Lectionary Commentaries for August 24, 2008
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20

Marilyn Salmon

As they enter the area of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples two questions.

The first: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And the second: “But who do you say that I am?” The disciples answer the first question by listing a few names from the past; John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah.  Peter answers the second question: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” We know this is the right answer, because the narrator told us this in the first sentence of Matthew’s gospel story. Jesus confirms it by praising Peter’s insight and bestowing upon him “the keys of the kingdom.” But the answer is just the beginning.

Jesus’ response to Peter indicates that his identity as Messiah is not obvious by way of human insight. This is worth noting since present day Christians may understandably take Peter’s answer as apparent. We read backwards through the lens of historic creeds and well-developed christologies, and Christian faith confirms Peter’s answer is the truth about Jesus. But according to Matthew, the answer is a matter of Peter’s discernment of divine revelation and not obvious to “flesh and blood.”

In first-century Judaism, there was no single understanding of “messiah.” The Hebrew mashiah, from which we get the English “messiah,” means “anointed.” A messiah was one anointed by God for a special purpose. A messiah could be a prophet or a king, perhaps a warrior, or perhaps not.  The promise of the Kingdom of God may or may not have involved a messianic figure. Jews interpreted the messianic expectations of the scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) in relationship to historical context. Then, like now, faithful people interpreted the scriptures differently, and there were diverse understandings of how God’s anointed one would act for Israel’s sake. In the gospel narrative, Peter identifies Jesus as Messiah, but the meaning of that role has yet to be revealed. It is one thing to perceive a messianic vocation. It is another matter to know precisely how the vocation will evolve, since that vocation is lived out in human history.

The Gospel of Matthew was written shortly after the failed Jewish revolt against Rome. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple and devastation of Jerusalem, God’s promises to Israel were at stake. Questions arose: Where do we see God in our midst? What is the future of the covenant relationship between God and Israel? The gospel writers represent voices from within this post-war formative period during the last two decades of the first century. This is the context in which the meaning of Jesus as Messiah was being worked out. In other words, the gospel story reflects a post-resurrection perspective.

Reading this story, as though a report of Jesus’ messianic self-understanding and Peter’s recognition of it, will miss preaching possibilities that arise when the text is read from the perspective of the gospel writer’s context. For example, the disciple’s response to Jesus’ first question is worth considering. The disciples answer by naming people who are dead. John the Baptist, a contemporary of Jesus; Elijah, a harbinger of the messiah and of the role John the Baptist plays in the gospel stories; Jeremiah (a favorite in Matthew), or one of the prophets. Perhaps John represents the spirit of a movement that Herod could not kill despite John’s beheading. Elijah represents the hope of divine activity for Israel’s sake. The prophets delivered God’s word with its creative power. The disciples’ answer implies the perception that divine creative power is stirring that the imperial powers of Rome cannot kill.1  What that divine creativity looks like must be discerned as it unfolds.

The lectionary splits this story in the middle and assigns the parts to successive Sundays. The division is unfortunate as each part assumes knowledge of the other. Preachers may choose to preach on the whole story on one of the Sundays and choose a different lectionary appointment on another. It also would be possible preach two sermons on the whole narrative; there is more than one sermon in this one! Another option is to work with the lectionary division as I am doing here.

This Sunday’s lection ends with Jesus’ order to the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. According to common wisdom, the so-called “Messianic Secret” originated with the author of Mark. Matthew and Luke often omit the admonition to secrecy where it occurs in Mark, but in this case they include it. There are several explanations concerning the secrecy motif, but one important observation is that the order to secrecy did not originate with Jesus. So here we consider the meaning of Jesus’ admonition to secrecy within the story as the author of Matthew chooses to tell it.

The answer is just the beginning. Peter gives the right answer, but the meaning of Jesus’ identity as messiah is not yet revealed. The answer to the first question connects God’s creative power in the present to other moments in Israel’s history. How it will unfold in the present time has yet to be discerned. Jesus’ response to Peter confirms that the answer is not obvious to human sight. The stern order to secrecy implies that what the answer looks like in this time and place requires discernment.

This reading of the gospel narrative lends itself well to encouraging Christians in our own contexts to engage in this kind of discernment. Where do we see the creative movement of God stirring among us? Where do we see the work of the Kingdom that the imperial powers of our own day cannot destroy?  Where do we see the Messiah in the face of suffering? What does it mean, in concrete and specific terms, to proclaim the good news of Jesus the Messiah in our communities, our work, our nation, our world? The conviction that Jesus is Messiah is the place to begin. Then we consider in light of this conviction how we live in faith that our Messiah is present among us in these days.

1Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storytellers Commentary Year A (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007) p. 202.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 51:1-6

Richard W. Nysse

Isaiah 51 emphatically seeks to break open an unimaginable future. Expectations are reversed; life is to be changed.

We are conditioned to expect condemnation when prophetic texts begin with the imperative to hear or listen. For example, the first address of the book summons Israel to hear the charge of rebellion (1:2; other instances include 1:10; 7:13; 28:14, 23). How very different Isaiah 51 is! By the third verse, the waste places and desert are like Eden rather than a threatened future standing against Israel’s disobedience.

“Comfort” is the word for the today of the initial hearers and for all subsequent readers who are without hope, suffering in the waste places and deserts that emerge in alienation from God. Isaiah 40ff is echoed here, actually more than echoed, because the message of comfort which was commissioned in the heavenly court is delivered directly to the exilic hearers. Isaiah 40:2 states that God’s people have completed their term of punishment; they have “received from the Lord’s hand double for all [their] sins.”

The discomfort bearing experience was not generic suffering; it was specifically the judgment of God. Israel had been severed from God. Even God admits: “For a brief moment I abandoned you” (Isaiah 54:7). The book of Lamentations captures the condition of the addressees. The haunting questions, demanding petitions, and nearly unthinkable thoughts that end Lamentations are embedded in the hearts of the audience in Isaiah 51:

Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old —
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us beyond measure. [Lamentations 5:20-22]

As the years of exile (that is, the punishment of God) lingered on, the “unless” of the last verse of Lamentations may have disappeared. The quotations of the audience in Isaiah 40:27 and 49:14 suggest just that:
My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God…
The LORD has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.

The opening imperative of Isaiah 51 leads to an unexpected speech — unexpected in terms of the typical pattern of prophetic speech but, more importantly, unexpected by the audience which is living under the judging hand of God.

The imperatives pile up in these six verses: listen, look, look, listen (different Hebrew root), give heed, lift up, look. In each case, attention is drawn toward good news. We are on the cusp of change. Whatever the past, it is a new day. The disjunctive “but now” of 43:1 and 44:1, which counters the drift toward judgment at the end of the prior chapters, is stated again in different words in Isaiah 51. This is a “new thing” (42:9; 43:19; 48:6).

The prophet grasps for ways to open the hearers’ perception to the new and emerging reality in their relationship with God. Can one imagine it? Well, look at your origin, the rock from which you were hewn. Perhaps the “rock” anticipates the reference to Abraham and Sarah in the next verse. But God has been referred to as a rock several times in Isaiah (e.g., 17:10; 26:4; 44:8). Previously the text has asserted that God created, made and formed Jacob/Israel (43:1; 44:2). The one who stretched out the heavens (40:12ff) can create a new future beyond the present judgment.

Then, the prophet tries again. Look to Abraham and Sarah. Their situation looked desperate as well. One family, lacking fertility, became a nation! Reference to this founding story has its risks. Ezekiel 33:23ff narrates a similar sermon arguing for hope based on the one-to-many precedent of Abraham and Sarah. That sermon was roundly condemned by Ezekiel. What is the difference between Isaiah 51 and Ezekiel 33? Timing is the chief difference. Ezekiel condemns a facile use of the Genesis narrative to create an illusionary hope. The destruction will not be quickly over; it is not a mere chiding discipline. (Compare Hananiah’s preaching in Jeremiah 28.) In contrast, the audience of Isaiah 51 is so embedded in exile and punishment that it cannot imagine an alternative. Contemporary preachers must be careful not to turn Isaiah 51 into the sermon of Ezekiel 33.

The emphasis in Isaiah 51 falls heavily upon the action of God. The audience is without hope, so fully despairing that it has no levers to pull to bring about a better future. Such an audience is not just having a bad time or in need of a little boost to get them over a hump. This audience has drunk from the cup of God’s wrath (51:21-22). That is over. God now comforts. It becomes a way to name God (“I am he who comforts you” [51:12]). Now the word to Zion is: “You are my people,” (51:16) AND this is not a cyclical matter. It is “forever,” “never to be ended,” and “to all generations” (51: 6, 8). It is more permanent than heaven and earth!

Paralleling the permanence is an extensive abundance.

“Joy,” “gladness,” “thanksgiving,” and “the voice of song” shall all break out where only sorrow has been. The theme is repeated in 51:11. When that kind of deliverance and salvation occurs, even nature is swept up into the abundance. It’s like Eden all over (51:3) and even distant places like the coastlands (51:5) join the anticipation.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 1:8—2:10

Dennis Olson

Exodus 1:8 — 10: From Welcomed Guests to Suspected Terrorists

By the end of the Genesis narrative, the Israelites had achieved most-favored immigrant status in the land of Egypt. The Egyptians had welcomed the Hebrew foreigners from Canaan because they were family to Joseph who, even as a non-Egyptian, had risen to second-in-command next to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:37-45). But then came the great disruption: Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8). Israel’s status quickly deteriorated from welcomed guests (Genesis 45:16-20) to feared aliens and oppressed slaves. The text reveals again the interaction of politics, ethnic difference and religion as a volatile cauldron for human interaction with potential both for great good and great evil.

A tempting political strategy for new leaders, whether an Egyptian pharaoh or a Nazi Hitler, involves trying to solidify power by singling out a relatively weak minority or outsider group and calling them an enemy. Fear of others can be a powerful source of unity. In Exodus 1, Pharaoh singles out the rapidly expanding Hebrew minority as an emerging threat. What Genesis describes as God’s faithfulness in blessing the Israelites through many descendants (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 28:1-4; Exodus 1:7), Pharaoh describes as a terroristic threat that may endanger Egypt’s security and way of life. There is no hint in the biblical narrative that the Israelites are anything but good, faithful citizens of the empire. Yet the delusional Pharaoh imagines that the growing but still small Israelite minority in Egypt is more numerous and more powerful than we. He warns the Egyptians that in the event of war the Israelites might join our enemies and fight against us. Pharaoh’s responds by trying three different (but ultimately unsuccessful) strategies to stem the growth of the Israelite people: a) Exodus 1:11-14, Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites, b) Exodus 1:15-21, Pharaoh commands midwives to kill Hebrew boys at birth, and c) Exodus 1:22-2:10, Pharaoh commands all Egyptians to throw Hebrew boys into the Nile River.

Exodus 1:11-14: Pharaoh Enslaves the Israelites
Pharaoh begins with a pre-emptive strike upon the Israelites and the illusory threat they might pose. He forces the Israelites into slave labor to build two of Pharaoh’s supply cities. The cities serve the oppressive Egyptian economy in the distribution of goods rigidly controlled from the top. Yet paradoxically, the more the Israelites are oppressed, the more they multiply and spread. The goal of Pharaoh’s strategy had been to diminish and weaken the Israelites. But the biblical text testifies that there is another power at work in, with and through the Israelite people. God’s blessing and sustaining activity, although hidden at this point in the narrative, remains at work among the Israelites in their suffering. God will have the final word here. Pharaoh may think that he is in control. But as the story of exodus unfolds, the reader will be constantly reminded that God alone is ultimately Judge, Lord and Savior.

Exodus 1:15-21: Pharaoh Commands Midwives to Kill Hebrew Boys at Birth
Pharaoh’s first strategy to enslave the Israelites does not work to diminish their numbers. So Pharaoh’s second strategy is to demand that the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, kill all Hebrew male babies (but not female babies) as they are born. Ironically, Pharaoh sees no threat from Israelite females, yet it is females (the midwives) who are the very ones who begin Pharaoh’s undoing. The midwives’ vocation from God is to preserve and protect life. Pharaoh demands that they deny their vocation and kill. In the Bible’s first act of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance for the sake of justice, the midwives refuse to obey Pharaoh’s deathly command. They lie to the authorities, breaking the law for the sake of justice and life. They explain to Pharaoh with their fingers crossed and a wink in their eye, the Hebrew women just give birth too quickly before we can get there!

The midwives succeed in saving the lives of both Hebrew boys and girls. In the process, they protect the birth of one special child named Moses, the eventual leader of Israel who would overthrow Pharaoh and lead Israel to freedom. As is the case so often in the Bible, God uses what the patriarchal and power-hungry Pharaohs of the world consider as low and despised in their eyes (Hebrew women) as instruments to shame and overthrow the arrogant and the strong (1 Samuel 2:1-10; Jeremiah 9:23; Luke 1:46-55; 1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

Exodus 1:22-2:10: Pharaoh Commands Egyptians to Throw Hebrew Boys into the Nile River
In a third attempt to weaken the Israelites and resolve Pharaoh’s irrational fear, the Egyptian king commands all his people (not just the Hebrew midwives) to kill all Hebrew baby boys by throwing them into the Nile River. Again, Pharaoh allows the Hebrew girls to live; he wrongly sees them as no threat. Again, ironies abound. It is a powerful cross-cultural and intergenerational alliance of three women – Moses’ Hebrew mother Jochebed (Exodus 2:1-3, 7-10; 6:20), Moses’ Hebrew sister Miriam (Exodus 2:4. 7-8; Numbers 26:59), and Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter (Exodus 2:5-10) – who disobey Pharaoh and rescue the baby Moses.

Pharaoh tries to make the Nile River, Egypt’s main source of water and life, into an instrument of death. Yet the three women allies succeed in making the river a place of rescue and life. Moses’ mother, who as a slave received no wages, is paid a just wage for doing something she would gladly do for free–caring for her own baby (Exodus 2:9). The ironies of the story signal the fracturing of Pharaoh’s power and world view. God is at work bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly (Luke 1:52). This ancient text from Exodus echoes powerfully in our congregations, nation and world: issues of race and politics, religion and politics, gender and power, the war on terror, debates over immigration policy, the inequities of our global economy, congregational mission and hospitality to the stranger, and all manner of suffering and bondage that threaten the individuals and families with whom we minister.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 12:1-8

Mark Reasoner

While the argument of the letter to the Romans opened with a preoccupation regarding God’s anger (1:18-32), this section of the letter opens with an embrace of God’s mercies.

What are the mercies to which Paul refers? They are:

  • Freedom from death (5:12-21)
  • Freedom from sin (6:1-23)
  • Freedom from a dysfunctional relationship to the law that fosters sin (7:6-25)
  • The gift of the Spirit (8:1-17)
  • God’s plan to conform believers to the Son (8:29), and
  • God’s faithfulness to keep promises, especially those made to Israel (11:25-29).

It’s like Paul is saying at the beginning of Romans 12, “Since God has given such wonderful mercies to us, the least we can do is present our bodies to God!”

What is a living sacrifice? Negatively, we are not to be passively conformed to this world. Instead, positively, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. With his “renewing minds” phrase, Paul is coming to closure on a minor theme that he has been voicing from the first chapter of the letter until now. This theme is that following the gospel authentically involves thinking in authentic ways about God and one’s own place in God’s world. It involves understanding that:

  • Believers in Christ are called to be holy (1:7)
  • The truth of God’s eternal power and divine status ought to be continually affirmed by worshiping God rather than any other created thing (1:18-25)
  • All people are prone to sin and stand under God’s judgment (2:1-2, 14-16; 3:9-20)
  • We cannot “boast,” or take credit for our faith (3:27-28)
  • We are to value hardships and live through them in hope, opening ourselves to God’s love expressed through Christ even while experiencing hardships (5:3-11).

Right thinking in this letter includes viewing our baptism as dying alongside Christ (6:6), burying our old selves alongside Christ (6:4) and rising alongside Christ as people who are agents of God’s righteous justice (6:8-18). And right thinking for Paul includes viewing ourselves as recipients of God’s Spirit (8:1-17,26) and beneficiaries of Christ’s intervention for us (8:31-39) rather than as those who have to find it within ourselves to keep God’s moral law (7:7-25).

It’s easy for us to read the first two verses of this chapter and start taking personality inventories for personal growth plans. But after the initial challenge to present our bodies as living sacrifices by deliberately turning from the world’s pull to the renewed thought patterns God has for us (12:1-2), Paul completes his description of how to think by bringing into view what it means to live with other believers (12:3-8). Paul’s first concern for people who would present themselves to God is that these people live as full members of the body of Christ, contributing to the life of the church according to the measure of faith God has given them.

Paul’s gospel does not contain the message of self-esteem that some subcultures promote today. The first challenge Paul offers, probably as a specification of not being conformed to the world, is not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (12:3). This is not an isolated idea in Romans (see also 11:18, 20b; 12:10b, 16). Paul is asking us to pray and live so that we do not turn ourselves into people God would not have us become.

Instead of thinking of ourselves too highly, we are to think of ourselves according to “the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3), which seems to be the general principle behind prophesying “in proportion to faith” (12:6). Is this “measure” or “proportion” something that is the same for all or something that is different for all? Students of Romans differ on this. Given the following context, in which Paul describes different roles within the body of Christ (2:6-8) and differing amounts of faith (14:1, 22-23), however, it is best to read these expressions about faith in verses 3 and 6 as referring to differing amounts and kinds of faith. Paul is challenging readers to live out their faith in ways appropriate to the amount and type of faith that God has gifted to people.

When reading this text, I like to think of how bakers use different amounts and types of flour based on what they are producing–whether it’s cake flour for pastries, self-rising flour for bread or all-purpose flour for cookies.

Similarly, different amounts and types of faith may lead people to different roles.
One person might have the kind of faith that leads her into a career as a missionary, and another may have the sort of faith that leads her to work as a corporate lawyer and use her expertise to serve others as God provides opportunities. Both life models can be appropriate for people in the church.

Paul’s main point about spiritual gifts, mentioned in verse 6, is that God has given us these as members of the body of Christ. So we are to use the particular gift God has given us to help the body function, not to promote ourselves or show how we as one body part are better than others who are another body part.

Do you want to present your body as a living sacrifice and be renewed in your mind as Paul challenges us? Then seek to live out your measure of faith and exercise your gift in a way that best contributes to the body of Christ!