Lectionary Commentaries for October 16, 2016
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 18:1-8

David Lose

In what way is God like an unjust judge?1

Even the question seems inappropriate. God is nothing like an unjust judge, we quickly assert. What do we make, then, of this parable?

Two elements of the parable discourage easy interpretation. First, the parable proper (verses 2-5) doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it’s bracketed by Luke’s introductory note on prayer (verse 1) at one end and an early interpretation (whether Luke’s or not is difficult to tell) of the parable (verses 7-8) on the other. Second, whatever the original parable’s import, it is now placed in the context of the delayed parousia, as it is preceded by Jesus’ teaching on the coming kingdom (17:20-37) and followed by another reference to the coming of the Son of Man (verse 8b).

Given these complicating factors, what can we say about this parable? Three distinct possibilities present themselves that, while drawing on similar elements, yet differ enough from each other that the preacher will need to exercise homilitical and pastoral judgment in determining which route to pursue.

God the Good Judge
Perhaps the easiest interpretative road to travel involves correcting our faulty hearing of the rhetorical force of the parable’s comparison of the unjust judge and God. The point is not that God is like an unjust judge who will, eventually relent to the persistent petitions of the widow. Rather, the rhetorical force of the construction mirrors that of earlier instructions about prayer: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (11:13). We might read today’s comparison similarly: “If even the most unjust of judges will finally relent to the ceaseless petitions of a defenseless widow, then how much more will God — who is, after all, a good judge — answer your prayers!”

The focus of this interpretation is on God’s goodness and eagerness to bless. Therefore, the sermon offers believers who are perhaps reluctant to address almighty God with their petitions both an invitation and encouragement to pray without ceasing, confident of God’s desire to respond.

God the Just Judge
A second and related path would be to give primary attention not only to Luke’s introductory note but also to the choice of the unjust judge as a major character. Might the parable give voice to some of the discouragement of early believers, whether caused by the delay of Jesus’ return or the difficult or unjust circumstances they were enduring? If so, the parable might be saying, “While I know that God may seem like an unjust judge, God’s actions are just and God will deliver justice in due time.”

The focus in this case is on the interpretation of the parable in the latter verses of the pericope. Correspondingly, the rhetorical force of the sermon is not so much invitation as it is comfort for those in distress and encouragement to persevere in faith and prayer. Believers, like the widow, should pray and petition without ceasing and not lose heart, confident that God’s justice will in time prevail.

The Widow as Pursuer of Justice
A third interpretive route shifts our attention from the judge to the widow. Widows in the ancient world were incredibly vulnerable, regularly listed with orphans and aliens as those persons deserving special protection. The fact that this particular widow must beseech a judge unattended by any family highlights her extreme vulnerability. Yet she not only beseeches the judge, but also persists in her pleas for justice to the point of creating sufficient pressure to influence his actions.

The focus in this reading is on the judge’s description of his own motivation for settling the widow’s claim. He asserts (as the narrator already had) that he neither fears God nor respects people, thereby testifying that his unsavory character has not changed during the course of the parable. When he explains why he relents, however, he utters a description of the effect of the widow’s ceaseless complaints on him that most translations dilute. A more literal translation of the judge’s grievance (18:5) is that the woman “is giving me a black eye.”

Like all black eyes, the one the widow’s complaints threaten to inflict have a double effect, representing both physical and social distress. That is, the judge complains that the widow’s relentless badgering not only causes him physical harm but also risks publically embarrassing him. For this reason, he says — perhaps justifying his actions to his wounded sense of self? — that he relents not because he has changed his mind but simply to shut up this dangerous widow. In this case, insolent, obnoxious, even intolerable behavior results in justice.

Read this way, the parable serves to encourage those suffering injustice to continue their complaints and calls for justice. A sermon following this path will encourage believers in their efforts, noting that sometimes it takes extreme, even socially unacceptable behavior to effect change. God, the Bible has persistently insisted, gives special attention to those who are most vulnerable; therefore, we should persist in our complaints, even to the point of embarrassing the powers that be in order to induce change.

A Contextual Homiletic
One’s decision on how to preach this text will rest not only on interpretive decisions but also on contextual sensitivity. This parable, as ambiguous as it is provocative, can support several readings. Which one the preacher chooses will depend in large part on how she reads the present and pressing needs of her congregation. If speaking to a congregation unconfident of their ability to pray, invitation seems appropriate. If addressing believers who are discouraged by the injustice in the world and who wonder whether God is at all moved by our prayers, then comfort and encouragement not to lose heart may best serve. If preaching to a congregation wrangling with principalities and powers, then the affirmation that their relentless struggles will not be in vain may provide the impetus to strengthen their prayers along with their efforts. Whichever direction you choose, surely one thing is certain — our preaching, as with our living, should be accompanied by ceaseless prayer.

Notes

1. This commentary first published on this site on Oct. 17, 2010.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31

Terence E. Fretheim

What does it mean for God to wrestle with a human being and have the human opponent “prevail”?

What does it mean to have God commend Jacob for his success with God? What kind of God is this? Wrestling raises issues of bodily contact and power. The Godness of God seems to be compromised. Hence, efforts have often been made to work with textual issues in such a way that a more traditional understanding of God can be claimed for the text.

I make five introductory comments:

  • The one whom Jacob encounters is God in human form; this understanding is congruent with Hosea 12.3-4, which speaks of Jacob’s antagonist as both “God” and “the angel.”
  • God initiates the wrestling match with Jacob and has a positiveend in mind relative to Jacob’s imminent encounter with Esau. Inasmuch as Jacob was in the process of being obedient to God’s command to return to the land (Genesis 31:3-13), God does not seek to keep Jacob from responding positively.
  • Jacob is endangered by the daylight; he would then “see” God (Genesis 32:30). So, God’s “let me go” (32:26) expresses a concern for Jacob’s future, not God’s. 
  • God’s naming Jacob as Israel (Genesis 32:28) is a divine commendationof who Jacob has been and still is, not least in view of his successful response to God’s wrestling initiative. The new name Israel is joined with the old name Jacob in the narratives that follow.
  • God’s encountering Jacob has no disciplinary purpose. Jacob voices no repentance of sin and God extends no forgiveness to him. Jacob’s pattern of life continues much as before, even his deceptive behaviors (see Genesis 33:12-17). 

I offer two comments about how issues relating to God’s power have affected the interpretation of God in this text.

(1) The translation of naga’ in Genesis 32:25, 32. Is it “touch” or “strike”? Translations differ. Given the extent of bodily contact in wrestling, there would be much touching for both parties. In such a long struggle, they would be touching each other all over, all the time! Hence, the translation “struck” is much more likely.

If we omit the “touch” translation possibility, we find no hint in the text that God could have overwhelmed Jacob at any moment God chose. Even God’s striking of Jacob is not said to enable God to move closer to winning the match. Jacob holds on until Jacob decides to let God go. God is not playing games with Jacob; God actually struggles with him. God does retain certain kinds of power: God strikes Jacob; God can do with Jacob’s name what Jacob is not able to do with God’s name; blessings come from God to Jacob, not from Jacob to God. But such forms of power do not finally enable the winning of wrestling matches.

(2) Did Jacob win, lose, or was it a draw? What is the sense of the twice-used verb “prevail” (Genesis 32:25, 28)? Jacob certainly bears some scars from the encounter (the claim that the limp was lifelong has no support in the text). That result, where the winner does not emerge unscathed, is not uncommon in wrestling matches. According to God’s own testimony, it is stated that, even after suffering the injury, Jacob has the upper hand (32:26). Indeed, the insistence of Jacob remains intact until God’s blessing occurs. In spite of the injury, Jacob “prevails.” It seems wisest to recognize, not only that God can be resisted, but successfully so. Indeed, God can lose! This is no draw, as God admits. The text witnesses to a human ability to resist divine assaults successfully, if not emerge unscathed.

The “prevail” theme in the text claims that it is Jacob who lets God go. God in human form had to request that he be released, and the release follows God’s blessing, which was the condition that Jacob had stated. The text does not say that it is God who decides when the match is over. Rather, when Jacob gets what he wants, he decides to let God go. 

I conclude with some comments on God’s choice of the human body as a means in and through which God is active in the life of Jacob (and others). God’s assumption of a human form in the struggle with Jacob is not a unique divine move (see Genesis 18-19; Judges 13). God’s assuming a human form for a specific venture in the world does not compromise divine transcendence. The finite is capable of the infinite. In such theophanies God takes on human form in order to be as concretely present as possible. In assuming such a form, the personal and relational dimension of the divine is more sharply revealed; there is greater intensity of presence. Notably, God does not take on the form of, say, a giant, with an obvious ability to overpower the human and control the situation. At the same time, to collapse the distinction between God and God in human form would be misleading, but not because there is less than God present, but because there is more than God present (namely, the human form). It is God who appears, but enfleshed in human form.

Such a bodily divine appearance is also revealing of God’s vulnerability. One might cite the various negative human responses to such divine appearances, such as derision (Genesis 18:12-13) or incredulity (Judges 6:13-17). And, in this text, God is able to lose. Such key moments of embodiment in human form are revealing of God’s ways with the world more generally. God is enfleshed in bodies of weakness within the framework of everyday affairs, and not in the lineaments of overwhelming power. The vulnerable body riskily assumed by God in this wrestling match is a vehicle of divine immanence for the sake of genuine encounter. 

To speak specifically as a Christian: The Old Testament does not finally come to the conclusion that God was fully incarnate in a human life or was present in complete unbrokenness. Yet, decisive continuities exist between such divine appearances and the Incarnation. First-century believers who had been steeped in Old Testament stories such as God’s wrestling with Jacob would not have been surprised by Incarnation.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:27-34

Alphonetta Wines

The prophet’s job is twofold. In Jeremiah 31:27 God reminds Jeremiah of his commission by summarizing and reiterating the task in Jeremiah 1:10.

See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.

Although only two of the four verbs focus on the positive, it is clear that building and planting, is as much the job of the prophet as are prophetic warnings. While much of the book of Jeremiah is focused on plucking up, pulling down, destroying, and overthrowing, the focus in Jeremiah 31:27-34 is on building and planting. In other words, this text focuses on bringing hope to the beleaguered community.

Jeremiah writes of a new day when “people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’” Continuing to make it plain God explains, “Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes — their own teeth will be set on edge.” In other words, individual responsibility will replace communal responsibility for sins.

Unlike the previous Mosaic covenant, which was external and written in stone, this new covenant will be internal, written on hearts and minds.1 Writing on hearts and minds signifies a closeness that God describes as “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” What an awesome reminder that God desires a close relationship with humanity.

No longer held together by external words and commands, this is to be relationship in which “No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” In other words, this is to be a relationship guided by an internal voice. God will relate to each person as an individual, not just to the community as a whole.

This passage is an excerpt from what has come to be known as Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation in chapters 30-33. After what seems like an endless barrage of warning and reproach, Jeremiah now turns his pen to words of encouragement for the exiled community. His letter in chapter 29 advised the community not only to settle down and make a life, but to pray for their oppressors as well. If they had adjusted to their new, but unfortunate circumstances, there would be no need for such advice.

Hundreds of miles away from home, the community needed to know that God had not forgotten them. Desperate for hope, the community clung to the false hope Hananiah uttered about a two year stay in Babylon. Contrary to words spoken by Hananiah, Jeremiah’s words seemed harsh. Yet, his words were a wake-up call, a rude awakening.

The hope Jeremiah envisioned included not only a physical restoration but a spiritual one as well. This restoration would have been beyond the community’s imagining. This would be a healing of the relationship between God and the entire nation. From the least to the greatest, each would know God for him or herself. No longer would one’s standing before God be tied to and determined solely by communal experiences. A new day was dawning when one’s standing before God would be first and foremost a personal matter. This one-on-one relationship, initiated by God, would be affirmed by the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. For now, the Jeremiah’s hope and God’s promise make what was inaccessible accessible.  

In verses 29 and 30 Jeremiah ushers in this new era, a new relationship between God and Israel. The new relationship is defined by a shift from communal to individual responsibility. With God’s word indelibly written on heart and mind, there is no need to pass consequences on to another generation.

God welcomes this closeness for with it comes God’s declaration, “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” One can almost hear God celebrating and rejoicing in the new relationship. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” It is as though God is as glad, if not even more glad, healing the breech in God’s relationship with Israel and with humanity. 

Writing God’s words on human hearts and minds creates a closeness between God and humanity that is indefinable. With this closeness, God’s words become an integral part of one’s identity. With this kind of closeness, one can no longer escape responsibility by saying, “I didn’t know.” One may fall short, however, lack of knowledge is not the culprit. Instead, the culprit is willful choosing.

Maya Angelou is noted for saying: “When you know better, you do better.” While that may be true, it is also true that sometimes we know better, yet fail to do better. The lesser choice may be just too attractive to resist. Either way, for better or for worse, the consequences are to be borne by the one who makes the choice.

While only two of the six verbs in Jeremiah’s commissioning are positive, these two verbs are enough. Like Jesus’ turning water into wine being hailed as saving the best for last, in this passage, Jeremiah too saves the best for last. With his pen he declares God’s promise and intention, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Biblical writers are known for their economy of words. Two verbs are enough to represent this new day in the relationship between God and humanity, between Israel and God. Praise God for this new day!


Notes:

1 Issiaka Coulibaly, “Jeremiah” in Africa Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary Written by 70 African Scholars (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2006), 895.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 121

Wil Gafney

Psalm 121 is one of the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120-134, as indicted by its opening words.

In general these psalms focus on Jerusalem, the journey to Jerusalem — always categorized as “going up,” and worship in the temple. Many readers and hearers know the first verse as “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” from the King James Version (KJV) which makes it sound like the help is coming from the hills. The KJV does not take the phrasing of the text as indicated by the cantillation (markings that function as punctuation) into account. The opening verse is two separate and complete sentences. The first is a statement: “I lift my eyes to the hills.” The second is a question: “From where will my help come?”

The psalmist never tells us why she lifts her eyes to the hills or to which hills she is looking though many assume Jerusalem. (The presence of women like the daughters of Heman among the psalmists means that it is possible some psalms have women as their authors, see 1 Chronicles 25:5-6; Psalm 88.) The same expression is used in Psalm 123:1. “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” The prophets also repeatedly exhort the people to lift up their eyes, Isaiah 40:26; 49:18; 51:6; 60:4; Jeremiah 13:20; Ezekiel 8:5. If the hills are the hill around Jerusalem as suggested by the title and category song of ascent, then she may be looking toward Jerusalem and its temple, the throne of God. Some have suggested that the psalmist is looking towards the hills with apprehension out of concern that there may be bandits between the psalmist and her final destination.

What is clear is that the help the psalmist seeks is that which is the particular specialty of God. The word ezer, “help,” familiar to some from the expression “stone of help,” “Ebenezer” in 1 Samuel 7:12, is rarely used of humans with very few exceptions. It is used for the help the first woman in the garden is to provide her partner. Verse 2 makes it clear that the psalmist’s help does not come from the hills bur rather from the God who created them, the heavens and the earth. The heavens are always plural — actually dual — in Biblical Hebrew. There is a shift in voice in the psalm. The psalmist begins speaking in the first person with “I” and “my” in vv 1-2. Then the psalmist addresses an audience in the singular, either a collective entity like a congregation or nation or, an individual. The second person address continues for the rest of the psalm. The addressee is likely Israel, named in v 4 however the psalmist only speaks about Israel by name in the third person, not directly to it.

As is common in psalms the psalmist provides the hearer/reader with a list of God’s accomplishments and attributes the justify confidence in and praise of God. In v 3 God is the one who keeps a person’s foot from “moving,” literally trembling, i.e. slipping, a theme also present repeatedly in Psalms; see Psalm 17:5; 18:36; 38:16; 66:9; 73:2; 94:18. There is also a pun here, the word for “move/slip” rhymes with the word for death. The psalmist’s God is ever-vigilant, neither slumbering nor sleeping in v 4. Curiously God sleeps in other psalms, waking as from sleep shouting like a drunken soldier in Psalm 78:65 — a surprising image — and in Psalm 44:23 the psalmist implores God to wake up. Even when read metaphorically, the language is striking.

In the psalmist’s language God is so protective that neither sun(light) nor moon(light) will touch her charges. The image conjured in v 5 is of an attentive God, constantly adjusting a canopy to provide shade as the sun moves throughout the day. That prosaic description builds to the primary claim of the psalm in v 7, God will keep/preserve you from all harm (evil) and will keep/preserve your life. (The multifaceted verb means “keep,” “guard,” “preserve” and “observe [i.e. commandments.]”) The last line of the psalm declares that God’s care will be ongoing, moving with a person as they move through their life.

Psalm 121 is a comforting psalm, presenting an ever-present and attentive God caring for her people. It is a psalm that many pray or recite in difficult times when they want to feel God’s comforting presence. Like many psalms the emphatic rhetoric transcends the experience of most people. We do come to harm, whether the minor harm of a sunburn or the greater harms inflicted by the broken world. Yet there are times when a person may find herself inexplicably spared from some harm or danger by no means of her own. At those times the words of this psalm speak to faith in a God who does indeed protect her wards.


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5

John Frederick

In this passage, Paul reminds Timothy of the sacred writings with which he was familiar since his youth and which are able to make him wise for salvation “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).

In this context, the primary referent of “the sacred writings” is the Old Testament. The New Testament was still in the process of being written and would undergo a further process of ecclesial spiritual discernment before becoming the collection of books that the Church eventually determined to be the inspired writings that we now know as the New Testament. Thus, in step with the way in which the earliest Christians discovered Jesus in the writings of the Old Testament, this passage demonstrates that whatever the apocalypse (or, “revelation”) of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12) is, it is not incongruous with that which preceded it. Rather, the in-breaking reality of Messiah Jesus is both surprisingly new and unexpected, and at the same time a cohesive part of the continuous unfolding of God’s redemptive plan for the world which began in the book of Genesis.

Contrary to some Reformation and contemporary understandings of the Jewish religion, Judaism is not, and does not function in Paul’s writings, as the negative religious foil to Jesus and Christianity. Rather, Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism. Thus, in this passage, the knowledge of salvation is arrived at through the Old Testament as it is illuminated by and viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ. The sacred writings of the Old Testament reveal the new covenant of salvation but only as they are newly received through the hermeneutics of Jesus, that is, as they are illuminated by the word about Jesus, the words of Jesus, and the Word which is Jesus. Through Jesus Christ the gracious work of God amongst the Jews throughout the history of the Hebrew people is expanded and multiplied exponentially in its scope and power. The recipients of redemption evolve from a preliminary epoch in which one faithful people are blessed (namely, the Jews) in order to bring blessing and life to the world, to an everlasting and eschatological epoch in which the salvation of the whole world is achieved and made available to all through the work of the one faithful Israelite, namely Jesus Christ. Here we will address two elements of this text, namely: the person who is the Word, and the purpose of teaching the Word.

If you ask many congregants and preachers what the point of a sermon is, you will likely get answers referring to the transfer and acquisition of biblical doctrines and various theological facts. Yet, while theology is an inseparable and important part of the point of a sermon, both of these phenomena exist primarily to bring us to the real point of preaching, namely Jesus Christ. The life of Jesus Christ, the death of Jesus Christ, and the articulation and exhortation in the way of Jesus Christ is the point of preaching. In 2 Timothy 2:8-15, the “word of God,” the “gospel,” and the “word of truth” are all synonyms for the gospel of and the gospel about Jesus Christ (see also 2 Timothy 2:8). In 2 Timothy 4:5, after exhorting Timothy to preach the word at all times, Paul concludes the passage by exhorting him to fulfill his ministry of preaching and teaching precisely by doing “the work of an evangelist.” The Greek word euaggelistes (literally “proclaimer of the gospel” or “gospeller”) is most often translated as “evangelist.” However, that translation can be problematic given that most contemporary readers will equate “evangelism” with an act of proclamation that occurs outside of the Church to non-believers, while employing the word “preaching” to describe the form of teaching that is undertaken within the congregation toward believers as an act of edification. Yet, this distinction — with its contrasting images of gospel tracts and street preaching on the one hand, compared to congregational pulpiteering on the other — should not be read into the 1st century context of the epistle. In the original context, “gospeling” or “evangelizing” is yet another synonym for Timothy’s “ministry” which consists of preaching and teaching. Evangelism, the “proclamation the gospel”, “gospelling etc. is not something separate from the preaching of the Word; it is the preaching of the Word, both outside and inside the Church, for both non-Christians and Christians.

This brings us to the fulcrum of our digest on the Holy Scripture today, namely, that the purpose of preaching is both to bring us to Jesus and his salvation (2 Timothy 3:15), and to equip us for the good works which flow out of that saving reality and relationship (verse 17). In 3:17 Paul expressly states — through what in the original language is a clear example of a Greek purpose clause — that the purpose of teaching, correction, reproof, and training in righteousness is that the Christian might be “complete” and “equipped for every good work.” The Greek word translated as “complete” (English Standard Version) or “proficient” (New Revised Standard Version) is “artios” which, according to the standard Greek lexicon, means to be “well fitted for some function” (BDAG, p. 136). What is the function unto which the preaching of the gospel prepares us? Answer: the performance of gospel-infused good works unto the glory and magnification of God in Jesus Christ.

Thus, the evangelistic preaching of the word of God, the gospel, is aimed at bringing us salvation through faith in Christ so that we might be faithful followers of Christ. The gospel is not merely about the salvation which we receive through faith in Christ; it is about the salvation which we bring to the world through our faithfulness to Christ. The gospel tells us the story of the death-defeating, world-transforming, cosmic-redemptive work of Jesus in order that we might work as ambassadors for Jesus towards the reconciliation of all things (see also 2 Corinthians 5:14-21). The person who is preached is Jesus, and the purpose of the preaching is unto the instantiation of the inseparable reality of both the personal embrace of Jesus by faith for our salvation, and the active embodiment of Jesus through our works for the life and benefit of the Church and the world. Therefore, let us remember that the works that result from a life transformed by a relationship with Jesus Christ are not peripheral to the gospel and they do not function as mere evidences of the gospel. Rather, gospel works are the necessary result of the gospel (see also Ephesians 2:10), the inseparable and authentic response to the gospel (see also James 2:22-24; 26, “faith without works is dead”; see also Philippians 2:12; Galatians 5:6), and a major aim and point of the preaching of the gospel (2 Timothy 3:17). When people see the work of salvation that Christ has done in us through our faithful works empowered by him, they encounter Jesus. And, when they encounter Jesus, he begins a new work of salvation in them and invites them into the transformative, gospel work by which he is reconciling all things to himself, through himself, by means of his Body, the Church.