Lectionary Commentaries for October 26, 2014
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 22:34-46

Lance Pape

This is not the meek and gentle Jesus we thought we knew.

In contradiction to our “felt board” picture of Jesus as an innocuous nice guy, this section of Matthew portrays him as passionate to the point of physical demonstration (21:12), stubbornly enigmatic in insisting on his authority to teach and act in radical ways (21:23-27), and subversive in his use of story as an ideological weapon against his opponents (21:28-22:14).

Then the conflict escalates further with a series of of direct verbal duels between Jesus and various religious authorities in Jerusalem. Jesus passes their three test questions with flying colors (22:15-22, concerning taxes; 22:23-33, concerning resurrection; and 22:33-40, concerning the law), before posing a question of his own that stumps his adversaries, leaving them speechless (22:41-45). This gospel lection includes the last two duels: the question about the law posed by a “lawyer” (professional theologian) on behalf of the Pharisees (verses 34-40), and Jesus’ question concerning the identity of the Messiah (verses 41-46).

A word of caution is warranted here. We are not dealing in these accounts with transparent and straightforward historical reports, but with poetic testimony to the identity of Jesus. Such testimony is grounded in the oral and written stories that constitute the community’s memory of Jesus, but it is also forged in the crucible of an intramural conflict within Judaism at the end of the first century. In the case of both the Jesus of history, and the Jesus remembered in Matthew’s telling, the argument is not between “Christians and Jews,” but between co-religionists. For this reason, Gentile interpreters appropriating these stories in the wake of centuries of anti-Semitism must exercise care.

It’s all too easy to remake Jesus in our own image, picking and choosing from the biblical testimony in order to depict him as a friendly, harmless mainline parson with boundary issues — the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” that too many progressive pastors have become.1 But if we take Matthew’s testimony seriously, we confront the possibility that our Lord discovered that sometimes in this life there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing about, things that call for those who are able to be both loving and formidable in the cause of righteousness.

The preacher would need to discern her context carefully and faithfully to judge the matter rightly, but it may well be that in some of our churches the time has come to explore the possibility that the Jesus we call Lord is not who we thought he was. What if WWJD? is a much more complicated question than we once assumed?

According to Matthew’s testimony, none of the things Jesus is caught doing in this context — from physically trashing the display booths of the moneychangers (21:12), to trash-talking the biblical literacy of colleagues (22:29), to dropping the mic at the end of a scintillating piece of rhetorical and exegetical gamesmanship (verse 46) — none of it violates the law of love.

For it is right in the midst of all this conflict that Jesus patiently explains that the most important thing of all is to love God with your whole self (verse 37), and the other most important thing that grows out of and goes along with that first thing is to love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself (verse 39). The only reasonable conclusion we can draw is that the Jesus depicted in these stories sees no contradiction between his formidable actions and the love he preaches. This may cause us to reconsider what Christian love actually looks like in daily life.

Too often in the church, “love” is used as an excuse to take the path of least resistance instead of the path of excellence. When telling the truth would be uncomfortable, we practice equivocation and call it “love.” How frequently “love” is code for smiling at biblical illiteracy and winking at theological incompetence!

Our definition of “love” is often suspiciously easy on and for us. But this is not the definition of love that Jesus is working with in Matthew. The Jesus we see in these stories thinks that to love God with the whole self, with “all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind” (verse 37) is demanding and risky. Following the path of love leads him to jump into debates and conflicts with his whole self. Love leads Jesus into all kinds of situations that are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous. Eventually, love gets him killed.

Of course, we are none of us Jesus. For us, charity always demands humility. But there is much to learn by seeing the love of Jesus in action. The same love that inspired Jesus to eat with the outcast, reach out to the untouchable, and embrace the powerless, also drove him to confront the demonic, outmaneuver the manipulative, and correct the clueless. Jesus was no pushover and the story of his ultimate decision to relinquish power for the sake of his Father’s mysterious will is all the more fascinating against the backdrop of these accounts of his prowess in the face of his enemies. Jesus is a lot more complicated than we sometimes pretend, and the love he taught demands that we expand our whole selves for God and neighbor — striving for excellence in all we think, say, and do.


Notes:

1 The phrase is attributed to the acerbic wit of Stanley Hauerwas. See Willimon, William, “Damn Preacher” in The Christian Century, Feb. 10, 2004, 18.


First Reading

Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

“I never realized I could fall asleep on a treadmill until I did so while trying to read Leviticus,” said one of my students in a Pentateuch class years ago. 

His testimony to the tedium of reading Leviticus will surprise no one, I’m sure. Many a resolution to read the whole Bible from cover to cover has foundered on Leviticus’s arcane details about sacrifice and skin disease.

And yet, there is more to Leviticus than meets the eye. It takes work on the part of the reader (or preacher). This book is not narrative; it is law code and ritual. But the person who is willing to enter into the book with imagination, and with an eye for detail, will find profound insights there.1

Take chapter 19, for instance. It begins with an oft-repeated refrain in Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (19:2).

Holiness is a matter of great concern to the priestly writers of Leviticus. Not because of a need to “earn” personal salvation (a concept foreign to ancient Israel) but because holiness was an attribute of God, in fact, the attribute of God. And in order for this holy God to dwell in the midst of an unholy people, a certain order needed to be maintained.

Think of the tabernacle, the visible sign of God’s presence, as a sort of electrical power plant, a source of unimaginable power. If you approach that power carelessly, without the necessary preparations, you will be hurt, not through any malice on the part of God, but because God is wholly other, wholly holy (cf. 2 Samuel 6:1-10). So, the necessary preparations need to be made and a certain order needs to be maintained in order for this holy God to dwell in the midst of the people without destroying them.

Samuel Balentine discerns two beliefs that underlie this priestly worldview:

God has created the world with a capacity to be “very good,” and that goodness is maintained by the order that God has built into creation, setting boundaries, for instance, between light and darkness, earth and sky, sea and dry land (Genesis 1). When those boundaries are maintained, life can flourish. When they are crossed, chaos ensues.

Human ritual order mirrors and helps maintain this cosmic order. The priest, according to Leviticus, is to distinguish (hivdil — the same verb used of God when God “separates” things in Genesis 1) “between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10). When the priests maintain this ritual order, mirroring God’s cosmic order, the holy God is able to dwell with Israel.

Balentine sums up the priestly worldview this way: “[T]he ritual order, like the cosmic order, establishes the boundaries and categories that enable a holy God to dwell in the midst of a world vulnerable to sin and defilement.”Hence, the priestly concern with sacrifices and skin disease. It’s not about personal holiness. It’s about maintaining right order so that life can flourish, chaos is kept at bay, and God can dwell with God’s people.

It’s important to note that Leviticus is addressed not just to priests but to the whole people. Particularly in chapters 17-26, which is called by scholars the Holiness Code, instructions are given to all Israel about how to maintain holiness in the community. And in these chapters, there is no distinction between what we might call “religious” concerns and “secular” concerns. All of life matters to God — what we eat, how we do business, who we sleep with, how we care for the land, our relationships with family, neighbors, and strangers — all of it matters to God. We might even say, in this strange book of Leviticus, that matter matters.

This is apparent in chapter 19. Here we find an odd variety of laws. Many of the Ten Commandments are here: prohibitions on idols, stealing, false witness, profaning the name of God; injunctions to keep the Sabbath and to honor one’s mother and father. But we also find laws against sowing your field with two different kinds of seed or wearing clothing made of two different materials (verse 19).3 All of life matters, from seemingly trivial issues to matters of life and death.

Here in chapter 19 we find the most famous verse in the whole of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 18). When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus, who is a good Jew, quotes this and Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

What does it mean to love your neighbor? Well, if we take the context of this verse into account, then loving your neighbor has more to do with action than with emotion. You must be honest in your business dealings — don’t put your finger on the scale (verses 35-36). You must not defraud your neighbor or slander him (verses 13, 16). You must render just judgments (verse 15).

When you harvest your fields and your vineyard, you must not strip the land bare, but leave enough for the poor and the foreigners to glean and support themselves (verses 9-10; cf. the book of Ruth). In short, “loving your neighbor as yourself’ means not just refraining from hurting your neighbor, but also willing your neighbor’s good and working for it.

In its original context in Leviticus, the term “neighbor” probably refers to a fellow Israelite. Jesus expands the definition in Luke 10 with the story of the Good Samaritan. But even within this chapter in Leviticus, a more universal understanding is also apparent. Just a few verses later, we read, “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner.The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (19:33-34).

Love your neighbor as yourself. Love the foreigner as yourself. Be holy, as God is holy. This book is more than a list of sometimes arcane rules and customs. It is a profound theological statement about life with God. The laws and rituals are grounded in the reality of who God is and who God has called us to be: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

Holiness is not something we can achieve ourselves, of course, and when we try to do so, we often fall into sin, adopting a “holier-than-thou” attitude. Holiness is the work of God in us, for the sake of Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Gilbert Meilaender puts it well when he speaks of “God’s commitment to make us people who will want to live in his presence — to make us what he says we are. Hence, God’s promise is embedded in his command: “‘You shall be holy.’”4

“You shall be holy.” It is both command and promise. And to believe that promise is to begin to be formed into the people God calls us to be, a people living out in our day-to-day lives genuine love for God and for our neighbors.


Notes:

My favorite chapter in Leviticus is ch. 25, which speaks of the Jubilee, when all debts are forgiven and slaves are set free. This vision of Jubilee inspired Jubilee 2000, a movement calling for the forgiveness of third world debt by the year 2000. The Jubilee movement continues today.

Samuel Balentine, Leviticus (Interpretation; John Knox, 2002), 4.

3 The latter laws probably have to do with the distinction between the holy and the profane. Mixtures of cloth were reserved for the most sacred people and places in Israel: the clothing of the high priest and the curtain of the Holy of Holies, for instance [Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22 (Anchor Bible 3A; Doubleday, 2000), 1660].

4 Gilbert Meilaender, “Hearts Set to Obey,” in I am the Lord your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, ed. Carl Braaten and Christopher Seitz (Eerdmans, 2005), 274.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Sara Koenig

This poignant account of Moses’ death takes place at the very end of Deuteronomy, and therefore at the very end of the entire Pentateuch. 

After forty years of wandering through the wilderness, the people of Israel are poised to enter the land promised to their ancestors long ago. Because of Moses’ actions in Numbers 20, God forbade him to lead the people into this new land, but God shows Moses the entirety of the land before Moses dies.

Verses 1-3 are filled with geographical locations. While it may be tempting to skip over these names, if we do so, we’d miss two things.

First, we would miss some connections with the larger story. This is the land that had been promised to Abram and his descendants back in Genesis 12. Of course, at that point, the land was not described in any specific way, or even named: it was simply the land that God said “I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Only after Abram had left his country, his kindred, and his father’s house did God show him the land (Genesis 14:14-15) and name the boundaries of that land (Genesis 15:18-21).

Moses may not be able to see from the Nile to the Euphrates (Genesis 15:18), but he is shown the Promised Land from Dan in the north, to the sea in the west, to Zoar in the south, and in verse 4, God affirms that this is the land that God had sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even the summit where Moses ascends connects with a previous passage: Mount Pigsah is the same location where Balaam was taken by Balak (Numbers 23:14). Balaam was only able to see part of the Israelite camp, but Moses can see the whole sweep of the Promised Land.

The second thing we would miss if we were to skip over the geographical names is the importance of the particularity of place. A physical location matters because we are physical, embodied people, whose feet touch the ground. Even though we live in a time of unprecedented mobility, the particular geographic places where we live and move shape our identities and our lives.

Another key aspect of this passage is the theme of vision and sight. In verse 1, God causes Moses to see the land, and in verse 4, God tells Moses, “I have caused you to see it with your eyes.” Lest we have any concern about Moses’ ability — at the age of one hundred and twenty — to clearly see such a large section of land, we are told that his eyesight was unimpaired (34:7). The chapter also ends by remembering the wonderful things that Moses did “in the eyes of all Israel” (34:12).

This fourfold repetition of sight is noteworthy, especially when in a number of places in the New Testament, sight seems to be downplayed. For example, in John 20:29 Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 2 Corinthians 5:7 encourages us to “walk by faith not by sight.” And Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Moses has been obedient and has had faith for so long that it must have been a profound gift to have his hopes and convictions confirmed by what he did see. This vision is not only dependent on Moses, however, for both times that the verb is used, it is causative, with God as the subject. God shows Moses; God causes Moses to see. Though we may need to open up our own eyes and look for what God is doing and where God is, we also may need to ask God to show us — to reveal to us — where God is at work.

The announcement of Moses’ death comes at the beginning of verse 5, almost abruptly after God reminds Moses that he will not enter the land he can see. We might wonder if Moses only had a momentary glimpse before he died, or if he was able to linger and drink in the view. We also may wonder about Moses’ feelings at his death: was he, like Simeon in Luke 2, happy to depart in peace? Or, was he frustrated to only see it, and not experience it? The refrain of this passage affirms that long-awaited promises are fulfilled, and the response to that ought to be hope and joy.

But in this there are also notes that must be played in a minor key. Moses dies. The Israelites mourn for him. Even if a good, long life can be celebrated and eulogized, the end of that life marks a loss. Even though Moses is able to see into the land where he has faithfully been leading the Israelites, his time is at an end, and he cannot finish all that he may have hoped. The brief mention of Joshua, who has been identified as Moses’ successor earlier in Deuteronomy 31 and who will take charge in the immediately following book, reminds us that God’s spirit is what remains constant amidst human transitions.

In verse 6 after Moses’ death, the Hebrew reads, “and he buried him in a valley … ” Because Moses is dead, the “he” most likely refers to God. The NRSV translation makes it passive, “he was buried,” but the Hebrew indicates an almost startling intimacy with the imagery of God being the one to bury Moses and lay him to rest. The intimacy is not so startling, however, when we go on to hear in verse 10 that God knew Moses “face-to-face.” Though Moses is also described as unequaled among all the prophets and leaders, it may be that we can imitate Moses in his intimacy with God and be people who similarly seek after God’s face. 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 1

Patricia Tull

Scripture compares humans to trees far more often than contemporary discourse does.

Isaiah, for instance, warns the unjust that they will be “like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water” (1:30). At rumors of an invasion, Ahaz and his royal family “shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (7:2).

The Assyrians will dwindle so that “the remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down” (10:19; cf. vv. 33-34). But Judah’s leadership will regenerate as “a shoot … from the stump of Jesse” (11:1). Later prophets in the book of Isaiah said, “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree’” (56:3), and “like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be (65:22).

Other Psalms likewise compare people to trees. One says, “I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever” (52:8). Another claims, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon” (92:12), and goes on to speak of their powers to bear fruit even in old age. A third says that the children of the faithful will be “like olive shoots around your table” (Psalm 128:3).

This particular psalm compares the vitality and stability of those who follow righteous paths to the vitality and stability of trees growing in optimal soil, beside flowing streams. Because they are “grounded” in the right place, their leaves and fruit flourish. The wicked, by contrast, are imagined as dried, dead chaff blown abroad by the wind.

The psalm uses these images to describe two distinct paths that people may take — the path of followers of God, and the path of the wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers. But what in actual deeds and actions these two paths consist of is not told us in this psalm. Who exactly are the sinners, and which path are they treading? Where do scoffers sit, and at what do they scoff, so we can see them from afar and avoid them?

And most importantly, if the world is so sharply divided as this Psalm suggests between the righteous who grow like trees and the wicked who are blowing away like chaff, why is it so hard to tell, in real life, the good from the bad? Everything rides on discerning a point that the psalmist doesn’t at all spell out. It’s not as if any of our significant life choices came with clearly printed labels as cigarettes and packaged food do.

If we dig further into the book of Psalms, we discover that, even though the word “righteousness” often makes us think of “self-righteousness,” or at best of personal purity, the lines drawn between wickedness and righteousness in the Psalms have far more to do with social categories than with purity categories. In fact, when the word “righteousness” (Hebrew tsedakah) appears in parallel with a synonym in the Psalms, that parallel synonym is three times more likely to be mishpat, “justice,” than any other word. Being righteous, the Psalms say repeatedly, means being just.

That is to say, when the Psalms discuss the righteous and the wicked, they are not exactly talking about small personal virtues and vices. Psalm 72, for instance, describes in some detail the monarch who rules in righteousness and the moral order he wants to enact:

Give the king your justice, O God,

and your righteousness to a king’s son.

May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,

give deliverance to the needy,

and crush the oppressor.

Righteousness according to the Psalms seems to mean right dealings with people who may be very different from ourselves, whose lives we can hardly comprehend.

This Psalm says that those who are walking on the happy path “delight in the torah of God, and on God’s torah they meditate day and night.” Torah, which means literally teaching, points specifically to the laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai. These laws presuppose a public life in which people are beset by neighbors with their straying sheep and hungry mouths and court cases.

The other Hebrew Scripture reading for the day, Leviticus 19, demands, “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (verse 15), and even, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 18).

If righteousness is tied to justice, and the Torah is filled with exhortations to do justice, the path of the righteous is no easy road. The wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers are not just hoodlums tempting kids to smoke cigarettes behind the schoolhouse. Rather, the temptations are substantial and difficult — how do we know when our judgment is being swayed by deference to wealth and power? How do we know when we are loving our neighbors rightly?

To love God with all one’s heart is, in a sense, easy as long as God remains invisible and can be imagined in whatever likeness we find most loveable. It’s our neighbors, who diligently refuse to be like us, who are so difficult to understand, much less to care for, those intractable others, they are the real challenge. A challenge to our good intentions so tough that the psalmist reckoned it necessary to ponder Torah constantly, day and night, to carry it out.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Michael Joseph Brown

Paul highlights two events in the experience of the Thessalonians that advanced the gospel: the apostles’ trust in the work of the gospel despite his poor treatment in Philippi and his tender care for the Thessalonians despite his “right” to support as an apostle.

These two events can only be understood by looking at other places were Paul raises such experiences.

Philippians is one of Paul’s prison letters. He makes this clear when he says, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear … the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment” (Philippians 1:12-14, 17).

Is this the opposition and shameful mistreatment the apostle is referencing? The word “already suffered” does not imply by itself that the apostle’s treatment was unjust, but he adds, “and been shamefully mistreated” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). In addition to the apostle’s statements in Philippians, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles 16 that Paul and Silas were publicly beaten and cast into prison in Philippi. Being beaten with rods was regarded as a humiliating punishment, one that was forbidden to be inflicted on Roman citizens. Acts maintains that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens: “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison” (Acts 16:37). “[W]e had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition” (1 Thessalonians 2:2).

The word here translated as “courage” denotes boldness or freedom of speech. As the verb “to speak” follows, it may be better to render the clause, “we were confident in our God to speak” or “emboldened to speak.” This boldness or confidence was in our God; that is, on account of our fellowship or union with the Almighty. The “gospel of God,” which denotes the genitive of origin, tells us not only that God was the grammatical object, but that God was the author of the gospel. “[I]n spite of great opposition” alludes to the peril and danger with which Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica. In other words, Paul is rehearsing the crucifixion-like experience he referenced in last week’s reading (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10).

As I pointed out then, these crucifixion-like experiences are important to Paul’s understanding of the gospel because they confirm in his own experience that he is following the Lord because he is participating in an imitative history of salvation that stretches back to the prophets. Thus, Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi advanced the gospel in the same way that Jesus’ crucifixion advanced the gospel. They are of the same type.

By contrast, Paul’s denial of his authority to demand remuneration as an apostolic emissary connotes a resurrection-like experience in the lives of the Thessalonians. To understand this we must look at Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:

This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk? Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake?

It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever ploughs should plough in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case (1 Corinthians 9:3-15, emphasis mine).

The apostle tells the Corinthians that he abandoned his rightful claim to remuneration: “[T]he Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” Likewise, the apostle did not press his rightful claim with respect to his time in Thessalonica: “[W]e never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed … though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ” (1 Thessalonians 2:5, 7). Rather the apostle was “gentle” to the Thessalonians, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (2:7). In fact, like the Lord, he shared his own self with the congregation.

How is this a resurrection-like experience? Well, it served as an example to the Thessalonians. It encouraged their upright behavior and gave them the ability to lead a life worthy of God (2:12). This expression of love on the apostle’s part allowed the Thessalonians to enter into a relationship with God through Christ. Thus, today’s text follows a pattern similar to what we read last week: the experiences and behaviors of the “example” serve as a foundational experience in the lives of subsequent believers.