Lectionary Commentaries for February 13, 2013
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Scott Shauf

This passage enjoins us to humble acts of righteousness and a heavenward focus that are befitting of Christians preparing to enter the Lenten season.

Our attitudes should not be those of self-seeking hypocrites but should reflect a heart focused on the kingdom of heaven.

Verses 1-6 and 16-18 deal with the practice of three kinds of religious acts: charitable giving, praying, and fasting. The point is the same when applied to each of them: These are not to be done in a way that attracts attention to oneself, or God will not reward them. The message is straightforward enough, but each part presents its own challenge when applied to twenty-first century life. Verses 19-21 present a more timeless and still quite challenging message of putting one’s treasure in heaven rather than on earth.

The Principle: Righteousness To Be Rewarded by God, Not People (Verse 1)
Verse 1 states the principle to be applied to the three types of religious acts that follow: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” The NRSV translates the Greek dikaiosun­­e here as “piety” rather than the usual “righteousness,” a translation more in line with common English usage but which loses the connection between this passage and the broader message of the Sermon on the Mount. Righteousness is in fact the basic subject of the entire Sermon, the righteousness that is required to enter the kingdom of heaven (as 5:20 most clearly states). The rest of our passage is thus part of the broader description of righteousness that occupies most of the Sermon.

Almsgiving (Verses 2-4)
Jesus’ application of the principle to almsgiving is the most easily transferable to the modern situation — and therefore the most challenging for us to follow directly. In his day and ours it was and is commonly seen as a reasonable reward for those who provide charitable gifts to be honored by having their names associated with their contributions. Are not churches, schools, and plenty of other institutions today filled with the names of those who have contributed to them?

In defense of this practice it can no doubt be argued that not doing this would decrease the level of giving to many worthwhile causes. But is this not the very hypocrisy that Jesus here indicts? Our society may understandably be impressed with such grand, seemingly selfless acts. God, apparently, is not.

Prayer (Verses 5-6)
The application of the principle to prayer is along the same lines as with almsgiving: It should be done privately so as to be rewarded by God rather than people. It should be observed that Jesus is not speaking of genuinely corporate prayer, as his example of praying on street corners indicates. He is speaking of private prayer that is done in public for the purpose of gaining attention for oneself.

The difficulty of applying this today is that it is not (so it seems to me) a very common problem. A much more common problem is Christians who are too self-conscious or who are otherwise afraid or unwilling to pray in public at all. Hence we must beware of using the passage as an excuse to avoid public prayer altogether. The basic principle of Jesus’ instruction, however, is certainly relevant. Prayer is for the purpose of communicating with God and experiencing God’s presence. To pray for any other reason is not to pray at all and thus to engage in the kind of hypocrisy Jesus here condemns.

Fasting (Verses 16-18)
The difficulty of Jesus’ application of the principle to fasting is simply that fasting has little meaning for most Christians today, at least in the West. Fasting was a common religious activity for Jews and then also Christians in the ancient world, but not so today. It is therefore hard for us to conceive of what reward Jesus could even have in mind here. Being recompensed by God for charitable giving has a certain sense to it, and we can imagine rewards for prayer easily enough, but what reward could we possibly get from God for fasting? In fact, when fasting is done today, it is usually done precisely to draw attention, admittedly not to the fasters but to some worthwhile cause, such as world hunger. Can we make any sense of what Jesus is saying?

I believe our problem is that in Western culture we have managed to almost completely divorce spiritual practices from bodily ones. We so emphasize our inner heart and state of mind that it is hard for us see any benefit from such a thoroughly bodily action as fasting. For the ancients there was no such divorce, and hence humbling oneself before God through abstention from food — or drink, sleep, or sex — was a natural religious expression. What better time than Lent, where we at least have a tradition of self-sacrifice, to attempt such a bodily action of humility as fasting?

Treasure in Heaven (Verses 19-21)
The basic idea of Jesus’ message here is simple enough and fairly well known, but how does it relate to the rest of our passage? More directly than it might seem at first glance! In all three situations we are enjoined to seek reward from God — treasure in heaven! In all three situations we are enjoined to reject reward from people — treasures on earth. These verses actually sum up Jesus’ message about giving, praying, and fasting rather well. Of course, they also have a broader meaning.

The order of the clauses in verse 21 often strike readers as backwards. Wouldn’t we rather say that our treasures are expressions of our hearts, rather than our hearts following our treasure? But Jesus expresses a more challenging truth for us — our hearts are easily swayed by treasure, and it therefore becomes all the more important that we seek and store the right treasure to begin with, for our hearts are sure to follow.

First Reading

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

Esther M. Menn

The book of Joel tells the story of an otherwise unknown locust plague (1:1-5) that devastated Jerusalem and its environs sometime during the Persian period.

The memory of this local crisis, interpreted in terms of divine judgment and deliverance, is passed on to future generations as a resource for surviving similar catastrophes. Congregations today can take inspiration from Joel’s community, which gathered together for worship, prayer, and reorientation towards God, our stronghold and refuge when trouble overwhelms us.

By the second chapter of Joel, descriptions of invading locusts become interwoven with terrifying images of battle and cataclysmic changes in nature. The first of two urgent alarms in this passage, “Blow the trumpet in Zion!” (2:1, 15), warns of the dreaded “day of the LORD” (2:1, 11), interpreting the current crisis in terms of an ancient prophetic motif. We, as Christian preachers, might identify a threat to the congregation or larger community today (such as unemployment, natural disaster, environmental degradation, or gun violence, to give a few examples), for which the book of Joel offers theological and liturgical resources.

The nations’ mockery, “Where is their God?” quoted at the end of this passage (2:17) raises a hard question. The book of Joel wrestles to locate God in the midst of disaster, exploring a number of provocative answers. “The LORD who dwells in Zion” (3:17, 21) suffers alongside the people of Jerusalem when locusts invade “my land,” destroying “my vines” and “my fig trees” (1:6-7). A landscape like God’s own “garden of Eden” (Genesis 2:8-9) becomes a wilderness (2:3). Even God’s house is desolate, since grain and wine offerings are cut off from the temple (1:9, 13), as are joy and gladness (1:16), to be replaced by mourning and lamentation (1:9, 13).

A different answer to the question of divine presence stems from the tradition of “the day of the LORD” as God’s intervention to set things right on earth (Amos 5:18-20; Isaiah 13; Ezekiel 30; Zephaniah 1:14-18; etc.). Joel identifies the punishing conditions “as destruction from the Almighty” (1:15; cf., Isa 13:6). On “the day of the LORD” God suddenly appears at the head of an army approaching with cosmic signs and horrific violence (2:1-11). “Who can endure it?” (2:11; cf. Malachi 3:2).

But God’s manifestation on “the day of the LORD” becomes the opportunity for an urgent appeal. “’Yet even now,’ says the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart!” (2:12). The prophetic formula marking divine speech, “says the LORD,” appears only here in the book of Joel, emphasizing that this pivotal message of hope is God’s word in the midst of turmoil. The call to “return” is repeated in the next verse (2:13) for emphasis.

To “return” in Hebrew means literally to “turn” around, to change one’s direction by halting the walk away from God and beginning the walk toward God. The “heart” in Hebrew anthropology is the site of deliberation and commitment. Turning to God with one’s whole heart therefore involves changing one’s mind, reconsidering one’s actions, and orienting oneself entirely toward God. The command, “tear your hearts, not your clothing” (2:12), suggests a sudden shift of priorities in response to dire circumstances. We might reflect upon what turning to God would mean for individual lives and the whole congregation in the present context.

Human turning is itself a witness to divine presence, since it is grounded in the community’s faith that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13; cf., Jonah 4:2; Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Jeremiah 32:18; Nahum 1:3). Joel portrays the possibility of God making a parallel “turn,” once again to impart blessing in keeping with this divine character (2:14; cf., 2:18-19, 21-24, 26).

While the First Lesson ends with a question, God’s protective presence in the midst of Israel is affirmed in the latter part of the book. Covenantal language, heard in the divine promise to Israel that the LORD will be “your God” and that they will be “my people” (2:27), signals an enduring relationship. “The day of the LORD” becomes a time of salvation for those who call on God’s name (2:30-32). God dwells in Zion (3:17, 21), as “a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel” (3:16). During Lent we remain alert for God’s presence, sometimes in ways that challenge and change us as well as in ways that comfort and support us.

A second trumpet blast echoes the opening battle alarm (2:15; cf., 2:1). This time the purpose is to assemble the congregation at the temple for fasting, worship, and prayer. Behaviors and rituals associated with terror and grief, including weeping, mourning, ripping one’s clothing, and wearing sackcloth, would have accompanied the fast (2:12-13; 1:13).

While the priests play a special role in prayer (2:17), an inclusive community is sanctified. Everyone is summoned, from elders to newborns. Even newly married couples participate, although grooms would have been exempt from military service. This radical inclusivity parallels the promise later in Joel that the outpouring of the divine spirit will be on all flesh, so that all prophesy, dream dreams, and have visions, as signs of God’s presence within the entire community (2:28).

The book of Joel models a faithful response to uncertainty, fear, and chaos all around, of gathering as a community for worship, prayer, fasting, and turning with our whole heart to the LORD. God has been a stronghold and a fortress in the past. Who knows? God may again turn, relent, and deliver!

On Ash Wednesday, we might lift up Lenten practices giving expression to the torn heart that seeks reorientation of the individual person and entire congregation to God, such as the imposition of ashes, fasting, Bible study, special projects, and more frequent meeting as a congregation for worship.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Bobby Morris

Psalm 51 lays bare the depths of the human condition and the equally profound need for the redeeming intervention of God.

The Hebrew text begins by attributing this psalm to David when the prophet Nathan confronts him about the affair with Bathsheba.  Most scholars would assign the text a much later date, given striking parallels with the thought of several of the prophets such as Jeremiah.  Regardless of the historicity of the Hebrew ascription, it does provide an appropriate lead-in to the character of the emotions and petitions that the writer presents, whoever that person may have been.

Even without the Hebrew ascription, the psalm immediately and dramatically sets the tone for what will unfold.  The first verse begins with a plea for God to “have mercy” (the Hebrew verb could also be translated “be gracious”).  This is more than a simple cry for help.  The cry carries with it the implication that the one from whom mercy is asked has been wronged in some way by the one who is asking.  Graciousness and mercy are things asked of someone significantly involved in a given situation.

The petitioner further reveals the precarious position of distress from which he cries out by appealing to God’s “steadfast love” and “abundant mercy” (verse 1).  These entreaties also provide us with an intimate glimpse into the core of God’s nature. “Steadfast love” translates the Hebrew word khesed, which describes God’s limitless, unconditional love.  Tandem with this concept is that of God’s rakham.  Translated here by the NRSV as “abundant mercy,” the term more specifically refers to “womb-compassion.”  We are speaking here of the deep, compassionate love a mother has for her children.  Such are the characteristics that serve as God’s departure points for responding to one who cries for mercy.

The cry, we learn next, is a plea for the blotting out of transgressions (verse 1), washing from iniquity, and cleansing from sin (verse 2).  These are the descriptors of the human condition, in sharp contrast to the khesed and rakham of God.  Not only is the knowledge of this condition ever before the petitioner (verse 3), he understands it fundamentally as offense against God (verse 4)!

What is one to do?!  The condition of transgression, iniquity, and sin would seem unavoidable, since one is born guilty, a sinner even when conceived (verse 5).  The petitioner’s assertion here need not cast a negative shadow on the act of conception or even point to a genetic transference of sin.  Instead, birth brings us all into an environment already so thoroughly saturated with the marks of our petitioners condition, that we can not help but succumb to their influence.1

Given the perceived depth and seeming inescapability of the petitioner’s condition, and that over against this God still desires “truth in the inward being” (verse 6), there emerges only one possible solution — a miraculous intervention by God (verse 10).  God must bring about the new creations of a clean heart and a right spirit.  The text leaves no doubt that God alone is able to accomplish these things.  The Hebrew term for “create” is the same one used of God in Genesis 1:1.  Even more significantly, God is the only subject ever given this verb in the Old Testament. The petitioner’s hope is in the unique creative ability possessed only by the God of Israel.

Humanity’s total dependency on God for sustenance and rebirth is further highlighted by our need to be in God’s “presence” and to have God’s “holy spirit” (verse 11).  It is the salvation of God (“your salvation”) that alone can sustain a sinner’s spirit (verse 12).

The new life brought about by God’s creative and redeeming work quickly becomes visible.  The one who had cried for mercy anticipates being freed to teach others the ways of God (verse 13).  The one redeemed will be able to speak from personal experience of the triumph of God’s khesed and rakham over the condition of transgression, iniquity, and sin.  The delivered tongue will “sing aloud” (verse 14) and declare God’s praise (verse 15).  As a result, other sinners will return to God (verse 13).

Through this all, the psalmist comes to what is likely a startling realization.  God has no delight in sacrifice (verse 16)!  A burnt offering does nothing to please God.  By extension, neither do these traditional practices do anything beneficial for the human condition that the psalmist has experienced and wrestled with.  The only sacrifice we are truly able to offer, and which God will not despise, is “a broken and contrite heart” (verse 17).  Traditional sacrifices and religious rituals can be misappropriated for deceptive ends.  But a distressed heart seeking renewal at the divine throne of mercy pulls no punches.

As the popular hymn expresses so beautifully, we do ultimately come to God just as we are, bearing transgression, iniquity, and sin.  We return, however, not as we were, but as recreated and redeemed children of God called to sing aloud of God’s deliverance and to declare his praise.


  1. Cf. Weiser, Artur. The Psalms: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 405.  
    Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 1-59: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 503.

Second Reading

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

Susan Hedahl

On a seasonal liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is a movable feast, marking the beginning of the season of Lent, which concludes with the joyous reality of Easter.

Ash Wednesday is celebrated globally in many ways. Most Americans know of it from public ecclesial indications, whether or not they engage in its forms of worship or practices. For example, a reminder of the day is often visible to the public who can see the sign of the cross, marked in ashes, on the foreheads of those who received the sign by attending an Ash Wednesday liturgy (which generally incorporates the ritual of the act of the imposition of ashes).

Indeed, this form of the cross offers a non-verbal public witness to the Lenten focus on Jesus’ ministry and journey to the cross. Since ashes are considered a biblical and historical symbol of repentance and an intention to lead a renewed faith life, those bearing this form of the cross indicate a willingness to publicly affiliate with the meaning of Jesus’ sufferings and his cross.

This personal response can be explored in a sermon, along with other examples, as reflection of what it means to be a “new creation” (5:7) and an ambassador for Christ (5:20, 21). This latter phrase could also be of interest to listeners given the increased, and sometimes troubled, global awareness about those who hold representative positions as ambassadors in different countries. What are the functions of an ambassador?

Given the complexity of this text, it is critical to study a variety of commentaries that can yield exegetical, historical, and rhetorical information. One classical commentary any serious preacher must peruse is the monumental work by biblical theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1874-1976).

The Voice of Paul
Paul’s distinctive leadership voice permeates this text. As strident as some of Paul’s comments seem to be, anyone preaching this passage must not overlook the role of the Pauline persona and the purposes of Paul’s intense pleas, which serve several functions; namely, he wants the Corinthians to remember God’s intentions for them, which originated in God’s eternal will and purposes (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Paul also describes the contours of the reconciled life (5:17-20). Lest the task of reconciliation devolve into a matter of “works,” Paul’s words are clear that reconciliation is not simply only generated by well-intentioned believers, but finds its rationale and anchor in the person of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s rhetoric reiterates his ministerial history with the Corinthians and he asserts his authority pastorally and theologically to remind them of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. He underscores his history with the Corinthians by reminding them of his ministry with them, which prompts him to speak bluntly to them. He does not refrain from noting his personal sufferings on their behalf for the Gospel (2 Corinthians 6). He is not aloof from the Corinthians in his sharp discourse. One wonders how many contemporary preachers would be willing to speak with such impassioned conviction to a congregation. Paul’s words indeed raise the question about how committed Christians are today in engaging in the work of reconciliation, personally and corporately.

Crafting the Sermon
Several verses in this passage are familiar to many listeners and could even provide one with the preaching direction for a sermon on Ash Wednesday. As with many festivals, the preacher will need to decide on the balance between preaching the text and the day.

Paul addresses various faith issues to remind the Corinthians of what the reconciled community in Christ looks like. In preaching this text, the sermon might respond to several issues this passage raises.

  • First, what does Paul mean about reconciliation in this passage? How does the church today demonstrate in various ways the practice of reconciliation — including liturgically, ethically, practically and theologically?
  • Do these practices extend to the world behind church doors?
  • How does Paul’s thinking apply to the multiple liturgical meanings of Ash Wednesday?
  • How does our particular faith community respond to what Paul is saying about salvation and reconciliation? How can it respond?
  • As ambassadors for Christ, what examples can the preacher offer of reconciliation as the work of an ambassador for Christ?

For many faith communities, reconciliation is often a problematic topic given the existence of conflict everywhere. It is certainly a matter of pastoral discretion as to what kind of examples the preacher chooses in this regard in offering examples of reconciliation! Many people resist reconciliation as personal experiences show. The vulnerability required for GENUINE reconciliation is often difficult to muster. How to preach in the face of such barriers?

Theologically, Paul’s discussion of reconciliation should lead the theologically astute preacher to a sermonic articulation about Christology. A homiletical description of the Christology of this text is critical both liturgically and textually to do it justice. Such a Christology will address questions like

  • What role does Jesus Christ have in reconciliation?
  • How do Christian communities understand reconciliation? How are they to do the work of reconciliation?
  • How is Jesus the central manifestation of God’s reconciling love to the world?

Two sections of Paul’s word in this text can be linked to emphasize a Christology: 2 Corinthians 6:2 and 5:1-20. Both verse sets contain the elements that must be understood together to effect true reconciliation. With an Ash Wednesday emphasis, this text is laden with many possible themes and images for proclamation:

  • What role does suffering play in creating reconciled communities?
  • When might suffering block reconciliation?
  • What does sacrifice have to do with reconciliation?
  • Could sacrifice for a community weaken efforts for reconciliation?

A preached Christology also depends in part on the denominational perspective of a preacher’s tradition. Key biblical texts and traditional theological descriptions of atonement theory will form a sermon’s Christology, in addition to the text’s perspectives itself. The sermon’s contents should explore the historical and contemporary significance of the day so that the community is alert as to how they can understand themselves as a reconciling community in view of the themes and worship practices of Ash Wednesday.