Lectionary Commentaries for March 7, 2021
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 2:13-22

Alicia D. Myers

At first, John 2:13-22 seems like an odd passage for the Third Sunday in Lent. 

The temple clearing comes much later in the Synoptics, immediately preceding Jesus’s Passion. It is a fitting passage, however, because it describes the temple during a time of preparation. Just as the season of Lent helps Christians prepare for Easter, Jews travelled to Jerusalem early in order to purify themselves for Passover (John 11:55). Christians likewise practice meditation, prayer, and participate in worship throughout Lent. Connecting with the Jews in this way helps us avoid anti-Jewish readings and enables us to reflect on the audacity of Jesus’ actions and claims.

John 2:13-22 follows Jesus’ first sign in Cana, where he turned water into celebratory wine at his mother’s request. Jesus travels to Jerusalem because of Passover and, like other pilgrims, he comes to the temple. John 2:13-15 provides rich detail of the scene. Merchants bustle among their animals, moneychangers busily exchange coins, and pilgrims peruse the stalls, bartering with the tradespeople and seeking priests to complete sacrificial rituals. Moneychangers exchanged denarii into half-shekels so pilgrims could pay the temple-tax, while animals were offered in sacrifices for ritual purity from daily life so they could participate fully in the Passover. Although certainly different, the scene in John 2 is not entirely unlike Christian preparations for Easter. Believers gathered in a holy place, remembering God’s deliverance and seeking to honor God through rituals and repentance.

Yet, rather than praising those gathered, Jesus goes into a rage. Creating his own whip, Jesus chases out the animals, sending the merchants after them. He “pours out the coins” and turns over tables, causing the once “seated” moneychangers to scatter. He commands the dove-sellers: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house an emporium!” (verse 16). Jesus effectively turns the temple court into a tumult of frightened animals and shouting merchants, while pilgrims and priests stand aghast. Why on earth would Jesus stop purification—and why in such a dramatic way? 

The answers to these questions are hinted at in verse 16 and developed in the second half of our passage, verses 17-22. In verse 16, Jesus calls the temple an “emporium,” or a marketplace. Rather than a scene of spiritual preparation, Jesus instead sees a place focused on monetary exchange. Like Old Testament prophets, he challenges the temple economy, questioning whether it was focused more on wealth than prayer. Indeed, the first of the two remembrance asides in verse 17 resonates with this critique. Rather than a maniac come to disrupt worship, Jesus’ disciples understand him to be like the righteous sufferer of Psalm 69: one whose “zeal” for God’s house and statutes made him a target for his enemies (69:9-12). These enemies greatly outnumber him, but he is steadfast in his reliance on God’s deliverance (69:13-15). Praising God in song, the psalmist concludes, is more valuable than “an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs” (69:30-31)! Like Jesus, the psalmist has a different understanding of how one is to prepare for a holy day. Rituals and sacrifices should be done out of true devotion to the Lord (see Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8). Jesus will also face explicit opposition in Jerusalem in later chapters, but he remains fixed on God’s mission for him, even though it leads him to the cross (see John 10:17-18; 12:28; 19:30). In fact, while on the cross Jesus quotes Psalm 69:21, thereby inviting the Gospel audience to remember John 2 (John 19:28). For John, then, Jesus is a righteous sufferer even when—or perhaps especially when—what he does looks outrageous.

The second remembrance in 2:21-22 clarifies Jesus’ ambiguous answer to the Jews in verse 19: “Destroy this sanctuary (naon) and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews’ response in verse 20 is more than reasonable: “This sanctuary (naos) has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?!” What our narrator informs us in verses 21-22 is, as in verse 17, something these characters could not have concluded in the confusion of the moment. According to John, Jesus’ body itself is the sanctuary of God’s presence, not the center of the temple which once held the ark of the covenant. John 2:21-22, therefore, ratchets up the characterization from Psalm 69. Jesus is not just any righteous sufferer; he is the location of God’s glory rather than the temple building in which he stands. Jesus’ disruption of the worship practices, therefore, is God’s own critique. 

Jesus’ connection to the temple in John 2 is a thorough-going Christological position that begins in the Prologue. According to John 1:14-18, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Word, whose dwelling with humanity enables them to see God’s glory and who continues to show them the way to the Father (Exodus 33-34). Jesus’ words in John 1:51 and with the Samaritan woman in 4:21-24 reinforce these ideas. Thus, when Jesus tells Philip that in seeing him, the disciples have seen the Father, we shouldn’t be surprised (John 14:9). For John, when people focus too much on a physical location, they miss out on God’s glory standing right in front of them. Thus, when the Jerusalem leaders worry about the fate of the temple in 11:45-50, John again re-centers our gaze. The Romans will destroy a physical building in 70 CE, but it was their destruction of Jesus’ body, God’s true sanctuary, that was both tragic and the means of God’s greatest revelation (11:51-52; see also 3:14-18; 19:34-37).

As we walk the path to Jerusalem during Lent, we join crowds of pilgrims from millennia before preparing for festivals remembering God’s salvation. But we, too, should be careful lest we miss God’s earth-shattering Word in our midst. Rather than coming to a physical temple, or church building, we need instead to come to Jesus (John 12:9, 20). Worshipping in Spirit and truth wherever we may be, we see God’s glory by remembering God’s love made manifest in Jesus—even when he disrupts our usual plans.


First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17

Kristin J. Wendland

These verses, often called “The Decalogue” or the “Ten Commandments,” are some of the most familiar verses in the Bible and are, in many ways, larger than their context. 

Inscribed on monuments, summarized as the foundation for later law codes, or memorized for the purposes of catechesis, one often encounters an abridged version of this text outside of its narrative context. Preaching on a text so well known and widely used presents both opportunity (familiarity leads to comfort) and challenge (what else can be said?). Focusing on the literary context and some broader themes may provide an entry point.

The literary context presents a larger vision for life as God’s people. Already in the first nineteen chapters of the Exodus narrative, God has seen the people’s suffering (Exodus 3:7-9), shared the divine name with Moses and by extension the Israelites (Exodus 3:13-16), shown power stronger than the Egyptian Pharaoh (Exodus 4-15), led the people across the Red Sea into freedom (Exodus 14-15), and provided food and water in the wilderness (Exodus 16-17). The words in Exodus 20 are spoken into this context in which God and the people have already been in relationship for generations. The LORD, after all, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people have already obeyed some of the LORD’s commands, and God has already acted on their behalf.

People of God

Even without the additional context, it is clear that those addressed in this text are not alone. The first words that God speaks in the passage are words of identification and relationship. I am your God (verse 2; see also verse 5). This is followed by a summary of the most recent salvific work: “I am the one who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” As important as God’s action is, the second-person pronoun is just as important. I am your God; you are the people whom I have saved. These people do not travel alone; they are claimed. 

Secondly, these people are a community. Moses passes the commandments on to the whole of the camp—or at least a large number of people (Exodus 19:25). However individual these words may seem to be—and the commands are grammatically singular—they paint a picture of a community, one in which the name of the LORD will be honored, one in which there will be work and rest in turn, one in which life and faithfulness will be valued. 

God of the people

Exodus 20:1-17 says as much about the God who is speaking as it does about the people who are to take part in this way of life.

First, God works on behalf of God’s people. Once more we return to those opening words, “I am the LORD your God,” the one who saved you, the one who has led you into freedom. It is telling that in the Exodus narrative God’s salvation occurs before the giving of the law. The people have already crossed the Red Sea and are already free from their oppressors. The commands represent a response to God’s action already done.

Secondly, although the values contained in these verses describe the life of the community, they also give insight into the character of the one giving the commands. If life and trust are to characterize the community, then these values belong to that community’s God as well.

The command to not murder (verse 13) is the most obvious statement about the value of life within these verses, though all the commandments, at some level, have to do with this theme. The instruction regarding the Sabbath, for instance, also concerns life (verses 8-11). The reasoning given for keeping this day holy, at least in its Exodus context, is the pattern of creation found in Genesis 1. God’s own pattern of working six days and resting on the seventh serves as the model for the people. One might even think about the adoption of this pattern as a continuation of that creation begun long ago.

One might consider the command to honor one’s father and mother here as well. Not only does this instruction have to do with actions toward those responsible for the origins of one’s life, but the reasoning for the command has to do with long life in the land gifted to the people by God (Exodus 20:12). One can read this as a type of reward or blessing bestowed upon one keeping the law, but there is also a sense that one thing leads to another, that life begets life. 

The commands about not committing adultery, stealing, or coveting have to do largely with matters related to possession. They also have to do with trusting others, whether that be with words, relationships, or possessions.

The theme of trust arises earlier as well in the section concerning the use of the divine name (verse 7). One may recall that the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3 was a long time in coming. Throughout the book of Genesis, God was identified not by name but through relationship with the patriarchs, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jacob was refused knowledge of God’s name, even as he received a new name (Genesis 32:29). Hagar gave God a name, but it was not the name revealed to Moses (Genesis 16:13). Knowing another’s name allows for a certain amount of power. Moses and the Israelites could now act in God’s name. They could misuse it, misrepresent it, or honor it. There was trust involved in allowing them knowledge of the name, and that trust is reflected in the command to not misuse that name.

Exodus 20:1-17 is certainly about command and responsive action. It is a legal text, after all. It is also about relationship—the relationship between God and the people and the relationships envisioned within the community. Attending to the literary context and broader themes offers one way to explore a familiar text.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 19

James Limburg

It was a beautiful September day in Iowa and a group of students had gathered on one of the hills near the college.1

The event was the regular Sunday evening meeting of the Lutheran Student Association (LSA). The LSA met outside during the fall, taking advantage of the beauty of Decorah until the weather turned cold. I attended the sessions regularly, partly because the dining hall was closed on Sunday evening and food was available for 50 cents a plate, and also because I knew that a particular freshman woman was a faithful LSA participant.

The speaker for the evening was the college president. I remember him talking about the two books which told about God and creation. One book was the Bible which he held in his hand. He read from Psalm 19, “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” The other book, he said, was the book of nature. He paused and pointed at the red, green, and yellow trees surrounding us and at the Oneota River moving through the valley below. Those were the two books: the book of Scripture which used words to tell about God and creation and the book of nature which through its own beauty praised God. Such is my first memory of the psalm assigned for this Sunday.

Book I: what the heavens tell (Psalm 19:1-6)

Psalm 19 falls into three parts. The words of part one (verses 1-6) recall the story of creation in Genesis 1, declaring that the heavens and the “firmament” (NRSV footnote “dome”) tell about the glory of God (Genesis 1:6-8). The biblical worldview at that time imagined the earth as flat, covered by a huge, plexiglas-like dome called the “firmament.” Beneath the flat earth was water, as was obvious every time one dug a well. Above the dome was more water, which accounted for the blue of the skies. Openings in the dome allowed the rain to pour through. When the great flood came “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11; see also Psalm 148:4).

Notice that the heavens and the earth are identified as the “handiwork” of God (NRSV; NIV has “work of his hands”). The Hebrew word for God in Psalm 19:1 is El which, like “God” in English, is a generic word for a heavenly being, not the special word for the God of the Hebrews (Yahweh or LORD, as in verses 7-9 and 14). Note also that the heavens and the “dome” are not to be identified as “gods.” Here is neither polytheism, naming the heavenly bodies as gods, nor pantheism, viewing all that exists as “god” or a part of god. Rather, the God of this psalm is the Creator, distinct from creation, and the earth and the heavens—the universe—are “the work of his hands” (NIV).

Psalm 19:4b-6 refer to the sun. Again, the sun is not a heavenly being, a “god” to be worshipped. No, God has created the sun and put it in its place. In the poet’s imagination the sun emerges each day with the freshness and happiness of a bridegroom on the first day of married life. Joyfully it runs its course, from one edge of the dome to the other, like a perpetually jubilant celestial jogger.

Book II: what the scriptures teach (Psalm 19:7-10)

With verse 7, the psalm moves out of metaphor and modulates into a more prosaic key. The focus is no longer on the world and the heavens (verse 4) but on words. The spotlight is no longer on God’s handiwork in space, but on created humans and speech. For the first time the name “Yahweh” (NRSV, LORD) is used for God. The section begins, “The instruction (Hebrew, torah) of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.” The psalm then fires off a series of six statements referring to God’s instruction as found in Scripture. Here are several words used to designate Scripture or Torah: decrees, precepts, commandment, ordinances. These words will revive life and provide wisdom (verse 7) and supply joy and enlightenment (verse 8). The biblical expression “fear of the Lord” (verse 9) refers to respect and trust in the Lord; the expression occurs frequently in Proverbs (1:7; 1:29, etc.).

What are these words of the Lord’s instruction worth? “They are more precious than honey, or even fine gold (10)!” declares the psalmist.

A prayer for telling and teaching (Psalm 19:11-14)

When I took required classes in Bible and in religion at college, the professor always began the class with prayer. The same was true in the classes I attended at the seminary level. When I became a teacher and pastor, I began my biblical classes the same way. Most often I used verse 14 of this psalm as the opening prayer.

Considering Psalm 19 as a whole indicates that it deals with essential themes of biblical faith. The psalm tells of nature’s praise of God the Creator (verses 1-5). It also affirms trust in God the Forgiver (verse 12) and rock-solid Redeemer (verse 14). Finally, the psalm offers an invitation to lead a life directed by God’s torah or teaching (verses 7-10). This final verse of the psalm remains an appropriate prayer for meditating on God’s book of nature, or God’s book of Scripture.

I conclude with some wise words from Professor Claus Westermann in comments on this psalm:

There remain only two alternatives: materialism or faith in the Creator.

Either the stars, the atoms and the earth are only matter—then we human beings must be understood as coming from matter and consisting of matter—or else the sun and earth are related to God just as we are; they are creatures. In that case the ultimate meaning of their existence is the same as that of humans: existing to the praise of God’s glory.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on March 8, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Adam Hearlson

Given Paul’s letters’ dense theological ideas, preachers often find it easy to focus on Paul’s role as the early church’s most influential theologian.

It is no hyperbole to suggest that Paul’s theology set a course for the church that it still travels. Paul’s theology rewards attention, careful study, and patience. The theology unfolds in such elegant ways that it is no wonder that people spend their whole lives chewing on his words. 

Paul’s epistolary literature has such theological wonder that we sometimes forget that Paul was also a pastor. As some of the best pastors I know, Paul can be tender and moody. He has both a bottomless well of compassion and a quick trigger. He gets overjoyed and righteously angry in equal measure. Paul is not an academic in the modern sense. He is not dispassionate and removed. Paul doesn’t care to be unbiased or objective. Instead, he cares deeply and prays fervently for the communities he loves—and Paul loves the church in Corinth. 

It is worth comparing the tone of Paul’s first letter to Corinth with his letter to the Roman community. The letter to the Romans is profound, penetrating, and more than a bit confounding. Paul’s intelligence is on full display. And yet, the letter to the Romans has a coldness to it, a measured directness that comes from only knowing the community tangentially. In contrast, Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth is passionate. The arguments aren’t as well-measured, but what they lack in cohesiveness, they make up for in vibrancy. 

Paul wastes no time before getting to one of his most famous and inspiring dichotomies: wisdom and foolishness. As with most of his letters, Paul is concerned with explaining the consequences—both theologically and communally—of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Christ has initiated a new apocalyptic age, where assumptions about the world are being overturned. Moreover, to be a community of this new age will require reconsidering what identities are valuable. Revaluing these identities is never easy. To be told that the identity that is valuable everywhere else is no longer beneficial in this new age is a bitter pill. Our current period in the U.S. is a clear example of what happens when an identity is revalued. As whiteness has slowly (sloooooooowly) lost some of its privileges, resistance and anger have risen among those who feel the value of whiteness changing.

Anticipating these objections, Paul attempts to explain the new values of God’s eschatological kingdom. On this side of the resurrection, Paul explains, foolishness is more valuable than wisdom. Specifically, the symbol of the cross—a symbol of death and destruction—is the very means through which life has broken into the world. The torture device is now the font of life. Paul knows that this idea makes no earthly sense, and that is his point. The wisdom that attends to the earthly sense of things cannot fully account for the heaven now breaking into the world. 

Paul is well aware of how this sounds to the church in Corinth, but as any true pastor, he is willing to scandalize the community so that they might understand the new values of the apocalyptic world. Paul is calling the church in Corinth to adopt a unique cultural and communal imagination that reconsiders the values that are too often seen as innate and immutable. 

From time to time, the church has believed Paul’s scandalous idea. Near the palatine hill in Rome, there is this remarkable piece of graffiti scrawled into the wall of the dormitory of imperial pageboys. In the depiction, which any Google search will unearth, a Christian boy is mocked for worshipping a crucified man with a donkey’s head. The boy, standing in front of the cross, raises his hand in adoration of this donkey God. Scrawled below the picture are the words: “Alexemenos worships his God.”

This graffiti, as you might suspect, is not a compliment. In antiquity, the donkey was reviled for its stupidity and stubbornness and became the primary metaphor for describing people’s foolishness. Moreover, Christians in ancient Rome were slandered as donkey worshippers (why exactly remains a subject of vigorous scholarly debate), hence the donkey Christ, high upon a cross. 

Yet, in an odd twist, as the Romans insulted each other and Christianity with claims of donkey worship, the Christian tradition began claiming that Joseph and Mary fled with the Christ child to Egypt riding astride a donkey. This image is nowhere in scripture, but the church latched onto it, and the donkey became a symbol of salvation. During the middle ages, the church celebrated the Feast of the Donkey and sang hymns venerating the donkey that carried the holy family to safety and carried Jesus into Jerusalem. 1

The donkey in the hands of Christian interpreters became a symbol of the inverted world order. The donkey God crucified and raised—what a joke! On a cross, the donkey God was designed as a deep insult, poking fun at the foolish Alexemenos and lodging contempt at the faithfulness of backward, absurd worshippers. To the pageboys teasing Alexemenos, the whole story was foolishness. But Alexemenos seems to take Paul’s words to heart. In a room adjacent to the one with the graffiti, another inscription reads “Alexemenos is faithful.” 

Presumably, Alexemenos has the last word. To be faithful is to be foolish but according to Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, to be foolish is wise. In a world turned upside down by the resurrection, in a world that now resides in a perpetual Easter season, it is the fools who now see clearly.

Notes

  1. For a wonderful and lively history of the role of the donkey in Christian liturgy and imagination, see Max Harris, Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).