Lectionary Commentaries for September 26, 2010
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 16:19-31

Greg Carey

How far may we push a parable? Should we regard parables as helpful fictions that open our imaginations to new possibilities, or should we approach them as condensed pedagogical vehicles designed to carry specific teachings?

The matter of limits for interpretation has dominated the conversation concerning parables for over a century.

We could push the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus very far. For example, the parable might reflect Luke’s view of what happens after we die. At the moment of death, it seems Lazarus journeys to Abraham’s bosom while the Rich Man descends into torment. Does death deliver us immediately to our eternal fate? Such a view would seem to contradict that expressed by Paul in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. In those early letters, Paul regards death as, well, death. The hope for life resides only in the resurrection. (Paul may voice a different view in Philippians 1: “to live is Christ, but to die is gain.”) Luke’s story of the thief on the cross also suggests an immediate transition into the afterlife: “Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). Moreover, does this parable teach that the wicked suffer torment in the afterlife? Few mainline preachers devote significant pulpit time to that distressing prospect.

How far should we push? The parable does not explicitly explain why the Rich Man suffers torment in Hades while Lazarus reclines at Abraham’s bosom, though one might read 16:25 as such a justification. Through verse 23, all we know about these characters is that their fates have been radically transformed. The Rich Man descends from luxury to suffering, while Lazarus is promoted from pain to blessedness. Do we push too far if we speculate that the reason for these changes lies in the juxtaposition of obscene luxury and abject poverty? (The daring preacher is willing to name luxury as obscene.) In this life, Lazarus lies at the gate (the Greek suggests Lazarus is “thrown” or “dumped” there; 16:20), affording the Rich Man an opportunity to intervene. In the next life, a great chasm divides the two and cannot be crossed (16:26).1 Do we take seriously Luke’s Jesus: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (6:20, 24)? The Greek noun translated consolation in 6:24 shares the same root as the verb describing Lazarus’ comfort in 16:25.

Luke places the parable in a context dedicated, in part, to money. From the Widow’s coin and the Prodigal’s inheritance in chapter 15 to the Dishonest Manager’s handling of debts in 16:1-13, Luke has been engaged with the topic. The transition between the Dishonest Manager and the Rich Man and Lazarus involves Luke’s characterization of the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (16:14). Our ancient sources do not confirm this characterization of the Pharisees; to call one’s opponents money lovers was a common means of denigrating their character. Nevertheless, this description suggests we should take the parable’s depiction of wealth and poverty very seriously.

The parable does not exactly depict a reversal of fortune — blessedness is not the opposite of luxury. People seek comfort in luxury, and certainly we are happier when we have enough. Yet, research shows conclusively that luxury has little to do with long-term happiness. More importantly, luxury is no substitute for blessed comfort.

This parable invites meditation into what wealth and poverty look like, perhaps in your own locale. The story begins with word pictures of the Rich Man’s clothing and sumptuous feasting, on the one hand, and Lazarus on the other, hungry, diseased, not even capable of fending off the dogs. Only the gate divides them. Rather than cite statistics, preachers might draw word pictures that dramatize the truth of our lives. At the moment, our culture features a powerful resistance to the truth about consumption and poverty; people prefer to remain ignorant. Perhaps a visit to contrasting classrooms, supermarkets, or clinics in the same urban area might help preachers paint the picture. One might narrate a walking survey of the church building in its environment. If one really wants to be bold, one might name the patterns of consumption and recreation that mark one’s own congregation. The point is not to stand apart from the congregation but to speak out of one’s own implication in the divide between rich and poor.

Famously, the Rich Man never does get it. He understands the message about wealth and the poor, but he approaches Abraham as if Abraham were his peer. Lazarus remains an inferior who can be “sent” to comfort the Rich Man or to preach to his ancestors. The parable turns from the changed fortunes of the Rich Man and Lazarus to the question of people who do not get the point. Surely Moses and the prophets supply enough reason to treat other people with dignity. If people still do not repent, even Lazarus’ miraculous return will not convince them. (Despite the possible allusion to Jesus’ resurrection in 16:31, the request for Lazarus’ return prompts the saying.)

The dismal prospect that people may reject the word concerning wealth and poverty poses a difficult problem for preachers. The parable calls us to confront ourselves and our communities concerning our own practices, but do we really change? What is the function of preaching if people do not act on the word they already know? Preaching dwells in the hope that we might repent before the great chasm finally divides us. It does happen.

1 Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 423-24, 725 n. 152; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Sacra Pagina 3; Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1991), 252.

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Rolf Jacobson

The Old Testament reading of this Sunday is from the prophet Amos, as it was last Sunday.

For some background reading about the prophetic concept of justice, see last week’s Old Testament commentary. For a brief introduction to the prophet Amos, see either the article on Amos on the Enterthebible.org website, or my article, “What Every Christian Should Know about Amos and Hosea,” in Word & World 28:2 (Spring 2008) 182-191.

This passage, like most from the prophet Amos, is a message of judgment. If one chooses to preach on Amos this week, it would be good to remember three things about interpreting judgment passages. The first is that God’s anger is not the opposite of God’s love, as many people tend to think. Rather, God’s judgment is an expression of God’s love. Because God loves people, when one person or group of people cause others to suffer, God gets angry. This anger is a sign of God’s love for those who are oppressed.

Second, God’s anger and judgment exist in order to get people to change their harmful behavior. God does not delight in being angry. Quite the opposite. Over and over, the Old Testament tells us that God delights in showing mercy and in forgiving. God expresses anger in order to bring about repentance and change.

Third, when curved-in-upon-themselves human beings interpret passages of judgment, we tend to see the sins of others rather than our own sins. So when we read Amos, we tend to think of “those people’s sins, back then.” Or, we tend to think of the sins of “other people” today. But as Jesus suggests in the Sermon on the Mount, when we interpret the law we should first examine the logs in our own eyes, rather than starting with the slivers in our neighbors eyes. Here, when preaching, preachers will do well to role model an interpretive approach that starts by looking in our own eyes. Preachers should resist the urge to apply this passage first either to the rich or to those in power–instead, starting with the text as saying something true about ourselves.

Portrait of a Life-of-Faith Run Amuck
One can consider Amos 6: 4-6 as a portrait of a life of faith that has gone horribly wrong at some point. But first, a little context.

The passage is introduced by a slap-in-the-face shout to “those who are at ease in Zion” and “those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.” Zion, of course, refers to Jerusalem, which during Amos’ ministry (about 760 B.C.E.) was the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. Samaria, likewise, was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Thus, Amos is addressing all of God’s people here–both the southern kingdom from which he hailed, as well as the northern kingdom to which God had sent him as prophet. The prophet accuses the people in these cities of being at ease because they are sure that no harm will come to them, that they are safely out of danger’s reach. In the verses the lectionary excises (verse 1b-3), the prophet essentially says, “Take a look around, friends. What do you see in the neighboring countries? Do you see any that have escaped the devastation of the Assyrian army? So why do you think you will be any different?”

To this, the people of both the northern and southern kingdoms would have answered: “We are different because we are the Lord’s people.”

To that, Amos answers by painting his audience an audible portrait of a corporate life of faith that has gone to seed. The picture Amos paints is of a decadent feast. This feast may have been connected to some worship ritual because the Hebrew words for “bowls” in verse 6 (mizraq) and “anoint” (mashach) occur elsewhere in the Old Testament in ritual contexts. Or the feast may simply have been “the revelry…of privileged powerful people who enjoy the indulgences which they can afford.” Either way, the prophet paints a picture of people who claim to belong to the Lord and who trust the Lord to protect them and keep them “at ease” and “secure,” but who behave in  a decidedly ungodly manner.

Amos’ canvas begins to be filled in: The worshippers are those who lie down on “beds of ivory,” literally “beds of tooth”–these refer to beds made of wood, with inlaid, ivory ornamentation. Most Israelites slept on the floor, on thin, woven mats. The worshippers are those who eat the most expensive of foods–veal (calves from the stall) and young lambs. Most Israelites ate little meat, subsisting mostly on grains, vegetables, and fruits. Amos is thus taking aim at those in power in Jerusalem and Samaria. Those who can tax the poor of the land, but use the taxed proceeds not for the welfare of the people, but for their own luxury. They drink wine and anoint themselves with oil.

“But are not Grieved over the Ruin of Joseph!”
And in the background of Amos’ picture, one can see a suffering, oppressed populace: “They are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” “Joseph” here is a collective name that refers to the entire people of Israel. Amos’ portrait comes close to the clichéd image of Nero, who supposed fiddled while Rome burned. Or that of a Marie Antoinette, who is rumored to have said, “Let them eat cake,” while the populace rebelled in starvation.

Amos’ point is that the leaders of God’s people have been invested with power and authority in order to fulfill a mission–that mission is to tend the faith of God’s people, so that God’s people can fulfill the mission that God had given Israel. But instead of using their authority and power to tend to the welfare of God’s people, those in power have used their privilege to seek their own welfare.

“If You Like Amos, You Don’t Understand him.”
A former colleague of mine often would quote one of his teachers, who had said, “If you like the prophet Amos, you don’t understand him.” That is, if you think Amos is reinforcing your own political views, skewering your political opponents, taking your side–you probably have not understood the old codger. Conservatives in our culture could easily seize on Amos’ condemnation of the legislative, government class: “See, it is about the oppressive taxes fostered by a legislative class that nurtures our dependence on them, all the while making sure that their own bellies are full.” Liberals in our culture could easily seize on Amos’ condemnation of the wealthy, business class: “See, it is about the greedy economic policies of a predatory business class, who exploit workers for forty years and then default on their pensions, all the while lining their own pockets with gold.” There is surely truth to both interpretations. And yet, there is also a third interpretation–an interpretation that would be in line with the consistent prophetic condemnation of the clergy class.

Amos’ contemporary Hosea said, “For with you is my contention, O priest” (4:4c). Perhaps the working-preacher class (myself first among them!) should start by exploring how this passage indicts us. Have we really put the faith formation of the people of God first? Have we focused everything we do on forming the faith of God’s people, so they can serve God’s mission in the world. Have we exercised our offices, used our authority, and employed our power faithfully, always tending the faith of the people, so they can live out their callings as God’s chosen ones?

I don’t sleep on a bed with inlaid ivory ornamentation, but somehow, I am pretty sure that the bed I have made is the same one that Amos had in mind. And I have decided that I don’t like Amos.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Frank M. Yamada

Hope often comes in the middle of judgment. Belief and courage become most pronounced in the face of despair.

This week’s passage continues the lectionary’s sampling of texts that deal with the multi-faceted theme of judgment in the book of Jeremiah. Chapter 32 contains an audacious prophetic sign of future restoration. Though Jeremiah has been speaking words of judgment against Jerusalem and Judah throughout most of his prophetic career, chapters 30–33, also known as the Book of Comfort or the Book of Consolation, contain messages of hope. Thus, even as Babylon is threatening to complete its destruction of Judah, the prophet makes a bold pronouncement about Judah’s future–one in which “(h)ouses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15).

Chapter 32 begins with a historical prologue (verses 1–5), situating this prophetic action in “the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar” (verse 1), or in 588 B.C.E. The historical context of this passage corresponds to the second siege of Jerusalem just before the eventual fall of the city in 587. Jeremiah is being held captive in the “court of the guard” (verse 2) because of his negative oracles, which predicted the fall of the city and the capture of the king by the Babylonians.

This passage has a basic structure, beginning with the word of the LORD coming to Jeremiah in verses 6–7. The LORD tells Jeremiah that Hanamel, his uncle Shallum’s son, would come to the prophet saying, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” (verse 7). This word is confirmed in verse 8 when Hanamel comes and makes the request. In the remaining verses of today’s reading, Jeremiah recounts in detail how he fulfilled the LORD’s command to purchase the field (verses 9–15), which includes an interpretation of this prophetic action in verse 15.

In the prophetic literature, symbolic action was a common way of conveying the “word” of the LORD. These embodied performances, which were common in the ancient Near East, usually contained three basic elements: 1) the deity’s instruction to the prophet; 2) a report that describes the fulfillment of the prophetic action; and 3) an interpretation of the act. Just like the prophetic word, these actions were not merely the prophet’s best guess at upcoming events. These acts initiated the future in the present. They proclaimed in embodied form the “here not yet” of the LORD’s acts in history.

The LORD instructs Jeremiah to purchase the field, because the prophet has the right to redeem it. This well-known practice in ancient Israel involved the purchase of land by the next of kin, usually when a relative had died, in order to keep property within the clan (cf. Ruth 4). The significance of this action is profound given the historical context of the second Babylonian siege of Jerusalem.

In the middle of city’s impending destruction, Jeremiah makes an investment in the future stock of Judah’s eventual restoration, when “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (verse 15). This symbolic action of hope does not cancel out the word of judgment that Jeremiah had already proclaimed. The judgment of the LORD was certain. The fate of the people was sealed. In fact, it was being fulfilled even as Jeremiah was signing the deed of purchase. However, in the middle of this catastrophic set of events, God initiates a word of hope through the prophet’s actions. Jeremiah, quite literally, puts his money where his mouth is. These actions put in motion a reality that is nearly impossible to envision given the current state of events.

Despite the improbable outcome of this prophetic action, something that Jeremiah acknowledges in the verses following today’s passage (verses 16–25), the prophet proceeds to fulfill this command in painstaking detail (verses 9–14). He mentions two deeds, one sealed and one open (verse 14). The practice of signing two documents was common in ancient Near Eastern legal custom. The opened version functioned as a working document, which parties could reference to settle disputes. The closed document preserved a copy of the original to insure that nothing was changed.

The detail in verses 16–25 has a meaningful function in this text. It not only shows the complete extent to which Jeremiah has fulfilled the instruction of the LORD–a perfect obedience. Jeremiah’s meticulous fulfillment of this command also points to the prophet’s and God’s careful attention to a future that is still very distant and hard to see given the current circumstances. This hope is as certain as the Babylonian armies that are at the gate. Thus, the observers of this transaction are not there simply to verify the purchase of land. They are witnesses to the future that the LORD has announced through Jeremiah’s prophetic action.

There is much in today’s world that creates anxiety over the future–climate change, a wavering economy, and increased hostility among nations and religious groups, to name a few. Biblical hope, however, does not resort to despair in such times, nor does it try to cover up anxiety with mere words and false hope.

Today’s passage reminds us God is invested in the future destiny of humankind. Even when catastrophe was imminent, Jeremiah made an audacious and specific financial act, symbolizing God’s declaration that judgment and destruction would not have the final word. Judah would certainly suffer the judgment that God had announced. Babylon would destroy Jerusalem and Judah and carry off its inhabitants into exile. The prophet, however, activates the future in the present through a symbolic act of purchasing a field. God’s people would be restored and would again thrive in the land (verse 15). Perilous times require the faithful to put into embodied action the hope that God has announced, which is already here, but not yet.


Commentary on Psalm 146

Hans Wiersma

This psalm of praise resonates with peace and justice.

Make that divine peace and justice. In this psalm, it is the Lord who is given all of the credit for executing justice in behalf of the oppressed, for feeding the hungry, for setting prisoners free, for opening the eyes of the blind, etc. On the other hand, the psalm declares that for those seeking help from their fellow human beings, well, “there is no help.” So much for “God’s Work, Our Hands”?

The texts appointed for the day suggest the theme “Be Rich in Good Works”–as in verse 18 in the 1 Timothy 6 pericope. The Old Testament passage from Amos threatens wealthy folk who are not grieved by injustice. And Jesus’ tough parable of Lazarus and the unnamed rich man fairly forces a double-edged self-reflection: “Am I rich like the rich guy in the story?” and “Have I done enough for the Lazaruses of the world?” Although it is not quite the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (in Matthew 25), the story about Lazarus and the rich man suggests a similar separation: Do-gooders on one side; non-do-gooders on the other.

Psalm 146 offers a correction of sorts. The psalm proclaims that the Lord is the ultimate do-gooder. The psalm counsels that where justice is concerned, we ought to put our trust in the Lord and not “in princes, in mortals.” In this way the psalm offers (at the very least) a useful reminder that our civic dealings are penultimate, that our political endeavors are bound to perish.

Psalm 146 not only praises the Lord for his mighty deeds, it also proclaims a realistic despair concerning human righteousness. Indeed, the psalm bears witness to Martin Luther’s twin theses: “One is not righteous who does much but who, without work, believes much in Christ” and “The Law says ‘Do This’ and it is never done; Grace says ‘Believe This’ and it is already done.”1

If the rich man in the parable in Luke 19 had remembered Psalm 146, the outcome may have been different. When the rich man was confronted with ignoring Lazarus’s needs, he might have protested: “But the Psalm declares that the Lord gives food to the hungry and that in mortals there is no help!” To which Lazarus, there in Abraham’s bosom, might have responded: “He’s got a point.” To which Abraham might have said, “There does appear to be a loophole here. I better run upstairs and check it out with the big guy.” Upon returning, Abraham might have proclaimed the following to the rich man: “Well, I checked it out. And the Lord told me to tell you: ‘In the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you and for his sake God forgives you all your sins.'”

Like the chasm between poor, ol’ Lazarus and that rich man in the Gospel parable, there will always a yawning abyss between our notions of righteousness and the righteousness of God. This is why, for Christians, the flow of divine activity is “down and out”: God’s righteousness flows down upon believers who, inspired and empowered by the Spirit of the living Christ, live out the divine righteousness through various vocations that benefit the neighbor. Chasm closed.

1Martin Luther, The Heidelberg Disputation, theses 25 and 26.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 6:6-19

A.K.M. Adam

The lesson today skips over the extensive discussion of roles in the church and takes up (after a denunciation of those who teach false doctrine, revisiting a topic from the beginning of chapter 4) the question of discipleship and wealth.

The reading selects a sort of ethical inclusio, wherein the letter initiates the question of wealth in verses 6–10, then cites the grounds by which one may distinguish true faithfulness from false, then returns to the question of riches with specific instructions. The passage reminds disciples that a heartfelt profession of faith in God is incompatible with the longing for material abundance.

The initial section of our reading sets out the spiritual dangers that affect people whose hearts are distracted by desires for earthly wealth. In this section, the letter echoes familiar Pauline warnings about desire and distraction. Any object of desire that overshadows a primary allegiance to God — be it sex, or status, or spiritual virtuosity — imperils the faithfulness that sustains our sharing in Jesus. Among these distractions, Paul (and Jesus, and James) identify the desire for possessions as particularly corrosive.

Although human well-being requires only a minimal economic basis (“if we have food and clothing we will be content with these,” 6:8), the transition from basic food and clothing to nice food and clothing, and from there to stylish clothing and rich food, takes place gradually. We are not likely to observe the progress from need to desire, especially when that transition involves ourselves and our loved ones. Yet praiseworthy as is the concern to see one’s family and friends well-nourished and healthy, therein lies many pitfalls.

For instance, the determination to see one’s family amply fed and equipped contributes to the anxious concern to be a good provider, exactly the sort of anxiety Jesus inveighed against in the Sermon on the Mount. It may slide from the desire to see one’s family well-fed and clothed to seeing them more well-fed and clothed than others (the sort of temptation Jesus warned against, saying that the gospel constituted all who accept and live by it into a new, expansive family). And of course, as this letter points out, the eagerness to be rich opens the door to putting that goal ahead of faithful commitment to God (as Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon”).

The insatiable appetite for wealth narrows a person’s field of vision; when one gazes fixedly at wealth, one cannot look around at neighbors who demonstrate that riches are not necessary for abundant life. Wealth’s blinkers conceal from us the people whose need for bare sustenance far surpasses our desire for newer, better, more intense satisfactions. These verses highlight the desperate suffering the lottery economy engenders; as fewer people accumulate more of the world’s resources, the occupants feel dissatisfied with what they have because it is less than the hyperbolic wealth of celebrity mega-millionaires. All the while, around the world people starve in order unwillingly to fund gamblers’, investors’, dealers’, reality-TV show stars’, bankers’, gangsters’, and ordinary middle-class civilians’ intoxicated dream of becoming the one lucky person whose wealth surpasses counting.

As a counterexample, the letter commends Timothy for having made “the good confession,” apparently a public avowal of faith in God before hostile witnesses. In this, Timothy followed the example of Jesus before Pilate, who did not deny God in order to secure his own safety (the letter identifies Jesus’ response to Pilate also as a “good confession”). That sort of unwavering fidelity demonstrates the sort of character that does not put mundane anxieties ahead of pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.

As a theological complement to the single-minded devotion to God, the reading re-emphasizes God’s uniqueness and God’s transcendent characteristics, recalling those themes from both of the last two weeks’ readings. This week, the epistle calls God “the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,” who “has immortality” and “whom no one has ever seen” (6:15f); two weeks ago, we read that God is “King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1:17), and last week that “there is one God” (2:5). This consistent theme provides the heartbeat of the epistle, such that subsidiary points about discipleship, ecclesiology, and relation to alternative cultures derive their cogency from their congruence with the one God’s transcendence.

Having restated the premise the unique God requires a unique commitment from those who want to take part in the divine life, the letter returns to the topic of wealth from a different angle. In this concluding section, the letter deals not with people who might be enthralled by the prospect of riches, but people who already have ample resources. (The impulse to say, “Surely it is not I, Lord” betrays the anxiety and double-mindedness that the first verses of today’s reading warned about.) As was implicit in the earlier discussion, the problem lies not in riches themselves but in people’s determination to accumulate wealth rather than to use it to alleviate others’ needs.

One might invoke Paul’s familiar metaphor of the body to underscore this point: the belly does not withhold nutrients from brain, does it? Can the heart prosper if it does not circulate the blood but hoard it (after all, you never know when you might need a transfusion)? Those who have more than they need for nourishment and protection from the elements are under no risk of condemnation so long as they dispose of their riches for the benefit of others.

As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Those put their hope in bank vaults and high-yield securities make their own kind of confession of faith, and it is not what the letter would describe as “the good confession.” Those who place their hope in the one God whose heritage we share by our participation in the Body of Christ will readily share what they have. Those who stake their well-being on temporal wealth will never have enough; but there is no shortage of blessings for God’s people.