Lectionary Commentaries for March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:14-21

Alicia D. Myers

Jesus remains in Jerusalem in John 3:1-21, not leaving until verse 22 when he returns to the Judean wilderness, perhaps baptizing (see verses 22 and 26; contradicted by John 4:2). 

John 3:1-21 records a nighttime conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, one of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, a Pharisee by association. Although the passage for this week does not begin until this conversation has moved from dialogue (verses 1-9) to monologue (verses 10-21), understanding the larger context of 3:14-21 is crucial for interpretation. As part of the larger story of Jesus’ first trip to Jerusalem for a Passover festival, John 2:13-3:21 foreshadows Jesus’ later controversies in the Gospel which lead to his final Passover in Jerusalem (John 12-20). In 2:13-3:21 Jesus challenges others to see in him God’s unexpected means of deliverance. 

Jesus and Nicodemus have a far-ranging conversation in John 3, but the most important part for us begins in verse 10. At this point, Jesus takes over speaking and first ridicules Nicodemus’ confusion (or purposeful antagonism) with a derisive comment concerning his being “the teacher of Israel” (verse 10). What follows in verses 11-21 is an expansion on Jesus’s comments in verses 1-9, where he contrasted heavenly and earthly births. In verse 11, Jesus continues with the binary, explaining that Nicodemus’ incomprehension comes from his rejection of “our” testimony and the inaccessibility of heaven for anyone other than “the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (verse 13). If you feel a bit like Nicodemus at this point, wondering what exactly Jesus is talking about, you are not alone! The “we” of verse 11 is a matter of much debate among scholars, but most think it includes Jesus and other witnesses who agree with him in the Gospel of John including John (the Baptist), Scripture (and its various figures and authors), and the Father. Jesus lays out all these witnesses in 5:31-47 during his next visit to Jerusalem. 

The ascending and descending Son of Man in verse 13 leads straight into our passage beginning with verse 14. The close connection is more visible when we read without the break found in most English translations. In fact, when kept together, we can see the parallelism in Jesus’ statements through verse 16:

And no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended out of heaven, 

the Son of Man, 

and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, 

thusly it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up 

so that everyone believing in him might have eternal life,

for thusly God loved the cosmos that he gave his Unique Son, 

so that everyone believing in him might not perish but have eternal life.

Read as a whole, these verses clearly align the Son of Man with God’s Unique Son from John 1:17-18 and 1:51. Sent from God to the cosmos, Jesus’ mission is to give life and light to the cosmos just as at the moment of creation when God uttered life through the Word (John 1:1-5; see also Genesis 1:1). In order to receive this gift, however, humanity must acknowledge its need by looking to Jesus.

This larger context also helps us understand the allusion to Numbers 21 in John 3:14. In Numbers 21, the Israelites grumble against God’s wilderness provisions. To reveal their mistake, the Lord sends poisonous serpents, who bite and kill many Israelites. When they cry out to Moses for intercession, God’s prescription is a mounted serpent set up in the camp. To experience healing, the Israelites must look to the serpent raised above them: that is, they must see the image of their sin and acknowledge their wrongdoing in order to accept God’s gift of life. 

Like this serpent, Jesus’ mission to the world is one of revelation but, as in Numbers, his arrival is a mixture of rescue and punishment. As Jesus continues in John 3:19-21, he uses another image familiar in the Old Testament and the Gospel: light and darkness. Jesus is the “true Light” who came into the world (John 1:9-10); he is Light and Life, but his brightness can be blinding (see John 8:12; 9:39-41). Jesus displays this light first in conversations and later in confrontations with individuals and crowds in the Gospel. While some look upon him and receive his light, most turn away. As he explains in verse 19, “people loved darkness more than the light.” Jesus is never surprised by people in John’s Gospel, but he continually surprises, challenges, and confuses those who see him. They are dumbstruck by the presence of astounding Light in a regular human body (see John 2:20; 8:48-58). 

Jesus’ arrival, therefore, can lead one out of darkness and into light and life, or it can confirm one’s place among the dead. God’s motivation for sending Jesus is not condemnation, but love. God sends Jesus into the camp, and that trip culminates with Jesus’ own exaltation upon a stake: a Roman cross. Lifted high, Jesus’ pierced body demands attention as the narrator’s gaze lingers on this scene in John 19:34-37. Just like the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus’ body, the very location of God’s glory (John 2:21-22), is the most staggering revelation of the gospel. Rather than actively judging, Jesus’ form hangs, to be looked upon by those who dare face the horror of “the sin of the world” that caused the Lamb to die (John 1:29). Yet, rather than despair, this sight is also the place of life, the sign of God’s profound love for creation. Thus, verse 21 ends with hope: “But the one who does the truth comes to the light so that their works might be shined upon, because they are being done by God.” Jesus, the Light of the World, exposes truth all around him. That truth is not all beautiful; most of it is human mistakes, wickedness, and hatred prompted by selfishness and fear (verses 19-20). 

But exposing these failures also means shining a light on God’s unending love and work on our behalf. When we turn our eyes to the Light and accept our failings alongside God’s love, we also see the cross where life is freely given.


First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9

Henry T.C. Sun

Reality bites.1

The book of Numbers from the Hebrew Bible is not well-represented in the lectionary; only three different texts (Numbers 6, 11, and 21) are included. Our text this morning could be preached in a couple of different ways.

As a single textual unit, Numbers 21:4-9 is, with the possible exception of the reference to Mount Hor, a single and coherent unit.2 It follows an easily determined structure based on its dialogical form:

  1. Narrative transition (verse 4a)
  2. Complaint and resolution (verses 4b-9)
  3. Narrative introduction (verse 4b)
  4. Complaint proper: Lack of food and water (verse 5)
  5. First divine response: Punishment via serpent (verse 6)
  6. Repentance and intercession (verse 7)
  7. Second divine response: Instruction and compliance (verses 8-9)

In this context, no one comes off well until the end. The children of Israel become impatient3 and complain4 against God and Moses because they have no food or water (note that the Hebrew word lechem is used twice in this verse5). This represents an escalation in the tradition; previously, the object of the complaint was Moses.6

Moreover, if we extend the textual unit back to include verses 1-3,7 the complaint of the children of Israel gets put into sharper relief. Why? Because in that section, God hears the voice of the Hebrews (verse 3a) and gives the indigenous Canaanites into their hands, so that the Hebrews utterly destroy them (verse 3b). God gives the Hebrews their first military victory in the Promised Land, and their response is to complain about God’s provisions for them.8

In this larger context, Numbers 21:1-9 is structurally identical to Exodus 14-15. In the Exodus text, the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt is finally accomplished (Exodus 14), and Moses, the Hebrews (verses 1-19), and Miriam the prophet (verses 20-21) sing a song of thankful praise. But this moment of thankful praise is followed by the first instance of complaining against Moses, because they had no clean water to drink (verses 22-27).

The complaint in Numbers 21:5 issues in God’s first response: to send snakes into the camps that bit some of the Hebrews who then died. This is not the result that we readers would expect.9 In response, the children of Israel acknowledge that they have sinned against God and Moses, and they ask Moses to intercede on their behalf to God. As a result, God instructs Moses to construct a snake of bronze (or copper) and to put it on a pole, with the promise that everyone who looks at it will live. That is where the narrative ends.

From this point of view, the narrative follows the typical narrative arc: sinful behavior, followed by a negative divine response, then repentance, and finally, divine restoration (see, for example, the cycles in Judges). Those last two elements are particularly relevant to the use of this text in the New Testament lesson for this week, John 3:14-15, where the Son of Man must be lifted up, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The physical gift of healing in Numbers is transformed into the spiritual gift of salvation in John. Looking at the serpent is transformed into believing in the Son of Man, but the same dynamic is clearly at play.

When viewing this passage as part of the Hebrew Bible tradition as a whole, a second vantage point emerges. The serpent is referenced again in 2 Kings 18:4, which tells us that Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” That too has a parallel in the book of Exodus.

While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah, the children of Israel asked Aaron to “make gods (‘elohim) for us, who shall go before us” (verse 2), which is made in verse 3 in the form of a golden calf, and introduced to the Hebrews in verse 4.

This story of the golden calf is widely read as a polemic against the golden calves of the Northern Kingdom (see 1 Kings 12:28-30).10 Both of these objects (the calf of Exodus 32 and the serpent of Numbers 21) share an echo with Israel’s later history.  In this canonical context, the question of historical priority is irrelevant; it does not matter whether an historical Aaron forged an actual golden calf, or whether an historical Moses forged an actual serpent.

What matters instead is the idea that anything, regardless of its origin, can become an idol for the community of faith. It does not matter what the idol is made of or whether the original intention of the created thing was good, pure, or even salvific. Those things in our lives that represent God’s saving action in human history can all too often replace God instead.11

From this vantage point, Numbers 21 challenges us to consider what our idols are. As I write this in late 2020, have we elevated in-person worship to an idol, like the bronze serpent that saved the Hebrews if they would but look at it? What about a conservative Supreme Court majority? What about the other things that started life as an expression of faithfulness but became the be-all and end-all of that faith? A stance on abortion or a woman’s right to choose? Or gay marriage? Or school integration? Or Black Lives Matter? Or the Second Amendment? Or anything else?

This larger canonical context of Numbers 21 together with Exodus 32, 1 Kings 12, and 2 Kings 18 reminds us how easily our ideals become our idols. Further, it challenges us to be ever vigilant about our primary commitment to the risen Savior and our secondary commitments to everything else.


Notes

  1. “Reality Bites,” a 1994 romantic comedy starring Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, and Ben Stiller.
  2. For example, Philip J. Budd, Numbers (WBC 5 [Waco: Word, 1984]), 233. The reference to Mount Hor is often seen as a piece of redaction, but I am not certain about that; see note 7 below.
  3. watiqtsar [BDB 894; see also Job 21:4; Judges 10:16; 16:16; Micah 2:7; Zechariah 11:8].
  4. wayedabber be [BDB 181 translates to speak “against,” with a sense of “hostility”; see also Numbers 12:1, 8; Job 19:18; Psalm 50:20; 78:19].
  5. For example, Exodus 15:24; 16:2 [Moses and Aaron, as in Numbers 14:2]; 17:2; Numbers 20:3. Note that in Numbers 11:1, 4 the complaint is not explicitly addressed against any specific individual.
  6. Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (JPS Torah Commentary [New York:  JPS, 1989]), 173 thinks that the second use of lechem contradicts the first, but that is unnecessary; see, e.g., De Regt and Wendland, A Handbook on Numbers (Miami:  United Bible Societies [2016], 457 “Here the Israelites exaggerate by saying there is no food to eat or water to drink, and then they complain about the quality of their food.”
  7. Num 21:1-3 is almost certainly a secondary insertion in its present literary context.  The reference to Mount Hor in 21:4 hearkens back to 20:22-29.  See, e.g., George Buchanon Gray, Numbers (ICC; Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1903), 272; Martin Noth, Numbers (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 154; Budd, Numbers, 230.
  8. Timothy Ashley, Numbers (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 402.
  9. Baruch A. Levine, Numbers (YABC; New Haven; Yale University Press, 2000), 87:  “God is entirely punitive in response to the complaints of the people.”  Elizabeth Webb’s treatment of the troubling aspects of this text is superb; see https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1225 (accessed 26 November 2020).
  10. Note the following sources: Brevard S. Childs, Exodus (OTL; Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1974), 560; Thomas Dozeman, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 686-87; Martin Noth, Exodus (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 246. An alternative view is offered by John I. Durham, Exodus (WBC; Waco: Word, 1987), 420.
  11. Levine, Numbers, 90: “expressing the attitude of zealous monotheists of that period to the effect that any iconic symbol is susceptible to degeneration.”

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Rolf Jacobson

The appointed psalm comprises two sections of the lengthy song of thanksgiving, Psalm 107. A quick overview of the entire psalm will be helpful to understanding this portion. (For once I do NOT suggest doing the whole psalm.)

The entire psalm consists of an introduction followed by six stanzas. The first four of these stanzas follow a common structure.

The introduction is a standard call to praise—“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” But then a certain type of person—“the redeemed” that God has “redeemed from trouble”— is called to praise. And they are described as those:

           He gathered in from the lands,
              From the east and from the west,
              From the north and from the south (verse 3)

Then follow the four formulaic stanzas, which share a common structure:

Stanza 1   Those gathered from desert wastes
Stanza 2   Those gathered from darkness, gloom, and prison
Stanza 3   Those gathered from sin, illness, and hunger
Stanza 4   Those gathered from the sea

Here is a brief look at the common pattern that structures these four stanzas:

  • “Some were….” [a dire “trouble” is named]
  •  The trouble is described
  • “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble”
  • “And he saved them from their distress”
  • The rescue is described
  • “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind”
  • A closing word of praise

Each of the groups of people who are in trouble and then redeemed from their trouble in these stanzas can be likened to a group of pilgrims, rescued and gathered in by the Lord to worship and praise in Jerusalem. In the first stanza, one thinks of the Exodus and those who were wandering in desert wastes. In the second stanza, one thinks of the Exile and those who were caught in the Exile, in the gloom of forced labor and bondage. Skipping ahead to the fourth stanza, one thinks of those caught in storms at sea—especially one thinks of Jonah and the righteous gentiles who were caught with him in the storm.

The foolish pilgrims: “Some of you were sick because you’d lived a bad life”

In the third stanza—which is the appointed psalm text for this Sunday—we immediately run into a major translation problem. The NRSV reads, “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction.” The NIV, by contrast, reads, “Some became fools through their rebellious ways, and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.”

The Hebrew word in question—‘ewilim—simply means “fools.” The NIV offers the straightforward translation. NRSV “corrects” to the text—changing ‘ewilim to cholim, “sickly ones,” but it does so without external textual support. This correction is both unnecessary and without support—it also obscures the theological point that the stanza seems to be making: sometimes our sin is that we are stubbornly foolish. And when we are, our foolishness can lead to our own suffering. Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message Bible captures the sense well: “Some of you were sick because you’d lived a bad life, your bodies feeling the effects of your sin. You couldn’t stand the sight of food, so miserable you thought you’d be better off dead.”

The psalmist reports that these foolishly sick ones then cried to the Lord in their trouble and he saved them from their distress.

“He sent out his word and healed them”

The description of God’s saving help for this group of pilgrims is fascinating: “He sent out his word and healed them.” The phrase “sent out his word” (dabar) is as enticing as it is mysterious. What could it look like for God to send out the word? Similar phrases occur a few other places in the psalms and once in Isaiah, always in the context of the Lord’s sovereignty over creation:

He sends out his command (‘imrah) to the earth;
        his word (dabar) runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
        he scatters frost like ashes.
He hurls down hail like crumbs—
        who can stand before his cold?
He sends out his word (dabar), and melts them;
        he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow. (147:15-18)

Praise the LORD from the earth,
        you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
        stormy wind fulfilling his command (dabar)! (148:7-8)

These phrases in Psalms 107, 147, and 148 call to mind the creation story in Genesis 1, in which God creates by speaking the creation into being. A phrase in Psalm 104 also comes to mind: “you send forth your spirit, [living things] are created” (verse 30). One also thinks of the famous passage in Isaiah 55, where the prophet likens God’s Word to the rain that falls from heaven and does not return until it has accomplished the thing God intended it to do.

These similar phrases in other passages help one imagine what the psalm means when it says, “he sent out his word and healed them.”

The “word” here most likely refers to God’s power to sustain creation from moment to moment. The Lord speaks the word and creation bursts into being. The Lord speaks the word and blizzards rage with snow and hail and wind. But the Lord speaks again and snow and hail melt.

The pilgrims who were sick in Psalm 107 spoke a word of prayer, crying to the Lord in their foolish suffering. The Lord spoke the word and they were healed.

What then? Well, following the logic, another kind of word is necessary—the word of praise: “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works.” But also a word of witness: “Let them tell of his deeds with songs of joy.”

The Word made flesh

Because the Gospel reading for this Sunday comes from John, one final intertextual connection seems appropriate. The Gospel of John says that Jesus himself is the Word made flesh and connects Christ the Word with all creation. It feels appropriate to lay John 1:1-4 out as if it were a psalm:

In the beginning was the Word,
  And the Word was with God,

And the Word was God.
  He was in the beginning with God.
  All things came into being through him,
  And without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being in him was life,
  and the life was the light of all people.

A friend of mine often says, “God has spoken a word of love and life to all creation. His name is Jesus.” I believe it is not too much of an exegetical stretch to think of Jesus as we sing or recite the word of Psalm 107: “He sent out his word and healed them.” Let them thank the Lord.

 


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 2:1-10

Adam Hearlson

The second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians begins with the strange indicative phrase, “you were dead.” 

It’s worth sitting with this idea for a moment. Presumably, those who were once dead but are no longer dead would be aware of their previous death. Being dead is a reasonably significant experience (I presume. I have never died). The presumption of death is a bold statement from the author of Ephesians (likely not Paul, but someone Paul-ish). On the whole, people don’t like being called dead, even when suggesting that they were formerly dead. And yet, death in all of its iterations is necessary to understand the depth of the author’s point: any consideration of grace requires, as a prerequisite, a reflection on death. 

The New Testament has a complicated vision of death. Death is at once an enemy and, as Christ suggests, how we experience new life. By dying, we live. For the author of Ephesians, death is an inward reality of human existence. The ground of being is so salted by sin that nothing grows. Death is not just a biological event. In the author’s mind, death is the slow decomposition of what was once vital and full of possibility. According to this schema, death can be, and often is, a gradual process. Miracle Max is right in principle when he explains to Fezzik and Inigo Montoya that you can be “mostly dead.”1 Moreover, death is also alluded to as a place complete with a set of practices and a ruler. Death is not merely a process; it is a land through which we all walk.

The question assumed by the author is whether we would prefer to stay citizens of that land or find new life in a new realm. Pay attention to how salvation is described in this passage. The saved are “raised up and seated.” The image of salvation is one of retrieval. Christians are rescued from a land of death and afforded the opportunity to sit beside Christ in eschatological perpetuity. The contrast is striking, intentionally so. Convincing people that God’s promised future is preferable to the present tense of sin has always been difficult. This is why it is so essential that the author of Ephesians meet this talk of sin and death with a word about grace. 

It is grace that diverts us from the shame and sin of the land of death into the very presence of God. It is God’s grace that retrieved us from our wanderings and our trespasses. By considering the real consequence of sin and death, the reader is prepared to hear the most miraculous good news: God’s grace saves. Moreover, it is by receiving this grace (freely given, never out of obligation) that we come to realize the genuine peril of our deathly sojourn and our powerlessness to find a path to safety. That realization is, as the text says, immeasurably rich. Surrounded by these riches, the Christian realizes their true worth, not as one who is failing toward death, but as one basking in the light of God. 

Jesuit priest Greg Boyle tells a story about being a young priest sent to Bolivia’s mountains to lead the Mass. Boyle’s Spanish was poor, and his Quechua, the indigenous language, was worse than poor. As he starts climbing the mountain, he realizes he doesn’t have the words to the Mass and can’t say the Mass in Spanish, let alone Quechua. So he fanatically searches through his Spanish Bible to find the phrase “take and eat.” 

Everyone meets in a field with a little makeshift altar in the center. After the sermon, Boyle stands to lead the Mass. It’s a disaster. When he runs out of words, he just kind of puts the bread above his head. He is despondent. In the midst of his throes of self-pity, an aging woman approaches him with a health worker. The health care worker says that the woman hasn’t given a confession in ten years. Boyles nods, and suddenly, the woman unloads ten years of sins in a language he can’t understand. She speaks for thirty minutes. By the time he coughs up some words of absolution, he turns to see everyone is gone. His ride even left. And he is left with his failure at the top of a mountain, convinced that he is the worst priest that ever lived. 

Boyle picks up his backpack and starts to hoof it back down the mountain when he spies an old farmer walking toward him. The farmer is wearing tattered clothes, a rope for a belt, and his feet are caked in Bolivian mud. “Tatai,” he says, which is Quechua for “Father,” and motions Boyle to come close. As the young priest bends, the old campesino reaches into his coat pockets and retrieves a handful of rose petals. He then drops them all over Boyle’s head. He digs into his pocket and grabs more and then more. The petals fall and fall and fall. 

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, this is not your own doing, but is a gift from God.”


Notes

    1. The Princess Bride has surprising theological depth.