Lectionary Commentaries for July 23, 2017
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Jennifer T. Kaalund

The tagline for the credit card company Capital One asks: “What’s in your wallet?”

The implication is that their credit card should be there. What we carry in our physical wallets can tell a lot about who we are as a person. Where you live, where/how you spend your money, organizations to which you belong can all be determined by what is in your wallet. Similarly, in the parable of the weeds, it seems that Jesus is asking the crowd — What’s in your spiritual wallet? There is a choice to be made and Jesus’ teaching in this chapter is intended to serve as an advertisement for the kingdom of God.

The parable of weeds is the second parable in Jesus’ third teaching unit in the Gospel of Matthew.

As with the parable before and those that follow, Jesus employs this genre to teach his followers about the kingdom (basilea) of heaven. The kingdom of God is, in fact, the main focus of Jesus’ teaching. Basilea can be translated as kingdom, reign, or rule. However, reference to the kingdom of heaven is unique to the Gospel of Matthew. Many scholars suggest the difference is semantic or a word choice by the gospel writer and essentially the terms mean the same thing. However, given that the writer of Matthew uses the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, and simply the kingdom, the writer seems to use the terms to function in different ways (though this does not mean that the fundamental meaning differs).

In this gospel, the kingdom of heaven delineates differences between the realm of God’s kingdom and the kingdom of Roman emperor. As the people in the first century Mediterranean would have experienced it, the emperor’s kingdom is on earth. The kingdom of heaven is where God reigns. The act of Jesus coming into the earth represents the in breaking of the God’s kingdom on the earth. This makes explicit that the gospel, is indeed, a political document. The writer is proposing an alternative understanding of the world, one that would directly oppose the political leaders of his time. As such, clear lines needed to be drawn. Which kingdom will prevail? Whose empire will you participate in?

New Testament scholar Warren Carter suggests that the “divisive impact of God’s empire is central to chapter 13.”1 It is divisive in the sense that one must choose their allegiance — to God or to the emperor. This is attested most clearly in the parable of the weeds. Jesus begins this exposition by telling the crowd: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away” (Matthew 13:24). Immediately, the crowd is alerted to the fact that there is opposition to the kingdom of heaven; there is an enemy who seeks to do harm.

Yet, the establishment of dichotomies is dangerous and has material implications. Dichotomies such as “us versus them” or “body or soul” or “savage versus civilized” or “good versus evil” are examples of the ways in which we attempt to distill our world into two realms. When we reduce our worldview to such sharp contrasts, we often lose the ability to see our collective best interests and common goals. It seems we are witnessing this in our current political environment where similar lines have been drawn — “Republican or Democrat” or “liberals versus conservatives.” Such distinctions often overshadow the shared desire to identify the common good of all citizens and most often result in conflict that can easily escalate into violence.

The solution to the tendency to divide our world into two is found in this parable. Jesus teaches: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:30). The owner of the field understands that once they are together, the weeds and wheat must grow together since the destruction of one can lead to the demise of the other. Likewise, our tendency to split our world into two — “believer or  nonbeliever” or “sinners or saints” — is not useful. We are in this world together, whether this world is the planet, our country, our community, or our congregations, we must grow together and allow the Great Judge, God, to do the separating in God’s own time. We should acknowledge that likewise we need each other to survive.

The parable also elucidates the diversity that can be found in the kingdom of heaven. This field owner has slaves who report to him. He is not a poor peasant farmer; he is a man who owns property and unfortunately, people. It is his slaves who report to him that there are weeds growing in his field and they ask if they should remove the weeds. The parable does not address this power dynamic, though it is important to acknowledge it. Just as we should not split our world into two, we should be careful not to replicate the hierarchical and oppressive system from the kingdom of earth into the kingdom of heaven.

As with the first parable in this teaching unit, Jesus provides further explanation to his disciples. However, this time, he is prompted by them asking him to explain the parable. He tells the disciples: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels” (Matthew 13:38-39). Given this explanation, the harvest belongs to the Son of Man. We are the fruit of Christ’s labor. The angels “collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (13:41-42).” It is important to recognize that actions have consequences. If one sows hatred and discord that is what one will reap.

In Romans 14:17, Paul describes God’s kingdom as righteousness, peace, and joy. In order for us to see a world that can be characterized as such, we must acknowledge that the causes of sin are not simply our personal struggles, but more so our societal ills. For instance, the causes of poverty — war, greed, selfishness, etc. — are sin. It is not for us to judge one another or to separate ourselves from each other. If our spiritual wallet is to contain a license issued by the kingdom of God, we must live peaceably and compassionately with all, recognizing that we (the good and the evil) are necessary for each other’s survival.



1. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2000), 280.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 44:6-8

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Isaiah 44:6-8 occurs in a section of Second Isaiah (chapters 41-44) in which the prophet’s central aim is to remind the people in exile of their identity as God’s own people.

The prophet in these chapters poetically recalls the deep history the people share with God in 41:8; 43:1, 7, 15, 20-21; 44:2, 21, 24, declaring them in these verses to be “chosen,” “formed,” “created,” “redeemed,” “called,” and “named” by God. The prophet even alludes to the negative experiences of the past and references their past sins in 43:25-28, declaring them forgiven in 44:22 (see also the description of Israel as a blind and deaf servant, unresponsive to God, in 42:18-25; 43:8).

By putting the story of their long relationship with God in front of them, the prophet inspires hope for the future. Their God has been with them and has demonstrated power through judgment and mercy for centuries. Can they say that about any other God? “Who has announced from of old the things to come?” God demands in verse 7. With the echoes of God’s devotion to them ringing in the exiles’ ears, they must respond that only their god has demonstrated the power to make the word the deed.

It is clear that on the other side of the affirmation of the power of God is a concomitant rejection of any claims to power by other gods: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (44:6b). If we take a closer look at Isaiah 41-44, we see the gods of the nations put on trial and challenged to prove not only their authority but their very existence.

The prophet has God act as prosecutor of these gods, challenging them in 41:21-24, to bring out their witnesses and their proofs: “Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good or do harm, that we may be afraid and terrified.” Without waiting for a response, God continues, “You, indeed, are nothing and your work is nothing at all…” (verse 24a). In the section that follows 44:6-8, the gods of the nations are verbally reduced to the timber from which their images are constructed (verses 9-20). They are only wood — inert and unable to save themselves and their followers.

The final verse of this reading, verse 8, begins with the command not to fear, the command most frequently spoken by the divine to human beings: “Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses!” The prophet’s two-pronged approach in 44:6-8 — the recollection of the history of Israel and God and the rejection and dismissal of the gods of the nations, is designed to reassure and bolster the confidence of the people. It’s designed so that the people might move into the future with God, full of trust, not crippled by fear.

This text provides a powerful witness to a contemporary congregation living in a time marked by anxiety. These ancient words remind us that we do not go into the future alone or without resources. We are part of a community created and named by God, redeemed and blessed by God, chosen by God to be a “light to the nations” (42:6).

We are not alone. Scripture bears witness to the power and faithfulness of God. We bear witness to that power and faithfulness in our lives as well by moving past fear and practicing trust. God is, indeed, the first and the last. Proclaim with Second Isaiah that this God who was at the first can be trusted to the last

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

Jacob runs from Esau’s murderous rage.

The man who has stolen his brother’s birthright and blessing now has to leave mother and father, home and land, in order to escape with his life.

Jacob is vulnerable, traveling alone, sleeping under the stars. He is traveling far, retracing the steps of his grandfather Abraham, back to the land of Haran, in Mesopotamia. He is sent there by his mother Rebekah, his fellow colluder in the stealing of the blessing from Esau:

“Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away — until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” (Genesis 27:42-45).

Rebekah hopes that Jacob will be gone for only a short time. The phrase translated “a while” is literally, “some days, a few days.” The same phrase is used later in 29:20 when Jacob serves Laban for seven years for Rachel, but “they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”  So Rebekah hopes that Jacob will be gone perhaps just a few years. Then she will send for him, her beloved son. It turns out to be a vain hope. Jacob will actually be gone 20 years, and he will never see his mother again.

But that is all in the future. In the text this week, Jacob is alone, running away from his past and uncertain of what lies before him. And it is here, at his most vulnerable moment, that God speaks to Jacob for the first time:

“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” God gives Jacob God’s name, YHWH (translated as “the Lord”). God also describes himself as the God of Jacob’s grandfather and father though not (yet) the God of Jacob himself. This God has a history with Jacob’s family and is known through those relationships.

The Lord goes on to give Jacob the promise that Jacob already received from his father Isaac, the promise given first to Abraham: land, offspring, and blessing. And then God goes on to promise Jacob even more:

“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15).

It is a very gracious promise, especially given the circumstances. Jacob has cheated his brother and deceived his father and is now running for his life. Yet God promises to be with Jacob, to keep him from harm, and to bring him back home again.

Jacob’s reaction to such a gracious promise is mixed. First, he acknowledges the holiness of the moment and of the place: “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it.… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (28:17).

Jacob then sets up a pillar of rock, and names the place Beth-El: the house of God. But it is worth reading a little further to see what Jacob does next. After God’s gracious, unconditional promise to be with Jacob and to bring him home again, Jacob — ever the schemer — bargains with God:

“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you” (Genesis 28:20-22).

Jacob cannot simply accept or trust God’s promises. God promises, without condition, that God will be with Jacob and will bring him home again, and Jacob says, “If you are with me and bring me home again…then you will be my God.”

It seems that Jacob casts God in Jacob’s own image. Jacob would never make an unconditional promise. Jacob is in it for himself and he cannot comprehend a God who would promise something for nothing, so he schemes and bargains with this God of his fathers. The Lord may be the God of Abraham and Isaac, but Jacob will claim him as God if and only if God protects and prospers him.

Jacob is a complicated figure. On the one hand, he recognizes and commemorates God’s appearing to him. On the other hand, he cannot seem to grasp the magnitude of God’s grace, and so he bargains and wrestles with God just as he bargains and wrestles with every other person in his life.

As noted last week, the preacher would be well-advised not to turn Jacob’s story into a morality tale, a tale about what to do or (more likely) what not to do. This story, after all, is not primarily about Jacob; it is about God. The sermon will be more faithful to the text if, instead of preaching about what we human beings should do or what we have failed to do (Law), the preacher speaks about what God has already done (Gospel).

In this case, what God has already done is to make promises to Abraham (Genesis 12), Isaac (Genesis 26), and now to Jacob. This God makes overwhelmingly gracious promises to a “heel” like Jacob at his most vulnerable moment, as he runs away from home in fear for his life, his troubles entirely of his own making. And, even more than that, God fulfills those promises, as we will learn in the next two weeks.

And though this story is primarily about God and God’s gracious promises, it is worth noting that those promises have an effect on Jacob — self-centered, scheming Jacob. Twenty years after this encounter at Beth-El, as Jacob returns home from Haran, this time accompanied by family and flocks and herds, he prays another prayer. And this time, he does not bargain with God. This time, he acknowledges his own unworthiness and God’s faithfulness, even as he reminds God of God’s promises:

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number’” (Genesis 32:9-12).

There is no “if…then” in this prayer, as in Jacob’s first prayer at Beth-El. Instead, Jacob prays “because…therefore.” Because you, God, are faithful, because you have made these promises…therefore I am trusting you to help me now. The change is not Jacob’s doing, but God’s. God’s gracious promises and God’s faithfulness in fulfilling those promises transforms Jacob from a callow youth to the man who founds a nation, and who, on his deathbed, claims the God “before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked” as also his God, “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day” (Genesis 48:15).

From that moment on in the biblical narrative, this same God will self-identify as “the Lord…the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:15).


Commentary on Psalm 86:11-17

Scott Shauf

Psalm 86 is classified by most scholars as a psalm of individual lament, in which an individual expresses the pain of his present condition and seeks relief from God.1

However, most of the elements of complaint are in the early part of the psalm, with only verse 14 and verse 17 from our selection expressing concern over the psalmist’s circumstances, and even in those places there is no explicit mention of pain that has been experienced. Verses 11-17 thus on their own read more as an expression of commitment based on the experience of God’s past help (verses 12-13, 17) and on the knowledge of God’s character (verses 13, 15-16). The element of petition is still present, however, in the final two verses.

The opening petition, “Teach me your way, O LORD,” expresses a common important sentiment in the psalms (see examples, 25:4 and 27:11). The tacit basis of the petition is that God’s way is not necessarily obvious and hence requires teaching in order to know it. The line that follows, “that I may walk in your truth,” is a statement of commitment. The psalmist and we desire to know God’s way not out of curiosity but so that we may actually live it out. “Truth” is used in the second line not to mean anything different than God’s way but to affirm that God’s way is truth. We might well be reminded at this point of Christ’s claim to be “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The word “life” does not appear in the NRSV’s translation in this passage, but life is certainly an issue in verse 13, and the Hebrew word translated as “soul” in verse 13 is translated “life” in verse 2 (nefesh).

The last line of verse 11 combines the elements of petition and commitment: “Give me an undivided heart to revere your name.” The tacit basis of the petition is again important: Just as the psalmist recognizes that we are in need of teaching, so he recognizes that very often our hearts are divided and thus unable to walk in God’s way. There is not the burden of sin here felt in Psalm 51:10’s plea for God to “create in me a clean heart,” but the sentiment is the same.

The psalmist does not dwell on the need for an undivided heart, for in the very next line he expresses thanks to God “with my whole heart” (verse 12). There is a simple confidence that his prayer for an undivided heart is answered. In fact, there is a bold magnification of the petition from verse 11, because whereas in verse 11 he had asked merely to “revere” God’s name, here in verse 12 his claim is much stronger: “I will glorify your name forever.” Not only has he moved from revering to glorifying, but the addition of “forever” makes the return of thanks all the more fervent. It is as strong a statement of commitment as one can imagine. Can we make the claim our own?

Verse 13 provides the foundation for the thanksgiving, petitions, and commitment expressed in verse 11-12: “For great is your steadfast love toward me.” “Steadfast love” translates the single Hebrew word khesed. The Hebrew meaning is difficult to convey with any single English expression, and thus we see different English Bibles using a variety of translations in different contexts: steadfast love, lovingkindness, love, kindness, mercy, loyalty, favor, devotion, goodness, and still others. The range of translations gives a sense of the broad meaning of the word. For the psalmist here, it is a confession of and proclamation of his fundamental relationship with God, and especially of the blessing he has received from that relationship.

The second half of verse 13 expresses a very concrete benefit of God’s khesed: “You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” In the context of the overall psalm, this probably refers to a deliverance from physical death. Sheol is simply the “the grave” (as it is often translated). Many Christians will think here, however, and appropriately so, of the salvation from spiritual death that is the quintessential example of God’s khesed in their lives. It is the life that walking in God’s way and truth provides.

The reference to God’s khesed is picked up in verse 15 and expanded. Beginning with the word “merciful,” verse 15 is a quote of the fundamental self-revelation of God given to Moses at Mt. Sinai: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). This initial self-revelation expressed Israel’s understanding of the basic nature of its relationship to God, and it is quoted and paraphrased frequently throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Numbers 14:18; Joel 2:13; Psalms 103:8, 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17). Here it forms the basis for the psalmist’s appeal for grace, strength, and salvation in verse 16 and for why he need not fear his enemies referred to in verse 14.

When he appeals to God to “turn to me and be gracious to me” (verse 16), it is his knowledge of the gracious character of God mentioned in the Exodus quote of verse 15 that prompts his plea. Of course, the words “turn to me” also express his feeling of the present absence of God’s grace, a feeling caused by the intentions of his enemies mentioned in verse 14. The feelings of divine absence and abandonment expressed in many of the psalms (in the present psalm, mostly in verses 1-7) often cause believers today a certain amount of discomfort, but they should remind us that it is pointless to hide our true feelings in addressing God — and that there is no need to do so.

Verse 17 closes the psalm with a final petition, a request for a sign of God’s favor. As in verse 16, the petition is based on knowledge of God’s character, but here the psalmist expresses it in terms of his own experience: “because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.” In this sense the psalmist’s petition may be a model for our own prayers to God: Our appeals arise out of our common understanding of God’s character and out of our experience of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to us in the past.


1 Commentary first published on this site on July 17, 2011

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:12-25

Israel Kamudzandu

In Romans 8:1-39, the apostle Paul lays out a Christian framework, one that holds, sustains, and nourishes both clergy and Christian believers, regardless of where they are in their faith in the life of the church.

The framework can easily be called Pentecost, or the living presence of the Holy Spirit in and around the church. Believers, whose life is shaped and transformed by the church, must have personal experiences of the Holy Spirit and all baptized persons should have a longing for Pentecost encounters. If the church is an eschatological faith community, its leaders and members are called to embody this new life through the gift and power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, at some point in the life of clergy and believers, there should be a discontinuity with the life of the flesh in pursuance of the life encapsulated by the Spirit as Paul exhorts in Romans 8:12. With the transformation of believers’ character, comes also a transformation of culture, especially for those who claim to have a relationship with Jesus and are guided by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Congregation members or preachers cannot convert others to Jesus Christ; rather, it is the Holy Spirit that has power to lead people to repentance (John 16:8-11). On the other hand, the role of members and pastors is simply to proclaim the Word of God and leave room for the Holy Spirit to convict, condemn, teach and counsel members of the eschatological faith community. Pastors and Christian educators as well as Sunday school lay teachers must be aware that preaching/teaching during Pentecost seasons is not enough but opportunities must be available for members to learn and be engaged to grow deeper into grasping the role, function, and effects of the Holy Spirit. Paul lays out this responsibility in Romans 8:1-11, that with conversion comes also the freedom to know that the Holy Spirit can effect new change in the life of a believer. Thus, worship times can be great moments of teaching Christian communities about the centrality of the Holy Spirit.

The issue of adoption is also fascinating because the apostle talks about “Christians as children of God” through the Holy Spirit (8:14-17); yet many Christians fail to celebrate this privilege that allows us to be brothers and sisters across cultures, races, nationalities, genders, ethnicities, and even across political divides. During the season of Pentecost, congregations must be reminded of the privilege they have through the through the Holy Spirit in allowing the humanity to be one in faith, with God, Christ, and with one another. The political divide and continental winds of separation may be avoided if the church preaches and teaches about the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit that draws humanity to each other even in times of disagreements. Thus, if we are children and “heirs of God and coheirs with Christ,” churches have an obligation to accept others who are different and to realize our common ground of unity as children of God. I may venture to say that the Holy Spirit allows miracles to happen in the life of believers and that genuine Christian fellowship among different nationalities and ethnicities is indeed a miracle.

A question being raised by Paul in Romans 8: 12-25 revolve around the nature and definition of the church as the family of God. If people continue to preach a gospel of exclusion, how can the church be countercultural and in what ways can the church express the “righteousness of God,” as Jesus challenges disciples in the entire Gospel of Matthew, especially in Matthew 5:20?

As spiritually adopted children of God, the church must exhibit love, kindness, spirituality and holiness in everything it does and the members must strive to live out the life of the Holy Spirit, one that lays out a legacy for others to emulate and follow. Dying or declining congregations and denominations need to reclaim the power of the Holy Spirit or the result will be a permanent death. Practitioners of Christian faith may do well to remember that with the power of the Holy Spirit; there is a new opportunity for church revival and growth and with the teaching and classes on the Holy Spirit; most churches can indeed become Pentecost centers with new life and revitalized spirituality.

Theological education has its place, but the Apostle Paul stresses the importance of listening to the Holy Spirit’s leading as the prerequisite for framing ministry. Being led by the Holy Spirit may also lead one into greater intellectual development and the two seem to be necessary, but education and perhaps even ordination must submit to the Holy Spirit. In times of decline and turmoil caused by seasons of political, economic, and social transitions, believers will be allowed to pass through (8:17-25) and will glorify God in all they do because Jesus glorified God even when he was going through his own suffering, death, and resurrection. The Holy Spirit will always sustain the church and its members, even in times of storms and challenges.

Thus, times of church decline are perhaps moments when believers and church leaders are called to make some connections with Christ’s passion and resurrection. The ministry of the church has to go through suffering because the road to glorification is always through pain, challenges, and groans. It is a blessing to be pregnant but we all know that before giving birth to new life; a mother always goes through pain, lost appetite, sleeplessness, high blood pressure, and struggles with mobility; and yet at the end there is celebration. This too is the life of ministry piloted and done under the patronage of the Holy Spirit.

In sum, Paul brings to mind the struggles of nature and he equates the suffering of the physical worldview with that of humanity. If creation is in travail as Paul claims, the call to Christian believers is that redemption is possible only through God who works for the liberation of God’s creation. The church leadership of this century must not lay blame on economic, political, social, and changing demographics but acknowledge the fact that the Holy Spirit has been archived in libraries rarely visited. Most seminaries do not have a space for spiritual revitalization and as a result pastors graduate from seminary without spiritual vitality. Paul’s claim is that Christian faith communities must be resources for spirituality, grace, and holiness. Similarly, clergy and lay people together must be awakened from what may be a state of spiritual somnolence caused by labels such as liberalism, conservatism, centrism, and post-Christendom syndrome. The Holy Spirit is the power that grows the church, not church consultants or intellectuals.