Lectionary Commentaries for February 20, 2022
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 6:27-38

Sarah Henrich

These verses continue Jesus’ teaching that put us hearers on a level plain/playing field (verse 17) with all those to whom Jesus once spoke: the twelve, the crowd of disciples and the “multitude” from all over the area. We all get to hear Jesus open such a different world view from our own that it can leave us gasping.

As in last week’s passage (Luke 6:17-26), the real power that gives Jesus credibility has been demonstrated before the speaking even began (dynamis, 6:19). We heard that “power came out of him” and healed everyone. Along with all those eyewitnesses who are important to the veracity of Luke’s story (see also Luke 1:2, Acts 1:21-22), the readers/hearers see that power upending the power of lesser, troublesome spirits. We see that Jesus’ own predictions about his mission were truthful and that they cohere with God’s promised outcomes for humankind. In 4:18-19, Jesus has called upon the ancient words of his own scripture to attest to God’s continuing purposes, which he has been anointed to carry out.

After the blessings and woes of the beatitudes put those same purposes in memorable form, Jesus issues a call to take notice. In verse 20, he speaks to his disciples (a larger group than the Twelve but including them). Our passage begins with a slight shift in the audience description. In 6:27 Jesus begins, “I declare to you who are listening.” One could emphasize the present participle and translate it as: “I declare to you who are still listening.” Then he begins to describe the way in which those in covenantal relationship with God are called to live. That leads to the second reality that can shake up hearers.  

All that power that flows from Jesus is dedicated to and will bring about a very different world, God’s world. The power will level the playing field no matter what rules we have established to create and protect our positions. The thriving of all creatures in God’s realm requires a different ethos from those customarily in place. Jesus quickly lists a bunch of plural imperatives that describe behavior for those still listening. The very first imperative, “love,” is followed by some quite concrete examples. Do good; don’t just think well of, but do good too. Pray for, bless, give, do. This is a constructive ethos of behavior that will be summed up in verse 36 which is the basis for the examples Jesus puts forward, sums them up and is itself a touchstone for questions about how to live in God’s realm.  

Those who follow Jesus are to live as God lives, mercifully and generous beyond expectation, beyond comprehension. The norm for the world is what “sinners” do very well indeed: they love, lend, and do good. In our own day, it would be a joy if even the way of sinners was broadly lived out! But for disciples, for God’s people, loving, lending, and doing good are all about generosity that does not draw boundaries based on the recipients’ responses. It is good to keep in mind that love in this passage is about willing the good for another and acting on that will.  

The golden rule is insufficient for those in covenant relationship with (“children of,” verse 35) God. One’s own wishes for oneself are no measure for one’s treatment of others. Rather, God’s mercy is to be the measure for God’s people’s behavior.

In Mary’s song God is twice identified as merciful (verses 50, 54). In Zechariah’s, likewise (verses 72, 78). That mercy, a sign of God’s fidelity to God’s promises, creates a people who “might serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness” (1:74b-75). All gifts flow from God’s “tender mercy” and fidelity to promises made. In Luke 6, we see that generous healing, restoration, and hope flow through Jesus. Jesus makes sure we who are listening know that it is our calling as well.   

Coupled with the power that flows out of Jesus so mercifully at the beginning of our passage, the power to do the healing and curing and casting out of spirits continues throughout the gospel and is a power shared by Jesus’ followers in Acts. That for which Mary and Zechariah longed, expressed in words from Israel’s great history of longing, comes to life. God’s power is present, a promise that the realm of God is no chimera or fantasy, but that it is being lived out on a level-playing field, indeed, a leveling playing field in the world of Jesus.  

This longing for relationship is not something unique to the ancient world. Longing for a faithful relationship, where promises are kept, and roots can go deep, a relationship that can be healing and produce joy is not something we can relegate to the past. Jesus’ words to those who continue to listen, who “give heed” in that old-fashioned phrase, promise that we have a part in that relationship too. We are called to live in God’s realm in accord with God’s character and the power is there for us to do it, to be caught up, to be healed, to lose the hostile spirits that hold us captive, to receive and live mercy. There is no dearth of realities needing our best, most thoughtful mercy now.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Justin Michael Reed

Siblings fight. In the book of Genesis, the violence can be extreme. Some siblings kill each other (Genesis 4:1–16) or want to kill each other (Genesis 27:41). Some siblings take their murderous impulse out on hapless civilians recovering from surgery (Genesis 34:25 – 29). A sibling might mock (or molest) their little brother (Genesis 21:9). Another sibling is famous for deceiving his twin (Genesis 25:27–34; 27:1–40). A pair of siblings conspire against their incapacitated father (Genesis 19:30–38). Yet another pair of siblings compete in a fierce rivalry that leads them to coerce the most vulnerable members of their community into forced surrogacy (Genesis 30:1–13). And at the start of Joseph’s story, siblings initially intent on murder settle for selling their little brother into slavery (Genesis 37:12–36).

Joseph’s life story is like a mini-novel concluding the book of Genesis, and our lectionary reading is the climax of this novella. Therefore, it is appropriate that this passage deals with the issue of violent sibling conflict that has plagued humanity from the first brothers’ falling out east of Eden to the favorite child enslaved in a foreign land. 

Joseph’s dramatic journey began when his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt in Genesis 37. Joseph goes through a roller-coaster of good and bad fortunes as he rises to the highest position among his enslaver’s household, falls to the depths of false imprisonment, rises to be in charge of other prisoners, languishes in prison, and finally experiences a resurgence to new heights as an advisor—even “a father”—to Pharoah (Genesis 39–41, see also Genesis 45:8).  

Knowing this turbulent journey and considering the perpetual sibling violence and deception that recurs throughout Genesis, a reader might enter this lectionary passage anxious about how Joseph will interact with his brothers. Maybe we expect fierce retaliation from the former victim who now lords over Pharaoh’s entire household. After all, Joseph has been manipulating and deceiving his brothers since Genesis 42 when they first came to Egypt trying to survive a famine. But that is not what we get. Something has changed. At the start of our passage, Joseph is weeping and crying aloud (Genesis 45:1–2).

When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, they seem to presume that the old patterns of violence will persist; the narrator notes that they were silent because they were terrified (Genesis 45:3). But Joseph responds to their fears by revealing his surprising new perspective on the matter. He starts by vocalizing their wrongdoing, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:4). But instead of only focusing on the harm that the brothers intended and caused, Joseph transitions to asserting God’s role: “it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5; see also verse 7). By framing his brothers’ harmful actions within the larger program of God’s salvific work, Joseph charts a different path from their expectations.

This theology from Joseph—that the harm done by his brothers was actually part of God’s bigger plan to save many lives—has both dangers and benefits. In terms of its harmful consequences, a theology like this has been, and continues to be, used by those who see the slaughter and enslavement of millions of Africans as part of the larger plan from God to spread the gospel and save souls. One apparent danger of this theology is how it implicates God as a cause of extreme suffering and seems to justify something as inhumane as slavery. Although some Black Christians have adopted this theology in the past and present, others reject it, and still others argue that the text presents something more nuanced. They argue that God’s will for the greater good does not justify the evil actions and intentions of people. These Christians note that, by the end of Genesis, Joseph has not forgotten or forgiven how his brothers “intended to do harm to me” (literally “devised evil against me”) and God will be the judge for that offense (Genesis 50:19–20). Since people interpret Joseph’s God-talk in this passage in ways that justify or come close to justifying slavery, this is a text that must be handled with great care.

In terms of the clear benefits of Joseph’s theology, one can see that it allows Joseph to have a non-violent interaction with his brothers who harmed him. Admittedly, a peaceful encounter between alienated brothers is not entirely unheard of in Genesis. The narrator of Genesis briefly divulges that Ishmael and Isaac came together to bury their father, Abraham (Genesis 25:9–10). In Genesis 32–33 there is a much more dramatic description of estranged brothers, Jacob and Esau, meeting again. Jacob exudes fear of righteous vengeance coming from the brother whom he wronged (Genesis 32:8, 11, 17–21), but Esau falls on Jacob’s neck to hug and kiss him when they meet (Genesis 33:4). In spite of good reason for retaliation, Esau is happy to reunite with his brother. However, Jacob (likely still fearful) dissembles when Esau suggests they journey together (Genesis 33:12–15). In the end, Jacob extinguishes any hope from Esau that their reunion might have a greater impact than the single moment of this encounter.

The Joseph story is different. Joseph invites his brothers to live with him, and this reunification brings together the family that will eventually develop into an entire people in Egypt. In Joseph’s invitation, there is a special detail worth noting: Joseph wants to keep his brothers’ children and their children’s children near him (Genesis 45:10). Why focus on the children? 

Perhaps Joseph is thinking about the root causes of generational violence. Perhaps Joseph understands that retribution would never solve the violence done to him, it would only perpetuate it. Perhaps Joseph wants the children near so that he can be a formative influence in a new generation, a new community, that can break away from violent norms. Perhaps Joseph’s optimistic theology about God transforming evil human intentions into a greater good allows him to endure trauma and seek to transform society for the better rather than seeking revenge. Perhaps Joseph’s theology helps him to understand justice as building healthy relationships where everyone, especially victims and perpetrators of abuse, can weep, come together, and develop a better future for all members of society (Genesis 50:15–21). Perhaps … 

Perhaps Joseph is also a flawed product of his environment. Regardless of how his relationship changes with his brothers and their descendants, Joseph (an official of the royal superpower) still conforms to the strategies of empire. Look at how he uses the famine to prey upon vulnerable people’s money, possessions, and property until they are all reduced to slavery (Genesis 47:13–26). Clearly, Joseph is not perfect. Still, there might be some good that we can learn from him in our lectionary passage.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40

Paul K.-K. Cho

The issue at the center of Psalm 37 concerns the intersection of moral, ethical, and economic existence for the faithful. The advice of the acrostic and wisdom psalm is a heartfelt and difficult one: to vigorously live out the hope founded on faith in the God of the righteous and the meek. As such, the psalm deals with the connections between the earthly reality of economic and ethical living and the heavenly reality of divine moral will. Those who strive for righteousness are choosing to live in a world in which God reigns as the moral and economic authority—not, as it may be tempting to believe, the wicked, the wrongdoers, and their minions. Righteous living, in other words, is a protest against the machinations of the wicked and a concrete expression of faith in God.

Verse 35 clearly depicts the problematic center of the lived experience of the psalm:

35 I have seen the wicked oppressing,

and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.1 (See also 37:7, 16)

The psalm ascribes wicked behavior to the prosperous, figured in verse 35 as the legendary cedars of Lebanon. In addition, the psalm suggests that prosperity is the fruit of wrongdoing, including the oppression of the poor and righteous (37:7, 12, 14, 32). The other side of the wicked-prosperous equation is the call for the poor to commit themselves to godly righteousness (see also 37:3–5). That is, the psalm presents a bifurcated vision of lived experience in which the wicked prosper by their wickedness and the righteous suffer despite their righteousness. 

The bifurcated moral vision fuels the rhetorical passion of the psalm from the beginning:

1 Do not fret because of the wicked;

do not be envious of wrongdoers,

2 for they will soon fade like the grass,

and wither like the green herb (37:1–2)

The psalm addresses the righteous poor throughout; and the opening counsel against worry and envy assumes, first, that the poor suffer on account of the wicked wrongdoers and second, that the wicked prosper on account of their oppressive wrongdoings (37:7, 35). The simplistic equation of wickedness and prosperity makes the moral clarity of verse 2 possible: God will destroy the prosperous because they are wicked. And the clarity of that moral vision funds the rhetorical force of the psalm’s repeated plea for trust in God: “Trust in the LORD”(37:3); “Take delight in the LORD” (37:4); “Commit your way to the LORD” (37:5); “Be still before the LORD” (37:7).

The simple moral vision in which the prosperous are wicked and the poor are righteous serves the rhetorical purpose of the psalm well, namely, the exhortation of the meek toward righteous living and faithfulness toward God. The apparent moral clarity, however, can become a moral pitfall and, in any case, is a mirage. We do well, therefore, to examine closely and appreciate more fully the complexity of the psalm’s moral vision concerning the intersection among economic, ethical, and moral realities. 

The pitfall is the temptation to take too seriously the simplistic division between the prosperous and the poor and between the wicked and the righteous. The temptation to do so is endemic to the psalm, since the psalm itself seems to cast such a vision. But also endemic to the psalm is a counterargument to the simplistic moral vision. 

The first counterargument is the psalm’s confident declaration that God oversees both the moral universe and the economic reality. Consistently throughout the psalm, God is said to be against the wicked and their wrongdoings and for the righteous and their good deeds. Furthermore, in this theological vision of the moral/economic landscape, the wicked are destined for destruction and the righteous for the inheritance of the land—which means, in the agrarian society of ancient Israel, financial security and, within the context of the Hebrew Bible, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. This theological claim that God oversees both the moral and economic dimensions of lived life speaks against a strictly bifurcated reality in which the wicked oppress the poor and the rich oppose the righteous. 

In fact, the temptation to buy into the simplistic moral vision that binds wickedness and prosperity is precisely what the psalm warns against from beginning to end. The reason that the poor are to eschew fretting about the wicked and being envious of wrongdoers for their prosperity, according to the psalm, is because God, and not the seemingly powerful wicked wrongdoers, is the one who is ultimately in control. That is, the perception that the wicked are in control of the lived economic realities of the poor is a momentary mirage. 

If the poor and the righteous fret about the wicked and are envious of wrongdoers, it is because they have begun to believe that the wicked prosper by their wickedness (37:7) and are tempted to mimic them. The psalm speaks against such a perception as a mirage and declares that God is in control. It is God who will give the land as an inheritance to those who trust in him and choose to live in righteousness (37:9, 22, 29, 34). That is to say, to believe that the wicked prosper by their wrongdoing is to fail to trust in God.

Two further temptations and potential misperceptions arise once we ascribe to God full control over the moral and the economic realities. The first temptation is to interpret the present situation, in which the wicked seem to have prospered by their wrongdoing, as a permanent feature of divine rule, that is, as proof of divine failure to uphold the promise of salvation and redemption for the righteous who trust in the Lord (37:39–40). The second potential misperception is to defer God’s promised salvation perpetually into the future. The former leads to despair, and the second to an other-worldly focus. 

This brings us to the more nuanced moral and economic vision of the psalm. The psalm acknowledges that the wicked prosper by their wrongdoings, including the oppression of the poor and the righteous. However, it does not equate prosperity squarely with wickedness. For example, verses 21–22 speaks of “the righteous [who] are generous and keep giving” and apparently have already been “blessed by the LORD” and have “inherit[ed] the land.” The prosperous may be equally wicked and righteous. And the same can be said about the poor. The poor can be wicked (37:22). In the same vein, the psalm exhorts the oppressed and the righteous to trust in God because they also experience the temptation to fret and be envious of the wicked wrongdoers, to believe that prosperity can be had by wickedness. In sum, the psalm complicates any effort to bind prosperity to either wickedness or righteousness, while steadfastly maintaining that God favors the righteous and the oppressed against the claims of the wicked.

In conclusion, Psalm 37 speaks against the temptation to see wickedness, especially the oppression of others, as a sustainable path toward prosperity. God is not neutral about the ethics of economic life and condemns gain that comes at the cost of injustice and oppression. Rather, the psalm claims that God looks with prejudicial interest on the plight of the poor and remains committed to a blessedness that builds on the moral and ethical good.

3Trust in the LORD, and do good;

so you will live in the land, and enjoy security (37:3).

 


Notes

  1.  Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50

Frank L. Crouch

Epiphany is a season of revelations and manifestations. These words of Paul to the people of Corinth call on them to ponder the ordinary experiences of life in order to understand the hidden things of God. To know the realm of God in all its dimensions, Paul encourages us to think about the differences between seeds and the plants they produce, or about the impermanence of flesh and blood, or about what it is like to look back on last year (or month or week) and assess how well we spent the hours of our days. 

Paul seems to be fielding questions from the congregation, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” His initial response sounds exasperated, throwing up his hands and rolling his eyes, “Fool!” (Not Paul’s most patient, pastoral, “open mic” moment.) But he settles down and tries to answer questions about the afterlife with analogies to our here-and-now life (15:36). He mellows by the end, contrasting the limitations of this world with eternal qualities of the realm of God.

He starts with seeds. References to seeds and their value lie scattered throughout scripture. 

  • In creation, they are named as signifiers and sources of the renewal of life (Genesis 1:11-12, 29).
  • The Law includes them as a category of giving back to God; a tithe of seed from the ground is “holy to the LORD” (Leviticus 27:30). 
  • Isaiah describes the capacity of God’s word “to accomplish what [God] purposes” with the analogy of a seed’s capacity to produce food for your table (Isaiah 55:10-11). 
  • In a parable, Jesus likens the sowing of seed to the proclamation of the Word, which finds root inside us and then might either wither, be crowded out, or come to life and produce abundance (Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:1-15). 
  • Another parable compares the reign of God to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a source of shade, shelter, and new birth (Matthew 13:31; Mark 4:30-2; Luke 13:18-19). 
  • A third parable compares the reign of God and its mysteries to someone who plants seed in the ground, and over time it sprouts and grows “he knows not how” (Mark 4:26-7).

In using this image, Paul draws on a common, rich, agricultural image of new life that would be immediately accessible to many first century and later audiences. During the Epiphany season, all of the above images align with the theme of revelation and the manifestation of hidden possibilities. A common process—ever present in the natural growth from seed to plant, to food and shelter—mirrors the ways and power of God, ever-available and life-creating whenever they take root and grow inside of individuals and communities.

Paul takes this one step further, working with another dimension of this image. Paul’s statement that “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (15:36) speaks of movement, figuratively and literally, out of a state of death into an enduring life. He implicitly connects a truth of the agricultural world to what the reign of God both promises us and asks of us. Paul describes what the world offers us—the world that humans have created, with its structures, systems, and powers. It is, at best, impermanent, inevitably moving toward its ending. It is dishonorably disconnected from the ways of God. It cannot begin to offer the life energy and strength that God abundantly provides (15:42). 

On the other hand, God promises an enduring, imperishable life. In contrast to what the world offers, this life intimately connects us to God’s gifts and glory. Because of the gifts and vitality of this life, it satisfies not only for an earthly lifetime but also into eternal life (15:42, 49). Eternal life is not mainly about never-ending-ness, but about strength and fullness. The ultimate point is not the eternal part but the life part, an everlasting fullness and completeness that transcends life in this world and death. 

Paul illustrates that fullness of life by contrasting the life of those who only live within the realm of “the first Adam” (from the creation stories) with the life of those who live in the realm of “the last Adam,” Jesus Christ. Paul states, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit … Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (15:42, 49). 

No matter how well designed and constructed, technologically advanced, beautifully proportioned, or well marketed, the best that the world of Adam can offer us is dust. The world we humans have created … we see its earth-boundedness, its dust-boundedness week by week, month by month simply by looking at the horizontal surfaces in our houses, on our streets, on our sidewalks, in our yards, and on pools and bodies of water. Dirt and dust comes from somewhere and accumulates everywhere. Vacuum, wipe, sweep, clean, or hose it down. Next week or next month, there’s that dust again. We inherited that dustiness at birth, born in the image of Adam.

Paul speaks of another image available to us, the image of God, not disintegrating into dust but steadily enduring with vibrancy, fullness, and even glory in the realm of Christ. For Paul, our bodies bear traces of the dust that we are and the dust that we will be. We labor within those limitations. But we also have available to us a realm of God in which we aren’t stuck with those limits. We can become, in Christ, a revelation, a manifestation of God’s hidden possibilities, lying within us, waiting to grow into life that death can’t end.