Lectionary Commentaries for July 30, 2017
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Jennifer T. Kaalund

When describing abstract concepts, we often employ similes and metaphors.

How would you describe the wind or love? One could say the wind is like a feather’s touch or love is a journey. These literary devices are effective ways for giving color, life, and meaning to concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand.

However, the tools are only effective if the person who hears them understands the references used. If I have never felt the touch of a feather I cannot know how the wind felt. Likewise, if I have never been on a journey, the comparison doesn’t help me better understand love. While the descriptions get us closer to the meaning, it is not the same as experiencing it. Specifically, it is the difference between knowing about something and actually knowing something. In this text, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to several concepts in order to enhance the crowd’s understanding of his teaching.

Jesus ends his teaching unit in Matthew 13 by creating a more descriptive explanation of the kingdom of heaven. He explains it in five brief parables. After two detailed parables about the sower and seed and weeds, it is as if someone said to Jesus: “Tell us more about the kingdom of heaven? How would you describe it”? Jesus concludes his message to the crowd by saying the kingdom of heaven is like: a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a merchant who searches for and finds fine pearls, and finally a net. Each of these short descriptions expands our understanding of God’s kingdom.

A mustard seed — size really doesn’t matter

The “smallest of all seeds,” the mustard seed grows into a tree (Matthew 13:32). Emphasizing the size of the seed may refer to the modest beginning of the kingdom of heaven being realized on earth. Jesus marks the commencement of this era; he may be signifying to the crowd that from these very modest beginnings, great things will come. The next mention of the mustard seed in the gospel can be found in 17:20 where Jesus tells his disciples that the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains. Again, what is seemingly invisible can have an overwhelming impact. Like the seeds mentioned in the previous parables, the mustard seed, too, will produce a yield.

Yeast — transformed to rise above

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to yeast. When yeast is added to flour it causes the flour to rise. Yeast is a key ingredient for making bread because without it, bread cannot be fluffy and light. In other words, the kingdom of heaven is transformative and uplifting. Without God’s reign, life would be flat and dull. It is the presence of God’s kingdom that empowers God’s people to rise above life’s circumstances.

Hidden Treasure — joy unspeakable

The kingdom of heaven is like hidden treasure that has been found because it brings joy. In the parable Jesus speaks of a man who, “…in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field” (13:44). The man that Jesus describes is so filled with joy that he risks it all to obtain more. In exchange for the possibility of finding more treasure, and thusly joy, he sells it all! As such, the kingdom of heaven is not simply joy; it is a joy that is worth all that you have.

A Merchant — a valuable treasure

The next parable teaches about a merchant who is searching for a pearl. Jesus states, “…on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:46). Like the man who finds a hidden treasure, the merchant who is searching for a pearl sells all that he has to purchase it. Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is a treasure; it is valuable and something to be valued. Also, Jesus seems to underscore that the kingdom of heaven must be sought. It is not easily obtained or readily available.

A Net — all-inclusive

In the final comparison, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a net. The net “caught fish of every kind, when it was full they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad” (Matthew 13:47-48). As in the parable of the weeds, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as diverse and inclusive. Again, the angels come to “separate the evil from the righteous” (13:49). However, the net contained various kinds of fish. Just as the fish exist together in the sea, we also must live together, exist peaceably, and leave the judgment to God.

The Scribe

There is one additional aspect of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus highlights and that is the role of the scribe. He concludes, “Therefore every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).

Scribes are often portrayed in a negative light in this gospel alongside the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Yet, the role of the scribes was extremely important. They had authority over the law. They were trained, in this case, specifically for the kingdom of God. These scribes are leaders who are responsible for mining the wisdom of the law, both the old and the new, and teaching it to the people. In a modern context, the scribes would be those who have been trained in the gospel. Preachers out of the treasure of his or her knowledge of God’s kingdom must share the ancient context of the gospel (the old) and the contemporary application of it today (the new) with God’s people. In other words, those who are responsible for the law must make it relevant for God’s people today. Once again, Jesus’ focus on the crowd does not eclipse the training and preparation he provides for his disciples.

These five parables have taught us more about the kingdom of heaven. While the parables about the sower and seeds and the weeds may have appealed to the farmers in the crowd, these parables would have been meaningful to fishermen, bakers, and merchants. Their wide appeal would have helped the crowd to have a better understanding of the kingdom of heaven. We must seek the kingdom of heaven in order to find it and when we find it, we have found a treasure. This treasure will bring joy that empowers us to rise above life’s difficult circumstances. We experience the kingdom of God in community — all are welcome at the table. The more we are taught, by the trained scribes, the more we will grow and become witnesses of God’s kingdom here on earth.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

Two ears, one mouth.

We should listen twice as much as we talk, so they say. Even a prominent leader. Even a king. Even King Solomon. Would that more leaders followed this maxim today!

God appears to King Solomon in a dream like a genie in a bottle. Only without a cap of three wishes. God’s words sound less like a question and more like a test.

“Ok, Solomon. You have my ear. Ask what I should give you.”

If you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? I suppose that depends on where your priorities are. Protection of land? Protection of culture? Possession of other lands and other cultures? Accumulating riches and status? Such things are fear and greed driven. Solomon, at this point, is not driven by these desires.

This scene from King Solomon’s life is a model for right leadership, according to the spirit of its author.

First thing’s first: Solomon loved God. How? He worshiped the Lord alone and did so appropriately.

Second we learn that a wise ruler will wait to act until he or she has heard from God.

Having heard from God, the leader will obey. Having done so, success awaits. On the flipside, disobeying God thus leads to trouble not only for the ruler, but the institution the ruler serves, and more trouble for those being ruled over.

The alternative readings in this stretch of the lectionary seem to have a theme of listening (Isaiah 55, 1 Kings 19:9-18). In order to live well, in order to walk with God, in order to grow and prosper, we must love and listen to God.

Solomon asks for discernment. Discernment? How do our congregations hear that word? Perhaps spiritual direction is a better term. Or wisdom. Or intimacy with God’s heart. Why? In order to lead the people God has entrusted him, Solomon had to know God’s heart. Perhaps it was this gift of discernment that allowed Solomon to blossom as a poet and author of great wisdom for Israel, so that “People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:34a).

Preachers can claim that the posture of Solomon is not one reserved for leaders of the nations or leaders of the church, for that matter. For example, this is the prayer of the mother who, in the midst of two screaming toddlers, closes her eyes and calls on God to reveal to her how best to care for these little ones under her care. How often do we close our eyes and ask God for wisdom in the midst of our days? Preachers may want to explore how in the priesthood of all believers, all should seek to pray as Solomon prayed: for understanding, the ability to discern between good and evil. And then to be obedient to that vision as it is revealed, for listening and obedience are one in the same in the Bible.1 If you think you are listening to God, but are not obeying, you’re just hearing things — in one ear and out the other.

This text is part of the Deuteronomistic History, reflected in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings.2 In these books, leaders and characters succeed when living into Mosaic law — specifically Deuteronomy 17:14-20.

A ruler will prosper so long as he avoids acquiring too much “silver and gold … in great quantity for himself.” So long as the king reads the law “all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God,” all will be fine. So long as the king does not exalt “himself above other members of the community” nor turn aside from “the commandment … he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.” So long as the king does not give into a culture of excess and oppressive power over his fellow covenant people, all will be well in the promise land. So long as the Lord is Israel’s one and only God, the reign will hold (Deuteronomy 6:4).

But of course, Solomon is the last king to reign over the united monarchy, over North (Israel) and South (Judah).3 Scholars believe these texts were written not for the sake of historical record, but for a theological accounting of the trauma of exile.4 Preachers can remind the congregation that when trauma occurs in individual lives or communal lives, it is human impulse to go back in our timelines to search for cause.

Solomon gifted God and God’s people with the temple. But eventually, even Solomon gave into the lures of royal excess and the worship of other gods (preachers, be wary of casting blame on the “many foreign women” King Solomon loved 1 Kings 11:1). And so, the power and authority of the monarchy in God’s plan for Israel began to crumble.

Preachers will need to be wary of conveying a karmic sort of version of Christianity out of this text: if we obey God, then we succeed. This is the mantra of the Prosperity Gospel that runs rampant today. At the same time, many have experienced the gift of hearing God’s heart for our lives and the fruit of obeying that call. In the midst of cultural transition and transformation, the words of 1 Kings can bring us hope: loving God and seeking the wisdom of God brings life and builds up God’s people.


1. Fred B. Craddock. Craddock on the Craft of Preaching (ed. Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks; Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2011), 6.

2. Robert R. Wilson. “1 Kings,” in The HarperCollins Study Bible Fully Revised and Updated (ed. Harold W. Attridge; San Francisco, CA: 2006), 474.

3. Rainer Albertz. Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E. (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 286.

4. Walter Brueggemann. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 146.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28

Beth L. Tanner

The story of Abraham’s family continues this week with Jacob.

After fooling his father taking his older brother’s birthright, he decided to get out of town and head to the land of his ancestors. During his last night in Canaan, he dreamed of a blessing from God on his offspring (last week’s Alternate 1st Reading in the Revised Common Lectionary). This week, he arrives in “the land of the people of the east,” meets Rachel, and is taken to his uncle, Laban.

The focus text for this week is Jacob’s deal with Laban for the hand of Rachel. However, Laban tricks Jacob and gives him Leah instead. One can ponder how Jacob did not notice his bride was a different woman, but the text does not speculate how Laban pulled off the switch. Nor does it indicate how Leah felt as Jacob is tricked and then makes another deal to work an additional seven years for her younger sister, Rachel. We also do not know what Leah and Rachel thought all of this. The women are completely silent in the narrative.

If we only consider the main characters, Jacob and Laban, one could argue that Jacob gets what he deserves. He cheated his brother out of his birthright and then runs away only to be cheated by his uncle. This family is not living up to the high hopes God ordained in promises given to Abraham. Abraham allowed Sarah to be given to other men twice in his narrative, followed by Rebecca and Jacob’s treachery, and finally Laban in the marriage of Jacob. The Gospel is hard to find here as we learn about this family of promise because of their history.

But when we consider the women, the news gets worse. First as noted above, the women do not speak. They are part of the deal. They are property. They are forced to marry the same man and compete for his favor in the birthing of the children. This in and of itself would be hard enough. But there is another difficult chapter for these women. Genesis 29:17 reads “Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful (NRSV).” The NIV follows the older tradition and states “Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” The Hebrew word describing Leah’s eyes is unclear, and both meanings are possible. The meaning of the sentence is further complicated with choice of the conjunction “but” (NIV; other translations use “and”). This choice of words sets Rachel as a direct contrast to her older sister. The final nail is the choice of “beautiful figure” for Rachel (Hebrew is “beautiful appearance”). As a child, I was told Rachel was beautiful, and Leah was plain or even ugly. The text, of course, does not say this overtly. But poor Leah has been maligned as the lesser sister for centuries (see the Michelangelo statues of the two in the San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome). The message I received as a child was that the beautiful sister was favored and the “ugly” one will only be married if the man is tricked into it. So again, Gospel is hard to find here because God is hard to find. Jacob worships God and he is faithful throughout his life, but God does not show up and fix what this family has broken. Nor does God intercede in sexist views of the two sisters. This story displays both overt sin in the acts of Jacob and Laban and corporate sin in the sexism that not only makes women property but then judges them on their appearance.

It is easy to sit in judgment of Jacob and Laban. We can sit comfortably on a Sunday morning and condemn their actions and their culture and thank God we have evolved. But that would mean we miss the point of the narrative completely. They are not “them.” They are us. We are far from perfect. Families are messy and often broken. We hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally. We act in our own best interest and against the greater good of others. We forget to ask those with less power about decisions that impact their lives. To look on this family is to look straight into human brokenness. To look on the culture is to hold up a mirror to our world that still judges individuals on their appearance and treats women as less than men.

So, is there a Gospel message this week? Yes, it is the same one found in Esther, a book that never mentions God. The Bible tells the story of the family of Abraham and Sarah, warts and all. It is not cleaned up to impress the neighbors or provide unobtainable role models for moral living. They are faithful and sinful. They are blessed by God and cursed by their actions. Their culture is on display in this text, and it has a good dose of corporate sin in its sexism and treatment of those with less power.

Psalm 105:1-11 places this story in the proper perspective. “O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples” (Psalm 105:1); “He is mindful of his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant” (Psalm 105:8-9). God is praised for God’s faithful and everlasting covenant to the very people in this narrative. Gospel is present because God keeps God’s promises to a sinful humanity. God is faithful when we are busy managing our lives. God is faithful even when God is not overtly part of the narrative. God loves the broken families of the world. God loves so much God will send his son to “the sons of Israel” and by extension, to us.


Commentary on Psalm 119:129-136

Jason Byassee

There is an ancient and venerable teaching in the church on the word of God.

It has three forms. The first in importance (though not in time) is the word of God enfleshed. Protestants tend to forget this, thinking first of the word of God in the Bible. But that is the second and derivative form of the word of God. Ours is a biblical faith, but it is only insofar as the bible bears witness to the word in Mary’s womb. Third, and this is most staggering of all, the word of God is the word of the preacher.

Now sit under the weight of that for a moment. We may think we just dashed off a Saturday night special, caught between too much to do and not enough creativity. We’re keenly aware of the folks who just barely got there that morning who wonder why they did, of those staying as far away as possible, and those whom God adores but who would never come near the door of the church. It may feel limp or even dead as it leaves our lips. But that’s the very word of God — the same word fleshed in Jesus and attested in scripture. It always looks and feels foolish. Actually it’s the hinge of history and the heart of the world.

Psalm 119 luxuriates in the word, the decrees, the ordinances, and the law of God. It is not a psalm of half measures or cool reserve. The psalmist longs for God like a ferociously thirsty dog pants for water — slobber everywhere, heavy breathing, sucking the bowl dry (verse 131). The psalmist laments other people’s sins, and of course also her own (verse 136). Sin is not an occasion for blame or shame or gossip, but for tears. They are, as the Orthodox Church has long taught, like a second baptism, a cleansing — there’s a reason you feel better after a good cry. The psalmist asks for God’s face to shine on her the way Aaron asks for God’s face to shine on those whom he blesses in the famous passage Numbers 6:22-27. The shining face of God is what calls all things from non-existence to existence, from selfish sin to abundant and self-giving life.

The powerful images keep rolling over us readers and pray-ers. As a preaching professor I teach students to choose one image and let it carry the freight of the sermon. Wise teachers like Paul Scott Wilson have shown that the human ears can only hear one image at a time.1 Pile them up and they become a train wreck. But scripture doesn’t get the memo. They rain down in quick succession. “Unfold” your word God — when we teach, God is actually unpacking treasures, laying them out for display, delighting in the onlookers’ oohs and aahs (verse 130). “Turn” to us the psalmist asks (verse 132), in perhaps her boldest request. The desire is for God’s full presence, the very light of God’s face.

God had made clear to Moses that none of us could see God’s face. Moses seeing God’s backside makes his face shine so brightly the people demand a cover — don’t irradiate us God, we can’t stand the full voltage of your presence.2 And yet the psalmist here asks for full blast dosage. The Sinai covenant, in one way, isn’t forefronted in Psalm 119. In another way, it is implicitly present throughout this section, verses 129-136. The details of the Torah are not spelled out in this massive psalm — which had ink enough to spare if it wanted to go into the details of the law. Rather the law is delighted in.

This is the God whose women celebrated a triumph at the side of the Sea (Exodus 15), the God who liberates from slavery (verses 133-134). Too much of our faith seems dutiful, joyless, desiccated and anemic. Psalm 119 shows us a faith that is about delight, with blood and water pumping through to overflowing, full of saliva and tears, shining faces and redeemed slaves.

The psalm portion concludes with several mentions of slavery. We know who God is — the one who sets people free. This is not about long past history — activists have shown that tens of millions of people live in slavery in our world today, bound by an economic system that prizes low prices above all and petty tyrants who physically restrain and economically shackle. It often looks like slaveholders have nothing to fear. If there is no God, that is. God, Robert Jenson says, is whoever raised Israel from Egypt and Jesus from the dead. You know the presence of this God by broken shackles and rolled away stones. And you know this God’s servants by the wrists and ankles formerly rubbed raw suddenly liberated.

Jon Levenson is one of our finest Hebrew Bible scholars. He wrote an essay on the Exodus some decades ago that quibbled with liberation theology, which was then in an early ascent.3 Exodus is often drawn upon as the key image of liberation. He pointed out that the Lord liberates Israel from slavery to Pharaoh not in order to make them free, masterless, self-governing. No, God liberates Israel to make them slaves…to Yahweh. We have to serve somebody, as Bob Dylan once crooned. The Lord who asks us to serve and will not make us do so against our will has a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. Jesus learned such language from places like Psalm 119, which describes the law in similar terms. Sure, it’s a burden, it’s not convenient, it’s not what we would have designed if we were God.

But it is the lightest yoke there is.


1. The Four Pages of a Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999).

2. For real — look it up, Exodus 33:18-34:9.

3. Jon Levenson The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:26-39

Israel Kamudzandu

In desperate moments, the human soul raises the following question: Whom should I call?

It is indeed applicable to call Romans 8:1- 39; the 9-1-1 of every Christian believer because the entire chapter is indeed a prayer template, one to be used at any given moment by all those who believe in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

In Romans 8:26-27 Paul returns to the first characteristic of humanity’s hope elaborated in Romans 1-11. The transition of the human soul into what Paul calls, “in Christ,” through baptism, is guaranteed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit whose sole responsibility is to continue absolving, praying, regenerating, and forgiving the human soul torn between the life in the flesh and spirit. Therefore, in moments of human desperation and on the crossroads of life, God’s breath is always at work, whispering, directing, and sustaining hopeless lives (Romans 8:26-27). The Advocate promised by Jesus in John is consistently operating within the interior of believers, propelling them to new heights in seasons of sliding backwards.

In compelling faith terms, Paul offers Christian believers a solid ground for their confidence in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The inarticulate moans or groans of the Holy Spirit are not oriented to the human conscience but they are directed to God on behalf of a believing faith community. This is comforting to Christian communities because the intercession is for individual believers in the worshipping community who are incapable and devoid of the language to communicate effectively with God. The reality is that human beings run out of words, especially in moments of sickness, death, hunger, poverty, and whenever life confronts us with pain.

In some way, Paul is asking the question: “Do we know how to pray and what to pray for when we are on the crossroads of life?” The answer to this question is that no one knows, and therefore we rely on the Holy Spirit. Whether we teach people how to pray or not, Romans 8:26-27 is a call to believe in the intercession of the Holy Spirit — this truth is no longer held in most denominations. As a result, the Holy Spirit is treated like an artifact in a museum. What a blessing and an encouragement to know that the Holy Spirit prays for Christian believers. This should not be a surprise to pastors and lay Christians because the Holy Spirit is Jesus himself and we know that Jesus had a track record of prayer life and miracles, as recorded in the Gospels.

Similarly, church leaders and lay Christian leaders should be moved to pray because the disciples of Jesus were moved to pray. On the crossroads of life, especially in Matthew 26:38 and following, Jesus set an example in Gethsemane and prayed to God. I am confident that when Paul wrote this part of the letter; he had vivid memories and imaginations of Jesus at prayer and so he exhorts Christians with these deep spiritual words in verses 26-28. It is crucial for church leaders to know that in times of deciding on tough issues of faith the Holy Spirit is always at work: interceding, and testifying for the church before God. Our response should be belief in what God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit will do on behalf of the church. Without the Holy Spirit, the journey of Christian perfection becomes a daunting task and so Paul, the Jewish convert to Christianity, uses his religious upbringing which was on the imperfection of the human family. Thus, Paul implores the Holy Spirit to invade the human being who longs to be in a faith relationship with God.

Because of the inability of persons to perfect themselves, God in providential fashion provides the Holy Spirit to fulfill God’s creation plan. Many theologians have misunderstood the word predestination, but in this chapter, Paul uses the concept in reference to God’s original intent: the salvation of humanity. In other words, salvation is not ours but rather, it is located in God’s five-fold plan, which is: “called, provided, acquitted, justified and glorified.” (Romans 8:30). Thus, the journey of Christian perfection is conceived by God stretching from conception to eternity.

In our loss of language in terms of what to say to God the Holy Spirit has direct access to God; the communication that happens between the two spiritual realms is done on behalf of a believer. What Paul implies behind these verses is that the human being is incapable of comprehending God’s power and therefore they fail to appreciate God fully. Even when we fall short of acknowledging and comprehending God’s power the Holy Spirit continues to intercede for all believers.

This is a mysterious role. The function and work of the Holy Spirit remains opaque to many people, including clergy. It is probably true that in moments of our human pain and our prayers; the Holy Spirit sighs within us, through us, and for us, enabling us to have peace of mind, soul and heart. It is this calmness of heart, mind and soul that needs to be taught to all believers who find themselves in doubting moments, especially when walking through the valley of desperation and challenges.

The last verses of Romans 8:28-39 bring to a close Paul’s gospel message and the place of the Holy Spirit. This seems to be an envelope structure where both the Gospel and the Holy Spirit overshadow the Christian believer in ways that can only be perceived through faith. As objects of God, human beings are meant for salvation and what that does is to unleash the believer into salvific actions into the world. With salvation secured, the believer is called into action and that action includes love, kindness, patience, gentleness, forgiveness, and humility. These are what Christian teachings call the “fruits of the Holy Spirit,” as Paul teaches in Galatians 5. Having been prayed for by the Spirit, the Christian is called to live out a spirit-filled life. The entire chapter functions as the 9-1-1 of a Christian and every believer could use Romans 8 as a prayer template because the language Paul uses are indeed a Holy mystery. Thus, being in the Holy Spirit is similar to being in a winning battle whose victory is assured (Romans 8:31-39).

All humans experience frustrations, life challenges, ministry mountains, tragedies, and moments of desperation. Yet, the Apostle Paul assures us that God through the Son and the Holy Spirit has guaranteed victory, and that all can be assured the Sovereign Lord will not let them down. What is called for among all believing Christians is faith, trust, and obedience in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. These three are divine attributes that make the Pentecost a reality and allow it to be an everyday experience.