Lectionary Commentaries for July 29, 2012
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 6:1-21

Ginger Barfield

This text begins our month-long lectionary “bread-based” texts. And don’t we get tired of all the bread sermons?

We give up before we make it all the way through this sixth chapter of John. We run out of things to say about simple loaves of bread. We turn to the Epistles or the Old Testament. 

Perhaps we can move through these texts, allowing for the bread metaphor to hold them together, but not getting blocked in our interpretations by the dominance of the loaf.

Framework

John 6:1-21 holds together as a narrative, but it actually contains two stories. Both are included by the synoptic gospel writers. The feeding of the 5,000+ (verses 5-15) is found in Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, and Luke 9:10-17. John’s narrative of Jesus’ walking on the water is consistent with the Matthean and Markan chronology. Luke does not include this account. A reliable commentary can provide the notable comparisons and contrasts.

John’s telling is typically his own narratively and theologically. The two stories are linked as one unit. They begin to peel back another layer in the attempt to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” For John, the primary theological issue is Christological.

The answer to the question comes through the people who need Jesus. First the crowd, and then the disciples. The needs create expectations, encounters, and interpretations. It happened for them and it happens for us as we become part of the narrative.

Introduction (verses 1-4)

These verses are important because they set the stage for why the encounter with Jesus in each story is significant: the crowds are following because they saw Jesus perform SIGNS. Jesus has healed the official’s son (4:46ff) and the man by the pool (5:5ff). Impressive acts in the previous two chapters create anticipation for what is to come for the reader and a definite expectation from the crowd.

First Story (verses 5-15)

The crowds are looking for another sign, and they get one here. John states this directly in verse 14: “When the people saw the sign that he had done . . . .” 

Jesus multiplies loaves of bread and fish to satisfy the hunger of the people and it is called a sign.  (This is the third sign according to John’s chronology — 2:11 and 4:54.) In John’s Gospel, a sign is used to signify who Jesus is. In this miraculous feeding, the people see the sign and it signifies to them that Jesus is “the prophet who is to come into the world” (verse 14). 

An interesting comparison to this should be noted in the words of the woman at the well. When confronted with the profundity of Jesus, she also calls him a prophet (4:19).

Encountering Jesus. Expecting something. Receiving food to fill their stomachs. They are interpreting the encounter in terms of who Jesus is — prophet — but they want more. They want to make him king.

Second Story (verses 16-21)

The need in the previous story was a hungry crowd in a remote location with no possibility for the provision of food. That one took a miracle.

In this story, the need requires a similarly exotic miracle. It is dark. The disciples are alone three miles out on the lake in a boat. The winds are up. The water is rough. They see Jesus walking on the water. They are SCARED.

In what may be one of the boldest Johannine understatements, Jesus simply speaks the “egō eimi” (verse 20). These words will occur again on the lips of Jesus in verses 35, 41, 48, and 51. Here, though, they stand alone. There is no fuller explanation, no expansion, no predicate adjective or predicate nominative for grammarians to haggle over. 

I would suggest a simple understanding of the “I am” statement in this context. It is as if one were to open the door and enter a dark room where another is present. There is a fear over who is entering the room if the identity is not announced. A simple “It is I” suffices as a voice recognition to calm the fear over who the intruder is. 

So much commentary ink is shed over two issues in the text. The first is the meaning of Jesus’ words “egō eimi.” The sermon may not be the best place to unpack that. The second issue is the debate over whether the disciples were so close to shore that Jesus was simply walking in the shallow water by the shore. This isn’t pertinent to the sermon either.

This story is similar in flow to the previous one. The disciples need Jesus. Their need came out of Jesus’ own absence. Then Jesus appears: a miracle happens through the simple voice of Jesus calling out to them, “I’m here. Stop being afraid.”

Thoughts to Build Upon

When juxtaposed, the two stories provide light into our own needs, expectations, encounters, and interpretations.

How often is it that people “come after” Jesus because of the signs? People observe the good that comes to those who follow Jesus. Expectations are awakened. We want the big things. Healing from horrible diseases. Instant money when the house is in foreclosure. A miracle for the child who cannot overcome addictions. Sometimes this is the miracle that we get.

How often is it, though, that all someone needs is a simple reassurance that, indeed, Jesus the Christ is present.  “Egō eimi.” That presence can get the boat to shore, can calm the grandest of fears.

These narratives have so little to do with bread. Today’s text has all to do with how Jesus acted in order to show who he is. Jesus responded to the needs of the crowd and the disciples. Jesus is active through both miracle and simple presence. 

Expectations. Encounters. Interpretations. Who is Jesus in this text? Who is Jesus?


First Reading

Commentary on 2 Kings 4:42-44

Sara Koenig

Only two verses long, this lectionary selection is obviously — and notably — quite short!

But even in its brevity, it resonates and connects with all the other texts for thus Sunday, and therefore would be a wonderful choice for the sermon text.

Within the larger context of 2 Kings 4, this story comes as the fourth in a series of miracles performed by Elisha, stories which function to prove that Elisha is a prophet worthy of inheriting Elijah’s role.  The first story (2 Kings 4:1-7) tells of the widow who, like the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:7-16) has only a small jar of oil, but its amount multiplies so that she is able to fill all the empty vessels she can find.

The second story is of a Shunammite woman who first is able to conceive and give birth to a son despite the advanced age of her husband (2 Kings 4:14), and then, when that son dies, Elisha brings him back to life (4:34-35, cf. 1 Kings 17:19-23).  In the third story, Elisha purifies a stew so that the people are able to eat it.  In the fourth and final story, Elisha is not mentioned by name, but is only referred to as “the man of God.”  Such a title sets the stage for what is going to happen — this man of God will speak in God’s name.  The miraculous provision that will occur will demonstrate the power and authority of both Elisha and God. 

The context for this fourth miracle is the same as the previous one: there is a famine in the land (verse 38).  T. Hobbs notes that the description of the bread of the first fruits (verse 42) “locates this event during the time of harvest when the famine would be most severely felt.”1  Food in such a time is not a luxury, but a necessity.  We can see the urgency of the need for food in the fourfold repetition of the verb “eat” in these two verses.

God miraculously provides through the raw materials brought by the messenger from Baal-shalishah.  While the location has been debated, the Old Latin version identifies it with Bethlehem,2 which literally means, “house of bread,” a place that should be known for its provision.  But if the place name is “Baal-shalishah,” there is a connection with the Canaanite god Baal.

Baal is the god identified with the house of Omri, the kings who are in power when Elijah and Elisha prophesy, and who are opposed to these two prophets of the Lord.  Baal is also a god of rain and fertility who provides food.  As with previous accounts that set the Lord against Baal (cf. 1 Kings 18) there is some polemic in this story about which god is ultimately able to provide.

Upon seeing the supplies, Elisha commands the man to give the food to the man so the others may eat.  The servant asks a genuine and practical question, similar to the one asked by Philip in the gospel reading for the day: how can the bread of the first fruits, the twenty loaves of barley and the corn be enough for one hundred men?  In response to servant’s question, Elisha repeats the command, using exactly the same words he did in the previous verse: give (it) to the men that they may eat.  The difference in the second time is his addition that, “thus says the Lord.”  These are no longer just Elisha’s own words and command, but are now connected with the word of God, and God’s promise that they will eat, and there will be some left over.  The final verse, with characteristic brevity, tells that the promise came true.  They ate and there was some left over, just as the Lord had said.

As mentioned above, this brief story connects with every other text for this day.  Psalm 145 reiterates the message that God’s words are trustworthy, proclaiming, “The Lord is faithful in all his words” (Psalm 145:13).  It also explains that God is the provider of food (Psalm 145:15) but more than meeting a necessity, God can satisfy desires (Psalm 145:16).

In the Gospel reading from John, we notice that Jesus also started with loaves of barley to feed the hungry.  We also see that while Elisha fed one hundred, Jesus fed five thousand, and the text quantifies the amount left over as enough to fill twelve baskets.  The reading from the epistle to the Ephesians proclaims that this God is one who is able to do more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).  The specific example from Kings is that God is able to provide food to people who are hungry and in need, according to God’s word.  The other texts testify to the abundance of God’s faithfulness and provision, daring us to believe that God can and will do what God has promised, and even more.


1T. R Hobbs, 2 Kings. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 13, Waco, TX: Word, 1985, 53.
2Ibid., 44.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-15

Robert Hoch

Every week, a small group of seminarians and professors meet at a local watering hole here in Dubuque to talk theology and enjoy a beer.

The forum is open. Topics have included sacramental theology, doctrinal issues, and textual problems. On the night I visited, the professor facilitating the conversation queried the group for that evening’s topic:

“I’m interested in sin,” one of the students announced.

Another student quipped in reply, and to our amusement, “You mean which one you’d like to try?”

The student communicated something we all know but never quite get around to saying: we’re more interested in sin than we would like to admit or confess. The story of David and Bathsheba suggests that our “interest in sin” is neither merely academic nor especially marked by struggle.

Israel, according to the narrator, “ravaged the Ammonites” and “besieged Rabbah” (1). It was the time of year when the kings went off to war. Conflict seems normative, annualized, and routinized. The question is not whether or not there will be war, but where and when and with whom. And most of these questions are not difficult to answer, either in the case of Israel or in our own time. Conflict with enemies comes so naturally to the human race that we imagine that we enter the struggle boldly, confidently choose sides, choosing between good and evil.

But the lection assigned for today suggests that we may be overstating our opposition to sin, overstating our capacity for moral reflection. There is much that appalls us as readers of this text: David’s sexual exploitation of Bathsheba; the murder of Uriah; the mindless cooperation of Joab in a cynical act of betrayal. However, what may be more appalling is the startling absence of a divided will, of moral or ethical pause, or even theological explanation.

Readers of David’s story will be accustomed to hearing the biblical narrator supply a theological explanation for David’s actions, some of those actions being morally and ethically problematic. But in these instances the narrator carefully describes the situation in order to mitigate a negative interpretation. Our ear almost instinctively waits for such a theological explanation in this text, but instead we hear the laconic character of the prose: terse, sparing, to the point, forensic.1

From the security of his royal house, David saw, he sent, he took, he lay . . . he effects his deadly will through proxies, messengers, secret communications, and commanders.

The sex act itself is utterly dependent on a coercive use of power. The story is not complicated by love, or speculations about the psychological condition of David, or even a reference to a divine plan. These may be inferred but they are not given by the text. It is not a crime of passion: the routine and premeditated character of David’s actions point primarily to the calculations of power and not towards the recklessness one expects from unreasoning passion.

Consider the brevity of the narrator’s description of the actions that precede and follow the sex act:

“David sent someone to inquire about the woman” (3a);
“So David sent messengers to get her” (4a);
“He lay with her” (4a);
“She returned to her house” (4b).

Calculation and lust, yes, but passion in the complex sense of the word, no.

Sexual coercion, i.e. rape, is not incidental to this story. The Hebrew verb “to take” in verse 4 (translated as “to get” in the NRSV) recalls Samuel’s warning to Israel about the nature of kings: “‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take . . .'” (1 Samuel 8:11-18). He will take your sons, your daughters, your fields, your wealth.2 Coercive power will be, according to Samuel, characteristic of the “ways” of the king.

It is also the way of rapists.

David attempts to create a house in which crime is impossible to detect. Nevertheless, according to the narrator, “it happened. . . .” (2a). Likewise, David’s seemingly impervious employment of powers to silence and disguise violence are decisively exposed through Bathsheba’s only and deeply vulnerable utterance, “‘I am pregnant'” (5b).

Ordinarily, this would be an utterance accompanied by an outburst of joy; on this occasion it is greeted instead by a systematic cover up. Imminent life sets into motion imminent death. Although this narrative is far from complete, it seems wise to let this text do its descriptive work.

Traditionally, this text has done its work by exposing the human captivity to sin, sin’s inescapable power over the human imagination and our actions. “Ingrained evil,” according to Augustine, “had more hold over me than unaccustomed good.”3 Paul speaks unsparingly when he declares, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 8:18b-19).

While this trajectory of interpretation is invited by the text, and certainly by tradition, it seems to not go far enough. Interpreters might note, for instance, the soon to be told story of the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13). A victim, she was reduced to the condition of “a desolate woman, [who remained] in her brother Absalom’s house” (20b). 

Is it an accident that David’s story comes just before the story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar? Today, the enslavement of women and children in the international sex trade, the use of rape as a tool of war, and high profile sex scandals (some involving rape, all involving the abuse of power) of leaders who hold the public trust (coaches, pastors, financial executives, to name a few) — together these imply that this text’s descriptive work is not finished at the threshold of personal indiscretion.


1P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., The Anchor Bible: II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984), 289.
2Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 273.
3Saint Augustine, Confessions (trans. Henry Chadwick; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 150-1.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 145:10-18

Paul O. Myhre

Psalm interpretation can sometimes feel like swimming against a swiftly flowing mountain stream.

The experience can seem at times like a numbing experience of futility.  With each arm stroke forward the current carries you somewhere else and it can seem as if you are going nowhere or at best going backward.  Reading Psalm 145 may seem easy at first and rather straightforward.

Yet, the longer we swim against the currents that exist in these 21 verses, the more arduous the journey might become.  Simple answers rarely suffice as they carry us downstream toward our destination of discernment.  The hope of discovering something about the will of God, or the nature of human life lived in alignment with God’s will, or learning something about the presence of God in the ordinary circumstances of life may seem elusive and the harder we strike the water the more it seems we are either in concert with where we first began or have been taken somewhere we never planned to go.

The sheer magnitude and force of God’s presence, God’s activity in the cosmos, world, and in human experience is more than the human mind can fully comprehend or discern.  Yet we can know something.  Maybe that is part of the power of the Word of God as articulated in the Psalms.  They carry a capacity to disrupt our thinking if we allow their turgid waters to envelope and carry us along in their currents.

Perhaps interpretation of the Psalms isn’t really a linear exercise or a task to be completed quickly.  Maybe engaging the Psalms is an invitation to exercise contemplation — let the water carry us where it will, rather than swimming against the current.  To be carried by the flood, tossed about by the waves, and finding rest in eddies may be as important as rational, systematic engagement while we consider our next moves.  Maybe the Psalm provides an invitation to stop trying to figure things out so clearly or precisely and somehow let the textual waters envelope and inspire.  Maybe it is an opportunity for giving our rational capacity for constricting ideas, concepts, and theological reflection over to the movements, tugs, and gentle prods that a Psalm can provide.

In the introduction to the book, Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer and Tom Vander Ark claim that “…poetry has the capacity to empower us when all these other forces — [finance, federal policy, forms of governance, and other real-world sources of power] — fail.  Far from being a mere grace note in a sometimes heartless world, poetry can contribute in at least ways to personal and social transformation: By helping us remember what it means to be human, by giving us the courage to walk a path with a heart, and by inspiring us to take collective action toward meaning social change.”1

What might the Psalmist say about power, what it means to be human, courage, social transformation, and the activity of God in the world?  Psalm 145 unleashes in a flourish of winged words theological reflections about the activity of God in the world, dimensions of the scope of God’s powers, and bird’s eye views of relational contours between the people of God and God.  It is an invitation to theological reflection about the presence of God in ordinary time — in the present.

What does it mean to contemporary people of faith to go about daily activity mindful of the abiding presence of God?  What might it mean for ecclesial bodies to reflect not on the things that are no longer done, or cannot be done, but on what God might be doing at present?  How might congregational worship be transformed by a greater recognition of the presence of God in spaces set aside for worship and in meeting rooms where deliberations can sometimes be heated and hot?  How might the drudgery of work be transformed into spaces where the actions of God might be discerned?

Psalm 145 is often called a psalm of praise to God.  True.  The words “praise,” “extol,” and “exalt” are threaded through it.  But it seems that the Psalm could also serve as a poetic theological flourish about the attributes of God. In a way it is a reminder to the people of God who the God is that they praise, extol, and exalt.  The people of God are involved in a life giving relationship with a God who is great beyond measure, a mighty actor on the cosmological and human stage, a wonder worker and an active agent in the world, good to all, righteous and faithful in all things, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, compassionate toward all, everlasting and ever God above and for all, and intimately concerned with the wellbeing of people in whatever circumstance they may find themselves.

This is no ordinary entity about whom the Psalmist writes.  Human words will always fail to define God fully and poetry can be invoked as a means toward exploding tight categories of human forging that would try to confine or manacle God in minute details.  It is as if the poet Psalmist is trying to break through human language to somehow communicate a theology rooted in history and human experience.  Description fails to provide a complete picture, yet poetry can provide glimpses and snippets of the divine.

Maybe what the Psalmist’s words suggest is not that dissimilar from seeing something and trying to describe it to someone who might be blind.  What does the color blue mean to one who has never seen it?  What are the contours of a bird in flight as it wings from field to fencerow?  How can the movement be described?  Each bird has its own flight patterns and each carries a different blur of action in flight.  The reality of the color or of the birds feathers in flight are certain as sure as one sense can discern it through the wonder of eyesight — and are invisible to those who cannot.

So the praise that gushes forth from the psalmist is for what is seen and unseen.  It is for what can be known and what lies somewhere outside of the realm of human rational or perceptive knowing.  The God who is — is both known and unknowable.  The psalmist through poetry strains toward touching a reality that exists beyond human grasp or complete definition, yet has been, is being, and will be experienced by people in some way, shape, or form.  Recognition of the presence and activity of God invokes praise from all that lives.

In verses 10-18 hearers/readers of the Psalm are invited to consider God’s book of revelation in God’s artistic work.  Creation itself speaks with its own choral and multi-hued tones of God’s activity in providing life and environments where life might flourish.  In poetic reflection the Psalmist’s words are as true for the robin or earthworm as they are for human beings.

All that lives is an act of God’s grace.  All that is sustained in the moments of life is an act of God’s abiding presence.  All that has capacity to croak, caw, screech, bark, or even tumble forth words knows something of God’s care and concern.  From the smallest insect to the greatest blue whale there is a witness to God’s creative and sustaining grace.  There is great hope in these verses on which to cling in the difficult times and places of life.  God is eternal and so is God’s grace for all.
   
Praise, blessing, and exaltation comingle in the Psalm 145.  Like three streams converging to make a wider and stronger river so also is the confluence hard to miss.  Hebrew words aella (praise), abrke (bless), and rum (exalt) orient the hearer toward another perspective of being.   Human response to the activity of God breaks open like a flower to the effects of sun and water.  It cannot be easily stopped.  It must be spoken.


1Intrator, Sam M. and Megan Scribner, eds. Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2003, xviii.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-21

Sally A. Brown

The first seven words of this text — “I bow my knees before the Father” — make it clear that we are overhearing prayer.

The question that leaps to mind is, “How do you preach on an overheard prayer? Should I?” 

I remember as a child tiptoeing past the living room where my parents, faithful in morning devotions, were praying. Sometimes I heard them praying for my older brother and me. It can be faintly embarrassing to eavesdrop on prayer — a little like listening in on someone’s personal phone conversation. But prayer on our behalf can be a revelation — about ourselves, and about God.

Hearing my parent’s prayers, I learned that to them, the two of us were a sacred trust, worth praying for. The simple fact of their daily praying let me know they recognized their limits as parents. There was so much they could not do for us, so much from which they couldn’t shield us. Their praying also told me what they believed about God. They believed they could entrust us to hands stronger than their own, a Love wiser than their own.

The prayer before us today, of course, was intended to be overheard. Generation upon generation, the church has handed this text on to us, confident that these petitions include us, and that we, too, need to overhear. All through these verses, the plural second person pronouns (“you”) make clear that it is the community being lifted to God here. If overheard prayer reveals something of ourselves to us, the first revelation to be gleaned is that experiencing fellowship with God is tangled up in being bonded to each other. Christians are blessed with each other — and stuck with each other. Maybe Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s philosophical beagle in the Charles Schulz comic strip, “Peanuts,” said it best: “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” Our lives depend on community with each other, in all its messiness.

The experiments in “community” living that emerged out of the culture of the 1970s come to mind. “Community” was part of the rhetoric of that decade. As old structures crumbled around us, some dared to imagine — and try — new ones, including interdependent communities fueled by utopian visions. In theory, like-minded folk equipped with guitars and good will would share space, agriculture, income, possessions, and child-rearing. Unsurprisingly, these experiments had a short lifespan. Such interdependence is hard work.

Christians can be every bit as territorial and opinionated as anyone else. No wonder the apostolic prayer begins with a petition for the presence of the Trinity to move in with us. God forges us into communities, and then it takes nothing less than the power of the Trinity to keep us there. The prayer suggests that progress will be slow — a crop inching toward fruitfulness, a building rising brick by brick, both anchored in a love that can do what knowledge cannot (verse 19).

Theology is good for us, but only love reconciles. A preacher might consider a move in the sermon where she lets her congregation in on her own prayers for them. How does she pray for them? What does she pray? What is that confidence in God that motivates her prayers?

A second, quite different preaching approach is possible — one that holds this text up to the light of its Old Testament allusions. Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the text’s lyrical but ambiguous references to “filling,” “fullness,” and “glory.” But these grand-scale, fairly abstract terms may well be drawn from the Old Testament.

An intriguing possibility is that the prayer, and much of the “filling,” “dwelling, and “glory” language of the book as a whole, connects to Old Testament traditions of the glory of God filling worship spaces — tabernacle and temple. The wilderness tabernacle, once completed, fills with the cloud of divine presence (Exodus 40:34-38). At the completion of Solomon’s temple, the glory of God comes down to fill the “holy of holies” (1 Kings 8:10-11). Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple of a purified Israel leads to the same scene: the glory of God fills the new temple of a future restoration (Ezekiel 43:2-5).

Shifting to Ephesians, we find that the human community of mainly non-Jewish believers is envisioned as a “dwelling place” for God. If we grant that most of the first 13 verses of chapter 3 can be read as an extended footnote on the imprisonment of Paul, we find close a close linguistic link between the end of chapter 2 and the way today’s text begins. The apostle prays, beginning in 3:14, for God to “fill” this new “dwelling place” that is the church. Even the mysterious language of “breadth, length, height, and depth” echoes OT texts that instruct about temple proportions. The apostle prays for a church filled in every dimension by God, with and for the glory of God.

Caution is in order when handling the soaring language of a text like this. There is a difference between holding up a poem or prayer to the light, so as to illuminate it, and hacking it to bits with every tool in the dissection kit until, sadly, the parts are less than the whole. A good sermon will set this prayer alongside Old Testament allusions and let them resonate, but resist unnecessary allegory and dissection.

Notably, the ethical portion of Ephesians follows this prayer; it does not precede it. The indwelling presence of God is sheer and utter gift, not a reward for merit. God chooses to live among us, God’s glory fills us. This is sheer grace, unimaginable possibility, life-giving hope.