Lectionary Commentaries for February 6, 2022
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 5:1-11

Kendra A. Mohn

The themes in this text around trust, call, discipleship, abundance, discouragement, risk, and persistence are always relevant but have particular resonance during this challenging pandemic time.1

This text can be heard both as an acknowledgment of a time of emptiness and bleakness, as well as encouragement for discipleship and recognition of Jesus as the source of hope and abundance.

Scholars often identify the uniqueness of Luke’s narrative with respect to the other Synoptics.  The immediate obedience of the disciples to Jesus in Matthew and Mark is not the emphasis here; this is not a call without context. In Luke, the call of these fishermen to discipleship comes in the midst of 1) learning from Jesus’s teaching and 2) witnessing the acts of God. Exploring this pattern has the potential to comfort and equip a community of hearers.

Like in the previous chapter, this text does not provide the substance of Jesus’s teaching. At this point in Luke, Jesus’s public ministry has included several references to his teaching, including his reading of Isaiah, but not long descriptions of his own content. The interplay between teaching and healing established in Chapter 4 continues here; the narrative underscores Jesus’s authority and popularity as teacher, piquing further interest in his ministry.

After he has finished instruction, Jesus shifts the conversation to focus on Simon and his nets, setting up the act of God. Simon’s reply acknowledges the reality of limits and scarcity, but also his willingness to listen and try again. Jesus’ mentioning of the “deep water” implies that there may be unexplored areas of potential beyond perceived limits of resources, knowledge, and energy. The response to this willingness is immediate; suddenly they have more fish than two boats can bear.

The act of God here is characterized by abundance and provision. A large catch of fish represents stability and care, support, and having enough. It is a physical manifestation of having one’s needs met. If this is where the text would have ended, that provision could have been the focus. It would have celebrated the receipt of daily bread, which is no small thing in that context or in this one. With so many facing food insecurity and a long winter still to come, the image of enough food, of provision and plenty, is compelling.

Further, the size of the catch indicates provision beyond the immediate moment. This is food enough to sell so that the fishermen will have resources beyond today. They can eat again tomorrow. And, the food that is sold becomes daily sustenance to others. So, while the large catch of fish conveys provision and plenty for Simon and his partners, it also signals a world beyond these fishermen and their immediate needs. The obvious surplus that can feed many more surpasses instinct or ability for hoarding or secrecy. The community is in view.

But our text continues beyond the large catch. Jesus, after providing the gift of plenty and even excess, tells the disciples that they are being called. In some ways, this call is similar to their present work; in others, it is different. The image of fishing is still used, but now it involves people. The climax of the story is the call, not the abundance. In their new role, the disciples will gather the people with the message from and about Jesus. They will follow him while leading and serving others.

Although not the focus, the themes of abundance and provision for the community—having enough—surround this new call. The metaphor of fishing for people remains problematic in our context and can be acknowledged as such. It is incongruous and raises questions in the hearer. What does this look like? How does it happen? These questions send the hearer both forward and backward, looking for answers and clarity. The sermon can guide this exploration, moving forward and backward to gain perspective. What do we already know about Jesus? And what do we learn later in the Luke about the way God works?

What do we know about Jesus that will give meaning to this call that comes not just to the first disciples, but to the weary ones in January 2021? The way the “fishing for people” unfolds in Luke’s Gospel is not coercive or domineering. It is personal, relational work—deep water work—where healing and plenty follow and mark the encounters of the disciples with Jesus and with God’s people. The interplay between teaching, healing, and call continues. Looking forward, there is death, and then resurrection.

Reminding the scattered community of this, the preacher can then orient them to their own future questions. What are we going to learn in the coming weeks and months about the way God works? Like the reference of Jesus’s teaching, this is not a question of content, but of faith. It invites the hearers to sharpen their focus and increase awareness, trusting that God will act. This focus on God’s nature and God’s action reminds the hearers of God’s provision and abundance, and also may open up local and contextual space for communities and individuals to identify the next opportunities to minister and serve.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 24, 2021.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

This is a word from the divine in a crisis, a Spielberg-worthy vision of the divine: large, powerful, fearsome even, surrounded by smoke, bizarre creatures, and a fascinated prophet. God communicated with people through various means in scripture: the Torah (teachings), nature (Psalm 8), and prophetic oracles. Here God communicates in a vision. Visions play a role in God’s revelation in various parts of scripture: Genesis 37, Amos 7, Daniel 7, Matthew 1-2. Dreams and visions communicate that what we see around us does not contain all of the truth. Sometimes, what a prophet sees in a vision communicates truth more fully and helpfully than what we can detect with our senses. Our senses do not communicate God’s continuing presence and power. 

Certainly, the vision creates a sense of wonder and might. The vision seems intended to reassure the prophet that his ministry has the backing of a formidable God. The vision communicates the divine presence not in the heavenly realms, but in the earthly temple. Uzziah had abdicated to his son, but he remained a stabilizing presence, a reminder of all that he had accomplished. The vision seems intended to convey that, despite the change in political leadership, a powerful God remains present. The passage teaches about worship, about the nature of God, and about ministry, both in the time of the prophet and today. 

Commentators have remarked that this passage contains elements of worship: proclamation of God’s holiness, confession of sin, absolution, and an invitation. Worship in a crisis can console, empower, provide perspective, and engender hope. In worship we enter God’s time and space. Many people have commented that the contemporary church does not fully appreciate the dangerous side of worship.

 In worship, the church encounters God in both comforting and challenging ways. Worship deals with ultimate, cosmic, infinite things. The church would benefit from more of a sense of awe and even fear. The image of the divine, the flying snakes, the smoke, and the shaking all grab our attention. Pastors can reflect on the reaction if a prayer of confession was followed by kissing a live coal. Yet the action speaks to the seriousness of forgiving sins. 

Scripture and the church confirm both the transcendence and immanence of God. The church needs both traits. The transcendence of God communicates divine strength in the face of evil. Divine immanence communicates approachability, care, and involvement. The passage from Isaiah emphasizes the transcendence of God. The Lord is “high and lofty.” The seraphim praise God’s holiness, the divine otherness, separation from the world. Yet this transcendent, holy God cares about what happens in the world. God calls the prophet to minister to the people. 

Later in Isaiah, from another time and author come words that speak of God’s accessibility, as the prophet talks of God treating the people the way a mother treats a nursing child, 66:10-13. We may prefer the accessible God, the God like a tender mother, but in the midst of overwhelming problems, the transcendent God, high and lofty, seated on a throne, speaks to us as well. We do not face the evil of the world alone. God’s power may not seem obvious, but the vision points to its reality. 

One can note the common themes between Isaiah’s situation and ours. If Uzziah’s death created political uncertainty, we too are awash in political uncertainty. The politicians in the United States seem unable to work together. Democracy is under attack in various places in the world. Drug lords and human traffickers seem unstoppable. If Isaiah thought he lived among a people of unclean lips, we live with cyberbullying, hate speech, name-calling, microaggressions, profane chanting, and promulgation of conspiracy theories. Since much of the language happens online, we might call ourselves people of unclean lips and fingers. 

Even though we find the vision itself intriguing, a really important part comes in the second half of the passage, the part that appears in the verses in parentheses in the lectionary listing. The great temptation is to stop reading at verse 8, where the prophet, with seeming enthusiasm, volunteers to go into service, without reading the fine print. That verse inspires the participation of the congregation! The part of the passage starting at verse 9 raises important questions about what it means to do ministry. 

The powerful, enormous deity who calls the prophet to service tells him that the people will not listen. The Hebrew grammar even suggests that Isaiah’s preaching will cause the people not to hear. Ironically, the powerful God, seated on a throne, with flying snakes all around him does not (cannot?) change the intransigence of the people. The contemporary preacher can invoke the free will of the people to choose not to listen to the prophet’s message. The powerful God allows the people to ignore the message. God tells the prophet to proclaim the message despite the unwillingness of the people to hear it. 

Recent reports have suggested that the percentage of people belonging to a church has dropped to below half. One must examine that information carefully. The preacher and the church cannot simply blame the audience. The church has done some things that have turned people off. Nevertheless, the church too quickly identifies faithful ministry as big numbers and outward success. The second part of the passage suggests that faithful ministry involves proclaiming the message despite the reaction or the response. Faithful ministry keeps the witness going. 

One hears frequently the assertion that the church can “change the world” by its efforts. A meme on social media cites the late Archbishop Tutu talking about how small acts of goodness and kindness will change the world. God does not call the prophet to change the world, or even the people of Israel. Isaiah proclaims the message, even in spite of apathy and opposition. This understanding of ministry may not provide a stirring rallying cry. Nevertheless, the passage calls the church to integrity, to endurance, to trust in God despite an unfavorable response. The passage calls the church to faithfulness, not measurable success. Trust in the powerful deity. 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 138

Jerome Creach

Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving in individual style. The opening line, “I give you thanks” (verse 1a) is a common feature of thanksgiving songs. Such songs perhaps served as liturgies for the offering of well-being (Leviticus 7:11-18), the words of the psalm accompanying the thanksgiving sacrifice. The word for the offering in Hebrew is todah, the same term that may more generally mean “thanksgiving” and the verbal expression “I give thanks” here comes from the same Hebrew root. The sacrifice of well-being was a free-will offering Israelites made in response to God’s gift of healing from illness or restoration of any sort. Jeremiah 33:10-11 depicts such an offering after the lord restored the fortunes of Judah from the devastating circumstances of Babylonian captivity. Whether or not Psalm 138 was used alongside a sacrifice of this type, it contains beautiful words of thanksgiving for a prayer of gratitude.

“With my whole heart” is a Deuteronomic expression that communicates a whole-hearted desire to give thanks (see 1 Kings 8:23; Jeremiah 3:10; 24:7). The phrase is a first-person version of the words “with all your heart” in the Shema’s injunction to love God completely (Deuteronomy 6:5). The reference to the temple in verse 2 confirms a possible setting in worship like that described above, namely, for one who came to give an offering after God restored her from sickness or trouble.

Despite the appropriateness of Psalm 138 for the cultic act of making a thanksgiving offering, a number of elements of the psalm suggest the psalm served as “a general song of praise by the restored community in the postexilic period” rather than just the song of an individual.1 For example, the first section of the psalm (verses 1-3) gives very general reasons for thanksgiving and does not indicate a situation of sickness or other specific trouble. Also, rather than giving details of God’s restoration, it simply names God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” (verse 2) which are popular descriptions of divine character (see Exodus 34:6) and recalls only that “On the day I called, you answered me” (verse 3).

The psalm identifies perhaps its most important setting in verse 1b: “before the gods I sing your praise.” The expression, “before the gods” (verse 1b) reflects the task of the community of faith to witness to God’s power and goodness in a world in which many “gods” vie for attention. Although these words may not seem applicable for modern believers who have adopted a narrow understanding of monotheism, “before the gods” is a powerful reminder that God is the only true source of healing and refuge. Praise in the Old Testament always has a positive, straightforward dimension in which the worshipper declares his or her adoration of God (“I sing your praise”). It also carries, however, a pejorative element, a denunciation of the power of “the gods” which modern worshippers do well to recognize in all the forces that claim their loyalty.

Verses 4-6 focus on the nations’ recognition of the LORD with assurance that they will acknowledge the ways of the LORD and give praise (verses 4-5). Verse 6 identifies the primary reason for this praise: the LORD’s character is worthy of it because the LORD “regards the lowly.” This fundamental statement of God’s character is common in the psalms. Although God is powerful, it is the particular use of divine might that defines the LORD. Namely, the LORD exercises power to bring justice and equity (see Psalm 97:2b, “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne”). Psalm 82 presents this concern for justice as the primary characteristic of divinity, and here Psalm 138:4-6 identifies it as the reason the “kings of the earth” will ultimately acknowledge the LORD’s sovereignty.

Verses 7-8 return to explicitly individual language as the psalm concludes with thanksgiving for deliverance from trouble similar to that in other thanksgiving songs (see Psalm 30). The final line, however, speaks again of a community of faith. “The work of your hands” describes God’s people in other passages (verse 8; see Isaiah 60:21; 64:8). Thus, the psalm as a whole testifies to God’s deliverance as individuals experience it as part of the redeemed community. It points to the larger purpose of salvation, namely to reveal to the “nations” the goodness of God and to testify to the community’s reliance on God and confidence that God’s salvation will come to completion.2

The preacher does well to highlight the nature of thanksgiving and to note the thanksgiving offering that stands in the background of this psalm. Perhaps most important to note, however, is that this psalm has potential to guide worshippers to the true meaning and purpose of thanksgiving. It reminds us that our salvation, for which we give thanks, is not for us alone. It is also evidence of the reign of God and the coming of God’s kingdom. With that recognition, Psalm 138 gives us language to proclaim the truth of God’s kingdom to the powers of this world that claim falsely to hold the keys to life.


Notes

  1. James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 424.
  2. Mays, Psalms, p. 425.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Melanie A. Howard

Showing up elsewhere in the lectionary (Year B) on Easter Sunday, this text from 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 may at first seem oddly placed in the season after Epiphany. However, if imagined more broadly, the revelations celebrated in Epiphany include not only Jesus’s birth and identity, but also the revelation of his death and resurrection. Thus, this passage in 1 Corinthians 15, focused so heavily on Christ’s resurrection, provides a fitting perspective on the wonders of the Epiphany season.

Power of the Gospel

In many ways, the whole of this passage is a reflection on the power of the gospel. Paul begins his discussion in verses 1-2 with a reflection on this very power. As he describes it, it is this powerful gospel in which the Corinthians believe (verse 1), in which they stand (verse 1), and by which they are being saved (verse 2). 

This acknowledgement of the gospel’s salvific power is especially interesting. Paul’s use of a present passive verb (sozesthe) highlights some interesting aspects of Paul’s soteriology. First, his use of the present tense points to the continuous and contemporaneous nature of salvation as he understands it. That is, salvation was not a one-time past event but rather is an on-going iterative process that continues into the current time. Second, his use of the passive voice highlights the divine (not human!) origins of this salvation. That is, the Corinthians themselves are merely the human beneficiaries of salvation, not actors in the salvific process. 

The Gospel in summary

Verses 3-4 are, perhaps, the crux of this entire chapter. These verses articulate the central claims of the gospel message that is saving the Corinthians. Paul introduces this message with a preface that recalls his preface in 11:23 to the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper. The phrase “I handed on to you” highlights Paul’s role as something of an intermediary between the great tradition and the members of the church in Corinth. In both chapters 11 and 15, the content of what Paul “hands on” has remained foundational in many contemporary liturgical practices of the Lord’s Supper. Both the words of institution and the memorial acclamation of some contemporary church traditions (“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”) arise from these teachings that Paul bestows upon the Corinthians. 

The actual content of verses 3-4 offers one of Paul’s clearest summations of the foundational Christian message: Christ died, was buried, and was raised. For all of Paul’s grand theologizing, these statements of belief provide a clear and succinct summary of the essence of the gospel. 

Embedded into this synopsis of the gospel, Paul includes a note that Christ “was buried” and “was raised.” The passive constructions of these claims may hint at Paul’s attribution of divine agency in this process. That is, given that the use of passive verb forms throughout the New Testament is often a roundabout way of indirectly attributing actions to God, it may be that the passive verbs here are serving a similar purpose.

Evidence of resurrection

Paul seems to recognize the potential for claims about resurrection to seem absurd, and so he calls in a bevy of witnesses to support his argument. First, he appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures. Twice in as many verses, Paul asserts that this gospel message is “in accordance with the Scriptures.” This assertion provides a powerful check against any supersessionist or antisemitic tendencies that might be inclined to assert the superiority of Christ’s work above the ancient traditions. Rather, for Paul, Christ’s work is the natural continuation of God’s work as it is described in the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible serves as a witness to the truth of Christ’s resurrection.

Paul then turns in verses 5-8 to providing other witnesses to support these claims to Jesus’s victory over death. This list of witnesses that Paul amasses in verses 5-7 is both extensive and impressive. That is, not only are an unnamed group of five hundred individuals witness to Jesus’ resurrection appearance, but the early church stars Cephas and James can also corroborate this account.

“Resurrecting” Paul

At the end of the list of witnesses, Paul finally includes himself. However, Paul is quick to qualify his own limitations: he is untimely born, least among the apostles, and even unfit for the title apostle (verses 8-9). This is no mere false modesty on Paul’s part. Indeed, as he recognizes (verse 9b), his previous persecution of the church could call into question his fitness to lead the institution. As will become evident later in 2 Corinthians, some within the Corinthian congregation have similar concerns (see also 2 Corinthians 10:10). Nonetheless, what others might take as a mark of dishonor, Paul wears as a badge of pride. As he notes, these deficiencies simply mean that he had to work harder than all the rest to get where he is as a leader of the church (1 Corinthians 15:10). 

Intriguingly, Paul’s self-deprecating remarks in verses 9-10 make for an interesting pairing with the Old Testament reading assigned for today from Isaiah 6. In Isaiah’s call narrative, Isaiah laments being a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips (6:5). However, just as Isaiah is divinely prepared for the momentous task at hand, so too has Paul been endowed with the ability to proclaim the gospel such that he can confidently assert that his audience in Corinth has come to believe.

Paul’s own dramatic story of moving from being a persecutor of the church to its champion provides a fitting backdrop for his teaching about Christ’s resurrection. That is, if God could enact this sort of “resurrection” in Paul’s own life, how much more powerful is the true resurrection of Christ? It is this resurrection to which Paul points his audience and to which this text orients contemporary readers during the season of Epiphany. Thus, rather than celebrating only the birth and initial revelation of Jesus, this text calls for contemporary readers to recognize the fullness of Christ’s identity, including his life, death, and even resurrection.