Lectionary Commentaries for March 13, 2011
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11

David Lose

Temptation, seduction, betrayal…

Taglines of a new Hollywood blockbuster? No, just an overview of the biblical readings appointed for the first Sunday in Lent! From the Genesis story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, through Paul’s exploration of how Jesus functions as a “second Adam,” to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, these readings cut to the chase of what it is to be human.

Matthew’s Portrayal
Although four of the five Sundays in Lent in the year of Matthew are inexplicably made up of passages from John’s gospel, Lent 1 draws us to Matthew’s vivid portrayal of Jesus’ temptation that sets the stage for much of what is to come in this gospel as well as the season of Lent.

While the temptation of Jesus is referenced in Mark briefly, the scene is considerably fleshed out in Luke and Matthew, suggesting a common source that each redacted to suit larger narrative purposes. Matthew, for instance, portrays Jesus as fasting as a righteous Jew should. He also has a different ordering of the Tempter’s trials, placing the temptation to worship Satan as the culminating episode in the scene, one that calls for Jesus not just to reject the specific temptation, but the Tempter himself.

Taken together, the three rejected temptations not only demonstrate that Jesus is righteous according to the law but also prove his identity as God’s divine and beloved son. Indeed, Satan’s temptations get immediately to the core question of Jesus’ identity, calling into question his relationship with God by beginning with the provocative, “If you are the Son of God….” This relationship, announced just verses early at his baptism, is now confirmed through Jesus’ unswerving trust in God.

Individually, each temptation invites Jesus to turn away from trust in God in a different way. In the first, the devil invites Jesus to prove his sonship through a display of power; that is, by establishing his validity and worth through his own abilities. In the second, the temptation is to test God’s fidelity. In the third — more an out-and-out bribe than temptation — Jesus is promised all the power and glory the earth can offer if he will give his allegiance and devotion to the Tempter. In each case, Jesus rejects the temptation and lodges his identity, future, and fortunes on God’s character and trustworthiness.

Narrative Echoes
There is little question that the source Matthew and Luke depend upon has in mind the story of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. Jesus is in the wilderness for forty days, just as the Israelites were for forty years. When tested, Jesus replies with Scriptural affirmations taken from Old Testament passages referencing the time in the wilderness. In this sense, Jesus repeats the trials set before Israel as he is about to commence his public ministry. Jut as Israel emerged from their wanderings chastened, purified, and ready to inherit God’s blessings and promises, so also Jesus emerges from his trials confirmed in his identity and purified and strengthened for his awaiting mission.

Where Israel wandered as punishment for mistrust, however, Jesus fasts and is tempted in order to prove his trust in God and thereby his trustworthiness for the journey ahead. In this way, this scene not only links Jesus to the past of his ancestors, it marks him as superior to them and ready to inaugurate a new era in the ongoing history of God and the people of God.

While this allusion to Israel’s history provides an important launch pad for Matthew’s story of Jesus, the lectionary suggests another Scriptural echo: the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. In some ways, this may prove the more interesting connection as it gets to the core of what it means to be human.

Adam and Eve — and it is crucial to note that while Eve is the one who speaks, both are present throughout the scene (Genesis 3:6) — are similarly invited to mistrust God. Interestingly, the serpent doesn’t actually lie to Adam and Eve — they do not die; they do become more like God as God acknowledges. Rather, the serpent calls into question God’s trustworthiness by suggesting that there is more to the story than God let on. In this way the serpent sows the seeds of mistrust, inviting Adam and Eve to fulfill the deep want and need that is at the core of being human not through their relationship with God but by seizing the fruit that is in front of them. It is the temptation to be self-sufficient, to establish their identity on their own, that seduces the first humans.

Identity is again the focus of the Tempter in the scene of Jesus’ temptation. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan begins. In other words, “How do you know you are God’s Son?” Hence the core of the temptation: “Wouldn’t it be better to know for certain? Turn stone to bread, jump from the Temple, worship me…and you will never know doubt again. You will know. You will be sufficient on your own.” The temptation is the same, but Jesus responds by refusing to establish his own worth and identity on his own terms but instead remains dependent on God. Jesus knows who he is, that is, by remembering whose he is.

Might it be that a part of being human is being aware that we are insufficient, that we are not complete in and of ourselves, that lack is a permanent part of our condition? To be human, in other words, is to be aware that we carry inside ourselves a hole, an emptiness that we will always be restless to fill. Adam and Eve behold the fruit and conclude in a heartbeat that their hole is shaped just like that fruit. Yet after they eat, the emptiness remains. Today we might imagine that hole to be shaped just like a new car, or computer, or better house, or the perfect spouse.

But after laboring and sacrificing and obtaining these things, the emptiness remains. Blaise Pascal once described this essential condition of humanity as having a “God-shaped hole,” and this is what Jesus demonstrates. There is no filling of that gap, no permanent erasing that hole, except in and through our relationship with God. Or, as Augustine said, we humans are always restless until we rest in God.

Yet that, also, isn’t quite the full picture. To be Christian is not to have that hole, that need, that awareness of finitude erased once and for all. Rather, to be human is to accept that we are, finally, created for relationship with God and with each other. Perhaps the goal of the life of faith isn’t to escape limitation but to discover God amid our needs and learn, with Paul, that God’s grace is sufficient for us.

Perhaps faith, that is, doesn’t do away with the hardships that are part and parcel of this life, but rather gives us the courage to stand amid them, not simply surviving but actually flourishing in and through Jesus, the one who was tempted as we are and thereby knows our struggles first hand. This same Jesus now invites us to find both hope and courage in the God who named not only him, but all of us, beloved children so that we, also, might discover who we are be recalling whose we are.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Dennis Olson

The Old Testament lectionary texts for the six Sundays of Lent each year typically touch on selected high points in the story of God and Israel.

How a Preacher Might Approach the Old Testament Texts for Lent This Year
Thus, the preacher has an opportunity to walk a congregation through the “grand narrative” of the Old Testament.   This year’s series of Old Testament Lenten texts moves from
1) the story of the “fall” in Genesis 2-3 to
2) God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 12 to
3) Israel in the wilderness in Exodus 17 to
4) the election of David as king in 1 Samuel 16 to
5) the exile and promise of a communal resurrection in Ezekiel 37, and 6) the portrait of God’s suffering servant in the prophetic book of Isaiah, chapter 50 (Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday).

Another feature of the lectionary texts for Lent this year is an unusually strong set of interrelationships between the Old Testament and Gospel lessons for each Sunday in terms of theme, imagery, and action.  Therefore, another preaching strategy for Lent may be a series of dialogical sermons bringing together both the Old Testament and Gospel texts, allowing each text its integrity and then bringing them into conversation.

Wrongheaded Assumptions about Genesis 2-3 
This Sunday’s Old Testament text from Genesis 2-3 highlights what is traditionally known as the “fall,” the Bible’s first temptation and act of disobedience by the human man and woman in the garden of Eden.  The popular conception of the garden of Eden story often includes elements of the following assumptions:

  • God created an absolutely perfect and static world
  • humans lived in a luxurious paradise with no responsibilities
  • the evil serpent is a Satan figure who brings evil into God’s perfect creation the woman alone succumbed to temptation and so she alone is responsible for bringing sin into the world (see the questionable exegesis of Genesis 3 in 1 Timothy 2:11-14)
  • the central aim of Genesis 3 is to explain how evil came into God’s perfect creation.

Offering a More Faithful Reading of Genesis 2-3 
A careful reading of Genesis 2-3, however, would undermine or nuance each of these assumptions.  Let’s examine each assumption in turn.
1) God does indeed create a “good” world but not a “perfect” world in the sense of a closed, static, and totally divinely-controlled universe 
In the Genesis 1 creation story, God repeatedly calls creation “good” (Genesis 1:4, 12, 21, 25, 31).  But the primeval “deep” or “waters” which were understood as the source of evil and chaos in the world in ancient times did not disappear with God’s creation.  God’s ruach (“wind, breath, spirit”) swept over them and pushed the waters of chaos back behind the “dome” that formed the sky and also under the earth (Genesis 1:1-6).  Evil and chaos thus continue to lurk at the margins of creation and can come rushing back as in the story of Noah and the flood, if God allows it (Genesis 7:11; 8:2). 

Moreover, God invites humans and other elements in the creation to exercise responsibility and stewardship over creation (Genesis 1:26-28).  In the creation story in Genesis 2, God’s process of creating is open and dynamic.  After creating the human and the garden, God discovers a problem: “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  So God creates the wide variety of animals and invites the man to name them.  The animals may help with the loneliness problem, but something is still missing (Genesis 2:20).  Thus, God tries another strategy and creates a woman from man, and that solution does seem to work (Genesis 2:23).  But the impression is that God’s creating activity is a work in process from the beginning, not a “perfect” world in the sense of a fully-formed, static and pristine universe.

2) In the Genesis 2 creation story, the human has work and responsibility from the very beginning 
God places the man in the garden “to till it and to keep it.”  This is no Caribbean vacation in paradise!  From the beginning, humans are made for a regular rhythm of doing work that has meaning and purpose for the good of creation along with regular periods of sabbath rest and enjoyment (Genesis 2:2-3).  While there is great freedom for the human (“you may freely eat from any tree”), the garden also contains one boundary that restricts the human.  God decrees the first biblical law (eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil [or bad/pain) and the consequence of breaking the law (immediate and certain death “in the day…you shall die [the Hebrew is emphatic–you shall surely die!]” (Genesis 2:17).

3) In its original OT context, the serpent in Genesis 3 is not Satan who invades God’s creation from the outside 
The serpent is a very clever and talkative (!) animal “that the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1).  The serpent is one of God’s own creatures who simply poses some questions and alternative explanations concerning God’s motivations in creation for the humans to consider.  At any point in the conversation, the humans could have told the serpent that he was full of it and to please go and bother someone else.  But there was something already in the human that resonated to the hermeneutics of suspicion that the serpent offered as one option for interpreting the words and actions of God. 

4) Often the scene of the temptation in Eden is portrayed as the woman standing alone with the serpent, but a careful reading suggests that the man was likely present all along 
The scene is of one piece:  the serpent and the woman engage in conversation, she takes and eats the fruit, and she gives the fruit to “her husband, who was with her” all along!  God had earlier observed that “it was not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Likewise, in Genesis 3, it was not good that the woman should be alone in fending off the serpent’s temptations and suspicions about God’s motivation for restricting the humans’ access to the forbidden fruit. 

The man failed to speak up, to speak out, and to join the woman in an alliance against the serpent’s attempt to appeal to the suspicions and yearnings that somehow were already within the humans’ heart.  This is a story of human disobedience and rebellion against God, not a story of the woman who alone was tempted and who alone was responsible for sin entering into the world (contra 1 Timothy 2 :11-14).

5) The central aim of Genesis 3 is to describe the mystery of sin, not to explain its origin 
Sin is a mysterious force that arises from within God’s “good” creation.  The serpent is simply one of God’s creatures.  And the yearnings and suspicions of the humans about God’s motivations are somehow already embedded within the human heart from the beginning and simply needed the encouragement of the serpent to bring them out and convert them into action.

Thus, Genesis 3 is less about “explaining” the origin of sin and more about describing the reality of what it is to be human and our mysterious human tendencies continually to rebel against God, to resist the gracious boundaries and limitations that God places around us for our own good, and to desire to be like God rather than thankful creatures of God.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 32

Cameron B.R. Howard

In Christian tradition, Psalm 32 has long been classified as one of the seven “penitential psalms,” which are often read during the liturgical season of Lent.

As a season of repentance, discipline, and preparation, Lent brings themes of sin, confession, and redemption to the forefront of our thinking. Reflecting on Psalm 32 is particularly appropriate for this first week of Lent, as this text provides instruction on the means and results of confession. The psalmist testifies to the relief, both physical and spiritual, that came to him when he confessed his sin to the Lord, and the Lord forgave him.

The many changes of address in this psalm, combined with the three uses of the mysterious but probably musical term “selah,” remind us of the liturgical foundation of the psalms.  We can imagine that this poem was sung, perhaps with alternating voices, as part of a worship experience in ancient Israel or Judah. The opening verses lay out the theme for the rest of the psalm: forgiveness yields happiness. They serve as declarative wisdom sayings. The beginnings of verses 1 and 2, “Happy are those…,” recall the wisdom phrases bracketing Psalms 1 and 2 as the introduction to the Psalter.

In fact, the relationship between those psalms and Psalm 32 is complementary. As J. Clinton McCann, Jr., points out, “By defining happiness in terms of forgiveness, Psalm 32 functions as an important check against any tendency to misunderstand Psalm 1. That is, to be righteous is not a matter of being sinless but a matter of being forgiven, of being open to God’s instruction (Psalm 1:2; see 32:8-9), and of trusting God rather than self (verse 10; see Psalm 2:12).”1

In verses 3-7, the psalmist addresses God in a prayer that also serves as instructive testimony for his listeners. Silence had brought him suffering; confession brought forgiveness, and with it, relief (verses 3-5). What he has learned from his experience, and what he wishes to share, is that the faithful should turn to God in times of suffering in order to find deliverance (verses 6-7).

The voice of the psalm then shifts from addressing God in the voice of a supplicant to addressing the pupil in the voice of a teacher (verses 8-9). The identity of the first-person speaker is unclear. Perhaps God is speaking to the psalmist; perhaps a teacher is speaking to the psalmist; perhaps the psalmist himself is a teacher addressing a student. I find the latter possibility most compelling, as it fits well with the testimonial nature of verses 3-7. In any case, though, the didactic motivations of the psalm come into full view in verses 8-9.

Like any good teacher, the speaker makes an analogy to something the student already knows well in order to illustrate the concept she or he is trying to communicate. “Do not be like a horse or a mule,” says the teacher (verse 9). Discipline of those animals, so that they might follow in the right path, requires physical restraint. They lack understanding. The pupil, on the other hand, has the opportunity for understanding, if only the pupil will be surrender to the tutelage of the speaker.

This metaphor of the stubborn horse or mule contrasted with the obedient student is helpful for us today as well, especially as students of scripture entering into the season of Lent. We are called to be renewed, even intensified discipline throughout these forty days. That discipline is not something that can be forced upon us with bit or bridle, but is rather something we must submit to freely. It is popular these days to think of Lent as a time to take on a new spiritual practice rather than simply give up a vice, and this psalm helps us in that embrace of new habits. Perhaps we will begin a new discipline of daily study of the Bible, or perhaps we will reinvigorate our daily prayer lives. Whatever practices Lent brings to us, we should submit to them with the joy of those who are being instructed in the gladness brought on by God’s forgiveness.

Psalm 32 ends similarly to the way it begins: with an address to the general audience, declaring a wisdom saying (verse 10). The very last verse, though, is neither instruction nor testimony, but rather a quick series of three exhortations: “Be glad!” “Rejoice!” “Shout for joy!” Joy is not an emotion often associated with Lent, when we silence our Alleluias until Easter. But this psalm, which at its heart is about the uncomfortable topics of sin and confession, begins and ends with references to happiness, not misery. To acknowledge and repent of sin is to receive God’s forgiveness. There is no response but joy, even in the somber season of Lent! During Lent, we await Jesus’ death, but we also await his resurrection. Even now, sin gives way to forgiveness. Death gives way to life. God’s steadfast love continues to surround us (verse 10).

The psalmist’s testimony continues to instruct us today: silence is death-dealing, but confession gives life. God forgives. In response to the grace we have received, we submit ourselves willingly to the disciplined study of how best to follow God, rejoicing continually in gratitude for the love poured out upon us.


Notes

  1. J. Clinton McCann, Jr. New Interpreter’s Bible 4:805.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:12-19

Lucy Lind Hogan

For the next few weeks we will be reading portions of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

This letter is significantly different from the other epistles. It was not a community Paul had established. Nevertheless, he wrote with the goal of creating unity out of the conflict between the various already established communities. Whether or not he achieved his goal we do not know, but we do know that this letter has had a profound effect on church leaders throughout the centuries.

When Augustine heard a child chanting “tolle lege,” take up and read, it was the 13th chapter of Romans that he took up. With that, he records, he was converted. While writing his lectures on Romans, Martin Luther writes that he felt as though his life had begun anew. In the letter, Paul’s message of justification, faith, and grace entirely changed his understanding of God and the church. So much so that Luther thought that all Christians should memorize the letter. John Wesley and Karl Barth also record that their profound life changes rest in their encounters with Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

As people set off on their Lenten journeys, many pray that this may be a time in which their lives may begin anew and that profound changes will take place. What is the word of grace we might hear in this portion of Paul’s letter as we take up and read?

Context
To describe the Christian community in Rome at the middle of the first century as diverse is an understatement. There were both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Some felt Christians should continue to observe all of the Jewish laws.  Others thought Christians should observe some laws, but not all; while still others thought that there was no longer any reason for Christians to be circumcised, follow the food laws, or observe the feasts. Although Paul had not been to Rome there were probably people in the churches who knew Paul and ascribed to his theological position. Therefore, unlike the other epistles that often address issues and conflicts within a specific Pauline community, this epistle is written to request their prayers and assistance in his ministry but more importantly to present them with the gospel; his understanding of who Jesus was and how the death and resurrection of Christ had brought about a new creation. While the book of Romans may open and close as a letter, in reality, it is in this book that Paul presents his most sustained and complete theology.

Source of Sin
Paul understood that a crucial part of our Christian journey is honesty with God and with ourselves. We must be willing to admit that we have sinned and fallen short of being the person God would have us be. Later in the epistle Paul confesses openly that, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). The question for Paul and for us is why. Why do we sin? Why do we fall short? Most of us do not wake up in the morning and declare, “Well, how many sins can I commit today? How many people can I hurt?” Nevertheless, Paul tells us, that is just what we do.

Sin, doing those things we hate, Paul explains, regrettably and unavoidably is part of who we are. It is not that some people will sin while others will not. All of us live lives marked by sin and death. And we must trace the source of that sin and death to the very first person, Adam.

Shaped by God “from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), made in the image of God, it was through this one man that sin came into the world. Because of the disobedience of the first Adamah, ground being, all beings who came after were and are sinners. Adam, Paul writes, made a paraptōma, a false step, a blunder. He fell way from the life that God had given to him. Therefore, to the question asked in the gospel, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2) Paul points the finger at one man, Adam. And, using the language of contagion and contamination, Paul writes that sin and death “spread” to all. We all were infected, for all time.

Judged and Condemned
Make no mistake, writes Paul, we are guilty. Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to escape making the same paraptōma, the same false steps and blunders. There is no vaccination. We cannot work hard to avoid sinning. We will sin; it is just a matter of how and when. No one, by force of will, exercise, or healthy eating, will be able to stave off death that holds dominion over us. As human beings, because we are the descendants of Eve and Adam, we stand before our God, our creator, judged guilty and condemned.

The Free Gift
Thanks be to God, Paul declares, our lives are not hopeless. Sin and death may have come into the world through the trespass of one man, but it was through the grace of one man that we have been given the gift of new life. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have been pardoned, our sins have been forgiven, and we have been made righteous as we stand before God. Jesus’ gift overcame Adam’s fall.

Medieval iconography portrays this gift in a dramatic way. In many images of the crucifixion, the cross of Christ is driven into a rocky mound. Golgotha, the place of the skull, is pictured as the tomb of Adam. Below the cross we are given a glimpse of the skull of Adam.

“For since death came through a human being,
the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;
for as all die in Adam,
so all will be made alive in Christ.”
I Corinthians 15:21-22