Lectionary Commentaries for September 1, 2013
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14

Emerson Powery

My family sits down together at dinnertime most evenings.

It’s a time to catch up with the activities of the day, as well as just a respite from the busyness of life. No texting is allowed at the table. It’s important for us to touch base with one another in this way to ensure that all is well with, in our case, our four sons.

When our oldest son is home from college, the noise level is loud and the six of us are usually talking at the same time. There’s a lot of laughter and if one of us has a good story or joke to share, then all of us tune in. On the more serious side, it’s a time to make decisions as a family and, on occasion, to put family pressure on one of our sons who may be about to make a serious ethical decision. Character building and value shaping are central, even if not plotted, to the time we share together around the evening meal.

Jesus, too, is interested in mealtime. Jesus loved the gatherings around meals; at least, that’s what we are led to believe in the Gospel of Luke. This was one of the primary distinctions between him and his ascetic mentor John the Baptist. He doesn’t even deny the charge that he enjoyed more than his share of wine at many meals (cf. 7:33). In our story, Jesus is at a banquet and tells a “parable” about the meal setting, which is followed up by another story about another banquet. He can’t get enough of what happens at meals.

On another note, it should not be surprising that Jesus shares a meal with some of the Pharisees. Once we remove the negative impressions we have of this formidable group and recognize their influence on many people during the first century, we should not be surprised by this encounter. Just a few verses earlier some Pharisees actually assisted Jesus by informing him of Herod’s plans to locate Jesus (cf. 13:31). This suggests a more neutral relationship between “the Pharisees” and Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.

By chapter 14, Luke has established a pattern of Jesus’ freer activity on the Sabbath. These Pharisees, not surprisingly, are “watching him closely” (14:1); perhaps it is due to what they have heard about Jesus’ Sabbath practices earlier (e.g., 6:6-11 and 13:10-17). Whenever this verb is used — “watching” from paratereo (“keep alongside”) — the religious leaders do not do this simply out of curiosity.

They are trying to trap Jesus, either in some activity like healing on the Sabbath (cf. 6:7) or something inappropriate he might say (cf. 20:20). But, here, after Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath, there is no little to no reaction to Jesus’ activity. Luke wishes to draw our attention elsewhere in this short story. He would like us to think about “meals” in first century life.

In the Gospel of Luke, meals, in particular, provide central settings for Jesus’ mission. And, the language of food, in general, serves as a basis for Jesus’ teaching (cf. 11:5-8; 15:14-17, 23; 12:16-21, 45; 17:7-10). Eating is a sign of life (cf. 8:55; 17:27-28; 24:43) and celebration (cf. 15:23). But it also symbolizes the harsh realities for the enslaved (cf. 17:7-10). Food has religious connotations as well (cf. 6:1-4; 7:33; 14:15; 22:14-20); Jesus “blessed” it (cf. 9:16; 22:19; 24:30) and prayed for it daily (cf. 11:3).

Even though Jesus shared several meals with Pharisees (cf. 7:36), they often complained about his choice of (other) table-fellowship companions (cf. 5:30) and about how his associates secured food on the Sabbath (cf. 6:1-4). Unlike his possible mentor (John the Baptist), Jesus loved food (cf. 7:33) and his disciples followed suit (cf. 5:33). Just as he expects to care for the physical needs of others (cf. 9:13), he expects that others will provide for his disciples when they minister among them (cf. 9:3; 10:7-8).

Indeed, he assumes that friends will share it (cf. 11:5-8; 24:30), which is a natural outgrowth of first-century Jewish culture. Theologically, he believes that God will provide for the basics of life, so he teaches and acts accordingly (cf. 12:29-31).

In Luke 14, Jesus is less interested in the actual food than in the composition of the banquet. So, he tells a story about meals and honor. It’s an unusual “parable” in light of its clear references. His story emphasizes two components of the banquet setting: (1) the selection of “seats” (honor?); and, (2) the invitation list. In an honor and shame culture, avoiding shame is of the utmost importance. This is not simply embarrassment. Public shame may have tangible implications for the shamed. A family’s bartering practices or marriage proposals can be negatively affected by a public shaming, if the shame is significant enough.

On the opposite end, public honor — determined, in this story, by the host — may come to those who express public humility. Jesus expresses expectations for hosts (cf. 14:12-14). His words are a challenge to the honor system embedded in first-century culture. To secure one’s place in this system, it was appropriate to invite friends, family, and rich neighbors. Reciprocal requests would ensue, as the public acknowledgement of an honorable person may bring its own rewards.

But Jesus calls into question this type of caste system, imagining instead hosts who choose to associate with people who are “poor, crippled, lame, and blind” (14:13) as their new network. The problem for hosts, however, as Jesus explicitly recognizes, is that no honor is forthcoming in return. Rather, it’s an investment in the future.

So what?
“One does not live by bread alone,” as Jesus argues in the temptation scene (4:4). Nor is Jesus only concerned about what happens at meals. His teaching is about the way we treat others, especially those among us who unable to “pay us back.” In a modern democratic society in which public political rhetoric emphasizes that all are (created) equal, it is easy to miss the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching in his own status-oriented, honor-shame and hierarchical space.

Yet, we have our ways of distinguishing one from another, in order to structure our contemporary world. Oftentimes, these distinctions among us hinder us from true fellowship with one another. Jesus’ story is a reminder to us about the company we keep. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 25:6-7

Brian C. Jones

This brief reading appears in a collection of instructions that seems in large part directed to courtiers.

Here we find instructions about decorum of speech, handling conflict, and maintaining one’s honor and reputation. The collection bears the superscription, “These are other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied” (25:1–29:27). The verses surrounding our text focus on staying out of trouble when in the presence of the king: Do not question the king’s wisdom (verses 2–3); do not be drawn into corrupt schemes at court (verses 4–5); do not be hasty exposing others’ misdeeds lest you misstep and bring shame upon yourself (verses 8–10).

In sum, hold your tongue, keep your nose clean, and don’t meddle — all good advice for those climbing the ladder of success at court. The admonition in verses 6–7 to avoid self-assertion and presumption at the royal court suits its context. In essence it advises courtiers to keep a low profile for it is better to be lifted up than put down.

Humility and Exaltation — which Lord do You Serve?
Jesus’ advice for attending a wedding banquet in Luke 14:7–11 bears a striking similarity to the advice in Proverbs. The two are, however, distinctive. The setting in Proverbs is the royal court and the motive for humility is to achieve honor and avoid embarrassment before the nobility.

While Jesus’ story is set in humbler circumstances — a wedding banquet — it alludes to a much more exalted setting, the eschatological banquet in the kingdom of God. The secondary reference is clear from Jesus’ use of the passive form in his summary at the end of his teaching. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” denotes God’s action and thus ultimate shame and honor before God (Luke 14:11; cf. 18:14; Matthew 23:12).

Preaching Proverbs 25:6–7 as good advice for surviving in a competitive work environment is no doubt relevant to modern congregants, but in light of the New Testament’s repeated call to radical humility such a proclamation appears superficial. The kenosis of the Messiah king is the model for Christian behavior (Philippians 2:3–11) in every setting, and the hope of exaltation shifts from time to eternity, from human honoring to exaltation by God.

Those who will be invited by God to the head of the table are not those who merely practice a utilitarian kind of humility before the king, but those who serve one another, care for those who endure the ultimate social shaming of imprisonment and torture, and accept the status of “the least of these.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Christian humility must exceed that of the courtier’s careful calculations in both motive and degree, but it yields exaltation far greater than any human can bestow.

The question to put before the modern Christian who hears Proverbs 25:6–7 is this: Who is the king that you serve? Before whom do you seek honor? Are you willing to seek places of humble service until that day when the heavenly king says to you, “Come up here, good and faithful servant… For all who humble themselves will be exalted”?

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 2:4-13

Alphonetta Wines

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news.

Yet, bearing bad news is an integral part of the prophetic task. It is the focal point of the disparaging task to which God calls the prophet Jeremiah. Although restoration is the ultimate goal, the path toward restoration entails the devastating announcement that Israel’s world will be turned upside down.

Jeremiah’s initial words of doom in chapter two immediately follow the description of his call and related visions in chapter one. After a few reminisces in Jeremiah 2:1-3, God begins by questioning the divine self. Self-examination is difficult. Most people avoid it. Like any mature individual who acknowledges personal responsibility before accusing someone else, God takes on this difficult task. In effect, God asks, “What did I do?” This is an astonishing question on the lips of the sovereign LORD. It opens the door to the possibility of divine culpability and risks exposing questions of theodicy.

God will issue a call to repentance, address justice issues, and announce hope of restoration, but for now, as Jeremiah begins to prophesy, God wants to know what went wrong. God wonders how the devotion of the early years lost their allure. It is as though God wonders, “How did the ‘honeymoon’ of yesterday turn into a time of ‘separation’ for today?”

God’s willingness to take this risk is due to God’s love for the beloved nation. Abraham J. Heschel explains the depth of the relationship. He writes, “Israel’s distress was more than a human tragedy. With Israel’s distress came the affliction of God, His displacement, His homelessness in the land, in the world.”[1] Hence God’s self-examining question in Jeremiah 2:5:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
            that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?

Though the boundary between generations past, present, and future is permeable, God first inquires about the ancestors. The passage of time leaves God especially vulnerable to what might have gone wrong in the past. God could have failed during the time of the patriarchs, during the time of deliverance from Egypt or during Israel’s wilderness experience. God could have failed as the newly formed nation entered the land of promise or when leadership was turned over to a succession of judges, prophets, and kings. Even if the fault lies with the divine, God is willing to examine all of the possibilities. Once the question is broached, the answer seems unmistakably obvious. Terence E. Fretheim explains, “God’s question seems to be rhetorical, with the answer self-evident: God committed no wrong in the relationship.”[2]

Silently, all stand accused and guilty before God. Answers could have come from the communities of Jacob and Israel, the priests, those who handle the law, the rulers, or the prophets. None has a response to God’s question. Neither priests nor community asks, “Where is the LORD?” Those who handle the law did not know God. Theirs were sins of omission for “Where Yahweh is not known, justice is not embraced.”[3] Rulers transgressed and prophets prophesied falsely. Theirs were sins of commission.

As inseparable as two sides of a coin, the two evils — sins of omission and commission, forsaking God and turning to other gods — form the basis of God’s accusations. These sins were so embedded in the ethos of the nation that “destruction of its temple, loss of its king, and exile of its people to another land”[4] were an unfortunate, yet necessary and unavoidable part of the healing process. Fretheim discerns, “The people’s infidelity is so deep-seated that this judgmental divine response is set for generations to come.”[5]

God knows that worship of false gods leads to diminution of humanity, individual and communal. Accordingly, God assesses that Israel has become as worthless as the false gods that the nation worships. God calls on the heavens to witness this sad state of affairs in which Israel has exchanged its God of living water for non-existent gods. The offense is so outlandish that everyone, from “the east (Cyprus) … to the west (Kedar),”[6] would be astonished.

Yet, hope remains. “Yahweh does not want simply to terminate the relation, but is willing to struggle, perhaps to fix blame, perhaps also to recover the relationship.”[7] Fretheim explains that “in spite of their infidelities, God calls Israel ‘my people’ (vv 11, 13).”[8] Even now, despite a multitude of sins of omission and commission, God will not give up on Israel. Even now, there is hope for the nation. This hope, which is rooted and grounded in the nature of the divine, will not fail. In Jeremiah’s prophecies, Israel’s hope is as sure as its doom. Hope such as this is ever present, encouraging humanity, individually and collectively, to embrace God’s best, no matter what.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 112.

[2] Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 64.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 35.

[4] 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), 31.

[5] Fretheim, Jeremiah, 66.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah, 35.

[8] Fretheim, Jeremiah, 67.


Commentary on Psalm 112

James Limburg

The lectionary readings for this Sunday offer a variety of preachable texts.

The Gospel is the story about being asked to move up at a banquet; this is itself an expansion of the OT lesson, Proverbs 25:6-7. There is even a text from Sirach 10:12-18, providing the preacher an opportunity to acquaint the congregation with the Apocrypha, should that be desired. Hebrews 13 is that great text about entertaining angels unawares. These texts have in common a concern about how one ought to live a life worthy of one who is a follower of Jesus.

So which text to choose? Yet another suggestion is to focus on the Psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 112, which must be taken together with Psalm 111. Together they provide a summarizing foundation for a consideration of what we as biblical Christians believe and how those beliefs ought to express themselves in our lives.

A Pair of ABC Psalms: 111 and 112
These two psalms are a pair and should be considered together. They are similar in form: each begins with “Praise the Lord” (“Hallelujah” in Hebrew); each consists of twenty-two lines, divided into ten verses; both are alphabetical acrostics, each line beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, running from alef to tav, that is, from A to Z. (Further alphabetical acrostics are found in Psalms 25, 34, 145, 119 in spades! and Proverbs 31:10-31.)

The contents of these two psalms are complementary. The focus of Psalm 111 is on God and that of 112 is on humans. In other terms, Psalm 111 presents the basics of theology while 112 offers reflections on anthropology. Especially interesting are certain phrases that occur in both psalms. Psalm 111:3b says that the Lord’s “righteousness endures forever.” Psalm 112:3b and 9b use the same words to describe God’s people: “their righteousness endures forever.” Psalm 111:4b declares that the Lord is “gracious and merciful” and 112:4b states that God’s people are “gracious and merciful.” Like God, like people, one might say.

While there are such obvious similarities, there are also differences, in line with the focus of each psalm. Psalm 111 sounds its theme in verse 2: “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.” The theme of Psalm 112 is struck by verse 1: “Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments.” There is yet another link between these two psalms: Psalm 111 ends with one of the themes of wisdom literature, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (see also Job 28:28 and Proverse1:7). Psalm 112 then begins by saying that the way for humans to find happiness is to begin with an attitude of reverence (“fear”) toward God (112:1).

The ABC’s of a Biblical Faith and Life
While both psalms begin with the typical “Praise the LORD” which indicates they were used in congregational worship (111:2), they both also contain strong instructional components. That is, they show us a picture of what Christian faith and a Christian life look like.

First off, instruction in faith and life takes place in an atmosphere of worship and “fear of the LORD.” When used in this expression “fear” does not mean “to be afraid of” but rather to have respect or reverence for, like the attitude that children have toward good parents. Psalm 111:1 portrays a situation where praise is taking place in the whole congregation. Along with this praise goes study of the “works of the LORD.” Here is reflected the long Jewish and Christian traditions of Bible study. Such study takes place in a worshipful congregational setting, along with praise. Such Scripture study is not tedious and boring but ought to be a delightful and happy experience! (Psalm 111:2; 112:1)

Psalm 111 speaks about God, who is merciful and loving, as seen by God’s great works in the people’s history. One thinks of Exodus, Covenant, guiding in the wilderness and gift of a land (111:2-6). New Testament Christians will, of course, add God’s work in Christ to the string of the “works of the LORD.” God is known through wonderful acts of deliverance (“deeds” . . . “works,” . . . “redemption,” 111:4, 6, 9) and also through quiet activities of blessing (“provides food,”111:5). Humans respond to the Lord’s actions by praise (111:1,10) and by study that begins with an attitude of reverence (111:3, 10).

Psalm 112 puts the spotlight on humans, declaring that happiness is to be found in a life honoring the Lord and living according to God’s commandments (112:1). Such lives will enjoy God’s blessings (112:2-3). Though living in a dark and evil world (verses 4, 7-8, 10) God’s people will be secure and steady because their hearts are with the Lord (verses 7-8). Having themselves experienced God’s mighty acts on their behalf as well as God’s quiet, steady action of blessing (112:2), they will share with the poor what God has given them (112:5, 9).

Preaching on Psalms 111 and 112
A sermon could follow the progression of these two psalms taken together. Part One would remember what God has done: God’s mighty acts of deliverance as well as blessing (111:1-6). Against this background comes the story of what God has done in sending Jesus as the Messiah.

Part Two would look at our response to what God has done for us, in worship and praise of God, (111:1; 112:1) and in study so that we keep the story straight (111:2). But our response also is a response toward others, seeking to lead lives marked by mercy, generosity, justice, and integrity (“righteousness”; 112:3-5,9). At this point the virtues of humility (the Proverbs and Luke texts for the day) and concern for the stranger (Hebrew 13) could be touched upon.

Part Three could summarize by noting how these two psalms sound the themes of the greatness of the works of the Lord (111:1) and the happiness of those who worship the Lord and care for the poor (112:1, 9).

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Erik Heen

This is the last of four consecutive weeks that Hebrews has provided the second reading.

A month ago this Hebrew “mini-series” began with the famous definition of faith found at 11:1: “Faith is the assurance [or substance] of things hoped for, the conviction [or proof] of things not seen.” The great Chapter 11 and its remembrance of the heroes and heroines of such faith provided the text for the first two Sundays. Last week we made it to the heavenly City of God, which was compared to the revelation of God on Mt. Sinai. In today’s text we are reminded of some of the exhortations of the final chapter of Hebrews.

I would urge the preacher to read the entirety of Chapter 13, perhaps backing up to 12:28, which serves as a conclusion of the previous section of Hebrews, while providing a transition to the final chapter. Ideally, one would return to 11:1 and read forward in order to appreciate the grand theological sweep of these final three chapters. But it is important to read at least Chapter 13 since the verses the RCL oddly drops (verses 9-14) contains the theological conclusion of the entire epistle.

In these missing verses, Hebrews makes a typological comparison between the death of Jesus and a sin offering in the cult of the Tabernacle (the “tent of meeting” that provided the holy space of worship during the desert wanderings of the people of God). This analogy comes as no surprise to one who has followed Hebrews to this point. But then comes a critical shift in the text. The place of Jesus’ sacrifice is also seen to hold typological meaning. Jesus’ death did not occur within the holy grounds of Tabernacle or Temple, but on the profane ground of a Roman killing field:

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:11-14).

Here the “high” cultic imagery of Hebrews at long last finds its “goal” (scopus) or center — the cross of Christ. In doing so, the cultic pattern of worship is shattered to birth something new. The holiness associated with the sacred places of Israel’s religious “cult” is redeemed for the sanctification of a most unholy and profane world by means of Christian service to those in need.

This theological insight of Hebrews is similar to the synoptic tradition that reports the ripping of the curtain that closed off the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple at the point of Jesus death (Mark 15:38). Similar too is the Johannine interpretation of the oral tradition of Jesus that understands the body of the crucified and risen Christ to be the new locus of God’s very kavod, God’s own glory (John 2:21). The profane becomes holy and the holy profane.

The closing exhortations in Chapter 13, including the demand to practice radical hospitality to strangers, prison visitation, observation of proper boundaries in matters of sexuality, and the proper stewardship of material resources all flow out of this sense that Christ — God in God’s own self — is to be encountered in cruciform mission to a wounded and sorrowful creation, made holy by God’s own reclamation of everything “outside the camp.”

So, what is proper worship of God now that the sacrifice to end all sacrifices has occurred in Christ (10:12)? Hebrews tells us in the final verses of today’s text (verses 15-16). There are two parts to it. The first aspect of this more commonly thought of as “divine service” — what we do in church as we gather to praise and thank God through Christ for the work of Christ (12:15; cf. 4:14). We do this “in the name of Jesus,” as the text says, because it is Jesus who took upon the Sin of the world in his death on the cross for us.

In this service we can offer only the “sacrifice of praise” for what Christ has already done because the “vertical” dimension of the atoning sacrifice is already complete in Christ. The second aspect of what constitutes divine service — the “horizontal” dimension — is another matter. As the final verse in today’s text puts it, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

It is no accident that “hospitality” is in the “emphatic” or lead position (13:1) in the list of the marks of Christian identity incarnate in service. The other Christian virtues mentioned flow out of this one practice. At one level it is astounding that this beleaguered, suffering, and vulnerable community — one that had experienced the loss of property (10:32-34) — is asked to open itself up as a patron to strangers. Is, then, the practice of hospitality “the cross” that this community must bear? If hospitality is seen as an obligation or duty of Christian discipleship, one might draw this conclusion. If so, it may be a false conclusion.

The Greek word that is traditionally translated in English by “hospitality” is philoxenia, literally, “love of the strange.” Many ancients were locked into lives of routine and did not stray far from their places of birth. Life was difficult and mobility was limited. One way in which the world became “larger” was to open one’s home (however poor) to those that came from “outside.” Hospitality was provided, then, by those who had “love of the strange,” by those who were curious about the wider world.

The unknown seekers of hospitality brought news (and stories!) of the wider world and broke open one’s little provincial world. There was a kind of marvelous exchange, then, of mutual benefit between host and guest. The guest received protection (inns were dangerous places), food, and company. Hosts were led out of themselves and their “little” worlds. Those locked into deadly routine were engaged by that which was “outside” the camp. It is an approach to the outside world with which some contemporary parishes might wish to become better acquainted!

Obviously too, the OT traditions of hospitality are in play here as well. The reference in verse 2 of entertaining “angels without knowing it” is thought to refer to Abraham and Sarah’s reception of the three visitors in Genesis 18:1-15 at the oaks of Mamre. But, of course, the people of God themselves not only practiced hospitality but were long “sojourners” (guests) in foreign lands (11:8-10). The experience of being an alien or sojourner, vulnerable before others and dependent on God as host, was fundamental to Israel’s identity.

Rather than an obligation, “love of the strange” seen from either the Greco-Roman or the OT perspective provides the opportunity to be blessed by exposure to the wider world that God cares deeply about. But that is not all. In the church’s “love of the strange” one actually encounters Christ and so are led out of ourselves (13:13; cf. Matthew 25:37-46). Hospitality, then, is a gift that feeds and nourishes us as well as our guests.

From Hebrews’ perspective, the truth is that we are all sojourners in a land that does not belong to us but, ultimately, to God. Since this is so, Hebrews reminds us that those baptized into the death and the resurrection of Christ are to acknowledge with gratitude God’s ongoing favor to us who are only sojourners. Hebrews also points out, however, that those who are marked by the sign of the cross have a tendency to fall in love with “the strange.” Rather, it’s more like God has fallen in love with us.