Lectionary Commentaries for November 9, 2008
Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13

Dirk G. Lange

The fairy tale ending we all hope for does not happen in this parable.

In fact, many of the parables contradict our hopes, our expectations, even our values. But surprisingly, they also contradict our deep-seated fears and insecurities. How much easier it would be to preach these Matthean parables if the Bridegroom or the Master were more generous and inviting. Attempts, of course, have been made to re-write the ending but that is not the preacher’s task.

This parable (part of the eschatological discourse), along with the other “watchful” parables in the preceding chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, challenge our quickly made assumptions about judgment, grace and the end times. It would be too easy, as we have witnessed in the history of interpretation, to allegorize the characters in this parable in terms of simply good and bad. The definitions we give “good” and “bad” have always reflected our own prejudices more than they have faithfully represented Gospel truth. Even the oil in the lamps has been denominationally (and unfortunately polemically) interpreted as works (you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without good works) or faith (you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without faith). We are challenged to move beyond these simplistic bipolarities.

The Matthean community is, of course, dealing with several issues — rupture from the synagogue, a delayed parousia, flagging vigilance. What is striking in this parable, which appears to focus on the severity of judgment, is the confinement of judgment to one character — the bridegroom. Judgment is reserved to the only one who can judge (see Romans 14 but also Matthew 7). Even the wise young women do not judge the foolish one; they merely refuse to share their oil and send the foolish women to the shopkeepers. The history of interpretation, of course, has not remained faithful to this reserve. It has quickly assigned qualities to the foolish and the wise and lifted these qualities up as virtues and vices. In other words, the tradition has continually judged who is good and bad.

The young women were all waiting for the bridegroom. They all belonged to the same community, the same group of friends. They all fall asleep waiting for the bridegroom to come. Within the community, it is impossible to tell who has enough oil in their lamps, who has been more faithful. This is not for us to see or to judge. The church remains always a mixed community. Making the center of interpretation the issue of foolish or wise would miss the point of the parable. The so-called foolish young women also knew the bridegroom, calling out to him “Lord, Lord, open to us!” (v.11).

That they remain unrecognized by the bridegroom raises the question of knowledge in the parable. What is it to know the bridegroom? What is it to recognize the one called “Lord?”

The cry “Lord, Lord,” takes us back to the earlier chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21). And, of course, the lamps (or torches) recall other words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (5:16).

Living or waiting (maybe even sleeping) with enough oil in our lamps, when set in the context of these earlier chapters, suggests that it is the spirit of the beatitudes that, above all else, characterizes those who recognize the bridegroom, the Lord. This spirit is the spirit of the cross that disrupts all of our categories, all of our judgmental predispositions. The life into which the beatitudes invite us is a life not centered on our works, not on our faith, but on the cross and how God is glorified through our lives.

The holy possession of the cross (as Luther calls the seventh mark of the church) is not really a possession (as if we “owned” the cross or some special access to God). It is a life that is characterized by choices that make it clear God is the actor and the giver of life. In Luther’s words, a community that is characterized by the holy possession of the cross is a community that knows suffering: “They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.” This description hardly fits what we would imagine under the nomenclature “wise young women,” yet in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this is precisely the suggestion.

Those who are enduring misfortune, even poverty, for Christ’s sake are not the one who will be quick to judge others. Judgment is now purely reserved for God who alone knows or recognizes each individual. Grace is in the cross that lets shine forth a light, a light so unique that people do not praise our good works but rather praise God who is acting and giving life in the midst of suffering, life in the midst of death, opening the door to those who have engaged the way of the cross, who have engaged the way of death. The world cannot understand this way. It does not recognize the Lord though it continually cries out, “Lord, Lord!”

The parousia becomes not a one-time event at some “end point” but rather a continuous event that involves us, the community of Christ, in our baptismal vocation: living in the light of the cross, in mercy not judgment. The feast to which we are invited is, in the words of Philipp Nicholai  (who used this parable as a primary metaphor in the hymn “Wake, Awake”), the “Abendmahl” — the Lord’s Supper. The parousia is now not about a far-off event but Christ’s continual presence with us through all of our waiting.

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 5:18-24

Carolyn J. Sharp

A brilliant ironist, Amos reverses his audience’s expectations at every turn in the book that bears his name.

The prophet shows the cherished traditions of Israel to be not causes for complacency but measures of Israel’s accountability to God. Here, Amos offers a potent challenge to his audience by ironizing three apparently disparate ideas: the Day of the LORD, cultic worship, and justice. Amos mocks his audience’s misguided hopes, rejects their liturgical expressions of faithfulness, and proclaims the terrifying advent of God’s own justice and righteousness.

Amos is the earliest biblical prophet to refer to the Day of the LORD. Later references, such as Ezekiel 30:1-4, Joel 2:1-2, and Zephaniah 1:14-18, make clear that the Day of the LORD is an eschatological time when God will punish the earth: “in the fire of His passion, the whole earth shall be consumed, for a full, a terrible end He will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (Zephaniah 1:18). Amos deplores the fact that his people seem to be rejoicing in the prospect of the Day of the LORD. This will be a day of darkness and destruction, not just for Israel’s enemies but for Israel itself. God will hold Israel accountable for sin along with the foreign nations. This echoes the stunning ironic move that we see in Amos 1-2. There the prophet invites his audience’s assent to stirring oracles of doom against foreign nations, only to entrap them by having Judah and Israel appear unexpectedly as the last “foreign nations” in the series (2:4-8).

Perhaps the people’s ritual offerings and sacrifices can save them. No, replies the God of Amos, and turns on the cult with ferocious anger. Amos 5:21-24 (“I hate, I despise your festivals…”) is one of the best-known passages in the prophetic corpus. It has been misused by Christians to argue the superiority of prophetic ethics over Judaism’s “legalistic” ritual practice. Such a polarizing view of ethics and ritual betrays a profound misunderstanding of the deep connection in ancient Israel between liturgy and justice.

The “festivals and solemn assemblies” of Israel’s worship articulate formative truths about who God has been to Israel. Their faithful observance is commanded by God (Exodus 23:14-17, Leviticus 23, Deuteronomy 16). The festival of Passover commemorates God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In the annual retelling of the old story, Israel teaches new generations about the joy of God’s redemption. The story is a source of blessed memory that offers hope to believers in current tribulations. The festival of Tabernacles celebrates the communal resilience that Israel showed in its forty-year pilgrimage through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Having once survived on manna and miraculous water from a rock, Israel is reminded that reliance on God and hospitality to the sojourner are essential for its ongoing spiritual journey. Other festivals celebrate the offering of the first fruits of the harvest and mature grain to God, showing Israel’s gratitude for God’s abundant gifts. Another festival crucially important to the Israelite cultural imagination is the Day of Atonement. This annual fast emphasizes awareness of sin in the Israelite community, promoting self-denial as an expression of the community’s earnest desire to “be clean before the LORD” (Leviticus 16:30).

Through these powerful rituals, a chastened and renewed Israel may approach the Holy One. But the God of Amos thunders that these observances are despicable. Neither does God find acceptable the daily and weekly offerings that sanctify Israel’s living as a holy people. Even songs of praise offend God. Why? Because God stands with the poor, and those who do not show compassion to the poor cannot possibly be worshiping God.

Israel cannot prosper through ritual offerings, feasts, and fasts alone. Israel must “seek God and live” (5:4, 6), and the God whom they seek is an uncompromising God of justice (5:14-15). The famous line, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24) is not a rousing call to believers to do good deeds. It is a roar of outrage. Because of the hypocrisy of the community of faith, God’s own justice will roll down like floodwaters, and God’s own righteousness like a perpetual torrent! “Ever-flowing stream” is far too gentle an image for the meaning of the Hebrew here. Amos’s point is this: because God’s people have not shown justice to the poor, God has no choice but to unleash God’s own justice and righteousness as punishment.

Israel has always known that ritual observance and compassion for the powerless should not be separated. The Holiness Code is quite clear about this (see Leviticus 19). God has formed Israel to be both holy and merciful. What God condemns, then, is ritualism without heart. Here it may be productive to reflect with your congregation on the particular kinds of ritualism that plague your own tradition. Worshippers who place a high premium on the preached word may be prone to idolize a charismatic preacher. The congregation that revels in the beauty of liturgy may become too focused on aesthetics and sacramentalism. What are the temptations for your own church?

Amos 5 offers the preacher a wonderful opportunity to articulate the relationship between worship and justice. How do we connect our hope for the eschatological future in Christ, our worship practices, and our ministry with the poor? Perhaps your congregation has a strong tradition of outreach but doesn’t relate that outreach to Eucharistic fellowship. Perhaps your parishioners enjoy transcendent worship on Sunday, but their ministry in the wider community is only sporadic and peripheral to the identity of the church. Your lay leader who mutters, “The church is not a social service agency,” your overly officious head acolyte, and your outreach volunteer who skips Sunday worship all need help integrating holiness and justice. Amos invites us to offer our lives and ministries as radical incarnational testimony both at the altar and in the public square. Dare your congregation to take that invitation seriously!

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Ralph W. Klein

This Old Testament lesson has been excerpted from the second farewell speech of Joshua (see Joshua 23 for the first farewell speech).

In vv. 2-13, Joshua rehearses Yahweh’s first-person history with the ancestors, the Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness wandering and the gift of the land. On the basis of this history of Yahweh’s benefactions, Joshua issues a threefold challenge (vv. 14-15, 19-20, and 22-23) to which the people offer their hearty assents (vv. 16-18, 21, and 24).

The lectionary leaves out most of the historical recital (probably because of its length), but preachers need to ponder these verses to understand why Joshua concludes that the gods of Mesopotamia, the Egyptians, and the Amorites, all thoroughly defeated, offer no credible alternative to serving Yahweh. While Yahweh tells what he did for the ancestors way back when, the pronouns “you” and “your” predominate so that Joshua’s audience is considered the direct recipient of Yahweh’s kindness. We too acknowledge what Yahweh has done in previous generations or in previous decades of our lives. Land, towns, vineyards, and olive yards are not something achieved by Israel; they all are Yahweh’s generous gift (v. 13). All that we are and have is finally God’s alone, and ours only in trust. Our faith is based not only on what God has done for us lately, but on his track record, beginning with Israel and continuing throughout the history of the church.

Commentators on this chapter are uncertain whether Joshua’s challenge to serve Yahweh was directed to the generation that had recently entered the land or whether he had in mind a much later generation that was now experiencing the temptations of serving the gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt, where they now lived in exile. That uncertainty need not concern us since we, more than 3,000 years later, also identify with Joshua’s audience, which hears the history of Yahweh’s salvation and faces the challenges and obligations inherent in this history.

In vv. 14-24, Israel is challenged to serve or vows to serve Yahweh more than a dozen times. Service of Yahweh excludes the service of other gods. It often has been said that the First Commandment implicitly incorporates all the rest of the commandments, or as St. Augustine put it, “Love God and do what you want.” That is, if you love God, you will want to live for God and follow God’s ways. Few of us are tempted by any gods of other nations or any gods with other names, but as Luther made clear in his explanation of the First Commandment, anything one fears, loves, and trusts above everything else–whether that is riches, self, prestige, or whatever–is one’s God. We all serve many gods.

The verb “serve” is evocative in these verses. “Serve” can mean “worship” or it can mean “show loyalty toward,” or, as v. 24 notes, it can also mean “obey.” Like any good preacher, Joshua practices what he preaches: “As for me and my household, we will serve Yahweh” (v. 15).

The threefold response of the people shows an increasing depth of commitment. The first response in vv. 16-18 acknowledges Yahweh’s history of miraculous deliverance from Egypt and generous gift of the land. Yahweh’s great victories over threatening lands and their gods make serving Yahweh a no-brainer. Joshua’s challenge in vv. 19-20 points out how glib promises of loyalty cannot possibly be perfectly fulfilled since Yahweh is holy and takes sin very seriously. Half-hearted loyalty to Yahweh or fearing, loving, and trusting other gods have dire consequences: Yahweh will consume you after having done you good (v. 20).

The people meet Joshua’s challenge by insisting that they will indeed serve Yahweh (v. 21). Joshua then challenges the people to be witnesses against themselves, to be self-critical, and to confess their sins. Just as they would accuse the violator of any agreement to which they were witnesses, so they must examine themselves to see whether in fact they fear, love, and trust Yahweh above everything else. So must they, so must we.

Is God always first in our lives, or do we not in fact often serve other gods, by sins of omission and commission? None of us needs to be reminded that we daily sin. The clause in v. 19 that states God will not forgive transgressions or sins shows evil deeds have bad consequences and we should not put God to the test or take God’s forgiveness for granted. Yet the God known to us in Jesus Christ regularly comes to us with words of absolution and forgiveness, seventy times or seventy times seven times. God loves and forgives us with the hope and expectation that such love will lead to renewal in our lives, leading to growth in faith and to faith active in love. We, too, like Joshua’s audience, will be moved and empowered by God’s benefactions in Jesus Christ both to serve and obey.

In v. 27, technically outside the pericope, Joshua sets up a stone, not as a witness against them or a witness to their promises, but a stone that has heard the recital of Yahweh’s acts of goodness. If and when we fail to serve God alone, we are to recall the history of Yahweh with his people since that good news alone makes possible our service.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Karoline Lewis

Today’s text from 1 Thessalonians is the fourth lection in a series of five consecutive Sunday reading through the New Testament’s earliest extant writing.

Given the opportunity to work through an entire writing like a letter of Paul, many preachers may already be preparing their fourth sermon on 1 Thessalonians. If this has not been the case, however, this section of the first letter to the Thessalonians designated for the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost is certainly deserving of its own focus.

First, it is here that Paul specifically addresses a major issue of concern for the recipients of the letter — what will become of the members of the community who die before the parousia. This is a very real problem for the Thessalonians, and Paul’s response represents the pastoral nature of the issue. Secondly, as such, we are afforded a glimpse of both the theological concerns with which early believers in Christ wrestled and therefore, the role of Paul as pastor, not as the systematic theologian that we often assume him to be. Paul’s ability to interpret the meaning of Christ into the contextual and situational matters of his congregations should give preachers pause for reflection while also pointing to the breadth of theological issues of concern as Paul works out the implications of the “gospel of God” (2:2, 8, 9) without even mention of justification by faith. Third, it is this text that narrates what most of our parishioners understand as “The Rapture.” A sermon on this passage can provide an opportunity to:

  • correct and clarify this dominant image in our culture
  • talk about the intended purpose and function of apocalyptic
  • re-situate a supposed “end-time” event back into the communal needs of a real congregation

Then, their story truly can be our story.

The sections of text appointed for the lectionary up to this point have not included readings from chapter three or the first part of chapter four. When last we heard from 1 Thessalonians, Paul reminded the congregation of his own work to support the ongoing mission of proclaiming the “gospel of God.” He also urged the congregation to “lead a life worthy of God,” and offered additional thanksgiving for the Thessalonians’ reception of God’s word (2:9-13). In the rest of chapter two and the first part of chapter three, Paul expresses his desire to be with the Thessalonians in person. The remaining verses of chapter three are devoted to Timothy’s report about his visit which is the impetus for Paul’s correspondence (3:6-13). In chapters four and five of the letter, Paul appeals to the Thessalonians to live according to the faith they have already exemplified. This faith is the grounds for encouragement to and steadfastness in living a life pleasing to God (4:1-12), a life that they are already doing but that they “should do so more and more” (4:1). 4:13 marks a shift in emphasis to the coming of the Lord as the very real expectation of the parousia in Paul’s lifetime comes to the surface. If preaching only this Sunday on Thessalonians, the preacher should consider extending the pericope through 5:11 as 5:1-11 unpack the implications of the parousia (see commentary for next week).

What now appears at the forefront of Paul’s discussion is the concept of hope, first mentioned in 1:3. While Paul calls upon the familiar triad “faith, hope, and love” in 1 Thessalonians, the last two are reversed (faith, love, and hope) as hope is lifted up. In 4:13, Paul draws upon this “steadfastness of hope” (1:3) as the source from which the Thessalonians will draw comfort, encouragement, and faith in the face of their loss.

Their hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ (1:3), but specifically in the imminence of Jesus’ return. This is a hope that is not a generalized or ethereal category but a concretized hope in the specific promise of the resurrected Christ who will come again. This is a hope that is not simply a future wish, but one that lays claim on life now, that makes a difference for how life is lived and what is at stake. In fact, it is hope that distinguishes believers from others. Paul then describes the basis of this hope−that Jesus died and rose again (4:14). In Greek, the condition that begins 4:14 is a condition of fact or reality, best translated, “for since we believe.” This creedal statement grounds the hope of the return of Jesus in what Jesus has already done and, therefore, makes the imagery that follows not wishful fancy but the comforting presence of Christ.

In 4:13, Paul indicates that what follows is not new information for the Thessalonians. It is what they already know, what they already believe, and what they have already been promised. But the reimagining of the coming of Jesus is the comfort and consolation they need at this particular time in the face of death. It is important to note that Paul is not saying the community should not grieve. On the contrary, grief is the expected emotion when faced with the painful loss of a loved one. At the same time, the grief of the believer is grounded in and defined by hope. This interconnectedness of the profound emotions of grief and hope is a mark of a community who confess Jesus Christ as Lord. As surely as God will bring those who have died, by the word of the Lord, those still alive will join them and will never (strong future denial) precede them. The term translated “left” is used in Thessalonians 4:15 and 17 is the only reference in the entire New Testament. The coming (parousia; cf. 2:19, 3:13, 4:15: 5:23) of the Lord is stated emphatically with the pronoun (“the Lord himself“) and by the apocalyptic language that follows. The images are thoroughly apocalyptic (angel, trumpet of God, clouds), and it is important to remember that the primary function of this genre was comfort and encouragement in times of great distress or persecution.

What happens next is not the tribulation of those left behind, but the union of those who have died with those who mourn their passing. This unity is underscored by the term hama which means “at the same time” or “together” and the preposition syn (“with”), “together with them” (4:17). The use of syn here recalls verse 14, “God will bring with him those who have died,” and will be used again at the end of the verse, “and so we will be with the Lord forever.” All will be “snatched up” (“seize,” “carry off”) toward a meeting with the Lord in the air. The final verse of the pericope for the day emphasizes the meaning of Paul’s vision. This is about comfort (parakaleō), which is the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, what the Lord provides and will provide even in his absence, the function of apocalyptic, and that which the community gives to one another. At the same time that Paul offers this extraordinary vision of consolation, he locates the act of consolation within the community as an ongoing (present imperative) expression of hope.