Lectionary Commentaries for September 7, 2014
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20
Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-11
Wickedness, sin, death, blood — this week’s selection from Ezekiel 33 can be a difficult and jarring read for those of us not overly familiar with the book of Ezekiel and its sometimes bizarre judgment speeches.
The selection also includes only the briefest snippet from chapter 33. We are left without much context — historical background, literary setting, theological understandings.
With this selection, it is as if we have joined the conversation mid-sentence.
So, how do we make sense of this portion of the overall conversation?
These five verses taken from deep within this prophetic book raise difficult questions about God’s judgment and forgiveness.
I have organized my comments below by asking four questions. In asking these questions, I am most interested in the roles of the prophet, the house of Israel, and the Divine within Ezekiel 33:7-11.
Our selection represents in some ways the (stereo)typical image of a Hebrew prophet: a mouthpiece of God consumed with sin and judgment, a fiery preacher calling attention to the wickedness all around, an itinerant ranting about transgressions. Indeed, many of the prophets do issues harsh judgments against the nation and people of Israel. (And we should not forget that they also offer words of comfort and hope to the people.)
But many times, the reason for the prophet’s emphasis on judgment relates to the need for repentance. The prophets hope to persuade the people to turn away from their wrongdoings and follow God and God’s teachings.
There is more to this passage than a simple call to repentance.
Ezekiel 33:1-20 forms the larger literary unit and consists of an oracle concerning a watchman. This image is used earlier in the book of Ezekiel for the prophet. As part of a prophetic commissioning, God appoints the “son of man,” Ezekiel, as a watchman or lookout or sentinel in Ezekiel 3:16-21. The image or metaphor is used in the book both to describe Ezekiel’s prophetic role — he is to warn people of coming danger — and to limit the prophet’s liability if the people do not listen.
The watchman’s responsibility lies in sounding the alarm and pronouncing the danger. The sentinel would have been stationed in a lookout position and sounded a trumpet upon sight of a threat. The watchman, however, is not responsible for the people’s response to the warning. He or she cannot force people to prepare for the threat, to defend the city militarily, to fortify the surroundings.
The watchman’s task is to announce impending danger.
The image of the watchman is particularly striking if we consider the literary context of the passage. The passage immediately after our selection, Ezekiel 33:21-22, contains a narrative report of the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. This military intervention serves as a critical turning point in the book of Ezekiel given that the prophetic tone switches here from mostly judgment oracles to promise oracles in chapters 33-48. The occurrence of an image of the watchman just preceding this announcement already sets the tone for impending danger.
Our five verses include three references to “the house of Israel.” We are therefore clear about the communal and national recipient of these warnings. In fact, this collective recipient is able to respond in verse 10 to the divine speech with a question: “how then can we live?” This question, with its accompanying realization that their sins weigh upon them heavily, actually engenders the divine response (verse 11) that concludes this passage. The people of God have offered a complaint to which God now responds.
God’s intention is not for God’s people to die. While the house of Israel is surely threatened with death, God offers repentance and assurance that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
The danger in this passage is not an impending enemy attack as we might suppose from the metaphor of the watchman. In fact, the threat is not external. Instead, the role of the watchman is to relay to the people God’s impending, but not inevitable, judgment.
The last phrase of the last verse of our passage speaks of God’s final question to the house of Israel: “why will you die?” This question reframes the earlier inquiry from Israel: “how can we live?” It flips the earlier query on its head and emphasizes the consequence of wickedness (death).
Why would you choose death when you can be alive?
To choose to live is to choose to turn back from evil. This verb, “to turn” is used repeatedly in this passage as a reminder of the physical understanding of repentance.
In addition to its placement within the overall book of Ezekiel, the passage is also shaped liturgically by this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel, Matthew 18:15-20, a brief passage that speaks of church discipline. The gospel imperative to go to a fellow church member to point out a fault relates somewhat to the image in Ezekiel 33 of the prophet’s call to repentance and his role as a watchman.
The thematic connection between the passages actually stands loosely and at a broad level. Engaging the specifics of these passages creates some thematic distance between them. Perhaps one can note that in general forgiveness of sin is readily available in both stories.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14
It can be hard to let go of the things, places, relationships, and systems that enslave us.
In the desert, God’s people wanted so badly to get back to the thing they knew. It didn’t matter that it was an awful, deadly thing that stole their freedom and future. They wanted so badly to get back to the Nile, to the meat and savory vegetables (Exodus 16:3; Numbers 11:5), to the predictable powerlessness, that God had to send them through a wilderness maze to ensure they could never find their way back to slavery in Egypt (Exodus 13:18).
This week’s passage is about freedom from slavery, new beginning, and leaving behind. It is about life and death. It teaches us how to get ready to move fast.
The repetitive, ritualistic language of verse 2 focuses on the month, the year, and the marking of time. And it tells God’s people: this time is for you. The month is measured by the visible cycles of the waxing and waning moon. The year progresses according to the alternations of night and day, labor and rest, and seasons of rain and dryness, planting, and harvest.
Later in Exodus, the reader finds commandments for festivals of first fruits and harvest. These festivals anticipate a future in the land that God has promised. To arrive at that future, the people must first leave the past. They must leave Egypt. The month of their departure marks the beginning of their future and freedom. And so the whole calendar must now find a new fixed point of origin and orientation. Henceforth, for God’s people all of time originates in, is oriented to, and commemorates each year their release from slavery. Time for God’s people is forevermore freedom-time.
To prepare to preach this radical reorienting of time, we might first take a look at our wrists, in our pockets and bags, on our walls, on these screens that soak up so much of our time. How much of our lives, individually and collectively, are populated and regulated by clocks and calendars? “What do you like to do in your free time?” asks a well-intentioned new acquaintance. We scoff, not without some smug pride: “free time? What’s that?” What calendar are we using? What is its origin and orientation?
God knows the system of death for what it is. Brick-quotas (Exodus 5:7-18), beaten backs (2:11), bitter lives (1:13), murdered babies (1:22): God sees the suffering and hears the cries of God’s people (3:7).
The people must let go of this past together. The third verse emphasizes the unity of the congregation of Israel at the same time that it commands action that every member will undertake (12:3; cf. 12:6). The language at the verse’s conclusion is again repetitive and ritualistic, now emphasizing the inclusion of every household (12:3). In the following verse, we learn how the smallest households will join together and support one another in the hard work of letting go (12:4).
The lamb’s slaughter takes place at twilight, literally “between the evenings” (12:7). It is the hour of transition between day and night, a time of ending and beginning. The lamb’s blood upon the doorposts of the Israelites’ houses similarly marks transition. These houses are not their permanent dwellings. They provide short-term protection. But their most important feature is the doorway, site of entry and exit. The life-blood of the lamb marks that exit, protecting, hallowing, and preparing their departure from slavery in Egypt.
The meal itself is also symbolic. They will eat bitter herbs (12:8), a sensory reminder of bereavement and suffering to be tasted, chewed, swallowed, and digested. The flat bread (12:8), made without yeast, is a bread of haste and readiness. The instructions for cooking the lamb are specific (12:9). Neither raw nor boiled: the waters of Egypt have been a source of death. The Israelites will leave them behind. Instead they shall cook their meal in the fire, reminder of the fire of God’s presence in the burning bush, and foreshadowing of the fire that will lead them through the wilderness to new life.
When they eat of the lamb, they shall leave nothing over (12:10) — there will be no waiting, no holding back, no returning.
As for the people, they shall eat with their “loins girded”, sandals on feet, staff in hand, and in haste (12:11). The expression “loins girded” rings empty for us — we know it refers to preparation, but the language is archaic, no longer our own. One scholar has defined the dual form motnayim, which NRSV translates “loins”, as “the strong musculature linking the upper part of the body with the lower.”1
As such it provides a symbol for the unity of the whole person, of intention and action. It is also the body’s strong core (Nahum 2:1; Job 40:16). To “gird” is to bind or wrap, in this case for support. Picture a weight-lifting belt, a runner’s compression shorts, or sports tape. Runners know that a strong core translates into stability, speed, and endurance.
In 1 Kings 18:16, Elijah “girds his loins” and as a result outruns Ahab. Muscles supported, shoes laced, equipment in hand: the Israelites eat this meal quickly, ready to run from death to life. Moreover, with a staff in one hand, a hasty meal in the other, it becomes impossible to hold on to anything else.
The economy of death is addicting. We pick up what we were supposed to let go. We keep resetting our clocks to the quotas of Egypt. When day is done, we take off our shoes, put down the staff, dawdle by the door. Celebrate the festival and preach the word that will help God’s people let go of slavery, enter freedom-time, and journey together into new life.
1 Moshe Held, “Studies in Comparative Semitic Lexicography,” in Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger on His Seventy-fifth Birthday (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 395-06, p. 405.
Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40
Psalm 119 is a massive alphabetic acrostic, in which its 176 verses are divided into stanzas of eight verses, each of which begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Thus, verses 1-8 all begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph; verses 9-16 all begin with the second letter, beyt, and so on. Verses 33-40 all begin with hey, the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
The acrostic poem was a common “wisdom” form in ancient Israel (see, for instance, Psalms 34, 111, 112, 145, the book of Lamentations). They were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways. Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public — individual and corporate — recitation; literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, from aleph to tav, from “A” to “Z.”
Adele Berlin says this about Psalm 145, another alphabetic acrostic: “The poet praises God with everything from A to Z: his praise is all-inclusive. More than that, the entire alphabet, the source of all words, is marshaled in praise of God. One cannot actually use all of the words in a language, but by using the alphabet one uses all potential words.”
The acrostic structure of Psalm 119 marks it a wisdom composition — a wisdom psalm — as do its content and message. We define wisdom psalms as those that provide instruction in right faith and right living in the tradition of the other wisdom writings of the Old Testament — Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. And in most of the wisdom psalms, the path to wisdom is through adherence to the Torah, the law of God.
In Psalm 119, seven Hebrew words are used in synonymous interchange with the word “torah,” usually translated as law, but better translated as instruction. Those seven words are (in the NRSV): decree, precept, statute, commandment, ordinance, word, and promise. While each synonym carries a slightly different nuance of meaning, little is gained by attempting to distinguish a separate meaning, theological or otherwise, for each of them.
Psalm 119 opens with the word ‘ashre, rendered in most English translations as “happy” or “blessed.” It occurs some forty times in the Old Testament, twenty-seven times in the book of Psalms (Psalms 1:1; 41:2; 89:16; 112:1; 119:1,2; 128:1; 146:5). The word most likely comes from the Hebrew root ‘ashar, which means “to walk in a particular way, on a particular path,” confirming the role of the wisdom psalm as outlining the way to right and faith and living. Thus, a better translation for ‘ashre may be “content,” that deep-seated feeling that one is finding their being and moving “in the right way.”
The path to ‘ashre – contentedness — is achieved in a number of ways according to Psalm 119. The psalm incorporates many psalmic types, including, among others, questions (verse 9); laments (verses 17-24); words of trust (verses 41-48); praise and rejoicing (65-72, 129-136); and, perhaps most prevalent, petitions to God (verses 49-56, 145-152).
Verses 33-40 of Psalm 119 fall into the last category, containing a series of petitions to God. The psalm singer implores God in a rapid succession of imperatives to “teach me the way of your statutes,” “give me understanding,” “lead me in the path of your commandment,” “turn my heart to your decrees . . . my eyes from looking at vanities,” “give me life,” “confirm your promise,” and “turn away the disgrace.” Why? Because, the psalmist says in verse 40, “I have longed for your precepts.”
In this eight-verse stanza, all but one of the synonyms for “law [torah] are used as the psalmist pleads with God to teach and lead in the right paths (“Word” is missing in this stanza.). The singer understands the difficulty of properly following God and asks repeatedly for instruction and guidance, employing a plethora of words of petition.
The stanza that follows verses 33-40, verses 41-48, contains hopeful words of trust, in seeming answer to the petitions of the previous verses. Here the psalm singer “shall have an answer for those who taunt me” (verse 42), “will keep your law continually” (verse 44), “shall walk at liberty” (verse 45), “will speak of your decrees before kings” (verse 46), “find my delight in your commandments” (v. 47), and “revere your commandments … meditate on your statutes” (verse 48).
The singer of Psalm 119 weaves together words of lament, petition, trust, and exuberant joy in this marvelous ode to the torah of the Lord. Claus Westermann writes, “If a person succeeds in reading this psalm’s 176 verses one after the other at one sitting, the effect is overwhelming. In its extent the psalm has the effect of a massive mountain range. One has the feeling that it represents the boundary between the world of the Psalms and a different world, that of law piety.”
Interestingly, though, the torah as presented in Psalm119 is not a strict set of rules and regulations. None of the specific injunctions of the Ten Commandments, the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are mentioned. Rather, torah is presented as a way of life or approach to being that brings one closer to God. The psalmist repeatedly implores God to “cause me to live (give me life, NRSV)” (verses 25, 37, 40, 77, 88, 107, 144, 149, 156, 159) because of the torah.
Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
Our God is not a God of arbitrary rules and regulations, although that is what Christianity often feels like in our day and time. God graciously gave the Israelites a means for living as God’s people, not to restrict them, but to free them to truly be the people of God. May we, with the singer of Psalm 119, implore God to teach, give, lead, turn, and confirm us as we strive to live out our calling to torah observance.
Commentary on Romans 13:8-14
It is perhaps a conventional American aspiration to be debt-free in every way, because it marks autonomy and self-sufficiency.
A measure of self-respect may come from living according to the twin principles, “owe nothing to anyone,” and “no one owes me anything.” The catchy line “don’t believe the world owes you a living,” quipped by American clergyman and humorist Robert Jones Burdette (1844-1914), has become axiomatic.
Pop culture even replicates the idea. A scene in the movie Rocky shows an argument between Rocky Balboa and Paulie, his friend and brother-in-law, in which Rocky says, “Come on, you act like everybody owes you a livin’ … Nobody owes nobody nothin’. You owe yourself.” But the apostle Paul espouses a different idea for the Christian community in Romans 13:8-14. There, he calls believers to live according to the principle that one obligation can never be settled: the debt of love.
Paul unfolds his gospel of grace in chapters 1-11. In light of that gospel, he calls his audience to offer their bodies “as a living sacrifice” (12:1-2). The rest of chapters 12-13 begin to show the practical outworking of sacrificial living. Paul’s audience can begin to see what it means to “be transformed by the renewing of [their] minds” so as to “discern what is the will of God” (12:2).
It means thinking and acting in a way so as not to please oneself but others (verses 3-8), and it means making one’s love for others genuine (verses 9-21). In other words, this sacrifice is not accomplished independently, but in and through community.
Paul addresses the Christian community’s relationship to governing authorities (13:1-7), recalling his appeal, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:18). Now in 13:8-14, he recapitulates the theme of love for others. This sets the tone for the exhortations of chapters 14-15, in which Paul calls stronger and weaker believers to live together in mutual love (14:14).
The catchword “owe” connects 13:7 to 13:8. Paul shifts from addressing obligations to the governing authorities to addressing obligations to one’s neighbor. His audience is to have no outstanding debts except to love one another. The reason for this debt is, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled (pleroo) the law” (verse 8b).
Paul clearly means the Mosaic law, because he lists four of the Ten Commandments: do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet. It may seem that he contradicts what he went to great lengths to establish earlier in the letter, that through Christ, believers have died to the law to live anew in the Spirit (7:4-6).
Paradoxically, however, believers have died to the law so that the law may be fulfilled in them. Paul’s audience may recall the last time he appealed to a commandment. In 7:7, he explained how sin took advantage of the commandment, “You shall not covet,” to produce covetousness.
Nevertheless, he says, the law itself is not equated with sin, but is “holy and righteous and good.” Rather, sin is what makes the commandments deadly (7:11). The solution, then, is not to dispose of the law altogether, but to deal with sin.
God sent Jesus to break the relentless hold of sin and death over human beings, “in order that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled (pleroo) in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4; see 13:8b). For those who are in Christ and living by the Spirit, Paul can now say that, “You shall not covet,” with the other community-oriented commands listed, is constitutive of the law of love (13:11-14).
This is what Jesus said: All the law and the prophets hang on two commands, love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:34-30; see also John 13:34-35). It is also what Jesus himself did. In light of an instance of failure to love neighbor (chapter 14), Paul presents Christ himself as the example to follow: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (15:2-3). Jesus acted for the sake of others, making his love for others genuine at the cross.
In 13:11-14, Paul shifts the vision of his audience to see the command to love one’s neighbor in light of the future day of salvation (see 8:18-25). He writes of the salvation approaching “us,” highlighting its community orientation. The appeal to awaken from sleep and lay aside the deeds of darkness evokes the appeal not to be conformed to “this world/age” (aion) in 12:1-2.
Paul also writes about this idea elsewhere, explaining that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (aion; Galatians 1:4). Those who are in Christ belong to a new age with new values. Actually, these are old values (“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Leviticus 19:18) that have been vivified by Christ through the Spirit (see also Galatians 5).
Paul uses typical eschatological language, building a contrast between this age and the new age by opposing darkness and light, night and day. Since believers belong to the age of light and day, they are to put on the armor of light (verse 12). This is synonymous with putting on the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 14). In the context, to put on Christ is to imitate him in loving one’s neighbor through self-sacrificial service. The love that believers express is a weapon against the darkness and the flesh as the community moves together towards the day of salvation.
The debt of love can never be settled because we grow up into the salvation that is ours in Christ by loving our neighbor through the work of the Spirit. The working out of our salvation is a community undertaking, making impossible for us to live as free agents.
Churches are full of troublesome people.
We are rather expert at spotting those rabble rousers around us, identifying their destructive habits, and condemning the ways they seek to destabilize our communities. Noticing when we are engaged in these very same behaviors is another story. After all, some of those troublesome people are us.
Two weeks ago, we noted how rarely the Gospel writers refer to the “church” by explicitly using the term ekklesia. Two weeks ago, Jesus commended Peter’s faith and declared that the “church” will be built upon that critical moment of faith. In our passage, the church is once again mentioned, not to establish its foundation so much as to note the ways in which that foundation is so easily destabilized by conflict.
After all, the “church” was not born until the resurrection inaugurated its mission in the world. The “church” (that is, that body of believers bound by faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ) was a future reality for Matthew’s Jesus. In a sense, he speaks wisdom to a community not yet founded. In these two references to the “church,” we may see most clearly the kinds of concerns that drove the composition of Matthew’s Gospel. These two narratives may describe the deepest concerns of Matthew’s community, concerns so important that Jesus himself addresses them directly.
But this is not the only connection between these two passages. In both, Jesus reminds the faithful of the great power they wield as a gift from God (see 16:19 and 18:18). The Spiderman mythology gets it exactly right: with great power comes great responsibility.
At the confluence of community and power, Jesus is instructing his disciples. Community is vital and God’s gift to us and the very setting in which God will move among us. And yet that community, as we know too well, has to be preserved, protected from bitter rancor and pointless dissension.
The guidelines for communal discernment and confrontation tap into the community’s own resources of witness. Unresolved conflict ought not to happen in a silent corner, behind closed doors where differences in power can overwhelm the weak. Neither should they happen through whispered rumors where the corrosive effect of gossip can pervade our lives.
Instead, you begin with a direct addressing of the issue and then a witness to your case, someone who presumably sees things the same way you do. That failing, you move through larger circles of involvement in the community, eventually granting the community the duty to expel the offender, to treat him or her like a “tax collector or Gentile,” that is, as an abject outsider to the circle of the faithful.
These are not decisions to be taken lightly, for the decision of the community at that point resonates in the heavens. Remember the context in which Jesus first tells Peter about the power of binding and loosening. In that earlier verse (16:19), there is a synchronicity between heaven and earth, between our actions and God’s actions. So too here. Expelling this individual is not just a matter of communal cohesion but a matter of life and death. With great power comes great responsibility.
Matthew’s Jesus concludes with the power of numbers. When two siblings in the faith concur so does God. Wherever two or three gather, there God dwells. That is, these communities are sacred ground, which is precisely why conflict needs to be addressed and precisely why divisive sisters or brothers cannot be allowed to tear God’s people apart. How we relate to one another in Christian community is a concern in God’s heart.
So, is this a good blueprint for church conflict today? Must we confront one another with these prescribed steps and swerve from them only to our detriment? Do we in a culture with so many choices in churches really dwell on the power we have to exclude some from our midst? After all, don’t people leave churches all the time for any number of reasons and find another place to call a spiritual home? Don’t churches split for any number of reasons? In a culture that does not seek out belonging in churches, do we still heed this call to community, to mutual belonging?
To be clear, this is no mere handbook for resolving conflicts. Simply following this order of confrontation will not ensure a result consonant with God’s hopes. It is not as simple as moving through these steps. We know that the mechanics of decision-making do not always reflect our values. Checking off these duties step-by-step will not guarantee a decision rooted in God’s love for us. This process could so easily be co-opted by selfishness and dislike and so many human frailties. Instead, what matters here is the concern for the other and the community imbedded in these steps.
We ought to remember that what makes a church a church is precisely the presence of so many troublesome people. That the expulsion of the troublemaker is a last resort, a human condemnation that so easily redounds with divine implications. That Matthew’s Jesus must assume that most conflicts will be confronted well with step one or step two, never requiring the harsh step of estrangement.
In short, the steps Jesus lays out here are not a mere blueprint so much as a statement of communal values and an acknowledgment of both the frailty as well as the utter necessity of communal discernment. Love requires that we address the inevitable conflicts that will arise among us. It is not enough to sweep them under the rug and thus allow them to fester. Unaddressed conflicts can render a community unable to function as God hopes. But neither is rejection our first instinct. Separation is not to be taken lightly even when it proves necessary.
As we preach a text so full of certainty about community and who belongs in it, we might wonder where forgiveness, doubt, and humility are to be found. Must every unresolved conflict result in separation? Will our inevitable conflicts lead to inevitable separation? To that we will turn next week.