Lectionary Commentaries for August 7, 2016
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 12:32-40

Erick J. Thompson

While recently watching Grantchester, a murder mystery set in 1950s England with an Anglican priest as the main character, I was struck by the simplicity of life at that time: no internet, no cell phone, little television, and very few possessions.

What a contrast to my own life which is full of cell phones beeping at me, browsing the internet, and more books than I can read in my lifetime. The characters were able to focus their time and efforts on pursuits that furthered relationships and their vocations. This simplicity was extremely appealing to me and reminded me of the beginning of the Luke text for this Sunday: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We live in a world where there are so many things clamoring for our attention that it is easy to lose our focus. In this text from Luke, Jesus is calling us to prioritize activities that give eternal life. Such a call to center (or re-center) our lives on God, might seem extremely difficult in our world, but is essential for our lives as Christians. If we don’t, as Jesus goes on to suggest, we will be caught unprepared!

Analysis of text

This selection from Luke has three distinct parts to it. First, we have the ending of a saying of Jesus regarding money that began in Luke 12:22. Notable here is the encouragement to not be afraid and store up treasures in heaven, rather than on earth. Commentators note that Luke is not suggesting an ascetic lifestyle, but rather a strategic appropriation of one’s possessions.

The next two sections remind me of Advent texts. They are concerned with preparation and our role in spreading the good news. They create anxiety and anticipation for the coming of Christ. While Jesus is speaking these texts, they clearly point to the return of Christ. There are two quick notes to observe.

First, this text is about vocation, not justification. These texts do not point to a simple quid pro quo of “be prepared and you will be saved.” Instead, the idea here is to be ready so that when God calls you to action, you seize the opportunity and spread the good news. Being alert and being ready are like potential energy, ready to be turned into kinetic energy when prompted. The energy produced here is gospel centered: healing, justice, love, grace, peace, etc.

Second, those who are ready for the return of the master will be served by God. This theme contradicts our usual notion that we are to serve God. Instead, God will be serving you! As noted above, this is not a works-righteousness system. Rather, it is more of a promise of what will happen when one has begun to re-center life around God; the good news of Christ will serve you in your life so that you are not afraid.

Preaching themes

It is important to note how this text begins, Jesus promises that God has given everything so that we do not need to be afraid. He reinforces this by talking about how God will serve us later in the text. The reminders for me are around the gift of life and creation, the gift of eternal life, the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and the gift of Christ’s body and blood in Communion (with even a connection to potential foot washing on Maundy Thursday). The theme is clear, we have been abundantly gifted by our God who loves us and desires good for us, and echoes God’s covenant with Abraham from Genesis 15.

Another theme for preaching is where we place our priorities in this day and age. I have often encouraged my congregation to take an “electronics Sabbath”: a day or part of a day where no electronics are on or utilized. The whole idea of Sabbath can be important here, helping us to rest from how we normally live our lives so that we understand better where our treasures really are. What do our priorities say about us and what our values are?

I think it might be easy to avoid the last parts of the text; who wants to preach Advent in Pentecost? But, I think that the focus on vocation is the center of Pentecost. This theme might not only apply to individuals, but to churches as well. Are we, as individuals and as a church, ready to help others in need? Have we considered the issues of peace and justice that our society is wrestling with so that we can be a part of God’s solution? These and other questions might arise from considering this theme, and might help to plant seeds for the future.

There is certainly room to combine all three themes and the connections to the other texts for the day. Starting with how we are covenanted with by God, we can ask the questions about prioritization, preparation, and vocation. We could then end with a reminder that God’s good pleasure for us is peace, and that all of God’s “treasures” have been given to us so that we do not need to be afraid.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6

Terence E. Fretheim

This text is best interpreted with the entirety of Genesis 15 in view.

Both sections (15:1-6; 15:7-21) begin with a divine promise (15:1; 15:7). Each promise is followed by a question that Abram raises about the promise (15:2-3; 15:8; see also his questions to God in 18:23-33). God, in turn, responds to each of Abram’s questions by making a promise, centering on many descendants (15:4-5) and the possession of the land with God’s covenantal promise relating thereto (15:9-21).

Notably, God’s covenant with Abram (first mentioned in Genesis 15:17-21) does not establish Abram’s relationship with God. That relationship has been in place from Genesis 12:1-9. Prior to any mention of God’s covenant with Abram, God chooses Abram (12:1-3); God saves Abram from Egypt (12:10-20); and Abram worships God (12:7-8; 13:18). A comparable ordering is present in the story of Israel (Exodus 1-24) and David (1 Samuel 16; 2 Samuel 5-7).

It is important to recognize that the covenant is not an “agreement” worked out between Abram and God; Abram is sound asleep when God makes this covenant with him (see Genesis 15:12). This covenant is a divine promise to Abram to which God binds the divine self; as such, this covenant is an act of divine self-limitation, wherein God freely chooses to limit the divine freedom for the sake of Abram’s future. God will keep this promise, come what may!

Turning to Genesis 15:6, Abram believes in God without having any concrete evidence that God’s promise will come to pass (see Hebrews 11:1, 8-12). Abram’s faith has been enabled by God’s addressing the specific issue opened up by Abram’s question.

Abram had addressed some very particular issues concerning the future of his family, and God responds directly to those issues. It is interesting (and crucial) that God addresses himself directly to Abram’s question. Apparently, words from God that didn’t so address Abram’s questions would not have the same efficacy (as they do not have in the wake of God’s promise in Genesis 15:1).

It is crucial that the God who makes the promise links the promise to the actual life situation faced by the questioner. In view of that link, God’s specific word of promise makes Abram’s faith possible, indeed creates his faith. Abram’s faith is not generated by his own resources. Rather, God’s word of promise to Abraham is effective by addressing the specific situation opened up by Abram’s question.

Genesis 15:6 is one of the more commonly cited Old Testament texts in the New Testament. A common translation is: “And he [Abraham] believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (see Romans 4:3, 9, 20-24; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). According to these New Testament texts, God is understood to be the one who reckons Abram righteous in view of his faith.

Yet, because the subject and object of “reckon” in Genesis 15:6 are not clearly specified in the Hebrew text, the verse could be understood in this sense: Abram reckons the Lord righteous for what God has accomplished. I will assume here, however, that the traditional translation is the more likely understanding. Abram believes God, that is, Abram rests back in the arms of the God who has made the promise. And then, in view of this faithful Abrahamic response, God declares/reckons him righteous.

The verb “reckon” probably has a background in Israel’s worship life, wherein the priest declares that a believer’s gift has been properly offered (see Leviticus 17:4). The word “righteous” can have two different senses: (1) Doing justice to the relationship in which one already stands (see Genesis 7:1; 38:26); (2) What God declares that Abraham has become in view of his faith. The latter sense is the likely meaning in this verse.

God’s participation in the covenantal rite (Genesis 15:17), parallel to the usual human participation in such rites (see Jeremiah 34:18-20), is striking. God (imaged by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch) goes through the rite and submits to its terms (rather than Abram). This is an act of self-imprecation; God in effect puts the divine life on the line, ‘writing’ the promise in blood. God thereby invokes death upon the divine self should God be unfaithful to the terms of the promise. God has staked God’s very own life on God’s faithfulness to promises made.

This text moves to a climax in God’s making a covenant with Abram regarding the land (Genesis 15:17-21). As noted, “covenant” in this text refers to God’s promise, under oath, not to a contract or agreement. The divine promise grants the land to Abram’s descendants.

That Abram continues to ask questions (Genesis 15:8) in the wake of such a positive statement about his faith is important. The implication: it is not unnatural to faith, or unbecoming to the believer, that questions persist in the midst of belief. Faith does not stop the questions about God!

God will never nullify this promise to Abram (and his descendants). At the same time, while God’s promise is everlasting, God does not guarantee that every descendant of Abram will participate in its fulfillment. The promise always remains available for believers to cling to, knowing that God remains available to fulfill that promise; but, rebellious individuals may not live to see it. Faith does not function as a condition for receiving the promise, but one can, by unbelief, leave the sphere of the promise. God’s “unconditional” promises do not make the recipient’s faithfulness irrelevant.

God makes clear to a sleeping Abram (Genesis 15:12-16) that there will be a delay in the fulfillment of the promise; 400 years is a long time. The story of God’s peoples during those centuries makes clear that God’s promises will move through dark and complex times and the people will have to wait a long time for fulfillment. But it will be worth the wait!

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

J. Blake Couey

With its stunning poetry, inspiring call for justice, and complex portrayal of God, Isaiah 1 is one of the most memorable chapters of biblical prophetic literature.

The excerpt from this chapter in the lectionary includes a polemic against unacceptable worship (vv. 10-17) and an offer of divine forgiveness (vv. 18-20). Both sections have the potential to inspire rich ethical and theological reflection.

The Larger Context

Themes from Isaiah 1 appear repeatedly in later chapters of Isaiah, including the fate of Jerusalem, the nature of proper worship, and the necessity of repentance. Many scholars think that Isaiah 1 was put together to introduce the book as whole, with v. 1 functioning as a kind of title. The chapter is the beginning of a conversation, not necessarily the last word.

Although there is disagreement over the chapter’s structure, there are good reasons to view vv. 2-20 as a single poem, which begins and ends with similar phrases (“for the Lord/the mouth of the Lord has spoken”) and is loosely held together by animal and food imagery.1 Because the lectionary leaves out the first half of the poem, the reading loses some rhetorical punch. For example, the survivors of an invasion of Jerusalem assert that they are not like Sodom and Gomorrah in v. 9; v. 10 contradicts their claim by calling them “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah.” When preaching on vv. 10-20, it might be helpful to summarize the earlier verses, noting the portrayal of the people of Judah as rebellious and God’s disappointment at their rejection.

Worship and Justice

Throughout Isaiah 1:11–15, God emphatically rejects the people’s worship. According to v. 11, God has “had enough” of their animal sacrifices; the verb might better be translated “gorged out.” Similarly, the phrase translated “my soul hates” in v. 14 could be an idiom for nausea.2 God even threatens not to look at worshipers in v. 15. This bombastic language may surprise readers who expect the Bible to conform to popular standards of decorum, but it is typical of prophetic literature. As depicted by Isaiah, God is passionate and emotionally demonstrative, rather than detached and reserved. The passage also emphasizes divine freedom. God does not need human worship and cannot be manipulated through it

The claim that God rejects these acts of worship would have been scandalous. They are all sanctioned or even commanded in the Torah. A contemporary audience might appreciate analogies to familiar worship practices, but one should stress that these are only partial analogies. It is unlikely that Isaiah intended to discredit the practices themselves. Instead, the poem makes shocking, even absurd claims as a rhetorical strategy to capture the audience’s attention.3 The actual objects of critique are the people’s excessive religiosity and ethical failures, as made clear by a clever wordplay in v. 15. “Hands … full of blood” refers to acts of violence against innocent persons (compare Genesis 4:11; Deuteronomy 21:7; Proverbs 6:17), but it also echoes the phrase “blood of bulls” earlier in the poem (Isaiah 1:11). The fact that worshipers have both kinds of blood on their hands is the problem! For these reasons, one should avoid using this text to dismiss forms of worship that one deems excessively ritualistic, or to make negative, sweeping claims about ancient or modern Judaism.

Verses 16-17 emphasize that God’s demands are not limited to worship but also entail specific social expectations. This perspective may seem counter-cultural for some contemporary readers, who view religion as a private matter separate from other parts of life. Although texts like Isaiah 58:2-7 or Amos 5:21-25 make similar claims, this point is not limited to prophetic literature. Along with its well-known worship regulations, the Torah also includes commands to protect vulnerable classes of people, with similar language to Isaiah 1 (e.g., Exodus 22:21-27; Deuteronomy 24:17-22).

God’s commitment to God’s people

From beginning to end, Isaiah 1:2-20 depicts a severely fractured relationship between God and the citizens of Jerusalem. The final verses propose conditions for its restoration. Verse 18 offers reassurance that the people’s sins can be forgiven, despite their severity. The association between sin and the color red recalls v. 15, which charged the people with having bloody hands from their violent actions. In the second half of v. 18, NRSV “shall be like snow/become like wool” suggests that forgiveness is certain, but “may” is another possible translation. This rendering would be more consistent with vv. 19-20, in which the people’s fate depends on their response to God’s offer. The starkness of the decision is highlighted by another wordplay: depending on their choice, the people will either “eat the good of the land” or “be eaten by the sword” (NRSV “be devoured”).

This open-ended conclusion enables the poem to transcend its likely historical context in eighth-century BCE Judah, and its direct address (“you, your”) invites contemporary audiences into its world. Do we, too, enthusiastically worship God but fail to oppose injustice? Does our complicity in oppression give the lie to our prayer that God’s kingdom will come? Despite its stinging words of indictment, however, this text ultimately offers good news. Human frailty and failure need not have the final say. God remains committed to God’s people, even in the face of repeated rejection by them.


1 For an extended reading of this poem, see J. Blake Couey, Reading the Poetry of First Isaiah: The Most Perfect Model of the Prophetic Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 186–200.

2 Luis Alonso Schökel, A Manual of Hebrew Poetics, Subsidia Biblica 11 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1988), 103

3 Brian D. Bibb, “The Prophetic Critique of Ritual in Old Testament Theology,” in The Priests in the Prophets: The Portrayal of Priests, Prophets and Other Religious Specialists in the Latter Prophets, ed. Lester L. Grabbe and Alice Ogden Bellis, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 408 (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 34–47.


Commentary on Psalm 33:12-22

Adam Hearlson

So we wait.

Sitting here on earth we wait in hope and faith. We sit with the blanket of God’s promises resting upon our laps. We stare out the window waiting for God to roll down our street in brand new Cadillac or pushing a pram with a cooing child. We wait, we watch. What we are looking for is hard to describe. We are looking for a small bit of sustenance when the ground dries up. We are looking for a little life in a deathly world. We are searching for the smell of paper whites as we walk into the doctor’s office. We are watching for the easy ways in which children hug each other. We are listening for all those echoes of God’s promises in the world. These faint echoes that resemble and initiate what will become.

The truth is, we don’t hear these echoes as often as we’d like. Most of our life is spent waiting for another vision. Like Hannah, like Abraham and Sarah, like Israel in Babylon we rest our heads on God’s promises, but never stop waiting for them to be fulfilled. This difficult waiting is exacerbated by our finitude. We are so small and this world is so big. We can barely understand the vagaries of our own lives, let alone be entrusted to understand the inner and outer workings of the spinning universe. We lack perspective when we look at the world and tend to flatten the diversity of this wild place. Our finitude drives us to create our worlds in our own images, which is not surprising given the circumstances of our own making. Given our limited vantage and the unpredictable action of God, the Christian life requires waiting on God. 

Waiting is hard. It is fitting that this lectionary passage comes during ordinary time within the liturgical season because what is more ordinary than waiting. Verse 20 sounds like the Psalmist is trying to convince herself that she is not sick and tired of waiting. The truth is, there is no school that teaches us how to wait. The anxieties of our lives seem implacable and we employ every trick to try and cope in the meantime. We convince ourselves that we have been faithful, that we are happy, and that the wait isn’t so bad, but mostly it is miserable. I hear deep need in the final verse of the lectionary passage. “Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.” Hope is no longer enough, O God, let your love break into our world and justify our hope. As the psalmist copes with waiting, she begins to remember the times when God delivered the people from danger and fed them in times of hunger (v. 18). Treks across the sea bed. Manna in the wilderness. Deliverance and sustenance. When we wait, our minds wander to those times when God delivered us from danger and provided sustenance during times of need. Times when God was our shield and our help (v 20). When we wait, we begin to remember and remembering soothes our anxiety and renews our hope.

The Psalmist says that the Lord is also watching and waiting. Seated in an easy chair, God has the vantage that we lack. If our lives and decisions are always marked by our finitude and a lack of data, then God’s work and actions are marked by a comprehensive view of the world and its people. And yet, even given the comprehensive view, the Psalmist implies that God too is waiting. God is waiting for righteousness to spread, waiting for humans to realize the limits of violence and war, and waiting for those whose waiting is marked by steadfast love. 

From time to time, this watching God might act in some magnificent moment of delivery. The steadfast love of God is made known a moment of satisfaction in a parched time. The abiding struggle of the faithful life is to live between these times when the watching God decides to act. We continue to wait in hope because we are confident that the God who has acted and promises to act, will act. We assure ourselves that God is watching; ignorance is not the problem. We assure ourselves that God cares; indifference is not the problem. We can’t help but ask ourselves and God, “So what is taking so long?” 

In North America and elsewhere, the outdoor trails of our parks and forests are marked with blazes. Blazes are small directional signs that assure the traveler that she is on the right path. The hike is requires following the blazes. But the blaze is not the destination, just the marker. Hikers are bound to leave the approaching blaze in the past. The marker is a reminder that you are on the right trail and that while you might not see another marker for a while, it will show up. Indeed, if you travel far and don’t see a marker, it is time to backtrack and remember where the last time you saw a marker. The trail marker is not just reassurance that you are on the right path, it is also a reminder that the trail is bigger than any one person. The steadfast love of God is not just a reassurance that God has chosen you as God’s heritage, but also a reminder that our finitude limits our perspective. The finite always have to wait until they see the next blaze. 

So we wait.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Amy L.B. Peeler

I have sometimes referred to Hebrews as a good slogan book.

Its cultic mysteries keep it at arm’s length for many a preacher, but its rhetorical eloquence makes it eminently quotable. Hebrews 11:1 may take the prize for “faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen,” as it rolls off the tongue with lyrical profundity. Without question this author writes well, but his poetry is not for show. With these words, he teaches a deep lesson about the steadfast nature of faith.

The foundation

By the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the author is rounding third base in his sermon. He has displayed Christ as Son of God (1) and Son of Man (2), warned of the dangers inherent in unbelief (3-4), and explored the power of Christ’s priesthood (5-10). After this chapter on faith, only the rhetorical culmination (12) and closing matters (13) remain.

Right before this encomium — this praise — of faith — begins, the author issued one of his chilling warnings. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31 — another great if terrifying quote), but his listeners have endured well (10:32-39). They have not turned away from God, but have been faithful (10:39). If they are going to continue in this state, it would benefit them to know precisely what faith is.

Hebrews 11:1 makes two statements about faith. First, faith is upostasis; etymologically, this term indicates a standing (stasis) under (upo). Thankfully, this word appears two more times in Hebrews, shedding light on its meaning for this author. In Hebrews 3:14, he and his readers have become sharers of Christ, a relationship that will endure as they hold fast the beginning of upostasis firm until the end. The notion of a foundation of belief or a confidence of belief makes sense here. This foundational meaning fits also in the other occurrence in Hebrews 1:3. Shifting to a Christological application, the author states that Jesus is the imprint of God’s upostasis. He is the picture of the foundation or bedrock of God’s identity — hence many translations have “being” here. The two other instances of the word in the New Testament also carry the idea of confidence (2 Corinthians 9:4; 11:17). If upostasis is something basic, something solid, something firm, then it provides a place to stand from which one can hope.

Second, faith is elegchos. Here, the author of Hebrews has stretched our vocabulary skills because this word appears only here in all the New Testament. It is not uncommon in the Septuagint where it appears over thirty times, primarily in the wisdom literature. In almost every instance the connotation of the word is quite negative. It is translated as “reproof,” “rebuke,” or “conviction.” Elegchos is evidence brought forth that the person doesn’t usually want to hear. Only twice does Job use the term more generally as “proof” (Job 16:21; 23:4). That sense of proof or usually translated as “evidence” is not wrong here, but I can’t help but wonder if the disciplinary connotation doesn’t have a place as well. For an author who will reflect on the loving discipline of God in the following chapter (Hebrews 12:5-11), he might be foreshadowing that discussion here. Faith presents that proof, even that rebuke, of things that you have difficulty seeing. If this community is beginning to struggle with doubt about God’s good character, they may need this jolt. You can stand firmly upon faith, and you will not want to deny or reject the evidence it presents.

The beginning

Sound impossible to be that faithful? He counters that possible sense of inadequacy with several human examples of real, intense, life-changing faith. This kind of solid unquestionable trust is possible, he proclaims, because people in your own history have had it. The elders were attested to have this. In some instances, others around them, in others the record of Israel’s Scriptures, and for a few even God himself proclaimed that they had this kind of faith.

But before the author begins to tell those stories, he asserts the same kind of faith resides in himself and in his readers. We know, he says, that the ages (his word for all of creation, cf. Hebrews 1:2) have been fashioned by the word of God (cf. Hebrews 1:3). We know that the things we can see have come from the things we cannot see. This is quite a powerful rhetorical move. Before he speaks about the amazing faith of generations past, he reminds his audience that simply by affirming God as creator they have the foundation of faith he is extolling.


He then tells the story of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, before he arrives at the example par excellence, Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. In Hebrews 1:8-12, he focuses upon two vignettes from the life of Abraham. First, Abraham demonstrated his faith by going to the place God called him sight unseen. But this great obedience never really paid off during Abraham’s life. He never possessed that land of promise. Instead, he dwelt there as a foreigner, living in tents (Hebrews 11:9). Moreover, and even more powerfully unsatisfying is the fact that Abraham waited his whole life for the real dwelling place, the real inheritance, the city built by God himself, but never did attain it.

The second promise was a bit more satisfying. God also asked for faith when he promised a child to the elderly — in his rather crass terms as good as dead (Hebrews 11:12) — Abraham and Sarah. Exegetes debate whether Sarah or Abraham is the primary referent here, but in some sense they both display faith that God is faithful to his promise. Their innumerable descendants issued forth from this one child, but even in that joy lies a lack of fulfillment. Abraham and Sarah lived to see their son, but not the great multitude.

Consequently, the author concludes that all of these died still in the state of faith, not fully receiving God’s promises. Instead they had to keep looking forward to them. He returns to the promise of the land as the prime example of their continued waiting. Because they kept their eyes on the heavenly city, and not their present land nor the country of their origin, God was proud to remain in relationship with them.

In their state of anticipation, the family of Abraham provides a precise example to the audience. They have seen demonstrations of God’s faithfulness, a land, a son, creation, but they still have much more to possess. Faith gives them that sure, unassailable foundation to hold onto their confession until the end.