Lectionary Commentaries for August 20, 2017
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Mitzi J. Smith

When Jesus entered Tyre and Sidon, an indigenous Canaanite woman formed a one-woman welcoming committee.

Jesus is no stranger to Tyre and Sidon; he compared that region to Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum where the inhabitants did not respond positively to Jesus’ miracles. Thus Matthew’s readers might anticipate Jesus doing powerful deeds in Tyre and Sidon and a positive response (Matthew 11:20-24). The Canaanite woman’s greeting is part of a pattern; we find her words on the lips of others who approach Jesus with pressing needs: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22; see also 9:27 and 20:30). The Matthean Jesus is the son of David from the beginning of the narrative as revealed in the genealogy (Matthew 1:1, 16). Perhaps with her initial words, the woman is claiming an ancestral relationship to Jesus. Three women in Jesus’ genealogy are Canaanite women: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth (Matthew 1:3, 5). The anonymous woman’s foremothers are Jesus’ kinfolk. The words “Have mercy” demonstrate the Canaanite woman’s knowledge of his power and willingness to show mercy on all who approach him (see Matthew 14:13-21). The title “lord” by which she addresses Jesus acknowledges him as a man in relation to her as a woman and demonstrates respect for Jesus as a Rabbi. The phrase “on me” reveals her as the object the mercy she seeks, her request is a personal one; what impacts child, affects mother. And finally the title, “Son of David” is perhaps her way of acknowledging him as her kin, as royalty, and as the Jewish Messiah (anointed one). The Canaanite woman strategically, clearly and succinctly confronts and informs Jesus of her problem: “my daughter is tormented by a demon” (verse 22). She does not directly request healing for her child, she desires mercy, which she presumes would take the form of an exorcism. After all, the rumor was that people were simply bringing their sick and possessed to Jesus, and he healed them even when they touched the fringe of his garments (Matthew 14:34-36; 9:20-21). She does not bring her daughter to Jesus, it appears. But she expects something to happen at the intersection of her intercession and Jesus’ mercy.

In the previous episode (Matthew 15:10-20) Jesus had taught the crowds — including some Pharisees — and his disciples that a person is defiled not by what she puts in her stomach but by that which originates in her heart and is manifested in her life (for example, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, deception). The preceding narrative implies that one’s race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or class does not defile a person; hence, the reader might be surprised by both Jesus’ silence and his response to the Canaanite woman. Initially, Jesus fails to acknowledge the Canaanite woman and her request for mercy. Anyone with a pressing need knows how horrible it feels to have a dire or significant request for help or information met with dead silence (15:23a). Women’s words are too often met with silence or are interrupted or disrespected, by men and sometimes by other women. Those times in my life when I asked for information or help and received nothing but silence, I would have preferred a curt: “H*ll, no.”

No one immediately responds to the Canaanite woman or gives the impression that they will respond. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away because, it appears, they are annoyed by her continued shouting, her refusal to take silence for an answer (Matthew 15:23b; see Acts 16:16-18). Too often we cannot or refuse to empathize with people whose experience is different from our own. If the oppression, injustice, or pain is not happening in our house and neighborhood or does not impact our race, gender, class, or sexuality, then we dismiss it as unwelcomed, unjustified noise. Jesus’ response to the apostles’ urging to send the Canaanite woman away seems to affirm their desire to dismiss her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24, NRSV). The fact that her people’s blood runs through his veins and that his people’s blood runs through her veins does not move Jesus! If our common humanity, our relatedness, does not move us, what will?

The Canaanite woman persists. Like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Oprah Winfrey, Senator Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Kamala Harris, the Canaanite woman persisted. But so many anonymous women like the Canaanite woman have persisted as lone minority voices among a majority of authoritative and powerful men. She persisted! She didn’t go away; she won’t be dismissed. She draws closer and kneels, and in the vernacular of a determined woman she cries, “Master, help me,” (Matthew 15:25). Her plea for help is met with the language of cultural difference and distance: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26).

It appears that in antiquity, Greeks and other Gentiles had a more familiar relationship with household pets, particularly with dogs, than did the average Jewish person. The ancient Greeks may have been more likely to have dogs as endeared household pets that they fed from under the table than would have been the case in many Jewish households.1 This cultural difference might explain the woman’s response: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” (Matthew 15:27). The Canaanite woman’s cultural context differs from Jesus’; they allow their pets to be fed while the children eat. One can feed the children and feed the pets too!

In the end, Matthew’s Jesus responds by commending the woman for her faith. (In Mark’s version, Jesus commends the Syrophoenician woman for her word or logos with no mention of faith; see Mark 7:24-30.) Matthew strategically calls what this woman does as act of faith. Yet Jesus does not perform an exorcism; he simply says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” He does not say let it be done as you believed but as you will. The woman’s will to power manifested by her persistence identified as faith led to her daughter’s healing.

Interestingly, the all-knowing narrator notifies the reader that the woman’s daughter was healed instantly (Matthew 15:28b); Jesus does not. Perhaps faith engenders persistence or maybe persistence feeds faith. Either way, persistence and faith make a powerful pair. Significantly, Matthew inserted a summary of Jesus’ healing activities immediately after Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman and despite mentioning specific ailments twice; exorcism is omitted (15:29-31). Never underestimate the power of a persistent woman and the God in whom she believes.


1 Francis D. Lazenby, “Greek and Roman Household Pets,” The Classical Journal 44 (1949): 245–52.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Michael L. Ruffin

The prophet Isaiah preached in Judah during the eighth century; his words are in the first thirty-nine chapters of the book that bears his name.

The anonymous prophet we call Second Isaiah preached among the exiles in Babylon sometime shortly before the return to Judah that commenced in 538; his words are in chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah. We refer to the prophet or prophets who produced the last section of the Isaiah scroll (chapters 56-66) as Third Isaiah. Those words address the situation in Judah during the early years of the effort to rebuild Jerusalem and reestablish life in Judah.

Isaiah 56, then, opens the third and final part of the book of Isaiah. Its words begin Third Isaiah’s attempt to address the challenges the people faced in rebuilding a devastated nation. One challenge we preachers face is accurately assessing the parallels between the situations of the returned exiles and our congregations. Some of us may preach in situations in which the church is trying to rebuild from sudden devastation brought on by controversy or scandal or from gradual devastation brought on by a slow decline that has finally reached a critical point. Even if we don’t, the text offers a word to our listeners in at least two ways. First, it could happen here, so some preventive maintenance is always in order. Second, even if we are somewhat living up to the call of these words, how much more can we be?

God’s doing and ours

The prophet’s opening declaration is, “Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1). On the one hand, God’s “salvation” and “deliverance” have already come. After all, the first groups of returning exiles have arrived in Judah. The salvation and deliverance that Second Isaiah promised have happened. On the other hand, there is more to what God is doing than getting the exiles home. God’s purposes of salvation are still being worked out, and the people’s lives are to reflect those purposes.

God’s people are to do what God calls them to do because of what God is doing. Both “justice” and righteousness (“what is right”) have to do with relationships. The people are to respond to God’s gracious acts by developing and maintaining a sound relationship with God. Developing and maintaining sound relationships with other people goes hand-in-hand with a sound relationship with God. Paul’s admonition to the Philippians sheds some additional light on the prophet’s encouragement: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13). God is working God’s purposes of salvation out, and God’s people are to participate in what God is doing. We do what we do because of what God is doing. What we do is part of the process.

Distinctiveness, not exclusivity

The NRSV translates the same Hebrew word (tsedeqah) as “what is right” in the first part of verse 1 and as “deliverance” in the second part.1 Somehow, then, God’s deliverance and God’s people’s righteousness are related. What does such righteousness involve? The prophet stresses sabbath observance (56:2), which emerged as a distinguishing characteristic for Jews during the exile.

Sabbath observance demonstrated the distinctiveness of God’s people. That doesn’t mean, though, that it was to be a sign of exclusivity. In fact, the prophet proclaims that eunuchs (see Isaiah 56:3-5) and foreigners (verses 6-8) are welcome to join the covenant-keeping, sabbath-observing community. God wants God’s people to be distinctive, but God also wants them to expand in population and for their population to expand in diversity.

Deuteronomy 23 laid out who was not to be admitted in the assembly of the Lord. Among them were eunuchs (someone “whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off” — verse 1) and foreigners (specifically Ammonites and Moabites — verses 3-4). But as God’s salvation and deliverance go forward, these who were formerly excluded will be welcomed. We may rightly regard their inclusion as standing for the inclusion of any and all who will come.

What does it mean for the church to be the church? Circumstances may tempt us to use our distinctiveness to practice exclusion. How can we invite others to join in our distinctiveness instead? And what should that distinctiveness look like?

They’re coming

What to do about “the other” was a raging debate in the post-exilic period. Some advocated for particularism. We see that in the Ezra’s instructions that men send away their foreign wives and children born of those marriages. Other post-exilic writings push back against such attitudes. The book of Ruth depicts the titular heroine, who is Moabite, as the great-grandmother of King David. The book of Jonah demonstrates that God would forgive even the Assyrians, who in their heyday were despised by pretty much everybody in the Ancient Near East, if they repented. Third Isaiah agrees with the authors of these two biblical short stories.

One of the hymns I used to hear a lot (but haven’t heard in a long time) celebrates the fact that “‘Whosoever’ Meaneth Me.” Perhaps we should consider changing it to “’Whosoever’ Meaneth Them.” Or maybe “’Whosoever’ Meaneth Us.”

To paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of salvation history is long, but it bends toward inclusion.

How are we participating in what God is bringing about?


1 Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1995) 193.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15

Beth L. Tanner

Does good eventually come from evil acts?

Does God cause bad things to happen so good can come of them? These are questions that have been asked since the dawn of humanity and is also at the center of the text for today. Was the evil act of the brothers part of God’s plan so Abraham and Sarah’s family could be saved? For several weeks, the lectionary has followed the story of Abraham and Sarah’s family through the pages of Genesis. For the most part, we have read about the generations as they struggled with each other and, for the most part, God is not seen or heard. Each generation has seen estrangement and reconciliation.

First a little background: The brothers sold Joseph into slavery. The sons return and tell Jacob of Joseph’s death, while Joseph is taken to Egypt. Some years later, Joseph impressed the Pharaoh becoming his second in command (Genesis 41:41-45). When, a famine grips the region, Jacob tells his sons to go to Egypt to buy grain. They appear before Joseph who recognizes them, but they do not know it is him. Joseph does not reveal his identity; instead, he used his power over his brothers (42:9–43:34). First, he demanded they return with their youngest brother, Benjamin, and until they do he imprisoned Simeon. The brothers were sent home with the grain. Jacob would not let Benjamin go to Egypt because he had already lost two sons. But when the food ran out, and the famine was still severe, Jacob sent the sons back with Benjamin. After seeing Benjamin and sharing a meal with his brothers, they still did not know him. What happens next was either a test of the brothers or the second act of revenge, depending on how one sees it. Joseph instructs his servant to slip a silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph then confronts the brothers about the alleged theft. The brothers beg Joseph to release Benjamin and Judah volunteers to stay in his place. It was then that Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.

A close reading of the encounter is enlightening. Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and asked about his father. He then spoke to his brothers about their acts against him. Interestingly, he never forgives them. Instead, he sees their act as not of their doing, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” And this statement places the preacher and the hearers of this text right in the middle of the mystery of God. This question has haunted Christian believers and theologians — does God cause things to happen, especially bad things? Is God pulling the strings of our lives? Here Joseph stated exactly how he understood the events that brought him to Egypt. We never know how the brothers think Joseph’s interpretation. It is not part of the narrative.

The problem with wading into this text and this question as a preacher is there remains no simple or even complex answer to the question. For centuries, theologians have discussed God’s participation in human events. Preachers are also often quick to make theological hay by interpreting a disaster or act of violence as God’s punishment on a sinful people. This was a focus of some preaching using the AIDS epidemic, and Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina as examples. The problem with this type of theology is that God’s punishment, action, or inaction are not that simple to interpret. One could ask if Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment then why were the poor and disabled the most impacted. The reasoning appears to be faulty.  Yet this type of theology makes the news and stands unchallenged by saner voices in our culture. In the midst of fear, people can be tempted to believe we can understand these events, to interpret these signs and know that God caused them.  This is one opportunity to discuss and challenge this theology.

Another way of understanding this text is from a psychological approach. Humans seek to make meaning from the world. We also know bad, and as is the case here, hateful things happen. Joseph focused on the good that came from his brothers’ evil act, instead of remaining angry over the act itself. Is this optimism God’s work in our lives? Yes, but as with the above example, the outcome is not a simple formula. Therapists know that seeing the good in a bad situation can be good for the patient. However, when one sees the good too often, more damage and harm can come. This is true of an abuse situation or other complex psychological issues. Just as with the above example, our reasoning does not fit. God cannot be forced into our ways of thinking.

So if there is no answer, then why tackle the topic? First, we all think about it. How are the events of life and God’s will related? Second, how often do we talk about it among the faithful? Joseph’s words provide an opportunity for such reflection. But the topic is reserved for the brave, for the preacher will be required to utter the dreaded words, “I do not know all the answers to God’s ways.”

Both of the examples above require a balance. A theology can affirm how God works in the pain of this world to bring good. Likewise, understanding the psychological perspective is helpful, but only if it is not taken to extremes. This week’s Genesis reading leaves us deep in the mystery of God and God’s interactions with humans. Some folks see God directing their lives, while others express God’s presence in other ways. We all must come to terms with this question; some will be comfortable with Joseph’s theological speech and others will not. The great benefit of the text is the opportunity to ponder what we believe and why.


Commentary on Psalm 67:1-7

Rolf Jacobson

A Liturgy of Blessing

As the twice-repeated refrain (verses 3, 5) indicates, Psalm 67 is a song meant for public worship.1

We can imagine a worship leader or choir singing the body of the psalm, with the congregation or a larger choir intoning the refrain:

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.

The theme of the psalm is blessing. The psalm begins with a request for blessing. The words of the Aaronic benediction normally close worship services: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). Here, those words are slightly tweaked and are used to open the psalm: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” 

Blessing: God’s Gracious Activity

The theological category of blessing is one of the most important in the Old Testament — a theme that is often underappreciated in protestant theology. The great theologian Claus Westermann contrasted two general aspects of God’s merciful action towards humanity: God’s saving activity and God’s blessing activity.2 For good reason, protestant Old Testament theology has strongly emphasized God’s saving activity — forgiving sin, rescuing from oppression, saving from death and the like. But the Old Testament consistently speaks of another sphere of God’s mercy: the blessing activity of God — fruitful harvests, fertility, health, prosperity, and the like. Psalm 67 majors in an area in which the church has often minored — the longing request for God’s blessing.

Like God’s saving activity, God’s blessing activity is available by grace alone. This is true in two senses. First, even though some blessing is made available through the law (and thus it may appear that blessing is conditional and comes as a result of works righteousness), the law itself is sheer gift — not something that was earned by Israel, but an unexpected, breathtaking, welcome gift of grace.

The law was bestowed as a gracious gift in order that life might thrive — as a sign that God has drawn near to the covenant people. As Moses says in Deuteronomy 4:7-8, “What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”  

Second, God’s blessing is by grace alone because God blesses whom God chooses, when God chooses, for the reasons God chooses. God’s blessings are gracious, surprising, unexpected gifts. This is clear throughout the biblical narrative. One need think only of Sarah. God announces to Abraham in Genesis 17 that, “I will bless her and will surely give her a son by you” (verse 16). Abraham then laughs at God and counter-offers, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight” (verse 18). God does answer Abraham’s prayer and blesses Ishmael, too. But God goes Abraham one better and saves the most surprising blessing for Sarah. A free gift of grace. Or, one might think of Mary. The unsuspected maiden whom all generations now called, “Blessed.”

Blessing: Already and Still

In Psalm 67, the poet begins by asking for God’s blessing in verse 1 and requests God’s continued blessing in verse 7: “May God continue to bless us.” But the poet also stands in the people’s midst and announces God’s blessing: “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us” (verse 6). And this is often the role of the public, Christian leader: to ask the Lord to bless and even at the same time to remind God’s people of how much God has already done. 

In Psalm 67, the poet has the fruits of harvest in mind: “the earth has yielded its increase.” The bounty of nature is not a bad place to start — the image of trees bearing fruit, fields yielding grain, and pastures teeming with livestock communicate blessing even today, when so little of the population is in direct contact with farming. But other images can be added:  the beauty of nature, the birth of a new generation, the existence of good government and public servants, the love of parents and friends, good health and good medical care, music and joy. One could keep going. 

Why must the Christian leader remind people of God’s blessings? Because it is easy to forget. Recently, as I left a baseball stadium on an absolutely beautiful day, I heard one young man mumble to his friend, “What has God ever done for me?” The implication seemed to be both that God hadn’t done anything and that everything the young man had in life was the result of his own hard work. It is good — even necessary — for the Christian leader to stand in front of the assembly and remind us of all our blessings. And it necessary — even good — for the Christian leader to stand in front of God and ask for the Lord’s continued to blessings.  God has blessed us richly. And we rely on God’s continued blessings.

Blessing:  Foundation of God’s Mission

But the psalm has one more important lesson to teach about God’s blessing activity–God blesses for the sake of mission. Indeed, God’s blessing is the foundation of mission. Within the psalm, it is clear that the ultimate purpose of God’s blessing is mission: “that your way be known on earth, your saving power among all nations” (verse 2). So that the peoples and nations might praise God.

This emphasis in the psalm is also the basis of Israel’s identity. According to Genesis 12, the reason that God elected Israel in the first place was for the purpose of mission — that Israel would itself be a means of grace. God chose Abraham and Sarah and promised them descendants and also promised that “you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (verses 2b-3). 

The message is repeated in Exodus 19, when God renewed the covenant with the descendants of Abraham whom he had just rescued from Egypt. The Lord said, “you shall be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (verse 6). And what did the priest to do, other than be the channel of divine blessing? Israel was not chosen for its own sake, but was chosen for the sake of mission. And Israel was not blessed either because of who it was or for its own benefit. Israel was blessed so that all the families of the earth may be blessed through it.

When we pray with Psalm 67 that “God continue to bless us” or when we end the end of the worship service with the wish that “the Lord’s face shine upon you,” we do so for the sake of God’s mission. In order that through God’s people, all of the world might experience God’s saving help.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 14, 2011.

2 See Westermann, Elements of Old Testament Theology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Frank L. Crouch

The lectionary does us no favors by splitting Romans 11 into an opening question followed by the tail end of an answer.

If this pericope is read aloud, most hearers will not know to whom “they” and “their” refer to in Romans 11:29-32. Nor should a worship leader expect hearers to be familiar with the convoluted route Paul follows in the twenty-eight omitted verses that move him from his question to his answer.

In those omitted verses, Paul starts with his own genealogy; winds through Elijah and Baal, the Exodus, prophets, and psalms. Then he turns onto a road with an overlook view of Israel’s stumbling and how that opened a door for Gentiles. That road merges into an extended metaphor of an olive tree with one root supporting both natural and grafted branches. He ends his journey with a warning to Gentile Christians not to think that because God granted them (Gentiles) salvation, God, therefore, has cut Jewish people out of salvation. In the end, God’s intent seems to be that no one is left behind.

God and the Jewish people

I’ve never taken a poll, but I imagine that many Christians would say that the answer to Paul’s question — “Has God rejected [the Jews]?” — is “Yes.” After all, they rejected Christ, blew their chance, and that’s the end of the story — otherwise, what’s the point of evangelism? Given the amount of attention Paul gives this question, apparently many Christians back then would have given the same answer. This notion dies hard.

However, Paul could not have been more emphatic about the “no-ness” of his “NO” in answering the question. The NRSV and NIV translations here, “By no means!” do not do justice to his words. They’re more like, “Absolutely NOT!” or “No WAY!” or “You’ve got to be KIDDING me!” or “REALLY? I can’t BELIEVE you actually asked that question.”

His certainty relies less on his convoluted argument and more on his baseline conviction that God can be trusted forever — “God’s gifts and call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). There’s no budging, no fudging, no hidden escape clauses, no backtracking, no pulling the rug out from under anyone who has ever counted on God — no matter how fleetingly or how devotedly or anything in between.

Some verses omitted from this passage reiterate that point in ways that some commentators try to soften, arguing that Paul should not be taken literally when he says: “so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26), “as regards election they are beloved” (11:28), leading up to his sweeping conclusion: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that [God] may be merciful to all” (11:32). This conclusion is reprised and extended later, in the categorical statement that “from [God], through [God], and to [God] are all things” (11:36). Some people fidget under the prospect that in these verses “all” might mean “all.”

One cannot build a soteriology solely on Romans 11, but even if one wants to blunt its implications, these verses offer an extended celebration of a God of promise, invitation, and mercy rather than one of threat, judgment, and wrath. Romans 11’s sternest warnings are directed at Gentile Christians (i.e., us) who might think more highly of themselves than they ought to think when they consider God’s love for the world and everyone in it. Paul’s admonitions to Gentile Christians are worth heeding today: “I am speaking to you Gentiles” (11:13) … you were wild branches grafted in (11:17) … remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you (11:18) … So do not become proud but stand in awe” (11:20).

Sin and mercy, death and life

We have looked at the second part of Romans 11:32, which focuses on God’s mercy. The first part deserves attention as well. The statement that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience” represents one facet of another of Paul’s baseline convictions, harkening back to an earlier assertion that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8:2).

Paul sees a major human predicament lying in two captivities that plague us our whole lives. He identifies one of the “sufferings of this present time” as the whole creation’s “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:18-23). The circle of life inevitably rolls through death, for all creation. Every illness, accident, or injury; every “fire or flood, storm or earthquake”; every safety warning in every owners manual for virtually every product sold in the U.S. reminds us (probably overly reminds us) that our grip on life and health can quickly become tenuous and small. Being set free from the law of death represents one of God’s great gifts.

Our other captivity lies in the fact that we are “imprisoned in disobedience” (Romans 11:32). Without shifting too far into a doctrine of utter depravity, scripture and our own experience inescapably remind us that “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7), and “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). In the Lord’s Prayer, three of the four supplications concern embodying God’s will/purpose, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and being delivered from temptation (Matthew 6:9-13). Our own imprisonment in disobedience means that, although we admire, say, the Apostle Peter’s achievements, we identify more easily with the times he fell short.

Regardless of the complexities of understanding the presence in creation of sin and death, Paul joins the consistent testimony of scripture with respect to both of them. We do not live in an amoral, purposeless universe set into motion by a neutral God who idly watches to see what happens. We do not live our lives before a God who from our birth is an angry opponent offering us a limited time opportunity to make the right confession or else be condemned forever. For Paul, the good news is that despite our bondage to decay and imprisonment in disobedience, the God of creation wants most of all for us to have life and wholeness, free from both. And the God who set the universe into motion ultimately set it up so that justice and mercy might prevail for us all.