Lectionary Commentaries for February 17, 2013
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 4:1-13

Scott Shauf

John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, a retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve and hence humanity from God’s original created perfection, is fairly well known.

Much less well known, unfortunately, is the sequel, Paradise Regained. Especially striking about the latter poem is its subject — not the birth, crucifixion, or resurrection of Jesus, but his temptation, the subject of today’s Gospel text. Milton rightly saw that in resisting the devil’s temptations Jesus initiated the possibility for humanity to regain the paradise lost in the Eden fall.

Jesus and Adam
Luke himself invites us to make such a comparison with the Genesis fall by the way he has set the story. First, he has put the genealogy of Jesus immediately before it. Since Luke’s genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam, the reference to Adam immediately precedes the temptation account. Moreover, Adam is identified in the genealogy as the son of God (3:38), rather obviously inviting comparison to Jesus. The temptation story, then, fleshes out the comparison — and the contrast!

Second, the temptation story is followed by Jesus’ announcement of the nature of his ministry in the Nazareth synagogue. The temptation story, as we will see, has as a primary point to show what Jesus is not going to do in his ministry. The Nazareth synagogue sermon then gives us the positive: Jesus will bring “good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… the oppressed go free… the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19). Mary was told by the angel that Jesus was coming to establish his kingdom (1:33); thus what Jesus describes in the synagogue is the nature of his kingdom, the kingdom of God.

His kingdom, of course, is not about the political rule of Israel but rather the reclamation by God of the entire fallen world. So whereas the succumbing to temptation by Adam and Eve resulted in the loss of life in God’s presence, Jesus’ resistance of temptation was the beginning of the restoration of life in God’s presence. Romans 5:12-21 famously makes the Adam-Christ comparison explicit, while here in Luke it is mainly implicit.

The First Temptation: Serving Oneself
Given this comparison, it is perhaps significant that the first temptation (verses 3-4) relates to eating, just as the temptation in the garden of Eden did. More broadly, the temptation is for Jesus to use his authority as the Son of God to meet his personal needs and desires. While this was no doubt a temptation for Jesus throughout his ministry, it is especially during his crucifixion that this would come to the fore again, as he is tempted by the onlookers to save himself from the cross (Luke 23:35-39). Just as there the temptation is made in a situation of tremendous personal suffering, so too here the temptation to eat comes in a time of severe hunger, with Jesus having fasted for forty days. As we have heard him announce in 4:18-19, Jesus’ ministry is always focused on others, never on himself.

The Second Temptation: Power
The second temptation (verses 5-8) is a direct appeal to the human desire for power. Jesus is offered the authority and glory of all the kingdoms of the world. For Jesus this was a temptation to embrace what many would have expected of him as the Messiah: political and military might and rule. That Jesus rejects this is a clear sign that his messiahship, his kingdom, is of a different nature than the common expectations. The contrast with Jesus’ announced mission in 4:18-19 is again clear: Jesus’ mission is about saving others, not about asserting worldly power.

The Third Temptation: A Cross-Avoiding Spectacle
The third temptation (verses 9-12), jumping from the pinnacle of the temple, is the most difficult to interpret. On the surface the devil’s idea is merely an awe-inducing spectacle. In the ancient world such would likely have been interpreted as the trick of a magician. Legends developed later in the church about the apostles facing down such devil-inspired magicians (e.g. a flying Simon the Mage in the Acts of Peter).

So in part this temptation is that of another alternative path for Jesus’ power, leading to fame and riches rather than to service and the cross. But we are likely supposed to see more here, too. The temptation, after all, occurs on the Jerusalem temple. Are we meant to see a foreshadowing and a parody of the crucifixion? As discussed above, on the cross Jesus is tempted to save himself from death — are the onlookers there playing the role of the devil?

The Forty Days of Lent
Jesus is said to be tempted over a forty day period (verse 2). This is likely meant to echo the forty days Moses spent fasting while writing the covenant for the people of Israel (Exodus 34:27-28), and it also is reminiscent of the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert experiencing their own temptations. It is, of course, no coincidence that Lent is a forty day period. Thus how can the account of Jesus’ temptation illuminate our own forty day experience?

To answer this question, note that the common thread in the devil’s three temptations is an alternative mission and destiny to the cross and Jesus’ pronouncement in 4:18-19. Since as Christians we are called to continue the Spirit-led proclamation and enactment of God’s kingdom (note the importance of the Spirit in 4:1, 14, 18), we are also tempted to abandon the task God has given us for ways of self-fulfillment, power, and spectacle. Unlike Jesus, we will doubtlessly fail at times. Lent is the time for confessing our failures and redirecting our steps to the way of Jesus. And through the power of the Spirit, we, too, can resist the temptations of the devil.


First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Esther M. Menn

The offering of first fruits in thankful celebration of God’s good gift of the land to Israel is the surprising topic of this First Reading for the First Sunday in Lent.

After forty years in the wilderness, Moses instructs the Israelites about God’s covenantal way of life and blessing in the Promised Land. As he concludes his core teachings (Deuteronomy 12-26), Moses unexpectedly returns to the earlier topic of pilgrimage festivals (cf., Deuteronomy 16, which describes the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot or Weeks, and Sukkot or Booths).

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 presents a theological interpretation of the summer harvest, during which choice agricultural produce was brought to the temple in Jerusalem. This offering from the bounty provided by God through the gift of the land was associated with the pilgrimage festival known as Shavuot or Weeks, held seven weeks after Passover (hence the Greek name Pentecost, for “fifty” days after Passover).

As a people recently enslaved in a foreign land who had since spent a nomadic generation in the wilderness, the Israelites were presented with good news in the form of a commandment emphasizing the abundance of a “land flowing with milk and honey” (26:9) that God was giving them as an “inheritance to possess” (26:1).

Offerings of grain and fruit grown in the very soil of that land would confirm the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12: 7; 15:18-21; 17:8). Israelite worshippers were to emphasize God’s gift of the land by affirming, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us” (26:3), and “[God] brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me” (26:10).

According to Jewish tradition, first fruit offerings were made of seven species native to the land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Mishna Bikkurim 1.3). This specificity may encourage us to locate ourselves within our own particular contexts today, giving thanks and offering what we have been uniquely given by God for the prospering of our neighbors and the larger community.

While all of us depend on agriculture for sustenance, fewer and fewer people in the United States and elsewhere in today’s world live on farms or are involved in working the soil. Reflecting on this passage in more contemporary terms, what might be examples of the “first fruits” that we offer to God, our families, and the congregation or community, out of grateful recognition that everything promoting life, health, and peace has been given to us by God?

Annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the place that God will choose for the indwelling of the divine name (26:2; cf., Deuteronomy 12), idealizes a type of joyful communal journey for Israelites settled in the Promised Land. This ritual gathering for celebration contrasts with other more difficult biblical sojourns, including the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites whom Moses addresses in this passage.

Even after the Israelites are settled in their own land, they are called to remember past journeys, when they were vulnerable itinerants or “aliens” (26:5) living in foreign lands. The summary of Israelite history in the liturgy recited with the offering (26:5-10) highlights travels undertaken in crisis. The reference to a “wandering Aramean” (26:5) recalls the Israelites’ ancestor Jacob, also known by the name Israel, who fled from his brother Esau’s enmity to live with relatives in Aram and who later emigrated with his family to Egypt to survive a famine.

Also highlighted in this liturgy are the exodus out of Egypt and the entrance into the land (26:9), journeys depicted elsewhere in scripture as challenging and dangerous times. The communal memory in this recitation, however, focuses on God’s responsiveness to the Israelites’ cries for protection and on God’s amazing power to deliver from oppression and to provide for a future filled with hope and abundance.

We might lift up difficult journeys remembered by individuals, families, and the larger community, as times when God preserved them through trial and brought them to a new place from which they might enjoy and share what they have richly received.

The offering of first fruits, whether at the temple in Jerusalem as in this passage or locally in the outlying towns every third year as a tithe (26:12-15; cf., 14:28-29), ensures that the entire community shares in the land’s abundance. Israelite landowners and their families are instructed to partake of the harvest together with “the Levites and the aliens who reside among you” (26:11). The Levites, generally equated with the priests in Deuteronomy, were a tribe not allotted a territory of their own but were rather supported in their religious service through such offerings (12:12). The second group mentioned, the “aliens,” were foreigners who lived among the Israelites without owning land.

Enjoyment of God’s sustenance was to be extended even farther to others listed in the longer description of participants in the festival of Shavuot or Weeks in Deuteronomy 16:11: “Rejoice before the LORD your God — you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and widows who are among you” (cf., Deuteronomy 26:12-13). The reason for inclusion of the entire community is again stated clearly in Deuteronomy 16:12: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.”

The memory of being landless and vulnerable, preserved here as well as in the longer liturgical recitation in Deuteronomy 26:5-10, cultivates an ethic of empathy as the basis for including those currently landless and vulnerable. God’s inclusive generosity embraces us all, to be experienced again and again as together we share bread, wine, food, and everything else that supports and enhances life.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Paul O. Myhre

Whoever dwells in the shelter of protection can find rest and comfort.

In reflecting on the Psalmist’s poetic metaphor, I wondered about the people of the earth who have never sat down on the dusty ground within a naturally occurring rock shelter, found refuge in a cave or rock overhang from a thunderstorm, or walked through the gates of a human-made fortress of stone meant to protect them from enemies both unseen and seen, unknown and known. I have had these experiences, but I suspect most have not. I would venture a guess that most people on the planet are currently less connected with the natural environment and more connected with urban landscape environments or virtual world realities.

For an increasingly urban population, the shelter metaphor works for some, but would seem a bit unrecognizable by a large number of others. Maybe the image of a home — however it is defined — could work.

However, many of the homes I have lived in or visited on the earth provide only a modicum of shelter from the elements and don’t promote a sense that they could withstand a hurricane, earthquake, or preserve someone from harm. They are easily broken into by thieves and enemies, twisted and torn by tornados, blown or washed away by hurricanes and floods, and burned to the ground by electrical wiring problems, fireplace sparks, or natural causes such as lightning. The idea of a home as a fortress of strength is weak in my estimation. If it cannot protect against naturally occurring or human-made threats, then it could not serve as an apt metaphor for the activity of God.

For the people living in the Middle East the idea of rocky outcroppings providing shelter from the hot sun or enemies would have been well known. Yet unlike a rock shelter or fortress that can be overrun with a degree of effort, the Psalmist declares that God cannot be overtaken by anything we may encounter that threatens our life or the lives of those whom we love. The notion of God as a protective refuge provides a mental image that coalesces well with the idea of a rock shelter or fortress.

God as refuge
The psalmist may have been hoping to convey something about how the life of faith works. Regarding the LORD as your personal refuge is a decision to place your habitation — your life itself — in a place that cannot be broken by the stresses and strains of life. Yet the psalmist’s poetic flourish after the midway point of the reading seems a bit off.

No harm or disaster will befall you, angels will guard you and your ways, you will be protected from things that would threaten to undo you, and furthermore you will be able to thwart the threatening possibilities that arise in the natural environment. This section of the Psalm is that which we hear in the New Testament — Matthew 4:6 and Luke 4:10 quoted by the devil to Jesus. There, as well as here, it seems that the issue isn’t so much the physical, but the faithful dimension of human experience.

God’s love is found in relationship. God’s protection is discovered in relationship. God has a commitment to people who are in relationship with God. Prayer to God is a means for calling on God and God will provide an answer. However, there is no assurance that the answer will be yes. It may be no. And we will then need to trust that God knows better than us the effects of the yes and no answers.

I think in part the psalmist is affirming that God will be with people in trouble, but may not make the trouble go away. God will deliver and honor those in relationship and will provide a means through the trouble. God will satisfy the faithful with life abundant and grant salvation.

Where is God?
One of the curious things about the Psalms is that there is often a declaration to the effect that if one is trusts God then no harm will come to them. Unfortunately, experience teaches something quite different. People of faith do get cancer, heart disease, heart attacks, and die from any number of diseases. People of faith are crushed in spirit by acrid verbal attacks, broken in body and mind by physical and emotional abuse, and find themselves in a hospital or die as a result of all forms of violence. People who do trust in God are acquainted with poverty, lack of food and clothing, and experience starvation. So is the Psalmist correct here? What shall we make of such an assertion?

When I was involved with professional ministry I regularly encountered people who claimed that if you had enough faith then no harm would befall you. But they too experienced all of the maladies and brokenness known to humankind. The theological ideology didn’t preserve them from harm. So what is the psalmist’s claim about?

If we look at the text from the vantage point of poetics then perhaps the murky water becomes a bit clearer. Maybe the declaration isn’t as much about a personal “you” and “him” but is a reference to a plural “you.” Calling people to commitment is a common refrain in the Psalms. The people of Israel had a propensity — like people in all ages — to become sidetracked, distracted, and distorted in their faithful following of God.

Committing corporate life to God is a greater calling than a solely personal one. Viewing God’s comments as plural rather than singular suggests that God’s love is for the people and God wants to rescue, protect, deliver, honor, and satisfy those who love God. There is a relationship at stake here. It isn’t simply a matter of me being right with God. It is a matter of us being right with God. The Psalmist pushes us to push out the boundaries and discover something about the refuge of God that can cover more than one. It can cover everyone.

Conclusion
The refuge that is found in God alone will sustain people even if the body is destroyed. This refuge will provide rescue from those things that would harm our relationship with God. The refuge is precisely that. It is a refuge of solace that can provide an inner strength to endure the harshest trials of life. In that sense, God’s presence is a refuge. Since God is ever present in all circumstances of every waking and sleeping moment, then there is a refuge that one can experience in the here and now, and in the future yet to unfold. God is our rock shelter of hope.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 10:8b-13

Elizabeth Shively

I was recently away from my family for over a week, and the family photo that is on my computer desktop was a constant companion.

But the photo is only a shadow that anticipated the reality I experienced when I got home. It would be strange indeed to greet my husband and kids on my return, power up my computer, and talk about how much I love this photo. When my husband and boys are near and accessible, all I want to do is gaze at them, hug them, and talk with them.

Our text is part of a larger argument in which Paul makes a contrast between gazing at the shadow of the law and recognizing Christ as the reality it anticipated.

Paul has been discussing Israel’s unbelief. He writes that Israel was ignorant of God’s righteousness and so sought to establish their own righteousness by keeping the law (Romans 9:30-10:4). They continued to gaze at the law itself and missed the Christ, God’s revelation of righteousness. Paul sums it up this way: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to all who believe” (10:4).

Romans 10:8b-13 is part of Paul’s explanation of this statement in verse 4. Paul explains it by quoting the Torah to show the relationship between “the righteousness that comes from the law” (verse 5) and “the righteousness that comes from faith” (verses 6-13). His main purpose is to demonstrate by means of the law itself that it had its goal in Christ all along.

Those who gazed at the shadow insisted that a person could gain righteousness, or a right status before God, by keeping the law. Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5 (Romans 10:5) as representative of “the righteousness that comes from the law,” perhaps because it appears to support the approach of his opponents. But then he uses another part of the Torah to demonstrate the reality that the shadow anticipated.

Paul puts Deuteronomy 30:12-14 in the mouth of the personified “righteousness of faith” and applied it creatively to the redemptive work of Christ in his incarnation and resurrection/exaltation (Romans 10:6-8a). Just as the law was God’s gracious gift, bringing the redemptive work of God near and accessible to human beings, so Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate gift, bringing God’s redemptive work near and accessible to human beings in climactic way. For anyone to cling to the Mosaic law as its own purpose and goal is to miss what God has done in Christ.

The larger context of Deuteronomy 30 is instructive. It speaks of the restoration of Israel’s fortunes after they have experienced the curses of the covenant and, ultimately, exile because of their failure to keep the law. This text anticipates the day when the people and their descendants will return to God, who will circumcise their hearts so that they may “love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (30:6). This promise fits the message of the prophets that God will establish a new covenant with his people by which he will circumcise their hearts and write his law upon them (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The point is that the life promised by the law (Leviticus 18:5) is finally accomplished by the redemptive work of God (Deuteronomy 30).

Now we may look at our text fruitfully. Paul writes that his use of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 in Romans 10:6-8 may be summed up as “the word of faith that we proclaim” (10:8b). Verse 8b works like a hinge: it summarizes verses 6-8a, and it is unpacked in verses 9-13. Verses 9-10 contain parallel statements, “confess with your lips, believe in your heart… one believes with the heart, confesses with the mouth.” This language and order are dictated by the quotation of Deuteronomy 30:14 in Romans 10:8a: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”

Paul expands upon the nearness and accessibility of God’s redemption in Christ by expressing the ease and extent of its application. The ease of God’s redemption is that people are justified (made righteous, given right standing) not by keeping the law, but by faith. The extent of God’s redemption is that this expression of faith apart from the law makes salvation accessible to both Jew and Gentile (verses 11-12; see also 3:22-24).

The confession that “Jesus is Lord” is a declaration that God is doing something new for Israel and for the whole world. Israel had made the confession, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The confession that “Jesus is Lord” not only expresses that Jesus Christ the end of the Law, but also that Jesus Christ is the very God who saves (see also Acts 22:16; Philippians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Corinthians 4:5). Paul uses Joel 2:32 in order to drive home the point that Jesus Christ is the Lord of which Joel spoke, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

God continues to do something new in our lives and in our churches. Sometimes, however, we get stuck in the past, wistfully clinging to shadows. Perhaps we may find an opportunity during the meditations of this Lenten season to gaze at Jesus Christ.