Lectionary Commentaries for July 6, 2008
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Dale Allison, Jr.

Matt 11:16-19 is a brief parabolic take on how people responded to John the Baptist and Jesus, two prophets with two very different portfolios.

We are to imagine girls with flutes inviting boys to dance a wedding dance, and to imagine boys calling girls to sing a funeral dirge. But the boys do not respond to the flutes, or the girls to the wailing.

Many readers, supposing that the children represent John and Jesus, draw this analogy: John called for mourning and repentance in the face of judgment whereas Jesus proclaimed joy because of the presence of the kingdom, and in both cases their messages encountered unbelief or indifference. Other readers, observing that 11:16 likens “this generation” to those who play and wail, suppose that the piping and wailing children represent the disagreeable contemporaries of John and Jesus. When the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking but demanding repentance, people instead wanted to make merry: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.” When Jesus came, preaching good news and celebrating, people demanded that he fast: “We wailed, and you did not mourn” (cf. Matt 9:14-17).

It is hardly possible to decide with confidence which of these two interpretations is the better. But whichever one we opt for, there is one constant: God’s appeal came to the Jewish people of the first century in at least two diverse ways.

In this lies a lesson for us. We may sometimes be tempted to suppose that God is at work primarily or even exclusively in those who look like us. In the present text, however, God is at work in John and Jesus, and they did not look like each other. The two men had different ministries with different emphases. One celebrated the kingdom by eating and drinking at table; the other chose an ascetical lifestyle out in the wilderness. The differences between the two were indeed so great that John could wonder whether Jesus was really the one his inspired imagination had foreseen (Matt 11:2-4). And yet the same God was after all active in both.

The circumstance reflects the largesse of God, who meets human diversity with divine diversity. That is, because people are different, effectively communicating with them requires more than one approach, which means more than one speaker or one sort of speaker. The disparate ministries of John and Jesus are cause for us to recognize that whatever ministry we have can never be comprehensive or meet the needs of everyone. We will not reach all, and so we must respect and be generous toward those with the ability to reach people who will forever remain deaf to us. Instead of presumptuously and vainly imagining that what we say and do should be sufficient for all, we should rather be confident that God will raise up voices other than our own, voices for different ears with their different needs. As John and Jesus show us, there is more than one means to the great end that is God.

If the tone of 11:16-19, which analyzes the response of “this generation,” is negative, the tone of 11:25-30, which concerns the “infants” who receive the divine revelation in Jesus, is positive. The passage has a specific background in the Old Testament. The declaration that the Father and the Son know each other in an exclusive fashion harkens back to Exodus 33, where God knows Moses and Moses prays that he might know God. In the Exodus passage, we also find the promise of rest (Exod 33:14: “I will give you rest”). Moreover, in deeming himself to be “gentle” (v. 29), Jesus is taking up a chief characteristic of Moses (see Num 12:3), and in speaking of his “yoke” (v. 29), Jesus is using a term often applied to the law given through Moses. So Matt 11:25-30, like so much of Matthew, presents the second redeemer, Jesus, as being like the first redeemer, Moses.

Matt 11:25-26 is first of all a Christological treasure. It reveals that Jesus is the revealer, it teaches that he is the source of spiritual rest, and it tells us that he is humble and gentle. But Christology cannot be reduced to doctrine, or to facts about Jesus. It is rather an invitation to redirect our lives. When Jesus says, “learn from me,” he is calling us not just to read further in the Gospel or to mull over theological ideas but to incarnate for ourselves the virtues demanded by his speech and exhibited in his actions. One learns of Jesus by doing, by adopting his spirit and living his imperatives. The truth of our Christological faith is in the living. To read about feeding the hungry is one thing; to feed them is quite another. As 28:16-20 has it, disciples are “to obey,” that is, to do what Jesus has commanded.

Among the characteristics of Jesus in this passage is his being “gentle” or, as the older translations had it, “meek.” Exactly what this means here and in the beatitude in 5:5 (“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”) has been much discussed, especially among modern commentators, for whom “meek” sounds like such a bad thing. Who wants to be timid or ineffectual or of weak character? But it is crucial to observe that Jesus, who exemplifies this virtue according to 11:29 and 21:5, is very far from being a doormat. He enters into arguments, speaks harshly about opponents, and overturns the tables of the money changers in the temple. So whatever exactly this sort of humility may require, it cannot mean, without further ado, submissiveness or lack of spirit.

First Reading

Commentary on Zechariah 9:9-12

James Limburg

For me at least, this is one of those biblical texts that cannot be read without hearing music. In the midst of puzzling over the visions and sayings of Zechariah, it comes as a refreshing surprise to find the words of our lectionary text for today.

With Zechariah 9:9, I hear a soprano somewhere singing that melody, “Rejoice, rejoice, rejoi-oi-oi-oi-oice greatly!” from Handel’s Messiah. The great composer’s instincts were correct. This is one of those Old Testament texts properly classified as “messianic.”

The Royal Psalms as Seedbed for Messianic Hope
We may recall that the seedbed for messianic hope in the Old Testament was the royal psalms, that is, psalms that played a role in the life of the king. These psalms originated and originally functioned during the time of the monarchy, from David (1000 B.C.E.) to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. They include psalms for a royal wedding (45), an inauguration (2, 72, 101, 110), and other occasions (the list also includes 18, 20, 21 89, 132, 144). These psalms speak of the king in extravagant language, declaring that he will be victorious and rule over the nations of the earth (2:8-9; 72:8-11,19) with justice and righteousness (72:1) and with special concern for the poor and powerless (72:2-4, 12-14). He will bring about shalom (72:3). The king is called messiah, translated “anointed” (2:2; 45:7) and even son of God (2:7), seated at the LORD’s right hand (110:1). These extravagant expectations laid a “magnificent purple robe” on the shoulders of each of the young successors of David.1

As history played itself out, however, king after king failed to measure up to these expectations. But when the period of the monarchy had passed, with the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the royal psalms continued to be used in the people’s worship, now expressing hope for an ideal king who would come in the future.

Messianic Hope in the Prophets
The prophets gave these hopes new expression. Isaiah spoke of a king coming from the line of David who would establish peace and rule with justice and righteousness forevermore (Psalms 72; 89:4; Isaiah 9:2-7). He spoke of a new David, a “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” who would be concerned for the poor, rule with righteousness, and bring about shalom, pictured as peace among people and animals (Psalm 72; Isaiah 11:1-9). Jeremiah promised a “righteous branch” from David’s line, who would rule with justice and righteousness and bring about a time of peace (Psalms 72; 89:4; Jeremiah 23:5-6). Micah identified David’s home town Bethlehem as the place from where the king would come and promised that he would rule to the ends of the earth and bring about peace (Psalm 2; Psalm 72; Micah 5:2-5). Today’s lectionary text should be seen in the context of this great stream of hope for a coming Messiah.

The Book of Zechariah
The book of Zechariah falls into two major sections. The date for the material in “First Zechariah,” Chapters 1-8, is given as from the second to the fourth years of Darius, who ruled the Persian empire from 522-486 BCE, thus 520-518 BCE. Dating of the material in “Second Zechariah,” Chapters 9-14, is not so easy. Here is an anonymous collection of sayings, dating from some time later than the material in chapters 1-8.

Chapters 9-14 divide into 9-11 and 12-14, each section introduced as “An Oracle.” Chapter 9 leads off with a series of prophetic sayings against a string of foreign cities whose residents are enemies of Jerusalem; compare Amos 1-2. The LORD is portrayed here as the “Divine Warrior,” sweeping down the Mediterranean coast and destroying Jerusalem’s enemies (1:1-8).

Reading the Text
The lectionary text for today picks up at this point. News of the destruction of these enemies is cause for rejoicing in Jerusalem, here named “daughter Zion” or “daughter Jerusalem.” There is another cause for rejoicing. Triumphant and celebrating victory, a king is portrayed as entering the city. There is something unusual about this king. He does not come mounted on a white charger, riding high and looking out over his people. This king comes “humble and riding on a donkey.”

But make no mistake about it. Though a king of a different sort, this is the king! Verse 10 begins to sound the familiar messianic melodies from the royal psalms and the earlier prophets. He will initiate a disarmament program; compare Isaiah 2:2-5. His rule will result in shalom, peace, for all nations, extending “from sea to (shining!) sea”; compare Psalms 2, 72 and Isaiah 9.

Zechariah 9 concludes with more good news for the people of Jerusalem, announcing freedom for prisoners (11-12), further victories (13), and goodness and beauty for all (16-17).

Toward a sermon: “What’s In Our Name?”
What might all of this mean for us? All four Gospels identify the events of what we call Palm Sunday as the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy (Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-38; see especially Matt 21:1-11 and John 12:12-19). We ourselves are those people who identify the one who rode on that donkey as the long-awaited King or Messiah, promised in those writings we call our Old Testament.

As Christ-ians or Messiah-ists, we are people who confess that this–Jesus who was crucified and raised from the dead, is our Messiah, our King, our Master. We confess that through his death this Jesus has saved us from sin, death, and all the powers of evil. We are those people who thank God for sending this Jesus the Messiah into the world for us so that we Messiah-people need not live haunted by guilt and sin and so that death will not for us be the end.

1Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology I (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) 323-324.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Esther M. Menn

What appears to be a simple account of an arranged marriage turns out to be the intersection of several faith journeys.

The First Lesson for this Sunday imparts confidence that God is with those who travel to new and unfamiliar destinations, just as God is with those whose homecomings are to places changed by a loved one’s death or by new family ties.

When we first meet Abraham’s servant, he is weary and thirsty from traveling all the way from Hebron in the southern hill country of Canaan to the city of Nahor in Aram Naharaim, in upper Mesopotamia. The servant is under oath to find a wife for Abraham and Sarah’s beloved son, Isaac, from among their extended family living there (Gen. 24:1-9).

In biblical times, as in some traditional societies today, marriage between cousins was the preferred arrangement. Rebekah is the daughter of Isaac’s first cousin Bethuel. In the next generation, Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel, are first cousins.

The servant made this long trip because Abraham wanted to prevent his son Isaac from ever following the same route to return to the land from which they came (Gen.24:6). God promised a future for Abraham and Sarah’s descendants in the new land that he showed them, and Abraham is determined to have Isaac remain there.

Arriving at his destination, the servant seems at a loss about how to proceed. If only he could find a suitable wife for Isaac quickly, in the same time that it would take to water ten thirsty camels. It turns out that the two enormous tasks are accomplished at once! The servant prays for a sign of God’s steadfast love or covenantal loyalty (Hebrew, hesed) for Abraham (24:12, 14, 27, 49), and the answer to this prayer is Rebekah, the industrious young woman who draws water from the well (24:27).

While so much of the narrative in Genesis 24 is told from the perspective of Abraham’s trusted servant, this character remains nameless. We don’t know if this servant is Eliezer of Damascus (Gen. 15:2), once in line to be heir of all that Abraham owned before Ishmael and Isaac were born. This omission of a name seems appropriate, since the servant never focuses on his own interests, but instead continually witnesses to God’s presence in everything that occurs.

The servant recognizes God’s enduring loyalty to Abraham and his family in a chance meeting at the well (Gen. 24:12-14, 21, 26-27, 40). It is the servant’s testimony of how the LORD led him to Isaac’s future wife (24:42-49) that wins the consent of Rebekah’s family to his plan (24:50-51). They adopt his perspective that “The thing comes from the LORD” (Gen. 24:50), so they will do “as the LORD has spoken” (Gen. 24:51). The servant cannot rest until he has returned to his master, his mission successful by the grace of God (24:54-56).

Rebekah’s journey begins at the well. In the Bible, wells provide a meeting place for marriage partners. Jacob meets Rachel at a well (Gen. 29:1-30), and Moses meets the seven daughters of Jethro, including his future wife, Zipporah, at a well (Exod. 2:15-22). In Genesis 24, however, Rebekah encounters no future husband but only a thirsty matchmaker in need of lodging.

When asked, Rebekah agrees without hesitation to go with the servant to marry his master’s son, sight unseen (Gen. 24:58). This choice comes as no surprise, since we know Rebekah’s decisive character from her earlier actions.

Rebekah is quick to respond to a stranger’s request for a drink, as well as sensitive to his animals’ needs. She is strong and determined as she runs back and forth to satisfy the thirsty camels. No doubt something of an opportunist, Rebekah takes the initiative to invite the man with the camels and the gold to spend the night and then runs home to tell her family (Gen. 24:25, 28).

As with Abraham before her, Rebekah ventures by faith far from her homeland and from her kindred. She, like Abraham, will have a multitude of descendants, as her family’s blessing emphasizes (24:60; cf., 22:17). She seized the chance to become part of Abraham’s family. With her strong will, she went on to shape its destiny in the next generation through her advocacy for her younger son, Jacob, who in time becomes Israel.

When Isaac finally appears in the story, he has just returned from a journey to Beer-lahai-roi. It is unclear what Isaac was doing at this well where God appeared to Hagar as she fled from his mother Sarah’s cruelty (Gen. 16:7-14). Isaac’s unmotivated travel and his wandering in the fields suggests disorientation and grief, following his father’s near sacrifice of him (Gen. 22:1-19) and his mother’s death (Gen. 23:1-2). In this unconventional love story, it turns out that Isaac had been visiting one well while Rebekah was at a distant well watering camels.

When Isaac looks up, he notes only a caravan approaching without attaching any significance to the sight. What Rebekah sees is a man who might be her intended husband, and true to character she quickly inquires of the servant and then veils her face in anticipation of their meeting.

For the last time in the story, the servant acts and points out to Rebekah her future husband, explaining to Isaac all that has happened. Then the servant, who testified to God’s guiding presence in the encounter at the well, disappears from narrative view. His oath has been fulfilled, and God’s loyalty to Abraham and his family has been made known in Isaac and Rebekah’s union.

This is a story about traveling and hospitality, about meeting strangers who become family, and about taking risks and leaving home in order to find a home. It is a story that testifies to the power of love that comfort and heal grief. Most of all, it is a story of faith journeys with paths that providentially cross. The servant’s witness emboldens us to move into the future, confident that God’s angel leads us on our way (24:7, 40).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 7:15-25a

Marion L. Soards

Romans is regularly recognized to be Paul’s most seriously sustained theological reflection in the corpus of his letters. In turn, Romans 5-8 are recognized as four chapters devoted to Christian life as the experience of God’s grace, four chapters in which Paul examines the character and meaning of Christian life in the world.

The tone of these chapters is reflective, meditative. Yet, no portion of the epistle is more challenging to understand than these four chapters. Moreover, within chapters 5-8, no section is more difficult to appreciate than these verses of chapter 7.

Verse 15 of Romans 7 actually presupposes v. 14 (“For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin”) as is evident from the verse (v. 15) beginning with the word “for” (not included in the NRSV and several other translations); so that v. 15 reaches back to v. 14 and explains the statement there. In fact, it is unfortunate that both v. 13 and v. 14 are not included in the lectionary text, for v. 13 summarizes the argument that Paul made in vv. 7-12–an argument that sets up or leads into the reflection present in vv. 15-25. The fact is, discerning Paul’s logic and purposes in vv. 15-25 is challenging under any circumstances and the reader (preacher) needs every possible advantage to grasp Paul’s teaching. Thus, anyone preparing to preach on Rom 7:15-25a should be sure to read Rom 7:1-14 carefully in conjunction with the lectionary text.

Interpreters have long debated what Paul is trying to communicate in this segment of his letter, with its use of “I” language. Is Paul writing of his personal experiences as a Christian? Or, is he describing the dilemma he experienced before his call/conversion to the apostolic ministry of Jesus Christ? Or, as most scholars conclude today, is Paul assuming the posture of the “universal human” and writing of the difficulties and the situation in life that is faced by all humanity prior to one’s coming into a saving relationship to God in and through Jesus Christ the Lord? It may be that Paul speaks here more in the voice of “Adam” (see Romans 5) than in his own personal voice. If so, it is clearly best not to take Paul as delivering biographical information at this point in the letter.

It seems that vv. 15-20 present the universal experience of humanity in being dominated by sin so that one is made incapable of doing even that which one knows to be right. This universal situation of humanity, as presented here by Paul, is one of extreme hopelessness, for the power of sin seems to be more than that with which humanity can cope successfully.

In turn, vv. 21-25 express the frustration of humanity as sin lords it over humankind, despite humanity’s best intentions to do what is right before God. Then, these verses declare the hope of humanity that comes as a result of the work of God (in behalf of humankind) in Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is this final experience of hope (in Christ) that allows humanity to look back on life and to see and admit the dire, hopeless circumstances that previously characterized the human experience.

Since Paul is really speaking of the universal experience of humanity in this text, perhaps in moving toward preaching it is best to work with general or common experiences rather than very particular or specific examples of both sin and grace. First, how have we failed, despite our best intentions? How have we experienced the frustration of knowing the right thing to do and, then, doing something else? Moreover, how do we understand such actions and failures?

Paul writes of sin. But in our culture, the concept of sin has all but disappeared. As one observer put it, sin, on the one hand, has been reduced to something like bad taste or a mistake–serving the wrong wine at a dinner or saying something embarrassing to oneself or to another. On the other hand, sin has been abstracted–so that pornography is a sin (as it should be regarded), but adultery is a bad choice.

Paul’s understanding of sin is far greater than any of these understandings. Paul writes of sin, not merely of a sin. Sin is more than the sum of human misdeeds. Sin for Paul is a force to be reckoned with, a force set against humanity and God alike. Sin takes advantage of the person and compels one to actions contrary to one’s best understandings and intentions. Sin opposes God, drives humanity to destruction; and only God can deal with this evil power in such a way as to liberate humanity from its force.

Second, how have we experienced God’s grace? How have we known the freedom that comes from God’s defeating the power of sin? And, how do we understand such experiences?

Paul writes of delivery and gives thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord for such delivery. Oddly, contemporary culture looks askance at delivery, arguing that it is contrary to self-reliance, self-actualization, and personal responsibility. A culture that does not take sin seriously has trouble recognizing the sheer necessity of delivery. But, perhaps like Paul, only those who have experienced real delivery can appreciate the true necessity of delivery from perils too great to be dealt with in purely human terms. A college student once challenged the school’s chaplain, saying, “Christianity is just a crutch”; to which the chaplain replied, “Who says you don’t limp?”

Sin, hopelessness, frustration, delivery, grace, and great gratitude are the major themes of this week’s lectionary text. One might elect to treat one, all, or a selected combination of these subjects in the course of a sermon. The challenge is to follow Paul’s lead and to speak in such a way that any and all of the congregation will understand herself, himself, and themselves to be addressed by the proclamation.