Lectionary Commentaries for February 25, 2009
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Matt Skinner

Too bad no one observed Ash Wednesday during the first century.

Jesus could have had a ball with it, given his penchant for directing special criticism toward religious people and their overt expressions of piety. Smudged foreheads are public expressions; as Jesus knew, all public religious statements can bear witness to the gospel or ensnare us in games of spiritual self-congratulation.

Preachers and the liturgies they employ need to find ways of explaining the purpose of Ash Wednesday and Lent, for these observances are postbiblical inventions. A sermon on this Matthean passage might take up the topic of how people conduct a devotional life as a means of communing with God. In the text Jesus highlights the pitfalls that accompany religious behavior, warning that piety intended to garner notice from others is really no piety at all.

The Context: The Sermon on the Mount

Scholars debate whether Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount addresses those who are already disciples or those who may yet enlist. But when we consider the overall scope of Matthew, it becomes unnecessary to force a choice on that issue. The audience that first heard the Sermon as a piece of the Gospel of Matthew clearly was a collection of religious folk who knew the importance of particular religious acts. In the first part of the passage (Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18), Jesus does not instruct people to begin giving, praying, and fasting. He grants that faithful people rightly do these things. What Jesus addresses is the proper motivation behind religious practices. This theme makes these verses interesting for Ash Wednesday, when religious folk fill the pews and most seekers stay away.

The Sermon focuses on the righteousness (dikaiosunē in Greek) that characterizes the kingdom of heaven. Our passage stands within a series of illustrations of this righteousness (note the context set by 5:20; 6:1 [where the NRSV renders dikaiosunē as “piety”]; 6:33). In contrast to a Pauline understanding of dikaiosunē, the Sermon describes “righteousness” mostly in moral terms. Still, righteousness that is part and parcel of the kingdom of heaven is not merely a list of actions to be performed. Although Jesus insists that certain behaviors are utterly vital for a life of faith, his greater point is that righteousness encompasses the focus and state of mind that motivates and sustains one’s actions.

Part One: Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18

The lectionary offers a passage best understood as two separate pieces. The first comprises three similar sections. (By skipping over Jesus’ extended comments on prayer in 6:7–15, the prescribed reading emphasizes the parallel format of the sections.) Each section addresses a practice of individual piety that was widely commended in the Judaism of Jesus’ time, and also part of the earliest Christians’ devotional repertoire. In addition, other Jewish teachers used language similar to Jesus’ to condemn those who paraded their piety for public show. The Sermon on the Mount therefore reminds us just how indebted Jesus was to Jewish ideas and teachings. Far from being a criticism of Judaism and its practices, the Sermon reiterates the thoroughly Jewish identity of Jesus and his message.

The opening verse (6:1) summarizes the point of the first part: if you act in a way designed to secure the notice of others, your deeds of “righteousness” yield no reward. Note that this does not disallow public piety. Jesus warns against perverted piety or piety misused for public self-aggrandizement. Those who do this are hypocrites, and they forfeit reward from God.

Hypocrite is a Greek term for stage actors. It did not necessarily carry connotations of an underhanded person who intends to deceive, yet in Jesus’ day the word was sometimes associated with false godliness. Ancient actors wore masks, literally hiding their true selves behind a false identity. This image, when used to criticize those who display piety in particular ways, suggests a degree of pretense behind their actions. Jesus’ criticism goes beyond saying, “Hey, you aren’t doing that correctly!” It is more severe: “What you are doing demonstrates that you are not really the person you want us and God to believe you are!” False practice and false identity are familiar themes in Matthew’s Gospel, which elsewhere reflects Christian communities struggling to discern friends from foes (see Matthew 13:24–30).

The idea of reward resounds in 6:4, 6, and 18, verses that speak of God giving back. God’s reward does not fulfill a precise quid pro quo or necessarily indicate something earned. It refers to benefits conferred in the consummating of the kingdom of heaven, just as so many Matthean parables emphasize a coming judgment and God’s distribution of privileges or punishments.

When working with Jesus’ instructions about giving, prayer, and fasting, preachers should note that he gives burlesque descriptions of pious behavior. The idea of sounding a trumpet when giving money is a joke; no one would do such a thing. Yet the overkill acknowledges that people sometimes give to make public declaration of their own authority or importance. That kind of motivation would have received no argument from the Roman patronage system, in which gifts obliged recipients to return favors or loyalties to givers.

Like the trumpet, the images of keeping one hand from knowing the other’s actions, praying on a street corner, praying in utter secret in a closet, and purposely soiling or contorting (these are better translations than the NRSV’s and NIV’s “disfigure”) one’s face also inject humor. But the humor intensifies very serious warnings. Charity is not charity when an intent to garner attention and influence lies behind it. Prayer is not prayer when the one praying is more interested in calling attention to one’s own efforts, eloquence, or importance than in conducting honest communication with God. Fasting, which enacts humanity’s utter dependence upon God (fasting in scripture has connections to repentance, petition, lament, and the yearning for God’s justice), instead mocks that dependence when the fast is poisoned by attempts to impress others with the depths of the faster’s devotion.

Likewise, those who view ashes on their foreheads as marks of religious achievement – like the adult equivalent of gold stars given for perfect Sunday school attendance – and those who peddle Lenten spirituality as a unique virtue have received their reward in full. Dust to dust, indeed.

And, of course, there is a rub for those of us who scoff at behaviors that strike us as excessively pious: the refusal to engage in certain acts of piety can lead to the same self-condemning outcome. Nonparticipation has its public, observable dimensions, as well.

Some people misread the Sermon on the Mount by interpreting the whole thing as a sustained warning to those who would brazenly presume they can achieve the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven by their own effort. Not so. Read on its own terms, the Sermon resounds with words of promise, beginning with Jesus’ opening macarism about the poor in spirit. Our passage repeatedly assures that God sees and blesses our genuine service and worship. Jesus promises that people enjoy magnificent access to God, even — or especially — through the most simple and understated expressions of devotion.

An individual’s religious practices, to be authentic, must concern a person’s interaction with God. Jesus’ point is not that only private or unobservable religious activities count for anything, but that believers should go about their devotion, in whatever forms, as if no one else is watching. Jesus’ humor and overstatement underscore this fact: the ways of religious folk have a tendency to bring out our self-centeredness and ironically parade our impiety. This is an important message for Ash Wednesday and for all of the Lenten season.

Part Two: Matthew 6:19–21

These verses introduce a new subsection of the Sermon (6:19–34) that addresses wealth, possessions, and the anxiety they foster. Preachers could end today’s reading at 6:18 with a clear conscience. However, these are three important verses, even if their connection to what precedes them is uncertain.

In contrasting “treasures on earth” with “treasures in heaven,” Jesus notes that our possessions and acquisitions are always corruptible, vulnerable, and temporary (see James 5:2–3; Sirach 29:10–12). Gathering “treasures in heaven” refers to conducting oneself in anticipation of God’s judgment and reward. Jesus did not coin this expression, for many Jewish texts speak about living in such a way that one stores up incorruptible treasures, understood as good standing with the Lord, which manifests itself in eschatological reward. In Matthew’s Gospel, this idea is consistent with the fullness of “the kingdom of heaven” and all its benefits.

The true value of monetary wealth, therefore, lies not in its power to accumulate possessions in pursuit of power and comfort. Wealth enables generosity, and a generous heart has its sights set on God. Jesus’ statement in verse 21 works in two ways. First, our use of wealth displays where our hearts reside. The uses to which we put money identify what our innermost selves care for most deeply. Second, our hearts can be made to follow where our treasure goes. When we invest in certain charitable causes and people, our hearts will expand to care for them more deeply. This means that a person need not wait until she or he can muster enough heartfelt concern for the needy before writing a check. Giving a gift, putting money toward uses that promote God’s vision of righteousness, may help a heart receive a taste of what God desires for the world.

First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Rolf Jacobson

We know nothing about the prophet “Joel, son of Pethuel,” aside from what we can glean from the writings that appear in his book.

It is not certain exactly when the prophet lived. Because of certain linguistic and theological features of the book, many Old Testament scholars have concluded that Joel prophesied after the people’s return from the Babylonian exile. But the canonical placement of Joel between Hosea and Amos bears witness to a traditional view that dates his ministry earlier.

Even the historical crisis that occasioned Joel’s prophetic messages is obscure. The prophet describes the land as falling under the shadow of an invasion of a “locust” army (1:4), which devastated Judah’s crops, leaving land, animals, and populace groaning in travail. But scholars disagree about whether the “locust” should be taken literally (and thus that Joel was responding to an ecological plague), or be understood as a metaphor for a hostile human army (and thus that Joel was responding to a military crisis).

Whichever view one takes regarding the historical occasion for the book, the theological theme is clear. The prophet announced that the crisis of locust was no mere accident, but the hand of God. The invading army of locust was God’s punishment (it is described as “my great army” in 2:25). Even more telling, Joel announced that the present historical crisis was a foretaste of a less than desirable eschatological feast to come – “the day of the Lord” (1:15). In response, Joel bid the people to repent and throw themselves on God’s mercy: “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him” (2:14).

The Book of Joel can be divided neatly into two parts. In 1:1-2:17, the crisis is described as God’s judgment and the people are called upon to repent. The pericope for Ash Wednesday falls at the end of this section. The rest of the book contains the prophet’s announcement of the advent of the Lord’s mercy in new and surprising ways.

Unlike the prophets Amos, Micah, or Isaiah, Joel did not emphasize repentance as turning away from evil and toward a life of justice. Rather, Joel emphasized repentance as turning to the Lord in worship: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly” (2:15). Joel does not focus on justice, name specific sins, or single out specific people or castes of people for their sins.  Rather, Joel bids the people to turn toward God in repentance and worship.

Similar to Amos (cf. Amos 5:18-20), Joel used the term “day of the Lord” not to refer to the end of time, but to the time when God would act within history. The term “day of the Lord” probably began as a reference to Israel’s major religious festival, the festival of Tabernacles – “the day of the festival of the Lord” (Hosea 9:5).

At major religious festivals, the “trumpet” (Hebrew shophar, the horn of an animal used as a wind instrument) was sounded. The trumpet’s call could signal the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:9), the festival of the new moon (Psalm 81:3), or the processional going up of the Ark of the Covenant (Psalm 47:5). But the real point of sounding the trumpet is to announce the advent of the Lord (Exodus 19:16, 19; 20:18; etc.).

Joel’s cry to “blow the trumpet in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain” is the announcement that the day of the Lord “is coming, it is near” (2:1). And like the Amos, Joel was announcing that the Lord’s coming was not the good news the people had expected, but bad news. The people of Israel looked forward to the day of the Lord as a child today looks forward to Christmas. They thought it would be the day when the Lord would act within history to deliver Israel from her enemies, the day when the Lord would defeat Israel’s foes. Not so fast, announces Joel! It is “a day of darkness and gloom” (2:2).

And then comes the surprise in Joel’s message – at least when compared to Amos 5, Micah 6, or Isaiah 2. The prophet calls on the people to a worship service of repentance: “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12).

From a Christian, third-millennial perspective, a call to repentance probably seems rather ho-hum, a been-there-heard-that-before kind of theological move. But Joel’s perspective on repentance and the role of worship in repentance is a fresh, new, and exciting word. And to score this point, Joel rhetorically exploits the link between the concepts of “the day of the Lord” as God’s coming to judge and “the day of the Lord” as the festival day.

Joel repeats the cry to “blow the trumpet” (2:15). But this time, rather than continuing with “sound the alarm,” as in 2:1, he proceeds with “sanctify a fast.” Joel believes that there is connection between worship rituals and genuine repentance – a link between “rending your heart” and “gathering the people.”

Where is that link to be found? What is its nature? It is in God’s character. Joel has confidence that ritual repentance can change the course of the history of God’s people because he believes the old confessional formula:

[God] is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
And relents from punishing. (2:13)

Joel believes, and so Joel proclaims: God’s character is “faithful” (perhaps a better translation in this context of the Hebrew hesed  than “steadfast love”). And because God’s character is to be faithful, the horizon, dark and gloomy with storm clouds of judgment as night falls, can now shine crisp and clear with the Lord’s favor, when morning dawns.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

James Limburg

Our brothers and sisters in the faith before us have provided two important keys for unlocking this psalm.

First, there is the heading that says, “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” Supplied by the editors of the Book of Psalms, these headings often point the way to interpreting and applying the psalm. In this case, the heading is saying, “Imagine this as the sort of prayer that David prayed after being convicted of his sins by the prophet Nathan” (2 Samuel 11 and 12). We begin by recalling that story.

The story begins innocently enough: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle…” (2 Samuel 11:1). But this time the king is staying home. The one time slingshotting, swashbuckling, songwriting soldier is sitting this one out.

And then late one afternoon it happens. The old warrior is bored with the soaps and talk shows and takes a stroll out onto the veranda. But wait a minute! He notices a woman, a “very beautiful woman” says the Hebrew text, taking a dip in the pool next door.

Then the former man of action goes into action. A couple of calls gives him the woman’s name and reveals that her husband is away with the army. The king sends for Bathsheba and she comes to the palace. They have a few gin and tonics. They make love. Then she goes home, and that’s that.

A few months later, there’s a message for the king. David opens the envelope and reads it. Two words in Hebrew: harah anoki. “I’m pregnant. Bathsheba” Again, the king acts. To account for the pregnancy he brings her husband back from the front. “Go home and sleep with your lovely wife,” he says to him, slipping the soldier a bottle from the royal wine cellar. But Uriah refuses the offer and instead sleeps with the servants out on the lovely lawn.

The plot thickens and the story sickens. The king orders General Joab to put Uriah where the fighting is heaviest. Word comes that Uriah has been killed in action. The king does a magnanimous thing. He marries this broken-hearted war widow.

End of the story? Not quite. One day the prophet Nathan shows up at the palace. He tells the king about a rich man who has stolen a poor man’s only lamb and slaughtered it for dinner. The king is enraged. “What? Who is this guy? Tell me, and we’ll royally nail him!”

“You’re the guy!” says Nathan. David is devastated. And this psalm, says our heading, is the sort of prayer that fits such a situation. When there’s big time trouble, you call in Psalm 51.

In verses 1 — 5, the psalm begins with a cry for forgiveness, emphasizing the urgency of the situation with a series of imperative verbs: have mercy, blot out, wash, and cleanse. The picture behind the Hebrew word translated “transgressions” in verses 1, 3, and 13, is one of rebellion, as when children rebel against parents (see also Isaiah 1:2). The literal sense of the Hebrew translated “iniquity” (verses 2, 9) is “to be bent out of shape.” For example, in Psalm 38:6, the Jewish Publication Society Bible gives the translation “I am all bent.” The word translated “sin” (Hebrew hata’ in verses 2, 3, 4, 9) or “sinner” (5 and 13) in non-theological contexts means “to miss the target.” Judges 20:16 tells of 700 left-handed sling-shotters who could “sling a stone at a hair and not miss (hata’).”
Balancing these words for sin are three Hebrew picture-words for forgiveness. The Hebrew translated “blot out” in verse 1 is also used to “wipe” a dirty dish (2 Kings 21:13). To “wash” in verses 2 and 7 could better be translated “scrub,” as one scrubs dirty clothes (Exodus 19:10, 14). “Cleanse” in verse 2 and “be clean” in verse 7 is the same word used for washing clothes in a river (Leviticus 13:6, 34, 58).

Verses 6 — 12 offer another request for forgiveness. The verb “create” (verse 10) in the Hebrew Bible always has God as its subject, and the result of the activity is always something entirely new (see Genesis 1, for example). The psalmist is praying for a brand new beginning, a fresh start, a new, clean spirit.

In verses 13 — 17, the one praying looks forward to being happy and right with God once again (verses 8, 11-12). Once he/she experiences the joy of being forgiven, he/she vows to witness and teach others about it and sing and praise God (verses 13-15). In verses 16 and 17 the psalmist says, “The sort of sacrifice the Lord desires is not something I bring as an offering. Rather, the Lord wants me, broken spirit, broken heart and all” (see also Micah 6:6-8).

Toward Counseling and Preaching: What Can You Do With a Broken Heart?

Every pastor knows that this is one of those psalms that can reach into the depths of a difficult situation. I recall a college student telling me about the sad breakup with his girlfriend. I suggested that he read through some of the psalms. The next week he showed up, bringing his Bible, with passages from the psalms marked in red. “These words were speaking right to me!” he said. Among the texts marked was Psalm 51: 17 about the broken heart.

I also remember listening as a man related an incredible story of his unfaithfulness and adultery. When we prayed together, it was Psalm 51 that I reached for.

Lastly, the second interpretive key from church tradition is the fact that this prayer, “Create in me a clean heart” from Psalm 51, has long been a part of the church’s weekly worship. For example, in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, four hymn settings of verses 10-12 are available as options for each of ten worship settings (see ELW pages 106, 128 and hymns 185-188).

Thus Psalm 51 is a prayer for individuals in distress, but it is also a prayer for the community on Ash Wednesday and for the worship of God’s People each week.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Karoline Lewis

This reading from Paul’s second (third? fourth?) letter to the church in Corinth is always the epistle lection for Ash Wednesday in the Revised Common Lectionary.

A reliable study bible will provide the preacher with the necessary introductory material to be aware of the complications surrounding the interpretation of this letter, but hopefully not enough to steer her away from working with this text.

The verses designated for the beginning of the season of Lent conclude a long section in the letter concerning Paul’s ministry (2:14-6:10). Paul’s definitions and descriptions of his ministry, however, are not entirely in defense of his apostleship. Rather, they are for the sake of deepening his relationship with the Corinthians and for the sake of the Gospel. The section can be divided into three parts that each seem to revolve around one grounding theme. After an introduction (2:14-17), 3:1-4:6 situates the concept of ministry through the image of the new covenant. The next section (4:7-5:10) discusses the realities of ministry set within the context of trials, affliction, and suffering. In the final segment of this part of the letter (5:11-6:10), Paul casts his ministry within the creative and life-giving concept of reconciliation.

The text for Ash Wednesday follows on the heels of this call to be reconciled to Paul, and through Paul’s mediating ministry, to God through Christ. As a result, Paul’s call with which the pericope begins, “be reconciled to God” (5:20b), is not only a plea for reconciliation with the apostle himself but also to the meaning and mission of his ministry. The final exhortative words round out the lesson with an announcement that now is the time for this reconciliation as that which carries on God’s work through Christ.

Establishing the context of 5:20b-6:10 within Paul’s understanding of ministry underscores the power and poignancy of the life of Paul as representative of the Gospel, but even more so, the life to which we also are called as fellow workers (6:1) in service to God (6:4) and on behalf of God’s world (5:19). While Paul has devoted this section to his own apostleship, throughout his discussion there is a sense that he is moving toward the claim of being fellow workers in ministry.

At 6:1, the NRSV translation “as we work together with him” and the NIV’s “as God’s fellow workers” supply what is not in the Greek text. The Greek does not include “with him” or “God’s” but simply reads “fellow workers” or “working together.” The present plural active participle of synergō introduces an ambiguity that effectively renders the reconciliation for which Paul is asking. In other words, it is not entirely clear who the plural participle represents: Paul and Timothy as joint addressers of the congregation or, because of the reconciliation made possible through Christ, Paul, Timothy and the Corinthians together. Moreover, it may be that the command “be reconciled to God” (aorist passive imperative) will have its full meaning only when the Corinthians see themselves as working together with the apostles, trusting that God in Christ is about reconciling the world to God’s self. Then, the grace that has been given to the church at Corinth will not have been in vain, but rather, toward the continuing action of God’s grace in the world.

Through the lens of Ash Wednesday, preaching this text calls attention to several important and meaningful themes as we move into the Lenten season. Paul’s quoting of Isaiah 49:8 in 6:2 is the prophetic wake-up call we sometimes need especially in the winter months, when New Year’s resolutions have failed and new promises are ever more in the distant past. Reorienting life before God often necessitates a radical call outside of oneself to be reconciled to others. Being reconciled to God is not just another individualistic resolution or self-improvement step. Instead, it means being messengers of reconciliation, working together in a cooperative grace, and participating in God’s reconciling activity to win back the world.

Focusing on the concept of reconciliation would mean extending the assigned pericope back to 5:17, for it is in verses 5:17-5:20 that the possibility of reconciliation is given its foundation and sure footing. It is because of God that we can be reconciled to God. God’s action in Christ and through Christ makes it possible for us to imagine what it means to be reconciled to God. On its own, the imperative in 5:20b is a command that we cannot obey or live out. It is only by knowing the promise put forth in 5:19 that we can begin to fathom being brought together with God in a relationship defined by and known in reunion, resolution, and understanding. Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of 5:20b is not far off, “Become friends with God.”

When God entrusts the message of reconciliation to us (5:19), it is not simply about handing over the goods. The Greek here is better translated “in us” and the verb tithēmi generates a number of interpretive possibilities. Quite literally, it is the word of reconciliation that is established, put, placed, laid, arranged, or fixed in us. As Bultmann notes, God’s placing of the message of reconciliation in us “is an erecting, an arranging, disposing, a ‘determining.'”1  Reconciliation is something we are about, something that we do, and something that makes us a new creation (5:17). “Be reconciled to God” is an invitation “to faith in the message that the reconciliation has been carried out.”2

What if this was a way to move through the season of Lent?

When we receive the cross on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to remember that it is in Christ (5:17, 19) and through Christ (5:18) that reconciliation is possible. Yet, we are also invited to remember that as we leave the church with the seal of the cross of Christ, we are Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation. We are sent as representatives for Christ, in Christ’s stead. Like Paul, we are apostles, sent ones, messengers, and our calling as servants of God (6:4) “belongs to the work of atonement itself.”3  This is what ministry is all about.

Only one month after the inaugural address of a new President of the United States of America, reconciliation might still be an issue — for our country, for our communities, for our congregations, for our relationships, and with the world. When a decision has finally been made, how does reconciliation happen? In what sense is reconciliation possible? To be reconciled in Christ, therefore, is not an empty platitude or a moral obligation. In the context of the need for real and immediate reconciliation, i.e. a context which Paul and the Corinthians experienced, and which we know now, societally and individually, we understand that reconciliation cannot fully be achieved on our own, yet at the same time it is not a future atoning act. It is that which we are called to preach, now, right here, in this place. For now is the acceptable time, and in those moments of reconciliation, we will indeed witness the dawn of the day of salvation.

1Rudolf Bultmann, The Second Letter to the Corinthians. Trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985), 163.
2Ibid., 159.
3Ibid., 163.