Lectionary Commentaries for January 23, 2022
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 4:14-21

Elisabeth Johnson

The Holy Spirit is a major actor in Luke’s Gospel and in its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. From the very beginning of the narrative, the Holy Spirit fills and speaks through the story’s characters, such as Mary (Luke 1:35, 46-55), Elizabeth (1:41-45), Zechariah (1:67-79), Simeon (2:25-32), and John (3:1-18), giving us important clues about how to interpret the events narrated.

Jesus, the one about whom all the previous characters have spoken, is likewise filled with, and guided by, the Spirit. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism (3:22) then leads him into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights (4:1-2). Filled with the power of the Spirit, Jesus returns to his home country of Galilee and begins his public ministry (4:14). “He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (4:15).

The story zooms in closer and the tempo slows when Jesus comes to his home synagogue in Nazareth, the village in which he was raised. Here everyone watched him grow up and knows his family well. As an honored guest who is already gathering a reputation as a great teacher, Jesus is invited to read the Scriptures and to offer an interpretation.

The words Jesus speaks in Nazareth are especially important because they are the first words we hear of his public ministry in Luke’s Gospel. This is an inaugural address of sorts. What Jesus says here represents the heart of his message and mission. Of course, his message and mission do not come out of the blue, but from the Scriptures. He reads from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (a conflation of Isaiah 61:1-2a and 58:6). Then Jesus gives a one-sentence interpretation: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Right here, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus tells us clearly what his mission is about. He boldly claims to fulfill the words of Isaiah, who speaks of the Spirit anointing him, sending him, compelling him to bring good news to every one of God’s children who is bound up, pressed down, broken in spirit, impoverished, imprisoned, and desperately hungry for good news.

The word translated “poor” (ptochoi in Greek) has to do with economic status as well as other factors that lowered one’s status in the first-century world—factors such as gender, genealogy, education, occupation, sickness, disability, and degree of religious purity. Jesus’ mission is directed to the poor in the holistic sense of those who for various reasons are relegated to the margins of society. Jesus refuses to recognize these socially determined boundaries, insisting that these very “outsiders” are the special objects of God’s grace and mercy.1

The “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus proclaims is probably a reference to the year of Jubilee commanded in Leviticus 25, a year in which indentured servants (even resident aliens) were to be released, debts were to be forgiven, and land and property returned to families who had leased or sold them. It was to be a year of radical restoration, but there is little evidence that it was ever practiced in Israel. It was instead projected into the future as an eschatological hope.

Our gospel reading ends at verse 21, where Jesus proclaims, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In the second part of this story (4:21-30) which is next week’s Gospel reading, the reaction of the hometown crowd will turn from amazement and approval (4:22) to rage and even murderous intent (4:28-29). Knowing what is coming, it is difficult to preach on only the first half of the story.

Yet perhaps what Jesus has already said will provoke a strong response among many who hear these words today. Good news to the poor and the “year of the Lord’s favor” sound great until we get into the nitty-gritty of what that means. The idea of a radical redistribution of property and wealth, for example, will not sound like good news to many of us who live comfortable lives and do not want to give up what we have. The idea of welcoming certain groups of people into our communities will be unsettling for some. Still Jesus proclaims that today this scripture is fulfilled in him. Projecting this vision into a distant future is no longer possible.

Jesus will demonstrate this fulfillment concretely in his acts of healing, liberation, and welcome for all kinds of outsiders—the demon-possessed, the sick and paralyzed, lepers, hemorrhaging women, tax collectors and sinners. Mary has already announced that God is up to some serious table-turning (Luke 1:46-55), and Jesus will have much more to say in Luke’s Gospel about wealth and status and the reversals God’s reign brings about (see also Luke 6:20-26; 7:18-23; 12:13-21; 14:12-14; 16:1-12, 19-31; 18:18-26; 19:1-10).

It is important for preachers to resist the temptation to spiritualize this message. The spiritual aspect of salvation in Luke cannot be separated from economic, social, and political realities. Jesus’ mission is to free people from captivity to sin and from captivity to the sinful structures and systems that diminish and destroy lives.

Will hearers today receive this message as good news, or will they respond like the hometown crowd in Nazareth, fearing the loss of privileged position? Simeon, guided by the Spirit, said of the infant Jesus: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). The truth of Simeon’s prophecy is laid bare at Nazareth. Perhaps it will be in the places where Jesus’ mission is proclaimed this Sunday as well. 

Preachers, of course, cannot control how people will respond to this message any more than Jesus himself could. We can only announce the good news and trust the Holy Spirit to be at work.


  1. Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 210-211.

First Reading

Commentary on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Cory Driver

The reconstituted people of Israel came together on a holy day and asked for a reading from the book of the Law. Far from being a happy experience, this section of Nehemiah ends with weeping, and the religious leaders telling the people to hide their emotions. What is going on? 

The reason that the people gathered at the water gate that year was twofold. First, they had just finished the city walls of Jerusalem a few days earlier (Nehemiah 6:15), and the new moon festival seemed like a great time to celebrate their massive accomplishment. Jerusalem was a walled, protected city once again, for the first time in generations! Secondly, they gathered for the festival of trumpets on the first day of the month of Tishrei (Leviticus 23:24). This day would become known later as Rosh Hashanah, but that celebration seems to rise in importance later, along with Yom Kippur, which is completely ignored in this chapter. The people gathered, and they wanted to hear Ezra proclaim the law, but they did not know how it would affect them. 

A careful reading of this pericope points out that not everyone had equal access to the text. Ezra read the book of the Law of Moses in the ears of all the men and women who could understand, and all the people were attentive to his reading (Nehemiah 8:3). There are two groups hearing Ezra: those who could understand and those who could not, but who were still listening attentively. Ezra had specially chosen assistants and Levites whose job it was to explain what he was reading to the people (verse 7). These assistants read from the Law, translated it, and then interpreted it in the hearing of the people (verse 8). Many men and women understood the law as it was read. But others needed to have it translated and then interpreted for them. This interpretation, especially, seems to have been the cause of much sadness among the people. 

Rashi, the great 11th century CE French rabbi and Biblical commentator, argued that the people wept because they were confronted with how many ways they had failed to fulfill the laws of Torah. That certainly may be the case, and most commentators follow this tradition. I want to raise another possibility. I wonder if the people were weeping because some of the interpretations provided by the Levites were hurtful and injurious. 

Contextually, the last time that Ezra gathered the people and proclaimed law to them had been a difficult time as well. Ezra called the people together under penalty of forfeiting their land if they did not appear (Ezra 10:7). It was a miserable, cold and rainy day (in late Nov or early Dec) when Ezra told the assembly to divorce all non-Israelite wives and send away all mixed-race children (Ezra 10:9-11). The people used the weather as an excuse to delay rending families apart. Since it was so cold, the people would extend the divorce process over the next several months (Ezra 10:12-14). 

Meanwhile, Ezra began an investigation, with the help of the heads of families, into who had a marriage that they interpreted as impermissible (Ezra 10:16). It was these same heads of families who followed up with Ezra the next day to investigate how to implement what they heard the day before during the reading and interpretation of the Law (Nehemiah 8:13). I wonder if the forced dissolution of families, which Ezra preached before, was again the main point of the interpretation that Ezra and those who worked with him provided for the people. After the time for festivals was over, the first actions of the people seem to have been the separation of Israelites from foreigners (Nehemiah 9:2). It certainly could be, as Rashi argues, that the people wept because of their sinfulness before the Law. But, I think the context of this passage in Ezra-Nehemiah indicates that many of the people wept that day because they were hearing their families and children preached against and interpreted as sinful.

I think this passage from Nehemiah serves as a cautionary tale for interpreters and preachers. The Law’s ability to clarify how humans have fallen short of God’s hopes and expectations for us is useful for pointing toward the necessity and gift of God’s grace. That said, preaching human interpretations of Law has frequently led to demonization of certain kinds of relationships or families. Whether interracial or LGBTQ marriages are the target, I do not think that God is ever interested in separating families or trying to force people to stop loving each other. I think we can understand Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12), and particularly the reference to hardness of heart leading to divorce (verse 8) in this light. 

It is frequently the hardness of heart in religious leaders that leads to devaluing certain kinds of families or couples. Jesus interpreted Moses as allowing divorce, but certainly not commanding it. Ezra and Jesus had many of the same texts, and yet they arrived at vastly different interpretations of what God desired. Sadly, both Ezra and Jesus’ teachings on divorce have been interpreted themselves in ways that have caused further weeping. Let us not be the source of such weeping!

Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites insisted that the people not weep or mourn, because it was a holy day (Nehemiah 8:9). And yet, it was their own interpretations of the Law that caused the tears in the first place. It is true that not everyone is able to understand Scripture on their own. For those who rely on us to explain and interpret the text to them, let us be sure not to interpret texts in ways that harm the community or insist on “remediations” that Jesus preaches against. 


Commentary on Psalm 19

Rebecca Poe Hays

Epiphany and the days surrounding it celebrate the “appearance” or “manifestation” (the meaning of the name’s Greek root) of God in the world.1

Most immediately, the church reflects on the appearance of the infant Christ—particularly to the Gentile world the magi represent—but the other lectionary readings of this season provide opportunities to reflect on a whole variety of divine manifestations. On this third Sunday after the Epiphany, Psalm 19 represents, in many ways, a poetic celebration of this variety and how it works to bring humanity into relationship with the God who appears in creation, in instruction, in relationship, and in flesh.

The theme

Like many psalms, Psalm 19 defies simple genre categorization. Scholars believe the psalm’s current form is a composite of originally separate psalms: a creation hymn (verses 1-6), hymn to God’s torah or “instruction” (verses 7-10), and the prayer of a servant (verses 11-14). The celebration of speech illustrated by related images holds these parts together.2 In the context of Epiphany, a sermon on this text might emphasize the power of speech of all kinds (not always using words!) to make things known—God to humanity, humanity to itself, humanity to God, and so on.

The text

Psalm 19 begins on a cosmic level and progressively narrows to conclude with the human heart.3

The theme of revelation through speech dominates the opening verses (verses 1-4). Every line contains some reference to it: the heavens declare, the firmament proclaims, speech is poured out, knowledge declared, and even the silence of creation sends forth wordless words and voiceless voices about the Creator. The psalmist then focuses on how one part of creation—the sun—makes known the glory of the God who created it merely by being (verses 5-6).

The sun was a critical part of ancient Near Eastern religions, and many scholars think that the psalmist has adapted a Canaanite or Babylonian hymn to the sun god as a polemic against these other deities. In Psalm 19, nothing is hidden from the sun and its journey across the heavens, but the sun is clearly subservient to the God who set its course.4 The light and heat and life the sun brings are just a few examples of how God appears in and cares for the world.

The next portion of the psalm turns from God “showing” God’s character to “telling” about it through divine instruction about who God is and how God intends us to live in relationship (verses 7-10). Fittingly for a psalm about speech, the psalmist offers in these verses six different synonyms for the Hebrew word torah: law, decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, and ordinances.5 This section also introduces the personal name of God—Yahweh, “the LORD”—rather than the more general name—El, “God”—that appeared in the first section.

Yahweh is the God who spoke out of the burning bush to Moses, who led Israel out of slavery, and who gave the gift of instruction at Sinai to help the people live in right relationship to Yahweh and to each other. Yahweh’s words are as eternal and unquenchable as the sun and prompt those who encounter them to recognize Yahweh’s power and to live as Yahweh calls. Far from being the burden we often associate with instructions, the psalmist characterizes life lived in accordance with Yahweh’s speech as revitalizing, joyful, illuminating, and sweeter than honey.

With an introductory “Moreover,” the final section of Psalm 19 builds on the preceding celebration of Yahweh’s torah to illustrate how those to whom God speaks also speak to God (verses 11-14). Here the psalmist starts using second-person pronouns to speak directly to the God who has appeared across the cosmos, in specific instructions, and who has invited creation into relationship guided by these instructions. After the dramatic hymns in verses 1-10, this prayer testifies to the fact that the God of creation and Sinai wants to have a dialogue with us, not just speak in soliloquies. The psalm ends with the psalmist asking the God whose glory is announced by every aspect of creation and who speaks perfect instruction to help ensure the psalmist’s own speech—external and internal—pours forth as an “acceptable” offering of praise.6

Psalm 19 and Epiphany

Psalm 19 offers preachers numerous avenues for exploring different ways God appears and what implications these appearances have for our lives:

  • God appears in the complexity of the universe and in the ways the Creator provides life through nature’s reliable rhythms (light, heat, seasons, and tides).
  • God appears in the words of Scripture and in the ways these Scriptures are fulfilled.
  • God appears in the lives of those who follow the divine call to strive for perfect wholeness, wisdom, joy, truth, and justice.
  • God appears in the honest prayers of those who recognize their own flaws and trust in God’s love.
  • God appears in the quiet gifts of protection, strength, and courage offered to those in need.
  • God appears in the dialogues of faith we have with ourselves, with one another, and with God.

Beyond the text or the sermon, the diversity of divine appearances in Psalm 19 can encourage congregants to pay attention to how God appears in diverse ways in their day-to-day lives—and to celebrate that diversity together.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 27, 2019.
  2. Nancy L. DeClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 203-4.
  3. Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 101.
  4. Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 112-13.
  5. Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 113-14.
  6. The word “acceptable” is often used in reference to the kinds of sacrifices God would accept (e.g., Lev 22:17-20). (Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 103.)

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Melanie A. Howard

This second part of 1 Corinthians 12 echoes many of the themes from last week’s text in the beginning of 1 Corinthians 12. These themes include the diverse giftings of the Spirit, the necessity of all spiritual gifts, the relativization of the gift of tongues, and a celebration of the diversity of spiritual gifts. 

Grounded in ritual practice

The bulk of this passage is devoted to Paul’s development of a body metaphor to illustrate the proper relationships among members of the Corinthian congregation. However, Paul sets the stage for this metaphor by calling to mind elements of the Corinthians’ ritual and liturgical life together. In 12:13, he reminds the Corinthians that they have all been baptized into one body and made to drink of one Spirit. While it should not be pressed too far, it may be that this reference to drink is a subtle allusion to the practice of the Lord’s Supper, a practice that Paul just finished discussing in 1 Corinthians 11. In that context, Paul urged his audience to discern the “body” (11:29) when partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Although Paul may have intended the body of Christ himself in that context, the repetition of body imagery here in chapter 12 makes the reference in chapter 11 at least somewhat ambiguous.

The body metaphor

From verse 14 on, Paul develops a detailed metaphor of a human body to explain the relationship among members of the Body of Christ. Despite the metaphorical language that he uses, Paul’s meaning is clear: all members of the Corinthian congregation are equally necessary for the full flourishing of the body. This means that highlighting certain members (to the detriment of others) is problematic for the whole body. 

While the issue in chapter 12 has to do with the privileging of members with certain spiritual giftings, the discussion of the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11 or the Corinthians’ eagerness to forgive a man involved in a scandalous relationship in chapter 5 suggests that Paul is concerned with any issue that might elevate some members of the congregation over others. This is a helpful point to remember for our own time when debates about spiritual gifts may be less fraught than debates about other markers or divisions of identities along socio-economic, racial, gender, or political lines. 

Individualism as antithetical to the good of the body

In verse 21, Paul imagines a scenario in which certain body parts claim no need of the others. While this imaginary scenario may at first seem absurd, the inclination it illustrates (an inclination toward radical individualism) is not merely the result of an active imagination. Indeed, the conflict between a spirit of radical individualism and recognition of interconnected interdependence continues to be evident in the world today. In the recent Covid-19 pandemic, debates about mask mandates or vaccine mandates demonstrate that this age-old conflict still rages. 

For Paul’s purposes, individual rights or personal freedoms are entirely secondary to the good of the whole. Paul has been consistent in this message throughout much of 1 Corinthians. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Paul addresses a conflict whereby some members of the Corinthian congregation believe that their personal rights are being violated if they are not permitted to eat meat that had previously been sacrificed to idols. While Paul agrees with these individualists in theory (that is, the idols are not real anyway, so who cares if meat had been sacrificed?), Paul also recognizes that the issue is a sensitive one for many others in the congregation. Thus, he advises against the consumption of such meat for the sake of others. 

This inclination toward pursuing the common good underlies Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 12 as well. That is, just as just as the whole of the human body is affected if one part is suffering, so too does the whole of the Body of Christ suffer when one of its members suffers (12:26).

Spiritual gifts in the Body of Christ

Paul wraps up his argument in 12:27-31 by returning to the issue of spiritual gifts themselves in the context of the corporate community. To be certain that his audience has grasped the essence of the metaphor that he has been using up to this point, Paul insists in verse 27, “You [plural] are the body of Christ.” The Greek pronoun here is an emphatic one that draws attention to the collective identity of the congregation, a congregation endowed with a wide variety of spiritual gifts. 

While Paul had previously shied away from ranking the importance of the spiritual gifts, in verse 28 he appears to offer a preliminary ranking of the gifts in order of importance. Notably, gifts related to speaking in tongues are last. In other words, the very gift that the Corinthians seem to prize the most, Paul ranks as the least important among other gifts. 

Nonetheless, Paul is careful in his line of reasoning here. Even if he offers this ranked list, he also is cautious not to undermine the foundation of his argument thus far: all gifts are necessary. In order to reiterate this point, he poses a series of questions in verses 29-30 to force his audience into the position of recognizing the truth of his position. While most English translations do not capture it, Paul’s Greek grammar here provides the answer that he expects his audience to give. That is, rather than simply being translated “Are all apostles?” Paul’s language here might be better captured with a translation like “Not all are apostles, are they?” In other words, Paul provides rhetorical clues that move his audience closer to accepting his position.

For Paul, diversity within the Body of Christ is not just a nice ideal toward which the congregation can aspire. Rather, it is an essential component to the full functioning of that body. Paul recognizes that every type of spiritual gift is necessary, and he hopes to convince the congregation in Corinth of the same.