Lectionary Commentaries for August 19, 2012
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 6:51-58

Ginger Barfield

The lectionary text for this Sunday again includes the final verse from last week’s passage.

This is important to set the context within Jesus’ revelatory promise: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven . . . . The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 

These words offered to the Jews heightened the already conflicted atmosphere. In last week’s text, the Jews were grumbling (verses 41, 43). The verb in verse 52 indicates an escalated tension: they are now arguing among themselves. They question how Jesus is able to offer his body for them to eat.

Another Choice

Jesus ups the ante by adding drinking the blood to eating the flesh. In what scholars debate as either eucharistic or incarnational language in verses 53 and 54, Jesus confronts the Jews with a choice through first a negative and then a positive situation. (See a similar construction in verses 44 and 45.)

In a double negation, Jesus states “if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves.” Then in the next verse in a straightforward positive statement he says, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Last week the choice was that of relationship — coming to Jesus. This week, it is that of participation — eating and drinking the body and blood. For the Jews, either choice was a difficult one. Either demanded a break with tradition. 

For our context, it might be helpful to consider two different approaches. The first is to ask why these were such difficult choices for the Jewish audience in the story. What would make it hard for the Jews to agree to eat flesh and drink blood? Were these practices foreign? Unclean? Pagan?

The second is to imagine some similarly disjunctive contexts that might cause difficulty for us today. What practices of the faith seem to clash with our traditions? What in our traditions seem to clash with faith practices?

This is not simply a text about an appropriate theological understanding of the elements at the communion table. It is not simply a text about how real Jesus’ incarnation is — flesh and blood. It is richer in that it invites full relationship and participation in the life-giving power of Jesus. This is not always as easy as one might imagine.

Results of Eating and Drinking

Virtually none of us can resist the selfish “What’s in it for me?” mentality. It is interesting to note that throughout chapter 6 and Jesus’ dialogue with his questioners, he gives credence to this thought. Here in this last of the four texts, there is a clear answer to the question. If we eat the body and drink the blood, we can expect:

  • To have life ongoing (verse 54)
  • To be raised on the last day (verse 54)
  • To abide in Jesus (verse 56)
  • To have Jesus abide in [me] (verse 56)
  • To live because of/for the sake of Jesus (verse 57)
  • To live forever (verse 58)

It could be interesting to focus on what these things mean. Not in some poetic sense at this point, but what if the sermon could focus on what recognizing who Jesus is and believing that really means for our lives?

It can be both challenging and instructive to note how Jesus has, to this point, clearly played off their misunderstanding. It all began four weeks ago (for us) when the crowd misinterpreted the sign of feeding the huge group with only a little food. All of the conversation, since the miracle, has been about bread — explaining it, defining it, identifying it. But it really has not been about bread at all. It has been about Jesus and who he is. 

The point missed in the feeding sign was who Jesus was. The sign was to point to Jesus. Instead they got full of food and went back to how things were before. They went back to the literal level and missed the depth and riches that were right in front of them. By the end of the conversation, Jesus is telling them that they ate the wrong thing. They ate bread and fish and they should be eating flesh and blood. You cannot hear that on a literal level. It is too deep for that.

But another miracle was in that first text. Embedded there was the short story of the disciples’ simple recognition of Jesus in the dark once they heard his voice. That voice was enough to take away their fears. No grand miracle. Just a simple recognition of who Jesus was. That was a literal story that went much deeper.

Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God, sent from above, to feed the world for all time. Jesus is he who sustains the world in a way that makes living possible. Jesus is the one who speaks and we know he is here. Jesus is the one who draws us to himself. Jesus is the one who can help us understand even when everything in our histories cries out that it does not fit.

How can your congregation discover Jesus in these texts?

First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 9:1-6

Wil Gafney

Wisdom has built her house… Proverbs 9 continues what might be called the “Acts of Wisdom” begun in Proverbs chapter 8.

Wisdom is presented as an independent and autonomous female entity, introduced in chapter 1. She is personified in terms of her agency or personhood and even appears to have a (physical) person. Wisdom is female, largely because the noun for wisdom, chokmah in Hebrew, is grammatically feminine, (this is also true of Sophia in Greek).

The relationship between grammatical gender and functional gender is complicated by the fact that non-animate objects have gender in many languages, including biblical languages. For example, in this chapter the crossroads in verse 2 are feminine while the gates and portals in verse 3 are masculine in Hebrew. Animate but non-corporeal entities are also gendered in the scriptures; most of the basic nouns for God are grammatically masculine — a few have feminine form yet behave as though they were masculine — while the Spirit of God is always feminine in Hebrew (and neuter in Greek).

Jerome’s translation of the bible from Greek to Latin in the fourth century is the first to have a masculine Holy Spirit. Added to non-animate nouns, gendered people and animals, and names for God, are the personifications of cities like Jerusalem and characteristics or perhaps, charisms, like Wisdom (and Understanding, also feminine.) There is a rich collection of devotional and mystical literature in Judaism called the Kabbalah that focuses on ten of these with which God created the world in which Proverbs chapters 8-9 figures prominently: Sovereignty, Wisdom, Understanding, Kindness, Power, Beauty, Eternity, Splendor, Foundation and Divine Presence.

In Proverbs 9:1-9, Wisdom who has previously partnered with God in creation, (Proverbs 8:22-31), is now the host of a great banquet. But before she sets her table, she builds a house (or perhaps a banquet house). It seems that the whole purpose of her building is hospitality; she needs a place to host the banquet to which she will soon invite the world. Wisdom is no lady at leisure ordering the staff about — she has staff but works with them and does hard, manual labor herself.

First in verse 1, Wisdom builds her own house, then she crafts seven decorative pillars — either chopping down trees or carving stones. Then in verse 2 she butchers her own fresh meat, mixes her own wine and sets her table. In verse 3 she tasks her serving girls with an undisclosed task, likely invitations to specific guests — who are they? — yet she herself invites complete strangers en mass. She goes from place to place, specifically inviting those who are woefully unacquainted with her in verse 4, calling out to them, shouting loudly in public places, in so doing she models extraordinary yet perhaps acceptable behavior for human women. In verse 5 she explains that the way for those bereft of her to benefit from her is to feast at her table. And if they do so, they will live and walk in understanding, (translated as “insight” in the NRSV).

Wisdom’s table is a metaphor for the acquisition of wisdom. But what is wisdom? It is more than innate intelligence or sense; for it can be gained by those who lack it. In Biblical Hebrew, wisdom is as much technical expertise or craft(wo)manship as it is intellectual knowledge. I tell my students that it is heart-and-hand knowledge — for the Israelites, the heart (not the head) was the source thought and choice. The women (Exodus 35:26) and men (Exodus 31:6) who craft the Tabernacle in the wilderness are all called wise; if Israel keeps the Torah they will be a “wise and understanding people” in Deuteronomy 4:6; the wise woman who led her city seems to be the governing official who saves her people from certain death by shrewd and lethal political dealing in 2 Samuel 20:22, and of course the wisdom of Solomon was legendary, 1 Kings 4:29. So wisdom is craft: statecraft, Torah-craft craftwomanship, craftsmanship and craftiness.

The source of wisdom is Wisdom herself. And who (or what) is Wisdom? In rabbinic (Jewish) thought, Wisdom is the Torah. The rubric goes something like this: Both Wisdom and Torah are feminine nouns. Proverbs 3:18 says, “She is a Tree of Life,” also understood to be the Torah. Torah-knowledge, fruit from that tree, should be feasted upon like the banquet at Wisdom’s table: “taste and see” (Psalm 34:8), the sweetness of God’s word(s) is compared to honey, (Psalm 119:103; Ezekiel 3:3), the notion continues in the New Testament in Revelation 10:9. Wisdom is also intimately tangled up with God, said to be both the first of God’s creation (Proverbs 8:22) and God’s co-worker/master-worker (Proverbs 8:30). God is the source of Wisdom (and Torah and life).

Wisdom continued to capture the exegetical imaginations of the framers of scripture; the Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-11:1 is largely a poetic interpretation of Proverbs 8-9. The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach has a number of scattered verses personifying wisdom such as “Wisdom teaches her children and gives help to those who seek her” in Sirach 4:9. She also appears in the Gospels as the vindicator (Matt 11:19) and parent (Luke 7:35) of Jesus of Nazareth, in both cases Wisdom is to be identified with God and not Mary of Nazareth. In addition, the Wisdom of God is the source of a text that Luke (11:49) quotes as scripture; it is otherwise unknown, but clearly authoritative for him.

Wisdom has built her house…she has set her table. So pull up a seat and sit down. Eat and drink your fill. And be satisfied.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Cameron B.R. Howard

The Old Testament readings for this week and next week both feature prayers of King Solomon.

While next week’s reading from 1 Kings 8 will feature a public prayer in a formal, liturgical setting, this week’s passage describes a private exchange between God and Solomon, when God has appeared to Solomon in a dream. This “dream sequence” describes a divine origin for the wisdom Solomon famously possesses.

First Kings 2:10-12 reminds us that Solomon has succeeded his father David on the throne of Israel, a succession not without controversy and substantial political intrigue (see 1 Kings 1:5-53). The appointed verses then move to an evaluative description of Solomon’s character: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places” (1 Kings 3:3 NRSV). Solomon’s righteousness is mitigated by his participation in one of the most egregious religious sins in Deuteronomic perspective: worship at the “high places” rather than in Jerusalem.

The story of Solomon’s reign in as told in 1 Kings, like the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings overall, has a distinctly “Deuteronomic” flavor; that is, those books share the theological priorities of the book of Deuteronomy, which emphasizes steadfast love and covenant fidelity between God and Israel. If the Israelites keep covenant by following God’s law, they will receive blessings; if not, they will face curses.

A prominent refrain in Deuteronomy is that, upon arriving in the promised land, the Israelites must only worship at “the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” (Deuteronomy 12:5 et al.). References to the “high places” in Kings seem to point both to the improper worship of the Israelites’ God and to the worship of other gods. Thus, when the text remarks that Solomon would offer “a thousand burnt offerings” on the altar at Gibeon, his worship practices, while undoubtedly considered fervent, are also being condemned.

The text’s ambivalence about the character of Solomon has been well chronicled in many commentaries.1 Solomon is a blessed king, a fitting successor to David, and the king chosen to build the LORD’s Temple in Jerusalem. His wisdom, his riches, and his long-lasting reputation as a great king testify further to his chosenness; indeed, in this very passage those elements are described as freely offered gifts from God (3:12-13). At the same time, in addition to condemning his worship at the high places, the Deuteronomic authorial voice regards Solomon’s marriages to foreign wives with disdain, seeing them as conduits for the worship of foreign gods.

It is helpful to remember that the text’s ambivalence about Solomon, whom it regards as both undoubtedly great and yet dangerously flawed, extends to its evaluation of kingship in general. In 1 Samuel 8, the prophet Samuel delivers a warning to the people when they ask him for a king. He cautions that a king will take their resources and their labor for his own benefit, and they will end up as his slaves (1 Samuel 8:11-18). That warning looms over the whole account of the rise and fall of the monarchy in the books of Samuel and Kings. The idea that monarchs take and take from their subjects proves true in Solomon’s use of Israelite forced labor for his building projects and is amplified with subsequent kings. Rehoboam’s intensification of the forced labor program (1 Kings 12:1-14) and Ahab’s murder of Naboth and confiscation of his vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16) provide two prominent examples. At the same time, the monarchy is instituted by God and contributes to the ordering of society. The text particularly emphasizes the divine choosing of David and Solomon, even as it names royal apostasies as the causes of the exile to Babylon.

Thus, underlying the ambivalence about this king is an overall ambivalence throughout the Former Prophets about kings and kingship in general. Acknowledging this unsettledness in the text helps us as readers avoid too easily assuming that everything Solomon does or says — including his prayers — is to be emulated uncritically. No human ruler can match the sovereign rulership of God. Even so, some of the very limits Solomon exhibits help to make him such a compelling figure. In his prayer Solomon appears to understand the magnitude of the task before him and the challenges it will present. When he describes himself as being “in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted” (3:7), the image is powerful: as if he, a child, is surrounded by an innumerable swirl of citizens pressing in on him for governance, guidance, and protection. By invoking that image, Solomon confesses his fear.

Solomon’s confession is a powerful testimony to his own humanity. Indeed, his entire biography as presented in Kings is evidence of the brokenness he shares with us all. At the same time, he exhibits rare qualities. By asking for wisdom in the first place, Solomon is demonstrating that he already possesses wisdom. That wisdom begets wisdom is a common theme of the wisdom literature: “Give instruction to the wise and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning” (Proverbs 9:9). Solomon is wise even before God grants his request.

Leadership, be it governmental, religious, or otherwise, requires us to hold in tension humility and confidence, finitude and limitless capacity, the gifts we have and the gifts we have yet to acquire. Solomon is by no means a “perfect” model for leadership, as his prayer reminds us. At the same time, Solomon’s prayer also testifies that effective leadership demands boldness, calling us to act in wisdom even as we pray to have wisdom enacted in us.

1For a detailed analysis of the presentation of Solomon’s character, see especially Walter Brueggemann, Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005). Previous workingpreacher.org commentaries by Kathryn Schifferdecker,
Brent Strawn,
and Juliana Claasens have also addressed this ambivalence.


Commentary on Psalm 34:9-14

Henry Langknecht

9Fear the LORD, you saints of the LORD, for those who fear the LORD lack nothing.

10The lions are in want and suffer hunger, but those who seek the LORD lack nothing that is good.
11Come, children, and listen to me; I will teach you reverence for the LORD.
12Who among you takes pleasure in life and desires long life to enjoy prosperity?
13Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from lying words.
14Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Because we don’t have the first eight verses of the psalm, we are presented here with a disembodied first-person-singular voice that the community in worship will easily hear as a continuation of Wisdom’s monologue from Proverbs. In the first lesson, Wisdom claims to offer maturity, life, and insight; the psalm in turn promises access to the good life, prosperity, insight, and general morality. What makes the psalmist’s voice distinct from that of Wisdom is the sectarian tone of the invitations to “fear” and “revere” God. Verse nine and ten of the psalm hint at a parallel construction consisting of an antithesis where saints are set against lions (when does the NFL season start, anyway?).

Saints are those who fear God and therefore lack nothing. Though lions are sometimes portrayed positively in Scripture, here they have a negative character. The psalmist doesn’t specify the actual persons to whom “lions” metaphorically refer nor what behaviors put them in disfavor with God. What we can infer is that lions personify (felinify?) whatever is the opposite of “fear” of God — perhaps pride, independence, or the inability to submit. Whatever it is, the lions are hungry and in want because of it. The image of “hungry lions” is ironic on the one hand in that it taps into the broad biblical theme of fortune reversal that gives hope to the poor and weak. At the same time, the metaphor has a frightening aspect in that hungry lions are desperate and dangerous lions!

The psalmody shifts to a more intimate tone at verse 11 as we move from saints who fear God to children who will be taught reverence for God. Verse 11 is where the echo of Wisdom’s voice from Proverbs is the strongest: “Come, children and listen to me …” The verses that follow provide an interesting mix of exhortations exemplary of wisdom literature (secular, general morality) and those using sectarian, creedal language more typical of liturgical psalms and prophetic literature (repent, turn). For example, taking “pleasure in life” is a strong wisdom theme while “turning from” (evil) sounds more covenantal or sectarian.

Verses 12 and 13 present three exhortations: keep your tongue from evil (lying is specifically mentioned in the specifying parallel); turn from doing evil toward doing good; and seek and pursue peace. Each of these exhortations is rich in its own right and could be separately treated in a sermon. But the psalmody taken as a whole seems more concerned with the larger issue of fear and reverence for God of which these activities are symptomatic.

One of the theological assumptions of Scripture is the connection of spiritual cause with material effect — in Psalm 34 the implication is that “fearing God” leads to “lacking nothing.” But who — apart from the most enthusiastic proponents of “prosperity theology” — really believes that reverence for God leads to empirical rewards? (Not even the psalmist sustains the connection as we’ll see next week when Psalm 34:15-22 comprises the psalmody!)

When I’m sitting in the congregation on August 19, I’d like to hear some thoughtful reflection about whether there are concrete, real-life, even material benefits of “fearing and loving God.” Our default position is to treat “will lack nothing” and “enjoy prosperity” as spiritual promises, an unsatisfying solution especially in light of the visceral “hunger” to which the lions are condemned.

At a more topical theological level, the psalm invites consideration of what it means to “fear” God. Martin Luther is said to have said, “I fear God because God can squash me; I love God because God does not.” Such a sentiment might track with biblical notions of God’s glory, holiness, sovereignty, and power but falls flat in our secularized scientific view of the world — not to mention our presumption of “casual friendship” with the Creator.

Teach me to revere God without resorting (only) to exhortation to fortify my prayer and worship practices. I’d welcome hearing a preacher wrestle with an understanding of “fear of God” that convicts me of my skewed proportions and perspective with respect to God. Pushing us beyond the tepid connotations of such palatable synonyms as “awe” or “respect” might serve to stir us to faithful action in global justice and care of the earth.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20

Melinda Quivik

Most of Ephesians is found in the Revised Common Lectionary

except for, chiefly, 5:21-6:9 (the Household Codes) and 5:3-6 which describes even more specifically than today’s epistle disobedient behaviors — equating, for example, fornication and impurity with vulgar talk. Greed, we are told in 5:6, as a mark of idolatry, prohibits inheritance of the kingdom. When we hear the counsel of today’s epistle, we may hold in mind how seriously the letter as a whole depicts the church’s life.

Addressed to the church in Ephesus but presumed to have been circulated to many churches, Ephesians 5:15-20 fits well within the framework of today’s governing scripture — the Gospel reading — and the congenial imagery of Proverbs. Both tell us that this Sunday is about the food of true life. The living bread is given — body and blood — for the beloved community.

The promises of the Gospel on this Sunday may make it possible to hear the epistle’s commands in the spirit of their intention. Jesus’ promise in John is all gift: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Without that promise, the admonitions of this epistle text can seem impossible and harsh: “Be careful…” “The days are evil.” “[U]nderstand what the will of the Lord is.” Apart from the gospel, such commands may cause ulcers (how can we know possibly God’s will?!) and contort our view of creation (everything is evil?!). Set, however, in the invitation to come and eat what wisdom and the living bread have set before us, the goodness of Ephesians 5 becomes clear, for to “be filled with the Spirit…” is to live with joy and gratitude.

This passage sets forth stark alternatives aimed specifically at living a life that is centered in worship: singing (lalountes) and giving thanks (eucharistountes) in the name of the Lord. This passage also lays out a pathway to that life by setting up stark oppositions. One scholar sees three oppositions in Ephesians 5:1-20: love vs. lust, light vs. darkness, and wisdom vs. foolishness.1 The text for this Sunday focuses on the last of these.

Immediately preceding it is a description of behaviors appropriate to a life of wisdom (read in Lent, Year A — Ephesians 5:7-14). The language is considered to be an ancient baptismal chant: “Sleeper, awake!/ Rise from the dead,/ and Christ will shine on you.” (5:14b) Were we to ask what it means to awaken, we would be answered by the first words of today’s text, admonishing us to “Be careful…”

Once the church has been awakened from “the dead,” we are called to pay attention to how we spend our time. We are given three more oppositions: 1) live “not as unwise people but… wise,” 2) “do not be foolish, but understand” the Lord’s will, and 3) “do not get drunk… but be filled with the Spirit.” The church is here shown the shape and substance of a life of love, light, and wisdom, the themes of the entire epistle. The text cautions against specific actions that do not “make the most of the time,” do not, in effect, treasure creation so that we aim for living eucharistia — a life of thanksgiving. We are to “make the most of the time” (exagorazomenoi — “snapping up” bargains; saving what would otherwise be lost) because it is precious.

God has given us time, ourselves, and Earth in and through which to exercise reverence by being wise, focused on God’s desire for all creation, and Spirit-filled. We honor God’s gifts when we attend to its profundity, acknowledging that creation and our own lives actually matter. If we spend our days numbed to God’s gifts (that is, inebriated by a myriad of possible anesthetics, including greed, power, contempt for others, and all manner of unfocused indulgences), we cannot experience life “filled with the Spirit.”

The contrast here is between going along with social norms and, conversely, being directed by a more penetrating source of purpose. These admonitions are not meant to be legalisms that straitjacket joy; they articulate contrasts that can help us see our true identity as beloved of God in Christ Jesus. To be filled by the Holy Spirit is, in fact, to be baptized and, thus, invited to the feast of bread and wine.

It is not possible, aside from the presence of Christ, to know the will of the Lord or to make the most of our time or even to be careful! Indeed, a person can choose one path rather than another, negotiate the extent to which we believe we have a handle on God’s will, and learn how to be useful and productive with our days. We may well be good care-takers of Earth and its creatures. But we cannot know most deeply what God has made available to us without knowing what it is to live a life of thanksgiving. The writer of Ephesians describes that thanksgiving as a gathering of those who come together to sing to the Lord and give thanks “at all times and for everything.”

There is a certain irony in a text that sets foolishness against wisdom because, in fact, elsewhere, we have been told that the cross of Jesus is foolishness. What is foolishness in the context of that assertion? What is wisdom? The cross is wisdom. Life in Jesus’ risen presence is abundant life. Yet, isn’t it also foolish? To live a life of thanksgiving in the face of all that is wrong in the world, all the pain and need and stupidity, may seem to some people to be a very foolish way to live. So this passage invites us to think deeply about the relationship between foolish and wise life, to pay attention, so that we live according to what resides beyond the present moment.

1 Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991), 65.