Lectionary Commentaries for October 28, 2018
Reformation Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Lucy Lind Hogan

One year ago, the world took note of an important anniversary.

That 500th anniversary marked an event that shook the Christian world. In 1517 Martin Luther challenged the church, the papal authorities, in order to explore the truth and the freedom of the Christian life. Were people saved by paying the indulgences offered by the church, or were they saved by the grace of God alone?

As we mark year 501, many of Luther’s questions are asked anew. Like those in today’s gospel text, we are challenged to reflect upon who we are to follow and in what we are to believe. What will make us free? I would suggest that, on this Reformation Day, we need to examine this text from three points of view: the gospel writer’s frame, Luther’s context, and of course, how Jesus challenges us today.

First, let us reflect upon the context in which this text was written. It is a text about truth, about freedom, and about the locus of that freedom. Whenever we dive into a text it is crucial that we read “backwards.” In this text Jesus is engaging the “Jews who believed in him.” Doesn’t that strike us as a bit odd? Were there many non-Jews who believed in him? Certainly, by the time of the gospel writer, there were Gentile Christians, but most scholars argue that the author is a Jewish Christian writing to Jewish Christians.

It is clear that Jesus is being opposed by the Jewish authorities. In John 7 we see that the Pharisees and chief priests are arguing about who this man is and what they should do with him. Some were beginning to believe that this man may be the Messiah. But others argued he could not be. Jesus was not a descendant of David, “no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (John 7:52b). Therefore, Jesus is seeking to challenge those who would dismiss or arrest him, “I know where I have come from and where I am going” (John 8:14). What is important is that, even those who believed that Jesus might in fact be the Messiah, they continued to ground their identity in their Jewish heritage, “We are descendants of Abraham” (John 8:33).

It is this moment that is crucial for the gospel writer. At the heart of this controversy is one’s identity. Is one a follower of Jesus? Is one to find freedom in Jesus or in Abraham? Is one to know that Jesus spoke the truth, or rather the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees?

As we read this debate it is important that we realize that Jesus is a Jew speaking to Jews who are in conflict with other Jews. In reflecting on this exchange, the context of the gospel writer and his readers is central. John’s community believed in Jesus, believed that he spoke the truth, and believed that their freedom lay in walking the way of Jesus. But for that they had been cast out of the synagogue. They no longer had their “place in the household.” Their freedom, their new life was to be found in “the Son,” even if that meant disagreeing with the Scribes and Pharisees. They were experiencing freedom, but it came at a cost, a profound loss for many.

What does it mean to look at this text through Luther’s frame? Freedom was crucial for Luther. Where was the truth, freedom, new life to be found? Luther argued that it was not to be found in the medieval pietistic accretions, the indulgences, that marked the Christians life at that time. Rather it was found only in belief in Jesus Christ. The challenge with reading this text on Reformation Day is that we must confront and admit Luther’s anti-Semitism.

When John wrote this gospel text, he still considered himself a Jew, as did those in his community. They were wrestling how to remain faithful to the teachings of Abraham and Moses while, at the same time following Jesus. Luther, on the other hand, while reading the law and the prophets understood that his freedom lay in the grace of God found in Jesus. He also understood that Jews, who did not come to accept Jesus, were slaves to sin and were to be rejected. They were descendants of Abraham, but they were not free because they would not accept Jesus’ word.

As we observe Reformation Day, we must be careful not to read an anti-Jewish approach into this text. The gospel writer is seeking to help a displaced community find a home. Luther was also seeking to find a true home for he, too, was soon displaced from his home when Pope Leo X excommunicated him on January 3, 1521. John and his community were cast out for what they believed. Luther was cast out for what he believed.

Finally, how is Jesus challenging us today? Where do we find our truth, our freedom? What is our place in the household of God? Do we find our freedom in the grace and love of God or do we cling to our worldly identity? These are crucial questions when we live in a sharply divided world. How are we to read this text in our world?

Jesus asks those of us who consider ourselves to be his disciples, to continue in his word. What word is that? The Son makes us free, and that Son challenges us to love our neighbor. He asks us to see all persons as beloved children of God. We are free when we recognize that we live in a household in which all are welcome.

In one of his first treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian” Luther observed that as Christians we are totally free and are not to bow down to anyone but God. He then went on to write that to be a Christian also means that one is to be a servant to all. We are challenged to live out this contradiction of servant-hood and freedom. Only then, as Jesus tells us, will we truly be free. 

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Margaret Odell

Early Christians recognized God’s utterly new and transformative work in Jesus Christ in Jeremiah’s description of the “new covenant.”1

Jesus refers to it in the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:28), and it is the basis for the Christian designation of the scriptures as the Old and New Testaments. Old and new fit together like promise and fulfillment, and to say that God had done a new thing was to say that God had found new ways to be faithful to Israel. Remarkably — and somewhat paradoxically — God’s faithfulness to Israel meant the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God. Gentile Christians could therefore see themselves in Jeremiah’s promise of the renewed covenantal relationship with Israel, “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Because of this linkage to the old, something utterly new was possible.

Although the relationship between new and old originally implied continuity, the “new” came to be regarded as superior to the old, and Christians came to see themselves as the New Israel displacing the Old Israel in God’s economy of salvation. The horrors of the Holocaust in the twentieth century forced Christians to come to terms with the unintended consequences of this rhetoric. The challenge after the Holocaust is to find new ways of speaking about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in ways that affirm the validity of both ways of knowing and worshiping God. This is not easy, particularly when the old/new contrast is so deeply embedded within the scriptures themselves. Indeed, today’s New Testament lessons reinforce the contrast. In Romans, for example, Paul asserts that God has now accomplished that which the law, the old covenant, could never do. In John 8:31-36, meanwhile, Jesus could be taken to mean that Jews have remained slaves to sin — as if they had never experienced the forgiveness so clearly promised in Jeremiah 31:34. Although this is not the place to take up the problems posed by these, it is important to point out that their pairing with Jeremiah 31:31-34 follows a well-worn and now slippery path in Christian rhetoric.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 helps us to see that the new requires and depends on the old. Admittedly, this text also employs the language of discontinuity. The new covenant will not be like the old one (verse 32); and twice in verse 34 the expression “no more” is used to indicate a decisive change. Yet the relationship between the old and new suggests that the old is not replaced but reaffirmed and, more importantly, made permanent. It cannot be displaced or replaced, because it is the bedrock on which all else rests.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is one of three concluding speeches in the Book of Consolation (Jeremiah 30-31), a collection of oracles seeking to address the lingering trauma after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Responding to Israel’s cries of terror, pain, and grief, God speaks directly to Israel, promising to save, restore, and heal. At the heart of these assurances is the conviction that Israel will once again know God’s favor: “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” This is not simply a new thing, a capricious decision on God’s part to let go of wrath and become merciful again. Rather, Israel was to discover what had always been true: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (31:3).

The new covenant ensures that this understanding of God will never be lost. God’s character does not change; even in the old covenant, God showed care and concern for Israel, taking it by the hand to lead it out of Egypt (verse 32). What is new is that God’s torah (NRSV: law) is written on the heart. Underlying this metaphor is the ancient Near Eastern practice of treaty-making, in which covenants/treaties were inscribed in clay or stone and would be read regularly as reminders of obligations which covenant partners had sworn to uphold. They were also easily broken, as the turbulent history of Israel and Judah makes abundantly clear. “Jeremiah’s audience knows that stone tablets can be broken (Exodus 32:19; Deuteronomy 9:17) and that scrolls can be lost or ignored (2 Kings 22:8), and burned (Jeremiah 36:23) or drowned (Jeremiah 51:63).”2

Even if the texts themselves were not defaced or destroyed, there was still the problem of compliance. Ancient Near Eastern treaties and covenants forged artificial relationships, which by their nature were easily broken. By contrast, the covenant written on the heart describes a natural, not an artificial relationship, one that proceeds from innate knowledge. Because it is God’s torah that is written on the heart, the ability to respond to God becomes natural. Certainly such responsiveness would be a necessary corrective to the old covenant that was broken by Israel’s disobedience. Even so, what is emphasized here is not that Israel will know and observe God’s law, but that it will know God: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest” (verse 34). Although the oracle formula in verse 34 somewhat disrupts the flow, it is important to recognize that this knowledge is derived as much from Israel’s direct experience of God’s forgiveness and mercy as it is from the implanted torah: “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

What is imagined here is a resilient relationship of trust and mutuality, in which Israel responds to God from the heart, and God accepts Israel freely, with mercy and forgiveness. But what makes the new covenant possible is what had always been true but needed to be learned again. “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” This love, suggests Jeremiah, is nothing new.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 25, 2015.

2 Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise, and Thomas G. Smothers, Jeremiah 26–52 (WBC 27; Dallas: Word Books, 19950, 133.


Commentary on Psalm 46

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

The good news of Psalm 46 is essentially the same as that of last week’s psalm (see Psalm 91:9-16, Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost) — that is, God is “with us.”1

This message is reinforced by the refrain of Psalm 46 (verses 7, 11), and it is the central promise in the divine address that concludes Psalm 91 (see “with them” in verse 15). Thus, Psalm 46, like Psalm 91, is often labeled a psalm of trust.

Because of God’s powerful and protective presence, “we will not fear” (verse 2); and this is the same message delivered in 91:5, “You will not fear” (see also 23:4, another psalm of trust). In short, God can be trusted; or to use the psalmist’s vocabulary, God is “our refuge” (verse 1), which is the keyword in Psalm 91 (see verses 2, 4, 9; the NRSV “refuge” in 46:7, 11 represents a different but synonymous Hebrew word).

Although Psalms 46 and 91 are similar in several respects, the assurance is voiced in a different mode in Psalm 46, especially in verses 4-6, where the direct focus is on Jerusalem, “the city of God” (verse 4). The central feature of Jerusalem was Mount Zion, the location of the Temple, “the holy habitation of the Most High” (verse 4).

So, in addition to being a psalm of trust, Psalm 46 is also included among the Songs of Zion (see Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, 122, 132). Jerusalem and the Temple, although they were specific places, also functioned symbolically as visible signs of God’s presence and power. To visit Jerusalem, to enter the Temple, was to be put in touch with God and with God’s claim on the entire world. In short, Psalm 46 and the other Songs of Zion are ultimately proclamation of God’s universal reign.

This conclusion is reinforced by the placement of Psalm 46. The sequence of Psalms 46-48 means that two Songs of Zion surround Psalm 47, an explicit proclamation of God’s world-encompassing kingship (see especially verses 2, 6-8). This arrangement is almost certainly intentional, and it solidifies the symbolic significance of Zion as a witness to God’s universal sovereignty. Because God claims the world and all its peoples, God can be trusted to be a powerful, protecting presence.

As is the case with Psalms 23 and 91, the promise of God’s protective presence is not a guarantee of an easy, care-free existence. Rather, the promise of God-with-us comes in the midst of “the darkest valley” (23:4) and when the psalmist is “in trouble” (91:15). 

These situations are certainly bad enough, but the situations described in Psalm 46 are even worse. In verses 1-3, the whole earth is threatened as “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” (verse 2), making “its waters roar and foam” (verse 3). We might picture a disastrous tsunami, but the threat is even greater than this.  Because the mountains were understood to be the foundations or pillars that held up the sky and anchored the dry land, the shaking of the mountains represents the very undoing of creation (see Psalm 82:5).  Even in the midst of a pervasive cosmic threat, “we will not fear” (verse 2).

The situation in verses 4-6 is equally unsettling. The Hebrew verb translated “shake” is repeated in verses 5-6 to emphasize the threat of instability (see “moved” in verse 5 and “totter” in verse 6); and “roar” in verse 3 recurs as “uproar” in verse 6. The crisis in this section is political, involving “nations” and “kingdoms” (verse 6); and we contemporary folk might think of what is often referred to as “the terrorist threat.”

But in the midst of the turmoil, God offers a point of stability that “shall not be moved” (verse 5; see Psalms 93:1; 96:10). The repetition of “help” (verses 1, 5) reinforces this conclusion. In the midst of the threat of international and even cosmic chaos, God’s presence is the genuine source of “help” that offers the promise of being able to live without fear.

The promise is a timely one! Countless strategists and politicians seek election and power precisely by playing upon what is usually called “the politics of fear.” We must not, they tell us, let the terrorists win; and this means arming ourselves and our allies in order to fight violence with more violence. The implicit, and often explicit assumption, is that “God is on our side.”

But Psalm 46 does not promise the U.S. or any other sovereign state that “God is on our side.” Rather, it promises that God is “with us.” And contrary to what we often think or are told, this means not arming ourselves but disarming ourselves. The surprising nature of this conclusion is captured by the seemingly satirical strategy in verses 8-10. 

God’s “desolations,” it turns out, mean nothing short of the destruction of the implements of war, and indeed, the abolition of war itself (see Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-3). Following this astounding bit of information is a very explicit invitation that is very frequently misunderstood: “Be still, and know that I am God!” (verse 10). It is not an invitation to quiet meditation or a slower pace of life. Rather, it is a clarion call to the nations of the world for a universal cease-fire; and it would better be translated as “Stop it!” or more paraphrastically, “Drop your guns!”

To know that God is “with us” means not the courage to wage war, but rather the courage to wage peace! To be sure, waging peace will be a “fight” in a world seemingly fascinated with violence and warfare. But it is in the “fight” for peace that we can faithfully claim that God is “with us” (or even say genuinely that “God is on our side”).

Psalm 46 is fitting for Reformation Sunday because of Martin Luther’s enduring metrical paraphrase, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Luther found in Psalm 46 the inspiration, courage, and energy to resist forces that seemed irresistible; and his resolute stand changed the Church and changed the world. The naysayers today tell us that world peace is not possible, and that it is naïve even to envision the possibility.

But Psalm 46 is precisely God’s vision of a world at peace. So, the psalmist and Luther together remind us that all things are possible with God!


1 Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 28, 2012.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

J.R. Daniel Kirk

The triumph of grace over law fanned the sparks of Luther’s troubled conscience into the blaze that became the Protestant Reformation.

Romans 3, as much as any other passage in scripture, lays out the dichotomy between the law and the saving grace of God in Christ.

The rule of grace

But it may well be that most of us have not gone far enough. Rather than seeing God’s saving grace as an alternative to salvation through law, many of us inhabit theological systems in which God’s work in Christ becomes the way that the law is freed to vindicate us. The result, often, is that our churches, as well as the societies bearing our influence, become marked by aspirations to a rule of law rather than embodying the reign of grace.

Paul never talks about Jesus keeping the law in our place. Never suggests that Jesus’ law-keeping becomes our own. Such an idea would mean that the problem with the law is quantitative: if we could keep enough of it, we would be ok. Instead, Paul sets out to demonstrate that the problem of the law is qualitative: the law is the wrong kind of thing to give us the life and salvation that God has in store.

In Romans 3:19-20, Paul says both that the purpose of the law is something other than providing our salvation, and that it is impossible for it to do so. When he asserts that no human will be justified before God by works of the law he is not setting up an impossibility that Christ overcomes. Instead, we are learning that the law has a different job: making known the guilt and power of sin.

Romans 3:21 reinforces the dichotomy between the law and the righteousness of God. The law and the prophets both point beyond themselves to something else: to the work of God in Christ (verse 22). Incidentally, this is the same interpretive guide that Jesus applies to the scriptures of Israel in both Luke 24:25-26, 44-47 and John 5:39. Scripture, including the law, is read rightly when we see it not as talking about itself, but as a witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ.

One people

One of the most tragic failures of the church throughout the centuries has been our unwillingness to boldly take hold of the claim, “there is no distinction” (Romans 3:23). Justification by faith should have been the end of all nationalism, racism, sexism, and classism in the church. It should have marked the end of Christian willingness to go to war, literally or figuratively, against people gathered under some tribal or national flag other than our own.

“There is no distinction” might be the single most important confession of the reality of creation that we can make in 2018. And it might be the one that calls forth our deepest repentance.

Faithful trust

As this passage represents the salvation that breaks into the world it sets two things alongside each other. On the one hand is the death of Christ on the cross. On the other is the human response of “faith.”

It is likely that when Paul says, “through faith in Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22), he is capturing both of these elements. What is it that puts God’s righteousness on display (Romans 3:21-22)? It is not our human response to the Christ event. It is the death of Jesus itself. Thus, scholars have increasingly advocated that we translate “faith in Christ” as “faithfulness of Christ.” Jesus’ fidelity in going to the cross makes God’s righteousness known.


But this does not elide the human response. This manifestation of divine righteousness through Christ’s fidelity is for “all those who believe” (Romans 3:22). Those words, too, might need to be nuanced. If what saves us is Christ’s “faithfulness,” then perhaps our response should be thought of not so much as mental assent (“I believe that this is right”) as with our own faithfulness to this narrative (“I entrust myself to this saving story and the role God calls me to within it”).

The life we’re called to is measured by the grace and righteousness of God put on display in the cross rather than the law that God gave to Israel.

Atoning sacrifice

In a manner that makes many modern interpreters uncomfortable, Paul draws on Israel’s traditions of substitionary atonement to describe how Jesus’ death enables God’s righteousness to stand alongside human vindication. The Maccabean martyr traditions illustrate this way of thinking. In 2 Maccabees 7 righteous martyrs die confessing the sins of the people and praying for God to hear, act, and save.

Fourth Maccabees interprets the same scene as follows: “because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified — they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice (Greek hilasterion), divine Providence preserved Israel” (4 Maccabees 17:20-22 New Revised Standard Version).

Only in 4 Maccabees 17 and in Romans 3 does the word hilasterion refer to the atoning sacrifice rather than the “mercy seat” in the tabernacle or later temple. Both times it refers to the death of a martyr that turns God’s disposition toward the people as it frees them from an enslaving power.

Vindication (“justification”) of God’s people is found not merely in a forensic declaration, but in our being freed from the tyrants of sin and death that had formerly enslaved all people (Romans 6-8). As all had been enslaved and had sinned, since the law does not save, and inasmuch as there is no distinction, so all human boasting is excluded (Romans 3:27). Because all of us are saved only by God’s righteousness through the faithful Messiah.