Lectionary Commentaries for June 1, 2008
Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 7:21-29

Richard Beaton

Max De Pree, the well-known businessman and leadership author, is fond of saying that beliefs shape practices. If you want to know what you truly believe, you only need to examine your behaviors.

What De Pree is getting at is that we all have a set of assumed beliefs, what we think we believe. And then we have our real beliefs, which are revealed in our behaviors. A person can say, “I believe in truth, it is a core commitment of my life.” But in difficult circumstances the same person may lie to gain an advantage. Their real belief or core value is not truth, it is something else. For Christians in the West we affirm and make much of doctrinal statements, views on social justice, poverty, or even what it means to be truly spiritual. Our challenge, however, is to align our practices–the behaviors of our workaday lives–with our stated beliefs. It seems that this is the same problem that is articulated by Jesus here in Matthew.

Matthew 7.21-29 is divided into two parts. The first section, 7.21-23, addresses a problem with a specific group. The second, 7.24-29, serves as the conclusion to the first great teaching block in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount (5.1 — 7.27). In the first section, which is an example of the canyon that can exist between saying one thing but really meaning and doing something quite different, Jesus offers a provocative statement that sharpens the discussion regarding who is truly a disciple. Not everyone who says or affirms that Jesus is the risen Lord and Lord of their lives will enter the Kingdom of heaven on that future day. It is only those who actually do the will of God who will be permitted entry. This sounds very similar to what we read in the Epistle of James. In other words, faith without works is dead. For Jesus, it is the manner in which life is lived out that demonstrates whether or not someone is honestly one of his people, his true disciples. Words, apparently, do not matter that much.

Then Jesus illustrates what he means in v.22. Even though one verbally affirms his lordship and does remarkable deeds identical to those Jesus, his disciples and the churches of the first century did, namely, prophesying, exorcising demons and other deeds of power, they will never spend eternity with God if they are not living the life of a disciple as articulated by Jesus. At the great judgment, Jesus will not recognize them as his own. This is quite a statement, since very often it is the performance of charismatic elements that receives all the attention.

This is a powerful passage that gets at the heart of Jesus’ message. To be a follower of Jesus means that behaviors and actions–the manner in which we live out our daily lives–are the artifacts of the inner life of faith. More to the point, mere words, performance of deeds, even miraculous ones done in the name of Jesus, or random deeds of mercy will not affect one’s eternal destiny. Religiosity will not help either. This will no doubt come as a surprise for many. And it raises the question, if these charismatic elements that seem to evince an alignment with Jesus and his movement do not demonstrate that a person is an insider, then what does? What does indeed? The next paragraph offers an answer to this haunting question.

Jesus closes the Sermon on the Mount with the story of two people and the houses they have chosen to build. The metaphor of the building to describe a life is particularly powerful. One person hears Jesus’ words and acts on them, putting them into practice. The other hears Jesus’ words and doesn’t act on them. Two people, two responses to Jesus’ message. The first person is like a house that has been built on a rock. Its foundation is strong and secure and can withstand any assault. The second is like a house built on the sand. Its foundation is weak and unstable and will eventually be destroyed by the storm. This final story summarizes the entire Sermon on the Mount. The message is clear: discipleship occurs in the everyday practices of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ words here balance the misunderstanding of Paul in today’s Christian world that can be distorted into a gospel of grace without ethical demand. Jesus is not suggesting that a new law replace the old; rather, love for and devotion to God must be accompanied by a life that honors God. Or to put it another way, becoming a follower of Jesus is to decide to become a member of his society and is marked by a willingness to live one’s life according to the values and beliefs of that society. One becomes part of the people of God. Jesus’ invitation is an invitation to an encounter with God and a different way of living life. This life will provide not only strength in the present to withstand the various storms that come our way but also the final great storm that sees us through to an eternity with the Lord, to and for whom we have lived a life of devotion.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28

Terence E. Fretheim

I grew up in a home wherein virtually every room contained a publicly displayed Bible verse.

Commonly, the words were embossed on paper or sewn into cloth and placed in a frame on a wall or a table where everyone who entered the room could see it. As I recall, they were drawn from familiar texts such as John 3:16 or Mark 10:14 and were commonly words of grace and comfort. Such public displays of Bible verses were considered to be in direct obedience of these verses in Deuteronomy (and the parallel text of Deut 6:6-9) and they served to bring key biblical texts regularly into the consciousness of the members of the household. In other terms, all aspects of one’s daily walk were to be linked to the word of God, permeating life and thought.

Such a practice is much less common today, including our own home, and that may be one small reason why the Bible is less well known today, even by good church folks. One factor leading to this reality may be that the rationale for such a public display was not always commendable. Garrison Keillor tells a story about a comparable practice in his home. And, when he first received permission to take his date in the family automobile, he discovered (upon parking) that his mother had taped Bible verses at key places throughout the car (such as behind the visor or in the purse drawer), one of which read: “The wages of sin is death”! While such an example shows that the practice can be taken to extremes (one also thinks of certain t-shirts or bumper stickers), public displays of key Bible verses may be in the best interests of fostering a biblical consciousness on the part of members of any household. It would be interesting to explore how the people of God might continue this practice today, and in such a way as not to be strident or overly obtrusive about it all.

In both Deuteronomy texts (11:18-21; 6:6-9), the words of the Lord are to be kept in one’s heart (or mind; memorization may be in view) and the people are to “bind” them as a “sign on your hand,” that is, give them ready attention (see Prov 3:3; 6:21; 7:3; this image has been interpreted literally in the Jewish community with reference to phylacteries, small leather boxes containing these words bound on the arm and forehead). Moreover, this word of God is to be talked about with the children at home or away (the importance of the religious education of children here and elsewhere, e.g., Deut 6:2, 20-21, is remarkable), and at all times of the day, and these words are to be displayed in prominent public places. The word “doorposts” is a specific reference to the entrance of the house (in Jewish practice, it commonly refers to small boxes placed there containing these words), but the word also carries the general sense of places of transition in life.

In other words, these words are to be constantly in view in every circumstance in life and they are to provide the focus for one’s ongoing meditation (see Exod 13:8-9; Ps 1:2). In Deut 6:4-5, the words are these: “Hear (Shema’), O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” It is not essentially different for Deut 11:18-21, where “every commandment” is defined in 11:13 as “loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and all your soul”; in 11:22, the “entire commandment” is defined as “loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him.”

Such “love language” describes in general terms what is entailed with respect to obedience of the detailed commandments that follow in Deuteronomy 12-26. The love commandments have to do, not with a private feeling or emotion (“love” can often be reduced to this!), or with circumscribing the boundaries of life in a detailed way (even more common!), but with loving God and neighbor in both word and deed in one’s everyday walk (see Lev 19:17-18). Such a practice will often mean going beyond the law (see the parable of the Good Samaritan or Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath)! Loving God and neighbor are the “greatest” of all the commandments and “much more important” than any others (as Jesus claimed, Matt 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; see Rom 13:8-10).

In Deut 11:26-28, attention to the commandments in described in terms of “two ways”: blessing and curse (see Deut 30:15-20; 28:1-14, 15-46). These words describe the effects of faithfulness and unfaithfulness: a life filled with blessings (spiritual and otherwise, such as longer life) or a life wherein one experiences negative consequences of various sorts (judgment). These effects are not the result of forensic divine decisions, wherein God “zaps” every disobedient person; they are natural consequences of one’s actions in view of the created moral order that God has put in place from the beginning. Moreover, such effects are not inevitable, as if one has to do with a mechanical cause and effect in life. Rather, one must speak of a “loose causal weave,” wherein such consequences are normal, but not necessary (see the role of “chance” in Eccles 9:11).

The faith of the people of God will lead to decision-making with respect to various issues that life presents. This is inevitably the case. The decisions of people of faith in their various walks of life will make a difference with respect to the nature of the life that they and others will experience. When the word of God is made an integral part of daily life in the way described in Deut 11:18-21, those decisions will be informed by such a reality and will prove to be beneficial to all.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19

Mark Throntveit

Like the charming tales in Kipling’s Jungle Book, the stories in Genesis 3-11 originally tried to answer age-old questions such as: Why is childbirth painful?

Or why do people speak different languages? In Genesis, however, these stories have been refashioned to present us with a picture of humanity repeatedly shattering the relationship with God established in creation; as such they depict the spread of sin. All five stories share a pattern in which a sinful act (A) prompts a speech from God (B), curse (C), and a merciful act (D).

For example, in the story of Adam and Eve, eating the fruit is the sinful act (A, v. 6) that prompts God’s reprimand (B, vv. 14-19) and banishment of the human couple from the garden (C, vv. 22-24). Since Adam and Eve worried about their nakedness, God made skins for them to wear (v. 21). This last step is important for the relationship. When young children are punished it is important for parents to reassure them that “Mommy still loves you!”

STORYAdam & Eve 3:1-24Cain & Abel (4:1-16)The Flood (6:1-8:22)Canaan Cursed (9:20-27)Tower of Babel (11:1-9)
A SIN3:64:8b6:5-69:2211:4
B SPEECH3:14-194:11-126:79:25; 26c; 27c11:6-7
C CURSE3:22-244:14, 167:6-249:26b; 27b11:8-9
D MERCY3:214:158:1a; 21-229:26a; 27a?

The repetition of this pattern in the following stories ties them together and suggests that they be read together. When we do, we notice that the pattern breaks at the very end (D in the Tower of Babel); there is no concluding merciful act. We also see that the Flood narrative dominates the center. It has its own distinctive structure:

A God resolves to destroy (6:11-13)
     B  Noah builds ark (6:14-22)    
            C  God orders Noah, “Enter the ark!” (7:1-9)
                  D  Flood begins (7:10-16)
                        E  Flood prevails 150 days covering the mountains                               (7:17-24)
                             X   God remembers Noah (8:1a)                       
                        E’ Flood recedes 150 days revealing the mountains                               (8:1b-5)
                  D’ Flood ends (8:6-14)
            C’ God orders Noah, “Leave the ark!” (8:15-19)
     B’ Noah builds altar (8:20)
A’ God resolves not to destroy (8:21-22)

In this arrangement, the end (A’) echoes the beginning (A), the next to last element (B’) echoes the second element (B) and so on. When we compare the matching elements three points emerge:

1. The progression in the top half of the structure, from God’s decision to destroy all flesh to their destruction in the flood (A to E), reverses the process of creation in Genesis 1. There, creation was portrayed as a process of separation and distinction; here, God removes those separations and distinctions. For example, in the creation story God placed a dome in the sky to separate the waters above from the waters below (1:6-8); now God opens the windows of the heavens, thus removing that distinction (7:11). The previous distinction between the water and the dry land (1:9) was removed when the “fountains of the great deep burst forth” (7:11). Finally, the sequence of destruction mirrors that of creation: first the earth was destroyed, then birds, domestic animals, wild animals, swarming creatures, and people (7:21). When we arrive at 7:24 we recognize the watery chaos with which God began in Genesis 1. If Genesis 1 depicts God’s grace in “The Creation,” Genesis 6 and 7 depict God’s judgment in “The Un-creation!”

2. But if the progression in the top half of the structure, from A to E, depicts God’s Un-Creation, the parallel movement from E’ to A’ depicts God’s “Re-Creation.” From the receding of the water (E’) to the end of the flood (D’) to the command to leave the Ark (C’) to the building of the altar (B’) to God’s decision never again to destroy (A’), every element of the first half of the flood story is reversed in this second half. This suggests that God’s judgment is matched by God’s mercy. A second indication that this is a re-creation story in which God undoes creation in order to start again is found in the command to Noah: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1), which is the same as that given to Adam and Eve (1:28).

3. Finally, in the center of the narrative we read that “God remembered Noah” (X, 8:1a).

These last points suggest why the flood narrative appears in the middle of Gen 3-11. Following God’s initial blessing to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 1:28), the progression of sin begins with the parental sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3) and proceeds through the brothers Cain and Abel (Gen 4) to the whole world (Gen 6). After God’s “un-creation” and subsequent “re-creation” of the world, indicating God’s intention to give humanity a second chance, initiated with the same blessing to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 9:1), the world reverts to the same sinful progression of parental sin (Noah’s drunkenness, 9:21), followed by sin involving the brothers Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gen 9:23-27), and culminating in the world-wide sin of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). Since this old pattern of sin reasserted itself immediately after God’s merciful re-creation, it seems that neither God’s judgment (A–E) nor God’s mercy (E’–A’) are able to stop the spread of sin!

Do you remember the first pattern we looked at? In the last story in the series, the Tower of Babel, (Gen 11), the pattern was incomplete. But patterns are established to draw our attention to the point at which they break down. By omitting God’s merciful act in Genesis 11, the author presents a stunningly different divine plan for restoring relationship with humanity. Instead of working with the whole human race in acts of judgment or mercy, God decides to choose one human representative and bless him into relationship that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). That chosen one is Abraham, to whom we will turn next week.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28 [29-31]

Matt Skinner

What does the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ accomplish? What does it mean?

These seem rather vital questions for a religion that employs a cross as its primary symbol. But their answers are hardly simple, as evidenced by the different vantage points that the New Testament writings take when they consider them. Sometimes, as is the case with Romans 3, a single passage offers multiple perspectives. The variety of claims and language underscores the complexity of the questions and the inexhaustible richness of the answers.

The Apostle Paul never provides a comprehensive explanation of the mechanics involved in Jesus’ “work” on the cross and the benefits that flow to humanity as a result. Instead of detailed solutions, Paul gives us metaphorical expressions, sometimes (as in Rom 3:22b–25a) in rapid succession. A collection of images is no less real or powerful than a logical proof, and the variety in his words reminds us that no single expression can on its own supply a complete account of what God accomplishes through Christ. When sermons explore Paul’s language they can help hearers understand the deep and multifaceted character of God’s commitment to humanity that is demonstrated through the cross.

Beginning with this week, the lectionary offers an irresistible treat: sixteen consecutive Sundays that journey through the book of Romans. I encourage preachers to seize this opportunity to guide congregations into the rich depths of this important epistle. Your sermon series can begin with the heart of the letter, an expression of the heart of the gospel according to Paul as found in the opening verses of today’s lection (1:16–17). While introducing several themes to which he will return, Paul describes the gospel, not as a message or a set of doctrines, but as “the power of God” effecting salvation. This salvation has universal reach, in that it extends to both Jew and Greek (Gentile). The good news (“gospel”) of salvation reveals “the righteousness of God,” which is expressed through God’s faithfulness toward humanity, a faithfulness that itself enables humanity to express faith in Christ. It is important to note that “God’s righteousness” does not refer to God’s moral purity or inaccessible perfection; the expression resumes Old Testament statements about God’s commitment to be active in and on behalf of the world–specifically, to accomplish salvation and bring about justice. The gospel, then, is the ultimate expression of God’s commitment and power to reclaim the world.

Further ahead in the letter, Romans 3:21 resumes the thesis statement of 1:16–17, as Paul unpacks the idea of how the coming, dying, and rising of Jesus Christ performs God’s salvific “righteousness” (dikaiosunē). The statement, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23), essentially summarizes the context of 1:18–3:20. In response to humanity’s sorry state, God does at least three things through Jesus Christ: God justifies, God redeems, and God effects atonement (3:24–25a). In a single sentence, Paul stacks up these three expressions that are rich in meaning. His words deserve extended consideration, lest people hear them only as churchly jargon with no real substance.

“They are now justified by his grace as a gift”
In his letters Paul is fond of speaking of God justifying people through Christ. “Justification” does not primarily refer to God transferring moral purity to people or stamping “not guilty” on their foreheads. Rather, God repairs the fractured relationship between humanity and God through Jesus’ death. Most English translations make it impossible to see that the words justification and righteousness mean the same thing, for both translate the same Greek noun. Likewise, the verbs justify and make righteous are synonymous. When Paul refers to God’s righteousness in one breath and then says God justifies, he is essentially redundant. Through grace, God’s salvific activity claims people, nullifying the separation that human beings have opened up in their proper standing place before God. To be justified is simply to be set right with God, to be brought into the sphere of God’s deliverance and justice (“righteousness”), making our relationship and future with God secure.

“through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”
Before the rise of plastics and curbside recycling, people returned used glass bottles to stores for “redemption.” Merchants literally bought them back or returned a cash deposit. “Redemption” refers to a transfer of ownership, and one arena in Paul’s day where the term had special import involved the practice of slavery, in which people could be bought or sold and some slaves could purchase their own freedom. Throughout the Old Testament, redemption terminology frequently refers to God’s freeing the Hebrew slaves from their bondage in Egypt and establishing them as a new nation. Such redemption is liberation, a transfer from slavery to freedom. This connects closely to Paul’s understanding of sin as a power that enslaves humanity (see 3:9, 6:6, 16–17). In response, through Christ, God delivers people from sin and claims us as slaves to God (see 6:18, 22). The cross also grants freedom from death, which is a consequence of sin (see 8:2).

“whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood”
Only rarely does Paul employ the vocabulary of temple practice and ritual sacrifice to indicate what happens through Christ. In this instance, Paul’s language is deeply metaphorical. He says that God put forth Jesus as a hilastērion. For Jews, this Greek word indicated the “mercy seat,” what once covered the ark of the covenant (see 1 Kings 8:1–11). On the mercy seat Israel’s high priest sprinkled blood from sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, as an offering for the sins of the entire nation (see Leviticus 16). When English translations render hilastērion as “sacrifice of atonement” they strip the metaphor of its force and potential for meaning. Paul’s point is probably that Christ’s death, like the mercy seat of past generations, was the location where reconciling atonement occurred. Paul does not explain how atonement might transpire through a sacrifice, and he certainly does not describe Jesus’ death as a debt paid to an angry God. What happens through Christ is like what happens through a sacrifice, insofar as through his death God is able “to deal with sin” (Rom 8:3) and its effects.

If the imagery of justification, redemption, and the mercy seat is not enough for a preacher to work with, then note also that this passage is peppered with Paul’s assertion that God justifies people by faith. That idea has proven to be a good sermon topic over the years.

Consider preaching on this text as an opportunity for emphasizing God’s agency in the gospel. Through Christ, God decisively accomplishes something new for humanity. Invite your congregation into a long-term exploration of Romans to discover all the ways it proclaims God’s commitment to the world.