Lectionary Commentaries for October 31, 2021
Reformation Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder

In her novel Caul Baby, Morgan Jerkins tells the story of a family’s lucrative business in selling caul. Caul is a thickened layer of skin found on babies born within an intact uterine sac. In the narrative a college student experiences an unwanted pregnancy and gives birth to a caul-bearing baby girl. With the aid of her uncle, the new mother gives her infant to this prominent but shunned caul-peddling family. All of the events occur on October 31st. The child is named “Hallow.” According to the matriarch, Hallow is to continue the caul legacy and reposition the ancestral corporation for the future.

Reformation Sunday calls to liturgical memory the significance of October 31st. Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg on this day in 1517. He contested the business of indulgences as sanctioned by Pope Leo X and the Catholic Church. It was the poor who had the most “skin” to lose in this ecclesial business. Indulgences offering forgiveness of sin were sold and purchased often to the financial detriment and hardship of the oppressed and marginalized. To finance St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Catholic Church peddled peace in purgatory, enticing the de-centered to forsake their present homes for a future heavenly realm. Here was exploitation of social status for spiritual gain through capital means.

In the Gospel of John there is another triangulation. John 8:31-36 points to a spiritual conversation that is reimagined through a social lens, while becoming shrouded in genealogical speak. To begin, chapter 8 is a rather peculiar section in that it starts with a pericope scholars speculate was perhaps not originally included in the original text. The woman caught in adultery (verses 1-11) introduces a story that includes one of Jesus’ several “I am” or ego eimi statements (verse 12). He moves from the present to talking about his future death (verse 21).

The interlocutors in the chapter make for more intrigue. Jesus speaks to a woman, to Pharisees (verse 13), the Jews or Judeans (verse 22), and finally to “Jews who had believed in him” (verse 31). It is the dialogue with the latter where the spiritual-social-genealogical triad is more pronounced. 

Before expounding on the last dialogue partner, a brief although significant treatment of “the Jews” is important. There are hints of anti-Semitism in the Gospel of John due in part to the term “the Jews” or oi ‘Ioudaioiοi. In many instances this group is a foil to Jesus and his disciples. However, as the Gospel’s context reveals an intra-Jewish conflict in the early second century CE, “the Jews” could be a reference to persons within said community who did not believe Jesus to be the messiah. Additionally, as noted in John 9, synagogue access was wedded to such belief. Thus, John records, “…they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (verse 22). Rather than strictly interpreting oi Ioudaioi as “the Jews,” employing “the Judeans” points to the journey motif of the Gospel. Jesus makes three Passover itineraries and often travels from Galilee to Judea.

His second trip to Jerusalem is the setting for Jesus’ conversation with “Jews who had believed in him” (verse 31). Jesus offers a playbook for being his disciples, a playbook with X’s and O’s of his word and truth leading to freedom. His listeners mistake Jesus’ proffering spiritual liberty for social or political manumission. 

Oddly and wrongly enough the new believers contend that as Abraham’s seed they have never been slaves. It seems that they have forgotten they are not only descendants of Abraham, but also of his son, Isaac, grandson, Jacob and his great-grandson, Joseph, who ends up in Egypt. It is in Egypt that the Israelites were enslaved. Nevertheless these interlocutors contend that their genealogical stance does not warrant the need for any social deliverance. They are missing the spiritual, or rather, eternal point.

To press the concept of spiritual freedom through his word, Jesus lifts a sociological example of the rights of the son of the house versus those of the slave of the house. Using a pun, Jesus reveals that the son/Son can set the believer, progeny of Abraham or not, free. To usurp their ancestral claim, Jesus purports the believers should do what his Father has told them to do (verse 38).

In Caul Baby, Hallow reframes the family caul business. Initially she does what the matriarch tells her to do. Yet in the end, she decides her task is otherwise: she is to reimagine what it means to have skin in the game. Hers is the opportunity to reform what it means to sacrifice Black women’s bodies for another’s good. 

Reformation Sunday reminds the Church of Luther’s efforts in reforming ecclesial duty and responsibility. This day calls to remembrance the cost the poor have paid, the cost of their financial skin, at the hands of material greed and for the sake of eternal solace.

May we come to know the truth so the truth will make us free.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Corrine Carvalho

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is such a beautiful text for Reformation Sunday! In many ways, what Luther envisioned flows from this description of a new covenant, one embedded in the goodness of the human person that is unmatched by the insufficient outward obedience to external laws, an interiority which is not achieved by human effort but is gifted through grace.

But just like the “cheap grace” that results from misunderstanding Luther’s theological system, the depth of biblical texts like these can be missed. Jeremiah does not offer cheap grace, but rather a radical reorientation of human persons.

A covenant is a relationship, pure and simple. It is a commitment that creates a bond between at least two parties that usually involves expectations, limitations, and trust. It is tempting to hear the proclamation of this text from Jeremiah and focus on the trust, the bond, the mutuality. It is a little like listening to the exchange of vows at a wedding and thinking that some magical process has occurred that enacts a relationship that is actually merely promised. It ignores the enactment of that bond.

Jeremiah 31 contains intersecting elements of covenant relationships that can be easily missed in its dreamy ideal. I want to focus on three of those: 

  • Covenants affect more than the parties involved because they create new interconnections between and among pre-existing communities
  • A covenant needs to be internalized to be effective 
  • Covenants place parameters on behavior; they have their own internal logic that can be expressed in legal metaphors.

These three elements are present in this short biblical passage, and they are still part of the new covenant of Luther’s Reformation.

The audience that this ancient text addresses is one whose identity is formed by a common communal past, one symbolized by God’s deliverance of their ancestors from systemic oppression and the shaping of that community through the constitution revealed on Mount Sinai. This foundational event, however, just like the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses, or more appropriately, Christ’s death on the cross, did not guarantee that the community stayed true to the vision of a community that had learned the lessons of systemically unjust labor practices or the depth of divine self-giving love. 

The sins that Jeremiah 31 refers to include Israel’s own mistreatment of those within their covenant community through an economic system that maintained hegemonic authority among a small group of elites. The book of Jeremiah pays special attention to those who benefitted from the monarchic system: kings, priests, court prophets, and elders. The author has lost hope that humans can sustain a systemically ideal society.

Luther’s principle of faith alone mirrors Jeremiah’s law written on the heart, in other words, an interiority that re-orientates the person to God. But note that this text does not expect that this is achievable in any kind of real time. The phrase “The days are surely coming … ” locates this promise into a distant future. It is utopia and not constitution. The uncovering of systemic racism in our country as part of a culture which stemmed from Protestant Christian principles demonstrates that we have not come far from the days of Jeremiah 31, and that humans as individuals and as communities, even faith communities, still fail.

What Jeremiah 31 envisions is an interior torah (often translated as “law”) as the necessary linchpin for transforming a community. While that torah does contain legal requirements, its general meaning is “teaching” or perhaps better a system that inculcates justice. I admit that when I read some of the laws in the Pentateuch, I do not always see a just system, but that is not what the word here intends. It expresses the realization that the only systemic structure that can truly enact justice cannot be made by human decrees. It stems from a conversion to full recognition of the nature of God, the depth of divine grace, and the servanthood to community that flows from this epiphany.

This passage reminds us that systemic justice is both promise and enactment. Although the promise cannot be achieved by our own efforts, the passage calls our faith communities to live into that promise through our own communal incarnation, inadequate though they may be, that attempt to embody an interior culture of gratitude and servanthood.


Commentary on Psalm 46

Mark Throntveit

Luther was right!

Psalm 46 is usually classified as a Song of Zion that along with Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, and 122 delights in the special place reserved for Jerusalem as the center of the world, chosen by God as the earthly center of the divine presence. That this is so, may be seen from the phrases, “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city,” (verses 4-5). But, the psalm seems to be concerned with more than this.

Others, of a more literalistic bent, unconvinced of the classification Song of Zion since neither Jerusalem nor Zion is explicitly mentioned, regard Psalm 46 as a Hymn of Confidence in which the psalmist expresses trust in God in the midst of adversity. This, too can be seen in the phrase, “we will not fear,” (verse 2). But, again, the psalm, which does not follow the usual outline of the hymn, seems to be concerned with more than this.

Martin Luther, in A Mighty Fortress is our God, his momentous paraphrase of the initial verses of Psalm 46, draws our attention away from both the city of Jerusalem and the trusting response of the people and focusses upon the activity of the “Mighty Fortress” that is our God.

We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because He is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends His church and His word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin.2

Even a cursory reading of the psalm, paying attention to its own structural markers suggests that Luther has correctly discerned the essence of this powerful hymn. First, we must account for the repetitions that so often provide the structural matrix of the text:

“Change [nrsv]” (v. 2), “move” (v. 5), and “totter” (v. 6) are all mot, “totter”

“Earth” (vv. 2, 6, 9) erets

“In/on the earth” (vv. 8, 10) baarets

“Roar” (v. 2), and “in an uproar” (v. 6) are from hamah “roar”

“Our” (v. 1, 7, 11) lanu

When it is recognized that “refuge” machaseh (verse 1) and “refuge” misgav (verses 7, 11) are a common word pair in poetic texts we can dispense with Gunkel’s earlier proposal, followed by the Lutheran Book of Worship, the New American Bible, and the New Jerusalem Bible, that we insert the “refrain” of verses 7 and 11 after verse 3, the following structure presents itself:

God is our refuge (machaseh “refuge”; lanu “our”) v. 1

We will not fear natural calamities (mot “totter”; hamah “roar”; erets “earth”) vv. 2-3

The city will not totter because God is there (mot “totter”) vv. 4-5

We will not fear political calamities (mot “totter”; hamah “roar”; erets “earth”) v. 6

God is our refuge (misgav “refuge”; lanu “our”) v. 7

See what God has done on the earth (Imperative; “on the earth”) v. 8

War and weapons destroyed my God (erets “earth”) v. 9

Know that God is exalted in the earth (Imperative; “in the earth”) v. 10

God is our refuge v. 11 (misgav “refuge”; lanu “our”)

The first section, verses 1-7, framed by “our refuge” depicts a secure city that will not totter (verses 4-5) further framed by the tottering terrors of nature (verses 2-3) and the tottering kingdoms that surround it (verse 6). The steadfast declaration of the opening verse coupled with the presence of God in verse 7 explains the serene nature of the city unthreatened by the (insert your choice of natural disaster here … whether tsunami, volcano, or earthquake) below or the political plots and conspiracies that dissolve even as God speaks. These terrors of nature reflect current or future threats to the city, not the biblical creation traditions or the primordial chaos battles of the ancient Near East that are frequently seen in these verses. There is no battle here, no mention of creation, and the people declare, “we will not fear” (verse 2a), supposedly when and if these events occur. The machinations of history depicted in verse 6a are similarly concerned to portray God as the God of history.

If water, both as a destructive and a positive force was the dominant metaphor of the first section, the second section, verses 7-11, again framed by “our refuge” centers on the fiery destruction of earth’s weaponry as a means of abolishing “earth’s” warfare (verse 9) further framed by the imperative to “come, see … God’s desolations ‘in the earth’” (verse 8) and the imperative to “desist and know that (God) is God … ‘in the earth’” (verse 10). But to whom are these commands addressed? Israel, or the nations? The negative character of the horrors they are commanded to see as well as the tenor of the Hiphil of raphah “desist, abandon, leave off” (not the pious “be still” of the translations) suggests the nations are being called to task before God is exalted by them (verse 10b, see 66:5). The staggering portrayal of smoking destruction is apocalyptic, or at least eschatological, suggesting that the psalm speaks of God’s final victory over nature and the nations.

Yes, Luther was right. The psalm is best seen as a psalm about God and the divine presence, not Jerusalem. It functions as a declaration to God’s people concerning the unimaginable source of strength that is theirs, and ours, in God … or as Luther’s hymn makes clear, in Christ.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 25, 2015.
  2. Martin Luther, A Manual of the Book of Psalms, or, the Subject-Contents of All the Psalms; now first translated into English by Henry Cole (London: R.B. Seeley & W. Burnside, 1837), 132.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

René Such Schreiner

Of all the reasons Paul might have written to the Roman house churches, addressing the polarization in the community is clearly a priority for him. Things were not well with the house churches in Rome and today’s churches find themselves, once again, in polarizing times. Paul’s approach to this challenge is to stun “both sides” of a division into silence, in the hopes of resetting relationships and moving church communities toward greater righteousness through unity (rather than compounding factionalism).  

Paul’s first step is to, literally, “stop mouths” (3:19). If he is going to speak into the division besetting the Roman house churches, he first needs to silence the scathing indictments the two sides are hurling at one another. This is why Paul mentions “the law” in verses 19 and 20: according to Robert Jewett, the law was spoken for two reasons: “stopping mouths and indicting the wicked.” In Jewett’s investigation of Hebrew Bible precedence, he finds that “In every instance in which God shuts the mouths of humans, it is to silence unrighteous words and actions.”1 The stunned silence of Paul’s audience provides the space for Paul to make his anthropological (3:19-20) and theological (3:21-26) declarations.  

Stopping Mouths (and Fingers!)

Multiple polarities plague our church communities and the wider world in our current context, and Paul’s rhetoric can serve as a model for addressing them. An example can be made of the polarities surrounding climate ___________. What shall I call it? The polarized invective common today is demonstrated in this word-choice angst: Climate change? Climate emergency? Global warming? Climate disruption? All are politically and economically charged terms.

While Paul singles out mouths in his rhetoric (along with throats and tongues in 3:10-18), “silencing” individuals and groups today may need to include an invective against fingers as well! Our current context demands that the “mouths” Paul speaks of now be conceived of as “mouthpieces.” Any current rhetoric to stun communities into silence would need to include all the vehicles for our “mouths”—our Twitter, our Facebook, our blogs, our videos on TikTok and YouTube, and so on. This proliferation of mouthpieces tragically multiplies the injustices that are wrought through human “speech” today.  

Speaking Into the Silence: Defining Reality

Having established silence amid the Roman house churches, Paul uses his newly established rhetorical space to do what good Christian leadership does: he defines reality for his hearers.2 The reality he presents is, itself, a profound polarity: the unrighteousness of all humanity (all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God), contrasted with the righteousness of God (the righteousness of God has been manifested via God’s work in Christ).  

Paul uses law and gospel to demonstrate this polarity. The law reveals the lack of human righteousness (3:20, “For ‘no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”). In contrast, the gospel narrates the manifestation of God’s righteousness in Christ (3:24-26, God performed God’s work in Christ to “show” God’s righteousness and to “prove” that Godself is righteous). If the law does indeed produce a silence, that silence ought not to be left a void; for Paul, the law silences, and the gospel narrates.  

Reality 1: The Unity of Humanity in Unrighteousness

Notice how Paul’s use of “we” in 3:19 contrasts with his earlier incessant repetitions of “they” in Romans 1 and “you” in Romans 2. Paul had exploited the divisions in the Roman house churches in chapters 1 and 2, first tricking his hearers into making judgments upon each other (forms of “they” appearing 23 times in 1:18-32), then indicting the hearers for their judgments (forms of “you” appearing 18 times in 2:1-2:5), only to finally demonstrate how they are not “two sides” but one humanity, united in their lack of righteousness (3:10, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one…”). Beginning with Chapter 3, Paul finally starts speaking in inclusive, unified terms (“our,” “we” and “us” finally appear). Into the silence Paul has created, he now narrates the unity of the community, and the unifying factor is humanity’s lack of righteousness. This is Paul defining reality for the Roman house churches, but this anthropological reality does not stand alone; he pairs it with a theological reality in verses 21-26: the manifestation of God’s righteousness in Christ.  

Reality 2: The Righteousness of God 

The Greek pephanerotai (3:21) demonstrates how Paul is presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ as a reality for his hearers. Sometimes translated as “disclosed” (NRSV) or “revealed” (CEB, NASB) this word differs from the Greek typically rendered as “revealed,” and the RSV renders it as “manifested.” Perhaps Paul chose pephanerotai for the connotation of “making be” as opposed to “showing” or “telling.” As real as the unrighteousness of humanity is—that is how real the gift of God’s grace is, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24). In the very real midst of profound human depravity, Paul recognizes and describes the just-as-real righteousness of God. 

The Real Polarity Put to Use

Paul’s declarations of reality shed light on the issue of climate that is so urgent for us today.  The anthropological reality calls us to realize our own culpability, highlighting the need to quit pointing the finger at others, whether nationally or individually, so that “the whole world may be held accountable to God” (3:19). Note how “the whole world” (cosmos) is contrasted with “no human being” (flesh) in 3:19-20: flesh (and the mouth in particular) is put into context and made smaller by the totality of God’s world/cosmos/creation. Do you hear the echo of Genesis, “And God said…”? Humanity’s hubris yields divisions and protections. Only humility and cooperation can possibly address our climate crisis, and humility and cooperation in response to God’s manifest righteousness seems a promising place to start. 


  1. Robert Jewett, Romans. (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 264-265.
  2.  Richard Beaton, “Leadership, Leadership Ethics,” Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics 476.