Lectionary Commentaries for February 27, 2011
Second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:24-34

Emerson Powery

Jesus recognizes the problem of possessions for his first-century audience.

He challenges people to take a position on wealth, a potential threat to God (6:24). In this regard, he operates in the spirit of the prophet Amos.  The power of this alternative god is as real today as it was in the first century.  Wealth competes with God for the human heart.  Capitalism is one of the serious challenges for contemporary Christians.  Failure to recognize the class divisions our economic system perpetuates coincides with a distortion of the meaning of Jesus’ famous prayer.  The language of forgiveness (i.e., “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” 6:13) is understood falsely as only an internal spiritual condition rather than an external action of debt relief.

Matthew 6:(24)25-32
Matthew 6:24 may function as the opening to this section (6:24-34), since there is concern here for clothes, and fine foods, and good drink (6:31).  But it may also provide the conclusion to the previous section (6:19-24; as in the CEB and NIV). The NRSV’s placement of 6:24 on its own is non-committal.  Collecting “treasures” (6:19) provides the overarching theme for this entire section and may more clearly reveal where human passions lie: “For where your treasure is…” (6:21; cf. 19:21). 

Do not worry about what you will eat in 6:25 does not mean that food is unimportant; followers of Jesus should pray for “daily bread” (6:11), but then trust God to provide it.  For those for whom the scarcity of food is a daily concern, it is not easy to be unconcerned.  Jesus makes it sound as if securing clothing is part of the natural process, like the “lilies of the field” which “neither toil nor spin.”  Jesus compares these beautiful and well-cared for lilies to Solomon’s wealth, a well-known tradition about the wealthiest royalty in Jewish history.  In Jesus’ example, God’s care for nature is even more attentive than this unnatural acquisition of wealth, perhaps a subtle critique generated by 6:24. But the reality of life in the first century for many people was a challenge to acquire the necessities of life-like food and clothing-through laborious living.  Yet, life is more than food and clothing. That is, life is more than food for those who do not need to worry about their next meal or whether they will be cold tonight.  Clearly, Jesus is not unaware of the challenges of living in first century villages: “Today’s trouble is enough for today” (6:34).

Jesus uses the criticism of oligopistoi in v. 30 (“people of little faith” [NRSV] or “weak faith”[CEB]) only with the disciples (e.g., 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). In two separate occasions, the disciples were startled at Jesus’ power over nature, that is, the miraculous stroll across water (8:23-27; 14:23-33). The disciples’ excitement is understandable.  Yet, Jesus still questions the strength of their faith (8:26; 14:31).  In 16:8, he questions their level of trust again, but it is not in the context of a miraculous event.  The disciples simply fail to grasp Jesus’ teaching about the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Here, in 6:30, Jesus focuses their attention on everyday affairs, the mundane.  Yet, his followers are encouraged not to “worry” (from merimneso, which means “to care for”; in this instance, it means “to be overly concerned; to care too much; to be anxious”).  Where is their faith in regard to the every day cares of life?  If Jesus’ followers cannot trust God in these moments, how can they expect to trust God’s grander activities in the world?

To be compared to Solomon is one thing; to be compared to the “Gentiles” is quite another (6:32).  It is a term that designates all non-Jews.  Matthew’s Jesus shows his ethnic bias, as he utilizes the Gentiles as a negative foil: “do you really want to be like the ethne?”  In Matthew’s depiction, this type of ethnic pride appears several times (cf. 5:47; 6:7; 18:7; 20:25; 24:7, 9).   Anti-Gentile language is associated with the Matthean Jesus’ focus on the “lost sheep of Israel” (10:6; 15:24), a phrase unique to the first canonical Gospel.  Finally, in Matthew’s Gospel, the mission will eventually turn toward the ethne, that is, the “nations, Gentiles, foreigners” in the world. 

Matthew 6:33-34
From 6:24-32, Jesus explains what it means not to be motivated by wealth.  He has yet to explain what it might mean to serve God.  In 6:33, the discussion shifts.  For those who seek after God’s rule in the world (6:33), concern for wealth and possessions (6:19-24) conflicts with God’s provisions for the necessities of life (6:25-34).  To place effort in acquiring goods for one’s self may distract from seeking righteousness and justice around us.  Jesus’ challenge to trust God for daily needs is exactly why he can say to those looking to do good, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you  will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21).  As Mother Teresa famously said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

Summary for Preaching
God will take care of you … so take care of God’s justice in the world.  There is more to life than concern for daily needs, though this may be difficult for some (cf. 6:11). But Jesus expects his followers to put forward energy into things that give more meaning to life.  We must strive to discern how God is working in the world (i.e., “God’s kingdom”) and how to participate in acts of justice on God’s behalf (i.e., “God’s righteousness”).  Beyond that, everything else will take care of itself.  Or, to summarize Jesus, God will deal with the rest.  

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 49:8-16a

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Isaiah 49:8-16a, the Old Testament lectionary text for this Sunday, is part of a larger poetic unit comprised of all twenty-six verses of chapter 49.

This poem contains two of the most powerful symbols of Isaiah 40-55: (1) the servant of Yahweh, the primary subject of a number of powerful poems, among them Isaiah 52:13-53:12, and (2) the deeply moving portrayal of Zion as an abandoned woman. Isaiah 49 can be divided into two equal parts, verses 1-13, which deal with the servant, and verses 14-26, whose focus is Zion’s misery (verse 14) and the prophet’s vision of her restoration (verses 15-26).

The poem was almost certainly composed during the period of the Babylonian exile (586-539 BCE). Thus the descriptions of the “desolate heritages,” the people in prison or living in darkness, the journey across mountains and plains in verses 9-10, as well as the anguish of Zion in verse 14, are all images that need to be understood in light of the pain of the people whose lives have been devastated by war and their deportation to Babylon. Living in Babylon, the people were surrounded by the symbols of their captors’ might and, thus, the signs of their own defeat and helplessness. In response to the alienation and vulnerability of exile, the prophet offers the poem of Isaiah 49, in which distance is overcome by intimacy, and helplessness is met by the comforting presence of God.

In verses 8-12, the poet juxtaposes what is apparently the exiles’ own view of themselves as “prisoners” and the people “who dwell in darkness,” images of isolation and hopelessness, with Yahweh’s responsiveness to their plight. The prophet piles on verbs to reassure the people that God’s power and protection remain with them: God “answers,” “helps,” and, “keeps.” On top of all of these verbs, we find the tantalizing and ambiguous promise: “I have given you as a covenant to the people.”

Although, it is difficult to interpret exactly what is meant by the phrase “covenant to the people,” it is certainly significant that the language of covenant is used to characterize the relationship between God and the people once again. A powerful metaphor used throughout their long history to describe the bond between Israel and her god, the word “covenant” must have been difficult to utter in exile, when the signs of its reality had been obliterated: the temple and their very existence as a nation. Indeed, we find in the Hebrew Scriptures evidence that the people understood their own journey into exile as a result of their breaking of the covenant between themselves and God (see Isaiah 39: 1-8 and 42:18-25 for just two examples of this interpretation of the exile in the book of Isaiah alone). Brokenness and alienation are not going to have the last word, however. While the outward signs of the covenant are tragically broken, the prophet boldly asserts that new signs are on the horizon. The exiles, depicted as prisoners, will be freed, and journey home in safety (verses 9-10). God will gather up the alienated and vulnerable and return them to the familiar comfort of home.

The mid-point of the chapter is verse 13, a song of praise offered to God for the joyful return of the exiles. The poem might very well end there, with all of this jubilation, but then the voice of Zion, previously unheard, interjects. She says only four words in Hebrew, translated into English as: “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (verse 14).  Distance and desolation take center stage again in the form of a lone female.

The prophet meets the profound alienation and vulnerability of Zion with a powerfully intimate image of universal appeal: a mother nursing her child (verse 15). Implicitly, the prophet identifies God as the mother, nursing anguished Zion, and then says that a mother’s nurture of and compassion for her children is much more limited than God’s. Using the same verb that Zion has used in her complaint, God says: “Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” The persistence of God’s memory is highlighted with the striking picture of verse 16a: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” Forgetfulness is simply not possible when one’s hands are covered with reminders. Once again, alienation is overcome by intimacy.

There are so many forms exile can take, and it is up to the preacher to emphasize one particular type of exile or another. Some might focus on exile as a result of relationships torn asunder by abuse or addiction, selfishness or greed. Many in contemporary society experience the pain of dislocation and distance from God and from one another, and the witness of this text is that God is able to bridge the chasms that divide human beings both from the divine and from the warmth of community.

It is also important to consider the calling to the servant, Israel, to be a “covenant to the people” and a “light to the nations.” Christians are called to pay attention to the very physical reality of people in the world who are in exile as a result of war, natural disasters, poverty, or unjust political systems. This calling is linked to the compassion of God, who feels the suffering of others as keenly as a mother might feel the suffering of her children. Yahweh works to bring the people who are far away (verse 12) back into the safety and joy of a covenant relationship, and the mission of the Church is to reflect this divine effort at reconciliation in a world characterized by exile even to this day.


Commentary on Psalm 131

Cameron B.R. Howard

When I read the first line of Psalm 131 — “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up” — I immediately think of the sursum corda,

the opening dialogue to the Great Thanksgiving, which is used across many Christian traditions as part of the eucharistic liturgy. “Lift up your hearts,” says the celebrant, and the congregation responds, “We lift them to the Lord.” The liturgy directs our attention upward, so that we turn away from earthly things and turn our attention wholly toward the worship of God.

If to lift one’s heart is to orient oneself to worship, then why does the psalmist emphasize that his heart is not lifted up? In the Old Testament, the metaphor of the lifted heart describes haughtiness or pride: “All those who are arrogant (literally, “all of lifted heart”) are an abomination to the LORD; be assured, they will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 16:5). The image of the “raised eyes,” paired in Psalm 131 with the lifted heart, is also a prominent metaphor of arrogance in the Old Testament, particularly in Psalms and Proverbs: “For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down” (Psalm 18:27). In Proverbs 6:16-17, “abominations” include “haughty (i.e., “high”) eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood.” In Psalm 131, then, the psalmist declares his humility by testifying to the lowness of his heart and eyes.

As a “Song of Ascents,” Psalm 131 may have been used either by pilgrims going to Jerusalem or by Levites as they went up the steps of the Temple.1 Either way, the physical “ascent” requires a spiritual evenness: a heart not lifted up, eyes not raised too high. Like the sursum corda, Psalm 131 dictates an inner posture for worship. It just so happens that, in the metaphorical fields of the Hebrew Bible, the orientation of the heart is opposite its orientation in the Great Thanksgiving. Though the linguistic landscape differs, the sense of spiritual preparation is the same.

The psalmist employs another rich metaphor to describe the state of his soul: calm and quiet, “like a weaned child with its mother” (Psalm 131:2b).2 The choice of the weaned child over the nursing child in this metaphor is surprising and worthy of our attention. The idea of an infant, a nursing child, would suggest ultimate dependence. The book of Isaiah uses that image several times, referring either to an infant (Hebrew ‘ul) or specifically a nursing infant (Hebrew yoneq). God is more faithful even than the mother who will not forsake her nursing child (‘ul) (Isa 49:15). In the “new heavens and new earth” of Isa 65, there will no longer be “an infant (‘ul) that lives but a few days” (65:20a). The poetry of Isa 11:8 puts “weaned child” in parallel with “nursing child” (yoneq) to say that all children, both older and younger, will play near venomous reptiles and remain safe. The weaned child, then, refers specifically to an older toddler or a child, decidedly not an infant who still relies on his mother’s breastmilk for food.

Why, then, does the psalmist describe his soul as a weaned child? What does it mean for a weaned child to be “calmed and quieted” with its mother? At her mother’s breast, the nursing child is utterly dependent, yet always satisfied. By contrast, the weaned child has some experience of the world. Having left the protection of constantly being at his mother’s side, he has learned that such comfort and shelter cannot persist uninterrupted. Perhaps food will not always be so easily provided; perhaps safety is not always within reach. Nonetheless, amid the calamities of the world, the child may still return to the comfort of his mother, a comfort now rendered profound by the encounter with fear and hurt. The psalmist has allowed his soul a moment of respite, which does not return him to the ease of his infancy, yet which provides a reliable consolation.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the Romantic poet William Blake published a pair of poetry collections that he entitled Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which illustrate “contrary states” of human existence. Alexander Gourlay describes the states this way: “Individuals in a state of Innocence are generally neither ignorant nor unaware of the darker aspects of life, but are sustained by confidence in the redemptive presence of the divine, perceived as both sympathetically human (often like a loving parent) and somehow nearby. Those in Experience are often acutely conscious of the limitations of fallen life and its sorrows, often cripplingly so, and for them the divine may seem inhuman, inscrutable, impossibly distant, and cruel….”3 Read within Blake’s schema, Psalm 131 might be called a “song of innocence.” A weaned child may have more “experience” of the world than a nursing child, who has need for neither fear nor hope. However, the psalmist’s soul is not impaired by its experience of life, as Blake’s notion of Experience requires. Instead, the psalmist has experienced God’s hope alongside the world’s cruelties. His anxiety is quelled, and he is freed to exhort all Israel to embrace Innocence, hoping in the Lord forever.

1For a discussion of the possible meanings of the inscription, “A Song of Ascents,” see James L. Crenshaw, The Psalms: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 18-22.
2The NRSV’s translation of verse 2b — “my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” — along with the mother/child imagery of the psalm, has led some scholars to speculate that this poem may have been written or uttered by a woman. Though that possibility is exciting, I am reluctant to assume that a mother/child metaphor necessitates female authorship, and the Hebrew syntax of verse 2b is ultimately ambiguous.
3 Alexander Gourlay, “A Glossary of Terms, Names, and Concepts in Blake,” in The Cambridge Companion to William Blake (ed. Morris Eaves; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 272-87.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Mark Tranvik

There is much confusion in our congregations about “judgment.”

Preachers shoulder a good deal of responsibility for this state of affairs.  We seldom speak of judgment (particularly the “last judgment”) even though our people are reminded of this theme regularly in worship-both in the Scripture readings and in the words of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed. Also, some Christians take the words “do not judge so that you may be judged” to mean that there should not be any judging whatsoever. Thus the guiding rule of life is to be “nice” at all costs, even if it means ignoring behavior that is harmful to the community. On the opposite end are those who are consumed by a judgmental attitude. These self-appointed critics wreak havoc with their harsh words, possessing a righteousness that is nothing less than mean. It seems we could use some help sorting out the various meanings of the word “judgment.”

The church at Corinth was also wrestling with the issue of judgment. Some of it became personal when they challenged Paul’s leadership role in the church (4:3). In response, Paul frames the issue within a much larger horizon. He reminds the community that they are living in between the times. Not only has Christ come, he is coming again. Christ’s return has significant implications for how the community acts in the present and thinks about the future. In our text we can glean at least three lessons on judgment from Paul:

You can’t judge yourself.
In a remarkable statement, Paul declares scoffs at the criticism of the Corinthian church, declaring that “it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you” and then goes on to say “I do not even judge myself” (4:3). It has become commonplace to assert that the typical male sin is arrogance while females struggle more with self-worth. I am not sure it is that easy to break down into gender categories, but there are large numbers of people in our congregations who are extremely hard on themselves. They are convinced that they are not smart enough or not thin enough. In general, they live on the edge of shame, secretly harboring the conviction that they must be some kind of divine mistake. And there are others who so stuck on themselves that they are unbearable to be around.

Paul’s dismissal of our ability to accurately judge ourselves can be liberating. He insists we simply lack the lenses to gain an objective picture of who we are. In the Bible, the truth about ourselves only emerges from our relationship with God. We cannot get an accurate picture on our own because we tend to over or under estimate. Like Paul, it is the Lord who judges us (4:4). That may mean we need reminding that we are fundamentally here because God wants us here-we are created in God’s image. Or for some it entails hearing that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Judgment must be leavened with love.
The notion that Christians should not be judgmental of others is completely unrealistic. It would be harmful if followed literally. There is a sense in which Christians must not judge, but that has to do with our eternal destiny and not with how we are to conduct ourselves in our life together. We will deal with this “eternal” dimension in the next point.

It is obvious that Paul feels it is important to judge matters here on earth. After all, most of his letter to the church at Corinth is taken up with criticism of their actions!  But we need to pay attention to the way that Paul “judges” the church. The guiding norm for him is the love that has been revealed in Jesus Christ (12:31). This love is not sentimental, based on feelings or emotions. It is rather a love that has been forged in the crucible of a crucifixion. Its goal is not self-glorification (1:13) but rather the building up of the community.

In the name of this love Paul can utter harsh judgments about lawsuits, sexual morality, and conduct at the Lord’s Supper. However, at the same time Paul can say this church is holy (1:2) and he even identifies it with God’s temple (3:16). Paul’s judgments of the community at Corinth are not mean to drive people away but to encourage them to reflect the fact that they are the body of Christ (12:27).

Our judge has been judged.
As already mentioned, there is also a wider horizon within which Paul is operating. Beyond the necessary judging that takes place on the earthly level, Paul also reminds us that there is a Day coming when the Lord will return and “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God” (4:5).

There can be little doubt that Paul saw a day of judgment coming in the future (see Romans 2:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:10). For many of us this day of judgment has been imagined as a time of terror and doom. Michelangelo’s great painting in the Sistine Chapel in Rome remains the enduring image: Christ coming at the end of time and separating the saved from the damned.

However, Paul does not seem to share the feelings of dread and despair that accompany many Christian reflections on the second coming of Christ. It is true, as it says in our text, that God “will bring to light things now hidden” (4:5). All of our secrets will be revealed. That might be a cause for fear and trembling, but it is noteworthy that Paul does not regard the last day with trepidation. Rather, there is a buoyant confidence that God will strengthen his saints to end, so that they might be blameless (1:8) as they are met by Christ.

What is going on here? Paul’s confidence is rooted in the fact that they end of time is in the hands of one who was crucified for his sins. The coming judge himself has been judged: “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Christ coming to meet us has already died our death. No songs of doom on the last day. There is joy in the air as earthly shadows give way to a blinding light.