Lectionary Commentaries for September 7, 2008
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20

Clayton Schmit

Here we have three independent pericopes brought together by Matthew dealing with an errant church member, the binding of sins, and Jesus’ great promise of his presence.

The through-line of thought that Matthew seems to be employing is this: there is a traditional plan (based on Hebrew precedence) for dealing with errant church or synagogue members. Whatever the church decides is a binding decision, and Jesus’ presence in the true church (in its gatherings and business meetings) reinforces the decisions the church makes.

Given the many things that tempt the church toward division today, this word is timely. While Jesus is regularly preaching and performing wonders in this gospel, in this section of Matthew (chapters 18 and 19, commonly known as the fourth of Matthew’s discourses), he provides instruction on how to be a community of believers. He shows concern for children and weak members, and for those who might wander off. He teaches humility. In this reading, he is giving what almost appears to be legal advice to the church that will follow in his name. Such advice is prudent, though it does not ensure resolution of difficulties. If it did, we would have a fool-proof formula for dealing with church conflict and controversy.

One of the reasons our divisive issues are so difficult to resolve today is that both sides of key issues seek to use Jesus’ pattern to reconcile themselves to others. In other words, people on any side of an issue can find a number of brothers and sisters from the church to bring along in making their case. It is not simply a matter of noting which side the church is on and making judgments accordingly. We cannot tell which side is the true church in many discussions. All sides would insist that it is their side. And, in fact, they are more or less correct. Division in the church means that one part of the body of Christ disagrees with another part of the same body. Dissension is the natural result of human interaction. The church is very human in this regard.

The rule in verses 15-17 is a good one, but not fool-proof. When both sides of an issue are entrenched, they will assume their decision should be binding–on earth and in heaven–and expect the other side to see their error. If both sides are gathered in their caucuses in Jesus’ name, they can each appeal to his promise of divine presence. What are we to say about all this confusion?

We might say that this instruction is not about general disagreement, but specifically about sin. Shouldn’t it be easy to tell who sinned against whom? Well, no, it isn’t easy. Any pastoral counselor will know that in a dispute, the truth of the situation usually lies somewhere between the reports of conflicted parties. Our defensiveness and subjectivity keep us from seeing how much we might hurt others. Our self interests only allow us to see how greatly we have been offended. We often feel wronged, but fail to admit that we have wronged another. More confusion.

It is tempting to go about self-righteously judging, condemning, and binding the sins of our opponents. But, this is not what it means to be the church Jesus calls for. Where is the humility in this? Where is the concern for the weaker brother or sister? Ultimately, the only rule that appears fool-proof here is the final promise. If we gather as the church, Jesus is with us. Shall we not, then, dispute with one another in kindness? If Jesus is with us, on our side, in our caucus, do we not then need to approach the other side as he did? “Father, forgive them,” he spoke, even when his offenders did not repent. Disputes will come, linger, and perhaps go. We may seek scriptural remedies and strategies for dealing with our adversaries. But finally, it comes down to this: we are the church, and Christ is with us. Weak ones and strong, self-righteous ones and humble ones, do-gooders and wrong-doers.

In a day of great debates about our life together, the disputes are complex and not easily solved. If it were such a simple matter as identifying the sin of one person or group, we could deal with this and bring it to an end. But, there is plenty of sin to go around. And, there is plenty of grace to cover it. In worship or business, Jesus is with us. He comes with judgment and love. Those humble enough to repent of their sins are the beneficiaries of his loving-kindness. Others should beware.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-11

Anathea Portier-Young

“So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7).

In this short passage, God repeats four times the emphatic pronoun “you” (atāh 33: as God spells out Ezekiel’s duties in relation to Israel This passage is as much about the preacher as it is about the word that must be preached. The preacher, like the prophet, is appointed as a watcher who will convey the word of God to God’s people in the form of a warning and a summons from death to life.

The passage is replete with insights for preaching, highlighting the tremendous responsibility of the one who is called to be a sentinel. Such a call to prophetic witness would make a fine sermon at a service of commissioning or ordination for ministry. But on a Sunday in Ordinary Time, the preacher addresses the congregation, and she doesn’t stand in the pulpit to remind them about her job description. How does one move through this passage to a sermon that speaks to the entire congregation?

I find a clue in the contrast between the parable in 33:2, where the people appoint their sentinel, and the address in 33:7, where God appoints the sentinel. While, in the context of Ezekiel, we see that “you, mortal” (33:7) refers to Ezekiel himself, in our preaching context this generic address might speak to anyone. The shift that occurs between 33:2 and 33:7 suggests that not every sentinel is appointed by the people or paid to stand in the pulpit. God can make sentinels of any mortal.

A closer look reveals a further dimension to the designation “mortal,” in Hebrew bēn  ̉ādām, which can also be translated “son of Adam” or “human being.”  Throughout the book of Ezekiel, God addresses the prophet this way, emphasizing the prophet’s humanity and finitude by contrast with God’s awesome power and transcendent glory. But that is not its only purpose. The phrase also connects human to human by the language of kinship. We are reminded of the question asked by the first son of Adam: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).

We could point to the obvious answer to this question (YES) and move on. But if we did, we would miss an opportunity to confront and complicate an idea that prevents most of us from realizing Ezekiel’s prophetic commission–the idea that we should not “meddle” in other people’s affairs.

Healthy boundaries teach us to notice where our responsibilities end and another’s begin. The advice to “mind your own business” keeps us from stirring up conflict and stepping on toes. In light of such wisdom, we might imagine that whatever others do–right or wrong–is ultimately between them and God, and not our affair.

That would be convenient. But it wouldn’t be faithful. Ezekiel affirms boundaries and limits–the prophet who warns the guilty to turn from wicked paths has fulfilled her duty and saved her life. She cannot make anyone turn (incidentally, God can’t do that either). She will not be held accountable for how others respond to God’s warning word. But human is responsible to human. The one who has heard the word of God must warn the guilty.

Now we can ask, to what end? If God has declared a verdict, what good will a warning do? Isn’t it too late? The sins of Israel have earned them their death sentence: they feel the weight of their crimes upon them, and they lament that they are rotting away like living dead (33:10). They ask: “How can we live?” (33:10).

There is a way. The strange revelation of this passage is that God the judge does not want the guilty verdict to stand. God wants the word of judgment to be reversed. God is desperate to revoke the death sentence. As God lives, God declares, God has no pleasure in death, but cherishes human life (7:11). This verse shows us that the life of God and the life of Israel are bound up together.

The challenge God faces is this: the only way to reverse the verdict is for the guilty to cease to be guilty. God cannot make it so by wishing or by willing. God has granted free will to humankind. The choice of life or death is theirs. God guarantees, by God’s own life, that if the people choose life, God will grant it. This is the purpose of the warning. God is willing to wait. The sentinel must warn the guilty to “turn back, turn back” from the road of death, and turn instead wholly to God. If they hear the sentinel’s warning and turn, they will walk not on the road of death, but the road of life.

An all-powerful God cannot coerce repentance. God calls sentinels to make heard the urgent word of grace and life. On this seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, will the preacher give courage to God’s sentinels? Will the preacher sound a warning to the guilty? Will the preacher help the congregation see that hearing and responding to the word of God is a matter of life and death, not for one, but for all? God issues the summons to speak that others may turn. “So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel.”

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14

Dennis Olson

The Past Becomes Present: The Ritual of Passover

In preparation for preaching on this Sunday’s text, it would be helpful to read the larger context of chapters 11-13 in Exodus. Notice how the chapters bounce back and forth between recounting the story of a past event, on the one hand, and providing a set of instructions for an ongoing annual ritual, on the other. Narrative and ritual interpret one another; you cannot understand one without the other.

The central purpose of the Passover ritual meal is in many ways the central purpose of all ritual and worship in the biblical tradition. The Passover involves the ritualized proclamation and passing on of the past core stories and traditions to a new set of eyes, ears and mouths, whether a new generation of children (Exodus 12:26), or the alien or stranger in your midst (Exodus 12:48). The ritualized meal and the words surrounding it witness to the living God in such a way that a new generation comes to “own” those central stories and traditions as their own, thereby coming to know God more truly and love God more deeply. In the rich context of a community of faith and all its practices, “their” story becomes “our” story. “Their” God becomes “our” God. Who are we? Tell a story and eat a meal!

This past story of being freed from slavery to a powerful empire becomes an enduring paradigm, a template that Israel can lay alongside its experience in any generation and find parallels, analogues and meanings. Through the Passover ritual, liberation from contemporary Pharaohs and Egypt become actualized over and over again each year in a new “present” through a ritual meal. Passover becomes “a day of remembrance…throughout your generations” (Exodus 12:14). In traditional Jewish celebrations, the Passover meal features children asking questions of their parents about the meaning of the meal and its many foods, each with their own significance and relationship to the biblical story of the tenth plague and Israel’s deliverance. The primary audience is children.

Passover and the Lord’s Supper
The Passover meal in Exodus 12:1-14 continues to this day as a central festival for the Jewish tradition. The meal, however, also has meaning for Christians as background and resource for the Christian ritual meal of Holy Communion. Many of Passover’s elements and themes clearly carry over into the Lord’s Supper. The Synoptic Gospels all testify that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as part of his Jewish celebration of the Passover meal “on the night in which he was betrayed” (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23) with his Jewish disciples. Jesus provided guidance and instruction to “do” this ritual “in remembrance of me.” All of the Gospels place a narrative or story immediately after the account of Jesus instructing his followers in ritual practice which is intended for ongoing future observance. That narrative is the defining Christian story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Just as the Passover story defined the core meanings of the ritual meal of Passover, so the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection defines the core meanings of the Lord’s Supper. Ritual and narrative work together as mutually interpretive.

Many other elements in the complex set of images and themes attached to Passover spill over and inform the complex meanings and images of Holy Communion. They include:

  • Remembrance and actualization
  • Past becoming present
  • Deliverance from bondage and death
  • Association with the death of the firstborn son
  • The lamb that was sacrificed
  • Darkness and night
  • The blood that protects from death
  • The wine of the Passover meal
  • The unleavened bread

All of these elements bind Passover with the Lord’s Supper in a rich matrix of ritual and meaning.

A Moral Challenge: The Death of the Firstborn of Egypt
In preaching this Passover text, one issue must be faced squarely. The death of all the firstborn of Egypt, both animal and human (Exodus 12:29), is a dreadful and troubling event. What kind of God is this that allows the death of innocent life? We should not minimize its horror, but a few comments are in order to help understand this event within its ancient biblical context. First, although God has employed the arms, hands and staffs of Moses and Aaron throughout the other plagues, it is God alone who carries out the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn (11:4; 12:23). The tenth plague is not a model for human imitation or a pretext for humans to take up arms in the name of God.

Secondly, the narrative insists that much of the moral responsibility leading up to this tragic point lies with Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The previous nine plagues (Exodus 7-10) were warnings and glimpses of the great tragedies that would unfold. The story reminds us of the particular responsibility of human leaders and politicians who lead a nation or group down paths that bring such tragic consequences. Just as Pharaoh had tried to take away God’s firstborn son, Israel, poetic justice led to Pharaoh and Egypt losing their firstborn sons (4:22-23).

Thirdly, the narrative affirms that all firstborn among the Israelites belong to God (13:2, 13). And if God is the God of all the earth (19:5-6), then God may also have the right to claim back for Godself any firstborn among any nation, as God does with Egypt in the tenth plague. In the Israelite understanding, God’s claim on the firstborn served as a sign that the whole of humanity (indeed the whole earth) belongs to God.

Finally, the book of Exodus proclaims that God is ultimately and primarily “gracious and merciful” and “forgiving” (Exodus 34:6-7). Even so, God also can reach the point of “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children” (Exodus 34:7). There are consequences to sustained rebellion and disobedience against God and God’s purposes for the world, consequences that inevitably spill over to future generations. Egypt’s centuries-long oppression of Israelite slaves (Genesis 15:13; Exodus 12:40) and Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to heed God’s repeated warnings through the many plagues and ecological disasters that Egypt endured taxed even the patience of God. In the end, God reclaimed Egypt’s firstborn back to Godself in a final blow that broke the will of Pharaoh and allowed the Israelites to be set free. Israel’s history testifies often that God’s people were not immune from similar judgments from God. God’s judgment on Egypt remains an object lesson for those who claim to be God’s people as much as for the Pharaohs of the world.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 13:8-14

Mark Reasoner

In this paragraph the theme of love as a force in interpersonal relationships emerges after Paul’s tangent in the first paragraph of chapter 13 on why one could obey an institution that repays evil for evil.

It is certainly true that in our personal lives, we are not to repay evil for evil. That was Paul’s point in Romans 12:17-19. He takes a short digression on why a believer might obey a government that does repay evil to evildoers, but then cannot keep himself from returning to love, which is the main force behind the practical commands in 12:9-21.

Here in the second paragraph of chapter 13, Paul is more explicit about love. Why does Paul say here that the one who loves his/her neighbor keeps the whole law when he has already said that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for those who believe (Romans 10:4)? Although Christ is the culmination of the law, and though Paul considers his readers as not under Mosaic law, he still is concerned that they live moral lives (Romans 6:14-15), fulfilling a natural law that he elsewhere in this letter calls God’s righteous decree (1:32) or the law that the Gentiles keep without knowing Mosaic law (2:12-15). Nonetheless he still is convinced that his gospel is consistent with the main message of Mosaic law. This is why he describes the righteousness of faith as something toward which the Mosaic law points (3:21) and why he clarifies that righteousness by faith is established by the section of the Bible called the “Law” through the example of Abraham (3:31 — 4:21).

Since God’s love for us has been poured out on us (5:5), Paul here calls us to allow this love to extend towards our neighbor. Why doesn’t Paul mention what Jesus calls the first commandment–to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength? Perhaps because he sees the two commandments as closely related. If a person truly loves neighbor as self, the person is simultaneously loving God. There can be no mystic or recluse who is fulfilling the first commandment of loving God while breaking the second commandment of loving neighbor.

Toward the end of this chapter, Paul asks us to be aware of what time it is. It is time to wake from sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than when we believed (13:11). Paul’s language of putting off the deeds of darkness and putting on the weapons of light reminds us of what he already said in this letter in 6:19, where he asks us to present our body parts as servants toward righteousness for sanctification.

In many aspects of life, timing is everything. When we know what time it is, we can best live as stewards of what God has given us and where God has placed us. Paul is thoroughly gripped by the timing in history of what God has done in Christ. In this letter he has used the phrases “but now,” “now,” or “the now time” (3:21; 8:1, 18; 11:5, 31) to communicate the excitement of what is happening through Christ’s death and resurrection and what is happening with God’s first love, Israel. It is significant that Paul’s last reference to the present time in regard to how God is working in the world is this wakeup call to moral living in God’s daylight.

The reason for this wakeup call toward moral living is that the time of God’s salvation is near. Paul said earlier that all creation is under a servitude that leads toward decay and disintegration, groaning and experiencing birth pangs as it awaits the salvation that God will bring for the world (8:21-22). This is the same idea he has here. Now he makes it clear that since God’s salvation is about to break into our world, we need to live as children of the day. The list of behaviors that Paul describes in verse 13 of chapter 13 reads like a summary of a People magazine from the years 56-59 in Rome. The Roman elite society was famous for excessive eating and adultery. Led by Nero’s example, the Romans at the top of their society lived as omnivorous consumers. Paul just said earlier in this text that true love of neighbor will respect the commandment prohibiting adultery, so he is perhaps concerned that the members of church in Rome ignore the examples of their society’s leaders (13:9).

Paul’s directions here form a specific reprise of the opening of this section of the letter, in which he asks us to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God, to rebel from conformity to the world and instead to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can approve God’s will (12:1-2). The hints Paul has been referring to in Jesus’ words regarding blessing in return for cursing (12:14; see Matthew 5:44) and submitting to government in the areas in which God endorses a government (13:1-7; see Matthew 22:21) now lead into the refreshing image to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and clothe yourselves with Christ. This is surely a call to follow the specific commands of Jesus and remember how we participate in baptism with Jesus’ death to sin and resurrection to life in Christ, an idea Paul first mentioned in Romans 6:1-11.

Just imagine–despite what the messages on television and Web advertising tell us–we don’t need to worship the gods and goddesses of financial security, the perfect body image, or even our limited ideas of personal honor and respectability! God’s love has been poured out to us through the mercies he has shown in Christ. In response, we present our bodies in love to our neighbors as a way of loving God and preparing for life in the new world God is bringing.