Lectionary Commentaries for August 14, 2016
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 12:49-56

Erick J. Thompson

With all of the divisiveness present in society these days, it seems like the last thing we need is a gospel text that seemingly encourages more division.

On the face of it, Jesus calls for or predicts that very thing. Yet, as we dive into this text, there are certainly other interpretations available. Situated inside the entire section, there is ample evidence to suggest that Jesus is setting the stage for the eventual outcome of his ministry and what that means for those who follow him.

This particular section can be looked at as having three different parts. The first is a quick summary of his ministry and its eventual end; a fire of cleansing judgment that spreads the good news and the baptism of his death in order to conquer death. Following this is a discussion of the effects the gospel might have on anyone who follows him, and finally, a warning from Jesus about our willingness to hear and see only what we want to.

Nourishing fire of Good News

In the first part, Luke 12:49-50, we hear this language of fire and think judgement, and that may be what Christ wants us to think … for now. But, in reality, the fire of judgement is perhaps about our own (in)ability to save ourselves. The cleansing fire reveals that we need God.

Fire was meant to destroy the reigning religion and religiosity that people used was a way of “guaranteeing” their salvation, yet, which ironically actually distanced people from God. Could the same be said for our own religion today? For Jesus, fire will burn down our human need for security and by extension those institutions that provide human security instead of security in God. The fire is followed by the talk of baptism, which has promise inherent within it.

Baptism is not meant to be simply an easy, joyous occasion. On the one hand, baptism is promise for us, on the other hand, for Jesus, baptism leads to death on the cross so that we might have life. This death turns our baptism into joy and celebration. For many, baptism is the entry into the life of the church. Part of life as God’s chosen is vocation, God’s calling to us. This means that Christ’s baptism, and his ministry and death on the cross, prefigures our own baptism and provides a bridge to the next section about division. Our callings, varied and numerous, do not end the day we are baptized. What ends in baptism is the consequence for our failure to live out those vocations. So, while joy is a fundamental emotion for baptism, it is joy because of the grace that we have been given, not because we will never experience pain again.

We live in a broken, divided world

In the second part, verses 51-53, Jesus lets those gathered know that following him will not be easy, particularly because the gospel will not always bring peace. Families were being torn apart when the gospel spread because it changed everything. Given our contexts, this may not always happen, but there certainly could be some disagreement or strife in families as the nature of the call is worked out and understood. Whether it be to attend church, go to seminary, engage in social justice issues, etc. the gospel’s effects can create division. There is no doubt that many churches have experienced division at some time in their histories. The problem may not lie in the division itself, but in how we respond to the divisions that happen in our lives.

One possibility may be to see that God is at work in all realities, and that division is not the problem. Perhaps it is in our own naive expectation that we have more truth than others. Instead, could God be at work on both sides of an issue? There have been calls within the Christian church to become one church so that all might believe. Jesus’ talk about division may point to a broken reality for Christianity no matter how hard we work toward unity. Perhaps this is Jesus’ point: that human togetherness is not what the gospel is about. Rather, the gospel preached into the life of an individual person will do its work, and we are left to trust that it is God at work, and resist our attempts to control the outcome.

You’re the hypocrite, not me!

Our need for control may be the point of the final part of this selection, verses 54-56, where Jesus addresses our inability to realize what’s really happening. Why do we remain blind to all that is happening around us concerning Christ and God? The accusation of hypocrites is an interesting one here, since Jesus is talking about those who can read the signs, but can’t figure out the “present time.” This isn’t exactly hypocrisy, but sounds more like bad vision. The hypocrite label might make sense if the hypocrites believe that Jesus brings grace, yet who continue to work under the law to achieve their own righteousness. Or, we might be hypocrites when we believe that we have a monopoly of truth, about ourselves and our world. The hypocrite thinks they have everything figured out, but keeps using human actions to guarantee God’s presence and remain in control.

This accusation of hypocrisy is an important one to consider seriously as we live out life in the church. Do we allow ourselves to hear God’s call again and again, or do we rest comfortably in our perfect church attendance or other human work? Another way to put this is: Why do we insist on pretending to ignore the injustices (racial and otherwise) around us? Most likely the answer is that we don’t want to see what’s really happening or our role in the injustices of the world. There is clearly an opportunity to talk about the “elephant in the room” for many contexts. Simply naming an issue might be gospel for many, and may be that kairotic event that changes everything. It may lead to division, but, we have to trust that God is at work in all situations, and remember that God has claimed us in our baptisms, not because we’ve been perfect Christians.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:23-29

Alphonetta Wines

If there is any doubt that the preacher’s job is a difficult one, one need not look further than the book of Jeremiah.

While scripture tells us almost nothing about the lives of the prophets, this book gives the reader a vivid picture not only of the prophet’s message, but of his life as well. The book’s narratives portray imprisonment, death threats, violent beatings, abandonment in a cistern, confinement in stocks, internment in a dungeon, persecution by family members, and confrontation by a false prophet.1 Forbidden by God to marry, have children, or even socialize, Jeremiah lived a lonely life. Coupled with the dismal content of his message that destruction by Babylon was imminent, his was a disconsolate life indeed. Difficulties in Jeremiah’s life call to mind adversity in the lives of many, including Peter, Paul, and Jesus.

Generally, biblical prophets are classified as prophesying before, during, or after national disaster. Jeremiah, however, is the “bridge” prophet who prophesied in all three seasons. He anticipates, witnesses, and lives through the destruction of Jerusalem. Given the times in which he lived, is it any wonder he is known as the “weeping” prophet?2

The world, ancient nor contemporary, is never ready for a truth-telling message that calls its wrongdoing to task. Just as Jesus would make plain centuries later, the world prefers to walk in the darkness of untruth than the light of truth. The list of unwelcome heralds is endless.

Jeremiah was an unwelcome herald. Much like people today who only want to hear “feel good” sermons, people of his day preferred false hopes presented by false prophets dreaming about a short road to peace. While even in the worst of circumstances God’s word includes a word of hope and restoration, the word spoken by these “dreamers” was no word from God. God does sometimes communicate through dreams, but this is not one of those times. No more than wishful thinking, these pipedreams gave people false hopes and an unrealistic view of what lay ahead.

The situation was dire. Urgency demanded something more than a feel good sermon. Urgency required boldness and courage, the kind of fortitude that God promised Jeremiah at his commissioning. His dramatic sermons and poignant metaphors left no room for doubt. Disaster, though avoidable, was inevitable. The word of the false prophets and Jeremiah’s word were diametrically opposed, as different as lifeless straw and life-giving grain, respectively.

Jeremiah’s dissent disquieted the status quo when he prophesied that the intervening years would be seventy, not two. Though previous generations had forgotten God, God was determined that Baal would be forgotten and God would be remembered, not the other way around. Jeremiah, one man against an entire community, but that is how it had to be.

Like two sides of the same coin, both immanence and transcendence of God are on display when Jeremiah writes of a God who is both near and far away. The majesty of God is on display when the prophet writes of a God who encompasses heaven and earth, and by implication all that has been, is, or will be. Through these contrasting images Jeremiah intimates a God beyond time and space from whom it is impossible to hide.

To say that God is unhappy with Israel, especially its leaders, is an understatement. Preaching out of their own hearts the leaders set Israel up for another trip around the same proverbial mountain. This would be the last trip for a very long time. Although the trip would culminate in a return made possible by Persian King Cyrus, the return, in effect, a second Exodus, was a long way off. Unlike prior years when God’s mercy took the form of delay, (for example as in the life of Ahab, 1 Kings 21:29; as in the life of the nation, Isaiah 48:9; as in the life of Noah reflected in 1 Peter 3:20) for now, there would be none. Destruction is fast approaching. Even now, God would send warning. Even if people would not listen. Even now, God would send Jeremiah.

This was not an easy message to deliver. Fire is the word that God uses to describe the message that Jeremiah is to convey. This is the same word, “a fire shut up in my bones,” that Jeremiah himself used in 20:9 to describe that message and the overwhelming tension within that it caused. God compares the word that Jeremiah is to bring to a hammer that breaks rock into pieces. This would have to be a hard word in order to be sufficient to the difficulties that lay ahead. This would be a word that people would not want to hear. God and Jeremiah knew the difficulty, hence the struggle in Jeremiah’s soul, and in God.

The good news is that Jeremiah’s difficult words are spoken from God’s perspective. God’s perspective is that of the “big picture,” encompassing not only heaven and earth, but also that which is simultaneously near and far. God’s perspective, even when unspoken or undefined, inherently includes healing and restoration of any and all brokenness. The good news is that since brokenness is not hidden from God, brokenness carries within it hope, possibility, and potential for healing and restoration.

Words of hope are essential to life, as essential as the air and water. Without hope, life dwindles and fades away in despair. Without hope, the issues, problems, and challenges of life, individual and communal, can be overwhelming. Without hope one may wonder “Why even try?” Praise God that Jeremiah understood and shared his understanding of endless hope in God with his community, and with us.


1 Marvin A. Sweeney, “The Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel” in The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues, eds. Steven L McKenzie and M. Patrick Graham (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 1998), 87.

2 John Ortberg, Kevin Harney, Sherry Harney, Teaching the Heart of the Old Testament: Communicating Life-Changing Truths from Genesis to Malachi (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 481.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

J. Blake Couey

For the second Sunday in a row, the lectionary features a poetic text from Isaiah with a strong emphasis on social justice.

Isaiah 1:10-20 made the case that God values justice as much as, if not more than, worship. Now, Isaiah 5:1-7 suggests that the establishment of a just society was the single desired outcome of God’s relationship with Israel and Judah. By failing to achieve this, they have both angered and grieved God.

Among modern interpreters, Isaiah 5:1-7 is highly regarded for its literary sophistication. It lacks a title in the text, but it is often called the “Song of the Vineyard.” Frequent shifts in speaker and perspective keep the audience disoriented through much of the poem. At the same time, the pronounced emotional content, the carefully developed central metaphor, and the striking wordplays in v. 7 contribute to its power.

My beloved had a vineyard

In v. 1, the prophetic speaker declares that he is singing a love-song on behalf of his “beloved.” It is not clear who the beloved is, or whether the speaker claims the love-song as his own (New Revised Standard Version “my love-song”) or attributes it to the beloved (New Jewish Publication Society “a song of my lover”). Matters become somewhat clearer in v. 2. The beloved turns out to be a vineyard owner, who spared no labor or expense to ensure the productiveness of his vineyard. Despite his efforts, it produced inedible grapes. Verse 3 introduces another shift, as the vintner now speaks in the first-person (“me and my vineyard”). Despite the absurdity of bringing a lawsuit against a vineyard — although it is no more absurd than singing a love-song about one! — he convincingly argues that he bears no responsibility in the vineyard’s poor production (v. 4) and is within his rights to destroy it (vv. 5-6). By now, the audience must be thoroughly confused.

Verse 7 resolves much of the tension. The vineyard owner is God, and the vineyard is the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The bountiful harvest for which God hoped was a just society, but the inedible grapes that God received instead are violence and oppression. In one of the most celebrated wordplays in biblical poetry, the Hebrew words for “justice” and “righteousness” are mishpat and tsedaqah, while the words for “bloodshed” and “cry” (NRSV) are mispakh and tse‘aqah. It is difficult to recreate the wordplay in another language, but the New Jewish Publication Society translation captures something of the effect:

He hoped for justice,
But behold, injustice;
For equity,
But behold, iniquity!

The similar sounds of the respective ironically underscore how different their meanings are. While the wordplay provides an artistically satisfying conclusion, it also heightens the sense of disappointment described in the poem. This final disappointment, compounded by the confusing shifts throughout the poem, mirrors the frustration felt by the vintner/God within the poem.1

Justice and righteousness

Although Isaiah 5:1-7 is concerned with the absence of justice and righteousness, the poem offers no explanation of these concepts. It assumes that its audience already understands them. A contemporary audience may need additional background to appreciate the claims of the text. Hebrew mishpat has a broader range of meanings than English “justice.” Both primarily denote the decrees or decisions of a legal system, but “justice” mostly has a negative sense in popular parlance, usually referring to punishments for crimes. By contrast, mishpat may also refer positively to someone’s legal or social entitlement (e.g., “the justice due to the poor” in Exodus 23:6). This meaning corresponds approximately to the idea of social justice. In current usage, “righteousness” typically signifies individual morality. Hebrew tsedaqah sometimes has a similar meaning, but it more often designates the fulfillment of one’s obligations to others. The colloquial phrase “do right by somebody” captures this sense of the word.2

Elsewhere in Isaiah 1–39, mishpat is associated with vulnerable classes of people who are particularly susceptible to exploitation, such as widows, orphans, and the poor (Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:2). Isaiah condemns the corruption of the legal system (Isaiah 1:23; 10:1) and the unbridled acquisition of wealth and land by a select few (Isaiah 3:14; 5:8). Similar concerns appear in other prophetic texts (Amos 2:6-8; 5:11–12; Micah 2:1-2) and the Torah (Exodus 22:21-27; Leviticus 19:9–10, 15; Deuteronomy 24:10–17). Such texts suggest concrete scenarios that may have informed the condemnation of Israel and Judah in Isaiah 5:7.

An Agricultural God

Although the identity of the vineyard receives the most emphasis in the poem, the representation of God as a vineyard owner is part of the rich, complex portrait of God in the book of Isaiah. The vintner’s careful cultivation of his vineyard is a beautiful picture of God’s care for God’s people. The poem also presents a deity capable of passion and emotion. We sense, and even sympathize with, divine disappointment over human injustice in the anguished questions of the farmer in Isaiah 5:4. The methodical vehemence with which the farmer destroys the vineyard is shocking.

Elsewhere, Isaiah compares God to other kinds of human laborers, such as a silversmith (Isaiah 1:22-25), a beekeeper (Isaiah 7:18-19), or a potter (Isaiah 29:15-16). These blue-collar metaphors suggest divine solidarity with one of the most basic realities of human experience, work. As such, they add depth to expressions of concern for the plight of oppressed workers in Isaiah. Such connections could make this text especially meaningful for members of rural or predominantly working-class congregations.


1 Gary Roye Williams, “Frustrated Expectations in Isaiah v 1–7: A Literary Interpretation,” Vetus Testamentum 35 (1985): 459–65. Other aspects of Williams’s interpretation are less convincing.

2 See further the discussion in Rolf A. Jacobson, “‘The Lord is a God of Justice’ (Isaiah 30:8): The Prophetic Insistence on Justice in Social Context,” Word & World 30 (2010): 125–34; James L. Mays, “Justice: Perspectives from the Prophetic Tradition,” Interpretation 37 (1983): 5–17.


Commentary on Psalm 82:1-8

Adam Hearlson

In Psalm 82, the poetic imagination of the Psalmist conjures a mythic heavenly court.

This court is different from typical pictures of the radical monotheism of Israel. The one true God is now surrounded by a Miltonian court of lesser deities who bear some responsibility for the wickedness and injustice that has covered the nation. The small “g” gods have favored the wicked and have ignored the cries of the needy and the poor. The gods have perverted ideas of justice and trampled on the weak. After some admonishment of the demi-divinities, God decides that these gods ought to meet the same fate as the humanity whom they have failed.

The theme of God’s ultimate power in the face of other deities is a consistent theme within the Hebrew Bible. The psalmist gives us a picture of a God with the necessary power to rule these lesser gods, but more than that, to terminate these gods. Still, we can reasonably infer that if God can end the existence of these deities, it is also God who made these deities and set them in positions of power. Here in this Psalm and elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, the stumbling block of radical monotheism meets a formidable opponent in the problem of suffering.

Like the book of Job, the setting of a heavenly court filled with other B-league divinities provides a helpful literary device to discuss the central question of the Psalm: why do the unjust suffer and the wicked triumph? How, in the end, can we account for all of the injustice in the world? One answer is that the evil of the world is born of the heart and actions of humanity. This assumes that each evil act can be traced back to an actor, be they human or divine. Consequence is thus a linear phenomenon and every effect is due to its companion cause. And yet, a survey of our current world displays that consequence is not so easily traced. Michel Foucault famously writes, “People know what they do; frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what they do does.”

If we try to mete out justice according to our access to the bold line of consequence we are likely to “walk around in darkness.” When left to our own devices we consistently fail to trace consequence to its origin. Moreover, even if we could trace the consequence back to its origin, how do we monotheists escape the theological conclusion that everything begins (good and evil alike) with the one who began everything?

On the other hand, ancient Israel knows what we know, the evil of the world cannot be traced to a single malevolent actor. The injustice of the world does not operate linearly. Good intentions and malevolent effects complicate our moral calculus. Oppressive systems operate without a single origin or action. Consequence bends, doubles back, and fractures making it nearly impossible to fully trace responsibility. Our access to justice is further obstructed in proportion to the privilege we gain from unjust consequences. Rabbi Ibn Ezra connects this psalm to the admonition in Exodus 23:8, “No bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the sighted and perverts the words of the innocent.”1 Exodus 23 and Psalm 82 recognize that our ability to adjudicate justice is compromised by our proximity to power.

The powerful gods of the heavenly court might have been trying their very best to remember the poor and take seriously the need of the widow. Yet they fail because they cannot escape the ways in which power blinds them to the needs of the powerless. The powerful “fail to understand,” and “walk in darkness,” because they are more concerned about their place in the heavenly court than the needs of the people. The consequence of all this myopia is nothing less than apocalypse. The world’s very foundations shake (v. 5) and God threatens to descend from the heavenly court and, fresh off the judgment of the heavenly court, judge the world all at once. Perhaps the perversion of justice might finally stir God to bring about the apocalypse.

For those who live under the boot of the powerful and have no access to anything except more fear and more death, what is more beautiful than the apocalypse? For those in power who have the freedom to dream and the power to chart a course to meet that dream, what is more frightening than apocalypse? When life is an unbearable burden, the last hope left is destruction. The moderate and incremental will not do. The most tenacious vision in our imaginations, the one that cannot be stamped out by the force of the oppressor, is destruction. We might not be able to dream about the shape of a new world, but we sure as hell can dream about the absence of our current world. The oppressed are experts in apophasis — living without will do that to you.

Given the psalmist’s longing for the apocalypse, the last line is a curious one. The call of the Psalmist for God to judge the earth swings the focus from God’s heavenly court to the nations of the earth. Verse eight can be seen as a call for God to extend the justice in the heavenly court back onto earth. Now that God has God’s own court in order, the judgment of the world can begin.

The final line of the psalmist could also be read as an indirect critique of the God who has taken a seat in the divine counsel, when really we need that God to “rise up” from the affairs of heaven and sow justice across an unjust world. The critique becomes more pointed when you realize that this God who imposed term limits on these small gods also left them to run the world without proper supervision. The last line, then takes on its own admonishing character, “O God above, come clean up the mess you have made.” Come remedy the effects of the powerful. Come take responsibility for the world and its ills. Come rescue the plan that you set in motion. Come and be judged so that you might judge. Come and prove yourself worthy to rule. The last line of the psalm is bold one. It is at once a plea and an order. The cries of our deepest distress are always flecked with indignation and hopeful longing.


1 Noted in Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 292.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 11:29—12:2

Amy L.B. Peeler

From the miraculous to the macabre, the faithful of Israel’s past provide the encouragement this congregation needs to keep running their own race of faith.

Endurance consistently features throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews. This author passionately desires his audience to hold fast, endure, remain strong until the end (Hebrews 2:1; 3:6, 14; 4:11, 14; 10:23). In other words, they need to continue trusting God, to remain in faith (3:7-4:11; 10:39). Hebrews 11 teaches them the nature of faith through word (11:1) and story (11:2-40). By this 29th verse, his recounting has already lifted up Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and his family, and Moses. All of them trusted God even if they could not fully imagine what God’s promises would entail.

The wilderness generations

The story of Moses’ miraculous deliverances leads to God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from the Egyptians. What is rather striking is that the author attributes the act of faith to the Israelites. They, by faith, walked through the Red Sea as if they were walking on dry ground. When the Egyptians made a similar attempt, they were overwhelmed by the sea; they did not act in faith, but in vengeance. It is worth noting the faith of these Israelites because earlier in the letter, they are the same people who serve as the author’s example of anti-faith. They did not trust God to bring them into the land of Canaan, and he does not want his readers to be like them (Hebrews 3:7-4:11). By referring to their faith in the moment of deliverance from the Egyptians, the author casts into even sharper relief their lack of faith at a later time. This generation continues to serve as the negative example, and even more so because they had faith at one time. The author hopes his audience won’t follow a similar path.

Their children, however, the next generation, trusted God and were brought into the land (Numbers 14:31), but not without struggle. Grammatically, the author attributes faith to the walls of Jericho in v. 30. More fitting than to imagine the faith of an inanimate object is to see him referring to the faith of those who were walking around those walls for seven days (Joshua 6).

He closes this section by noting the faith of Rahab, the Canaanite woman who hid the spies of Israel as they were preparing to attack Jericho. Because she received them and kept them in peace, because she did not allow them to fall into the hands of their pursuers (Joshua 2), she did not perish along with those who failed to believe in the power of Israel’s God (see her proclamation of faith in Joshua 2:10-11). It is worth puzzling over the author’s choice to close his catalogue of faith with this unlikely character: a woman, a Canaanite, a prostitute. Yet she fits an overarching theme of the stories chosen in that she trusts God in the face of death and thereby receives life for herself and her family. For him, faith comprises not only mental assent, but indicates that belief upon which you stake your life, this life and the next.

And everyone else…

Time is running out, and if he wants to remain true to his assertion that this word of exhortation is brief (Hebrews 13:22), he needs to pick up the pace. Surprisingly then, the period of the judges, the kingdom, and the exile passes by with mention of only a few names. Then, in 33-35a even names are eliminated and only the deeds of faith appear. Initially, these are all very victorious, conquering, powerful. Here, too, the culmination is one of life over death — as it was with the story of Rahab — women have received their dead back through resurrection. The author might have in mind the resurrections of children during the ministry of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:18-37) or possibly resurrections during Jesus’ ministry (John 11) or even Jesus himself.

A hard contrast follows. Others also died. These, however, suffered on their way to the end and were not revived. They still look forward to obtaining a better resurrection (11:35b). In the next verses, a litany of sufferings flows from his pen, hardships of all kinds in life and in death. Even in these situations, their faith remained.

The author concludes that all of these mentioned in Hebrews 11 are worthy of praise. They have been attested (with a passive verb he implies that God, through Scripture, commends them) throughout their faithfulness. This applies to their lives when they trusted God for various things, and also to their faithfulness that has continued beyond the pale of death. They have not yet taken possession of the promise, the promise to remain with God and his people in his city forever (Hebrews 4:1; 6:17; 9:15; 10:36; 11:16). Hence God continues to attest to their faithfulness because ultimate perfection remains ahead for them.

God looked ahead and made provision for something better, something better that concerns not just the faithful of the past, but also the faithful of the present, the author and his readers. The forebears in faith cannot reach that place of perfection without the present generation of the faithful. One of Abraham’s promises involved a multitude of descendants. Until everyone joins the party (Hebrews 12:22), until everyone resides in the household (Hebrews 3:6), the promise remains unobtained.

Run, faithful, run

And so, the baton passes to them. The author paints a scene of the close of a race. As runners enter the stadium, they are surrounded by the crowd all around. The “cloud of witnesses” both proclaims the story of their own faith, and expectantly waits for those running to endure in theirs. Get rid of anything that would trip you up, the author commands. With the cloud around you, keep your eyes before you on the ultimate runner — the one who created the race of faith and the only one who has reached its perfect end. Jesus endured an excruciating death and did not let the shame of his reproach squelch the joy that kept him going. This was the same joyful promise to which all God’s children look forward: residing with God and his people forever. Jesus is there now, at God’s right hand, and through his prayers (Hebrews 7:25) he not only cheers the church militant but sustains them along the way.