Lectionary Commentaries for February 16, 2014
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37

Carla Works

The antitheses in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount challenge any would-be disciples to consider what it means to be bearers of God’s kingdom.

This Jesus, who has already received such a grand introduction in Matthew’s Gospel as “God with us” (1:23), the king of the Jews (2:2), the son of David (1:1-17), and a threat to Herod’s throne (2:1-20), has announced the dawn of another reign: the kingdom of heaven (4:17). In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the audience gets a glimpse at what this kingdom looks like.

It is in this most anticipated first sermon that we encounter the antitheses (5:21-48). Repeated again and again is the formula “you have heard it said … , but I say to you … ” In this section we meet not a new list of rules, but the intentions of the law. In 5:17, Jesus’ words clearly state that his sermon does not abolish the law and the prophets, but seeks to fulfill them.

In 5:20, there is a bold statement: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” How can anyone’s righteousness exceed the righteousness of those who have studied the law and have interpreted it for the people? This statement is like telling congregations that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pope or the bishops or their own beloved pastors. It is hard to imagine that those who heard Jesus’ words — among whom are ordinary fisherman (4:18) — would have taken any comfort in such high standards.

The antitheses are daunting — refuse to harbor anger, honor oaths whether in marriage or to your neighbors, desire justice so much that you would rather suffer a wrong than impose one on another, love your enemies and pray to God on their behalf. These teachings indicate that what a person does is only part of the problem. This kingdom demands radical discipleship so that even a person’s thought world is transformed by contact with God’s reign.

In the lectionary selection for this Sunday, the first half of the antitheses is included: Jesus’ teachings on anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths. Although these may seem to be unrelated teachings on various topics, in reality the antitheses address various facets of a common issue: what does God’s kingdom look like?

The antitheses literally start with a matter of life and death. Jesus begins with a commandment that is not difficult for most people to follow: “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Jesus, however, does not stop his teaching there. In fact, his warning against insulting a brother or sister has presented numerous discussions about the nature of the terms used and the severity of the insults. To be angry with a brother or sister makes one liable to judgment. To call one raka makes one liable to the council or Sanhedrin, but to say “fool” (more) makes one liable to Gehenna, a place repeatedly associated with punishment (Matthew 5:29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33).

In other words, the punishments for the offenses appear to be getting worse, but the offenses themselves do not necessarily seem to be increasing in severity. The crescendo of the punishments, however, signals to the audience the severity of harboring anger. Hostility that results in verbal abuse is damaging and just as worthy of punishment as murder.1 The alternative to acting in anger is to seek reconciliation (5:23-26).

In many respects, Jesus’ teaching on adultery should not be scandalous. The law already forbids it (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). Jesus’ teaching gives voice to the danger of lust that leads to adultery (Matthew 5:28). Warnings against lust are also commonplace. Even the law forbids coveting a neighbor’s wife, who is listed as a possession among the rest of the neighbor’s possessions (Exodus 20:17).

Far from merely seeing women as property to be coveted by men, however, Jesus’ teaching on adultery and divorce reinforces the dignity of women and warns against a culture of male privilege. In the first century, most women are dependent upon fathers or husbands for their daily livelihood. To be used and discarded for another’s sexual desires had repercussions.

A woman who had been seduced brought great shame upon her family. A woman who had been raped was considered damaged goods. For young women, the ability to marry well would be jeopardized. For those who were married, there would be the threat of divorce. Wives could be cast aside for ridiculous reasons, including burning bread.2 In contrast to a world where women were treated like property, Jesus’ mission allowed women to be disciples.

The exception clause to allow divorce in cases of porneia has sparked much discussion on what porneia means (see also Matthew 19:9; cf. Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18). The most common interpretation is sexual immorality or infidelity. To construe an exact definition of porneia so that one can meet the requirements of the law, however, is itself a form of legalism. Rather, Jesus’ teaching on faithfulness should be read in concert with the following passage about oaths.

Jesus wants his disciples to be people of integrity, people who are faithful to their promises, people who have no need to swear that they are telling the truth because they are truth-tellers. They should be people who honor their commitments in marriage and who respect the commitments of others. The women in their midst are not people to be used and abandoned at will, but fellow disciples. They are among the ones who are now blessed by God’s reign. For the church to claim Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom come, it must strive to be the kind of place that reflects God’s reign. In these antitheses, Jesus provides a glimpse of God’s kingdom come.


W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew (Vol. 1; ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 516.

Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 192.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Tyler Mayfield

It’s time to make a choice.

Today is decision day. And the choices are limited.


As Moses’ third speech in the book of Deuteronomy winds down, our passage calls for a selection between two options: life and death. The Common English Bible translation stays close to the Hebrew wording: “life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong.”


So, that’s a rather easy choice, right? Surely if given the option of life or death, we would naturally and enthusiastically choose life. Unless we find ourselves in dire circumstances, the urge and desire to live, to survive, is quite strong. Creatures large and small go to great lengths to remain alive.


But Deuteronomy’s choice does not concern mere existence. We are not talking about simply a decision to subsist. To be or not to be: that is not the question really. God’s admonition to choose life, as we find it in this passage, is defined rather clearly here and within the whole book of Deuteronomy.

What does it mean to choose life or to choose death?


Deuteronomy’s answer concerns religious practices such as obedience to God’s torah (teachings) and loyal worship of God. These practices have been reiterated throughout Deuteronomy to this point; they have been examined in some detail so that it is now clear to the readers and hearers of the book what constitutes correct worship and a faithful lifestyle. It is becoming clearer and clearer what all life involves.


The answer to the above question also involves the covenant relationship between God and God’s people. God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God (Deuteronomy 7:9) who has established a covenant not just with the ancestors of old (such as Noah and Abraham) but with the people alive during this time as well (Deuteronomy 5:3). Incidentally, contemporary Jews understand this same covenant to continue to this very day.


And the answer to the question concerns the land (the opening verse of our passage here, verse 15, echoes Deuteronomy 1:8, “See, I have set before you the land.”). This land of promise has been promised already to Israel so that their possession of it in the following books of Joshua and Judges represents God’s fulfillment of God’s intentions (Deuteronomy 1:21). These three elements — torah, covenant, land — are definitely ways to choose life.


The six verses of our passage provide a quick summary of the major theological points of this covenant including the central notion that obedience brings blessings and life, while disobedience leads to curses and death.


Deuteronomy 30:15-20 presents two separate sequences of three infinitives that speak to the relationship between life, covenant, and the teachings of God. Verse 16 lays out a triad of commands:

to love God,
to walk in God’s ways,
to keep God’s commandments, statutes, judgments.


Verse 20 presents a slightly different triad:

to love God,
to hear God’s voice,
to cling to God.


The two triads form a beautiful synopsis of life.


First, choosing life involves loving God. Deuteronomy presents this love as more than an emotion and certainly not an infatuation. The ancient reader (and perhaps the modern) is reminded of an earlier statement from this biblical book: “You shall love The Living God, your God, with all your heart, and with all your self, and with all your might.”


Love is depicted as a whole person experience involving heart, the seat of intelligence and conscience (not emotions as in modern usage), as well as body. To love God is not to have a purely intellectual or emotional experience. Likewise, choosing life involves more. It involves a holistic commitment to be and to do.


Second, choosing life involves walking in the ways of God and listening to the voice of God. Here we have general, biblical images of discipleship. Psalm 1 uses this same image of walking to conjure up notions of following and listening: “Happy are those who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers.”


The link between hearing the voice of God and obeying it is so established in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Bible that some modern translations (NRSV, CEB, NAS) simply translate “obey God.” In our contemporary context, obedience, especially unexamined obedience to authority, can get a bad reputation. We often view it as submissive or uncritical in nature. Yet, Deuteronomy envisions obedience as a respond to God’s covenant. It is active — walking and listening.


Third, choosing life involves keeping God’s commands and clinging to God. This admonition reminds us that the Israelites were also expected to act in appropriate ways toward each other and God. The commands were not burdensome or impossible, as they are often viewed in Christianity, but a way to remain faithful, to mark religious identity, and to respond to God’s initiative.


To love God with our whole selves.

To follow God’s voice as we walk.

To cleave to God by keeping commandments.

This is the way to life, not death.


The Gospel Reading for this Sunday, Matthew 5:21-37, has Jesus engaging the Ten Commandments and, although Deuteronomy 30 is not referenced, we can see that Jesus’ interpretation of these commandments stands on the side of life. Jesus and his followers, as Jews, are well aware of the requirements of Deuteronomy; therefore, he calls them to act and to obey as a way to choose life.


So, choose life!



Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

Joel LeMon

Most modern Christians find Psalm 119 rather difficult to engage.

After all, at 176 verses, it is extraordinarily long. Moreover, mainline Christian theology might seem at odds with the central theme of Psalm 119. Christians today do not typically share the psalm’s unflagging insistence on (and celebration of) strict adherence to the “law” or torah.

Ancient readers, however, would have found this psalm utterly compelling because it makes bold claims about how to live a happy life and have a healthy heart.

Psalm 119 is an alphabetic acrostic poem, one of several poems of this type found in the Psalms and Lamentations. In these poems, each verse typically begins with a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, the first verse would begin with aleph and the second with beth, and so on, until the poet reached the end of the alphabet.

Psalm 119 is a singularly complex alphabetic acrostic in that every line in an entire stanza begins with the same letter. So not just one verse, but eight verses start with the letter aleph — the next eight with beth, and so on, all the way through the Hebrew alphabet.

So why would a poet bother to write a psalm this way?

The ancient Israelites had to learn their alphabet just like we all did. Reciting and writing the alphabet were fundamental aspects of one’s education. In fact, archaeologists have discovered numerous abecedaries — lists of letters in alphabetical order — from the ancient Near East. Abecedaries have been discovered on shards of pottery, carved into stone, and pressed into clay. Since learning the alphabet was a critical element in ancient education, students practiced writing the alphabet all the time.

For ancient Israelites, another critical aspect of one’s education was, of course, learning the law of God, the torah. Grammar and spelling lessons were as important as learning the law, because the written alphabet was the medium through which the law of God was transmitted. So learning the law and learning the written language of God’s law were bound together.

We should not be surprised, then, that the alphabet serves as an ordering element in this psalm celebrating God’s law and all the good that comes from keeping it. From aleph to tav (that is, from A to Z), Psalm 119 is a song about the law. Its complex alphabetic structure presents an orderly presentation of “order” itself — God’s law, God’s very word to Israel, extolled in a most orderly way.

This long poem begins with a double blessing, using the formula “Happy are those who” (verses 1-2), sometimes translated “blessed is the one who” (NIV, KJV). This same blessing formula appears a number of times in the Psalter (1:1-2; 34:8; 40:4; 41:1; 84:4; 106:3; 112:1) and Proverbs (3:13; 8:32; 14:21; 16:20; 29:18). It also forms the basis for the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Throughout the Bible, the phrase functions simultaneously to encourage the righteous and to call for those who are not living righteously to change their ways. Psalm 119 is no exception.

Verse 1 describes this blessed, happy person as one who “walks in the law.” This might sound odd to modern readers. One could certainly imagine what it means to “keep,” “read,” or “obey” the law, but the image of “walking in the law” prompts us to wonder just how such a walk would look. The psalmist is actually trying to prompt just such a reflection from the reader. And, indeed, the next 175 verses of the psalm aim to answer the question: “what does it mean to ‘walk in the law?’”

The metaphor of walking appears throughout the psalm to express the totality of one’s behavior and activities (cf. esp. verse 105). Thus, to “walk in the law” is a lyrical way of describing what it means to follow the law in every respect. According to Psalm 119, this type of walking — consistently choosing to follow the path that God has revealed through the law — leads inexorably to a happy, blessed life. However, walking contrary to the law only causes trouble and suffering (verses 6, 8; cf. Ps 1).

The first verses of this psalm also highlight the importance of a healthy heart. The happy ones are known by the way they walk and by the nature of their hearts.

A literal translation of verse 7a reads “I will praise you with straightness of heart when I learn your righteous laws.” This image also piques our imagination: what in the world does a straight heart look like? Again, this is just the type of question that the psalmist wants the reader to ask.

Moderns typically understand the heart to be the seat of one’s emotions, especially romantic love. But the ancient Israelite understanding of heart would be most similar to our concept of the mind: the seat of our will, convictions, and intellect. So we could understand verse 7 to mean that learning God’s law produces “straight minds.” These minds comprehend the word of God clearly and allow that law to direct their actions. By contrast, a crooked mind, like a crooked path, leads one into trouble.

The psalm also describes the heart of the righteous as “whole” (verse 2), which is to say, undivided. If someone were to have a divided heart, that person would have his or her focus and attention split between God’s law and something else. By contrast, Psalm 119 suggests that true happiness comes to those whose whole heart, or even better, whose whole mind is completely dedicated to understanding God’s word. 

In the introductory stanza to this monumental hymn to the law, we find a crystallization of the psalm’s major themes. The psalmist exhorts readers to walk in the law, for this way of life is the key to happiness and blessedness. Walking the straight path of obedience to God’s law requires a straight heart even as it creates such a heart. The psalm proclaims that God’s word guides and sustains all those who attend to it carefully.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Brian Peterson

Throughout the season of Epiphany, we’ve heard and affirmed that the Word-made-flesh is God’s own wisdom and power graciously revealed for us.

Yet often we fail to grasp how profoundly this truth has changed the world, and we still try to make the old, non-Epiphany ways work.


The Corinthians seem to have been stuck in those ways too. In 1:10-17, Paul had begun talking about how the Corinthians were arguing over allegiance to various apostles. Then, before that issue was settled, Paul seemed to forget all about it and to wander off into a discussion about the cross of Christ as the wisdom and power of God.


However, Paul hasn’t lost his rhetorical way. Ever since 1:18, Paul has been criticizing the world “out there” for not recognizing God’s wisdom. Paul probably has the Corinthians nodding in agreement at this point. He has made a sharp distinction between God’s wisdom and the false wisdom of this old, doomed age.


In 2:13 he had mentioned how “we” share spiritual things with spiritual people, and the Corinthians probably thought that they were included in that claim, either on the giving or the receiving end (or both). But Paul begins chapter 3 with an emphatic “I,” contrasted with “you.” Paul makes clear that they aren’t spiritual at all, since their behavior is being determined by competition for status and the expected pursuits of society, rather than by the gospel. “Flesh” in this text should not be understood as something internal, private, or hidden. Rather, in this text “flesh” means the basic, standard, normal, and agreed-upon ways that human society functions, the accepted ways of defining and pursuing the good life.


The Corinthians are still “fleshy” because they’re acting as though Christ has not changed any of that. They have failed to realize how the gospel of the cross has brought a new creation. They are still acting as though the pursuits and the goals that the world promotes are determinative and defining for the church. They are, Paul says, acting like little children.


Of course, we recognize something of ourselves in these Corinthian ways. Congregations can become divided and distracted by old allegiances to former leaders and to former ways of doing things, and by old hurts and old fights. We so easily think that those things need to define us. The church too often adopts the culture’s claims about what ought to be valued and pursued as the center of our identity: nationalism, power over others, prosperity, and some safe distance from those who would make that prosperity uncomfortable. We, like the Corinthians, often resist being shaped by the wisdom of the cross.


Paul’s solution to this is a theocentric view both of the church’s leaders and of the church’s own identity. In verse 6, putting the Corinthians’ bickering over apostles into proper perspective, Paul says that he planted a seed, and Apollos watered it. In both cases, Paul uses an aorist tense verb — a simple statement that these things happened.


But in declaring that God “was giving the growth,” Paul uses an imperfect tense verb, a form that stresses God’s ongoing, continual action. The labor of Paul or of Apollos would have been fruitless if God had not been at work all along. This is the bedrock conviction of any ministry, whether that is ministry carried out by the designated leaders of the church, or by individual members of the church in their own particular vocations, or by the church as a whole: we can engage in ministry only in the trust that God is going to be at work, in and through what we do, to bring the growth that God wants. If the work we are engaged in is built on some other conviction, it isn’t really ministry of the gospel at all, but is focused somewhere else and with other goals in mind.


Our understanding and our practice of mission in all its senses should be shaped not by our culture’s assumptions about consumerism and the associated assumption that “mission” means looking like the best religious deal on the block. Mission must not be shaped by our culture’s lionizing of “entrepreneurship” and its assumption that we are called to “sell” the gospel (or, more likely, to “sell” membership in a church by making sure that we offer it at a lower cost than our competition).


Rather than such culturally bound (“fleshy”) ways of seeing the church’s mission and ministry, this text might lead us to imagine what it means that our calling is to plant the seeds of God’s mercy, which will grow by God’s action and in God’s time. We are called to nurture and water that mercy with compassion and love and justice, and leave whatever growth, in whatever form, to God.


Verse 9 brings this part of Paul’s discussion to its central point. The church and its leaders all belong to God, and the church has its identity from that reality. Paul had addressed the Corinthians right away as “the church of God” (1:2), but they had failed to realize the implications of that claim.


Perhaps we all need a reminder, whether we spend worship time in the pulpit or in the pew, that neither the congregation nor the ministry belongs to us. The church does not belong to culture or the market place. It doesn’t even belong to particular theologians or particular denominational confessions. The church belongs to God. The church is called to see, in and through (and sometimes despite) the workers in the church, that God is the one who is bringing growth, maturity, and the full flowering of the seed that has been planted through the preaching and the living of the gospel.