Lectionary Commentaries for January 24, 2010
Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 4:14-21

Roy Harrisville III

This passage follows upon the heels of the temptation narrative in which Jesus emerges the victor over Satan, at least for the time being.

He is now ready to begin his public ministry and deliver his inaugural address in his own home town.

Luke writes that Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit. He had actually been strengthened by the experience of his encounter with evil. He went to Galilee, as each Gospel relates, signifying his aim to reach Gentiles. But there were synagogues in Galilee too and in these Jesus was teaching and being glorified by everyone. This sets up the next story of Jesus’ appearance in his home town.

Luke is careful to relate that Jesus went home and that he regularly worshipped in the synagogue. He was a faithful Jew, not someone who darkened the doors of the synagogue only at Yom Kippur and Passover. Jesus rose up to read. Someone gave him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus chose the passage. Unfortunately for Luke, there is no single passage with those words in it, but rather it is a compilation of the Servant Song from Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2. Perhaps Jesus conflated the two readings himself. In any case, the good news is read.

As the prophetic passage stated, someone had been anointed to proclaim the gospel (good news). The irony is that Jesus is the one anointed at his baptism at which the Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, according to Luke. But only Luke and the reader know that at this point. As with all Epiphany texts, this one holds hidden promise for the future.

The good news in Isaiah refers to the restoration of Israel after the exile. The “poor” receive good news, not cash, because in Isaiah they are the afflicted and the oppressed in general, not merely the penniless. Likewise, captives are not convicted criminals but those unjustly imprisoned. The sightless will see again. All these promises will be fulfilled in the telling of the story of Jesus as he releases people from demon possession and death, spiritual and physical blindness.

All these activities are tied together in the “year of the Lord’s favor.” Does this refer to the Jubilee Year as proclaimed in Leviticus 25:10? If so, it is another ironic utterance. The Jubilee Year was to have occurred every fifty years in Israel when the land was to lay fallow, all debts forgiven, and all slaves freed. However, Jeremiah 34:14 suggests that the Jubilee Year had not been followed and that when King Zedekiah did try to institute the practice, it was circumvented by the people. Confusion abounds as to whether or not the practice was ever truly instituted. Yet, the Jubilee Year has influenced such practices as the statute of limitations in our day.

Such pronouncements of authoritative largesse by kings and rulers had been commonplace among the ancients. The Caesars were often portrayed as grand liberators and generous benefactors. For Jesus to read this message from Isaiah and proclaim its fulfillment is therefore an indictment of all politicians who claim to bring release and freedom. True freedom does not consist in money and possessions or in the ability to do as one pleases.

Americans are used to the idea of freedom as license to do as one wishes. Jesus, however, understands freedom differently. It is a release from captivity to death, the will of others, and the will of the self. Jesus will preach the freedom of slavery to God’s will and service to the neighbor (Luke 22:24-27). Such a definition of freedom can only be grasped from the way Jesus will fulfill the words of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Jesus withstood the temptation in the wilderness. He is tempted yet again to say the easy thing and do whatever it takes to curry favor with his listeners. As is apparent from the rest of this passage in Luke (verses 22-30) he resists that temptation as well. The Revised Common Lectionary has divided the passage in Luke, which robs this first part of its denouement. As a result the preacher must split the message in two and concentrate on Jesus’ positive message in the first part and his antagonism and the congregations’ reaction in the second.

This first part deals with messianic deliverance and the alteration of the status quo. God never leaves people where he finds them. A change in condition always accompanies an encounter with the divine. Radical change is what Jesus proclaims and will perform. Jesus does not merely affirm the condition of his children. He is about the reversal of fortunes that results not just in change in one’s environmental state, but in the person itself.

This is not the change that happens with the turnover in governmental administrations. This is real change in the spirit and life of the person who hears this good news and whose life is never the same afterward. The Jubilee Year may or may not have been practiced in ancient Israel, but Jesus’ announcement does not come simply as an injunction upon imperfect people but as words with power, which affects the change proclaimed.

The change is not a concept or an idea. It is a person. The first person singular pronoun is used three times in verse 18. Jesus is the change. Therefore, any definition of release, sight, gospel, or change must be taken from his actions and his words. But this is only the beginning. The rest of the story will tell us what real change is and means.

First Reading

Commentary on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Anathea Portier-Young

I challenge you: If you do not choose to preach on Nehemiah 8, then let this passage inspire you to preach on the Torah.

If your congregation asks you to proclaim the word of God (and I presume they have, or you would not be on this site), consider doing it in a public place,1  for a gathered group of women, men, and children, with a crowd of folks, lay and ordained, on hand to help you. Stand in the square and proclaim and interpret these books of Scripture — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy — for six hours straight, and when six hours are up, begin to celebrate. But I’m getting ahead of myself because I hope you will preach on this stunning passage.

Nehemiah 8 is one of the few places where Scripture talks about Scripture as such, showing us what happens when a community comes together to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted. So what happens?

People bless God. People give voice to their certainty, their faith, and their trust. People let the actions of their bodies match the words in their ears and on their lips, lifting their hands to God in petition because they recognize that God alone grants life (cf. Nehemiah  9:6). People fall to the ground in profound humility, knowing that God alone can lift them up and help them to stand.

When they hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted, people weep because they hear their sins spoken out loud and they know they are not innocent, but guilty. People weep because they fear death and the justice of a God who by no means clears the guilty (cf. 2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34; Exodus 34:7). People weep because they do not know how to bridge the gulf that separates sinful humanity from the faithful God who made them.

But as surely as the Torah reveals to us our sins, it also reveals to us the source of our hope: the God who keeps promises (cf. Nehemiah 9:8). It reveals to us the God who bridged the gulf by making a covenant with Abraham (cf. Nehemiah 9:8); who promised to Jacob “I am with you and I will protect you everywhere you go” (Genesis 28:15); who heard the cry of the people enslaved in Egypt and delivered them from oppression (cf. Nehemiah 9:9-11,27-28,36-37); who forgives sins (Exodus 34:7; Nehemiah 9:19); who vindicates God’s people when their strength is gone (Deuteronomy 32:36).

Believing in this testimony, every person who leads and teaches this people – governor, priest, scribe, and Levite – tells them not to weep (8:9). Do not mourn, they say, because this day when you have let God’s law fill your ears is a holy day. The day when God’s people gather together to hear the teaching of Moses can only be a day of drawing near to God in deepest joy: it is the joy of the Lord, the strength of the people (8:10).

The summons to joy is the great surprise of this passage and the summit toward which all its proclamation climbs. This joy is so excessive its grammar refuses to contain it, for “the joy of the Lord” can mean God’s own rejoicing over the people who have drawn near with attentive ear and heart; it can also mean the people’s joy in God and a joy that comes only from God.

Like the people’s embodied expressions of humility, petition, and sorrow, this superabundant joy takes a concrete embodied form in an act of feasting that refuses to stay put. The people are told first to go — the energizing joy of the proclamation of the God-given law and teaching and testimony of Moses radiates outward and moves the people with its vital spirit. Then the people are told to eat — not just any food, but rich, fat foods — and to drink – not just any drink but sweet, sweet drink. The fat and the sweetness spill out their gratuitous abundance further still, as the people are told to send helpings to anyone who has nothing prepared or no means to prepare it (Nehemiah 8:10). The feast of God’s efficacious, strengthening, joy-filled word exceeds all limit, reason, and expectation; it fills every need and defies all lack of planning.2 

Nehemiah 8 shows us what it looks like when the people gather to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted and let that proclamation shape and energize their life in community. The biblical text does nothing in and of itself and nothing by itself. When Ezra lifts up the scroll and opens it for all the people to see they stand in reverence before this sacred text that mediates God’s efficacious word. But it is not the scroll they revere. They revere and bless the God whose saving actions and presence the words of the scroll disclose. God gave the law to Moses so that Moses could record those words for every new generation. While the lectionary omits the lists of names in verses 4 and 7, those names are important reminders to us of the dynamic and interactive process of transmission, proclamation, interpretation, and understanding that involved many people in many roles. The passage also highlights the inviting, attentive, receptive, and responsive disposition of “all the people,” a phrase repeated eight times in this passage. It is the people, after all, who first ask Ezra to bring the scroll to them and read from it (8:1).

If your people should ask you to bring them the word of God, bring it. Bless God. Let others help you break it down so that all can understand. And when God’s law accuses and convicts, remind the people that the day they choose to listen to God’s word is a holy day of rejoicing. Your strength is the joy of the Lord.

1For further inspiration, see Stanley P. Saunders and Charles L. Campbell, The Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in the Urban Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

2On the efficacy of Scripture I am indebted to conversations with Michael Coors. See his Scriptura Efficax: Die biblisch-dogmatische Grundlegung des theologischen Systems bei Johann Andreas Quenstedt (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009).


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 12:12-31a

Karoline Lewis

Literary Context
The lectionary text for this second Sunday of Epiphany finishes out this chapter in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

It is clear that this section continues many of the arguments stated in the first half of the chapter, and the themes and issues discussed in last week’s commentary are still very present in this discussion. Paul persists in working out the unity that is present and possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One issue that comes to the surface in working with these texts from 1 Corinthians is how quickly, after the extraordinary unity, community, and fellowship we experience during the season of Christ’s birth, we succumb to the divisions to which we have become accustomed and with which, more often than not, we feel more comfortable.

Paul moves into one of his most well-known, memorable, and effective metaphors of Christian community, the image of the body. The word that is translated in the NRSV as “member” can also be translated as “part” or “limb.” While the term “member” makes sense in the context of Paul’s argument for and support of the meaning of community and the church of Christ, I do wonder if most hearers of this text equate Paul’s terminology with their voluntary church membership and are not aware of Paul’s radical claim in using this metaphor.

Being a member of the body of Christ means an absolute, out-and-out conjoining of one with the other, a sister or brother in Christ. To exist in division, to see only difference and not the unity we are able to profess because of Christ, to demand conformity without celebration of difference, is to entertain the notion of dismemberment. We will find ourselves cut off from the very source of our life, our existence, and in a way, our ability to be most fully who we are. To what extent are we able to live out fully our callings when we are not able to rely on and give support to others to live out theirs? Is it not true that who we are called to be necessitates our fellow members of the body of Christ to embrace and embody their callings?

Once again, we are reminded of our interconnectedness as a community of Christ. It is tempting to spiritualize Paul’s words in this passage, but the call is to a far-reaching communal ethic and a need that transcends any and all differences that we try to put in place. While our tendency is to elevate certain spiritual gifts over others, Paul’s words here are a deliberate claim of evenhandedness, even giftedness, when it comes to how and in what ways God chooses to work in and through our calls to faithful living.

Interpretive Moves
One direction this text might take in preaching is toward the issue of vocation. At the very least, this is not an unhelpful claim at the beginning of a new year. In my current church membership context, every January and February we offer an annual vocation series with the intent to offer different perspectives on the meaning of vocation, but in addition, the desire to encourage members to embrace the truth that their vocational pursuits can indeed be the living out of God’s call. The opportunity to hear members express how God has chosen to work in and through the ways they have instinctively known to live out their lives becomes a powerful and meaningful experience for all of our members to recognize God’s same activity in their own lives.

Another issue that this text raises is how we associate certain criteria with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The tendency to equate certain manifestations of the Spirit at work, while eschewed by some believers, is much more assumed than we want to admit. The real challenge of this text is to celebrate difference that is possible because of the radical claim of Christian unity. To celebrate difference finds its necessity in the history of human existence. How we reject, negotiate, and accept difference has been a constant of our collective experience.

On a practical level, I am reminded of a memorable mantra of one of my yoga instructors: “Let go of all judgment, competition, and expectation.” In the context of yoga practice, this is a call just to be: to be who you are, to be who are in the moment, to be who you are called to be; never to compare yourself to anyone but yourself. The reality is such that this is something that humans need to practice. The propensity to measure our worth up against the standards of others’ societal perceptions is the condition that creates the need to hear God’s gospel word in these words from Paul. Sadly, we need to discipline ourselves to such frank and open acceptance of ourselves, when the truth is God knows us intimately, thoroughly, and still calls us to service.

On a theological, cultural, historical level, I cannot help but hear this portion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians without thinking about my recent visit to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. When we operate from a place and perspective that sees difference as primarily negative, to what extent does the criteria for difference become an unending search for the need to find difference? While most knowledge of the Nazi program recognizes the pure hatred of the Jews, the extent to which difference manifested itself within the entire project and persecution of the Nazi regime is beyond comprehension. Differentiation was itemized to the size of one’s nose, the color of one’s eyes, or the shape of one’s ears. Any variation from “the” standard features of the Aryan race was considered an anomaly at best, abhorrent at worst, and in the end, the criterion for experimentation, sterilization, and extermination. While this may sound like a hyperbolic example, the propensity of humanity to think in categories of incongruities, irregularities, and inconsistencies exposes our extraordinary need for abundant forgiveness and our need to claim over and over again our unity in Christ.