Lectionary Commentaries for August 2, 2020
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21

Jennifer T. Kaalund

On a recent field trip with my daughter’s class to a nature center, the class was taught about metamorphosis.1

There are two types of metamorphosis that animals can undergo: (1) complete metamorphosis (for instance, a caterpillar goes through four distinct phases in order to become a butterfly); and (2) incomplete metamorphosis. An example of incomplete metamorphosis is a chicken. A chicken goes from an egg to a chick to a chicken. Essentially once the egg hatches, the chicken simply grows from a smaller version of itself to a much larger form of itself. Both forms of transformation can be witnessed in the Gospel of Matthew.

The role of Jesus as a teacher in Matthew 13 shifts to Jesus’ role as a miracle worker. As described earlier in the gospel, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23). As a result of Jesus’ ministry, large crowds follow him. In 14:13, Jesus once again leaves the crowd and takes refuge in a boat and once again the crowds follow him (see 13:1-2). One of Jesus’ most recognized miracles is found in this text, but it occurs only after he spends time healing the sick people.

After seeing the crowd, Jesus felt compassion for them. We often emphasize the miracle, but overlook the sympathy that literally moves Jesus. Jesus’ compassion compels him to act. So, too, should it be with us. While we may feel sympathy for someone, how often does the emotion result in action? Jesus cures the sick people in the crowd because he cared for them. Apparently Jesus’ healing had taken a great deal of time because his disciples come to him and suggest that he send the crowd away.

The disciples’ request is not malicious. They simply are aware of their location (a deserted place) and the time (the day has turned into evening). Jesus says to the disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat. They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish’” (Matthew 13:16). Although the disciples approach is understandable—it’s getting late and people are probably starting to get hungry—Jesus seems perplexed by the disciples’ request to send the people away. Why would they leave when the disciples had food?

The miracle of Jesus feeding more than five thousand men, women, and children is a widely studied miracle. Some scholars focus on the blessing of the loaves and bread and suggest that this miracle is perhaps the precursor of the communion meal. Others focus on the satiated crowd or the symbolism of the twelve full baskets. While all of these observations are notable, the simple detail that Jesus did not send the people away is also remarkable. Instead of commanding them to leave, he orders them to stay and sit down on the grass. He then gets to work doing what he has come to do—curing every disease and sickness among the people. The multiplication of the loaves of bread and the fish harken to the previous parable that Jesus speaks to the crowd concerning the mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven produces a plentiful harvest from the smallest of seeds.

This miracle demonstrates that Jesus attends to the physical needs of the people. He does not focus solely on their spiritual health through his teaching. He is also concerned that they are sick. He empathizes with those who are hungry. Are Christians today as concerned about the physical health of God’s people as Jesus is or do we focus only on our spiritual health? Like the disciples, do we naively send people away when we think our resources are too limited to have an impact?

Perhaps there is much to be gleaned from this ancient example to address two major issues in our society today—healthcare and hunger. The debate in the United States concerning the healthcare system is based on the principle of whether one views it as a right or a privilege. The healthcare system is the way that we care for our sick today. Are the appropriate resources allocated to this care? Does it meet the needs of most, if not all, of our citizens? Are we more concerned with political party affiliations or seeing the sick healed? Jesus, moved by compassion, healed the sick and we should do likewise. Today, we can advocate for a system that is more akin to the kingdom of heaven and less like the ancient Roman imperial system that God’s kingdom opposed.

There is still a need to feed the hungry in our world today. According to The World Food Program, approximately “795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. That is about one in nine people on earth.”2 Hunger is related to illnesses and developmental disabilities. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a hungry child to focus in school. What are we as Christians doing to feed the hungry? Many churches have kitchens that supply food and provide meals to those in need. How can and do we contribute to these efforts? Your offering can be the “little” resources (like that of the disciples) that when blessed and added with others can bring forth an increase. Planting gardens, giving of our excess, and advocating for and supporting programs that feed the hungry are all ways that we, too, can bring forth God’s kingdom on the earth.

After teaching the crowds and instructing his disciples about the kingdom of heaven in chapter 13, Jesus makes the kingdom of heaven real through his acts of healing and performing miracles in this text. In the kingdom of heaven, there is compassion, people share their resources, and there is more than enough for everyone. At this point in the gospel, perhaps the disciples had only gone through an incomplete metamorphosis. Although they had grown and were maturing in their faith, they had not been completely changed. Experiencing a complete metamorphosis means going through the four stages of development and being totally transformed into a new creation. When this total transformation occurs, we, like Jesus, can be moved by compassion and attend to both the spiritual and physical needs of God’s people. 


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 6, 2017.
  2. See https://www.wfp.org/stories/10-facts-about-hunger. Accessed June 15, 2017.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-5

Stephen B. Reid

The distance between the writer of Isaiah 55 rooted in the agrarian world and the trauma of the fall of Jerusalem and the 21st-century urban/suburban post-industrial North American reader is immense.

The default reading labels the passage as eschatological utopianism that has nothing to do with our present reality. 

When one reads the message of Isaiah from the perspective of a North American context, one misses the brutal historical realities of Israel and Judah. The shadow of imperial power dominates their history. The agrarian life was a challenge in the climate of low rainfall, significant heat, damaging cold, and mediocre soils.

Literary structure

The brevity of the passage allows a detailed literary and structural analysis. The preacher must determine whether to cover the literary movement of the passage or to take one or more literary elements.

This small passage has an intricate structure of three sections: 

  • Call to God’s economy (verse 1) 
  • Test of faith (verses 2-3)
  • Call and function (verses 4-5)

Call to God’s economy: section 1 (verse 1)

The first section begins with an interjection followed by a compelling list of imperatives. Think about how interjections and imperatives communicate in general to help the congregation encounter this passage. 

Call to attention. The Hebrew term hoy occurs 49 times. Once in 1 Kings 13:30 and the others in the prophetic books, with the most occurrences in Isaiah. You could focus on the origin of the term. 

First Addressee. All who thirst. The power of “all” frames the interpretation of the passage. Does the “all” refer to all of us who thirst or all humans who thirst or all that includes us and beyond? Here, the writer has moved to an international view based on the exilic experience. The broader inclusion makes sense based on a similar reference in Isaiah 56:3. 

First imperative. Come to the waters. This chapter contains twelve imperatives. The phrase “to the waters” occurs in Amos 8:11: “‘Behold the days are coming,’ says the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst of water, but of hearing the words of the LORD’” (RSV). However, in Isaiah the waters function as the location of solution.

Second addressee. Those without silver. Today in most of the world, people live in money economies. In agrarian tradition society types, most exchanges are a barter of goods. The rise of coins happened as late as the fifth century BCE. The movement from the Babylonian and Persian empires increased the move to a money economy as an expression of imperial economics. The addressee, those without silver, would have been a large population. Peasants would have no silver. 

Imperative chain. The passage contains twelve imperatives/commands in Isaiah 55. Prime among them is: “Come … come” buy and eat. The divine imperative sets a tone for the entire passage. 

Conditions and objects of exchange. There is parallelism of silver and price. The negative economy is based on silver and price, but the new economy moves differently. The combination of milk and wine is interesting. Do these indicate luxury or staples? Later in the book of Isaiah, the writer will again present another metaphor of economy where those who build the houses will live in them (Isaiah 65:21).

Test of faith: section 2 (verses 2-3)

The imperatives of the first section set up a group of questions in the second section. 

Interrogative and indictment. The “why” connects with the rhetorical parallel questions that stand as an indictment. The verb translated as “spend money” comes from the verb form of the noun shekel. Paying money for what is not bread strikes the author as a wasteful use of silver, of money. The parallel second line supports the sense of futility as it describes the labor. The term for “labor” occurs seventeen times in the book of Isaiah. The most helpful parallel is Isaiah 45:14, which uses the same term to describe wealth. However, wealth and labor prove as ineffectual as the non-bread of the previous line. Wealth and labor fail to provide satisfaction. 

Call to attention. This section contains a double imperative call to hear. The same phrase occurs five times, three in the book of Job (Job 13:17; 21:2; 37:2), twice in Isaiah 6:9, and here in 55:2.

Section 2 ends with a reference to God’s authentic loyalty to David. This is the only reference to David in Deutero-Isaiah. David does occur in early chapters of the book of Isaiah (7:2, 13; 9:6; 16:5; 22:9, 22; 29:1; 37:35; 38:5). The same expression appears in 2 Chronicles 6:42. The role of David begins with his call in 1 Samuel 16. The covenant with David is found in 2 Samuel 7. David, like the servant, demonstrates a democratization of the political ideal. The writer uses David as a metaphor for the people of God, Yehud. The writer of Isaiah also describes the suffering servant as a metaphor for the believing community (Isaiah 42:6b; 49:6; 52:10; 60:3). Early Christianity will connect David with Jesus (John 8:12).

The call and its function: section 3 (verses 4-5)

The first two sections present such a compelling picture that a reader might focus on human redemption. However, that misses the concluding formula. The divine speech that begins in verse 1 continues. The interjection “behold” introduces verse 4 as a first-person divine speech. God put David as a witness. A triad of titles related to David occurs: leader/witness, prince/storyteller, and commander of the people. The writer uses two words to describe people groups. The term “people” occurs 31 times, many in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 17:12, 13; 34:1; 41:1; 43:4, 9; 49:1; 51:4; 55:4). Another term “nation” (goy) often connotes nations beyond the Israelite and Judean Jewish nations. 

The language “because of” makes clear that the redemption of the believing community and even the broader world is not for the sake of those communities but for the recognition of the Divine actor. 

The passage breaks with an interjection and imperatives rooted in God’s economy. Moving from the exile through early Christianity and reaching across to the present provides a different voice to the conventional wisdom about economy.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31

Amy Merrill Willis

The character of Jacob is deeply enigmatic for many Christian readers.1

Throughout the stories of Genesis 25—31, we have seen Jacob con, cheat, deceive, and manipulate virtually every member of his family and then run off when the tension was about to explode into full conflict. The fact that Jacob seems to get away with this bad behavior and also garner promises, wives, children and household goods in the process only increases the reader’s ambivalence about this ancestor of Israel.

So it is hard for many in the pews to find much that is enlightening in this story of Jacob wrestling with God. For those of us who have been formed by a piety that values submission and deference to any form of religious authority, this passage can rub the wrong way. And yet, for our Jewish brothers and sisters, this passage plays a central role in modeling the practices of a faithful Jewish life. How can that be? How can this deceitful and irreverent trickster possibly be deserving of God’s enormous favor? How can Jacob be a role model for faithful readers?

To make sense of this story of undeserved blessings, we should consider it in the context of Jacob’s extended journey from Canaan to Syria and back. Very often, stories of journeys (biblical or otherwise) are also stories about character transformation. The story in Genesis 32 finds Jacob homeward bound after 20 years away, with his past threatening to catch up with him. Faced with the prospect of meeting up with Esau, who may yet wish revenge, Jacob finds himself at a turning point: he can face up to what waits for him or he can do what he has done in the past—turn tail and run.

As this passage opens, Jacob seems to be finding a way to protect what is his in the face of Esau’s wrath. His trickster mind engaged, Jacob has divided up his family and servants into two separate camps and has sent them away, across the Jabbok River, leaving him alone. This is a rare event. Like most twins, Jacob has virtually never had a solitary moment. Since his conception, he has been tied up and entangled with at least one other human being at any given moment.

The last time that Jacob spent the night alone, he was in Bethel, having barely escaped Esau. With the threat behind him, God visited the sleeping Jacob and promised even more blessings to come—land, progeny, protection (Genesis 28). On Jacob’s return trip home, God again takes advantage of the brief moment of solitude, a moment when Jacob is most exposed and vulnerable, to reveal God’s self. But this time God comes posing as a dark and disguised threat, not as a protector.

The text is cryptic, simply saying that “a man wrestled with Jacob until the break of dawn.” Yet several interesting things stand out. Notice the time. In folk tales as well as biblical stories, the moment of dawn is an important one; the time between night and day is the perfect point to signal an epic conflict and transforming event. Notice also that the passage doesn’t reveal the identity of the man.

Commentators have suggested various solutions over the centuries; some say the man is Jacob’s greatest fear and rival—his brother come to him, disguised in the dark, for vengeance. Others have suggested that it is Jacob’s own inner demons that have come calling. In verse 31, however, Jacob identifies this stranger to be none other than YHWH. But why is God now playing the part of the antagonist? Is God tired of being little more to Jacob than the dispenser of goodies? Is God trying to teach the patriarch-to-be a lesson about not taking divine gifts for granted? Is this a test of character or a test of faith?

Whatever the reason for the attack, Jacob’s response is to stand his ground and face his attacker. Indeed, Jacob chooses to entangle himself with this threatening form. In some ways, this is not a new response, for Jacob was wrestler even before his birth. Indeed, the Yahwist writer engages in some clever wordplay to show the close connection between the name Jacob (y’kv) and the verb for wrestling (y‘vk) in verse 25. But in other respects, Jacob’s reaction is a departure from the usual. In tangling with God, Jacob foregoes the sly and indirect forms of aggression that he had cultivated as an adult. Instead of cunning evasion, he fights openly and persistently to get what he most wants—a blessing!

Careful observers of human relationships often notice that the same kind of energy propels both physical intimacy and physical fighting. So, too, for Jacob, this face-to-face confrontation with God is a kind of intimacy. Rashi, the great medieval Jewish commentator, long ago highlighted this dynamic saying, “for so is the habit of two people who make strong efforts to throw each other down, that one embraces the other and attaches himself to him with his arms.”

Just so, Jacob chooses to cling to God and refuses to disengage—a stark contrast to his response to God’s overtures 20 years before when he could offer little more than a conditional attachment to YHWH (28:20-22). Moreover, even as Jacob finds himself facing up to this divine opponent and surviving it (notice the language of “Peniel” in verse 31), so Jacob also finds the resources to face his brother and embrace him. In 33:11, Jacob connects the two events saying, “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.”

The character of Jacob and the character of God are both remarkably displayed in this passage. God does not punish Jacob’s conflictive character, but challenges it and reshapes it so that Jacob is able to live into his promised destiny as Israel, which according to verse 29 means “one who strives with God and humans.” Jacob’s story is a much-needed reminder that in the life of faith, there is no one model to which we must conform and submit. God entertains all kinds of characters and personalities, even those who appear to be unconventional or irreverent by our standards.

Finally, the story also challenges any attempt to domesticate God and make the deity fit into some easy mold, whether that is “the wrathful God” or the “God who meets my needs.” Jacob came away from the encounter with unbounded blessings, but he also walked away limping—a man permanently marked. It attests to the complex reality of a God who is intimately engaged with humans, who seeks them out, and blesses them, even it reminds us that this God is wily, unpredictable, and dangerous.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 3, 2014.


Commentary on Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

Jason Byassee

If you had to choose one passage to summarize all of Israel’s Scripture, you could do worse than Exodus 34:6-7.

Scholars call it the Bible’s “graciousness formula” (leave it to us scholars to domesticate grace down to a formula!). The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. That glorious claim is at the heart of Psalm 145 (verses 8-9). The bones of the psalm are a poem, an acrostic, each line starting with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet from aleph to tav. God is to be praised from beginning to end, in every portion of creation, in all of our lives. This is the last of a lot of acrostic poems in the psalter. The “whole David” is reminding us one last time—at the end is nothing other than the unending praise of God.

This psalm has a special place in Judaism. It is a mini-summary of the entire faith. It shapes other important prayers in Judaism, such as the Kaddish, said in mourning for the loss of a family member for a year after their death. The Talmud promises that the one who prays this psalm three times a day “may be sure he is a child of the world to come.”1 Psalm 145 appears in Jewish prayer books more than any other psalm. We Christians may be tempted to glide over this psalm too quickly. Our Jewish forebears insist that we stop, and take note. Jesus learned his most famous prayer from somewhere. We know from whom he learned it, as he learned all his best stuff, while bouncing on Mary’s knee, hearing the songs and stories of Israel. Where did she learn it? From her people, who learned it from psalms like this one. 

For a psalm so specifically Jewish, it is strikingly universal.2 This choir, full of songs of praise, is not limited to human beings. All creatures are there (verse 14). Everything that eats (verse 15). Everything that desires (verse 16). God’s election of Israel is not for Israel. It is through Israel, for everyone else. God’s calling of the church, and all of God’s gifts, are not for the church. They are through the church, for everyone else. Ours is a priestly vocation to gather and lead all creatures in praise. The mistake we make is thinking God and God’s blessings are ours. They are only “ours” as they are given away. God’s regard in choosing a people is for all the others besides that people. This is so strange to say, so counter-intuitive, it has to be said over and over again (hence the repetition of this prayer in Judaism): praise God, for God has chosen you, to bless not you, but all the others.

The psalm insists that God is to be praised every day. It is, of course, easier to praise when things are going well. The accent on the “every” suggests we must praise when we would rather not, when the result is one we would not prefer. God is not to be manipulated into blessing us. We are rather to manipulate ourselves into blessing God. The result of praising this way, doggedly, with determination, is to notice God’s all-encompassing goodness, even amidst difficulty. The great early-church preacher St. John Chrysostom describes how those who train themselves to pay attention to God constantly will also notice they are “adrift in an indescribable ocean of blessings.”3 Or as your grandmother taught you—count your blessings. You will run out of time. Therefore, we need eternity (verse 21).

Religions tend to circumscribe the circle tightly within which blessings are allocated. For us, not them. My side, my tribe, over against my enemies. Maybe human beings in general do this. This is why God comes among us as an enemy. God comes not as humanity in general, but to a specific people, Israel, a son of Abraham and Sarah. Even within that people, his own people, he is not widely loved, but much more widely rejected. So too among all people—perhaps especially by those who claim his name most fervently. Rowan Williams points out that the risen Jesus appears only to enemies: those who had rejected, abandoned, denied, and who thought they were done with him. They go from clueless, to confused, to clearer, and usually frightened. This is where the American movie industry would have instant and gratifying revenge. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis would dispatch the villain with a catchy line and all would cheer. Jesus does not dispatch. He forgives. And creates community among former abandoners and betrayers—the only kind of people available. We call it church—the church of forgiven enemies.

Since we draw tightly the circle of blessings around us and people like us, the psalm draws us as widely as possible. Everything that is fallen and low. Everything with eyes and need. Those who call, cry, desire, and fear. Everything that praises. Human beings are praise-bearing creatures—we cannot help but offer praise. The question is whether we will praise an idol, an unworthy would-be god, or the true and living God who creates the worlds and raises the dead.

The psalm suggests God’s favor as far as creatures have need. Everything in pain, God heeds. Bends low. Watches over.

This psalm, so close to the heart of all biblical faith, is the conclusive rebuttal to the sinful instinct in us that says faith is for me and those like me. No. It is for everyone but you.

And then, finally, for you too, for those who knowingly and intentionally offer praise, forever and ever.


  1. James Mays. Psalms. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2011), 437.
  2. Robert Alter. The Book of Psalms. (New York: Norton, 2009), 502.
  3. John Chrysostom. Commentary on the Psalms. Vol. 2, ed. Robert Charles Hill (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2007), 334.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 9:1-5

Matt Skinner

People these days ask God to damn lots of things.1

I have, too; but I’ve never had the nerve to include myself on the list. Paul did, offering to surrender his own salvation in Christ if it could make a difference.

For whose sake did Paul volunteer to be “accursed and cut off from Christ”? For “Israelites,” as he calls them: for the Jewish people, for Paul’s own people. Yet he anachronistically calls them “Israelites” in 9:4, rooting their identity in more than a vague notion of ethnicity, kinship, or nationality. He’s speaking about people with a long, deep legacy: one established by God and intertwined with the life and history of God.

We must note, then, that Paul’s concerns about his people stem from more than casual curiosity or compassionate piety. These concerns arise out of theological questions–questions about God, God’s intentions, and God’s reliability. Does God’s history (past promises) matter for God’s future (pledges about what lies ahead)?

When Paul offers to be made anathema, his motivations extend beyond the fact that he loves his people so dearly. Paul also has an unyielding commitment to an understanding of God’s utter faithfulness. That’s what Romans 9-11 is ultimately about, as Paul attempts to make sense of a confounding situation. Even though circumstances could have led him to conclude otherwise, Paul still insists God remains faithful to promises.

Is that a theological foundation we too should consider utterly nonnegotiable? Yes, because if it’s not true then we’re about as good as damned ourselves.

Romans 9-11: The big picture

Unique within Paul’s writings, Romans 9-11 is provoked by the question of what the gospel means for Jewish people who do not embrace Jesus as Christ. When we read Paul’s ruminations on this issue, we need to consider a few things, including:

  • As Paul wrote Romans, between the years 55-58, it was becoming more and more apparent that the Christian gospel would not receive a positive response from the majority of Jews who heard it. These do not appear to be circumstances the church had anticipated, and so they begged for answers.
  • This situation caused great anguish to Paul and other Christians. There is no smugness or sense of “good riddance” in his words as he considers the issue in these chapters.
  • Paul did not write Romans 9-11 as a “Christian” passing judgment on “Judaism,” as much as he wrote as a Jew trying, like the prophets of old, to make theological sense of the dynamics of disobedience and restoration among Abraham’s descendants.
  • The question driving this section of Romans is “What’s God doing?” It’s not “What’s wrong with these unbelievers?” The situation threatened to ignite a theological crisis in Paul’s day, if it could be supposed that the gospel meant the expiration of God’s promises to those God had already chosen.

This is not a tangential issue for Paul. If you recall last week’s lection from Romans, Paul has just finished making strong claims about God’s reliability: “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28), and nothing in creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God” (8:39).

We would have good reason to doubt these grand claims, if it’s the case that God has given up on the Jewish people.

And so Paul devotes three chapters to probing the mysteries of where things stand with “Israel.” These are important passages for all Christians to consider, because they contend with crucial questions about God’s character.

They are also, of course, crucial passages to consider for the sake of Jewish-Christian understanding. Although for the most part in Romans 9-11 Paul stops short of offering confident explanations of God’s intentions, he does propose that maybe God means to make Jews jealous by blessing gentiles through the gospel, presumably to provoke their eventual repentance (Romans 10:11; 11:11-14). I think the last 1,950 years have not given much evidence to support this claim; indeed, they have revealed it as offensive. I suggest we distance ourselves from such an idea. I like to think Paul would try a different explanation if he knew what we know today. Whether you’re of the same mind as me on this or not, I hope we agree that working with these texts demands great care and sensitivity.2

The lectionary bypasses most of the parts of Romans 9-11 capable of creating the greatest controversy, so that’s a slight relief. The good thing about the lectionary’s assignments for this week and the next two is that they guide preachers to focus their attention on the main points of these chapters: claims about God and how God has promised to act.

“To them belong…”

Our passage does not take us far into Paul’s argument as much as it reveals his anguish (as I’ve discussed) and the basis for seeing this as an essential issue for all Christians to consider.

Again, Paul is not talking about a “chosen people” as an abstract concept. He means the flesh-and-blood people who, throughout history, have possessed and continue to possess God’s favor. (The translation rightly reads “To them belong…” and not “To them belonged…”)

Why do Jews possess this favor? Because God gave it to them. The “Israelites” are who they are because of God’s gift, God’s free choice.

What do they possess? Paul says they possess a number of things–all of which receive attention elsewhere in Romans, as well. They possess God’s “adoption,” making them children in God’s family. God has shared “glory” with them and made “covenants” by which to bless them. They received and possess God’s “law,” God’s own words (torah : “instruction”) for holiness and justice. They “worship” or serve the one true God, who made concrete “promises” with them via their “patriarchs.”

Remember, too: Jesus didn’t just come in the flesh. He came in Jewish flesh. God became incarnate as a Jew, as a covenantal heir in the long lineage of a people who have known God’s presence and contended with God through thick and thin.

How a (mostly) gentile church could have neglected all this and provided a safe harbor for anti-Semitic ideology and action for so many generations is perhaps our greatest failing.

Paul might say, “To hell with any notion of Christianity that has become estranged from its connection to the people of ancient Israel and their modern offspring.”

The church and the people of Israel: Both established by God’s grace

The lectionary’s three weeks on Romans 9-11 do not allow sufficient time to plumb these chapters’ depths, but enough to begin the essential work of reconnecting us to our religious ancestry. Paul asks big questions that must be at the foundation of any theological claim emanating from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Again, what makes Paul so impassioned that he talks about his own possible damnation? Not only does he love the people of God, but he will not have a part in any religious understanding that paints God as unfaithful to promises God has made.

As subsequent parts of Romans 9-11 will explain, God must honor all those prerogatives God has lavished upon the Jewish people, as named in 9:4-5. If not, then how will gentile Christians be able to trust that God won’t cancel promises made to us?

I usually discourage working with multiple biblical texts in a single sermon, but this week I’m making an exception. The so-called alternate first reading in the lectionary tells the wonderful story of Jacob wrestling God, prevailing, and then receiving the name “Israel” (“The One Who Strives with God”). Jacob’s hip-smacking opponent tells him, in explaining the name, “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

God and Israel have quite a history together, as rocky as any passionate relationship. But it’s a relationship established by divine promises–promises made, iterated, and reiterated throughout scripture.

Later in Romans (in a passage skipped by the lectionary), Paul will use the image of grafting to describe gentile Christians. They, as “wild olive shoots” have been grafted “to share the rich root” of a cultivated olive tree (11:17). Prodded along by that image of the Jewish people’s rich theological heritage, sermons can both instruct about God’s history with Israel and proclaim the identity Christ forges for us. Knowing Israel’s theological history and the benefits it confers, as epitomized in Jacob’s story, is essential. The history demonstrates God’s longstanding graciousness. It becomes a history in which Christians share, a history (and future) defined by God.

Throughout Romans 9-11, Paul never says that the existence of the church does away with Israel. Christians need to grasp, then, the dangers inherent in talking about the church as a new Israel. The church shares the root, a root of God’s gracious faithfulness. We do not appropriate Israel’s rich heritage of adoption, covenants, and promises. We participate in it, in a derivative but nevertheless real way, through Christ.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 31, 2011.
  2. In her excellent book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), Amy-Jill Levine offers this advice to Christian preachers who want to make positive strides in Jewish-Christian relations: “At Vanderbilt [Divinity School], I have been known to bring my son to my class. I introduce him to my students, and then I say: ‘When you speak of Jews, picture this kid in the front pew. Don’t say anything that will hurt this child, and don’t say anything that will cause a member of your congregation to hurt this child.’ I grant that the move is theatrical and manipulative; it’s also remarkably effective” (page 226).