Lectionary Commentaries for October 26, 2008
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 22:34-46

Jeannine K. Brown

For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for Reformation Sunday, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.

The two stories of Matthew 22:34-46 conclude an entire narrative section focused on the Jerusalem leadership in confrontation with Jesus. The confrontations begin with the Jewish chief priests and elders questioning Jesus’ authority (21:23-27). After questions brought to Jesus by Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees, a lawyer from the sect of the Pharisees asks a final question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (22:36).

Jesus’ answer fits well with his teaching on the Law or Torah across Matthew. Jesus has already demonstrated that right interpretation of the Torah must view all God’s commands through the lens of the weightier matters of the Torah consisting of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23). Jesus has cited Hosea 6:6 (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7), emphasizing mercy as central to reading and obeying the Torah. And he has highlighted love of neighbor as the pinnacle command of the Torah (5:43-48). So as readers of Matthew, we are not surprised by Jesus’ citation of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 as the greatest of commands upon which “all the law and the prophets” hang (22:37-40).

In addition, Jesus’ answer would not have been surprising to the Pharisees. Various Jewish writings of this general time period speak of a central Torah passage summing up the other commandments. Rabbi Akiva is recorded as saying that Leviticus 19:18 was the greatest principle of the Torah (b. Nedarim 9.4). It is plausible that the Pharisees were banking on Jesus mishandling or even denigrating the Torah in some way by his answer. We have evidence from Matthew that Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath laws (12:1-14). Though Matthew’s Jesus emphasizes that he and his disciples are innocent of these accusations (12:7, 12), it is likely that the Pharisees, who were reputed to take great care with the Torah, would be suspicious of Jesus’ teaching on it. Jesus’ answer here would have given his opponents no cause to criticize his Torah interpretation.

This may seem a simple point, but it is one well worth considering as we preach Jesus to our congregations. It is not uncommon in contemporary American portrayals of Jesus to hear an emphasis on Jesus as one who “breaks the rules.” Yet Matthew goes to lengths to show Jesus as one who not only rightly interprets the Torah but as one who commands adherence to even its finest points (cf. 5:17-20)! Jesus’ greatest critique of the Pharisees is not their desire to keep the Torah in its smallest detail but their tendency to fall short on obedience to central values of the Torah (again, cf. 23:23).

The message of 22:34-40 emphasizes that the Torah is rightly understood when it is read through the central lens of love for God and love for neighbor (with even enemies considered neighbors; 5:43-44). While this truth is not difficult to understand or to preach, embodying love for God and love for others is the greatest of challenges. The sheer breadth of these two commands makes obedience to them a lifelong effort. In preaching this passage, the all-inclusive reach of these two commandments might be best coupled with some very practical exhortations and examples of love. One could look, for example, to Matthew 25:31-46 to hear what love for God and neighbor looks like in practical terms: showing care and hospitality to “the least of these.”

After answering well each question brought by his opponents in Matthew 21-22, Jesus now turns the tables. He has his own question for the Pharisees, and his question–a riddle really–will silence his opponents (22:46). Jesus raises the Christological question, asking the Pharisees whose son the Messiah is (22:42). They give an expected answer: the son of David (a favorite Matthean title: e.g., 1:1; 12:23; 21:9).

Yet, while the answer given by the Pharisees is accurate in Matthew’s perspective, it is not adequate. Jesus cites Psalm 110:1 (Matthew 22:44) and asks the Pharisees how it is that David could call his own son “Lord” in a text that clearly elevates this “Lord” to a place of vindication before his enemies. Jesus concludes with the riddle: “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” (22:45). Although no one in the story was able to answer Jesus (22:46), the reader of Matthew knows the key to the riddle. Matthew has defined the Messiah in Jesus, who is both a son of David by ancestry (1:1-17) and Lord, a name assigned to Jesus throughout Matthew’s gospel (e.g., 7:22; 8:2, 25; 17:4; 20:30-31; 25:44). At least in some contexts in Matthew, the attribution of “Lord” to Jesus alludes to his identity as the embodiment of Yahweh (e.g., 3:3; cf. 1:23). The reader of Matthew knows that the riddle has a both/and answer. Jesus as Messiah is both David’s son and David’s Lord, since he is the Messiah and will be vindicated before and placed over his enemies at his resurrection (cf. 28:18).

The Pharisees give a monolithic answer to Jesus’ messianic question. Yet Matthew’s Christology is anything but monolithic. He draws on a Davidic portrait of the Messiah, as well as other Jewish themes and expectations, to provide a multifaceted picture of the Messiah defined in Jesus (e.g., Jesus as Lord; Jesus as wisdom in Matthew 11; etc.). Contemporary preaching on this text might do well to address our tendency toward a monolithic Christology that emphasizes only Jesus as God incarnate. While half of Jesus’ riddle points in this direction, the other half firmly roots his role as Messiah in Jewish categories that we often miss in our reading of the Gospels. Do we help our congregations wrestle with the full humanity of Jesus? Do we portray Jesus as a truly Jewish Messiah, come to enact redemption for his people, Israel? One challenge of this passage may be to explore the rich and complex Christology that Matthew communicates. For as Matthew shows in Matthew 21-22, in the end the most important question to be asked is the question of who Jesus is.

First Reading

Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

James K. Mead

For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for Reformation Sunday, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.

In most versions of the lectionary, Old Testament readings from Leviticus occur once or twice every three years.1  Leviticus surely stands among the least treated biblical books in the lectionary, and a greater neglect may occur in churches that do not follow a regular pattern of scripture lessons. My own preaching and teaching ministry has sadly lived down to this reputation. Although this isn’t the place to debate the merits of the lectionary or the use of Leviticus in the Christian church, perhaps we can agree that Leviticus at least deserves a little more of the love it asks us to show to our neighbor. As we celebrate Reformation Day later in the week, isn’t fitting that sola scriptura should remind us of this forgotten book?

Of course, it’s not going to be easy. Even our extremely brief selection from Leviticus 19 contains some of the very reasons why the book as a whole doesn’t come close to our “canon within the canon.” We struggle with the apparent randomness and disorder of the laws as well as the obscure background of Israelite religious rituals.  And, if the main point is neighbor-love, can’t we just stick with today’s gospel reading where Jesus reaffirms this command for his followers (Matthew 22:34-36)?  Let’s not, however, be too hasty. It certainly behooves his followers to study Jesus’ own sermon text in its original context.  As for randomness and obscurity, modern commentaries can certainly help us understand the meaning of our passage in its context.2

If we decide to make the best of this challenging situation, I believe our congregations can understand this ancient text of scripture as speaking a fresh word from God for them as they struggle with relationships. Most church members aren’t looking for a quick fix to their problems or easy answers to their questions. They struggle to love their neighbor precisely because of the high expectations they have for themselves, namely to treat others impartially, honestly, and lovingly — the very expectations Leviticus 19:15-18 had for Israelites. Whatever final form your sermon on this text may take, here are some possible insights to consider when thinking about reforming relationships.

Who is involved?  Several portions of Leviticus focus specifically on priests, for example, but the mandates of chapter 19 are meant for “all the congregation of the people of Israel” (v. 2). While there is certainly some range in OT usage of the term, “congregation” (‘ēdâ), both the context and the content of the commands in chapter 19 embrace all people. If all members of the community are addressed by these ideals, it is also true that everyone — neighbor, people, brother, friend — is an object of the actions in view. The easily overlooked person in the midst of human relationships is the God whose authority and intimacy is highlighted by the repetition of “I am the Lord” (vv. 16, 18, etc).

What is commanded? The essence of all the precepts in our passage, of course, is the statement, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18). But the context helps to put skin on the bones of this moral imperative. Love is not a mere feeling or disposition toward another person; it ushers forth in standards for relationships, calling for truthful speech, equal justice, and a willingness to keep our neighbor from going astray. One scholar has noted the interesting and rare grammatical construction, where the verb “love” (‘āhab) is followed not by the expected direct object marker but by a preposition (), as if to say, “love to your neighbor.” He concludes that the verb “has a more concrete meaning than mere, abstract love. It denotes the act of being useful and beneficial to its object.”3

How do we live this out? Here I would call attention to the blessing of negativity in this passage. Yes, I know the old Johnny Mercer song asked us to “eliminate the negative” in favor of “accentuating the positive;” but frankly there are just too many uses of the word “not” in this passage to ignore. The nine “you shall not’s” (in Hebrew; NRSV combines some of them) help to clarify and specify what is mean by the three “you shall” commands.  While the Bible does not encourage an ethic grounded totally in avoiding what’s wrong, neither does it leave us without some guidance about doing what’s right. Whether it’s saying “no” to some things and “yes” to others, there should be consistency between our thoughts/desires (what’s “in your heart”) and our actions.

Why should we live this way? Above all, this passage finds its energy and rationale in verse 2: “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The concept of holiness is elusive, but the accent here is on God’s nature as we reflect his image in our lives. In much of Leviticus, being holy refers to ceremonial fitness for being in the presence or service of God. Chapter 19 reveals that holiness embraces more than what we call religious activities today. God’s holiness requires us to live justly and truthfully in relation to others. Strengthening this theological motivation is the phrase, “love your neighbor as yourself.” At the deepest level, loving others flows from the recognition that they are “like us,” that they bear the image of God with us. With Reformation Day approaching, we might do well to reacquaint ourselves with the way this brief passage of Leviticus reforms our thinking of what it means to fulfill the law of love.

1The same basic passage appears here on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (but only in the “complementary” readings) and earlier in Year A on the 7th Sunday after Epiphany (not observed this year because Lent began early).
2A thorough, technical treatment is found in Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-26, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2002).
3Abraham Malamat, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’: what it really means,” Biblical Archaeology Review 16 (1990): 51.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Karla Suomala

For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for Reformation Sunday, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.

Many of us are familiar with the debates in our society about the “right to die,” but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about dying well. My grandmother passed away this spring at the age of ninety-three. She died in her own home, surrounded by nine of her eleven children (the other two had just spent a week with her), as well as her faithful canine companion, Brandy. Her death was not the result of a long, protracted illness or a sudden infection; her body simply decided that it had had enough. When I told my pastor about her, he paused, and then said, “What a good death.” I think he was right.

Not many today, or maybe ever, have the chance to die a good death. But, in this week’s reading from Deuteronomy, Moses was given that gift. In fact, God oversaw Moses’ death, to the point of personally taking care of Moses’ burial. In addition, he was given a rare and remarkable final tribute in the biblical text. Dying a good death, in the context of Deuteronomy, didn’t mean whitewashing Moses’ life, though, or pretending that he was perfect. After all, he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of his temper in expelling water from the rock in the wilderness. Dying a good death in Deuteronomy meant celebrating Moses’ very humanity, his leadership and commitment to his community, and his relationship with God, which was striking in its intimacy.

Insights from the Ancient Rabbis

The ancient rabbis, especially in their midrash (commentary on the biblical text), had a lot to say about Moses’ death, as Moses dominates the Torah and is highly esteemed by Jewish tradition. The fact that Moses died “a good death” was meaningful to them; and their work sheds insights on this event that Christians might find useful in their reflection upon Deuteronomy 34:1-12.

God Gave Moses Notice

Moses was informed in advance of his upcoming death (Numbers 27:12, Deuteronomy 31:14, 16, and 32:49-50), thus giving him some time to reflect upon it. Ancient rabbis, who saw significance in every word and in every phrase of the Torah, wondered at this repetition. Why would God have to tell Moses on numerous occasions that he would die and not enter the Promised Land? Would not a single time have sufficed? The rabbis concluded that Moses needed the multiple warnings because he simply wasn’t ready to go; such was his desire to live and see the Promised Land.

Was Moses Afraid to Die?

These rabbis pointed out that early on in Deuteronomy, Moses recalls a time when he said, “O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your might; what god in heaven or on earth can perform deeds and mighty acts like yours! Let me cross over to see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon (3:24-25).” While some of the rabbis wondered perhaps if Moses needed to be convinced by God that his time had come, others speculated that Moses was simply afraid of death: “Said the Lord…: ‘For what reason are you [Moses] afraid of death? I have decreed it upon all creatures.'” Moses grew faint when he heard this thing, and at once he went to the great [city of] Hebron. He cried out and summoned Adam from his grave. “Tell me why you sinned in the Garden …You have given your sons over to weeping and wailing!”1

Moses’ Final Blessing

When Moses finally is ready to listen to God’s instruction to ascend the mountain, he takes one last opportunity to speak to his community, the Israelites, offering a rich and beautiful blessing for them. Some of Moses’ best qualities shine through as he offers a very positive, hopeful prayer. Instead of using his last very last words to warn or inspire guilt, Moses extols both God and the Israelites, pointing out again the special relationship between them. “There is none like God, O Jeshurun,” says Moses, “who rides through the heavens to your help, majestic through the skies (Deuteronomy 33:26),” and then, “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! (33:29).”

How Much Could Moses See from the Mountain?

“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah…, and the Lord showed him the whole land…: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain…as far as Zoar (34:1-3).” This is quite a view! The rabbis knew that such a view was probably not possible, even from the top of Pisgah. One commentator suggested that Moses must have in fact been in heaven, or at least pretty close, in order to see all of this. Another commentator thought Moses’ view was such that he was also able to see through time as well as space, being given a glimpse of the future by God.2 

The Bible’s Final Tribute to Moses

“Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day (34:5-6).” The Hebrew is probably better translated as “He buried him in the valley…” rather than the passive sense given in the NRSV translation. The idea that God himself would take care of Moses’ burial was astounding to the rabbis, although some had some concerns about God doing this, and suggested that the angels assisted.3  The reason, then, that no one knows where Moses is buried is explained by the fact that God (and/or the angels) took care of it and didn’t tell anyone.4

The Bible’s final tribute to Moses in Deuteronomy 34:10 is remarkable: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” Not many lives are concluded with such epitaphs. While certainly agreeing with the Bible’s assessment, the rabbis reflected that the final title attributed to Moses, that of prophet, wasn’t enough, for he was in fact much more. He was a lawgiver, a teacher, a philosopher, a general, a king, a sage, a high priest, and an interpreter.5 

1Kugel, James, The Bible as It Was (Cambridge, Mass.,: Belknap Press, 1997), citing a passage from the Targumic Tosefta: Alphabetical Acrostic on the Death of Moses, 538.
2Ibid., 541, see especially passages from Sifrei Deuteronomy and Tibat Marqa.
3Ibid.,542, see passages from m. Sotah, and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan.
4Ibid., 543.
5Ibid., 545-548.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Richard Ascough

For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for Reformation Sunday, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.

Paul emphasizes his own ministry among the Thessalonians, although his ministry to them is to be a paradigm for their ministry to one another. As he notes in the opening of the letter, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1:6), and later he states, “as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more” (4:1). In this passage we learn what it is that the Thessalonian Christian community, and by extension we in our Christian community, should be doing. Although Paul speaks as the founder of the community, the characteristics he upholds are to be reflected in each and every one of the members of the community, not just their leaders. These are “characteristics of community builders,” and each one of us is such a community builder by our very participation in the Christian community.

The first characteristic of a community builder Paul describes is bold speech. In verses 1-2,Paul reminds the Thessalonians of their first contact with the gospel. He traces some history for the Thessalonians, reminding them that when he and his companions first arrived at Thessalonica they had recently spent a tumultuous time at Philippi (Acts 16). Nevertheless, while at Thessalonica, Paul and his companions “had courage … to declare to you the gospel of God” (v. 2). In making this claim, Paul uses the Greco-Roman philosophical concept of “bold speech.” This expression was used in antiquity to indicate freedom of speech and courage to speak in the face of opposition. It is used with political connotations of not allowing civic authorities to stem protests or the cries of the mob from preventing the proclamation of what is right.

Paul’s expression draws upon the tradition of a type of speech which is characteristic of ancient philosophers, particularly the Stoics and, even more so, the Cynics. The Cynics (“dogs”) were so named because they acted like mongrels, harassing the people. Like the Cynics, Paul was not afraid to go against the cultural norms of his day. Although what Paul declared was unpopular, he declared it boldly.

When we are community builders we need to speak boldly and “tell it like it is.” Often the easier route is to avoid conflict and allow things to carry on as always. Yet, to truly build community, the gospel message−the love of God and the love of neighbor−must be proclaimed boldly. To be fearless in speaking out, when one notes moral laxity or the abuse of power taking place within the Christian community, will lead to an environment of true community.

Paul next becomes quite defensive about his ministry (verses 3-7a), yet here he also includes a lesson about community building–it is marked by personal integrity. Paul begins by listing what was not characteristic of his preaching (v. 3), suggesting that God has “approved” him and his coworkers (v. 4). His image of testing has resonance in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts of the first century.

In the Jewish scriptures God’s testing is a frequent theme. It is through the testing of the heart that God determines the fitness of Jeremiah to be God’s spokesperson, and through the testing of hearts that God determines that the people of Israel have strayed far. The Greco-Roman context is one of political office wherein a candidate for a civic position was tested as to whether he (for it was always a he in those days) was fit to serve the people. He was not to possess character flaws such as a propensity to deceitfulness, crookedness, selfishness, and the like. It was a moral aptitude test.

Paul goes on to claim that he and his companions were not flatterers, nor greedy, nor seeking honor, despite the fact that as leaders they might have claimed honor (vv. 6-7a). Charlatans and false preachers were quite common in antiquity. Under the guise of philosophers, they would often berate people and then extract funds from them, much the same as a modern TV evangelist might put on a great show and pass the hat amongst the faithful. And like the TV evangelists, the ancient preachers were seen by most people as hypocrites and “in it for the money.”

In the last two verses (7b-8), Paul uses a domestic image to convey his concern: his nurturing of the Thessalonian Christians. The image of a nurse was used frequently by philosophers of Paul’s day to show how the true philosopher would vary his style of speech, from harsh scolding to gentle encouragement and comfort, as the needs of the audience changed.

In antiquity a nurse, or “nanny,” was often used in elite households to bring up children. More than simply providing daycare, the nanny’s influence lasted a lifetime. Most major decisions about a child’s upbringing, clothing, food, and education were left to the nanny. So it was in the relationship between philosophers and their students.

Paul intensifies this image, suggesting that his actions were not as toward the children of someone else. He treats the Thessalonians as his own children. The care that Paul expresses for the Thessalonians is akin to the description of parents’ sad yearning for a dead child on ancient grave inscriptions–it expresses deep affection and great attraction. In fact, Paul states that he and his companions shared their very souls with the Thessalonians. Here we have the third characteristic of a community builder — a soul sharer. True community is built upon openness and sharing. To be a builder of Christian community we need to open up, to be vulnerable, and to share with those around us. Only then can true community be developed.

As Christians, we are all community builders, not just the pastor, or the choir leader, or the theology student. Paul calls each one of us to interact with one another in our present Christian community with bold speech, personal integrity, and soul-sharing.