Lectionary Commentaries for September 12, 2010
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 15:1-10

Greg Carey

Luke 15:1-10 launches an extended reflection on one of the most provocative aspects of Jesus’ ministry, his companionship with tax collectors and sinners.

Context is everything here. The passage includes a setting (15:1-2) followed by the parables of the Lost Sheep (15:3-7) and the Lost Coin (15:8-10). It sets the table for the grand third parable concerning things lost, the parable of the Lost Son (15:11-32). Moreover, Luke 15:1-10 follows close upon the parable of the Banquet, in which the “poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind” replace the anticipated guest list (14:15-24).

Luke makes Jesus’ companionship with sinners a special point of emphasis. Like Mark and Matthew, Luke relates the call of Levi and the debate concerning Jesus’ table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners (5:27-32). Luke alone provides the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears (7:36-50), in my opinion a radical redaction of the anointing at Bethany from Mark 14:3-9. Luke alone also includes the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14) and the account of Zacchaeus, the tax collector whose company Jesus requires (19:1-10). We might add Jesus’ behavior on the cross, praying forgiveness for his executioners (23:34) and blessing the neighboring thief (23:43).

Note one aspect of the setting: “All the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near in order to hear him” (15:1). Sage preachers will ask, “Why? What is it about Jesus that attracts tax collectors and sinners to him?” Here we want to avoid vain romanticism about Jesus’ winsome personality and follow Luke’s lead instead. Luke provides a mixed message: Jesus seeks to bring sinners to repentance (5:32), but not once does Jesus actually scold or correct a sinner. Instead, he eats with them. Four times Luke reports (a) meals in which (b) Jesus receives criticism for (c) his relationship with sinners, but (d) Jesus never once comments on the sinners’ behavior (5:27-32; 7:36-50; 15:1-32; and 19:1-10). We might note that all three of the parables in Luke 15 assume celebrations, or meals.

Congregations may stumble over the term sinner, especially if they are well educated in Christian doctrine. “Aren’t we all sinners?” some may protest. Not in Luke’s world. In Luke’s world, some people so habitually transgress the ways of God that they are sinners in need of repentance. Others do not. We must take our passage on its own terms: Jesus distinguishes between sinners who repent and “the righteous who have no need of repentance” (15:7). We may struggle with that distinction, but it is critical for engaging this passage on its own terms. Here lies the cutting edge of the passage: Jesus embraces the very people the rest of religious society rejects.

Preachers, then, face the task of helping their congregations imagine what it is to welcome “sinners.” In most parts of North America, religion lacks the cultural clout to define righteous persons from sinners. Most churches lack the moral authority to make such determinations. However, our society does name its losers, and the church’s task is to take sides with the underdogs. Do we have the courage, first, to speak out loud who are the “sinners” in our cultural moment, and, second, to take sides with them? Politicians and demagogues are constantly scapegoating people as “sinners” who place an undue burden on the rest of society. As we move from one public debate to another, “sinners” includes undocumented immigrants, but apparently does not include respectable people who prevent group homes from entering their neighborhoods and people who conduct business in predatory ways. Eating with sinners means taking sides.

The two parables begin on slightly different notes. “Which one among you?” invites the audience into the story. A literal translation of 15:3 — “He spoke this parable to them, saying. . .” suggests a reply to the complaint of the Pharisees and the scribes. Luke has taken the parable of the Lost Sheep from Q material (Matthew 18:12-14), but characteristically adds a story with a female protagonist: “Or what woman?” The man with one hundred sheep would seem to be better off than the woman with ten coins, though the woman’s ten coins do not necessarily suggest extreme poverty. While shepherds represented a despised trade in Jesus’ world, the woman is entirely a sympathetic character.

Despite their distinctive beginnings, the two parables share a basic structure. (a) One is lost from a much larger group, (b) the protagonist goes to great lengths to seek out the lost item, (c) the finder invites friends for a celebration, and (d) Jesus offers the moral of the story. Preachers might observe how the story slows down to describe how the woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully. Who among us does not know this experience?

As with most of Jesus’ parables, there is a “hook,” something that seems out of place. That hook lies in a certain lavishness in the celebrations. In the ancient world, “rejoicing” implies eating. Would a shepherd really throw a party over the finding of a lost sheep? (“Which one of you” does not do so?) If the lost coin so concerns the woman, are we to expect her to endure the expense of a party? (“What woman” would not?) As with most parables, this “hook” provides rich material for reflection. It invites us to recognize the extravagant joy with which God, present in Christ, welcomes sinners.

Finally, let us attend to the role of meals. If we take on the risk of naming today’s “sinners” and then welcoming them, words alone do not suffice. There is the matter of setting a table — literally, not figuratively. Table fellowship reveals the boundaries of human relationships.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 32:7-14

Rolf Jacobson

A Commentary on Human Nature

This Sunday’s Old Testament lesson can be understood as a narrative commentary on the first commandment (“you shall have no other gods…you shall not make for yourself an idol”; cf. Exodus 20:1-4). Or, it can be understood as a narrative commentary on the fickleness of human nature (we are the kind of creatures who do exactly what we are told not to do) and the faithfulness of God (The Lord is the kind of creator who keeps promises).

But first things first. The passage really starts at verse one. So, be sure to include verses 1-6 when the lesson is printed or read for worship.

When preaching this text (and let’s be frank, no story this week is nearly as fun and powerful to preach), the challenge is to help the congregation get caught up in the unfolding story. The story unfolds with a series of scenes, in which the phrase, “who brought us up out of the land of Egypt,” recurs. The story is set just after the Exodus from Egypt and the gift of the covenant. The recently emancipated people had been gathered by God at Mount Sinai. There, they were claimed by God and received “the two tablets of the covenant,” which God gave to Moses (Exodus 31:18).

Scene 1: “Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt”
The first scene focuses on the people, in the absence of their leader Moses. The people of Israel express fear, because they have lost their human leader. Moses was sequestered with God in an extended executive session. He was gone so long the people grew afraid. “When the people saw Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

The last phrase is especially worth noting, because like most heresies, it is half-true. Do the people get it right? Did Moses bring the people out of Egypt? Well, on the human level, he did. Moses was the human God used to bring the people out of Egypt. But on a deeper, theological level, the people do not get it right. God brought the people out of Egypt. As the first commandment says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:1).

As a commentary on the first commandment, this first scene exposes what happens when God’s people fall prey to the temptation of confusing the human “image of God” that is a spiritual leader (a pastor, parent, bishop, teacher, mentor) with God. When that leader disappears, humans can lose sight of God and lose faith in their direction.

And having lost sight of God and, in turn, lost their direction, the people long for a visible image of God to lead them. “Come, they said, make a god for us, who shall go before us. . .” The Hebrew word for God–elohim–should be translated in the singular as “a god” here rather than in the plural (for an explanation, keep reading).

Scene 2: “‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
The second scene focuses on Aaron. Aaron gathers the collective costume jewelry from the people, melts them down, and makes a golden calf.

Two quick textual notes:
1. The NRSV, translating the Hebrew text reads, “they said.” But the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament reads, “he said.” The Greek preserves the older tradition. The text should read: Aaron…cast an image of a calf; and he said…     
2. The NRSV then translated the Hebrew text as, “These are your gods, O Israel…” The Hebrew word for God–elohim–is plural in form, but can be either singular or plural in meaning. Just like the English word “brains,” it does not necessary designate a plural. In this context, where Aaron made one golden calf and where in verse 5 Aaron announces “a festival to the LORD” (that is, to Yahweh), the term is obviously singular. Thus, the phrase should be translated:

He said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

So what was Aaron’s sin? Traditionally, most interpretations of this story accuse Aaron of making an image of a false god. But that is not really where Aaron when wrong. As indicated by Aaron’s proclamation in verse 5–“Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord”–Aaron’s mistake was to make a false image of the true god.

Similar to the people in scene 1, Aaron gets it slightly right and mostly wrong. Aaron knows that Moses did not lead the people out of Israel–the Lord did. And thus he proclaims a festival to the Lord. But, in order to give the people something to follow, Aaron makes a false image of the true God–which God had forbidden in Exodus 20:1-4.

Our idols are often false things that we worship in place of God–such as money, power, fame, career, self, the Minnesota Vikings, my new Norwegian sweater, or my old guitar. But idols can also be our false images of the true God. Things that we associate so much with God, that we worship them instead of God–the church building, the old liturgy, the retired pastor, the painting above the altar, a doctrine to which we cling too tightly, or the Minnesota Vikings. This form of idol can actually be even more dangerous to faith than outright idols. No finite image can fully capture the infinite God.

Scene 3: “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt.”
In scene 3, we switch to the mountain top, where the Lord is consulting with Moses. The Lord’s Google Alert icon flashes on his laptop, and he reads a report of what Aaron and the people had just done down in the valley. He turns to Moses and says:

“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” (verses 7-8)

Notice, twice more, the key phrase “…brought up out of the land of Egypt…” First, even the Lord does not quite get if right! The Lord says to Moses, “Hey, they are your people. You brought them up out of the land of Egypt.” And then, quoting the people (and again note my translation of elohim in the singular), the Lord cites how the people have confused the visible, finite, earthly image, with the invisible, infinite, heavenly God.

And then the Lord does the unthinkable. He offers to scrap Abraham’s descendants and start over with Moses and his descendants. “Now let me alone, so that my wrath my burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” Remember that back in Genesis 12, God had promised to make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants. Well, they were many in number, but they certainly were not great in the spiritual sense. So by saying, “of you I will make a great nation,” the Lord was offering to make Moses the new Abraham…to start over.

Scene 4: “Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power”
In the fourth and final scene, Moses is finally the only one in this story to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: Israel is “your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt.” This is the fifth time that the key phrase repeats in this story. And, for effect, Moses adds to it: “with great power and with a mighty hand.”

And then, Moses says, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self…” That is, aware that the Lord had offered him the tempting chance to be a new Abraham, Moses throws the promise to Abraham back at God’s in bold act of intercessory prayer: “You promised! You promised Abraham! You promised Isaac! You promised Israel! By your own name you promised!”

And the good book says: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

The Faithfulness of God
What kind of God do we have? What kind of Lord created the earth, chose Abraham, brought Israel out of Egypt, and gave us the Ten Commandments? A God who keeps promises. Sometimes keeping those promises means God has to forgive rather serious sins. But that is the nature of the One who has claimed us. God is faithful. And God keeps promises.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Frank M. Yamada

Many preachers avoid topics like divine judgment.

One can understand why. The stereotypical “doom and gloom” rant has done much to harm peoples’ perception of God’s nature and character in relation to humankind. Moreover, the underlying assumption behind this type of sermon provides an unbalanced view of our nature–that it is primarily sinful and always bent on evil. Such predispositions against divine judgment make it difficult for us to hear the profound truth that lies within these often difficult texts. Today’s reading continues the lectionary’s path through the book of Jeremiah. The images of impending doom that fill this passage point to the intimate connection between the people’s disobedience and the cosmic and natural order. Patrick Miller’s comment on this passage is fitting: “Covenant and creation are so connected that the dissolution of the one threatens the other.”1

Jeremiah 4 is situated within a larger section of the book (4:5–6:30) that addresses the sins of Judah and Jerusalem and announces the LORD’s judgment on the people. While there are historical markers surrounding this lectionary reading, the references are too vague to tie the passage to specific events. Just preceding today’s selection, the LORD announces the approach of “evil from the north, and a great destruction” (4:6). Scholars disagree on the identity of this enemy, but within the final form of the book, it is clear that the reference later came to be understood as Babylon, who besieges Judah in 587 B.C.E.

Verses 11–12 introduce the oracle of judgment that follows in verses 13–18. Verse 11 begins with the opening prophetic formula, “At that time it will be said…” The prophet announces the impending judgment through the metaphor of a hot wind. This wind will not simply purify the people, but it will bring utter destruction as an enemy besieges Jerusalem, an impending disaster that is described in detail in verses 13–18. Even in this apparently desperate situation, however, the prophet pleads with the people to turn from their ways in the hope that the people might be saved (verses 14). In many cases, pronouncements of divine judgment serve as a warning for God’s people to turn from their ways before it is too late.

In verse 22, Jeremiah identifies the people’s failure to know the LORD as the primary reason for the coming judgment. The knowledge of God is a prominent theme in the prophetic literature and is tied to the doing of justice (cf. Isaiah 1:3–4; Hosea 4:1–2). To know God is to do what is good and right with others. Hosea 4 provides a compelling parallel to Jeremiah 4:22–28. In both of these passages, the knowledge of God, in this case the people’s failure to know the LORD, is equated with their inability to do what is good. The consequences of this breakdown affect the entire created order (cf. Hosea 4:3 and Jeremiah 4:23–25).

Following his lament on account of people’s lack of knowledge, the prophet provides a vivid description of how this breach between God and God’s people has disastrous consequences on creation. In Jeremiah 4:23–26, the prophet describes the chaos through a four-fold repetition of the phrase, “I looked…and lo…”

Verses 23–25 allude to the traditions that comprise the Priestly (Genesis 1) and Yahwist (Genesis 2 ff.) creation stories. In verse 23, Jeremiah announces that the earth is “waste and void” and the heavens have “no light.” This is a clear echo to Genesis 1:2, which describes the chaotic state of the world prior to God’s ordering of creation. In verse 25, the prophet declares that no human beings are left, and “all the birds of the air had fled.” The phrase, “there was no one at all,” uses the Hebrew word, hā’ādām (“human being”), which alludes to the LORD’s creation of the first human in Genesis 2. Thus, the imagery in this passage is of a de-created, pre-adamic/human world. Judgment is not simply God’s punishment of the people’s sins; it puts in motion a reversal of God’s intended created order. As with the Noahic flood, judgment returns the world to its primordial chaotic state.

Today’s reading concludes in verses 27–28 with the certainty that destruction will come to pass, even if it will not be complete (“I will not make a full end,” verse 27). Once again, the prophet describes this devastation through language that connects God’s judgment with the natural order. The effects of this judgment leave the land in “desolation” (verse 27) with the result that the earth will “mourn” and the heavens “grow black” (verse 28).

Jeremiah 4 provides us with much to ponder on the nature of divine judgment. First, God’s judgment causes us to take a sobering look at the consequences of our failures as human beings, speaking the plain truth about the outcomes of our shortsightedness. Second, judgment pushes us to take responsibility for these failings, to turn from our destructive ways and make right what we have made wrong. Repentance is simultaneously turning from evil and turning toward good. Finally, God’s judgment makes us aware of the fact that human sinfulness is not simply about individual morality. Obedience to God’s covenant is intimately connected to our relationship with others and to the created order.

When things are not right among humans, the whole earth groans. We are answerable not just to ourselves as individuals, but we are accountable to all our fellow human beings and to the earth from which we came. When we inflict violence on each other, we hurt the earth. When we abuse God’s good creation, we damage ourselves. Knowing God, by the prophetic definition, means that we act justly with each other and live responsibly in relationship to all of God’s creation.

1Patrick D. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6 (ed. Leander E. Keck; Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 614.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-10

Paul O. Myhre

Psalm 51 is one of the most common psalms recited by Protestant Christians.

They know it as a familiar component of weekly worship services. It has been a mainstay for decades in corporate prayers of confession. People affirm together their individual and corporate guilt within a service of worship and seek as individuals and communities right relationships with the living God. The prayer is generally followed by the presiding minister’s affirmation that affirms in Christ Jesus all sins are forgiven. People are given a clean slate to begin again. The hope for joy and gladness is restored through a work of God’s grace and mercy in and through Christ. It is a palpable event that can evoke tears of sadness and joy.

I have heard it said more than once in life that confession is good for the soul. In one of the former churches I served as a minister, a worship leader would often state publicly when leading worship that he was going to provide the congregation with a full minute of silence during the prayer of confession. He claimed this was necessary because when people gave only 10 or 15 seconds of silence he had usually only made it to Tuesday.

The encouragement to engage in heartfelt confession is easier said than done. The depth of anyone’s sins can often thwart a capacity to confess personal sins openly, let alone publicly. Pastoral care professionals have suggested in recent years that people and pastoral care givers ought to follow an axiom of “do no harm,” given the nature of sin and the power of it to cause years of heartache. Sometimes it seems that the wisest course of action may be to do what the psalmist did — pour out your heart before God and seek God’s mercy. The silent prayer of confession is one way by which people can corporately engage in this activity publicly.

The ability to articulate sins coupled with a desire to be made right with God and others percolates through this psalm. The psalm itself claims that it is set immediately after the prophet Nathan had uncovered and confronted David with his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and his involvement with the murder of her former husband, Uriah. It is Nathan’s act of exposure to the light of God’s commands in midday that reveal David’s inner sins he had ferreted away from public scrutiny.

In the first ten verses the psalmist offers a prayer of confession and request for absolution. It is the cry of one brought face to face with one’s own personal human failings. It is a lament of inner recognition about a disparity between their own actions of sin and God’s capacity to work love and mercy in the places that deserve neither. It is an exposé on personal guilt and the recognition that no human act can erase the stain caused by personal sin. Only God’s act of forgiveness will wipe the slate clean. Only God can make things right where a lack of right remains.

Separated by over three thousand years, the psalmist’s words ring as true today as they did then. People can and do harm others and often commit great offenses against others and against their own personhood through various acts of sin. The psalmist connects with human experience and invites a way forward where it appears at first there is no way. Through confession the hope for renewal is born.

The psalmist is clear that things are not right within and as long as they are not right within they cannot be right at all between the psalmist and God. It is a plea for God to upright the capsized ship. It is the cry of one crushed in spirit by the weight of personal recognition that their sin and the consequences of it constitute a weight too heavy to bear. The writer has hit bottom and is without hope, except for the grace of God.

The common human experience of hitting bottom or falling into a pit from which they cannot extricate themselves is widespread. I have discovered that throughout the world, people of faith have tried to find ways to heal the rifts within, between themselves and others, and between themselves and God. Cultural ideas about repentance and reconciliation are blended and sifted with biblical notions of confession and renewal in many and varied ways.

When I taught at Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji I discovered that there is an abundance of ways by which people of faith seek to heal the rifts between them caused by sin. In the South Pacific, cultural practices and beliefs are connected with biblical, hermeneutical concerns and thereby propel creative thinking about correlations and congruencies between cultural ideas and biblical concepts of grace, mercy, repentance, and koinonia. Scholars and people of faith have sought hosts of ways by which they might honor historic cultural practices as they engage in Christian practices — such as those involving repentance and reconciliation.

Cultural practices about how to embrace confession or repentance are varied. Traditional Samoans practiced a form of repentance that involved the penitent sitting beneath a fine mat outside the home of an offended person(s) until the offended person lifted the mat and forgave the penitent of their sin. Reconciliation occurred when the offended physically lifted a burden that the offender could not. Contemporary Fijian culture is permeated by the use of the tambua (sperm whale’s tooth) for communal acts of reconciliation. It is the primary cultural means by which divisions are healed and community is restored. The “tooth” used ritually can cut through any offense, reconcile people, and restore communal harmony. The ritual and the object are an embodiment of the grace and mercy of God that cuts through human offenses and heals rifts so that restoration might occur.

Rene Padilla, in his essay, The Contextualization of the Gospel, claimed, “If the Gospel is not contextualized, the Word of God is a logos asarkos (unincarnate word), a message that touches our lives only on a tangent. This is precisely one of the most tragic consequences of the lack of theological reflection among us — that the Gospel still has a foreign sound, or no sound at all, in relation to many of the dreams and anxieties, problems and questions, values and customs in the Third World. [And] A Xeroxed copy of a theology made in Europe or North America can never satisfy the theological needs of the Church in the Third World (Kraft and Wisley, 303, 305).

An example of a contextually specific practice is included in this psalm. In general, contemporary Christians do not use hyssop as means for cleansing or in ritual activities. Most may not be even clear about what it is and why it is referenced here. According to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, it is a “small, bushy plant … [that was used] … as a brush for daubing the lintels of the Hebrew homes with blood from the sacrificed lamb at the first Passover …” (IDB, Vol II, 669). It was used for sprinkling sacrificial blood on lepers to be cleansed (Numbers 19). And here the psalmist uses the imagery to suggest that the psalmist’s sin requires nothing less than a direct act of God’s intervention to provide the cleansing required.

The psalms in general and Psalm 51 in particular invite contextualized reading and performance. Through a poetic prayer, the writer provides windows and doors into new ways of perceiving the world in which we live. The writer provides a timeless connection with human experience and the activity of a loving God. How might Psalm 51 be read contextually in your congregation? What local practices exist that provide tangible expressions of reconciliation and renewal? Although our reading of the text may vary, I suspect we might affirm together, “Create in me [us] a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me [us].”


Buttrick, George A., ed. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Volume II. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982.

Kraft, Charles H. and Wisley, Tom N., eds. Readings in Dynamic Indigeneity. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1979.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

A.K.M. Adam

Probably the first thing to be said about preaching from one of the letters whose Pauline authorship is disputed is, “Hardly ever should the question of disputed authorship come up in the sermon.”

Disputes about authorship are technical exercises among scholars, and their role in building up the Body of Christ is strictly incidental. All too often, preachers use sermon time for cheerleading on behalf of their particular side (“As everyone knows, Paul did not write this” or “Some radical skeptics think Paul did not write this, but we know…”) or showing off the fact that they have a seminary education. There may be congregations where taking sides on this topic actually advances the cause of the gospel, but I do not think I have ever met one.

If you trust that Paul wrote the letter, just go ahead and preach; if you doubt it, do not make a point of that within the sermon (instead of saying “Paul says,” you can say “The epistle says” or “Our lesson says,” or avoid using constructions that would require identifying personal authorship). Then, schedule a series of educational events to explore the reasons and counterarguments about Pauline authorship at some other time.

These verses in the introductory section of the letter serve several functions. First, they magnify the glory of God’s grace. God extends forgiveness and reconciliation not solely to middleweight sinners such as most well-intentioned church-goers; God offers mercy even to “the foremost sinner” (at least as the letter presents him), a violent despiser of Jesus. Second, they bind the exposition of God’s mercy to the mission of Christ; merciful salvation comes to us not simply in a generic way, but very concretely in the person of Jesus whose forbearance, gentleness, and self-giving exemplify God’s way of dealing with us (the mirror-image of the violent persecution that characterized Paul’s former life).

Now, whether Paul wrote these words or not, the epistle manifestly brings the person of Paul to the foreground. Paul’s character and experience figure in this introductory section as an illustration of the extent of God’s grace. Here (as often when Paul calls attention to himself in other letters) the emphasis oscillates between Paul’s sense of drama and the theological premise of which God “makes me an example.”

In this case, the theological pivot for these verses concerns God’s mercy. The letter — in highlighting God’s characteristic of gratuitous mercy — explains that Paul received mercy “because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Now, of what could Paul have been ignorant? He knew the God of Israel, the Torah, and the Prophets. He even knew enough about Jesus to oppose his cause. Paul did not know what he was doing in the same way that Jesus’ crucifiers did not know what they were doing: they did not grasp fully what was going on around them. They saw (to adopt a Pauline figure) in a glass darkly, but they reached incorrect conclusions about what they perceived there.

This common New Testament theme of not-really-knowing, when applied in a triumphal way, risks drifting into a sort of gnostic self-congratulation: “We know, and you don’t.” But in this passage, it is important to observe that “knowing” does not justify elite status — instead, not-knowing provides the rationale for God extends mercy to transgressors. Jesus willingly endures mocking, torture, and execution at the hands of people who do not [fully] know what they are doing, so that his faithfulness to God’s mission of non-coercive reconciliation might be sustained. Paul aligned himself with the persecutors at first, but like the crucifiers for whom Jesus prayed, he received mercy despite his early opposition to God’s purposes.

The letter represents this opposition to God as the worst thing a person could possibly do; it suggests that because Paul persecuted the church, he must be the foremost of sinners. This echoes the gesture from Paul’s letters to Corinth, whereby Paul describes himself as “unfit to be an apostle” (1 Corinthians 15:9), “the dregs of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13). The less worthy of divine favor Paul makes himself, the more he underscores the incalculable scope of God’s mercy. If we grant that God does not hold the sins of even the worst sinner ever — blasphemer, persecutor, insulter — then surely God’s grace extends to us less hyperbolic sinners.

That does not mean that God will redeem everyone from the consequences of every evil — but it does imply that none of us is in a position to make flat claims about whom God will or will not forgive. “For who has known the mind of God, or who has been his counselor?” Not everyone will accept God’s offer, and God will presumably accommodate those whose unyielding commitment to their own understanding of freedom and goodness distances them from forgiveness (and that might include some who refuse to accept the possibility that God forgives sins that they wouldn’t!).

However, the specific contours of final judgment lie beyond our capacity to pin down, whether concerning just what eternal blessedness will be like, or who will share it (and who will not). Any arguments about who may not under any circumstances be accorded mercy, or what might constitute an “unforgivable sin,” must come to terms with the many passages like this one in the New Testament.

The Gospels and Epistles emphasize and repeat the axiom that God’s greatness is revealed in having mercy for people we would not think would receive mercy. The minute we decide that some horrible sin is unforgivable, we challenge God to forgive it — and God answers our judgmental edicts with the promise of unexpected, unreasonable, overflowing mercy.