Lectionary Commentaries for September 6, 2020
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20
Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-11
C. L. Crouch
Most Americans have no idea that someone convicted of a crime in the United States is condemned to a lifetime of discrimination.
Individuals with a criminal record are required to declare their conviction to prospective employers, who are overwhelmingly averse to hiring them, and to prospective landlords, who are averse to housing them. They are prohibited from practicing a wide range of professions, many of which bear no relation to the crime of which they were accused. They are barred from public housing and limited in their recourse to government assistance programs.
The effect of these laws is systemic, legalized discrimination against individuals with criminal records. Moreover: militarized policing tactics focused on poor and minority neighborhoods, combined with sentencing laws dictating harsher penalties for certain crimes, have overwhelmingly and disproportionately increased incarceration rates amongst persons of color. Discrimination on the basis of race may be illegal, but discrimination on the basis of criminal record is not only legal but widespread.
What has Ezekiel to do with this systemic injustice?1
The book seems hardly the most likely source of relief. Its moral and theological outlook is unremittingly “tough on crime”: Israel’s punishment is described as the consequence of its failure to follow the laws laid down by the LORD for Israel’s well-being.
Chapter 33 marks the most climactic moment of the book, in which the destruction of Jerusalem is finally announced. After chapter upon chapter emphasizing Israel’s sinfulness, its message is startling: “As I live, says the LORD God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” (verse 11). Immediately following the lectionary selection is an even more explicit statement of God’s convictions: for the wicked who repent, “none of the sins that they have committed shall be remembered against them; they have done what is lawful and right, they shall surely live” (verse 16).
That the wicked will suffer the consequences of their wickedness is one of the most fundamental tenets of the book’s moral logic, connecting the crimes that the people have committed with the punishment that they now experience.
And yet—despite the urgency with which the book presses this point, Ezekiel allows that even the most inveterate sinner might turn aside from wickedness and sin no more.
God’s desire that even the sinful might live—and God’s promise to reckon past sins as though they were nothing—is a powerful condemnation of discrimination against the formerly incarcerated. Rather than offering ex-offenders a genuine chance to turn their lives around—to “turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right,” as 18:21 puts it—ex-offenders are turned out into a discriminatory system all but designed to ensure recidivism.
Ezekiel condemns this. Although Israel’s punishment is a consequence of its failure to obey the law, it is not punishment for its own sake. Rather, it is meant, first, to draw the people’s attention to the detrimental consequences of their current behavior—for the well-being of their community, as well as for themselves personally. Second, it is meant to provide a route to future obedience. After Israel’s punishment is over, the people will be able to “follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them” (11:20). Punishment is meant to bring about a change in the people’s behavior—change that leads to law-abiding membership in the community. Warehousing human beings without seeking to transform them is antithetical to Ezekiel’s theology. If criminal justice proceeds through incarceration, prison must include routes to rehabilitation that enable ex-offenders to enter fully into society upon their release.
With this in mind, Ezekiel’s depiction of the change Israel undergoes during the term of its punishment merits attention. Israel’s reformed future will not come from some spontaneous transformation, but from changes in their circumstances, brought about by the LORD in order to facilitate obedience to the divine law: “one heart” and a “new spirit” (11:19; 36:26; see also 18:31). The goal of the LORD’s dramatic intervention in Israel’s history is not merely a temporary disruption, undertaken in resigned expectation of the Israelites’ eventual return to their previous circumstances. Rather, the LORD recognizes the obstacles that obstruct the Israelites’ path and grants them the resources they need to overcome them. Punishment is envisioned as a radical break from the past, affected by the LORD through the gift of “one heart” and a “new spirit.”
To 21st-century America, Ezekiel issues a summons: transform the death-dealing circumstances that feed and facilitate the prison-industrial complex. The long shadow of racial discrimination—housing restrictions, bars to employment, inadequate medical care, under-funded schools, and so on—links incarceration disproportionately to individuals and communities of color. Once swept into the system, the exclusion of ex-offenders from housing, employment, and other basic benefits establishes significant obstacles to successful re-entry into mainstream society. These legal forms of discrimination add their compounding effect to the risk factors associated with initial incarceration—and so incarceration breeds more incarceration. Unless we address the circumstances at the root of mass incarceration, this cycle will continue.
The LORD’s promise to change the Israelites’ circumstances recognizes that the individual will to change is not, on its own, enough: the turn away from wickedness and toward righteousness is not a simple matter of resolve. Not only the resolve of the individual to pursue a life of righteousness and obedience to the divine law must change, the circumstances in which individuals find themselves must also be transformed. To this we are called to commit our collective efforts, in solidarity with those who suffer unjustly.
For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see C. L. Crouch, “Ezekiel and Criminal Justice Reform,” in Cambridge Companion to Hebrew Bible and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). Those without library access or of limited means are invited to contact the author directly.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14
Michael J. Chan
These verses detail how and when to hold the sacrificial meal popularly known as “Passover.”
Great care is taken in describing how and when ritual food should be prepared, consumed, and disposed of. At first glance, Exodus 12 might seem like an unlikely quarry from which to unearth a sermon. But patient and careful study reveals a text brimming with insight and theological depth.
Exodus 12:1-14 is embedded within a larger narrative complex, in which Yhwh is at war with Pharaoh over the liberation of the Hebrew people. The instructions for Passover follow immediately upon chapter 11, in which the 10th plague is announced: “every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die” (Exodus 11:5). Yhwh’s actions against the firstborn of Egypt echo Pharaoh’s own murderous policy, in which he commands midwives to kill newborn Hebrew boys (Exodus 1:15-16). God’s actions against Pharaoh are not merely “eye for an eye” retribution: you killed my sons, so now I’m going to kill yours. More significantly, Pharaoh’s attack on Hebrew children must be interpreted in light of God’s ancient promises to Abraham and Sarah: “He [God] brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’” (Genesis 15:5). Pharaoh’s fear of the outsiders in his midst (Exodus 1:8-10) set him down a murderous path that ultimately contained the seeds of his own downfall. God acts not only in response to Pharaoh’s heinous crimes, but also to ensure the future of the promise.
With the fog of war fully engulfing the land, God summons the Israelites to the work of liturgy, ritual, and memory. Given how Passover has developed, it is easy to forget that, for Exodus 12, Passover is a wartime liturgy. Designed for adverse conditions, these verses constitute a liturgical response to the demonic, trauma-inducing reign of Pharaoh. Exodus 12:1-14 represents one element of a lengthy, iterative process of teaching Israel to live, no longer as citizens within a system of domination, but rather as recipients of the kind but fierce benevolence of Yhwh.
The Passover ritual described in Exodus 12:1-14 also marks the beginning of the calendar year: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you” (verse 2). Passover creates an annual, historical touchstone that reminds every subsequent generation that they are a liberated people. In this system of marking time, every subsequent month is ordinally numbered, relating back to the anniversary of Israel’s liberation from Egypt. Exodus 16:1, for instance, reads, “The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.” As Jeffrey Tigay insightfully notes, “Since the numbers will mean essentially ‘in the Xth month since we gained freedom,’ every reference to a month will commemorate the redemption.”1 Other texts in the Pentateuch call upon Israel to “remember” its slave past, and to let that memory shape its communal life (Deuteronomy 5:15; 7:18). It would be understandable if a people like Israel wanted to set aside these tragic and violent years. The Passover meal, however, ensures that they are regularly attentive to the memory of liberation.
Passover also ritualizes readiness, urgency, and vulnerability, and asks its participants to do so in a fully embodied manner: “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD” (verse 11). Passover is meant to be practiced with a sense of haste and disquietude, with the awareness that liberation may arrive like a thief in the night. The participant’s entire body is drawn into the experience.
Exodus 12:1-14, however, is not simply a surrender to uncertainty or fate. Haste and disquietude are present but not dominant. The ritual offers its participants a specific promise, bound to the concrete reality of the sacrificial victim’s blood: “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt” (verses 12-13). The blood of the sacrifice distinguishes the people of God from the Egyptians and shields them from death and judgment.
For additional discussion on the calendar, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, “Exodus,” in The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 125.
Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40
W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.
Across the street from the university where my wife attended graduate school was a church whose church sign included that famous quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there.”
In our attempts to reflect homiletically upon Psalm 119, we might do well to understand this lengthy psalm as a remedy, a balm of sorts, for the kind of meandering life that chases everything, and yet is satiated by nothing.
In this, the longest psalm (176 verses), eight different terms are employed in reference to God’s tora, and with the exception of only a handful of verses, every verse in the psalm contains the term tora or one of the related synonyms. But we should be clear: this is not a paean to tora; it is an invitation to life. Access to the kind of life intended by God is found by “walking in the tora of the LORD” (verse 1b) and seeking God with one’s “whole heart” (verse 2b). The language from the two opening lines of Psalm 119 echoes throughout the remainder of the psalm, and such language appears in the he stanza (verses 33-40) of this acrostic psalm.
In approaching this psalm homiletically, we might do well to focus our attention on this notion of an invitation. What are the images employed in this invitation that merit careful reflection?
Delighting in the way
The terms “way” (verse 33) and “path” (verse 35) appear in this stanza, invoking the complexity of ideas associated with the “pathway” metaphor. Within the book of Psalms, the “pathway” should not be understood as something akin to a precursor to finding the tora of Yahweh; for example, one does not walk the pathway in order to arrive at the tora of Yahweh. Rather, the pathway “fundamentally illustrates tora observance.” This idea is picked up in verses 33 and 35: “the way of your statutes” and “the path of your commandments.” The statutes and commandments of Yahweh prove to be the well-worn places where we are meant to walk in faithfulness with this God. There is no sense of obligatory dread by this psalmist. In fact, to the contrary, walking in these well-worn places proves to be the source of pure “delight” (verse 35b). Even more, the pathway of God and the pathway with God become the source of life (verses 37b, 40b).
Resisting distraction in the way
At the very center of this stanza (verses 36b, 37a), the psalmist petitions God to remove those things most distracting, those things that might take one off the pathway of God and with God. In verse 36, the psalmist implores Yahweh to turn his heart away from “unjust gain.” He confesses that the mark of true life is not wealth, especially wealth gained on the backs of others, but instead, a heart that is turned to God. In verse 37a, the psalmist implores God literally “to cause my eyes to pass over the worthless things” so that he might experience true life (verse 37b). The mention of these distractions is central to the pathway imagery that dominates these verses. To walk in the pathway of God is not some form of naive escapism that allows us to sidestep the distracting and disillusioning things of this world. To the contrary, this stanza reminds us that the pathway with God winds itself through such challenging terrain. Equally important, this stanza is a reminder that we ourselves are incapable of holding at bay those distracting and disillusioning things—that is the work of God alone. And so our bold prayer to walk with God must be matched with our humble confession that we need God’s work in our lives; we need God’s work of turning our “hearts” and “eyes” away from the distractions around us so that they might focus entirely upon God’s life-giving path.
Longing for the way
The first seven verses in this stanza begin with an imperative, but the string of imperatives comes to an end with verse 40. The line begins with the particle hinneh, “behold.” Although this particle has a variety of functions in Hebrew, sometimes it introduces a summative comment on the preceding verses. The psalmist declares, “hinneh, I have longed for your precepts.” The entire stanza is expressed in that one idea, “longing”—a longing for God, a longing for life absent of worthless things, a longing for a renewed life along the pathway of God. The pleas offered up by the psalmist in the seven preceding verses are the result of a deep longing, a longing that started in the past and gnaws at him still.
Perhaps the psalm ends where we should begin—with a fervent longing for the pathway of God.
William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2002), 34.
Commentary on Romans 13:8-14
In Romans 12:1-21, the Apostle Paul emphasizes the centrality of a renewed and transformed consciousness and mind.
Yes, all things start in the mind, and an untransformed mind can cause harm both to self and to the entire human family. Using the language of financial and economic transactions, Paul reverts to his theme of love as the basic virtue that informs, guides, and fulfills God’s commandments. In any event, the juxtaposition of debt to government and to one another is indeed paradoxical as well as metaphorical. It is paradoxical in that debt of any kind causes conflict, and metaphorical in that humanity’s debt of love to one another can lead to unstable and unhealthy relationships. The debt of love (verse 8) to which Paul refers seems to signify a constant search and growth toward holistic love. However, growing into love is hampered when we treat each other poorly. In Africa, South America, Asia, and Latin America, growing in love is an uphill task because of colonization and the related experiences endured by the nations of these regions at the hands of more powerful nations. If this love is to be realized, the once colonizer and the once colonized must have a clear and transformed mind to be able to face the pain imposed on each other. In this case, and in the metaphorical language of the Apostle Paul, love must be desired and learned in an environment of trust, peace, justice, and reconciliation.
In other words, both the oppressed and the oppressor owe each other a different love, one that leads to a restoration of genuine relationships. It is clear in these verses that love is the grand ground on which everything grows and flourishes, but more work has to be done, especially toward humanizing the other. While hate and oppression dehumanize others, love, if well done and exercised, will give birth to a new world order, one in which healthy love can be nursed, grow, and flourish.
The global church has both an evangelical and missional task, of which the Apostle Paul is teaching in Romans 13:8-10. That task is for humanity to see ourselves in each other’s face. Indeed, to love is to preach the gospel, because the heart of the gospel is found in our love of the other. From time immemorial, humanity has been obsessed with the notion of searching for happiness as the number one goal of life, yet the Bible is clear that God’s people must first look for and grow in love (Luke 10; 1 Corinthians 13:8-13). In other words, the church may never realize its God-given potential until it learns to love others. Thus, knowing how to function in love will help Christian practitioners to discover the purposes of God in and around the world. In fact, the mission of God and the mission of the church must be baptized in compassionate love for others. This love is the ground on which Jesus operated throughout his ministry and in the resurrection. While hate destroys persons and societies alike, love attracts and allows people to respond in kind ways. This seems to be the very center of Paul’s message in verses 8-10; love has the power to build a community and to transform people’s lives in ways consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The language of debt signals a call to live a responsible life, especially on Christians who experience the love of Jesus Christ and are called to live in love. Our failure to love makes us debtors to God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and consequently, to one another. A transformed consciousness, as Paul teaches in Romans 12:1-2, leads to a transformed, loving ministry. In other words, love activates love in others, and by so doing, it becomes an undercurrent flowing to fill empty hearts, souls, and minds. While the notion of “end time” is not appreciated by many Christians, its meaning is perhaps hidden in the idea behind the language of debt; failure to pay one’s debts on time may lead one to die before settling ethical and moral life principles. Family members have died without even telling their families how much they love them. Love, then, must be a lifestyle; we must live, move, and be molded by the desire to love.
The main challenge of our time is to live with a transformed mind, a mind that is open to the other and leads to inner transformation. It is crucial for Christians to consider each human being as a loving partner on the journey of life, and to live each day beyond the self. The church is indeed a place where persons can be organized, socialized, and mobilized to effectively love others. Like art, love can be used as a way for people to express, explore, and perceive the world in new and revitalizing ways. To grow in love is surely a constant form of growing in creative labor.
If love does not dictate the way people treat each other, the human family will slide into the darkness that Paul talks about in Romans 13:12-13. This imagery of darkness is already part of the world and even part of the church itself. The tragedy of the church is when theologically-educated pastors become lost in their vocation to be instruments of love. When this occurs, they abdicate and abscond their role as advocates of the gospel, rather than being messengers of its power to bring love, peace, justice, and light to the world. Instead of being ambassadors for the gospel, many clergy have become deeply ideological and political. Hence, the Apostle Paul emphasizes that leaders must come out of the darkness of this world and strive to be children of the light (Romans 13:13).
It is tragic how many theologically trained pastors leave ministry due to a range of immoral and irresponsible behaviors. As verse 14 emphasizes, Christians of all sorts and backgrounds must make a choice to live spiritual lives, and must epitomize Jesus Christ at all times for his ministry, his death, and his resurrection. The church that grows in love should make a divine migration from works of the flesh to living in the realm of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-25). In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul draws a map for those who chose to follow this migration of love; it is the choice for each Christian to make.
Whenever two or more are gathered … it can be really hard to get along.
It is not only the novel coronavirus, with its threat to physical bodies and emotional well-being, but also the deadly viruses of systemic racism, sexism, ageism, or many other -isms that establish hierarchies of human value while infecting the communal bodies of the church and the world.
Facing up to the challenge
Conflicts fester (or explode) thanks to fear or misplaced loyalty, and people talk more about one another than they talk with one another. Stir into the congregational mix divided loyalties and power dynamics—not to mention the challenge of discerning what actually counts as sin (re: the one who “sins against you,” Matthew 18:15)—and it is tempting to throw one’s hands in the air about prospects for resolution, in spite of the three-step process outlined in this week’s reading.
Much of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew makes the prospects seem even more challenging.
As early as the Sermon on the Mount, his breakthrough public appearance in Matthew’s account, Jesus spells out a series of virtually unattainable expectations for those who are being “trained for the kingdom of heaven” (see also Matthew 13:52). If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment (Matthew 5:22) … If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away (5:29) … Do not resist an evildoer (5:39) … Love your enemies (5:44) … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (5:48).
Jesus sets the bar high and does not let his followers off the accountability hook. But his pledge to be present with them through whatever comes is a promise that empowers them to live into their calling.
Protecting the vulnerable
Jesus encourages the church to be a community that nurtures honest dialogue and refuses to keep silent in the face of behavior that harms others. By hearing this passage in its narrative context, we might note that its primary function is less to define a universal, three-step process of conflict resolution (as if following the steps will produce guaranteed results), and more to model how to walk alongside and protect those who are being disempowered or made vulnerable, enabling them to speak so that others might hear.
The passage is situated shortly after Jesus’ exhortation to exhibit concern for the “little ones,” those who are afforded the least power within the dominant community (Matthew 18:1-9). Jesus focuses attention on their vulnerability by centering a child “in the middle” of the disciples. He proclaims that it would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck than to place a “stumbling block” before such a one. It is a strong indictment against attitudes and practices that obstruct human flourishing for all of God’s children, regardless of chronological age. In today’s parlance, perhaps Jesus might have said to the disciples, “Check your privilege, people.”
Immediately before our passage, Jesus connects these “little ones” to the parable of the sheep, for whose sake the shepherd leaves 99 in order to seek the one (Matthew 18:10-14). In Matthew’s version of the parable, there is no hint that the single sheep is more sinful than the 99, nor that it is in any way inferior to the others.1 It has simply been “led astray.” No cause is given, and the gap leaves space for the preacher’s imagination. Perhaps the 99 blocked access to food or a safe place to sleep or in some other way prevented the one from thriving. Just as the child matters to Jesus, the lone sheep matters to the shepherd.
Both teachings focus the church’s attention on those who face the larger risks, or have the least power and the most to lose, or who find themselves to be in a dangerous or vulnerable situation—often through no fault of their own. The process of truth-telling and accountability enjoined in this passage best takes place with careful attention to the church’s call to protect the disempowered and/or vulnerable ones, walking alongside in solidarity as they speak up about the harm they have experienced.
Preachers must keep in mind that it may be unsafe and perhaps even life-threatening for one person to call out the sin of another when the two are alone (Matthew 18:15). Too often the burden for initiating a “Matthew 18 process” falls upon one whose life or livelihood is on the line. Given the context, Jesus’ point seems to be that insofar as it is possible, his followers are responsible for assuring accountability while also safeguarding those who are most vulnerable or at risk.
Listening to understand
Is there any ministerial leader today who has not known the destructiveness of secrets and hushed conversations when people refuse (or are unable) to speak honestly to one another about their interactions? Small issues become big; big issues become catastrophic. One solution is clear and open communication, but that requires as much listening as it does speaking.
Listening is hard.
Perhaps that is why the process outlined in our pericope involves hearing or listening at every step.2 Four times in the first three verses, Jesus makes reference to listening or refusing to listen. The repetition suggests that the call to hear one another, to listen closely to the truth of the other, is a vital component of a community grounded in the ways of Jesus.
Recognizing the capacity to do harm
For many people, it is easier to identify the ways they have been harmed than it is to recognize the ways their actions can harm others, even if unintentionally. Perhaps one of the most difficult truths of this passage is a reminder of the human capacity to cause harm to others—both in the systems in which we participate as well as in our personal actions (or failures to act).
Jesus promises not to desert his disciples as they face that difficult truth and practice living more fully into the communities that God calls into being. After all, he is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name, a name that means “God with us,” who saves people from their sins (Matthew 1:21, 23). The power for his followers to be transformed is available for the asking, as promised. “Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19).
Contra Luke 15:3-7. The parable in Matthew functions differently than it does in Luke.
The Greek word akouo can be translated as either hear or listen.