Lectionary Commentaries for August 19, 2018
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 6:51-58

Susan Hylen

Jesus is manna, food that sustained Israel both physically and spiritually in the wilderness.

John 6:51 summarizes what Jesus has been saying since verse 32: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” The death of which Jesus speaks was the death that threated Israel under harsh conditions in the desert, and also the separation from God represented by the sentiment that life in Egypt was preferable (see Exodus 16:3). Manna was the solution God provided in that situation, and Jesus has been interpreting the scripture to identify himself as manna.

Jesus extends his interpretation in a new way in these verses. He indicates that the life he gives is “eternal”: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (John 6:51). The phrase “live forever” (Greek: zesei eis ton aiona) is a variation of John’s more common words for the gift Jesus provides, eternal life (for example verse 54, zoe aionion). Throughout the Gospel, Jesus asserts that he is the bringer of eternal life for those who trust in him. The manna is already a story of God’s life-giving power. Jesus uses this opportunity to clarify that the life he brings as manna is this kind of life: it extends forever.

As is true elsewhere in the Gospel, this “life” Jesus brings is not limited to a future heavenly existence after death. Many modern Christians make this mistake in reading John’s Gospel. We are familiar with modern theological assertions that followers of Jesus go to heaven. In addition, the phrase “eternal life,” when used in the Synoptic Gospels, often refers to the resurrected life. For example, Matthew’s parable of the separation of sheep and goats after the coming of the Son of Man closes with the statement, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). Matthew clearly has in mind a life that is “eternal” because it is distinct from temporally bounded human existence (compare with Mark 10:30).

John has something different in mind with the phrase “eternal life.” This life is available to believers in the present and not only in the future. Jesus says “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (John 6:54) and “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). The verbs are present tense. The life Jesus brings begins during the life of the believer and during Jesus’ own incarnate existence on earth.

In calling this life “eternal,” John communicates that the life Jesus offers is qualitatively different from regular human life. “Eternal” (or “forever”) is a characteristic that belongs only to the divine: “The Lord sits enthroned as king forever” (Psalm 29:10; Greek eis ton aiona); “The counsel of the Lord stands forever” (Psalm 32:11). It is God and God’s initiatives that properly possess this quality.

Those who trust in Jesus and “have eternal life” participate in this divine life even now. When Jesus later says, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), he is saying something similar. Those who abide with him share in the creative force of the God who brought all things into being. This same life is embodied in Jesus (John 1:3-4).

John creates one contrast between Jesus and manna. The ancestors died in the wilderness, but those who eat of Jesus live forever (John 6:58). Modern readers should not see this as a rejection or criticism of the earlier bread God provided. The death of the first generation in the wilderness was not due to a defect in God’s manna, but resulted from the idolatry of Israel. Jesus offers his manna and suggests that the same apostasy will not result. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56). Those who eat are offered a union with Christ that endures.

Although the eucharistic meal is not explicitly mentioned here, readers are correct to identify these overtones. John’s Gospel is distinctive in that it has no moment of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (compare with Matthew 26:26-29). At Jesus’ last meal, the foot washing takes center stage (John 13:1-11). But these words in John 6 identify a future gift of eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood, which certainly would have evoked the eucharist for early Christian readers.

These verses suggest that future meal is also a feeding on manna. Although the crowd introduced the manna story many verses ago, Jesus is still interpreting that quoted scripture, “he gave them bread from heaven to eat” (John 6:31). In fact, his words in verse 51 introduce a second interpretation. In verse 32, Jesus initiated his first interpretation, stating that the manna was not simply a gift of the past, but was present even now. Verse 51 does something similar, only now Jesus initiates a second interpretation of the scripture, “he gave them bread from heaven to eat.” He changes the subject “he” to “I,” so that Jesus himself is the giver of the bread. He also renders the verb in the perfect tense, “I will give.”

Collecting these statements in parallel may help the modern reader to see the relationship to verse 31. Here they are with the subject, verb, and direct object underlined:

He gave them bread from heaven to eat. (John 6:31)
My father gives you the true bread from heaven. (John 6:32)
The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)

By interpreting the scripture verse in these ways, John suggests that Jesus’ giving of his flesh and blood is a reiteration of the gift of bread from heaven. The future gift of bread, which Christian readers understand as the eucharist, is also manna.

This manna imagery is often discarded in modern celebrations of the eucharist in favor of sacrificial language. Drawing on John’s understanding eucharistic prayers might emphasize the story of God’s enduring care for Israel in the exodus story, and invite listeners to understand themselves as the recipients of this care. Those who receive Jesus’ body and blood might imagine themselves as those same wilderness travelers, following God in the pillar of cloud and fire, and feeding on manna, which was all that sustained them. John’s theological imagination opens up rich possibilities for growth in understanding of what it means to participate in this meal.

First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 9:1-6

James Limburg

On the wall of the bedroom that my younger brother and I shared was a painting of a young boy standing at the wheel of a ship, piloting it through stormy weather.

In the background, unseen by the lad, was the figure of Jesus, guiding, standing by. Not a bad picture, I have thought, of Proverbs as a manual for navigation, but also of the hidden but steady guidance of God.

Just as Moses is associated with the Pentateuch and David with the Psalms, so Solomon is associated with Proverbs. He was legendary for his wisdom (1 Kings 3-4). Proverbs 1:4-5 indicates that while the materials are initially intended for the young, older and wiser people will also find much of value. The opening image speaks about learning the art of “navigation” (1:5; New Revised Standard Version, “skill”). Gerhard von Rad has wisely written:

“These maxims saturated as they are by experience, resemble buoys set out on the sea by which one can find one’s position. Herder says very shrewdly that one has not to learn “from” such maxims, but “with their help.”…And people had also to learn how to manage money, and their own bodies and — what was hardest of all — their tongue, which had no less than life and death in its power (Proverbs 18:21).” (Old Testament Theology I, 421,434)

Something I learned from Billy Graham

I remember discovering a column by the Rev. Billy Graham on one of the back pages of a Sioux Falls newspaper. I read through it, tore it out, and taped it alongside my desk in my office at the college where I was teaching. The column suggested as a discipline reading a chapter of Proverbs, which matched the number of the day the month. Since there are 31 chapters in Proverbs it worked very well — and at various times I have begun my teaching or preaching workday by reading the chapter of Proverbs for the day of the month. Thanks, Billy Graham.

In teaching Proverbs in an introductory Bible class for first-year college students, I discovered two things. First, almost none of them had ever encountered this book. Second, all I had to do was ask students to read through the book and pick out a favorite text to share with the other. I didn’t ever lecture on Proverbs. I simply let the texts do the work! The result was some of our liveliest classes and discussion, filled not only with appreciation for beauty and wonder (“Three things are too wonderful for me…” Proverbs 30:18-19) but also with down-to-earth common sense (“Even fools who keep silent are considered wise…” Proverbs 17:28).

So to avoid dealing with these texts as though they were individual pieces of popcorn, I suggest that you take Billy Graham’s suggestion and take time to read the chapter of Proverbs that matches the day of the month. You will then gain a sense for the individual sayings (“A soft answer turns away wrath” Proverbs 15:1) and also a feel for the longer essays (such as Proverbs 31:10-31) and even for the book as a whole.

The book of Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is a collection of essays, poems, and sayings expressing the wisdom of ancient Israel. Much of the material originated as folk wisdom, the kind of thing that circulated in the family or the clan. Thus a mother might say to a daughter, “A stitch in time saves nine” (in the equivalent Hebrew). Or a father might advise a son on a repair project gone awry, “Haste makes waste!”

After circulating orally, these sayings might be collected, polished, arranged, and re-arranged.

Two women: one foolish, one wise (Proverbs 8 and 9)

As was the case in Proverbs 1:20-33, wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs 8 and 9, perhaps reflecting an actual practice of women street preachers or teachers. What is truly astonishing about wisdom as described here is that wisdom is said to have been present at the time of “beginning” (the Hebrew resheet is the same vocabulary as “in the beginning,” the first word in the Bible). The creating activity of wisdom is described in Proverbs 8:22-31. The speech of “woman wisdom” ends with a declaration of the joys of those who find her (Proverbs 8:32-36).

Continuing with the theme of Proverbs 8, chapter 9 begins with two contrasting pictures, of Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly. Those who listen to the call of Woman Wisdom find life (Proverbs 9:6) while those who listen to Woman Folly end up as guests — in the depths of hell (verse 18)! In between these two pictures is a re-statement of the theme sounded in Proverbs 1:7, this time with the benefits of finding wisdom added (Proverbs 9:10-12).

At this point is the obvious connection between the bread and wine offered to hearers (Proverbs 9:5) with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. The sermon would conclude with the image of life as a walk, journey or even a voyage (Proverbs 9:6). Proverbs will help the voyager learn how to steer the ship of life, discovering God’s guidance.

[Editor’s note: The author continues this four-part series on Proverbs in the semi-continuous First Readings for Sept. 9, Sept. 16 and Sept. 23, 2018.]

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Cameron B.R. Howard

The Old Testament readings for this week and next week both feature prayers of King Solomon.1

While next week’s reading from 1 Kings 8 will feature a public prayer in a formal, liturgical setting, this week’s passage describes a private exchange between God and Solomon, when God has appeared to Solomon in a dream. This “dream sequence” describes a divine origin for the wisdom Solomon famously possesses.

First Kings 2:10-12 reminds us that Solomon has succeeded his father David on the throne of Israel, a succession not without controversy and substantial political intrigue (see 1 Kings 1:5-53). The appointed verses then move to an evaluative description of Solomon’s character: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places” (1 Kings 3:3 NRSV). Solomon’s righteousness is mitigated by his participation in one of the most egregious religious sins in Deuteronomic perspective: worship at the “high places” rather than in Jerusalem.

The story of Solomon’s reign in as told in 1 Kings, like the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings overall, has a distinctly “Deuteronomic” flavor; that is, those books share the theological priorities of the book of Deuteronomy, which emphasizes steadfast love and covenant fidelity between God and Israel. If the Israelites keep covenant by following God’s law, they will receive blessings; if not, they will face curses.

A prominent refrain in Deuteronomy is that, upon arriving in the promised land, the Israelites must only worship at “the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” (Deuteronomy 12:5 et al.). References to the “high places” in Kings seem to point both to the improper worship of the Israelites’ God and to the worship of other gods. Thus, when the text remarks that Solomon would offer “a thousand burnt offerings” on the altar at Gibeon, his worship practices, while undoubtedly considered fervent, are also being condemned.

The text’s ambivalence about the character of Solomon has been well chronicled in many commentaries.2 Solomon is a blessed king, a fitting successor to David, and the king chosen to build the LORD’s Temple in Jerusalem. His wisdom, his riches, and his long-lasting reputation as a great king testify further to his chosenness; indeed, in this very passage those elements are described as freely offered gifts from God (3:12-13). At the same time, in addition to condemning his worship at the high places, the Deuteronomic authorial voice regards Solomon’s marriages to foreign wives with disdain, seeing them as conduits for the worship of foreign gods.

It is helpful to remember that the text’s ambivalence about Solomon, whom it regards as both undoubtedly great and yet dangerously flawed, extends to its evaluation of kingship in general. In 1 Samuel 8, the prophet Samuel delivers a warning to the people when they ask him for a king. He cautions that a king will take their resources and their labor for his own benefit, and they will end up as his slaves (1 Samuel 8:11-18). That warning looms over the whole account of the rise and fall of the monarchy in the books of Samuel and Kings. The idea that monarchs take and take from their subjects proves true in Solomon’s use of Israelite forced labor for his building projects and is amplified with subsequent kings. Rehoboam’s intensification of the forced labor program (1 Kings 12:1-14) and Ahab’s murder of Naboth and confiscation of his vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16) provide two prominent examples. At the same time, the monarchy is instituted by God and contributes to the ordering of society. The text particularly emphasizes the divine choosing of David and Solomon, even as it names royal apostasies as the causes of the exile to Babylon.

Thus, underlying the ambivalence about this king is an overall ambivalence throughout the Former Prophets about kings and kingship in general. Acknowledging this unsettledness in the text helps us as readers avoid too easily assuming that everything Solomon does or says — including his prayers — is to be emulated uncritically. No human ruler can match the sovereign rulership of God. Even so, some of the very limits Solomon exhibits help to make him such a compelling figure. In his prayer Solomon appears to understand the magnitude of the task before him and the challenges it will present. When he describes himself as being “in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted” (3:7), the image is powerful: as if he, a child, is surrounded by an innumerable swirl of citizens pressing in on him for governance, guidance, and protection. By invoking that image, Solomon confesses his fear.

Solomon’s confession is a powerful testimony to his own humanity. Indeed, his entire biography as presented in Kings is evidence of the brokenness he shares with us all. At the same time, he exhibits rare qualities. By asking for wisdom in the first place, Solomon is demonstrating that he already possesses wisdom. That wisdom begets wisdom is a common theme of the wisdom literature: “Give instruction to the wise and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning” (Proverbs 9:9). Solomon is wise even before God grants his request.

Leadership, be it governmental, religious, or otherwise, requires us to hold in tension humility and confidence, finitude and limitless capacity, the gifts we have and the gifts we have yet to acquire. Solomon is by no means a “perfect” model for leadership, as his prayer reminds us. At the same time, Solomon’s prayer also testifies that effective leadership demands boldness, calling us to act in wisdom even as we pray to have wisdom enacted in us.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 19, 2012.
2 For a detailed analysis of the presentation of Solomon’s character, see especially Walter Brueggemann, Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005). Previous workingpreacher.org commentaries by Kathryn Schifferdecker, Brent Strawn, and Juliana Claassens have also addressed this ambivalence.


Commentary on Psalm 34:9-14

Eric Mathis

How many times a day do you use the phrase “It’s all good?”1

It’s an expression that’s thrown around a lot in everyday life suggesting that everything is fine, acceptable, perhaps even great. We use it to keep peace in relationships with our family, our friends, and even strangers we don’t know.

Someone hurts you; you brush it off. “It’s all good.” You make a mistake and feel embarrassed. A friend assures you: “It’s all good.” You disagree with a spouse. “It’s all good.” We all believe that these three words will actually repair the damage of an argument or anything gone wrong. We say “It’s all good,” and we imply, “I’m ok and you’re ok … don’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with you.”

The problem is that “It’s all good” actually says very little. The only real meaning it holds is that we use it when trying to rise above whatever problem exists in our world. We use it because we don’t have the time, energy, or capacity to deal with the reality that things might not be good. In fact, they might be bad. How do we deal with that?

Psalm 34: Overview

Though it might be a stretch, Psalm 34:9-14 makes the statement “It’s all good.” It’s all good because YHWH is good, and YHWH has a clear interest in our lives. Even when we are at our worst and left wondering, “What are we to do now, when things aren’t good?” This Psalm reminds us that we are to remember the testimony given in the first half of the Psalm, verses 4-6, and we are to take comfort in a good God who is happy when people take refuge in that goodness.

Although this week’s lectionary reading excludes verses 7 and 8, it might be helpful to begin with the reading of this Psalm at verse 7. These two verses, along with verses 9-14, underscore a message the Psalmist has emphasized, will continue to emphasize through verse 14, as well as the remainder of the Psalm (verses 15-22). God is good to us, and our well-being, in addition to our doing good, is a matter of following the ways of the Lord.

Psalm 34:9-14

Verses 7-8 begin a list of commands to taste, see, fear, come, keep, depart, and do. In this section, verses 7, 9, and 11 emphasize the reverence of YHWH among all other gods that an individual or community could choose to worship. verses 8, 10, 12, and 14 lace the reverence of YHWH only with the good and pleasant things that may come in this life. YHWH is the source of good (verse 8), and we also should do good (verse 14). Thus, the fear of the Lord really might be the beginning of wisdom, as the Proverbs and now this Psalm tell us.

A word of caution may be appropriate here. One must not view the relationship of YHWH’s goodness to our goodness as a moralistic imperative only. It is helpful to understand the relationship between these two “collocations” as described by John Goldingay:

“The collocation suggests a link between the theological and the experiential; YHWH’s goodness lies in a generosity that gives good things. It suggests a link between the theological and the behavioral; doing the good thing is a matter of taking the right attitude to YHWH. It also suggests a link between the behavioral and the experiential; doing good leads to enjoying good.”2

There are multiple theological, behavioral, experiential, and even ethical lessons in verses 7-14 to our understanding the relationship between a God who is good, God’s people who want to enjoy and do good, and a world where all is sometimes good and sometimes not good.

Preaching Psalm 34

In contrast to the surrounding culture that wants to assume “It’s All Good,” Psalm 34 presupposes that even those who revere and call on the name of YHWH are going to have fears, worries, and troubles. There will be times in each of our lives when, in fact, it’s not all good. In those moments, we are to follow the example of David in Psalm 34 who did not pretend that “It’s all good.” Rather, he cried to YHWH, he was heard by YHWH, and he was saved by YHWH.

In those moments of our deepest fear, worry, and trouble, we are to lean into the one and holy God, the source of all goodness. We are to approach God knowing that we are God’s creation, God’s goodness, God’s beautiful piece of art — like a poem, a sculpture, or a musical score. And, like theologian N.T. Wright says, “the music, which we now have to play, is the genuine way of being human, laid out before us in God’s gracious design so we can follow it.” Now that’s all good.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 16, 2015.

2 John Goldingay, “Psalm 34,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 480.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20

Scott Shauf

Ephesians 5:15-20 concludes a section in Ephesians (that began in 5:3) emphasizing the contrast between the morals of the world and the morals of the church.

Christians are to be “children of light” (Ephesians 5:8) rather than “children of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6; the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates this less vividly as “those who are disobedient”), and our lives should reflect this difference in status. The emphasized moral degradations to avoid are sexual immorality, greed, and various kinds of negative speech (verses 3-5). The positive morality is stated more generally prior to our passage — our lives are to produce “fruit of the light,” which is “all that is good and right and true” (verse 9).

Taken in the larger context of the overall letter, our passage is right in the middle of the second half of the letter, Ephesians 4-6. This second half consists mostly of moral exhortation, which is tied closely to the more strictly theological first half of the letter, Ephesians 1-3. The connection is that the first half of the letter lays out how God has brought the Gentiles (the primary audience of the letter) into God’s people, so that there is no longer a dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, but rather that together in Christ there is now one inclusive, universal church, the holy temple where God actually dwells. The section of moral exhortation builds on this primarily by emphasizing unity and peace as the moral goals that Christian behavior is designed to bring about.

In this section of Ephesians 5, however, the emphasis is on how the re-created status of Christians should result in changed lives, lives that look different from those who do not serve God and whose deeds will bring about God’s wrath. The church is universal in the sense of being open to all, but the church still exists in a “present darkness” where evil is at work (Ephesians 6:12). “The days are evil,” our passage puts it (Ephesians 5:16), and this fact calls for a wise and vigilant faithfulness.

It is with a simple admonition to be wise rather than unwise that our passage opens (verse 15). In the immediate context, the recommended wisdom probably was meant to consist of the very instructions that Ephesians has been providing. But, of course, both the ancient Ephesians and modern readers have a much wider store of wisdom to draw on in heeding this instruction.

Wisdom was a virtue in both Jewish and Gentile traditions, and while Jews and early Christians no doubt looked first to the Old Testament wisdom writings for understanding, wisdom is by nature inclusive and expansive — it is to be sought and accepted wherever it may genuinely be found. For Christians, then and now, there is also another side of wisdom — Christ is the true wisdom of God, in contrast with the foolish wisdom of the world that did not recognize Christ for who he was (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). The admonition to be wise, then, is not as simple as it may sound at first.

Ephesians 5:17 repeats the admonition to not be foolish, but this time the positive contrast is to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” God’s will has been mentioned several times already in the letter (Ephesians 1:1, 5, 9, 11); it has mainly referred to the cosmic plan of God to include the Gentiles in the church (this is the case in all of these except Ephesians 1:1, which refers to Paul’s calling as an apostle).

Here the context suggests a more moral focus, perhaps contrasting with “the desires of flesh and senses” from Ephesians 2:3 (where “desires” translates the same Greek word used for “will” in Ephesians 1:1, 5, 9; and here in 5:17), and certainly contrasting with the negative behavior described throughout Ephesians 5:3-20. That the same phrase can refer to both the cosmic theological plan of God and to moral behavior is significant, for one of the key lessons of Ephesians is that the foundation of moral living is understanding what God has done for us in Christ.

Ephesians 5:18 gives the one specific prohibition of the passage: “Do not get drunk with wine.” Drunkenness has not been mentioned as a vice before in Ephesians, but we should probably see it as going hand in hand with the other vices mentioned in the chapter — sexual immorality, greed, and evil speech — characteristic of the irresolute, wrongly focused lifestyle condemned throughout the chapter (the word used here, asotia, the NRSV’s “debauchery,” is a general term referring to any kind of immorally loose lifestyle). Most Jewish and Gentile moralists of the day would have agreed that drunkenness was a vice, but here it is again the contrast that is especially interesting. Instead of being drunk with wine, we are to be “filled with the Spirit.”

The Spirit’s role, both in forming the Christian community and in empowering Christian lives, has been important throughout Ephesians (see especially 1:13-14; 2:17-22; 3:16; 4:3-4, 30). Here thus added to the Spirit’s role is moral formation — being filled with the Spirit should produce in us “all that is good and right and true” from verse 9. Of course, it is difficult here not to think of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-26.

The mention of the Spirit here leads in a different direction in the next verse, however, to the worshipful life of the church, spelling out particularly the musical worship of the community (verse 19). The passage then concludes with an emphasis on being thankful “at all times and for everything” (verse 20), a point which is made all the more powerful when we remember that Ephesians is among Paul’s prison letters (see 4:1). That being filled with the Spirit is connected with all of these things — moral life, worship, and thankfulness — underscores the diverse power of the Spirit in our lives and points us back once again to the unity of Christian identity and ethics in Ephesians, this time also adding in that worship is a natural consequence of who we are as the unified body of Christ.

Passages like this one will probably not be popular today. Condemnation of the world’s morals doesn’t tend to “sell” well today, both because it is associated with a preachy, potentially hypocritical form of Christianity that many today want to disassociate from and because the contemporary emphasis on social justice tends to make us downplay distinctions between the church and the world. But perhaps in this context it is good to remind ourselves that Christians are still called to a different kind of life from that practiced by many around us. We should instead be filled with the Spirit.