Lectionary Commentaries for October 27, 2013
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 18:9-14

Meda Stamper

This week’s text follows immediately on last week’s and is another parable about prayer.

Whereas last week’s offered a positive example in the character of the widow, this week’s is a study in contrast.

It begins with two comments about the addressees. Jesus tells this parable to some who (1) trust in themselves that they are righteous and (2) regard others with contempt. The first verb is used elsewhere in Luke at 11:22 with reference to the armor of the strong man, in which he trusts but which is taken away from him by the stronger man; to trust in one’s own righteousness is to rely on a flimsy defense.

The second verb, translated here regard with contempt, is used elsewhere in the gospels only at Luke 23:11 where Herod and his soldiers regard Jesus with contempt (translated there treat with contempt), and it is used again in Acts 4:11, again with Jesus as the one treated with contempt (there translated rejected). Already in the first verse the addressees have been established as deluded and those whom they treat with contempt have been identified with Jesus. And the parable will be a working out of this.

The parable begins with two men praying in the temple, and for that split second, we can have good hope for both of them, but as soon as they are introduced, the characterization of Pharisees and tax collectors in the narrative thus far comes into play, and we can be sure that the Pharisee of the parable will be standing in for the addressees.

Pharisees appear regularly in Luke. In 5:30, where they criticize Jesus for his association with tax collectors and sinners, they are associated with the righteous whom Jesus has not come to call. They reject God’s purpose for themselves by refusing to be baptized by John at 7:30, again in contrast with tax collectors.

In the next episode (7:36-50), Simon the Pharisee, by regarding with contempt the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, establishes himself as the one who loves less! Notably, for the purposes of this text, they are grumbling about tax collectors again at 15:1-2, which elicits from Jesus the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son, in which the Pharisees seem best suited to the role of the embittered elder brother.

Here the Pharisee is not embittered about the lost tax collector, but thankful not to be him. Perhaps the most significant and simplest thing we might observe about the prayer is that it is nothing like the one Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in 11:1-13. That prayer is entirely God-centric, opening with God’s name, kingdom, and will, then moving to our need of him for daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance. This prayer is the prayer of one who has no need of anyone or anything because he is already in himself perfect, especially with respect to the wretched tax collector.

Tax collectors are associated with sinners throughout Luke, and the tax collector of the parable, a picture of shame, makes the association himself in a prayer of few words: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Just as tax collectors are hopeful characters in Luke (for example, 3:12; 5:27-30; 7:29-34; and especially 19:1-10), so are sinners. Simon Peter identifies himself as one (5:8); the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is another (7:37). Sinners are often grouped with tax collectors as joint objects of the Pharisees’ grumbling and contempt. So we can feel sure that this man, like the sheep and the coin and the prodigal, is about to be saved by grace, as indeed he is.

He goes home justified, Jesus tells us. This verb has the same root as the adjective for righteous used in the first verse of the parable (18:9). The person who is justified is proclaimed righteous, so the use of the verb here echoes the use of the adjective in the introduction to the parable. The contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector is between those who trust in themselves that they are righteous and those who trust in God to justify (or, we might say, to righteous) them. Jesus has already addressed the Pharisees using the same verb (16:15): “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”

The contrast between the one justified by God and the one who believes in his own righteousness as justification enough is summarized in the concluding statement: “ . . . for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” These two ideas have already appeared together in 1:52, where God is said to have lifted up (or exalted) the lowly (or humble). The phrase appears in full in 14:11 when Jesus is at dinner in the home of a Pharisee.

It all seems rather straightforward really. The addressees hear what we expect them to hear; the Pharisee and tax collector play their parts.

The challenge for us perhaps is to notice that we rather like being exalted. We might think of it as the satisfaction of a job well done or a duty fulfilled. And we might begin to believe that things we do (giving money to the church, doing religious or charitable activities, being upstanding members of society, making a well-deserved salary) or don’t do (being thieves, rogues, or adulterers) really might justify us, at least a little, might make us a bit better than those who fail where we succeed. But until we let go of that notion, the parable suggests, we will not go home justified. We will be prisoners to our own small righteousness. And we as a church will present a face to the world that does not invite it in.

On the other hand, we may need to challenge an assumption in ourselves that because of our failings, because we do not measure up to the standards of the Pharisee in ourselves, we are in some way secretly stained beyond redemption.

The strangely good news of the parable is that the role of the tax collector is available to all of us. We, and everyone around us, are all sinners and all beloved children of the gracious Father. The parable invites us to experience the freedom that comes with casting away our flimsy armor and throwing ourselves into the arms of God, who is already there, who has already found us, who wants more than anything to lift us up and lead us home.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

Richard W. Nysse

Jeremiah 14 drives us into the darkness.

There is no easy gospel in this chapter.

The people make a confession of sins that seems thorough: “our iniquities testify against us” (7), “our apostasies…are many” (7), and “we have sinned against you” (7).

The response, however, is not the expected announcement of forgiveness. The relationship between God and people is not restored. Instead, the gap is extended with the expression “this people.” The demonstrative pronoun “this” is stark. The distance is further extended with an indictment: they have loved to wander, without restraint.

But, we might ask, isn’t that just what they have confessed by admitting that their apostasies are many?

In this particular section of Jeremiah, the verdict is unshakeable. The Lord does not accept them. The relationship is no longer expressed with possessive pronouns (my people/your God; our God/your people). “This” is a long way from “my” or “your” or “our.” The distance inherent in “this people” implies the end of the covenant relationship. Now, in this prophetic exchange, the immediate future is set by God’s commit to remember their iniquity. To remember iniquity means punishment. The severance of the covenant relationship does not mean out of sight, out of mind. It is not a matter of divine indifference; rather, the mind of God is focused on “this people.” The focus, however, is for harm, not for good. When covenantal blessing ceases, it is not a matter of a neutral absence of good. The cessation of covenantal blessing is the beginning of disaster, not merely the relenting of good.

The second half of the reading, starting with verse 19, recognizes the extent of the switch: rejection, loathing, striking down, no good, and terror are the shape of life when God’s people become “this” people. Nevertheless, the (“this“) people resume confession: “we acknowledge our wickedness.” The confession does not just concern the historic wickedness of the community (“the iniquity of our ancestors”), but also the contemporary enactment of our own iniquity (“we have sinned against you”).

The chapter doesn’t simply chide the people for insincerity in their confession. It is not a case where the confessional words are right but the heart isn’t in it. It is not merely an attack of dead ritual, a common complaint against conventional religion. There isn’t any call for turning up the amps on sincerity. Singing “The Old Rugged Cross” with greater fervor will not do. Whether the level of sincerity was high or low in the past, sincerity is not the issue now. The issue in the now of the text is rejection.

Here is where the preacher needs to tend to verses 1-6 and 11-18. The context is one in which there is ample evidence of judgment; life is coming to an end. The destruction of the community is at hand; in fact, the destruction has started. This is not the discipline of a call to repentance. This is a “grievous wound,” a “crushing blow” — this is not chastisement. Death is pervasive in the countryside and in the city. The embodiment of rejection is already being experienced.

We might try to soften the force of rejection language by appealing to a generalized principle such as “what you sow is what you reap.” Social injustice produces social turmoil and collapse. The principle is easily supported by a quick look at the newspaper. Yet this text asserts more. God has rejected the people of God. The false prophets had insisted that God would not reject. Instead, God, in their view, would only bless, even to the point of exempting them from the natural consequences of social injustice. They claimed that the community would not experience sword and famine (13, 15). But the famine was already in place (1-6)!

The famine was both the natural consequence of social disorder and the active work of God. God was active in the collapse: “By sword, by famine, and by pestilence I consume them.” When the people state at the end of their petition in verse 22 that the Lord has done all this, they are not exaggerating. Neither are they shifting the blame to God and off themselves. In their lament they do not claim to be innocent sufferers. The severity of the punishment is at issue because it means the end of the relationship, not because the punishment exceeds the crime.

Once God is active in punishment, the only way out comes from God. That is what is being pleaded here, and the plea is rejected by God. God is, in this text, rejecting the intercession of the people — not because it is insincere, but because the time for pleas is over. Judgment (rejection) has commenced. Even the prophet is prohibited from taking up their plea. Moses did so after the golden calf and spy episodes in the Pentateuch (Exodus 32-34 and Numbers 13-14). In the opening words of Jeremiah 15, not even Moses or Samuel, much less Jeremiah, could successfully intercede.

Our quest for reasonableness in religion comes to an abrupt end in a chapter such as this. The impact of the text cannot be reduced to the natural consequences of social (or personal) transgression. Such consequences are present, but the text claims more. God is involved. And in this instance, God’s involvement is God’s judgment.

God is not just present in the good strands of disasters. God is not absent from the harm itself. It is common to assert that God is with us in disasters — whether natural or human-caused — and that God does not abandon us. Acts of kindness in the midst of disasters are conventionally pointed to as signs of God’s presence. It’s as if God gets the silver linings in the dark clouds. We desperately want to be spared the thought that God is active in the dark cloud, not just against the dark cloud.

But God’s presence is not merely the good subsections or components in a larger system. That might feel safer for a moment, but it concedes too much. That would leave too much of the experience of the world to be devoid of God’s active presence and agency.

By itself, there is no easy good news in this chapter. This chapter remembers iniquity — period! We should avoid the temptation to jump ahead to Jeremiah 31:34 too quickly: “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” The move to forgiveness goes through the heart of God, and we know from the New Testament that it is not a facile move. It involves a crucifixion. False prophets seek to avoid the agony of Jeremiah 14 and in the process both mislead the people and trivialize the crucifixion.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:23-32

Karl Jacobson

Joel 2 is, perhaps, most well known from its quotation in Acts 2:14 and following.

In Acts, Peter calls upon Joel’s words to help the festival crowds in Jerusalem understand the powerful in-rushing of the Holy Spirit that would come to define Pentecost thereafter. For many it will be difficult to separate Joel from its New Testament context, but Joel can still speak for himself (or for God-self as it were) in two striking ways.

The first striking thing Joel does — which is what Peter is seizing upon in Acts — is make a promise. God promises the return of the divine spirit — a return of prophecy — after a long silence-of-the-spirit. This actually comes at the end of our reading, after God has called upon to the people to be glad and rejoice (2:23). The reason for this cause for celebration is that a longed for change is coming.

Psalm 74, which was most likely written during the exilic period, recalls the silence of God, the eerie absence of the prophetic voice:

We do not see our emblems;
there is no longer any prophet,
and there is no one among us who knows how long. (Psalm 74:9)

For a generation at least God’s spirit has sent no visions, whispered no oracle — either of judgment or hope — into the slumbering prophet’s ear; God’s spirit and voice have been absent. But no more. Going back just a few verses from the beginning of this reading, we find the promise of restoration powered by the outpouring of God’s spirit, addressed to an expectant Israel:

I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied.
I will remove the northern army far from you…. (2:18, 19).

In other words, Israel will return to its land; restoration is in the offing. The prophetic vision of a return, or a relenting in punishment, of a sentence served, is the vision of the Return from Exile, ushered in by the outpouring of God’s Spirit (Joel 2:29). This renewal of the prophetic voice, enabled by God’s Spirit, is the first way one ought to read Joel 2, and that may in turn shed light on just how the miracle of Pentecost is to be understood.

But of course this outpouring is remarkable not only in the sense that it is a shift from God’s silence, but in its scope as well. The spirit is to be poured out “on all flesh” (2:28). While this oracle is clearly addressed to Israel (see 2:23, 27; “Zion” and “Israel” are both spoken to directly), that the spirit is poured out on all flesh is striking. Is the spirit only for Israel, or is it for all humankind? It is a radical idea.

As John Barton concludes of this passage:

“Yet it is difficult to see just what would be implied by an extension of the outpouring of YHWH’s spirit beyond the bounds of Judah, which would make this prophesy one of the most ‘universalistic’ in the Old Testament.”1

It cannot be argued that this is precisely how the book of Acts then takes Joel to be meant. And for the present audiences the Old Testament word is best understood in a way similar to the New Testament application of it.

A second striking element of Joel is its use of exodus-imagery to convey the promise of a restoration for Israel. Joel 2:23-32 is replete with imagery redolent of the exodus (see also Exodus 6:7, 7:5; 14:4, etc.):

Joel 2:27: “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel … that I, the Lord, am your God.”

Verses 26 and 30: The words translated “wondrously” and “portents” are from the same root word in Hebrew (pela), the same word used for the “plagues” or “wonders” of the exodus event.

Verse 23: “Rain” is used three times leading into a description in verse 24 of threshing floors “full of grain,” and overflowing vats of wine and oil. This may call to mind Exodus 16:4 (among other passages) which speak of God raining bread upon the people so that they have more than enough.

Like Jeremiah (but without his bold claim that the Restoration will eclipse the exodus; see Jeremiah 16:14-15; 23:7-8), Joel thinks of the Restoration as a sort of new exodus. And as such, the promise of Joel may be just as immediate, just as powerful for us in the here and now. Not only was Joel speaking of a restoration of his own people; and not only was Joel appropriated to speak to the time of the early church; but Joel is speaking of, imagining, promising a new restoration, a new exodus for God’s people now, today.

The question we may wish to ask in our preaching and teaching this week is, “What is our God calling us out of ‘exile’ to do and be in a new ‘promised land’?”

1 John Barton, Joel and Obadiah [O.T.L.], Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press [2001], 96.


Commentary on Psalm 84:1-7

Fred Gaiser

The psalms chosen for lectionary use are often abridged for a variety of reasons — sometimes valid, sometimes not so much, many of us would say.

Today’s abridgment of Psalm 84 seems to be simply a matter of length, since there are no particularly “embarrassing” or “offending” elements in the part omitted. Still, however the psalm is used today liturgically, the preacher might want to hold onto the latter part, if only because it provides the rationale for the positive elements in the earlier portion: My soul longs for the courts of the Lord (verse 2).

But why? “For [because, ki] a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness” (verse 10). What a claim! Partying with God is more fun than partying with the wicked! Can the preacher make that case? Can your congregation make such a claim? It would be something to explore in the sermon.

Or further: Happy are those who find a home in God’s house; happy are those whose strength is in God (verses 4-5). But why? “For [because, ki] the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly” (verse 11). That’s the big rationale, of course. Life is better with God, because God is the source of warmth and protection, life and all good things. More, God withholds nothing — well, not to those who walk uprightly. That little hedge will make us take stock of what it means to walk uprightly.

The psalm itself will help, certainly. To walk uprightly is to make our home with God, with God’s people, with God’s church. That is where we will be shaped and transformed into the kind of people that matter in the world — people who might even turn a dry valley “into a place of springs” (verse 6). According to the Hebrew grammar of the psalm, God’s people are active makers of “springs,” of a new world — parallel subjects to “the early rain” in the second part of the verse. God’s people as rain? Not raining on other’s parades (as some might fear of the pious) but the rain that provides life and joy to other people and the creation itself. Can people do that? This is metaphor, of course, but also a clear beckoning call to action.

Like other psalms (especially, for example, Psalm 122), this one too sings of the pilgrimage of God’s people to the temple, to Israel’s festival worship. Such songs sing of the joys and blessings of the temple, but Psalm 84 provides us also this glimpse of what happens along the way. God’s pilgrims apparently are not those whose eyes are so fixed on heaven (or the temple) that they have no time for or interest in this life, as though they (we) are merely passing through.

The pilgrims in Psalm 84 — precisely because they know the wonders and pleasures of life with God — make a profound difference as their journey to “the courts of the Lord.” The metaphor of verse 6 might inform us more or less literally, inviting us to tend and care for the creation itself — leaving it better than we found it, rather than contributing to its barrenness — but it might function for us spiritually and poetically, inviting us to “rain” wherever there is need and drought. How nice it would be if this were the image of God’s people held by the world.

When I served in Zimbabwe, people were always glad to hear I was Lutheran because it brought to their minds the logo of Lutheran World Relief on the trucks that brought food and water, dams and boreholes, clothing and care to their needy villages. It felt good to be put in such company, and the psalm invites all God’s people to find similar vocations.

The psalm’s claim that God withholds nothing from “those who walk uprightly” gets a bit more troublesome in NIV’s translation: “from those whose walk is blameless [Hebrew tamim = whole, entire, complete].” Can we pull that off? We should not run from the definition too quickly, as though we are just poor miserable sinners who can never do anything good or right. The singers of the psalm, too, knew themselves to be sinners.

Indeed, in a similar song of pilgrimage, those who have “clean hands and pure hearts” (one might say, those who are “righteous”) come to the temple precisely in order to receive “righteousness” (Psalm 24:4-5) (Hebrew: tsedaqah; NRSV: vindication). “Righteousness” is a relational term in the Old Testament, not something that I earn, control, or boast of. I am righteous or blameless or have clean hands because I receive it from God, but then I renew it in worship and community, and use it in the service of God and others.

True, we will not make ourselves sinless or eternally righteous, but as God cleanses us and makes us righteous, we ought not back away from acting the part that God assigns to us. People should be glad to see us coming — like my African friends with the LWR trucks.

The psalmist longs for “the courts of the Lord,” envying even the birds that are able to nest perpetually in the open areas of the temple. Ah, to be a bat in God’s belfry! Does “temple” translate as “church” for us — that is, as church building? It might. Many of us have wonderfully nostalgic memories of events associated with church buildings: great music, inspiring worship, uplifting sermons, family weddings and baptisms, perhaps even moving funerals. Those are good things, and we give thanks for them.

But “temple” probably translates better for us as the community of God’s people in and with whom God is present. We might know them best in the church building, but we will recognize them wherever people and the creation are being nourished, wherever they are providing “rain” for the earth. What a happy place to be, says the psalm. Yes, indeed, better than partying with the wicked.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Mark Throntveit

Payback — it’s one of the dominant themes in art and narrative.

It springs from some place deep in our social sensibilities. The consequences of certain kinds of behavior, we believe, are fully warranted. Some actions deserve reward, while others bring retribution. Payback is part of how we comprehend justice, whether actual or poetic.

Many of us have been trained to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ as a state of affairs in which the rules of payback are obliterated or turned on their head. But much of the Bible doesn’t see it quite that way.

“The Lord” of the Ending

Consider the ending of Second Timothy, which refers to payback in connection to God’s final reckoning:

  • Paul’s life nears its end. As that life is being poured out like a sacrificial drink offering to God (see Philippians 2:17 as well as Genesis 35:14; 2 Samuel 23:16; Jeremiah 7:18; and practices in Greco-Roman religion), and as he dies as one who has “kept the faith,” Paul awaits “the crown of righteousness.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
  • Others, too, await this crown, others “who have longed for [Jesus’] appearing [epiphaneia; see also 1:10; 4:1],” not the first appearance (epiphany) in Galilee and Judea but the coming one. (4:8)
  • Trouble awaits Alexander the coppersmith, who did bad things to Paul. (4:14)
  • Paul worries about those who deserted him during his prosecution, that they might not finally be held accountable for their failure to stand with him. (4:16)
  • Even the Lord can expect some payback, in a sense. The One who has brought Paul safe thus far deserves the ascription of “the glory forever and ever.” (4:18)

Admittedly, some of the above information does not appear in this Sunday’s lection, since verses 9-15 have been left out. While these missing verses do not add much theological substance, they do contribute considerable flair to the pathos of Paul’s farewell words. They depict Paul’s final days, as he perseveres more or less isolated in the face of death, as no picnic. Being deserted as an imprisoned person in antiquity could result in more than shame and increased legal jeopardy; it made it difficult for the incarcerated to eat and sleep properly in a world where no “prison system” existed to provide for basic needs. Friends were supposed to do that.

Notice, too, the repeated attention to “the Lord” in these verses:

  • The Lord will give Paul and other believers the crown of righteousness. This reward is not Paul’s to seize. He didn’t earn it, necessarily; but his faithful service buttresses his confidence that the Lord will prove faithful in providing it to all who faithfully await his appearance. A confidence about future rewards — this is one more virtue commended to Timothy and others via Paul’s example.
  • We assume Paul would credit the Lord for helping him complete the struggle and finish the race (2 Timothy 4:7; the focus is on completion, not “winning” either metaphorical “event”).
  • The Lord will repay Alexander and perhaps the deserters.
  • The Lord is the one who has accompanied, strengthened, and preserved Paul along the way.
  • Finally, the glory belongs to the Lord.

Throughout the letter, Paul has been the example to imitate. But it has been the Lord who makes such faithfulness possible. The Lord makes perseverance a reality, let alone a desideratum. The people Timothy and Paul serve are not their own, but the Lord’s. The Lord possesses authority to issue rewards and punishments.

The ending of the letter therefore displays an interesting tension between, on one hand, its (or, Paul’s) desire to have friends rewarded and enemies penalized and, on the other hand, its convictions that the dispensing of payback belongs to God, by virtue of God’s power and right. The letter longs for faithful friends to receive benefits and for opponents and betrayers to get their due. But it cannot fully shed the understanding that any such recompense is God’s business alone.

The letter’s crisis tone nearly makes one assume that no one around Paul “back then” was able to remain faithful to God and Paul’s gospel — except for Paul himself. No wonder such importance hovers over the question of Timothy’s faithfulness. But when we look more closely, reading from the very beginning through the end of the letter, we see that maybe others were faithful, too: Lois, Eunice, Crescens, Titus, Luke, Mark, Tychicus, Carpus, Prisca, Aquila, Onesiphorus and his household, Erastus, Trophimus, Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, Claudia, and other brothers and sisters. That’s a church right there, probably enough to field two teams in the community softball league.

My point is this: despite Second Timothy’s propensity to paint a portrait of the departed apostle in heroic colors, it cannot do so without acknowledging God’s role in all of this. The immediate circumstances described in the letter suggest Paul was abandoned. The letter’s theological vision sees the opposite: accompaniment. The Lord Jesus Christ is all over the place.

“We Wish to See Jesus” (To Borrow a Line from John 12:21)

Preachers can work from Second Timothy to help congregations poke around in similar kinds of circumstances, for these are places where theology happens. Consider the landscape:

  • When we yearn for (and when we fear) payback, we long for (and fear) justice to manifest itself. We also long for our own efforts to matter. Yet complete justice rarely comes, at least not at the speed we need it to arrive.
  • Our efforts to serve God and neighbor, even the heroic ones, sometimes look and feel meaningless. After all, Paul’s actual death probably looked kind of sad and pathetic to those who saw it. How would anyone, even his closest associates, know for sure that anything he did really mattered?
  • What do we make of the struggles of the church, that community of faith about whose future Second Timothy expresses so much concern? What can Christian communities do with their modest means and their often unreliable people?

Second Timothy directs our vision toward these kinds of circumstances and instructs us to see signs of the Lord in them. That’s theology, to name God’s presence in these and other places. And how we do theology matters: even the relentless confidence of this particular biblical book must finally admit that glory belongs to the Lord and that the Lord’s will — not necessarily the letter writer’s will — must be done. Such an admission commends humility and hope. That admission, finally, is the payback from us that God deserves, in our response to God’s slow yet certain faithfulness.