Lectionary Commentaries for August 15, 2010
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 12:49-56

David Lose

History is written backwards; sermons are written forward.

Luke’s history of Jesus’ mission and ministry is no exception. Luke reworks traditions he has inherited as well as he draws upon his own sources to produce a story of Jesus that makes sense of his community’s present experience. The realities and concerns that occupy his community — issues of wealth and poverty, the delay of Jesus’ return, concerns about the orderly transition of apostolic authority, and more — therefore influence how Luke thinks about and writes the history of Jesus. History — all history, including gospel history — is written backwards, shaped by the concrete circumstances and realities of the historian and his or her community.

Sermons, however, are written forward. As interesting as the historical context and background of the biblical text may be, the more pressing question is not the past of the text but its future. What, that is, might this text say to us about our life in faith and in the world? How will this passage shape our view of God, ourselves, and our neighbor? How will this passage affect us? What will it do to us? History is written backwards; sermons forward.

I raise these hermeneutical considerations because of the complexity of the passage before us. Given the repeated shifts in audience between the disciples and the crowds throughout this section of Luke’s narrative (in today’s pericope the disciples are addressed in verses 49-53, the crowds in verses 54-6) it is likely we have multiple distinct recollections of Jesus’ ministry spliced together. Their relation to each other is, therefore, sometimes hard to detect and may at times feel a bit forced. Similarly, Jesus’ comments seem to slide between references to his immediate mission and fate and a more distant eschatological reality. Further, his message about bringing division rather than peace will strike most listeners — and this probably includes the preacher — as at least counter-intuitive, if not downright contradictory to much of his preaching. Finally, the lectionary, while generally following Luke’s account, skips around the narrative, selecting various slices of the story for our attention while leaving out others, all of which makes tracking the consistent narrative more difficult for our hearers.

In order both to detect the theological confession (or confessions) rooted in Luke’s narrative and to anticipate what effects they may produce in the congregation, I suggest that we give first attention to Jesus’ description of his mission. It unfolds through three related purpose statements or activities. Jesus came to bring fire, to be baptized, and to bring division.

Fire, Baptism, Division — Oh, My!
Fire is a multivalent biblical image. It can represent the presence of God — think pillar fire in Exodus (13:17-22) and the tongues of flame at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). It can also represent eschatological judgment — in Revelation, Satan and his army are consumed by fire (20:7-10). Fire also represents purification — Zachariah (13:9) and Malachi (3:2-3) each refer to God’s intention to purify Israel like a refiner purifies silver by fire. We need not necessarily divide sharply between these possibilities to appreciate Jesus’ use of this image. Jesus, as Simeon foresaw, not only represents God’s prepared salvation (2:30-31), but also “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inward thoughts of many will be revealed” (2:34-35). He embodies the presence of God which simultaneously judges and purifies.

Baptism also is used in the New Testament to represent both judgment and purification and was connected with fire by John (3:16-17). Jesus refers, however, not to the baptism he brings but to the one he receives. In this context, the baptism of which Jesus speaks seems clearly to be an allusion to his cross, an event that dominates every moment of his mission. Strikingly, the One who embodies the presence of God is not simply meting out the fire of judgment and purification, but bears it also himself.

The division of which Jesus speaks is a result of the purifying fire he bears. The kingdom of God he proclaims represents a new order governed not by might but by forgiveness (hence the import of forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer, 11:4), not by fear but by courage (“be not afraid” in 1:13, 30, 2:10, 5:11, 8:50, 12:4, 7, 32,), and not by power but by humility (see Mary’s song, 1:46-55). Yet those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus — though coming to establish a rule of peace — brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family.

Weather Forecasts, Then and Now
The second half of this week’s lection portrays Jesus chastising the crowds for not recognizing the signs he bears. Like dark clouds or a dry wind, the teaching and acts of mercy he performs indicate what will come. Jesus is born for one thing: to herald the coming kingdom of God, and to establish this kingdom he will raise neither banner nor sword but instead hang on the cross, the vulnerable insignia of God’s new reign. Those who recognize the signs and choose to follow him will not only need to forsake the trappings of power that adorn the lords of the present kingdom, but can also expect resistance, even opposition.

But if Jesus’ call to a new way of relating to each other — via forgiveness, courage, and humility — stirred up division during his time and that of the early church, what does it bring today? While Christians in some parts of the world — one thinks of India, China, and parts of Africa — continue to face opposition, Christians in the western world are asked to give up very little for the sake of their faith. How, then, do we hear Jesus’ pronouncement that he brings fire and division rather than peace?

To answer this question, the preacher and congregation must engage in their own weather forecasting by discerning the signs of the times: what elements of our lives hinder our service to the God of the lowly and powerless? In earlier passages from Luke, wealth, a lack of faith, fear, and a desire to put oneself first all presented themselves as potential distractions from the way of Christ. Whether it is these things or others, one suspects that they also will be consumed by the fire Jesus brings.

Yet if we fear undergoing this baptism by fire, we might take comfort in the simple yet stark fact the Lord who comes to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit first embraced his own baptism — experiencing harm that we might know healing, undergoing judgment that we might know pardon, suffering death that we might know life, both now and in the world to come. Thus, looking backward to Jesus and his baptism, we find the courage to look forward to discern the signs and challenges of our own times, joining our hopes and fears to those of Christians throughout the centuries by praying, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:23-29

Shauna Hannan

The scathing scolding present in Jeremiah 23 suggests that false prophets had become an insidious problem.

The rebuke is palpable even for those of us who hear these words over two-and-a-half millennia later. Curiously, just when Jeremiah’s poetic rant is in high gear, there is a change in tone as well as form. This pivotal point is where the pericope begins (verse 23). The form changes from poetry to prose while the content seems to reflect an intentional distancing from the previous harangue in order to focus on the character of God. There is a series of rhetorical questions which get at the heart of who God is. Of course, it is Jeremiah who is speaking, but he is presenting himself as a true prophet through whom God is speaking. Jeremiah’s hope is that he will be seen as a true prophet distinguished from the false prophets. Even more, the hope is that God is seen as the one true God distinguished from the false gods.

While an interesting angle of this text is to delineate false from true prophets, it is especially intriguing to discern what this text says about the character of God. While every biblical text deserves this inquiry, it is especially valuable with a text that highlights God’s identity and role in the midst of human unfaithfulness. Exploring this text theologically reveals a God who 1) laments, 2) is pervasive yet near, and 3) speaks powerful words.

“How Long?” (verse 26) is lament language. God is concerned about the ever-widening gap between God and God’s people as a result of people being led astray by false prophets. Stated in another way, God’s desire for a close relationship with God’s people is evident. The trouble is that false prophets are convincing. They even use acceptable means through which God might speak (dreams) in order to manipulate their targets. God is aware of such tactics. God is also aware that, like their ancestors, false prophets attempt to get their would-be followers to forget God’s name (verse 27). It is telling that our lamenting God is concerned not only for those who follow false prophets, but for the false prophets themselves (“Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back?”).

Secondly, God is pervasively present though not “dangerously” present. God (through Jeremiah) speaks of this both/and. “Am I a God near by and not a God far off?” and “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” A god who is too near cannot possibly be aware of the bigger picture. Even more, a god who is too near could become too confined, too controllable, too “cozy” in one’s “pet” circumstances. False prophets describe such a god. And yet, a god who is too far off has no concern for the local situation of real people. That is certainly not true of God. Otherwise, God would not be speaking to this particular situation. Thus, God is both perfectly near and perfectly pervasive. A true prophet grasps this paradoxical character of God.

Thirdly, Jeremiah 23 reveals a speaking God whose words are powerful. God is so confident in God’s true word that God encourages the false prophets to go on having their say. “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” Recall that earlier (Jeremiah 23:16), it was suggested that the false prophets’ so-called divine dreams come from “their own minds” and not “from the mouth of the Lord.”

In verse 29, the competing words (that is, God’s and those of false prophets) are as distinct as straw and wheat. Whereas the words of false prophets are like chaff, God’s words are like food that nourishes. The obvious answer to the question, “What has straw in common with wheat?” is, “Nothing.” While God’s word nourishes, it is no schmaltzy, accommodating, feel-good word. God’s word is like fire (that is, judgment — see 4:4; 5:14) and like a “hammer that breaks a rock into pieces” (see 50:23; 51:20). Perhaps Jeremiah is reacting to his opponents who have responded negatively to his pronouncements of judgment. Unlike the words of the false prophets which lure with their sugar-coated promises, Jeremiah’s words can sting. (Perhaps this is the connection to this Sunday’s potentially “offensive” Gospel reading.)

This text prompts preachers to respond to a few questions. First, do these characteristics of God match the way you depict God in your preaching? Secondly, how do you, in your preaching, distinguish between false and true prophets? Finally (and this may be the most difficult, yet most important, to answer), how do you avoid the ways of false prophets who speak a word from their own minds and not the mouth of the Lord, in favor of the ways of true prophets whose words point people toward the one, true God?

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Last week’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 1 highlighted the importance of justice and righteousness.

Both of these crucial words/concepts are featured again in Isaiah 5:1-7, another of the more memorable passages in all of the prophetic literature. What begins as if it will be a “love-song” quickly develops into an allegory; and lest there be any doubt about the message, verse 7 concludes the passage by offering an explicit interpretation. God is the owner of the vineyard, which represents God’s people. The coming destruction (verses 5-6) results from the people’s failure to do what God “expected,” and more literally and poignantly, what God “hoped for” (verses 2, 4, 7). That is, the failure to enact and embody justice and righteousness invites catastrophe.

Israel and Judah are imaged elsewhere as the vineyard or vine that God has planted. For instance, the psalm for the day, Psalm 80, contains a “plot” similar to the one found in Isaiah 5:2-6. Indeed, Psalm 80 assumes the destruction that is anticipated in Isaiah 5:5-6. The question asked by the psalmist in 80:12 — “Why have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” — is answered in Isaiah 5:1-7. In short, the people have invited their own destruction by the failure to do justice and righteousness. Psalm 80 pleads for the restoration of the vine/people. The Isaiah tradition itself also uses the vine imagery again in Isaiah 27:2-6, both to explain the consequences of disobedience ( verse 4), as well as to plead for the people’s obedience (verse 5) and to anticipate an eventual restoration (verse 6).

In Isaiah 5:1-7, however, the tone is judgment. The owner of the vineyard made every possible preparation for a fruitful harvest — picking a good site, preparing the land, choosing the best plants, arranging for protection and for processing the grapes. But what he got was “wild grapes,” or more literally, “stinking things” (verses 2, 4). The portrayal of God here is significant. In particular, what God “expected” or “hoped for” does not happen; in short, God does not guarantee the results.

We must assume that God’s people have been given the freedom to respond to God faithfully, or not. Such freedom is absolutely necessary for true relationality — that is, love (remember, the passage begins as a “love-song”) — to exist. But it is precisely the people’s freedom that means things can go wrong, and they do. All of this has important implications for understanding the tone of judgment in Isaiah 5:1-7 and the prophets in general — that is, judgment is not to be understood as God’s need to punish or to get even with the sinful people. Rather, judgment is the set of destructive consequences that result from the people’s own choices. God is essentially gracious (see commentary on Hosea 11:1-11, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost).

As for what the people have chosen, verse 7 gives us a general picture, further details of which can be found in the remainder of Isaiah 5. The good, fruitful harvest that God “expected” or “hoped for” is named with the two extraordinarily important words “justice” and “righteousness.” The structure and rhetoric of the passage add even further emphasis to these two crucial words. They occur in the climactic verse, and the alliterative word-play in Hebrew highlights them even further. Instead of the “justice” (mishpat) that God “expected,” God sees “bloodshed” (mispach). And instead of “righteousness” (tsedaqah), God hears “a cry” (tse’aqah). Instead of the goodness that God expects the people to enact and embody, there is violence that leads the victims to cry out for help.

The Hebrew word translated “cry” is particularly important and revealing. When God’s people were being victimized by Pharaoh in Egypt, their response was to cry to God for help (see Exodus 3:7). This word also occurs in 1 Samuel 8:18 in the culmination of Samuel’s warning to the people about the “justice” (see NRSV “ways” in 1 Samuel 8:9, 11) of the soon-to-be-established monarchy. As Samuel puts it, the “justice” of the kings will be nothing but oppression. The people “will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves.” In short, the warning is that the monarchy itself will re-create the oppressive conditions of Pharaoh’s Egypt. Isaiah 5:7 suggests that the worst has happened. God’s own people have chosen a system that creates victims and evokes their cries for help.

The details of the oppressive conditions are evident as chapter 5 unfolds — joining “house to house” and adding “field to field” (verse 8), thus displacing poor farmers from their land (and only source of livelihood), and resulting in both homelessness and hunger (verse 13). Excess, greed, and conspicuous consumption (see also verses 11-12, 22) are apparently supported by corruption and manipulation of the legal system (verse 23). The deplorable situation results, according to Isaiah 5, from the rejection of God’s “instruction” and “word” (verse 24; see 1:10 and last week’s essay). Although the poor are directly victimized, everyone eventually stands to lose (verse 15) when justice and righteousness (see verse 16) are not enacted and embodied.

Violence, victimization, hunger, homelessness, greed, conspicuous consumption, corruption — these realities sound all too familiar! Somewhere in our world, a child dies every four seconds from causes related to hunger and malnutrition. In the United States, 51% of our people will have lived in poverty at some point in their lives by the time they reach age 65.1 46 million people in the United States have no health insurance. All the while, corporate executives make 419 times more money than the average worker,2 and then there are the obscenely large bonuses that in recent months have even been funded by taxpayer money. As Mary Pipher concludes, “We have cared more about selling things to our neighbors than we’ve cared for our neighbors. The deck is stacked all wrong and ultimately we will all lose.”3

We can do better. We should do better. God expects us to do better. But tragically, instead of justice, God sees violence; and instead of righteousness, God hears the cries of victims.

1Bread for the World, 2010 Offering of Letters, p. 16.
2James M. Childs, Jr., Greed: Economics and Ethics in Conflict (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 37.
3The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 94.


Commentary on Psalm 82:1-8

James Limburg

The Shaking of the Foundations

The Working Preacher may decide to preach on the Gospel text for today, following along with a series of sermons on Luke. The text from Hebrews is also inviting, with its picture of the “great cloud of witnesses” in the stands, surrounding us who are still running the races in the arena. I suggest, however, that the scene of cosmic judgment in Psalm 82 along with the portrayal of the prophetic word as “like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” in Jeremiah 23 can provide invigorating, even jarring reminders of the God of the Bible and of the power of prophetic preaching. These texts may even enliven our own preaching — in what can be the doldrums of the month of August.

The Council of the Gods
This psalm picks up on a theme that has been highly discussed in Old Testament scholarship of our time, that of the “council of the gods.” The notion of such a “divine council” where the gods of the nations meet is known from ancient Near Eastern texts outside the Bible. These texts have then shed light on variations of the “divine council” theme in the Bible itself.

1 Kings 22:19-28 provides a good example, where Micaiah has a vision of the LORD presiding over the council; in the biblical version, however, the others present in the divine council are not “gods” but “spirits.” Isaiah’s call and vision provide another example. The prophet saw the LORD, sitting on a throne, surrounded by heavenly beings surrounding and waiting on God (Isaiah 6:2). This was a scene from another world! Strange winged creatures (though not so strange to a world that has seen Avatar!) were singing “holy, holy, holy,” the place was filled with smoke, and the foundations of the mighty temple were shaking; one thinks of watching some of our 21st century earthquakes on television! In the midst of all this smoke and singing and shaking comes a voice crying out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And the young man Isaiah says, “Here am I, send me!” For a further description of what is going on in the divine council, see also Job 1:6-12 and 2:1-6.

The Prophet as Messenger from the Divine Council
The notion of the divine council lies behind the Jeremiah text for the day. The country is plagued with phony prophets who represent the false God, Baal (23:13), and who are adulterers and liars (23:14). These “prosperity preachers” have no word of God’s judgment but only a groundless gospel that says “It shall be well with you” (23:16-17). Jeremiah says that these false prophets have not listened in on the deliberations of the divine council (23:18, 22). They have not been sent by the Lord and bring no authentic word from God (23:21). Therefore the Lord is against them (23:30-40) and will in fact poison them (23:15). From these criticisms of the false prophets we can construct a picture of the true prophet: that prophet has listened in on the council of God, that prophet has been sent by God and as his “Thus says the Lord” indicates (23:15), is a true messenger from the true God.

And now we get a hint of what Jeremiah’s preaching was like. The message was not his own, but it came from the Lord, as the “says the Lord” indicates (23:23, 24, 28). And what of this God? This is not the god of the deists, sitting high in the heavens, removed from the struggles and pains of people on earth. God is high in the heavens, but also fills every mountain and valley of the earth (23:24). This God sends messengers from his divine council to his people of this planet. The word they bring is not a smiley, smarmy, soothing word, but rather a word that is like fire (see Jeremiah 20:9) and like a jackhammer, shaking and breaking up old pieces of concrete to make room for the new (23:29).

The Shaking of the Foundations
Now to the scene portrayed in the psalm. The imagery has a great deal of commonality with pictures of a “council of the gods” found in the religions of Israel’s neighbors. We are to imagine a heavenly trial going on. The Judge is our God, the true God, who has a judgment against the gods of all the other nations. The Judge says that these gods are phonies and are therefore all sentenced to death: “You shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince” (7). Such a cosmic judging is so frightening and terrifying that the very foundations of the earth shift and shake (5).

Just what have the gods done that was wrong? It is not so much what they have done as what they have not done. Now the scene shifts from the vastness of space to the small villages. Here live the poor, the weak, the orphans and widows. The gods of these nations should have seen to it that these powerless were protected. But they have failed in their role. Therefore, the earth quakes, the foundations shake, and these “gods” will die!

When Foundations Shake
The scene in the psalm is not a pretty one, with widows and orphans, poor and powerless, persons who are suffering. The prophets brought messages from God’s “divine council” calling for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5). When the “lowly, and the destitute…the weak and the needy” are neglected and oppressed, then the fundamental structures of human existence are threatened.

Jesus spoke about the eternal consequences of neglecting those who are hungry and hurting (Matthew 25:31-46). James went so far as to define true religion in terms of treatment of the orphan, widow and poor (James 1:26-2:26). The scope of Psalm 82 is exceptionally wide. But the old hymn reminds us that there is wideness in God’s mercy, too. (I like the melody in the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal best!)

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 11:29—12:2

Bryan J. Whitfield

Do you have a photo album? Do you ever look through the pages, remembering the people and events that shaped your life?

There are pictures snapped long before you came on the scene: aunts, uncles, and your parents before they were all grown up. Then there is that picture of you on your mother’s lap or that vacation photo with your father in the background. There is graduation, the wedding, the first baby pictures. Then the cycle starts all over again. We gather up the memories and recall the people who stood by us in the good times and the bad.

That is what the writer of Hebrews is doing in chapter 11. He helps us look at our family snapshots in the gallery of faith: Remember those who crossed over the Red Sea. Remember Rahab, who welcomed the scouts. Remember those who marched around Jericho. Remember Sampson and Daniel, who shut the mouths of lions. Remember those who won strength out of weakness like Gideon and Esther. Remember those who were tortured, mocked, scourged, and tormented.

Why should we look at this photo album of faith and faithfulness? Because in looking, we learn who we are. We learn that we are not alone and that we are part of a family with particular traits and characteristics.

As we look at this remarkable family the writer of Hebrews sketches, we discover two portraits of faith. One portrait is full of images of triumph: conquering enemies, obtaining promises, shutting the mouths of lions, even gaining victory over death. But the other portrait is filled with images of suffering: public mocking, imprisonment, beating, stoning, homelessness, violence, and death. From the outside, the pictures and images are radically different, impossible to reconcile. After all, our culture says we are either successes or failures. But the writer of Hebrews mixes the categories because our lot in life is not a measure of our faithfulness.

The intermingled categories are a word of encouragement for struggling Christians. If we are struggling, and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is suffering, we might despair. Must our suffering continue forever? If we are struggling and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is triumph and victory, what hope is there for us? But the mixing of suffering and triumph gives us a word of hope: faithfulness shines both in suffering and in triumph, both in sorrow and in joy.1

So we learn that faith endures. Faith trusts God’s promises even when the present calls those promises into question. In the face of suffering, faith holds on and holds out because of the certainty of a future in which God has something better in store. Such are the lessons from our family photo album. We remember our company. We are not alone.

We remember our company, but we also remember our contest. We have a race to run. We are not mere tourists in this world, wandering from place to place, taking pictures, visiting landmarks, writing postcards, and then cheerily returning to the safety of home. We are runners in a race—not a fifty-yard dash, but a marathon.

As runners, we must lay aside every hindrance, even our ordinary clothes, for the purpose of the contest. And so the writer calls us to lay aside every sin that could trip us up or weigh us down. We summon our dedication and focus to pay the price.

But what do we do if all that does not appear to be enough? What if, despite a cloud of witnesses, despite that cheering section, despite our perseverance and sacrifice, we do not know whether we can hold out to the end?

The writer of Hebrews has one final word of advice. There is one more photograph for us to see, the final and most important one of all: “Let us run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Pioneer translates a particularly rich Greek word, archegos. The archegos is the author, the beginner, the instigator, the impetus, the trailblazer who goes before us. Here the writer has in mind the first namesake of Jesus–Joshua, son of Nun, who scouted out the land of promise. Just so, this new Jesus has been the scout, blazing a trail through all of human existence and tested in every way like all of us, yet finding joy at the end of the suffering of the cross.

But there is more. In the context of a race, the archegos is the team captain. In the Greek games, the team captain would run the race and then wait at the finish line to encourage his teammates as they followed in his steps.

Yet Jesus is not simply the pioneer; he is also the perfecter. Here the author of Hebrews has in mind a second namesake of Jesus–Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the first high priest after the exile. Priests perfect and complete what we lack, bringing us to our goal so that we may have full access to the presence of God. So Jesus not only calls us across the finish line but also fills in and fills out what is lacking in our faithfulness. He takes our incomplete faith and makes it whole.

So when our knees are weak and our hands drooping, when we feel worn out in the journey of faith, wondering whether we can hold on and hold out, we hear again this clarion call from Hebrews. We remember our company. We remember our contest, but above all, we remember our captain who has run this race and who beckons us home.

“O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.”2

1Craddock, New Interpreters’ Bible.
2Helen H. Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.”