Lectionary Commentaries for February 28, 2010
Second Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:31-35

Arland J. Hultgren

The passage consists of two pericopes, “The Warning against Herod” (Luke 13:31-3) and “The Lament over Jerusalem” (13:34-35).

They are located within the so-called Travel Narrative in the Gospel of Luke (9:51-19:27). Ever since 9:51, Jesus and his followers are on a long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Although the section is designated a “narrative,” there is actually not much narrative in it. It contains teachings primarily; for example, most of the parables of Jesus that Luke has collected appear in this section. The teaching materials consist primarily of:

1. Instruction for Jesus’ disciples
2. Controversies with opponents
3. Words of judgment

The two passages being discussed here fit into the latter two categories.

The first of the two pericopes appears in Luke without parallels in the other gospels. It is special Lucan material. The second has a parallel at Matthew 23:37-39. The wording is almost identical in Matthew and Luke. Consequently, the passage is considered to have been based on Q by those who accept the two-source theory of synoptic relationships.

The first of the pericopes begins with the approach of some Pharisees who warn Jesus about “Herod,” which would have been Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee (technically a “tetrarch,” or ruler of a fourth of the former kingdom of Herod the Great), 4 B.C.–A.D. 39. Why this Herod would have sought to kill Jesus is not said. The most plausible reason would be that he thought of Jesus as, in some way, a successor to John the Baptist; some had even claimed that “John had been raised from the dead” (9:7), and that Jesus was he.

In any case, Jesus was an enigma and a threat, and in 9:9 Herod declares concerning John and Jesus: “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” To which Luke adds, “And he tried to see him.”

The response of Jesus to the Pharisees in our story (13:32-33) appears dismissive, but it is also a challenge to Herod. Calling him a “fox,” Jesus implies that Herod is a deceptive or wily person, perhaps both. Jesus says that he must continue the course of his ministry day by day. He is on a course that cannot be interrupted, for he had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). That includes a ministry of exorcisms, healings, and ultimately (by implication) his suffering, death, and resurrection. The latter is alluded to in the statement “on the third day I finish my work” (9:32). Jesus must continue on his journey to Jerusalem.

The lament over Jerusalem in 13:34-35 seems to be out of place. Jesus is still in Galilee in Luke’s narrative. He does not arrive at Jerusalem until 19:41, when he weeps over the city; an event located some six chapters later in Luke’s chronology. Matthew’s placement of the lament is more fitting for anyone who seeks to construct a chronology of Jesus’ ministry, for he places the lament at 23:37-39 after Jesus’ entry into the city (21:10).

But Luke’s placement of the lament makes sense within Luke’s overall purpose. It helps to develop the narrative by appearing nearly half-way between 9:51 and 19:41, sustaining the tension, and leading up to the tragedy that is to come in Jerusalem. The course has been set; there is no turning back, even though the news about Herod’s threat upon Jesus’ life is ominous. Jesus must go on to Jerusalem, and that is where his death shall occur.

The lament is tinged with great sadness. Jerusalem had already been the place where prophets had been killed (Jeremiah 26:20-23; cf. Matthew 23:29-30; Acts 7:52) and where early Christian witnesses, including Stephen and James, would be martyred (Acts 7:59; 12:2). Jesus cries out, using feminine imagery of a hen with her chicks, saying that he would gladly have protected the city, but the people would not listen.

At first sight, the verse seems to imply that Jesus had been in the city previously, and that his ministry there had been rejected. Yet the verse expresses a desire that Jesus had had, nothing more. From the beginning of his ministry, the leadership in Jerusalem had been involved in provoking people to reject him and his ministry (cf. 5:17).

Jesus pronounces doom upon the city, which was to be followed eventually by its destruction in A.D. 70. The passage ends with Jesus’ declaration that the people of the city will not see him until the messianic expectation of Psalm 118:26 is fulfilled: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” These words are similar to the words that the people cry out who welcome Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem on the Sunday prior to his death: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (19:38).

The two brief pericopes that make up this reading challenge the preacher and the congregation at worship to deal with Jesus’ judgment upon the holy city. Jerusalem refuses to listen to those messengers who proclaim the justice and the reign of God. For that reason, the city stands under divine judgment.

It is right, even inevitable, when dealing with this text, to ask about the present. Who or what is the ‘Jerusalem’ of the day in which one lives? Is it the political and civic sphere? Is it the religious sphere? Or is it both? Jerusalem was a center of both political and religious power and activity in the days of Jesus, but it refused to heed its prophets, of which Jesus himself was one.

It is important at the same time to recall that, when judgment is declared, the purpose for such is that those upon whom the judgment falls may come to know their plight, repent, and be renewed. Judgment is pronounced for the sake of salvation.

And what about laments? On the one hand, they express sadness and describe a distressing state of affairs. But on the other hand, they presuppose that God exists, hears one’s cry, and has the power to turn that which is lamentable into something that is good.

And so the church looks to the future, standing on the side of God’s will for a just, secure, and peaceful world. Its hopes may not be realized completely in history, but they will be fulfilled at the coming of the Blessed One, who comes in the name of the Lord — in God’s own time.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

The language found in the opening verse of the chapter shapes the reader’s perception of Abram.

The reader is told that “the word of the LORD came to Abram.” Such language typically records the experience of prophets (Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Micah 1:1). Later in Genesis (20:7), Abram is in fact labeled a prophet by God in a dream to Abimelech. Commentators often note this fact, but rarely suggest possible implications. Admittedly, it is impossible to know the “mind of the author,” perhaps leading to the reticence of commentators, but the close connection between Abram and the office of the prophet may prove suggestive.

A primary role of the prophet was to be the voice of God for and to the people of God. The events surrounding the life of Abram become more than simply ancestral tales; they become the voice of God to the people of God. The promises made to Abram and the faithfulness of God displayed throughout the Abrahamic narratives do more than note the origins of a people; they are testimony. Even as prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel embodied the message of God through symbolic acts, the story of Abram embodies a message to subsequent generations about this God who has called his people into existence.

The opening verses of chapter 15 cannot be heard apart from chapters 13 and 14. In chapter 13, Lot and Abram divide the land between them, with Lot taking a land that is described in ways similar to that of the Garden of Eden (verse 10); Abram’s parcel is described only as “the land of the Canaanites.” In chapter 14, Abram rescues Lot and defeats Chedorlaomer, among others, leading the King of Sodom to offer to Abram the riches of his conquest. Yet, Abram announces that he will take nothing. In both cases, Abram has the possibility of securing his future–in the first instance with land and in the second, with riches, yet he acknowledges that his future can be secured only by “the LORD God Most High” (Yahweh El Elyon).

In chapter 15, the declaration made by Abram in chapter 14 is realized. God promises to be his shield and promises a reward, a reward which Abram assumes refers to an heir. Abram retorts that he has in fact identified Eliezer to be his heir, but God responds by indicating this heir will be from Abram’s offspring. There is no doubt; God promises to secure the future for Abram.

The reader is told, almost nonchalantly, Abram “believed the LORD.” The faith of Abram exhibited in the two preceding chapters leaves the reader with little doubt that Abram would in fact believe. The narrator then explains that God “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The notion of “righteousness” is less about an ideal norm, and more about right relationship. Abram believes in the God who has called him and continues to call him. Despite the insecurities that abound, Abram is convinced the future has been secured by this covenant God. Rather than some forensic announcement, God announces that the faith of Abram is indicative of one in right relationship with him, and more importantly, one who has taken seriously the covenant relationship that exists between God and his servant.

Abram is in fact a prophet for us in the Lenten season. Abram’s commitment to his God, despite all appearances to the contrary, challenges us to ask whether we have in fact believed in the LORD with the kind of belief that should be reckoned as righteousness. Our faith must be rooted in the One who dares make our uncertain future secure, but our relationship with this One is contingent upon whether we can believe, even as Abram believed.

Attention is frequently given to the declaration made in verse 6 and such attention is rightly deserved. An overlooked element in this narrative, however, may have significant implications for the Lenten season. The announcement that Abram believed in verse 6 elicits a promise from God. Embedded within this promise is the claim that Abram’s offspring will indeed be numerous, but they will become aliens in a distant land–not the land of the promise–and further, they will be oppressed for four hundred years.

Coupled with these somewhat bleak words is the promise to Abram that “you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” (verse 15). The following verse begins “They shall come back here.” The circumstances become quite clear. The promise of land made in 13:14-17 to Abram and his descendants loses its sense of immediacy. The horizon has shifted forward–four hundred years forward–when “they shall come back.” The horizon has shifted forward to a time when Abram is no more.

A cursory reading of chapter 15 might appear to substantiate claims of those who preach prosperity gospel in all its manifold forms. After all, Abram believes, God deems him righteous, and Abram has a multitude of offspring, followed by an abundance of land. Yet what is lost in such a reading is the four hundred year hiatus, and more significantly is the fact that Abram will not be around to enjoy the “prosperity.” And yet despite this, the text is clear: Abram remains faithful, as evidenced most fully in chapter 22 with the near sacrifice of Isaac.

This text reminds us all that being shaped into a faithful life is not about immediate gratification or even for our own benefit, but instead, living a faithful life is about leaning forward into the vision of God for the world even when the horizon extends far beyond our own lives. Such a life is comprised of a deep sense of expectation coupled with a patient belief in the faithfulness of the God we serve.

The Lenten season provides us with time for reflection and introspection; it is a preparatory time, moving us towards Passion Week. But is that all? Do we linger in the Lenten season only in the hopes that somehow Eastertide will be more meaningful this year? Perhaps the Lenten season affords us the chance to reflect upon our own lives and in so doing, it allows us to hear the beckoning of God to live a faithful life–one that is leaning forward into the vision of God for the world, knowing full well that such a vision may extend to a horizon far beyond our own lives.


Commentary on Psalm 27

Jane Strohl

Pastors regularly point to the psalms when people feel angry with God or despair of God’s goodness.

Psalm 27 captures the ambiguity that inevitably haunts our faith.

Look how the psalmist begins in verse 1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” This is no general statement about the nature of God. It is a strong declaration of a very personal relationship. As Martin Luther insisted, theologizing about who or what God is will not sustain the heart in times of trouble. It is the confession that this God is “for me” — the stronghold of my life — that is crucial.

There is great boldness in the first three verses. Declarations of certain victory follow the initial exultant cry. Enemies will be overthrown; fear will be vanquished, “…though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident” (verse 3). Indeed, if God is for me, who shall be against me?

Then the psalmist’s tone shifts. Rather than confidently toughing it out in the midst of his foes, he seeks safety in the house of the Lord. Rescued from the dangers surrounding him, he is placed securely out of their reach (“under the cover of his tent,” “high on a rock” in verse 5) to dwell in the house of the Lord. He will behold the beauty of the Lord, joyfully offer sacrifices and fill God’s house with song. Here God is unambiguously “for me,” and the psalmist is wholly devoted to God. Nothing comes between them–no distractions of the world, no assaults of the enemy, no uncertainty of God’s intent.

At verse 9, the tone changes again. Having just talked of making melody to the Lord, the psalmist breaks forth with an anxious cry: “Do not hide your face from me.” His desperation ratchets up: “Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.” Prayer to this God, the one we know as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is a complex conversation. The psalmist now faces a different adversary, the erstwhile Helper who would now abandon him to his (mis)fortunes in the world.

Yet even as he pleads, he offers a challenge to his God. Remember who you are, you who have been my help, you who are my salvation. The psalmist concludes not with another plea, but with a pronouncement, perhaps even a challenge. “If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up” (verse 10). To take a child in your arms and raise him up is to claim that child as your own before the world. Whatever damage one’s adversaries inflict, they cannot destroy this act of divine adoption. God is not only my light and my salvation; God is the parent who remains faithful.

The psalmist again implores God’s protection from his enemies and then concludes with a strong confession (“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” — verse 13) and with words of encouragement for his hearers (“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” — verse 14). He shares with his community what he has learned from his own passage through the valley of the shadow of death.

The psalms were compiled from older collections of lyrics for use in the temple. They have been classified into a number of different categories (for example, laments, songs of trust, royal psalms), and one will find elements of more than one kind in a single psalm.

Psalm 27 includes a song of trust, prayers for deliverance, and a lament. The rapid fire movement among these responses to God makes clear the challenge of faith. The circumstances of our lives can appear to give the lie to God’s goodness. The empty echo meeting our prayers casts doubt upon God’s attentiveness. We feel forsaken, and we can so easily fall into unbelief.

So the psalm begins and ends with proclamations of trust. They serve to reassure us as to who God is for us and to remind God of who God is for God’s self. Luther wrote that if God came to his doorstep tomorrow and announced that on second thought he was not going to save him, he would respond, “Too late, I have your promise.” Not exactly a humble reply but an appropriate one in the circumstances, for this God has taken us up.

The psalmist is troubled by those who bear false witness against him and threaten him with violence. The foreclosure signs in our neighborhoods lay bare the violence wrought by corporate greed. We know the misery caused by unemployment and the suffering of debilitating illness.

In his description of Eden, Luther emphasized that it was a place where there was no fear — no fear of dying, no fear of other living beings, no fear of nature. It is a wonderful vision, for we live in a world fraught with fear. However, there is a bold word to throw in its face again and again — and in God’s. “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” Then we wait.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:17—4:1

Susan Hedahl

The Epistle reading comes near the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians and his tone is sharp, emotional, pleading and full of love for those he addresses.

This passage, unlike that of the coolly argued Romans text the week before, is “pastoral” in the sense of an urgent conversation about problems and joys. Paul’s words speak in specifics about negative realities impinging on the life of the Philippians; his words give mirror-like details against the general picture of the rejection of God’s call, which the Gospel text presents in Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem.

I. The Text
This passage falls into two general sections. The first deals with the behavior of true believers and the second to which that is linked is the eschatological hope believers have in the coming of the Savior.

It is unclear historically which adversaries Paul was referring to in verses 18 and 19. It could be those who were attempting to force the agenda of Jewish law on Christian believers. It could be those who were preaching a different kind of Gospel from Paul and whose behavior signified their inability to conform their lives to Christ. It could be those people in the Philippians’ environment who lived hedonistically and violently.

Whoever they are, Paul is clear about their life style. They “live as enemies of the cross of Christ…their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is their shame…their minds are set on earthly things.” It is crucial to note that verses 18 and 19 feature a pattern of life. Paul is not referring to individual sins as such but to an entire way of being. In other words, their mindset, actions and orientation war against everything Paul considers Christian.

Paul’s antidote to what the Philippians are witnessing, his care for their souls and lives, comes through the summons which begins this passage. He asks them to consider two versions of the Christian life: “join in imitating me…observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” This is an enormous claim pastorally! Paul is basically laying out two versions of reality and asking the Philippians to choose the one he and other faithful followers are offering.

What is the basis for Paul’s exhortations? The answer is found in verses 20 and 21. Paul is telling the Philippians they do not, ultimately, belong to the environment in which they live. They live ‘elsewhere,’ which is to say “our citizenship is in heaven.” What Paul is underscoring here is that the Philippians need to know which citizens of which realm they are — this answer will determine their choice of behaviors.

Paul’s words should not be preached as a rejection of the body, its needs, its life alone and in community. Instead, Paul says “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory…” (verse 21). What does this mean? This is not a literal, detailed look at transformation. Instead, it is an eschatological promise of change which does not denigrate the body but takes seriously the incarnated reality of humanity for the sake of Jesus. Paul further underscores the transformation by saying it is part and parcel of “the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself” (verse 21).

The connection between behavior and eternity has prompted this excellent summary statement from Moises Silva’s commentary on Philippians: “Paul himself, of course, often links eschatological hope with ethical commands…” (184). In other words, Paul is not simply offing codes of conduct or rules for living. Rather, he is linking the teleological with the behavioral as a means of offering encouragement and hope to the Philippians. His final pastoral statement of support in 4:1 asserts this as he calls them to “stand firm in the Lord.”

II. Homiletical Possibilities
Even without a clear understanding of those Paul is referring to as “enemies of the cross,” this passage offers ample reflection for the season of Lent. Every age and place has its enemies of the cross. The preacher might probe what some of these might be for the listeners. Across American culture the lack of interest — even opposition — to the Christian faith is noticeable in many venues. At a more depressing level, congregational life has sunk into apathy and “going through the motions.” Those addicted to food, drugs, and entertainment of all types are significantly present in any community and offer challenges to Christians who encounter them.

It is crucial that the preacher not trivialize the potential for Lenten reflection on such realities. There is a great deal of the mentality which runs in the vein of “I will give up chocolate for Lent.” How does one counter such thinking in terms of inviting listening believers to live sacrificially – all the time?? Paul is asking, in this passage, for believers not simply to “behave” but to look at the meaning of all they do in relationship to a much larger power and reality. Sermons on this passage hopefully can catch that sense of the larger reality.

Another sermonic approach which invites a sermon is that of transformation. The passage both urges this against those who would claim otherwise, but it also promotes it through the promise of change that affects the entire human being, body, soul and spirit. Transformation is placed on both temporal and eternal planes. In theological and sermonic terms, one word which might help listeners lean into the promise of transformation is ‘sanctification.’ This word not only inhabits the season of Lent quite well but engages the believer in understanding that the faith life is a process. Or to quote the exasperated words of the parent driver on a trip with the kids. “No, we are not quite there – yet!”

Finally, this passage uses personal example as encouragement. Like Paul, all can offer this as means of helping other Christians live in hope and maintain the patterns of life in Christ. It is a call to all who desire the future “citizenship [that] is in heaven.”