Lectionary Commentaries for August 8, 2010
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Luke 12:32-40
Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6
Jacqueline E. Lapsley
To understand the divine promises to Abraham here in Genesis 15, it is helpful to step back and look at what has been happening in Genesis up to this point.
In Genesis 1-11 the “set” for God’s action is the whole world. All of creation (including but not limited to humanity) is declared good in Genesis 1. But as the result of violence, mainly human violence (6:5), but apparently also, the violence of the wider creation (6:11, 13), God generates a flood to wipe away all the wickedness and violence. In effect, then, Genesis 6-8 functions as a kind of divine mulligan, a “do-over.”
Of course not all is effaced; Noah, his family, and the representative animals connect the past to the future. But beginning in Genesis 12, the story moves decisively away from the cinemascope perspective of the whole world, and zooms in on one man and his family. Instead of pondering the wickedness and violence of human beings, that, as God realizes, is not going away (Genesis 8:21), and instead of trying to work blessing for the world through humanity in general, God takes a new approach: working through some particular individuals to bless all the families of the earth (12:3). It is a decision to work universal benefit through particular individuals–a strange idea for many moderns, but one that God repeats in the incarnation of Jesus.
God makes three sweeping promises to Abram (later Abraham) in Genesis 12: land (12:1), descendants (a great nation, 12:2), and that through him all the families of the earth will be blessed (12:3). In response, Abram builds two altars, one at Shechem, and one near Bethel and Ai (12:8), and invokes the name of the LORD, which all bodes well (though the rabbis observed that Abraham did not sacrifice to God–a glaring omission they thought).
But with so much at stake for God (the blessing of the whole world rides on this one fellow and his family), Abram’s next actions must have been dismaying: a famine having driven the family to Egypt, he shoves Sarai, his wife, into the arms of Pharaoh in order to protect his own skin: “Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you…” (Genesis 12:13). Oh gee, thanks, honey. The Bible repeatedly scorns men who abuse their power by shoving the vulnerable, here women, into danger: see Genesis 19, 20, 26, and Judges 19, for follow-up incidents. Abraham is, of course, known in the Christian tradition for his great faithfulness, but he is not off to an auspicious start.
In chapter 13 God elaborates on the promises of land and descendants (13:14-17), asserting that Abraham’s children will be like the dust of the earth: so that if one can count the dust of the earth, his offspring also can be counted (13:16). This implies, of course, that they will be innumerable, a great nation, indeed. If God has concerns about Abraham due to the unsavory my-wife-is-my-sister maneuver, then Abraham must have some serious concerns about God, too, since everyone knows that Sarai and Abraham have no children and there is no prospect of any children; she’s barren (11:30). Unlike his grandson, Jacob, later in the story, Abraham’s response to God’s promises is not recorded–no assent or disbelief, or anything else, leading one to wonder how Abraham processed these seemingly ridiculous promises.
Abraham and Lot go their separate ways, though Abraham eventually has to go rescue Lot from the big battles raging throughout chapter 14. At the very end of the chapter, Abram refuses the spoils from the king of Sodom because he does not want the king to say, “I have made Abram rich” (14:23). Abraham does not want to profit, or give the appearance of profiting, from the whole ugly episode.
This is the backdrop for the divine promise in Genesis 15:1: Abraham does not need wealth from the king of Sodom or anyone else because God will reward him (literally, “your wages will be very great”). Then Abram takes this as an occasion to burst out, finally, with the question that must have surely been weighing on him since chapter 12: what about those kids you promised me? “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (15:3).
God proceeds to give more information than has been revealed previously: it will not be through the slave Eliezer of Damascus that God will make a great nation of Abraham (15:4); it will be through a biological child of Abraham’s. While not quite full disclosure, Abraham is getting significant additional information here, along with the reiteration, as before, that his offspring will be innumerable (15:5). At last we are finally told, after three chapters, how Abraham responds to the divine promise of descendants: “And he believed (or trusted) the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness (15:6).”
We have until this point in the narrative not been privy to the thoughts of either Abraham or God on how this fledgling relationship is going. God has made grand promises, but we have not known until now what Abraham thinks of those promises or of the promise-giver. Likewise, God has had some reason to wonder whether choosing Abraham was a good idea, whether he is really able to be the bearer of the promise to the nations. So this is a significant moment in the narrative when we are told that God and Abraham are developing a level of trust, and that each is encouraged by the promises or actions of the other.
But as we will see, the road of mutual trust is neither straight nor smooth for these two–there will be other obstacles and tests before both are satisfied in the character and trustworthiness of the other. Abraham’s reputation in the tradition is one of unparalleled virtue, but the story itself suggests more ambiguity; it gives a mixed picture of Abraham’s moral character. This is in keeping with all other significant Old Testament characters–the “heroes” of the faith were all flawed and broken in one way or another, just like the rest of us.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
J. Clinton McCann, Jr.
The first verse of the book of Isaiah invites the reader to hear the prophecy in the context of the eighth century BCE.
The scholarly consensus is to hear at least chapters 1-12, along with other portions of Isaiah 1-39 (especially chapters 20, 28-33, 36-39) as eighth-century material (First Isaiah or Isaiah of Jerusalem), usually between the years 742 (see 6:1, “the year that King Uzziah died”) and 701, when the Assyrian army suddenly called off its siege of Jerusalem (see chapters 36-39).
To be sure, chapter 1 makes sense in an eighth-century setting. The general characterization of the people as rebellious and unfaithful coheres with other eighth-century prophets; 1:7-9 seems to make particularly good sense in relation to the events of 701; and the criticism of worship in 1:11-15 also has parallels among other eighth-century prophets (see Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24).
Even so, other points of view are possible. For instance, it has been suggested that the original core of Isaiah was chapters 6-39, and that chapters 1-5 and 40-66 were added in the postexilic era. And some scholars have suggested that chapter 1 may function as an introduction to the whole Isaiah tradition, or perhaps even as an introduction to the larger collection of the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve). Certainty is elusive, but in any case, whether or not any author or editor ever intended it, Isaiah 1 does serve as an admirable point of entry into the canon of the Latter Prophets.
For one thing, chapter 1, including 1:10-20, highlights the crucial importance of justice and righteousness, both of which are key words/concepts in the prophetic books. It is frequently and rightly concluded that prophets functioned as something like the conscience of the monarchy. The kings were entrusted above all with the enactment and embodiment of justice and righteousness (see Psalm 72, especially verses 1-7). But, of course, the kings seldom did what they were supposed to do; and so the prophets called them and the people to account, employing frequently the key words “justice” and “righteousness.”
In the case of Isaiah 1, the word “righteousness” occurs three times (verses 21, 26, 27); and the Hebrew root shpt, which means “judge, establish justice,” occurs six times (“justice” in verses 17, 21, 27; “defend” in verses 17, 23; “judges” in verse 26 — notice that every verse that includes “righteousness” also contains a form of shpt). As for 1:10-20, the two occurrences in verse 17 (NRSV “defend the orphan” would be better translated “establish justice for the orphan”) stand out in the definition of what it means to be “clean” (verse 16) and “to do good” (verse 17). Indeed, given the beginning of the passage in verse 10, one might rightly conclude that the essence of God’s “word” or “teaching” (Hebrew torah, often translated as “law”) is justice.
Such a conclusion would cohere with a key biblical text like Psalm 82, in which the God of Israel dethrones the gods and goddesses precisely because they fail to do justice and righteousness. In short, what defines true divinity is the establishment of justice and righteousness. Not surprisingly, like Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 82:3 mentions “the orphan” as particularly standing in need of justice (see also Isaiah 1:23). In other words, the existence of justice and righteousness is to be measured by whether the weakest and most vulnerable members of a society are being attended to and provided for (see also Psalm 72:12-14, which portray the shape of the justice and righteousness that the king is responsible for enacting).
A second way that Isaiah 1 serves as an admirable point of entry into the canon of the Latter Prophets is its juxtaposition of indictment/judgment with promise/hope. For instance, the words of judgment in verses 24-25 are followed immediately by words of hope in verses 26-27, while verse 28 returns to judgment. As it turns out, this pattern of juxtaposing judgment and hope is characteristic of the prophetic books in their final forms. The effect is to communicate that God is essentially gracious and merciful, not wrathful and vindictive. To be sure, there will be destructive consequences of rebellion and injustice, but God’s will is never simply to get even or to punish. Rather, God wills to set things right (see previous two Sundays’ commentaries on Hosea 1 and 11).
This divine intent is evident in 1:10-20. Although the indictment of worship dominates the passage (verses 11-15), and although the warning about destructive consequences for persistent rebellion is clear (verse 20), God’s intent is not to punish. The imperatives of verses 16-18 invite transformation, and they culminate in verse 18a with a final invitation that might be translated, “Come now, let us correct the situation,” a possibility that is grounded in God’s willingness to forgive.
The stinging criticism of worship in verses 11-15 is not an indictment of worship in general. Rather, it is an indictment of worship that serves as a cover-up for “evil” (twice in verse 16); including violence (see “hands full of blood” in verse 15) and deflection of attention from the crucial mission of establishing justice (see Isaiah 58 for a similar criticism of liturgical activities devoid of the pursuit of justice and righteousness).
A pressing question for contemporary pastors and congregations is this: Is our worship acceptable to God? We like to think so, of course, but Isaiah 1:10-20 is an unsettling reminder of how easy it is for worship to become “an abomination” (verse 13). What makes worship acceptable to God is not the motions we perform in the sanctuary, but the mission we pursue in the world — in a word, justice (see next Sunday on Isaiah 5:1-7 for further elaboration on what justice means in practice). In the ancient setting, there were voices to the contrary; and there still are. Earlier during the week that I was writing this essay, a well-known television personality, Glenn Beck, called for people to quit participating in churches that mention “social justice” or those that pursue economic justice. It is not clear which Bible Beck is reading, but it apparently does not include the book of Isaiah!
Commentary on Psalm 33:12-22
God is Great, God is Good
One of the table prayers we have used in our family has been “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food.” This prayer summarizes the pattern of the psalms of praise in the Bible: it expresses praise and thanks and gives two reasons for praise and thanks: God’s greatness and God’s goodness.
I suggest that Psalm 33 is an excellent choice for preaching this Sunday considering it as a whole. It follows the typical pattern of hymns or psalms of praise in the Bible with imperative plurals calling to praise (verses 1-3, “Rejoice, Praise, Sing”) followed by reasons for praise, including God’s greatness (verses 4-12) and God’s goodness (verses 13-19). The psalm is then rounded off with an affirmation of trust (verses 20-21) and a request addressed to the Lord in “you” form (verse 22).
The Same Old Songs? (verses 1-3)
The three imperative plural verbs are addressed to the congregation: “rejoice, praise, sing.” These three verses provide thought for a worship committee:
1. Worship should be joyful! (verse 1)
2. Worship may include the use of musical instruments, mentioned here for the first time in the psalms; a modern-day writer would have spoken of trumpets, trombones, guitars, harps.
3. Worship of the Creator ought to be marked by creativity. In other words, let us have a few new songs in the language and melodies of our own age! (verse 3)
4. Those leading worship ought to be well trained so that they “play skillfully.” Let us worship God with the best musicians and poets we have! After all, we are following in the tradition of Johann Sebastian Bach!
5. Worship ought to be enthusiastic, even with the volume turned up! (verse 3)
Why Praise? God is Great! (verses 4-12)
Now the psalm gives some reasons for praising God. The first word of verses 4 and 9 is “for,” bracketing that section as a unit. Why praise God? Because God created the whole cosmos and especially our “blue planet” with its deep blue seas. How did God do this? The psalmist picks up the notion of creation through the word. God said “let there be”—and there it was! (Genesis 1).
The “God is great” theme continues in verses 10-12 when the writer reflects on God’s work in history. As the prophets make clear, God was concerned not only with what was happening in Israel and Judah! God was also involved with the great nations of their day, in the actions of Assyria, Babylon, Persian and Greece (see Amos 9:7-8, Isaiah 13-23, Jeremiah 46-51). And while God may be moving in mysterious ways in our own time, we may assume that God is also concerned about what happens in the nations of our time, Iraq or Afghanistan, Africa or Antarctica, the United Kingdom or the United States. Psalm 32 had things to say about individual happiness (32:1-2, 11). Psalm 33:12 asserts that a people whose God is the Lord — will be blessed.
Why Praise? The Lord is Good! (verses 13-19)
I recall touring a Greek Orthodox church where there was, front and center, near the ceiling, a painting of a huge eye, with a brown iris and black pupil. Our guide explained: “That painting represents the eye of God. Walk around anyplace in our sanctuary, look back and you will see that the eye of God is watching you!” Verses 13-15 declare that the Lord looks down at what is happening on our planet. Verses 18-19 promise that the Lord “keeps an eye on us.” Children, as we know, love to have their parents and grandparents “keeping an eye” on them. They like be watched and praised for their accomplishments. But I think they also like the sense that someone who loves them is watching, protecting, in case anything should go wrong!
God is great, says this psalm, and God is also good. That goodness is expressed in the declaration of God’s steadfast love (Hebrew, hesed; verses 5, 18). The prophet Isaiah had said that the earth was filled with the glory of God (Isaiah 6:3). This psalm says that the earth is filled — with God’s steadfast love (hesed, verse 5). Thus, we ought not locate God only high in the heavens…but think of God in terms of a cloud of amazing grace, spread throughout the entire planet! The fact that God has an eye on us is reason for fear and trust in God’s steadfast love (hesed, verse 18).
In the Meantime (20-22)
The writer catches our mood as we live out our days. We can be glad because we can trust.
Finally, we can pray (and here is the third hesed) “Let your steadfast love be upon us, as we live in hope.”
Preaching and Worship on Psalm 33
In the case of this psalm one can preach right through it, following the pattern of the psalm itself. The “God is great” theme will be enhanced by singing “How Great Thou Art” or perhaps with photographs illustrating the wonder of space and the beauties of creation. The threefold “steadfast love” theme (5, 18, 22) could be developed by reading Psalm 136 responsively. The congregation will discover that modern “praise songs” did not invent the device of repetition to make a point! Or that theme could be illustrated with stories from the Bible (the waiting Father in Luke 15; Hosea’s picture of the God who loves no matter what) or personal experience. In any case the tripling of the steadfast love theme indicates its centrality. Then of course the hesed theme of the Old Testament emerges in the notion of agape in the new, with John 3:16 giving most succinct expression. As for the “eye” theme, which occurs only here in the Bible, how about singing “His eye’s upon the sparrow, and I know God watches me…” Finally, this might be just the time to try a few “new songs,” as suggested by this old text itself!
Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Bryan J. Whitfield
“People get ready, There’s a train a comin’. You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’. Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”
“All you need is faith,” so Curtis Mayfield’s song from the sixties assures us. The preacher of this first-century sermon we call Hebrews says it too: “All you need is faith.”
But what is faith? The opening verse of this chapter sketches two dimensions of faith or faithfulness that the writer will then develop in detail: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). First, faith provides a guarantee, the peg on which we hang our hopes. Because of faith, our hope is no flimsy dreaming; it has substance and reality. Faith provides a ground to which we may hold fast. But that grounding also orients us toward the future and gives us courage to move forward, launching out into the unknown. The second dimension of faith is that it moves us forward.
This preacher does more than provide a definition, however. He skillfully calls to mind stories that clothe these two dimensions of faithfulness with flesh and bones and sinew and breath. To know fully what faithfulness is, we must remember the stories. In a quick review, the preacher first tells us about Abel, Enoch, and Noah.
Then the pace slows as the preacher lingers over the story of Abraham and Sarah. In the lives of this couple, both dimensions of faith shine forth. They show us that faithfulness requires both holding fast and moving forward.
First, faithfulness is holding fast to the promises of God. God had promised Sarah and Abraham countless descendants and a land that God would reveal to them. But both promises were “things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Would God give these wanderers from Ur descendants as numerous as stars in the sky and as countless as the grains of sand on the seashore (Hebrews 11:12)? That many descendants require one daughter or son as a start. Such a promise was not so strange when Abraham and Sarah were young, but eventually possibility gave way to improbability, and improbability to impossibility. Sarah and Abraham were no longer spring chickens. They were not even summer or fall chickens, for that matter.
Perhaps Abraham could still father a child, but Sarah knew her child-bearing days were many, many years in the past. That is why she laughed so hard the first time she overheard their visitors tell Abraham he was soon to be a father. That is why their son’s name would be Isaac, “Laughter.” His name marked God’s joy in upending human expectations, a contagious joy they remembered every time that they called out “Laughter, you stop that right this minute” or “Laughter, it’s time for dinner” or “Laughter, your mother and I need to have a talk with you.”
Abraham and Sarah also held fast to a second promise, that of land. That promise was equally impossible, for these two were wanderers, pilgrims who set out not knowing their destination. Even when they arrived in the promised land of Canaan, they lived like strangers in a foreign country, in tents, always ready to pack up and move.
But they did more than hold fast to this promise. Sarah and Abraham knew that the promise of God is also a call, and so they lived out the second dimension of faithfulness, that of moving forward. They lived in tents because they were not ultimately called to the land of Canaan. That was not their final destination. The journey was part of their obedience, but Canaan was not their home. They were looking for another city, the city with foundations not made with hands, “whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
They did not receive that promise in their lifetime. They only saw the promise on the horizon, beckoning, calling them onward in their journey. Because they experienced the promise as a call, they held fast to the promises of God, and they also moved forward in response to God’s call. They knew that faithfulness is a form of courage that launches out into the unknown, moving into the future with God, knowing the future is God’s.
So how do we measure up with respect to these two dimensions of faith? Some of us find it easy to “hold fast.” We know the stories–stories of the Bible, stories of our congregations, stories of faithfulness and sacrifice. These stories matter because the stories we tell and make our own give us our bearings. They help us work out where we stand, who we are, and what we ought to do, but we find it harder to “move forward” into the future. We are not that fond of tents, and we travel with lots of baggage.
Others of us have little trouble moving forward. We like to camp. We travel light. We ask, “Where can we join what God is doing now?” We are a people on the way, on the move, knowing that the future belongs to God, but we need help “holding fast,” learning the story of God’s faithfulness to promise. We need to know of loyalty and endurance that persevere even when the path is rough and long.
So we need both dimensions of faithfulness. We need to hold fast to the promises of God and to move forward into the future which is God’s. The power of the example of Sarah and Abraham is that their lives joined these two dimensions. In the midst of change and uncertainty, they found God constant and faithful. Therefore, they too could be full of faith, holding fast to God’s promises and moving forward into that future with God. May their faithfulness shine forth as an example for us that we too may prove faithful.
Every once in a while, I am tempted to add a verse or two at the beginning or end of the lectionary reading to fill out its literary context.
This is one of those days, though my rationale is less for context and more for humor. After reading this passage about giving all one has to the poor and about being on the watch for Christ’s unexpected return, we may well want to echo Peter’s question in verse 41: “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” Odds are, most of us are hoping it is addressed to a generic “everyone,” not directly to us!
Attending to both the liturgical and narrative context of this reading may aid us in discovering a message we can, in fact, address profitably to our concrete situation. Let’s start with the liturgical context. During the extended Pentecost season we work through many of Jesus’ parables and teaching. While the lectionary’s choices about which elements of Jesus’ instruction to highlight may at times seem somewhat random, its overarching trajectory is not.
The first half of the lectionary year – from Advent to Ascension – is typically called the “Season of Christ” and attempts to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” The second half of the year – from Pentecost to Christ the King Sunday – is named the “Season of the Church” and addresses the follow-up question, “And what does it mean to follow Jesus?” We are, therefore, in the heart of material relating, if not to the content of our salvation, then at least to the character of our Christian life. Over the last two weeks we focused, in turn, on the importance of prayer and the seductive power of wealth; this week we turn our gaze to the expectant trust that should characterize our lives.
The narrative context is equally important. According to Luke, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples – and occasionally the crowds he attracts – along the way. After sharing the parable of the rich fool, Jesus urged his disciples to dwell on no earthly concerns: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear…Instead, strive for God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.” (12:22-23, 31). In today’s passage, and in light of such faith and trust, Jesus now invites them to give all they have away and, in the verses that follow, to look for Christ’s imminent return. The edge in the last verses – reward for those who were ready and what feels like a thinly veiled threat to those who are not – only heightens the sense of expectancy for, and tension around, Jesus’ instructions.
So how does one preach such a passage? Does Jesus really intend for his disciples – then or now – to give all they have away? What do we make of the urgency of his instructions to be alert two thousand years later? No wonder Peter asks whether Jesus says these things to his disciples or – hope against hope – to “everyone.”
There is, however, one verse that is easy to gloss over that helps put these others in some theological and homiletical perspective: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” “Do not be afraid” is the hallmark of good news through Scripture and occurs multiple times in Luke’s story of Jesus as well. (It is also what God says to Abram in today’s first reading.) Typically, “Do not be afraid,” is the rhetorical prelude to the announcement of God’s mighty and saving deeds. And it is the starting point and anchor for everything else in this passage. It is God’s good pleasure – God’s intention, plan, and delight – to give you the kingdom! If this is true, then disciples can, indeed, resist the seduction of wealth, not fall prey to constant anxiety about worldly needs, share what they have with others, and wait expectantly, even eagerly, for the coming of the Son of Man.
The point of almsgiving, I think, is not to elevate poverty – circumstantial or chosen – but rather to extol generosity as a mark of the Christian life. Similarly, the watchfulness Jesus commands is not an anxious anticipation of the end of the world but rather an eager expectation of God’s consummation of history. What Jesus is commending is faith – faith that frees one to be generous; faith that enables one to leave anxiety behind; faith that creates in one confidence about a future secured not by human endeavor or achievement but by God alone.
But Jesus does not simply hold out faith as a model and goal, much less as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves her children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God’s good pleasure to give God’s children the kingdom. Promises create a shared expectation about the future and bind together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises create faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life – whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, care of neighbor, and more – are therefore anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Remembering – indeed, exalting in – this promise enables us not only to have faith, but to answer Peter’s question: is Jesus saying this to us or to everyone? Yes!