Lectionary Commentaries for September 11, 2011
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35

Karl Jacobson

When Jesus taught (as often as not) he taught in parables.

He did this in part to meet the “prophetic” declaration of Psalm 78 to open the mouth in parables  and “dark sayings of old” (Psalm 78:2, cf. Matthew 13:35), and in part because it was a means of separating those with ears to hear and those with hardened hearts (cf. Matthew 13:10-17). But some parables, apparently, are less unclear than others. 

This particular parable in Matthew 18:23-35, which compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who is intent on settling his debts, is neither opaque nor particularly difficult to translate for the modern context. God as banker, parent, or even loan shark, works to convey the same harsh irony of the story in which a king forgives much but the one of whom much is forgiven forgives nothing. This parable is in no way unclear, or difficult to comprehend (unlike the parable of the lost sheep which is counter-intuitive; the parable of the sower which needs explanation in the text of the gospel itself; or the treasure hidden in a field which is almost nonsensical). 

This may be because it is directed to the inner circle of disciples and is not meant to confuse or challenge the thinking of the crowds. Or it may be because it is in direct response to Peter’s question about the nature and need for forgiveness which opens the selected passage. Whatever the rhetorical reason(s) may be, this parable is relatively clear. We are exhorted to forgive as we have been forgiven. The parable itself needs little if anything in the way of explanation, and the preacher’s most challenging task may be to simply let the parable speak for itself without trying too hard to open, interpret, or expound upon it. Let the text be what it is.

With that in mind I offer two different thoughts about forgiveness in conversation with the parable of the unforgiving servant.

First. Forgiveness in this parable is both an extravagant and a precious thing. An equation of the respective debts that are in play here can be helpful. A “talent” is a measure of weight, close to about 130 lbs, which could be used for gold and silver (and presumably other precious metals). In monetary terms then the talent has to do with a weight of (most likely) silver, and was roughly equal to about 15 years worth of wages for the typical worker. The king in our parable is owed 10,000 talents, or about 150,000 years worth of income, which works out to more than 3,000 financial life sentences. 

This is no little debt. A denarius (plural = denarii) is a small silver coin that was roughly the daily wage for the typical worker. The slave in our parable is owed 100 denarii. This is no trifling debt, but neither is it earth-shattering. As the parable is essentially comparative, comparing the relative values of debts owed might serve to bring the point of parable more sharply to bear. 

One talent is equal to 5,475 denarii. In the backwards thinking of the king the equation looks like this: T x 104 < FS; where FS is the life of the forgiven slave, and T is the talent, the wages of sin. In the kingdom of heaven forgiveness is exponentially powerful. Even 10,000 talents worth of guilt and debt are counted as nothing compared to the new life of the forgiven sinner.

In the backwards thinking of the unforgiving servant the equation is reversed when it is applied to someone else: US < d x 102; where US is the life of the unforgiven slave, and d is the denarius, the debt the first slave clings to as his right. To put the comparative equation simply, in the eyes of the sinner 100 coins are more precious than the life of another human being; in the eyes of God 54,750,000 coins (the equivalent value of 10,000 talents in denarii) are nothing to be considered next to the fate of the sinner. Forgiveness, as laid out in this parable, is extravagant in the extreme, and more precious by far than the wages of sin.

Second. Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew is not only relational it is reciprocal and reliant. When teaching his disciples to pray Jesus would have us say, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). This fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is echoed in the lesson of this parable about the kingdom, reflecting it back in reverse. We ought to forgive as our King has forgiven us, Jesus says.

In answering the disciples’ request for help in praying Jesus teaches them that forgiveness — both the giving and the receiving of it — is reciprocal, one cannot have it without doing it. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). In answering Peter’s request for help in understanding how far forgiveness needs to go Jesus teaches that God’s forgiveness surpasses both our deserving and our comprehension of it; we who have first been forgiven must, therefore and thereupon, forgive those who have wronged us so much more lightly.

The point of this parable is clear, and its demands both in the context of the Gospel of Matthew and its application in our congregations today is urgent. Forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith in God and our love of one another. Forgiveness, which we receive from God our King in the person of Jesus is what our King expects from his subjects in their dealings with each other. 

Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors; as a prayer this puts the emphasis on what we will receive in turn for the forgiveness we have offered. Forgive your brother or sister from your heart; the parable turns the tables, teaching us that we have been first forgiven and encouraging us to forgive in turn. Taken together, this is a composite picture of the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom we practice, both of which are driven by forgiveness. 

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21

Margaret Odell

Coming at the end of the Joseph narrative, this episode in which Joseph’s brothers seek his forgiveness is not as straightforward as it seems.

Leon Kass sees the brothers’ petition as one last act of deception and Joseph’s answer as an artful dodge.1 Asking first in their father’s words and then in their own, the brothers throw themselves on Joseph’s mercy, abjectly declaring, “we are your slaves!” At one time they had bowed to the Prince of Egypt, ironically fulfilling Joseph’s childhood dream; now they do so in full recognition of his identity, and their crime.

The brothers’ continuing sense of guilt is striking. Have they been reconciled to Joseph, or not? With this scene, have we come to the end of the fratricide and familial deception running throughout Genesis? If the story of Joseph is any indication, family wounds continue to fester; those who do the hurt often wound themselves, and the healing balm of forgiveness may need to be applied more than once. And often, the words of forgiveness are not the words we want to hear. Capping off this story is Joseph’s insight: where we see hurt, God sees good (50:20). How the brothers, or we, respond to that good news, remains an open question.

When Joseph first revealed his identity, he sought to allay the brothers’ fear of retaliation. “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me here to preserve life” (45:6). Joseph has already forgiven them, and there would seem to be little reason to include a second reconciliation scene. But much has happened since then.

All through chapters 37–45, the narrative focuses on the brothers: how much they hate Joseph, scheme to be rid of him, cover up their crime, yet find themselves speaking about their broken family to this strange Egyptian prince. However, once Jacob and Joseph are reunited, the brothers recede from view and the story reminds us in so many different ways that Joseph had always been the favorite son. Even when Jacob dies, it is Joseph who undertakes the embalming and burial rites, while the brothers blend into the vast Egyptian multitude accompanying Joseph to Canaan.  The brothers have good reason to be concerned. With Jacob dead and buried, Joseph is now in a position to retaliate, and perhaps he has been nursing a grudge all along.

The brothers frame their petition as if they are simply conveying their father’s instructions to Joseph: “I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you” (50:16-17).  Herein lies one of the great ambiguities of this episode. Not only do we not know whether Jacob actually issued these instructions, we do not know whether he ever knew what the brothers had done. Jacob did accuse his sons of bereaving him of children (42:36); but the sons never told him as much, and we can’t be certain that Jacob ever learned how Joseph ended up in Egypt. Thus it is fair to ask: Are the brothers not “honest men” after all (42:11)?

Have they learned nothing from their long years of reflecting on the harm they had done to Joseph and their father?

Whether or not the brothers are lying, their words betray lingering guilt. Joseph has already forgiven them; yet they do not appeal to Joseph as their brother, or, for that matter, as sons of the same father, but only as slaves of their father’s God. “Now therefore forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father” (50:17). The brothers’ awareness of their guilt appears to have fundamentally changed their perception of family relationships; it may also have changed the relationships themselves.

Just as ambiguous as the brothers’ petition is Joseph’s response. Does he forgive them? Joseph’s first response is to weep, which is a good thing, because weeping indicates Joseph’s deep love and attachment to his family (46:29). Now, with these brothers, and even with what has come between them, Joseph weeps. Can we trust his weeping as a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation? Perhaps, but it does nothing to alleviate the brothers’ guilt. Unable to accept Joseph’s weeping as a sign of his love, they abase themselves, “We are your slaves.”

And so Joseph shifts the question of forgiveness to the only relationship the brothers claim. They are God’s servants; is it not therefore God’s business to forgive them? “Am I in the place of God?” he asks. The implied answer being no, the next question, then, is, how does God see the matter? “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (50:20).

When Joseph forgave them the first time, he spoke of concrete acts, the brothers’ “selling” Joseph and God’s “sending” him; now he speaks of the underlying meaning of their acts. NRSV’s “intend” translates a Hebrew verb whose multiple nuances are rooted in its concrete meaning “to weave.” Just as one might plot a pattern by laying down different colors and textures of yarn to run across warp and woof, so might one devise a plan.

By the same token, one might view the finished work and see something other than the weaver’s design. What the weaver intends as the mane of a ravening lion might therefore appear to the viewer as a glorious rose. The narrator may have intended such a play of meanings. Joseph thus acknowledges that the brothers have done him wrong, but he also says God sees something else in the brothers’ design. Since God has construed the brothers’ deed as a means of achieving good, it is not Joseph’s place to judge or, for that matter, to forgive.

What does forgiveness mean, anyway? Behind NRSV’s abstract “forgive” is a Hebrew verb conveying a concrete action, to take or lift up. The brothers ask Joseph to “take up” or “lift off” their guilt. The Hebrew verb is, in effect, a metaphor; to forgive is to remove a heavy burden, like taking a dead weight off someone’s shoulders. Joseph does not forgive them, but he does urge them to see their guilt as God sees it. They devised evil, but God saw good. Perhaps we should be reminded of all those heavy sacks of grain the brothers carried up from Egypt. All the while they carried those sacks, they fretted; discovering money and treasures in the sacks only made matters worse. Yet all the while those same sacks of grain preserved their lives.

Joseph thus throws the question back on the brothers, since this business of forgiveness is a matter between themselves and the God they serve. So perhaps Leon Kass is right; Joseph does not forgive his brothers. But does that mean they are not forgiven? We are left with a sense that their crime continues to haunt them, and we wonder what it will take for them to forgive themselves. Doing so does not change their evil into good; what they intended was still evil. Will their burden become lighter once they see their design as God does? The story does not say. Perhaps it is up to the brothers to decide.

1Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (New York: Free Presss, 2003), 656-657.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31

Ralph W. Klein

This fourth semi-continuous selection from the Book of Exodus focuses on what most people mean by the Exodus: the escape from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.

Sermon preparation may not seem like an ideal time to revisit the vagaries of the Pentateuch, but it is good to know that there are at least three accounts of that deliverance from Egypt in the Book of Exodus. 

The Song of Moses
One account of the victory at the sea is poetic in form in Exodus 15:1-18 (the Song of Moses) where Yahweh attacks the Egyptians like a divine warrior, climaxing in the doxology of verse 18: “Yahweh will be king forever and ever.” This picture of divine kingship, therefore, is not hierarchical, but shows rather that God’s kingship in the Bible often refers to God’s care for the poor and oppressed, in this case the Israelites.

The Priestly Account
In chapter 14, verses 21-23, 26, and 28-29 come from the priestly writer and depict what most of us naturally imagine when we think of this crossing — waters piled up on the left and right, with the Israelites marching through the sea on dry land, as if it were a liturgical procession.

The Egyptians followed in hot pursuit, but when Moses raised his hand over the sea, the sea collapsed and destroyed the whole Egyptian army. This fits well with a priestly theme that in the Exodus Yahweh is manifesting his glory over the Egyptians and exposing Pharaoh and all other tyrants as hollow, burnt out cases (Exodus 14:4, 17-18)

The Yahwist Account
The remainder of our semi-continuous selection comes from the Yahwist source (verses 19b-20, 24, 25b, 27a, 30-31). Here the pillar of cloud and fire settles down between the Israelites and the Egyptians, preventing any kind of violent confrontation between the two peoples. At daybreak Yahweh threw the Egyptians into a panic and they plunged foolishly into the sea and perished.

It is the climax of this account that offers additional materials for preaching. As a result of this saving action (verse 30), Israel reverenced (or feared) Yahweh and believed in Yahweh and in his servant Moses. This brings to a fitting conclusion a theme that has been explored since the time of the call of Moses in chapters 3-4.

As you will recall, Moses came up with every possible excuse not to follow Yahweh’s call (many preachers have travelled this Moses route before they finally answered God’s call). In Exodus 4:1 Moses says, “They won’t believe this story or that you, Yahweh, even appeared to me.”

Moses was then given three signs — a staff that turned into a snake and back into a staff; a hand that turned leprous and then was restored; and water from the Nile that will turn into blood when poured out on the ground. When Moses and Aaron showed up back in Egypt, however, the people believed (Exodus 4:31)! No doubt many of them fretted about the ultimate outcome during the protracted negotiations with Pharaoh and the ten plagues. But now when they had escaped from Egypt without a scratch we read in Exodus 14:31: They believed in Yahweh. Oh, and also in his servant Moses.

Preaching God’s Good News for Contemporary Bad Situations
In the twenty-first century, many Christians struggle to maintain their faith. If Luther worried about finding a righteous and forgiving God, we worry about finding God at all. What made the Israelites believe in the Book of Exodus? Was it really the three trick signs that Moses was able to pull off? Was it the supernatural power of the Exodus experience itself? Perhaps.

But chances are it was the fact that God had heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and took notice of them (Exodus 2:24-25). A literal translation of Exodus 2:25 reveals an even more poignant depiction of Yahweh’s compassion: God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew. God knew what they needed, God knew what they were going through, and then God came up with good news for their bad situation. God knew.

As we struggle to live out the life of faith, we have a God who knows us, knows our problems, knows our failings, knows our needs. As we preach to and for the people of God, we try to describe a God who provides good news for whatever bad situations our people are going through — unemployment, family discord, depression and serious illness, doubt, fear, loneliness — you name it.

How does God’s activity in Jesus provide hope and the basis for faith for such people and such situations? Moses underestimated God. “They won’t believe me; they won’t believe you.” That’s a mistake we dare not make. Exodus presents a well-defined situation of oppression and how Yahweh met that need. Our assignment, should we choose to accept it, is to articulate the means of grace in ways that intersect with the current real plight of our people. Then people will believe in God and will trust the word delivered by us latter day Moses’ or Miriam’s.


Commentary on Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13

Henry Langknecht

In my preaching classes at Trinity Lutheran Seminary we talk often about “ignore-at-your-peril” preaching situations.

In many worshiping communities in the United States, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 — falling on a Sunday — will qualify as one; I’ll come back to that in a few hundred words.

As a response to the first lesson from Genesis 50, these verses from Psalm 103 could provide hymn texts for Joseph and for Joseph’s brothers. Verses 1-7 would be the song of pious Joseph who suffered deep wrong at the hands of his envious brothers and had ample reason to question God’s sovereignty.

Instead, the singer remembers “all God’s benefits”: forgiveness of sin (pride for Joseph), deliverance from the grave (the pit and then slavery); crowing with mercy (not to mention the literal “crown” of Pharaoh); and vindication — to the point that Joseph can find God’s hand at work in the evil deeds of his brothers.

Verses 8-13 would be the song of Joseph’s thankful brothers when they hear Joseph’s words of pardon. Joseph’s forgiveness bears witness to the God who is full of compassion and slow to anger and who does not deal with us according to our sins or repay us according to our iniquities. And as Joseph draws his father and brothers west toward Egypt, the memory of their sins is blown as far to the east as can be imagined.

The imperative to “bless the LORD” might strike some as odd since God is usually the one blessing us. Most commentators counsel that “bless” should be taken here to mean “thank.” The psalmist enumerates the benefits for which blessing and thanks are to be given; any one of these might provide an entry point for a sermon whose intent is to proclaim God’s benefits to a congregation or its members (even if they haven’t suffered in quite the ways Joseph did!): God forgives sin; heals diseases; redeems our lives from the grave; crowns us with love and mercy; and satisfies our desires with good things (so that our youth is renewed like an eagle’s. How exactly is an eagle’s youth renewed? By molting? It’s a grand image, if a bit obscure!).

Psalm 103 also solicits our blessing (thanks) for God’s character. God is slow to anger and then even when angered, God does not hold a grudge or consider our sins when dealing with us. In God’s atlas, our sins are as distant from us as east is from west (and no, it is not a globe, they do not meet again on the other side!).

Those who choose to engage the entire psalm will hear later that God’s mercy comes in part from God’s intimate knowledge of human nature and character: God knows we are mortal, evanescent — here then gone in a blink of God’s eye. And God knows that in spite of our hopelessly limited temporal and spatial perspectives, we presume to live and act as if we know anything (sometimes even everything). To this arrogance God responds with merciful patience and understanding.

Verse 6 contains, to my hearing, the most provocative phrase in the psalm and it relates to this question of limited perspective: “You provide vindication …” Vindication has many layers of connotation; it can be a simple synonym for justice, deliverance, or vengeance. But at a deeper level vindication occurs when a point of view, belief, or action that has been condemned, dismissed, or undervalued is shown finally to be true — sometimes by the endorsement of some authority; sometimes by a surprising unfolding of events.

And while being vindicated (especially after persecution for holding an unpopular minority view) often leads to smugness, it is also possible to imagine vindication leading to relief, joy, and reunion (as it does for Joseph and his family). In Psalm 103:6 the implication is that the people of God, who are currently under oppression and who might be ridiculed for clinging to hopeful stories of God’s former acts of deliverance, will have their trust vindicated when God again acts.

With all that said, when I’m sitting in the pew on Sunday, September 11, I will have the attacks of 2001 on my mind. My head will be muddled with the remnants of several days of media opining — from widely divergent viewpoints — about terrorism, Islam, interfaith dialogue, al-Qaeda, revenge, justice, immigration, security, patriotism and everything that “makes America great.”

I live in a theological tradition (Lutheranism) that strives to “call things what they truly are” so I know that in the intractable conflicts between cultures and ideologies no side can ever be called “innocent” or “guilty” and no person, nature, or culture intrinsically “evil” or “good.” I know that in the real-life cycles of oppression, distrust, violence, and intolerance there is no place where the buck stops. I know just enough to know that God’s vantage is the only perspective whence Truth can be known and that no one but God dwells there.

So, what I want from a sermon on Psalm 103 is for you to meet me at the intersection of verse 6 (“O LORD, you provide vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.”) and verse 10 (“You have not dealt with us according to our sins, nor repaid us according to our iniquities.”). Help me to rise above my limited perspective where I’m tempted to bemoan one people’s suffering and oppression (mine) more than another’s; give more weight to one nation’s (mine) innocent dead than to another’s; and more slack to one ideology’s (mine) blind spots than to another’s.

Proclaim God’s vindication of those of us whose hearts break and heads burst at the unfathomable complexity and ambiguity of world events and who yet dare to trust in God. To the extent that you dare, imagine and help reveal the will and mission of the Holy One who can see all the way to the west and the east simultaneously.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 14:1-12

Mary Hinkle Shore

Paul begins Romans 14 by speaking of the “weak in faith” and in 15:1 he urges “we who are strong” to “put up with the failings of the weak.”

Arland Hultgren is probably right to conclude that Paul does not use “strong” and “weak” to define particular groups of people in Rome.

Instead, Paul is clarifying his thinking about food and festivals for Christians who do not know him, and who may have heard that he “went off” on Peter for withdrawing from table fellowship with gentiles (cf. Galatians 2:11-14) and that he voiced strong opposition to the Galatians observing “special days, and months, and seasons, and years” (Galatians 4:10). The advice Paul offers here is calmer and more considered in tone.

If we did not know the Galatians passages, it would be easy to read Romans 14 and think, “Food and festivals: so what?” In Romans, Paul offers the advice that people should welcome one another and not judge different convictions. Good advice, we think, but the issues he mentions seems so much smaller than the issues we struggle with: how to define ethical and moral sexual relationships, whether the wars we are fighting are just, what the arrival of new immigrants means for our communities, churches and nation.

Most of us would hardly notice it if someone labeled a few dishes “vegetarian” at the church potluck. Reading the Romans text in isolation might lead us to conclude it had little to say to churches that are struggling with church-dividing issues.

Yet Galatians makes it clear that, at least in one context, these apparently inconsequential issues threatened both the church and the gospel. Ten years or so before Paul wrote Romans, food and festivals were huge issues. A decade or so later, the apostle who was combative when writing to the Galatians can, in the context of his letter to Rome, exhort readers to welcome one another across different opinions and practices on the same issues.

Why the change? Paul does not imagine that anyone among the Christians in Rome is requiring certain Jewish practices related to food and other things, such as circumcision. By contrast, in Galatia, the teachers who followed Paul did seem to be requiring these things. It is probably also true that no one in Rome is attempting to substitute the observance of days or abstinence from eating meat for the saving work of Christ, while opinion and practice related to clean/unclean food and the correct observances of days had (at least in Paul’s opinion) reached that level in Galatia.

So the question that Romans 14 answers seems to something like this: “When no one is claiming another Savior besides Jesus or leaning on a source of righteousness besides the righteousness of Christ, and yet the church disagrees, what do we do?” And the answer Paul gives is to welcome one another (14:1) and to put up with each other’s failings (15:1). Actually, he tells the strong to behave this way toward the weak, but his words still resonate with both sides, for who on either side of any debate does not imagine themselves to be the strong and their opponents to be the people who just don’t “get it” yet?

Paul provides three reasons for the advice to bear with those who think and act differently from oneself on matters of belief and practice. First, what people are doing, they are doing “in honor of the Lord” (14:6). Even though their practice may seem silly or just plain wrong to others of the same faith, when people eat or abstain, when they observe a day or ignore it, they are nonetheless seeking by their actions to honor the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s second reason is related to the first. Christians bear with one another not only because all are trying by their actions to honor Christ but also because Christ is, in fact, Lord of all, all the time. Even if Romans 14:1-6 seems to be discussing trivial things, Romans 14:7-9 cannot be. “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (verses 8-9).

Christ died and rose in order to create community across the most fundamental of differences: Jew/Greek, slave/free, dead/living! The acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord implies a critique of all other powers, even the power of our most thoughtful, considered judgment on how to honor our Lord.

Paul’s third reason for bearing with those whose practice differs from ours is that God is judge of all of us, and one judge is enough. We are not judges of each other. In contemporary American culture, this text, as well as Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1), are often taken to mean that all behavior is equally ethical, but neither text says such a thing.

In the film, Jesus of Montreal, when Daniel is explaining to his court-appointed psychiatrist why he made a whip of electrical cords and drove leering TV commercial producers from an audition they were shooting, he explains that he was reacting against the way the men disrespected the women they were auditioning. “I don’t like contempt,” he says.

The judgment forbidden in Romans 14 and Matthew 7 is the easy, contemptuous dismissal of those who do not believe like us, or vote like us, or live like us. They are fools, we think, and we see no contradiction between our being Christian and our despising of them (cf. Romans 10b).

Paul says no to such despising, as Jesus had. In Romans 14:17-19, Paul offers his alternative vision of Christian community. Given that these verses are nowhere in the Revised Common Lectionary, preachers of Romans 14:1-8 may want to work with later verses in the chapter as well. In verse 17, Paul observes, “For the Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” With the gifts of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit, the church can abide a lot of disagreement over many other things.