Lectionary Commentaries for July 10, 2011
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Elisabeth Johnson

Like mid-summer weather, things start to heat up in the middle of Matthew’s Gospel.

Chapter 12 narrates several stories of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees, who are now plotting to destroy him (12:14) and have accused him of working for Satan (12:24). By the end of chapter 12, Jesus appears to be at odds even with his own family (12:46-50), and at the end of chapter 13, Jesus will be rejected by his hometown (13:54-58).

Why is Jesus encountering so much hostility? Why do so many disregard his message and discredit his ministry? Jesus has already hinted at some reasons in our Gospel reading from last Sunday (11:16-19, 25-30). The parable of the sower also probes the mystery of mixed responses to Jesus and his ministry.

The Sower, the Seed, and the Soil

Jesus teaches from a boat at sea (13:1-2), but his teaching is earthy, using images of seeds and soil. The parable of the sower is unusual in that Jesus offers an allegorical interpretation of it to his disciples. The interpretation focuses on reception of the seed by various kinds of soil as an allegory for varying responses to “the word of the kingdom” (13:19).

Jesus’ clear explanation of what each element in the parable represents would seem to leave little work for the preacher. But the interpretation also raises some troubling questions. For instance, who qualifies as “good soil”? Since soil cannot change itself, is there any hope for the hardened, rocky, and thorny soil? Are these destined to be unproductive forever?

One can find examples of each kind of response to the word in Matthew’s Gospel. There are many in Matthew’s story who “hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand” (3:19), including the religious leaders who are antagonistic to Jesus’ ministry from the beginning. The crowds respond positively to Jesus, especially to his miracles of healing (9:8; 15:31; 21:8-9), yet turn against Jesus at the end and demand his crucifixion (27:15-23), leaving us to wonder whether they ever truly understood.

The disciples themselves might be included among those who fall away “when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word” (3:21; cf. 26:56b, 69-75). And the rich young man unable to part with his possessions (19:16-22) provides a stunning example of “one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” (3:22).

What about the good soil? Who are those “who hear the word and understand it, who indeed bear fruit” and yield an abundant harvest (13:23)? In Matthew’s story it seems they are the least likely ones. Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (21:31-32). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous bear fruit by serving the “least of these,” and even they are surprised to find that they have been serving Jesus (25:34-40).

What about the disciples? Will they ever bear fruit? After telling several more parables, Jesus asks them, “Have you understood all this?” They confidently answer, “Yes” (13:51). Yet subsequent events will reveal how little they truly understand (16:21-23; 20:20-28) and how quickly they will desert Jesus to save their own skins (26:56b, 69-75).

What is remarkable is that in spite of these failings, Jesus does not give up on the disciples. In fact, he continues to invest in them, even to the point of entrusting the future of his mission to them. Jesus calls Peter the rock upon which he will build his church (16:13-20), even though Peter’s understanding of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah is confused at best (16:21-23). Although Jesus knows full well that all the disciples will desert him and that Peter will deny him, he nevertheless promises them, “But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (26:32). Jesus does meet them in Galilee as promised, and with all authority in heaven and on earth given to him, turns them loose in the world to carry out his mission (28:16-20).

Matthew’s story has given us little reason to have confidence in the disciples. Little reason, that is, except for Jesus’ promises. Especially significant is Jesus’ promise at the very end of the Gospel: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).

This brings us back to the parable. The main character in the parable, of course, is the sower. The sower scatters his seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting much of the seed on ground that holds little promise for a fruitful harvest. Jesus invests in disciples who look similarly unpromising. He squanders his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts. Yet he promises that his profligate sowing of the word will produce an abundant harvest.

Extravagant Sowing

It is not difficult to find contemporary examples of the various responses to the word depicted in Jesus’ parable. Having the word choked out by “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” seems to be a particular problem in North America. One should be careful, however, to avoid equating the various types of soil with a particular person or group, and especially to avoid equating oneself or one’s community with the good soil.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably find evidence of several kinds of soil in our lives and in our congregations on any given day. It is noteworthy that Jesus does not use the parable to exhort hearers to “be good soil,” as though we could make that happen. If there is any hope for the unproductive soil, it is that the sower keeps sowing generously, extravagantly, even in the least promising places. Jesus’ investment in his disciples shows that he simply will not give up on them, in spite of their many failings. We trust that he will not give up on us either, but will keep working on whatever is hardened, rocky, or thorny within and among us. We trust in his promise to be with us to the end of the age.

As those entrusted with Jesus’ mission today, we might consider the implications of this parable for how we engage in mission. Too often we play it safe, sowing the word only where we are confident it will be well received, and only where those who receive it are likely to become contributing members of our congregations. In the name of stewardship, we hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted. We stifle creativity and energy for mission, resisting new ideas for fear they might not work — as though mistakes or failure were to be avoided at all costs.

Jesus’ approach to mission is quite at odds with our play-it-safe instincts. He gives us freedom to take risks for the sake of the gospel. He endorses extravagant generosity in sowing the word, even in perilous places. Though we may wonder about the wisdom or efficiency of his methods, Jesus promises that the end result will be a bumper crop.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:10-13

Juliana Claassens

The job description of the prophet contains among other less than coveted tasks the ability to speak a life-giving word of hope when all the events seem to point to the contrary.

In Isaiah 55:10-13 one sees the prophet performing this task particularly well when in but a few short verses, the prophet is able to conjure up a world where the impossible seems possible again. Ever since chapter 40, the prophet has been seeking to provide his fellow exiles with much-needed perspective, helping the survivors to look at their broken world with new eyes.

The people to whom the prophet is speaking were in desperate need of such a word. The trauma of the Babylonian Exile they had lived through was too much to bear. After seeing their beloved city destroyed; families torn apart; houses demolished; their country lost, it was not surprising that members of the prophet’s audience were not so sure anymore whether they still believed in the God of their ancestors. In an exuberant lyrical conclusion to not only chapter 55 but also to the whole of Deutero-Isaiah, the prophet is presenting these doubters with a word of hope from the Lord that has the purpose of transforming the exiles’ fractured lives.

Reminiscent of the earlier claim in Isa 40:8 that even though the grass withers and the flower fades, the word of God will endure forever, the prophet describes the word of God in verse 10 as substantive and life-giving. Like rain and snow that waters the ground, causing nourishing food to grow that sustains the body, the words to which the prophet refers feed the soul. The Word of God will achieve its purpose; it will not return empty (verse 11).

The metaphor of rain and snow would have been particularly effective for people accustomed to arid conditions. The prophet’s audience would most likely have understood the vital importance of rain and snow to transform dry land into conditions able to sustain the vegetation necessary for human survival. Rain and snow ensured food for the next year as well as the seed that would secure subsequent crops (verse 10). Within such conditions, precipitation indeed meant the difference between life and death, thus serving as an apt description of the ability of God’s word to have a transformative effect on the lives of the exiles.

So sure is the prophet of what he is saying that he all but bursts out in song. Immediately following the statement about the efficacy of God’s word, the prophet employs imaginative words that conjure up a world where the mountains and the hills break out in song and the trees of the fields clap their hands in accompaniment. The prophet’s words envision a world where the thorn trees and briers that throughout Isaiah were used as a symbol of judgment (5:6; 7:23-25; 32:13) now will be transformed into luscious green myrtles and cypresses. This radical transformation serves as a powerful symbol for the new life that lies ahead for the exiles after the devastation brought about by the Babylonian exile.

Within this exuberant display of joy with all of creation joining in song, the return of the exiles is imaged in terms of a festive procession. The term “to go out” in verse 12 is reminiscent of the paradigmatic account of the Exodus of God’s people (Exodus 14-15). This original exodus account became a way of talking about freedom from bondage and despair–freedom from settling for less than what God intended creation to be. And it is not just the exiles who are affected. One tends to forget that the brutal scorched-earth policy of the empire that destroyed everything in its way also had an effect on nature. But now the promise of God’s restoration, healing, and peace also impacts the trees of the field; the mountains and the hills that now joyously can sing about the powers of chaos that have been defeated.

This week’s lectionary text ends with the promise that the word of God will be a memorial–an eternal sign that shall not be cut off. Referring back to God’s covenant with David that formed a central theme earlier in this chapter (verses 3-4), the prophet once again reminds his audience of God’s loyalty and steadfast love. It is with this promise of the eternal God that the prophet concludes his words to the people in exile. It is a promise of a God that is with God’s people always–even in exile; even though they may sometimes feel very much alone in the foreign land in which they were forced to dwell.
The prophet did not have an easy task to speak a word of hope when everything around him seemed hopeless. However, he succeeds in proclaiming a word that is counter to the words of the world; a word that stands over against the policies of the empire whose intent is to kill and destroy; a word that is able to imagine a world where everything is possible, where all of creation is mended and restored, where the exiles can go home and live in peace.

Even more challenging than speaking a word of hope in an improbable situation is to hear and to embrace this word, so living into the promise. Similar to the image of eating that was used in the beginning of this chapter (verses 1-2), the people had to make the life-giving word from God their own. The ultimate intention of the prophetic word is that the exiles must take the first steps home by breaking with the empire and by joining the alternative world imagined by the prophet.

Centuries later, this point is still valid. It is true that if one cannot imagine it, one cannot live it. In actualizing this prophetic word for a contemporary context, the preacher once more has to engage in the prophetic task of painting a picture of the world as it ought to be, which seeks to transform the world as it currently is.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34

Juliana Claassens

Our lectionary text for today starts with the reference that Rebecca was barren, and that after her husband Isaac prayed for her, she conceived (verse 21).

This very brief, one verse account, continues the theme of the promise threatened and promise fulfilled that runs throughout the book of Genesis. Moreover, as in the instance of Sarah and Abraham, the theme of barrenness makes a powerful statement with regard to the power of God to bestow the unexpected gift of life in situations of barrenness and despair.

In contrast to the other barren women stories in the Bible such as Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth, Rebecca’s barrenness gets little more narrative time than the one verse in which she is described to be barren in addition to having her barrenness overcome. However, two side references regarding the age of Isaac offer the careful reader more detail about Rebekah’s life that has been marked by her inability to bear a child. In verse 20 it is said that Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebecca, and in verse 26 it is said that he was 60 years old when the twins were born. One could very easily miss this textual detail, and yet, these textual details indicate a 20 year span of time. Twenty years of barrenness, of frustration every month when Rebecca’s period indicates once more that pregnancy has not occurred. Twenty years of failure, shame, and frustration. 

Within this narrative gap a number of profound perspectives emerge: First, we see an impressive example of the power of prayer. Isaac prays; God grants his prayer and Rebecca conceives. This prayerful disposition in a time of deep anguish for both husband and wife denotes trust, and a keen belief that God is the One who answers prayers and the One who opens up the womb of barren women (Genesis 29:31; 1 Samuel 1:19-20). One should not forget though that Isaac’s highly effectual prayer occurs somewhere within a 20 year timeframe. One could well imagine years of unanswered prayers before Rebecca finally conceived.

Second, after Isaac’s prayer is answered and the miracle of conception against all odds occurred, everything is not smooth sailing. This much is evident in verse 22 when Rebecca seems to be experiencing a difficult pregnancy, causing her to pray to God in anguish. The babies are struggling inside of her — a painful reality that foreshadows the strife that her offspring will know in the rest of the narrative.

God’s answer seems to destine two brothers to live a life of conflict when God reveals to Rebecca that she is carrying twins, and moreover that the older (stronger) brother will be subordinate to the younger (weaker) brother. This divine revelation may explain why Rebecca would later side with Jacob; the one who before his birth already had been chosen by God.

Alternatively, this account may be a type of etiological story explaining why the brothers Jacob and Esau and the nations they represent (Israel and Edom) are at odds with one another. This birth story seems to say: They were born fighting. We are not told whether Rebecca is satisfied with this answer; however, the narrative gap that omits her response could well be filled with all the unspoken emotions of mothers and other relatives standing helpless in the face of violent conflict.

After this incident, the story fast-forwards to the birth of the twins with Esau (“the red one.” Cf. the description of Esau in verse 25 as “reddish”/ ‘Adomi that relates to Edom, the nation represented by Esau) born first with Jacob closely following, grabbing his brother’s heal (cf. the Hebrew word for “heal”/’aqeb that relates to Jacob’s name). This characterization of Jacob “grabbing” will be worked out in more detail in the subsequent narrative when Jacob grabs hold of the first born right belonging to his brother.

Fast-forwarding again, the narrative moves toward the classic episode according to which Esau sells his firstborn right for a bowl of Jacob’s lentil stew. In this encounter, Esau is depicted as a rough man from the fields. Moreover, Esau’s intense hunger suggests that his needs have to be fulfilled immediately without contemplating the long term consequences.

This portrayal of Esau in a less than positive light will be continued in the interpretation history according to which Esau, representing Edom, is depicted in increasingly negative terms in the prophets Obadiah and Malachi (cf. e.g. Malachi 1:2c-3a: “Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau”).

One should keep in mind that these narratives are told from a pro-Jacob/pro-Israel perspective. The portrayal of a God who sides with the powerless, the weak, the younger brother, the barren woman is moreover a theological perspective that reveals something of Israel’s self-understanding as a tiny, powerless people who lived in the midst of much stronger nations — a reality that became even more evident in the run-up to the exile with superpowers who were quite able to crush a people like Israel without blinking.

Finally, one should not miss the fact that in this narrative, Jacob is also not characterized in the most favorable of ways. Jacob is depicted as “grabbing” his brother’s firstborn right which will be continued in the characterization of Jacob as trickster that in subsequent narratives will mark Jacob’s way in the world. Not only his brother Esau, but also his father Isaac and his uncle Laban will eventually be outwitted by the younger brother. This portrayal makes the election of Jacob by God all the more remarkable. There is nothing is Jacob’s behavior that deserved God’s favor — actually God’s favor comes in spite of Jacob’s actions. This line of interpretation makes a strong case for God’s grace — a God who already is involved with people in their mother’s womb, within the very messiness and conflict of relationships.


Commentary on Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13

Scott Shauf

When one surveys Psalm 65 as a whole, what is most striking is the breadth of the psalm’s subject matter.

It begins with praise to God in Zion (verse 1), a setting which continues through verse 4. Even here the topics of praise are varied, including prayer being answered (verse 2), sins being forgiven (verse 3), and the blessedness of dwelling with God (verse 4). Verse 5 turns briefly to God’s mighty acts of deliverance but then quickly moves to “the ends of the earth” and “the farthest seas.” This global setting stays in view through verse 8, asserting God’s might with references to the mountains (verse 6), the seas and the “tumult of peoples” (verse 7), and the farthest points east and west (verse 8).

Verses 9-13 maintain the focus on the earth, but the emphasis moves from God’s might to God’s bounty in the harvest, which is described in lavishly descriptive language. This lavishness might well be said to be the unifying force throughout the psalm. The descriptions of the earth are almost mythical sounding throughout. This mythical quality, combined with the exclusively beneficent description of God’s dealings with humankind that pervade the psalm, gives the attentive reader or hearer an overwhelming sense of the life-giving presence of God.

The psalm begins by asserting the praise due to God in Zion (verse 1). In its literal sense, Zion refers to the Jerusalem temple mount, and then by extension to the temple itself. Given the references to God’s house and temple in verse 4, it may well be that the psalmist had in mind God’s special presence in the Jerusalem temple. On the other hand, the beginning of verse 4 might suggest a less literal meaning: “Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.” That sounds more like the heavenly dwelling of God than the earthly temple.

Verse 2 also includes the statement, “To you all flesh shall come.” Given the difficulty of associating this expansive hope with the Jerusalem temple today, it makes sense for Christians reading this psalm to think of the heavenly Zion/temple when engaging the psalm in worship. After all, this move is made in the New Testament itself (see Hebrews 12:22), and there is a long tradition in Christian worship of associating Zion with heaven and the eschaton (as in the line from the spiritual, “Children of God, we are marching to Zion”).

Whichever Zion one thinks of, the relations of God to humans expressed in these verses are gracious and merciful. God is identified as the one who answers prayer (verse 2) and forgives transgressions even when they are overwhelming (verse 3). To live in God’s presence is to experience blessedness and goodness (verse 4, translating the Hebrew ‘ashrey as “blessed,” preferable to the NRSV’s “happy”). God is the God of salvation and deliverance (verse 5). God is the “hope of all the ends of the earth” (verse 5), which is no doubt the reason for all flesh coming to God (verse 2).

It is the reference to the ends of the earth in verse 5 that commences the broadening of the locus of God’s presence in the psalm. God is the hope not only of the ends of the earth, but also of “the farthest seas.” Verse 6 then asserts God’s establishment of the mountains, and verse 7 tells of God’s silencing of “the roaring of the seas” and “the tumult of the peoples.” The combination of using the verb “roaring” with the seas and the juxtaposition of the seas with the peoples gives the seas a personified animation. Commentators frequently note the echo here of the common ancient near-eastern theme of the victory of the gods over the chaotic seas. The chief difference here, as in the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1:6-10), is that God’s control over the seas is total; there is not even a will to resist on the part of the seas.

Just as the seas are personified in verse 7, so are the “gateways of the morning and the evening” in verse 8b. This is a reference to the farthest eastern and western points on the earth, hence a poetic expression for the ends of the earth already referred to in verse 5 and verse 8a. Whereas the roaring seas are silenced in verse 7, here the “gateways” are made to “shout for joy.” This continues the theme of God’s beneficence established at the beginning of the psalm, and it is this beneficence combined with the animated personification of nature that depicts God’s presence as powerful, gracious, and life-giving in the psalm. The dangerous features of nature are pacified, and the rest of nature comes to life with joyful exuberance.

The animated richness of nature provided by the divine presence dominates the psalm in verses 9-13. Verses 9-10 celebrate the gift of water, which provides people with grain, shapes the earth, and causes life to grow. For an ancient agrarian people living in a dry land, this blessing was no doubt better understood and more appreciated than it is for most Christians today. The personification trend continues in verse 11a, as the year is “crowned” with God’s bounty.

Verse 11b will strike many readers as curious: “your wagon tracks overflow with richness.” The exact nature of the symbolism here is debated–it perhaps pictures God riding across the earth in a chariot–but, whatever the case, the point is that where God goes, richness abounds. God’s presence is life and abundance. Verses 12-13 close the psalm with a series of further personifications: The pastures, hills, meadows, and valleys all clothe themselves with appropriate bounty, and they all “shout and sing together for joy.”

Psalm 65 thus depicts a world alive with the bounty and glory of God. While many scholars believe that its original use was for thanksgiving celebrations at harvest time, its possible applications today are many. With its wide-ranging portrayal of an undefiled, joyful creation, along with peoples delivered, at peace, and praising God, it provides a vision counter to what we tend to see in the world today.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:1-11

Walter F. Taylor, Jr.

Romans 8:1-11 is an absolutely wonderful statement of the Good News–and also the source of much misunderstanding.

First, the Good News:  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  The Greek is even stronger, since the very first word is noCondemnation has buried in it the word judgment;  literally the word is down judgment and thus condemnation.  The judgment has occurred, and the prisoner is sentenced.  But in this case there is no condemnation.  When does that happen?  Now:  Paul’s eschatological now;  today there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.  How so?  Implicitly because of justification, a dominant theme earlier in the letter.

We could quit right now, and the preacher may well decide to do so.  Five minutes in the office or in someone’s living room remind the pastor that many people feel condemned by God.  They know they are sinners and see no way out.  Verse 1 is a powerful opening for addressing that burden.

Second, the source of misunderstanding.  Our text uses several times the word flesh, making what seem to be almost nonsensical statements such as “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (verse 8).  If that is the reality, why even try to live in God-pleasing ways?  The key is what Paul means by flesh (sarks).  To understand his usage, we turn first to its apparent twin, body (soma).  For Paul the body is neither good nor bad in and of itself.  The issue is how the body is used.  When the body is used as God intended, the body is good.  But when the body is used inappropriately and opposed to God’s intention, it is for Paul a sinful body.  Paul’s shorthand expression for a body that is misused is the term flesh.  And so to live inappropriately is called living according to the flesh (kata sarka).  With that understanding in mind, we turn again to the passage.

In verses 2-4 Paul discusses the new life.  Verse 2 introduces the first of a series of contrasts:  Spirit and life over against sin and death.  The Christ-believer has been set free “from the law of sin and of death.”  For Paul, verse 3, the law of Moses was weakened by the flesh and therefore was unable to remove the condemnation caused by sin.  What God did, in a nice play on words, was to condemn sin itself.  God did that by sending God’s “own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.”  “Ah,” docetists purr, “he was not a full human being.  He was only in the likeness of sinful flesh.”  That is right–and wrong.  Christ was a full human being; he had and was a human body.  But he did not misuse his body by sinning and therefore he was, by Paul’s definition, never flesh.  Thus “he was only in the likeness of sinful flesh” but never sinful himself (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).  In part because of that he was able to be a sin offering, condemning sin in the flesh.

One result of the death of Jesus was the fulfillment of the law in and for those “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (verse 4)  Walk is a term for how people live their lives.  Today we say, “she not only talks the talk, she also walks the walk.”  The positive walk is one according to the Spirit, over against the negative walk of the flesh.

In verses 5-8 Paul delves further into the old life.  Once more flesh and Spirit are contrasted.  The language Paul uses is that of mindset.  The mindset is what people think about, what they focus on (verse 5).  When people focus on the flesh, the result is death, both physical and spiritual in terms of separation from God.  That is why a fleshly mindset results in hostility to God (verses 6-7) and why “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (verse 8).  Since “those who are in the flesh” have mis-directed their lives away from God they are unable to live as God wants them to live and obviously cannot please God.  But when people focus on the Spirit the outcome is life and peace (verse 6).

With the earlier verses clearly in view, Paul in verses 9-11 defines the Roman believers.  Negatively, believers “are not in the flesh.”  Rather (definition one) they “are in the Spirit.”  How do they know that?  “The Spirit of God dwells in” them.  The presence of the Spirit marks those who belong to Christ (verse 9).  Further, (definition two) Christ is in them, and even though the body dies, “the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”  “The Spirit is life” in the sense of life-giving. 

The Spirit dwells in the body that was killed in baptism in relationship to sin (6:3-4) and gives it life.  And through that same Spirit the God who raised Jesus from the dead will make alive the mortal bodies of believers (definition three).  It is of note that the future “making alive” is a making alive of their bodies (sōmata), as in 1 Corinthians 15–and not a making alive of the flesh.  Earlier in Romans God is the one who makes alive the dead and gives life to Abraham’s and Sarah’s dead bodies (4:17, 19).

While Paul is not a classic Trinitarian thinker, it is striking how closely Spirit, Christ, and God are associated with each other.  It is also remarkable how hard it is to distinguish the Spirit and Christ and even God from one another.

Verses 2-11 raise one of the most basic questions in life:  who is in charge?  who calls the shots?  what is our mindset?  what is important to us?  In a time in which anxiety and worry seem to constitute the air we breathe, how we walk, who dwells in us, and on what we focus may be exactly the questions we need to explore.