Lectionary Commentaries for February 17, 2021
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

James Howell

Ash Wednesday. I always tell myself and fellow clergy that they do not come for the homily.

They come for the ashes. With coronavirus, will they come at all? Self-administration of ashes? If they come, or if we are virtual somehow, I still love the great reflection Martin Sheen offered when interviewed by Krista Tippett: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”1

Matthew 6 is perfect yet terribly odd for Ash Wednesday. Jesus tells us not to practice our piety visibly (verse 1), and not to disfigure our faces but to wash them (verse 16)—on the very day we disfigure our faces publicly. Nobody at my place is showing off, though, sporting ashes for the rest of the day. If anything, they will get some strange stares at the store on the way home.

When I get home, I try to take some time to linger before a mirror—to ponder that I have just been marked with the horror and hope of Jesus’ cross. No hymn captures so thrillingly the paradox of this horror and hope as Isaac Watts’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” We “survey” the cross. We do not just glance at it. The soldiers did not survey this one. They had seen plenty of crosses, and had no reason to think this was God. All they saw was a dying, despised person—which was precisely what God was hoping to achieve. More lines in that hymn bear reflection: “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Onlookers saw tragedy, maybe justice mingled.

“Did e’er … thorns compose so rich a crown?” At Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown on her head. It was heavy, forged of 22 karat gold, with 444 precious stones, aquamarines, topazes, rubies, amethysts, and sapphires. She then knelt to receive the body and blood of our Lord. Did she ponder Jesus’ very different crown, its only ornaments those harsh thorns gashing his forehead, scalp, and temples?

“My richest gain I count but loss.” Lent is the season to reassess what has value, what does not, and how much we offer up to God. Do we urge our people to embark on a fast? It is not dieting. It is not being glum and feeling sorry for ourselves. It is solidarity with those who are not choosing to fast. It is weaning ourselves from our dependencies on things. It is an awakening to where our treasure is.

Where are the “Take the Bible literally!” people when it comes to “Do not lay up treasure on earth” (verse 19)? We prudently save, we check our retirement portfolios, we pay off the house. No use castigating the people or ourselves. It is a mark of our brokenness, our desperate need for the true God. The ashes are like that mark on Cain’s forehead. It is guilt and grace.

And so we invite people into (hopefully) a growing devotion, a loosening of our grip on our treasures, an expansion of God and grace into daily life. Here is something we did a few years back. At the Baptism of the Lord, we handed out shower tags (we got the idea, and even purchased the tags from Adam Hamilton!), which you hang in the bath: “Lord, as I enter the water to bathe, I remember my Baptism. Wash me by your grace, fill me with your Spirit, renew my soul. I pray that I might live as your child today, and honor you in all that I do.”

On Ash Wednesday, we picked up on Matthew 6 and handed out closet tags. Jesus said “Go into your closet to pray” (verse 6). The Greek tameion is an inner room of the house, a storeroom, small and private—reminding us of the need for a dedicated holy space at home. I love this—that if you go into your closet and pray, you are doing God’s will! Picking up on other clothing images in Scripture, here is how that tag reads: “Jesus said, ‘Go into your closet and pray in secret; and your Father will reward you.’ So pray. Prepare for your day with God. As you dress, remember Romans 14:8, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,’ and Colossians 3:12, ‘Put on compassion, patience, forgiveness, love—and be thankful. Whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.’”

Two more items while we are on Matthew 6. Jesus says “When you pray,” not “If you pray”—and he was assuming three set times of prayer as was common Jewish practice then and now. When Will Willimon was Dean of Duke Chapel, he told about a Muslim student who asked him, “Why don’t the Christian students ever pray?” He obviously observed the five set daily times for prayer in Islam, and was puzzled that he never ever saw Christians stopping to pray. It is a judgment call whether you can mention this to your people. I think it is compelling, and inviting—but some folks have such potent, irrational anti-Muslim feelings that they will shut down on you.

And then Jesus talks about “reward,” shunning earthly reward, but implying quite clearly there are rewards, ultimate rewards to the life of faith. I for one downplay this, remembering a very smart college student who asked me if he could become a Christian if he did not believe in eternal life. His angle was that he wanted to follow Jesus just because it was good, right, noble and true, not to secure any prize for himself. I admire that—but quite clearly the Gospels and Epistles lay out for us fabulous, unspeakably fantastic rewards, or ultimate realities, for those who believe.


  1. Krista Tippett, “Martin Sheen—Spirituality of Imagination,” On Being with Krista Tippett, https://onbeing.org/programs/martin-sheen-spirituality-of-imagination-jun2017/.

First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Kristin J. Wendland

Blow the shophar.

The blowing of the shophar, or ram’s horn (NRSV: trumpet), was a signal for a number of things in ancient Israel, including: 

  • military movement (for example Judges 3:27; 6:34; 2 Samuel 2:28) 
  • to announce victory in battle (1 Samuel 13:3) or
  • to acknowledge the anointing of a king (2 Samuel 15:10; 1 Kings 1:34; 2 Kings 9:13). 

The day of the LORD

In Joel 2:1, the shophar introduces a battle scene, much of which is cut from the assigned reading on Ash Wednesday (verses 3-11). The battle is described as the “Day of the LORD,” an apocalyptic vision of divine vengeance in which all that runs counter to God will be destroyed (as in Joel 1:15, 2:1, 11; 3:4; 4:14; Isaiah 13:6, 9; Ezekiel 13:5; Amos 5:18-20; Obadiah 15; Zechariah 1:7, 14-16). While this event was sometimes envisioned as one enacted upon Israel’s enemies, here the people of Judah receive the warning themselves. The shophar is blown not in enemy territory but in Zion, on the LORD’s own holy mountain. 

The text does not say what led to the announcement of the coming Day of the LORD. Unlike the majority of prophets who prophesy about injustice, idolatry, political affairs, or a mixture of all these and more, Joel is largely silent concerning the reasons for his prophecy. Likewise, the exact social setting of the book of Joel is unknown, though the content is broadly familiar. Judah’s experiences, whether a locust invasion as described in chapter one or a military incursion as described in chapter two, are associated with Judah’s own action. Thus, Joel calls for repentance. With the particulars lost to the dustbin, the stylistic remains of Joel’s call to repentance may actually speak more clearly to a contemporary audience. Much like confessing “things done and left undone” as in one version of corporate confession of sin, the non-specificity of Joel’s prophecy allows one to contemplate one’s own proclivity to turn away from God—and likewise one’s own need for repentance.

Yet even now…

Regardless of the occasion for Joel’s prophecy, it is neither sin nor divine wrath that have the final word. “Yet even now,” as it says in verse 12, even in the face of destruction, there is the possibility of a very different future. The people need only return—with fasting, weeping, mourning, and broken hearts. Their God is, as the confession states, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (see also Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Psalms 86:5, 15; 103:8; 145:8; John 4:2). Their God is not, by nature, one who punishes or delights in distress. 

In verse 3, one of the verses not read, the opposing army tore up the metaphoric garden of Eden, leaving behind a land devoid of life and creative possibility. The vision held out in verses 12-17 renews the possibility of such a garden, of a place where God and people will live in peace and joy. Perhaps God will give them this future.

A day of repentance

When the shophar blows again in verse 15, it announces a different type of gathering. Instead of a battle, the horn calls for a fast. Instead of mustering the troops, the sound gathers together the whole community, young and old alike. 

While everyone in a community would have experienced the horrors of a battle such as is described in verses 1-11, not everyone in the community would have been called up to military service, such being the domain, primarily, of able-bodied men. Rather, those listed in verse 16 would have been exempt from such service. The elders (NRSV: aged) and the children certainly would not have been conscripted. According to Deuteronomy 24:5, the bridegroom, too, would have had a year’s exemption from military service. All are included in this gathering, however. The sound of this shophar calls even the nursing child and the bride to fast in repentance. All are part of this assembly. One might call to mind the action of marking an infant with an ashen cross during the Ash Wednesday liturgy, knowing that the child has done nothing specific to warrant either repentance or redemption but is so marked by virtue of being part of the human community.


Verse 17 includes a portion of the rubric for the priests as they intercede between the people and their God. The words call on God to be faithful to divine promises, to act in accordance with God’s own character. There is an inheritance to consider, a heritage (verse 17). Some translations read “possession” here or even “property.” The priests remind God—and also, by extension, the people—that the land where they stand is but a gracious gift, an undeserved inheritance. More than that, the people themselves are God’s own possession, God’s own people. Will God give that up? Not a God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The words of the priests further suggest to God that the divine reputation is at stake. In language reminiscent of some of the psalms (Psalms 79:10; 115:2; see also Deuteronomy 9:26-28), the priests ask what the others will think if God’s own people are destroyed. Merciful action is touted as not only consistent with God’s character but as an opportunity to display divine mercy and power to the nations.

As I write this in December 2020, worship gatherings such as the fast described in this passage seem almost impossible to imagine. Many congregations continue to refrain from communal gatherings in response to the Coronavirus, and this Ash Wednesday likely looks quite different than in the past. This could be a year when the auditory nature of this text is helpful. An instrumental sound—like the sound of the shophar—might make use of a sense other than touch as the community again examines themes of repentance, mercy, and redemption.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Eric Mathis

On Ash Wednesday, people in churches, homes, and streets all over the world will receive ashes, beginning a 40-day period the Christian tradition calls Lent.1

Lent is really a journey that takes all of us to a beautiful destination—resurrection morning—but before we can get there, we have to journey, and we have to journey with our sin, the sin that eventually caused Christ shame, torture, and death.

This particular leg of the journey is more like a restless night that is empty, lonely, and downright uncomfortable because we all know that “resurrection begins not with triumphantly toppled stones, empty tombs, and the masses agape in amazement, but before that. With death. With woundedness and mourning and betrayal, things done and undone, with understanding that dust and disaster and deceit are where we’ve landed.”2

Overview of Psalm 51

Psalm 51 is a familiar picture of dust, disaster, and deceit at this point in the liturgical year. It falls in the typical category of a Psalmist voicing a lament or complaint to God. What is unusual about this Psalm, however, is that the complaint is lodged over and against the Psalmist’s own sinfulness—not someone else. Of the seven penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), Psalms 38 and 51 are the only two that focus explicitly on confessing sin.3

A dramatic Psalm, names in the heading tell most readers familiar with biblical narratives all they need to know: David, Nathan, Bathsheba. Anyone who knows about the grouping of these three characters will add Uriah as a fourth actor and jump to conclusions that the sin behind Psalm 51’s confession was David’s murder and affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba (1 Samuel 11—1 Kings 1). Although the heading itself may have been added at a later date, in the end the David and Bathsheba story is more about God’s grace and forgiveness and God’s willingness to offer second chances to David. Like the David and Bathsheba story, Psalm 51 is more about the grace of God than the failure of humanity, and this is good news to all of us who stand in a long line of sinners.

God’s character and human frailty

Psalm 51:1-17 can be dissected into four sections: verses 1-6 which address God’s character and human frailty, verses 7-12 which plead forgiveness and restoration, verses 13-15 which look expectantly toward reconciliation, and verses 16-17 which offer closing thoughts on sin, sacrifice, and repentance. In the opening, the psalmist immediately appeals to God whose character is steadfast love and abundant mercy (verse 1), and admits to personal sin, transgression, iniquity, and evil (verses 2-3). The sin the psalmist describes may be “willful rebellion,” “personal guilt,” or “injurious effects,” but its most significant characteristic is that the sin was not only against humanity but also against YHWH (verse 4). Through the psalmist’s vulnerability, we are reminded that none of us can escape sin (verse 5). It is not biological or hereditary, but we are born with its accompanying guilt. Yet, God desires that all of us be faithful, and any turn toward faithfulness—whether inward or outward—suggests that sin never gets the final word in God’s desires (verse 6).

Verses 7-12 include prayers for cleansing. “Purging” and “washing” may refer to ritual activity (verse 7), but they most likely imply that only by God’s work can the psalmist be transformed to hear joy and gladness that lead to rejoicing (verse 8). The centerpiece of the Psalm begins with verse 11, arguably the most often quoted portion of the Psalm. The verb “create” is a sparsely used verb in the Old Testament, and it is reserved for “the sovereign power God exercises in doing something impossible.”4 While “create” does not refer to the creation of the world, it does echo prayers where God’s transforming power was referenced with a situation where someone’s life depended on it (for example, Moses and Israel in Exodus 34) or where God’s creative work involved doing a new thing (see Isaiah 60-65). It is clear that the psalmist’s situation demands both (verses 11-12).

The suppliant begins to imagine life after restoration, and vows to change his personal ways. Here, “the reconciled will bear the message of reconciliation” (verse 13) no matter what penalty may be incurred as a result (verse 14).5 Furthermore, the transformation produced internally through contrition and forgiveness will produce an external response as the tongue, lips, and mouth voice the praise of YHWH (verse 15). Contrition and brokenness are both more important than ritual activity to YHWH, and the psalmist commits to make good and deliver as that which will be acceptable (verses 16-17).

Preaching the psalm on Ash Wednesday

It was Martin Luther who said of Psalm 51, “A knowledge of this psalm is necessary and useful in many ways. It contains instruction about the chief parts of our religion, about repentance, sin, grace, and justification, as well as about the worship we ought to render to God. These are divine and heavenly doctrines. Unless they are taught by the great Spirit, they cannot enter the heart of man.”6

The easy way for all of us to journey the next forty days would be to travel lightly without knowledge of this Psalm, ignoring and hiding the unpolished places of our lives. Thanks be to God that we aren’t allowed to do that. Not in Lent. This season teaches us that if we hide all of our imperfections, we cheapen the potential for personal and corporate renewal, restoration, and resurrection.

Is there good news to be found sitting and standing in the death, woundedness, mourning, and betrayal that comes with the dying of self on Ash Wednesday? It’s difficult to find, be sure, but Psalm 51 is one of those bold and courageous prayers that contains all the promise we need to begin the process of reconciliation, renewal, and restoration this season offers us.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 10, 2016.
  2. Joy Jordan-Lake, Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Ten Alarming Words of Faith (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), 2.
  3. John Goldingay, “Psalm 51,” in Psalms, Volume 2: 42-89, ed. Tremper Longman, III, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 366-124.
  4. Goldingay, 133.
  5. McCann, 886.
  6. Martin Luther, Selected Psalms, in Luther’s Works, vols. 12-14 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1974-1976), 12:305.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Yung Suk Kim

Reconciliation is the central theme in 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10. 

Paul urges the Corinthians to be reconciled to God, following the way of Christ and his faithfulness. Since they are reconciled to God through Christ, they should remember what Christ has done for them and represent him in their ministry of reconciliation. As ambassadors for Christ, they must know and thank Christ’s life-risking faith as well as God’s grace. They are also expected to go through all hardships (2 Corinthians 6:4-5), cultivating necessary virtues (2 Corinthians 6:6-7), trusting the extraordinary power of God in all circumstances (2 Corinthians 6:8-10). 

Be reconciled to God

In 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, Paul states: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” The whole point of reconciliation is that one can be reconciled to God through Christ. The phrase “anyone in Christ” in verse 17 is a modal dative case, meaning that one must follow the way of Christ. “In Christ” does not denote mere membership in the church; rather, it is a way of life rooted in Christ. 

As long as one stays in Christ, following his footsteps, there is a new creation or a new life, which is given to those who live by the faithfulness of Christ. Reconciliation takes place when one turns to God, changing their mind by the example of Christ’s faithfulness and his grace for the world. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

He made him to be sin who knew no sin 

In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus challenged the status quo of society and because of that, he was treated like a sinner, ending up on the cross. This image of Jesus being condemned as a sinner is well expressed in Romans 8:3-4: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Jesus did not commit crimes and he did not know sin. His radical challenge to the power/wisdom of the world and his commitment to God’s righteousness and social justice brought him to death. But through the righteous act of Jesus, God’s wisdom—not the wisdom of the world—and God’s strength—not the strength of the world—are demonstrated.

1 Corinthians 1:23-25 evokes the image of Christ crucified that has to do with challenging the world: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Jesus revealed who God is and did not spare his life for demonstrating God’s justice; he did all this great work for humanity (“for our sake”). Paul’s relentless hope in God is based on Christ’s faith and his grace, as implied in Galatians 2:20: “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

Paul’s hope in God through Christ guarantees him to live with the extraordinary power belonging to God, as he says in 2 Corinthians 4:8-12: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” 

Then, in 2 Corinthians 5:21b, Paul writes, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” As seen above, he means those who follow the spirit of Jesus may embody the righteousness of God (that is, God’s righteousness). In other words, the Corinthians should not take God’s grace lightly (2 Corinthians 6:1) and they must live a new life every day. 

The acceptable time and the day of salvation

For Paul, the present time is a drastic moment that God is present, the Holy Spirit is with people, and salvation is effective in everyday life. Indeed, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” While salvation will be completed on the Parousia, it starts in the here and now. They should not waste time because, until the Parousia, they must proclaim God’s good news to many people through the way of Christ.   

As servants of God

As servants of God, working as ambassadors for Christ, the Corinthians must know that they are not immune to all hardships. As Christ went through thorny roads for demonstrating God’s righteousness, they also will face such harsh roads ahead. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:4-5: “but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”

At the same time, the Corinthians must cultivate virtues, trusting God, as in 2 Corinthians 6:6-7: “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.” 

Likewise, they should believe in the extraordinary power of God in all circumstances, as 2 Corinthians 6:8-10 (see also 2 Corinthians 4:7-12) says: “in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”