Lectionary Commentaries for June 29, 2008
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 10:40-42

Greg Carey

This is the third consecutive Sunday devoted to Jesus’ instructions to the disciples as he sends them on mission. A pattern unites Matthew’s entire missionary discourse.

First Jesus calls the disciples to enact his own ministry, performing the same signs and proclaiming the same message. Then Jesus prepares them for the hostility they will surely face. The second movement includes the saying that “a disciple is not above the teacher.” If Jesus faces violent opposition, his disciples should expect the same (10:24-25). The missionary discourse’s overall structure insists that the disciples’ experience follows the pattern of Jesus.

So it is with this third selection, Matt 10:40-42. To welcome a disciple is to welcome Jesus. One receives the same reward for offering cold water to a “little one” in a disciple’s name as for offering it to that disciple–or even to Jesus himself. As with the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), it does not matter who receives care. What matters is the care that is offered. Once again, the experiences of the disciples carry the same value as that of Jesus. The pattern has come full circle.

These verses address the disciples directly, in the second person. Yet the sayings seem directed not so much to the disciples themselves as to the communities who will give them welcome. Matthew’s Gospel stands apart for it speaks directly to the conditions of churches two or three generations after the ministry of Jesus. The only Gospel to employ the term, “church” ekklēsia (16:18; 18:17), Matthew instructs brothers and sisters on how to deal with conflict in the assembly (18:15-20). When Simon confesses Jesus’ messianic identity Jesus names him “Stone” (Petroi). He then expresses his approval with the saying, “upon this rock (petra) I will build my church” (16:18). To Peter and to the other disciples, Jesus gives authority to bind things on heaven and on earth, even to forgive sins (16:19; 18:17; 28:18). In each instance the church overhears itself in Jesus’ address to the disciples.

Those early churches met an abundance of traveling preachers. This created a major discernment issue for the churches. Which preachers to welcome, and which to send away? Paul’s correspondence with churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi reflect conflict among traveling preachers, while his letter to Rome solicits funds. The Didache, composed early in the second century and perhaps dependent upon Matthew, grapples with the same question. The Didache provides tests of prophets’ authenticity. True prophets do not stay three days, true prophets who by inspiration order a table set will not eat from it, and true prophets live the truths they proclaim (11:5-12:8).

In our day churches rarely have visiting preachers who just pop in for a few days. However, the question of authentic ministry remains ever present. The local Christian bookstores shelve resources only from the most limited point of view. Church members often carry study Bibles that promote those same theological and cultural viewpoints. It is likewise the same for popular Christian media. So great is this effect that many people think there is a single “Christian” point of view for a host of topics, ranging from ecumenical relationships to sexuality to economics–often ignorant that these positions often stand at odds with the expressed sentiment of their own denominational bodies. How may pastors assist their congregations in discerning true prophecy in such a contested arena?

Matthew’s missionary discourse addresses the church at two levels. First, the church sees itself in the stories of the disciples. Commissioned by Jesus, the church not only proclaims the reign of heaven but demonstrates that reign through works of healing and liberation. In some contexts, that mission and message bring danger. Second, in 10:40-42, the church recognizes the challenge to discern true preachers from false ones–and to support those who represent the truth. The disciples carry on the work of Jesus, and the church participates in the work of the disciples. So the realm of God continues beyond the ministry of Jesus.

Each of the four Gospels has its own way of saying the same thing. The ministry of Jesus continues in that of the church, with no diminution in value.

  • Mark does it by leaving the resurrection story unfinished. The risen Jesus precedes the disciples out into the Galilee, leading them on.
  • Luke develops a unique strategy by composing an additional book. The deeds and experiences of Peter and Paul in Acts repeat those of Jesus: inaugural experiences of the Spirit, trials before vacillating authorities, healings related to centurions and disabled persons, restoring life to those who have died.
  • John’s Gospel insists that the disciples are better off after Jesus’ departure (16:7): indeed, their works will supersede those of Jesus himself (14:12).

Matthew makes a similar point in at least two ways. Matthew reminds the church that Jesus dwells with them wherever their mission leads (18:20; 28:20). Moreover, the missionary discourse repeatedly reveals how Jesus’ own experiences take form in those of his disciples. In this Sunday’s passage, this pattern applies both to the disciples’ authority to travel in the name of Jesus and to the churches’ need to discern authentic from inauthentic witnesses to Jesus.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 28:5-9

James Limburg

My work on this text was interrupted by a telephone call from a Jewish friend. When I told him I was dealing with the encounter between Jeremiah and Hananiah, he immediately launched into a narrative telling of his role in a play produced at a summer Hebrew camp.

He had taken the part of the false prophet Hananiah and reported with glee how these high school students had constructed a breakaway yoke for Jeremiah’s neck and how he, at center stage, had taken the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and smashed it over his knee. The play climaxed with the burning of a model of Jerusalem on the beach of a Wisconsin lake.

Historical and Literary Observations on the Text
The opening of the Jeremiah book indicates that the materials in the book are associated with the prophet’s work in Jerusalem from the time of Kings Josiah (640-609 BCE) through the administrations of his sons Jehoiakim (609-598) and Zedekiah (597-587). Josiah was a good and godly king who achieved religious reform and a measure of political independence for Judah. After he was tragically killed at the pass at Megiddo in 609, Judah’s downhill slide into Babylonian domination and finally exile (597, 587) began.

Jeremiah tried to call his nation back to faithful covenant living (Jeremiah 7, 26) but was opposed and persecuted. Banned from speaking in public, the prophet had dictated his message to his secretary Baruch, who passed it on to Jehudi, one of the king’s people. While Jehudi read Jeremiah’s words from the scroll, the king sliced them off, a few lines at a time, and arrogantly tossed them into the fire (Jeremiah 36). Another incident: At one point Jeremiah delivered a scathing woe-speech to Jehoiakim, contrasting his oppressive and evil policies with those of his father Josiah and announcing that the king would be buried with all the honor of the jackass he was! (Jer 22:13-19). Clearly the prophet and the day’s leading politicians did not get along!

Today’s text is a part of a narrative in chapters 27 and 28, set in the fourth year of Judah’s last king, King Zedekiah, that is, 594/3 BCE. Fulfilling a command of the LORD, Jeremiah goes about wearing a wooden ox yoke to dramatize his message: submit to the yoke of Babylon! Jeremiah appeared before an international conference in Jerusalem, which included representatives from Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon. Apparently they were trying to decide what to do about the Babylonian problem (27:1-3). The prophet’s message (from the LORD!) to them was clear: Don’t rebel! (27:5-11). He delivered the same message to King Zedekiah (27:12-15) and to the priests and his own people (27:16-22).

Chapter 28 introduces the prophet Hananiah who delivers a private message to Jeremiah. He claims the message is from the same LORD Jeremiah represents and promises that the king and the exiles will be back home in two years (28:1-4).

Reading Jeremiah 28:5-9
What was Jeremiah’s reaction to this “good news” brought by Hananiah? At first he says, “May it be so! I too hope the sacred vessels the Babylonians have stolen will be returned, and the exiles will come home.” But then the prophet’s tune changes into a different, typically jeremian key! He addresses Hananiah as a colleague, speaking of “the prophets who preceded you and me…” Then he observes that those real prophets typically prophesied doom–war, famine, destruction–seeking to bring about repentance and finally deliverance. As for Hananiah’s prophecy of shalom (peace)? Jeremiah says: “I’ll believe it when I see it!”

Then comes one of the most dramatic scenes in the literature of the Hebrew prophets, worthy of dramatization by high school boys at a summer camp. Hananiah steps up to the respected prophet from Anathoth, tears the wooden yoke from his neck and smashes it in front of the crowd that had gathered. Then, using the same messenger-formula that the authentic biblical prophets used, he delivers his own message: “Thus says the LORD: I’ll smash the Babylonians and bring all the exiles back within two years!” And Jeremiah? He walked away from that fight.

Toward Preaching on the Text: “True or False?”
It’s a dramatic story and preaching on this text will want to re-tell that story in a dramatic way. The preacher may wish to say something about the false prophets that populate the Bible from the time of the contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-40) to the days of Micah, when priests and prophets tailored their teaching and preaching to the size of the salaries (Micah 3:11), to the time of Jeremiah himself (note Jer 23:9-40).

The false prophets of Jeremiah’s day prophesied by other gods such as Baal, the god of sex and success (Jer 23:13). These prophets keep saying “Don’t worry! Everything’s going to be fine (Jer 23:17)! But they have drummed up their own “prosperity preaching” and none of them has ever been in on the LORD’s own council (Jer 23:18, 21-22). Their words are smooth, sweet, comforting. “But my word,” says the prophet speaking in the name of the LORD,” is like fire, like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces!” (Jer 23:29)

Are there false prophets around today? The preacher will have to reflect on that question, in his or her own context and in the light of the words of Jeremiah. For starters, I quote from this week’s Star Tribune which begins an article with the statement: “Is the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ facing a recession?” Following is a report of seminars held by a number of “Prosperity Gospel” churches and how they are dealing with complaints about “the lavish lifestyles of their ministers.”1  And I point out that the Christian Century which arrived yesterday (Feb. 26, 2008) features a consideration of “today’s soft-core atheists.” What would Jeremiah say about these professors and “preachers”? Somewhere in all this, there’s a sermon.

1Star Tribune, Feb. 18, 2008, B1-2.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14

Esther M. Menn

“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.” This protest from heaven halts Abraham in the horrific act of slaughtering his own son.

The repeated call of Abraham’s name, “Abraham, Abraham!” when the father raises his knife indicates the urgency of this divine command. It is not God’s intention that Isaac, the child of laughter and of delight for two elderly parents, should be killed or harmed in any way.

This narrative has been understood as a rejection of child sacrifice, which was apparently practiced at some points in Israelite history (Jdg. 11:29-40; Jer. 19:5-6; Mic. 6:7). Every first-born that “opens the womb,” whether human or animal, was to be set apart for the LORD (Exod. 13:1-2; cf., Exod. 22:29). The replacement of Isaac with a ram in Genesis 22 corresponds with a provision for the redemption of first-born sons, apparently with the sacrifice of a sheep (Exod. 13:13). In another tradition, first-born humans are to be redeemed simply by the payment of five shekels of silver (Num. 18:15-16).

Abraham’s naming of the mountain of averted child sacrifice as “The LORD will provide” (Gen. 22:14) expresses his gratitude for the ram caught in the thicket that he sacrifices in place of his son. Earlier, when Abraham assures Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8), his words allow for the terrible possibility that God has provided his son as the sacrificial lamb. But the affirmation that “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided” (Gen. 22:14) following the substitution of the ram adds weight to the passage’s statement against child sacrifice.  

A different and powerful perspective emerges when the Hebrew verb “provide” (yir’eh) in these verses is translated as “see.” On the mountain that Abraham calls “The LORD sees” (Gen. 22:14), God appears as a responsive witness to a child’s vulnerability and distress. “On a mount the LORD is seen” (Gen. 22:14), not to enjoy the “sweet odor” of a burnt offering (cf., Gen. 8:21), but to prevent violence against a bound child.

Genesis 22 is more than a simple polemic against child sacrifice. There is a tension in that the God who intervenes to prevent Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is the same God who earlier has commanded this sacrifice: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Gen. 22:2).

Similarly, at the conclusion of the passage God affirms Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the son who had been the focus of so many divine promises previously in Genesis. Abraham appears to be rewarded for his unquestioning obedience. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the heaven and the sand of the sea because he did not withhold the only son destined to produce them (Gen. 22:16-18).

Abraham is known as the father of faith within the three “Abrahamic” world religions. His willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command is one of the foundations of this reputation. In an age threatened by religious extremism and violence in the name of God, however, Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God provides a dangerous model.

Genesis 22 softens God’s disturbing order that Abraham sacrifice Isaac by presenting it as a test. But what kind of test was this, and did Abraham pass or fail? Did God expect Abraham to obey whole-heartedly, repressing all paternal feelings toward the son who addresses this “father of a multitude” trustingly as “my father” (Gen. 22:7)? Did God hope that Abraham would ignore all ethical considerations to murder an innocent child and destroy the image of God that he embodied (Gen. 9:5-6)? Was this the true worship required of the father of faith?

Or was God curious to see if Abraham would resist his order to sacrifice the son of promise? Abraham had interceded and bargained with God to spare the wicked city of Sodom (Gen. 18:16-33). But where are Abraham’s words of protest and intercession on behalf of his own son? Where is his exercise of moral agency?

Is it possible that God was disappointed in Abraham’s unquestioning obedience? God’s last-minute intervention suggests that Abraham’s response was inadequate. Abraham may have deserved credit for his motivation and his devotion, but his behavior called for swift correction in order to spare the child.

While Abraham’s case represents an extreme, it is not unique. In today’s world we are also called to discernment and accountability, as the well-being of children continues to be sacrificed. Neglect, violence, sexual abuse, poor education, homelessness, and hunger are among the many threats faced by children in our communities in the United States and across the globe. Child labor and prostitution, diseases including HIV, rising food prices, and natural disasters related to global warming are further examples.

The challenges to children today are so enormous that addressing them will take the commitment of all three Abrahamic faiths, in cooperation with other people of good will. Just as the first-born Israelites were redeemed by the payment of five shekels of silver, children today will be spared only by a shift of budgetary priorities and the investment of adequate financial resources. The precarious situation of children in today’s world is a test for our faith, for our understanding of who God is and what God desires of us.

The good news in Genesis 22 is that God does not require the slaughter of Abraham’s beloved son. God desires the child to live as a blessing and a hope for the future. As Christians our daily decisions and our political commitments need to be made in light of God’s attentiveness to the child and of his command “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.”

Genesis 22 remains a provocative point of entry for grappling with the radical demands of faith. It leaves many things unresolved. Whatever else may be said about this challenging narrative, it provides a testimony that whenever violence against a child is halted and whenever the needs and well-being of children receive attention, God is seen in that place.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:12-23

Marion L. Soards

Diving into this lesson at v. 12 of Romans 6 puts one midstream into a powerful current of Paul’s theological reflection.

Indeed, v. 12 begins with the word “Therefore” because what follows in v. 12 (and in vv. 12-14) builds off what Paul has already written in vv. 1-11 of Romans 6, namely, that by the grace of God the Christians have mysteriously participated in the death of Christ, so that they (we) are dead to sin and “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Now, however, Paul recognizes that the power of sin is still active in the world of the believers, so that Christians are confronted with the real peril of falling back into the submission to sin that will result in the Christians’ following the baser instincts of human existence rather than God’s will and leadership. In one sense Paul is telling the Romans that God has already rescued the Christians out of the mud and cleaned them off through the bath of baptism, so that Paul admonishes these same believers to stay out of the mud, to resist any subsequent urge to return to the mud-bath from which they have already been rescued.

More importantly, however, than the real need to resist returning to the mud is the positive dimension of Paul’s teaching–that having been “brought from death to life,” the Christians have the opportunity to give themselves to God and to live according to God’s righteousness, i.e., God’s will, God’s power, God’s action in the world for salvation, God’s purposes.

Verse 14 forms both an admonition and a promise. Here Paul tells his readers that they are truly freed from the power of sin and that they are secure in their freedom because God’s grace is the source of their liberty and security. The contrast in this verse between “law” and “grace” brings up a point long debated in Christian circles. What Paul is saying, however, is that in one way of living there is freedom–grace is God’s power at work liberating the believers from their involvements with sin; whereas in another way of forming life, the attempt to live life rightly through the observance of the law, one is left essentially on one’s own without God’s liberating power. For as Paul the Christian sees it, the law (holy, just, and good as it is) is impotent to resolve the dilemma humanity faces in relation to sin, while grace is God’s power per se at work doing for the Christians what they cannot do for themselves.

Verse 15 follows v. 14 by employing a rhetorical device know as a diatribe. This manner of reflection and argumentation imaginatively presents two orators in a debate or in an exchange with each other. Given the statement in v. 14, the reader of Paul’s letter is to imagine that someone raises a question regarding that declaration (the statement in v. 14). Then, in turn, there is an answer given with explanation to the question that is raised. Paul employs this device in several of his letters, especially in Romans. To sketch the imaginary exchange:

Orator One: For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Orator Two: What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?
Orator One: By no means! Do you not know. . . (Paul continues with these remarks from Orator One at least through v. 18).

Paul’s point is that independence from law and commitment to and dependence upon grace does not mean that the believers will lapse into a lifestyle of sinfulness. In fact, for Paul it means just the opposite. (As one sees in Romans 7) sin uses the law to deceive humanity into believing that life is manageable essentially on one’s own–commitment to and observance of the law can be thought to be sufficient for resisting the power of sin. For Paul, however, the experience of grace exposes the inadequacy of human efforts at godliness and shows the power and sufficiency of grace to live obediently to God’s righteousness. Simultaneously Paul exposes the real power of the reality of sin–sin leads to death. Yet, Paul declares that obedience (to God’s grace) means righteousness.

Verses 17-18 contrast the conditions of being either “slaves of sin” or “slaves of righteousness.” In this same vein, the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan summarized the matter in a song entitled, “Gotta Serve Somebody”–part of which goes,
“You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,
“You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
“But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

In turn, Paul’s teaching in v. 19 is not exactly flattering, even though it had been shown to be true. He starts by explaining that his teaching at this point has its limitations because the Romans themselves have real limitations in their capacity of understanding. (This may not be a ploy that one will elect to imitate in the substance or rhetorical patterning of a sermon!) Then, Paul reminds the Romans that their lives had formerly been less than perfect models of piety. Yet, the Romans were at the time of Paul’s writing living differently. Thus, Paul can admonish them to give themselves to righteousness for sanctification–i.e., they are to devote themselves to God and God’s work in the world so that they may continue to grow in God’s grace.

Finally, in vv. 20-23 Paul continues his line of reasoning, offering (v. 20 begins with the explanatory work “for” in Greek) an explanation of sorts that contrasts sin and its result, death, on the one hand, with righteousness and its results, sanctification and eternal life, on the other. Paul reminds the Romans that involvement with sin meant no involvement with righteousness; but now, involvement with righteousness means no involvement with sin. In v. 23 Paul caps the section with one of the most memorable lines in this letter to the Romans.