Lectionary Commentaries for March 5, 2014
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Judith Jones

Today’s Gospel reading strikes many as an ironic choice for Ash Wednesday.

Jesus tells the crowd assembled to hear his sermon on the mount that they should avoid showing off their piety. After hearing his words read in church, we are marked with ashes, and then we walk out bearing the sign of the cross on our foreheads. If that isn’t a public display of piety, what is?

NRSV’s translation of the opening words may be a bit misleading. The Greek does not refer to piety in the sense of overzealous religiosity. It actually says, “Beware of doing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.” The word translated as “righteousness” can also mean “justice.” Jesus certainly is not warning his hearers against righteous acts. On the contrary, God commands believers to do justice (Micah 6:8), and Jesus himself, just a few verses earlier, commended those who suffer for righteousness’ sake (Matthew 5: 10) and said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

In Matthew 6, Jesus addresses three ways that the Jews of his day practiced their faith: through charitable giving, through prayer, and through fasting. He does not suggest that there is anything wrong with these practices. Far from it! Each section begins not “If you … ” but, “Whenever you … ” Jesus presupposes that his hearers will give, and pray, and fast. He corrects not the actions themselves, but his followers’ motives for doing them.

The first part of today’s reading deals with almsgiving, or “doing acts of mercy.” Biblical law lays out social structures such as debt forgiveness, fair treatment of workers, just distribution of cropland, and interest-free loans that are designed to prevent poverty. In Jesus’ day, however, the greed and oppressive labor practices of the rich had left many of the common people struggling to survive. Jesus expects his hearers to show mercy toward the poor by helping them financially. God desires justice, but when society is unjust, the merciful must protect and provide for the poor.

The truly merciful, however, do not call public attention to their acts of mercy. Jesus satirically refers to those who sound a trumpet before them when they make a charitable donation. There is no evidence that such trumpet-sounding was an actual practice. What we have here is hyperbole, a humorous description of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people make sure others notice how kind and generous they are to those less fortunate than themselves. Jesus was not alone in condemning such displays. The rabbis criticized those who humiliated the poor by their ostentatious giving.

Nevertheless, in the honor/shame society of Jesus’ day, public displays of charity were the social norm for anyone who had wealth to spare. Reputations depended on public acknowledgement of generosity and good behavior. In such a context, Jesus’ warning against giving in order to be seen and honored by others was a radical word. We might do well to reflect on the ways that our own giving practices shame the needy and polish public perceptions of the rich.  

After warning against charitable giving for social profit, Jesus turns to the topic of prayer. Once again he focuses on motives. Jesus warns against hypocritical prayer, but he clearly does not forbid corporate or formal prayer. A few verses later in this same passage Jesus teaches his community of disciples the Lord’s Prayer as a model to memorize and use. Although in today’s reading Jesus advises praying behind a closed door, his focus is not on where one prays, but on why and how.

Genuine prayer is not a theatrical display; it is a conversation with “your Father who is in secret.” His language suggests a loving family relationship. If I wanted to tell my mother, “I love you,” would I shout the words in the street for all the neighbors to hear, or would I hug my mother and murmur the words into her ear? Jesus says our prayers should be intimate conversations with our heavenly parent, not stage acts intended to provoke public amazement at our verbal skills and our lung capacity. Real love focuses on the beloved, not on the onlookers.

From teaching about prayer Jesus turns to commands about fasting. Other passages in the Bible associate fasting with repentance and with occasions that call for especially focused and intense prayer. Isaiah 58 says that the fast God chooses is a fast from our habits of abusing and oppressing other human beings in order to clothe and feed ourselves in the manner that we feel we have earned. Jesus fasted in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan, and he clearly assumes that his followers will fast as well. As before, Jesus warns against practicing this form of righteousness to gain praise from other people. Fasting that wins God’s approval is inconspicuous. The person who fasts should look just like anyone else going about her normal business, dressed and ready for work.

 Jesus’ final words in today’s reading warn against “treasuring up treasures on earth.” In context “treasures” refers both to other peoples’ good opinions and to material goods. The Greek phrase used indicates that Jesus is telling his hearers to stop doing something they are already doing: Stop storing up treasures on earth, where they will be eaten away. Treasure up heavenly treasures instead. How can someone store up treasure in heaven? One way, according to Jesus, is by selling one’s goods and giving them to the poor (Matthew 19:21). If God’s approval is our greatest treasure, then we will direct our hearts and minds and wills to loving God and our neighbor. Then, indeed, we will have treasure in heaven.

First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Terence E. Fretheim

The assignment of this text to Ash Wednesday, while dependent on a long tradition, is problematic. It is unlikely that this text is concerned with the repentance of sin.

Joel 1 and 2 are probably parallel chapters, referring to the same locust plague. Joel 2 may reflect a fuller experience of the plague; the urgency of the call is intensified and an alarm is sounded (see a similar description of a locust plague in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, 341-352). God calls the community to be on the alert.

God created a world with a potential for natural disasters. In that sense, God “sent” the plague (2:25). The plague is a sign of the coming day of the Lord, a central theme of which God speaks (see 2:1-2, 10-11). The language that the day “is coming, is near” suggests that, if the present severity of the plague continues, it would mean catastrophe (= day of the Lord).  

The sounding of the alarm refers to sentinels on the city walls watching for the approach of the enemy; when sighted, they would blow the ram’s horn (shofar) to alert the city. The sounding of the trumpet could at the same time be a call to worship (1:14; 2:15-16). The one who “sent” the plague warns those who would experience its disastrous effects!  

The imagery for the plague is a day of clouds and thick darkness. This image refers to the effect of swarms of locusts that cover the sky. The scale and density of the plague is likened to a marauding “army” (2:2, 5). The army image for the locusts is continued throughout 2:4-11, ending with a reference to God as the head of the army. Indeed, the locust plague is referred to as God’s army. The locusts leave the land a wilderness, contrasted with Eden (2:3). This lament is not prayed to prevent the plague from happening, but to rescue the community that is suffering through the disaster “as we speak” (see 2:1).

This text is commonly identified as a call to repentance (see especially 2:12-14). But is this correct? When repentance is the point, the explicitness of the sin is usually made clear. But Joel names no sin of which the people should repent and does not cite the reference to forgiveness in the quotation from Exodus 34:6-7 (2:13). Rather, the people are called to focus on God with all their heart and soul and plead for God to act on their behalf (typical of laments, see Psalm 44). They are called to “turn” to God in prayer to save them from the destructive effects of the plague and to restore the situation to normal. 

Such a communal act in a time of crisis would traditionally have been accompanied by “fasting, weeping, mourning, rending of hearts.” The tearing of garments is a sign of mourning (2 Samuel 3:31). The action requested of God’s is relief from the crisis (note the detail of 2:18-27) not forgiveness of sin. The common use of this text in Christian liturgies at the beginning of the Lenten season does consider these words to be such a call, but the absence of reference to sin in the text makes this interpretation unlikely.

The people are invited by God to direct their appeal to a certain kind of God: merciful, gracious, slow to anger, steadfast in love, and ready to relent from doing harm (the NRSV’s “punish,” is not a helpful translation). This well-known passage, rooted in God’s self-identification to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7a (but not 34:7b!), is most fully paralleled in Jonah 4:2, with partial uses elsewhere (Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Nahum 1:3). The use of this creed in varying Old Testament contexts witnesses to its ongoing helpfulness for God’s people in various seasons of life.

“Who knows” how God will respond to this lament (2:14; see Jeremiah 26:2-3). Not even God’s own prophet is certain what the future holds! The “Who knows?” seems to express a tentative confidence. God does not (micro)manage the activities of natural forces. At such times one is simply called to trust in God to be active on behalf of the well-being of the community. 

The plague has occurred because it is part of the way in which the world works and God is the one who enables or mediates such an event. The text does not assume that the people must have sinned to deserve this disaster (see Job 1-2). The prayer is for God to “leave a blessing behind him,” namely, “a grain offering and a drink offering” (2:14); that is, crops from the fields would once again become available for temple offerings (see 1:13, 16). Notably, the offerings are for God’s sake; a reversal of the plague will benefit God! 

The call of 1:14 is essentially repeated in 2:15-16, only with greater specification of the participants. The inclusivity of the invitation matches the range of concern and the issues at stake. The call places emphasis upon turning to God and taking specific liturgical actions. Note the detail: the persons, the place, the behavior of the priests, and the prayer to be spoken. The call is to “sanctify” a fast as well as the congregation. That is, the people are to solemnly prepare for the occasion by abstaining from eating and work and to humble themselves before God. The text does not say whether the people respond.   

The priests are then called to assemble the community and to lead them in the lament (2:17, as in 1:14-20). The language is typical of the laments of the innocent sufferer in the Psalter (see, e.g., Psalm 79:4-10). The issue voiced is God’s reputation among the nations of the world (see Exodus 32:11). If the future of God’s people is threatened, it will become common among the nations to say (= a byword) that this God does not care for God’s own and hence they will be put to shame (see Jeremiah 24:9; Ezekiel 36:20-21). No God “worth his salt” would allow such a thing to happen to his chosen people and come off badly to outsiders. Indeed, 2:17 gives reasons to God to deliver the people because of what the nations might think of Israel’s God. 


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Joel LeMon

Most psalms picture the supplicant as an essentially righteous person.

Yet Psalm 51 presents matters very differently. Plagued by guilt, the psalmist seeks salvation through radical divine intervention. The psalmist longs to be created anew. 

Tradition has long counted Psalm 51 among a handful of penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). As such, this text has provided a liturgical resource for centuries, as readers have heard their own anguish in the psalmist’s words and shared the psalmist’s desire for a completely new start — one that only God can initiate.

David’s penitence after his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:1-17 fits the tone of the psalm perfectly. While it is possible that David actually wrote this psalm, it is not necessary to assume so. The body of the psalm does not actually mention any names. Likewise, it does not identify any particular sin at all, sexual or otherwise. Most scholars suggest that the superscriptions in the Psalter came about secondarily as the psalms were being edited and collected into books. So David was probably associated with the psalm at some point after its composition.

Linking the psalm primarily with David’s life story can actually limit the applicability of this psalm to its modern readers. Indeed, when this psalm is bound tightly into a narrative structure, one is less likely to hear one’s own voice in the prayer. In fact, the openness of the language of the psalm actually resists such a carefully circumscribed narrative framework.

Moreover, when one uses the superscription as the interpretive key for unlocking Psalm 51, there is also a strong tendency to elevate sexual sin above all others as the ultimate source of guilt, shame, and suffering. The superscription does name sexual sin explicitly (“after [David] had gone in to Bathsheba”).

Yet as the story plays itself out in 2 Samuel, David is guilty of far more than just sexual sin. He shirks his kingly duties, lies, murders, and exhibits astonishing arrogance. So, from a homiletical standpoint, if one does decide to interpret the psalm explicitly as an element in David’s life, one must be careful not to focus on sexual sin to the exclusion of the insidious web of destructive behaviors that David displays in this episode.

In fact, still other factors militate against associating the psalm solely with David. The last verses of Psalm 51 (sadly not included in the lectionary reading) postdate David by at least 400 years. These verses presume an exilic or post-exilic context as they describe rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Verses 18-19 were thus added by later readers who reinterpreted the voice of the penitent individual in verses 1-17 as an expression of the voice of the entire community. In a testament to the power of the psalmist’s rhetoric (whoever he or she was), a personal plea for renewal became a communal one.

The psalmist seeks a new, clean heart. In Hebrew anthropology, the heart was understood as the seat of one’s volition. So the psalmist actually desires for his will to be oriented toward what God wills. Only God can create such a radical reorientation. In fact, the word “create” in verse 10 is bara’, a term that expresses an exclusively divine activity in the Old Testament. No one else can create in this way.

In addition to imagery of recreation and reorientation, the psalm employs the language of cleansing and purification (verses 2, 7, 9-10). This imagery draws directly from the realm of ritual. In that context, sinful actions were understood to have a polluting effect.

The ritual system presumes that pollution from sin is incompatible with the holiness and glory of God. Thus sin/pollution ultimately separates one from God. And since God’s presence (cf. verse 11) was associated with protection, sin has horrible consequences; when God is far off, trouble, distress, and violence are close at hand. Avoiding sin was understood as a way to keep God close and enjoy the blessings of God’s presence.

The ritual system provided solutions to the problem of the polluting effects of sin. By dedicating costly items to God (animals, incense, and grains) one could mitigate the effects of sin and cleanse the pollution, thereby preserving one’s proximity to God. Hyssop (verse 7) was a plant or shrub used in such rituals of purification. For example, the Israelites used hyssop to spread the blood of the Passover lamb on the lintel and doorposts of their houses (Exodus 12:22; see also Leviticus 14:4 and Numbers 19:6).

While the psalm’s language clearly reflects the world of ritual, the psalmist also manifests a tension about the ultimate efficacy of the sacrificial system. A similar tension appears elsewhere in the Psalter (e.g., Psalm 50) and more widely throughout the prophetic literature.

When a sacrifice does not reflect the actual relationship between humans and God, it ceases to be effective. Put differently, if one’s will is not reconciled with God’s will, then sacrifice does no good. Offering an animal is not the same as having God recreate and transform one’s heart. This transformation of the will is what ultimately delights God.

Indeed, the exilic or post-exilic addition to the psalm (verses 18-19) suggest that the sacrificial system is not ultimately broken, but can be restored through “right sacrifices,” when God recreates the entire community in a right relationship with God and with each other.  

Through contrition and purification, the psalmist anticipates that God can transform the vilest sinner into the most dedicated member of the choir. Though the sins go unnamed, the psalmist frequently confesses his profound guilt (verses 1-5, 9).

One should not base a doctrine of original sin on the psalmist’s statement that he was “a sinner when my mother conceived me” (verse 5). Rather this verse suggests that guilt weighs so heavily on the psalmist that he cannot remember a time when he was free from it. The sin seems to stretch all the way back to birth.

The psalmist echoes the birth imagery of verse 5 when he pleads that God would create him anew in verse 10. This complete transformation will have lasting results, not simply for the psalmist but for the entire community who hears him. With a new will oriented toward God, the psalmist finds his true voice. The restored, renewed, reborn heart erupts in song extolling God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Richard Carlson

Having this particular biblical passage as part of the Ash Wednesday lectionary texts is a bit strange for a few reasons.

First, the lectionary boundaries start about halfway through a unit that runs from 5:11 through 6:10. Second, the lectionary boundaries ignore the theological foundation of what God has done in and through the death of Christ, which Paul had established in 5:14-20a. Third, the contextual focus of Paul’s argument is the cruciform ministry to which God has called him (a focus which began back in 2:14). Fourth, the reason Paul is focusing on his God-given, cruciform ministry is because he and the Corinthians are in a rather conflicted relationship.

Some in Corinth have besmirched Paul and his ministry as they have fallen under the theological and ministerial spell of those Paul sardonically labels “super apostles,” but who are in fact false apostles (see 11:4-6, 12-15). Nevertheless, because the text as constructed by the lectionary focuses on both vertical and horizontal reconciled relationships as well as on the dynamics of living out the cross in daily life, this text may be quite appropriate for an Ash Wednesday setting.

Paul’s opening appeal in 5:20b flows directly out of what he has just established regarding reconciliation in 5:17-19. Christians participate in the reality of God’s new creation, i.e., the new age of salvation and the relationships it creates (5:17a). In the old age we lived for ourselves and our own self-interests as part of our sin-centered existence. This meant our lives were at enmity toward God and toward each other. Because Christ died for us and his love now controls us, we no longer live for ourselves but for Christ and Christ’s life giving agenda on behalf of others (5:14-15). Thus the old things passed away and all things have become new since we are part of God’s new creation (5:17b).

This new reality is the result of God’s reconciling activity in which God was at work in and through Christ reconciling the cosmos to God’s own self in order to eradicate the enmity which our sin established (5:18-19a). God then entrusted the message and ministry of reconciliation to persons such as Paul so that God’s reconciling act in Christ’s death would be actualized in the lives of those who receive Paul’s ministry which included Paul’s Corinthian audience (5:19b). Through his God-given ministry Paul functions as God’s ambassador so that the divine reconciling appeal goes forth (5:20a).

Thus Paul’s appeal in 5:20b (the opening of our text) is really God’s own appeal that the Corinthians are to be reconciled to God. While the Corinthians are already Christians, this particular reconciliation appeal involves their need to be reconciled to the reality of the cross, the theology of the cross, and the ministry of the cross instead of pursuing a theology of glory delivered by a ministry of glory.

It should be noted that Paul’s use of the imperative mood, “be reconciled,” is couched in the passive voice not the active voice. In other words Paul is not commanding the Corinthians to do the reconciling but to drop their defenses so that God may again do the reconciling work, just as God did the original reconciling work through the cross.

To undergird this point, Paul references the three stage pattern and results of the cross (5:21). Stage one involves Christ’s sinless, i.e., as pre-existence Son of God, Christ was not under the power or influence of sin. In stage two, through the cross event Christ takes on our sinful condition as he dies on behalf of our sins (see 1 Corinthians 15:3). This initiates the exchange of stage three. We now participate in the divinely established right relationships (i.e., God’s righteousness) of new creation. Such reconciled, right relationships are both vertical and horizontal in nature.

Unfortunately, the Corinthians have messed up these relationships and are in danger of receiving God’s grace in vain (6:1). Thus Paul continues to be God’s co-worker who appeals to the Corinthians to be embraced by God’s reconciling work anew as this is time of God’s salvific acceptance of them (6:2). This also means that they are to understand themselves and their lives vis-à-vis the cross. Paul spells this out in the depiction of his own ministry in 6:3-10. Because Paul understands both ministry and Christian life in terms of the cross, his words about what his ministry entails in 6:3-10 may also be applicable to the lives of all Christians especially in an Ash Wednesday context.

Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul is stressing the cruciform reality of both ministry and Christian living. That is, it is ministry and life formed by the cross and in the form of the cross. Paul is also countering a theology of glory that falsely promises that if we believe the right message from the right (and glorious) messengers everything in our lives will work.

Instead, Paul commends himself as a cruciform minister which means that afflictions, distress, stress-filled circumstances, targets of abuse, sleepless nights, and difficult situations go with the territory of living according to the ways, means, and values of the cross (6:4b-5). Yet God’s power at work through the presence of the Spirit empowers us to press on with a character grounded in sincerity, discerning wisdom, non-anxiousness, generosity and truthfulness (6:6-7).

Such cross-grounded dispositions are what Paul calls the weapons of righteousness (6:7b) because they are the stuff of our right relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. Life marked by the cross involves the paradoxical existence Paul describes in 6:8-10. It stands at odds with a prosperity gospel promising a great, successful life in which everything turns out fine for us. Paul knows that difficulties, challenges, setbacks, grief, and even nothingness are aspects of living out the cross in our daily lives and ministry.

Yet at the same time, because we rely on the reconciling power of Jesus Christ crucified there is a joyful richness to life. Thus the honor we receive comes not in our status or from what we achieve but in the status Christ takes on by becoming sin so that what he achieves for our lives and our living involves right relationships with God, with Christ, with others, and with ourselves.