Lectionary Commentaries for August 31, 2014
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28

Eric Barreto

Last week, the disciples got it, really got it.

At least for a moment.

Quizzed by Jesus about the wider public’s perception of his identity, the disciples say that Jesus is a prophet but more than a prophet too. He is the anointed one of God, gifted with God’s power, a power Jesus now turns over to his followers. Whatever we bind is bound. Whatever we loosen is loosened. Incredible power is now in our hands and with those hands we just might reshape the world!

Not so fast.

As I noted last week, the disciples must have been buzzing with excitement in the wake of this revelatory moment. They must have been dazzled by the fact that theirs would be the generation that would bear witness to the culmination of so many of God’s promises. The cries of slaves in Egypt, the yearnings of exiles in Babylon, the prayers of Roman subjects: these are all being heard by Jesus. God’s anointed will respond in a way that will transform the world and set things right. Nothing will ever be the same from this moment forward.

In this excitement, they get it half right. The world is shifting under their feet but not as they or we would have expected.

After all, the narrative seems to give little room for jubilation. Jesus does not pause for a moment of revelry when his disciples apprehend correctly who he is and what he will do. Celebration is not the first order of the day. Instead, we learn that it is not enough to speak aloud the fact that Jesus is the Messiah.

Speaking those words will require that our expectations and hopes be transformed. We learn that it is not enough to dream of a world transformed under the narrow set of parameters out of which we all tend to operate. Dreaming of this world will require that our imaginations expand beyond the calculus of power and influence within which we now function.

“From that time on,” Jesus starts to explain that the Messiah would not be embraced but rejected, not crowned but executed, not empowered by might but weakened by affliction.

What a disappointment this must have been, what a baffling shift in expectations. Clearly, this is not what Peter had imagined when he dared to speak the truth about Jesus’ identity. He spoke correctly though incompletely, for Peter begins to seek to correct the Messiah about the nature and scope of his mission. Listen, Jesus, this cannot be what God intends for you. There must be a different way. This is not what our deliverer ought to do. Suffering and dying is what we have all endured, prophet and ordinary person alike. You are supposed to be different. You are supposed to save us from all our enemies!

Jesus’ reproach is anything but subtle: “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter thus moves from the heights of recognition to the depths of rejection. What can this mean? Why is Peter now acting like the great deceiver: precisely because Peter is drawing Jesus away from the divinely ordained path that moves from suffering to the cross, from torture to shame.

And this is the path upon which any of Jesus’ followers must tread. The disciples are not just witnesses of Jesus’ suffering but participants in it. They just don’t get to tell about it. They actually will live through Jesus’ suffering in their own bodies. What does it look like to follow the Messiah, the anointed of God? That path is lined with crosses and paved with Jesus’ passion. This is a matter of life and death for his followers as much as it is for Jesus.

And yet we learn that this suffering, this cruciform existence is not all that there will be. The Son of Man will return and bring justice in his wake. Such justice is not merely the paying off of old debts or the settling of bitter scores. Instead, this judgment is a promise of deliverance.

The cross will appear to span finality. The cross will appear to be the end of the story for us all. But the promise Jesus makes here and the promises God has made from the beginning assure a future, a future in which justice blooms, a future in which the hungry are fed and the imprisoned are comforted (see Matthew 25:31-46). And that future is not a long way off (Matthew 16:28).

As I was writing this entry, I ran across these words by the late Maya Angelou: “I am grateful to have been loved and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold — that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind.” So, invite your sisters and brothers in hope to the kind of love and justice Jesus here commends. Ask them to imagine how “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” occurs in great and small ways in their lives already and how that promise, assured by God’s Messiah, drives us into a hopeful future even when our present troubles are engulfing us. After all, Jesus walked this path before us. Jesus knew too well rejection and loathing. He has gone before us. Now, we will follow him in faith.

This narrative draws us to wonder whether we are willing to align our beliefs and the path upon which we walk and live. It’s a reminder that speaking the words “Jesus is the Messiah” requires only the exertion of the mind but living those words is a gift of God. Embodying hope in the Messiah is an act of God’s love.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 15:15-21

Bo Lim

As I write this commentary, I am only 2 weeks removed from the events of June 5, 2014. 

On that day a gunman with a history of mental illness, stepped onto the campus of the university where I teach, and began a shooting spree that left one student dead and two students injured. Were it not for the actions of a brave student who disarmed him, the death toll would have been much higher since the gunman intended to replicate the 1999 Columbine shooting.

Because we are a Church-related university, our response to this tragedy was to gather within hours of the shooting to pray. It was there a colleague of mine, Frank Spina, opened his homily with these remarks, “One of the things that I love about being a Christian, is that I’m required to be honest. I’m angry, I’m upset. This act has been an act of madness, insanity, and evil. And so it’s a day for lament. It’s a day to scream. It’s a day not to go too soon to comfort because that makes it false. One of the things I love about the Bible is its deep, almost brutal honesty.”

One need not look much further than the book of Jeremiah for brutal honesty. Jeremiah is often cast as the “weeping prophet” since no other prophetic book contains as much description of the prophet’s woes. The prophet’s own suffering is most visible in the laments of Jeremiah found in 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18, as well as in other texts. Although these passages are often referred to as “confessions,” such a label is a misnomer since they are neither confessions of sin nor of praise. Instead these passages resemble lament psalms (e.g., Psalm 13), which typically contain the elements of a cry to God, description of suffering, questions to God, condemnation of enemies, petition for deliverance, confession of trust, and a divine response.

While the laments of Jeremiah do not all match this form, there are enough similarities for readers to recognize that these texts resemble Israel’s liturgical speech. The significance of this shared genre could not be more important. The prophetic response to suffering — raw, honest, intimate lament — is deemed acceptable worship unto God. The prophetic response to evil and injustice is to worship, even if all God’s people can muster are tears and complaints.

Jeremiah 15:15 begins with the prophet addressing God with unusual candor and directness, “You! O LORD you know” (translation mine). The lament that follows contains the following three elements: the petition (15b), an argument for the prophet’s deliverance (15c-17), and complaint (18). In the petition the prophet calls upon God to “remember,” “visit,” bring retribution,” and “not take away.” The plea to “remember” is common to lament psalms (e.g., 25:6-7; 89:47, 50). The verb, “to visit” can be understood in both positive and negative terms; it can signify God’s actions to deliver the righteous as well as judge the wicked. “To bring retribution” can also be translated, “to avenge” and refers to God’s vindication of the innocent in the face of enemies.

The message is clear: Jeremiah pleads with God to act immediately and decisively on his behalf. The prophet can approach God with such confidence because he has demonstrated fidelity to his God. According to verses 15c-17 it is because of the LORD’s sake Jeremiah suffers. Verse 16 recalls the fact that when Jeremiah was called by God into service (cf. Jeremiah 1:4-12), his attitude was one of joyful obedience. The “eating” of God’s words in verse 16 (cf. Ezekiel 3:1-3) illustrates that Jeremiah did not only serve as a reliable messenger of God’s words, but he also embodied them in his life. Prophets incarnate the word through signs and in Jeremiah’s case he, in the very next chapter, is commanded to remain celibate and childless as a sign of God’s judgment upon Israel (16:1-13).

Whereas Jeremiah approached service to God with an attitude of delight (verse 16), he has only received indignation, anger, and bitterness in return (verse 17). For this reason the prophet can accuse God of deceiving him in verse 18. Like a brook that has run dry, so too the promise of God’s blessing has come up empty. The prophet assumed that God would support him should he obey the call to ministry, yet instead he has only experienced abandonment.

In Jeremiah 15:19-21 God offers a response to the prophet’s complaint. As is often the case in Scripture, God answers the prayers of the people not with the response they want to hear. Brueggemann offers the reminder, “The hazard of such honest prayer, as we shall see, is that Yahweh can be equally honest and therefore abrasive in response to prayer.”1 Jeremiah 15:20 is nearly a verbatim quote of 1:18-19, “And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land — against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you.”

God reminds Jeremiah that the suffering he has experienced is as advertised. Jeremiah then, is not to crumble in the face of adversity but rather redouble his commitment to his prophetic vocation. Persecution has not derailed God’s promise to deliver and vindicate (verse 20), and God reminds Jeremiah that his perseverance is the very vehicle by which the people are won over to repentance (verse 19). In the midst of injustice, Jeremiah is not to allow evil to overcome good.

Jeremiah 15:15-21 teaches that honesty and faithfulness in the midst of suffering are the hallmarks of prophetic ministry. The prophet’s recommitment to his initial calling is the means by which God effects redemption in the world and reaffirms the promises of deliverance. The recent shooting at my university has prompted me to be more honest, and it has convinced me that the world desperately needs theologians and pastors. Today, I am ever more committed to my ministerial vocation. May suffering manifest the same result in you.


Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 114.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15

Anathea Portier-Young

This first revelation of sacred space identifies as holy the soil itself, God’s good land alive with vegetation.

This soil is holy because it nourishes the life in which God becomes visible and from which God speaks. And it is declared holy at the moment when God’s human servant has turned and entered to see the miracle of God’s presence within a fire that blazes but does not consume the created life in which it burns.

Moses will lead God’s people back to this holy place. They will worship at this mountain (3:12). Here Moses will receive a plan for the tabernacle. And from this place the fire will travel with them into the wilderness, sanctifying their camp just as the divine fire now sanctifies the holy mountain.

But that is in the future. For now, in this moment, Moses is told to remove his shoes. Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling.1

It was from such soil that God shaped the first human (Genesis 2:7) and every animal (2:19) and caused to grow trees for food and the trees of life and knowledge (2:9). The soil was cursed on humans’ behalf (3:17) and after humans’ death would receive each human back again (3:19).

And in this first story, humans received their charge, that even after the curse, through long years away from home, they would serve the earth (3:23). This same earth would yield up offerings to God (4:3). It would also open its mouth to receive blood of the slain and give voice to the cry of injustice (4:10-11). This soil binds us to all creation and to every human. This soil forms and feeds us, receives and makes a claim upon us.

The articles with which we clothe our bodies always mean more than simple covering or protection.

Typically made of animal skin or plant fibers, sandals protected the sole of the foot but could also symbolize purity, property, social contracts, and social status. In New Kingdom Egypt, a pair of sandals could be purchased for the price of a sack of grain: though not strictly a luxury, footwear was nonetheless an investment. Sandals of higher status individuals were more artfully made, sometimes adorned with precious materials and other decoration. Sandals discovered in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amon bore the image of foreign captives upon the insole, proclaiming with the king’s every step Egyptian royal power over the peoples and nations his armies had subdued.2

Scripture tells us more about the meanings associated with sandals. Later in the book of Exodus, the Hebrews are instructed to prepare for their journey out of Egypt by eating the Passover meal with their staffs in hand and sandals upon their feet (Exodus 12:11). These preparations signified readiness for the journey ahead (cf. Deuteronomy 29:4; Joshua 9:5,13). The books of Deuteronomy and Ruth explain rites in which removing one’s sandal(s) — or having them removed by another — nullified previously binding legal and social ties (Deuteronomy 25:9-10; Ruth 4:7-8; cf. Amos 2:6, 8:6), creating the conditions for new claims, new relationships, and new responsibility.

What shoes does the preacher wear? For one preacher, worn soles and fraying straps may speak of humility and a long journey. For another, a platform heel adds the illusion of height and stability. One preacher rests within the space and protection of a wide toe box, while another lurches precariously atop stiletto heels. Shoes may be shined, tooled, stitched, or adorned to project success and authority. They may convey simplicity or beauty. They may be shoes for walking slow or running fast. They might feel comfortable or they might hurt. Whatever their meanings, uses, and effects, in this holy place God commands God’s servant to take them off.

When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands.

When you as a preacher remove your sandals, what claim will the sacred soil make upon you?3 Will you stand differently in the place where God has called you? This reading challenges you and your congregation to remove your sandals and feel between your toes the clay God uses to shape the future. God invites you to stand barefoot in an attitude of wonder as you witness God’s presence in the blazing fire that does not consume and hear the astonishing name of the God who is radically free.

As you find your footing in the holy soil, you and your congregation will know what it means to refuse complicity in practices of slavery and domination. God will empower you to challenge rulers and bring hope to the hopeless. Your beautiful feet will announce salvation (Isaiah 52:7) and lead the way to freedom.


1 For details of soil composition in the region of Sinai, see Raafat H. Abd EL-Wahab, Abd El-Monem M. Zayed,Abd El-Raouf A. Moustafa, Jeffery M. Klopatek, and Mohamed A. Helmy, “Landforms, Vegetation, and Soil Quality in South Sinai, Egypt,” Catrina 1 (2006), 127-38.

2 This paragraph draws on Fredrik Hagen, “New Kingdom Sandals: A Philological Perspective,” in André J. Veldmeijer, Tutankhamun’s Footwear: Studies of Ancient Egyptian Footwear, Norg, The Netherlands:DrukWare, 2010, 193-203.

3 My reflections on preaching in bare feet are inspired by the work of former student Courtney Bryant.


Commentary on Psalm 26:1-8

James K. Mead

I teach at a college that emphasizes the integration of faith and learning. We strive for students to realize that their knowledge and their beliefs should not — and ultimately cannot — be kept in separate compartments of their lives.

Even more than this realization, however, is our desire that they actually experience this integration. Psalm 26 is a prayer for something very similar, namely, that the aspects of the poet’s life have integrity; indeed, the psalm is an eloquent and forceful declaration that the poet has experienced this integrity inside and out.

Preachers, teachers, and worship leaders using Psalm 26 for this Sunday will find some historical, literary, and theological hurdles to clear on their way to integrating the message of the psalm into their sermons, lessons, and liturgies. First, in terms of the psalm’s historical setting, numerous proposals pretty much fall into one of two types, namely, a ritual setting (for priests or pilgrims at the temple), or some kind of personal crisis, such as being falsely accused.1

For reasons I’ll discuss below, I lean more toward the ritual setting, but that doesn’t mean a poet wasn’t also drawing on personal experiences. A second and related problem is pinning down the literary form of the psalm. Most scholars have moved beyond Gunkel’s “lament” category to talk about entrance liturgies, pilgrim psalms, or protestations of innocence; but each proposal struggles to explain every element in the psalm.

Closely tied to literary genre is a third issue, literary structure. Twenty-five years ago, Paul Mosca consulted at least two dozen commentaries and articles to reveal almost no scholarly agreement on structure of the psalm,2 and the situation hasn’t really improved. Finally, on top of these critical issues, is the matter of theological interpretation. How do we incorporate in Christian worship a psalm that seems to proclaim self-righteousness?

Although we could view it mainly as a prophecy of Jesus’ righteous presence in the temple, the way forward is not by leaping to the New Testament or retreating behind our sincerely held doctrines. To the contrary, we discover the theological underpinnings of the psalm by means of embracing its own rhetorical shape and features.

On this particular Sunday, the lectionary limits the passage to the psalm’s first eight verses.3 This choice is almost certainly for thematic reasons, since the whole psalm clearly has a literary unity by virtue of its reference to “walking in integrity” (verses 1, 11) and repetitions that link verses 1-8 to verses 9-12, such as “hands” (verses 6, 10). Psalm 26 relates to other readings for this Sunday, which touch on matters of integrity (Jeremiah 15), awareness of God’s holiness (Exodus 3), self-denial (Matthew 16) and transformation (Romans 12).

Moreover, verses 1-8 express a coherent argument at their core, with a list of seven or eight expressions about things that the psalmist has either avoided or embraced (verses 4-7). It is therefore possible to engage this section of the psalm homiletically and liturgically if one keeps in mind its immediate literary context. Here are three possible ways to relate the psalm to Christian experience.

First, for all of the benefits that go with creating a warm and welcoming environment for our Lord’s Day gatherings, Christian worship remains an encounter with the Triune God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. Psalm 26, by virtue of its significant parallels with Psalms 15 and 24, is likely best understood as presenting a sobering statement of the requirements for priestly entrance into God’s holy presence.4

In an Israelite context, serving in the temple and “going around your altar” (verse 6) created a dangerous encounter for priests (compare Leviticus 10:1-3) who represented Israel to God.5 As Peter Craigie put it, the psalm warned about “a casual approach to worship, from which hypocritical and superficial attitudes could easily emerge.”6

There is, if course, not a perfect correspondence between this aspect of Israelite religion and our Christian context, but there is nothing in our theology of union with Christ that eliminates the need for entering our worship services with a joyful (note verse 7) yet sincere mindfulness that the business of worship truly draws us into the presence of God. As Brother Lawrence implores, “Let it be your business to keep your mind in the presence of the LORD.”7

Second, in spite of the problems that arise if we simply transport into our own setting the abundance of language about avoiding the “worthless,” “hypocrites,” and “evildoers” (verses 4-5; see also verses 9-10), there is still a point to be made about the church’s cultural context. As much as we are called to participate in society, it does no good to deny the existence of evil within society.

So, on one level, this psalm challenges the church to avoid conformity with the world (Romans 12:1-2) even as it submits to God instead of idols of our own making. “There is,” as Clinton McCann writes, “a legitimate form of separatism.”8

But, on another level, awareness of the evil “out there” should prompt us toward a renewed look within ourselves. Psalm 26 is not an invitation to engage in a culture war with the enemies of God; instead, it bids us to seek that integrity within ourselves that lends legitimacy to our witness for Christ in a troubled world.

Third, and building on both of the above points, Psalm 26 is a far cry from the apparent works-righteousness that a simplistic reading might first indicate. To be sure, the poet’s claim of innocence and daring request that God test him (verses 1-2) seems striking and out of place coming on the heels of a Psalm 25’s pleadings for mercy and forgiveness.9

But we have to keep reading through verse 3, because there we come to understand that the key to the psalmist’s confidence is trust in God’s “steadfast love,” the Hebrew concept of hesed.10

A Christian reading of Psalm 26 recognizes the gospel of grace in that word; for God’s steadfast love is manifested in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Any hope for our personal integrity will find its fulfillment in him.


1 W. H. Bellinger, Psalm XXVI: A Test of Method” VT 43 (1993): 455-456.

2 Paul G. Mosca, “Psalm 26: Poetic Structure and the Form-critical Task” CBQ 47 (1985): 218.

3 The entire psalm is read for Proper 22, Year B.

4 Craig C. Broyles, Psalms (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 138.

5 Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 142-143.

6 Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50 (Waco: Word Books Publisher, 1983), 227.

7 From letter 8, “The Practice of the Presence of God” (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library) < http://www.ccel.org/ccel/lawrence/practice.pdf > Accessed on April 14, 2014.

 8 J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms” in New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 783.

9 Geoffrey W. Grogan, Psalms, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 78.

10 Grogan, 79.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 12:9-21

Elizabeth Shively

We are tempted to skip a passage like this in preaching. Verse 9 has no logical connection to what precedes.

Then in verses 9-21 Paul discharges a series of rapid-fire exhortations that whiz by without much connection or clarification.

But a closer look shows that the passage is not arbitrary, but loosely tied to what precedes it in 12:1-8. Paul continues to call for the kind of behavior produced by a renewed mind and that is the proper response to the mercies of God. As he exhorted his audience to use their renewed minds to think rightly towards one another in verse 3, he does so again in verse 16, “Think the same thing toward one another; do not think highly of yourself, but associate with the lowly; do not become proud in your own estimation.”

Love is the overarching paradigm for the whole passage. Paul echoes Jesus in calling attention to love as the key moral norm for God’s people. Jesus had said that all the law and the prophets hang on two commands: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). Paul echoes something similar in Romans 13:8-10. Here in 12:9, Paul assumes that his audience knows that they are to love; he exhorts them to make their love for each other genuine.

Paul begins this section of 12:9-13 with the exhortation to “let love be genuine” (verse 9), and then shows what this love looks like. Generally, true love is summed up like this: Hate what is evil and cling to what is good (verse 9b). Those who have offered their bodies as a living sacrifice and renewed their minds may discern what is good (verses 1-2).

Now Paul gives examples of how to cling to the good (verses 10-13). He uses the word agape for love in v. 9, but becomes more specific by using phileo in verse 10 to refer to the family love of those living in community. The images are powerful: let your love be heartfelt; be eager to show each other honor; be set on fire by the Spirit; be devoted to prayer; contribute to — literally “participate in” — the needs of the saints, and pursue hospitality. To “participate in” others’ needs is to give of yourself and your own resources for their material needs, like food, clothing, and shelter. True love is fervent, relentless, and practical.

In 1:18-32, Paul describes those caught in a downward spiral of unfit worship and given over to debased minds. The result is a pattern of anti-social behaviors that bring disorder to community (verses 29-32) — quite the opposite of true love. Now in 12:14-16 Paul asks his audience to exhibit an attitude fitting for those with transformed minds (see 12:1-2), reversing anti-social patterns.

Humility and empathy are required for living alongside others in such a way as to bless those who persecute, to rejoice with those who rejoice, to weep with those who weep, and to associate with the lowly. Paul echoes the teaching of Jesus, who said “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28; see also Matthew 5:44).

Paul addresses how to love those outside the Christian community, by living in such a way that fosters peace. Verses 17 and 21 act like bookends, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil … Do not be overcome by evil.” These ideas are connected: we ourselves are overcome by evil when we let spite infect and spread through us like a disease.

In the middle of the section, the NRSV captures the force of Paul’s imperative: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,” (Deuteronomy 32:35). This could mean that Christians choose not to avenge themselves when they are wronged because they know that God will repay their opponents one day. But this interpretation works against the shape of the passage.

In this context, Paul’s purpose is not to comfort struggling Christians with the promise of future vindication (though see, e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12). Instead, it is to press Christians to live in light of God’s mercies (12:1; cf. 11:31-32). Their job is to show love, not to act as judge. Paul showed what happens when people pass judgment on others: they end up falling under judgment themselves (2:1-10).

Because Paul’s audience has been shown mercy, they show mercy by tending to enemies in need, the way they provide for the material needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ (verse 20; see verse 13). By treating opponents like family, opponents are shamed (Proverbs 25:21-22a in verse 20): the image of heaping of burning coals on the enemy’s head suggests making him red in the face.

Notice that Paul is not asking his audience simply to practice self-control when provoked. They are to do more than refrain from repaying evil; they are to initiate doing good to opponents. This is much harder. But in doing so, Christians overcome evil with good, showing that they “cling to what is good,” expressing the definition of true love.

Moreover, we come full circle back to 12:1-2, in which Paul calls his audience to present themselves as living sacrifices and to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they may approve what the will of God is, namely, what is good.

True love expresses what it means to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” It requires us to engage with others in practical and physical ways. This kind of engagement is a challenge since technology and social media make us feel that we can maintain virtual relationships inside and outside the Christian community. We may be able to maintain some connections, but we cannot express genuine love. True love requires us to live alongside and engage with others in a full-bodied way.