Lectionary Commentaries for March 11, 2012
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 2:13-22

Marilyn Salmon

All four gospels include an account of Jesus’ disruption at the temple.

The synoptic gospels are similar, with some variants, and place the incident near the end of the gospel when Jesus enters Jerusalem for Passover the week he was crucified. In John, the incident occurs toward the beginning of the gospel and is distinctively different from the brief synoptic versions. Scholars agree that the gospel accounts are grounded in an historical incident.

Most concur that the synoptic placement is more plausible historically because it provides the provocation for Jesus’ arrest and execution. This scenario implicates both temple functionaries and imperial rulers in the temple institution, a historical reality in Jesus’ time. The Revised Common Lectionary includes only John’s version and assigns it to the season of Lent.

The gospel of John places the scene in the first of three pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Jesus’ angry demonstration at the temple is the second sign in the narrative. The occasion of the first sign is among family and friends at a wedding in Cana, a small town in Galilee (2:1-11). The second sign follows only few verses after the first, but the context is by contrast urban, public and politically charged. Crowds swell the population of Jerusalem at Passover, bringing an increased need for services, not least of all access to the temple’s sacrificial rites. Crowds heighten the potential for disturbance and therefore the increased presence of Roman troops for crowd control. In this volatile setting, Jesus makes a whip, drives out animals, people selling them, and moneychangers; he pours out their money and tips over their tables. The second sign pertains to the temple, but what invokes Jesus’ wrath?
 
Interpreting the Sign

The temple was a complex institution in the first century until its destruction in 70 CE. For Israel the Temple in Jerusalem was God’s permanent dwelling place, a sign of the covenantal promise of eternal presence. The sacrificial rites were administered here according to biblical law by priests descended from priestly lineage. Jews throughout the diaspora made pilgrimages at feast times. The temple was a potent symbol that bound Jews in a common identity. At the same time, the temple priests evoked resentment because of their inherited status, their connection to Roman authorities, and their distance from those who suffered under imperial powers. The temple priests were not in any sense religious leaders of the people. 

Under Roman rule the priests were not autonomous in their authority even over religious matters.  Roman officials appointed the chief priest and he served their interests. Roman coffers benefited from the marketplace that supported sacrificial rites. A disruption at the marketplace at one of the temple courts during a festival season like Passover affected Rome’s revenues. During the Roman occupation, they controlled the temple. We cannot know what Jesus had in mind by his angry demonstration, but he could not have been unaware that it would get the attention of Roman authorities. A reasonable speculation is that his anger was related to the complicity of Roman bureaucracy and temple authorities.

The gospels were written after the devastating loss of the temple in the Jewish war against Rome.  These narratives reinterpret the loss in terms of victory. According to John, Jesus asserts that he himself is the temple (verses 19-21). Rome did not destroy Jesus by crucifying him; the temple endures through Jesus Christ. Though Jesus’ confrontation against the moneychangers occurs toward the beginning of the gospel of John, it foreshadows Jesus’ trial, death and resurrection. 

In the lengthy trial scene, imperial titles for Jesus play a prominent role. Pilate mocks Jesus by calling him “king of the Jews” and putting this inscription on the cross, despite objections from the chief priests (19:21-22). Pilate taunts the Jews on the day of his execution: “Here is your king!”

The people reply that anyone who claims to be a king “sets himself against the emperor” (verse 12). The chief priests confirm their loyalty to the emperor claiming; “We have no king but the emperor” (verse 15). The exchange between Pilate and the people and the chief priests exposes the irony of Pilate’s taunts — he unwittingly gets it right — and the failure of those who refuse to claim Jesus as King for fear of antagonizing the imperial powers. For his first-century audience, the gospel writer insists on appropriating imperial titles for Jesus. Followers of Jesus confess that Jesus is King and the emperor is not. If the consequence of challenging the imperial powers is death, as it was for Jesus and many of his followers, so be it.

What Does It Mean to Follow Jesus?

During the weeks of Lent Christians consider what it means to follow Jesus, or to walk the way of the cross. The gospel portrays Jesus in a public act that confronts religious and government institutions. Rome holds the ultimate power. This observation is important because it is implicit and because Christians listeners tend to miss it. The traditional heading for this pericope, “Jesus Cleanses the Temple,” contributes to the perception that the problem which evokes Jesus’ ire is the corruption of Jewish rituals and Jewish leaders.

I think the account of Jesus’ demonstration at the temple invites us to consider the complex relationships between civil and religious life. When does Christian faith lead us to challenge civil authority? When do secular laws compromise Christian values? When does one interfere with the other? In America we value the separation of church and state, but in reality it is not so neatly separated. 

Many American Christians have defied civil law because of their Christian beliefs concerning human rights. We recognize Martin Luther King as an exemplary American Christian who confronted civil authorities. What does it look like to follow Jesus for us in our own time and place? Who are our models of faith and why? Lent is a good time to think about difficult or unpopular decisions we make as we walk the way of the cross.


First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17

Elizabeth Webb

God creates and recreates us, God calls us and names us.

We seek to embody new creation and our new names, but almost invariably we falter. Something in life — some misplaced desire, some grief, some reckless act — takes over where our new selves ought to be, and we find ourselves lost afraid. For centuries preachers have spoken of losing sight of God as “wandering in the wilderness” precisely because the description is so apt.

So often we wander through life; we lose ourselves, our destination, God; we forget what we know, and we cling to our grief over what we’ve lost. And God seeks again to call us, to enfold us within a community of fellow travelers, to provide us with a place and a way of living, and to say, “This is what you were made for.”

When Exodus 20 opens, Israel has been liberated from slavery in Egypt and has set out into the wilderness. The people have encountered thirst and hunger, and God has provided sweet water and bread from heaven. They have been attacked and have been victorious, and they have finally reached Sinai. There, in chapter 19, God makes a covenant with Israel: Israel will be God’s treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, if the people keep their end of the covenant. Here, unlike in the covenants with Noah and with Abraham in Genesis 17, a mutual covenant is established: Israel must follow God’s commands if they are to remain God’s people.

Chapter 20 begins to delineate those commands with the Ten Commandments, and in doing so continually points us back to Israel’s formative narratives, reminding the text’s hearers and readers that they are a part of the story of God’s intention for humanity that began so long ago. The covenant at Sinai is patterned after a suzerainty treaty, in which a suzerain (king or lord) lists the good things that he has done for his vassal, lists stipulations the vassal must obey, and promises reward for that obedience.1 So God begins by identifying Godself as the one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” (20:2) displaying like a suzerain God’s beneficence toward the people.

Theologically, however, this assertion also functions to remind the people of who they are:  they are precisely the ones whom God delivered. The “steadfast love” (verse 6) that God shows to the thousandth generation recalls the same words in the song of Moses (15:13), again serving as a reminder of God’s identity as liberator and their own as divinely liberated. Reaching farther back, the commandment to “Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” recalls the mother and father of the multitudes to whom that land was first promised.

The God who appeared to Abraham and Sarah is the same God who appears to Moses now, and the people are those who bear Abraham and Sarah’s names. Exodus 20 even remembers the creation of the world. In verse 4, the language of “heaven above,” “earth beneath,” and “water under the earth” recalls that same language in the first creation narrative. The God who separated those waters at the creation is the only god who is worthy of worship. The commandment to remember the Sabbath overtly refers to the first creation narrative; in resting on the seventh day, the people are in fact doing what God did. In these ways, the text demonstrates that God is the creator and that the people are the created, and that the harmony and order that God established in creation is once again established through God’s law in the community of the Israelites.

Interpreters of the Ten Commandments often divide the passage into commands regarding worship (verses 1-11) and commands governing human relationships (verses 12-17). But the two emphases of the Ten Commandments are better understood as intertwined throughout. Laws concerning proper worship of God are also about how the people are formed through that worship to be a certain kind of people. Laws concerning how people are to relate to one another are also about living as God requires, even doing as God does. The Ten Commandments, and the books of law that follow, are meant to form Israel as a sacred community, a community rooted in right worship of God and living in justice and peace with one another. The Israelites are to live as neighbors to one another, the foundation of which is knowing the God to whom they belong. 

It’s clear that, even though God never announces to Moses where he’s being led, Sinai is the destination in this part of the book of Exodus. The ultimate destination for the Israelites, of course, is Canaan, the land that God promised to Abraham. But leading up to the Israelites’ arrival at Sinai in chapter 19, the text keeps pointing us in that direction: they “came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai” (16:1); God stands on Horeb (Sinai) when Moses strikes water from the rock (17:6).

Sinai has been the place to which God has been leading all along, and not just from the escape from Egypt. The whole journey, from creation forward, has been leading to this place. It is at Sinai that God shows the Israelites the harmonious world in which they’re meant to live, and calls them to live in it. It’s as if God is saying, “This is what you were made for. You were not made to wander, to be afraid, to hunger and thirst, to be lost. You were made to live in this community of justice, in right relationship with your God. Stay true to these commandments, and this is where you will remain.”

Of course, we don’t stay true, so Sinai serves as a signpost, ever reminding us of the sacred community for which we were made, and calling us back to it.


1P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “Exodus,” in Harper’s Bible Commentary (ed. James L. Mays et al.; San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 1988), 147.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 19

Matthew Stith

Psalm 19 offers plenty of useful avenues of engagement. Indeed, it presents the interpreter with an embarrassment of options.

The Psalm touches on a number of major biblical themes — creation, law, sin, forgiveness, and ethical conduct among them — and also offers a rich set of imagery and well-known language on which to draw. The preacher will be well-advised to focus on a selection or combination of these themes according to the needs and situation of the congregation.

Whatever themes or images are emphasized, however, the overall structure and movement of the Psalm offer a solid pattern for exposition.

There are three clear sections of the Psalm:

Verses One through Six

Here the Psalmist offers a vivid description of the glories of creation, focused particularly on the heavens. According to the text, the orderly succession of day and night offer mute but eloquent testimony to the power of the God who has created and continues to maintain them. The daily progress of the sun also illustrates this power. While some of the neighboring cultures viewed the sun as either divine in itself or at least a visible manifestation of a god’s presence, the Psalmist sees its movement across the sky as evidence of the remarkable might of the One who could and did arrange and regulate such a spectacle.

Verses Seven through Ten

The focus of the Psalm switches abruptly from God’s creation to God’s torah (law, instruction). This torah is praised repeatedly, whether it is referred to as “commandment,” “precepts,” “decrees,” or any of the other various terms deployed here. The value of God’s instruction for “reviving the soul…making wise the simple…rejoicing the heart…enlightening the eyes…enduring forever…[and being] true and righteous altogether” certainly goes a long way toward explaining why it is more valuable and desirable than the richest gold and the sweetest honey.

Verses Eleven through Fourteen

Recognizing all of the virtues of torah, the Psalmist now turns specifically to its value as a guide to right conduct. At first glance, the ethical consequence of receiving torah seems straightforward: if one keeps the law, great reward will result. If one does not, the consequences alluded to in the line “by them is your servant warned” would instead come into play. The difficulty, as the Psalmist goes on to point out, is that one does not always even realize when one has transgressed the law. Thus, the Psalm concludes with a series of pleas to God for forgiveness of unconscious sin, for protection against evil influences, and for the acceptability to God, deserved or otherwise, of the Psalmist’s words and thoughts.

The flow of the Psalm through these three sections (with torah serving as the bridge between creation and human conduct) offers a number of possible directions for proclamation. Depending on the specific context and concerns of a particular congregation, exposition could focus on:

The Psalm’s case for Scripture (or for torah) as the essential guide and authority for determining Christian moral and ethical conduct. It is, in the structure of the Psalm, only after God gives torah to enlighten, make wise, and so forth that a person can be “warned” and guided to proper conduct and choices.

The need for God’s sovereign and gracious salvation even in the light of torah. The recognition of “hidden faults” and of the need for God’s protection from evil influences is a deep admission of human inability to live according to the law, and therefore of the powerful need for forgiveness and the Gospel. This approach might be particularly attractive during penitential seasons in the life of a congregation.

The failure of “natural theology” to offer full, saving knowledge of God. In effect, the Psalm could be construed as saying “The heavens may tell of God’s glory, but it is only after God gives torah that the believer can make enough sense of the creation to recognize sin, to cry out for forgiveness, and to place all hope and trust in God’s grace.

While any of these approaches to the text might well suit a particular moment in the life of the church, there is a more straightforward and broadly applicable way to engage Psalm 19 as well.

This text is a celebration of three great gifts of God: creation, torah, and forgiveness. Its reading and interpretation can and should summon the people of God to join in, giving thanks for the particular ways these gifts have been manifest in their lives and the life of their community. Such a celebration is appropriate for any congregation, and will surely be found acceptable in God’s sight.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Daniel G. Deffenbaugh

Among the students I teach in my introduction to the New Testament course, no city in the Roman world holds a greater fascination than Corinth.

In many ways it represents the kind of urban existence that many of them aspire to once they can shake the prairie dust from their shoes and head for the alluring lights of Omaha or Chicago. In Paul’s day, Corinth offered the kind of cultural and economic diversity that few towns could claim. Situated as it was between two sea ports, it was a place where traditions converged, where various languages were spoken and ideas were exchanged as eagerly as money for exotic goods.

Corinth also had more than its share of corruption and vice: the disparity between rich and poor was painfully evident and, as one might expect under such circumstances, prostitution was rampant. In the first century, Corinth was where fortunes were made and where more than a few lives were sacrificed in the process. There was a form of logic at work here that was rarely questioned. And why should it be? Success speaks for itself.

It was into this mix that the Apostle Paul came from Athens, fresh from a lackluster performance at the Areopagus where, as Luke tells us (Acts 17: 32-34), his preaching harvested more sneers than souls. Upon entering Corinth Paul must have felt a bit like a wounded animal ready once again to be thrown to the dogs. As the capital of a wealthy Roman province, eloquence and skill counted for much more than faith and conviction here, and with respect to the former the Apostle was apparently lacking given his recent experience.

But as it turned out, the work of the Spirit was sufficient for the spread of the gospel in this context, and this must have taught Paul a valuable lesson. A year and a half later, as he was called away to Ephesus, Paul left behind a collection of believers that was a microcosm of the illustrious city itself. Rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, male and female, all were enjoying a single fellowship of the Spirit, despite the logic of a town that told them this was not possible. Still, Paul must have had his doubts. How could this body remain whole in the midst of a culture so bent on crucifying it?

And his doubts were well-founded. After his departure it was not long before the sensibilities of this city began to seep their way into the cracks of the church and do its insidious damage, to which Paul eventually responds with a letter, a kind of grocery list of infractions against the gospel. Christians in Corinth had begun committing immoral acts. They were suing each other and refusing to eat together at the Lord’s Supper.

Some were distinguishing themselves by virtue of their spiritual gifts. A few were claiming to be followers of Paul while others gave their allegiance to the skilled orator, Apollos. In all of this the unity of the body was being threatened and it was up to Paul to remind them of the Kingdom wisdom into which they had been baptized. He begins this task in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and ultimately concludes in his famous chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13).

To the outsider, Paul insists, proclaiming Christ crucified is sheer folly (moria). In today’s course vernacular, we might say that this message could only appeal to a group of “morons,” a ship of fools. And in some ways this is correct. For Paul the body of Christ is a new ark, a spiritual vessel held aloft from the disturbing rationality of Corinthian chaos by an inscrutable wisdom in which strength is revealed in divine weakness, glory in the shame of the cross. 

For the Hellenes this was clearly nonsense. Since the time of Plato Greek philosophers had been wary of any certainty associated too closely with the world of change. Ultimate truth, they argued, must necessarily rise above the flux of nature. It must be immutable in its perfection. Gods did not take on human form to be crucified and resurrected. This was precisely the kind of rubbish that sent Paul packing in Athens.

Similarly, the Jews had their own stumbling block. For centuries they had sought from their prophets and in the heavens signs that the day of the Lord was imminent. By the first century this apocalyptic hope had taken a number of forms: the messiah would be a heavenly figure coming on the clouds; he would be a warrior king; the messiah would be a priest. Jesus of Nazareth was none of these. Indeed, he was a man cursed, as Moses so clearly attested (Deuteronomy 21:23). To proclaim this as hope and deliverance was not only foolish, it was blasphemy.

But dishonor in the present age is honor in the Kingdom, a reality inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Christ. It was the values of this latter age that the faithful at Corinth were being called to uphold. While conventional logic required that they consider each other according to the customs of the state — poor and rich, Gentile and Jew — the presence of Christ in their lives necessitated that they live by an entirely new ethic. It is only in this context that we can appreciate the full import of 1 Corinthians 13, the thematic chapter of this letter.

The fact that Corinth appeals to so many of my students as the kind of place they might like to live tells us that Paul’s world and experience are not that different from our own. The squabbles that marked the Corinthian church can sometimes read like the minutes of a contemporary congregational meeting. As in the past, the logic of our social and cultural context too often seeps into the body of Christ and obscures the curious wisdom by which we are called to live. Corinth continues to beguile and convince us of its truth, but Lent offers us the opportunity to discern in prayer and in community whose wisdom, and whose folly, we will ultimately claim as our own.