Lectionary Commentaries for September 18, 2016
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 16:1-13

Barbara Rossing

“Gotta serve somebody,” Bob Dylan sings.1

In today’s gospel Jesus says you can serve either God or Mammon, but not both. Mammon serves as a personification for the acquisition of wealth, the “most common god on earth,” according to Martin Luther (Large Catechism, Explanation of the First Commandment).2

We sometimes forget that charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited the vulnerable poor.3 We pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our debts.” But when we encounter a debt collector who actually reduces poor people’s debts by 20% to 50% — namely, reducing their debts to what was probably the original amount borrowed, without hidden interest charges — our first instincts are to judge him.

Admittedly, it is hard to know how Jesus wants us to judge any of the characters in the story, including the debt collector. To try to understand this parable (Luke 16:1-8a) and the attached sayings (verses 8b-13) in the context of Luke’s narrative world, we need a mini-course on the economics of Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century. Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man or “lord” (kyrios, v. 3, 8), along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.

Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ ministry invokes the biblical concept of Jubilee and debt forgiveness.4 Economic restitution is part of the joy of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:53) and the joy of the gospel proclaimed to tax collectors such as Zacchaeus. When Zacchaeus restores what he had “defrauded” four-fold, he is restored also to community, as proclaimed by Jesus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8).

Even though the word “defraud” is not used in today’s parable (unlike the story of Zacchaeus), Jesus’ hearers would know that the debt contracts included exorbitant interest hidden from illiterate peasants. Today, analogies may be high-interest student loans, predatory pay-day loans, or harsh austerity measures imposed on countries whose citizens had no role in agreeing to a debt. It’s striking that the Lutheran World Federation calls oppressive debt terms imposed on Honduras and other Latin American countries “illegitimate debt” and likens such debt itself to “violence,” because of its crushing effects on people’s futures.5

Wealthy landlords in Jesus’ day created “ways to charge interest under other guises,” often hiding interest by rolling it into the principal. As New Testament scholar William Herzog explains, “The hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.”6 The manipulative steward was probably extracting his own cut of the profits, on top of the 50% layer for the landlord, and the additional payment for Rome.

When he reduced the payments, the steward may have been simply forgiving his own cut of the interest. Or he may have been doing what the law of God commands, namely forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts. As Richard Horsley describes, “To ingratiate himself with the debtors, he had them change the amount they owed on their bills to exactly the amount they borrowed, eliminating the hidden and prohibited interest.”7 If the rich landlord was not a Gentile, but a Jew (the text does not say), he would know the Torah teaching against interest. The rich man, “suddenly recognizing that he needed at least to appear to be observing convenantal laws, commended his steward.”

Although the rich landlord is called “lord” (kyrios, a word that can simply mean “sir”), Jesus does not want us to side with him, contrary to some traditional interpretations. The challenge in this parable is knowing where Jesus wants us to side. There are many interpretive possibilities to this parable; each opens up questions.

In the sayings that follow the parable, three times Jesus personifies wealth using the word “Mammon,” to warn about the danger wealth poses as a god or idol (Luke 16:9, 11, 13). The same adjective “of unrighteousness” (adikias, a genetive) describes both Mammon and the steward. The idea of using unrighteous Mammon to achieve everlasting dwellings is hard to fathom — unless perhaps the idea may be to use the master’s tools (unrighteous Mammon) to dismantle the master’s house (the unjust debt structure). The master’s word of commendation for the steward, sometimes translated “shrewd” (phronimos), also means “prudent” or “wise” (Luke 16:8).

In Luke 16:12, another difficult verse, our instincts may be to jump to the conclusion that “being faithful to what is another’s” means being faithful to what belonged to the rich landlord, including the interest he was charging. But what if, instead, the opposite might be equally plausible — that Jesus might be talking about being faithful to what rightfully belonged to the peasants who were being disinherited of their land?

We cannot know. What we can know is that Luke is making connections between debt structures, the urgency of impending judgment, and the idol of Mammon.

Recent translations of Luke 16 have shifted away from “Mammon” (King James Version, Revised Standard Version) to “wealth” (New Revised Standard Version) or “worldly wealth” (Common English Bible). But perhaps we need to retain the personified idol named Mammon, as a reminder of how a financial system itself can function as an idol or “religion,” as Harvey Cox noted in “The Market As God.”8 Our current financialized economic “religion” is structured around debt — including ecological debt owed to future generations. These are a few of the unsettling questions Jesus’ multiple references to Mammon, in the context of a parable about debt and impending crisis, raise.

English Renaissance literature portrayed Mammon as a character on a lower moral level than Avarice. In Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Mammon escorts people down into the underworld, to the gate of Hell, to learn to mine and smelt gold (2.7). Milton (Paradise Lost) and other authors portray Mammon in league with fallen angels to lead people astray.9

Preaching on the vivid parable in Luke 16 means following Jesus into questions of how we practice neighbor love in economic relationships, in the midst of unjust structures. What is important is to situate the parable in the broader economic context of how Jesus was reviving village life by reviving biblical covenantal economic life, forgiving debts and giving people new hope. In Luke, the joy of the Gospel is the joy of God’s healing of relationships, including economic relationships. Jesus repeatedly warns that we cannot be disciples while accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor.

As Luther warned about Mammon 500 years ago, “‘Many a person thinks he has God and everything he needs when he has money and property, in them he trusts and of them he boasts so stubbornly and securely that he cares for no one. Surely such a man also has a god — mammon by name, that is, money and possessions — on which he fixes his whole heart. It is the most common idol on earth.”


1 “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,” 1979.

2 Specifically, what concerned Luther most in the sixteenth century may have been the emerging capitalist system’s system of charging interest on loans. See Terra Rowe, ” Protestant Ghosts and Spirits of Capitalism: Ecology, Economy, and the Reformation Tradition,” dialog 55 (2016), note 27, p. 60. See also “Radicalizing Reformation, Provoked by the Bible and Today’s Crises,” http://www.radicalizing-reformation.com.

3 See Exod 22:25-27; Lev 25:36-38; Deut. 15:7-11; 23:19-20 for prohibition on charging interest.

4 Sharon Ringe, Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee: Images for Ethics and Christology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) xiv

5 Rev. Ángel Furlan, coordinator of the illegitimate debt program for LWF member churches in Latin America, referred to the debt system as “modern slavery.” See the 2013 report at https://www.lutheranworld.org/news/just-and-sustainable-future-without-illegitimate-foreign-debt

6 William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, p. 246.

7 Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), p. 146

8 Harvey Cox, “The Market as God: Living in the New Dispensation,” The Atlantic, March 1999.

9 John Margeson, “Mammon” in Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) p. 475

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 8:4-7

Rolf Jacobson

The Theological Context of Amos 8:4-7: Justice

This week’s Old Testament lesson from the prophet Amos offers a chance for preachers to explore with congregations the concept of justice, in order to “thicken” the church’s understanding of this central biblical concept.1 

As most preachers are well aware, the eighth-century prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Micah were in one accord about the Lord’s demand for justice:

    Let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.                (Amos 5:24)

    Cease to do evil,
        Learn to do good,
    seek justice,
        rescue the oppressed,
    defend the orphan,
        plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16d-17)

    He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
        and what does the Lord require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
        and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

A quick review of the concept of justice.

First, justice starts with the very character of God. Justice is part of the Lord’s nature–“The Lord is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18).

Second, because the Lord has elected Israel as God’s own people, the Lord demands that the people reflect God’s character–that is, Israel must be a people of justice (see the above texts).

Third, justice is a social concept–it has to do with the external ordering of society in which the most life can thrive. A more just social order is one in which more life can thrive, whereas a less just social order is one in which less life can thrive.

Fourth, justice requires a special concern for the powerless–those who lack the capacity to protect their own welfare. In the Old Testament social concept, these “powerless” are often described as the widow, the orphan, the sojourner (resident alien), the needy, and the poor.

Fifth, justice is a legal concept. The laws, courts, and judgments of the legal system are about creating and maintaining justice. Here it is good to recall God uses the law in at least two ways. God uses the law for a “civil” purpose–to create a more civil society. God also uses the law for a “theological” purpose–to remind human beings of their sin and that even the most just people need grace and forgiveness. Doing justice is not a way to earn God’s grace.

Finally, justice and injustice are systemic. When a person participates in systems that create a more just social order, one is “doing justice.” Conversely, when one participates in systems that
create a less just social order, one is “doing injustice.” Which means, of course, basically everyone is already both doing justice and doing injustice. This is so because everyone participates in many systems. Some of those systems create a more just social order, some maintain unjust social structures, and some do a little of each.

That final point is worth stressing–almost all of us are already both doing justice and doing injustice, merely by the fact that we are participating in multiple social systems. Too often when Christian preachers take up the topic of justice, an implicit dualism is communicated in which the congregation hears the pastor saying, “Some of you do injustice, while some of us do justice. Be like me and do justice.” Especially the men and women in the congregation who work
in business too often hear the preacher as suggesting the secular realm automatically is a realm of injustice. We know that this is not true, but too often this is what the congregation hears from the pulpit. If that is the message a preacher were to preach this Sunday, it would be better just to skip the sermon altogether.

Which brings me (at long last!) to the text from Amos.

In this week’s lesson, Amos condemns practices that “trample the needy” and “ruin the poor.” Specifically, the prophet challenges practices that create untrustworthy markets. God does not condemn markets. Rather, God’s laws are about creating trustworthy markets, which will create social prosperity and be a fair means of exchange: “You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure” (Deuteronomy 25:15). The Hebrew word translated as “honest” is the term tsedeq, which is normally translated as “righteous” (see Amos 5:24, quoted above). The term translated in Deuteronomy 25 as “measure” is the term ephah, which was a standard unit of measure and is transliterated in this week’s lesson simply as “ephah.”

In the ancient world, units of weight and measure had not been standardized, so a “shekel” or “ephah” used in the markets of Jerusalem might be different than those employed in the markets of Samaria, or Damascus, or Tyre. This means a merchant might need to have different sets of weights in order to trade in different markets. But given human nature, the temptation to cheat the illiterate would often have proven irresistible. Conversely, the suspicion of merchants may have been in many cases unfair. At any rate, one can see that in Amos’ day, untrustworthy market places were contributing to a sense of injustice.

Amos also condemns those who yearn for the end of the Sabbath day, so that they can cheat their neighbors. It is well here to remember that the Sabbath day was not first-and-foremost about a time for worship, but rather was originally a justice law designed to give rest to all of society–not just to the property owner, but also “your ox and your donkey, and your livestock, and the resident alien in your towns” (Deuteronomy 5:14). One can trace what Patrick D. Miller has called “the Sabbatical principle” through the Pentateuchal laws and see how justice is a theme of the Sabbath. As one traces this principle, one sees how the laws are creating a society in which more life can thrive. In these sabbatical laws, the poor and wild animals are provided with food (Exodus 23:10-11), slaves are given release to freedom after six years (Deuteronomy 15:12-18), those in deep debt are forgiven their debts (Deuteronomy 15:1-11), and so on.

But in Amos’ day, the justice sense of the laws had been lost. People longed for the justice-establishing Sabbath to be over, so that they could return to exploitation. The phrase “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” refers to the practice of enslaving those in debt, even those who owed only a pair of sandals. Note how far this is from a just social order in which debts are forgiven! “Selling the sweepings of the wheat” was prohibited because these were to be left for the poor.

The task of translating the realities of Amos’ social context into our social context is both the challenge and the joy of preaching. Perhaps the most effective sermon on such a text will be
the sermon in which the pastor invites the congregation to explore these connections, rather than the one in which the pastor makes all the connections for people or the one in which the pastor asserts his or her own agenda.

It is worth noting also that the lesson from Amos is law in both uses of the law. First, by condemning certain practices, it is envisioning a society that operates according to more just norms. Second, by condemning, it is reminding all of us salvation does not come through the law. The law cannot save–in part, because it was never designed to save and in part because those in power can also turn the best intentioned of laws to their own benefit. So it is good to remember, as Saint Paul put it, “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And that therefore, we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-23).

1. This commentary was first published on this site on Sept. 19, 2010.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 8:18—9:1

Anathea Portier-Young

As I write (the date is July 8, 2016), it is three days since the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, two days since the fatal shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, one day since the fatal shooting of five police officers during a subsequent protest in Dallas, Texas.

Our nation is reeling from shockwaves of violence, intolerance, anger, suspicion, and fear. At this moment it feels like our whole country is a powder keg, about to ignite, fueled by long legacies of racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, religious intolerance.

And Jeremiah says:

My joy is gone. Grief is upon me. My heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” … “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? Oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people! (Jeremiah 8:18-9:1)

The events that I and everyone I know are reeling from today will not be so fresh or so raw by the time this passage appears in the lectionary, but neither will they be so far off. Earlier in chapter 8, Jeremiah demands that the people of Judah behold the mortal wound that afflicts their entire nation. They must stop pretending that nothing is wrong, stop turning away from the blood and the stench, stop ignoring the voices of the wounded and oppressed, stop silencing those who testify to the wrongs that have been done them. And to political and religious leaders, Jeremiah tells them to stop claiming they have the magic words or the special liturgies that will make everything better. They do not (Jeremiah 8:11).

Jeremiah looks upon the wound. Jeremiah hears the cry. And Jeremiah’s response is overwhelming grief and sorrow. It afflicts his body at the core of his being. He repeats the testimony of people from across the nation. They do not all offer the same testimony. Some are searching for God and not finding her. Some voice their hopelessness and frustration. All of them are asking questions, and so is Jeremiah. Don’t we have resources? Don’t we have medicine? Don’t we know, somewhere, what kind of radical change is needed, and how to bring it about? Why haven’t we committed? Why do we keep suffering from the same affliction? The prophet, too, feels powerless, and in this moment can only weep for those who have been slain.

You are preaching at a different moment, but our nation will still suffer from its wounds. More recent events will have exposed them in new ways. To prepare for the sermon, you must first behold the wounds, try to understand what has caused them, grasp that there is no quick fix. The preacher must listen to the testimonies, not just of those who are close, but also of those who are far. I speak of geography, but I also speak of identity, ideology, politics, culture, history. It is easy to listen to those who are like us, who share our views, and it is easy to mourn when they mourn. But why are those people so angry? What history separates “them” from “us”? What hard words do they have for me and my congregation? When we leave our echo chambers, we may grow in compassion. We will find there is more to grieve than we could ever have imagined. And for this moment, we are called to stay in the place of grief.

When you listen, you will know what testimony your people, too, must hear. The Spirit will empower you to speak the truth so that you can show your congregation what they, too, must see, both inside their community and far and wide in the country they call home. Invite your congregation to grieve. Invite them to hear and see one another in the grief each one holds close, and invite them to open their hearts to the pain of those who are far away. This will feel unfamiliar and strange to many of them and, likely enough, to you. September is not Holy Week; it is Ordinary Time. And apart from Holy Week, funerals, and special vigils, our congregations are not often accustomed to the practice of communal lament. Jeremiah’s testimony and prayer offers an opportunity to teach the people to grieve together, to create space for shared lament, and to surrender to the overwhelming sorrow that courage and virtue are not strong enough to vanquish.

If you are tempted to follow the lament with words and rites of assurance, of comfort, of hope, talk of resurrection and new covenant, new creation, reconciliation — hold back. Don’t give in to that urge. Not yet. On the day we let ourselves grieve together, we must not move too quickly for that quick fix. It won’t fix it. It will not restore our sight and health, but submerge us once more in the dark disease of denial.

There is one more temptation to resist: so often we are told, “don’t let them see you cry.” Ministers are advised to be just the right amount of vulnerable, be approachable and human, but don’t bleed all over your congregation. The latter is good advice. But this grief is not about our own personal lives. This is a grief for the nation. Jeremiah weeps for the people. God weeps for the people. If you, like Jeremiah, like God, are moved to tears by this people’s pain, take a breath, and keep testifying.


Commentary on Psalm 113

Paul K.-K. Cho

Psalm 113, which begins and ends in “Hallelujah” (113:1a, 9c), participates in the grand drama of the Psalter which moves from lament to praise, from cries of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) to imperative calls to praise the LORD: Hallelujah!

The formulaic call to praise the LORD, Hallelujah, is repeated more than fifty times in the entire Psalter. The vast majority of these are found in Book V (Psalms 107-150), with the majority of those coming in the final five psalms, Psalms 146-150. The Hebrew name for the Psalms, Tehillim (literally “praises”), is thus a fitting name for a collection of psalms that, while reflecting the “anatomy of all the parts of the human soul” (Calvin), moves inexorably toward the praise of God. And Psalm 113 marks a decisive moment in the journey of all “servants of the LORD” toward their ultimate destiny to praise (113:1).

In short, Psalm 113 invites us, the readers, to join the saintly procession.

The Call to Praise

Hallelujah” means “praise Yah!” “Hallelu” is the plural imperative form of the verb “to praise”: “Praise ye!” And “Yah” is the shortened form of the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, the name of God. Most modern English translations render YHWH/Yah in small capital letters: LORD. Hence, Praise the LORD!

Readers of the Psalter may be surprised to learn that, with the early exception of Psalm 22, the Psalter first directs us to praise the LORD (Hallelujah!) only in Psalm 104, at the end of that majestic hymn of descriptive praise. Psalm 105 also concludes with “Hallelujah,” and Psalm 106 both begins and ends with the imperative call to praise. In this way, Book IV of the Psalter (Psalms 90-106) begins to pivot decisively toward praise, toward the thematic mood that will dominate Book V.

What has happened in Book IV that has opened the doors of praise?

Before the eruption of Hallelujah in Psalms 146–150, which conclude the Psalter and in which the psalmist commands praise of God twenty-eight times, the praise-imperative appears in seven earlier psalms (111, 112, 113, 115, 116, 117, and 135) in Book V. Psalm 113, along with Psalm 135, is conspicuous among them for both beginning and ending with Hallelujah.

Hallelu, O servants of the LORD,
Hallelu the name of the LORD!

Hallelujah! (113:1, 9 author’s translation)

The psalm anticipates the conclusion of the Psalter and, within the inclusion of praise, gives the principal reasons that God’s servants should praise the LORD. It tells us what has happened in Book IV that has opened the doors of praise.

Reasons to Praise

The Psalter is a collection of 150 individual psalms. And those individual psalms have been organized to take their readers through a journey. That is, the Psalter has a story to tell.

The story, at its most basic level, is about kingship. The first three books of the Psalter (Psalms 1-41; Psalms 42-72; Psalms 72-89) may be understood to tell the story of King David and the Davidic monarchy. Briefly, Psalm 2 speak of David’s inauguration; numerous other psalms reference events in David’s life, such as his struggle with his son Absalom (Psalm 3), his escape from the murderous designs of Saul (Psalm 18), and his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband (Psalm 51); and Psalm 89 laments the demise of the Davidic monarchy with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Psalm 89 complains,

But now you have spurned and rejected him;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust. (89:38-39)

Books I–III tell the story of the Davidic monarchy from beginning to end. And the demise of the monarchy in 587 BCE placed under question the kingship of God who, according to the Psalm 89 and 2 Samuel 7, had promised David an eternal kingship forever. The demise of human kingship placed in doubt the kingship of God.

Book IV responds to the political and, more importantly, theological crisis brought on by the demise of the Davidic monarchy and its implications for God’s kingship by proclaiming that God was, is, and will be king, not only over Israel but over all nations and all creation. This is the proclamation of Psalms 93-100: “The LORD is king!” (93:1; 97:1; 99:1).

In Book V, the faith that, despite what has happened to the human king David, God remains king motivates the drive to praise. Thus Psalm 113 exhorts:

The LORD is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the LORD our God,
who is [enthroned] on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth? (113:4-6)

Why praise the LORD? Because the LORD is king, has been, and will be.

The evidence of this kingship is yet another reason for praise. God’s kingship, it turns out, is manifest in a preferential option for the poor: God raises them, lifts them, and gives them a seat among nobles (113:7-8). The implications are two: God looks with special interest on the poor, and there will be no poor in God’s kingdom. Neither will there be barren women. Rather, they will have a household, full of joy and children (113:9). The kingship of God makes all equal, not in poverty or in mediocrity, but in fullness and nobility. These are the reason to praise.

A Barren Woman Gives Birth

There are numerous barren women in the Bible who, through God’s gracious intervention, give birth to children. Hannah, whose song echoes the themes of Psalm 113, come to mind and, through her song, the Magnificat of Mary, mother of Jesus (1 Samuel 2; Luke 1:46-55).

Given these connections, is it any surprise that Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, and the sick (Matt 25:31-46)? As with the kingship of the LORD, so too with the reign of Jesus, it is the poor and the needy who will be raised, lifted, and seated with the nobles.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Eric Barreto

The “Pauline” biography continues this week.

Last week, the author of 1 Timothy drew upon Paul’s call as an introduction to the letter. Now, he will once again draw upon Paul’s story to conclude a point rather than introduce it. In addition, 1 Timothy draws us to the heights of power in a world dominated by Roman imperial might to see what true power looks like and to observe how the powerful and the lowly are wrapped up together in God’s embrace.

The beginning of 1 Timothy 2 begins the listing of instructions the author seeks to propound. The decision to start with “kings and all who are in high positions” is consequential. First, because it may indicate how wedded the author is to a view of the world that centers on a particular construction of power; he may imagine that power descends from the empire down to the households that make up that empire. That is, it seems likely that the author of 1 Timothy is here participating in a hierarchical vision of the world, one in which order is found in observing how the state and the household are inextricably linked and mirrors of one another. 1 Timothy may be advocating that Christian faithfulness resembles imperial values of the day in some significant sense. Within such a perspective, it makes good sense to exhort prayers for the powerful, for the very order of the world depends on them. And there may be an important lesson for us in this political season, a reminder to pray for those who would be our leaders no matter our feelings toward them and our political leanings. At least, we have some choice in the matter. Most of us can only begin to imagine the tension a Christian subject of Rome would have felt, knowing that emperors are not elected by the people and thus not likely leaving office anytime soon.

Now, notice why 1 Timothy exhorts us to pray for the powerful and the high: “ … so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Certainly, we can all appreciate such an aim. A world riven by discord could use some peace and quiet sometimes. As the author affirms in verse 3, this is both “right” and “acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.”

But also here, we encounter a significant preaching challenge, especially in recent days characterized by protest and demands for change in pursuit of justice. Is the “quiet and peaceable life” always the ideal avenue for Christian faith? Haven’t we heard so often the call from preachers for protesters to be patient, for the oppressed to wait for justice? Too easily, we might preach a call to a quiescence that denies injustice, a peace that belies an underlying violence. Lest we become enablers of continued oppression, we ought to bring a critical eye to this text.

Verses 3-6 contain the theological heart of this exhortation: the oneness of God and the precision of God’s plan and mercy. God is singular. God alone can bridge the divine and the human. God does so precisely through Jesus who is “himself human” and who pays a ransom to save us from our travails. And all this happens on a divine timeline, perfect in its execution.

Notice then the underlying tension coursing through this text. If such is God, then why start with the powerful and the high? If God is so singular and distinctive in God’s exercise of true power, why start with mere shadows of such divine power?

Is the author of 1 Timothy playing up these tensions for a larger theological reason? Is he starting with those of high position later to remind us that their high position is merely an illusion next to the scale of God’s work in the world? Is this a realistic acknowledgement of the world’s power structures even as it questions that very sense of order in narrating God’s delivery of the world God created?

There is another possibility. Does the author of 1 Timothy stumble into a tension only we can see because we are distant from his context? That is, is he too close to the cultural air that has nurtured him to notice the potential contradictions in what he has written? In imagining this is so, we should be careful to avoid any sense of arrogance; those from without our own cultures would certainly and incisively lay open the many contradictions we live in every day.

We can’t say for sure which might be the case, but this wrestling with the text is a key step in my mind for preaching 1 Timothy. After all, right after 1 Timothy juxtaposes the powerful of the world to the one true God, he then goes on to move down this great chain of being into the household. See 1 Timothy 2:8-15, verses the lectionary avoids. In the household, the hierarchy of power continues. Men ought to pray. Women ought to dress modestly, learn in silence. And why? Because of Eve, of course! (see verses. 13-14). Never mind that Paul seems to tell a very different account of the garden in Romans 5:12-21 where Adam’s sin, not Eve’s, dooms us all.

One temptation for the preacher might be to focus on the assigned verses at the beginning of 1 Timothy 2, reminding us of the importance of prayer for the powerful. We could turn our eyes to the “one mediator” and the “human” Jesus who intercedes on our behalf “at the right time.” Yet, I think we must deal with the rest of 1 Timothy 2.

I wonder if the preacher here might put a mirror before us. A preacher might help us see that we stand in judgment of the author of 1 Timothy and ultimately judge someone who does the very same things: ourselves (see also Romans 2:1). Might a preacher help us see that our unconditional commitments to certain cultural constructions of identity and power stand in direct contrast to the gospel, but our embrace of the very same keeps us from understanding how these contingent constructions are obstacles to the good news?

That is, we are right, I think, to condemn the vision of women and men propounded in 1 Timothy 2. And we are right to notice how this view of women and men are inextricable with the beginning of the chapter’s vision of power. But we would be mistaken if we stop in the midst of that condemnation, refusing to take the next, much harder, step. We too are heirs of cultures that both reflect God’s grace and stand against it. Seeing the latter proves so much more difficult than the former. Perhaps 1 Timothy can help us do so.