Lectionary Commentaries for June 8, 2008
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Greg Carey

The Lectionary combines the First Gospel’s account of Matthew’s call with the twin restorations of the woman with the flow of blood and the ruler’s daughter. Sandwiched between the Lectionary excerpts Jesus insists that old garments and old wineskins cannot withstand new cloth and new wineskins.

Both passages provide grist for reflection upon the nature of ministry–that of Jesus as well as that of the church. Jesus calls Matthew to follow him, yet Jesus follows Matthew and the sinners to the table. Meanwhile, the desperate ruler and the suffering woman prevail upon Jesus to win his touch. Jesus reaches out to the toll collector, but he finds himself apprehended by those seeking his healing touch.

So it may be with the church’s ministry: sometimes we go forth and identify ourselves with those on the margins; in other cases the needs of others draw the church beyond its comfortable boundaries. Like the Jesus of the First Gospel, the church needs to cultivate the art of following.

The First Gospel relates the call of Matthew, not Levi as in Mark 2:14. (Mark 3:18 does include Matthew among the twelve.) We do not know why. The Gospel describes Matthew as seated at his toll collection station.

Jesus calls Matthew to follow him. As it turns out, he accepts hospitality in Matthew’s house. There he shares a table with his typical crowd, toll collectors and sinners. Several rabbinic sources indicate toll collectors’ wicked reputation, but the story shares all we really need to know. The Pharisees perceive “toll collectors and sinners” as natural companions (9:11), and Jesus himself compares them not to those who are well but to those who are sick (9:12).

Jesus is notorious for his companionship with toll collectors and sinners in the First Gospel, a tradition that likely goes back to Jesus himself. His opponents scorn the company Jesus keeps (11:19), yet Jesus makes much of these toll collectors. When Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies, he notes that “even the toll collectors” love those who love them (5:46). Later, Jesus admonishes the church to relate to unrepentant sinners as if they were Gentiles or–gasp!–even toll collectors (18:17). Confronted by hostile temple authorities, Jesus puts them in their place: even toll collectors and prostitutes enter the realm of heaven before these enemies who speak the will of God but do not live it out (21:31-32).

Jesus says the healthy do not need a physician while the sick do, that he has come to call not the righteous but sinners (9:13). Yet Jesus’ companionship with sinners appears to be just that, companionship and not treatment. Jesus has many harsh words to say in the First Gospel, but he directs none of them at sinners. His inaugural message is a call to repent (4:17), and he denounces the cities he has visited for failing to repent (11:20-21; 12:41). He pronounces woe against the scribes and the Pharisees (chapter 23). But in the First Gospel Jesus not once reproves sinners. He does not criticize them. He does not demand their repentance. He simply eats and drinks with them. (This is true of the entire Gospel tradition, except for the story of the Adulterous Woman, which was inserted into John’s Gospel long after its composition.)

Jesus often receives credit for touching a woman with a bloody discharge and for touching a dead girl’s body. According to this preaching tradition, Jesus reaches across Israel’s purity codes in doing so. More recent scholars recognize that Jesus does not transgress the Law in either instance, but he does touch ritual impurity. The thing is, Jesus initiates neither contact. Once again, he practices the art of following.

The girl’s father is the one to suggest that Jesus “lay your hand upon her.” Jesus eventually does touch the girl, restoring her to life, but not before the hemorrhaging woman sneaks up and touches Jesus first! She, not he, crosses the boundary between purity and impurity. She, not Jesus, proves that purity is more contagious than impurity. Could it be that the girl’s father and the hemorrhaging woman draw Jesus out to this ministry of touching?

Sometimes the church needs to learn the art of following, as Jesus does in Matthew’s Gospel. During the Civil Rights Movement some white liberals acted as heroes, risking social standing, employment, even bodily safety for the cause of justice. Their stories have inspired me, a white southerner, for as long as I can remember. Yet most of them did not seek out the cause of racial justice; rather, it found them. A particular incident opened their eyes to the harsh truth, or a specific crisis called them to action. Then, sometimes slowly, sometimes reluctantly, and usually hesitantly, they moved forth. Confronted with the leadership and the suffering of African Americans, some but not all white liberals joined the cause. As in many of the healing stories of Jesus, they were heroes not because they sought out the opportunity for healing but because they responded to the call set before them.

Many churches suffer from a misguided hero complex. Mainline churches–mine no less than yours–wonder how to draw people in rather than how to engage human beings where they live. Rather than wait for people to come in, perhaps the church should follow our neighbors out into the world, responding to their needs as they emerge. Rather than complain that families attend summer soccer games, we might offer clinics on parenting and sports. Rather than puzzle over why the multi-ethnic community in our neighborhood doesn’t visit us, we might explore how to participate in Puerto Rico day.

First Reading

Commentary on Hosea 5:15-6:6

Terence E. Fretheim

Following the devastation of the previous verses, 5:15 is a word from God that introduces the response from Israel in 6:1-3.

God backs away from the devastating situation, returns home, and waits “until.” God is a waiting God: until they acknowledge that they need forgiveness. Israel has gone through a horrendous judgment. Repentance is possible only through judgment, not short of judgment.

The section may begin with the last line of 5:15 (as NRSV), where God voices a hope or expectation. It is followed by a quotation of urgency from the people: “Come, let us return to the Lord.” Contrary to many commentators, this is a sincere cry of repentance. The language is exquisite, the religious practice thoughtful, and the theology apt. The repentance is explicit, the recognition of appropriate divine judgment against them evident, the quest for knowledge of the Lord in tune with Hosea’s most basic concerns, creation is related to God and not Baal, there are no signs of apostate worship, and their hope in God is voiced clearly. Indeed, the people do what 3:5 anticipates they will do. If these words were found elsewhere in the Old Testament, they would not be thought insincere. God’s reply (6:4-6) suggests that the words are insincere and, it is tempting to believe, God cannot reject sincerity! Yet, the people’s repentance is probably genuine, but God has determined that it is too late for repentance to change things.

The people are quite sure that the appeal to God will produce instant results, in both God and in their own situation/future. God’s gracious deliverance is as certain as the dawn and the rains. “God will pardon me; it is his business.” The people acknowledge that they have experienced God’s judgment, drawing on the language of 5:13-14. They express confidence that God will bind up their wounds and transform their lives (6:1). Revival will come in two days and on the third day God will raise them up and they will live before him. Actual 24-hour periods are not in view–the word is “soon”! No resurrection is in view.

The people urge one another to “know the Lord” (6:3). They recognize the issue that Hosea has raised –they have no knowledge of the Lord (see 4:1; 5:4). Again, they express confidence that God will surely appear on their behalf. They use remarkable and beautiful images for this God (cf. 14:4-7). Drawn from creational perspectives, God will come to them in the clear light of dawn, like showers in the spring, and God will send rain on the parched earth of their hearts (cf. Deut 32:2).

To this prayer of repentance and confidence, God responds (Hosea 6:4-6). This key Hosea text makes it clear that Israel’s return to the Lord will not move them into the future; the people must experience severe judgment, at the end of which God’s action will accomplish the restoration (see 11:8-9). As in 11:8, God agonizes over what to do with these people: What shall I do with you? A negative response follows. God’s ultimate future with this people is not in doubt. But nothing that people do can enable that future to happen. Yahweh’s actions cannot be programmed by human repentance.

We hear the lament of God regarding Israel’s response over the years. God is imaged as a parent (see 11:1-3), faced with a dilemma and exasperated over the behaviors of the children (see 11:8-9; Isa 5:4; Mic 6:3-4). What more can God do about these people? God expresses deep feelings about the broken relationship with Israel and God’s ever-renewed efforts to turn them around. Such divine questions reveal that God participates in the suffering of these people and agonizes over their increasingly deadly plight. Their love is not steadfast; it is like a morning cloud that soon disappears without dropping rain; their love is like the morning dew that dries up early in the day (Hosea 6:4).

God sent prophets to turn them to repentance; their “hewing”/”killing” is the indictment for their sins (6:5). God’s judgment has been enacted through their words. The prophets declared these words for a long time; ample opportunity was given for the people to turn back to God. But a pattern has been in place for too long. The opportunity has not been taken, and now it is too late! The devastators of Israel have already begun their ravaging work; there will be no stopping them now.

Verse 6 raises the heart of the issue. What counts with God, finally, are not sacrifices/offerings. Not that they are unimportant as part of a larger fabric of faithful expression. Sacrifices are a God-given, gracious means of grace in and through which Israel’s sins can be forgiven. But repentance is understood to be necessary for the sacrifices to be effective (see Lev 5:5). The sacrifices are not magical acts that bring forgiveness; without repentance, they are ineffective, worth nothing. This understanding shapes Hosea’s condemnation of sacrifice here and elsewhere (Hosea 5:4; 8:11-13). It is not that God prefers the knowledge of God more than sacrifices, but rather than. This is not a matter of the total rejection of sacrifices, but in this situation that is the case; nothing that they do with respect to their sacrificial worship is efficacious. Steadfast love and knowledge of God are not requirements in the usual sense. Jesus quotes this verse twice (Matt 9:13; 12:7) with reference to the rigidity of pharisaical life.

The key words are steadfast love and the knowledge of God. The latter, used heretofore (see Hosea 4:1; 5:4), has to do with the full engagement of the self in the relationship with God, approximating Deut 6:5. Steadfast love (see Hosea 4:10) bespeaks especially faithfulness, not only in the relationship with God, but also with human beings. In sum: unless the relationship with God is in good order, and manifests itself in the character of one’s daily life, worship activities of any sort have no saving value (see Amos 5:21-24). This language is not an expression of conditional forgiveness, such as: if your repentance is genuine, then God will extend forgiveness. The issue is the presence or absence of a genuine relationship with God.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 12:1-9

Mark Throntveit

What could God possibly do to counter the spread of sin that dominated the story in Genesis 3 through 11?

Last week we saw how ineffective punishment/curse was. Even after the destruction of the flood, the people responded to their second chance by falling into the same old sinful patterns . . . except, in the last story (11:1-9) where there is no concluding act of mercy. The previous stories had ended with a description of God’s dealing with the fear of the protagonists. Adam and Eve were ashamed, not because they had disobeyed, but because they were naked (3:7), so God clothed them (3:21). Cain feared he would be killed, not because he had murdered his brother, but by others (4:14), so God promised to protect him (4:15). But, at the end of the Tower of Babel, the people, who feared being scattered . . . are scattered by God (11:4, 9)!

In Genesis 12:1-3 we find the answer to that question. God decided that if punishing all the earth was an ineffective means of dealing with sin, perhaps establishing a relationship with one individual would work. That is exactly what God does by choosing Abram in Genesis 12:1-3. Where the people had sought to make a name for themselves (11:4), God chooses Abram and promises to make his name great (12:2), thereby dealing with the people’s fear but redirecting the action so that the emphasis falls upon God’s gift rather than human accomplishment.

Readers may be troubled by God’s “choice” of Abram. Is Abram somehow “special,” or “better,” or “more religious” than other people? While Israel, at times, did understand God’s choice in this way, the prophets regularly oppose this understanding. God reminds Israel that they are not the only recipients of divine grace:

Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9:7)

In discussing the exodus, Moses attributes God’s choice of Israel solely to God’s love, not Israel’s worthiness:

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you — for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deut 7:7-8).

God chose Abram, and thus, Israel, to be the way God would bring all people back into relationship, all those who had been so rebellious in Genesis 3 through 11, as God says in 12:3: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This quest for relationship is the purpose that drives God’s choice, God has called Abram into service, and he will become the means by which God’s ultimate purpose for the salvation of all will be realized.

God begins by calling Abram. But this is not yet a covenant. Covenants are sometimes said to be like agreements, or treaties, or contracts. When two parties enter a relationship they agree to do certain things. In marriage, husband and wife promise to be faithful to each other. If you take out a loan, the bank gives you money and you promise to repay them. When you buy a house, the mortgage becomes your responsibility. In Genesis 12:1-3, God began a relationship with Abram, promising him that he would become a great nation, that he would be blessed, and that all nations would be blessed through him and his descendants; but the relationship is not a contract, treaty, agreement, or covenant. The unusual part of this relationship is that God doesn’t require anything of Abram in return! No obligations are placed upon Abram because this relationship emphasizes God’s commitment and promise to Abram, not Abram’s promise or commitment to God. The pattern presented here (command, promise, and response) will govern the rest of Genesis:
A Command: “Go!” (v. 1)
B Promises: to Abram (“you,” v. 2)
I will make you a great nation
I will bless you
I will make your name great
Purpose: so that you will be a blessing
B’ Promises: about (“others,” v. 3)
I will bless those who bless you
I will curse those who curse you
Purpose: in Abram all the families of the earth shall be blessed
A’ Response: Abram went forth (v. 4)

God’s promise will be repeated in fuller detail throughout Genesis, to Abraham (15:4, 7, 18-21; 17:4-8; 22:17-18), to Isaac (26:2-5, 24), and to Jacob (28:13-15; 35:11-12), but they are already present in Genesis 12:1-3.

It is important to notice the ordering of the material, here. The whole intent would be altered if the response came before the promise. Then the promise would be a reward, something Abram earned for something Abram did. But here we see how the promise is something God will do for Abram. The major theme of Genesis 12-50 is how God overcomes obstacles (usually Abraham!) in order to keep these promises. Abram doesn’t make promises to God, God makes promises to Abram… and keeps them!

This emphasis on God’s promise, however, does not eliminate Abram’s response. In the second half of our text (12:4-9) we read that Abram “went, as the LORD had told him… and journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.” In undertaking this journey, Abram demonstrated his trust in the God who had made such wonderful promises to him, without a shred of assurance, other than God’s word alone. In the midst of his journey, Abram receives yet one more promise from God: “To your offspring I will give this land” (12:7). God’s original purpose for all is now focused in this one individual who willingly trusts himself to the uncharted waters of God’s future.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 4:13-25

David Bartlett

Paul never took a homiletics class. He did not know, therefore, that you are supposed to save the powerful theological affirmations for the last.

He has a tendency to sprinkle his most profound and far-reaching insights into subordinate clauses–tossed off almost as asides in the larger argument.

Here the larger argument is about Abraham and how Abraham is the father of all the faithful–Jews and Gentiles alike. What Paul wants to point out is the depth of Abraham’s faith. What illustrates that faith is the story in Genesis 15 where Abraham receives the promise of a son with Sarah. Abraham is “about a hundred years old” and therefore, for purposes of procreation “as good as dead.” (Rom. 4:19) God promises Abraham that Abraham will indeed father a child. In the midst of this discussion comes the subordinate clause, the God in whom Abraham believed is the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Rom. 4:17)

In this aside Paul cites the whole working of God from creation to new creation, from the molding of the first Adam to the resurrection of the second Adam and the final redemption of the cosmos. What makes God God? That God has done and can do two things: create a world out of nothing, bring life out of death. And if God is able to do the first, who can deny that God is able to do the second, too?

Of course, this profound “aside” is part of a sustained discussion of who Abraham is and why Abraham is important for Paul’s time–and ours. No one knows for sure how Paul came to his strong sense that Abraham was “justified by faith” or “made righteous by faith.” We know the proof text that Paul uses, Genesis 15:6. “And Abraham had faith in the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (author’s translation). (see Rom. 4:22-24).

Perhaps Paul did not start with a doctrine but started with a problem. The problem was, how could Gentiles be brought into a right relationship with God? How could they be “justified”? He had always believed that Jews were made righteous through the law–but what about Gentiles?

Now here is the tricky thing, in order to answer his question about righteousness without the law, Paul had to look in the law, in the Torah, because the Torah was for him the authoritative revelation of God. But he could not look at Moses or at any Jew who came after Moses because all of them lived under the law and therefore could not be models for Gentile Christians.

So he looked before the law, at Abraham. And looking at Abraham he discovered two wonderful things. First of all, according to Genesis, Abraham was made right with God–not only before there was the law on Sinai, but even before Abraham himself got circumcised (in Genesis 17). Second of all, Genesis tells us what it was that allowed Abraham to have a right relationship with God: he had faith…Genesis 15:6.

For Abraham that faith was especially faith that God would give him and Sarah a son. But the  great thing about faith–given Paul’s puzzle–is that you do not have to be Jewish to have faith in the God who “gives life to the dead.” Abraham had faith in the God who would give life to his loins, though he was good as dead. And now both Jews and Gentiles can believe in the God who gave life to Jesus at the resurrection. Jews and Gentiles can both have that faith whether they keep the law or not, or at least whether Gentiles keep the law or not. “(Righteousness) will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rom 4:24)

There is a great deal of discussion among scholars about whether Paul assumed that Jews would still keep the law along with faith or whether, like Gentiles, they could cling to faith and let go of the law. My own reading of Paul is that while Jews are free to keep the law (around issues like diet), no believer in Christ is any more bound by the law. That is how I interpret Paul’s strong word in Romans 4:14 “If it is the adherents of the law who are to be (Abraham’s) heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”

In any case it is absolutely clear what the good news is for Gentile believers. Their father in the faith is Abraham, not because they are biologically descended from him, but because, like him, they have faith in the resurrecting God. When the NRSV quotes Paul quoting Genesis it reads: “(for Abraham is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations.)” But surely Paul and the Roman Christians hear that word ethnē not (primarily) as “nations” but as “Gentiles.” God’s promise to Abraham is that Abraham will be the “father of many Gentiles.” Those many include most of the Christians at Rome.

The passage encapsulates and sums up one of the great claims of Romans. Because there is only one God, that God must be God of all peoples–Jews and Gentiles alike. In order to be God of all peoples God has become available through one man–Jesus Christ. The way that all people have access to Jesus Christ is through one way–their faith, or their faithfulness.

To this day, any time we are tempted to limit God to the size of our purposes or to doubt the breadth of God’s generosity or the surprising power of God’s activity we can return to Romans 4 as an astonishing elaboration of the familiar but life-changing claim: God is great; God is good.