Lectionary Commentaries for June 23, 2013
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 8:26-39

Michael Rogness

Gospel stories of demon possession are difficult to preach, because we don’t experience demons as described in the Bible.

However, all the “demons” Jesus confronts have three things in common: they cause self-destructive behavior in the victim, the victim feels trapped in that condition, and they separate the victim from normal living in the family circle. Sound familiar? Don’t many of us suffer from the same kind of snares and burdens?

If we define “demons” as those forces which have captured us and prevented us from becoming what God intends us to be, we are as surrounded by — yes, possessed by — as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered. Our demons can be of many kinds: mental illnesses, schizophrenia, paranoia, addictions, obsessions, destructive habits, and so on.

Note the similarities between this demon-possessed man and the demons that possess us. He was totally cut off from family and society. He didn’t live as people, but “in the tombs,” probably in caves that were used as burying places. He was also “driven by the demon into the wilds.” In other words, he was already in a “living death,” separated from normal people and normal living.

Furthermore, the demons were harming him. In Mark’s version he was “bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:1-20). Thirdly, in Mark’s version “no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain.” Fourthly, and most sadly, he was so totally possessed that though the demons recognized Jesus as “Son of the Most High God,” but the man could not free himself.

The point of this story, as well as all the demon-healing stories in the Gospels is that the power of God can cast out demons. The seventy persons sent out by Jesus soon afterward came back and reported, no doubt with astonishment, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (Luke 10:17)

This is the key to the success of Alcoholic Anonymous, whose “twelve steps” to healing” begin with these three:

1.We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.

Alcoholism is a terrible problem in the former Soviet Union. Before the collapse of the USSR, Soviet officials appealed to American AA members to help them set up AA groups. However, because the Soviet Union was officially atheistic, they asked that these first three steps be omitted in adapting AA to them. The Americans refused, stating that those three steps are basic to their program. We need God to free us from our demons.

Members of AA also realize they not only need God’s help but the support of people around them. In almost all of Jesus’ stores of healing, there is restoration to families and townspeople. For the healing of demons today, the fellowship of family, congregation and community is a key to restoration. Becoming free from our demons is seldom a “do-it-yourself” project. We need help. We need God’s help, and we need the help of other people.

All this is happening in this story.

Today’s listeners, attuned to animal rights and the SPCA, will be bothered by the fact that “a large herd of swine” was drowned after the demons entered them. In that setting, however, pigs were considered an unclean animal. It was fitting that sinful demons would be consigned to unclean animals and that, being destructive, would drive the animals to death — just as the man had been dead to the world around him before his healing.

At the end of the story, the man “had been healed,” a word from the Greek sozo, which can also be translated “saved,” “delivered,” or “made whole.” He is not only delivered from the demon and not only “cured” of the terrible burden, but had been altogether “healed” and “saved.” That leads into the important last verse of the story: “He went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” He has not only become a follower of Jesus, but a “proclaimer” as well.

We call Matthew 28:18-20 the “Great Commission.” Verse 39 in this story is shorter but an equally urgent commission, given not only to the healed man in the story, but also to us: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you”!

In Luke’s gospel this is the only healing Jesus does in Gentile territory. This man proclaiming his healing throughout the city is a foretaste of the mission of the seventy at the beginning of the next chapter.

In preaching about this text, the preacher might want to show how Jesus meets us at our greatest needs. Look before and after this text (a good idea with any text). Jesus brings healing to the different situations where healing is needed. In the previous chapter (7:36-50), a woman “who was a sinner,” bursts in on the supper as Simon the Pharisee’s is hosting Jesus, kneels weeping before Jesus and washes his feet with her tears — all despite the objections of Simon the host. Jesus’ healing word to her was, “Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:48-50).

In the paragraph before today’s text, the disciples are in a boat with Jesus when “a windstorm swept down on the lake,” and the disciples are terrified that they will drown. Jesus awakes and “rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased” (8:22-25). The disciples may well have thought of the storm as a force of evil, and Jesus shows his command even of the forces of nature.

The story immediately following today’s gospel contrasts the double healing of the twelve-year-old girl and the woman suffering twelve years from hemorrhages — a dead, innocent little girl and a ritually unclean woman. The girl can do nothing for her resuscitation; the woman takes the initiative herself and touches Jesus’ robes. The girl has a grieving family; the woman is alone. The girl can’t act out of faith; the woman reaches out from faith. Almost opposite circumstances, yet Jesus heals them both. (You can tell the story this Sunday, because it won’t occur in the lectionary until the summer of 2015, when we read it from Mark 5:21-43.)

So in this short stretch Jesus brings deliverance from a sinful, guilty conscience, from demons, from a raging storm, from a long-term physical ailment, and from death itself!

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 65:1-9

Elizabeth Webb

As I write this, the mass shootings of the past year are fresh in my mind.

That a person can shoot and kill large numbers of people, especially children, is something that we simply cannot understand. There must be a reason, we cry, for this incomprehensible violence. If such a reason cannot be found, we remain in this place of incomprehensibility, a terrifying place to be.

So we look for a place where we can lay responsibility for such horrific acts and such horrendous suffering. The shooter, of course, is responsible, but we recognize that he cannot be responsible alone; one pair of human shoulders seems too frail to bear the weight of such suffering. Thus we see that the responsibility is wider than one person, and, humans that we are, we turn that search for responsibility into a search for blame.

It’s the gun lobbies, we might say, who insist on keeping such dangerous weapons in people’s hands. Or no, we might say, it’s not the guns, but the very few mentally unstable persons who use guns to kill people. Or no, we might say, it’s the broken mental health care system that doesn’t provide such people with the help they need. Wherever we point the finger, we do make sure that finger is pointed; someone must take the blame for suffering that defies our understanding.

The Israelites who returned from exile in Babylon faced precisely this problem: how can we explain the immense suffering endured by the people of God? Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), addressed to the Israelites near the end of the exile, expresses confidence in God’s command of history and the eventual restoration of the nation. Despite the people’s suffering, Second Isaiah promises a God who will continue to bless Israel:

But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you in the womb and will help you: . . .
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
And streams on the dry ground.
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing upon your offspring (44:1-5).

These promises, however, are not fulfilled. The small groups of exiles who returned to Judah after Persia’s defeat of Babylon in 539 faced hardship, famine, political in-fighting, and economic oppression. How to account for this continued suffering, even after the promised return to their homeland has occurred? Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66, finds a way: it is God’s punishment for the people’s unfaithfulness.

What is this unfaithfulness? Verses 1-7 of chapter 65 delineate the people’s sins. The first two verses depict a God who longs to be sought by God’s people but who is continually shunted aside. God’s voice even sounds plaintive here; “Here I am, here I am,” God cries, to a nation that turns away. Specifically, the people have turned to the practice of pagan rituals. “Sacrificing in gardens” (verse 3) seems to refer to the practice of fertility rituals, and those who “sit inside tombs and spend the night in secret places” (verse 4) seem to be those who engage in rituals for consulting the dead. They eat the flesh of swine, and they consider themselves holy, set apart, by these practices, not because they belong to God. Such people, God proclaims, “are a smoke in my nostrils” (verse 5). The people’s disobedience and infidelity have made them repugnant to God.

The continued suffering of the Israelites, therefore, is just punishment for their sin, although not all of the people will receive God’s punishment. God “will repay into their laps their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together” (verse 7) for the people’s actions. It is the people themselves who are responsible for their suffering; God cannot abide the unfaithfulness of God’s own people, but must destroy those who disobey. Yet God will not punish all; a remnant, a chosen few, will be redeemed, who will receive all that had been promised to Israel.

As the winemaker does not destroy a whole cluster because of one sour grape, so God will not destroy all of Israel, “for there is a blessing in it” (verse 8). Descendants of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms will inherit God’s holy mountain, and will settle there (verse 9). Even from among those who turn their backs on God, God will choose a remnant in whom the promises to Israel will be fulfilled.

So the problem of apparently meaningless suffering is solved in part, in Isaiah 65, by pointing the finger of blame squarely at the people themselves. What they have experienced is precisely what they deserve for their unfaithfulness to God. This assertion of retributive justice is not unusual in the Hebrew Scriptures; it is the reason Job’s friends give for his suffering. Ultimately, however, it is a poor response. The horror and terrible grief of inexplicable suffering, and the anxiety that we experience at that very inexplicability, can lead us desperately to seek someone to blame.

But blame does not reduce our suffering, nor does it relieve that elemental anxiety, and self-blame can cripple our very ability to seek the good. Blame does not restore hope, which, thankfully, the writer of this text knew also. Hope is found not in finger-pointing, but in Isaiah’s vision of the “new heavens and a new earth” that God is about to create, where “the former things shall not be remembered” (verse 17):

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress (verse 19).

The final word of Isaiah 65 on inexplicable suffering, then, is not divine retribution but eschatological hope. The writer points us toward that holy mountain where “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” (verse 25), not as a pie-in-the-sky answer to what cannot be understood, but as a living reality that is breaking in to the world right now. It is the words of Third Isaiah that Jesus reads when he proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favor” in Luke 4:18, words that are fulfilled in Jesus’ very speaking of them.

The kingdom of God that is even now upon us does not explain our suffering, but it does provide succor for our pain. And it empowers us to go on living in the midst of uncertainty, knowing that there will be a day when the sound of weeping is no more.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-4 [5-7] 8-15a

Roger Nam

Elijah is tired, discouraged, suicidal, and God is with the prophet.

Dear Working Preacher, this week is not your typical prophetic narrative. For this week, I encourage you to prayerfully prepare your sermon, while considering those who are really struggling in their journeys.

This week’s narrative begins with Ahab “telling” Jezebel about Elijah’s defiantly violent actions. Based on our understanding of the characters of Ahab and Jezebel, the king is not so much commissioning the queen for action, but really “telling” in a way analogous to a petulant child “telling” on someone in the hopes of action. And of course, Jezebel responds by threatening Elijah.

But this time our heroic prophet reacts in a way quite different from other portrayals. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah was a paradigm of strength and determination against a massive army of Baal prophets. In 1 Kings 21, Elijah defied and frightened the king of Israel. But this week, we see someone that hardly looks like the same man — Elijah is hungry, exhausted, dejected, and even suicidal. “He was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba” (verse 3; the southernmost major city of Judah in the dry, arid region of the Negev).

Elijah does not “leave on a jet plane,” nor “gets away in fast car.” In ancient Israel, the prophet could only run by foot. Elijah flees in fatigue, hunger, thirst, but afraid for his life, so he did not want to stop. He sleeps poorly, if at all, with constant fear of being waken by pursuing enemies, and arising before dawn to try to get more distance away from the queen. And once arriving in Beersheba, he continues for another day into the wilderness — not an Oregon or Vermont style wilderness, but more like a steppe of the Arizona desert. The prophet is physically and emotionally spent after the days of fleeing. Surely, adrenaline carried him to this place, but he finally needs to sit, and he is spent.

“It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (verse 4).

It is in that spirit of helplessness that God sends an angel to sustain Elijah. And that angel ministers to Elijah for forty days and forty nights at Horeb (interchangeable with Mt. Sinai where Moses met God). The angel provides the basic sustenance of food and water, but more importantly, this provision allows space for Elijah to stand still after the frantic flight from Jezebel.

With forty days of forced rest and retrospection, Elijah is now ready to encounter God. Elijah retreats to a cave where he contends with the divine. It is always amusing how an omnipotent God asks rhetorical questions. In response, God then instructs Elijah to stand before the mountain.

The extended season of contemplation turns to the magnificent. An amazing wind shatters the mountain, followed by an intense earthquake, then a fire, and then a “sound of sheer silence” (verse 12). Perhaps Elijah wanted a miracle, but instead God was not present in the wind, earthquake nor fire. God certainly controls these elements. But the passage instructs us that during difficult, painful times, God is still there, and he reveals himself in silence. We cannot only look for God to come to us in fantastic revelation, but in quietness.

God then repeats the question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 13). The prophet gives the exact same response. But at this point, something is different in the prophet who is no longer afraid but has witnessed something miraculous. The Lord instructs him to go.

This passage presents such a radically different view of Elijah. We see the prophet in his humanity like never before and really never again. Although the Bible is often prone to hyperbole, I take his extreme fear, severe depression, and suicidal ideations as they are — accurate and understandable.

This same prophet who boldly stands against kings is now driven to his lowest point, the man of God is still a mere man. But it is only when the prophet is in this weak state, he can find himself is a position to hear God in the stillness in spite of the distracting wind, earthquake and rain. And God is there.

Dear Working Preacher, I pray that you allow this passage to speak to the tired, hungry, exhausted, emotionally spent, and dejected. May your words inspire your community to stop waiting for wind, earthquake, and rain. May you inspire the hurting ones in your community to seek out God in the sheer silence.


Commentary on Psalm 22:19-28

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

The Psalter lection includes portions of the two major components of an individual lament/complaint.

Verses 19-21a consist primarily of petition, along with embedded lament/complaint (see “the sword” and “the power of the dog” in verse 20, and “the mouth of the lion” in verse 21). Since verses 19-21a bring to a conclusion paired sections of extended lament/complaint and petition (verses 1-11, 12-21a), it is appropriate that the vocabulary of verses 19-21a recalls both of the prior sections.

  • “far” in verses 1, 11, 19;
  • “help” in verses 11, 19;
  • “deliver” in verses 8, 19;
  • “Save”/”helping” (which represent the same Hebrew root) in verses 1, 21;
  • “dog(s)” in verses 16, 20; and
  • “lion” in verses 14, 21a.

The transition to the second major component occurs in verse 21b, which introduces paired sections of assurance/praise (verses 21b-24, 25-28), thus providing a noticeable symmetry for the entire psalm.

It may seem somewhat unexpected or untidy that the lection cuts across major sections of the poem; but because the reading includes both the lament/complaint/petition and the assurance/praise, it provides a significant interpretive opportunity. To be sure, we do not know how the juxtaposition of these two components may have worked liturgically in the ancient Temple or synagogues; but what is clear is that the final form of Psalm 22 and all of the other individual laments/complaints (except Psalm 88) holds together lament/complaint/petition and assurance/praise. And precisely for this reason, these psalms are of profound theological significance.

As many Psalms commentators now conclude, while the Psalter may have originated as something like a hymnbook or prayer book, it was eventually received and transmitted as Scripture — that is, as a body of material from which we are invited and encouraged to learn about God, God’s will, and the faithful life lived under God’s claim. So, what do we stand to learn from Psalm 22:19-28 and from the regular juxtaposition of pain and praise in the laments/complaints?

James L. Mays sums up one of the major things to be learned in his comment on Psalm 13: “The agony and the ecstasy belong together as the secret of our identity.”[1] It was true for the ancient psalmists, who were regularly suffering and who were confronted with pervasive opposition (as in Psalm 22:12-21a). It is true for us as well, although we are hard pressed to appreciate this truth.

We are more apt to separate sharply times of pain and time to praise. We are inclined to wait to praise until things seem to be going well. To be sure, God is to be praised and thanked when things are going well; but things never seemed to be going completely well for the psalmists! As for us, if we wait to praise until everything is right with us and with the world, we will never get around to it!

Mays’s insight can be paraphrased in Christian terms as follows: The cross and the resurrection belong together as the secret of our identity (see Mark 8:34). Because this is true, Psalm 22 and the other laments/complaints invite us to locate our pain; to take it to God in prayer (as the psalmists always did); and to claim in the midst of our pain the assurance that God is with us, for which we appropriately praise God.

Not coincidentally in this regard, of course, Jesus himself is portrayed in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as quoting the opening line of Psalm 22 to claim and articulate his pain (see Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). But in keeping with the entirety of Psalm 22, Jesus also expressed the assurance of God’s presence with him on the cross (see verse 24), and so his death became an offering of praise that testified ultimately to God’s rule (see verse 28).

The invitation to locate our pain and the pain of the world also suggests another important learning from Psalm 22 and the other laments/complaints — that is, we ultimately learn to locate God with the suffering and victimized, not with the prosperous and the powerful (as many folk nowadays are inclined to do; consider the popularity of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel”). While the psalmist complains about God’s apparent absence, he or she finally (and seemingly simultaneously) claims God’s favor and presence (see especially verse 24).

The theological implications are crucial and far-reaching. Suffering cannot be construed as punishment, nor as evidence of divine disfavor, nor as evidence of alienation from God! The poor, for instance, cannot be blamed for being poor (again, as many contemporary folk are inclined to do). Instead, the poor are to be embraced as part of God’s worshipping community, and they are to be fed (verse 26). To put it most pointedly perhaps, the faithful psalmists suffered (as the faithful prophets suffered and as Jesus himself suffered) not because they were bad, but because they were good!

The mention of “vows” (verse 25) and of an apparent meal at which the poor are fed (verse 26) suggests the possibility that this portion of the psalm was originally related to a thanksgiving sacrifice (see Psalm 116:12-19). Thank offerings were not totally consumed by fire as were whole burnt offerings. Rather, the worshipper who brought the offering shared cooked portions of the animal with others that he had invited to the ceremony.

In this case, at least in the psalmist’s imagination, the whole world is invited — “the great congregation” (verse 25), “the poor” (verse 26), “all the families of the nations” (verse 27), and even the dead (verse 29) and “future generations” (verse 30). It is an extraordinary vision! And, of course, it is another anticipation of Jesus, whose ministry involved eating with anyone and everyone, as part of his proclamation and embodiment of a “dominion” (verse 28) or realm that, according to Jesus, was to be proclaimed “to all nations” (Luke 24:47).

This is not to say that Psalm 22 constitutes a prediction of Jesus. Rather, we should say that Jesus fully embodied the role of the righteous sufferer. Jesus suffered precisely because he fully embodied God’s unconditional love and compassion for the poor and victimized; and in the midst of pervasive opposition and pain, Jesus entrusted life and future to God. For Jesus, like the psalmist, the agony and the ecstasy belonged together. It is true for Jesus’ followers as well.

[1] James L. Mays, “Psalm 13,” Interpretation 37 (1983): 282.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29

Sarah Henrich

We continue with our sequential reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Last week’s reading (2:15-21) was strongly focused on faith/faithfulness (pistis) and the fact that people are brought into right relationship with God by trusting the One who was utterly faithful. This week we move to a consideration of how this happens, especially for Gentiles who had not even imagined themselves as called by God into relationship with God and each other. While the division that is so important to Paul — Jews and Greeks (Gentiles) — is not a source of major concern to us, this passage of the letter is still of great value for the bold preacher.

To start with a very basic reality, Paul, who nowhere ceases to style himself as a Jew, speaks to a distinction that remains lively among us, albeit usually in an unspoken way. Jews remain; they continue to understand themselves as called by God into covenant relationship. They still read Scripture and like Christians of all stripes ponder its meaning for their lives today. Jews still hope and trust that God’s promised shalom will be brought to fruition.

Again, like Christians, there is great variety among Jews about interpretation of Scripture, the ends for which they hope, their understanding of God, and the like. However, it needs to be said clearly that in spite of the worst kind of testing, there are devoted bible readers, children of God, who do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. We live next door to them. The disagreements among us are more cordial, yet still quite real.

All of the above also holds true for the differences among those of us who call ourselves Christians. So the need to approach scripture with passion and humility continues to be part of our lives together on God’s earth. Preachers, how do you bring this important reality home in 2013 and beyond?

Paul is at work to describe the two different ways “we” (Jews) and you all (Gentiles, 2nd person plural in verse 26) that all have now been brought into right relationship with God out of faith. In verses 23-25, he uses “we” language repeatedly. This is in distinct contrast to the second half of this passage. Verse 23 is about a nearly personified form of pistis. Faith/faithfulness comes and is revealed. Since Paul speaks of God’s Messiah Jesus as “revealed” in Galatians (1:12, 16), and since Jesus embodies faithfulness, the two uses of pistis in verse 23 seem to refer to Jesus having come and been revealed as Messiah.

At the heart of verses 23 and 24 is Paul’s picture of his pre-Messiah life: all God’s people were held tight, guarded, and supervised by God’s word precisely so that they would be prepared to recognize God’s faithfulness/God’s faithful One at the proper time. Before Jesus, then, God’s people, for all the protection of the law, did not enjoy God’s rescue from the age of evil. By God’s help they endured.

In verses 26-29 Paul shifts to “you” in plural forms (two times each in verses 26, 27, 28b, and 29). In fact, he emphasizes the “you” plural forms by using the grammatically unnecessary pronouns to emphasize the 2nd person plural verbs in both the last verses. These verses are written directly to Gentile believers, Paul’s audience for this letter (4:8-9) and describe how they have become part of God’s holy people. They likewise are children of God through their trust in Christ (verse 26) and their baptism into Christ (verse 27). They have “put on” Christ. They have become as Christ — God’s own faithfulness come at last.

That both groups have experienced a radical change in their status thanks to God’s sending and raising of the Messiah, Jews and Gentiles are now one. The division is over. In fact, the most basic divisions of the Greco-Roman world, at least from a Jewish point of view, have ended, at least in terms of whom God loves and saves. Given the history of the church, it is very difficult to imagine that Paul refers to a complete change in the social and legal realities of the ancient world, granting women and slaves equal rights. But all, from the most deeply pagan to the most abject slaves to the most ignored women are welcome as children of God, the seed of Abraham and heirs of all that God has promised (verse 29).

This great point of equalization before God is of momentous impact to Paul. He will insist that the Lord’s Supper is enjoyed among all equally, that worship and prayer belong to all those claimed by God as heirs. This move is so subversive of normal Greco-Roman law that it hardly makes sense. But it is Paul’s claim about God, based on scripture and the lives of women and men claimed by the Holy Spirit.

Now, we might ask ourselves, how has that played in Peoria, so to speak? How does it now play? Are folk added to Christ’s body with customs that we cannot understand or cannot bear? How might our world continue to change if we take that promise seriously, if the veteran believers, the longtime believers continue to recognize new freedom given through the Holy Spirit at the hands and in the lives of the most surprising people? How might we encourage sisters and brothers to claim their freedom as heirs of God?

There is much to imagine here, much to cheer, and perhaps even much to fear. Perhaps the preacher will find a way to imagine hugely and begin with small steps, holding both before the congregation that continues to believe that faith has indeed come and God’s Holy Spirit is not yet finished with us.