Lectionary Commentaries for November 1, 2020
All Saints Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12

Raj Nadella

The Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel occur within the literary context of inauguration of the new community.

Jesus has just announced that the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17) and invited people to repent. The Greek word metanoia has the connotation of “changing one’s course of action” and “transformation.” Jesus has also invited the first group of disciples to partake in the new movement (4:18-22).

Within this literary context, the Beatitudes should be read as Jesus’ manifesto for transformation in the community he has just inaugurated. They reveal what the new community will look like. The Beatitudes address those who experience various kinds of oppression as well as those who have been targeted because of their pursuit of righteousness. They promise blessings to each of these oppressed groups.

The Greek word makarios that is often translated as “blessed” should be explicated within the larger canonical context. The term occurs in several parts of the Septuagint, especially in Psalm 1 where blessings belong to those who refuse to be wicked and find delight in following the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1:1-2). The blessings will manifest themselves in the form of God’s protection for the righteous (Psalm 1:3-6).

The Beatitudes also build upon motifs from the wisdom literature that promise God’s favor and deliverance for the righteous and the afflicted (1 Enoch 1:8, 58:2-3; Psalms of Solomon 17:44). In particular, 1 Enoch 58 promises a bright future and a long life for the righteous. There is a promise of reversal of fortunes in these texts. Similarly, within their literary context, the Beatitudes do not glorify situations of suffering but announce reversal of fortunes for the oppressed.   

After announcing the new kingdom and recruiting disciples, Jesus has been healing every disease, sickness and demon-possession among the people (Matthew 4:23-25) and has, consequently, gained immense popularity. The Beatitudes that come immediately after these accounts reveal how the afflicted and the oppressed will be blessed just as others in similar situations have been blessed thus far. While the promise of deliverance and reversal of fortunes spelled out in the Beatitudes point to the future, they are built on what Jesus has already accomplished. It is a promise built upon his successful track record.

The Beatitudes are a deeply subversive text in the American context where the word “blessed” is often associated with and hijacked by the wealthy, the healthy and the most powerful. Jesus clarifies that it is precisely the poor, the sick and the meek that are entitled to the blessings of the new kingdom.

But how will the afflicted and the oppressed be blessed? How will their deliverance come about?

Verse 4 offers an insight. The most common translation of verse 4—Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted—does not fully capture the force of the Greek verb at the end—parakleytheysontai. Parakleytheysontai is derived from the Greek word paraclete, which was used in courtroom settings in the first century Greco-Roman context. It referred to lawyers and advocates and has the connotation of interceding on behalf of those who need assistance.

The verb parakleytheysontai suggests that those who mourn will receive advocacy, not just comfort and consolation. Comfort and consolation are helpful and even essential but not nearly sufficient. Merely comforting individuals and communities who are mourning due to hunger, violence and injustice might address the symptoms of their situation but does little to change the roots of their suffering. As followers of Jesus, we are called to advocate on behalf of the oppressed and do everything in our capacity to reverse their current situation. When we see people weeping because of hunger, police brutality or gun violence, our response cannot be limited to thoughts and prayers. As important as thoughts and prayers are, they must be followed by concrete actions.

Parakleytheysontai is in the passive voice. A literal translation of verse reads like this: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be advocated on behalf. The passive voice makes it a bit awkward in English, but it needs to be explored further. In fact, in several of the Beatitudes, the agency of the verb in the second half is in the passive voice: they will be advocated on behalf of (verse 4), they will be filled (verse 6), they will be shown mercy (verse 7), they will be called children of God (verse 9). So, who is the agent of these actions? Who will advocate on behalf of those who mourn? Who will fill the hungry? Who will show mercy to the merciful? Who will call the peacemakers “the children of God?”

The passive voice leaves the agency open-ended. One can suggest that it is the divine passive making God the agent. However, the open-ended nature of the verb allows, even calls, for human agency—the church as well as the larger community—in addition to the divine agency.

The human agency takes on additional significance when one reads the Beatitudes within the literary context of the disciples having just been invited to help advance the new kingdom and its manifesto. Such an emphasis on the human agency suggests that, when we see oppressed people, the question need not, and should not, be: Where is God when people are mourning, hungry, treated brutally by the police and denied mercy in the courtrooms? Instead, the question should be: Where is God’s community and what is it doing to reverse the situation?

The Beatitudes offer a promise of liberation to those at the margins of our society. They also invite and require anyone and everyone with privilege and power to participate in the process of making the promised liberation a reality.

But the afflicted themselves have an agency as well. Many of the Beatitudes place the second part in the active voice—theirs is the kingdom of God (verses 2, 10); they will inherit the kingdom of God (verse 5); they will see God (verse 8)—suggesting that the oppressed will participate in their own liberation. Rather than turn the afflicted and the oppressed into objects of our compassion and advocacy, the Church must acknowledge their own agency and actively work with them to facilitate the reversal of fortunes Jesus has promised them.

First Reading

Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17

Barbara Rossing

Prior to the opening of the dreaded seventh seal, Revelation delivers an amazing and hope-filled surprise: a “salvation interlude,” assuring God’s people they are protected.1

Just when we are expecting even more destruction with the opening of the seventh seal there is a delay. The scene shifts. Four angels stand at the four corners of the earth, holding back destructive winds. Their mission is to hold back the judgments until God’s people can be “sealed” (7:1-8).

Even in the most difficult sections of Revelation, God’s judgment is not unrelenting. A similar “salvation interlude” will interrupt the trumpet sequence, between the sixth and seventh trumpet (Revelation 10-11). The interludes function rhetorically to shape the identity of God’s people as “protected, separated, praising, persecuted, and vindicated,” as Peter Perry describes2—preparing the community to persevere in its witness even in the midst of the hardships that lie ahead.

Today’s text—a favorite for funerals and All Saints Day—portrays the multitude of God’s people standing before the throne of God, “sheltered” by God’s tabernacling presence. The scene divides into two sections, a heavenly vision (Revelation 7:9-12) and its interpretation (7:13-17). Worship and praise are central to both sections. Since those who belong to the lamb are said to be a multitude “that no one could count” (7:9), any literalistic fixation on the number 144,000 in the earlier vision of twelve tribes (7:4) is thus undermined.

“From every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues” (Revelation 7:9; see also 5:9) underscores the multi-ethnic character of the people of God. Cuban scholar Justo Gonzales compares the multicultural perspective of Revelation to mestizo literature, addressed to people of a mixed cultural heritage.

John may have been a recent refugee to Asia Minor from Palestine following the trauma of the Roman-Jewish War. For Gonzales, Johns’ dual identity as a Jew writing to Greek-speaking people in Asia Minor, in a land and language not his own, places him in a situation similar to people with hybrid identities today: “The mestizo is at home in two places, and is not quite at home in either.”3

The white-robed multitude sings songs and waves Palm branches. Their daring hymns voice counter-imperial claims, saying that salvation, blessing, glory and power belong to God alone. Palm branches in the hands of these worshipers are a possible allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles, an Exodus link (Leviticus 23:40-43). For Revelation, a dramatic new Exodus is being undertaken not in Egypt but in the heart of the Roman Empire. Led by the Shepherd-Lamb Jesus, God calls Christians to “come out” of Rome (Revelation 18:4), in the same way that the Israelites came out of Egypt.

After the vision, one of the elders gives its interpretation, a typical apocalyptic question-and-answer format. The question-and-answer section also helps cement John’s identity with his community, since he—like them—has to ask for interpretive help. People who belong to the lamb’s multitude are those who have come out of the great thlipsis (“tribulation”). This word, which recurs throughout Revelation, is key to understanding the situation that John shares with his communities (1:9). The “tribulation” (thlipsis) of Revelation’s audience was not state-sponsored persecution but rather the social, economic, and religious marginalization of those who refused to participate in Roman imperial system.

In an incongruous combination of colors, the multicultural multitude washes their robes in the Lamb’s blood to make them white. This may be a reference to the washing away of sin commanded in Isaiah 1:16-18 (“though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow…”).

Those who come through the tribulation now “serve” God. Like a shepherd, God tenderly cares for the people. The verb “shelter” (skenosei) invokes tabernacle imagery, the sense of God’s radiant presence or dwelling as a canopy or tent over us (see Ezekiel 37:27). The longest of Revelation’s hundreds of Old Testament allusions draws from Isaiah 49:10, the call to return home from exile: God’s people will not hunger or thirst on their journey through the wilderness, nor will any scorching wind or sun touch them (Revelation 7:16, a contrast to the sun’s scorching of evildoers in Revelation 16:7).

In an amazing combination of imagery, the Lamb Jesus now becomes also the shepherd, tending the flock, leading people to springs of water, and wiping away all their tears (a quote from Isaiah 25:8). Led by their Shepherd-Lamb, God’s redeemed people will come through the tribulation into God’s new Promised Land.

“Who is able to stand?” was the rhetorical question left dangling at the end of the dreaded sixth seal, after the four seals’ deadly horsemen and the fifth seal’s depiction of Rome’s victims under the altar. The interlude of Revelation 7 has given God’s people their answer to that question by depicting their identity as a redeemed community, wearing white robes and singing. By the end of the interlude of Revelation 7 all of us as God’s people can confidently answer: “With God’s help, we are able to stand.”


  1. Adapted from commentary first published on this site on Apr. 21, 2013.
  2. Peter Soren Perry, The Rhetoric of Digressions: Revelation 7:1-17 and 10:1-11:13 and Ancient Communication (WUNT, 2. Reihe 268; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 217.
  3. Justo Gonzales, For the Healing of the Nations: The Book of Revelation in an Age of Cultural Conflict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 59.


Commentary on Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 34 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.1

Fifteen individual Hymns of Thanksgiving occur in the book of Psalms. In them, psalm singers give thanks to God for deliverance from various life-threatening situations: illness, enemies, and dangers. Two aspects of Psalm 34 intrigue this reader.

First, the superscription of the psalm places it within a particular life situation of King David: “when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” The only story in the biblical text that might be associated with Psalm 34’s superscription is found in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. There, David fled from Saul and went to King Achish—not Abimelech—at Gath. But Achish recognized him and David was afraid for his life, so he feigned madness to disguise his true identity.

Ascertaining a specific historical event in the life of David in which to place Psalm 34 is not as important as using the setting to gain insight into the meaning and intent of the psalm. In Psalm 34, David praises God for deliverance from a life-threatening situation—perhaps his encounter with King Achish of Gath, later remembered as Abimelech.

Second, Psalm 34 is an alphabetic acrostic. Each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways. Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public—that is, individual and corporate—recitation; in addition, literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, summing it up from alif to tav, from A to Z. Adele Berlin suggests further that in an acrostic, the entire alphabet—the source of all words—is marshaled in praise of God. One cannot actually use all of the words in a language, but by using the alphabet one uses all potential words.

Thus, Psalm 34 is an individual hymn of thanksgiving of David sung on the occasion of the deliverance of his very life by God, perhaps as the ultimate word about God’s help to those who are in need (a summary of all that could be said about God’s help in the face of oppression and hurt). Readers and hearers, then, should heed the words of Psalm 34, a song of thanksgiving for deliverance and find in them hope for deliverance from various oppressive situations. In the focus text, Psalm 34:1-8, the psalmist first offers praise to God:

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD (1-2).

Blessing and praising God are common themes in the Psalter. The word “bless” comes from the same root as the Hebrew word “knee.” Thus, to bless is literally “to bend the knee”—to kneel before a sovereign. The words “praise” and “boast” come from the same Hebrew root word, the word that occurs in the phrase “hallelujah.” Thus, praise will be in the mouth of psalmist; while the psalmist’s inmost being (here translated as “soul”) finds its praise (“boasts”) in the Lord.

The psalm singer then states the reasons for offering praise to God:

I sought the LORD and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears. (4)
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD,
and was saved from every trouble. (6)

Two more common themes of the Psalter occur in these verses. God delivers (natsal) and God saves (yashah) the psalm singer when the singer cries out to God. The two verbs are similar in meaning, but carry slightly different nuances of meaning. Natsal suggests a “snatching away” or “pulling away.” Thus, we may picture God plucking the psalmist out of midst of fears and moving the psalmist to a safer place. Yashah means “to take full care of” or “to help,” suggesting that God enters the troubled situation of the psalmist and cares for the psalmist in the midst of the trouble. Note that the word “soul” occurs in verse 6, just as it does in verse 2. The inmost being (soul) of the psalmist cried out to God and was cared for (verse 6) and thus finds its praise (boasts) in the Lord.

Finally, the singer exhorts hearers/readers to join in praise of God’s deliverance with words of admonition:

O magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together. (3)
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed. (5)
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and delivers them.
O taste and see that the LORD is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him. (7-8)

The words of verse 8 are familiar words, but what does it mean to “taste and see” the goodness of the Lord? The word translated as “taste,” means “to try something by experiencing it.” The psalm singer admonishes readers/hearers to try God’s goodness for themselves and experience it as one would taste a new food. The word is used in the same metaphoric way in Job 11:12 and Proverbs 31:18. Tasting is one of our five senses. Seeing is another. We see the goodness of God powerfully displayed in the created world. Recall that in Genesis 1, after each creative act, God “saw” that it was good. And at the end of the creation story, God saw that creation was not just good, but that it was “very good.” Psalm 34 encourages us to experience God for ourselves and to open our eyes and see the goodness of God that is all around us.

Verse 8 ends with the words, “Happy are those who take refuge in him.” The word translated here as “take refuge” means “to hide oneself.” This writer pictures a small child wrapped up in its parent’s arms—protected, warm, loved. The result? Happiness. The word “happy” occurs some twenty-five times in the Psalter (see 1:1; 2:12; 41:1; 65:4; 112:1, etc.). Some translations render the word as “blessed,” others as “happy.” Another option for translation is “content.” Taking refuge in God—being protected, warm, and loved—can result in a deep, inner sense of contentment, a feeling in the very depth of your being that all is well. Content, indeed, are those who allow themselves to be wrapped up in the arms of God.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 6, 2011.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:1-3

Alicia D. Myers

First John 3 is a fitting text for All Saints Day.

It gives us hope for the saints who have preceded us in death, while reminding us of our current identity as God’s children in the midst of what can be an overwhelming world. First John 3:1-3 is part of a hinge that flows from the author’s admonition about antichrists in 2:18-27 into a later section describing the differences between God’s children and those of the devil in 3:7-18.

The larger context of our passage shows the seriousness of the sermon, as well as the intensity of the crisis as felt by our author. Nevertheless, it should also be clear that the overall focus is on encouragement for the audience, rather than a loss of faith. They are reminded of their identity as God’s children and called to live out that identity in love (3:16-18).

Tucked in between these polemical portions is 1 John 2:28-3:6, and within that, our passage of 3:1-3. All of 2:28-3:6 summarizes what has come before in 2:18-27 while also introducing language of birth and “children” that will continue in 3:7-18. The “child” language of 3:1-3 itself resonates with the speaker’s continual use of the address “little children” (teknia) or “little ones” (paidia) throughout the sermon. The extension of this address to “children of God” not only contextualizes the other use of “child” language in 1 John, but also ties this section of the sermon back to the promises of the Gospel prologue: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of a man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

The encouragement the audience of 1 John receives reaches a climax at 2:28-3:2. In this space, the speaker takes a moment to address the audience directly, especially in 3:1-3, encouraging them not only about the future (2:28-29), but also about the present. For the author of 1 John, “eternal life” as God’s children is not just a future hope, but a current reality. Looking more closely at 3:1-3, we find repetition and parallelism that is so characteristic of 1 John (my translation):

A. Behold, what kind of love the Father has given to us,

that we should be called children of God, and we are!

B. On account of this, the world does not know us,

because it did not know him.

A’. Beloved, now children of God we are,

         and not yet was it revealed what we will be.

B’. We know that if he should be revealed,

like to him we will be,

because we will see him just as he is.

C. And each one having this hope in him makes himself holy, just as that one is holy.

In these verses, the author contrasts “we” with “the world.” Using “we”-language, the author creates a unified perspective with his audience: they are all already together as God’s children in spite of the departure of the antichrists (former believers) from their midst (1 John 2:18-27). Moreover, the rejection “we” face from “the world” is not because of “our” failure, but results from right knowledge about who Jesus is: God’s Son and Christ (1:3; 2:22-25; 5:5-12). The world, because it does not recognize him, also fails to recognize other children of God.

In 1 John, the present reality that “we” are God’s children is the foundation of our future hope. In 2:28-29, the author reminds the audience of the “boldness” they will have before Jesus when he returns. Rather than hiding in shame, they will be bold to approach their fellow sibling from God’s family (see also 3:21; 4:17; 5:14-15). First John 3:2 continues to give further details to this image. Not only will the children approach boldly, but they “will be like him”—that is, Jesus—because they will “see him just as he is.” The children of God will be fully transformed by the complete vision of Christ so that their own bodies become like his (John 20:19-29; see also 1 Corinthians 15; Romans 6).

First John 3:3 rounds out the message of hope, but it needs extra attention because it can be easily misunderstood. How can believers “make themselves holy”? The verb used here is hagnizo and can also be translated as “purify.” Read this way, the cultic overtones become clear, and resonate with the description of Jesus’ cleansing blood from 1:5-2:2. Jesus’ continual intercession on behalf of believers is an important part of 1 John. Believers are not alone, making themselves holy; rather, by continuing to confess both their sins and Jesus’ true identity, believers demonstrate their trust in his intercession, and thus benefit from his death and resurrection (see also 5:6-8). Indeed, Jesus uses the related verb hagiazo (and another reflexive pronoun) in John 17:17-19 to describe his death and return to the Father. In Jesus’ prayer, this sanctification is not only for believers, but also for the very world that rejects Jesus and his followers. Jesus prays:

A. Sanctify them in the truth: your word is truth.

B. Just as you sent me into the world,

B’. so also I am sending them into the world.

A’. And on their behalf I am sanctifying myself,

so that they might become ones having been sanctified in truth (author translation).

As we reflect on All Saints Day, 1 John 3:1-3 reminds us of our inclusion in the family of God. We, along with all those confessing and relying on Jesus as God’s Son and Christ—past, present, and future—are “children of God.” Yet, rather than justifying our separation from the world, 1 John (and the Gospel) reminds us that God’s children have a mission: to love.