Lectionary Commentaries for October 28, 2012
Reformation Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Jaime Clark-Soles

These days if we say “I’m in,” then immediately someone asks us, “But are you ALL in?” This is the question Jesus asks in our passage from the start: Are you all in?

We hear Jesus make promises to the “Jews” who had believed in him and, by extension, to the rest of us: if they abide (meno) in his word (logos) they will

  • truly (alethos) be his disciples;
  • know the truth (aletheia); and,
  • be set free

It’s a big “if.”  Many don’t attain it though, because it’s always easier to join than to persevere faithfully.

Notice here that Jesus’ addresses the Ioudaioi, usually translated “Jews.” But this translation has been so tragically misleading and misinterpreted by subsequent readers of the Gospel that most Johannine scholars choose to do one of the following:

  • to leave the term untranslated to indicate the problem
  • to render it as “the Judeans” since in the Fourth Gospel, geography is theology such that Jesus is particularly associated with Galilee and his opponents with Judea
  • to translate it “the religious leaders” to indicate that the debate is an intra-Jewish one between the establishment and the prophetic, reformer types (exemplified, in part, by Jesus of Nazareth)

It is important to situate the passage in its historical context and recognize that this is a family dispute — Jews talking to Jews. As Gail O’Day notes, “The long history of Christian anti-Semitism and of Christian proselytizing of people of the Jewish faith bears witness to the distorted history to which words like those in John 8 have given rise. The Gospel of John, as deeply shaped as it is by the fabric and texture of Jewish Scripture and liturgical traditions, is not an ally for Christian anti-Semitism.” 1

The text speaks of the Jews who had believed, in the perfect tense. The perfect tense describes action completed in the past with continuing effect in the present. They believed. Some argue that they never really believed or they did not believe fully. But the text doesn’t say they were on the way to believing or that they semi-believed. They believed. It turns out that believing may be easier than abiding for the long haul as the path gets more challenging and belief more demanding in multifarious ways. Two thousand years hasn’t changed this fact.

Truth and Freedom are two virtues we all claim to value. In verse 33, the audience does not respond as true disciples eager to hear their teacher go into more detail about the attainment of these two great gifts. Instead, when confronted with Truth, with the Source of True Freedom, the Way and the Life (cf. 14:6), they respond antagonistically and defensively.  This pattern will become more heightened throughout chapter 8. The language is harsh and dualistic on both sides.

Only in chapter 8 does the language of freedom occur mostly as a verb (in the Greek). Being set free is a dynamic process. The same is true for believing and knowing — believe and know are always verbs in John, not nouns. From what does Jesus free us, according to John? From falsehood, hatred, faithlessness, troubled hearts (14:1), and self-absorption (described as “blindness” in John 9), at least. Toward what does the Son free us? Liberating truth that reveals our secure place in the household of God as beloved children.

Repugnant to us but normal for Jesus’ audience, ancient households were hierarchical with the father/husband at the top and slaves at the bottom. The slave was the most vulnerable member of the household; the slave’s fate was most uncertain. One of John’s favorite words is abide, meno. The literal translation of verse 35 says, “The slave does not abide… the son abides.” No one is a slave in the household of God; rather we are children, sisters and brothers of Jesus loved by the same Father. What’s more, just as Jesus powerfully and poignantly announces that God will never abandon him (8:29), neither will they leave us orphaned (14:18-23). That’s how family works.

This paternity issue looms large in the Fourth Gospel overall, and specifically in chapter 8. The opponents pit Abraham and Jesus against each other and they don’t choose Jesus. This means that they don’t choose God as their Father. The same kind of debate occurred in 5:31-47 with Moses. Moses is in the background in chapter 8 as well, since the opponents claim to never have been enslaved and are not being enslaved now (perfect tense again). The irony is almost unbearable since the setting is Passover.

The story asks us to consider what constitutes slavery and freedom, both literally and metaphorically, especially with respect to sin. In John, sin is not a list of do’s and don’ts; rather it consists of not recognizing that Jesus is who he says he is, and going so far as to do violence to him. Hatred (3:20; 12:25; 15:18, 19, 23, 24, 25; etc.); murder (7:19, 25; 8:37, 40; etc.); and disbelief (5:37-38; 8:24; etc.) equal sin. This should not be surprising in a Gospel preoccupied with love, life, and trusting in a way that leads to eternal abundance. Sin is comprised of trading reality for falsehood, deceit, deceptions, and half-truths in place of full-on, unabashed truth.

Jesus has the power to free, given to him by God, with whom he shares complete unity of will and power. What does freedom look like in John? Misconstrued freedom typically leads to sin. I recently saw an article about how the incessant dependence on pornography may interfere with our real flesh and blood sex lives. Yes, we have the freedom to consume as much pornography as we want; sure, no one can take it from us even if they tried at this point. Granted.

The question to ask in the process is “how is this use of freedom affecting my real, live, non-virtual relationships?” If it damages and derogates a real person, sin may be lurking at the door. If, on the other hand, our hard-won freedom is used to promote the abundant flourishing of all creation, then it can properly be called Christian freedom.

So, when it comes to truth, freedom, and true freedom, are we all in?

1Gail R. O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John (WJK, 2006), 96.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Amy Erickson

The new covenant God makes with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (31:31) is both strange and familiar, rooted in and ripped from tradition.

The passage, Jeremiah 31:31-34, appears in the so-called “Book of Comfort” at the heart of the book of Jeremiah (chapters 30-33). These poignant visions of restoration and renewal appear after 29 chapters of harsh condemnation of Judah’s values and institutions. In these oracles of judgment, Jeremiah rages that life in Jerusalem — practiced in the Temple and in the palace, in the courts and in private homes — amounts to fundamental betrayal of God and the covenant their ancestors made at Sinai.

While biblical scholars debate the date of the Book of Comfort’s composition (pre-exilic, exilic, post-exilic?), this material is richly informed by “Jeremiah’s” interpretation of the religio-political scene in Jerusalem just prior to the Babylonians’ destruction of the city.

Jeremiah accuses the elite of the city of watering down and corrupting the stipulations of the covenant made at Sinai. He accuses them of social injustices and turning away from YHWH. Faced with a Babylonian invasion, the elite of Judah place their faith in military strategy and political alliances rather than in the radically free god revealed to their ancestors at Sinai. The covenant made at Sinai is not the problem; the problem is the dilution of Judah’s Sinai identity.

The image of the new covenant is one deeply fixed in the people’s past. But at the same time, it rips away many its recognizable aspects in order to subvert the elite’s current interpretation of it and make it sing in the poignant key of the present.

The Sinai covenant, known to us from Exodus, was wrought in the wilderness between the slaves newly liberated from Egypt and the god of their ancestors, who they themselves only meet for the first time when Moses arrives with the YHWH-given message to Pharaoh to “let my people go.”

The covenant is rooted in God’s defining act of liberation. That act was an act of freedom, but to live into the fullness of God’s blessing depends on the people’s willingness to respond to God with their whole lives. If the people obey God’s voice and keep God’s covenant, blessing and abundance will rain down. If the people do not keep the covenant… see the long and sometime gruesome list of afflictions and curses that will befall them laid out in Deuteronomy 28:15-68.

In its canonical context, the stipulations of the covenant consist of an accumulation of various legal materials, the heart of which is the 10 Commandments. This covenant is not, however, merely a “you do this” and “I’ll do that” kind of a contract. It functions to shape the new community of YHWH’s people in counter-cultural ways, in ways that resist the imperialism of Egypt and the Pharaoh’s program of using and abusing people in the interest of his building projects.

This people is one set apart for holiness to God, for God intends for them to be an instrument of blessing to the whole earth. Therefore the covenant seeks to form a community that is held to high ethical and religious standards, which include the enactment of fierce loyalty to and complete reliance on YHWH and the cultivation a culture of justice and shalom for all.

Jeremiah presents the crisis of pre-exilic Judah not only as one stemming from disobedience to the covenant of Sinai, but also as one tied to its mediation by the elite of Judah. In the chapters that precede our passage, Jeremiah depicts the monarchy as corrupt and the religious authorities in the Temple as hypocritical (see especially, chapter 7). As a prophet, Jeremiah himself is ostracized, and many people ignore and mock his message. His poetic ideal of the new covenant addresses not a problem with the content of the covenant but with its mode of transmission and reception.

Of course, mediation is not a new phenomenon in Jeremiah or something made up by kings or priests. The people gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai have a direct experience of God, and out of sheer terror at the sight of God’s holiness and the sound of the thunderous baritone that accompanies it, they immediately ask for a mediator (Moses) who can tell them what God wants from them, minus the fear and trembling.

For Jeremiah, however, the situation with the political and religious leaders in Jerusalem — as well as with the people’s capacity to hear the words of “true prophets” — has reached a boiling point. Any hope for the future will need to address this problem of corrupt or unheeded mediators of God’s covenant.

Therefore, Jeremiah’s new covenant cuts out the middlemen and mediating institutions. He envisions a divine-human relationship unsullied by authorities and powers. The new covenant will no longer be entrusted to the elite; rather it will be inscribed on the heart of each individual. Hierarchies will have no place in this future. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know [him]…” (Jeremiah 31:34).

The new covenant also serves to minimize external differences between members of the community, which were likely exacerbated in the wake of the exile. Jeremiah’s emphasis on each member of the community having the covenant inscribed on his or her heart may reflect an effort to forestall rising or potential tensions between past residents of the former Northern and Southern kingdoms (“house of Israel” and “house of Judah”).

The covenant on the heart has a leveling effect. All community members stand on equal ground, in equal righteousness, functioning to limit doubts about whose ancestors stood at Sinai and who should properly be called “Israel.” The internal marker of the covenant binds the community together with an invisible sign that cannot be questioned by genealogy or undermined with accusations of purity. No one can claim the authority to teach the other because each heart has God’s torah inscribed on it.

Hope for the future in Jeremiah involves the same divine message known from Sinai, “I will be their God and they will be my people” (verse 33); but this time, that covenant relationship will be the defining mark of each person rather than something that must be learned.


Commentary on Psalm 46

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

The good news of Psalm 46 is essentially the same as that of last week’s psalm (see Psalm 91:9-16, Twenty first Sunday after Pentecost) — that is, God is “with us.”

This message is reinforced by the refrain of Psalm 46 (verses 7, 11), and it is the central promise in the divine address that concludes Psalm 91 (see “with them” in verse 15). Thus, Psalm 46, like Psalm 91, is often labeled a psalm of trust.

Because of God’s powerful and protective presence, “we will not fear” (verse 2); and this is the same message delivered in 91:5, “You will not fear” (see also 23:4, another psalm of trust). In short, God can be trusted; or to use the psalmist’s vocabulary, God is “our refuge” (verse 1), which is the keyword in Psalm 91 (see verses 2, 4, 9; the NRSV “refuge” in 46:7, 11 represents a different but synonymous Hebrew word).

Although Psalms 46 and 91 are similar in several respects, the assurance is voiced in a different mode in Psalm 46, especially in verses 4-6, where the direct focus is on Jerusalem, “the city of God” (verse 4). The central feature of Jerusalem was Mount Zion, the location of the Temple, “the holy habitation of the Most High” (verse 4).

So, in addition to being a psalm of trust, Psalm 46 is also included among the Songs of Zion (see Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, 122, 132). Jerusalem and the Temple, although they were specific places, also functioned symbolically as visible signs of God’s presence and power. To visit Jerusalem, to enter the Temple, was to be put in touch with God and with God’s claim on the entire world. In short, Psalm 46 and the other Songs of Zion are ultimately proclamation of God’s universal reign.

This conclusion is reinforced by the placement of Psalm 46. The sequence of Psalms 46-48 means that two Songs of Zion surround Psalm 47, an explicit proclamation of God’s world-encompassing kingship (see especially verses 2, 6-8). This arrangement is almost certainly intentional, and it solidifies the symbolic significance of Zion as a witness to God’s universal sovereignty. Because God claims the world and all its peoples, God can be trusted to be a powerful, protecting presence.

As is the case with Psalms 23 and 91, the promise of God’s protective presence is not a guarantee of an easy, care-free existence. Rather, the promise of God-with-us comes in the midst of “the darkest valley” (23:4) and when the psalmist is “in trouble” (91:15). 

These situations are certainly bad enough, but the situations described in Psalm 46 are even worse. In verses 1-3, the whole earth is threatened as “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” (verse 2), making “its waters roar and foam” (verse 3). We might picture a disastrous tsunami, but the threat is even greater than this.  Because the mountains were understood to be the foundations or pillars that held up the sky and anchored the dry land, the shaking of the mountains represents the very undoing of creation (see Psalm 82:5).  Even in the midst of a pervasive cosmic threat, “we will not fear” (verse 2).

The situation in verses 4-6 is equally unsettling. The Hebrew verb translated “shake” is repeated in verses 5-6 to emphasize the threat of instability (see “moved” in verse 5 and “totter” in verse 6); and “roar” in verse 3 recurs as “uproar” in verse 6. The crisis in this section is political, involving “nations” and “kingdoms” (verse 6); and we contemporary folk might think of what is often referred to as “the terrorist threat.”

But in the midst of the turmoil, God offers a point of stability that “shall not be moved” (verse 5; see Psalms 93:1; 96:10). The repetition of “help” (verses 1, 5) reinforces this conclusion. In the midst of the threat of international and even cosmic chaos, God’s presence is the genuine source of “help” that offers the promise of being able to live without fear.

The promise is a timely one! Countless strategists and politicians seek election and power precisely by playing upon what is usually called “the politics of fear.” We must not, they tell us, let the terrorists win; and this means arming ourselves and our allies in order to fight violence with more violence. The implicit, and often explicit assumption, is that “God is on our side.”

But Psalm 46 does not promise the U. S. A. or any other sovereign state that “God is on our side.” Rather, it promises that God is “with us.” And contrary to what we often think or are told, this means not arming ourselves but disarming ourselves. The surprising nature of this conclusion is captured by the seemingly satirical strategy in verses 8-10. 

God’s “desolations,” it turns out, mean nothing short of the destruction of the implements of war, and indeed, the abolition of war itself (see Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-3). Following this astounding bit of information is a very explicit invitation that is very frequently misunderstood: “Be still, and know that I am God!” (verse 10). It is not an invitation to quiet meditation or a slower pace of life. Rather, it is a clarion call to the nations of the world for a universal cease-fire; and it would better be translated as “Stop it!” or more paraphrastically, “Drop your guns!”

To know that God is “with us” means not the courage to wage war, but rather the courage to wage peace! To be sure, waging peace will be a “fight” in a world seemingly fascinated with violence and warfare. But it is in the “fight” for peace that we can faithfully claim that God is “with us” (or even say genuinely that “God is on our side”).

Psalm 46 is fitting for Reformation Sunday because of Martin Luther’s enduring metrical paraphrase, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Luther found in Psalm 46 the inspiration, courage, and energy to resist forces that seemed irresistible; and his resolute stand changed the Church and changed the world. The nay-sayers today tell us that world peace is not possible, and that it is naïve even to envision the possibility.

But Psalm 46 is precisely God’s vision of a world at peace. So, the psalmist and Luther together remind us that all things are possible with God!

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Mark Tranvik

Celebrating The Reformation

Many churches will celebrate the Reformation this week.

Though Christians differ on some points of doctrine, most agree this is a great opportunity to lift up the biblical themes of God’s grace and the liberating power of faith. A reading from Luther and a description of why he is important for the church would certainly be appropriate. Above all, it should be underlined that Luther and the other reformers did not claim to be saying something new.

Rather they believed they were recovering a teaching from the Bible (and especially Paul) that had been obscured or ignored by the church of that time. Moreover, they stressed that the core message of Romans is always relevant, no matter how many years separate us from the sixteenth century. The age-old tendency of humans to justify themselves means the church must always be reformed — and this includes the congregations that claim Luther as a father in the faith. And now we turn to this rich passage from Paul and select some themes that connect with the life of Christians today.

Good Works Can Be Dangerous!

The opening verses in our passage summarize what Paul has been saying up to this point in chapters two and three. Paul stresses that humanity has no claim whatsoever on God. Both Greeks and Jews stand accused by the law. The former know the law as it is “written on their hearts” (2:15) while the latter fall short of the law revealed to the people of Israel. Note carefully that the law is not the problem. Paul underlines that the law itself is good (7:12). But it is our tendency (sin) to use what is good to promote our own agenda that is the problem. In doing this we reveal the depth of our rebellion.  

Paul is basically reminding us that even our best works can be the occasion for sin. Church members know this quite well. Sometimes the most active members of congregations are also infected with an insufferable self-righteousness. Though we know the goal of our efforts on behalf of others is to build up the community, we also understand the temptation to take these good acts and set ourselves apart as special in the eyes of God. Odd as it may sound, doing good works can be spiritually dangerous. It is important for Christians to keep Paul’s stern declaration forever in front of our eyes: “For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law…” (3:20).

But Now 

It is easy to pass over the small words of Scripture and count them as having little value. We prefer to unpack the big terms that are loaded with theological freight, like “justification” and “righteousness”. However, Paul is making a big shift in our passage as he transitions from futility of the human situation to what God is doing to address the problem.

BUT NOW (3:21) says Paul, God is doing something new. That little word “now” deserves some attention. Paul is directing our attention to the present tense. This is echoed latter in the section when he says “…they are now justified by his grace” (3:24) and “it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous” (3:26, underlining mine).

In other words, we are not dealing merely with something that God has done in the past. This is not a glance back to a “once upon a time.” It is certainly not merely a history lesson. Paul’s point is that right now, this very moment, God is declaring something to us that we need to hear. In other words, this is a message that connects with peoples’ lives as they live today. Preachers and teachers would do well to address their hearers in the here and now and avoid the past tense!

Now What?

This brings us to the final and most important part of the comments on these verses. Just what does Paul say that God is now doing? Basically, he is making clear what kind of God he really is. If God’s righteousness is only a standard for us to attain, then we are out of luck. As has been shown, we lack the power (our wills are bound to self-love) to follow the law and make ourselves righteous or whole.

But the picture changes completely if God’s righteousness is something that is given to us. And this is the key point that must be grasped. Paul is saying that, in Christ, God shares (3:24) his righteousness with those who do not deserve it — we “Greeks and Jews” who are so bent on doing things our way on our own terms.

Since this is Reformation Sunday, Luther’s own experience might be instructive here. When Luther first studied the Bible it became for him a great puzzle as to why Christ should have to die. After all, sin is punished by death (Romans 6:23) but Christ was not guilty of sin. When he came to see that Christ himself actually became a sinner (compare 2 Corinthians 5:21) the mystery dissolved.

As Luther reasoned, if Christ was truly bearing the sin of the world (3:25), then that also meant Luther’s own sin was on Christ. If his sin was on Christ, then he was — in Christ — free of sin.  And if he was free of sin then he was righteous. Not because of anything he did or deserved but rather because God was determined to have it that way.

Paul describes this new, Christ-based relationship with God as “faith.” Interpreters will take care to point out that Paul understood faith as “trust” and not simply intellectual belief. Otherwise people might be tempted to make faith the one final condition for being made right with God, as long as they simply “believe” it (as if faith is simple!). But this would just bring us back into the realm of the law once again and commit us to the futile enterprise of justifying ourselves (3:28). 

Keep the focus solely on Christ and his death for you on the cross. Tell your listeners that this radical love is aimed squarely at them — right now. And they might be amazed to find themselves wrapped up in a relationship with this God whose mercy extends even to the “ungodly” (Romans 4:5).