Lectionary Commentaries for June 9, 2013
Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 7:11-17

Jeannine K. Brown

Hundreds of years before Jesus is born and embarks on a ministry of healing and preaching, Isaiah announces good news of God’s coming return to his people, Israel. At the time of God’s return and restoration of Israel the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the lame will walk (Isaiah 35:4-6).

Jesus connects this picture of Isaianic restoration taken from Isaiah 35 with what is happening in his own ministry when he is asked if he is the “one who is to come” (7:19). Jesus replies, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22).

Although the Isaiah text does not mentioned the dead being raised (yet see Isaiah 29:19), Luke includes resurrection as a sign of Jesus’ messianic activity as well. And Luke has just narrated a living example of this healing and resurrecting activity in 7:11-17, as Jesus raises a young man from the dead.

Jesus and his disciples, followed by a large crowd, come to Nain, a Galilean town not far from Nazareth. As they are about to enter, they encounter a funeral procession that is presumably on its way to a place of burial outside the city. Jesus approaches the body of a young man being carried on a bier, a structure that allowed for the transport of a body or coffin for burial. Jesus commands the young man to rise, and he does. With great reverence, the crowd praises God and exclaims that a great prophet has come among them, with news of what Jesus has done spreading far and wide.

What is missing from this brief rehearsal of the story is the recipient of this miraculous resuscitation, as Luke sees it. Jesus responds to the need of a widow, whose only son has died (7:12) and has compassion on her (7:13). Luke’s inclusion of the detail that this was her only son highlights her difficult situation. Without a husband and now without any son to support her, it is very likely that she is now or will soon be financially destitute. Luke’s shaping of the story suggests that her sole means of support has been taken from her.

For Luke emphasizes that, when Jesus sees her situation, “his heart went out to her” (7:13, niv). Three times Luke inserts the feminine pronoun into this single verse. Jesus’ compassion is fueled by the widow’s plight. In the ancient world much more than in contemporary Western settings, it was the case that people’s children were their retirement. Jesus’ compassionate restoration of this widow’s son may have meant the difference between survival and destitution.

Jesus’ compassion to heal has already been highlighted in the previous account of a centurion asking Jesus to heal his slave (7:1-10). His healing on behalf of a poor widow also fits the programmatic kingdom activity outlined in Luke 4:16-18 drawn from Isaiah 61. Jesus comes to “bring good news to the poor… and proclaim release to the captives” (4:18). In fact, Luke shows particular interest in including widows in his telling of Jesus’ story.

From the widow Anna who celebrates the arrival of Jesus (2:37) to the widow who gives her few pennies to the temple treasury (21:1-4), Luke narrates stories about widows more than any of the other three evangelists (see 4:25-26; 18:1-8; 20:46-47; also Acts 6:1; 9:36-42). As widows were one of the groups most needing community care according to Israel’s Scriptures (along with orphans and non-Israelites living in the land; see Deuteronomy 14:29), so Luke highlights both a widow’s need and Jesus’ compassionate response to her situation.

The conclusion to this healing story is important to Luke’s theological message. First, the crowds are filled with awe and praise God, saying, “God has come to help his people” (7:16; niv). Jesus’ healing actions point to God’s restoration now begun in Jesus. Luke frequently highlights responses of the crowds to Jesus’ healing activity.

For example, after Jesus heals a paralytic, the people are amazed and “they glorified God and were filled with awe” (5:26). When he heals a demon-possessed boy, “all were astounded at the greatness of God” (9:43). And when Jesus heals a women suffering from a crippling spirit, the crowd rejoices “at all the wonderful things that he was doing” (13:17).

The crowds also affirm, “A great prophet has risen among us!” (7:16). An important part of Luke’s Christology is his portrayal of Jesus as prophet. Jesus himself refers to his prophetic role more than once (Luke 4:24; 13:33), and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus affirm that Jesus was a “prophet mighty in word and deed” (24:19; see also 7:39). Luke “unmistakably identifies Jesus as the prophetic Messiah.”1

And as we highlight for the church today Luke’s portrait of Jesus as prophetic Messiah, center stage is Jesus’ care for the most vulnerable in society — here a widow without children and so without means of support. And as Luke systematically connects the church’s ministry to Jesus’ own mission, we have the evangelist’s mandate to exhort our churches to embrace compassionate ministry to the poor in Jesus’ name.

1L. T. Johnson, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church,58.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:17-24

Cameron B.R. Howard

How do we know that Elijah is really a “man of God”?

The widow of Zarephath is unsure of Elijah’s identity when, after taking the prophet into her home, her son becomes deathly sick. By the end of the story, though, she is ready to proclaim, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24). What enables such a dramatic shift in her outlook?

Nothing less than the resuscitation of her dead child changes her mind. Elijah’s revival of her child from death to life relieves her doubt about who Elijah is, what his purposes are, and from whom his strange powers originate. Of course she now believes he speaks God’s truth! Witnessing such a miracle would make a believer out of any of us — at least, we hope it would. But the widow’s profession of faith is not the only movement from doubt to belief in this story.

Elijah himself is anguished by the child’s sickness. His prayer accuses God of having wrought evil in the house that has given him refuge from God’s own drought and famine (17:1). Already in this brief chapter, we learn that he has antagonized the king (17:1), received food from birds (17:2-7), and sought sustenance from a starving widow (17:8-16), all because the word of the LORD has come to him. Obedience, both his and the widow’s, seems to have been rewarded with suffering.

Elijah does not voice this doubt publicly. In all of his interactions with the widow, he adopts a matter-of-fact tone. He does not answer the widow’s invective, in which she accuses him of singling her out and making her answer for her sins (17:18). He only says, “Give me your son,” and he carries the boy upstairs. When the boy is breathing again, he brings him back down to his mother, saying, “See, your son is alive” (17:23). Only upstairs, alone with the lifeless boy in his room, does Elijah’s sorrow spill out.

As a “man of God” (’ish ha-’elohim), Elijah both delivers God’s messages and performs wondrous acts of power.1 He stands against the monarchic status quo, exemplified by the reign of Ahab and his queen Jezebel, who participate in Baal-worship, hoard the kingdom’s resources, and relentlessly pursue their opponents. Elijah will spend much of the rest of his time on earth either running from royalty or confronting it. It will be an exhausting vocation. In this week’s appointed story, though, Elijah already seems spent, frustrated, and full of doubt. Like the widow herself, Elijah grieves. When the child is revived, God turns the mourning of both — leader and follower, prophet and widow — into joy.

In the story immediately preceding this one, which is offered as another possible lectionary reading this week, Elijah’s arrival at the widow’s house has meant the arrival of abundance in a time of want (17:8-16). When the widow makes cakes out of the final bits of meal and oil in her house, the meal and oil last for days and days. For a Christian reader, that story echoes in the multiple “loaves and fishes” accounts in the Gospels.

In the same way, Elijah’s revival of the widow’s son echoes in this week’s appointed Gospel reading, Luke 7:11-17, in which Jesus revives another widow’s son. The widow of Zarephath’s doubt, however, recalls a third Gospel narrative. At Mark 9:14-32 Jesus heals a boy with an unclean spirit. The boy’s father couches his request in terms of doubt: “…if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us” (Mark 9:22). Jesus responds that all is possible for a believer, to which the boy’s father famously replies, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

The widow of Zarephath displays this same duality of belief and unbelief, surety and doubt. After all, the widow already should have known that Elijah can work miracles, since he has sent away emptiness and hunger from her house. When the widow admonishes Elijah after her son becomes ill, she even calls him a “man of God.” (1 Kings 17:18). She can easily believe in Elijah’s power as something that brings death. Anybody can kill; there’s nothing difficult about that. The widow knows a lot about death, having been ready to enter its embrace when she and her son were at the brink of starvation.

Elijah’s real power, the LORD’s truth in his mouth, is that he can bring about life. This is the truth that is more difficult to believe, the one that flies in the face of all we know about the world, where death always seems to have the last word. Elijah’s miraculous, never-ending oil jar hints at such life-giving power, but it is the widow’s witnessing of her child’s renewed life that convinces her.

The widow’s doubt, as well as her profession of faith, may also be our own. It is easy to believe in death-dealing powers, for that is what we witness in the world every day. It is much harder to imagine the power of love that conquers death. Read anew in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath adds to that “great cloud of witnesses” who affirm God’s ultimate sovereignty over even death itself.

1For more on “man of God” and its relationship to other prophetic titles, see D. L. Petersen, The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 5-8.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16

Corrine Carvalho

On the surface, 1 Kings 17:8-16 tells a familiar story of a prophet who performs miracles.

A widow and her son, on the brink of starvation, are provided with an oil jug that will not run dry and a stash of grain that will never be empty. Such a surface reading misses the import of the specific details of this text, details that provide surprising hooks into the contemporary world.

This passage is part of the introduction of the prophet, Elijah, into the books of Kings. The first cycle of Elijah stories (1 Kings 17:1–19:18) centers on the nation’s economic collapse as the result of a severe drought that ruins crops and decimates the population. In the opening verse of the cycle, the reader is told that Israel’s God, Yahweh, has sent the drought.

Images of food and water permeate these chapters. The cycle is framed by two scenes where God feeds Elijah (17:4-7 and 19:5-9). The cycle depicts the interplay of religion and politics during national crisis. The drought is the result of the religious policies of Ahab, and it is prolonged by a lengthy government-sponsored contest between prophets of competing religions. This contest with the prophets of Baal in chapter 18 is won, not when Elijah calls fire down from heaven, but when clouds appear on the horizon (18:44-45).

The story of the widow of Zarephath precedes this contest. The story illustrates the severity of the drought, while the woman’s plight humanizes the casualties of this tragic interplay of politics and religion. The Elijah narrative then commences with a clear focus on those most vulnerable: a widow and her child.

In today’s world, the statistics on women and children in situations of famine are sobering. Human rights organizations note that the effects of natural disaster, including climate change, are felt most acutely by women and children. Oxfam International’s film, “Sisters on the Planet,” includes the story of a Ugandan woman named Martina during a time of severe drought (http://www.oxfam.org/en/campaigns/climatechange/sisters-planet).

Her story eerily echoes the passage from 1 Kings. Both stories open with the women gathering sticks to cook what meager food they can find. Both stories hint that the drought might be the result of a prophetic curse. In both narratives, the audience experiences the severity of the drought through the heartbreak of women unable to adequately feed their children.

Both stories require the audience to have compassion for the ways decisions in our homeland affect women in other parts of the world. One of the important details of the story in 1 Kings is that this woman is a Phoenician. Phoenicia was a rich country just north of Israel. Elijah is sent by God to this one woman. The effects of the drought are felt beyond the borders of Israel.

The story of the Phoenician widow sets up an ironic contrast with the other female figure who appears later in the cycle, Ahab’s queen, Jezebel, was also Phoenician and whose religious fervor for her native gods (Baal and Asherah) led to Ahab’s religious policies. The story of a poor widow from Phoenicia becomes a fitting contrast to the damaging effects of the workings of a rich Phoenician wife.

Although the story seems to be about Elijah, his actions are rather problematic on their own. His command to the woman to feed him the last of her grain is shocking. Why would she acquiesce? Did she feel threatened by him? She was, after all, alone and vulnerable. Or was she simply convinced that his prophetic promise of food (17:14) was authentic? The text does not say.


The true focus of this story should be on God. It is Yahweh who caused the drought, sent Elijah to Sidon, and provided food for the widow. Why does the story commence with God saving this poor Phoenician woman? There are probably many answers to that question, but let me offer three in particular.

  1. Saving a Phoenician woman demonstrates God’s care for the world. Although God will judge the Phoenician Jezebel, this is not a judgment on all Phoenicians.
  2. In this story about competing religious claims, Yahweh’s ability both to commence and to end drought undercuts the claim of both Israelites and foreigners that Baal is the only effective weather god, not only in Israel, but also across the globe.
  3. This is a story about the effects of economic injustice. The powerful, like Ahab and Jezebel are not starving, although they live in the same drought-stricken area. While they claim that the gods are on their side, the story reveals that God is on the side of those ignored by policy-makers.

While the pyrotechnics that appear later in the story have become the focus for Western appropriations of it, are they the point of the story? Is it not the main point that God is not aloof in these ideological battles? The author of 1 Kings is rather confident where God is located in the text, but the story reveals that the opponents were also sure that their gods cared about political power.

Today, attention to the economic elements of these stories carries a warning against such confidence. Although God may be on a side, when people start spending their resources to prove that they are right through religious pageantry and political persecution, then God is on the side of the innocent victims of such political maneuvering.

The proclamation of biblical texts in the context of a community of faith feeds the religious imagination of that community, and provides an opportunity to challenge naïve ethical conclusions that do not fully appreciate the impact of religious and political decisions on people at risk of starvation and death. They challenge the assumption that God is best seen in glorious victory and suggest that God is more present among those whose lives are most affected by the decisions of those in power.


Commentary on Psalm 30

Jerome Creach

Psalm 30 is a song of thanksgiving. That label is appropriate for two reasons.

First, and most generally, gratitude for God’s deliverance is the psalm’s dominant theme. In nearly every line the psalmist either expresses thanks and praise for God’s deliverance or describes the circumstances of that deliverance.

Second, the language of the psalm is related to descriptions of the thanksgiving offering. The psalm ends with a term translated “I will give thanks” (verse 12) that refers in some other contexts to a ceremony of thanksgiving. The verb used here derives from the same root as the term for “thanksgiving offering” (Leviticus 7:12). Similar language appears in passages that portray such a ritual of thanks (see Jeremiah 33:11). Hence, Psalm 30 is a full expression of praise and it was likely composed as part of a larger offering of gratitude that included tangible signs of thanksgiving.

Psalm 30 is cast as the prayer of an individual, which is fitting if it served as the liturgy that accompanied the thanksgiving offering. But the superscription identifies the psalm with a communal event, “the dedication of the temple.” Rabbinic tradition links the psalm specifically to the Feast of Dedication that recalls the cleansing and restoration of the temple after Antiochus IV Epiphanes defiled it (see 1 Maccabees 4:52; 2 Maccabees 10). Nothing in the psalm suggests that event was the specific occasion of its composition.

But the Psalter in many other places uses the voice of the individual to express the thanksgiving and praise of the community (see Psalms 129, 130, 131). This setting in public worship reminds us that biblical faith and prayer always have a communal dimension regardless of how personal the subject of prayer may be. Individuals do not pray completely in private; likewise the community’s concerns are shaped and expressed by the concerns of those individuals within it.

Psalm 30:1-3 begins the psalm with a declaration of praise (“I will extol you, Lord”) and a testimony to God’s saving actions (“you have healed me;” “restored me to life”). These verses therefore set forth the purpose of the psalm as a whole and sum up the primary message about God’s relationship with the one who prays. As the psalm develops it becomes apparent that the main point about God’s action is that God delivered the psalmist from the clutches of death and restored him or her to the land of the living.

Verse 4 again calls for praise not just from the psalmist but also from “his faithful ones.” This expression points to the communal setting of the psalmist’s prayer and to the complex interaction of individual and community. The reason for praise, stated in verse 5, echoes one of Israel’s creedal affirmations about God, the claim that he is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6). The emphasis here, however, is not on God’s restraint of divine anger but on God’s quick release of wrath.

Nevertheless, in nuances of this point the accent is on God’s favor which trumps God’s desire to punish. Some scholars believe the reference to night and morning reflects an original setting in an ordeal the psalmist endured in a sanctuary or the temple. The conclusion of the ordeal would have been the receipt of a proclamation of innocence. Regardless of whether this is correct or not, the movement from night to morning symbolizes the experience of weeping that gives way to joy (verse 5b), or mourning that turns to dancing (verse 11).

Verses 6-12 include a narrative-like report of God’s salvation of the psalmist that expands on the declaration of healing and deliverance that opened the psalm. In verses 6 and 7 the psalmist recounts how he or she boasted of being secure, but came to recognize that true security comes only from God. The term rendered “prosperity” might better be rendered “confident state.” The same word appears in Psalm 73:12 to describe the state of mind of the wicked, those who foolishly believe their resources provide all they need or that their fortune is a sign of God’s favor.

The psalmist has learned that real security comes from the Lord’s presence, which is a sign of God’s grace. Knowing that presence, the psalmist testifies that God made the psalmist “as a strong mountain” (verse 7a). Just as easily God could hide his face and the psalmist’s favorable circumstances would be gone. In such knowledge the psalmist has now learned to live always in thankfulness for the Lord’s goodness.

The next three verses reveal that death is the main threat from which the psalmist seeks deliverance. The main problem with death, however, is not simply the cessation of life. The Psalter and the Old Testament recognize mortality as part of being human (see Psalm 90:3-10). Rather, death here is personified as a force that threatens the living. The psalm speaks of death in association with a descent into Sheol or the Pit, the abode of the dead (verses 3, 9).

For the psalmist the threat of the abode of the dead is that it is a place of silence where God is not praised (“will the dust praise you?” verse 9b). To praise God and to give thanks has become for the psalmist the vocation of the human being and the sole purpose of the creation. Any fore that prevents praise must be resisted. Hence the psalm anticipates the New Testament idea that death is the final enemy (as in 1 Corinthians 15:26).

The psalm ends with an expression of desire to praise God (“that my soul may praise you”) and a declaration of thanksgiving (“I will give thanks to you forever”). The dominance of this theme of thanks and praise, with its individual and corporate expression, testifies to the central importance of this expression to authentic worship. Prayer and worship are diminished if they only contain petition and general expressions of praise. To be exercised fully they must also include praise and thanksgiving that specifically respond to God’s salvation that has been asked for and that God has granted.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 1:11-24

Mary Hinkle Shore

In the last session of a Pauline Letters class at Luther Seminary this spring, I asked my students to write short stories about Paul — very short stories. The assignment was to produce a six-word story about Paul, his theology, or his letters.

Paul in Six Words
There were too many great ones to include them all here. (If you want to read or contribute to the list, you can view it on this Google doc.) Here are some of the stories from my students:

  • Christ Jesus. What was the question?
  • Passive-aggressively offering you life in Christ.
  • Wish you could be like me.
  • Arrogant Jew finds kenosis in Christ.
  • From elitist egomaniac to enigmatic egalitarian.
  • “Contains some things hard to understand.”
  • Death. Resurrection. Living on the hinge.

In these six-word stories, we hear elements of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we also hear the way Paul’s message for his readers continues to be bound up with his sometimes-difficult personality and the stark “before and after” tale of his own life. These two themes — the gospel and the complexities of Paul’s own character — are also present in Galatians 1:11-24.

Dispute in Galatia
The problem in Galatia is that teachers have come to the churches that Paul founded in the region and are apparently preaching a law-observant form of Christianity. In their judgment, to follow the Jewish messiah rightly, one must follow the Jewish law.

Perhaps these teachers, disagreeing with Paul’s proclamation, have questioned his credentials. “Where did he get his gospel, anyway? Surely he is not claiming to have known Jesus, is he?” In that case, Paul would need to defend himself against such an attack.

Or maybe Paul is the first to bring up the matter of his credentials precisely because his own life embodies in miniature the cosmic shift between the “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) that defined life before Jesus Christ’s coming and the new age to which Christ’s death and resurrection bear witness. Paul will say in the next chapter of the letter, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (2:20). While the sentence may sound arrogant, we do well to hear it as Paul’s testimony that life is just simply new for Paul after the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul had persecuted the church. He wanted to stamp out the rogue form of Judaism that recognized Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah and further claimed that faithfulness to the God of Israel required faithfulness to Jesus his Son. Paul had opposed this message — and then he came to speak it. He moved from persecutor to preacher.

Preaching Paul?
So far, so good, but questions remain about how to preach a text like this one that consists almost exclusively of biographical material from Paul. My students’ one-liners about the apostle bear witness to the fact that among Christians, there is at least as much irritation with Paul as admiration for him.

Some readers of Paul wonder if he didn’t actually get things wrong, focusing as he did on the death and resurrection of Jesus, while Jesus himself had focused on the kingdom of God. Others are pretty sure he got things right, that in fact God’s favor to humanity apart from any merit on our part is the substance both of Paul’s preaching and of Jesus’ ministry. Yet even those who trust Paul the theologian can become impatient with Paul the letter-writer. He can be arrogant, opaque, thin-skinned, pushy, and sarcastic; in short, he is hardly someone we would seek to be a role model.

Maybe, then, a better preaching strategy than singing Paul’s praises with this text would be to wonder at what God can do with such raw materials as Paul offers. Paul is like the patriarchs in this respect: it is difficult to read their stories and conclude that they are virtuous heroes to be imitated; nevertheless, God worked through them to bless all the nations of the earth.

For Paul’s own part, he echoes Old Testament prophets, rather than the Pentateuch, as he describes himself having been set apart before his birth for the work that God intended him to do. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah had described themselves this way (see Isaiah 49:1-6 and Jeremiah 1:5). As God had set the prophets apart and called them to speak so that Israel might participate in the promises of God, so God set Paul apart and called him to the work of revealing Jesus Christ. The goal of that revelation was that the gentiles (or “nations”) might come to worship the God of Israel and also participate in the promises of God. Paul, like Abraham before him and Israel as a whole, was blessed to be a blessing.

Paul’s revealing of Jesus Christ happens through Paul’s preaching and also in his life. Paul says in Galatians 1:16 that God was pleased to reveal his Son en emoi, a phrase that can mean either “to me” (RSV, NRSV) or “in me” (KJV, NIV, NET). Those who are ambivalent about Paul the person may prefer “to me.” God revealing his Son in Paul would have to be a miracle indeed! Paul would agree: “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me what not without effect” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

Paul’s preaching proclaimed Christ. Likewise his hardships (see 2 Corinthians 11:21-30) and his death at the hands of Roman authorities show us the contours of the cross in Paul’s life, even though he may never have stopped being impatient, defensive, and all the rest. Elsewhere, Paul will say, “God chose what is foolish to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). True enough, over and over again.