Lectionary Commentaries for July 16, 2017
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Jennifer T. Kaalund

The role of Jesus as a teacher is emphasized in the Gospel of Matthew.

Here, in Matthew 13 we find the Gospel’s third major teaching unit. Jesus is teaching the crowds in a series of parables. Good teachers often use metaphors or analogies to make complex or abstract ideas easier to understand. Likewise, in this chapter, through a series of parables Jesus teaches his followers about the kingdom (basilea) of heaven, a complex idea. The first of seven parables is the parable of the seed and the sower.

The setting of this parable is remarkable. Jesus goes to sit by a lake and the crowd follows him. He gets into a boat to sit down. It is not clear what Jesus’ intention for leaving the house and going to the sea might have been — perhaps he was hungry or maybe he simply wanted some peace and quiet. It is also possible that the wide, open space could better accommodate the crowd. The change in scenery is noteworthy because it emphasizes the large crowd. This is an important consideration because the gospel writer later makes a distinction between what Jesus teaches the crowd and what he further explains to his disciples. This parable is clearly told to the large crowd.

By the lake, Jesus tells the crowd about a sower whose seeds fall into various places. Some seeds fall on the path and are eaten by birds (13:4). Other seeds fall on rocky ground, spring up and die quickly because they do not have roots (13:5). Other seeds fall among the thorns and the thorns choke them (13:7). Finally, some seeds fall on good soil and yield fruit (13:8). Jesus ends the parable saying: “The one having ears, let that one hear” (13:9). This translation seems to better capture the prophetic articulations of Elijah and others prophets that precede Jesus who made the similar pronouncements. Jesus, like the prophets, communicates that physically hearing the words is not enough. Discernment or the ability to hear spiritually is necessary to understand this teaching. But what does it mean to hear spiritually?

Hearing spiritually is related to the concept of deep listening. Deep listening is the idea that we listen with compassion. We listen to understand and finally we listen with intention, specifically the intention to act. In other words, to open one’s ears is to open one’s heart. In fact, the Greek word eisakouo can be defined as to hear, to heed, or to obey. Just as a teacher may instruct his/her students to listen closely because the material can be on the test; Jesus ends the parable by telling the crowd to listen not only to understand, but also to act on the teaching, to obey, and in this particular case, to participate in the manifestation of God’s kingdom on the earth.

For the ancient audience, like many of us today, perhaps this parable seems self-explanatory — a sower sows seed and depending on where they fall, there will be various yields. That is, good seed plus good soil results in a harvest. Both parts of the equation are necessary for a yield. However, what is important to notice here is that even in good soil, the increase differs. The gospel writer states: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (13:8). The yield of the seeds that fell into the good soil in this example is noteworthy. The increases that Jesus describes are supernatural. Any farmer or sower would be pleased with these outcomes. There must be another factor that influences the harvest in addition to the soil and the seeds.

Growing up near my grandparent’s farm, I understand the importance of both good seed and good soil. However, what can often be overlooked is the sower. My grandmother and dad had what some call “green thumbs.” They knew how to nurture the soil and the seed and could in many cases grow plants where they seemed unlikely to thrive. And so, an equally important part of the equation is the sower.

Unlike the crowd by the sea, we have the benefit of knowing the deeper meaning of this parable. Jesus further explains the parable to his disciples in Matthew 13:18-23. Jesus clarifies that the seeds that fell on the path and were eaten by birds is: “when anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches it away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path” (13:19). So from this explanation we can deduce that the heart is the soil and the seed is the word of the kingdom. But why does Jesus offer this explanation to his disciples and not to the crowd? I would suggest that it is because the disciples are the sowers. Jesus concludes his explanation to the disciples: “But as for what was sown into good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (13:23). The sower plants into good soil not knowing what the yield may be.

The disciples, as the sowers, would have the word of God. Through the preaching of the gospel, they share the word of God, the good news of coming of God’s basilea or God’s reign. The sower must share the good news with everyone. When the sower’s seed (the rightly divided gospel) takes root in good soil (pure hearts), the fruit produced is the people of God hearing, understanding, and obeying the word of God. The role of an effective teacher, or preacher for that matter, cannot be underestimated. They, too, can produce a harvest in unlikely places. This is most clearly exemplified by the master teacher, Jesus. Jesus’ teachings continue to provoke us to act righteously thousands of years later.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:10-13

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Second Isaiah begins with the word “Comfort!” in 40:1.

Through the following fifteen chapters the prophet creates a vivid, expansive vision of what comfort will mean for the exiles of Judah and assures them that it is coming soon. Restoration and renewal are germinating just under the surface of the earth: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth (literally “sprouts”), do you not perceive it?” the prophet challenges in 43:19. Isaiah 55:10-13 is the concluding word of Second Isaiah, and it echoes the promises of the earlier chapters, declaring that these promises will be as life-giving for the exiles as the rain and the snow are for the earth. 

Using the natural imagery of verses 10-13, the prophet expresses both the thrill as well as the inevitability of the people’s approaching redemption. Verses 10-11 describe the work of the word of God in terms of the way precipitation works when it falls to earth. The NRSV translation uses the participles “making” and “giving” in verse 10 which communicate the ongoing action of the rain/word of God: “For just as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower…so shall my word be…” The word of God has come down from heaven, already it is working steadily, accomplishing what it was sent to do. It is only a matter of time before the signs of the people’s restoration will appear. Restoration is as inevitable as the sprouting of greenery after rainfall. 

In the second half of the reading, verses 12-13, the prophet continues to draw from the imagery of the natural world, but in this case the natural world displays human characteristics. Mountains and hills are singing; trees are clapping their hands. The participation of the natural world in the restoration of the people is a thread that runs throughout Second Isaiah. We don’t see trees clapping elsewhere in the book, rather, the natural world serves as the stage on which the glory of God will be revealed (40:3-5). In a striking scene from 41:17-20, the non-human creation is renewed and transformed from a wilderness to an Edenic landscape, and 55:13 recalls that scene of transformation: “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle…” All of creation experiences and benefits from the revelation of God’s glory. Even the other nations are blessed when God’s blessing is poured out on the exiles (42:10-13). 

There are many directions one might take in preparing to preach on this rich poetic text. Considering the epistle and gospel readings for this Sunday, my suggestion would be to focus on the over-abundance of God’s blessing. In the parable of the sower, God appears as an irresponsible steward of the seed, scattering the seeds of redemption even where they don’t have a hope of sprouting. In Isaiah, God’s act of redeeming a small group of exiles will transform the entire world. We might read this as both a cause of great rejoicing as well as humility. God’s desire to bless and re-create is mind boggling in its immensity and power. Before such a God, our imaginations are alight with wonder and joy, not only for ourselves, but for all of God’s creation. 

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

In the reading for this week, one of the most important individuals in Genesis comes on the scene.

Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah, dominates the next thirteen chapters of the book and he continues to be a major figure in the story of his son Joseph. Jacob’s story occupies fully half of the whole book of Genesis.

Especially compared to his father Isaac, Jacob is a fully-realized, complicated, very human character. The stories about Isaac portray him primarily in passive relationship to those around him — he is nearly sacrificed in chapter 22, a wife is found for him in chapter 24, and he is duped by his wife and son in chapter 27. It is to Rebekah, not Isaac, that God reveals the future of their sons (chapter 25). And, perhaps most notably, it is from Jacob/Israel, not Isaac (and not Abraham) that the nation takes its name.

Jacob, in contrast to his father, is anything but passive in his relationships. His conflict with his twin brother Esau begins even in the womb, where they wrestle with one another. When they are born, Jacob comes out holding on to Esau’s heel. Hence his name, Jacob (ya’aqov), which shares the same Hebrew root as ‘aqav, meaning “heel.” (The same root can also mean “to supplant” or “to cheat.”)

The name works in English as well as in Hebrew. Jacob is indeed something of a “heel.” He is a trickster, a man who schemes and plots, always looking for the advantage; in these chapters, the advantage particularly over his twin brother Esau.

The second half of the reading for this week (25:27-34) exhibits the character of both brothers. Jacob schemes and wins his brother’s birthright by coercion, while Esau gives it up for nothing more than a bowl of lentil stew. Esau is a man of the open country, a hunter, a man of strong appetites and a hot temper; he is perhaps not the brightest bulb on the tree. When he is hungry, he thinks of nothing but his stomach. After hunting all day, he comes upon Jacob and his bubbling pot of lentil stew and says, in very rough Hebrew, “Let me gobble up some of this red, red stuff, for I am famished” (25:30). Jacob sees the opportunity to take what is not his, but the narrator has no sympathy for Esau: “He ate and drank and rose and departed and thus Esau despised his birthright” (25:34).

This scene, while telling, is just a foretaste of what follows in chapter 27, the story of Jacob and Rebekah fooling blind Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob rather than to Esau. That story hinges on the promise of God to Rebekah that the older brother will serve the younger one (25:23), though the means of fulfilling that promise, a task Rebekah and Jacob take into their own hands, are less than admirable.

The stealing of the blessing (chapter 27) is more significant in the whole narrative than the bargaining over the birthright, but the story of the stealing of the blessing is not included in this series of lectionary readings, perhaps because of its length. The preacher, though, would be well-advised to talk about this more significant story this week or next. (Next week’s reading picks up the story after Jacob steals the blessing.)

In both stories, Jacob grasps and takes that which is not by right his. The birthright (bekora) is the inheritance. Later, in Deuteronomy 21:15-17, the law states that the firstborn son gets a double share of the inheritance. It is a law like this that seems to be at play here in Genesis 25. Esau, as the firstborn, gets two-thirds of Isaac’s wealth, while Jacob is left with one-third. At least, that is the case until Esau sells the birthright to his brother for a pot of stew.

In the story of chapter 27, Esau is to receive the blessing (baraka) from his father. It is not clear whether the blessing comes to him because he is the eldest or because he is his father’s favorite (25:28). In either case, this, too, Jacob acquires by deceit and cunning. And Esau responds with justified anger, “Is he not rightly called Jacob (ya’aqov)? For he has supplanted me (ya’qeveni) these two times. He took away my birthright (bekora); and look, now he has taken away my blessing (baraka)” (27:36).

This particular baraka is the promise of God passed down from Abraham to Isaac and now to Jacob: many descendants (28:3), the land of Canaan (28:4), and the bearing of blessing (“cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you” (27:29). These are the things promised to Abraham at the beginning of the family saga back in chapter 12. It is the taking of the bekora and the baraka from Esau that precipitates the family rupture and Jacob’s flight from Esau’s rage (27:41), a story that will be told next week.

This week, as Jacob enters the scene, the challenge for the preacher is to introduce him without making his story a morality tale. Jacob is neither a moral exemplar nor a villain. He is a complicated figure. The narrator here at the beginning of his story describes him as tam, a word that means something like “whole” or “complete,” a person of integrity (25:27). Most English translations translate tam here to mean “civilized” or “quiet,” because it is difficult to describe Jacob as a man of integrity.

Ellen Davis interprets tam as “perfect or loyal service” or a constant awareness of God. Jacob displays that essential religious quality of being obsessed with God’s blessing, mediated through the blessing of his father Isaac. Jacob is obsessed throughout his life with that blessing, “which he can never possess as fully as it possesses him.”1

Jacob is not an admirable figure, at least not here at the beginning of his story. But he is one who is singularly focused on obtaining the blessing of God passed down from his grandfather Abraham. And his focus on that blessing will shape the rest of his life. The blessing will bring wealth and children, but it will also mean exile, loss, and sorrow. The next several weeks’ readings will tell the story of this man and trace the path of the blessing in his life, as he continues to wrestle with other people and, of course, with the God who knew him before he was born.


1. Ellen F. Davis, “Job and Jacob: The Integrity of Faith,” in Reading Between Texts, ed. Danna Nolan Fewell (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992)  212. In the Bible, Job and Jacob are both called tam.


Commentary on Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13

Scott Shauf

When one surveys Psalm 65 as a whole, what is most striking is the breadth of the psalm’s subject matter.1

It begins with praise to God in Zion (verse 1), a setting which continues through verse 4. Even here the topics of praise are varied, including prayer being answered (verse 2), sins being forgiven (verse 3), and the blessedness of dwelling with God (verse 4). Verse 5 turns briefly to God’s mighty acts of deliverance but then quickly moves to “the ends of the earth” and “the farthest seas.” This global setting stays in view through verse 8, asserting God’s might with references to the mountains (verse 6), the seas and the “tumult of peoples” (verse 7), and the farthest points east and west (verse 8).

Verses 9-13 maintain the focus on the earth, but the emphasis moves from God’s might to God’s bounty in the harvest, which is described in lavishly descriptive language. This lavishness might well be said to be the unifying force throughout the psalm. The descriptions of the earth are almost mythical sounding throughout. This mythical quality, combined with the exclusively beneficent description of God’s dealings with humankind that pervade the psalm, gives the attentive reader or hearer an overwhelming sense of the life-giving presence of God.

The psalm begins by asserting the praise due to God in Zion (verse 1). In its literal sense, Zion refers to the Jerusalem temple mount, and then by extension to the temple itself. Given the references to God’s house and temple in verse 4, it may well be that the psalmist had in mind God’s special presence in the Jerusalem temple. On the other hand, the beginning of verse 4 might suggest a less literal meaning: “Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.” That sounds more like the heavenly dwelling of God than the earthly temple.

Verse 2 also includes the statement, “To you all flesh shall come.” Given the difficulty of associating this expansive hope with the Jerusalem temple today, it makes sense for Christians reading this psalm to think of the heavenly Zion/temple when engaging the psalm in worship. After all, this move is made in the New Testament itself (see Hebrews 12:22), and there is a long tradition in Christian worship of associating Zion with heaven and the eschaton (as in the line from the spiritual, “Children of God, we are marching to Zion”).

Whichever Zion one thinks of, the relations of God to humans expressed in these verses are gracious and merciful. God is identified as the one who answers prayer (verse 2) and forgives transgressions even when they are overwhelming (verse 3). To live in God’s presence is to experience blessedness and goodness (verse 4, translating the Hebrew ‘ashrey as “blessed,” preferable to the NRSV’s “happy”). God is the God of salvation and deliverance (verse 5). God is the “hope of all the ends of the earth” (verse 5), which is no doubt the reason for all flesh coming to God (verse 2).

It is the reference to the ends of the earth in verse 5 that commences the broadening of the locus of God’s presence in the psalm. God is the hope not only of the ends of the earth, but also of “the farthest seas.” Verse 6 then asserts God’s establishment of the mountains, and verse 7 tells of God’s silencing of “the roaring of the seas” and “the tumult of the peoples.” The combination of using the verb “roaring” with the seas and the juxtaposition of the seas with the peoples gives the seas a personified animation. Commentators frequently note the echo here of the common ancient near-eastern theme of the victory of the gods over the chaotic seas. The chief difference here, as in the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1:6-10), is that God’s control over the seas is total; there is not even a will to resist on the part of the seas.

Just as the seas are personified in verse 7, so are the “gateways of the morning and the evening” in verse 8b. This is a reference to the farthest eastern and western points on the earth, hence a poetic expression for the ends of the earth already referred to in verse 5 and verse 8a. Whereas the roaring seas are silenced in verse 7, here the “gateways” are made to “shout for joy.” This continues the theme of God’s beneficence established at the beginning of the psalm, and it is this beneficence combined with the animated personification of nature that depicts God’s presence as powerful, gracious, and life-giving in the psalm. The dangerous features of nature are pacified, and the rest of nature comes to life with joyful exuberance.

The animated richness of nature provided by the divine presence dominates the psalm in verses 9-13. Verses 9-10 celebrate the gift of water, which provides people with grain, shapes the earth, and causes life to grow. For an ancient agrarian people living in a dry land, this blessing was no doubt better understood and more appreciated than it is for most Christians today. The personification trend continues in verse 11a, as the year is “crowned” with God’s bounty.

Verse 11b will strike many readers as curious: “your wagon tracks overflow with richness.” The exact nature of the symbolism here is debated — it perhaps pictures God riding across the earth in a chariot — but, whatever the case, the point is that where God goes, richness abounds. God’s presence is life and abundance. Verses 12-13 close the psalm with a series of further personifications: The pastures, hills, meadows, and valleys all clothe themselves with appropriate bounty, and they all “shout and sing together for joy.”

Psalm 65 thus depicts a world alive with the bounty and glory of God. While many scholars believe that its original use was for thanksgiving celebrations at harvest time, its possible applications today are many. With its wide-ranging portrayal of an undefiled, joyful creation, along with peoples delivered, at peace, and praising God, it provides a vision counter to what we tend to see in the world today.


1 Commentary first published on this site on July 10, 2011

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:1-11

Israel Kamudzandu

Beneath and embedded in Paul’s letter to the Romans is the ferment of the empowerment of a new life brought about by God’s unconditional love.

The nature of God’s love is manifested in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — this love is given full potency by the presence and wonder-working power of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus in John 14:26. Paul’s message in Romans 8:1-11 is focused on calling believers to have a personal experience of the Holy Spirit and to anchor their lives in the promised “advocate or counselor,” (John 14: 26). Thus, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, believers are propelled to live out liberated lives, free from the “condemnation,” by evil worldviews. Preaching and teaching on spiritual rebirth is always needed and pastors must not have an oversight on the power and presence of the Holy Spirit within the church and among church members.

In Romans 7:14-25, the apostle Paul paints a graphic description of the tension between humanity’s ego and the Holy Spirit; of which he exhorts believers to choose a life of the spirit. The tension Paul portrays needs to be acknowledged because the human condition is indeed characterized by an in-between worldview. However, conversion is a much-needed process of every Christian believer. While good and evil dwell in the believer, Paul calls on believers to pray for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who brings health, security and transformation to the human condition (Romans 8: 1-39). Therefore, what we have in Romans 8:1-11 is Paul’s teaching about the power of the Holy Spirit in offering humanity a new life in Christ.

Being born of the spirit is not a case of being liberal or conservative but is the only way human beings can become transformed persons on their journey to becoming citizens of the Kingdom of God. In some way, Romans 8:1-11 is Paul’s theological defense of everything that Christ accomplished on the Cross to eradicate humanity from the power of the law into the power of the Holy Spirit. From this life of the Holy Spirit, “nothing can separate the believer.”

The message of new birth must be preached in today’s world; especially in main line denominations where a decline in membership has caused closure of some congregations that were once vibrant and life-giving centers of spiritual growth and transformation. Spiritual rebirth should be the position of every Christian believer, because standing in the church does not depend on past life but on what the Holy Spirit continues to do. The Cross of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the two partners accompanying believers on their salvation journey.

I am convinced that through the power of the Holy Spirit believers are drawn into a reconciled relationship with God and one another. Pauline theology cautions people not to focus on lives centered on gratifying the flesh because this will lead to spiritual death. Instead, Paul’s theology focuses more on a two-fold goal of the Holy Spirit that is ‘reconciliation and peace.’ In Romans 8:8, Paul sums up his point by emphasizing that life lived to gratify the flesh “cannot please God,” instead, a life grounded in the Holy Spirit assures God’s blessings and divine protection.

My reading and interpretation of Romans 8 is that the ‘flesh,’ is not negative, but like many other God given gifts the flesh must cooperate with the power of the Holy Spirit so that glory will be given to God. In some sense, I am not negating the power of reason and intelligence but am advocating for the central role of the Holy Spirit as Paul teaches us in all his letters. Similarly, clergy must expand their interpretive theological horizons and be able to help parishioners grasp the width, depth and vastness of the teaching role of the Spirit. Among other things; the Holy Spirit opens human minds to new worldviews, insights and strategies. What Paul exhorts believers in this pericope is to be open to the guiding role of the Holy Spirit whose work is to teach, sustain communities of faith, and guide believers along their faith journeys.

In essence, Romans 8:1-39 functions as a model prayer for every believer who finds oneself in challenging situations. Having been indwelt and believing in the Holy Spirit, the adopted believer is invited to enjoy the blessings of God and the victory that proceeds from one’s relationship with God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In other words, Paul in Romans 8:1-11, introduces believers to ‘Trinitarian,’ theology and in particular to the ministry role of the Holy Spirit.

While the word ‘liberation,’ has received a negative connotation, pastors must teach believers a theological understanding of this concept. The Holy Spirit’s function is to open believers to a new age of life possibilities: alternatives and norms of life “in Christ.” Paul is not the one who introduced and framed liberation but Jesus Christ is the one who first mentioned the liberating power of the Gospel in Luke 4:18-19. Therefore, the Holy Spirit has liberating power and the source of this power is God who continues to work in the church and through the believers across the globe. Having argued for the Holy Spirit’s role and function in the life of a believer; I am convinced that Paul was perhaps influenced by the theology we find in the Johannine or the fourth Gospel.

While believers are promised liberation from sin, clergy must also remind Christian communities of the tension that is always at work in the world. The tension cannot be ignored but must always be recognized because the so-called human condition has pressure on both Christians and non-Christians. Simply put, the possibility of being pressured by the flesh is present but the Holy Spirit is always at work quickening the believer to live a gracious life. In some way, the tension we live in must be welcomed because it assists believers to live balanced lives.

All in all, Christians both clergy and parishioners must live prayer-filled lives because without prayer the human condition will indeed dominate and destroy one’s relationship with God. Prayer when framed with the Holy Spirit and coming from one’s heart can set one free from the snares and challenges of this world.