Lectionary Commentaries for September 10, 2017
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20

Stanley Saunders

The sayings on binding and loosing in Matthew 18:18 (and 16:19) have presented a puzzle that resists precise resolution.

Jesus tells his disciples that what they bind or loose on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven. This is both a startling grant of authority and a warning to the disciples. With authority comes profound responsibility, especially when the community represents God’s presence and power in the world.

But what does binding and loosing really mean? The scholarly consensus has been that these terms have something to do with determining the boundaries of the community, intervening in conflicts, settling matters of doctrinal dispute, and deciding who is in and who is out. These matters, however, focus more on the consequences of binding and loosing than on the practice itself. Underneath the identification and authorization of leaders, the determination of boundaries, and the settling of doctrines there is always a web of prior assumptions, interests, and power relations, all of which shape and preserve the entitlements and liberties some people have and the weights and burdens that others are compelled to carry. The church is not immune to these dynamics, and Jesus knows it.

In Matthew 18, Jesus does not seem very interested in abstract boundaries or doctrines, or in precise determinations of the lines that determine who is in and who is out. Nor is it likely that Jesus’ words are meant primarily to support the development of an ecclesial hierarchy and affirm the authority of church leaders. Matthew’s Jesus is, rather, concerned about “the least ones,” the vulnerable, the ones at the bottom of the power pyramid. Better to tie a millstone around your neck and jump in the ocean than cause a little one to stumble (Matthew 18:6). Better to leave ninety-nine sheep on the mountains than lose a little one (18:12). The point of Matthew 18 is not that the church or its leaders possess special authority or insight when dealing with disputes, but that whenever it does exercise authority, it must pay ceaseless attention to the least powerful members of the community. Whenever and whatever we bind or loose, the Christian community is called to defend the interests of the least ones in our midst, as well as to create the space and conditions for forgiveness and restoration to flourish.

While “binding and loosing” have come to designate the articulation of power in ecclesial settings, at a deeper level, binding and loosing are practices in which we take part on a daily basis, usually unconsciously. What we bind and loose is integrally related to worldviews, values, and life scripts. Binding and loosing are not just about doctrines, but about where we shop, the neighborhoods where we buy houses, and our decisions to turn some people into friends and others into enemies, some into heroes and others into terrorists. This constant activity sets in place and reifies relationships, which, according to Matthew 18:18, even the powers of heaven may not be able to undo. The issue in Matthew 18 is not whether the community and its leaders have power to bind and loose, but the values, worldviews, convictions, and practices that shape this authority in distinctive ways.

Matthew’s discourse on community discipline, as chapter 18 is often designated, in fact describes the foundational values and practices that distinguish the community of disciples from any other: solidarity with one another as “children” (Matthew 18:1-5), avoidance of actions that cause others to “stumble” (18:6-9), care for the most vulnerable (18:6, 10, 14), restoration of those who go astray (18:12-14, 15-17), and forgiveness without limit (18:21-35). In the pursuit of this vision and these practices, the community embodies and represents the empire of heaven on earth (18:18-19) and Jesus himself is present among them (18:20). The process described in 18:15-17 is a concrete example of a careful, orderly, and, most important, persistent means of dealing with kinds of interpersonal conflicts that lead to “binding and loosing” (18:18-19). The process Jesus describes resembles, and has been a foundation for, modern practices associated with “restorative justice,” which focus less on punishment and more on the restoration of dignity and wholeness for both the conflicted parties and their communities.

What does this kind of binding and loosing look like in our world? Elbert Parr Tuttle was a young lawyer based in Atlanta and a National Guard officer when he was sent to Elberton, Georgia in 1931 to organize efforts to restrain a mob and restore order after a black man had been accused of rape by a white woman. Tuttle succeeded in helping the accused escape the lynch mob that day, but at the subsequent trial, twelve white men produced a guilty verdict after a two hour trial and six minutes of deliberation, on largely contrived evidence, resulting in a death penalty.

Tuttle went on to organize legal resources to appeal the case, but was ultimately frustrated. The man was executed three years later. Tuttle’s experiences with this case changed his view of the world. Tuttle went on to become a highly successful lawyer and was eventually appointed to serve as the chief justice of the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, with jurisdiction over southern states from Texas to Florida. Tuttle was on the bench during the years when Civil Rights legislation first began to challenge long-standing patterns of racism. He was responsible for making sure that decisions handed down by the Supreme Court actually became law in practice. Elbert Tuttle, a white man who grew up in Hawaii, bound himself to the cause of a black man wrongly accused and sentenced to die. Although he lost the struggle for that man’s life, he nonetheless bound himself to the ongoing struggle to loose the shackles of racism that still plague our country. Tuttle became, arguably, the chief jurist not only of the Fifth Circuit, but of the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s. This is binding and loosing at its best and most powerful.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-11

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

In bizarre (Ezekiel 1), devastating (Ezekiel 15), and even graphic (Ezekiel 16 and 23) terms, the prophet has spoken words of judgment against Judah.

The astonishing rhetoric and poetics have intended to startle the people to attention. The warnings to Judah dominate chapters 1-24. The closing line of chapter 24, before the beginning of the oracles against the nations in 25, reveals the divine intention for all of the stark warnings and denunciations: “they shall know that I am the LORD.” Ezekiel does not present a deity on an ego trip, but a God who wants a faithful people who form a good relationship between themselves and God (Ezekiel 11:20). All of the harsh language and shocking metaphors constitute God’s strategy to awaken the people to their estrangement from God and their own true identity.

Chapter 33 begins a transition in the book of Ezekiel. Verse 21 reports the fall of Jerusalem. This event exposed the false confidence and complacency of the people (Ezekiel 33:24). In the midst of this utter defeat, the words of Ezekiel turn from primarily judgment to restoration. Although Ezekiel had reported God’s word of restoration before chapter 33 (Ezekiel 11:19, 18:31), the predominant theme becomes healing and hope after this chapter. Although Ezekiel does not present as tender a God as Hosea (see Hosea 11), God will reform the community (Ezekiel 37), and work within the people, as a community and individually to enable them to form a relationship with God.

This transition passage contains both threat and compassion. The passage employs the metaphor of a sentinel or lookout. Chapter 33 opens with a kind of extended rhetorical question. If a sentinel warns a people about an invasion, and they do nothing, whose fault is it? God had appointed Ezekiel as a sentinel in 3:16-21. The passage works in two ways. The Babylonians had indeed invaded Jerusalem and overrun it. The metaphor of an invading army also evokes God’s judgment. The people cannot say that no one warned them.

A recurring insight of theology is that although one uses metaphors to enable understanding of God, God consistently redefines the metaphor. Theology happens when a metaphor illumines God, yet God pushes the metaphor in new ways. Ezekiel employs the metaphor of an invading army coming as judgment for the people’s sins. A sentinel warns a town or city of the approach of an invading army. In Ezekiel’s metaphor the invading army provides the sentinel! Appointing Ezekiel as the sentinel communicates God’s care for the people. God does not desire the destruction of the people, as an invading army would. An invading army wants to subjugate the conquered people and appropriate their resources. God comes in ways that seem similar to an invading army and brings punishment, but only as a prelude to restoration and renewal. God punishes and even devastates only to prepare the people for the work God will do among and within them. God, the invading army, even sends the sentinel who frantically sounds the trumpet as a warning that the invading army is charging at this very moment.

A preacher might make a couple of homiletical moves from this passage for a sermon. The preacher can make a straightforward analogy between the people of Israel and the church. In this move, scripture or the prophet becomes the “sentinel” to admonish the church for the ways it has fallen short of becoming the community of faith God calls it to be. By ignoring the sentinel, the church has become ineffective, divided, conflicted, and complacent. The advantage of this move is that the church joins the people of Israel as the community of faith. (I’m revealing my theology here. The church does not replace Judaism as God’s people, but joins them.) Because of the way that Ezekiel undergirds God’s judgment with God’s persistent commitment to the people and the promise of restoration, such a move cannot condescend as a scold. Such a sermon would need genuine insight into what the church can become and why it has not. In what ways has the church become self-righteous, too supportive of the status quo, uncaring? How does the church “go through the motions” without genuine engagement with those who need help? How might God judge the church as a means of enabling its eventual growth? How does God’s judgment clear away the clutter so that God can work anew?

A careful reading of this pericope puts the focus specifically on Ezekiel’s role as the sentinel. This passage would work well for a sermon to the teachers and leaders within a congregation. How do they function as “sentinels” for the rest of the church?  If the preacher honors the conversation between God and the prophet in 33:7-11, then a sermon from this passage might interpret the church’s role as the sentinel to the world. The church itself can play the role of sentinel. Again avoiding the temptation to scold, such a sermon might interpret the call of the church to speak out about injustice, inequality, greed, exploitation, environmental degradation, or other manifestations of sin. The sentinel has an important responsibility. All of the ways that Ezekiel spoke out (2:5), but also lived in solidarity with the people (3:15) inform the role of the church in speaking to the world.

The passage communicates a sense of urgency about Ezekiel’s role as sentinel. God gives Ezekiel responsibility to speak a word the community needs to hear. The word spoken by the sentinel must communicate God’s frustration at sin, but also God’s passion for life and for healing within the community. God does not desire death, but life. Even judgment becomes part of God’s life-giving mission. The God who invades also sends a sentinel to warn. The God who invades also leads the cleanup and restoration. The sentinel must sound the trumpet, but play the right notes.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

Wherever you live right now, it is probably Egypt in some way or another.

In other words, there is a better land, a better world that could be established were you not stuck in Egypt. But the only way to get to that better land — by no means simply relegated to the geographic location of the soles of our feet — is by joining together and marching toward it.1 The Exodus event speaks deeply to the relocation and reformation of our souls as being part and parcel to the work of bringing God’s Kingdom revolution into the here and now.

This is what the Exodus teaches every generation of its readers. This is why Exodus imagery and imagination has played a crucial role in revolutions, from the Christ revolution to the civil rights revolutions in the United States and beyond.

Over the next couple of weeks in the lectionary, preachers can explore the importance of the Exodus narrative for Israel, as well as for the early church. And of course preachers may want to explore implications of this theological event for those awaiting revolution and liberation in our world today.

A Festival Established

This week’s passage is not the actual Passover event itself, though it has been alluded to in Exodus 11. The event will then come to pass following the establishment of the annual commemoration, or “perpetual ordinance” (Exodus 12:14) in verses 28 and following. After the event, we get even more guidelines surrounding the establishment of the Passover festival. Why all the liturgical doctrine? The voice of a liturgical theologian drives the telling of this event and so establishes the need to retell the paradigmatic story of God’s successful confrontation with a particular tyranny at a particular time, for in all particular times we will always come face to face with novel forms of tyranny.2

The Exodus event itself is the centering narrative of the Hebrew Bible.3 Perhaps we could even say it is akin to the Cross/Resurrection event in the New Testament. To call Yahweh “Deliverer” is to make a confession.4 It is to trust that the One who delivered Israel from oppression and tyranny will do so again. You see this central event throughout the psalms as well as in the theology of the prophets. Jesus of course leans into this core event in the Gospels. The theological good news out of this event is that whenever God’s people cry out under the burden of oppression, liberation will come about.

One last thing about this festival: note that it is established without need of a priest or ordained official religious leader. Rather, it is established as a family celebration, rooted in the home. How might it serve us to think of revolution starting this way?

The Process of Revolution

Although the Passover is the first victory over the tyrant, Pharaoh, it is by no means the final victory. The Exodus narrative leads us to the wilderness which leads us to Sinai and the establishment of covenant with God that will then lead to a good and proper rooting of the people in Canaan, land of milk and honey. Generations come and go in this period of revolution. Moses, the leader of the revolution, will not live to see the construction in Canaan take place. Revolution takes time.

One can see a process of revolution take shape in the book and its three primary locations:5

  1. Egypt: the place of oppression and struggle for liberation
  2. Wilderness: the place of perils, counterrevolutions stirring up in the still maturing people who are liberated but not yet consolidated
  3. Canaan: the place where construction of a new society can now occur

But of course, the story of Israel — of God’s people seeking to live and do right by God in creation — does not end there. We are forgetful creatures. Hence the need for a perpetual ordinance. In Christian tradition, that perpetual ordinance is communion. As one scholar put it, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And if the oppression is repeated, so must the liberation be.”6

Jesus, our Passover Lamb

Some traditions of the Christian church emphasize the parallel between this Passover event and the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross during Passover festivities years later. Just as the blood of the unblemished lambs, spread on the door posts and lintels of Israel’s homes, allowed for the first born to be spared the tenth and final plague, so too does the blood of Christ shed on the cross help those who believe in him to pass through the plague of sin and into eternal covenant life with God.

What is the theological connection for those who do not ascribe to atonement theologies? Perhaps the good news of the cross in this framework is the revelation of a God who desires covenant not just with Israel but with all of humankind. Perhaps it is the good news of a God who does not only hear and respond to the cries of one tribe without concern for the cries of another.

Preaching Against the Text

Related then to the good news just mentioned, some preachers may feel the need to preach against this text. Do we affirm that God chooses to harden the hearts of some people (Pharaoh, Exodus 7:3; 10:1; 11:9), resulting in the ordained slaughter of those who had no say in the matter (the first born of Egypt)? In a globalized world, how might we imagine a congregant or neighbor of Egyptian descent overhearing this text? These are the theological landmines that are hidden in this very important text.


1. Michael Walzer. Exodus and Revolution. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985), 149.

2. Walter Brueggemann. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 54.

3. George V. Pixley. On Exodus: A Liberation Perspective. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), xiii.

4. Gerhard von Rad. Old Testament Theology Volume 1 (New York: Harper & Row, publishers, 1962), 176.

5, Pixley, 81.

6. Walzer, 115.


Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

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.1

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.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 7, 2014.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 13:8-14

Kyle Fever

This passage, part of the larger section of Romans 12-15, has traditionally been called the ethical outworking of Paul’s presentation of the gospel in Romans 1-11, or the paraenesis section.

Unfortunately, this way of reading this section can be played out in a way that the ethic becomes secondary to, or not intimately of, a piece with the gospel message proper. The interweaving of proclamation and paranaesis — or “indicative” (stating the facts) and “imperative” (exhorting actions in response) — that occur throughout 1 Corinthians and Philippians, as well as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, suggest that things may be more complicated than this.

Some scholars (myself included), view this section of Romans as part of the purpose of the extended and very contextually sensitive argument of Romans. Remember, Romans as a whole is not the presentation of the gospel, but rather a selective and contextual argument rooted in the good news for the purpose of exhortation to live a life that reflects the reconciliation effected by the incarnate God in Christ.

What does this mean? The proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ must land somewhere in real space and time. It cannot remain in the theological stratosphere.

This also means that Christians in first-century Rome (and today) must clearly and directly manifest the good news in a way that is contextually relevant, as modeled by Paul throughout this particular letter.

This week’s reading is framed by the guiding exhortation to owe nothing but love in verse 8, and the statement in verse 14 to be clothed in Jesus Christ and to not indulge selfish desires. Immediately we are faced with the very other-centered nature of love defined by the cross.

It is important here to have some understanding of first-century Roman culture. Language of obligation defined the livelihood of Roman citizens in many spheres of life. To the emperor they “owed” honor and allegiance; to their benefactor (if they had one, and many likely did), they owed also money, possessions, honor; slaves owed service and their very lives; wives owed submission, and so on. It is worth inquiring where and how “obligation” culture works in the present day.

When Paul exhorts his audience to “owe” nothing except love, he is in a sense reconfiguring the arrangement of the furniture. To owe nothing except love eliminates the structures inherent in the ethic of the Roman cultural narrative. If obligation was related to position and to upholding status, authority, or certain relational dynamics, Paul’s exhortation to owe nothing except love forces some rethinking.

Importantly, Paul does not say, “In addition to your normal ethic based on our cultural system, love one another.” He says owe nothing. Suddenly the culturally derived conceptions of obligation and what they engender are relativized and even dismissed as irrelevant in light of the obligation of love to one another.

In a sense, then, these verses provide something of a contrast to or perhaps an overriding framework for understanding 13:1-7. While certain cultural or civic obligations cannot be dismissed, ultimately, the transformation of the mind and offering of the body, being clothed with Christ, is to rearrange the mental furniture of those in Christ from what they had known. It is to owe nothing, and live differently than what they’ve known, to adopt a new pattern and ethic.

This is the transformation of the mind Paul writes about in Romans 12:1-2; it is the way they are to give witness to the life that has died to sin and participates in the life of the Spirit as Paul writes in Romans 6-8; it is the life that walks according to the faith of Abraham in Romans 4; it is the life that judges not the brother or sister as Paul writes about in Romans 2.

To owe nothing but love to one another is to own the reality that we all are completely dependent on God’s grace for not only our forgiveness, but for our very existence, and it reframes how we live in relation to one another in our everyday interactions. It reframes it in such a way that other obligations become significantly less reality shaping than they once were.

Importantly, Paul emphasizes that love “fulfills the law” (verse 10). This is crucial in Romans, as the law plays center stage in much of the letter (Romans 2, 7, 10:4). Law introduced not only obligation to performance (“to keep the law”), but law also undergirded obligation culture, creating distinctions while operating on the basis of the distinctions it created.

By placing the fulfillment of the law in the context of reframing ideas of obligation, Paul takes another step in pulling the rug out from how law was used in that time and place. Fulfilling the law is being obligated to love of one another, rather than obligated to performance resulting in drawing lines of distinction between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, benefactor and beneficiary.

Love of one another, understood through the lens of the cross, means giving up our claims to ourselves and our claims over others, however they might seem “right” and “just” according to our own cultural narratives. This not only recalibrates obligation culture, but it recalibrates how the law — the foundation of obligation culture and the foundation of life — should be understood. “I have been crucified with Christ…”

Paul invites his audience to live in the present the eschatological life made possible through the cross and the work of the Spirit present among them. The exhortation is not unlike that of Jesus in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, that the church live as “light” — “let your [plural!] light shine thusly: that people would see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). This is not the light of our own performance, of our hard work, of our status as good citizens, or even of great church programming. It is the light of Christ as we are together clothed with Christ, as those who have died to our old lives and who are now obligated to others nothing but love.