Lectionary Commentaries for October 13, 2013
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 17:11-19

Meda Stamper

The story of the grateful Samaritan offers us another image of who and what matters to Jesus and should, therefore, matter to us.

The story draws attention to two important themes in Luke:

1. Jesus’ care for the marginalized (here ten lepers and at least one of them doubly marginalized, a Samaritan)

2. The appropriate response to Jesus, a response of faithful recognition and gratitude. It is not unusual for the two to occur together in Luke; the marginalized seem well placed to see him for who he is as he has seen them for who they are.

In the introduction, we are reminded that Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem (9:51), where he will arrive in chapter 19. He is in the region between Samaria and Galilee; Jesus frequents boundary spaces and is about to cross a social boundary again by his association with lepers and with a Samaritan.

As he enters a village, ten lepers approach calling out to him but keeping their distance because they are unclean. They address him as master, a term used in every other instance in Luke by the disciples. Jesus immediately sends them to show themselves to the priests to confirm their healing, and en route they are in fact made clean, following the pattern of the earlier cleansing of a leper at 5:12-14.

Cleansing of lepers is an identifying marker for Jesus’ mission in 7:22: “Go and tell John . . . the lepers are cleansed.” This episode also evokes the story of Naaman the Syrian, the OT lectionary text for today, which Jesus mentions in his inaugural sermon at 4:27. His attention to outsiders and marginalized people is evident from the start, and he highlights it in that speech, in response to which his hometown audience tries to throw him off a cliff. Here, as in the story of Naaman the Syrian, the recipient of healing and grace is a foreigner (although in an interesting twist we find that, in the case of Naaman, the prophet Elisha is from Samaria).

In the text for today, after the healing of the ten lepers, the focus narrows to one of the ten, who alone turns back glorifying God and prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet thanking him. This verb for thank is the one used when Jesus thanks God for the bread and cup at the last supper (22:17, 19; see also Paul in Acts 27:35). It is the basis for our word Eucharist.

Only after he prostrates himself in thanksgiving do we learn that the one who has turned back in this borderland is a Samaritan.

Samaritans were the unlovely outsiders of Jesus’ day, and we can think about who that might be for our congregations and ourselves. These unappealingly different and unwelcome outsiders, along with outsiders generally, are received positively by Jesus in Luke. We see this most notably in the parable of 10:25-37, in which it is a Samaritan, and not the respectable religious people, who demonstrates love for his neighbor by showing mercy to a wounded stranger.

Samaria (the place as opposed to Samaritans as a name for the people), mentioned in verse 11, is mentioned only here in Luke but is mentioned positively in Acts 1:8, where the mission of the church includes Samaria, and in 9:31, where it is included in a summary statement of growth and peace. Elsewhere in the NT it is only mentioned in John 4, again positively.

The heart of the story unfolds in three steps:

1. the healing

2. the turning back and praising God (literally glorifying God)

3. the prostration and thanksgiving at Jesus’ feet.

Then each of the steps are interpreted by Jesus in ways that highlight his care for the marginalized and the rightness of the response of the Samaritan to this care:

1. “Were there not ten made clean?” Jesus asks. “But the other nine, where are they?”

2. “Was none of them found to return and give praise [literally give glory] to God except this foreigner?”

3. And finally Jesus’ response to the Samaritan prostrate with thanksgiving at his feet: “. . . your faith has made you well [literally saved you].” Jesus addresses the same phrase to the woman at the anointing (7:50), the hemorrhaging woman (8:48), and the blind beggar (18:42).

Jesus’ life is framed by people glorifying God, with the shepherds at his birth (2:20) and the centurion at his death (23:47). And here as elsewhere it marks Jesus’ work of healing and restoration (5:25-6; 7:16; 13:13; 18:43). To respond rightly to Jesus is to praise and glorify God.

The Samaritan’s thanksgiving and prostration at Jesus’ feet; his recognition that God is at work when Jesus notices and heals hurts and brokenness that are not noticed by others; his understanding that to thank Jesus is to glorify God: this is the manifestation of faith that makes well, as the NRSV puts it here. And this seems to come easiest to the people who have received most from Jesus, the ones who are otherwise ignored, scorned, untouched. As Jesus observes in the case of the anointing woman (7:47), the one who has been given much also loves greatly. Love that springs from gratitude is the essence of faith.

We do not know whether the other nine were Samaritans, but in identifying the Samaritan only after he alone is prostrate at Jesus’ feet, the narrator suggests that it is perhaps his having been noticed and cleansed in spite of his double-marginalization, his double experience of life at the edge, that creates his deeper gratitude.

There is no doubt something to be understood here about the people who live on the margins of our communities, who are treated as invisible or unlovely because of how they look or who they are or where they come from. Jesus clearly notices and loves them and calls us to do the same.

But we might also consider the parts of us that are hidden in the borderlands of ourselves where we may least want to be seen and most need to be touched. Jesus, who is not afraid of borderlands, does not mind meeting us in those places, and it may be that by recognizing him there, we will find in our deepest selves a new outpouring of the grateful love that makes well.

First Reading

Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Roger Nam

“How can we pray for you?”

For the seasoned, even not-so-seasoned pastor, this question often brings a request for physical healing. By nature of leading a community of faith, the pastor often comes to the forefront of the darkest times of sickness and death. We understand that we are called to pray, and we believe in an omnipotent God with power over all diseases. It is hoped that this week’s biblical narrative helps us to better reflect on prayer, sickness, and the presence of God.

The opening verse of the passage describes a deeply paradoxical figure in Naaman. He is an Aramaean, thus a political enemy of Israel, yet it is clear that he has won a degree of favor with the Lord. He is a powerful general, yet he suffers from leprosy (or another skin condition, the Hebrew is uncertain). Although he holds a prestigious military office with direct access to the king, he carries this physical affliction with enormous social stigma.

This leprosy is so overwhelming that it overshadows the rest his personhood. He is so desperate that he listens to a rumor from his mistress’ servant of a healing prophet in Israel. Naaman appeals to the king for permission to go to Israel to seek out this prophet for healing.

A few words on the social context of this passage may clarify the seemingly strange narrative. Ancient Israel was a socially embedded society. Goods and services were exchanged not out of money (coinage would not be invented for a few more centuries). Instead, goods and services were exchanged out of social relationships.

A farmer would share crop with the extended family simply because they were extended family. The fisheries would share the catch within the clan and close friends, not out of profit, but out of obligation to maintain the relationships. Value, honor, and loyalty regulated and maintained society more than profit and legal jurisprudence.

Therefore, it is completely sensible that Naaman traveled down to Israel with an enormous cargo of gifts to present to the king of Israel. The gifts were not for trade, but the foreigner Naaman was trying to create a social bond with the Israelite king. By creating a social bond through gifts, it obligated the Israelite king to give hospitality, and in this case to find a cure for the general’s leprosy.

But these gifts put the Israelite King in a bind. He could not refuse the gift, as it would be like a new bride and groom refusing a wedding gift from a guest (“Sorry Uncle Charlie, but we won’t be needing that salad spinner.”) By accepting the gift yet not curing the leprosy, the king would violate the required social responsibility. He could sense an impending confrontation with the Aramaeans. Thus, he cries, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me” (verse 7).

Thankfully, Elisha intervenes and tells the king to send the Aramaean general to the prophet. Verse nine paints a picture of irony: a military division of horses and chariots parked in front of a prophet’s house. Elisha would not even meet the general in person, but merely dismisses a servant to give the instruction, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean” (verse 10).

But Naaman has traveled many miles to Israel with his affliction. He assembled the vast payment and was diverted from the royal palace to the house of the prophet. And now, it is not the prophet, but the servant of the prophet who gives a one sentence instruction — an instruction seemingly too simple, too mundane to have any efficacy. Naaman is angry, but the anger is more likely a mask for deep disappointment and sadness. He intends to just return back without even trying.

But the servants gently persuade the general. This is the third time in the passage when the lower and weaker character gives wisdom to the lofty (verse 3, 8). The servants gently, yet cogently, persuade Naaman to just give it a try. He does, and just as Elisha’s servant promised, “His flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (verse 14).

The healing begets a profound question. Why heal the Aramaean general? The land of Israel had many more lepers, who continued to live with their affliction. Did they not deserve healing as well? Did the healing serve to show the unquestionable sovereignty of God?

Luke 4:27 helps us to reflect on this incident, “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Not only does God reserve the right to using his sovereign healing, this instance was also a judgment on Israel.

People mistakenly equate sickness with a lack of faith. But in this example, the healing was not a result of faith but more despite its lack! Naaman is sick, frustrated, and embarrassed. With the help of his servants, he finally exhibits “just enough” faith to get healed. But sometimes, that is all it takes.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Garrett Galvin

Jeremiah’s words here astonish, and yet they fulfill what he has proclaimed.

Jeremiah raised the specter of the Shiloh Temple in 7:12, 14 and 26:6, 9 for those who somehow feel God’s temple will protect them from foreign invasion. Even today this temple continues to be in utter ruins. Jeremiah had warned the people repeatedly that superstitious beliefs would get them nowhere. Now that catastrophe has finally struck, Jeremiah fundamentally changes gears and offers the people words of hope and a way forward. Jeremiah introduces the process of understanding God’s presence with us always and everywhere. Ezekiel will finish this, but today’s words are full of hope and point forward.

Verse 1 gives us a sense of how thorough the devastation of Jerusalem was. Priests, prophets, and elders are included among the recipients of his letter. We also sense that all of them did not survive the hardships of the siege of Jerusalem and the long journey to Babylon. Jeremiah reaches out to a battered and perhaps embittered remnant of the leadership in Babylon.

The heart of this material is in verses 4-7. Much controversy surrounds this material. Some read this in a very minimalistic fashion in which the Israelites are just being given advice for how to survive. Any resemblance to material in Deuteronomy is superficial. There is no universalism present in this material, and the Israelites are only supposed to be living in the land of Israel. Obviously, I disagree with this viewpoint. Israel had undergone exile in the past after the loss of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722, but much of this was internal displacement from which they quickly recovered. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 587, the diaspora will begin its tremendous growth not only in Babylonia, but in Egypt and eventually much of the Mediterranean. There was no quick recovery in the Holy Land this time. Recent evidence points to a devastated urban and rural landscape. I think Jeremiah is speaking to a new reality here that leads to a universalism that we also see in Isa 65:21-23 and perhaps even in books like Esther and Ruth.

These words initiate a fundamentally different interpretation of God’s presence with us. In the ancient Near East, there was generally a belief in many gods. Yet, Jeremiah’s audience could be considered to be monolatrous, i.e. they worshiped only one God. Many in the ancient world believed that different gods had different domains. Accordingly, monolatry worked in the Holy Land where Yahweh was supreme. When Israelites traveled to another land, they went to another god’s domain. A central temple characterized the neighboring lands in which these gods were thought to live. Jerusalem clearly played this role for outsiders. In Babylon, they could see the temples of other gods. Jeremiah turns this logic on its head when he speaks to the exiles in Babylon here. He encourages them to accept their role in a foreign land while maintaining the ethical practices of Israel. The practices articulated here are very similar to the words found in Deuteronomy 20:5-8.

The context of this letter is that Jeremiah sent it after the first group of exiles left in 597. Later groups would leave Israel in 587 and 582. Recent scholarship has argued that this passage’s focus on building homes and planting vineyards echoes the preoccupations of 1.5 generation. The 1.5 generations are generally considered to be those who emigrated as adolescents or slightly older children of immigrants. Jeremiah’s exhortations seem to be very much aimed at the 1.5 generations as they (and not their parents who make up the leadership) would be getting married and building houses.

This reading points us toward examining our congregations a little more closely. How aware are we of an immigrant presence in our churches. How do we reach out to these immigrants? As we enter into yet another debate on immigration in our country, Jeremiah has something to say to us. Rather than using the legalistic language of illegal aliens, Jeremiah invites us to see immigrants in a whole new way. Instead of subjecting people to a cost-benefit analysis, Jeremiah sees the immigrant as gift. Jeremiah sees the immigrant as someone destined to make their new society a better place, someone ordered by God in this oracle to contribute to their new society in a lasting way. If we keep Jeremiah’s perspective in mind, we can only see immigrants as a gift. In these troubled economic times, this is an important message to share with our congregations who are often tempted to lash out at immigrants. This is also a message that immigrants themselves also need to hear who may be worn down by constant negative depictions. These negative depictions are the opposite of how Scripture understands immigrants

Sociologists noted the revitalization of a number of American cities after the last amnesty for immigrants in the 1986. Cities like Santa Ana in California transformed. Jeremiah’s letter offers a formula for transformation. Hope replaces despair as immigrants can get better jobs and put down roots where they live rather than living in constant fear of deportation. Congregations may need to be reminded that v. 7 only makes sense if immigrants find a welcome in our society. People have emigrated since biblical times, and the Bible calls us to compassion and love in response to immigration.

Our gospel this Sunday raises up the ultimate outsider, a Samaritan leper, as hero. No one could be more hated than a Samaritan in Israel, yet Luke demonstrates that only the Samaritan demonstrates gratitude. Earlier in the gospel, only the Samaritan stopped to help the distressed victim. Both in biblical times and in our own time, the Bible points to how much immigrants have to offer.


Commentary on Psalm 111

Walter C. Bouzard

Following an initial doxological summons to “praise the LORD” (hallu yah), the psalmist composed Psalm 111 in the acrostic form.

A successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet begins each bicola through verse 8, and each tricola in verses 9 and 10.1

In verse 1, the psalmist declares his intention to offer his wholehearted praise both privately, in the circle of intimate, upright friends (sôd), and publically in the gathered congregation (?e?â). There will be none who do not hear this psalmist’s glad testimony!

The poet is awed by the works (ma?aseh) of the LORD (verse 2a). References to the power of his works (ma?asayw) and the works of his hands (ma?asê yadayw) appear in verses 6 and 7, respectively. Beyond these, synonyms for the LORD’s works appear in verses 3 (“his works,” pa?alô) and 4 (“his wonderful deeds,” nipla?ôt). The LORD’s works are to be studied diligently and made the center of one’s delight for their own sake, but also because they are revelatory of the character of God. God’s acts demonstrate the LORD’s enduring righteousness (verse 2) even as his wonderful deeds disclose the divine disposition to be gracious and merciful.

The psalmist has in mind very specific works of the LORD that he rehearses in verses 4 to 9. Tones of the song and story of Exodus echo throughout the poem. Verse 4 summons to mind Exodus 34:6. Verse 5 recalls the miraculous feeding in the wilderness recorded in Exodus 16 while verse 6 evokes the entire conquest tradition in the phrase “the heritage of the nations.” The latter point is confirmed by Jeremiah 3:19 where the phrase appears in association with the land:

I thought

how I would set you among my children,

and give you a pleasant land,

the most beautiful heritage of all the nations.

And I thought you would call me, My Father,

and would not turn from following me.

Verses 5 and 9 recall the covenant about which the LORD is “ever mindful” (verse 5) and which is “commanded forever” (verse 9).2

Verse 9 also refers to LORD’s “redemption” which was sent to his people. The word translated as “redemption,” pedû?, is constructed from a verb that conveys the idea of ransom. Forms of the noun appear in Isaiah 50:2 and Exodus 8:19, both times in the context of Israel’s redemption from exile.

In sum, the psalmist intends to evoke memories of the LORD’s deliverance in Israel’s past, as well as the covenant tradition, especially when it was renewed in Exodus 34. These are the works of the LORD that move him. But his praise does not revolve around a distant memory.

By studying the works of the LORD, by delighting in them, by recalling the covenant the LORD established with “his people” in the past (verses 6, 9), the redemptive events of Israel’s past become present for the God’s people now. The psalmist, his circle of friends, and the worshipping congregation (verse 1) participate in the salvific acts of God through praise and worship. Indeed, the emphasis on the permanence of the LORD’s works rings like a bell throughout the poem:

  • The works of the LORD, like his righteousness “endures forever” (verse 3).
  • The LORD is “ever mindful” of his covenant (verse 5).
  • The LORD’s works are established “forever and ever” (verse 8).
  • The LORD has commanded his covenant “forever” (verse 9).

Consequently, the LORD’s praise “endures forever” (verse 10), evoking awe — and the wisdom and understanding that come with it — for the present congregation.

This intersection of past and present in the psalmist’s experience and in the context of praise and worship provides a point of contact between this psalm and the Christian worshipping community. If the psalmist could recall the character of God in the recollection of God’s works, Christians have more cause to utter these words of praise.

Christians have seen the power of God’s work in the weakness of the cross. Christians have seen God’s faithfulness in the work of Christ’s wounded hands. Christians, like the prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, have seen the “redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38). Christians can affirm that the redemption sent to Israel redeemed once and for all with his blood (Hebrews 9:12). Christians praise God for God’s works not because of what God has done in the past, but because the work of God, the righteousness of God, the love of God approaches us again and again in the cup and the loaf. Hallelujah!

1 On acrostic poetry, see the entry for Pentecost 20 2013 of WorkingPreacher.org and the remarks on Psalm 37 found there.

2 Leslie C. Allen discerns five vocabulary links in this Psalm to Exodus 34:10, and additional single links with Exodus 34:5 and 34:11. See Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, vol. 21 in Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 90.


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Matt Skinner

If Timothy hasn’t yet figured out that success in his ministry isn’t predicated on his creativity and insight, this part of the letter might fix that.

So far, the letter has exhorted Timothy to learn from Paul’s example in suffering (see the commentary on last Sunday’s reading), from others in their faithfulness or lack of it (see 2 Timothy 1:15-18), and from common examples of people who practice single-minded commitment, discipline, and hard work (see 2 Timothy 2:1-7).

The Reliability of Jesus and the Gospel (2:8-13)

Beginning in 2 Timothy 2:8, the advice turns to consider an additional, superior exemplar: “Remember Jesus Christ.” Because Jesus lives as one “raised from the dead,” he remains a sure sign that “the word of God is not chained.” In 2:9, “the word of God” refers to the gospel message. Jesus could not be confined by death, and so the good news about Jesus cannot be confined by persecution or shame. Accordingly, Paul’s own sufferings and incarceration cannot restrict or tarnish his legacy of faithfulness. The point of the expression “for the sake of the elect” in 2:10 is not that Paul’s hardships produce salvation for others; rather, he enacts the gospel message through his willingness to suffer persecution faithfully, preaching by his example so as to encourage perseverance among the saints.

Paul quotes most likely from a Christian hymn in 2:11b-13a to remind readers that perseverance is neither merely his own pet project, nor is it optional. It is a trademark of Christian life and service, a manifestation of our union with Christ.

The hymn’s first two lines work in parallel, each one asserting the positive outcomes of (first) our identification with Christ and (second) our perseverance. The third line states a kind of equivalence or reciprocation: our denial of Christ results in his denial of us. Then, perhaps generating surprise, the fourth line says our negative action, faithlessness, will not be reciprocated by faithlessness on Christ’s part, for “he remains faithful.” The final words in verse 13, “for he cannot deny himself,” probably represent the author’s commentary on the hymn’s last claim. They assert, following the lead of established Jewish convictions about God that Christ must remain faithful to his own self, character, or commitments.

The big interpretive question here is how the hymn’s third and fourth lines (2 Timothy 2:12b-13a) relate to each other. People who are uncomfortable with the notion of God denying us tend to say that the fourth line trumps the third, that God’s generous faithfulness to us will keep God from ultimately denying those who falter. In contrast, others read the line about God’s steady faithfulness as indicating God’s commitment to justice: when God denies the deniers, that’s just God doing what divine holiness requires. As you consider this question, notice that elsewhere the letter holds out hope for those it considers Timothy’s opponents (2:25b-26). The overall sweep of the letter also insists that the gospel’s influence or reliability cannot ultimately be nullified by the faithlessness or destructive behavior of some.

Preaching in Light of 2:8-13

Scripture abounds with reassurances of God’s fidelity to people and to the covenants that benefit them. What does it mean to claim reliability as a fundamental aspect of God’s character? Sometimes this emphasizes God’s consistency, God’s grace distributed generously through a steady, predictable demeanor. It can also point to God’s incorrigibly relational nature, to a God who initiates and sustains relationships with undeserving creatures God simply can’t help but love with abandon, because maybe God cannot be comprehended except through such connections. As Second Timothy implores us to “remember Jesus Christ,” that’s what I remember.

What Timothy Is Supposed to Do (2:14-15)

The letter begins a new movement in 2 Timothy 2:14 (extending through 3:9), making the lectionary’s addition of 2:14-15 perplexing. Whatever the reason for including these verses, they give a quick taste of what the letter expects Timothy to do as a Christian leader; for in this section Timothy receives instruction about teaching others so he might counteract those who “oppose the truth” (see 2 Timothy 3:8).

Who are the “them” that Timothy must speak to in 2:14? It could be all of “the elect” mentioned in 2:10, or it might refer to a smaller set of believers, certain “faithful people” designated as leaders who also teach others (2:2). In any case, the focus here is on how Timothy prepares those within the church’s orbit to withstand the threats they face. His work involves teaching and reminding.

The admonition against “wrangling over words” in 2:14 gives very little insight into the letter-writer’s specific concerns. The expression suggests that Timothy should not get himself into public debates or verbal scrapes over doctrine (see also 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 6:3-5; Titus 3:8-11). Presumably, the letter’s original readers knew what the exact controversies and disagreements were. Despite what remains unknown to us, the letter is clearer about the strategy it commends to Timothy: do not convene discussions with rival teachers but rather explain “the word of truth” (see also 2 Timothy 2:24-26). If today this kind of approach to ministry offends our notions of collaborative, generous leadership, we might refrain from holding that offense too tightly. Since we don’t know the details of the controversies, we can’t be sure of the damage they might have been inflicting on the community that first received this letter. In short, it’s difficult to tell if the author is being imperious about his notion of orthodoxy or if he’s trying to protect a battered, self-destructive community from suffering additional harm.

Preaching in Light of 2:14-15

The singularly most important theological contribution the Pastoral Epistles (this letter, plus First Timothy and Titus) make is in forcing readers to consider the question of how Christians face situations of conflict, change, and other challenges of acculturation. How do we carry old convictions and confessions into new, uncertain, and sometimes unsettling settings? It’s an unavoidable question, and we answer it all the time, even if we aren’t aware we are doing so.

The Pastoral Epistles’ answer to this question is, put simply: hold onto established conventions, preserve received tradition, and hold it in trust for future believers, and avoid practices and ideas that may offend cultural conventions about what counts as respectable behavior.

Because of what I read elsewhere in the Bible and what I have seen in church history, I am more likely to preach against this answer than to preach it, at least in the current American context. That context, I admit, looks very different from the one this letter spoke to in the early second century. But I am happy that the Pastoral Epistles raise the question so bluntly and that they answer it uncomfortably (for me), because today we need to address the question frankly and smartly, learn from the church’s past mistakes and accomplishments, and walk into the future leaning on God with humility and boldness.