Lectionary Commentaries for November 3, 2013
All Saints Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 6:20-31

Richard Swanson

Blessed are the poor. Right. 

There is a lot that follows in this fascinating passage, but we might as well stop right here. The word for “blessed” (makarios) is interesting enough, with its suggestion of quasi-divine happiness and good fortune, and someone (usually a preacher, sometimes a greeting-card poet) always remembers that money can’t buy happiness and that the best things in life aren’t things. Someone else who loves musical theatre remembers that it’s no disgrace to be poor, but it’s no great honor either, and Tevye begins dancing around the sermon, all quaint and ethnic.

All this is fine, and even helpful. Some of the most generous people I have known have been people who had the least in terms of financial resources, and research on charity appears to bear this out. It is also true that some of the people most celebrated in public for their lavish gifts have, in fact, given only a bit of the froth off the top of their tenth latté of the morning, never mind that the gift ran to six or seven figures in the newspaper. These things are worth knowing and reflecting upon.

But before we get misty-eyed about all of this, we ought to notice the word used to name those people who are so intensely theologically happy. They are the poor. The word carries all sorts of connotations and even denotations in English and in contemporary society. All of them matter for a preacher, since every word you use drags in with it all sorts of baggage (contraband and otherwise). But the word in Greek has its own reality, and since Jesus speaks out of the Bible in Greek (regardless of what language he spoke out of his mouth), we ought to pause and hear the Greek word and taste its realities.

The word in Greek is ptochoi. It is the regular word for “poor people.” Nothing surprising in that. It is not some kind of specialized word, not a set-aside theological word, not an odd relic from another world. It just means “poor people.”

But listen to the word. (And it’s best to listen to a word by saying it aloud.) What does your mouth do when you say, “ptochoi”? The ch, of course, renders the letter chi, and has the sound of the “ch” in Bach, but the part of the word that catches my eye is the first part, the first two letters, in fact. Not a lot of words start with “pt”, and those that do are interesting. There is, of course, ptochoi, the word for people who are poor, but that word does not exist by itself as an isolated unit of meaning.

Ptochoi,” like every word we speak, is part of a web of sound and association, of meaning and hinting. The task is to listen to these sounds and to test the web of meaning. A fair number of the words that begin with “pt” have something to do with wings and/or feathers (thus the English word, pterodactyl). It is a safe bet that Jesus is not associating the poor with either dinosaurs or birds, though it is possible that people in Luke’s audience thought of poor people as that scurrying flock of beggars that swirls (pigeon-like) around public squares hoping to pick up stray crumbs. The word does, indeed, connote begging.

The “pt” sound also shows up in words that describe sudden fright and flight, which maybe catches something of the state of the public poor in both the ancient and modern world. Beggars in crowds need to be nimble. Wealthy benefactors sometimes grow suddenly weary of their charity and accuse those whom they have impoverished of picking their pockets. Those who work two or three minimum wage jobs without benefits learn that at any moment they might again be identified as the embodiment of the dead-weight laziness that is both killing jobs and driving up the cost of health care.

Perhaps, more significantly, the “pt” sound shows up in words that express vertigo in the face of falling. That means that the word “ptochoi” would likely have reminded any ancient audience that life is a tightrope act, that most of us are one serious illness away from destitution. “How the mighty have fallen!” expresses dismay at the death of Jonathan in 2 Samuel, but it also reminds people then and now of the fragility of our hold on solidity and power.

Jesus’ words of blessing are picking up body and character. The people who are blessed are not simply an economic class characterized by their net worth, they are people who must compete against each other, swirling and skittering in the imposed act of begging, ready to scatter the moment the powerful become peevish. They are people who embody signs of how easily any one of us might fall.

It is at this point that one final association with the sound “pt” needs to be heard. The sound begins the word “ptuo,” which is Greek for “I am spitting.” (The English cartoon sound, “ptooey,” comes directly from this verb.)

Blessed are the spat-upon.

There’s a blessing to stop your heart.

Or, it may be that the connotation being hinted at is the superstitious practice of spitting to ward off evil spirits or outcomes. This practice surely shows up in the ancient Greek use of the word ptuo. It also shows up in Jewish practice. I was talking with a friend about spitting. My friend’s mother grew up in Eastern Europe, a Jew who escaped the Nazi camps and survived those horrible days. He said that whenever his mother heard that misfortune had befallen someone, she would ritually spit three times, acting automatically to protect her children and her world from the danger and evil that stalk us all.

Blessed are the people who are made into warning signs of the possibility of catastrophic collapse, of abject failure, people who are impossibly weary of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God….” It is some odd “Kingdom of God” to be associated with such people. You don’t know what that means, and neither do I.


First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Steed Davidson

As a commemoration of the dead, the festival of All Saints will always be an ill fit for the Bible. 

Practices of necromancy (Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18:9-12) and veneration of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29) are generally discouraged, but the act of remembrance of those who once struggled on earth is not inconsistent with the Bible. Finding appropriate scripture readings for All Saints can be a challenge as evidenced by the selection of the apocalyptic text of Daniel. In many ways, the reading is an ill fit for the observance, and this is made even worse by the odd choice of verses. Despite these shortcomings, an apocalyptic text presents unique opportunities for reflecting and perhaps redirecting the observance of All Saints.

Daniel 7 marks a critical change in the book of Daniel. As the only fully developed apocalypse in the Old Testament, the book of Daniel introduces elements common to later apocalyptic literature. While in previous chapters, such as chapter 2, Daniel was the dream interpreter, in chapter 7 Daniel is the dreamer, or better put, the visionary. By indicating “dreams and visions,” noting that they take place at night, and using the normal word for seeing visions, translated as “see” in the NRSV, the text indicates Daniel’s status as a visionary. Keeping with apocalyptic tradition, despite his previously demonstrated skills, Daniel requires interpretation for his dreams and visions. After the historical introductory setting in verse 1, the dream report occurs at 7:2-14, with the interpretation of the dream beginning at 7:15-18 and continuing to the end of the chapter. Unfortunately, this lection cuts off aspects of each of these divisions at critical points and presents the reader/listener with a passage that makes little sense.

The vision in this chapter concerns four beasts that emerge from the sea. Like the four part statue of chapter 2 that represents earthly authorities, these individualized beasts stand in for a series of earthly dominions. Unlike the beast’s fourfold image, these beasts emerge from the sea indicating the cataclysmic nature of the events. Incorporating the ancient Near Eastern mythology relating to the sea and waters as elements in the control of primeval chaos, the passage swiftly indicates that by the sea giving up these four beasts chaos is “again let loose on the world.”1

The portion of the vision report left out of this passage goes on to describe the uniqueness of each beast.The emphasis on the uniqueness of each beast appears to make sense when the fourth beast occupies Daniel’s interest (7:19) and therefore the bulk of the interpretation is given to him (7:23-27). Grotesque figures form the heart of apocalyptic literature, and overlooking them easily leads to misunderstanding the point of the text. The brief extract of interpretation that occurs in this lection requires engagement with the dangers, confrontations, anarchy, and struggle ushered in by the presence of these beasts. Therefore, it serves the preacher to read the chapter in its entirety to appreciate its apocalyptic flavor.

The interpretation section beginning at verse 15 ushers in another aspect of apocalypse. Daniel finds the visions confusing and terrifying. And though not introduced in the chapter at any point, the ready to hand “attendants” (verse 16) function as the other worldly beings that translate the mysteries of the heavenly sphere. Although commonplace in Zechariah (Zechariah 1:9, 18; 2:2; 4:2-3; 5:2), the need for an interpreting angel with a skilled visionary like Daniel points to the vast difference in the languages of the earthly and the heavenly spheres. Daniel not only needs help to understand the visions, but since the visions trouble him deeply, he requires assurance that the future to which he is moving would be beneficial to him.

In this chapter, Daniel enters into the visions as a participant or what C. L. Seow calls “the empathetic visionary.”2 Therefore, he cannot help but be impacted by the unfolding events. The need for details, information, explanations, as well as assurance prompts the request for an interpretation. As the interpretation begins at verse 18, rather than following the steps of the vision, it quickly rushes to the conclusion and provides a quick summary of the events. The explanation in verse 18 represents what we have come to know as the conclusion of all classic battles between good and evil: good will eventually triumph. Apart from repeating a well-worn axiom of faith — good conquers evil — this verse on its own will leave the preacher repeating banalities that do little to stretch listeners to newer conceptions of their faith. Those who read Daniel 7 understand what it means to live in times of uncertainty where the resolution of conflicts remains doubtful. Readers find themselves like Daniel in the midst of bewildering events that affright and confuse.

The apocalyptic nature of the text heightens the tension by shifting readers from seeing earthly powers as redeemable and beneficial to being threatening and destructive. Readers of Daniel 7 enter into a vision and an experience of struggle and confrontation with little clear evidence of the outcome until the interpretation of verse 18. And while the outcome appears clear to those of us who live on this side of history, the task of preachers of apocalypse requires engaging the tensions, struggles, uncertainties, and doubts that attend life in the midst of major historical crises.

Apocalyptic texts used on All Saints run into the divergent theological definitions of “saints.” And while all Christian beliefs tend to understand “saints” as human beings, not all apocalyptic texts readily admit to this understanding. The outcome of the battle in Daniel’s visions represents the handing of the kingdom over to “the holy ones of the Most High.” Historically, most interpretations understood “the holy ones” as divine beings in keeping with the use of the term in other parts of the Old Testament and consistent with the apocalyptic nature of the text. In the event that the term refers to human beings, two tendencies appear among interpreters. Some interpreters like Calvin accept this designation reluctantly. On the other hand, some interpreters designate them as a specific historical group that fit within the immediate purposes of the text such as the Maccabees or persecuted Jews under the rule of Antiochus IV. And while this opens the door for a Christian understanding of saints, the challenge here lies in defining saints not simply as those who have died but as those who died as a result of the power struggles that threatened to change to course of history. To think of saints in this way in the context of this passage may appear to set a high bar for most preachers, but the challenge here lies not simply in finding “world-changers” but highlighting the deep engagement of previous generations in the struggles of their day.

Taking on an apocalyptic text on All Saints challenges preachers to do more than simply encourage and assure. Rather, apocalyptic forces preachers to call listeners to engagement with the realities of their day. Readers of apocalyptic in the ancient world were not merely passive bystanders to the events of their day. They received apocalyptic accounts both to assure and encourage engagement in a struggle that for many could be described as life and death. Even with the faith that the outcome would go in their favor, apocalyptic literature required readers to do more than stand on the sidelines or accept that a promised victory forecloses on their involvement in the struggle. To highlight the witness of previous generations engaged in the deep struggle of their day should serve to do more than provide a heroes list or a moment of adoration. Rather preachers who use apocalyptic on All Saints make a choice to call readers to understand the challenges that they face living in times that can be seen as transitioning or uncertain


 John J. Collins, Daniel, First Maccabees, Second Maccabees with an Excursus on the Apocalyptic Genre, (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1981), 73.

C. L. Seow, Daniel (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 109.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 149

Fred Gaiser

Presumably, Psalm 149 was chosen as the lectionary psalm for All Saints Day because the “saints” show up three times in this psalm (verses 1, 5, 9 NIV).

Indeed, no other psalm has such a “triple play” of saintliness. In NRSV, these are the “faithful”; more significantly, in Hebrew, they are the hasidim (though this is not yet the eighteenth-century movement of mystical Judaism that now shares that name).

What did it mean in biblical times to be hasid, a faithful one, a saint? The key has to be the adjective’s relation to the noun: hesed, God’s own “steadfast love.” Thus, the “saints” in the Old Testament were those who lived in a mutual relationship of hesed with God. The relationship worked both ways. Primary, obviously, was God’s own steadfast love — pure undeserved gift and the basis of any possible human response or “saintliness”: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). In the Bible, sainthood is God’s work, first, last, and always.

Still, as we know, that divine self-definition in Exodus 34:7 continues: “…yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Quite apart from the severity of this expression of the act-consequence connection in Deuteronomic law, the observation remains that where there are “saints” (faithful ones), there are also the guilty or the wicked.

The contrast appears often in the Psalter, as, for example, in Psalm 97:10: “The LORD loves those who hate evil; he guards the lives of his faithful [saints]; he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.” The psalmists know the world is not benign and that there are both expectations and costs to living faithfully with God. There will be tasks to fulfill and enemies to avoid. The great saints of the church have known the same, and that memory is retained in some of the texts, prayers, and hymns used for an observance of All Saints Day.

Finally, however, the major focus of those texts, prayers, and hymns is not the trials of sainthood, but rather the joys. We remember that the saints who have departed now “rest from their labors” (Revelation 14:13), and we are invited to sing with them, anticipating the bliss they already experience, basking forever in the fullness of God’s steadfast love.

Psalm 149 would not yet have been able to sing of eternal bliss, but it was quite able to revel in the bliss of present worship. Israel’s praise, too, had what we might anachronistically call an eschatological dimension — entering already, through ritual, song, and story, into the fullness of life that God has always meant for God’s people, but that is now frequently hidden by personal trials and communal distress.

Psalm 149 is one of the “final Hallel,” those five songs of praise that conclude the Psalter — five, perhaps, to match the five “books” of the Psalter, those in turn matching the five books of Moses. All things hang together in those “fives,” and the five final psalms sing of God’s works in creation and history, in our personal and communal lives, that eventually leave us to do nothing else but praise, along with “everything that breathes” (Psalm 150:12), the Psalter’s closing invitation.

Psalm 149 describes worship as a time of exuberant song and dance. My daughter, a liturgical dancer, is always armed with a collection of Bible verses to foil those church people who seek to deny the validity of her art, and Psalm 149:3 is high on her list: “Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.”

Still, though her reference is appropriate, the dance described in the psalm seems to have resembled the ritualized war dance of native tribes more than the gracious movements of young women and men in a church chancel: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands” (verse 6). Indeed, many linguists trace the root of “hallelujah” onomatopoeically to the ancient and present practice of repetitive ululation: “ha-la-la-la-la….” War dance, ululation, two-edged swords! To enter the worship of ancient Israel would have been for us a profoundly cross-cultural experience!

The connection of Psalm 149 to tribal dance is appropriate. Israel, too, was a tribal culture, and its worship would have expressed those traditions, including enacting ritualized victories over real and mythic enemies (verses 6-9). Such ritual victory anticipated and celebrated God’s own ultimate victory over wickedness, preparing the present congregation to recognize and share in the working out of God’s justice and righteousness in the present.

This immersion in praise was by no means a retreat from the world; it provided hope, encouragement, motivation, and support to the congregation to join with God is gathering the outcasts, healing the brokenhearted, and lifting up the downtrodden (Psalm 147:1-6; compare also 146:5-9). Healing the world is serious work — God’s work, of course — and those who are called first to praise that divine work and then to participate in it will need metaphorical and sometimes perhaps real two-edged swords.

Can we design worship that celebrates life as fully as does Psalm 149? Can our worship so fully prepare us to resist all forces that stand in the way of God’s justice, salvation, and shalom? Can our worship hear and echo the praise of all God’s creation, as does Psalm 148? All of this is brought together in the Psalter’s final Hallel, and all of us are called to join the dance.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:11-23

Mark Tranvik

This is a rich text, packed with theological nuggets for the interpreter to explore.

A temptation might be to try to do justice to the entire text. This could lead to a fragmented message and confused listeners. It is better to highlight a few themes rather than overwork the passage. Three subjects leaped out at me as I was studying Ephesians 1: sainthood, election and lordship.

Who is a Saint?
I once worked with a pastor who made it practice in worship after baptisms (infant baptism was the norm in this congregation) to walk down the aisle holding the child and introducing him or her to the people with the title “saint” before the baptized’s name. It was a little jarring to hear “saint” applied to the name of a baby but this pastor was on to something. In Paul’s understanding the title “saint” belongs to those who have been united with Christ. He routinely calls the members of his churches “saints” (Ephesians 1:1 and 1:15) because of who they are in Christ and not because of what they have accomplished. 

It might be worthwhile on this celebration of All Saints Day to remind listeners of this. Our culture still tends to identify “saint” with someone who has done something extraordinary and this leads people to conflate Christianity with morality. So let’s be clear on this point. Our designation as saints comes from our rich inheritance of Christ’s righteousness (Ephesians 1:11).

Chosen?
The language of election is unmistakable in our passage. We have “obtained an inheritance” and we “have been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things … ” (Ephesians 1:11). These phrases echo a theme from the section just prior to ours where Paul says God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). 

The topic of election is bound to raise questions for listeners. In a culture where equality is held up as an ideal, talk of election sounds privileged and elitist. Other concerns are raised about morality. If people view themselves as elected or chosen, then won’t they presume upon God’s grace and lead dissolute lives? Teachers and preachers have long faced such excellent questions. It might be helpful to review some of Paul’s responses to the anxiety stirred up by election.

First, remind the people that Paul’s use of election reflects his own heritage as a Jew. The people of Israel were God’s elected people. But note that they were chosen by God so that the whole world would be blessed through them (see the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3). In other words, election is for the sake of the world and not a separation from the rest of humanity. It is not supposed to feed speculation about who is “in” and who is “out.” Nor is it license to simply sit on our hands and not do anything. Rather, election implies a significant responsibility. One is chosen so that one might be an instrument of God’s purposes in the world. But always keep in mind that it is God’s purpose and not our own. We tend to get the two confused!

Second, election is meant to be comforting. Notice Paul’s stress that we are “chosen in Christ” (Ephesians 1:4). The one who has chosen us is the very one who dies on the cross for us. Anxiety about whether or not one is chosen is really a bigger question about God’s mercy. Can I really trust God with my salvation? There is only one possible response to this: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). All fear about election is put into proper perspective when we realize that the one coming to judge is the one who was judged for our sin.

Mixing Politics and Religion
Many Christians lifted up as examples in the church’s history have found themselves in opposition to kings, rulers and governments. Sometimes we forget that to confess Christ as “Lord” was a political statement in Paul’s day. We have a tendency to spiritualize Scripture and miss the political messages. But to say Christ was Lord in the first century also meant that you were denying that Caesar was Lord. That could be dangerous and could lead to prison or even death. 

 So when Paul stresses in Ephesians that not only is Christ seated at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20) but then goes on to remark that he is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named” (Ephesians 1:21), he is saying something about the relative power of governments and rulers. While they certainly are to be respected (see Romans 13:1-7), they are not be equated in any way with the dominion of Christ himself.

Preachers and teachers in the church always walk a fine line between respect for legitimate political authority and ultimate loyalty to God in Christ. It is easy to forget the blessings of good government. At the same time, we must remember the frequent temptation to worship the nation in place of God. As the prophets warned Israel, this invites God’s judgment. The art of preaching calls for the gift of discernment in matters political.

When our communities are drifting toward cynicism (as suggested in the complaint about politicians that “they are all crooks”) it is our duty to underline the gift of government and the importance of civic involvement (voting, staying informed on issues, etc.). When our communities are in the grip of an uncritical patriotism, it is our obligation to remind our people of the difference between God and country.