Lectionary Commentaries for October 30, 2022
Reformation Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Kyle Brooks

This week’s passage is an intriguing one for Reformation Sunday. Reformation Day commemorates the day that Martin Luther went to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and posted his Ninety-Five Theses. Luther’s action was no empty performancehe was a respected pastor and teacher. His public declaration brought him into direct conflict with the people and communities he knew and loved. The effects of the resulting schism of the western church and the development of Protestantism would reverberate well into the future. Our passage takes us squarely into an unfolding scene of intellectual and theological conflict.

The Gospel of John takes on a distinct tone from the Synoptic Gospels. It uniquely situates Jesus’ identity as the Word who is present and active in the creation (John 1:1-5). At the same time, the book’s composition reflects both 1) a significant knowledge of Jewish ideas and traditions, and 2) a measure of antagonism towards Jews.1 The eighth chapter of the Gospel of John places us in the thick of a conflict that exemplifies this very dynamic. Jesus was among his countrymen, fellow Jewish people who were his kin and his community. And the nature of his message was certainly challenging.

Verse 31 presents Jesus speaking specifically to Jews who had believed in him. We can surmise, then, that there were certainly Jews who did not believe. It seems reasonable to suggest that Jesus’ message would’ve been a hard one to fathom, even for those who were following him. Jesus maps a trajectory for those who believe in him, promising that it is the path to knowledge and truth. To be a disciple, it seems, is not simply a function of beliefit requires a fulfillment of action. This is a sentiment we can gather from Jesus’ words to his believers. Belief reflects a measure of assent, agreement, trust. But belief doesn’t necessarily translate into action. We can believe many things without choosing to do anything about it. Jesus offers an invitation not to rest on the laurels of faith, but to embrace the joyful burden of active devotion.

Active devotion is a process of becoming, of expanding the boundaries of understanding and growing in wisdom, knowledge, and freedom. Yet, devotion is not what gives Jesus’ audience pause. After all, they know what it means to be loyal to the social, political, and religious realities of Jewish life. We should not take this response as an indictment of their beliefs. Their resistance is to the idea that they need to be made free. Therein lies a pivotal question: what does it mean to be free?

The Jews in conversation with Jesus answer this question in light of their lineage. The descendants of Abraham, they say, have never been slaves to anyone. This is a curious statement given passages such as Deuteronomy 6:20-25, in which the statutes and laws of God are directly linked to the remembrance of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. It seems unlikely that Jesus’ conversation partners would have forgotten this critical element of their history. However, we might consider that the initial audience of this text would’ve been a mixed community of Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans. For such a group, the question of freedom would not necessarily be grounded in a shared historical perspective. The principles and practices of the fledgling community of Jesus followers would have been animated by a different set of immediate concerns. In any case, the dialogue of the passage sets up a reorientation of focus for this new body of believers.

From Jesus’ perspective, the critical focus is to be free from the constraint of sin. Sin enslaves the perpetrator and displaces them from the household of God. From this angle, freedom looks like the maintenance of spiritual wellbeing and the assurance of inclusion in God’s lineage. Importantly, there is a parallel between the truth that makes one free in verse 32 and the Son who makes one free in verse 36. The clear implication is this: to follow Jesus is to know truth, freedom, and connection to God. We see this reaffirmed in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

What remains is the question of the nature of freedom. The shape and content of the passage offer some possibilities. We could reasonably argue freedom is less of a destination than an ongoing way of life. It is the reward of those who continue in the word. It is a disciplined departure from what might have been more comfortable but ultimately less rewarding. We could also understand freedom as a transforming state of mind, an emerging perception of a situation in need of renewal. The pursuit of freedom necessitates an awareness that one is somehow unfree, even if it is not immediately obvious. 

We can point to obvious examples of confinement and captivity. In the United States, we observe the lingering specter of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, in which prisoners’ labor and confinement produce significant profits for massive corporations. Such confinement is never simply a matter of material conditions or bodily autonomy. Rather, such spaces socialize people to understand themselves as captives, as numbers within a sprawling system rather than individuals with identity and purpose. A particular struggle ensues when it comes to reentering the larger world; the physical confinement has ended, but the spiritual and mental restoration are ongoing. 

What becomes of us who perhaps have not known incarceration, but have certainly been socialized into routines of unfreedom? Do we recognize our patterns of unthinking consumption, our habits of emotional coping, our slow descents into spiritual numbness? We cannot speak of freedom without first confronting the state of our being. We must tell the truth about what ails us. And we must become co-laborers in securing our own independence.

Returning to the theme of Reformation, Martin Luther’s bold statements can be understood as a pursuit of freedom from what ails the soul. His opening words clarify that he writes “[o]ut of love for truth and from desire to elucidate it.”2 Indeed, we may find freedom in the pursuit of truth, but it certainly does not come cheaply or easily. The struggles of the Reformation have never ended; they have simply changed in form. Our present task may well be to overcome the illusions of autonomy and give ourselves over to the work of making freedom daily.


  1.  “Introduction to The Gospel According to John,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler).
  2.  The 95 Theses, https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html, accessed Sept. 20th, 2022.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Jeremiah is a prophet whose words were focused primarily on the critical period in the history of Judah in the late 7th and early 6th century BCE. This was the time when the small kingdom of Judah witnessed the end of the Neo-Assyrian empire, a brief interval of Egyptian control, and the dominance of the Neo-Babylonians. For the people of Judah, this was the time they faced the loss of political independence and the final fall of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah.  

The prophet’s commission reflects the tumultuous times in which he worked (1:1-19). Jeremiah is called to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). In a nice turn of phrase, Walter Brueggemann writes that Jeremiah is the prophet called “to speak Judah into exile and out again.1 The majority of Jeremiah’s ministry focused on the entrance into the exile, the “plucking up and tearing down.” 

In “The Book of Comfort” (Jeremiah 30:1-33:26) the prophet’s task is the “building and planting” (31:28). Having prophesied that the people will go into exile because of their faithlessness to the covenant they made with God, the prophet in these chapters speaks of the other side of the exile. He promises: “But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob … for I am going to save you from far away … Jacob will return and have quiet and ease, and no one shall make him afraid” (30:10-11). And in verse 18: “I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob, and have compassion on his dwellings.” Considering the fury and the grief of the previous chapters, these promises are striking. More striking still is the following statement: “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (verse 22). For that to happen, the breach between the people and their God must be repaired. The broken covenant must somehow be reformed. 

A closer look at 31:31-34

Our lectionary reading is part of “The Book of Comfort” and its theme is restoration. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is one of the five oracles of restoration in 31:23-40. Each of these five oracles looks to the time when Israel and Judah are both reconstituted within the land—settled back into the cities and towns and countryside that have been racked by war—and their connection with God renewed—a connection broken by the people’s failure to honor the covenant God made with them. Interestingly, there is no mention in any of them of the devastation of the land nor of the exile itself. In the previous chapter, these themes featured prominently. The oracles of 31:23-30 look only to the return and renewal. 

The restoration of the covenant between God and the people is an essential element of the people’s restoration. With the covenant broken, Jerusalem is in ruins and some of the population in exile: “I have dealt you the blow of an enemy; the punishment of a merciless foe, because your guilt is great, because your sins are so numerous” (30:14b). The relationship between the people and their God was understood to have prerogatives—divine protection and blessing—and responsibilities—the people were to follow God’s instruction, the torah. The people’s failure has led to a terrible breach, and God has punished the people according to the terms of the covenant. The only way forward is for the covenant to be remade somehow. 

The oracle in our lectionary reading lays the foundation for the people’s renewal; God is going to make a “new covenant” with the people.2 The prophet recalls the making of the old one “the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” and its breaking (verse 32) and contrasts that to the making of the new one: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days … I will put my law (torah) within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (verse 33). 

Note that the key distinction between the old, broken covenant and the new one is not content. The use of the word torah to describe that which will be written on the people’s hearts indicates that the terms of the agreement, the expected behaviors, will not change. The torah is the torah, and Jeremiah’s loyalty to the law has been unwavering throughout these writings (see 2:8 and 6:19, for example). What is changing is that this new covenant will be inscribed on their hearts rather than on some external object. It won’t be material to be taught by the old to the young for “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (verse 34). It won’t need to be taught at all. The law will be part of each person’s internal makeup. With this new covenant, God has forged a way for the bond between Israel and God to be renewed and to deepen. 

Both the old and the new covenants had the grace of God as their foundation. In the first covenant that grace was expressed in their miraculous escape from Egypt, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). In the second, it is expressed in God’s willingness to make a second covenant with the people who broke the first, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). To a people shattered by war and exile, these words of hope are offered as a restorative balm. The broken covenant is not the end of their relationship with God. With God, they can begin again. 

This is a powerfully hopeful text, but to be true to it, a preacher ought to be very clear that, while it was radically different in its location, the new covenant was absolutely the same in its content as the old covenant. There was still the expectation that the people would reflect, by their behavior, their relationship with God. That is, they would know God and reflect God’s concerns for justice and righteousness in the way they lived. The role of torah, whether it was internal or external to the person, was always to guide the people so that they might know God and live accordingly. 

A possible avenue for preaching might be to reflect on the fact that the covenant was meant to change the people’s hearts, and our relationship with God is meant to change ours. The connection between prayer and service might be a helpful point to make. In her wonderful book, The Breath of the Soul, Sister Joan Chittester writes, “Prayer is meant to change our self-centeredness into community that having prayed the Our Father, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done,’ we spend our lives doing something to bring it.”3 And the assurance of God’s grace is with us always as we work to live faithful lives. 


  1. Walter Brueggamnn, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 27.
  2. This “new covenant” is the source of the designation “New Testament” for the Christian scriptures.
  3. Joan Chittester, The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer (New London, CT: Twenty-third Publications, 2009), 73.


Commentary on Psalm 46

James K. Mead

Type “Psalm 46” in the Working Preacher search box and you’ll discover that there are eleven other scholars whose commentaries on this psalm have been posted (or re-posted) a total of nineteen times! We are indeed “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Their insights into the language, contexts, and message of the psalm provide a firm foundation for our exposition of a classic Reformation Day scripture, making it difficult to imagine adding anything new to their discussion.  

That said, I was struck by the fact that the other commentaries were composed prior to 2020. Of course, God’s word does not change and its history of interpretation carries forward, but the last three years have brought enormous grief, anxiety, and uncertainty. I think of the continually morphing Covid pandemic with over 6 million deaths worldwide. Political strife divides many nations, evidenced most painfully by an attack on the U.S. Capitol. In the U. S., we are beset by never-ending gun violence, especially mass shootings in schools. There have been acts of racial injustice too numerous to count. We wage a desperate and contentious struggle with global climate change. A brazen Russian invasion of Ukraine destabilizes the world’s economy and brings the world to the brink of war. Then I turn back to Psalm 46’s defiant profession on behalf of Israel, “We will not fear” (verse 2). Can we say the same today?

Psalm 46 does not provide us with a similarly specific list of historical crises. To be sure, the psalm is realistic, referring to a particular city (Jerusalem) and assuming a tragic history of natural and national disasters. Underlying this poetic realism is an ancient, symbolic world of chaotic elements that can “shake” and “totter” the earth’s very foundations.1 Far from eliciting fear, however, these varied circumstances gave Israel an occasion to celebrate God’s presence, strength, and help in this psalm. Israel can joyfully trust YHWH to be with them and declare what Clinton McCann calls, “a proclamation of God’s universal reign.”2

I’d like to explore the challenge of connecting that abiding theological truth to our historical and cultural moment. Is there a way for our congregations to name the angst that besets our age and interrogate the fear and dread that weakens our faith and work in the world? We can begin by addressing Psalm 46’s conceptual distinction between God’s relationship with nature and God’s relationship to the nations within human history. In verses 2-4, natural features (for example, earth, waters, mountains, river) are the subject of verbs. But in verses 5-11, God’s agency dominates the psalm: God is present, speaks, and acts, especially to stop the violence of war. The psalm does not suggest that God causes the natural events or intervenes to stop them. Yes, “[God] utters his voice, the earth melts” (verse 6b), but commentators typically identify a structure for Psalm 46 that links that expression with the “nations” and “kingdoms” of verse 6a.3  

The overall rhetoric of Psalm 46 is to declare God’s presence and refuge, not to explain cosmic tumult. When beset by fear in the face of tragedies and disasters, it is tempting to jump to some immediate, divine causation. Although the Bible frequently describes God sovereignly acting in the natural order, Genesis 1 clearly teaches that God intended for the created order to have its own laws and mechanisms. To be sure, we are increasingly aware of the profound impact the human community has had on the created order, and it is now difficult to separate the sphere of human history from the workings of nature.4 

But what about massive natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, responsible for the loss of a quarter of a million people? It is completely normal to ask the question, “Where was God in the Tsunami?” as David Bentley Hart does in the subtitle of his compelling theological essay, “The Doors of the Sea. This topic is, of course, part of a much larger exploration of the existence of evil and efforts to explain it in light of the goodness and power of God. Hart wrestles with various theological responses to the tsunami, and while he rejects connecting every event with “a positive determination of God’s will,” he maintains the classic doctrine of providence.5 Hart believes that “all Christians must affirm God’s transcendent governance of everything, even fallen history and nature, and must believe that by that governance he will defeat evil and bring the final good of all things out of the darkness of ‘this age’.” In conversation with Psalm 46, a doctrine of providence moves us from a state of fear to one of deeper faith, which itself begets a profound hope for the future.

As I write this in July of 2022, a war rages in Ukraine. Looking at Psalm 46:9-10, it is difficult not to wonder when God will cause that war to “cease,” to “shatter” and “break” the weapons of the aggressor. Some recent commentaries caution applying Psalm 46 to modern nation states and “their own martial actions against other people.”6 Ellen Charry states that, far from encouraging violence, “this antiwar poem counsels Israel to desist from military action and to wait for God to deal with foreign enemies.”7 Indeed, YHWH commands the nations, “Be still, and know that I am God!” (verse 10a). The Hebrew root for “still” (rph) in this instance likely means to “stop” or “refrain from.” Another Hebrew root (dmm), however, speaks a similar word to us: “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).


  1. For pertinent ancient Near Eastern references, see Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “Psalm 46,” The Book of Psalms, (Eerdmans, 2014), 422-423.
  2.  J. Clinton McCann, “Commentary on Psalm 46,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/reformation-day/commentary-on-psalm-46-3
  3. See Rolf Jacobson for a careful discussion: “Psalm 46: Translation, Structure, and Theology,” Word and World 40 (2020):308-320.
  4. A readable, journalistic account based on the latest climate science is David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Duggan Books, 2019).
  5. David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea:  Where was God in the Tsunami? (Eerdmans, 2005), 85.
  6. Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (Cambridge, 2014), 219.
  7.  Ellen Charry, Psalms 1-50 (Brazos, 2015), 237.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Israel Kamudzandu

When the Gospel and faith in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are lived out, God will be manifested in the global world. God desires the human family to be characterized and defined by a love of people. Children, youth, males, and females desire a world where guns, bombs, and other war weapons will be only in museums and national archives. All people desire a world where peace and unity will be the heartbeat and spirit of life. Yet, each generation has come to contend with war, hatred, evil, and wickedness. The human family is in need of Jesus. 

Paul laments in Romans 3:19-20 and calls believers to the real center of life, and that center is the “justification by faith,” provided by God in and through Jesus Christ. Paul’s lament is the lament of the Church because the human family is in an appalling state. The emphasis on studying, teaching, and preaching from the New Testament has probably caused people to forget God’s story with Abraham in Genesis 15:6. Abraham is featured in the Hebrew Bible as the first ancestor and progenitor of faith, and his coming to faith was simply based on his belief in God. In return, God justified him as a person of faith, and hence all who follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah are part of God’s reign and kingdom. This basic teaching and biblical truth should be taught to all generations, and by doing so, the human family will be kept grounded, transformed, and shaped in ways that align with Paul’s theology and spirituality. 

The human condition, as portrayed in words, actions, and conduct, will always need the good news of Jesus Christ. That said, being in the Church for a long time or being born in a Christian family does not mean that one is saved by God. Paul’s claim in Romans 3:19–28 is that culture cannot offer us salvation, and neither can our status can redeem us. Instead, our deplorable state as humanity finds its rest in justification by faith (verse 21), which is only experienced when one has confessed faith in God (Genesis 15:6). Nations, ethnicities, males, and females are all subject to wickedness and evil practices, and the only solution to full humanity is when one is controlled by God through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As sinners lost in flesh, and unable to meet godly standards of righteousness, God provides Jesus as the only route out of the human predicament. Jesus, in this case, is the only alternative to having a relationship with God and with other human beings. It is through the power of the Gospel that true reconciliation is enacted, and in this chapter, Paul makes it clear that all relationships flow from the Christ event (3:24–26). In other words, the mission of God can only be done in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Anything outside of the resurrection is not missional, neither is it gospel but an ideology. 

On the cross, God extended salvation and compassion to all people, and the Church should also develop avenues of serving the world in a manner that aligns with the events of the cross. The error of many readers of the Bible lies in reading sections or perhaps verses of the Bible and taking those to be the Word of God. It is essential for Christians and clergy to consider the entire Christian canon as the inspired and authoritative word of God and preach a holistic Gospel. Faith formation and Christian living are fruits of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. With the coming and death as well as resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s word was revealed, as it is still revealed at any location and time. Regardless of the evils happening around us in the world, Christ is urgently needed and pastors, lay leaders, youth, and children need to preach the word to all people. Our affluence misleads us to think that the wealthier we are the more faith we have, but the truth of the matter is that affluence, comfort, and complacency can lead to a dead faith.  

Salvation, like resurrection, is an everyday need and experience, hence, the ministry of teaching about the Gospel should be an ongoing practice (verse 23). In Romans 1:18–32, Paul teaches us that false understanding of God leads to dangerous results manifesting in the mistreatment of ordinary people, and children. Many dangerous events in the 21st century have been done in the name of the Bible. Colonization and invading other people’s land have been done and continue to be done in the name of the Bible. 

While Christianity is a religion of faith, it should also be a religion guided by incarnation, resurrection, and the Trinity. Many who claim to be people of faith lack biblical or cross-shaped ethics and morals. Those who have been entrusted with ecclesial leadership remain untrustworthy and not centered on Biblical truth. The dream of God as expressed in Isaiah 11:6-9 seems to be a nightmare as we experience denominations and nations rising against each other, as well as dismantling global unity, peace, and reconciliation. Churches continue to be nationalistic instead of God, Gospel and Holy Spirit centered. The question at the heart of Paul’s lament is simple: Where is the Gospel of redemption in all that humanity is doing one to another? Where is faith and where is the leading of the Holy Spirit? In this lament, the apostle Paul reiterates the theme of faith in a three-fold manner emphasizing believers’ faith in Jesus Christ (verses 24 -26). 

It is perhaps fair to suggest that the 21st century Church has lost its central faith in Jesus Christ, and in most cases, faith is now national-oriented and politically defined. What is needed is to train pastors who can move people to Christ, and this can only be done when seminaries adopt a cross and resurrection-oriented curriculum. Clergy of all contexts should preach sermons that teach Christ’s love, mercy, and grace. The desire of many pastors to convict others has become a stumbling block to the gospel, for no human being can convict the other besides the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Paul’s letter to the Romans summons the 21st century Church to evaluate itself from the perspective of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Simply put, all humanity, including Christians, have missed God’s mark. 

Reformation Sundays should be celebrated not as ritualized seasons, but as sacred days to remind and call people to embody the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s articulation of the saving event in Romans 3:24–26 should summon people, nations, and ethnicities to commit themselves to God’s mission and ministry for justice, mercy, and repentance. Global faith claims and Church attendance without a commitment to justice, spiritual formation, and mercy is an insult to God’s heart. Reformation Sunday should respond to Paul’s theology and summon people to a life of forgiveness and Global love.