Lectionary Commentaries for October 17, 2010
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 18:1-8

David Lose

In what way is God like an unjust judge?

Even the question seems inappropriate. God is nothing like an unjust judge, we quickly assert. What do we make, then, of this parable?

Two elements of the parable discourage easy interpretation. First, the parable proper (verses 2-5) doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it’s bracketed by Luke’s introductory note on prayer (verse 1) at one end and an early interpretation (whether Luke’s or not is difficult to tell) of the parable (verses 7-8) on the other. Second, whatever the original parable’s import, it is now placed in the context of the delayed parousia, as it is preceded by Jesus’ teaching on the coming kingdom (17:20-37) and followed by another reference to the coming of the Son of Man (verse 8b).

Given these complicating factors, what can we say about this parable? Three distinct possibilities present themselves that, while drawing on similar elements, yet differ enough from each other that the preacher will need to exercise homilitical and pastoral judgment in determining which route to pursue.

God the Good Judge
Perhaps the easiest interpretative road to travel involves correcting our faulty hearing of the rhetorical force of the parable’s comparison of the unjust judge and God. The point is not that God is like an unjust judge who will, eventually relent to the persistent petitions of the widow. Rather, the rhetorical force of the construction mirrors that of earlier instructions about prayer: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (11:13). We might read today’s comparison similarly: “If even the most unjust of judges will finally relent to the ceaseless petitions of a defenseless widow, then how much more will God — who is, after all, a good judge — answer your prayers!”

The focus of this interpretation is on God’s goodness and eagerness to bless. Therefore, the sermon offers believers who are perhaps reluctant to address almighty God with their petitions both an invitation and encouragement to pray without ceasing, confident of God’s desire to respond.

God the Just Judge
A second and related path would be to give primary attention not only to Luke’s introductory note but also to the choice of the unjust judge as a major character. Might the parable give voice to some of the discouragement of early believers, whether caused by the delay of Jesus’ return or the difficult or unjust circumstances they were enduring? If so, the parable might be saying, “While I know that God may seem like an unjust judge, God’s actions are just and God will deliver justice in due time.”

The focus in this case is on the interpretation of the parable in the latter verses of the pericope. Correspondingly, the rhetorical force of the sermon is not so much invitation as it is comfort for those in distress and encouragement to persevere in faith and prayer. Believers, like the widow, should pray and petition without ceasing and not lose heart, confident that God’s justice will in time prevail.

The Widow as Pursuer of Justice
A third interpretive route shifts our attention from the judge to the widow. Widows in the ancient world were incredibly vulnerable, regularly listed with orphans and aliens as those persons deserving special protection. The fact that this particular widow must beseech a judge unattended by any family highlights her extreme vulnerability. Yet she not only beseeches the judge, but also persists in her pleas for justice to the point of creating sufficient pressure to influence his actions.

The focus in this reading is on the judge’s description of his own motivation for settling the widow’s claim. He asserts (as the narrator already had) that he neither fears God nor respects people, thereby testifying that his unsavory character has not changed during the course of the parable. When he explains why he relents, however, he utters a description of the effect of the widow’s ceaseless complaints on him that most translations dilute. A more literal translation of the judge’s grievance (18:5) is that the woman “is giving me a black eye.”

Like all black eyes, the one the widow’s complaints threaten to inflict have a double effect, representing both physical and social distress. That is, the judge complains that the widow’s relentless badgering not only causes him physical harm but also risks publically embarrassing him. For this reason, he says — perhaps justifying his actions to his wounded sense of self? — that he relents not because he has changed his mind but simply to shut up this dangerous widow. In this case, insolent, obnoxious, even intolerable behavior results in justice.

Read this way, the parable serves to encourage those suffering injustice to continue their complaints and calls for justice. A sermon following this path will encourage believers in their efforts, noting that sometimes it takes extreme, even socially unacceptable behavior to effect change. God, the Bible has persistently insisted, gives special attention to those who are most vulnerable; therefore, we should persist in our complaints, even to the point of embarrassing the powers that be in order to induce change.

A Contextual Homiletic
One’s decision on how to preach this text will rest not only on interpretive decisions but also on contextual sensitivity. This parable, as ambiguous as it is provocative, can support several readings. Which one the preacher chooses will depend in large part on how she reads the present and pressing needs of her congregation. If speaking to a congregation unconfident of their ability to pray, invitation seems appropriate. If addressing believers who are discouraged by the injustice in the world and who wonder whether God is at all moved by our prayers, then comfort and encouragement not to lose heart may best serve. If preaching to a congregation wrangling with principalities and powers, then the affirmation that their relentless struggles will not be in vain may provide the impetus to strengthen their prayers along with their efforts. Whichever direction you choose, surely one thing is certain — our preaching, as with our living, should be accompanied by ceaseless prayer.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31

Sara Koenig

The story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel provides an embarrassment of riches for homiletical possibilities.

There is the mysterious incarnation of God into human form; there is the act of wrestling which simultaneously connotes both intimacy and struggle, but ultimately yields a blessing; there is the theme of identity that is connected to one’s name — and, of course, there is the new name given to Jacob by God. In fact, this account is one of the most extensively interpreted stories from the book of Genesis, for good reason. Walter Brueggemann explains, “Its rich expository possibility is based in part on its lack of clarity, which permits various readings.”1 Though there is much in this text that is strange, or left open, the literary details demand a closer look and can yield even more exegetical treasures.

At the beginning of Genesis 32, preceding the lectionary pericope, Jacob has heard that his brother Esau is coming to meet him, accompanied by four hundred men (32:6). Jacob’s response is to panic (32:7), because he assumes Esau is coming to attack him (32:8). The subsequent verses narrate Jacob’s prayer to God for deliverance, and his plans of how to minimize the damages, plans that include sending a present to Esau, and dividing his camp.

Our text begins with Jacob sending his wives and children across the river Jabbok, an eastern tributary of the Jordan located about twenty miles north of the Dead Sea, at the border of Ammon (cf. Numbers 21:24, Deuteronomy 2:37 and 3:16, Joshua 12:2, Judges 11:22). The river’s name, Jabbok, plays on the name Jacob, and is related to the word “wrestle”). 

Genesis 32:25 starts with the emphasis on Jacob’s solitude, and it is while Jacob is alone, in the night, at the ford of the Jabbok that a yet unidentified man wrestles with him. Perhaps Jacob thought his wrestling partner was Esau, though this mysterious man could also symbolize others with whom Jacob had wrestled in his life, including his father Isaac, or his father-in-law, Laban. There is very little detail given to any specifics about the wrestling match except for its length; it lasts until the dawn is about to break.

At that time, “he” sees that he is not able to prevail, and responds with a physical blow to Jacob’s thigh or hip (cf. 32:32). The NIV and NASB translate this action as “touched,” but the NRSV “struck” is also possible and could suggest more violence or force. Indeed, the result of the action is that Jacob’s leg is put out of joint. But still, Jacob does not let go. In 32:26, the wrestling partner voices his request that Jacob do so because the dawn is breaking. Terence Fretheim points out that the danger is not that God would be harmed by the daylight, but that Jacob would; “If Jacob holds on until daybreak, he is a dead man!”2 Jacob refuses to do so until he receives a blessing.

The blessing, though, does not immediately happen. Instead, a conversation about names ensues. In 32:27, we read, “And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he answered, ‘Jacob.'” Jacob’s name has varyingly been translated as “heel/trickster/over-reacher/supplanter,”3  and Jacob must articulate this name, with all its connotations, to God. But God replies by doing two things: 1) identifying himself as the wrestling partner, and 2) by giving Jacob a new name (32:28). Jacob, then, wants to know God’s name, softening his request with the word “please” (32:29), but God responds with a question, asking Jacob why he asks. The text gives us no response from Jacob. Perhaps God’s question has silenced him. But if God’s question is the final word in the dialogue, it is not the final action: the last clause of 32:29 reports that God blessed Jacob.

The last we see of Jacob in this pericope, he names the place Peniel (“the face of God”) to represent his face-to-face encounter with God, and he limps away into the sunrise because of his hip. Immediately following our text, Genesis 33 recounts the meeting between Jacob and Esau. Before Jacob wrestled with God, he feared the encounter with his brother. But it proves to be a gracious one, and Jacob goes so far as to tell Esau, “I see your face as seeing the face of God” (33:10).

Jacob’s new name, Israel, is defined by the narrator in 32:28 as “he struggles (sarah) with God,” but its actual linguistic etymology is better translated as “God struggles” or “God rules.” That is, Jacob does not only wrestle with God, but God wrestles with Jacob. And it is costly for Jacob: he is marked and wounded after it, something that is meant to be remembered by all who follow the dietary restriction mentioned in the final verse of our text (32:32).

Frederick Buechner titled this story The Magnificent Defeat, a theme that is eloquently picked up by Ranier Maria Rilke in his poem, “The Man Watching.”4  The latter part of the poem says:

How small that is, with which we wrestle,
What wrestles with us, how immense;
Were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
Be conquered thus by the great storm–
We would become far-reaching and nameless.
What we triumph over is the small,
And the success itself makes us small.
The eternal and unexampled
Will not be bent by us.
This is the Angel, who appeared
To the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
When his opponent’s sinews
In that contest stretch like metal,
He feels them under his fingers
Like strings making deep melodies.

Whomever this Angel overcame
(who so often declined the fight)
He walks erect and justified
And great from that hard hand
Which, as if sculpting, nestled round him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is this: to be
Deeply defeated by the ever-greater One.

Certainly, we all experience times when we feel as if we are wrestling with God. And many of us are marked by the wounds we have sustained from our struggles. This text reminds us that God is wrestling with us, and we grow in that process.


1Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Interpretation. Philadelphia: John Knox Press, 1982, p. 266.
2Terence Fretheim, “Genesis.” New Interpreters Bible Volume I. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, p. 566.
3Brueggemann, p. 268.
4Ranier Maria Rilke, The Book of Images. New York: North Point Press, 1994.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:27-34

Wil Gafney

The promise of a “new covenant” in this passage may evoke the Christian scriptures, stories, and promises for many readers.

Yet in their original context these words signified the promise of a faithful God to a devastated people for restoration, perhaps even in their lifetimes.

Jeremiah lived through the demise of his civilization when the Babylonians invaded Judah, assaulted Jerusalem, and reduced the temple to rubble, exiling, or killing the royal family, priests, prophets, and majority of the population. The resulting chaos may be unimaginable to readers who have not lived through war and its aftermath in their own land. Here in the United States, those who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor or the attacks on the World Trade Center will have experienced some of what the citizens of Judah saw and felt. However, in neither case did the US government – or even those of Hawaii or New York – fall. In fact, in both cases governmental, religious, and social organizations responded immediately demonstrating the preservation of American institutional life.

In Judah in 586 BCE, broken families would have been ravaged by grief and loss; those left behind would have had to scramble to find surviving relatives and a place to sleep if their homes had been destroyed. Produce and food animals were either destroyed or taken. Every object of value was plundered. Anyone with any authority or skill to help rebuild the society was dead or gone.

And for those who asked “Why?” there were the words of Jeremiah (26:18) and Micah (3:12) whom he quoted, predicting the conflagration: God would destroy Judah and Jerusalem for their sin, specifically the injustices of their officials. Now the day of Zion’s destruction had come upon them. They had only to look to the north to see the remnants of the fallen Northern Monarchy that had never risen from its defeat and destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. Surely all hope was lost.

Yet God had not abandoned the people. God spoke to and through Jeremiah. The same God who planted the garden of Eden and crafted humanity from its soil will replant Judah. God will replant, tend, and nurture human and animal life amid the ashes of Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple.

Perhaps most significantly, in 31:29, God promises to cease holding subsequent generations responsible for the transgressions of previous ones: “In those days they shall no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.'” Instead, according to verse 30, “all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.” The remission of the sin of the past generations gives the survivors and their descendants an opportunity to start their lives over with God as they rebuild their homes and nation. This promise was so important that God also sent it to Ezekiel, exiled in Babylon (Ezekiel 18:2-4).

This new beginning will be at a time not specified – “the days are surely coming” – accompanied by a new covenant. God will make, literally engrave, this new covenant on the hearts of the people, instead of on tablets that can be lost, stolen, or broken. Of course, hearts can be broken and God alludes to God’s own heartbreak with previous generations of Israelites in verses 32-34.

The language is tender, “I took them by the hand” and “I married them” in verse 32. (The latter phrase is translated “I was their husband” in the NRSV.) God is willing to start over with them and make it easier for God’s people to keep the covenant; this time God will engrave the Torah (“revelation,” “teaching,” and “law”) on their hearts (verse 33). They will not have to be told (or taught) to (get to) know the LORD; for the knowledge of the LORD will be implanted within them.

The dominant Christian exegesis of this passage holds that the “new covenant” is both another, different covenant and is either the covenant of the New Testament or its message (or both). However, the passage does not specify that this will be a different covenant in terms of content, but rather in terms of acceptance and fidelity. The references to the Exodus in verse 32 suggest the covenant at stake is the Sinai covenant – indeed the Christian scriptures affirm the Sinai Covenant, including and particularly the Ten Commandments.

Belief in the New Testament as a continuing scriptural revelation does not require an invalidation of previous covenants. What will be new about this covenant is its internalization. God will write it on the hearts of the people because apparently, even with the best teachers, preachers, prophets, and priests, people were failing to learn the lessons of the covenant. Therefore they failed to keep it. This new covenant will require no work on the part of the people to receive and adopt. It will be engraved upon their hearts.

The passage ends with a commitment from God to forget their sin for all time. These words promised desperately-needed hope to the survivors of the invasion. The God of Creation would re-create them. The God of Exodus would embrace them again. The merciful, tender loving God would forgive all their sin and absolve them of the sins of their ancestors. The sin that led God to surrender Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians would be forgiven.

Jeremiah’s words were recorded and remembered, preserved, and reckoned as scripture. They have come down through time to us as living words of God in part because they nourished famished souls at their most desperate hour. This week’s Epistle (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5) affirms the production of scripture – referring to the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts of the “Old Testament,” the only testament at that time – as a sign of God’s faithfulness in and to the world.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 121

Bobby Morris

Journeys tend to be significant times for those who take them.

A journey can lead to anything from a new home and a new beginning in life, to a memorable excursion with family or friends. Journeys can involve challenging or even frightening destinations as well as eagerly anticipated returns home. True to these, and all the other myriads of possible examples, is the reality that the journey itself can be at least as significant, if not even more, as the eventual destination.

Journeying was a major reality for ancient life. As a result of the available modes of traveling, the ancients are likely to have had far greater appreciation for what was involved in getting from one place to another that we ever can. Abraham and Sarah took the countless steps necessary to travel from Haran to the land of Canaan and even as far south as Egypt. Elijah made the arduous journey from northern Israel to Mount Sinai and back again. Even Jesus traveled throughout the Galilee and eventually down to Jerusalem.

Not surprisingly then, one of the most common Hebrew verbs in the Old Testament is the one for “going, walking.” Likewise, a good deal of the biblical text, as alluded to above, deals with the undertaking and complexities of traveling. One such example is Psalm 121.

Psalm 121 is the second of the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). These texts seem to have been used by pilgrims during their travel to Jerusalem and/or as part of celebratory worship at the temple there. Individual cases have been made for the use of Psalm 121 by a traveler who is approaching and departing from Jerusalem. In either case we can say with some certainty that Psalm 121 deals with journeying.

The stark geographic diversity found in the land of Palestine is such that travel for the ancients was at best difficult and commonly dangerous. The availability of water would have been a constant concern, especially in the hot dry summers when the sun mercilessly beats down. In addition, the danger of bandits could never be ruled out, as the parable of the Good Samaritan later bears witness.

Psalm 121 responds to what must have been unavoidable misgivings about travel with unwavering reassurances that God protects his beloved. In fact, the Hebrew verb translated as “keep,” which has the sense of “watch over, protect,” occurs six times in only eight verses. In all of these occurrences God is the one doing the action. God protects the traveler from a host of possible dangers, from the most basic slipping of the foot (verse 3) to the light of the moon (verse 6), which in ancient times was viewed with a degree of supernatural apprehension. It is because God is the same one “who made heaven and earth” (verse 2), meaning all that exists, that the sojourner can rest assured in God’s ability to offer such far-reaching protection, even of the traveler’s very life (verse 7).

It may be enough that Psalm 121 offers such profound reassurance to the traveler moving from place to place. Yet it exceeds this particularity by reaching into the journey of human life itself. The final two verses of the text hint at the broad scope of God’s protective activity as it references to the protection of the traveler from “all evil” (verse 7) that lasts “from this time on and forevermore” (verse 8).

The life of faith that begins with baptism is indeed a journey on which God’s guidance and protection is needed. Accordingly, Psalm 121 plays a prominent role in the worship life of the Christian community of faith. Verse two contributes to the understanding of God the Father in the Apostle’s Creed while other parts of the text have appeared in either the baptismal liturgy or funerary services of various faith traditions. The reassurances of Psalm 121 are thus able to accompany the faithful at the beginning and end of their life’s journey, as well as help sustain and uplift them with God’s presence and protection along the greatest journey of all.


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5

Dirk G. Lange

Tradition is, of course, very important in many church communities — perhaps in all, even if “tradition” can have various meanings.

“We have always done it this way” can mean anything from the worship of the early church to what a congregation has done for just the past twenty years. The writer to this particular church community, and especially to this follower named Timothy (or perhaps they are also one and the same, the “you” being sometimes singular sometimes plural through the epistle) calls upon tradition. It is not to be ignored! “Continue in what you have learned” and not just recently but since your childhood. (Oh, how essential and yet how undervalued are our Sunday School teachers.)

But, as in last week’s epistle, this tradition and good teaching is not to be simply equated with correct doctrine. The issue at stake is not being able to recite one’s catechism by heart or be able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not about passing an exam! That which is to be continued, that which is to have continual influence on the life of Timothy and the community, is the salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

What is to be continued, cared for, watched over is this faith that was given as a gift, through baptism and the community, through the work of the Holy Spirit. This faith alone defines the tradition. This faith makes of tradition, not something carved out in stone, but something living, in hearts, active today — a living word. Is this not also an echo of the Jeremiah reading that is paired, on this Sunday, with this epistle? Thus says the Lord, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

The tradition to be continued is precisely this new law, written on our hearts! And yet, the text of the epistle does speak about “sacred writing” and “Scripture”… in other words, about a document, a book, perhaps, several writings put together. Not only that, these writings, this Scripture, is to be used for teaching, admonition, training. Are we to understand Scripture then after all as something static that can be uncritically applied to every situation? Will its teaching function equally well in every context?

The descriptive words here are important: teaching, correcting, training. The Scripture invites us into a pattern of gospel living. It does not provide “yes” and “no” answers to every situation, every question, every dilemma. Those who have “confessed” the faith in life-threatening situations understand that there are many gray areas, hard to resolve through Scripture alone (take the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr.).

The goal of Scripture is not to elicit correct answers from us (as if we could use Bible verses as bullets in our handguns — an image Luther Seminary Professor Patrick Keifert often uses in class). Already Martin Luther, who many would like to think uses Scripture as proof-texts, calls such users “mister-know-it-alls!” How does Luther describe “mister-know-it-all?” He or she is the one who quotes Scripture by heart and knows it down to the minutest detail! For Luther, faithfully continuing what we have learned does not mean quoting Scripture ad infinitum on any subject or controversy until we are blue in the face (or our opponents run away!). Using Scripture as a weapon is obviously not a method of teaching, argumentation, admonition, or prophecy.

The passage in this Sunday’s epistle points us elsewhere. The teaching, admonition, and training lead us somewhere beyond the use of Scripture or tradition as merely identity markers, boundary keepers, and, ultimately, means for self-justification. The proper use of Scripture and tradition leads us to “every good work.” It leads us to a life that is lived in remembrance of Jesus Christ, a life that embodies this remembrance (see last week’s commentary).

All this, the writer urges, is in view of the kingdom. We are to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” This proclamation is not to be confused with contemporary cultural values. The kingdom is not a culturally “Christian” society, one which has all the laws of Scripture faithfully observed with everyone going nicely to church on Sunday morning in their Sunday best, while the poor, hungry and homeless are still forgotten on the streets.

The writer “preaches” precisely against such a culturally appropriated application of faith and Scripture. Do not fall for the myths to which many fall! And what are these myths? They can be many things, but the description here given is simple: anything that suits “their own desires.” Of course, the danger is not that a person or a community chooses something non-scriptural and turns it into a “truth.” The warning is precisely against those who take Scripture itself, the tradition, and turn it around to suit their own desire. Here is the greatest temptation for it can pass by unrecognized and lead many into error.

The one tradition, the one Scripture we are to continue is the one that has been nurtured in us, which points to only one thing: salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That tradition, that Scripture forms us in a pattern that often begins in or leads to, not prosperity, but suffering. But suffering here is not equated with ministry; rather, despite the suffering, in the midst of it, the evangelist can do her work. A baptismal life can be fully lived.