Lectionary Commentaries for August 26, 2012
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 6:56-69

Jaime Clark-Soles

This climatic passage, with its rich metaphor and intense interaction, aims to move us finally to a confession, a claiming, a proclaiming.

It is the revelation that all of the great I AM statements in John deliver: they manifest God-for-us in Christ.

The so-called “Absolute” I-Am statements occur throughout John. In each case Jesus applies the Divine Name to himself to show that he is God. But we see other places where Jesus follows the “I am” with a predicate nominative (6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12; 9:5; 10: 7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5).

The first I AM statement of this sort occurs in our “Bread from Heaven Discourse.” John sets the narrative in the context of Passover to connect it with Moses leading the Israelites toward the Promised Land. Jesus’ skeptical audience grumbles, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? . . . Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat'” (6:30-31). Just the day before Jesus gave bread to 5000 people out of 5 loaves! 

Jesus then tries to re-orient their vision and their passion. They are hung up on the past: Moses gave our ancestors manna. Jesus wants them to focus on the abundant life available right here and now in him:  “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35).

The story proceeds with the pattern of Jesus speaking about his identity, the audience contesting him (cf. 6:41-43), and Jesus trying again. So, again, at 6:51 he presents himself as the Bread of Life and declares, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” As usual, this causes a puzzled response from the auditors: “”How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus then makes his grand six-verse proclamation (verses 53-59); the lectionary picks up on it when he is already halfway through, at verse 56. John 6:56-69 evinces the same pattern mentioned above.

Jesus Speaks: Eating, Drinking and Living: 6:56-59

The scene occurs in a synagogue in Capernaum. As is typical in John, one finds an intra-Jewish, often antagonistic, debate about how Jesus relates to the parent tradition. In this case, the contest is between Moses and Jesus and the subject has to do with who’s eating what and toward what end. Verse 56 uses an unusual word for eating, trogo (the usual word is esthio), whose connotation is crunching or gnawing — the kind of thing one does when eating a turkey leg at the fair, or maybe quail in the wilderness.

In John, the word occurs only in John 6 and at 13:18 when John quotes Psalm 41:9. As is the case throughout John, the primary goal is to abide in Jesus and have him and God abide in and among us; in fact, the word for abide, meno, occurs 40 times in John and in almost every chapter. Abiding in Jesus is synonymous with living, really living; what we call “truly living” John calls “eternal life.” It refers not so much to quantity as to quality.

Response to Jesus, Part I: Verse 60

The audience balks at all this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood and they declare, “This LOGOS is difficult; who can accept it?” Great question! But it is THE question the Gospel puts to every reader. English translations say “teaching” or merely “this,” but logos is a key word in John from the start. From the Prologue on, we know that Jesus is the logos and, crucially, that the logos became flesh (sarx; 1:14). The author expects us to recall what we have heard before chapter 6.

Jesus Speaks Again: The Power of Words: verses 61-65

In verse 61, John uses the word gongyzo to describe the reaction of the disciples. This is the same word used of the Israelites in the wilderness when they grumbled against Moses. He asks them a question: “Does this scandalize you?” Translations often use “offend” but the word is skandalizo and it’s a more powerful word, so why change it? Instead of trying to minimize the scandal of believing Jesus’ testimony about himself, he intensifies it by (a) claiming to be the Son of Man and (b) associating himself with Jacob’s ladder (cf. 1:51), the one through whom heaven and earth are ultimately linked.

The metaphors are piling up: Jesus’ flesh/bread and blood/drink give life (zoe); now we learn that the very words of the Word are not only life, but also spirit. This alludes back to Genesis 1 where God speaks creation into existence and breathes life into people. It also foreshadows 19:30 where Jesus bestows (paradidomi) the Spirit from the cross and 20:22 where he breathes the Spirit on his disciples. 

Jesus wants the hearers to believe (pisteuo occurs 98 times in this Gospel, more than any other). How will they (and we) respond?

Responses, Part II

Choice A, as shown in verse 66, is to bail. Choice B, however, entails abiding (meno) and, therefore, coming to believe and know. Jesus asks if those left also wish to bail. Peter answers for the group; notice that he does not say Yes or No. It’s a moot point — Peter now knows things he can’t pretend he doesn’t know. Oh, he will forget and stumble, but saving, eternal-life-giving knowledge causes us to abide.

It is a compelling knowledge, if only in the long term. The verbs for believe and know here are in the perfect tense in Greek; that tense is what we use to indicate action completed in the past that has continuing effect in the present. THAT’S the kind of believing and knowing Jesus is after. Recognizing Jesus for who he is (be it Son of Man, the Holy One of God, the Word made Flesh, etc.) requires both belief and knowledge; one without the other is useless, if not sinister, as Judas will soon demonstrate.

A few ideas for preachers:
– Preach a series on The I-AM statements in the Gospel of John
– Consider how the passage relates to the Eucharistic practices of your tradition
– Revel in the incarnation with your people

First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Anathea Portier-Young

Bondage to a lie, or freedom’s integrity.

The reading makes it seem like an easy choice. Joshua adjures the gathered tribes of Israel to fear and serve Yahweh and turn aside from other gods (24:14). To the people God has chosen, Joshua says, “Choose” (24:15). And the people choose: “We will serve Yahweh” (24:18).

I marvel and even puzzle over the editorial shaping that yields such concise instruction and confident response. It is not hard to spot what the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out: a history of darkness, deliverance, destruction, and gift (24:2b-13) that precedes this new choice; and a startling, even ominous exchange that follows the people’s bold answer to Joshua’s command (24:19-24).

In that elided exchange, Joshua shows the chosen people their future. Joshua does not applaud their discerning judgment or willing hearts, but instead assures them that they will break their promise. You will not be able to serve Yahweh, he says, and Yahweh will not forgive you (24:19). When they repeat their promise, Joshua calls them to witness to their choice (24:22). When they dare to repeat their promise a third time, Joshua records their commitment in scroll and stone (24:26-27).

Why delimit the passage in just this way, omitting reminder and warning? This conscious shaping of the lection directs the attention of the preacher and those who hear the word proclaimed in three ways:

While past and future remain in view, the lection focuses on the present moment.

If I were preaching this passage, I would aim to place my congregation in that moment, to show them that they stand where Israel’s tribes stood, before the warning of failure and before the covenant is made and recorded. I would bring their awareness to the place where Joshua has summoned them and to the moment of decision.

Joshua has gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem, the place where, long ago, God had appeared to Abram and promised the gift of the land (Genesis 12:6-7). Abram built there an altar, the first sanctuary to Yahweh in the land of promise. In the book of Joshua we learn that the Lord has also designated Shechem as a city of refuge, a haven that interrupts and transforms a landscape marred by violence and revenge (Joshua 20:7).

Joshua now gathers the people in this city that orients them to the boundary between justice and mercy and beside the altar that commemorates God’s revelation and promise and their ancestor’s worshipful response.  At the moment of decision the people are surrounded by physical reminders of God’s revelation and promise and oriented by their own shared practices of worship, justice, and mercy.

The leaders of the community are also such a physical reminder. Joshua summons the elders, heads, judges, and officers to station themselves and stand upright in the presence of God (24:1). These individuals possess wisdom and memory, live as visible examples of covenant faithfulness, dedicate their lives to justice, and are entrusted with responsibility for the people’s welfare. They commit their bodies, hearts, and minds to bridge the space between heaven and earth and draw their people closer to God.

The opposition between worship and slavery rises to the fore.

The editorial shaping of the lection moves the hearer past God’s first-person account of what God has done for Israel’s past generations and given to the present generation. The emphasis falls instead on what the people will do.

The threefold repetition in one verse (24:14) of the Hebrew verb ‘abad sharpens the focus. The verb occurs six more times in the lection (24:15-18; the related noun ‘abadim occurs once). The range of meanings for this verb includes “to be a slave”, “to serve”, “to work”, and “to worship.” The conceptual link between worship and slavery may seem obscure or theologically distasteful, but it is critical for understanding the choice Joshua offers the tribes of Israel. They can and will give their whole selves to one kind of relationship only. Worship of false gods is slavery to human artifice and self-interest. Joshua calls Israel out of bondage into the freedom of life in covenant with God.

Joshua’s call to worship Yahweh in integrity therefore entails putting away (vehasîrû)  the gods “your ancestors” worshipped in Mesopotamia and Egypt (24:14). This instruction echoes an earlier command. In the book of Genesis, Jacob instructs his household to put away foreign gods (Genesis 35:2), and he hides the gods beneath the oak at Shechem (35:4), in the very ground on which the tribes now stand. The preacher who now summons the congregation to choose worship of God must also reveal the false gods hidden like landmines in the ground beneath their feet.

The people speak their reasons and tell their story in their own words.

The elided divine speech in Joshua 24:2b-13 offers God’s version of the story and suggests reasons, from God’s point of view, why the Israelites should now choose to serve God. But to arrive at their decision in true freedom and integrity, the people must tell their own story and declare their own reasons.

They begin by naming the relationship that has claimed them and allows them to claim God for their own: “Yahweh is our God” (24:17). They then profess that God brought “us” and “our fathers” up from Egypt, from a house of slaves. The people who stand before Joshua never set foot in the land of Egypt (except possibly Caleb, see Deuteronomy 1:36), but they remember this passage to freedom. They testify to miracles worked in their sight and to God’s care for them on the road and in their crossings.

Only after the tribes have told the story in their own words do they declare their commitment to serve Yahweh (Joshua 24:18). This declaration is climactic, but not the last word. Three words follow, highlighting once again the relationship that is the ground for every free choice this people makes: “Because [Yahweh] is our God” (24:18).

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11] 22-30, 41-43

Cameron B.R. Howard

Like last week’s reading from Kings, this week’s selection also features a prayer uttered by King Solomon.

Whereas last week’s passage involved an appearance of God to Solomon in a dream, 1 Kings 8 contains a prayer offered before “all the assembly of Israel” at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, which Solomon has built for the LORD. Both of these consecutive lectionary passages offer insight into the nature of encounters with God.

In the prayer found in 1 Kings 3, God initiates the conversation with Solomon. God appears to Solomon in a dream, and God speaks first, commanding Solomon, “Ask what I should give you” (1 Kings 3:5). In this week’s passage, Solomon does all the talking, but the LORD is nonetheless present. Having completed construction of the Jerusalem Temple, Solomon now oversees the transfer of the ark of the covenant from the Tabernacle into the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

When the ark is rightly situated, a cloud fills the Temple, signifying the presence of the LORD. After brief prefatory remarks (8:12-13), Solomon turns first to address the assembly (8:14-21). His speech, which is not included in this week’s lectionary selection, reminds the people of the chosenness of his father David and situates Solomon’s Temple-building project as a promise of God fulfilled. Rhetorically this is a shrewd political presentation, as it depicts Solomon’s rule as both a continuation of David’s greatness and yet also an improvement upon it: the realization of David’s vision and God’s assurance.

Having emphasized the theological legitimacy of his political status to his assembled constituents, Solomon now turns toward the altar with his hands toward heaven to address God (8:22-53). He has physically oriented his whole self toward the deity. This bodily posture underscores the depth of focus of this prayer; speech to the congregation has ended, speech to God has begun.

Several of the same phrases from the preceding speech are repeated in the prayer; for example, both passages describe God’s fulfilling with his hand what he has promised with his mouth, first described in the third person and then in the second person (8:15, 24). Though this text undoubtedly has a complicated editorial history, the effect of those repetitions in the existing form of the text is to underscore the notion that the speech was not directed at God, nor was the prayer directed at the assembly.

Have you ever heard a public prayer in a worship service do “double duty,” announcing something to the congregation even while ostensibly addressing God in praise, confession, thanksgiving, or petition? “Thank you, God, for opportunities for fellowship, including the supper coming up this Wednesday at 6 p.m., for which everyone will bring a dish to share…” “Lord, please watch over our brother George, who was admitted to County Hospital Room 304 last night around 11 p.m. with chest pains…”

Communal prayer necessarily and desirably communicates something to the participants as well as to God, awakening our spirits to new needs and hopes. Even so, there is a danger that we can allow our prayers to disintegrate into community announcements that we merely allow God to overhear. The clear delineation between Solomon’s prayer (verses 22-53) and his two addresses to the assembly that surround it (verses 14-21 and 54-61) highlights Solomon’s singularity of focus even in this public, liturgical setting. If Solomon’s private dream-prayer (1 Kings 3:3-14, appointed for last week’s readings) reminds us to acknowledge our own brokenness, Solomon’s public prayer reminds us that God is always worthy of our full attention and address, not the remnants of our conversations.

Despite the fact that Solomon’s prayer is clearly separated from his speeches to the assembly, the text of the prayer itself is not without an agenda. Its language is thickly Deuteronomic, emphasizing covenant, steadfast love, and the fulfillment of promises made to David, which hinge on the faithfulness of the king and the people to the LORD. For the author to have this language on the lips of Solomon helps to advocate for a particular worldview that runs through the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings.

Solomon’s accomplishment of constructing the Temple receives its primary theological importance from the notion that the Temple is a place where a worshipper knows that God can be encountered. Verse 27 emphasizes, however, that the Temple is not God’s “dwelling place” in the sense of “permanent residence”: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (8:27) This interjection highlights the fact that God is present and accessible in this place, yet not boxed in.1

Though this week’s appointed reading from the prayer ends at verse 30, Solomon’s prayer continues after verse 30 with seven petitions. From these petitions the lectionary includes only the petition of verses 41-43, which asks that even foreigners who pray toward God’s house have their prayers heard and answered.

Preachers may want to engage the seven petitions as a “complete set,” in which case the theme of forgiveness that runs through the set emerges more prominently. One the other hand, as one of two petitions that do not directly mention sin or forgiveness, this selection does stand out from the rest of the set. Focusing on the lectionary verses as offered may thus direct preachers’ reflections towards questions of chosenness and inclusivity.

1For a helpful discussion of the nuanced implications of God’s “enthronement” in this passage, see C.-L. Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” NIB 3:68-79.


Commentary on Psalm 34:15-22

Henry Langknecht

1515The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and God’s ears are open to their cry.

16The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to erase the remembrance of them from the earth.
17The righteous cry, and the LORD hears them and delivers them from all their troubles.
18The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those whose spirits are crushed.
19Many are the troubles of the righteous, but the LORD delivers them from every one.
20God will keep safe all their bones; not one of them shall be broken.
21Evil will bring death to the wicked and those who hate the righteous will be punished.
22O LORD, you redeem the life of your servants, and those who put their trust in you will not be punished.

The first lesson narrates the great covenant renewal showdown at Shechem where Joshua demands that the people “choose whom they will serve.” The psalmody responds to that great moment by extoling God’s compassion for the oppressed and declaring the divine saving power, deliverance, and redemption that have brought the covenant people to this time and place.

Verses 15 and 16 contain a parallelism with an antithesis. God stands ready to vindicate the righteous but will wipe evildoers not only from the earth but also from all memory. Embedded in the parallelism is a subtle and beautiful use of body metaphors. In verse 15, when speaking about God’s attitude toward the righteous, the psalmist evokes intimacy by speaking of God’s eyes and ears. In verse 16 it is God’s face — more abstract, formal, and distant — that is set against the evildoers.

Verses 17-20 focus on the righteous; the evil are not mentioned at all. But in a break with the general sentiment of the first 14 verses of the psalm (a portion of which we heard last Sunday), the psalmist here acknowledges that the righteous will have troubles — in fact, many troubles! No specific reason for those troubles is given; there is no implication here that the righteous are being persecuted for their faith or for their counter-cultural practices. It is possible that the psalmist is merely being realistic — echoing the tone of Ecclesiastes or presaging Jesus’ maxim that God rains on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45). However, the emphatic many in verse 19 suggests some causal connection between righteousness and trouble.

Most of the promises in verses 17-19 are abstract and spiritual (nearness to the brokenhearted; deliverance from troubles; salvation from crushed spirits), but verse 20 offers an odd, evocative, and material promise: no broken bones. I, for one, would gladly wear a leg cast if it meant I would never again suffer a broken heart. Perhaps there is some circumstance from the historical context of the psalm’s composition that makes this promise meaningful (that is, beyond its usefulness as a proof text for John 19:36).

A final parallel couplet (verses 21-22) echoes the antithesis of verses 15-16 and brings the wicked back into play; though in verse 21 God’s agency is cloaked through the use of passive voice. The overall tone of the final couplet assumes that reward and punishment are related to the covenant (in contrast to the secular, universal “wisdom tone” mentioned above); the distinction between the living and the dead has to do with their relationship to God, especially as revealed in the phrase “those who put their trust in you …” The last line is key because it signals a change in focus from recompense based on disposition and action (the righteous, evil-doers) to a promise focused on covenant relationship (“you servants,” and “those who put their trust in you …”).

The categorical dualistic language of this portion of Psalm 34 is resonant with the assumption made by Joshua at Shechem and is typical of a prevalent witness of Scripture. It is simultaneously at odds with Wisdom literature and at least one trajectory of Pauline theology, especially as developed in theologies of the Reformation. The world cannot be so easily divided between the evil and the righteous, between those who choose God and those who don’t. But even with our commitment to simul iustis et peccator, a distressing number of Lutheran Christians drift into the lazy assumption that “the righteous” are believers and “evildoers” are not.

When I’m in worship on August 26 I’d appreciate some candid reflection on how to reconcile the various understandings of how troubles and blessings are related to evildoing, righteousness, and God’s election of and care for a covenant people. Is the universe designed to reward righteousness and punish evil per se regardless of whether the actors are in covenant relationship with God? Or does trouble befall evil and good alike? Does God give special protection to the trusting righteous from trouble or are they rather destined for “many troubles”?

Another aspect of this portion of Psalm 34 that might warrant treatment in a sermon is the comforting image of God’s “nearness to the brokenhearted.” The many stories of troubled souls who have not felt that nearness warn against a sermon that proclaims this as unconditional promise. But preaching in the form of testimony — personal or, better, communal testimony — to how trust leads (at times?) to “many troubles” and then to an experience of God’s nearness has the capacity to bring hope.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20

Melinda Quivik

Extending last Sunday’s focus on Christ the bread of life, here again is exhortation to serve the one true God of liberation, to have life by eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood.

When the disciples hear Jesus’ words — “the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58) — the text says they respond that this is a difficult teaching. Indeed! The preacher’s responsibility on this Sunday is to explore that difficulty — the paschal mystery.

The preacher receives help from the Ephesians text because it addresses the churches’ task in the face of the gospel proclamation. The text is structured so that we hear, first, a rationale for the task (“to stand against the wiles of the devil”), secondly, the needed armor (truth, righteousness, peace, faith), and finally, the requisite spiritual orientation (prayer in the Spirit).

The churches are to maintain strength, wearing the “armor of God,” in order to pray that “the mystery of the gospel” will be proclaimed. The proclamation is not about something knowable in the way we know a fact or a brute encounter. The proclamation is about something irrevocable (a crucifixion), unbelievable (a resurrection), and imperative (true life).

On one level, the text concerns the proclamation not just of the gospel but of the mystery of the gospel, for the command to have life eternal through eating bread and drinking wine in Jesus’ name is, indeed, a mystery. On another level, the text’s command is directed to the assembly to pray for the preacher! Consider that this praying is so arduous and important that it requires serious attention to armaments which not only protect those who pray but also pierce the listener.

Battlefield imagery is problematic for many Christians. Here we have the warrior garb of Roman soldiers who upheld an oppressive, totalitarian regime. A soldier conscripted from among the large percentage of the population who were not Roman citizens would receive citizenship with its many benefits after serving for at least 25 years.1 When obedience reaps huge rewards, a soldier eagerly carries out the tyrant’s orders.

Do Christians really need a soldier’s garb? Years ago Marva Dawn gave a Bible study in which she talked about the language in the old hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” reminding us  that following Christ Jesus by praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek, forgiving endlessly, etc., is in many respects to live embattled. It is not to fight against other people. It is not a triumphal war to form a Christian government (a theocracy like that endorsed today by various religious traditions). It is not a struggle opposing non-Christians or back-sliders or even one’s own petty and enormous inabilities. The task is much bigger, and for that reason the image of being robed in the armaments of violence is meant to emphasize the eschatological scope of Christian identity.

The “whole armor of God” is needed for the war against the principalities and powers, and against the forces of sin, our own separation from the Holy One, our own desires for what does not feed and nourish God’s creation. The enemy (verse 12) is “the rulers… the authorities… the cosmic powers of this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The enemy threatens from within and outside ourselves. To be readied for war with that enemy is to be set for the daily battle against all that opposes God’s desire that “the mystery of the gospel” give joy on Earth.

Several commentaries describe these six pieces of armor with varying explanations of what they offer to the faithful. One matter to hold in mind is that, while they constitute the garb of an individual soldier, in the context of serving as equipment for prayer, they are the armor of the church as a body. We wear these gifts together. We “stand therefore” (verse 14) shoulder to shoulder as Roman soldiers would do,2 as today’s riot police do: an impenetrable wall of strength.

The belt holds up the toga so the soldier can move unencumbered by cloth. The “belt of truth” fixes what is necessary in such a way that it leaves the church free and flexible, able to walk or run, loosed from what constrains or trips the wearer.

The breastplate covers the core of the body. Righteousness protects the heart and lifeblood from cosmic evil.

Shoes are for readiness to stand and speak peace.

The shield is defense against flaming arrows. Roman shields were leather, wetted against incoming fire, and large enough to cover the one who carried it and one-third of the person beside him.3 The shields were linked, so that again, we can see the church, armed with faith, facing assaults from those who do not know the gospel is about peace.

The “helmet of salvation” reminds us of baptism, the cross on our foreheads.

The only piece of this armor that can be used for offense is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Proclaiming the mystery of the gospel, the word of God both cuts and salves. It is law and gospel, in Lutheran terms — trouble and grace, in the language of homiletician Paul Wilson.4 Even the offensive weapon is for healing and peace, because, in Christian terms, the Spirit kills and brings to life.

The preacher is given all this specificity in exploring the paschal mystery so that, in the end, the assembly can feel the armored heft and power of God’s Word and move emboldened into the week ahead where the church is to pray in the spirit and persevere. Living the paschal mystery in the presence of the forces of destruction calls for impressive tools.  

1Mark Black, “Paul and Roman Law in Acts,” in Restoration Quarterly 24:4 (1981), 212.
2William Warren, “Engaging the Forces of Evil (Ephesians 6:10-20,” in Theological Educator 54 (Fall 1996), 100; see also Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 55.
3Ronald Olson, “Thinking and Practicing Reconciliation,” in Word & World 17:3 (Summer 1997), 328.
4Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).