Lectionary Commentaries for August 27, 2017
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20

Mitzi J. Smith

How we identify Jesus will impact the way we interact with one another and with the earth.

Jesus asks the disciples who others think he, the Son of Man, is. We might view this question as an invitation to engage in critical dialogue with other perspectives. What do others say? The disciples answer that some people say that he is John the Baptist; others declare that he is Elijah; and still others claim that Jesus is Jeremiah or some other prophet. In other words, people don’t agree.

People identify the Son of Man with dead prophets sent by God who did miraculously deeds, who stood toe-to-toe with kings and delivered to them words of doom, opposition, and hope from Yahweh. So in the eyes of the people John the Baptist was the last powerful man of God but others had to reach all the way back to Jeremiah. Still they are all dead men! Did the people believe that God could not out do God’s self? Did they believe like Jesus that no greater human being born had been born from a woman than John (Matthew 11:11)? What kind of human being is Jesus in light of the many powerful deeds he has performed and the many people who follow him? The people believe that Jesus is an incarnation or perhaps a specter or ghost of powerful male prophets who no longer walk the earth. It is Elijah and Moses that appear with Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13). Peter, James and John were there on the mountain of transfiguration with Jesus, so they knew Jesus was not Elijah (or Moses). Those who witnessed John the Baptist baptize Jesus knew that Jesus was not John the Baptist (3:13-17).

The disciples are silent.  With the exception of Simon Peter, they don’t seem to have an opinion of their own. Peter emerges as spokesperson for the Twelve: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus blesses Simon Bar Jonah, presumably for being the courageous student with the correct answer. Jesus states that Peter’s answer did not come from human beings; it is not based on rumor or the hearsay of others. How we identify Jesus should be based on personal encounters with God, even though informed by our (re)readings of the sacred text and in dialogue with others. How we identify Jesus should be grounded in a lifelong conversation with God whereby we adjust what we think we know as necessary (16:17). Our denomination, our church, our pastors, our mothers or fathers, our siblings, our Sunday or Sabbath school teachers and others will have their opinions, but in the end we have to decide for ourselves in conversation with God how we will identify Jesus.

A living God is a dynamic God and not a static God whose clearest communication happened in the past. Jesus is the Messiah of the living God. Jesus, as Son of Man, means that God continues to speak and to act. God does not have to resurrect John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or any other prophet to speak. God never ceases to exist and to create and to anoint. God can resurrect the dead, but resurrection is never God’s only option.

Jesus continues the dialogue with Peter: “I say to you Peter (Petros) that on this rock (petra) I shall build my ekklesia  (assembly; usually translated church) and the gates of Hades shall not overpower her” (Matthew 16:18, author’s translation). The word petra translated as rock is grammatically feminine and it agrees with the Greek word ekklesia, which is also grammatically feminine. Thus, the noun petra does not refer to Peter.  Perhaps Jesus is speaking of the physical place or space in which his identity was correctly named. Or perhaps it is the revelation itself that is the theological foundation on which Jesus will erect God’s ekklesia. It will be an assembly founded on Jesus’ identity as the Messiah of the living God. A living God is a relevant God, a contextual God. As with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and other prophets and prophetesses, God speaks a relevant word that reflects the contexts in which we live and the challenges the people face. A living God is not bound to or by the written page, even in a sacred text.

Further, Jesus said to Peter, “I shall give the keys of the kingdom of the heavens to you, and whatever you should imprison on the earth will be bound in the heavens, and whatever you should set free on earth will be released in the heavens,” (Matthew 16:20, author’s translation). The heavens are witnesses of the people and things that we imprison and the people and things that we set free. When we restrict justice to the dominant and powerful and release or enact unjust laws that impact the most vulnerable among us and in the earth, heaven knows and is impacted too. Matthew’s Jesus said when you have treated the most vulnerable — the stranger/foreigner, the imprisoned, those with no homes, the hungry, and those without clean, affordable water — with compassion, justice, and human care, you have done so to me (Matthew 25:44-45). What we do on earth matters and it has an impact in the heavens and in the atmosphere around us.

Finally, Jesus commanded his disciples that they should tell no one that he is the Christos (Messiah or anointed one) of the living God. Well then, how shall they build an ekklesia on the truth of his identity, one that even the gates of Hades will not overpower? Their lives will speak louder, more truthfully, and more effectively than their words. The answer is by the life they live, a life of love for God, a life that loves the other as much as one loves herself, and a life in pursuit of justice and peace. On this rock, thou shall not build a prison nation. On this rock, thou shall not build a nation where millions of children are homeless and hungry. On this rock, thou shall not build churches that oppress the poor and women and turn a blind eye toward sexual violence within its gates and in the streets. On this rock, let us build assemblies that demonstrate belief in a living, speaking, incarnating God, a God of freedom and not of oppression, a God of justice, love, and peace.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 51:1-6

Michael L. Ruffin

Sometimes we look at our situation and know we’re in trouble.

It happens with individuals, with churches, with communities, and with nations. What do you do when you’re in trouble? Where do you look when you need hope and encouragement?

The prophet of the exile whose words are found in Isaiah 40-55 helps us address people in trouble. He tells the exiles where to look to find the strength to endure and to keep moving forward.

Look here first

There are two preliminary matters we need to consider.

First, the prophet addresses those who are trying. They are the ones “that pursue righteousness” and that “seek the Lord” (verse 1a). To pursue is to chase; to seek is to search for. Both words imply acts that are being undertaken and goals that have not yet been reached. But that’s what faithful people do. They know they’ve not arrived and that they must keep pursuing and seeking. Their faithful trying is their success.

Yet we should not restrict the sermon to those who are trying. After all, there may be some in the congregation who have given up. They’re not trying. We might consider directing the sermon at those who need to have the embers of hope fanned so at least a small flame might flicker.

Second, we should consider expanding our focus beyond the six verses suggested by the lectionary. Isaiah 51:1-8 falls naturally into three parts; each begins with “Listen to me” (verses 1, 4, 7; the Hebrew word in verses 1 and 7 is shama, while it is qashav in verse 4). So it might be wise to include verses 7-8 in our study.

Look back

The prophet’s purpose is to encourage those who are faithfully trying to be faithful to look ahead to God’s promised deliverance. They are in exile, but God is going to take them home. Paradoxically, he tells them to look forward by looking back.

Specifically, he tells them to look back to Israel’s original parental pair, Abraham and Sarah (verse 2). They are “the rock from which [the exiles] were hewn” and “the quarry from which [they] were dug” (verse 1b).

Irony abounds here. First, “rock” is an image of strength and stability. The exiles, torn from their land, their institutions, and, some no doubt said, from their God, hardly seem strong and stable. Yet the prophet calls them to remember that they come from ancestors of unquestioned resolve and perseverance. They carry the same granite in their spirits, even if they feel as if it has been ground into dust.

Matthew 16:13-20 (this Sunday’s Gospel text) reminds us of another rock to which we can look back. When Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (verse 18). As we consider how un-rocklike the church and its members can be, it might be helpful to recall that just a few verses later, Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” We may preach to a church whose rock has been chipped away at pretty severely.

Second, Abraham and Sarah are known for being the parents of a great nation, but Israel has gone from being a great nation to being few in number. Abraham “was but one when [God] called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (verse 2b). We might put this is cosmological terms. Sarah and Abraham started a Big Bang that resulted in an expansion that led to descendants “as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Gen 22:17). But the exiles (and those left in Judah, whom the prophet does not directly address) are all that is left after a Big Crunch, a rapid contraction brought on by invasion and deportation.

Third, as my doctoral program supervisor, the late Page H. Kelley, pointed out, the exiles are in the same geographical area from which Abraham and Sarah began their faith journey.[1] He said that fact gives the words more meaning, but some of that meaning is communicated through irony. The exiles are being called out of Mesopotamia as Abraham was. On the one hand, they are starting over. On the other hand, that they must start over reveals how far backwards they’ve gone.

When the exiles look back to Sarah and Abraham, they see ancestors who were strong, who grew from few to many, and who left their home in Mesopotamia to follow God. When they look at themselves, they see people who are weak, who have shrunk from many to few, and who are back in Mesopotamia. But in looking back, they gain encouragement to look forward.

Look up, look down, look all around

The prophet tells the exiles to look up “to the heavens,” to look down “at the earth beneath” (verse 6a), and to look around at their oppressors (verse 7). The astral bodies look permanent — and they have in fact been there for billions of years — but they aren’t. Human beings have never known life without the earth, but it will pass away (verse 6). The taunts of the oppressors seem like they will last forever — but they won’t.

In contrast, the Lord says, “My salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended” (verses 6b, 8b). Or as the Gospel text says of the church, “the gates of Hades will not prevail.” Sometimes it might seem like Hades is doing just fine against us, but it won’t last. God’s salvation and deliverance do come, and they never end.

Look ahead

The prophet calls on the exiles — and we call on our churches — to look back, to look up, to look down, and to look around in order to find reasons to look ahead to God’s deliverance that is surely coming.


1 Page H. Kelley, “Isaiah,” The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 5; Proverbs-Isaiah (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman, 1971), 336.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 1:8—2:10

Karla Suomala

Opening lines in Hebrew narratives are loaded with meaning, but they can be easy to overlook.

Hebrew is such an economical language that just a few words can convey meaning far beyond what their brevity might suggest. In Genesis 34, for example, in the story about Jacob’s daughter Dinah, the chapter begins with just two words in Hebrew, translated as “Then Dinah went out.” I can just imagine the ancient Hebrew-speaking audience thinking, “Uh-oh, nothing good can come from a young woman going out on her own.” And they are right, because the story is a tragic one in which violence builds upon violence and Dinah is never discussed again.

The opening line of the Exodus story begins with similarly ominous foreshadowing, again with just two Hebrew words, translated: “Now a new king arose …” In the story immediately preceding this one, the Jacob cycle concluded in Genesis 50 with Joseph and his brothers having fully reconciled with each other and they and their families residing comfortably in Egypt. With just three words this time, the author lets the audience know that the story is about to take a turn.

How will this new king treat Jacob’s descendants — immigrants who have contributed to and made their home in Egyptian society? Just in case we don’t catch the foreshadowing, the author adds that this is a king “who did not know Joseph.” The verb “know” in this case can’t be read literally because generations have passed. What it’s getting at in Exodus 1:8 is that the new king didn’t remember Joseph’s role in keeping the Egyptians alive during a time of famine or simply chose to ignore this piece of history. In any case, it seems to be more willful than a simple act of forgetting.

We don’t have to wait long to find out what this means for the Israelite immigrant population. The Pharaoh says:

Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land (Exodus 1:9-10).

What’s interesting about the king’s assessment of the Israelites in verse 9 is simply not true — the Israelites have not grown more populous than the Egyptians. And what he says in verse 10, further compounding his false statement, is a clear strategy to create an “enemy within” and to stir up fear of the foreign or immigrant other. The Pharaoh then wastes no time in putting a plan together to deal with this dangerous element in their midst.

Oppression and murder

Look at what happens to the Israelites in verses 9-14, and notice the language that is used to describe their circumstances. The repetition of forms the words and phrases having to do with oppression, ruthless treatment, forced labor, and imposed tasks is striking. The sentence in verse 14 sums up what has happened: The Egyptians “made their lives bitter with hard service.”

If working the Israelite population into the ground is not enough, the Pharaoh takes a further step to ensure the ultimate destruction of the Israelites. He asks the Hebrew midwives to kill every baby boy that they deliver to Hebrew mothers. At this point, though, the beginnings of resistance to the Egyptian Pharaoh emerge.

The midwives refuse to do what the king has commanded and when the Pharaoh asks them why they are not killing the baby boys, the midwives respond by playing to his own stereotypes about immigrants and their breeding habits. “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them,” they say. When the Pharoah sees that he won’t be able to convince the Israelites to kill their own children, he turns to the Egyptian population, telling them to throw the baby boys into the Nile River.

Resistance and creation

The resistance doesn’t end with the midwives, though. Moses’ own mother figures out a way to save her baby from being killed by first hiding the child and then by putting him into a basket in the river. There appear to be allusions in Exodus 2:2-3 to both the creation and the flood in the early chapters of Genesis. While the NRSV translates the phrase in verse 2 as “and when she saw that he was a fine baby,” the Hebrew uses same language that is used about creation in Genesis 1, where, at each stage of creation, the refrain reads, “And God saw that it was good.” Ex. 2:2 could just as easily read, “The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was good …”

In Exodus 2:3, although the NRSV uses the English word “basket” to describe the container into which Moses was placed, the word in Hebrew is the same as the one that is used for “ark” in the Noah story. With just two phrases, the beginning of Exodus incorporates the story of the creation of the world into the story about the creation of the Israelites as a people (no longer just a family or clan) which unfolds throughout the entire book.

The resistance continues

Women continue to resist in the remainder of the passage. Moses’ sister escorts the little ark which contains the baby who will rescue the people of Israel down the Nile River. Although the text says that Moses’ sister “stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him,” I imagine that her role was somewhat more active. It seems that her job is to make sure that the right person finds the child. When Moses’ mother puts the child on the Nile, she must know that the Pharaoh’s palace lies just downriver, making her action more strategic and even more daring. After all, for this baby to survive, not just anyone can find him.

And what’s amazing is that this strategy works! His little ark floats right into the hands of the Pharaoh’s daughter who rescues him even though she immediately recognizes him as a Hebrew child. Moses’ sister “just happens” to be nearby and knows exactly where to find a woman who can nurse the baby — Moses’ own mother. To top it off, the Pharaoh’s daughter pays Moses’ mother to nurse the baby.

In this chain of resistance that is executed exclusively by women, both Israelite and Egyptian, the Pharaoh’s plans are subverted and the Israelites survive.


Commentary on Psalm 138:1-8

Rolf Jacobson

This psalm of thanksgiving — one of those songs that was composed after its author had come through a rather tight scrape — offers praise to the Lord in response to an experience of deliverance.1

The poet had experienced what the psalms call “a day of trouble” (see Psalms 20:1, 27:5; 41:1), a “day of disaster” (see Psalm 18:19), or a “day of distress” (see 59:17) — some really tough times.

The term “day of trouble” is intentionally vague. It can refer to times of physical illness, spiritual struggle, financial peril, military threat, and the like. The psalms also call these times of crisis a “day when I call” (56:10; also a more literal translation of 20:9), because times of crisis are also times of prayer — moments when a suffering person or people “cry out” to the Lord in despair. 

On the day I called …

And that is the point that is made in this psalm. The singer says, “On the day I called, you answered me.” Having come through the time of trouble — or, more correctly, having been brought through the time of trouble by the grace of God — the singer now thinks of the dark valley through which he walked no longer as the time of trouble, but as the time when he called out and when God answered. The time when “you increased my strength of soul.” 

[The phrase that is translated “my strength of soul” in the NRSV is likely to be misinterpreted by modern audiences. We often think of “the soul” as the spiritual part of our being. The Hebrew term that is usually translated as “soul” is nephesh. The term literally means “throat” and more figuratively means one’s “true self” or “inmost being.” The NIV (“you made me bold and stouthearted”) and NJPS (“you inspired me with courage”) take the term to refer to a spiritual or moral strengthening. But the phrase more likely refers to a literal bodily recovery. The psalmist’s point might be paraphrased: “I once was weak, but now I’m strong.”

I give you thanks, O Lord …

The psalmist’s passage through the time of crisis had quite literally, in the words of Psalm 40:3, put a new song in his mouth. Or, in the words of Psalm 51:15, the Lord had opened his lips so that his mouth could declare God’s praise. And so the psalmist does so. He begins his song with what are classic words of praise: “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart.” The Hebrew word (a hiphil of the verb yadah) that is translated “give you thanks” does not properly equate to our English word “thanks.” The verb yadah means “to know.” So in the hiphil, which here has a causative sense, the verb means “to cause someone else to know.” In other words, the verb should probably be translated as “teach” or “make known.” Or, as the Old Testament theologian John Goldingay has translated the term, “to confess.”2

In other words, “giving thanks” Old Testament-style, has less to do with some internal feeling of gratitude and more about sending God a thank you note. And the thank you note that God desires is to tell others what God has done. To proclaim the good news of God’s gracious actions to the assembly of believers, to the surrounding neighborhood, and to the world. The scope that the Lord has in mind for our confessing of the good news, for our making the Lord known, is the entire world, even the entire universe. The psalm says “all the kings of the earth” shall know and shall join in praise. And the psalm in verse 1 says “before the gods I sing” — meaning that psalmist imagines the vaults of heaven themselves resounding with his “confession” about what God had done for him.

Your name and your steadfast love …

There are two things that the psalm confesses. The first has already been mentioned — that the psalmist experienced God’s help in the midst of some crisis. The psalmist called out in the day of trouble, the day of calling, and the Lord answered. Or, as the psalmist describes it in verse 7, the Lord preserved him from the wrath of enemies: “you stretched out your hand, and your right hand” delivered me. In other words, the psalmist confesses a particular experience of God’s grace.

The second thing that the psalmist proclaims is more abstract — she proclaims the character of God.  Notice the following confessions:

“I. . . [confess] your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted your name and your word above everything” (verse 2)
“great is the glory of the Lord” (verse 4)
“Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever” (verse 8)

The psalm uses a group terms, which together describe the character of God — “glory” and “your name” and, most importantly, “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” The reference to God’s name can be confusing for modern audiences. In Old Testament thought, God’s “name” is more than just the “handle” that God goes by. It is God’s very identity — and, by extension, God’s very presence. To praise the Lord’s name is both to acknowledge who one trusts, but it is also claim God’s presence. When one speaks the name of the Lord, one claims the relationship that one has with God — and, indeed, when one speaks God’s name one makes known that one is in God’s presence.

An even more important concept in the psalms is that of the Lord’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” If one were to boil down the theological witness of the Book of Psalms to one phrase, it would be this: The Lord is faithful. The two terms — steadfast love (Hebrew, hesed) and faithfulness (Hebrew, ’emet) — describe God’s character. It is a character that is trustworthy, which means that the promises God makes can be trusted. Which means that the laws that God ordains are good. Which means that the guidance and providence that the Lord offers are better for us in the long run than our own wills for our own lives. 

One final note. The psalmist’s experience of God’s help has reminded her that she is not the captain of her own soul, that he is not the master of his own fate — and that this is a good thing! Some people reject the offer of help from outside themselves, because they do not want to be weak, to need help, or to admit their limits. Biblical faith starts with admitting our own weakness, our own sin, our own limits — and of accepting the gracious mercy and fidelity of the Savior who comes among us to serve rather than to be served. The psalm ends with a request for continued help: Do not forsake the work of your hands. Each of us is the work of God’s hands. And to be a follower of the Lord means to know that we cannot and need not do it all on our own.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 21, 2011.

2 See John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 3: 90-150 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 753.  Here Goldingay writes that “confession is a matter of words” (617).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 12:1-8

Frank L. Crouch

One could probably preach on this passage for months without much repetition, except for its grounding in the mercies of God.

So, what follows will attempt to describe some key elements and implications for living as individuals and communities of faith.

Looking back and forward at the same time

The word “therefore” in verse 1 points to the essential link between Paul’s admonitions and their theological basis. He has spent chapters 9-11 (over 2,000 words in English) exploring core elements of God’s relationship with humanity, God’s perpetual call to life, humanity’s resistance, and how we humans can find our way back to the God who always desires our return. As he says at the end of this exploration, it all depends, we all depend, on the unflagging mercies of the God “from [whom], through [whom], and to [whom] are all things” (Romans 11:36).

So Paul continues, “I appeal to you, therefore, by the mercies of God.” It’s another way of recalling the center of the Law, the prophets, the writings, and the gospel. He calls us to keep God’s unending mercies ever before us, to write that down, tie it to our forehead, write it on the doorframes of our houses, teach it to our children, talk about it all day long, and ponder it through the night (Deuteronomy 11:1-21). He calls us to live by an essential truth, stated elsewhere with different language but describing the same thing:

  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:1, 13; Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30-1; Luke 10:27)
  • “Faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
  • “For God so loved the world …” (John 3:16)
  • “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

All our forward motion should proceed out of that enduring reality.

Present your bodies as an offering to God

Paul never forgets that we are embodied creatures. Everything we think, say, or do, we do in a body. Presenting our bodies means staying aware each day that our body is the primary location in which we actually express our heart, soul, strength, and mind. If we want to know our inmost motives and values, we can look at what we do each day in our bodies. Every day in all the places we go, all the things we do, and all the decisions and recommendations we make, we are presenting our bodies. Over time, our actions, choices, and recommendations cumulatively create a body of work, so to speak. Essentially, that body of work is the body Paul is talking about.

At this point, someone might say, “This sounds suspiciously like works righteousness.” However, works righteousness aims at doing things that lead up to salvation. What Paul describes flows out of salvation. It doesn’t earn salvation but lives it out in one’s body right now. In classical terms, it’s the sanctification that follows justification; redemption resulting in transformation.

The goal is to have a body, a body of work, that is a living “thusia” (in Greek), a living, breathing, daily “offering to God.” “Sacrifice” (the NRSV translation) is a bit misleading. In the first century, an act of worship often entailed the ritual slaughter of an animal— a dove, sheep, bull, etc. In today’s context, it might be clearer to use the broader term, “offering” rather than “sacrifice.” Because of God’s abundant mercy to you, present your life as an offering to God.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed

In the U.S., we live in a culture that inundates us with advertising designed to keep us conformed to this world. The marketing/media industry spends billions of dollars annually to flood televisions, websites, billboards, email, regular mail. They intrude even onto gas pump screens or the screens on debit/credit card readers. They seek to define us essentially as consumers, individual economic units existing for the sake of larger market shares. In addition, each day our families, friends, organizations, religions, political parties, and society at large pressure us to fit in, to stay within the boundaries of tradition, custom, or practice that mark who we’re “supposed” to be.

Not being conformed to this world is a tall order. The world will fight at every stage to convince us to look the other way rather than glimpse the injustice, hatred, oppression, immorality, greed, and violence that surround us. It takes transformation, renewal of the mind, to detach ourselves from the world’s attempts to occupy us with things that do not matter. Paul implores us to shake off the effects of this world, attend to the things that do matter, and “discern … the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Present your community of faith as an offering to God

Paul also never forgets that we do not just exist as individuals in our individual bodies. We exist as members of the body of Christ. God enables that body to create its own body of work—prophecy, ministry, teaching, challenging and encouraging, giving, leading, and being compassionate. We can do those things alone, but we do them with more discernment and impact as part of a larger body. None of us can do it all. No single community can do it all, either. But God empowers each community to do all it is called to do in its context. It makes a difference to see church not as a noun but a verb, not as a place to go but as a living offering to God.

The different gifts we are given in order to make that happen vary “according to the grace given to us” (12:6). This is not simply grace as forgiveness of sin. It is grace as the transforming power of God, the renewing of our minds, the living offering, the embodiment of God’s endless mercies that set us all into motion and point us toward what is good, acceptable, and perfect.