Lectionary Commentaries for August 25, 2013
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:10-17

Emerson Powery

In Luke’s narrative, two scenes of Jesus’ teaching sandwiches this account of healing and controversy with religious leaders.

Jesus teaches that “suffering” doesn’t imply “sinfulness” (13:1-5) before telling a parable about mercy (cf. 13:6-7). On the other end of the synagogue healing is another parable, about how God’s kingdom grows (i.e., mustard seed and yeast) to manageable, and not unusually large, sizes. By the end of the chapter, Jesus laments over Jerusalem (cf. 13:34-35).

Jesus enters synagogues frequently (cf. 4:15, 16; 6:6-11); this time, he seems to be in search of something. Just before this scene, Luke records a parable in which Jesus’ vineyard owner says, “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none” (Luke 13:7). His sensitivity is heightened as he continues to search for “fig trees” that are bearing fruit. He enters the synagogue immediately following this parable.

Jesus’ recent apocalyptic visions (cf. 12:49-56) do not hinder him from continuing to do earthly good. On this occasion, he finds and releases a “daughter of Abraham” (cf. 13:10-13). Earlier, he healed a man whose hand had withered (cf. 6:6-11). Now, Jesus heals a female who had a crippling back deformity.

On both occasions, Luke describes Jesus teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, but we are not informed about the content of his teaching. On both occasions, prominent religious leaders take offense at Jesus’ actions because of their view of what is allowable on the holy Sabbath day. By the end of chapter 13, Jesus’ search will turn into lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…” (cf. 13:34-35).

In neither story is Luke’s focus on the specific content of Jesus’ teaching. Rather, Jesus notices a man or woman in need and allows them to interrupt his teaching. In neither case is there any mention of “faith” on behalf of the recipient; Jesus initiates the action. And, Jesus expresses his power over “spirit” forces (in chapter 13) and “natural” forces (chapter 6) as well. Both stories are healing stories but, more significantly, for Luke, is the controversy these healings create due to questions of Jesus’ Sabbath practices. In both accounts, Jesus seems aware of this tension and provides explanations, albeit minimal ones (cf. 6:9; 13:15-16).

The ending of chapter 13 is significantly different from the earlier story. In Luke 6, the religious leaders depart from the synagogue trying to think of what to do with Jesus; and, they were furious (6:11). Their negative response will have major consequences later in the narrative. In Luke 13, the synagogue crowd rejoices at Jesus’ healing action (and teaching?). And, here, his “opponents” are disgraced.

In an honor/shame society, like first-century Palestine, this public shaming of the local synagogue leader is not good … for him or for his ability to lead this religious and social community in this small village. [Jesus had a more positive relationship with another synagogue leader earlier in the story (cf. 8:40-56).] This, too, has the potential to create problems for Jesus later in his mission.

But, the crowd is pleased and Luke highlights their reaction, a reaction that would be indicative of the divide over Sabbath practices in general in first century Judaism. Everyone was not on the same page. Compared to the earlier account, Jesus is beginning to receive a much more favorable reaction from the crowd (13:11).

According to Luke, Jesus’ opponents are not only human. Jesus describes his successful exorcizing activity as a sign of Satan’s decline (cf. 10:17-19; 11:18) and envisions the waning of Satan’s power because of it (cf. 10:18). The healing of this “daughter of Abraham” is, apparently, part of that activity (cf. 13:16). When referring to illnesses, Luke usually describes the breakdown of the body as due to, as in our story, a “weak spirit” (13:11, 12; the NRSV translates the Greek as “spirit” and “ailment”) and reserves the language of “unclean spirit” (cf. 4:36; 6:18; 8:29; 9:42) or “evil spirit” (cf. 7:21; 8:2) for people who need exorcisms. Nonetheless, in Luke’s world, some illnesses are also connected to “spirits.” [Apparently, this is not the case in Luke 6.] So, it is no surprise when Luke describes Judas’ ultimate act of deception as an activity enhanced by Satan’s entrance into his being (cf. 22:3).

So what?
This is not a theological debate about the origins of illness and physical deformities. Sometimes, in Luke’s narrative, these are due to the hand of “Satan” (cf. 13:16) and other times it is due to natural causes. Luke’s stories allow for both theological positions to find support in these accounts. There seems to be no general rule.

But this story is not told in order to discuss that theological issue. Rather this is a story about the role and function of our religious traditions, our claims about what could and should be practiced on the “Sabbath” or who is allowed within the walls of our synagogues and religious communities. Special religious practices may become hindrances to inclusion. We must be diligent to recognize what theological ideas we hold dear that disallow full participation from others.

And, Luke’s Jesus could not be clearer or more consistent on this point. He’s no Sabbath breaker! He operates well within Jewish tradition of the day. But he is also not one to allow the tradition to exclude people from access to the community and the potential for their healing. Many in the crowd agree.

These are stories about community. What kind of community do we want to be? And, do religious traditions help us to become that kind of community or do they hinder our desires? Will our traditions hinder the “daughter of Abraham,” in our day, from joining us today?

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 58:9b-14

Brian C. Jones

Isaiah 56–66, so-called Third Isaiah, addresses the post-exilic community struggling to make a new life in Jerusalem during the 530s and 520s BCE.

Rebuilding the temple and the city was moving slowly, perhaps stalled completely. Leadership within the community was contested. Divisions and violent quarreling hindered progress in both physical and social restoration. Drought and food shortages exacerbate the social strife and made rebuilding difficult. Economic and social inequity — homelessness, hunger, lack of clothing — threatened the stability and identity of the returned community.

Groups outside the Judean community regarded the returnees with suspicion, and the returnees disagreed about how welcoming to outsiders the community should be. Texts composed around this time testify to this tension. Ezra-Nehemiah represents an exclusivist position; Third Isaiah and Ruth promote an inclusive viewpoint. Second Isaiah (chapters 40–55) had promised a glorious return and restoration of the community. Third Isaiah speaks a word of correction and hope in the less-than-glorious situation the Judeans actually faced.

The eight verses preceding Isaiah 58:9b–14 provide essential literary context for interpretation. Chapter 58 as a whole focuses on the proper disposition of the community toward both God and neighbor. The prophet condemns those who assume that frequent worship and obsequious rituals will persuade God to help them. Such self-involved worship sours and curdles into insincere gestures of pious theater. This sort of self-interested worship amounts to hugging God and hoping for a cookie.

“The Fast I Choose”
Isaiah 58 might well be titled, “The Fast I Choose” (58:6). The theme of food and hunger pervade the chapter. Fasting was evidently a common practice at the time, but only among those with enough food. The poor fast by necessity. The fast God “chooses” is, ironically, to provide food for the hungry and thereby to enable them to break their enforced fast.

Other things necessary to a decent life must be supplied as well: freedom from economic oppression and injustice (verses 3, 6, 9), clothing and housing (verses 7, 12), and neighborly kindness instead of personal attacks (verses 4, 9b, 13). God’s chosen fast — providing life’s necessities for all — wins God’s attention (verse 9).

The invitation to “remove the yoke from among you” should be interpreted in light of verse 6 where it symbolizes injustice and oppression. “The pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil” likely provide specific examples of injustice and oppression. The powerful use false accusations and slander to deprive those of lesser status of their rights and property (see 1 Kings 21). Such oppressive behavior is forbidden, but refraining from oppressing the weak is not enough. The audience is called to raise them up, to feed the hungry and provide life’s necessities for the afflicted (verse 10).

God’s demands are clear, but our anxious desire to secure our own lives, even when it requires that others suffer, make obedience challenging. It’s easy to fast when you know your cupboards are full; the challenge is to empty your cupboards to meet the needs of others and then trust God to “satisfy your needs in parched places.”

More than food is necessary for a stable life, however. Without walls and houses and streets, life is insecure and chaotic. In this respect, the entire community stood in need. God promises the restoration of their city, the shalom of urban renewal. The work is theirs to do, as well as the honor of having done it: “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets” (58:12). Determining how these words might apply to God’s people today needs little imagination, only a willingness to see what is broken and to begin the work of rebuilding, block by block.

The Moral Imperative of Sabbath Rest
In light of the author’s attack on insincere worship in the first half of chapter 58, the description in verse 13 of proper observance of the Sabbath is at first surprising. The author is not opposed to worship per se, only to the hypocrisy of worshiping God while ignoring the needy. Such insincere worship amounts to “trampling the Sabbath” (compare Isaiah 1:10–17; Amos 5:21–24).

Indeed, honoring the Sabbath involves not worship but caring for those at the bottom of the social ladder, as Jesus’ argument in Luke 13:15–16 shows. The Decalogue makes clear that the purpose of the Sabbath is to grant a day of respite to the underclass (Deuteronomy 5:12–15). As Jesus notes in Mark’s gospel, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (2:27).

Jubilee and Urban Renewal
Themes related to the Year of Jubilee punctuate 58:9b–14. Jubilee was designed to restore economic equity to the structures of society that, then as now, become distorted over time, shifting wealth and power into the hands of a few (see Leviticus 25). Significantly, our text is structurally and thematically similar to the announcement of the Year of Jubilee in 61:1–4.

The thematic structure of both texts moves from relief for the poor the hungry and the oppressed to the promise of security and flourishing (garden/tree symbols) and ends with a promise of honor for those who rebuild the ruins of the city and make it livable (verse 12). Salvation is here and now; it is incarnate in human action. The restoration of the people as a community depends on the restoration of the infrastructure upon which the goodness of its common life depends.

Although rebuilding the ancient ruins is a repeated theme in both chapter 58 and 61, it is surprising that neither mentions rebuilding the temple, a task of great importance to the returnees. Perhaps in the view of the writer of third Isaiah, worship, fasting and rituals of abasement — temple-focused acts — had been overemphasized, whereas too little attention had been paid to the physical and social structures that make possible communal shalom. The blessing for not following one’s own selfish interests on the Sabbath will be to “ride upon the heights of the earth,” an exaltation contrasting sharply with rituals of abasement describe at the beginning of the chapter.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10

Alphonetta Wines

Most prophetic books provide little or no information about the life of the prophet.

In contrast, stories about the life of Jeremiah comprise one of the signature features of the book that bears his name. Narratives of imprisonment, commitment to God’s command not to marry or have children, persecution, false accusations of treason, forced exile to Egypt, destruction of a manuscript by King Jehoiakim, and an unfruitful search for just one righteous person (for whom God would relent concerning a planned destruction) add an unprecedented personal touch to his prophecies. Whether they possess historical authenticity or merely serve as literary devices, these accounts make the book of Jeremiah as exhilarating as it is inspirational.

The story of Jeremiah’s call to preach, which appears immediately after the superscription, is the first of many stories about his life. This is a job that Jeremiah neither seeks nor welcomes. Citing his young age, he objects. God, however, will not let Jeremiah’s youth stand in the way of sending a message that the people of Israel need to hear, even if they do not want to hear it. Jeremiah would not be alone for God regularly seeks young people for divine work. Jacob, Joseph, Miriam, Gideon, Joshua, Samuel, David, Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack, Abednego, Mary, Jarius’ daughter, Timothy, and Jesus at age twelve were all young when they too encountered the divine. Reluctantly, Jeremiah says yes to God’s call.

Jeremiah’s home, Anathoth, is located just three miles north of Jerusalem. He is a member of a priestly family that was displaced years earlier by Solomon. Walter Brueggemann explains the significance of Jeremiah’s family background: 

The importance … is that this family of priests … had long been opposed to the ostentatious self-indulgence of the Davidic house in its trajectory of economic-military autonomy on which Solomon had set it. This means that Jeremiah was a product and representative of a theology grounded in hostility to the Davidic establishment that is both very old and very deep[1]

With this backdrop, it seems likely that Jeremiah’s call to ministry was a call to make public what he already felt in his heart.

Living during a time of national transition meant that Jeremiah’s critique is both urgent and necessary. He preached during the reigns of five kings, from reform under Josiah through exile under Zedekiah. Louis Stulman summarizes his ministry noting that Jeremiah “will pronounce the death of one world and the birth of another . . . [as he engages] the dangerous work of dismantling Judah’s civic, cultural, and religious life.”[2] Jeremiah’s critique will leave none unscathed. Messages of destruction uttered against not only Jerusalem and Judah, but also against Egypt, Gaza (the Philistines), Moab, Ammon, Edom, Syria (Damascus), and Babylon make it clear that God is the God of all nations, whether they know it or not.

As the book unfolds, it is apparent that Jeremiah is called to deliver a message that is both difficult and unwelcome. The declaration that God knew him before he was born, even before he was formed in his mother’s womb, does not exempt Jeremiah from problems inherent in his ministerial call. Neither the command not to be afraid, nor the promise of God’s presence, is enough to shield Jeremiah from the trouble that awaits him. Anticipating the difficulty may have been part of the reason why Jeremiah objected to God’s summons.

Four (pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow) of the six verbs God uses to describe Jeremiah’s appointment have negative connotations. Only two verbs (build, plant) have positive connotations. The use of twice as many negative verbs as positive ones affirms that Jeremiah’s message will largely focus on destruction and devastation.

The complexity of his message is reflected in the ambivalence of his love-hate relationship with his assigned task. Though compelled to preach, Jeremiah seems to retain the reluctance of his youth throughout his ministerial career. For example, later in Jeremiah 20:9, Jeremiah complains that preaching is “like a burning fire shut up in my bones.” Not only does Jeremiah protest that he has become a “laughingstock” and an object of mockery, he accuses God of enticing and overpowering him (20:7). Like Job, he laments the day of his birth.

The duality of his response might cause one to wonder whether he is bi-polar, suffers schizophrenia, or is just having a bad day. Perhaps it is none of these, for his words reflect the kind of “grappling [that] may lead to deeper faith.”[3] By the end of the book it is obvious that despite his misgivings about his call, Jeremiah’s “faith was big enough and bold enough to embrace the whole tragic sense of human history and to see that God had been fully involved in it.”[4] His faith was big enough for the difficult complex task to which God called him.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Theology of the Book of Jeremiah (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 30.

[2] Louis Stulman, Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 42.

[3] Paul L. Redditt, Introduction to the Prophets (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 122.

[4] R. E. Clements, Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 14.


Commentary on Psalm 103:1-8

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 103 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, a psalm in which a single voice praises God for goodness to or on behalf of that individual, usually for deliverance from some trying situation.

Hermann Gunkel, one of the great fathers of psalm studies, describes hymns of thanksgiving in this way: “A person is saved out of great distress … and now with grateful heart he [sic] brings a thank offering to Yahweh; it was customary that at a certain point in the sacred ceremony he would offer a song in which he expresses his thanks.”[1]

The psalmist begins the words of thanksgiving by addressing the nephesh, usually translated as “soul,” but better understood as “inmost being” — the all of who a person is. (See the parallel “all that is within me” in the second half of verse 1.) The opening and closing words of the psalm (verses 1 and 22) bring to mind the popular praise song by Andrae Crouch, “Bless the Lord, O my soul … He has done great things.”

While Crouch’s song leaves the “great things” undefined, Psalm 103 outlines in detail just what God does for the psalmist’s nephesh. God forgives iniquity, heals diseases, redeems from the Pit (a reference to death), crowns with steadfast love and mercy, satisfies with good, and works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed (verses 3-6).

Verses 7 and 8 recall the time of the Wilderness Wanderings, when Israel repeatedly grumbled against and rejected God’s goodness, but God continued to provide for and guide them. Verse 8 brings to the mind of the hearer the golden calf incident in Exodus 32-34, which culminated in God’s self-declaration in Exodus 34:5-7: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

The word translated “merciful” in Exodus 34:6 and Psalm 103:4 and 8 is particularly interesting. It is derived from the Hebrew verbal root raham, whose noun form rehem means “womb.” God’s compassion is tied closely to the concept of “womb love,” the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child. Over and over, the psalmists remember and call upon God’s mercy, God’s “womb love.” “Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love” (25:6); “Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me” (69:16); “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion (another word used by the NRSV to translate raham) is over all that he has made” (145:9). References to God’s mercy (or compassion) occur no less than twenty-two times in the book of Psalms.

Psalm 22 takes the metaphor a step further and actually connects God’s identification with “womb-love” to the physical referent for the metaphor. In verse 10 the psalmist cries to God, “Upon you I was cast from the rehem (in the NRSV, “from my birth”). Here God is intimately tied to the life-giving womb and is further pictured as midwife. Phyllis Trible, in God and Rhetoric of Sexuality, describes the image in this verse as a “semantic movement from a physical organ of the female body to a psychic mode of being.”[2] In Ps 77:9 the psalmist asks “Has God in anger shut up his compassion?” The verb translated “shut up” (qapats) is used most often in the Hebrew text in reference to “shutting the mouth,” but one does not have to travel far metaphorically to connect “mouth” with “womb opening” in this poetic construction.

Another word in verses 4 and 8 of Psalm 103 is also found in God’s self-descriptive words in Exod 34:6 — hesed. It is translated in the NRSV as “steadfast love.” Hesed is a difficult word to render into English; it has to do with the relationship between two parties of an agreement, a covenant in the context of the Old Testament. God made a covenant with Abraham in Gen 15:18, stating “To your descendants I give the land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” In Exodus 19:4-5, God and the people of Israel entered into a covenant relationship at Mt. Sinai. God said to them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.”

God promised that the Israelites would be a treasured possession; they had only to keep God’s covenant stipulations. We might say that hesed is about covenant relationship or covenant promises. It has to do with the sacred agreement, the sacred relationship, between God and God’s people. Thus, Exodus 34 and Psalm 103 remind us that our God is a God of womb-love and a God of covenant promise.

The thanksgiving words of Psalm 103 stand in stark contrast to the lamenting words of Psalms 42 and 43, in which the psalm singer admonishes the nephesh, who is “cast down” and “disquieted,” to “hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God” (42:5, 11; 43:5). Words of quiet despair are transformed into words of thankful praise as the singer of Psalm 103 brings to mind all of God’s “benefits” (verse 2). The word translated “benefits” (gemul), though, actually has to do with receiving in return what one has earned — what one should receive in return for one’s actions, words, and thoughts. The psalmist recognizes that, while God is not a God of retribution (note I said should above), we are called upon to respond to and embrace the mercy, the “womb-love,” of God and to uphold our human responsibilities of the steadfast love, the hesed, relationship.

[1] Hermann Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), 17.
[2] Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 33.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 12:18-29

Erik Heen

Today’s second reading is the third of four consecutive readings from Hebrews.

The last two weeks focused on the list of heroes and heroines of the faith in Chapter 11. Today’s lesson compares the worship at Mount Sinai (though the actual place is unnamed in the text) with that of Mount Zion. The arrival to the celestial City of God, much anticipated earlier in this longer section of Hebrews (11:10, 16) is described in some detail. Yet incorporation of the faithful into the “heavenly Jerusalem” and its divine service (12:22) is, in fact, only the penultimate climax of this motif.

Hebrews description of the City of God itself anticipates the stunning exhortation that flows from Hebrews final reflection on the cross: “Jesus 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.” Today’s second reading ends by quoting Haggai 2:6 in order to reveal an equally stunning acknowledgement of God’s birthing of a new cosmos, where even the most basic distinction between heaven and earth will be dissolved (12:27). In advance of this cosmic “shaking,” those of faith are asked “to offer God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (12:28).

Hebrews’ point seems to be that in a cosmos without such a basic “religious” distinction between heaven and earth, divine service of God necessarily goes “outside the city gate” of even the heavenly Jerusalem to serve those in need. Heavenly worship and responding to the needs of the neighbor are one and the same. The model here, of course, is the incarnation of the pre-existent Word in the person and work of the high priest of this sacred/profane liturgy, Jesus. In short, Christian worship is a liturgy (service) indelibly marked by the cross and the cruciform life of Christian discipleship.

The comparison made between God’s theophanies at Sinai and Zion is fascinating. In a sense, in both revelations God remains hidden, though in different ways. At Sinai, God is hidden in the display of God’s power. Though the description is fearful, it follows rather traditional lines. It includes the display of “darkness and gloom” as well as fire, tempests, and trumpets. Moses himself is led to confess, “I tremble with fear” (verse 21). Animals are to be stoned if they touch the holy mountain. The people themselves beg that “not another word be spoken to them” (verse 19) — an odd request to a God who reveals by speaking (Genesis 1:1; Hebrews 1:1).

On Zion the theophany can also be easily be missed, though in a different way. If on Sinai God is hidden in a fearsome display of divine power, in Jerusalem God’s revelation is hidden in human weakness. Hebrews subtly reflects on this odd, upside-down theophany by returning to the first “hero” of the faith mentioned in Chapter 11 — Abel (11:4). While the spilling of Abel’s blood by Cain revealed the depth of human sin, in the revelation of God on the cross we are drawn “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:24). The death of Abel reveals the insidious nature of Sin and the suffering and injustice that flows from it. In the suffering and death of Jesus God speaks a Word that “puts away” Sin (9:26).

Hebrews calls itself “a word of exhortation” (13:22). In this highly sophisticated rhetorical document, words of admonishment are often followed by words of encouragement. Though the text ends with a word of thanksgiving for “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (12:28), this is preceded by a warning (“do not refuse the one who is speaking,” verse 25), which brings to mind the very beginning of the epistle: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

Hebrews notes that the OT records the unwillingness of the people of God to listen when warned by the prophet Moses. How much more is at stake when we are spoken to by God’s very Word? Though God’s voice “shook the earth” (verse 26) in the time of Moses, now God’s voice shakes both earth and heaven. One can read this as a threat, patterned by what is called a minore ad maius — an argument from the lesser to the greater.

If so, the logic is, as the text bluntly puts it, “if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!” In other words, the stakes are higher now. The threat of alienation from God is more radical today than “then.” But, more radical than what? Separation from God (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12)? This question leads to others.

What if God’s revelation on Zion is not so simply to be compared with that on Sinai as interpreted through the mechanism of a minore ad maius? What if God’s “way” of speaking in Christ actually bridges the terrifying gap between the all-powerful, transcendent God of fire (and darkness and gloom) and does not widen it?

What if God’s way of speaking in Christ crucified and risen does not lead to the stoning of animals (and people) who are a threat to God holy purity, but is rather “proof” (11:1) of the legitimate faith
            • in a God of justice who hears the long suffering cries of innocent blood shed (11:4)?
            • in a God of tenderhearted compassion toward mothers whose children who die too young (11:35)?
            • in a God of hospitality to homeless wanderers in search of hope and consolation (11:9)?
            • in a God of favor to those bound to a life of humiliating shame (11:31)?   

What if the Word that God speaks from the cross is such that it is truly heard only when it responds to human need? What if God’s Word simply falls silent when all it is perceived to contain is the threat of holy, transcendent judgment upon all that is impure, unholy, and profane?