Lectionary Commentaries for October 3, 2010
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 17:5-10

Greg Carey

Sometimes discipleship amounts to simple expressions of faithfulness.

Luke 17:5-10 follows Jesus’ stern warning to his disciples concerning causing “little ones” to stumble (17:1-4). The pericope itself contains two sub-units. The first, 17:5-6, involves a quick interchange concerning the apostles’ request for greater faith. This sub-unit concludes with Jesus’ saying concerning mustard seed faith. In the second, 17:7-10, Jesus continues as the speaker, but with an apparent change in topic. Now the emphasis seems to reside with expectations for disciples. Apart from their apparent harshness, these two sub-units share little in common.

Luke has combined a Q saying concerning mustard seed faith (see Matthew 17:20) with Mark’s tradition concerning the fig tree and prayer. Mark’s story dramatizes Jesus’ conflict with the Jerusalem Temple and the authorities who run it.

Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. (11:22b-23)

“This mountain” refers to the mountain around which Mark’s passion story revolves, the temple mount. Luke retains Mark’s tossing into the sea imagery but removes it from its temple context. In Luke, faith moves a tree, not a mountain. In other words, Luke’s saying applies not to a specific religious and political conflict but to ordinary discipleship and sufficient faith.

Luke’s Gospel sometimes presents discipleship in terms of severe expectations. The would-be disciples of Luke 9:57-62 all seem prepared to follow Jesus. Yet Jesus rebuffs them for various reasons. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests,” but discipleship is hard stuff. A man wants to care for his father, another wants to say goodbye to his family, but the urgency of discipleship leaves no room for such common expressions of devotion. If one wants to be a disciple, Jesus suggests that one count the cost (14:25-34). The investment is great (like building a tower) and risky (like going to war). You would better consider the sacrifice; after all, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (14:33).

In that light it is no wonder that the apostles desire greater faith (17:5). Jesus has just characterized causing a little one to “stumble” as a fate worse than drowning. “Be on your guard!” he says (17:1-3); that is, “Watch yourselves!” Having encountered such high expectations, and now hearing such a daunting admonition, of course the apostles ask for help.

Yet, Jesus does not offer help, at least not the kind the apostles seek. The Greek syntax of 17:6 implies a criticism of the apostles. The little particle an following “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” suggests that the apostles lack even such minimal faith. In other words, Jesus not only declines the apostles’ request, he piles criticism on top of it.

Jesus intensifies our discomfort with his parable concerning slave-owners and their slaves. The parable first invites the apostles to identify with the slave-owners: literally, “Which one of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep. . . ?” (17:7). We are to imagine a person with resources sufficient to own a slave but not one wealthy enough to assign different slaves to diverse tasks. This poor slave works out in the fields and in the home. The parable shifts focus in verse 10, calling the audience to identify with the slaves. A “good” slave does not expect thanks.

I wish I could offer some intelligent way to mitigate the dangers of the slave imagery in this parable. The story really is about slaves, and it relies upon very conventional expectations of slaves to make its point. Preachers must discern whether or not to address such an offense. I believe one must, but finding the way to do so is extremely challenging.

We could read both 17:5-6 and 17:7-10 as rebukes of the apostles. They ask for more faith, just as we do. In reply, Jesus scolds them for lacking even mustard seed faith and suggests they should not expect reward or praise for their service. Perhaps, however, there is more to the story. When Jesus’ followers ask for faith, what do we want? Some might desire that faith brings a certain kind of certainty, perhaps even superiority. Faith, then, becomes an accomplishment. Some seek a mystical experience, a faith that works like a drug and helps us get through life’s ordinary challenges. Some aspire to faith as an antidote to struggle. With enough faith, the televangelists tell us, we can conquer doubt, illness, even economic hardship.

In this light, mustard seed faith and modest discipleship may be just what we need. By God’s grace, discipleship requires not unshakable confidence or spectacular accomplishments. Luke’s Jesus indeed makes extraordinary demands of his disciples, yet sometimes discipleship requires ordinary and daily practices of fidelity and service.

May I digress for a word of personal testimony? Though raised in the church-centered Bible Belt, I did not grow up in church. When I was twelve, I spent a week in the hospital with a hip injury. I received two visits, one from my aunt and uncle’s part-time pastor and one from a church youth group. (The youth group brought a cutely packaged soap and washcloth.) Just a few years later, when I could embrace my faith, I remembered both of those visits. That’s the kind of thing Christians do.

Unfortunately, our culture has acquired a taste for spectacular spirituality. By the grace of God, mustard seed faith and ordinary discipleship more often suffice.

First Reading

Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Rolf Jacobson

When have the sainted people to whom you preach ever heard a sermon based on God’s timeless word to Habakkuk? This week is their chance. Do not let them down.

The Message of the Book
When a lectionary-based pastor preaches on a book like Habakkuk, the challenge is really to preach the whole book, rather than just one passage. The reason for this is that the majority of faithful Christians do not know enough about the book to be able to contextualize a sermon on just a portion of the book.

So what is the message of the whole book? The message of Habakkuk can be summed up in the confession of faith that culminates this week’s lesson:  “the righteous live by their faith” (2:4). The challenge of preaching Habakkuk is unfolding the meaning of this confession. And the shape of the whole of the book provides an argument that defines who the righteous are and what faith in the one, living, true God looks like.

An aside:  As the scholar Jerome Creach has convincingly argued (see his book The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms), the term “righteous” is not first-and-foremost a moral term.  Rather, it is first of all a relational term.  The righteous are those who are dependent on God (and thus, because they know they are dependent, they trust in God’s laws and follow them). The wicked, on the other hand, feel free to violate God’s laws and their neighbor’s needs, because they do not rely on God.

The Shape of the Book (for more on this, see Richard Nysse’s fine article on Habakkuk at EntertheBible.org)

1.  The book opens with a lament, which is the first portion of this week’s lesson.  In this lament, the prophet asks God why life inside of the kingdom of Judah is so unjust. The lament functions as a condemnation of God’s people, who have not lived up to the vocation of being the Lord’s people. The lament can be summarized in verse 4, which
involves a pun on the important Hebrew term mishpat. Because the law depends on human agents to function well, the law has become slack. For this reason, “justice (mishpat) never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous–therefore judgment (mishpat) comes forth perverted.”
The term mishpat can mean either justice (the abstract concept) or judgment (a particular legal decision).  But because the wicked outmaneuver the righteous, the individual decisions (mishpat) actually create injustice (non-mishpat, so to speak).

The prophet’s lament is thus a condemnation of God’s people.

2.  The Lord then answer’s the prophet’s lament in 1:5-11. In this answer, the Lord says  in response to the people’s injustice, he is sending “the Chaldeans” (the Babylonians–the time period here is around 600 B.C.E.) as an act of judgment. It might be helpful to remind people at this point that the anger of God is not the opposite of God’s love, but an expression of God’s love. God punishes those who oppress because God loves the oppressed.

3.  The prophet responds to this message of judgment from God with a renewed lament (1:12-17). The gist of the renewed lament is:  “Wait a second, God, isn’t that worse?”  Habakkuk protests that God’s act of judgment is even more unjust than the injustice God is supposed to be punishing. After this second lament, Habakkuk vows to wait and hear “what he will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1).

4.  Habakkuk then receives a second answer from the Lord–an answer in which the Lord promises a vision (4:2). But the vision does not come right away. God promises that a vision will eventually come, but until the vision comes, God says, “The righteous live by their faith” (4:4). That is, to live as one of God’s righteous people means to live as those who have been promised a vision, but who have not yet received it.  Do not give up. Keep faith. It may seem that the vision is slow to come, but the righteous (those who rely on God) trust that the vision will come.

5.  The vision eventually comes in chapter 3.  And when it does come, it is terrifying (see 3:3-16). It is a vision of the advent of an unfathomably holy Lord, who will not be domesticated to human expectations!

6.  The book of Habakkuk then ends with a song of thanksgiving in response to this vision.  This song is a second picture of what the life of faith is like.  The righteous, because they rely on God, do not rejoice only when the barns are full, when the fields are teeming with live stock, and when the orchards blossom. Because the righteous rely on God, they trust in and rejoice in the Lord at all times:

       Though the fig tree does not blossom,
               and no fruit is on the vines;
       though the produce of the olive fails,
               and the fields yield no food;
       though the flock is cut off from the fold,
               and there is no herd in the stalls,
       yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
               I will exult in the God of my salvation. 

An Old Testament Theology of the Cross
In essence, the book of Habakkuk proclaims an Old Testament version of the theology of the cross. It says God is not found only (or even primarily) in the high points.  Rather, God meets us in our suffering.

The book provides two pictures of the life of faith.  The first is that the righteous live now in light of the promise they have received. God has promised the vision.  We live now in full faith that it will come. Yes, when we look around now, we see a world in which all too often “the wicked surround the righteous.”  But we trust that God’s vision is coming. 

The second picture of the life of faith is that of a soul rejoicing in God’s blessings, even when the barns, branches, and pastures are empty.  It is a picture of a heart that loves God, rather than merely in the blessings God gives–of a heart that rejoices in God the giver, rather than merely in the gifts of God.  It is a picture of one who knows life will inevitably bring low moments. And that these low moments are not signs that God has
abandoned us. The righteous trust that God will in fact find us in our suffering.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Lamentations 1:1-6

Frank M. Yamada

National tragedies threaten to render communities speechless. The collective grief can be overwhelming.

In response, people often gather to sing songs, pray, light candles, and mourn together. Poetry and songs, in the context of ritual, become vehicles for humans to express their sorrow. It is in this rehearsal of mourning a community finds its voice in the midst of suffering. Thus, in response to catastrophe, people gather at places of worship, even transforming public squares into sites of prayer. Likewise, in the Christian tradition, communities of faith turn to biblical poems and hymns such as Psalm 23 and Amazing Grace during times of mourning in order express their loss. In the Hebrew Bible this ritual of grief is most profoundly expressed in the lament Psalms and in the book of Lamentations.

In this week’s Hebrew Bible reading, the lectionary departs from the book of Jeremiah and turns to a selection from Lamentations. Traditionally, Lamentations is attributed to Jeremiah; however, firm authorship cannot be confidently established. In the Christian canon this collection of dirge-like poems is located among the prophetic books. In the Jewish scriptures, it is found in the Writings or kethubim with the other megillot or festival scrolls. These five scrolls are associated with specific occasions in the Jewish calendar. The Jewish community reads sepher ‘êkâ (the Hebrew title for Lamentations, literally, “the book of how”) during the Ninth of Ab. This date commemorates five catastrophes in Jewish history, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples by the Babylonians and Romans respectively.

The book of Lamentations shares many features with ancient Mesopotamian city laments, including the personification of the city, the theme of divine abandonment, and the use of multiple speakers throughout the book, each giving particular voice to the devastation. One of the more poignant examples of the interplay of these features is found through the personification of the city in the character of Daughter Zion, who laments her suffering as a victim of trauma (e.g., Lamentations 1:11c–22). Lamentations contains five poems. The first four are acrostics, poems that begin each line with letters from the Hebrew alphabet in succession. The poems are, for the most part, in the qinah meter, a rhythm scheme common in funeral dirges.

Lamentations 1:1–6 is part of a larger block, extending to 1:11b. To understand today’s passage, it is important to see the movement of the whole chapter. In this first section, the primary speaker is an unnamed narrator, with the exception of verse 9c, where Daughter Zion cries out: “O LORD, look at my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed.” In the rest of Chapter 1 (verse 11c–22), the personified city is the primary voice, though the narrator interrupts her in verse 17. Themes overlap between the two voices including: Daughter Zion’s desolation with no one to comfort her (verses 1–2, verse 16); the deceit of her lovers who have now abandoned her (verse 2a, verse 19); and the triumph of her enemies (verse 5, verse 7, verse 21). While the narrator addresses an unidentified audience, Daughter Zion makes her lament first to passersby (verse 12), addressing them directly in verse 18 as “all you peoples.” She ends her complaint by addressing the LORD directly (verses 20–22).

Both voices contribute to an overwhelming tone of sorrow and shame. Both, as well, put the blame squarely on the desolate city herself (verse 8, verse 18). Beyond these similarities, there are significant differences between these two speakers’ perspectives. In today’s selection (verses 1–6), the narrator emphasizes the difference between Daughter Zion’s current desolation and her former glory: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal” (verse 1, cf. verses 6–7). Thus, nostalgia permeates the narrator’s sense of grief. By contrast, Daughter Zion’s cries do not emphasize a past that has been lost, but dwell on her present destitute condition.

Another point of contrast is that the narrator, in this initial chapter, does not assign much agency to the LORD for the city’s present desolation. In fact, the narrator emphasizes Daughter Zion’s sinfulness to explain the situation (verses 8–9). While the personified city takes responsibility for her guilt (verses 18–19), she describes the disaster that she has experienced as having come from the LORD. The LORD is the subject who actively works to bring about judgment and punishment (verses 13–15), afflicting Daughter Zion (verses 12c–13), binding her shame around her neck, and handing her over to her enemies (verse 14). The LORD has rejected those within her walls (verse 15), resulting in her utter abandonment with no one to comfort her (verses 16). For this reason, Daughter Zion ends her speech by directing her lament straightforwardly to God, who has brought about her destruction (verses 20–22).

One can compare and contrast these two initial responses to suffering in Lamentations with the perspective among the characters in the book of Job. While the narrator is hardly likened to Job’s friends, whom Job describes as miserable comforters (Job 16:2), the narrator in Lamentations 1 does place the blame completely on Daughter Zion without addressing the LORD’s active role in the destruction of the city. Similar to Job, Daughter Zion sees that her suffering comes from the hand of the LORD.

The desolate city, however, differs from Job in that she owns her own guilt. More importantly, Lamentations differs from the book of Job in another significant way. In Lamentations 2, the narrator’s perspective aligns with Daughter Zion’s point of view through detailed descriptions of how the LORD brought about the city’s destruction. Thus, the narrator aligns with the Suffering Daughter, even addressing her directly in 2:13ff. The narrator, who appeared more removed from Daughter Zion’s plight in Chapter One, has now born witness to her suffering.


Commentary on Psalm 37:1-9

Bobby Morris

A dear relative once told me, “You know, people don’t have good sense until they get old.”

Now, as then, I find a good deal of wisdom in his observation. In the present lectionary reading, we encounter a portion of a wisdom psalm spun by a sage who has grown old (verse 25). As younger, more idealistic students of the ancient wisdom school most certainly needed the direction of their senior mentors, so too we who are but infants in our faith require the nurture offered by scripture.

It is a question that the faithful have always grappled with: “How is it that the wicked often seem to prosper?” There could hardly be a more human response than for a faith still seeking understanding to become frustrated, angry, or even wrathful in the face of such a paradox. Yet, the life experiences of the sage offer in these verses a corrective to such a reactionary response. Three times in only nine verses (1, 7, 8) the writer admonishes: “Do not fret.” Indeed, the Hebrew verb “thus” translated by the NRSV goes further than cautioning against an emotion. The real danger lies in the state of being in which one is “intensely worked up” or even “consumed” by the problem of the apparent prospering of the wicked. The verb has a reflexive sense in which the writer cautions readers not to inflict self-harm by bringing this state of being upon themselves.

One of the problems with this state of being is the impact it has on one’s relationship with God. While the Psalter condones and even encourages questioning in dialogue with God, a state of self-consuming vexation with the wicked can lead to mistrust of God and even the questioning of the reality of God’s power and dominion in the world.1 Thus, it is no surprise that the sage twice exhorts that readers should trust in the Lord (verse 3, 5). Despite evidence which would seem to the contrary God is in control of the world and as a result, the prospering of evildoers will endure only briefly.

Shunning vexation and trusting God, however, does not mean that the faithful sit idly by and do nothing. Verse seven calls on believers to “be still” and “wait patiently.” Although these would seem to be quite passive exhortations, close examination reveals a greater depth of meaning. The verse begins with not only “be still” (or be silent), but “be still before the Lord.”

The sense here is to stand in awe of God, speechless in the face of the breadth of God’s power and dominion. The implication is that God is in control and doing something in the world, otherwise there would be no reason to stand in awe. Further, wait patiently does not do justice to the second Hebrew imperative in the verse. The verb would be better translated “wait longingly.” This nuance adds a more dynamic component to the waiting, again implying that God is at work now.2 

Since God is at work, believers too are called to be doing something. First and foremost, as mentioned above, this means trusting God and knowing that God is at work in the world. As a result, the faithful are called to “do good” (verse 3), “take delight in the Lord” (verse 4), and “commit your way to the Lord” (verse 5). If there is to be any kind of response on our part to the brief prospering of the wicked, these three things are it.

In short, stay true to who and whose we are. As a result, light shines onto the deeds and ways of the wicked so that they may be clearly seen for what they are and thus fade and wither as the sage promises in verse one. It is not we who shine this light, but God who “will make your vindication” 3  shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday (verse 6).

A pitfall to avoid here is the implication of works-righteousness, either in the text or in the presentation of the text. There are textual components that could be interpreted and presented in this way. After being told to “trust in the Lord” and “do good” in verse three, we hear: “[Y]ou will live in the land and enjoy security.” What would appear to be exhortations followed by rewards also occur in verses four, five, and nine.

However, the only works-righteousness here is that which we may erroneously superimpose from our own theological points of departure. In verse three, there is no “so” in the Hebrew. In fact, the last two verbs of the verse are imperatives, just as the first two. Further, neither the “rewards” of the above-mentioned verses nor the swift end met by the wicked are the results of God waving a magic wand. They are, instead, the outcome of the respective activities.

In turning from God, the wicked will wither and fade just as in turning from water a body will dehydrate. Likewise, those who “do good”(verse 3), “take delight in the Lord” (verse 4), and expect the Lord to act (verse 9) will see the Lord act (verse 5) and will inherit the earth (verse 9). These things are certainly true because God promises them, even if we strain to understand until we attain the sense brought by old age!

1Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 405.
2Similarly, the NRSV’s “wait” in verse 9 might better be translated as “expect” to reflect the ongoing activity of God. The Hebrew verb here has the sense of looking and hope.
3The Hebrew word here is more usually translated as “righteousness.”

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

A.K.M. Adam

2 Timothy belongs to the biblical genre of the “testament,” the last words of a hero of the faith who is facing death.

Elsewhere in the Bible, Jacob blesses his heirs through the last chapters of Genesis; Moses uses most of Deuteronomy to recapitulate his experiences leading Israel; David has a brief deathbed oracle in 2 Samuel 23, and then gives Solomon pragmatic political instructions just before his death in 1 Kings 2. In the intertestamental period, this became a common literary device, with non-canonical “testaments,” and one can easily read Jesus’ remarks at the Last Supper as a sort of testament – especially in John’s Gospel, with the long “farewell discourse” in chapters 13-17. In 2 Timothy, Paul (or someone writing in his name) closes the story of the apostle’s career and leaves his last instructions to Timothy and, by extension, to his other protégés.

As is appropriate for such a scenario, Paul couches his instruction in emotionally charged rhetoric. For the first portion of this passage, he concentrates on underscoring and intensifying the sense of Timothy as a cherished member of a family dedicated to God. He identifies Timothy as “my beloved child” (1:2), and follows that by noting the continuity of his own faithfulness with his ancestors’ piety. Then, Paul recalls to Timothy the laying on of his hands; the letter provides no details of the specific significance of that gesture, so we ought not assume too quickly that it indicates only ordination. In the literary context of a testament, we may also recall Jacob laying his hands on Ephraim and Manasseh to bless them (Genesis 48), or Moses laying his hand on Joshua to designate him as his successor (Numbers 27).

Whatever the precise meaning of the gesture, Paul invokes this scene as part of his reminding Timothy of their spiritual kinship. Likewise, he reminds Timothy that he inherits strong discipleship from Eunice and Lois, his mother and grandmother. As Paul and his ancestors worship God with a clear conscience, and as Lois and Eunice exemplified sincere faith, Timothy stands in a tradition of unwavering discipleship, and Paul urges him not to let his heritage down by falling prey to cowardice. The paragraph as a whole serves to illustrate that on both sides of Timothy’s lineage, the maternal and (spiritually) paternal, “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” runs in the family.

In the second portion of the passage, Paul turns the spotlight more directly onto himself, especially with regard to his reflection of Jesus’ ministry and suffering. Paul situates his own bleak circumstances – imprisoned, and foreseeing his death – firmly in the pattern of life that Jesus inaugurated. Just as “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (3:12), so Paul is suffering for the gospel in Rome.

Paul cites two reasons for Timothy to persist in preaching and teaching despite the threat of hostility. On one hand, it is vital that Timothy make known the gospel of grace far and wide, and to do so in such a way as to encourage even his adversaries to embrace the truth. On the other hand, the letter frequently points toward “eternal glory” (2:10) as a reward for faithfulness. In either case, Paul exhorts Timothy to adhere firmly to the truth of the gospel, to be willing to suffer for the truth, and to deal with adversity gently, peaceably, and patiently.

Some preachers will embrace the opportunity to uphold a theology that characterizes sound teaching about the gospel as a “good treasure” to be closely guarded in order to gain immortality; although the letter strikes that note more squarely in subsequent chapters, this passage prepares the ground for this strong, repeated theme in 2 Timothy. Such an emphasis surely befits the scenario that the letter represents: an apostle nearing the end of his life – who can criticize him for thinking of his standing before God?

One may also observe the other dimensions of the exhortation and the image of salvation in this passage. In 1:9, Paul affirms that God “saved us and called us… not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace,” and he notes that whatever the laying-on of hands signifies, it comes to Timothy as a gift from God. The Pauline eschatology of 2 Timothy is not a leaden casing over the golden theology of his undisputed letters, but a different exposition of familiar Pauline themes, with ample basis for connecting his proclamation in this letter with the theology of other texts (whether we ascribe the letter to Paul or to an amanuensis or to a talented ghost-writer).

In this week’s epistle lesson, then, the voice of an exhausted apostle speaks to us of the accumulated stresses and sufferings of decades given over entirely to proclaiming the good news of Jesus. The letter knows well that those who persist in loyalty to a countercultural Christ will encounter hardship, even to the point of death – but such is to be expected, and Timothy (and we) can rely on God to lead faithful followers beyond shame and fear into the fullness of the limitless life made possible for us through Jesus Christ.