Lectionary Commentaries for June 26, 2011
Second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 10:40-42

Elisabeth Johnson

Our text comes at the end of Matthew 10, the second major section of Jesus’ teaching after the Sermon on the Mount.

The chapters in between (8-9) narrate various episodes in Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, casting out demons, and raising the dead. At the end of chapter 9, Jesus looks at the crowds and has compassion on them because they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). So he tells his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (9:37-38).

Jesus evidently intends his disciples to be the answer to their own prayer, for at the beginning of chapter 10, he is sending them out, giving them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (10:1). Jesus instructs the twelve to “go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and to “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (10:5-8).

The disciples are to act as envoys of Jesus, extending his ministry, proclaiming the same good news and performing the same works of healing that he is doing. Jesus’ further instructions make clear that the disciples are also to share in his poverty and homelessness, taking with them no money or extra clothing, and depending solely on the hospitality of others for shelter and sustenance (10:8b-13).

They will not be welcomed everywhere (10:14-15), and they can expect to experience the same hostility Jesus often does, for he is sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves” (10:16). They can expect to encounter persecution and trials (10:17-23), for “a disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master” (10:24-25). They need also be prepared for painful division within families, and to be willing to put Jesus’ mission above family loyalties (10:34-38). For all of this risk and suffering, Jesus promises, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (10:39).

Welcome Rewards

Matthew, of course, is not only recalling Jesus’ instructions to his first disciples; he is also speaking to his own community of disciples a few generations later. There is still need to send out laborers into the harvest, to send missionaries out beyond the community into a perilous world. And those sent will still need to depend on the hospitality of others. Jesus says of those who enact such hospitality, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (10:40).

In the ancient world identity was tied to family and community. It was understood that in showing hospitality, one welcomed not just an individual, but implicitly, the community who sent the person and all that they represent. Therefore, welcoming a disciple of Jesus would mean receiving the very presence of Jesus himself and of the one who sent him, God the Father.

Jesus continues: “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous” (10:41). The words “prophet” and “righteous” in Matthew often refer to the prophets and faithful servants of biblical history (e.g., 11:13; 13:17; 23:29), but can also refer to contemporary prophets (7:15-20) and righteous ones (13:43, 39; 25:37, 46). It is not clear whether Matthew is referring to two distinct roles within the community, or whether these are simply alternative ways of describing those sent out as missionaries.

What are the “prophet’s reward” and the “reward of the righteous” of which Jesus speaks? Elsewhere in Matthew the prophets receive persecution (5:12), rejection (13:57), and death (23:30-35, 37), and yet those who are persecuted are told, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (5:12). Similarly, the righteous are promised that they “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (13:43).

Finally, Jesus says, “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (10:42). “Little ones” (mikros) often refers to children, but Matthew uses it to refer to Jesus’ disciples, especially those who are young in faith or particularly vulnerable (cf. 18:6, 10). The statement about giving a cup of cold water to one of these little ones points ahead to the parable of the judgment in Matthew 25. Here the Son of Man says to the righteous, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (25:35), and “truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40). The word translated “least of these” is elachistos, superlative of mikros. The righteous who attend to the needs of the “littlest ones” are told: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34).

The word “reward” (misthos) in Matthew 10 carries connotations of something earned, but this word is not used in the parable of judgment. Here Jesus says to the righteous, “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…” An inheritance is pure gift. Those who welcome and care for the needs of “little ones” welcome and care for Jesus himself. To receive Jesus is to receive the one who sent him, and to become heirs to all that the Father has to give.

The Sent Church

Sent by God, Jesus sends his disciples to participate in his mission of proclaiming in word and deed the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near. Matthew assumes that the church is a “sent” church, a missionary church (Matthew 28:18-20). There is simply no other way to be the church! This understanding is being recovered in our own day with the missional church movement. There is growing awareness that mission is not just a program of the church; it is (or ought to be) the defining purpose of everything the church does.

An approach to preaching Matthew 10:40-42 might be to focus a congregation’s attention on what it means to be sent. Perhaps not all are sent to be wandering missionaries, depending on others for shelter and sustenance, but that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. The entire baptized are sent into the world to tell and embody the good news of Jesus Christ. All are sent to bear Christ to others with humility and vulnerability, being willing to risk rejection.

What would happen if we stopped expecting people to come on their own initiative through our church doors, and instead took seriously our calling to bring the gospel to them? What would happen if we truly believed that we bear the presence of Christ to every person we encounter, in every home, workplace, or neighborhood we enter? What would happen if we saw every conversation as an opportunity to speak words of grace, every interaction as an opportunity to embody Christ’s love for the neighbor?

Recently a friend told of an interaction with a bagger at her local grocery store. She had been talking with this woman off and on for a year, and upon learning that she no longer worked on Sundays, invited her to come to her church, to their casual, outdoor, come-as-you-are service. Much to my friend’s surprise, the woman responded by giving her a hug!

We may not always receive such a positive response when we take the risk of reaching out, yet we may be surprised at how ready many are to receive our most humble efforts. Lest we forget what we have to offer, we have Jesus’ promise: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.”

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14

Juliana Claassens

The near-sacrifice of Isaac, or the Akedah as it is called in the Jewish tradition, is a narrative filled with narrative suspense.

In slow motion, building up frame by frame, the reader watches in horror how God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son; how the two of them travel together to Mount Moriah where Abraham builds the altar, arranges the wood, binds his son, places him on the altar, and takes the knife into his hand. But as Abraham’s hand is hovering in midair with only one intention, i.e., to kill his son, tragedy is averted at the last second.

This gripping, or should one rather say chilling story in Genesis 22, has evoked passionate responses throughout the centuries, giving rise to a rich interpretative history from both Jewish and Christian interpreters who sought to make sense of this troubling story by filling in the narrative gaps in a variety of imaginative ways. Moreover, this story has often been preached as a narrative pointing to Abraham’s great faith and obedience that is rewarded in the end by God’s provision.

Surely the theme of providence is prominent in this text as evident in the place name Abraham gives in verse 14 (cf. the Latin word “pro-video” that encompasses the meaning of “for-see”/ “see to it”), which underscores the close association between God’s providence and God’s presence. However, this divine providence that implies that God intervenes at the last moment, averting danger and saving the child by providing a sacrifice in the place of the beloved only son is complex to say the least, particularly as the narrative asserts that God is responsible for the situation in the first place.

A key theme in this narrative that ties Genesis 22 to its larger literary context is the notion of the promise threatened. God’s repeated promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a large nation was delayed for many chapters before (representing years and even decades), before becoming the promised fulfilled with the birth of Isaac in Genesis 18, 21. A promise that, only a few short chapters later, once again severely comes under threat, ironically from Godself who asks a most impossible thing of his servant, Abraham.

From this narrative emerges an image of God who is capricious — a God that is in contradiction with Godself and who seemingly draws a line through the promise God had made and fulfilled to Abraham. The one moment this God is answering prayers and providing a long awaited child, and the next moment, this same God is ordering that the child be sacrificed (even though the reader and God knows it is a test, as evident in verse 1, Abraham does not know).

Yet another disconcerting feature of this text is that Abraham does not blink at the outrageous request from the God whom he has come to trust since God’s initial call came to him in Genesis 12. We see in Genesis 22 little evidence of the fiery Abraham who took God on in Genesis 18:17-33, interceding on behalf of Sodom. Perhaps one may find in Isaac’s question in verse 7, some hints of what can be called a questioning faith; words of resistance that break into Abraham’s apparent certainty. Moreover, from its many readers throughout the ages, this narrative most certainly evoked challenge — making the text itself a site of struggle.

A line of interpretation that takes into consideration these troubling aspects of the text is to view this troubling story as a means of naming and challenging unforeseen and unfair tragedy. The narrative of Genesis 22 offers its readers a safe space for reflection according to which believers may bemoan the fact that human beings end up in impossibly tragic situations; perhaps contemplating why innocent children are killed (or almost killed) for no reason.

Such a line of interpretation has been immortalized in a song by Bob Dylan on Genesis 22 that makes an interesting connection between fathers sacrificing their children and the countless young sons who were sent to fight and to die in Vietnam by the leaders of the United States. Also in post-holocaust reflection, many of the anguished parents could do little more but ask why God had not intervened when their children were burned in the Shoah?

In her book, Challenging Prophetic Literature, Julia O’Brien writes about Lyn, a student of her, who at some point in her sermon preparation on Genesis 22 “gave up trying to make this text into something beautiful and uplifting and simply wept. She wept not only just for the characters in the story but also for herself and for her culture….In this sermon,” O’Brien writes, her student “gave her congregation permission that the text had not given Abraham: to weep for the tragic situations of their own lives, for the horrible choices they feel they have no choice but to make.” According to Julia O’Brien, this student has preached good news (page 59).

And yet, this questioning faith, this mourning about the tragedy that all too often permeates life occurs in a space framed by the underlying belief in the goodness of God who does not want suffering for God’s children; a God who will provide. Genesis 22 after all is a story of life coming into a situation of death; a story of redemption; a story of faith in the midst of extreme trauma. It is true that it sometimes is difficult to see God’s provision and goodness in desperate situations when tragedy strikes. Nevertheless, the text calls upon us to look up and see God’s goodness breaking into situations of despair.

The true act of faith on the part of Abraham thus is not the blind faith that often has been the dominant message emerging from this text, but rather the ability to recognize God’s provision in the ordinary, especially in those circumstances when everything appears to be futile.


Commentary on Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

Scott Shauf

Taken as a whole, Psalm 89 contrasts the might and faithfulness of God,

in particular as manifested in the covenant made with David, to the psalmist’s present experience of utter national ruin and defeat. Verses 1-37 celebrate God’s incomparable exalted status and ability to provide victory to Israel and God’s keeping the promises made to David. In verses 38-52, however, the celebration turns into anguish and despair, as the psalmist laments a stunning defeat and pleads for God to remember the faithfulness and promises that characterized God’s relationship with Israel in the past.

The lectionary selection focuses solely on the celebratory portion of the psalm. The first section, verses 1-4, praises God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (verses 1-2) and then quotes God’s very words in establishing the throne of David and his descendants (verses 3-4). The second section, verses 15-18, proclaims the blessed state of those who walk with God and as a result receive God’s victory and protection.

The opening four verses of Psalm 89 contain a trove of theological catch-words from the Old Testament. Verses 1 and 2 are parallel in the proclamation of God’s “steadfast love” in their first lines and “faithfulness” in their second. These two traits are central in defining God’s character and relationship with Israel. The single Hebrew word translated by the NRSV’s “steadfast love” is khesed. The Hebrew meaning is difficult to convey with any single English expression, and thus we see different English Bibles using a variety of translations in different contexts: steadfast love, lovingkindness, love, kindness, mercy, loyalty, favor, devotion, goodness, and still others.

The range of translations gives a sense of the broad meaning of the word–more than any other expression, khesed defines God’s fundamental relationship with Israel. In both verses God’s khesed is said to last “forever.” This statement denotes the eternal character not only of God’s existence but also of God’s disposition towards God’s people. This inalienable quality of the relationship between God and God’s people provides the basis for the joyful utterances of verses 15-18, which we shall examine shortly.

The proclamation regarding God’s faithfulness in verse 1 is similar to the proclamation regarding God’s steadfast love–it is said to be “to all generations.” In verse 2 there is a slight change of direction, with the emphasis turning to the sure quality, the firmness of God’s faithfulness. The NRSV translates the Hebrew as saying that God’s faithfulness is “as firm as the heavens.” Many other translations have something like the NIV’s “you have established your faithfulness in heaven.” Either way the verse announces complete confidence in God’s faithfulness. Whether God’s faithfulness is said to be as firm as heaven or rather established in heaven, the point is that heaven itself would have to pass away in order for God’s faithfulness to be diminished in any way.

Verses 3-4 profess what is for the psalmist the most important manifestation of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness: the covenant made with David that one of his descendants would reign “forever” and “for all generations.” Note how the exact language from verses 1-2 is reproduced–for the psalmist God’s faithful and steadfastly loving character cannot be separated from the establishment of the Davidic covenant. The narrative account of God’s establishment of this covenant is given in 2 Samuel 7:11-16, where the prophet Nathan is given God’s words to deliver to David, the language of which is echoed here in the psalm. That the psalmist expresses the covenant with the actual words spoken by God puts heavy emphasis on the covenant’s importance.

Whatever Ethan the Ezrahite (the psalm’s author as stated in the superscription) and his original audience would have heard in these words, for Christians the eternal establishment of the Davidic covenant is accomplished with the coming of Christ. The angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary expresses this very idea: “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32b-33). Thus when we as Christians read this psalm in worship, we are proclaiming the faithfulness and steadfast love of God as expressed ultimately in Jesus Christ.

The second section of the psalm included in the lectionary, verses 15-18, is best read as a joyful enactment of the psalmist’s promise from v. 1 to sing of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Verse 15 proclaims that “happy” (a better translation would be “blessed”) are the people who know the “festal shout” and who walk in God’s light. The latter expression is a common biblical idiom, but few readers will grasp well the idea of a “festal shout.” The Hebrew word, teru’ah, can be used to convey such things as trumpets blowing and war cries, but in the Psalms it usually denotes a shout of acclamation or joy towards God.

To “know the festal shout” is thus to express the joy that comes from experiencing God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. It is significant that it is “the people” who is said to know this–a singular noun in Hebrew, ha’am. The “festal shout” is something that can only be known collectively, as the gathered people of God. However loud one might yell, one cannot produce a “festal shout” on one’s own!

Verses 16-18 continue the expressions of the blessedness of the people who know the festal shout. As in verse 15, these verses are addressed directly to God. So when verse 16 says that the people “exult in your name all day long” and “extol your righteousness,” the psalm itself is an instance of this exulting and extolling activity. In other words, the proclamation of this psalm is the very kind of activity that the people of God are to be about–and are to be about it “all the day long.”

Verses 17-18 state the basis of such worshipful acts: God’s character and relationship to the people. God’s glory is the basis of the people’s strength and God’s favor the basis of their victory (verse 17; the “horn” is a symbol of strength, and the raised horn a symbol of victory). Likewise, protection, “our shield,” also comes from God, as does “our king” (verse 18). This last line returns to the concept of the Davidic covenant from verses 3-4. For Christians, this will again be a proclamation of the faithfulness and steadfast love of God expressed in the kingship of Christ.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:12-23

Walter F. Taylor, Jr.

Coming on the heels of Paul’s discussion of baptism in Romans 6:1-11, our passage for the Second Sunday after Pentecost serves as a corrective to a potential misunderstanding.

Verses 1-11 could be understood as pointing to full possession of all that God gives.  We have been freed from sin.  Does that also mean that we are perfected?  No, say verses 12-23.  If verses 1-11 are the already, verses 12-23 are the not yet

Let’s jump to verse 15.  As is typical in the diatribe structure that Paul loves, he poses two questions–and provides his own answer!  (See also 3:1-4 and 6:1-3.)    To answer the questions he develops an analogy from slavery.  And so, verse 16, people are either for Paul obedient slaves of sin, which leads to death, or they are obedient to God, which leads to righteousness.  The word obedient is in Greek hypakoē.  It is composed of the preposition under (hypo) and a noun that comes from the verb akouō, I hear.  Thus to be obedient is to hear what is said and to place one’s self underneath the authority of what is heard (so Jesus is the obedient one in Romans 5:19 and Philippians 2:8). 

But the outcome of the obedience depends on whom or what is heard and obeyed.  And so in verses 17-18 Paul rejoices that his listeners have been released from their former slavery to sin and have now “become obedient from the heart” to the message about Jesus.  But, rather strangely, that shift results not in total freedom–in fact, the result is the opposite.  Believers have now “become slaves of righteousness.”

The situation is similar to the way professional sports used to be run.  Before free agency developed, professional athletes were bound to the team that had first signed them.  They were “slaves” of that team.  Owners could offer contracts, not offer contracts, or trade players.  Players, for their part, had few options.  They could sign a contract and play, or they could retire.  They were not free to move to another team nor to offer their services to the highest bidder.  If people wanted to “play ball,” they had to be owned by one team or another.

So for Paul (who is a slave of Christ Jesus, 1:1), there are two possible places to be:  in sin or in righteousness, and there are two kinds of slavery:  to sin or to righteousness (compare the two realms of Adam and Christ in 5:12-21).

Paul’s language is not as abstract as it might first seem to be.  In verse 19 Paul reminds the Romans that formerly they “presented” their “members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity.”  The word members (melē) refers to the parts of the human body and is a clear reminder of how in the past his listeners had mis-used their bodies against the will of God.  But now Paul reminds them to present those same members in slavery to God’s righteousness.  That in turn leads to sanctification, the growth in grace and in grace-directed life that Paul envisions for those who follow Jesus. 

In verses 20-23 he continues to play with freedom and slavery.  In verse 20 Paul helps the Romans recall that indeed at one time they were totally free in relationship to righteousness.  The double meaning of righteousness can easily be missed.  The same Greek word, diakaiosynē, means both righteousness and justification.  So when people are slaves of sin, they are free not only from living righteously (righteousness), they are also free from a redeemed and positive relationship with God (justification). 

In verse 21 Paul poses yet another question that is a potentially important point of dialogue with people individually and as we address people in sermon:  “So what did you gain by living that way?”  The word for gain, the NRSV’s advantage, is the well-known biblical term fruit (karpos).  What has been the fruit of living in ways that now make you ashamed?  Well, according to Paul, the fruit is death.  The preacher may well want to consider with the congregation how many of our behaviors–both individual and collective–lead to death, even when we know they are wrong. 

In verse 22 Paul interjects his beloved phrase, “but now.”  But now they have been freed from sin, yes, but they / we have also been “enslaved to God.”  The outcome of this slavery is sanctification, and “the end is eternal life.”

And so, Paul concludes in verse 23, “the wages of sin is death.”  Paul uses a military term for wages; it refers to the soldier’s daily pay (opsōnia).  It could be an eye-opening exercise to think about not only the big “D” death, but also the many daily deaths in our lives and how they are the wages of sin.  And over against those wages is “the free gift of God,” “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The word free gift has buried in it the word grace (charis).  God’s grace is the final word, once again.

The passage reminds us that we are still vulnerable to sin and death, post-baptism.  And so the issue becomes:  which slavery do we want–slavery to sin that leads to death or slavery to Christ that leads to life?

But if we have to make the decision, and if we have to follow the directives in verses 12-14 to “not let sin exercise dominion” in our bodies and to “no longer present” our bodies as tools of injustice, where is the good news?  The good news is that God has freed us from the realm of sin as the determinative reality of our lives (verse 22), and God has given us God’s free gift of eternal life in Christ (verse 23).  And that remains an ancient message that is new every day.  And it remains a message that people still find hard to hear.  But it remains what we are called to proclaim.