Lectionary Commentaries for June 2, 2013
Second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 7:1-10

Jeannine K. Brown

Centurions show up rather frequently in the Gospels and in Acts (e.g. Luke 7:2; 23:47; Acts 10:1; cf. Luke 3:14).

This in itself is not surprising, since centurions would have been a part of the Roman occupation force in Judea and Galilee in the first century. What is surprising is that these representatives of Roman occupation are portrayed in quite positive ways in the New Testament and here in Luke 7:1-10. They end up responding to Jesus and his kingdom message with a recognition of his identity and, sometimes, with faith.

The centurion in Luke 7:1-10 fits this surprising profile. He is a Gentile (and presumably Roman, although not all members of the Roman army were ethnically Roman), who seeks Jesus out for the healing of his slave. This oppressor of the Jewish people initiates a conversation with a Jewish healer. He sends Jewish elders to speak on his behalf to Jesus to prove that he has been a patron of the Jewish people (7:3). Then he sends his friends to keep Jesus from coming to his house, expressing confidently and with an analogy from his own role in the Roman army that this Jewish healer, Jesus, is able heal from a distance (7:6-8).

Conversely, Jesus is cast in the unlikely role of responder and not initiator in this passage. When asked to heal the slave, he goes with the Jewish elders (7:6). He responds in amazement at the centurion’s confidence that Jesus needn’t actually come to his house to heal his slave: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (7:9). And finally, Jesus heals the servant, although this is not narrated explicitly (7:10).

Nevertheless, Luke’s reader has been prepared for this surprising portrait of one from the Roman occupation army coming in faith to Jesus for healing. In Luke’s programmatic introduction to Jesus’ ministry (4:16-30), Jesus has preached a message from Isaiah about restoration that references Elisha’s healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14). Jesus speaks of ‘hometown rejection’ that leads the Old Testament prophet Elisha to heal not the many people in Israel who had leprosy but instead an army commander of Aram, a country hostile to Israel (2 Kings 5:2). And because Elisha heals this Gentile and military enemy, Naaman comes to acknowledge, “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (5:15).

Returning to the passage in Luke 7:1-10, the primary characterization that Luke offers of this enemy of Israel is faith that surpasses what Jesus has seen in Israel (7:9). The centurion’s faith is apparent in his understanding of Jesus’ God-given authority to heal and to do so even from a distance. “For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it” (7:8).

Centurions had a middling role in the hierarchy of the Roman army, put in charge of about 80 soldiers but situated below those who commanded cohorts (consisting of six centuries) and legions (consisting of ten cohorts). The inclusion of “also” at the beginning of verse 8 suggests an analogy between the authority of centurion and Jesus’ authority. As the centurion is given authority from above to command those under him, so the implication is that Jesus has an authority from God that he can enact by simply by saying the word. The centurion’s faith in Jesus’ authority proves to be well placed when Jesus heals his slave without visiting his home (7:10).

Somehow, it seems fitting in this surprising story that Jesus himself is surprised and amazed at the trust this centurion demonstrates (7:9). He is surprised to find faith in a centurion that surpasses what he has seen in anyone from Israel. And we can learn something from Jesus’ own surprise at the specter of an enemy soldier proving to be a model of faith for the people of God. Maybe we should not be surprised by the unlikely places that faith shows up in our own world. It could even show up in those we think are our enemies.

As we preach this passage and drive this point home, we should be careful not to mitigate possible tension arising in our audiences from Jesus healing on behalf of an enemy soldier. If we only highlight the centurion as a person with faith in Jesus, our congregations might miss how surprising this scenario is in Jesus’ (and Luke’s) context. We can remind them that this man, although he has proven to be a friend to the Jewish people by building their synagogue, still represents Roman (enemy) occupation.

Like the people of Nazareth who respond to the story of Elisha and Naaman with anger and rage (4:28), people might respond less than positively if we preach that Jesus cares about, ministers to, and wants to bless our enemies. Moreover, according to this surprising story, God can use those we perceive as our enemies to teach us about true faith. In the end, this story is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:27: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

Cameron B.R. Howard

Last year’s lectionary cycle included longer selections from 1 Kings 8, at the heart of which is Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Jerusalem temple (1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11] 22-30, 41-43).

In this week’s reading, only five verses are appointed: verses 22-23 present a sliver of Solomon’s opening address in the prayer, and verses 41-43 record one of seven petitions offered over the course of the prayer. What follows is a partial reproduction and reworking of the Year B commentary on the prayer as a whole, followed by additional reflections that focus on the particular petition found at verses 41-43.

Have you ever heard a public prayer in a worship service do “double duty,” announcing something to the congregation even while ostensibly addressing God in praise, confession, thanksgiving, or petition? “Thank you, God, for opportunities for fellowship, including the supper coming up this Wednesday at 6 p.m., for which everyone will bring a dish to share…” “Lord, please watch over our brother George, who was admitted to County Hospital Room 304 last night around 11 p.m. with chest pains…” While communal prayer necessarily and desirably communicates something to the participants as well as to God, there is a danger that we can allow our prayers to disintegrate into community announcements that we merely allow God to overhear.

Having addressed the assembly of Israel in the preceding verses, Solomon now turns toward the altar with his hands toward heaven to address God (8:22-53). He has physically oriented his whole self toward the deity. This bodily posture underscores the depth of focus of this prayer; speech to the congregation has ended, speech to God has begun. The clear delineation between Solomon’s prayer (verses 22-53) and the two addresses to the assembly that surround it (verses 14-21 and 54-61) highlights Solomon’s singularity of focus even in this public, liturgical setting. Solomon’s public prayer reminds us that God is always worthy of our full attention and address, not the remnants of our conversations.

Despite the fact that Solomon’s prayer is clearly separated from his speeches to the assembly, the text of the prayer itself is not without an agenda. Its language is thickly Deuteronomic, emphasizing covenant, steadfast love, and the fulfillment of promises made to David. For the author to have this language on the lips of Solomon helps to advocate for a particular worldview that runs through the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings.

Solomon’s accomplishment of constructing the Temple receives its primary theological importance from the notion that the Temple is a place where a worshiper knows that God can be encountered. Verse 27 emphasizes, however, that the Temple is not God’s “dwelling place” in the sense of “permanent residence”: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (8:27). This interjection highlights the fact that God is present and accessible in this place, yet not boxed in.1

This week’s appointed reading includes one out of seven petitions offered by Solomon in this lengthy prayer. First Kings 8:41-43 asks that even foreigners who pray toward God’s house have their prayers heard and answered. Throughout the prayer the frequent repetition of the phrase “your people Israel” emphasizes the identity of Israel as God’s chosen covenant community. The lectionary’s focus on these verses about foreigners should not detract from the fact that Solomon’s prayer understands Israel alone as God’s chosen people. In fact, the prayer ends with the declaration that “you have separated them from among all the peoples of the earth, to be your heritage…” (1 Kings 8:53a).

At the same time, this petition proclaims that even those “not of your people Israel” will hear of the greatness of the LORD and come to the temple to offer prayers. By heeding the prayers of foreigners as well as Israelites, according to Solomon’s rationale, God will cause the peoples of the earth to know and fear the God of Israel, and “they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:43). In other words, reverence from foreigners helps to show that, out of all the national deities being claimed by various peoples, the God of Israel is the most powerful one, and the house Solomon has built is where that God dwells. Solomon’s own international reputation is tied up with God’s; if Solomon’s God is a winner, so must be Solomon.

Preachers might consider human kingship and divine kingship, the relationship between chosenness and openness, evangelism, or even the functions of worship spaces in their reflections on verses 41-43 of Solomon’s prayer. There may also be some particularly fruitful dialogue possible between this text and portions of the book of Isaiah. The reflection on the role of non-Israelites in the glorification of the God of Israel in 1 Kings resonates with similar language in Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), the portions of the book of Isaiah dating immediately before the Judeans’ return from Babylonian exile. That text describes Israel, redeemed from exile, as “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6b).

God’s work in Israel promotes God’s glorification and salvific work in the rest of the world. The text goes on, “Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’” (49:7). Again, God’s actions with Israel showcase both the glory of God and the status of God’s chosen people in the world.2

1For a helpful discussion of the nuanced implications of God’s “enthronement” in this passage, see C.L. Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” NIB 3:68-79.

2See J. Kaminsky and A. Stewart, “God of All the World: Universalism and Developing Monotheism in Isaiah 40-66,” HTR 99.2 (2006): 139-63. They make the important point that “universal recognition” of Israel’s God in Deutero-Isaiah “does not equal a universal conversion to the worship” of Israel’s God (140).

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 18:20-21 [22-29] 30-39

Roger Nam

450 v. 1 is truly no contest.

Prophetic ministry in ancient Israel is quite the multifaceted life. Our modern perceptions often perceive prophetic ministry as lonely and contemplative, analogous to a type of desert spirituality associated with Isaiah 40:3 (“a voice crying out in the wilderness.”)

Most significantly, Christians typically correlate prophetic activity to predictions. Whereas prophecy can certainly be contemplative and predictive, this week’s reading reminds us that prophetic life is also active, vibrant, exhausting, and requiring of grit and determination.

Elijah begins the narrative by asking, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (verse 20a). The question is pertinent, honest, and urgent. And despite the gravity, the answer was an underwhelming silence: “The people did not answer him a word” (verse 20b). I suppose that anyone on planet earth who has taught a class or a Bible study can relate.

The lackadaisical response of the people could have frustrated Elijah. But instead of sorrow, contemplation, nor portending of future disaster, Elijah pulls himself to action. Within this brief passage, and a hostile environment, Elijah does the following:

  • Summons the people (verse 30)
  • Repairs the altar of YHWH (verse 30)
  • Builds an altar with stones (verse 32)
  • Digs a sizeable trench (verse 32)
  • Arranges the offering wood (verse 33)
  • Slaughters a bull (verse33)

These tasks are significant physical undertakings. (Have you ever dug a sizeable hole in the ground or slaughtered a bull?). These actions augment the tenacious spirit of the prophet in his mocking of the 450 Baal prophets. In the midst of a religious crisis, the prophet undergoes extensive activity to prepare for the contest against Baal.

As a result, the people begin to respond much differently to the words of Elijah. Remember back in verse 20 that “the people did not answer him a word.” That silent response contrasts with the alert and eager responses of the people in verses 30-39, where the people suddenly respond to Elijah with great alacrity. Perhaps the flurried activity of Elijah inspires a similar response from the people of Israel.

  • And Elijah said… “Draw near to me,” and all the people drew near to him (verse 30).
  • And he said, “Fill four jugs of water, and pour it on the whole burnt offering and on the wood!” (they did it; verse 33)
  • And he said “Do it again!” and they did it again (verse 34a)
  • And he said “Do it a third time” and they did it a third time.” (verse 34b)

Elijah and the people of Israel have matched the fervent activity of their Baal opponents. But despite all of these actions, the prayer of Elijah does not center on this activity, nor the obedience of the people. Rather, the prophet highlights the character of God, and the nature of his relationship to God. Elijah acknowledges God, the connection with the patriarchs, and the prophet’s divine servanthood.

By turning to God, the contest is no longer contest. The strength of the Lord goes far beyond the many prophets. In recognizing this, Elijah boldly invokes God to “Answer me, that this people may know that you, YHWH, are God, and you have turned their heart back” (verse 37).

Now, after the prophet is moved to word and deed, the people answer. And then at the culmination of the passage, God answers, and he answers big! He shows that he is indeed the Lord of Creation by bringing down fire to consume the burnt offering, the wood, the stone, the dirt and the water in the trench. This fire burns with ferocity beyond the normal physics of fire. God has indeed answered.

This passage teaches us that the strength of God prevails in any contest. By exhorting God, Elijah acknowledges that he himself cannot defeat the 450 prophets of Baal. But it should be remembered that Elijah did all of the tough activity that we often do not subscribe to prophetic activity. In the end, that activity was enough to bring about victory, perhaps not because it was efficacious, but because it was able to put the prophet and the people in a place to really look to God and not themselves.

When we are hurried, stressed, overwhelmed by our own whirlwind of activity, we can be inspired by the passage, not in our own actions. But by them, together with the people of Israel, we can fall on our faces and victoriously proclaim, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God” (verse 39).


Commentary on Psalm 96:1-9

Jerome Creach

Psalm 96:1-9 calls all people of the earth and indeed the earth itself to sing praise to God and to worship God in God’s temple.

This section of the psalm is dominated by imperatives that call forth that praise: “sing to the Lord;” “tell of his salvation;” “declare his glory;” “ascribe glory and strength;” and “worship the Lord.” The opening call to sing a “new song” does not elicit a song with fresh lyrics or music, but a song with universal scope that declares the extent of God’s sovereignty. Such a song is new is that it “breaks out of the category of space and time and embraces all things.”[1] Although the song appears on the lips of God’s people who worship in the temple, it recognizes God’s guidance of and reign over all creatures.

The reason for the praise the psalm evokes is the identification of God as the one true lord of heaven and earth, the maker of all things (verses 4-6). The song originated in a time and place in which many deities were recognized. Every nation had its gods and claimed them to have sovereignty. The Babylonians, for example, declared that their chief deity, Marduk, created the earth and ruled over it.

Psalm 96:5 declares, however, that Marduk and the other gods are merely idols. That is, the images that represented them were the extent of their reality. Only God was real and powerful and therefore worthy of praise. With this claim Psalm 96 stands close to Second Isaiah who proclaims that Israel’s God is the true creator and only this God has sovereignty over the earth (Isaiah 40:18-20).

Psalm 96:7-9 are almost identical to Psalm 29:1-2. It is possible that Psalm 96 borrowed this section from Psalm 29. If that is the case, however, Psalm 96 has altered the language to fit its context. While Psalm 29 is set in the heavenly realm, with its call for the heavenly beings to ascribe glory to God, Psalm 96 addresses those gathered in the earthly temple. Indeed, Psalm 96:7-9 invites all humankind to “ascribe” strength and glory to the Lord and to offer in his courts worship that is appropriate for the sovereign God.

Psalm 96:1-9, with its testimony of God’s rule over the earth (see also verse 10, “The Lord reigns!”), is part of a grouping of psalms that focus on the reign of God (see Psalms 93, 95-99). These psalms are sometimes categorized as “enthronement psalms” because of they speak of God’s eternal kingship. This psalm and the larger group of enthronement psalms appear in a section of the book of Psalms (Book IV, Psalms 90-106) that seems to be organized to deal with the theological crisis of the Babylonian exile in 587 BCE.

The theological crisis is expressed in many of the psalms that precede this section (Book III, Psalms 73-89). Such psalms painfully related doubts about Israel’s core beliefs (the central role of Jerusalem and the Davidic king in God’s plan, for example). But Psalm 96 along with the other enthronement psalms reminded those who doubted that God was still in control, that God is the one who “made the heavens” (96:5) and therefore God is able to secure the future for God’s people.

What is striking about the claims of Psalm 96 is how untrue many of the statements in the psalm might have seemed to those who spoke them. The people of Judah were constantly at the mercy of enemy nations all around them. Their history started, of course, with slavery in Egypt. After being delivered from bondage and entering the land God promised them they struggled with the Philistines, the Edomites, Ammonites, and the Moabites. Eventually they would be destroyed and exiled by the likes of Assyria and Babylon.

Even in the glory days of David and Solomon these people lived in a small and rather insignificant kingdom in comparison with the great empires of their day. In light of that fact, it may seem rather silly to claim that Israel’s God is “feared above all gods” (verse 4). On what event or events did Israel base its claim to a unique place in the world order? How could Israel claim that its God was king over all the earth?

The answer to these questions lays in the fact that Israel, and later the church, understood their claims of God’s kingship as a future reality. They understood God’s reign eschatologically, as something to come, to be fulfilled when God brings creation to its fruition. The liturgical celebration of God’s reign, therefore, celebrates something that is not fully evident right now. But that does not mean this psalm, or any other liturgy, presents a false hope or a naive view of the world.

Rather, it gives a way to state and restate what God’s people believe about the world. Most importantly, what the psalm says about the world to come shapes the way God’s people live right now. This is the power of liturgy, and the power of Psalm 96. The proclamation only makes sense, however, when it is made in the company of other believers. Together we declare what we believe about the world. As we do, we create a community that not only believes in God’s reign with the head, but also responds to God’s kingdom with the heart. To live as though we belong to the kingdom of God means that we work to bring justice and well-being, just as God also is working.

Psalm 96:1-9 appears in the lectionary on the second Sunday after Pentecost. That liturgical location gives yet another crucially important focus to the interpretation. Pentecost for the first Christians was marked by an outpouring of God’s Spirit that empowered them to proclaim the Good News so that all people might hear, understand, and respond (Acts 2:5-42). As a psalm for the time after Pentecost, Psalm 96:1-9 likewise invites all the creatures of the earth to declare the glory of God. For the church, God’s glory is known most clearly in Jesus Christ.

[1] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150: A Continental Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 252.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 1:1-12

Mary Hinkle Shore

If you have ever returned a rental car, you have driven over those spikes that are made to ensure that the rental cars are not stolen out of the lot.

The spikes collapse when you drive forward over them, but if you were to back up, the spikes would presumably stay upright and cause, as the sign says, “severe tire damage.” To read Galatians is to witness Paul trying to spare people the damage caused by backing up. The Galatians are easing the car into reverse, and Paul is waving his arms and shouting, “No!” In the first chapter of the letter, Paul tells his own story and hints at what is at stake for his readers.

First about Paul: even in his first line, Paul insists that his call to be an apostle is directly from Christ. His credentials and his gospel are not derivative. They are not in any way dependent on or mediated by people who were close to Jesus during his ministry or who might have proclaimed the gospel to Paul after Christ’s resurrection. Paul’s gospel and his authority to preach come directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father.

Paul needs neither preaching material nor marching orders from humans. Moreover, he says, he requires no stamp of approval after the fact. If he wanted human approval, he would certainly be doing something besides being a slave of Christ.

So begins Paul’s letter to the Galatians. If Paul sounds defensive here, it may be because he is being attacked. Readers of the letter theorize that teachers who had come to Galatia after Paul left are questioning Paul’s connection to Jesus. One imagines the new teachers talking about the former one: “Paul of Tarsus? Who is he? Paul was not with Jesus in Galilee. Why should you listen to him about what Jesus taught or expected of those who would follow him? You say he told you that you did not need to be circumcised or keep the law of Moses? Where did he get that? He was probably just trying to make things easy for you, to be popular. He sounds like a people pleaser.”

Today, some people imagine that Jesus was more compassionate and inclusive than Paul and so they question Paul’s influence in the shape Christianity took. The teachers who followed Paul to Galatia, however, have the opposite problem with Paul. The teachers are not claiming that Paul is too restrictive in his ethical demands on new converts, but that he is not restrictive enough!

The “new teaching” in Galatia is that gentiles who want to follow the Jewish messiah, Jesus, must become Jews. Jesus is, after all, the Jewish messiah. All are welcome into this covenant, the teachers would say, but all must enter into the promises of God as Abraham did, by a process that includes circumcision for males.

In subsequent chapters of the letter, Paul will argue that even Abraham was made right with God by faith and not by circumcision or any other work of the law. In the opening verses of the letter, Paul is more concerned to defend himself. He says he preaches as he does because of an apocalypseos Iesou Christou, a revelation of Jesus Christ (verse 12).

What should we make of this talk of revelation? For apocalyptic Jews like Jesus and Paul, who lived under Roman rule and who looked for God to intervene in history to bring about the redemption of God’s people, resurrection of the dead was a hallmark of the new age. In the spirit of the advice to “Go big or go home,” those who waited for God to intervene dared to hope even for the resurrection of the dead.

The scope of God’s power to be “doing a new thing” (cf. Isaiah 43:19) extended even so far as that! So when Jesus, whom Paul knew to have been crucified, appeared to Paul, Paul realized that this was it: the new age had broken into Paul’s present time and place. God had been and continued to be working in Jesus to fulfill all the promises made to Israel and to reveal God’s self to the Gentiles as well.

Another characteristic of the new age is that everyone would recognize the God of Israel as the one true God (cf. Isaiah 60, for example). There will no longer be any need for a distinction between God’s people (marked by circumcision) and “others” (uncircumcised), so there will be absolutely no need for anyone to change his status from one of those groups to the other. In fact, to attempt to do so would be the same as testifying that the old distinctions still defined reality and that the new age had not, in fact, begun.

That is why Paul addresses the Galatians so forcefully, and why he asserts so vociferously that the gospel he preaches is his “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” If the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of a whole new age, if creation has crossed over those spikes in the rental car lot, as it were, it is foolish and dangerous to try to back up.

The healing and life that Jesus proclaims, enacts, and inspires is precisely the same as the new age Paul knows his readers to be living in. While the centurion in the Gospel reading for this Sunday might not use Paul’s words to describe it, he sees the new age embodied in Jesus. The centurion is a Gentile, of course, though his status as a non-circumcised, non-Jew turns out not to matter for his faith at all. He makes this request of Jesus: “Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7). Jesus recognizes someone stepping into the new age when he hears it, and he welcomes him. No one should attempt to back up from that welcome.