Lectionary Commentaries for January 22, 2017
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23

Warren Carter

This rich passage comprises four subscenes as the Gospel positions Jesus in Galilee (Matthew 4:12-16) and narrates the opening acts of Jesus’ public activity (Matthew 4:17-23).

Jesus in Galilee

Herod the tetrarch’s silencing of John means Jesus replaces John in Galilee (Matthew 4:12; 14:1-12). Jesus settles in Capernaum “in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:12). These names designate tribal allocations of Canaanite land that God had sworn to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had shown to Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-4), and were assigned by Joshua (Joshua 19:10-16, Zebulun; 19:32-39). These covenant-evoking names frame the land as divine gift yet this land is now occupied by imperial powers.

Verses 15-16 (citing Isaiah 9:1-2) evoke Isaiah 7-9 which addressed the Syro-Ephraimite crisis (735-733BCE). The northern kingdom (Ephraim/Israel) and Syria pressured Judah to join an anti-Assyrian alliance. Isaiah announced that God would use Assyria to destroy these two northern powers before God, in turn, destroyed Assyria. Light shining in the darkness represents God’s action to save the people and land from Assyrian rule.

This Isaiah text functions in Matthew 4:12-16 as an analogy for Rome’s empire. “Galilee owned by or under the Gentiles” now belongs to and is ruled by another Gentile empire. Roman control had been freshly asserted over Galilee in destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 70CE. Matthew’s Gospel, written in the 80s, cites Isaiah 9:1-2 to describe Roman rule as “darkness” and “death.” It positions Jesus, at the beginning of his public ministry, as the light or saving presence that shines in the darkness of Rome’s imperial domination. Jesus asserts God’s light or saving rule in Roman Galilee.

What does this light look like in the darkness and death of Roman rule? How does Jesus perform God’s saving presence and rule? The rest of the passage identifies three representative actions.

Jesus Declares God’s Empire

Jesus calls people to encounter God’s empire (Matthew 4:17). Interpreters have translated the Greek word basileia in various ways: kingdom, reign, rule, kingdom, empire. The translations reflect debates over the phrase’s meaning: divine action or space, present or future, already among people or not here yet. Several factors establish its meaning.

The phrase “the empire/kingdom of the heavens” is not common outside the Gospels. The idea of God as king who asserts sovereign rule among God’s people and the nations, however, is common in the Hebrew Bible. Psalms 95-99, for example, show God the king at work as creator, savior, and judge. They present God active and intervening in a world that does not live according to God’s purposes. God asserts God’s rule in saving the world.

The Greek word basileia (“empire/kingdom/reign”), though, is both imitative and contested since the word regularly refers to empires like Rome’s that assert rule over people and land. The Gospel’s use of the same term illustrates a common practice among colonized peoples. They often negotiate imperializing power by using native traditions to redefine its language to produce a similar yet different meaning. The Gospel imitates imperial language and structures (God’s dominating power) yet redefines them as the subsequent scene of Jesus’ healing and liberating power displays (Matthew 4:23-25).

The Gospel envisions God’s empire/kingdom as already established in the heavens. It is now being extended among humans in Jesus’ activity (“your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” Matthew 6:10).

Jesus Calls Followers

Jesus’ then calls two sets of brothers to be his followers (Matthew 4:18-22). They are fishermen, embedded in the imperial economy. Rome asserted control over the land and sea, their production, and the transportation and marketing of their yields with contracts and taxes. Jesus disrupts these men’s lives, calls them to a different loyalty and way of life, creates a new community, and gives them a new mission (fish for people). His summons exhibits God’s empire at work, this light shining in the darkness of Roman-ruled Galilee.

The men’s immediate positive response in following Jesus is stark. Readers have imagined previous and extended conversations but such “solutions” destroy the dramatic urgency of the scene. More compelling is to recall the presentation of Jesus in previous chapters. As God’s agent, he is to manifest the light of God’s saving presence and empire/reign. Such initiative and gift are appropriately welcomed with an instant response.

Their call and accepting response anticipate other people who join Jesus’ followers (Matthew 10:1-4; 12:46-50). The Gospel’s almost-exclusive focus on male disciples is troubling. We must remember that women were also among Jesus’ followers. Matthew 27:55-56 indicates that women followers accompanied him in Galilee, so we must read their presence into all the Gospel scenes especially since the Gospel does not mention their presence.

Jesus Preaches and Heals

Jesus preaches and teaches the “good news” of God’s empire that has invaded Roman Galilee (Matthew 4:23). He also heals people’s diseases and infirmities. Verses 23-25 summarize this healing activity. Subsequently the Gospel will alternate summaries with scenes of specific healings.

Why are there so many sick people in the Gospel?

The Gospel reflects its imperial world at this point. Roman imperial structures and practices were bad for people’s health. Some 70-90 percent of folks in Rome’s empire experienced varying degrees of poverty — from the very poorest to those who temporarily fell below subsistence levels. Understandings of hygiene were limited; social stresses were high; water quality poor, food insecurity was rife with low quality and limited quantities. Such factors resulted in widespread diseases associated with poor nutrition (blindness; muscle weakness etc.) and a lack of immunity (diarrhea; cholera etc.). These kinds of diseases were death-bringing in a world that required physical labor for survival.

Jesus’ healings are acts that repair imperial damage and enact God’s life-giving empire in restoring people’s lives. They anticipate the completion of God’s working that creates a world, envisioned by Isaiah, in which all people enjoy abundant good food (Isaiah 25:6-10a) and physical wholeness, where “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5; Isaiah 35:5-6).


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4

Juliana Claassens

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Central to the lectionary text for this week is the image of light shining in a context of deep darkness (verse 2). This image of light breaking through the darkness is a powerful means to capture both a sense of fear, hopelessness and anguish that is to be associated with not being able to see in the dark, and the hope, relief and deliverance that comes with the light being switched on — or in a world before electricity, the fire being kindled, the candle or oil lamp lit up. The joy and sense of relief that comes from light in the darkness is universal indeed — ask any toddler who is terrified of the dark.

For the people of Israel, this experience of light in the midst of darkness is not limited to one period of time. Isaiah 9:1-4 is a classic example of a prophetic text powerfully speaking to multiple interpretative contexts. In this regard the theme of “former time” in contrast to “latter time” is important (verse 1). Some scholars view this reference to the time of darkness and suffering in the time of Ahaz in contrast to a hopeful future that was expected in the time of Hezekiah. The source of the deep darkness at this time was likely the mighty Assyrian Empire who was known for their great cruelty and who eventually would destroy the Northern kingdom and terrorized the people of Jerusalem.

But this is true about empires then and now: Empires come, and empires go. So the “former time” and “latter time” can also refer for later readers of the book of Isaiah to the darkest of dark times under the Babylonian Empire who invaded Jerusalem three times, during the second of these attacks seeing the temple, the site of God’s home amongst the people, utterly destroyed. The light breaking into the darkness in this instance aligns with the hopeful visions of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) that speak of a new dawn that is breaking, of the exiles that joyously will be lead home.

And for the New Testament writers, the “former time” and “latter time” would be understood in terms of the coming of the long expected Messiah. The Messiah who will come to break the yoke of the oppressor (verse 4), to bring liberation to those in bondage – the poor, the needy, the marginalized (Luke 4:18. Cf. also Isa 61:1), and who offers a radically different worldview in the context of the tremendous oppression experienced within the Roman Empire.

This promise of deliverance is indeed a source of great joy (verse 3) — joy that is likened to the jubilance of having successfully brought in the harvest so that the people have food to eat for the rest of the year, and in a more troubling image, the joy at dividing up the spoils of war. This latter image that assumes deliverance through victory in a time of war. This imagery is continued in the next verses that are more well-known and typically read in the time of Advent that speaks of “the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire (verse 5).” For this end of war will be signaled by the birth of the Prince of Peace, who is described as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father” (verse 6).

The hope for deliverance first in terms of the birth of a new Davidic king who will overturn Israel’s fortunes, which eventually evolved into the expectation of a messianic king that in a distant future will bring light to the world, are powerful images that have the ability to shape people’s minds and hearts. Very much breaking into a time of war, violence and imperial domination, these images capture people’s imagination, helping them to look up from their current circumstances and imagine that a world of peace and justice and an end to war, might just be possible.

Without imagination, without a vision of what life could and should be, people indeed might remain trapped in darkness. The prophet’s objective in providing his readers images of light while it is still dark, joy while people are still sorrowing, peace when the war is still raging is captured well in the oft quoted axiom of William Arthur Ward: “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”

Gene Tucker says something similar in his poignant commentary on this text when he considers the power of these texts to change “moods and feeling … to fuel the imagination” that may inspire people to try to change their external realities as well: “Such a day of peace and justice as envisioned in this text may never come, but it certainly will not if there is no image drawing people toward it”1

To preach on this text in the time of Epiphany in the beginning of a New Year is quite appropriate. The text’s ability to imagine a time of freedom, joy, light, and one could add love, friendship, and compassion in a time of darkness, in which everyone and everything shouts hatred, violence, war, and greed are vital for our survival as a people of God. Preachers are called to be proclaimers of such visions of light shining in darkness, of finding joy even in times of pain and sorrow, of enacting compassion and love in a context in which hatred and distrust reign supreme.

Preachers are called to bring to their congregants on this particular Sunday, as well as the rest of the year, the Good News of the Gospel evoked by this text. Their sermons will be doing something similar to the original sermon proclaimed by the Preacher-Prophet Isaiah, helping their communities in different times and places see the light breaking into whatever it is that has shrouded their world with darkness.


Notes:

1 Tucker, “Isaiah,” 124.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 27:1, 4-9

Jerome Creach

As much as any psalm in the Psalter, Psalm 27 expresses trust in the lord and claims absolute dependence on God.

This is apparent in verse 1, which begins the lectionary reading: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

The psalm is a prayer for help. It presumes the psalmist is in some type of trouble (verses 7, 9, 12). Psalms of this type typically contain petition, complaint, and expressions of trust (see Psalm 13 as an example). Psalm 27 is unique in its heightened emphasis on trust.

The opening verse describes the Lord with language that suggests his presence is life-giving and protective. As James Luther Mays says, “The Lord is called ‘light’ because light drives darkness away.”1 Light is a basic category of order and stability that recalls the first act of creation (Gen 1:3; see Exodus 10:21). It is possible that the psalmist perceived and experienced God’s appearance and presence (God’s “face;” verse 8) via sunlight that shone into the temple and reflected off gold decorations (1 Kings 6:20). The reference to God as light (and to God’s face) thus makes the psalm particularly appropriate for the season of epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of God’s presence.

Israel knew God as “salvation” and celebrated that identity in the aftermath of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 15:2). “Stronghold” is a common description of God in the Psalms (Psalm 18:2). The metaphor derives from military situations in which a well-positioned fortress with strong walls provided safety from enemy assaults. These images suggest, therefore, that whatever trouble plagues the psalmist, the Lord’s protection is sufficient to protect the psalmist from it. In times of trouble the natural impulse is to flee to a place of safety (see Psalm 11:1-3 for an expression of that sentiment), but Psalm 27 declares the Lord is the “place.”

Verses 2-3 continue the statement of confidence that began in verse 1. The lectionary reading, however, skips to verse 4. The reason for omitting verses 2-3 is not clear, but verse 4 is certainly worthy of attention. It sums up the faith embedded in the psalm with the declaration, “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.” Here the psalmist identifies the place of God’s protection and shelter as the central sanctuary in Jerusalem.

This identity is evident in the way verse 4 pairs the general expression, “house of the lord” (see also Psalm 23:6) with the specific term, “temple” (hekal). An additional expression “in his tent” here and in verse 6 has the same meaning. This is a poetic name for the temple that conjures images of both protection and intimacy. A tent does not have multiple rooms as permanent structures do. Therefore, the guest in the tent of another naturally participates in the life of those who dwell there (see Psalm 61:4).2

The terms “seek” and “inquire” suggest the presence of a prophet or other cultic official who gave oracles to worshippers who “sought” them. For the psalmist, this is no mere utilitarian practice; the word of God was not something sought simply to gain success in life (compare the kings seeking an oracle in 1 Kings 22:5, 7). Rather, the psalmist’s only desire is to be in God’s presence and to allow God’s word to direct his life.

This remarkable claim of singular desire for God’s presence is similar to the statement in Psalm 23:1b (“I shall not want”) to the effect that the lord’s guidance provides all that is needed for life. The psalm actually petitions God for more, namely for deliverance from an enemy’s false accusations (verse 12), but it suggests that such deliverance comes under the care of God’s sheltering protection. Psalm 27 thus invites the reader to live into such trust that is complete and comprehensive.

Verse 5 continues to express confidence in the Lord’s protection with further descriptions of the safety of the temple. The images continue and expand on the notion of God as stronghold. The psalmist speaks of safety in terms of being hidden, covered, and placed “high on a rock.” “Stronghold” (verse 1b), “shelter” (verse 5a), “cover of his tent” (verse 5a), and “rock” (verse 5b) are expressions related to the overarching notion of refuge that appears so often in the Psalms (Psalms 2:12; 16:1; 18:1-3[2-4]; 31:1[2]; 34:8[9]; 91:1-2; 142:5[6]). That is, the psalmist here and elsewhere speaks of God as a hiding place, a shelter from the storms of life. For other expressions of these images in the Psalms see especially Psalms 61:2b-4 and 63:7.

In verse 6 the psalmist declares the intention to worship with song and sacrifice in response to God’s salvation. But then the psalm turns to complaint and petition for the rest of the lectionary reading and for the rest of the psalm (verses 7-14). The sharp break between verses 6 and 7 has led some scholars to conclude that the two main portions of the psalm were originally separate psalms.

Nevertheless, verses 1-6 and 7-14 hold together around themes of salvation (verses 1, 9), enemies (verses 2-3, 12), trust (verses 3, 14) and seeking God (verses 4, 8).  The psalm closes with petitions that draw upon the language of trust earlier in the psalm: “seek his face” (verse 8 [see verse 4]); “O God of my salvation” (verse 9; see verse 1). Thus, as Mays points out, “the two parts of the psalm are one more way in which the Psalter teaches how closely related are trust and need.”3

 


Notes:

  1. James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 133.
  2. Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100 (Hermeneia; trans. Linda M. Maloney; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), p. 108.
  3. Mays, Psalms, p. 132.

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.1

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.

Note:

1. Commentary first published on January 26, 2014.