Lectionary Commentaries for August 29, 2010
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14

Jeannine K. Brown

Giving great honor to those who are distinguished. Ignoring those who are ordinary or “defective.” Seating charts that are set up to emphasize the high status of some and the lower status of others.

We would like to think that these social issues are descriptions of the first-century world of the New Testament and not problems in our own church settings, especially churches rooted in Western, democratic society. Yet social distinctions do matter far too often in our Christian communities, as those who experience less privilege would easily attest. What was quite explicit in the ancient world may express itself in more implicit fashion in our contexts.

In Luke 14:1, 7-14, the social matrix of first-century life is on display, and we hear Jesus speak into this matrix both with communal wisdom and unexpected, even astonishing, advice. We hear the setting for the story in 14:1. It is the Sabbath, and Jesus is invited to a meal at the house of a leading Pharisee. After an interlude in which Luke narrates Jesus healing a man and defending that Sabbath healing, Luke focuses on the meal scene, a setting he strategically employs in his gospel (e.g., 5:29; 7:36; 11:37; see also 7:34; 15:1-2).

At the meal, Jesus observes “how the guests chose the places of honor” (14:7). His response, according to Luke, is two-fold. First, he tells a parable. The point of the story is to discourage his listeners from seeking the most prestigious seat at the table (prōtoklisia) to avoid the humiliating situation of being displaced by someone of greater prominence (14:8). Instead, they are to take the lowest place so that they might be elevated to a more honorable seat by their host (14:10). Jesus’ summary comment to the parable is the well-known aphorism: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:11).

How are we to understand this first response of Jesus to the very explicit social ranking at meals? We might note initially that such social ranking was commonplace in Greco-Roman society. In fact, meals were situations that particularly highlighted social disparities in the first-century world. There is a store of advice given about how to act at such meals. A Jewish wisdom book, Sirach, warns of being greedy and advises being deferential at such meals (Sirach 31:12-18). While this advice fits the tone of Jesus’ remarks in Luke, Jesus goes further in warning against seeking out the most honorable seats. His exhortation is to pursue humility, a concept with significant status connotations. Humility was very rarely considered a virtue in Greco-Roman moral discourse. Yet, humility is to mark the followers of Jesus, according to so much of the New Testament witness (e.g., Luke 1:48, 52; 18:14; Philippians 2:3; Colossians 3:12; James 3:13; 1 Peter 5:5).

What might be striking to contemporary readers in this first teaching of Jesus is that he does not castigate the system of honor at meals. Instead, he seems to assume it. Highest and lowest seats figure into his answer (14:10)! This may be due to his particular audience in the story, the banquet guests. Jesus’ advice addresses how to navigate the social setting into which they have been invited.

When we move to 14:12-14, however, we hear a more counter-cultural message–one that addresses the fabric of the honor and status structures of the ancient world. Jesus, without using a parable, speaks directly to his host–the one who holds a greater measure of control over the ‘rules of the game’ for this particular meal. His advice to this figure of power in the story works to undermine the very system that upholds status difference at meals. Jesus exhorts the host not to invite friends, family, or the rich to meals, since they are able to repay with a corresponding invitation. Such social reciprocity is the backbone of the patronage system endemic to the first-century world.

Instead, Jesus calls for inclusion of those who cannot return the invitation: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13). This group of persons resonates with the Isaiah-shaped mission of Jesus from Luke 4:18, with the poor and the blind mentioned explicitly there as recipients of Jesus’ ministry. For Luke, Jesus subverts expectations that social payment and repayment should govern life in God’s kingdom community. His promise is that God will repay such hospitality at the “resurrection of the righteous” (14:14; also 14:11, since God is implied in the passive, “will be exalted”).

This kind of reversal of expectations and status is thematic in Luke (e.g., 1:52; 6:20-26; 18:14). In fact, in the very next passage, our meal story continues with Jesus reemphasizing the notion of inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (14:21), this time in a parable representing the eschatological banquet of God, which will include just such marginalized ones, with the “invited guest list” being left out (14:24).

What might Luke 14 have to say to us, and the churches that we lead? There is a theological truth that undergirds this passage and its very tangible social networks and exhortations: as God’s people humble themselves and seek to live by a different social system marked by radical inclusion, they can trust God to be faithful and to reward their right ways of living in that final day.

Yet, the eschatological angle should not overshadow how the text speaks powerfully to the way in which the kingdom Jesus inaugurates already subverts human social systems that so often reward the “haves” and further disadvantage the “have-nots.” As Christians presently seek to live out the counter-cultural value of inclusion for the most marginalized, their actions mirror Jesus’ own inclusive kingdom agenda to fill God’s house and offer that eschatological banquet to all (14:21-23).

First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 25:6-7

Shauna Hannan

Imagine yourself on vacation.

I am assuming you are not on vacation this August Sunday since you are preparing a sermon). It is Sunday morning. You decide to find a place to worship. Upon entering the unfamiliar sanctuary, you stand at the back and peruse the seating options. What goes through your mind? If you are normally a worship leader in your home congregation, you may eye the high-backed seats in the front. My guess is you will choose not to occupy one of those seats.  If this is true, it could be said that you have lived into the wisdom that has been passed down through the ages not to “put yourself forward” for “it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

So where will you sit? In a front pew? As the proverbial (!) joke goes, “Of course, we do not sit in the front pews, we are good _________ [insert your own denomination].” We all say this.  Perhaps this suggests that the adage, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great,” still has currency in our culture. Deciding whether or not this is so (that is, the saying still has currency) is one of the preacher’s tasks when preaching on Proverbs.

In a practical sense, the bit of wisdom in these two verses is about seating arrangements.  And, for the most part, we all know not to act as if we are more important than we are by taking a seat of honor until invited to do so. (Though, that the statement has to be made points to the occasional failure to remember it.) However, this piece of wisdom is about more than seating arrangements; it is about how we see ourselves. Even more, it is about how we see ourselves compared to others. 

The beginning of the book of Proverbs reminds us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Our awe and respect for the Lord humbles us both in our relationship to the Lord and in relationship to those around us. Recognizing the latter is the wisdom offered in Proverbs 25:6-7.

While this adage may seem obvious, there is more to it than one might expect. It is as complicated as the life situations we get ourselves into which call for the reminder.  For example, let us say I “humble myself” by choosing to sit in the “lower place” with the hope that doing so will yield an invitation to the “place of the great.”  Of course, this contrived humility is not the wisdom suggested by this proverb. Although this proverb does address the appearance of humility, my suspicion is that the wisdom behind it has to do with our motives.

Is the proverb therefore suggesting that we ought to think we deserve the “lower place?” I recall a seminary professor asking, “What about the sin of self-denigration?” Indeed, we are created in the image of God. Thus, we are valuable. So always thinking we are undeserving is as troublesome as always thinking we deserve the places of honor.

To complexify this even more, one might ask what exactly “the lower place” is. The lower place in one setting is not the lower place in another. Take the opening illustration, for example. One may say the front pews constitute “the lower place” for, in some settings, people rarely choose to sit there.  Even more, the seats in the chancel are actually not more honorable than the pews in an ecclesiastical community which believes in the priesthood of all believers.  So, beyond considering motives, one must ascertain what the “lower places” and “places of honor” are for each new setting.

What I have just offered is a reflection on a piece of wisdom which has been “mused over” for centuries.  Now it is your turn.  This proverb will remain a piece of wisdom if it is deemed valuable for the every day lives of those in your congregation. Of course, we have an added impulse to appropriate this proverb because it is addressed in Jesus’ parable about those who consider themselves worthy of places of honor (Luke 14). Reading this proverb through the lens of Jesus’ parable yields, for one, a recognition that we are not to act in a certain way so that we will be repaid or exalted (Luke 14:14). It’s about how we see ourselves in relation to others and it is about motive.  True humility is evidence of wisdom.

The form of Proverbs 25:6-7 is worth noting because it fits a common style of proverb. It is an admonition. Admonitions in proverbs come in two forms: positive or negative. This pericope is a negative admonition or prohibition. What follows the prohibition is a motive clause which states the reason for it.  It might be interesting to reflect on why this admonition is in the negative form and what it might look like in its positive form.

One final word about why and how the book of Proverbs might have a place in our preaching. Proverbs as scripture suggests that the word of God illuminates and has the capability to shape our daily lives.  The minutiae of every day life are reframed as important. How we act matters. How we learn how to act matters. How we treat others matters. Indeed, theology shapes daily living as we seek to think and act and speak in a manner that is fitting for a community that seeks wisdom through “fearing the Lord.”

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 2:4-13

Henry Langknecht

The first step in preparation for worship on August 29 is choosing the lector for this passage.

Can anyone read this passage without being moved to tears? On the one hand, there are the multiple layers of God’s sadness, hurt, and anger at the people’s unfathomable betrayal. What will God’s voice sound like in the voice of the lector–especially knowing that beneath the hurt is God’s loving desire for God’s people?

On the other hand, the thoughtful reader will recognize, in the content of God’s cross-examination, analogies to that betrayal in the life of God’s people, the Church. We, too betray by failing to ask, “Where is the LORD?” We, too fall into easy idolatry by exchanging the glory of our salvation for things that do not profit. A well-prepared rendition of this passage in all its pathos, followed by an equally sensitive rendering of the story from John 4 (I know, I know, it is not the appointed gospel reading, but that does not mean it is banned from the sermon!) could be sermon enough; Jesus says there, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In prosecuting the case, God levels several layered and interlocking accusations against a people who have not found it easy–or possible–to sustain faith in the mundane day-to-day world. The hermeneutical challenge is locating analogical connections between the defendant in the text–the “house of Jacob” (and its priests, rulers, and prophets)–and …well…whom? The church will hear itself especially in the accusations having to do with idolatry and thanklessness. The questions of reference get more difficult when it comes to rulers and nations.

Whichever way you solve the referential issue, the nine or so accusations made by God are pointed and rich; spend some of your sermon preparation time dwelling in each one. The heart of the prosecution’s case is idolatry; God comes at the subject in three different ways: the people have chased after worthless things (and become worthless themselves in the process); have “changed gods” (forsaking the one who made them what they are today); and have tried to draw strength from worthless sources (cracked cisterns). I am most intrigued by the sightseeing trip to Cyprus where we learn that nations who worship false gods are more steadfast and zealous than the nation who knows the true God.

Another accusation is that the people have simply forgotten that God was present leading them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land. And in that forgetting they defiled the land once they got there. The temptation to spiritualize when moving from text to world bears with it the risk of collapsing the scope of God’s action down to the individual; but the description of the wilderness in verse 6–drought and darkness, a land where no one ever passes through or lives–will resonate with the experience of the dark night of the soul.

Verse 8 is a scathing condemnation of empty, fraudulent leadership–priests who fail to call on God, judges making judgments from the law without knowing the spirit of the Law’s author. This verse comes close to home for preachers and leaders who, from time to time, sense that we are all just “going through the motions.” (Check out the story of the priests of Bel in the apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon for a chilling example.)

However, when I am sitting in the pew of your church on August 29, I do not want to hear what a lousy job we do being God’s people. I already know that. We know that we take God and God’s providence and faithfulness for granted. We know that we put our time and energy into fruitless pursuits–looking for love in all the wrong places. We know that we are more zealous in spreading the word about our favorite rhubarb pie recipe or college football team than about God’s action in our lives. We know that in putting our lives together we draw on the dry wells of human wisdom even as the preacher, liturgy, and hymns keep trying to get us excited about the living waters that are our baptismal inheritance. We know all of that.

But here is the greater perplexing mystery: God knows all of that also; God knew about it when God called the Hebrew people, and God knew it when God called us. So, preacher, I want you to stand up for the house of Jacob and all the families of the house of Israel…and for all leaders in Christ’s Church. Plead our case; answer the hard questions God poses through Jeremiah. Help God to understand–and in the process remind us–why God’s people struggle to stay faithful, thankful, and zealous. We go after worthless things because their “worthlessness” is deferred; their immediate payoff is so satisfying. Yes, we love our god-given land, but as they hymn “This Is My Song” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #887) reminds us, “…other lands have sunlight, too, and clover…” Yes, God’s acts of deliverance were amazing! But the thrill of walking between the walls of water in the Red Sea or of watching the Ark of the Covenant danced into Jerusalem belonged to people long dead; those are just stories to us now. We want our own vivid experience, our own memories, and (God help us) the stories being told on our little screens feel more real to us.

I will confess that I am not sure where this sermon trajectory might lead. As is the case with some of the lament psalms, the raw truth of such a sermon may be uncomfortable…though still true. But know, too, that Christians do not want their faith life to be a veneer or a fiction. In pleading our case you could also become the means by which God will show us how to fashion a living, vibrant faith even over the long haul when mountaintop experiences are rare. Or perhaps in pleading our case you might help us catch glimpses of how, in Christ, we participate in the liberating mission of God, and in helping others see God active, we might remember what it was like back when God led us out of our desolation.


Commentary on Psalm 112

Paul O. Myhre

Psalm 112 is constructed as an acrostic poetic text.

Each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The reader in English would probably not catch this pattern unless the translation of the text was purposely altered in order for it to be so. Hence, if the text were to read as an acrostic in English, the first lines of the Psalm might be translated as: Alleluia to the Lord. Blessed are the ones who fear God, who greatly delight in God’s commands. Children of God will be great in the land…and so on. Each sentence begins with a successive letter of the English alphabet. This psalm is not unique in this regard. Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 119, and 145 are also written in an acrostic form.

Why might this form of writing be significant for a Hebrew speaker? What is it about acrostic poetry that could appeal to the hearer? It could be employed as a mnemonic device to help the people of God memorize the text. It could also serve as a means toward writing the text on the heart and mind so that it might become as natural as breathing to speak or sing the words. The form lends itself to memorization.

Psalm 112 is more than a simple ten-verse poem set in an acrostic form. It is poem that lays out something of the distinctive qualities of those who would ascribe to the law of God and endeavor to live their lives by it. It breathes with something of an absolutist ethic. There is a right course and a wrong path for human living. It does not appear at first reading that there is much room for gray in its ethical system.  Juxtaposing light and dark, the author provides a mental contrast between one way and the other.

Those who strive to make their steps cohere with the path of God are counted as blessed. Reading the psalm through a certain hermeneutical lens, one could claim that the psalmist draws one toward certain conclusions about the life of faith. Perhaps contemporary commentators could use this text in support of different iterations of the prosperity Gospel. Not only is the person blessed, but also so are their children, and they can expect a life of wealth and riches. Perhaps.

Another interpretative reading of the text could provide quite a different image of what it means to be blessed and what riches and wealth entail. The psalmist offers a connection between riches and wealth with that of someone who is righteous, gracious, compassionate, generous, just, and who trusts in God. Perhaps the wealth and riches are not to be understood as simply monetary ones, but as gains in what contributes to a life well lived — grace, compassion, generosity, justice, and faithfulness. These are the treasures after which one might strive.

In personal worlds touched by violence, relational and economic hardship, greed and unfulfilled desires, this psalm offers people an alternative. It is as if the psalmist is offering something to which a person might cling as a life jacket of hope. Yet, in our consumerist society this may at first sound like bad news rather than good. It may sound like an anchor to hold one down rather than wings to enable flight.

That said, I think people of faith know well that striving toward personal wealth and a life of ease is transitory. It is generally only those things that transcend ordinary, individual wants and desires that somehow connect with the eternal that are really worth our personal and communal efforts. They are what remain after we are gone.

I do not think the psalmist is trying to say that only people who are perfect in their devotion to the commands of God or that exhibit a life completely consonant with the will of God will be recipients of these blessings. Instead, it seems to me that the psalmist is holding out a set of goals after which one might strive and that by so doing might be a recipient of blessings as the course of a life lived by faith unfolds. 

Nine verses were composed about those who set their hearts and minds on a course of obedience to the commands of God. Only one of the ten verses is about those who oppose the laws of God. For me the key words in verse ten might be translated into English as “vexed” and “longings.” Here lie twins with whom we are familiar. The propensity toward sin or toward selfish aims can rub like sandpaper against impulses that might be regarded as generous, just, and upright. The drive to put the self first before the needs of others is strong within the human frame. We may become “vexed” when we see someone else receive an honor that we think we deserve even though we have not labored to receive it. We may become disappointed when what we long for remains unattained and we watch someone else receive lavish gifts for a life well lived.

For the psalmist, the distinctions between one way and the other are clear. Those whose longings and life practices are congruent with the commands of God will find blessings in this life. For those whose longings and aims are contrary to the commands of God their experience of life will be one that remains unfulfilled and their goals for life will result in nothing permanent.

This psalm serves as a reminder about how to construct a life worth living. Generosity and steadfast trust in God are actions with positive results.


Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Bryan J. Whitfield

How do we go about living as Christians in a society where we find ourselves increasingly on the margins?

Our need to answer that question places us close to the original congregation that received this pastoral word of encouragement that we call Hebrews, for that group of believers struggled to hold on and hold out in the face of pressures from the broader society as well.1 In listening to the word addressed to them, we may also hear a word for ourselves.

The writer of Hebrews rounds out his sermon with a set of ethical teachings. These words form an interconnected series about how to live as a community of faith in an indifferent or even hostile world. They provide practices that set our community apart from its broader culture. To return to the image of the Christian life as a race (12:1), these words of exhortation function as marks of the trail. They keep us on the path and on our way to the goal.

The first mark, which forms the foundation for all the rest, is love. The writer focuses our attention in two directions. First, he points us to the love of fellow believers in community: “let mutual love continue” (13:1). Here the writer employs the word philadelphia, the Greek noun expressing the love between brothers and sisters. We are family, and we must continue to nurture and strengthen that bond if we are to find our way.

But love also has an external dimension. As we show love to our brothers and sisters, we do not wall ourselves off as members of a distinct tribe. We are also to show love to the stranger through the gift of hospitality (13:2). In the first century, hospitality was a practical virtue because inns were disreputable places. There were no Ramada Inns or Motel 6s. Though our circumstances are different, hospitality–paying attention to the stranger–remains a vital demonstration of love. We must become welcoming and inviting congregations. The writer reminds us that when we are hospitable, we too receive gifts because we may entertain “angels without knowing it” (13:2). Perhaps the writer was thinking about Abraham (Genesis 18) or Gideon (Judges 6) or Manoah (Judges 13). For all of these characters, hospitality led to new stories of good news, new possibililites, new life, and new avenues of service.

A second mark of the trail is to show care in times of distress. The writer mentions two crises in particular: those who are in prison and those who are being tortured (13:3). In both cases, the writer underscores the depth of compassion in its sense of suffering-with-others. Our life is a life in the body, and just as Jesus as our great high priest identifies with our tests and shares our vulnerability (2:14, 18; 4:15), so we should identify with those of our sisters and brothers.2

The third mark is fidelity: we should honor marriage, and we should be faithful to our marriage covenants. Such faithfulness sets us apart from the broader culture and strengthens the bonds of the community. Infidelity is not a private matter. It weakens the fabric of community, and those who are faithless bear responsibility for the wreckage their lack of steadfastness produces.

Contentment with what we have is the fourth mark of the trail (13:5). We do not greedily seek more to secure our lives. Rather we are to trust in God’s promises of presence and protection. Quoting first from Deuteronomy 31:6, 8 (see also Joshua 1:5), the writer reminds us that God will not leave us or forsake us (13:5). Yet, God is not simply present. As Psalms 118:6 demonstrates, God is our helper, so we need fear no human action or institution (13:6).

A fifth mark is loyalty and constancy. We should remember those who have spoken the word of God to us, for their faithfulness stands as an example for us (13:7). The ultimate example of faithfulness, of course, is Jesus (12:1-3), who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8).

The final mark is proper worship, and, in particular, proper sacrifice. That advice is no surprise, since worship has been central to this sermon. We are to make an offering of thanksgiving in response to the blessings we have received under the new covenant. First we are called to offer a sacrifice of praise as we confess Christ’s name. But acceptable sacrifice moves beyond the arena of worship and confession. As those who have received grace and trust in God’s provision, we are called to extend such grace toward others through doing good and by sharing what we have. We honor our generous God by living with open hands. We do not cling to our resources in order to secure our own lives in the face of an uncertain future. Instead, we share what we have as divine gifts entrusted to us as stewards of God’s bounty.3

This final mark, with its focus on acceptable worship, underscores the unity of all these admonitions. Having called us to give thanks and offer our acceptable worship to God (12:28), the writer now spells out the various dimensions of that worship.4  Acceptable worship does not find expression solely in ritual acts in the assembly or sanctuary. It infuses all of life. Thus in our love for each other or for strangers or in our care for those in crisis, we are worshipping God. In our sharing that reflects our trust in God rather than possessions, we are worshipping God. In our faithfulness to our covenants and to the example of those who have gone before us, we are worshipping God.

We embody this way of life, not on the basis of our guilt or in any effort to secure God’s favor, but because God’s grace transforms and empowers us. Jesus, whose constancy knows no end, has opened for us a new way to God so that we may approach God’s throne with confidence (10:19-22). In response, we offer both our praise and the witness of all of our lives with thanks and praise.

1James W. Thompson, Hebrews (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 277-78.
2Victor C. Pfitzner, Hebrews (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 194.
3David A. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 527.
4William L. Lane, Hebrews (Word Biblical Commentary 47B; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991), 572-73.