Lectionary Commentaries for November 6, 2022
All Saints Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 6:20-31

Debra J. Mumford

Jesus is looking. What does he see? While this pericope begins with Jesus looking at the disciples, we can surmise that he sees much more than disciples. There were actually three groups of people gathered around Jesus at this moment: a crowd, disciples, and apostles. So, when Jesus looked out at all of the people, he saw: men and women, boys and girls, young and old, Jew and Gentile. He also saw their needs. Each of these groups of people needed very different things from Jesus. 

The first group was the crowd. In verse 17, we read that the crowd was made up of people from Judea, Jerusalem and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. While they wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, the purpose of their presence was very pragmatic; they first and foremost needed Jesus to heal them. Some had various illnesses and diseases. Others had unclean or evil spirits from which they wanted relief. While we don’t know exactly how many people were in the crowd, we do know that Jesus healed all of them. Jesus met their physical needs, which likely healed them emotionally while also restoring them to fullness of life in their communities.

The second group was the disciples. Disciples were those who followed Jesus and not only wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, they also wanted and needed to learn from him. With their learnings they would be able to shape and change their thinking and living to comport with the will of God that Jesus communicated to them.1

The third group was composed of the newly appointed twelve apostles. While all apostles were also disciples, not all disciples were apostles. These were people hand-selected by Jesus to be his emissaries, to continue to do the work he began during his earthly ministry.2

As Jesus preached this Sermon on the Plain, each group  was listening with different purposes and levels of engagement. The crowd was likely listening just for what they needed to get from Jesus in order to be healed. The disciples were listening much closer. They were listening for understanding so they could take Jesus’ teachings and apply them to their own lives. The apostles were likely not only listening even closer than the disciples, they were also watching Jesus’ actions intently because they were expected to do what he did in the world.

In every Christian community there is a crowd and there are disciples and apostles. Preachers can ask members of their community whom they consciously desire to be. Do they want to be part of the crowd? Are they coming to worship and participating in community just to get what they want and need at any given time and place without a real commitment to allowing the Word of God to change every aspect of their lives? Or is their goal to be a disciple? Are they willing to continually examine all of their thoughts and actions to determine how they are and are not living up to their commitment to follow Christ? Are they attending worship to learn how to apply Jesus’ teachings to their own lives? Or do they want to go all in? Do they feel called to not only apply Jesus’ teachings to their own lives, but perform some of the same ministry functions that Jesus did, such as teaching and/or preaching the Gospel? 

As each of the three groups listened to Jesus’ sermon, they were informed of Luke’s view of Jesus’ purpose and mission. The focus of the sermon was consistent with Jesus’ declaration in Luke 4:16-18 in the temple in which he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and proclaimed that he was sent by God to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free. In this Sermon on the Plain, Jesus focuses on the conditions in which people find themselves: poverty, sorrow, hunger and marginalization. This distinguishes the Sermon on the Plain from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew focuses on issues of piety such as mourning, meekness, mercy and peacemaking. In Luke, Jesus’ mission is a prophetic one that changes the lived experiences of the people who believe in and follow him, in addition to attending to matters of the Spirit.

The news that Jesus announced in this sermon was for those whom he chose to actually participate in the kingdom of God by living according to Jesus’ teachings as disciples and for those who answer the call of apostleship. While poverty, hunger, sadness and being marginalized are not “blessed” states of being, Jesus’ announcement of blessedness was linked to adverse conditions as a promise of a glorious future that would be realized when Jesus’s teachings were actually realized.

At the same time, the “woes” that Jesus proclaimed were not a complete rejection of wealth, adequate or abundant food resources, happiness or having a good reputation. Rather, Jesus was warning those who were fortunate enough to live under these conditions that they would be expected to live differently. The rich would be expected to share their wealth with the poor. Those who had adequate or abundant food resources would be expected to share their food with the hungry. Those who were happy would be expected to attend to the emotional needs of those in sorrow. Those who had good reputations would be expected to leverage those reputations on behalf of those who found themselves in challenging circumstances. 

Jesus’ sermon challenged those who were watching and listening to think and live differently. His words also challenge those of us who are committed to following his teachings and those who have answered the call to do the work that Jesus did in the world, to think and live differently. We know that the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed has not yet come into its fullness. Yet, we must believe in the power of God to make Jesus’ vision a reality and accept his invitation to participate in its realization.


Notes

  1. Walter A. Elwell, and Barry J. Beitzel,” Disciple,” in  Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 629-630.
  2.  Ibid, “Apostle,” 131-32.

First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Jin H. Han

Daniel 7 is a watershed in the book that begins with six uplifting stories in the first six chapters. The last six present a series of fantastic dream and vision reports. The shift is dramatic not only in genre but also in perspective. For example, in the first half, when the faithful are saved from death, they cannot and will not take that for granted. In the second half, however, the faithful should consider death a definite possibility (see also 12:2-3). 

Although around this pivotal chapter the story unfolds like the turning of day into night, the book cannot be neatly split into two parts based on genre. Curiously enough, Daniel 7 is part of the Aramaic portion of the book that starts in 2:4b and continues until 7:28. The book that starts in Hebrew transitions unobtrusively to Aramaic, a cognate Semitic language, in 2:4b, in which a Chaldean Aramaic speaker starts speaking. After his speech, however, Hebrew does not return, and the narrative continues in Aramaic. The Hebrew narration mysteriously returns in 8:1. Scholars have proposed various possibilities to explain this peculiar design of the book (such as partial translation of the Hebrew original to Aramaic or vice versa), but whatever may have caused the hybrid form, the present shape of the book effectively prevents chapters 1-6 and 7-12 from splitting the book into two parts. The book of Daniel remains as a well-integrated literary piece.

The hinge chapter of Daniel 7 contains a report of fantastic dreams and visions. In modern days dreams are unfathomably psychologized, but in antiquity the dream was a way to get in touch with the numinous world. In dreams, they considered that one often receives revelation and even prescriptions for difficult illnesses. The rich images of these dreams sponsor or require thoughtful interpretations. According to the Talmud, a dream that does not receive an interpretation is like a letter left unopened (Berachot 55a). 

Daniel’s dream in this chapter takes place in the first year of a king’s reign. In the monarchic world, the first regnal year marks the beginning of a new era. It is time to imagine a better world to come, especially if the life under the previous king spelled misery for the people. With the change of administration, it is time to dwell on hope. Daniel records his dream, apparently realizing that it contains an important meaning for his time and the future.

Daniel’s dream has the backdrop of “the great sea” (7:2, 3). In the biblical world, the sea represents the world of chaos. Out of the troubled waters, four different beasts emerge—each with distinctive characteristics. Daniel, who is known for providing insight and confidence in the first half of the book, is terrified by the monstrous vision. However, Daniel does not wallow in fear. He does not remain in perplexity. He approaches one of the heavenly attendants to seek reliable understanding. In the first half of the book, kings and nobles turned to Daniel when they encountered incomprehensible dreams and questions. Now Daniel himself must turn to another being to understand what is going on.

Asking for the interpretation, Daniel seeks to know exactly what it means (Greek “precision,” verse 16). Hope cannot be constructed on fuzzy falsehood. The faithful, who fight against the false gods and oppression that threaten the life of the faithful, desire to be guided by the truthful understanding of what is being revealed in the dream and vision.

According to the interpreting angel, these beasts represent kings of the earth. In other words, this is a historical drama or a panorama of history. The interpretation lays bare the beastly nature of these kingdoms. Their behavior is marked by pride, greed, violence, and terror (see verses 4-8, left out of the lectionary selection). They rise one after another, suggesting that in spite of their brutality they will not hold their sway for long. The beasts, which signify empires, rise and fall.

In the end, “the holy ones of the Most High” reign (verse 18). The identity of the collective set apart by God is defined by whom they belong to—the Most High. This traditional name of God (see Genesis 14:17-20; Deuteronomy 26:19; Isaiah 14:13-14) calls attention to God’s sovereignty over the world as the highest authority. The loftiness is also a challenge to earthly powers that seek to prop up themselves in their endeavor of self-aggrandizement.

The process of owning the kingdom is depicted with the verb “receive” (Daniel 7:18). In other words, it is a gift from God. Regarding the coming kingdom of God, communicators often like to talk about building the kingdom of God. However, such a kingdom of God that humans build is foreign to the Bible in general and the book of Daniel in particular. In biblical tradition, humans do not build the kingdom of God. By contrast, God brings it, and the faithful welcome it.

The kingdom of God will be eternal. In history, mighty kingdoms came on the face of the map only to disappear forever. No nation is shielded from this fate, no matter how desperately it may pursue its own perpetuity. By contrast, the kingdom of the holy ones of the Most High will endure—not like the kingdoms of the earth represented by the beasts from the sea. In the triple emphatic declaration (“forever—forever and ever,” verse 18), repetition underscores the unbroken strain of praise along with the note of continuity of the kingdom of God.

The promise of the eternal kingdom of God is also a commentary on the temporary nature of the present tribulations of the faithful. The immediate prospect may be terrifying (see also verse 15). God’s triumph, however, will eventually come in accordance with God’s plan. For the time being, troubles may rage. There will be moments of despair for the faithful. In the end, however, they will emerge as “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37), and the kingdom of God will be theirs for ever and ever.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 149

James K. Mead

I just provided the Working Preacher commentary for Psalm 17:1-9 (see November 6), wryly suggesting that the lectionary conveniently left out the brutal imagery and cursing in that psalm’s last six verses. I can’t make that charge for the Psalm 149 lection; it’s all there! In its second half, “the high praises of God” parallel “two-edged swords” (verse 6), vengeance and judgment burst forth (verses 7-9a), and it is punctuated by the claim that “this is glory for all [YHWH’s] faithful ones” (verse 9b). The striking union of a call to worship and a call to judgment in Psalm 149 might dissuade preachers and worship leaders from using it for All Saints Day. Given the complex history of the church, however, I wonder if the psalm’s content might actually provoke serious theological reflection about the lived experience of the saints through the ages. Although at least two 16th century religious leaders used the psalm to foment violence, its interpretation can nevertheless inform our theology in troubled times.1

The four previous Working Preacher entries on this psalm (links on the sidebar) provide excellent insights into a variety of features, with each scholar emphasizing distinct aspects of its interpretation in light of the overall rhetorical tension. I wish to draw out some implications of Psalm 149’s juxtaposition of joyful, musical celebration with intentioned, vengeful judgment. While we rightly reject simplistic application of the psalm to modern geopolitics, this cannot be the sum and substance of the psalm’s conclusion. In the context of All Saints Day, we find the hope for justice in spite of the undeniably harsh conclusion to the psalm. The following literary and theological considerations can deconstruct our understandable tendency to take the violence at face value. 

The psalm’s structure 

The violent language and tone of the psalm’s conclusion is only part of the psalm’s overall rhetorical effect. In fact, it is misleading to speak of verses 6-9 as the conclusion if we leave out the final word, “Hallelujah” (which bookends Psalms 145-150). Moreover, while the closing stanza may be harsh on its own, the musical celebration in verses 1-5 comprises over 60% of the psalm. The musical and instrumental vocabulary of the first part outweighs the violent and retributive vocabulary of the second part. Rejoicing outweighs the punishing.

The grammar of “executing vengeance/judgment on”  

The word “execute” is the NRSV’s attempt to provide context for the otherwise neutral verb, “to make/do” (‘asah), but the translators have good reasons for rendering the Hebrew of verses 7a and 9a that way. Of the approximately dozen instances of “to do” with terms like “vengeance” (neqamah) or “judgment” (mishpat), most are about enemies being punished (Numbers 33:4; Judges 11:36; 1 Samuel 28:18; Isaiah 48:14; Ezekiel 25:11; 28:26). However, some instances of the combination are decidedly positive, revealing other possibilities for doing justice: God “maintains [the people’s] cause” (1 Kings 8:45, 49; Psalns 9:4; 140:12), and God requires people “to do justice” (Micah 6:8).2 With these intertextual options, are we somehow drawn more to the violent possibilities? Brent Strawn has made a compelling case about how readers can project our culture of violence in the act of interpreting biblical passages. He focused on the conquest in Joshua, but the same tendency to project a more violent meaning than necessary could also happen with the psalms.3 

The faithful ones on their couches  

An important repetition in Psalm 149 is hasidim, which the NRSV renders as “faithful” (verse 1, 5) or “faithful ones” (verse 9). Coming as it does at the beginning, middle, and end of the psalm, the concept unifies the overall message, or at least holds very different images in tension. What is the meaning of “let the faithful … sing for joy on their couches” (verse 5)?  Before the praise in their throats gives way to swords in their hands, the psalm portrays the faithful in utter dependence on God. One scholar studied all of the poetical uses of the term “couches” and found that most occurred in nighttime settings, when people can only sleep or dream. It is a “time of intensified spiritual activity and receptivity.”5 Jason Byasse has noted the strangeness of the faithful’s victory. Evoking the stillness of the Israelites at the Red Sea—“The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14)—Byasse believes that “Psalm 149 undoes violence rather than furthering it.”5 This posture fits well with other lectionary selections today, especially Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (6:20-31).

From a Christian reading of Psalm 149, the faithful ones are united to the life, death, and resurrection of the Faithful One, Jesus Christ. The psalm’s conclusion seems to identify our glory with the execution of judgment on others, but in Johannine theology, Jesus’ glory is identified with his own execution, his being lifted up on the cross (John 12:27-31). He will ultimately come to judge the living and the dead, as we profess in the Apostles’ Creed, but will it be focused on vengeance and binding with chains, or will the crucified one judge mercifully? Perhaps Tolkien was onto something when he described King Aragorn’s judgment. “The King sat on his throne in the Hall of Kings and passed his judgments” on “many lands and peoples” who had fought for the evil lord Sauron. Aragorn “pardoned” them all, “sent them away free,” and “made peace” with his former enemies.6 So we sing, 

“From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, 

through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,

singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,

Alleluia! Alleluia!”7


Notes

  1. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Abingdon, 2015), III, 726.
  2. The absence of the preposition (“in,” “with,”) in these more “positive” uses is important.  For Ps. 149:9, the NRSV and several English versions translate the preposition as “on” or “upon” which then matches their verbal translation of “execute.”
  3. Brent A Strawn, “Projecting on Joshua: You Can’t Worship both God and Glock,” in God and Guns: The Bible against American Gun Culture, eds. C. Hays and C. Crouch (WJK, 2021), 13-37.
  4. Th. Booij, “Psalm 149,5: ‘they shout with joy on their couches,” Biblica 89 (2008): 107.
  5.  Jason Byassee, Psalms 101-150 (Brazos Press, 2018), 247.
  6.  J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (Ballentine, 1989), 304-305.
  7. William Walsham How, “For All the Saints” (1864). Cited from https://hymnary.org/text/for_all_the_saints_who_from_their_labors.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:11-23

Stephen Fowl

It is probably best to break the reading from Ephesians into two pieces: 1:11-14 and 1:15-23.  Verses 11-14 are the second half of a single Greek sentence (the longest in the New Testament!) that begins at 1:3. This entire section is in the form of a blessing, praising God for God’s redeeming work in Christ. Verses 3-10 speak about Christ’s work in cosmic dimensions (for example, God is bringing all things in heaven and earth to their proper conclusion in Christ, 1:10). Verses 11-14 refocus the dimensions of God’s drama of salvation in Christ from the cosmic to the lives of specific believers.  

One of the keys to understanding this section lies in how one understands the Greek verb that is translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “we have obtained an inheritance.” Although this is the only time this verb appears in the New Testament, this word, as well as similar language is used in the Septuagint and elsewhere in Greek to refer to being chosen by lots. You can see why the New Revised Standard Version would shift an image that seems to imply a random roll of the dice to one that implies being made an heir. This language of “allotment”, however, is used in Deuteronomy (4:20; 9:26, 29; 32:9) to speak of God’s choice of Israel to be God’s special possession. Paul employs an image reflecting God’s providential and preordained election of Israel to speak of believers’ relationship to Christ. As the rest of Ephesians makes clear, however, Paul does not think Israel’s status has been transferred to the church. Instead, through Christ, a largely Gentile church has been brought within God’s purposes for all creation as manifested through the calling of Israel. 

The aim of such “allotting” is that Christian believers might live to the praise and glory of God (1:12). This is a stunning assertion and Paul refers to the substance of this claim as the “mystery” of God (1:9; 3:1-3). The fact of the Ephesians’ reception of the Holy Spirit serves to validate this assertion (1:13-14). 

Ephesians 1:15-23 is also a single long sentence in Greek. The focus of the thanksgiving of 1:3-14 is God’s redemptive action in the world through Christ. This passage shifts the focus slightly to Paul’s desire to see the Ephesians grow in their wisdom and knowledge of God, so that having been incorporated into the body of Christ, they can continue to move toward their ultimate end in Christ.

Because it is a single Greek sentence, the entire passage is governed by the fact that much of its content is offered as a prayer that Paul offers to God on behalf of the Ephesians. The passage begins by Paul noting that he has heard of the Ephesians’ faith. As a result, he is driven to pray for them (1:15-17). Paul’s prayer is that through the revelatory power of the Spirit, the Ephesian Christians will come to a deeper knowledge of “the hope of God’s call;” and the “riches of the glory of God’s inheritance among the saints;” and the unsurpassed greatness of God’s resurrecting power. Based on 1:10-14, God’s call to believers would be to participate in the drama of redemption that is playing itself out now, but also awaits its full consummation in Christ. This is where the element of hope comes in. It is hope that a faithful God will bring all things into subjection to Christ.   

The Old Testament regularly uses the image of Israel as God’s inheritance. Many of these instances narrate occasions when God has become separated from God’s inheritance. God’s true possession has become alienated from God and awaits restoration. Paul takes this image and applies it to the body of Christ composed of Jews and Gentiles. Finally, although verse 19 is difficult to translate into elegant English there is no question that Paul’s assertion is that God’s power is unsurpassed, and it has been deployed to the advantage of believers. There are no created powers that can ultimately resist God.   

This leads into Ephesians 1:21-23. God’s power both raised Christ from the dead and works to seat him at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Although this is not a direct quotation from Psalm 110:1 (109:1 in the Septuagint), 1:20-23 seems to reflect the early use of this Psalm to describe Christ’s exalted status at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. It would seem that the “heavenly realms” are where matters of the utmost significance are decided, where God’s rule is fully realized. The spatial imagery of God’s right hand and the heavenly realms sets up the relationships of comparative power and status articulated more fully in verses 21-23. 

Christ is above and superior to all powers. The powers Paul names here also appear in a variety of Jewish texts. These malign powers oversee practices, dispositions, and social structures that touch all aspects of human life and work to alienate people from the God of Israel. Although created as part of God’s good creation, they have become hostile to God and will need to be reconciled and put in their proper place under Christ’s rule. 

The final clause of verse 23 is one of the most obscure in the epistle. The New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek by saying that God gave Christ to be head of all things for the church, which is his body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This is certainly an acceptable translation, but not the only way to read the Greek. Nuances of translation aside, the point here is to emphasize Christ’s role in filling all things or bringing them to their proper end and that the church is the locus of that filling.