Lectionary Commentaries for August 14, 2022
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 12:49-56

Jerusha Matsen Neal

During a season of aching division in church and society, this passage seems to affirm precisely the wrong tendencies in human communities. It also seems off-point for a gospel that begins with an angelic promise of “peace” on earth (Luke 2:14). But the specter of division has always been present in Luke, even in those early nativity texts. Mary’s Magnificat delineates the powerful from the lowly (Luke 1:46-56), pointing to God’s just sorting of power and privilege as a manifestation of faithfulness. Simeon describes Jesus as a sign that will be “spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). 

The child is a sign that will pierce even Mary’s soul. Raymond Brown argues that, in Luke, this piercing does not refer to the pain of her son’s death. It points to the judgment that Mary will undergo in struggling to respond faithfully to God’s Word. Jesus will be a sign that divides one’s motives and inclinations like a sword, requiring a piercing spiritual discernment.1 When Mary and Jesus’ brothers are rebuffed by Jesus’ redefinition of family as “those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:19-21), the cost of this discernment becomes plain. Even the hallowed category of “family” is rearranged in light of God’s larger covenantal priorities.  

So Luke 12, for all its provocative explicitness, should not come as a shock. Jesus’ own family has been pierced by the division and reordering of God’s annunciation. And certainly Luke’s readers, living in a time of persecution and oppression, would have recognized that there is a cost to following Christ. The Prince of Peace places them at odds with the Pax Romana—which divides them from family members who would prefer to “keep the peace” with the powers that be. Within both the context of the text and the context of the text’s reception, peace has always meant more than getting along.

The challenge, of course, is the pastoral application of a passage that could be used for all manner of self-justification. Fiery baptisms have been invoked to sanctify war and cruelty. Jesus’ description of family division has been co-opted to rationalize denominational schisms and excommunications that deny the labor of love. There is division that serves the gospel of peace, and there is division born of stubborn pride. How does one discern the difference?  

Jesus’ call to “interpret the present time” (verse 56) is critical. How does the fire of Jesus’ teaching and the piercing of his word reveal the hearts of one’s congregation? Has “unity” become a synonym for complacency and avoidance? Or has “division” been co-opted for the same ends? Some congregations avoid the difficult work of justice by ignoring that divisions exist. Others avoid the same work by cutting off from one another. Neither approach is consistent with the baptism that Jesus connects to his fiery witness. The baptism to which he alludes resonates with the rumblings of the cross. He speaks of a baptism that is yet to come, not a baptism that has happened already. He leaves much of this “baptism” opaque in this passage, but one thing is clear. It is a baptism that places him in solidarity with a world on fire—not standing over against it. What does that reveal about the function of Jesus’ fiery division? And what does it reveal about who and what we are being called to fight for?  

Fire is an ambivalent image in scripture. There are burning bushes of revelation (Exodus 3:2) and fiery conflagrations of sin (Genesis 19:24). It is ambivalent in the present day, as well. Catastrophic wildfires, exacerbated by rising temperatures and drought, bring devastation. But wildfires can also lead to new life, creating the conditions for habitat diversity and helping plants adapt to novel climates.2 The fire Jesus describes is costly, but it serves the purpose of life and love.

It does not, however, serve the purposes of comfort. Jesus’ fire is not like the fire of a hearth, safely controlled and tightly bound for the somnolent pleasures of a single household. In the words of Mary Oliver’s “What I Have Learned So Far,” this is not light that leads to “indolence.” It is light that leads to “action.”3 This fire of love burns away our obsession with self-preservation, our idolization of kinship, and our false sense of control. It is a fire that, like Simeon’s piercing prophecy to Mary, tests the heart—revealing the thoughts of many and calling for a baptism of commitment. Oliver minces no words: “Be ignited, or be gone.”4


  1. Raymond Brown connects the image to the ominous sword described in Ezekiel 14:17, Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1979), 463.
  2. Juli G. Pausas and Jon E. Kelley, “Wildfires as an ecosystem service,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, May 6, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2044.
  3. Mary Oliver, “What I Have Learned So Far,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2005), II:57.
  4. Ibid.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:23-29

Christopher Davis

The hunger for leadership has reached every sector of our society, including business, government, education, cultural institutions, and, of course, the church. Christians, along with everyone else, are looking for leaders. Why? Because no matter what’s happening around the world, leadership takes center stage. Kim Jong-un is leading his nation to the brink of war. A group of U. S. senators is directing their Senate compatriots to adopt new policies about illegal immigration, healthcare accessibility and educational affordability. Daily, the cable news talking heads either applaud or attack the leadership of former President Trump, and quickly pivot toward President Biden with the same reaction. Concern over leadership is everywhere, in the culture, in the church, and in Jeremiah 23.

The common theme running throughout Jeremiah 11-29 is the conflict between Jeremiah and the leaders of Judah. Jeremiah’s message from God was met with active hostility from the leaders in Jerusalem. The focus of Jeremiah 21-29, not surprisingly, is God’s coming judgment on these leaders who have rejected God’s word and sought to persecute, even kill, God’s prophet.

In the previous verses, Jeremiah refers to the leaders of the nation as “shepherds,” with the understanding that their responsibility was to look after and take care of the people under their authority. But with behavior more akin to a wolf than a shepherd, God, through His prophet Jeremiah, issues a “woe”. This seems to be a consistent pattern in the book of Jeremiah. In several places in the book of Jeremiah, leaders engage in behavior that is unrighteous, unjust, and unfair, and then inquire about what God thinks, as though God is uninformed. In Jeremiah 37, when Zedekiah asks, “Is there any word from the Lord?” Jeremiah says, “Yes, you will be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon.” This was a more descriptive version of “woe”.  Perhaps that’s the word and warning for contemporary leaders, both civil and religious: “woe”.  There’s an ever-increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots“woe”; blatant disregard for the least, the last and the looked over “woe”; preaching focused on the gaining of gifts rather than the giving of grace“woe”; preaching driven by cash and cars rather than care and concern“woe”.  

In verses 9-27, the text offers three significant moves worthy of proclamation. To begin, the writer gives us God’s answer. How could a prophet confuse his own words with God’s word? How could a prophet fail to speak condemnation to sinful, covenant-breaking situations? God doesn’t leave us to assert or assume, but instead details and denounces the sins of false prophets and priests: (1) false prophets and priests broke God’s heart and distressed His true prophet, (2) filled the land with adultery, (3) misused their power, (4) were profane, unclean, corrupt, and godless, (5) guilty of idolatry and hypocrisy, (6) preached deceptive messages, and (7) ministered under false authority. It’s important to note that the presence of God is closely associated with the word of God. To encounter God is to encounter God’s word; likewise, to encounter God’s word is to encounter God. These false prophets, who claim to be speaking for God, had not been in the presence of God; thus, they knew neither God nor the word of God.  It’s bad enough to ignore the word. Worse is trying to replace the word you’re your words.  “Woe.”

The next thing we glean from the text is God’s authority. In response to their wickedness and waywardness, the Lord stakes the claim that God is the only true authority. God alone had the right to say who could preach God’s Word and minister to God’s people. Those who just went, as opposed to being sent, were wholly unauthorized. Their call was for themselves. There was no divine commission, yet they went forth with false messages. And the caution for all those who would dare speak for God is that without divine power there is no productivity. The result of powerless proclamation is always the absence of repentance. So why did these “false prophets and priests” proclaim a message that was so contrary to the true word of God? What did they deem more important than authority? Affirmation.

Likewise, the current “tastes” of our culture and the “political correctness” required for public dialogue today often pressure us to modify, adapt, and distort the word of God to fit in. However, do not miss the end of this passage from Jeremiah. God declares that those who speak falsely in God’s name will be forgotten.

Lastly, we see God’s awareness. God is present everywhere, at all times, at the same time. God is inescapable. God cannot be circumscribed. God is not a localized deity who can be avoided. God is both immanent and transcendent, omniscient, and omnipresent. An omnipresent and omniscient God cannot be deceived. God saw what the false prophets attempted to hide and heard the lies they told. So how can we be sure that we are accurately proclaiming the word of God? Jeremiah 23 connects being in the presence of God and encountering the word of God. The two are inseparable. To enter the presence of God, we must embrace the word of God, but only as we experience the presence of God will we truly know the word of God. 

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

Michael L. Ruffin

The lectionary text found in Isaiah 5:1-7 presents the preacher with an opportunity to preach a dramatic sermon in a natural way. Such an approach is natural because it emerges naturally from the text. The text’s presentation builds dramatically from stage to stage. The text begins with what appears to be a celebratory song, continues with an unexpected interruption, and concludes with a ringing indictment.

An apparently celebratory song (verses 1-2)

Interpreters usually call Isaiah 5:1-7 the “Song of the Vineyard”. That is because the passage begins with “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” Scholars debate the nature of the song that the singer sings. On one hand, the introduction to the song makes it seem as if a wife is singing about her husband. But since it later becomes clear that the singer is Isaiah and the beloved is God, this is unlikely, even allowing for the elasticity of the prophetic imagination. The word translated “beloved” in the NRSV (“the one I love” in the NIV; “my loved one” in the CEB) can mean “friend,” and that is probably the best way to take it here. 

Strictly speaking, the song is limited to verses 1-2 because those are the only lines in which the singer sings on behalf of his friend. That the singer is singing a love song for his friend creates the expectation of a positive declaration. We expect the love song to celebrate something positive about or relating to the prophet’s friend, and the song initially seems to confirm that expectation. The prophet sings about his friend having a vineyard. He sings about the vineyard being in a prime location where productivity would be expected. He furthermore sings about the vineyard owner taking necessary and positive steps to make it possible and likely—and maybe even probable, bordering on a sure thing—that the vineyard would produce good fruit. 

So, at this point in the singer’s song about his friend, we expect a positive outcome. We expect the vineyard owner’s efforts on behalf of the vineyard to result in a good and healthy crop of grapes. That is what the singer says his friend expects too. 

But the vineyard does not meet the vineyard owner’s expectations. At the end, the singer’s song about his friend’s vineyard takes a surprisingly negative and dramatic turn. The owner expects his vineyard to produce grapes, but instead it produces “bad fruit” (NIV) or “rotten fruit” (CEB) (NRSV has “wild grapes,” but the other translations get at the sense better). Not only has the vineyard failed to meet the friend’s expectations—it has produced the opposite of the expected results.

At this point, the singer stops singing and another voice is heard,

An unexpected interruption (verses 3-6)

The singer has been singing a song about his friend’s vineyard. But now that the singer’s song has concluded with the disappointing news that the vineyard has produced bad fruit, the friend speaks for himself. He calls on the “inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah” to judge between him and his vineyard (verse 3). This puts the people in the position of having to decide whether the vineyard owner or the vineyard is at fault for how things have turned out. The owner summarizes his case by asking what more he could have done for the vineyard than he has done. (The singer had in his song detailed the owner’s actions on the vineyard’s behalf). The owner questions why, after all he has done for the vineyard, it has produced bad grapes.

The vineyard owner then pronounces judgment on the vineyard. He says that he will remove its protection so that it will be overcome and overgrown. 

To this point, we have had no indication that the passage is about anything other than a vineyard  owner and his vineyard. It started with someone singing about his friend’s vineyard. It continues with the friend speaking about his own vineyard. The friend has passed judgment on the vineyard for its production of bad grapes rather than good fruit. In so doing, the vineyard owner has said he will do things to the vineyard that any vineyard owner could do. We may suspect that the passage is about more than just a vineyard owner and a vineyard, but if that is the case, it has not yet been made explicit. 

But now the vineyard owner says, “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon [the vineyard]” (verse 6b). No human vineyard owner could do this, so the statement dramatically announces that God is the vineyard owner. This announcement segues into the next and final verse of our passage, which lets us know what all the words concerning a vineyard have really been about. 

A ringing indictment

We have been dealing with a parable. The parable in our text functions much like the story that Nathan tells David following the king’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). In that case, Nathan’s story maneuvers David into pronouncing judgment on himself. In the case in our text, the parable of the vineyard is designed to lead the people to recognize their guilt and responsibility. 

We can imagine the people of Jerusalem and Judah (see verse 3) hearing the singer’s song about the vineyard and hearing the vineyard owner’s judgment of it and nodding their heads in agreement that the owner’s verdict is justified. But now they hear the prophet declare that they are possibly facing the same fate as does the vineyard in the parable. That is because as the vineyard had every opportunity to produce good fruit and instead yielded bad fruit, the people have every opportunity to practice justice and righteousness, but instead practice the opposite of them. The rest of Isaiah 5 details the kinds of injustice and unrighteousness the people practice. 


The preacher and the congregation may be well served by an approach to the sermon that follows the dramatic flow of the text. As the sermon develops, hopefully a growing realization of our ethical responsibilities to God and to each other will emerge.


Commentary on Psalm 82:1-8

Adam Hearlson

In Psalm 82, the poetic imagination of the Psalmist conjures a mythic heavenly court.1

This court is different from typical pictures of the radical monotheism of Israel. The one true God is now surrounded by a Miltonian court of lesser deities who bear some responsibility for the wickedness and injustice that has covered the nation. The small “g” gods have favored the wicked and have ignored the cries of the needy and the poor. The gods have perverted ideas of justice and trampled on the weak. After some admonishment of the demi-divinities, God decides that these gods ought to meet the same fate as the humanity whom they have failed.

The theme of God’s ultimate power in the face of other deities is a consistent theme within the Hebrew Bible. The psalmist gives us a picture of a God with the necessary power to rule these lesser gods, but more than that, to terminate these gods. Still, we can reasonably infer that if God can end the existence of these deities, it is also God who made these deities and set them in positions of power. Here in this Psalm and elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, the stumbling block of radical monotheism meets a formidable opponent in the problem of suffering.

Like the book of Job, the setting of a heavenly court filled with other B-league divinities provides a helpful literary device to discuss the central question of the Psalm: why do the unjust suffer and the wicked triumph? How, in the end, can we account for all of the injustice in the world? One answer is that the evil of the world is born of the heart and actions of humanity. This assumes that each evil act can be traced back to an actor, be they human or divine. Consequence is thus a linear phenomenon and every effect is due to its companion cause. And yet, a survey of our current world displays that consequence is not so easily traced. Michel Foucault famously writes, “People know what they do; frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what they do does.”

If we try to mete out justice according to our access to the bold line of consequence we are likely to “walk around in darkness.” When left to our own devices we consistently fail to trace consequence to its origin. Moreover, even if we could trace the consequence back to its origin, how do we monotheists escape the theological conclusion that everything begins (good and evil alike) with the one who began everything?

On the other hand, ancient Israel knows what we know, the evil of the world cannot be traced to a single malevolent actor. The injustice of the world does not operate linearly. Good intentions and malevolent effects complicate our moral calculus. Oppressive systems operate without a single origin or action. Consequence bends, doubles back, and fractures making it nearly impossible to fully trace responsibility. Our access to justice is further obstructed in proportion to the privilege we gain from unjust consequences. Rabbi Ibn Ezra connects this psalm to the admonition in Exodus 23:8, “No bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the sighted and perverts the words of the innocent.”2 Exodus 23 and Psalm 82 recognize that our ability to adjudicate justice is compromised by our proximity to power.

The powerful gods of the heavenly court might have been trying their very best to remember the poor and take seriously the need of the widow. Yet they fail because they cannot escape the ways in which power blinds them to the needs of the powerless. The powerful “fail to understand,” and “walk in darkness,” because they are more concerned about their place in the heavenly court than the needs of the people. The consequence of all this myopia is nothing less than apocalypse. The world’s very foundations shake (verse 5) and God threatens to descend from the heavenly court and, fresh off the judgment of the heavenly court, judge the world all at once. Perhaps the perversion of justice might finally stir God to bring about the apocalypse.

For those who live under the boot of the powerful and have no access to anything except more fear and more death, what is more beautiful than the apocalypse? For those in power who have the freedom to dream and the power to chart a course to meet that dream, what is more frightening than apocalypse? When life is an unbearable burden, the last hope left is destruction. The moderate and incremental will not do. The most tenacious vision in our imaginations, the one that cannot be stamped out by the force of the oppressor, is destruction. We might not be able to dream about the shape of a new world, but we sure as hell can dream about the absence of our current world.

Given the psalmist’s longing for the apocalypse, the last line is a curious one. The call of the Psalmist for God to judge the earth swings the focus from God’s heavenly court to the nations of the earth. Verse 8 can be seen as a call for God to extend the justice in the heavenly court back onto earth. Now that God has God’s own court in order, the judgment of the world can begin.

The final line of the psalmist could also be read as an indirect critique of the God who has taken a seat in the divine counsel, when really we need that God to “rise up” from the affairs of heaven and sow justice across an unjust world. The critique becomes more pointed when you realize that this God who imposed term limits on these small gods also left them to run the world without proper supervision. The last line, then takes on its own admonishing character, “O God above, come clean up the mess you have made.” Come remedy the effects of the powerful. Come take responsibility for the world and its ills. Come rescue the plan that you set in motion. Come and be judged so that you might judge. Come and prove yourself worthy to rule. The last line of the psalm is bold one. It is at once a plea and an order. The cries of our deepest distress are always flecked with indignation and hopeful longing.


  1. Adapted from a commentary first published on this site on Aug. 14, 2016.
  2. Noted in Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 292.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 11:29—12:2

Christopher T. Holmes

Last week’s lectionary text included an introduction to the topic of faith (Hebrews 11:1–3) and some of the early exemplars of it (11:8–16). This week’s reading contains the final few examples (11:29–38) and the overall conclusion to the discussion of faith (11:39–12:2). This “hall of fame of faith” does more than describe what faith is; it also illustrates what faith requires. Faith is active and demanding. Faith may make one an alien in one’s own land. Faith leads to suffering and therefore requires endurance. Faith is not for the faint of heart, as we will see in our text for this week. 

The lectionary skips over the author’s commendation of Abraham and Moses in Hebrews 11:17–28. One feature of the author’s treatment of Moses’ faith is important for this week’s lectionary text, however. According to the author, Moses’ faith was not just dynamic and active; it was also subversive and costly. The faith of Moses’ parents causes them to disobey the edict of Pharaoh and keep their son hidden. Moses’ faith, when he comes of age, compels him to “share ill-treatment with the people of God.” In a bold, christological re-reading of the biblical tradition, we learn that Moses’ faith compelled him to consider the “abuse suffered for the Christ” to be of greater value than the “treasures of Egypt” (11:26). Like his parents, he disregarded the orders and anger of the king by leading the people out of Egypt (11:27).

In Hebrews 11:29–31, the author continues listing specific figures from Israel’s history. With the mention of Rabah and the spies (11:31), the author’s survey takes us to the cusp of the Israelites’ entrance into the promised land. Then, the author fast forwards to the periods of the judges (Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah) and of the united kingdom (David, Samuel, and the prophets) in verse 32. The passing mention of these names suggests that similar stories of their active, subversive faith could be added if only there was enough time. 

Although the examples in verses 33–38 are more general, they are not fully anonymous. Ancient and modern interpreters have detected a number of potential allusions. Starting in the fourth century, marginal notes attempting to identify the figures alluded to in verses 33 and 34 begin to be integrated into the text itself.1 The figures mentioned in verse 32 likely correspond, at least in part, with the experiences enumerated in verses 33 and 34.

Rhetorically, verses 34–38 build toward something of a climax in verses 39–40. The literary artistry of the author is on full display in these verses. The author combines short sentences and clauses that have significant alliteration and assonance in Greek. The repetition of the “e” sound dominates, thanks in part to the augments required of the aorist verbs. This, along with the preposition en and similar participial forms give the Greek phrases a rhythmic, staccato structure.

The list of hardships becomes more intense and violent in verses 36–37. The unnamed faithful face not only political or cultural resistance; they experience violence, flogging, and imprisonment. Others experienced death in frightful ways. The Greek word translated “sawn in two,” only appears here in the New Testament, and there is only one occurrence in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Amos 1:3). It is possible that the author and maybe the audience were aware of traditions that maintained that Isaiah died in this manner (see The Ascension of Isaiah 5). The final phrases in verse 37 about “destitute, persecuted, tormented” people aptly describes Elijah and Elisha, but it may also apply to any who experience hardship and poverty because they refused to compromise on their convictions. 

The concluding statement in verse 38 that the “world is not worthy of such people,” is a fitting summary of the anti-social faithfulness endorsed throughout chapter 11. The phrase does not imply a strict cosmological dualism between the “evil” of the world and the perfection of heaven or the ideal world. Instead, “world” here denotes the cultural and political status quo. By critiquing and refusing to conform to the world’s demands, the faithful turn themselves into wanderers, refugees seeking the city promised and built by God. 

For the first hearers of Hebrews, this would normalize their own experience of persecution and hardship as a result of their faithful allegiance to Jesus and the community gathered in his name. But the author goes further. Although held up as models of faithfulness, they did not receive the things that they were promised. Far from an indication of failure on their part or God’s, the author insists this makes room for the audience. The author states that “God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (11:40). The logic of the chapter demands the reverse as well: the audience, and subsequent generations of Christians, are not “made perfect” without the earlier exemplars of faith. The identification of the exemplars as members of the “great cloud of witnesses” in 12:1 vitiates against Christian supersessionism. 

The author’s hortatory conclusion in 12:1–2, marked by the conjunction toigaroun, depends on the demands of faith described in chapter 11. The author rightly describes the challenge facing the audience as an agōn, a struggle. This Greek word does have an athletic connotation, as indicated by the translation of the NRSV (“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”). But this is not the only possible connotation of the noun, which can also describe a struggle or fight more generally. The allusions to warfare, violence, suffering, and martyrdom in 11:32–38 illustrate why endurance (hypomonē) is required to complete the task facing the audience. The literary context indicates that their agōn is no easy jog; instead, it is something that will demand all of their efforts, will require suffering, and may lead to the loss of life. But they can find encouragement in their struggle since they are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses enumerated in chapter 11.

Such an understanding of agōn is confirmed by the reference to Jesus in 12:2. Jesus also faced a life-or-death struggle. He too demonstrated endurance on the cross and disregarded its shame. The author names Jesus both the “pioneer and perfecter” of faith. The context indicates that Jesus is more than an object of faith; rather, his faithful response to God in the face of the cross provides the consummate example of the faith celebrated in Hebrews 11 and demanded of the audience.


  1. See Lane, Hebrews, 385.