Lectionary Commentaries for February 21, 2010
First Sunday in Lent (Year C)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 4:1-13

Arland J. Hultgren

Accounts of the Temptation in the Wilderness appear in all three Synoptic Gospels.

The story in the Gospel of Mark is notoriously brief, consisting of only two verses (1:12-13). The accounts in Matthew and Luke are much longer in comparison, and they are very much alike (Matthew 4:1-11//Luke 4:1-13). On the basis of the two source theory, they are considered to have come from the document known as Q. In terms of wording, they are much alike, but they differ remarkably in their sequence of the second and third temptations.

Matthew has the sequence of events at the Temple as the second of the three, and the third for him is the viewing of the kingdoms of the world upon a high mountain. In Luke the viewing of the kingdoms of the world is the second scene, and the Temple event is the third. Whether Matthew and Luke had two different versions of Q, each with its own sequence, or whether one of the evangelists altered the sequence from a common version, cannot be known. If the latter is the case, interpreters differ on which gospel writer is more likely to have retained the sequence of Q more closely.

Since an account of the temptation is the Gospel for the Day on the First Sunday in Lent for each of the three years in the lectionary, the preacher might do well to say to the congregation gathered, that with the coming of Lent, we make a dramatic shift in the church year. Lent is a time to get back to basics of the faith. In the ancient church it was a time for instructing new converts about the faith, followed by baptism on Easter. Our Gospel text is about who Christ is, and it also gets into some things concerning us directly.

The story presupposes the Baptism of Our Lord, celebrated on the First Sunday after the Epiphany (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22), where Jesus is declared by God to be his Beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased (3:22). The words of that address to Jesus are taken up in the temptation story, but this time they are on the lips of an adversary. Twice in the temptation narrative, the devil recalls God’s address to Jesus and, in fact, calls it into question with the taunt, “If you are the Son of God….” (4:3, 9), followed by specific tests to find out whether he truly is such–from the devil’s point of view.

The story contains three moments of testing, and all have to do with the identity of Jesus as Son of God. What kind of Son of God is he? Or what kind of Son will he be? The title “Son of God” can be interpreted in various ways. In the ancient world a son represents his father, and in the Old Testament the king is sometimes called God’s son (Psalms 2:7; 89:26-27; 2 Samuel 7:14), meaning that he represents God on earth, and at best he is obedient to God.

As son of God, the king has earthly power. In Psalm 2 the king, as God’s anointed one (the messiah, 2:2), is addressed with the words from God spoken at his enthronement: “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (2:7-8). The meaning of the words “You are my Son,” spoken to Jesus at his baptism, are at issue in the temptation narrative.

The three temptations have to do with earthly power and glory. In each case Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy:

  • Temptation One (4:3-4): To turn stones into bread.
    Response: Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
    Context in Deuteronomy: Moses reminds the people of Israel that God tested them in the wilderness by hunger, but he fed them with manna in order to make them understand that one does not live by bread alone.
  • Temptation Two (4:5-8): To rule all the kingdoms of the world.
    Response: Deuteronomy 6:13: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
    Context in Deuteronomy: Moses addresses the people of Israel prior to entering the land of promise. He calls upon the people to fear and love the Lord always. He provides a creed for them, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel….” (6:4), tells them not to forget who gave the land, and admonishes them to worship and serve the Lord.
  • Temptation Three (4:9-12): To throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12.
    Response: Deuteronomy 6:16: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
    Context in Deuteronomy: The setting is the same as the previous episode (Deut 6:13). Moses exhorts the people not to test the Lord as they did at Massah, a place of quarreling, where the people of Israel demanded water from Moses, which he finally obtained by striking a rock (Exodus 17:1-7).

The three temptations of Jesus are set in a wilderness, and they recall the testing of the people of Israel in the wilderness. Even the forty days of testing in the case of Jesus recalls the forty years of Israel’s testing in the wilderness.

But there is a contrast. Israel was not always faithful and therefore did not pass the testing satisfactorily. Jesus, on the other hand, completed the time of testing, remaining true to his vocation as Son of God.

By refusing to follow the temptations of the devil, Jesus remained faithful to his vocation, given to him at his baptism. He would not be the messiah that some would have wanted, including the devil. All three of the temptations have one thing in common, and that is to be a messiah of unequalled power on earth–one who could provide food in abundance, reign over the kingdoms of the world, and be capable of demonstrating that he is so invincible that nothing can harm him, for God will protect him from any and all dangers.

Since the English word “temptation” has so many connotations, often referring to human appetites for things that bring pleasure, it is helpful to think of the temptation of Jesus as “the testing of God’s Son.” The Greek word in question is peirazomenos, which has to do with testing. That means that the wording of 4:2 could read: “[Jesus] was tested by the devil.”

That can help in the construction and delivery of a sermon. Jesus was tested concerning his baptismal vocation as the Son of God. He was obedient to the course upon which he had been set at his baptism by John at the Jordan. Likewise, those who are his followers are tested concerning their baptismal vocation. Through baptism, we are called to be obedient and to serve the Lord alone. But our faith is tested in the course of our lives, from birth to death. There is comfort in knowing, however, that God remains faithful, even if we fail (Romans 3:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:13).

The connection between Jesus’ testing and our own was recognized by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

The connection between Israel’s testing and our own is summed up beautifully in the Prayer of the Day:
O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the Promised Land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

The text for this week comes at the end of a well-fashioned legal corpus in Deuteronomy (chapters 12-26).

The opening lines of this collection (12:1-7) are an injunction for the community to demolish all the high places where other nations have worshiped their gods, and instead, they are enjoined to “seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all of your tribes as his habitation to put his name there.” Moreover, they are instructed to bring their offerings to that place “in the presence of the LORD your God.” The opening lines of chapter 12, then, are about worship; worship that is undefiled and fully enshrouded in the presence of God. What follows in the collection is a lengthy list of case laws addressing a wide range of topics. The collection then closes with the text at hand.

Deuteronomy 26 resembles the opening lines of the collection in that it returns to the themes of worship and sacrifice. Those who consider this entire collection as a legal corpus without recognizing the liturgical elements present in both the beginning and the ending of the collection fail to appreciate the theologically formative nature of the collection. The statutes and ordinances announced in 12:1 and that appear throughout the collection are understood only as one understands the liturgical context in which these statutes are embedded. Theology, liturgy, ethics, and hope are tightly woven together throughout this collection and the final chapter serves as a culminating reflection.

Chapter 12 was addressed to the community. The verbs are in the plural, and together, the people are called to this new commitment of worship and shared life together. In chapter 26, however, the writer has shifted to singular verbs. The shift, no doubt, goes unnoticed in English translations, but in Hebrew all of the verb forms and personal pronouns have shifted to the singular in chapter 26. This morphological observation may seem irrelevant and without significant import, but perhaps more is intended.

The liturgy and confession explained in 26:1-11 hold in tension this oscillation between the individual and the community. The language and verbiage found therein suggest that even as each individual makes his or her own way to worship, the journey and the experience are enwrapped in the story of the community, even as the experience is enshrouded in the presence of God. The call for each individual to act, for each individual to participate in this liturgy of affirmation and hope, offers words of instruction for communities of faith who read this text today.

The liturgy and confession are grounded in a spirit of gratitude. Seven times in these eleven verses the author uses the word “to give” (nātan). In the first three usages (verses 1, 2, 3), the verb refers to God’s giving of the land and the final three (verses 9, 10, 11) likewise refer to the good gifts provided by God. In the opening lines, the author asks that the individual recognize all that has been given by God, while the final verse suggests that such gratitude is expressed appropriately when it is done so in community. The individual act then becomes enmeshed with corporate life thereby shaping the life of the community.

The seventh use of the verb “to give” occurs in verse 6. The text reads, “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing (nātan) hard labor on us.” In the six other usages, Yahweh is clearly the subject of the verb, yet in verse 6, the subject changes. Israel remains the recipient, but it is Egypt who carries out the action. Instead of land, Egypt “gives” Israel hard labor and oppression.

These two very different uses of the word “give” provide, in some ways, a nuanced understanding of gratitude. The gratitude for the land being given by Yahweh can never be understood apart from the hard labor exacted upon or “given” to the entire community. The One who delivered them out of Egypt with a “mighty arm” is the same One who has delivered them safely into the land (26:1). The produce harvested and brought as first fruits is never offered apart from the remembrance of deliverance.

Simply put, gratitude is rarely confined to the present moment. More often than not the present moment is the culmination of “givings” all along the way–sometimes being delivered to something and sometimes from something. The entire confession found in verses 5-10 seems to root the fruitfulness of the present with the faithfulness of God all along. As we read this text, we are asked to do no less. We likewise are to celebrate the richness of the present moment, while recalling that we are part of a community that has basked in the faithfulness of God all along. And yet for such celebration to remain individualized is to miss the power of story, our story–our shared story. The individualized gift of gratitude is only properly understood when rooted in the life of his or her community. And gratitude only finally reaches its proper end when it manifests itself within the life of the community. 


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

Jane Strohl

This psalm is an exultant hymn of proclamation and praise.

The psalmist’s trust in God is absolute, and he encourages his hearers to share that certainty.

  “For he will command his angels concerning you
  to guard you in all your ways.
  On their hands they will bear you up,
  so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”
  (verses 11-12).

There is no doubt that God is ready to help the person in need, and God’s power to do so is boundless.

   “Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
   the Most High your dwelling place,
   no evil shall befall you,
   no scourge come near your tent”
   (verses 9-10).

We can put our trust in all kinds of persons and things, our first choice generally being ourselves, but the psalmist insists there is only one place where we can be truly safe — in the shelter of the Most High.

Yet life demands that we be prepared for sorrow and loss every step of the way. In the preceding psalm (Psalm 90:10) we are told:

   “The days of our life are seventy years,
   or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
   even then their span is only toil and trouble;
   they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

Not only does evil befall us, we constantly act as its agents. Our lives are fraught with fears of all sorts and deceit beyond measure. We worry about our health, our finances, our children’s welfare, global warming, unemployment, poverty, natural disasters, and the burden keeps growing year by year. What, then, can the psalmist mean when he assures us that we are in the care of God’s holy angels?
In Matthew 4:1-11, the evangelist tells the story of the temptation of Jesus. The Lord is baptized by John, on which occasion God says of him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Immediately, Jesus is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The second challenge issued by the evil one echoes Psalm 91.

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him,

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down;
for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test'” (4:5-7).

When the series of temptations is complete, the devil leaves Jesus, and “suddenly angels came and waited on him” (4:11). Jesus claims God as his refuge and fortress. He dwells under the protection of God’s wings. But he also knows “the pestilence that stalks in darkness” and “the destruction that wastes at noonday” (Psalm 91:6, omitted from the lectionary). It is his way we are called to follow. We live between the holy times of his presence with us on earth, and until he comes again, we are home free but not yet home safe.

In a treatise from the year 1520 entitled “The Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther describes Christians in paradoxical terms. We are at one and the same time perfectly free lords of all, subject to none, and perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all. Lordship is the fruit of faith that clings to God’s Word and rests secure in the shelter of the Most High. At the same time we live in the midst of boundless need and evil. Here we are called to be servants and to accept the inevitable costs of this discipleship.  Whatever happens, our fortress will not fall; the power of sin, the very gates of hell cannot prevail against it.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 10:8b-13

Susan Hedahl

Entering any text in Romans, in order to explore its preaching possibilities, is similar to entering a vast and highly-developed city.

Romans is the flagship of Paul’s writings and his arguments and claims are both profound and complex. In contemporary terminology, one needs a homiletical GPS (global positioning system) to orient preaching preparation within the overall structure of Romans.

Unlike Gospel texts, Romans is a theological treatise of a sort which demands a broader reading of context. The cartological task of the preacher thus requires the following: knowledge of the overall structure of Romans and its major arguments and a contextualized focus for the appointed verses, which can be understood by twenty-first century Christians (Gentiles).

This epistle text for the First Sunday in Lent is heard prior to the familiar account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. As a preaching text, the Romans verses bring to the foreground what is only background in the Gospel: that is, this Jesus in the wilderness, confronting the worldly and ungodly powers humanity faces, is the same Jesus who brings salvation.

In this section of Romans, Paul’s discussion is based on his earlier arguments about Israel’s response, or lack of response, to the Gospel and what this means within God’s will and plan for salvation. While sermon time does not allow for much reflection on the larger arguments in which the text is set, the preacher should also exercise care to avoid the potential for anti-Semitic implications. In Romans Paul is clearly agonizing and arguing over the reality of Israel’s call by God as well as Israel’s rejection of Jesus. This existential pain is deepened and furthered by the divisions between Paul and his own people as he simultaneously argues his claims for inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s salvific plan.

I. The Text

In preparing a sermon on this text, it is impossible to plumb the riches of it without first doing a preliminary list and reading of the Hebrew Scriptures which Paul uses to background his assertions. These texts include (in order): a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:12–14; Isaiah 28:16; Joel 2:32 and Joel 3:1-5. Twice in these few verses, Paul notes “But what does it [Scripture] say?” (verse 8) and “The scripture says…” (verse 11).

Paul’s words indicate that he is not simply using Hebrew Scripture to argue his case but that he is speaking to those who are also familiar with it, as he stakes his claim regarding what God has done in Jesus. For modern day listeners, this scriptural information is useful in demonstrating that the Jesus event was not simply a stand-alone anomaly but rooted in the history of Israel’s life with God. (Given the dearth of Old Testament preaching courses in seminary curricula of any denomination, it is not surprising that the wealth of these historical connections is often ignored or lost).

Several topics fill these verses. One element is: the connection between confessing (verbally) and believing. The first springs from public affirmation, which originates in the spiritual attitude of belief. It is not enough to speak publicly. It is insufficient to believe without verbal expression: the two are linked. But what is the result of believing and speaking together? One is justified and one is saved. Thoughts and words of faith together yield — salvation!

Another set of related phrases also offer insight into the line of Paul’s argument and that is his naming of God. In verse 8 he says “Jesus is Lord;” in verse 12 he asserts — with a subtle elision of meaning! – that “the same Lord is Lord of all’ and finally that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (verse 13). Paul is saying several things here. He is saying Jesus is God. He is saying that God is for all people and that naming God in faith results in salvation, a faith which comes through Jesus Christ.

Another specific emphasis in these verses is the amazing equality of all people before God. Paul asserts that there is “no distinction” and speaks of “all” and “everyone” and to all individuals. While there is a ‘take it for granted’ sense about his claim today, the historical ideas of who was not included, not chosen, were very sharply defined. The religious insiders and outsiders were known. This makes Paul’s view that all have access to God, radical, in the eyes of many heretical. Yet, he deftly argues from Hebrew Scriptures — particularly the eschatological vision of the nations in Joel, which he quotes — as rationale for what he believes about the inclusion of all people in God’s Jesus.

II. More Homiletical Possibilities

This text raises a number of problems and issues. One of these is what Paul calls the God who is “generous to all who call on him” (verses 12 and 13). The implications for this today might relate to how God responds to those of different faith perspectives, or no faith perspectives! What is the role of the church or any formal worship community in mediating God to a human being? How do human beings with their notions of generosity — limited to be sure — understand a God exhibiting such divine generosity 24/7? Could modern day Christian listeners find themselves, on closer examination, to be as closed to God’s generosity as those Paul is trying to convince in his own recalcitrant community? Do we find ourselves trying to “manage” God’s generosity?

For preachers who are part of faith traditions that heavily depend on sacramental theology, what does it mean that one is saved simply by believing in and then verbally confessing Jesus as Lord? What happened to baptism along the way? What happened to a faith community? This question is not as easily answered as one might think, in that it raises questions of the way to “do evangelism.” The question involves thoughtful consideration of ritual, hymnology, ecclesiology and theology and most importantly, hospitality to all who seek God. The simplicity of what Paul is suggesting is perhaps too much for us!