Lectionary Commentaries for August 5, 2012
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 6:24-35

Ginger Barfield

The text for this week sets up in much the same way as last week’s. The crowd is looking for Jesus.

This time they have trailed around the lake to the new location on the other side. The new location is going to provide a new context for the interpretation of the miracles from the previous text. The crowd is still struggling with what happened. The prophet/king understanding of who Jesus is will now be stretched.

It is now time for Jesus to unpack, to deconstruct, the sign. The sign was not about having a belly full of food. The sign is about who Jesus is. 

The bread that filled their stomachs now becomes the primary extended metaphor Jesus uses to stretch their understanding. The tricky part for the preacher is that s/he will be “driven” to deal with the bread image at every turn. Even as I write this article, the pull of “explaining” the bread metaphor is overwhelming. 

It is important to remind ourselves that this is not where we need to go. John’s language is more poetic than prosaic. It is not the individual parts that need point-by-point explanation; the whole of the bread metaphor needs to be held in the foreground.

This conversation about food (verse 27), manna (verse 31), and bread (verses 26, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35) provides an interesting parallel to the enigmatic, multi-level conversation about water with the woman at the well (chapter 4).

  • Both include references to “ancestors” — Moses (6:32) and Jacob (4:12)
  • Both include the identical “command” to Jesus: “Lord/Sir give” — (6:34, 4:15)
  • Both share the desire for a permanent supply of bread/water — (6:35, 4:14)

Just as the conversation with the woman at the well was about water, but was not, this conversation is about bread, but is not.

It is important to let the tension of the “is” and “is not” of the conversation dwell with the hearer. Can the sermon allow the whole of the story to explain itself and build on the Christological theme of “Who is Jesus”? The hearer needs to answer that for him/herself. The preacher need not give an unequivocal answer since the story itself is enigmatic.

Entering the enigmatic pattern of the conversation

It is interesting to look at this text from the pattern of question and answer — what the crowd wants to know and what answers Jesus provides.

Verses 25-27: The crowd wants to know when Jesus came to the other side of the lake. Jesus’ answer is a convoluted response about their not seeing the signs but being filled with food. It dissolves into something about working for food that endures for life.

Verses 28-29: The crowd wants to know what they can do to work God’s work? Jesus’ response is about believing rather than working.

Verses 30-33: The crowd asks for a sign from Jesus so they can believe. Jesus comes back with a proclamation about “My Father” and bread that gives life.

Verses 34-35: The crowd demands (rather than asks for) the bread. Jesus claims to be the bread (egō eimi the bread of life).

The questions and answers provide a pattern of incongruity. The crowd wants to know something, and Jesus answers with a different kind of information. They are trying to sort out who Jesus is in light of what they just experienced. Their questions don’t seem to be leading them in that direction so Jesus provides different answers than the questions demand. 

It might be interesting to point out this incongruous pattern and then help the congregation identify what questions the church today asks in trying to figure out who Jesus is. Are they the best questions to be asking?

“Hearing” Jesus’ answers

An important element of hearing Jesus’ answers to the questions raised by the crowd is, to put it bluntly, listening. It is hard to listen to the answers if one is trying to translate all the details of the metaphors. The answers are about who Jesus is in relationship to the miracles/signs that are reported in the text from last week.

Jesus’ answers provide key words that are informative for identity.

Work:
Verse 27: “stop working”
Verse 29: “the work of God”

Believe/Faith (verb):
Verse 29: “God’s work results in [them] believing in the one God sent.”
Verse 35: “the one believing in [Jesus] will never be thirsty”

Life:
Verse 33:  “Bread . . . gives life to the world”
Verse 35: “I am the bread of life.”

Putting it together

Another warning is timely. It is important not to give too much away yet. Chapter 6 holds together as a unit and is an evolving revelation of who Jesus is through encounter. Read ahead in the chapter to see how the material is building through metaphor and discourse and stay in the moment. If the preacher tries to say too much too soon, there will be no choice but to turn to the epistles or the Old Testament before the four weeks are complete. 

What can we say at this point?

In this text, Jesus is trying to repair the faulty understanding the crowd took away from last Sunday’s text. The defective question/answer pattern we uncovered shows that the crowd did not interpret what just happened from the perspective that Jesus wishes. Understanding ensues from appropriate questions.

Bread is the metaphor. Jesus continues to use the image that comes from the “feeding” miracle. Bread (and fish) is what filled their stomachs. They have become so focused, though, on being full that they have lost what really happened. Jesus uses the bread as an extended metaphor for who he is — someone capable of truly sustaining life.

The egō eimi of verse 35 where Jesus says not just “I am” but “I am the bread of life” is a very different claim than the egō eimi statement in verse 20. In this verse, it is a Christological claim, a culmination in the present text of the extended metaphor. The only food that can last for all time is the bread that Jesus himself is, the true gift from God, Jesus’ own Father.


First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Sara Koenig

What does it mean to know God?

Depending on the individual, the congregation, or even the denominational tradition, knowing God can sometimes be reduced to an intellectual exercise.  This text tells us that the knowledge of God is connected to an experience of God, and especially experiencing God’s provision.  Knowing God is also expressed in obeying God, an act that can cycle back to a deeper knowledge of God.

The topic of knowing, experiencing and obeying God in this account is set within the story of the Israelites’ “murmuring” against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and God’s provision of quail and manna.  As is typical for Hebrew syntax, the verb begins the verse, setting the stage for what will happen, “and they murmured.”  This word only occurs in the wilderness wandering texts of Exodus 15-17 and Numbers 14, 16-17, and Joshua 9:18, and can also be translated as “grumble,” or “complain against.”

Though the object of their complaint is Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, in verses 6-8 (which are not in the lectionary reading) Moses acknowledges that they are really complaining against God.  It is important to remember that these texts — where the Israelites murmur — are not merely critiques of people who voice their concerns to God.  The Psalms are full of laments, which list out complaints to and even about God in very specific ways.  Additionally, the content of the people’s murmuring at this point is legitimate: they are hungry and need food.  Thus, the problem is not that the people murmur; the problem is that they do not believe. 

God responds to the people’s murmuring with the promise that bread will be rained from heaven — a remarkable, direct response to their need.  But verse four also lets us know that with the gift of bread comes a test.  God will see if the people will obey God’s instruction or not, instructions which include the command to only gather as much as they need to eat (verse 16), and not to leave any for the next day (verses 19-20).

Of course, they do not obey, and their lack of obedience tests the patience of both Moses and God.  But it would seem that the disobedience is not only stubbornness or recalcitrance: they do not know God enough to trust God.  This problem is foreshadowed in their song of praise from the previous chapter.  They acknowledged that the Lord is a God like no other (Exodus 15:11).  They do not fully understand who the Lord is, or what God is able to do.  Even if they remember that God is their deliverer, they have not yet experienced again and again that God is also their provider. 

By skipping from verse 4 to verse 9, the lectionary moves immediately from God’s words to Moses about the promise of bread to Moses and Aaron assembling the people to draw near (qirbû line) to the Lord.  Brevard Childs explains that this is a technical term referring to an encounter at a sanctuary (cf. Exodus 27:21, Numbers 16:17, etc.), probably meaning the tent of meeting.1  But while Aaron is still speaking to the people, the glory of God suddenly appears in the cloud.

God, who is made manifest, says three significant things to Moses.  First, God confirms what Moses told Aaron to say in verse 9, that God heard their murmurings.  Second, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites what Moses had previously indicated (in verse 8, not in our lectionary selection), that God will provide meat in the evening and bread in the morning.  In the full text of the chapter, then, the content of God’s speech to the people has already been anticipated by what Moses has told them, and God confirms that which Moses had promised.  Third, God tells Moses that it is when the people’s bellies are filled with the food that God provides them that they will know who the Lord is, their God.

We do not have to wait at all for the fulfillment of God’s promise of bread and meat, made in verse 12, for verse 13 explains that quail comes in the evening, and manna comes with the dew of the morning.  Verse 14 gives a brief description of the manna, comparing it to frost.  Its name is related to the Israelites’ question, “what is it?” or, mān hûʾ in Hebrew.  Moses responds to their confused surprise by spelling out that it is God’s promised gift of bread.

Numbers 11 also tells about God providing manna and quail to the Israelites in the wilderness, but in that chapter, the gift of food is bracketed by stories about God’s anger with and judgment against the Israelites (Numbers 11:1-3, 33-35).  Psalm 78:30-31 describes the occasion in Numbers vividly: “But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, the anger of God rose against them and he killed the strongest of them, and laid low the flower of Israel.”

In this chapter, and in the lectionary’s selection of verses, the main point is that God provides food in the wilderness in the form of bread from heaven.  Of course, in the gospel reading from John, Jesus makes it clear that the manna from heaven in the wilderness is not the true bread from heaven that gives life to the world.  Instead, Jesus himself is the bread of life, and as he identifies himself as that bread, he promises that whoever comes to him will not go hungry (John 6:35).  Many see Jesus spiritualizing the food from the Old Testament.  But perhaps his promise connects with the Exodus text more directly by affirming that knowledge of God is connected to the way God provides for specific needs.


1Brevard Childs, Exodus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974, 287.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:26—12:13a

Robert Hoch

Judgment rings out loud and clear in God’s displeasure, in Nathan’s sermon, in David’s confession, and perhaps also in our own reactions to the text.

Not least among these reactions might be very real objections to the notion that an innocent child should be the one to bear the burden of God’s wrath in place of David: “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die” (12:14). What kind of justice is that? Isn’t that a miscarriage of justice? The fact that the lection stops at 13a only intensifies the problem. Additionally, we may not feel that the judgment is quite finished, especially if we happen to live on the same street as Bathsheba.

Maybe part of us would like to call for a congregational investigation or convene a grand jury to indict David (and perhaps even God) for crimes against humanity. Whatever else we might want, this text presents problems, some of them perhaps insoluble. Better to acknowledge than to try to rationalize or explain them. By acknowledging those problems, we are not abandoning the good news within the text, but, instead, taking the text seriously enough to listen carefully for God’s word to us within it.

In this spirit, the text does evoke something more subtle than raw judgment: we begin to see the unfolding narrative of God’s mercy, the beginning of a sometimes painful, often tragic, but ultimately beautiful journey of humanization — the story of David’s humanization and perhaps, by analogy, the promise of our own as well.

To begin with, David seems as inhuman as he can possibly be. As I noted in my commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-15, his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah reflected the cool calculations of indifferent power.

To the extent that David manifested any passion, it was primarily the glandular passion of the groin rather than the higher passion of the heart.

This characterization of David represents a stark contrast to the person who was once lauded as “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14b). The David who takes shape in this text bears no resemblance to the David we met in 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, who was anxious for the house of the Lord. This David’s only concern is for his self-indulgence, keeping secrets at all costs, and the preservation of his total grip on power. 

God’s displeasure with David’s actions signals the first instance of substantial ethical engagement: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David” (11:27b – 12:1a). By contrast, when we do see anything remotely like David’s ethical reflection, we see only his anger at the perceived deficits of others.

David’s anger surfaces twice in chapter eleven and twelve and in both instances it is directed at external objects. The NRSV, following the Hebrew Bible, implies David’s angry response to Joab’s military report, but does not include it. The Jerusalem Bible includes his angry reaction: “David was angry with Joab. ‘Why did you go so near the ramparts?” (11:22b). And in chapter twelve, as he listened to Nathan’s parable, “. . . David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. . . .” The judgment that follows that anger was as sure as it was blind to its application to his own situation: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die” (12:5a).

David’s indignation was aroused by Nathan’s sermon, especially by way of the ethical blindness of the rich man. At one level, it seems as if David is highly alert to ethical failures, if his anger is any indication. He sees it, responds to it physically and emotionally, and offers an unambiguous judgment against the person who would do such a thing.

On the other hand, he cannot judge clearly and he cannot see that he cannot judge clearly and no one, apart from the messenger of the Lord, Nathan, seems equipped to break that closed system.
According to biblical commentator, P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., Nathan’s sermon employs a juridical parable, namely, “a type of speech that functions to break open a closed system of the sort found here. It presupposes a situation of concealment or denial, whether of motives or ethical issues, and its purpose is disclosure and exposition.”1

One would normally expect David to be outraged by Nathan’s sermon. Indeed, it almost seems as if Nathan has teased David into a bloodlust of ethically inspired rage. You expect David to leap on Nathan, with the prophet’s exclamation, “You are the man!” (7). If David acted lethally in the calculated exercise of power, we imagine he would become positively bloody if aroused by Nathan’s prophetic accusation. Instead, what we witness is something and perhaps someone quite different: “David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.'” (13a).

Notably, the confession comes to David’s lips without anger. It is human, in the best sense of the word, like Bathsheba’s exquisitely human word, “I am pregnant.”

Perhaps David’s confession figures not only as an end of David’s illusion of power and secrecy, but also a beginning, inaugurated not by his manipulation of the levers of power, nor even his capacity for righteous indignation, but through what theologian Gerhard O. Forde describes as “the creative righteousness of God.”2

Nathan’s sermon does, indeed, proclaim an ending, an ending David confesses. Maybe that confession is also an ending with a beginning inside of it, already growing within it, taking shape before we knew it or could imagine it.


1P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., The Anchor Bible: II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984), 304-5.
2Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 102.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 78:23-29

Paul O. Myhre

When one approaches an abstract painting by any one of the 20th century abstract painters—Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and so on—they are met by art work that prompts cognitive dislocation and reflection.

Some will look at a Pollack painting and quickly conclude that anyone could do it or swiftly conclude that it looks quite similar to a drop cloth I have for painting projects around the house.  Rothko’s corpus of work might elicit similar response.

Yet, it seems the reflection would be more about how his work looks like a bad wall painting job where a number of spots were missed and where the tone is not quite consistent with the rest.  It is as if the average viewer of abstract art wants to place the body of work in a category of home improvement or children’s art.  Those who have studied art or who are more comfortable with ambiguity or who want to suspend quick judgment about the quality of art might conclude that the works themselves merit further reflection not only about the art and the artist who created them, but about our own cognitive, affective, and visceral reactions to them as art and gateways to the divine.

They are capable of evoking strong emotion on the part of the viewer and scratch the surfaces and underbellies of one’s theological and anthropological reflection.  Some people have been found weeping in the Rothko chapel as they contemplated the art before them.  What they thought they knew as one thing opened them internally to new insights about themselves and their own spiritual journey.1  The lack of narrative depiction of things already known has resonance with a contemplative journey toward sitting with the God who exists both within and beyond human comprehension, definition, or knowing completely.

Psalm 78 functions roughly like this for me as I read it.  On one level is seems to be a rather flat recounting of major events in the history of the people of God.  Ordinary time is pictured as something that is punctuated by the interventions of God at various moments that later become touchstones for subsequent reflection about the activity of God in the past as relevant for the present.

Maybe the poetry of this Psalm invites reflection about what we have seen and know to be true even though we cannot clearly define it in the present.  Maybe it is like seeing fossilized footprints of a dinosaur in a limestone rock.  The beast that lumbered over soft soil 65 million years ago had a host of attributes—some of which we know and some of which exist outside our capacity to know.  Maybe it isn’t all that different from trying to imagine the smell of its skin, the color of its eyes, the sound of its breath, the texture of its brow, and the taste of its flesh.

We may want to know but we cannot.  Yet knowing that the dinosaur existed and embodied all of those attributes still exists outside of our capacity to really know what those attributes were with precision.  The beast cannot be resurrected from fossilized bones by human desire.

For some this Psalm may appear to be like just one more time around the old house looking at the same walls we have seen for years, gazing on the same objects adorning the walls that have been there for perhaps more than a decade, the same paint and trim, the same window treatments, and in short, the same old scene.  We know it so well that we convince ourselves that there is nothing new to notice.  Yet, Psalmist poetry has power breathing within it to provoke new ways of seeing the same old things — like Pollack and Rothko with ordinary oil paint.  Maybe there is something more to discover or something new to see in this Psalm that we had not noticed previously.

For example, when walking through the rooms of my house I am often struck by how different the same room can look at different times of the day or during different moods I am in as I walk through them.  For example, my living room will look dull and cave like in the evening when the light is dim.  It can even seem cozy or quaint.  Yet, because of the paint tone, when sunlight enters the room during the late afternoon the once cave like wall is transformed into a bright limestone color rivaling any stone in the walls surrounding old Jerusalem.

How I experience this room can depend on a host of factors that are cognitively, affectively, and environmentally related.  So it is with poetry.  Our own mood can affect the way we read or hear it.  Our own mental frameworks forged in economic, political, sociological, psychological, and ideological realms can color the way we see something.  Since it isn’t dependent on a direct 1:1 ratio for reading and understanding it, but is often open ended and dependent on the hearer’s capacity to allow their mind and emotions to be open to it, poetry can help us see the familiar stories and experiences of life in new light.

The poet psalmist in these few verses transports readers/hearers to places where the people of God wandered in a great desert of sand.  They had been freed from slavery in Egypt by an act of God, yet we learn from Exodus that they were not satisfied with simply freedom to wander the Sinai.  They wanted something more.  In response, God gave them abundance in their time of scarcity.  They were given a great communion feast in which they received more grace than they could comprehend or receive.  Skies were raining manna from heaven—grain from God and the food of angels.  One would think that would be enough.  Yet God provided even more.  The winds that blew across the Sinai brought quail in abundance and their bellies were sated. God is good they must have thought.  Yet even then the people were not satisfied.

For me, the phrase “what they craved,” verse 29, stands apart from other lines of these verses.  We move from the grand sweep of divine activity to the more fundamental dimension of human longing.  The skies are pouring forth food through a great aerial cornucopia brought about by the activity of God and still the people crave more.  All of the activity from verse 23 through 29 except those final three words concern the work of God for the people of God.  Here we discover the reason for God’s gracious acts of kindness.  It is in response to what the people desired. Out of love God provides for human wellbeing.  In Hebrew the word translated as “crave” or “desire” is thauth.  It means basically to long or lust after something.  It is a desire that won’t easily be satisfied even when one has received what they want.

Perhaps Psalm 78 is not only a reminder of the grace acts of God for the people of God, but of the human propensity to be dissatisfied with what they have received.  Maybe the Psalm carries a message for contemporary society bent on consumption and as such environmental degradation.  Maybe we have already been given enough for our needs.  We only need to recognize it.  Perhaps the Psalm invites a new way of being in relationship with the world and with others who inhabit the planet.  Maybe the Psalm invite reflection about the very nature of God and God’s concern about the people of God and the world God has made.  The abstract may not be as abstract as we may have initially thought.


Notes

  1. Rothko Chapel http://www.rothkochapel.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=6

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 4:1-16

Mark Tranvik

Introduction

Our passage begins the so-called “moral” section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

In other words, commentators often remark that in chapters 1-3 the focus is on doctrine while chapters 4-6 highlight implications for the personal and social life of Christians. But the truth is a little more complicated. These verses contain a number of images and metaphors that are not neatly contained in the category of “morality.”

Our passage appears to be tied together by the theme of unity in the church. Depending upon the interpreter’s situation, it might be useful to speak to the need of unity in the church. But there is also a wealth of other ideas in these verses that can be unpacked separately. This is the route we will take. We will lift up the ideas of captivity, calling, and what it means to be a “mature” (see 4:13) Christian.

Prison Vision

Paul begins our section by reminding his listeners that he is a “prisoner in the Lord” (4:1). However, as Paul sees it, his frequent stays in prison are never without purpose. He does not simply refer to himself as a prisoner but as a “prisoner in the Lord” (compare 3:1). We might consider imprisonment to be a “waste” of time because it inhibits our freedom to do what we want to do. But Paul has a different perspective. Even confinement does not diminish his energy for his mission in life: to proclaim Christ. Indeed, he even reports to the church of the Philippians that his imprisonment serves to spread the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:12-14). Perhaps there are two lessons that might be drawn from Paul’s example.

First, we should never limit Christ’s presence and power to places we typically regard as holy or sacred. As Paul’s own situation reminds us, the power of Christ can never be constrained by a physical or social location. We might think divinity goes hand in hand with wealth, splendor, influence and comfort. But almost everything in the gospels subverts this understanding.

God shows up in a manger and not a palace. The first to hear about the incarnation are not statesmen but shepherds. Jesus is regularly accused of hanging out with sinners and then, like Paul, becomes a prisoner of the state on the way to a shameful death. And then the first witnesses of the resurrection are women, deemed by their culture to be unreliable gossips.

Second, it is worth noting that stays in prison can often hone understanding and insight. Letters from captivity (like Ephesians or Philippians) are profound meditations on the meaning of faith in the midst of suffering and exclusion. Present examples could point to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, or Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Interpreters might consider reading one of these texts as a way to sharpen the proclamation for this week.

Called and Callings

Paul pairs the words “called” and “callings” in two different places in the passage (4:1 and 4:4). The reader is reminded of the relationship between our being called by God and the subsequent assignment of a calling in the world. The language of calling links the church with the election of Israel. God has chosen for himself (1:4) a people and this election depends firmly on God’s decision. It is done “before the foundation of the world” (1:4) and it relies solely on God’s gracious initiative (2:8). And the result of being called is that the faithful now have callings where they lead lives marked by humility, love and patience (4:2).

It is easy to get confused about the dual nature of a call. It is worth underlining that being called and having a calling must be distinguished but never separated. Our relationship with God simultaneously involves a relationship with neighbor or community. And these callings are multiple as it is impossible for a Christian to not be in some type of calling at all times of life. 

Just as God is active in every nook and cranny of creation so God uses his people to make sure people are fed, clothed, comforted, educated, protected, etc. Proclaimers would be wise to remind listeners that a calling should not be pared down to a job or occupation. This would mean wide stretches of human experience would be outside of God’s providence.  God calls us not only to work but to friendship, family life, citizenship, etc.

The Need for a Grown-up Faith

Paul makes a contrast here between children, who are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” (4:14) and those who “grow up” (4:15) in faith and thus contribute to the building up of the body of Christ (4:16). Paul is saying here that knowledge of Jesus’ identity is linked closely with unity in the church (4:13). We often think of being in the body of Christ as mainly a social activity. We gather together to bear one another’s burdens or we work together to address a need in the community or the larger world.

Of course, these are important expressions of the body of Christ. But Paul is highlighting here that the body has a “mind” as well. In other words, it is important for congregations to know what they believe and why they believe it. We live in a time that tends to undermine any claim to truth out of fear of being divisive or intolerant. But Paul advocates “speaking the truth in love” (4:15). In other words, our bearing witness to the truth is grounded in a deep humility (4:2). 

After all, we are passing on what we have received and not what we own. Like John the Baptist, we do not possess the truth as much as we point to the truth in the person of the crucified and risen Christ.