Lectionary Commentaries for March 15, 2009
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 2:13-22

Sarah Henrich

As the synoptic gospels have it, Jesus symbolically cleanses the temple in Jerusalem as he nears the end of his ministry.

In Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, and Luke 19:45-48, Jesus entered the temple, overturned tables, and quoted Isaiah 56:7, “my house shall be called a house of prayer” and Jeremiah 7:11, “you have made it a den of robbers.” This action intensifies the desire among Jewish leaders to silence Jesus, indeed to destroy him (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).

John’s gospel differs from this more familiar picture in very important ways. First, Jesus is just beginning his ministry. Right after the miracle at Cana in Galilee, he returned to Capernaum “with his mother and his brothers and his disciples” (2:12).  John tells us in 2:11 that his disciples “believed in him” after the first sign of changing water to wine.   Now, in this passage, we will see the disciples actively engaged in trying to understand this Jesus in whom they “believe” with the help of Scripture.

We also will see in these verses that such understanding of both Scripture and Lord is an unfolding process. In fact, the “remembering” of Scripture and Jesus’ own words is at the center of the lives of Jesus’ disciples. How useful it is to see Jesus’ own disciples coming to deeper realization of what it means to believe in Jesus. Gradually, they come more fully to understand how Jesus serves the God who has sent him out of love for the world.

Belief on the basis of Jesus’ first sign would quickly prove shallow, even untenable. That belief, important as it may have been, must be deepened and extended. The cleansing of the temple elaborates Jesus’ identity for his disciples and for John’s readers. In addition it prompts disciples then and now toward on-going engagement with Scripture as God’s reliable (if not always crystalline) word about God’s purposes in this world which God loves.

The passage is a dialogue in which Jesus and the Jews talk past one another  no surprise in John’s gospel.  It opens with several verses describing Jesus’ coming into the temple and making his whip of cords to drive out business people and all their paraphernalia. In verses 16 and 18-20, Jesus and the Jews speak to one another about his actions.

Woven into this dialogue (verses 17 and 22) are descriptions of his disciples’ reactions to what is going on before their eyes and what is being said about it. Verse 21, meanwhile, is a comment from the narrator for the reader’s sake.

In essence, then, there are quite a few characters in 2:13-22:

  • Jesus
  • the Jews
  • the disciples
  • the narrator
  • the voice of the prophet Zechariah
  • the voice of the psalmist (David according to Psalm 69)
  • and the readers implied by the narrator’s need to interpret Jesus’ statement

Central to the passage, and even more so for its use as a Lenten text, is the act of interpretation and remembering. Both times the disciples appear, they are remembering. In verse 17, they reflect on Jesus’ quotation of Zechariah 14:20-21 in terms of Psalm 69:9. Jesus explains the temple cleansing in prophetic terms decrying the use of the temple for trade.

Yes, the “trade” in question was legitimate and necessary for pilgrims and others who did not have suitable coinage to purchase the animals needed in temple worship. That historical fact is not relevant. Rather, Jesus is declaring himself both as prophet and as one who claims that the Lord’s house is his “Father’s” house. His disciples have the first hint of the extreme conflict that will be at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and recognize it as foreboding Jesus’ death.

In spite of their dawning comprehension of perils that surround Jesus, Son of God, King of Israel (1:49), the disciples are no more able than the “Jews” to grasp fully Jesus’ statement in verse 19. (And remember, the disciples themselves, like Jesus, are also Jews). Jesus offers a sign so outrageous and so incomprehensible; it is not until after his resurrection that his disciples understand what he has just said. Jesus seems to speak of the temple, but does not. Or does he?

By the time of John’s gospel, the temple in Jerusalem has been cast down, but Jesus has been raised from the dead. Is he the temple instead, the one God has sent to take the place of the temple? Indeed it would seem so, given Jesus’ statement in John 4:20-23. The temple itself is not raised again. But when the narrator informs us that Jesus is raised in three days, we see that the old temple will no longer matter to Christians.

The disciples, of course, have all this discernment still before them. They do not hear the narrator’s explanation. In contrast, we readers are doubly reassured by the narrator.

First, we are informed that Jesus had a particular meaning in mind not understood by his contemporary audience, a meaning that makes Jesus’ prophecy abundantly true. Second, we are reassured that the disciples come to understand this when their experience catches up to that of the readers. That is, when the disciples find out what the narrator and his audience already knows, that Jesus will both die and be raised in three days, they too will look back at this prediction in verse 19 and fully understand it.

At that point, after Jesus’ resurrection when the disciples remember this moment and understand their Lord more fully, they offer an example to us. For remembering and belief come together again in verse 22. They remember what Jesus said. They have seen it come to pass. They believe anew both in Scripture (the prophetic word Jesus cites) and in Jesus’ own prophetic word.

This passage lays before us a promise that if we pay attention and remember, then Scripture and its Lord will be revealed as true and reliable. However mysterious and incomprehensible Jesus’ word or deeds may be in the present, to engage with belief and keep Scripture in mind eventually will bring disciples to the place where things come together and belief is created.

The passage reminds us of two additional things (at least!). One is that expanding, deepening, maturing belief comes in a process of engaging, experiencing, and remembering. Another is that this is possible because the same God has sent the prophets whose words are Scripture (even for Jesus) and has sent Jesus.  This God continues to be among us as the Holy Spirit. The reliability is God’s reliability, God’s faithfulness.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17

Terence E. Fretheim

Biblical law remains on the front pages, both in church and society.

One thinks of the arguments within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and other churches regarding the continuing applicability of Leviticus laws to churchly practice. The ways in which the church has used Old Testament law have, to say the least, often been less than helpful. And this dispute has kicked over into the culture as a whole.

Old Testament law texts are virtually ignored in the church, not least in the common lectionary. Besides the Decalogue, the only other law texts regularly read are the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and the “love your neighbor” text in Leviticus 19:11-18. These are probably chosen because Jesus quotes them in Mark 12, claiming that these laws are “greater” than others, and commending the scribe for saying they are “more important” (Mark 12:28-34).

Now, what might Jesus’ claim about differing levels of importance among the laws do for our reflection on other laws in the biblical collection? At the very least, it invites us to recognize that there are distinctions to be made among the laws regarding their continuing significance.

Many people tend to think of biblical law in negative terms; it is that which restrains and keeps us from doing what we would really like to do. Or, we’ve learned about a basic Lutheran conviction: the law convicts us of our sin and drives us to Christ. And we’ve decided: that’s enough, that’s all we need to know. There are many other reasons Christians tend to ignore the Old Testament law texts, including:

  • their ancient cultural context
  • their claimed obsolescence
  • their hard-nosed, albeit selective use by some believers
  • the relatively narrow range of their coverage of life’s exigencies
  • and their remarkable capacity to make readers feel uncomfortable (for example, Exodus 22:21-28; Deuteronomy 15:7-11)

It is important that we seek to capture some of the positive force of the word “law”:

  • to be concerned about the law is to be concerned with the well-being of people
  • the law preserves life
  • the law instructs us and helps us to develop wisdom and maturity
  • the law promotes good

A most basic claim we all should make regarding Old Testament laws is that these laws, both individually and in their entirety, are a gracious gift of God for the sake of the life, health, and well being of individuals in community.

God’s law takes into account what the people need for the best possible life. This means that the laws are not arbitrary; they are given in view of specific human needs. God’s actions in the narrative which surrounds the giving of the law show that the law is not arbitrarily laid upon the people, but is given “for our good always, that God might preserve us alive” (Deuteronomy 6:24). The gracious purposes of God for Israel evident in the narrative demonstrate that the law is fundamentally gift, not burden.

As Deuteronomy 5:33 puts it (in connection with the Deuteronomy version of the Decalogue): these laws are given to God’s people “that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long on the land that you are to possess.” God gives the Ten Commandments (and other laws) in the service of life. If for no other reason, they deserve our close attention, both with respect to (a) the laws as laws, and (b), the community concerns that led to their formulation in the first place. To obey the law (already given in creation) is to live in harmony with God’s good intentions for the creation. The law is given for the sake of the best life possible; the law stands in the service of a stable, flourishing, and life-enhancing community.

Deuteronomy 5:33 shows that God does not simply give the law to the people by divine fiat. Instead, God accompanies the law with motivations to obey the law. The fourth commandment also illustrates this common point in the laws: “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long upon the land” (Exodus 20:12). Such motivations reveal the kind of God that stands behind the law. God does not just lay down the law, but gives Israel good reasons to obey.

It is in Israel’s self-interest and in the best interests of the human and nonhuman community, especially the vulnerable and marginalized, to obey ? that it may go well with you, and that you may live long. This, of course, is not reward talk. Rather, such benefits are intrinsically related to the deed; they grow out of the deed itself. To obey is a reasonable thing to do (cf. Deuteronomy 4:6). Right obedience is always an intelligent obedience. The concern of the law is not to bind Israel to some arbitrary set of laws, but to enable them to experience the fullness of life in relationship.

Generally speaking, God’s giving of the Ten Commandments and the law is understood fundamentally in vocational terms. God has chosen to use human agents in carrying out the divine purposes in the world. God moves over, as it were, and gives to the human an important role to play.

We are to take initiative and assume responsibility for the world of which we are a part, including furthering the cause of justice and good order in Israel and the larger creation. God is the kind of God who has chosen not to do everything “all by himself.” God lays out a vocation for those of us who are disciples. The Ten Commandments gives a basic shape to that vocation.

The Ten Commandments have a fundamentally personal and inter-relational character to them. God introduces them with highly personal statements regarding what God has done on behalf of the people (cf. Exodus 20:2). Obedience to law is thus seen to be a response within a relationship, not a response to the law as law. In the larger narrative, readers are confronted with a God who personally interacts with Israel throughout every stage of their journey through the wilderness, and the law must be understood within that relational context.


Commentary on Psalm 19

Shauna Hannan

Preaching on a text about preaching is no small task.

This is complicated further when it is not a human doing the preaching, but God’s natural creation. Because Psalm 19 tells us more about how to preach than what to preach, the following comments focus on what the preacher can learn from the way nature does its preaching and the ways in which the Psalmist highlights nature’s way of preaching.

The purpose of the heavens’ preaching is to tell the glory of God and proclaim God’s handiwork. To what extent does your preaching tell of God’s glory and proclaim the handiwork of God? Too often preaching becomes (yes, I will say it) boringly didactic. While I would not want to discount the teaching element of preaching, there are times when the purpose of preaching is not for hearers to walk away with new insight. Psalm 19 suggests that the purpose of preaching is for hearers to walk away in awe of God’s majesty. The Psalmist accomplishes this goal by poetically exploring elements in God’s creation — the sun and the law.

Does your preaching employ poetic and, in particular, metaphoric language? Speaking of didactic (hopefully, this will be stimulatingly didactic), let me remind you that a metaphor is “an abridged comparison” which compares two seemingly unrelated things. A metaphor might be used “to fill a semantic lacuna in the lexical code,” or “to ornament discourse and make it more pleasing.”1

While the Psalmist could have used metaphor to ornament discourse, it is perhaps more interesting to consider the first use of metaphor, since the inability to find words for our thoughts might sound strikingly familiar to the preacher. Reading the Psalm through this lens suggests that when we cannot find words to describe God’s magnificence, we might consider allowing creation itself to praise God through its unique ways of expression. When we are compelled to say something, we can employ descriptions of one part of creation to describe the indescribable. “Because we have more ideas than we have words to express them, we have to stretch the significations of those we do have beyond ordinary use.”2 Thus, the Psalmist uses the image of the bridegroom emerging from his wedding canopy and a strong man running his course with joy in order to describe the sun.

You may want to do as the Psalmist does rather than say what the psalmist says. If so, consider the following exercise (as corny and time-consuming as some of you might think this is). Recall your high school creative writing assignment in which you were to take a single orange, explore it, stare at it, live with it — in fact, exegete it. Then you were to describe that orange until all of the descriptive juices are squeezed out of it.

The Psalmist’s object is not an orange, but the sun. Do as the Psalmist did in order to sharpen your poetic writing skills; exegete a part of God’s creation. Whether or not the results of this exercise find their way into your sermon (not all of our exegetical work ever does), you may experience what you want your hearers to experience; that is, the wonder and majesty of God’s creation.

The Psalmist’s second object of exegesis in his creative writing course is God’s law. Note how the Psalmist mimics nature’s way of proclaiming when he poetically speaks of the law. I must admit, I cannot recall the last time I heard a Lutheran sermon (my own included) which addressed the law in a way that was not didactic. Rather than simply giving information about what God’s laws are and why we should follow them, the Psalmist poetically describes the characteristics and importance of God’s law. “More to be desired are [the ordinances of the Lord] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (verse 10).

The Psalmist sees the law as a crucial and beautiful part of creation. The law is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true and righteous. The law has an effect on us and that effect is good. The law revives the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart, enlightens the eyes. The challenge set before you is this: address God’s law in your sermon poetically rather than didactically.

A final curiosity about Psalm 19 is actually a curiosity about how we have appropriated one of its verses. Note that the Psalmist’s petition, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (verse 14), is at the end of the Psalm. Why does the Psalmist pray this at the end? More to the point, why has it become common for preachers to begin their sermons with this prayer when the Psalmist ends with it? Consider doing as the Psalmist does and praying these words at the end of your sermon. 

Whether or not you choose to focus on it for your sermon, Psalm 19 suggests that a purpose of our preaching is to tell of God’s glory and point to God’s handiwork. Examine your preaching (even sermons which address the foolishness of the cross or Jesus’ exchange with the money changers in the temple) in terms of its ability to create awe in your hearers – that is, not awe in your amazing poetic prowess (though that is part of God’s handiwork too), but awe in God’s amazing majesty.

1Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 48.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Richard Carlson

In this text Paul is not seeking to answer age old questions regarding how we humans come to know God.

Likewise he is not trying to provide a theological treasure-map to guide our human quests to find the divine. Instead, Paul is presenting the divine enterprise which intentionally thwarts all human attempts to know or find God. This is the divine initiative of the cross.

Paul’s theological perspective is decidedly top-down. In the cross God has deliberately chosen to reveal God’s own self and unleash divine power whose goal is human salvation. The irony (indeed the paradox) of this divine scheme is that the cross is the last place where humanity would expect to discover God’s ultimate wisdom and power.

At times preachers may encounter folk who are baffled why more people were not converted to Christian faith through the preaching of Paul. Actually just the opposite should baffle us: why would any first century person have been converted to Christian faith through the preaching of Paul?

The core of Paul’s preaching is the word of the cross (1:18) and the proclamation of Christ crucified (1:23). Yet this is not a message geared to win friends or influence people. The cross was a lousy marketing tool in the first century world (as it most likely remains in the twenty-first century). Here it is important to realize fully the first century realities of crucifixion. This was the enactment of capital punishment meted out by the forces of the Roman Empire. It was reserved for those disreputable individuals or groups such as rebellious slaves, insurrectionists, pirates, or brigands who had threatened the divinely sanctioned social order of the Empire. Thus the cross was the imperial instrument used to suppress subversion.

As a public spectacle, crucifixion was an act geared to shame its victims through degradation, humiliation, and torture before, during, and even after death ensued. At the same time, it was a political statement which declared that all who threatened the imperial social order would find themselves co-crucified with the current victim. In some Jewish circles, it could also be regarded as a sign of divine curse (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23).

Given this reality, it would be sheer idiocy (not just mere foolishness) to speculate how the cross might be a means of divine revelation. Paul, however, goes much further. He does not speculate on what God might or might not be doing through the cross. Rather, he openly, boldly, and regularly proclaims the cross as the intentional and exclusive means God has chosen to encounter humanity and initiate our salvation. The cross is the divine activity which both embarrasses and embraces humanity in an inclusive way.

God’s embarrassing action in the cross relates to humanity’s attempts to establish its own appropriate means for encountering God. According to 1:22, Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom. Here, Paul is referring to attempts to encounter God, either through miraculous divine manifestations (such as the events surrounding the Exodus) or elaborate philosophical systems and their eloquent rhetorical schemes. The proclamation of Christ crucified does not fit such human criteria – it is offensive to Jewish sensibilities and idiotic to Gentile intelligence (1:23).

God, however, is not a reactive deity. God has not sought out humanity according to the ways humanity has sought out God. Rather, God has intentionally and decidedly destroyed the ways and means by which humanity decided get to God (1:19, quoting Isaiah 29:14). Through the four rhetorical questions in 1:20, Paul declares that God has rejected and embarrassed the best and brightest of human efforts to understand, explain, and experience God.

At the same time, God embraces humanity through the cross, both as the event of Good Friday and as an act of proclamation. Both Jews and Gentiles are called into relationship with God through the word of the cross (1:24). Suddenly that which outwardly seems moronic and weak, the apparent oxymoron of Christ crucified, becomes divine revelation, divine power, and divine salvation (1:18, 21). We do not get to God, or find the key to knowing God through our efforts. Rather, God comes to us and establishes the terms of the encounter of faith in the proclamation of the cross.

Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul is confronting various forms of social, theological, spiritual, and moral elitism which have fractured and stratified God’s church in Corinth (1:11-13). The core of Paul’s appeal is for a unified perspective and purpose among the Corinthians (1:10). By opening 1 Corinthians with this unrelenting focus on the cross, Paul both undercuts elitist perspectives and undergirds foundational Christian unity. God has outsmarted and outmaneuvered human attempts to set the agenda regarding the who and the how of our getting to God (1:25).

At the same time, the cross becomes the epistemological key for understanding not only God, but understanding ourselves as those called by God. Hence the proclamation of the word of the cross by Paul and contemporary preachers does not impart a new understanding of the divine. Rather, it provides people with the experience to encounter God anew precisely where God has most clearly displayed God’s own self, own power, and own wisdom. The cross always remains, at one and the same time, offensive idiocy and divine delight (1:21). Paul’s preaching never downplays, disguises, or dismisses the power and wisdom of God manifested in the cross of Jesus Christ. Does ours?