Lectionary Commentaries for February 14, 2016
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 4:1-13

Ruth Anne Reese

During Lent the church often focuses on repentance, resisting temptation, and the passion of Jesus.

Today’s text reminds us that our capacity to repent and to resist temptation comes from our relationship with God and the grace of his deliverance rather than from our own strength and initiative.

We live in a world of competing stories. In such a world, we must know the Christian story in order to resist the false stories that seek to take us captive. The reading in Luke 4:1-13 is the familiar story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness. This story is so well known that we sometimes conflate the different accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke into one story about Jesus’ temptation. But each account is unique from the others. Another study might compare the three different accounts and how those accounts fit the theological goals of the evangelists, but we will focus on Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation. As we read Luke’s version carefully, we can see two competing stories: the story that Jesus taps into in order to resist the devil and successfully navigate the temptations laid before him and the narrative the devil presents.

Setting:
This story takes place in two significant locations: the wilderness and Jerusalem. Historically, the wilderness was the place where God met the Jewish people at Sinai after rescuing them from Egypt. In the wilderness God shaped them into God’s covenant people cared for and led by God with cloud and fire. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is also led, this time by the Holy Spirit, in the wilderness, and he faces temptation by his adversary, the devil. The location of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness reminds us of the narrative of God’s rescue of Israel. Geographically, the wilderness was an arid region in southern Israel between the fertile land near the Mediterranean Sea and the interior desert regions. It was not devoid of life such as one might imagine if thinking about the sands of the Sahara desert but was rather a place that only produced food for flocks when there were abundant rains.

Jerusalem, the city of David, is the center of Jewish power, identity, and worship. At the time of Jesus, the second temple had been renovated and expanded by Herod the Great and was the center of worship for the Jewish people. This place of power and worship is the setting for the final temptation.

Characters:
We have already been introduced to Jesus in Luke’s gospel. He is the Son of God (Luke 3:38) who will bring salvation to both Jews and Gentiles (Luke 2:29-32), and who has been baptized in and is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22; 4:1). Now, Jesus is led into the wilderness. This is our first introduction to the devil in Luke’s gospel. From the text, we see that he is bold, cunning, clever, and powerful. It is the devil who tempts, and the devil ends the temptation and departs from Jesus.

Plot:
Most of the story takes place in the dialogue between Jesus and the devil. Jesus was hungry after fasting for 40 days. During those days of fasting he was being tempted by the devil (the verb in v. 2 “being tempted” is a present participle that indicates ongoing action). The account here is of the final three temptations that Jesus encounters at the end of those 40 days. In each temptation, the devil speaks first and Jesus replies. The story ends when the devil finishes the temptation and leaves Jesus, for the time being.

Storylines:
Underlying the dialogue between the devil and Jesus are two competing storylines. The devil offers a storyline of self-indulgence (make yourself bread from stones), self-aggrandizement (all the nations of the world will belong to you if you worship me), and self-serving religious identity (if you are the son of God cast yourself from the top of the temple). Meanwhile, Jesus responds with quotations drawn from the Old Testament that show awareness of the true source of life and identity (he knows that life is more than food), his reliance on God (the one worthy of true worship and service), and his understanding of God’s character (not one to be tested). Jesus’ responses are rooted in an underlying narrative that he is dependent on God rather than self for life, glory, and identity.

The Temptations:
The temptations that the devil presents are aimed at the heart of Jesus’ identity. Twice (vv. 3,9) the devil begins his temptation by calling into question Jesus’ identity as the Son of God with the words “if you are the Son of God” followed by a challenge to prove this identity with some miraculous display (stone into bread (v. 3); a dramatic angelic rescue from death (vv. 9-11)). In the first 3 chapters of Luke, Jesus’ identity was confirmed by Mary, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, John the Baptist, and the genealogy in Luke 3. Jesus did not have to do anything to prove his identity or to earn commendation as the Son of God. He is declared to be the one who will bring salvation to his people. This is who he is, Son of God, Savior, but the devil over and over tempts him to display his identity in self-serving ways that would undermine his identity as the Son who relies on the good gifts of the Father. It is worth remembering that in the families of the ancient world an adult son was often understood as the father’s representative and the father and the son would work together to accomplish the family goals. The son’s identity, honor, and status is rooted in his family’s honor and status. Jesus does not need to gain these things by giving in to the devil’s temptations.

Use of Scripture:
Both Jesus and the devil quote Scripture. In response to temptation, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, but it is not enough to know Scripture. The devil, who quotes from Psalm 91, also knows Scripture. Scripture must be read rightly in light of God’s nature and the life envisioned for God’s people. Such a life is rooted in God’s narrative of deliverance and a response of faithful obedience to God rather than in self-reliance, which is the devil’s story.


First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

William Yarchin

The book of Deuteronomy records the orations Moses declared to the Israelites on the last day of his life.

His speeches tend to dwell upon: 1) the covenant that God had established with the Israelites in the wilderness; 2) the laws of that covenant, and 3) the emphatic necessity of obedience to those laws as the condition for enjoying the benefits of the covenant.

Today’s lesson is found near the end of the longest of these speeches (chapters 5-26). Here Moses revisits instructions for the celebration of the Feast of Weeks, which he first announced in chapters 16:9-12. The Israelites were to celebrate the first harvest in June “by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you” (16:10 NRSV). Now, in chapter 26, Moses provides the actual liturgy for that first-fruits celebration ritual.

As a liturgy, our lesson includes instructions for certain prescribed actions and words specific to this annual ritual occasion.

Actions: We can picture here the worshiping Israelite standing in the Yahweh-sanctuary, holding a basket filled with yield from the harvest. As the priest receives the basket and lays it down in front of the altar, we can hear the worshiping Israelite offer the liturgical recitation along with the first fruits.

Words: The recitation reviews the saving actions of God, reaching back through the story of the ancestors:

  • their initial homelessness (“A wandering Aramean was my father”);
  • their migration to Egypt (“lived there as an alien”);
  • their suffering there (“treated us harshly and afflicted us”);
  • their cry to God for redemption (“we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors”);
  • their redemption out of enslavement (“the Lord brought us out of Egypt”);
  • their settling into a fertile land (“flowing with milk and honey”).

In this combination of words and actions the first-fruits ritual liturgy offers an instructive vision of what it means to be the people of God. (We see this vision particularly if we continue to read verses 12-16, the concluding words of Moses’ long speech. More below.)

During this first-fruits ritual the worshiping Israelite holds the first-fruits of the bountiful land upon which he stands in worship. In that physical stance the worshiping Israelite is a living testimony that God has been faithful to the promise made from the very first divine encounter with the ancestors: “Go to a land I will show you, and there I will bless you” (Genesis 12:1-3). Redemption from homelessness and oppression has happened because God did what he said he was going to do (“I will deliver them from the power of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:8).

During this ritual the worshiping Israelite identifies with the ancestors conspicuously not according to any power or glory attributed to them, but rather in their powerlessness (“afflicted us, heard our cry, brought us out”). More than anything else God does, the liturgy celebrates the faithfulness of God as it is manifest in the rescue of the powerless.

But this liturgical vision of a worshiping community does not conclude with Deuteronomy 26:11. In verses 12-16 Moses continues, without skipping a beat, to update instructions for another ritual liturgy. This time, it is the triennial tithe first announced in 14:28-29. Every three years the Israelites were to set aside a tenth of the land’s produce and deposit it locally. This was so that the powerless among them could have access to it: the resident aliens, the orphans, the widows.

The third-year tithing ritual liturgy presents a remarkable picture. According to the terms of the covenant emphasized throughout Deuteronomy, the Israelites could expect God’s blessing if they choose to be obedient to God’s Torah. The words of the tithing ritual declare that the worshiping Israelite has indeed made choices that place him in a position of obedience before God. He can therefore boldly tell God, “look down, and bless your people Israel, and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors” (Deuteronomy 26:15 NRSV).

Our lesson from Deuteronomy, then, in its full context, offers an instructive picture for us as we aspire to be the faithful people of God.

First: we are instructed to recall that our redemption is rooted in God’s faithfulness to his word acting on behalf of the homeless (wandering Aramean), the oppressed (afflicted resident aliens), and the marginalized (orphans and widows).

Second: we are enjoined to celebrate not simply the bounty of the land, but the faithfulness of God which is the source of the bounty. Our island home Earth sustains us with its produce because God is faithful to maintain the fruitfulness of the land.

Third: we are instructed to position ourselves as channels of God’s blessing to the vulnerable and the marginalized through our obedience to his desire that we consistently share it with them.

All told, our lesson offers us a vision of imitatio Dei, the imitation of God. We confess that God has acted on behalf of the powerless and blesses them with abundance. But God acts toward for a further purpose: that the redeemed might themselves act on behalf of the powerless in the same way that God has acted, blessing them with abundance. In short, God continues to redeem the powerless, but through the agency of the people of God when they choose to be faithful.


Psalm

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

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 91 is the second psalm in Book Four of the Psalter.

It is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, in which an individual praises God for goodness to or on behalf of that individual, usually for a deliverance from some trying situation. Hermann Gunkel, the great form critic, describes the occasion on which these songs would have been offered to God, “A person is saved out of great distress, and now with grateful heart he [sic] brings a thank offering to Yahweh; it was customary that at a certain point in the sacred ceremony he would offer a song in which he expresses his thanks.” We are called to read Psalm 91, thus, in the context of a worshiper’s grateful praise for deliverance.

The opening verses of the psalm are filled with rich imagery, rich metaphor. The Bible attempts to describe the nature and character of God with words, words that are crafted by our ancestors in the faith as they sought to depict the creator, sustainer, ever-present God. We read in the Old Testament that God is judge, king, lover, holy, and so forth. How do each of us — how do you? — understand the concepts of judge, king, lover, holy being?

Readers often bring “narrow lens” of understanding to the biblical text through no fault of their own, but rather by way of the interpretations of their faith communities. As readers “widen their lens,” they may discover new ways of reading the biblical text that enrich their understanding of who God is and who they are in relationship to God and to others. One metaphor for God will not do. The beauty of metaphoric imagery for God in the biblical text is that it allows for a multiplicity of conceptualizations, or as one scholar states, “a vast collection of interwoven images.” To achieve a full understanding of God, we must tune our ears and focus our eyes to hear and see other images, other metaphors than to ones we have always seen and heard.

The opening verses of Psalm 91 speak of God’s presence with and protection of the psalm singer as “the shelter … the shadow … my refuge … fortress” and uses four names for God — “Most High — Elyon,” “Almighty — Shaddai,” “LORD — Yahweh,” and “God — Elohim.” Elyon and Shaddai were common epithets for God in the Old Testament. Elyon appears eight times in the Pentateuch and nineteen times in the book of Psalms. Its root is the Hebrew verb ‘alah, and means “to go up, to ascend.” God is the great God, transcending all other devotions.

Shaddai is more interesting to this commentator because of its rich nuances of meaning and its more “earthly” connotations. The Hebrew root word is shad, which means either “mountain” or “breast.” References that tie nurturing breasts to God and God’s goodness occur over thirty times in the Hebrew Bible. Genesis 49:25 (the poem of Jacob’s blessings of his sons — in this instance Joseph) connects the blessing of Shaddai with the breasts (shaddaim) and the womb. In Isaiah 66:11, Zion is a “consoling breast” (shad). And Naomi states in Ruth 1:20-21, “Shaddai has dealt bitterly with me and brought calamity upon me,” — a reflection perhaps on her now “barren” state. If we understand the metaphor for God in Psalm 91:1 as a feminine metaphor, we might come to a new understanding of the whole psalm.

In verse 2, we read that God is “my refuge” and “my fortress.” While these words are most often interpreted as having to do with “fleeing from an enemy” and “safe haven under attack,” if we read them as the words of protection and safe haven that a mother (or a parent) provides, we “bring the words down to earth — down to everyday life,” so to speak. The basic meaning of the word that is translated as “refuge” is “to cover, to hide” (Hebrew chasah), and fits well with verse 4, that states, “God will cover you with pinions and under God’s wings you will find refuge.” Recall also that in Matthew 23:37, Jesus lamented, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!”

With this metaphoric image — God as feminine, as the motherly figure feeding and protecting her children — in mind, let us move to verses 9-16 of Psalm 91. Here we read that God will provide extraordinary protection to the one who seeks refuge in God. Verse 11, of course, was taken up by the composers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matthew 4:6; Luke 4:10-11) as a reference to Jesus, but in the greater context of Psalm 91, we may interpret these words as the caring protection a parent gives to a child whom they have conceived, born, and nurtured.

The closing words of Psalm 91 are rich with promise to those who love the parent who has nurtured them. The mother (and father) God will bless, protect, answer, be present in times of trouble, rescue, honor, and grant long life and salvation.

The season of Lent is a preparation of hearts, minds, and bodies for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the embodiment of God in this world. We are called to give our best, as the Lectionary reading from Deuteronomy 24 emphasizes. How do we do that? We must remember in this time of sacrifice that God is ever-present, manifesting Godself as mother, father, brother, sister, and yet holy other. Embrace the nurturing mother image of God as solid refuge in this season of preparation.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 10:8b-13

Audrey West

Words. Whether we ponder them in our hearts or speak them for others to hear, publish them online or in texts to friends, scribble them onto shopping lists or adorn them with artistic flair, most of us operate with the currency of words.

We trade them back and forth in new ways and old, borrowing frequently without a second thought. (Even if you are careful about citing a source like this one, when was the last time you required a footnote for, say, the word “pencil” or the acronym OMG?)

In the days before online access was so pervasive, my spouse used to give dictionaries as graduation gifts, with the attached note: “Everything you’ll need to write in college is contained in this book.”

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” Paul says (Romans 10:8), quoting Deuteronomy.

Making sense of reality

The lectionary passage is situated in the middle of a section of Romans (chapters 9-11) that interpreters have struggled over the years to understand. Some consider these chapters to be parenthetical remarks that divert from the primary message of Romans, while others read them as being central to Paul’s argument as a whole.

I will leave aside those debates, except to note that Paul seems to be wrestling with a deeply troubling reality facing his own ministry. That is, although many Gentile listeners have responded to his good news of Christ crucified, most of his Jewish brothers and sisters have not.

Despite this baffling reality, Paul remains convinced of this truth: God can be trusted to keep God’s promises.

Old words for new settings

As he works out the implications of that conviction, Paul does what many preachers have done before and after him: he searches the scriptures for the right words and applies them to his own time and place.

The opening verses of our lectionary passage comprise the closing lines of Paul’s line-by-line interpretation of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 (found in Romans 10:6-9), in which Paul takes a passage that was originally about the Law and applies it to his own proclamation. Fully half of the six verses in the assigned pericope contain OT quotes; in addition to the one just mentioned, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:16 (Romans 10:11) and Joel 2:32 (Romans 10:13).

Whether in his own words or in words he has borrowed, Paul affirms promise upon promise: The word is near you…you will be saved…no one who believes in him will be put to shame (kataischuno = be disappointed; cf. Romans 5:5 “hope does not disappoint us”) … there is no distinction…everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Everyone.

Verbal threads: mouths and hearts

Several verbal threads (that is, repetition of words) run through the passage. It may be a fruitful exercise for preachers to play with two of these words: stoma (mouth/lips) and kardia (heart). For example, note their internal (heart) and external (mouth) character, or consider how the words that people speak do or do not conform to their innermost thoughts and beliefs.

Paul seems to expect that God’s good news (“the word of faith which we preach”) actually gets inside of people. It is not simply something to be spoken (although, to be sure, it is also a spoken word), but it is a power that changes hearts and lives. Recall that in Paul’s day, the heart is the seat of physical, intellectual and spiritual life, including the will, emotions, and desires, while the mouth gives expression (or denies) what is in the heart. (Compare, for example, Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, “’Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”)

Along these lines, note the Gospel passage appointed for today (the temptation of Jesus according to Luke), in which Jesus and the devil engage in a verbal sparring match. Each of them quotes scripture, but only Jesus speaks with the integrity that connects lips and heart.

Belief and trust

Another verbal thread in our pericope is pisteuo (believe) and its cognate noun pistis (faith). For many people today, words like believing and faith suggest cognitive assent to something — whether or not the object of one’s belief is demonstrably true (such as “blind faith”). As noted above, however, Paul’s assertion is that the good news actually changes people. For one thing, it brings Gentiles and Jews together into the family of God. To “believe” in that assertion is something other than intellectual assent; rather, it is to be changed into a reality in which the long-time distinctions no longer apply.

Recall that pistis/pisteuo may also be translated by words such as trust, confidence, reliability, fidelity, etc. Substitute the word “trust” everywhere you read the word “believe” in the passage and you may hear Paul’s words sounding a slightly different tune. What might it look like actually to trust that God raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 10:9), and not simply to believe it? Or to trust in God and not only to believe about God?

Both and all

As we know from Paul’s other letters, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church was not always an easy one, given differences in culture, values, belief-systems, etc. Nonetheless, Paul insists that the word of the gospel brings both groups into the family of God: Jews by virtue of the covenant, Gentiles by virtue of Christ, all by virtue of God’s promises.

Few congregations today face the precise questions that challenged Paul’s churches. Even so, there remain significant issues that divide believers from one another. Paul’s words may speak the gospel to those situations: “The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him, for ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Romans 10:12). From where you sit, what does it look like to trust that word?