Lectionary Commentaries for July 24, 2011
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman

Talk about treasure in a field!

Some weeks it can seem that the appointed Gospel yields slim pickings, but this week, we have five rich parables with which to work. For those of you who have preached the previous two Sundays, you are aware that we have already dealt with the first two parables, but that the texts were split.

If you scan chapter 13, you can see how Matthew has interwoven some of these parables with commentary on parables in general and then explanations of the first two parables resulting in another split lesson for this Sunday. Narrative speaking, these delayed explanations serve to heighten interest in the parable, especially given the stakes for those who do not understand them.

Overall, this collection of parables drives to the conclusion provided in today’s text in verses 51-52: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” The emphasis is on the newness of what Jesus is teaching, but it is based on his announcement of “what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Jesus cites this text from Psalm 78:2 in verse 35.  The idea is also similar to the string of “You have heard…, but I say” statements Jesus makes in Matthew 5.)

And what is this ancient message Jesus is now proclaiming anew? Its clearest expression is provided in the three parables for which allegorical explanations are given, and it’s a theme that runs through Matthew, namely: The dominion of God may not always appear to be succeeding in the world, and even the Church itself is a mixed bag of good and evil, but in the end, God will sort things out. The evil will perish, and the righteous will be part of God’s bountiful and glorious harvest.

That summary works well for the three parables which have an explanation supplied, but it doesn’t work as well for the other four parables in today’s reading. Part of the problem is that these parables aren’t as easily allegorized. They work better as true parables that should be treated metaphorically so that they engage and challenge us to consider what God’s dominion is like.

The Mustard Seed parable has often been sadly reduced to “From small beginnings come great endings.” Since it is set among the accounts emphasizing abundant harvests, Matthew may have this idea in mind as it pertains to the ultimate triumph of God’s dominion, but such a reading also overlooks the parabolic difficulties it poses. Mustard is closer to being a weed than wheat.

For a symbol of success, the cedar tree is a better choice. According to Ezekiel 17:23, the “noble cedar” provides the kind of shelter birds’ need, so Jesus is providing a stark and surprising contrast here. To say it becomes the “greatest of shrubs” is faint praise and to call it a “tree” can only be hyperbolic irony. What becomes striking is that this lowly plant is the unexpected symbol of God’s dominion. Is there any other “tree” that could so scandously become part of God’s plan?

The Yeast parable is misnamed. Today, yeast comes in those tidy little packets. What Jesus is talking about is leaven which is a rotting, molding lump of bread. It usually is a negative symbol of corruption. (Matthew 16:6; 1 Corinthians 5:8) It is a “woman” who takes this leaven and “hides” (not “mixes” — cf. below) it in the flour. Given the cultural perspectives of Jesus’ day, all these details make it sound like something potentially sinister and furtive is going on. The only thing more astounding in this parable is that the woman uses “three measures” of wheat, enough to make bread to feed more than 100 people. Another example of a little can make a lot? Yes, but it also indicates that the dominion of God may take hold in hidden and unexpected ways.

In the Treasure parable, one’s “treasure” (thesaurus in Greek) is an important metaphor in Matthew indicating where one’s allegiance ultimately lies and its nature. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (6.19-21; also cf. 12:35; 19:21) The discovered and claimed treasure in this parable also anticipates the scribe’s treasure mentioned in a moment in 13:52. Like the hidden leaven and like that which “has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (13:35), this treasure ultimately cannot be kept secret.

Is the guy’s behavior ethical? Depending on the imagined circumstances, opinions vary, but that’s hardly the point. Rather, this parabolic illustration becomes a real one in 19:16-22 when Jesus tells the rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” This kind of singleness of purpose also is the thrust of the Pearl parable where again everything is sold in order to obtain the one prized pearl. Together, these two parables can be used to talk about the cost of discipleship.

With the multivalent character of parables, however, we do not necessarily need to take these as encouragements that we need to do all the work in obtaining the kingdom. What if we understand the treasure to be like God’s dominion, and Jesus is the one who gave up everything to obtain it for us? Or better, what if we are that treasure, and Jesus is the one who, “because of joy,” who gave his life in order to “buy” us? (Note that the word for buy, agorazo, is the same word translated as “redeem” in passages like 1 Corinthians 6:20 or Galatians 3:13; 4:4f.)  

So what does this all mean for preaching?

1. The Net of Fish parable warns of the threat of punishment for the “evil,” but its main point of emphasis is to provide assurance to the “righteous” that God’s will is accomplished in the end.
2. The Mustard Seed and Leaven parables highlight the dominion of God becoming present in an unexpected and, by worldly standards, scandalous way, in the way of the cross.
3. The Treasure and Pearl parables can emphasize both the cost of discipleship needed from us and the cost of redemption that Jesus paid.

Jesus’ closing statement about scribes bringing out new and old from their treasure describes the preacher’s task here. This treasure of old, yet always new, words must become new again in our lives. We can talk about the costs involved in the dominion of God, but ultimately the good news we preach is priceless.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12

Brent A. Strawn

Today’s Old Testament lesson is the famous text where Solomon asks God for wisdom.

Somewhat oddly, the lection begins and ends in mid-paragraph (according to NRSV and NIV), and it might be better to include in the public Scripture reading and in the preaching both verses 3-4, on the front side, and verses 13-14 (and perhaps verse 15 as well) on the back. 

At the very least, astute preachers need to be aware of these other verses and the data they provide. Indeed, verses 3-4 gives important “background” information that is helpful in making sense of verses 5ff. — for example, why Solomon was at Gibeon in the first place. But after reading verses 3-4, one is also sympathetic with the lectionary’s editors, since these same verses raise more than a few questions. In brief, verses 3-4 tell us of the good and the bad about Solomon:

On the one hand, the good: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David” (verse 3a; NRSV);

On the other hand, the bad: “only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places” (verse 3b; NRSV).

Much hangs on the word “only” (Hebrew raq) in verse 3b. It can be translated “only” as well as “however” or “except.” Important here is the fact that the word typically signifies a contrast (see, e.g., Exodus 8:24-25; 10:24; 21:19; Deuteronomy 3:19; 12:15, 16, 26; 15:23; 17:16; 20:14, 16, 20; etc.; with a participle, as here, 2 Chronicles 33:17). 

Such a contrast is understandable given the usual valence of the term “high place(s).” Such high places are almost always and strongly condemned wherever they are mentioned in the Old Testament. 

1 Kings 3:2 also has an instance of Hebrew raq. This raq can be seen as the narrator’s attempt to counter the negative associations of “high place(s)” both in this particular verse and in the practice of Solomon that immediately follows:

“The people were sacrificing at the high places, however [Hebrew raq], because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD” (NRSV).

Perhaps, that is, one shouldn’t be too hard on Solomon — where else could he worship? (An answer may be found, however, in verse 15.)  But most scholars believe that, even if in its original formulation the story (or activity) of Solomon’s sacrificing at Gibeah was “innocent,” the final presentation of Kings imbues it with a dark and negative hue.1 

This darker interpretation gains further support by a look to 1 Kings 3:1, which states that Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh. Political exigencies are one thing, but it is hard to justify kinship ties with Egypt the great oppressor of Israel! In brief, Solomon, writ large, is a rather ambiguous character.2

But not here, not in the lectionary’s selection, which effectively removes the ambiguity by focusing only on verses 5-12. Good preachers, attentive to the warp and woof of Scripture, will worry more than a bit about the “whitewashed” version of the lectionary snippet, if only because it seems clear already from the first verses of chapter 3 that “Solomon sets into motion a pattern of misbehavior on the part of Israel’s and Judah’s kings.”3

That granted, Solomon in 1 Kings 3 clearly comes with the good as well as the bad, and, even if the lectionary smoothes things over a bit too much, verses 5-12 clearly emphasize Solomon’s better side.  But Solomon’s better side is prefaced by God best side: out of nowhere, it seems, comes the Lord’s appearance to the king in a dream with the equivalent of a genie’s wish (verse 5).

Of course, it isn’t out of nowhere — verse 3 mentioned Solomon’s adherence to the “statutes of his father David,” and verse 6 again mentions David, his faithfulness and righteousness, and God’s steadfast love to David. Nevertheless, the initiative in this carte blanche request is clearly the Lord’s, and, though it isn’t presented as a test, if it were, Solomon would have passed with flying colors. He does not ask what we would expect — what we might request ourselves — what we ourselves would certainly wish for given the right genie and lamp! But Solomon chooses a different way: he does not ask for long life, riches, or victory over his enemies and this fact is not lost on God (verses 11a, 13).

What is not lost on the attentive reader is the rhetoric of Solomon’s answer. God had posed the question in terms of Solomon: “Ask what I should give you” (verse 5), but instead of answering in those same terms (“I would like…”), Solomon begins with God (“You have shown…”) and with what God has done for David. 

And so Solomon quickly moves from God to God’s benefits to God’s favorite, David.  Solomon doesn’t stop there, but lays it on thick. David is God’s favorite for a reason–three reasons to be precise: he walked before God “in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart” (verse 6). But even that impressive Davidic resume is enveloped, front and back, by what God has done; specifically, it is encompassed by two references to God’s “steadfast love” (Hebrew ḥesed):

“You have shown great and steadfast love (ḥesed) to…David,
because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart…
you have kept for him this great and steadfast love (ḥesed),
and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.” (verse 6)

The very last bit of verse 6 is not to be missed. In this clause, Solomon attributes his own kingship to God’s benevolence, but also ties himself to David and, simultaneously, introduces himself into the conversation (finally!).

And yet, even when Solomon finally does speak of himself, he continues to prove rhetorically savvy. First, he speaks of himself using the very same term he used for David: both he and his father are “your (God’s) servant” (verses 6a, 7a). Next, Solomon calls himself “only a little child” lacking knowledge, perhaps even commonsense. In light of 1 Kings 11:42 and 14:21, these last details are not to be taken flat-footedly. 

Solomon was almost certainly no adolescent, let alone a toddler! Rather, Solomon is a gifted pray-er. He knows, as do other great pray-ers like Jeremiah and the psalmists, that appealing to one’s lowly status is incentive for God, who cares deeply for such lowly ones, to act.4

The specific content of Solomon’s request is further incentive for God to act: Solomon asks only for “an understanding mind” (NRSV; Hebrew: “a listening heart”) to rightly govern and judge.  The request is sober and altogether reasonable; moreover, it is on behalf of God’s (not Solomon’s!) people — a point twice emphasized (verses 8-9).

And Solomon’s prayer works! The prayer pleases God (verse 10), particularly in what it does not ask for (again, twice emphasized: verse 11, 13). So God grants the request, giving Solomon “a wise and discerning mind” (verse 12a), but more — Solomon will be, and in fact now already is, incomparable (verse 12b).

And yet more: all that Solomon didn’t ask for is also given — riches and honor, and again in incomparable fashion (verse 13). And yet one more final gift: long life, but this one with a built-in contingency: “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes, and my commandments, as your father David walked” (verse 14). So, just as Solomon had reminded God of David in his request, so God now reminds Solomon of David in the answer. David is paradigmatic for Solomon’s past, present, and future.

In verse 15 Solomon awakes — all this had been a dream. In modern parlance, psychoanalysis aside, such language implies pure fantasy and thus unreality. But in the ancient Near East (as also in psychoanalysis!) dreams were often key arenas for revelatory insight (cf., e.g, Genesis 15:12-21; 20:3-7; 28:10-22; etc.). 

In Solomon’s case, the proof is in the pudding. This dream leads directly to right worship and benevolent activity, not in Gibeon, but in Jerusalem before the ark of the Lord’s covenant (verse 15b). It also leads directly into the famous vignette about Solomon’s wisdom in the case of the two prostitutes and the dead child (verses 16-28), which shows God’s gift of wisdom to Solomon is both real and efficacious (see verse 28).5

In light of all this, Solomon’s ultimate failure, encapsulated in summary fashion in 1 Kings 11:1-13, is made all the more tragic. The tiny little “if” of God in 1 Kings 3:14 proved too big for Solomon, even in all his glory and with all his wisdom. In retrospect, perhaps he should have prayed for more than just wisdom after all. Things like faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart — things David had in spades (verse 6)–come immediately to mind.

1See Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 72-74, 79-81; and John Gray, I & II Kings: A Commentary (2d ed.; Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 116, 120.
2In addition to the opening verses of 1 Kings 3, see Solomon’s role in the murders of Adonijah, Joab, and Shimei recounted in 1 Kgs 2:13-46.  For more on Solomon’s ambiguities, see the excellent study by Walter Brueggemann, Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement (Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament; Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005).
3Sweeney, I & II Kings, 79.
4See Brent A. Strawn, “Jeremiah’s In/Effective Plea: Another Lookער in Jeremiah i 6,” Vetus Testamentum 55 (2005): 366-77; Gray, I & II Kings, 125.
5Cf. Brueggemann, Solomon, 114.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28

Wil Gafney

Genesis 29:15-28 is small slice of a much larger story.

This is the story of the Mothers and Fathers of Israel and their descendents, the people of Israel. Rebekah and Isaac have sent their son Jacob to his mother’s brother Laban, with instructions to marry one of his daughters, (the as yet unnamed Leah and Rachel in Genesis 27:46-28:1).

Their family practices internal marriage among relatives: Jacob’s grandparents Sarah and Abraham were siblings, his grand-uncle Nahor married his own niece, Jacob’s aunt Milcah, his cousin Lot fathered children with his own daughters in a bizarre set of circumstances, and he, Jacob, has been given instructions to marry one of his cousins. Leah and Rachel are the only two women who meet his parents’ requirements.

In the back-story, Jacob meets Rachel first while she is shepherding her father’s flocks. He tells her and eventually her father who he is and who his mother is, identifying himself as Rebekah’s son (ben Rivkah) but never as Isaac’s son, (29:12). And he spends an undescribed month with them before the subject of marriage is brought up. At some point during that month Jacob decides that he wants Rachel, but the text tells us nothing about their relationship or her feelings about the matter. Rachel and Leah’s mother is missing from the story; it is not clear whether the authors and editors found her irrelevant or whether she was truly absent, either through death or some other circumstances.

In our lesson, the story is told from Jacob’s perspective. Jacob is famously described as loving Rachel, so much so that when he is thwarted in his desire to marry her, he soldiers on in servitude to her for a total of fourteen years that pass in the blink of an eye for him. The story has no interest in Rachel’s or Leah’s lives or experience of those years. Rachel’s feelings for Jacob are never described. (In fact no woman in the scriptures is described as “loving” anyone else, using the primary Hebrew verb ahav or even “love” in the NRSV.) This is a reminder that even when the text seems inclusive or even egalitarian, it is an androcentric text, that is, it is written from (and primarily for) a male perspective.

This lesson has a number of challenges for women and other readers: Rachel and Leah are given to Jacob like chattel. This contrasts dramatically with his own mother’s marriage, to which she consented (24:57) after a ten-day deliberation period. Laban’s claim that he could not give his younger daughter in marriage before the elder has no foundation in the text. If that were the case why did he not tell Jacob?

Laban may well have lied, adding dishonesty to his deceit. He may have thought that he could only marry Leah off through deception. The larger narrative says that there was something peculiar about Leah’s eyes — a notoriously difficult to translate expression. Whatever Leah’s circumstance she was compared unfavorably to Leah. And perhaps, the largest challenge: How could Jacob not know with whom he was being intimate? The story conjures up images of complete darkness, total silence, and perhaps drunkenness, perverting the biblical sense of intimate “knowing.” 

Whether Rachel and Leah had a difficult relationship prior to their marriage is not revealed in the text. But there is a suggestion that Leah was regularly devalued in comparison with her sister in the way that they are described. Laban’s deception, combined with the assessment that Rachel was more desirable — including to Jacob, set the stage for a sororal sibling rivalry that would plague Jacob and populate Israel at the same time. Leah, Rachel and their slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah would become the mothers of the Twelve Tribes while competing for Jacob’s time and attentions.

This story demonstrates that “love is not enough.” Even if Jacob’s love for Rachel is not based on her appearance or the fact that he was limited in his choice to Rachel and her (in some way undesirable) sister Leah, his love does not translate into a happy, healthy family.

In modernity, some people elevate romantic and sexual love as the highest expressions of love. Neither form of love brings enduring happiness to Jacob who loves Rachel or to Rachel or to Leah who compete to sleep with Jacob and bear his children in the aftermath of the text. This story also illustrates the common practice of reducing people, women in particular, to their physical appearance: Rachel was beautiful; there was something odd about Leah’s eyes.

Yet both women found themselves in the same situation. Only in death were they separated. Rachel was buried alone on the road to Bethlehem, (Genesis 35:19). Leah was buried in the ancestral tomb with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, (Genesis 49:31). And before he died, Jacob gave Joseph instructions to send his bones back to that family tomb, (Genesis 50:13). He was buried with Leah.


Commentary on Psalm 119:129-136

Rolf Jacobson

The appointed psalm for this week is a small section of Psalm 119, which is the longest psalm in the Psalter.

The theological theme is the Word of God–pay attention to the synonyms for Scripture: “your decrees,” “your words,” “your commandments,” “your promise,” “your precepts,” “your statutes,” “your law.”

The poetic theme is the body–pay attention to the “embodied” poetry: “my soul” (literally: “my throat”), “open mouth,” “my steps,” “your face,” “my eyes.” And at the heart of it all is a living relationship between the Lord and the human being: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your custom toward those who love your name” (verse 132).

Why not break up the hot, dog days of July and August by preaching on this refreshing word?

“A,” Your Word is Adorable. . . “B,” Your Law is Beautiful. . .

First, a few comments about Psalm 119 as a whole. As noted above, this wisdom psalm is by far the longest psalm in the Psalter. It is an alphabetic, acrostic psalm. Its 176 verses are divided into 22 stanzas. Each stanza is precisely eight verses long. Similar to the old song, “A, You’re Adorable (The Alphabet Love Song,” each verse in each given stanza begins with the appropriate letter from the Hebrew alphabet. In stanza 1 (verses 1-8), every verse begins with the Hebrew letter ‘alef. In stanza 2 (verses 9-16), ever verse begins with the Hebrew letter bet

And so on. The section assigned for this Sunday is the pe stanza. Each verse begins with a different pe word:  “wonderful” (pila’ot), “unfolding” (petach), “my mouth” (pi), “turn” (pe’amay), “my steps” (pe’ami), “redeem” (pedeni),  “your face” (paneyka), and “streams” (palgey). As a whole, the theological theme of the psalm is the Word of God–over and over, the psalm employs eight different synonyms for God’s Instruction (Hebrew, torah): law, commandments, statutes, ordinances, decrees, words, precepts, and promises.

All eight occur in this stanza. The constraints forced on the poet by the acrostic structure probably explain why, at times, the psalm is so repetitious and shifts somewhat awkwardly between wisdom sayings (“Your decrees are wonderful,” verse 129) and petitions asking for help (“Turn to me and be gracious,” verse 132). The poem is not really a consecutive, linear argument.  Rather it is a circular, repetitive meditation on God’s Word and a prayer for God’s guidance.

The “Body” of the Pe Stanza

As noted above, the pe stanza of the poem has a theological theme (God’s Word) and a poetic theme (the human body). The stanza can be described as having the following structure:

Verses 129-131 Wisdom-like statements about God’s Word: “Your decrees are wonderful. . .”

Verses 132-135 Petitions: “Turn to me… Keep my steps steady… Redeem me from oppression”

Verse 136 Wisdom-like statement:  “My eyes [cry] because your law is not kept.”

The force of verses 129-131 are that the Word of God is a means of grace. Through the Word–which is both law and gospel–the Lord of Israel encounters the people of God. The word is “wonderful.” This Hebrew word (pila’ot) is often used in the psalms to describe God’s mighty actions on behalf of both the people as a whole (77:10, 14; 105:2; etc.) and also of God’s redeeming actions on behalf of individual people (9:2; 17:7; etc.). Here in Psalm 119, this characteristic is applied to God’s Word.

In other words, just as God’s might acts of deliverance can be means through which God shows grace to suffering people, so also the Word itself is such a means that mediates God’s wonders to his people. The psalm then compares God’s word to light that gives guidance (the image here is one in which a scroll is unrolled and light shines upward and outward).

Verses 132-135 build on the promises of verses 129-131, by essentially asking that the Lord make real for the psalmist that which has been promised in the word. The phrase that is translated “be gracious to me, as is your custom” by the NRSV, more freely means, “be gracious to me as you have promised in your word (“your custom” is “your judgment” in Hebrew). The psalmist prays for relationship (“turn to me,” “be gracious to me”), guidance (“keep my steps steady,” “never let iniquity have dominion over me”) rescue (“redeem me from human oppression”), and blessing (“make your face shine upon your servant,” “teach me”). 

At the heart of these petitions is a very realistic theological anthropology. The psalmist knows that we cannot by our own strength or effort, believe in God, keep God’s word, or defeat the power of sin. That is, left to our own will, we cannot maintain a relationship with God. We cannot keep our feet on the narrow path. We cannot defeat sin. Therefore, we need guidance (a light to shine in our darkness) and we need rescue (from ourselves and from other human powers) and we need blessing. In short, we need a teacher: God.

The closing comment is, “my eyes shed streams of tears, because your law (Hebrew, torah; better: “instruction”) is not kept.” Far from being a self-righteous statement, this closing verse should be understood in a communal and personal way. The psalmist sheds tears both because his or her own community does not keep the word, but also because he or she is aware that personally, he or she fails to keep the commandments (see Psalm 19:12-13). 

Embodying the Sermon–Creative Strategies for Preaching

As noted above, why not break up the hot, dog days of summer with a creative sermon based on Psalm 119:129-136? The psalm’s bodily metaphors references–“my soul” (literally: “my throat”), “open mouth,” “my steps,” “your face,” “my eyes”–point to some creative possibilities for preaching. The Word of God is a word that came among us as a body (John 1). After Easter, the Word continued to be embodied–now in the church, which is the body of Christ. The word is never disembodied as it comes to us. It is spoken or read to us by human bodies. We respond to the Word with our own bodies–walking the walk of faith, talking the talk of the gospel.

Why not find ways literally to “embody” this message, using the bodily poetry of the text? A preacher could bring in a manikin and decorate its throat, mouth, feet, face, and eyes appropriately. Or, the preaching could make available paper dolls or paper drawings of a body, and invite the congregation to decorate, color, or label the paper appropriately. The preacher might be willing to use his or her own body in the sermon–to embody in the sermon, in a rather dramatic way, the promise of this text.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:26-39

Mary Hinkle Shore

This reading includes some of the most familiar and comforting words we have from the apostle Paul.

Nearly every sentence is a new way of stating the promise that God has not abandoned “us,” and is in fact working–across the past, present, and future–on our behalf. (While the first person plural verbs originally referred to Paul and those he calls “brothers and sisters” in 8:12, succeeding generations of Christians have of course understood themselves, also, to be directly addressed by the words.) The text has three units, and any one of them could be the basis of a sermon. Together, they offer a look into the way God’s love bursts forth into action over time.

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul writes in Romans 8:26. The language of these first two verses has more in common with what preceded than what follows them. As the Spirit had helped us to cry, “Abba, Father,” (Romans 8:16), so also the Spirit helps us pray when we do not know what to pray.

James Dunn points out that Paul’s syntax in verse 26 defines the problem differently than we usually think of it. The problem is not that we know what we need and merely lack the right words for requesting it. As Dunn puts it, we “do not know what to want,”1 let alone how to ask for it. In the midst of this confusion, the Spirit intercedes, aligning prayer on our behalf to the will of God for us.

In verses 28-30, Paul adds a layer of argument. It is not just that the Spirit intercedes for us in the present. The past tells the same story of God’s intention for Christ to be “firstborn within a large family” (8:29), a family that includes us. The word translated here as “predestined” appears rarely in the New Testament.

Once it is in Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, and twice it is in Ephesians. In Acts and 1 Corinthians, it refers to the events of Christ’s death and resurrection, testifying that they unfolded according to God’s plan. In Ephesians and Romans, the word describes the Gentiles’ eventual inclusion among the people of God as having been planned. In both cases, the word points to God always having had something beyond wrath in mind for sinners and the decaying creation of which they (we) are a part.

In Romans 5, Paul had drawn a parallel between Adam and Christ: as sin had come into the world through one man, Adam, so righteousness came through one man, Christ. Romans 8:29 may echo the creation story again when it speaks of recipients of God’s call being “conformed to the image of his Son.” Humans had been made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), so now God is working out the plan by which humans are recreated in that image which has been perfectly reflected in God’s Son, Jesus.

As past and present have been arenas of God’s action on our behalf, so also is the future. Romans 8:31-39 has the immediate future in mind, that time before God has, as Paul says elsewhere, “put all enemies under [Christ’s] feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25) and before “the glory that is about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

In the immediate future, hardship remains for those in Christ. Paul lists various difficulties, most of which he has experienced himself, and then he adds a Psalm text to state the problem even more graphically, “For your sake we are being killed all the daylong; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (8:36). Suffering from “garden variety” hardship is covered here, as well as suffering that comes as a result of faithfulness to God. Neither of these is elevated over the other, as if one were more desirable or less difficult than the other. And while both threaten to separate us from the love of God, neither can.

Michael Gorman explains Paul’s witness to the solidarity of God with those suffering by contrasting the apostle’s Paul’s view of suffering from contemporary Jewish and Stoic views. Gorman writes that for Paul, “Suffering was not merely to be apocalyptically or faithfully or pedagogically endured, and especially not stoically ‘conquered.'”2

We are “more than conquerors.” That is, we are more than Stoics who endure and are eventually rewarded with relief.  Explaining the difference between Paul and the Stoics, Gorman continues, “Believers do not ignore suffering because it has no effect on the true self, but rather they see in the suffering of Christ the full involvement of the self of God and of Christ in and for the world” (Cruciformity, 329). God and Christ are fully involved in suffering and involved in it “in and for the world.”

What’s more, because of God’s faithfulness in raising Jesus from the dead, both the present experience of suffering and what we can expect of the future are transformed. We not only know God’s solidarity with us now but also anticipate a time when even the worst that the powers of Sin and Death have to offer will be shown to be a “slight momentary affliction” (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17) when compared with the “glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Without the present solidarity of God with humanity and the rest of creation, the future hope Paul speaks might be received by those suffering as so much pie in the sky: a promise, yes, but one of little use to those hungry now.

Without the future hope, God’s present involvement in the lives of the suffering might amount to little more than a feeble expression of the company that misery loves. Together, the actions of God–past, present, and future–on our behalf testify to a fierce, compassionate love from which nothing in all creation can separate us.

1James D. G. Dunn, “Spirit Speech: Reflections on Romans 8:12-27,” in Romans and the People of God, ed. Sven K. Soderlund and N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 89.
2Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 328.