Lectionary Commentaries for September 14, 2014
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35
Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21
Cameron B.R. Howard
Just when you think all is right in the world of Joseph and his brothers, their family drama reminds us that trust is very difficult to earn.
Genesis 50:15-21 contains the final scene of the Joseph novella, which began to unfold in Genesis 37. It depends deeply on the long story that has gone before, so some summarizing or contextualizing will be necessary when preaching from this text. The semi-continuous Old Testament lectionary includes excerpts from Genesis 37 and Genesis 45 on the ninth and tenth Sundays after Pentecost, but Genesis 50 is an option these many weeks later because its account of forgiveness pairs well with the same theme in Matthew 18:21-35.
This week’s passage reads like an epilogue to the Joseph story, almost an afterthought. Many years after selling their brother Joseph into slavery, the sons of Jacob have been reunited with Joseph and saved from starvation because of his position of power in Egypt. Their father Jacob has blessed his sons and died and a grand procession comprising both Egyptians and Jacob’s family have traveled to Canaan to bury Jacob there. Joseph and his brothers have returned to Egypt to live a life of privilege; surely all the drama of the Jacob cycle should be over.
Yet the brothers’ shared emotion quickly becomes clear at Gen 50:15: they still fear Joseph. This is not altogether surprising. We readers who have followed Joseph’s story have seen how Joseph manipulated his brothers, including holding one hostage and framing another for stealing.1 Joseph is a powerful man; anything he wishes to do to his brothers, he can accomplish. What we have thought was reconciliation turns out to have been a tenuous co-existence.
If the brothers’ perception of Joseph has not changed, their posture toward him has not changed, either. They are still liars and manipulators themselves. They play on his deep love for his father, knowing that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. Though the narrative does not specify outright that their words are not truthful, the fact that they speak out of fear of Joseph’s wrath, combined with our understanding of their character as it is developed throughout Genesis 37-50, makes it difficult to read this passage any other way. They beg for forgiveness, not with their own voices, but by co-opting the voice of their dead father.
Ever since he rose to be the administrator of the government’s supply of grain in Egypt, Joseph has had all the official power in this story. As the one who is wronged, Joseph also has the interpersonal power, the power to forgive. These two sides of Joseph’s power — the personal and the political — combine when Joseph makes his theological proclamation: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph sees the ways his own personal story and that of his family are wrapped up in the stories of God’s relationship with Israel. If Joseph’s brothers, or an outside observer, were to say that Joseph’s suffering was all part of “God’s plan,” those words would surely ring hollow for him.
Just as the one who is wronged has the power to forgive, the one wronged also has the power to make this kind of theological proclamation. If a sufferer sees divine purposefulness in her or his suffering, we can affirm or at least hear out that declaration. We dare not, however, try explain away another person’s suffering with our own theological speculation; in that case we are as ineffectual and obtuse as Job’s friends.
I mentioned at the outset that the Joseph cycle reads like a family drama: parental favoritism leads to sibling rivalry and swells to violence pitting eleven brothers against one. Even so, the story also has broader political implications. Like the stories of Daniel 1-6 and the book of Esther, Genesis 37-50 is a “court story,” a genre of literature that seems to have been particularly popular in the post-exilic Diaspora.
In these court stories, a Jewish hero finds himself or herself holding favored status in a foreign court. The hero’s rise to power may be a result of special insights, like dream interpretation, or it may be because of his or her piety. Once elevated, the hero has the opportunity to save his or her family or people because of that access to the imperial power.
In the post-exilic era, stories like Joseph, Daniel, and Esther made powerful statements about how to retain religious and ethnic identity in a foreign land. They also reminded Jews in Diaspora that God’s faithfulness to Israel had not wavered, despite the exile and the subsequently ever-changing political landscape. Thus, while we can reflect fruitfully on the compelling interpersonal dynamics that the Joseph story offers, we should also not neglect the broader message of God’s election of and continuing fidelity to God’s chosen people.
Joseph’s declaration that “God intended it for good” reminds us that the stories of biblical families are not just lectionary-sized snippets of individual family dramas, but rather they are part of the long and ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel, chosen for blessing and in whom all families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3).
1 See my commentary for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost for more on Joseph as a “bad guy.”
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31
A cloud holds water, promise of rain and sustenance. It presages storm. It can obscure from view the heavens and the workings of God; it can form a barrier in which none can find their way (Exod. 14:19-20).
God is multiply present in this passage. The angel of God walks and the cloud of divine presence stands, first at the head of the camp, then at its vanguard (14:19). Previously their role was to lead. Now their role is to protect and confound.
Throughout this passage the Lord acts and speaks and saves. God again takes up the work of creation, now on behalf of God’s people. But like the cloud, this creative work also has a dark side. Beginning requires ending.
At creation, God’s spirit (ruach), the mighty wind, hovered over the deep (Genesis 1:2). God created light in a place of darkness (1:2-4). God divided water from water (1:6-7), assigning each its place. God gathered together the waters of the earth so that dry land might appear; God named them earth and seas (1:9-10). As God leads God’s people from slavery to freedom, God again makes light in darkness and, by a fierce wind or spirit (ruach), rearranges sea, reveals land, and divides waters (Exodus 14:20-21).
Exodus, the road out from slavery to freedom, is a new creation. God’s power to create from nothing, from formlessness and void, is the same power by which God saves and transforms. It reveals a path for God’s people and builds walls to protect them from the chaos and death of the sea (14:22).
Yet the crossing remains treacherous. Though there is light in this new creation, there is also darkness (14:20). This passage portrays slavery’s end in vivid, violent detail. Chariots, technologies of conquest and visible signs of royal power and status, become a trap for Pharaoh and his armies.
When God rearranges sea and land, the Egyptians think to pursue their former slaves (14:23), but as they enter between the walls of water the gaze of God creates panic among them (14:24), their chariot wheels turn out, and they cannot retreat (14:25). At dawn, the waters return, and as the Egyptians flee, God hurls them into the water (14:27-28). When the Israelites have crossed to safety, they see the bodies of their former masters cast up dead upon the shore (14:30).
I will not justify or mitigate the violence of Pharaoh’s destruction or of the deaths of his soldiers and horses. I do not wish to defend or explain the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart that led him to choose pursuit (14:4-5). This part of the story is hard to hear and hard to preach.
But it foregrounds the consequence of Pharaoh’s grasping. It shows the end result of an economy built on forced labor, exploitation, and domination. In refusing to let God’s people go, Pharaoh leads his own people to their grave. The gaze of God undoes his vision of mastery; the waters of new creation dismantle his chariots and drown the machinery of war and abduction.
There are two words for “dry land” used in this passage. One is yabbashah. This word is most often used in descriptions of the miracle God performed at the Red Sea (6 out of 14 occurrences: Exodus 14:16.22.29, 15:19; Psalm 66:6; Nehemiah 9:11). It also describes God’s work in creation (Genesis 1:9-10, Jonah 1:9) and the people’s miraculous crossing of the Jordan River when they enter the land of promise (Joshus 4:22).
But another word for dry land also appears in the story of the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 14:21). That word, charabah, derives from a root ch–r-b, meaning to dry up or be in ruins. That is, it does not only distinguish between liquid and solid, water and its absence, a place to swim and a place to walk. Forms from this root frequently name the waste and desolation that follows upon warfare, judgment, and destruction. The use of this synonym in verse 21 links the motif of new creation with the end of an order.
Martin Luther King, Jr. called this end “the Death of Evil upon the Seashore.” In his sermon by this title, first preached in 1954, King called out the evils any could see in his own time.1 They included greed and war, “high places where [people] are willing to sacrifice truth on the altars of their self-interest,” and “imperialistic nations trampling over other nations with the iron feet of oppression.”2 King names nations and numbers. And he narrates racial desegregation as God’s work of ending and reordering in his own day: he saw the Red Sea open in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Our world has changed and not changed in the sixty years since King first preached this sermon. What shape does slavery take today? What is the machinery of oppression, domination, exploitation, and new colonialism that must be dismantled so that God’s people may all truly be free? Can you pierce through the cloud and gaze upon the shore to discern and preach the work that God is doing to bring these to an end?
In your preaching, show your congregation the dry land they are walking on. Show them what place it has in God’s creation. Show them the signs of ruin and devastation. Caution them if it will soon revert to sea. Help them see the bodies on the shore, because to ignore them is to ignore the reality of death and the limits of greed, exploitation, and empire. And as they look, help them to see clearly enough that their fear gives way to faith (14:31).
1 King published an edited version of this sermon in Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).
2 These quotations are reproduced from the version printed in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. VI: Advocate of the Social Gospel, edited by Clayborn Carson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 505.
Commentary on Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13
Psalm 103, a masterful and well-loved composition, is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, a psalm in which a single voice praises God for God’s goodness to or on behalf of that individual, usually for deliverance from some trying situation.
Hermann Gunkel, one of the great fathers of psalm studies, describes hymns of thanksgiving in this way: “A person is saved out of great distress, and now with grateful heart he [sic] brings a thank offering to Yahweh; it was customary that at a certain point in the sacred ceremony he would offer a song in which he expresses his thanks.”
An Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving generally contains the following elements: (1) an Introduction, in which the psalmist declares the intention of giving thanks and praising God; (2) a Narrative, in which the psalmist tells what has happened that has prompted the words of praise; and (3) a Conclusion, in which the psalmist praises God for all that God has done on the psalmist’s behalf.
Verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 103 constitute the Introduction to the Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving. Here the psalm singer repeats the phrase “Bless the LORD, O my soul,” calling others to witness what God has done. The words “Bless the LORD” are repeated six times in the psalm, at its opening and closing (verses 1,2, and 20, 21, 22), thus forming an “envelope” structure for the psalm’s Narrative in verses 3-19. The words of verses 20-22 act as the Conclusion to the Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.
The words of verses 3-19 detail the reasons why the psalm singer can call on other to “Bless the LORD.” Verses 3-7 state that God “forgives,” “heals,” “redeems,” “crowns,” “satisfies,” “works justice,” and “makes known his ways.”
In verse 8, the psalm singer states, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” These words, which occur many times in the Psalter and the prophetic books, are the self-descriptive words of God to Moses. In the book of Exodus, we read that God has summoned Moses up to Mt. Sinai to receive the words of the Torah — the “law” (Exodus 24:15); when Moses was gone for some time, the people at the foot of the mountain became restless and they said to Aaron, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1).
And so Aaron fashioned an image that the people worshipped; God saw what was going on; and Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and smashed the tablets on which God has written the Torah (Exodus 32). Then Moses cut two new tablets, ascended Mt. Sinai and waited for God. God passed by him and God proclaimed: “The LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
The singer of Psalm 103 calls on others to “Bless the LORD” because the words of Exodus 34:6, found numerous times in the book of Psalms and in the Prophets, are an integral part of the psalmist’s understanding of the nature of Yahweh God.
In verses 9-10 and 12, the psalm singer celebrates God’s mercy and graciousness toward our sins, iniquities, and transgressions, the same words used in Exodus 34:7 (“forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”). God will not “accuse” or “keep his anger” and will not “deal with us nor repay us” according to our “sins” or “iniquities,” and God will “remove” our “transgressions.” The word translated in verse 10 as “sin,” is from the root word hata’, which literally means “to miss the mark.”
Sin may be likened to knowing what is expected of one, aiming for a particular outcome, but falling short. The word translated in verse 10 as “iniquity” is from the root word ‘avon, a sense of guilt by the party who has “fallen short.” Thus, verse 10 states that God will not deal with us according to our sins or according to the measure of the guilt we feel over our sins. “Transgression” in verse 12 is from the root pasha’ and generally indicates an offense against the instructions (the Torah) of the Lord.
The singer of Psalm 103 celebrates God’s steadfast love to us regardless of how we might have wronged the community or betrayed God, if, according to verses 11, 13, and 17, we “fear” the Lord. “Fear” comes from the Hebrew root yara’, and “fear” is perfectly good translation of the word. But in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew word, though, encompasses a larger meaning of “awe, reverent respect, or honor.” It appears in the Old Testament as a synonym for “love” (Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will.
Verse 13 celebrates another characteristic of God, God’s compassion. The word translated here as “compassion” comes from the same root word as the word translated “merciful” in verse 8. The root is raham and, in its noun form, means “womb.” God’s mercy and compassion for his children is likened to the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child. What a marvelous image of our God, embracing us, caring for us, and nurturing us. Why does God care for and nurture us? Verse 14 opens with the word “because,” providing the answer to the question. God knows how we were made, that we are dust. After all, God created us and understands our fragile human nature.
The Narrative continues in verses 15-19, leading the singer into the closing words of Psalm 103, in which the angels (verse 20), the hosts (verse 21), and all of God works (verse 22) are called upon to “bless the LORD.” The Psalm ends with the same words with which it opens, “Bless the LORD, O my soul.”
Commentary on Romans 14:1-12
It is tough to praise God if you are busy passing judgment on other people.
At least that is what the apostle Paul seems to be saying in this passage from Romans, in which he exhorts the community of house-churches in Rome to avoid fighting over non-essential matters.
Paul’s greeting to the Romans at the beginning of the letter suggests that the glue that holds the church together is its identity as those who are beloved by God and called to be God’s people; indeed, God’s grace and peace are bestowed upon all of them (Romans 1:7). The implications of this claim come to bear on Paul’s response to the judgmental attitudes that seem to have developed among some of the believers.
The assigned pericope falls in a section of Romans (chapters 12-15) that sketches the implications for how the church lives its faith in light of the theological foundation established in prior chapters.
Commentators have long debated Paul’s primary purpose in composing such a long and theologically weighted missive to a community that he did not found and had not yet visited. I will leave those debates for another day, except to note that a key issue is the place of Jews and Gentiles before God in light of the saving work of Jesus Christ.
In addition, there is a practical matter. Paul expects to visit Rome soon, and when he arrives he will be seeking their support for the first-century equivalent of a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his missionary travels to Spain (15:23-24). (The phrase “to be sent on” in 15:24 [Gk = propempo] refers to support for the journey, such as money, food, travel arrangements, and so forth.) We may imagine that Paul is eager that nothing would stand in the way of achieving that support.
Our pericope focuses on in-house matters, notably the relationship among people who find themselves on opposing sides of two issues: whether or not it is appropriate to eat certain foods (dietary rules) and whether certain days deserve greater honor and attention than others (festivals).
Although the disagreements do not necessarily reflect a Jewish-Gentile conflict (for example, Jews observed dietary restrictions, but they were not required to be vegetarian), Paul’s teaching lands on the same place it did in earlier (some would say weightier) parts of the letter. That is, in the end, what matters most are not these particular piety practices, but rather the relationship of God with believers.
At its core, the issue here is each group setting itself over and above the other group, claiming the high moral ground for its particular practices and opinions. On one side are the vegetarians; on the other are people who will eat anything, with each side sneering judgmentally at the other about their behavior. Similarly, some people celebrate festival days (they “judge one day to be better than another”) while others do not.
From the first century until now, it seems, people manage to develop self-righteous attitudes toward those with whom they disagree, ignoring the injunction not to “think more highly of yourself than you ought to think” (Romans 12:3).
Paul is concerned about brothers and sisters sitting in judgment over the behaviors of one another; the verb “to pass judgment” (Gk = krino) appears several times in the passage (14:3, 4, 5, 10; cf. 2:1-3). Two phrases are noteworthy: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” (14:4) and “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” (14:10).
The theme is strengthened even further by the verse that appears immediately after our pericope: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Romans 14:13). (Preachers may want to consider including the whole of that verse in the reading.)
To be sure, Paul himself is no stranger to conflict, and he cares a great deal about how the followers of Christ conduct themselves, particularly within the fellowship of believers. But here, as elsewhere, he insists that God is the primary actor; judgment belongs to God, not to us (cf. 9:10). “God has welcomed them (14:3) … the Lord is able to make them stand (14:4) … Whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s (14:8) … So then, each of us will be accountable to God (14:12) … Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another” (14:13).
Note that Paul does not adjudicate the disagreement; that is, he does not implore the “weak in faith” to become meat-eaters. Instead, he levels the playing field by pointing out that people eat or abstain from meat “in honor of the Lord” (14:8).
The church should be a place of welcome, where unity is found not in particular practices of piety, but in the fact that we belong to the Lord (14:7-8). God has welcomed us, Paul says; we, too, should welcome those whose piety differs from our own (14:3).
Situations like the one Paul addresses at Rome are all too familiar in many (perhaps all?) of our congregations, although the primary topics may not involve food. (However, I must admit to hearing many a dispute on the topic of wafers vs. loaves and grape juice vs. wine.)
Will we sing praise music, or traditional hymns? Should we read from the NRSV, or the NIV (or the KJV or the CEB)? Will we come forward to receive Holy Communion (must it be called Eucharist?) or will we receive The Meal in our seats? These disagreements often lead to actions and attitudes that put down those who hold a different view.
As Paul prepares for his mission work in Spain, he must depend on the gracious gifts of the believers in Rome. Haughty attitudes regarding theology and practice could keep the Romans from engaging in this shared ministry with him.
What about today? In the current polarized, contentious culture in which we live, preachers might consider filling in the blanks with verse 3: Those who do or think X must not despise those who think or do Y, and those who think or do Y must not pass judgment on those who do or think X; for God has welcomed them. Perhaps our churches could raise the level of discourse and discussion in light of the standing of us all as people called by grace and by God not to judge but to worship and to serve.
Ask a child to apologize, to admit his or her wrong-doing, and you will discover the early limits of our empathy.
Being corrected is painful, for it brings to mind how we have failed, especially how we have let down those we love. Asking for forgiveness is an act of humility. And yet perhaps as challenging as asking for forgiveness is the granting of forgiveness. After all, forgiveness heals relationships by requiring us to let go, to turn the page, to refuse the right to hold on to bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, in short, sets things right again. Forgiveness is a powerfully healing force but also an incredibly difficult thing to receive or share.
Peter here asks about the limits of the granting of forgiveness even as Jesus brings our attention back to the grace under which God has healed us. Peter wonders aloud how far our forgiveness should expand. Jesus turns Peter’s question around to the deep grace God has shared.
The immediate, narrative context of Peter’s question is last week’s discussion around confronting disagreements in community and the (hopefully) rare necessity of excluding members of the community who pose a danger to the community’s integrity. We noted last week how easy it is for this process to become the focus of our attention rather than the values of love underwriting it. Additionally, we observed how easy it might be to manipulate Jesus’ teachings here, to turn them to my advantage instead of the needs of the community.
Peter thus asks how wide our forgiveness should be, how many times must I be slighted before I say enough, how long, O Lord, before our reservoir of grace can be exhausted. This is a natural question, of course. We know too well both the small and large ways that others can tread upon us. We know too well that others can take advantage of our generosity. We know too well the sting of consistent affront. At what point do we say, “Enough?”
Peter begins by establishing what he and we might consider a rather high bar of forgiveness, a significant concession to those who might hurt us. Should I forgive someone as many as seven times? That seems generous if not munificent. After all, aren’t second (let alone seventh!) chances exceedingly rare in our lives?
But Jesus, as he often does, poses a radical suggestion: not seven but 77 times are we to forgive. Of course, what Jesus is suggesting is not a larger ledger upon which we can keep track of offenses. He’s not merely requiring an additional number of gracious acts. Instead, he is suggesting there is no need for a ledger whatsoever. Forgiveness is a deep reservoir of grace that ought never to run dry. Why not?
As we answer this question, we should note Jesus’ parabolic response. Jesus seems to treasure teaching in parables. He is a vivid storyteller. He casts simple but memorable stories that communicate profound and life-altering truths. This might explain the continued ubiquity in our culture of the images Jesus cast and the perpetuity of his teachings.
In this particular parable, Jesus tells of a king settling debts with his servants. It may be that the servants are in the state they are in precisely because of the burden of their debts. That is, they may be slaves as a way to compensate their aggrieved creditors. One of these servants carries a massive financial obligation to his king, a debt too great ever to be repaid. And so the king decrees that the nameless debtor and his family ought to be sold in order to pay the debt. If he will not receive the amount due, at least the king can receive some compensation in exchange for the slave’s labors.
Knowing his whole life was about to be crushed, the debtor begs for more time, more patience but receives something unexpected instead: a wholesale remission of his debts.
The motives of the king are simple: pity. Perhaps he is moved by the man’s plight and their common humanity. Perhaps he is touched by the desperate situation in which this slave finds himself. Perhaps he sees the crippling intergenerational chains of debt that might bind this slave’s children and grandchildren. Perhaps he is a compassionate person. Though perhaps he may only see an economic opportunity; it may be worth more to see this servant free, to exchange an unpayable financial debt for a more useful personal obligation to the king.
We never learn of the source of the king’s pity. His motives could be pure or muddled. This insight is an excellent reminder that Jesus’ parables are rarely simply allegories, wherein characters can be easily attached to God or us in the drama of salvation. Not all kings are stand-ins for God in the parables; instead, we may find God in the interstices of this stories as much as in their explicit characters.
The now liberated servant leaves with a whole new life available to him. However, in short order, he shifts from servant to lord, debtor to creditor. Encountering one of his fellow slaves, he demands that a relatively smaller debt be fulfilled immediately. Unable to pay, the slave is thrown in jail. Once the king hears of his erstwhile slave’s callous reaction, the king demands that the (former) slave be tortured “until he would pay his entire debt” (verse 34). The implication of this conviction is gruesome though left largely to the imagination.
Jesus concludes by noting the seriousness of our forgiveness of others. Just as the faithful hold the ability to bind and loose, our unwillingness to forgive will redound on us. Forgiveness is neither optional nor contingent. Why? Because God’s forgiveness knows no end and so also should our relationships be governed by a grace that knows no bounds.
Like last week’s invocation to confront a disruptive person in the community, Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness could well be abused. Forgiveness does not mean the embrace of violence perpetrated against us. It does not mean giving free reign to those who would do us harm. It does not mean a ready acquiescence to those who are stronger than us. The context of these teachings is key. Forgiveness is a gift of grace, a reflection of God’s love, not the curse of abuse or a reflection of our worst tendencies as humans.
In this context, the exhortation to unending forgiveness is a counter-balance to the confrontations dictated in the previous verses. Confrontation without forgiveness does not reflect the good news, and neither can forgiveness that eschews the confrontations that made forgiveness necessary in the first place speak truthfully about reconciliation and healing.