Lectionary Commentaries for March 5, 2017
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11

Audrey West

It is no accident that Jesus winds up in the wilderness after his baptism.1

He is not lost, and he is not being punished for something he has done wrong (assumptions that people today sometimes make about their own “wilderness experiences”). He has been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tempted or tested (the underlying Greek means both; Matt 4:1) by the devil. His scriptural debate with Diabolos functions as an assessment (or, perhaps, a proof) of his readiness as God’s beloved Son (Matt 3:17) for the mission entrusted to him. He has the credentials and the authority for this mission, amply demonstrated in Matthew’s Gospel by the genealogy and birth narrative. Now, through this wilderness test, Jesus stands squarely in the long history of the people of God even as his encounter with the devil points ahead to a future as yet unfolding before him.

Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. For forty days and nights Jesus remains in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next.

  • Forty: the days and nights that Noah and his family endured the deluge on board the ark, after which God made a covenant never again to destroy the earth with a flood (Gen 7:4, 12; 8:6; 9:8-17);
  • Forty: the days and nights Moses fasted on Mount Sinai as he inscribed the words of God’s covenant for the Israelites (Exod 24:18; 34:27-28; Deut 9:9);
  • Forty: the days and nights Elijah fasted in the desert before receiving a new commission from God (1 Kgs 19:8);
  • Forty: the years the Israelites wandered the wilderness in preparation for their arrival in the Promised Land (e.g., Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7);
  • Forty: the days of the season of Lent as Christians participate in Jesus’ ministry and follow his way toward the cross. How might we make ourselves ready for the way of the Lord in the places we are called to be? To what mission is God calling the church? What is needed for your congregation, corporately and individually, to be prepared?

Temptation, Testing and Real Life
Taking advantage of Jesus’ hunger, the devil tries to entice his opponent to grasp after domestic security for its own sake (amass more than his share of food–turn stones into multiple loaves of bread), demonstrate his close association with the powerful (prove that God’s angels will keep him from injury) and secure the glory of political leadership (rule the kingdoms of the world). The temptation is not that food, power and leadership are inherently wrong, but rather that they can be used for the wrong ends, or at the wrong time.

What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness; rather, it plays again in the life and ministry of God’s beloved son (Matt 3:17). The answers are different on different occasions, but the choices are very much the same:

  • Jesus refuses in the desert to turn stones into bread to assuage his own hunger, but before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish (Matt 14:17-21; 15:33-38), and he will teach his disciples to pray to God for their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11).
  • He refuses to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple, but at the end of his earthly ministry he endures the taunts of others (Matt 27:38-44) while trusting God’s power to the end upon the heights of a Roman cross (Matt 27:46).
  • He turns down the devil’s offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world, and instead offers the kingdom of the heavens to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness.

The wilderness tests of the Temptation account are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they are tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes in his earthly ministry. Indeed, readers of Matthew’s Gospel have an opportunity to see how the wilderness experience is replayed in Jesus’ encounters with persons who are sick, hungry or in need; with persons who use their connections to power (including, perhaps, the lawyers, Pharisees and Sadducees who test him in various ways; e.g., Matt 16:1; 19:3; 22:18, 35) to ascertain his loyalty; with persons who too easily worry about the world’s assessment of greatness rather than God’s (including some of his own disciples; e.g., Matt 18:1-5).

God with us

The promise of the gospel is that the one who is “with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20) has already gone ahead of his followers, even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness; he meets them in the most difficult tests of their own lives. No place is so desolate, so distant, or so challenging that Jesus has not already been there; no test or temptation is so great that Jesus has not already overcome it. Further, Jesus’ encounter with the devil represents in many ways his encounter with the cultural pressures of his day. How does one respond to very real physical and spiritual needs? What does it look like to trust God in this context? What are appropriate uses of authority and power that serve the world by serving God? For the followers of Jesus, then and now, these are important questions about how to live out their faithfulness in the realities of daily life, empowered by the One who is “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matt 1:23).


1. Commentary first published on this site on February 10, 2008

 


First Reading

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

Cameron B.R. Howard

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies (Emily Dickinson).1

Who tells the truth in this story: God or the serpent?

God says to Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (2:16-17). Yet when Adam and Eve eat it, they do not die. So, did God lie? Did God offer up an “alternative fact”? Did God “tell all the truth, but tell it slant?” Was God simply wrong?

The serpent — who is only presented as an animal in the story, not as Satan — says to Eve, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” (3:1) We and Adam (and apparently Eve, too, though she was not yet formed when God gave the command) know that this is not at all what God said. Does the serpent also know this? We have several reasons to think it does. First, the narrator calls the serpent “crafty” or “shrewd,” implying the animal is not simply making casual conversation. Second, the serpent is indeed correct about the outcome of the humans’ snack. The snake promises that once they eat the fruit, their eyes will be opened; they will see and know. This is precisely what occurs in verse 7: their eyes are opened, and they know they are naked.

The serpent also promises that Eve and Adam will become “like gods, ones who know good and evil” (3:5).2 This outcome is not immediately confirmed in the text; however, at Genesis 3:22, God declares that the humans have indeed become “like us, knowing good and evil,” fueling God’s expulsion of the humans from the garden. Thus, the snake seems to have a lot of correct information about the garden’s trees and the consequences of eating from them — information that God either did not know or did not reveal to the humans. The serpent’s question to Eve is not exactly a lie, but in its craftiness the serpent does appear to be setting up these humans, or God, or both, for a confrontation.

In an era when “fake news” proliferates, many of us crave some straightforward answers, especially to our most deeply held questions of faith. But this text is a stark reminder that Scripture does not always provide answers, or much of anything straightforward. If we come to this story believing that God exhibits all the “omni”-categories — omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent — then the story is going to challenge some of those assumptions. Does the snake know more than God? Is the snake more of a truth-teller than God? Those questions jar us, if we allow ourselves to ask them. Yet asking those difficult questions is one of the ways we come to glimpse the fullness of who God is, and how we might live our own lives faithfully.

In her essay “The Soil That Is Scripture,” Ellen Davis advocates reading the Bible with the virtues of humility, charity, and patience. She describes a “patient” reading of Scripture as akin to reading poetry, “ … slowing down to ponder each phrase, to wonder why this word was chosen and not another, how this line or paragraph or story builds on what precedes and leads into what follows.”3 The story of the garden is a wonderful place to practice this discipline of reading with patience. We tend to read and preach this story as if it is about one topic alone: sin. Sin is indeed a critical theme for Genesis 2-3, and I commend to you the many excellent evaluations of the topic in other commentaries.4 But this text also presents an opportunity to reflect not just on particular theological themes, but also on the sheer art of biblical storytelling.

“Seeing” and “knowing” are key words throughout the text. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, their eyes are opened and they understand that they are naked, as discussed above. But even before partaking of the fruit, and after conversing with the serpent, Eve can see new things: “that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise…” (3:6). The encounter with this strange animal is already revelatory on its own. The story also connects the humans and the serpent via word choice; the word for “crafty” (‘arum), describing the serpent (3:1), is a pun on the word for “naked” (‘arummim), describing the humans (2:25). These are just a few of the elements of literary craft that reading the story “patiently” reveals.

Scripture continually challenges our presumptions about the Creator and creation alike. Every time we think we have a story figured out, something new will jump out, or our presumptions will be met with counter-testimonies. It can be difficult to bring fresh eyes to texts that are so familiar, and that are so freighted with hundreds of years’ worth of interpretation. Within the story-world of Genesis 2-3, the relationship of both God and the serpent to the “truth” is ambiguous. I do not ultimately think either God or the serpent is a liar, despite the discrepancies in each character’s speech. And yet, we must be willing to wrestle with those types of jarring questions, or else risk missing the newness, wonder, and possibility that listening to and for God’s word can bring.

The Bible is not the place to go if you want, like Joe Friday in the old TV show “Dragnet,” “just the facts, ma’am.” The Bible is not a collection of facts. It is a collection of stories, poems, songs, prayers, and remembrances. It invites us to dwell over its details, revel in its beauty, and reflect on its difficult questions. The wonder of biblical storytelling is itself worthy of proclamation.5 In the Dickinson poem quoted at the beginning of this commentary, telling the truth “slant” is not advocacy for trying to pull the wool over the eyes of our neighbors. Instead, Dickinson describes Truth — with a capital T — as so “dazzling” that we must receive it “gradually,” or else be blinded by its grandeur. Perhaps this is why Scripture is often such a puzzle; the fullness of God’s Truth is too much to chew in one bite.


Notes:

1 For the full text of this poem, see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/56824.

2 Both singular and plural translations (“like God” or “like gods”) are grammatically defensible here, but the plural more closely parallels the plural echo in 3:22, “like us.”

3 Ellen F. Davis, “The Soil That is Scripture,” in Engaging Biblical Authority: Perspectives on the Bible as Scripture (ed. William P. Brown; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 36-44.

4 The Working Preacher commentaries by Juliana Claassens (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1978), Dennis Olson (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=868), and Frank Yamada (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=35) are very helpful in this regard, either by tackling the question of sin or offering up additional, related themes.

5 For more on biblical wonder, see the excellent book by William P. Brown, Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 32

Jerome Creach

Psalm 32 is one of the six psalms the church traditionally identified for the rite of penance and to help model prayers of confession (the others are Psalms 6; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143).

Therefore, the psalm is quite appropriate for use on the first Sunday of Lent.1

As with many of the so-called penitential psalms, however, Psalm 32 does not offer confession of sin though confession and penance are primary themes. The psalm does not so much make confession as it teaches why confession is crucial, how to make it, and the nature and extent of its benefits. It teaches these lessons by means of a prayer of thanksgiving for healing (verses 3-5).

The psalm begins with a double beatitude that declares “happy” those who know God’s forgiveness (verses. 1-2). This contributes to a major theme in the Psalms and particularly in Book I of the Psalter in which the word “happy” (Hebrew ?ashrê) frames the section (see Psalms 1:1; 2:12; 40:1).2 The translation “happy” may be misleading given the modern understanding of this word. Happiness here refers to the joy and contentment of depending on God. Thus, some translations prefer the more traditional “blessed.” The word “happy,” however, gives the preacher opportunity to redefine this word for the congregation. For those who seek God’s forgiveness, the experience of divine pardon and being reconciled with God are the primary marks of “happiness.”

Verses 1-2 include four poetic lines. The first three emphasize the lord as forgiving agent, with the third making a direct statement: “Happy are those to whom the lord imputes no iniquity” (verse 2a). The fourth line, however, identifies the person’s stance before God as a source of happiness: “in whose spirit there is no deceit” (verse 2b). Thus, the focus on confession of sin fits with the Psalter’s central concern for dependence on God in that confession is part of the humility necessary to live rightly before God.

In verses 3-5 the psalmist recalls sickness and the prayer offered to God for relief. The prayer the psalm reports implies that God caused the bodily ailment because of the psalmist’s sinfulness (“your hand was heavy upon me,” verse 4a). Healing came after confession (verse 5a) as the result of forgiveness (verse 5b). The remainder of the psalm uses this experience to instruct others in how to stand before God: “let all who are faithful offer prayer” (verse 6); “do not be like a horse or a mule” (verse 9); “be glad in the lord and rejoice, O righteous” (verse 11).

It is tempting to read verses 3-5 as an expression of a narrow retribution theology. According to this theology, God strikes sinners with bodily ailments because of their misdeeds. A close reading of the entire psalm, however, requires a more nuanced understanding of sin, sickness, and confession.

Prayer is characteristic of the faithful and is a primary sign of their dependence on God; by calling on God, they find in God a “hiding place” in time of trouble (verses 6-7). This is the nature of those the psalm calls “righteous” and “upright” (verse 11). In other psalms the psalmist complains that the wicked, who do not call out to God, are sound of flesh (Psalm 73:4, “their bodies are sound and sleek”). To be sure, the psalmist insists this will not always be the case (Psalm 73:17-20). But at present the wicked seem unaffected by God’s judgment because they simply give it no weight.

Therefore, Psalm 32 suggests that physical infirmity is not so much God’s punishment of sin as it is the natural result of a sick spirit, and only those aware of that inner imbalance feel the accompanying physical malady. So ironically it is the righteous who suffer from sin because they are aware of God’s judgment, while the wicked simply ignore it. The righteous also confess their sins precisely because they feel the authority of God on their lives and thus find healing and wholeness.

Verses 6-7 continue to address to God by drawing the psalmist’s experience of confession together with that of all the faithful. NRSV interprets the verb in verse 6 as a jussive that expresses a wish for all people of faith to offer prayer (verse 6). Equally plausible is that the verb simply states the typical practice of the pious.

The word for “faithful” (hasidîm) in the Psalter has the connotation of “pious ones” or “saints” (Psalms 30:5; 31:24; 37:28; 85:9; 149:1, 5). Whether a wish or a statement of the current state of affairs, the psalm makes clear that the faithful are those who pray and confess their sins. As Calvin says, they “betake themselves to prayer, which is the true sacrifice of faith.”3 The psalmist reinforces this connection with assurance that God is a “hiding place” (see similar references to God as “refuge” as in Psalm 2:12). God preserves the psalmist from trouble and surrounds him with joy (verse 7).

In the final portion of the psalm (verses 8-11) the psalmist instructs the audience directly in the benefits of prayer and confession: “do not be like a horse or a mule” (verse 9); “be glad in the lord,” “rejoice,” “shout for joy” (verse 11). Verse 10 gives the primary motivation: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the lord.”

It may not be coincidence that the word meaning “I will instruct” (?askil) in verse 8 comes from the same root as the label for the psalm, “a maskil.” What is certain is the psalm as a whole has this purpose. The primary lesson is that repentance and a contrite heart are crucial for the life of faith and are characteristic of the righteous (see also. Psalm 51:17 [19]).


Notes:

See Clare Costley King’oo, Miserere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012)

J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Shape of Book I of the Psalter and the Shape of Human Happiness,” in The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception (eds. Peter W. Flint and Patrick D. Miller, Jr.; Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 340-48.

John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 2 (trans. James Anderson; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 532.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:12-19

Brian Peterson

In Adam’s story Paul hears how sin gained dominion over humanity.

The paradox that Paul maintains is that although we can’t escape sin since we are connected to Adam (“sin came into the world through one man,” verse 12a), we are also each our own Adam or Eve, very willingly turning away from God (“because all have sinned,” verse 12b). Thus, we are responsible for our sinning, even if we aren’t able to stop it.

We’re stuck under sin’s tyranny. The result is the reign of death, sin’s ally, over us. However, Adam’s act of disobedience has been overcome by the more powerful obedience of Jesus (his faithful death on the cross). Just as we once had our identity and our deadly destiny in Adam, so now we have a new identity and a new destiny of righteousness and life in Christ.

As we consider this text, two issues in particular demand our careful attention. The first arises from our own cultural context, and the second from the wording of the text itself. First, we need to be thoughtful in how we talk about Adam and death in the context of our understanding of the evolutionary world.

In the past 200 years, we have learned that for billions of years before any humans or their sin were present, the world’s evolving life was built upon death and extinction. No naïve-sounding talk about Adam as a historical individual will suffice in our context. Augustine complained about preachers in his day who did not take seriously enough the astronomical science of the time. Augustine said that, in doing so, not only where they careless with the truth about God’s world, but that they also appeared to be ignorant and thus brought unnecessary ridicule and rejection of the gospel. We out to be careful not to repeat that error by how we speak about Adam and death.

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is a theological metaphor describing what it means to belong to a humanity in broken relationship with God and with the rest of the world. The gospel of Christ does not depend on a literal “first couple,” or on the absurd claim that there was no death in the world before humans and their sin. It isn’t only an awareness of the billions of years of life’s evolution that points this out to us.

Throughout the Old Testament, “to be created is to be finite and mortal. Such limitation is not evil but simply the condition of being a creature.”1  Perhaps theology’s traditional use of Romans 5 to make all the world’s death hinge on human sin is far too self-centered (even idolatrous), and in the end has tended to remove creation itself from our thinking about God’s saving mercy (and so also from our own care).

What do we do, then, with Paul’s use of the Genesis narrative here in Romans 5? Even though unable to affirm with Paul a historical Adam or that death begins with human sin, we know all too clearly that human sin does in fact bring death — non-evolutionary, unproductive, alienating death — into the lives of our neighbors, ourselves, and the rest of creation. Even if we can’t assume with Paul an individual Adam, we can still affirm that sin is rooted in each of us (if not by Adam, then by the self-serving evolutionary instincts that we joyfully indulge), and that we all engage in the intertwined reality of sin and death.

Paul claims that God has reversed and remedied this situation through Christ. Our affirmation of that claim does not depend on either Adam or “the Fall” as historical events. What God intends for creation and for humanity is seen not in an “original” deathless paradise, but in Christ himself. In his death and resurrection, we see that God intends and promises freedom from death, even though death was part of this world from the beginning.

Salvation is not simply a return to some paradisaical origin, but a healing of God’s beloved creation so that it attains its final goal in Christ. Perhaps the perspective afforded to us by Darwin’s insights can help us to hear and proclaim the depth of that healing. In Christ, God has begun the new creation and the end of our alienation from the Source of all life.

The second issue raised by this text which deserves our attention is how Paul does not allow the healing brought by Jesus to be smaller than the reality of sin and death. Instead, God’s life-giving grace “abounded all the more” (verse 20). The parallelism in verse 18 is precise and insistent; both the past effect of Adam’s sin, and the present / future effect of Jesus’ righteousness, are said to be “for all.”

Failing to read the “all” as equally inclusive in both halves of this verse would destroy the power of Paul’s argument. However, Paul is not claiming a simple balance between Adam and Christ. Rather, in Christ, God has overcome the effects of Adam’s sin. Paul says that the life and justification which come through Jesus encompass all the world. We should be careful not to blunt that claim with any of our caveats or conditions.

Our own questions about “universal salvation,” however, may not have been uppermost on Paul’s mind. Paul’s primary concern in this text is to show that salvation is only “in Christ.” God through Christ has decisively altered the reality of all the world, and no one can escape that.

You cannot remove yourself from the world in which God has acted through Christ. You can ignore it, you can despise it, but you can’t change it. Paul assumes that people make decisions and that they are held responsible for those. But you cannot avoid being part of the world which God created and which now God has decided to redeem in Christ. That good news is deeper than sin and death.


Notes:

1 Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts. Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury, 2014), 219.