Lectionary Commentaries for July 26, 2020
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Holly Hearon

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how something so small that it is invisible to the eye can grow rapidly and exponentially into a destructive force that consumes all our attention and resources, as individuals, communities, nations, and as a world.

The passage for this lection offers a counter-image to this destructive force. The parables describe how the kin(g)dom of heaven emerges from something almost invisible to the eye and grows exponentially, offering us sustenance, a treasure worthy of all our attention and resources.

While the piling up of parable after parable in this passage can make it a challenge to find a focus, the structure of the passage reveals thematic development. The two parables in 13:31-33 both draw attention to remarkable growth arising from insignificant beginnings. Similarly, the two parables in 13:44-46 both point to discovering something of such great value that we are willing to sell all we have to possess it. The two pairs of parables are linked through the word “hide” (krupto): in the parable of the yeast the woman hides yeast in the flour, while in the parable that follows, the treasure is hidden in a field.1

The parable of the net in 13:47-52 embeds the passage within the larger context of chapter 13 by echoing the climax to the parable of the weeds; the connection between the two parables is re-enforced by the way the parable of the weeds is woven into verses 31-46:

A The parable of the weeds in 13:24-30 (see last week’s essay)
    B The parables of growth (verses 31-33)
        C The explanation of the parable of the weeds (verses 34-43)
    B’ The parables of discovery (verses 44-46)
A’ The parable of the net of fish (verses 47-48)

This frame invites connections between the several parables. For example, the explanation of the parable of the weeds describes the parables as “hidden from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35) while the parables of growth both describe the revelation of something that is hidden. The promise of vindication in the parables of the weeds and the net of fish underscore the hope generated by the parables of growth and discovery.

Of interest are the diverse socioeconomic settings represented in the parables:

  • a sower of seed,
  • a woman baking bread,
  • a fortune seeker, a merchant,
  • a commercial fisher.

These reflect types easily recognized in the world of the Gospel and today, each individual going about their work. The ordinariness of the tasks invites us to see signs of the kin(g)dom of heaven in our day-to-day lives; to recognize that it is emerging in our very midst. This becomes an invitation to us to cultivate the practice of seeing God’s work among us through questions:

  • What do we expect to see?
  • And where do we expect to find it?
  • Have there been times when our expectations have been overturned?

The tangibleness of the kin(g)dom of heaven is revealed where each of the parables touches on images found elsewhere in the Gospel:

  • The parable of the mustard seed calls to mind the parable of the sower, but rather than focus on the soil or the seed, it focuses on the shrub that emerges, sturdy enough to house the nests of birds. Birds also receive God’s care in Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
  • The parable of the yeast builds on the theme of God’s care by anticipating the feeding of the multitudes, a story that occurs twice in Matthew (14:13-21; 15:32-39). Notably, Matthew adds that it was not just the men who were fed, but also the women and children (14:21; 15:38)—those who are often most vulnerable when food is scarce.
  • The parable of the treasure hidden in the field hearkens back to Matthew 6:19-20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” It also anticipates Jesus’ words to the rich man: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21). Read together with the parable of the treasure hidden in the field, we are a reminder that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:21). This is almost too tangible for comfort. Yet we are reminded by the preceding parables that the kin(g)dom of God does not ignore our needs; rather, God challenges our material excess acquired for self-serving purposes.

The parable of the pearl moves us in a different direction. In Matthew 7:6, Jesus cautions the disciples, “do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” The swine may be a reference to the Romans; it is, any case, it is an insulting reference to those who oppose the kin(g)dom. Like the soil on the path or the rocky ground in the parable of the sower, we are reminded that the priceless kin(g)dom of heaven will not be welcomed by everyone.

The parable of the yeast suggests that opposition may come even from within. The image of yeast occurs again in Matthew 16:5-12 where Jesus warns the disciples of the leaven of the religious leaders, who, with their teachings, “lock[] people out of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 23:13). Although we may think of the religious leaders as outsiders within the narrative, they belong to the same religious world as Jesus.

It is not only the religious leaders of whom we need to be wary. Matthew 13 concludes with Jesus asking the disciples if they have understood the parables that they have heard. The disciples respond yes. Perhaps we are intended to take their answer at face value. I confess to being suspicious, having learned that hard way that understanding often emerges over time and in new ways, proving my first level of understanding to have been short-sighted.


  1. Further writing on these parables is found in my essay, “Women’s Work in the Realm of God” (with Antoinette Clark Wire), in The Lost Coin: Parables of Women, Work and Wisdom (edited by Mary Ann Beavis; Sheffield, UK:  Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), pp. 135-57.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12

Stephen B. Reid

Solomon moves center stage in 1 Kings 3-11.

The piety of Solomon shines in 1 Kings 3 and 8. 1 Kings 3 has three elements: the introduction (verses 1-4), the dream (verses 5-15), and the wisdom tale of the two women (verses 16-28). The tale of the two women and the one child remains the most famous section from the chapter. Often a reader will rush to the more famous passage of the two women. When one slows down to explore the structure of 1 Kings 3:5-15, many details start to emerge.

Introduction: 5a

Divine question: test 5b

Solomon’s speech: 6-9

  • Description of advocate/intercessor: 6-7a
  • Self-description: 7b-8
  • Request: 9

Divine speech: 10-11a

  • Rationale for affirmation: 11b
  • Behold speech: 12b
  • Statement of incomparability: 12c
  • I give: 13a
  • So that: 13b
  • Contingency statement: 14

Transition: 15


The Bible includes locations for a purpose. It is easy to blow past the preposition phrase in Gibeon and hurry on to what we think of as the core of the passage. The weakness of such an interpretive move overlooks the way that writers and editors often send signals when they disclose the location of a theophany. So, we must ask why “in Gibeon”? Solomon went to Gibeon to make a sacrifice to God. Solomon had a night dream. Gibeon stands in Benjamite territory. The Hivite people of Gibeon tricked Joshua into a covenant (Joshua 9:3-10:15). Saul of Benjamin made Gibeon a major cult center. Saul also broke the covenant from Joshua (2 Samuel 21:1). Gibeon held David’s emissary, Joab, who defeated Saul’s warriors at the “pool of Gibeon” (2 Samuel 2:12-17; 3:30).

The careful reader/listener knows that Jerusalem is the place of the Temple. When the writer/editor locates this theophany at Gibeon, it gestures an ominous tone. Jacob’s night dream at Bethel authorizes the sanctuary at Bethel, but Solomon’s night dream in Gibeon foretells his reign that the reader/listener will lead to the disqualification of the Gibeon cultic center in favor of the Jerusalem one. In other words, Solomon goes to Gibeon to make a sacrifice which God interrupts.

God appeared to Solomon (verse 5). The verb “appeared” is a form that accents the divine initiative. The Bible has multiple references to dreams in narratives (See Genesis 17:1-12; 18:1-33; 26:2-5 Exodus 3:2-12; Judges 13:3-17; Matthew 2:19-20). The use of night dreams occurs in Zechariah and Daniel as well. The use of the dream as a communication from God happens across cultures from Israel to Africa and the Pacific.

The divine question seems so simple, “What do you want?” The story of Aladdin and the magic lamp turns on the question: What are your three wishes? The function of the story highlights the character of Aladdin. The question dominates the consumerist cultures of modernity. “What do you want? What do you really want?” frames issues of vocation and identity. Solomon’s response to the question invited contemporary hearers. Nonetheless, sometimes this is a test with a right and wrong answer. 1 Kings 3 examines the religious and moral character of Solomon.

Solomon’s speech

Solomon’s answer fits the biblical world but seems out of place in the less formal world of religious language today. The three-point response (thanksgiving for his father David, thanksgiving for God’s grace to give him the throne, and finally the request) fits into a formality of an earlier age that may challenge readers today.

The language of walking is a metaphor for behavior. The behavior emerged from David’s trifold virtues, set with preposition in: faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart. God’s devotion of great loyalty often translated as steadfast love. This is the intense loyalty as a mother bear for her young cub. The expression of that loyalty includes a son to sit on the throne.

Then there is a transition. The language of David now gives way to Solomon’s request. Solomon uses self-deprecating language. The servant language leads to “I am but a little child.” Characteristic of childhood, the speaker describes himself as a not-knowing child.

Divine speech

As a wisdom tale, the writer invites ethical reflection. There are certain things you can pray for in good conscience and others that are too self-indulgent: a good parking space or that your team will win the big game. The passage gives a rationale that makes clear what set Solomon’s request apart with the phrase, “because you asked for this, and not …” The passage wants to instruct the reader in proper petition. The wrong answer or petition becomes a vice. These improper petitions include a request for extrinsic things, longer life, wealth, and power based on the harm to enemies. In other words, what you don’t ask for can be as important as what you do request.

Behold I do to you according to the words/things you requested. Behold I give to you a heart of wisdom and discernment. The Hebrew “to understand” means the ability to tell the difference between things. For good measure, the divine speech describes Solomon’s gift in superlative terms. God gave Solomon what he asked for because he requested the right thing. Then God gave Solomon more. Solomon will receive, from God’s hand, wealth and honor. Once again, the divine speech uses superlative terms.

Despite the promise to David (2 Samuel 7) that a member of the Davidic house would always rule in Judah, verse 14 begins with a contingency statement: “if you walk in my path to cherish and keep my statutes and commandments as your father David did then I will lengthen/arrange your days.”


The last verse often gets overlooked, but it makes an important transition. Solomon went to Gibeon to make a sacrifice. He never did make that sacrifice according to this narrative. Instead, after the theophany, he goes to Jerusalem and makes a sacrifice there. The cultic center has now effectively shifted from Gibeon to Jerusalem.

Now that the night dream is completed and Solomon has made a sacrifice, what remains is the demonstration of his wisdom in 3:16-28.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28

Esther M. Menn

Love stories in the Bible, such as this First Lesson where Jacob marries his beloved Rachel (and unexpectedly her sister Leah as well!), reveal how much has changed since biblical times.1

Yet, aspects of this family tale with its strong emotions, sibling rivalry, deception, and loyalty continue to resonate, challenging us to think more deeply about our lives together and how God works even through our flawed interpersonal relations and most ordinary activities.

The classic Hebrew love story portrays a young man meeting his future spouse at a well. When Jacob sees his cousin Rachel approaching a well to water the family flock (Genesis 29:9-12), we anticipate romance! The woman at the well motif also foreshadows marriage elsewhere in the Bible, as in the cases of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24:10-67) and Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2:15-22). (Compare also the striking variant of the woman at the well motif in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4:10-42.)

The intrusion of Rachel’s older sister Leah (“When morning came, it was Leah!” Genesis 29:25) highlights additional dynamics that connect this story to previous events. This instance of mistaken identity turns the tables, as Jacob who earlier deceived Isaac by impersonating his elder brother (Genesis 27:1-40) now finds himself deceived by Laban’s substitution of his elder daughter in the marriage bed.

The competition between the two sisters for the affection of their husband and for children parallels the earlier sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob for the birthright and blessing (Genesis 25:29-34; 27:1-40). Rachel’s boast that she has wrestled mightily with her sister and has prevailed (Genesis 30:8) foreshadows her husband Jacob’s wrestling with the divine being before being renamed “Israel,” the one who strives with God and with humans and prevails (Genesis 32:28).

Much about this narrative reveals the distance between the biblical world and our own twenty-first century context. The patriarchal, tribal society in Genesis assumes that marriage is first and foremost an alliance between men involving the exchange of women, here between an uncle and the nephew he calls “my bone and my flesh” (Genesis 29:14, 19). It is not primarily a commitment between individuals intending to share their lives as today. Laban and Jacob work out the marriage price of seven years of labor, and there is no consultation of the bride to be (unlike Rebekah who gives her consent in Genesis 24:58).

Polygamy is portrayed as an unobjectionable arrangement, with two sisters given in short succession, after only a honeymoon week for the first. (Note, however, that a man’s marriage to sisters is a prohibited practice even in ancient times, according to Leviticus 18:18.) Clearly, we cannot read Genesis 29 as a programmatic description of how our society and marriage laws should operate, nor as a moral template for our own cultural context and family dynamics.

Despite the differences, similarities of human nature establish an empathy with the imperfect members of this family. The intensity of Jacob’s love for the beautiful Rachel is emphasized three times (Genesis 29:18, 20, 30), which is especially remarkable given the usual taciturn narrative style of the Bible. Jacob’s ardor is also indicated by his super human feat of lifting the massive rock covering the well upon seeing Rachel for the first time (Genesis 29:3), and by his heedlessness of the passage of time while working to earn her in marriage (Genesis 29:20).

This very human tale of intense love has its complications. Jacob’s singular passion for Rachel strands her older sister in the loveless marriage that Laban has orchestrated to provide for his eldest daughter (Genesis 29:26). God favors Leah as the unloved wife by giving her many children (Genesis 29:31; cf., Deuteronomy 21:15), but still the tragedy continues. Leah names her sons to express her unfulfilled desire of gaining her husband’s affection through childbearing (Genesis 29:32-24; 30:20). Only with her fourth son, Judah, whose name is based on a Hebrew root meaning “to praise” or ”to thank,” does Leah cease her striving to please her husband and give thanks to God instead (Genesis 30:35).

Rachel, for her part, envies her elder sister’s fertility, as she herself desperately tries to conceive (30:1). Through their unrelenting jealousy and competition, the two sisters and their servant women raise up a large family capable of fulfilling God’s promise to Jacob that his descendants would be as abundant as the dust or topsoil, covering the ground in every direction for purpose of blessing all the families of the earth (Genesis 28:14).

Many in the congregation will identify with the intense emotions in this family tale of inexplicable preference, deception, competition, and jealousy. Women in particular may resonate with the feeling of being judged by their appearance, the despair due to infertility, or the ecstasy over a baby’s birth, all so poignantly depicted. Leah and Rachel’s central roles in the emergence of the people of Israel highlights women’s agency as an important means through which God continues to work today.

The casual introduction of servant women in this narrative raises issues of social class, slave and domestic labor, reproductive rights, and sexual trafficking and abuse with which we still wrestle in the twenty-first century. Although they hold a lowly position, the handmaids are treated with dignity through their introduction by name, Zilpah (given by Laban to Leah upon her marriage, Genesis 29:24) and Bilhah (given to Rachel, Genesis 29:29).

These women have an important role in the emergence of the people of Israel, giving birth to four of Jacob’s thirteen named children (Genesis 30:3-13), which include the twelve sons who stand for the twelve tribes as well as his daughter Dinah. The almost invisible presence of Zilpah and Bilhah in a passage that includes discussion of appropriate wages (Genesis 29:15) encourages reflection on the precarious status of minimum wage earners, surrogate and birth mothers, domestic workers, and others who perform vital but largely underappreciated work in our society.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 27,2014.


Commentary on Psalm 119:129-136

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

The sheer size of Psalm 119 alone (176 verses) frequently leaves the interpreter paralyzed.

To complicate the interpretive challenge, the complex acrostic structure of the psalm coupled with its seemingly repetitive emphasis on tora can leave one stymied at best, or perhaps worse, somewhat jaded as to its homiletical possibilities. At the beginning of the 20th century, noted German scholar Bernard Duhm puzzled over the length of this psalm (and its content) and concluded that this psalm is the “most empty product that has darkened a piece of paper.”1 Such an assessment, however, fails to grapple with the theological undercurrents of tora. This intense reflection on God’s instruction invites us into the rich intersection between theological anthropology and theology proper; it invites us into the space where our understanding of the human condition finds its response in God’s faithful work through God’s word. If, in our preaching, however, we fail to lead people to that same intersection, we run the risk of trivializing what it means to be a people of God’s word.

Tora as active not acted upon

Regrettably, some have diminished the notion of tora so that it means little more than a “set of rules” to be obeyed; for some, tora is simply something we “do.” Such an obligatory sense of tora undercuts its transformative capacity on us—or perhaps better yet, God’s capacity to transform us through it. James Mays reminds us that “in the psalm’s understanding of God’s way, tora is the means by which the LORD deals with human beings and they with the LORD.”2 As the Israelites leaned into God’s tora, they did not lean into a set of “laws” to be followed, but instead they leaned into a God who sought to shape his people through his word. Perhaps our first homiletical move in dealing with this text is to invite our congregants to adopt a more vibrant understanding of tora. Following tora, following the ways of God, can never be construed as legalism. To the contrary, following this God always leads to life, a transformed life.

Tora as wonder-full

In the opening line of our text, the psalmist declares that God’s decrees are pele’, “wonderful.” At first glance, such a confession sounds merely descriptive, similar to how one might say a painting is “beautiful.” But by invoking this term, the psalmist is saying much more. The noun pele’ is used more than 33 times in the Psalter, most often in reference to God’s “wonder-filled work” in delivering Israel out of Egypt. But here we might do well to pause and remember. God did not liberate a random group of people from Egypt so that they could one day become his people, but instead, he liberated his people from Egypt so that they might live into their identity as the people of God. The “wonder-filled” work of God always seems to move in that trajectory—God liberating us so that we might discover our identity anew. The psalmist confesses that God’s instructions have this same liberating “wonder-working power” and that is why “my soul keeps them” (verse 129).

In light of the first line, perhaps a second homiletical move might be to consider the places where the wonder-filled work of tora, the word of God, intersects with human life. When in darkness, God’s ways bring forth the light (verse 130). When in uncertainty, God’s decrees point us down right paths (verse 130). When weary-worn from searching, God’s instruction renews us. These all seem like simple truisms, perhaps too simple to even mention to your congregation. But in the congregation where I minister, darkness, weariness, and uncertainty remain unabated and people are panting in pursuit of a liberating word from God. Their lives are not where they want them and they long for a sense of the divine pele’ that is at work in them and on them.

The world in light of the tora

God’s instruction not only transforms us, but it transforms how we see the world. There are those who might assume that careful attention to God’s instruction could lead to a sense of pious rigidity that places us over and against the world around us. Contemporary examples of such a mindset need not be called out because they are so pervasive within Christian circles. But not so with this psalmist. Rigidity is replaced with tears. In Hebrew, the word for tears is peleg. This entire stanza is the pe stanza in this lengthy acrostic poem and consequently, the first word of each line begins with a pe. Perhaps we would do well to pause and consider the juxtaposition between the first word in the opening line and the first word in the closing line, between pele’ and peleg, between wonder-filled and tears. When God has God’s way with us and his instruction begins to form and transform our lives, then we see the world as it is and we long for it as it could become. We do not simply long for people to “obey God’s law;” that is much too facile. Rather, we long for the wonder-filled work of God’s instruction that liberates us and frees us (verse 134), even as it satiates us (verse 131), to be extended; we long for that work to have its work on the world around us.


  1. Bernard Duhm, Die Psalmen, Kurzer Hand-Kommentar zum Alten Testament (ed. D. Karl Marti; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1922), 727.
  2. James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 383.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:26-39

Mary Hinkle Shore

This reading includes some of the most familiar and comforting words we have from the apostle Paul.1

Nearly every sentence is a new way of stating the promise that God has not abandoned “us,” and is in fact working—across the past, present, and future—on our behalf. (While the first person plural verbs originally referred to Paul and those he calls “brothers and sisters” in 8:12, succeeding generations of Christians have of course understood themselves, also, to be directly addressed by the words.) The text has three units, and any one of them could be the basis of a sermon. Together, they offer a look into the way God’s love bursts forth into action over time.

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul writes in Romans 8:26. The language of these first two verses has more in common with what preceded than what follows them. As the Spirit had helped us to cry, “Abba, Father,” (Romans 8:16), so also the Spirit helps us pray when we do not know what to pray.

James Dunn points out that Paul’s syntax in verse 26 defines the problem differently than we usually think of it. The problem is not that we know what we need and merely lack the right words for requesting it. As Dunn puts it, we “do not know what to want,”2 let alone how to ask for it. In the midst of this confusion, the Spirit intercedes, aligning prayer on our behalf to the will of God for us.

In verses 28-30, Paul adds a layer of argument. It is not just that the Spirit intercedes for us in the present. The past tells the same story of God’s intention for Christ to be “firstborn within a large family” (8:29), a family that includes us. The word translated here as “predestined” appears rarely in the New Testament.

Once it is in Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, and twice it is in Ephesians. In Acts and 1 Corinthians, it refers to the events of Christ’s death and resurrection, testifying that they unfolded according to God’s plan. In Ephesians and Romans, the word describes the Gentiles’ eventual inclusion among the people of God as having been planned. In both cases, the word points to God always having had something beyond wrath in mind for sinners and the decaying creation of which they (we) are a part.

In Romans 5, Paul had drawn a parallel between Adam and Christ: as sin had come into the world through one man, Adam, so righteousness came through one man, Christ. Romans 8:29 may echo the creation story again when it speaks of recipients of God’s call being “conformed to the image of his Son.” Humans had been made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), so now God is working out the plan by which humans are recreated in that image which has been perfectly reflected in God’s Son, Jesus.

As past and present have been arenas of God’s action on our behalf, so also is the future. Romans 8:31-39 has the immediate future in mind, that time before God has, as Paul says elsewhere, “put all enemies under [Christ’s] feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25) and before “the glory that is about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

In the immediate future, hardship remains for those in Christ. Paul lists various difficulties, most of which he has experienced himself, and then he adds a Psalm text to state the problem even more graphically, “For your sake we are being killed all the daylong; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (8:36). Suffering from “garden variety” hardship is covered here, as well as suffering that comes as a result of faithfulness to God. Neither of these is elevated over the other, as if one were more desirable or less difficult than the other. And while both threaten to separate us from the love of God, neither can.

Michael Gorman explains Paul’s witness to the solidarity of God with those suffering by contrasting the apostle’s Paul’s view of suffering from contemporary Jewish and Stoic views. Gorman writes that for Paul, “Suffering was not merely to be apocalyptically or faithfully or pedagogically endured, and especially not stoically ‘conquered.'”3

We are “more than conquerors.” That is, we are more than Stoics who endure and are eventually rewarded with relief.  Explaining the difference between Paul and the Stoics, Gorman continues, “Believers do not ignore suffering because it has no effect on the true self, but rather they see in the suffering of Christ the full involvement of the self of God and of Christ in and for the world” (Cruciformity, 329). God and Christ are fully involved in suffering and involved in it “in and for the world.”

What’s more, because of God’s faithfulness in raising Jesus from the dead, both the present experience of suffering and what we can expect of the future are transformed. We not only know God’s solidarity with us now but also anticipate a time when even the worst that the powers of Sin and Death have to offer will be shown to be a “slight momentary affliction” (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17) when compared with the “glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Without the present solidarity of God with humanity and the rest of creation, the future hope Paul speaks might be received by those suffering as so much pie in the sky: a promise, yes, but one of little use to those hungry now.

Without the future hope, God’s present involvement in the lives of the suffering might amount to little more than a feeble expression of the company that misery loves. Together, the actions of God—past, present, and future—on our behalf testify to a fierce, compassionate love from which nothing in all creation can separate us.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 24, 2011.
  2. James D. G. Dunn, “Spirit Speech: Reflections on Romans 8:12-27,” in Romans and the People of God, ed. Sven K. Soderlund and N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 89.
  3. Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 328.