Lectionary Commentaries for July 24, 2016
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 11:1-13

Meda Stamper

In Luke 11:1-13, Jesus answers a fundamental question of the life of faith — how to pray — with five petitions1 and accompanying instruction on what attitude to assume and how God will respond (see also Luke 18:1-14).

The prayer serves as an affirmation of the worldview Jesus teaches and embodies throughout Luke and suggests how the good news might be made manifest in us. If we ask, seek, and knock, Jesus says, we will surely receive and find and the door will be opened for us to the Father’s favorite and fundamental gift, which makes possible the prayer’s fulfilment: the Holy Spirit.

Jesus prays regularly in Luke, beginning with his first appearance as an adult when the Spirit descends on him (Luke 3:21-22; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18). In the passage immediately preceding our text, he has commended an attitude of attentive listening, Mary’s “better part, which will not be taken away from her” (10:38-42), over anxious busy-ness as the proper mode of discipleship. A few verses before that, rejoicing in the Spirit, Jesus has addressed God repeatedly as “Father” (10:21-22), which he now instructs his followers to do.

References to God as “Father” open and close Jesus’ teaching on prayer. If we read only this text, we know that the Father responds to prayers with a goodness that is incomparably greater than that of earthly parents. Elsewhere in Luke we find that the Father loves mercifully (Luke 6:27-36) beyond the limits of human reason or fairness and beyond our ability to meet God’s love with our own — although to do so is life and our highest calling (10:25-28). The Father’s love unfolds most vividly in the parable of the compassionate father (15:11-32): whether our tendency is to squander God’s gifts or to hoard them, however we may be lacking in love for God and neighbor, still the Father loves us relentlessly. We are pushing against an open door when we pray. In a sense, we are already inside, children tucked in for the night, not merely the friend of a friend, not even merely the friend of the Son, but sons and daughters ourselves with the same Spirit, the same love.2

With the first petition we recognize God as the very source of holiness and seek to approach God with the joyful reverence of love. Mary says something similar at the beginning of her poetry of praise (Luke 1:49). The Greek word translated “hallowed” is elsewhere translated “sanctified,” something we most often think of as happening to us. God makes us holy, as we see in 11:13 with the gift of the Spirit, and in that gift, we find in ourselves the beginning of the answer to this petition, the beauty of holiness at work in our lives in a way that makes God feel at home. When we look at what happens when the Spirit blows through the characters of Luke 1-2, we can imagine what this breath of holiness might look like in us: joy, wisdom, impossible newness, life.

When we ask in the second petition for the coming of the kingdom, we are again asking for a gift God wants to give. The kingdom is already revealed in Jesus (Luke 1:33; 11:20; 17:20-21) if sometimes hidden underground or like yeast in not-yet-risen dough (Luke 13:18-21), still to be revealed in fullness (Luke 21:31; 22:16-18, 29-30). In the meantime Jesus’ followers are to proclaim it, as Jesus proclaims it (Luke 4:43; 9:11; 10:9, 11), which means coming to know it for what it is; we glimpse it in Mary’s poetry (Luke 1:46-55), Jesus’ mission (4:18-19), and the sermon on the plain (6:20-49), which opens with the promise of the kingdom to the poor (for the rich, see 18:24-25). God desires to give it and encourages us to embrace it even now (12:31-36).

Relative to the coming of the kingdom, the prayer for bread seems rather small. That is perhaps the point, that we are invited to turn to God in all things and, like ravens and lilies, trust in God’s mercies new every morning without fretfulness or fear because the Father knows our needs (Luke 12:22-24, 29-31). The prayer recognizes that we do need the essentials, but only enough of them, not dangerous excess. Inherent in the petition, beyond the hope that we will neither worry nor hoard, is a desire to be so fully awake to the day-to-day things of life that we will not miss Jesus’ presence with us by the power of the Spirit, even in the breaking of our bread (Luke 22:19; 24:30-35).

Forgiveness is a key theme throughout Luke (e.g., 1:77; 3:3; 7:36-50; 24:47). “Release,” another translation of the word for “forgiveness,” appears twice in Jesus’ mission statement, in release for the captives and the oppressed (Luke 4:18). Forgiveness offers release from spiritual captivity — for the forgiver as much as the forgiven. Both acts figure in the petition, not because God will not forgive our sins unless we release others from their debts but because we hope to model our love on God’s mercy to us (Luke 6:34-36; 17:26); in forgiving others we free ourselves to experience God’s forgiving love more fully, which makes us love still more (7:47). The reference to release from debts (also 7:41-43) reminds us that money is an affair of the spirit (18:18-27; 19:1-10).

Finally, we request deliverance from temptation (NRSV: “time of trial”) that can cripple or destroy the soul (Luke 8:13). Immediately after the Gospel opens with bursts of Spirit-filled joy and shortly before it closes in the same way, we find references to this sort of temptation. Jesus, full of the Spirit, is tempted by the devil (4:2); then, in the end, when Satan’s moment comes (4:13; 22:3), Jesus twice tells the disciples to pray that they may not come into temptation (22:39-46). The Spirit leads Jesus through the wilderness and will teach Jesus’ followers what to say when they face their trials, so the ultimate answer to the final petition, as to the rest, is in the gift the Father wants to give. The fire that inspires and guides Jesus’ followers through the events of Acts also clothes us in power (24:49).

The holy Father wants us to knock and find the Spirit waiting to enliven, feed, and defend us. The point of prayer is not to change God’s mind but to shape ours, to make us fit for the kingdom, ready to live the only life possible in God’s household: one of love.


1 For the longer version we usually pray, see Matthew 6:9-13 and the Didache.

2 Those whose experience of earthly fathers is complicated or destructive might consider other words for God’s love.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 18:20-32

Samuel Giere

This week’s first lesson moves the narrative from a divine encounter under the terebinths at Mamre to the road to Sodom.

As the narrative makes this shift, keep in mind the Lord’s question to Abraham (and indirectly to Sarah and to all of us who might giggle at the ridiculous promises of the Lord), “Is there anything too extraordinary for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14a) With this question echoing from last week’s reading, we find ourselves en route to the emblem of sin and wickedness — and to a whopper of an appeal from Abraham to the Lord.

Textual horizons

As seamlessly as the Genesis narrative moved from the circumcision of Abraham, Ishmael, and the rest of the men of Abraham’s house at Mamre (end of chapter 17), to the mysterious encounter between Abraham and the Lord at the terebinths of Mamre, so now the story shifts toward Sodom and Gomorrah. From a sacred covenantal space to a nefarious one.

The beautiful transition (vv.16-19, which preachers are strongly encouraged to include in this week’s reading) sees the extension of Abraham’s hospitality to its fullness. As the three visitors depart, he accompanies them on their way. He sees them off.

In the midst of this seeing-off, the reader becomes privy to an inner dialogue among the three, which by this point in the story clearly includes the Lord.1 The question that resonates among the three and from the Lord builds upon the Lord’s covenant with Abraham: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?”2 To this point, Abraham is clueless of the trajectory of this seeing-off — a trajectory that moves the narrative from promise (fulfillment of the covenant with the birth of Isaac) to judgment (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). It is, however, because of Lord’s covenant with Abraham that he is brought into this knowledge. Part and parcel with the covenant comes the Lord’s expectation that Abraham and his children after him will “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” (v.19)

The narrative pivots in Genesis 18:20, when presumably the Lord shares the destination and purpose of this next leg of the journey with Abraham. “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.” (v.20-21) At this point the other two visitors, i.e., the two angels / messengers of Yhwh,3 depart for Sodom. Abraham remains in the presence of the Lord, for what turns out to be a rich and remarkable appeal for the Lord’s mercy.

Abraham asks, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (v.23b)

Now, one might interpret Abraham’s question as being unconcerned about the fate of the wicked. To say it differently, Abraham is concerned that the righteous not be collateral damage to God’s rightful destruction of the wicked. There is, however, another way to interpret this. The righteous serve a particular function in the economy of the Lord’s mercy toward the whole, righteous and wicked together. The presence of the righteous serves as a catalyst for God’s mercy toward the wicked. Just ten righteous folks stave off the judgment of the Lord Almighty. In this fascinating back-and-forth between Abraham and the Lord, Abraham urges the Lord toward mercy, fulfilling the purpose of the covenant.4

Of course the narrative continues into Genesis 19, wherein it does not turn out so well for Sodom and Gomorrah.5 God’s judgment rains down upon Sodom.

Yet, at this point in the story, Abraham’s repeated appeal to the Lord’s mercy is at the heart of Abraham’s fulfillment of the covenant. God is free to exercise judgment. At the same time, Abraham’s faithful embodiment of the covenant petitions the Lord from justice to mercy.

Homiletical horizons

What is it that the people of Sodom have done? Haggadic traditions in the Oral Torah open wide the possibilities. Inhospitality. Greed. Theft. Deception. Disregard of the poor and the orphan. Inhumanity. With perhaps the pinnacle of Sodom’s depravity is mercilessness.6 (Far too often — in a lexically ingrained way! — the sin of Sodom is associated with homosexuality, based on a narrow reading of Genesis 19:5b. Perhaps one homiletical possibility with this text is deconstructing this narrow understanding of the sin of Sodom.

Another homiletical path might consider this text in light of the petition in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our sins, (just) as we forgive those who sin against us.”7 Or another: “You have heard it said that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemy…”8 What does it mean to hold this passage in tension with such passages? The tension ought not be erased, lest God’s justice be undermined.

Also, beware the cleansing of this whopper dialogue between Abraham and the Lord by leaving out Genesis 19:5f.


1 Recall Genesis 18:1 and 18:13.

2 Genesis 18:17b-18, NRSV

3 Genesis 19:1 reports that two angels/messengers arrive at Sodom. Since there were three visitors who arrived at the terebinths of Mamre, the Lord stayed behind and two angels showed-up…

4 Genesis 18:19 invokes righteousness and justice. Consider this next to Psalm 85:10.

5 Cf., Genesis 19:24-29

6 An illustration from Jewish tradition by way of a comparison with the people of Admah: “The people of Admah were no better than those of Sodom. Once a stranger came to Admah, intending to stay overnight and continue his journey the next morning. The daughter of a rich man met the stranger, and gave him water to drink and bread to eat at his request. When the people of Admah heard of this infraction of the law of the land, they seized the girl and arraigned her before the judge, who condemned her to death. The people smeared her with honey from top to toe, and exposed her to where bees would be attracted to her. The insects stung her to death, and the callous people paid no heed to her heartrending cries. Then it was that God resolved upon the destruction of these sinners.” Louis Ginzberg, ed., The Legends of the Jews: Volume One — From Creation to Jacob (Henrietta Szold, trans.; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1909, 1937) 245-250, quote from p.250.

7 Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4.

8 Matthew 5:43f.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10

Richard W. Nysse

As the reader of the book of Hosea moves from interpreting to preaching, unresolved and highly debated issues are wisely set aside.

At the very least, the proclamation should not be dependent on what side one takes in debated interpretative issues.

For example, many interpreters have debated the relationship of the command to marry in Hosea 1:2 (“a wife of whoredom”) and in Hosea 3:1 (“a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress”). Are these different marriages? If they refer to the same marriage, what purpose does the repetition serve? Are they both figurative speech-acts with no assumed reality in the biography of Hosea? The task before the preacher does not encompass writing a biography of Hosea. After all, nothing in the text suggests that the reader should emulate Hosea; there is no exhortation to be like Hosea. Similarly, reconstructing the compositional history of the first three chapters remains an issue of contention; theological tensions are not thereby resolved.

Even more conflicted and contentious are the gender roles within the text. The difficulty is acute when we move from the relationship between Gomer and Hosea to the language that portrays God as a punishing husband and Israel as a wife with multiple lovers (Hosea 2:5, 13). Some readers sense a deep resonance between the patterns of speech in spousal abuse — the movement from offended, punishing and shaming husband (e.g., Hosea 2:10) to the alluring words seeking to restore the relationship (Hosea 2:14-15). As with the statements of Jesus on divorce (Matthew 19:3ff.), the preacher should allow no one to use the text to underwrite self-serving authority over others. Such texts generate overtones that drown out any other hearing. Acknowledge it and don’t scold it away.

The core abrasiveness of the text and deepest violation of our religious sensibilities resides in the names of the children of Hosea and Gomer. Jezreel: The strength (“the bow”) of Israel will be broken. That is a different script for the future from the one Hosea’s contemporaries envisioned for themselves. Lo-ruhamah: Israel will no longer be pitied or forgiven by God. Lo-ammi: Israel will no longer be God’s people and God will no longer be their God. The prophetic message is a three-fold disruption of the relationship that was presumed to exist heretofore. Disruption is perhaps too slight a term; this is not a speed-bump in a continuing relationship. It is the severance of the relationship. It is discontinuity, not merely disruption even though the latter may itself be very abrasive and painful.

In the naming of the three children the text moves beyond concern for the biography of the relationship of individuals named Hosea and Gomer, whether figurative or real persons. The text is concerned foremost with Israel as a people. The text speaks in profoundly communal terms. It will have no future. It’s strength (bow) is broken. There is no more mercy; no forgiveness. The relationship captured in the pronouns “my” and “your” ends; Israel is not the people of God. The value of determining the exact nature of the relationship between Gomer and Hosea dissipates as the reader faces the announcement of the closed future embedded in the names of the three children.

What is so wrong with Israel, the community of God, that the prophetic word announces such a sharp negation of the relationship with God? At this point one has to go beyond the few verses in the appointed reading simply to see that “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (Hosea 1:2). What constitutes “forsaking the Lord”? One answer is idolatry, but that can, standing by itself, invoke the image of a jealous husband or a sovereign that insatiably demands signs of fidelity. But the communal emphasis in Hosea precludes shrinking in the prohibitions against idolatry into a fussy divine command. We need only turn to chapter 4 to see that loyalty and faithfulness toward God and the knowledge of God are not only about the individual and God. When that allegiance to God is absent, the void is filled with swearing, lying, murder, stealing, adultery, and bloodshed (Hosea 4:1-2). And beyond human victims, the land mourns and animals, birds and fish languish and perish (Hosea 4:3 — Doesn’t that sound a bit like climate change?). Yet one more instance: Israel has become a trader who loves to oppress by using false weights (Hosea 12:7-8 — Would it be a stretch to think of falsely rated bonds and securities?). Unfaithfulness to God is not a victimless sin in the Bible.

The finality invoked in the names of the three children is matched by the near absence of calls for repentance in the rest of the book (Hosea 12:6 is a rare exception). Announcements of judgment which lack contingency predominate in Hosea. There are references to God’s past desire for a different outcome. Prophets were sent to hewn the people (Hosea 6:5); God as a father taught Ephraim to walk (Hosea 11:3), but they persisted in refusing the relationship, a trait that is even traced all the way back to Jacob (Hosea 12:3-4). This rips at God’s heart (Hosea 11:8), but God’s pledge to not come in wrath (Hosea 11:9) becomes a source of hope in the midst of God’s roaring like a lion (Hosea 11:10; 13:7-8). There is no second chance dangled in front Hosea’s audience; Israel has no means to forestall the discontinuity announced in the naming of Hosea’s children.

Two verses in the appointed reading counter the discontinuity underscored above. Verse 7 declares that God will have pity immediately after stating in verse 6 that God would no longer have pity or forgive. The fact that the pity is promised to Judah, not Israel, might soften the tension between the two verses. Whether Hosea offered a sidebar comment about Judah or a later editor added the comment as the book was brought to the Judah after the fall of Samaria depends on how one views the book’s compositional history. In either case, we know from the rest of Scripture that Judah later depended on bow, sword, war, horses, and horsemen as much as Israel. Judah was spared from Assyrian but not the later Babylonian destruction.

But we cannot sidestep the tension verse 10 creates with the names of the three children. As with the names, there is discontinuity in the declaration. “Not-my-people” becomes “my-people” — “children of the living God.” These good words, these gospel words, are sharply disjunctive. They undo the condemnation. Only God can undo God’s own “NOT” — the not-pitied, the not-my-people. We ought not rush to verse 10. Too quickly blunting the three names with verse 10 can lead to ignoring the victims of our rebellion (see again, Hosea 4:2-3). There is no mention of Israel changing or repenting. Verse 10 is not a reward for repenting, sincerely or otherwise (c.f., Hosea 6:1-4). The movement from the three names to the promise of verse 10 is a change in God. The three names are a “Good Friday.” There is death in Israel. Verse 10 is an “Easter.” There is a promised re-creation.


Commentary on Psalm 138

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Psalm 138 is almost always categorized as a song of thanksgiving.

God has answered the psalmist’s prayer (v. 2a); and quite appropriately, the psalmist thanks God enthusiastically (v. 1a), including apparently a visit to the Temple (v. 2). The focus on thanksgiving is reinforced by the three-fold repetition of the Hebrew root that is translated “give thanks” in vv. 1 and 2, and “praise” in v. 4. Clearly, the psalmist gives God the credit for the gift of life: “you give me life” (v. 7b; NRSV “you preserve me”) and “your right hand delivers me” (v. 7d). In contemporary terms, we might say that the psalmist displays an attitude of gratitude. In the entitlement-oriented culture in which we live, Psalm 138 might helpfully be appropriated as an example of living gratefully — that is, receiving life as a gift instead of concluding that we have simply “made a living” for ourselves (see the phrase “abounding in thanksgiving” in Colossians 2:7, the Epistle Lesson for the day).

While it is helpful to discern and reflect upon what is typical about Psalm 138 as a song of thanksgiving, it is also profitable to note what is unique about the psalm. For instance, although the psalmist affirms that his or her prayer has been answered (v. 3), he or she seems still to “walk in the midst of trouble” (v. 7a); and the final line of the psalm is a petition that communicates ongoing neediness: “Do not forsake the work of your hands” (v. 8c).

To be sure, Psalm 138 is not the only song of thanksgiving to juxtapose grateful celebration with petition — see, for instance, Psalm 118, in which the expression of thanks and the description of deliverance (vv. 1-24) are followed by the request, “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! (v. 25). In any case, the juxtaposition is significant, since it rings true, both existentially and theologically. In terms of human existence, there is never really a time when everything is all right. And theologically, the juxtaposition of thanksgiving and petition is a reminder that attempting to embody “the ways of the LORD” (v. 5) actually evokes opposition, as we know from the testimony of the psalmists (see, for example, Psalms 22:7-8; 69:7-8), the prophets (see Jeremiah 15:15-18), and Jesus. In short, as people of faith, we shall always be in a position of both celebrating God’s gift of life and needing to continue to pray for God’s help, as Jesus taught his disciples — after all, “thine is the kingdom” and “thy kingdom come” are part of the same prayer.

The juxtaposition of celebration and petition in Psalm 138 is a characteristic of the Psalter on several levels. The individual laments, for instance, regularly contain descriptions of distress, followed by petition and then by expressions of trust and/or praise (with the exception of Psalm 88). On a macro-level, the first three books of the Psalter (Psalms 1-89) are dominated by the voice of lament, whereas the final two books are characterized primarily by the voice of praise. And in the more immediate context of our psalm, Psalm 138 introduces a final Davidic collection that contains a core of laments (Psalms 139-143); and this collection is followed by a collection of songs of praise that concludes the Psalter (Psalms 146-150). What is the effect? It seems that readers in every generation are invited to live with gratitude to God for the gift of life, even amid trouble and opposition, all the while relying on God’s help and entrusting the future to God’s care. This final note is sounded by the psalmist’s affirmation in v. 8, ‘The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me” (see Psalm 57:2).

The ability to live thankfully at all times and to entrust life and future to God is grounded ultimately in the conviction that God is sovereign – that is, that God is the ultimate reality, and that God’s will (God’s “word”/”words” in Psalm 138:2, 4 and “the ways of the LORD” in v. 5) constitutes the genuine path to a fruitful and satisfying life. The very acts of thanking and praising God, including bowing down and singing (vv. 1-2, 4-5), affirm God’s sovereign claim. The fact that the psalmist’s thanksgiving to God is articulated “before the gods” (v. 1b) underscores that sovereignty belongs to God alone; and God’s sole sovereignty is to be universally acknowledged, evidenced by praise from the most powerful of earthly rulers (v. 4a; see Psalm 2:10-12, which perhaps not coincidentally is echoed here as the Psalter moves toward its conclusion). While it is possible to hear Psalm 138:4 (and Psalm 2:10-12) imperialistically — that is, “the kings of the earth” will be forced to worship the God of Israel — this need not be the only interpretive option. Rather, v. 4 may be understood as an articulation of the psalmist’s (and/or God’s) vision of a world unified around God’s purpose to set things right for the benefit of all humanity (see Psalms 72:11-17; 96:10-13; 98:4-9; 150:6; Isaiah 2;2-4).

Lest God’s sovereignty be misunderstood to be something like unbridled power or force, v. 6 offers a helpful clarification. God exercises God’s power not as sheer force, but rather as something like sheer compassion. God’s concern for “the lowly” (or “the humiliated,” as I prefer to translate the word) and God’s distancing the divine self from “the haughty” means that the proud, the prosperous, and the powerful cannot properly claim that “God is on our side.” The theological, ethical, and missional implications are profound (see also 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Psalm 113:4-9; Luke 1:51-53). God’s power consists of love (see “steadfast love” in vv. 2, 8); and the implication is that genuine praise and gratitude — and indeed, genuine power — will ultimately take the form of regarding “the lowly,” as God does.

The repetition of “your hand(s)” (vv. 7-8; see also “right hand” in v. 7) at the conclusion of the psalm is particularly worthy of note, since the verb translated “forsake” in v. 8 means more literally “drop, let fall.” The phrase, “the work of your hands” (v. 8), can refer to the psalmist; but it could also suggest the whole of God’s creation (see Psalm 104:24). Even though it is framed as a petition, the last line of the psalm communicates faith. Ultimately, the psalmist’s gratitude, praise, and trust are grounded in the conviction that God has “got the whole world in his hands.”

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]

Brian J. Walsh

With a wonderful mixed metaphor, our passage captures the dynamics of Christian discipleship.

“As you, therefore, have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith … abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7). Live or “walk” in Christ, abounding or “overflowing” in thanksgiving. Here is the dynamism of discipleship, the constant movement towards the kingdom. Yet we are also to be rooted like a tree, built up like a secure structure with an established faith of some settled certainty. If all we have is the dynamism of faith without deep roots and foundations, then we have no stability or fidelity to our lives. If all we have is roots and foundations without dynamism and change, then we are caught in the quagmires of conservatism.

While chapter 3 will bring the community more deeply into questions of how they are to live their lives in Christ, the remainder of chapter two is concerned about the possible eroding of the foundations, the losing touch with the roots of the faith, or as our author puts it, “not holding fast to the head” (Colossians 2:19).

While the precise nature of the threat to the Colossian community remains a matter of considerable exegetical debate1 there are some clear characteristics of the problem that bear remarkable resemblances to temptations faced by the church today, namely, dualism, and idolatry.

Do not be taken “captive through philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition … ” Whatever this philosophy is, it is clear that it comes with a severe regime of bodily asceticism. Its strict imposition of calendar observances, condemnation regarding matters of food and drink (Colossians 2:16) and self-abasement or fasting (Colossians 2:17) are all preparatory to angelic visions and experiences of self-transcendence (Colossians 2:18). As the text goes beyond our reading today we see that this is a worldview and spiritual practice that promotes “self-imposed piety, humility, and the severe treatment of the body” (Colossians 2:23).

Whatever the Hellenistic or Jewish nature of this philosophy might be it is clearly an early form of dualism wherein the body, tied as it is to time and place, is seen to be a lower realm to the world of the soul, spirituality, esoteric wisdom, and the like.

And Paul’s counter to any such worldview is twofold. First, he will emphasize over and over again that such ascetic piety in fact accomplishes nothing to curb the appetites of the body that its proponents seek to control. And second, he will reflect with increasing depth and insight on the nature of embodiment in Jesus Christ.

Turning the very categories of dualism on their head our author writes that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him … ” (Colossians 2:9). God embodied fully in Jesus and his followers participating in the fullness through Christ.

Are you still concerned with the real and dangerous temptations of bodily life? Then know that “in him you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ … ” (Colossians 2:11). There here is a dying not to embodiment itself, but to broken and sinful embodiment, and we are “buried with him in baptism” in order to be “raised with him through faith … ” (Colossians 2:12).

A resurrection faith is an embodied faith and an embodied faith has no room for dualism. The preacher need look no further than the hymn book to see that such dualism still has a hold on the imagination of the church. Our author here is defending the cosmic reconciliation that he had poetically evoked in Colossians 1:15-20 against any body/soul dualism.

But there is no embodied faith without forgiveness. And so, echoing our psalm, Old Testament and Gospel readings today, Colossians takes us to the place of forgiveness. Something remarkable happens at the cross. Our author doesn’t tell us exactly how this works, but at the cross is nailed all that stood against us, all that held us guilty, all that would strip us of the fullness of embodied life (Colossians 2:14). Trespasses, transgressions, sins are forgiven and no one gets to rule us out of the kingdom again!

Looking a little more closely, however, there is another threat to the church, a threat that has been endemic to the human condition ever since we failed to live our lives in the image of God and embraced graven images instead. While idolatry doesn’t get named until 3:5, the very rhetoric of the argument in chapter two indicates that idolatry is in the author’s sights. Remembering to always read the New Testament with Old Testament eyes, what are we to think of an argument that dismisses an opposing worldview as “empty deceit” (Colossians 2:8), mere “shadow” without substance (Colossians 2:17), a “human tradition” (Colossians 2:8), and a “human way of thinking” (Colossians 2:18)? Compare this rhetoric to classic diatribes against idolatry (Psalms 115:4-7; 135:15-18; Jeremiah 10:1-10; Isaiah 44:9-20 and others) and you will see that Colossians 2:8-23 stands in this rhetorical tradition.2

And so preaching on this text asks us to consider the idolatries that continue to have a deathly grip on our lives. Might we need to name something like the financial markets of the global economy as a “shadow” without substance? In light of our identity “in Christ,” might it be time to relativize all patriotic nationalism as a “human way of thinking”? Do we have the courage to name the Pax Americana and notions of American exceptionalism as an empty and deceitful philosophy that has taken us “captive?”

Finally, in light of our text as a tract against idolatry (and empire), the preacher needs to ask today, which rulers and authorities are disarmed at the cross and paraded behind the Messiah in triumphal procession (Colossians 2:15)? Dare we imagine these to be our rulers? Our political, economic, military, and even ecclesiastical authority structures? Are we in the captive procession?


1 The contrasting views of Wright and Lincoln will give the preacher enough to work with. N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, Tyndale Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), and Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000) vol. 11: 551-669.

2 For a more complete argument on this see Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004): 141-144.