Lectionary Commentaries for February 20, 2011
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48

Emerson Powery

In this passage, Jesus continues to explore the relevance of the Law for his followers and society.

The Law, even God’s Law handed to Moses, must be engaged and re-interpreted in light of contemporary realities.  Such engagement need not lessen the challenge of appropriating ancient biblical texts for modern society.  Jesus’ own teaching is an example of this struggle. 

Matthew 5:38-42
The lex talionis or the law of retaliation is an attempt to enact fair justice among the people of ancient Israel. Wherever harm is committed–whether intentional (cf. Leviticus 24:20) or not (cf. Exodus 21:24)–the judges of ancient Israel were expected to authorize the law of retaliation (i.e., “eye for an eye”).   It is not to be practiced only in cases when an evil person causes injury.  Rather it is a law that expresses a commitment to justice (cf. Deuteronomy 19:21).  And, it ensures that the penalty is not arbitrary, making the punishment more severe than the crime.  But Jesus admonishes followers not to oppose the evil doer violently (antistenai) rather than the NRSV’s “not resist an evildoer.” The NRSV’s translation is odd and implies no opposition to oppose.  Rather, Jesus has an alternative strategy for dealing with evil.  His objective is to overcome evil with good.  His goal was to overcome humiliation by shaming those in power.

Jesus advocates the type of follower who is willing to give even more than asked from those in need: “give to everyone who begs from you” (5:42).  Without specific context, interpreters have taken Jesus’ words in a variety of ways.  Perhaps Jesus had in mind people with enough economic status visible to beggars.  For the poor, the loss of one’s  “cloak” in addition to one’s “coat” (5:40) would have meant a cold night of sleep since the cloak was normally the evening blanket as well.  If he has the poor in mind in a court of law, it may have been an act of shame to hand over one’s cloak and coat as a symbol of one’s debt.  The nakedness of the one in debt may have brought shame on all parties involved in the land-based, debt-ridden system.  

Does Jesus intend his prescriptions even in situations of abuse?  Many interpreters find them illogical because of the absence of any motivation.  But it seems as if 5:48 is motivation enough for Jesus.  The more serious challenge comes from admonitions in which Jesus seems to advocate a commitment to do good despite the evil abuse one receives: “turn the other cheek.” 
By the end of the first century, it was common to repeat Jesus’ teaching. Some Christians classified this difficult teaching as the way to become “perfect” (Didache, chapter 1).  Prior to the rise of Constantine and the implications of his reign on the relationship between Christianity and the Empire, most Christians understood Jesus’ words literally.

The language of lawsuits (“if anyone sues you”) is not common outside of the Sermon of the Mount (cf. 7:1-2), except for when Jesus reminds his disciples of their future role as “judges on the twelve thrones” (19:28).  Jesus’ teaching, in Matthew, is parallel to Paul’s, in his Corinthian correspondence, who also advocates a willingness to suffer, accepting the harm to oneself: “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7).  Though both advocate staying away from lawsuits altogether, the distinction may be in audience.  Paul advises believers not to sue other believers; Jesus is apparently dealing with lawsuits of those who are not believers in the Way.

Another example is the practice of conscription which was common in Greco-Roman society.  The Romans could force any one to assist in an exercise.  It displayed public control over the colonized.  Later in the Gospel narrative, Matthew describes one such example: Simon of Cyrene is forced (aggareuo) to carry the cross of Jesus (Matthew 27:32).  Jesus’ response epitomizes a response unlike the Zealots: “go also the second mile” (5:41). Do not receive the humiliation intended.

Matthew 5:43-48
“Love your neighbor” (5:43) is central to Jesus’ teaching and he will repeat it on two other occasions in Matthew (19:19; 22:39). In both later instances, the phrase is central to what Jesus thinks about the entire Law of God.  As he says to one inquiring lawyer, “On these two commandments (i.e., love God; love neighbor) hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40).   Here, in chapter 5, Jesus extends this love towards the “enemy.” Of course, people cannot so easily love those who harm and shame them.  This counter-intuitive act requires prayer. So, Jesus advocates praying for enemies (5:44).  Such practice beforehand will benefit a person’s right action in life.  In the “Lord’s Prayer” (6:9-13), this idea is consonant with the theme of forgiveness: forgiving others who have wronged you is crucial to receiving God’s forgiveness as well (6:14-15).

Loving, praying for, and forgiving one’s enemy is an extension of Jesus’ broader teaching about the perfection of God (5:48).  In typical fashion, Jesus provides an intriguing image to capture the meaning of this quality of God, one that God’s followers should emulate.  Later in Matthew’s story, Jesus confronts a rich man, who has faithfully followed the commandments of his religious tradition (cf. 19:16-22).  This man still recognizes that something is missing (19:20).  Jesus’ response is shocking: “sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (19:21).  Like most of us, this man can’t carry out that challenge.  Only in Matthew’s account is such an action classified as what it means to be “perfect” (teleios; 19:21).  This is the type of maturity Jesus desires from his followers.  Jesus’ teaching stems from a theological conviction that since God is perfect, so should the followers of God be.  Just as God provides good things (i.e., “rain”) for the just and the unjust, so must God’s followers treat others (whether “good” or “evil”) with consistent love (5:45).  Care for the other–despite the other’s actions–sums up the language of perfection, maturity, and fulfillment in life.     
Summary for Preaching
It is from Jesus’ words (and his exposure to the practices of Mahatma Gandhi) that Martin Luther King, Jr. developed the practice of non-violence as a means of effective protest.  Just as Jesus reinterpreted the biblical laws for his day, King put into practice their relevance for his own day. For King and others, Jesus’ words were meant to be taken literally.  Though not all Christians have responded in this way, a plan to retaliate evil with love was central to King’s mission.

First Reading

Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Callie Plunket-Brewton

The lectionary from Leviticus begins with the familiar Levitical refrain: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD am holy” (19:2b).

What follows in this chapter is a miscellaneous series of laws beginning with the commands, familiar from the Decalogue, to honor father and mother, keep the Sabbaths, and make no idols in verses 2b-4, while verses 5-8 consist of ritual laws that provide the guidelines for the proper consumption of the sacrifice of wellbeing. The second part of the lectionary reading, verses 9-18, focuses on the ethical behavior of the people.

It is important to take into account the narrative context of the laws of Leviticus: the story of the exodus. Freed from slavery in Egypt, the people have not entered the land promised to them, and these laws look ahead to the time when they have settled in their homeland, outlining the way in which they are to conduct their lives once they are residents in the land promised to them. For example, the laws concerning gleaning and the payment of the day laborer are not directly relevant to the people while they are still encamped in the wilderness.

When one considers the future of the people once they are settled in Palestine–the future, that is, from a narrative perspective–the laws still do not function as individual prescriptions for right behavior because they do not include punishments for those who fail to follow them. They are best seen as part of a vivid description of the ideal community that is devoted to God. The grounding for this new community is, of course, Yahweh’s redemption of the people from slavery in Egypt. The memory of this redemption and their history as a people oppressed is built into the laws both by their narrative context as well as the emphasis on the ethical treatment of one’s fellow Israelite, especially those who are most vulnerable. In this way, the people’s concern for the disadvantaged reflects God’s own compassion for those who are susceptible to the manipulations of the powerful.

God is, thus, shown to be at the heart of the laws of the Torah. Indeed, it is the very character of Yahweh that provides the grounding for the ethical behavior of the community. The oft-repeated command, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD am holy” (Leviticus 11:44, 45; 20:7, 26; 21:8; cf. 22:32), does double-duty, implicitly naming God as the enforcer of these laws and also inextricably linking the quotidian details of the people’s daily lives with God’s own nature. Notice also the number of times one finds the divine assertion, “I am the LORD,” echoing throughout verses 9-18 (verses 10, 12, 14, 16, 18). The connection of the law with the character of God thus marks daily human interaction as sacred. The way one treats one’s neighbor is, thus, an act of devotion to God, and more than that serves to align the human realm with God’s vision for creation.

The laws of Leviticus 19:9-18 enjoin the people to be honest in all their dealings with one another, in financial dealings, in the courts, and in the fields so that they might create a community in which people can be trusted, in which laws are not just empty words, and everyone can live in safety. Interestingly, the language of these laws undergoes a gradual shift throughout these verses. It begins by identifying each of the particular groups to which the people are to respond ethically–the day laborer, the poor, the blind–interspersed with the more general term “neighbor” but by verse 18 the language of “neighbor” dominates.

Indeed, in the final verse of the unit, one finds “neighbor” no longer connected with those that might be considered “other”–those who are in any way not “like” the dominant group–but with one’s own family: “You shall not hate anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (verse 18). “Neighbor” is now identified as those who are kin and are part of the whole of God’s “people.”

The proximity of two powerful statements: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “I am the LORD” is a striking reminder of the basis of Christian community, a basis we share with the community of ancient Israel. We are fundamentally marked by the grace of God in our lives, working to bring us out of despair and darkness–in a word, “sin”–and into full communion with God and one another.

The command to love our neighbors as ourselves requires us to acknowledge that we have been loved more than we can comprehend and calls us to reflect that love to the rest of the world, a world made up of neighbors who need love and community as much as we do. Thus, Christian labor is participatory labor, enabling us to partner with God in the divine work of transforming the world so that it reflects the ever-loving character of its creator. Kathleen Norris writes: “God speaks to us…reminding us that by meeting the daily needs of the poor and vulnerable, characterized in the scriptures as the widows and the orphans, we prepare the way of the Lord and make our own hearts ready for the day of salvation.”1

1 Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work’, (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 22.


Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40

Cameron B.R. Howard

At 176 verses, Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Book of Psalms, and yet it is perhaps the most noticeably, or even most rigorously, ordered.

It is an acrostic poem, meaning that the first letter of each line follows the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In the case of Psalm 119, the acrostic is grouped into eight-line sections, so that each of the first eight lines starts with alef, each of the second eight lines starts with bet, etc. This week’s lectionary reading is the he section, meaning that each of these eight lines in Hebrew begins with the letter he, the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

God’s torah (i.e., law or instruction) is the primary theme throughout Psalm 119. Walter Brueggemann points out that the acrostic provides, “a form commensurate with the message. The message is that life is reliable and utterly symmetrical when the torah is honored. And so the psalm provides a literary, pedagogical experience of reliability and utter symmetry. A torah-ordered life is as safe, predictable, and complete as is the movement of the psalm.”1

The formal order and the thematic consistency present in Psalm 119 as a whole are magnified in microcosm in verses 33-40. The structural rigidity continues past the repetition of the initial letter of each verse. Seven of the eight lines (33-39) begin with imperatives,2 contributing to a total of nine imperatives concentrated in this eight-verse section.  The address throughout the unit is directed toward Yahweh, to whom the psalmist is making a series of requests — or, perhaps better, demands, as the imperative mood suggests: teach me, give me understanding, lead me, turn my heart, turn my eyes, confirm your promise, turn away disgrace, and — in verses 37 and 40 — give me life.

The last line (verse 40) begins with the Hebrew interjection hinneh, often translated as “Lo!” or “Behold!” The interjection draws the hearer to the speaker, as if to say, “Pay attention!” Though its form is not technically imperative, it serves a similar function, and the NRSV appropriately translates it with an English imperative, “See!” Thus, the sense of urgent pleading persists, well-ordered, through all eight verses.

The repetition and symmetry apparent in the verbs of the unit are echoed in the nouns that accompany them. Seven synonyms for torah appear in these eight verses. In addition, the language of the psalm is full of words referring to the body and its movement. The learning the psalmist seeks is not merely an intellectual exercise; it is an orientation of the whole self toward fulfillment of God’s commandments. The petitioner wants to observe the law with his whole heart (verse 34), have his heart and eyes turned toward the law and away from vanity (verses 36-37), and to have disgrace turned away from him (verse 39). He even wants to walk in the path of God’s commandments (verse 35, cf. “way” in verse 33), a metaphor that imagines movement of the whole self dictated by torah.

In the fall of 2010, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life released a survey on religious knowledge in the United States. The survey that found that Americans who identified as Christian knew less about world religions in general, and often less about their own religious tradition in particular, than atheists, agonistics, or Jews.3 Forty-three percent of Christians did not, for example, know that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not one of the Ten Commandments. The survey illustrated a disconnect within American Christianity between religious feeling, which appears to be ample, and religious knowledge, which is much more scarce. Why study my faith, when I can feel it in my heart?

This section of Psalm 119 affirms no such division between knowledge, discipline, and faith. In verses 33-40, keeping the law goes hand-in-hand with learning the law. Moreover, the disciplined engagement of religious law is itself spiritual fulfillment. Knowing and following God’s precepts does nothing less than give life (verses 37, 40), for which God alone is the source. The stack of imperatives in verses 33-40 may make the psalmist seem demanding, but his pleas come out of a deeply-felt realization that understanding comes from God, not through any accomplishment of self.

To say, “Teach me, O Lord,” is to acknowledge that God is teacher. In this unit within Psalm 119, God is also leader, turner, confirmer, and giver — giver of understanding and giver of life. Life cannot be separated from understanding. We would do well, then, to make the psalmist’s prayer our own: “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”

1 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 40.
2In terms of Hebrew grammar, each initial imperative is in the Hiphil (i.e., causative) stem, which uses a he-prefix at the beginning of the verb, thus facilitating the consistency of the acrostic form in this section.
3 For the text of the report, see http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx; Accessed October 19, 2010.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Mark Tranvik

I recently asked a friend for some advice about painting my house.

He stressed that proper preparation was everything. Make sure you replace rotten wood, scrape, prime, and do the trim work before laying the actual coat of paint. “Eighty percent of painting a house is getting the prep work done right,” he said. “If you take care of that then you will be surprised how easy the actual job of painting the house is.”

Proper preparation is essential. In other words, you have to have the right foundation in order for the finished work to endure the wind, rain, and summer sun that is sure to follow. Paul is striking a similar note in his comments to the fractious church at Corinth. This community is being torn apart by arguments about authority (Paul? Cephas? Apollos?…see 1: 12-13) and wrestling with questions about sexual morality and marriage (chapters 5 and 7), lawsuits (chapter 6), and riotous behavior at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11), among other things. Paul is seeking to call this distracted church back to the essentials by reminding them that “no one can lay any foundation any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” (3: 11).

Preachers in the early part of the twenty-first century have to wrestle with the phenomenon known as “post-modernism.” One way to define this term is centered on the whole notion of “truth.” Defenders of post-modern viewpoints often say there is no such thing as “truth.” There are only a variety of perspectives, none of which can be called a norm. Applied to the image of a house, post-moderns might be impatient with preparing a foundation. Just get the job done in whatever way that works best.

Now it is unlikely that a great number of people in the pews have been pondering post-modernism. But that does not render the concept irrelevant. For many of us in the West, God is no longer in the center of our lives (i.e. the foundation). God is not a “given,” in the sense that we feel an obligation to account for our lives to a supreme power. In our age, the “self” is now central, and God and faith become important insofar as they help us manage our lives. God has been put in his place, so to speak. And if things go wrong (illness, suffering, setbacks) it is only proper that we call on God to justify his ways to humanity.

Note that this is not a rejection of faith. There is still room for Christ, but not as a foundation. Christ is there to help us cope with life or to help out in emergencies. He serves primarily as a rescuer, who gets out of the tight spots that we cannot handle on our own.

This is a far cry from what Paul has in mind in our text. Christ is not merely one option among many but the very source or foundation from which we live our lives. A great resource for preachers at this point might be the writings of the twentieth century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Much of his work involved moving Christ to the center, countering the tendency to place him at only the margins of life. Interpreters might consult his series of essays in the The Cost of Discipleship1 or his book Life Together.2

No Ordinary Building
We are still not done with images of building and construction. Talk of foundations leads naturally to another theme in our text: the temple. Given the common foundation in Christ, Paul appeals for unity at Corinth: “Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” (3: 16). A couple of items deserve special attention.

Listeners need to be aware of the special role that the temple played in the lives of the Jewish people. Following its return from captivity in Babylon, Israel rebuilt its destroyed temple. This building received a special emphasis in the lives of the Jews. It was the center of Israel’s worship. The Jews believed the Holy of Holies (the innermost sanctum) contained the very presence of God. Only on Yom Kippur-once a year-was the high priest allowed to enter this space and offer a sacrifice for the sins of the nation.

Paul’s identification of the community with the temple was a real eye-opener. This church, heavily divided by conflict, is identified as God’s temple (note the present tense language): “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:17). One can hardly imagine a bigger contrast between the reality of Corinth and the holiness of God! But Paul does not compromise. Corinth is holy because God’s spirit dwells in it. Holiness is not Corinth’s possession. It is a gift that has been given to it by Christ.

Preachers might want to make a link here with the crucifixion scene in the gospel of Mark. Recall that at the moment of Jesus’ death “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15: 38). This is the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the building. In other words, in the crucifixion of Christ, God stands “exposed,” revealed to the world for what kind of deity he really is: one willing to conquer sin and death so that his people might truly be free. Moreover, the cross of Christ now means a new definition for “temple.” It is no longer confined to a physical space in Jerusalem. The temple exists where God’s holiness exists. And God’s holiness is now on the loose. Wherever Christ’s love is proclaimed and heard, a foundation is laid and up springs a temple. Even in unlikely settings such as Corinth or our own congregations.

1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959).
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper and Row, 1954).