Lectionary Commentaries for March 1, 2017
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Warren Carter

The heart of this passage is found in an accurate translation of the key word in Matthew 6:1, “Beware of practicing your justice before others.”

A number of translations translate dikaiosyne as “piety.” This term, though, is too narrow, often suggesting only the personal and spiritual. The term “justice” has a much broader sense of societal practices, relationships, and structures.

The same term appears in Matthew 5:10, 20, and 6:33 where it appropriately translates as righteousness or justice. Scenes in 5:1-16, 21-48 have presented examples or vignettes of the “greater justice/righteousness” that Jesus’ disciples are to exhibit in their identity and lifestyle. The translation of “justice” frames the three actions in 6:2-21 — almsgiving, prayer, fasting — as further acts of justice that engage and challenge societal structures and practices.

Right Deed, Right Reason

Matthew 6:1 announces the general principle of how disciples are to live this life of doing justice. Doing justice stems from and reflects their commitment to God. Disciples are not to be motivated by nor oriented toward approval from a human audience. In the honor-shame society of the first century, a person’s good reputation was gained by doing public, honorable actions. These actions displayed a person’s wealth, power, and status and were visible to and esteemed and honored by others. They created dependence among beneficiaries to reciprocate the benefit. Jesus’ warning — beware — strikes at a fundamental societal practice. Yet it re-inscribes it by replacing the court of public opinion with God’s favor.

It is important to emphasize that there is no debate here about whether to do works of justice. The focus is on motivation. Jesus expects disciples to do the works of justice outlined for example in Matthew 5. To do justice/righteousness is to work for a society of restructured societal relationships and fair access to resources. It is to do mercy, make peace, to be transforming salt and light, to seek reconciliation, for men to treat women justly without lust, to honor marriage commitments, to practice integrity, to resist evil creatively and non-violently, to love enemies. Jesus requires such actions and adds three more in Matthew 6:1-21, but they are not to be performed to gain public esteem. Their reward is divine approval.


The first of the three illustrative acts of justice involves almsgiving (Matthew 6:2-4). The root of the word and practice is “mercy.” Almsgiving performs mercy. That disciples do practical mercy is assumed. It was a standard practice in Jewish texts (Proverbs 25:21-22; Tobias 1:16-17, 4:6-11). In the Roman world some charity toward the poor occurred but often as self-regarding to enhance the reputation and honor of the giver in contexts of reciprocity and patron-client relationships. These acts of charity were not intended to change social stratification or to ensure just access to resources. Quite the opposite. They maintained societal hierarchy but provided selective relief from its damage. Some refused assistance to the “undeserving” poorest or destitute.

Jesus’ instruction has a particular twist. Matthew’s audience most likely comprised a majority of folks who were poor to varying degrees. These are people with limited life-sustaining resources. What does the command to the poor to practice almsgiving signify? For this audience, shared resources provide a mercy-motivated survival strategy, assisting one another not out of abundance and surplus but out of everyday limited resources. Almsgiving is an act of community solidarity, performed in secret for divine approval. It is not to be performed, for example, out of fear or to ensure reciprocal help from others when disaster strikes (Matthew 6:3-4).

Despite its appeal to doing merciful justice, the passage is ironically less than merciful in its nasty caricature of Jewish practices (Matthew 6:2). There is no evidence that synagogues attracted attention by sounding trumpets. And nor were they peopled with any more hypocrites than any other religious group, including churches. The rhetoric is nasty polemic, not informed research. It functions to define the Jesus-group over against synagogues. The nastiness must not be replicated in our preaching.

Prayer as Justice

The second act of justice concerns prayer (Matthew 6:5-6). Again, an uncharitable comparison with and caricature of synagogue practices functions to highlight a distinctive practice directed toward God. Verses 7-15, excluded from this lectionary selection, show prayer to be an integral partner in the doing of justice with its petitions for God’s empire, will, daily bread, forgiveness of debts, and divine action in our world.


The third act of justice concerns fasting (Matthew 6:16-21). Given that fasting does not seem to be widely practiced in many contemporary faith communities, many of us are not tempted to parade our fasting in public. Yet fasting is about our relationships with and use of material resources, especially but not exclusively food. Access to adequate amounts of nutritionally-balanced food was a challenge for many in the ancient world. Food access and supply reflected structures and practices of imperial power.

Not surprisingly, prophetic traditions link fasting with acts of social justice. They protest fasting when it is associated with injustice. Isaiah denounces fasting when it is accompanied by “serving your own interest…and oppress(ing) all your workers…to quarrel and to strike with a wicked fist.” By contrast, Isaiah redefines fasting as,

“to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go
free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the
homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide
yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:2-10 selections).

Such actions are consistent with the criterion of merciful practices employed in the judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46 — feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, housing the homeless etc.

This concern with justice in the use of resources for the good of others is reinforced by verses 19-21. Disciples are not to be distracted from doing acts of justice by either the lack or the abundance of material resources. Acts that seek just societal relationships and structures are to reflect the heart’s commitment to doing God’s will.

First Reading

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

Walter C. Bouzard

While gallons of interpretive ink have been spilt over the historical locus of the Prophet Joel, little can be said with certainty save that the book appears to be a post-exilic work and that it may have composed at the dawn of the 4th century BCE.

Even if we could be certain about the books historical provenance, such background matters inspire few preachers and far fewer parishioners. That is a good thing! On the other hand, Joel’s urgent summons to repentance, sounded anew on Ash Wednesday, holds homiletical promise.

As often happens in the lectionary, the reading is awkwardly divided. Joel 2:1 initiates an inclusio that concludes with verse 11. The prophet calls for the trumpet of alarm to be sounded on Zion because of the impending day of the LORD (verse 1), a day that is terrible and unendurable (verse 11). In between, Joel describes the army of the LORD and the devastating consequence of its arrival.

With verses 12 to 17, however, the threat is replaced by the LORD’s plea that the people might avoid catastrophe and “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with mourning” (verse 12), and that the people might “rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

This appeal is remarkable in several ways.

First, the address is aimed to the people as a whole and not to individuals. The imperatives “return” (verse 12) and “rend” (verse 13) are given as a second person plurals as are the suffixes for “heart” (“y’all’s heart”, verses 12, 13) and clothing (verse 13, “y’all’s garments). Indeed, the collective character of this call to repentance is sustained in the remaining verses of the pericope: the “people” are summoned and the “congregation” will be sanctified. Moreover, and lest we be confused, the prophet specifies that the ritual gathering involves gathering the aged, children, suckling infants, and even the newly wed who are summoned from their bridal bed (verse 16). In short, none are omitted or excused from public repentance.

Such a public lamentation and display of contrition is a far cry from the individualism that characterizes overly much of our ritual repentance. True, our liturgies for such occasions are punctuated with first person language (“we have sinned against you”), but unless I am very mistaken the “thoughts, words, and deeds” that we rue are private misdeeds, not public ones. It is a rare congregation that would confess that its “thoughts, words, and deeds” had been contrary to the will and intention of God. And yet it was precisely to such a communal return that Joel summoned his auditors.

A second remarkable aspect of the summons of this passage is Joel’s calling to mind just who was this LORD with whom the people had to do. Verse 13 recalls the LORD’s self-disclosing revelation of Exodus 34:6-7. By reminding his hearers that this God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (verse 13), the prophet evokes what Walter Brueggemann has described as a well-known “credo of adjectives”1 that intends to evoke hope in the God of fidelity and grace.

That this God whose nature and character it is to “relent from punishing” will do so, however, remains a matter of hope, both then and ever. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?” We dare not presume the grace of God. We may, however, expectantly hope for such grace. And we may and ought to trust that the God who has revealed God’s own divine intentions in the person of Jesus Christ will hear and leave us with a blessing.

How, then, might a preacher bring this text before her congregation?

Strangely — and in my mind, wonderfully — the specific sins of Joel’s people are never articulated. We can only surmise that they collectively wandered or abandoned something fundamental in their relationship with the LORD. The result of their infidelity already had national effects (described in Joel 1). Joel assured his audience that those events would pale in comparison to the culminating cosmic devastation coming with God’s army (Joel 2:10) on the impending great and terrible day of the LORD.

If the corporate sins of Joel’s nation are not clear, events in North America and elsewhere in the world have newly brought to public awareness the fact that there is much for which communities of faith need to repent. Not just in the United States — but plainly in the United States — we have witnessed repeatedly the public face of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, hate, and systemic violence. One need not look far to find examples of unbridled greed — corporate or individual — that have wreaked injustice and pain on communities of people and on creation itself.

By in large, communities of faith have been far too quiet, far too accommodating, and far too quiescent in our response.

Perhaps it is time we also repent.

In her book, The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness,2 Jennifer McBride proposes a way forward. Building upon the word of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, McBride urges communities of faith to adopt an ethic of repentance. Such an ethic emphatically does not mean adopting a posture of moral righteousness; instead, communities of faith are summoned to imitate Christ in as much as we take responsibility for the sin from which we cannot extricate ourselves and for which we are therefore guilty. In a typically intricate sentence, McBride writes:

“The responsible church-community obeys the command of God as expressed through the form of Christ, but within a creative process it freely discerns, first, the content of its confession (the particular sin/s it is convicted of) and, then, its ensuing repentant activity, which together become the church-community’s specific vocation of redemptive public engagement.”3

It seems unlikely that all of that will happen on Ash Wednesday! On the other hand, if the preacher can but follow the lead of Joel and help his or her church-community to hear the call to stand not over but beside the sinner — the racist, the misogynist, the xenophobe — the Lenten way of the cross will have surely and well begun.


1 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 213-28.

2 Jennifer McBride, The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

3 Ibid., 143.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Joel LeMon

Most psalms picture the supplicant as an essentially righteous person.1

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.

1. Commentary first published on this site on March 5, 2014.


Second Reading

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

Brian Peterson

The relationship between Paul and the congregation at Corinth has been strained, to say the least.

The Corinthians had welcomed the message and the ministry of newly-arrived preachers, whom Paul contemptuously calls “super-apostles.” The newcomers apparently embodied more socially admired standards of strength, authority, and beauty than Paul’s ministry did. They were repelled by how Paul’s ministry was marred by his manual labor, his habit of associating with the socially low, and his culturally awkward focus on Jesus’ crucifixion.

Paul has confronted them about this, and some reconciliation has begun. Still, in 2 Corinthians Paul feels the need to provide an extended defense of his ministry (1:12-7:4). Our text for Ash Wednesday is a highpoint in this reflection on how the gospel of the crucified Christ shapes the life of God’s people.

The opening phrase of our pericope (2 Corinthians 5:20b) and 6:1 echo one another, as Paul pleads with the Corinthians. If they break their relationship with Paul because they do not like his cross-shaped ministry, then they are also rejecting the gospel that Paul proclaimed to them. If they continue to judge Paul’s ministry by the criteria of the world, the criteria of humanly-defined success and status, then they are still enslaved to that old age that is already being dismantled by God’s new creation. Likewise, if we judge the church’s mission and ministry by our culture’s corporate criteria of growth, money, prosperity, and popularity, then the gospel has been “in vain” (6:1) among us as well.

The Corinthian church has, of course, already heard the gospel and experienced God’s reconciliation; they are “saints” (2 Corinthians 1:1). However, such reconciliation remains an ongoing process. So Paul appeals to this church to be reconciled to God, to be what God has already made them, by not turning away from the gospel of the cross which has shaped Paul’s ministry. This is also our call in Lent: to return to the reconciling mercy and love of God in Christ crucified. We return (daily!) to our baptism into that death of Jesus, and there we hear again the calling and the promise of God’s reconciliation.

It is important for us to recognize that Paul is pleading with the church. This is not a general description of Paul’s message to the “unbelievers,” but his continuing word to God’s people at Corinth. The gospel still reaches out to the Corinthians to reshape their lives. That sanctifying activity of God has become enfleshed in the relationship between Paul and this congregation. Thus, the Corinthians cannot reject that relationship without also rejecting the way in which God has been at work among them.

Paul is not willing to let them leave him, any more than he will turn his back on them, even though they are proving themselves fickle and frustrating. The gospel comes to us embodied in often messy human relationships, and we cannot simply dispose of them when they become inconvenient. The ministry of reconciliation has bound Paul to this community; they are his children, he is their father, and he cannot let them go.

Paul’s relationship with Corinth is a small picture of the brokenness of the world, and of God’s relentless pursuit of reconciliation. Paul’s words here are not simply a teaching about reconciliation. Rather, Paul’s proclamation is actually God’s own continuing appeal for reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20a). We carry this same reconciling word to the world and to each other, and because of that “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18) we too are called into such relationships, always broken and always on the road toward healing.

Between Paul’s appeals in 2 Corinthians 5:20 and 6:1 lies one of the New Testament’s most profound summaries of the gospel. Here, Paul talks about the church “becoming the righteousness of God.” This is not the same as Luther’s “wonderful exchange,” where Jesus takes on the burden of our sin and we receive Jesus’ own righteous status before God. This is not about “imputed righteousness;” it is not equivalent to saying that God the Judge declares us “righteous.” To communicate that, Paul elsewhere uses the phrase “righteousness from God.”

What Paul refers to here, “the righteousness of God,” describes something that God does: it is the saving faithfulness of God blessing all the world, as God had promised, through the offspring of Abraham. Now the church has been grafted into that promise. This is about the mission into which God calls the church, and it is a breathtaking claim. The mission of the church is nothing less than to become, in Christ, the embodiment of God’s faithfulness for the sake of the world (that is, to use another Pauline phrase, to be the body of Christ).

The Greek word for “righteousness” also means “justice.” Such righteousness/justice is not to be understood in terms of punishment, but as God’s activity of restoration, reconciliation, and new creation. It is God setting the world right again. The astounding claim of this text is that God has made, and continues to make, the church into that justice-working presence of God in and for the world.

For Paul, the claim that we are justified in Christ means that the justice which matters, the justice that is God’s intent for the cosmos, is an incarnate and cruciform justice. It longs not for the punishment and destruction of enemies, but for reconciliation with them. The church exists as an alternative to systems, ancient or current, which are built on violence, alienation, and exploitation.

“Paul believed that God’s intention in justification was to create communities that are being transformed into the justice of God”1, communities not driven by self-promotion or retribution, but by a love for mercy and reconciliation. That is the mission of the church according to 2 Corinthians. That is the message of Ash Wednesday. We hear again whom God has made us to be, and whom God desires to make us: agents of God’s own justice for the oppressed, the endangered, the abandoned, and the scapegoated in our world.


1 Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 234.