Lectionary Commentaries for March 9, 2014
First Sunday in Lent (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11

Judith Jones

At Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly voice announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Immediately afterwards, Jesus is tempted by the devil, who treats Jesus as if the reality of his identity is the question: “If you are the Son of God…” Are you really? Can you prove it? Jesus’ responses show him pondering an entirely different question: What does it mean for me to be God’s beloved son? How shall I live out that identity in the world?

“Son of God” had more than one meaning in biblical writings and in secular culture. The Davidic kings were called “son of God” (see 2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chronicles 28:6; Psalm 2:7), and “sons of God” or “children of the Most High” could also designate angelic beings, members of the divine council (Genesis 6:2; Psalm 82:7).

In the Greco-Roman world “Son of God” became an honorary title for the Caesars. The devil’s temptations flow naturally from such common usages of the term. The prophet Hosea offers another possible definition. There God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). Already in the birth narrative Matthew has applied this verse to Jesus, interpreting Joseph and Mary’s move from Egypt to Nazareth as the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy (Matthew 2:15).

When the voice from heaven calls Jesus “my Son,” then, how should Jesus interpret his role? Has the divine voice bestowed royal privilege on him? Has he, like God’s people Israel, been set apart as holy and called to reveal God’s character to the world?

Jesus’ forty days in the desert echo Israel’s forty years there. Like the people of Israel in their exodus from Egypt, Jesus is out in the wilderness, hungry and tempted. “If you are the son of God,” the devil says, “command these stones to become bread.” In other words, if you really are either royal or divine, prove it by using your power to your own benefit. What kind of god sits around listening to his stomach growl instead of showing off his power and feeding himself? What kind of king ever goes hungry?

In response, Jesus places himself not among the privileged few but among the ordinary people of God. A human being (Greek anthropos, a human), “does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3). For Jesus, being the Son of God means accepting his humanity and depending on God for daily bread (cf. Matthew 6:11). His reaction to this temptation in no way suggests that food is unimportant, or that earthly needs do not matter.

On the contrary, Deuteronomy 8:3 is part of a larger passage that describes how God provided for all of Israel’s physical needs during their forty years in the wilderness. During the exodus, God’s children doubted God’s provision, but Jesus as son of God models human reliance on God for food, for strength, and for life itself. After the final temptation, God vindicates Jesus’ trust by sending angels to wait on him (in Greek “wait on” is diakoneo, which often means serving someone a meal).

After his first failure to lure Jesus into misusing his status, the devil tries again, taking him to Jerusalem (“the holy city”), to the very highest point of the temple. This time the tempter challenges Jesus to prove his identity by throwing himself down and letting the angels rescue him. If you’re so dependent on God, he seems to say, why don’t you take it a step further? You trust God to feed you. Do you trust God to protect you from harm?

Then he takes a page out of Jesus’ book, quoting Psalm 91:11–12 to suggest that if Jesus jumps, he will merely be demonstrating his utter confidence in God’s promises. But Jesus rebuts him with another quotation: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). Once again the context of the quotation enriches its meaning. Moses is reminding the people how they tested God at Massah, when after God had already fed them with manna, they grumbled that God was planning to kill them with thirst (Exodus 17:1–7).

What kind of faith doubts God at every turn and insists that God must do one miracle after another? By contrast, genuine faith means trusting that the One who called the people out of Egypt will see them through to the end of the journey.

In the final temptation, the devil promises to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus will worship him. The implications are stunning. The devil assumes that all authority in the world belongs to him, to give to others as he chooses. But Jesus orders Satan to leave, saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

Jesus has come not to rule Satan’s kingdom, but to proclaim and to bring the reign of God. After the resurrection Jesus will receive all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18), but it will be God’s gift, not Satan’s.

By defining “Son of God” not by privilege or power but by obedience to God, Jesus has already begun his journey to the cross. Though the devil has left, the temptations are not over. In Matthew 16, Peter proclaims, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” and then completely rejects the idea that God’s son should suffer and die. Jesus’ response is pointed: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).

When Jesus is arrested, he refuses to be rescued either by violence or by angelic intervention (26:52–54). At the crucifixion, the passersby and the religious leaders taunt him: Son of God? Prove it. Come down from the cross. Doesn’t God even care enough to rescue you? (27:38–44). But the obedient son trusts God to see him through to the end of the journey, and when he dies, the centurion proclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (27:54).

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Juliana Claassens

The lectionary reading for this first Sunday of Lent has often suffered from some serious misinterpretations:

First, consider the “woman is to blame” interpretation, according to which Eve is considered to be the weaker sex and thus susceptible to the snake’s theories, in addition to being a temptress herself, so leading her innocent husband astray has been greatly harmful to many women.

The nadir of such interpretations is to be found in the 15th century document Malleus Maleficarum that has been used to condemn women accused of witchcraft. This ill-fated document cites that “women were, from their creation, imperfect and lustful beings who posed grave dangers to men,” and consequently served as the source for witchcraft, thereby providing the basis for two centuries of persecution of thousands of presumed witches.

However, Phyllis Trible has shown in her book God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality that Genesis 2-3 depicts male and female as equals — connected to each other (cf the reference “bone from bone” and “flesh from flesh” in Genesis 2:23). They are also equal in responsibility and judgment, in shame and guilt, in redemption and grace. What the text says about the woman is also said about the man. Both hide from God, and both are punished.

A second misinterpretation regards viewing the serpent in this text as Satan or the devil. Such an interpretation is a serious anachronism, as the notion of the representation of evil in terms of the Satan or devil is a much later phenomenon that originated with the help of Persian influence. In the Ancient Near East, the snake often has been associated with wisdom and the human potential for discernment. It is telling, though, that in Gen 3:1, the serpent is not described as wise but as crafty. The cunning serpent brings alienation that affects the relationships between humans and between humans and their God.

A third misinterpretation regards the notion of original sin in the sense of “the flawed nature inherited from the first parents by all human beings” (Biddle, p 2) that often is associated with this week’s lectionary text. Mark Biddle, in his book on sin, Missing the Mark, shows how this later dogmatic concept cannot be derived from a text like Genesis 2-3 (pp 2-4).

Biddle rather proposes that Genesis 3 is the story of the human condition that is complex and paradoxical in nature. Moreover, instead of viewing this text in terms of a “‘fall’ from original essential humanity,” one would be better served to view this text in terms of the human’s “failure to develop into the fullness of being human” (p 7).

In this period of Lent, the following perspectives may be useful when considering this rich text: First, a key theme in this text is the notion of shame. Meda Stamper, in her reflection on preaching this particular cycle of lectionary texts for Lent (“Return to me: Preaching the Lenten Texts,” in Journal for Preachers 34/ 2 (2011), p 3-11), suggests that it perhaps is a good idea to include the verse before and after the lectionary text for today.

The man and woman who were in Genesis 2:25, oblivious of their nakedness, in Genesis 3:8 find themselves hiding from God because they are ashamed of their nakedness. The moment they ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they realized something of their profound sense of vulnerability that is associated with the human condition. However, this shame also brings a sense of distrust between God and humans, as well as humans among one another. This sense of shame is related to the failure of these individuals to accept that they are made in the image and likeness of God.

Viewed in this way, sin may be understood as the fearful avoidance of human potential.

Second, in this text we see some ironic reflection on the disassociation between knowledge, wisdom, and life. After eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the man and woman indeed gained knowledge when it says in Genesis 3:7 that their eyes were opened and they knew (yadar) that they were naked.

Moreover, they draw on the knowledge of sewing fig leaves in order to cover their nakedness. William Brown argues though that “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, without the accompanying tree of life, offers only a partial, damning knowledge, an awareness of a further lack” (Ethos of Creation, p 157). So, when they eat of the forbidden fruit, their eyes are opened like the snake said it would, but rather than becoming like God, knowing good and evil, their partial knowledge is lacking in wisdom.

It is significant that in the later wisdom tradition, “the fruit of the righteous is considered to be ‘a tree of life’” (Proverbs 11:30. Cf. also Proverbs 13:12 and 15:4). And Woman Wisdom cries out in Proverbs 8:35, saying, “whoever finds me finds life.” It seems, in the ensuing appropriation of this text, sages held that wisdom constitutes “the inner unity of knowledge and life” (Brown, p155).

In a contemporary context, one sees how much misery is caused by this disassociation of knowledge and life. One may for instance have the knowledge to build an atom bomb, but what is the effect on life? One may have the knowledge to hack a computer, or to make a lot of money at the expense of others, but how is this conducive to life? True Wisdom is thus to hold on to knowledge that leads to life.

If we further read this story in Genesis 2-3, with its theme of human frailty that is so fitting in the time of Lent, we notice the compelling portrayal of God’s grace amidst the depravity. So we read in Genesis 3:21 how God sowed garments of skin for Adam and Eve — this act of clothing the fragile and flawed human beings serving as powerful symbol of God’s provision. Thus, in spite of the frailty, the shame and the precarious nature of the human condition outlined in this text, one sees a powerful witness of a God who continues to remain in relationship with God’s creatures.


Commentary on Psalm 32

Rolf Jacobson

For around a hundred years, “form criticism” has provided the dominant approach to interpreting the psalms.

In this approach, the first step is to identify the “form” (German: Gattung) of a psalm. The belief here is that a crucial step — indeed, an essential step — in the task in interpreting a piece of literature is the task of understanding its form, its shape, its genre. The “form” provides the literary context for making sense of the words. The “form” of the piece of literature then helps you understand what the smaller phrases and words mean in context.

This makes perfect sense. And most of us do this many times every day. Some examples.

When you read a recipe for sugar cookies, you automatically register the literary form as “recipe” and you treat it as such. When the recipe says “a pinch of salt” you know that it is literal and prescriptive: it tells you what to do. You are to reach into the salt cellar, pinch your thumb and finger around some sea salt (you only use sea salt, because you have class), and throw it into the mixing bowl.

When you read an obituary, you register it as such and contextualize the words and dates as about a deceased person. If the obituary describes a man as having had “a pinch of salt,” you know that this word is metaphorical and descriptive: it tells you who the man was. He had an edge to his personality.

Literary genres are important. They are patterns of language. They signal intention and they create literary expectations. And most of the time — as long as the reader has a sufficient degree of cultural literacy — literary genres make the task of human communication easier.

The trouble, however, is that sometimes genres don’t work as well as others. Sometimes, the urge to categorize, apply labels, arrange things in drawers, line them up neatly, just doesn’t work that well.

Consider Psalm 32.

If you know a bit about the forms of the psalms, you probably are familiar with the following psalm genres:

  • Prayers for Help (also called Lament psalms)
  • Praise Psalms *(also called Hymns)
  • Thanksgiving Psalms
  • Trust Psalms
  • Royal Psalms
  • Wisdom Psalms
  • Creation Psalms
  • Historical Psalms

If you know a lot about psalms, you might be even know about:

  • Imprecatory Psalms
  • Psalms of Innocence
  • Penitential Psalms
  • Torah Psalms
  • Enthronement Psalms
  • Dirges
  • Songs of Zion
  • Acrostic Psalms
  • Festival Psalms
  • And the ever-dreaded “Mixed-Type Psalm” (sort of the adolescent, middle child of the Psalter)

But if you read Psalm 32, you are going to get mixed signals.

Is this a wisdom psalm? Verses 1-2, 8-10 sound a lot like wisdom:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.

Is this a prayer for help? Verse 5b sounds like it:

“I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them

But other verses sound like a song of thanksgiving. See verses 3-5a:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”

But verse 7 sounds like a Psalm of Trust:                  

You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

And verse 11 sounds like a Praise Psalm:

Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

And as if that isn’t enough, the Western Church has defined Psalm 32 as one of several penitential psalms because of the psalm’s emphasis on confessing one’s transgressions to the Lord and on the forgiveness of the Lord.

Good grief! Is this a thanksgiving psalm, a lament/prayer for help, a trust psalm, a penitential psalm, a wisdom psalm, or a praise psalm?

The great German father of form criticism, Hermann Gunkel, labeled Psalm 32 an individual psalm of thanksgiving with wisdom elements — but not as a penitential psalm.1 Beth Tanner describes the psalm more accurately as a “celebration of forgiveness.”2 Tanner’s title, while not one of the formal categories, is to be preferred.

Psalm 32 is a poem. It celebrates the joy of one who has personally experienced the forgiveness of God. The ancient poet who reached for language to give voice to this joy found it necessary — or, at least, suitable — to borrow language from many different categories of Israelite theology: wisdom, prayer, thanksgiving, praise, penitential thought, and trust. For this reason, the psalm moves a bit awkwardly from phrase to phrase:

  • sometimes addressing God (“your hand was heavy upon me,” “let all who are faithful offer prayer to you,” etc.)
  • sometimes addressing what seems to be a distant, literary audience (“happy are those to whose transgression is forgiven”)
  • at one point remembering words that were addressed to the self (“I said [to myself], ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’”)
  • later speaking words of advice (“do not be like horse or mule, without understanding”)
  • and at the finale speaking a call to praise as if to a community that has gathered for worship (“be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous!).

As such, the poem may seem slightly awkward, perhaps even, dare one say, derivative — its lines seemingly cobbled together from the leftover phrases of other poems.

But this is not a poetic weakness, but an artistic strength. Psalm 32 is like that impromptu feast that a grandma serves when a beloved grandchild shows up unannounced. She rifles through the fridge, the cupboards, and the breadbox and pulls together a feast of favorite morsels. Or, as Beth Tanner has it, a celebration of forgiveness.

The theology of forgiveness — especially the Christian, Pauline doctrine of forgiveness — is certainly well known to Working Preacher audiences. There is no need to go into it at length here. But two quick words are worth saying.

First, there is grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament. Some Christians may have been raised on the false diet from the mistaken Old-Testament-equals-law-and-judgment while the New-Testament-equals-grace-and-forgiveness theological table. So it may be good to signal that the theological underpinning of the biblical doctrine of forgiveness is the character of God. And as the Old Testament repeatedly says, the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Second, there is a role for the community here. The forgiven sinner culminates this poem by calling the community to rejoice. Rejoice! For one a sinner has found forgiveness!

That is a very counter-cultural notion. Our culture doesn’t celebrate forgiveness. We revel in Schadenfreude — enjoying the punishment of others. When some is forgiven or gets away with something, we grind our teeth.

The psalm reminds us that we have a role to play when someone is forgiven. We are to rejoice! To take joy in the new life of the pardoned! In such a way we welcome back one who had been lost to us.

The Christian community is to be a foretaste of heaven. And remember that Jesus said there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who never went astray (see Luke 15). So that’s our communal job when someone is forgiven. Rejoice! Happy is the one — and the community of that one — whose transgression is forgiven.


Herman Gunkel, Einleitung in die Psalmen, pp. 135 and 21.

From Beth Tanner’s introduction to Psalm 32 in an unpublished manuscript of a psalms commentary to be published in 2014 (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:12-19

L. Ann Jervis

This text has been the source of some of Christianity’s most controversial, challenging, and distinctive doctrines.

It was the locus for Augustine’s doctrine of original sin and for K. Barth’s claim that Paul is saying that just as Adam was the source of humanity that could not escape obedience to sin, Christ is the source of humanity freed from obedience to sin. Barth hears Paul saying that “there is no man who is not — in Christ” (Romans, p. 182).

Paul began this chapter with the ringing claim “having been justified.” The circumstance that he and his hearers share is that of “having been justified,” or this could also be translated “having been made righteous.” He has qualified this with the words ‘by faith’ (Romans 5:1). The starting point, the ground of our being as believers, the basis of our identity, our most fundamental defining shape is that we have been justified by faith.

This remarkable state of affairs has a back story. Starting at 5:6, Paul tells the story that lies behind it all — the story of Christ. In 5:6-11 Paul focuses on Christ’s death and resurrection. In verse 12, he moves to an earlier stage of the story. Paul essentially says, “Once upon a time sin came into the world.”

Unfortunately for Christian theology ever since, Paul does not back up before that time. He starts this chapter of his story at the point at which sin entered the cosmos. It is important to note that sin is in the singular. Sin is here an active agent, an anti-God entity that can be the subject of a verb. We might think of sin with a capital ‘S’ — a spiritual agent at war with God.

Paul says that Sin entered through one man. He will go on to identify this man as Adam (verse 14). The result of Sin entering the world through Adam was death. Paul has been talking about how the death of Christ fixed everything. Here Paul is saying that what the death (and resurrection — for Paul never separates Christ’s death from Christ’s resurrection) of Christ needed to fix was death.

Paul’s diagnosis of the problem Christ came to fix is that Sin, through Adam, started a state of affairs in which Sin and death formed a lethal partnership. Because of Sin, there was death. And this state of affairs obtained for all humanity.

When Paul talks about “the many” — “for if many died through one man’s trespass” — he is being poetic. He clearly does not mean that some people do not die.

Paul believes that God through Christ fixed this sorry state of affairs. The convoluted language of verse 15b — “for if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” — this language is meant to say that it is not simply that there was a remedy for the consequence of Adam’s trespass.

It is not simply that Christ cancelled out Adam’s mistake. It is that Christ more than made up for Adam’s trespass; Christ outdid himself, Christ made up exceedingly when perhaps God through Christ could simply have reversed Adam’s mistake in a legalistic, accountant kind of way. The free gift operates in a different arena than the audit room, the court room. The free gift operates in the arena of love.

So when Paul says that the free gift brings justification (verse 16), he wants to emphasize the wonder of justification. It is beyond what might have been required to fix humanity’s circumstances. If we wanted to be hypothetical about it, we might imagine that if God had wanted simply to redress the wrong Adam had done, God could have offered a solution in which humanity simply did not need to sin, and perhaps did not need to die.

This is not what Paul says that God offered in Christ. God offered this and so much more. God offered justification, righteousness — God shared God’s character, God’s own self, with us; offered us the possibility of becoming like Godself.

This is the very thing God did not want Adam to do — to become like Godself, to have the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But this is what God offers in Christ — the opportunity to be made righteous, to be made like Godself, knowing what is good and what is evil and being able to choose.

And so, in verse 17, Paul stresses that through the one man Jesus Christ we are offered the opportunity to receive the abundance of the gift of righteousness. This means that not only will we not know death, but we will reign in life.  

Paul does not overtly deal with the obvious question raised by his claim in verse 18. When Paul says that one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all — does Paul mean that whether or not one believes in this act of righteousness, believes in Christ, that God will acquit and give life?

Through the history of Christian theology, this question has received two main answers — yes and no. And because Paul does not make himself clear here, it should be very difficult for the adherents of either answer to claim certainty.

What Paul is clear about, however, is that God has responded with characteristic abundance. Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. God’s grace, God’s free gift, God’s love is revealed in the fact that God did not just correct a problem, God created a new reality — the reality where instead of death reigning, grace reigns.

The reality in which we stand is the reality of grace, because we have been made righteous by faith. The dynamics of this reality are entirely different than the reality where death reigned.

In the reality of grace, righteousness calls the shots and eternal life is the norm. This state of grace, where there is freedom to be all that God created us to be — free to know God’s love and to love God, free to live forever — this state of grace has been given to us by Jesus Christ our Lord.