Lectionary Commentaries for September 19, 2010
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 16:1-13

Greg Carey

Commentators routinely remark that the parable of the Dishonest (Corrupt) Manager stands among the most challenging texts in the New Testament, often regarding it as the most perplexing of Jesus’ parables.

C. H. Dodd observed that even Luke seems clueless as to what to do with the parable, providing at least three interpretations at the parable’s conclusion: (1) that the children of light should learn from the prudence of their corrupt neighbors; (2) to make friends by means of dishonest wealth; and (3) that if one wishes to be entrusted with true riches, one must demonstrate honesty with ordinary wealth. Dodd famously concludes: “We can almost see here notes for three separate sermons on the parable as text.”1

The heart of the problem lies in verse 8: “And the lord [kyrios] commended the dishonest steward for his sagacity.” This verse pulls together several aspects of the story, but it creates more confusion than it provides answers.

*Readers have heard of the charges against the manager in 16:1-2; however, this is the first time when those charges are confirmed. The manager is indeed corrupt. Does it affect our interpretation to imagine a reader who has not yet passed judgment upon the manager until he is both simultaneously convicted and commended?
*The verse would seem to pronounce a verdict on the manager’s actions, but who pronounces the verdict? It is possible that the parable proper concludes with verse 7, in which case the “Lord” speaking in verse 8 represents Jesus’ assessment of the parable. However, verse 3 identifies the “rich man” in the story as “my lord” (or master), suggesting that verse 8 concludes the parable with the rich man’s pronouncement. Most interpreters, myself included, regard verse 8 in that way.
*Finally, and most importantly, what are we to do with a parable that praises a scoundrel like this manager? Not only has the guy “wasted” property that was not his, he comes across even worse in his own speech: “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. . .” (16:3). The vast diversity among interpretations testifies to our frustrated attempts to justify how this character might be praiseworthy. Preachers should consider taking the time to help their congregations experience this dilemma.

Several socio-cultural factors complicate the parable, and some preachers will choose to avoid them. Particularly difficult questions involve the status of the manager and the debtors. Some have regarded the manager as a slave, but his plight rather suggests that he is a free person. When he loses his position, he is both free and compelled to find a new situation. The debtors’ obligations are quite significant, suggesting a manager of relatively high status and debtors who are not indigent. (Thus the manager can hope to be included in their households.)2

The parable contributes to several Lukan literary patterns. First, only Luke’s parables feature dynamic characters like the manager. Characters in the parables of Matthew and Mark are rather one-dimensional, but Luke provides characters who have mixed motives. Moreover, only Luke provides inside views of characters’ thoughts through interior monologue. The effect of the manager’s speech to himself demonstrates both the severity of his plight and the brilliance of his resolution.

Second, the parable of the Manager follows Luke’s series of parables devoted to Jesus’ companionship with sinners (all of chapter 15) and inaugurates a series of passages concerned with money (chapter 16). Immediately following the parable stands Jesus’ response to Pharisees “who were lovers of money” (16:14) and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The parable of the Manager effectively bridges the two sections, as the manager is a sinner (“corrupt”) whose affairs involve money. That this sinful manager embodies the parable’s teaching edge is highly suggestive.

Finally, this parable stands among several Lukan parables of crisis. To be more specific, Luke features several parables in which characters of relatively high status encounter a crisis. In every instance their help lies below them on the social ladder. The anonymous Jew on the road to Jericho would seem to be superior to a Samaritan, but lying half-dead in the ditch he will accept any neighbor who passes by (10:25-37). The prodigal finds himself desperate enough to join the hired hands; his superior older brother cannot join the party until he reconciles himself to his scoundrel sibling (15:11-32). In this age the rich man ignores lowly Lazarus, but in the next world he would beg for Lazarus’ help (16:19-31). These parables suggest a world in which status is fleeting, even dangerous. The manager, who once controlled the accounts of his master’s debtors, must now hope for their hospitality.

Perhaps this is why the lord praises the corrupt manager. The manager’s sagacity lies in his ability to discern his own situation. He may be “ashamed to beg” (16:3), but he is prudent enough to recognize when his status has evaporated and to reach down the social ladder for help. We inhabit a cultural moment at which some people, Christians just as much as anyone else, regard themselves as more deserving of society’s benefits than some of their less worthy neighbors. How does the gospel speak to such superiority and status? Moreover, we inhabit a church that desperately clings to a status long gone, but cannot acknowledge the crisis that will require us to change. What would the “children of this age” do, were they in our place?

1Parables of the Kingdom (rev. ed.; London: Nisbet & Co., 1936), 29-30.
2For a thoughtful assessment of these matters, see Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 406.

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 8:4-7

Rolf Jacobson

The Theological Context of Amos 8:4-7: Justice

This week’s Old Testament lesson from the prophet Amos offers a chance for preachers to explore with congregations the concept of justice, in order to “thicken” the church’s understanding of this central biblical concept.  As most preachers are well aware, the eighth-century prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Micah were in one accord about the Lord’s demand for justice:

    Let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.                (Amos 5:24)

    Cease to do evil,
        Learn to do good,
    seek justice,
        rescue the oppressed,
    defend the orphan,
        plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16d-17)

    He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
        and what does the Lord require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
        and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

A quick review of the concept of justice.

First, justice starts with the very character of God. Justice is part of the Lord’s nature–“The Lord is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18).

Second, because the Lord has elected Israel as God’s own people, the Lord demands that the people reflect God’s character–that is, Israel must be a people of justice (see the above texts).

Third, justice is a social concept–it has to do with the external ordering of society in which the most life can thrive. A more just social order is one in which more life can thrive, whereas a less just social order is one in which less life can thrive.

Fourth, justice requires a special concern for the powerless–those who lack the capacity to protect their own welfare. In the Old Testament social concept, these “powerless” are often described as the widow, the orphan, the sojourner (resident alien), the needy, and the poor.

Fifth, justice is a legal concept. The laws, courts, and judgments of the legal system are about creating and maintaining justice. Here it is good to recall God uses the law in at least two ways. God uses the law for a “civil” purpose–to create a more civil society. God also uses the law for a “theological” purpose–to remind human beings of their sin and that even the most just people need grace and forgiveness. Doing justice is not a way to earn God’s grace.

Finally, justice and injustice are systemic. When a person participates in systems that create a more just social order, one is “doing justice.” Conversely, when one participates in systems that
create a less just social order, one is “doing injustice.” Which means, of course, basically everyone is already both doing justice and doing injustice. This is so because everyone participates in many systems. Some of those systems create a more just social order, some maintain unjust social structures, and some do a little of each.

That final point is worth stressing–almost all of us are already both doing justice and doing injustice, merely by the fact that we are participating in multiple social systems. Too often when Christian preachers take up the topic of justice, an implicit dualism is communicated in which the congregation hears the pastor saying, “Some of you do injustice, while some of us do justice. Be like me and do justice.” Especially the men and women in the congregation who work
in business too often hear the preacher as suggesting the secular realm automatically is a realm of injustice. We know that this is not true, but too often this is what the congregation hears from the pulpit. If that is the message a preacher were to preach this Sunday, it would be better just to skip the sermon altogether.

Which brings me (at long last!) to the text from Amos.

In this week’s lesson, Amos condemns practices that “trample the needy” and “ruin the poor.” Specifically, the prophet challenges practices that create untrustworthy markets. God does not condemn markets. Rather, God’s laws are about creating trustworthy markets, which will create social prosperity and be a fair means of exchange: “You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure” (Deuteronomy 25:15). The Hebrew word translated as “honest” is the term tsedeq, which is normally translated as “righteous” (see Amos 5:24, quoted above). The term translated in Deuteronomy 25 as “measure” is the term ephah, which was a standard unit of measure and is transliterated in this week’s lesson simply as “ephah.”

In the ancient world, units of weight and measure had not been standardized, so a “shekel” or “ephah” used in the markets of Jerusalem might be different than those employed in the markets of Samaria, or Damascus, or Tyre. This means a merchant might need to have different sets of weights in order to trade in different markets. But given human nature, the temptation to cheat the illiterate would often have proven irresistible. Conversely, the suspicion of merchants may have been in many cases unfair. At any rate, one can see that in Amos’ day, untrustworthy market places were contributing to a sense of injustice.

Amos also condemns those who yearn for the end of the Sabbath day, so that they can cheat their neighbors. It is well here to remember that the Sabbath day was not first-and-foremost about a time for worship, but rather was originally a justice law designed to give rest to all of society–not just to the property owner, but also “your ox and your donkey, and your livestock, and the resident alien in your towns” (Deuteronomy 5:14). One can trace what Patrick D. Miller has called “the Sabbatical principle” through the Pentateuchal laws and see how justice is a theme of the Sabbath. As one traces this principle, one sees how the laws are creating a society in which more life can thrive. In these sabbatical laws, the poor and wild animals are provided with food (Exodus 23:10-11), slaves are given release to freedom after six years (Deuteronomy 15:12-18), those in deep debt are forgiven their debts (Deuteronomy 15:1-11), and so on.

But in Amos’ day, the justice sense of the laws had been lost. People longed for the justice-establishing Sabbath to be over, so that they could return to exploitation. The phrase “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” refers to the practice of enslaving those in debt, even those who owed only a pair of sandals. Note how far this is from a just social order in which debts are forgiven! “Selling the sweepings of the wheat” was prohibited because these were to be left for the poor.

The task of translating the realities of Amos’ social context into our social context is both the challenge and the joy of preaching. Perhaps the most effective sermon on such a text will be
the sermon in which the pastor invites the congregation to explore these connections, rather than the one in which the pastor makes all the connections for people or the one in which the pastor asserts his or her own agenda.

It is worth noting also that the lesson from Amos is law in both uses of the law. First, by condemning certain practices, it is envisioning a society that operates according to more just norms. Second, by condemning, it is reminding all of us salvation does not come through the law. The law cannot save–in part, because it was never designed to save and in part because those in power can also turn the best intentioned of laws to their own benefit. So it is good to remember, as Saint Paul put it, “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And that therefore, we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-23).

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 8:18—9:1

Frank M. Yamada

Self-righteous judgment among humans, while all too common in today’s religious landscape, is inconsistent with biblical thinking for at least two reasons.

First, final judgment in the Bible is always reserved for God. Second, God’s response in judgment is not simply justified anger or divine satisfaction for being in the right; but Israel’s God experiences sorrow and grief, even as words of judgment are being proclaimed against the people. One of the most astonishing aspects of the book of Jeremiah is found at the intersection between the prophet and God, between the human and the divine.

In today’s lectionary passage, Jeremiah’s words and the words of the LORD mingle and merge, conveying dismay over the people’s current status and the impending doom that awaits Judah and Jerusalem. The prophet’s overwhelming sadness is hard to distinguish from the LORD’s grief. Thus, today’s passage gives us a glimpse into the inner-workings of Jeremiah, the prophet, and the God whose word destines the people for catastrophic judgment.

Jeremiah 8:18–9:1 contains similar themes to last week’s reading from the Hebrew Bible. In that passage from Jeremiah 4, the prophet declares judgment on the people through the image of an enemy coming from the north. In the verses preceding today’s selection the snorting of horses is heard coming from Dan, a tribe to the north of Judah (18:16). The LORD declares that the land and all who live in it will face certain destruction.

Immediately following this pronouncement, verse 18 begins with first-person speech, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” While Jeremiah is a likely candidate for these words, the identity of the speaker is not clear. Verse 17 ended with God speaking, made clear through the expression, “says the LORD.” In Hebrew, this is a technical phrase that announces a prophetic oracle. The reader should leave open the possibility that the speaker is Jeremiah, the LORD, or both. In the topsy-turvy world of impending judgment, the thin line between the prophet and God, between the divine and the human, often becomes blurry.

Verses 18–21 provide symmetry to Jeremiah’s prophetic words. The structure is:

A Expressions of grief from the prophet/God (verse 18)
B The lament of the people (verse 19a, b)
C God’s question of indictment (verse 19c)
B’ The lament of the people (verse 20)
A’ Expressions of grief from the prophet/God (verse 21)

God’s judgment is at the center (C), focusing on the LORD’s anger at the people’s infidelity: “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” (verse 19c). The people cry out (B/B’), drawing from themes within Zion theology. In this tradition, which is prominent in other prophetic books such as First Isaiah (Isaiah 1–39), Jerusalem’s security rests in the LORD’s protection of the city, the temple, and the people. The double election of king and city is a prominent theme. Thus, the people lament, “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her king not in her?” (verse 19a, b). Though the people wait, divine protection has not arrived: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (verse 20). Expressions of grief from either the prophet or God (A/A’) frame both the people’s lament and the central divine judgment. The passage closes in 8:22–9:1 with a summary of human/divine grief and sorrow. Jeremiah (and/or the LORD) answers the people’s cries with his own series of well-known questions of lament: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (9:1). The grief-stricken tone in this passage resembles the lament psalms in content but not in structure.

In this passage, form and content coalesce. Divine judgment is inevitable and is at the heart of the matter (quite literally at the center of this text in verse 19c). The people’s hope remains fixed in a theological tradition that cannot explain the destruction that will soon come (verse 19a, b and verse 20). Their crying out is in vain. Rather than resulting in divine satisfaction, the LORD’s judgment and the people’s lack of understanding result in an overwhelming sense of grief for both the prophet and God (verse  18 and verse  21). This sorrow frames the entire scenario. The LORD’s judgment is certain, and the people’s fate is sealed. The only response that can arise from such a horrible outcome is one of grief: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (9:1).

Self-righteous judgment–whether liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, embodied in an individual or in a community–does not reflect God’s way of being. The smug satisfaction of being correct at the expense of others may be common in our increasingly contentious religious terrain. However, from a Christian and biblical point of view, these sentiments have no place. God and prophet are broken-hearted and despairing at the fate of the people. The proper response to catastrophic judgment is not a theologically justifying “I told you so” or “You got what you deserved.” It is grief, sorrow, and lament: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (verse 22a).

There is a latent hope, however, in the divine/human questions of verse 22. As long as there is balm in Gilead, and as long as there are physicians who can restore health, the human community has the ability to receive God’s healing and transformation. Even in the rubble of traditions that no longer help us to explain our current dilemma, there remains the hope that a people could turn/return to God. This spirit of transformation can be found in the great spiritual that takes the lamenting question in verse 22 and turns into a declaration of hope: “There IS a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”


Commentary on Psalm 113

Paul O. Myhre

When I think of interpreting the psalms I am immediately thrust into a world that is both foreign and familiar.

As someone born half a world away, separated by 3,000 years of culture and history, and a non-Hebrew speaker, I wonder how I might read, hear, and interpret the words as the Word of God. It is a rocky ground on which I walk and a slippery streambed on which I travel.

Written in Hebrew and later translated into English and a host of global languages, the psalms intone a language made for the people of God. They are meant for those who would count themselves as part of the “in” group. They are directed toward those who would stake their life on a covenantal relationship with the living God. They are personal laments and reflections on life, corporate songs and prayers to remind people about what makes a life worth living, poetry about the activity of God, and prayers of praise to God.

I think the psalms were meant for more than reading. They are set for the arts: singing and dancing, painting and sculpting, chanting and improvisational jazz. Like ballet, the words lift from the page without effort and fall to the floor with grace. Like improvisational jazz they carry their own rhythm that beats in sync with inner rhythms known to each individual hearer.

The psalms are different from the rest of the Bible. They flow like water and flood well thought foundations. They comprise literary landscapes punctuated by lofty flourishes and picturesque language. They invite poetic crawling through muddy fields of human experience to reflect on the viscera of life as loci for the activity of God. They provoke and prod manicured theologies to encourage more vital and active ruminations on the mystery of God.

The globe spins and generations sprout and fall underneath rising and setting suns. For millennia, people have reflected on the work of a personal God who is both closer than breathing and beyond the reach of human rational thought. Yet, somewhere in the middle of it all, God whispers words and images through the psalms that can touch the contours of our spirits and cause us to burst forth in song.

We sing with the frogs and the birds in springtime a celebration of life. We cry with the wind through the pines at the edge of fields lined with stone markers reminding us of own our date with death and what lies beyond this life. We blend vocational colors on palettes of our own making as apprentices hoping our marks on life would be somehow consonant with those made by the great craftsperson under whom we study.

As poetry and prayer, the psalms speak a language that constructs thought worlds in which human minds can play freely in boundless spaces of theological imagination and personal reflection. There is a timeless quality to the psalms I think in part because of the capacity of the verses to defy simple or compact definitions of God, humanity, or creation. They invite active play and personal and communal discovery.

Psalm 113 is from start to finish a hymn of praise about God. It is a call to the people of God to remember who God is and what God has done. Under an arc of the sun’s transit across the sky, earthen landscapes rotate and people go about daily life. In the ordinary movement of each day they are called to praise God. Perhaps the Psalmist is encouraging the people of God to join in what the Apostle Paul would later call in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “prayer without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17).

In berekah form, the psalmist breathes a prayer that echoes praise to God at the beginning and end. In between the two explosions of praise, the cause for praise is lifted up. The creator of all that is and ever will be is somehow concerned with the ordinary activities of people. The psalmist declares the radical uniqueness of a God that cannot be easily defined. There is nothing in all creation that can be compared to this God, and yet this God is concerned about people.

What does this God do? God watches over people, raises the poor, lifts the needy, equalizes power relationships, and provides children to women. The equalization of humankind that the psalmist extols calls into question contemporary disparities between wealthy and poor, powerful and powerless, elite and excluded. Those who have experienced the pain of being ostracized know well how lonely the experience can be. Those who have been the objects of ridicule and disparaging comments intimately know the contours of depression and isolation.

The psalmist calls into question the practices of people toward those who suffer in three categories: poverty, need, and childlessness. Those who participate in activities that push people toward poverty, drive people into places of need, and exclude those who are childless from circles of friendship are reminded that this is not consonant with God’s care for people. Instead, the psalmist affirms for those languishing in the ash heaps and dust piles of despair that they will be lifted up. Their experience will not be forever. They will have a day of justice, a day where economic and power laden fields are leveled. Their day of despair will not prevail. A day of praise shall break forth.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:1-7

A.K.M. Adam

This week’s passage picks up and sustains the theological grounding of the offer of free grace for all (regardless of whether all receive that grace), and situates it in a practical context.

That context appears in the opening admonition that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions” (2:1f), and it continues in verses that the lectionary omits (about the behavior and duties of women, 2:9-15). The God of grace whom we have already learned to identify as immortal, invisible, and unique (1:17) has made that grace available for the sake of all humanity. This is done through the redemptive mediation of Jesus Christ who became human so that we might, in solidarity with him, participate in his divinity.

These epistle readings identify God’s purpose as deliverance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1:15) and “[God] desires everyone to be saved” (2:4), but the letters do not define “salvation” (deliverance, rescue) more specifically, nor do they identify what its opposite might be. While Christians usually rush to fill this blank with inferences from other texts, we ought to be able to manage without pretending to have a knowledge we have not been given.

It suffices that we know God longs to rescue us from undesirable circumstances. We need no more know those circumstances exactly than we need to know exactly what married life would be like when we venture upon it, or to know exactly how miserable we would be to betray our beloved.

Faith knows that God delivers us from a worse condition — a condition so much worse as to require Jesus’ life to save us.

This saving mission of Jesus is for all (“everyone to be saved” 2:4, “ransom for all” 2:6), just as last week’s lesson emphasized the boundlessness of God’s grace. The church acting in wisdom does not presume to decree condemnation before God does, nor may the church offer a cheap pass to just anybody; the limitless, all-encompassing mercy of God is not ours to manage. At the same time, everything we say about the gospel and people’s sin must be said to encourage and strengthen, not to tear down and deride.

Thus this lesson instructs us to pray for kings and other rulers, and the succeeding verses (which the lectionary omits) give us a dress code for women with a view toward not giving offence to others. What do these have to do with one another? They both are consequences of the explicit purpose of this passage: “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Our calm, peaceable, godly dignity bespeaks the character of God to onlookers who might not otherwise know anything about our God. We would belie the role of these instructions if we took them to require particular behaviors that alienated the people around us — if instead of helping Christians to lead quiet and peaceable lives, they stirred up discord and brought hostility on the church.

Though these instructions may seem relics of etiquette from ages past, which must give way in the face of the freedom for which Christ has set us free, we ought never to lose track of the effect our behavior has on others’ view of the gospel. Once again, bystanders who may never crack the spine of a Bible will read off a version of the church’s teachings from disciples’ conduct among them. The arguable obsolescence of the specific customs that this passage commends ought not to blind us to the influence that we may exercise through our deference or defiance of local custom.

The saving work of Christ, after all, extends to people who do not share “our” customs — and however firmly we believe our ways to be sound, enlightened, divinely-ordained, reasonable, or liberatory, we ought always to attend to the chance that the manner in which we live out the gospel may inadvertently make some bystanders stumble. A disciple’s life in the world constantly negotiates the invariable demands of the gospel with the pliable willingness to live among others on their terms. In that practice of negotiating, discipleship itself changes; we see ourselves and the gospel differently through living in a different neighborhood of the earthly city. But such negotiations always depend for their truthfulness on maintaining consistently a clear reliance on the unique role Jesus plays in mediating the possibility of salvation to all people.

Thus the readings for this week knit together last week’s teachings on grace and on God’s uniqueness with today’s concern that the church’s conduct in a world that lives by non-Christian customs (the letter takes this as the rationale for Paul’s calling as an apostle “to the Gentiles,” which may in this context be may read as a figure for any “foreign” way of life). While our allegiance to God alone requires that we stick clearly to the gospel’s priorities, we owe our neighbors the respect not capriciously to flout their way of life. We, who have one King only (1:17), pray for their rulers and adjust to unfamiliar customs as part of our testimony to the vision of the world. Our lives in the earthly city display to the world an embodiment of an alternative, more wondrous possibility: a world of grace without bounds, peace without oppression, abundance without exploitation — a world of grace opened for us and for all people uniquely by God’s redemption of creation in Jesus Christ.