Lectionary Commentaries for July 18, 2010
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 10:38-42

Marilyn Salmon

Several years ago a church in our area was named Saints Martha and Mary, because, as the developer said, it was going to take both Marys and Marthas for the new church to grow.

The name needed no explanation, a testimony to the familiarity of this brief story in Luke.  In an era when women served the church primarily through women’s guilds named for biblical women, Martha was a common name, synonymous with service. When women began to seek ordained ministries, this text was favored for its apparent biblical support. Jesus affirms Mary’s choice to join the disciples and disparages Martha’s distraction with less important matters. In my memory, this text’s well-known story has not necessarily been a favorite.

Only five verses long, this story has fueled divisiveness and resentment, pitting women with different vocations in the church against each other. And it has prompted many attempts to justify Jesus’ actions. His affirmation of one woman’s choice and criticism of the other seems out of character, especially because Jesus consistently emphasizes service and hospitality. What is the justification for his dismissal of Martha’s attention to the care of her guests?

Text in Context
This incident occurs near the beginning of the long travel narrative in Luke (9:51 — 19:28). Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51) and instructs those who would follow that the journey must be their first priority (9:57-58). Jesus sends the seventy ahead with no provisions for the journey and insists they depend on the hospitality of those in towns who welcome them (10:1-11).

Immediately preceding the stop at Martha’s home, Jesus tells a story about a man on a journey who is beaten and left to die. He is saved by an unexpected merciful neighbor (10:30-37). The story of “the good Samaritan” confirms that the journey to Jerusalem is dangerous, and that disciples might welcome the compassion of someone who, in other circumstances, would be considered undesirable. They, likewise, must show neighborly compassion to any one in need. Following Jesus’ visit to Martha’s home, the narrative continues with another disarming incident in which a friend refuses hospitality to a friend in need (11:5-8).

Hospitality, sharing a meal in particular, is a prominent theme throughout Luke.  This theme is featured in the travel narrative, with banquet parables (14:7ff; 15:11-32; see also 5:29), sabbath meals (14:1; see also 7:36), and the welcome offered to friend or stranger. In the narrative world of Luke, hospitality is multi-dimensional. According to this gospel account, we see hospitality from the perspective of receiving hospitality as well as extending it to another. We will hear these gospel stories differently from the perspective of the guest or the stranger in need than as the one who provides service. The narrative sometimes surprises us and provokes us to consider a different point of view.

In this brief vignette, we expect Jesus to affirm the one who welcomes them into her home and prepares all that is needed to make them comfortable. Our instincts tell us that Mary should help her sister. Our instincts also tell us that Jesus should not chide his hostess for suggesting that her sister should help with the work of caring for the guests. If Martha is a bit distracted by her many tasks, should he add insult to injury by praising Mary for choosing “the better part?”  Our natural inclination is to justify what Jesus does. But perhaps this story intends to disturb us. We might ask what the story accomplishes by portraying Jesus in an unexpected way.

The Kingdom of God Has Come Near You
A sermon might consider Jesus’ behavior here in light of the mission and purpose of the journey. Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God has come near to you (10:9), and he tells those who would follow him that nothing must distract them from this reality. No time to rest; no time to bury the dead, even a parent; no time to say goodbye to family; no looking back (10:57-62). 

Jesus’ presence as guest here signals the coming of God’s Kingdom, and there is urgency about it. We might consider Martha’s concern for hospitality as similar to the “distractions” Jesus names at the outset of the journey to Jerusalem. Seen within the context of the journey narrative, Jesus actually acknowledges the importance of Martha’s service in ordinary circumstances. But in these extraordinary times they are distractions from the coming of God’s reign. Mary shows this by choosing “the better part.” In the narrative world of Luke, Mary and Martha show that seeking God’s Kingdom is the first priority above all else, even the common customs of hospitality.

Another approach to this text might focus on the presence of Jesus as guest and host.  According to Luke’s story, Jesus is always a guest, always the recipient of hospitality. Often he does not exhibit good manners. As a dinner guest, he criticizes his host and other guests (5:29ff; 7:36ff; 14:1,7ff). When his host is a Pharisee, we do not notice his criticism, but his criticism of Martha gets our attention, even offends us. The narrative does not distinguish between hosts, though. Whether Jesus is the guest of a Pharisee or Martha, he is both guest and host. Jesus’ presence points to the coming of God’s realm and the reordering of what is customary and expected.   Martha does the right thing and misses the presence of the Jesus and the good news he represents. Mary risks contempt to be fully in the presence of the guest.

This brief encounter within the gospel narrative purposely disrupts expectations and disturbs our sense of propriety.  I hope to hear a sermon that resists the temptation to justify Jesus and allows Jesus the guest to offend my sensibilities.  Sometimes listeners need expectations to be challenged in order to hear the Gospel. And I hope to hear a sermon that honors both Martha and Mary.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 18:1-10a

Jacqueline E. Lapsley

This passage (Genesis 18:1-10) has literally become iconic: the fifteenth century Russian icon by Andrey Rublev that depicts the three visitors to Abraham as a type of the Holy Trinity appears as a now-familiar image everywhere from mouse pads to refrigerator magnets.

Apart from its marketing potential, the icon helps us to remember that it is common in Genesis for God to appear to or visit with human beings in the form of a messenger or angel of the LORD (e.g., Genesis 16:7, 19:1, 21:17, 22:11, 32:1), or, as here, in the form of a human being (see also Genesis 32:22-32).  Such visitations and appearances are in keeping with other earthy, concrete portraits of God in Genesis: walking about in the garden in Genesis 3:8, responding flexibly and extemporaneously to human decisions and behaviors (Genesis 6:5-7; Genesis 8:21-22), etc. The God of Genesis responds creatively and improvisationally to humanity and to the rest of the created world that God has made.  

The first thing we may wonder about when reading this passage is why Abraham is so eager to see these strangers. He is sitting under a tree, hot (it is the heat of the day, verse 1), and likely pondering how it will be possible for Sarah and him to have a child to have a child, as God has just rather ridiculously promised in the previous chapter (17:16). At the end of that chapter Abraham had fulfilled his part of the covenant by having his whole household, including himself, circumcised (17:26-27). Perhaps he is still recovering from the circumcision–even minor surgery is serious at ninety-nine! 

The details of the text are telling: in the horrible heat of the day, just when he had been dozing at the entrance to his tent–the equivalent for us of sitting on our front porch at about three o’clock one August afternoon–Abraham sees these strangers approaching. Perhaps he wondered if he could trust his own heat-struck eyes, the oppressive sweltering temperature itself perhaps making the air shimmer such that he was not sure whether what he was seeing was really there at all, or whether the extreme heat was playing tricks on him.

The heat alone at this time of day would be a lethargy-inducing scenario for anyone, but add to it the recent surgery, to say nothing of the uncertainties generated by the impossible promises, and it seems all the more astounding that Abraham leaps to his feet to run greet these visitors (18:2). Furthermore, the story goes on to describe Abraham’s elaborate preparation of a sumptuous meal (18:6-8)–again, during the sultry immobility of the day’s heat–such that by the time he is standing under the tree watching his guests eat, you can nearly see the sweat cascading down his brow.

Not only does Abraham leap to his feet and run (in that heat), but the first words out of his mouth beseech the visitors to allow him to care for them: “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant” (verse 3). As the rest of the story will prove, these visitors have important news for Abraham about the divine promise, and so perhaps his leaping to his feet in the heat of the day is motivated by hope for some word or another about how exactly God proposes to make good on the divine promise of a son with Sarah. Even so, the narrative’s emphasis on Abraham’s gracious hospitality goes beyond an effort to satisfy Abraham’s justifiable curiosity. 

It sets up a contrast with what follows in chapter 19 when the inhabitants of Sodom try to violate the laws of hospitality. Like Abraham, Lot will provide food, water, and shelter for the angels/strangers (19:3), but the principles of hospitality are threatened when the mob seeks to harm the guests. Lot offers his own daughters to the mob (!), saying “let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (19:8; see also the similar story in Judges 19).

Both Lot and Abraham model hospitality to strangers in their actions, while the mob in Sodom defines inhospitality by their actions. The contrast afforded by Abraham’s example here in chapter 18 helps to emphasize a basic point often missed by modern readers of chapter 19: the story of the wicked inhabitants of Sodom is not about “homosexuality” (the idea of sexual orientation or sexual identity not existing in the ancient Near East); rather, the companion chapters underscore the centrality of hospitality as a virtue, in part by describing what happens when that virtue is derided.

Abraham has received a seemingly impossible promise, but his animated efforts on behalf of these strangers under adverse conditions suggest that he still trusts that God can and will do the impossible. He is eager to show hospitality, for its own sake perhaps, in contrast to the inhabitants of Sodom in the next chapter, but also because he refuses to succumb to a cynical or jaundiced view of his world and his place in it. Abraham certainly does not imagine what is in store down the road (chapter 22), but he continues to believe that God will make good on God’s word.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Amos 8:1-12

Samuel Giere

“Silence!” is the Lord’s command to Amos.1

While previously Amos has interceded on behalf of Israel,2 in the midst of this vision the Lord expects silence as words of judgment thunder down upon Israel. The Lord’s judgment culminates in a divine silence — a famine of the words of the Lord in Israel.3 It is only the silence of the cross of Christ that answers the aching hunger and thirst.

Textual Horizons
In this pericope, a portion of which returns in the lectionary nine weeks hence,4 we are encountered by Amos’ report of his fourth vision.5

In the introduction of the vision, there is a play on words in the Hebrew that does not translate well. The object of the fourth vision is a basket of ripe fruit.  In Amos 8:2, the word the NRSV translates “summer fruit” is קיץ, whereas “the end” is קץ.6 The thrust of the word play is that as the fruit in the basket has reached its peak and is left only to spoil and rot, so it is with Israel. 

The spoil is such that songs of worship become the wailing of grief as corpses litter the land. It is a brutal picture with a deafening noise.

Amidst the wailing, Amos intones the judgment against Israel. “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land…”7 Frightening it is when the Lord says, “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”8

Continuing with a force unmatched outside the first person, “On that day…I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” The cosmic order will be ruptured, so much so that even the sure workings of the heavens, of the sun, of light and dark are contravened. The personal lament of Job that rests upon his desire that the day of his birth be reversed9 pales in comparison to the Lord’s pronouncement that time itself is thrown into question.

The Lord’s judgment not only brings a great reversal of time. Feasts become mourning. Songs become lamentations. All are to put on the clothes of the mourner and tear out their hair. And the Lord’s words ring out, “I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.”10

Such an unleashing of judgment leaves in its wake a gutting silence, a famine of the word of the Lord. This silence from the Lord is deafening and will leave the people confused, running about like fools in search of and grasping for something…anything to steady themselves in their disequilibrium.

The pericope ends abruptly with the Lord saying that in their frantic search they shall find nothing. The end is clearly filled with ruin and spoilage and divine silence.

Preaching Horizons
As a preacher, what is one to do with such judgment that leaves the reader/hearer with not a single word of hope? How do we understand such a silence?

So as not to leave this pericope without context, one can look to the final verses of Amos for hope of relief and restoration. While there are critics who question the authenticity of Amos 9:11-15,11 these concluding verses are within the shape of the text as we receive it, within the bounds of Scripture, and to be expected within the scope of prophetic literature.

But what of this apparent contradiction between overwhelming judgments, exemplified by today’s pericope, and the hope that brings Amos to conclusion?

Abraham Heschel offers wisdom on this point. After quoting Amos 9:14-15, he writes:

     What hidden bond exists between the word of wrath
     and the word of compassion, between ‘consuming
     fire and ‘everlasting love?’

     We will have to look for prophetic coherence, not
     in what the prophet says but of Whom he
     speaks. Indeed, not even the word of God is the
     ultimate object and theme of his consciousness. The
     ultimate object and theme of his consciousness is
     God, of Whom the prophet knows that above His
     judgment and above His anger stands His mercy.12

With all of this judgment, which one has to assume is rightly earned by those who trample the needy and bring ruin to the poor, where is the Lord’s mercy? Upon Heschel’s advice and the witness of the whole of Amos’ text, we cannot assume that this judgment is more powerful than the Lord’s mercy.

Along these lines and extending the horizon of the pericope beyond the bounds of Amos’ book to include the whole of Scripture, for the Christian it also seems reasonable and faithful to understand that God’s mercy converges with and triumphs over God’s judgment in the cross of Christ. With echoes of Amos 8:9, Luke’s description of the moment of Jesus’ death: “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”13 In this moment of the ripening of the sins of the world, the Lord’s mercy triumphs over the Lord’s judgment.

1Amos 8:3
2Amos 7:2, 5
3Amos 8:11
4Amos 8:4-7 is the First Lesson for Proper 20 — Year C — 19 September 2010.
5Amos has five visions that conclude the book. His reports of the visions begin at 7:1, 4, 7, 8:1, and 9:1.
6The New Jerusalem Bible handles the wordplay in Amos 8:2 better: ‘What do you see, Amos?’ he asked. ‘A basket of ripe fruit,’ I said. Then Yahweh said, ‘The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will not continue to overlook their offences.” [emphasis added]
7Amos 8:4-6
8Amos 8:7b
9Job 3:2-26
10Amos 8:10c
11Recall J. Wellhausen’s pithy comment: “Roses and lavender instead of blood and iron.” (Rosen und Lavendel statt Blut und Eisen.) Die Kleinen Propheten (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1963) 96.
12Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Perennial Classics, 1962, 2001) 27-28.
13Luke 23:44-45, also Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33.


Commentary on Psalm 15

Craig A. Satterlee

A Response to the First Reading

“O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (15:1). We might understand the psalmist’s answer to this question as a description of Abraham and Sarah, who hosted the three men. Abraham and Sarah did not give in hope of gain (cf. 15:5).  Moreover, the church understands Abraham and Sarah as leading a blameless life, doing what is right, lavishly casting credit on the neighbor, and honoring those who fear the LORD (cf. 15:2-4). As a response to the three men’s visit to Abraham and Sarah, Psalm 15 reminds us that dwelling with God is intrinsically linked to (I am intentionally not saying results from) how we live. Worshiping God, entering into God’s holy presence, involves a commitment to live in the world, to live in our everyday lives, the same way we live in God’s presence. Psalm 15 was most likely spoken by priests who confronted worshipers entering the Temple Mount to join in the worship of God in the temple.1  As such, Psalm 15 links worship and discipleship.

Contemplating God’s Presence
Psalm 15:1, which asks God who might hope to “abide” or “dwell” in God’s “tent” or on God’s “holy hill,” invites us to contemplate the common thread of the Old Testament and Gospel Readings–being in God’s presence. Regardless of what they originally meant, “holy hill” speaks of worship and “tent” of home or everyday life. As Abraham and Sarah invited the three visitors to dine outside their tent, as Mary and Martha welcomed Jesus into their home, so we invite and welcome God’s nearness or presence into our house of worship, as well as our homes and lives.

To take being in God’s presence seriously is both comforting and unsettling.  The psalms speak of the joy of God’s presence (21:6) and the shelter of God’s presence (31:20). Yet, in the psalms, God also declares, “No one who practices deceit shall remain in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue in my presence” (101:7).  The psalmist says of God, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you” (5:4).

So, after eating the fruit of the tree, the man and his wife hid themselves from God’s presence among the trees of the garden (Genesis 3:8). And, knowing ourselves as we do, human beings have been uncomfortable in the joy and shelter of God’s presence ever since. The preacher might help the congregation to seriously reflect upon being in God’s presence, both on the “holy hill” of worship and the ordinary places where we live and move and have our being.

How Shall We Behave? 
Deep reflection on the reality of being in God’s presence inevitably leads us to ask, “How ought we to behave? ” Psalm 15 offers eleven answers. “To walk ‘blamelessly’ is no claim of absolute sinless perfection, but describes a life that is ‘whole’ and ‘complete’ in its consistent devotion to Yahweh’s way.”2  Those who “do what is right” endeavor to fulfill God’s expectations and regularly avail themselves of God’s gift of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration as they seek to maintain their relationship with God and neighbor.

Those who dwell with God are people of integrity. Their heart, speech, and deeds are obviously aligned with God’s purpose. Those who dwell with God “speak the truth from their heart” (15:2). They speak and act clearly without deceit in ways that demonstrate that their heart is grounded in a relationship with God. Concretely, they do not slander with their tongue, do no evil to their friends, and take no reproach against their neighbors. Like God’s own self, those who dwell with God despise wickedness and honor those who stand by their word even when doing so hurts them. They do not build up wealth and power on the backs of the poor and less fortunate, or pervert justice for personal gain.

In sum, those who dwell with God abandon trusting their ability to shape and control their lives and the world and instead put their trust in God. Once again, this sounds like Abraham, whose life reminds us that to do so is an ongoing process.

The Promise
Psalm 115 concludes with the promise, “Those who do these things shall never be moved” (15:5). They will not be “shaken” as in an earthquake or caused to stumble on rough, treacherous ground. Contemplating these words after the earthquake in Haiti is most unsettling. These words ring hallow still. The devastation and death remain incomprehensible. Yet, the psalmist nevertheless intends to convey that those who dwell with God have God’s help and security here and now. The preacher might explore what never being moved and God’s help and security in the here-and-now, does and does not mean.

Preaching Psalm 15
Psalm 15 invites the preacher to consider the joyous and unsettling reality of dwelling in God’s presence, a reality that is ours because of Christ Jesus, “in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him” (Ephesians 3:12). The preacher might then consider how we are to live in God’s presence, and the story of Abraham might provide a wonderful commentary on the psalm’s instructions. The preacher might also use the promise that concludes the psalm to explore what it does (and does not) mean to “never be moved.” Jesus was never moved from his relationship with God and his trust in God. Yet, Jesus nevertheless suffered death on the cross.

1Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn (eds.), Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 78.
2Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn (eds.), Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 79.

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:15-28

Karl Jacobson

As Dean Wormer said, “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.”1

To put it another way (call it the Colossians way), “Estranged, hostile, and evil-deed-doing (21) is no way to go through life.” Colossians 1:15-28 is a Christological proclamation, ode, and solution to these existential dangers.

There are two parts to this reading. The first, verses 15-20, is a poem which catalogs and celebrates the characteristics of Christ. The second, verses 21-28, summarizes the implicit question of the letter—will the Colossians remain firm in holding to the true faith (verses 21-23)—and it reinforces the author’s claim to apostleship and concern for the Colossians Christians (verses 24-28). While the second section of the reading is no doubt important I will focus on the Christ-hymn, which is central not just to the present reading but to Colossians as a whole.

The Colossians Christ-hymn

The first five verses of the present reading are a poem or “Christ-hymn” which flow out of the final introductory verses of the letter (1-14). The final two verses of last week’s reading from Colossians are worth recalling as we move into this poem:

13[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The gospel message, that we are rescued, transferred from death to life, moves on to a description of God’s beloved Son…2
15Who is the image of the invisible God,the firstborn of all creation;
16for in him all things were created,in heaven and on earth,things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers all things have been created through him and for him.
17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross [all things] whether on earth or in heaven.

The Colossians Christology is striking in that, while the cross is mentioned the suffering and death of Jesus are not the primary focus of the hymn; this is in sharp contrast to the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. Much like the Christology of John, Colossians emphasizes the power and divinity of the Messiah. The Christ is described as the source of all created things, as that which quickens and sustains all things, as the head of all things.

There are any number of ways one might go in preaching this hymn, comparing the Christ/creation ideas in John 1:1-5, Revelations 3:14, and Hebrews 1:10 (and perhaps even Proverbs 8), or the role of Christ as head of the church (cf. Ephesians 5), among others. I will highlight two others.

First, is “first-born.” Prototokos, employed in Colossians in 1:15, 18, occurs in 116 verses in the Bible, most of which are in the Septuagint. The word is used only 8 times in the New Testament. In Luke 2:7 the first-born is Jesus, as the first child of Mary and Joseph. In Romans 8:29 it is the predestining work of God in transforming the believer of Jesus after the image of Jesus which makes Jesus the prototokos; in this sense “first-born” seems to express the eldest child relationship of Jesus with all humankind. In Hebrews the word is used variously of Jesus (1:6), in remembering the Passover (11:28), and of the heavenly believers (12:23).

In Colossians prototokos is employed in two different ways. First, Jesus is the prototokos of all creation (1:15). As already noted this proclaims the Christ as integral to the creation of the world and is, in and of itself, an important theological claim. Second, Jesus is the prototokos of the dead (1:18; the same phrase occurs in Revelations 1:5). In this sense “first-born of the dead” is a simple statement of the resurrection—both that of Jesus and the promised resurrection of the believer in Christ.

Individually each statement is, of course, striking and significant, but together the two phrases work to form something more. Jesus is both first-born of the creation and of the dead. What this does is connect the act of creation with the promise of resurrection—in reverse. For Colossians resurrection is essentially an act of creation—not resuscitation, but re-creation, not just new life, but new creation (compare 1 Corinthians 15:50).

A second striking line from the Colossians Christ-hymn is that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (1:15; cf. 1 Timothy 1:17). For many Christians this claim may not seem to be unique, but with the exception of 2 Corinthians 4:4 (and slightly differently in Hebrews 1:3) nowhere is it stated so clearly. The claim that Jesus is the very image of God is critical to Colossians.

What is more, the phrase itself gets at the mystery (Colossians 1:27), offense, and perhaps even paradox of Christology—is it possible to have an image of that which is invisible? That the Christ is the image of the invisible God communicates two things intended to shape and support the faith of the Colossians, and of the present day congregation. First, is the claim of revelation. In Jesus we meet God face-to-face; nothing less than our very Creator’s presence is what drives the Christology of Colossians and this hymn. Second, is that—coming around again to the creation/redemption connection—God’s Son reflects the image of God back to the creation. As humankind was shaped in the image of God, so the first-born of creation—the redemption of all creation—returns as the image of God sent to humankind.

Here is the word of truth, the Gospel according to Colossians, the answer and antidote to a creation estranged and hostile: the first-born of creation, made the first-born of the dead, makes of us the first-born of faith.

1Animal House, Dir. John Landis. Universal Pictures, 1978.
2The verses as I present them here are almost identical to the NRSV, with some change in ordering in an attempt to represent the flow and pattern of the poetry.