Lectionary Commentaries for November 7, 2010
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 20:27-38

David Lose

This passage, quite frankly, most likely will sound odd, archaic, and even irrelevant to most of our hearers.

But opening up its narrative, historical, and contemporary implications may assist those who want to preach it, even — and perhaps especially — on All Saints’ Sunday, on which it happens to fall this year.

Narrative Elements
While giving significant time in recent weeks to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, the lectionary has skipped several important passages that frame the narrative setting of this passage. Namely, Jesus’ journey has drawn near its conclusion. As Jesus approached Jerusalem, multitudes of “disciples” (“many people” in Mark, “crowds” in Matthew) greeted him with the royal acclamation, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” As he drew within sight of the city, Jesus weeps for sorrow over Jerusalem’s lack of recognition of him and for its imminent future. Upon entering the city, Jesus goes to the Temple, not to worship or pay homage but to drive those selling sacrifices from its premises. Jesus then takes up residence there, teaching in the Temple, as Luke says, everyday, while his opponents seek the opportunity and means by which to kill him.

This compact series of events constitute a palpable intensification of the tension and opposition that has characterized the relationships between Jesus and the religious authorities of the day. Nor does this tension abate in the scenes immediately preceding today’s passage, as Jesus’ authority is first questioned (20:1-8), he then tells a provocative — some might say incendiary — parable (of the wicked tenants) (20:9-19), he evades a rhetorical trap about paying taxes (20:20-26), and now is invited into a similar snare with a question about the resurrection. Jesus again avoids the traps of his interlocutors, answering so well that his opponents are silenced by the astuteness of his answer. Placing this scene in its proper narrative context as part of the drama and contest that leads to the crucifixion is essential to reading and preaching it well.

Historical Elements
The primary historical element that will demand some attention is the role of the Sadducees, who though in some ways the rivals to the Pharisees, were united with them in their opposition to Jesus. The Sadducees had primary authority over the Temple. They recognized only the original five “books of Moses” as fully authoritative, and for this reason did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (as that is not referenced in the Pentateuch). Because Jesus had so recently attacked the sacrificial practices of the Temple, it is easy to understand that they would put away their differences with the Pharisees in order to discredit Jesus (though by cornering him on the question of the resurrection they may also seek to embarrass the Pharisees who similarly believe in the resurrection). The law they referenced — called levirate marriage from the Latin levir (“brother in law”) comes from Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and sought to insure the preservation of one’s family name by stipulating that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother. The question is hypothetical, meant to take an ancient practice to the extreme in order to show that the whole idea of resurrection was foolish.

Jesus avoids their trap by making two moves. First, he demonstrates their failure to understand the resurrection — resurrection life, contrary to the assumption betrayed by their question, is qualitatively different from life here and now. Second, he demonstrates their failure to understand Scriptures by using another passage from the Pentateuch — the crucial Exodus 3 story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush and the revelation of God’s holy name — that he takes to establish the validity, indeed certainty, of life after death. (The passage, Jesus points out, declares that God is — present tense — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not that God was their God. Therefore, Jesus concludes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must in some sense still be alive; hence, the necessity of resurrection.)

Because the Sadducees fall largely off the scene as figures to be contended with after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE (notice that the Evangelists need to explain to their hearers that Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection), it is perhaps curious that Luke, following Mark, would include this story. Perhaps there were questions in his community about resurrection; certainly other communities wrestled with similar concerns (see I Corinthians 15). Or perhaps it was a legacy of the controversy between Jesus and the religious authorities, as Luke references the disagreement between Sadducees and Pharisees again in Acts (23:6-10).

Contemporary Elements
Whatever the historical concerns that caused Luke to retain this story, and paying attention to the narrative role it plays, this passage may certainly address some of the questions and concerns contemporary Christians have about resurrection. Two questions in particular might well occupy the preacher.

First, what is resurrection like? Further, and perhaps more to the point, how much will our resurrection life be like our life in this world? And what will our relationships be? This passage gives few specific answers to such questions, though it does stress that we should not limit our imagination — let alone God’s design — for life after death by our own experiences. Eternal life will be qualitatively different from what we know in our temporal existence. Time itself — and with time death — will have ceased. Because we are such creatures of time — ceaselessly aware of the fleeing present bound by past and future — this is hard for us to comprehend. For this reason, I’ve found it helpful to resist describing resurrection and heaven in temporal terms, sometimes favoring spatial and relational references which, while also limited, at least draw attention to the qualitative, rather than quantitative, differences. We might say, for instance, that in resurrection we will live in the “nearer presence” of God. Further, while we do not know what relationships will be like, we know that we will be related to each other in and through our relationship with God.

Second, how does resurrection compare with immortality? Though a Greek notion, many Christians today and, indeed, throughout the centuries, have confused immortality with resurrection. But whereas immortality of the soul promises that some spiritual element of a person persists beyond the physical death of the body, resurrection insists that the whole person will in some way be united with God (see I Corinthians 15, especially 35-49). It is the whole person, not some wispy essence, that God promises to redeem. We do, in fact, die — there is no escaping that. But because of the One who died on the cross and was raised again from death, we live and die with the promise that God will similarly raise us from death to new life where, in the words of Jesus today we “cannot die, because [we] are like angels and are children of God, being children of resurrection” (20:36).

This is, of course, only one passage, and so it should not be taken to be either the first or last word on resurrection. Yet given how much talk is going on in other circles about life after death, this might be a good occasion to insert a Christian voice into the ongoing dialogue.

First Reading

Commentary on Job 19:23-27a

James Limburg

Handel Had It Right

At least once a year, in the church where I grew up, our resident soprano soloist sang with great enthusiasm (and a bit too much tremolo) “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Handel’s Messiah. As a student in college and in seminary, I sang or played trombone in Messiah productions each year. In subsequent years my wife and I sang in choirs or were part of a Messiah audience. Never, I think, has a Christmas season gone by without hearing Handel’s composition.

In the light of sophisticated contemporary biblical scholarship, can we still listen to Handel’s settings of these texts as not only musically satisfying, but also as responsible expressions of our biblical Christian faith? My answer is yes.

Now, on to the text in Job 19.

Setting, Structure and Context
Matters of date and authorship remain debated among the scholars; most would understand the setting for the material in the time of the Babylonian exile (587-539 BCE) or later. The book should not be understood as a historical account, but rather as reflections on the problems of the suffering of the innocent, the prosperity of the wicked, and the place of God in all this. The structure of the book is clear:
Chapters 1-2: Introduction. God allows Job to be tested
      3-31: Disputes between Job and his three friends
     32-37: Young Elihu speaks
     38-41: God speaks
42: Conclusion: Job, friends and God

To zero in on Chapter 19 as a part of 3-31: Chapters 3-14 are a first cycle of speeches by Job (3, 6-7,9-10, 12-14) with responses by Eliphaz (4-5), Bildad (8) and Zophar (11). Chapters 15-21 are a second cycle with speeches by Eliphaz (15), Bildad (18) and Zophar (20) and responses by Job in 16-17, 19 and 21. Thus Chapter 19 offers Job’s response to Bildad’s speech in Chapter 18.

Reading Job 19

1-6 Job’s complaint against his friends: you are tormenting me! The opening “then Job answered” indicates that these words are a response to Bildad’s speech in Chapter 18, where Bildad is certain that Job is suffering because he is hiding some secret sins.

7-12 Job’s complaint against God: God is not fair! Job has serious problems with God. He cries out in prayer but God does not answer. God is just not fair (7)! God has made it impossible for Job to travel along life’s way, walling him up, and setting him in darkness (8). Like a tree uprooted by a storm, the roots for Job’s hope have been pulled out (10). Like a commander surrounding a city with troops, God has surrounded Job (11-12).

13-22 Job’s further complaints: and it is all God’s fault! Job says his life is miserable. He finds no support from family or friends (verses 13, 14, 19, 21). Even little children do not like him (18) and his wife finds him repulsive (17). Job is certain that God is behind all of this (13, 21, 22).

23-29 Job’s declaration of faith: I know that I have one who will rescue me from this mess! The key word in this part of the chapter which is the climax of the piece is Redeemer, capitalized in translations because it refers to God. The Hebrew word translated “redeemer” is goel. In non-theological contexts the word may indicate buying back a field that has been sold (Leviticus 25:25, 26, 33; 27:13, 15, etc.) or a person sold into slavery (Leviticus 25:48, 49). In modern non-theological usage “redeem” may be used in reference to buying back a guitar, for example, which has been sold to a pawnshop and then is bought back by the owner.

When the word is used with God as subject, it may refer to God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 6:6) or from exile in Babylon (“Redeemer” in Isaiah 43:1,14; 44:6,24; 47:4; 48:17 etc.). The word is also used to refer to God’s delivering an individual from death (Psalm 103:4) or taking up the cause of an orphan whose field has been stolen (Proverbs 23:11) or rescuing one who is praying for help (Psalm 119:154).

The meaning here in Job is thus quite clear. Job expresses his conviction that there is One living who will eventually rescue him from the suffering and mess his life has become. As that One once rescued Israel, or the exiles, so the Redeemer will one day put Job’s life back together.

Preaching and Teaching Job 19:23-27a
The best commentary on this text in my view is done in the texts that George Frideric Handel selected (with Charles Jennens) for Part III of Messiah. They include portions from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:20-22, 51-57) as well as the apostle’s letter to the church at Rome (8:31) and a text from Revelation (5:12-14).

One can read countless learned commentaries debating the exact sense of Job 19:23-27a. Those I recommend as especially helpful are Kathryn Schifferdecker’s work in the Lutheran Study Bible  and J. Gerald Janzen’s Job in the Interpretation series (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985). But beyond these scholarly commentaries is the setting of this text in Handel’s Messiah which includes being considered in connection with the New Testament texts listed above.

In decades of teaching and preaching on Isaiah 9 (“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” or “For unto us a child is born…”) or these texts from Job, 1 Corinthians and Romans, I have always hauled in an LP phonograph, a cassette player, or a CD player and have let Handel have his way with these texts. Often I have gathered copies of Handel’s Messiah  so that students could follow along or sing along. It always works. There is no doubt in my mind that Handel had it right.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Haggai 1:15b-2:9

Wil Gafney

The co-temporal prophets Haggai and Zechariah mark a shift in how the exiled community of Judah sees itself.

For the first time, they measure time through a foreign monarch, Darius of Persia, because there are no ruling Davidides in Judah (which has now become the Persian province of Yehud). The last phrase of 1:15, “in the second year of King Darius,” link chapters 1 and 2. The first nine verses of chapter 2 make up the bulk of the lectionary reading.

In this passage, the exiles have now returned to Jerusalem with the blessing of Cyrus to rebuild their temple including some building supplies. (The story of the return and rebuilding of the temple is told in Ezra 1-3.)

The date formulas in Haggai (and Zechariah) are precise. The word of the LORD comes to Haggai on the 21st of Tishri (the seventh month), corresponding to the seventeenth of October in 520 BCE. The context is the disappointment of the people who have done all that they can to return their world to the way things were (and were supposed to be) but have found themselves far short of their vision.

Prophets like Isaiah (43:5-6; 48:20-21), Hosea (11:10-11), and Ezekiel (37:12-14) had prophesied a Second Exodus in which God would lead Israel back to the Promised Land. The day had come, and now about a month later, they have come face to face with a reality that does not live up to their dreams.

Zerubbabel is a descendent of David (in a round-about way), but he is not a king; he is only governor as long as it pleases the Persian overlord, Darius, the true king. They have a high priest, Joshua, and the temple has been rebuilt, but it is not the same. Ezra 3:12-13 records the people who were old enough to have seen the glorious Solomon temple broke down and cried when the saw its shabby successor. (All of the Israelite construction efforts were ridiculed as being so unstable that the local wildlife would demolish them by bumping into them, see Nehemiah 4:3.)

To these disheartened and disenchanted people, God spoke through Haggai:

How many of you remember the good old days? Does this new temple hold a candle to the previous one? Buck up Z! Hold your head up Josh! Everyone, keep working! You have nothing to fear, I am here and I am with you all. And it won’t always be like this. I will bring resources – treasure – from far away lands and in its final form, this holy house will be even better than the one Solomon built!

In some ways, each successive generation of Israelites tried to live into this promise by continually expanding and renovating the temple, as did Herod in the New Testament. (This is one thread underlying the synoptic story in which the disciples swell with pride when they show Jesus the fancy work on the perpetual temple project and their horror when he says the whole thing will come tumbling down, see Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6.)

It is easy to focus on the material promise: one day the returnees will be more prosperous. There is more to this word of consolation. God is satisfied with their best efforts. God has not compared their labor with that of their ancestors and found it lacking. God knows they are feeling insecure about the temple they have recreated for God. Perhaps most importantly, God is with them, temple or no temple.

God is with them and God has been with them. God was with the Israelites in the glorious days of the united monarchy. God was with the Israelites on both sides of the border when the nation fractured – even though the Judeans claimed that God was with them and not the northern Israelites. God was with the deported and resettled Samarians as they intermarried other deported peoples and became known as the Samaritans and were no longer recognized by some as Israelite. God was with the Judeans and Jerusalemites when the Babylonian war machine leveled their temple and obliterated their government. God went with the Judean Israelites into exile and remained with the poorest people of the land who were left behind. And God was with those who ran the other way and found themselves self-exiled in Egypt. God was with each river of returnees streaming back into Jerusalem and Judah.

And in the days to come, God’s presence will be marked by not mere prosperity as it is translated in the NRSV, but shalom – peace, well-being, security, wholeness, and restoration.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

James Boyce

Last Sunday’s reading opened on a note of “thanksgiving” (1:2).

Today’s in contrast turns to a “begging” appeal (2:1; the NRSV disguises this literary contrast by delaying the “we beg you” until much later in the sentence.) Paul is getting down to brass tacks; the “occasion” of the letter now occupies center stage. In typical masterful rhetoric, in a deliberate parenthetical aside, Paul mentions the two key bases of the confidence he hopes to instill in his readers: the sure and certain “coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” and the conviction that part of this “coming” will be their being “gathered together with him” (2:1). Fortified with these two convictions the Christian community will be able to let go of the false rumors and at the same time hold on to the comforting and empowering truth of the gospel.

Letting Go False Rumors
That said, Paul now turns to address the false rumors that have suddenly (“quickly” NRSV) arisen to upset this community so thoroughly (2:2; the doubled use of “shaken” and “alarmed” underscore the intensity of the unrest). As is typical, once rumors begin to fly, they can be initiated and encouraged from a number of directions. The author notes a number sources–“by spirit,” “by word,” and “by letter.” “Spirit” is clearly not the Holy Spirit, but rather a spirit that belongs to the heated emotions and fears of the rumor mill that get magnified as they spread in the community. But there are also more tangible sources. The reference to “word” and “letter” clearly knows of persons (Paul is not specific here, perhaps assuming the readers will know to whom he is referring) who for whatever purpose are stirring up this community with false rumors. With climactic rhetorical effect, the substance of the rumor is left until the very end of the sentence: a false report that “the day of the Lord has already come.” The unspoken fear that has gripped this community is the day has come, and they somehow missed it or were left behind.

Then, as now, such speculations and fears about the “day of the Lord” need to be nipped in the bud. Paul now states his request in as forceful and direct a way as possible (2:3). The verb used names it for what it is: a “deception.” The people are being deceived. The aorist tense of the original Greek verb suggests an incisive order to immediately decease and desist: Stop it right now(!), while the surrounding doublet of “any one” “in any way” intends to silence all opposition. Paul is really pulling out the stops here and banking on his authority as an apostle to simply give an order and hope that the community will respond.

But he does not count on that authority alone. The “for” (i.e. “because”) that attaches the subsequent clauses (2:3b-4) adds rationale to support the command. It is impossible for the “day” to have come, because before that day two conjoined events must happen: the “rebellion” must take place and the “lawless one” be revealed. To what this term refers is somewhat obscure. (The Greek is literally “the man of lawlessness,” making it sound somewhat like a contrast to the “son of Man” language of the gospel tradition. The fact that many ancient manuscripts read instead “man of sin” shows that even early Christian readers were not so sure about what the term meant or to what it referred) What is clear is that this lawless one is an enemy of God and sets himself up as an alternative object of worship, taking upon himself the very role of God (2:4).

Paul now turns to one final basis of his appeal, coming now not as an order, but as a pleading and personal appeal for the Thessalonians to recall Paul’s ministry and preaching during his time among them. “Do you not remember how I used to tell you these things again and again while I was with you?” (2:5; my translation). Paul seems to know, all arguments and rationale aside, ultimately the matter of hearing the gospel and getting it right–avoiding the false rumors of deception–depends on the personal experience of the “mutual consolation of brothers and sisters of faith” in Christian community.

Hearing the Truth in Community
It is to that experience of community that the second portion of the reading for the day now turns. If the first part of Paul’s address has been to call for a “cease and desist” in the matters of false rumors, the second part now turns to assert the alternative positive and foundational confidence in the power of the message of the gospel that must displace such rumors and occupy the spirit and mind of the community.

To inaugurate that assertion, Paul returns to the same theme that began the letter: the “we must always give thanks to God for you brothers and sisters” of 2:13 is an almost verbatim repetition of 1:3. The gospel “tune” is back on track with the sure and certain heart of the gospel. But with a major addition: yes, it is thanks for you, but now it is a “you” who are “beloved by the lord.” Whatever rumors may shake their day, the one thing that these Christians–like us who have our own versions of the rumors–need to remember is that in whatever comes, they are “beloved ones” (the perfect tense of the participle “beloved” here would suggest this love is a “done deal,” established firmly, and not about to be shifted or undone).

Chosen for Salvation
Now comes the clearly stated reason for this confidence. The “because” (Greek oti) of verse 13 intentionally matches the “because” of verse 3 with an alternative to counteract the false rumors devastating the community. And, wow! What a reason it is! As clearly and directly stated as the gospel gets: “God has chosen you for salvation.” But with one important word tucked right in the middle: “as first fruits.” Far from being left out, as those who foster the rumor mill would have you believe, you are the “first fruits.” (Whereas in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 it is those who have died who will be “first in line” at the Lord’s coming, now it is these “living” Thessalonians who hear for themselves the same assurance that previously they sought for those who had already died.)

The two marks of this “salvation” in the community are “holiness” and “faith.” Salvation is not just a matter of hope in a future coming. Paul directs them to dig into their experience and note the confirming signs of that salvation as they are already experienced in community. For the Thessalonians as much as for us the signs of salvation are found not in constantly looking to the future, but by looking around them at lives that are lived in a “holiness” that is the gift of the Spirit’s presence among them. Such lives are further marked by the sign of “faith” or “trust” that enables them to live by the “truth.” Thus, they are not to be deceived or unsettled by vicious rumors that would tempt them to turn away from the certain hope that belongs to God’s calling and choosing.

And That’s the Gospel Truth
Paul, for a second time, reminds these Thessalonians of where they have heard this truth. It was in the preaching. Paul’s “preaching” (2:14) of the gospel was part the double purpose of God’s choosing. Far from being forsaken or left behind, the gospel asserts God’s purpose all along in salvation is that they would be united in glory with Christ Jesus.

Finally then, what will count is that this community not be mislead by “word” or “letter” of false rumors (cf. “as if from us” 2:2), but that it stand firm and hold fast to the “traditions that they were taught”–the actual words of the apostle himself by “word” and “letter” both when present and when away from them (2:14).

Concluding Benediction
The conclusion to the main subject of the letter and also as the climax of the gospel proclamation is marked now by a somewhat lengthy benediction. Since the unsettling rumors in the community had to do with fears of having missed Christ’s coming, not surprising that the agency of this prayer should be so firmly and emphatically stated: first of all, the Lord Jesus Christ “himself” (the very one they await); and then God the father “who loved.” Three times the important “us” includes the hearers in this love of Father and Son: it is “our” Lord Jesus; it is “our” Father who loved “us.” Further, the prayer is that by grace this God, who not “will give” but “has already given” (aorist tense in the original) “eternal comfort” and “good hope,” will do so again in this instance–that God will “comfort” (parakalew, the word can mean “comfort, console, encourage”; cf. Paraclete) your hearts and “strengthen” (or “establish”) them in good work and in good words. Both are necessary, God-works and good words, to quash the rumors of the “bad words” that are threatening this community and to replace the rumors with actions of care and concern for the needs of its members.

The Mystery of Lawlessness
Once again the lectionary omits the somewhat strange and troubling language and imagery having to do with the view of the end times (2:7-12). As noted in the remarks on last Sunday’s lesson, this material has occasioned some to question whether Paul is actually the author of this letter or whether this letter may not represent a later period of Christianity when speculation about the end time became more prominent in Christian circles. Even the very language of the “mystery of lawlessness” would suggest some uncertainty about the nature and identify of this “lawless one” except that it is assumed to be an agent in league with the powers of Satan. It is clear, however, this lawless power will be restrained in the end by God. The current deception and false rumors are seen to be a sign of those who have not believed the gospel and who will ultimately perish along with the lawless one at the coming of the Lord.