Lectionary Commentaries for September 13, 2020
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35

Audrey West

Forgive somebody seven times? Peter’s proposal (or is it his wishful thinking?) suggests that forgiveness might be as simple as taking a pill: once a day for a week and you are good to go.

It is no problem to keep track of the number seven, as if that were all the effort required to forgive a brother or sister who “sins against me.” Seven is a measurable number. Seven seas, seven colors of the rainbow, seven days of the week—even seven loaves to feed a crowd with seven baskets full of leftovers to gather at the end (Matthew 15:32-37)—each of these represents an amount that is easy to trace, even if its referent is something great.

However, Jesus’ response to Peter’s question (including the parable) takes forgiveness out of the “countable” category and places it into the realm of the incalculable. The forgiveness to which Jesus points is beyond one’s capacity to keep tabs, beyond one’s capacity to offer on their own strength or ability. It is God’s compassion and abundant mercy that make forgiveness possible, whether transgressions are large or small.

Forgiven but unforgiving

Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one trades in hyperbole. A servant of the king owes the monarch 10,000 talents. One talent is about 6,000 denarii (give or take), with each denarius worth a day’s wage for a laborer. Thus, the first servant owes about 60 million denarii, an amount so large that it exceeds the national debt of a small country. No person could repay it, even if they were to sell themselves and their family into servitude for several lifetimes. In an outrageous act of generosity and mercy, the king graciously forgives this unforgivable debt.

The second servant owes 100 denarii. It is a decent amount of money, but like the number seven in Peter’s question, it is measurable—miniscule by comparison to the debt that was forgiven by the king. When the forgiven servant refuses to extend compassion, it is no wonder that the king becomes angry. He has granted his servant a level of forgiveness that exceeds imagination and yet, that servant is unwilling to offer even the smallest mercy to another person.

The parable does not explain the servant’s refusal to forgive. Perhaps he had suffered harm as a result of the second servant not repaying the debt. Or maybe was he paralyzed by his own greed? Afraid to give up the power he held by virtue of the debt? Distracted by the unexpected change that had just taken place in his life? Too caught up in his newly privileged status to concern himself with the plight of others less fortunate?

What keeps us from offering compassion and mercy to others when we have received so much?

Who needs to be forgiven?

It is ironic that Peter is the one who suggests a low cap on the number of times he should forgive, since he is also the one who will need great forgiveness from Jesus.

On the one hand, Matthew and the other Gospel writers portray Peter as a model of faithfulness. He is a leader among the Twelve, the first to follow when called, unafraid to ask questions on behalf of his colleagues. He promises to stick with Jesus no matter what, even if death might be the outcome. On the other hand, he will deny Jesus three times after the arrest and will be nowhere to be found during the crucifixion. At the level of the narrative, of course, Peter is unaware of the magnitude of his imminent failure. Astute readers and listeners, however, will note the irony of his proposal that forgiving someone seven times ought to be sufficient.

Peter’s ignorance of his need provides a caveat for Jesus-followers today. Do we recognize the ways that we harm others, either in our interpersonal interactions or through the systems in which we participate? How might we become as aware of our own capacity to sin against others as we are of the capacities of others to sin against us?

The “torture” of unforgiveness

When the first servant refuses to forgive the much smaller debt, the king locks him up to be tortured until he extends forgiveness. As it appears in a parable, this “torture” is no more literal than is the precise amount of either servant’s debt.

To be sure, many of Matthew’s parables conclude with eschatological warnings of punishment for those who accept God’s gracious gifts but who refuse to walk in God’s ways. Still, this same Gospel is infused with the promise that God’s forgiveness, offered through Jesus the Messiah, extends to all, even to the most sinful of persons.

Nonetheless, the parable speaks a truth that is familiar to many who have experienced injury or trauma at the hands of another: one’s ability to forgive does not always come easily, nor is it necessarily a quick or simple process. At times it is necessary to forgive from a distance. Some wounds are so deep, some “debts” so large, that human forgiveness is next to impossible.

Indeed, there may be circumstances for which the most faithful response is to seek the assistance of a trained counselor or spiritual director to aid in the process of healing. Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive?” and Jesus’ answer “Seventy times seven” (or “seventy-seven times”) suggest that forgiveness may well be a long and difficult process rather than a week-long project.

Even (and especially) when our own efforts fall short, God’s mercy is beyond imagining. This is a truth proclaimed by the parable as well as by the testimony of Jesus’ own life and ministry. On the night when Judas will betray him and Peter and the other disciples will abandon him, Jesus announces to all, “[T]his is the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21

Christopher Davis

Perhaps the two most often used words in today’s church are vision and destiny.

Throughout the body of Christ, the people of God are being challenged to cast greater vision and then walk in purposeful destiny. And there is much to be said about both. In fact, the Bible says, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). Therefore, it stands to reason that vision is a necessity for all facets of our lives—vision for our families, vision for our finances, vision for our faith. As it pertains to destiny, the Bible records that God has declared, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11, KJV). In other words, God has provided a planned and prepared purpose for all those God has called.

The issue I think we have created with both of these is that we have preached and taught them independent of one another. When it comes to vision and destiny, it is always either/or opposed to both/and. But I want to suggest that God never intended for us to view them as independent ideas, but rather as co-laborers working together. Vision is the vehicle that ultimately transports us to destiny, and that is a significant part of the story of Joseph.

Joseph is the main character of this particular pericope. One of the things that we know about him is that he was one whose life was built around a vision, or what the text specifically refers to as a dream. The Bible says that Joseph dreamed that he and his brothers were in the field binding sheaves and that the sheaves the brothers gathered assembled around the sheaves he gathered, and their sheaves began to bow down and worship his. His dream continued with other images of his brothers bowing to him; the sun, the moon, and the stars (brothers) paid him homage. Now, if you are going to dream, this is the kind of dream you want to have. This is the way to cast vision for yourself. It has all the right stuff. It speaks of prosperity, increase, abundance, authority, respect, and so on. However, Joseph soon learns that the dream or the vision is simply the vehicle; there is still the matter of arriving at the destiny.

There are a great many pages and verses between Joseph’s dream and this family reunion. Perhaps the easiest way to cover this much terrain is to say that whenever God gives you a dream and a destiny, there is always one other “d” to consider, and that is the “d” of drama. It is without question that Joseph experienced his fair share of drama from the pit, to the prison, to the palace. And it all began at the hands of his brothers who hurt him, but now find themselves in the awkward position of needing him.

When was the last time somebody hurt you? When was the last time you were treated in a way that was not appropriate for or reflective of the relationship you thought you had? In the vernacular of this more recent generation, when was the last time someone did you dirty? If I know life like I think I know life, then you probably will not have to think long or hard to come up with an answer. But beyond being able to remember, you can relate to how Joseph must have felt.

The interesting thing is that Joseph is now a man of position, power, and prestige. He has the wherewithal to get even, but the text presents a man who is not resentful, nor does he seek revenge. In fact, he is alright with extending them both a handout and a hand-up. This portion of the text teaches that in order to forgive and move on, you have to be at peace with the fact that those who hurt you may never reap what they have sown.

Scripture teaches that Joseph encounters his brothers on four separate occasions. They travel from Canaan to Egypt and go back to Canaan. This journey takes place four times (Genesis 42, 43, 45, and 46). But what is interesting is that it is only in Genesis 45 where Joseph confronts them with what they have done wrong, and it is only in that chapter that Joseph shows that it hurt him. Four times they meet, but only once does Joseph choose to share with them what they did and how much it hurt. When they return in Genesis 46, he does not bring it up. And when they come seeking forgiveness in Genesis 50, he does not speak of it in any negative way. This final family gathering offers us a real picture of forgiveness, because true forgiveness is only seen when you have to interact with the one who hurt you, when your paths will cross again.

There are some people who have hurt you that you will have to deal with again. She still attends church. He is still on the job. They still live under your roof. They will be at the next family reunion. You have to deal with them again. And what Joseph models for us is that when you have to deal with them again, you have to make a deliberate decision to not rewind, to not replay, and to not repay.

Joseph’s brothers are naturally worried about how Joseph will respond. But while they were worrying, Joseph was weeping, because Joseph had chosen to release them from their worry. How does he do it? How is it that Joseph is not resentful? How is it that Joseph does not look to get even? How is it that Joseph does not remind them of their offense? How is it that Joseph does not seek revenge? Simple—he remembers his story differently.

Contrary to how it is most often used, remember does not simply mean to stroll back down memory lane. Rather, to remember literally means to put something back together again. Joseph re-members his story differently. As he shares his story, he says, “I know you sold me into slavery. I know you thought you were harming me. But God used me to bring life to you. But God sent me to Pharaoh’s house. But God took me from the pit to the prison to the palace. But God was in control” (verses 19-20). So, as he re-members, he does not just remember what they did, but he also remembers what God did. Joseph understood there is a difference between a moment and a movement. Being thrown into a pit—a moment. Being sold into slavery—a moment. Being forsaken and forgotten—a moment. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today”—a movement.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31

Michael J. Chan

This text describes one of the Bible’s strangest military engagements.

To the fight, Pharaoh brings a swarm of chariots and soldiers. The text tells us that “He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them” (Exodus 14:7). The Israelites are in a much more precarious position, having camped alongside a body of water without any means of escape. Their vulnerability would prove too tempting a target for the stiff-hearted Pharaoh (14:3), who concludes that they were boxed in and ripe for conquest. In terms of armaments, the Israelites have nothing more than a promise: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still” (verses 13-14).

There are, in fact, two battles in play. The first is Pharaoh’s conflict with the Israelites and the second is the fight to believe God’s absurd command that “the Lord will fight for you.” And it is here that our story begins, with Israel on the verge of military defeat, wielding mere words as weapons.

The angel of God now places itself between the Israelites and Pharaoh’s army, creating an impenetrable wall of separation that shields God’s people from Pharaoh’s rage (verses 19-20). The action recalls God’s actions during the 10th and final plague, in which the Egyptians and Israelites are distinguished from one another (11:7). While separated, the Lord transforms Israel’s vulnerability into an opportunity for escape: “the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land” (verse 21).

The creational themes are important here and elsewhere in Exodus, as Terence Fretheim points out in his groundbreaking commentary.1 They remind us that Yhwh’s conflict with Pharaoh is not simply between two rulers. The true conflict is between forces of creation and chaos. Nothing less than cosmic order—the state in which life can flourish and abound—is at stake. From the outset, this pharaoh’s policies of enslavement, domination, and violence have been anti-creational (1:8-22), threatening God’s fructifying promises to Israel and its descendants. God’s decision to confront Pharaoh represents a decision to give the forces of creation a chance again to flourish, bringing them out from underneath the suffocating chokehold of pharaonic oppression.

By means of a “strong east wind” (beruach qadim ‘azzah, verse 21; see also Genesis 1:1-2), God separates the waters of the sea, exposing dry ground (yabashah, see also Genesis 1:9-10) and an escape route. Moses plays an important role in all of this. He holds out his arm for the entire night (verse 21), as Yhwh drives back the waters and splits the sea. After a long, laborious night, day breaks and the Egyptians are defeated. How their defeat actually happens is difficult to explain, due no doubt to the text’s lengthy and complicated history of interpretation. According to verse 26, Moses extends his hand so that the waters will fall upon the Egyptians (see also verse 28). In verse 27, however, the Lord sweeps the Egyptians into the sea. Whatever the case may be, they are defeated and the Israelites are delivered (verse 30).

The density of creation language indicates that something more than military victory has been achieved: a new creation has occurred, offering Israel a future that is free from the dominating reign of Pharaoh. Drawing on prototypes from both the Bible and the ancient Near East, Exodus 14 assumes that creation and chaos are in conflict. The flourishing of the former is dependent upon defeat of the latter. Even in its most grandiloquent expressions of peace (for example, Isaiah 11), the establishment of God’s “peaceable kingdom” must follow upon the defeat of evil and chaos (Isaiah 11:4). God’s peaceable reign is not primarily an ethical ideal, but rather a byproduct of the Creator beating back the ever-present, ever-threatening forces of chaos.

Despite its many connections to the Chaoskampf tradition,2 Exodus 14 does stand out in one significant way. God’s victory over the Egyptians isn’t simply a matter of defeating primordial chaos monsters. Human costs are involved: “The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived … and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore” (verses 28-30).

The rabbis were particularly insightful in naming this reality. In b. Sanhedrin 39b (commenting on verse 20), ministering angels desired to sing a song of praise before God in response to the decisive victory over the Egyptians. God, however, said to them: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” These observations illuminate Exodus 14’s ethical sophistication.

A cursory reading might suggest that Exodus 14 is nothing more than a tribalistic, us-vs-them story. But in highlighting the impact of pharaonic policies on the bodies of Egyptian soldiers, the story shows that the Israelites are not the only victims of Pharaoh’s hard(ened) heart. The Egyptian system of domination and violence also drew Egyptian soldiers into its orbit, as enforcers of the pharaonic will.


  1. Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville: WJK, 1991).

  2. The Chaoskampf motif depicts the struggle between a culture’s deity and forces of chaos. The tradition has traces in both Hebrew texts (see passages from Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and several psalms) and texts from the Ancient Near East. 


Commentary on Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13

Paul O. Myhre

What are the contours of praise for God?1

How do we know it if we are actually engaged in it? Is it simply a matter of the emotions somehow reaching out to the creator of life in some message of thanksgiving? Is it more than emotions? Is the body involved in ways that transcend the mind to give forth something of gratitude to the God of all that is, ever was, and ever will be? If someone asked you to pick up a pencil and draw on paper a picture of praise, what would it look like and why? I think the very request to praise God invokes something deep within sinew and bone, molecule and atom that desires to express recognition for life caused by a power greater than what we can evoke or manufacture.

In Psalm 103, the writer contends that praise is something to be called forth from the people. It is an invitation to all who would listen to join with the writer in offering praise to the living God. But, what is praise? Of what does it consist? Is it something that only people can offer? Can animals and even plants offer praise? Do they have a capacity to render praise to God for life? Do we run the risk of anthropomorphizing everything if we even ask the question? Yet, there is something about the essence of praise that tugs at one’s skin, moves beneath the surface like blood through veins, and touches the sparks that travel along our brain’s axon and dendrite trails.

The question of an animal’s capacity to feel and think has long been debated. Carl Safina, in Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, contends that human beings are not the only living things that have emotions or think. Some would contend that animals dream and thereby share something in common with humans. Anyone who has owned a dog knows the capacity of a dog to dream, show affection, and exhibit fear or courage. This isn’t simply a matter of anthropomorphizing them to make them seem somehow more human. For Safina, the declaration that animals have emotions and think is based on scientific observation and evaluation. For him, humans and animals also share a capacity for empathy. Safina isn’t alone. There are scores of scholars who are exploring the layers of consciousness among animals and even considering animal spirituality. A few authors that are asking such questions include Richard Nelson, Dave Aftandilian, and Donovan Schaefer.

So what does this have to do with Psalm 103? I think it has everything and nothing to do with it. The psalms were written as poetic exhalations or inhalations that disclose something of the writer’s emotions and thinking at the time of their composition. They display something about the human capacity to reflect and imagine the greatness of God as one who is as intimate as breath and as distant as the farthest galaxy from human experience. God is both known and unknown at the same time. There is both an intimacy that transcends language and a distance that escapes human abilities to discern.

We share something with animals in this regard. Neither of us can determine the exact contours of God, nor can we discern the depth of God’s activity within and among us. Perhaps we can see glimpses, hear fleeting notes, or plumb the depths of imagination and critical reflection to discover something about God. However, all of human musings ought to be subject to careful examination and reflection. People also have a great capacity to believe what they want to believe regardless of what may be discernable or particularly evident in the facts spread before them. They choose at any moment to claim various degrees of certitude, but language breaks down quickly as it cannot carry the breadth nor depth of what draws forth praise from the living.

Psalm 103 inhales and exhales praise. It is a reflection on the contours of human capacities to know God and to exclaim that God has done and that God continues to do amazing things. Where is one’s inmost being? Is it lodged within sinew and bone or does it reside somewhere less material? Does it rest uneasily at some place in the mind where the past, present, and future are continually colliding to declare and dismiss at the same time the activity and presence of God?

Psalm 103 can be read like a reflecting pool that shows the clouds overhead and distant stars so that we might reach down and touch them. They are not the actual objects, but reflections of them. As such we are able to grasp something of their essence and as such they can push inward reflection on what they may mean. The Psalmist recounts the various activities of God and invites people to reflection about them. This reflection brings forth praise like the heat beneath the geysers of Wyoming.

God heals diseases, redeems people from pits, crowns people with love and compassion, gives good things for human desires, renews one’s youth like the eagles, and works righteousness and aims toward justice for all of the oppressed. This image of God is one that comprises a theology of hope in the midst of hardships. It is a perception of God that provides courage to face the trials of the day be they war, disease, despair, loneliness, unjust systems of oppression, or anything that would cause human life to be diminished in some way.

Human experience is something that is ever changing as one life event slips into another and those into yet another. Each one carries with it a range of possibilities and dangers. A capacity to chose right and wrong or something that exists between the two is ever possible. The missteps are as present as the correct ones. Yet, for the Psalmist, the God who is to be praised is more than an accountant keeping a tally of all the right and wrong steps. This God is an active loving presence that removes the impediments to full relationship with God and what might contribute to an abundant life.

The Psalmist in these verses provides a type of heat to the waters of personal experience and declares to those who would hear something about a God that is not only worthy of praise, but who can and does meet people in the contexts of life to provide solace, comfort, and strength. This recognition alone when coupled with personal experience draws forth from people something deep within and expels it outward into the sky as activities of praise.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 17, 2017.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 14:1-12

Israel Kamudzandu

The clarion call of Romans 14:1-12 is captured in a single concept, “hospitality” (14:1a).

The Apostle Paul observes that the human condition, in all its form and nature, is marked by wickedness. Consciously, intentionally, and with a clear mind, the human family dehumanizes and pulls down those who do not belong to the tribe. The Apostle’s world had become tribal in nature, with the church caught in an intricate web of tribalism and racism between Jews and Gentiles.

The Apostle Paul is thus quick to alert Christians in Rome (and consequently, in every place) about the dangers of failing to live as a family. Whether one is weak or strong in faith, the main denominator is that we are all human. When all is said and done, it is about believing in God, just as Abraham, our faith ancestor, did when he responded to the call of God on his life (Romans 4:16-22). Thus, to be justified by God is to be given the obligation to welcome others in spite of their condition, background, nationality, or race (Romans 15:1-11). Briefly stated, to be forgiven before we confess our shortcomings is indeed to be given the gift of reciprocity (Romans 5:8).

Paul gives the mandate to Christians that, at any moment and season, each one of us should be ready to extend hospitality to others. The 21st century, like the church in Rome, is operating under the same ecclesial and political system of the weak and the strong, whereby others are excluded, shunned, and at times silenced. The wealthy and educated ones, regardless of their faith, tend to look down on the uneducated, the poor, and those living in the so-called Global South. Yet, the Apostle Paul’s appeal is for people to live in a Trinitarian manner, by honoring and appreciating the humanity of each other.

The practice of domination often occurred in the context of food and cultural ideals. Through these references, Paul seems to be hinting at the way the Jewish and Gentile Christians categorized each other. As we read this part of Romans, we are also called to put ourselves in the place of ancient Jews and Gentiles, and to recognize the changes that are necessary to be a hospitable church. While we like to missionize and evangelize other people, we tragically avoid diversity. As a result, Sunday morning has become deeply tribal in church attendance. In sociological, theological, political, and cultural ways, today’s church is characterized by hostility between races and nationalities. It is not a surprise that the Apostle Paul in verse 4 slides into his diatribe way of engaging readers, asking, “Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?” (Romans 14:4). If 21st-century Christians look into the divine mirror, they will be astonished to discover the ways they categorize people as insiders and outsiders. Where there are categories, there is no unity.

The question to be addressed in today’s church is as follows: tolerance or love? Romans 14:1-12 is a call to introspection of individuals, groups, clergy, and faith pillars who have settled into a culture of tolerance instead of love, hospitality, and appreciation of others. The entire New Testament is about love, but many people operate with a mindset of tolerating others, rather than loving them.

However clergy and lay Christians choose to address this question, the Apostle Paul boils everything down to God, in whom all created beings have their foundation, form, living, and destiny. Read from a resurrection and spiritual point of view, Romans 14:1-12 seems to reiterate and interpret Romans 8:31-39 and also Philippians 2:5-11. Paul cautions readers that rituals, cultural ideals, rules, doctrines, and laws do not have the power to offer salvation; only God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are sources of salvation to all believers. Whether we criticize or categorize others, God is the only one who has the final say upon each person’s being. While the concept of accountability has been politically abused, we will be well informed to reread Romans 14:10-12 and relearn in a new way that our accountability is to God and to no other. The sin of the present-day church is perhaps the way pettiness, triviality, and insensitivity have lodged themselves in the hearts, minds, and souls of church leaders and believers. At times, this has led to the decline and even death of congregations. When the focus is on making others perfect instead of helping them to grow, the body of Christ suffers.

In many ways, the Apostle Paul repeatedly reverts to the role of a transformed mind and conscience, and reminds readers that a transformed mind is always open to others. A spiritually renewed mind does not put stumbling blocks in another’s Christian formation and growth in God; rather, a transformed mind becomes a resource for discipleship, spiritual growth, and caring (Romans 14:17-18). Today, the divided and splintered global Christian world is in need of spiritually renewed minds and hearts. With a renewed mind comes the fruits of righteousness, peace, love, joy, and reconciliation. Romans 14:19 is the summative part of the letter, as the Apostle Paul summons all Christian practitioners to what matters most in the life of the church; namely, harmony and mutual growth of every living human being. When the church fails to be a sacred space for unity and appreciation of diversity, the entire secular world suffers.

The sin of the church is found in its failure to transform and renew the minds of many lay people. Discipleship efforts without transformation of the mind lead to the church becoming an ideological religious community. In other words, an untransformed mind is a ticking bomb that can explode at any moment and time in the life of the church. The God of the Apostle Paul, Jesus who called him, and the Holy Spirit who worked in his life were not ideological but counter-ideological. It may be that the church and all Christian practitioners are being summoned by God to a season of reorientation of minds, hearts, and souls so that the focus is on building the Kingdom of God, locally and internationally.