Lectionary Commentaries for November 5, 2017
All Saints Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12

Susan Hylen

What does it mean to be happy? This question is central to individuals yearning for fulfillment.

For centuries, it has also been a key question in philosophical debates about the meaning of human life. Ancient Greek philosophers debated how humans could align their own will with the created order in order to be happy or blessed, makarios.

The Greek word, makarios, which is central to the Beatitudes, is a fairly common word. It’s not really hard to understand, but it’s difficult to translate into English. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates “blessed,” which is by far the most common translation of the Beatitudes. The problem with blessed is that it sounds a little unreal, like a quality that applies only to those saints whose stories we celebrate on All Saints Day and whose example may appear a bit unattainable to us.

New Testament professor Margaret Aymer has translated makarios as “greatly honored.” This is another good option for translating this word because it emphasizes the theme of reversal that is implied in the Beatitudes. The meek and the merciful are not revered by the world’s standards, but they are honored by God and by those who would align their lives with God’s ways.

But there is another option for translating makarios that we may consider: happy. Jesus says: Happy are the poor in spirit. Happy are the merciful. Happy are the pure in heart.

“Happy” is not a perfect translation, because in our culture it can convey a thin, happy-go-lucky kind of happy. This is not what ancient philosophers meant, for they were well aware of the suffering and conflict humans experience. It cannot be what Jesus means either, or he would not call those who mourn “happy.” He is describing a deeper happiness, the kind of happiness that only comes from aligning one’s own will with God’s.

When this same word is used in the Old Testament, that’s exactly how we translate it: “happy.” Consider Psalm 1: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night.” The psalmists declare “happy” those who delight in the law (Psalm 1:1), those who take refuge in God (Psalms 2:12; 34:8), those who observe justice and practice righteousness (Psalm 106:3).

Now, the psalmists are quite aware that the wicked pick on, persecute, and scorn the righteous. So this “happiness” cannot be a simple feeling that things are going well, or that one is well-liked. These people are happy because they live their lives in a way that is oriented toward God’s loving-kindness. They see the world the way God sees it.

Matthew is saying the same thing. Those who long to follow God’s word, who seek the righteousness, holiness, and justice of God, are “happy.” Other people may appear happy outwardly. They may be successful in the world’s terms. They may have expensive shoes and a matching handbag. They may send their children to the best schools. But that is not real happiness, for it does not reflect the things that are important to God.

The word “happy” focuses our emphasis on the present state of the people that are discussed here. While blessedness can sound like a future promise of good things to those who suffer now, “happiness” makes sense as something people strive for in this lifetime. Although they experience difficulty of many kinds, Jesus attributes a present-tense state of happiness to those he describes.

Of course there is a future element to these biblical statements about happiness. The psalmists knew that sometimes God’s deliverance is not immediate. Sometimes the wicked prosper. The wealthy exploit the poor. The innocent are convicted and imprisoned and killed. The psalmists also knew this, and still they affirm that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6). God sees the actions of the wicked, and God listens to the cries of the poor. In the fullness of time, God will establish justice.

Compared to the Psalms, Matthew has turned up the volume regarding the future promised to those who live according to God’s ways. In Matthew 5, each of the verses 4-9 makes a statement about the future: for example happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. The present tense in the first clause suggests that the meek are happy now, but they are happy in part because they see the big picture. They live in the knowledge that the appearances of the world do not correspond to the ultimate realities of God’s kingdom. Their inheritance is secure.

This does not mean that the happy cease to care about the world. After all, the Beatitudes are the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus goes on in the Sermon to say a lot about life in this world. He starts with the commandments, naming explicitly “You shall not murder” (Matthew 5:21) and “You shall not commit adultery” (Matthew 5:27). He goes on to other difficult teachings, like turning the other cheek and loving enemies. These teachings give depth to what it means to be meek, to be a peacemaker, to be pure in heart. Happiness is not simply a way of seeing the world as God sees. It is a way of life. It motivates moral behavior and deep humility. It moves people to seek justice and to love mercy.

It is difficult to contemplate the brokenness of the world, and even more difficult to know ourselves to be complicit in its injustices. But happiness is never something that can be found without that knowledge. We can never be happy in the sense Matthew means by ignoring or downplaying the suffering of others. This is the paradox of happiness: it sits face to face with the pain of injustice, sickness, and death. Yet it is still somehow strangely appropriate to use the word “happy.”

First Reading

Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17

Micah D. Kiel

John’s apocalyptic visions in Revelation 7:9-17 present challenges in two different ways.1

The first challenge has to do with inclusivity/exclusivity. The second has to do with the social setting of the Apocalypse and how that translates to today.

144,000 or an Uncountable Multitude?

The first half of this text, verses 9-12, depicts an innumerable mass of people from every corner of the earth worshipping God. This opening vision evokes numerous biblical passages from both the Old Testament and New Testament. In a way similar to the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, the multitude counterbalances the Tower of Babel story from Genesis 11. 

The inclusion of all peoples (the Gentiles) in a vision of the eschaton (the end) was not uniformly accepted in all segments of Judaism. Some texts from Israel’s scriptures did, however, anticipate such a vision and understanding of the future (Isaiah 9:1-7; 60:1-7; Tobit 13:11-17). This diversity of perspectives within Judaism meant that such an inclusive vision of the eschaton constituted a challenge within early Christianity as well (cf. Luke 4:16-30; Paul’s opponents in Galatia).  When discussing the issue of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, the Apostle Paul is forced, ultimately, to leave the details up to an inscrutable God (Romans 11:33).

The pressing interpretive problem with the eschatological vision in Revelation 7:9-13 arises when one notices the tension with the verses immediately preceding, which indicate that the number of people with the seal of the living God is limited to 144,000. When commentators approach this problem, they tend to resolve it by either positing that the 144,000 are simply a part of the greater multitude introduced in verse 9, or that there is a temporal distinction, i.e., that the 144,000 come prior to the fully eschatological vision of the end and the multitude in verse 9. 

A second potential discrepancy between these two adjacent texts is that one seems a predominantly Jewish image, while the other is intentionally universal. Brian Blount, in a 2009 commentary, attempts to bridge this divide by making a argument that the image of the 144,000 is actually one of “eschatological imagining the universal church.”2 While there is some evidence to support such a conclusion, the imagery and language of 7:1-8 is decidedly more “Jewish” than what follows. It may be, however, that this juxtaposition might actually be the point the author intends. 

Elsewhere in early Christianity, seemingly contradictory images or stories exist side by side, and only by their combination does one understand the point of the author. For example, the Gospel of Mark has two feeding stories. In one, 5,000 people are fed and 12 baskets are left over. In the other, 4,000 are fed and 7 baskets are left over. Mark used both of these stories symbolically to describe the inclusion of the Gentiles into the plan of God. 

John may have the same intention for his apocalypse here. The juxtaposition of the exclusive report of the sealing of the 144,000 against the inclusive vision of a vast multitude from all corners of the earth is quite striking. John is interested in continuity with the past (he labels his work as “prophecy” and infuses much of what he does with imagery from Israel’s scriptures). At the same time, a definitive revelation has been given, providing a glimpse of the future that is built upon the past, but one that carves new channels for God’s activity and interaction with humanity. 

Suffering then and now

The second half of this text, verses 13-17 also poses a challenge. As one of the elders answers his own question, we find out that the vast multitude in John’s vision are those who have come out of the “great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In the future they will no longer hunger, thirst, or be afflicted; their every tear will be wiped away. On the face of it, this sounds quite nice. It is a place where one could easily read him or herself into the story — a vision of the future, perhaps conflated with heaven, in which every manner of thing will be well. 

The problem is that the references to the white robes and washing in the blood are ciphers throughout the Apocalypse for the socio-historical setting of John’s community. The great ordeal (verse 14) clearly presupposes earlier portions of the Apocalypse (e.g., 6:1-8). Some of this trouble is also incipient in the letters to the churches (e.g., 2:2-7; 2:9-11; esp. 2:13). The Apocalypse was clearly written in a situation of oppression and suffering.  The phenomenon of the emperor cult seems to have posed a significant challenge for those in John’s community, to the point that some have given their lives (2:13).

This poses a significant point of dissimilarity between the ancient and modern contexts (which is always the case when reading scripture). While there are Christians in parts of the world today that are facing serious persecution, I suspect neither they nor their pastors have time to peruse WorkingPreacher.org. How one translates the ancient context of persecution into the generally comfortable lives of many modern day Christians comprises the great challenge of preaching from the Apocalypse, (or many other parts of the New Testament). 

One major observation may be helpful in this dilemma: Nowhere does John advocate that one seek out suffering. He never suggests that suffering is a necessary prerequisite of joining the multitude. What this text does testify to, however, is God’s response to the human predicament. Humans are not abandoned. The multitude worships God because they “came out” of the great ordeal. God will shelter them and wipe away every tear.  The situation that John describes, and the one underlying his imagery — the suffering of his community — depends upon God’s response.  

1 This commentary was first published on the site on Nov. 1, 2011.

2 Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (The New Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox press, 2009), 147.


Commentary on Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 34 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.1

Fifteen individual Hymns of Thanksgiving occur in the book of Psalms. In them, psalm singers give thanks to God for deliverance from various life-threatening situations: illness, enemies, and dangers. Two aspects of Psalm 34 intrigue this reader.

First, the superscription of the psalm places it within a particular life situation of King David: “when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” The only story in the biblical text that might be associated with Psalm 34’s superscription is found in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. There, David fled from Saul and went to King Achish — not Abimelech — at Gath. But Achish recognized him and David was afraid for his life, so he feigned madness to disguise his true identity.

Ascertaining a specific historical event in the life of David in which to place Psalm 34 is not as important as using the setting to gain insight into the meaning and intent of the psalm. In Psalm 34, David praises God for deliverance from a life-threatening situation — perhaps his encounter with King Achish of Gath, later remembered as Abimelech.

Second, Psalm 34 is an alphabetic acrostic. Each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways. Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public — that is, individual and corporate — recitation; in addition, literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, summing it up from alif to tav, from A to Z. Adele Berlin suggests further that in an acrostic, the entire alphabet — the source of all words — is marshaled in praise of God. One cannot actually use all of the words in a language, but by using the alphabet one uses all potential words.

Thus, Psalm 34 is an individual hymn of thanksgiving of David sung on the occasion of the deliverance of his very life by God, perhaps as the ultimate word about God’s help to those who are in need (a summary of all that could be said about God’s help in the face of oppression and hurt). Readers and hearers, then, should heed the words of Psalm 34, a song of thanksgiving for deliverance and find in them hope for deliverance from various oppressive situations. In the focus text, Psalm 34:1-8, the psalmist first offers praise to God:

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD (1-2).

Blessing and praising God are common themes in the Psalter. The word “bless” comes from the same root as the Hebrew word “knee.” Thus, to bless is literally “to bend the knee” — to kneel before a sovereign. The words “praise” and “boast” come from the same Hebrew root word, the word that occurs in the phrase “hallelujah.” Thus, praise will be in the mouth of psalmist; while the psalmist’s inmost being (here translated as “soul”) finds its praise (“boasts”) in the Lord.

The psalm singer then states the reasons for offering praise to God:

I sought the LORD and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears. (4)
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD,
and was saved from every trouble. (6)

Two more common themes of the Psalter occur in these verses. God delivers (natsal) and God saves (yashah) the psalm singer when the singer cries out to God. The two verbs are similar in meaning, but carry slightly different nuances of meaning. Natsal suggests a “snatching away” or “pulling away.” Thus, we may picture God plucking the psalmist out of midst of fears and moving the psalmist to a safer place. Yashah means “to take full care of” or “to help,” suggesting that God enters the troubled situation of the psalmist and cares for the psalmist in the midst of the trouble. Note that the word “soul” occurs in verse 6, just as it does in verse 2. The inmost being (soul) of the psalmist cried out to God and was cared for (verse 6) and thus finds its praise (boasts) in the Lord.

Finally, the singer exhorts hearers/readers to join in praise of God’s deliverance with words of admonition:

O magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together. (3)
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed. (5)
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and delivers them.
O taste and see that the LORD is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him. (7-8)

The words of verse 8 are familiar words, but what does it mean to “taste and see” the goodness of the Lord? The word translated as “taste,” means “to try something by experiencing it.” The psalm singer admonishes readers/hearers to try God’s goodness for themselves and experience it as one would taste a new food. The word is used in the same metaphoric way in Job 11:12 and Proverbs 31:18. Tasting is one of our five senses. Seeing is another. We see the goodness of God powerfully displayed in the created world. Recall that in Genesis 1, after each creative act, God “saw” that it was good. And at the end of the creation story, God saw that creation was not just good, but that it was “very good.” Psalm 34 encourages us to experience God for ourselves and to open our eyes and see the goodness of God that is all around us.

Verse 8 ends with the words, “Happy are those who take refuge in him.” The word translated here as “take refuge” means “to hide oneself.” This writer pictures a small child wrapped up in its parent’s arms — protected, warm, loved. The result? Happiness. The word “happy” occurs some twenty-five times in the Psalter (see 1:1; 2:12; 41:1; 65:4; 112:1, etc.). Some translations render the word as “blessed,” others as “happy.” Another option for translation is “content.” Taking refuge in God — being protected, warm, and loved — can result in a deep, inner sense of contentment, a feeling in the very depth of your being that all is well. Content, indeed, are those who allow themselves to be wrapped up in the arms of God.


1Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 6, 2011.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:1-3

Audrey West

If 1 John had a social media footprint, this week’s status update would read, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).1

These are words of encouragement written to a community that is troubled by schism. Whatever were the details of the split — and since we have a response by only one side we have to read between the lines and in mirror-image to figure it out — the disagreement has been serious enough that some folks have packed up and left the church. Anyone who has experienced the trauma of a congregational (or denominational) split can imagine how devastating this development would have been for parties on both sides of the divide.

This community was unable to remain in fellowship due to significant differences in their beliefs about Jesus. At the heart of the matter, according to the author, is that the people who have left are denying that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22) and that he is the incarnate Son of God (1 John 4:2-3). They still understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, but what they believe and confess about him differs from those who remain.

One of the primary aims of 1 John is to persuade the remaining community members that they have good reason to hold on to their confession because they have experienced its truth in their very existence as a community. The author emphasizes this view in the introductory verse: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life … ” (1 John 1:1).

Faith, according to this writing, is not simply a matter of cognitive assertion; it is the testimony of the real-life, embodied experience that has been given to them by God. The glue that holds the church together is God’s love, which has bound them into one family as children of God.

Those who have chosen to depart claim fellowship with Jesus, and they also claim that they have no sin (1 John 1:8) — claims that the author refutes. The specific details of their sin are not spelled out; that is, there is not an enumerated list of behaviors or actions, except that they chose to leave the group: “they went out from us” (2:18-19). From the perspective of 1 John, their departure violates the identity of the community as those who “love one another.” Although they claim to have the light of Christ, their actions do not show it; they “hate brother or sister” (2:9).

In other words, the opponents talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. In contrast, 1 John urges the community to remain (“abide”) in Christ by walking “just as he walked” (2:6). At issue then, is the importance of living in community in such a way that it reflects their walk with Jesus.

“See!” Perhaps better translated Look at!, the first word of the passage suggests that the love given by God is something that people can actually see. It is not a fuzzy, feel-good sensation, but a concrete and visible reality that has already been bestowed on the community that follows Christ. Readers of the Gospel of John would readily hear the echoes from its prologue: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:12; see also 1 John 3:2, 10; 5:2). Here, in 1 John, the status as God’s children is not simply asign of the past or a future eschatological hope, but a present reality: “For that is what we are … ” (1 John 3:1). Lest we miss that point, the author repeats it, along with another reminder of the believers’ beloved status: “Beloved, we are God’s children now! (1 John 3:1-2).

This is good news indeed! In the midst of separation and disagreement it is not uncommon for a community (or individuals within it) to lose confidence in its ability to move faithfully into an unknown future. It is too easy to get bogged down in questions of what if and fears about what might be? Preachers might point out to the congregation what it looks like in their context to be God’s children now, already, in their particular time and place. How is this church community already manifesting God’s love in its identity? In its actions? In the ways it is known to the community around it? On this day of All Saints, what can the congregation learn from the testimony of the saints of this place who have walked before them? How did those local ancestors of the faith live into their identity as children of God?

The church need not gaze wistfully for a “someday” to come in order to possess the fullness of its identity. There is no need to wait until there are more members, or more resources, or more of whatever we might believe is necessary to be a good, or faithful, or missional (choose your favorite adjective!) church.

Like the readers of 1 John, perhaps the people gathered for worship in today’s churches could benefit from an occasional reminder that God has already bestowed upon them the thing that is most important for being the people they are called to be. They are children of God. Already. Today. Now.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 2, 2014.