Lectionary Commentaries for March 2, 2022
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Shively Smith

Ash Wednesday represents the beginning point of the paschal liturgical cycle. It is composed of two seasons, Lent and Easter (Pasch), and two single-day Sunday celebrations, Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. Easter Sunday celebrates the founding story of our Christian identities as the day marking the faithful proclamation Jesus, as the Christ, has risen” (Luke 24:5-12)! Pentecost Sunday celebrates the gift of the collective inspiriting of Christ’s believers with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12-14; 2:1-3) who was active throughout the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Luke 1:35, 41; 3:22; 4; Acts 1:2, 5, et cetera). 

Ash Wednesday kicks off this two-season cycle. It is a cycle of reflection and reliving Jesus’ journey toward his death, metaphorically referred to by Paul as the paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7; Exodus 12:3-8, 21). It is also a cycle of expectation. We anticipate the renewal of being a diverse, believing people through rekindling the spiritual fires of Pentecost.

Thus, Ash Wednesday is an important moment of beginning. Today’s readings from Matthew 6 hold elements of somberness and encouragement, reserve and anticipation, and activity and steadiness. The Gospel lesson is a preparatory invitation to “still ourselves” before God and assess the practices of faith that will accompany us in this season of faithful worship and “re”-living. 

In terms of literary context, Matthew 6:16, 16-21 is a part of the first extended discourse in the Gospel of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The other extended Jesus monologues and teachings in Matthew include: the discourse on mission (Matthew 10), the parable discourse (Matthew 13), the discourse on community practice (Matthew 18), and the apocalyptic discourse (Matthew 23-25).  

There are, at least, two interpretive angles for approaching this Ash Wednesday text with a focus on stilling ourselves before God.  

Why we do what we do

Today’s lectionary unit highlights three (3) religious practices common to first-century Judaism that continue to be practiced today: (1) almsgiving (Matthew 6:2–4), (2) prayer (Matthew 6:5–6), and (3) fasting (Matthew 6:16-17).  

Each practice is prefaced by Jesus with the conditional clause, “whenever you…” Each description that follows, juxtaposes human perception to God’s reception of our religious activities. There is a striking contrast between public performance and internal disposition running like a silver lining throughout this unit. For example, public performance of giving is juxtaposed with giving anonymously to others without fanfare or recognition. Likewise, the public performance of prayer is eschewed for a quieter form of centering presence before God. It depicts fasting as a mode of constancy, as opposed to altering one’s appearance to announce what is your current religious practice of choice. Viewed through Matthew 6, Ash Wednesday is a calibrating moment, indeed. We are presented with the opportunity to evaluate ourselves by asking: “Why do I do what I do, during this season?”  

What mattersvisibility or invisibility?

While it is a matter of visibility and invisibility, even more importantly, Matthew 6 raises questions about religious practices that are perceptible and imperceptible, and to whom.  In verse 1, this unit begins with the warning, “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention” (Common English Bible translation). The unit concludes in verse 19 with a warning command, “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth … ” (Common English Bible translation). Our faith commitments are public confessions of living out the justice of God as a believing collective (2 Peter 1:1-2). But it is also about ensuring that we do so not because we seek notoriety, greater power, and more influence among our communities. We live out our faith as a people compelled in the reward (misthos, Matthew 6:1,2, 4, 5, 6, 16, 18) that comes with being accompanied by the presence of God. 

Ultimately, today’s Gospel reading calibrates our sense of what is important in our religious practices. As we move into the Lenten season with our focus on fasting, prayers and giving, we assess: to what end are we living out our faith practices? For whom are we doing these things and what are we seeking to gain? 

Our Ash Wednesday passage both describes and prescribes the forms and attitudes by which we make visible our relationship to God. More importantly, it reminds us that our faith is not defined by self-serving ends, even when we are doing what is good, just, and helpful. Our calling is to live out what is good, just, and helpful because in that way, we join Jesus on his journey. 

The journey of this paschal liturgical cycle is characterized by caring about others and the world, whether it is popular or unpopular, applauded or criticized. It is a season to do what we do as faithful people because it deepens our identity and rootedness in the creative imperatives of God that care about the poor, the voiceless, the disinherited, and the exploited in opposition to systems that care less about its own people. 

May we journey this season with Jesus remembering that his religious practices animated his social actions. And, together, they sent him to the cross first, not the throne.

First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Wil Gafney

Joel is a particularly timeless text.1

There are insufficient contextual cues to identify its timeframe. There is no mention of a monarch in the opening verse by which to date it as is common in the prophetic canon. (Only Joel, Obadiah, and Malachi do not provide such information initially; however, Obadiah clearly dates itself with its content, the fall of Jerusalem.)

The precipitating event for Joel is slightly clearer, an ecological—and therefore economic—catastrophe in the form of an unparalleled locust plague and the devastation of crops leading to the decimation of livestock (Joel 1:4-7, 11-12, 17-18). The devastation is interpreted as “the day of the Lord” in Joel 1:15, a day of ultimate judgment many associate with the end of the world. In response to this cataclysm the prophet calls for fasting and lamentation, (1:13-14).

The verses assigned for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, anticipate successive waves of calamity. In Joel as in some other prophets there is the sense that the day might just not be the end of the world, that there is a possibility that some might survive the coming apocalypse through God’s mercy (Joel 2:13-14). God bids the people “return to [God]” in 2:12 with fasting, weeping, and mourning, and in verse 13, rending their hearts rather than their garments.

It is important to note that no specific charge is laid against the people for which they need to repent. More importantly, they are not blamed for the catastrophe they have just experienced. (I am writing in Fall 2017 in the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, José, and Maria, and the earthquake in Mexico City). Unlike some contemporary television evangelists, the prophet does not blame the people for their own suffering, and does not claim that natural catastrophes are divine punishment. While turning to God, particularly turning back to God often signals repentance which is the primary meaning of the verb shuv, here I suggest it be read as rededication.

I read the call in Joel 2 as a call to draw closer to God. That is undoubtedly why the lectionary framers chose this text for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the season in which we as the Church are bid to draw closer to God using the very same spiritual disciplines disclosed in Joel: prayer and fasting. Joel 2:16 calls for the entire community to respond to the call for rededication—infants, children, and elders (making it even less likely they are charged with “sinning”) and wedding parties enjoined to suspend festivities.

Joel 2:14 bids the community to turn to God in the hopes that God will intervene in the ecological catastrophe. The prophet is clear that there is no guarantee. God cannot be bought off. This is not a prosperity gospel or incantational theology in which you can get what you want out of God as long as you follow the rules exactly.

Joel has a special word for priests and “ministers,” those who assist in the service of temple in verse 17. (The Episcopalian in me wants to read them as deacons.) While neither priests nor their assistants are the same as contemporary clergy, the two groups can serve an analog for clergy. The text charges those who oversee the liturgical work of the community with interceding for the community.

They are not charged with pointing out sin in the community, but praying for them, to the point of tears. The prophet even gives them a script, “Spare your people, Holy One, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Reminiscent of Moses, Joel invokes shame as a motivation to move God to act on behalf of her people. (See Exodus 32:12 and Numbers 14:13-16 where Moses tells God what the Egyptians will say if God kills the Israelites or allows them die.)

Joel offers a familiar tender portrait of the God who draws us in, towards her: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). This core description of God is foundational in Judaism and is repeated throughout the scriptures: see also Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; Jonah 4:2. All of these use forms of the root rhm, meaning womb to expresses God’s tender love, often translated as “merciful.” Rahum is the deep love that springs from the womb, no more separable than the heart is from heartache.

It is to that God that the Church turns during Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday. The opening prayer of the day in the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book of the Episcopal Church, translates Joel’s understanding of God into the liturgy:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on February 14, 2018.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-12

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

This is a message important enough to shout, to sound the trumpet/ram’s horn in accompaniment. The people need to hear these words. This part of Isaiah, often called III Isaiah, reflects the problems of the community once they arrived back in Jerusalem/Judah. They had heeded the words of II Isaiah (chapters 40-55), and taken the risk of rebuilding and reformulating the community. Now, problems have arisen. Verse 12 suggests that the rebuilding of the physical structures has stalled. 

More importantly for the prophet, the community remains spiritually sick. Economic and social injustice plague those called to witness as God’s people. Perhaps the returning exiles enjoyed more prosperity than the ones who had remained after the exile. Some farmers may have endured a poor harvest. For whatever reason, some in the community had more money, food and resources than others. Those who had more did not provide for the needs of those who had less. The economic disparity led to some form of oppression: indebtedness, or being sold into slavery. The problems of the community had morphed from oppression by the Babylonians to internal polarization. The Lord saw the problem as serious enough for enough noise to get the people’s attention. 

Even though one can talk about the historical situation in this passage in at least general ways, the conflict within the community has timeless elements. Some of the people practice fasting, and wear sackcloth and ashes in an attempt to build a relationship with the divine. One must admit that those who fast take something about their relationship with the divine seriously. The phrase in the NRSV translated as “humble ourselves” may refer to some form of physical self-punishment. The Lord, speaking through the prophet, ridicules the efforts to act humbly: “to bow down the head like a bulrush.” The verse creates the image of the wind blowing over a bulrush. The prophet speaks the inspired word that one cannot build a relationship with the divine while ignoring the suffering of the rest of the community. The prophet does not disparage fasting in itself, but rejects the practice apart from seeking justice and compassion within the community. 

The promises in verse 10b-12 about what will happen if the community practices both justice and charity seem imprecise (“your gloom will be like the noonday”), but they speak to health within the community and relationship between the community and the divine. As suggested above, the prophet believes that the lack of progress on the rebuilding program results from the spiritual sickness of the community. Perhaps the lack of progress represents either the logical result of a lack of spiritual health, or divine retribution. 

This chapter connects with the rest of the prophetic corpus. First Isaiah, in the opening chapter, condemns economic injustice, corruption in the courts, and poor treatment of the vulnerable (12-17). Amos calls for fair treatment of the poor and the afflicted (2:6-8). Micah contains the most scathing rebukes of those who treat the poor unjustly, using the language of cannibalism to describe the way the rich treat the poor (3:1-3). Amos also declares that the Lord rejects the worship of the people because of their injustice (5:21-24). Micah famously uses the image of a court, in which the defendant seeks a “plea bargain” to assuage divine anger. No amount of sacrifice will substitute for the practices of humility, kindness, and justice (6:1-8). The very injustices that the people in the returned community of III Isaiah practice now formed part of the reason the people were sent into exile in the first place. Any hopes of the prophets that the people would learn from their mistakes proved unfounded. 

One can readily see the connection between the ideas in this passage and the testimony of the gospels. Luke 4:18 clearly invokes verse 6 of Isaiah 58, along with Isaiah 61:1-2. Luke 4 plays a significant role in the portrayal of Jesus’ mission for the gospel writer. Matthew, in the sermon on the mount, teaches that one can practice fasting, an important spiritual discipline, in a way that does not lead to spiritual growth (6:16-18). In that case, some people fasted to gain attention from others. 

A well-known passage near the end of Matthew indicates that the clear demarcation between those approved within God’s judgment and those disapproved was the effort to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and take care of the vulnerable (Matthew 25:31-46, the sheep and the goats judgment scene). Clearly, the concerns of this passage appear throughout scripture. Taking care of the needs of others, protecting the vulnerable, and attending to the whole community form a foundation of religious ethics in both testaments. 

We will preach this passage on the first day of the season of Lent. If any mainline church members fast, Lent would serve as a logical time for that. The preacher might not connect with the congregation by talking about fasting. Certainly, we would receive a blank stare preaching about wearing sackcloth and ashes. We associate Lent with other practices.  Most of us will impose ashes. We associate Lent with the tradition of giving something up. Isaiah would tell the church to go beyond these practices. 

The prophet gives the preacher the opportunity to call the church to the kinds of ministry described in the passage. Wearing ashes on our foreheads serves as a witness to the world. Giving something up during Lent reminds us not to take our possessions too seriously. Yet this passage calls the church to become active in the lives of others, to work for justice, to take care of people’s needs, and reach out to the vulnerable. That kind of ministry becomes part of the church’s repentance, and builds the spiritual health of the community. Verse 6 could be interpreted to mean to choose outreach instead of fasting, but given the whole of scripture, shouldn’t we encourage devotional acts, while proclaiming the necessity of working to end oppression, injustice, hunger, lack of shelter, inadequate clothing, economic and employment unfairness? Whatever we make of the promises in verses 8-12, we can proclaim the spiritual health of the individual and the community, and connection with the divine.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Courtney Pace

This psalm is a prayer of penitence, confession, remorse, owning mistakes made, and seeking a fresh start of new life with a restored soul upon receiving God’s forgiveness. 

Psalm 51 is traditionally attributed to David, who offered this prayer of repentance after Nathan the prophet confronted David about his affair with Bathsheba. David abused his power as king to sexually exploit Bathsheba, reassign her husband to ensure his death in order to cover his impregnation of Bathsheba, and then take Bathsheba as a wife. Nathan used an allegory of stealing sheep to help David recognize the depth of his sin, and upon understanding, David reportedly authored this prayer of contrition.

Though himself a king and a well-established beacon of faith in God’s power, David was a mere human, standing in shame before God for his sin, and in need of God’s forgiveness. To be clear, his sin was not just adultery; it was rape. His sin was not just abuse of power; it was murder. Whatever innocence of his legacy as the boy who defeated Goliath, companion to Jonathan, or the unlikely military successor to Saul, David was now a corrupt monarch.

In verses 1–9, David repeats the phrases “blot out” and “wash” to point to God’s forgiveness as a cleansing, a spiritual rinsing of sin from his person. David’s sin makes him dirty, from which God’s forgiveness would clean him. David certainly notes the cleansing properties of water and the association of God’s presence with the people through water. 

In verses 6, 10, and 17, David emphasizes his heart as the center of his being, the nexus of a pure spirit, changed by God’s forgiveness. Alongside allegorical understandings of being cleansed of sin, David also has an embodied understanding of holiness, in his heart and in his bones, evident through a joyful and willing spirit.

David anticipates, even expects, that God will forgive him, because David believes God is faithful. God’s forgiveness will help David to renew and recover from the inside out, which will help him to become a better person as well as improve his ability to be an example for others. Though a king, David seems intent on setting a moral, and not just a militaristic, example for Israel. 

In the absence of a physical temple, which David’s son Solomon will build, David offers a sacrifice of repentance, a sacrifice of contrition, a sacrifice of transformational grief, which he believes will be more pleasing to God than a physical sacrifice or religious ritual.

As I imagine this scene taking place, I picture David on his knees, perhaps hiding in a closet or a storage room, or kneeling in the rain. I see him somewhere where he believes he is alone, in a posture of self-acknowledged shame, in a Romans 8“groans which words cannot express”kind of sorrow.

Not only had he betrayed his calling as king, not only had he betrayed his calling as God’s chosen, but he had betrayed the trust of a nation. He had surrendered his identity, and for what? For sex? To exercise power he already possessed? To cover his tracks from the people who follow him?

David cries out in self-defamation, convicted by Nathan’s confrontation. Yet even in this prostration, David still may not realize the severity of his sin. Is he penitent for his sin? Is he ashamed of being confronted by a prophet? His prayer focuses on his personal sin and spirit, as in verse 4 when he claims that he has only sinned against God. One could argue, though, that he has also sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba, and his nationpast, present, and future. 

Though he committed sinful acts as an individual, there were real effects of David’s actions on other people, as well as collective consequences. David’s sin impacted people and systems beyond his own personal morality scorecard. And as the Deuteronomistic narrative would suggest, his sin undermined the stability and future peace of the entire Jewish people. 

David may be performing repentance, likely genuinely, even if he has additional steps to take in his journey to understanding that can leads to sanctification. Our spiritual journeys often take place in such steps, peeling layer by layer. This isn’t dishonesty. To the contrary, it’s a very genuine expression of where we are in that moment, starting from within ourselves and turning outward by the leading of God’s spirit over time. 

In David’s case, the sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading did not progress as we would hope. David did not become more alert to avoiding temptation, more vigilant in protecting his family, or more self-aware. Though this prayer shows a strong desire to recover from this tipping-point moment, to those of us who know the rest of the story, it reads like unrealized potential, eventually abandoned in the disgrace with which the prayer begins. 

Are we misguided to resonate with this prayer? It is certainly a staple of Christian worship practice, because it has been meaningful to millions of people worldwide who find aid for their own prayers by beginning with David’s words found here.

David is right that a contrite heart is more precious than burnt offerings; Jesus will echo this clearly when calling us to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23–24). David is right that water is a powerful cleanser, literally and metaphorically, and certainly has a significant place in spirituality, indicating God’s presence with the people (John 4:10). David is right that repentance must take place from the inside out, as a total transformation of our hearts and spirits. 

David failed at living as he hoped in this prayer. We know more about David’s expectation that God would deliver military victory than transformed character and redeemed societal infrastructures. But to his people, his reign was the apex of history. There are some modern world leaders about which we could say the same.

What is it about their story that remains so inspirational in spite of their multitudinous and egregious transgressions? Perhaps it is those parts of the narrative we have in common with them that give us hope for what God might yet do in and through us. 

But will we follow God’s spirit?

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Working Preacher

Commentary is forthcoming for this text.