Lectionary Commentaries for August 10, 2008
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 14:22-33

Marilyn Salmon

The story of Jesus walking on water is so well-known that it generates art and humor in the wider culture.

The expression “walks on water” identifies a person with extraordinary talents or abilities. A cartoon shows two men on the shore watching Jesus walk across the water, and one says to the other, “You just have to know where the rocks are.” A favorite painting of mine from childhood Sunday School days shows a very serene Jesus on a relatively calm sea, larger than life, feet just above the water, his white garments dry and blown slightly as if by a breeze. These interpretations of art and humor provide insight into what we find meaningful, as well as troubling, about this text we call “Jesus Walks on the Water.”

Danger and Fear
Danger and fear permeate the narrative. Jesus sent the disciples ahead by boat to the other side of the sea, while he went up on the mountain alone to pray. By evening, the boat was battered by waves. The Greek basanizo literally means torture, torment or harassment; figuratively it means severe distress. The boat is far away from land, for the wind was against them. The Greek adjective enantios suggests opposition or hostility. The NRSV translation of the parallel in Mark is “adverse wind.” That the wind was against them doesn’t quite capture the perilous danger of the situation.

A first-century audience likely would have understood what we may miss, which is the utter terror of waters unleashed from their boundaries. In creation, God separated the waters with a dome above and below the earth. But there was the ever-present fear that broken boundaries could unleash chaotic waters. The story of Noah and the flood that destroyed an entire population is a communal memory of the potential danger water represents. We moderns also appreciate the awesome and dangerous power of water. A few years ago, the word “tsunami” became part of our vocabulary and still induces in us an awareness of the sudden and unpredictable danger of water. While the Sea of Galilee is no ocean, it is known for how quickly dangerous winds and storms can arise.

After a night-long battle for their lives, the disciples were understandably afraid. When they saw Jesus walking toward them, they were terrified, did not recognize him, and cried out in fear (phobos). Jesus identifies himself and addresses their fear with the imperative, “Fear not!”(phobeo). The angel says, “Fear not,” to Mary (Luke 1:30); a young man in white says, “Fear not,” to the women in the empty tomb (Mark 16:6); and the resurrected Jesus says, “Fear not,” to the women as they leave the empty tomb (Matthew 28:10). “Do not be afraid” is a word of divine assurance in the midst of danger or fear, when there is cause to be afraid.

Apparently Peter takes Jesus at his word and steps out of the boat to walk on the water toward Jesus. He discovers quickly that Jesus’ words of assurance did not mean the dangerous wind and waves had subsided. He was frightened for his life once again, for good reason, as he began to sink into the turbulent sea.

Perplexing Problems
The versions of this story in Matthew and Mark are closely parallel (Luke does not include it), yet each has distinctive features and includes elements that are troubling. For example, according to Mark, Jesus intended to pass by them as he walked toward them on the water (6:48). Why does the storyteller say such a thing, giving an unavoidable impression that Jesus is indifferent to the perilous predicament of his disciples? According to Matthew, Peter plays a central role, as he often does in this gospel, and our attention shifts from Jesus to Peter’s water walking attempt. Peter sinks, afraid (phobos) for his life. Jesus’ response to Peter, after rescuing him, implies that Peter’s failure was due to his lack of faith. Are we to conclude that Peter would have succeeded if only for a bit more faith, or because of a moment of doubt? This is an unsettling conclusion for mortal disciples in any century.

The narrative is often preached to encourage “more faith” or courage “to step out of the boat.” But this misses Peter’s real danger and justifiable fear. Sometimes the best approach is to resist the temptation to resolve or overlook tensions and allow room for the story to unsettle us. Another approach is to look to a different moment in the narrative for the gospel to touch our lives.

Chinese artist He Qi depicts a scene from this narrative in vibrant colors with characteristic echoes of Chinese folk art. The painting, Peace Be Still, portrays Jesus standing in the boat with his hand raised in a gesture of peace. Above his head is the dove with olive branch, reminiscent of the promise of diminishing flood waters (Genesis 8:11). The disciples are seated in the boat facing Jesus with upturned faces, in a horizontal line, conveying a peaceful disposition. The chaotic waters swirl around the boat, but in the boat is tranquility. He Qi points out that the horizontal lines through the disciples are at heart level. Their hearts are at peace even in the midst of turbulent waters. The painting reflects a theme in He Qi’s art which he states simply as “Message of Peace.”1  In this painting he captures the Christian experience that, even in the midst of danger and fear, there is peace in the presence of Christ. And there is the promise that the turbulent waters will subside.

1See www.heqigallery.com to see a replication of the painting. He Qi discussed the painting at a chapel service at United Theological Seminary, May 1, 2008, in connection with an art show featuring his works.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 19:9-18

Richard W. Nysse

1 Kings 19 begins with Elijah fleeing, not only from Ahab and Jezebel, but also from his place of ministry and the struggles it entails.

He moves from the Northern Kingdom through Judah and then to Horeb. Horeb is the name Deuteronomy uses for the mount of God, elsewhere called Sinai. Horeb/Sinai may get Elijah closer to God, but ironically, it also moves him further away from his call from God.

The narratives depicting the reigns of the Northern kings are marked by the persistence of Jereboam’s sin; Ahab’s rule is not an exception (1 Kings 16:31). Ahab adds to that sin with the explicit introduction of the worship of Baal (1 Kings 16:31-33). And, on top of that, there is the reported attempt to undo the centuries old curse of Joshua (Joshua 6:26) on anyone who would attempt to rebuild Jericho (1 Kings 16:34). From several angles, there is a fundamental struggle for the allegiance of Israel to the LORD. In this regard, note that the 7,000 faithful left in Israel are characterized in the negative, that is, by what they have not done. They have neither bowed to nor kissed Baal (1 Kings 19:18).

Elijah’s individual story should be read in the context of this wider core struggle. As chapter 19 opens, Elijah is fleeing Jezebel who has threatened to kill him for his destruction of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. But fleeing Jezebel is also fleeing his call. Ironically, once at a safe distance from Jezebel, he asks God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4). Instead, twice through an angel, Elijah is told to get up and eat. He has a forty day journey to Horeb ahead of him. The command to get moving is accompanied by provision for moving.

Given the historic significance of Horeb/Sinai, it is reasonable for the reader to compare Elijah’s experience to that of Moses (Exodus 32-34). For both, forty days is a significant number. Moses did not finally enter the land, even though he did manage to receive God’s pledge of God’s continuing presence with the people. Similarly, Elijah did not live to experience the destruction of the supporters of Baal (2 Kings 9-10) implied in the anointings he is commanded to carry out (1 Kings 19:15-17). We might also wonder if Elijah’s cave is the same as the cleft in the rock in which Moses stood as the LORD passed by.  But the similarity is not drawn out. Unlike Moses, Elijah does not intercede for the people. Perhaps the narrator only seeks to evoke the aura of Moses’ authority. Elijah is a champion in the prophetic tradition, but there is no template for prophets. Every prophet exercises the office in the particulars of the time and place in which they serve.

After a forty day journey to Horeb, the mount of God, we might expect Elijah to receive some solace or a sense of refuge. After all, an angel provided him with nourishment for the journey. Would it have been too much to expect a reaffirmation of his call or even a new prophetic commission? In a sense, the latter does occur before the narrative closes, but the first words from God are startling, “What are you doing here?” Clearly, “here” is not where Elijah is supposed to be.

Elijah’s response is defensive. First, he claims a virtue: “I have been very zealous for the Lord.” Yes, back on Mount Carmel he had been; he even killed the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40). Elijah justifies being “here” by charging the Israelites with the opposite of being zealous for the Lord: “The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.” In the next sentence Elijah repeats the points. “I alone am left,” underscoring his zeal for the Lord, and “they [the Israelites] are seeking my life, to take it away,” reiterating their zeal against the Lord. Elijah’s contrast is a far cry from Moses’ petition on behalf of Israel. Moses rejected a “me and you” proposal from God, whereas Elijah proposes a “me and you” to God in defense of his being “here” instead “there” where he had been called.

Elijah is told to go out from the cave and stand before the LORD. “Standing before the LORD” can be an ominous prospect. For example, Nahum 1:6: “Who can stand before his indignation?” (See also Psalm 76:7). The LORD is coming by. Is it for judgment or deliverance? Appearances that bring judgment are often depicted in terms of dark turbulent clouds, earthquakes, and fire (= lightening). But the LORD does not appear in the turbulent wind. Nor in the earthquake. Nor in the fire.

It is important to avoid an exaggerated contrast at this point. The alternative to these three is not without strength and it surely is not the equivalent to the Western notion of an inner conscience. What the KJV translated as a “still small voice,” the NRSV terms a “sound of sheer silence.” In the previous chapter, the LORD acts with destructive force in a fire (1 Kings 18:38). The kings to be anointed at the end of our text are marked by violence, as is Elijah’s prophetic successor (1 Kings 19:16-18). Perhaps Elijah desired the LORD to strike his current enemies with the same forcefulness as in the previous chapter. That God refuses to do. God will not become Elijah’s implement.

Instead, Elijah is the one who must be confronted. Elijah finally moves to the entrance of the cave as he had earlier been told to do. The ensuing dialogue (vss. 13b-14) repeats exactly the earlier exchange (vss. 9b-10). He is not allowed to linger. He is sent back north, not just to deal with Israel, but also with the foreign country of Aram. God’s horizon for Elijah exceeds Elijah himself. There is no easy way to speak of the destruction to be done by the kings that are to be anointed. God does not abandon the world; God is involved. The turmoil of nations does not exist independently of God or without God’s paying attention.

But not everything is brutal. God has a horizon of work beyond the machinations of kings. There are still 7,000 faithful. God is sustaining them as well. Elijah is not alone. No one’s importance to God turns into a story of “God and me” against the world. Elijah is important. You are important. But God always has surprisingly more at hand. There are always 7,000 more.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

In our text for today, sibling rivalry comes close to murder and sets in motion a chain of events that occupy the rest of the book of Genesis (chapters 37-50).

Indeed, the events of this text will impact the rest of the story of the Israelites, as they leave the Promised Land at the end of Genesis to settle in Egypt.

This text continues the saga of Jacob’s family and introduces us to the figure of Joseph. The lectionary divides the story in an odd way, so that the account of Joseph’s two dreams is omitted from the reading. The preacher should read (or summarize) that account to make sense of the later references to “that master of dreams” (37:19) and to the dreams themselves (37:20). Including the verses about the dreams will help to explain the brothers’ intense hatred of Joseph.

We are introduced to Joseph as a youth of seventeen. He is the favorite son of his father Jacob (who, from his own history, should know the danger of playing favorites). The first son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, Joseph is “the son of his old age” (37:3). To show his love for Joseph, Jacob gives him a special robe. Traditionally translated, “coat of many colors,” the Hebrew term here probably refers to a coat with long sleeves or to an ornamented coat. (The only other place in the Bible such a garment is mentioned is in 2 Samuel 13:18, where it is the royal garment of King David’s daughter, Tamar.) In any case, the coat is an explicit sign that Jacob loves Joseph more than any of his other sons, and they hate Joseph because of it.

This motif of the younger son being the beloved son–and the resultant family strife such favor produces–has been prominent in Genesis. It begins with the murder of Abel by his older brother, Cain, and continues with the stories of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. In each case, the younger son is shown favor by God and/or by a parent, but that favor, that election, leads to great hardship (and even death) for the younger son. The same will be true for Joseph.

Joseph himself is portrayed as a young man somewhat lacking in common sense, or perhaps simply a bit self-absorbed. He has two different dreams with the same message: He will become preeminent in his family. His brothers (and even his parents) will bow down to him! Seemingly unaware of his brothers’ feelings for him, he eagerly shares these dreams with them. They hate him both because of the dreams and because he insists on talking about them (37:8). Even his doting father rebukes him for his words (37:10).

Perhaps Jacob, too, is unaware of the feelings his other sons have for Joseph, because Jacob sends him to check on them while they pasture the flocks. Joseph, again showing a lack of common sense, wears his special robe–the sign of his father’s favor–as he goes in search of them (37:23). He goes first to Shechem, the setting of an earlier scene of violence (Gen 34), then, at the direction of a stranger, to Dothan. (The man who meets Joseph wandering in the fields has sometimes been understood in the historical interpretation to be an angel, on par with the “man” who wrestles with Jacob in Genesis 32. There is little warrant for this interpretation in the text.)

The brothers, when they see Joseph coming, refer to him scornfully as “this master of dreams” (37:19), and they conspire to kill him. Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them otherwise. They instead strip Joseph of his beautiful robe and throw him into an empty well or cistern. This is the first of several literal and metaphorical descents (and ascents) Joseph will make in the story. Drawn out of the pit, he is taken “down” to Egypt (39:1) and sold into slavery. Nevertheless, blessed by God, he rises to a position of authority in Potiphar’s house (39:2-4). Falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, he is again cast down, this time into prison. Once again, God blesses him, and he rises to a position of authority (39:22-23). Forgotten by Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer after he correctly interprets his dream, Joseph seems fated to spend the rest of his life in prison (40:23). Then the cupbearer remembers, and Joseph is raised once again from the “pit” of prison to the highest position possible: he becomes the second in command in Egypt.

Joseph’s brothers, meanwhile, have deceived their father. They have taken Joseph’s special coat and dipped it in the blood of a slaughtered goat, then sent the coat to Jacob (37:31). Their father, of course, draws the obvious conclusion that Joseph is dead, killed by a wild animal. It is worth noting that Jacob is deceived by his sons just as he deceived his own elderly father. And in both cases, a slaughtered goat and a garment are the instruments of deception (27:15-16). As we saw in the story of Jacob and Laban, Jacob’s actions come back to haunt him. Yet, God continues to be at work in the lives of Jacob and his family.

This story is the first of two about Joseph in the lectionary readings. The second one, next week, will reunite Joseph and his brothers and will provide the theological lens through which to read the whole Joseph narrative. It is important, therefore, that one preaches on both texts in the series, in order to get a full picture of the workings of God in and through (and in spite of) this strife-torn family.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 10:5-15

Paul S. Berge

Following the introduction to these three chapters in Romans (9:1-5), Paul draws upon several Old Testament quotations to show that the rejection by the Israelites has not prevented God’s election of Israel.

The foundation of God’s electing promise was spoken to Moses in the wilderness tent: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Ex 33:19 cited in Rom 9:15). God’s mercy and compassion are also inclusive of Gentiles: “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved'” (Hos 2:23 cited in Rom 9:25).

Paul’s anguish comes forth once again as he reflects on Israel’s ignorance of “the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own” (10:3). Only that which can bring an end to righteousness attempted under the law is God’s righteousness. This God has revealed in Jesus Christ for Jew and Gentile alike: “For Christ is the end (Greek: telos, signifying completion or fulfillment) of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (10:4). Christ both fulfills and annuls the law. Only on the basis of faith in Christ has God’s righteousness and salvation been made known for all.

The text for this Sunday includes several Old Testament citations as Paul moves from the thesis that “Christ is the end of the law” (10:4). A citation from Lev 18: 5 confirms that
“the person who does these things (in the law) will live by them” (10:5). Living in obedience to the law is a way of life; however, this does not lead to righteousness before God. The righteousness of God comes only through faith in Christ.

A citation from Deut 30:11-14 focuses on God’s covenantal promise. What is humanly impossible God has made possible in Christ–“in the righteousness that comes from faith” (10:6a): “Do not say in you heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)” (10:6b-8).

All that God has provided is in the word of God’s proclamation of promise, centered in the response of confessing and believing. To emphasize this Paul cites from early Christian tradition. This is evidenced in the poetic nature of the following saying in parallel lines (A to A. B to B, C to C) which provide a confession easily memorized and repeated. The underlined words identify the parallel structure in these six lines:

     A  “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord
B  and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
     C   you will be saved.
B  For one believes with the heart and so is justified,
     A  and one confesses with the mouth
     C and so is saved” (10:9-10).

The confession, “Jesus is Lord . . . God raised him from the dead,” is the word that saves and justifies. Attending this is the promise of scripture: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (10:11). Paul cites the second half of Isa 28:16, to proclaim that God’s promise of salvation is for all. There is only one promise, one people, one Lord: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (10:12).

“Jesus is Lord,” is the earliest Christian confession. The promise that attends this confession is now expressed: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (10:13). To believe in Jesus Christ as Lord (10:11) and to call on the name of the Lord (10:13) continues the confessional focus of these verses.

Paul now includes four questions that express and emphasize the dependency of the word upon the proclaimer and messenger of this promise: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” (10:14-15a).

Each question builds on the previous question bringing this section of the letter to a resounding conclusion: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (10:15). The text identifies the messengers of God portrayed in the prophecy of Isaiah. As the Israelites return from captivity in Babylon, the heralds in Jerusalem are called to go to the temple mount and shout aloud God’s promise of restoration to those who return from captivity. As the text continues in Isaiah, the messenger of God is one who “announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns'” (Isa 52:7).

The subsequent servant song in Isa 52:13-53:12 identifies the call of Israel to be a servant to the nations and is embodied in Jesus Christ: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities . . . he poured himself out to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa 53:11b-12).

The center of God’s salvation message to Jews and Gentiles is the confession, “Jesus is Lord.” This is the word of salvation that is to be heralded now just as Isaiah envisioned the proclamation to the returning exiles from Babylon. The confession, “Jesus is Lord” is the word that calls those of faith to proclaim today. This is the word for our time.
God’s righteousness is present in the crucified servant of the Lord. This is the word of salvation that God has ordained from before time. Jesus Christ is the word in whom all are called to rejoice, Jew and Gentile. This is the word that calls for heralds of God’s promise today. This is the word God entrusts to those of faith. This is God’s good news in the word, Jesus Christ: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (10:8).