Lectionary Commentaries for September 8, 2013
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 14:25-33

Emerson Powery

Luke is interested in stories about Jesus and his family.

It’s the only Gospel that tells us that John the Baptist and Jesus were related, probably cousins (cf. 1:36). And, it’s the only Gospel to provide a story about the young twelve-year-old Jesus (cf. 2:41-52). On the one hand, this story is told to exemplify Jesus’ developing wisdom (cf. 2:47-48). On the other hand, it is a story that expresses a tension between Jesus and his parents (cf. 2:48-49). Luke ends the story on a happy note by describing Jesus as an obedient child (cf. 2:51). All is well in this first-century Jewish family’s home. Yet, this was a snapshot of things to come in Luke’s story.

Jesus’ radical teaching continues in Luke 14:25-33. His selection criteria for increasing the pool of disciples are stringent. First, his followers must be people of “hate” (14:26). Second, they must be willing to “carry the cross” (14:27). Third, a willingness to relinquish possessions may also be necessary (14:33).

To be clear, Luke’s Jesus offers much harsher language than Matthew’s Jesus on the expected ongoing relationships of disciples with their families in light of becoming followers of Jesus (cf. Matthew 10:37-38). Perhaps it is because Luke’s Jesus addresses a large crowd rather than the disciples specifically (as in Matthew), so Jesus’ intention is to turn away half-hearted, potential followers. What is certain is that Jesus is not interested in growing his group just for the sake of growth!

The language of “hatred” has surfaced elsewhere in the wider narrative. Jesus points out that many will hate his followers because of their association with him (cf. 6:22, 27; 21:17), but they should return the hate with love (cf. 6:27). More likely, Jesus’ hyperbolic language in our passage under discussion — to hate one’s own family — is simply to stress the seriousness of taking the journey with him to Jerusalem.

In the first century, Jewish families were central, so the implications of and challenge of Jesus’ words are real. Jesus seeks singularly devoted persons, undistracted by the cares of daily life. This may explain why most of his disciples were probably unmarried (though Peter is one exception). And, most of the women who approached Jesus were also single (cf. 8:1-3).

On the other hand, family members would certainly disapprove of Jesus’ instructions, since it involves a commitment that may detract from a person’s familial responsibilities in order to follow the prophet. In first century life, many family members were engaged in the same family occupation. So, losing one of its members to ancillary (religious) interests could be detrimental to the family’s well being. But, as Jesus will stress elsewhere, it’s impossible to serve two masters (cf. 16:13). He uses love/hate language there as well. Jesus desires serious seekers with dedicated devotion.

So, the following two examples from everyday experience of first century Jewish life is no surprise. Jesus compares becoming disciples to buildings and battles. Who wastes time, effort and resources on a building project, before knowing whether funds will be available to complete the project? In first century life, most of the people in Jesus’ crowds would understand the need to not waste one’s earnings, even if they were not involved personally in construction projections.

Or, which king would not secure peace with his opponent if he thinks his military force is outmanned? A Jewish Greco-Roman audience would be quite familiar with both examples, of building and battles, which were part of their common experience. [It may also say something about the economic status of Luke’s audience.] Jesus’ forewarning allows potential followers to consider and re-consider the cost of taking up his mission.

And, in Jesus’ day, it really did cost something. Families were divided over following the Jewish prophet from Galilee (cf. 12:51-53). In the end, Jesus does not want the audience to misunderstand what’s at stake if they plan on continuing with him on his journey. Unless his followers are willing to “hate” family and one’s self (cf. 9:23), take up their cross, and relinquish their possessions, they are not ready to follow the prophet from Galilee. Jesus is headed to “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” a place in which prophets die (cf. 13:34) and he chooses to reveal the clarity of the cost of the mission.

Apparently, Luke’s Jesus’ odd call for more willing disciples seems to address male figures only, even if we presume the presence of women in the “large crowd” in Jesus audience (cf. 14:25). The language of “wife” and hating “his” own life (cf. 14:26) seem to support this; yet, the presence of women followers in Luke’s Gospel is also highlighted (cf. 8:1-3).

In the first century culture, the numerous stories about women in the public sphere surrounding Jesus’ mission — something we would not expect generally speaking — must be evidence of the active presence of female disciples in the early Jesus movement. In that sense, Luke’s Gospels sets a trajectory that many of us wish to continue to foster and promote.

In the later narrative of Acts, Luke will depict the early church carrying out a vision of Jesus’ teaching with respect to possessions that places them in community with one another. The Acts account appears as a less radical — but perhaps more realistic — vision of the commitment, as the believers “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45 cf. 4:32-34). The language of Luke 14:33 is fulfilled but in a slightly modified manner.

So what?
Jesus’ radical call is tough to preach in our society, a setting in which “family values” takes center stage in our political and rhetorical discourse. And, what follower of Jesus doesn’t love one’s family? But Paul, apparently, understood the basic nature of Jesus’ expectations, since, he, too, chose not to marry (cf. 1 Corinthians 7). For both Jesus and Paul, their eschatological visions affected their ethical and behavioral choices. Today, many no longer subscribe to the intense expectations of the end of the world, even if some hold on to a sense of the end in their theological systems.

Today’s contemporary Church has to wrestle with the reality of following a radical, counter-cultural prophet. His message and actions will not always be easy to follow or to transfer simplistically into our twenty-first century context.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Brian C. Jones

After what is surely one of the longest sermons in history — all of Deuteronomy! — Moses makes his final appeal to Israel in this passage.

Two long poetic passages follow in chapters 31–34, “The Song of Moses” and “The Blessing of Moses,” along with narratives recounting Moses’ death and the transfer of leadership to Joshua.

Just prior to our text, Moses announces wonderful blessings for an obedient Israel and blood-curdling curses for an apostate Israel (chapter 28). These benedictions and maledictions are followed by a prediction of eventual exile (29:18–29) and return (30:1–10), predictions sufficiently prescient that most scholars deem the words of post-exilic origin.

In the four verses immediately preceding 30:15–20, Moses assures the people that the commandments of the LORD are neither too hard nor too remote: “No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (verses 11–14. See Rom 10:5–8). God’s commandments do not exceed the human capacity to understand and perform them.

Moses’ Final Appeal
Having assured the people that what God commands they can do, Moses launches into his final call for a decision. He reiterates the essence of God’s covenant, focusing especially on the promise of blessing for obedience and the threat of a cursed existence in exile for failure to obey. With these words, Moses concludes and descends from his pulpit. The terms of the covenant are clear; the community must now decide.

Readers of Deuteronomy, both ancient and modern, stand alongside those in the story world. They, too, must decide. What will God’s people choose when confronted by so momentous a decision? We are not told the response the first congregation made. In the following chapter, it becomes very clear that both Moses and God know that the people will fail miserably (31:16–20, 26–29). So why does Moses preach the sermon, if he knows ahead of time that it will make no difference? A question every preacher must ponder now and then.

Finding Hope in the Shadow of Failure
In its final form, Deuteronomy is addressed to the post-exilic community. Those hearing or reading the book of Deuteronomy know that the first hearers failed. That first congregation, encamped on the border of the promise, did not take root in the land but was whisked into exile like wind-blown chaff. The later audience living in the shadow of the exile would have heard Moses’ words with regret and sadness.

The call to love the LORD and obey the commandments had been emphatic; the conditions had been crystal clear; the promises and threats had been compelling. But Israel had failed, as Moses had predicted they would. The post-exilic community quite naturally wondered, “Is there any hope that we can succeed where our parents failed?”

The answer is yes — then and now and always. The call to obedience assumes that Israel in a new generation can indeed turn to God and walk according the commandments. To every person who hears the call of God the promise is made, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away” (30:11).

Today You Must Decide!
Moses’ repeated use of the word “today” (29:10–15, for example, but also throughout chapters 4–12 and 26–30) emphasizes the hope of a new beginning. In every age, there are moments when it is again “today,” a kairos moment in which God’s people, individually and collectively, are offered “life and prosperity, death and adversity. To first-century Christians, the letter to the Hebrews says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (3:7, 15; 4:7). Whenever God’s word is read, it is again that “today” in which each of us must decide how we will respond.

The choice is laid out bluntly. It is yes or no. The options presented do not include ‘maybe’ or ‘I’ll have to think about it’ or ‘I’ll give it a try.’ As Yoda famously tells Luke Skywalker who has half-heartedly promised to “try” to do as Yoda asks, “No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Moses’ strident call for decision also brings to mind the words of philosophers and theologians more orthodox, Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, for example. Both remind Christians that Jesus made stark demands upon his followers. A decision is required; we must choose and we must act.

Shalom Here and Now
Blessing for the first audience of Deuteronomy primarily focused on a re-established Israel in the land once promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The land is both a material and shared blessing, and Christians do well to remember that in the time these words were written perishing (verse18) and “length of days” (verse20) denoted the material existence of the community, not the spiritual destiny the individual.

The shape of salvation throughout the Old Testament is material and communal. Salvation includes freedom from bondage and oppression, from hunger and homelessness, from violence and fear. These blessings define the shalom of the community, both in a specific historical moment and across generations. Salvation is a work in progress; we inherit it from our ancestors and pass it on to our descendants. The choices of one generation affect the next (verse19).

Count the Cost
Christian preachers may be tempted to soften the demand of Moses’ final call for decision as they draw out the implications for their flocks. After all, Christians live under the New Covenant, a covenant of grace embraced by faith. But Jesus states his call and demands in terms as uncompromising as Moses,’ and those who would follow him must consider carefully the cost of discipleship. Today’s gospel reading leaves no doubt that disciples must make a sharp break with their past, sell all, and do as the Lord commands. Grace is free, but it is not cheap.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 18:1-11

Alphonetta Wines

Anyone who reads Jeremiah 18:1-11 and expects that words from God are always words of comfort and reassurance will have to stop and think again.

This familiar passage about “The Potter and the Clay” turns the idea of a loving God on its head. It is a vivid reminder that depending on human response, God is capable not only of intending good and evil toward humanity, but also of changing the divine mind about pending doom and blessings. One might read this passage and ask, “Where is the love?”

There are times when tough love is necessary to bring healing and reverse the effects of poor decisions, to reverse the effects of sin and evil in the world. Jeremiah’s prophecies of difficult times ahead and their fulfillment are a form of tough love. His foresight regarding arduous times ahead is a reflection of “the tension between temple theology (a theology in which bad things could not, would not happen to Israel because of the protection of God and the temple) and covenant theology (a theology of rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience; similar to retribution theology).”[1]

For a nation that saw itself as God’s chosen people, nothing could be more upsetting than to think of the loss of God’s favor. R. E. Clements puts the matter succinctly, “Can it be thought that God would permit, let alone ordain, the destruction of Israel when they are ‘his’ people? The prophetic answer is that this can be so, as shown by the analogy of the potter beginning anew by reworking the original clay.”[2]

It is helpful to recall that Jeremiah’s ministry spanned the years just prior to, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem. The trauma of anticipating, experiencing, and acclimating to war and its aftermath have a devastating effect, not only on the nation, but on God and the prophet as well. The relationship between the three is so close, so intertwined that what happens to either affects them all. God is not so far removed, so aloof, so transcendent that God is unaffected by what happens in the human realm. Quite the contrary: God not only commands, but responds to people, individuals, and nations, according to their response to the divine.

In this story, God’s love is expressed in the reworking of the clay, however painful and unpleasant it might be. “Where is the love?” The love, as Jeremiah would later say in 29:11, is ultimately a plan for good. However, Israel’s decision not to worship God and to worship other gods instead leaves the nation vulnerable to heartbreaking consequences. For now, even if the effort is futile, Jeremiah must issue a clarion call for contrition.

A potter working with clay is an everyday occurrence in the ancient world. As a result of his watching a mundane task, a potter at work, Jeremiah receives God’s instruction to issue a call for repentance. This call for repentance includes an unequivocal warning that the consequences for failure to honor God can be severe. The community needs to know that God’s dealings with the nation are not limited to the blessings of temple theology, but extend to the consequences of covenant theology as well. In other words, God’s love can be tough love. Moreover, God’s tough love is applicable to any nation, Israel included. Clements discerns, “the destruction of Israel and Jerusalem is to be understood as fully within the range of the working of divine providence.”[3]

The biblical text makes it clear that “God will work with what is available.”[4] Unlike people, who are likely to be in denial or optimistically overlook life’s negatives, God insists that humanity see reality: “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” The message from the potter’s house is that “God is faced with the task of working with positive and negative factors in order to shape Israel into the best vessel possible.”[5] The message from the potter’s house is that God will not ignore Israel’s unrighteousness.

God and Jeremiah want the nation to see that repentance, and only repentance, could prevent the consequences of its detrimental communal choices. Only repentance can halt its self-destructive path. Yet, even now, Israel’s “future is still somewhat open, awaiting a repentant response.”[6] Although the rest of Israel’s story includes war and exile, Jeremiah’s story of the potter and the clay leaves open the possibility that things could go either way. Even with all of the negatives on the horizon, Jeremiah’s prophecy of disaster contains a “positive message of hope indicating that God could begin to fashion his people Israel anew.”[7]

This glimmer of hope, however faint, that no matter how bad things get the possibility for good remains, is the reason why for generations people return to Jeremiah and his story of the potter and the clay.

[1] Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 58.
[2] R. E. Clements, Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 112-113.
[3] Ibid., 113.
[4] Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 271.
[5] Ibid, 270.
[6] Ibid, 272.
[7] Clements, Jeremiah, 113.


Commentary on Psalm 1

Walter C. Bouzard

Albeit an unlikely starting point, the place to begin any discussion of this short psalm is at the poem’s end:
            for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
            but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:6, NRSV)

The contrast could not be starker. The LORD oversees the way of the righteous, guiding that person in a path that leads to a blessed life. The wicked, on the other hand, will perish on their way by virtue of the fact that they have chosen a different path upon which to travel. The NRSV’s translation of the word ?abad as “perish” conforms to the most frequent use of the word. The verb, however, sometimes carries with it connotations of straying away (1 Samuel 9:3) or wandering about (Deuteronomy 26:5). The fate of the wicked, therefore, is not here a consequence of any divine decision; the wicked simply choose to go their own way and, in so doing, become lost and perish.

No one need perish, of course. The psalmist contrasts a happy person, a blessed individual, in verses 1 to 3 with the wicked in verses 4 and 5.

First the happy person’s behavior is characterized by guarding herself from any misstep by not following the advice of the wicked, by not taking up the sinner’s path (derek, the word that twice appears as “way” in verse 6), and by not sitting in the seat of scoffers. Instead, the happy person finds herself delighting on a different sort of advice, namely the law of the LORD (verse 2). The translation of the Hebrew tôrah as “law” constricts a word that also includes the notions of teaching, instruction, and even decisions.

The happy person is the one who delights in the teachings of the LORD. Indeed, she meditates on it or, as the New Jerusalem Bible helpfully translates, she “murmurs his law day and night.” That translation wonderfully reflects the Hebrew verb hagah, or a pondering that involves making a sound. We should think of a person so enraptured by the teachings of the LORD that she goes about her daily tasks talking to herself about them!

As a consequence of her attention to the instruction of the LORD, the blessed person will be like a tree planted by a channel of water. There may be some poetic play with the image of the verdant tree appearing in verse 3 and the wording of verse 1. There, the happy person is told not to follow (literally, “walk”) in the “advice” of the wicked. The word that is quite properly translated as “advice” is understood as “trees” in Jeremiah 6:6.

Whether or not the poet was intentionally hinting already at the image of the tree in verse 1, the metaphor of a flourishing tree nourished by water that appears in verse 3 was a familiar one in ancient Israel (Jeremiah 17:7-8; Psalm 92:12-13). Moreover, the Holy Land is a territory so arid that, even today, channels of flowing water might suggest prosperity (see Job 29:6; Psalm 65:9).

It is worth noting that the tree of verse 3 does not plant itself. Indeed, the text employs a passive participle to emphasize the point that the tree/happy person is set where she will remain fruitful, verdant, and prosperous — the inevitable function of a tree so propitiously planted. The fact that the tree is planted and well placed undermines any notion that the happy person precipitated her own prosperity by dodging the wicked or by marathon Bible study.

Naturally, faith formation has a better chance of taking root if we place ourselves in a position not to be seduced by the counsel of the wicked. Obviously, we are more likely to “bear fruit” if we place ourselves in a position to consider God’s word (Colossians 1:6). But none of that can serve as a formula or guarantee that we will likewise prosper. These verses are descriptive, not prescriptive. Everything forever depends on God’s grace.

Likewise, verse 4 and 5 are descriptive, not prescriptive, of the fate of the wicked. In perfect contrast to the enduring, life-giving, fertile tree, the wicked are likened to chaff driven before the wind. Here again the psalmist reaches for a familiar metaphor. The judgment of God is such that the wicked will be unable to endure, be they national antagonists (Isaiah 29:5; 17:13; 41:16; Psalm 83:13) or individual sinners (Hosea 13:3; Psalm 35:5; Matthew 3:12 // Luke 3:17).[1]

Indeed, the three characterizations of the righteous tree in verse 3 are matched by three descriptors of the wicked: without roots and devoid of value, chaff will be driven by the wind. They shall likewise fail to stand up under the judgment of God (?) and they shall fail before the congregation of the righteous. The word translated as congregation, ?e?â, sometimes appears in contexts where it means witness or testimony. A translation of the “testimony of the righteous” may therefore be possible, although the legal function of the congregation (?e?â) as judge does not make that suggestion necessary.[2]

Taken as a whole, the psalm serves as an invitation to the entire psalter, holding before the community of faith — and not just the individual — the hope and promise that blessings will come from delighting in the instruction of the LORD. In this respect, Psalm 119, thought by many to be an ending to an earlier, shorter version of the psalms, picks up where this psalm leaves off, thus forming an inclusio around the whole:

1 Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD.
2 Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways. (Psalm 119:1-3)

Finally, the psalm is well matched with both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel pericope assigned for the day in that all three texts draw a clear descriptive line between those who would walk in the way of the Lord and those who will not.

[1] Job 21:18 hears Job evoke the image as well albeit Job expresses some skepticism about whether the wicked do, in fact, experience any such fate.

[2] On the legal function of the congregation see D. Levy, J. Milgrom, H. Ringgren, and H.-J Fabry, hd”[E, TDOT 10:472-3 and the examples cited there. 

Second Reading

Commentary on Philemon 1:1-21

Christian A. Eberhart

The lectionary passage Philemon 1:1-21 that is assigned for this Sunday contains, except for concluding remarks, greetings, and benediction, the entire text of this writing.

It is Paul’s shortest New Testament letter, comprising only 335 Greek words. Despite its conciseness, it is one of his most fascinating and personal writings revealing precious insights into the apostle’s abilities as a rhetorically skilled counselor.

Paul wrote this letter between 55 CE and 61 CE. More important than the precise year of composition is the fact that the apostle was in prison at the time of writing. Although he should have been apprehensive about his own well-being, Paul is concerned about Onesimus, a runaway slave, whose master Philemon he appears to know well. In this letter, we witness how “Paul, through the use of his own position and authority and the reconceptualization of attitudes to Onesimus, brokers a harmonious relationship between the two, though probably without affecting the master–slave relationship.”1

The modern church audience has the privilege of listening to a sample of private communication between Paul and Philemon. For that reason, some aspects of the letter remain cryptic and require additional information. The topic of slavery is one of them.

The preacher might find it helpful to inform his or her congregation that, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, almost everybody could become a slave and that about 35% to 40% of the population was indeed enslaved. As the property of their masters, slaves were considered animated tools and could be bought and sold at their master’s discretion. Slaves were often abused; they could be expelled from the master’s house when they were old or sick. Most important for understanding the urgency of Paul’s letter to Philemon is the information that a master had the right to kill a slave when he or she ran away. Paul was thus involved in a potential life or death matter.

How does the apostle tackle this urgent task? This is where Paul applies his rhetorical skills and experience as a counselor. They are manifest in the following strategies and observations.

Paul knows Philemon who is probably a leader in the Colossian church. He addresses him as “our dear friend and co-worker” (1:1), thus emphasizing their personal ties. He also expresses his abundant gratefulness for Philemon’s love and faith in 1:4-7, specifically mentioning his own “joy and encouragement.” Such words are certainly chosen to flatter the addressee. Paul wants to assure that he is in a good mood before bringing up for the first time the more unpleasant news about the runaway slave.

While the letter’s principal addressee is Philemon, it is likewise addressed “to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house” (1:2). The latter might be the congregation in Colossae. Philemon must have been rather wealthy if his home was spacious enough to allow for its regular meetings. At such an occasion, the letter had to be read aloud to all those people. This means, however, that they were also being informed of the sensitive, yet urgent matter and could have been further agents of control, should Philemon himself have acted against Paul’s advice. To be sure, Paul writes to his “dear friend,” but in the end he does not seem to trust him entirely.

After acknowledging Philemons’s love and faith, Paul presents his request on behalf of Onesimus (1:8-22). That he refers to himself “as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (1:9, see also 1:1) in this context may be seen as another attempt to make sure Philemon reads his words with sympathy and compassion rather than with anger.

When presenting his request, Paul does not command Philemon but “appeals” to him “on the basis of love” (1:9). In addition, he asks Philemon to do a “good deed” that is “voluntary and not something forced” (1:14). Given that the remainder of the Colossian congregation hears these words as well, Philemon will have a hard time not to respond positively to Paul’s appeal.

At the same time, when finally mentioning the name of Philemon’s former slave, Paul introduces him as “my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment” (1:10). Later he calls him “my own heart” (1:12) and “a beloved brother” (1:16) of Philemon. Eventually he recommends that he be welcome as Paul himself would be (1:17). Therefore, while Philemon might have ambivalent feelings toward Onesimus, the latter receives protection through this new status.2 Referring to a slave as one’s “child” is, by the way, a particular expression of honor toward somebody who typically counts as a piece of property.

Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon. The letter that he wrote would have accompanied Onesimus on this way; Paul is imprisoned and hence cannot come along at this time. While it is not clear why Onesimus left his master, Paul is eager to emphasize that he has changed. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me” (1:11), Paul writes, deploying a pun on the slave’s name, which means “useful” in Greek.

In dealing with this delicate life or death matter, Paul does not resort to his apostolic authority. Instead, he uses gentle words, references human relationship, and evokes mutual love. His own behavior should serve as an example for Philemon to receive Onesimus as a new brother in Christ.

Paul’s humble, gentle, and loving demeanor as manifest in his letter to Philemon should also remind us to behave likewise in our own relationships. While slavery is no longer a common social and economical reality today, we all belong to multiple social networks in which not all participants share the same status. Specifically when we are in positions of power and authority, it is our choice to transform such relationships by choosing a gentle appeal rather than a harsh command.

1 A.H. Cadwallader. “Philemon,” Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012), 400.
2 Cf. J.D.G Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 311.