Lectionary Commentaries for October 10, 2010
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 17:11-19

David Lose

Amid the various ecclesial, ethical, and liturgical reforms of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship.

His answer: the tenth leper turning back. Paying attention to a few details will help us appreciate Luther’s insight into Luke’s unique story.

Details, Details
First: given that Samaria and Galilee border each other, there is no “region between” them, and even if there were, it would be an odd route to take toward Jerusalem. It may be that Luke has little grasp of the topography he describes, but I tend to think his point is theological rather than geographical. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, and the encounters he has along the way reveal something about the nature of the kingdom he will establish there. This encounter happens in a middle space, where one would expect the tension between ethnic and religious differences to be palpable. What God inaugurates through Jesus is made manifest in this “region between.”

Second: much that happens in this brief scene is fairly typical. Neither the pattern of healing — a plea followed by an eminently observable command — nor the response of worship from the one who returns — to praise, prostrate, and thank — is unique. Both are reliable elements in healing stories. God acts in and through the ordinary.

Third: against this backdrop, two details stand out. 1) Given that Jesus has commanded the ten to follow the law, his question seems a tad disingenuous: “Where are the other nine?” To which one might answer, “They are going to show themselves to the priests in accordance with the law…just like you told them to do.” Then why does Jesus ask? 2) The one who returns is a Samaritan or, as Jesus describes him, a foreigner; that is, one a first-century Jew would not normally look to as an example. Amid the ordinary, something has changed.

Fourth: Jesus says to the Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well” (NRSV, NIV). One might also translate it, as Eugene Peterson does, “your faith has healed and saved you” (The Message). The Greek work, sesoken, from the root sozo, can be translated any of these ways: healed, made well, saved. It can also be translated, with the King James Version, “Your faith has made you whole.” However we translate it, one thing is clear: there is more at stake here than mere healing.

Seeing and Believing
Taken together, these details orient us to the possibility that Jesus instructs his followers — then and now — that faith is not a matter of believing only, but also of seeing. All the lepers were healed; one, however, saw, noticed, let what happened sink in…and it made all the difference.
    *Because he sees what has happened, the leper recognizes Jesus, his reign and his power.
    *Because he sees what has happened, the leper has something for which to be thankful, praising God with a loud voice.
    *Because he sees what has happened, the leper changes direction, veering from his course toward a priest to first return to Jesus.

In this light, this story serves as an invitation to believers — then and now — to recognize that what we see makes all the difference. In the face of adversity, do we see danger or opportunity? In the face of human need, do we see demand or gift? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend?

And it goes further. When we look to God, do we see stern judge or loving parent? When we look to ourselves, do we see failure or beloved child? When we look to the future, do we see fearful uncertainty or an open horizon? There is, of course, no right answer to any of these questions. How we answer depends upon what we see. Yet how we answer dramatically shapes both our outlook and our behavior.

Perhaps this is the key to the stewardship campaigns that so many pastors will be overseeing throughout this month. Stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act.

Perhaps this is also the key to the worship we carefully plan and tend week in and week out. Worship is not simply about hearing God’s story or even praising God in response; rather, hearing the story through Scripture and sermon and praising through song and gifts is all intended to help us see God at work in our lives and the world. Perhaps this is even the key to the Christian life. Before we are called to believe or confess or help or do we are called simply to see…and to help others do the same. We are called, that is, to point out blessing, to claim mercy, to name grace wherever we are and with all the courage we can muster.

At the outset of this story, ten men are stuck. They live “between regions” in a “no-man’s” land of being socially, religiously, and physically unclean. By the end of the story, all ten are made well. But one has something more. He has seen Jesus, recognized his blessing and rejoiced in it, and changed his course of action and behavior. And because he sees what has happened, the leper is not just healed, but is made whole, restored, drawn back into relationship with God and humanity. In all these ways he has been, if we must choose a single word, saved.

What is true stewardship, worship, and Christian living? It is the tenth leper turning back. For now as then, seeing makes all the difference.

First Reading

Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Sara M. Koenig

Set amidst international politics is a remarkable story about healing, humility, and universalism, which centers around the character of Naaman.

Verse 1 introduces us to him by first noting his military status and his foreign nationality: he is the head of the Aramean army. Next, the verse praises him for being “a great man before his lord (i.e. the king of Aram),” and goes on to give the reason for his greatness, “for by him the LORD had given victory to Aram.” Though this assertion is quite clear in the text, it is surprising: the God of Israel has been supporting military victory of Aram?

Aram has appeared a number of times in the biblical narrative before this text as one of Israel’s major adversaries (2 Samuel 8, 10, 1 Kings 15, 20, etc.). Its most recent reference was in 1 Kings 22, when Aram was responsible for the death of the Israelite king Ahab. Moreover, the word translated as “victory” when referring to military encounters is the word teshuah, which also means “salvation” or “deliverance.”

Those who refer to God in the Old Testament as playing favorites with Israel have not taken into account this text. Naaman continues to be extolled in this first verse as a “valiant warrior,” but his introduction concludes with what will become the major problem in the story: he suffers from a skin disease. That is, in addition to his status, his greatness, his victory, his skill as a warrior, he is not healthy. Most often, the skin disease is translated as “leprosy,” but that translation is debatable, especially when we notice that Naaman’s particular disease did not prevent him from interacting with others in a variety of social contexts. However, even if Naaman was not a social outcast, his greatness is marred by his disease.

The second verse introduces a second character to the story: a little Israelite girl. She has been captured by the Arameans in one of their military raids (a detail that makes concrete the implications of the victory God gave Israel), and she becomes a servant to Naaman’s wife. Her lowly status is emphasized by the way the text describes her: she is a young, a na’arah, but this word is itself modified by the adjective, “little” (qatanah). Frank Spina explains, “Thus she is a ‘little little girl.'”1 But this unnamed Israelite slave girl is concerned for Naaman’s health, and she tells his wife about a “prophet in Samaria” (2 Kings 5:3) who has the ability to heal Naaman’s skin condition.

The lectionary text omits the verses where Naaman reports to the king of Aram what the girl said, and the king of Aram gives permission for Naaman to go to Israel. The Aramean king sends along with Naaman some lavish gifts: ten talents of silver (roughly seven hundred fifty pounds), six thousand shekels of gold (about one hundred fifty pounds), and ten sets of clothing. The Aramean king also sends a letter to the Israelite king, which commands the king of Israel to heal Naaman from his skin disease.

Our pericope picks the story back up when the king of Israel reads that letter, and responds with anguish: tearing his clothes, wondering aloud if the Arameans have taken him for a deity with the power to give and take life, and complaining that the king of Aram “is trying to pick a quarrel” with him, as the NRSV and NIV translate.

There is some humor amidst his anguish. First, the lack of mention in the letter about a prophet has led to the king of Israel’s assumption that he is responsible to heal Naaman. And second, the gift to the king included a number of new garments, which could presumably replace the ones he tore! But Elisha intervenes in verse 8, telling the king to send Naaman to him so that “he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”

Naaman goes to see Elisha, but instead of meeting with him, Elisha sends a messenger to him with instructions to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Two things stand out in this series of events: first, Naaman comes to Elisha with the trappings of his greatness, “his horse and his chariot” (5:9). Second, Naaman is “at the door of the house of Elisha” (5:9), but even so, Elisha does not come out. Naaman gets angry at this apparent snub, and the text reveals his reasons: “I thought he would come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and remove the skin disease” (5:11). Naaman also makes an ethnocentric objection, stating that the rivers of Damascus are superior to any water in Israel, and verse 12 ends with his departing, in anger.

At this point, it is Naaman’s own servants who intercede. They suggest that if the prophet had asked him to do a “great thing” (dabar gadol), he would have done so, and they encourage him to follow the simple instruction to wash. Verse 14 is the climax of this text that resolves the initial problem introduced in the first verse: Naaman does “according to the word of the man of God,” and the results are what Elisha predicted. His flesh is restored (shub), and compared to that of a little child, and he is made clean. Thus, the great man (verse 1), through the intercession of the little girl (verse 3), is made like a little boy (verse 14).

Though the problem has been resolved, our text continues with Naaman’s return (shub) to Elisha in verse 15. This time, he stands before Elisha, whereas previously he expected Elisha to stand (verse 11). This time, he does not only know that there is a prophet in Israel (verse 8), but he confesses his knowledge that the only God is the one in Israel. And, in the final clause of chapter 15, the one that is cut out from the lectionary text, he refers to himself as Elisha’s servant. This great, foreign military leader has come to faith in Israel’s God, and he has come to see himself as a servant after becoming like a little child.

Naaman appears in Luke 4:27, when Jesus provokes anger among his listeners by reminding them that, although there were many in Israel with “leprosy,” only the foreigner Naaman was healed. It is a fitting sequel in a gospel that emphasizes reversals (Luke 1:52-53, 6:21-25), and where Jesus himself counsels his disciples that the kingdom of God belongs to those who receive it as a little child.

1Frank Spina, The Faith of the Outsider. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, p. 78.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Wil Gafney

It was for all intents and purposes the end of the world.

At least that is what it must have felt like. It was the end of life as it was known in Jerusalem, in Judah, in all that was left of David’s monarchy. Verses 2 and 3 are omitted from the lectionary, perhaps because the names are unfamiliar. Imagine if their story was our story:

Our national government has just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, First Lady,Cabinet and Congress have all been exiled. All of the artists in New York and steel workers in Pittsburgh were separated from their families and exiled as well.

To these terrified and shell shocked exiles, the prophet Jeremiah sent a pastoral letter. That the letter came from Jeremiah was a sign of just how bad things were. Jeremiah is now a major prophet due to the size of the scroll that bears his name and words. But in his time he was a small town boy trying to make it big in the big city, and by all apparent measures, he was a failure.

Jeremiah was from Anathoth in the tribal lands of Benjamin. Benjamin was the home of the failed monarch Saul, and the town itself bore the name of the Canaanite goddess, Anat. Jeremiah had tried to make it as a prophet but things did not turn out quite as he expected. In chapter 26 he was nearly put to death for his sermon in the temple court. He was slapped in the face and bound into stocks (chapter 20), imprisoned (chapter 37), and thrown in a cistern (chapter 38). In addition, he was apparently illiterate; his messages were preserved by the scribe Baruch who even accompanied him into his eventual exile. (See the story of the production and revision of Jeremiah’s scroll in chapter 36; see also chapter 45.)

Jeremiah was in a position to send this letter because he was left behind in the deportations; the Babylonians did not think he was worth the effort of deporting. When Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem, he razed and looted the Temple, took the chief priest hostage and exiled (or killed) everyone else. Verse 1 of our reading says that the surviving elders, priests, and prophets were all in Babylon. The religious establishment was disbanded, traumatized, and in need of a prophetic word themselves. Jeremiah was never a formal part of that establishment. He was an outsider prophet. And now he was in a position to serve God by serving the people who beat, imprisoned, and rejected him.

Jeremiah was not called to serve in the splendor of the temple supported by the coffers of the monarchy although that might have been his preference. (In 5:4-5, Jeremiah dismisses the poor and asks to be sent to the rich!) Jeremiah was called to serve amid the devastation and destruction of everything he knew. And in his moment in the spotlight, when he could have spoken as the second coming of Moses, proclaiming liberation from Babylon and a second Exodus to the Promised Land, Jeremiah had some bad news. The people were not going anywhere.

The word of God through Jeremiah to the exiles in 29:5-6 was to plan on staying in Babylon for the foreseeable future. They are to build homes, settle down, get married, have children, and watch their children get married.

The lesson ends with an even more surprising word in verse 7, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” God’s word to the exiles was to seek the welfare of their conquerors; to pray for them for their fates are inextricably bound up together.

God’s word to Jeremiah is particularly striking given the utter lack of repentance or any attempt of peace-making on the part of the Babylonians. Other texts in this week’s readings also address relationships between insiders and outsiders: The alternate first lesson in 2 Kings 5 invokes the Arameans with whom Israel fought a series of border wars. The Gospel, Luke 18:9-14, invokes the Samaritans, the descendants of the Israelite monarchy who survived the Assyrian invasion and deportation and who intermarried with other subject peoples so that their Judean identity was stripped from them and their descendants.

A necessary post-script to this text is that the Babylonians eventually fell to the Persians. The Judeans passed into Persian control and would not be self-governing again in the biblical narrative. Some of Jeremiah’s new flock could not believe that God would preserve God’s people in Babylon or those who were left behind in Judah. They ran to Egypt (of all places!) and took Jeremiah with them (43:4-7).

Most Western readers will not be able to identify with the originating context of Jeremiah’s epistle. Some readers – African Americans descended from abducted Africans, Native Americans living on reservations distant from their ancestral lands – may identify strongly with the exilic context. In the broader American national context, we are war with forces inside and outside of our borders. And God through Jeremiah calls us to pray for those whom we see as our enemies on national and international scales – for those whose religion and culture are different from ours and those who are bent on our destruction.

When I began this exegesis with the contemporary paraphrase of verses 2-3, I intentionally did not name a specific country as the occupying force, not wishing to name any human community as an enemy. The truth is that in 2010 there are real, frightening, international conflicts. There are nations and communities that would see others destroyed and would see us destroyed – nationally, politically, religiously, socially, and economically. God’s word is still to pray for our enemies, for in their welfare we will find our welfare.


Commentary on Psalm 111

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 111 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, a psalm type in which the singer gives thanks for God’s goodness in delivering him/her from various life-threatening situations such as illness, oppression, or enemy attack.

The words of thanks by this individual worshiper are unusual, however, for they recount not an event of God’s deliverance of an individual, but God’s deliverance of an entire community.

In addition, Psalm 111 is a succinct and masterful acrostic poem. It consists of twenty-two phrases (excluding verse 1a), each of which begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In a mere seventy-two words, the psalmist summarizes the whole history of God’s deliverance of ancient Israel in the following structure:

Verse 1: A Vow to Give Thanks
Verses 2-4: The Deeds of the Lord Praised
Verses 5-9: The Deeds of the Lord Described
Verse 10: An Introduction to Wisdom

The psalm begins with “hallelujah,” initiating a whole series of psalms (Psalms 111-118) in which the word “hallelujah” reverberates, occurring eight times at the beginnings and endings of these psalms.

Verse 1 of Psalm 111 suggests that its words are those of an individual worshiper giving thanks to God in a public setting of worship; the council of the upright and the assembly. While some scholars suggest that these two terms imply different groups of people, the first a small group that gathered around the worshiper and the second the entire congregation of worshipers, most make no distinction between the two.

The words “I will give thanks (yadah) to the LORD” tie Psalm 111 to the psalms that precede it in Book Five (Psalms 107-150). In Psalm 107, the reader encounters the words “Give thanks to the LORD” in verses 1, 8, 15, 21, and 31. They occur as well in Psalms 108:3 and 109:30.

Verses 2-4 of Psalm 111 describe God’s “works” and “wonderful deeds.” The Hebrew word translated “wonderful deeds” is niphla’oth.” It means “something that I simply cannot understand,” or “something different, striking, remarkable; something transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination.” The word is used many times in recounting the events of the exodus from Egypt. We find it in the stories of the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna, the provision of water in the desert. All of these are referred to as “wonderful deeds,” things transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination.

Verses 2-4 culminate in verse 4b’s refrain “the LORD is gracious and merciful.” “Gracious,” from the Hebrew verbal root hanan, and “merciful,” from the verbal root raham, are two of the self-declarative attributes of God given to Moses in Exodus 34:6. God declares, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” In Psalm 111, the word order is reversed (“merciful and gracious” in Exodus 34; “gracious and merciful” in Psalm 111) because of the constraints of the acrostic structure of the psalm.

In verses 5-9, the psalmist outlines, in brief descriptive phrases, the works and wonderful deeds of God. In verse 5, God gives “food,” a reference perhaps to the giving of the manna and quail in the Wilderness (Exodus 16 and Numbers 11). Verse 6’s “the inheritance of the nations” suggests God’s giving of the Promised Land to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 6-7). The “precepts” of verse 7-8 are part of the Torah, the instruction of God given at Sinai (see Psalm 119:27, 104, 173). And verse 9’s reference to “deliverance” summarizes the actions of God in the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings.

Verse 9 concludes with the words “he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.” God’s covenant and God’s name are foundational traditions of ancient Israel. Upon these the community may depend for its future as the people of God.

With God described as “awesome” in verse 9, the proper response of the worshiper in verse 10 is to “fear the Lord.” In the twenty-first century we tend to associate “fear” with something scary, something we want to get away from, or something we think will harm us. Yet we read in the Old Testament that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Thus, we know that “the fear of the Lord” is a good thing; it is a positive aspect of our faith.

The word “fear” (yara’) appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” (Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will. The Hebrew word for “fear” is powerful in meaning, but it has more to do with feelings of awesomeness. It is more about being in the presence of the holy other with cautious reverence than it is about the sweaty-palmed, shaking, gasping for breath kind of fear we often experience. When we enter into a relationship with the God of the Bible, it is a high calling. It is a dangerous, a reverent, a fearful relationship.

The Psalm scholar Leslie Allen likens the words of Psalm 111 to Romans 5:1-11. He writes:

“Psalm 111 glories in the present and permanent relevance of the ancient events of salvation. … Those events have a once-and-for-all value which the New Testament in turn attaches to the Christological counterpart. They are a window through which God’s purposes for each generation of his people can be clearly discerned. They are a signpost pointing to his enduring care and claim.”1 

As believing communities recite and reverence the stories of the great deeds and wondrous acts of God performed on their behalf, they maintain and make ever-new their claim of being “the people of God.”

1Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Waco, TX:  Word Books, Publisher), 93.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Dirk G. Lange

“Remember Jesus Christ!”

This is quite a command. And we are certainly in for a surprise if we think that remembering is simply “calling to mind” or looking at a painting of Jesus or contemplating a cross in our sanctuaries. It also will not be particularly helpful if we attempt to image what this “remembering” meant for the community to which it was addressed. One of the important aspects of the pastoral epistles is their attempt at translating Paul’s teaching, the Gospel, into a new context. They give us a model for such a translation. The result — the product of their translation — is not and cannot be ours. We are called to translate the Gospel anew, perhaps even, every day.

This particular passage gives us some indication about how such a translation might happen. Reformulating the Gospel for our present communities of faith begins with “remembering” Jesus Christ. Here is the source and the goal of all translation. And remembering has certain attributes, as we can see in this text.

Jesus Christ, as the writer points out, whom we remember was a historical person. Now this seems to contradict what I just wrote: that we are not just calling to mind a person or event. However, the paradoxical nature of Gospel-remembering is precisely that, yes, we remember a historical person, but at the same time we remember the only person not bound by history. God’s Word, the writer carefully points out, is not chained. It is not chained to a historical moment, it is not written once and set in stone, it is here and now as living Word, that is historical and yet ever new. Remembering is remembering Jesus Christ present in our midst today. Where? In whom? These are the questions you as a preacher propose and encourage your community of faith to answer.

A particular beautiful aspect of this remembering is that it is sung! Yes, we are not only remembering with words and concepts but with song. “The saying is sure…” The quote that follows is believed to be from an early hymn that this community most likely sang. They would have recognized it. They would “remember” that this Jesus, who is present today, is the one who brings life from our deaths, who sustains us even as we struggle to be faithful in our work of translation, who respects us and our work, our context, so deeply that if we deny him, he will not insist on making his presence felt, like a burden, an imposition, law. Violence is not his way. And if, in our faith, we falter, Jesus Christ remains this historical presence through all time for us.

Perhaps the other readings for the day give complimentary suggestions as to what this remembering means. In the Gospel, only one of the healed lepers returns. Only one returns to praise God. Here again, remembering is uttered in song, in a life that now dances in freedom, and seeks the kingdom of God, first, in all things. Jeremiah has a different call: “seek the welfare of the city.” Here remembering is doing what is right for others, for the city, its inhabitants. It is embodying ways of justice.

The admonitions in the last few verses only reinforce what has been said about remembering Jesus Christ. Obviously, the writer understands something other than “doctrine” with the phrase “word of truth.” Wrangling apparently follows doctrine, ideas, and concepts very closely! The veracity of this recognition is more than exemplified in our own day, especially in church politics. This wrangling does “no good” and leads only to “ruin.” When our remembering Jesus Christ is reduced to concepts, doctrine or ideas, when it is boxed in then, quite simply, Jesus Christ is no longer the center of remembering. Then, our own invented notions are the center.

Here lies the danger of all doctrine, no matter how important (for doctrine is also one way in which we “translate,” one way in which we “remember”): too quickly doctrine binds the word of truth, puts it in chains. For doctrine has always the tendency to turn itself into the truth rather than merely pointing towards the truth, who is not an “idea” or a concept but a person, Jesus Christ. When doctrine becomes the center of attention, then only wrangling ensues since communion cannot be created by our work but is given through the Holy Spirit.

What matters, for the writer to this early Christian community, is that remembering is known through the way they live, before God, that is, remembering Jesus Christ present today, for them, in the here and now. Presenting oneself  “to God,” I believe, means presenting oneself to one’s brothers and sisters. The community does not present itself to an imagery throne but to the world, to the city (Jeremiah — see the best for the city!), to the neighbor in thanksgiving. The judge likewise is the other!

“Rightly” speaking the word of truth? Rightly is one of those words that continually pushes us back to “pure” or “correct” doctrine. Yes, as we have seen, “rightly” has little to do with conformity to doctrine. It has to do with conformity to Jesus Christ. Rightly speaking is remembering Jesus Christ. It is freeing the Gospel for the other. It is suffering in that attempt. It is rejoicing and singing because it knows that this work of remembering is always God’s own work in our lives.