Lectionary Commentaries for October 16, 2022
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 18:1-8

Francisco J. García

As someone who has been an activist and organizer for many years and has sought to ground this work prayerfully as a follower of Jesus, I absolutely love this parable. It speaks to the divinely rooted call to pursue justice, while also grounding it in the context of living a faithful life. It urges us to resist the tendency to think about prayer in a simplified and uni-directional way, as merely words we offer to God in a transactional and hierarchical manner (in other words, the idea of praying to God the “Father” up in the sky). It also makes a clear, intimate, and inseparable connection, in my view, between prayer and justice. This parable invites preachers and all who would receive it to think of prayer as an active, dynamic, relational, and even mystical enterprise between us and God. 

A story of contrasts

First, let’s explore this passage as a story of contrasts. The interaction between “the widow and the unjust judge,” as the parable has become known, speaks to us about human striving, tenacity, and faith in the face of disinterested and arbitrary power. We see in Jesus’ depiction of the widow a God-endorsed invitation—an incitation even—to engage in the relentless pursuit of justice, knowing that as Frederick Douglas famously said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”1 

While the gospel of Luke was written in a largely Graeco-Roman context, Luke honored the prophetic traditions of the Jewish faith, and it can be safely assumed that Luke’s audience would have been aware of the teachings in Judaism that placed emphasis on treating the widow (and orphan, stranger, et cetera) with extraordinary compassion and justice.2 Widows were thoroughly marginalized in ancient society, given the patriarchal culture that governed societal norms, and as such, were likely seen as “charity cases.” What Jesus does in this parable is challenge this assumption of the helpless widow, giving her agency and authority to challenge corrupt power. 

The perspective offered above is in line with the Hebrew tradition seen in Deuteronomy 16:18, where exhortations are made for judges “to render just decisions for the people.” In addition, an emphatic call is issued: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:20). This demonstrates that pursuing justice, and especially in relation to the widow and other vulnerable populations, was a necessary part of what it meant to live ethically in relation to God and each other.

All this context sets up this parable for a number of profound and glaring contrasts—the unjust judge being contrary to the call to be just and impartial; the widow exerting authority in her self-advocacy, and the merciful response of God in contrast to the judge. The takeaway is that justice is central to living prayerfully before God.

Not losing heart: prayer as an act of faith 

We return to the beginning of this passage, where Jesus tells the disciples this parable “about their need to pray always and not lose heart (Luke 18:1).” As is often the case, looking to the preceding verses in Luke gives a better sense of why Jesus would be sharing a story that centered prayer as an essential spiritual practice to both strengthen their resolve and to remain hopeful on the journey of discipleship. In the last part of Luke 17, verses 20-37, Jesus speaks mysteriously about the Kingdom of God (the basileia tou Theou, see my commentary from October 2 for more discussion about this) being “among (and within) you,” offers a prediction of his suffering and rejection, and a litany of eschatological examples about “the days of the Son of Man.” 

After hearing all this, Jesus seemed to know that the disciples needed some reassurance. It is in this larger context of the material-spiritual presence of the basileia in the here and now that Jesus makes the connection between prayer-making, justice-seeking, and God’s mercy. Prayer here is seen as an act of faith in the basileia, a way of actively drawing ever closer to God’s omnipresence and nature. God is everything the unjust judge is not. God grants justice en tachei—suddenly3, or “soon and very soon” as the gospel tune goes.4   

Prayer as communion with God

Considering the above, prayer understood relationally lends itself to the tradition of Christian mysticism, which looks to prayer as a way of finding union/communion with God. Theologian Dorothee Soelle says that this experience does not lead “to a new vision of God but a different relationship to the world—one that has borrowed the eyes of God.”5 Borrowing the eyes of God allows us to pray with our eyes wide open as opposed to our eyes closed, being fully present to the many injustices that people face daily, much like the widow in this passage. It allows us to engage in prayers of solidarity that go beyond our own personal petitions, like when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I felt my legs were praying,” in reflecting on his participation in the historic 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.6 Prayer itself can literally embody action.

Transforming prayer today

How do we pray with the eyes of God today? How do we pray with our legs as if our common humanity depended on it (because it does)? Prayer in our current political climate has become increasingly criticized, and for good reason. In the wake of countless mass shootings in the United States, much of the public has become weary with the customary “thoughts and prayers” that get offered by political officials, while very little is done to treat root causes and curb the production and easy access to assault-style weapons. If this is all that prayer is, then it is essentially meaningless, and we have reason to be apathetic and angry about calls for prayer in response to perpetual violence and injustice.7

But today’s gospel shows that prayer can and must be so much more. Like the persistent widow who doesn’t give up, and like our ever-present God who hears the cries of the weary, authentic prayer is faith in action. It is a constant believing and working for a more just and humane world that reflects God’s wellspring of mercy and justice.


Notes

  1.  “Frederick Douglas, “If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress,” (1857) in BlackPast, January 25, 2007,   https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress/, accessed September 9, 2022.
  2.  Eric Franklin, “Luke,” in The Gospels: The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Muddiman and John Barton (Oxford,UK: Oxford University Press, 2001), 136-137.
  3. Mikeal Parsons, “Luke 17:11-18:30, Jesus’s Teaching about the Kingdom,” in Luke, Padeia, Commentaries on the New Testament, edited by Mikeal Parsons et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 264-265.
  4.  “Soon and Very Soon (We are goin’ to see the King)” is a gospel hymn written by Andraé Crouch in 1976. See https://hymnary.org/text/soon_and_very_soon_we_are_going, accessed September 9, 2022.
  5.  Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 293-294.
  6. Kate Collins, “Jewish Voices from the Selma-to-Montgomery March,” in The Devil’s Tale, Duke University Library, January 14, 2015, https://blogs.library.duke.edu/rubenstein/2015/01/14/jewish-voices-selma-montgomery-march/, accessed September 9, 2022.
  7. Abdullah Shihipar, “The Kind of Prayer That Could Make a Difference,” in The Atlantic, June 1, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/06/only-thoughts-and-prayers-we-should-offer-uvalde/661156/, accessed September 9, 2022.  

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31

Rachel Wrenn

This beautiful story leaves its listeners hanging on every word. It offers a blessing in the midst of liminality, that terrible and wonderful in-between stage of limbo.1 Genesis 32 depicts liminality in all of its pain and all of its potential. Jacob stands squarely on the threshold to a blessed new existence characterized by a limp, a shifted reality and a changed body. This pericope is, perhaps, the best description of the life of faith in the entire Bible.

First, some context: Jacob is stuck between a rock and a hard place—or better yet, a campfire and an inferno. His truce with his in-laws (Genesis 31) will likely only last as long as they keep their distance. The only other place to turn is directly toward his family of origin trauma. 

The story of Jacob’s nighttime wrestlings may be familiar to many. Do not rush it. As recognizable as this story is to ministry professionals, surely not everyone listening will know it well. If you know this story well, start by slowing down and reflecting: what is it about this story, this text, that has moved you in the past? What detail caused it to settle under your skin?

Once you have pinpointed the heart of the story for yourself, dive into the compelling nature of the narrative. Take your time with the words and imagery. Draw out for your listeners the conflict, drama, and trauma that has led up to this climactic point. Hover over the image of the wives, slaves, and children sneaking away under the light of the moon. Witness Jacob, stripped of everything he has, totally and utterly alone. Marvel at the perfect description of a night spent wrestling with the Creator. 

Once you have helped your people drink deeply from the gorgeous imagery, turn with them towards the concept of liminality. While liminality overwhelms Jacob’s night, it is difficult to pinpoint a time in Jacob’s life that is not marked by the touch of the liminal. Esau is born first, but Jacob emerges from the womb linked to his brother’s body. A man by birth, he lives in the women’s tents and cooks, eschewing traditional gender roles. He is the second-born child, but he acquires both his brother’s birthright and his brother’s blessing. He dreams of a conduit between heaven and earth, and stands beside the Maker of the Universe. He rises to success but in a foreign land. Even his marriages bear the mark of liminality, with one wife beloved but barren, the other unloved but powerful in birth. And the list goes on.

This concept of liminality bears much fruit in a sermon. In his recent dissertation, Adam Engel explores the concept of liminality in 20th-century literature. While this may seem an odd place to turn for sermon inspiration, the author’s description of liminalityand its effects offers a wealth of preaching potential:

  • Engel writes that liminality offers a space in which people can “challenge their bodies’ boundaries.2 In this text, Jacob challenges the boundaries between his human body and the bod(ies) of God. 
  • Engel describes liminal spaces as those that can “challenge hierarchies [and] reimagine connections between individuals.”3 In his liminal night, Jacob turns topsy-turvy the hierarchy between mortal and immortal. His wrestling reimagines the abilities and limits of both the human and the Divine. 
  • Engel demonstrates that “To cross the threshold into liminal space is to confront all of these possibilities, and to emerge—if at all—with shifted bodily boundaries.”4 In the liminal space of one evening, Jacob confronts a myriad of possibilities, including losing everything he has; losing everyone he loves; and losing his own life at the hand of his God. He emerges from this confrontation with his physical identity shifteda limpand with his internal identity changed, thanks to a new name: Yiśrāʾēl, Israel, One Who Wrestles With God.

Jacob-Israel’s experience of his liminal night may not have contained all that he had hoped: he asked for the name of God, but he was denied; his body will forever bear the brunt of his theophanic encounter. And yet, the final, gorgeous image of this text suggests that perhaps, somehow Jacob has learned to, as Engel writes, “embrace the transient world [he] inhabit[s]:”5 “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip” (Genesis 32:31). The sun rose upon him, as he stepped off the liminal threshold. The sun rose upon him, as he limped toward the final encounter with his brother. In spite of whatever struggles, wrestlings, or weepings the liminal night contained, the sun rose upon him in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

A surprising number of people experience a disorienting in-between stage at any given time. That number skyrockets in situations of national trauma or upheaval. The description of Jacob’s threshold experience may be relief to some or hit too close to home to others. Either way, your sermon can offer them language to use to describe their experience, and hope to sustain them through liminality to new life.


Notes

  1. Liminal space is the space between times, between physical settings. In this space, the rules of the conventional world are temporarily suspended. Liminal spaces are places of tension where the past has gone, the future has not yet begun, and transformation can happen.
  2.  Adam Engel, “Between Two Worlds: The Functions of Liminal Space in Twentieth-Century Literature,” (PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017), abstract.
  3. Engel.
  4. Engel.
  5. Engel.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:27-34

Steed Davidson

The diversity of the book of Jeremiah means that readers will also find passages focused on reconciliation. Relative to the harsh judgment speeches, the softer tones of reconciliation are fewer. They, however, demonstrate that reconciliation between God and God’s people is critical for a reimagined future. In this future, the restored relationship contains new features that require a different perspective upon God.

The lection opens with an unmistakable eschatological note. The phrase, “the days are surely coming” not only positions the reader to the future but a future with cataclysmic changes that may involve destruction. In fact, 31:27 on its own reverberates with an ominous tone. Humans and animals as seed for the house of Israel and Judah could point to the loss of life that sustains Israel and Judah. On the other hand, the seed planting could portend a future of growth rather than destruction. The wider literary context means reading verse 27 in a positive light. 

The reappropriated and recast prophetic vocation from 1:10 in 31:28 maintains the former ambiguity to anticipate both destruction and growth. Noticeably different in this passage is the addition of the phrase “and to cause evil” (ûlehārēae 31:28) to the list of functions that retains the divine right to destroy, if necessary. Further, moving the threatening surveillance function of 1:10 to frame the restated vocation list: “just as I watched them” (kaʾašer šāqaḏtı̂ ealêhem) so “I will watch them” (kēn ʾešqōḏ ealêhem) adds suspense to these verses because things don’t feel quite different. The ambiguity of the Hebrew word for “watch” (sqd) sets the tone of nurturing attention mixed in with menacing intent. The bright future notwithstanding, past experiences will not be forgotten.

The memory of the past and the tug of the future shapes critical moments in the lection. Another eschatological marker appears at the start of 31:29. This verse imagines a future where generational guilt is relieved. To do so, the verse engages what appears as a proverbial saying. Certainly, Ezekiel 18:2 explicitly cites it as a proverb. The sentiments, though, are consistent with Deuteronomy 5:9 as well as other citations, for example, Exodus 20:5 and Numbers 14:18. Unlike the passage in Ezekiel, Jeremiah appears to anticipate that punishment will fall to the current generation rather than carry over to successive generations. The tendency to interpret the verse as individual responsibility plays too much into modern individualistic culture. Everyone still shares the guilt of the community. Preachers will need to imagine a broader conception of sin to embrace how systemic failures infect the whole community. The difference that 31:30 points to means that the guilt will not continue to burden subsequent generations indefinitely. Paying attention to trauma studies raises the matter of intergenerational guilt. Trauma does not stop at a designated year in response to a scripture verse. Unresolved trauma continues to pass from one generation to the next and therefore requires concerted efforts to make meaningful changes. More than simply a call to stop using a proverb, 31:29-30 challenges hearers to the hard tasks to interrupt traumas and systems that too easily socialize new generations into dysfunction.

The third major section of the lection repeats the opening eschatological marker. The imagined future introduced at 31:31 focuses on the covenant relationship. Preachers can make much of what remains unsaid about the past covenant in this passage. The insistence that this covenant will not be like the past offers little as to what will be left out of the future arrangement. Certainly, one of the ways to understand that previous covenant is the structure of blessings and curses as detailed in the book of Deuteronomy. There, the people are warned that failure to keep the covenant will result in punishments up to and including expulsion from the land (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). On the other hand, obedience to the covenant will yield prosperity in the land (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). Those features remain unstated here in Jeremiah. Does this mean that moving forward punishment no longer features in the divine relationship?

The logic of 31:32 that recounts the past may provide an answer to the question of punishment in the future. The verse mentions God’s gracious rescue from Egypt and the failures of the people. The relationship described in either marital or monarchal terms seems not to contain any consequences for the breaking of the covenant. The hierarchical power contained in the Hebrew word for husband or overload (bāealtı̂) suggests that such loss of honor should be avenged. The verse makes no mention of such consequences. Perhaps the consequences of failure remain too evident in the broken relationship that needs mending, such that repeating them may serve no good purpose. The silence speaks volumes. No doubt, the commitments that close 31:34 point in a strong direction to a reformed deity. How much preachers vocalize this silence depends upon whether they see God as restored from the past relationship marked by failure, where violence was a justified response. Certainly, interpretations that engage the growth of God through the experiences of rejection and loss offer preachers a chance to explore the complexities of relationships. The use of relational terms in the verse drawn from human experiences already helps preachers to think in these frames.

As 31:32 struggles to name what the future covenant is not, 31:33 offers to define it positively. There is more to work with here. The pedagogical strategy of the wisdom school provides the template for internalizing truth (see Proverbs 3:3; 7:3). Writing on the heart rather than on the implied stone tablets (see Ezekel 36:26) allows for the covenant to become part of the community’s mental and intellectual fabric. In the future, everyone becomes both teacher and learner. The distinctions of age, experience, wisdom, and knowledge will be removed since the community becomes oriented to this new relationship (31:34). If individuality is not imagined in 31:29-30, so too here the emphasis lies on community. The flattened hierarchies mean that everyone is responsible for the well-being of the community. The room for self-righteousness through finger pointing gives way to the neighborly embrace of mutual support and co-learning.

As seen before, the gestures to the future retain features of the past. The reductive formula in 31:33, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” combines assertions found in Genesis 17:8 and Exodus 29:45, “I will be their God” with the invitation to relationship, “they shall be my people.” This formula suggests mutuality implied in the presentation of the covenant as a mental assent to divine teachings. To take the covenant on the heart represents an act of willing acceptance of teachings rather than an imposition of a regulatory system. God invites people into this covenant relationship. As such there appears room to deal with the frailties of human weaknesses. God’s commitment in 31:34 to the forgiveness of sin and the clean slate marks a new phase in a relationship too often characterized in abusive categories. The real challenge that preachers face lies not so much in nailing down precisely the outlines of what the covenant looks like in Jeremiah. Rather, preachers need to offer pictures from these verses that free their hearers to embrace a relationship where their true selves matter. The outlines of this lection invite readers to imagine a God that no longer looks like the angry deity set upon punishment and destruction. Imagining a divine relationship that does not sanctify violence, but affirms self-negation, or leaves room for self-righteousness can be an exciting task for preachers.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 121

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

Psalm 121 will be familiar to many readers and worshipers. It begins with a question familiar to many: From where will my help come as I look to the surrounding hills? The identification of the hills has been a matter of some discussion. Are the hills where the speaker is living or where the Creator is present or perhaps where Zion stands? 

Context is important here. The psalm is the second poem in a discreet collection, the Psalms of Ascents in Psalms 120-134. This collection of brief poems remembers pilgrimage to worship at the Jerusalem temple (Zion). The title reflects the need to ascend or go up to the temple to worship. The poetry of the psalm is in figurative language asking the question of who will protect the pilgrims who must pass through mountains, hills, cliffs, and other dangerous lands. Wild animals and marauders attack in the lands through which the pilgrims must go. They must navigate enemy territory. Who will protect the pilgrims? 

The rest of the psalm answers that powerful poetic question in powerful poetic ways. The question comes from pilgrims who prepare their imaginations of faith for the remembered pilgrimage to come. The psalm is near the beginning of the collection of the Psalms of Ascents and so reflects the longing and anxiety of the beginning of pilgrimages. Yes, worshipers in the twenty-first century go on pilgrimages, but all people of faith can reflect on the life of faith as a journey or pilgrimage, and the hope for the guiding and protecting divine presence on that journey.  

The broad, clear answer to the question with which the psalm begins comes quickly in verse 2 with a familiar confession of faith. YHWH is the one who is the sufficient source of help and protection for pilgrims. The following confession of faith portrays YHWH as the creator of heaven and earth, that is, of all things. The one who has made all things is surely sufficient to protect from any threats to the pilgrims from “the hills.” YHWH is the creator and deliverer who is able to offer full protection (Psalms 61:1; 62:1-2, 7; 91:4-6).  

The psalm continues with the poetic characterization of YHWH as creator. The Lord protects the path of the pilgrim and does not sleep but is steadfastly attentive, always awake and aware. The poetry reminds the community that in these ways YHWH is steadfastly the help mentioned in verse 1. God is the keeper, the guardian, the protector. By the end of verse 4 the poetic parallelism brings the divine power and glory to the pilgrim’s imagination in what is a remarkable poetic answer to the psalm’s opening question.  

The imagery of sleep, that God neither slumbers nor sleeps and that God brings full protection by not even allowing your foot to be moved, is an affirmation that brings great assurance in the face of threat. Careful readers and hearers will need also to remember the language used in crises portrayed in the lament psalms (Psalms 7:6; 44:23; 59:4-5), language that fervently urges YHWH to wake up from sleep to help those in trouble. Also the crisis ancient Israel endured during the time of exile brought to the prophetic imagination the urgent need for the creator to awake from sleep and inaction (Isaiah 51:9). The sweep of the Older Testament’s faith candidly confesses that the community experiences the absence of God and the dire need for divine help. This sense of absence stands in constructive tension with the strong and artful characterization of YHWH as creator who neither slumbers nor sleeps and acts as all-sufficient help.  

The concluding four verses of Psalm 121 continue the poetic portrayal of YHWH, in this case with the quadruple repetition of the divine name with a continuing emphasis on YHWH as keeper or protector. In verse 5, YHWH is the one who protects from the heat of the sun and even the moon in the poetic parallelism of verse 6. Sun and moon stand under the rule of the creator and bring to mind the threats to the pilgrims. The guard or protector stands at the “right hand” of the pilgrims ready to defend them. Verses 7-8 move to more general language of YHWH as the keeper who guards against all manner of evil and every threat. The concluding verse is a benediction for the pilgrims, as they begin to travel and arrive and move along the way.  

The simple and profound poem portrays YHWH as keeper. The term “keep” is central to the psalm, and confesses faith in the trustworthiness of the creator/liberator/guide who keeps pilgrims of faith in the midst of all kinds of threats. The psalm confesses faith in YHWH who keeps pilgrims in all parts of life and especially in departures and arrivals. The concluding verse uses going out and coming in as a way of including all of life, and it speaks of the needs of pilgrims who are excited and anxious at the beginning of festival pilgrimages and at the arrival at the sanctuary, the place of the fulfillment of their longing and anticipation for festival worship and its renewal of life.  

Psalm 121 is a psalm of trust and so articulates affirmations central to the life of faith. This poetry with its images and repetition and parallelism and use of special vocabulary articulates for readers and hearers the divine trustworthiness for the community on pilgrimage with YHWH. The conclusion of Psalm 121 brings to mind the priestly benediction in Numbers 6:24-26. The “keeping” YHWH enacts in this psalm embodies the Lord’s blessing and keeping you on the pilgrimage of faith.  


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5

Working Preacher

Commentary is forthcoming for this text.