Lectionary Commentaries for August 21, 2016
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:10-17

David Schnasa Jacobsen

Two things are important to remember for framing this particular episode in Luke 13:10-17.

Since the beginning of Luke, the author of the Gospel has been trying to help us understand Jesus as coming from Jewish stock. Some may call Luke’s Gospel Gentile-friendly, but it clearly embraces his Jewishness. The Gospel writer celebrates it in the birth narratives of Luke 1-2 with the circumcision rite and Temple sacrifice and even has Jesus preach his first sermon in his home-town synagogue in Luke 4. Second, this Jesus has a conflicted relationship with his own Jewish heritage — a fact alluded to in the earliest chapters of Luke, but becoming especially clear when Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” at the beginning of his long cruciform journey in 9:51. The cross, therefore, casts its shadow even here in a scene of conflict in the synagogue

This, of course, helps make sense of our pericope’s setting. Luke 13:1 makes it clear that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This Jesus is revealed here to be thoroughly Jewish. The appearance of a “woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years” sets the subsequent narrative conflict in motion. The wording in Greek shows that disease is understood as the product of spirits, in this case, a “spirit of weakness” (Luke 13:2). Some argue that our text is a miracle story; others, a pronouncement story built on the conflict between Jesus and his synagogue opponents. This particular text gives evidence of both kinds of story: it is a healing that leads to an important pronouncement. The purpose of understanding this, however, is that it might aid us in appreciating the uniqueness of the narrative itself: it is a miracle with something to say about God!

How do we know? Two features leap to mind. First, the miracle itself is hardly even described. Some miracles go to great lengths to show the run up and the denouement of the miraculous action. Here Luke rushes past the graphic physical description of the miracle to get to the conflict. The miracle serves just this purpose in our text. More importantly, however, the nature of that conflict is about whether doing a miracle constitutes work on the Sabbath. Luke’s narration, in sometimes subtle ways, undermines the notion with its taciturn approach to the miracle itself. The miracle is not marked by healing pyrotechnics: the only thing Jesus does physically is to lay hands on the woman. The power of the miracle is in what precedes and follows it: Jesus announces her freedom from the crippling spirit (“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”) with a word and when she is healed, the healing happens in the form of the divine passive (“she stood up straight” actually reads in the Greek as she “was straightened up” — assuming God as agent). God not only “set free”, but “straightened” her in the synagogue on the Sabbath. All Jesus did was to lay on hands between the divine announcement and the divine action.

In some ways, this language of divine agency complicates the conflict. A synagogue leader in Luke 13:14 tries to shame Jesus indirectly by pointing out that the healing was work — something that could be done on any of the six days set aside for labor instead of the holy Sabbath. We would also be right to interpret Jesus’ response by the rabbinic argument of the lesser to the greater. Jesus responds, like his accuser, to the crowd by pointing out that any of them would take care of an animal needing help on the Sabbath — so how much more should they respond to a human being in need. All this kind of argument is well and good and undoubtedly very Jewish. But the synagogue leader and Jesus are actually saying more here. The synagogue leader uses the Greek verb dei to make his claim about the ought of work. Luke loves this verb in his narrative because it describes what it is necessary for Jesus to do as God’s agent. This is why Jesus’ response picks up on the synagogue leader’s claim. The ought here is not about a divine necessity to work on the other six days, but based on a divine necessity (dei) to have this woman be freed from bondage on the Sabbath (Luke 13:16). To make the point even clearer, he calls her what she really is a “daughter of Abraham.” Jesus here does not supersede Jewishness with his claims about the Sabbath, but rather intensifies their theological grounding in the necessity of God and God’s purposes to heal, liberate, and unbind.

As Luke is wont to do, the narrator points to the mystery of God’s action in this moment as a way of reframing Sabbath and relationships to all of the daughters of Abraham. There is no room here for Gentile gloating over some Jewish come-uppance. Instead, we are led to the threshold of celebrating and praising God along with the Jewish crowd. When God is up to something, prepare to be unbound: whether from confining diseases, or social norms about persons with disabilities, or even holy pieties. The fact that Jesus does this within the Jewish tradition and for a daughter of Abraham shows that God keeps showing up, drawing the circle just a little wider and unleashing a divine horizon that begets rejoicing over the loosing of every human bondage. We who gather around the Table should not be surprised. There, sometimes despite ourselves, we glimpse the great and glorious thing that God is doing, celebrate that space that is there for all, and give our thanks and praise. The God who shows up does not lead us out of our fellowship, but more deeply into it .. with others and with a Jesus who is committed with his very journey to the strange thing God deems necessary in Luke’s Jewish/Gentile Gospel.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 58:9b-14

James Limburg

If you have ever attended a Friday evening synagogue service, you know that at the conclusion the rabbi will often say, “We invite our visitors to join us for an Oneg Shabbat after the service in the community room.”

You discover that an Oneg Shabbat is a post-worship social hour where there is good food, good wine, good conversation, maybe even some good music.

I was reminded of oneg shabbats I have attended when I read today’s text in Hebrew, “if you call the Sabbath (shabbat) a delight (oneg) … ” The Sabbath. That’s what this text is about. The Hebrew word Shabbat occurs twice in v. 13.

Problems in the post-exilic community

While today’s text is found in the Book of Isaiah, these words are not associated with the prophet Isaiah who worked in Jerusalem in the 700’s BCE. Most of the material in the first part of the Isaiah book (chapters 1-39) does come from that period. But biblical scholarship has demonstrated that chapters Isaiah 40-66 are clearly from a later time. Jerusalem, destroyed in 587 BCE, lay in ruins (44:26, 28; 54:3; 58:12). Cyrus the Persian who captured Babylon in 539 BCE is on the scene (44:28; 45:1). The Jewish people are in Babylon (48:20; 52:11,12). As we study chapters 40-66 we discover that the people have returned from exile in Babylon and are now a small group gathered around Jerusalem, hoping to get the temple rebuilt for worship (the work of Haggai and Zechariah), a wall put around the city for security (Nehemiah) and religion back into the lives of all the people (Ezra’s concern).

A careful reading of Isaiah 58 gives us a picture of the problems in the community. Their relationship to their God was not what it should be. The people were fasting, but God didn’t seem to pay attention (v.3). In fact, what should have been days of worship turn out to be times of fighting and hypocrisy (vv.4-5) And they were not observing the Sabbath days, but using them for their own interests and gain (58:13-14).

Nor was their relationship to their neighbor what it should be. Wealthy citizens were oppressing their workers and were not paying them minimum wages! (vv. 6-7). People with property and money should be caring for the hungry and the homeless in their community, but they neglected them. Neglecting worship and day-by-day religion, commercializing the Sabbath, not caring for the poor and needy — such was the situation the prophet had to address.

Remember the Sabbath day

One of the marks of the Jews during this time was observation of the Sabbath. Ever since the days of Moses, the Israelite people were to respond to what God had done for them (the Exodus) by keeping the Ten Commandments. The third of these was “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:1-17). The people were to do no work on the Sabbath. The Hebrew word for Sabbath means to stop. When the hostile enemies asked Nehemiah to stop building the wall around Jerusalem he said, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop (Hebrew sabbath) while I leave it to come down to you? (Nehemiah 6:3).

In fact, that commandment went further back than the time of Moses. According to Genesis 1, God took six days to make the heavens and the earth and then stopped his work on the seventh day. “God didn’t show up at the office” as Walter Brueggemann puts it somewhere.

In the days when Nehemiah was governor, when the people bought and sold on the Sabbath he just shut them all down! (Nehemiah 13;15-22).

But the Sabbath should be a delight, as Isaiah 58:13 puts it.

An old Jewish story tells of a family where the father never missed attending synagogue on Friday evenings, even though he claimed that he didn’t believe in God. When his children asked him about this strange behavior he said, “My friend Garfinkel believes in God. In fact, he goes to synagogue every Friday evening to talk with God. I go to talk with Garfinkel.”

Gathering for worship, even for fellowship after worship, was part of the Oneg Shabbat, the Sabbath delight, as Isaiah 58:13 put it.

One of the American musician Duke Ellington’s most beautiful compositions is called “Come Sunday.” He originally wrote it for an opera, which told of the plight of the African American people in the south. They were overworked and underpaid. But they were allowed to gather and sing and worship each Sunday. The refrain of the song states “But Sunday, that’s the day I’m waiting for … ”

How would the people of Judah, the Jews, survive after their temple and their capital city had been destroyed? Two things held them together. One was their holy day, the Sabbath. The other was their language, Hebrew. In the post-exilic period Nehemiah discovered that the Jews were not seeing to the Hebrew education of their children. He argued with them, cursed them, beat them and pulled out their hair (Nehemiah 13:23-25; a passage I customarily read to my beginning Hebrew students).

The sense of Sabbath for our time

The busy citizens of the 20th century and beyond have coined a word for a new malady: “workaholism.” A workaholic is a person who can’t stop (take a Sabbath from) working and can’t enjoy the delight of the Sabbath.

One of my teachers once said of his own busy life, “It was one of those nights when I was lying awake in my bed, baby-sitting the world.” He couldn’t trust God to watch over things for one night!

I once heard Rabbi Kushner say, “I’ve called on many people on their death beds — but have yet to hear one say, “I wish I’d spent more time on my business.” Such people missed the chance to experience the delight of stopping their work and of discovering the delight of worship, and of the Sabbath.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10

Richard W. Nysse

Since Jeremiah 1:4-10 functions to introduce and authorize the entire book of Jeremiah, it may be helpful to introduce the range of content in the book, from calls for repentance, to announcements of judgment, to personal laments, to pronouncements against the nations, and finally to stunning announcements of hope, renewal, and recreation.

The call of Jeremiah shapes how we read the entire book. When we have the entire book in mind, we will not read these lectionary verses as a reflection on vocation. We are not urged to “be like” Jeremiah; rather, we are called to listen to Jeremiah. We are not enjoined to admire Jeremiah nor are adolescent “youths” being encouraged to dream beyond their self-perceived deficiencies.

Jeremiah spoke a commanded word, a word placed in his mouth. We don’t need to reduce the metaphorical language to a literalistic caricature with Jeremiah reduced to nothing more than a singing telegraph or a piece of audio equipment playing recordings of God’s words. Jeremiah is not a dispassionate instrument. The words he will be commanded to speak will have an impact on him. In particular, he is not exempt from the dark message he is compelled to speak against his neighbors. There is no “good guy/bad guy” distinction in the book that would result in rewards for the “good guys.” Nobody is rewarded with a little Eden-like island spared from the surrounding plucking up and tearing down of Judah and Jerusalem. In the context of the whole book, building and planting follow being destroyed and overthrown; they are not an exemption from the latter.

Before I formed you … before you were born, I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). “Today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms” (1:10). The temporal span from before birth to the time when Jeremiah was a “boy/youth” underscores the decisiveness of God’s call to Jeremiah. Functionally, the call commences when it is declared to Jeremiah. It starts with the today of this call narrative, the day when Jeremiah says he is too inarticulate and young and God responds with “go,” “speak,” and “do not be afraid.” The today stretches from the 13th year of Josiah to the 11th year of Zedekiah and beyond. Each day of Jeremiah’s prophetic work is a “today-I-appoint-you” day. That appointment is his only authorization and God bears the responsibility for it.

“Today” is restated in Jeremiah 1:18. The effect is similar to the use of “today” in Deuteronomy. To an original audience, it heightens the import of what is said. The message is not a general truism or something that may have applicability at some future point. The “today” pushes beyond the language of moral principles and doctrine. Rather, it has particularity and urgency; there is a present tense “now” at work. The recipient of the message needs to respond immediately, not merely take the message under advisement. At the same time, each future moment is a “now.” Thus, in the case of Jeremiah, “today” covers each day within the span from Josiah to Zedekiah and beyond into the captivity of Jerusalem. Finally, it encompasses subsequent readers centuries later. The book of Jeremiah is a continual present tense proclamation. It is not merely an archival record of past proclamation from which we might derive a few still useful nuggets.

How are these words re-presented to us? Where do we enter as readers and addressees into the dynamic of the text? First, we enter at the point of the captivity of Jerusalem. That is where Jeremiah 1:1-3 leaves off and thus positions the reader. This captivity is not a momentary relenting of the sunshine; it’s not a bit of pain before a gain (to paraphrase an athletic training cliché). As readers we know that any call to repentance was not accepted because we know that the “captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month” will come before we finish reading the book. Calls for repentance classically lay out alternative futures: if you repent, then the future will be good; if you do not repent, then the future will not be good. There an inherent threat (“or else”) contained in the warnings (see 4:1-4 for instances of these structures). The reader knows that calls for repentance and warnings went unheeded for they did not ward off the “captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month” (1:3). Undoubtedly we will resist understanding ourselves as already in captivity. We want options that we can exercise; our doctrines of autonomy and free will scream in resistance to starting in captivity. Perhaps the editorial shaping and placement of the call narrative not only shapes our reading posture for the rest of the book but also responds to any potential resistance to the implications of the heading of the book (vss. 1-3).

Second, we are placed before the purpose for which Jeremiah was appointed. As readers who are at the same time addressees of the book of Jeremiah, we are those who are plucked up and pulled down, who are destroyed and overthrown, and who are built and planted. It is not a matter that some are allotted to the first four verbs and others to the last two verbs. Placing the prefix “re-” before the latter two might best capture the mix of these six verbs: rebuilding and replanting. The magnitude, surprise and audacity of “build” and “plant” are lost if they are not embedded in the reality created in the preceding verbs, that is, in the “captivity of Jerusalem.”

An optimistic culture will vehemently resist any suggestion that its projects will be shutdown and disassembled. It will fight against a message of judgment (Jeremiah 1:19). It cannot imagine “build” and “plant” as anything but a ratification of its own prestige and virtues. But in the book of Jeremiah such thinking belongs to Hananiah and other false prophets (see, for example, Jeremiah 28). The first move in the book is to spell out the ramifications of “pluck up,” “pull down,” “destroy,” and “overthrow,” starting with the boiling pot spilling over from the north (Jeremiah 1:13ff.). Such a future is not in the cultural script and therefore is hard to hear. Without hearing and experiencing them, there is no building and planting.

There are other contexts in which “build” and “plant” are equally hard to hear. Words of anger and revenge may be more prominent but such words can also resist the commanded words of the book of Jeremiah. Anger and revenge are not ways to exit the “captivity of Jerusalem.” The exit depends on God “watching over [God’s] word to perform it” (Jeremiah 1:12).

Six verbs are used to summarize the authorized the word of God in the book of Jeremiah. The preaching task today is to discern which verbs need to be represented and reheard in a specific context. As in the book of Jeremiah, different moments will need to hear different commanded words.


Commentary on Psalm 103:1-8

Adam Hearlson

Psalm 103 begins as a shout. “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”

It is an outburst of praise and awe from the center of the Psalmist. It is a cry of joy from the nephesh, the deepest well of the Psalmist’s being. This shout then turns quickly to catalogue of blessings that God has wrought. Between the cry of thanksgiving and the introduction of the heavenly resume, the Psalmist lifts up a warning: Do not forget all of God’s blessings.

We humans have a complicated relationship with memory. We are the only species that has conceived of history and has made any attempt to catalogue that history for the sake of remembering it. The whale does not care about yesterday. The jackal is not plagued by regret. The mollusk does not write books for posterity’s sake. Part of what it means to be human is to remember. Put another way, forgetting is inhuman. This is what makes a disease like Alzheimer’s so insidious. It attacks the very core of us, the nephesh, the innermost place where we build our identity according to where we have been, what we have done, and who we have met. Alzheimer’s dehumanizes us by eroding our memories.

It is nearly impossible to manage the present without the aid of the past, and without packaging that past into story. As humans, we make sense of the present and produce visions of the coming future by telling stories of the past. To forget is to open ourselves to recreating and refining all of the ways to dehumanize our neighbors and venerate other Gods. This is in the message of the book of Judges, a book with only a single Sunday lectionary passage. The people forget the past and forgetting damages their ability to worship God. And so they did what was right in their own eyes.

The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of Humanity?” The answer: “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Our worship and enjoyment of God requires memory. To forget the past is to compromise our ability to glorify God. In Psalm 103, the outburst of praise and awe is integrally connected to the past deeds of God. The praise has content. The Psalmist remembers the forgiveness, the healing, the redemption, the coronation, the satisfaction, the vindication, the justice, the teaching. The Psalmist speaks in generalities but we could fill in these actions with stories of Israel’s past. Indeed, a nation who dined on the stories of the past would have no trouble in expanding this song with details from the journey from Egypt, the wanderings in the desert, the deliverance of the judges, the times of the prophets and the kings. 

Similarly, we too could fill in the details. Each verse of Psalm 103 contains within it an incalculable amount of stories. Stories when the merciful God showed up, abounding in steadfast love. The beautiful part about poetry is that it dwells in the in-between spaces of our lives. Our language is capable of such specificity, and yet, even with a vocabulary that grows with each passing era (what’s a google?) we still fail to capture the full breadth of our experience. The wonderful thing about poetry is that it does not aim toward specificity but toward evocation. It combines words, images, and lines in order to evoke an experience that is outside the limits of our language. The beauty of Psalm 103 is not just in its recollection of God’s good acts, but also the evocation of the feelings and stories that accompany those acts. Between each verse of the Psalm is a whole library of stories.

Lately, I have been intrigued by all of the ways churches serve as the holders of memory. Our churches, especially older churches, literally have remembrances carved into them. My church has stained glass with names long forgotten by the congregation. Our hymn board was given in remembrance of a name forgotten by the congregation. As I reflect on Psalm 103, I am beginning to see these names in new light. They are like the lines of the Psalm in that they are reminders of the ways in which God met people in their need. They are records of God’s action. Commemorations of the acting God. As I reflect on those names, I am also beginning to know what it feels like to forget God’s benefits. To lose the stories of God and God’s people is tragic. I am therefore grateful that the space between the lines is a generative space, capable of birthing and holding the new stories of God’s steadfast love. What is lost can be found again, what was born can be reborn, what was dead can be made alive.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 12:18-29

Amy L.B. Peeler

In a letter that has reverberated with rhetorical force throughout, the end of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews presents the author’s oratorical and theological tour de force.

The audience can feel nothing but awe: Awful fear in remembering God’s presence on Sinai and awe-full thanksgiving in receiving God’s Kingdom on Zion.


Before vs. 18, the author issued one of his final and most chilling warnings: do not be like Esau who squandered his birthright and could not undo the consequences (Hebrews 12:15–17). The next section includes his typical comfort after a warning, but it takes him some time to arrive at the comforting part. First, he describes the terror of Mount Sinai.

The scene around this place is ominous for the eye and the ear with burning fire, darkness, gloom, windstorm, noise of trumpets and words being spoken. His collocation of terms echoes the retelling of Sinai from Deuteronomy 4 and 5. The only term he adds to this is zophos, gloom, used elsewhere in 2 Peter and Jude to describe the abode of fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4, 17; Jude 1:6, 13), which only increases the terror of his description. The generation delivered from Egypt was so overwhelmed with this theophany that they begged for Moses to mediate communication to them rather than for God to speak directly (Exodus 20:19). They did not want to be too close (Exodus 20:18) because they knew that God had commanded that anything would die if it touched this mountain (Exodus 19:12). Hence, the fact that the author begins his description with the reality that this mountain could be touched (pselaphow) only increases its mortal danger. It seems right that both the people and Moses were afraid. This terror, however, is in the past; the audience of Hebrews has not approached this mountain. Instead, they have come to Mount Zion.


In the scriptures of Israel, Zion refers to the city of David, the elevated capitol of Jerusalem. This is the city that belongs to the living God, and while those words alone might indicate the earthly tabernacle or temple, the author clarifies with the next phrase that this Jerusalem is a heavenly one. Although some texts of the Old Testament will describe the abode of God as Zion (Psalm 50:2; Joel 3:17; Isaiah 8:18), only the author of Hebrews specifies that this Jerusalem is explicitly heavenly. This affirms his earlier interest in a city not of this world (Hebrews 11:10, 13–16).

The first residents the author describes are the throngs of angels in celebration. If the author was concerned to make sure his readers viewed Christ as worthy of more glory than angels in chapter 1, his diminution of the angels is not so vitriolic that he would not recognize their presence in this heavenly kingdom. The angels who serve humanity while they are on earth (Hebrews 1:14), will someday celebrate with together with them.

Their human partners in conviviality he describes as an assembly (ekklesia). This is a term modern Christians are used to associating with the church, meaning literally, the called out ones. Ekklesia also appears in Deuteronomy 4 (4:10 LXX), the chapter the author has been using to retell the story of Sinai.

What is most striking is that the author associates this assembly with the firstborn. One might expect the author to describe this assembly as belonging to the firstborn, a term he has used to describe Jesus (Hebrews 1:6). Instead, this is an assembly made of up firstborn ones. His use of the plural grabs the reader’s attention. It falls to only one child in a family to be the first born, but here, those who come to the city of God can all be afforded the honor of being the firstborn. With this term, the author explicitly offers a comfort to his warning in chapter 12. Esau was willing to give up his rights as the first born (prototokia), but the readers approach the mountain where all retain that identity and the incumbent rights.

Finally, this assembly consists of people who have been registered in heaven, a common theme in texts that deal with the end of all things like Revelation (the book of life in Revelation 20:12). The notion of writing might also echo to the New Covenant where God has written his laws on the hearts of his people (Hebrews 8:10; 10:16), especially since a reference to the covenant appears in the next verse. 

At this point, the author says explicitly that God resides there. In a text that contrasts the fear of Sinai with the joy of Zion, it might seem more fitting to describe the grace or love of God, but that is not the case. Instead, those who approach this mountain come into the presence of God who is the judge of all. Harkening back to the fearful image of all creation laid bare before the eyes of God’s word (Hebrews 4:13), this title asserts that God has not changed but access to Him has.

This would seem a chilling place to end, but then the author mentions two more entities on this mountain, alternating again between the human and the divine. The spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect refers to the humans (notice how God is called the Father of spirits in Hebrews 12:9) who have endured God’s fatherly training and reached their perfect end (Hebrews 12:5-11). Then, a reference to Jesus and his blood stand at the end, as that which allows all of them to approach God the judge as righteous, perfect, firstborn children. By comparing Jesus’ blood with that of Abel, the author unites the last section of his discourse, from Hebrews 11:1 to 12:24. The company of the faithful beckons the community to continue on toward this mountain.

Speech from the mountain

The readers of Hebrews have approached the right mountain, but they have not ascended it. The author continues in his awe-some tone by warning them to pay attention to the God who is speaking to them from Mount Zion. They know what happened to the Israelites who did not want to hear from God.

As they are poised at the end of the ages, God will soon, with his voice, shake all things. God has given them a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, which likely refers to this heavenly Jerusalem. Their response should be one of thanksgiving and service, with reverence and fear. Awe must remain the mode of their approach because God remains fiery, as he was on Sinai. His fire consumes his enemies (Hebrews 12:29/Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3), which they are not, but which the author gravely warns them not to become. He doesn’t want them to miss out on dwelling forever on such a mountain.