Lectionary Commentaries for November 23, 2014
Christ the King

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46

Greg Carey

The parable of the sheep and the goats may present one of the most outworn passages in the Bible. 

The last of four consecutive judgment parables, if one counts Jesus’ saying concerning faithful and unfaithful slaves (24:45-51), the parable wraps up Jesus’ extended eschatological discourse that runs through Matthew 24-25.

Some commentators do not regard Matthew 25:31-46 as a parable, but such decisions require a narrow definition of Jesus’ parables. All of these parables bear a certain allegorical quality, as each element in the parable apparently corresponds to an eschatological reality. This one divides goats from sheep for all eternity: goats to eternal punishment and sheep to eternal life (25:46).

Especially popular among socially activist Christians, the parable divides sheep from goats according to whether they have fed the hungry, provided drink for the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, tended to the sick, and visited the prisoner.

In my experience preachers routinely underplay two significant dimensions of this parable.

First, the parable sets the scene with “all the nations” gathered before the Son of Man (25:32 NRSV). Many hearers will take “all the nations” (Greek: panta ta ethne) in a universalistic sense, as if it means “all peoples.” I endorse this view, but it is controversial. When Matthew’s meaning is most clear, the Greek ethne specifically connotes Gentiles (4:15; 6:32; 10:5; 20:19, 25; 24:14; 28:19). Matthew’s meaning is not always clear, but in every occurrence it is possible to translate ethne as Gentiles. The NRSV and other translations render ethne as “Gentiles” in some contexts but “nations” in others.

According to Klyne R. Snodgrass this universal understanding of the ethne first appeared in church tradition in the eighteenth century. For most of Christian history, the parable has been applied to the judgment specifically of Christians. Modern readers may struggle to imagine ethne as connoting only the church, but the parable’s characterization of “the least of these my brothers” (20:40, literal translation) does lend itself to identifying the victims as believers from within the church (Stories with Intent, 551).

Some interpreters may favor translating ethne to mean Gentiles outside the church for theological rather than literary or linguistic reasons. They perceive a potential contradiction between the parable and the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and not by works. The parable clearly sets forth judgment according to works of compassion. If believers are justified by faith and not by works, the logic goes, then believers are not subject to these criteria. The parable must apply to outsiders.

However, Matthew knows nothing of the grace versus works dichotomy. Matthew’s Jesus insists upon righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:17-20), then goes on to explain just what such righteousness looks like. He rejects acclamation as “Lord” from those who fail to do what he says (7:21-29). He relates the parable of the two sons, one of whom promises to do as he is commanded but does not follow through while the other refuses but then goes and works (21:28-32). The risen Jesus commissions his disciples to “obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20, NRSV). Matthew is all about doing what Jesus says, and this parable fits that pattern.

Matthew’s insistence upon doing what Jesus says does not exclude grace. Indeed, Matthew’s Jesus reminds would-be disciples that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:30). Matthew surely relishes judgment, but judgment in Matthew typically involves an element of surprise. Those who fail to observe Jesus’ teaching are surprised, even though they prophesy, cast out demons, and perform wondrous works in his name (7:21-22).

The poor man who fails to wear proper wedding attire receives a nasty surprise — even though he has had no opportunity to change his clothes (22:11-14). We encounter similar patterns in chapter 25. The difference between wise and foolish virgins apparently lies with the wise virgins being prepared while the foolish are surprised (25:1-13). Meanwhile, what distinguishes the two successful slaves from the one who is cast into the outer darkness seems to involve knowledge: two know they should return a profit, while the other seeks not to lose his one talent (25:14-30).

Moralizing interpretations of the sheep and the goats overlook the element of surprise. Of course the goats express surprise: “Lord, when,” they ask, did we see you and fail to care for you? But the sheep are no less surprised: “Lord, when” did we see you and perform these services? Goats do not see themselves as goats — but neither do sheep recognize themselves as sheep.

New Testament scholar Judy Stack-Nelson has pointed out for me a deeper logic that accounts for this element of surprise. For Matthew, ethical behavior indeed responds to Jesus’ commands. But it does not result from effort, from trying hard. Instead, Matthew points out — repeatedly — that good fruit comes from good trees. John the Baptist warns of trees that fail to bear good fruit (3:10). Good trees, Jesus explains, cannot bear bad fruit, nor can bad trees bear good fruit (7:17-18). John and Jesus alike warn that the bad trees will be cast into the fire. Trees are known by their fruit (12:33). Likewise, good soil produces good fruit (13:23).

Matthew’s emphasis on obedience can be forbidding. I must confess that I sometimes allow that dimension of the Gospel to occlude my awareness of grace. But Matthew’s Jesus does not instruct disciples that they should become the salt of the earth or the light of the world; he tells them they are such. Likewise, Jesus does not command his followers to hunger and thirst for justice, pursue peace, and so forth; he blesses those who do (5:1-16). Judgment simply brings out a reality that has been present all along.


First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Margaret Odell

The connection between justice and care is often lost in contemporary Christian practice. 

We’ve gotten the memo on the importance of care, and today’s gospel lesson more than adequately underscores that message. When Christ returns as Lord to judge the nations, the only question he will ask is whether we fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless (Matthew 25:41-45).

Christians therefore find countless ways to practice charity through any number of food drives and mission trips. We do not, however, always tend to the underlying causes of these great needs. By contrast, today’s lesson from Ezekiel holds justice and care together. The reading is reminiscent of Psalm 23 in its rich description of God’s care in gathering, resettling, and feeding the flock in good pasture (34:11-16).

It’s worth noting that God’s care is both implicitly and explicitly associated with justice. The connection is implicit in verse 16, which quite literally reverses the abuses of the false shepherds (34:1-10, esp. verses 4-6). God also explicitly corrects situations that might perpetuate injustice and abuse in the future: “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy” (34:16, see also verses 20-22). The connection is summed up in verse 16, where means for delivering care is justice: “I will feed them with justice.” Justice and care are kept in balance, as if they were two sides of the same coin.

Justice and care belong together because the shepherd metaphor was always first and foremost a political metaphor. To be a king was to be a shepherd; viewed from that perspective the more surprising element of the shepherd metaphor may be the way it shapes perceptions about the proper exercise of power.

For one thing, it rules out the exercise of power for its own sake and insists that it be used to support the flock’s flourishing. Invoking the shepherd metaphor in the preface to his Law Code, for example, Hammurabi explains that he was appointed by the gods “to promote the welfare of the people, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil that the strong might not oppress the weak.”1 What the shepherd metaphor emphasizes, then, is the ruler’s responsibility to establish justice so that the people may flourish.

Ezekiel’s use of the good shepherd metaphor is squarely within this political tradition. The condemnation of Israel’s “shepherds,” probably the leaders of Israel and Judah but possibly also the rulers of Babylonia, is a political critique. Because the people have been exploited, the nation has been destroyed.

As Ezekiel puts it, “Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34:2b-3). This exploitation does not simply damage the flock, it results in its scattering, leaving individual sheep vulnerable to further prey and the flock subject to yet further disintegration as it is scattered among the nations (34:5-6). In Ezekiel’s context, this scattering alludes to the disintegration of the kingdom of Judah and the dispersion and exile of its inhabitants among the nations.

As its shepherd, God visits the flock to “take stock” of the damage after it has been scattered (Heb. biqqer; NRSV “seek”; 34:11-12).2 “Taking stock” is an act of judgment, of discerning need before taking action. What ensues is a rescue operation, as God seeks out the sheep from all the countries to which they have been scattered.

Verses 13 and 14 dwell extensively on God’s action to gather the flock together to resettle them on the mountains of Israel, and to reassert his authority over them as their shepherd. Evoking themes of covenant and promise, the chapter dwells extensively on the re-establishment of the flock as a viable political community. Once again the flock will be known as the people of God; once again will God’s servant David serve as their shepherd (34:24); and once again they will live in safety in the land of Israel.

What is of first importance, then, is the recreation of a viable community. Care for the individual members of the flock — seeking the lost, tending to the injured, strengthening the weak — comes next and is presented as a reversal of the injustices that had been inflicted on the flock (compare verse 16 with 34:3-4). At the same time, God continues to correct the conditions that had contributed to the injuries in the first place: “but the fat and the strong I will destroy.”

All of this is characterized as shepherding justly: “I will feed them with justice” (34:16; see also 20-24). The balance between tending to individual need and addressing structural concerns is striking; it is also pragmatic. If a shepherd could reduce veterinary bills by mending a jagged fencepost or filling in a menacing pothole, she would save a lot of time and money, not to mention prevent a great deal of suffering in her flock.

As an act of deliverance from oppression and injustice, God’s care for the flock is a model not just of good shepherding, but also of wise ruling. As such it provides a basis for reflecting on the nature of Christ’s rule as it is portrayed in today’s New Testament readings — and our role as the people of Christ’s flock. Ezekiel 34 identifies injustice and oppression as a primary cause of the fragmentation of any community, not least God’s people.

The church is gathered from the nations, where power is exercised in any number of ways, and not necessarily for the sake of human well-being. It is worth asking how this exercise of power has fragmented the human community, isolating us from one another, leaving us scattered, injured, and alone. As Christians continue to heed Christ’s call to care for these fragmented and injured individuals, may we also find to address the root causes of the world’s pain.


Notes:

ANET, p. 164, cited by Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48 (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 280-281.

Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 21–37: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 22A; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 699-700.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 95:1-7a

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

Psalm 95 is a bit unusual in that it is a hymn of praise that includes a prophetic warning, as do Psalms 50 and 81.

The psalm’s combination of a double call to worship (the lectionary reading) and a prophetic word is best explained with a liturgical or festival setting. The psalm celebrates and interprets the reign of God in the congregation’s liturgical setting. We might envision a procession, but the specific festival setting has been debated.

Jewish tradition ties the psalm to the beginning of Sabbath; others have suggested the Feast of Tabernacles or a covenant renewal festival. The movement of the psalm does suggest a connection to the beginning of worship, but it is difficult to be more specific. Verses 1-7 offer praise to God in the form of a double call to worship. The first summons to praise is in verses 1-2 followed by reasons for the praise in verses 3-5. The second call to worship in verse 6 narrows the focus to God’s covenant people, and verse 7 gives the reason for that call to praise. The last line of verse 7 introduces a prophetic word from God, an oracle. In contemporary terms, the first seven verses call the congregation to come to worship and the last verses deliver the sermon.

It was a sunny day in eastern North Carolina when I asked the congregation of Union Baptist Church to come outside with me and we re-enacted the suggested liturgical setting of Psalm 95. We spoke the opening call to worship in verses 1-5 and then processed inside while singing in praise. Inside the sanctuary, we joined in the second call to worship (verses 6-7) and bowed and knelt to our God. We then heard a prophetic word in the tradition of verses 8-11, a call to faithfulness. Re-enacting the liturgical setting helped us all to envision the movement and import of the psalm.

In the book of Psalms, this text comes in a cluster of psalms that celebrate the kingship of YHWH, an emphasis appropriate for Christ the King Sunday. The emphasis on YHWH’s kingship forms a response to the crisis of exile urgently articulated at the end of Book III in Psalm 89. The Davidic Kingdom has fallen, but the kingship of YHWH endures as a sign of hope for the community.

The psalm opens with a call to praise. The NRSV rendering “come/make a joyful noise” is probably too tame for the Hebrew verbs that call for shouting and singing aloud, a noisy shout of homage similar to the shouting at the entrance of a human king. The call is for a procession to worship with this joyful singing. The movement is to the outer courts and then toward the sanctuary, the holy place of worship and the place of divine presence.

With verse 3, the liturgist brings the congregation to the reason for offering praise to God. The call to praise followed by the reason the congregation should offer praise is the classic style of praise in the Hebrew Psalter. The reason given in Psalm 95 is that YHWH is king, here tied to creation language. God created the world from its depths to its heights, from the sea to the dry land, all the world, and God reigns over it. The psalm begins with the broad realm of creation, a call to praise applicable to all peoples.

Reflecting its common ancient Near Eastern setting, the psalm portrays YHWH as preeminent among the gods, as king throughout creation and ruler over the powers of chaos and disorder. God created and reigns over creation. Thus all God’s creatures are called to praise.

The second call to praise narrows the focus. The congregation is now called to come and bow down, to kneel before the creator. The scene is analogous to an encounter with a human king with kneeling and bowing in homage. Now the congregation comes into the presence of the sovereign and bows awaiting a royal declaration. The opening call to worship portrays God as creator and ruler over creation.

The emphasis in the second call to worship is that the congregation belongs to God. God created this people and leads them and provides for them and protects them. The reason for praise in verse 7 alludes to the ancient Near Eastern royal image of God as shepherd of the people. God is “our Maker” and “our God.” The reference reminds the congregation that God’s mighty acts in history created this covenant people.

This double call to worship then makes it clear that God as both creator and redeemer is central to ancient Israel’s faith tradition. These verses at the beginning of Psalm 95 call to mind the familiar Psalm 100. These emphases characterize the cluster of psalms that celebrate the kingship of YHWH. The psalm’s concluding verses speak a prophetic warning by bringing to mind historical events in which the community did not trust YHWH. The call is to live a life of trust and faithfulness.

The sequence of Psalm 95 is important for readers. The psalm begins with the praise of God and moves to a prophetic warning spoken by God. The warning hopes that the community will trust in God, that is, will live out the praise articulated in verses 1-7. God’s gracious acts of creation and of calling out the community lead to the challenge for a response of praise and of lived faith.

Psalm 95 sings praise to God as sovereign and calls for faithfulness in response, in contrast to their ancestors’ response in the wilderness. So the psalm brings the past to bear on the present liturgical context. Those who do not heed the warning of history may have the misfortune of repeating it. The solemn warning that concludes the psalm hopes for a better response to the praise sung in verses 1-7.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

Kyle Fever

Ephesians 1:15-23 is one of the longer prayer sections in Paul’s letters.

Rhetorically, Paul’s prayer does more than just record the content of his prayer for his audience to read. It serves to (re)establish the vision for their identity and reassert the nature of the faith-life into which they have been called.

Why is Paul doing this, why does he say things in the particular way he does in Ephesians? Context would explain this, of course. But we know little about the context of Paul’s audience. It is likely that the original audience may have been broader than the community in Ephesus. Nevertheless, one clear theme is reconciliation in Christ — reconciliation to God and consequently also to one another, reconciliation that crosses established lines Greco-Roman culture and human traditions had drawn that kept certain peoples apart. Reminding people of our rootedness in God’s reconciling action in Christ and of its very real consequences for how we live in relation to one another is something we can never wear out.

The general flow of this section can helpfully be broken up into three sections.              

Verses 15-16. Paul expresses his ongoing remembrance and prayer for his audience. He especially draws attention to their “faith” and “love.”

Paul specifies that this remembrance and prayer is on the basis of what he has “heard.” We should always be clear as we use the word “faith” that it should not be reduced to just mental assent to some creed, but as active trust in what God has done and will do, and life lived in participation in, response to, and reflection of what God has done. Do people “hear” of our faith?

This is closely linked with “love for all the saints.” Again, Paul is thanking them not for warm feelings toward others, but love in action. This “faith” and “love” will be fleshed out later in the letter in terms of the pursuit of unity, breaking through those lines that inhibit reconciliation and unity in the world. The community in Christ should never have within it evidence of the disunity that plagues the surrounding world. Where this is the case, how can the transformative life of love rooted in active faith be heard?

Verses 17-19. Here, Paul highlights the purpose of his prayer. He remembers the community in Christ and prays constantly “in order that God … might give y’all (as with 90% of the uses of “you” in the New Testament, it is plural) a spirit of wisdom and revelation … ”

Paul’s emphasis here lies on his hope that God will make known to the community God’s wisdom, riches, hope, and power. The wisdom, etc. is for the community, to be worked out as the people live and love in relationship with one another and the surrounding world.

Paul’s theological logic roots the community’s existence in what God has done; it is God who has acted for them. In many pulpits the reminder to rely on “what God has done” is nearly a broken record, an overplayed tune in Christian theology. Yet it is good to keep playing this tune as it is all too easy for us humans to start thinking that we can actually set the course for our own existence and believe that it is actually going to turn out well. However, if we play this tune too generically, it loses much of its power. We need to be reminded more specifically of God’s activity that establishes and defines us, and not just generically that we are free or forgiven or redeemed not by what we’ve done but because of what God has done. We need constant reminder of the transforming and upside-down to the world nature of God’s act in the crucified Jesus who now reigns as Lord of all creation. The wisdom, riches, hope, and power come through and are lived out in ways the normal systems of the world would find “foolish.”

Verses 20-23. Here, Paul elaborates on the power of God, focusing on God’s power displayed in God’s raising and exaltation of Jesus Christ.

As a conclusion to the prayer, this section builds on the previous verses that point to what God has done, and it draws focus to the wondrous glory of God that has been “energized” in Christ. At first sight, this passage seems very triumphalist. Paul specifies God’s exaltation of Christ above all things, placing all things under the feet of Christ, and appointing Christ as the head of the church, which is his body.

What makes the difference is not what Paul explicitly says here, but what he assumes. In verses 19-20 Paul writes that the power and strength which God “energizes” is the power that God worked first when God raised Christ from the dead. What gives this statement its bite is the subtle presumption that Christ’s exaltation and Lordship proceed from and are established upon his suffering and death.

That word “energize” is typically translated as “work” or “work out.” The Greek word commonly was used to refer to the influencing power of god in the Stoic system, the power of god that permeates and works itself out in the details of life. By stating that God’s energizing power is the very power that raised Christ from the dead, Paul proclaims that God’s triumph and the thing which energizes the people’s new existence is born out of Christ’s suffering and death. In raising Christ, God did not communicate that the suffering and death of Jesus was a bad mistake made by the world that killed him, and so God “showed the world” by undoing it. Rather, Paul proclaims that God validated the suffering and death of Jesus as the defining act for God and for very existence, down to the details of life of those “in Christ.”

This is not a sly exchange where the system of power that crucified Christ goes unchanged and continues to operate under the presumption that it is different just because the name Jesus Christ is identified with it. Because God vindicated the suffering Christ, the suffering and death are established as the economy of life under his rule. The underlying logic is the one Paul expresses in Philippians 2:5-11. The powers and dominions in our Ephesians passage are subjects paradoxically because Christ became a slave. This is, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, God’s power in weakness, foolishness from the world’s perspective, yet God’s wisdom. This is “enlightenment”: transformation through slavery, suffering, and death.

If Christ is the head, as a suffering and dying head, he is the head also of a suffering body that has died to the world’s systems. Christ’s system is not power but service, indeed, slavery in love. Paul’s prayer here in Ephesians does not proclaim victory and triumph as it had always been understood. Rather, by reminding his audience of God’s victory and triumph that comes through raising the crucified Christ, Paul reminds them of the establishment of a new order: God’s new order under the Lordship of the one who became a slave to death.

The old powers, rulers, and dominions defined by power no longer call the shots for those who are in Christ. As Paul goes on to say in chapter 2, sin and the life marked by transgression of God’s good purposes no longer have dominion. This means, as Paul will write about in most of Ephesians, that those systems of existence that kept Jew and Gentile in antagonism no longer determine life. Paul’s prayer reminds the audience of the wisdom, power, and glory of God that give birth to their new existence, an existence rooted in the one whose suffering and death reconciled the world. It is a prayer that their lives of faith active in love would be established upon and molded by this wisdom and subversive power of God. This is Paul’s prayer. Is it ours?