Lectionary Commentaries for January 23, 2011
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23

Eric Barreto

For the third time in Matthew, Jesus finds himself embracing a new hometown.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In doing so, prophecy was fulfilled (2:5-6).

The first move finds the family fleeing Bethlehem and Herod’s furor and arriving in Egypt.  In doing so, Jesus’ life emulates Moses’ journeys. 

The second move allows the family to return to Israel after Herod’s demise.  However, the reign of his progeny leads the family to resettle in Nazareth.  In doing so, prophecy was fulfilled (2:23).

A third move brings Jesus to Capernaum.  In doing so, prophecy was fulfilled (4:14-16).

In other words, never are these moves rooted in human will.  Instead, Matthew argues, God has carefully orchestrated these geographical dislocations and thus imbued them with great significance.  What is that significance?

Perhaps here we get a glimpse of Jesus’ peripatetic existence.  From his earliest days through his adult life and ministry, Matthew’s Jesus is an itinerant preacher, a constant wanderer.  Jesus does not opt for the comforts of the familiar but embraces God’s call to find those who are in need of a word of God wherever they might live.

After all, this is the message of the prophecy.  God has promised to reach all the nations.  Light has reached those who formerly dwelled in darkness and death.  Jesus has come to them and, in a sense, become one of them by becoming their neighbor.  Moreover, Jesus’ first ministry locale is known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  Thus, from the first and in consonance with prophetic promise, Jesus ministers in an ethnically diverse land.

In an ever more mobile and diverse culture, Jesus’ moves are in some sense familiar to many of us.  The dislocation of a new place and new neighbors can be both thrilling and intimidating.  New surroundings can provide us a new start, a nearly blank slate that might allow us to recreate how others perceive and how we perceive ourselves.  New surroundings also can cause us to question every dimension of our selves.  Moving causes us to ask anew, “Who am I?”  The richness of diverse communities can help us understand others better but also ourselves.  In Matthew, Jesus’ peripatetic experiences must have shaped his perspective, helping him understand a community as both insider and outsider. 

In Capernaum, Jesus picks up the proclamation of John.  John’s arrest in 4:12 marks a critical transition but not an entirely new path.  The basic proclamation of both is identical: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2 and 4:17).  Later (10:7), Jesus will send his disciples to preach the same message.  At the same time, John himself promised that Jesus would be a more powerful and important figure in this story.  What is the shape of this reign of God?  How is Jesus uniquely bringing it about?

The power of Jesus’ call becomes quickly evident.  The call of his first followers is profoundly inspired.  Jesus doesn’t have to pitch the idea to these individuals nor does he need to persuade them.  After all, each has little reason to leave their current way of life.  Each seemingly has a steady job and, more importantly, familial ties to their vocations as is emphasized in both call narratives.

At the same time, these are unlikely to be individuals of great social power or individual wealth.  These fishers are not among the elite of ancient culture.  Though Jesus’ disciples will play a vital function in the earliest days of the church, on this day they are utterly ordinary individuals called to an extraordinary task.  I imagine that they would not have completely understood what it would mean to become fishers of people at the moment, yet they follow without hesitation.  Many came to John seeking his baptism; here Jesus calls a small cadre to follow his itinerant path of preaching and healing.

Having begun to assemble his disciples, Jesus turns to his work.  He teaches in the synagogues.  He pronounces “the good news of the kingdom.”  He makes the sick and infirmed whole.  These will be the defining characteristics of Jesus’ daily labors in Matthew.  Teaching, proclaiming the kingdom, and healing are integrated components of his ministry, not discrete pieces. 

“Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Spoken nearly two millennia ago, how does this promise now function for us today?  Is the kingdom of heaven still drawing near even today?  It is vital to observe the close connection of preaching, teaching, and healing in Jesus’ ministry.  The proclamation of the kingdom is not solely verbal, not just a teaching but a series of actions designed to bring wholeness to individuals and communities. 

The reign of God has dawned not only because Jesus spoke it into existence but also because he was willing to heal the sick and make whole the broken.  Thus, it is not a point of embarrassment for us that Jesus proclaimed the dawning of God’s direct rule over the world so very long ago, for he believed deeply and enacted powerfully God’s reshaping of the world. 

Two millennia hence, we too can announce that the kingdom has arisen.  The work of proclamation, teaching, and healing that Jesus inaugurates in this ethnic hotbed called Galilee has continued throughout the centuries.  In fact, Jesus’ closing word in Matthew commands the continuation of this life-giving work. 

How then are we to proclaim today, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”?  Unfortunately, for many people today, such utterance is characteristic of the wild-eyed preacher who has lost contact with reality.  Perhaps, these few verses proclaimed this Sunday can help remind us of Jesus’ life-giving words and deeds.  Perhaps, these few verses proclaimed this Sunday can help remind us to proclaim the drawing near of God’s reign not as a threat but a life-giving promise.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4

Amy G. Oden

These first few verses of Isaiah 9 contrast sharply the previous states of subjection with God’s current, mighty acts of deliverance.

The back story
The back story is the long-standing domination of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali by foreign states. Because of their locations, both tribes were especially vulnerable to attack. As the northern and southern kingdoms played out their power struggles, both Zebulun and Naphtali had been more or less vassal states to a series of Assyrian kings. Both were eventually taken into captivity during the end of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, leaving them “in anguish” and “contempt.”  As pawns of powerful states, their histories were ones of vulnerability, subjection, and oppression.

The land of deep darkness
The land of deep darkness for these conquered people is a land of brutality, a land of poverty and hunger, a land without hope. A conquered people, subject to the whims and demands of overlords, are powerless. Security and safety are stripped away. Every asset will be usurped by the conquerors. Every child born can be taken by the more powerful into slavery. Every field planted with crops can be harvested by the mighty. Every hope for the future is stolen by masters who have the final say. This is the land of deep darkness.

God is deliverer
In the midst of this world of foreign powers and foreign ways comes a shining light. This light does not come from these foreign powers, or even from the people’s efforts. Not the powerful imposters, but God alone is the deliverer here, the ultimate agent at work in the world. Verse 1 makes clear that even their subjection was by God’s agency that “brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.” So, too, only God “will make glorious the way to the sea.” The experiences of these tribes are set within the framework of God’s power to bind and to release. In verse 2 they “see a great light” only because, through divine agency, “on them light has shined.” The claim of who has the power is reinforced in verses 3 and 4: “You have multiplied the nation,” “You have increased its joy.” The people have not multiplied themselves or increased their own joy.

The decisive victory that only God can deliver against the enemy is invoked through the image of “the day of Midian.” This refers to the defeat of the Midian army by Gideon. In the well-known account (Judges 6), the people of Israel cried out for deliverance from Midian domination. God sends Gideon, who, with clearly inferior military forces, defeats the Midian army. The victory can only be attributed to the intervention of this mighty God.

The active presence of God, then, is recalled for a people who have been reduced by terror to consulting “ghosts and familiar spirits” (Isaiah 8:19). The verses at the end of chapter 8 warn that such people will see only distress, darkness, and gloom. Instead of placing confidence in superstitious idol-making, the people must turn to God, “the great light.” Our text puts God again at center stage as the one, and the only one, who can bring the people from darkness to light, from oppression to freedom.

In a social context in which kings and rulers wielded almost unlimited power over the lands, lives, and livelihoods of conquered peoples, this insistence on God as the ultimate power re-frames political relationships. No longer do political rulers have the final say. God’s sovereignty trumps theirs.

Epiphany: God’s inbreaking
Epiphany is a time of the inbreaking of God once again in human history. The apparent powers of the world are unmasked, revealed to be a sham for all their bluster and posturing. During Epiphany, we recognize God’s inbreaking in Jesus Christ, setting in stark relief the false, worldly powers that claim so much authority in our lives: success, productivity, dominance, self-reliance. They do not have the last word.

Darkness and light provide images of the pattern of God’s inbreaking and our recognition of it. The image of light is central throughout Advent, as we await the coming of the Light, the Christ Child, while days continue to shorten in the long winter darkness until the solstice. We light Advent candles in anticipation of God’s inbreaking through light. And now, in Epiphany, we celebrate the wise ones who followed the light of a star to the manger, and thereby, recognized the Christ Child.

Darkness and light describe human recognition of the inbreaking of God in Hebrew Scripture well before we get to the prophet Isaiah. Beginning with the inbreaking of God into the formless void, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), light is evidence of God’s creative work. We see it again in the rainbow that reveals the entire spectrum of light as a sign of God’s covenant (Genesis 9:13), in the burning bush that confronts Moses (Exodus 3:2), and in the pillar of fire that accompanies the Israelites through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21). 

More than sight
This particular representation of God’s presence–light–is powerful because it appeals to an almost universal human experience: being in the dark.  In the dark, we can’t see where to step, we can’t see the way. Notice, though, that the light in Isaiah is more than being able to see. It is one thing for God to act. It is another for God’s people to recognize it. When the people are in “the land of deep darkness,” they can’t see how the God who has delivered them in the past is at work in the present, and so they seek protection from other gods. When God acts “to break the rod of the oppressor,” the light shines to make it plain. The people recognize God’s saving presence and rejoice.

Recognition is more than seeing. The people don’t just see a light. They recognize who is acting on their behalf. They rejoice in relief and thanksgiving, as they would at harvest time when survival is ensured. They get it. They know God is with them, here and now. Epiphany.


Commentary on Psalm 27:1, 4-9

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 27 is classified as an Individual Lament.

Like Psalm 40, the lectionary psalm for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Psalm 27 seems to be made up of two originally separate psalms: an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving in verses 1-6 and an Individual Lament in verses 7-14. The lectionary reading traverses the two sections, however (vv. 1 and 4-9), and thus calls for us to read Psalm 27 as an integral whole rather than as a juxtaposition of two distinct psalms. Two factors suggest that we read Psalm 27 in such a manner. 

First, a considerable shared vocabulary links the two portions of the psalm:  “my salvation” in verses 1 and 9; “foes/enemies” (Hebrew ‘oyeb) in verses 2 and 6; “adversaries” in verses 2 and 12; “heart” in verses 3, 8, and 14; and “seek” in verses 4 and 8. 

Second, as in the case of Psalm 40 (see the commentary for Psalm 40 at this website), we may be permitted to read the Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving in verses 1-6 as part of the “Expression of Trust,” one of the five elements of a Lament Psalm, which consists of the following: (1) an Invocation, in which the psalmist cries out to God to listen (27:7, 8, 9, 11); (2) a Complaint, in which the psalmist tells God what is wrong (27:12); (3) a Petition, in which the psalmist tells God what the psalmist wants God to do (27:7-9, 11-12); (4) an Expression of Trust, in which the psalmist recounts what God has done in the past so that the psalmist has hope that God will help again (27:1-6, 10, 13); and (5) an Expression of Praise, in which the psalmist celebrates the goodness and sovereignty of God (27:14).

Thus, in this study, Psalm 27 will be examined as a consistent whole, a statement by a psalm singer of the nearness of God’s deliverance (verses 1-6) and the confidence that God will again come to the singer’s aid (verses 7-14). So let us begin, as they say, at the beginning.

Verse 1 of Psalm 27 is replete with words and themes echoed in many psalms in the Psalter. The psalm singer declares that God is “my light” (‘or); “my salvation” (yeshah); and “the stronghold (refuge) (ma’oz). And because of this, the psalmist need not fear (yara‘), need not be afraid (pachad). The word “light” appears some thirty-four times in the book of Psalms, linked in most instances to God’s good provision to humanity (13:3; 31:16; 36:9; 89:15; 136:7). In the creation story in Genesis 1, the first creative act of God was to separate the light from the darkness. In the biblical text, light conveys life and hope; darkness suggests death and gloom. 

According to the singer of Psalm 27, God is also “salvation.” Various forms of the root yasha‘ occur over seventy times in the Psalter, mostly in connection with God’s presence and help to the psalmists (3:7; 18:27; 44:7; 76:9; 85:4; 132:16). God is also a “stronghold (refuge).” Though occurring less often than ‘or and yasha‘ (only nine times in the Psalter) and far less than the more commonly-used word for “refuge” (from the root chasah), ma’oz conveys a strong confidence in God: see Psalms 28:8 and 31:4.  

Because of God’s “light” and “salvation” and “stronghold,” the singer of Psalm 27 can confidently not “fear” or “be afraid.” This confidence then is the lens through which the reader enters the remainder of the psalm. Verses 2 and 3 recount God’s goodness when “evildoers, adversaries, an army, and war” rise up against the psalmist.

In verse 4, we hear the psalmist’s confession of the desire of the heart: “to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire of the Lord.” Such words remind this reader of Tevya’s song in “Fiddler on the Roof”:
If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray. And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all. 

Few people in the twenty-first century have the time or the inclination to “live in the house of the Lord” or to “discuss the holy books every day,” but for the psalm singer, and for Tevya, such “living” and “discussing” were seen as ways of understanding and coming to grips with the exigencies of the often-confusing life we have been given to live. 

Verse 5 continues the psalmist’s words of trust in God. “He will hide me; he will conceal me; he will set me high.” The words “shelter” (Sukkoth) and “tent” (‘ohel) in verse 5, part of further words of desire by the psalmist to be near God, recall not the “house of the Lord,” that is, the temple in Jerusalem, but the Tabernacle in which God dwelt among the people during the period of the wilderness wandering (see Exodus 40). In every situation in life, not just in “church on Sunday morning,” the psalm singer is confident of the light-filled salvation of God.

The petition proper of Psalm 27’s Individual Lament begins with verse 7. Verbs abound in verses 7-11:  “hear, be gracious, answer, do not hide, do not turn away in anger, do not cast off, do not forsake, teach, lead.” The psalm singer petitions God to be present, to listen, to act with kindness, and to instruct. The petition is a heartfelt cry to God to act, and, based on verses 1-6, the psalmist can be fully confident that God will act and provide, even if, according to verse 10, “my father and mother forsake me.” 

In the psalm’s remaining verses, the psalm singer petitions God to “teach, lead, do not give me up,” states that “I believe,” and finally admonishes others to “wait, be strong, and take courage.”

Psalm 27 contains words of complaint, words of petition, and words of trust. All are heartfelt words offered by an ancient singer to the God who is “light,” “salvation,” and “refuge” (verse 1). May each of us desire, along with the ancient psalmists, to know God to the extent that our only desire is “to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.”

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

J.R. Daniel Kirk

We discover in 1 Corinthians that the cross creates its own economy.

The Cross
We discover in 1 Corinthians that the cross creates its own economy. The cross transforms the value of our actions and status. Because of the cross we must learn to view the world differently. And so, as we start reading about the problems confronting the church in ancient Corinth, we will find ourselves invited to what Richard Hays refers to as a “conversion of the imagination,”1 what Paul himself speaks of as being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).

Paul beckons his readers to participate in the story of the cross–a narrative in which all that we think we know about the world, its value, its knowledge, its wisdom, its virtue, is reconfigured by God’s great act of salvation in Christ. The message of the cross is not something that only applies to entering the people of God. It gives shape to the entirety of our life together.

Living Up To Our Identity
Paul begins his letter by summoning the Corinthians to live up to their identity in Christ. In particular, Paul calls them to unity.

In verse 10 he appeals to them “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We must not skip over this too quickly. The name of Jesus is not only the authority by which Paul calls them to account, it is the name that makes the Corinthians one. When Paul later asks, “Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1:13), the obvious answer is, “No, we were baptized into the name of Jesus.”

Thus, the very basis of his admonition, “the name of the Lord Jesus” carries with it the diagnosis of their problem and its solution. The problem is that they are claiming other peoples’ names as their identity markers. The solution is to be united in their common identity in Christ.

The Corinthians are plagued by party spirit. We get a hint at the divisions even in the fact that one group is reporting to Paul about everyone else. “Chloe’s people,” perhaps Chloe’s household or perhaps those who meet for worship in Chloe’s house, bring word to Paul that the church is fracturing (1:11). Each group has rallied to a particular leader, and the debate in Corinth revolves around the knowledge and power that each of these teachers embodies.

One group in Corinth has rallied to Apollos. We know from later in 1 Corinthians (3:1-11) that Paul came first to Corinth and that Apollos later took up the work. Acts 18-19 paints a similar picture, and also depicts Apollos as “an eloquent man” (Acts 18:24), powerful in public debate (Acts 18:28). Such rhetorical force might have formed the rallying point for the Apollos party, and seems to lie behind Paul’s insistence that true proclamation of the gospel does not require such eloquence (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

When Paul goes to close the letter in 1 Cor 16, he indicates that Apollos is with him in Ephesus and says that he encouraged Apollos to return to Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:12). This might indicate to the Corinthians that Apollos is as unhappy about the party spirit as Paul.

The place of Cephas in the community (traditionally understood to be the apostle Peter) is a bit more difficult to pin down. Other references to Cephas in 1 Corinthians include an indication that the resurrected Jesus appeared to Cephas before appearing to the rest of the twelve disciples (1 Corinthians 15:5), and that Cephas models the rights of an apostle by taking his believing wife with him as he proclaims the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:5).

It may be that Cephas or his followers introduced theological tensions into Corinth by bringing in the same sort of conservative, law-keeping Christianity that caused conflict between Paul and Cephas at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14). There is some evidence of this type of dispute lingering in 2 Corinthians.

The Corinthians, then, were flocking to smooth rhetoric that lived up to the day’s worldly display of wisdom (Apollos), to a Jewish theology that seemed to have a stronger biblical pedigree than what Paul had on offer (Cephas), and to their own history, roots, and founder (Paul).

Living Out Our Story
In response to this partisan bickering, Paul brings them back to the story that defines us all as the people of God: the crucifixion of Christ. “Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13).

It is important that we not allow ourselves to separate these two questions. The first speaks to the story of God’s action to save a people to himself; the second speaks to how we come to play a part in that drama. Christ’s own crucifixion saves us; and, our baptism into his name makes us “Christ people,” which also signifies, “a people of the cross.”

For Paul, the ramifications of party spirit are nothing less than a denial of the gospel itself. The story says that Christ is crucified, and when we act as though anything else (or anyone else) defines who we are then we deny the story of our salvation.

Like the other rhetorical questions Paul poses, “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) anticipates a negative answer. Jesus is one; therefore, those who bear his name must be one as well.

We should not forget as we come to the end of this passage that Paul resists the temptation to side with the “Paul party.” “Was Paul crucified for you?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) anticipates a negative response. Rather than accepting that division is a given and that those who support his authority and/or positions are in the right, he renounces his own claim to primacy and draws the church back to Jesus Christ, the Crucified.

1Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).