Lectionary Commentaries for September 4, 2011
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20

Karl Jacobson

Here’s a question I’m sure you’ve been asking yourself: Is the “real presence” really present in the biblical material?

The answer is “yes,” but we don’t find it where we might expect, either in the Gospel narratives of the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26, Mark 14, or Luke 22, or in 1 Corinthians 11; rather it is here in the middle of Matthew 18. The declaration of the real presence of Jesus “where two or three are gathered” in his name, is the heart and soul of Matthew — both chapter 18 and the book as a whole.

Matthew 18:15-20 begins with an all too likely hypothetical situation: “If your brother sins against you….,” which is followed by a second hypothetical, “If your brother refuses to listen…” which bears the not-purely-hypothetical truth to all of us who have brothers. If you have a brother (or sister) he (or she) will sin against you sooner or later; this is the nature of brothers (and/or sisters).

The NRSV translates this opening phrase “If another member of the church sins against you….” On one level this translation is a little unsatisfying, as it favors inclusivity over intimacy; thinking of the sinner here as a brother, or sister, or close companion brings the need for resolution to an immediacy, a sense of importance that may be lost in thinking only generally of another “member of the church.” And, ironically, the perceived inclusivity of “member of the church” may actually serve to limit the application of Jesus’ teaching by focusing one on church-relationships, and not all relationships. 

But it should also be noted that the community is in play, the word “church” (or better “assembly”) does follow in verse 17, and the tensions and trials which arise from the sins we commit against one another do have an impact not just on individual relationships, but on the community as a whole. At stake in this issue of sin, confrontation, repentance and forgiveness is the presence of God and what it means for us.

The flow of the passage is important to make note of, as there is movement from the individual to the communal. Where there is sin, Jesus says, confront it directly, one-to-one, face-to-face. If this does not solve the problem, include someone else in the conversation, and if all else fails take it to the community as a whole. From individual confrontation to communal attention, the movement of the passage is a progression that follows the development of the hypothetical conflict from its origins in individual matters to its conclusion at the community level. At each point along the way sin has implications for everyone involved.

The harmony of Jesus’ teaching about conflict and the role of witnesses with both Deuteronomistic and Levitical codes (see chapter 19:15ff in both books) is often noted. But there is something subtly different here. Jesus is not instructing us to bring witnesses to testify against our “brother” who has sinned against us, but to testify to the exchange between brother and sister.

This is not just about safety in numbers, but the safety of the numbers. The health and welfare of the community are part and parcel of the problem of sin between two of the community’s individual parts. At each point along the way, from the start as two individuals are together to the inclusion of witnesses and supporter to the involvement of the assembly as a whole, there is something else at stake. 

Back, now, to the real presence of Christ. Following his teaching on the progression of the confrontation of sin in an attempt to reconcile, Jesus teaches that any sinner so committed to his/her position that they will refuse to listen even to the church is to be treated like “a Gentile and a tax collector.” It is ironic (and probably intentionally so) that this line follows the parable of the lost sheep and precedes the response to Peter’s question about how often one has to forgive a brother who sins (repeatedly) against you. 

Jesus says, essentially, that being a member of the church means you have a responsibility. If your sheep gets lost you don’t look for an hour and call it quits. You get out there and find that sheep. If your brother sins against you seventy-seven times (another hypothetical certainty), that’s how many times you forgive him. And of course, we know from the Gospel of Matthew how Jesus treated the Gentiles and tax collectors. 

Notice that Jesus follows this with talk about the power of agreement, saying that anything that is agreed upon by two on earth will be done for them by the Father in heaven. This is a promise. But notice as well that this is not where Jesus ends. Jesus says last, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” There is no question of agreement at this point. Jesus is present, really present, where two or three are gathered in the Divine Name, not just where two or three agree in Jesus’ name, but where two are three are gathered; presumably this includes the two who cannot listen to each other about a matter of sin, and how to handle it. Even there, perhaps especially there, Christ Jesus is present.

The subject matter of this passage could not be more fitting for Christian communities in every age, place, and situation. One of the things that plagues most Christian communities (and other communities no doubt) is the inability to handle confrontation, disagreement and our mutual accountability when it comes to sin. We simply don’t know how to live together, fight together, and stay together. And this is because we all of us — and not just our brother or sister — are sinners. 

Jesus offers a simple guide to help us handle our sin and its consequences here. But far more importantly Jesus promises us that he is present, that his presence is real for us, when we are gathered in his name — both in agreement, and in sin. Within the context of the overarching narrative of Matthew, which is governed by the promised real presence of God, in the promise of child named Emmanuel, God With Us (1:23) and in this God’s parting assurance to us that he is with us always (28:20), this is the Good News for us who are members with one another of Christ’s church.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-11

Margaret Odell

Today’s gospel lesson is a hard one for those of us who live  in a culture whose motto “live and let live” quite often replaces the much more challenging work of mending broken lives by tending to the causes of brokenness.

If Matthew 18:15-20 delineates an almost legalistic procedure for bringing a community member to accept responsibility for wrongdoing, Ezekiel 33:7-11 addresses the crippling despair that can occur when we do face our sin squarely and accept responsibility for the harm we have caused.

Standing between the announcements of judgment in Ezekiel 1-32 and restoration in 34-48, Ezekiel 33 constitutes a rare moment of human choice in an otherwise theocentric book. In 33:21-22, Ezekiel learns from a fugitive from Jerusalem that the city of Jerusalem has fallen. But this is not the end of Ezekiel’s ministry, or the end of God’s work with the exiles. Verses 7-9 repeat almost verbatim Ezekiel’s call to be a sentinel in 3:16-21.

This role was derived from the practice of warfare, when it was the custom for cities to appoint lookouts to sound the alarm in the event of an invasion (Ezekiel 33:1-6). Even though, or perhaps because, Jerusalem has already been destroyed, the moral danger has not yet passed for the exiles. Accordingly, God continues to hold Ezekiel accountable for the lives of even the sinners in his community. If Ezekiel does not warn them and they die in their guilt, God will hold him personally responsible for their deaths.

At this point, however, the problem is no longer convincing the exiles of their guilt, but of persuading them that it is not the last word. In verse 10, God reports that the exiles are in utter despair: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” The saying is reminiscent of confessions of sin in the penitential psalms; for example, Psalm 51 expresses a similar sense of abject and total guilt (see especially verses 3-5). The difference in Ezekiel, however, is that it is not accompanied by an appeal to God’s mercy. In light of the destruction of Jerusalem, the exiles despair of life. “How can we live?”

Ezekiel answers this despair by quoting the concluding verse of Ezekiel 18. That chapter begins with the refutation of the proverb, “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (18:2). The exiles had used the proverb to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their current predicament. Through an elaborate examination of intergenerational guilt and punishment, Ezekiel 18 deconstructs the exiles’ conviction that the consequences of sin are passed on from one generation to the next. Sinners bear their own guilt (18:4).

The exiles’ abject expression of guilt would therefore suggest that they have gotten the message: they are guilty, so guilty, in fact, that they know they deserve to die. But if that is all they have learned, they have not yet fully understood the purpose of Ezekiel’s work among them. By alluding to the end of Ezekiel 18, and not its beginning, Ezekiel 33:11 suggests that their consciousness of guilt should lead to repentance and life, not despair.  Such repentance is possible, God takes pleasure in repentance not punishment (18:23), and it is up to Ezekiel’s audience to decide: “Why should (NRSV: will) you die, O House of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God, Turn, then, and live!” (18:31-32).

By invoking chapter 18, Ezekiel 33:11 insists that consciousness of guilt should lead to repentance and life, not despair. The verb for repentance (šûb, turn, return) appears rarely in Ezekiel, but it does appear here; in fact, Ezekiel 33:11 doubles the call to repentance that we find in 18:30: Turn, Turn! Here, as elsewhere in the Bible, repentance calls, quite literally, for turning away from a present course of action and turning or returning toward a new way, the way of obedience to God.

Repentance, or turning, is an inherently hopeful idea, because it assumes that it is possible to change course, even after a long life of sin. Human beings are not slaves of sin, or held captive to despair; they are free to choose another way. If it is only sinners who die, and repentance is possible, the most logical thing in the world would be to turn away from sin and toward God. As if to underscore that point, Ezekiel restates the general principle that God does not desire the death of anyone, not even the wicked (33:11). What God does take pleasure in is repentance that leads to life: “turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”

Is repentance possible? I once had a student enamored of two great Christian realists, Augustine of Hippo and Reinhold Niebuhr. Convinced of the reality and pervasiveness of sin as it has come to be understood in certain strands of the Christian tradition, my student could see no evidence in Ezekiel 33 that the exiles could or would be able to repent.

Though the exiles might want to, they would be incapable of doing so. Perhaps my student was right. Just a few chapters later, we will see a valley filled with the dry bones of the whole house of Israel (Ezekiel 37). No longer asking “how can we live?” these dry bones now say, “we are clean cut off.” No one has yet turned, the way of death has prevailed, and it will be up to the spirit of God to bring them back to life.

We must therefore reckon with the possibility that Ezekiel’s audience could not hear his message of grace. But if they couldn’t hear this message, perhaps we can’t either, and perhaps that is why Matthew 18:15-20 remains a hard reading. Confront one another? Name sin for what it is? Expect repentance? Why not just focus on God’s love and keep muddling along? On the other hand, it seems unreasonable that God would call for repentance if it were impossible to do. Certainly the rhetoric of 33:11 suggests that the choice between living and dying is one that is ours to make.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14

Ralph W. Klein

Passover in the Old Testament is at the heart of the Exodus experience.

The Pharaoh who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8) stubbornly refused the demands of Moses and Aaron to “let my people go.” The tenth and climactic plague, the slaughter of the firstborn, will finally force Pharaoh’s hand. The threatened Egyptian firstborn represent all classes, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on the throne to the firstborn of the female slave, not to mention the firstborn of all the livestock (Exodus 11:5).

At midnight the tenth plague struck, involving all the firstborn, including even the firstborn of the prisoners (Exodus 12:29). The Pharaoh went into crisis mode and told Moses and Aaron to leave at once and he adds an unusual parting request: Go, worship Yahweh, and bring a blessing on me too (Exodus 12:31-32).

The narrator does not pause to give all the gory details of the plague, but remembers instead one central purpose of all subsequent Israelite worship — to get a blessing for Pharaoh, heretofore their biggest enemy. So Israel is to pray for its enemies, just as Jesus would later say, “Love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35).

Passover Explained
Right in the midst of these dramatic actions in Exodus, the narrator pauses and gives instructions for the observance of Passover in Exodus 12:1-13, followed by instructions for the feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:14-20). Scholars wrestle with the complicated background of these festivals, but one thing is clear in our pericope: Israel’s escape from the tenth plague was no accident.

Every spring from now on, in the first month on the fourteenth day of the month, each household is to set aside a kid (either a lamb or a young goat), butcher it, roast it, and eat it — more or less on the fly: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, staff in hand, eaten with haste (Exodus 12:11). Who wants to stay in Egypt when freedom is just across the Reed Sea?

But it is the blood of that lamb that makes the difference. It is to be smeared on the two doorposts and the lintel of the doorway (Exodus 12:7) as a sign. The blood serves as a sign first of all for the Israelites, but more importantly a sign for Yahweh, who will see the blood and pass over each Israelite house.

The rainbow in Genesis 9:14-15 is such a double sign too. First, it is a reminder to God of his everlasting covenant with Noah and all his heirs, just in case they might think that God has forgotten them. But of course it is not only God who sees that rainbow; we also see its seven colors and remind ourselves that God never forgets us.

There is no threat for Israelites in that tenth plague. The blood of the lamb means life for them. The Passover according to Exodus 12:48-49 was an inclusive festival. While no uncircumcised male could participate, resident aliens were welcome at the feast once they were circumcised. There is one admission ticket for native Israelites and resident aliens alike.

Passover and Lord’s Supper
Passover, of course, remains a central ritual in Judaism to this day, but Christians remember that in the Synoptic Gospels at least it was at a Passover celebration that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. This meal too means liberation for all who partake, freedom from sin, freedom from the world, and freedom from all demonic powers. As the Lord’s Supper, it is open to all the Lord invited, all the baptized, who remember that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. The blood of the host at this banquet means that God will pass over the sins of all the communicants. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. The infinite One meets us in the finite elements: bread and wine/grape juice.

At the Old Testament Passover, the narrator said: When your children ask you what you mean by this observance, just tell them that we are remembering the night when Yahweh passed over all the Israelite houses (Exodus 12:26-27). That’s when we became God’s liberated people. And so at our Christian Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, we tell each other, especially our children, just why we celebrate this little banquet so frequently. It is not blood on our doorposts, but the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus that says “You are free!” It’s so real you can taste it.

All the baptized are welcome here — every age, every class, every gender, every race, sinners included. In fact, sinners — long-time member sinners or new to the faith sinners — are invited to be first in line. As we feast at this table, we hunger for those who have hurt us, who speak ill of us, or who even hate us. Can our healing of ourselves at this table lead us to pray that God would bring health to all of our enemies as well?

Our Eucharist catches us on the fly, between Saturday and Monday. Our stay at the table is short term. We are soon on our way back into our daily life where we live out our freedom, for others.

This is the third week in our semi-continuous reading of lessons from Exodus. Passover is a reminder of what the Book of Exodus and our life in Christ is all about: freedom.


Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40

Rolf Jacobson

Here we are again, so to speak. As was the case about a month and a half ago, the psalm selection for this week is one stanza of Psalm 119.

This weekend in the United States we will mark the observance of Labor Day — the “official, unofficial” end of the summer season. At this time of year, schools start back up. And with schools, churches launch their program years — rally Sunday, Sunday school resumes, confirmation classes get going, choirs and music programs crank up. And in the midst of all this — an extra “day of rest” to honor the laborers among us.

With all of this work cranking up, Psalm 119:33-40 offers a word about that which the church’s work is all about — desiring God, God’s ways, and God’s Word. 

The theological theme of the psalm is the Word of God. The psalm repetitively employs eight different synonyms for the Word of God: “law” (better, “instruction”), “commandments,” “ordinances,” “precepts,” “decrees,” “words,” “promises,” and “statutes.” The poetic theme of this section is desire — desiring, longing for the Word of God, to be more specific.

But first, some notes on about Psalm 119 as a whole. This “wisdom” or “instructional” psalm is by far the longest psalm in the Psalter, and the longest chapter in the Bible. The psalm is an alphabetic acrostic poem. It has 22 stanzas — one stanza for each of the 22 consonants in the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza has eight verses, with the first word of each stanza beginning with a succeeding consonant of the Hebrew alphabet. 

In stanza 1 (verses 1-8), every verse begins with the Hebrew letter ‘alef. In stanza 2 (verses 9-16), every verse begins with the Hebrew letter bet. And so on. One theory scholars propose about alphabetic acrostic poems is that such poems serve a fundamentally educational purpose–the alphabetic structure makes memorization easier, especially for children. While there is something to that theory, this explanation does not suit Psalm 119. The psalm is simply too long and too repetitive for memorization to be a primary goal. 

Rather, the alphabetic, acrostic pattern in Psalm 119 is more likely trying to say something about the very nature of language and the nature of God’s Word. Perhaps what the psalm is trying to say is that ultimate expression of human language is the divine word. As noted above, the psalm repetitively employs eight synonyms for the Word of God — “law” (better, “instruction”), “commandments,” “ordinances,” “precepts,” “decrees,” “words,” “promises,” and “statutes.”

Most of the stanzas of the psalm use all eight of these synonyms. And with the sole exception of verse 122, every single verse in the poem contains at least one of these eight terms. Thus, again, it seems that the poem is suggesting that the Word of God is the best use of the language, the ultimate expression of human meaning.

The section assigned for this Sunday is the he stanza. The first word in each verse begins with the letter he word — which correlates with the English letter H. Because prefixing the consonant he (“H”) to a verbal root is characteristic of the hiphil verbal stem in Hebrew — especially in this imperative form — it should not be surprising that seven of the eight verses begin with a hiphil, imperative verb: “teach me,” “give me,” “lead me,” “turn my heart,” “turn my eyes,” “confirm,” and “turn away.” Only the last verse diverges from the pattern, as it brings the stanza to a fitting climax:  “See, I have longed for your precepts.”

Together, these seven imperatives along with the eighth, culminating verse, clearly identify the theme of the stanza: desiring God, God’s ways, and the Word of God. God is the ultimate human desire, because God alone can satisfy true human longing. God’s Word is that which is most to be desired by God’s people (see Psalm 19:10) because it alone is truly worthwhile. God’s way alone is the true way, therefore it is most to be desired.

To desire God, God’s ways, and God’s words, according to the psalm, includes both positive and negative longings. Positively, the life of faith means to learn to desire to seek God and God’s ways through God’s Word. It means to delight in studying God’s Word and to seek understanding and knowledge there. Negatively, the life of faith means turning away from other desires — the desire for selfish gain (verse 36), from vain pursuits (verse 37), from those things which only bring disgrace (verse 39).  

Just as there are “sins of omission” and “sins of commission” so also there are “virtues of commission” and “virtues of omission.” Desiring God, God’s ways, and God’s Word means to cultivate both the virtues of commission and the virtues of omission.

But how does one preach this message?

The challenge is to preach “love and desire for God, God’s ways, and God’s Word” as a promise, rather than as one more obligation to keep. This is always the challenge of preaching the good news — to preach the promise, without turning the promise into a new law. To preach Christ, without turning the risen Lord into a new Moses. This sort of preaching requires “showing” rather than telling. It consists of offering a picture of what the promises of God look like when they are fulfilled. It requires giving examples of how Scripture satisfies the deepest desires and longings of human life, because Scripture is the means of grace that brings us Christ.

In closing, the great poem by George Herbert, entitled “The Pulley,” in which Herbert describes how by withholding “rest” from the human spirit, the Lord made sure that humans would never stop from desiring God.

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
The beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 13:8-14

Mary Hinkle Shore

In the first part of Romans 13, Paul addresses what those in the Christian community owe the civil authorities.

He writes, “Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7, NET).

Many readers of Paul’s letters worry that the first half of this chapter can be easily appropriated by corrupt governments or misguided clergy to silence Christians who might otherwise courageously, faithfully resist systemic evil. In fact, the text has been used in this way. The ease with which Romans 13:1-7 is misunderstood may explain its absence from the Revised Common Lectionary.

From Obligation to Love

However, Paul is not counseling the Roman Christians to passivity vis-à-vis the Empire. In the second half of the chapter, Paul moves from the language of tax returns to the language of love. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (13:8). With the mention of love, the scope of the imperative has changed. No longer is Paul talking about paying bills, but rather about seeking the neighbor’s highest good.

This transition — the move from fulfilling one’s obligations to living in love — is the same one Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you” (cf. Matthew 5:21-48). “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44, NRSV).

The language of the balance sheet does not adequately describe the Christian life. Why? Because we are children of God, and God sends rain on the just and the unjust (cf. Matthew 5:45) and otherwise gives to the undeserving.

Look at the Time!

The language of the balance sheet also does not adequately describe the Christian life because of the time. Paul says, “The night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:12). We know this way of speaking from our own culture’s political rhetoric. The language of a “new day dawning” has become a cliché in the speeches of our own leaders. It is shorthand for that more prosperous, peaceful time that politicians imagine when the policies they prefer replace those of their opponents.

Paul uses that rhetoric here to speak of the contrast between the former time, characterized by slavery to sin, and the present/future, characterized by adoption and an inheritance of righteousness. The contrast is perhaps most simply stated in Romans 6:17-18: “But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

The former time, the night, was characterized by bondage to powers that Paul calls “sin” and “the flesh.” The dawning day will be characterized by freedom and life “in the Spirit,” and “in Christ.” And so Paul says, “The night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:12).

The lateness of the time is warrant for acting as if the day were not just dawning, but already here. Notice that the warrant is not that we should “look busy” and thereby impress Jesus with our diligence and so turn aside his wrath. Paul does not use guilt or fear to motivate, but rather joy and hope. Paul says salvation, not condemnation, is nearer to us than when we became believers. In this text, the coming day is not a threat but a gift. We are on the cusp of an entirely new age. To anticipate it is to be already changed.

Putting on Christ

As the new reality begun in Jesus Christ dawns, what would have once been called a riotous good time (reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy) will be shown to have been way too small a dream for the word, “party,” and in fact, nothing like a real celebration at all. To “put on the Lord Jesus” now, ahead of the dawn, is to know the difference between a disaster and a party, and to get dressed for the real party a little ahead of time.

The verb in Greek for putting on the Lord Jesus describes putting on clothes (cf. Galatians 3:27-29, Colossians 3:9-12). Putting on the Lord Jesus ahead of time is as public an activity as wearing new clothes. Done in public, it bears witness to the hope that it is in us. Lives characterized by loving one’s neighbor as oneself will offer testimony to an alternative future.

The future is not a choice between keeping your head down and quietly paying your taxes and other obligations on the one hand, and carousing and quarreling on the other. For those clothed with Christ, the future is characterized by seeing the “other” as neighbor and seeking the neighbor’s best.

In his conversation with a lawyer and parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus had broadened the definition of neighbor and given us a picture of love as the fulfilling of the law (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Paul echoes the same themes as he counsels the Romans on how they can bear witness to the lordship of Christ, even as they live out their lives in the heart of the Empire.