Lectionary Commentaries for August 16, 2009
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 6:51-58

Brian Peterson

Once again we are faced with a Gospel text that deals with bread and eating.

But once again, this is not simply a repetition of the last two Sunday texts. John is still exploring the truth revealed when Jesus fed the multitude (6:1-15), and is drawing us deeper into the meaning of that revelation.

The lectionary begins by picking up verse 51 from last Sunday’s text, because Jesus’ statement there about his flesh causes arguments to break out within the crowd and provides the opportunity for Jesus to move this conversation to the next level. The crowd begins to express their confusion over how Jesus can give his flesh for them to eat. This may be a good question for the preacher to raise in the sermon, because it is at the heart of John’s understanding of the church. Faith and eternal life are possible only because “the word became flesh” (1:14); but how does the church receive life from that incarnation? How is it that we, centuries later and without direct and unambiguous experience of Jesus in the flesh, receive his incarnate life?

Jesus again engages in “obnoxious discourse.” When the crowd is bothered and confused by Jesus’ claim to give his flesh, he makes an even more offensive statement: they will need to eat his flesh and drink his blood (verse 53). The vocabulary of the text only heightens the scandal. In verses 49-51, Jesus had spoken about “eating” the bread from heaven, using a very common word (esthio). In verse 53, however, Jesus switches to a less common word, trogo, a rather onomatopoetic word that has a connotation closer to “munch” or “gnaw.” It is a graphic word of noisy eating, the sort of eating an animal does. The audibility of the eating, however, is not the important point; this is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It is eating as though life depends on it, because it does.

Just what this “gnawing” means, however, is not easy to discern. In fact, verses 51-58 make up one of the most widely and hotly disputed passages in John’s Gospel. At the heart of the debate is whether or not these statements refer to the eating and drinking of the Eucharist, a question only compounded by the absence of Jesus’ words regarding his body and blood at the last supper in John.

There are good reasons for treating the theme of eating throughout this text as a metaphor for belief in Jesus. This is, in fact, how Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin read this text. The claim in verse 54 that those who eat Jesus will have eternal life and will be raised on the last day is an extension of the claims already heard in verses 40 and 47 that those who believe have eternal life and will be raised on the last day. Likewise, the language in this text about eating and drinking seems to be an expansion on what Jesus said in verse 35, where the one who comes to him and believes will not hunger or thirst. Read within the context of John 6, the “eating” and “drinking” of our text seem to be a reference to faith in Jesus.

But in John’s Gospel, of all places, we should beware of reducing truth to only one level. The statement of verse 51, which speaks only of “flesh,” is expanded in verses 53-56 to speak about both flesh and blood. Though our liturgical practice remembers the synoptic words about Jesus’ “body” (not “flesh”) being given, others in the early church (for example, Ignatius and Justin Martyr) did speak about the “flesh” of Jesus in the Eucharist. While on one level, feeding on Jesus’ “flesh and blood” can be understood as a reference to faith drawing life from the life of Jesus given for the world (verse 51), the church is also right to hear in these words a pointer to its own experience in the Eucharist as a tangible (incarnate) means by which that happens.

Forcing a choice between hearing these words as a statement about believing in Jesus or hearing them as a statement about receiving him in the Eucharist would be to drive apart what chapter 6 joins together. Without the familiar story of the last supper, this text is the primary reflection on the Eucharist in John. With that in mind, we need to notice the clear and insistent focus on Jesus himself as the one given by the Father, the one who is the Bread of Life from Heaven, the one on whom we must feed.

If this text is at one level a meditation on the Eucharist (and I believe that it is), then part of the point is that the Eucharist is life-giving because it is Jesus who gives it, and it is life-giving because it is Jesus himself who is given. The Eucharist is life-giving because it draws us deeper into relationship with Jesus, so that we may “abide” there (verse 56). There can be no proper understanding of the Eucharist apart from this life-giving participation in the life and the death of Jesus himself.

In earlier essays, I suggested that 6:24-35 are focused on Jesus himself as the gift from God that gives life, and 6:41-51 focused on Jesus as the center of faith to which the Father draws us. The long discussion around eating bread continues in today’s text, but now with the focus on Jesus as the heart of the church’s experience. We may rightly hear in this text the claim that an abiding relationship with Jesus himself is the heart and the gift of the Eucharist. However, it might pick up the emphasis of the text better to say that while this part of chapter 6 certainly brings to mind the Eucharist, it is not primarily about the Eucharist. It is primarily about Jesus himself as the food of eternal life from the Father.

First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 9:1-6

Sara M. Koenig

In many ways, the message in this text of Proverbs is quite simple: wisdom is better than foolishness.

The same point gets echoed in the New Testament text for today, when Ephesians 5:15 counsels, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.” However, while Ephesians clearly states such advice, Proverbs explains more fully the benefits of choosing the way of wisdom. And the way in which this message of the advantage of wisdom over folly gets delivered in Proverbs is anything but simple. Proverbs 9:1-6 uses creative metaphors, provocative analogies, and vivid imagery to explain its message. In fact, it resembles a good sermon! There is a clear main point, one that is very applicable to the lives of those who hear it, but it is conveyed in a persuasive manner with a richness that makes it much more meaningful than a simple truism.

As is so often the case in the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified. In this poem, the activities with which she is occupied include building a house and hosting a feast. In verse 1, when she builds her house, the process includes hewing out “seven pillars.” There are a number of possible interpretations for what this means, depending on how literally or metaphorically one wishes to understand the text. The “house” has also been interpreted as a palace, a temple, the cosmos itself, or even the poem contained in this passage with its repetition of seven verbs (the feast has six verbs, and the invitation to celebrate includes one. six actions, and the invitation to celebrate takes one). 1

In more metaphorical interpretations, the pillars have been compared to a number of things, including the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven liberal arts, or the seven churches of Revelation 1:11-3:22. If the “house” is the cosmos, or the created order, these pillars could be the pillars of earth (cf. Psalm 75:3, 1 Samuel 2:8, and Job 9:6, 26:11). Raymond Van Leeuwen suggests that the seven could be an inner-biblical allusion to the six days of creation, plus the day of Sabbath.2  Such an understanding of Wisdom is expressed in Proverbs 8:22-31, Job 28:23-28, and Sirach 24, that wisdom is present and active in creation. A more literal interpretation of this structure as an actual house can be supported by the archeological discoveries which have found seven pillars in the homes of wealthy patricians.

The main activity Wisdom does in this text is to host a feast, and a sumptuous one at that. Verse 2 explains, “she has slaughtered her animals (literally; she has slaughtered the things slaughtered); she mixed her wine; surely she has set her table.” Meat and wine were not usually consumed by common people (cf. Amos 6:4-6), which confirms that this is a special meal. Of course, this ought not be understood only as a literal feast. Wisdom’s own words in Proverbs 9:6 tell us that the food and drink she prepares are metaphors for the banquet of life, and partaking of the meal that she has laid out is connected with walking on the straight path (literally, “way,” from the Hebrew derek) of understanding.

Yet, despite the richness of what is provided, those invited to this feast are not only the wealthy and the elite, but those who are simple and lacking sense (verse 3, cf. verse 6, where she calls them to forsake their simplicity). Such an inclusive invitation is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable where, after the honored guests responds with regrets, all are invited to the feast (Luke 14:15-24). Wisdom sends out her servants to invite people to the feast (verse 3), but also issues a personal invitation herself (verse 4).

Our text makes clear the benefits of following Wisdom, of answering her invitation, gathering in her house and consuming what she has prepared. But if we go just slightly outside the bounds of the lectionary pericope to the end of the chapter, we see Wisdom contrasted with Folly. Like all other good contrasts, this one includes similarities, namely that Folly, like Wisdom, is also on the heights (8:14). Certainly, this is an apt and accurate description of the way that Wisdom and Folly vie for followers. It is not that one is so much easier to see and hear than the others, but that the choice must be made between them. Another similarity is that Folly, like Wisdom, calls out to the simple and those without sense (Proverbs 9:16), using the same exact language that Wisdom uses in 9:4, “Whoever is simple, turn in here! To those without sense, she says…”

However, despite the similarity between them, there are much more evident differences. One is the nature of the meal: while Wisdom offers meat and wine, Folly is serving bread and water (9:17). This, too, need not only be literally understood: the end of the chapter lets us know that the meal Folly is serving is death (9:18). While it might seem an obvious choice to make, part of the enduring drama conveyed in this text is that some continue to choose Folly over Wisdom, to continue in the way of simplicity instead of wisdom.

The wise person’s life−though the call is to the one who is simple and who lacks sense−is to dwell in Wisdom’s house, where there are ample provisions and life, in contrast with the house of Folly with its lesser offerings and its death. As the beginning of Proverbs tells us, though, wisdom can always increase even among the wise (Proverbs 1:5). Thus, more than a final destination, to dwell in the house of Wisdom is a process that continues throughout the life of the one who answers her invitation.

1Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs.” New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 102.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

“What would you wish for if you could wish for anything?”

It’s a game my friends and I used to play as children, inspired by tales like “Aladdin.” As I recall, our wishes usually had to do with wealth or fame or ponies.

Our reading for today describes the biblical counterpart to that childhood game. Solomon has just ascended to the throne of his father David, that beloved king of Israel. It is a succession marked by court intrigue and competition between rival factions (1 Kings 1-2). A few people lose their lives in Solomon’s consolidation of power, including David’s older son, Adonijah, who had designs on the throne himself.

But after all the intrigue, now Solomon is king, and he goes to Gibeon to offer sacrifices to the LORD. The LORD appears to Solomon in a dream there and says, “Ask what I should give you.” It is a remarkable offer for this young king; “Ask what you will,” says God. One can imagine what he might request: long life, riches, power, and victory in battle.

Solomon asks for none of that. Instead, he praises God for God’s faithfulness to his father David, and he describes his own situation. He is a young man. (Calling himself a “little child” is simply a way of expressing humility. Solomon is old enough to marry, cf. 1 Kings 3:1). He has to govern a very numerous people; and not just any people, but a nation of God’s own choosing. Therefore, he asks of God a “listening heart” (or, as many translations put it, “an understanding mind”) in order to judge God’s people, and “to discern between good and evil.”

A listening heart, an understanding mind, the ability to discern what is right and good–these are qualities essential to good governance, qualities we should pray to find in all our leaders. It speaks well of the young king that he recognizes the enormous responsibility he has and seeks not material gifts for himself, but gifts of character that will benefit his people.

Solomon’s request does indeed please the LORD, and the request is granted. In addition, God grants Solomon that which he did not explicitly request: riches, honor, fame, and (if he stays faithful to God) long life. Blessings abound for this new king; but it is important to note that these material blessings are secondary. This text does not support a kind of prosperity gospel. Solomon speaks of himself as God’s servant (1 Kings 3:7-9), and seeks not his own personal gain, but the good of his people–their “best life now,” if you will.

This story is the first of six lectionary texts (in the semi-continuous readings) that describe Solomon or are associated with Solomon (i.e. Song of Solomon and Proverbs). Because texts about Solomon are rare in the lectionary, the preacher might consider doing a brief sermon series on this complex biblical character or on a larger theme such as “wisdom,” with which Solomon is so strongly associated.

“Wisdom” in the biblical tradition has to do in large part with what Solomon requests: the ability to discern good and evil, the ability to listen well, and to judge rightly. In this story, Solomon’s great wisdom is understood as a special gift from God. In the biblical wisdom literature, wisdom is also understood as a gift from God. It is given, however, not just to kings, but to all who faithfully seek it (Proverbs 2:1-6; 8:1-17). As in this story, wisdom will reward those who acquire it (Proverbs 3:16); but it is not to be sought simply for personal gain. It is integrally tied to one’s life in community (Job 29:7-25) and to one’s life with God–“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).

The texts in the coming weeks, especially those from Proverbs, will speak more explicitly about wisdom. If one chooses this week to focus on Solomon himself, it might be fruitful to include for reflection the story that follows our reading of Solomon’s judgment in the case of the two prostitutes (1 Kings 3:16-28). This story serves as a good example of Solomon’s great wisdom and how it benefits his people.

The chapters that follow then speak in detail of the glory of Solomon, his magnificent building projects (including the Temple), his wisdom and the fame it brings him (1 Kings 4:29-34; 10:1-13, 23-24). Solomon seems to fulfill the promise we see in him in chapter 3. It is important to note, however, that like David before him, Solomon has flaws. Later in life, he begins to worship other gods (1 Kings 11:4-8), and he builds up his kingdom through forced labor and heavy taxes (1 Kings 11:28; 12:4). Because of Solomon’s sins, the northern tribes rebel after his death and the kingdom is split in two.

Solomon, like his father before him, is a complex character. The preacher would do well to follow the lead of the biblical narrator who describes the whole man–his glory as well as his flaws. Solomon is like our own leaders, a mixture of good and bad. Solomon is, in other words, like us–all of us saints and sinners at the same time. Perhaps his story, then, can inform our own stories.

“What would you wish for if you could wish for anything?” Solomon, for all his shortcomings later in life, answers well. He wishes not for personal gain or material possessions, but for a listening heart, a discerning mind, and the wisdom to govern his people well. For these attributes, Solomon becomes in later biblical tradition the epitome of wisdom and a well-loved king. In the coming weeks, we will explore more texts associated with him.


Commentary on Psalm 34:9-14

James K. Mead

Last Sunday’s Psalm lection (34:1-8) contained some of the typical features of individual Psalms of Thanksgiving, where a worshiper invites others to praise God (verses 1-3) for an act of personal deliverance (verses 4, 6).

This Sunday’s reading continues that invitation to learn from the author’s experience, but with verse 9 the psalmist begins to move in a new direction, focusing on the fear of the Lord and the wisdom that accompanies it.

The pastor who has been using the psalm readings for preaching already will have wrestled with the more challenging aspects of Psalm 34, from speculation about its literary form and original setting in worship to the historical superscription connecting the psalm to King David’s life (1 Samuel 21).

If verses 1-8 have not been expounded on in the previous Sunday, the congregation will need help getting their bearings. Whatever the circumstances for proclamation, the exegetical and theological currents within today’s lection are challenging. These six verses are united by the concept of the fear of the Lord, which is developed in the two ways: worship and wisdom.

Worship and the fear of the LORD
The “fear of the LORD” is mentioned four times in the central section of the psalm (verses 7, 9 [twice], 11).1 This concept challenges people of faith for many reasons, not the least of which is the problem of enjoying a close, personal relationship with someone who terrifies us. People wonder how to love and fear God at the same time. We may take refuge in texts such as 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love casts out fear,” but it will be most helpful if our explanation is based on the concept of fear in the Old Testament, especially the Psalms.

Biblical words have a range of meanings connected to the contexts in which they are found, and “fear” can be associated with terror, respect, or worship depending upon the setting. In the Psalms, when the Lord is the object of this fear, the meaning of worship pervades. Thus, in the Israelite community, those who fear the Lord are those who worship Yahweh exclusively.2

I am therefore suggesting that we unite the themes of worship and the fear of God. The psalmist has already identified his audience as Yahweh’s “holy ones” (verse 9). In other words, he is not addressing a group of belligerent unbelievers who want nothing to do with Yahweh and thus need to be frightened into submission. Quite the contrary, they are the same ones who are called to “exalt God’s name forever” (verse 3), who “taste and see that the Lord is good” (verse 8), and “who seek the Lord” (verse 10). These believers are called “holy ones” in much the same way that the New Testament uses the term “saints” (e.g., Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; etc.); they are consecrated unto Yahweh for worship and service.

In the logic of the psalm, therefore, worship is still very much on the psalmist’s mind as we begin this lection, but the distinctive occasion here is not just the blessing of refuge in verse 8, but the way that protection from evil doers—metaphorically the “young lions” in verse 10—ushers forth in provision for Yahweh’s congregation.3 God graciously and abundantly meets the needs of those who seek him, a truth that creates not a paralyzing fear but a worshipful reverence before God.

Wisdom and the fear of the LORD
At verse 11, the psalm shifts its attention from worship to wisdom. There are several reasons for saying this:

  • First, the kind of language in the invitation of verse 11, “Come, O children, listen to me,” is found numerous times in the Book of Proverbs (1:8; 2:1; etc.). One of the important settings of Israelite wisdom teaching was the home and larger clan, and so the congregation is reminded of their need to be teachable.
  • Second, the subject matter to be learned, namely, “fear of the LORD” (verse 11), is echoed in the famous insight of Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom.”
  • Third, several of the motifs in verses 12-14 (long life, speech, peaceful relationships) are regularly expounded in Proverbs.
  • Fourth, Psalm 34 is but one psalm that focuses either entirely or partly on wisdom themes (e.g. Psalms 1, 37, 49, 73, etc.).

Perhaps all of these factors led to the selection of Proverbs 9:1-6 as the Old Testament lection for this Sunday. The epistle lectionary text (Ephesians 5:15-20) goes in a different direction, but it still exhorts hearers to connect worship and wisdom in their lives.

Familiarity with the Bible should not keep us from sensing the juxtaposition in the rhetorical question of verse 12 and the categorical response of verses 13-14. Under normal circumstances, everyone would “desire life” and “covet many days,” but they will not find the path an easy one to take. Avoiding deceitful speech and harmful actions, while also maintaining healthy relationships, is a tall order for anyone. The logic seems simple and straightforward, as Michael Wilcock writes, “if you desire good, then do good.”4

The irony, however, is that to aspire to a long life for oneself, a person must become completely committed to others. Indeed, living by these ideals is not merely difficult; the remainder of the psalm goes on to suggest that such a life will potentially invite brokenness and rejection (see next week’s commentary on Psalms 34:15-22). Regardless of the outcome, James L. Mays is correct that the connection of wisdom and worship gives “an ethical dimension to liturgical practice.”5 Psalm 34 thus stands in the tradition of the prophets who called for integrity of worship and life.


  1. The root word here is yara’, different from the rare word in v. 4, meguroth, translated “fears” (NRSV).
  2. M. Van Pelt and W. Kaiser, “yara'” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. W. VanGemeren (Zondervan, 1997) , 2:527-533.
  3. The word for “young lions” (kephirim) need not be amended as in the LXX (see New American Bible, “the great”); neither should the original term be avoided altogether (see New English Bible, “unbelievers”). The metaphor is discussed in Brent A. Strawn, What is Stronger than a Lion? (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005), 51, 304-310.
  4. M. Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 2001), 117.
  5. James L. Mays, Psalms (John Knox, 1994), 153.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20

Susan Hylen

“Be careful then how you live…”

These verses continue instructions regarding the Christian life. This life is the result of the reconciliation that God has brought about in Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:13-18). Its focus is on living in love for the building up of the body of Christ (4:1-2, 11-16). A review of the word “live” (5:15; Greek, peripateō) provides a helpful reminder of some important themes of the book. The recipients are those who once lived in sin (2:1-2), but must no longer live as Gentiles (4:17). Because God created good works for their way of life (2:10), they are urged to live in a way that is worthy of their calling (4:1), reflecting the love of Christ (5:2) and their adoption as children of light (5:8).

The rest of the passage centers on three parallel sets of instructions: do not be unwise, but wise; not foolish, but understanding; not drunk but filled with the Spirit.

First, readers are to be wise people (Greek: sophoi) rather than unwise (asophoi). The use of the term “wise” differs here from much of the Pauline corpus, where Paul often seeks to distance himself from claim to wisdom (e.g., Romans 1:22; 1 Corinthians 1:19-20, 25-27; 3:18-20). Yet there are other exhortations to be “wise” in the New Testament, including Romans 16:19, where Paul counsels the Romans to be “wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.” James defines the wise as those who “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” While James has a different overall message, the instructions about life within the community (e.g., James 1:19-21) and the attention to speech (James 3:1-12) are not all that different from those of Ephesians. For both writers true wisdom is reflected in the community’s life and the behavior of its members.

The “wisdom” that the author has in mind seems similar to a general philosophical understanding, in which being “wise” was a cardinal virtue. Such wisdom involved abstract ideas but also had a practical edge and was acted out in one’s daily experience. Yet in Ephesians, this wisdom also has particular Christian content. The one clarification provided is that one who is wise “[makes] the most of the time, because the days are evil” (5:16).

Thus, wisdom reflects an understanding of Christian life as being lived in the “in-between time,” the time between Christ’s inauguration of the reign of God and its completion on the last day. The language of Ephesians reflects this understanding of Christians as those who have been “marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (4:30). The situation of Ephesians seems relevant for many modern Christians, for Ephesians contains no sense of urgency about the coming day of the Lord (unlike 1 Thessalonians 5:2-7; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31). Nevertheless, understanding one’s location in time shapes Christian behavior and is part of what it means to be “wise.”

Second, readers should “not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:17). Here again, the injunction not to be foolish is straightforward. It has none of Paul’s sense of irony, that God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 1:20), or of Paul acting a fool himself to make a point (2 Corinthians 11:21; 12:11). Nevertheless, the point of pursuing God’s will is familiar from other New Testament writings (cf. Romans 12:2).

The author of Ephesians has already given voice to his understanding of God’s will. It is a “mystery” that God has made known (1:9). A good deal of the “mystery” is described in God’s reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles through the cross of Christ (2:11-22, with the repetition of the “mystery” language in 3:1-6). The writer undoubtedly has this reconciliation in view when he writes that God’s will has “destined” believers for “adoption (1:5) or for and “inheritance” (1:11). Understanding the will of the Lord, then, relates directly to the reader’s comprehension of the message of Ephesians 1-3. God’ will in reconciling Gentiles and Jews has made possible their present status as children of God. It is also interesting to note that the acts of destining and making known God’s will are done according to “God’s good pleasure” (1:5, 9).

The third and final instruction is “do not get drunk…but be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). Drunkenness is a vice noted elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:10). The resulting state, “debauchery” (Greek: asōtia) is also mentioned in a couple of places (Titus 1:16; 1 Peter 4:4). The related Greek word, asōtōs, may be more useful in creating a picture for people of what “debauchery” consists of. This word occurs only in Luke 15:13, where the Prodigal Son is said to have “squandered his property in dissolute living (asōtōs).” It is no surprise that such behavior is inconsistent with the transformed life the author of Ephesians describes.

The alternative is being “filled with the Spirit.” Just as being filled with wine carries over and leads to a life of debauchery, so also being filled with the Spirit has its abundant effects, described somewhat profusely in verses 19-20. A life of the Spirit results in singing and thanksgiving. “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are not likely distinct kinds of songs, but suggests quantity and continual singing. Likewise, “singing and making melody” are synonyms. The description includes songs being sung both “to each other” (NRSV: “among yourselves”) and “to the Lord” (5:19). The cumulative effect is that the life to which the reader is called is one of constant praise. Thanksgiving should likewise be abundant–“at all times and for everything”–and is given in the name of Christ and directed to God the Father.