Lectionary Commentaries for November 17, 2013
Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 21:5-19

Richard Swanson

This is a scene that ought not to have been cut so short.

This is a scene that ought not to have been cut so short. The amputation of the end deforms the scene itself. Read another ten verses, at least. And read a few more on the front end, while you’re at it.

Jesus and his disciples are still in Jerusalem. They are still in the Temple, which is where he has been teaching since the beginning of chapter 20. All of the previous arguments and rhetorical traps have been set in the Temple; these detailed discussions of the most Jewish of issues have been conducted in that most Jewish of places, the Temple, the place where God touched the earth and held it still and safe. Just moments ago the faithful woman, both widowed and impoverished, threw her whole life into the Temple treasury.

And now some of the people with Jesus look up and speak in awe of the beauty of the Temple, the center of the Jewish world. Of course, Luke and Jesus (and every conceivable ancient audience) knew that the beauty of the Temple was a matter fraught with tension and contradiction. The Temple was stunning. The Temple was huge. Paula Fredriksen notes that the outer court could hold 400,000 people, and further notes that, at festival times, it frequently held crowds nearly that large. The Temple was overwhelming, as befits the building that honors the God who alone is God.

And the Temple was beautiful because Herod, that Roman stooge who styled himself as King of the Jews, had spent massive amounts of money making it beautiful. Herod, that vicious and brutal despot known as much for his private slaughter of his family members as for his acts of public largesse, had built up the Temple so that it would rival pagan temples built up by rival rulers. Faithful Jews knew the Temple testified to God’s unique majesty. They also knew that the beautification project was meant to bring glory to Herod, that grandson of converts whom the rabbis refused to acknowledge as Jewish. Nobody that brutal, that barbaric, that pagan, can belong to the family of the faithful.

Jesus’ words, therefore, about the leveling of the Temple, not one stone on another, would have had a double bite. On the one hand, that leveling (even at the hands of Rome) would remove the Herodian blot from the holy city. On the other hand, the Temple was the Temple, and not even Herod’s pagan corruption could change that.

The reason you need to read more verses, and not just stop at verse 19, is that such a truncated text flows from the destruction of a building to geo-political chaos to religious and social rejection (extending even to family-shattering betrayals) to a promise of safety amidst the chaos of martyrdom. And then it stops.

The implication is that the calm individual is the center of the world, that Christian endurance has been the point of Jesus’ whole message.

If you read further, you notice that this sermon, useful and edifying as it is, is swirled back into a larger chaos and that the larger threat is not to Christian endurance but to Jewish survival. Having floated briefly in the eddy of endurance even in the face of intra-family strife, Jesus sweeps that hearer back out into the main stream of this discourse: Jerusalem will be encircled and trampled underfoot by Gentiles, Jews who will flee in terror, and all will see the stability of the universe shaken.

Even in this world-destroying catastrophe, Luke’s Jesus says, God’s faithful people should lift their heads and expect resurrection, redemption, and rescue. It is worth remembering at this point that when Anna saw the infant Jesus in the Temple back at the beginning of the story, she spoke of him to all those who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. Luke’s story requires the audience to imagine all those people whom Anna found as still waiting and expecting a resurrection of faithful hope.

If Jesus’ listeners indeed do lift their heads and look around, they will see, even in the moment of deepest catastrophe, the host of those who have been waiting with them since even before Anna found them and spoke to them. In fact, this chapter ends with that host (in Greek, the laos, a word used in Luke and in the Septuagint to refer to faithful Israel) rising early day after day to listen to Jesus in the Temple.

It is also worth remembering that when Luke’s story was told in this form, the Temple had already been a smoldering ruin, razed to the ground by Roman command, for something like thirty years. The disaster that is forecast has already been seen. This is always the case with proclamations of promise and warning. Any congregation, any group gathered to worship and study will always include people whose worlds have been shattered, whose hopes have been trampled. Some of them might also be old enough to have learned to lift up their heads and look for the promised resurrection even in the midst of the triumph of death. Others will need to be supported while they try just to draw another breath.

This larger scene does not just offer encouragement to heroic endurance. Chapter 21 is a scene that pictures God’s people as always gathering to wait together for resurrection. Sometimes endurance is not enough, not even nearly. When it really matters, only resurrection will do, and in Luke’s story, we wait for resurrection together and in the company of people like old Anna, who has been waiting longer than most of us have been alive.

First Reading

Commentary on Malachi 4:1-2a

Steed Davidson

This passage from Malachi is typical fire and brimstone scripture. 

This type of scripture attracts and repulses clear categories of readers. Those inclined to dismiss the passage simply because of its harsh rhetoric and punishment should reflect further on how these verses function within the broader narrative of the book. Those too eager to jump on the judgment day bandwagon should pause to understand how Malachi conceives of this day.

Eschatology, or a theology of the end, remains a fraught theological concept in contemporary faith communities. Scare tactics by proponents of an exclusively angry God are not evenly balanced by the indulgent theology of a God that never demands accountability. Many people of faith find themselves at sea when it comes to eschatology. The waning Sundays after Pentecost usher in Christ the King Sunday and the season of Advent. On these Sundays, eschatology comes into focus. Preachers will do well to focus reflection on this theological idea with all of its challenges.

The passage from Malachi comes at the tail end of the final oracle in the book. The discrepancy in chapter divisions among different traditions reveals the striking turn signaled by the opening words of 4:1 (3:19 in Hebrew).

The final oracle begins at 3:13 with the usual disputation form that marks the book of Malachi. The disputation occurs in three parts where the prophet lays out an assertion, the people rebuts the prophet’s contention, and the prophet goes further to refute the position taken by the people. In this final disputation, the prophet charges the people with using harsh language against God (Malachi 3:13a). Expectedly, the people object by asking how they have done this (3:13b). The people offer a further response stating the futility of faith in God given divine indifference to the misdeeds of the wicked (3:14-15). The prophet’s reply engages the people’s contention regarding the ineffectiveness of faith in God. He appeals to the idea of the day of the Lord as a time when God’s justice will reward those that fear God (3:16-17).

Malachi addresses a group identified as “those who revered the Lord” in gentle tones (Malachi 3:16). They receive assurances of salvation and special concern. Importantly, the prophet states that God takes note of this group. The record in the book functions here not as a register of deeds to be recalled at a later time; rather, the writing in the book emphasizes to the group that God pays attention to them. The intimate words of “special possession,” the possessive pronoun “mine,” and the parental image underscore the tender assurances given to a distraught community (3:17). The prophet begins the response to the people’s assertion of the futility of faith expressed in 3:14-15 at 3:18. He affirms that coming events that will distinguish between the righteous and the wicked will illustrate the value of faith in God. This affirmation lays the groundwork for development of the idea of the day of the Lord in Malachi.

The flow of the text makes an abrupt turn with a striking Hebrew construction introducing the eschatological day (4:1). As in other prophetic texts, this construction marks impending dire action (Zechariah 2:13, 14; 3:9 and 11:16). The doubled particle, literally “for look,” is arresting both aurally and visually. This sharp literary turn leaves little room for preparation to face the onslaught of adjectives, nouns and verbs that mark the verse. This pile on of words reflects the sharp contrast between the tender speech of 3:17-18 and the blazing images in 4:1. The verse offers a description of the day without spending time determining the specifics of the day. Eschatology deals with what rather than when. That the day will come remains certain from the repeated claim in the verse, “the day is coming,” “the day that comes.” The descriptions in the verse serve not so much as signs marking the end but merely offer a look at the intensity of God’s actions on that day. Additionally, the Bible contains various eschatological visions. Each vision responds to specific circumstances. Therefore, no single vision exists that defines eschatology. In Malachi, searing heat serves as the main metaphor.

The opening verse of the passage walks the reader through a path that leads into nothing. Starting with the heated furnace and its unrealized output of metal or baked goods, the reader moves on to the dry and crunchy undergrowth of forests good only to fuel destructive fires. At the end of the verse, in the odd image of trees without roots or branches, Malachi imprints a vivid picture of a landscape laid bare by raging fire, decimated by dry wind, left unmercifully by the effects of extreme temperatures. Malachi fills his eschatology with these images. These common images suggest that eschatology consists not so much in the unknown but rather in that which is known and can be imagined.

In the midst of Malachi’s description of the day of the Lord lies those destined for destruction. The encompassing word “all” appears twice, suggesting that no one escapes notice. Malachi lists only two items of destruction — “the arrogant” and “evildoers.” The Hebrew word for “arrogant” suggests an offence greater than mere pride. This little used noun (used twice in Malachi, also at 3:15, Isaiah 13:11 and Jeremiah 43:2) invokes a presumptuousness that leads to rebellion. By balancing out the peculiar noun with the more familiar “evildoers,” readers can grasp the full range of wickedness that will be punished. That no wicked deed goes unpunished remains important since Malachi engages the concern of divine indifference to wrongdoing. Even more, 4:1 offers a direct response to 3:15 by showing the punishment of the categories listed in that verse.

Like the two ways envisaged by the wisdom Psalm that opens the Psalter, Malachi turns next to the fate of the righteous. The day of the Lord, therefore, consists of both judgment and salvation. Unlike the vivid images that mark the destruction of the wicked, the image expressing salvation for the righteous appears simple by comparison (Malachi 4:2).

Maintaining the image of heat, Malachi uses the rising sun without ominous indications. For the righteous the rising sun marks the dawning of justice and healing. If the image of the sun is simple, the idea “sun of righteousness” contains its own controversy. Popularly translated as a divine title or even a Christological title, the term distorts the reading by creating a narrow moral category of an elect secured by their actions.

Given that the book of Malachi highlights the plea for justice with the searching question about the God of justice in 2:17, righteousness ought to be viewed from the perspective of community loyalty. Malachi presents a day when the cause of God’s justice, fairness, and community solidarity pervades the earth. For those who yearn for that community, the day of the Lord ushers in that time. In Malachi’s image, the “sun of justice” shines over that day.

The community to whom Malachi speaks requires the confidence that faith still makes sense. Malachi offers them these assurances in different ways. In the eschatological vision of the punishment of all wrongdoing, Malachi affirms faith in the strength of God to offer freedom from all forms of oppression and wickedness. The day comes when the cause of evil can no longer prosper. But Malachi’s vision goes even further to show the triumph of divine justice. God’s justice will rise like the sun and warm the earth. Malachi’s eschatological vision offers an affirmative answer to the community that asks does God still love Jacob (1:2). Eschatology answers the fears and anxieties of the community that asks where is the God of justice with the firm response that the “fires of [God’s] justice burns.”1 Eschatology offers vindication to those who think that they cannot stand on the day of the Lord (3:2) or that faith no longer makes sense (3:14).

 From “The Canticle of Turning” by Rory Cooney.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25

Corrine Carvalho

Two Sundays ago, the lectionary included a reading from Isaiah in which God condemns the temple worship of the elite.

Two Sundays ago, the lectionary included a reading from Isaiah in which God condemns the temple worship of the elite.

Two Sundays ago, the lectionary included a reading from Isaiah in which God condemns the temple worship of the elite.

That passage (Isaiah 1:10-18) might have given the impression that the prophets represented Israel’s “true religion,” while the temple ritual and its priestly concerns was a kind of false religion. Too often, conclusions like this can be found in the Christian tradition.

Isaiah 56-66 presents a sharp corrective to such a conclusion. These chapters, written around the time of the re-establishment of the Jerusalem temple, contain beautiful poems exalting the cosmic function of the temple. This section of the book begins with a picture of an ideal restoration, where the exclusions found in the practices of the first temple are removed so that everyone, including foreigners and those with bodily deformities can worship together. In 66:1-2, God declares that heaven is God’s throne but God’s feet rest on earth.

The passage for this Sunday may not immediately sound like a passage about the temple, but the final statement that equates Jerusalem with God’s “holy mountain” (verse 25) makes the connection explicit. This poem focuses on the city, not as the political capital, but as its religious center.

The motifs in the text are ones found in other ancient Near Eastern texts that exalted temples. Temples were viewed as the residence of the deity; in other words, built metaphors that symbolized their belief that their god was in their midst. Temple hymns viewed the earthly temple as a derivative of the deity’s true residence in heaven. Earthly and heavenly temples, then, are complementary, not oppositional. This view is found clearly in Isaiah 66.

In texts from Mesopotamia and Canann, when a deity took up residence in a temple, blessings radiated out from that temple creating an ideal world. Human endeavors were prosperous. Crops were bountiful. Animals were tame, and the world returned to an Eden-like state.

Isaiah 65:17-25 is filled with similar images. In this utopian picture infant and childhood disease, so prevalent in the ancient world, are gone. Someone who reaches a 100th birthday is considered young (verse 20). Human work is successful and fertility problems disappear (verse 23). The passage ends with echoes of Isaiah 11:6-9. Wolves stop eating lambs and the lion’s diet of straw represents its domestication (11:6-7 and 65:25). Both passages locate this picture of blessings on God’s “holy mountain” (11:9 and 65:25).

The poem also depicts this as a time of joy and rejoicing. The images cut to the heart of what touched so many lives in the ancient world. Modern readers often forget the level of poverty experienced by the ancient Israelites. For example, even in their best times, infant mortality and childhood disease were so great that only about 1 in 4 live births made it to adulthood. Women were often left infertile or even died from complications in childbirth. Today, these problems are still found in too many parts of the world, given the fact that we now have the technology to address many of these issues. For people who live in a world where childbearing is so fraught with danger, it is no wonder that paradise is a world where birthing is easy.

It is sometimes easy to think of the images contained in this passage as ancient problems. We view pregnancy as a happy time, and do not prepare the mother for the possibility of her own death. In the same way, I do not worry about being attacked by a lion when I step out my back door (although I do have a few aggressive squirrels to contend with). As a result, too many times when I go to church, I am not expecting the world to change into a paradise.

The poem points to the reality behind worship, and creates a picture of what that virtual world looks like. God creates a new reality; the participial form of the verb in verse 17 here suggests creation is God’s on-going activity. That ideal world is being created “new” every day. God’s creative work turns the profane world of the city into holy space, God’s territory. Divine blessings radiate out into the steppe and the wilderness, the abode of wild and dangerous creatures. Every day, God recreates this cosmos: a world of harmony, prosperity and joy.

In today’s world, this is sometimes replaced by the “prosperity gospel,” the notion that if we praise God and do the right things, God will reward us individually with prosperity. Too often, though, we think “prosperity” means money and, personal wealth for us as individuals.

The picture of prosperity in Isaiah is not one of personal wealth. It is a picture of communal harmony. And that community is defined in the broadest of terms: it includes even the things that can harm us. The blessings are not demonstrated by the wealth of the elite: there is no prosperous king in this picture. God’s blessings are seen when the poorest and most at risk among us live to a ripe old age.

Isaiah 65:17-25 invites people today to consider how our experience of God’s holiness changes the world for us. We may not feel a great need to domesticate lions, but what would the world look like if children did not die from disease or gun violence, if adults had complete access to the best medical care, and if everyone earned a livable wage so that their work was not in vain. What if everyone could have as many children as they wanted, knowing they could provide for them without anxiety? Isaiah tells us that this is the world that worship should invite us to imagine.


Commentary on Psalm 98

Eric Mathis

It was Dorothy Day who wrote, “Whenever I felt the beauty of the world in song or story, in the material universe around me, or glimpsed it in human love, I wanted to cry out with joy. The Psalms were an outlet for this enthusiasm…”1

While the well-known Catholic writer was addressing the Psalms generally, one has to wonder if she had specific Psalms, such as Psalm 98, in mind.

A Common Praise
Psalm 98 summons the world to burst forth in an enthusiastic expression of praise to YHWH. This Psalm contains phrases, statements, and structural similarities to a number of other Psalms. Commonalities such as this suggest that this Psalm comprises a small part of a larger whole: a common tradition of praise.2

Like Psalm 96, Psalm 98 encourages the praise of YHWH and gives specific reasons why YHWH is to be praised. Like Psalm 100, Psalm 98 repeats this pattern twice. The first clause in verse 1 encourages praise, and the following verses (1b-3) provide rationale for why praise is to occur. Verses 4-9a encourage praise yet again, and the final clause in verse 9 gives specific reasons for praise. Finally, like Isaiah 40-55, Psalm 98 focuses on YHWH’s deliverance of Israel (verse 2-3), and that YHWH is coming to judge the earth with truth and with equity (verse 9).

A Cosmic Praise
An enthronement Psalm, Psalm 98 also emphasizes that the reign of YHWH is sovereign. It has been promoted over the whole of the earth, and therefore, the praise of YHWH is to be cosmic in nature. It is to come from all nations (verse 2-3); indeed, this praise is to come from the whole of creation (verse 7-8).

The touchstone for this praise is demonstrated in YHWH’s protection and provision of Israel in significant events at the Red Sea, in Canaan and Assyria, and with the fall of Babylon.Since all the nations and the whole of the earth witnessed YHWH’s victories in these public events, the cumulative result will be a public and cosmic praise. Such praise will include people chanting to musical instruments and audible sounds from the sea, the floods, and the hills (verse 4-8). Both the “human orchestra” and the “orchestra of nature” will provide “a grand fanfare for God the king.”4

Preaching the Psalm
In the present liturgical landscape, where congregations and denominations tend to focus on liturgical differences rather than similarities, the common tradition of praise that Psalm 98 reveals is not insignificant. This Psalm reminds us that our worship of God is rooted in a common liturgical heritage: the praise of Israel. While our worship practices may look different, the liturgies we offer and the worship gatherings in which we participate are directed to the sovereign, victorious God who governs the whole of creation. The rule of this God is too vast, it is too expansive to be confined to any single expression of praise: human or natural.

This Psalm also reminds us that the salvation we proclaim and celebrate today is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition (John 4:22). Here, we are reminded, “the church can never grow out of or escape its indebtedness to the Jewish people.” In other words, “YHWH’s relationship with Israel remains the model for YHWH’s relationship with the church.”5 We would do well to celebrate the mosaic of liturgies before us, each directed toward the same God. And, we would do well to focus on our common heritage of praise with Christians past, present, and future.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly as we approach the end of the liturgical year, Psalm 98 reminds us that God is coming. When God does come, in the words of a familiar Psalm 98 paraphrase by Isaac Watts, God will “rule the world with truth and strength” and all nations will prove “the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

1Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1952).

2John Goldingay, “Psalm 98,” in Psalms, Volume 3: 90-150, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 120.

3Ibid., 120-121.

4Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: Norton, 2007), 345.

5Goldingay, Psalms, 124.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Mariam Kamell

“The one who is unwilling to work, shall not eat” (2 Ths 3:10; NIV2011).

In today’s heated climate of disputes over universal healthcare and a social safety net, this verse has seemingly taken on a life of its own. Opponents dispute the meaning of this verse and quarrel over people’s intentions and probable outcomes. There is no question that, while some of the stranger apocalyptic elements of 2 Thessalonians may be avoided as undignified, this passage has never suffered for adherents.

The key focus of the passage, however, should not surprise the one who has been paying attention. Both verses 6 and 11 use a rare term that only occurs in these two verses of the New Testament to describe the problematic ones, and while many translations have opted for “lazy” or “idle” on the principle that these people are refusing to work, classically this adverb comes from the word group for “disorderly” or “disruptive” (hence the NIV2011 opting to double-translate it as “idle and disruptive”). Taken in its normal meaning, suddenly the picture opens up that these may well have been the same troublemakers from chapter 2, causing the theological earthquakes and distress. Indeed, the picture Paul paints of these troublemakers is not simply that they are lazy or won’t work, but that they actively work trouble for the church (v. 11) as busybodies and meddlers in things which they have no business.

Verse 11 gives us one of Paul’s fun plays on words that help us realize his rhetorical brilliance. These disruptive ones will not “work” (ergazomenous), instead they work mischief (periergazomenous), building the counter to the positive of what they should be doing. The characterization in verse 11 is crucial for getting this passage correctly, giving a threefold picture: they are disruptive, will not work, and are meddlers. Grammatically, the descriptions are positive, negative, positive, but lexically they are all negative. It is not that they are simply lazy, or heaven forbid, unable to work. These people are able to work, but use that ability to create chaos in the community. As such, they directly contradict the example of the apostles who by status would not have had to work but did anyway. This passage has nothing to do with whether a social welfare should be in place to catch the helpless in society; this is entirely concerned with those who should and can work but refuse and instead direct their energies to causing chaos in the community. This day and age when it is entirely possible, and disturbingly common, to work full time — or more than full time — and still not earn a living wage, Christians need to be profoundly careful with our rhetoric about those who depend on welfare for survival. We should be fighting for justice and help for those in that position, rather than carelessly branding people with this passage.

This emphasis on “work” terminology also fits with the book. In 1:11, Paul prayed that God would “bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith.” Then in 2:17 he prayed that God would “strengthen you in every good deed and word.” In this passage, he speaks of the apostles’ “working” in verse 8, gives his warning against an unwillingness to “work” in verse 10, has the play on “work”/”work mischief” in verse 11, and urges the troublemakers to settle down and “work” in verse 12. In a mere 47-verse epistle, this root for “work” appears 7 times. It would seem that Paul wanted to impress on his congregation the importance of their deeds, that how they act shows the fulfillment of their calling. It is interesting that both his prayers that conclude his thanksgiving in chapter 1 and his theological section in chapter 2 focus on the fulfillment of good deeds by God’s grace. Good deeds, not presumption and meddling, ought to come as a response to grace. People needing welfare is not the problem. People causing chaos in the community is. If in the case of the Thessalonians it was due to their theology leading them to a presumption that they had been perfected and no longer needed to work, we should consider comparable situations of entitlement today, rather than take the path of simplistic rhetoric.

But what does the illustration of the apostles add to our understanding of the passage? For the preacher, this is an awkward one, because congregations can and have taken it to mean that they shouldn’t have to pay their pastor or that ministers have been guilted into not seeing the ministry they do as genuine work. Paul, as a church-planting apostle, refused to play into the patronage games of his culture, working to avoid the entanglements and obligations that receiving gifts would entail upon him. We see elsewhere in his correspondence, however, that the Philippian church supported him in his ministry, so his statements here in verses 7-9 ought not be taken as an absolute principle. Where the gospel would be bound and muddled if he received gifts or pay, Paul refused. The gospel is always to be a free gift. But in some ways the argument here is not all that different from that of 1 Corinthians 4, where members of the congregation appear to be surpassing their leaders in entitlement. Paul reminds them that instead they ought to imitate their leaders (the same language of imitation appears in both texts, interestingly enough).

The gospel is a free gift, but it should produce a life of good works that build the community. Where meddling, gossiping, entitlement, and other disruptive behaviors flourish, the church is in grave danger, and Paul’s warning in this text is directly applicable. We are not to outstrip our Savior who had all rights and gave them up for our sake and our salvation.