Lectionary Commentaries for July 14, 2013
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 10:25-37

Michael Rogness

How do we preach on texts that everybody knows and where the meaning is very clear?

How do we preach on the same texts we’ve preached on many times before, perhaps to the very same congregation? That’s our situation this Sunday. My advice is: never look back on your old sermons. Preach this text to these people and to our times. Your people likely won’t remember what you said before anyway.

We can assume that when the lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” he was thinking to himself, “I have taken very good care of my neighbors” — that is, the good Jewish people living in his neighborhood. Jesus’ reply expanded the “neighborhood” well beyond the lawyer’s view.

Societies in biblical days were strongly tribal. You identified with “your people.” There was much hostility between the Jews of Judah and Galilee against the Samaritans, who considered themselves Jewish, but whose center of worship was on Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. The orthodox Jews considered Samaritans not only heretical but also as ceremonially unclean. In contrast, the priest and Levite were at the heart of temple worship.

When I preach on this text this Sunday I will emphasize that the lawyer knew his Scriptures very well. When Jesus asks, “What is written in the law?” the lawyer quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, verses we now call the “two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor,” reminding us of the “two tablets” of the law which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

The first commandment about loving God is the “Shema” which every Jewish child knows by heart, beginning with “Hear (shema), O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone…” It is the prayer the lawyer in this story would have recited twice every day as an adult Jewish man.

The appointed Old Testament reading for this Sunday is Deuteronomy 30:9-14, which also refers to the first of these “great commandments”: “turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

However, the story of the Good Samaritan is about the second of Jesus’ great commandments, so I will substitute Leviticus 19:18, 33-34 for today’s Old Testament reading (yes, you can do that) because it reinforces the meaning of the Gospel reading so clearly:

“… you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD… When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

The concern for the stranger and alien is a repeated theme throughout the Torah. Speaking through Moses God makes very clear to the people of Israel that they should care for the strangers and aliens among them. God “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).

Why do we love the stranger and the alien? Notice the repeated refrain in Leviticus, repeated not only in these two verses, but over and over again in the giving of society’s laws: “I am the Lord your God.” God has created all people, and our concern for all people shatters the fences of our own tribes.

Notice also how Jesus changes the lawyer’s question. The lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?” By his definition the neighbors of the story would have been the priest and the Levite, members of his group, not the alien and heretical Samaritan. However at the end of the story, Jesus changes the question by asking, “Which of these three, do you think was a neighbor?” that is, “Who proved to be a neighbor?” Neighbor is as neighbor does, so to speak. “Neighbor” is not defined by location or group but by those who need concern and care.

We are all “tribal” by instinct and by habit. We are most comfortable with and usually care most about those like us. But now we live side-by-side with people of many different tribes. My father grew up in a small town in South Dakota where his “neighbors” were Norwegian Lutherans just like him. He didn’t even meet a Roman Catholic until his late teens. Now my grandchildren attend school with African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and a few children from other countries.

A good sermon will need examples, and today it’s not hard to find them. We are surrounded by people different from us who need our help. We can cite examples from the work of our own congregation, helping others in the community, as well as reaching out to the world through different denominational ministries.

The stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are the two best known and most beloved of all Jesus’ teachings. As well known as they are, they need constant repeating, because their messages are so necessary in understanding what Christianity is all about. The Christian faith, following Jesus, reaches out beyond our tribal walls. Our “neighbors” are those who need us.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:9-14

Sara M. Koenig

Many Christians today seem to assume that keeping God’s law is impossible.

Isn’t the law meant to be too hard for us to keep, in order to show us that we can only be saved through God’s work and not by our own efforts to keep the law? This text from Deuteronomy challenges the assumption that we cannot follow God’s commandments. In this brief but powerful segment of Moses’ larger speech, Moses makes three rhetorical moves to encourage the people of Israel that they can, in fact, keep God’s law.

Moses’ first rhetorical move is in verse 9 when he promises the people that their future will be an abundant, blessed one. Everything they do (literally, “all the work of your hand”) will be blessed by the Lord. There will be fruitfulness: of children, of livestock, of produce. All this abundance will be for good. How can they know it? Moses makes this hoped for, promised future, more concrete when he draws on the past, telling them that Lord will do this for you, just as the Lord did for your ancestors. You can trust that the Lord will act this way in the future because the Lord acted this way in the past.

Additionally, the Lord is not some abstract deity, but is a personal God, referred to as “your God” three times in verses 9-10. Certainly, a message of hope and blessing for the future must have been encouraging for this new generation at the precipice of entry into the land. But anyone, in any situation, who is anxious of what will come would benefit from assurance for the future based on the past.

A difference among English translations muddy the clarity of Moses’ second rhetorical move, where Moses explains what the people are to do: obey God by observing God’s commands, turning to God with all their heart and soul. Many translate 30:10 as, “if you obey…” making the promise of the future blessing in verse 9 contingent on the people’s obedience (NIV, NASB, KJV).

Both NRSV and ESV translate it as “when,” suggesting that the promises of future abundance will happen when God’s people obey. In the JPS Tanak, Deuteronomy 30:10 reads, “since you will be heeding the Lord your God…” which would also signify that God’s blessing is a response to our actions. Yet, this translation presents it as a given, instead of only a possibility. A similar confidence is found in Young’s Literal Translation, “for thou dost hearken to the voice of Jehovah thy God…” The Hebrew word here, kiy, certainly can be used to express a condition.[1] It can also be translated as “for,” as YLT does.

In some ways, however, the different translation possibilities are made moot by Moses’ third rhetorical move, when he assures the people that they can keep God’s commandments. Even if we translate 30:10 as “if,” which could allow that the people might not obey, Moses declares in verses 11-14 that they can. Or, if the word in 30:10 is “when, for,” the move is still one of assurance. You can obey! You will obey!

Moses gives this assurance by explaining to the people that it is not too hard for them (“wondrous,” or “astounding” would also work), nor is it too far away. Ronald Clements writes that one of the aims of Moses’ address is “to thrust aside the objections that the survivors of Israel nursed in their hearts, that made such a message of hope appear impossible.”[2] That is certainly true for this small section of Moses speech. If the people object that the commandment to obey God is too hard for them, Moses is pushing that aside.

The language of distance — “it’s not too far away” (30:11) — can be understood as part of Moses’ assurance. Here, he is allaying fears that the commandment is in a place beyond their grasp — it is not in the heaven, nor is it over the sea. In both verses 12 and 13, Moses imagines someone saying, “Who can go to that place, take the commandment for us, cause us to hear it so that we can do it?”

Spatial concerns, about distance and location, must have been close to the surface for a people about to enter a new land. And those who knew that Moses was speaking his final address must have been worried about the presence of a leader who could help them to act in a certain way. Moses anticipates those fears and faces them directly, and in the final verse in our pericope he completes his encouragement that the people can and will follow God’s law. Instead of being far away, the command is so near to them that it is inside them, inside their heart.

Such language recalls the new covenant described in Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Certainly, many people understood God’s promise in Jeremiah as yet to be ultimately realized. But, the language of a command inside the heart of God’s people occurs here, at almost the beginning of their story as a people. The new covenant, then, certainly has connections with the old one.

Another important aspect of Moses’ final rhetorical move to assure the people that they can, in fact, do what God asks is how he enables the people to have ownership of it. Moses affirms two things: that it is both in the people’s mouth and heart to do it (30:14). The language that it is in their “mouth,” suggests that the people are able to speak it, perhaps to speak their own words of assent to follow God (cf. Exodus 24:3, 7; Joshua 24:16-24). And the language of heart can suggest a yearning to do what God has asked. When it is in their heart to keep God’s law, what may have seemed impossible becomes not only possible but desired.

[1] Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 637.

[2] Ronald Clements, “Deuteronomy,” in The New Interpreters Bible, vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 512. 

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Amos 7:7-17

Karla Suomala

Justice and judgment — are they an inseparable pair?

Amos in context

Scholars generally agree that Amos was a southerner, heralding from the village of Tekoa, about five miles from Bethlehem. He was likely active during the mid-8th century; during the period in which Jeroboam II ruled Israel and Uzziah was king in Judah. Both kings had remarkably long reigns, 41 and 52 years respectively, suggesting an era of stability on both sides of the border. From reading the book of Amos — filled with dire predictions of Israel’s future accompanied by oracles of judgments–it’s hard to imagine that Amos is actually living in a time of relative prosperity and peace but this appears to be the case in both kingdoms. Amos’ calling, as the early chapters of the text demonstrate, was to travel north from Judah to preach among the people of Israel.

Spurned messenger

Amos has come to be known for his emphasis on justice, particularly on what we would call social or economic justice. We need only say, “Let justice roll down like waters…” and Amos comes to mind. He was concerned about the poor, the marginal, and the exploited in his society. He is unwavering in his sense that unless these wrongs were “righted,” then there was little hope for Israel. Today’s passage, Amos 7:7-17, clearly demonstrates that neither the message nor the messenger was particularly well-received. Amaziah, the priest at the sanctuary at Bethel, doesn’t mince words, telling Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (7:12-13).

Amos’ vision

What has Amos said this time, to so upset the northern priest? The image of God that Amos paints for Amaziah is in fact quite disturbing.  Amos reports the vision that he has seen in which God tells him, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (7:8-9).  

Although “plumb line” is used to translate the Hebrew is ’a·na? in the NRSV, it isn’t entirely clear that this is what the word actually means. Amos 7:7-8 is the only passage in which this term appears in the Hebrew Bible, and while its origins are unknown, it seems to refer to a metal, perhaps lead or tin. In some earlier translations to English, a “mason’s trowel” is used instead of a plumb line. The Jewish Study Bible, strikingly, translates the term as “pick ax.” This translation works in that it is consistent with the image of God with a sword at the conclusion of verse 9. Both the pick ax and the sword communicate the destructive thrust of the passage — God holding instruments suggesting imminent devastation.

What is interesting is how consistently tradition has favored the term “plumb line” over other possibilities in interpretation and translation. And, how the image of the Lord with a plumb line is emphasized over against the image of God with a sword in verse 9 in both. This may have more to do with our piety than with the text itself: a plumb line is not inherently destructive, but is used in the process of construction to make sure that lines are straight. Unlike a sword or pick ax, a plumb line gives the sense that there is still hope to make adjustments!   

Images of justice    

When we consider symbols of justice in our culture, Lady Justice likely springs to mind. This woman (sometimes with a blindfold), who carries a set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other, is everywhere–from the Supreme Court to the local courthouse. The origins of this depiction can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt, to the goddess Ma’at, whose name indicates “straightness” both in the construction of buildings as well as in human behavior. This female depiction of justice continued to develop, first in Greek culture as Dike, daughter of Themis, and then in Roman culture as Justitia. Throughout history, different features have been added and she has been called by many names, but the Roman goddess, Justitia, has stuck in western culture so that we know her as Lady Justice. Her scales represent the ability of Lady Justice to weigh evidence fairly and impartially. Her sword can represent both her authority to make such decisions as well as her capacity to execute judgment.

What do we do with a God of judgment?

We can wholeheartedly stand with Amos in many other passages through his book as he demands justice and exposes corruption and exploitation. We also take pride in the scales of Lady Justice as the foundation of fairness in our society. But both Amos and Lady Justice have a darker side, that of judgment. Even if Amos’ God is holding a plumb line in the first part of the passage — a device akin to the weighing and measuring capacity of Lady Justice’s scales — God is clearly using a sword in verse 9 against the house of Jeroboam II.  These images of the sword (and perhaps the pick ax as well) are disturbing. Even more problematic, in the passage from Amos, is that time for taking action or returning to the Lord appears to have run out. The case, in fact, appears to have been decided and the punishment at hand.

What “word” is there for us in this passage? Is there a place for judgment in our preaching today? Perhaps, a closer look at Lady Justice will provide some clues. She holds both the scales and the sword — maintaining the tension between justice and judgment, and suggesting that justice without judgment is meaningless. What if we consider Amos in the same way, a prophet who was gripped by visions of both justice and judgment — a pair that couldn’t be separated?


Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

James Limburg

The Good Samaritan text for this Sunday is the equivalent of a fastball right down the middle, and most preachers will want to take a swing at it!

But the lectionary also assigns some other texts for the day, including Psalm 25, which can provide some fresh insight into this well-known story. The psalm contains a request for instruction, and this is exactly what the lawyer asks of Jesus, when he addresses him as “Teacher. . .”

Some Background: A Psalm about Learning and Living
Several features of Psalm 25 indicate that it functioned in a teaching situation. It is, in other words, an instructional psalm (see also Psalm 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, 119, 127, 128 and others). Most obviously, it is an alphabetical acrostic psalm, making it easier to memorize. It goes through each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in verses 1-21; verse 22 is outside the pattern and looks like an addition, shifting from “I” to “we” and thus adapting the psalm to use in the congregation.

There are other indications that the psalm was designed for teaching. It expresses an eagerness for instruction: “Make me to know” (verse 4), “teach me”(verses 4, 5), “lead me in your truth” (verse 5). The writer thinks of the Lord as a Teacher, instructing sinners (verse 8), leading and teaching the humble (verse 9), instructing believers on how to live (verse 12).

Framing the instructional core of the psalm are segments suggesting that the context for this instruction was not tranquil. The psalmist has experienced the hatred of enemies and even fears for life itself (verses 1-3, 19-20). The writer is lonely and hurting, needing forgiveness and refuge (verses 11, 16-20). In such a dire situation the psalmist prays for help and sanctuary (verse 20) but also for instruction about the path that the life of a believer ought to take (verses 4, 12).

Some ABC’s of Theological Instruction (verses 1-10)
The lectionary suggests reading only the first ten verses of the psalm, singling out verse 4 as the antiphon or key verse. The psalm begins like a typical lament, containing an affirmation of trust (verses 1-2) and cries for help (verses 2-3) and requesting that the Lord deal with those persons who are making the psalmist’s life miserable (verses 1-3, the ABC or aleph, bet, gimel, the first three letters of this alphabetical plan).

With verses 4 and 5 (dalet and hey, the fourth and fifth letters) the psalm shifts into a series of requests for and reflections on instruction. Notice the imperative verbs: “make me to know your ways… teach me your paths… lead me in your truth… teach me. The psalmist simply doesn’t know what to do next. Daily life is described as a “way” (see also Psalms 1; 16:11; and 119:1-3, 105) and the troubled psalmist needs help figuring out how to proceed along that way. In other words, the psalmist doesn’t know which way to turn or where to go next!

Verses 4 and 5 and 8 (chet) and 9 (yod) picture God as a Teacher, instructing the one who is praying. Here are some examples of a unique kind of theological education. This time God is not the object of the teaching (theology is “talk about God”). Here God is described as the subject, the one who is teaching; God instructs, leads, and teaches.

This psalm uses the three most important biblical words for sin. Those being taught are described as “sinners” in verses 7, 8 (chet, tet), and 18 (qoph, though the text is broken) all using forms of the word hata’ which has the basic sense of missing the target. The word is used literally in Judges 20:16, where the reference is to the seven hundred left-handed slingshot marksmen from the tribe of Benjamin who could fire at a hair and not miss.

Behind the word translated transgressions in verse 7 is the Hebrew pasa’, which means to rebel, like the rebelling of a teenager against parents (Isaiah 1:2) or of one treaty partner against another (2 Kings 1:1; 3:5, 7). The third word, translated guilt in verse 11 (lamed) is from the Hebrew ‘awon which has the sense of being twisted out of shape (Isaiah 24:1) or bent over, bowed down (Psalm 38:6; Isaiah 21:3). Here, then, are three pictures of life that is not right with God: a life that is not headed in the right direction but is off target, a life of rebellion, and a life twisted out of shape.

The section from verses 6-10 says something about the goodness and faithfulness (hesed) of God, which is the basis for the psalmist’s trust and hope. Three times there is reference to God’s steadfast love (verses 6, 7, 10), a translation of the Hebrew word hesed. That word refers to the Lord’s enduring love for the Lord’s people. “For his steadfast love endures forever” occurs as the refrain in each verse of Psalm 136. Here are given examples of God’s steadfast love, including God’s work in creation, in delivering the people from bondage in Egypt, and in guiding them through the wilderness. God’s hesed also includes providing food for all living creatures (Psalm 136:25).

The Lawyer’s Question and the Teacher’s Answer (Luke 10:25-37)
Luke portrays Jesus as in conflict with the “lawyers” or experts in Scripture who appear in his Gospel. The one in Luke 10 is trying to trap Jesus; see also Luke 7:30 and 11:45-52. There has been a long and lively history of teaching and learning in Judaism from its beginnings and continuing on to the present. The instructional psalms provide early examples of that tradition.

Jesus is pictured as going about preaching, healing and teaching. He is often addressed as “Teacher” (Matthew 8:19; 12:38; Luke 7:40; 9:38, etc.). In Luke’s report about the Good Samaritan, Jesus is addressed as “Teacher.” Jesus responds by going about his teaching in a method beloved by all teachers, especially Jewish teachers: Jesus tells a story.

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:1-14

Richard Carlson

This text seemingly consists of the rather mundane opening of Paul’s letter to Christians living in the town of Colossae.

There is more at work in the text, however, than one might gather from an initial, cursory reading.

First, the majority of Pauline scholars do not think Paul wrote Colossians but that it was written after his death by one of his followers in an attempt to have Christ’s apostle speak from beyond the grave. The dating of the letter would be sometime between 65-75 CE. Second, the town of Colossae (located in modern day western Turkey about 120 miles inland from the Aegean Sea) was destroyed in an earthquake around the year 61 CE and was not rebuilt. Thus it is likely that the identities of both the author and the audience of this letter are pseudonymous. Third, as the argument of the letter progresses it becomes clear that its recipients have been exposed to alternative teachings which claim that their original belief in the gospel was inadequate and that only through special knowledge, ecstatic experiences, and certain ascetic practices will they be able to experience fully a relationship with God.

From the opening of the letter onward the author is seeking to assure the letter’s recipients that they already are in a relationship with God in which they have fully experienced the gifts of divine salvation so that they are being divinely empowered to live God pleasing lives through their moral character and conduct.

Indeed, the recipients’ self-identity is already being shaped in the second verse of the letter as the author identifies them as holy and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ (an identity not fully conveyed in some English translations such as the NRSV). Having a holy familial identity means that God has claimed them to be God’s children and so they conduct their lives in ways that reflect their God-claimed reality; faithful entails steadfast service to God as is modeled by such faithful servants as Epaphras (1:7), Tychicus (4:7), and Onesimus (4:9).

In the cosmology of Colossians, “in Christ” refers to existence in the realm or reality which is both defined and ruled by Jesus Christ. The phrase “in Christ Jesus” is similarly used in 1:4 not to present Christ as the object of their faith but again to depict the sphere in which their faith and love are lived out (again something not fully conveyed in many English translations).

Colossians 1:3-8, a single protracted sentence in Greek, presents the letter’s opening thanksgiving in which the author thanks God as he regularly prays for the recipients even though he has never met them directly but knows of them through Epaphras from whom they have learned the gospel (1:7-8). In fact he does not just know about them, he especially knows of their faith and love which is grounded in the hope stored up for them in heaven (1:4-5).

Here hope is being established as an eschatological reality already existing in heaven for the recipients (also 1:23,27) so that they will not need to engage in the esoteric practices or vision quests as some have taught them. Instead that which they truly need and believe they had previously heard in the gospel, which is the word of truth. The fact that the gospel has not only come to the recipients but has gone out to the entire world as an open, universal proclamation (1:5-6) is another way the author is undercutting the subsequent mystical teaching to which the recipients have been exposed.

In 1:9-14 the author continues to instill in the recipients an understanding that they have already received what they truly need from the very first time they heard the gospel. The author’s prayer for them in 1:9 does not mean that they are somehow lacking in knowledge of God’s will. Rather building on what he has already said about their bearing-fruit and growing as a result of the gospel and the understanding of God’s grace it brings (1:6), the author is directly connecting the reality that the gospel has created in their lives with the way they now conduct their lives on a daily basis. Knowledge of God’s will, then, does not involve some secret understanding imparted only to a few privileged initiates.

Rather, knowledge of God’s will involves engaging in God-pleasing conduct as part of our daily fruit-bearing and growing (repeated in 1:10 from 1:6). Unfortunately when we hear terms in 1:10 such as living “worthy of the Lord” or “pleasing to him” (i.e., the Lord) or “in every good work” we tend to regard such actions as works righteousness whereby we are trying to achieve God’s favor. Our author has just the opposite in mind in that he understands knowledge of God and God’s will which comes through the universal gospel as the means by which we are empowered to reflect God’s will in our ongoing actions, attitudes, and values (1:11). Thus we live lives pleasing to the Lord precisely because we are completely attuned to God’s will for us.

The divine initiative which determines our lives and reality is clearly on display in 1:12-14 wherein we give thanks to God the Father for the series of actions God has instituted for us in and through God’s beloved Son. God has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (1:12 recalling the hope laid up in heaven in verse 5) because God has rescued us from the realm of darkness in which we had originally lived (1:13). This divine rescue from one realm has resulted in our transferal into another realm, the kingdom of God’s beloved Son since it is in the beloved Son that we have liberation that is the forgiveness of sins (1:14).

Thus in the letter’s opening the author of Colossians has anchored the audience’s past, present, and future in God’s salvific activity in Christ. We are no longer imprisoned in darkness. We now experience the liberating effect of forgiveness as well as understand and enact God’s will through our conduct. We have been promised a future inheritance that already exists for us in heaven because we have been made God’s holy people.