Lectionary Commentaries for November 4, 2012
All Saints Sunday (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 11:32-44

Jaime Clark-Soles

John 11 opens with these words: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. . . . So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’”

Chapter 11 is often called “The Raising of Lazarus.” It’s true that Lazarus is raised along the way, but Lazarus never actually speaks in the passage.

Martha, in fact, is the one who engages Jesus at a deep theological level and receives one of the great I AM statements from Jesus. Jesus alludes to that conversation in verse 40. If I had to give a title to the whole of chapter 11, it would be “The Confession of Martha (with the help of Mary)” instead of “The Raising of Lazarus.”

Obviously, ours is a passage for the ages, one that deserves to be unpacked in more than one sermon or one posting on WorkingPreacher.org. But let’s do what we can.

The main moves I want to highlight are these:

  • Tie in the earlier parts of chapter 11 to this portion
  • Compare Mary and Martha
  • Compare chapter 11 as a foreshadowing to Jesus’ own Passion; the language of death; the tomb; the stone at the tomb; the presence of a Mary who weeps and moves the gospel story along
  • Consider christological implications: is Jesus most human or most divine in this passage? Is it a false dichotomy? He weeps and is troubled — is that his most human or most divine side?  He raises Lazarus, thus showing his power over life and death. Yet, Lazarus will surely die again, eventually, while Jesus will “lay down his life in order to take it up again” (10:17-18).
  • Note the importance of the communal aspect of healing and resurrection

Our opening verse finds Mary’s body language at odds with her words. Sure, to show respect and homage, she falls at Jesus’ feet (“kneel,” as the NRSV has it, is not really correct because it gives the impression of kneeling in worship as the magi did — proskuneo; in this instance, it’s literally “fell at his feet,” and marks a force and desperation that is not as dignified as proskuneo). But she has an issue with Jesus and, truth be told, it’s an issue some of us can relate to: “Lord, IF [only] you had been here, such and such would have gone differently, would have gone the way it SHOULD have.”

If only. If only. Recall the earlier part of chapter 11 where Jesus and the disciples arrive in Bethany. Martha rushes out to meet them, crazed with grief. In verse 21, Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if [only] you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If only. If only. How many hours a week, a month, a year, do we spend on the “if only” game? Our necks are craned to the past, fantasizing about what could have been, dreaming of would-be destinies — as if we could change the past. We can’t. And neither can Martha. Or Mary. Her brother is dead. He’s really dead. Rotting in a grave, stinking to high heaven. If only.

Verses 33-35 are famous for Jesus’ show of emotion. Jesus sees Mary weeping (klaio) and her companions co-weeping and this creates in him a dual reaction. The same verb translated “disturbed” occurs again in verse 38. Here’s where I think you get to have “fun” as a pastor/preacher. Johannine scholars have extremely lively debate over what exactly Jesus is feeling here. Many think that the first phrase, translated by the NRSV as “disturbed in spirit,” reflects anger on Jesus’ part.

So, Frank Moloney, a Catholic priest and esteemed Johannine scholar writes, “When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and ‘the Jews’ who are with her also weeping … he is strangely moved. It is not compassion — or lack of it — that creates Jesus’ being moved to anger in spirit and troubled … As Jesus’ public ministry draws to a close he is frustrated and angrily disappointed (enebrimesato), and this is manifested in a deep, shuddering internal emotion (etaraxen).”1 Is Jesus sad, depressed, disturbed, angry, troubled, or all of the above? He certainly weeps in verse 35, but the verb there is distinctly different — when Jesus does it, it’s dakruo; this is a hapax legomenon in the NT (meaning it only occurs once, here); when Mary and the Jews do it, it’s klaio, which occurs more commonly. Have fun with that!

Verse 36 gets at the point: Jesus’ emotion is generated by his love (here, phileo). I have found that many people try to drive a distinction between the kind of love God has for us, which they refer to as agape, and the kind of “lower-order” love people have for each other (phileo); John obliterates any such notion. The divine/human dichotomy or dualism that many of us insist upon is not tolerated by the Jesus in John.

Jesus comes to the tomb (mnemeion) in verse 38. This noun occurs 14 times in John. Now, if you are like me, you will get chill bumps when I tell you where else this word occurs in John. In 5:28 Jesus says, “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves (mnemeion) will hear his voice.” The next time we see the word, Jesus is calling out to Lazarus in a loud voice to “come out.” The next occurrence after that is Jesus’ own tomb, where another stone (lithos) appears, and is taken away, as in verse 39 (cf. 20:1).

Here the attention turns back to Martha, because she is the one chapter 11 focuses upon, in spite of the lectionary. Verse 40 only makes sense in light of the earlier exchange between Jesus and Martha in chapter 11. She emphasizes how dead Lazarus is with the comment of the stench. Of course, right after this passage, Mary, the sister of Lazarus (not a prostitute or sinner as in Luke 7 and not Mary Magdalene, but Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus) will anoint Jesus’ feet as a furtherance of the foreshadowing of his death here in chapter 11 and will amply overturn the stench. At 12:3 we learn, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” If this detail does not make you love the Bible and does not astonish you with the intentional connections being made, you might be in the wrong business. It’s magnificent stuff.

Standing by the tomb, Jesus prays. His trust in God’s glory and faithfulness and ability to restore life is unequivocal; not so for the bystanders. So he prays for their benefit, and, true to his prophecy in chapters 5 and 10, he calls his sheep by name and they come out of the places of dank death. Verse 44 tells us that the “dead man came out.” But the dead man was still bound. Notice what Jesus does. He does not zap away the trappings; rather; he calls the community to unbind the man who had been held captive by the dank stench of death.

And that is probably the most powerful preaching point of this text, a point made real to me for the first time in fall 2011 when I taught a seminar on John, as I am wont to do. For the creative project, one student wrote a “Coming Out” Liturgy in which the rest of the class participated in the removal of the bindings. Though I study and write on John for a living, I had never thought about the fact that Jesus started the process but the community was enjoined to participate in unbinding the dead person and restoring him/her to life. This has obvious implications for congregations with GLBTQ commitments, but I think it applies much more generally as well.

Don’t you?


1 Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John. Vol. 4 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 330.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 25:6-9

Amy Erickson

Isaiah 25:6-10a serves up one of the most glorious images in the Hebrew Bible.

“On this mountain,” God labors (God’s self!) to prepare a sumptuous, Julia-Childs-worthy meal. God crawls to the back of the wine cellar to retrieve the best vintage wines, wines that have aged for years, perhaps in preparation for this very occasion (verse 6). On this same mountain where the china has been laid out and the wine glasses are sparkling, God will not only nurture and feed; God will destroy. God will destroy “the shroud” and “the sheet” that cover all people (verse 7). Turns out this a feast to commemorate God’s defeat of nothing less than death itself.

The meal on Mt. Zion in Isaiah recalls the ritual meal taken on Mt. Sinai that served in part to ratify the covenant between God and the recently freed slaves from Egypt (Exodus 24:9-11). As in Isaiah’s vision, that meal on Mt. Sinai also marked the people’s transition from death to life, from slavery under Pharaoh to life with YHWH.

Prior to the feast in Exodus, the people make a covenant with YHWH, which stipulates that if the people obey God’s voice, they will be God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (19:5-6). God assures them that the whole earth belongs to YHWH, but “you,” says God, “shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (verse 6).

Isaiah’s vision imagines the meal on Mt. Sinai in eschatological terms. In Isaiah’s vision, on this mountain, Mt. Zion, God will perform the final act of this performance, this drama between God and God’s people. On this mountain, the God of the whole earth will defeat the ultimate enemy and all the people of the world partake in the ritual feast. The enemy Pharaoh is cast onto the cosmic stage and the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness become all the people of the world. 

And as the people watch the drama unfold between God and Death on the cosmic big screen, God’s achingly tender side emerges for a moment. I imagine God looking into the eyes of dirty-faced children, broken men, and care-worn women, wiping away each tear of grief and disgrace. And the people stand in awe, flooded with relief and joy, and they say, “This is our God”, the one we have waited for (Isaiah 25:9).

It’s all so beautiful… and yet, we know that on the ground, for the Yahwists in Palestine and in the Diaspora, this was a fantasy — a stunning articulation of hope but not real life. Death was a reality for them as much as it is for us. How are we to understand this defeat of death when we have experienced death’s sting so acutely?

Gene Tucker helps navigate this disjunction between life and text, saying, “While readers may see the end of death as the focal point, the text emphasizes the end of mourning. That is, the stress is upon the pain that death creates for those still alive, the survivors that mourn their loss. Even in this respect the emphasis is upon life and the living.”1 The same, I think, is true on All Saints Day. We remember the dead, but through and in our acts of memorial, we also come to see and value life anew.

Like all good art, the images in Isaiah 25 are not uncomplicated — or blithely “beautiful.” For this imagery to work effectively for a people who are well acquainted with the powers of death, which come in natural and political forms, God must be more than just loving, more than just tender. God must be stronger, more voracious, and more vicious than Death. I capitalize Death because the Hebrew word for death (mwt) is related to the word that designates the god of death (Môt), whose appetite for human life is insatiable.

Metaphors of distress in the Psalter often focus on his vast mouth, which threatens to swallow up life in the span of a breath. In Canaanite mythology, YHWH’s counterpart the storm/weather god Baal defeats Môt (Death) as well as Yam (Sea). This myth of the defeat of Death, informed by the textual memory of the covenant on Mt. Sinai, is cast on a cosmic, future stage. And here God opens up God’s tremendous throat to swallow the swallower himself. Reminds me of that Goya painting of Satan Devouring His Son…

Maybe that’s a bit gruesome for a sermon. But apocalyptic scenarios, such as we find here in Isaiah’s “Little Apocalypse,” juxtapose the stunningly beautiful and the horribly grotesque. Isaiah 25 contains images of life and banquets, but surrounding them are radical pictures of violence and judgment (see Isaiah 24:17-23). The rich pictures jump off the page and drip with life and, in so doing, they manage to make us simultaneously yearn and cringe. They engage our senses along the continuum of human experience like the mixture of hunger and revulsion evoked by the communion meal that swirls blood together with wine and serves up bread along with wounded flesh.

Apocalyptic images insist on, indeed depend on, the radical otherness of God. This, of course, is not unproblematic. And yet, shielding congregations from the violent acts and impulses of God in the Bible does make violence go away. War continues to rage, murder and abuse are almost commonplace, and blood flows in the movies, on TV and in video games every day. What are preachers, holding a potential tinder box (Isaiah 25) in their hands, to do? Read only the verses selected by the Lectionary and ignore God swallowing up death and its residuals in the surrounding text (24:17-23; verses 1-3, 10-12)?

That is the option we usually go with. Pastorally and liturgically, this makes sense. On All Saints Day in particular, folks in our pews are grieving over tragic losses of loved ones or remembering the kindness and warmth of grandparents or feeling conflicted and anxious over less happy memories of the “saints” they knew. Why poke a stick in the snake hole on a day like today? Why sully a perfectly glorious image of God wiping away the tears from all faces (verse 8) with talk of the other side of the coin: divine violence and judgment? Good question. Maybe we don’t.

But maybe we take up the issue on another day — because addressing and contextualizing the violence in the Bible (in particular, the violence of God) is a crucial task of the preacher. Violence is a preoccupation of the Bible because it is a preoccupation of humanity.

If we ignore it, we risk ignoring the full humanity of the people in the pews and the full spectrum of issues addressed by the biblical text. We risk communicating to them that this aspect of their lives and of their selves is better served by Hollywood.

To render God in terms both beautiful and grotesque, as Isaiah does, expresses the incomprehensibility of the divine without distancing God with abstractions. God in these depictions is utterly Other and yet also intimately — even disturbingly — near.

1 Gene Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 217.


Commentary on Psalm 24

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Like Psalm 46, last week’s psalm, Psalm 24 is related to Jerusalem (see Psalm 46, Reformation Sunday).

Its content, structure, and movement strongly suggest that it was used in ancient times by worshipers as they entered the Temple, perhaps as part of a liturgical procession. An initial profession of faith (verses 1-2) is followed by what appears to be a liturgical exchange between priests (verse 3) and worshipers (verses 4-6) at the Temple gates.

The psalm concludes with another liturgical exchange that celebrates God’s sovereignty as priests and people enter the gates, perhaps in a procession bearing the Ark, the symbolic throne of God (see 2 Samuel 6; Psalm 132:8-10). So, Psalm 24 is usually categorized as an entrance liturgy; and as James L. Mays concludes, “The entrance liturgy of verses 7-10 is the dramatic version of the confession of verses 1-2.”1

Such specificity in placing Psalm 24 in its original setting might seem to reduce it to an artifact of an ancient past; however, what is confessed in verses 1-2 and dramatized in verses 7-10 has enduring importance — namely, the affirmation of God’s comprehensive claim upon and rule of the world. The universal sovereignty of the Creator God is clear enough in verses 1-2 and the five-fold repetition of “King” in verses 7-10 solidifies the point. The claim is simple but breath-taking: the world and its entire people belong to God. The socio-political, ecclesiological, and ecological implications are nothing short of astounding!

The structure of the psalm is important. Verses 1-2 and 7-10 surround the central section, verses 3-6. The effect is to expand the ancient question of who will enter the Temple (verse 3) into the more comprehensive and perennial question of who will live in submission to God’s claim on their lives and the life of the world. In short, to put it in terms that echo Jesus’ words, who will repent and enter the reign of God?

To frame the issue this way means that the priestly questions of verse 3 should not be construed as an examination but rather as an invitation — more specifically, as an invitation to readers in every time and place to recognize God’s claim and to live as God intends.

In this regard, it is not coincidental that the two entrance liturgies in the Psalter (Psalms 15 and 24) seem to frame a sequence of psalms in the following chiastic pattern:

A Psalm 15 entrance liturgy
B Psalm 16 psalm of trust
C Psalm 17 prayer for help
D Psalm 18 royal psalm
E Psalm 19 torah-psalm
D’ Psalms 20-21 royal psalms
C’ Psalm 22 prayer for help
B’ Psalm 23 psalm of trust
A’ Psalm 24 entrance liturgy

As a literary device, chiasm calls particular attention to the boundaries and central element of the pattern, and suggests their relatedness. In this case, the effect is to associate submission to God’s claim (symbolized by entering the Temple in Psalms 15 and 24) with a life that is shaped by God’s torah, which is better translated “teaching” or “instruction” rather than the traditional “law” (Psalm 19:7).

Given this interpretive direction, it is not surprising that verse 4 alludes to a key portion of The Torah — that is, the Decalogue. In particular, verse 4 is reminiscent of Exodus 20:7, a literal translation of which is as follows: “You shall not lift up the name of the LORD your God to nothingness, for the LORD will not hold clean the one who lifts up his name to nothingness.”

Psalm 24:4 and Exodus 20:7 share three items of vocabulary — “lift up,” “nothingness” (“what is false”), and “clean.” The Hebrew word translated “nothingness” (“what is false”) can refer to idols (see the NIV’s “who does not lift up his soul to an idol”). In short, both Psalm 24:4 and Exodus 20:7 suggest that cleanness derives from fully entrusting one’s whole self to God alone (especially in view of the fact that the Hebrew word translated “soul” would be better rendered as “self” or “whole being”). 

Complete trust in God will mean the willingness to be shaped by God’s torah, “instruction.” The resulting “blessing” (verse 5) is not a material reward for good behavior, but rather the satisfaction of being in full and right relationship with the God of life (“vindication” in verse 5 is more literally “righteousness,” indicating right relationship). It is this full and right relationship with God that characterizes those who accept the invitation to enter God’s reign and to live as God intends.

It is likely that Psalm 24 contributed to the Gospel of Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ first torah-session. In Matthew 5, Jesus begins his teaching ministry with a series of Beatitudes (or “Blessings”), one of which clearly recalls Psalm 24: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8; see Psalm 24:4, 6).

In view of Exodus 33:17-23 and the prohibition of seeing God’s face, it is striking that Matthew 5:8 speaks of seeing God, recalling Psalm 24:6 and those “who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” But these similar formulations certainly communicate the reality of a full and right relationship with God, including the willingness to be shaped by God’s torah.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and Psalm 24, especially verses 4-6, are often discussed in terms of their ethical implications. Because verses 4-6 do not function as a set of requirements (see above), the implied definition of ethics in Psalm 24 coheres with that of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon: “So the primary ethical question is not, What ought I now to do? but rather, How does the world really look? . . .  Our ethics derive from what we have seen of God.”2

This is exactly the ethical perspective of Psalm 24, which invites us to see(k) the God who claims the world and all its peoples (verse 1). If we indeed truly affirm that the world belongs to God (and not simply to us), and if we affirm that God wills the well-being of every human being (simply because everyone belongs to God), we join “the company of those who seek . . . the face of the God of Jacob” (verse 6) — that is, the communion of all the saints!

1James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 123.
2Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 88, 90.

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6a

Valérie Nicolet

In the book of Revelation, “seeing” plays a fundamental role.

This peculiar book in the New Testament (but not in Second Temple Judaism literature, where apocalyptic writings — writings concerned with special revelations and using heavily metaphorical language to convey them — are quite common) focuses on what its writer sees and what it means for him to see in this way. It is then presented to the reader through symbols and analogies.

In chapter 21, the reader encounters one example of the technique of “seeing” something in a vision. Because of this specific outlook of Revelation where the seer is privy to a series of information and images that he is able to transmit to his readers, we should not try to interpret the imagery used in the text too directly, or try to make it match a chronological development too closely. Rather, we need to see in the imagery that the author uses a way for the author of Revelation to rhetorically transmit his message, to highlight its confidential character (it is for initiates only) and to focus on its urgency.

The Symbols in Revelation 21:1-6a
The beginning of chapter 21 describes a utopic reality, characterized by several elements, often found in apocalyptic literature. The first creation is destroyed and replaced by a new earth and a new sky. Here the seer testifies to the regenerative action of God, a theme often witnessed not only in apocalyptic literature (Enoch 45:4-5; 71:1; 91:16; 4 Esdras 7:75) but also in the New Testament (Matthew 19:28; Mark 13:24.31; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:10; 2 Peter 3:13). The mention of the absence of the sea in this new creation is meaningful. In the ancient accounts of the creation of the world, the sea represents the most formidable element of creation, associated with the primitive abyss that is opposed to the Creator.1

Its absence in the new creation indicates that the Christ believers have truly entered a new reality, with no common measure with the world as it used to be. It matters little whether one can actually concretely envision such a world. What the initial vision draws out is a world where God’s work reveals itself in a new creation, where what meets the eye hides a deeper reality, organized and ruled by God.2 For the author of Revelation, as Pierre Prigent indicates, metaphorical and symbolic language is the only means to reveal the reality of this new creation that human words and logic can neither understand nor express.

The symbol of the new Jerusalem functions in that way as well. The seer here reworks the symbol of the celestial Jerusalem found in Isaiah 60 for example, which becomes more common after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (4 Esdras 7:26 and 2 Baruch 4:2 for example) and is also present in New Testament writings (Galatians 4:26f; Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 12:22). In Christian interpretations, and Revelation would fit that mold, the new Jerusalem becomes the early community of Christ-believers, and consequently is associated with the Christian Church. The identification with the Church as an institution can become problematic, especially when it is connected to triumphalist and imperialistic accents that see the Christian Church as succeeding where Israel failed.

As such, it is important to remember that the new Jerusalem represents an eschatological reality. It serves as a symbol for the Church in its restored, ideal, and glorious state. It is not a representation of the actual, historical Church. In its historical and actual embodiment, the Church can only strive to be the holy city described in Revelation 21:2. Thus, the historical Church as it is incarnated on earth encapsulates an ambiguous status, in which it is called both to be an eschatological territory in which a new existence is possible, while at the same time knowing that this new existence will only be fully realized at the end of times.3

Two temptations need to be avoided, as Prigent rightly mentions: the Church, in its earthly incarnation, cannot pretend to be the celestial Jerusalem. In Revelation 21:2, the seer specifies that this new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, from the side of God. On earth, the Church remains a human institution.  At the same time, the Church should not excuse its mistakes and failings by claiming that it will be restored as an ideal, perfect institution in the end days. The ambiguous status of the Church on earth is not an excuse for what it is not; rather, it is a motivation for attempting to realize the vision of the seer every day on earth, with the consciousness of the possibility of failing constantly.

Seeing Beyond the Obvious
In this first section of the vision, the seer concludes by saying that God will be with human beings and that death and pain will disappear. In contrast to the beginning of the chapter, which used the past tense, the author of Revelation here reverts to the future, a small indication perhaps of the tension between realized and future eschatology.

It is quite clear from our daily life, and the news surrounding us, that we do not live in a world where creation has been restored, or where God dwells among human beings. Instead of endlessly contemplating when these things will come to pass — something which does not occupy a place in this section of Revelation — Revelation invites its readers to see beyond the obvious.

Perhaps it is only faith that can imagine the reality that the seer is describing in this section, but that does not mean that this reality does not in fact exist. The reader of Paul might here recognize the notion of hope, which Abraham embodies (see Romans 4:18), a hope that allows one to go beyond appearances and see, and thus perhaps also start to create, a reality that is truly unimaginable, in which there is no sea, no death and no tears, but a community bent on establishing a new way of living.

1 See for example Pierre Prigent, L’Apocalypse de Saint Jean (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2000), 456.
2Ibid., 456.
3Ibid., 458.