Lectionary Commentaries for March 18, 2012
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:14-21

Marilyn Salmon

John 3:16 is one of the best known, most loved verses in the New Testament.

It is cited by chapter and verse alone on road signs and on banners in bleachers, a witness to its “sound bite status” as one commentator observed.  Christians know the verse well because it is a straightforward expression of God’s love for the world and promise of eternal life. Its summary of an essential truth of Christian belief tempts us to isolate it from its place within the gospel of John, however. When we do read further, we may wish we hadn’t, for the following verses seem contradictory. How can God so love the world that God sends his son in order to save the world (verse 17) and at the same time condemn so many in it (verse 18)? 

We encounter a characteristic of the Gospel of John in this reading in the sharp divisions between believers and non-believers, saved and condemned, people who love darkness rather than light, do evil and not good (verses 19-21). Preachers face the challenge of confirming the gospel truth and yet observing some caution against accepting John’s dichotomies literally. Many years ago, Raymond Brown wrote an article with advice for preaching John, and I pull it out of the file every year when I introduce the Gospel of John to seminarians.  The premise of the article, “The Johannine World for Preachers,” is the necessity to enter into the world of John and its symbolic universe. Brown advices, “Do not domesticate the Johannine Jesus. It is his style to say things that border on the offensive, be puzzled and even offended; but do not silence this Jesus by deciding what he should not have said and what your hearers should not hear.”  

Brown offers good advice, but how do we enter the world of this gospel? No single approach explains the complex symbolic world of John’s narrative, but I think the characteristics of sectarianism are helpful for understanding historical context of the Johannine community at the end of the first century. The polarity between insiders and outsiders, the sharp contrast between the community and the dominant culture, those have the truth and those who do not is typical of sectarianism and prevalent in the gospel narrative. 

Today’s lection continues the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews who comes to Jesus by night; he recognizes Jesus as a teacher from God (verse 1-2). Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus is sent from God, but he comes in secret he is obtuse. Jesus chides him for his lack of understanding. In John, some of the sharpest criticism is directed toward those who believe, or have insight about Jesus, but keep it secret. Another instance is the parents of the blind man who refuse to make a public statement about Jesus for fear of being exiled from the synagogue (9:22). We hear the condemnation of “the Jews” but the disdain of the parents who forsake their son and refuse to confess Jesus as Messiah in order to remain in the synagogue is equally severe.

Even some of the authorities believed in Jesus, but did not confess it for fear of being put out of the synagogue (12:42-43). The division in the Johannine world is not so much between Jews and Christians. The Johannine community has separated itself form the synagogue; other believers choose to stay. The gospel narrative indicates the experience of a minority group defining itself not only within the diversity of Judaism but also defining itself among followers of Jesus.

In this context, polemical language against the Jews and secret believers functioned to affirm members of a minority community defining itself in relationship to other communities making similar claims to truth. The purpose is not to exclude others, rather to support those who likely make difficult choices to belong. Likely the intent was to encourage others to join them.

As a small minority, the Johannine community did not have the power or influence to marginalize others or cause harm by excluding them. In the western world, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries, whether supported by the state or not, and it has the power to marginalize and exclude those who do not conform. In our hands, the gospel of John can do serious harm, indeed it has. So it is important that we make an effort to enter into the world of John when we interpret these texts.

John 3:16 is a good interpretive lens into the gospel. John begins with echoes of Genesis (1:1) and the goodness of God’s creation, the world, all that is in it. That note is sounded again so clearly here. For the sake of this world, God gives his most cherished beloved son. Any parent knows that the love for one’s child is so great one might sacrifice oneself for a child. In this human experience we grasp God’s self-giving love for us, giving us the incomparable gift of salvation, life forever through his beloved Son.

How else to respond but to love and cherish the world and every creature in it as beloved of God. If we take this response seriously, it will be an all-consuming challenge. We might take it in the direction of global warming and care for the earth. Or we might tackle poverty or hunger in light of the abundance most of us enjoy. Or advocate for peaceful resolution of differences.

Opportunities stretch from our doorstep around the globe. We might conclude that we are too busy to make it our business to judge who is saved or not, condemned or not. We might instead accept John’s challenge to followers of Jesus in his community as our own, that is moving outside our comfort zone to make a public confession of our faith.
1 Daniel N. Schowalter, “Fourth Sunday in Lent,” New Proclamation Year B, 2005-2006 Advent through Holy Week (Fortress Press:  Minneapolis), p.187.
2 Raymond Brown, “The Johannine World for Preachers, ” Interpretation, January, 1989.
3 Ibid., p. 64.


First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9

Elizabeth Webb

The text for today doesn’t seem like altogether good news.

Trudging through the seemingly never-ending wilderness, with nothing to eat or drink but miserable manna, the people speak against God and Moses. And how does God respond? By afflicting them with venomous snakes. The people beg Moses to intercede, and he does, and God, rather than removing the snakes, sends a cure for snakebite. They’ll still get bitten; that danger doesn’t go away, although God does offer healing if they look in the right direction.

It would be fairly easy to gloss over the aspects of this passage that we find troubling, and focus on God sending healing right where we need it. There’s no doubt that such is a part of the meaning of this text. But it’s not all of it, and it doesn’t recognize the harsh realities that the text holds up for our attention. What’s happening in this passage is that the exodus generation is being weeded out and replaced by a new generation. The book of Numbers is coming to terms with the fact that the old generation will not see God’s promises come to fruition. On this long, dangerous journey, some simply will not reach the destination.

Scholars agree that Numbers has two distinct sections, marked off by two censuses. The first census is in chapter one, in which the descendants of each of the twelve tribes are named, up to the present generation. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of these men will live to inhabit Canaan (14:28-30). The second census, in chapter 26, names the generation that will be poised on the edge of Canaan when the book reaches its end.

Between the two censuses, among stories of battle and ritual regulations, the people repeatedly complain and rebel against Moses. God’s anger is kindled by this rebellion, and God sends a plague (11:33), inflicts Miriam with leprosy (12:10), and more than once asserts that this complaining generation will die out before Canaan is reached (14:20-25 and 28-35; 20:12). It’s as if God is picking off the older generation a little bit at a time; Moses admits as much, when he urges God not to kill them all at once (14:13-19). 

The narrative of the snakes in chapter 21 is of a piece with these stories of complaining and rebellion. This time, however, the people speak out not only against Moses but against God as well. There is no water, and the manna which God has provided for them is, as the people say, “miserable.” Earlier the people looked back with rose-colored glasses at the abundant foods they left behind in Egypt (fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, garlic!); now they’re stuck with food that tastes like “cakes baked with oil” (11.9), and they have had enough. The people may sound like spoiled children, but their complaints are not light; they have been in the wilderness of Kadesh for 40 years, and they don’t seem to have made much progress.

Unlike the narrative of the flood, where God is moved by grief, here we can assume, because of previous references in Numbers to God’s anger, it is indeed anger, inspired by the people’s lack of trust that God will provide, that moves God to send poisonous snakes. Many of the Israelites are killed by the snakes, and the people repent and plead with Moses to intercede on their behalf.  Moses does intercede, and God instructs him to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole; all who look at the bronze snake are healed. Remember, though, that even those who are healed will not live to reach Canaan.

One of the most difficult questions that this text clearly raises is that of the character of God. What kind of God is this who inflicts death on people for their lack of trust? Recall that the people have been to Sinai; they have received the law and are bound in covenant with God. Their lack of faith is, to the writers of this passage, a violation of the covenant, and therefore worthy of punishment. But God does also provide the remedy. It is notable that God does not remove the snakes, but provides a means for healing in the midst of danger. God brings healing precisely where the sting is the worst.

Another question that this text raises is what to make of the failure of the exodus generation to reach the Promised Land. The narratives of rebellion in which God sends disaster upon some of the people function in large part to give theological meaning to the historical reality of the dying out of the earlier generation. The lack of faith they exhibited in the wilderness, the logic goes, rendered them unfit to inhabit the land. But what I find remarkable about the Israelites is simply the fact that they go on.

How do they do this? In the midst of their desperation at a journey that was even more arduous than they ever would have imagined, how did they go on? How would we, how do we, go on when faced with a similar circumstance? What do we do when something for which we have hoped and prayed and labored recedes farther and farther into the distance? If someone never reaches the financial security he or she has worked so hard for, if another is never able to heal a relationship that is long broken, if I never quite become the person I’ve imagined myself to be — what then? 

Again God’s provision of healing in this passage is instructive. Even in our worst failures and disappointments, God provides. God offers healing for our wounds, relationship for our loneliness, and faithfulness for our faithlessness. God doesn’t remove the sources of our suffering, but God makes the journey with us, providing what we most deeply need, if we but look in the right direction.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 107, classified as a community hymn of praise, was most likely a liturgy of thanks offered by worshipers at a festival at the temple in Jerusalem.

The psalm opens in verses 1-3 with  an instruction to the people to give thanks to God because God, in goodness and steadfast love (hesed), has redeemed them from the hand of the oppressor and gathered them in “from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (verse 3) — from all points of the compass.

These words would have been particularly poignant to the people of Jerusalem in the postexilic period. After fifty years of captivity in Babylon, they had indeed been “gathered in” by God to their ancestral home.

Four groups of people appear in stories, brief vignettes, narrated in verses 4-32 of Psalm 107. Together they represent, perhaps, the “redeemed of the LORD” mentioned in verse 2. Verses 4-9, “from the east,” tell of a group of wanderers, lost in the desert, who finally arrive at their destination. Verses 10-16, “from the west,” relate the story of prisoners who are set free. Verses 17-22, “from the north,” tell of “sick” persons who are healed. And verses 23-32, “from the south,” are about a group of sailors who are saved from shipwreck.  Each vignette follows a precise format:

  • a description of the distress (verses 4-5, 10-12, 17-18, 23-27);
  • a prayer to the Lord (verses 6, 13, 19, 28)
  • details of the delivery (verses 7, 14, 19-20, 29)
  • an expression of thanks (verses 8-9, 15-16, 21-22, 30-32)

In each vignette, the “prayer to the Lord” and the “expression of thanks” are identical

Then they cried aloud (tsa’aq in verses 6, 28; za’aq in verses 13, 19) to the Lord because of their oppression, and from their depths he delivered them (verses 6, 13, 19, 28).

They will give thanks to the Lord for his steadfast love (hesed) for his wondrous works for the children of humanity (verses 8, 15, 21, 31).

The repetition of words in the vignettes provides further evidence that the psalm was most likely used in a liturgical setting, in which groups of worshipers recited the words of Psalm 107 antiphonally with presiding priests.

Are the four vignettes actual accounts of deliverance by the Lord sung in celebration at a festival? Or is the psalm purely a literary composition, with the four groups representing, in the words of James L. Mays, in his 1994 Psalm commentary in the Interpretation series, “all those who have experienced the redemption of the Lord”? Whether the vignettes narrate real events or are metaphoric examples, the words of Psalm 107 are heartfelt words of celebration of divine deliverance. 

Verses 17-22, the focus of this lectionary reading, comprise the third vignette of Psalm 107, narrating the story of those redeemed “from the north.”  The verses speak of ones who were “sick because of their sinful ways, (who) because of their iniquities endured affliction.” The word translated “sick” in the New Revised Standard Version (from the Hebrew root ‘awal) actually means “foolish ones.” The people of the ancient Near East associated sickness with foolishness or sin and understood it as God’s punishment for sin (see Psalms 32:1-5 and 38:3, 5). 

In the books of the prophets, the north, the third direction mentioned in 107:3 — and, thus, the direction from which the affliction originated in the third vignette of Psalm 107, was often depicted as the direction from which the punishment of God came to the ancient Israelites. The prophet Jeremiah saw “a boiling pot, tilted away from the north” of which God said, “out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land” (1:13-14). In Ezekiel 9, God summons the executioners of Jerusalem and they “came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north” (9:2).

In the midst of their oppression, the ones who are “sick” cry out the Lord, and the Lord sends comforting words and rescues from the pits. The rescued ones then offer sacrifices of thanks and recount God’s deeds with shouts of joy. When thank sacrifices were offered to God in ancient Israel, the priests and the worshippers shared in a communal meal of gratitude for God’s goodness. Thus those who had abhorred food and arrived at the gates of death taste life-giving nourishment once again.

The Israelites wandering in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt constantly complained of a lack of food and water.  In Numbers 21:5, they say to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Perennial complaining — we can all identify — resulted in a plague of poisonous snakes. The remedy was an icon, a reminder of their God, who could deliver from any threatening circumstance, whether poisonous snakes or lack of food and water.

We may never find ourselves literally wandering in a desert wasteland (Psalm 107:4-9), forced to dwell in a place of deep darkness (Psalm 107:10-16), sick to the point of death (Psalm 107:17-22), caught in a tumultuous storm at sea (Psalm 107:23-32), or confronted by poisonous creatures who threaten our lives (Numbers 21:6), but each of us have faced or will face those times when we need desperately the redeeming hand of God. 

Psalm 107 gives us insight into how to handle those times: Recognize the situation you are in; cry out to God and tell God what you need; accept the deliverance that God brings; and then give thanks to God. And in the end, remember that God, not any earthly strength or power, can provide a “habitable” place for us and allow us to live the good life that God has given to us.

But what about others? What about those who wander in the wilderness and are sick to the point of death through no fault of their own? What about those who are battered by the storms of life? Yes, we can cry out to God; yes, we can hope in God’s good provisions.

But we must never forget that those of us who have ample resources and strength are called to be the arms and legs, the hands and feet, the voice of God in this world. God will redeem from the east and the west, from the north and from the south; but the redemption of God often takes human form. And isn’t that what Lent is all about?


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 2:1-10

Daniel G. Deffenbaugh

What a difference a generation makes.

By now it is commonly assumed that the author of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians was not the apostle himself but perhaps a disciple writing in his name. For this reason we tend to be a little more wary of the theology we find here, simply because it does not always match up with what we read in the authentic letters. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their very compelling book, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary behind the Church’s Conservative Icon (HarperOne, 2009), suggest that when reading the epistles we need to distinguish at least three Pauls: a radical, a conservative, and a reactionary.

The former is the apostle of the authentic letters, while the latter — an author intent on upholding the status quo of Roman society, especially in terms of social relations between men and women, masters and slaves, children and parents — is the person behind the so-called disputed letters. But this analysis, brilliant though it is, can be confusing at times, and our passage for this Sunday offers a case in point. While the pseudo-Pauline author of Ephesians is certainly reactionary with respect to his instructions on maintaining traditional familial and social hierarchies in the church, he appears to have grave reservations about the character of the Roman world in which the body of Christ found itself near the end of the first century.

What is perhaps most striking when comparing this text with the authentic letters of Paul is its clear move away from an eschatology in which Christ’s return was imminent toward a realized eschatology in which believers now stand, by virtue of their baptism, “alive together with Christ” (2:5). Indeed, they are raised up and in some mystical way seated alongside their Lord at the right hand of God “in the heavenly places” (2:6). In other words, salvation is now no longer an event that will occur at some point in the future but a very present reality.

Whereas Paul could say that a believer is justified by grace through faith and thus could hope for some final redemptive experience (Romans 5:9; I Thessalonians 5:8-9), the author of Ephesians introduces a slightly different nuance to the theology of his predecessor: “…by grace you have been saved…” (2:5). And in case the reader misses it the first time, the affirmation is repeated just three verses later: “…for by grace you have been saved through faith…” (2:8).

Note how this serves as a foundation for the personal proclamations so often heard today — “I am saved” — and what a diversion it is from Paul’s encouragement to his beloved church in Philippi: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). And here lies the rub: working for God’s good pleasure. How are we to interpret this?

Commentators have observed that the move toward a realized eschatology in the latter third of the first century was most likely a theological response to a delay in the return of Christ. If Jesus had not appeared by now, fully a generation after his death, then either he was mistaken or there was some misunderstanding about his teaching. The latter option was the obvious choice for a church whose faith was vital and growing. The emphasis then came to be placed on affirming the realized Kingdom of God over which Jesus in his heavenly lordship now sat at the right hand of God. In a context where Gnostic currents were hard to ignore, this resulted in a cosmic dualism that appealed — and still appeals — to many. Whereas Paul spoke of a creation waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (Romans 8:19), and hoped for the day in which the world itself would be renewed, the author of Ephesians emphasizes the believer’s distrust of the cosmos.

Their hope now, as the epistle makes clear, lay in ages that are yet to come (2:7). This world — ruled as it was by “the power of the air” and populated by “children of wrath” driven by the “desires of flesh and senses” (2:2-3) — held no hope for those who had been baptized into a new and separate reality. Their eyes were focused on another realm entirely. The best they could do was to endure this present age and remove themselves from its deathly foundations.

Which brings us back to the so-called reactionary Paul: how could he urge the faithful to uphold the social structures of the status quo (5:21-6:9) if in fact these were manifestations of a world bent on disobedience and destruction? If Crossan and Borg are correct in their assumptions, then we can only assume that this served as a kind of survival strategy, a way to remain compliant in the face of adversity, born of a church whose true hope lay elsewhere.

Good works, under these circumstances, tend to forsake their social justice component entirely and turn inward toward a personal moralism. For what use is it to labor toward a new creation if the present reality is lost to the powers that be? But are these the kinds of works that appeal to God’s “good pleasure”?

For centuries the church has struggled to understand its relationship to a world that was created good by God but is corrupted on account of human sin. In times of great trial and hardship our natural tendency has been simply to throw up our hands and be done with it all. We assure ourselves that, whatever the case, we are justified by God’s grace through faith and enjoy (or will enjoy) the salvation that comes with this. We also affirm with Paul that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10).

Certainly God calls us to be sanctified and holy, but this will ultimately be informed by our understanding of the church and its vocation in the world. What works serve God’s good pleasure? It is indeed a matter of fear and trembling to discern how much time we should devote to transforming this world and how much spiritual energy we should expend in fleeing from it.