Lectionary Commentaries for September 15, 2013
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 15:1-10

Lois Malcolm

The fifteenth chapter of Luke consists of three parables: the Lost Sheep (verses 3-7); the Lost Coin (verses 8-10); and the Prodigal Son (verses 11-32).

The chapter begins with a contrast between “tax collectors and sinners” and “Pharisees and scribes.” Apparently, sinners are drawn to Jesus, but religious leaders complain that he accepts and even eats with sinners (15:1-2). What is it about Jesus and what he does that elicits such different responses?

Mark notes these differing responses to Jesus (2:15-16). Matthew develops the theme (9:10-11; 11:19; 21:31). But it is Luke who brings it to the fore. In two stories, Jesus addresses tax collectors — Levi (5:27-39) and Zaccheus (19:1-10) — and then feasts in their homes. In another, a “sinful woman” kisses and anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment at a dinner in a Pharisee’s home (7:36-50). In these stories, which have meals as a venue, at least two things happen. First, some kind of transformation takes place in a “sinner’s” life, although Jesus does not judge or remark on any sinful behavior. Second, Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with sinners.

Yet another story compares a Pharisee and tax collector at prayer. The former thanks God that he’s not like these “other people” (i.e., sinners). The latter beats his breast, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (18:10-13).

In the chapter preceding our text — set at yet another meal — Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a banquet where the invitations keep extending beyond the original guest list: to the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:1-24). Continuing the theme, the three parables in chapter 15 conclude with feasts.

After its brief introduction, our pericope contains the parables of the Lost Sheep, drawn from Q material (cf. Matthew 18:12-14) and the Lost Coin, which is found only in Luke. The two parables have a similar structure:

(a) “one” of ninety-sheep and ten coins is lost;

(b) a shepherd goes into the wilderness and a woman searches and sweeps the house until they find what was lost;

(c) they then call “friends and neighbors” to “rejoice” with them;

(d) both parables conclude with an additional comment about “joy” in heaven over “one sinner who repents” (15:7, 10).

The shepherd and the woman in these stories evoke images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost — note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine and the ten — but also rejoices when they are found. This God is not a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, etc.).

In these stories, the drama centers on something that was lost. Paired with both finding (as in chapter 15) and saving (6:9; 9:24), the Greek verb for “lost” (apollumi) refers not only to losing something, but also to causing or experiencing destruction (see, e.g., 4:34; 17:27-33). The television drama Lost that follows the survivors of a crash on a South Pacific island perhaps provides a contemporary sense of this double meaning. It narrates not only what happens to survivors after they are “lost” because of the crash, but also past events that continue to haunt their lives.

So what happens when the sheep or the lost coin are found? Note that the verb here has to do not with forgiving but with finding. The Greek word for “find” (eurisko) occurs seven times in the chapter. When the sheep or lost coin is found, no comment is made on any sinful behavior (as in the stories of Levi, Zaccheus, and the sinful woman), but a connection is made between (a) God’s finding and rejoicing over what was lost and (b) “the one sinner who repents” (15:7; 10).

Unlike the English word repentance, which implies contrition and remorse, the Greek word metanoia has to do with a change of mind and purpose — a shift in how we perceive and respond to life. When God finds us when we are lost, our usual ways of perceiving and responding to life are transformed.

And when this happens, there is great rejoicing over the “one sinner who repents.” In the parable of the Lost Sheep, this phrase is contrasted with “righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7), echoing the contrast that introduces the parables in chapter 15.

We should note, however, that the emphasis here is not on a contrast between two different types of people: “tax collectors and sinners” versus “Pharisees and scribes.” Reifying these types misses the theological point of these parables and, unfortunately, has led to much violence against Jews in the history of Christianity. Luke does not laud the behavior of sinners. Elsewhere he describes them as people who only look out for what is in their own interest (6:32-34). Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were the religious leaders of the day, much like professional clergy in our time.

At issue here are two different types of responses to Jesus and God’s reign. Sinners repent because they know they are lost and thus can avail themselves of the transformation that comes with God’s finding them. By contrast, the righteous do not need to repent (or change their ways) presumably because they don’t think they are lost. They don’t need God to find them; they are justified either in their own eyes or in the eyes of others (16:15; cf. 10:29; 18:14).

Earlier Jesus had warned “unless you repent, you will all perish” — that is, be lost (13:3, 5). Later he will state that he came not for the righteous but to “seek out and save the lost” (19:10). And then there’s the paradox: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (9:24-25).

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 32:7-14

Brian C. Jones

The exchange between the LORD and Moses in Exodus 32:7–14 follows Israel’s greatest moment of failure, the golden calf incident, Israel’s paradigmatic sin.

The people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai have tired of waiting for Moses to return, and they come to Aaron asking that him to make “gods” to go before them. Aaron complies without argument by making a calf idol of gold, a god of the kind they later will worship in the land of Canaan.

Doubtless the first audience of the book of Exodus would have readily associated this sin with the idolatry practiced in Israel and Judah during the monarchic period, especially with the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat who established cult centers at Dan and Bethel and placed in each a golden calf idol (1 Kings 12:25–33).

God’s Wrath Burns Hot
The LORD reacts to the people’s sin passionately. They have violated the first and most fundamental of the commandments, the one that binds them to the LORD in a relationship of exclusive loyalty: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Atop the mountain, Moses is unaware of the people’s apostasy.

The LORD knows, however, and commands Moses to descend the mountain immediately to deal with the people. But before Moses has a chance to respond, the LORD passes judgment and announces punishment. The LORD will consume all the people in fire and start over with Moses, if Moses will “let me alone” (verse 10). But Moses will not let the LORD alone.

Moses Reasons with the LORD
Undaunted by the LORD’s wrath, Moses undertakes to save the people. His response suggests that he has heard in the crucial words “let me alone” a possibility, an opening for mercy. And seizing upon this possibility, Moses endeavors to change God’s mind. The LORD’s has effectively disowned the Israelites with the opening line, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely” (verse 7). Moses will have none of it. Boldly, he reminds the LORD whose people the Israelites truly are: “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt” (verse 11).

Looking on from the outside, there is humor in this exchange. It is as if a husband and wife are each attempting to assign responsibility to the other parent for a child’s misbehavior. Moses is more in the right than the LORD on the question of responsibility. The LORD had sworn his promise long ago to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Those who have sinned have inherited that promise, so Moses points out that the LORD’s integrity is one the line. So, too, is the LORD’s reputation at stake. If Israel perishes in the wilderness, the Egyptians will say that the LORD’s intentions were evil from the start. Instead of a faith-keeping and merciful deliverer, the LORD will appear to be a faithless, malevolent deity.

The arguments that Moses employs to change God’s mind seem to imply that the LORD is an insecure deity with self-image issues. Is God really worried about what the Egyptians might think and say? Does God need to be forced to remember past promises and oaths? Moreover, the story suggests that Moses is more merciful than the LORD, and this raises questions about the quality of divine mercy. There is no easy way around the unsettling portrayal of God’s character in this text.

Perhaps we should take the simplicity of Moses’ theological assumptions as an indication of either Moses’ or the narrator’s unrefined theology. Or we might view the dialogue as a narrative device for portraying what is in fact a dialogue within God’s own being, with Moses representing the mercy of God and the LORD representing the justice and wrath of God.

God Repents
At the end of the passage, the narrator tells us that Moses’ arguments were effective: “And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” This is a remarkable statement inasmuch as it records the LORD’s reversal baldly and without equivocation. The Hebrew verb translated “changed his mind” is naham, a term elsewhere translated “be sorry” or “repent” when its subject is a human. It is an emotion-laden term and appropriate to a context in which one is deeply moved.

By entering into a covenant relationship with Israel, the LORD risked disappointment and suffering. The Deist God is detached and unmoved — “God the boiling point of water” (A. MacLeish) — but the Bible allows for no such uninvolved view of God. The God of the Bible enters into relationship with humans and thereby into the suffering that love entails.

God Suffers
Our theology is often more shaped by the insistence on divine perfection characteristic of scholastic theology than it is by the Bible. The God of the Bible is not impassible; rather, God is passionately involved with humans. Nor is the God of the Bible omniscient and unchanging. The biblical God freely surrenders Godself to the unpredictable course of events dictated by human freedom and must adjust as history unfolds.

Amazingly, humans can affect God. God changes — acts otherwise –in response to human persuasion. Moses petitions; God reconsiders. Trite and problematic as it may be, the saying “prayer changes things” has more biblical support than “prayer changes us.”

The passionate, persuadable God portrayed in this passage is in accord with “the Crucified God” (Moltmann) of the New Testament. Humans cause God grief and suffering, but God does not withdraw or give up. In costly love God embraces humanity, though pierced in the act. God suffers none to be lost but pursues each wandering lamb, frantically searches for each lost coin. And when the lost turn back, God’s heart is glad.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Alphonetta Wines

It’s bad enough when one knows one has a problem.

It’s even worse when everyone else knows it too. With these verses, Jeremiah takes Israel’s troubles to a whole new level. Nature and the entire cosmos are not only aware but also affected by the nation and its failures. Jeremiah knew what many today are just beginning to understand, “the world is so interconnected . . . human words and deeds . . . human sin and evil can have . . . wide-ranging effects in the world of nature.”[1]

The image of a hot wind from the desert (verse 11) ushers in God’s warning that an unimaginable disaster is on its way. This disaster would surpass God’s previous efforts to winnow and cleanse the nation. This time, the divine intends the unimaginable, near total destruction. What remains will be only a shell of what has been.

The three-fold analysis (verse 22) is an indication of just how bad things are. The nation is described not only as being foolish and lacking in knowledge of God, but also as stupid children with no understanding, who are skilled in doing evil without any perception of how to do good. Repetition reinforces the seriousness of Israel’s predicament. Louis Stulman clarifies, “All three indictments assert that the community is on the way to destroying itself by its social malaise and infidelity to Torah. In enumerating the reasons for the coming disaster, the poems establish the responsibility of the nation, exonerate God of blame, and demonstrate that God’s judgment is fully just and justified.”[2]

Even in the midst of this heartbreaking assessment, God calls the Israelites, “my people.” How different from an earlier time when God seems willing to risk connection to the descendents of Abraham. After the golden calf incident, God is so displeased with the nation that God threatens to kill everyone and start over with Moses. Like a frustrated parent who says “your son” or “your daughter” instead of saying “our son” or “our daughter” and like the jealous brother of the prodigal son who says “your son” instead of saying “my brother,” God intentionally puts distance between the divine and the nation. God says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely” (Exodus 32:7). In this story, God offers no opportunity for repentance or healing. If Moses had not intervened, the relationship between God and the nation Israel as descendents of Abraham would have been forever broken.

Now that God and Israel have been together for generations, God is not so cavalier about the relationship. Instead of saying “your people” with no option for penitence, God says “my people.” Interminably bound to “my people,” God will again issue a call for repentance and give Israel an opportunity to change its future.

For now, God does everything possible to get Israel’s attention. Through images of heaven and earth in disarray, Jeremiah warns that things will get worse before they get better. These images of cosmic disorder suggest a reversal of creation in order to convey the hopelessness of the situation. Terence E. Fretheim observes, “The four-fold ‘I looked’ [verses 23-26] provides a haunting rhythm to the depiction of the catastrophe.”[3]

The ancient image of the heavens covered in black (verse 28) is a reminder of contemporary scientists’ descriptions of black holes from which nothing, not even light can escape. The image even anticipates recent discovery of invisible particles of dark energy that comprises more than ninety-five percent of the cosmos. The image of the heavens covered in black communicates just how dreadful things are.

One might suppose that all hope is lost. Yet, even now, there is reason to hope. Even now, with cities laid in ruins, with neither bird nor human to be found, with the earth in mourning and the heavens covered in black. Even now when the earth is void and the heavens give no light. With mountains moving and the fruitful land a desert, even now, the relationship is not ended.

God’s affirmation of the divine decision to bring disaster in verse 28, “I have not relented nor will I turn back,” is not the last word. The decision not to relent combined with the decision not to make a full end of things leaves open the possibility for repentance and for a remnant to rebuild the nation. This glimmer of hope is present because, ultimately, God seeks healing and wholeness for the nation, not an end to the relationship.

Walter Brueggemann suggests that prophetic discourse “is not a blueprint for the future. It is not a prediction. It is not an act of theology that seeks to scare into repentance. It is, rather, a rhetorical attempt to engage this numbed, unaware community in an imaginative embrace of what is happening … because … evil finally must be answered for.”[4] The message of the consequences of evil and the possibility of healing and wholeness is as germane today as it was in Jeremiah’s time.

[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah (Macon: Smyth and Helwys), 100.

[2] Louis Stulman, Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 65.

[3] Fretheim, Jeremiah, 100.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 61.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-10

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 51 is classified as an individual lament in which a single voice cries out to God for deliverance from a life-threatening situation.

In the case of Psalm 51, the life-threatening situation is King David’s guilt over the taking of Bathsheba. The psalm’s superscription reads, “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

The historical background for Psalm 51 thus is 2 Samuel 11-12. David, in residence in Jerusalem while his armies are battling the Ammonites, observes Bathsheba, the wife of one of his military generals, bathing on her rooftop. He sends for her, has intercourse with her, and then conspires to have her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. When Nathan confronts David with the implications of what he has done, David’s only words are, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13). Might we read Psalm 51 as the rest of David’s words: David’s confession of sin and his plea for forgiveness? They are indeed appropriate.

The psalm singer (David?) begins in verses 1-2 with four pleas to God in the imperative voice: “have mercy, blot out, wash me, cleanse me,” thus introducing language about cleansing that runs throughout the psalm. The psalmist seeks cleansing from “my transgressions,” “my iniquity,” and “my sin.” These three are the most common words used in the Hebrew Bible to describe acts committed against God and humanity, and they are often found in parallel construction.

And while each has a basic root meaning—”transgression” means “to go against, to rebel”; “iniquity” means “to bend, to twist”; and “sin” means “to miss a mark or goal” — attempting to define and then differentiate each as a particular kind of action or attitude is not productive. The psalm opens, thus, with what we may describe as a piling up of pleas for cleansing and of terms describing the past actions of the psalmist.

The essential character of God is the grounding of the psalmist’s plea, the reason it might be heard and heeded: “steadfast love (hesed) “ and “abundant mercy (raham)” (verse 1). Hesed is a difficult word to render into English; it has to do with the relationship between two parties of an agreement or a covenant. God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:18, stating “To your descendants I give the land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

In Exodus 19:4-5, God and the people of Israel entered into a covenant relationship at Mt. Sinai. God said to them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” God promised that the Israelites would be a treasured possession; they had only to keep God’s covenant stipulations. Hesed has to do with the sacred agreement, the sacred relationship, between God and God’s people.

The word translated “mercy” in Psalm 51:1 is derived from the Hebrew verbal root raham, whose noun form rehem means “womb.” God’s mercy is tied closely to the concept of “womb love,” the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child. The psalmist repeatedly call upon God’s steadfast love (hesed) and God’s mercy (raham): “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love” (25:6); “Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me” (69:16); “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion (another word used by the NRSV to translate raham) is over all that he has made” (145:9). References to God’s steadfast love occur no less than one hundred times in the book of Psalms, and references to God’s mercy (compassion) occur no less than twenty-two times.

Verses 3-6 of Psalm 51 begin with words that emphatically acknowledge the gravity of the psalmist’s situation. Verse 3a translates literally as “For my transgressions, I, I know”; verse 4a as “Against you, you alone I have sinned.” We may ask, “Is the psalmist guilty of committing harm to humanity as well as harm to God?” The obvious answer is “yes.” And yet the words of the psalm are addressed only to God. In other places in the Hebrew Bible, sins against humans are considered to be sins against God (e.g., Genesis 39:3). When Nathan confronts David with his sin in 2 Samuel 12, David replies, “I have sinned against the Lord” (verse 13).

Verse 5 of Psalm 51 is perhaps one of the most misinterpreted verses in the Old Testament. The psalmist, in the depths of remorse, declares that “guilt” and “sin” were part and parcel of the psalmist’s very conception and birth. Many interpreters have understood these words to reflect the concept of “original sin,” a depraved nature that is intrinsic to every human being, passed down to us by the first human pair. A more plausible interpretation, however, is that the psalmist is expressing with these words the all-pervasive quality of the guilt that accompanies the wrongdoing. In verse 6, the psalm singer affirms that rather than dealing in transgression, guilt, and sin, God delights in truth and bestows wisdom.

In verse 7, the psalmist takes up the theme of verses 1-2, imploring God once again: “Purge me … and I will be clean … wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” In verse 8, the psalm singer longs to “hear joy and gladness” and be able to “rejoice.” Immediately following, in verses 9 and 10, the singer returns to the language of cleansing and implores God to “hide your face from my sins,” “blot out all my iniquities,” “create in me a clean heart,” and “put a right spirit within me.”

Psalm 51 is heartfelt cry to God from one who has committed an unspeakable sin in the eyes of God. The particulars of the sin are not enumerated — God knows the details. One of my colleagues once remarked that David sinned big and repented big, and the biblical text remembers him as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). The words of Psalm 51 are fitting for the great king of ancient Israel; they are just as fitting for worshippers in the twenty-first century. Our sins may not be as public and blatant as David’s, but we all fall short of living in the steadfast love and mercy of God. May we be as repentant as David and as willing to come to God for cleansing.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Christian A. Eberhart

First Timothy provides guidance for church life; hence, this letter is counted among the Pastoral Epistles.

Central to its message is the grace of God and the salvation through Jesus Christ. Much, of course, can be said about the two concepts of grace and salvation that permeate both parts of the Christian Bible.

In the context of Old Testament covenant loyalty, God is known as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6); God expects Israel’s faithfulness and obedience in return. In the New Testament, Paul’s doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26; Galatians 2:16) combines both concepts to epitomize the apostle’s gospel message. Therefore, the church and the academy have theorized about these topics at great length throughout the centuries.

However, what the author of First Timothy wrote in the first century CE about grace and salvation is no theoretical treatise. Instead, he evokes the way in which God has changed a human life, and his example is the life of Paul.

(At this point, the preacher might need to make a decision as to the whether First Timothy is an authentic Pauline or Deutero-Pauline writing; modern scholars have provided support for either option. If First Timothy is considered Pauline, then the example is taken from the author’s own life and experience. If First Timothy is considered pseudonymous, then it reflects on the life and experience of an important apostle of the early Church who lived a few decades earlier.)

Specifically Paul’s conversion experience becomes the focus of the argument. Even if the event on the road to Damascus is well known, the preacher is advised (1) to remind the church audience of it and (2) to be aware of possible misapprehension on their part.

Originally from Tarsus in Asia Minor (Acts 21:39), Paul received some of his education “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3), a highly respected rabbi in Jerusalem (Acts 5:34). Joining the Pharisaic movement, Paul vigorously set out to defend his ancestral traditions, thus persecuting the early church (Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6). On the way to Damascus where he wanted to arrest those “who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2), he had a vision of Jesus Christ that changed his life and turned him into the apostle to the gentiles (Romans 1:5; 1 Corinthians 9:1). This experience is interpreted in 1 Timothy 1:12-14 as an act of God’s mercy.

The possible misunderstanding when recounting this “conversion” event lies in the fact that today, this term typically refers to an act of turning away from one religion in order to adhere to a different one. This is, however, not what happened in Paul’s life, nor is this what 1 Timothy 1:12-14 really describes.

Most importantly, for the sake of historical accuracy, we need to bear in mind that Judaism and Christianity were not yet distinct religions at that time. In fact, Christianity did not exist in the first half of the first century CE. The “conversion” of Paul, then, occurred within Judaism, namely from the Pharisaic to the Messianic-Christian movement. Furthermore, a close reading of our text yields the insight that Paul’s “conversion” pertained in particular to the question of how to live out one’s faith in God.

The Saul before this experience was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13) who had even assisted in, and approved of, the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:1). The post-conversion Paul, by contrast, is depicted as somebody who rejected not only violence but also impressive rhetoric, trusting instead to be empowered and strengthened by Christ for his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12; see also 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 12:8-10). These two considerations are important to avoid the usage of this passage to denigrate Judaism.

For the author of First Timothy, personal experience trumps doctrine and theory, especially when it comes to grace and salvation. This is the core of what the example of Paul’s conversion conveys to the audience. Similar statements have already appeared prior to our passage, for instance in 1:3-4: “ … instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith.”

Such “endless genealogies” might be a reference to ancestor lists like those in Matthew 1:1-17 or Luke 3:23-38 (which are not identical at all). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written in 80 – 90 CE, a few years before First Timothy if we assume that the letter is deutero-Pauline.

Our passage in First Timothy displays a strong belief in the activity of God. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost” (1:15). This statement summarizes important aspects of the mission of Jesus who demonstrated that God cares specifically about those whom many considered sinners. Christian preaching focuses on salvation in Jesus Christ, which became visible in the story of his life. No human will ever be without sin; therefore all are in need of God’s salvation, which God chose to give freely (Romans 3:21-26).

The experience of having encountered Jesus Christ and of being saved by him leads to thankfulness (1 Timothy 1:12). The word for thankfulnessis derived from Greek charis which also means “grace.” The author even states that “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:14).

Moreover, it is no surprise that charis occurs in prominent places in this letter, for instance in the initial salutation “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1:2) as well as in the short final benediction “Grace be with you” (6:21). God’s grace is always “Amazing Grace.” John Newton’s famous hymn composed in 1772 would summarize well some of the important aspects of our passage.