Lectionary Commentaries for August 31, 2008
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28

Clayton Schmit

The placement of this pericope is the first thing to attend to in preparation for preaching.

The text occurs in the midst of scenes in Matthew where the identity of Jesus as the Christ is revealed and considered. Preceding the lesson are several miracles:  the healings of the Canaanite woman’s daughter and others at the Sea of Galilee and the feeding of the four thousand. There follow demands by the Pharisees and Sadducees for a sign as to who Jesus is. Immediately before our lesson, we find Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah. Directly following this text are the stories of the Transfiguration and another healing. Clearly, Matthew’s intention here is to emphasize the person and divinity of Jesus of Nazareth and to relate him to the Jewish expectation of the Messiah.

But here the Jewish expectation is turned on its ear in two ways. First, a Messiah, yes; but one that will suffer and be killed. Nothing could be more contrary to the hope and expectation of Israel than for its long awaited leader to go directly to the place where he would be in the most danger and there be tortured and killed. For the careful listener, Jesus includes a strong word of hope: “…and on the third day be raised.” But, this is so far beyond human comprehension that the listeners miss it, and Peter jumps in to stay Jesus’ contrary plan. One minute Peter is praised and promised to be the “rock” upon which Jesus will build his church (16:17-18), then chastised in the next. Peter was on a roller coaster ride which seemed to be headed for disaster. He was a Jew and could not fathom a Messiah who would give up his life just at the moment when he should be seizing the leadership of Israel. Peter spoke for all the disciples. He still speaks for us, because we too have our minds “set not on divine things but on human things.” (16:23)

With this first contradiction of Jewish expectations comes our first homiletical move in this text. There may be witnesses and indications all around us that Jesus is the Messiah. Yet do we not still set our minds readily on human things and miss the Easter promise of resurrection and life? It is so much easier to imagine a Jesus who was a great moral leader, a teacher, even a miracle worker, than to comprehend that he could draw all humankind to himself in one great self-giving embrace. If we are preaching this message to the unchurched, it will take a bold witness from a trustworthy spokesperson to break through the human thoughts in order to reveal the truth of this contrary idea. If we are preaching to the choir, and to a congregation that knows of this magnificent hope, we will likely need to remind them of the ways in which we are still functioning on an all too human level. It is our default setting, but this passage can reset our habits of mind and action.

This passage is a sure cure for preaching that tends to turn Jesus into a moral example. It often sounds like this: “If Jesus was willing to die on the cross for you, then shouldn’t you be willing to serve him in return?” Here is a comprehensible Messiah, a tit-for-tat leader who sets an example and expects people to follow. The moral of the Jesus story is to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” But, this story demands that we reset our habit of having our minds set on human ideas. Jesus is to die, not as an example of good behavior, but so he could rise again and reveal the incomprehensible power of God to change the world.

The second expectation overturned here is being a disciple of the Messiah should be a stroll through the halls of power and prestige. The human way of thinking is represented by our national leadership. To know the President personally, to visit one’s Senator and be called by name, to be invited to important events in Washington: these are the expectations of the acolytes of the powerful. People pay huge sums to have that kind of access. Human expectations surrounding the Messiah would not have been much different. The Pharisees and Sadducees wanted a clear sign (16:1-4). If they had gotten one, they would have gladly fallen in line and prepared themselves to parade in the excess glory left in the Messiah’s wake. No sign was given. He was not that kind of leader. And, he did not seek that kind of follower. His followers were “to deny themselves and take up their cross.” (16:24)

Here, too, is our second homiletical approach. We have heard that we should take up our cross. To some degree, we followers of Jesus do this gladly. We especially do those things that are not too dear. We serve on boring church committees, bearing our cross without complaint. We give more than we think is financially prudent and hope it doesn’t put a dent in our lifestyle. We help out those people who annoy us, thinking we are bearing a burden. The list of little crosses is endless. But, the passage pushes–and so the preacher must push–deeper. To take up the cross is to deny oneself, not to safeguard one’s way of life by chastening it with little taxations. This leads only to “forfeiture” of life. Jesus demands more. The Messiah requires more.

The problem is we are pretty poor at cross bearing. The disciples wouldn’t have thought themselves any better. They had seen crosses and knew how life-crushing they were. For them, the thought of carrying a cross was a life and death matter. In the end, many of them did die because they followed the Messiah. For us, to bear a cross is a metaphorical idea. No one really expects to die in the process. But, even to deny ourselves seems too much to ask. We aren’t much good at that either. Here is both the challenge and the good news in this text: If we follow Jesus, we will be seriously called to bear certain crosses and lose hold of our lifestyle, if not our life. Yet, in all our weakness and human mindedness, it is Jesus’ own death on the cross that enables us to do what we cannot.

God’s power is revealed not in walks through the porticos of power, but through the dusty alleys of weakness and misery. That is where Jesus walked. That is where he leads us to walk. That is where he strengthens us to bear the burdens of discipleship. It is his burden we take upon our shoulders. It is his strength that bears the weight. We do nothing on our own, but he can do much through us. Without him, Peter was no rock, but a stumbling block. With him, Peter was the church. With him, we are not powerless to deny ourselves but able to bear all he may give us. Lloyd Ogilvie once put it this way: “We say, ‘But, Lord, I cannot.’ And God says, ‘I’m glad to hear you say that. Through you, I can.'”

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 15:15-21

Richard W. Nysse

One difficulty that preachers will face with this text is sorting out the individual and communal import of Jeremiah.

An initial reading of the text tips heavily in the direction of individual concerns. The first person singular pronoun occurs repeatedly. Jeremiah is, in his own telling, beset by persecutors (15:15). Jeremiah argues to God that he has been faithful. He has ingested God’s Word and avoided unsavory conduct. This has isolated him and made him a target. He pleads to God from whom he expects understanding and acknowledgement. Read only at the individual level, contemporary preachers may, in situations of congregational conflict, be tempted to join Jeremiah in an un-nuanced call for “retribution…on [their] persecutors” (NRSV).

But the biblical interest is not in Jeremiah’s inner religious life. The book of Jeremiah is not a spiritual biography; it does not merely report laments articulated by Jeremiah. Israel has an investment in the retention of Jeremiah’s life-story.

The book as a whole knows that Israel too will suffer torment and cry in agony in exile. In fact, the people have anticipated Jeremiah’s prayer: “Remember and do not break your covenant with us” (14:21). Beyond the parallel plea to be remembered, both the people and Jeremiah claim to be called by the name of God (14:9 and 15:16). The laments by the people in 14:7-9 and 19-22 are both rejected (14:10ff. and 15:1ff.). The people are seeking to have God maintain the covenant while they are blatantly breaking it. This will not work. Judgment in the shape of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile are, at that point, irreversible.

There will, however, be a time in judgment (that is, in exile) when the cry of lament is not an attempt to manipulate. Rachel’s weeping will need divine comfort and compassion (31:15-17). The people will again cry, “Remember!” Lamentations 5:1 reads: “Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (NRSV). This cry does not seek to forestall judgment; rather, it is spoken in the midst of judgment. The shift from Jeremiah 14 to Lamentations (and Rachel in Jeremiah 31) is a shift from seeking preservation to pleading for restoration from judgment.

Other echoes, ironies, and interweavings exist between Jeremiah and the people. In 2:13, the people are charged both with forsaking their God, “the fountain of living water,” and with replacing that God with cisterns that could not hold water. In his hardship, Jeremiah reverses the image: Has “the fountain of living water” become a “deceitful brook” that fails as much as the cisterns chosen by the people? The biblical lament tradition repeatedly reaches such intensity and sanctions such speech. There is no demand to talk “nice.”

Jeremiah terms his pain and wound to be unceasing, incurable, and un-healable. Note Jeremiah 30:12 regarding the people for comparison: “For thus says the LORD: Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous.” Israel undoubtedly asked, “Why?” And the answer was given: “Because your guilt is great, because your sins are so numerous, I have done these things to you” (30:15). Jeremiah himself is not so charged. He, in fact, pleads the contrary: “I did not sit in the company of merrymakers” (15:17). Even so, Jeremiah’s wound refuses to be healed as Rachel’s cry refuses to be comforted. Once in exile and the full extent of judgment, Israel’s wound will be healed: “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the LORD, because they have called you an outcast: “It is Zion; no one cares for her!”” (Jeremiah 30:17). When the just judgment (= the wound) of Israel is turned into an occasion for mocking Israel, then God acts to heal, redeem, save, deliver — a host of verbs come into play at that point.

Yet one more interweaving: Jeremiah initially experienced joy and delight in taking up his prophetic vocation (15:16). The same words appear to have characterized the expected life God intended for Israel, but now, in the latter days of their nationhood, both joy and delight are to be cut off (7:34; 16:9; 25:10 — the Hebrew terms are the same). This too shall be reversed. Both terms reappear in the restoration. The “sounds of joy and gladness” will return “as they were before” (33:10-11). In fact, this restoration will be a source of God’s own joy (33:6-9).

In the lectionary text under consideration, Jeremiah does not experience this full restoration. He has yet to complete his part in God’s bringing judgment on Israel. Verse 19 brings in conditional language. An “if” and “if not” had once been an option for Israel, but it repeatedly had responded with a declaration that “we will not” (6:16-17). Jeremiah’s demanded return is not the same as the earlier demands placed on Israel (e.g., 3:12, 14; 4:1-2). Jeremiah is to return to his commissioning in chapter 1. Much of 1:18-19 is repeated here. Note the references to metal, fighting, not prevailing, and rescuing.

But more is said in chapter 15 than in chapter 1. Verse 21 extends the reference to the opponents. They are called the “wicked” and the “cruel.” The extension hints at some concession to Jeremiah’s characterization of what he is enduring (“on your account I suffer insult” 15:16). The conditional of verse 19 recedes as God’s unconditional commitment to Jeremiah in chapter 1 and is echoed and extended in chapter 15. Yes, return is always appropriate, but God’s call to Jeremiah was finally not contingent upon it.

And lurking in the individual assurance to Jeremiah is hope for Israel. When in exile, it wonders if the wicked and the cruel permanently control its future. In the singular “you” of verse 21 resides the possibility of a plural “you.” That move can be prematurely and presumptively invoked as in chapter 14. But in the midst of judgment, that shift is Israel’s hope. Rachel/Israel will be comforted as Jeremiah was supported against its opposition. Israel, in exile, recognized that in Jeremiah’s vocation its own destiny was mirrored. The one appointed to be against them was supported by the God who is their hope.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15

Dennis Olson

Exodus 3:1-6: Coming Home–A Mountain, a Bush and the Call of Moses

After being chased out of Egypt and away from his Hebrew people, Moses is out shepherding sheep for his Midianite father-in-law. Out in the wilderness, Moses stumbles upon “the mountain of God” known as Mount Horeb (also known as Mount Sinai–Exodus 19:11). In the ancient world, mountaintops were the traditional dwelling places for the divine. There, at the mountain, Moses encounters an unquenchable burning bush. Fire is a common biblical symbol of God’s presence (Genesis 15:17; Exodus 14:24; 19:18; Leviticus 10:2; see also Acts 2:3).  The fiery bush is an icon of the divine, a material or sacramental window into God’s presence that both reveals and hides. In part, the ever-burning shrub out in the wilderness signals God’s merciful accommodation. God comes down from the mountain of God to meet Moses in the bush. At the same time, the inextinguishable flame is a sign of God’s awesome and powerful holiness, a fiery holiness that is both dangerous and attractive, frightening and comforting, untamed but reassuring.

God instructs Moses to remove the sandals from his feet. The gesture is an ancient practice when entering a holy place of divine presence. It is a gesture that honors the holiness of this ground, this mountain and this God. Removing shoes as a show of reverence is a practice still in use in Islam and other religions.

However, removing his sandals has a second significance in light of Moses’ earlier self-declaration in Exodus 2:22: “I have been an alien (Hebrew ger) residing in a foreign land.” The Hebrews had rejected Moses as one of their own (Exodus 2:14). The Egyptian Pharaoh sought to kill him (Exodus 2:15). The Midianites see Moses as a foreigner, “an Egyptian” (Exodus 2:19). Moses is not fully “home” in any human community. Taking off one’s sandals is a gesture in many traditional cultures that is associated with entering not only a worship space but also a home. Thus, here at the foot of the mountain of God, Moses the “alien,” has at last found a true “home.” Moses finds his true home not with humans but with God, the God of his ancestors, “the God of Abraham…of Isaac…of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6).

Exodus 3:7-15: The Unfolding Name of God in Exodus
God calls Moses to go back to Pharaoh, lead the Israelites out of their miserable slavery in Egypt and travel to the promised land of Canaan (3:7-10). As in some other call stories in the Bible (Jeremiah 1:1-10), Moses resists the call and raises a number of objections to which God responds. Moses first pleads his own lack of skills and qualifications. Who am I? he asks. (3:11). God responds. None of that matters; “I will be with you” (3:12). The people will ask Moses, what is this God’s name? (3:13). God responds with a long explication of the divine name, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14). Perhaps a better translation of the name from the Hebrew (ehyeh asher ehyeh) is “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.”

This divine name is built on the Hebrew verb “to be” and is related to the divine name used frequently throughout the Old Testament, “Yahweh,” or YHWH (the transliterated Hebrew consonants without the vowels). In the Jewish tradition, this special name of God is considered so holy that it is not to be pronounced in prayer or worship (hence, the absence of vowels). The NRSV translation represents this special divine name with the circumlocution “the LORD.” This is the convention used by the ancient Greek and the Septuagint translation of the original Hebrew.

As with the burning bush, this special divine name serves both to reveal and to hide. The mysterious name invites us, as readers, to read on and discern how a series of God’s self-declarations of God’s own name (“I am the LORD/YHWH…”) at key points in the Exodus story explicate and fill out the character and identity of Israel’s God.

Thus, in Exodus 20:2-6, God expands the divine name at the beginning of the Ten Commandments by recalling God’s actions and character, “I am the LORD your God…who brought you out of the land of Egypt…I am a jealous God, punishing…but showing steadfast love.” In Exodus 29:46, God’s self-declaration of the name expands another step in the tabernacle cycle, revealing the core of God’s nature as a desire to be present with God’s people: “I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell with them.

After the golden calf debacle that endangered the entire relationship between God and people, God reaches deep down and reveals another aspect of God’s inner name and character. The name “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE” from our text in Exodus 3:14 expands into God’s deeper character of mercy in Exodus 33:19: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.”

Finally, in Exodus 34:6-7, Moses experiences the most dramatic revelation of God’s name. In a repetition, but also inversion of God’s name in Exodus 20:2-6, God’s character is no longer first of all “jealous” and “punishing.” God’s name is, first of all, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” No longer is there a qualifier of God’s love of “those who love me and keep my commandments” (as in Exodus 20:6). Furthermore, God’s name in Exodus 34:6-7 includes for the first time in Exodus “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” There will admittedly continue to be consequences to disobedience (“yet by no means clearing the guilty”), but that aspect of God’s name and character will now be in a secondary place. Exodus 34 is God’s response to Israel’s primal sin against the first commandment in worshiping the golden calf in Exodus 32. Exodus 34:6-7 proclaims that God’s name first given in Exodus 3:14 as the enigmatic, “I WILL WHO I WILL BE,” unfolds at its deepest level primarily as “love, mercy and forgiveness.”

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 12:9-21

Mark Reasoner

Just as Paul cannot help breaking out in poetic tribute to love in his famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, after beginning the subject of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, so also he does the same in Romans 12.

After discussing how God has gifted various church members with faith appropriate for different roles in the church, Paul offers a poetic composition on how love reaches for the common good in the church. Our translations do not catch all the words that have love in the opening verses of this section. The section begins with the heading, Let love be genuine. This is as if to say, Love others authentically and genuinely! The next verse, Romans 12:10, literally begins by saying, In brotherly/sisterly love be lovingly affectionate. Of course many of the specific commands give practical, detailed ways for loving others. Verse 13 ends with the phrase pursuing hospitality, but Paul’s word for hospitality is literally love of stranger. So there is a lot of love language here!

Our example for how to love is Jesus. Paul’s words to bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse in verse 14 sound a lot like what Jesus says in Matthew 5:44, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, or what he says in Luke 6:28, Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. There are other allusions to sayings of Jesus in the rest of chapter 13, and Jesus’ love for others at the cross is stressed in Romans 15:1-3. So Paul is hinting that to love genuinely is to love as Jesus loved. And our paragraph doesn’t just say “Love others more,” it describes very specific behaviors for loving others.

Did you know that good distance runners don’t just play general messages in their minds like “Relax!” or “Stay loose!” while running? Instead, good runners play very specific messages over and over in their minds, like “Let lower lip sag!” or “Feel how loose my fingers are right now!” These specific messages help their whole body to relax and stay loose.

It is the same with Paul’s ideas for genuine Christ-like love in Romans 12:9-21. He is giving us very specific ideas for authentic love. For example, he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (12:15), or “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:18). Another very specific idea for love is found in the quotation from Proverbs 25:21-22 to feed and give something to drink to hungry and thirsty enemies. Of course, this does not endorse playing along with abusive strategies that arise in some dysfunctional relationships. It means to think about and to help meet others’ genuine needs, including the needs of people who do not like us. But what’s the point of the result; “By doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads” (Romans 12:20; Proverbs 25:22)? Students of this text differ regarding whether this means that by doing good to an enemy you will increase God’s judgment on the person or whether it means that by doing good you will help the person repent. The latter is much more likely, since it fits with the profound theme in this immediate section that we are not to have any part in repaying evil in our personal relationships and it fits with the overarching theme that love is to be genuine. My love for an enemy isn’t genuine if I am motivated by the idea that any kindness shown increases God’s punishment on the person!

Genuine love is the deepest theme in this section of Romans. At a more surface level, there is a theme of good and evil that operates throughout this text. Notice how “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” follows immediately after the opening title of “Let love be genuine.” Then the good and evil theme is explicitly mentioned at the end of the text: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21). This helps us see that genuine love is not just being nice to people. Genuine love has a moral orientation toward the good. When we show love toward someone, we are moving them toward God’s goodness. To love someone is not simply to cater to specific likes and dislikes of that person. It is rather to act toward them in ways that help them experience more of God’s goodness.

In the following chapter, there is a parenthetical explanation of how God can use government to repay evil for evil. But the idea of genuine love that Paul begins with in 12:9 continues to operate through Paul’s emphasis on the love commandment in 13:8-10. It even extends into how Paul emphasizes love within the church divisions he addresses (14:15; 15:1-2, 7). So often we think that the letter of Romans is all about doctrine, or justification by faith. Here, though, as Paul is beginning to head toward the conclusion of the letter, we see once again that the Christian life for him is all about faith working through love (Galatians 5:6). Let love be genuine!