Lectionary Commentaries for November 3, 2013
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 19:1-10

Meda Stamper

Following on last week’s parable, we find another story of a tax collector and a sinner and of God’s intention to seek and to save the lost.

Jesus is entering Jericho and will reach Jerusalem by the end of this chapter. As he is passing through, we are introduced to Zacchaeus (the winsome “wee little man” of the children’s song). He is a chief tax collector, and he is rich. Tax collectors, loathed as they were, are among the marginalized ones who cleave to Jesus in Luke. They are among the lost whom he comes to seek and save.

The rich, by contrast, are viewed with suspicion in this Gospel, as in all of them, because wealth is a problem and a danger. So the story, although it is familiar to us, actually begins on a note of ambiguity. Will this be another tax collector who leaves everything and follows, or will this be another rich man saddened by the claims that the kingdom makes on him and his wealth?

The next two verses make clear that this is probably the former because this rich man is trying to see Jesus. The word translated try is elsewhere, including verse 10 in this passage, translated seek or search or strive, and people who seek the right things in Luke tend to find them. In fact, as we hear in verse 10, people who seek Jesus tend to find that it was actually Jesus who was seeking them all along.

The good news about Zacchaeus might also be presaged by the use of the term short or little. On the one hand, this is simply a short person, and that is how he ends up in a sycamore tree. But this term, in the superlative, is translated least, as in 9:48, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” And so there may be a sense in which Zacchaeus by climbing that tree in the manner of a child and embracing his littleness, so to speak, becomes one of the least of these. It is precisely because he humbles himself in this way that he is in a position to welcome Jesus just two verses later.

Jesus finds Zacchaeus in his tree and invites himself home with him, and Zacchaeus welcomes him rejoicing.

This occasion is met with grumbling among those who observe that (“once again,” they might be saying) Jesus is hanging about with sinners. There is similar grumbling among the Pharisees and the scribes about Jesus’ association with sinners and tax collectors at 15:2, which leads directly into the three parables of the lost and found sheep, coin, and son. And here too a lost one is about to be claimed.

Zacchaeus resolves the issue of his wealth introduced in verse 2 by saying that he is giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back those he has defrauded four times what he has taken. The use of the Greek present tense in Zacchaeus’ statements means that this commitment is ongoing, not something he will do only once, and it may mean that he has already been doing these things.

The importance of wealth and poverty in Luke is evident from early in the Gospel when, in her Magnificat, Mary speaks of the Lord sending the rich away empty and filling the poor with good things. The poor (not in spirit as in Matthew) are blessed in Luke’s beatitudes for theirs is the kingdom of God. The foolish rich man who builds bigger barns to contain his wealth dies with nothing to show for it, and his story is followed by the image of the ravens and the lilies and the instruction from Jesus (12:33-34): “Sell your possessions, and give alms. . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In 16:19-31, after having said, in the presence of the Pharisees (identified in 16:14 as “lovers of money”), “You cannot serve God and wealth,” Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man, who ignores the desperately poor Lazarus at his gate, looks up from the torments of Hades after his death and sees Lazarus with Abraham. He begs for comfort, which does not come, and then asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers to warn them. And Abraham finally replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

The story of Zacchaeus resonates with that story not only through the references to Zacchaeus’ wealth and his intention toward the poor, but also because of the particular way in which Jesus responds. First, he proclaims that salvation has come to that house, and we understand that the salvation is in the very person of Jesus, who has come to seek out and save the lost, like the shepherd and the woman with her broom and the welcoming father of chapter 15.

But he adds: “. . . because he too is a son of Abraham.” In other words, there is plenty of hope for the rich of the world as soon as they notice the Lazarus at the gate and do something serious about that. Even the most marginalized and despised of the rich, the tax collectors, have a place in the bosom of Abraham, in the community of the blessed, when they seek the right treasure.

Zacchaeus’ rejoicing expands into the rejoicing of the whole multitude of the disciples in 19:37 as they welcome their king who comes in the name of the Lord. The Queen’s jubilee was celebrated last year here in the UK, and when she would visit a place, people would go to great lengths to catch a glimpse. So Zacchaeus is doing just that, climbing a tree to catch a glimpse of the king, but the difference is that when Jesus finds him and us, he doesn’t then offer a welcoming, regal wave and retreat to a palace. As Jesus puts it, salvation comes to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus follows us home.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 1:10-18

Corrine Carvalho

Scandals: they are part of human experience, and, unfortunately, churches are not immune to them.

When scandal rocks a faith community, it seems to hit harder than the misbehavior of politicians or celebrities. Betrayal of trust cuts deeper, and the residual anger radiates through the whole community. We tend to define scandal in sexual terms, but it is also a scandal when a church fails to recognize the suffering within it. It becomes difficult to worship in a place where trust has broken down.

Sometimes we assume that scandals are a feature of the modern church, but there are many passages in the Bible that give vent to anger and distrust. Isaiah 1:10-18 is one such passage. The temptation when encountering the anger in these verses is to deflect that anger onto something that confirms what we already believe, rather than to listen to the challenge that it offers.

In this passage from Isaiah, the angry voice is that of God. The passage has a clear outline. It is divine speech addressed to the leaders of the Israelites who are called “the magistrates of Sodom” (verse 10). Although this poem is placed near the beginning of the book, most scholars view it as part of the last layer of the text. It would reflect a time, after the Exile, when Judea was no longer ruled by Davidic kings. The use of the word “magistrates” reflects the absence of a king.

During this period when the temple was rebuilt and Judean society restored, many groups vied for positions of power. Within the Persian context, the temple would have been the single most important social institution, both economically and politically, so control of the temple was more than just a religious issue.

The bulk of the speech in verses 11-16 is unrelenting in its vitriol against the rituals that take place in the temple. God “hates” religious festivals, sacrificial offerings, even the Sabbath. The specific images used in verses 11-13 describe the breadth of Israel’s worshipping life.  Qualifiers do not mitigate the condemnation of their liturgy.

The passage ends with a plea that the leaders show regard for the most vulnerable members of their community (in the NRSV, the oppressed, the widows and orphans) and an offer of forgiveness if they allow themselves to be judged. The text leaves the reader to ponder the relationship between temple worship, righteous behavior, and divine forgiveness.

Within the Christian tradition, three interpretive moves can be found that do not do full justice to the meaning of the ancient text. Two traditions can be easily dismissed.

  • Sometimes the passage has been read as condemnation Jewish religious practices. This is aggravated when New Testament texts like Galatians 3:11 (“No one is justified before God by the law”) are also read as a condemnation of Judaism.
  • Critiques of temple piety found here and in Amos 5:21-23 have also been sometimes levied against Catholic practices in parts of the Protestant tradition. The notion that one must attend Sunday Mass, for example, in order to be saved seems to stand in direct conflict with a passage that states worship practices are hateful to God.

Both of these readings miss the ancient context for Isaiah’s oracle. When this passage is read within a contemporary faith community, it should be read as a challenge of our own worship practices, and not somebody else’s.

As a poetic oracle, Isaiah 1:10-18 is should provoke a reaction through its use of provocative and sometimes shocking images. In this passage, God’s complete rejection of a temple worship whose basis is found in divinely revealed law in the Pentateuch is shocking. It should jar us. It should make us question the ultimate purpose of our own liturgical lives.

A third misreading of the text is one that moves too quickly away from worship and focuses exclusively on verse 17’s definition of the moral life. This misreading often relegates worship to a back seat. Righteousness is determined by acts of social justice, while worship becomes either self-serving pageantry or trivial passivity.

While this text does liken justice to the treatment of the oppressed and marginalized, the conclusion that social justice replaces liturgy is incorrect, especially in light of the whole book of Isaiah. Positive images of God’s relationship to the temple permeate the book. Isaiah’s call in chapter 6 takes place in the temple. Yahweh saves Jerusalem in Isaiah 36 when King Hezekiah prays in the temple. In a stunning image of inclusivity, the marginalized foreigners and castrated become fully integrated into the community by their inclusion in worship (56:3-8). The book ends with a vision of restoration that likens salvation with temple worship (66:23). Isaiah does not say liturgy is evil, unnecessary, or insignificant.

Instead, the passage invites us to experience liturgy through the eyes of those we have oppressed, ignored, or abandoned. What do our hymns sound like to someone who lives on the brink of destitution? Do our prayers evoke anger in the woman who can barely feed her children in the week between our services? Does the hope that we preach sound hollow to a child who does not feel safe in her own neighborhood or his own home?

God speaks what we refuse to hear. God’s anger is the anger of those we fail to see. Yahweh calls us out on our lack of activism for the oppressed and our failure to find relief for the oppressed. God tells us that if we allow ourselves to be judged, to recognize that we have not defended vulnerable children nor spoken for powerless women, then worship can be turned into what it is meant to be: a place where our sins are washed away and we become white as snow.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

Karl Jacobson

“I resolved to expound this prophet Habakkuk so that he, too, may finally come to light and that his contents may be learned…”

So wrote Martin Luther in his preface to the book of Habakkuk in 15261, and it would be a grand thing if preachers followed Luther’s example and preached this minor prophet this week. The selected readings from Habakkuk 1 and 2 for this week contain not only the first biblical sounding of the central theological declaration of the Reformation, “the righteous live by their faith,” (2:4; see also Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11), but is an important sense these two pieces from Habakkuk form a sort of bracket between which the believer (and the unbeliever alike) live in this world.

Habakkuk 1:1-4 contains, as the heading in the New Revised Standard Version has it, “The Prophet’s Complaint.” In classical complaint language, the prophet asks God “How long?” (1:2), and “Why?” (1:3). Habakkuk is begging for God to listen, to save; to do something about the destruction and violence that he constantly sees. The crux of the prophet’s complaint comes in 1:4:

So the law becomes slack
     and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous —
     therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Two critical things are addressed here, one that is obscured a bit in translation, while the other may slip by unnoticed. First, the translation issue. I want to offer a more simplistic translation of this verse, in which we stick to using the same English word when translating out of the Hebrew; as a philosophy of translation this makes, sometimes, for awkward English, but in this case may be necessary to see the interconnectedness of the two parts of this one verse. In Hebrew two words are used twice, in 1:4a and 1:4b, mishpat and yatsa. In the NRSV, these two words are translated differently each time. This translation is not wrong; in fact it is quite good. The problem is that the interplay between the cola of the poem is obscured. Thus,

So the law becomes slack
     and judgment (mishpat) never comes forth (yatsa).
The wicked surround the righteous —
     therefore judgment (mishpat) comes forth (yatsa) perverted.

Mishpat really means something more like “judgment,” than it does “justice,” although it should not be assumed that justice and judgment are not intimately connected — one would hope and pray.

Whichever way one would choose to go (judgment or justice) the key is that it is the same word used. Habakkuk laments first that judgment/justice does not come about, and then in classical Hebrew parallelism that judgment/justice does come forth, but it is perverted and twisted, a mockery of justice.

The second critical piece of this verse, then, has to do with how judgment/justice goes forth. Notice that the Law, the Torah, has been misappropriated by the wicked. That “judgment” or “justice” is not merely prevented, it is perverted. Habakkuk’s complaint is that when God does not listen, when God does not save us from our times of trial, it is not simply the lack of the Law that hurts, but that in God’s apparent absence the Law is twisted, applied with perverted force: perhaps brutally, perhaps relentlessly, perhaps gracelessly, perhaps only to others. This is the problem, and a present reality not only for Habakkuk but in any time and place — perhaps our times and places, as well.

Having made his complaint, the prophet then declares that he will stand watch and wait, to see how God “will answer concerning my complaint.” And then, perhaps shockingly, Habakkuk 2:2 says, “Then the Lord answered me….” Habakkuk may have been as shocked as Job when God answered, he may have wondered if it was wise to press so searchingly, so seriously for God’s response. But God answers.

(There is, perhaps, a sermon in just those words, “Then God answered me….” What would that be like, look like, feel like, mean?)

The Lord tells Habakkuk to do something that, if we think about it, may seem strange: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” This may mean that the runner is intended to run around holding the tablets, calling out the vision as she runs. Try reading while running; presumably the writing would have to be pretty large to be readable with all of the jarring ups and downs of even a brisk jog. Or, perhaps, this may mean that Habakkuk is to take out a billboard-like ad and write the vision large enough that anyone passing by may see and read it. Regardless, this is not the usual prophetic message to be spoken in the temple courtyard, or on a street corner, or on the palace steps. This is something different.

God goes on in Habakkuk 2:3 to make a critical promise to the prophet, and the prophet’s people, waiting to hear God’s answer: There is still a vision for the appointed time. The key words here (one word in Hebrew, moed) are “appointed time.” This word in Hebrew is used to designate festival times in Israel’s worship (Leviticus 23:2), a time of birth (Genesis 17:21; 18:14; 21:2), seasonal migration (Jeremiah 8:7), and, yes, the end time (Daniel 8:19). “Appointed time” here means the right time, God’s time, the time in which God’s promise — the vision that still is not only readable for the runner, but in force for God’s people — God’s Word will come to pass. The people are called told to wait for it, and in the meantime to be faithful.

And this is the life of faith, is it not? To live in the between of complaint and struggle on the one hand, and God’s right time on the other. This is where we live as people of faith, active and alive in this world, struggling with injustice against perverted judgments and the slackening of God’s Law, and waiting for God’s promised time, for the promise that God makes, that God has answered us, and will again; that God has saved us through Christ Jesus, and so we are saved. As the prophet closes his book in prayer,

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines…
     yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
     he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
     and makes me tread upon the heights (Habakkuk 3:17a, 18-19).

1 Luther’s Works, 19.150.


Commentary on Psalm 32:1-7

Fred Gaiser

Who knew? The ancient psalmist was a clinical therapist, saying in effect, “Don’t hold in your pain, or it will eat you alive!”

The author of Psalm 32 had discovered this modern truth long ago and acknowledged it to those around him: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (verse 3). His is a kind of teaching testimony, contrasting this deadly silence with the life-giving release of giving voice to honest confession. Note the deliberate move from “I kept silence…” (verse 3) to “I said…” (verse 5).

But what was the poet’s silence about? Luther, perhaps not surprisingly, saw it as pride: “I did not want to recognize or acknowledge my sin. I thought I was pious.”1 Many commentators agree, though this is not the only possible reading. Might the psalmist here be echoing the terror of Psalm 77:2 (“My soul refuses to be comforted”) — a cry shared by Jacob (Genesis 37:35) and Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15), both inconsolable over the death of their children? Could not all of them have said together, “I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:4)?

Asked in a different way, is the psalmist closed in on a silent self because of the pride of sin or the deep depression of pain and sorrow? We probably cannot tell from this distance, so the pastoral response would be to refrain from blaming the victim. In any case, the effect is the same. Whether deliberate or imposed by the vicissitudes of life, “The silence is the rejection of grace.”2

For the psalmist, release finally came through finding or being given the courage to speak up, more by speaking “to you.” Screaming one’s pain, anger, terror, or guilt in the solitary confines of a closed automobile has its own benefits, no doubt, but the person-to-person acknowledgment of distress and remorse is inestimably richer. The other might be a family member, trusted friend, pastor, or counselor, or, as in the psalm, it might be God. That is not an either/or, of course. God is present and active in any of those other open and healing conversations.

The psalm raises another thorny issue: in my silence, says the pray-er, “my bones wasted away” (verse 3, NIV) — all of this in some way related to God’s hand being “heavy upon me” (verse 4). Here, Psalm 32 parallels Psalm 6:2-3, “Heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul also is struck with terror.” Bones and soul, physical and spiritual distresses come as a package in the Psalter. That should come as no surprise to us, since we have learned well that spiritual and mental distress can act out in physical symptoms. But is this the work of the “heavy hand” of God? Our psalm, like so many others, connects sickness and sin, forgiveness and healing.

That profound biblical reality can be used abusively, as it was by Job’s “friends” and many others, then and now: “You’re sick? Well, you only brought it on yourself.” Occasionally, of course, that might be immediately true, but more often it is not. Still, the notion that what the Bible calls “sin” is much larger than simply my particular peccadilloes, dates back to the garden. As Gerhard von Rad has noted, Genesis 3 “wants to indicate how all the disturbances of our natural life have their roots in a disturbed relationship to God.”3

Now, confession of sin and physical distress, as brought together in pastoral care and Christian worship, should bring the whole human condition before God, not to shame the one at last able to speak his or her distress, but to announce a forgiveness and renewal that brings “glad cries of deliverance” (verse 7), because my whole self, my whole community, my whole world has been addressed.

Psalm 32 is one of the seven “penitential psalms” of the early church (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), psalms so categorized because they were seen as particularly appropriate for the developing Christian emphasis on individual sin and forgiveness. The designation is useful so long as it does not overlook the Old Testament’s emphasis on the relation of body and soul, person and world.

Commentators have suggested a late date for Psalm 32, in part because of its movement from a particular expression of confession and forgiveness to a more generalized teaching. My experience, says the psalmist, leads me to say, “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you” (verse 6); more, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go” (verse 8). That teaching emphasis coupled with the opening beatitudes (“Happy are those…”, verses 1-2) and the lumping together of what were once quite distinct terms for “sin” (“transgression,” “sin,” “iniquity”) causes many to call Psalm 32 a “wisdom psalm,” one of those psalms that reflect theologically, and practically on the breadth of human experience.

In fact, the psalm’s message can be seen as an extended version of Proverbs 28:13, “No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” It is well to remember that an appropriate faith response to such observations is always, “Yes, but….” True, things often work this way, but they may not. Christian people should properly reflect on the truth of proverbial generalizations in the Bible and learn from them, but the value of the Psalter is the ability of the authors both to recognize those truths (as here in Psalm 32) and also to scream against them (as in Psalm 44:17-19).

Especially for the pastoral counselor and preacher, generalities will not work. Prior to Psalm 32’s generalizations was a particular story of terror and healing. Today’s proclaimers of the psalm will want to ask what is particular about this day, this experience, this person or these people I am called to address.

1Martin Luther, “The Seven Penitential Psalms,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 14 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958), 149.

2James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 147.

3Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (New York: Harper, 1962), 275.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Mariam Kamell

When I was young, a cousin and I were pen pals for about four years.

And so it was I learned the now-rapidly-disappearing art of letter opening: “Dear cousin, Hi! How are you? I am fine.” And from there the letter progressed. That sense of formula always got me into the letter writing format, reminding me that the letter was not simply an update about myself but also should interact with my cousin’s prior letter where she gave her update and inquire about her continuing state.

Somehow, I don’t imagine that Paul needed to be reminded to care for the well being of his congregation. In fact, this letter, written so closely after 1 Thessalonians that the same three senders were still together, reveals Paul’s deep pastoral care for this congregation whom he’d had such a short time with. And Paul made good use of Greco-Roman letter format to highlight his particular concerns for each church to whom he wrote, and this letter is no different.

One thing to note that this particular selection of verses highlights is Paul’s consistent, near over-emphasis on their identity in God and Jesus. Verse one greets the church of the Thessalonians “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” verse two gives the salutation, “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,” God is mentioned in every verse (3: “thank God for you”; 4: “among God’s churches”; and 11: “that our God may make you worthy), and finally, verse 12 concludes the whole opening section with the benediction that “the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The greetings and prayer are entirely framed by this pairing of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, such that it seems it was Paul’s intention to hammer home to this congregation their new identity, not as Roman citizens, not as Thessalonicans, but as people entirely defined by their relationship with God and Jesus.

Now, this point ought to be of particular interest to the preacher in this day, as the “us” versus “them” mentality is only increasing. Immigration reforms, terrorism fears, and racially motivated hate crimes only scratch the surface of the ways an “us-them” mentality is cultivated these days. It is particularly problematic when people in the church continue identifying themselves more on the basis of prior identity rather than their identity in Christ. It may be worth considering the emphasis Paul placed upon their nature in God and Christ, his concern to focus their attention on that identity — rather than as Romans or any other possible identification. In an important transit city (both land and sea), one’s social width becomes all the more significant — for business, for social status, and for worship. This group of fledgling Christians needed Paul’s reminder that they were no longer identified as under the emperor or any other ruler or nationality, but were one new people in and for God. It may be very worth hearing Paul’s challenge again, helping us move into identification as siblings “in God and Christ” first and foremost, rather than identifying ourselves primarily by race, gender, or sexuality. These markers are important, but first we ought to seek to support and love one another as brothers and sisters — even when we may disagree — rather than seeking to discredit another group because they aren’t “like us.”

But along with this constant reminder of their new identity, Paul also introduces several key themes that frame this passage. In verses three and four, Paul celebrates and boasts in the growth of their faith, a faith he actually writes this epistle to bolster. And then in verse 11 he states his prayer for them, that God might bring to fruition their works of faith to his glory. Faith has an outcome, based in our identity in God: as we believe we are in God and Christ, we begin to act like God and Christ, to the glory of God and Christ, and faith is the crucial intermediary that leads us on that journey.

And although faith frames the passage as something Paul is always concerned to encourage, Paul boasts not simply in their faith, but in their endurance, something particularly remarkable for this congregation that is facing persecution in a world hostile to their newfound identity. If I were writing to the church today, I think I might settle on endurance as one of the most undersold and underappreciated virtues of late. In a Saturday Night Live skit with Elijah Wood (January 27, 2012), a group of over-entitled young people demonstrated that they felt their every effort, no matter how small, ought to be celebrated. After one attempt at a ridiculous goal, Wood concluded the skit with the line, “I tried, so no one can criticize me!” His attempt, of course, was not followed up by any further attempts — each character was utterly pleased with one half-hearted attempt at something new, as though that was sufficient. As a parody of an entitled generation, it was damning. Attempting something new does not, in and of itself, count for much. Attempting something and continuing in it, to learn, to grow, to persevere through challenges, that counts; that is what Paul celebrates and encourages in his congregation, both in his boast of verse 4 and in his prayer in 11 that God would bring to fruition their desire for goodness, despite the hardships and persecution they face. Oh, that the church today would desire goodness and endure in that quest despite oppositions, while also holding to what Paul describes as an ever-increasing love for one another. Let us hold, unshaken, to our identity as siblings in God and Christ, loving one another, enduring in faith, empowered by God and Christ to His glory. Only thus can we transform the world.