Lectionary Commentaries for November 9, 2014
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13

Greg Carey

The parable of the bridesmaids stands second in a series of four distinctly Matthean parables, all bearing upon the relationship between the return of Jesus and a final sorting (24:43-25:46). 

The third, the parable of the “Talents” (25:14-30), has a parallel in Luke, but it likewise reflects a distinctly Matthean perspective. Immediately preceding these four parables stands Jesus’ instruction, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42).

If we dare be honest, these parables can arouse our discomfort. This particular one discriminates between wise and foolish virgins (translated “bridesmaids” in the NRSV), half of whom miss out on the party on account of their unpreparedness because the door has been shut while they were seeking oil (25:10). Is that how it works, that one apparently arbitrary decision marks the line between inclusion and exclusion from the ultimate party? This parable just doesn’t feel like the gospel.

Our congregations will likely experience similar reservations, so we might as well address them directly. For one thing, how far do we push the meaning of a parable? A metaphorical quality is basic to a parable. Metaphors reveal one or more levels of meaning. If you say, “My daughter’s grades went up this term,” you mean they improved. You do not mean her grades literally ascended to the ceiling. We all know what you mean — and what you don’t mean. Someone might argue that this parable discloses exactly one thing, the importance of being “ready” for the Lord’s return even if it is delayed. According to this line of thinking the metaphor stops there. It does not connote a message about worthiness and judgment.

Nevertheless, this cluster of parables suggests a fuller range of meaning for a couple of related reasons. First, the parable of the virgins, like the other three in this unit, comes across as a sort of allegory. While a metaphor may establish a comparison on the basis of just one point, an allegory connects with its referent at multiple points. As an allegory, this parable reflects several stereotypical features of early Christian eschatological reflection. The scene involves delay, evoking the delay of the Lord’s return, along with the motifs of sleeping and being ready. Early Christians reminded one another that Jesus’ return might happen suddenly, so that alertness is necessary.

We don’t ordinarily read parables as allegories, but this one makes sense as an allegory: several of its features map closely onto other Matthean themes. Matthew stands out among the Gospels for its interest in a final judgment. Luke includes the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” once (13:28), and Mark does not use it, but it appears in Matthew on six occasions. Matthew also emphasizes final judgment scenes more than do the other Gospels. Jesus warns that “on that day” he will reject those who practice lawlessness (7:21-23), while in the parable of the sheep and the goats the Son of Man divides the nations into two groups (25:31-46): the wicked depart into eternal fire and the righteous to eternal life.

We might recall the parables of the tares (13:24-30, 36-43) and the net (13:47-50), which include sorting out the good from the bad, while similar language occurs in Matthew’s version of the wedding banquet parable (22:10).

If Matthew emphasizes judgment scenes more than do the other Gospels, it adds another distinctive element: in this age one cannot discern the blessed from the damned. Wheat grows alongside tares (13:24-30). Good and bad fish alike make their way into the net (13:47-50). The poor guest at the wedding banquet has been “compelled” to attend and had no means of knowing he should wear a wedding garment (22:11-14). The sheep are just as surprised by their identity and fate as are the goats (25:31-46). Therefore, we may blame the “foolish” virgins for failing to bring extra oil, but we remember that the bridegroom is delayed. Given Matthew’s fondness for judgment scenes, especially those with elements of harshness and surprise, it makes sense to read this parable allegorically rather than metaphorically.

The parable knows only one distinction between the wise and the foolish virgins. It characterizes five as wise because they bring extra oil, and it renders five as foolish for failing to do so. Otherwise, all the virgins act the same. They arrive on time. They wait. They tire and fall asleep. (When it comes to Jesus’ return, early Christian discourse typically regards falling asleep as a bad thing, as does 24:42. See Mark 13:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:6.) Awakened, they all trim their lamps. But when the bridegroom arrives, the foolish virgins find their oil going out. The five wise virgins, claiming they have only enough oil for themselves, will not share. So the foolish five go out for more oil, finding the door shut upon their return. They miss out. Preparation marks the only distinction.

Our discomfort with the parable of the virgins likely arises from self-awareness. Most of us know ourselves as wise in some contexts and foolish in others. On an imaginary scale of wilderness readiness, some people are more likely to prepare for every eventuality, but most of us vary from context to context. Preparation seems an arbitrary distinction.

The parable of the virgins isn’t necessarily arbitrary, but it is challenging. It calls Jesus’ disciples to a state of constant alertness, of perpetual openness to God’s dramatic future. We all know a few people, just a few, who tend to live that way. I think especially of some cancer survivors I know — and of some friends who live with grim diagnoses. But here we’re not talking about a generic carpe diem approach to life. We’re talking about living with a keen awareness of Jesus’ return, an alertness tempered by preparation for a long haul.


First Reading

Commentary on Amos 5:18-24

Terence E. Fretheim

This text begins and continues with the theme of lament and grief (“Alas”; also Amos 6:1, 4).

Israel was expecting/desiring “the day of the Lord,” a phrase commonly used to refer to a glorious future in which Israel’s enemies would be vanquished. But the prophet cuts into this hope with a sharp question: why would “you” (direct address) desire the day of the Lord?! That “day” will not be the kind of day for which you hoped (cf. Joel 1:15; 2:1-2, 11).

 

It will not be a day of deliverance, but disaster, not a day of light and brightness, but darkness and gloom. In other words, you are the enemies that God will vanquish. These words are a remarkable reversal of expectation, and they would certainly place the prophet at odds with his audience! The prophet uses an everyday image to drive the point home and disabuse the people of their sense of security: they will flee from one wild animal only to meet another; they will seek refuge in their homes — usually the safest of places — only to be bitten by poisonous snakes — a fatal event. Darkness and gloom is the only shape of their future. There is no escape!

 

In 5:21-24, God states the reason they face such a future, voicing indictments and announcements of judgment. God returns to the themes of 4:4-5, where it is made clear that the people “love” to worship. They do all the right things in their worship: festivals, solemn assemblies, offerings of various sorts, hymn-singing with musical accompaniment.

 

God’s response to these worship practices, delivered in the first person, is remarkably sharp: I hate; I despise; I take no delight in (literally, smell); I do not accept; I do not look upon them with favor; I do not listen to the “noise” of your hymnody. To “hate” is to stand fully over against something; to “despise” is to reject as repulsive. Every dimension of Israel’s worship life is condemned (see Isaiah 1:10-17, adding prayer; 58:1-9; Matthew 7:21; 23:23).

 

The depth and breadth of God’s rejection of Israel’s worship is conveyed in ways that are emotional (hate, despise), volitional (no acceptance), and sensory (smell, touch, sight, hearing). God holds his nose, shuts his eyes, and plugs his ears! Interestingly, the text does not state that God’s rejection relates to idolatry or insincerity (see 4:4-5). As 5:24 makes clear, the issue is the disjunction between worship and life. The people do all of the right things in worship, but their daily lives are not characterized by justice and righteousness. The lack of the latter results in God’s rejection of the former!

 

Two interpretations of 5:24 have been suggested. One, justice has reference to God’s judgment. If so, then God is calling for judgment to roll over Israel like flooding waters. Another interpretation is more likely, for Amos uses the word “justice” exclusively for human beings (5:7, 15; 6:12). So, the language of 5:24 constitutes a call for the people to exercise justice and righteousness. Indeed, they are to flood the community with acts of justice and righteousness, like a stream that never stops flowing.

 

Is Amos presenting an either/or here: either worship or justice/righteousness? Not likely. Are Israel’s practices of worship inappropriate or idolatrous? That is not the issue addressed. Rather, the disjunction of worship and daily life has become deeply problematic.

 

God condemns an understanding that worship, even sincere worship, is somehow sufficient for a proper relationship with God. The problem is that the people’s daily life had not been showing forth justice and righteousness, particularly in their treatment of the less fortunate. Worship and life must be of one piece, not separated or compartmentalized.

 

Amos’s word could be offensive to some: Unless you practice justice on behalf of the less fortunate, your worship is, well… wasted! Even more sharply, God “hates” your worship. For God to “hate” is for God to focus the divine energies against something. A possible translation of “despise”: I consider your worship trash! The more literal sense of “take no delight” is “I will not smell” or, in our idiom, I will hold my nose at all your worship services.

 

God continues in 5:22: I will not “look upon” your offerings. Given the use of sacrifices as a means through which God bestowed forgiveness, the contemporary force of this text could be something like this: even though you properly celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I will no longer consider it a means of grace for you.

 

God continues: they should “take away” their music. Think of the singing of hymns, the finest of your pipe organ music, and even the best choirs singing Bach. God will not listen. God not only closes his eyes; God has his hands over his ears, too.

 

The prophets manage to indict every form of worship imaginable. Recall that Israel’s worship in these texts is not condemned because it is idolatrous or insincere (at other times and places, certainly). The problem was a disjunction between their worship and their treatment of the less fortunate.

 

If there is no social justice, there is no acceptable worship to God. God will not tolerate comfortable worship and social and political isolation. God will not tolerate a full church and a vacuum of justice. If you don’t take care of the less fortunate, God does not want your praises and prayers. There is no form of worship, however devout or rightly observed or full of praise and prayer, that is invulnerable to the judgment of God.

 

Even God’s elect could suffer great destruction (see 3:2). Worship will be evaluated at least as much by what happens outside the sanctuary as by what happens within. If worship fosters a disunity of faith and responsibilities toward the neighbor or considers that relationship immaterial, it deserves the prophetic critique.

 

The objects of the prophetic indictments are not simply isolated individuals, but the religious communities and institutions of their day. Neither the prophets nor the Bible generally prescribe a specific social plan or economic system. But whatever strategy we do pursue, we will be judged by this basic criterion: how well are the less fortunate members of your society being cared for? Think about it: how well are they being cared for? And what about the children?

           


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Sara Koenig

This lectionary is very similar to that of Year B, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, which covers Joshua 24:1-2a; 14-18. 

However, this one adds eleven verses from that chapter in Joshua, which does make a difference in the overall message of the text. Moreover, it is a chapter — and a message — worth repeating: that we are not compelled to choose God, but we can make a conscious choice to serve God, and God alone.

The major event in this chapter is a covenant made at Shechem, at the end of the conquest, when Israel is settled into the land. Joshua had previously built an altar and performed a covenant ceremony in Shechem (Joshua 8:30-35), but now Joshua involves the people such that the covenant is made after the people vow three times that they will serve God.

The chapter starts with Joshua remembering the people’s distant past, “long ago,” literally “from eternity,” when the Israelite’s ancestors lived in the land beyond the river, or the Euphrates. Instead of recalling the often invoked ancestors — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — Joshua goes back even further, to Abraham’s father Terah. The punch-line for this past is that back then, they served other gods (24:2).

But God took Abraham from that place and led him into a new land. With God as the subject of those verbs (God took and God led), we might wonder how much choice Abraham had. He could, perhaps, have remained with his family, serving those other gods. Yet after Abraham’s experience, God became his God. And so too with the rest of the Israelites. The lectionary does not include verses 4-13, which recite the Israelites’ experience with God, but the memory of what God has done for them in the past is an important reason why they choose God in the present.

The lectionary picks up with verse 14, where Joshua urges the people to fear and serve the Lord. “Serve God” becomes the core refrain of Joshua’s message. He repeats the word twice in verse 14, and it appears three times in the subsequent four verses. Serving God means worshipping God alone and not other gods. Indeed, Joshua’s admonition to serve other gods includes instructions to “put away” those gods that their ancient ancestors served and that their more recent ancestors served in Egypt (Joshua 3:14).

But the semantic range of the Hebrew word ?abad includes both “worship” and “serve,” and in the book of Joshua it makes sense to translate — and understand — it as service because of its proximity to Exodus. The Israelites have been freed from slavery in Egypt, but their freedom is not absolute. Rather, they move from being Pharaoh’s servants to being God’s servants. Unlike the type of slavery and service they provided in Egypt, however, this time they must choose to serve God.

And Joshua presents this as a genuine choice, not something they are compelled to do. In fact, the Hebrew of Joshua 24:15 puts it starkly, “it may be evil in your eyes” to serve God! The NIV and NRSV soften the language, with the NRSV saying, “if you are unwilling,” and the NIV saying, “if it is undesirable to you,” but the ESV and the KJV present the difficulty more literally. Maybe it is not a good thing to serve God! Maybe it seems bad to serve God! Joshua ends the verse by presenting his own choice: he, and his house, will serve God.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in the light of Joshua’s rhetorical challenge, the people affirm that they will never forsake the Lord and serve other gods. But they are not only imitating their leader, because they have their own reasons. In verses 17-18, they recall what God has done for them in the past: bringing them and their ancestors up from Egypt out of slavery, doing great signs in their sight, protecting them along the way and among the people, and driving out the people in the land. Because of what God has done for them, they choose to serve God. And, in verse 18, they add another reason, “For he is our God.” This God they choose to serve is their own, personal God.

The other lectionary passage from year B ends with that verse, with the people making the positive affirmation that they will serve the Lord. This one continues, almost humorously. Joshua had laid down the challenge in verses 14-15 — to serve God — and the people have said they would in verses 16-18, but in verse 19, Joshua tells them, “You cannot serve the Lord!” He goes on to explain that God is holy, and jealous, and if the people forsake God, God will not forgive. To Joshua’s word that they cannot serve the Lord, the people respond (with indignation?), “No, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:21).

It seems unlikely that Joshua is merely practicing reverse psychology. Instead, Joshua is proving the people an opportunity to reaffirm their choice. They have already said, once, in verse 18, that they will serve God, but after Joshua’s rejoinder, they affirm it two more times in verse 21 and in verse 24. Their three-fold affirmation to serve God is followed by the official covenant making ceremony, writing down the words, and setting up a stone as a witness.

The gospel passage for today tells the parable of the watchful and the foolish virgins in Matthew 25, and the editing together of these texts suggests that maybe it is not enough to promise and make a covenant. We also must be watchful and keep awake, so that we can be ready to meet God, and in so doing, continue to choose again and again to serve God. 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 70

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

Psalm 70 is a prayer from an individual, almost a kind of sigh from this person of faith who seeks divine protection, perhaps manifested in the sanctuary.

The speaker is among those who consider themselves to be deeply devoted servants of God. Some would place the psalm among prayers from the post-exilic Israelite communities, but the prayer is difficult to date. The psalm is framed with repetitions in its first and last verses, phrases that speak of the urgent need for God’s help.

Psalm 70 also occurs with minor variations in Psalm 40:13-17. The verses come at the end of a psalm of thanksgiving in the first occurrence and stand alone as a prayer for help in Psalm 70. The repetition of the texts at different points in the Psalter shows that the prayers are adaptable for life. One of the variations between the texts is that the use of the divine name in Psalm 70:1, 4 is Elohim (“God”) while Psalm 40 uses YHWH (“Lord”) in the corresponding verses.

Psalm 70 is part of the Elohistic Psalter (Psalms 42-83) that prefers the use of the more generic term for the divine name. This collection begins with Book II of the Hebrew Psalter (Psalms 42-72) and continues into the third book with the Korahite and Asaphite collections. Overlapping collections as well as the repetition of psalms in different contexts reflects the editorial process by which the Psalter came into being. Psalm 70 is also closely related to Psalm 71, a psalm without a superscription. The connections are both verbal and thematic.

Perhaps the scribes who edited the Hebrew Psalter intended Psalms 70 and 71 to be read together, with Psalm 70 introducing the more extensive prayer that follows. The superscription to Psalm 70 ties the text to the Davidic hymnbook and gives instructions for use in worship. It includes a term the NRSV translates “for the memorial offering.” The psalm could be used along with the memorial portion of the sacrifice referred to in Leviticus 2; 5:11-13. Another possibility is that the term means “to cause to remember” as a way of characterizing the prayer as one that will bring God to remember to act as the covenant God who comes to deliver.

The prayer opens with a brief and urgent plea for God to deliver the petitioner and moves quickly to the enemies. The plea is that the opponents (those “who seek my life” and “desire to hurt me”) will experience the shame they desire for the petitioner. The prayer is for a divine act of justice, a reversal of fortunes in which the enemies’ evil intent will rebound upon their own heads: “Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor” (verse 2).

The prayer focuses on language of shame and dishonor as the humiliation the opponents seek for the petitioner. The speaker, in contrast, seeks to be counted among the faithful who are delivered and blessed by God and who enjoy fellowship with the community of faith. The basis of the prayer is the presence of two identifiable groups, the righteous and the wicked. The petitioner fervently asks to be included among the righteous whom God delivers.

The psalm’s last two verses focus upon the righteous, those who seek God. Those faithful to God will rejoice and praise God who is the great covenant God who comes to deliver. Such an encounter with God’s powerful salvation comes in the midst of life and need and determines a future of life or death. The psalm’s conclusion makes it clear that the outcome is completely dependent upon God. The plea is that God will deliver and that right early because the petitioner is poor and needy. The speaker is really reduced to this urgent plea as one in poverty and need pleading with the one who can make the difference and bring salvation and deliverance from the enemies. The brief prayer is an urgent plea for God’s help.

But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!

You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay! (verse 5)

Psalm 70 is a brief paradigm of an individual lament. God initiated a covenant relationship with ancient Israel, and the community nourishes the historical memory of God as the covenant God who comes to deliver. The petitioner in Psalm 70 is not enjoying the covenant blessings because of oppressive opponents. So the psalm’s language constitutes a covenant interchange; the petitioner prays that God will come to deliver and do so before it is too late and the enemies destroy the righteous.

The petition is that God will bring the covenant to reality for this petitioner who is both faithful and needy. The plea is for God to act as the covenant God of the faith tradition. The prayer is a covenant interaction with pastoral implications, and the context is trust that God will come and hear and respond, will embrace the petitioner’s pain and deliver.

The psalm is a brief but powerful plea as the offering of all the speaker has — a prayer. The speaker is in need and cannot bring salvation by way of self-help, but the covenant God can bring newness of life. The offering of an honest prayer in great need is a powerful thing. The psalm reminds hearers and readers that the living God who hear prayers for help still listens today.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Amy L.B. Peeler

Writing to a congregation of Gentile converts not long after he introduced them to the faith, Paul clarifies his teachings on a few points where the Thessalonians still remained cloudy.

These include issues of eschatology, or what happens at the end of life and at the end of time. It seems that, since Paul’s departure, some among their community of believers had died.

He hadn’t covered that particular situation since he believed that Jesus’ return was rather imminent. Now he has to assure them that their friends and loved ones haven’t missed out on the great event they are all anticipating, the return of the Lord (1:3, 10; 2:19; 3:13).

Unlike others around them, the Thessalonians should not be grieving deaths in their community without hope. Gentile culture, while varied in its beliefs on the afterlife, not only balked at bodily resurrection but also lacked hope for any kind of meaningful and lasting reunion once a friend or family member died. If this life is all one has, its end in death produces considerable grief. Not so for followers of Jesus, Paul says. This is not to say that any grieving is inappropriate, for Jesus provides the example (John 11:35). Nevertheless, that grief should not have the final word.

Paul says that if you believe that Jesus died and was raised (the basic Christian affirmation the Thessalonians had accepted), then you can also believe that God will raise our loved ones. How will that be possible? Here you get a sense of Paul’s grasping of ideas with the multiple prepositions he employs: it will be through Jesus and also with Jesus.

The sleeping loved ones who also believed in the death and resurrection of Christ are caught up into his eternal life. Paul’s assertions here resonate with his arguments in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8. Believing in Jesus’ resurrection entails within it a belief in the resurrection of his followers (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:12-13). Easter Sunday is not a one-time event, but the beginning of a universal restoration.

Paul’s confidence on this matter rests on a word of the Lord, a prophetic phrase that in this instance seems to refer to the words of Jesus. The closest “word of the Lord” is that preserved in Mark 13:26–27 and its parallel Matthew 24:30-31. There Jesus describes the Son of Man returning in the clouds and the angels gathering the elect from the four corners of the earth to meet him.

What isn’t specified in the gospel account is that the dead believers precede the living ones, so Paul seems to be referring to a general discussion of Jesus some details of which he knows and presents to his congregation, either because those details were not recorded in the gospel accounts or because they were directly revealed to Paul.

Rhetorically, the fact that the Lord made this pronouncement makes it even more comforting.1 It is not just I who have spoken on this issue, Paul is saying, but the Lord himself. The echoes of the gospel writers continue with Paul’s assertion that Jesus will return with the sound of trumpets (Matthew 24:31), descending from heaven (Acts 1:11).

It is verse 17 that has birthed such vivid reflection on the end. Being caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air has taken on the name “The Rapture,” as artfully described by leading proponents like J. N. Darby, Hal Lindsey, and Tim LaHaye. Popularized in Christian imagination by The Thief in the Night series for one generation and The Left Behind films for another, the rapture has become one of the key pieces in the often complex debates between different millennial views.

Paul actually uses the term arpadzw, which means “to snatch away.” Typically in the New Testament it has the negative connotation of being taken by force (Matthew 11:12; 12:29; 13:19; John 6:15; 10:12, 28–29; Acts 8:39; 23:10; Revelation 12:5), but in a few instances, including this one, conveys a more positive picture of being taken up into something good or out of something bad (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; Jude 1:23). Jerome, in his Latin translation used the word rapere, from which our English “rapture” comes. Like its Greek counterpart, rapture conveys the idea of being carried away, but in modern parlance leans toward the positive connotations as in being enthusiastically ecstatic, or being “enraptured.”

It is important to note that here Paul’s assertion that believers will meet the Lord in the air involves no intricate timelines or charts; those have been imported from other passages. Instead, his claim offers three assurances. First, no one is left behind. This is the point of talking about this topic at all. Those who are alive will be caught up together with the Lord, and those who have already died will actually beat them to this ethereal encounter.

Here, at least, Paul does not get into a discussion of what happens to those who are not believers. That is because — and this is the second assurance — Paul is writing this in order to encourage his readers. “Therefore, encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:18).” Anyone who uses the discussion of the “rapture” to scare people into faith applies eschatology in a way that Paul (and John!) does not. Jesus’ return should be a thing to anticipate and celebrate, not fear if you happen to return home one day and find no one there.

Finally, this hoped for event is especially encouraging because those who meet the Lord will dwell with him forever. This is not an escapist theology because while Paul says that believers will dwell with the Lord, he doesn’t say that the dwelling will always be in the air. Other passages affirm (Romans 8:21; Revelation 21:1-4) that the dwelling will be on a renewed earth.

The biblical text is not crystal clear on all the details, but it offers the bold hope that all those in Christ — living and dead — will be there on the day when he will come again in glory and then dwell with him forever.


Notes:

1 Ben Witherington, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Eerdmans, 2006, 137.