Lectionary Commentaries for November 24, 2013
Christ the King

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 23:33-43

Richard Swanson

This is a martyr story. 

It is important to know that. It might be a good idea to read six or eight other martyr stories, just to see what you should expect. Martyr stories are very serious about delivering what you should expect.

Martyrs die unjustly, and the storyteller makes sure you know that. The murderers of martyrs are clumsy, regretful (sometimes), and brutish, and the storytellers take great pains to demonstrate that, as well. Martyrs surprise their murderers, usually by speaking calmly and rationally and by refusing to scream in animal pain when they are tortured to death.

Martyrs never die before they speak words worth remembering, and that is true whether the martyr regrets having only one life to give for his country (Nathan Hale in the American rebellion against Britain) or insists, having lived an entire life devoted to the Sanctification of the Divine Name, he will not now abandon it (Eleazar in the Jewish rebellion against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, just before his tongue was cut out). Martyrs are calm.

And for that reason, the stories about martyrs are dangerous. I have watched as people approach death, tortured by disease. They can tell that the people waiting with them love martyr stories, and they know as well as anyone what is expected of them. Early on, they begin to practice saying things that will be worth remembering after they have died. This is a good practice, I think. Families sit with each other and remember together the dignity and honor and composure to which they have been trained as members of a strong family.

As the disease progresses and the pain becomes worse, you can see them struggle with it, partly because the pain is an unwelcome invader they are trying to fight off, partly because they find their strength decreasing just at the moment they need it all to fight the pain. They can tell that the people waiting with them would appreciate it if they could manage their last moments with a deep calm. If you have watched people in this sort of a struggle, you may well have seen how hard they work to make their death good for the people who are waiting with them. Sometimes it even works. And then, of course, there are the other times.

Luke tells a story of excruciating pain (the word comes from realistic memories of actual crucifixions), and he tells it with an enforced calm that makes of Jesus a Jewish martyr killed by Rome and its hired collaborators. Even as I recognize the dangers of imposing martyr-like calm on the chaos of torture, I still love Luke’s story. Though every one of us dies alone, Luke makes it clear that the Jewish family stays with Jesus all the way through. On the way to the torture site, the daughters of Jerusalem mourn for Jesus, claiming him as their brother, their son, as the grandson who reminded them of the hopes of their youth. “If this is what Rome does with wet wood,” says Jesus to his sister/grand/mothers, “shudder to think of the fire they will start when the wood is dry.” Luke’s audience saw that blaze when Rome set fire to the Temple in 70 CE.

When the torturers arrive at their chosen spot, horrifyingly named “Cranium,” the storyteller makes sure we notice the Jewish host (in Greek, laos, the word for faithful Israel) stands watching. Here, Luke uses the word theoreon, watching, for the activity of the host. The word implies they know exactly what they are looking at. They look and they understand: Rome is doing what Rome does, and Jews are doing what Jews do in response: they gather, they bear witness, now and in every century.

Everywhere you look in Luke’s gospel, Jesus finds himself surrounded by faithful, courageous Jews. At the Jordan when John is baptizing, even the tax collectors reveal themselves to be looking for God’s Kingdom and longing for Roman departure. Later in the story, Zacchaeus makes it clear that those tax collectors at the river were not alone in being faithful, and Luke’s Jesus calls him a “son of Abraham” in response.

And now on the hill of crucifixion, Jesus finds another faithful Jew, one who is crucified with him. To be sure, the other two victims are bandits, not messiahs, and to be sure, one of them taunts him with the same words used by Roman soldiers and hired collaborators: Messiah, King of the Jews. The other victim, however, knows that Jesus is a king and has a kingdom. These are things that, in Luke’s story, only faithful, expectant Jews know.

If the Romans are paying attention, they should commence worrying at this point. Crucifixion was torture intended to teach a political lesson: Rome can crush the humanity out of you. Remember that. But this crucifixion scene is loaded with Jews who cannot be crushed. This is trouble for oppressors. Rome should worry.  The centurion who observes the death seems to have figured this out.

As the narrative camera pulls back, we discover Jesus is surrounded by mourners, followers, family, women and others who have also followed him, and observant Jews even from those among the Jewish Council. Everywhere Jesus turns there are people of faith. Years ago the comic, Woody Allen, said that eighty percent of life is showing up. Luke’s storyteller appears to know that. No matter what happens to the messiah, the King of the Jews, the Jewish family shows up.

Maybe this is what Luke means to suggest when he talks about expecting the Kingdom of God. Of course Luke (and Luke’s Jesus) expect the aeon of resurrection and restitution, but until that ultimate event actually takes place, it’s crucial that the people of the kingdom show up. They can show up to help, to repent, to wait, and to watch. They can show up to argue, to learn, to support, or to challenge. Sometimes they can only show up to beat their breasts and mourn. But they show up.

Perhaps when they show up, they pray the prayer Jesus taught them in Luke 11:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

That seems a good prayer to pray while waiting with the King of the Jews. 

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6

Richard W. Nysse

Many readers of these comments will have multiple definitions and images of leadership circulating in their imaginations.

They will have experienced leadership in diverse ways. We blame many others for a lack of leadership even as we are uncertain of what constitutes leadership. While the multiplicity of terms for leadership and books about leadership may be a relatively recent phenomenon, the experience of failed leadership is not new.

There is sufficient background information provided in prior posts on this text. See the links to past commentaries on this passage by Fred GaiserDavid Garber, and Elna Solvang. This post will focus on developing a conversation between the text in Jeremiah and contemporary audiences.

Jeremiah 23 does not provide a definitive definition of leadership, despite the promises articulated in the later verses of this reading. It does, however, provide terms to describe failed leadership. The failed leaders are ones who have destroyed the community they were to lead.

Rather than gathering the people for a common enterprise that leads to thriving, they have scattered and driven away those who depended on their leadership. They have not “tended” to the people within their realm of responsibility. Stated in the terms used in the previous three sentences, their failure has been and is matched in many contemporary institutions.

In the context of circa 600 BCE, the leaders have, it appears, sold out to the powerful vested interests — priests and prophets to the interests of royalty and the wealthy, royalty to the perpetuation of its own power and wellbeing. It may be tempting to draw straight lines to equivalent vested interest today, but to do so would be to ignore a dramatic change in context.

Today “interests” are interlinked with individualistic and consumerist demands in the rhetoric and reality of global markets. A “me first” culture complicates any correlation between then and now. Leaders can hide exploitation behind a claim to be giving consumers what they demand. Or, each of us can demand services that ignore their impact on the common good. If I do the latter, I become complicit in the demise of the “flock.” I also am not “tending” to the flock. I too am scattering rather than gathering. The text, then, even is no longer only about a nebulous and nefarious “them” apart from myself.

Even though we cannot draw direct equivalents between then and now, the text of Jeremiah does push beyond generic or paradigmatic leadership failure. The persons hurt by the failed leadership are defined by the first person singular pronoun “my.” Those suffering from failed leadership are “the sheep of my pasture,” “my people,” and “my flock.”

God has a stake in this development. God’s people are hurt and, if God is God, then the hurt caused by failed leadership produces a problem for God. The text of Jeremiah does not assert leadership principles, whether constructive or destructive. The text is not didactically pragmatic; rather it announces the attention of God and the events that ensue from that attention. If contemporary audiences recognize a level of complicity in the failure, then those audiences have to come to grips with God’s attentiveness to those who are scattered by its conduct, whether intended or not.

The failed leadership was not merely lost opportunity. If the flock — God’s flock — is scattered it makes no difference what was intended. The condition of being scattered has to be addressed because it is an outrage; any continuation of the status quo becomes an evil.

In terms of the text of Jeremiah failed leadership was doing evil. God first focuses on the evil doing of the leaders, the “shepherds.” The opening “woe” sets the tone. The “therefore” of verse 2 is a common pivot as prophetic preaching moves from indictment/charge to the announcement of the consequential judgment. Here, however, the opening “woe” anticipates the judgment announced after the “therefore” and the judgment section reiterates or expands on the charge/indictment.

The reiteration or expansion is not superfluous; it shifts to a direct charge. It moves from “the shepherds who … scatter the sheep” to “you who have scattered my flock.” You, that is, the leaders/shepherds have driven away my, that is, God’s people. This active scattering and driving away is at the same time described as a lack of attending to the people entrusted to them.

Lack of attention and active scattering and driving away go hand-in-hand. We might say sins of omission and commission overlap; at the very least the distinction blurs. The text sums it up as “your evil doings.” God will attend to those “evil doings” with the clear implication that God’s attending will be, to put it mildly, an undesirable outcome. It will be the “plucking up,” “pulling down,” “destroying” and “overthrowing” announced in Jeremiah’s call (1:10) and repeatedly spelled out in other sections of the book.

Failed leadership creates a storyline that ends with scattering in exile. That is the end of the story, the existing leadership (or that portion that survives the scattering) cannot create a new chapter. The devastation is too thorough; the creative capacities have been squandered and are now depleted in exilic scattering.

A new agent is needed. It is important not to rush to the hopeful closing verses of this lectionary unit, for the starkness of the reversal will be lost and the hope trivialized. The words are not simply giving the hearers a psychological boast to face their exilic day. The words promise a new reality, a new existence. It is way more than an attitude shift.

Psychological boasts and attitude adjustments seek to get us back on track. They renew our agency. But the text does not speak of our agency. Overwhelmingly, the change in the latter verses is toward the work of God. God promises to do the opposite of the failed leadership. God will gather, not scatter as past leadership has (be it ancient or our own). God will bring creative thriving for all — the “be fruitful and multiply” echoes with Genesis 1 where it is a blessing extended to far more than human creatures.

This is a promised future far different from that promised in our current economic rhetoric of “creative destruction” and “disruptive innovation.” The latter may have brought prosperity to many, but its failures lead to a communal depletion and scattering no less than that of the exile of Jeremiah’s time.

“Gathering” and “tending” — especially God’s — cannot be made to dovetail with any survival of the fittest social and economic ethic. The hopeful and hope-filled future promised by God is not yet here in its fullness. Our failed leadership, despite its very apparent failures, continues to contest God’s announced future and in the process continues to scatter and do evil.

Holding the two directions of these six verses together in one sermon without homogenizing them will lead to a sermon that ends with petitioning such as in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come!” Two things must be preached: judgment for what continues to fail to “tend” and thus “scatters” and the promise of God’s refusal to let the results of “evil doings” be the last word. 


Commentary on Psalm 46

Eric Mathis

This is the final week in the liturgical calendar. Christians around the world will proclaim and celebrate the reign of Christ before beginning the journey of the Christian year anew.

However, in all of this week’s lectionary texts, interesting juxtapositions await Christians eager to celebrate the glory, power, and reign of Christ the King.

The appointed Gospel reading paints a paradoxical portrait of Christ on the cross talking about Paradise. The Old Testament reading juxtaposes the chaos of scattering sheep beside gathering and protecting sheep. The Epistle contrasts enduring suffering and giving thanks with joy, and the appointed Psalm contrasts the calamities of the world with the city of God.

Specifically, Psalm 46 does what Thomas Merton said the Psalter should do. Merton said the Psalter “will, above all, tell us not merely what we ought to be but the unbelievable thing that we already are… we are at the same time in the desert and in the Promised Land. The Psalms are our Bread of Heaven in the wilderness of our Exodus.”1

The Desert and the Promised Land
Psalm 46 reminds us that we are in both the desert and in the Promised Land. In short, this Psalm is a strong affirmation of trusting God in the most troublesome situations. The opening statement (verse 1) as well as the recurring refrain (verses 7 and 11) each serves as reinforcements to God’s presence and God’s protection. God is with us, even when the world around us might seem to be falling apart. In the midst of unpredictable natural disasters that change and destroy the earth, God’s people are not to fear (verses 2-3). In the midst of political calamity, the voice of God can be heard (verse 6). In the midst of militaristic strife, God will bring peace (verse 9).

Although some interpretations of Psalm 46 have attached an “excessive literalism” to descriptions of natural, political, and militaristic disasters, Robert Alter claims that these images are most likely metaphorical. The “hyperbolic description of mountains collapsing into the sea” and the “figurative representation of an assault by enemies” must not be taken literally. They represent non-realistic descriptions and certain terms are repeated in the Hebrew language, detracting from a literal interpretation (verses 6-7). Furthermore, Jerusalem is not home to an actual river, merely an “underground stream.”2

With Alter, John Goldingay asserts that this Psalm is not about violence, but about God.3 Goldingay also warns against another misinterpretation of this Psalm. That is, too often the Christian community uses the pinnacle phrase of this Psalm, “Be still and know that I am God!” as an invitation or an excuse to ignore or withdraw from a violent and noisy world. Goldingay reminds us “nowhere do the psalms have an ideal of silence.” Rather, “their assumption is that one finds God not in silence but in noise.” Psalm 46 is “an important challenge to the superpower to stand still and recognize that God is God and that the superpower is not.”4

The Table and the City
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels is a spiritual haven that sits in the midst of a noisy city. The Cathedral belongs to the Catholic diocese of Los Angeles, is a remarkable structure, and has long been a meaningful place for many people. Before entering the worship space, one must walk through the cathedral’s large doors and journey down a long hallway. Upon entering the nave, most people immediately notice the large, handmade tapestries that hang on the walls. They represent the communion of saints, all those who have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord.

At the front of the worship space, behind the Table of the Lord, is a large tapestry with the image of a city map of Los Angeles. On that tapestry are inscribed words from Revelation 21:3: “God’s dwelling is among mortals. God will dwell with them. They will be God’s people. And God will be with them.” The juxtaposition of these words with the map of Los Angeles is particularly striking.

Los Angeles is a city that, like any other city, has had and continues to have its share of violence and turmoil. Yet, in the midst of that violence sits that cathedral with the Table of the Lord and a map proclaiming the dwelling place of God is not something far away but a reality on earth. Christians stop at this place daily to remind themselves that in a world where violence is inescapable, God is God and God’s promises are being fulfilled in us. But, as Psalm 46 suggests, we are to remember that “in this city, it is not for us to fix things. It is for us to expect God to fix things.”5 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.


1Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness (New York: New Directions, 1953), 38.

2Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), 162-163.

3John Goldingay, “Psalm 46,” in Psalms, Volume 2: 42-89, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 73.



Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:11-20

Mariam Kamell

This selection begins rather oddly in the middle of a sentence, and so for context we will have to go back and collect verses 9 and 10.

In verse 9, Paul begins his standard prayer that concludes his introduction and thanksgiving, a format that allows him to highlight some of the issues he will take up later in the letter, while at the same time directing the focus to God in these problem areas. And so Paul begins the prayer with a request for knowledge and wisdom for the Colossians, making his usual immediate transition from gift of God to intended outcome of that gift, flagged by a “so that,”– this time, “so that [they] might live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in knowledge of God” (NIV2011). It is at this point that we pick up in the middle of the sentence and finish Paul’s prayer (one has to wonder whether the liturgical calendar deliberately cut Paul’s single prayer in half!). And it is somewhat distressing to cut this prayer in half, because Paul immediately moves to the how — how they can fulfill his hopes of growth and life from verse 10, “strengthened with all power.” To divide the prayer as it has been could give the impression that Paul simply moves from gift to demand, while in truth it is gift, intended outcome followed immediately by the description of how one moves from gift to outcome.

And so we reach the climax of Paul’s prayer, which still keeps the focus on God as the one who strengthens his people to have endurance — a key word for Paul that often seems neglected in our postmodern context — confident in the Father’s rescue and promise of inheritance. I wonder what would happen in the world if Christians realized that in a very real sense we are the one percent, with a wealthy father and a certainty to our inheritance due us, and we don’t have to perpetuate the greed of the current capitalist system. We have wealth and spare. I fear often that we read Paul’s “inheritance” language and think, “yeah, yeah, heaven, future, spiritual, other, but I have to live now,” when Paul clearly uses it for definite encouragement for the here and now. This change of identity and promise of an inheritance was meant as very real encouragement for the here and now, and I think we lose something of our enthusiasm and confidence when we over-spiritualize it or leave it solely as something for the future that doesn’t affect us now. Paul meant it to embolden and encourage his hearers, and we should consider that as we teach and preach this. Indeed, verses 12 and 13 strengthen this notion, for they speak of the father having brought us into “the kingdom of light” and “the kingdom of the Son he loves,” meaning that we have access to his wealth now.

And what wealth. The entirety of the hymn of vv. 15-20 celebrates the resources we have available through the Son. This inheritance in the kingdom of the Son includes all things. In these six verses, the word for “all” appears eight times, hammering home the completeness of the work of the Son and how thoroughly we need not fear anything now. All things are under the supremacy of the Son; it is into his kingdom we have been brought, and I do think it would make a difference if we really believed this. All things are or will be brought under his supremacy, and we need fear nothing because we are part of the kingdom, already guaranteed an inheritance.

The Colossians Hymn should be the triumphant password of Christians everywhere — not celebrating oppression or exclusivism, for that would be to take this hymn entirely wrongly. Instead, we ought to celebrate Christ more, celebrate him in ways that invite others to meet him and want to be excited. Christians don’t always have the most celebratory reputation, but Paul can’t seem to find superlative enough language to celebrate the work of Christ on the cross in putting all things right.

And that is what we should celebrate. Because of the cross, we can live in great confidence and joy that all the things that are so wrong will be made right and that Christ has already begun putting all things right. By inviting us into his kingdom, we are partners and co-inheritors of all things made right, and so we should work for justice and the righting of wrongs; we should work for peace and reconciliation, but we do these things because we know that all of this will be done in Christ.

Because of the confidence expressed in this celebratory hymn, Christians can work harder and longer for justice than any others, because Christ is our model. Christ, who went to the cross, began the work of making peace there, and that is a work he will complete. And so we know we are on the “winning side” of this struggle, so we press on with joy and confidence, celebrating each victory in Christ’s name and mourning each act of oppression as an affront to Christ on the cross. Peace is our goal, and our leader went to the cross to secure it as the definite outcome. Let us be a people shaped by celebration, confidence, joy, and most of all, peace, because we know who Christ is and we are confident in his victory. As Julian of Norwich affirmed, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”