Lectionary Commentaries for August 28, 2011
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28

James Boyce

Confession at Risk: Identity, Passion, and Death

“From that time on…” today’s gospel lesson begins.

Some readers (notably J. D. Kingsbury) have seen in these words (16:21 and matched in 4:17) a clue to Matthew’s structure and movement, dividing the gospel into three major sections: the presentation of Jesus Messiah (1:1-16); the public ministry of Jesus Messiah (4:17-16:20; and the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah (16:21-28:20).

However appropriate such a reading, there is a clear and significant turn in Jesus’ ministry that is prepared for or even occasioned by the clear announcement of Jesus’ identity and mission in the words of Peter’s pivotal and climactic confession of Jesus as Messiah and Jesus’ announcement of a new community and its mission. Now in Matthew we hear the first of three passion predictions (16:21; 17:22-33; 20:17-19) essentially taken over from Mark, but now in a context greatly adapted in both outline and content in the chapters that lead up to Matthew’s passion narrative proper.

Of first importance is the way this announcement of Jesus’ coming passion and death are tied so closely to Peter’s confession and in turn to what it means to follow as a disciple of this Messiah. That Jesus now “shows” (rather than “teaches” as in Mark) his disciples what is about to happen marks this event also as one of revelation and as a gift of special knowledge now being imparted to this disciple community.  At the heart of that special revelation is the clear witness that Jesus’ identity as Messiah is integrally tied, even constituted in the necessity (“must,” 16:21) of his suffering and death in Jerusalem.

So it is ironic, or even almost tragic, that immediately following his boldly precocious confession of a few verses before, Peter now not only seems to deny the implications of his words, but even begins to rebuke or chastise Jesus for his prophetic words of mission. In equating such a response to being in league with “Satan” Jesus’ harsh words recall his own testing by Satan in the wilderness (4:1-11).  In pressing the issue, Peter has become a “stumbling block” (i.e an “offense”). 

Such a description is reserved in Matthew (see 11:6; 18:16-18; 26:31-33) for those whose words or actions are the occasion of turning others from their proper calling as obedient disciples of the Messiah–for those who place a roadblock in the mission of the kingdom and salvation. They are those who risk thwarting God’s will that not one of these little ones should ever be lost to the kingdom (see especially 18:1-14).  To be in on the mission of God’s Messiah is to be blessed with a mind and vision that looks at things not from a human perspective but from the perspective of what God is about.

God’s Mission of Salvation
Although the explicit title of “Savior” occurs nowhere in Matthew, one of the central roles of Matthew’s Messiah is that of savior. The angel Jesus’ name as delineating his saving role and further defined that saving work in the forgiveness of sins (1:21).  Again and again Jesus’ healing ministry is linked with themes of salvation and the forgiveness of sins: “Your faith has saved you” (9:22). The promise to disciples who endure faithful to the end is that they “will be saved” (10:22; 24:13). So when Jesus’ identity as God’ Messiah is linked so directly to his suffering and death it is ironically and theologically significant that Jesus’ role as Savior will become both the ultimate mockery and confession at the cross: “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (27:42).

At the beginning of the Matthew’s story Joseph’s obedience assures the child will be named and assume his role.  Now in today’s lesson Matthew centers this clear understanding of Jesus’ role as savior within a much broader perspective of God’s overall work of salvation and the call to obedient discipleship. As ones who now obediently hear that call, Matthew’s community and ours become part of that story now clearly centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Discipleship and the Cross

Peter’s wrong-minded words of “offense” now having been rejected, Jesus’ the address now turns to the specific call and delineation of discipleship — of what it means to “follow” this Messiah. The concluding verses of our lesson make clear that such following has to do with two central motifs in Matthew’s gospel — it has to do with “saving or losing life” and that life has to do with what it means to be those righteous ones who welcome and experience the coming of God’s kingdom. At the beginning of the gospel Joseph’s obedience called for a new appraisal, even a reversal, of what it meant to be righteous (1:19-20).

At the beginning of his ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announced that entering the kingdom will call for a “righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20). In Matthew’s unique parable of the laborers in the vineyard (20:1-16) those who are paid the same wage bemoan the master’s “righteousness” in insisting on treating all with the same extravagant generosity. It is thus clear that such righteousness is not just piling on more deeds or being more earnest in obedience, it has to do with a complete overturning or transformation of what it means to be righteous (“The last will be first and the first will be last;” 20:16). Such is a righteousness that will lead to the death of God’s Messiah; and such is a righteousness that will call for ones who follow on the way to the cross and who in their following are blessed to discover that in giving away and losing their lives they will save and find them.

To “take up the cross” then is not an invitation, for disciples then or now, to start going around looking for crosses to bear. The logic of the kingdom does not have to do with plotting the way to success. Instead, disciples are called to an obediently humble giving of self for the neighbor in which hearing and doing are brought into conformity (see Sermon on the Mount; 7:12, 21) and the whole of the law is fulfilled.

Such conformity comes only by the transforming model and power of God’s blessing and presence in this Messiah, who promises to be with this community to the end of the age. Just as this Messiah did not have to seek the cross; it was occasioned by those to whom his insistent mission of service gave offense, so we are called to the unselfconscious love and care for those in need. Crosses will be provided, as Martin Luther saw so clearly when he writes in his Freedom of the Christian that anyone who has a spouse or a family already has built-in crosses enough.

The other, even those at our shoulders, always calls us to that sacrificial living beyond ourselves which calls us to die and be raised again in lives that are lived for the sake of the neighbor. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, again in a unique parable, says much the same when in the so-called parable of the last judgment those who gather before the master are commended for their unconscious serving of the needs of others: “As you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” Such hidden service is rewarded with an invitation to “enter the kingdom” which has been prepared (25:31-46).

The Coming Kingdom

Here we get a glimpse of Matthew’s distinctive view of the kingdom.  The kingdom is becoming present in that resurrected life of the Messiah in each of our communities where this confession and life are bound together in the responsible exercise of love and mercy for the world.  This obedient love is encouraged in Jesus’ final strong declaration and promise that some standing here “will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (16:28).  Along with every generation of hearers we are ones who wait in the meantime for a coming which will happen at an unknown hour. But we wait in hope with the promise of our resurrected Lord that he will be with us as we follow in obedience and mission until the end of the age.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 15:15-21

Ingrid Lilly

Prophets preach. Perhaps this sounds obvious. Actually, it is not.

Some prophets model the moral life. Some prophets heal. Some prophets impress crowds with miracles. Jeremiah preached. Jeremiah’s job was to speak. Indeed, in Jeremiah 15, we have access to Jeremiah’s call to speak.

Speech Today

Speech permeates our lives. Presidents, provosts, professors, and pastors make speeches. The media is filled with talking heads. The government makes a profession out of rhetorical speech. Advertisers similarly study what makes speech work on people. Americans exercise their right to free speech. We live in a loud world. We make home videos. We can speak our minds in our Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. We can comment on blogs. We can write blogs. We are surrounded by microphones, videos, Skype, television, apps, and websites. Speech is everywhere.

Occasionally, our society pauses to examine the way in which we use speech. One such moment recently presented itself in the Arizona shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. Immediately following the incident, the media erupted with stories about the effect of caustic political speech. Indeed, people wondered if the handful of political smear ads and rhetoric against Congresswoman Giffords fed a dangerous anger that led to her shooting. Ultimately, no connection between our rancid political speech and the shooter could be established. Nevertheless, the incident served as a wake-up call to the poor climate and quality of our political speech. 

While the wake-up calls do occur, for the most part, our speech continues apace. And the pace is dizzying, the volume is deafening, and the density is overwhelming. This surely cannot be healthy. I am reminded of the Proverb that says “when words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech” (Proverbs 10:19). 

In general, we could learn a lot from the practice of restraint. Indeed, fasting from speech in a normal day can offer tremendous insight! However, Jeremiah’s call offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on precious speech, or speech that holds weight. 

Ours Should Be Prophetic Speech

Prophetic speech is not reserved for the biblical prophets alone. In the book of Numbers, Moses wistfully remarks, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29; cf. Acts 2:17). People who follow the Lord are invited to consider what prophetic speech would look like coming from their own mouths. 

Prophetic speech is not simply inspired opinion. Neither does it draw strength from popular sentiment or ideology. Prophetic speech comes from a profound encounter with God. Jeremiah’s call in chapter 15 gives us a sense of what this encounter might look like.

Jeremiah’s Call to Prophetic Speech

Jeremiah’s call begins with a delightful discovery. God’s words “were found” (verse 16). This discovery proved so significant to Jeremiah that he immediately internalized it. He tells us that this was an entirely pleasurable experience. Finding and ingesting God’s words brought him joy and delight. 

After his discovery, Jeremiah does not immediately publish his findings. Verse 17 indicates that the prophet holds his tongue. He waits to speak, deepening his thoughtfulness. This period of waiting, where he refrains from celebration, reveals another aspect to prophetic speech. The words take on a difficult weight. 

Holding his tongue begins to produce a range of emotional responses in Jeremiah. He feels angry, isolated, and wounded. From verse 15, it seems likely that Jeremiah’s patient silence includes social torment of some kind. For certain, Jeremiah lashes out at God and accuses him of lying to him. Where previously, Jeremiah felt joy at the discovery of God’s words, over time, the words begin to feel like a dead end: “waters that fail” (verse 18). 

Jeremiah’s movement from joy to turmoil reminds me of a wonderful quote by Henry Ward Beecher. “Truths are first clouds, then rain, then they are harvest and food.” The delight Jeremiah felt could be likened to a blue sky with brilliant white clouds. However, these are harbingers to a rain storm. In such a storm, with thunder, darkness, and drenching rain, one quickly loses sight of the lofty clouds that first inspired. And this is exactly where Jeremiah arrives, at bleak anger and wounded confusion. 

What happens next makes Jeremiah’s call to prophetic speech truly amazing. Jeremiah has a choice. God indicates that Jeremiah could offer the world two kinds of speech: worthless speech or precious speech (verse 19). “Worthless” speech might be that which indulges in despair, confusion, or drama. Worthless speech probably stems from anger and hurt. Worthless speech flows out of the disappointment and isolation Jeremiah feels after the glow of his inspiration fades. Worthless speech simply accepts the bleakness of Beecher’s storm. 

The amazing thing is that Jeremiah does not choose to deliver worthless speech to Israel. God gave him a decision, and Jeremiah chose to speak weighty words. Once again, the text does not provide detail about “precious” or “weighty” speech. But some things are implied. Weighty speech does not pander to public opinion (“you will not turn to them,” verse 19). Weighty speech is strong enough to endure critique (“wall of bronze,” verse 20). Weighty speech requires confidence in nothing less than the protection of God. 


In the face of our cultural excess of speech, Jeremiah’s call to speak could seem like one more decibel in the noise pollution of our world. Indeed, in his day, Jeremiah was one of several hundred prophets speaking in Jerusalem. The ancient excess of speech in Jerusalem is still true for us today. However, Jeremiah’s call offers us a glimpse into speech worth saying. His call models how we might experience God’s prophetic call for weighty speech.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15

Amy Merrill Willis

Who Sees the Burning Bush?
The burning bush scene in this chapter of Exodus is surely among the top ten best known biblical stories.

It has been immortalized in countless ways in culture. An entire generation of Americans grew up with Cecil B. DeMille’s rendition of it in the epic movie, “The Ten Commandments.” For a younger generation of viewers, the scene has been animated by Dreamworks’ “Prince of Egypt.” But neither of these movies can resist the urge to idealize the one who encounters that strange bush.

A Prophet and his Commission 
Of course, this idealization of Moses is not without good reason. This passage provides readers with the first and finest example of the prophetic commissioning scene, the form of biblical literature that narrates God’s call to the prophets. It also shows us the calling of the first and best of all the Israelite prophets, the great leader of the Exodus. After Moses, the scene will be echoed and adapted many, many times — in the books of Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1), and Jonah (Jonah 1, 3), among others.  It even appears in the New Testament story of the annunciation to Mary (Luke 1). Yet, the ironic reality is that the prophet par excellence in this scene is not the powerful, idealized leader remembered by the Priestly Writer in the second half of Exodus. Moses in this scene, which is the work of the Yahwist writer, is more like the hapless and confused person described by Jewel in the song “Standing Still”: 

cutting through the darkest night are my two headlights
trying to keep it clear, but I’m losing it here to the twilight
there’s a dead-end to my left, there’s a burning bush to my right
you aren’t in sight, you aren’t in sight

Moses–The Lost Soul
Moses calls himself “an alien residing in a foreign land” (2:22). But he is a man who has never really been at home anywhere. Raised by his Hebrew mother, he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (2:9-10) and given an Egyptian name (see the discussion on Exodus 1:8-2:10).  Although he tries to intervene to help his kinfolk, the Hebrews (2:11-13), he ends up murdering an Egyptian and being rejected by his own (2:14). He flees Egypt and the mess he had created there, only to be identified as an Egyptian by the women he meets at the well in Midian (2:19).  From the adopted son of royalty, Moses is now shepherding flocks (a less than prestigious job!), working for his father-in-law.  

God Meets Him Where He Is
This is the situation when God “comes down” (3:8). When we say that God meets us where we are, the implication is that we are not always where we should be, but that God adapts and accommodates us nonetheless. Moses is not necessarily where he should be, either, but  the sight of the burning bush and God’s call will bring him out of obscurity and isolation (rescued yet again?!) and send Moses (and his family!) back to Egypt to lead the Israelite flock.

But even for God the task of getting Moses back on track is no simple matter. The typical commissioning scene involves the prophet’s objection to God’s commission. The objection highlights the prophet’s dependence upon God in undertaking sacred work and reveals an appropriate sense of humility. But Moses is not typical in any sense. Instead of one objection, Moses raises four (3:11,13; 4:1,10) before saying flat out, “O my Lord, please send someone else” (4:13)! 

Who Am I?
It is interesting to note Moses’ first objection, which questions his own identity: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses is reluctant to take on the role that God asks of him, but really, who better than Moses? His dual identity seems to make him the perfect person to confront Pharaoh for the sake of the Hebrews. What is more, despite his reluctance and his own earlier misguided interventions, Moses is driven by a deep sense of justice — a desire to intervene for the victimized and the mistreated, wherever he sees injustice taking place (2:11, 13, 17).

Who Are You?
After turning from the question of his own identity, Moses turns to the question of God’s identity. “[When] they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?” Moses ponders in verse 13.  God’s cryptic response is, “I am who I am” (ehyeh asher ehyeh, 3:14), an explanation of Yahweh, God’s personal name. The grammatical background of this name is notoriously slippery and subject to any number of translations, including “I will be what I will be.”1 On the one hand the deity is reserving the right to identify God’s self on God’s own terms — I can be whatever I can be. On the other hand, the name indicates that God is known through God’s actions for others. 

Divine Action and Human Action — Past, Present, Future
In this (and every!) prophetic commissioning scene, God’s work is once again aligned and intertwined with human agency. Just as Moses saw the Egyptian beating a Hebrew (2:11), and Pharaoh’s daughter saw the child and heard him crying (2:6), so also has God seen the misery of the people and heard their cries (3:7) and has been moved to action. Indeed, such seeing, knowing, and acting for others is part of the very identity of God. And much as Moses’ identity emerges from his own past, so God’s actions in the present emerge from God’s past commitments to the ancestors (3:15).2 The God of the Exodus is one who remains faithful to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But unlike human commitments that can waiver and fade, God’s identity will be constant. God will be known in God’s future faithfulness to Moses and the people — “I will be with you,” God promises (3:12).

1J. Gerald Janzen, Exodus (Westminster Bible Commentary; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997), 34.
2 Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1991), 60-70.


Commentary on Psalm 26:1-8

Eric Mathis

Psalm 26 is a sturdy prayer that can be prayed by any individual at any time.

The morally upright citizen can echo the psalm’s claims of integrity with confidence. The hopelessly accused sinner can voice the psalm’s willingness to be probed by Yahweh and found innocent. The words of this psalm can be spoken aloud before worship, yet they are equally valid when whispered in the marketplace. No matter who prays this psalm, how they pray it, or where they pray it, its words convey an immensely active desire to act with integrity and enjoy a covenantal relationship with Yahweh.

Psalm 26

Psalm 26 begins with themes of integrity, trust, and a request for vindication. These themes are not unlike the opening and closing of Psalm 25 (verses 1, 21). After the initial request for Yahweh to act on the individual’s behalf (verses 1-2), Psalm 26 makes bold assertions about the moral integrity (verses 3-5) and religious integrity (verses 6-8) of the individual. A confident statement of faith and a commitment to worship Yahweh (verse 12) follows a second request for Yahweh to act on the individual’s behalf (verses 9-11).1

The whole psalm can be divided into the five movements outlined above.  However, this week’s lection (26:1-8) focuses on the first three: the opening plea, evidence of moral integrity, and assurance of religious integrity.

An Opening Plea (verses 1-2)

The opening words of Psalm 26, “Vindicate me, O Lord,” petition Yahweh to act on behalf of the suppliant. Confident in personal integrity and unwavering trust in God, the suppliant anticipates Yahweh will render a verdict of innocence rather than guilt (verse 1). The suppliant’s appeal to integrity does not presume a perfect life. Rather, “it means a life of committed relationship of dependence on God alone and full participation in all the accepted means of restoration God offers.”2 

The opening plea is substantiated by the suppliant’s willingness for Yahweh to search everywhere for integrity — inside and out (verse 2). Even the suppliant recognizes that some people can appear righteous yet be involved in evil activity. Instead of fearing contamination, the suppliant expresses confidence that Yahweh will find integrity in both outward actions and inward disposition. The suppliant hopes Yahweh will grant the plea for vindication once Yahweh accepts the invitation for examination and finds the individual above reproach.

Evidence of Moral Integrity (verses 3-5)

Using human actions of looking, walking, sitting, and consorting the suppliant presents evidence of moral integrity. First, the suppliant sees the love of Yahweh continually, not occasionally (verse 3a). Yahweh’s love is present no matter what happens, and Yahweh’s commitment becomes the impetus for the suppliant to craft a journey around faithfulness to Yahweh (verse 3b).

Because the suppliant is walking in faithfulness to Yahweh, the suppliant is not sitting with the worthless (verse 4a) or the wicked (verse 5b). The verb for sitting found in the outer phrases of verses 4-5’s chiastic form means “long-term, settled residence — the kind of dwelling in which one becomes a citizen and adopts the customs and language of the land.”3 This infers that while the suppliant does not have lasting and potentially harmful relationships with the wicked, cursory or redemptive relationships are not negated. Relationships the suppliant kept with liars and deceivers may have imitated those Christ maintained with sinners in his epoch.

Just as the suppliant rejects sitting with the worthless and wicked, so does the suppliant reject consorting with hypocrites (verse 4b) and the company of evildoers (verse 5a). The double rejection of the wicked in verses 4-5 creates a strong statement that the suppliant not only walks with Yahweh, but “runs in the opposite direction rather than sitting down with them.”4

Assurance of Religious Integrity (verses 6-8)

Verses 6-8 shift this psalm’s focus from moral integrity to religious integrity.  In verses 3-5, the suppliant created distance from the evildoers. In verses 6-8, the suppliant creates further distance from the outside world — this time through worship. “We have moved from the everyday world with its moral challenges to the religious world, the world of altar, proclamation, and Yahweh’s dwelling.”5 The former was construed negatively, but the latter is now construed positively.

Washing hands with water was a rite of purification that symbolized innocence (verse 6). It prepared the worshiper to enter the presence of Yahweh and join the assembly in worship. In worship the suppliant did what was right before Yahweh: sing a song of thanksgiving and tell of Yahweh’s wondrous deeds (verse 7). Presumably, this included thanksgiving for Yahweh’s involvement in the suppliant’s personal life as well as recounting Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel. 

Before returning to pleas that close Psalm 26, the suppliant makes one final statement of love and dedication to the place where Yahweh and Yahweh’s glory reside. Surely Yahweh’s abode is more pleasant than the abode of the wicked.

Preaching the Psalm

This week’s Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle readings hold the everyday world in tension with God’s world. Exodus 3 is the narrative of the Israelites under oppression in Egypt, and Jeremiah 15 requests Yahweh’s retribution on persecutors (verse 15). Romans 12 contrasts the lifestyle of the world with Christian principles, and Matthew 16 foreshadows the suffering of Christ wrought by a corrupt government. In each of these passages, however, we are reminded that vengeance belongs to God (Romans 12:19) and the Son of Man will repay everyone (Matthew 16:27). 

Psalm 26 focuses attention away from the everyday world and on our covenant relationship with God. Through this prayer, we are confronted with the reality that we bear responsibility for our moral and religious integrity, and we are challenged to extend God an invitation to test that integrity. Although anyone can pray to God, this Psalm gently cautions that trusting God is an easier exercise when one can claim integrity. 

This week’s lectionary texts call us extend God’s love to the faithless while simultaneously walking, sitting, and acting differently. The tension already stated is that we cannot follow the ways of humanity and claim to serve God fully. However, Psalm 26 reminds us that we can follow the ways of God and serve humanity confidently, with moral and religious integrity. May this be our prayer, and may we learn to pray it with the humility and conviction it requires.

1See John Goldingay, “Psalm 26,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 379-388.
2Gerald H. Wilson, “Psalm 26,” in Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 113.
3Wilson, 114.
4Goldingay, 383.
5Goldingay, 384.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 12:9-21

Mary Hinkle Shore

We love because….

Perhaps the first thing to keep in mind when preparing to preach on Romans 12:9-21 is a word from 1 John: “We love because he first loved us” (4:19).

While Paul is never quite so quotable on this order of things as John, Paul does write of God first loving us. 

Romans 5:8 notes that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 8:35-39 assures readers that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (verse 39). 

Surrounded and upheld by this undeserved and steadfast love, then, the community of Jesus Christ practices love. “Let love be genuine,” Paul says in Romans 12:9a, and then he spends the rest of the chapter describing sincere, non-hypocritical love in various spheres of the Christian life.

The imperatives in this reading relate to four circles of relationships: (1) kinship within one’s own Christian community, (2) hospitality to “the saints,” that is the Christian community beyond one’s own closest brother and sisters in Christ, and to strangers, (3) blessing directed to one’s enemies, and (4) peaceable interactions with everyone.

All the Imperatives

There are, depending on the English translation one is using, upwards of 30 imperatives in this reading. There is no reason to believe Paul is addressing particular problems in Rome. As Arland Hultgren observes, “The sheer number of admonitions collected here in one place should caution one against concluding that Paul is addressing specific problems in Rome.”1 Rather, the exhortations speak to any community patterning its life after that of the crucified and risen Christ.

All of the verbal forms are plural. The words are a window on what life in Christ looks like in community. One is tempted to imagine Paul saying with his syntax, “Don’t try this alone.” His advice is addressed to a bunch of people, and much of it concerns their shared life.

Furthermore, this group of people is gathered and empowered by the Spirit of the one they follow. To avoid preaching moralism (recognizable by the uses of “we must,” “we should,” and “let us” in your sermon manuscript) it will help to remember that the Spirit of Christ shapes the common life of those in Christ so that “the just requirement of the law is fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:4). As God shapes the shared life of the saints, that life is characterized by genuine love.

Concentric Circles of Involvement

While there is no need to force a degree of tidiness onto Paul’s advice by which he himself was not constrained, it is possible to see his words here related to four general types of interactions.

The Immediate Community

“Be devoted to one another, with mutual love” (New English Translation). The combination of words for love and brother results in a Greek word familiar to American English speakers (philadelphia). Romans 12:12, with its references to hope, suffering, and prayer, hearkens back to Romans 8, where Paul speaks of both suffering and hope that characterize the Christian life and adds that the Spirit helps us, in the midst of these things, to pray.

In other words, the people who are told to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (12:12) are the same people who have already learned that “the sufferings of this present time are not to be compared to the glory about to be revealed to us” (8:18), and that “the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (8:26b).

“The Saints” & Those Needing Hospitality

Romans 12:13 exhorts, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Paul uses “the saints” in at least two ways: sometimes the plural refers to those in Jerusalem for whom he is collecting funds (e.g. Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 9:12). Other times it seems to refer to the church more generally (e.g. Romans 16:2; 1 Thessalonians 3:13).

Whether Paul is referring to the members of the Jerusalem church, or to the church more generally, in Romans 12:13 generosity extends beyond the immediate community to others, i.e., both saints and strangers, with whom one interacts.


In verse 14, the circle expands again, this time to include enemies. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Readers of the gospels will remember that Jesus had said something almost identical: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28; cf. Matthew 5:44).

To describe what he meant, Jesus pointed to God sending rain upon both the just and the unjust. To be children of such a God is to love not only the people who love us, but to love even those who mean us harm.

Like Jesus, Paul speaks of such love in the context of God’s prior, similar action. Speaking of God’s work on behalf of sinners, Paul had said that God reconciled him and his readers to God’s self “while we were enemies” (Romans 5:8). Now Paul tells those same readers, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food” (Romans 12:20).

Verse 20, with its reference to heaping burning coals on the head of one’s enemy, requires comment. The language comes directly from Proverbs 25, and there it is also in the context of advice about doing good to one’s enemy. Scholars disagree on whether Paul has a particular penitential rite, featuring live coals, in view.

The reference may be metaphorical; pointing to the way that returning good for evil has the effect of shaming one’s enemy and thus possibly motivating a change in behavior. Either way, it is true that returning evil for evil has the effect of escalating conflict and reinforcing the sense of righteous indignation on both sides, while showing hospitality to enemies is at least confusing to them and may disarm them altogether.

All People

The circle of those to whom Christians relate in genuine love expands finally to include everyone in verse 18. One of the most common outcomes of defining a group over against others in its environment is that insiders to the group receive particular benefits, while outsiders are left out. Frequent flyers are upgraded to business class. Employees of the month get better parking spots. “Members” get special discounts, and on and on.

Yet such distinctions are absent in the ethic Paul describes. The Christian ethic of Romans 12 results, finally, in relationships marked by humble, generous love, no matter the character or status of those to whom Christians relate.

1Arland Hultgren, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 453.