Lectionary Commentaries for October 22, 2017
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22

Erick J. Thompson

“It’s a trap!” This famous line from the third Star Wars movie has become one of my favorite memes, particularly as I live and work in the church.

This Sunday’s text finds the Pharisees and Herodians setting a trap for Jesus, hoping he will answer their questions improperly and either lose favor with the public, or get in trouble with the Roman authorities. The larger issue is how we deal with this text in a contemporary world where, for some of us, our duties to God and country might seem to be at odds with one another. And, how do we find resources for preaching a text about traps that might be a trap in itself? The answer might be found in naming the various ways in which the text challenges us and still calls us.

The trap set by the Pharisees and Herodians is twofold: they not only hope to get him in trouble with the Roman authorities, but also get him in trouble with the popular people. The tax they are referring to is a Poll tax and was very unpopular amongst Jewish people at the time. They were not as concerned about his potential violation of the religious codes as his going against the popular sentiment.1

Two kinds of righteousness

This text is about righteousness, but Jesus evades the trap set for him by talking about two different authorities that one must respond to: the civil authorities and God. In the preface to his 1535 Commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther talks about two kinds of righteousness: Civil Righteousness and Spiritual (Alien) Righteousness. For Luther, our civil righteousness was something we worked on and something we were accountable for. Civil righteousness is achieved by how we act in society. But, our spiritual righteousness regards our relationship with God and, for Luther, is determined not by our actions, but by God’s love in Christ. It is sometimes called alien righteousness because we could no more increase or earn that righteousness than we could live on the moon. In some ways, Jesus is using similar categories to respond to the question posed to him.

By calling attention to the different obligations we have, Jesus is reminding us of the differences that exist for us as citizens of the state and citizens of heaven. Jesus carefully suggests that we owe the state exactly what is demanded of us, in this case, the coin with Caesar’s head on it. By contrasting that with his exhortation to give unto God what is God’s, Jesus is exposing the irony of the Pharisees and Herodians’ religious activities; they are more concerned with their own power than they are with honoring God.

I believe this follows Luther’s logic and can be a useful way to approach this sermon. In the civil realm, we must “earn” our righteousness, for example we are supposed to obey the speed limits. We cannot rely on our spiritual righteousness to answer for righteousness in the civil realm since, for Luther, our righteousness in the civil realm was earned by following the law. When we consider our vocations, our callings, in the world, they are part of our civil righteousness.

The trick for us is that our own sense of what’s right in the world might not mirror what we find in society. The current immigration debate is a good example of how many people hold differing viewpoints and the government itself seems to be in disagreement about how exactly to proceed. In this situation, many people may believe that it is their civic duty to voice their disagreement with the government about immigration. And, this civil disobedience may indeed be the proper “civil righteous” response.

Traps for us

Yet, there can be traps in this way of thinking as well. First, do we confuse the righteousness we try to attain in society with our spiritual righteousness? Given our current political climate, there are many churches and Christians who have taken an active role in calling and working for justice in our world. This may be the proper civil response, but does that make them more spiritually righteous? In our text for today, Jesus is not calling for people to worship these causes or to see them as gospel issues. Instead, Jesus is calling, quite clearly, to keep these two arenas of our lives distinct.

This distinction can lead to our second potential trap: Does our confidence in our spiritual righteousness allow us to stay quiet in the civil realm? It might be worthwhile to call our congregations to examine their callings as citizens and decide how they are called to be working towards God’s justice and good news in society. This approach might be strengthened by looking ahead in the lectionary to the next Sunday where there is specific talk about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves (and particularly for those churches who might miss this text as they celebrate Reformation Sunday).

Part of our learning from this text could be around how we, as Christians, learn to interact with the governing authorities and yet maintain our identity and honor our callings as Christians. For some, this may be easy. Their government and their conscience may line up pretty closely. Others may find this more and more difficult as government continues to be at odds with their conscience.

Finally, the reality is that preaching on this text may not be as easy as it seems, since it might be hard to ignore the contemporary aspects of this text. This could present its own traps for us. While it might be difficult to realize, we may have people of good conscience on both sides of the same issue. The key might be to find a way to proclaim the good news of God’s love for us while also calling people to think about what God’s good news and justice might look like in the world. Essential to this endeavor is being open to listening for that call while realizing that others might hear it differently than we do. Then, the question is: can we trust that God is at work even in those who believe differently than we do? I hope that we can give unto God what is God’s.


Notes

1. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 556.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 45:1-7

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Second Isaiah casts a broad theological vision in Isa 45:1-7, proclaiming God’s power over all of creation, over the affairs of the nations — not just those of the people of Israel — and even asserting God’s power to create both good and evil (verse 7).

The last might sound a startling claim, but it’s a claim that serves the prophet’s larger purpose, which is to give the exiles hope that all of this divine power is dedicated to their restoration and renewal.

Isaiah 45:1-7 is part of a larger block of prophetic poetry that begins in 44:23 and concludes at 45:8. The poem is nicely balanced. In the opening verse of the poem, 44:23, the prophet enjoins the heavens, the depths of the earth, and the mountains to sing because God has redeemed Israel. At the end of the poem, in 45:8, the prophet calls to the heavens to rain down with righteousness and to the earth to open up so that righteousness can grow because “I the LORD have created it” (that is, righteousness). The entire poem is thus encapsulated by this idea that creation serves as herald of the people’s redemption as well as the fertile soil in which the redemption will grow. The world is a stage, to borrow a different metaphor, for the might acts of God on behalf of the people.

The prophet highlights this point by moving into the imagery of creation. In 44:24 and 45:6-7, the prophet draws on the myths of creation to assert something bolder than simple dominance: singularity. Three times in 44:24, the prophet emphasizes that YHWH alone made heaven and earth. In 45:5-6, the prophet says four times that there is no other god but YHWH and then declares in verse 7 that YHWH is the one who forms light and creates darkness. YHWH is solely responsible for the ordering of the world. Thus, the prophet challenges the theological viewpoint of much of the ancient Near East that considered the wars between nations to reflect the wars between gods. When a nation was defeated so was their god. Second Isaiah says there can be no battle between gods because there is only one god. There can be no battle when there is no opposition. Even “weal” and “woe” are under the control of YHWH, who creates them.

While the poem is bookended with the theme of YHWH’s power over all of creation, the prophet places at the center of the poem a proclamation about what God is accomplishing on what is, by comparison, a much smaller scale: the movement of armies. Considered alongside God’s power to create, God’s power to effect change through historical events is not a startling claim. It is somewhat startling is that the prophet has God call the leader of Persia, Cyrus, “my shepherd” and “my anointed.” Cyrus is not one of the chosen people and is the only non-Israelite to be called “my anointed,” but by using this language, the prophet makes clear that God has selected Cyrus for a special purpose. Cyrus is called — just as the heavens and earth are called in 44:23 and 45:8 — in order to serve God’s redemptive purposes. He may not be aware of it, but he is the tool of YHWH, nonetheless.

Isaiah 45:1-7 is a portion of a prophetic poem that is about the dominance of YHWH over the created world as well as over human history. One might dismiss the prophet’s word to the people as triumphalist and arrogant, but that dismissal ignores the fact that the prophet was writing to a people in exile, attempting to inspire hope by reminding them of their ancient faith and calling on them to see that ancient faith at work in their contemporary lives. They are called to look for the signs that YHWH is at work, and they are called to look in surprising places for those signs. Even a Persian king who doesn’t know the name YHWH can be YHWH’s instrument. If God is the creator of the world, hope can grow anywhere in the heavens or on the earth.

We live in an anxious time. Recent events have left many of us holding our breath when we turn to the news, anticipating the next disaster. It is terribly important to remind our fellow Christians that we are a people of hope and that God did not abandon the exiles of Judah and does not abandon us either. Our ancient faith bears witness to the power of God to redeem and restore sometimes in unexpected ways. We have received this faith and are called to live into it just as the writer of Second Isaiah called the exiles to live into it. To do so requires us to be a people always looking for the signs of God’s work in the world. It requires us to be a people of hope.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23

Dennis Olson

The text of Exodus 33:12-23 is the culmination of a series of new revelations of God’s identity and names throughout the book of Exodus.

The series of unveilings of the divine begins when God first calls Moses at the burning bush to lead God’s people out of slavery. God begins by revealing a name that points to the past: “I am the God of your ancestors” (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob — 3:6, 15).

Next is a name that points to the present and the future: “I Am Who I Am” or perhaps better, “I Will Be Who I Will Be” (Exodus 3:14). The name plays on the Hebrew verb hayah (“to be”). The same verb lies behind God’s other special name YHWH (translated by the NRSV as “the LORD”). Watch to see what God will do in order to know who God is.

The Ten Commandments begin with an expansion of God’s name: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). You are my people, says, the LORD, and I am “your God” who freed you from oppression.

Yet another expansion of the divine name declares God’s central motivation for this divine act of liberation: “I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I might live among them” (Exodus 29:46). The whole point of God delivering Israel was to make it possible that God would be close and near, living “with us” in the midst of God’s beloved people. That’s why the book of Exodus spends so much time on the instructions (Exodus 25-31) and the building (Exodus 35-40) of the Tabernacle or tent sanctuary. The tabernacle is intended to be God’s home and dwelling place in the midst of God’s holy people.

God’s yearning to be “with” Israel and in their midst is the reason why the people’s rebellion in worshipping the golden calf in Exodus 32 is such a devastating event. Israel’s worship of the golden calf violated the first and important commandment about worshiping God alone and not worshiping idols (Exodus 20:3-5). This covenant-breaking act endangered God’s whole project of deliverance and dwelling in the midst of Israel. How can the powerful holiness and glory of the God of all creation live with and in the midst of a sinful people without the surging power of that divine holiness destroying the people (Exodus 33:3)? That is the key question with which Exodus 33:12-23 wrestles.

God and Moses in Intense Dialogue.

Moses succeeded in convincing God not to destroy the Israelites immediately after the golden calf rebellion (Exodus 32:7-14). Moses reminded God of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that God would bring the Israelites to the promised land of Canaan. But how was God going to accomplish that without destroying them?

As an alternate plan, God proposed sending an “angel” instead of Godself to lead the people on their journey to Canaan (Exodus 32:34; 33:2-3). Moses, however, was not satisfied. Moses knew that the only thing that made the Israelites different from any other people or nation in the world is that God was in their midst and travels “with them” on their journey (Exodus 33:16). So Moses keeps pressing God with a number of arguments.

Moses appeals to the unique intimacy of the relationship between Moses and God (Exodus 33:12-13). Moses also reminds God that the Israelites are “your people” (Exodus 33:13b). After the golden calf incident, God had tried to put some distance between God and the people by referring to them as “your people,” Moses — not mine (Exodus 32:7; 33:1). Moses was having none of that! These are your people, God — not mine!

God then concedes that instead of the angel, “my presence will go” (Exodus 33:14). The New Revised Standard Version translation incorrectly reads verse 14 as “my presence will go with you.But the phrase — “with you” — is not in the Hebrew. God agrees to go to Canaan but not “in the midst of” them, not “with” them, not “among” them. Maybe in front of, alongside, behind…but “not with us” (Hebrew ?immanu).

God with Us?

Moses remains unsatisfied. Moses insists to God that you must “go with us” (?immanu — Exodus 33:16). Amazingly, God finally agrees! “I will do the very thing that you have asked” (Exodus 33:17). Great! But how can a holy God live and travel “with us” without destroying God’s holy but sinful people? The answer. By reaching down and revealing yet another deeper layer of God’s name and identity.

Moses knows that the only basis for rebuilding the broken covenant relationship between God and people rests on who God is. The people’s hope does not rest on who the people are or what the people do. Without God, the Israelites are no better than the Egyptians (Exodus 33:4-6; see Exodus 12:35-36). As a result, Moses pleads to see and know more deeply God’s “ways” (Exodus 33:13), God’s “glory” (Exodus 33:18), God’s “goodness” (Exodus 33:19), God’s “name” (Exodus 33:19).

“I Will Be Gracious.”

Moses knows that Israel’s only hope lies deep down in God’s deeper self-discovery about God’s own character and name. Thus, God reveals to Moses yet another stage in the revealing of God’s name in Exodus. God who was “I Will Be Who I Will Be” (Exodus 3:14) is now revealed as “I Will Be Gracious to Whom I Will Be Gracious, and I Will Show Mercy on Whom I Will Show Mercy” (Exodus 33:19). The balance in God’s deepest character leans toward grace and mercy. God freely extends grace upon whomever God chooses. In this time and place on Mount Sinai, God chooses to love, forgive, and have mercy on the rebellious Israelites.

Moses and God have a uniquely intimate relationship (Exodus 33:11). On that basis, Moses has been able to nudge God step-by-step to reveal enough of God’s deep character to find a way forward that allows the holy, glorious, powerful, and good God to live “with us” (Immanuel) without destroying us, sinners though we may be. The next chapter will continue with God’s further explication of the divine name that continues to highlight the priority of mercy, forgiveness and grace in the deep character and name of God (Exodus 34:6-7).

The Mystery of God Lingers.

The text closes with God’s announcement that God will physically pass by Moses in the form of a divine body (Exodus 33:21-23). As God passes by, “you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” Moses will be privileged to see something no other human has seen about God. Yet even Moses will not see or know all there is to know about God. This is an amazing and unprecedented encounter between a human and God. But a part of God’s ways, glory, goodness, and name (the face of God) will remain unknown, unseen. Dimensions of God’s ways in the world will remain mysterious, elusive, and incomprehensible. What we do know of God’s supreme love and mercy, however, is sufficient for the journey to continue.

Preaching the Text.

The preaching possibilities of this singularly important Old Testament text are numerous. The ever unfolding names of God. The character of God that always leans toward mercy and grace. The capacity of human prayer and advocacy for others to move God. The consistent yearning of God to be Immanuel — God with us (Isaiah 7:14). In Exodus 33, we hear a powerful echo to a future witness to the unfolding character and name of God: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth (John 1:14).


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]

Kelly J. Murphy

“It’s like those miserable psalms. They’re so depressing.” At least, so says the character of God in an (in)famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Yet Psalm 96 is anything but miserable or depressing.

Psalm 96 rejoices in Yahweh’s salvation, works, glory, greatness, honor, majesty, and strength. It proclaims that Yahweh alone created the heavens. It commands that all of the heavens, all of the earth, and all peoples should praise Yahweh. It opens with an imperative that sets the joyous, praise-filled tone for what follows: “Sing to Yahweh a new song!” (Psalm 96:1).

While verses 1-9 are included in the liturgy, the final four verses are absent. Yet at the core of this psalm is the opening of these last verses: “Say among the nations, ‘Yahweh is king!’” (Psalm 96:10, New Revised Standard Version). Verses 10-13 remind listeners why they should sing and praise, both declaring that Yahweh is king and promising divine action: Yahweh “is coming to judge (šepo?) the earth,” with “righteousness … and truth” [verse 13].

The promise of divine judgment might return us to the idea of “those miserable psalms,” which are “so depressing.” After all, judgment rarely carries with it connotations of joy. But many scholars suggest that a better translation of the Hebrew verb šp? might be “to establish justice.” In other words, this is a promise of justice on earth, a promise that the world will be righted and restored even if it doesn’t look that way in the present moment. One day, says the psalmist, things will be better than they are. So “let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it” (verses 11-12).

The image of the heavens, the earth, the sea, the field, and “everything in it” celebrating a new and better future becomes especially moving when we consider when Psalm 96 might have been composed. Along with Psalms 93, 94-95, and 97-99, Psalm 96 has long been categorized as an enthronement psalm; namely, a psalm that celebrates Yahweh as divine king (also see Psalms 29 and 47). For many years, biblical scholars, following in the footsteps of Sigmund Mowinckel, suggested that these psalms originated in an annual festival where Yahweh was (re)enthroned as king over Israel in the Jerusalem Temple.

Alternatively, scholars have proposed that Psalm 96 might have been written as a response to the Babylonian Exile of 587 b.c.e. Psalm 89, which closes Book III of the Psalter, describes the crisis of the Babylonian Exile, asking, “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” (Psalm 89:46). Jerusalem has fallen and Yahweh is hidden. In the aftermath of the exile, hope in any form, especially hope for justice, must have been hard to come by. After this, Psalm 96, along with the other psalms of Book IV of the psalter (Psalms 90-106), follow.

So why do scholars think Psalm 96, with its joyous and praise-filled tone, is a response to the crisis of exile? According to many, the similarities between the language of Psalm 96 and the language of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), largely dated to sometime near the end of the Babylonian Exile, provides us with the clues to situate its composition. A number of parallels are regularly cited. For example, Psalm 96:1 implores its listeners to “Sing to Yahweh a new song!” So too does the book of Isaiah: “Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!” (Isaiah 42:12). As Isaiah declares, “Let the sea roar and all that fills it,” so too does the psalmist (96:11). Psalm 96:2 commands its listeners to “tell (basserû)” of Yahweh’s “salvation from day to day,” using the same Hebrew root behind the “good tidings” of Isaiah 40:9 (mebasseret) and Isaiah 41:27 (mebasser).

Moreover, this declaration of Yahweh’s “salvation (yešû?atô)” in Psalm 96:2 also appears in the book of Isaiah: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation (yešû?atî) may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6; see 52:7). Both Isaiah and Psalm 96 proclaim that only Yahweh is God and all other gods are idols (Isaiah 44:9-20; Psalm 96:5). And both Second Isaiah and Psalm 96 share the aforementioned vision of divine justice (see Isaiah 42:1-4). So, goes the argument, these literary connections suggest that Psalm 96 might have been written around the same time.

For Second Isaiah, there was hope that the Babylonian Exile might end and that Yahweh would act in Israel’s history once again, as Yahweh had in the past: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). The declaration that “I am about to do a new thing” seems to be the same hope that undergirds Psalm 96 and its call for a new song. Once again, says the psalmist, Yahweh will act.

Psalm 96 is anything but miserable or depressing, even if it was perhaps composed in one of the most potentially depressing periods of ancient Israelite history. The psalm looks forward to a time when Yahweh will act yet again. At the same time, the psalm does not ask its listeners to wait passively for the establishment of justice on earth. The series of imperatives throughout the psalm remind listeners themselves to also act: to sing, bless, tell, and declare. These imperatives, all in the plural, demand that everyone act. And the inclusion of all throughout the psalm — all the peoples, families, nations, and, indeed, the very heavens, seas, fields, and trees — reminds listeners of how bound together creation is. Together, the psalmist says, hope, even in the face of misery. Celebrate. But together, too, work.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Amy L.B. Peeler

“I really can’t say enough good about you!” So echoes Paul’s sentiment at the beginning of Thessalonians.

He has ample reason to express thanks for them in his prayers. He has no doubt of God’s work in them. People enjoy speaking of their faith, and Paul can hold them up as exemplary. Yet all is not perfect. Paul, like a good parent, utilizes the opportunity for praise to inject some hope as well. He outlines here a specific area in which the Thessalonians need further growth, praying for what they can be in light of what they’ve already become. Paul acknowledges the great transformation God the Father, through Son and the Spirit, has already accomplished as the basis for continuing growth into an even greater reputation of faith.

A striking historical background

Paul visits Thessalonica, according to Acts 17, on his second missionary journey. This was an important city, the capital of the Macedonian province, located on an inlet and an important trade route, the Via Egnatia. The converts to his message would have previously participated in the many and sundry cults of this bustling city, prominent among them worship of Roma, the embodiment of the ideals of the Roman Empire. When these people heard Paul’s message and accepted its exclusive call to worship the God of Israel alone, they would have faced not only questions, but also rejection and possibly persecution from their families and neighbors. The historical situation in which they converted set them up for a robust and compelling witness of intense and costly faith.

The work of God

As to be expected in Paul, he casts the human action, as important and praise-worthy as it may be, as thoroughly ensconced in the action of God. His praise for the Thessalonians arises from, is surrounded by, and aims toward the work of God. He begins by saying that the church finds its calling in God and in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Then, if we were to reconstruct the story of the Thessalonians’ active faith, it would proceed with the following points.

Initially, God loved them and chose them (1:4).

This might be an interesting place to engage the doctrine of election. The phrase could point to the Thessalonians’ choice for God, but most commentators take it as referring to God’s choice of them, because of Paul’s other usage of the word for election (Romans 9:11; 11:5, 7, 28). If the divine election is in mind, Paul can assert this only after the fact, after the Thessalonians have decided to follow Christ. Paul often (see also Ephesians 1) appeals to divine election to encourage those who have already chosen for God.

Continuing the story of their faith, the gospel came to them by power, assurance, and the Holy Spirit (1:5). They turned from idols to God (1:9). Jesus rescued them from eschatological wrath (1:10). God is responsible — deserving of thanks — for the three elements Paul mentions about their faith (1:3). These good things happen because they aim all their deeds at God (1:3, 8), hope for Lord Jesus Christ (1:3) as they imitate him (1:6), and accept tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1:6). The work of God — and here it really is no stretch to say the work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — has created and sustained their faith.

And the response of the Thessalonians

Because God has done so, they are worthy of praise because they have turned from their previous religious expressions to serve the living and true God (the jab being that the previous gods were dead and false, 1:9). They are presently imitating Jesus and his apostles (1:6), and are therefore worthy of imitation themselves (1:7). Paul mentions three specific expressions of the Thessalonians’ faith that result in his thankfulness.

Beginning with the last — the endurance of hope — the Thessalonians seem to be particularly good at hoping. At the close of the first chapter, Paul asserts that they are waiting for God’s son from heaven. Paul’s well-known discussion about the return of Christ in chapter 4, shows that they have no doubt Jesus will come again; they only need some reassurance about those who have already died without yet seeing him. Finally, they are encouraging each other with the hope of the return of Christ (5:11).

Paul also expresses gratefulness for their labor of love. Paul doesn’t really even need to teach them about loving each other because God has been their teacher. They have heard it and now done it, loving not only one another, but the whole of the family of God throughout Macedonia (4:10). There is always room for more love, but this is an element of their faith, and to Paul, a vitally important one (think 1 Corinthians 13), in which the Thessalonians excel.

The work of faith

The situation with the first element Paul mentions, however, seems a bit different. He gives thanks for their work of faith (1:3). That the Thessalonians have faith is without question, and that it is working, Paul has also established. Nevertheless, Paul will have much to tell them about work in this letter (2 Thessalonians continues this theme as well, see 2 Thessalonians 3:8-12). He lifts himself and his fellow Christians up as examples of those who worked with diligence even as they were proclaiming the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:9). Paul again stands as an example reminding them two times throughout the letter of the labor he exerted on their behalf (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 3:5; See also 2 Thessalonians 3:8). Paul points to other examples when he admonishes them to respect those who have authority over them, who labor and work among them (5:12-13). Then, he instructs the Thessalonians to continue in their work, specifying even the tangibility of working with your hands, so that need would not exist among the believers and they would give a good witness to those outside the confession (4:11-12). He joins work to love. One way in which they can excel in their love is to work with their hands so that none among them have any need.

Paul’s practical advice to the Thessalonians is that faith and work are not mutually exclusive. They have been transformed by their belief in Christ, but that does not mean that regular life has come to an end. They are still responsible to be faithful in their vocations. For them to continue to grow into their stellar reputation, work needs to be an element right along with faith, hope, and love.