Lectionary Commentaries for May 29, 2016
Second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 7:1-10

Lucy Lind Hogan

There is a question that runs throughout the “orderly account” so carefully and thoughtfully prepared for “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3).

And that question is, “Who then is this?” (Luke 8:25). It is the question asked by shepherds out in a field, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing” (Luke 2:15). It is the question asked by a gathering in a synagogue in Nazareth, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22). It is asked by the followers of John, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:18) Who is this man born in Bethlehem, this teacher, this preacher? How is one to make sense of, to trust what he says and understand what he does?

I have a good friend who often reads mysteries backwards. As she began to read the book she would go to the end and find out “who-did-it.” She could then relax and enjoy the book as it unfolded knowing already how it would turn out. In a way, that is how we read Luke-Acts. We already know the ending of the story. We know that this man will travel through the land teaching and healing. We know that he will be suffer and die on the cross, but that on the third day he will be raised. We know that he will be “carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51) Like the disciples we can worship with great joy because we know that this is a story with a happy ending. We know who he is. We know the answer to the question.

What if we were to try to read this orderly account as if we did not know the end of the story? What if we did try to answer the question afresh, “who then is this?” Do we really know who Jesus is?

The season of Easter and Pentecost has come and gone and the church now moves into Ordinary Time. Over the next few weeks we are going to be reading through an amazing group of stories. They are stories of healings of various kinds, including resuscitation. They provide the church and the preacher with an opportunity for a sermon series exploring this question, “Who then is this?” As R. Alan Culpepper notes in his examination of Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible, these stories explore the proclamation that Jesus is the “Messiah greater than a prophet.”1

The writer of Luke-Acts is much like a reporter in that in each of these stories he explores the traditional questions of who-what-when-where-how. I would argue that it is up to you, the preacher, to explore the “why.” The first story is a story of a healing. But as we shall see in each of the stories over the following weeks, each story has its particular shape and particular theme.

The reading tells us the when — “Jesus had finished all his sayings.” (Luke 7:1) Those sayings would be the “Sermon on the Plain;” the Beatitudes. Jesus had been telling a great crowd what it looks like to be a disciple. He has told them it means to love friend and enemy alike. We are told the where — Jesus finds himself back home in Capernaum. There he is met by a group of the elders from the synagogue. They ask him to heal the slave of a centurion posted in the town. It would seem that Jesus is being asked to practice what he preached.

There are many “who’s” in this story: Jesus, the elders, the centurion (whom we never meet directly), the friends of the centurion, and the sick slave (also whom we never meet). Might we think of the centurion, a gentile, and a representative of the empire that is oppressing the nation, as an enemy?

After the important who, the gentile centurion, perhaps the what and the how are the most intriguing elements in this story. The centurion does not presume to come to Jesus himself. One might wonder if he would not be surprised if Jesus were to refuse to speak to him. Would Jesus want to be seen speaking to a Roman soldier? What would it do to Jesus’ reputation? There are several elements of the what. First, many important members of the community are willing to speak to Jesus on behalf of an outsider. He may not be a Jew, but he should be considered a friend of the Jews as he paid for their synagogue. We also learn more about the centurion from the fact that he is willing to reach out to the rabbi on behalf of his slave. He cares enough about this person to seek Jesus help. (Could it be that his slave is a Jew?) The centurion has heard about and honors the power of this teacher and healer. He also respects Jesus enough to send another delegation to tell Jesus that he does not have to come to the house. We need to remember that Jesus, a rabbi, would be rendered unclean if he were to go into the home of a gentile. The centurion is aware of Jesus’ power. He knows that Jesus only has to “speak the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7).

That is the what of this story. Jesus does speak the word. He does not go to the centurion’s home. He does not touch the slave. The amazing element of this story if that Jesus is the one who is amazed — not the centurion, not the various groups that go to speak with Jesus, but Jesus himself. Jesus is astounded at the faith of this “enemy”, this gentile. This man’s faith engenders a “long-distance” healing.

This is a story about identity and authority. The centurion recognized who Jesus was — did the elders and residents of Capernaum? Jesus does love his enemy. Jesus heals the slave of the centurion because of his owner’s faith. Are we willing to approach Jesus, for ourselves, for our friends, for our enemies? How does this story help us begin to answer the question, “who then is this?”


1 R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995, 153.

First Reading

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

Juliana Claassens

The lectionary reading of this week forms part of a very long section in 1 Kings 8 that comprises Solomon’s dedicatory prayer in the newly constructed temple.

As only a few verses are chosen from this chapter and hence one really only gets a snippet view of the prayer as a whole, it also may be quite interesting to see what is left out in order to get a better sense of the context in which the lectionary selection appears.

The first text suggested by the lectionary is 1 Kings 8:22-23 in which Solomon, before all of Israel stretches out his hands in prayer addressing God with the words: “There is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath.” Within this short introduction, one finds important elements that reflect Israel’s faith. God is One. There is no other God like the God of Israel. God in God’s steadfast love has made a covenant with Israel and expects of the people to be faithful to this One, Incomparable God.

This introduction is followed by a second brief excerpt from Solomon’s prayer. But before turning to these verses in 1 Kings 8:41-43 that really forms the heart of this week’s lectionary reading, one should take cognisance also of what lies in between these two texts. In the almost 20 verses left out, there is a lot of praying (cf. the repeated reference of the verb “to pray” and the noun “prayer”), crying and pleading to God, asking God to hear and to heed the prayers of the believers, as well as to forgive their sins.

Particularly the notion of God’s forgiveness that emerges as an important theme in 1 Kings 8 has to do with the deep-seated belief in Israel that if things are not going well, this is a sign of God’s anger and discontent with regard to Israel’s actions. If one reads carefully, just prior to the second lectionary selection from 1 Kings 8, it is quite evident that things are not well. In v 35 there is reference to a terrible drought with the heavens being shut up that causes tremendous suffering for humans and animals alike. And in v 37, there is mention of famine and of all kinds of pestilences (blight, mildew, locusts, caterpillars) that threaten the crops and hence the food supply in addition to other devastating events such as an enemy attack or an outbreak of plague or disease.

Reading between the lines, this dedicatory prayer of Solomon thus emerges out of a context of pain and suffering. The prayer reveals the believer’s struggle that is trying to make sense of the many unfortunate and even tragic events that all too often broke into the lives of Israel many centuries ago, as it continues to happen also in our time.

It is in this context of struggling to respond religiously to difficult times that one finds the very interesting text that forms part of this week’s lectionary reading. In 1 Kings 8:41-43, it is said that foreigners who have heard from the God of Israel will travel to Israel. There they will pray to God and God will listen to them. This text calls to mind the story of Naaman whose story is told in 2 Kings 5 and who indeed travelled to Elisha in order to be healed from leprosy. Naaman is an example of a foreigner who amidst experience of misfortune turned to God for help.

But this text also has broader interpretative possibilities. The surprising thing about 1 Kings 8:41-43 is that it forms such a sharp contrast to the way foreigners often have been viewed in many communities. In many communities then and now, if tragedy strikes, it must be someone’s fault. History is full of examples of women (as in the witch hunts), gays and lesbians, and ethnic and racial others, who all to some extent can be classified as foreigners, who are blamed for whatever misfortune has befallen the community. Such convictions that often are rooted in deeply ingrained emotions of hatred, fear, and disgust that have the effect of making these individuals quite vulnerable to violence as the community’s anger is directed to the foreigner who is to be expelled from the community in order for peace and prosperity to be restored.

But in 1 Kings 8, it is significant that vv 41-43 speak quite positively about the foreigners who are not to be scapegoated, even in a context of misfortune that precedes this pericope, but rather are elevated and even venerated. The foreigner is said to act as an intercessionary, praying to God with God heeding and hearing his/her voice.

It is significant to note that King Solomon emerges as a wise leader in this text who in his dedicatory prayer frames the presence of the foreigner in our midst in a positive fashion, recognizing their gifts and focusing on the value that these individuals bring to the community. To preach on such a text is especially meaningful in today’s context of the immigrant crisis in Europe as well as anti-immigrant sentiments around the world according to which numerous leaders have been shown to engage in an exclusionary rhetoric verging on violence that all too easily may give way to real violence.

However, of course things are always more complicated. In terms of a postcolonial reading, this text also could be viewed in terms of a hermeneutic of suspicion when Solomon’s prayer and the claim that foreigners will stream to Israel’s God in order to worship the one true God, could also be seen as an expression of the Deuteronomistic tradition that propagated a belief of superiority of Israel and as a result also its God. Even though it is important to understand this ideology as coming from the Deuteronomistic historian who is likely is responding to the crisis of the exile, to uncritically apply such a belief is dangerous in today’s context if employed as a tool of domination, forcing all others into submission.

Alternate First Reading

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

Michael J. Chan

1 Kings 18:20-40 contains one of the most memorable Elijah narratives.

The great prophet of Yhwh summons the prophets of Baal and Asherah (well known deities in Syria-Palestine) at Mount Carmel for a contest of the gods. At stake is Israel’s allegiance to Yhwh (“How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”), and finally whether Israel will heed the first commandment: “You shall have no other God’s before me” (Exodus 20:3).

Elijah begins with an accusatory question addressed to the people: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” 1 Kings 18:21). The people’s unwillingness to choose is exemplified by their lack of a response (v. 21). But for the prophet Elijah, indecision is not religiously neutral ground. They cannot worship both Baal and Yhwh, for to trust the former is to reject the latter. Indecision is not neutral ground. This point is underscored by Elijah’s reference to “limping” (cf. 2 Samuel 4:4). According to him, their indecision is not morally neutral ground; in fact, their unwillingness to choose actually results in self-inflicted injury.

Needless to say, while the people aren’t up for choosing between Baal and Yhwh, they are most certainly up for a battle of the gods (1 Kings 18:22-24). Elijah proposes a contest by fire. He calls for two bulls, cut in pieces, laid on wood. The prophets would then “call on the name of” their respective gods. The God who “answers by fire is indeed God” (v. 24).

As 1 Kings 18:24 suggests, what Elijah is proposing is about much more than mere pyrotechnics. In fact, this narrative isn’t fundamentally a power contest at all. At stake is which God answers prayer. In other words, whom could the people truly trust with their petitions? Which of the two deities would actually deliver on promises? And the narrative makes abundantly clear that there can be only one answer to these questions.

The prophets of Baal do all they can to gain their god’s attention, even to the point of inflicting harm on themselves. They “called on the name of Baal from morning until noon” (1 Kings 18:26), “they cried aloud” (v. 28), they even “cut themselves with swords and lances,” and “they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation” (v. 29). The narrator leaves absolutely no room for doubt about the status of Baal: “there was no voice, no answer, and no response” (v. 29). Elijah loses no time in mocking his opponents: “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). The name of Baal is finally useless, and trust in him is shown to be misplaced.

A similar story is found in Bel and the Dragon, one of the “apocryphal” additions to Daniel. In this story, Daniel proposes a contest, to see if Bel (a title of the Babylonian deity, Marduk) will actually consume the offerings left to him by the priests. Not only does Bel not show any appetite for his meal, Daniel proves that the priests and their families actually eat the meal. After the priests left their offering and the doors of the temple were sealed, Daniel coated the floor of the temple with ashes. In the morning, after opening the sealed temple, the footprints of the priests and their families were found in the temple. Bel, like Marduk, was shown to be no god at all. Polemics against the non-existence of foreign deities was common in late Israelite literature (cf. Isaiah 44:9-20; 45:20-25; 46:1-7).

But Elijah approaches prayer in an entirely different manner to the prophets of Baal. He repairs the altar to Yhwh (1 Kings 18:30), and in a way that brings to mind God’s promises to Israel: “Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord” (vv. 31-32). In a strong allusion to Jacob’s own contest with a “man,” Elijah points to the moment when “Israel” received its name (Genesis 32:29). Elijah, like Jacob, was also engaged in a deadly contest. What gives Elijah prayerful access to the one true God is God’s name and God’s promises. By these alone does Elijah prevail over the prophets of Baal, who have no ground for their hope. What the false prophets find is a god who is hidden, out of sight and out of earshot.


Commentary on Psalm 96:1-9

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

According to 1 Chronicles 16, when David brought the ark to Jerusalem, he also appointed Asaph and other Levites to sing praises to God.

Their praise included Psalm 96 (minus the opening line and several others — see 1 Chronicles 16:22-33). In short, the Chronicler at least suggests the possibility that major portions of Psalm 96 may have been the “new song” called for in Psalm 96:1. If so, I cannot help but wonder if Asaph had to deal with the sort of reaction that pastors often get when they invite and encourage (or perhaps coerce) their congregations to “sing to the LORD a new song” (v. 1): “We didn’t know that hymn, Pastor; we like to the sing the old favorites.” Having no musical ability myself, I had some sympathy for my congregation when I received this response. But, as important as music is, the issue goes much deeper than music. The resistance to singing a new song is almost certainly accompanied by the refusal to consider the possibility that God is capable of, and is indeed doing, new things.

While “a new song” is mentioned elsewhere in the Psalter (see Psalms 33:3; 40:3; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1), it is probably the invitation in Isaiah 42:10 that offers the most significant background for assessing the significance of singing “a new song.” In the immediately preceding verse, the divine voice says this: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.” And in Isaiah 42:6-7, the servant of the LORD — which is almost certainly to be understood as the whole people of God — has apparently been given a new identity and vocation, which is to be “a light to the nations.”

Not surprisingly, there are numerous verbal and conceptual links between Psalm 96 and Isaiah 40-55. In addition to the mention of “a new song,” both Psalm 96 and Isaiah 40-55 proclaim “good tidings”/“good news” (Isaiah 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; “tell” in Psalm 96:2 represents the same Hebrew root); both call attention to God’s reign (Isaiah 52:7: Psalm 96:10); both call for a response of joyful singing (Isaiah 52:8; Psalm 96:12); and in both, God’s work of justice is for the whole world (Isaiah 42:1-4; Psalm 96:7, 10-13). Because Isaiah 40-55 can be dated reliably to the period around 539 BCE when the Edict of Cyrus allowed the exiles to return from Babylon, the “new things” God was doing probably referred most directly to the return from exile. This return, of course, did not involve the re-establishment of the Davidic monarchy. Thus, the “new things” God was doing probably should also be understood to refer to the new responsibility that the whole people would bear, given the absence of the monarchy, which had formerly been responsible for enacting the justice and righteousness that God wills (see Psalm 72). How better to worship the God who was doing new things for God’s people, and calling the restored people themselves to do new things, than to “sing to the LORD a new song”!

The question remains: Is there any continuity between the singing of a new song in the ancient past and our singing of a new song today? In short, how might we faithfully respond when we hear the opening invitation of Psalm 96 addressed directly to us? To be sure, there may be musical implications — that is, maybe we will not resist singing those new hymns. But, as suggested above, there is so much more to consider. Given the same old persistent, pervasive, deadly realities in our world — things like hunger, poverty, racial injustice, ecological degradation, militarism — will we identify where God is at work, willing and doing “new things”? Or, to employ more directly the language of Psalm 96, will we “tell of . . . [God’s] salvation from day to day” (v. 2)? Let me paraphrase that imperative: “Share the good news of God’s life-giving power every day.” As James L. Mays observes of Psalm 96, it “has a definite evangelical cast.”1

To be evangelists in the midst of a culture dominated by the dynamics of death will certainly mean to expose and name idolatry, as the psalmist does (v. 5) — idols of greed, racism, militarism, and misguided nationalism, all of which work to privilege some people at the expense of others (which, according to Psalm 82:1-2, is exactly what “the gods” were doing). In this regard, it is to be emphasized that the praise invited in Psalm 96 is to come from “all the earth” (see this phrase is vv. 1, 9, forming an envelope-structure for the lection). Note too the invitation in v. 7 that is addressed to “families of the peoples” (see Psalm 29:1-2). In short, God wills that the whole world be set right!

And appropriately, this is exactly what God is depicted as doing in Psalm 96:10-13. God “is coming to establish justice on earth. He will establish justice in the world with righteousness” (v. 13, my translation; see also CEB). And appropriately too, God’s work of setting the whole world right is greeted joyfully and enthusiastically by a world-encompassing community of praise — “the heavens … the earth … the sea … the field … all the trees of the forest” (vv. 11-12). By the way, God’s “coming” is not to be understood as a future event, but rather as an already occurring reality (since the Hebrew verb can be read either as an active participle or as perfect form).

Because God is in the world, working to set things right in “all the earth,” we sing a new song. And the singing of a new song energizes us to join God at God’s work in the world. The final time that the Psalter invites the singing of “a new song” is Psalm 149:1. As the Psalter nears its conclusion, it affirms that God’s people (see “the faithful” in vv. 1, 5, and “all his faithful ones” in v. 9) have been called to work among “the nations” and “the peoples,” in order “to do the justice that is written” (v. 9, my translation). Ultimately, then and now, the singing of a new song situates God’s people in an expansive community of praise (Psalm 96:1, 7, 11-12), and it involves God’s people in God’s ongoing work of setting the world right!


1 James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 308.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 1:1-12

Audrey West

The apostle Paul is astonished (Galatians 1:6) and perplexed (4:20) at what has happened among the Galatian Christians since he was working and preaching among them.

To say that he is angry is an understatement. Indeed, he is so perturbed that he flings curses at the people who have stirred up the churches in the region (1:8-9). He even goes so far as to suggest that it would not be such a bad thing if his opponents suffered a slip of the knife in an act of self mutilation (5:12).

With a mouth (or pen) like that, it is easy to accept that this apostle to the Gentiles really was, as he says, a violent persecutor of the church before he met the risen Christ (Galatians 1:13).

What is the genesis of his ire? Apparently, missionaries following after him have persuaded these Gentile Christians that it is necessary for them to become Jewish in order to be true followers of Christ. Their logic may have gone something like this: Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, and his first disciples were Jews. They used the Jewish scriptures. Therefore, those who want to become followers of Jesus must first become Jews. For the men, that means circumcision.

To be one of us, these Judaizing opponents argued, you have to be just like us. Paul’s response? “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel!” (Galatians 1:6)

Off to a good start

At first glance, the initial verses of the letter (and of the assigned passage) give little clue to the passion that follows. The greeting looks and sounds fairly typical of Paul. He identifies himself as an apostle (as in Romans and 1-2 Corinthians), together with his compatriots (“all the adelphoi who are with me”).

Then he names the church(es) to which he writes, and greets them with his characteristic blessing: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So far, so good. Indeed, the greeting is so ordinary that it is tempting to rush right past it, only to stumble into the literary gap created by the surprising lack of a thanksgiving — that section of Paul’s letters where he thanks God for the letter’s recipients and offers prayers on their behalf, establishing a warm connection with his hearers and hinting at the letter’s themes.

The fact that Galatians is missing a thanksgiving is a clue to Paul’s strong feelings and sense of urgency.

A higher power

It is difficult to tell in English translations, but the first five verses comprise one long sentence in the Greek — and it’s a loaded sentence, at that. As if he’s leading a classroom memorization drill, Paul makes good use of rapid-fire repetition: “through Jesus Christ and God the Father … from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ … according to the will of our God and Father.”1

Without even attending to the rest of the words in the sentence, readers of the letter may intuit that something significant is going on here.

On one hand, the language signifies a power play, given that there’s no higher authority than God and, for Christians, Christ Jesus. Recall that in the very first words of the passage Paul claims authorization directly from God and not from mere mortals, and the pericope will end with a similar claim (Galatians 1:11-12). No candidacy review board for this one! Paul’s description of his call highlights the fact that he is under the authority of God and not humans: “I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me” (1:16-17). At the Jerusalem Council, narrated in chapter 2, Paul points out (2:6) that “those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders … contributed nothing to me.”

Power and authority are not the only things at stake, however. Paul is doing more than simply calling on his favorite super-heroes to stand beside him in a fight against his Judaizing opponents.

All in the family

Paul’s repeated invocation of God the Father is a firm reminder to the Galatians that the good news of Jesus Christ has already made them part of the family of God. Already, they belong.

Before, when they did not yet know God, they were enslaved to the “elemental spirits” (Galatians 4:8); i.e., they were Gentiles. But everything changed when they received the good news of Jesus Christ, “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul writes (5:1).

Together with Jewish Christians, the Galatians are brothers and sisters in Christ’s family, with God as their father. Circumcision is not necessary. They are enough, as they are, because Christ is enough. They have been called by God in the grace of Christ.

Then and now

The relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the earliest decades of the church was arguably one of the most significant issues facing nascent Christianity. Despite a very different context today, preachers may nonetheless find points of connection.

On one hand, some churches and individual Christians today may find themselves in the place of the Galatians, being bombarded with messages from inside and outside of the church that demand them to be something other than they are called to be. Paul’s letter is a potent reminder to stand firm in the gospel of Christ and trust in the good news of God’s graciousness.

On the other hand, some may be acting as the Judaizers did in Galatia, demanding that others should earn their place at the table by conforming to long-standing customs or practices that do not represent the heart of the gospel.

Paul’s gospel message to the Galatians — the gospel that he received in a revelation from God — was not a proclamation of rules that would buy his churches entry into the family of God, but a proclamation of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and continues to accomplish today. Already the Galatians (and we) are enough. Because Christ Jesus is enough.


1 Admittedly, the patriarchal language can be difficult for modern ears. Note, however, that at 4:19 Paul describes himself in maternal terms, “in the pain of childbirth.”