Lectionary Commentaries for June 16, 2013
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 7:36-8:3

Jeannine K. Brown

It is often noted that Luke, more than the other Gospel writers, highlights portrayals of women.

From the start, Luke portrays Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna as courageous women who follow God’s plan and whose voices praise God’s arriving redemption in Jesus. It is also the case that Luke often pairs a story of a woman alongside a story of a man. For example, the healing of a centurion’s slave is paired with the raising of a widow’s son (7:1-17); and Jesus tells twin parables of a woman losing a coin and a man losing a sheep (15:4-10).

In the lectionary text for this week, women who follow Jesus in discipleship are introduced to Luke’s reader in parallel fashion to his introduction of the Twelve (male) disciples (8:1-3; 6:12-16). In fact, in 8:1-3, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, “and many [women]” are described in the same way as the Twelve — they are “with him” as Jesus proclaims the good news of God’s reign. This is a discipleship characteristic that identifies both male and female followers of Jesus in Luke. In Luke 10, Jesus sends out seventy of his followers in mission to prepare for his kingdom message (10:1), and, from a narrative perspective, Luke’s readers would be expecting this larger group to include the women mentioned in 8:1-3. Mary Magdalene and Joanna are mentioned again in 24:8-10, there as the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.

So while the Twelve are the most prominent disciples in Luke’s narrative, he accents the role of women in Jesus’ ministry in important ways. In 8:3, Luke indicates that women were crucial to financial support of Jesus’ ministry. And in Jesus’ first-century context, it would have been ideal to have both men and women disciples who could attend and minister to men and women (respectively) in the crowds coming to Jesus.

The portrait of female disciples of Jesus from 8:1-3 provides an interesting counterpart to the account of the woman who anoints Jesus in a meal scene at the end of Luke 7 (7:36-50). In that passage, the discipleship of a woman who receives forgiveness from Jesus is on display. And Luke portrays her gratitude to Jesus as exemplary for his reader.

The setting is a dinner held by Simon, a Pharisee (7:36, 40). An unnamed woman enters Simon’s house, and, although uninvited, begins to anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume and wash them with her tears. Luke identifies her as a woman known in that city to be a sinner (J. B. Green, The Gospel of Luke). This descriptor ties her to the accusation leveled at Jesus in the immediate context: “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (7:34). It seems that this woman knows of Jesus’ reputation and has likely even experienced his ministry. Her gratitude exhibited by the actions of weeping and kissing Jesus’ feet point in this direction (7:38).
In his Gospel, Luke highlights Jesus’ concern for sinners like this woman. Peter has responded to Jesus’ miraculous provision of fish by exclaiming, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (5:8; see 18:13). And when Pharisees and scribes complain that Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus responds that he has come to call sinners to repentance (5:30-32; see 19:7). In 15:2, the Pharisees will again bemoan that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

In a Jewish context, the descriptor “sinner” would indicate someone who was not faithful to God’s law — a transgressor of the Torah. Luke does not specify the sin of Peter or the other sinners with whom Jesus eats. Yet in this passage of the woman who anoints Jesus, it is commonplace for commentators to assume that she is a prostitute, as if the only sin a Jewish woman of the first century could commit would be sexual sin. Given that Luke can specify that particular sin (see 15:30), his less explicit reference here to this woman “who was a sinner” should not be pressed further but should be heard in concert with the other references to sinners in Luke as recipients of Jesus’ kingdom ministry.

Central to this passage is the portrayal of the woman as one who demonstrates trust in and love for Jesus, again presumably as a recipient of his merciful ministry to “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus tells a brief parable to Simon to illustrate that those who have had a great debt cancelled will love more than those who have only a small debt forgiven (7:40-43). Then he applies his parable to the woman who has welcomed him as a lavish host would welcome a most honored guest. While some of the actions that Jesus mentions as signs of welcome (7:44-46) go above and beyond what might be expected in first-century hospitality (e.g., anointing a guest’s head with oil is not a required sign of hospitality), the point is that the woman in her actions has provided lavish hospitality because of her great love for Jesus and his mercy.

The story concludes with Jesus’ declaration that her sins are forgiven, which causes the other guests to wonder who is this Jesus who can even forgive sins. At the heart of it, Luke’s message is Christological. This passage highlights Jesus’ power to forgive sins and pronounce salvation for this woman who comes to him in faith to show her love for him (“Your faith has saved you”).

Luke 7:36-8:3 provides an opportunity to preach about some of the courageous women who come to Jesus in faith to follow and serve him. For Luke, they provide paradigms for ways his own audience should respond to Jesus. And they can function this way for our own audiences, as we commend to them the discipleship qualities of faith, service, and following Jesus by being “with him.” And for the center of our preaching, Luke provides a compelling portrait of Jesus, the Messiah who forgives, saves, and restores.

First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:26—12:10, 13-15

Cameron B.R. Howard

The lectionary gives us only the terse conclusion to the lengthy and dramatic episode preceding Nathan’s parable.

Second Samuel 11:26-27 does provide a useful summary of the relevant events: Uriah dies, his wife mourns him, David marries Uriah’s wife when her mourning is over, and she gives birth to a son. Missing from this sliver of text, however, is any sense of controversy. After all, “the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David” (11:27b-12:1a). What exactly is that “thing,” so ambiguously referenced, that David has done to displease God?

To answer that question, we must return to the preceding narrative in 2 Samuel 11. Preachers may want to remind their audiences of some of these details:

  • David sees Bathsheba bathing from his rooftop and, after being told definitively that she is “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (11:3), he sleeps with her anyway.
  • Apart from verse 3, where the woman’s identity is reported to David, the narrative refers to Bathsheba only as “the wife of Uriah.” This rhetorical choice emphasizes David’s culpability as an adulterer, even as it serves to downplay Bathsheba’s own personhood.
  • David tries to get Uriah to leave his battle post and sleep with Bathsheba in order to mask David’s paternity, should she become pregnant. Uriah, a pious and committed soldier, refuses to go down to his house, as abstaining from sexual intercourse was part of the ritual preparation for battle (see 1 Samuel 21:5). Even after David gets him drunk, Uriah still refuses to go down to his house to sleep with his wife.
  • David finally instructs Joab to position Uriah at the front of the battle, where he is sure to be killed. David sends this message in the hand of Uriah himself.

Thus, “the thing that David had done” is not just one isolated incident, but rather a sequence of events that begins with his abduction of Bathsheba and includes a series of actions trying to cover up that death, ending in David’s conspiracy with Joab to arrange the death of Uriah.

Like many effective homileticians, Nathan draws in his audience with a story. Inside the text, David is the only audience for Nathan’s parable, and David does not see his indictment coming. However, we the reading audience can begin to make connections right away: Uriah is the poor man, Bathsheba is his one little ewe lamb, and David is the rich man with a sense of entitlement. When Nathan cries dramatically, “You are the man,” equating David with the rich man in the story, David is the only one surprised.

Nevertheless, the parable helps us readers hone in further on “the thing that David had done.” The rich man is unwilling to take from his abundant flock in order to offer hospitality to a stranger, so he takes the one, beloved lamb from the poor man instead. David, flush with a sense of royal entitlement, has taken whatever he wants and then gone to great lengths to cover up his guilt. Prophetic condemnation reminds David, as well as us readers, that nothing can be hidden from God.

Earlier in the monarchic history, the prophet Samuel has already cautioned that kings are takers. When the people of Israel ask for a king at 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warns that the king will take and take and take (8:10-18). The prophet Elijah will later confront King Ahab for taking Naboth’s vineyard and arranging Naboth’s execution (1 Kings 21:1-29). In fact, the story of Naboth’s vineyard exhibits remarkable parallels with the account of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah.

In both instances the king (with much assistance from the queen, in Ahab’s case) interacts with a subject (Uriah or Naboth) shown to be far more pious than the king himself. When the king cannot get what he wants directly from the subject, he arranges for the man’s death through spurious means, then seizes what he wants from the man anyway. The tradition of prophets confronting kings about their exploitation of the ones they rule runs like a red thread through Samuel-Kings, and 2 Samuel 12 stands squarely in that tradition.

Reading this lectionary passage as condemnation of kings exploiting their power to take what does not belong to them inevitably raises the question of how we are to think about Bathsheba. In the world of the text, she may be as beloved as the poor man’s ewe lamb, but she is still property: a possession to be stolen. I would like Nathan to condemn the dehumanizing of Bathsheba, whom David abducts and sexually exploits. Yet no part of this lectionary passage or the narrative that precedes it worries about Bathsheba’s humanity in any obvious way. As mentioned above, the narrative almost exclusively refers to Bathsheba as “the wife of Uriah,” accentuating that David has done a wrong to Uriah above all else.

Though we should assume that, given David’s power, Bathsheba had no choice with regard to David’s advances, we nonetheless do not hear whether Bathsheba welcomed or rejected them; we know nothing of her opinion, of her state of mind, of the degree of her suffering. The narrative gives no voice to Bathsheba whatsoever, making it complicit in her dehumanization. Preachers should not shy away from acknowledging that the narrative itself exploits Bathsheba, because that point will certainly not be lost on many readers and hearers of this text.

After uttering the parable, Nathan names the abundance David has been given, the sins he has committed, and the consequences of his exploitative actions. The violence that David has enacted on his subjects will long be visited on his household. While verse 13 may perhaps be understood an expression of confession and absolution, the Hebrew verb translated as “put away” in the NRSV is better read as “caused to pass over” or “transferred.”1 The consequences of David’s actions will be borne most directly by his child, who will die, even though David will live. Rather than focusing on themes of sin and forgiveness, it may be best to find New Testament resonances for this text in Jesus’ admonishment of a disciple (identified as Simon Peter in John 18:10) at his arrest: “…for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

1The verb is a common one in Samuel with a consistent meaning of movement or relocation rather than disappearance or passing away: see A. G. Auld, I & II Samuel (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 467-468.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 21:1-10 [11-14] 15-21a

Roger Nam

“I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.” – Bishop Desmond Tutu.

When interpreting biblical narrative, it is important to understand that classical Hebrew does not employ tenses like we have in English (present, past, future, etc.). Instead, biblical Hebrew employs something referred to as “aspect” — more specifically, the “aspect” of a verbal action in relation with the historical anchor, which typically appears at the beginning of the passage (An example of historical anchor is the opening to the book of Ruth, “In the days when the judges ruled…”).

For this week’s reading, the historical anchor in 1 Kings 21:1 introduces certain terms that have associations that will help us understand the rest of the passage, “Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria.” Jezreel introduces a place of great blessing, and a royal palace for Ahab. It literally means, “God planted;” the Jezreel valley is tremendously fertile (Google Image it) and you can quickly understand how it got its name.

Ahab stands for a king who deeply fell to the temptations of Canaanite idolatry. Samaria is the new palace from the Omri house, later a place where Amos condemned for its social injustices. All of these concepts of idolatry permeate the opening verse, the historical anchor of the text, and the natural reading of the passage must keep in mind these associations.

The narrative moves quickly. Despite being King of Israel and having access to all the commensurate royal perks and privileges, Ahab sees and covets a neighboring plot of land. He commands the owner, Naboth, to hand over the land, even offering a fair price, but in reality, the land is not for sale. In a narrative surprise, the citizen sternly rebukes the king, refusing the offer on the grounds of YHWH and the presumed patriarchal right of the landowner.

With the refusal, the king responds in “angry and sullen” but this reaction is merely a mask for depression as, “He lay upon his bed, turned his face, and did not eat food” (verse 4). Interestingly, many commentators suggest that depression ensues because Ahab wanted the vineyard so badly, but in reality the Bible is ambiguous on this issue. In reading the text, it appears just as likely that Ahab was depressed over the defiant reaction of the commoner.

It turns out that the non-royal neighbor was not the only one to push around Ahab. The king’s passivity contrasts with the bold initiative of Queen Jezebel, who “came to him” and “said to him” (verse 5). She both admonishes the king (“Do you now govern Israel?” verse 7), but does it with a comforting assurance (“be cheerful”). She devises a plan to obtain the land and, because the only legal recourse is through the death of the owner, she creates a complex plot to kill Naboth. She acts with the authority of a true king. Her usage of the royal seal is deliberately symbolic. Upon the death of Naboth, Jezebel expectedly tells Ahab to claim the land. But afterwards, the Lord sends Elijah to condemn the action.

Our modern twenty-first century sensibilities prevent us from easily grasping the concept of buying land, just as it would be hard to explain the profession of a modern real estate agent to the ancient Israeli. Land was rarely bought and sold, and when it was done, it was only done to people within the kin. Even the royal land of Samaria was sold to a kinsman (see 1 Kings 16:24). Land was a gift from God, a symbol of provision and conquest. In a time with limited mechanisms to store wealth, land was the income, resource, home, bank account and retirement plan of the people.

Through the land, people grew their food, paid their obligations to the royal house, sheltered their children, and assured some degree of livelihood for their progeny. Land is not to be taken by royal interest, congruent with land and inheritance texts from the ancient Near Eastern world. Thus, Ahab could not just take the vineyard with any legitimacy, but Jezebel had to devise a complex plan for him.

But what happens when the wealthy royal king covets and seizes the only possession of a commoner? It is within such a context that the Lord calls for a prophetic response, specifically a direct condemnation and portending of a grotesque death (verse 18-19). There is no denial by the king for he knows that he was guilty — “Have you found me, O my enemy?” (verse 20a).

Interestingly, the prophetic pronouncement does not name the sin against Naboth, but Elijah says “You have sold yourself to evil in the eyes of YHWH.” In other words, the stealing of the land and concomitant murder was a religious violation. By unjustly taking Naboth’s rightful possession, Ahab (and Jezebel) disobey the command of God.

This fits with the initial pronouncement and the historical anchor back in 21:1. The words Jezreel, Ahab, Samaria are all associated with religious idolatry. Social injustice is not merely a horizontal violation of our fellow human. It is primarily a vertical violation of God by wronging his creation, made in his image. In other words, we tend to interpret this narrative of Naboth’s vineyard as social gospel, but really, the passage shows us that we cannot separate the social and the spiritual. Our relationship with God is reflected in the way we treat our fellow human who is made in God’s image.


Commentary on Psalm 32

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Long before the insights from contemporary psychology concerning repression, biofeedback loops, and psychosomatic disorders, the ancient psalmist knew very clearly that unacknowledged and unresolved guilt could have serious physical consequences.

There is no reason to think that the language of Psalm 32:3-4 is purely metaphorical — “my body wasted away,” “groaning all day,” “my strength was dried up.” Unacknowledged and unresolved guilt was taking its toll. And it is still happening!

It is no wonder that some of the most penetrating analyses of sin and guilt have come in recent years not from biblical scholars and theologians, but rather from psychiatrists. For instance, Karl Menninger was motivated by his concern for mental health and a healthier society to ask Whatever Became of Sin? He was concerned that unacknowledged and unresolved guilt inevitably comes out in various forms of unhealthy “escapism, rationalization, and reaction or symptom formation.”[1]

Therefore, he called for a recovery of the concept of sin; and he suggested that clergypersons should take the lead: “It is their special prerogative to study sin — or whatever they call it — to identify it, to define it, to warn us about it, and to spur measures for combatting it and rectifying it.”[2]

The appearance of Psalm 32 in the lectionary offers a prime opportunity for clergypersons to take up the challenge “to study sin.” And almost certainly, it will be a challenge! As Menninger points out, sin-talk has not been and is not very popular. For one thing, it can sound archaic and overly judgmental. Then too, our concern for privacy and proper appearances makes confession of sin (or weakness or need) a bit risky.

As Gerald Wilson notes, “The cults of independence and perfection have prevented many a struggling evangelical Christian from admitting his or her fears, failures, and helplessness until the crisis was so great that it can no longer be denied and broke out with the utmost devastation for all those concerned.”[3] This reality, of course, underscores the importance of the challenge “to study sin.”

Perhaps the language of verses 3-4 suggests that the psalmist had arrived (or was about to arrive) at a devastating breaking point. If so, then she or he offers us a very important example of the benefits of confronting and confessing one’s sin. What ends up broken in Psalm 32 is neither the psalmist’s life nor the lives of those with whom the psalmist is concerned. Rather, what ends up broken is the psalmist’s silence!

While neither God nor the psalmists are in favor of sin, the real problem in Psalm 32 is not the psalmist’s sin but rather the psalmist’s failure to acknowledge and confess sin. It is crucial; therefore, that the silence be broken for, as James L. Mays points out, “the silence is the rejection of grace.”[4]

The tragic thing about the failure to confess sinfulness and need is that we close ourselves off from the liberating grace of God. A more literal translation of verse 5c emphasizes this liberating dimension: “you lifted the guilt of my sin.” A burden has been lifted! God bears the burden of sin with us or even for us!

This, of course, is pure grace, anticipating both Jesus’ proclamation of the realm of God (see Luke 7:36-8:3) and Paul’s proclamation of the good news of justification by grace (see Romans 4:6-8 where Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2).

To be sure, Psalm 32 is about sin and guilt; and it is rightly numbered among the Church’s seven Penitential Psalms (see Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). But Psalm 32 is even more clearly about the divine willingness to forgive. This willingness is grounded in God’s essential character — that is, God is gracious, merciful, and steadfastly loving (see Exodus 34:6-7; and note “steadfast love” in Psalm 32:10).

Thus, it is appropriate that the tone of Psalm 32 is fundamentally celebratory. The opening double-beatitude establishes an overwhelmingly positive and joyful atmosphere for the entire psalm, and it is important to note that happiness here is all about being forgiven — it simply assumes we are going to sin!

As such, this double-beatitude serves to insure that the reader of the Psalms does not misunderstand Psalm 1:1-2, which has sometimes been interpreted to mean that happiness derives from keeping all the rules. But not so! Happiness begins with the reality of grace that invites humble reliance upon God and God’s willingness to forgive.

The celebratory character continues in the concluding section, after what turns out to be the turning point of the psalm in verse 5c. Not only does the vocabulary of sin disappear after verse 5c, but there are also explicit indications of faithful celebration — professions of trust in verses 7 and 10, along with joyful singing in verses 7 and 11.

NRSV’s “glad cries of deliverance” (verse 7) and “shout for joy” (verse 11) represent the same Hebrew root, which is often translated, “sing for joy.” In verse 7, the psalmist affirms that even God sings for joy, seemingly in response to the broken silence that leads to forgiveness (and perhaps anticipating the father’s joy in Luke 15 when the prodigal son breaks his silence, asking for, and receiving forgiveness).

Perhaps not coincidentally, the invitation to “rejoice” (verse 11) is repeated in Psalm 33:1, suggesting that Psalm 33 functions something like a continuing response to the good news of Psalm 32. Perhaps not coincidentally again, the keyword in Psalm 33 is “steadfast love “ (verses 5, 18, 22, recalling 32:10). Psalm 33 affirms “the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD” — verse 5). The poet of Psalm 32 seems to have known and acted upon precisely this good news.

So, amid the celebrations of verses 6-7 and 10-11, she or he offers us valuable instruction on the “way you should go” (verse 8). In short, the psalmist helps us “to study sin” by assuring us that in the presence of the steadfastly loving God, honest confession and liberating forgiveness are assuredly “the way . . . [we] should go” (verse 8).

[1] Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973), 178.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms,vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 552.

[4] James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 147.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 2:15-21

Sarah Henrich

Galatians 2:15 is a hard place to start for a preacher who might want to preach on this letter on a Sunday in June.

The manifest untruth of the lead statement, “We ourselves are Jews by birth…” for contemporary hearers presents in microcosm the difficulty of “getting” Galatians. Granted, the skillful preacher will help congregants hear Paul’s voice making the statements that begin in 2:15 (continuing his argument from 2:14). But to continue to hear that voice through the rest of the verses, that voice of a Jew by birth who has come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of God, that voice extolling Jesus’ faithfulness to God and calling for the faithfulness of his followers, that is a hard voice to keep on hearing.

But, it is worth the effort. The sheer honesty of this letter opens up the intensely difficult theological (and social) dynamics among those trying to live according to God’s calling. This passage bespeaks the good news, the great announcement that Paul understands. Paul insists that through trusting in Jesus, whose faithfulness both as God and to God brought about rescue from the “present age of evil,” Gentiles as well as Jews experience the gift of God’s Spirit and the promise of life with God. He further insists that Gentile believers do not, ought not, even dare not go back to a world that was pre-Messiah. They — and all Jews as well — are fully brought into covenant relationship with God through the Spirit rather than Torah-keeping.

How is this news good for those of us who have not worried much about Torah-keeping to begin with? We need to break away from imagining this solely in terms of some abstract “law.” The “law” here (and there will be more to say later in Galatians about it) is Jewish Torah that can no longer be enjoined on Gentile believers as part of belonging to God. Paul’s exposition of being justified by faith has resonance beyond the suggestion that we don’t need to keep Torah commands. At the same time, it does not undo all Torah “instruction”(another translation of nomos). In this passage we focus on faithfulness.

Jesus’ faithfulness did it all for us, while we were yet sinners by necessity. These six verses are loaded with eight references to Christ or Messiah. Paul uses a variety of expressions to make his very important points:

            16. …through faithfulness (pisteos) of Christ (Christou)…

                  …trusted in (episteusamen eis) Christ (Christon)…

                    …justified from/by faithfulness (ek pisteos) of Christ (Christou)

                        17. …to be justified in Christ (en Christo)

                              …is Christ (Christos) a deacon of sin…

              19.  …with Christ (Christo) I have been co-crucified.

            20.  … Christ (Christos) lives in me….

            21.  …Christ (Christos) died in vain…

In verse 20 there is also a reference to the faithfulness of the son of God (en pistei…th tou uiou tou theou).

You need to see all these references in order to see that Paul has two different ways of speaking about pistis in relation to God’s Messiah and humankind. It is very easy to see that Paul is quite adept in his use of Greek, that he knows the subtleties of the language and is able to use it purposefully. Notice the variety of prepositions (eis, ek, en) and the use of the gentitive (Christou) without prepositions. The two points he is making require these distinctions.

The first is that the faithfulness of the Messiah has already opened relationship with God to all people (verse 16, first and third uses). It is the incredible faithfulness to the ways of God that has opened a whole new age for humankind. We participate in Christ’s own faithfulness by trusting it. Participation is seen in verses 17, 19, and 20. When Paul wishes to speak of our having faith in Christ, our trusting that this one is God’s Messiah, he uses the preposition eis with the verb to trust in (verse 16, second use).

Thus two very important points are made: Jesus’ fidelity to God (we might even say Jesus’ congruity with God, cf. also Philippians 2:5-11) has drawn us all into relationship with God. The resurrection of Jesus Messiah and the gift of the Spirit “prove” this for Paul (see Galatians 1-5). Secondly, and it truly is second, people receive the Spirit and we live in and through Christ and he in us through our own trust and faithfulness.