Lectionary Commentaries for October 29, 2017
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 22:34-46

Erick J. Thompson

The theme of the “two greatest commandments” has seen plenty of traction in Christianity, but especially Jesus’ summary of the second table of the law: love your neighbor as yourself.

While Christians often talk about this “new commandment” as one of the most important things Jesus said, I wonder how we, as preachers, might help to make this text come alive for our congregations. If individuals can hear this text as a calling for their lives as opposed to an affirmation of how they already live, this text could change how they view the world.

Homiletically, there might be a few different avenues of approach for the theme of neighbor. First, the command to love your neighbor as yourself and the command to love the stranger as yourself could be linked together given their proximity in Leviticus 19. A second and related theme might be to talk about how love of neighbor (and stranger by extension) is connected to love of God. Finally, it might be worthwhile to talk about agape and possibly even link it to Paul’s definition of agape love in 1 Corinthians 13.

Neighbor and stranger

It often seems that Christianity is boiled down to the “Golden Rule” of love your neighbor as yourself. The command to love your neighbor as yourself is from Leviticus 19:18. Yet, not many verses later, we find the command to love the alien (stranger) as ourselves in Leviticus 19:34: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” This proximity might allow us to drill down into a particular congregational context, and call a congregation to ask themselves, “who are our neighbors?” We might wonder what love might look like for these neighbors.

Many congregations might have “neighbors” who are really “strangers.” They may have people in their immediate neighborhood who have no relationship with their church. If we are to love our neighbors (and strangers) as ourselves, how can the church reach out to those people without necessarily trying to evangelize them (love of neighbor does not use them for our own advantage)?

If a congregation can think long and hard about loving its neighbors, even those that don’t look like them, don’t talk like them, don’t believe like them, don’t make as much money as them, that congregation might have a completely new understanding of this text and their role in the world. This could be a daunting task, since there is so much political energy around the issues of neighbors and strangers.

One approach might be to explore Leviticus 19 in more detail as a way of understanding what Jesus meant regarding “neighbors.” This might be challenging, but it might be timely to remind ourselves and our congregations that we are there to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Whatever political side we may come down upon, the church should be a place for community and love. As preachers it might be possible to play with the idea that loving the alien, or stranger, in our midst is the same as loving our neighbor. Imagining what that might look like could help the church become more creative in its approach to those who are strangers in their churches, neighborhoods, or families.

Loving God means loving neighbor

Leon Morris in his commentary helps us to see how these two commandments might not be viewed separately. He writes, “Jesus was asked for but one commandment, but he goes further and adds ‘a second’ that, he says, ‘is like it.’ Wholehearted love for God means coming in some measure to see other people as God sees them, and all people as the objects of God’s love. Therefore anyone who truly loves God with all his being must and will love others, and this is expressed in the commandment that is repeated in the Pentateuch (Leviticus 19:18, 34).”1

The idea of tying the two commandments together may not be new, nor would comparing stranger and neighbor from Leviticus 19. But, these ideas might find a new home in churches who are living in an increasingly polarized political climate, and wondering what their mission in the world might be. Indeed, while this love of the stranger could become a new moralism for them, it might help them to see how the church can rise above partisan politics and simply show God’s love for all people. Churches and individuals hearing the call to “see other people as God sees them,” might find that neighbor and stranger are not such different categories after all.

Agape love

I have done many weddings where I Corinthians 13 is chosen as scripture. I am quite happy whenever the couple chooses this text because it gives me an opportunity to talk about agape love. While we enjoy making the Golden Rule into an easy moralism, it becomes an entirely different story when we look at Paul’s definition of what agape love is. And, Paul is not the only possibility here, many others have written about love in amazing and beautiful ways. Exploring what love could look like in this commandment to love others could help to expand the impact of your sermon.


1. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 563.

First Reading

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

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

In Leviticus, Moses sits in the tent of meeting, awaiting Yahweh’s ongoing instructions for the covenant people on the brink of entering into the land of promise: Canaan.

Much of Leviticus consists of laws specifically geared toward the priestly office (how sacrifice is to be made, how to maintain purity, the doctrine of pollution, and so on). To follow these laws was to ensure being a good host for the presence of Yahweh to dwell in the land.

Be Holy, as I am Holy

But chapters 17-26 (the Holiness Code or the H text) of Leviticus shift from codes and instructions for the ritual priesthood to the everyday Jane and John of the covenant who may not be priests, per se. Laity indeed also play a crucial role in the welfare of Israel. As those who belong to Yahweh are transitioning from enslavement to Pharaoh to covenant with God, a new way of life must be established for religious leaders and laity alike, setting all who consider themselves children of the covenant apart from neighboring religious folk.

Preachers can speak to God’s desire that as those who love God we should imitate God and so find that we are becoming holy people. We are being transformed as we take on the postures of God in our day to day comings and goings. And our world is also being transformed as we embrace and live into the imago dei (the image of God). These codes speak to how anyone in “relational reach of an Israelite” must feel: welcome, fed, respected.1

These particular codes also are about maintaining the holiness of the land.

If all who reside in Canaan, according to the author of this material, reflect holiness to one another, then it is as if a holy aura accumulates to give shelter to all those creatures who dwell in that land. But if the people do not live into the holiness they are called to, the whole land is polluted.

Preachers may consider an ecological sermon from the theology of this text. Linking it to Romans 8:22, where is our creation groaning? Why? What sort of new world can you imagine before the congregation with your sermon? What sort of relational presence answers those cries on behalf of creation?

I think many sermons can spring forth from this theological claim of the text: the ways in which we reflect God in our relationships with one another either bless or curse the land, bless or curse our neighbors, bless or curse our world. To violate a relationship with our kin, neighbor, the alien in our midst, or our land is to violate our relationship with God. This is sin. And it defiles the people of God.

Common Law: Be a Good Neighbor

This helps explain perhaps Leviticus 19:15, which, in and of itself, is an awkward verse. There is not one law of the land for the poor and another law for the rich. All of God’s children are to abide by the same laws of neighborliness, and ordinary holiness, no matter how rich or poor in economic resources.

Yet, some of the laws strike more clearly at those who are of the richer class than those who are poor. For there seems to be an acknowledgment here of whom has power over whom:

“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)

“You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:16)

And of course, an important selection of the law that our lectionary pericope skips over:
“When you reap the harvest of your land…You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:9-10).

As the preacher prepares a sermon from this series of relational codes, some questions arise that only she can begin to answer from within her particular context:

  • Who are the neighbors who we are profiting from as their blood is shed, or harm is done to them?
  • Consider the way you define neighbor in a global context, in which our clothes are made by neighbors in once faraway places such as China or Bangladesh? How are they treated?
  • Are we standing idly by while some neighbor (or group of neighbors) is in grave danger?
  • What neighbors need to be awakened to the plight of our community in order to restore holiness and justice in the land?
  • What grudges are being clung to, destroying the quality of relational life in our church?

Again, these laws are about purity and pollution. What does it mean that the bloodshed of our neighbors pollutes our land and prevents the presence of God from being tangible in our land?

Love of neighbor in the New Testament

The last verse of this section is quoted by Jesus (as seen in our gospel reading for today), as well as a rich young ruler inquiring about a life of following Jesus (Matthew 19:19), and a lawyer trying to test Jesus’ adherence to the law (Luke 10:27). But we also hear this law come through Paul in Romans 13:9-10 and Galatians 5:14 (“For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”).

What we see in these texts is the fact that knowing the law in our head does not always guarantee living the law out in the world. Jesus must expand people’s notions of neighbor in order for the commandment to be lived out in full.


1. Rolf A. Jacobson and Karl N. Jacobson. “The Old Testament and the Neighbor.” Word and World, Vol. 37, No. 1 Winter 2017. 20.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Margaret Odell

When death separates us from the people we love, it allows us to forge new connections, often in startling and unexpected ways.

And so it is with the story of Moses’ death. In some respects, the story is the last in a series of separations. Though Moses is central to the story of Israel’s deliverance, this story keeps him firmly on the margins, a liminal figure bringing Israel into its full covenant identity but never quite sharing it with them.

We have seen hints of this all along. His name is, after all, an Egyptian name. And throughout the narratives of the deliverance from Egypt and journeys in the wilderness, at times both Moses and YHWH speak as if neither is entirely willing to claim the Israelites as their own (see especially Exodus 32). The Israelites are similarly ambivalent, if not downright rebellious, wondering what on earth God had in mind when he led them out of Egypt and also frequently complaining about Moses’ leadership. One can read the story as a series of estrangements. Yet in the end, when Moses is left behind in an unlocatable grave on the wrong side of the Jordan, the bonds become stronger in memory than ever they were in life.

The story of Moses’ death would seem to mark a decisive separation once and for all, as Moses dies and is buried by God in the wilderness while the Israelites press forward into the land of promise, now fully united with God in the covenant mediated by Moses. Moses is the odd one out. Though Moses had pleaded with God for the opportunity to cross over into the land, God refused, and finally put an end to Moses’ entreaties: Enough! Speak no more to me about this matter! (Deuteronomy 3:26). Though God would allow Moses to see the land from the mountains of Moab, he would not permit him to cross over into the land.

Yet Moses’ death also discloses a mysterious bond with the Israelites, in the sense that his death marks a sharing in their own suffering and punishment. Since the book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address, it should not be surprising that it speaks so frequently of his impending death. At the same time, it is somewhat surprising to discover its divergent explanations for his death outside the promised land, as if the explanations of his fate were never entirely satisfactory.1 Deuteronomy 32:48-52 alludes to the more familiar priestly account which links his death in the wilderness to the episode at Meribah when Moses broke faith with God (Numbers 21). But a second explanation is given in Deuteronomy 3, almost as if to displace this more familiar story. Here Moses tells the people that God has forbidden his entry because “the Lord was angry with me on your account” (Deuteronomy 3:26).

God’s prohibition paradoxically binds Moses to the first generation in punishment while separating him from the second in their inheritance of the land. Up to this point in Moses’ recital of their journey through the wilderness, Moses had told the story as a shared story. Using the first person plural, he forged connections with the second generation by invoking a memory of their parents’ generation: This is what we did here, and here, and here. But from the point that YHWH categorically prohibits his entry into the land, Moses addresses them as other, as “you”: this is what you shall do when you enter the land. Ever the servant, Moses completes the work of binding the future Israel to God even as he is destined to take his leave of them.

That separation is underscored in this final episode in Moses’ life. After he has ascended the mountain and has been shown the full extent of the land, the Lord pointedly tells Moses that it is for others. The speech is reminiscent of Abraham’s first sight of the land: “This is the land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give this land to your descendants,’ but you shall not cross over into it” (Deuteronomy 34:4). The differentiation is jarring, as if Moses simply did not count as one of Abraham’s descendants.

Yet, even as Moses is separated from the Israelites in death, he becomes present to them in memory. Moses dies, not quite alone, but in the presence of YHWH who buries him in an unknown location in the valley of Moab. The people complete the full period of mourning, and even though Joshua steps in to lead them, the narrative pauses to commemorate Moses’ uniqueness.

Curiously, what is celebrated is not his character or his heroism, or even his faith. What is important is that he was the one whom God knew face to face, and through whom God performed such signs and wonders. In memory, then, Moses remains the one through whom God became fully known. Though he appears to be excluded, he is the key to their memory of God’s mighty acts of deliverance, and therefore of their ongoing covenantal relationship. In memory, then, Moses remains the glue keeping Israel and God together.

Today’s gospel reading affirms the continuing importance of Moses’s work on behalf of Israel long after his death. Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees is not whether the Torah is valid, but in what way it is to be fulfilled. For Jesus, it is not a matter of picking and choosing among the commandments, but of understanding that the entire Torah bends toward the love of God and neighbor. In this story of Moses’ death, we see that love clearly, in Moses’ self-giving love for Israel, in God’s care for Moses at his death, and, finally, in Israel’s loving memory of Moses as the one who surpassed all others in bringing God near.


1. Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 243.


Commentary on Psalm 1

Kelly J. Murphy

“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 his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2, New Revised Standard Version).

Standing at the beginning of the psalter, Psalm 1 functions as both an introduction and invitation (along with Psalm 2) into the book that follows. The opening psalm begins with a promise of happiness (or “blessedness”) to the one (literally ha?îš, “the man”) whose “delight is in the law of the LORD (tôrat yhwh).”

Yet this common translation “law of the LORD” obscures the invitation into the textual world of the psalter that the opening psalm provides. Rather, the Hebrew tôrat yhwh is better translated as “Teaching of Yahweh” or “Torah of Yahweh.” Much like the Torah, the ensuing book of Psalms came to be divided into five “books” (Psalms 1-41; Psalms 42-72; Psalms 51-72; Psalms 90-106; Psalms 107-150). Psalm 1 thus opens by encouraging readers to see the books that make up the psalter as “Torah,” worthy of “meditation day and night” (Psalm 1:2; see Joshua 1:8).

The image of a tree stands at the heart of the first psalm. Those who recite the Torah “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither,” while “in all that they do, they prosper” (1:3). The language echoes Jeremiah 17:8, where the man who trusts in Yahweh “shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Psalm 1 clearly instructs its listener in how the right relationship with the Torah of Yahweh separates an individual from the “wicked,” the “sinners,” and the “scoffers” (1:1). These people stand in the way of the individual who spends their time reciting the Torah.

Psalm 1 paints a neat and orderly world: good comes to those who follow the Torah, evil to those who do not. So, unlike the prosperous tree, the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (1:4). The juxtaposition is clear: the good person is a prosperous, rooted, watered tree, while the wicked men only chaff, easily driven away by the wind. As is often noted, the Hebrew underscores how lonely and difficult it might feel to choose the good path: up until verse 5, which invokes the plural “righteous (?addîqîm),” the one faithfully meditating on the Torah is in the singular. Against this person stand the wicked, always in the plural.

Often classified as an instructional psalm or a wisdom psalm, the first psalm lacks a superscript and bears no Davidic attribution. For this reason, many scholars suggest that Psalm 1 is a relatively late addition to the psalter, perhaps an editorial addition that now provides an introduction to what follows. Yet though it stands at the beginning of the book of Psalms, this psalm does not feel particularly psalm-like.

After all, while Psalm 1 describes a world easily divided into the righteous and wicked, the psalm lacks any praise, thanksgiving, or lament. There is no “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever” (Psalm 145:1), no “I thank you, Yahweh, with all my heart” (Psalm 138:1), no “My god, my god, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:1). In fact, there is no speaking to God at all in this psalm. Rather, there is only a description of God, who “watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6).

Thus, as beautiful and inspiring as the image of the prosperous tree is, readers might find themselves unsatisfied. After all, it is rarely the case that things are as neatly ordered as this psalm promises: at least not here, not now, not in our day-to-day lives in this world we live in. Psalm 1 does not grapple with the many realities of what it means to be human.

Yet the psalms that follow do, wrestling with all of the facets of human emotion: anger, grief, and mourning, but also love, admiration, and joy. This is why the invitation that Psalm 1 provides is so important. Psalm 1 asks readers to meditate on the entire Torah of Yahweh, to delve into the whole of the psalter that follows. While Psalm 1 is painstakingly clear on which path is the correct way — and it’s not the path of the wicked — it also urges its readers to continue into the world of the psalms that follow. And the world of the psalms that readers will encounter as they recite them day and night is far more complex, diverse, and far more representative of human existence than the simple contrast between wickedness and righteousness that Psalm 1 presents.

Psalm 1 might leave readers wanting, but happy are those who enter into the polyvocal, emotion-filled world of the book of Psalms, with all of its thanksgiving, praise, and lament.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Amy L.B. Peeler

In the previous lectionary section from Thessalonians, Paul grants high praise for the Thessalonians’ stellar reputation.

The following chapter holds a great contrast. His reputation, as measured by many in the Greco-Roman world, counts for little, yet they can be utterly confident that in God’s court of honor and in the Thessalonians’ own experience Paul and his good news stand trustworthy and effective.


In the culture of the first century, traveling teachers would enter cities, display their oratorical skills through public speeches, and seek to attract students who might pay for their instruction. It seems to have been a rather widespread phenomenon, as it attracted the ire of several commentators of the day. Paul, here, seems to allude to this situation and seeks to differentiate himself from such a lot. As he tells the story of his coming to the Thessalonians, he notes that the encouragement offered by he and his fellow evangelists came not from error nor impurity nor deceit. He was not seeking to please people, but God. He implies that there are traveling teachers who do trade in error and impurity and deceit, which sounds very similar to a critique of these “sophists,” a term sometimes used to describe these teachers of wisdom, offered by first-century orator Dio of Prusa, who stated that sophists often had “‘deceitful’ motives, performing only for personal gain and ‘reputation.’”1

The trustworthiness of Paul

The first proof that Paul is different from these kinds of teachers comes in the story of his sufferings. Having left a situation of suffering and shame in Philippi, he and Silas (this is the identity of the “we,” according to Acts 16:25–17:9) came to the Thessalonians proclaiming the same message that had put him in the difficult situation in the first place. He spoke the gospel with boldness even though he was in a great struggle, literally in Greek a great agoni (from agon, struggle). It he had been a teacher primarily focused upon his own comfort and betterment, he was obviously preaching the wrong message.

The second proof comes from none other than God. He and his fellow evangelists have been tested by God and found to be trustworthy enough to be entrusted with the gospel. God, who knows all things about humans, not just the outward appearance, but also the heart, has found Paul and his companions honest. God is their witness (martus). God has testified to the truth of Paul’s message with power and the presence of the Holy Spirit (1:5). What better reference could Paul present? 

For the final proof Paul writes compellingly and with heartfelt intensity about his feelings for this community. Paul states that they could have “thrown around their weight” as apostles, literally been able to be a burden to the Thessalonians because of their rank. The Pauline writings make strong statements about the apostles. Not only is this integral to Paul’s identity (note the introduction of himself in his letters), but Paul affords a particular priority to apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 2:20). He, following the model of the One Lord he preaches (Phil 2:5–11), does not selfishly grasp the glory of his position but instead humbles himself to the point of being a babe (epioi). Other manuscripts have instead the closely-related word nepioi, gentle, and each reading has decent support. The manuscript support for the reading of “babe” is slightly stronger, so it seems that the stark comparison between the top leaders of the church and an infant gets the drastic nature of his point across. This term however, and its connotations, do not quite fit his larger argument. Were he and the other evangelists to conduct themselves like babies, then they would be dependent upon the Thessalonians, and therefore, a burden — precisely what he was so intent to avoid. The mention of a little baby leads him, however, to a more fitting picture. Instead of an apostle throwing around his authority, Paul became like a nurse who cares for her own children. Paul uses maternal language several times in his letters, where he is “concerned with the nurture and growth of believers.”2 Paul says that he and Silas cared so deeply for the Thessalonians that he gave to them, in addition to the wonderful news of Jesus Christ, their very souls. As a nurse gives of her own body to provide milk for a child, so Paul was willing to give of himself, because he loved the Thessalonians so. His final proof to assert his trustworthiness may not be as strong theologically as saying that God is his witness, but it carries immense pathos. How could they doubt him knowing how intensely he feels for them all?  

And the point is…?

Paul’s defense of his ministry continues past verse 8 as he asserts that he worked hard among them (1 Thessalonians 2:9) bringing the message of God (2:13). Why might he spend so much space of this letter in an apologia of his ministry? Paul wants to remind them of his trustworthiness because he did bring the gospel, the Word of God that resulted in their redemption (1:10) and will result in their full salvation (4:17). To continue in the way of life to which they are called, they must trust the message, and so they must trust the messenger. His defense serves not himself, but his apostolic ministry of discipleship. As they remain confident in his selfless, divine, and loving work among them, they will be prepared to follow that message no matter the cost, for as long as they need until Christ returns.


1 Alexandrian Oration (Or 32.2) cited and discussed in Bruce W. Winter, Philo and Paul among the Sophists: Alexandrian and Corinthian Responses to the Julio-Claudian Movement (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 49.

2 Beverly Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians (Interpretation; Louisville, John Knox Press, 1998), 33.