Lectionary Commentaries for January 31, 2010
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 4:21-30

Roy Harrisville III

This is the second part of a passage that began in verse 14.

Jesus had triumphed over the devil in the wilderness and had “returned in the power of the Spirit” to give his inaugural address in Nazareth. He had done so by beginning with the prophet Isaiah and a passage about true reversal of fortune and hopeful change. However, in this passage he picks a fight with the congregation in his old home town and almost suffers a premature demise because of it.

The form of the saying is a pronouncement. It is therefore a correction. Jesus feels compelled to correct the thinking of the congregation, and, by extension, the reader. It is often the assumption of the listener that is most in need of correction; the unexamined, seemingly obvious “truth” that the individual and the community never bother to question.

What is interesting is that, as in the first part of this story, Jesus begins with scripture. Scripture is able to unsettle many assumptions that lurk in people’s hearts with stories demonstrating the opposite of what they think. That is the case here. Only this time it is with an antagonism that Jesus wields holy writ and upsets the apple cart. Jesus is not expressing any new ideas. He is not suggesting that God is doing something wholly different from what He did before. On the contrary, the Almighty has been at the same work all along, only now that work is fulfilled in Christ and will anger many people.

At first, the congregation identifies Jesus as one of their own. “Familiarity breeds contempt.” However, the congregation’s identification of Jesus as home grown may not have been malicious. After all, they had spoken well of him just a moment ago. All the more reason for the reader to be surprised at Jesus’ tough reaction! Was he offended that they thought of him in familiar terms? Luke does not give us a window into Jesus’ emotional state but it seems clear that Jesus thought it necessary to separate himself from the mundane opinions of his neighbors.

He is not the son of Joseph, but the Son of God. That is what Jesus needs to correct in the minds of the congregation and the reader. But this is not an acceptable thought to the congregation of his birth. Though he has proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord, he will find no such acceptance himself. Notions of deliverance in general, we will discover, are more acceptable to the people than the person of the deliverer.

Fine ideas of freedom, acceptance, and understanding are easy to enjoy. However, when such thoughts become actualized, people often recoil from the concrete realization of those concepts, especially if that realization does not comport with their conventional wisdom.

Far from conciliating his audience, Jesus antagonizes them. He even goes so far as to put words in their mouths. This is hardly good diplomacy. But it is effective, if Jesus intends to alter the thinking of the congregation. Their complacent familiarity about Jesus will not do. He must wrestle them from their common thoughts, even to the point of angering them, so that they will let go of their mistaken opinions. Incidents like this belie the portrayal of Jesus as meek and mild. On the contrary, he was a man of bold courage who did not mince words or worry himself about offending others. In fact, he went out of his way to offend many (Luke 11:45; see also 12:51; 19:45) His purpose, rather, is to fulfill the kingdom of God, not the expectations or aspirations of his neighbors.

Jesus recounts two episodes in 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 5 in which Elijah, the second greatest prophet in Israel after Moses, and his student, Elisha, were instrumental in bringing God’s deliverance from death and sickness to Gentiles. Jesus begins by styling himself a rejected prophet. He has already anticipated the reaction he will receive. But his two examples of God’s mercy are not designed to sooth, but to indict.

This is no therapeutic Jesus who pats little children on the head. This is a bold antagonist who makes preemptive strikes against the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Roman rulers, the priests and scribes, Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Capitalists, and any other creature who presumes upon the Divine.

Jesus speaks the “truth” from the pages of the Old Testament. The stories were well known, but their lessons had been lost. The Good News can as easily become an indictment as it is a promise. It is an indictment against those who presume to control it apart from its ultimate purpose and the witness of scripture. Jesus uses God’s word to point out the Gentile mission that God Himself had begun so long ago, not once but many times. It is the mission the church would begin to fulfill on Pentecost.

Jesus had rightly predicted the reaction to his little speech. The crowd tried to kill him. The pattern of rejection has been set early in Luke’s Gospel for the truth always exposes its opponents. Preachers who try to preach only messages of conciliation are merely preaching half a gospel. The other half is an attack on all fronts against human presumption.

Christ’s epiphany is not two-dimensional and easy to take. His disciples are charged with preaching the full and complete word, the hard word, the saving word. Let the chips fall where they may when the words fall from our lips. If it is time for the cross, it is time. If not, the Word will go on its way.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10

Anathea Portier-Young

“I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9).

God sends forth God’s hand and “touches” Jeremiah’s mouth (cf. Isaiah 6:7; Daniel 10:16). Perhaps it sounds intimate, but we should not imagine that it was a gentle or comforting touch. The same verb, ng’, can also mean “strike” (e.g. Job 19:21) or harm (e.g. Psalm 105:15). The one other biblical verse that uses these same words to envision God’s “sending forth [God’s] hand and touching” is found in the prologue to the book of Job, where the Satan challenges God to test Job’s faithfulness by taking away everything Job has (Job 1:11). There is nothing gentle about the wind that subsequently “touches” the house where Job’s children are feasting, leaving every one of them dead beneath its roof (Job 1:19). When we picture the hand of God “touching” Jeremiah’s mouth, we might do better to imagine a jolt or a shock. We would be justified in asking whether it hurt, whether it left a wound or a scar (cf. Gen 32:26), whether having God’s words placed in his mouth changed Jeremiah forever.

Flash back six hundred years (give or take): Terrified by the sight of God’s fiery presence at Sinai and afraid they cannot survive the sound of God’s voice, the Israelites ask for prophets who will protect them and speak God’s word to them (Deuteronomy 18:16). Moses is such a prophet, and God promises to raise up another after him, saying “I will put my words in his mouth” (Deuteronomy 18:18). The prophet will speak in God’s name, and God will demand a reckoning from those who do not listen to the prophet’s voice (Deuteronomy 18:19). There is a reckoning for the prophet as well: if she attributes her own words to God or speaks on behalf of other gods, she pays with her own life (Deuteronomy 18:20). I do not envy the prophet like Moses. I do not envy Jeremiah.

Charged with such a task — to stand between a vulnerable and cowardly people and the dangerous presence of God, to surrender one’s life to the challenge of speaking the truth only God bids — it would be natural to protest. When God says, “I have made you a prophet” (Jeremiah 1:5), Jeremiah says, “But look, I don’t know how to speak — I am just a boy” (1:6). In Hebrew, the last word of this sentence is the emphatic personal pronoun “I.” First person pronouns appear repeatedly throughout this short passage, both in their more common suffixed forms (six times) and in their emphatic independent forms (three times). We meet the person of Jeremiah in dialogue with the person of God, and it is in this dialogue that the prophet’s own self-understanding is challenged and revised. God insists that Jeremiah’s self-perception as “just a boy” — immature, inadequate, or simply not ready — is either wrong or irrelevant, and forbids Jeremiah to repeat it (1:7). Instead, God answers with another emphatic “I” statement, the one that trumps and reshapes the prophet’s self-understanding: “I am with you to deliver you” (1:8). This assurance is so vital God repeats it to Jeremiah in 1:19 and 15:20.

God does not keep Jeremiah safe for Jeremiah’s own sake. The assurance is always proclaimed in the context of Jeremiah’s mission. God makes Jeremiah a prophet “for” or “to” the nations (Jeremiah 1:5). Though God “gives” Jeremiah (Hebrew ntn) for this purpose, God does not abandon him: God’s fortifying and saving presence with Jeremiah enables the prophet to carry out his mission to the nations.

The detail “to the nations” calls our attention to the international scope of Jeremiah’s mission. Although Jeremiah is the only prophet described with these words, many of Israel’s prophets were concerned with international affairs. Jeremiah’s predecessors, Amos and Isaiah, delivered oracles against the nations. Jonah is commissioned to travel to Assyria to pronounce judgment on the Ninevites, leading to their repentance. God’s prophets speak to and for the nations because the God whose words the prophet speaks is the God of all creation and all peoples and because no nation lives in isolation. The economic practices and well-being, wars and peace of one nation spell for others prosperity or poverty, destruction or subjugation or freedom. No prophet can ignore these relationships. No prophet speaks into a world so narrow that she does not also speak to and for the nations.

The international political dimension of Jeremiah’s charge is further emphasized in the final verse of the passage: “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pull up and pull down; to destroy and overthrow; to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). These verbs image political powers in terms both organic and architectural.

The organic imagery, whether the positive image of planting or the harsher image of pulling vegetation up by its roots, calls to mind the dynamism of soil and sun and water, processes of growth and photosynthesis and the movement of sap, flowering, pollination, the ripening and rotting of fruit, the human labor of tilling, sowing, pruning, and harvesting, the dangers of disease, and the natural cycles of life and death. The architectural imagery calls attention to structures of power that give the appearance of fixity and permanence but in fact have their origin in time, through human effort. They give the appearance of protection but cannot defend against God’s just judgment (cf. Ezekiel 13:10-16). As surely as they are built up from the ground, they can be torn down by God’s word.

God’s words in Jeremiah’s mouth are powerful, dangerous, and life-giving. They destroy what must be destroyed, dealing death to death. They plant the seeds and build up the structures of life.

In a sermon on Jeremiah’s call, you have the opportunity to highlight the shock of God’s touch and God’s words, the burden of speaking truth to and for nations in God’s name, and the saving presence of God that renders every perceived inadequacy irrelevant. It’s a word for the preacher as well.


Commentary on Psalm 71:1-6

James Limburg

This psalm has long been one of my favorites.

While it appears to have been written by an older person (verses 9, 18), the psalm taken as a whole is a prayer appropriate at any age. For years, I had verses 17-18 taped onto the wall by my desk, using these words as a prayer to keep my daily task of teaching or preaching in focus.

Structure and Genre
The psalm falls into three parts, each ending on a note of praise: verses 1-8, 9-16 and 17-24. The psalm contains the elements typical of an individual lament or prayer for help, though these elements are scattered about. Especially dominant are calls for help (verses 1-4, 9, 12-13, 18, eight verses) and affirmations of trust (verses 3b, 5-7, 14, 17, 20-21, also eight verses). A “they” complaint occurs in verses 10-11 and the psalm expresses a generous supply of praise (verses 14-16, 19, 22-24).

Considered as a whole, the psalm may well be named a psalm of trust. I have used it as part of a trio of trust psalms, with Psalm 131 providing a picture from the beginning of life, Psalm 23 coming out of the stresses and strains of the midst of life (“even though I walk through the darkest valley”, verse  4) and 71 giving expression to reflections of a senior citizen.

Reading the Psalm

From my youth (71:1-8)
Cries for help dominate the first four verses: “deliver me…rescue me…save me…Rescue me.” The psalm is rich in pictures for God: “rock of refuge…strong fortress…my rock…my fortress…” and then, without imagery, simply “my God.”

Especially striking is the “life review” section in verses 5 and 6. The one praying this psalm is no recent convert to the faith. The pray-er says that the Lord has been “my hope, my trust…from my youth.” Here is a pastoral point worth making: When the psalmist is needing help from those making his life miserable, from difficult situations being faced, he looks back at his lifetime of experience with God. He is saying, “Lord, you’ve helped me out of tough times before. I’ve depended on you ever since I was born! So, Lord, how about bailing me out once again!”

The first section ends on a note of praise.

In the time of old age (71:9-16)
Here is an important insight into the anxieties of an older person. Even though this person has been a believer since youngest childhood (verse 6), this veteran of the faith still has worries, even worries that God might leave him in the lurch! “Forsake” here is the same Hebrew word as is used in the cry of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is just what others are saying about the psalmist, “that person whom God has forsaken.”

After a brief prayer against enemies (the psalmist has not had a chance to appropriate Matthew 5:43-48!) the psalmist vows to praise God by telling the congregation stories about some of the wonderful things God has done (vv. 15-16). This section, too, ends on a note of praise.

From my youth, even to old age (71:17-24)
Verses 17 and 18 pick up the “from my youth” and “to old age” themes of the precious sections, tie them together, and offer some further reflections. As the psalmist looks to the future, he resolves to continue doing what he’s being doing for a lifetime: telling about the “wondrous deeds” of God.

Toward a Sermon on this Psalm

Not Just for Senior Citizens
The unique feature of this psalm is the identification of the author as an older person (see also Psalm 37:25). This makes the psalm obviously well-suited for situations where the majority of the congregation/class is made up of senior citizens. I’ve preached on this psalm in such situations following the psalm’s structure as indicated above:

I. From My Youth (71:1-8)
The preacher can point out the “life review” device here in verses 5 and 6 and indicate that recalling God’s help in the past can be a stabilizing and encouraging approach for facing a difficult future, whether it be loss of a job, loss of a friend or loved one, or loss of good health. The point: when things look bleak or blue, look back at your life with God! Remember that God has helped you out many times in the past. Why wouldn’t God do it again?

II. In the Time of Old Age (71:9-16)
“Old age ain’t for sissies” is a slogan I’ve seen on sweatshirts worn by fellow senior-citizens (not by me, I quickly add). This psalm expresses a realistic view of the later years of a lifetime. There may still be conflicts with others in the community (verses 4, 10-11, 13). There may even be anxiety about one’s relationship to God (verses 9, 18). That a longtime believer should express such worries might alarm us until we remember that Jesus himself expressed the same concerns, praying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

III. From My Youth, Even to Old Age (71:17-24)
Verses 17 and 18 can be prayed by any believer, recalling the blessings of good instruction in the faith from childhood on, and anticipating a future that continues with God.

One of my teachers once said in regard to aging, “The Lord saves the hardest part ’til last!”  What can we do as we approach this “hardest part?” The psalm suggests staying on course, follow living a lifetime of prayer and praise that includes telling of God’s mighty deeds and wondrous gifts.

Times of anxiety and lack of trust are to be expected, even in the lives of God’s senior citizens. Singing praises and telling stories about what God has done are an essential part of such lives, too.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Karoline Lewis

Setting the Context
Ah, the “Wedding Text.”

How many of us have preached on this text in the context of a wedding, and probably most often for weddings at which we would have rather not presided. The irony, of course, is that this text has little to do with the love that is associated with marriage. Directly following chapter 12 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the more accurate contextual or situational occasion for this chapter is better understood as a discourse on the meaning, purpose, and necessity of love within the Christian community that Paul has so painstakingly described in chapter 12. That is, unity and difference can be acknowledged, respected, and celebrated only when love is in the center of what we do and who we are as a Christian community.

Against all popular opinion, this is not a passage about romantic love, but about a radical communal love that enables individuals to imagine life in a community where unity and difference can co-exist. It may be a sermon worth preaching that offers such a corrective to the common experience of this text, but more importantly, that helps our congregations envision a kind of love that can have such extraordinary power so as to create, sustain, and build Christian unity.

Textual Boundaries
It is worthwhile to question the lectionary boundaries of this passage. In this case, I would suggest continuing the passage through 14:1a, “Pursue love.” To include this exhortation implicitly (or explicitly in the sermon) might suggest that the “Wedding Text” is not a passive, observable event that seeks our affirmation and support, but something that calls for our participation. This is not a text where we are asked to look on as guests, dressed for a party and seated dutifully in the church pews, but rather necessitates our involvement, not only to make the kingdom of God possible in general, but also, to activate and nurture the kingdom of God in our immediate communities of faith.

We are called to seek out, to strive for love, and all of the characteristics with which Paul associates with love. Perhaps one of the more exigent aspects of this text is that while this chapter has love at its center, the manifestations of love are equally weighted, and in many respects present more of a challenge to our notions of love than the concept of love itself. If love is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; if it does not insist on its own way; if it is not irritable or resentful or does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. If love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things and never ends, what exactly does this say about love?

Preaching this text well demands that the preacher take seriously the particularity with which Paul works out his description of love in this context of a divisive congregation. A sermon on the general idea of love that does not adequately tend to the specificity of Paul’s functional presentation of love will have the effect of yet another bland wedding homily.

Paul’s familiar triad, “faith, hope, and love,” resounds as a summation of the chapter. It is interesting to note that in 1 Thessalonians, Paul reorders the triad for the sake of pastoral and contextual proclamation to the members of the church in Thessalonica: faith, love, and hope. The Thessalonians needed to hear a message of hope in the midst of facing the deaths of their loved ones. The Corinthians needed to hear a message of love in the midst of their divisions.

Liturgical Possibilities
This text is chosen for 4th Sunday of Epiphany. While I tend to resist the need to find connections between the lectionary’s designated texts for each Sunday, the relationship between Paul’s words to the Corinthians and Jesus’ first words of his public ministry according to Luke affords an interesting direction for preaching. After Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, his first stop is his hometown, Nazareth. There, he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2). This is what it can mean to pursue love: to bring good news to the poor, to look for ways to bring freedom to those in bondage, to announce God’s acceptance of the undeserving, unwelcomed, and unexpected.

In what sense might these claims function as communal mandates for a Christian community, not as command but as promise? That is, the love for which Paul asks the Corinthians to strive is the kind of love that Jesus pursues and proclaims as the acting out of God’s love for the world. Our pursuit of love, therefore, is not only for the sake of our own Christian communities, but also for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

In this season of Epiphany, our pursuit of love can bring the light of Christ to those in darkness — to the poor, to the captive, to the blind, to the oppressed. As a community of Christ, we are called to bring this good news. When we are truly a community in Christ, a community that knows its unity and celebrates its diversity, a community that knows the reality of division, and yet has in view the cross that binds us together, we will be able to join Jesus in Nazareth and walk along him in his ministry to those who so desperately need to hear his love for them, including us.