Lectionary Commentaries for August 3, 2014
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21

Warren Carter

This scene of feeding five-thousand-plus will be followed in 15:32-39 with the feeding of four thousand people.

Three reading contexts help to identify the significance of Jesus’ actions involving abundant food.

First is the recognition that the world of the first-century Roman Empire was marked by significant inequalities concerning food access. Many people knew food insecurity and struggled on a daily and seasonal basis for adequate food and nutrition. The empire was very hierarchical in its social structure with a small group of ruling elites who enjoyed abundant variety and good quality of food. But most of the population lived around, at, or below subsistence level with inadequate calorific and nutritional intake. The petition in the Lord’s prayer that God will supply daily bread reflects this situation (6:11).

Food access reflected the elite’s access to power that controlled resources. The lack of food was one of the ways many people experienced the injustice of this disparity of power. It is also one of the reasons we see so many sick people in the gospels. Diseases of deprivation (inadequate nutrition) and diseases of contagion (inadequate immunity) were rife.

Second, the biblical tradition explicitly identifies God’s will that hungry people be fed. God provides food for the wilderness generation (Exodus 16). Ezekiel condemns Israel’s leaders or “shepherds” for failing to feed the sheep/people (Ezekiel 34:1-10). The prophet Isaiah declares God’s will that people “share your bread with the hungry” (Isaiah 58:7, 10).

Matthew’s Jesus endorses the merciful practice of almsgiving that redistributes resources to those in need (Matthew 6:2-4). He defends the practice of procuring food as a way of honoring the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). He also declares that the nations will be judged in part on whether they have provided food for the hungry (25:32-42).

Third, traditions concerned with the establishment of God’s empire in all its fullness depict this coming age in terms of abundant food and feasting for all. Ezekiel envisages an age when “the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil … when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them … I will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land … ” (Ezekiel 34:27-29). This age of secure and nutritional food supply comes when God breaks the self-satisfying rule of imperial powers.

Isaiah anticipates an age when “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6-10a). One of the reasons that the new age is often represented in terms of abundant food is the absence of such food in the present.

Jesus’ action here in Matthew 14:13-21 highlights and confronts this injustice of the Roman world with an action that enacts God’s will to feed hungry people and that anticipates the coming age in which God will supply abundant food.

Matthew’s scene is set in a “deserted place” or a “wilderness place.” The setting evokes the exodus story and God’s feeding of the wilderness generation (Matthew 14:21). It also evokes danger and safety in that Jesus “withdraws” after Herod and Herodias kill John (14:1-12), just as Moses withdraws from Pharaoh (Exodus 2:15). Jesus removes himself from the destructive reach of the urban-based Roman ally, Herod, to demonstrate a different use of power reflective of God’s empire.

Crowds join Jesus in this deserted place. Jesus’ initial response is one of compassionate power expressed in healing (14:14). The disciples approach and, stating the obvious about it being a deserted place, instruct Jesus to send the crowds away to the villages to buy food. Jesus countermands them with a challenge for the disciples to feed the crowd.

They produce the five loaves and two fish (but no little boy!). Jesus takes control and hosts the meal. He blesses the food and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. The language of “taking,” “loaves,” “blessed,” “broke” “gave to disciples”, “ate,” and “all” in 14:19 appears in the last supper scene in 26:26-27. This is not a last supper (no cup!), but the two are linked by the use of food in the dispersal of divine blessing.

Jesus enacts God’s will that hungry people be fed. He anticipates the abundant blessing of good food described by Ezekiel and Isaiah in the time when God’s empire is established in full. And he echoes the miracles of Elijah in multiplying the meal and oil of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:10-16) and of Elisha in multiplying the widow’s oil, and in feeding one hundred people (2 Kings 4:1-7, 42-44).

Verse 30 narrates the blessing here in these terms: “All ate and were filled.” Psalm 107:9 celebrates God’s action: “he satisfies the thirsty and the hungry he fills with good things.” God intervenes in this scene to multiply the limited resources so that there is abundant food. Not only is the crowd of five thousand men plus women and children fed, there are leftovers, “twelve baskets full.” Jesus demonstrates his lordship over these food resources just as he demonstrates his authority over disease, sin, Sabbath, people’s lives, and the sea.

Nor should we miss the intra-textuality between this feeding in a wilderness place and that of the previous scene, Herod’s birthday party (14:6). There in the context of the celebration of power, wealth, alliances, and status, are collisions of the ruler and the prophet, the powerful and the poor, Rome-allied imperial rule power and the purposes of God. As a result, John loses his head, served up grotesquely on a platter like another dish for the party (14:11). Imperial power is dangerous for nay-saying prophets. Jesus hosts not a death-bringing meal contextualized by tyranny, but a life-giving feast embodying the gracious abundance of God.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-5

Samuel Giere

The prologue to Isaiah in the 14th century Wycliffe Bible asserts that the prophet is …

“not oneli a profete, but more, a Gospellere.”1 In terms of the early Christians’ attempt to understand who this Jesus was in relation to the God of Israel, Isaiah’s poetry played a defining role.2 Indeed, Isaiah is not only a prophet. From the standpoint of the Christian interpreter of Scripture, the prophet was also “Gospellere” — a Good News-er — an evangelist. This particular pericope “languages” the new creation initiated in and through Jesus Christ — a new creation marked not by scarcity but by outrageous abundance and tasted in the Eucharist.

Risking a reach outside of Isaiah for a foil to the vision of Isaiah 55:1-5, recall some of the final words of the Lord to Moses:

Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them … For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I promised on oath to their ancestors, and they have eaten their fill and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, despising me and breaking my covenant. And when many terrible troubles come upon them, this song will confront them as a witness, because it will not be lost from the mouths of their descendants. For I know what they are inclined to do even now, before I have brought them into the land that I promised them on oath (Deut 31:16, 20-21).3

Such is the situation in which the exiles find themselves. In spite of God fulfilling God’s promise to bring them into the land … in spite of God’s faithfulness to the covenant, they have put their trust in gods other than Yhwh. Against this kind of backdrop, the vision that the prophet paints in Isaiah 55:1-5 serves as an antidote to this idolatry. The text opens with a series of imperatives: Come. Buy. Eat. Listen. Delight. Behold. The list is truly impressive. Note that the vision set out here is not optional. It is imperative. It is Yhwh’s reality into which the hearer is invited. There is not a truly viable alternative. This “everlasting covenant” that Yhwh promises to the people is Yhwh’s promise. This is life.

To the hearer on the edge of exile and in the midst of real displacement from the land which God promised, what is promised here is outrageous. The economy of the promise here reiterated is built not upon the scarcity of exile but upon God’s abundance.

The invitation begins with references to the material: water, wine, milk, bread. These bodily needs are provided. The Lord asks the question: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isaiah 55:2).The outrageous abundance promised opens the way for hearing the promise of a renewed covenant — an everlasting covenant.

Yhwh draws the exiles into the covenant with David4 — “my steadfast, sure love for David” — and expands its boundaries. The “rest from all your enemies” (2 Sam 7:11) promised to David is outrageously redrawn with the everlasting covenant as an irresistible invitation to the nations.

The prophet’s language about the everlasting covenant begins with images of sustenance free and abundant for all: water, milk, wine, bread. This physical sustenance moves outward toward the world. Yhwh’s steadfast, sure love for David expands to welcome those outside, as if there is no inside or outside.

God’s outrageous abundance, the center of the everlasting covenant, spills out of any boundary that anyone might place upon it, promising to fulfill Isaiah’s earlier words: “ … for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Also, God’s promise defies commodification. It flies against whatever economic system we might create or abide by. God’s steadfast, sure love is not underwritten by notions of scarcity but works on the principle of abundance that cannot be contained. This is new creation.

And so we return again and again to the Eucharist — to hear God’s Word and to partake of the Lord’s Supper for a foretaste of the new creation. Such is God’s feast of outrageous abundance that exposes our feeble attempts to hoard God’s love, and rather says, “The Body of Christ given for you.” Likewise, from the Gospel according to Isaiah:

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David (Isaiah 55:2b-3).

“Go in peace! Christ is with you!”


1 Roughly, “not only a prophet but a Gospel-er.”Cited by John F.A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996) 2.

2 Lest the postmodern interpreter doubt this influence, have a look at the quotation, allusion, and verbal parallel lists in the appendices of either the Nestle-Aland or United Bible Society versions of the Greek New Testament.

3 For Moses’song, cf. Deuteronomy 32:1-32, 47.

4 cf. 2 Samuel 7:4-17.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31

Amy Merrill Willis

The character of Jacob is deeply enigmatic for many Christian readers.

Throughout the stories of Genesis 25- 31, we have seen Jacob con, cheat, deceive, and manipulate virtually every member of his family and then run off when the tension was about to explode into full conflict. The fact that Jacob seems to get away with this bad behavior and also garner promises, wives, children and household goods in the process only increases the reader’s ambivalence about this ancestor of Israel.

So it is hard for many in the pews to find much that is enlightening in this story of Jacob wrestling with God. For those of us who have been formed by a piety that values submission and deference to any form of religious authority, this passage can rub the wrong way. And yet, for our Jewish brothers and sisters, this passage plays a central role in modeling the practices of a faithful Jewish life. How can that be? How can this deceitful and irreverent trickster possibly be deserving of God’s enormous favor? How can Jacob be a role model for faithful readers?

To make sense of this story of undeserved blessings, we should consider it in the context of Jacob’s extended journey from Canaan to Syria and back. Very often, stories of journeys (biblical or otherwise) are also stories about character transformation. The story in Genesis 32 finds Jacob homeward bound after 20 years away, with his past threatening to catch up with him. Faced with the prospect of meeting up with Esau, who may yet wish revenge, Jacob finds himself at a turning point: he can face up to what waits for him or he can do what he has done in the past — turn tail and run.

As this passage opens, Jacob seems to be finding a way to protect what is his in the face of Esau’s wrath. His trickster mind engaged, Jacob has divided up his family and servants into two separate camps and has sent them away, across the Jabbok River, leaving him alone. This is a rare event. Like most twins, Jacob has virtually never had a solitary moment. Since his conception, he has been tied up and entangled with at least one other human being at any given moment.

The last time that Jacob spent the night alone, he was in Bethel, having barely escaped Esau. With the threat behind him, God visited the sleeping Jacob and promised even more blessings to come — land, progeny, protection (Genesis 28). On Jacob’s return trip home, God again takes advantage of the brief moment of solitude, a moment when Jacob is most exposed and vulnerable, to reveal God’s self. But this time God comes posing as a dark and disguised threat, not as a protector.

The text is cryptic, simply saying that “a man wrestled with Jacob until the break of dawn.” Yet several interesting things stand out. Notice the time. In folk tales as well as biblical stories, the moment of dawn is an important one; the time between night and day is the perfect point to signal an epic conflict and transforming event. Notice also that the passage doesn’t reveal the identity of the man.

Commentators have suggested various solutions over the centuries; some say the man is Jacob’s greatest fear and rival — his brother come to him, disguised in the dark, for vengeance. Others have suggested that it is Jacob’s own inner demons that have come calling. In verse 31, however, Jacob identifies this stranger to be none other than YHWH. But why is God now playing the part of the antagonist? Is God tired of being little more to Jacob than the dispenser of goodies? Is God trying to teach the patriarch-to-be a lesson about not taking divine gifts for granted? Is this a test of character or a test of faith?

Whatever the reason for the attack, Jacob’s response is to stand his ground and face his attacker. Indeed, Jacob chooses to entangle himself with this threatening form. In some ways, this is not a new response, for Jacob was wrestler even before his birth. Indeed, the Yahwist writer engages in some clever wordplay to show the close connection between the name Jacob (y’kv) and the verb for wrestling (y‘vk) in verse 25. But in other respects, Jacob’s reaction is a departure from the usual. In tangling with God, Jacob foregoes the sly and indirect forms of aggression that he had cultivated as an adult. Instead of cunning evasion, he fights openly and persistently to get what he most wants — a blessing!

Careful observers of human relationships often notice that the same kind of energy propels both physical intimacy and physical fighting. So, too, for Jacob, this face-to-face confrontation with God is a kind of intimacy. Rashi, the great medieval Jewish commentator, long ago highlighted this dynamic saying, “for so is the habit of two people who make strong efforts to throw each other down, that one embraces the other and attaches himself to him with his arms.”

Just so, Jacob chooses to cling to God and refuses to disengage — a stark contrast to his response to God’s overtures 20 years before when he could offer little more than a conditional attachment to YHWH (28:20-22). Moreover, even as Jacob finds himself facing up to this divine opponent and surviving it (notice the language of “Peniel” in verse 31), so Jacob also finds the resources to face his brother and embrace him. In 33:11, Jacob connects the two events saying, “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor.”

The character of Jacob and the character of God are both remarkably displayed in this passage. God does not punish Jacob’s conflictive character, but challenges it and reshapes it so that Jacob is able to live into his promised destiny as Israel, which according to verse 29 means “one who strives with God and humans.” Jacob’s story is a much-needed reminder that in the life of faith, there is no one model to which we must conform and submit. God entertains all kinds of characters and personalities, even those who appear to be unconventional or irreverent by our standards.

Finally, the story also challenges any attempt to domesticate God and make the deity fit into some easy mold, whether that is “the wrathful God” or the “God who meets my needs.” Jacob came away from the encounter with unbounded blessings, but he also walked away limping — a man permanently marked. It attests to the complex reality of a God who is intimately engaged with humans, who seeks them out, and blesses them, even it reminds us that this God is wily, unpredictable, and dangerous.


Commentary on Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

James K. Mead

The scriptures often describe people and things in absolute terms, with a rhetorical flair I advise my students to avoid.

I tell them that critical thinking requires us to seek precision in our language and shun generalities that make reality look simpler than it actually is. This Psalm 145 selection, therefore, makes it challenging for interpreters readily to embrace the exuberant declaration that “The Lord is good to all” (verse 9).

On one level, the language of Psalm 145 is straightforward and simple. The words, “The Lord is,” occur five times, and their object is usually “all” or “every” of some category, for example, “all who are falling” (verse 14). Another type of statement predicates actions of the Lord, such as “raises,” “gives,” “fulfills,” “hears,” and “watches.” In other words, it is the theology we first learned at the table: “God is great. God is good.” What is there not to understand?

On another level, however, human history and personal experience prompt us to wonder just how the Lord’s goodness becomes active and effective for all creation. Whatever our theological convictions may declare, sometimes it’s just difficult to feel that goodness at work in the midst of suffering and loss.

So, can we profess with the poet that “the Lord is good to all”? In our congregations there will be situations in which this statement brings confusion and pain instead of joy and peace. The fact is that there’s no way to argue someone into this affirmation of faith; but the reason we keep leading in worship and stepping into the pulpit is that we know the Holy Spirit works within — and the fellowship of believers surrounds — the broken-hearted. It’s with that confident hope that I make the following observations.

First, let’s start with the obvious: our selection is about one-half of the entire psalm, whose acrostic structure and consistent style require that the parts of the psalm should be understood in light of the whole.1 The verb “to bless” at the beginning (verse 1), middle (verse 10), and end (verse 21), and the key Hebrew word kol (“all, every”) seventeen times in the poem are two other signs of its unity.2 Parallel panels move from praise (1-2, 10) to greatness (3-6, 11-13a) and goodness (7-9, 13b-20).3

So, while this Sunday’s selection concentrates upon the goodness of God, it passes over verses 10-13, wherein the poet extols the kingship of God. We must be careful, therefore, not to sever the positive theology in our verses from its source in God’s royal power. As James Luther Mays writes of verses 4-7, “God’s power is good and God’s goodness is powerful.”4

The choice to pass over verses 10-13 isn’t based on the avoidance of monarchic language for Israel’s God, since those verses appeared when Psalm 145 was used in the lectionary just three Sundays ago. Still, we don’t want short-term liturgical memory to fail us when it comes to interpreting the rest of the psalm.

Second, we need to understand just how the Hebrew word kol (“all, every”) functions in this psalm. Instead of leaping into philosophical and theological conundrums, we would do well to ask whether kol must be taken here as “all” in the sense of an absolute, numerical comprehensiveness. To be sure, there are places where an author seems to intend this: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31).

In other places an author intends to express a representative comprehensiveness, as when “David assembled all Israel in Jerusalem” (1 Chronicles 15:3). There were certainly some Israelites who didn’t make it to Jerusalem for that celebration. The poetic style and imagery of Psalm 145 intend us to see the goodness of God in “successively broader circles,”5 so that nature and history point to the complete goodness of God’s nature, rather than to a human moral assessment about each and every event is in the cosmos. Paul’s thinking in Romans 8:28 runs parallel to this truth, namely, that it is the experience of God’s people that “all things work together for good,” not that all things are morally good in themselves.

Third, the major portion of this Sunday’s lection (verses 14-21) interprets the goodness of God primarily in terms of God’s faithfulness (verse 13b) to and for the people of God. Psalm 145 invites those who sing and pray it into a circle of trust, a place where we begin to see God’s relation to the world not in terms of our own needs but in terms of the larger stage of divine purpose and action.

Thus, in spite of the fact that this psalm begins with the first person singular, it soon moves well beyond any single individual to all times and places. Seeing Psalm 145 as a “community” praise psalm helps us realize that its theology transcends its personal application to one’s own spiritual growth, and certainly beyond praying for the next nice thing God can do for me.6

Moreover, regular corporate praise becomes, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, “an evangelical act that invites a deep departure from the greed system of self-securing.”7 A community that praises in this way must also pray boldly, dependent for each day’s good gifts from God above (Matthew 6:11).8


1 On the structure see Gerald H. Wilson, “The Qumran Psalms Scroll Reconsidered: Analysis of the Debate,” CBQ 47 (1985): 624-642.

2 Leon J. Liebreich, “Psalms 34 and 145 in Light of their Key Words” HUCA 27 (1956): 181-192.

3 Craig C. Broyles, Psalms (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 506.

4 James Luther Mays. Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 439.

5 Reuven Kimelmann, “Psalm 145: Theme, Structure, and Impact,” JBL 113 (1994): 53.

6 Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, trans Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 827.

7 Walter Brueggemann, “Praise and the Psalms: A Politics of Glad Abandonment, Part II” Hymn 43 (1992): 14-15.

8 Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3, Hermeneia, trans L. M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 602-603.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 9:1-5

J.R. Daniel Kirk

The first few verses of Romans 9 are surprisingly self-referential.

Verse 1 contains a three-fold affirmation of Paul’s truthfulness, verse 2 contains a two-fold avowal of grief, and verse 3 expresses a desire to be cut off from Christ using the double self-reference, “I myself.”

Paul regularly inserts himself into the various arguments and assertions that comprise his letters. We should pause and ask why it happens here.

The opening salvo would seem to signal that Paul’s reputation is on the line. Later in Romans we will discover that Paul is somewhat nervous about his upcoming trip to Jerusalem. As he takes an offering from his churches to the saints there, he is worried about those who are disobedient and about whether this gift will be accepted (Romans 15:31).

Although Paul never says so explicitly, it appears that he hopes his mission to Jerusalem will help cement the place of his gentile converts as equal partners with their Jewish brothers and sisters.

But if the people who are marked out by the God-given law are not the people to whom one must belong to be part of God’s family, where does this leave those people?

Paul seems to be defending himself against the charge that his law-free mission to the Gentiles entails a callous rejection of his own people, of Israel. The three-fold defense tells us that this chapter about God’s election is not merely theological, it is also deeply personal.

Paul’s self-defense comes in his twofold repetition of the grief he feels: “great sorrow” and “unceasing anguish” (Romans 9:2).

It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic plunge from the heights of exaltation found in the end of chapter 8 to the depths of pain and agony expressed here (an agony that will work its way to another climactic moment of exaltation by the end of chapter 11). Paradoxically, the source of both is the same: God’s gracious fidelity to God’s people.

The backdrop of Romans includes not only the intramural Christian debates about circumcision and food laws, but also the stark reality that few of the people of Israel have accepted the idea that Jesus is God’s Messiah.

In chapter 8, the claim that God makes upon a people leads Paul to celebrate the surety of final salvation. But this creates the massive problem of what it might say about God that the people of Israel upon whom God had previously set God’s claim had rejected God’s work and were no longer defining the people of God.

This is the tragedy that breaks Paul’s heart and that propels the argument for the next three chapters of the letter (Romans 9-11).

The paradox entailed in Israel’s separation from Paul’s gospel is accented in the list of gifts that are Israel’s by rights. The first two blessings Paul mentions are adoption and glory. In chapter 8, these very things describe the present and future adoption of those who are in Christ by the Spirit (Romans 8:15, 23) as well as the glory that devolves upon such offspring (8:17, 18, 21, 30).

Similarly, when Paul mentions “the covenants” and “the patriarchs” he articulates Israel’s blessings in ideas that have been earlier applied to non-Jewish believers (Romans 4).

The “law” is an aspect of Israel’s story that Paul struggles to explain, as he attempts to guard his Gentile converts from being defined or bound by it, while at the same time he affirms that love of neighbor fulfills the law (Romans 13:9-10).

Ultimately, however, for Paul the law finds its meaning, and is read rightly, when it is read as a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 3:21). When Paul speaks of “the Law” and “the promises,” and affirm that “from them comes the Christ according to the flesh” (9:4-5), he is imagining three parts of the same whole.

In Romans 1:1-3 Paul says that his gospel is (1) promised beforehand by God; (2) about God’s son; and (3) born of David’s seed according to the flesh. Throughout these next three chapters Paul is directly engaging with the consequences of giving a Christological reframing to the hope, faith, and scriptures of Israel.

The fundamental tenant of Paul’s gospel is that the crucified Christ is the resurrected Lord over all. For Paul, it is God (the Father) who raises Jesus, through the Spirit. Paul’s defense of himself is ultimately linked with his defense of God: God is the one who acted both to send God’s Son and to raise that Son from the dead and enthrone him at God’s right hand.

Thus, this section concludes with a somewhat unexpected ejaculation of praise: “God be praised, forever!”

There is some debate over whether Paul intends to say, “Messiah, who is God over all, blessed forever” or, instead, “Messiah who is over all — God be blessed forever!” The second expression is more likely. Paul consistently treats Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father) as two distinct characters in the drama of salvation.

Moreover, the weight of so much of Romans is to direct glory to God for God’s work in sending and raising Jesus the Messiah. This paragraph fits that larger theme by ascribing all of Israel’s gifts to the God who is also the Father of Jesus Christ.

These first five verses of Rom 9 introduce the next three chapters of the letter, which are now widely recognized as the climax of the letter’s argument. The immediately following discussion will wrestle directly with the question of election.

But before he goes there, Paul lays out this basis for the argument: God is the one who has given Israel all its great gifts, God is the one who has fulfilled the promises in Christ, and so God is ultimately worthy of praise. Such will culminate the argument in chapter 11 as well.