Lectionary Commentaries for January 30, 2022
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 4:21-30

Shively Smith

The Christian season of Epiphany (Greek epiphaneia) focuses on the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ to the world. But what exactly does that mean? How do we distinguish the prophetic unveiling or disclosure of God’s liberating agenda from the social agendas of others? Moreover, what should we expect when we participate in the work of articulating God’s prophetic interventions? The story cycle of Epiphany guides us in the work of disclosure and recognition. 

The framing stories in the Epiphany cycle are the visit of the wise men (Matthew 2) and the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21-22). The story of Jesus’ first synagogue sermon in Luke 4:16-30 builds on these stories. It extends the meaning of prophetic manifestation and disclosure with a moment that devolves from accord to conflict. 

In terms of literary context, this unit occurs immediately after Jesus’ temptation experience (4:1-13). Situated within Luke’s larger section marking off Jesus’s Galilean ministry (4:14–9:50), it is a pronouncement story that depicts Jesus’ interpretive practice. While much of the material in Luke’s version of Jesus’ Galilean ministry parallels other gospels, features of this unit do not. The closest parallels in the Gospels are Jesus’ rejection in his hometown of Nazareth in Mark 6:1–6 and Matthew 15:53–58. But neither Mark nor Matthew report what Jesus taught inside the synagogue

In today’s version, the writer permits us to shadow the prophetic and messianic figure Jesus closely (Luke 4:14-30). He takes us inside the synagogue. It is the first full episode after Jesus’ temptation moment. For the Gospel of Luke, the showdown between Jesus and the devil necessitates his “return” (hypostrephō, 4:1, 14) and his public pronouncement. Disclosure, in this case, comes on the heels of encounter and confrontation. Jesus discloses his identity and message only after he has wrestled and brawled in the desert place (4:1).

There are at least four interpretive angles for approaching verses 21-30 with a focus on prophetic disclosure, accord, and conflict. 

Reading Scripture in Community 

Luke 4:14-30 is a signature story in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus publicly announces that the Isaiah prophecy (Isaiah 61:1–2; 58:6) is fulfilled in his deeds, teachings, and ministry. Luke casts Jesus as a prophetic model for how to read and interpret in service to communicating the disclosures of God. In Luke 4:21, Jesus takes the next step beyond simply quoting and reading the Isaiah scroll. Jesus connects what he reads to the current moment of the community. Jesus interprets the meaning and significance of the Isaiah prophesy, pointing them towards where to look and he sits among them to entertain the questions that follow. In short, an important model established in today’s passage is reading and interpreting scripture in community and with community

Leveraging the Popular Wisdom of the People 

As another interpretive possibility, readers can notice what occurs after Jesus interprets the prophecy toward himself. His listeners appear to accord with his reading. They are astonished by it: “All spoke well of him and were amazed (thaumazō) at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Immediately following this affirmation, however, a question arises: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In the other Gospel accounts about Jesus’ hometown conflict, the questions continue, and things devolve with the crowd taking offense at Jesus’ deeds and teachings (Mark 6:2-3).

In Luke’s version, Jesus anticipates the devolving situation. He engages in his own kind of preemptive strike and takes an offensive stance. Jesus recites and leverages popular wisdom when he says: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’” (Luke 4:23). From his statements, Jesus appears to know the adages and colloquialisms of his community. He is also aware of the gossip already circulating about him. He uses that knowledge rhetorically. 

Leveraging the popular wisdom and gossip circles of his people, Jesus counters the impending character attack. The matter here is not what Jesus says, but who Jesus is. As the son of a modest artisan, Jesus should not be teaching with such authority, honor, and influence. This story reflects the problem of the honor-shame code when it meets God’s prophetic disclosures and intentions. The prophetic word and messianic power rise up from below the social caste system rather than trickling down from above. 

Countering Anti-Semitic Readings 

Unfortunately, it is possible for Christian preachers to potentially engage this passage in a way that is anti-Semitic and ahistorical. So, caution and intention are necessary. On first reading, it appears the Jews in the synagogue turn on Jesus when he cites Elijah’s interactions with the non-Israelite widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-16) and Elisha’s interaction with the non-Israelite leper, Naaman of Syria. Some might read their fiery response as evidence of a particularly xenophobic and ethnocentric orientation. The synagogue Jews in the story appear to be enraged by the idea that the Isaiah messianic figure carries a positive and inclusive message for non-Jews. But that interpretation is incorrect. 

As a scholar in The Jewish Annotated New Testament states, “Such conclusions misread Jewish history. Jews in general had positive relations with Gentiles, as witnessed by the Court of the Gentiles in the Jerusalem Temple, Gentiles as patrons of synagogues (7:1-10), and Gentiles as god-fearers” (Acts 10; also see Zechariah 8:23) (Jewish Annotated New Testament, 107).

So, what was the object of their anger, rejection, and violent response? Before the same synagogue members rejected Jesus’ words, they accepted and affirmed them. After Jesus read and interpreted the prophecy as fulfilled, his listeners approved his message and wanted to understand more about it and him.

What changed between verses 22 and 28, prompting the shift from amazement (thaumazō) to anger (thumos)? Before Jesus cites his two prophetic precedents in the stories of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus shows his hand—he does not plan to offer any of the prophetic and messianic deeds of power and blessings that he does elsewhere, like the five Sabbath healings he performs immediately after this story (4:31, 38; 6:6; 13:10; 14:1). 

The offense that sparks rage and violent backlash is Jesus’ refusal to act on his authority and power in his hometown. Preachers should not interpret this story as an incident in Jewish-Christian relations. All in this story are Jewish kinspeople, including Jesus. And they appear to share the expectation of promise and fulfillment expressed in reading Isaiah 61. The issue here is deeds, not belief.

Prophetic Paradigm 

In Luke 4:16-30, the gospel writer leverages the paradigm of the prophet. In addition to teacher and interpreter, Jesus is cast as a prophetic figure who resources the traditions of the prophets. The figure of the prophet is a prominent theme across the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts (Luke 7:16; 7:39; 13:31-33; 24:19; Acts 3:22; 7:37). The response to prophetic messengers in Luke-Acts is mixed. At times, the messages they carry, particularly as interpreted through Scripture, are welcomed and affirmed. Other times, they meet resistance. Jesus’ prophetic proclamation and embodiment coupled with the shifting responses he receives in this story, epitomizes the pattern of prophetic disclosure unfolding throughout the larger narrative.

Disclosure and recognition in Luke, therefore, involves identifying the continuities and symmetries between what God is doing and what God already accomplished through earlier prophets. Today’s passage is an invitation to follow Jesus’ example and to rehearse the prophets of our cultures and traditions that extend Jesus’ liberating message of freedom, provision, care, and recovery (4:18-19). 

Who are the prophets we must remember and name today as points of God’s disclosure? Jesus recognized God’s saving power at work  through him and among his townspeople because he knew the words and stories of Isaiah, Elijah, and Elisha to the point he rehearsed it unprovoked. What are the names and stories of your community’s prophets that point you toward the work of God’s Spirit that sees the poor, imprisoned, uninspired, oppressed, and disinherited (Luke 4:18-19)? 

I am compelled to remember the work of prophets like Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Octavia Butler, Desmund Tutu, Ella Baker, Richard and Sarah Allen, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman, and Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King. That’s just the beginning for me, but perhaps that is a point of today’s Epiphany story—namely, to get us to begin…


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

Jeremiah can join hands across the centuries with Malala and Greta as those who started early in their life’s mission. All three discerned the need before them; all three showed courage; all three understood the need for deconstruction as the place to begin. The two young contemporary women demonstrate the impact that young people can have. 

The tasks ahead of Jeremiah seemed daunting: the Babylonian siege, the first deportation of 597, an obtuse Jerusalem leadership, feel-good prophets telling the people what they wanted to hear, open hostility to his message. The Lord established the divine claim on Jeremiah before birth. When Jeremiah protested, the Lord declared the intention to send Jeremiah out and promised to accompany him. The divine words in verse 10 seem ironic, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms.” Jeremiah had the power of eloquence and the truth, but he spent much of his ministry at the mercy of political leaders. The last we hear from him, he has been carried to Egypt. The Lord’s charge to Jeremiah contains six verbs, four of which involve breaking down. Only after the way has cleared can he create and construct. 

Let me include here the general caution to take great care talking about oneself in the pulpit. Preachers can often make themselves the main character in their sermons. That practice can sometimes work effectively, but it carries many dangers. That statement prefaces the caution that we should take extra care if we decide to use this passage to talk about our own call story. One can never say never, but our own call story should see only limited pulpit use, and then only for good reason. The preacher should use this story to talk about the call of the church to do ministry in the world. Make the church identify with Jeremiah, don’t talk about how you identify with Jeremiah.

The preacher can use the claim of God on Jeremiah from before birth to emphasize God taking the initiative in the ministry of the church. God does not wait for the church to make the first move. God sees the needs of the world, the injustices, the anguish, the cruelty, and begins the process. One can hear the well-meaning but misguided idea that everything that happens is part of “God’s plan.” One might use this idea of God initiating the call of Jeremiah from zygote stage as a critique of “God’s plan.” God takes the initiative to minister in the midst of suffering, not to cause it or plan it. 

Did Jeremiah genuinely feel unqualified because of his youth to accept the divine call, or does he think that makes a plausible excuse? The narrator does not reveal the answer. We cannot read the adolescent mind of Jeremiah. We can, however, preach to those who go either way. Some church members do dismiss their own talents; others make excuses. This passage would work well at encouraging those who felt unqualified. It at least gives the preacher some material to use with those who make excuses. 

Without claiming to know more about Jeremiah than the narrator lets us know, we can talk in general about youth. Often youth respond enthusiastically to a call. Mission trips, youth-led services, volunteer work. Youth will respond. Parents can confirm, however, that teenagers do not show much energy when they don’t want to. Youth often display an enthusiasm for attacking problems. One can admire the passion they might pour into protesting, tutoring, or an environmental clean up project. That passion can dissipate once they marry, begin building careers, and raising children. 

Can we preachers use Jeremiah’s youth to tap into the long-forgotten passion? Can we recapture that passion that has faded with cynicism because nothing seems to change? Some people carry on the fight well into middle age and beyond. Can this passage appeal to the part of our congregations that continues to care?

Despite the powerful message of the text that grants the prophet authority over political entities, and despite the call to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow,” the church relies on the power of persuasion. Danger arises when the church tries to pluck up and tear down. The church can misuse power and it can become self-righteous. The church does its work of plucking and tearing by giving voice to the truth that exposes lies. The church confronts and makes the powerful uncomfortable. The church finds itself as vulnerable as Jeremiah did in the depths of his pit. The church can announce that racism, greed, misogyny, oppression, and exploitation need uprooting, but we cannot physically do those things. We can make changes, and we can influence, but the powers and principalities remain strong. This passage reminds the church of its mission to speak out, to name the things that need overthrowing. 

Do we need to wait until all of the overthrowing happens before we can build and plant? If so, we will never build or plant anything. Building, planting, creating, making beauty happen in spite of the things that need overthrowing. We build ministries, shelters, and art programs while we work to pluck up. We build people from within while we pull down. We build up the resources, the self-esteem, and the opportunities for those who need them. 

For some congregations, we preachers may need to assess our strategy. Some congregations will not take the lead in working for social justice. Can we use Jeremiah’s call to ask what we can accomplish? How can we empower and persuade our congregations to take the first step, to move against some form of injustice that deserves confrontation? Jeremiah’s experience later in the book reminds us that our ministry does not happen easily. We take risks, we endure the consequences. As Jeremiah’s experience also demonstrates, resisting the call leads to spiritual anguish. We accept the call, trusting in God’s presence. 



Commentary on Psalm 71:1-6

Jerome Creach

Psalm 71 is a prayer for help by an individual. Psalms of this type typically include (1) an address to the LORD, (2) a complaint about and a description of troubled circumstances, (3) a petition for help, (4) an assurance of being heard, and (5) a promise of praise the psalmist will give in response to God hearing the prayer.

Some of these elements may appear more than one time, and some psalms of this type include other features as well (for example, descriptions of enemies, protestation of innocence). The various parts of the psalm work together, however, to create a prayer that is both honest in its complaint and trust-filled in its plea to God. We may characterize the theology of such psalms as an expression of trust in the midst of trouble.

The lectionary reading from Psalm 71 (verses 1-6) contains all of the elements listed above except the complaint and description of trouble. Since that portion of the psalm is the foundation for the rest, it will be helpful to consider how verses 1-6 fit into the psalm as a whole. 

Verses 1-19a alternate between petition and statements of trust, with an accent on the latter. The lectionary reading encapsulates the statements of trust. It begins with the formulaic language of seeking refuge in God (verse 1). The petition in verse 3 also includes the language of shelter and refuge. Verse 5 contains the psalm’s main theme: “For you, O LORD, are my hope, my trust.” 

Verse 6 ends the lectionary reading by hinting at a subject that is actually the most distinctive feature of the psalm, namely, the psalmist identifies himself as one advanced in years. In verse 6 he simply says he has relied on God since birth. For the remainder of the psalm, the psalmist refers to age numerous times and marks the psalmist’s faithfulness in terms of age. Verse 9 then pleads for God not to “cast me off in the time of old age.” Verses 17 and 18 return to this theme. The psalmist recalls that God taught him “from my youth” and he remained faithful (verse 17). Verse 18, like verse 9, petitions God’s protection “to old age,” to the time of “gray hairs.” The psalmist wishes to share the message of God’s faithfulness with the next generation and thus asks God to preserve his life so such testimony is possible.

Verse 7 may continue this theme, though this is the most difficult verse to interpret. The psalmist says “I have been a portent to many.” “Portent” (mopet) may be either a sign of God’s power and approval (Exodus 7:3) or God’s wrath (Deuteronomy 28:46). The New Jewish Publication Society understands the word in the first sense and thus translates “I have been an example for many.” If that is the correct sense of the verse, the psalmist may be presenting herself as a model of faithfulness in the midst of trouble, something the psalmist has learned with maturity. 

The New Revised Standard Version, however, opts for the second interpretation. The second half of the verse begins with a simple conjunction NRSV reads as adversative (“but you are my strong refuge,” verse 7b). This makes sense against the backdrop of complaints about enemies who seek the psalmist’s life, enemies who deem the psalmist God-forsaken (verses 10-11). If this is the correct interpretation, it relates to the theme of old age in that it simply depicts someone experiencing trauma and the feeling of self-loathing (“I am a portent”) that comes with adversity and the presence of enemies. Regardless of which interpretation of verse 7 is correct, the psalm reminds us that faith does not get easier in old age, but it may grow more important.

Psalm 71 contains numerous words and phrases that appear in other such prayers, especially Psalms 22 and 31. For example, verses 1-3 are almost identical to Psalm 31:1-3 (2-4); verse 6 repeats much of Psalm 22:10 (11); and verse 12 is nearly identical to Psalm 22:11 (12). Like these two psalms, the church typically reads Psalm 71 in relation to the passion of Jesus. It appears in the Revised Common Lectionary as a psalm for Tuesday of Holy Week. 

Here, in the season of Epiphany, the selected verses highlight faith in the God who rescues and saves, on whom the psalmist can depend in times of trouble. The link to psalms that are part of Jesus’ passion, however, should inform the interpretation whenever the reading appears. The one who cries to God in Psalm 71:1-6 follows the example of Jesus who also cried to God when in trouble, and the Incarnation provides assurance that God hears and understands precisely because Jesus shares the psalmist’s suffering. 

The psalm ends with praise, as many prayers for help do (verses 22-24). It is somewhat unique in the listing of musical instruments (harp and lyre) and describing the singing of praise (see 1 Chronicles 16:5). This is a proper reminder, however, that we should not read the prayer in verses 1-6 as a private expression of piety and trust in God. Rather, such devotion to God should be lived out in the community of believers. 

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Melanie A. Howard

First Corinthians 13 is, perhaps, one of the most recognizable passages of the New Testament. A favorite text for many wedding homilies, this chapter of 1 Corinthians has far more to offer than merely a sentimental reflection on romantic love. Rather, this rich chapter points to both the challenges and rewards of self-giving love.

The literary context of 1 Corinthians 13

It is important to situate 1 Corinthians 13 within its larger context of 1 Corinthians 12-14. In chapters 12 and 14, Paul is addressing issues related to spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of speaking in tongues. While it seems that the Corinthians themselves were over-emphasizing the importance of this single gift, Paul is encouraging the congregation to recognize the necessity of all spiritual gifts (chapter 12) and cautioning the congregation to temper the practice of speaking in tongues with the interpretation of these tongues and with prophecy (chapter 14). 

Given this setting, the placement of chapter 13 here may at first seem odd as it only mentions speaking in tongues tangentially (verses 1 and 8). However, 1 Corinthians 13 is possibly the most central part of Paul’s argument in chapters 12-14. One might think of these chapters like an Oreo cookie where the two “cookies” of chapters 12 and 14 are held together by the delicious cream center that keeps everything together: love. In other words, just as an Oreo would be insufficiently satisfying without its creamy middle, so too would Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts be lacking without a clear grounding in love.

Understanding this larger context sheds light on what Paul is doing in this chapter. That is, rather than a Hallmark-style ode to sentimentalized ideas of love, this chapter offers what should be a foundational ethic for the church community. From what we can gather about the Corinthian community from chapters 12 and 14, these early Christians were becoming starkly divided in a debate related to spiritual gifts. However, rather than taking a clear side in the debate, Paul urges his audience to pursue love, even amid differences and dissent. 

Love is a verb

The context of dissent in Corinth makes Paul’s teachings about love all the more vivid. This context suggests that love, for Paul, is not just the cute subject of a Valentine’s Day card. Rather, love is a collection of intentional actions.

In verses 4-7, Paul offers a rich description of the kind of love that he is discussing. However, what most English translations fail to capture is that all these descriptors are verbs, not the adjectives with which they are often translated. So, these descriptions might be better translated along the lines of, “Love waits patiently; love acts kindly” and so forth. What might seem like a pedantic grammatical point is actually quite important. That is, the love that Paul is describing takes action; it is not a passive feeling toward another. 

Love and limitations

In verses 9-13, Paul takes up the topic of the limitations of seemingly everything except love. Part of his method in making this argument is to compare his own growth journey from child to adult (verse 11). While Paul’s point here is clear, it is also worth problematizing the way in which Paul goes about making this argument. In recent years, biblical scholars have been turning more attention to childist interpretations that have attended to the experiences of children in and with the biblical text. Through a childist lens, then, Paul’s method of making his point might be called into question. 

If this text is read and preached in intergenerational worship settings, it may be helpful to provide some situational context for making sense of Paul’s comments here. In the ancient world, children were largely discounted and were often regarded with mild disdain. Thus, Paul here is playing into a cultural trope that would have asserted that the ways of children are immature, illogical, and unsophisticated. When preaching this text today, however, it would be important to observe that these cultural assumptions create their own sort of limitations on modern notions of childhood that view children as whole, autonomous individuals. 

Readers might face additional limitations in understanding Paul’s meaning upon coming to verse 12 where Paul compares the present reality to what he imagines a future, eschatological reality might be. Here, Paul is suggesting that there will be a future time that makes things clearer than what they may be at present. 

However, modern readers might have a question about Paul’s example here: how does looking in a mirror not produce a clear image? Knowing something about ancient mirrors is needed here to understand Paul’s point. In Paul’s day, mirrors would not have been nearly as reflective as what they are today. Instead, they might be comparable to the experience of viewing a reflection in a spoon or in a window. While these surfaces can provide a general sense of the item being reflected, the image is not crystal clear. Paul suggests that the Corinthians’ current view of the world is much like this. While they can grasp the outlines of truth, they simply do not have the clearest image right now.

Reading 1 Corinthians 13 with the lectionary

This text makes for an interesting partner to today’s Gospel reading from Luke 4:21-30. In that text, Jesus’s audacity in pointing to the inclusion of outsiders (the widow of Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian) is met with such outrage that he is nearly killed on the spot. Here, in the context of a heated debate about the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul has the audacity to preach on the importance of love across lines of difference. Read together, these two texts illustrate the deep significance of Paul’s topic while also gesturing toward the possible consequences of such radical, self-giving love. In this season of Epiphany, these texts provide a reminder that part of what is revealed in Jesus is this very brand of love that is to be emulated by those who follow him.