Lectionary Commentaries for June 15, 2008
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 9:35—10:8 [9-23]

Greg Carey

Healing and liberation certify the presence of the realm of heaven. Both Jesus’ own mission and that of the Twelve bring not only proclamation but also healing. Jesus sends forth the Twelve to perform his own works, the very works that have defined his ministry from the beginning (4:23-25).

Jesus commissions his disciples to perform the very works that he does, calling them to advance beyond him into new and emergent contexts. Whether with Jesus or commissioned by Jesus, the authentic proclamation of God’s realm is marked by healing and liberation.

This is precisely Jesus’ reply when John the Baptist inquires, “Are you the one who is coming, or should we wait for another?” The blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead living–all these signs accompany the proclamation of the good news (11:5).

Jesus gives the Twelve clear instructions, then sends them forth to do his works and proclaim his message. Once sent, however, they are on their own. They must assess the responses of the cities; they determine whether to stay or to move along.

Instructions only take us so far. The faithful church must move beyond Jesus himself, as the disciples do.

Yet many Christians–and too many churches–want direct instructions for every issue. A student recently asked me for guidance as to what the Bible says about sex. He seemed surprised when I suggested that perhaps he was asking the wrong question. When we think about things like economics and government, we don’t ask the Bible to tell us how to manage things directly. Instead, we ask how the Bible may inform our vision of a just society. Most of the Bible’s instructions concerning sex address things like a man’s obligations when he has sexual relations with an unmarried woman, which sexual partners are allowed and which are permitted, how to test whether a woman has committed adultery or not, or how to marry a desirable slave woman. The Bible simply does not address things like dating, egalitarian relationships, and women who have built lives of their own. In this conversation I suggested that the parts of the Bible most pertinent to our sex lives might not say anything directly about sex at all. Don’t things like honesty, compassion, justice, and love say more to us today than what to do about a woman who displeases her husband on their wedding night?

The point is simple: our search for instructions often detracts from the main thing. Where the realm of heaven is breaking out, we find healing and liberation. This is what we need to know.

Jesus’ ministry and that of his disciples entail the exorcism of demons, an issue that will pose a stumbling block for many congregations. One path is simply to skip over this detail, as modern congregations find it either baffling or irrelevant. Another path is to explain it away, boiling down healing and exorcism to a common denominator: people got better. It once was commonplace to say that ancient persons frequently attributed the inexplicable to the demonic realm, particularly mental illnesses and neurological disorders. We should think more deeply. Even those of us who cannot get our imaginations around real demons tormenting poor individuals can relate to what it means to be bound by a power one feels powerless to resist. Such demons need not be found only in “those” people, but they reside whenever evil has us firmly in its grip. Many (all?) people find themselves bound by behaviors, patterns, or structures they cannot escape, often cursing themselves when they repeat the same behavior time and again. When we imagine the realm of exorcism, let us imagine liberation, freedom from powers that constrain us and prevent us from living full human lives.

Matthew’s Gospel requires that proclamation first extend to Israel before it may move along to the nations. Both Matthew’s inaugural description of Jesus’ ministry (4:23-25) and our present account locate Jesus in the synagogues, while Jesus sends the Twelve only to Israel. Among the Gospels, Matthew alone, though quoting from Isaiah, locates Jesus’ ministry in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:15) then pronounces that “in his name the Gentiles will hope” (12:21).

Matthew 10:23 is notoriously difficult. If the disciples will not have gone through all Israel before the Son of man comes, then how can it be that the gospel must also proceed to the Gentiles (24:14; 28:18-20)? Some commentators find ways to harmonize this apparent contradiction; still others find here an authentic saying of Jesus in 10:23, followed by Matthean redaction elsewhere. Perhaps this is one instance in which the church moves beyond the initial aims of Jesus, faithfully exploring their implications in new contexts.

That Gentile mission is critical to Matthew’s Gospel. Apparently written to Torah-observant Jewish followers of Jesus, the Gospel anticipates a Gentile mission (24:14; 28:18-20). Preachers should exercise prudence with this matter, since Matthew’s Gentile program carries an ugly underside. God’s realm departs from Jesus’ own people, or at least their authorities, given to a people who will produce its fruit (21:43). Even this dangerous saying returns us to the heart of the matter. For Matthew’s Gospel, Jewish or Gentile identities do not qualify persons for participation in the realm of heaven. What matters is bearing the fruits of that realm (7:15-29; 21:28-32). Like Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience, the Gentiles are taught to “keep everything that I have commanded you” (28:20).

Matthew’s Gospel addresses the church more directly than do Mark, Luke, or John. It invites its audience to see the church in the story of the disciples. Here the disciples imitate Jesus, who not only proclaims the realm of heaven but demonstrates its nature. When the realm of heaven is near, healing and liberation take place. In the disciples the church finds itself cast into the world, taking Jesus’ message beyond his instructions into surprising new contexts.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 19:2-8a

James Limburg

During the four years that I was a student at Luther Seminary I can recall only one assignment which involved memorization of Scripture. In his course on the Pentateuch, Professor John Milton required us to memorize Exodus 19:4-6.

Milton’s pedagogical and theological instincts were correct. These words about Exodus, Covenant and People of God express what is central to the faith of the Old Testament and in fact set the stage for the Good News announced in the New Testament.

Historical and Literary Observations on the Text
After the miraculous deliverance from Egypt (Exod 1-15) and several months of making their way through the desert wilderness (16-18) the Israelites have arrived at Mount Sinai and are camped at the foot of the mountain (19:1-2). Most scholars would date the Exodus around 1280 BCE. and would locate the mountain at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The significance of the events at Sinai is evident from the fact that in the biblical narrative, the people do not leave Sinai until Numbers 10:11-12.

As to genre, these chapters include both historical and legal material, or in other words, both story and law. There are hints that this material was used in a worship setting. The sounding of the trumpet (19:13, 16, 19), the smoke (19:18) and the preparations described in 19:10-15 all hint at a re-enactment of the Sinai events in worship.

The text for today consists of a word from God (4-6) set in a narrative framework (19:2-3; 7-8).

Reading the Text
Central to this text is the message from God in vv. 4-6. The introductory formula, “Thus you shall say” is reminiscent of the “Thus says the LORD” formula used by the prophets.

This word from God in 4-6 recognizes that there is already an established relationship between God and the ones addressed. These words are not aimed at just any people, but at the “house of Jacob,” the “Israelites.” (3). These are not words which God speaks about these people, but this is I-you language, where God addresses the people directly: “You have seen what I did…how I bore you…and brought you to myself…” etc.

This word from God begins with a reminder of what God has done for this people, first in literal language (“what I did”) and then with a metaphor (“how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself”). The picture is that of a parental eagle bearing one of its young on its wings; see also Deut 32:11 and Prov 30:18-19 for further eagle imagery.

This word indicates an expected response of God’s people, in terms of obedience and covenant keeping. The shape of that covenant obedience is sketched out in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20.

This word from God includes a promise that these people will be the LORD’s treasured possession. The word translated “treasured possession” occurs elsewhere in the Bible to denote the treasure belonging to kings (1 Chron 29:3; Eccl 2:8).

Finally, the people addressed are identified as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If the priest is an entire nation, then the parish is the whole world! The sense of a “holy” nation is one that is set apart for a purpose.

The statement, “the whole earth is mine” indicates that the LORD has mastery over not only humans, but over all the creatures and forces of nature as well.1

Toward Preaching the Text: “Who Do We Think We Are?”
The sermon ought to begin with a brief retelling of how the Israelites became slaves in Egypt, how they prayed to the LORD for help (Exod 2:24-25), and the extended negotiations that went on between Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh. The climax is the story of God’s answer to prayer in delivering the people from the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds.

The preacher could note that Israel never got over whatever it was that happened there! The deliverance from Egypt counts as one of the “mighty acts of God” and is recalled in creeds (Deut 26; Josh 24), prophetic sayings (Jer 2:6; Hos 11:1-2; Amos 3:1-2), songs (Exodus 15) and psalms (105, 106, 114, 135, 136). To this day our Jewish neighbors recall these events in the celebration of the Passover. Christians recall the Exodus in hymns for the Easter season, such as “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing, “Come, You Faithful Raise the Strain,” and “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.”

The central focus of the sermon ought to be on the word from God in verses 4-6. Here are three R’s:

  • the relationship to God which exists,
  • the reminder of what God has done, and
  • the expected response of God’s people in praise and obedience.

Then there is the promise that these people will be God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

The sermon could move to consider Matthew 9:35-10:8, the Gospel for this day, which tells of Jesus choosing twelve apostles. The selection of twelve apostles is an indication that Jesus is going about the task of forming a new people of God, with these disciples as the twelve founding figures, balancing the twelve sons of Jacob in Israel.

Any sermon on this Exodus 19 text should then consider how the text is re-vitalized in 1 Peter 2:9-10. Addressed to Christians scattered about the Roman world (1 Peter 1:1-2), the writer calls this new people of God a “chosen race, royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” using language and concepts drawn from Exodus 19.

After identifying who these Christians are, the writer tells them why they are: their task is a missionary one, to proclaim the mighty acts of the God who has called them out of darkness into light. If the priest is a whole nation, then the parish is the world.

1Terence E. Fretheim, The Pentateuch (Nashville: Abingdon 1996), 117-119.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]

Mark Throntveit

Last week we read about the wonderful promises God made to Abram (Gen 12:1-3). A major theme in the stories of Genesis 12-50 is how God overcomes obstacles in order to keep these promises.

Usually, Abraham is the obstacle that needs to be overcome:

1.In Genesis 12:10-20, Abraham and Sarah are on their way to Egypt when Abram decides his 65-year-old wife (though, with definite Miss World possibilities) will be so desirable that the Egyptians will kill him to possess her. When he has her lie and say she is his sister to save his own skin, she winds up in Pharaoh’s harem. It is difficult to see how God can fulfill the promise of the birth of a son . . . unless Pharaoh grants Abram conjugal visiting rights, not likely, if Abram is Sarai’s brother!

2.In Genesis 15:1-6, Abram, having grown impatient, suggests that Eliezer, his slave, might as well be his son if God can’t make good on the promise (vv. 2-3).

God, of course, overcomes these obstacles and keeps the promises alive. This week the lectionary invites us to focus on Sarah.

Genesis 18:1-15
When Sarah overheard that she would have a son, “she laughed” (v. 12), as had Abraham when he heard the impossible news (17:16-17). But, why did she laugh? She may have thought, “Men! They just don’t get it! I don’t even menstruate (“the manner of women,” v. 11) anymore!” Or, since the Hebrew word for “pleasure” (edenah) is related to the (Garden of) “Eden,” her question, “Shall I have pleasure?” may be incredulous and mean “How can I become fertile/pregnant?” Whatever she meant, her “laughter” is both a pun on the name “Isaac” which means “he laughs” and a foreshadowing of the joyous birth. God’s response, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” reassures the reader (if not Sarah!) that God is about to fulfill the promise made so long ago.

Now we see that Sarah’s previous infertility (11:30; 16:1) is not the problem. Neither is it Abraham’s inability to father children. Later, he will produce at least six other children with his wife Keturah (25:1-4). These difficulties pale into insignificance in this text, where the obstacle to be overcome is clearly the utter impossibility of birth in the absence of eggs; a child being born to a woman who has ceased to menstruate. The fact that God does overcome this obstacle testifies to God’s grace and the miraculous character of the fulfillment.

Genesis 21:1-7
The stories of Abraham’s dealings with his nephew Lot stand between this passage about the fulfillment of God’s promise in the birth of Isaac and the announcement of that birth in chapter 18. For twenty-five years God has been promising Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son. In Genesis 21:1-7 God makes good on that vow. In these brief verses the fulfillment of the promise in little Isaac is artfully presented. The three major events of a son’s early life in Hebrew culture: birth, naming, and weaning at age three or four (2 Macc 7:27) are skillfully interwoven around the central religious ceremony of circumcision, as seen in the following schematic representation:

A Isaac is born (vv. 1-2)
B Isaac is named (v. 3)
X  Isaac is circumcised (vv. 4-5)
B’ Isaac’s name is explained (v. 6)
A’ Isaac is weaned (vv. 7-8)

A number of insights immediately suggest themselves:

1.First of all, the prominent and unparalleled location of the circumcision in the heart of the narrative demonstrates Abraham’s faithful obedience to God’s command that fathers circumcise their sons on the eighth day (Gen 17:12). Not only is Isaac the fulfillment of the promise; as the first of Abraham’s offspring to be circumcised on the eighth day he also serves as a forerunner of the covenant community, the people that God is here beginning to create.

2.Secondly, in the Old Testament, the names people are given frequently serve as a clue to their importance or character. This is already seen in chapter 17 where God renames Abram (“mighty ancestor,” with only one son at age 99!), “Abraham,” which sounds like “ancestor of a multitude” (v. 5). In the only instance of the renaming of a woman in the Bible, Sarai becomes “Sarah” or “princess” (v. 15) to indicate her role. When Abraham and Sarah name their son “he laughs” we are invited to recall the somewhat cynical “laughter” of them both at the time of God’s promise (17:17; 18:12). But there is no cynicism here, because this time “God has brought laughter” (21:6)

3.Thirdly, Abraham’s one hundred years of age, to say nothing of Sarah’s ninety, makes it very clear that this child of the promise comes completely as a gracious gift from God, totally apart from human achievement.

4.Finally, and closely related this, the very birth of Isaac against all the odds testifies to God’s determination to keep the promises made earlier to Abraham and Sarah despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Neither Sarah’s infertility (16:1), nor her being taken from Abraham and placed in the harems of an Egyptian Pharaoh (12:15) and the King of Gerar (20:2), nor Abraham’s impatience and laughing disbelief (15:3; 17:17), nor Sarah’s laughter (18:12), nor their advanced age (17:17), have been able to thwart God’s purposes.

The big buildup that dominated the announcement of Isaac’s birth, and the tension strategically placed in the ensuing narrative, seem at odds with this surprisingly simple presentation of the fulfillment. Perhaps the text is more interested in telling us that God was faithful to the promise. Three times we hear that Isaac’s birth took place as God had “said” (21:1a), “promised” (21:1b), or “spoken” (21:2). Not only was Isaac born . . . he was born just as God had promised.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:1-8

David Bartlett

“Access” has become a key phrase in our technological age.

At the door of the seminary where I work we try to remember the “access” code. At the computer we turn the noun into a verb: “I need to access that file.” When I am at home trying to retrieve messages from my workplace e-mail account and my finger or my memory slips as I try to type in my password, the screen goes blank except for the sad judgment: “Access denied.” Many of us have different passwords for our e-mail accounts, our banking, our travel service and the on-line vendors from whom we order books, CDs and fresh fruit. I write a carefully coded list in the back of my date book of all the passwords I am apt to need and only hope that I do not lose the date book.

Paul wrote for a world in which people were desperately trying to find the passwords that would give them access to God. Some thought that careful obedience to the law of Moses was the key. Others thought that civic virtue was the key. Still others tried to placate God by the breadth of their philosophical knowledge.

Paul’s astonishing claim is that there is only one password we need to remember: Jesus Christ and that in Jesus Christ everyone has access to grace. And suddenly the entire picture is reversed. It is not that we are striving to reach God, it is that God is striving to reach us–grace. It is not that we use Jesus to attain God’s mercy, it is that God sends Jesus to enact the mercy that God has intended from the beginning of time.

Grace, however, is not only the activity of God in Jesus Christ that reaches out to include everyone (in Paul’s case, especially both Jews and Gentiles.) Grace is also our dwelling place “This grace in which we stand.” God’s goodness to us surrounds us and upholds us and defines who we are. Our lives are shaped by the gift we can never achieve but can only receive.

And Paul tells us what the life looks like that is grounded in grace. It is not usually marked by earthly success and most certainly not blessed by earthly prosperity. Far more often it is marked by suffering. It is, after all, a Christ-shaped life that lives in grace. But the suffering bears its own fruits, or better, grace bears fruit through the suffering. The litany of the gifts of grace is a kind of sketch of moral and spiritual development for the person grounded in the grace of God. Start with suffering and move to endurance; from endurance comes character, and character produces hope. Ethicists are much committed to helping us think about “character” ethics these days. Paul would say that we can be pretty sure someone has character right if she lives in hope.

Then note what the source and the instrument of this hope is.

Love produces hope. We all know that that is true existentially. The child who lives in hope is a child who has been surrounded by love. I heard William Sloane Coffin, Jr. say that the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. The consequence of that is clear: the product of love is hope. Paul will say in 1 Corinthians 13 that the three great gifts of God’s spirit are faith, hope, and love. In Romans 4-5 the three gifts are inseparable from one another and from God’s spirit.

The love to which Paul points–as he has already made clear–is not simply human love. It is God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. The verse about the distinction between dying for a righteous person and dying for a good person in vs. 7 has puzzled many scholars with good reason. But all that is the preface to the main point: that Christ has died–not for the righteous and not for the good, but for the ungodly. That is good news because most of us know perfectly well that the category of the ungodly includes us.

Now it is even clearer than when we began. What counts is not so much our access to God as God’s access to us. It is not that we reach longingly toward heaven but that heaven reaches out longingly to us. It is not that we are good enough or wise enough or obedient enough to gain God; it is that God has gained us for Godself.

John Buchanan, the former congressman from Alabama, told of how he first began to understand the Christian story. He was serving on the front in the Second World War. He and a group of his fellow soldiers were advancing when the enemy lobbed a grenade into their midst. Instantly one of Buchanan’s fellow soldiers fell on the grenade, absorbed the explosion and gave up his life for his friends.

We struggle to come up with a doctrine of the atonement, and all the classical solutions seem fall short. Paul was blessed by a richly unsystematic mind. His language about what Jesus does shifts from verb to verb: Christ saves; Christ justifies; Christ reconciles. His description of what Christ does shifts from metaphor to metaphor: an obedient second Adam undoes the disobedience of the first. A sinless man is made to be sin. A godly Messiah dies for ungodly people.

The claim outreaches all our metaphors. The name embraces all our weaknesses: Jesus Christ, access to God’s grace; where we stand.