Lectionary Commentaries for October 23, 2016
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 18:9-14

David Lose

Paul Tillich, commenting on the Apostle Paul’s assertion that the gospel is a stumbling block, once said that the danger is stumbling over the wrong thing.1

There is something similar occurring in today’s reading, so we’ll want to take our interpretive steps with care.

It’s difficult to avoid interpreting the parable in straightforward, even simplistic terms, in part because the dramatic action of this parable is so very predictable even to those with only limited knowledge of the story of Jesus’ life. Knowing that Pharisees are regularly cast in the gospels as Jesus’ opposition, we all too easily judge the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this story is to be humble. There is good reason for this straightforward interpretation, as Luke seems to frame the parable in just these terms. The difficulty with such an interpretive tack, however, is that we might as well end up preaching, “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”

In order to avoid the kind of self-congratulatory reading of the parable that the parable itself would seem to condemn, it may help to note that, in fact, everything the Pharisee says is true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ, righteous (see Luke 15:7). So before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven’t said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people…”, but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.

Here is the essential contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord’s benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.

I don’t think it’s an accident that this exchange takes place at the Temple. On the grounds of the Temple, you were always intimately aware of who you were, of what status you had, of what you could expect from God. There were, at the Temple, “insiders” and “outsiders,” and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and tax collector stood. But when Jesus dies all this changes. As the gospels report, the curtain in the Temple is torn in two (Luke 23:45), symbolically erasing all divisions of humanity before God. That act is prefigured here, as God justifies not the one favored by Temple law, but rather the one standing outside the Temple gate, and aware only of his utter need.

This is what makes this parable so hard to preach. Indeed, what makes this parable a trap. For as soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Whether our division is between righteous and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble, as with Luke, we are doomed. Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side. Read this way, the parable ultimately escapes even its narrative setting and reveals that it is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.

At the end of this story, the Pharisee will leave the Temple and return to his home righteous. This hasn’t changed; he was righteous when he came up and righteous as he goes back down. The tax collector, however, will leave the Temple and go back down to his home justified, that is, accounted righteous by the Holy One of Israel. How has this happened? The tax collector makes neither sacrifice nor restitution. On what basis, then, is he named as righteous? On the basis of God’s divine fiat and ordinance! This parable is therefore preached well only to the degree that each time we try to interpret it we find ourselves, yet again, with nothing to claim but our dependence on God’s mercy. When this happens and we forget if only for a moment our human-constructed divisions and stand before God aware only of our need, then we, too, are justified by the God of Jesus and invited to return to our homes in mercy, grace, and gratitude.


1. This commentary first published on this site on Oct. 24, 2010.

First Reading

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

Corrine Carvalho

It is hard to read Jeremiah in our contemporary context; it is such an alien text.

The passages in the lectionary this week are excerpts from a longer passage about a severe drought that rocked Judah. It must have been particularly devastating, because the beginning of the chapter assumes that the audience knows which drought this is. The weather patterns in the Levant were particularly unreliable, so periodic droughts were the order of the day, but Jeremiah 14:2-6 illustrate the scope of the drought: from city to the steppe.

It is easy to dismiss this poem’s response to the drought as superstitious and naïve. The text interprets this natural disaster as God’s punishment of Judah for its sins. The people are depicted as pleading with God to forgive them. “We acknowledge our wickedness,” the poet cries. “Do not spurn us!” The audience should hear the community’s desperation.

The final two verses appeal to God’s ego, if you will. The speaker swears that they will not turn to other gods for relief from the rain. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah wins a contest against the prophets of the Canaanite storm god, Baal, during a similar catastrophic drought, proving to the witnessing audience Yahweh’s effectiveness as a more powerful storm god. Fresh water was the oil reserves of the ancient world. Their economy, based as it was on agriculture, ran on fresh water. Droughts of this magnitude reached into every corner of society: from rich landowners to poor workers, even to the farm animals, which were the ancient equivalent of tractors and plows.

The poet urges God to act “for your name’s sake” (Jeremiah 14:21). This phrase attests that what is at stake is not just economic security but cultural and religious stability. It is not only that other nations will mock the Judeans for worshipping a weak deity, but this weakened country would be vulnerable to foreign invasion, leading to colonization, as happens later in the book of Jeremiah when the Babylonians take over the land. Such colonization could be accompanied by forced recognition of the gods of the victors. This religious factor is highlighted in the reference to Zion in v. 19 and to God’s throne in v. 21: both references to the temple that stood in Jerusalem. If Jerusalem falls, the Yahweh’s own temple will be destroyed, the site where Yahweh’s “name” dwelled.

Of course, for those who know the book of the Jeremiah, this terrible prediction comes true. The nation is invaded, the city walls breached and the temple destroyed. As horrible as this natural drought is, the drought and famine that the city experienced during the long Babylonian siege was even more severe. Later in the book, after Jeremiah has been thrown into a pit as a false prophet, he is saved by an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-Melech, who understands the cruelty of death by starvation (chapter 38). Not only do Jeremiah’s warnings not change people’s behaviors, but he himself becomes the paradigmatic sufferer of a city in collapse.

So how do we read the text today, especially when we do not want to tell people who suffer from natural disasters that it is all their fault, that this is a punishment from God for their wickedness? For me, there are three things that I take from this text. The first is to listen, because the voices in Jeremiah 14 are the voices of people around the globe today who feel powerless in times of natural disaster. Their economies are so precarious, that small climate changes that are easily tolerated here can have devastating effects on families, villages, and even national economies.

Second, Jeremiah’s voice is that of an insider, part of the community that suffers. This is not the words of a dominant culture that is “othering” a colonized country by depicting them as evil. This is no Pat Robertson chastising an evil Haiti. In this particular poem the book tries to capture the communal voice of the people struggling with the question of where God is in times of communal tragedies that are beyond the people’s control. Although in Jeremiah 14:11, God tells Jeremiah not to intercede on behalf of this people, the text still manages to record the continuing cry of those who suffer.

Third, the poem acknowledges that humans have a role to play in communal disasters. And this is the text’s hardest message. No, we don’t control the weather, but how do the choices we make render some communities at such great risk during natural disasters? How did our national economy, for example, and our cultural assumptions, make the flooding in New Orleans even more devastating for the city’s poorest citizens? And who in our own community will be next? Can we dare to say, “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord?”

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:23-32

Walter C. Bouzard

Were anyone to quiz congregants filing in to worship about the content of the little book of Joel, chances are good that few could cogently respond.

Why then, preach from Joel? Several considerations might lead the overly hasty preacher to seek inspiration elsewhere. Joel is, after all, a prophetic book the first half of which deals with an ancient locust plague that lasted for several years (Joel 1:1-4; 2:2-11, 25). This is, at first blush, not a promising preaching selection for contemporary believers, many of whom are likely fuzzy on what a locust looks like.

Add to the book’s unfamiliarity its uncertain provenance: we can say no more than it was written around the year 400 BCE, give or take fifty years.1 Finally, note that the lection hews the biblical text roughly. The exhortation to fast, pray, and repent that occupy the first chapter and a half of the book are finally met with a divine speech of consolation in Joel 2:18-20. For our reading, what can best be described as an assurance of salvation for the land and the children of Zion (verses 21-24) is chopped in two. The LORD’s speech resumes in verses 25 to 27, if not all the way until verse 32 — but only in the English! The Hebrew actually separates verses 28 to 32 into a separate chapter, the first of two that fully describes “the day of the LORD” (see Joel 2:31; 3:14, 18). These are things that will “come to pass” (2:32) “afterward” (2:28), “in those days and in that time” (3:1). In that time, indeed, but not yet. Not even yet today.

Why then, preach from Joel? I propose one ought to consider crafting a sermon from Joel because this prophet proclaims hope to a people then (and now!) who desperately need it.

Two possible approaches to this passage present themselves.

First is the years long plague of locust. One need not imagine the effects of hordes of locusts lasting several years upon people. Joel 1:1-2:11 describe it vividly: literally everything that might provide sustenance is utterly devastated. Food sources disappear; livestock together with the entire nation teeter on the edge of utter annihilation. The people are urged to return to the LORD, to fast, to repent, and to call upon the LORD to spare them (2:12-17). The sin that led to God’s wrath is never specified, but clearly something had gone horribly wrong.

Ancient Israel’s problem was the threat of starvation and the extreme sparsity of those things which make life possible. We dare not minimalize the fact that food insufficiency is a real problem both globally and for fifty million members of the North American population.2 Nevertheless, it is my sense that that most who might appear for worship in late October are anxious about the paucity of resources — material, emotional, spiritual — that have only a little to do with empty larders. What are the resources that enliven us but which are threatened by one metaphorical locust after another? What causes our anxious ceaseless activity? Is it not the fear that whatever little security we have, whatever joys and satisfaction that we cling to might be snatched away in an instant? We consume. We acquire. We support political policies and leaders that promise to perpetuate our lifestyle and that promise to do nothing that will force us to reevaluate the consequences of that lifestyle. Is it not because we have lost faith in a LORD who will provide, and that in spite of what Jesus has to say on the subject (Matthew 6:25-34)?

In response to our worry about scarcity, the LORD our God promises abundance. Joel says that this is the God who gives “rain for your vindication” (li?daqâ). And not just rain! It is “abundant rain the early and later rain” that leads to a superabundance of grain and to vats overflowing with wine and oil.

Joel 2:25-27 make it clear that the promised abundance is still on the way. Eating, praise, and satisfaction are all promises of the wonders to come, as is the twice repeated promise that “my people shall never again be put to shame” (verses 26, 27). The foolishness of faith will be repaid by God’s generous provision and, more importantly, by God’s presence in the midst of God’s people.

In an era like ours and in a culture hallmarked by a fear of scarcity, it is difficult to live lives that are unstinting and free of anxiety about the future. Nevertheless, believers can and do live freely, hopefully, and generously because we know a secret: the God of abundance has promised to care for us at the “hungry feast” until our longings — and those of the world — are fully and forever satisfied.

A second preaching possibility presents itself in Joel 2:28-32. The passage is beloved both because it was cited by Peter on the first Pentecost as an interpretation of the work of the Spirit (Acts 2:14-21) and because of the breadth of God’s promise:

  • God’s Spirit is poured upon all flesh, unfettered by considerations of gender, age, or social rank. This is good news for all who believe themselves to be unqualified somehow, or too puny to prophesy. The promise is ours. The “Canticle of the Turning” is our
  • Portents in the heavens point to the arrival of the “great and terrible day of the LORD.”3 Earlier in Joel, the looming “day of the LORD” caused mourning and alarm (Joel 1:15; 2:1). The locusts were his army and his “day” one of punishment in the form of scarcity (2:11). Now the image is transformed into one of overwhelming abundance (3:13-14, 18).
  • “Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” God’s loving kindness is available for all in ways we often cannot anticipate.

This last point is at the center of Paul’s claim in Romans 10:11-15. He insists that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile for “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call upon him (Romans 10:12). But how, the Apostle asks, will people hear without someone to proclaim the good news to them? Joel declares that those called upon the LORD are, in turn, called upon by the LORD (Joel 2:32). Regardless of our status, we are “inspired” (in the literal meaning of that word) and summoned by God to be tellers of the good news story of God’s love.


1 Daniel J. Simundson, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2005), 122-3.

2 See the ELCA World Hunger web resources at (http://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/ELCA-World-Hunger?_ga=1.14601399.1468730017.1458157825). Accessed 3/17/16.

3 “Terrible” is a translation of nôra?, a niphal participle from yare?. The word includes the idea of divine acts are awe-inspiring and wonderful (Deuteronomy 10:21; 2 Samuel 7:23 = 1 Chronicles 17:21, Isaiah 64:2, Psalm 106:22, 145:6).


Commentary on Psalm 84:1-7

J. Dwayne Howell

Psalm 84 is classified as a pilgrimage psalm, sung as praise by those who traveled to Jerusalem to worship.

Such journeys were often beset with hardship as the traveler moved through the wilderness over great distances in order to reach Jerusalem. In verse 2 the psalmist speaks of the intense desire of these pilgrims: “my soul yearns, even faints … my heart and flesh cry out for the living God.” Creation even finds rest in the sanctuary:

                3Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.

Verses 4 and 5 tell of the blessedness (ashre) of those present in the sanctuary and those traveling toward that destination. Hope is found even in the wilderness that they traverse. The Valley of Baka, a wilderness covered by balsam trees, becomes an oasis for the pilgrims (v. 6).

The authors associated with Psalms 84 are the Korahites (sons of Korah). The Korahites are set aside for the service of the Lord in 1 Chronicles 9:19. They were placed in charge of the worship, or works of service, and keepers of the thresholds, doorkeepers of the sanctuary. This was a long held position in the sanctuary and can be dated to the time of the writing of the Book of Numbers (14:4-15). So they speak with experience about the blessedness of dwelling in the sanctuary: “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise” (Psalm 84:4, New Interpreters Version). This is highlighted in Psalm 84:10:

Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

Thus, the work of the Korahites centered on daily service to the Lord and opening the doors for others to join in the worship.

However, there is more behind the story of the Sons of Korah. In Numbers 16-17, Korah and others lead 250 men in a revolt against Moses and Aaron. The purpose of the revolt was to bring about a change in leadership. As the leaders of the opposition stood outside of their tents the ground opened up and consumed Korah and others. Only a few would survive. The few who survived found grace by being spared and being assigned to be servants in the sanctuary. This provides a poignant meaning to the praise of Psalm 84:10. They sing from experience of how it is better to be servants in the House of the Lord, rather to be in the tents of those who oppose the Lord.

When I was a seminary student I served as a custodian in a local church. For me it was a dream job. The old church was beautiful and full of history. For the most part I was on my own. I took pride in what I did and looked for what I could do extra in maintaining the church. For a time I was truly a “doorkeeper”, since it was my job to walk throughout the church and lock up each evening. Something changed with my attitude about the job along the way. Instead of preparing the church for others, I began trying to protect the church from others. I did not want others to come in and mess up the church. I actually tried to keep people from being the church, joining together to fellowship and worship.

The doorkeeper can serve in one of two roles: 1) As a greeter, welcoming others; 2) Or as a “bouncer”, keeping others from people from entering. To act as a bouncer disregards the purpose of the church, as if one says “I know better how to do church.” It also directly challenges God who has ultimate authority over the entrance.

As doorkeepers, we are simply here to prepare a place for others. When we see ourselves as greeters, we can share in the excitement for what is prepared for those who enter. Many journey throughout the week and seek a place to “be church.” Twice in verses 4 and 5 the writer calls those who journey to the sanctuary “happy” — blessed and at peace (asher) even in the difficulties that may surround them. The church provides anticipation for those who need hope in the midst of troubles, peace in the midst of chaos, and comfort in the midst of distress. It provides renewal as the Psalmist reminds us:

They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

Second Reading

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

John Frederick

In 2 Timothy 4:6, Paul employs the sacrificial metaphor of a drink offering to refer to his lifetime of faithful, gospel ministry.

Observing the context here is crucial. Looking back to the prior verse (v.5) Paul exhorts Timothy to “always be sober-minded, endure suffering, [and to] do the work of an evangelist” which will fulfill his ministry. Thus, Paul’s explanation in verse 6 of his own ministry of sacrificial suffering for the sake of the gospel is meant to provide the foundation for his prior exhortation to Timothy in verse 5 to behave in a sacrificial manner. The exhortation to fulfill a ministry characterized by suffering is a common theme in 2 Timothy. Earlier in the epistle in 1:8, Paul charges Timothy not to be ashamed of the gospel “but [to] share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.” Soon after, in verses 11-12, Paul roots this imperative to Timothy in his own suffering as a preacher and teacher. Similarly, in 2:3 Paul implores Timothy to “share in suffering as a good solider of Christ Jesus.” In that context also, in the very next verse (2:9), Paul grounds his exhortation to Timothy in his own suffering and imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. But what is the point of this obsession with suffering? Is it merely to prepare Timothy for the difficult nature of the task at hand? Possibly. Yet, it seems that more is at play underneath the initial layer of pragmatic pastoral mentoring in this context. Weaved throughout the passage is the understanding that the spiritual presence and power of God equips the believer for a life of redemptive suffering for the sake of the gospel.

Throughout the Pauline epistles there is a well-known underlying theological texture which is comprised of Paul’s commitment to a pursuit of the cruciform way of God in Jesus Christ for every aspect of life and ministry. The word cruciform is a reference to the fact that Paul’s way of thinking is governed by the Christocentric ideal of a life that is formed in accord with the self-giving love of God demonstrated on the cross. By combining the words “crux” (Latin for cross) and “form” we arrive at the word “cruciform.” [See also e.g., Michael Gorman, ‘The Cross in Paul: Christophany, Theophany, Ecclesiophany,’ in Ecclesia and Ethics: Moral Formation and the Church (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2016), 21–40.] In Philippians 2:1-11, for example, we are told to “be of the same mind” and to “have the same love” as Jesus Christ. The verse goes on to reveal that the “same mind” and “same love” refer to the humble, others-centered (Philippians 2:3-4) death-defeating love of Jesus Christ on the cross. To think like Jesus and to love like Jesus is to live a life and to have a ministry that is marked by the ‘suffering-for-the-other’ love of the cross; it is to be cruciform and thereby cruciformed. Likewise, in Galatians 2:19 because of the power and centrality of the cross of Jesus Christ, Paul can assert that he has been “crucified with Christ” and that he has been “crucified to the world” (Galatians 6.14). Elsewhere, in Colossians 1:24–2:5 Paul speaks of “rejoicing” in his sufferings for the sake of the church (verse 24) in order that the mystery of salvation in Christ might be revealed to the Gentiles (verses 25-28). Paul communicates to the Colossians in 2:1 that he desires that they know about his struggles on their behalf in order that they might act out of the same kind of sacrificial love toward one another which he is enacting toward them (Colossians 2:2-3). Thus, the sacrificial, cruciform love of God is not merely something expected of ordained ministers, but rather is a key component to the Christian life for all believers. In each circumstance in 2 Timothy, throughout the Pauline canon and, indeed, throughout the entire New Testament, this cruciform suffering is empowered by spiritual strengthening.

Notice that in 2 Timothy 1:8 the call to share in suffering for the gospel is possible “by the power of God” and in 2 Timothy 2:3 the charge to “share in suffering” is preceded by a prayer for strengthening “by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1). In our passage today, the sacrificial, cruciform, ministerial suffering of Paul is, once again, grounded in the strengthening given by God (verse 17). This same phenomenon of Spirit-empowered strengthening as the basis for Christian living, sanctification, and ministry can be observed throughout the Pauline epistles as a central and frequent theme (see also e.g., Ephesians 1:19; 3:7, 20; 4:16; Colossians 1:29; 2:12; 1 Corinthians 12:6, 11; 2 Corinthians 4:12; Galatians 2:8, 3:5; Philippians 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; and James 5:16). Thus, Paul is not simply calling us to a human-centered, self-generated “so-called power” for life and ministry; he is calling us to a Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered ministry of cruciform suffering-for-the-sake-of-the-other.

Normally, this call to cruciform, Spirit-empowered suffering is situated in the midst of the life and worship of the Church as the body of Christ. Paul frequently highlights the importance and necessity of bearing the burdens of one another as inseparable members of one, united body (see also e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12). Here, however, the empowering work of God for ministry appears on its own. Even when no-one came to his side, nevertheless God was with Paul and God strengthened him. This is a word of encouragement to the lonely and defeated soul that even in the midst of total and utter desertion the power and presence of God will be with us, and in us, and will work victoriously and redemptively through us. This brings us to the final point for today, namely that the point of God’s empowering presence for cruciform life and ministry of suffering love is the proclamation of the gospel to all nations (2 Timothy 4:17). The God of redemption aims to rescue the world from the power of sin and death through the sacrificial love of Christ as it is embodied by his Church and empowered by His Spirit. In the midst of this task, on account of the power that empowers us to accomplish all things through his Spirit and his Son, we say with Paul: “To him be the glory forever and ever.” Amen.