Lectionary Commentaries for June 5, 2016
Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 7:11-17

Lucy Lind Hogan

The author of Luke-Acts presents to Theophilus, the lover of God (could that be us?), an orderly account designed to explore and answer the question, “Who then is this?” (Luke 8:25).

Who is this man Jesus? What difference does he make in our lives? How are we to make sense of his story and all that he said and did? Perhaps those were the questions asked by Theophilus; they are certainly our questions.

We have heard that Jesus was able to heal the slave of a Roman centurion without even meeting the dying man. And he even praised the faith of a pagan. What kind of rabbi is he? How does he dare have anything to do with the unclean? We will return to that theme next week. But this week Jesus’ healing powers are put to the test and we see echoes of the prophets in this fascinating moment that is told only by the author of Luke-Acts.

Nain (today the largely Arabic town of Nein) is in the Galilee about 5 miles southwest of Nazareth and 25 miles from Capernaum where Jesus had just healed the slave. Why Jesus is going to Nain is not clear. But what we are told is that a large crowd is following Jesus. The word was spreading about this worker of miracles.

As Jesus and his crowd approach the town a crowd going out of the city meets them. A man of the town has died and villagers are accompanying his mother out to the cemetery for his burial. We are told that his mother is a widow and he was her only son. This tells us much about her now precarious status. Whether or not this woman had any daughters would not matter. Without either a husband or son she was in a difficult position financially. She would not have a source of income.

We should also lift up the fact that her grief is raw. According to Jewish burial laws she would have to bury her son within twenty-four hours of his death. That tells us that her son had just died. Surrounded by neighbors she is walking in pain and sorrow. One can only imagine the thoughts that were racing through her head — “What will happen to me? How will I survive without my son?” It is not unreasonable to think that this unnamed widow would not have noticed Jesus or the crowd surrounding him. She was wrapped in the fog of despair.

Before we look at Jesus’ amazing gift to this woman, we need to be reminded of two other stories of women and their sons. When Jesus preached his first sermon in Nazareth, angering his neighbors, he reminded them of the fact that the great prophet Elijah helped not the widows of Israel, but a widow at Zarephath (Luke 4:25-26). Sent by God into the land of Sidon to escape the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, he was to be fed by a widow. How was this woman to feed this man? She had only a small bit of oil and meal left. Notice how the prophet meets this widow at “the gate of the town” (I Kings 17:10). After saving the woman and her son from starvation the woman’s son falls ill and dies. She cries out, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to be to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son” (I Kings 17:18). Crying out to God and covering the child with his body three times, Elijah resuscitated the boy.

After picking up the mantle of his teacher, the prophet Elisha also was able to return a dead child to a woman who sought his help. Like Elijah, he lay on the child and the child became warm. The prophet then walked around the room and bent over the child once more and the child “sneezed seven times,” a sure sign of life (2 Kings 4:35). These stories tell us, as the widow of Zarephath declared; “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (I Kings 17:24).

We are outside the gate of a town once more. Again, a man of God meets a widow. While there are direct references to I Kings 17 this exchange is far different. Jesus sees the widow and knows her situation. He seems to know that this was her only son. Jesus does not wait for her to approach him. He enters into this most private of moments and stops the funeral procession. What would be your reaction if a stranger walked in during the funeral of one of your parents and stopped the proceedings?

The author most definitely wants the readers to recall the stories of Elijah and Elisha, but unlike the prophets who had to touch the dead boys, this man who is a far greater prophet need only touch the bier on which the dead man lies. He does not cry out to God. Rather, he only has to tell the man to rise and the man sits up and begins to speak. Elijah “gave him to his mother” (I Kings 17:23), and Jesus “gave him to his mother” (Luke 17:15). Then like the widow, the crowd who witnessed this resuscitation declared, “A great prophet has risen among us!” (Luke 17:16).

The sick are made well, the dead return to life, all signs helping the crowds, helping us, to understand whom this man of God truly is. It would seem that disciples of John the Baptizer were in this crowd for they returned to John and reported these amazing events. John had told the crowds that “one who is more powerful than I is coming” (Luke 3:16). They are left to wonder, “Are you the one who is to come?” (Luke 7:19).

This is a wonderful story, but it is not easy for us to hear because so many of us have been in the position of the widow. We have lost people we dearly love, and there was not a prophet to touch their bier and bring the dead back to life. We are invited to reflect upon how Jesus continues to heal our pain and our sorrow as we look toward the gift of eternal life.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:17-24

Juliana Claassens

Deprivation and despair are two words that come to mind when reading the stories narrated in 1 Kings 17.

Just before the text of Elijah healing the Widow of Zarephath’s son that is the lectionary text for this week, Elijah, fleeing for his life and living in exile, is sent to Zarephath where God tells him a widow will provide him with food. However at Zarephath, Elijah only encounters more desperation and a profound lack of resources. The widow he finds there is in no position to care for this prophet on the run. Rather, she and her son are dying themselves. At the brink of starvation, she discloses that she is actually busy preparing a last meal with the last few morsels of food left. After that she expects them to die from starvation.

As widow, this woman has known her share of misery. She has lost her husband and is struggling to care for her child. Together with the poor, foreigners and orphans, widows indeed could be characterized as persons whom Judith Butler describes as being in a state of precarity “in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death” (Frames of War, 25).

A compelling perspective to explore in this week’s lectionary reading is how it is exactly in situations of extreme need that God’s grace breaks in. God who provided Elijah with food by means of the unclean ravens in 1 Kings 17:4-6, now provides food to Elijah by first feeding the widow and her child. But if the reader thinks all is well, he/she is mistaken. The lectionary reading for today ironically starts with the very son of the widow who was just, in the previous periscope, saved by God’s gracious provision of food from a certain starvation death, dying for real when it is said that he was so gravely ill that “there was no breath left in him (v 17). However, continuing the irony, the mother who only a couple of verses earlier was too tired to continue making a living in a very precarious situation, who expressed a death wish and was ready to give up, now is adamant that she will not let her son die. Something has happened to this woman. Transformed by her encounter with Elijah, as well as strengthened by the steady supply of food provided by God, this widow has found once more the will to live not only for herself but also for her son.

In an interesting article on grieving mothers and the role of religion, Amy Kamalkofsky highlights the many instances in the Hebrew Bible of women weeping over their children. Zion lamenting for her dying children in the book of Lamentations, Rachel weeping inconsolably for her dead children in Jeremiah 31:15 and Rizpah mourning day and night over the bodies of her murdered sons in 2 Samuel 21 all show instances of women who respond religiously and creatively to the death of their children. But in 1 Kings 17, this mother does not want to sing a dirge over her dead son. Rather she demonstrates a remarkable measure of agency when she turns to the prophet to ask him to save her child. For Kamalkofsky, this story is an example of the role of religion in a time of bereavement that entails an active role for women, when as in the case of the widow, she turns to the particular religious representative in her community in order to intercede on behalf of her son, so resolutely willing life in a situation of death (“Women of God,” 61-67).

The widow of Zarephath’s religious response in 1 Kings 17 moreover reflects a deeply challenging type of faith when this bereaved mother asks difficult questions regarding her religion’s understanding regarding sin, suffering, disease and death. She sharply challenges Elijah, whom she addresses as “man of God,” overtly accusing him that it is Elijah’s presence that brought her sin under the attention of God which ultimately is responsible for the death of her son (v 18). It is the widow’s charge that in turn leads Elijah to confront God when he chastises God for bringing calamity upon the widow by killing her son (v 20). 

However, God responds to this challenge of these two beleaguered individuals by revealing God’s true self. In these stories of deprivation, one finds the wonderful image of a God who Heals, who in conjunction with the God who Feeds in the previous pericopes bring life in a most precarious situation. So God is portrayed in 1 King 17:22 as listening to Elijah’s prayer for the son that the NRSV translates beautifully as “the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.” Elijah gives back a son who is alive to his mother, which causes her to recognize the acts of a Living God who brings life in situations of death.

The widow’s belief in a life-giving Deliverer God is clearly seen in the confession of the widow in 1 King 17:24: “Now I know that you are a man of God.” The God who is proclaimed in this pericope is indeed a God who transforms despair and mourning into laughter and hope.

But the widow’s confession, “You are a man of God,” also suggests that to actively work for ways in which to resist and counter those forces that impede life is to embody the work of God. So it is significant to keep in mind that Elijah himself is in an exceedingly desperate situation, fleeing for his life with no food and no shelter. Nevertheless, he is still able to act as God’s hands and feet on earth when he, as well as the widow and her son who are in equally dire straits, end up caring for one another. This is a great example of Judith Butler’s point than individuals and groups who lead a precarious existence, should work together forming alliances and showing solidarity with one another’s plight (Butler, Precarious Life, 43-49).

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16

Michael J. Chan

The widow of Zarephath labors under a death sentence.

This shapes her words and her behaviors: “I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die” (1 Kings 17:12). Like Hagar before her (Genesis 21:16), the unnamed widow of Zarephath has resigned herself to the fact that she and her child are on a slow descent to the underworld. In great despair, Elijah finds the widow preparing for her own “last supper.” As the Elijah narratives indicate, however, the God of Israel specializes in feeding the hungry (1 Kings 17:1-7) and raising the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24). And this story is no exception.

As in the story immediately preceding it, Elijah is driven to a new place by the word of the Lord (1 Kings 17:2, 8-9). On the surface, these are places of barrenness and scarcity. In the prior account, for instance, Elijah is commanded, “hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith” (1 Kings 17:3) east of the Jordan. The Wadi Cherith provides Elijah with water, and God enlists ravens to bring the prophet bread and meat, morning and evening (1 Kings 17:6). Creation is summoned to provide for God’s faithful prophet. In 17:8-16, God commands Elijah to go to Zarephath, where a widow (who replaces the ravens) is commanded to feed him. Upon his arrival, Elijah discovers that the widow is an unlikely source of hospitality. In fact, she is so short on food that she is preparing for her own death (1 Kings 17:12).

After arriving at Zarephath, Elijah commands the widow to bring him a little water and a morsel of bread (1 Kings 17:10-11). Swearing an oath, she confronts the prophet directly with the hard facts of her situation: “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” The widow sharply contradicts what Elijah knows by a promise: “I have commanded a widow there to feed you” (1 Kings 17:9). And it is in the midst of this contradiction that God will have an opportunity to act.

But let’s reflect first on Elijah’s words. He speaks crazy talk. When his eyes see only scarcity, he talks about abundance. The prophet assumes provision, when the widow’s words speak only of desolation. Elijah brings a word of faith into a moment of deep fear and resignation. After hearing about the widow’s preparations for death, Elijah gives the widow the same word of promise God gave to Hagar: “Fear not” (1 Kings 17:13; cf. Genesis 21:17). The prophet goes on to speak as if the promise of God was already fulfilled: “Do not be afraid … but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son” (1 Kings 17:13). Elijah’s words, although seemingly absurd, actually invite the widow to participate in the new reality God’s promises were creating, but which for the moment remain hidden from view.

Elijah then further clarifies God’s promises: “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth” (1 Kings 17:14). God will provide the widow and her son the means to survive this terrible drought, for which God is responsible (cf. 1 Kings 17:1-7). Like Hagar and her son, this widow and her son were not forgotten by the God of Israel, who notices the loss of even one sparrow (Matthew 10:29-31). Once condemned to hunger, death, and suffering, the widow is given a new word that nullifies her original death sentence. Death is swallowed up in promise, despair in hope. The reversal of death in this story (vv. 8-16) anticipates the literal reversal of death in the next (vv. 17-24).

Animating this story is the painful contradiction between God’s word of promise and a death sentence. Elijah’s ministry in this story is to bring a word from the outside that silences and finally nullifies the death sentence resting over the head of the widow and her son. This gracious gift of salvation comes in the form of sustenance — daily bread. While most of us will not find ourselves preaching to drought-afflicted persons, we will be preaching to people who live in various ways under a death sentence. And like Elijah, we are also called to bring a sustaining word of promise from the outside.


Commentary on Psalm 30

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Because I am a Psalms scholar, I am always on the lookout for where and when the Psalms show up, whether it be in worship or in the public arena.

While preparing to write this essay, I heard Psalm 30:5b quoted twice. First, on the morning after the 2016 Iowa Caucuses, one of the four or five self-declared “winners” commented on his “victory” by proclaiming, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Second, I heard a sermon preached on John 11:28-44 by a pastor, who was very active in the protests in Ferguson, MO following the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr., and who remains active in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Focusing particularly on John 11:35 (“Jesus wept.”), he suggested that a primary role of pastors nowadays is to weep with victims of injustice and violence in Ferguson and elsewhere. But, he added, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”1

The contrast between these two episodes involving Psalm 30 is instructive. In the first instance, a powerful and prosperous politician adopts Psalm 30:5b to celebrate something that he perceives has contributed to his increasing good fortune. In the second instance, Psalm 30:5b is cited on behalf of victims of persistent injustice, in order to articulate hope in the midst of current and ongoing struggle. Which of the two episodes represents a more faithful use of Psalm 30? At first glance, it might seem to be the first (although the psalmist was in a life-threatening situation, unlike the politician in question — see vv. 3, 9). As in other psalms of thanksgiving, the psalmist seems to have left setback and suffering behind — “you have drawn me up” (v. 1), “you have healed me” (v. 2), “you brought up my soul from Sheol” (v. 3), “you have turned my mourning into dancing” (v. 11). It seems that everything from here on will be onward and upward — joyful celebration and dancing (vv. 5, 11).

But not so fast! While such a triumphalistic reading of Psalm 30 is attractive, there are reasons to pause. James L. Mays suggests that it is possible to hear Psalm 30 much too simplistically — that is, it is possible to conclude that Psalm 30 suggests that if we pray fervently for help, we will be delivered, and suffering will be a thing of the past. But such confidence seems to be dangerously close to the false confidence described in v. 6. Given this recognition, plus the fact that the faithful pray-ers of the psalmic prayers are regularly beset by opposition and immersed in suffering, it is not likely that the psalmist’s experience led him or her to conclude that he or she would never again have to suffer.

Rather, what the psalmist has learned is that God is “my helper” (v. 10) in every experience of life, including life’s worst. This being the case, praise and thanksgiving (see vv. 4, 9, 12) become more than momentary responses to deliverance and good fortune. In essence, they become a way of life. As Mays puts it:

Praise is the way the faithfulness of the LORD becomes word and is heard in the LORD’s world (v. 9). For people, it is the language of joy and gladness that goes with life and is life in contrast to the silence of death (v. 12). And salvation is here understood as reaching its goal, not just in the restoration of the needy, but finally in the praise of God.2

Because to live is to praise, and to praise is to live, the second episode described above seems more closely to represent the psalmist’s experience — that is, the experience of joy, praise, and gratitude (vv. 4, 5b, 11-12) in the midst of whatever life may bring, including current and ongoing struggle.

For the psalmist, the silence of death (see “not be silent” in v. 12) is not the final word. God’s life-giving power is ultimately determinative of his or her existence. The psalmist’s hope, if we were to transpose it into Christian terms, might be called something like “resurrection-power” (see the Old Testament and Gospel Lessons for the day — 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17). To affirm our faith in the resurrection does not mean that we will avoid struggle and suffering. Indeed, faithfulness to God regularly evokes opposition and suffering; and it is faith in the resurrection that empowers us to bear the cross (see Mark 8:34). Perhaps this is what the author of Hebrews means when he describes Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).

In Luke 6:21, we hear the same trust in the ultimate triumph of life as God intends it. Luke’s version of Jesus’ Beatitudes includes, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” The influence of Psalm 30:5b is evident. Echoing the psalmist, Jesus proclaims hope and promises life in the midst of current and ongoing struggle.

Psalm 30:9 is often interpreted as the psalmist’s appeal to God’s self-interest (see Psalms 6:5; 88:10-12) — that is, God will have one less worshipper if the psalmist dies. Perhaps this interpretation is correct; however, I prefer to hear v. 9 primarily as an expression of the psalmist’s deep appreciation for God’s gift of life, along with his or her commitment to live for God. And as the psalmist has come to understand, amid tears or triumph, to live for God will mean to “give thanks to you forever” (v. 12). To live is to praise God, and to praise God is to live.


1 Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a sermon preached in the Wehrli Chapel, Eden Theological Seminary, Webster Groves, MO, Feb. 25, 2016.

2 James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 141; emphasis added.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 1:11-24

Audrey West

“God called me through his grace.”

If the apostle Paul had possessed a Twitter account, he might have wished for that as a trending message on social media. Not in order to brag (although some people might read it that way), but rather because the assertion characterizes the heart of his identity: he has been called by God to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:1).

It is not a job for which he applied, nor was he looking to make a substantial change in his life’s direction.

Nevertheless, “God called me through his grace” is shorthand for Paul’s spiritual autobiography. It stands for a dramatic transformation — from persecutor to preacher — and gives evidence of the hand of God at work in his life.

This fundamental conviction, that he has been called by God, anchors Paul’s faith story. He tells that story in order to remind the Galatians of their own experience of “the one who called you in the grace of Christ” (Galatians 1:6; cf. 5:7, 5:13).

What is at stake?

Our pericope stands between Paul’s opening words of dismay at the situation in Galatia, and his extended description of encounters with the apostolic leaders in Jerusalem and Antioch. Most of the rest of the letter hinges on Paul’s interpretation of the Abraham/Sarah/Hagar story and its implications for his arguments about Torah.

His purpose in writing is to dissuade the Galatians from turning away from the freedom of the gospel that he preached. Paul fears they are being led astray by believers who have twisted the gospel for their own ends, “to make a good showing in the flesh, so that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12).

Presumably, one group of Jesus-followers (Jewish) is telling another group of Jesus-followers (Gentile) that they are not fully members of the family of God unless they adhere to the same practices; in this case, circumcision (for the men). They make this claim, Paul accuses, in order to look good in the eyes of their compatriots.

The question at stake is this: do the Gentile Galatians have to become Jewish (as were Jesus, the first disciples, Paul, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, etc.) in order to be part of the family of God? Absolutely not, says Paul. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6).

It’s a God thing

Paul asserts a three-fold “proof” that the gospel is from God: (1) he did not receive it from any other person; (2) nobody taught it to him; (3) he received it through a revelation (apocalypsis) of Jesus Christ.

Lest the Galatians remain unconvinced, Paul offers his curricula vitae of Jewish credentials.

If anyone knows how to interpret Torah, it would be Paul. Before he knew Christ he exceeded his peers as an exemplary Jew. His was a fanatic for his faith. Today, in terms of his “pre-Christ” days, he might be called a “religious terrorist,” one who seeks to destroy people whom he believes to be opposed to the ways of God (Galatians 1:13-14; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-10).1

Everything changed when God “was pleased to reveal his Son in me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:16. Greek is en emoi = “in me.”) The change was dramatic, and Paul now proclaims the faith he once tried to destroy (Galatians 1:22).

A high(er) authority

Paul’s claims can sound a little over the top, even arrogant or egotistical. It may be helpful to recall, however, that Paul’s self-presentation was conventional in his day. It reassured his listeners (they heard the letter being read aloud) that he had the credentials to speak with authority.

One could compare the remarks made in introducing a public speaker, or the laudatory comments on the back cover of a book. In the right context, these are designed to persuade listeners and readers that this is a person worthy of their regard.

Going everywhere to see nobody

The second part of our pericope (Galatians 1:16b-24) comprises a summary of Paul’s travels after his revelation of Jesus. One might expect a list of friends in high places, or evidence of his spreading fame as further proof that the Galatians should listen to him. Instead Paul offers a somewhat rambling itinerary of encounters (or non-encounters!) with the leading apostles and churches of Judea.

He conferred with none of them initially, waiting more than three years before visiting with Cephas for a couple of weeks and meeting James. Nobody recognized him; he was “unknown by sight to the churches of Judea” (Galatians 1:22).

The vow in verse 20 (“In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!”) suggests perhaps that somebody has accused him of disregarding rules established by the apostolic leaders of predominantly Jewish churches in Judea. Paul’s point seems to be that he does not answer to other apostles, nor to any other human authority. He cannot disregard their instructions, because he never met with them. (And even when he eventually does meet with the leaders, he reports, they added nothing to his message (Galatians 2:6).)

God’s call was for him to share the good news. So that is what he did.

Points of connection

Paul was arguably the most influential Christ-follower who never laid eyes on the earthly Jesus. He shares his faith story in order to encourage the Galatians to examine their own experiences for signs of God’s call. Indeed, later in the letter he offers a few examples: they heard the good news, and experienced the Spirit in their midst and the working of miracles (Galatians 3:1-5).

Preachers of this text might open up the stories of the congregation and encourage listeners to consider in their own lives the ways that God has called them. Undoubtedly, some of those will be dramatic, life-altering experiences, while others will be much more mundane. Where are moments of transformation? When did a life change direction? How might God be calling these particular Jesus-followers for the purpose of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ?


1 I first heard the earlier Paul described as a “religious terrorist” in A. Katherine Grieb, “The One who Called you … ”: Vocation and Leadership in the Pauline Literature,” in Interpretation, April 2005, 157.