Lectionary Commentaries for August 4, 2013
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 12:13-21

Elisabeth Johnson

Many who hear this parable, especially in a North American context, may wonder: Why is the rich farmer called a fool?

One could easily argue that the rich man is a wise and responsible person. He has a thriving farming business. His land has produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space in his barns. So he plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his grain and goods. Then he will have ample savings set aside for the future and will be all set to enjoy his golden years.

Isn’t this what we are encouraged to strive for? Isn’t it wise and responsible to save for the future? The rich farmer would probably be a good financial advisor. He seems to have things figured out. He has worked hard and saved wisely. Now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right?

Not exactly. There is one very important thing the rich man has not planned for — his reckoning with God. But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20)

Saving for the Future
The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.

When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’” (12:17-19).

The rich man’s land has produced abundantly, yet he expresses no sense of gratitude to God or to the workers who have helped him plant and harvest this bumper crop. He has more grain and goods in storage than he could ever hope to use, yet seems to have no thought of sharing it with others, and no thought of what God might require of him. He is blind to the fact that his life is not his own to secure, that his life belongs to God, and that God can demand it back at any time.

The rich man learns the hard way what the writer of Ecclesiastes realized — quite simply, that you can’t take it with you. All that we work so hard for in life will end up in someone else’s hands, and as Ecclesiastes puts it, “Who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity” (2:19).

Future Security
Vanity. Emptiness. A preacher would do well to name this feeling that washes over all of us who are enticed by materialism. Our reality is that no matter how much we have, we are always aware of things we don’t have. We are bombarded by marketing wizards whose job it is to convince us of all the products we need to complete our lives. And so we never quite feel that we have enough.

Like the rich farmer, we are tempted to think that having large amounts of money and possessions stored up will make us secure. Sooner or later, however, we learn that no amount of wealth or property can secure our lives. No amount of wealth can protect us from a genetically inherited disease, for instance, or from a tragic accident. No amount of wealth can keep our relationships healthy and our families from falling apart. In fact, wealth and property can easily drive a wedge between family members, as in the case of the brothers fighting over their inheritance at the beginning of this text.

Most importantly, no amount of wealth can secure our lives with God. In fact, Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth can get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15).

It is not that God doesn’t want us to save for retirement or future needs. It is not that God doesn’t want us to “eat, drink, and be merry” and enjoy what God has given us. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent time eating and drinking with people and enjoying life. But he was also clear about where his true security lay.

It is all about priorities. It is about who is truly God in our lives. It is about how we invest our lives and the gifts that God has given us. It is about how our lives are fundamentally aligned: toward ourselves and our passing desires, or toward God and our neighbor, toward God’s mission to bless and redeem the world.

A seasoned pastor once said, “I have heard many different regrets expressed by people nearing the end of life, but there is one regret I have never heard expressed. I have never heard anyone say, ‘I wish I hadn’t given so much away. I wish I had kept more for myself.’” Death has a way of clarifying what really matters.

Our lives and possessions are not our own. They belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. We rebel against this truth because we want to be in charge of our lives and our stuff.

Yet this truth is actually good news. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. So Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).

First Reading

Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23

Elizabeth Webb

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:9)

Don’t you just feel that way sometimes? Maybe even a lot of the time? There is nothing new in this world; it’s always the same old thing, day after day after day. The same demands are placed on you day in and day out, at work, at home. The same conversations, the same arguments even, with co-workers, spouses, children. And children, at this point in the summer, endlessly repeat the same hot, sticky complaints of boredom. Nothing ever really gets finished; nothing is ever settled; nothing will ever be just right. And for what? Just, it sometimes seems, so that we can get up the next day and do it all again? What a waste of breath.

We wait for those markers in the year that will break the monotony and bring us the happiness we long for in these days of drudgery: vacations, holidays, special gatherings with family and friends. Yet even those days come and go, and the happiness they bring us is gone like a breath — or maybe they fail to bring us the joy we expected at all.

It’s precisely this sense of the drudgery and even meaninglessness of life that the writer of the passage for today so aptly describes. Qoheleth, the Hebrew name of the book of Ecclesiastes and the name we give to the writer, means teacher, particularly one who teaches in the assembly. Qoheleth is learned in wisdom, having dedicated himself to studying it (1:13), and he speaks with authority to the assembled. What he has found in that wisdom, however, is the folly of human reasoning.

To understand “all that is done under heaven” (1:13) is so far beyond human ability that it is foolishness to believe we can even make a dent in the vastness of what we don’t know. “Of making many books there is no end” (12:12), for an infinity of books could never contain all knowledge. The search for wisdom will never be finished; it is “a chasing after wind” (1:14).

Moreover, Qoheleth has observed that what often passes for wisdom in his day is worse than folly; it’s simply untrue. Like Job’s interlocutors, popular wisdom in Qoheleth’s time had it that the good prospered and the evil suffered. But Qoheleth’s study of life has revealed to him the folly of such supposed wisdom. The good and the evil ultimately face the same end; the same darkness of death awaits all, regardless of a person’s virtue or lack of it. “How can the wise die just like fools?” he asks incredulously (2:16).

Even more unacceptable is his observation that at times “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous” (8:14). The good and the evil do not get what we think they deserve; sometimes just the opposite is the truth. This, to Qoheleth, is vanity, a fleeting nothing, meaninglessness.

Work is vanity, for Qoheleth. Labor and toil are endless, producing nothing but pain and anxious sleeplessness (1:1-4; 2:22-23). Success is also vanity, for it brings nothing near the satisfaction it promises (2:1-11). Justice is vanity: human justice is unjust, corrupt, and God’s justice is unknowable (3:16-22). The oppression of the powerless, “with no one to comfort them” (4:1-3), is vanity. Better off than both the living and the dead is “the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (4:3).

So for Qoheleth, all the things in which we place our effort and value, all the things on which we focus our attention, are vanity. They are either gone in a breath with nothing to show for them, or they are downright evil. There is a meaninglessness that prevails over all human activity. So what does Qoheleth prescribe? To “eat, drink, and be merry,” as the text is popularly summarized? Do we gather what enjoyment we can from life, because there’s no more meaning to it than that momentary pleasure?

Such a prescription itself seems like a waste of life. Simply to seek one’s pleasure and expect nothing more is to give in to the despair, to accept meaninglessness and hopelessness as given, and to preclude even the possibility of something more substantial. It also portrays a profound lack of faith in the God who delights in our very being, and in whom we are to find our delight.

Such an interpretation is far from the word that Qoheleth has for us. The cure for despair and hopelessness, and the desire of God for human beings, is to find joy precisely in this wearying life. Several times (2:24-25; 3:12-13; 5:18) Qoheleth asserts that, when confronted with the apparent meaninglessness of life, the best we can do is enjoy ourselves — take joy in eating, drinking, even in our work. A particular joy is to be found in companionship with one another; two are better than one, he writes, “For if they fall, one will lift up the other” (4:9-10). We are to see such enjoyment in play, in work, and in relationships as gifts from God; indeed, enjoyment comes “from the hand of God” (2:24).

In the midst of a life that seems rife with monotony and dissatisfaction and sorrow, out of the corners of our eyes we can see small glimmers of God’s grace. Days like Christmas and Easter, those moments when God’s dazzling light breaks through all darkness, only come once a year. The rest of the time we can often catch only a glitter here and there, as we struggle through the demands, the tedium, the felt meaninglessness of life. Despair casts a veil over our eyes, blinding us to the brilliance of God’s love. But if we see momentary joys as what they are, as small pinpricks of light in the veil, we live not in despair over meaninglessness but in hope for the day when that light shines brilliantly on all.

So let’s enjoy these remaining days of summer before they slip away. Let’s look forward to the next glimmer of grace, where we may expect to see it and where it may take us by surprise. And when that moment is over, let’s look forward to the next.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Hosea 11:1-11

David G. Garber, Jr.

At first glance, the parent-child metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel in the book of Hosea seems much more palatable than the marriage metaphor in chapters 1-3.

The image begins with the God’s adoption of Israel, liberating them from bondage in Egypt. Yet, this relationship also quickly turns sour: “the more I called them, the more they went from me” (verse 2). No longer a spurned lover, God is now a disregarded parent.

Israel’s inherent rebellious nature soon becomes clear as God offers a general indictment against Israel’s idolatry. To further the charge, verses 3-4 offer testimony to God’s loving care for the child, characterized by teaching, comforting, healing, and nourishing. The Divine Parent raised this son, taught him to walk, held him in times of distress, and healed the child when he was hurt.

As in other portions of the prophetic material, God recites the salvation history of Israel, not simply to offer hope, but to highlight the causes for judgment (cf. e.g. Amos 2:9-11, Micah 6:4-5). Despite God’s loving care and instruction, the people turned away, ultimately choosing subjugation to Assyria instead of the loving embrace of God (verse 5).

In place of Egypt, Assyria will now be Israel’s taskmaster and will bring a whirling, dancing sword to it city sword to devour its false priests. In the midst of this punishment, the people may once again call upon the God of Israel, but YHWH refuses to hear them. If we were to stop reading at this point in Hosea, it seems that God has abandoned the child completely. The Divine Parent seems to have abandoned the adopted son to pursue his own exploits and reap the results.

As in Hosea 1:10, however, the tone dramatically shifts in verse 8. The God who indicted Israel turns to a pattern borrowed from the lament tradition, introducing a series of questions with the interrogative “how.” In verses 8-9 we see a rare glimpse into God’s inner emotional turmoil over the actions of God’s child. Israel’s child and the thought of punishing this child literally causes God’s heart to turn over upon itself, a trope for the idea that God has once again changed God’s mind regarding the imagined punishment.

While God feels the anger and bitterness that any parent disrespected by a child might, God rises above the desire to punish Israel. God decides to act as a God, and not a human. God will not violate God’s own holiness by submitting to the human emotions of rage and vitriol (verse 9).

Instead, God will lead the people from captivity. The imagery of the lion and birds here is quite poignant. Lion imagery was often associated with kings in the ancient Near East, especially with the kings of Assyria, with whom the people of Israel were most often entangled. YHWH, however, is the real king of the ancient world. Likewise, the bird imagery reflects Israel’s migratory status. After the destruction of Samaria in 722 BCE, the northern Israelites were forced into exile, some fleeing south to Judah (and possibly Egypt) and others taken captive by Assyria and displaced into various regions of the empire. This convergence of lion and bird imagery is both a boon and a threat. As a Lion, God has the power to redeem the people of Israel from their imperial captors. The lion imagery, however, reinforces the notion that God has chosen not to act as a typical lion might. This Lion rescues the migratory birds, though it seems within the Lion’s right and power to simply devour them.

Historically, this passage probably reflects various stages within the Hosea tradition. It is likely that, in conjunction with other passages within the book, the earlier texts of God’s wrath speak to Israel’s situation prior to Assyria’s sack of Samaria in 722. It is also likely that verses 10-11, therefore, represent either an exilic or post-exilic layer of redaction that testifies to God’s desire to bring back dispersed Israel to once again inhabit their own land.

As with the marriage metaphor in chapters 1-3, the use of the Divine Parent metaphor here illustrates the depth of God’s emotional responses to the prodigal Israel. God is a tender and instructive parent, offering wisdom and healing to God’s children at every turn. But as the child rejects his parent, Hosea 11 reveals God’s deep anguish and anger. God’s conflicting emotional commitment churn within God’s heart, but ultimately God chooses to express salvific care to the nation of Israel, once again rescuing them from captivity and establishing them in their own land.

It can be quite easy in our preaching and teaching to overlook the more harsh elements of this metaphor: God’s desire to punish us when we go astray, God’s intention to release us to the destructive powers of the world, and even God’s emotional indecisiveness. These human qualities, however, invite us to sympathize with the Divine. They vividly portray God’s pain at our slight indiscretions as well as our outright rebellion against God’s teachings.

Moreover, they highlight God’s choice to remain a Holy God who will not submit to the base, but understandable human desires for retribution. Hosea 11:1-11 offers the portrayal of a spurned God who ultimately chooses to continue to exhibit mercy and protection for disobedient children.


Commentary on Psalm 49:1-12

James K. Mead

“The One Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.”

Forgive my crude attempt at upending the philosophy of a well-known bumper sticker (“The one who dies with the most toys wins”) at least from my vantage point behind the fine vehicles that have proclaimed such a message.

At every turn Christ’s followers, regardless of their social status, are assailed by images of material wealth. It’s difficult not to want what others have: play with the latest Smartphone, drive the newest SUV, and travel to the best destinations. The bane of North American Christianity has been its materialism, embracing a culture of abundance and advancement. In one way or another, we all wrestle with how the “American Dream” compromises our commitment to the way of the Cross. Psalm 49 is our wake-up call; a priceless gem of biblical wisdom more precious than all the wealth the world can give us.

This Sunday’s psalm lection consists of only the first twelve verses of Psalm 49. This “half-psalm” is a one of the curve balls that the common lectionary occasionally throws to preachers and worship leaders. In the case of Psalm 49, however, there’s no anticipation of singing or praying the second half on the following Lord’s Day. The challenges posed by this psalm-ostomy are particularly acute, since there are good reasons for treating the whole psalm as a masterful work of literary art and theological acumen.

As fascinating as it would be to ask why Psalm 49 underwent this involuntary surgery, we must explore the possibility of using the lection as it is given to us. The literary art of which I spoke actually works to our advantage as we focus on verses 1-12, for a strong case can be made that verses 13-20 form something of a parallel panel to the psalm’s first part. Notice, for instance, the undeniable echo between verses 12 and 20, rounding out each section. Then, too, some scholars reasonably describe the balance between these panels in direct parallelism or as a chiasm, though these structures are not without their limitations.[1]

The point is that the key themes of the psalm are found in both sections, and there is nothing prohibiting the preacher from dipping into the well of the second half to illustrate ideas from the first. Here are three considerations to guide your preparation.

First, the psalm contains explicit reference to Israel’s wisdom traditions, with at least five terms (wisdom, meditation, understanding, proverb, riddle) in verses 3-4, most of which occur frequently in Proverbs. There is no consensus among scholars over the precise function or the term “riddle” in the poem.[2] Nevertheless, the general tone of wisdom’s applicability to every station in life comes through loud and clear: “both low and high, rich and poor together” (verse 2). We’re all laid bare before the stunning verdict of death that unites us all as “mortals [who] cannot abide in their pomp” (verse 12). I think Brueggemann rightly calls attention to the “egalitarian lessons” that can be learned only when rich and poor are taught together from God’s wisdom.[3]

Second, in spite of the group learning experience, the psalm nevertheless has a differentiated audience and, therefore, can be imagined as having a different impact depending on one’s sense of his or her wealth. The poor are afraid and don’t need to be. The rich don’t appear to be afraid but ought to be. The message for the poor is that they ought not to fear troubles brought on by the sins of the rich and powerful (verses 5-6, 16). The message for the rich is that no amount of wealth can ransom them from death (verses 7-9, 16-17).

In language reminiscent of the Old Testament reading today (Ecclesiastes 2:18–23), the poet reminds both audiences that even wisdom cannot keep one from dying (verses 10-11). Thus, while the main purpose of the psalm is to reassure the poor and oppressed that God will see to everyone’s ultimate fate, churches should be cautious about assuming that modern Christians easily match up with the poor and lowly of Psalm 49. And the painful reality of global economics reveals that even moderate-income folks in the West have incredible wealth compared to 99% of the world’s population.

Third, the psalm does not provide the complete or last word on resolving economic disparity today. Most scholars agree that ancient Israel’s outlook on death focused exclusively on its absolute finality. If some references to Sheol appear to imply a continued existence, it is never one that is sought or enjoyed. Nevertheless, some interpreters believe that this psalm does open the door to a different sort of hope, at least if the wording of verse 15 be taken as a declaration that God will ultimately deliver the speaker from the grave.

For example, Derek Kidner calls verse 15 “one of the mountain-tops of Old Testament hope.”[4] And even if John Goldingay is correct that life after death is not the point of the verse, Christian interpretation of the psalm may include New Testament use of other psalms (Psalm 16 in Acts 2:25-28). In the meantime, we who live in this world of plenty and scarcity must act with determined justice to fend off the temptation to do nothing and simply let God sort it all out. We may really want the rich to get their comeuppance, but we have an evangelistic obligation to share the good news of gospel, which for them (and us) will involve the bad news about our riches.

[1] David J. Zucker, “The Riddle of Psalm 49” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 33 (2005): 143-152; J. David Pleins, “Death and Endurance: Reassessing the Literary Structure and Theology of Psalm 49,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 69 (1996): 19-27.

[2] Leo Perdue, “Riddles of Psalm 49,” JBL 93 (1974):33-42; Katherine J. Dell, “’I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre’ (Psalm XLIX 4[5]),” VT 54 (2004): 445-458; and Zucker (see note 1, above).

[3] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 107.

[4] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary (London: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 182.

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 3:1-11

Richard Carlson

Throughout the New Testament, human reality and conduct are interrelated.

Our reality involves our relationship to God be it positive or negative. Positively the writers of the New Testament depict such reality in various ways including being in God’s kingdom; being a child of God; being in the light; being made righteous; or being in Christ. Such a reality is not something we have achieved. Rather it is a new or transformed reality that God established through Christ.

Such a changed reality results in changed conduct so that how we live reflects who we have become. Quite often, instructions regarding this conduct contain two elements: exhortations to live in a given way because of our reality; or comparisons or contrasts with our former negative conduct before divine transformation was enacted in our lives. In this passage from Colossians the author is presenting the interrelationships between our new reality and our new conduct.

Here the author begins with the divinely established reality of our baptism, which he had previously explained to this audience in 2:12-13. In baptism we were raised with Christ (3:1a). Unfortunately most English translations make this a less than sure reality by reading “if you have been raised with Christ.” A better reading of the Greek would be “since you were raised with Christ” as the author is assuming that this actually happened to his audience. Thus we have a resurrected reality as a result of baptismal inclusion into Christ’s resurrection.

This is the springboard for everything he will now say in our text. Because they have a resurrected reality, he exhorts the audience to seek the things above that, in this context entails seeking conduct that reflects our resurrected life in Christ who sits in the position of power and status at God’s right hand (3:1b). Our evaluative perspective is also to reflect our resurrection reality in contrast to an evaluative perspective and orientation shaped by the things of this world.

The so-called “things on earth” introduced in 3:2 will be detailed as immoral behavior in 3:5 which includes sexual immorality, evil desire, and the idolatry of covetousness. Because we experience a death to our old reality in baptism (3:3a) we are now called upon to put such conduct to death (3:5a).

Though we were raised with Christ our lives remain hidden with Christ (3:3). That is, our current physical, mortal existence in some way masks the reality of our resurrected, eternal existence. Such a resurrection reality will only be manifested in glory with Christ at the eschatological manifestation of Christ (3:4). Nevertheless, even now in the present Christ is our life because we were raised with him (3:4), and we need not fear God’s coming wrath (3:6) because that is directed against the conduct listed in 3:5.

This had been our former conduct because we had lived in an old reality that the author had previously depicted as the dominion of darkness or being dead in trespasses (3:7 recalling 1:13 and 2:13). Our baptismal union with Christ’s resurrection, however, now empowers us to conduct ourselves according to God’s will rather than against God’s will.


Colossians 3:8-10 uses imagery of “putting off/away” and “putting on” to depict a number of points about our reality and conduct. We are exhorted to put away conduct detrimental to harmonious and holistic communal life such as rage, anger, evil intentions, slander, abusive language, and acting falsely to each other (3:8-9a) because we put off our old reality and its attendant conduct (3:9a).

In direct contrast is the new reality that we put on and involves ongoing divine renewal in knowledge in accords with Christ who is the image of God (3:10 recalling the depiction of Christ as the image of God in and through whom all things were created in 1:15-16). In this context, the knowledge referred to in 3:10 involves understanding the reality that we were raised with Christ and how this engenders new conduct.

In his use of “putting on” imagery in 3:10, the author is most likely drawing on Paul’s use of “putting on” imagery associated with baptism in Galatians 3:27 so that as Paul immediately follows this with a list of contrasting pairs which were negated in baptism (Galatians 3:28). Colossians 3:11 immediately presents contrasting pairs that have undergone some type of a baptismal negation. There first two contrasting pairs in 3:11 — “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised” — might sound redundant, but the author probably has ethnic differences in mind for Greek/Jew and cultic differences for circumcised/uncircumcised.

The barbarian/Scythian contrast seems more obscure but could reflect an understanding of barbarians as people living in the far southern regions of that world and Scythians as people living in far northern regions so that there is now a unity among those living at the opposite points of the compass. Since the author recognizes the ongoing reality of slavery in his instructions to slaves in 3:22-25, the final contrasting pair, slave/free, in 3:11 helps show that for the author what has been negated in baptism is not the existence of such contrasting groups. Rather these contrasts no longer serve as the prime identity of people’s separateness since they are all in Christ who gives them their prime identity.

Finally, the last line of this text, “Christ is all and in all” draws on Paul’s eschatological claim regarding God in 1 Corinthians 15:28 but with some significant shifts in theology. Whereas in 1 Corinthians 15:28 Paul is making a statement of future eschatological reality in terms of God being the everything in everything, here the author of Colossians is making a statement about the present reality of believers in terms of Christ being all and in all. This reflects his own distinctive theological perspective that what Paul understood to be part of the future (our being raised with Christ and God being the ultimate reality), this author understands happened in the past (resurrection with Christ) and the present (Christ being the ultimate reality).