Lectionary Commentaries for February 12, 2017
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37

Karoline Lewis

Who you are as a disciple is not just about you, but about you as a disciple in community.

Discipleship in community

This next section of the Sermon on the Mount begins to turn the perspective of the disciples outside of themselves. They are not disciples for their own sakes, and their own actions, but for the sake of those around them as well. There is an accountability, a responsibility to the other for the sake of good of the community.

We know that when we preach a part of a Gospel we are always preaching the whole. This should not only be a corrective to our interpretations but also a help. It is in Matthew that Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also” (Matthew 18:20). Nothing we do as disciples, as believers, is an autonomous action. It has an effect on those around us. And when we remember there are others around us, perhaps then our actions might very well be shaped by that answerability.

To be accountable to a community puts some checks and balances in place when it comes to being a disciple—and when it comes to being a leader in the church. All too often, we witness leadership in the church that seems oblivious to the fact that the shaping of a community is at stake. Leaders in the church make decisions as if no one is watching, no one cares, or that the decisions do not matter in and for the lives of others.

Do you have some examples of this truth that come to mind? Do you have some memories of when you might have done the same? It is never pleasant to contemplate your own leadership, but it is ever so necessary. Those moments when we made decisions without others in view. Those moments when we think that what we decide is only of our own accord. Those moments when we forget that the Kingdom of Heaven might very well rely on our willingness to think outside of ourselves.

This is a moment to preach that the actions of your individual faith actually matter for the individuals sitting next to you in the church pew every Sunday. That what you do during the week might reflect on or give witness to your fellow parishioner. That who you choose to be in the world is not only a revelation of yourself, but also a manifestation of those with whom you are in relationship or claim connection. When we start thinking and understanding that our actions not only reveal who we are but also the communities of which we are a part, we begin to feel the weight of what it means to be a member of a community—and we should.

At the same time—and here is the promise of this text—to be a part of a community means you are not alone. The disciples needed to hear this truth. How they work out what it means to be disciples of Jesus is not a solitary affair, but can and should happen within a community of the faithful. There is no way that what they do, what Jesus will ask them to do, can reach its full potential without the realization of the company and the community of the faithful with you and beside you. Furthermore, once you realize that your potential as a disciple, who you can be as a disciple, is not just dependent upon you but helped by another, it is then that you begin to believe it.

Lest we think this is obvious, this is a very challenging truth to preach. Our world favors and rewards individualism, autonomy, and independence. To preach the necessity of connectedness, community, and dependence will not be a popular message. We will need to be prepared for questioning and resistance, or even a flat out rejection of Jesus’ demands. Why? Because they go against what the world favors and values.

Going against the world’s criteria for success is never a loved message. But sometimes, such is the nature of preaching and perhaps this is why Jesus’ first act in Matthew had to be a sermon—a prophetic sermon. A sermon that was willing to tell the truth about ourselves, about discipleship, about God, and about what is really at stake because Jesus is Emmanuel.

A claim easily sloughed off. A conviction readily set aside. A confession regularly deemed as utopian. Yet, at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, in fact, the only way that this sermon could be preached, is the premise of Jesus as Emmanuel. When we remember that God is with us, not just that God is with me, we begin to realize we are not simply members of community but shapers of community and are shaped by community, all of which tells a critical theological truth—our God is a God of community.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Cameron B.R. Howard

For a man who complains about being “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exod 4:10), Moses is actually a gifted orator, if this passage is any indication.

The Israelites are perched at the edge of the Promised Land listening to Moses, who has been delivering speeches for what amounts to thirty chapters. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, he has reiterated the stipulations of the law, peppering it with frequent reminders that when they enter the land, the Israelites must not worship any other gods. These six verses provide the rousing rhetorical climax to all thirty chapters of talking. This is not a time for Moses to speak with subtlety or nuance. It is a time for stark dichotomies: life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil (Hebrew tob and ra‘, “prosperity” and “adversity” in NRSV and JPS). Service to the God of Israel yields life, service to other gods yields death. Moses has laid it all out for the Israelites, and now the choice is left to them.

Reading these six verses in isolation might give the impression that this is a one-time choice for the Israelites. But we have the good fortune of knowing how the story continues. To “choose life” in this moment does not mean to have accomplished anything or to have finished anything. Choosing life means starting something: living in a messy, difficult, and holy relationship with God. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites stray from the covenant, only to find God continually willing to embrace the people again, even if they also experience God’s judgment. Centuries of prophets will stand in the tradition of Moses, helping the people see that the consequences of idolatry are deadly, but that striving to live in relationship with God yields life. Covenant fidelity is not accomplished or thwarted simply through intellectual commitment or vocal assent. Covenant fidelity is a set of lived practices, an ongoing orientation toward love of God and neighbor. Moses is not asking the people simply to check off the correct box; Moses is asking them to turn their whole lives toward God.

This orientation toward God hinges on one central tenet, around which the rest of the law is organized: the LORD (that is, Yahweh, the God of Israel) is the only God the Israelites may worship. This idea is the heart of the Shema (Deut 6:4): “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” It also sits atop the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Deut 5:6-7 and Exod 20:2-3). The land of Canaan is occupied by people who worship other gods. As they enter it, the Israelites must be reminded over and over again to resist the desire to chase after every shiny new deity they encounter. Idolatry is alluring, but dangerous.

Idolatry manifests itself in many ways throughout the Old Testament: the worship of other deities, the worship of idols or images of Yahweh, and the worship of idols or other objects representing different deities. Prophets like Micah and Amos also describe the ways that worship practices themselves have become idols, while other requirements of the law — like justice and righteousness — have been ignored.

Idolatry also manifests itself in multiple ways in twenty-first-century Christianity. Even though we may give intellectual assent to the worship of the one true God, our practices suggest other loyalties. We make idols out of politicians or political ideologies; we chase after shiny new consumer goods; we spend hours of every day bowing toward our smartphones. Even within the church, we may act as if church buildings, particular theological tenets, or keeping the “right people” in or out is more important than the worship of God alone. Regardless of whether we view the results of these idolatrous practices as God’s curses or simply as the inevitable consequences of bad decisions, their impact on ourselves, our neighbors, and God’s creation is easily identifiable. If we serve wealth instead of God, the poor suffer. If we serve consumption instead of God, the environment suffers. If we serve pride or fear instead of God, both we and our neighbors suffer. Service of God alone must be the beacon that guides our journey through daily life, or else we face both spiritual and physical death.

After they have crossed the Jordan River, the Israelites twice will hold covenant renewal ceremonies (Josh 8:30-35 and 24:1-28), something prescribed by Moses’ earlier speeches in Deuteronomy (Deut 27:1-8). Thus, even though they have given Moses a “yes,” they require regular reminders about that choice, even regular moments of re-choosing, re-committing, re-orienting, re-turning. Weekly worship can serve a similar purpose in today’s Christian life as well: reorienting our lives in community to the service of God alone. Deuteronomy also shows a persistent concern with intergenerational memory: “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut 11:18-19).  In worship — and at home — we also teach our children to choose life over idolatry. Moreover, our own choices determine the future for our children: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,” enjoying God’s good gifts (Deut 30:19). The way we move through the world today impacts future generations. Choosing life means practicing life, turning away from idols and turning back towards God.


Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

Jason Byassee

The most important lessons get taught by accident.

Daniel Boyarin is one of the most learned people alive, and is busily showing us Christians just how Jewish our New Testament is. While lecturing here in Vancouver, he stopped for a sip of water, and the microphone caught him praying a prayer of gratitude in Hebrew for the water he was about to sip. He didn’t do it out of legalism or joyless duty. He seemed happy to have his thirst quenched so he could go on teaching about God. He also didn’t do it to teach us gentiles, but since then I’ve stopped before a sip of anything, and noticed its goodness slithering down, and given God thanks.

Psalm 119 is massive. I’m writing a commentary on the last third of the psalter for the Brazos Theological Commentary on Scripture and thankfully I get to skip this one. Why? Because another writer has an entire commentary, a whole volume, on this one psalm. It’s a microcosm of the whole psalter, a miniature of the whole. It’s the longest chapter in the bible. 176 verses. And it basically says the same thing over and over with slight modification: O Lord, how I love thy law.

There, you have the whole psalm. But, of course, you don’t. It’s long for a reason. It wants us to praise God with endless variation on this same theme. The psalm is simple, but not easy.1 It’s hard to even read the thing without your mind wandering. And that’s the point — to practice not having our mind wander as we contemplate the goodness of God’s law.

The monks I worship with say a bit of Psalm 119 every day. It’s like a one-a-day vitamin. Biting off a bit every 24 hours makes it possible to get through the whole Psalter every two weeks as St. Benedict laid down. Some of the older monks never open their psalters. They know the whole David by heart. And they don’t look unhappy reciting it. They look fully alive.

We Protestants have often known who we are by being not Jewish and not Catholic. We have criticized both for being legalistic, trying to earn salvation, trying to impress God with their piety so God will look at them one day and say You! Good job! You’re so religious! (the sort of thing we seminary professors say to our best students). And to this, we children of the Reformation have said no. Salvation is altogether gift. Given to the unworthy. All we can do is say thanks.

Here’s the problem. Do Jews really teach that you must earn salvation? Do Catholics? That faith is a matter of God giving out gold stars to the super astute? No. Even in Luther’s day, his teachers may have taught that salvation was earned, but Thomas Aquinas did not, neither did Catholics elsewhere in Europe, when they saw Luther’s complaints they couldn’t understand what he was on about.

The last two generations of biblical scholarship have shown that Israel’s relationship with God was steeped in grace, not in Israel’s own merit. So, what do we Protestants do when our gospel — that God saves the unworthy — is also embraced by Catholics and Jews? Weird eh? But maybe not. They both read Israel’s scripture. And Israel’s God saves by grace.

The first verses of this grandest of the psalms offer beatitudes: blessed, or happy, are those whose ways are God’s ways. Religion is often justly pilloried as joyless. Here God claims it is enchantment itself. These first eight verses begin to use some of the eight different Hebraic descriptions of the law in 119 — ordinances, commandments, statutes … one more than the seven days of creation, eight variations of God’s law. The one who praises God this way goes with enthusiasm and verve and passion, like a new convert, like someone newly in love, like a grandmother with her first grandchild (give me that baby!).

Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. It goes through all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and has a section that starts with each. So, the first eight verses all start with aleph, the second eight with bet and so on. Eight verses for each letter — it’s why the thing is so long. Some say this was a memory device. Others say a cosmic point is being made — God’s Torah reigns from A to Z, first to last.

The psalm is expansive, exhaustive, and exhausting, and it’s making a point. God’s law is delightful. Really. There is an old difference in the churches of the Reformation. Luther described Christ’s victory as being over sin, death, the devil, and the law. Quite some company for the law — one of the enemies Christ destroys. But Calvin differs. Calvin loves Psalm 119, “O Lord how I love thy law.” Calvin could pray that all day, just like Psalm 119 does.

There’s nearly nothing about the content of the law at all in this psalm. It goes on and on about how wonderful the law is, but never tells us what the law is. Not once! If this was the only chapter of the bible we had, we couldn’t reconstruct one of the ten commandments from it, let alone scripture’s 603 other commands. The psalm is an attitude adjustment, not a content dump.

Now some preachers have tried to revise our view of the law to be slightly more positive. Stephen Farris, my predecessor at VST compares the law to the instructions on a complicated toy — you’re sure glad to have them at midnight on Christmas eve. Others compare Psalm 119 to a map for a long pilgrimage. It would not be freedom to abandon that map, it’d be folly. Good analogies.

Think of the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, a celebration of the giving of the law, where worshipers take turns dancing with the Torah. Delighting in it. The law isn’t a burden, it’s certainly not an enemy. The point of the law, Paul tells us, is Christ (Romans 10:4). No wonder the psalmist delights. And God’s people should dance with it.


1 I take this distinction from Elaine Heath, new dean of Duke Divinity School.

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.1

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.



1. Commentary first published on February 16, 2014