Lectionary Commentaries for July 9, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Colin Yuckman

Today’s text is really a tale of two passages, each a lesson in confounding expectations.

The string of three weeks of Jesus’ mission discourse ends on the fifth Sunday after Pentecost. By Matthew 11:16, the whole scene has shifted. John the Baptist, now imprisoned, has heard about Jesus and wants to know with certainty that he is Israel’s messiah, so he sends his disciples to ask Jesus directly. What follows from this question about Jesus’ messiahship (11:1-19) centers on the nature of perception: who are John and Jesus?

The crowds appear ready to judge only on the basis of the company these figures keep. John played the part of societal misfit, a throwback prophet whom many supposed was demon-possessed (verse 18). Jesus, on the other hand, associated himself with sinners and tax collectors. Therefore, the crowds concluded, he must be “a glutton and a drunkard” (verse 19). That people are so quick to dismiss a person’s merits on the basis of their perceived “affiliations” is apparently nothing new.

Jesus points out that God’s will has been made known in more than one way, through different kinds of mouthpieces, and yet still isn’t recognized. Jesus’ question is a good one: “What did you come into the wilderness to look at?” (11:7). What are our expectations of a prophet’s vocation or the messiah’s behavior? And how do our expectations, and the little conditions they contain, prevent us from recognizing the will of God in human form?

Of course, these passages remind us precisely of our inability to box Jesus (and John) in, even if, like Peter on the mountaintop (17:4), we are so often ready to build shelters around our understandings of who God’s Son is. Were a savior a mere reflection of the people he saves, we would need to somehow collate a million mirror images. But Jesus points out that divine wisdom defies such categories and is to be judged by deeds not perceptions. As anyone in ministry quickly realizes, there is more than one way to disappoint expectant people!

In the second section of this passage, it is now our expectations of discipleship that are subject to disruption. A noticeable shift in voice and tone occurs in 11:25: “At that time Jesus said…”. The prayer (verses 25-26) and declaration of authority (verse 27) that follow are reminiscent of Jesus’ “high priestly” prayer in John 17. What the crowds could not recognize (verses 16-19) has been revealed to “infants” rather than the “wise and intelligent” (verse 25). In fact, ultimately only the Father rightly perceives the Son (verse 27).

In Matthew’s version (compare to Luke 10:21-22) Jesus adds to this prayer an invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you … and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

These familiar words, recited at commissionings as well as at funerals, strike a new tone. Jesus’ teachings now turn to direct invitation to discipleship. It is tantamount to turning from the narrative world to the reader’s world, what we sometimes call “breaking the fourth wall.” Signaling a kind of turning point in the Gospel, Jesus personally invites us into the drama.

Despite all the warnings about rejection and suffering (10:16-22), Jesus speaks of a discipleship characterized by “rest,” “light” burdens, and an “easy” (or “good”) yoke. Light burdens and easy yokes appear oxymoronic. They produce a tension in our understanding of Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus elsewhere reminds disciples that “the gate is narrow and the road is hard” (7:14). In fact, two weeks ago (3rd week after Pentecost) and less than a chapter ago in Matthew we heard a different tone: “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (10:38).

The command to “learn from me” (mathete ap’ emou) is related to the word for “disciple” (mathetes). The invitation to discipleship, however, is more than cognitive learning or overcoming a gap in knowledge; it is the adoption of a way of life. And this way of life is expressed in terms of doing and being something in relation to Jesus. Jesus ultimately grounds the invitation in his relationship with his Father (verse 27). The proper ordering of our relationship to Father and Son can be deemed “light” and “easy” because an improper relationship to them surely makes for a much harder and more restless life!

The promise of rest should not be taken as guaranteed vacation time, but a kind of theological category. The language clearly recalls Moses’s own vocation (Exodus 33:12-17). To ease Moses’s anxiety about the uncertainty of the wilderness journey, God promises to accompany God’s people along the way: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). God will fulfill the promise for this people whose existence has known little rest (first wandering, later exile and captivity). “Rest” may even recall Creation’s completion (Genesis 2:1-3) but also the loss of rest that characterized life outside Eden. Jesus incredibly offers the rest which only the God of all Creation could extend to a weary Israel longing for the paradisiacal Promised Land.

As disciples, we do not simply attempt to duplicate the actions of an absent master; on the contrary, we rely on the ongoing presence of Jesus himself. This, too, is included in what Jesus means by “rest.” As Matthew reminds us early on, Jesus bears the name of the one promised in Isaiah: Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23). All who take the yoke of discipleship upon them can experience a kind of new creation sustained by the ongoing presence of the Creator in a life of discipleship.

It is only fitting, therefore, that Matthew’s Gospel ends not with Jesus’ departure, but with the assurance of his ongoing presence: “I am with you, even to the end of the age” (28:20). Thus Jesus has effectively taken over God’s promise and in his own life, to which we can become apprenticed, he embodies God’s presence. He can make this invitation because “all authority in heaven and earth” have been given to him (28:18).

It is precisely in a life of discipleship, which includes the making of other disciples (28:19), that Jesus’ presence is guaranteed. If we feel compelled to “bring” or “take” Jesus with us wherever we go, we will find our expectations overturned. Lest we forget who Jesus is, Matthew makes it clear from beginning to end: God with us, even to the end of the age!

First Reading

Commentary on Zechariah 9:9-12

Alphonetta Wines

The Bible is replete with images of hope.

The image of a king riding on a donkey, a commander of peace, prisoners set free and restoration surely is one of its most poignant images. Times were unimaginably difficult. Cyrus’s decree was the backdrop for what was, in effect, a second exodus, a new beginning, for the beleaguered Israelite community.

Inspired by God to leave everything and start anew in an unknown land, Abraham was the first of the ancestors to make the journey into Canaan. Generations later, Moses led the enslaved community to freedom and returned to this Promised Land. Somehow, despite the odds, the community survived defeat and exile into Babylon. The time had come to return home. The task was daunting. There was so much work to do. Is it any wonder that people became discouraged and stopped the work midstream? Sixteen years and no progress at all. If Israel was to have a future, the work had to begin again. What would it take to get the work going again?

Perhaps people did not understand that there is a connection between the quality of life in a community and its care for sacred places and spaces. Not just symbolic, the practical side of everyday life, how people made decisions, how they interacted with one another, how they organized their life together was all affected by their respect and care for the temple.

Enter Zechariah. He understood the connection. He knew the difference it would make and could envision the work completed. He would not let Israel stay mired in the doldrums. His words encouraged the community to finish the work, to begin again. He extorted people to put away their sins, to rebuild their lives and their temple.

Israel’s kings were to be guided by God, to live moral lives and govern ethically. Although a few had God’s approval, most did not. Most lived loosely and contributed to Israel’s decline. Perhaps he recalled that having a king was a concession that God made to Israel after warning them not to have one since kings would likely abuse their power and misuse the trust that had been given to them. Even the beloved David had done just that. As successful as he was, his relationship with Bathsheba was the beginning of troubles for both his family and his kingdom.

Zechariah envisioned a leader, a Messiah, who would live without the excesses of previous kings. One who would live righteously and lead justly. What better way to express his vision than to write of a king “triumphant and victorious, yet humble and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). People would understand that unlike other leaders who rode horses, symbols of victory in war, Israel’s leader would instead ride a donkey. He would lead by persuasion, not by coercion, physical or military force of any kind. This leader would rule not just Israel, but all nations.

Jesus knew this passage and intentionally fulfilled it by riding on a donkey on Holy Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week. However, at the time of this writing, Zechariah was thinking about his own day and time.

For a people who felt forgotten by God, news of setting prisoners free would be just the reminder the people needed. After all, although they had a certain freedom in Babylon, the fact is that in exile they had been prisoners of war and were not truly free. Any sense of freedom that they had was really just an illusion. Real freedom was in Israel, not in Babylon hundreds of miles away.

With the use of the image of the leader riding on a donkey, Zechariah was able to pull together opposites representing the best and worst of times, hope and despair, with the expectation that with God, all would be right with the world. Mention of the king’s ability to “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem” (Zechariah 9:10) is disturbing. Yet, who would want a leader that could not deal effectively with issues, problems, and challenges of living? Similar to the Passover remembrance that Israelite freedom came at the price of Egyptian devastation, this passage reminds the reader that what happens in one nation is affected by what happens in another.

I am reminded of the words of a song, “Everything is Gonna Be Alright.”

Verse 1– I’ve got a feeling everything’s gonna be alright (3)   Be alright (3).

Verse 2 — Jesus told me everything’s gonna be alright (3) Be alright (3).

Verse 3 — I’m not worried everything’s gonna be alright (3). Be alright (3).

Verse 4 — If I trust Him, everything’s gonna be alright (3). Be alright (3).

Verse 5 — I’ve got a feeling everything’s gonna be alright (3) Be alright (3).

More than once I’ve sung this song as a reminder that Jesus promised never to leave me. More than once I’ve sung this song to reassure myself. Somehow the words are just what I need to energize and encourage myself.

Zechariah’s words were just what his community needed to hear. He did his job well for the Bible tells us that after a work stoppage of 16 years the work began again and was completed. Similar to Zechariah and his community, people today need to hear words of hope. The Hebrew word for God, Yahweh, is a verb that implies God is dynamic, not static. The life of faith, therefore, need not be static. Rather, it is to be a life of growth and moving forward. It is to be a life of doing the work and getting things done. Whether regarding personal issues or concerns of a larger scope (communal, national, global, etc.), people need to hear words of encouragement. Preachers of the gospel would do well to preach in the spirit of Zechariah so that all might become “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12).

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

After two harrowing stories — the near-deaths of both Ishmael and Isaac — today we have a love story, a love story that has been foreshadowed already in the account of the sacrifice of Isaac.1

At the end of that account, there is a brief genealogy that includes the name of Rebekah (Genesis 22:20-24). Today, we meet Rebekah, a strong and courageous young woman.

In the intervening chapter (chapter 23), Sarah dies at the age of 127 and is buried. Coming as it does right after the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the account of Sarah’s death is linked by the rabbis to that tale. That is, according to one rabbinic midrash, Sarah died when she heard what Abraham intended to do to their son! The story of Sarah’s death is also linked to what follows. The death of one generation moves to the promise of a new generation; but to fulfill that promise, Isaac needs a wife.

This is a long narrative, filled with many details. The lectionary appoints only a selected number of verses in order to keep the reading manageable. The preacher, though, may choose to expand the reading, to employ a readers’ theater telling of it, or to re-tell the story in the sermon.

There is humor here — Rebekah offers to draw water for the camels, but one camel can drink 20-30 gallons of water at a time, and there are 10 camels! She is not only beautiful, it seems, but exceedingly (freakishly?) strong. Laban may be appropriately hospitable and pious (24:29-31, 50), but it doesn’t hurt that he has first seen the gold jewelry that Abraham’s servant gave his sister (verse 30). (We know from the later Jacob cycle that Laban is no fool when it comes to wealth.) And when Rebekah, after her long journey, at last sets eyes on her intended, the Hebrew very plainly says that she falls off the camel (verse 64).

It’s a good story, filled with drama and humor. What does it say, though, about God and the life of faith? God does not speak directly in this story (in contrast to the previous two stories). God does not intervene in any obvious way in this domestic tale. And yet, the LORD, the God of Abraham, is invoked by Abraham himself, by his unnamed servant, and by Rebekah’s family. God’s will is discerned in prayer and by observation, and God’s hesed (steadfast love, covenant loyalty) is demonstrated through human action.

Let’s look at some details: The unnamed servant is worried that he will not find a suitable young woman for Isaac, one who will be willing to leave family and homeland to travel to a place she’s never seen before. So he does what he can; going to the city of his master’s kinsfolk, he stops by the village well and there he prays: “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love (hesed) to my master Abraham” (Gen 24:12). He asks for a sign: the young woman who not only gives him a drink but also offers to water his camels will be the one.

Even as he prays, Rebekah comes out to the well to draw water. We know from other biblical stories that the well is the place where future spouses meet (Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah). The same is true here, though Abraham’s servant stands in for Isaac. When he asks Rebekah for a drink, she immediately offers to water his camels, too. He watches in silence as she works, discerning whether or not she is the one (verse 21).

Abraham’s servant seems to decide that Rebekah is, indeed, the woman for Isaac. After she finishes her monumental task, he gives her gold jewelry and asks to stay at her father’s house. When he learns that she is of Abraham’s kin, he is even more certain, and he praises God for God’s faithfulness:

“Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love (hesed) and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin” (24:27).

After hearing the story, Rebekah’s family agrees with the servant’s assessment of the situation: “The thing comes from the LORD” (verse 50). And Rebekah herself does not hesitate to go. She is not only strong, but decisive (a characteristic that will continue in later stories about her). She, like Abraham before her, leaves home and family to travel to a land she has never seen. She is a model of generosity, strength, and courage.

Though unnamed, Abraham’s servant, too, is a central figure in this drama and a model of faithful action. Given a difficult task, he does what he can and he leaves the rest to God. He travels to the homeland of his master’s family; he takes his stand at a likely place to meet young women; and then he prays. Like Gideon in Judges 6, the servant asks for a sign. Then he watches and waits to discern God’s will. When the sign is fulfilled, the servant is quick to praise God for God’s faithfulness and God’s hesed. Finally, he bears witness to others of that divine faithfulness.

We could do worse than follow the example of Abraham’s servant when called to a particular task. Prepare. Pray. Wait. Watch for signs of God’s faithfulness. Then be quick to praise God and to witness to others of God’s faithfulness. Oh, and be generous. Generosity marks the actions of both Rebekah and the servant.

This story ends with the meeting of Rebekah and Isaac, and it is worth noting at least two things. First, the text says explicitly that Isaac loved Rebekah (verse 67). In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, love was not considered a necessary ingredient in a marriage, but it seems that God, too, is generous in this story, providing a wife for Isaac to love.

Finally, the text says, Isaac took Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent and he was “comforted after his mother’s death” (verse 67). In the shadow of death, or the threat of death (chapter 22), love is born, grief is quieted, and the promise of life begins anew. Rebekah, that strong young woman, will be the matriarch of a new generation, and God’s promises to Abraham (12:1-3) will be fulfilled.

God does not speak in this story. God does not intervene explicitly in this domestic affair, but it could be Isaac’s and Rebekah’s song that the psalmist gives voice to when he writes, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever” (Psalm 136:1).


1. Commentary first published on this site on July 06, 2014.


Commentary on Psalm 145:8-14

Paul K.-K. Cho

Psalm 145 commands all its readers, indeed, all flesh (145:21) from every generation (145:13), to praise God the King who reigns over a universal kingdom (145:11-13) and, in so doing, provides us with a characterization of the kingdom and its king (145:8-20) in acrostic form.

The psalm, then, which effectively concludes the body of the Psalter and serves as an introduction to the final Hallelujah psalms (Psalms 146-150), may be read as a denouement of the Psalter and the final testament of the paradigmatic psalmist, David, who appears for the final time to lead the chorus in the praise of the one true king, his God.

“My God is the King”

From the beginning of the psalm (145:1), but especially in the middle core (145:11-13), the emphasis falls on God’s kingship. As I stated before, this is the final time in the Psalter that David appears in the superscription (“A praise of David”), and this immediately after his appearance in the previous psalm in which he refuses to take on the title of king, referring to himself by the (still exalted) title, “servant” (144:10). And if David demurs the title of king in Psalm 144, he emphatically identifies God as king at the beginning of Psalm 145: “I will exalt you, O my God, the King” (145:1, my translation).

He closes the psalm with a promise and call to praise this king: “My mouth shall proclaim the praise of the LORD, / and all flesh shall bless his holy name for ever and ever” (145:21, NRSV). With this act of self-abdication and commitment to praise, David changes — within the psalmic tradition — from being the paradigmatic king to being the model psalmist. David no longer leads the army into battle but the faithful throng in praise of God who alone is king.

“The LORD is good to all”

The declaration that God is king is logically followed by an emphasis on God’s kingdom in verses 11-13, in which the word “kingdom” appears four times and reference made to God’s reign three other times. And this kingdom, in contrast to the parochial kingdom David once ruled over, is a universal and everlasting kingdom.

The psalm declares that “the LORD is good to all, / and his compassion is over all that he made” (145:9) and indicates that all are God’s subjects. Furthermore, the psalm says that God’s “kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, / and [his] dominion endures throughout all generations” (145:13). This is a bold response to a core theological question of the Psalter. For, after the events of 587 BCE, lamented in Psalm 89, whether God remains king and, if so, over what became pressing theological questions. Psalm 145, along with the rest of Books IV and V of the Psalter, provides the answer: God was, is, and will be king over all creation.

“The LORD is gracious and merciful”

The claim that God is the King over a universal and eternal kingdom raises the question: What kind of king is God? And the psalm provides answers.

The psalmist first reaches back to Exodus in order to describe God the King:

The LORD is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The LORD is good to all,
And his compassion is over all that he has made. (145:8-9)

The simple and attractive description of God is a citation and re-interpretation of the much-venerated Mosaic formulation from Exodus 34:6-7. Citing traditional material establishes the antiquity of this understanding of God’s character: God has been and remains gracious and merciful. But the formulation has been updated in at least two significant ways. First, all reference to sin has been elided — though the problem of sin remains and receives effective response (see 145:20b). Second, the extent of God’s compassion, that is, God’s rule, is extended beyond Israel to include “all that he has made,” as noted above.

The psalm takes up the task of describing God the King again in verse 14 and continues until verse 20. More specifically, these verses list God’s subjects who receive God’s graciousness and mercy and God’s slow anger and steadfast love. The list appropriately begins with the favored among God’s people and concludes with the disfavored, indeed, with those who are destroyed.

As stated earlier in the psalm, God embraces “all that he has made”: “all [who] look to you” (145:15), “all who call on him” (145:18), “all who fear him” (145:19), and “all who love him” (145:20). But there is a group God prioritizes over all others in the kingdom so appears as first among equals in the list:

The LORD upholds all who are falling,
And raises up all who are bowed down. (145:14)

There is, in the kingdom of God, a preferential option for the lowly. God attends to the vulnerable and the downtrodden with special care and concern.

Furthest removed from the exalted lowly are the wicked, the object of God’s slow anger: “but all the wicked he will destroy” (145:20b). God’s kingdom is for all. But, in order for it to be for all, ironically, the wicked must be excluded. That they appear last in the list, farthest from the “falling” and “all who are bowed down” may be God’s gracious decision to move God’s favored as far as is possible from those who previously had abused and oppressed them. The act of receiving the lowly includes the rejection of their oppressors. The destruction of the wicked too is a necessary expression of God’s grace and mercy.

Therefore, hallelujah!

The conclusion of the alphabetic acrostic that details from A to Z the praiseworthy character of God the King appropriately concludes with a commitment and a call to praise by its head cantor, David:

My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD,
And all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever. (145:21)

The final verse is a fitting testament of David the psalmist. And, in response, the heavens and the earth, the sea, all flesh, indeed, all that has breath raise their voices in Psalms 146-150 with the festal shout:


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 7:15-25a

Kyle Fever

Romans 7 has played a crucial role in Christian anthropology.

Whether one derives from this passage the Lutheran simul, that we are and always will be both fundamentally saint and sinner, or some other variation that expresses ongoing human struggle with sin, the main thing most people take from this passage relates to human identity vis-à-vis sin.

In this regard, the present text, as the lectionary delineates it, can be quite misleading if left on its own. This is one of the times that the pastor or preacher needs to be careful to bring the larger context into view. Without this, it would be very easy to read, interpret, and preach this passage as saying something defining about human identity: that we are resigned to a life of struggle with no end, in spite of the exclamation, “But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This can often lead to the foregone conclusion that we are stuck in sin, which is actually okay because there is grace. The statement in verse 25b often wins the day (even though not in the lectionary delineation, it should be included): “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Before letting this verse have the final word on the passage, or simply fitting this passage into a more or less developed theological anthropology, there are a couple points that introduce more complexity and possibility for thought and discussion.

First, Paul has just objected to the “we’re consigned to sin, but that’s okay because there is grace” mentality in Romans 6. Romans 7 should probably not be interpreted in any way that results in Paul “rebuild(ing) what (he) destroyed” as he puts it in Galatians 2:18. It doesn’t compute for Paul to take up such space in this letter to argue that the baptized are transferred from the realm of Sin, and then turn around to say that we’re still stuck in it. Whatever say Romans 7 has on anthropology, what Paul says in Romans 6 must be given weight.

Second, there continues to be a good deal of debate over the identity of the “I” in this infamous section of Romans. This should bring about at least a little more thought as to what we think Paul is saying here if, as is the case for many, one’s interpretation, teaching, and preaching are shaped by one’s understanding of the “I.” Making things more complicated, one’s understanding of the “I” often issues from one’s ideas about anthropology, whether “Biblical” or not. It is worth considering that Paul might just be rewriting how his audience (and we) understands the “I” — in accord not with old human experience, but in Christ, as he does elsewhere (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 2:19-20).

There are several options for how to understand the “I.” Many people interpret the “I” as Paul speaking of himself. Even then, however, there is debate whether Paul is referring to his current identity in Christ, or to his pre-Christian life. There are also important factors that suggest the “I” is a generic description of the identity and experience of the old humanity, or even representative of Israel.

It’s important to recognize that, more than only describing the “I” in relation to sin, this passage also says something about the law. In fact, one could make a case that Paul seems less to be trying to give a definite systematic theology about the human condition, as he is trying to say something about the inability of the law to remedy the problem of sin. Of course the human “I” (however understood) is involved in this equation, but the leading edge seems first to be the issue of the law. This is confirmed when one reads Romans 7, not as an isolated discourse on the human condition, but in context with Romans 6 and 8.

As soon as Paul completes the statement in Romans 7:25, he moves on to say in 8:1-3:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

Read in context, Romans 8:1-3 help us see what Paul is getting at in Romans 7 — the inability of the law and the articulation of a different simul —  the simultaneous release from sinful humanity and fulfillment of the law’s good (!) requirement. If anything, then, Romans 7 is not a final destination, defining our ongoing condition to which we’re consigned for the duration of our human lives, but the human condition and struggle from which those in Christ have been set free.

In addition to Romans 8, in Romans 5 and 6, Paul had just made a strong case that those baptized in Christ have “died” to their Adamic humanity and been united with Christ (6:1-14). Those baptized “no longer live in Sin” and are no longer enslaved to sin and injustice (“unrighteousness”). There has been a real “transfer” of existence and identity, from one “Lord” to another, from one mode of existence to another, affected not by the law but by the Spirit of the living Christ.

Given the contextual surroundings, Romans 7:15-25 describes the human situation from which God has delivered humanity in and through Jesus Christ. This passage says less about the human struggle in Sin and more about human identity in Christ.

In Christ the “I” is no longer divided but united; no longer frustrated but fulfilled; no longer at odds with God’s will, but in conformity to it. God has done all this. All human systems (“law”) have been and will be incapable of achieving this. It is only the Spirit through Christ that delivers humanity. Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ!