Lectionary Commentaries for February 22, 2012
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

It would seem that Matthew has offered preachers quite a gift — a ready-made three-point sermon on 1) charity, 2) prayer, and 3) fasting.

These three are classic spiritual disciplines traditionally lifted up during Lent. Dividing the text into three parts, however, may not be the best way to approach this text on Ash Wednesday.

These three disciplines are examples of a broader exhortation that opens the passage, in the same manner that the antitheses are examples of Jesus’ hermeneutic for interpreting torah in the previous section of the Sermon on the Mount, 5:17-48.

An initial problem with focusing on the foundational instruction is that the New Revised Standard Version mistranslates Matthew 6:1: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” The Greek word translated here as “piety” is dikaiosunē. The importance of this word is seen in that Matthew uses it seven times, while it never appears in Mark and only once in Luke. Every other time in Matthew, the New Revised Standard Version translates the term as “righteousness.” So in 6:1, Matthew presents Jesus as being concerned with the performance of righteousness in a way different than the “hypocrites” perform the same acts of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

Matthew usually uses the label hypocrites for the Jewish religious leaders (see Matthew 23). The First Gospel’s strong language against the religious leaders is rooted in a conflict between Matthew’s church and the synagogue after the fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. Both were positioning themselves as proper heirs and interpreters of Israel’s traditions. We see this conflict arising already in 5:20, in which Jesus calls his followers to a higher righteousness than that of the religious leaders. Matthew presents Jesus as acknowledging their righteous behavior but intensifies the requirements for his followers.

In 6:1-18 the religious leaders are characterized as engaging in acts of righteousness but for the wrong motivation — gaining glory from people instead of serving God. Jesus calls for a higher righteousness — engaging in these acts in ways that do not draw attention to oneself but draws one closer to God. It is important to contextualize this contrast in light of the conflict named above because in truth what Jesus teaches here about not drawing attention to oneself accords with Jewish teaching of the day. In other words, Matthew does not present Jesus as critiquing Jewish acts of righteousness so much as arguing that the religious leaders do not follow their own teaching (see 23:3).

With the exception of the Lord’s Prayer inserted into the section on prayer (see above on passages omitted by the lectionary), the case studies follow the same rhetorical pattern:

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  Almsgiving (verses 2-4) Prayer (verses 5-6) Fasting (verses 16-18)
Introduction of Topic So whenever you give alms, And whenever you pray, And whenever you fast,
Negative Example of hypocrites do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces
Negative Motivation so that they may be praised by others. so that they may be seen by others. so as to show others that they are fasting.
Present Reward Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
Positive Instruction But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 
Positive Motivation so that your alms may be done in secret; and pray to your Father who is in secret; so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret;
Future Reward and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This pattern reinforces the idea that the individual topics of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are not the primary focus for Matthew. They are simply lenses through which we can examine the principle of verse 1: when we do acts of righteousness appropriately, in ways that are not self-serving and do not seek admiration from other people, we will be rewarded by God.

Notice that the reward we get from other people is in the form of immediate gratification, but God’s reward is future, eschatological. But also notice that the principle does not assert we are to be righteous in order to get a reward from God. The contrast in the examples is not between seeking praise from people and seeking a reward from God. The contrast is between doing righteous acts “so that they may be praised by others” (verse 2; cf. verses 5, 16) and “so that your alms may be done in secret” (verse 4; cf. verses 6, 18).

To change strategies simply to get a better reward is still self-serving. Matthew wants the reader to get the point: doing acts of righteousness is “not about us.” We do acts of righteousness because they are right. Matthew is concerned with the intent behind contemporary acts of righteousness.

Reading this passage as the gospel lection for Ash Wednesday is a longstanding tradition of the church meant to illuminate the purpose of and appropriate approach to Lenten disciplines. The passage invites the contemporary church to rethink spiritual disciplines. Spirituality these days has become awfully self-serving. It may not be as crass as clearing our throat as we drop our check in the offering plate so everyone notices, but we do often do acts of charity, prayer, abstinence, study and worship with a consumerist mentality. What do I get out of it? How will it give me a higher level of satisfaction?  Matthew’s Jesus says, “It’s not all about you. Do it because you should — do it because that’s what Christians do.”

First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Steed Davidson

The few occasions that Joel appears in the lectionary it seems to support material that frames the interests of Christian festivals.

Used in the Pentecost lection because of its citation in Acts 2 and at the start of the Lenten season presumably for its call to repentance, Joel gets read through the eyes of these events. Admittedly a difficult book to understand, it offers, though, unique insights that could enhance these Christian observances. Reading this passage not as a call to repentance for sin but a call to turn to God in lamentation for the earth forces new insight for Lenten observances.

The presumption that human beings form the center of God’s concerns frames most readings of the Bible. Therefore, the urgency of the crisis in Joel, the summons to the people, and the pathos of lamentation suggest disaster as punishment for human sin. As the book details the disaster in chapter 1 the earth bears the punishment and the derivative consequences for human beings can only be implied. Joel’s call to lamentation, however, may well be a summons to humans to advocate on behalf of the earth.

The danger of separating chapter 2 from chapter 1 lies in disconnecting the vivid images of earth’s pain in chapter 1 from the summons in chapter 2. The invading locusts of chapter 1 while not named in chapter 2, presumably, continue as the invading army of 2:2 since the locusts have been metaphorized as an army in chapter 1.

Further, the difference in tenses between the two chapters notwithstanding, the events can be taken as a continuity between the past and the near future. The call to lamentation (1:13-14 and 2:12), the imminent Day of the LORD (1:15 and 2:1), and confidence that widespread supplication can restrain divine action (1:14 and 2:13-14)1 mark both chapters. Restoring chapter 1 and 2:3-11 to the consciousness of the lection focuses attention on earth as the subject of the lamentations.

The descriptions of the plight of the earth stand out in Joel and appear more striking when human subjects are called to pay attention to earth’s suffering. Human subjects are awakened to earth’s suffering but not as it affects them directly. Priests mourn the devastation of fields (1:9-10), farmers weep for the ruined crop (1:11), and ministers of God lament the lack of grain (1:13). Equally, animals groan over the desolation of the fields (1:18).

Joel provides vivid details of the destruction of earth and only infers the implications for living creatures. The summons to lamentation therefore appears motivated not by human interests but primarily by the fate of earth. The divine wrath assuaged, elements of earth rejoice or benefit from the reprieve — the soil can rejoice (2:21), animals can breathe easier (2:22), and mountains rain down wine (3:18).

Joel summons humans to lamentations in the interests of the earth precisely because humans have the capacity to cry to God. Since God appears to be the source of destruction, fasting and other penitential practices are needed to appease God. Joel presents the invading army as a theophany in 2:10. Building out the descriptive language of the appearance of God,2 he connects these elements with the invading army, naming God as the source of earth’s distress.

The Day of the LORD motif used in both chapters (1:15 and 2:1) also indicates that the invading army stands not as an enemy but rather as an instrument of God (2:11). The voiceless earth relies upon human beings and practices of penitence to advocate on its behalf. The repetition of the call of the trumpet, the sanctification of a fast, the gathering of the assembly, acts of penitence like mourning, and the activity of the priests all indicate the urgency to use the full array of human contact with God (1:13-14 and 2:12-14).

Reading Joel in this way requires engaging the translation of sûb as “return” in verses 12-13. Since the word “return” tends to imply “repent” the obvious question remains “repent from what.” Joel supplies no catalogue of offenses that motivates the divine action. In fact, punishment for sin is implied simply because the sin-punishment-repentance-deliverance schema remains the normative biblical narrative. This scheme restricts divine action to reaction to human sin being the primary causation. The reader need not fill in human sin as the causation for the suffering earth, presuming as usual an exclusive divine concern with humans.

Reading “turn” instead of “return” in this context offers new conceptions of human relationship with God, and with the earth. Joel encourages acts of penitence aimed at appeasing God in the interest of the earth. These actions do not inherently indicate human guilt. John Barton argues that fasting in this context could be a “pious custom” that accompanies prayer without any implication of repentance.3 The call to turn to God in supplication for the earth and not necessarily for one’s needs, be it forgiveness of sin or survival in a threatened ecology, reconfigures the relationship with God.

Joel’s emphasis on the global nature of the turn to God, transcending age and breaching the normal marital exemptions (2:16 cf Deuteronomy 20:7), commends God as the single source of help in the midst of earth’s crisis. The turn to God implies a call to avoid other sources of help. Supplicating God on behalf of earth constructs a relationship where humans serve the interests of the earth. Engaging in spiritual practices for the sake of earth reflects a broader conception of God’s economy as well as the purposes of acts of penitence.

The focus on earth in this reading of Joel offers another Lenten narrative that avoids the narcissistic indulgence with human sin and forgiveness. Concern for earth as God’s creation and for God’s saving relationship with the earth reflects a sober position for humanity within the created order. While much of the language of science pays attention to human action as the source of earth’s pain, the lack of blame in Joel’s discourse remains relevant here since it places an onus upon humans to respond to earth whether or not human action causes earth pain. Embracing spiritual exercises motivated by other than self-interest presents exciting possibility as Lenten observances.

1Part of the confidence is based upon the responsive nature of God to human supplication. This idea emerges in several other instances such as Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:15.
2Joel uses the images associated with God in other theophanies such as Judges 5:4 and Psalm 18:8; 68:9;77:19.
3John Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 79.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Matthew Stith

Psalm 51 is, by any measure, one of the best-known and most often read penitential texts in the canon, and, as such, presents both opportunities and challenges for the interpreter.

Particularly if read in the context of Ash Wednesday or some other occasion where sin and repentance are particularly in view, this text’s vivid exploration of the impact of human sinfulness and the desperate need for God’s forgiving intervention will strike at the heart of any congregation.

The preacher, however, must attend very carefully to what the Psalm says about these crucial topics in order to avoid presenting a distorted picture of the nature of sin and of penitence as described in the text. A text that admits “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” is not a simple call for a person to apologize to God or endure some penance by way of making up for particular transgressions. Psalm 51 is about the consequences of and remedy for sinfulness, rather than merely sins.

As described by the Psalmist, the totality of sin’s impact is stunning. That sin causes guilt and remorse in the sinner (verse 3) and leaves the sinner liable to judgment and punishment (verse 4) are hardly shocking insights in and of themselves. These are, indeed, almost commonplace, for any reading or hearing community with any notion of law or justice. What makes the Psalm’s enumeration of sin’s consequences noteworthy is what comes after these initial observations.

The text maintains that sin isn’t merely a matter of crime and punishment in prescribed, logical proportion. Instead, it is radical and universal, pervading every human life from its beginning (verse 5), which in turn means that its effects and consequences are unavoidable. And those effects, also, are spelled out in intimidating detail. Sin, we read, deafens the sinner to gladness and causes physical agony (verse 8). It at least approximates the experience of being cast out from God’s presence, rejected, and abandoned (verse 11). It impedes the enjoyment of the good news of God’s salvation and chokes off even the willingness to attempt to follow God’s law, thus perpetuating its own malignant influence (verse 12). Sin even prevents the offering of praise (verse 15) and perverts sacrifice (verse 16).

The magnitude of the problem presented by human sinfulness requires a solution of equal, or even greater magnitude, and the Psalmist has a very clear idea about where that solution must lie. Over and over, the Psalm expresses the absolute conviction that only God’s action can deal with the sources and consequences of sin. If every human being is born sinful, then only the creation of a new, clean heart within each human breast can possibly remove the taint. And, of course, only the creator God can do such a thing (verse 10).

And as for the root cause, so for the consequences: every mention of a remedy or answer for the miserable consequences of sin is couched in terms of God’s initiative and God’s execution. The Psalmist does not entertain any fancies about human ability to cleanse, to purge, to wash away, or to blot out sins—all any human being can do is to beg God to graciously do what is beyond us to do.

If our sin has cast us out from God’s presence, or caused us to feel as alienated from God as if we had been so cast out, it is only when God instead hides the divine face from our sins that the alienation is eased (verse 9). If our transgression and corruption have silenced our will to follow and to praise, then it is only God who can open our lips (verse 15). We cannot sacrifice our way out of the consequences of sin, because only a heart that has turned toward God in repentance and supplication is an acceptable offering (verse 17). Only God, the Psalm drives home with vigor, can deal with our sins.

The horrifying breadth and depth of sin’s undermining of human nature and the clear reality that only gracious, divine action can possibly arrest or repair the damage it does are evident in the Psalm. This Word is a clear denial of any notion of so-called “works righteousness,” any contention that human beings can somehow do something on their own to “make up” for even a portion of their sins. As such, it is a valuable resource to preachers whose communities are tempted to entertain such notions, a temptation that is surely heightened during penitential seasons. Psalm 51 reminds all that the true and valuable purpose of repentance is as a means for the sinner to entreat the gracious help of the only One who can do anything about sin.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Eric Barreto

Salvation is reconciliation with God. It is that simple really.

And yet the simplicity of this sentence is belied by two things. First, the work of Jesus is a radical paradox. Second, the work of God in the life of God’s servants is also a radical proposition. Both are at the center of this passage.

“Be reconciled to God,” Paul exhorts in 2 Corinthians 5:20, but how? In the closing verses of chapter 5, Paul exclaimed that we who are “in Christ” are already living as and into a new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). But Paul is quick to point out that this new creation “is from God” (2 Corinthians 5:18) and through the reconciling work of Jesus; once again and like the previous weeks, Paul’s achievements are not in view but the divine sanction and inspiration of Paul’s proclamation.

As we turn to this week’s reading, we learn more about what Jesus achieves for our sake. In short, Jesus escapes the stain of sin only to bear it most fully. He embodies sin though sin had not part of his life.

The result is just as striking. Though Jesus’ paradoxical embodiment of sin, sin no longer binds us. Instead, we can “become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That we are accustomed to such language in our faith should not hide how incredibly radical this claim is. The defining attribute of God for Paul is something we mere mortals get to share through Christ. The phrase “the righteousness of God” is incredibly important but also dense for Paul; in fact, it is one of the central themes of Romans (see Romans 1:16-17). In these brief words, Paul contains God’s faithfulness throughout all time, the consistency and perpetuity of God’s promises. The God of Israel is a God who abides by God’s word. The phrase also contains how we as believers might share in this righteousness “in Christ.” God’s righteousness, God’s faithfulness, God’s consistency become ours through Christ. Such righteousness is therefore not only oriented towards some future reality but life today.

For Paul, salvation is not something we await in some indistinct but promised future time. Instead, salvation is a daily reality for the follower of Christ: “…now is the acceptable time.” These are likely difficult words for many Christians to hear today. The economic recession has disrupted our sense of security. Whether we have lost a job or feel at the edge of joblessness, these days do not feel like “the acceptable time.” The current political discourse is as coarse as ever, opting for easy attacks instead of constructive ideas. Institutions are mistrusted. Authority no longer holds the same sway it once did. For many, hopelessness and despair is the order of the day. For many, it seems like the worst of times, and the future holds little hope. Many will exclaim, “We need to be saved from our current conditions.” How can Paul declare this an “acceptable time?”

The order of the day in the ancient world for the Christians in Corinth was if anything more deleterious than ours. Life, both economic and physical, was that much more tenuous. Lives were short and difficult. Can we accuse Paul of naiveté or wishful thinking here? We cannot if we continue reading. As Paul himself details, his very life was characterized by struggle, oppression, and persecution.

From the hopefulness of the day of salvation, Paul turns to a litany of the cruel realities of his day and his life. Paul points to his many sufferings as evidence that he has not put his needs before the requirements of the gospel; he has been willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others. And in that suffering, the faithfulness of Paul’s ministry is laid bare, but most of all it is the “power of God” that shines most brightly. And, yes, the gospel remains true even as some reject God’s messenger. Paul’s opponents do not have the final word, for God has marked Paul as honored, reputable, true, and known. In the end, though it seems that Paul has been stripped of everything and every characteristic, Paul possess all things through God alone.

Paul’s hope in these verses is not a mere opiate, not a way to deaden his senses and forget his troubles. His hope in reconciliation with God is not a casual affirmation that “everything is going to be okay.” He knows full well the pain life can inflict. And yet in the midst of all that struggle, his faith remains strong, for reconciliation and righteousness are available to us through the radical work of God in Christ.