Lectionary Commentaries for August 22, 2010
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:10-17

Jeannine K. Brown

She had gotten used to looking at people out of the corner of her eye, by looking up and sideways.

After eighteen years, she could hardly remember any other way of seeing the world. On this particular Sabbath, there was a special excitement at the synagogue, where she regularly went to worship. A Galilean preacher and prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, had arrived in town and would be teaching there. She and the others in town had heard reports about Jesus–how he talked about God’s reign arriving soon and how he healed sick people. She was not sure how many of the rumors to believe, but she was trying not to get her hopes up. Her life already had too many disappointments to count.

When she entered the synagogue, the place was abuzz. As Jesus began to teach, however, the room was hushed. Moments later, his words turned from teaching to invitation. He had caught her eye–no mean feat, given that he had to lean over and incline his head to do so. “Come here,” he said to her. She slowly made her way to the front of the assembly.

What happened next amazed the whole congregation. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When this man, Jesus, spoke those words and put his hands on her broken, bent body, she felt power surge through her. Without hesitation, she straightened her once crooked back. She stood tall and praised her God . . .


While the point of view of the biblical author is the most prominent perspective in a text, imaginatively exploring the experiences of one or more characters can raise helpful interpretive questions and contextual insights. Reading from the perspective of the bent over woman in Luke 13:10-17 is one such example.

A reading from this perspective emphasizes the healing as the crucial starting point of the story. While this pericope is a story of controversy between Jesus and the synagogue leader, at its core is a healing that demonstrates Jesus’ power and his compassion. We hear the compassionate tone in Jesus’ defense for healing on the Sabbath when he argues from lesser to greater: if compassion is shown to one’s animals on the Sabbath by providing them water, “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (13:16). Although Luke has not provided this woman with a name in the story, he indicates that Jesus gives her a “name,” the daughter of Abraham. This phrase does not occur elsewhere in Luke or in the rest of Scripture (cf. Luke 19:9, where Jesus calls Zacchaeus “a son of Abraham”). This name stresses the woman’s membership in the covenant community.

Another value of reading imaginatively from the woman’s perspective is the raising of historical questions about her relationship to her (Jewish) faith and community. There is a tendency to read the gospels in ways that denigrate first-century Judaism and highlight Jesus over against his Jewish context.

We could do this rather easily with this passage by making the synagogue leader simply the “bad guy” (13:14), without any exploration of why he interprets Sabbath laws as he does. Such a reading of the passage and of Luke more broadly may be common enough; but it does not cohere well with the more nuanced understandings of Judaism that have been offered in recent years in NT scholarship. According to the passage, Jesus offers the woman healing, not salvation from an oppressive socio-religious system. In all likelihood, the woman was cared for by her Jewish community of faith, the synagogue of which she was a part (she is there, after all!). Exploring the story from her perspective emphasizes the way her healing extends the kingdom of God as announced and embodied by Jesus’ ministry in Luke.

The shape of Jesus’ ministry is expressed by Luke when Jesus reads from Isaiah 58 and 61 (Luke 4:18-19) and then claims, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). The freedom announced in Isaiah is actualized throughout Jesus’ kingdom ministry and certainly in this woman’s freedom from her physical bondage.

What do we make, then, of the controversy between Jesus and the synagogue leader who objects to this Sabbath healing? It might be a helpful homiletical move to tell the story from the latter’s perspective to heighten our awareness of questions of historical setting. Here we might note a couple of things. First, the synagogue leader’s complaint is, on the surface, a faithful reading of the Torah: the seventh day was set aside by God for Israel’s rest, and work was prohibited on the Sabbath (e.g., Exodus 31:14). Second, Jesus’ response is not a rejection of the Torah rulings about the Sabbath. Instead, he argues from legitimate allowances of restricted kinds of “work” on the Sabbath (13:15). These kinds of discussions were common in Jewish dialogue regarding the Sabbath. Then Jesus argues for healing on the Sabbath based on the great worth of the woman as “a daughter of Abraham” and the appropriateness of healing on the Sabbath. What better day to heal (bring freedom) than on the Sabbath?

Jesus’ perspective on the Sabbath as a day for deliverance is vindicated, as Luke narrates the humiliation of Jesus’ opponents and the joy of the crowds at his wonderful (healing) deeds (13:17). Although we do not hear about the woman who has been healed at the end of the passage, the praise she offers to God (doxazo; 13:13) reverberates with the crowds’ rejoicing (chairo; 13:17). Both themes of praise and rejoicing are emphasized by Luke as appropriate responses to God’s work in Jesus (e.g., 7:16) the one who brings the reign of God in healing power to those who most need it.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 58:9b-14

Shauna Hannan

This pericope was likely teamed with the gospel reading because of its emphasis on the Sabbath. However, there is a lot more going on here that is worthy of attention.

The setting of this pericope is especially important. “Third Isaiah” (chapters 56-66) is a prophet addressing the people of Israel upon their return to Jerusalem after nearly 50 years of being in exile. As they begin to establish their new life in the homeland, the prophet speaks to them about God’s promises for renewal. Alongside this word is the reminder of God’s command to live justly. This particular pericope proclaims that the Lord will fulfill his promises as the people fulfill their call to act justly and to honor the Sabbath.

To act justly is to remove the yoke that oppresses others and to refrain from contempt (“pointing fingers”) and slander (“speaking of evil”). In addition, to act justly is to give of oneself to the hungry and oppressed. Numerous English translations do not capture the word nephesh from the Hebrew. The text does not say to give food to the hungry, but to give one’s whole being. Nephesh is repeated a second time for emphasis in reference to satisfying the oppressed. In return, one’s light will rise out of the darkness and one’s whole being (nephesh) will be satisfied, continually nourished (“you shall be like a watered garden”), and have a future (“you shall raise up the foundations of many generations”).

The intriguing thing here is that while the beginning of Isaiah 58 (verses 1-5) is addressed to the community as a whole, “you” in this pericope (beginning with verse 6) is singular. In other words, each individual member has responsibilities to uphold for the sake of the community and each individual will receive the Lord’s promises. While we preachers have a tendency to misinterpret the text by addressing individuals when it, in fact, addresses the community as a whole, this pericope gives license to address individuals (of course, with regard to the whole).

Individuals are also called to act a certain way with regard to worshipping God. In return, there will be, for one thing, delight in the Lord. Keeping the Sabbath and acting justly toward the neighbor are intricately connected. For, as verse 13 highlights (and the double emphasis is not to be missed), to trample and dishonor the Sabbath is to pursue and serve one’s own interests or affairs.

For those who are concerned with the conditional statements in Isaiah 58 (note the “if…then” structure), it must be noted that both the commands and the promises in this pericope are to be viewed in light of what God has done and will do. God has acted first by caring for the people of Israel while in exile and by carrying them back home. Even more, just before this pericope (verse 9a), God says, “Here I am.” As the Lutheran Study Bible notes, “this phrase is generally the response that humans give when called by God or a superior.” Now that God is saying this (and for the third time in Isaiah — see also 52:6 and 65:1), it is “a sign of great compassion” as God becomes “totally available and vulnerable to God’s people.” Communication between God and God’s people is truly dialogical. The emphatic pronouncement that injustice has no place in the lives of a renewed and restored people of God goes hand-in-hand with God’s great acts of mercy to renew and rebuild God’s people.

The content of this text is far from uncommon. So what makes this pericope different? It makes all the difference when viewed through the eyes of those who have been displaced and forced out of their homes. Yes, we could all probably say that, metaphorically speaking, we have been in exile. But this text is speaking of a return from a literal exile which continues to be the actual experience of many of our brothers and sisters in the world.

For this Sunday, I encourage preachers not to hide behind the metaphorical exiles of our lives. If you are like me and have not been in forced exile, go out into your community and find those refugees, for example, who were forced out of their homes and ask them what this text says to them. Third Isaiah is all about bringing into the fold those who have been cast out and providing a hopeful vision for what can and will be. Imagine what can happen if we hear these words through the eyes of those who have been cast out or cut off.

Minimally, I invite you to expand your horizons by reading commentaries written from a perspective and set of experiences other than your own. Because these perspectives are less easy to find (this fact, in and of itself, is telling), let me provide a couple of perspectives (and resources) that do not favor the dominant scholarship.

First, a postcolonial perspective might yield a concern that although the people of Israel have returned home, the “former masters have continued to influence often negatively their post-liberationist social, political, and cultural realities.”1 In the words of Kwesi Dickson, former professor of the University of Ghana, “It is worth remembering that though the prophet is addressing the whole community he is singling out the influential in society, those who see themselves as having the right to exercise power over others.”2
The concern of “Third Isaiah” is that the people were “blind to the fact that every person mattered before God . . . Thus to quarrel and to fight, and to hit with wicked fist, was as much as to deny that God cared for all equally.” While I have generally heard it said (and have said this myself) that we cannot help but respond to God’s acts of mercy with love for the neighbor, Dickson illuminated for me that “to act in love is to do what calls for a response from God.” In other words, God cannot help but respond to acts of love toward our neighbor.

Secondly, Timothy Koch writes, “All Isaiahs, no matter how scathing or consoling they are about past and/or present situations, are nonetheless seized with a vision of a future that defies conventional wisdom, that rejects the most finely tuned social agendas, and that opens into new, uncharted and certainly dramatic territory.”3

Viewing the text through perspectives other than one’s own (especially when these other perspectives have a more immediate connection to the horizon of the original text) is both an act of justice toward the neighbor and a worshipful act. Indeed, doing so moves us beyond serving our own interests. May the prophets you encounter in these different perspectives guide your prophetic preaching on this text.

1See the paper written by Israel Kamudzandu,
(accessed 3.29.10).
2Kwesi A. Dickson, “He is God Because He Cares: Isaiah 58:1-12,” International Review of Mission, 77 no. 306 (April, 1988): 229-237.
3Timothy Koch, “Isaiah,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed. Deryn Guest, et. al. (London, SCM Press, 2006), 371-385.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10

Henry Langknecht

In one way, we have here a typical prophetic call story. God calls, the prophet objects, God assures (often through a specific action–here, the touching of Jeremiah’s mouth) and then commissions.

A distinctive element of Jeremiah’s call story, though, is God’s opening claim of omniscient authorial control over Jeremiah’s life. “Before I formed you …I knew…consecrated…and appointed you.” This aspect of the passage has been cited in Christian deliberations about such varied issues as abortion, predestination, and whether or not God has “a plan (including a particular vocation) for my life.”

The hermeneutical question for the preacher is how far and on what terms to encourage identification between contemporary Christians and Jeremiah. Narrowly we might “look back” to the historical encounter and say, “God cared for our ancestors by calling and sending prophets … back then.” But because we preachers (and hearers) yearn for a richer connection with this text–and with the God who calls–we push to make Jeremiah a type for us: Jeremiah’s experience might in some way be our experience.

But how far will it stretch? The “I knew you” part is safe; let us assume that God knows everyone before they are formed in the womb. But does God also consecrate and appoint all of God’s people to specific vocations or only those destined to become prophets? If all, does that mean that God has an “authored plan” for each of our lives? What are the means by which God communicates our consecration and appointment? And what are the consequences should we pursue another line of work?

Jeremiah objects the call on the basis of his age and ability. God responds intuitively about what the real issues are, thereby showing that God really does know Jeremiah! In God’s assurance we can infer that God intuited phobias (at least agora- and xeno-) and writer’s block: “You will go where I send and you shall speak what I command you.” The grace of the passage is that God believes Jeremiah to be a sufficient vessel for this work; nowhere does God set forth a training regimen or a process of board certification for the prophet.

The reader of the passage has an interesting choice when voicing Jeremiah’s objection and then God’s rebuttal. The default option is likely “naïve, fearful humility.” But we know from Jeremiah 1:1-3 that Jeremiah is a pastor’s kid destined (as he well knows?) to go into the family business. It is possible that Jeremiah’s objection was pro forma, an appropriate display of false modesty. God’s voice in response might be anything from kindly encouragement to impatient frustration.

The last verse, read on its surface, is a general affirmation of the power and inclination of God to act in the affairs of nations. A homiletical possibility here would be to consider exactly where and how we see God acting in contemporary political affairs. In the Bible, God acts dramatically and sometimes precipitously. By contrast, was God “building” and “planting” when Queen Elizabeth II invited David Cameron to form a coalition government following the indecisive elections in the United Kingdom earlier this year?

To focus mostly on the last verse in a sermon would be a tricky move for a couple of reasons. First, the dialogue between Jeremiah and God clearly dominates the pericope; a consideration of just verse 10 would require some careful framing. Second, the Old Testament assumes a kind of exclusivity for the “covenantal theocracy” of Judah (and Israel). Certainly some twenty-first century citizens are willing to claim a similar relationship between God and their homeland, but most of us are more modest in our claims. Still, a sermon that takes up Jeremiah’s role as God’s voice in politics would invite consideration of the voice we modern prophets might have.

All that said, when I am sitting in the pew on August 22, I would like to hear some reflection on vocation and how to achieve balance between “call as gracious gift” and “call as a burden impossible to contemplate.” How much should our vocation weigh on us? Does God calls us to be “merely” who God knows us to be, or is there, built into our call, a sense of “be what I know you could be if you really put your mind to it?”

In a culture that calls for (and pretends to) excellence, most of us strive to perfect our skills and to hide our vocational weaknesses. But hear the grace of God embedded in the phrase, “do not say, ‘I am only …'” Can you end that address from God in such a way that I will hear how even with my limitations I might be used by God? By entering into our vocation with a notion of an “easy yoke” and a “light burden” we point to the God whose word, ability, and power sustains us.

Or help me to understand where the prophetic voice is lodged in the politics of our world (in me, the preacher, the Church as a body); what is its scope (congregation, Church, government); and how do I (or we) understand what kind of authority it is in our world to have been consecrated and appointed as a prophet of God. The Old Testament prophets were calling the kings and people of Judah and Israel to renew their allegiance to the God with whom they were in covenant. In the United States, at least, our “rulers” swear allegiance to a secular constitution.

Finally, though it would depart from the core issues, a sermon rooted in verse 5 of Jeremiah’s call story could investigate the idea of “God having a plan” for our lives. Discerning God’s plan (the right vocation, the right partner) is, for some Christians, fraught with excitement and anxiety. Beyond our shared vocation in baptism, what do we believe about God’s choreography and authorship in our lives?


Commentary on Psalm 103:1-8

James Limburg

All Those Bagpipes

Of the texts that the lectionary pitches for this Sunday (Luke 13, Hebrews 12, Isaiah 58, Psalm 103), I suggest letting the first three go by and taking a cut at the fourth. For the preacher or teacher, Psalm 103 (considered as a whole) is the equivalent of a fat pitch, right down the middle, right over the plate.

Psalm 103: Structure and Genre
Psalm 103 is based on the two elements of the hymn of praise (see Psalm 113 for an example) with calls to praise in verses 1-2a and 20-22 supported by reasons for praise in 2b-4, 6-10, 11-14, 15-18, and 19. We begin by tracing the movement of the psalm as a whole.

Don’t Forget What God has Done for You! (103:1-5)
The expression “Bless the LORD, O my soul” that frames Psalms 103 and 104 has the sense of a charge to oneself: “Now praise the LORD!” Instead of saying “remember the good things God has done” (Psalms 104 and 105) this psalm says “Don’t forget what God has done.” It is one thing for a busy husband or wife to forget a birthday or an anniversary. It may be that it is even easier for an over-stressed citizen of the 21st century to forget about God! Moses preached: “take care that you do not forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 6:12) or…”you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18; see also 4:9, 23).

The psalmist reminds us of the everyday benefits God gives: forgiveness, healing, saving from hell (“the Pit”), capping it all off with steadfast love (Hebrew, hesed) and mercy. There is more: “Don’t forget that God satisfies you with a lifetime of good things and even provides you with those times of renewal, when you feel strong and vigorous and once again young. The imagery here is heroic: “so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (verse 5)

Amazing Grace (103:6-18)
This section falls into three parts, each of which contains the word hesed, translated in the NRSV as “steadfast love” (verses 8, 11, 17) and equivalent to “Amazing Grace” in Christian hymnody.  This section of the psalm offers a short course on what hesed means:

1. Verses 6-10 speak of the inclusive nature of the Lord’s steadfast love which works justice for “all who are oppressed.” Verse 7 recalls the exodus event, the central act of God’s deliverance in the Old Testament and a working out of God’s hesed. Verses 8-10 speak of God’s steadfast love as a forgiving love. The assertion in verse 8 is like a creed that stands at the center of the entire psalm (see also Exodus 34:6). The Hebrew root behind the words translated “mercy” in verse 4, “merciful” in verse 8, and “compassion” (twice) in verse 13 is rechem which means “womb.” Thus the picture behind these words is the kind of affection a mother has for the child of her own womb.

Verse 10 indicates that God’s steadfast love is undeserved. The Lord does not deal with us according to the readout of a cosmic computer keeping track of our acts, but with the kind of love that a mother has for her own child.

2. Verses 11-14 offer three pictures illustrating the nature of God’s hesed. That love is high as the sky and wide as the distance from east to west! Another picture: that love is like the love of a father for his children; the story of God as “waiting Father” in Luke 15 expands upon this notion. Finally, that hesed loves us knowing that we are weak and insignificant; after all, dust was our beginning and is our destiny (Genesis 2:7; 3:19; Psalm 104:29).

3. Verses 15-18 provide yet another angle on the Lord’s hesed. God’s steadfast love is everlasting, in contrast to our lives which are temporary. We mortals are like grass that is here one day and blown away the next. The old hymn has it right:

     we blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree,
        and wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.
            (Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise)

Praise the Heavenly King! (103:19-22)
The psalm concludes with yet another picture of God, this time as heavenly king, ruling over all that exists. Note the repeated all here: God rules over all that exists (19), all the angels of heaven (“his hosts”) are called to praise God. Then the psalm comes back down to earth with the call to all his works to praise (verse 22) and ends as it began, with the psalmist telling himself to praise the Lord.

Psalms 103 and 104 in the Book of Psalms and Christian Theology and Life
Psalms 103-106 are a quartet of four hymns that wind up Book IV of the psalter. The two are closely linked, as the “Bless the Lord” frames of each indicate. The themes of these two psalms are complementary and offer a summary of what the Bible says about God. Psalm 103 tells of God who delivers the nation from bondage (7) and the individual from sin (10-13). God is portrayed as loving with motherly affection (4, 13) as well as with fatherly compassion (13). Psalm 104 speaks of God who creates and sustains all life. Taken together these two psalms express the themes of the Christian creed, speaking of God the Creator and Sustainer (104), God the Saver or Deliverer (103), and God the Spirit (104:27-30).

This is one of the most popular of the psalms, appropriate especially for times of gratitude or of repentance. It occurs frequently in the lectionary and has inspired hymns such as “Praise to the Lord.” Especially attractive is the setting, “Bless the Lord,” in the still-popular 1972 musical, Godspell.

And who can forget the sounds of all those bagpipes at public funerals in our day, sending out the central theme of this psalm, “Amazing Grace!” 

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 12:18-29

Bryan J. Whitfield

“This is your final warning!”

These words, full of gravity and danger, are familiar from television and film or perhaps from our own experience as children or as parents. These bracing words tell us that we have reached a limit, that immediate action is required to change course. Our current path will bring consequences.

In some sense, these words of sharp rebuke are also an apt heading for this passage from Hebrews. Throughout this written sermon, the author has been warning us against neglecting our salvation (2:3), hardening our hearts (3:7–4:13), falling away (6:4-7), and shrinking back (10:38-39). As he comes to the end, he issues one last warning.

As he has done before (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 10:38-39), the writer uses a contrast to develop his warning. Here two mountains, Sinai and Zion, form the basis of comparison. The writer reminds us first of the experience of the Israelites at Sinai: the flames of fire, the mist and gloom, the trumpet blast, and a Voice too terrible to endure (12:18). Drawing on later Jewish interpretation of the event in addition to the Pentateuch, the writer informs us that fear extended from the people to include their leader Moses as well (12:21).

But we have not come to worship at this frightening, inaccessible, isolated mountain. Instead, we have come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22). A marvelous company gathers in this city of the living God. There are countless angels who have come to join in celebration and worship. There is the congregation of the first-born, the brothers and sisters of Jesus the firstborn (1:6). There is a judge, one who is God of all. There are the spirits of righteous people, the godly dead. There is Jesus, who mediates a new covenant (8:6-13), making possible a new access to God and divine blessing. Finally, there is the sprinkled blood of Jesus that seals the new covenant and proves effective for reconciliation in contrast to the blood of Abel that cried out for vengeance (Genesis 4:10-11).1

This contrast (12:18-24) underscores the advantages we gain from the new covenant Jesus makes possible: a new access to God and communion with others in a vibrant city of joy. With these benefits in view, the writer turns to the heart of his admonition. We must not disregard the One who speaks to us, warning us from heaven (12:25). The Israelites did not escape God’s word spoken on earth (12:25-26). How much more ought we to listen now that God speaks from heaven! At Sinai, God’s voice shook the earth. But now God’s voice shakes both earth and heaven, as promised to the prophet Haggai (12:26, quoting Haggai 2:6).

Elaborating this point, the writer interprets the prophetic word to refer to a global destruction of created things (“what is shaken”) so that eternal things (“what cannot be shaken”) may remain (12:27). Here he returns to a theme he introduced at the beginning of the sermon: the earth and the heavens God has created will wear out like clothing that must be changed, but God is constant and eternal (1:10-12, quoting Psalm 102:25-27).

For us, this shaking is a moment of crisis that reorients our lives. As a result of this process of judgment, we lose the things that can be shaken–all that is temporary or ephemeral. But in the midst of such cataclysmic trial, there is good news because that which cannot be shaken abides.

Most importantly, what abides is God’s unshakable kingdom (12:28)–a kingdom we are receiving even now due to the new and living way to God that Jesus has opened for us (10:20). That awareness leads to joy and thankfulness because we participate in the eternal realm and reign of God. Through our participation in that kingdom, we may worship God aright, with reverence and awe (12:28), knowing our God is a consuming fire (12:29) who burns away the ephemeral things of our lives and purifies the precious gold that abides.

This final word suggests that we may reflect on the entire passage through the lens of our own life of worship. Like the first readers of Hebrews, we do not come to stand at Sinai as we gather for worship. Instead, as we journey toward the heavenly Jerusalem, our worship provides, in Fanny Crosby’s words, “a foretaste of glory divine.”2  Our worship is preparation for our life in the city of God, for as we worship that life breaks open to us even in the midst of time and space.

Such worship does not foster a craven fear isolating us from God and each other. Instead it provides access to God and celebratory participation in community. Worship connects us with God, with angels, and with the saints past and present who comprise that “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) encompassing us. Jesus’ mediation of the new covenant makes possible our access and communion with God and moves our hearts to thanks and praise for the grace we have received.

Yet that thankfulness does not end in an easy familiarity with the divine. While we move forward with courage instead of shrinking back, we nonetheless approach the Holy One with reverence and awe. The goal of our worship is not entertainment, nor do we consume worship as a commodity. To worship is to encounter God, to hear God’s voice, to be transformed. True worship does not leave us as we are, at ease with illusions of our own power and significance. Rather, it makes us aware of the impermanence of all human lives and institutions as we bow in awe before the permanence, might, and splendor of our God who is a consuming fire.

1For detailed discussion of this list, to which I am indebted, see William L. Lane, Hebrews 9-13 (WBC 47B, Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991): 464-74.
2Fanny J. Crosby, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine.” See Don E. Saliers, Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).