Lectionary Commentaries for August 2, 2009
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 6:24-35

Brian Peterson

Preachers may need to remind their congregations about last week’s text and the feeding of the multitude because in today’s text, John begins to unpack the meaning of that earlier event.

Verse 35 may seem a strange place for the lectionary to end this reading, since Jesus’ words continue without interruption in verse 36 (would it have been so difficult to continue the reading to verse 40?). However, verse 35 is a (perhaps the) crucial statement in this portion of John 6 and is a fitting word to have as the final statement in today’s reading, because it makes the central claim of this long discussion about bread: Jesus himself is the gift from God that gives life.

Asking the right question is vital for getting to the heart of the matter. A single, well-targeted question from a teacher or a student can open up minds and hearts to new possibilities and lead to deeper understanding. The crowd’s opening question in this text is not a promising beginning. After we readers witness the theophany on the sea, the question of “when did you come here?” obviously doesn’t matter. Clearly the crowds have “missed the boat,” or in more Johannine language, they have failed to grasp the glory of what has happened. Their search is not motivated by seeing the sign, but by filling their bellies (verse 26).

As so often happens in John, Jesus refuses to answer the question which they have asked, but instead redirects the conversation to more important issues. Because they have focused on the wrong “bread,” Jesus redirects them toward the bread which “endures.” The word translated “endures” (meno) in verse 27 is a word which takes on profound meaning as it is used throughout the fourth Gospel, especially to describe the relationship between Jesus and the believer. In the end, this “enduring” or “abiding” will mean nothing less than the Father and the Son dwelling with the believers through the Paraclete (14:23; see also 6:56). The bread which “endures” to eternal life is this relationship which has been made possible by the incarnation of the Son. In fact, the bread which endures is the Son himself, whom the Father gives for the world.

The crowds fail to hear this wonderful gift, and instead focus on Jesus’ words in verse 27 about “work”. Their question, again, is misguided. They are focused on what they could or should or must do, rather than on what God is doing right in front of them. How often do we, as preachers and congregations and denominations, forget that the gospel is the declaration of what God does, and instead act as though all of reality centers on, and is determined by, what we are doing?

Rather than presenting them with a list of “works” to do, Jesus speaks in verse 29 about a single “work of God.” That phrase presents a wonderfully, theologically provocative ambiguity. Is the ‘work of God” that which God desires but we must accomplish (as implied by their question), or is the “work of God” that which God accomplishes, “the work which God does?” Later in John 6, we hear that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them (verse 44). The “bread of God” is that which the Father must (and does) give (verse 33). There is holy mystery here about faith. The depth of the gospel is not measured when we contrast our own working with our own believing. It is closer to the heart of the matter when we hear our own efforts, whether belief or some other activity, compared to what God has lovingly accomplished in the incarnation of the Son. The “work of God” is belief, which is made possible only by giving the Son, the bread from Heaven. Faith is always the gracious and surprising accomplishment of God.

In response, the people continue to indicate their own misunderstanding of what is happening in front of their eyes. As evidence that they have not truly seen the sign that Jesus did in feeding the multitude, they now ask for a sign from him (verse 30). They apparently want a sign from the “old days” repeated. They remember the story of Moses and the manna, and seem to be requesting something like that. They are looking to the past, failing to see that the Father is doing something astonishingly new right in front of them. In verse 32, Jesus exegetes the Exodus story (or Psalm 78:23-25, which the crowd seems to paraphrase in verse 31), but turns the point of that story to the activity of the Father here and now. The true giver is not Moses, but the Father; the true giving was not in the past, but in the present; the true bread was not the manna, but is the bread of God that has now come down from Heaven in the person of Jesus.

Like the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4, the people respond with a request that indicates their lack of understanding. Just as the Samaritan woman thought that Jesus had been speaking to her about physical water and thirst, so too the crowds respond as though Jesus has been offering physical bread that will forever fill their stomachs. In a sense, the crowds say the right words: “Lord, give us” (verse 34), but with the wrong understanding. To have properly heard Jesus’ words would have prompted faith, not a fixation on bread. They have wrongly associated Jesus with Moses, rather than associating Jesus with the bread from Heaven.

In the final verse of this text, Jesus makes one more attempt to clear their eyes and ears: “I am the bread of life.” In the discussion with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus pointed to a birth beyond birth. In chapter 4 and the conversation with the woman at the well, he pointed to water beyond water. Now Jesus points to bread beyond bread, to that gift from God which not only comes to the world through Jesus, but is in fact Jesus himself.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Elna K. Solvang

Give us this day our daily bread…and meat.

Anyone who has ever led a large group of people through unfamiliar territory is sure to have heard complaints — often over trivial matters — from some or even many members of the group. The complaining can quickly sour relationships and provoke the leader to regret that he or she took the group away in the first place. 

The complaining is loud and clear in this Exodus passage. Moses, Aaron and God get an earful. For us as readers, it is tempting to adopt the position of story outsider and treat the complaining as whiners, condemning the Israelites as faithless.

No one likes listening to complaint. Individuals in power or in the majority can often choose to ignore a complaint, dismiss it as mere whining, or punish the complainant. In contrast, to listen to a complaint involves seeing the world from another’s position and hearing a call to act.

Thus, to condemn the Israelites for complaining in Exodus 16 would be to introduce a judgment that the text itself does not make, sending the message that complaint has no place in life with God.

This, of course, is not true. The laments in the Book of Psalms give voice to the human experience of abandonment, suffering, fear, and danger. The laments call upon God to see, arise, and act (e.g., Psalm 10, 13, 89). In the Book of Job, Job rejects an attitude of resignation toward his suffering. Instead, he unleashes a lengthy and detailed complaint against God’s treatment of the righteous and God’s management of the world. From the cross, Jesus cries out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:1).

At its core, complaint is a turning to God — not away — trusting that God the Almighty does not ignore, dismiss or punish those who call out in fear, anger, suffering, and need.

In Exodus 16, the Israelites are beginning their second month of wilderness walking (16:1) following their deliverance from Egypt. The dangers of the wilderness are real — the Israelites have already faced thirst (Exodus 15:22-25), now hunger, and later they will face attack (Exodus 17:8-13). They do not exaggerate their predicament. They are no longer part of the system of labor that fed them in the past. They cannot supply their own needs. They are hungry. Their situation is dire and there is no visible way out.

The complaint that there is no food, the fear of the present, and the longing to be back in an earlier time are not constrained to the pages of Exodus. The situation is the same for the world’s poor today, and they are joined by increasing numbers of people losing homes, jobs, health care, pensions, dignity, property, and savings in the wake of global economic turbulence.

Exodus 16 offers the assurance that the wilderness of want is not a God-forsaken time or place. As Moses instructs Aaron to say to the Israelites: “Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining” (16:9).

It must be acknowledged that a complaint does not always contain the best solution. In their complaining, the Israelites declare it would have been better to have died in Egypt than be facing hunger in the wilderness. In recalling Egypt, they think not of death but of food, specifically meat and bread. In their complaint, Egypt sounds like the good life as they remember how they “sat by the fleshpots and ate [their] fill of bread” (16:3). In their real fear for the future, the Israelites look back to Egypt as the way of life that sustained them.

The wilderness is a place of danger and want. It is also a space for learning new ways of relating that are not based on the identity the Israelites had and the life they lived in Egypt.

In Egypt, the Israelites’ lives and service benefitted Pharaoh. In the wilderness, their lives begin to be reordered. In the Sinai Covenant (Exodus 20:1-17) the loyalty of the Israelites is redirected from Pharaoh to Yahweh. Their service no longer benefits Pharaoh but goes towards building a community characterized by integrity, honor, care and compassion.

The wilderness is also the place where the Israelites come to know the God who has demanded and accomplished their release from slavery. In the dispute with Pharaoh, Yahweh claims the Israelites as Yahweh’s own (“Let my people go so that they may worship me” Exodus 9:13). God demonstrates power over humans in defeating Pharaoh and power over creation in delivering the Israelites.

What is unknown as the Israelites exit Egypt is how this powerful God will relate to them in the future. Exodus 16 offers a glimpse of this emerging relationship.

God hears the complaining of the Israelites. God recognizes not only their need for sustenance — daily bread — but their desire for a life beyond scarcity — meat. God responds by sending quail for meat and manna for bread. God proves to be a different type of lord than Pharaoh.

What an awesome scene as the dew lifts and the sun rises: the wilderness ground is covered with a “flaky substance, as fine as frost” (16:14). It is unfamiliar to the Israelites and they are puzzled, perhaps even fearful, as they ask each other: “What is it?” (16:15).

It is, Moses explains, bread from Yahweh given to them. As the Israelites move into their wilderness journey God has found new ways to provide for them. The manna supplied to the Israelites may offer hope to people today that God can and does provide in new and fitting ways in changed and uncharted conditions.

There is another amazing surprise in this passage. As the people “looked toward the wilderness…the glory of the LORD appeared” (16:10). It is not just on a mountaintop or just to Moses and Aaron that God appears.

God is near and listening to those whom we might be tempted to call faithless: those who complain to God because they are hungry, anxious, dislocated, in unfamiliar territory and without a clear plan for the future. There God is present. For them the glory of the LORD is revealed in daily bread…and meat.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:26—12:13a

Ted A. Smith

On one level it is obvious: this is a story about David’s sin. God knows it.

Nathan knows it. David comes to know it. And, Nathan promises, all Israel will see God’s judgment of it. They do see that judgment, and so do we, if we read the rest of 2 Samuel. How could we forget that this is a story about the sin of David?

Perhaps we forget this fact because it is so hard to imagine. Remember who David is: the singer of psalms, the anointed king, the favored one of God, the hope of Israel, and, in Christian accounts, the defining ancestor of Jesus. Acknowledging the sin of David threatens a whole worldview. It shatters a vision in which saints and sinners can be neatly divided, a vision in which God works through the good actions of good people to establish peace and justice. If David sinned, then the world is not like we thought it was.

Interpreters have found a variety of ways to help us forget David’s sin in 2 Samuel. The other canonical account of David’s reign, in Chronicles, takes the most direct approach. It leaves the story out altogether.  Some less canonical (but perhaps more influential) interpreters have blunted the bite of sin by making this a tragic story of love. David and Bathsheba, the 1951 film starring Susan Hayward and Gregory Peck, seems to say that whatever happened wasn’t really sin, because they really, really needed one another. David was the sensitive, reflective king who just wanted to be loved for who he really was. Bathsheba was the lonely wife of an over-dedicated soldier. They fell in love! Love can’t be wrong, or at least not very wrong. The event is remembered, but not as anything like a sin.

If this second interpretation has flourished in modern times, a third has shaped readings of 2 Samuel in many ages. It remembers the story in a way that attributes the seduction — and so the sin — to Bathsheba. She was bathing on her roof, after all. If the sin must be remembered, and remembered as sin, it can at least be blamed on the woman.

Nathan offers a different interpretation. Nathan’s parable in chapter 12 brings the hard fact of sin to David’s consciousness. Good preaching on that parable will not just comment on it, but do the work it does. It will strip away interpretations that let us forget David’s sin. It will tell the story again in ways that bring home the full significance of that sin.

Such a sermon might begin with the first sentence of the story: “In the spring of that year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab …” (11:1). Good kings go out to battle. But David stays home, preying upon the people rather than serving them (just as Samuel warned in 1 Samuel 8:11-17). Neglecting his day job, David has time for an afternoon stroll on his roof. He sees Bathsheba, who is married to Uriah the Hittite. And then the narrative turns quick and definitive, like the commands of a king: “David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her” (11:4). If Bathsheba is not without agency here — she is the subject of “came to him” — her actions are surrounded by David’s kingly power. The text does not tell us how willingly she came. And it does not reflect on the awful complexities of “willing” in response to royal command. But whatever Bathsheba’s responsibility, David’s is clear enough.

Then Bathsheba goes home. That’s it. There is no mention of love, no indication that David has any desire for ongoing relationship. It looks like nothing more than a little kingly prerogative. And then Bathsheba sends a messenger with two words that teach David the limits of his power: “I’m pregnant.”

These words detonate the next explosion in the chain reaction. If David can’t control pregnancy, he can at least control who people think the father is. He sends for Uriah. “Go down to your house and wash your feet,” David tells him. That is: sleep with your wife so you and everyone else will think you are the father of the child who is already on the way. But Uriah won’t go down. David insists. Uriah still won’t go. In a comic escalation that only highlights the horror all around it, David gets Uriah intoxicated. Even when he is drunk, Uriah won’t go down to his house. The contrast is unmistakable: Uriah, a Hittite, refuses the comforts of his own home when the ark and the troops are in the field; but David, the king who should be following that ark and leading those troops, preys upon the homes, bodies, and marriages of his subjects.

David can’t control the actions of a righteous man, but he can have him killed. The chain reaction continues, more frightening than ever: neglecting royal duties leads to adultery leads to lies leads to murder. It is enough to turn the stomach even of a hardened political insider like Joab. David tries to comfort him, saying, “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another…” (11:25). Adultery leads to lying leads to murder leads now to calling evil good, or at least inevitable. David would rewrite the law of God. But David does not get the last word. The last word in this chapter is this: “the thing that David did displeased the LORD” (11:27).

Nathan brings that hard, horrible fact home. But the story does not end only in a realization of sin. It says that God even weaves David’s taking of Bathsheba into redemptive purposes. Their first child dies. (Why, God?! Why is there a body count even in stories that end in redemption?) But their second child grows up to be Solomon, builder of the Temple, wise king, and, Christian preachers will remember, ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:6). The redemption of David’s sin therefore involves more than personal salvation for David. By the grace of God, David’s sin is incorporated into the redemption of the world.

Preaching that tells this story in all its fullness will push us beyond the polarities that often order our thinking. It will remember David as murderer, adulterer, and predatory king as well as hero, beloved of God, and singer of psalms. It will break up the stories we tend to tell about others and ourselves, stories in which we are either good enough — not perfect, but good enough — that we have no real need of grace, or so bad that we are beyond the scope of grace. Remembering David’s sin can also push us beyond the poles of cynicism and naivete in our political and institutional lives. The politics of David’s court are brutal. But — often in spite of themselves, and almost always in ways the actors do not fully understand — these power politics are caught up in God’s redeeming work. Remembering this can give vision for action that neither flinches from the morally risky work of politics nor tips over into a “realism” that proceeds as if God had abandoned us to our own devices. Remembering the fullness of this story can help us see all of life as the theater for God’s wily, costly, persistent performance of redemption.1 

1Thanks to Donna Giver Johnston for research assistance and valuable conversations in preparation for this essay.


Commentary on Psalm 78:23-29

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 78’s superscription reads, “A Maskil of Asaph.”

While some commentators and readers ignore the superscriptions of the psalms, these little introductions often provide significant clues for understanding the psalms’ meanings and purposes. In the Hebrew Bible, unlike Christian Bibles, a psalm’s superscription is not placed as a preface to it. Rather, it is included as the psalm’s first verse. What insight into Psalm 78 can its superscription provide?

First, the psalm is described as a maskil. The Hebrew root of this word is sakal, which means “to have insight, to teach.” Thus, we may understand a maskil as a teaching song.

Second, Psalm 78 is ascribed to Asaph. The Korahites (Psalms 42, 44, 45, et cetera.), Heman the Ezrahite (Psalm 88), Ethan the Ezrahite (Psalm 89), and Asaph were singers and musicians at the Jerusalem Temple during the reigns of David and Solomon (compare 1 Chronicles 6:31–37; 9:19). So, we are introduced to Psalm 78 as a teaching psalm from the time of David and Solomon.

In verses 1–3, the psalm begins with words of admonition to its listeners. The psalm singer then recounts in great detail the activity of God in the lives of our ancestors during the exodus from Egypt, the wilderness wanderings, the settlement of the land, and the establishment of the ancient Israelite nation with David as king.

Verses 23–29 are a poetic retelling of God’s provision of manna and quail during the wilderness wanderings. According to Exodus 13–16, God led the Israelites out of Egypt with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21–22). They arrived and camped at the Reed Sea, and soon Pharaoh and his army were in hot pursuit.

The people then turned to Moses in fear and anger, saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? … Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians, for it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:11–12). Thus began the grumbling—a constant theme of the journey through the wilderness.

Later, the people continued to grumble about the lack of fresh water to drink and food to eat (Exodus 15:24; 16:3). God answered the people out of the pillar of cloud, and promised them manna and quail (Exodus 16:10–12). The word “manna” is taken from the question that the Israelites ask when they see the manna for the first time: “What is it?”—in Hebrew “man hoo” (Exodus 16:15).

While Psalm 78 recounts the story of God’s good provisions for the Israelites during the formative years of their being, it also reminds the reader/hearer of another aspect of God. God is not only the God of the faithful (God’s followers), but God is the God of all creation. God rained the manna down upon the people in the wilderness by “commanding the skies above” and “opening the doors of heaven” (verse 23). God directed the quail to them by “causing the east wind to blow in the heavens” and “leading out the south wind” (verse 26).

Thus, God is the God of creation and of good provision for God’s people. But the verses following our focus text in Psalm 78 remind us of still another aspect of God.

Psalm 78:29–31 echoes the story of God’s giving of the manna and the quail in the book of Numbers, a story with a very different outcome from the one in Exodus 16. In Numbers 11, the Israelites cried out against Moses, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:4–6).

God’s good provision of the manna was not enough, so quail arrived at the camp on “a wind from the LORD” (Numbers 11:31). But Numbers 11:33 says that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people,” and the LORD “struck the people with a very great plague.”

The “teaching” of Psalm 78, the teaching to which the faithful should “give ear” (verse 1), is a teaching of hope in the goodness of God and a warning of the consequences of continual disobedience.

God called our ancestors in the faith out of Egypt into a new life of abundance in the land of promise. The people were called to undertake a difficult journey of faith. When they were afraid, when they despaired, and when they grumbled, God provided. But the story from Numbers tells us God does become angry. What does this mean? Do we worship an angry God?

This author maintains that God gives each of us a path to travel and that God continually provides for our journey. Our choice is to trust God to provide for the journey or to grumble at every turn in the road.

Are we allowed to question, to call God to account and confront God with the hard questions of life? Absolutely. The most frequently occurring type of psalms in the book of Psalms are the lament psalms, in which singers cry out to God about the injustices, pains, and oppressions of life.

We are allowed to question God and call God to account. But at some point in the journey, we must learn to trust God. God’s ways are not ours; God’s wisdom is not ours.

Ponder the teaching of Asaph, a singer in the courts of David and Solomon. Did David and Solomon learn about trusting God from the stories that were passed down to them, the “parables and dark sayings of old,” those things that “our ancestors have told us” (Psalm 78:2–3)?

I suspect they did, and I suspect we all might learn something about the journey of faith by embracing those stories.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 4:1-16

Susan Hylen

This passage forms the hinge between the theological statement of Ephesians 1–3 and the exhortatory material that follows (4:17–6:20). It provides a theological rationale for the behavior that is required of the church.

The primary call is to unity. The recipients of the letter should make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). They are to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (4:13). The sevenfold use of the word “one” (4:4–6) forms the center of a poetic statement of the church’s unity. The list culminates with the oneness of God. Just as earlier parts of Ephesians have identified God as the source of the church’s identity (compare 1:3–8), so here the unity of the church reflects the oneness of God.

In the Greek, verse 7 also begins with the word “one.” In English translation, it is not possible to maintain the parallel. “And each one of us was given grace” is one way to think of the parallel made by the Greek. Following on the heels of verses 4–6, verse 7 brings the notion of oneness back to the individual experience—each one of us. The believer’s experience of God’s grace relates to the larger goal of the oneness of the body.

The unity of the church is a reflection of God’s gift of reconciliation in Christ. The opening “therefore” (4:1) indicates that the argument here follows logically upon the previous verses. In Ephesians 1–3, the author has elaborated upon the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles that God has brought about in Christ. The repeated use of the word “one” in 2:14–16 (as in 4:4–8) highlights this aspect of the message: the church is “one new humanity” created by Christ.

The mystery of the faith (compare 3:9) is that, through the one body of Jesus, God has brought together two disparate groups under one plan of salvation. While both Jews and Gentiles once lived according to the flesh (2:3), Jews were nevertheless “near” to God, while Gentiles were “far off” (2:17). Through Christ, both groups are now joined together and draw nearer to God. The writer uses two metaphors to express the joining and the resulting closeness with God: Jews and Gentiles form one body with Christ as its head (1:22–23), and one structure with Christ as its cornerstone (2:21–22).

The church should reflect this unity. However, the author makes clear that the perfection of the church is a process and not a completed event. Christ has equipped the church with gifts (4:7, 11) so that the church as Christ’s body may reach maturity. The body metaphor of verses 12–16 is interesting: the church is depicted as growing into its own body. Christ is already “mature” (verse 13; the Greek that the New Revised Standard Version translates as “maturity” is more literally “the complete man”).

Yet the church, which is Christ’s body, must build up the body until it arrives at the stature of Christ (verse 13). Likewise, in verses 14–15 the image evoked is that of the body growing up to meet its head, Christ. In the author’s view, the church is already the body of Christ, even as it continues to grow toward Christ.

The list of offices in 4:11–13 poses a theological problem for many interpreters. In these verses, the gifts given by Christ appear to be identified with various leaders, whose job it is to train all the saints. By contrast, the “gifts of the Spirit” of which Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 12 seem to be gifts that any believer may possess and use for the good of the body (compare 1 Corinthians 12:4–11). For many readers, the related text in 1 Corinthians may be more appealing because the whole church shares equally in the gifts of God. Here, the gifts seem to belong exclusively to church leaders—or, more precisely, the gifts are the church leaders.

However, it is also possible to read 4:11–13 as a recognition that good leaders are necessary for the church’s unity. Elsewhere, the author has already assumed that God has given grace as a gift to every believer (4:7; compare 1:3–6). Nevertheless, certain people are gifted in particular ways for the building up of the body, and this is a gift of God’s grace. The language here does not demand uncritical obedience to leaders, but understands leaders as a gift from God to guide the growth of the body.

Seen in the context of Ephesians, the unity to which the church is called in 4:1–16 can have challenging implications for contemporary churches. In the first century, many Jews and Gentiles struggled to accept the message of reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles (compare Galatians, Acts 10–15). God’s gift of reconciliation means that those who were understood to be “far off” are now those who are equally gifted by God. The “dividing walls” of today’s churches might also be seen in this light, although in our case the more relevant categories would be those of gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, or men and women. In its unity the church should embody the reconciliation made possible in Christ, who “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (2:14).

In Ephesians, unity is not the same as uniformity. The mystery of God that is revealed in Christ and results in the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles does not obliterate the distinctions between these different groups. Instead, what is made known through the church is “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” (3:10). Part of the call of 4:1–16 is to tolerance, or “bearing with one another” (4:2). The assumption is not that all distinctions will cease, but that even with the persistence of differences, the church may nevertheless grow together as a body.