Lectionary Commentaries for July 21, 2013
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 10:38-42

Elisabeth Johnson

Hospitality is exceedingly important in the biblical world in general and in Luke’s Gospel in particular.

When Jesus comes to Bethany, Martha demonstrates hospitality by welcoming Jesus into the home she shares with her sister Mary. She then busies herself with the tasks of serving their guest (diakonian). Although we are not told precisely what those tasks are, a good guess is that she began preparing a meal.

Meanwhile her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words. Rather than assuming the role expected of women in her culture, she takes her place at the feet of Jesus. She assumes the posture of a student learning at the feet of a rabbi, a role traditionally reserved for men.

Distraction and Worry
This pleasant story takes a sharp turn when Martha, distracted by her many tasks, comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”(10:40).

Many who read or hear this story may cheer for Mary in her inversion of traditional roles. Many may also empathize with Martha’s resentment of her sister for leaving her to do all the work. Jesus’ response to Martha seems less than empathetic, chiding her for her distraction and worry, and praising Mary: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.* Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (10:41-42).

The problem with Martha is not that she is busy serving and providing hospitality. Certainly Jesus commends this kind of service to the neighbor many times, notably in the parable of the Good Samaritan that immediately precedes the story of Mary and Martha. The problem with Martha is not her serving, but rather that she is worried and distracted. The word translated “distracted” in verse 40, periespato, has the connotation of being pulled or dragged in different directions.

Martha’s distraction and worry leave no room for the most important aspect of hospitality — gracious attention to the guest. In fact, she breaks all the rules of hospitality by trying to embarrass her sister in front of her guest, and by asking her guest to intervene in a family dispute. She even goes so far as to accuse Jesus of not caring about her (Lord, do you not care…?).

Martha’s worry and distraction prevent her from being truly present with Jesus, and cause her to drive a wedge between her sister and herself, and between Jesus and herself. She has missed out on the “one thing needed” for true hospitality. There is no greater hospitality than listening to your guest. How much more so when the guest is Jesus! So Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

Jesus’ words to Martha may be seen as an invitation rather than a rebuke. Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. The one thing needed is for Martha to receive the gracious presence of Jesus, to listen to his words, to know that she is valued not for what she does or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God.

The One Thing Needed
In a culture of hectic schedules and the relentless pursuit of productivity, we are tempted to measure our worth by how busy we are, by how much we accomplish, or by how well we meet the expectations of others. Preaching on this text may provide a rich opportunity to address this cultural malaise.

Many people in our congregations likely identify with Martha. Feeling pulled in different directions, feeling worried and distracted by many things — these seem to be common threads of life in our fast-paced world. And yet, as Jesus says in Luke 12:25, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” We know that worrying does no good, and that much of what we worry about is not so important in the larger scheme of things, and yet we cannot seem to quell our anxious thoughts and frantic activity.

It is true that much of our busyness and distraction stems from the noblest of intentions. We want to provide for our families, we want to give our children every opportunity to enrich their lives, we want to serve our neighbors, and yes, we want to serve the Lord. Indeed, where would the church be without its “Marthas,” those faithful folk who perform the tasks of hospitality and service so vital to making the church a welcoming and well-functioning community?

And yet if all our activities leave us with no time to be still in the Lord’s presence and hear God’s word, we are likely to end up anxious and troubled. We are likely to end up with a kind of service that is devoid of love and joy and is resentful of others.

Both listening and doing, receiving God’s Word and serving others, are vital to the Christian life, just as inhaling and exhaling are to breathing. Yet how often do we forget to breathe in deeply? Trying to serve without being nourished by God’s word is like expecting good fruit to grow from a tree that has been uprooted.

Luke’s story is left suspended. We do not know what happened next — whether Mary and Martha were reconciled, whether they were all able to enjoy the meal that Martha had prepared, whether Martha was finally able to sit and give her full attention to Jesus.

We do know that Jesus invites all of us who are worried and distracted by many things to sit and rest in his presence, to hear his words of grace and truth, to know that we are loved and valued as children of God, to be renewed in faith and strengthened for service. There is need of only one thing: attention to our guest. As it turns out, our guest is also our host, with abundant gifts to give.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 18:1-10a

Sara Koenig

When I was a child, one of my family’s common dinner prayers was, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blessed.”

(My sisters and I liked its brevity and the sing-song nature of the rhyme.) I understood it to be essentially a dinner blessing, so it was not until many years later that I realized the boldness of the first part of the prayer: asking Jesus to come and be our guest. What would that mean to prepare space at our table, in our home, in our lives, into which Jesus could come? What would it mean to receive him with hospitality and generosity?

Receiving God as a guest is a primary point of this lectionary selection because of the division of the verses. One could, of course, focus on the Triune God because Abraham is visited by the (one) Lord, as three separate people. Indeed, as Abraham speaks to “the three men” (18:2), he alternates between referring to them in the singular (verse 3) and plural (verses 4-5). Verse 9 has all of them speaking to Abraham (“and they said”), but then verse 10 switches to a single subject (“and he said”).

Some have explained that though there are three, Abraham occasionally addresses the leader, who is the one stating the promise in verse 10. But Andrei Rublev’s beautifully composed fifteenth-century icon based on this text is sometimes referred to as “The Icon of the Holy Trinity,” so this text certainly has an important place in reception history about the Trinity.

Yet an alternate title for Rublev’s icon on Genesis 18 is “The Hospitality of Abraham.” That title points to the effort Abraham puts, in this text, into welcoming God. In the heat of the day, Abraham runs to meet these men though, admittedly, if they are standing over him then that journey might not be too far (Genesis 18:2). His haste continues until the visitors are under the tree eating the food: he hurries to the tent to tell Sarah to make the bread, runs to the herd, and his servant hurries to prepare the meat (verses 6-7).

It is striking that Abraham’s description of what he will provide in verses 4-5 does not match up with what he ultimately serves. He told his visitors that he would fetch “a little water,” and a “morsel of bread.” Instead, he gives them a tender good calf from his herd, curds and milk, and cakes made from fine flour. Obviously, milk and curds (or butter; perhaps something like yogurt or buttermilk) is better than just water — in Deuteronomy 32:14, the curds and milk signify the abundance of God’s provision.

And the Hebrew word for the type of flour Sarah uses is solet, a word that appears in 1 Kings 4:22 (Hebrew 1 Kings 5:2) to describe the type of flour for the wealthy Solomon, and describes the choice food with which God feeds Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16:13 and 19. This is no mere morsel or dry crust!

It might seem there is something dishonest about telling the visitors they will only receive a little water and a bit of bread, when something far more lavish is what he has in mind. This could be explained away under the rubric of humility, that Abraham did not want to be arrogant about his ability to provide. Or, perhaps Abraham wanted to pleasantly surprise his visitors by not getting their expectations up. One ancient rabbi explained that this story illustrates how those who are righteous speak little, but do a lot.

The sequence of events may tempt readers to turn this text into something transactional: Abraham and Sarah are generous to God, then they are told that they will have a child. If we do our best for God, then God will respond and give us what we desire. If we are hospitable to God, then God will be gracious to us. A closer reading of the entire story helps mitigate such an interpretation. In the previous chapter, when Abraham wondered if Ishmael could be the child of promise, God told Abraham it would be Sarah’s son with whom God would establish God’s everlasting covenant (17:19). At that point, Abraham and Sarah had not welcomed God, nor had they provided food and rest for God.

Another detail that helps prevent us from understanding this text as a message that God will bless if (only) we give our best is found in Abraham’s first words to his visitor(s), “If I have found grace in your eyes…” (18:3). That same language is found in Exodus 33 when Moses asks God to show him God’s ways, and to go with the Israelites on their way (33:13, 16).1 Here, the request is a bit less bold than that of Moses; Abraham asks that the visitors do not pass by, but sit and rest. But Abraham’s “if” — indeed, any of our “ifs” — must be met with God’s “of course.”

Of course God’s grace is there, of course God’s eyes see God’s people with favor. Grace always comes first. Because that grace is there, God’s people can respond with their best. Because we have found favor in God’s eyes, it is possible to welcome God with hospitality and generosity, as a favored and welcome guest.


Notes:

  1. Gideon also uses that language in Judges 6:19, as does David in 2 Samuel 15:25.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Amos 8:1-12

Karla Suomala

“Amos was Israel’s first theologian,” says scholar John Barton. “As far as we know, no one before him had subjected the religious beliefs and practices of people in Israel to critical scrutiny.”[1]

While Book of Amos is one of the last in the Old Testament, Amos was actually among the earliest ancient Israelite prophets and writers on record. As such, he gives us a glimpse at the way some ancient Israelites understood the nature of God.  Operating in the mid-8th century, a good portion of the collection of material attributed to Amos is likely original to him, if not his disciples.

God and Israel shared a unique bond 

Some of Amos’ ideas about the nature of God came to be well-known and accepted as ancient Israel’s theology developed.  For example, while Amos doesn’t use the term covenant (as later biblical writers do), he certainly seems to have believed that God and Israel were in a special, if not contractual, type of relationship that was grounded in the Exodus story.  The passage that best describes this connection can be found in Amos 3:2-3 where God calls out, “O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.”  For Amos, this relationship signaled not just a unique connection to God, but also brought along with it significant responsibilities and punishment for not upholding them.     

God’s active role    

In addition, Amos 3:2-3 not only points to the particular relationship between God and Israel, it also reflects Amos’ understanding of God as an active force both in the life of Israel as well as other nations.  Barton indicates that for Amos, God intervened in history primarily through politics (including war) and within nature.   While today we might hesitate to make claims about God’s action in the political realm or in meteorological events, this idea was a commonplace for much of Jewish and Christian history.  In fact, insurance policies still refer to floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc., as “acts of God.”  

Today, we may be convinced, like Amos, that God does act, but are not always sure precisely how or why.  For Amos, the basis of God’s action appears to have been morality — not narrowly understood as individual piety but rather as collective action for the common good.  God can rescue the Israelites from Egypt on the one hand, but also subject them to famine or earthquakes on the other, all as a consequence of Israel’s behavior.

God’s irreversible judgment in 8:1-12

In looking at today’s passage from the end of the Book of Amos (8:1-12), alongside what we’ve seen in Amos 3, yet another theme emerges, one with which we are even less familiar and may make us quite uncomfortable.  What Amos 3 and 8 make clear (along with many other passages) is that Amos saw God’s judgment against Israel as a fait accompli, a course of action that was already underway, one that was impossible to reverse. 

Amos 8 opens with a vision in which God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit, fruit that is perhaps over-ripe, and teetering on the edge of going bad.  God then tells Amos that this vision indicates that “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.  The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day [and] the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place” (verses 2-3).  The finality of the passage is clear; Israel has no recourse.

Indictment of Israel’s leaders    

In the next segment of text, readers are provided with the reason for Israel’s demise.  In an indictment against Israel’s leaders in words that are perhaps a restatement of Amos 2, God says “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…”  The remainder of the passage (8:7-12) focuses on Israel’s punishment, describing a time when the land will tremble, the people will be in mourning, the sun will go down at noon, feasts will turn into mourning, songs into lamentation, and a famine of God’s word will encompass the land. 

Collective vs. individual judgment

Amos the theologian was convinced that God’s punishment was collective, not individual, and that the whole would suffer because of actions of some.  Not all biblical writers agreed with him, however; we begin to see changes in this view by the time that the prophet Ezekiel arrives on the scene in late 6th century and early 5th as the Kingdom of Judah is conquered and many of its inhabitants are taken into exile.

“The word of the Lord came to me,” says Ezekiel, “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?  As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die” (Ezekiel 18:1-4).

Challenges and opportunities in this text:  the environment

Preaching this text poses some challenges, to say the least.  Highlighting the unique relationship between God and God’s people, God’s active role in history, and God’s concern with justice, particularly among leaders, all “preach” well.  But combining these ideas with the sense that God’s justice is irreversible and collective?  Not so much.  But what if we look at this from a different angle? 

Amos was a working theologian, a man on the ground, responding to what he saw every day around him.  All of us, as working theologians, try to do the same.  And some of the issues we are grappling with appear to be both irreversible and collective.  Take the environment, for example.  This issue is not going away.  It has been largely caused by the wealthy of the world using more than their share, and that is having already and will continue to have consequences for ALL of us, regardless of what we’ve done individually.   Perhaps we can use Amos as a model, inspiring us to be courageous within our congregations.  Following his lead, we can boldly consider the hard questions that confront us.  Through preaching, teaching, conversation and debate, our churches can be places where we are not afraid to talk about things that really matter.


Note:

[1] Barton, John.  The Theology of the Book of Amos (Old Testament Theology). Cambridge University Press (2012), p. 52.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 15

James Limburg

Our question was, “How do we get into this place?”

A half-dozen of us were seeking entrance into a synagogue in the downtown area of a large German city. We had the address but could not find any building that looked like it might be a synagogue. Finally we saw a small black plaque that said “Israelite Community,” in Hebrew and in German. Alongside the plaque was a button. I pressed it. A buzzer sounded and a lock on the door clicked. We walked into the corridor and saw a young man sitting in a glass booth.

“Shalom,” he said. “Shalom” I answered. Then he asked some questions: “Where are you from? Can you show me your passports?” Then another buzzer, another door, and we walked into the very modern, very quiet, place of worship. A modern-day “entrance liturgy” of sorts, I thought. And I recalled this psalm.

The preacher for this Sunday may wish to deal with the Mary and Martha story in the assigned Gospel. If, however, the preacher isa Martha (or is married to a Martha, as is my own situation) she or he may wish to try something different. In that case I suggest reflecting on entrance liturgies, in the light of the psalm for the day, and then thinking also about exit strategies.

An Entrance Liturgy: Psalm 15
Psalm 15 functioned in ancient Israel as an entrance liturgy (there are other examples of entrance liturgies in Psalm 24:3-6 and Isaiah 33:14-16; in Micah 6:6-8 the prophet appears to be imitating such a liturgy). Imagine that you are a pilgrim coming to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. You couldn’t just walk right in to the temple area any more than we could have strolled right into that synagogue in Germany! There was a procedure to be followed and that’s where this psalm seems to have functioned.

Picture yourself arriving in the temple area. At the gate was a priest or a temple official. There were no buzzers or glassed-in booths, but there was an entrance procedure. The visitor, who may have come from a long distance on a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple, asked a pair of prescribed questions:

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill? (Psalm 15:1)

Then the priest or temple official gave a response. The Hebrew uses participles to indicate continuing actions, rather than a single act:

Those walking blamelessly,
and doing what is right,
and speaking truth from their hearts (verse 2, my translation).

The “walking” word reaches back to the first psalm, “Happy are those who do not walk in the way of the wicked” (Psalm 1:1, my translation) and refers to the conduct of one’s entire life. “Doing what is right” again refers to one’s conduct in everyday events.

After these general words about actions, the psalm provides more specific instruction. The person about to go to worship God ought to reflect on his or her relationships to friends and neighbors. There should be no gossiping or slandering. The Hebrew verb translated as “slander” is from the root word meaning “foot;” the picture seems to be of someone who goes about on foot, from place to place, spreading gossip (verse 3).

Verses 4 and 5 provide further instruction about the desired lifestyle of those who are going to worship the Lord. Once again there is a general statement (verse 4a,b) followed by some specifics, in this case about keeping promises or oaths and on the handling of money. The point is clear: people who come to worship God on the Sabbath (or who arrive at the temple to worship on any day!) should not be exploiting their neighbors with exorbitant interest rates or with underhanded bribes on the other days of the week (verses 4c-5)!

The liturgy completed, we might expect the priest to say, “Shalom. Come in to worship!”

An Exit Strategy
The psalm text for today is concerned about getting into the place of worship. It is interesting to notice, however, that the concern of the psalm itself is not with what happens when one is inside the sanctuary – but with what happens when one is back in the world on the outside!

The psalm refers to lives that are blameless, lips that speak the truth, and feet that do not rush off to spread gossip. The psalm warns against oppressing the poor with unfair interest rates; I recently helped out a friend who had been tricked into a “payday loan” which was easy to obtain but difficult to pay back because of interest charges of 30 or 40 percent! The psalm also talks about breaking promises and not getting involved in bribery. Here is described, in other words, the sort of everyday life expected of God’s people when they are outside the sanctuary, out and about in their homes, shops, places of play and work.

Psalm 15 is an entrance liturgy. I suggest that we should balance it with an exit liturgy, or call it an exit strategy, when worshippers leave the house of worship to enter back into their everyday lives. We do in fact have such a liturgy. It runs, “Go in peace (shalom) — serve the Lord.” One pastor I know invites the congregation to exit with “Go in peace — remember the poor.”

We enter to worship, most often week by week. But then we exit to return to our callings to be God’s people in the world, seeking to live lives worthy of our callings, remembering the poor and as Genesis 18:1-10 reminds us, showing hospitality to the stranger. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews interprets this Genesis text, commending such hospitality. For in showing such, says the writer, “you may be entertaining angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:1-2).

Having entered to worship may we exit to serve, perhaps even to entertain angels unaware. “Go in peace, remember the poor.” There’s a fine exit strategy!


Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:15-28

Richard Carlson

One of the goals this pseudonymous author has in writing this letter is to reassure its recipients that they already dwell securely in the reality that is Jesus Christ.

To enhance their understanding of what this entails, the author presents what has come to be called a Christ hymn (1:15-20), which most likely had been in liturgical use prior to its inclusion into this letter. The material draws upon Jewish Hellenistic wisdom tradition in which Wisdom was regarding as the divine agent for creation (Proverbs 8:27-31; Sirach 24:5-6) and its unity (Wisdom of Solomon 1:6-7; Sirach 43:26).

The first part of the hymn (1:15-17) presents Christ’s role in and for creation. As the image of God, Christ manifests the presence of the transcendent God within creation (1:15a). Christ’s supreme rank within creation is highlighted by presenting him as the firstborn of all creation (1:15b). This followed with the declaration that Christ is the means through which all of creation comes into existence including everything (except God) in the heavenly realms and the earthly realms (1:16a). In addition to being the originating agent of all creation, Christ stands as the ultimate goal of creation (1:16b). In 1:17a the hymn declares that Christ is before creation (both in terms of time and rank) while in 1:17b Christ is presented as creation’s unifying and sustaining agent.

The second part of the hymn (1:18-20) moves to Christ’s salvific role and actions. The church is given high status within creation by virtue of being the body with Christ as its head while also implying that as body the church is under the control and direction of Christ (1:18a). Christ’s first-born status is reiterated in 1:18b, only now it is not of creation but of the dead so that Christ’s resurrection gives him even greater preeminence other everything.

In claiming that “all the fullness dwells in him” (note that the word “God” does not appear in the Greek of 1:19) Christ is the expression and embodiment of God’s own being. Finally and climactically Christ is the agent through whom God reconciled all things to God’s own self via the cross as the means by which God made peace with everything in heaven and upon earth. Thus through the event of the cross, God has restored an equilibrium to all created reality.

Cosmic reality as presented through the Christ hymn helps the letter’s recipients understand that they do not need to perform an array of ascetic practices or seek ecstatic visions either to appease cosmic powers who otherwise will vex them or to experience a fuller relationship with God as some false teachers have claimed. Christ has preeminence over all the powers of the cosmos and through his death everything in all creation including such powers have been reconciled to God. Thus through the hymn’s claims regarding the cosmic Christ, the author provides his audience with an assuredness in who and whose they are.

Indeed beginning 1:21 through the use of an emphatic “you” the author moves directly from the cosmic scale of Christ and his role in God’s salvific plan to the audience’s own experiences. He reminds them that they themselves had been at enmity with God expressed through their hostile disposition and evil conduct. Nevertheless, Christ established an entirely new reality for them as a result of his death in which they are not only reconciled and forgiven (recalling 1:14) but Christ has established them as holy (recalling 1:2), guiltless, and beyond reproach (1:22).

In 1:23 the author does present a caveat to the Christ-established reality in that they are to remain faithful and resolute rather than turning away from the hope of the gospel that they originally heard and which is the inclusive, universal proclamation of the author. The hope of the gospel (recalling 1:5, 12) is their eschatological destiny which the false teachings to which they have been recently been exposed are a threat.

While Paul most likely did not write this letter, the pseudonymous author now holds up Paul’s ministry and its attendant sufferings as having an important role in God’s salvific plan. The author presents Paul as a ministering servant of the gospel with a divine commission to fulfill God’s word by making it known (1:25). Through such a gospel ministry, God’s hidden plan is manifested so that Gentiles who had previously not been part of God’s people would be included among God’s holy people and would come to know that the richness of God’s hidden plan is Christ in them as the hope of glory (1:26-27).

Thus not only does the audience live in the realm or sphere of existence which is Christ (1:2, 4, 28) and are participants in Christ’s body, the church (1:18, 24), but Christ dwells in their lives, solidifying an intimate relationship with the one through whom and for whom all creation came into existence and continues to be sustained and ruled (1:15-17). This ministry also includes ongoing admonishment and instruction so that each and every believer would live a wise, holistic life in their relationship with Christ now and into the future (1:28).

While such a ministry includes toils and struggles it is also made possible by the fact that Christ — not Paul — is the energizing force behind this ministry (1:29). Finally, this ministry also involves suffering because forces (presumably human and non-human) are resistant to it. Nevertheless, there can be rejoicing in the midst of and through such suffering because he is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1:24 NRSV).

By this the author does not mean that Christ’s death was deficient or incomplete. Rather such gospel ministry suffering is a demonstration of the gospel’s lasting importance especially in the face of rejection and overt opposition to the gospel. Because this was most likely written subsequent to Paul’s death, these words of his ministry and his suffering would have been even more poignant to the recipients of this letter.