Lectionary Commentaries for November 2, 2008
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12

Jeannine K. Brown

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

This passage introduces a chapter in Matthew filled with Jesus’ warnings to the scribes and Pharisees.

Yet it is important to note from the onset that the narrative audience of the chapter is the Jewish crowds and Jesus’ disciples (23:1), with no indication that the Pharisees or scribes are listening in. The chapter functions as a negative example for those who follow Jesus, as well as a partial rationale for the judgment on current Jerusalem leadership and the temple which will be the focus of Matthew 24.

To gain a better sense of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, we would do well to remind ourselves of their primary motivations and distinctives. According to Josephus, the Pharisees surpassed other Jews in their knowledge of the Torah (Life, 38). They were particularly concerned to bring the practices of purification necessary for temple participation into their everyday experience. The Pharisees were not attempting to earn a place in God’s covenant through their Torah observance. Instead, as part of God’s covenant people, they attempted to live out faithfulness to the Law, with a strong focus on avoiding ritual defilement whenever possible.

Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees and scribes is not with their intentions in relation to God per se. We see from this passage that the two significant critiques Jesus provides have to do with (1) their lack of obedience to the Torah as they teach it to the people (23:2-4); and (2) the motivation in doing the Law as a way to gain human favor and honor (23:5-7). Regarding the first, Jesus’ followers are told to listen to and obey what the Pharisees and scribes teach from the Torah, since they “sit on Moses’ seat.” Yet Jesus will immediately qualify the authority of the Pharisees: they themselves do not practice what they preach. This may sound odd, since the Pharisees were known for their devotion to the Law. Yet, as Matthew has shown earlier in his gospel, Jesus indicts the Pharisees for their interpretation of the Torah along with oral tradition when the latter provides a way out of obeying the former. In Matthew 15, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and scribes for putting their oral tradition above the command to honor parents, thereby breaking God’s command in their attempts to keep it (15:3-6)! In addition, the Pharisees are described as putting heavy burdens on those they teach (23:4; the yoke image would have brought to mind the teaching of Torah). By this Jesus places the Pharisees in direct contrast to himself as Torah teacher, since his yoke–his teaching of Torah–is easy and light, not heavy and burdensome (11:28-30), in part because his interpretation of the Torah places centrality on love, mercy, and justice.

Just as Jesus has called his disciples to a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20), in Matthew 23:1-4 he calls his disciples into faithful obedience in contrast to these leaders. Matthew also alludes back to earlier teaching, reminding them that Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah brings life and rest (11:28-30). Both of these reminders can be contextualized in our preaching. Faithful obedience–loyalty to God and God’s word–is to be central to Christian living (cf. 23:23). In a cultural context that worships freedom from tradition and constraints–in which religious regulations or laws are often viewed, de facto, as heavy and burdensome–Jesus calls his followers to faithfulness and obedience with the assurance that his teachings are easy loads to bear (11:28-30). Matt 23:1-4 also reminds Christian leaders to reflect upon their own teaching: Are we placing heavy burdens upon those entrusted to us without lifting a finger in aid? Or do we share the teachings of Jesus that bring promised rest?

Jesus’ second critique of the scribes and Pharisees is that they do the religious practices for the wrong audience (23:5-7; see parallel ideas in 6:1-18). They wear the required religious garment with fringes (per Numbers 15:37-40), but they accentuate the length “to be seen by others” (23:5). They seek honor from people rather than praise from God alone for their religious observance. Nowhere do we hear Jesus faulting their religious practice per se. Instead, he is highly critical of their misplaced focus upon human accolades.

In contrast, Jesus’ followers are prohibited from elevating anyone among them over the others. This is quite a counter-cultural call! Seeking places of honor and the best seats in public gatherings as the Pharisees are described as doing (23:6-7) would have been the acceptable and expected behavior in the first century context. Jesus’ renunciation of status concerns and practices in his community would have been difficult to fully envision in that context. In fact, earlier in Matthew the disciples struggle to understand Jesus’ teaching on status reversal (cf. 18:1-5; 19:30-20:16; 20:20-28).

This particular message from Matthew continues to speak with relevance to the contemporary church. For, even if we believe ourselves to be more democratic than our ancient brothers and sisters, it is often the case that “[t]he Christian community resembles a Wall Street exchange of works wherein the elite are honored and the ordinary ignored.”(Manning 1990) When we walk into our ministry settings, who is it most important to acknowledge first? Who is “expendable” among those we are called to lead? The answers to these kinds of questions will help us to see the ranking within the church we and our congregations have envisioned and often supported. All of us are prone to desire prestige and status. In order to preach this Matthean text, we will need to address implicit and explicit ways that our structures might function in ways contrary to Jesus’ teachings, keeping the humble (in status) humble and maintaining the status advantages of the ‘elite.’ The hope offered us as we address these difficult issues is a gracious heavenly Father and Jesus our Messiah who will continue to instruct us and lead us as communities of faith (23:10).

First Reading

Commentary on Micah 3:5-12

Carolyn J. Sharp

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

What would our lives be like without the prophetic word? A life without vision: no joyful discernment of God’s purposes for ourselves, no gradually unfolding perception of the Holy Spirit at work for justice in our communities. It’s a grim prospect. We would struggle to eke out a bleak existence in the shadows of hopelessness with “no answer from God” (Micah 3:7). Confusion would cloud our efforts to pray about those things beyond our immediate sight. Human nature being what it is, we would become less motivated to seek the good.

Without the prophets’ words of rebuke and their insistent calls to return to the covenantal truths of Scripture, we would hoard what we have and fight those who press contrary claims. We would conveniently forget to remember the poor. A shallow theology of quid pro quo would reign, with rulers administering faux justice “for a bribe” and clergy teaching the faithful “for a price” (3:11).

Micah is outraged about false prophets–those seers-for-hire who assure the people of well-being and peace, so long as they receive the requisite financial compensation. False prophets not only rob people of the chance to repent, they underwrite a system of corruption that allows Israel’s spiritual and political leaders to continue wreaking havoc on the lives of those whom they should be serving. Abhorring justice, perverting equity, building Zion with blood–this is what the people of God can expect from their leaders when prophets do not tell the truth.

What is the most devastating result of all? Jerusalem will be destroyed. The place where God has caused the divine Name to dwell in the midst of God’s beloved people–holy Zion itself–will be “plowed as a field” and made “a heap of ruins” (3:12). Micah tells us that God’s very presence among God’s people is at stake.

Believers dare not take the prophetic word for granted. Hearing that word is never easy, though, because it holds us and our communities accountable. We would much rather hear words of “shalom.” Imagine a false prophet offering the annual report for your congregation:

  • Certainly our church is doing all it can for the poor!
  • Naturally, we strive to act with compassion in every aspect of our lives!
  • Of course we give sacrificially to bring near the kingdom of God, rather than hoarding our wealth!
  • God has nothing but fabulous blessings in store for us. Good work, everyone!

But our incarnational God knows the truth of our lives. We fall short daily, and we must repent if we are to be in honest relationship with God and one another. Therefore, God stirs up prophets to speak the truth to us–not to condemn us, but to invite us into more authentic discipleship and deeper love for others.

Congregations need to hear that the prophetic word is real and powerful. In our increasingly secular and narcissistic world, many have become jaded about the possibility of social change and the effectiveness of the Church’s witness. The radical force of biblical faith is not so obvious these days, especially to those who idolize worldly power, those who barely know the Bible, and those unfamiliar with the history of Christian witness. Here, Micah offers us three points that are excellent resources for preaching the Gospel.

First, Micah invites us to think about the desolation and darkness of a world without prophetic vision. Help your congregation to imagine what communal life would be like without Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring use of Amos 5. Invite them to consider how impoverished our Eucharistic theologies would be without Jeremiah’s new covenant as a source for New Testament witnesses to Christ (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 8:6-13, 10:16-18). Spiritual discernment and social justice work would be positively anemic without the truth-telling of the prophets.

Prophecy is about candor and hope. Find creative ways to embolden your congregation to embrace candor and hope, two spiritual virtues that every believer needs in order to negotiate the challenges of  twenty first century life.

Second, Micah offers himself as witness, not only for his own ancient community but for future generations who read the Book of Micah. “As for me,” Micah thunders, “I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (3:8). Because Micah loves his people, he will not allow them to continue in their prideful and destructive ways.

Are Micah’s words uncomfortable for us? Certainly–just as it is uncomfortable when loved ones carry out an intervention with an alcoholic, or when a therapist declines to play along with a client’s dysfunctional script. But without truth there can be no repentance and no transformation. Thus, Micah is an invaluable companion for individual believers and for every community that seeks to please God. It is good news indeed that Micah continues to walk with us.

Third, Micah invites us to engage Scripture as a richly multilayered resource to help us repent. Micah’s testimony in 3:12 is taken up by the mighty Jeremiah centuries later, precisely to underline the point that prophetic words of judgment are meant to catalyze repentance (Jeremiah 26:18). The goal of those shocking Old Testament oracles of judgment, which many believers today find so repellent, is to encourage repentance. The God of the prophets is a God of mercy who whispers, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone. Turn, then, and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32).

Just as Jeremiah reflects on Micah, many Scripture texts elaborate on earlier witnesses, nuancing and reframing them for changing circumstances. Encountering this inner-biblical dialogue, we learn to treasure Scripture as a dynamic, living tradition. Every congregation invited into Scripture’s richness will find its spiritual life deepened, challenged and illuminated. Courage and compassion will blossom. Here is the truth we gain from Micah: love of God and neighbor will flourish in every community that dares to heed the prophetic word and repent.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 3:7-17

Ralph W. Klein

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

Joshua 3-4 is a difficult text, perhaps combining previous independent sources and/or reflecting an obscure liturgical celebration of Yahweh’s leading the Israelites into the Promised Land.

To get the full picture, one must include all of chapters 3-4, but that clearly is too long for any one pericope. We will reflect on some of the numerous themes that are referred to in this passage in the hope that they will ignite ideas that will enrich your preaching.

“This day I will begin to exalt you [Joshua], so that they [Israel] may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (Joshua 3:7). Joshua 3-4 does much to certify Joshua as the legitimate leader of Israel and the credible successor to Moses. This beginning of Joshua’s exaltation is completed in Joshua 4:14. The exaltation of Joshua as the successor of Moses is not an end in itself; rather it certifies that the LORD was “with” Joshua as he was “with” Moses. The expression “I am with you” is one of the most compact and meaningful expressions of the gospel in the Bible. When God is with an individual or the whole people, God clearly accepts that person or people. Whatever sins may have occurred, they are no longer considered something standing between God and the believer. When God is with an individual or a people, the full power of the Almighty stands ready to help that person or people carry out their vocation. When Moses doubted his ability to lead Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 3:11-12) or worried about his ability to articulate the word of God (Exodus 4:10-12), he was reassured with simple sentences: “I will be with you” and “I will be with your mouth.” Small wonder then that Matthew gives the name for Jesus as Emmanuel or God is with us (Matthew 1:23), or that Jesus’ last word to his disciples is “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). God, the Promising One, had assured Joshua of his presence in Joshua 1:5 and fulfilled that promise as Israel crossed the Jordan in chapter 3.

“By this you shall know that among you is the living God” (Joshua 3:10). The verb “know” has a range of meanings from “comprehend” to “experience” to “recognize.” Any one of those meanings would fit here. “This” refers to the events of chapters 3-4, the safe passage of Israel through the Jordan at flood stage. The living God contrasts with the dying and rising gods in Israel’s environment. But it also contrasts with our doubt-filled fears that God does not exist or cannot help at all. Crossing the Jordan may not have made the headlines in the thirteenth century B.C., but God proving himself graciously present in the little things of our lives may be enough to evoke our faith and our faithfulness. When God makes sense of my life, my family, and my vocation, it is enough to call forth my praise: “My Lord and my God!”

“So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel” (v. 12). This verse apparently leads nowhere until one reads the next chapter. These twelve men piled up twelve large boulders at the very spot where the priests had stood with the ark of the covenant as the waters miraculously stopped flowing from the north so that Israel could cross over the Jordan on dry land. That nondescript monument in the midst of the Jordan would cause all inquisitive children to ask, “What do these stones mean to you?” (Joshua 4:6). The writer urges the readers not to miss this golden opportunity to share the story. Tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD. Each of us has experienced significant moments, often in the trivialities of daily life, when we knew for sure that God was with us and was helping us. Be ready to tell that story! Or, as the writer of 1 Peter, urges, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

It wasn’t any old box that the priests were carrying to the middle of the Jordan River, but it was “the ark of the covenant” (v. 8) and “the ark of the covenant of the LORD of all the earth” (vv. 11, 13). That is, the ark symbolized the agreement that God had forged with Israel at Sinai, and it was the symbol of the God who is sovereign over all the earth. God’s power is for us! One of the wonderful collects of the church says, “God, your almighty power is shown chiefly in showing mercy.” God’s power is for us, and never more evident than when the almighty God hung weakly on a cross.

“The priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan ” (Joshua 3:17). Their priestly service was not at an altar, but in a potentially dangerous stream, and their standing there with the ark was for the sake of their sisters and brothers who passed over. We often get the clearest picture of God when sisters and brothers in the faith hang in there for us, seeing our welfare as their own highest good. The universal priesthood of all believers not only gives us direct access to God, but it provides opportunity for each of us to serve one another.

Tell me, what do these stones mean to you?

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Richard Ascough

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

Throughout the second chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul seems somewhat defensive about his ministry in Thessalonica.

Some scholars have suggested that Paul is responding to criticism that he and the other missionaries preached for financial gain, a charge supported by their hasty departure from the city and their failure to return immediately (2:1-12; 2:17-20). Other scholars have argued this is a rhetorical strategy that Paul is using to fend off criticisms typically made against wandering preachers before such criticisms are made against him.

We have an example of a false preacher in the work of the second century satirist, Lucian of Samosata. He wrote an entire book about a philosopher, Perigrinus, whose quest for fame and honor led him to pretend he could hear the voice of a snake telling him the future. He ended up killing himself on a burning pyre, all so that he would be remembered by those that saw him. Perigrinus was convinced he was a great leader and philosopher. In Lucian’s analysis, he was a charlatan and a fool! Perhaps Paul fears such criticism of his character will come his way.

Overall, it is difficult to determine whether Paul was actually accused of being a false preacher by some of the Thessalonians or just anticipates being so accused. What is clear, however, is Paul’s great concern to maintain the relationship he has forged with the people who make up the Jesus-believing community. To this end, he marshals four proofs that demonstrate he and his companions came as God’s emissaries and were not seeking their own glory (2:4). In order to do so, he reflects back upon the time they spent in Thessalonica, giving concrete examples of evidence of integrity.

Paul’s first example is drawn from his everyday practice while in the city. As Paul makes clear in other letters, he did not have a single “missionary strategy” that was applied across the board in every city he visited (1 Corinthians 9:18-23). He varied his plan according to local situations. In the case of Thessalonica, it seems that he did not rely on patrons for his food and lodging, nor did he charge the listeners for his messages, as did some philosophers. Indeed, Paul is adamant that he and his companions did not receive any payment from the Thessalonians. In contrast, he reminds them that “we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (2:9). The particular combination of words Paul uses here — “labor” and “toil” — stresses the exhaustion involved and indicates Paul’s self-sufficiency through paid work.

According to Acts 18:3, Paul was an artisan, a “tent-maker,” and, as such, was part of an industry whose tools were portable and whose services were needed in just about every major city. The typical work day for an artisan began before dawn and went through to dusk. The wages, though meager, were sufficient to supply food and lodging for the night. The nature of the work is such that, in the case of Paul, it is difficult to imagine when he might have preached other than while working. Thus, those to whom he writes are most likely artisans such as he, for whom the promises of Jesus have proven most attractive. Paul is pointing out that, like them, he worked hard, and did not rely on their wages for his support, which sets him apart from any false philosophers they might have encountered before.

Paul’s actions went beyond mere self-sufficiency. In verse 10, he discusses his conduct among the Thessalonians as a group, and uses three adverbs here to indicate his typical way of behaving, rather than his character (which would necessitate adjectives). He regularly interacted with the Thessalonians in a pure and upright manner, two terms that could also be rendered “godliness” and “justice.” These two positive qualities result in negating any possibility for charges of deviance being brought against Paul, and he notes that he and his companions were blameless. Thus, they demonstrated a quality of action among the Thessalonian believers that make obvious their underlying integrity.

In the following verse Paul draws attention away from his actions among the entire group to the quality of instruction he provided to each and every one of the Thessalonians and uses the metaphor of fatherhood to demonstrate his point. In antiquity, the oldest living male in a family was considered the paterfamilias, or father of the household. As such, he was responsible for each and every person in that family, including slaves and any friends or workers living under his roof. While a nurse or mother might take care of the nurturing of children (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:7), the father was responsible for the children’s moral instruction. Paul points out that the instruction he provided replicates that of the paterfamilias in leading to, quite literally, “walking worthy of God.”

Paul’s fourth and final piece of evidence for integrity turns attention away from the way he and his companions acted while in Thessalonica to examine the way that they were received by the Thessalonians themselves. The response engendered by their actions among the Thessalonians was one of conviction that the message proclaimed came not from human minds but from God. Lest they now question whether they were duped, Paul points out that their initial response was not to proclaim him or his companions as forceful speakers but to recognize in their words that God was speaking through them.

Early in 1 Thessalonians, Paul notes that the Thessalonians have become imitators of him and his companions (1:6). For the Thessalonians to bring into question Paul’s integrity is to bring into question their own integrity. In order to curtail such a move, Paul provides evidence for their integrity by pointing to his self-sufficiency, the quality of his actions, the quality of his instruction, and the response that these engendered.