Lectionary Commentaries for March 9, 2011
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

David Lose

There is perhaps no worship occasion in the Christian calendar where the ritual practice and the appointed Scriptures seem to clash more profoundly than Ash Wednesday.

After all, no sooner do we finish hearing Jesus tell his disciples that when they fast they should not only avoid marking their faces but actually clean them then we walk forward to have our faces disfigured with the mark of the cross traced in ash across our foreheads.

Three Activities, One Goal
So what’s going on? Is Jesus’ condemning the very actions we engage in on Ash Wednesday? Actually, no. In fact, we miss the force of Jesus’ comments all together if we think they are aimed at these spiritual practices. Rather, Jesus is speaking of the disposition of the heart and, in particular, the goal or, as Jesus says, the “reward” the practitioner seeks.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes up three of the most important religious practices in the Judaism of his day: giving alms (contributions to those in need), prayer, and fasting. In each case, Jesus begins his comments with the formula of “whenever you…” as an introduction to instructions of both what not to do and what to do. (The lectionary in this case helpfully leaves aside the Lord’s Prayer so that we may focus on what originally was most likely a trio of sayings.)

In each case, it is not the practice itself that is critiqued, but rather the goal of the practitioner to be noticed by his or her peers. This desire to be seen, to receive the approbation and affirmation of those nearby, is what defiles an otherwise holy act. Thus, the contrast is between performing the action in a way that draws attention from ones peers rather than in a way that honors God and seeks only God’s approval. In each case, therefore, Jesus asserts that when you give alms, pray, or fast with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward…and all of your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, as it only feeds one’s desire and need to “be seen” by one’s neighbors. Such practices should, in contrast, flow from a devotion to God that is expressed by caring for neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded.

Being Seen
Which brings us to what may be a key element in this passage, though it is often overlooked: seeing. This passage is littered with the verb and its derivatives, as it appears more than a half dozen times in a relatively short space. Hypocrites — literally, actors, “those who put on a face” — engage in pious activities for play, for attention, in order that others may see them (and presumably admire them) rather than from a sincere desire to engage in the activities for their own sake. In contrast, Jesus lifts up the possibility of being seen by God. (In this case, “in secret” is not so much about mystery as it indicates a private rather than public domain.)

So what’s so important about being seen? Well, to be seen is not simply to be noticed, but to matter, to count, to have one’s sense of self validated in the eyes of another. The temptation Jesus urges us to avoid might thereby be understood as the urge to allow others to determine our worth and validity. When we fall prey to such a temptation, our reward indeed is to be noticed and affirmed by those around us. But it is a fickle reward and leaves us dependent on the whim and will of others. Therefore Jesus urges that we look to the Creator whose gaze is not only steadfast but life-giving. Notice: nowhere in the text does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen, to matter, to be noticed and counted as worthy. Rather, Jesus urges us to place our trust and confidence in God, the one who is not impressed by outward shows of piety but sees, weighs, and notices even the secret places of the heart.

At the center of this passage, then, is a promise: God sees us. God notices us. God accords us divine attention and pronounces us worthy of God’s care and concern. Rooted in the authentic assurance our relationship with God gives us, we can therefore engage in spiritual practices whole-heartedly, not hoping to achieve the approval of others or even of God, but confident that God’s approval has already been given. More than that, we can offer our lives as testimony to the One who accords us worth and dignity in the first place, as Jesus instructed just verses earlier: “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and glorify your father in heaven” (5:16).

Can the ashes imposed at the beginning of Lent be twisted into public displays of piety in an attempt to be noticed and admired by others? Certainly, as little that we do cannot be. But keep in mind that they were never intended as marks of piety. Rather, they are reminders of our mortality, as when the cross is traced in ash across our foreheads we simultaneously hear the words, “From dust you came; to dust you shall return.” Faced with the stark reminder of both our mortality and our absolute dependence on God’s mercy and grace, we may actually be better prepared to hear again and believe Jesus’ promise that God, who created light from darkness and gives life to the dead, sees us…and loves us to the end.

First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Dennis Olson

Ash Wednesday  begins the 40-day journey of Lent with a gathering of the community to confess our sins, to remind ourselves of our mortality and frailty, and to hear the call to repentance or turning around from our sinful ways.

It is a day for telling the hard truth about who we deep down really are. The themes of confession of sin and seeking repentance are often understood by our congregants as quite personal and individual. Certainly that is one dimension of Ash Wednesday. However, the reading from Joel 2 lifts our eyes as well to the broader communal, national, and even global dimensions of our collective sin as congregations, communities, nations, and the world.   

The Movement of the Book of Joel as a Whole
In preparation for preaching from Joel, chapter 2, it may be helpful to do a quick read through the whole book (only three chapters!).  The reader will get a sense of the dramatic imagery, the striking shifts in tone and mood, and the role of Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 in light of the movement of the whole book.   The book does not contain a characteristic dating formula, but most scholars would place it in the late post-exilic period after the re-building of the temple (around 400 BCE).

1:1-4 The book begins with an urgent call to pass on the story of the unprecedented disaster that has come upon the land so that the story and its lessons can be remembered from generation to generation (1:2-3). The disaster is named in 1:4:  an incredible swarm of locusts or grasshoppers have invaded the land and stripped it bare of all vegetation (vineyards, orchards, pasture lands — 1:7, 12, 19-20) so that food is scarce, animals are suffering, and no grain is available to even make offerings to God at the temple (1:5, 10, 11, 17, 18, 20). 

1:5-2-17  This is the section that contains the Ash Wednesday reading.  Here the focus is on the locust plague and the community’s interpretation and response to it.  The section begins with a call to “gather the people for fasting and prayer” (1:5-14) because “the day of the LORD is near” (1:15-20).  As a concluding refrain, the section ends with a description of the coming day of the LORD (2:1-11) and another call to gather the people for fasting and prayer (2:12-17). 

The community discerns that the disaster is of such severity that it is a sign that the judgment of the day of the LORD is coming soon, and it will bring even greater destruction than what they have endured thus far.  As a result, the community gathers for fasting and prayer.  Who knows (2:14)?  Perhaps the LORD will be merciful and spare us!  That is the hope but there is no presumptive guarantee. 

2:18-32  The mood changes as God has apparently heard the prayers and accepted the people’s repentance. The locust plague has ended, and God promises a bountiful harvest (2:18-27).  

Then the time horizon seems to lengthen to a more distant future and God promises to pour out God’s spirit “on all flesh” — men and women, young and old, slave and free — at a time when “the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” (2:28-32). What has happened recently becomes a paradigm for a future time.

3:1-21  The final chapter continues to look toward a far distant future when all the nations will be judged (3:1-12), but God’s faithful people will be rescued on the day of the LORD (3:13-17).  The nations will be judged for their violence, but Judah and Jerusalem will live in peace (3:18-21).

The whole book of Joel thus holds together both an intense acknowledgement of the sin of God’s own people for which they must repent and the sin of the other nations and powers that threaten the wellbeing and peace of God’s people.  Natural disasters and the violence of war among the nations interact with one another throughout the book of Joel.

Reflections on Joel 2:1-2, 17-21
1) The day of the LORD is coming, and that may not necessarily be good news, at least initially.  There will be a reckoning, a judgment, and consequences of our communal sin (2:1-2).

2) God calls God’s people to return to God.  The assumption is that God’s own people have turned elsewhere to follow other gods or powers which is what has brought on the current devastations.  But this return to God must be “with all your heart” and marked by “fasting,…weeping…and mourning.”  This is no surface repentance but one that cuts to the core of our bodies, our emotions, and our spirit (2:12).

3) The call to return to the LORD is grounded first of all in the character of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” and who “relents from punishing.”  These words represent an ancient and much used core confession of the character of God that one finds at many points in the OT (for example, Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:15).  God has revealed this consistent character repeatedly throughout Israel’s history.

4) Although God is gracious and merciful, the community of God’s people cannot presume that God will automatically forgive or save.  How God responds remains God’s prerogative.  “Who knows” whether God will relent and leave a blessing (2:14)?

5) The matter is urgent.  The community is called to gather by the blast of the trumpet that interrupts their routines and demands that they come together to fast and repent.  The call to gather is so urgent that even the bride and the groom should interrupt their wedding night to join the assembly.  Now that is urgent!

6) The text concludes with the ministerial prayer of intercession, asking God to “spare your people” from pain and persecution in the face of those who mock them and ask, “Where is their God?”  In short, the text of Joel provides the blueprint for an Ash Wednesday service — a liturgy of fasting and a broken spirit, a confession of sin, a seeking of God’s forgiveness, urgent prayers of intercession, and a return to the long line of God’s people who have read and enacted the liturgical movement embedded within the present book of Joel.  Tracing its steps is like walking a Lenten labyrinth, cleansing the soul and returning us to remember who we really are and who our God truly is.  Let the journey begin!


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

James Limburg

Our brothers and sisters in the faith before us have provided two important keys for unlocking this psalm.

First, there is the heading that says, “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” Supplied by the editors of the Book of Psalms, these headings often point the way to interpreting and applying the psalm. In this case, the heading is saying, “Imagine this as the sort of prayer that David prayed after being convicted of his sins by the prophet Nathan” (2 Samuel 11 and 12). We begin by recalling that story.

The story begins innocently enough: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle…” (2 Samuel 11:1). But this time the king is staying home. The onetime slingshotting, swashbuckling, songwriting soldier is sitting this one out.

And then late one afternoon it happens. The old warrior is bored with the soaps and talk shows and takes a stroll out onto the veranda. But wait a minute! He notices a woman, a “very beautiful woman” says the Hebrew text, taking a dip in the pool next door.

Then the former man of action goes into action. A couple of calls gives him the woman’s name and reveals that her husband is away with the army. The king sends for Bathsheba and she comes to the palace. They have a few gin and tonics. They make love. Then she goes home, and that’s that.

A few months later, there’s a message for the king. David opens the envelope and reads it. Two words in Hebrew: harah anoki. “I’m pregnant. Bathsheba” Again, the king acts. To account for the pregnancy he brings her husband back from the front. “Go home and sleep with your lovely wife,” he says to him, slipping the soldier a bottle from the royal wine cellar. But Uriah refuses the offer and instead sleeps with the servants out on the lovely lawn.

The plot thickens and the story sickens. The king orders General Joab to put Uriah where the fighting is heaviest. Word comes that Uriah has been killed in action. The king does a magnanimous thing. He marries this broken-hearted war widow.

End of the story? Not quite. One day the prophet Nathan shows up at the palace. He tells the king about a rich man who has stolen a poor man’s only lamb and slaughtered it for dinner. The king is enraged. “What? Who is this guy? Tell me, and we’ll royally nail him!”

“You’re the guy!” says Nathan. David is devastated. And this psalm, says our heading, is the sort of prayer that fits such a situation. When there’s big time trouble, you call in Psalm 51.

In verses 1 — 5, the psalm begins with a cry for forgiveness, emphasizing the urgency of the situation with a series of imperative verbs: have mercy, blot out, wash, and cleanse. The picture behind the Hebrew word translated “transgressions” in verses 1, 3, and 13, is one of rebellion, as when children rebel against parents (see also Isaiah 1:2). The literal sense of the Hebrew translated “iniquity” (verses 2, 9) is “to be bent out of shape.” For example, in Psalm 38:6, the Jewish Publication Society Bible gives the translation “I am all bent.” The word translated “sin” (Hebrew hata’ in verses 2, 3, 4, 9) or “sinner” (5 and 13) in non-theological contexts means “to miss the target.” Judges 20:16 tells of 700 left-handed sling-shotters who could “sling a stone at a hair and not miss (hata’).”
Balancing these words for sin are three Hebrew picture-words for forgiveness. The Hebrew translated “blot out” in verse 1 is also used to “wipe” a dirty dish (2 Kings 21:13). To “wash” in verses 2 and 7 could better be translated “scrub,” as one scrubs dirty clothes (Exodus 19:10, 14). “Cleanse” in verse 2 and “be clean” in verse 7 is the same word used for washing clothes in a river (Leviticus 13:6, 34, 58).

Verses 6 — 12 offer another request for forgiveness. The verb “create” (verse 10) in the Hebrew Bible always has God as its subject, and the result of the activity is always something entirely new (see Genesis 1, for example). The psalmist is praying for a brand new beginning, a fresh start, a new, clean spirit.

In verses 13 — 17, the one praying looks forward to being happy and right with God once again (verses 8, 11-12). Once he/she experiences the joy of being forgiven, he/she vows to witness and teach others about it and sing and praise God (verses 13-15). In verses 16 and 17 the psalmist says, “The sort of sacrifice the Lord desires is not something I bring as an offering. Rather, the Lord wants me, broken spirit, broken heart and all” (see also Micah 6:6-8).

Toward Counseling and Preaching: What Can You Do With a Broken Heart?
Every pastor knows that this is one of those psalms that can reach into the depths of a difficult situation. I recall a college student telling me about the sad breakup with his girlfriend. I suggested that he read through some of the psalms. The next week he showed up, bringing his Bible, with passages from the psalms marked in red. “These words were speaking right to me!” he said. Among the texts marked was Psalm 51: 17 about the broken heart.

I also remember listening as a man related an incredible story of his unfaithfulness and adultery. When we prayed together, it was Psalm 51 that I reached for.

Lastly, the second interpretive key from church tradition is the fact that this prayer, “Create in me a clean heart” from Psalm 51, has long been a part of the church’s weekly worship. For example, in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, four hymn settings of verses 10-12 are available as options for each of ten worship settings (see ELW pages 106, 128 and hymns 185-188).

Thus Psalm 51 is a prayer for individuals in distress, but it is also a prayer for the community on Ash Wednesday and for the worship of God’s People each week.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Lucy Lind Hogan

“It’s time to go,” Paul calls, “now is the acceptable time.”

Lent is about a journey, the journey to the cross and ultimately to Resurrection and new life. Lent is about Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem and our walk with him. The church, in its wisdom, gives us a time to make that journey and a particular date on which to begin, Ash Wednesday.

We need to hear his call, this reminder. If it was up to us to begin the journey toward reconciliation on our own terms, for what we considered an acceptable time, I suspect that we would never begin. Jesus warned us about that. Jesus told us about the excuses people gave for not accepting God’s call. They had to plow fields, care for sick and aging parents. They had to bury the dead. All good excuses, but excuses nonetheless.

So, here we are, starting off, with hesitant, tentative steps. But why give us this text as we begin? Do we really want, when it is so easy to turn back and quit, to hear from Paul what his journey was like and what might lie ahead on our journey? I can assure you that women, in the excitement of the first few weeks of pregnancy, do not want to hear what labor and delivery are like.
God’s Ambassador
What we describe as the Second Letter to the Corinthians is really a collection of fragments, parts of various letters that have been pieced together into one, not always eloquent or elegant, whole. Paul seems frustrated and concerned that the new Christians at Corinth are fighting amongst themselves and rejecting what he taught. He wants to remind them that they are not rejecting him, Paul, as much as they are rejecting God and the grace that has been given to them. He is only the messenger, the ambassador. They heard his voice, his words appealing and entreating. But it was God who was “making his appeal through us.”

Paul then reminds them of all that he had gone through to be a servant of God. He offers a long list of ways that he, Paul, has commended or offered himself to others in the service of God.  He writes of his hardships and beatings, imprisonments, sleepless nights, and hunger. To use contemporary language, Paul is offering us his resumé, his ambassadorial credentials. And he has been willing to endure all of that so that people would hear that God wants to be reconciled to them.

The reconciliation for which we strive for on our Lenten journey does not come about because we have worked hard or taken those first steps. No, Paul is telling us that reconciliation comes by and through God. God has declared this the acceptable time. God has declared this is the day, these are the forty days, if you will, of salvation.

We are Alive
Do you think that Paul, sitting in Damascus, speaking with Ananias, had any idea of what awaited him in the years to come? Do you think that he knew what it would mean to be an ambassador for Christ? Yet it seems that in those years that followed, no matter what happened to him, he persevered. He kept on his journey and this letter nearly glows with joy. No matter what people said or did to him; no matter how terrible it got, he continued on.

I am fascinated by the lists Paul offers. There are actually three different lists in just six verses. The first is a list of all of the things that Paul did to live out his call to bring God and God’s people back together. This opening list tells us of all of the terrible things that he had to endure. What are we to do with this list of potential terrors? I think that I prefer Matthew’s admonition to pray, fast, and give alms properly. I can pray, fast, and write a check. I am not sure about beatings, imprisonment and hunger.

Next, Paul gives us a list of the ways that he interacted with people; those who welcomed him and those who rejected him. This is a list of behaviors. But it is more than just a code of conduct for one who would be an ambassador for Christ. Paul seems to be telling us that these were the things that got him through. Holiness of speech, genuine love, and truthful speech are wonderful things for which to strive for during our Lenten journey. 

Finally, Paul offers us a syncristic list; contrasting the way he was perceived and treated by women and men with the reality of who he knew he was in the sight of God. Those in power may have accused him of being an impostor, but he always knew that his message was the true good news of God. And in these contrasting descriptions of his experiences he challenges us to see that, even though the powerful try to ignore, punish, or even kill us, through the power of God we are able to rejoice in the knowledge that we possess everything, the righteousness of God.

The Acceptable Time
“It’s time to go,” Paul calls, “now is the acceptable time.” It is time to set off on our journey as servants of God. With Paul’s witness before us we know that we can face whatever hardships, stumbling blocks, adversities, or discouragement we face along the way. For in the end we know that we will, like Paul, be reconciled to the God who has reached out to us.