (Lutterworth, 1966); the full text of Thielicke’s book is available at http://archive.org/stream/lifecanbeginagai012649mbp/lifecanbeginagai012649mbp_djvu.txt

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Frank L. Crouch

This week’s epistle reading stands near the end of Paul’s extended defense of his ministry that occupies the first half of an impassioned letter to the Corinthians.

In response to accusations that questioned the integrity and legitimacy of his ministry, Paul pours out a stream of images throughout 2 Corinthians to describe his work on behalf of God and God’s creation: ministry of a new covenant (3:4-6), ministry of the Spirit (3:8), ministry of justification (3:9), ministry resulting in transformation (3:18), ministry of proclamation and service engendered by God’s mercy (4:1-5), ministry not only of words but of faithfulness and triumph in the face of affliction, perplexity, and persecution (4:8-12), ministry that does not lose heart but embodies grace, growth, and thanksgiving (4:15-16), ministry that walks by faith not by sight (5:7), and ministry of reconciliation offered by representatives of the God who, in Christ, reconciled us and the world to God’s self (5:18-20a).

The pericope’s boundaries seem arbitrary, literally beginning in the middle of a sentence. On the other hand, it can be difficult to draw clean dividing lines within a series of Paul’s thoughts. Each image in the series is not intended to stand-alone but links with images that precede and follow in order to create a cumulative, multifaceted vision of the work of God and God’s representatives. The pericope’s initial entreaty (2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1) seeks to drive home two major implications of the preceding, extended description of the best one might expect of ministers, ministry, and those who are ministered-to.

First, based on Christ’s work, Paul implores us to recognize the opportunity to enter fully into relationship with the God who transforms lives and possibilities. In Christ there is new creation, new chances, clean slates (2 Corinthians 5:17-20a). God in Christ has reconciled the world, so Paul tells the Corinthian congregation (with a 2nd person plural imperative), “You — each of you alone and all of you together — be reconciled to God” (5:20b). “Nothing stands in your way (6:3). Nothing is stopping you from receiving this reconciliation, except, perhaps, you yourself.” Lives characterized by shortcomings, sin, or falling away from God can “become the righteousness of God” (5:20b).

In seeking to understand this striking characterization, interpreters have puzzled over its limitations in light of systematic theology. How does it correspond to “simul justus et peccator”? If we take it too seriously, doesn’t it lead to self-righteousness assumptions that our actions automatically represent God’s ways? However, assuming that Paul was defending his ministry, not writing systematic theology, we will focus on one key personal/vocational limitation of the idea. If we refrain from turning this idea inward, as if it is about us and a state of righteousness we possess for ourselves, we can discern its usefulness for ministry. The text here does not say that Christ brought reconciliation so that we might become “righteous” but so that we might become “righteousness of God.” God’s righteousness does not exist for the sake of doctrine but for the sake of action on behalf of others and the world.

Thus, the first implication — Christ freely offers us opportunity for transformation into the righteousness of God — leads immediately to a second implication — transformation takes place as we become coworkers with God. “As we work together with him [Greek, “συνεργ?ω”], we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1, see the same characterization — using a noun from the same root, “συνεργ?ς” — in 1 Corinthians 3:9). A challenge in preaching this text lies in the fact that each implication sounds foreign and even presumptuous — who in the world does Paul think he is or we are? The righteousness of God!? Coworkers with God!? Really?

While it might be useful to acknowledge the strangeness of Paul’s images, it would also be useful to explore his examples that illustrate his point. He is describing the high calling of ministry. This is no small thing to which God calls us, no small thing that God makes possible for us to do. In order to transform us into coworkers with God, God provides us with “weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7b). We are not left to our own devices or limited by our shortcomings, nor is this righteousness only “imputed” to us. Paul speaks of grace’s power not only to bring forgiveness but also to bring transformation when circumstances call for it — perhaps less a permanent state and more an “on demand” possibility. As new creations, we live with ever-new potentials — no matter how often we have failed to embody them before — to accomplish the work of God “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” (2 Corinthians 6:6-7a).

Paul offers himself and those who work with him as illustrations of that transformative power and how it allowed them to endure and thrive in the face of “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). Even if it seems that our local congregations might not face challenges of that threat or magnitude, we will do well not to let that perception lead us to underestimate the resistances our ministries can face. Even something as “simple” as collection of food or clothing to distribute to the homeless or poor takes place in the context of serious limitation of economic opportunity; systemic discrimination, fear, violence, and hatred; and the powerful’s preservation of their resources and status at the expense of whoever gets in their way.

Paul’s description of his own ministry throughout the first half of this epistle is designed to encourage us not to let individual and systemic resistance stop us. The God who has reconciled the world and us to God’s own self calls and equips us in the face of the principalities and powers to become the righteousness of God, ministering as people who might appear to have little or nothing on our side but who actually have the capacity to possess and give everything (2 Corinthians 6:8-10).