Lectionary Commentaries for January 18, 2009
Second Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 1:43-51

Stephen Hultgren

The gospel reading for the second Sunday after the Epiphany is always taken from John: 1:29-42 (Year A); 1:43-51 (Year B); 2:1-11 (Year C).

In each year the Johannine text is a brief “interruption” in the series of Epiphany gospel lessons that are otherwise taken from Matthew, Mark, or Luke.

To their credit, these texts from John match up nicely with the theme of Epiphany. All three have something to do with the revelation of Jesus to Israel and the world. In year A, John the Baptist came in order that Jesus “might be revealed to Israel” (1:31). In year C, Jesus’ miracle at Cana “revealed his glory” and consequently, “his disciples believed in him” (2:11). As for our present text, in year B, we get a hint of the glory of Jesus, later to be revealed in the resurrection, when Nathanael is told he will “see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:51).

Reading the Text
Today’s text is not an easy one. There are many puzzling things about it. After reading it through, even many times, one might well wonder: What is the point? It raises many questions. Why does John say that Jesus “found” Philip? Did Jesus already know him? (Some scholars have proposed that Philip is the second, unnamed disciple in 1:35-40, but that is by no means certain.) Who is this Nathanael, who does not appear in any of the other gospels? Why his put-down of Nazareth? What is the meaning of the fig tree, if any? What is the significance of Nathanael being “truly an Israelite?” What exactly is the meaning of 1:51?

When one tries to understand a section of John’s gospel, it is often helpful to look first for connections to other parts of the gospel. We begin with the enigmatic 1:51. Scholars have argued that this verse contains an originally independent saying. The evidence is that, where Jesus supposedly addresses Nathanael (“he said to him“), his actual saying is addressed to a group: “You [plural] will see….” Furthermore, we find a similar saying in Jesus’ declaration at his trial, “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven'” (Mark 14:62). The original setting for this independent  saying in John 1:51, then, was in reference to Jesus’ resurrection and parousia.

Examining the saying further, the image of angels ascending and descending draws on Genesis 28:12, where Jacob dreams of angels ascending and descending on a ladder. Scholars have pointed to various rabbinic traditions about Jacob’s dream to help interpret this imagery. On the basis of those traditions, Raymond E. Brown has argued the main point is that Jesus, as the Son of Man, is the locus of divine glory. He is the one who connects heaven and earth.1  The Son of Man functions in this capacity throughout the gospel. Jesus acts on earth as the (already) glorified Son of Man (cf. 3:13; 5:21, 26-27).2

This saying, then, functions as a climax.. If it was originally an independent tradition, John’s placing it here yields insight into the point of the pericope as a whole. The ultimate outcome of the calling of the various disciples is that they will see Jesus’ glory, above all the glory of his resurrection. In the immediately preceding verse (1:50), Jesus tells Nathanael he “will see greater things than these,” a reference not only to Jesus’ miracles (5:20) but also to the resurrection and its consequences (cf. 14:12). Nathanael, in the only other mention of him in the gospel, will indeed see Jesus resurrected (21:2).

Jesus’ words invite Nathanael to a deeper faith. Note that Nathanael begins with skepticism: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46). At first, Nathanael is like the skeptics who do not believe Jesus can be the Messiah because he comes from Galilee (cf. 7:40-41). Nazareth was a little known Galilean village, and Nathanael, from a different Galilean village (Cana), despises Nazareth. For Nathanael, to suggest that the Messiah comes from this small town is ridiculous. But Nathanael has fallen prey to the offense of the incarnation: God chooses to come to us through the lowly and the despised. Philip then invites Nathanael to “come and see.” As one commentator has put it, “the answer to the offense of the incarnation is Jesus himself.”3

Nathanael accepts the invitation, and after witnessing Jesus’ powers of perception, he believes Jesus is the “Son of God and the King of Israel.” Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see greater things than these (his powers of perception). This exchange points to the ambiguous relationship between faith and sight in John’s gospel. On the one hand, John recognizes the usefulness of signs for faith (e.g., 2:11; 20:31). Nathanael is promised greater signs, which will lead to deeper faith, certainly a desirable outcome. Yet on the other hand, John seems to regard faith without signs as superior to faith with signs (4:48; 20:29). This paradox is not so much contradiction as it is profound theological insight: the revelation of Jesus’ glory within history (in his signs and wonders) points beyond itself to Jesus’ glory that transcends history, in the resurrection. Belief in the resurrection is the ultimate form of faith. Although signs and historical witnesses can assist belief in the resurrection, such belief ultimately must stand on its own, rooted in the conviction that “the Father raises the dead and gives them life” (5:21).

A sermon on this pericope might reflect upon on faith, skepticism, and how people today might be brought to faith. Philip invites Nathanael to “come and see.” Nathanael is skeptical at the start. His initial attitude towards Jesus is based on his preconceptions and his contempt for Nazareth, from which he thinks nothing good can come. However, his actual experience of Jesus changes his mind.

Needless to say, there are many skeptics today. There are also people who find Jesus an interesting person and may even privately admire him, but who reject Christian faith in its entirety. How can the church convince today’s skeptics?

In some cases, people have been blinded by their preconceptions about the church, just as Nathanael was blinded by his preconceptions about Nazareth. What they have heard or seen about the church−from a distance−convinces them that the church is a bad thing. Sometimes these preconceptions are unfair. People prejudge the church without actually getting to know it. But the church must also ask itself whether it has failed to offer people reasons why they should “come and see.” Does the church thoughtfully offer people a coherent vision for life? Or does it offer a mixture of entertainment, pop psychology, and superficial spirituality that satisfies in the short term but leaves people empty, when the difficult questions and problems of life arise? If we are convinced that Christian faith holds the truth about human life, then we must, in all earnestness, show people how that truth makes sense and is embodied in our own lives, both as individuals and as communities.

For many of us, it is the example of our parents, other family members or friends, who in their own lives, presented a coherent witness to the faith that convinced us of the truth of Christian faith. John reminds us that it is not only marvelous signs that lead to faith. Jesus prayed that his disciples might be one, so that the world might believe (17:21). Thus faith also comes about when people see communities−families, churches, and even larger communities−living out, in unity, the truth of the gospel and offering people a coherent vision for life.


1Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (2 volumes; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966-70) 1.90-91.
2For an excellent discussion of this motif see J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (3rd ed.; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003) 124-43.
3George R. Beasley-Murray, John (WBC 36; Waco: Word Books, 1987) 27. For this passage as expressing the offense of the incarnation, see also Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (tr. G. R. Beasley-Murray; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971) 104.


First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

Beth L. Tanner

What does it mean to be called by God?

Is it something that happens only to a few, or is it part of our lives as Christians? Both the Old Testament and New Testament texts for this week focus on the call of God and help us understand God’s call on our own lives.

The Old Testament lesson from 1 Samuel is set early in the life of the nation. Israel had known strong leaders in Moses and Joshua. Then, after settlement in the land, the Israelites are led by a series of judges who rise up in difficult times. At this point, Israel is not an organized nation. In fact, as the book of Judges comes to an end, tribal wars threaten to tear the people apart. The books of Joshua and Judges demonstrate that things are far from perfect, even though the people are in the promised land.

1 Samuel opens not in the halls of power, but in the house of a man remembered only here. Elkanah is married to two women, and Hannah, his favorite, is barren. This theme is familiar, and reflects another time when barrenness put God’s promise in question with the matriarchs, Sarah and Rachel. We are reminded that what seem to be personal domestic decisions also have world-wide consequences when seen across the whole span of history. Hannah begs God for a child, and during her prayer, she encounters the priest Eli who is less than comforting. accusing the praying woman of being drunk! Despite this initial encounter, Eli tells Hannah that her prayer will be answered. Hannah has her long awaited child and does as she promised. She gives the child to the LORD. The boy, Samuel, remains with Eli at the holy place in Shiloh.

This family may seem odd to us, but it was common for the time. Also, Hannah’s promise may appear rash, but the dedication of her son to the Lord is akin to the sacrament of baptism or the dedication of an infant. In baptism, we confirm God’s blessing and call upon the life of a child. We affirm, just as Hannah does, that our children do not belong to us, but are given to us by God. All children develop their own relationship with God, and it is our responsibility to nurture that relationship so that it grows as the child does.

In the focus text, Samuel lives in a precarious time when “the word of the LORD was rare” (verse 1). This situation continues the problem from the end of Judges, where “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Indeed, 1 Samuel 2 speaks of how Eli’s sons did what was right in their own eyes in their work as priests (1 Samuel 2:11-17). The times are as dark as the night that falls at the beginning of the story.

The boy, Samuel, is bedded down in the temple with the ark of the covenant while Eli slept in another room. The boy hears a voice calling and three times arises and goes to Samuel to ask what he wants. Meanwhile, we know that it is God calling the boy, but he does not. Even Eli does not understand what is happening right away. Eventually, however, Eli tells the boy to speak to the Lord. The lectionary reading ends at verse ten with Samuel doing as Eli told him.

There are several trajectories in this story. First is the ease with which we may miss God’s call, or attribute it to a human instead. In speaking of their call, most people do not describe a major disruption in their lives. Instead they speak of a quiet, slow awakening−perhaps to a life of service or an injustice that needs to be addressed. Like Samuel, they often tell about a period of uncertainty  regarding what they are being called to do or be. Also, Samuel needed Eli to explain to him what these stirrings mean. It often takes others in our lives to aid us in understanding the call God places before us.

A second direction is to focus on Samuel as the outsider in the narrative. Eli’s sons are from the priestly line, and it is their birthright to serve in the Temple. Yet, they have not acted justly. They have used their position for personal gain instead of service to the Lord. Throughout the Bible, God does not always choose the expected ones. Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David were all unlikely choices. Jesus calls fishermen and laborers to serve as disciples instead of the priests and prophets of Jerusalem. Power and position in the church or community do not guarantee a similar place in God’s world. All, even outsiders, are given tasks in God’s kingdom.

The third point of this narrative requires the text to extend to the end of the chapter. Ending at verse 10 misses the most important point of this chapter! Just as moving into the promised land did not guarantee a perfect life, neither does God’s call to serve. God’s words to Samuel were hard to hear and even harder to speak to others, for they involved judgment against Eli’s own children. Like Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, God’s call often involves working to change human systems that are broken, leading one down difficult paths.

God’s call comes when we least expect it and often to those we least expect. God is always the God of surprises. We, as the church, need to be like Eli, encouraging everyone to hear the voice that calls them forth into all they are created to be. At the same time, we help each other to tell the truth, even when the truth is hard to hear.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 139 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.

In this genre, singers praise God for God’s goodness in delivering them from various life-threatening situations, such as illness, oppression, enemy attack, etc.  Here, the psalmist celebrates the creative goodness of God in verses 1-18, and provides a glimpse of the oppression that occasioned the composition of the psalm in verses 19-22. It concludes with a plea to God to search for any ill-feelings towards others, presumably those who have so hurtfully oppressed. The singer seems to desire absolute innocence from any thought or inclination that might justify the sentiment of those who speak mischief and rise up in hate (20).

To begin, the psalmist addresses God directly, using the personal name of Israel’s God, Yahweh (1, 4). Second person pronouns occur ten times in the first six verses:  “you have searched,” “you know,” “you discern,” etc. In addition, the psalmist refers to self thirteen times: “you have searched me and known me,” “when I sit down and when I rise up,” “my thoughts,” “my path,” etc.

With this abundance of first and second person pronouns in the first six verses, Psalm 139 reflects the profound relationship of the “I” and “You” (or, “I” and “Thou”) in ancient Israel. Walter Brueggemann describes this relationship by saying, “The Psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You. This is the most stunning and decisive factor in the prayers of the Psalter.”1  In a book titled Tales of the Hasadim, Martin Buber, an early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, offered these words concerning the relationship between God and humankind:

Where I wander – You!
Where I ponder – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
When I am gladdened – You!
When I am saddened – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Sky is You, Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!2

The close relationship between the psalmist and God is not only emphasized in the language of “I” and “thou” in Psalm 139, but also in the repetition of the verbal root yada’ (to know), which occurs seven times (1, 2, 4, 6, 14, and twice in 23). Yada’ is a rich word in biblical Hebrew, covering a whole range of meanings – from simple recognition to intimate sexual relationship. In Genesis 4, we read that Adam “knew (yada’) his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Genesis 4:1). Elsewhere, God tells the people they will “know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 6:7, 13). Job adds, in 5:27, “See, we have searched this out; it is true. Hear, and know it for yourself.” Some form of this word occurs sixty times in the Psalter, emphasizing that the concept of “knowledge” is a critical element of meaningful relationship.  We are to know God, just as God knows us. As the psalmist says, “It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (13).

The second half of our lection, verses 13-18, offers a variety of interesting, even problematic, translation options. In verse 14, “fearfully” is derived from the verbal root yara’. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. Yet yara’ encompasses a larger meaning of awe, reverent respect, and honor. It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” (‘ahab, Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (dabaq, Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (‘abad, Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will. Thus, a better translation of the word in verse 4 might be “reverently.”

Also in verse 14, “wonderfully” comes from the verbal root pala’, which means to be different, striking, remarkable – outside of the power of human comprehension. The word is used repeatedly in the Psalter to describe the acts of God on behalf of humanity (cf. Psalms 9:2; 40:5), particularly God’s actions in the history of the ancient Israelites (cf. Psalms 78:4; 105:5).

The reference in Verse 15 to being shaped in “the lowest parts of the earth” echoes the creation story in Genesis 2, where we read, “then the LORD God formed the human (‘adam) from the dust of the ground (‘adamah)” (Gen 2:7).

The word translated as “unformed substance” in verse 16a is the Hebrew word gomli, which is found only here within the Bible. In Babylonian Aramaic, the word is used to designate a formless mass or an incomplete vessel. The Syriac word galma means “uncultivated soil.” To translate the word as “embryo,” as some translations do, is over-specific and misleading. And while verse 16 cannot be used to solve questions such as “When does life begin?”, the whole of Psalm 139 affirms the sacredness of life.

The second and third phrases of verse 16 (16b and 16c) are as puzzling as 16a.  A more literal, but less elegant translation could be:

and upon your scroll all of them were written,
the days that were meant to be, when not one of them was.

Other references to a scroll (or book) of God occur in Exodus 32:32-33 and Psalms 56:8; 69:28. However, we read in none of these passages about the numbering of the days of an individual life. Thus, the singer of Psalm 139 acknowledges that God holds all life in God’s hands.

Verses 17 and 18 form a doxological conclusion to the first sixteen verses. In verse 17, the psalmist marvels at the thoughts (re’ah) of God, using the same word as in verse 2b, where the psalmist says to God, “you discern (re’ah) my thoughts from far off.” God knows (yada’) humanity inside and out, and therefore discerns (re’ah) our every act and thought. God’s discernment and insight into the thoughts of humanity are at the same time disconcerting and comforting.

Each of us was formed and framed by God. God’s eyes beheld our unformed substances. Each of us was reverently, wondrously, strikingly, remarkably, differently made – in ways that are beyond human explanation. In any time, in any place where the faithful face wickedness, bloodshed, and deceit, the words of Psalm 139 provide comforting assurance of God’s sovereign creation of, and care for, each person.


1Walter Brueggemann, “The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 19095),34, italics original.
2Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasadim: The Early Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1947), 212.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Arland J. Hultgren

This Sunday marks some major transitions.

Up until now, our attention has been on the infant Jesus. We celebrated his Nativity, his presentation in the Temple, and the good news of the Word having come in the flesh. Beginning with this Sunday, however, we read in John’s Gospel about the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry through the call of his first disciples.

There is also a noticeable shift in the Second Lesson for today. Previously the readings were primarily doctrinal, focusing on the significance of Christ for faith. But beginning with this Sunday, we encounter a series of readings from 1 Corinthians that consider Christian behavior.

It is generally thought that Paul founded the church in Corinth while he resided there for a year and a half (Acts 18:11), spanning the years 49 to 51 A.D. Sometime later, about 54 A.D., he wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:8, 19). Paul needed to respond both to reports of dissension and immoral conduct at Corinth (1:11; 5:1), and to an actual letter that he had received, in which the Corinthian believers asked a series of questions (7:1).

Paul begins, in previous sections of 1 Corinthians, with exhortations to be unified as a body of believers (over against divisiveness), to maintain good sexual behavior (over against some specific examples of bad behavior), and to settle disputes (over against going to secular courts).

In our present text, Paul now takes on one of the most difficult issues for Christians, both ancient and modern. He addresses how to negotiate between the freedom that the believer has in Christ, and the obedience that that same person owes to Christ as Lord.

“All things are lawful for me,” the NRSV reads, but a better translation would be “All things are permitted for me” (also see the NIV: “Everything is permissible for me”), because:

  • It reflects better the meaning of the Greek verb exestin (“it is permitted”) in the verse.
  • It does not throw the interpreter immediately into the legalism/antinomianism conundrum when “lawful” is used.

We are free in Christ, Paul insists, to carry on our lives apart from restraints of any kind – laws, customs, mores, etc. We are free to deny systems of belief and behavior others wish to prescribe for us. It is quite possible that Paul is quoting a current slogan of the believers at Corinth. It is equally possible that they learned it first from Paul during his time there.

Well and good, Paul says, but that does not mean that all is beneficial (6:12a). The danger is that one will become dominated by something else (6:12b). Paul is so insistent on the last point that he switches to the first person with an emphatic use of the pronoun: “But I (egō) shall not let myself be dominated by anything.” Anything, that is, apart from being under the lordship of Christ. At the end of the passage Paul reminds his readers they are no longer their own, for they were bought with a price, the redemptive death of Christ on their behalf.

Next, Paul takes up two forms of sexual misconduct that may or may not be taking place among the Corinthians: fornication and availing oneself of prostitution. In light of 1 Corinthians 5, it is possible that these activities are taking place under the slogan that “all things are permitted.” However, Paul argues against them. Fornication is a sin against oneself (one’s “own body”), which he does not explain, but may be based on the view that a fornicator will never stop, thereby becoming enslaved by passion (Sirach 23:16-18). Being joined to a prostitute means being joined to a body that is other than the body of Christ.

After hearing this text, a congregation will surely be attentive and puzzled. People will become attentive as soon as words about sexual misconduct are heard. But there will also be questions and interior monologues running through their minds: “What is fornication?” “Who is a fornicator?” “The only time anyone ever hears those words is when the Bible is being read aloud in church!” “What does this text say about my friend who confided in me that he had hired an escort, and with a wink, it’s clear that he meant a prostitute?”

Still, the larger issue is more fundamental. At bottom is the question of freedom and how to use it, always been a live issue for Christians. This text and others from the New Testament (cf. Romans 6:15; 1 Corinthians 10:23; Galatians 5:13-14; etc.) vividly demonstrate there is always the danger of using freedom with the false confidence that nothing will ever go wrong. But it can. Freedom used until it is misused can lead to activities that are destructive to self and society and detrimental to a living relationship with God.

So what is the answer? Many Christian traditions today are wary of, even resistant to, trying to guide life by invoking laws, customs, and mores in an “authoritarian” way. But in so doing, they can miss speaking in an “authoritative” way, a way that is grounded in “authentic” teaching. People seek guidance and expect to receive it from the church. Freedom needs wisdom and support from the larger community of believers. The congregation is a school for the building of mature faith. The life of faith is nurtured through the reading of Scripture, worship, and conversation.

In the end, the passage speaks against immoral behavior, but there is more to it than that. Paul stresses that the believer in Christ also belongs to that same Lord. There is no such thing as being one’s own. Each of us has commitments that bind us to other persons or ways of thinking and living. As Martin Luther put it in his Large Catechism: “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”1  Belonging to Christ means that one seeks to follow him, his teachings, and the pattern of his life – a life in service to others. That is the foundation, and then one must work out the details of living in the world from there.


1Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, ed., The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 386.