Lectionary Commentaries for September 22, 2013
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 16:1-13

Lois Malcolm

Any commentator will tell you that this is a difficult text.

The story itself sounds quite contemporary. A dishonest manager is about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets. Because he doesn’t want to do manual labor or receive charity, he goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so that they will be hospitable to him after he loses his job. To our surprise, the employer commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. Why is he commended? And, why does Luke include this story in his Gospel?

To begin to answer these questions, we can note that this parable serves as a bridge between the stories of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31). Like the prodigal in the preceding story, our dishonest manager has “squandered” what was entrusted to him (15:13; 16:1). And, like the story that follows, this parable begins with the phrase, “There was a rich man” (16:1, 19).

Although our dishonest manager does not repent (like the prodigal) or act virtuously (like Lazarus), he nonetheless does something with the rich man’s wealth that reverses the existing order of things. In Luke, reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear. The proud are “scattered” (which translates the same word for “squandered”: dieskorpisen). The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty (1:51-53; see also 6:24; 16:25; 18:25).

But why does the employer commend the dishonest manager for being shrewd? Of course, his commendation could be ironic. But if it’s not ironic, then why is the manager being commended? Some commentators have suggested that the manager has reduced his own commission in the debts owed and that this is what is being commended. Yet others have suggested more generally that the employer is simply commending the manager for responding shrewdly to a difficult circumstance. The word for “shrewd” here (phronimos) can also be translated as “prudent” or “wise” (16:8).

The text itself provides four interpretations of the employer’s commendation. First, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (16:8). In other words, Jesus’ disciples — often referred to as “children of light” (see John 12:36) — could learn something about acting prudently from the “children of this age.”

Second, what they could learn from the “children of this age” has to do with “making friends for themselves” by means of “dishonest wealth” so that those new friends might “welcome them into the eternal homes” (16:9). Instead of using “dishonest wealth” to exploit others (as the rich do), disciples are to use wealth to “make friends for themselves.” If friendships are based on reciprocal and egalitarian relationships, then releasing other people’s debts not only enriches them, but also establishes a new kind of reciprocity with them. The Filipino concept of utang na loob, which literally translated means an “inner debt” or a “debt of inner gratitude,” perhaps captures something of what is being established here — a debt rooted in the shared reciprocity of friends.1

As a broader context for this, we might note that Luke often depicts how Jesus’ ministry and that of his followers is dependent on the hospitality of others (8:3; 10:7). Moreover, hospitality is often provided by those who are considered religious outsiders or lower down on social hierarchies (e.g., the Good Samaritan, 10:33; tax collectors, 5:27-39; 19:1-10; Cornelius, 10:48, etc.).

Third, there’s a connection between being faithful (or dishonest) with “very little” and “very much.” How one deals with “dishonest wealth” and “what belongs to another” says much about how one will deal with “true riches” and “what is your own” (16:10-12). How we use the resources at our disposal in this life — especially in tight circumstances — matters, even though our “true riches” can only be found in that place “where no thief can draw near and no moth destroys” (12:33-34).

Finally, the capstone to all this is that “no slave can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth” (16:13). This reiterates a central theme in Luke. The kingdom of God entails giving up all other commitments, including the commitment to economic security (14:33; 18:18-25). As noted, Luke places great emphasis on how the reign of God reverses the status of the rich and the poor (1:51-53; 6:20). In Acts, the Christian community is one where disciples share “all things in common,” distributing “to all, as any had need” (2:44-45). These texts cannot just be spiritualized. Luke is talking about a different way of using wealth. Our wealth belongs to God and is to be used for the purposes of God’s reign among us and not simply for our own interests.

So why is our dishonest manager shrewd? Even though he is still sinner who is looking out for his own interests (6:32-34), he models behavior the disciples can emulate. Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others. By reducing other people’s debts, he creates a new set of relationships based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors (rooted in monetary exchange) but on something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationships of friends.

What this dishonest manager sets in play has analogues with what happens when the reign of God emerges among us (17:21). Old hierarchies are overturned and new friendships are established. Indeed, outsiders and those lower down on hierarchies now become the very ones we depend upon to welcome us — not only in their homes in this life, but even in the “eternal homes” (6:20-26)!

1Katrin de Guia, Kapwa: The Self in the Other: Worldviews and Lifestyles of Filipino Culture-Bearers (Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, 2005), 378. 

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 8:4-7

Karl Jacobson

The old truism that “pride goes before the fall” (Proverbs 16:18) is, at least for Amos, gospel truth.

God’s chosen people have become consumed by their pride and, echoing Micah 6, Amos condemns the unjust practices of a people who have lost their way.

In verses 5-7 Amos puts words in the mouths of those he is condemning, characterizing them through this rhetorical device as a foolish, unjust, callous people who have rejected God’s Law (see Amos 2:4). Amos makes the target of his critique condemn themselves with their own outrageous words:

  • “When will worship be over, so that we can get back to work?”
  • “Let’s charge higher interest rates, and levy ‘membership’ fees on credit recovery offers.”
  • “We can charge double or triple if we call our product ‘new,’ or ‘organic,’ or ‘local.’”
  • “The poor will never see it for what it really is.”

These quotations are the rhetorical equivalent of the handlebar-mustached villain wringing his hands eagerly in the shadows. It’s obvious, over the top, and remarkably pointed in its critique of God’s people.

This language of making the ephah (about the same as a bushel) small, and the shekel (about half an ounce of silver), of commoditizing human lives (buying the poor for silver and the needy for footwear), is familiar in the prophets (again, see Micah). The general disregard for and exploitation of the poor is summarized as Amos accuses the people of stooping to selling even the “sweepings of the wheat.”

To modern readers this may seem like a minor, even mysterious point, but it is central not only to the biblical law (see Leviticus 19:9-10: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”), and to biblical stories (see the book of Ruth). Israel’s care for the poor goes beyond refraining from exploiting them; it includes taking care of them at the most basic level.

This point may well be the most controversial and pointed for our modern setting, both in terms of business practice (both at home and abroad), and our personal lives. The simplest move (perhaps) is to allegory, asking how we are taking the “sweeping of grain” in our own lives, of resources yes, but also time, temperament, talent, and so on, and “selling them,” instead of blessing God’s people through them.

One brief aside — there is a striking allegorical use of “sweepings” in Isaiah 17:4-6, which may be worth highlighting here:

On that day
  the glory of Jacob will be brought low,
  and the fat of his flesh will grow lean.
And it shall be as when reapers gather standing grain
  and their arms harvest the ears,
and as when one gleans the ears of grain
  in the Valley of Rephaim.
Gleanings will be left in it,
  as when an olive tree is beaten—
two or three berries
  in the top of the highest bough,
four or five
  on the branches of a fruit tree,
says the Lord God of Israel.

Notice that the “sweepings” here are not of wheat, but of God’s people. Even as God’s people are punished for their sin, the promise is made that, while Israel may have sold even the sweepings of the wheat, God will not destroy this people completely; there will be a remnant preserved, “gleanings” that will remain and be spared.

The exploitation of the poor and the question of proper worship are central to the message of the eighth-century prophets. And in Amos 8 we get a final beautiful (if brutal) rhetorical move by the prophet, one that is distinctive. Amos points to the “pride of Jacob” as the object of God’s memory, and God’s judgment. The “pride of Jacob” is used here in a striking way. Elsewhere, this phrase refers to the Promised Land (see Psalm 47:4). Here, the judgment of the land (primarily the Northern kingdom, but Judah as well, as in Amos 2) is tied up in the pride (ga’on in Hebrew) of Israel. They are arrogant, detached from their fellow human beings, and disinterested in God’s Law. Pride is not necessarily evil in and of itself, but it is most often used in the Old Testament and the prophets in particular to describe Israel’s sin (see Ezekiel 16:49; Jeremiah 13:9; Isaiah 13:11).

It may well be, that for the church in this present age, there is no more disturbing, no more telling, and no more accurate warning than this from the prophet Amos:

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
        Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 8:18—9:1

Garrett Galvin

Jeremiah demonstrates to us the confidence of the Israelite.

This is a strange way to start a reflection on a difficult lament, but we must understand the lament’s power. Too often as Christians, we edit our prayers to God. We speak frankly to friends, advisors, and paid professionals, but we don’t speak frankly to God. Jeremiah holds nothing back from God and models a prayer life of both praise and lament.

I recently had the great fortune of traveling in Holy Land and often had Jeremiah in my head while I was there. I visited a synagogue that tradition tells us he preached at in Cairo, Egypt. I also visited the ruins of the sanctuary in Shiloh just 18 miles north of Jerusalem that Jeremiah urged the leaders of Jerusalem to consider when they felt the Temple guaranteed them safety (chapters 7 and 26).

The Book of Jeremiah is one of the most important books of the Old Testament as well as one of the longest. Few prophets probably helped Jesus to understand himself as much as Jeremiah. Like Jeremiah, Jesus begins his public ministry in Matthew and Mark’s gospels with strong words of denunciation before he moves to a ministry of hope.

The people’s arrogance and entitlement may be the greatest difficulties that Jeremiah encountered. We hear clearly in verse 19 the people’s false expectation. They expected the Lord to always be at their beck and call. We can understand this as a distorted Zion theology. We hear the people wondering why the Lord is no longer in Zion. Jeremiah’s constant concern revolves around this superstitious belief of the temple’s power, be it in Zion or Shiloh. The people do not strengthen their relationship with God and each other; rather, they put their trust in the inanimate objects in Zion and Jerusalem’s reputation of being invulnerable. Jeremiah directs them to Shiloh if they think anything is invulnerable.

We find idolatry at the heart of the complaint in verses 19-20. Ultimately, we can see this as popular religiosity can terribly awry. We see the problems of foreign gods throughout the Old Testament. We get a sense of people turning everywhere for some way to leverage their relationship with God. First, they try Zion. Next, they try idols. They seem to be turning everywhere except to God and each other. Even in verse 20, there is some sense that something magical would happen at the end of the summer harvest. The people have managed to make both idols and idols out of religious feasts at the year’s end.

Jeremiah forces us to confront idolatry in our own lives. We can easily laugh at the Israelite worshiping wooden idols, but what really controls our life? Are we obsessed with the latest technology and consumer goods? We can see Israel’s unhealthy obsession with Zion here, but what do we fail to see in our own lives? I was recently at a children’s soccer game with many parents on the sidelines, but then I noticed about half the people were looking at their smart phones instead of their children. Now maybe this was out of necessity, but maybe the smart phone is becoming an idol. One could not be blamed for thinking this if we see how advertising for them functions.

Jeremiah can see this catastrophe coming. We see his mood becoming more and more desperate. The alarm increases in verse 22. Gilead was some of the richest and most fertile land historically possessed by Israel. Now, nothing even in Gilead can offer this people healing and salvation. Jeremiah seems to have recognized that Israel has gone past the point of no return.

Jeremiah 9:1 both concludes this pericope and leads into a long jeremiad for which Jeremiah is so famous. The grief and sickness of verse 18 is now replaced by a “fountain of tears” and weeping “day and night.” Jeremiah resorts to extreme emotions in order to try to shake Israel of her complacency. Jeremiah starts the pericope with great frustration and concludes it with great emotion. Utter grief has replaced the despair of the beginning.

These verses continue to resonate with both Christians and Jews as they confront the troubles of today’s world. What would Jeremiah say if he heard that more soldiers died from their own hand than in combat last year in Afghanistan? What should we say? How would Jeremiah react if he heard that 22 veterans a day commit suicide? Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 still tries to shake us from our complacency.

Jeremiah nicely complements Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager. Here we see someone shaken free of complacency. As so often happens in the parables, disciples’ conventional morality is challenged by the necessity of the circumstances. Drastic times call for drastic measures. Jesus offers us the example of someone who can at least hear and respond. Perhaps more than anything else, Jeremiah is trying to wake us up. He failed with Jerusalem, but this passage continues to resonate with any group open to change. The Dishonest Manager shows that change is not always pretty, but it is a necessity that Jeremiah’s listeners failed to understand. Let us hope that Jeremiah can awaken us from our slumber.


Commentary on Psalm 113

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 113 is the third psalm in a group of psalms in Book Five known as the hallelujah psalms (Psalms 111-118).

It also the first of a collection of six psalms (Psalms 113-118) that are known as “the Egyptian Hallel” and are used in the celebration of Passover. In modern Jewish life, Psalms 113-114 are recited before the Passover meal, and Psalms 115-118 are recited at its conclusion. Psalm 113, classified as a community hymn of praise, is sung at the blessing of the first Passover cup of wine. Calling its hearers to praise the name of the Lord for all of the Lord’s goodness to the people, it is an apt introduction to the Passover story, which is then recounted in the following psalm, Psalm 114.

Two evenly divided stanzas make up Psalm 113, verses 1-4 and verses 5-9, with verse 5’s question, “Who is like the LORD our God?” acting as the centerpiece of the psalm and connecting its two parts. Some scholars suggest that the psalm may have been used antiphonally, sung by two choirs in a worship setting.

The psalm opens with “hallelujah” — a command to the people to praise the Lord. Twice more in the opening verse, the command to praise is issued, first naming the subject of the command, “O servants of the Lord,” and then further identifying the object of praise, “the name of the Lord.” The phrase “the name of the LORD” appears again in verses 2 and 3. In verse 2, “the name of the Lord” is being blessed “from this time on and forevermore,” and in verse 3 it is being praised “from the rising of the sun to its setting.”

“Name” was an important concept in the ancient Near East. Names reflected the natures and characters of the persons who bore them and were conceptually equal to the very essence of being. To know someone was to possess some part of that person; to speak a name was to speak someone or something into being. The name “Jacob” means “he usurps,” because he grabs Esau’s heel at their birth, attempting to be the first-born twin (Genesis 25:26). He indeed usurps Esau later in life when he coerces Esau into selling to him his birthright and when he tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing. After the incident at the Jabbok, God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel” which means “he has struggled with God” (32:28).

In the creation story in Genesis 2, God brings the animals one by one to the first human and we read, “and whatever the human called every living creature, that was its name” (2:19). Here we have a wonderful picture of humanity working together with God as co-creator. Naming brings the animals into being — an ibex becomes an ibex; a hippopotamus becomes a hippopotamus; an eagle becomes an eagle.

In Exodus 3, Moses encounters God at the burning bush. In that encounter, Moses replies to God’s command to return to Egypt with a seemingly simple request. “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13). Moses asked for God’s name. What is the nature and character of the God who is requesting such a thing? God replies with self-naming words of existence, “I am that I am.” From the Hebrew words ehyeh asher ehyeh?the ancient Israelites derived the personal name of God, Yahweh.They possessed an important aspect of the being of God.

In Exodus 20, God commanded the Israelites from Mt. Sinai that they are not to “make wrongful use of” God’s name. The book of Deuteronomy tells us that God’s name will dwell in the place of God’s choosing in the land (Deuteronomy 12:5, 14:23-24, 16:2). And Psalm 8:1 states, “O Lord , our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Verse 4 of Psalm 113 echoes Psalm 8:4: “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens.”

The question of verse 5 is the center of Psalm 113, connecting the call to praise of the first four verses with the reasons to praise found in verses 6-9. The question, “Who is like the Lord our God?” needs no answer. The answer is obvious, based on the description of the Lord that follows. Verse 6 states that God “is seated (literally “dwells”) on high,” yet God “looks down on the heavens and the earth.” In verses 7 and 8, God “raises up from the dust” and “lifts up from the ash heap” the poor and the needy and causes them to sit (literally “dwell”) with princes. And in verse 9, God “gives a home (literally “a dwelling place”)” to “the barren woman,” making her the joyous mother of children.

God who dwells on high looks down upon the earth; sees the needy and the poor Israelites in slavery in Egypt; raises them up from the dunghills and places them in the dwellings of princes; sees barren Israel, and gives her children a place to dwell. The repetition of the verb “to dwell” (in verses 6, 8, and 9) is striking. When Moses encountered God at the burning bush, God said to him, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. … Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them and bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land” (Exodus 3:7-8). A dwelling place, a homeland, was the ultimate promise of God to the children of Israel.

Many commentators connect Psalm 113:5, 7-8, and 9 with verses 2, 5, and 8 of Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2, in which Hannah sings to the “Holy One,” the “Rock” verse 2), because “the barren has born seven” (verse 5) and because the LORD “raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (verse 8). The story of God’s care for Hannah thus becomes a model for God’s care for Israel.

Psalm 113 ends with the same word with which it begins — hallelujah — forming a frame of praise around the words of the psalm. Psalm 113 is a hymn calling a community of believers to praise a transcendent God who cares enough for humankind to look down, reach down, and raise up the poor and needy of the earth. The answer to the question, “Who is like the Lord our God?” can be nothing more and nothing less than, “No one.”

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Christian A. Eberhart

The passage in 1 Timothy 2:1-7 consists of two units.

First, the author requests prayer for those in leadership positions. Second, the author makes the theological statement that there is only one God, and that Jesus Christ is a mediator and saved humans through his atoning death.

1 Timothy 2:1 starts with the words “first of all” (NRSV), but the attentive reader will notice that no “second” or “third” follows afterwards. The Greek word proton, then, does not enumerate items of an argument, but rather emphasizes the subsequent argument. A more appropriate translation, therefore, would be “above all” or “the most important thing is that … ” It introduces an appeal to be persistent in prayer.

The author employs four partially equivalent Greek words for prayer, each of which conveys a different nuance: the term deesis indicates an appeal for a particular need; proseuche is a general word for prayer that frequently occurs in petitions; enteuxis captures an urgent and bold request; finally, eucharistia denotes an expressions of gratitude.1 Similar lists of prayers requests occur in other Pauline and Deutero-Pauline letters, for example in Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 4:6, and 1 Timothy 5:5.

Thus, the author of First Timothy solicits all imaginable forms of prayer. They are to be spoken “for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions” (2:1-2). Why are the latter specifically mentioned here? The immediate reason might be the hope that Christians “may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” In the first century CE as today, much of that was determined by religious tolerance and political stability guaranteed by those in leadership positions. Yet there was certainly one more reason why the author of our letter mentioned rulers in this context.

When understood against the backdrop of the Roman Emperor cult of the late first century CE, these words take on a new meaning. Established in 510 BCE, Rome had been a republic governed by two consuls who were elected to their positions. This system was in effect for half a millennium, but was then changed in two significant ways: First, starting with the rule of Julius Caesar, the republic was replaced by the Imperial system; this means that one emperor would rule from now on. And second, Rome gradually introduced the apotheosis of the emperor.

After his assassination in 27 BCE, Julius Caesar was soon proclaimed divine and accepted among the gods of the state, officially allowing for the initiation of his worship. Later in the first century CE, this type of Emperor Cult gradually developed in the whole Roman Empire as a unifying and politically stabilizing force. However, it gave rise to the custom of praying to the divinized Caesars.

In this kind of imperial milieu, the request in 1 Timothy 2:2 to pray “for kings” instead of “to the kings” takes on new meaning. It implies most ostensibly that rulers, like everybody else, depend on the guidance and mercy of God. Furthermore, it indirectly implies that they are not divine but mortal humans.

These reflections explain why a theological statement about the oneness of God follows the request of prayer for those in leadership positions. It explicitly challenges the Roman Emperor Cult as well as the Greco-Roman pantheon through the fundamental claim that “there is one God” (2:5). Similar statements are typical for Pauline and Deutero-Pauline letters (see, e.g., Romans 3:30; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Galatians 3:20; Ephesians 4:5, 6).

They hearken to the shema Israel, the ancient Jewish prayer “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4) that also asks for undivided adherence and devotion to the one God.2 Early Christians were thus asked to worship the God of Israel while rejecting the Roman Emperor Cult. Such challenging words are more than interesting historical insights. Still today, there is a tendency to somehow ‘divinize’ humans; those who are successful in public life, sports, or show business are often celebrated and “worshiped” as “stars.” They, too, need our prayers, as there is only one God who saves us all.

Our passage, therefore, concludes with the concepts of salvation and atonement. God, our Savior, “desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:4). For Christians, such knowledge refers to the story of Jesus Christ as the Gospels tell it. This is the truth, and therefore the Gospel according to John calls Jesus the “truth” (14:6). The story of Jesus comprises not only the events of his life, but also his crucifixion. Yet how can the death of Jesus have saving significance?

The words of 1 Timothy 2:6 state that Jesus “gave himself a ransom for all.” In a similar fashion, Mark writes that “ … the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). A phrase like this articulates salvation through Jesus Christ as redemption, which can be seen as a sub-category of atonement. It assumes that humans carry a debt that cannot simply be canceled but must be paid in full. How, then, can they achieve redemption?

“If necessary, somebody else has to make the payment. Therefore, this interpretive category conveys the vicarious surrender of life for others … Ransom and redemption are mercantile terms. They typically refer to money paid for the release of slaves or captives. Considering that a large percentage of the population in the ancient Greco-Roman world was slaves, this soteriological concept was intelligible to many. Its imagery must have strongly resonated with those at the bottom of society.”3

1 Timothy 2:6, therefore, depicts the death of Jesus Christ in atonement categories; yet its imagery does not deploy sacrificial rituals from the temple cult. Instead, it draws on secular motifs: the death on the cross is understood as an event of existential exchange that provides new life for humanity. God appointed the apostle Paul to proclaim this good news to the Gentiles, and it is still at the heart of the Christian proclamation throughout the world.

1 Cf. Knight, G. W., The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich./Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans/Paternoster Press, 1992), page 114.
2 Cf. Johnson, L. T., The First and Second Letters to Timothy: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2008), page 191.
3 Eberhart, C. A., The Sacrifice of Jesus: Understanding Atonement Biblically (Facets, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), page 129-30.