Lectionary Commentaries for June 19, 2016
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 8:26-39

Lucy Lind Hogan

Groucho Marx once famously observed that he would never want to be a part of a club that would accept him as a member.

As we continue our journey to understand who Jesus is we may begin to wonder if we really want to be a part of his followers. After all, think of the people we have encountered who recognize and honor Jesus: a Roman centurion, a woman of questionable morals, and now a man possessed by many demons living amongst the tombs. Are these really the people with whom we want to be associated?

Clearly the people in the country of the Gerasenes did not want to be associated with a man so possessed they could not control him. They had tried to protect him and themselves by binding him with chains. But it did no good. Possessed, he was far stronger than any help or imprisonment. Eventually the demon, we are told, had driven him away from all people and into the land of the dead. He roamed naked among the tombs. For his family, he was probably just that, dead.

We have met one of the “who” in our report. Now it is time for this “who” to meet Jesus. The author of Luke-Acts tells us, “One day, Jesus got into a boat … ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake’” (Luke 8:22). This has a rather odd, mundane tone. It does not tell us why or for what reason Jesus wanted to cross the lake. It seems like a whim or a lark. Unfortunately it was during this outing that they encountered the windstorm that nearly cost them all their lives. When Jesus calmed the storm and saved all their lives the disciples were shocked and wondered, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25).

The disciples still were not sure who this man Jesus was. Yet quickly they meet someone (or rather some things) who knows exactly who Jesus is. Jesus and the disciples have finally arrived at the other side of the lake. (As an aside, we need to remember that this lake is not what most of us think of when we picture a lake. The Lake of Genneserat or the Sea of Galilee is 8 miles wide by 13 miles long.) As the disciples were no doubt calming their nerves after their brush with death they meet the man given up for dead. The naked, wild man falls at the feet of Jesus screaming, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Luke 8:28).

The man is not asking for help. He is not asking for healing. He is asking Jesus to leave him alone. This same plea occurs later in the story as well. This man, and later the people of the region recognize what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews declared, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

It is a story of the unclean. Tombs are unclean. Pigs are unclean. And we are told that it was an unclean spirit. This unclean spirit knew who Jesus was and was rightfully afraid. As soon as Jesus saw the man he knew that the man was possessed and without the man asking had ordered the spirit out. But how unusual is it that the spirit negotiates with Jesus, I cannot think of any other demons that were able to bargain with God. What’s more, they succeed — or do they? If they can no long inhabit this poor man, whom they have made unclean, might they inhabit the unclean pigs? “Why of course,” Jesus agrees. Perhaps this causes an “unclean” overload and the demon filled pigs rush into the lake. The pigs drown and the spirits find themselves just where they hoped that they would not go, the abyss, the bottomless pit where they join the fallen angels and spirits “kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day” (Jude 1:6).

The man, on the other hand, has been released from the chains of possession and the deep darkness that clouded his mind. Like the woman at Simon’s house he is still at the feet of Jesus, but now dressed and “in his right mind” (Luke 8:35). Yet the crowd that has gathered, having heard the stories about the amazing things taking place among the tombs and at the lakeshore, does not rejoice. Rather they are afraid and like the man and the demons, beg Jesus to leave them alone.

Who is this man who returns a man to his right mind? Who is this man who commands demons? The author of Luke-Acts gives us a very clear statement at the end of the tale. When Jesus gets into the boat to return across the lake the man asks to “be with him,” which is a way of saying that the man wishes to become a follower of Jesus. But Jesus tells the man to go home. Just as Jesus gave the widow back her son, Jesus is giving the man’s family back their son. The dead will be given new life. And Jesus tells the man to “declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). That is what the man does, but his message is somewhat different, “he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39). Who is this? The man is telling us that Jesus is no less than God himself.

While many in our world continue to believe in the possibility of demon possession, many more today feel possessed and powerless before addictions and mental illnesses. This may be an opportunity for the preacher to raise these important issues that bring torment to many individuals and their families.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 65:1-9

Michael J. Chan

This text has three major movements: God’s patient suffering at the hands of a recalcitrant people (Isaiah 65:1-5), God’s decision to judge (Isaiah 65:6-7), and the merciful promise to save a remnant (Isaiah 65:8-9).

Or, seen from the perspective of God, the speaker, the text moves from grief to judgment to mercy.

The first movement is marked by a kind of absurdity. The God of Isaiah 65 proves to be the kind of God who places God’s self directly into the hands of enemies:

“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
      to be found by those who did not seek me.

I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’
      To a nation that did not call on my name.

I held out my hands all day long
      To a rebellious people,

who walk in a way that is not good,
       following their own devices;

a people who provoke me
       to my face continually …

who say, “Keep to yourself,
       do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”

These are a smoke in my nostrils,
       a fire that burns all day long. (Isaiah 65: 1-3, 5)

The phrase, “Here I am” (hinneniy) is most often associated with God’s obedient servants, not with God (cf. Genesis 22:1; 2 Samuel 3:5, 6, 8; Isaiah 6:8). But the tone of divine humility struck in Isaiah 65:1-9 is entirely appropriate to the context. With each verse, it becomes increasingly apparent that God was paying a profound price to be in relationship with this people: “those who did not ask . . . a nation that did not call on my name … a rebellious people … who provoke me to my face … who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me … They are a smoke in my nostrils.” The responses of the people to God begin with indifference and end in a crescendo of rejection.

And yet, even while being rejected and scorned, God still says, “Here I am,” with arms wide open. Despite God’s welcoming posture and willingness to suffer for the relationship, the people continue to inflict harm on their God: “These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.” These incendiary metaphors indicate that God’s pain was not only acute (“smoke in my nostrils”), but it was also persistent (“all day long”).

The same Savior that places himself in the path of his enemies in Isaiah 65, reappears in Romans 6: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us … For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Romans 6:6-8, 10). What distinguishes God’s mercy is that it reaches out not only to those who welcome it, but also to those who reject it.

God’s relationship to God’s people, however, reaches a boiling point in the second movement. God promises to “repay into their laps their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together,” primarily for their breaking of the first commandment (Isaiah 65:6-7). To be sure, God’s decision to judge emerges in response to a ruined relationship, but it is also a legal consequence of Israel’s continued breaking of the covenant at Sinai. Notice how v. 6 begins: “See, it is written before me.” But what exactly is God reading? While this reference may refer to the ledger of the righteous and the wicked (cf. Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1-2), it seems more likely that it refers to a covenantal document that lays out the consequences for obedience and disobedience (Exodus 24:7; Deuteronomy 31:24-26). Hints in the text indicate as much.

Note in particular that the language of “repayment” into their “laps” (weshillamtiy ‘al cheyqam) echoes Jeremiah 32:18 (“You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the Lord of hosts”), which is itself an interpretation of the 10 Commandments. According to the 10 Commandments, God will judge “children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me” (Exodus 20:5). In Isaiah 65, then, God is depicted not merely as the victim in a broken relationship (and the pathos of this text should not be underestimated), but also as a legal interpreter. Finding God’s people to be guilty of unfaithfulness, God chooses to judge.

But God’s decision to judge is quickly qualified, and even buffered, by God’s commitments to particular promises. Sin has real and lasting consequences (divine judgment), but judgment would only be a comma in the much longer sentence of God’s mercy:

As the wine is found in the cluster,
    and they say, “Do not destroy it,
    for there is a blessing in it,”
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
    and not destroy them all.

I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
    and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
    and my servants shall settle there.

God’s judgment is not canceled here, but it would finally be in service of God’s mercy, which manifests itself in God’s ancient and persistent commitment to Jacob’s descendants and to their inheritance of the Promised Land. Judgment would occur, destruction would have its say, but only on a temporary basis; in the wake of judgment would come mercy.

Alternate First Reading

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

Terence E. Fretheim

These verses in First Kings have long captured the imagination of interpreters, especially the phrase: “the still, small voice” or “a sound sheer silence” (19:12).

What does that mean?

In the preceding chapters (1 Kings 17-18), Elijah is a prophet “in charge.” Everything seems to be going his way — confronting kings and followers of Baal, performing miracles, including raising the dead from their graves; he even calls lightning down from heaven. But now, in 1 Kings 19, we find Elijah intimidated by his opponents and filled with self-doubt, complaining that things are not going his way; he is perhaps even suicidal. One possible metaphor for this text is journey, a difficult journey.

It is Queen Jezebel’s charge that sets Elijah into motion toward Sinai (1 Kings 19:2-3). Why would he go there? Probably because the tradition associates that place in a special way with the presence of God. And Elijah needs to talk with God about his desperate situation. And so he leaves his home country (Beersheba is at the southern limits; 19:3), moves out into the wilderness (19:4-8), for forty days and nights, and then on to the Sinai area (19:9-18). A long time in the old sandbox!

The story of this God/prophet engagement is parallel in many ways to the stories of God’s encounters with Moses in the book of Exodus: God confronts Elijah with a series of questions and commands; a wilderness journey in flight from a threat to life; for forty days and forty nights; the laments of the prophetic figure; the divine commission to a task; God’s appearances at Mt. Sinai. Initially, Elijah stays in “the cave” (1 Kings 19:9, 13), probably the cave made famous by the Moses/God encounter (see Exodus 33:22). 

These verses focus on a direct encounter between a despondent Elijah and a persistent God, a God who refuses to let the prophet off the hook regarding his (often difficult) calling. Elijah, not unlike many an agent of God, exhibits deep discouragement at the negative developments with which he is surrounded. What he is going through in his ministry seems like failure and a danger to his health and, indeed, his life. He retreats into self-pity and seeks to escape from responsibilities.

Elijah complains (not unlike Moses, Numbers 11:14-15), voices his deep feelings to God that he has had enough of ministry, and expresses a wish to die (cf. the laments of Jeremiah, e.g., Jeremiah 20:7-18). Elijah is angry because he feels he is being left alone, with no other prophets around, and is even persecuted. And so he comes to Mt. Sinai — a place that Israel’s story associates with the bodily presence of God (e.g., Exodus 24:9-11) — to confront God “face to face.” God should have been taking care of him better than this! Elijah repeatedly claims that he has been “zealous” for the Lord (1 Kings 19:10, 14), and so God should have been seeing to his welfare more carefully!

On his journey, Elijah experiences strong manifestations of power in the world of nature — earth-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire (cf. Exodus 19:16-18). But God “was not in” these natural events (1 Kings 19:11-12). Such language is not intended to say that God is not actually present in these natural events (see 18:1, 36-39). Rather, God chooses not to reveal the divine self to Elijah in these particular occurrences. Instead, God speaks in the calm after the storm, especially to be contrasted with the tempest’s noise and turbulence.

What does it mean to experience a “sound of silence”? Is it contradictory? No — after all the activity and noise, for everything suddenly to become silent is an astonishing moment of sound — the sound of no-sound in the immediate wake of loud sounds. When a sound, even such a sound, can be heard, it may be interpreted as the word of the Lord. God is not confined to one way of speaking, or to manifesting the divine power in more “obvious” ways. God’s voice can be heard even in the silence. From this information, Elijah can take heart. In addition, God points out to Elijah that, contrary to his own pessimistic thinking, he is not the only faithful member of the community that is left! He is a part of a remnant numbering at least seven thousand (1 Kings 19:18).

In response to this devastating situation in the life of a major prophetic figure, the text is concerned to reveal something about the basic character of God. God is active in human affairs; God listens, speaks, and acts, and not only in “obvious” ways; God honors commitments made to chosen leaders and people. More specifically, God does not leave Elijah to wallow in his despondency. This God refuses to allow the prophet to stew in his feelings of dejection; God comes to him through a messenger, gets him going, but then sharply confronts him with questions. This God, having encountered Elijah’s initial response of self-pity, refuses to be content with that interpretation of the situation and finds a way to confront him more directly with the divine presence. And then, allowing him to state his self-pity in the very presence of God, recommissions him to his vocation, assures him that God is still at work through him, and promises him successors. God promises that God will not leave without ongoing witnesses.

In this arduous journey, the servant of God is not alone. The promise of God’s ongoing presence keeps ringing in his ears. Remarkable supplies are provided for new energies and encouragement along the way, and he is given a recognition that he is not alone, though it may often seem like it. Others also have this calling and will share the load, even though it seems likely to be a lonely journey even then. 

This journey may be accompanied by too many disappointments and frustrations and the way at times may be far too rigorous with too few moments of comfort. But it is a way of remarkable freedom, uncommon joy, and an incredible sense of fulfillment.


Commentary on Psalm 22:19-28

Jin H. Han

This psalm selection begins with a sharp transition calling upon God (“But you, O LORD,” v. 19a).

The Hebrew construction invites us to emphatically pronounce “you” (referring to God). The urgency of his plea is further stressed by the request that God should hurry (v. 19b).

The psalmist establishes how he relates to God, whom he calls his “help” (“strength” KJV). In the English speaking world, “help” or “helper” is often construed as subservient, but in this psalm he speaks of the kind of help without which he cannot survive. Elsewhere in the book of Psalms, we encounter the same kind of help coming from the LORD, without whom there is no chance of making it through the time of trouble (e.g., Psalm 46:1; 121:1-2).

A glance at the portion that precedes our psalm selection provides us with details of the situation out of whose depth the psalmist cries. The first verse of Psalm 22 also unveils the famous cry of divine dereliction quoted in the gospel accounts where Jesus cries from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). In the midst of the desperate situations, the psalmist anticipates that God will come and lift him out of agony. He speaks of the travail of “[his] soul” (v. 20a), which he puts in parallel with “[his] life” (v. 20b). The latter in Hebrew is literally “my only one,” insinuating that he is in a life-and-death situation.

The psalmist assembles a set of metaphors to depict his desperate dilemma. They evoke a scene in which the psalmist’s life is threatened from all sides — from the sword, the lion, and a herd of wild oxen (vv. 20-21). The sword, an instrument forged to kill, conjures the terror of war. In v. 20b, it is paired with the dog, which is often featured in battle in antiquity. The lion crouching to devour the psalmist creates the specter of all but certain defeat. Before the goring dash of the wild beasts, no other outcome can be expected.

The psalm takes a luminous turn from despair to a sharing of his deliverance in v. 22. The contour of the radical shift becomes eminently clear toward the end of the verse where the psalmist vows to praise God. He lifts up a word that in Hebrew shares the root with “Hallelujah!” He introduces “brothers and sisters,” who turn out to be a worshipping congregation. They will receive his declaration of God’s name as an act of praise.

The assembly of praise and thanksgiving is further identified as those “who fear the LORD” (v. 23). Clearly, the psalmist no longer fears what he used to fear. Although the same word “fear” is used here, there is a radical shift in its connotation. As is also the case in the rest of the Asiatic world, the psalmist speaks of another category of fear — the kind of fear that is inspired not by trepidation but by adoration. The terms of kinship return in v. 23b, continuing the theme that the psalmist celebrates the shared tradition of holding God in awe.

The psalmist explains the ground of his outburst of praise, stating that he is amazed by the fact that the lofty God has given an audience to a petitioner in a lowly state (v. 24). The degree of his surprise is graphically portrayed through his choice of words like “despise” and “abhor,” both of which carry a sense of disgust and revulsion. Instead of turning away from the abject state of those who are in need, God has acted as their protector and benefactor.

The psalmist describes in v. 24 God’s gracious mode of operation that does not disregard the cry of the poor and the oppressed, only to surreptitiously insert himself as the very one who cried out and experienced God’s deliverance. At the end of the verse, the NRSV has the psalmist shift from the third person to the first person, based on the Greek Septuagint. The psalmist wants to underscore that he is the afflicted one that has received the Lord’s audience.

The prayer for God’s intervention in v. 19 now has been answered (v. 24). The psalmist ascribes the origin of his praise to the LORD, underscoring that he owes it all to God. In response, the thankful poet promises to fulfill his vow (v. 25). In his plan of action, the act of worship will not be private. It will have a communal component, for he is going to praise and pay his vow in the presence of the congregation, who will also share in the praise for God’s graciousness.

We may find a comparable evangelistic thrust in this week’s gospel lesson, in which Jesus says to the Gerasene who was liberated from the oppression of Legion: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39a). The psalmist of Psalm 22, too, converts his personal experience of salvation into a proclamation of the divine benefit granted to “the poor” (“the meek” KJV; v. 26). In this verse, the poor are provocatively paired with “those who seek [the LORD].”

The psalmist anticipates that the cycle of praise will not end. Instead, “all the ends of the earth shall remember” (v. 27). While recollection and recitation are certainly envisioned, the Hebrew verb for “remember” has an extraordinary connotation. The English equivalent tends to focus on the past, but the Hebrew keeps an eye on the present, which is bound to be affected by what is being recalled. The entire world that is reminded of God’s gracious act will make a roundabout to bow down before God in worship.

For the psalmist, this is not a surprising turn of affairs. By contrast, he regards it as the manifestation of what should have been obvious, for the LORD reigns (vv. 27-28). The psalmist’s vision of the universal recognition of God echoes the first lesson from Isaiah 65, in which the prophet delivers the word of the LORD, who says, “Here I am, here I am,” gathering nations that did not know God (v. 1). The prophet and the psalmist together point to God’s sovereignty over all the peoples of the world.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29

Alicia Vargas

In our text for this week, Paul seeks among other things to situate the Jewish law in God’s plan, God’s timeline, vis-à-vis God’s promise to Abraham and God’s giving the gift of justifying faith in Jesus Christ.

The law in its disciplinarian aspect

In this context, writing in response to the teachings of an unknown group of Jewish-Christian teachers who urged members of the Galatian Christian communities to adopt at least circumcision and perhaps other requirements of the Jewish law in addition to their faith in Christ, Paul presents only the negative aspects of the law; the law is critiqued as a negative and temporary measure between the covenant promise to Abraham and the gift of faith in Jesus Christ.

This negative function of the law is captured in Paul’s term “disciplinarian,” which refers to one was usually a slave and who guarded school children and kept them safe. Paul’s strong language is that people were “imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith” came (Galatians 3:23). We will do well to bear in mind John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed’s helpful thesis that Paul’s critique of the law in this highly-charged argumentative and polemical discussion — only half of which we hear in Paul’s letter — is “unfair.”1 For despite this negative function and Paul’s strong language here, he also believes that the law is not opposed to God’s promises (3:21).

Under faith in Christ, one no longer needs the law in this disciplinarian function; one is freed from the requirements of the law. Paul reassures his Galatian audience that they are children of God through faith (3:26) and not through the law.

Baptismal transformation

Paul now introduces the theme of baptism into Christ. In reference to the early Christian practice of the newly baptized putting on a new white garment, Paul says in 3:27 that all who are baptized into Christ have “clothed” themselves with Christ (cf. Romans 13:14; Ephesians 4:24).

In Galatians 3:28, Paul names three categories of social distinction, i.e. distinctions which are operative in the surrounding culture at large which are no longer valid or operative within the community of those baptized into Christ: Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female. “In this new life the old social distinctions no longer count before God. Although the external social conditions did not immediately change, the new reality did effect relationships in the Christian community … ”2

Paul’s conclusion

In Galatians 3:29, Paul finishes his argument: members of the community of those in Christ are in truth Abraham’s offspring, i.e. are included in those to whom God’s original, pre-law promise was made (3:15-18). The circle of Paul’s logic is now complete: God promised righteousness to Abraham and his descendants; transgression entered in, requiring the imposition of the law to restrain sin; Christ has now come and the gift of justifying faith has been given.

Questions toward faithful preaching

John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed imagine this conversation with the Apostle Paul:

Do you think, Paul, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights? I am not speaking about all men but about all Christians. But do you think, Paul, that all people should be Christians? Yes, of course. Then do you think, Paul, that it is God’s will for all people to be equal with one another? Well, let me think about that one for a while and, in the meantime, you think about equality in Christ.3

A recent editorial in The Christian Century, “The pay gap at church,” provides this information:

The good news is that there are now enough female clergy for clergy pay to be included in the annual Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis of the gender pay gap. The bad news is that the gender pay gap for clergy is greater than for college and high school teachers, greater than for many positions in the business sector, and greater than for professionals like lawyers and counselors. Female clergy earn 76 cents for every dollar that male clergy earn. Across all professions, women on average make 83 cents for every dollar men make.4

How does the church — in its global and national expressions as denominational bodies, local congregations, individuals living out their lives of faith — measure up to Paul’s vision of radical and complete equality between the genders? How seriously is the church engaged in the hard and faithful work toward equality?

Jews and Greeks in Paul’s context; African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Anglo Americans, etc., etc., in the church today in the U.S.A. How in the church do we compare with Paul’s vision of ethnic and cultural inclusion and equality?

And what about the abolition of the distinction between slave and free? In Paul’s time and our own? The American Civil War ended in 1865; ninety-nine years later, the Civil Rights Act was passed; then one year after that, an even century after the abolition of slavery in the U.S.A., the Voting Rights Act was passed.

Alive and well is the African American spiritual, “Oh, Freedom” with its refrain: “and before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord, and be free.”

Where in the church do we still fall short of racial equality? How involved is the church in the ongoing struggle for full equality between all racial and ethnic groups within itself as an institution?

And if we make the societal extension hinted at by Crossan and Reed, how involved is the church in the struggle for racial and ethnic justice and equality in civil society?

May God help us as continue to live into the freedom of Jesus Christ.


1 John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (HarperSanFrancisco: 2004),

2 M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 586.

3 Crossan and Reed, The First Paul, 234.

4 “The pay gap at church,” The Christian Century February 17, 2016, 7.