Lectionary Commentaries for February 17, 2010
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Craig R. Koester

This section from the Sermon on the Mount is read at the beginning of the Lenten season, on Ash Wednesday.

Yet we do well to ask whether it is really a Lenten text. Those planning worship will often send signals to the congregation that the seasons have changed. The paraments will change to purple. People will be listening to this sermon midweek, rather than on a Sunday. And in many congregations the service will follow a different format. The message is clear: we are making the start of a new season. Yet this is what makes preaching the Sermon on the Mount so challenging: It is a word that knows no season–and that can be quite helpful.

First, this word is not really about you and the season. The passage includes no references to a journey that starts on Ash Wednesday and culminates on Easter Sunday six and a half weeks later. There really is no mention of movement at all. It deals with life in the presence of God, and that is ongoing.

We might try to make some easy connections to the season, and the passage contains several sections that seem to invite the seasonal links. One deals with giving alms (verses 2-4), another deals with prayer (verses 5-6), and yet another focuses on fasting (verses 16-17).

Prayer is of course a major focus for congregational life during Lent. Midweek services invite people to come and pray more often, and those planning worship will try to find ways to generate interest in attending. Fasting in the strict sense may not play much of a role in our congregations, but many do have the soup suppers, which at least make a gesture in that direction. They encourage us to simplify the evening fare one day a week, supping on chicken noodle soup and bread, rather than meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

The problem is that Jesus is not speaking about prayer that is confined to a season. There will be as many reasons to turn to God in prayer on the day after Easter as there are on Ash Wednesday. Prayer is a way of life. And as for alms, the need for giving of our resources will be as pressing in summer as in late winter. Human need is never confined to a season, which means that sharing what we have will be an ongoing concern. And fasting? Who knows, many may find the idea of eating less strangely relevant after the Easter feast.

Second, Jesus’ words are not a check list of dos and don’ts. To be sure, he gives some very specific directives, especially about the problem of doing things merely to get recognition from others. Jesus warns against practicing our piety (or literally “righteousness,” Greek dikaiosynē) for the sake of boosting our reputation in the eyes of other people. But if we reduce this to a checklist of dos and don’ts we might want to tell Jesus that the list is really not necessary. We are actually doing rather well in this department.

When it comes to prayer, we may occasionally see a Christian making a public display of prayer on the street corner in order to impress other people (verse 5), but many in our congregations would never dream of doing that. In many communities, making a public display would bring disapproval from bystanders, not affirmation. If Jesus commends praying in secret, most of us may be quite happy to oblige (verse 6). We are quite ready to keep our prayers out of public view.

Similarly, there may be some who disfigure their faces to show how diligently they are fasting (verse 16), but many of us do quite a good job of keeping up appearances. We do not need much encouragement to put a good face on things (verse 17). That is the way many of us work all the time.

Finally, we get back to almsgiving, and this might be where we want to negotiate a bit with Jesus. We might tell him that we are certainly willing to forego the trumpet blasts along main street (verse 2), but it would be nice if we could at least get our names listed in the program along with the other contributors to our favorite cause. It seems like a reasonable request. But again, this is not really the point. Jesus is not giving us a checklist of social dos and don’ts. So where does this leave us?

Third, Jesus does business with us when he says that our lives are open to God. He repeatedly refers to his Father, “who sees in secret” (verses 4 and 18). Is that law or gospel? Jesus clearly strikes a note of gospel when he assures us that we need not rely on the whims of public opinion to find worth in what we do. God knows, and Jesus assures us that God’s opinion counts above all others. Others may not give us the recognition we deserve, but our Father in heaven will do so.

Yet this is also the unsettling part of the passage. With God there is no private space. We may conceal ourselves behind closed doors, but God is there. He sees more than we want him to see, he knows more than we want him to know. This is enough to drive us to the cross. This is not just a Lenten journey. This is a life journey, and it begins with the recognition of who we are before the God who sees in secret. We may put up a good show for other people, but this will not do for God. He can see the regrets and the hurts, the fears and mistrust–so we might as well own up to it. And as we do, trust that God will not give us what we deserve, but will give us what he extends by grace.

First Reading

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

Beth L. Tanner

Joel 2:1 commands the blowing of the shofar.

This is not a call to a festival or celebration, but a warning sent straight from God. In language reminiscent of Amos 5:18-24, this introduction proclaims that not only is the day of the LORD coming, it is near (verse 2). “The day of the LORD” appears only in the prophetic books, and each occurence refers to a time when God is angry with the people.

Here in Joel, the whole first chapter is a preparation for this announcement as the people are called on to wake up and lament, put on sackcloth, and prepare for a solemn assembly. The word “solemn assembly” appears at the end of the festival of booths in Leviticus 23:36, Numbers 29:35, and Deuteronomy 16:8 and is a day of no work when the people assemble to celebrate and offer sacrifices. Here, the announcement is a call to assemble, but to assemble as a community dressed in sackcloth to lament before God. The people are to gather to seek God’s face in a posture of sorrow.

God appears in many ways in the Old Testament, as savior in Exodus, as a rock or refuge in the psalms, and as a parent in Hosea. Here is one of the more fearsome images of YHWH: Sabboth, which literally means, “God of the armies.” That title is not explicitly used here, but verse 3 clearly indicates that the day of the LORD comes as a great and powerful army, and the verses between the lectionary sections describes this. The image of God’s army is no accident, for the issue that precipitates this call to assemble is a locust infestation that is destroying the land (1:4). This infestation is set in parallel to God’s army in 2:25.

Did the ancient people believe that God caused natural disasters? There is no doubt that they did. However, we now understand that natural disasters are complex phenomenon caused by a host of factors including human activity, and we no longer see them as punishment from God.

So what are we to do with this imagery? One point of this story is to stress God’s great power. Only the greatest of the gods in the ancient near East could control nature, and this example demonstrates that power of God. The creation responds only to its Creator. In other words, make no mistake about the power of our God.

Also, this metaphor and its question about God’s actions can also remind us of something else. Even in our modern world, God’s complete self is still a mystery to humans. We really do not know all of the answers either to natural disasters or the acts of God. At the beginning of Lent, this is a good place to tarry, for modern folks tend to think we have the world all figured out. Yet, there is a huge amount that is simply beyond our control or even understanding. We are made of dust and to dust we will return, as the liturgical imposition of ashes reminds us on this day. God is immortal and powerful, and we are, even with all of our modern knowledge, humans made from the dirt.

Yet this is not all God is. Verses 12-14 tell another truth about God and it uses the characteristics of God from Exodus 34:6. God is so powerful that God chooses to be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” The use of this text can connect back to Sunday’s text since this comes right before the Old Testament lesson about Moses. There God is adjusting God’s actions to aid a frightened people. Here the prophet is telling the people to come before God and plead so that God will hear and forgive them once again.

Interestingly, the prophet is not confident that God will relent this time (verse 14), and this is another good place to tarry as Lent begins. We humans have become so confident that God will forgive us again and again, no matter what we do, that God’s forgiveness can seem like some celestial vending machine where we put our sins in and then poof, here comes our forgiveness!

The Old Testament lessons for the past two Sundays have all had messages concerning God’s forgiveness. The first text of Isaiah 6 shows in a real way the act of forgiveness at the throne of God. The second, Exodus 34, is the end of the Golden Calf that began in chapter 32 and tells of God’s remaining anger with the people who are refusing to go with them into the wilderness, not for God’s sake, but because God is still so angry with them.

God’s forgiveness should not be thought of as automatic, even if we know, trust, and confess God, as the people did in Exodus 34:6. Here is a good place to contemplate that our sins hurt. They cost God something. We often focus on the physical pain of Jesus’ death during Holy Week, but this text gives us the opportunity to focus on the pain of our actions, and then even to contemplate that each time we ask for forgiveness we should stand like Joel, wondering if this time we have gone too far. Understanding that each act of forgiveness costs God something, even if forgiveness is what God does, does not mean it is perfunctory.

Often Ash Wednesday services are more liturgical than homiletical, and even if that is the case, the Joel text could be structured with Psalm 51 as a liturgical experience. The Joel text could serve as the structuring unit with the call to confession as the preparation in Joel 1 and 2. Psalm 51 can serve as the confession of sin and Exodus 34:6 as the assurance, followed by the imposition of ashes. In this way, we can have the opportunity to focus on and contemplate God’s great act of forgiveness.


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

Karl Jacobson

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 is no “Ask not what your country can do for you,” kind of moment.

Talk about backwards; if Paul is trying to inspire us to answer the call to ambassadorship for Christ, his description may well leave us disinterested, dismayed, or downright disgusted. In fact, while Paul may well be employing irony at this point (“we are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way”), the commendation of the servant of God looks like the exact opposite of the kind of calling anyone would want.

Paul lays out a series of opposites to characterize on the one hand what it looks like to be an ambassador, and on the other hand what it is to be an ambassador. The repeating pattern is “as _______ and yet _______.”1 These opposites, then, are used by Paul to redefine reality, and to re-create it.

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true:
as unknown, and yet are well known;
as dying, and see-we are alive;
as punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
as poor, yet making many rich;
as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

Preach these pairings on a stewardship Sunday or make them the mission statement for the volunteer coordinator and watch those sign-up sheets fill up and the offering plates overflow. It is backwards. It cannot possibly be in keeping with the gospel, can it?

And yet this is precisely the way the reading begins, with a line that is in a sense another example of the Pauline gospel in shorthand: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). These too are examples of opposites, the pairing of things that are antithetical–first is Christ, in whom there is no sin, who is made to know it intimately; and as a result is a second, we who are with sin (down with it, down in it, down for it) are, in Christ, made the righteousness of God.

The reality that Paul describes in the gospel he preaches is exactly the opposite of what we often feel or think we see. This does not mean, of course, that when we are struggling with our punishments, when we labor and our works go unknown, when we are filled with sorrow and are poor in spirit, and yes even as we are dying, that we simply don’t have the right worldview. Quite the opposite; it is precisely in those moments, in those life threatening moments as they really are, that the gospel is spoken by Christ’s ambassadors, and by that speaking a new reality is not merely envisioned, but created.

In the first verses of 2 Corinthians 6 Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8, “‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.'” He then takes these indefinite time and day (an acceptable time…a day of salvation), and makes them definite, specific, and immediate: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

Now is the acceptable time. There is, for me at least as I read 2 Corinthians 5-6, an important resonance with other Pauline phrases about the “right time ministry” of Christ. In Romans 5:6, 8 Paul writes, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” The acceptable and right time for Jesus to do his work is, according to Paul, while we are weak and sinful; the one who knew no sin is made sin to keep company with sinners.

At the right time. Again in Romans 11:5, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. ” The present time, not down the road, not when one is ready or deserving, but now.

Now is the day of salvation. Similarly in Ephesians 2:11-13 we read, “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” – a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! This too is an opposite of sorts–the proclamation that the preacher as ambassador for Christ brings is a declaration not just of some future day when Christ returns, but of a transformed reality right now. Today, when the good news is proclaimed to the poor and sorrowful, today when the poor are made rich by compassion and charity, today those who fear they have nothing (the poor and the wealthy alike) are told the good news that they possess everything, in Christ Jesus. Now; here at the beginning of the Lenten season, is there a better time for us to make God’s appeal entreating this world–so often defining itself in ways exactly the opposite from the ways of God–to be reconciled to God through Christ.

And here again, in the lectionary position in which we find this text, we have another opposite. On Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance, of reflection and even of sorrow, we find a message which points not just to the other end of the Lenten season, but which declares an immediate, present, in-this-very-moment word of gospel. Now is the time–not later, we need not wait, but now; now is the day of salvation.

1“And yet” in pairs 1, 3, and 6, “yet” 4 and 5, “and see” in the second.