Lectionary Commentaries for February 24, 2013
Second Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:31-35

Scott Shauf

Luke 13:31-35 begins with a warning from the Pharisees for Jesus about Herod’s plan to kill him, but it becomes a reflection on the nature of Jesus’ life and mission (which reach their ultimate goal in his death) and then on the tragic role played by Jerusalem in the life of Jesus and other prophets.

The passage invites Christians today to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ life and death and on the role we play in the continuing mission of Jesus.

The Pharisees and Herod
It is difficult to evaluate the motives of the Pharisees in the story. It is also difficult to evaluate whether or not their warning is either sincere or representative of a real threat. As in all the Gospels, the Pharisees in Luke are largely antagonistic to Jesus and Jesus to them. There are hints, however, of a more positive reception by the Pharisees. In 7:36 and 14:1, for instance, Pharisees invite Jesus into their homes (although the scenes do not play out well for them), and in Acts 15:5 we hear that some Pharisees had actually become Christians. We thus cannot dismiss the Pharisees’ motives as necessarily being negative.

On the other hand, their report seems problematic: Luke 9:7-9 and 23:8 suggest Herod’s interest in Jesus was not in killing him, and when given the chance to condemn Jesus in the Passion account, Herod refuses to do so (23:6-12). We cannot be sure of Herod’s status in the passage, however, because of course Herod had both imprisoned and executed John the Baptist (3:19-20; 9:9).

Jesus’ Death a Part of His Mission
Whatever the purposes of the Pharisees and Herod, Jesus uses the threat to make clear the nature of his upcoming death as a part of his mission. Jesus is going to die, but it will have nothing to do with the threat of Herod. Rather, his death is the completion of his present ministry. He characterizes this ministry as “casting out demons and performing cures” (verse 32).  Both activities are by themselves important:

  • The significance of casting out demons for Jesus’ ministry is given in 11:20: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Casting out demons is part of Jesus’ battle against the devil (see further 11:21-22) and thus a part of his establishment of the kingdom of God.
  • Performing cures is likewise a part of the fundamental character of Jesus’ mission, announced in 4:18-19 as being “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind” (quoting Isaiah), also a statement about the establishment of God’s kingdom.

To reinforce that Herod has no control over him, Jesus adds that he will be doing these things “today and tomorrow” (verse 32, emphasis added).

When Jesus follows this statement about “today and tomorrow” by saying that “on the third day I finish my work,” it is perhaps not apparent from these words alone what he means. Indeed, the reference to “the third day” probably sounds to most readers like a reference to the resurrection. Perhaps the resurrection is meant to be included, but the following verse makes it clear that it is his death that Jesus primarily has in mind: “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (verse 33).

The important point to note is that Jesus’ death is in continuity with the rest of his ministry — “today,” “tomorrow,” and “the third day” go together. Jesus’ death is not of a fundamentally different character than his ministry while he was alive: They are all about establishing the kingdom of God. Holding together Jesus’ life and death helps us to make better sense of both.

Jerusalem: A Tragic Role
Jesus has been journeying to Jerusalem since 9:51, a journey that lasts all the way through 19:28 in Luke’s Gospel (often referred to as Luke’s “Journey Narrative”). Jesus’ mention of his death there leads him to reflect on the tragedy that Jerusalem had been in Israel’s past and will be in Jesus’ future, even though its role is a necessary one, as the end of verse 33 makes clear.

Jesus’ prophetic reflection alternates between denunciation and compassion:

  • He first indicts Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (verse 34). The irony is heavy. Jerusalem, after all, is “the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there” (Deuteronomy 12:5). That the city of God’s habitation becomes the seat of such violent opposition to God is part of the ironic tragedy of Israel’s own story, including Jesus’ story.
  • Immediately following this indictment we have the compassionate and agonized plea of v. 35b: Jesus (speaking for God?) longs to shelter the children of Israel like a mother hen does for her brood.
  • Nevertheless, punishment is announced in verse 35: “your house is left to you desolate” (NIV; the NRSV’s overly literal translation misses the point), probably a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (the “house” of God) in A.D. 70.
  • But Jesus ends with a recognition that Jerusalem will, at least for a moment, recognize him (verse 35b). He refers, of course, to his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday.

Jesus’ Mission and Death, and Our Own Sometimes-Tragic Role
Throughout Lent we are preparing ourselves to experience Jesus’ cross. This passage calls us to do so by considering whether our lives lead appropriately to that cross. Can we make sense of our lives as a part of the establishment of God’s kingdom in our world? Or are we frightened from our mission by the threats of earthly rulers? Moreover, if Jesus were to speak prophetically to us, what would his message be? How have we resisted God’s messages and kingdom? Paul refers to the church as a temple, as the dwelling of God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). So how have we played the tragic role of Jerusalem? On the other hand, how have we recognized God’s messages and kingdom, and how can we continue to do so?

First Reading

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

Ralph W. Klein

Genesis 15 explores the significance of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah about descendants and land.

Their names are spelled Abram and Sarai until they are changed in Genesis 17, but we will use the traditional names throughout this study. In both stories in this chapter, the patriarch initially expresses doubt about God’s promise.

The gospel has been defined as God’s good news for our bad situations. Our bad situations are often our sin and our guilt, but bad situations often involve economic and health issues, broken or troubled relationships, or feelings of meaninglessness. Preaching the gospel means to articulate the gospel in such an inclusive way that hearers will find good news for their bad situations — whatever they are.

In the case of Sarah and Abraham, their first “bad situation” was their inability to have a child despite the promise in Genesis 12:2 that God would make of them a great nation. Abraham had become so desperate that he proposed to adopt his servant Eliezer of Damascus as his heir.

God challenged this “Plan B” of Abraham and Sarah and said that only their naturally born child would be their heir. The Lord took Abraham outside, pointed him to the sky, and urged him to count the stars. That’s how many children you will have. Abraham thought this was a good idea. We do not know what Sarah thought of this proposal (wink, wink). Clearly this promise had the long view in focus: with the passing of generations the descendants of Abraham and Sarah would number in the thousands or even the millions. How like God: when the promise was hard to believe, God upped the ante.

This little story climaxes in verse 6. Abraham believed the Lord. That’s what humans are supposed to do with God’s promises — trust them, accept them, and rely on them. The key to this verse — and possibly to the sermon — is the word “righteousness.” Righteousness in the Bible means living up to the obligations inherent in a relationship. In Genesis 38 Tamar was willing to do anything — including sleeping with her father-in-law Judah — to fulfill her obligation to bear a child for her deceased first husband Er. Hence she was called righteous by Judah.

But verse 6 is ambiguous, even ambivalent. As the note in the NRSV indicates, the words “the LORD” in the second half of the sentence “translates” the Hebrew word “he.” Hence we should read: “And he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This could mean: Abraham believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to Abraham as righteousness. In this case Abraham trusted God’s promise, and God indicated that the patriarch had fulfilled the obligations of his relationship with God by such trust.

But this sentence might also mean: Abraham believed the Lord; aye, Abraham reckoned that God’s doubling down on the promise was God living up to the obligations of his relationship to Abraham and Sarah. How typical of God. When we have trouble believing a promise, God makes the promise even better.

In verses 7-12 and 17-18 Abraham again has trouble believing the promise, this time the promise of the land: “How am I to know that I shall in fact possess it?” God told Abraham to take a series of animals, cut them in two, and lay each half opposite its counterpart. Then, at sunset, a deep sleep fell on Abraham, much like the deep sleep that overcame Adam before God took one of his ribs and built it into a woman (Genesis 2:21). The point is not to be missed: Abraham is fast asleep for the rest of the pericope, and he contributes nothing to the making of the covenant after he has prepared the animals.

In a dream or vision Abraham observes a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passing between the cut up animals. On that day the Lord made with Abraham and Sarah a covenant, saying, “To your descendants I give this land.”

Again, this is God’s good news for their bad situation, but what does this ceremony mean? In making an agreement, our ancient ancestors often invoked on themselves a curse. An eighth-century treaty from a place called Sefire says: “Just as I am tearing the shoulder off this sheep, may my own shoulder be torn from its socket if I violate this agreement.”1

Abraham and Sarah had a hard time believing the promise of the land. Would it help God says if I would invoke upon myself a curse? That is, may I be cut in pieces like these animals if I don’t fulfill this promise? At other times in the Old Testament God reinforces his promises by “swearing by himself” or “by raising his hand to heaven.” When a promise is hard to believe, God reinforces the promise by putting himself at risk. Now can you believe?

The crucifixion of Jesus is interpreted in a variety of ways in the New Testament and in Christian theology. One way of interpreting it is to say that God took upon himself the curse that was meant for us: Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree. When God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, is this not good news that empowers our trust? And is not the God of the Old Testament much like the God of the New Testament in putting himself on the line?

Genesis 15 recognizes that it is sometimes hard to believe when we are in bad situations. But God addresses our bad situations with promises that ring true to our needs, just as God doubled down on the promises to Abraham and Sarah. God lives up to his relationship with us by demonstrating that his news for us is indeed good, that he is willing to risk his very self so that we might believe.

1See a similar ceremony in Jeremiah 34:17-20.


Commentary on Psalm 27

Paul O. Myhre

Psalm 27 invites reflection about the contours of human confidence, theological reflection and discernment, and prayer.

With poetic breathing, each verse exhalation prompts new reflections about the activity of God and where God might be discerned. There is something of a confidence that builds as the Psalm progresses from one verse to the next.

Yet, human experience teaches that there is no shortage of things that can break your confidence. A harsh comment, a piercing critique, a less than stellar performance, and on the list could go. If we have lived any span of time we know the events, people, and places that have shaped us can serve as motivators for us to rethink the direction we were traveling in life and choose another way. Sometimes people can be adept at noticing the places of insecurity we harbor and then exploit them so that personal resolve is broken or shattered.

The beauty of finding out where we lack confidence or what is the cause of our own fear(s) is that we may then discover how to face them or navigate a way through them. Madeleine L’Engle in reflecting on confidence wrote, “It’s a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand.”1 So often it seems that rock is more common than sand under our feet. However, a capacity to discern the difference or even courage to place one foot down to sense the stone is overcome by the fear that what we will touch is only sand — or worse quicksand.

The idea of the “imposter syndrome” is an ever-present force with which artists –dancers, musicians, painters, and so on — have to contend daily.2 Was the dance performance good enough? Was the musical composition good enough? Is the work of art good enough? All of which point to a deeper question, “Am I good enough?” I think this phenomenon also has the potential to afflict parish pastors, theological school educators, and anyone who strives to do something well. Something causes feelings of inadequacy to rise like floodwaters from distant tributaries to our personal river of life.

What is the source for our confidence? From what inner wellspring do we drink when times become tough and difficult or when critiques fall on our ears like acid rain? Each of us know too well how the corrosive power of negative comments can cause us to slip and slide in our resolve to stay the course on which we travel. An artist professor of mine would counsel his students prior to the weekly critiques by saying, “Remember it takes 10 good comments to offset one hard critique.”

I have discovered in my own life that where confidence is lacking, there may also be a lack of discernable hope. I have also discerned that sometimes the capacity to gain confidence lies within a reorganization of the objects of your gaze. The life of faith and a renewal of vision for perceiving the activity of God may be found in readjusting horizons by looking to the natural environment.

Seeing the Goodness of the Lord
The Psalmist invites readers to places of self-discovery about the movements of God in the ordinary movements of creation. The land of the living is pregnant with possibilities for seeing the goodness of God. The Psalmist seems to be aware of a truth about the potentiality of the natural environment to unfold pages of God’s goodness and disperse them like scattered leaves about and let them fall where they might. It is really a matter of taking the time and adjusting one’s sight to see them.

For example, I found in youth great joy watching ants meandering along invisible chemical trails. I didn’t know about the chemical trails at the time, but I delighted in seeing their animated dances of life. There was something about a sense of purpose and a zest for life in their segmented bodily movements. I marveled at how fast they could run and how much a spirit of adventure seemed to mark their steps. Maybe it was my own desire to run with speed or spirit of adventure that I was transferring to the ants. Whatever it was, it was there.

When one ant would find a piece of discarded peanut butter and jelly-smeared bread dropped from my soiled fingers, it was almost as if I could hear an audible cry of delight from that ant who then quickly informed his siblings about the find. In moments the day of searching erupted into a dance of delight for the feast to come as they brought the bounty provided by an unnoticed hand back to the hive. I could spend great lengths of time just watching them dismantle the bread and carry it away. How much more must God delight in seeing us discover the items of grace placed before searching hands and busy feet?

Over the span of life I have had scores of conversations with people about prayer and their visceral questions about the purpose of it — What is it? How do you do it well? Why do it at all? What does prayer do for God or for us? When should you pray and where?

The Psalms often articulate the importance of an active prayer life with God. Here Psalm 27 asserts that prayer has positive benefits for those who pray even if the prayer doesn’t eventuate in exactly what one wants the prayer to do. There also doesn’t seem to be any pragmatic correlation between prayer articulation, reception, and divine action. Instead, the activity of prayer enriches a relationship between the one who prays and the one to whom they pray — God. The prayer is individual and communal; it binds petitioners and the one God in an intimate relationship of trust and hope.

Prayer can be poetic and lofty. It can be earthy and mundane. It can be concerned with the bone marrow matters of life that dig deep into the core of human experience and cause people to cry out in tangible pain. The Psalmist knows this first hand and sprinkles words to indicate their own experience.

Seeking God in the middle of confusion could be regarded as the wisest course of action that anyone could take. The Psalmist’s assertion that God will not fail, even if everything else does, can bring hope to one’s spirit and provide strength to go through the day. Bringing to God human thoughts and feelings about anything and everything can bring about confidence for living through the highs and lows of human experience.

The Psalmist claimed that they would, “remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:13-14).

We can join the Psalmist’s declaration that the Lord is our light, our salvation, our stronghold, our confidence, our safety, our shelter, our teacher, and our Savior.

1Chang, Larry, ed. Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millenia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing. Washington, DC: Gnosophia Publishers, 2006. 415. 

2For quick thumbnail sketches of the imposter syndrome, please see:Caltech Counseling Center http://www.counseling.caltech.edu/InfoandResources/Impostor and Dr. Paul Rose Clance http://paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon.html

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:17—4:1

Elizabeth Shively

Mohandas Gandhi once remarked, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.

Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Even within the church some of us may find ourselves agreeing with this statement because human beings so often disappoint us. When someone points to the mishaps of a professed Christian as a reason not to embrace the faith, we may tell him to look at Jesus instead. But in our text, Paul calls his audience to look at people and to imitate them.

The Pattern to Imitate
Paul appeals to his readers to imitate him. This may seem to be an expression of insufferable vanity. However, Paul has just used himself as a negative example of putting stock in one’s own status and accomplishments before God. He now regards these as rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ (chapter 3). Paul does not want his audience to imitate false teachers who valued external ritual practices like circumcision (3:1-3). Rather, he wants his audience to imitate him in throwing off all external markers for the single-minded pursuit of sharing in Christ’s suffering and knowing the power of his resurrection (3:10-11).

Paul’s audience is to imitate him or, if he is not present, to imitate those who follow his example, like Timothy and Epaphroditus (see 2:19-30). The word “example” translates the Greek word typos in 3:17. Etymologically, typos refers to a blow that leaves an imprint, like what is left by a stamp or a seal. In moral discourse, the word came to refer to an example or pattern. Paul presents his own life as the typos that has made an imprint upon the lives of his associates and that is worthy of imitation. But Paul himself is not the archetype.

Paul models his life on Christ, reflected in the words “for to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (1:22). For Paul, all of life is captured in Christ so that everything Paul does is generated by Christ and done for his sake. For this reason, Paul provides Jesus Christ as the quintessential examplefor his audience to follow. He calls them to think and act in humility and self-sacrificial service towards each other (2:1-4). They are to look at Jesus, who acted in humility and self-sacrificial service towards humanity in his incarnation and in his crucifixion (2:5-11).

Jesus Christ is the archetype, the typos that made an imprint on the life of Paul. This is a certain kind of living that requires a certain mindset: not asserting your own rights, considering the needs of others as more important than your own. It took Jesus to the cross. It landed Paul in prison. Paul’s call to imitate him is, in fact, a call to imitate Jesus.

Don’t be Earthly-Minded (verses 18-19)
Some, however, are not following this example and have become “enemies of the cross of Christ” (verse 18). They do not follow the example of Christ as modeled by Paul. Instead of having a mind set on Christ, they have “minds set on earthly things.” Instead of being guided by self-sacrificial service to others, they are guided by their own desires (“their god is their belly”). These people have not denied Christ by their confession or words, but have denied Christ by their behavior. They are enemies of the cross of Christ because they refuse to conform to the pattern of humility and self-sacrifice that led Jesus there.

Be Heavenly-Minded (verses 20-21)
With a sharp contrast, Paul says that he and his audience are not earthly minded, but are heavenly minded (verse 20). Paul reminds them that their true citizenship is in heaven and not on this earth. Philippi was a Roman colony, so Paul’s audience were Roman citizens with rights and benefits of which they were proud. Paul himself invokes these benefits when he is in Philippi to his aid (Acts 16). But here Paul redefines the citizenship of the Christian. The Philippians — and we as Christians — are citizens of Christ’s city, governed by the gospel. Paul uses the present tense, “our citizenship is in heaven,” which calls them to enact their true citizenship now in a foreign land.

Paul has had his mind on the redefinition of citizenship throughout the letter. His use of citizenship language in 3:20 recalls 1:27. Most translations disguise the sense of the Greek language with a translation such as the NRSV, “let your manner of live be worthy of the gospel.” Literally, it is “live as citizens worthy of the gospel.” They do this by participating in the common cause of “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” Paul comes full circle in our passage to speak of citizenship again. Notice that in 3:17 Paul asks his audience to “join together” in imitating him. The kind of living to which he calls is not a solitary job, but is necessarily done in community.

There is an old adage: “she is so heavenly minded that she is no earthly good.” Paul’s point, however, is that we must be heavenly minded if we are to be any earthly good. To enact our heavenly citizenship is to follow the example of Christ as modeled in Paul, acting in humility and self-sacrificial service to others. As citizens of heaven, we live in a foreign land where self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction are prized.

During Lent many of our congregants have fasted in order to practice disciplined living and the mortification of bodily desires, following the example of Jesus when he was tempted in the wilderness. As helpful as this practice is to stave off a mind set on earthly things with our god as our belly, we may still find ourselves as enemies of the cross by the way we treat each other. Let us imagine ways to follow the example of Jesus through humble and self-sacrificial living for the sake of others. When we see someone replicate this example, theirs is a life worth imitating.