Lectionary Commentaries for September 11, 2016
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 15:1-10

David Schnasa Jacobsen

This particular pericope belongs to a complex of parables that is both unique to Luke and characteristic of Lukan theology.

At the end of the road, there is a meal and redemption. And nothing, nothing at all, need get in the way of the divine celebration. Perhaps what we have here is the flip side of the importance attached to conversion. If Luke 13 kept focusing on the importance of repentance and divine forbearance, Luke 15 locates that concern squarely within the divine desire for redemption — even of that which seems insignificant or unworthy.

Why unworthy? Here we look not just at the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, which make up the bulk of our pericope in Luke 15:3-10, but their narrated setting in 15:1-2. This Jesus who advocated for the bent-over woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath, who has been talking about table manners in 14:7-14 in the home of a Pharisee and who speaks broadly to all those who wish to follow as he travels in 14:25-33, now finds himself in truly mixed company in 15:1-10. Jesus has both tax-collectors and sinners coming to hear and Pharisees and scribes voicing their critique of Jesus’ unholy meal practice. The latter’s “grumbling” is key to understanding the underlying conflict and the purpose of these parabolic statements. New Testament scholar François Bovon argues that a text like this invites us not to be too “irritated by other people’s conversions.”1 I suspect this one hits home in an age like ours where worthiness is still disputed and someone else’s redemption is problematized. We need to be careful about the jump, since concerns about who one eats with in fact matter in the Jewish tradition. More than that, tax collectors were not just “law breakers,” but collaborators with the colonizing power of the day. The point is not to turn (Jewish) Pharisees and scribes into eternal foils for a (Christian) gospel. Again, Jesus from within the Jewish tradition tries to recast the redemption of others in a different vision of the divine purpose, which is precisely how both parables conclude in 15:7 and 10. More importantly, we need to remember as well that parables begin with the world we know and end in a world that is even now dawning upon us with metaphorical power.

The retort to the grumbling really only makes sense after the third parable in the sequence — the Prodigal Son and his elder brother — which is not included here. Structurally, however, the first two parables anticipate this by making a strong theological claim. The parables start with life as lived: a shepherd loses one of a flock of sheep; a woman loses one of her ten drachmas. What is described is not their “repentance” at all, but the absolute commitment of the person to finding them again. Action verbs predominate for the shepherd, and not the sheep: leave, go after, finds, lays it on his shoulders, rejoices, comes home, and calls together his friends. The same holds for the woman: light a lamp, sweep the house, search carefully, finds, and calls together her friends. The parallels here show that the emphasis is on the finding and the one committed to find the otherwise hapless lost sheep and passive lost coin. As a set-up for the grumbling Pharisees and scribes, the analogy is not perfect (although v. 7 with its “ninety-nine righteous”) — that insight will come through more clearly with the Prodigal Son story to follow. As a way of re-framing the concern of Jesus’ opponents, however, it leads to a stunning theological conclusion in both parables in our pericope: “there will be more joy in heaven” and “joy in the presence of the angels of God.” As near as I can tell, neither lost sheep or lost coins can really repent. But the parable reveals a divine point of view that reframes why seeking and finding matter. Joseph Fitzmyer puts it well: “repentance does not take place without the provenience and the initiative of the gracious shepherd.”2 At the same time, it is just important to remember that there is no Christian copyright (least of all in the late first century) to a notion of relentless divine seeking and finding. Amy-Jill Levine reminds us that the issue does not require some Jewish foil here: “ … as if Jews had no notion of a divinity who seeks relationship and reconciliation.”3 Preachers can make a strong theological claim here, thanks to the parables, but can do so quite well in continuity with Judaism.

The result is a much more interesting sermon, too. Repentance is not free standing. Conversion is not just for some. Underlying them all is a prevenient mercy that just keeps on searching…in the dangdest places. This does not square with the world we know, this is to be sure. But to the preacher who can read a parable metaphorically, as flashing lightening over a dark landscape, a dawning vision will occur. In heaven, the ground of repentance looks quite different. And in God’s good time that joy will break out in an illuminating flash. Preaching that attends moreover to the action verbs in the text will also benefit from noting that both parables eventuate in calling friends and neighbors together to rejoice (Luke 15:6, 9). It ends, as should any divinely-oriented parable of conversion, with a full-blown party in which the joy of heaven becomes proleptically present.


1 François Bovon, Luke 2 (Hermeneia; Trans. D. Deer; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 401.

2 Fitzmyer, Luke, 1075.

3 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 30.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 32:7-14

Shauna Hannan

I suggest we discontinue referring to this text as the “golden calf” incident and begin calling it the “God changes God’s mind at the request of Moses” incident.

It is no longer shocking that the Israelites’ impatience while waiting for Moses leads to idolatry. What is shocking is God’s anger and, even more, Moses’ ability to quell God’s anger. Given God’s own admission of jealousy (Exodus 20:5), perhaps we should not be too surprised at God’s anger. But this divine tirade (32:7-11) is not for the meek. It is a good thing the Israelites were not privy to the tirade, otherwise they most certainly would have run to their gods for protection against God.

God refers to the Israelites as those whom Moses brought out from the land of Egypt. This is interesting since earlier God had said God brought them out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 20:2). God calls them names: stiff-necked people. And worse, God wants to be left alone to wallow in anger and to “consume” the idolaters. If that is not enough, God seems to bribe Moses to leave him alone (32:10). If Moses does so, God will make of him a great nation. Anger, tirade, blame, name-calling, destruction, bribery; this is not God at God’s best. Shocking. The bottom line is that idolatry is a serious offense, which will not be ignored by God.

God’s seemingly resolute behavior, seemingly un?t for the divine, makes it even more shocking when Moses is able to change God’s mind. He does so by reminding God that it was God who brought the people out of the land of Egypt. He reminds God of God’s power and might. He reminds God of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel to multiply their descendants. Killing the Israelites now would not foster offspring and certainly would give the Egyptians the edge. Moses’ threefold imperative — “Turn from your ?erce wrath,” “Change your mind,” “Do not bring disaster on your people” — is bold but effective. God does change God’s mind.

On this 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I wonder who we need to intervene on our behalf. I wonder if in our impatience we have bowed to more tangible, accessible, and shinier gods rather than relying the one who brought us out of the power of sin, death, and the devil. Yes, I wonder how (I do hope it’s how and not if) God quells God’s anger at such atrocities.

We don’t even have to go as far back as 15 years. Nearly every day in the news we are reminded that, as a whole, humanity (we!) fall short of God’s will for us. That is not shocking news anymore. While I do not desire to minimize the depth of our idolatrous tendencies (I want to be clear that this is not what I am aiming for when I suggest that we refrain from calling Exodus 32 the “golden calf incident”), I do think the more shocking and profoundly hopeful news here is that God sticks with us; God continues to claim us as God’s own despite it all. Instead of God’s wrath burning hot against us and consuming us (vs. 11), God’s beloved son reminds us there is joy when even one sinner repents (Luke 15:10).

Instead of waiting for an Aaron to help us offer burnt offerings and sacrifices to gods of our own making … instead of waiting for a Moses to intervene on our behalf, we might ourselves and on this day especially pray the Psalmist’s prayer as our own, “Create in us clean hearts, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us” (Psalm 51:10).

Alternate First Reading

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

Anathea Portier-Young

The preacher who chooses to preach this passage has no easy task. Walter Brueggemann calls it a “dangerous poem,” and rightly so.1

It portrays a people without sense and a world without order, overcome by human evil and the anger of God. But if we hold at arms’ length its powerful vision of de-creation, we will not hear the prophet’s testimony to the forces of death and destruction at work in our midst even today.

The poetry of Jeremiah 4:11-12, 23-28 echoes another of Scripture’s great poems, one that is far better known: the creation story of Genesis 1. Tracing the parallels between the two passages will help us better understand how the shared imagery functions in Jeremiah 4.

The strongest clue, impossible to miss, is the phrase “waste and void” (Jeremiah 4:23 NRSV). The identical phrase in Hebrew, tohu vabohu, occurs only one other place in Scripture, in Genesis 1:2, where NRSV translates it “formless void.”

Recall the beginning of Genesis:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2 NRSV).

The verbal echo “waste and void” is a clue to the reader that the entire poem should be read with the creation story in view. The reader then begins to discern other echoes, beginning with the “wind” in Jeremiah 4:11-12. The “wind” (also “breath” or “spirit,” in Hebrew ruach) in Genesis 1:2 is a spirit of creation, hovering, stirring, blowing upon the formless void, animating and energizing in preparation for God’s work of dividing, ordering, and blessing. The wind in Jeremiah 4:11-12 is a clear and dazzling wind of judgment that scorches the heights of the earth and bears God’s words of indictment against God’s people. Throughout Genesis 1, divine speech initiates the process of creation, summoning into being first light (1:3), then the firmament (1:6-7), the seas and the earth (1:9-10), vegetation (1:11-12), sun, moon, and stars (1:14-16), creatures of sea, sky, and land (1:20-25), and humankind (1:26-27). In Jeremiah 4:11-12, however, the same verb dbr denotes speech, including divine speech, which will initiate not creation, but destructive judgment.

Further parallels and contrasts appear in Jeremiah 4:23-26. These verses imitate the repetitive and rhythmic style of Genesis 1 while simultaneously echoing its theologically rich use of the verb “to see” (Hebrew r’h). In Genesis 1, God speaks, creates, and sees. Six times, God saw what God ordered, created, and brought forth, “that it was good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). When God’s work of creation was complete, “God saw all that God had made, and see (vehinneh)! It was very good” (1:31, author’s translation). Seeing enables God to assess the state of creation.

In Jeremiah 4:23-26, each verse has a shared structural pattern. The prophet reports, “I saw … ,” and then, by interjecting the particle vehinneh, “and see!” invites the reader to behold and assess the world as the prophet now sees it.

In the first instance, the prophet sees the earth and the heavens. This pairing echoes Genesis 1:1, where, through a literary device known as merism, earth and heavens designate the whole of the cosmos. But when the prophet beholds the earth (which may also be translated “the land,” a double meaning allowing the poet-prophet simultaneously to name the entire planet and the land of Judah), what the prophet sees is not its goodness, but instead “waste and void.” When the prophet looks to the heavens, the prophet sees that they have no light — not sun, not moon, not stars (Jeremiah 4:24). Creation has been unmade. The order of the cosmos has reverted to its primordial state, before God spoke to fashion a world from the waste and shine light into the darkness.

Jeremiah next beholds the mountains and high places, and invites the reader to witness how they quake and shake upon their foundations (Jeremiah 4:24). The description of the back and forth movement of these formidable land-masses echoes not Genesis, but such poems as the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 (Judges 5:4) and David’s song of Thanksgiving in 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18 (2 Samuel 22:8; Psalm 18:8; see also Psalms 60:4, 68:9, 77:19). In each case, such quaking is the earth’s response to God’s procession into battle. The peaceful ordering of creation by divine speech is now replaced and undone amidst seismic tumult, as the majestic heights tremble before the militant rage of God.

In the next verse Jeremiah tells us what he did not see: “I looked, and see! There was no human” (Jeremiah 4:25, author’s translation). The ’adam, made in God’s image on the sixth day of creation (Genesis 1:26-27), is not to be found. So too the creatures of the sky have vanished: the very birds God created (Genesis 1:20-21) and of which God granted custody to humankind (1:26, 28) have fled.

A fourth time Jeremiah looks and again bids the reader to see what he sees: the lush hillsides, once green with vegetation, are now a desert wilderness. The cities, places of human habitation, commerce, governance, education, and achievement, have been pulled down (Jeremiah 4:26). With each successive verse, another aspect of God’s good creation is unmade: the order of the cosmos; the separation between light and darkness, day and night; the stability of the earth; vegetation; animals; human life and livelihood. The proximate cause is divine anger (4:26), but God’s anger has arisen in response to human evil (4:22).

This is a difficult passage to preach indeed. On one side is a temptation to smooth over its searing vision and minimize its harsh critique. On another side is a temptation to villainize and moralize, stoking a pseudo-apocalyptic furor that blames disaster upon its victims. I see a key, a middle way, in Jeremiah’s fourfold repetition of the verb “I saw” and the particle “see!” The passage challenges preacher and congregation alike to see what we do not wish to see. We are challenged to behold the evil we wreak and to see the desolation of our mountains, our skies, our wildlife, our once-green spaces, our cities, and our human beings. If we have difficulty imagining that something is wrong, Jeremiah asks us to look again, more closely and more critically. We are called to sit in heaven’s darkness and hear the weeping of the earth (Jeremiah 4:28). If we are willing to forsake our stubborn foolishness, we might comprehend how we have betrayed our divine commission to be custodians of God’s creation, and humbly ask God and one another how to do good in the sight of God (4:22).


1 Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 61.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-10

Paul K.-K. Cho

Psalm 51:1-10 provides us, the readers, with an opportunity to think deeply and critically about the complex and ever important issue of sin, about where it originates and how it can be put to death and about its nature and its effects.

The complexity of sin should curb any expectation that the half psalm (or even the entire psalm) will provide a full treatment of the issue. Indeed, the half psalm focuses (in a way that sometimes has led commentators astray) on the divine-human relationship: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned” (51:4a). Within this parameter, the half psalm nevertheless broaches fundamental topics and offers penetrating insight about the radical nature of sin and its effects.

A Biography of Sin

The psalm begins with a petition for God to purge the psalmist’s sin, and this theme dominates the half psalm: “Blot out my transgressions … wash me thoroughly from my iniquity … cleanse me from my sin … purge me with hyssop … wash me … blot out my iniquities” (51:1, 2, 7, 9). Only in the final verse of the reading does the psalm turn in earnest to imagining life after the eradication of sin: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (51:10a).

The half psalm, in short, is about the final chapter in the story of sin, about its death and exit from its host — the once sinner, now penitent, and soon to be righteous teacher. But just as an eulogy reviews the life of the dead, so too the psalm reviews the biography of sin. In this way, the half psalm presents for eradication the entirety of sin and not only the most recent infraction, sin “not in part but the whole.” One might dare to say that the psalmist presents his sinfulness itself for eradication.

The biography of sin begins early in the life of the host, endures through much of life, and comes to an end only through a radical event equal to the hardiness of sin.

In an intensifying couplet, the psalmist tells of the introduction of sin in his life:

Indeed, I was born in guilt,
and my mother conceived me in sin. (51:5)

This verse should not be confused with a biography of either the psalmist or the mother; it concerns sin and tells of the radical nature of sin in human life: Sin and sinfulness are coeval with human life.

Sin also endures unabated throughout life. “My sin is ever before me,” the psalmist confesses (51:3b). This does not necessarily mean that the psalmist is a committed rebel. He knows what God desires: truth and wisdom in the inwardness of human hearts (51:6), and even acknowledges that God is in the right to judge and punish him (51:4b). The psalmist does not bask in sin but laments it and its effects. Most of all, he laments that his sins and his sinfulness render him an offense to God: “I have done what is evil in your sight” (51:3aβ).

It is with this realization of the radical and persistent nature of sin and its deadly effects that the psalmist approaches God and petitions for God’s mercy, faithfulness, and compassion (51:1). The psalm is an acknowledgment that it takes the divine to put sin to death and to renew life, and the half psalm brings us to the threshold between death and life.

How Sin Dies

The great event of the psalm, which still lies in the petitioned for future, is the death of sin. As we will see, it must be God who puts sin to death and creates new life.

Sin’s death requires the life-giving grace of God. Grace — and faithfulness and compassion — is thus what the psalmist asks for first. To be certain, the repentance of the sinner and ritual actions are required. The psalmist presents himself, his sin, and his sinfulness before God and engages in ritual acts of purging and cleansing, involving perhaps hyssop (51:7) and water. But, ultimately, it is God’s grace that makes these ritual acts of repentance meaningful and efficacious.

Thus, it would not be incorrect to say that the penitent psalmist prays for and simultaneously participates in the divine act of cleansing and purging (51:1, 2, 7, 9). The ritual action is effective because it reflects divine action; and the divine takes action because the penitent prays in faith for God to act. By means of psalm and ritual, the psalm moves the divine to act who in turn imbues the ritual and psalm with life giving vitality. The psalm and the ritual mysteriously bind the penitent and God and reunite the two once separated by sin.

The purgation of sin makes new life possible, and it is new life that seals the death of sin. This too God must do. Thus the psalmist pleads, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (51:10a).

The Hebrew word for create (br’) has only one subject in all of the Bible: God. God alone creates in this way, and the word refers primarily to the creation of the cosmos: “In the beginning when God created (br’) the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Therefore, to use this word to describe the re-creation of the human heart indicates that it must be God who does this and that it is a feat comparable to the creation of the world. The sinful heart must be cleansed. It must, in a sense, also die with sin, so that, in its place, a new heart can be created.

In sum, the psalm paints repentance as a kind of death and a kind of resurrection, not merely reformation but a radical new beginning.

What Is Sin

The half psalm does not speak with specificity about the sin that has so destroyed the psalmist’s being that it needs to die and be re-created. In one sense, the psalm states that all sin is evil in the sight of God (51:4). But the superscription to the psalm identifies the sin as the sin of which the prophet Nathan condemned David in 2 Samuel 12, namely his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his treacherous murder of her husband, Uriah. The canonical superscription, which binds the psalm to a specific moment in David’s life, connects the act of repentance to specific sins. It reminds us that repentance has to do with particular sins, not simply sin in the abstract.

Create in me a clean heart, O God!

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Eric Barreto

These verses tell a story of conversion and of transformation, of a life renewed by the inexhaustible love and grace of God.

It is a beautiful story, a story that could inspired renewed faith in any who might read it and sense the power of God’s grace to change an enemy into a friend.

And yet we face some real difficulties in interpreting this text. For one, many scholars have disputed the authorship of 1 Timothy. It would be fair to say that most scholars have concluded that the vocabulary, theology, and vision of 1 Timothy is incongruent with the authentic letters of Paul. What we find in 1 Timothy is not like what we find in Romans and Galatians and 1 Thessalonians. And yet some scholars, including Luke Timothy Johnson, defend the Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy and the other pastoral epistles. So how does the disputed authorship of this letter shape how we read, interpret, and preach these texts?

The difficulties extend beyond questions of authorship, however. It is also the content of 1 Timothy that should cause us pause, especially the famously problematic things the letter has to say about women and their leadership in the home and the church. These are verses that some Christian communities have taken as a direct, inviolable model for relationships between the genders. For other communities, the verses are so discordant with the vision of a good news that creates equality among the children of God that they are not worth reading; in fact, for some Christians the verses are so problematic that 1 Timothy may not be read as Scripture. That is, for some, 1 Timothy falls outside of an operative canon within a canon.

For the next three weeks, the lectionary invites us to revisit 1 Timothy. One temptation may be to ignore these texts. These texts are inspirational but too closely associated with texts I don’t wish to bring before my congregation, we might reason. Perhaps we might conclude that these texts would require too much scholarly prolegomena, too much explanation preceding the preaching moment. But an even more pernicious temptation may be to read only the parts of 1 Timothy that resonate with us, while simply pretending as if the more troubling, more controversial portions of the text are not tightly interwoven with them. That is, I hope you will preach on these texts, but I also hope that in doing so you will not avoid confronting the problematic aspects of this text.

For 1 Timothy reminds us what Scripture is and what Scripture isn’t. Scripture is not just a list of easily apprehended propositions with which we can agree at all times. Scripture is not just a collection of sayings that might guide our daily walk. Scripture is not just a perfect text free of discomfiting content. Scripture is as human as we are. But we also trust that God speaks through these texts, whether these texts resonate with our hopes or create a dissonant sound in our midst.

So let’s turn to these opening verses from 1 Timothy.

These verses rehearse Paul’s call in brief form. Notice that the narration of Paul’s story is perhaps more a story of calling than of conversion. When we Christians recall this moment in Paul’s biography, we tend to imagine a change in his religion. We tend to assume that Paul switches religious commitments on the road to Damascus when he encounters Jesus. This, of course, neglects to notice that Paul remains Jewish before and after his encounter with Jesus. So notice that the result of Christ’s grace here in 1 Timothy is Paul’s being “appointed … to his service” (verse 12). The deliverance of a sinner from enmity to God’s service ought to remain a stirring picture of God’s grace all these years later. A sermon may therefore invite us to remember and share with one another how God’s grace has propelled us into service of God and one another. How has God’s grace not just delivered me but delivered me for the sake of another.

Appropriately, therefore, the text starts with the empowering of Paul by Jesus. We sometimes imagine Paul as a singular figure whose theological erudition sets him apart from other early followers of Jesus. Here as well as in Paul’s undisputed letters, however, it is clear that the very source of Paul’s calling is Jesus himself. That is, even as the author of 1 Timothy highlights Paul, he is actually highlighting what Jesus has done through Paul. A sermon may therefore invite us to narrate anew how Jesus has encountered us but especially how Jesus has called us. What does it look like to heed Jesus’s voice in the quotidian faithfulness we seek to embody? One of the key reasons we return to Paul’s story of call is as a reminder of what such a transformation looks like, as inspiration that it too could happen in our lives, as a model for listening to God’s voice.

Last, this narrating of Paul’s call by Jesus is a study in sharp contrasts. Paul was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” and yet Jesus gives mercy and a call. Paul had “acted ignorantly in unbelief” while the “immortal, invisible, the only God” acted with grace and patience. Sinners — that is, those who have denied the glory and honor due to God — are not lost in hopelessness but delivered by Jesus Christ himself. A sermon may therefore invite us to imagine what sharp contrasts delineate a life of faith today. How has “the grace of our Lord overflowed” for you and for me? And how has that overwhelming grace empowered us and called us to turn to our neighbor and our God in love?

In the Baptist churches that nurtured my faith, the sharing of testimony was a vital practice of faith. Such sharing of stories, such narrating of God’s faithfulness in our lives was not a moment to extol the speaker’s virtues as a follower of Jesus so much as a way to name God’s acting. These testimonies were not just for the one who testified but those whose own testimonies might be inspired, sharpened, and clarified by the stories they heard.

The temptation, of course, is that these testimonies might become a genre to themselves. That is, these testimonies might become a way to repeatedly check certain characteristics of faithful living from a checklist. Every story, in the end, might start sounding like all others.

The story of Paul’s call here is not a blueprint as 1 Timothy opens. It is not a mere model to imitate but a narrative into which we too are called. If scholars are right that 1 Timothy represents the grappling of early Christians with the legacy of Paul and its continued significance for the faithful, then perhaps there is much more to be found in 1 Timothy than we might have expected. In 1 Timothy, we might just see a reflection of our own struggling to narrate what God has done for us.