Lectionary Commentaries for August 28, 2016
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14

David Schnasa Jacobsen

Outwardly, the pericope for this Sunday seems to be offering just wise advice.

Do X and you will profit. It would be simple to read the text as good table manners for living wisely.

Luke, however, gives us some reasons to believe that he does not want us to read the text quite in this way. We begin with the setting. In Luke 14:1 we learn that the teaching in our text is given in the context of a Sabbath meal in the home of a Pharisee. The fact that they were “watching him closely” sounds odd, but makes more sense in light of their suspicion of Jesus earlier in the Lukan narrative (6:7, 11:53-54) and the fact that this text takes place in the context of Jesus’ long cruciform journey to Jerusalem beginning with 9:51. The cross casts its shadow even here.

When we press deeper into the text, however, we discover even more. It is true that the advice Jesus gives about choosing a low place in the hope of being (publicly) directed to a more favorable one sounds pretty shrewd. This point does not require theological insight, but does presuppose some social savvy. But lurking behind the mundane, everyday choices made at a public banquet is perhaps something of a more theological nature. When Jesus notices the guests at the Pharisee’s house choosing “places,” Jesus tells his hearers a parable (Luke 14:7). As fascinating as Lukan parables are (the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son), this particular one in 14:8-10 seems rather every-day and not extraordinary at all. We might even expect that most of what passes for parables are third-person stories with plots and characters. This “parable” in Luke 14:8-10, by contrast, is told in the second-person singular and in a way that seems designed to help you as reader recognize the typical and the ordinary. Of course, we do not have to hold Jesus or Luke the narrator responsible for twenty-first century parable theory. At the same time, Luke 14:7-11 does stick out relative to the other parables in Luke. Two features condition the way we should read Jesus’ “parabolic” advice. First, the language of parable typically frames a story which helps us understand God’s reign. While it is hard to see that explicitly here, the “typical” and the ordinary, even if the figure of the wedding banquet is used, is supposed to invite “you” to see more deeply. This is confirmed all the more with the closing verse of the unit, 14:11. Here we have migrated fully away from good advice about table manners to explicit theological language: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The use of the future tense and the divine passive suddenly place the prudential advice of 14:8-10 within a decidedly theological and perhaps even specifically eschatological frame of reference. In our table manners we may see poking through not just our real selves revealed for what we are, but God’s true table purposes. We may be thinking short term; God views it all within the arc of the divine long-term perspective of eschatology, which includes divine judgment, too. Imagine that: what starts off secular becomes a revealing place of God’s purposes “in, with, and under!”

With the second half of our pericope in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus’ words are directed to the hosts and not just the other guests. And yet the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the eschatological persists. Here Jesus launches immediately into what appears counter-intuitive advice! If you (the second-person singular language continues here in the Greek) are celebrating a meal, do not think in terms of the typical guest list. All they will do is repay you and then the circle is complete. There is something more at stake with inviting those who cannot repay: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13b). They cannot repay you as the others do in a typical social setting. Yet stepping back from life as lived, an eschatological horizon opens up in the midst of the ordinary: “ … you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14). Again, please note the future tense language and the divine passive grammar. This is not mere wise advice, but something profoundly prophetic, even theological.

The question becomes what you do with it. Frankly, a sermon on manners does not sound attractive. We may not always agree on what the core of the gospel message is, but few of us would equate gospel with books on etiquette or directives on manners. There is also a further theological danger: that we turn the sage advice into a way to manage God — what must I/we do to secure God’s good graces and the right heavenly payback? Apparently, we should be strategic about seating charts!

Preachers may need to remember a couple of important things. First, part of the power of eschatological language is the juxtaposition of present and future — not simply the resolution of one in favor of the other. Homiletician Martha Simmons describes this theological locus of preaching as a “strand that focuses on ‘the sweet by and by’ while bringing us to grips with the sometimes ‘nasty here and now.’”1 Eschatologically, and theologically, table manners matter because of what they disclose in the midst of our messy existence about God’s good purposes and intentions. Preachers with an eye for living in that juxtaposition will find preaching on a text like this rewarding. Second, by doing so we place our ordinary lives within a divine horizon that invokes the presence of the one who is both Guest and Host. Theologically, we will have discovered that the tables have been turned: turned in humility, welcome, and above all, grace.


1 Martha Simmons, “Introduction” to 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy (Valley Forge: Judson, 2001), x.

First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 25:6-7

James Limburg

The lectionary-driven preacher is rarely invited to deliver a sermon based on a text from Proverbs.

Only a half dozen texts from that book appear in the Revised Common Lectionary. The Lutheran lectionary has even fewer, listing just three texts from Proverbs, including the one for today.

It’s clear that this Proverbs 25 text has been chosen because of its link with the Gospel for the day, Luke 14:1, 7-14. But the task here is to put this Proverbs text front and center, to seek a word for our own situation. First, a few words about wisdom literature in fairly recent Old Testament scholarship, then about the Book of Proverbs in general, and finally some consideration of Proverbs 25:6-7 and few words from a contemporary example of wisdom literature.

Wisdom literature in the Old Testament

Books classified as “wisdom literature” include Job, certain Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. The book of Proverbs is a collection of essays, poems, and sayings expressing the wisdom of ancient Israel. Some of the material originated as folk wisdom, circulating in the family or clan. Other portions (for example, Proverbs 22:17-24:22) appear to be designed for use in the royal court, intended for the instruction of young men who would become political leaders.

What was the content of this material? One does not need to deal with the “big questions” each day — such as the meaning of life or the problem of evil or why bad things happen to good people. In day-by-day living there are all sorts of smaller, but still important, questions: How should I handle my financial affairs? How should I relate to friends and colleagues? What about relationships to the opposite sex? What can I do to maintain a healthy marriage? How should I treat the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger, the aged? These are the sorts of things that Proverbs addresses. If the major theme of Psalms is praise of God in heaven, the chief concern of Proverbs is to aid in the pursuit of a good life on earth.

There are 31 chapters in Proverbs, thus suggesting the discipline of reading the chapter that matches the day of the month.

19th century study of the literature of the Old Testament began with the Pentateuch, then moved to consider the prophetic books. When I was doing graduate study in the Old Testament in the 1960’s, scholars were re-discovering the importance of wisdom literature and were studying that material with great energy. Especially in Germany, research on this material was bringing fresh insights. But few of the results of that study have made their way into the teaching and preaching of churches; note the comments about lectionaries above.

Structure of the book of Proverbs

We may outline Proverbs as follows:

  1. Title (1:1)
  2. Purpose (1:2-6) and thematic statement (1:7)
  3. Instructional essays (1:8–9:18)
  4. Sayings associated with Solomon (10:1–22:16)
  5. Words of the wise (22:17–24:22); here are many parallels from Egyptian literature, particularly The Wisdom of Amenemope
  6. More words from the wise (24:23-34)
  7. More sayings from Solomon (25:1–29:27)
  8. Words of Agur (30:1-33)
  9. Words of Lemuel and the ABC’s of a capable wife (31)

Proverbs 1:2-7 sets forth the purpose of the entire book. Here is instruction for the young, but also for senior citizens (verses 4-5), teaching the art of “steersmanship” (1:5, NRSV “skill”). Proverbs aims to provide instruction on how to navigate the ship of life through the sea of the world with its delights and dangers.

Proverbs 25:6-7

The sense of these two verses is clear. Young men who were being trained for positions of political leadership are given some advice on behavior at state dinners:

“When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you have a big appetite.”

The reason for not taking the best seats is to save yourself from embarrassment (25:7).

There are countless warnings against pride in the book of Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18; see also 11:2; 29:23; 26:12, 27:2 etc.). One could nicely get into this material by studying the passages, which contrast the virtue of humility with the vice of pride. Or one could profitably study these themes in the entire Bible.

Warnings against pride in the Bible

The tower of Babel story tells of an arrogant people attempting to build a tower to reach to the place where God lives (Genesis 11). King Nebuchadnezzar boasts about his building achievements in Babylon and is immediately struck with a horrible disease (Daniel 4:28-33); Haman believes that he will win top honors in the Persian kingdom and discovers that the award goes to the humble Mordecai (Esther 6); Moving into the New Testament we hear Jesus giving his friends advice about seating at banquets (Luke 14, the Gospel for today); and we also hear them bickering about seating arrangements — in heaven! (Matthew 20:20-23; Mark 10:35-45)

The humility code: pride and humility

One of the best-selling non-fiction books of recent years has been The Road to Character by David Brooks (Random House, 2015). Much in the style of wisdom literature from the Bible he offers advice on how to live, and offers examples of persons illustrating that advice. I quote here from his comments on humility and pride:

In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue…
Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your place in the cosmos. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order. (pp 262-3)

Pride is the central vice. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are … Pride deludes us into thinking that we are the authors of our own lives. (p. 263).

And a final comment from section 10: “We are all ultimately saved by grace … You are accepted … You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.” (p. 265). Not far, one might say, from the Gospel.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 2:4-13

Anathea Portier-Young

“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13 NRSV).

Living water rains, runs, flows, and swirls. It washes away impurity, transports nutrients, constitutes leaf and stem, blood and bone. Where water flows, life abounds. Where water stagnates, disease takes hold. Where there is no water, life cannot even begin.

As today, so in ancient times, the climate of much of Israel was defined by a rainy season (winter) and a dry season (summer). The summer brought sunshine and beautiful blue skies. But if one did not live near a natural, perennial source of living water, such as a spring, water could be hard to come by, and was truly precious.

Israel’s Iron Age (ca. 1200-539 BCE) was a time of technological innovation. New technologies such as terracing and iron plow-points facilitated agricultural intensification and geographical expansion. Another technology whose use made it possible for Israelites to settle and thrive in highland regions that had previously been inhospitable was the cistern. In Israel’s central highlands, settlers hewed bell-shaped cisterns from bedrock in order to collect and store surplus water from the rainy winter for use during the arid summer. They dug channels to direct rainwater into the cistern; some added a filtration system to trap dirt and debris. The cistern’s bell shape, with a narrow opening and wide well, protected the water within from contamination and evaporation. In places where the bedrock was formed predominantly from chalk, the chalk formed a natural seal when wet, further minimizing water loss. Elsewhere, cisterns could be sealed with a plaster compound made from slaked lime to prevent water from seeping out into the bedrock.1

These familiar features of daily life in Iron Age Israel and Judah provide the context and vehicle for Jeremiah’s metaphor in Jeremiah 2:13. The crisp accusation and vivid imagery of this verse, accented as it is by the repeated words, “water” and “cisterns,” set it apart as the climax of this week’s Old Testament lection. In a modern context where water flows from taps and travels in plastic bottles, it may be difficult to grasp the force of the metaphor. Many of us live with water security throughout the year and give little thought to the technologies and processes that make it possible. But this very distance from “the source” makes us all the more susceptible to the charges God here levels against the house of Israel.

What is this metaphor, and this passage, about? It’s about idolatry. It’s a familiar subject, but Jeremiah uses a new metaphor to help his people see it with fresh eyes. The tricky thing about idolatry is that often, when we’re doing it, it doesn’t seem like we’re worshipping a false god. It seems like we’re worshipping a true god. Or it seems like we are pursuing good ends, ordained by our true god. It seems like we are pursuing the something necessary for our survival, and if we believe that our true god desires our survival, then surely the thing we pursue is not idolatrous. Even if it feels empty and dry. Even if it really is draining us of life and soul.

For us today, it is not incidental that Jeremiah’s metaphor invokes a pervasive technology. Jeremiah tells us that idolatry is the act of trusting in our own technologies as we move further and further from the ground of our being. Such idolatry leads us to forsake the practices of justice and the very God who sustains and nourishes us as we work to master our environments, conquer obstacles, establish security, and develop new frontiers. Too often we trade a glorious gift and calling to go after things with no substance, no meaning, and no worth.

When we exchange God for an idol, says Jeremiah, we are transformed (2:11). We become like what we pursue (2:5). If we pursue what is empty, we become empty. If we pursue vanity, we become vain. If we pursue darkness, we are assimilated into the darkness. A preacher must ask, what pursuits, what ambitions, what acquiescences lead a people away from their source? Technologies have reordered and reoriented our lives faster than we can examine and evaluate them. These cisterns can’t hold water. And it is water that we need in order to live.

The preacher has a further responsibility. As God lays out her case against her people, she repeats one charge in particular: “They did not say, ‘where is the Lord?’” (Jeremiah 2:6,8). The people did not ask, nor did their priests. But the preacher must ask this question and must ask it in front of God’s people: Where is the Lord who abhors the economy of slavery and liberates the oppressed? Where is the Lord who lights up the impenetrable darkness and leads refugees in the wilderness?

The opening words of this lection, “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel” (Jeremiah 2:4) echo the well-known phrase, “Hear, O Israel,” that begins the Shema‘ prayer in Deuteronomy 6:4. The instruction contained in this prayer emphasizes the constant mindfulness and diligence that is required to maintain one’s allegiance to the one God. Even at Sinai, God knew how easy it would be for the people to forget, to be distracted by comfort, boredom, anxiety, or ambition. As you preach this week, help your congregation look for God in the wilderness, in the wires, in the weeds. Help them to see God working to free the oppressed and answer God’s call to justice. As you preach the Gospel this week, give God’s people living water to drink, that they might live.


1 Joseph A. Callaway, “A New Perspective on the Hill Country Settlement of Canaan in Iron Age I,” in Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages, ed. Jonathan N. Tubb (London: University of London Institute of Archaeology, 1985), 31-49.


Commentary on Psalm 112

Paul K.-K. Cho

Psalm 112 is an alphabetic acrostic that presents us, the readers, with a totalizing view of its subject matter: the happy life.

Our psalmist, in writing these twenty-two lines that correspond to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, has attempted to be both artistic and thorough. That the psalm does not achieve the high artistry of its twin, the similarly acrostic Psalm 111, or the wide-ranging thoroughness of Psalm 119, also an acrostic, should not distract us from appreciating what it does achieve. The psalm gives us an admirably honest and yet optimistic understanding of life, attentive to the vicissitudes of historical existence and yet faithful to the ancient teaching of the Wisdom tradition that a life characterized by the fear of the LORD is ultimately a happy one.

The Happiness of the Righteousness

Happiness, the psalmist maintains, has its roots in life lived out in “the fear of the LORD,” that is to say, a life that conforms to the teachings of the Wisdom tradition (112:1).

The psalmist agrees with the Book of Proverbs that “the fear of the LORD” is the “beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10) and also with the Book of Job which, in the surprising and beautiful panegyric to wisdom, affirms: “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” (Job 28:28). Thus the psalmist fittingly describes the wise fearer of God in stock phrases taken from Wisdom literature: “He greatly delights in [God’s] commandments” (112:1b); he is “gracious and compassionate and righteous” (112:4b); “he gives freely to the poor” (112:9a); and “his righteousness endures forever” (112:9b). In short, the fearer of God belongs squarely in the company of the wise and conforms to the ideals of Wisdom.

Predictably also, then, the wise fearer of God is said to be blessed in all the ways we might expect such individuals to be blessed — according to the retributive theory of justice. “His descendants will be mighty in the land” (112:2a); “wealth and riches are in his house” (112:3a); “his heart is steady; he will not fear” (112:8a); and “his horn will be exalted in honor” (112:9c). The fate of the righteous and upright person, who fears God and turns away from evil, is happy and blessed — in stark contrast to the fate of the wicked who look on him with vexation and anguish from their ash heap (112:10).

It would appear that Psalm 112 presents us with a stable world governed by the principles of Wisdom, a world that is free of tragic drama and heartache and is full of orderly happiness.

The Suffering of the Righteous

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the psalm as a pious fiction and the confession of a naïve student of Wisdom. The world of Psalm 112 is no stranger to evil and suffering. If we look carefully, we see that “darkness” (112:4), “evil tiding” (112:7), “foes” (112:8), and the “wicked” abound in this world and threaten to overshadow the light of the wise. It may even be said that the psalmist understands darkness as an always already given that the wise must penetrate and outshine for their own sake and for the sake of others.

Indeed, far from already blessed, the hero of the psalm suffers false reports and the thousand needles with which his foes try to bleed him. The psalm explains that the wise must persevere through present troubles and hold on to righteousness and to faith that God will, in his life or in the lives of his descendants, recognize and reward his steadfast devotion to Wisdom:

For never shall the righteous be moved
and forever be remembered.
He does not fear evil tidings;
his heart is firm, secure in the LORD.
His heart is steady; he does not fear,
till when he shall look upon his foes. (112:6-8)

The psalm does not so much teach as it preaches. It does not celebrate present blessedness but encourages future faithfulness. It is not a description of a well ordered world in which righteousness is equal to blessedness but an exhortation to faithfulness in a tumultuous and altogether human world. Our world of historical contingencies, of both mundane evil and everyday goodness.

The Path of the Righteous

What does the path of the righteous look like?

The psalm itself has little to say in response to this question. Rather, it directs us elsewhere. It points, as noted above, to Proverbs and perhaps also to Job. It also points to other psalms, like Psalm 1 (with which it shares a common beginning, “Happy is…”), Psalm 111 (with which it shares a common poetic form as well as the theme of the “fear of the LORD”), and Psalm 119 (another Wisdom psalm written in acrostic form).

But the little Psalm 112 does say about the path of the righteous is important. The psalm expresses concern for the poor as is characteristic of biblical literature and claims that wisdom and righteousness find their expression in the practice of everyday life:

It is well with the one who lends graciously;
He conducts his affairs with justice. (112:5)

At the heart of a righteous and wise life is the mundane matter of money and everyday business affairs. What it means to lend graciously and to conduct one’s affairs with justice is ambiguous. What is significant, however, is the assumption that right living, which leads to happiness, concerns money and the affairs of daily life. Wisdom, the fear of the LORD, finds expression not so much in pious religiosity but in the practice of everyday life, not so much in church and synagogue, but in schools and offices. This perhaps is no surprise to students of Proverbs and Wisdom literature generally. But it is a fine reminder nevertheless.

Happy is the one who fears the LORD.
He conducts his affairs with justice.

Second Reading

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

Amy L.B. Peeler

Hebrews 13 can read like a list of rules — do this and don’t do that — but it also includes some vital and enduring theological truths.

The instructions and the grounds for those instructions combine to create a template for ethics, a picture of how this community might live until they finish the race of faith (Hebrews 12:1) and enter God’s heavenly city (Hebrews 12:22–24).


At the close of chapter 12, the author left his audience with the intense quote from Deuteronomy, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). He must have taken a deep breath there, or maybe even resumed his sermon series the next week, for the beginning of chapter 13 switches tone abruptly. He issues six basic instructions for those who are members of Christ (Hebrews 3:1,14).

First, they should love their brothers and sisters. The early Christian movement practiced “fictive kinship.” In both language and lifestyle, they treated one another like family. The author of Hebrews has used this practice throughout the letter referring to them as siblings (Hebrews 1:1; 2:11-12, 16, 17; 3:1, 12; Hebrews 8:11; 10:19; 13:22-23) and urging them to continue in supportive relationships (Hebrews 3:13; 10:25, 32-34). Here he only reiterates what he has urged before: keep loving one another.

Second, they should not become an insular community focused only on themselves. They can’t forget to love the stranger as well. Who knows? They might end up entertaining an angel who has been sent to serve humanity (Hebrews 1:14) just as Abraham did (Genesis 18:2, 16; 19:1, 15-16).

Third, they have an intimate responsibility to remember those who are in prison and those who are being mistreated. The author noted that they faced persecution in the past (Hebrews 10:32-34) and are currently struggling against sin, which could also include an element of external persecution (Hebrews 12:2). The prisons of the first-century Roman world were daunting places. Crowded, dark rooms where prisoners were often bound and abused, these prisons necessitated that family and friends provide goods and visits to those in chains. They are all part of the same body, so the congregation should serve those suffering just as if they were going through the same horrors.

Fourth, with little fanfare or explanation, the author asserted that marriage should be honored and sexuality in marriage should be undefiled. God will judge those who commit adultery and fornication. It is a striking reminder of the gap in time and culture that these issues receive such little treatment. Hence, modern interpreters are left to try to ascertain the scope and application of such a blanket term as pornos (sexually immoral person). Nevertheless, exclusive purity of the marriage relationship remains his clear instruction.

Fifth, a place should exist in their lives for contentment, literally an “anti-love of money” (aphilarguros). They should acknowledge that what they have is sufficient. Scholars know that ancient house churches consisted of a few wealthy and quite a few not-so-wealthy, but here the emphasis lies in an acceptance of what God has provided for them. A lack of gratitude or a grasping for more wealth should not color their lives.

Sixth, and finally, he urges them to remember their leaders. These could have been direct witnesses to Jesus, who heard from him the gospel (Hebrews 2:3) and then spoke it to this congregation (Hebrews 13:7). They must not be with them anymore, for the author asks his listeners to set before them the way in which these people ended their life. They endured until the end, just as he is hoping the listeners will do. They are part of this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) and their faith should be imitated.


Toward the end of these instructions the author makes three theological comments, two from the Scriptures of Israel, and one about Jesus Christ. They provide a rationale for both the immediate instruction, but also a foundation for his entire letter.

After he warns them about covetousness and dissatisfaction, he reminds them that God has said, “I will never leave you nor will I forsake you.” There is no need to worry about material goods if you have the presence and protection of God. The citation echoes Deuteronomy 31, where Moses promises the people and Joshua who are poised to enter the land of Canaan that God will protect them. On a broader level, then, this quote is not just about finances, but about promise of God to sustain. Since they are following a new Joshua (in Greek Jesus and Joshua is the same name, Iesous) to a heavenly land of promise, they need this assurance from God as much as the Israelites did.

The second citation is their response. For the first time in the letter that includes numerous Scripture citations the audience is given a voice. Knowing God’s faithfulness to those who are listening, they can respond courageously with words from Psalm 117. Since the Lord helps them (cf. Hebrews 4:16), they need not fear anything that another human could do to them. If they were fearing future persecution, especially more seizure of their property (Hebrews 10:34), knowing that God would provide for them and help them would allow them to withstand anything, even as their forebears had done (11:35b–39). Thinking about persecution in the future and in the past might have led the author to his next comment about the earlier generation of leaders and their lifelong faithfulness. If they showed consistency in their lives, Jesus’ consistency is even greater. He has been the same yesterday, today, and forever.

This rich statement could stand on its own and at least one copyist was so moved by it, he added an “amen” at the close of this verse. Again, it could simply be a comfort that even though good leaders of the past have died, their leader Jesus will remain forever. On a deeper level, though, this statement adds further support for this author’s high view of Jesus. He is the Son of God, and that does not only indicate that he is Israel’s Messianic King, but that he is truly divine. If he exists in the same way from eternity past to eternity future, such a statement can only be said about God.

A theological life

After the author reflects again about the power of Jesus’ sacrifice (Hebrews 13:9-14), he instructs the audience to offer sacrifices of their own: praise, good deeds, and fellowship. By this point of the letter, they know who God is and what God has done on their behalf. They also know specific ways they should live, but the image of a sacrifice through all times (Hebrews 13:15) captures the ongoing application of Christian theology in Christian life. Praising God, doing good, and caring, in other words, a right relationship with God, self, and others will please the God who will sustain them forever.