Lectionary Commentaries for March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:1-17

Osvaldo Vena

The backdrop against which the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus should be understood is John 2:23-25.

Nicodemus is one of those who “believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (see verse 2). The Jews (a better translation of the Greek Ioudaioi would be Judeans) in 2:18, the many in 2:23, and Nicodemus in 3:2 assume that miracles can legitimate Jesus’ authority.1 But Jesus did not trust them for he knew their motivations.

The structure of the dialogue is simple: Nicodemus makes an affirmation (verse 2) and asks two questions (verses 4,9) and in each case Jesus answers with a categorical answer: “Very truly I say to you” (verses 3,5,11). Later, in verse 13, the dialogue turns into a monologue. This is probably the redactional work of the evangelist addressing the theological implications of the dialogue.

There are three important statements in verse 2, one by the narrator and two by Nicodemus himself: the reference to the night, the title Rabbi and the personal pronoun “we.”

First is the reference to night time: a) Like Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus was a secret disciple of Jesus and so came to Jesus at night (see John 19:38-40); b) it is a symbolic reference to unbelief or to the wrong kind of belief (see 3:19-21); c) Since the night was the time for studying the Torah and for theological dialogue, Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus as Rabbi and comes to him at night for a theological discussion. Given the negative connotations of darkness in this gospel, it is probable that the night refers here to unbelief or spiritual misunderstanding. When preaching from this passage it is important to make clear that there are no racial connotations here.

Second is the title Rabbi: In John, it appears only on the lips of the disciples (see 1:38, 49; 4:31; 9:2; 11:8). This could mean two things: either Nicodemus was on the way to becoming a disciple (see 19:38-40, 7:50-52) or he was using the title with some irony, since it would have been highly improbable for a member of the Jerusalem elite to address an uneducated Galilean peasant (compare to 7:15).2 In favor of the first option I would suggest that the three times that Nicodemus appears in John, 3:1-12, 7:50-52, and 19:38-40, seem to describe a progressive coming to terms with discipleship, from believing in Jesus because of the signs, to fully honoring him in death, as a disciple would do to a beloved teacher.

Lastly, the “we” of verse 2 may refer to those who in 2:23 believed in Jesus because of the signs or to the Pharisees, whom Nicodemus represents. Since the Pharisees are depicted in the gospel as the archenemies of Jesus, it is very unlikely that they would have sent him.3 Nicodemus is probably using here a polite exaggeration.

Nicodemus’ initial affirmation: Nicodemus affirms that Jesus has come from God and that God is present in Jesus because of the signs that he does. He thinks that the miraculous is proof of God’s presence. But Jesus is not flattered by this. He knows Nicodemus’ motivations, even when we as readers still wonder about them.

Seeing the signs is not enough. The kingdom of God cannot be detected with the physical eyes. It is rather a reality that can only be perceived through the eyes of the Spirit, after the person has been born “anew” or “from above.” The word anothen can mean both things but the pun is only possible in the Greek language, which places the responsibility for this wording entirely on the evangelist’s shoulders and not on Jesus, whose knowledge of Greek is highly questioned. Here it possibly means “from above,” that is, from God (see 1:13), since this idea is resumed in 3:31 where the evangelist talks about Jesus as the one who comes from above, a persistent theme throughout the gospel.

Nicodemus’ first question: Why did Nicodemus misunderstand Jesus’ words? Several reasons have been given for this: a) It is part of the evangelist’s argument. The reply is aimed not only at Nicodemus but also at the community he represents. b) To be born again, as Nicodemus understood it, would have meant altering one’s ascribed honor status in a very radical way and he was not ready to trade his honorable position in society for an uncertain new status.4

Jesus’ answer clarifies his previous one by way of two synonymous parallelisms. The first is: “no one can see the kingdom of God”//“no one can enter the kingdom of God.” The second is: “without being born from above”// “without being born of water and Spirit.” Seeing and entering the kingdom are two ways of expressing the same reality, as are also being born from above and being born of water and Spirit.

Seeing and entering the kingdom: Unlike the case of the Synoptic Gospels and traditional apocalyptic literature, for John there is no futuristic, earthly dimension of the kingdom of God. Rather in John it is the person that has been enlightened by an experience with God’s only Son, Jesus, which can then contemplate (see) the kingdom and participate fully in it (enter it). Experiencing the kingdom is a present possibility but only for those who have been spiritually awakened to it (compare to Romans 4:13-17).

Water and Spirit are joined by “and” (kai) and governed by the same preposition “from” (ek). It probably refers to one thing, not two, and therefore could be translated as “water which is Spirit.”5.Water is used in John to point at the lower, physical world (1:33; 3:23; 2:6-7; 4:6-7; 5:7) but also at the spiritual world (4:14; 7:37-39). Here, because it is contrasted with physical birth, it refers to spiritual birth. It can also refer to baptism and the new life in the Spirit that was linked with this sacrament.6 At any rate, Jesus is pointing at a spiritual dimension of life that has been completely missed by Nicodemus. Those who interpret this gospel as a coded document for and from a community that was undergoing harassment from the religious leaders of the people of Judea see in this passage a criticism of the leaders of the synagogue. The apologetic implications are clear: the Johannine community, represented by Jesus, is in the know; the Pharisees, represented by Nicodemus, are not.

Nicodemus’ second question: Now Nicodemus realizes that Jesus meant “from above” and not “again.”7 Still, he does not know how this is possible since he asks: “How can these things be?” Jesus’ reply is full of irony: a teacher of Israel does not know what a peasant from Galilee does!

In verse 11, Jesus delves completely into communal language, using “we” and “you” plural. It sounds very much like 1 John 1:1-4. The community speaks through Jesus. They know, yet Nicodemus does not. The community has given testimony (about Jesus, the logos of God) but Nicodemus’ community has not received this testimony. And then Jesus says something that has puzzled scholars for ages. He contrasts earthly things with heavenly things. The problem is that verses 3-8 can hardly qualify as “earthly.” Perhaps it refers to the examples given by Jesus, which are taken from earthly realities (birth, water, wind). Or perhaps because they take place on earth as Jesus begins talking about going to heaven and being lifted up.8

Jewish and Christian mysticism and apocalypticism share the idea of an experience of being transported to heaven to contemplate either God’s glory or the future of history before returning back to earth to communicate this vision to others. Verse 13 seems to be a veiled criticism of such experiences (see 2 Corinthians 12:1-10). What these people claimed was a direct revelation from the Spirit independent from an ongoing connection with Jesus.9

The crux of the argument seems to be this: the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality that can only be seen when the person has believed that Jesus is the agent of God’s new creation. It cannot be detected by the naked eye, or by invoking a special experience of heavenly bliss. None of this qualifies a person for seeing or entering the kingdom, or having eternal life, only the encounter in history with the incarnated logos.

Some of the implications for preaching are: present history — not the future or heaven — is the arena where the kingdom plays out. It is now, not tomorrow or in the world beyond, when the kingdom is to be realized. Rather than leaving it to other generations or to God, this understanding of the kingdom compels us to act in order to transform the world through the power of the ever-present Spirit. When it comes to being born again, inherited status or previous knowledge are not important, only one’s acknowledgment of God’s Spirit acting in history in unpredictable ways. Seeing God’s work requires not only spiritual awareness but also imagination and humbleness.


Notes:

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John. A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 98.

Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 81.

Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John. Volume Two (New York: The Seabury Press, 1980), 366.

Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary, 82.

Talbert, Reading John, 99.

Schnackenburg, St. John, 370.

W. Barclay makes a huge compromise by translating it “be born again from above.” The New Testament. A Translation by William Barclay (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 257.

Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John. The Anchor Bible, Vol.29 (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 132.

Talbert, Reading John, 101.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a

Cameron B.R. Howard

God unsettles Abram and Sarai, both literally and figuratively.

God’s call to Abram to go invites reflection on two particular themes that speak to this literal and figurative unsettling: migration and vocation, respectively.

Migration

God calls Abram and Sarai to leave a settled place and become migrants. The repetitions of the prepositional phrases in verse 1 — “from your land, from your kindred, and from the house of your father” — underscore the coming alienation of Abram from his ancestral places and people, everything that has rooted him. Although their final destination is Canaan, Abram and Sarai’s journey from Haran is a long one, and their safe passage depends upon the hospitality of the people they meet along the way. They are sidetracked by famine soon into their trip, forcing them to sojourn in Egypt. Abraham and his family are repeatedly described with the Hebrew root gwr, referring to resident aliens sojourning among other peoples (12:10, 17:8, 20:1, 21:23, 21:34). Even when Abraham has settled in Canaan, he must negotiate for a burial plot when Sarah dies, describing himself to the Canaanites as “a stranger and an alien residing among you” (Hebrew ger and toshab, Genesis 23:4).

It is important to note that Abram and Sarai — whose names will soon be changed to Abraham and Sarah — are wealthy migrants, “very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:2). Even so, their wealth does not make them invulnerable. Twice Abram fears that, as he and Sarai “reside as an alien” (12:10, 20:10) in Egypt and then Gerar, that he will be killed and that Sarah will be stolen into the king’s court as a wife (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18).

To avoid his death, Abram asks Sarai, “Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account” (Genesis 12:13). Sarai must have agreed, because she is indeed taken into Pharaoh’s household, and Abram receives much wealth in return.1 We may be quick to judge Abram for selling his wife to save his own skin, but these kinds of awful choices mirror the very real negotiations migrants and refugees face to survive, even today. The text spurs those of us who are “settled” to evaluate our own practices of hospitality to all who are vulnerable.

Vocation

The word “vocation” conjures up several different meanings. For some it is synonymous with a job, even specifically paid work, with one’s “avocation” referring to a hobby or other unpaid pursuits. For others, it recalls Frederick Buechner’s famous description of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”2 The call of Abraham reminds us of the broadest definition of vocation, one that transcends that category of work altogether and that gets most directly at the root of the word: following the call of God upon one’s life. When God says, “Go,” what does that mean for Abram? What does it mean for us?

Although these four and a half verses are but a brief introduction to a long and riveting story, their literary structure shows the profound shift this call requires of Abram. We have already seen that the repetition of the prepositional phrases in verse 1 requires Abram to leave behind the rootedness of his ancestral identity. That identity — “your land, your kindred, the house of your father” — is supplanted by a long list of things that God will do to and for Abram:

I will show you (the land)
I will make you (a great nation)
I will bless you
I will make great your name
I will bless those who bless you
I will curse the one who curses you

God calls Abram to shift his identity from rootedness in his land, family, and household, to being one who is acted upon by God. Abram’s chosen-ness requires a certain amount of loss. And yet, by following God’s call, Abram ushers in God’s blessings for his family and for all the families of the earth.

The metaphor of a “journey” can be a helpful one for describing life as one who is called by God. In my experience, many laypeople associate the idea of a “vocation” or “call” with pastoral roles, or perhaps service-oriented vocations in general, rather than with the totality of any Christian’s life. Introducing that language in association with this text, along with the metaphor, could be particularly fruitful.

Living as one who is called can be “unsettling,” as it was for Abram and Sarai. For them it required a physical change, but also a spiritual reorientation. As the subsequent details of Abraham’s story in Genesis 12-25 continue to show, God’s promises do not spare Abraham and his family from danger, desperation, jealousy, heartbreak, or grief. In fact, the call itself even brings about loss of things and people held dear in the past. Yet this brief lection reminds us that Sarah and Abraham’s journey is not about what they are doing, but what God is doing.


Notes:

In the Genesis 20 version of this story the text goes out of its way to emphasize that the relationship between Sarah and King Abimelech of Gerar is never consummated. No such assurances are provided in Genesis 12; Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s house (12:15) as Pharaoh’s wife (12:19).

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (New York: HarperOne, 1993), 119.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 121

Jerome Creach

The passages for the second Sunday of Lent all consider issues of human faith and God’s faithfulness.

Genesis 12:1-4a and Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 focus on Abraham and his faithful response to God’s call to leave his country, kindred, and father’s house (Genesis 12:1) and travel to the land God would show him. Thus, the subject of these passages is a journey that requires trust in God.

Psalm 121 also pertains to the journey of faith that requires reliance on God. The setting of the psalm is travel to or from Jerusalem as part of a religious pilgrimage. The psalm’s title, “A Song of Ascents” perhaps indicates the psalm was intended for use during pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of Israel’s festivals. Though the significance of the term “ascents” is not absolutely certain, the same root appears in Psalm 122:4 to refer to a ritual journey to the holy city (see also Ezra 7:9; Psalm 24:3). Psalm 121 is part of a group of psalms (Psalms 120-134) placed together for that purpose.

Statements of confidence in God’s protection and declarations of God’s faithful character dominate Psalm 121. These statements and declarations appear together as a liturgy, as indicated by the shift in voices throughout the psalm. Verses 1-2, and possibly verse 4, seem to be voiced by a pilgrim, who perhaps represents the whole company of travelers. The remainder of the psalm may be the response of a priest if the setting is departure from the temple. Or the response may be the words of a travel leader, or one who is remaining at home, if the setting is the initial departure for Jerusalem. Regardless of the exact orientation of the travelers, the main issue in the psalm is the safety God provides through constant attention to the faithful pilgrims.

The psalm begins with a declaration in verse 1a (“I lift up my eyes to the hills”) that introduces the central concern of the poem in the form of a question in verse 1b (“from where will my help come?”). The answer appears clearly in verse 2a, “My help comes from the Lord.” The rest of the psalm expounds on this point: God alone can sustain the life of the pilgrim.

The psalmist qualifies the nature of God who “helps” (Psalm 121:2a) by identifying God as “maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2b). The same label occurs two other times in the “Songs of Ascent” (Psalms 124:8; 134:3). The last occurrence appears to be an editorial addition placed on a psalm that acts as conclusion to the collection (Psalms 120-134). Hence, it is possible that an editor understands “maker of heaven and earth” to be a central subject in this collection.

Why is this identification of God so important? Even if on a short journey to Jerusalem and much more on a lengthy trip, the traveler surely observed worship sites devoted to other deities (on “the hills”). Most of these other gods had devotees who claimed their god ordered the cosmos. Thus, to confess that the lord was “maker of heaven and earth” was to say these other deities were imposters.

Verses 3-4 also implicitly compare Yahweh to other deities with the declaration that Israel’s God “does not sleep or slumber.” It was a common belief among Israel’s neighbors that their gods “slept” (or died) during winter months and revived in seasons of growth and harvest. But the Lord did not sleep and therefore could keep constant watch over Israel and its pilgrims. The point appears emphatically by means of repeated occurrences of the word “keep” or “keeper” to describe what the lord does and who the lord is.

A worship leader or perhaps a leader of pilgrimage speaks the final four verses of the psalm. These verses take the form of a “blessing”; that is, they are confessional, but since they are spoken on behalf of the pilgrims they have the tone of wish and assurance. Verse 5 begins with a general statement about the character of the protector of the travelers (“your keeper”).

A new label, “your shade” then appears. This description of God is appropriate in a psalm of pilgrimage since shade was at a premium for travelers in the Palestinian countryside. However, the metaphor has other associations that should not be missed. In other passages (Psalms 36:8, 61:5) Yahweh’s “shade” is equated with the safety of the temple. Thus, the security the travelers felt in the place of worship was available to them also on their journey because God was with them.

Verse 6 lists the range of possible difficulties for the pilgrim: the sun by day, the moon by night. Mention of the moon may come from the ancient belief that the moon was a cause of lunacy. Both the sun and the moon were thought to represent deities: for example, the Egyptian god, Ra (the sun god) and the Mesopotamian, Nanna (the moon god). Verse 7 offers a final summary of Yahweh’s protection “from all evil” with a line that can be taken either as a wish (“may he keep you”) or a statement of what is typical (“he will keep you”). The psalm ends (verse 8) with final reference to Yahweh’s “keeping” vigil over future pilgrimage to the holy city (“coming in” and “going out”).

Psalm 121 was well-suited to help ancient travelers face the threats they encountered during travel. It is also quite appropriate for our “pilgrimage” through Advent on the way to Easter. Such a journey should be made in full recognition of false gods all around who compete for our devotion. Psalm 121 highlights a point made many other places in Scripture, that the Lord is “maker of heaven and earth,” the only one who gives and sustains life.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

J.R. Daniel Kirk

When we step into Romans 4 we have to remember that we are coming to the final stages of an argument that has been unfolding since at least the middle of Romans 1.

Paul has been articulating reasons for his strong conviction that Jews and Gentiles stand on equal ground before God.

In Romans, Paul is not contrasting faith in general with works in general. This is not an argument about believing versus doing. On the contrary, Paul can describe the entire goal of his ministry as bringing about the right kind of doing, the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5). Instead, he is contrasting entrusting ourselves to the specific, saving narrative of Jesus, with defining ourselves by the Law that God gave to Israel. The question that looms over Romans 4, then, is this: Do Gentiles have to become Jews, by adopting the Jewish Law, in order to be part of the people of God, the promised children of Abraham?

Father Abraham?

Translating Romans 4:1 is a bit tricky. The NRSV reads, “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?” The Greek, however, does not say “gained.” The word is “found.” We might think of Romans 4 answering the question, “What did Abraham find?” However, there is another option.

Both Richard B. Hays and N. T. Wright have argued that a better translation would be, “What then shall we say? Is Abraham found our ancestor according to the flesh?” To this the implied answer would be, “No.” He is not forefather according to the flesh (physical descent marked by the physical sign of circumcision). Instead, he is forefather because of his trust in God’s promise. This way of looking at Abraham’s paternity opens up the possibility that Gentiles who entrust themselves to Israel’s God might look to Abraham as their ancestor just as much as Jews who are physically descended from him.

In this way, Romans 4:1-5 fits with the argument about Gentile inclusion in the people of God. The big point isn’t that Abraham didn’t do anything [full stop]. The big point is that Abraham did not have to perform the actions, such as circumcision, that demarcated Israel as God’s unique, covenant people prior to God recognizing him as righteous and faithful.

The Breadth of God’s Promise

There are two ways that Paul expands on the blessing of God that you might not expect simply from reading the original story of Abraham. God had promised descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky and all the land from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean Sea.

Paul has an even more dramatic vision.

First, Paul expands the inheritance. No longer are we to think of Abraham inheriting the land of Israel, even with vastly expanded borders. Instead, Abraham’s inheritance is the whole world or even cosmos (Greek: kosmos; Romans 4:13). The salvation that God has brought in Christ is not an act that segregates one people on a special piece of real estate. It is a world-wide, even cosmic renewal that embraces the entirety of the created order. The breadth of God’s promised gift corresponds to the breadth of God’s redemptive work: the whole world is on offer for Abraham’s descendants.

Second, Paul expands on the identity of the heirs to God’s promise. In fact, he dramatically transforms the identity of the people of God in a way that most first-century Jews (including those who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah) found scandalous. The Law had clearly mapped the ways of blessing and the ways of curse. Blessing, and inheriting God’s promise was to be found within a Law-keeping people.

But Paul redraws the map. Now, wrath and curse are affiliated with the law, which circumscribes the place of transgression (see also Romans 5:20-21). In other words, being demarcated as a Jew through faithful keeping of the Law is not what makes a person a member of God’s people and an heir to Abraham’s promise.

By locating salvation in faith, Paul blows up the identity of the people of God: not only Torah-keeping Jews but also faithful Gentiles can be part of this people. The promise rests on the grace that comes to faith. And faith is not contained by the works of the law. It is available to everyone.

So not only does the breadth of God’s renewal encompass the whole world, it also encompasses all peoples. The promise to Abraham that he would be a father of many nations is now transformed: those aren’t nations that come out of Abraham’s body; they are nations that flock to Abraham’s God.

The God We Trust

The identity of God is never far from Paul’s claims about the breadth of the Gospel. The God behind this story promised Christ beforehand in scripture (Romans 1:2). The God who sent Jesus is the God not only of the Jews but also of the Gentiles (Romans 3:29). And he is the God who can promise a cosmic inheritance and a multinational paternity to Abraham because he is the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).

Resurrection might seem to come out of the blue here. But Paul is going to use life out of death to describe both the birth of Isaac and the Christ event. Isaac is born to Abraham as to one who “had already died” and to Sarah whose womb was “dead” (Romans 4:19, literal translation). Even as Abraham believed God about the birth of Isaac, so those who respond to the Gospel believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 4:23).

In the end, what connects Abraham to his descendants is not simply a human disposition of faith. It is the common object of our faith in the God who gives life to the dead, the God who, through the resurrection of Jesus, is making all things new.