Lectionary Commentaries for January 26, 2014
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23

Judith Jones

Jesus’ ministry begins after his temptation, with the news of John’s arrest.

Although Matt 4:12 says that Jesus “withdrew” into Galilee, Jesus’ move was less a retreat and more a journey into the lion’s den. As Matthew will divulge later, the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, was the one who had John arrested. John’s arrest foreshadows Jesus’ own.

Capernaum, where Jesus made his home, was a town of about 1,000 people. Its inhabitants relied on farming and fishing to survive. Though Jesus has already been named “Son of God,” he lives not among the rich and powerful, but among the common people. Capernaum was located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.

This region had historically belonged to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the first century it truly was “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:15, quoting Isaiah 9:1), conquered by Rome and ruled by a Roman puppet whom few Jews regarded as authentically Jewish. Herod Antipas was notorious for his brutality and for his intolerance of any who threatened his claims to power. Into this context of danger and darkness and death comes Jesus, proclaiming deliverance and light and life.

Jesus’ message is identical to John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17; cf. 3:2). Though the content is the same, the context is very different. John was the forerunner, who prepared the way. Jesus is the embodiment of the message. In his preaching and in his ministry, light has dawned and the reign of God has come.

Like John, Jesus calls people to repent. The Greek verb “repent” (metanoeo), like the Hebrew verb “repent” (shub), means “turn around.” Repentance in biblical thought involves not merely apology, but change: change direction, change your behavior, change your life.

The next two scenes illustrate how dramatically lives can change when Jesus appears. In the first scene Matthew depicts Jesus going out for a stroll by the lake and encountering two brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, hard at work fishing. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fish for people.” This first scene highlights Jesus’ call to a new life’s work. Without comments or questions, Peter and Andrew abandon the tools of their trade and follow him.

In the second scene Jesus sees another set of brothers, James and John the sons of Zebedee, in a boat with their father. Jesus calls them, too. This scene emphasizes the invitation to Jesus’ new community. James and John immediately leave both the boat and their father, who is mentioned three times in the passage. Jesus’ call takes priority over family commitments, a startling idea in an era when family connections were a primary source both of identity and of honor, and when the responsibility to care for one’s parents was rooted both in cultural custom and in biblical law.

Jesus calls his disciples to a new way of life in the reign of God. At its most basic, discipleship means following Jesus, getting behind him and going wherever he leads. For these first disciples it will be a difficult road, and despite their initial obedience to Jesus’ call, in the coming days they will often fail both to understand and to obey him. They will sleep through his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, they will flee when he is arrested, and Peter will deny that he even knows Jesus.

Yet, on the other side of their failure, Jesus’ message will reach them, entrusted by the angel at the tomb to the two Marys: “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him” (Matthew 28:7). They will run away, but Jesus will not give up on them. He will call them to repent, to turn around and go back to the place where it all began. They will fail, but afterwards they will be called to follow once again. From these first scenes by the Sea of Galilee through the rest of their lives, Jesus calls his disciples to live out the promise and hope that he embodies.

In the final verse of today’s reading, Jesus himself begins to enact God’s reign. In his teaching, in his preaching, and in his ministry of healing, he announces and reveals God’s light dawning on a dark world, God’s rule triumphing over the powers of evil and death. 

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4

Bo Lim

As I write, fall is already upon me, summer is long past, and winter is rapidly approaching.

With the exception of Alaska, I live in one of the furthest northern states in the US, which experiences long nights and short days during the winter months. Add to that the gloom of frequent rainfall and you will understand the sense of dread that has begun to sink in given the fact that I enjoy the outdoors, particularly cycling. For me a season of darkness is inevitable and unavoidable every year.


Epiphany appropriately falls in January, during the winter, before spring has arrived and the days have lengthened, to remind the people of God that we live according to a different clock. Epiphany is a season of light not during the day but a season of light amidst the darkness. It is a season of light that ushers in the daytime and in this regard Epiphany is one step ahead of the world.


The First Reading for this Sunday addresses a people who despair because they lack the light. Isaiah 9:1 serves as a transition text between the prophecy of impending judgment in Isaiah 8:16-22, and the psalm of thanksgiving in 9:2-7. In 8:16-22 the prophet announces a period of distress, gloom, and thick darkness that will befall the people. Hunger will fill the people and they will be enraged and curse their king and gods. In their despair they will turn to necromancy, consult ghosts and the dead, and forsake the instruction of the Lord. This is not merely a description of darkness, but it is the language of death and the underworld.


Isaiah 9:1-2 acknowledges this “former time” of deep darkness in the land of Zebulun, Naphtali, the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, and Galilee of the nations. These geographical designations all refer to a territory directly west of the Sea of Chinnereth, later to be named the Sea of Galilee. It was this land that the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III, conquered and deported its citizens to Assyria in 732 BCE according to 2 Kings 15:29 and extra-biblical material.


Gloom and darkness signify the devastation to the land and the people’s experience of military defeat. In these conditions, hunger and depopulation were ever present challenges facing the people. It has been said that the biblical prophets are survival literature of war-torn communities, and Isaiah 9:1-4 would certainly not be an exception to this rule.


To a destitute people Isaiah announces a coming age when night will be transformed to day. Israel need not despair because the same people who walked in darkness will experience a great light. Throughout the book of Isaiah, particularly chapters 40-55, the prophet will associate God’s work of salvation with the “new” or “latter” things in contrast to “former things.”


In fact, the prophet will characterize God’s self as being “the first” and “the last” (41:4; 44:6; 48:12). The text of 9:1 [8:23 in the Hebrew text] is difficult to decipher such that some scholars have interpreted the “former” and “latter” to refer to persons rather than to time: “For if there were to be any break of day for that land which is in straits, only the former kingwould have brought abasement to the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali while the later one would have brought honor to the Way of the Sea, the other side of the Jordan, and Galilee of the Nations” (8:23, NJPS). This reading associates the “former king” with the king of Assyria, and the “latter one” with the royal announcement of 9:6-7. According to this reading the king of Assyria ushered in darkness, and the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace will bring in light.


Perhaps the ambiguity of the language regarding whether a person or time is being spoken of, is precisely the point. That is, the blurring of era and agent signifies that the transition from a period of darkness to one of light is predicated upon a person. The light shines because someone “will make glorious the way of the sea” (9:1).


In this case light is not a given; the day is not obligated to dawn. It is because of divine action that a great light appears, the nation is multiplied, harvests are fruitful, and victory is achieved. Verses three and four describe how the light reverses the hunger, depopulation, and military defeat incurred in the darkness. There is no tyranny of time with God, there is no “the inevitable,” nothing is “automatic,” and fate does not rule.


Later on in Isaiah 60:1-3, a passage read earlier on Epiphany, the prophet equates the glory of the Lord with light; they are one and the same. Psalm 27:1, our Psalm text for today, equates light with salvation. Light and salvation emanates from the LORD; they are gifts of grace.


As one who lived in sunny Southern California for many years, I can see how people can be deluded into thinking that they are entitled to light and that darkness is an inconvenient nuisance. God’s calendar reminds us that dawn is an act of grace and that darkness is always a prelude, and never a finale. When Matthew interprets the early days of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee as the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1-2 in Matthew 4:12-17, he recalibrates our spiritual clocks.


Darkness continued to oppress Israel far beyond the activity of the king of Assyria. Yet with the preaching of repentance by the Messiah the new day of salvation has dawned and the kingdom is here. So even if the nights are long and the days are short, know that in the appearance of Christ the day has come. Live according to the timetable of God. Live in the light.


Commentary on Psalm 27:1, 4-9

James Howell

One of the brightest jewels in the Psalter is the Psalm 27. 

It’s situated on the third Sunday of Epiphany but could be read and pondered with great profit and joy any Sunday, or at any moment.

How profound is the first verse? “The Lord is my light.” In ancient times there were two kinds of light: the sun and the lamp. First, the sun: brilliant, unable to be stared at, and, like God, the sun gives light, warmth, and life, and highlights beauty. No wonder pagans worshipped the sun. God’s first concoction, and God’s most primal gift to us, is light. On Day 1 of all history, “God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Genesis 1:3). John echoes, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

We’re not much afraid of the light, but we do fear the dark — and many other things. The antidote to fear — in our culture — is security, locks, guns. But in God’s kingdom, the fix for fear is this Lord who is our light. 

When it got dark in biblical times, they lit lamps — not the brilliant LED lanterns you can purchase today, but simple pottery lamps, with a single wick and flame, casting just enough light to see a short ways ahead. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet, a light to my path.” If we follow God’s will, we do not know what the road will look like in a few miles or years. God gives us just a pottery lamp’s worth of light, just enough to take a few more steps. You have to trust God with that kind of light.

“The Lord is my light; whom shall I fear?” We fear the future — but with God as our light, that small flicker banishes the darkness, and we are not alone.

“One thing I asked of the Lord; that will I seek after; to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (verse 4) is one of the Bible’s most eloquent, emotionally powerful, visionary verses, well worth memorizing, or installing as your life’s mission statement, etching it into the core of your soul.

We ask a great many things of God, of ourselves, of others, and of life. But really, there is just “one thing” that finally matters, and to garner everything else but miss out on the one good thing would be tragic. To the rich young man, who was not only successful but also diligently religious, Jesus said “One thing you lack” (Luke 18:22). Martha busied herself preparing a multi-course feast for Jesus, but he said, “One thing is needful” (Luke 10:42) — and he didn’t mean just one dish. Jesus spoke of a merchant who sold everything just to purchase the one fantastic pearl (Matthew 13:45).

The world tells us to cram, to wrap our arms around as many neat things as possible. But like hauling a load of laundry, you drop some socks, and a shirt or two. And then it’s just a bunch of laundry anyway. In trying to grab it all, we actually miss it all. What if you could focus, and be satisfied with just one thing? There is only one thing that is enough. The Psalmist speaks of it as “dwelling in the house of the Lord all my days” — that is, to be near God, even to be someone who worships God, not just in worship, but constantly, all day every day. I’m not in the Lord’s house just now — but can the mood linger? Can the recollection, the experience, resonate in what seems like an unholy place? Can any old house actually become for me the house of the Lord?

The Psalmist adds another intriguing nuance: the one thing? “To behold the beauty of the Lord.” Not merely to see the Lord, which would be incredible, and stupendously wonderful. But it is “the beauty of the Lord.” When we see beauty, it’s hard to look away. We must have it. We do not notice competitors for our attention.

And the beauty changes us. Jewel sang, “Maybe if we are surrounded in beauty, someday we will become what we see.”1 You are beautiful — or you can be, but the way to beauty isn’t cosmetics or plastic surgery or the right clothes or jewelry. It is only as we are surrounded by the beauty of God, the wonders of creation, the Scriptures, the holy saints, church buildings, goodness and prayerfulness: this is the way to beauty, which is the way to God.

So many pregnant phrases in Psalm 27 beg for reflection.

  • “Now my head is lifted up” (verse 6) — that we do not hang our heads any longer, but look forward, with dignity, because of God’s salvation.
  • “Your face, Lord, do I seek” (verse 8) — for we do not seek some vague, ephemeral deity, but a God with a human face, the compassionate, strong face of Jesus, God become like us. 
  • “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” (verse 13) — that faith is not merely about the pledge of eternal life in another world, but it is in this world, not merely some spiritual realm, but the real, physical world, in my body, in my neighborhood, in politics, in economics, everywhere that is anywhere now.

Maybe for the working preacher, a wise course might be to surrender on the work, and yield yourself to the Psalm or maybe even in worship just to let the Psalm stand on its own, and let the people listen and marvel while you let it do its own lovely work.

1Jewel, “I’m Sensitive,” Pieces of You, Atlantic Recordings, 1995.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Mary Hinkle Shore

The church to which Paul writes more likely numbered in the dozens than in the hundreds.

But small as they may be, leadership styles are just one of the ways they have found to divide themselves: worship practices, sexual ethics, social and economic class, spiritual gifts, and education level (or “knowledge”) all appear in the letter as instances of division too.

On a first reading, Paul sounds like somebody’s babysitter here, trying to enforce a ceasefire among siblings. “Could you please just try to get along?” After the thanksgiving in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes of having received reports that the Corinthians have divided themselves up based on their favorite evangelist, with at least a few pointing out that of course one’s favorite evangelist is a secondary concern, and so they “belong to Christ” (verse 12).

When he urges “the same mind and the same purpose” (verse 10), Paul may sound like someone who is simply uncomfortable with conflict, but he has his sights on something greater than keeping the peace. The individual points of division in Corinth are merely a presenting symptom of an underlying problem: the Corinthians do not understand that the cross of Christ was God’s way of upending their ways of defining and valuing themselves and one another.

The cause for Paul’s concern is the Corinthians’ ongoing allegiance to a wisdom that Paul regards as overturned by God’s work in Christ. Paul will proclaim in v. 30 that God has made foolish the wisdom of the wise and has made the Crucified One “wisdom for us, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). On the way to that conclusion, Paul talks about baptism.

Paul speaks about baptism at only a few points in his letters, but when he does, the contrast between the old life/old age and the new always appears.

In Romans 6, baptism signals readers’ having been buried with Christ in baptism and raised up to live a new life in him.

In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul speaks of the Corinthians — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — having been baptized into one body and drinking one Spirit. Old forms of identity, old ways of understanding oneself and one’s neighbor: these are replaced by membership in one body of Christ and sharing in the one Spirit.

Galatians 3:27-29 includes a reference to baptism as the occasion for having put on Christ, in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, and in whom there is not male and female, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Again, baptism is paired with the end to old structures of self-definition.

“Has Christ been divided?” Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 1:13, and then follows that question with two more. “Was Paul crucified for you?” and then “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Readers know that the answer to all three questions is no. Christ is in fact not divided, even if the Corinthians are acting as if he has been. Not Paul, but Christ was crucified for them. They were baptized not in the name of Paul, but in the name of Christ.

It is comical to watch Paul’s rhetoric get away from him: “Well, actually I don’t know who I baptized but never mind! I’m a preacher, not a baptist!” Paul’s memory lapse and correction give the apostle’s words a humanity they sometimes lack. Even so, his momentary stammering should not obscure the greater point.

Paul’s choice to talk about baptism at the start of a letter concerned principally with divisions in a church is not random. Paul mentions baptism not just because Christ is more important than Paul, or because Paul hardly baptized anyone in Corinth. Paul’s point is that the unity he seeks for the church comes from their shared connection, through baptism, to the one who was crucified and through him, to one another.

Unity of mind and purpose comes, not because a particular leader is able to create consensus, or because all possess knowledge (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1) or some other spiritual gift. Rather, the unity that Paul urges on the Corinthians is born from a baptism that connects all participants to Christ’s death and resurrection.

A friend tells the story of a meeting at his church. The group included six people talking about multicultural diversity in their congregation. The small congregation in Miami includes Haitians, African Americans, Caucasians, and Latinos. At the meeting, as the conversation went on, one of those present became more and more agitated. Finally, Beverly banged her hand on the table and explained why the discussion angered her. “We are not a social experiment!” she announced. “We are a church.” What mattered, she said, was that they were all God’s children.

The Corinthians do not know what Beverly knew. Often we don’t know it either. We know that baptism is a palpable sign of God’s forgiveness, an entrance rite into a congregation and into an apparent abstraction known as “the body of Christ,” and a sign of God’s eternal promise of a relationship with the one being baptized. But we often don’t think of baptism as actually changing anything about the way we identify with a group of people.

For identity markers, we still look to things like race, age, economic circumstances, education, and geographical region to create meaningful boundaries and to identify our tribes. If our congregations manage to build community — to have, in Paul’s words, “the same mind and purpose” — across the standard identity markers, they are “practicing diversity.” We think of them as a remarkable social experiment. Paul, however, would regard such a community, gathered by the Spirit in the name of Christ, to be simply a church.

For Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ signals the beginning of an age in which all the ways the Corinthians have divided themselves into groups just aren’t any longer interesting, important or defining. To be baptized is to be joined with all the other baptized to the risen life of Christ and to be, as Christ is, numbered among God’s children. In our baptism, we have all the identity and purpose we need.