Lectionary Commentaries for August 12, 2012
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51

Ginger Barfield

Something very important happens in verse 41, something that is easily overlooked.

The identity of Jesus’ interlocutors “changes” abruptly. Until this point in the chapter, it is the crowd who has been engaged with Jesus. Now the identification of the crowd is stated. The crowd is “the Jews.” 

The Jews are highly significant in John’s Gospel. The Jews are Jesus’ primary opponents. Verse 41, therefore, creates a sense of conflict. No longer is this just an enigmatic conversation between Jesus and a crowd. Now we come to know why the conversation is so dense, why it is so highly enigmatic.

Conflict now frames how we interpret the conversation. Has there been a simple sense of misunderstanding? Or is the dialogue willfully misconstrued on the part of the opponents? When we are obtuse about matters of faith and theology, are we simply imperceptive? Might it be that we sometimes don’t want to accept what is capable of being understood? Are we sometimes fighting the obvious? These are good questions to pursue in preparation for the sermon and, perhaps, in the sermon itself.

Nature of the Conversation

The lectionary reading includes the final verse from last week’s text where Jesus unequivocally identified himself with the statement “I am the bread of life.” We read this interpretively as signifying that it is Jesus who is capable of sustaining life. This is in contrast to the crowd’s sense that it was the bread from the miracle that filled them up.

In verse 41 the Jews quote Jesus, but in fact, Jesus has not yet said these words: “I am the bread who came down from heaven.” The Jews have put onto Jesus’ lips his words in verses 35 and 38 and are complaining about this conflation. They know who Jesus is. They know his parents Mary and Joseph. This is Jesus, and he did not come down from heaven. These words are not just complaints. They are argumentative.

Jesus, in effect, tells them to “shut up” (verse 43). The language is “stop grumbling among yourselves.” It has the logic of “stop talking and listen to me.” These words decisively indicate that the Jews have not yet understood anything that Jesus has said. This point in the conversation is a rich juncture — the breakdown of understanding could not be any more distinct.

Establishing a Choice

The remaining portion of the text for today (verses 44-51) introduces entirely new material, though the words may seem familiar. Jesus begins to call his conversation partners to a real decision about who he is. He talks about “coming to me” (verses 44-45).

The first time, it is stated negatively: “No one is able to come to me unless drawn by my Father” (verse 44). The verb translated as “drawn” could be translated as the more intensive word “dragged.” No one comes to Jesus without the Father’s pull.

In the next verse, Jesus refers to scripture (Isaiah 54:13) and states it positively: “All who heard from the Father and learned from what they heard will come to me.” Here, the teaching from God and the learning from that teaching will result in coming to Jesus.

Different church contexts have different understandings of what it means “to come to Jesus.” John’s own context and community had different layers of meaning for this also. It may be important to invoke some of the options. For the Jews in Jesus’ context, it would be to choose the messianic understanding of their own tradition. For the Jews in the context of the Gospel of John, it would mean choosing to step outside the Jewish tradition and moving into the Christian context. In today’s context, it might mean moving outside the typical pattern of our own culture and choosing a radical Christian understanding of the world.

Whatever this choice involves, Jesus is clear that it cannot happen individually. It is dependent upon God’s beckoning, the Father’s instruction, and the disciple’s learning. One cannot come to Jesus on one’s own.

Declaration from Jesus

In verse 51, Jesus states about himself what the Jews stated in verse 41 — only this time Jesus inserts a crucial and revealing word, zōā. Jesus declares “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” He uses the prior words of the Jews against them to correct what they think they already understood.

Their grumbling was because they were trying to fit Jesus into their frame of reference. Bread equals manna in the wilderness. The miracle of the feeding equals the food that filled their ancestors. Anything outside that context is not available for consideration. Their tradition is all that can provide the context. Jesus had to shut them up to provide a different context from the one that was clouding their hearing and understanding.

Now Jesus inserts a “living” context, himself. This is not about their ancestors. It is about his Father. This is not about food. It is about living bread. This is not something that has already happened. It is about something that will happen.

So What’s New

Jesus’ final words “The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” are both a revelation and a promise. This sentence reveals what is to happen before this gospel story is complete. Jesus will give his body literally. The promise is that this giving up will be for the life of the world.

John’s entire gospel moves towards this truth. It is the culmination of the Nicodemus encounter in chapter 3. John 3:16-18 echo here in 6:51. Jesus is speaking to the Jews (verse 41) near the time of the Passover (verse 4). The context of that tradition has been turned completely upside down. What in the context of our own congregations needs turning upside down before we can hear and understand and be drawn to Jesus’ words?


First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 19:4-8

Sara Koenig

Elijah’s story lends itself well to preaching, with plenty of miraculous deeds and his challenge of the ungodly authority of Ahab and Jezebel.

This particular section, however, may be overshadowed by the more dramatic or better known passages about Elijah, including those that immediately precede and follow it. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah calls down fire from heaven to demonstrate God’s power over Baal. Immediately after our text, Elijah encounters God on Mount Horeb not in the earthquake, wind or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, traditionally rendered “the still small voice.” He then passes his mantle on to Elisha, whose subsequent deeds of might and power will even overshadow Elijah’s. Indeed, it is significant that the lectionary asks us to pause and consider these lesser emphasized verses in Elijah’s story and acknowledge their enduring relevance for today.

To set the stage, in the preceding first three verses of 1 Kings 19, we are told that Ahab has reported to Jezebel all that Elijah did, and specifically that Elijah killed all the prophets with the sword. Jezebel’s response is to send a messenger to Elijah with a death threat that she vows will be fulfilled in one day. Elijah is afraid, flees for his life, and goes to Beersheba. 1 Kings 19:3 reminds us that Beersheba is under Judah’s control, which means that legally, it is beyond Jezebel’s reach.

Verse 4 begins by telling us that Elijah goes beyond Beersheba, another day, into the wilderness. In terms of geography, he is safe–he is in the land where Jezebel does not rule. In terms of time, he is safe–Jezebel’s death threat was supposed to be fulfilled by this time. But Elijah’s words and actions belie any sense of relief or safety. He sits under a large desert bush (NRSV and NIV: “broom tree”) and asks to die, telling God, “It is too much; now, Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

Elijah’s words have been understood in at least two ways: first, that he is referring to his dead ancestors and wishes to join them in death, and second, that he is referring to his “ancestors” in the prophetic vocation, and specifically Moses,1  who also complained in the wilderness and asked the Lord if he could die (Numbers 11:14-15). That is, Elijah is no better than his prophetic predecessors, who also had heavy burdens they had to bear on their own. Even if Elijah’s reason is not entirely clear, that latter clause is conditioned by the first. Elijah is overwhelmed, and death is preferable to what he faces, to what he has to do, to his tasks.

After making his request, Elijah lies down and sleeps under the bush, but his sleep is interrupted by the touch of an angel who commands him to rise and eat. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’ak, is the same word for messenger used in verse 2, when a mal’ak was sent with Jezebel’s death threat. Thus, there is some narrative tension with this first appearance of the angel. It is not until the mal’ak comes to Elijah “a second time” (1 Kings 19:7) that the text specifies this is an angel of the Lord, and the tension is relieved.

The food that is before Elijah is described as a “cake baked on coals, and a jar of water” (verse 6). The only other place in the Old Testament where we find the Hebrew word used for coals (resapim) is in Isaiah 6:6, referring to the coal that touched Isaiah’s lips to purify him, when Isaiah expressed his dismay at his ability to accept God’s commission. The word used for jar (sapphat) is another uncommon word, appearing only in 1 Samuel 26:10-16 and 1 Kings 17:12-16. In the latter set of texts, it refers to the jar of oil belonging to the widow of Zarephath. Because of God’s provision, that jar miraculously remained full during the drought, and provided food for Elijah and the widow. Thus the very vocabulary used to describe Elijah’s food and drink recall another prophet who felt unworthy, and reminds us of God’s provisions for Elijah in the past.2 

After Elijah eats and drinks the first time, he lies down again, and once again, an angel touches him and commands him to rise and eat (verse 7). During this second encounter, the angel explains the reason why Elijah must eat, “because the way is too much for you.” The Hebrew points us back to Elijah’s complaint in verse 4 that it was “too much” (rab), when the angel uses the same language in his frank assessment of what lies ahead. Elijah has had rab (verse 4), but he is sent on a way that is also rab for him (verse 7).

Many interpreters of this text see Elijah as discouraged, suffering burnout from his ministerial (or prophetic) duties, or even exhibiting signs of depression. Richard Nelson explains, “God’s therapy for prophetic burnout includes both the assignment of new tasks and the certain promise of a future that transcends the prophet’s own success or lack of it.”3  But Leong Seow observes, “Given his attitude, one should expect a divine rebuke. There is not one, however. Instead, there is a series of epiphanies…Elijah’s perspective is strongly challenged, and a lesson is offered to him; but he is never rebuked for showing weakness.”4 

What Elijah receives are practical, tangible provisions that enable him to go “in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights” (verse 8). What is given, then, is sufficient and strengthening. The gospel lectionary for today identifies Jesus as the living bread that came down from heaven (John 6:51). Certainly, the bread of Jesus gives us strength for the journeys in our lives, however difficult or overwhelming they may be.


1Leong Seow, “1 Kings.” New Interpreters Bible Volume III (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 140.
2Ibid.
3Richard Nelson, First and Second Kings. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 129.
4Seow, 145.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

Robert Hoch

The tension of this text begins with the enigmatic order of David to his commanders: “‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom’” (5a).

It’s not the sort of order one expects from a king about to send soldiers into the heart of conflict and perhaps that is why “all the people heard” (5b) — it touched something deeper than military strategy. Perhaps David’s parting word, more the plea of a helpless father than the command of a powerful king, went to the heart of a divided nation and, indeed, a divided house.

The description of the battle between the forces loyal to David and the men of Israel is short: “The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword” (7-8). It almost appears as a side-note to David’s conflicted relationship with Absalom, the narrator’s primary concern; yet to view this text as marginal would miss the symbolism and foreshadowing it contains.

Earlier, the soldiers prevail over David’s desire to enter into battle with them, saying that if he were killed in battle, it would be as if “ten thousand of us” were killed (3). So David remains back, behind the lines of battle. According to the narrator’s summary of the conflict, twenty thousand were killed that day, one of whom, we will soon discover, was David’s son, Absalom.  Otherwise known as a traitor, Absalom was David’s son and David was Absalom’s father — both would perish that day.

This text also chronicles something other than the total kills of rival powers:  “. . . the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword” (8b). This expression struck my ear as odd, since these are not “victims” but combatants. Moreover, armies inflict casualties, not forests. Yet within the narratives of Absalom’s death one detects echoes of previous events in David’s reign, in particular the story of David’s murder of Uriah the Hittite, a victim by way of his favorite commander, Joab. It is almost as if the writer is saying that there is more going on here than simply strategy, that this is a conflict that has a darker and more complex ecology than the stratagems of commanders and armies.

Likewise, the fate of Absalom seems almost accidental, an odd moment of battle where happenstance rather than clever military tactics yields the upper hand: “Absalom happened to meet the servants of David” (9a). The image of the suddenly helpless Absalom remains in our mind’s eye: “Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. A man [one under Joab’s command] saw it. . . .” (9b-10a).

Like other parts of this text, the description of Absalom’s condition, “hanging between heaven and earth” suggests, according to Walter Brueggemann, his liminal status: “Absalom is suspended between life and death, between the sentence of a rebel and the value of a son, between the severity of the king and the yearning of the father. He is no longer living, because he is utterly vulnerable, but he is not dead.”1

At this point, the enigmatic command or plea of David the father or king makes its tortured appearance: the soldier who happens on Absalom hesitates, does not do what his hand is trained to do, does not strike as he has been accustomed to striking. Ambivalence, doubt, pause, uncertainty.

Joab represents a contrast: he does not pause. Maybe he forgot David’s words; maybe he only remembered Absalom as a traitor who needed to be destroyed; maybe amid the swirl of battle the sanitized and unrealistic niceties of the “command center” could be disregarded: Who can judge what happens in the heat of battle? Whatever happened to be his thinking, Joab views the soldier’s reasoning in verses 12-13, a waste of time (14a). Ingrained with the habits of war and perhaps rage, he plunges not one but three spears “into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak” — and his armor guard joins in an act that the narrator conveys as exceedingly violent in nature (14b-15).

If the heart of David was riven between being a father and a king, Joab’s actions suggest the unambiguous character of the remorseless king, full of vengeance.

But this lection gives the father the last word, albeit a word none should desire. Hearing the “good tidings” of the Cushite, the king responds without anger, without a raw display of power, or deceit: he responds not as a king, but as a father suddenly and decisively bereaved.  David weeps: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (33b).

The king who pleaded with his commanders to “deal gently with the young man” (5) now weeps openly, unambiguously, and publicly as a father for his son. And for a time, at least, the grief of a father and not the victory of a king defines that day as well as our image of David: “So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, ‘The king is grieving for his son‘” (19:2).


1Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 319.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 34:1-8

Paul O. Myhre

Music has a way of provoking memories of events long forgotten.

Acting as aural time machines any particular song, melody, or lyrical tone can transport us across time and space to another space and time in our own journey through life.  High water moments are interspersed with low water events and much of the rest of our life experiences are lived somewhere between the two.

The melodies we craft or choose to focus attention on along the way say much about what we were about at that particular point in space and time.  Simple lines like “welcome to the Hotel California” or  “be thou my vision” or “wasting away again in Margaritaville” or “amazing grace how sweet the sound” can catapult us to places once central in our experience.  They can bring to mind friends who are no longer with us, places we have visited, and events that have shaped us.  A few words coupled with a catchy melody can be burned into our memories like tattoos that never go away.

Psalm 34 functions something like that for me.  Each poetic line is like a line from a song I once knew.  “This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.”  How many times could I say the same?  The line itself transports me back to those flood and drought moments where life seemed out of control or too much to control.  My poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.  In personal recognition about my watermark moments and parched places I discover something about the presence of God that was there in the midst of it all and was vitally real.

Perhaps Psalm 34 as poetry set to song served in some way like that for the people of God.  Each human life is an aggregation of experiences that build up over time.  Sedimentary layers of rocks, sludge, and discarded ideas mingle together and press in on one another.  We are walking repositories of all that has happened to us and each new experience fits into that matrix to find its place among the rest.

If one were able to cut through the accretions to see by way of a cross section all that has been, what would they discern.  I suspect they might be surprised to see layers where God’s grace covered the hard places and where God’s presence brushed against jagged stones of disappointment or personal pain.  Perhaps the activity of God in human experience is not unlike a fertile layer of soil laid down by a springtime flood over our river bottoms of stone and sand.  Once given to the rocky places new life can emerge where none previously may have been thought possible.  Our hard times can be transformed by recognition of the abiding presence of God.

What would it mean to bless the Lord at all times with praise continually in our mouths?  Is the Psalmist realistic about human capacity to stay focused on a topic?  Or is the Psalmist interested in inviting the people of God to some reorientation of thought and action?  How would it be to go through life with each 24 hour day permeated by reflection on the presence of God and God’s activity in the things we think are somehow too removed, too banal, or too mundane?  What if God were one of us as the pop song suggested?  How might we note the difference?

The opening explosion of praise invokes human senses of taste, hearing, sight, and touch.  It seems only the sense of smell is missing or perhaps it isn’t.  Since smell is intimately connected with our sense of taste it may be implicitly indicated.  Smell from campfire smoke as the angel of the Lord encamped nearby touches minds filled with memories of outdoor camping experiences in the wilderness and in travels from place to place.

The Psalmist provides a sonnet of God’s activity that hears human pleas, speaks to human fears, and provides deliverance from what might paralyze capacities to live in the fullness of grace.  The kinesthetic activity of God affirms a living and present God involved in the lives of people for their comfort and strength.  The Psalmist’s poetic flurry of expression involves the whole human being.  The five senses are pictured as places where God is present.  They are places where God might be discovered in the ordinary events of life.

The Hebrew word — ira — translated into English as “fear” stands out in the text and draws hearers toward further reflection about how to not only be cognizant of the actions of God, but to face fears through living in right relation with the living God.  The word fear is sprinkled through the Psalm from start to finish — delivered from all fears and angels encamp around those that fear God.  Following verse 8 the Psalm encourages hearers to fear the Lord and reminds them about how the dimensions associated with the imperative to fear the Lord will be taught to them through faithfulness.  Maybe the word translated into English in the first part ought to remain as “fear,” but perhaps in later portions of the Psalm to be translated not as “fear,” but “awe” or “reverence.”

Fear for human beings is the result of many catalysts.  It can be derived from human experiences of guilt and shame.  It can arise from threats real and imagined to our existence or the existence of those whom we love.  It can grow from experience with the natural world that can be a place of physical and emotional pain.  It may emerge when one is faced with something that has not been previously experienced — like the first time standing at the edge of a high cliff when faced with the recognition that one slip could cause our demise.

Fear can make the legs weak or can trigger a response to run from the perceived danger or risk.  Rarely in my experience does fear invite adoration.  Instead the fight or flight response seems more common.  Maybe the idea of fearing God is not so much fighting or fleeing as it is recognition of the scale of something that cannot be fully comprehended.  Like an unsolvable math problem, the number of stars in the universe, or the number of beats our heart will beat over a lifetime — we cannot determine with certitude what the solution or numbers are.  We only know that they exist and if we had the capacity to determine them the answers would only produce more questions.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Mark Tranvik

Introduction

Our passage contains a lot of moral advice that can be found in many places in the ancient world.

In that sense, there is nothing “original” in this text. However, the wealth of moral instruction does not mean the Bible is simply “moralizing” its readers. The key difference lay in the motivation for the morality. Most commentators agree that Paul’s framework for his ethical instruction is baptism.

Interwoven throughout the letter to the Ephesians are many references to death and life (2:1, 5), putting away the old self (4:22, 25) and being marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit (1:13, 4:30). In other words, instead of simply being exhorted to do good works, the community is continually reminded that it has been engrafted into the body of Christ and that its hope is grounded in Christ’s present and future redemption. The result is a life lived in love, rooted and grounded in the love of Christ (5:2). Our discussion of this text focuses on common misunderstandings of Paul’s words.

Be Angry?

In some highly sentimental versions of the Christian faith it is thought that any type of anger is a sin. Paul surprises us here by recognizing that anger has its place. He also says that it has its limits. Even those with a superficial knowledge of the Bible recognize that this is a book acquainted with anger. The prophets (Amos for example!) can hardly contain their outrage at the way the people of Israel have violated God’s covenant.

Jesus was upset when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers or when he encountered almost any form of self-righteous arrogance. And Paul himself was furious with church in Galatians as it fell back into seeing the law as a way to please God (Galatians 3:1-3). Indeed, God may be slow to anger but this does not mean God is never angry. God gets upset when his people turn to idolatry. As one of my professors put it, love is always outraged at betrayal.

And yet we must be careful. Paul warns the Ephesians not to “let the sun go down on your anger” (4:26). He recognizes that anger can quickly become obsessive. Instead of being upset over a thoughtless word or deed, we have a tendency to make it “personal” in a hurry. We nurse a grudge and cook up schemes for revenge. Once we have slipped into this realm we have opened the door for the devil (4:27). The well-being of the community then becomes secondary and our main purpose is simply to get even. Thus Paul reminds us of the need to let forgiveness have the last word (4:32).

Grieving the Spirit

Paul also says in our text that we must not “grieve” the Holy Spirit. What is meant by this unusual phrase? Paul says in Ephesians that the Spirit has “sealed” us in the promises of Christ (1:13, 4:30), given us access to the Father (2:18), and provided us with the inner power to sustain the life of faith (3:16-17). This is an impressive list of gifts. Perhaps Paul’s use of the word “grieve” can be understood in the context of the human tendency to slip into behavior that undermines our community in Christ (4:31). For example, parents have a hard time conceiving of a situation where they would stop loving their children.

We can all cite examples of mothers and fathers who have gone to extraordinary lengths to help a prodigal son or daughter. These parents have indeed been “grieved” or disappointed by the actions of their loved ones — but they rarely break off the relationship completely. Even in the most dire of cases there is still a flicker of hope for reconciliation and restoration. So it is with God. The “seal” or bond of the Spirit is inviolable.

God’s deep and unfathomable commitment to his people should not be questioned. The inheritance is assured (1:11). Seen in this light, Paul’s warning not to grieve the Spirit is an acknowledgement of our ability to deeply disappoint God by our “bitterness”, “slander” and “malice” (4:31). Our selfishness not only destroys community; it also dishonors the Father who has gone to such great lengths to adopt us as his children (1:5-8).

Imitation Love

This section concludes with the ultimate exhortation: be imitators of God (5:1)! Here is where there is a true break with the typical virtue-vice lists of the ancient world. A standard has now been set that transcends all human morality. It could also lead to despair if not handled carefully. This might be a good opportunity for preachers and teachers to review the meaning of agape love as forms of this word appear three times in 5:1-2. 

Our culture’s interpretation of love might be said to be at war with the biblical understanding of agape. Commercials and conventional usage suggest that love is largely a romantic feeling produced by the right combination of clothes, physical conditioning, smile and make-up. In other words, love is dependent upon being lovable.

This is the exact opposite of agape love which reaches out and extends itself to the most unlovable. As Martin Luther once said, it is characteristic of God’s love that it does not find its object but it creates it. The point may seem subtle but Luther is saying we cannot make ourselves worthy of God, though we often try to do this. Rather, our relationship to God is based on nothing other than God’s decision to love us in Christ. Or as Paul stresses, agape is rooted in Christ’s act of giving himself for us (5:2).

Paul highlights the effects of this love as well. We now inherit the status of “beloved children” (5:1). Our task then is to take this love to the neighbor or “live in love” (5:2) as Paul says. Perfect imitation of this love is not possible. God’s word of forgiveness will always be relevant (4:32).  But the love of Christ dwells in our hearts as well (3:17). And that makes a big difference as we make our way into the world.