Lectionary Commentaries for June 22, 2008
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 10:24-39

Greg Carey

Clarence Jordan is one of my all-time favorite Christians. He was an agriculture major at the University of Georgia and a Master of Divinity graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also earned a PhD in New Testament. Jordan founded the racially integrated Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia in 1942.

Just to be clear: 1942. You may be familiar with Jordan through his Cotton Patch translations of the New Testament or because the Habitat for Humanity movement originated from the Koinonia Farm.

To my mind, Jordan’s heroism comes through in his sense of humor. Once accused of fraternizing with Myles Horton, a reputed communist, Jordan retorted, “I really have trouble with your logic. I don’t think my talking to Myles Horton makes me a Communist any more than talking to you right now makes me a jackass.”

Likewise, when the Koinonia community tried selling peanuts from a roadside stand the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the stand. Stubborn like most saints for justice, Jordan put up another stand. It got blown up too. Finally, the Koinonia Farm resorted to mail-order ads: “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.”1

I begin with Clarence Jordan because if ever there was a text for militant Christians, Matthew 10:24-39 would be the one. Go out in the light, shout from the housetops. Not peace but a sword. Cling not to fathers and mothers but to Jesus, cling not to this life but give your life for the sake of Christ. No middle of the road, conciliatory Christianity here. No compromise, no accommodation, no middle path.

Beyond radicalism, there’s the matter of persecution. Jesus invites his disciples to share his fate. This requires not merely social ostracism and the loss of family, but active hostility to the point of death. Early Christians knew the fear of violent resistance. Jesus encourages his disciples to live beyond fear. They know that God cares for them more than they can possibly care for anything themselves. They likewise know that their confession of Jesus wins them Jesus’ recognition on the last day. These words have brought peace to many a Christian over the years. To me, however, they also bring fear and trepidation. Not once in my life have I found it comforting to be told not to fear. This passage is for those militant Christians who somehow enjoy confronting both fear and power.

But most congregations aren’t made up of militant Christians. Most will find it difficult to identify with the disciples as we encounter them in Matthew. Sent out on mission, carrying nothing to provide for or defend themselves and warned of persecution, the disciples seem far removed from us. How may we connect our puny imaginations with the experience related by this text?

Our challenge isn’t primarily exegetical. We understand why early Christians would see themselves as a vulnerable minority in a hostile culture. Jewish followers of Jesus, such as those envisioned by Matthew, would likely find comfort in the reminder of God’s care for them. We understand these things, but we do not relate to them.

One way to connect with the disciples would invite us to extend our imaginations to fellow Christians in other global contexts. During a recent study trip to Thailand I met several Christians who experienced strained if not broken family ties when they converted to Christianity. I saw the site where two of the first four Protestant converts met their violent deaths. Perhaps one might explore a text like this through the experiences of other Christians.

Another path would recall our heroes in the faith, who have indeed endured opposition for the sake of the Gospel. One might begin light, with stories like those of Clarence Jordan. One might more seriously reflect on a hero like Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi voting rights activist who was beaten so badly in jail that she could not lie down. Yet Fannie Lou Hamer led a jailhouse choir.

Paul and Silas was bound in jail, let my people go.
Had no money for to go their bail, let my people go.
Paul and Silas began to shout, let my people go.
Jail doors open and they walked out, let my people go.2

One might even invoke the examples of people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero, whose persecution ended with their violent deaths. Such a range of stories, from comic hope to mortal contemplation, calls the church to imagine the possibilities of faithful discipleship and the dangers that attend it.

Certainly we will not foster a sappy and sentimental glamorization of suffering for Jesus, the sort of “If we were really following Jesus, we’d be persecuted too,” line of thinking. Matthew remembers people who abandoned home and family to announce the reign of God, in a time and a place where that could get a person killed. Yet that sentimentality bears a certain truth that merits exploration. Even in our society where religion is so effectively tamed, faithful discipleship does occasionally provoke resistance. Some among us do protest militarism, some speak out against de facto segregation in our communities, some express solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. Those persons often claim gospel grounds for their actions. They rarely experience violence as a result, but they know the scorn that comes from family and friends–often from their most churchgoing loved ones. One layperson in my seminary’s Summer Academy shared losing a lucrative job when he protested the company’s fraudulent practices. Others have lost the chance to purchase desirable homes by rejecting opportunities to undercut minority buyers. Without sentimentalizing the cost of discipleship as Matthew depicts it, we may name those places where the gospel calls us beyond the zone of comfort into the realm of risk.

1Both stories derive from Millard Fuller’s foreword to Ann Louise Coble, Cotton Patch for the Kingdom: Clarence Jordan’s Demonstration Plot at Koinonia Farm (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 11.

2See her story in Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 20:7-13

James Limburg

Reading through this text brings to mind what Professor John Bright once wrote about these “confessions” of Jeremiah:

Here, indeed, we learn what faith really is: not that smug faith which is untroubled by questions because it has never asked any; but that true faith which has asked all the questions and received very few answers, yet has heard the command, Gird up your loins! Do your duty! Remember your calling! Cast yourself forward upon God!1  (The Kingdom of God, 119-20)

The Prophet and his Time
The opening of the book (Jer 1:1-3) indicates that Jeremiah was from a clergy family living in the small town of Anathoth just a few miles north of Jerusalem. Born around 645 BCE, Jeremiah was about 18 when he was called to be a prophet in 627, the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s administration (Jer 1:1-3). This was the same year that the emperor Assurbanapal died, signaling that the days of Assyrian empire were numbered. The end came for Assyria with the fall of Nineveh to the Medes and Babylonians in 612, and by 605 Babylon ruled the world, including Judah. The prophet lived through these tumultuous times. He witnessed the end of Assyria, the beginning of Babylonian rule, and the downfall of his own nation Judah, as the ill-advised and arrogant leaders brought the roof down on their head. Jerusalem was burned, and the majority of the citizens were taken into exile in Babylon in 587. Specialists in the study of this prophet have expended enormous energy in seeking to relate the narratives and sayings in the Jeremiah book to the events of these times. In any case, his work extended for some 40 years, from 627 to 587 BCE.

The Laments of Jeremiah
Jeremiah 20:7-13 is one of a half-dozen texts known as the “confessions” or better “laments” of Jeremiah. (11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13, 14-18). While outwardly the prophet appeared as a “wall of bronze” (1:18; 15:20), these laments reveal something of the turmoil he was experiencing within. He had not wanted the job in the first place (1:6) and claimed the Lord had seduced him into it (20:7). His own family and friends had turned against him (11:19,21). He found himself alone, unable to enjoy good times (15:17). He went so far as to wish he’d never been born (20:14-18). And whose fault was all this? Jeremiah did not hesitate to place the blame for his dire circumstances on the God who had called him to this task in the first place, accusing God as being as deceitful as a mirage in the desert (15:18).

Jeremiah 20:7-13 and the Lament Psalms
The clue to understanding today’s text is to see it in the context of the laments in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 13 provides a good example of the elements in the individual lament psalm: 13:1-2 is a complaint against God in the you form, (1), concerning self in the I form (2ab) and about others in the they form (2c). 13:3-4 is a petition or call for help. 13:5 is an affirmation of trust and 13:6 is a vow to praise God.

Jeremiah 20:7-13 begins with a complaint in the you-form, against God (7a) and an I-they complaint (7b) about enemies of the psalmist. Vs 8 is a they-complaint, about the psalmist’s enemies. Vs 9 is an I- complaint and 10a they-complaint. Vs 11 is an affirmation of trust and 12 concludes with a request that the Lord punish the psalmist’s enemies. Vs 13 is a call to praise, rounding out the lament in its typical form.

Toward Preaching: “You Won’t Have to Go It Alone!”
No one ever said in regard to the Christian life, “The Lord promises you a rose garden.” The lectionary texts for this Sunday indicate that there will troubles enough for believers. Psalm 69 is an individual lament, designed for one who is drowning in sorrows and trouble (69:1-3), insulted by enemies and relatives (7-8), the subject of gossip (12), crying to God for rescue (13-18). The situation sounds very much like Jeremiah’s life! Matthew 10:24-39 is a portion of one of Jesus’ major discourses. Jesus assumes those whom he is addressing will face death (28), and strong opposition (34). He declares that discipleship comes with a cost, a cross (37-39). With its emphasis on trials and troubles, Jeremiah 20:7-13 fits in with these other lectionary texts for the day. But what particular word does this text bring?

The Psalm, the Gospel, and the Jeremiah text for today all indicate that God’s people are not exempt from tough times. We all know those times: innocent children are killed in a bus crash, a terrible disease strikes a young mother, a marriage splits, a young man from the congregation is killed in a war.

There will be times when every preacher, every person trying to live a responsible life with God runs into unbearable, tragic situations. At such times one may have to say “Lord, you got me into this mess; now get me out of it!” Jeremiah was promised that the Lord would be with him (1:8; 19; 15:20) and he hangs on to that promise in this lament “But the Lord is with me…” (20:11).

When Paul was fearful about continuing his missionary work, there was that same promise (Acts 18:9-10) When any one of us stands at the edge of one of life’s dark valleys, the psalmist’s prayer can be ours, “for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). The ancient Christian greeting which remains a part of our greeting and wish for one another says it all: “The Lord be with you.” The last words of Jesus to his disciples were, “And I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20). That’s a promise. You won’t have to go it alone.

1John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon, 1953) 119-120.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 21:8-21

Mark Throntveit

This continuation of Genesis 21:1-7 describes the conflict in Abraham’s family caused by Isaac’s birth.

When Sarah sees Ishmael playing with her son Isaac, she realizes the tenuous nature of Isaac’s claim on the promise. Even though the acquiring of a son for Abraham through her Egyptian slave, Hagar, had been Sarah’s idea (Genesis 16), she now regrets her suggestion and demands that Abraham cast them out. But God intervenes and eases Abraham’s anguish at expelling his son. In the parallel, second half of the story, God eases Hagar’s anguish at having to abandon her son and promises that Ishmael will become a great nation.

The story is carefully arranged to display the parallels between Abraham and Hagar:

A Abraham casts Hagar and Ishmael out of the house (vv. 9-10)
B Abraham’s anguish (v. 11)
C God intervenes (vv. 12-13)
D Hagar and Ishmael in wilderness of Beer-Sheba (v. 14)
A’ Hagar casts Ishmael under a shrub (v. 15)
B’ Hagar’s anguish (v. 16)
C’ God intervenes (vv. 17-19)
D’ Hagar and Ishmael in wilderness of Paran (vv. 20-21)

Genesis 21:9-14 God comforts Abraham
The interpretation of these verses depends upon the answer to the question, “What was Ishmael actually doing?” Several possibilities have been suggested:

1.Perhaps Ishmael’s “play” was what we might term “rough housing,” and Sarah was afraid for her young son’s safety. This makes Sarah’s “solution” of driving mother and son into the wilderness, probably to die, even more appalling.

2.Some hear sexual overtones in the word “playing.” Was 15-year-old Ishmael abusing little Isaac? The NRSV has added the words “with her son Isaac” on the basis of some ancient texts (but not the Hebrew Bible), possibly as a result of such an interpretation. Without these added words, Ishmael might be engaging in sexual activity (“playing around”) with other members of the extended household.

3.Paul, following some rabbinic traditions, thinks Ishmael is “persecuting” Isaac (Galatians 4:29).

4.We are used to reading the verb translated “playing” in verse 9 as “laughing.” This has been a key word in the Isaac stories because “Isaac” itself comes from this word. We might literally translate “playing,” however; as “Isaacing,” that is, Sarah saw Ishmael “playing the part of Isaac,” pretending to take Isaac’s place as heir of the promises.

Certainty is impossible, but the view that Ishmael was pretending to be Isaac and usurping his future role would explain Sarah’s actions.

Sarah’s demand that Hagar and “her son” (Ishmael is never referred to by name in these verses!) be cast out offends our sense of justice (v. 10). In her culture, however, she was within her rights as the primary wife, now that her own son had survived the early years of life. By expressing her demand in the words of God’s earlier promise to Abraham (15:4) she effectively justifies her terrible demand.

In verses 11-14, the depth of Abraham’s pain is seen in a literal reading: “the thing was very evil in the eyes of Abraham” (v. 11). Possibly, the word “evil” means that Abraham thought Sarah’s request was somehow unethical or illegal. But Abraham’s earlier love and affection for his firstborn son seems more likely. More surprising to our ears is his apparent lack of feeling for the plight of Hagar. The text only lists his feelings for “his son” as a reason for his great distress. The lack of sensitivity to the plight of Hagar by both Abraham and Sarah is curiously dealt with in God’s response (vv. 12-13). Like Sarah, God refers to Ishmael as “the boy/the son of the slave woman” avoiding his name. But unlike Abraham, God attributes Abraham’s distress to his feelings of affection for both Ishmael and his mother.

An important part of this text is God’s promise to Abraham that though Isaac is the principle heir, God will not leave Ishmael and his mother in the lurch (v. 13). They, too, will receive blessing by becoming a great nation. And all because of God’s faithfulness to the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.

Genesis 21:15-21 God comforts Hagar
Just as Abraham had reluctantly cast out Hagar and her son, so now in the mirror image of our story, Hagar is forced to cast her son under a bush (v. 15) The word for “cast” is interesting for the parallel with verses 9-10, but only in the NRSV. This Hebrew word is also used to describe the “casting” of Joseph into a pit by his jealous brothers (Gen 37:20, 22, 24). The fact that texts like Joshua 8:29 use this word in reference to burial practices suggests that Hagar truly believed her son was about to die a horrible death by dehydration.

Again, like Abraham before her, Hagar is distressed over the plight of her son and cannot bear to hear his cries (v. 16). But just as with Abraham, God hears their cries and comforts Hagar with the same reassurance of future nationhood for her son that eased Abraham’s distress. And just as Abraham had provided her with a skin of water, God provided a well of water (vv. 17-19).

Though Ishmael’s name does not appear in this story, the story is all about Ishmael’s name. Genesis 16:11 reminds us that Ishmael means “God will hear” in Hebrew. That is certainly the case, here.

Just as the story in verses 9-14 had ended with Hagar and her son wandering in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba, so this paired story concludes with mother and child in the wilderness of Paran, the region between Egypt and Canaan, where Ishmael becomes a nomadic hunter.

The parallels in the telling of this story suggest that God is not only concerned with the chosen people of Abraham’s descendants. In God’s initial statement of the promise, the purpose behind the choice of Abraham was revealed, namely, that in Abraham “all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” (Genesis 12:3b). The promise comes through Isaac, but there is blessing enough for all!

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:1b-11

David Bartlett

Sometimes the editorial decisions of the Lectionary committees astound me. Why in the world does our text begin with Romans 6:1b instead of Romans 6:1 in its entirety?

It is as if when we read a letter that begins “Dear Mr. Smith” we are told to skip the “Dear Mr. Smith.” Our hearers are apt to miss the important point that what we are reading is a particular kind of literature, a letter.

Romans 6:1a reads: “What therefore shall we say to this?” It is a formula that makes clear two things about our passage:

1) Romans 6:1 depends on what has been said in Romans 5. “What therefore shall we say to this?” is a polite way of asking, rhetorically, “So what?”

2) Romans 6:1 introduces a particular kind of literature. It follows a traditional debating formula called the diatribe. Paul imagines what someone hearing Romans 5 might think: “Shall we remain in sin that grace may abound?” Unless we understand that Paul is answering an imaginary interlocutor we have a hard time following what he is saying.

What has been said in Romans 5 is that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is an answer to human sin. However great Adam’s transgression may have been (and however greatly we transgress as Adam’s children), God’s grace in Christ was greater–abundantly greater.

Now that he’s said this, Paul begins to wonder about what his audience might think. “If sin is the occasion for grace, perhaps we should just keep on sinning so that God might go on showing us God’s grace.” Imagine the Prodigal Son come home from the far country and discovering not only forgiveness but feast. What if six months later he decides, “That worked so well, I’ll just head for the far country again. The greater the sin, the greater the grace.”

Paul’s answer to this query is in two parts. Part one is as rhetorical as “what shall we say about this?” He says; “God forbid!” (Romans 6:2a) Or, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Part two is profoundly theological and can be summarized in a simple but not simple-minded formula: “Be who you are.”

Very often the source for Paul’s theology is Scripture–our Old Testament. That is the case in his discussion of Abraham in Romans 4 and of Adam in Romans 5. Sometimes, however, the source for Paul’s theology is the practice of the churches. What do we do at church and what does it mean?

One thing we do in church is get baptized. It is not just because I am a Baptist that I would argue that for the Roman churches that meant being immersed. It is also because the imagery Paul draws on here is not the imagery of cleansing but the imagery of going down and coming up again. It is the imagery of death and life.

Maybe when the Roman Christians got baptized they came out of the water and put on a new robe as a sign of new life. Surely when they got baptized they went into the water dry and dignified and came out of the water sopping wet. They were not who they had been. Something had changed.

What has changed, says Paul, is pretty much what changed for Jesus in the hours days between Good Friday and Easter morning. They had gone from death to life.

And this new life for the Christians is evident in two ways:

1) Those who had been baptized into Christ will celebrate his conquest of death; they will live with him forever. (Romans 6:8)

2) Those who have been baptized into Christ will celebrate his conquest of sin; they will live true and holy lives right now. (Romans 6:6-7)

For Paul the idea of a sinful baptized person is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. “You are dead to sin,” says Paul, “so stop acting as if you were capable of sin. Be who you are.”

Every parent and every child of a parent remembers the most telling times when discipline rested on grace and not on law. The child offends and the parent replies: “That isn’t like you.”

Imagine a television commentator in dialogue with a fellow commentator. The second speaker launches into a rant against the American poor claiming that somehow they have brought their distress on themselves. The first commentator (a fellow Christian) calls the second to attention: “You’re a better person than that.”

When Christians are told to “remember our baptism” that does not mean so much remembering the time and the place or who were the sponsors or who performed the sacrament. It is a way of saying: Remember who you are; you have died to sin and now you live a new life in Jesus Christ. It is a way of saying: Be who you are.

“Remember your baptism” also means, “Remember who you belong to.” In North America we are so enamored of our own individualism that we proudly claim that we are self-made, have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and don’t owe anything to anyone.

For Paul and his readers that would not have made any sense. Everyone belongs to someone or something. To put it even more strongly, everyone is servant or slave to someone or some thing. Before baptism we were slaves to sin. (Romans 6:6) After baptism we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11)

It is a perennial and inescapable puzzle of the Christian faith that when we are truly servants we are truly free, so long as we are servants to God. When we are servants to sin or to sin’s progeny–envy, greed, ambition–we are not free at all.

Remember this, says Paul, in baptism you put envy, greed, and ambition to death.

Christ lives: serve him.