Lectionary Commentaries for September 29, 2013
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 16:19-31

Lois Malcolm

As much as we would like to spiritualize the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it is very difficult to explain away its central message, especially given what Luke has to say about money and possessions elsewhere in his Gospel.

The fates of these two individuals after death are very much tied to their experiences of wealth and poverty in this life.

The rich man has no name, although he’s been given various names in later history such as Dives, which means “rich” in Latin. By contrast, Lazarus is the only name given to anyone in Jesus’ parables; it means El-azar, “God has helped.” (There appears to be no connection between this Lazarus and the resuscitated man in John 11:1-44.)

The story begins with a drastic reversal that happens after these two men die (16:19-23). In his lifetime, the rich man ostentatiously displayed his wealth with beautiful clothes and lavish feasts. Conversely, Lazarus was covered with sores, was hungry, and had only dogs to lick his sores. After his death, Lazarus is carried away to an honored place beside Abraham, God’s friend and the father of Israel (3:8; 13:28-29). By contrast, the rich man finds himself in Hades, a place of torment and eternal punishment (10:15).

A conversation ensues between the rich man and Abraham (16:24-26). The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to ease his pain in Hades, but Abraham responds that this cannot be done. Their fortunes have shifted. In their lifetimes, Lazarus suffered bad things and he experienced good things, but now Lazarus is comforted and he is in agony. A “great chasm” now exists between the two, which cannot be crossed.

The rich man then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about Hades (16:27-41). Abraham replies that they already have Moses and the prophets to warn them. This response is congruent with Luke’s emphasis on the continuity between Jesus’ teaching and that of Moses and the prophets (see 24:26-28; 44-48; see also 16:16-17). When Lazarus maintains that his brothers will change their ways if someone comes to them from the dead, Abraham replies if they have not listened to Moses and the prophets, they definitely will not be convinced by someone being raised from the dead, an allusion perhaps to Jesus’ resurrection (9:22; Acts 1:22).

The story centers on the reversal of fortunes that takes place after Lazarus and the rich man die. It links agony or comfort after death with how we treat the less fortunate around us, much like Matthew links eternal life and punishment with how we treat the hungry and thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison (25:31-46). This reversal after death is ultimate. An unbridgeable chasm exists between Lazarus at Abraham’s side and the rich man in Hades.

Luke, in particular, stresses the way the status of the rich and the poor is reversed in the kingdom of God. When Jesus is conceived in Mary’s womb, she exults that the hungry have been filled and the rich sent away empty (1:46-55; cf. 1 Samuel 2:1-10). In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus tells the poor that God favors them and that the kingdom of God belongs to them, but he warns the rich of what is to come since they have already received their consolation in this life (6:20-25).

Luke makes clear that the poor are a focus of Jesus’ ministry. In his inaugural sermon, Jesus declares that he has been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord “to bring good news to the poor” (4:18; see also 7:22). Jesus admonishes his followers not just to invite to their parties the friends and neighbors who can repay them, but to extend their invitations to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13). This is echoed when Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a wedding banquet where the invitation has been extended to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:21).

Yet if the poor have good news preached to them, then the rich receive a somewhat different message. The rich young ruler who asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life is told that he is to sell all he has and distribute the money to the poor. When this makes him sad (because of his wealth) Jesus comments that the rich tend to have more difficulty entering the kingdom of God (18:18-30). Like the rich fool, the wealthy store their treasure in ever larger barns they cannot take with them after they die (12:8-21). They may store up “treasures for themselves,” but they are not “rich toward God” (12:21).

But being “rich toward God” — and having “treasure in heaven”– is not just about piety. It is also about selling possessions and distributing wealth to the poor (12:33; 18:22). After he encounters Jesus, Zaccheus gives half of his possessions to the poor and repays anyone he has defrauded four times as much (19:1-10). As the church emerges in Acts, new converts would “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (2:45; 4:32-34).

The story of the rich man and Lazarus might be difficult for many North Americans, whose lifestyle stands in sharp contrast with a majority of people in the world who live on much less. Like so much else that Luke says about money and possessions, it stands as a stinging indictment not only of the great confidence we place in financial security, but also of the drastic inequities between rich and poor we allow to perpetuate.

In this story, God’s eternal judgment has everything to do with how we use wealth in this life and whether we attend to those less fortunate in our midst. Our temptation is to explain away a story like this and to remove its blatant depiction of how God will ultimately vindicate the cause of the poor. But the message has been clearly stated. Like the rich man’s five brothers, we have been given all the warning we need.


First Reading

Commentary on Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Karl Jacobson

When we think of the prophet Amos there is a tendency to emphasize the outsider nature of his prophetic calling. 

Amos is a shepherd and a horticulturalist (a “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees,” Amos 7:14), not a member of the prophetic families or guilds of Israel.There is, then, a disconnect, a jarring power and potential in his message delivered to the elite of the Northern kingdom. Abraham Joshua Heschel summarizes this approach beautifully:

The rich had their summer and winter palaces adorned with costly ivory (3:15), gorgeous couches with damask pillows (3:12), on which they reclined at their sumptuous feasts. They planted vineyards, anointed themselves with previous oils (6:4-5; 5:11)…. At the same time there was no justice in the land (3:10), the poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery (2:6-8; 5:11), and the judges were corrupt (5:12). In the midst of this atmosphere arose Amos, a shepherd, to exclaim, “Woe to those that are at ease in Zion; and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria.”1

This is certainly a critical aspect of the prophecies of Amos, setting the context of his reported oracles of judgment; this is worth our attention as we preach on this text from Amos 6. And, perhaps, preachers themselves need to take this disconnect, this “outsider-in” tension more seriously than most, as we do tend to be (and often represent) the current insiders, the rich, the judges, the elite. But there is another aspect of the setting of this text, in the literary context of the Amos, that is equally, and perhaps even more telling.

Amos 5 ends with a warning that Israel will be taken “beyond Damascus” into exile (5:27), and this warning is declared by “the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.” The partial reading for our lectionary of Amos 6 which follows (6:1a, 4-7) ends just before a similar oath is made by God. Amos 6:8 reads,

The Lord God has sworn by himself (says the Lord, the God of hosts):
            I abhor the pride of Jacob
                        and hate his strongholds;
                        and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.

This judgment is declared not just upon the unjust, unfair, intolerable religious and social deviances of the Northern Kingdom (centered on the mountain of Samaria, cf. 6:1a), but against Jerusalem itself, the center of the Southern Kingdom, and seat of the Temple. Notice that both before and after the reading from Amos 6, God swears by God’s own name; what is contained within the “bookends” of the divine name (5:27 — “the Lord [Yahweh], whose name is the God [Elohim] of hosts” and 6:8 — The Lord God (Adonay Yahweh) has sworn by himself [says the Lord (Yahweh), the God (Elohim) of hosts]) is the core of Amos’ critique of all the religious and social elite, not just the “backsliding” Northern Kingdom and its idolatry, but the Southern Kingdom as well, with its injustice.

Amos 6:4-7 has its sights set on the disconnect not between the shepherd/sycamore-dresser and the religious insiders, so much as between any and all who claim the Lord and yet live lives that are inconsistent with such a claim. These so-called believers are accused of singing idle songs, of drinking wine from bowls, and of anointing themselves with the finest oils (6:6-7). In and of themselves these things (singing, anointing, even drinking) are not the problem. In fact, in other places the term used here for improvisation on musical instruments is entirely positive, the reflection of a God-given ability (indeed Deuteronomy 31:1-11 highlights the gifts given, the “skill to all the skillful” that God imparts for the good of worship and the people).

The problem is not skillful song-singing, or celebration, or honoring those who may very well deserve to be honored; rather, it is that these practices are carried on even while the Titanic is sinking (see Amos 6:6b), and the people simply don’t care.

In a sense, Amos 6 is critiquing the social equivalent of the religious inconsistencies that he has criticized earlier (see Amos 5:21-24). The questions he might well be asking are questions such as, “How can we feast when there are those who have nothing to eat?” Or, “How can we anoint ourselves when the least among us have no honor?” Or, “How can we celebrate as the worlds of so many others are falling apart around them?” The answer should be obvious, Amos argues, but the peoples’ actions belie this. As Amos goes on to ask (rhetorically), “Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen?” (6:12a). Such behavior, God declares through the prophet, is senseless, and this is exactly what the people are doing: “turning justice into poison, and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (6:12b).

In our own time we are, it seems to me, rich in targets for our sighting of Amos 6. We might point our homiletical fingers at the rich (the 1 percent), or at political figures or activist groups who betray themselves, or even at denominational institutions that sometimes fall prey to their humanness and fail to live up to our expectations and their own statements. But perhaps, in our own contexts as we seek to live out the calling to which God has called us, we ought first to invite those who hear us preach and teach this week to apply this text first to ourselves. Where do we live too much at ease, where do we miss the opportunity to meet the needs of a ruined or ruining “Joseph,” how might we live into right relationship with our neighbor and our world in the name of the God who has sworn to us by a Son?


1 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 27-28.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Garrett Galvin

This passage stands out as marking Jeremiah’s centrality to the Old Testament.

The strengths of Jeremiah’s character emerge at a most difficult time in the Holy Land’s history. The Babylonians are devastating Jerusalem, and its inhabitants turn in many directions as hope is scarce. Jeremiah boldly invests (literally!) in the Holy Land’s future.

When others are abandoning hope or compromising with evil, Jeremiah can imagine the most hopeful scenes of his earlier prophecies in Jeremiah 29. This reading provides both Christian and Jew with a way to deal with tragedy. Jeremiah never becomes unrealistic or stakes his future on false expectations; rather, he returns to the fundamental sense of the Land as God’s gift to Israel. He never gives up hope in that gift.

The core of this pericope revolves around Jeremiah’s symbolic gesture. Symbolic gestures are characteristic of many prophets and connect Jeremiah to prophets like Elijah and Elisha. Earlier in 1 Kings 11:29-40, we have the report of the prophet Ahijah tearing the cloak of Jeroboam into twelve pieces. We find the only positive report of a symbolic gesture in the Book of Jeremiah; there are a number of negative ones like the shattering of the clay pot in Jeremiah 19.

The timing is important. The first half of the book is full of warning and dramatic actions to try to capture Israel’s attention. In Jeremiah 32, Israel’s fate is sealed. Now Jeremiah’s symbolic gesture points to the hope of the future. Jeremiah receives a divine message to buy a field in Anathoth (verse 7). In a hopeless time, Jeremiah displays complete confidence that the siege will pass and Israel will return to normal affairs in the Holy Land.

Jeremiah’s radicalism leaps off the page at several junctures. Jeremiah has been put under house arrest, not unlike Paul in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles. Yet the invading Babylonians have not arrested Paul; his own king, Zedekiah, has arrested him. Jeremiah demonstrates how religious people must be careful not to be co-opted by political leadership. Great pressure was applied to Jeremiah so that he complied with his government’s interests.

As a prophet, and he is explicitly referred to as a prophet in verse 2, Jeremiah realized that he must comply with God’s message. More than anything else, the Hebrew root of prophet (nabi) indicates that a prophet is a spokesperson for God rather than a fortune-teller or anything like that. Jeremiah’s radicalism is also present in his daring journey across a war-torn countryside. Jeremiah exhibits great courage both spiritually and physically.

King Zedekiah clearly tries to intimidate in verse 3. We see the tension between prophecy and governance here. Kings are accustomed to hearing what they want to hear. Often in the past, the king managed to gather sycophantic prophets around him. King Ahab had 400 sycophantic prophets around him and only one who would prophecy independently, Micaiah ben Imlah (1 Kings 22:6-8). Jeremiah and Zedekiah find themselves in similar circumstances, and Zedekiah appears eerily similar to Ahab, the northern king of Israel.

As has been said, things are utterly disastrous in Jerusalem at this time. Jeremiah responds to this desperation with one of his boldest and most hopeful endeavors. He strikes out to his hometown. When others are either being deported or fleeing to Egypt, Jeremiah prepares for the promises of God. He is a counter-sign to those who can only see the limitations of the contemporary political scene in their age or any age. Jeremiah returns to the promises of God that he recently articulated in 29:5: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.”

Although this was advice to the exiles in Babylon, it continues to ring true in the Promised Land. Indeed in Deuteronomy 20:5-8, we find a similar concern for houses and garden (in this case the garden is a vineyard). The important thing is that a garden or vineyard requires a large investment of time and a hope in the future. Jeremiah demonstrates that hope in the future as clearly and bravely as possible. He manifests the true virtue of hope, which allows us to take actions in the bleak present in order to ensure the future of others.

Jeremiah specifically mentions a vineyard in verse 15. Few things speak more hopefully about the future than a vineyard. Vineyards take a number of years before they are able to reward their investment. This is not a short-term investment or a quick fix financially. Jeremiah definitely looks to the future here. And as he looks to the future, he has one eye on the past. He hears what Moses dictates and brings them to fruition.

This connects nicely to the minatory gospel offered this Sunday. We hear of the sufferings of Dives or the Rich Man. He ignored the plight of Lazarus, the poor beggar who was at his gate every morning. At 16:29, the parable tells us: “’They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” We see this parable nicely refer back to this deuteronomic tradition shared by the books of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 146

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 145 ends with the words, “The praise of the Lord my mouth will speak, and all flesh will bless his holy name for all time and beyond” (145:21).

And in the five psalms that follow, Psalms 146-150, that is precisely what takes place.

Psalms 146-150 are known as the “Final Hallel” of the book of Psalms. Each opens and closes with the words “hallelujah” — “praise the LORD,” and together they expand the praise of God from the individual psalm singer to the people of Israel to all creation.

  • Psalm 146:2 states, “I will praise the Lord as long as I live”
  • Psalm 148:14 states, “He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful for the people of Israel who are close to him”
  • and Psalm 150:6 says, “Let all that has breath praise the Lord”

Psalm 146 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving. It opens with an admonishment to the “soul” (nephesh) to praise the Lord and continues with a statement that the psalmist will praise and sing praises to God for the duration of her life.

In verses 3 and 4, the psalm singer admonishes those listening to the song of praise not to trust in earthly rulers, mere mortals (ben ‘adam) who will return to the earth (‘adamah) when their breath leaves them. These words bring to mind Genesis 2, in which the first human (‘adam) is formed by God from the earth (‘adamah), emphasizing the transitory nature of human existence.

Verse 5 begins with the wisdom word “happy” (‘ashre), the same word with which Psalm 1 opens and Psalm 2 closes. The word ‘ashre occurs twenty-six times in the Psalter, and most likely is derived from a verbal root that means “to follow a particular path,” thus suggesting the sense of assurance and contentedness that comes with knowing that one is “doing what is right” and is “following the right path in life.”

Verse 5 continues, “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob.” The word “help,” derived from the verbal root ‘ezer, is a powerfully simple word. It is used in Genesis 2:18, where we read: Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the (hu)man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” ‘Ezer occurs in its noun form some sixty-five times in the Old Testament, and in most cases, it refers to the “help” of God in some sort of life-threatening situation (e.g., Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 33:20). Thus the word ‘ezer conveys the idea of a “help” that is a strong presence, an aid without which humankind would be unprotected and vulnerable to all sorts of unsettling situations.

In verses 6-8b, the singer of Psalm 144 describes the actions and attributes of God using action verbs in which the psalm singer outlines God’s generous care for creation by executing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, setting prisoners free, opening the eyes of the blind, and lifting up those who are bent down. In verses 8c-9, the psalm singer states that the Lord loves the righteous, watches over the strangers, and upholds the orphan and the widow, but that the way of the wicked God “will bring to ruin.” Psalm 146 ends with verse 10’s words of confidence in the reign of God over all creation with the words, “The Lord will reign for all time.”

But how does the reign of God work itself out in this world? What does it mean to trust in God to give bread to the hungry, to watch over the strangers, and to open the eyes of the blind?

Throughout most of the story of the Old Testament, our ancestors in the faith had a king. First Saul, then David and Solomon, and then others like Rehoboam and Hezekiah and Josiah. And we read repeatedly in the prophetic books that a major role of the king in ancient Israel, and in other cultures in the ancient Near East, was to provide justice for those who were oppressed, to give food to those who were hungry, to set prisoners free, to lift up those who were bowed down, to watch over strangers, and to support the orphan and the widow.

The role of the king was to provide a “place” for the people of the kingdom to live and flourish in safety and care and comfort. Unfortunately the kings of Israel didn’t do a very good job of fulfilling their God-given kingly duties, and by the time a psalmist composed Psalm 146, the Israelite people had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians, Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, and no king ruled over Israel.

So what to do? Well, in the face of destruction and the end of the kingdom and nation founded by David, God could and would be ruler over the people. Psalm 97 states, “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” The closing verse of Psalm 146 says, “The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.” The psalm singer reminds us that God, the creator of the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, will care for the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them better than any earthly king in Israel’s past had ever done. Better than anyone who is rich and powerful, better than any princes.

How will God go about performing these “caring” duties? Well, that’s where we — you and I — and where communities of faith, come in. We are called to be the hands and feet, the arms and legs, the eyes and ears, the voice and the heart of God in our world. How will God support the orphan and the widow? How will God give bread to those who are hungry? How will God set the prisoners free? Through folks like you and me. We are all called to care for this world and its inhabitants — to be the arms and legs, hands and feet, eyes and ears, voice and heart of God. How else will God’s presence be known and felt in the world?


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Christian A. Eberhart

The passage 1 Timothy 6:6-19 deals with true riches.

It consists of two main paragraphs: First, the author describes behavior that provides contentment and mentions things that lead to temptation. Second, he gives further ethical advice, which he labels “the good fight of faith” (6:12).

Usually, Bible passages about material wealth cause some amount of discomfort or even reprehension among audiences in our modern North Western hemisphere, which has a strong materialistic orientation. On a global scale, many of us would, after all, qualify as “rich.” Moreover, we often tend to associate personal success and happiness with material affluence. Therefore texts such as 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19 that pose questions regarding riches might be considered a challenge to our entire cultural and economical system.

The preacher of our passage should take note of the fact that, on the one hand, the New Testament features several other texts with a similar attitude toward material wealth as in 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19. Jesus, for example, said: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24; see also Luke 16:9, 11, 13).

The Greek term for “wealth” that Jesus used is mammonas; it is transliterated from the Aramaic and denotes earthly goods, yet in a derogatory sense. In the pointed saying of Jesus, the “mammon” appears as a “false god” that gets in the way of true worship of the real God.

The Church has also recognized that Jesus had a “preferential option for the poor.” Throughout his life, he showed love and compassion and cared for all who were at the bottom of society, namely the poor, sick, outcast, and those whom others considered sinners. Especially the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts contain various stories that criticize rich people (e.g., Luke 16:19-31; Acts 5:1-11).

On the other hand, it is important to realize that these stories display people who rely on their material prosperity and have little ultimate concern for God. In the parable of the Rich Fool, for instance, Jesus describes the pleasure of a hedonistic person who thinks that his abundant earthly goods will secure his future (Luke 12:16-21; see also the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas 63).

His “insurance,” however, turns out to be void because he will die within a day. The dilemma with such a this-worldly orientation is spelled out in our passage from First Timothy: “…for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it” (6:7). What is being criticized, then, is rather “the love of money” and “the eagerness to be rich” than material wealth as such (6:10, see also verse 9 and 2 Timothy 3:2). The love of money provides temporary satisfaction, but the love of God lasts forever.

It is also helpful to reflect on the association of material wealth and politics within the context of the Roman Empire during the first century CE. For the most part, riches could only be acquired through continuous cooperation with the Roman administration. Those who were rich, therefore, usually supported a system that oppressed the vast majority of the population for the benefit of only few at the center of the Empire.

Being a counter-cultural movement, early Christians opposed this system and envisioned a more equal distribution of material resources. This is, for instance, conveyed in the story of how believers shared their possessions in Acts 4:32-37 (see also the episode of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11).

On the other hand, wealthy people were appreciated as “benefactors” in early Christianity. Luke mentions that many women who accompanied Jesus and his twelve disciples “provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:3). Likewise, the apostle Paul drew on the financial support of benefactors for his travels and missionary activities. He had a secretary at his service to whom he would dictate his letters (see, e.g., the brief greetings in Romans 16:22 by Paul’s scribe Tertius). That person was likely paid by Phoebe; she is introduced in Romans 16:2 as a “patroness” of Paul and many others, suggesting a person of considerable status and prosperity.

It is, therefore, inappropriate to affirm in a wholesale fashion that early Christians criticized material wealth. Instead, of crucial importance is the attitude of the person owning it. Material wealth can get in the way of putting one’s trust in God, and it can be a hindrance to following Jesus (Mark 10:17-22). Yet many of the church ministries and services depend on financial resources of those who are willing to share them. Therefore, those who have riches “are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19).

Further recommendations for behavior follow in the passage about the “good fight of faith.” The author of the letter suggests that “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment” (6:6), and recommends “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” that will lead to eternal life (6:11-12). The word “contentment” renders the Greek term autarkeia, which conveyed the important Stoic concept of not being bothered by external circumstances.1

“Godliness” translates the Greek word eusebeia and can also mean “religion,” “piety,” or “devotion.” It was frequently used in the context of Greco-Roman worship. Godliness has already been recommended to Timothy in 4:7-8: “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

It is worth noting that specifically love, endurance, and gentleness describe behavior that is the opposite of how Paul, before his conversion, acted when pursuing the followers of Jesus Christ. Then he was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13); now he trusts in the power of Christ for his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12). Therefore, Paul himself is a good example of proper behavior for Christians; that is, he is an example of a life that provides true and everlasting riches.


1 Lea, T. D./Griffin, H. P., 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (The New American Commentary, vol. 34, Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), page 167.