Lectionary Commentaries for August 3, 2008
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21

Marilyn Salmon

Stories of Jesus feeding huge crowds with only a little were an important part of the earliest traditions of Jesus’ followers.

Matthew’s Gospel includes two near-duplicate stories (see also Matthew 15:32-39) which are close parallels of two in Mark (6:32-44 and 8:1-10). Luke (9:10-17) and John (6:1-13) also include the “feeding of the five thousand” or a parallel.

Bread: Blessed, Broken, Given
Multiple feeding stories in the gospels should not surprise us. They echo a common theme in Israel’s scriptures. As bread and fish feed the hungry crowd in the wilderness (translated “a deserted place” in Matthew), manna in the wilderness provided daily sustenance for the Israelites. Isaiah speaks of the abundance of food, drink and rich food for those without money to buy it (55:1-2). The gospel narratives of Jesus are reminiscent of the accounts of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kg 17:8-16) and Elisha feeding one hundred (2 Kg 4:42-44). Jesus’ actions over the bread echo customs of Jewish meals. Christians hear in these actions the elements of the Christian Eucharistic meal. Jesus’ blessing and breaking bread are the same as those in the gospel accounts of his last meal with his disciples (see Matthew 26:26; see also I Corinthians 11:23-24; Luke 24:30; Acts 27:35).

Breaking bread together is a communal and sacramental act that echoes through scriptures and through the centuries. Sharing a meal is a primary means of creating and maintaining community. When Christians gather to break bread together, we remember and repeat Jesus’ words and actions. In this sacred meal Christ satisfies our deepest hungers, heals our brokenness, binds us together as if one body, and strengthens us for service in the world. The symbols of the sacramental gathering and their multivalent meanings resonate in this narrative of Jesus feeding the crowds.

In the Wilderness
A distinctive feature of Matthew’s story is the way the gospel writer makes the transition from John the Baptist’s grisly death to feeding the crowds. In all three synoptic gospels, “the feeding of the five thousand” follows the account of John’s death, but each gospel narrates the transition differently. While Mark and Luke disconnect these stories, Matthew seems intentionally to connect them. According to Matthew, Jesus withdraws by himself into “a deserted place” (erēmos) upon receiving the report of John’s death. The mention of “wilderness” (erēmos) invites the listener to consider another potent biblical metaphor.

The wilderness is a barren place─lonely, deserted, uninhabitable, and desolate─literally and metaphorically. John the Baptist preaches repentance in the wilderness. Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness, immediately following his baptism, to fast and be tested in preparation for his ministry. Wilderness time can last a long time, forty days or forty years, or it may be brief. Wilderness is a good place to grieve, pray, repent, and fast. It is a lonely place, but God is not absent. Because there are no distractions in the wilderness, it can be a place of spiritual intensity. In this narrative, Jesus’ time in the wilderness is cut short not by his own choosing, but by the crowds who follow him there.

Feeding a Crowd
The narrative of the feeding of the crowds in the wilderness is notably straightforward. Jesus was moved by compassion for the crowds and healed them. Late in the day, the disciples assessed the situation (in the wilderness there is nothing for the hungry crowds to eat) and perhaps they, too, were moved by compassion when they suggested the crowds be sent to nearby towns where they could buy food. Jesus had another idea: feed them right here with what we have. Taking the five loaves and two fish the disciples had on hand, Jesus blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples. The disciples fed the crowds, numbering five thousand men, plus women and children. Everyone had enough to eat, and they gathered up the leftovers. The story does not tell us how the hungry crowd is fed in the wilderness; only that no one leaves hungry. And so the story invites us to use our imaginations.

I wonder if the “miracle” of the feeding is not so much what Jesus does as what happens among the crowds in the presence of Jesus. Maybe the crowds experienced the transformative power of Christ’s presence when he ordered them to make themselves comfortable on the grass, as if they were honored guests at a meal. And when he blessed the loaves, the crowd sensed this meal was special. Perhaps as the disciples moved through the crowds distributing the food, no one feared there wouldn’t be enough, and so they didn’t think of themselves and their own needs. The men shared with their wives and sisters and mothers, and the children were fed first. Maybe Jesus’ compassion was contagious in the way they cared for each other. And Jesus’ healing touch inspired them to gratitude for a simple meal abundant by wilderness standards. Conceivably the most profound thing Jesus does in the story is to insist that the disciples imagine possibilities for distributing food for a hungry crowd so that there is enough for everyone.

In his book Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, Richard S. Swanson writes, “This scene in the wilderness is not just a scene about hunger and nourishment. And it’s not just a scene about providing food for the hungry. Every mouthful of this scene is rich with layers and layers of traditional flavors.”1 The images and experiences evoked in this simple feeding story are present-tense. They open us to the transformative power of Christ in our lives when we break bread together.

1Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary (Cleveland: The Pilgrim’s Press) 191.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-5

Juliana Claassens

Nothing in life is free. Particularly if one has grown accustomed to the harsh policies of the empire that is set to exploit the peasants by means of heavy taxation.

However, it is exactly with this message of free food and drink that the prophet in this week’s lectionary reading is seeking to draw his audience into the world he imagines.

In Isa 55:1-2, the speaker urgently invites the exilic community burdened by imperial policies in a three-fold repetition of the imperative “to come.” They are invited to “come,” “buy,” and “eat” from the rich gifts of food the prophet is offering: the wine and the nourishing milk well-suited for a festival. The audience is called to take part in the feast, to eat what is good, and to delight themselves in rich food (v. 2). Making a connection between food and the word (or wisdom as in Woman Wisdom’s invitation in Prov 9:1-5), this text offers evidence that food increasingly is understood on a spiritual level, intended to still Israel’s spiritual hunger and thirst.

The recipients of the prophetic word in Isaiah 55 are described as being needy. To be thirsty and to have no money (v. 1) indeed are fitting metaphors that describe well the situation of the exilic community. The traumatic experience of the exile and its aftermath had unquestionably depleted not only the physical but also the emotional and spiritual resources of these weary survivors.

What is remarkable about this invitation is that people are encouraged to come buy the expensive fare without money . Denoting the utter inability of the exiles to change their situation, this text asserts that the gift of salvation offered by God is completely and utterly free–there is nothing one can do to earn this gracious gift.

For people who have experienced the devastation brought about by food supplies being cut off (cf. e.g., the famine imagery in Lam 2:11-12 where babies and infants are fainting in the streets, crying out for bread and wine), the image of abundant food and drink would have been particularly significant. Drawing on the connotations of milk as a nourishing and thirst-quenching drink, as well as wine’s ability to gladden the heart (Ps 104:15), Isaiah 55 explores both the life-giving quality as well the joyous nature of the transformation effected by God’s word (cf. also the theme of euphoric joy at the end of this chapter when the trees of the field will burst out in song in v 12).

The prophet’s invitation in Isaiah 55 suggests something of the inner appropriation of the prophetic word (cf. also Ezek 2:8-3:3). To “come,” “buy,” “eat,” “listen,” and “delight” all are actions of participation. Like food and drink become part of the body, so the word and the prophet’s message should be fully embraced. To dine on God’s gifts of food, to listen, to make the good news of the return from exile their own, is to receive the gift of life (v. 3. Cf. also vv. 6-7). The prophet is imagining a new life filled with joy ahead for the people who have had more than their share of suffering and pain. However, the people have to join this world filled with life-giving possibilities by feasting on the Word.

Central to the prophet’s message in Isa 55:1-5, one encounters a creative tension between holding on to the memories of the past and creatively applying these traditions to the new challenges that have presented themselves. Isaiah 55 very much responds to the burning questions haunting the exiles that God’s covenant with them had been broken. The crisis brought about by the Babylonian exile surely raised all kinds of questions about whether God still remembered the covenant made with David (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89). On the one hand, Isa 55:3-4 seeks to assure the exiles that the God of David is still their God. The everlasting covenant is a sign that God’s steadfast love endures forever.

On the other hand, however, one sees evidence of the creative actualization of the covenant traditions when the original meaning of the covenant is significantly expanded. The particularity of the Davidic covenant is modified by the universality of the invitation that is directed to all people. One could say that “the house” that God had promised to build for David in 2 Sam 7:11, which denoted a sense of permanence and stability, now is opened to all people who would heed the invitation and join the festival that leads to life. This roomier understanding of the covenant relates to the servant’s vocation in Isa 42:6-7 to be a light to the nations, fulfilling Israel’s mission to be a blessing by providing healing and justice to those in need. It is exactly the love God had for David that serves as a witness to other nations who do not know God (v. 4). And it is by means of this act of expanding God’s steadfast love for David to include others that nations will be drawn into God’s love (cf. also Isa 2:1-5 where the nations will stream to Zion).

This balance between holding on to the traditions of their ancestors while at the same time looking for ways to creatively apply the memories of the past has important implications for our own application of biblical texts. The living word of God, which is as nourishing to the soul as milk is to the body; which brings as much joy to the mind as wine does to the human heart, can never become stagnant and mechanically transmitted from generation to generation. The living word of God has to be constantly actualized in terms of the new challenges presenting themselves in each new interpretative situation. Continuing the metaphor of serving a meal of good food and drink, contemporary preachers are called to proclaim God’s word in such a way that they offer a nourishing alternative to the emptiness that all too often is dished up by an increasingly capitalistic, technologically-obsessed and media-saturated society.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

The story in Genesis 32 about the wrestling match between Jacob and God is one of the key texts for understanding the character of Jacob.

It is appropriate, then, that the story is included in the series of Jacob stories assigned for this summer. This is the last story in that series (though Jacob also will appear next week in the story about Joseph).

The preacher would do well, of course, to set this story in the context of the whole saga of Jacob. The congregation should understand that this encounter with God takes place the night before Jacob is to meet his brother, Esau, for the first time in twenty years. Back then, Esau wanted to kill Jacob, and for all Jacob knows, he still wants to do so. In fact, Jacob has just heard that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men (32:3-8)! It does not sound like the makings of a happy reunion, and Jacob is terrified.

Dreading that encounter with Esau, then, Jacob first has another encounter on the banks of the River Jabbok. He wrestles with a “man” until daybreak. Even after the stranger puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob will not let go of him until he gives him a blessing. The stranger asks him his name, Jacob answers him, and then the man gives him a new name, “Israel,” “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32:28). (The name “Israel” is most simply translated, “God contends,” but it is understood here as “one who contends with God.”) Then the stranger blesses him.

Jacob somehow knows that this being is the same God who has kept him throughout his long travels. So he calls the place Peniel (“face of God”)–“for I have seen God face to face and I’m still alive!” (32:30).

Ever after this encounter, Jacob limps, bearing the scar of the encounter, bearing the scar of a death, one might say, the death of Jacob the trickster and the birth of Israel the nation.

My colleague, David Lose, says, “Law and Gospel is all about naming reality. It’s about telling the truth, twice. First we hear the difficult truth of our brokenness, our fears, (and) our sins. And then we hear the good and gracious news about God’s response to our condition, for Christ’s sake, no matter what.”

David uses this story in Genesis 32 as one example of Law and Gospel, of “telling the truth twice.” God asks Jacob’s name, and he says “Jacob.” (The name “Jacob” is derived from the Hebrew word for “heel” and has the connotation of “supplanting” or “cheating.”) And that name encompasses the truth of who and what Jacob has been–a supplanter, a cheater, a liar, one who lied to his blind father and stole his brother’s blessing, one who had to run for his life and go into exile, one who struggled for twenty years with his father-in-law Laban, deceiving and being deceived. That’s the Law, the hard truth of who Jacob was and is.

But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel. And this is the truth of who Jacob is becoming, a new man, the father of a new nation. Traces of the old Jacob will remain, but he has matured from the callow youth he once was. (Compare, for instance, Jacob’s prayer at Bethel in 28:20-22 with his prayer in 32:9-12.) The once self-centered youth will become the patriarch, the man who, in his old age, leads his family down into Egypt and blesses Pharaoh himself (47:7, 10). This is the second truth, the Gospel of the story. God gives Jacob a new name, and a new identity, and he is changed ever after.

The preacher should take note of what happens after this wrestling match and name change. Jacob/Israel sees Esau coming with his four hundred men, so he arranges his company, and then goes ahead of them to meet Esau. One wonders whether the long-dreaded encounter with his brother has lost some of its power over him, given the encounter he’s just experienced. Nevertheless, there must still be some fear in Jacob’s heart as Esau runs forward. Instead of striking his brother, however, Esau grabs him in a bear hug, kisses him, and then weeps. It seems Esau does not bear grudges.

It is a scene of reconciliation, a scene of gracious welcome, and overwhelming relief. One can imagine both brothers sobbing, holding on to each other to keep from falling down. And somehow, this encounter, this reconciliation, is for Jacob something like the encounter he just had at the Jabbok. In an echo of his earlier statement, he says to Esau: “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10).

This scene illustrates a remarkable change in Jacob’s character. We knew Jacob first as the deceiver who took his brother’s blessing. He finds, however, like his father and grandfather before him, that the blessing–the blessing given to the “chosen” one in each generation–is not an easy thing. Abraham waits a lifetime for God’s promise of a son to be fulfilled, and then he is asked to sacrifice that son. Isaac endures that near-sacrifice. Jacob, too, goes into a kind of death as he is exiled from his homeland for twenty years. The blessing brings with it great responsibility and, often, great pain. Ellen Davis writes of Jacob at the end of his life: “It is hard to recognize the egocentric youth in this careworn old man, who is rendered almost transparent by surrender to the demands of the blessing he once stole.”1

Jacob, the shallow youth, becomes Israel, the father of a nation. One of the major turning points in this transformation is the encounter at the River Jabbok. The story of the wrestling match tells us much about Jacob, about the man he was, and about the man he becomes. It is also, of course, a parable of the nation Israel. Israel is the nation that wrestles with God. She holds on to God fiercely, even when God seems absent or uncaring. Israel holds God to God’s promises because she is the nation that bears the great responsibility of being chosen, and blessed, by God. The remaining alternate Old Testament readings assigned for this season after Pentecost will trace that blessing–its joys and its sorrows–in the lives of Jacob’s descendants.

(For another treatment of this story, see the fine article on this Web site by Nathan Aaseng, “Wrestling with God.” )

1Ellen F. Davis, “Job and Jacob: The Integrity of Faith,” in Reading Between Texts, ed. Danna Nolan Fewell (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992) p. 213.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 9:1-5

Paul S. Berge

We now enter into a three-chapter exposition on the providence of God (9:1-11:36). In these chapters Paul draws upon scripture after scripture to unravel the rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ by the heirs of God’s covenantal promise.

Paul’s agony is over the rejection by his own people, the Jews. How did Paul bring his audience to this strategic point in the letter?

Following the customary opening salutation (1:1-7) and prayer of thanksgiving (1:8-15), the theme and thesis of the letter starts us on the path to the entire letter: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith'” (1:16-17).

The argument commences describing that God’s judgment and wrath have been revealed to Jew and Gentile alike, neither standing in a place of privilege, all are guilty before God (1:18-3:20). Into this universal human reality “the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:21-22).

As true descendants of the covenantal promise to Abraham (4:1-25), we have been freed from the wrath of God (5:1-21), the enslavement to sin (6:1-23), the demands of the law (7:1-25), and the power of death (8:1-39). Each of these chapters concludes with a doxology of praise to Christ in whom each of these enemies has been defeated (5:21; 6:23; 7:25; 8:37-39).

The first eight chapters in Romans have set the stage for Paul to address that which is so crucial in his own life, a life now centered in the crucified and risen Christ and how he has moved from a persecutor of Christians to a proclaimer of the gospel (Gal. 1:13-16).

Knowing that our study over these three Sundays is leading to the concluding doxology (11:33-36) is a strong interpretive clue as to the way in which Paul’s argument will take place in these chapters. Paul is convinced from our introductory text (9:1-5) that all God’s promises of life are found in Christ and belong in the providential hand of God.

As we move through Paul’s argument in these chapters, there are several scriptural texts that Paul brings to bear concerning rejection of Christ by his own people and God’s unfailing faithfulness. A text that needs to be brought into focus as we move into these introductory verses is that which occurs at the close of chapter nine.

The stumbling block (Greek: scandal; that which gives offense) is the Christ whom God has placed in Zion:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble,
a rock that will make them fall,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame”
(9:33 citing Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16).

The words of Isaiah reflect the scandal and promise in the Christ. He is the one whom God has sent as the fulfillment of the law and prophets.

So, as Paul begins this important section in Romans, he is speaking the truth in Christ and with great compassion for his people: “I am speaking the truth in Christ–I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit–I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (9:1-2). These are remarkable words coming from the heart of Paul; he carries a personal burden but he is also aware that the only one who can relieve him of this burden is God working through the Holy Spirit.

Paul also affirms that the word he announces comes forth from an anguished conscience for his people. In addition, the scriptures that he will cite extensively are words through which the Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth of God’s revelation in Christ Jesus. Paul’s conscience is clear; he can do no other than bear witness to words that cut to the heart.

Paul now goes to the wall for the sake of his own people, the Jews: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (9:3). In the Galatian letter Paul bore witness that it is Christ who bore our curse, citing Deut 21:23 in his argument: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Gal 3:13). Is Paul actually saying that if he could put himself on the tree as Christ, bearing the curse of God, he would do so for his own people? Yes. These are words that can only come from Paul’s anguish for the sake of Christ crucified and the people of the covenant promise of God.

“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs” (9:4-5a). The list is inclusive. They are the recipients of all that God has to give. The whole of Jewish scripture is included in such a listing. They are the chosen people called by God to be a servant people: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6b).

Not only are they the recipients of all that God has to give, but they are the people from whom the seed of promise has come as they bear the very gift of God to the nations: “And from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (9:5b). Paul has saved the greatest of God’s promises to last. The identity of the Messiah is the greatest of God’s gifts to Paul’s kindred according to the flesh. This brings Paul to the only words that can express the focus of all that he has said in these introductory words–a doxology of praise to God–“God blessed forever. Amen!”