Lectionary Commentaries for October 31, 2010
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 19:1-10

David Lose

How you read and preach this familiar story about Jesus and Zacchaeus hinges almost entirely on how you answer one interpretative question:

Is Zacchaeus’ declaration of his financial dealings in verse 8 a promise of future action in response to Jesus’ visit, or is it a report on his present behavior? If the former, then this is a classic repentance story; if the latter, it is something else entirely.

Sight, Wealth, and Stature
Setting the scene leading up to the moment in question may help us decide which interpretive course to follow. Jesus, near the end of his journey to Jerusalem, is passing through the border town of Jericho. In that town is a man named Zacchaeus who is not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector which means, as Luke’s Gospel explains, that he is rich. He wants to see Jesus, but because he is short he cannot see over the crowds, so he climbs a tree. When Jesus arrives at the place where Zacchaeus has perched himself, he calls him down and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, which simultaneously brings Zacchaeus joy and scandalizes the crowd, because they know that Zacchaeus is a sinner.

Among the various details in this story told only by Luke, three stand out, particularly in relation to passages that have come just before this one. First, sight is again critical. Earlier, it is the tenth leper’s recognition that he has been healed that causes him to alter his course (17:15). In the passage immediately before this one (omitted by the lectionary), a blind man receives sight and, in response, follows Jesus and glorifies God. Now, Zacchaeus desires to see Jesus, but even as he is trying to catch a glimpse of this prophet Jesus looks up, calls him down, and honors him by coming to stay at his home.

A second significant detail is wealth. Luke, more than any other evangelist, is consistently concerned about matters of wealth and, correspondingly, treatment of the poor. In the previous chapter a rich man, when asked to give away all he had, departs Jesus in sadness. When Jesus declares that it is nearly impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, the disciples — who like most of their time believe wealth a sign of God’s favor — are incredulous. In contrast, in this story another rich man receives Jesus with joy and gives (or promises to give) half of his wealth to the poor and restores (or promises to restore) fourfold any amount he may have defrauded, and Jesus announces that the impossible has now happened as “salvation has come to this house” (19:9).

Finally, Zacchaeus is short, not just in physical stature, but also in terms of his moral standing among his neighbors who, no doubt, despised him; hence their reaction when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. This is not the first time bystanders have been outraged by Jesus’ behavior. Think of Simon’s reaction that Jesus would allow a woman all know to have a poor reputation to wash his feet with her tears (7:39) or the reaction of the Pharisees to the sinners and tax collectors who love to listen to Jesus (15:1-2). Nor is this the first time tax collectors have figured prominently in Jesus’ ministry. As just noted, their delight in Jesus’ teaching prompts the grumbling that in turn occasions Jesus’ “lost” parables. And at the outset of the previous chapter, it is the penitent tax collector, not the righteous Pharisee, who returns home justified (17:14).

Decisions, Decisions
So, what do we make of all this in relation to our central question? Are the present tense verbs in verse 8 to be understood, in fact, as present tense, thereby describing the current and ongoing behavior of Zacchaeus (as in the RSV and KJV)? Or shall we give them a future cast, describing Zacchaeus’ penitent pledge of future behavior (as in the NRSV and NIV)?

Scholars, as well as translators, are divided, so we will have to explore the narrative evidence and interpretive outcomes before deciding. The cleaner choice is to translate the verses as describing future behavior. This not only creates a nice flow of action — Jesus honors Zacchaeus, which prompts his changed behavior, which Jesus then acknowledges — it also accords well with a tacit theological logic most of us hold: repentance precedes forgiveness. From this line of thought, we might therefore conclude — and preach — that in the presence of Jesus all manner of heretofore unimagined things can happen such that even a wealthy tax collector might give away half his wealth. Or we might deduce — and proclaim — that our repentance must include matters of the wallet as well as the heart.

For all the theological and homiletical logic of this interpretation, however, I am unconvinced. (In fact, in such cases I am generally suspicious of the more convenient reading, believing that the more difficult one is not only the more likely one historically but is also more likely to yield an interesting sermon!). Notice that Zacchaeus neither confesses his sin nor repents. Admittedly, one can construe Zacchaeus’ pledge of future behavior as repentance, but it remains a construal and contrasts starkly with the previous verbal penitence, for instance, of the tax collector at the Temple (18:13). Nor does Jesus commend Zacchaeus’ penitence, or his faith, or his change of heart. He merely pronounces blessing, blessing based not on anything Zacchaeus has done but simply because he, like those grumbling around him, is an Israelite, a son of Abraham. Further, Zacchaeus does not offer his financial disclosure in response to anything Jesus has said; rather, it falls on the heels of the grumbling of the crowd. Perhaps it is a response to Jesus’ presence, but perhaps it is his bewilderment at the crowd’s complaint or a defense of his reputation. In either case, I suspect that Zacchaeus is not turning over a new leaf as much as he is lifting up an old one for all to see.

Seeing Zacchaeus Afresh
Read this way, how do we preach this peculiar story? Rather than imagining it as the perfect conversion story, one we should in turn emulate (particularly during stewardship season!), we might take it as yet one more way in which Jesus does the unexpected. Notice that Jesus calls to this chief tax collector by name. “Zacchaeus, come down; for I must stay at your house today.” There is both intentionality and urgency in Jesus’ summons. From the outset of Luke’s gospel and throughout its narrative, Jesus sides with those on the margin, those considered down and out, those not accounted as much in the eyes of the world. While Zacchaeus is rich, he is nevertheless despised by his neighbors, counted as nothing, even as worse than nothing. Yet Jesus singles him out. Why? Might he know of Zacchaeus’ exemplary behavior? We cannot know. Yet by seeing him, calling him, staying with him, and blessing him, Jesus declares for all to hear that this one, even this chief tax collector, is a child of Abraham…and child of God. Perhaps Jesus is again at work seeking out those who are lost (whether through their own actions or those around them) in order to find, save, and restore them.

Or perhaps Zacchaeus serves as yet further evidence of the manifold possibilities present in Jesus’ presence. Thus far, almost everything about this story seems impossible — that a chief tax collector would want to see Jesus; that Jesus would stay in his home; that it would be revealed that this sinner exceeded the law by his generosity; that Jesus would declare not just him but his whole household saved? Yet just earlier Jesus declared that what is impossible for mortals is nevertheless possible for God (18:27). Perhaps Zacchaeus is one more example of the impossible possibility that Jesus embodies and regularly manifests.

Or perhaps Zacchaeus simply represents the chief attribute of all disciples: a desire to see Jesus and a corresponding joy in his presence. Zacchaeus cannot see Jesus because he is too short, both physically and morally, and so the crowds impede his sight. Yet this rich chief tax collector is so desperate to see that he will not be deterred and humiliates himself by climbing a tree like a child in order to glimpse over the crowd and see Jesus. Read this way, this story is not about formulas regarding repentance and forgiveness — indeed, as in other places in Luke, it calls into question any attempts to reduce the miracle of salvation to a formula (see Luke 7:36-50). Rather, it embodies the promise that anyone — anyone! — who desires to see Jesus will. More than that, anyone who desires to see Jesus will, in turn, be seen by Jesus and in this way have their joy made complete.

If we can imagine reading the Zacchaeus along any of these lines — or maybe even all of them! — then we might ask who among us, both in our congregation and outside, are those who have been left on the margin, who have been ruled out of bounds, who might surprise us by their generosity and faith, and who just want to see Jesus but have been kept at bay. If we are willing to ask — and dare answer — such questions, we might see both Zacchaeus and Jesus in a whole new light.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 1:10-18

James Limburg

Reform School – for Everyone

When I was in junior high school, I remember hearing that one of my schoolmates would not be coming back in the fall. He would have to spend a year in “Reform School.” He had stolen a car, in fact several cars. The next year Tommy was back, attending classes and playing his baritone in my father’s school band. The band was invited to play at the State Fair in St. Paul. They needed someone to drive a truck loaded with band instruments. I recall being surprised when my father asked Tommy to drive the truck to St. Paul. But after all, he had had plenty of experience driving! Dad trusted him. And Tommy did well and went on to graduate. Reform School had done what it was supposed to do: it had re-formed Tommy.

The text from Isaiah assigned for today, the 23rd Sunday of Pentecost, is about re-forming, so it also fits for Reformation Day.

Unit, Structure, Genre, Setting
The unit to be considered should be 1:10-17. Verse 10 is clearly a new beginning and the end of the unit should come after the string of imperative verbs in verses 16 and 17. Verse 18 is then another new beginning.

As to structure, verse 10 is an introductory call for attention. With verses 11-15, the prophet appears as God’s messenger, bringing a complaint from God in first-person “I” form. With verses 15-16, the prophet shifts into a series of imperatives, offering teaching or in Hebrew, torah (verse 10b). Verses 16- 17 could be considered God’s curriculum for reform school, which all God’s people and especially their leaders are invited to attend.

The kings listed in verse 1 locate the setting for the material that follows in the latter half of the eighth century BCE. Since the prophet refers to sacrifices and prayers going on it would seem he was speaking in the midst of a religious service, a “solemn assembly” (verse 13).

Listening to the Text

Verse 10. The text calls people not to “read,” but to “hear” and “listen.” One thinks of a similar interruption of worship by Amos, in Amos 5:21-24. In our time we might think of a voice breaking into a television program with the words “we interrupt this program for an important message…”

Notice that these hearers are addressed as “rulers of Sodom, people of Gomorrah.” That got their attention! The prophet identified them as citizens of the “sin cities” of their day (see Genesis 18 and 19). “What happens in Sodom…stays in Sodom!” may have been one of that city’s advertising slogans!

11-15.Isaiah takes on the role of a messenger from God! In essence, the Lord says: “I don’t like what is going on here. Take it all away! Get rid of these sacrifices and offerings. Out with that incense! Forget these phony ‘holy days.’ They weary me no end! And your prayers? Sorry. I’m not listening! Those hands that you piously stretch out toward heaven are hands covered with the blood of the poor!”

16-17In winding up, the messenger-prophet switches into the mode of a teacher. He had so identified himself in verse 10b. He is teaching here, in the form of imperative verbs, spelling out how God’s people can re-form themselves: “Wash up. Clean up your act. Cut out the evil. Make a difference by doing good. Work for justice. Care for the immigrant, the minority, the homeless, those kids who don’t get breakfast before going to school. Tend to the widows, whose pension checks keep getting cut. Then you’ll start looking like the people of God you are supposed to be.”

Toward Teaching and Preaching
Once I investigated the occurrences of the word “justice” (Hebrew, mishpat, with the related verb shaphat, “do justice”) in the prophetic books and then in the whole Old Testament. What struck me was that most of the contexts where I found that Hebrew noun or verb, I kept running into the same crowd of people: the widow, the orphan, and the poor. Sometimes there was also the sojourner (for today, read “immigrant”) or aged (for today, “senior citizen). Justice, it was clear, had to do with these people!

The typical image for “justice” in our world is the blindfolded lady holding scales: everything is fair, even, balanced. But for the Hebrew prophets, the images are different. They are first of all dynamic: Amos pictures justice as a surging, roaring, rolling, cleansing, river! “Let justice roll down like waters…” (Amos 5:21-24). Micah called for his people to “ do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). Isaiah points out that doing justice is a grateful response of a people for whom God has already done much. The farmer who has expended much work on his vineyard expects the vineyard to produce good grapes; so the Lord who has delivered and blessed the Lord’s people expects fruits of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:1-7).

Finally, Isaiah calls his hearers to be advocates for the powerless, taking up the cause of the powerless, which means the widow (who has no husband), the orphan (who has no parents) and the poor (who have no money; Isaiah 1:16-17). This would include re-forming our laws which discriminate against the powerless (Isaiah 10:1-4) and being pro-active in programs designed to help the helpless, the hapless, the homeless and the hopeless.

The Gospel for the day (Luke 19) tells us how to get started on this reformed, cleaned up life. When Zacchaeus met Jesus, he learned that this Son of Man had come to seek and save losers like he had become. His life changed. Step one was to get rid of half of his “stuff” – and give the proceeds to the poor. And those he had cheated? He would pay them back 400%!

If we begin to understand what Jesus has done for us – we will want to respond in the same way. Today could be a re-forming day for each one of us!

Alternate 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.


Commentary on Psalm 32:1-7

James Limburg

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Book of Psalms has a good deal to say about happiness. Psalm 1 opens the Book by speaking of the happiness of those whose “delight is in the teaching (Hebrew torah, NRSV law) of the Lord.” The Jewish Publication Society translation catches the sense of verse 2, saying that those who delight in the Lord’s teaching “study that teaching (again, torah, NRSV law) day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). Other expressions of the “happiness” theme are found in Psalms 33:12, 34:8; 41:1-2, 84:5, 12; 112:1; 119:1; 127:5; 128:1-2. In each of these cases the Hebrew word translated “happy” is asherey.

Psalm 32 makes its own contribution to this theme of happiness. The theme is important for the psalm; the word “happy” (again asherey in Hebrew) appears twice, in verses 1 and 2. And the Psalm ends on a positive note with a call to be glad, to rejoice and even to shout for joy (verse 11).

Genre and Structure
The church has ranked this as one of the Penitential Psalms (along with 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), thus suggesting that it should be used in connection with being sorry for sins. The lectionary has understood the psalm this way, linking it with the story of the repentant prodigal (Luke 15:11b-32, 4 Lent C) or the forgiven woman (Luke 7:36-8:3) or David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, both for 3 Pentecost C).

There is however a certain tension between the use of the psalm at a time of repentance and the rejoicing, happy theme that occurs at the beginning and the end. The structure or story that runs through the psalm explains that tension:
1-2 Four pictures of happiness
3-5 Confession is good for the soul–and body
6-11 Instruction on how to live a guilt-free, joy-filled life

Listening to the Text

1-2: Happiness is… The heading associates the psalm with David. Careful readers have often suggested that it would fit well into the time after the affair with Bathsheba (see the heading to Psalm 51 as well as the lectionary).

These opening verses give voice to the experience of forgiveness of sin, expressed in a gathering of the four major Old Testament words for sin. Verse 1 speaks of transgression, from the Hebrew pasa. The sense is rebellion, like the rebellion of one treaty party against another (2 Kings 1:1) or of children against parents (Isaiah 1:2). According to this picture, happiness is a life no longer being lived in rebellion against God.

The word sin translates the Hebrew hata which has the sense of missing a target. The same Hebrew word appears in Judges 20:16 which tells of the seven hundred left-handed marksmen who could “sling a stone at a hair, and not miss.” Happiness, according to this picture, is having one’s life headed in the right direction, on course, no longer wrongly aimed off target.

The third word is iniquity, the Hebrew awon (verse 2; translated “guilt” in verse 5). The sense of this word is to be bent over, twisted or crooked. The word also occurs in Isaiah 24:1, speaking of the Lord twisting the earth and in Psalm 38:6 where a sick person says “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate…” According to this word, happiness is being no longer twisted or bent out of shape, but straightened out.

Finally, deceit translates the Hebrew word remiyah, which has the sense of being treacherous, or not reliable, like a weapon that backfires or cannot be depended on (Hosea 7:16 speaks of a “defective bow”). This word defines happiness as living in a manner that is honest and forthright.

In sum, according to this psalm, the person is happy who is not rebelling against God, whose life is on track, straightened out and marked by integrity.

The word selah most likely means a musical interlude; the word should not be read aloud.

3-5 Confession is…This section provides a before and after picture of the psalmist’s life. Before confessing the wrongdoing of which the psalmist was guilty, that bottling up of guilt took a terrible physical toll. The symptoms here are psychosomatic, brought on by the person’s own decision to keep the wrongdoing to himself or herself. Verse 4 indicates the psalmist’s realization that a part of the problem was theological as well as psychological; things with God were not as they should be. Verse 5 points back to the joy that comes with confession and forgiveness (verses 1-2).

6-11 Instructions on how to live. Of key importance for understanding this section are verses 8 and 9. Verse 8 indicates that the psalmist is going to engage in teaching. That teaching comes to expression in verse 9 which says essentially, “Don’t be stupid! Use your God-given intelligence!”

What then would be the shape of a God-directed life? There are a number of clues: Pray in times of distress (verse 6). Trust in God as a secure, safe place to put your life (verse 7). Know that God’s steadfast love (hesed) surrounds you. And then, rather than groaning your life away, you will be glad in the LORD (simchah as in the fall festival celebrating God’s teaching, simchat torah). You will rejoice and you will no longer waste away and brood in silence (verse 3) but will shout for joy!

Toward Teaching and Preaching
The line in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America speaks of the Creator endowing every person with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The psalms, which speak much about happiness, do not speak of pursuing happiness. According to the psalms, God’s steadfast love is on the hunt, chasing after me. Another psalmist put it this way (translating the Hebrew more literally than usual) “Surely goodness and mercy (hesed) shall chase after me all the days of my life…” (Psalm 23:6).

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

James Boyce

A Matter of Timing

What circumstances have occasioned this apparent second letter to the Thessalonians? Just how much “time” has passed since the arrival of the first? Such questions of “timing” may arise for a modern reader who notes, among other things, the almost verbatim mirroring of this letter’s greeting with that of the first letter and the somewhat strange to Paul prominent theme of judgment that pervades this brief letter. Might such comparisons suggest a later “timing” when associates or followers of Paul have penned this letter in his name.

Whatever the “timing,” even a cursory reading reveals a community undergoing stressful “persecutions and afflictions” (1:4) that tempt it to “give up” or “grow weary” in the struggle to keep doing good (3:12-13).

A Time for Thanksgiving
The opening theme of “thanksgiving” is pure Paul. Yet here somewhat uniquely thanksgiving is an “obligation” (opheilomen), a duty, that belongs to the gift of community (Paul says “ we” are bound to give thanks; 1:3) identified by its characteristic marks of “faith” and “love.” It is “always” the right time for thanksgiving for a Christian community whose faith “grows abundantly” (the unique emphatic word here illustrates a favorite Pauline device — prefixing a verb with the word hyper-, as if to suggest “hyper-growth”) and whose love toward one another continues to increase.

Paul’s words come as a reminder of several aspects of thanksgiving. First, thanksgiving in the Christian community is always somewhat counter-intuitive. When “times” are good, one easily forgets the gifts of God that create and sustain life. When “times” are bad, it is difficult to muster a list of things for which one should be thankful. Second, thanksgiving is never a private matter; it is founded and sustained by life in community–by the mutual interplay of faith in God’s grace and the energizing power of acts of love in service to one another.

A Matter for Boasting
Like a mother who tenderly yet firmly encourages a young child who has been “roughed up” on the playground, Paul’s loving arms now surround and encourage this community. Avoiding any note of pity, instead he compliments them for their “steadfastness” in the midst of intense persecutions and sufferings (the word “all” underscores the enormity; 1:4), steadfastness that has become a matter for his boasting about them among all the churches. Still one notes here the absence of the third member of the familiar triad of faith, love, and hope (see 1 Thessalonians 1:2: “work of faith,” “labor of love,” and “steadfastness of hope”).

Perhaps Paul senses a community whose world, beset much like our own with divisions, hatreds, and suspicions, places it at risk of giving up the faith or losing energy for loving care of the neighbor (see 3:13). Such times call not for slinking back into our private enclaves, but rather for open boasting about and renewed encouragement of a community actively engaged in the obligations of faith and love.

Prayer with a Purpose
“To this end we always pray for you.” (1:11) Paul’s prayer bespeaks a confidence in God’s care and concern for what happens in this world, a confidence that cannot be taken for granted. A well-known contemporary New Testament scholar and prolific writer puts it this way, “I left the faith…because I could no longer reconcile my faith in God with the state of the world that I saw all around me…There is so much senseless misery in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving God who is in control.”1

Paul is not naïve about the world of the Thessalonians. Such communities do not happen by accident. They are founded on the purposive presence and call of God, sustained by God’s power to bring to fruition (“God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill…” 1:11) acts of love and mercy precisely through the faithfulness and steadfastness of this believing community. This is “tough stuff,” not a matter for wimps. Such works depend on “resolve” and “faith” (the Greek word used here, eudokia, has the sense of a firm and positive decision). That firm resolve is not to be taken for granted; it too is a gift of God and it comes in response to prayer that is sustained within the broader community of faith.

Finally, such resolve and good work are not ends in themselves. They redound to a mutuality of glory in which the name of Christ is glorified and, in return, Christ gives glory to the community that bears his name (1:12). It is no accident that all of this, both literarily and theologically, is located within the framework of God’s grace and love. “Grace and Peace” begin Paul’s address (1:2), and “grace” marks the conclusion of this opening chapter (1:16), underscoring that all Christian community and life are framed by the grace and love of God.

On Whose Authority
The reading assigned for the lectionary skips verses 5-10 perhaps because of their somewhat uncomfortable or troublesome theme of “judgment” (1:5). The writer speaks of current afflictions as part of God’s righteous intention “to make you worthy of the kingdom,” and promises that “on that day” those who persecute you will in the end be punished because they “do not know God” and do not “obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”

Such strong images of judgment have led many to question Paul’s authorship of this letter and to wonder whether the viewpoint expressed does not belong to a later period of the early church, when apocalyptic images such as those in the book of Revelation are more prominent.

For the Preacher
Included or not, the letter overall imagines a time of persecution and suffering for the church and points to the destructive realities of evil in the world. Like the seed sown on rocky ground in Jesus’ parable, Paul’s community lives in perilous times which place at risk its faith in God who is just and is continuing to live out its calling to love and serve in God’s world.

Paul’s words call this community to “hang in there” in hope and faith. All signs to the contrary, God is faithful and wickedness will be punished in the end. In the meantime mutual thanksgiving and prayer, and common resolve to be engaged in acts of love for one another founded and continue to sustain this community.

A final suggestion: since the lectionary readings for Pentecost 23, 24, and 25 encompass essentially the whole of this brief letter, this offers the preacher an opportunity for a three-part series on this letter:

Chapter 1: Thanksgiving for Steadfast faith and love (God’s and ours) in the midst of persecution and suffering (see 1:3-4)

Chapter 2: Chosen for Salvation and Gifted with Hope (2:13, 16)

Chapter 3: Do Not Grow Weary in Doing the Right Thing (3:13)

1 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them), (New York: Harper Collins, 2009) 17.