Lectionary Commentaries for December 11, 2022
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11

Stanley Saunders

This lectionary reading takes up only the first half of Jesus’ reply to John the Baptizer’s question about whether Jesus is, indeed, the “coming one.” Jesus’ full reply begins with a list of sign-acts (11:4-5) that he has been performing, whose meaning John and the rest of Jesus’ audience, must then interpret. The second portion of Jesus’ reply (11:7-15) offers first a comic exploration of what the audience sought when they went into the wilderness to be baptized, then Jesus’ own assessment of John’s role in God’s work to redeem Israel. Jesus then closes his homily with a sharp challenge aimed at “this generation,” a term that in Matthew persistently designates the self-righteous and powerful elites who have resisted John and now also Jesus. At the heart of Jesus’ reply to John is the question of how we come to discern God’s power and presence in our midst, both in the ministry of John as the forerunner and in Jesus, who brings to fruition God’s redemptive will for Israel, the nations, and ultimately the whole creation. 

The sources of resistance to John and Jesus

Jesus’ acts of healing and restoration in Matthew 8-9 are signs that through him God is gathering and restoring Israel for harvest (9:36-38). While the harvest fulfills the promise to restore and prepare Israel to fulfill its mission to the nations, division and judgment are accompanying realities. John’s question concerns both what actions he expected of Jesus and, thus, whether Jesus is really the Christ. Another question is implied: will John (and we) stand with or against him? The scribes, Pharisees, and other leaders, who might be expected to recognize more clearly than others the nature and meaning of Jesus’ ministry, have already set their wills against him. Is “this generation,” which will soon kill both John and Jesus, looking for the wrong signs? Or do they already discern the possibility that his coming constitutes a threat to their status or way of life? Do their investments in the status quo or their trust in their own righteousness make it impossible to accept the signs of God’s coming, whether in judgment, redemption, or both? Why do those who see themselves as the righteous so often stand on the wrong side of God’s will and work? 

What to make of Jesus?

With John’s question about whether Jesus is really “the one coming,” we are left to wonder which side of the judgment John himself may be on. John’s question may express a hopeful, if hesitant, sense that Jesus is indeed the one expected to carry out the restoration of God’s people, or it may convey exasperation, impatience, or even doubt, if not about whether Jesus is the Messiah, at least about why he doesn’t express his true identity more forcefully. John’s own ministry, which carried a healthy dose of judgment, seems to have roots especially in Malachi 3:1-5, which says that the one who prepares the way for the day of the Lord’s coming refines and purifies the people with both soap and fire. Jesus’ ministry, in contrast, has focused on healings, exorcisms, and public banquets with tax collectors and sinners—in other words, strong on healing and restoration, but weak on judgment and vindication. As John sits in Herod Antipas’ prison, awaiting death (14:1-12), he may be wondering whether and when the liberation of God’s people from bondage and oppression will really take place. So far, the dominion of Rome and of local rulers like Herod Antipas and the Jerusalem priesthood remains undisturbed. What kind of messiah leaves the forerunner in prison? 

Today, many Christians may ask similar questions: if Jesus is really the one who brings God’s rule to fruition, why is our world still marked by exploitation, injustice, polarization, and violence? Why are we still waiting? How long must we wait? Will Jesus really come to redeem those who suffer, or should we look for another? The answer lies not in any academic or technical adjudication of Christological titles and actions, but in what one makes of the signs Jesus performs: do we believe that when the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them that we are seeing God’s power? Or are we looking for something else? How is God’s power still evident today? Will we experience the good news as redemption or judgment?

Judgment and redemption

Matthew’s Gospel persistently links judgment and redemption inextricably together, as two faces of a single reality. The signs that define Jesus’ ministry in 11:5 echo passages in Isaiah that mingle announcements of vengeance and judgment with the promise of liberation (for example, Isaiah 29:18-19, 35:5-6, 42:18, 61:1-3). In these passages, as in the ministry of Jesus, the blind, the deaf, the poor, et cetera, refer not just to the individuals Jesus heals, but metaphorically to the condition of God’s people as a whole, including John and Jesus’ own disciples. Because God’s coming brings both judgment and redemption, we should not be surprised that John and Jesus encounter both welcome from some and powerful opposition from others. This is simply the nature of the “good news.” Does the gospel we proclaim and embody today, especially as congregations, generate such diverse and powerful responses? Do the signs of God’s presence and power among us correspond with those of John or Jesus? What vision and values do those around us see at work in our midst?

What did you go out to see?

John drew crowds into the wilderness because they were seeking alternatives to the realities their political and religious leaders imposed upon them. Jesus reminds his audience that John was not like the political rulers, neither a wimp buffeted by the wind nor someone trying to look important in their finery—there were plenty of these in Jerusalem. They went to see God’s true prophet. The wilderness in which John ministers is an alternative to the imagery and pomp of cities like Jerusalem. It is also the place where God’s people were first formed. John calls them to repentance, to turn from the idols of this world and to be cleansed, so that they might join him in making straight paths for the coming one. That way is discovered among the blind, the lame, the unclean, the deaf, and the dead.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10

Cory Driver

One of the great pleasures of proclaiming God’s words from the book of Isaiah is selecting from the multitude of meanings the text supports. This week, as we continue to celebrate Advent and look forward to the birth and re-birth of God’s hope for the world, we are spoiled for choice with interpretive possibilities due to the polyvalence of Isaiah 35.

First, is this chapter a preview of the return of exiles to Babylon? We can certainly read it that way. Does God speak to exiles of Jerusalem, urging them to bodily strength (Isaiah 35:3-6) for the journey back to Jerusalem (Isaiah 35:10) on God’s holy highway (Isaiah 35:8)? This interpretation is intimately connected with a similar post-exilic reading of Isaiah 40 and after. God is speaking to those who have been displaced by divine punishment of injustice and idolatry, promising restoration and returnboth of God’s favor and the exiles themselves. The hope for exiles becomes a Second Exodus in which God once again leads the Holy Community through wastelands to re-inhabit the promised land. 

Or is this a vision of ecological restoration? We can certainly read it that way. The wilderness and desert will blossom abundantly (Isaiah 35:2). Indeed, the character of the wilderness will be wholly changed to resemble Lebanon, with its famous forests; Mount Carmel, associated with rainfall, forests and wildflowers; and the Plain of Sharon, one of the most fertile areas in the Holy Land. Isaiah speaks of abundant water welling up in the formerly desert places (Isaiah 35:6-7) that leads to changes first in flora and then in fauna. As grasses and plants grow, no longer will jackals and lions stalk the barren landscape (Isaiah 35:7, 9). Does the prophet look forward to a time of ecological change, when desert landscapes and ecosystems will be rearranged to make a new garden in which God and humans will dwell together? 

Or is Isaiah 35 simply a good, ole prophesy of national vengeance? We can certainly read it that way, as Rashi, the 11th century French sage, does. The wilderness and desert are not to be thought of as geographical areas, but as other names for Jerusalem and Zion. Certainly, throughout Isaiah, Jerusalem, a relatively well-watered mountain town, has been threatened with wilderness and desert conditions, and promised reprieve from desertification as well (Isaiah 5:6, 51:3, 64:10). In Rashi’s reading strategy, wilderness restoration becomes a sort of code for reversing political and military subjugation of Jerusalem. 

Driving this interpretation, Rashi notes that the first word of chapter 35 is a sort of Hebrew contraction. Because yesusu is an intransitive verb, it does not have a direct object, and the mem, therefore, must represent an indirect object. Thus, yesusum should be read as yesusu mehem (“shall rejoice from them”). Rashi references similar cases of Jeremiah 10:20 “My children have gone away from me (yitzani),” and I Kings 19:21 “He boiled the meat for them (beshalam).” The wilderness and desert are not just rejoicing in a vacuum but rejoicing over or against something. The rest of the chapter becomes a sort of celebration of God’s vengeance against those who have overpowered Jerusalem. 

If chapter 35 opens with a restored Jerusalem rejoicing over national enemies, many of the details of the following verses can be read in support of this interpretation. Just as in former times the trees of Lebanon were cut down to build the temple and Solomon’s palace, so, again, will the areas north of Jerusalem be despoiled to build up Jerusalem. When God shows up, it is with vengeance and with retribution deserved by those who have harmed Jerusalem, however God will save the Holy Community (Isaiah 35:4). 

In this reading, the opening of the eyes of the blind, the unstopping of the ears of the deaf and the enlivening of the limbs of the disabled are not miraculous healings. Instead, God will confront those who have made themselves blind to injustice with searing visions. Those who made themselves deaf to the cries of God’s poor and marginalized will be unable to shut out their cries. And those who lounged in luxury will run away in fear from their palaces like a frightened deer. All this will cause the mouth that has been shut up for fear of further persecution to sing for joy. God will make a road that the unclean, the foolish and the powerful (represented by lions) will be unable to trod upon (Isaiah 35:8-9). This is a highway of exclusion, made to show that all those who humiliated Jerusalem and her people will be thrust aside. The returnees will celebrate, and those who persecuted them will flee with sadness and sighing (Isaiah 35:10).  

This lectionary reading, and much of the rest of Isaiah, offers the preacher the opportunity to do the work of exegeting the congregation while you exegete the text. What do your people need to hear? Is the Second Exodus a word of hopethat God is a god of repetitive salvation. When the People become enslavedwhether to Egypt, Babylon, or sin and deathGod will liberate them. Or, in this time of climate change and ecological devastation, do your people need to hear that God longs to undo desertification and make the burnt wastelands fertile once again? Or do your people need to hear what Jesus and the prophets so often proclaimed: that might does not make right, and that those who abuse others will meet an inescapable judgment at the hands of the God who sees? 

Advent is a rich time, fecund with meaning. The words of Isaiah are rich, and we have abundant traditions of powerful interpretations of those words. As always, when we set ourselves the task of interpreting and proclaiming God’s words for the people, I think it is important to be honest with ourselves and our people that there is no one, inherent meaning of the text. What a gift!


Commentary on Psalm 146:5-10

Jason Byassee

The third Sunday in Advent has become the rare moment when Protestant churches pay a little attention to Mary, mother of God.1

The candle lit this day is traditionally pink for Mary’s day. The texts from the gospel attend to Mary’s responsiveness to God and to her prayer magnifying God’s glory. Protestants have known who we are partly by being not-Catholic, so not attending to saints, to Mary, to pilgrimages and relics and the hierarchy. But Mary keeps creeping in the back door. She is the first Christian—the first one to say “yes” to God’s cockamamie scheme to save the world through an unmarried Jewish teenager from the sticks. She is present at key points in Jesus’ ministry and even at his ascension and at Pentecost. She is a friend of the poor, mother of believers, the one who taught Jesus to pray and who teaches us. 

The salvation announced in Psalm 146:5-10 is one that takes flesh in her womb. These psalm verses are almost a policy platform for the kingdom Jesus will inaugurate to which the church bears witness. And it starts with a beatitude—just like Jesus’ preaching does in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). Blessed, happy, glad, lucky, enviable is the one whose help is in the God of Jacob (Psalm 146:5). Think of all the things our world finds blessed and enviable: those who are rich, good-looking, and close to power (see verse 3). The Bible reverses these beatitudes: no, blessed is the one who has no hope other than the Lord. There is no blessing in the Bible on physical attractiveness. None whatsoever on wealth—in fact, quite the reverse. The kings in the Bible are a rogues’ gallery—even the “good” ones are disasters. The only one who is happy is the one whose God is the Lord.

The subsequent verses describe who this God is by what he does: he executes justice, gives food, sets free, opens eyes, lifts up, loves, watches strangers, and upholds widows. If you look at God’s business card, it includes these jobs: establisher of orphans and benediction of the just. There is a triumvirate of those drawing God’s special care and attention in Torah and so deserving the help of God’s people: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. They are, as Robert Alter says, “exemplary instances of the vulnerable and the disenfranchised.”2 Those who are the lowest receive God’s greatest attention. The great preacher James Forbes often proclaims, “No one gets into heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor.” Psalm 146 is God’s letter of recommendation for the powerless. Notice them. Help them. Make life with them. Become one of them. Charles Spurgeon compares the clauses from verses 5-9 to stair steps up which God leads the poor by hand. By contrast, the wicked are thrown down in this psalm in a single swift motion (verse 9b). Good is fascinating and deserving of patient attention. Evil is boring.3

Psalm 146 is itself a stair step. It comes at the tail end of the entire set of 150 psalms. It begins with an admonition for one’s own soul to praise (verse 1). The last step has every creature under heaven and upon the earth giving praise, all things animate and inanimate, hallelujahing with a crashing crescendo (Psalm 150). Psalm 146 is a sort of summary of the entire Bible, a “condensation of condensation,” one scholar calls it.4 If you want to know who God is, start with this psalm and work your way forward and back. We are tempted to trust in princes. We should not. We are tempted not to trust in the Lord, who loves and lifts the poor. We should. The whole is rooted in a theology of creation (verse 6). The God who made the sea and sky and all the other stuff is powerful enough to uplift the downtrodden. The one who made the eye can open it. The one who came among us as a stranger, who reaches out to widows and orphans, loves the righteous. St. Augustine locates humanity, all of us descended from Adam and Eve, in the “bowed down” of verse 8. We are bent low. God takes on our flesh and stands us up straight with his resurrection.5 “The Lord will reign forever,” the psalmist insists in verse 10, and the Nicene Creed echoes. This is the whole of the Bible’s good news in nuce, with enough power to fuel the sun and the other stars.

This is a psalm with dust on it (Psalm 146:4). We are creatures with dust on us. In fact, we are creatures made from dust (Genesis 3). This can be good news. The princes we are tempted to trust are dust creatures too, like us, and will return to their origin, as we all will. The Lord delivers from the dust. Not only that, he became dust, one of us, and was laid in dust like the rest of us will be. The strange way the Lord of dust delivers the poor is to become dust like them and raise some of that dust—his own body. One day he will raise all of the dust we have become, to be part of his new heaven and earth that will reign forever. For now, we have only the promise of one bit of dust raised—his, at the right hand of the Father. One day we will need no promise to trust—we will have the fulfillment. This psalm is a promise. Count on it.

And it all starts with the word of one peasant girl in response to one angel. “Here I am,” she says, echoing her foremothers and fathers through the centuries. “Let it be with me according to your word.” It is the prayer of every believer, the prayer of all creation, the prayer that the Lord of dust delights in and answers with a pregnancy, good news for the poor, and resurrection.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 15, 2019.
  2. Robert Alter The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 503
  3. Charles Spurgeon The Treasury of David: Spurgeon’s Classic Work on the Psalms, ed. David O. Fuller (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), 675.
  4. Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Eric Zenger Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150, trans. Linda Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 609.
  5. Expositions on the Psalms VI, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City, 2004), 416.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 5:7-10

Richard Carlson

A central theological and pastoral thrust of Advent is the correlation between God’s impending endgame and our ongoing lives in the present. This correlation resonates throughout the letter of James both in terms of how human conduct in the present will impact divine decisions in the future and how God’s eschatological plans are to shape and mold current Christian attitudes and action. This dual interplay between divine future/human present culminates in the negative and positive injunctions within James 4:13-5:11 (wherein our text presents the positive side of the divine future/human present interrelationship).

To fully appreciate James’ direct words of pastoral encouragement to his Christian audience in 5:7-10, it is important to understand his condemnatory tirade in 4:13-5:6. The “you” plural addressees used throughout 4:13-5:6 (and at whom James targets his invective) are no longer the members of “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1) whom James has been addressing since the letter’s opening. Instead, James now paints this particular group as the rich (4:13; 5:1,2,3,5) who arrogantly claim that they can control their prosperous future (4:13,16) just as they have oppressively controlled their affluent present (5:4-5). Rather than being in control of their future, James informs them that their lives are but a transient puff of smoke that is about to be made to disappear (4:14b). Likewise, they and the wealth they have accumulated through exploitative and fraudulent practices in the present are destined for eschatological retribution (5:1-5 as the climax of the divine condemnations of the rich presented earlier in 1:10-11; 2:6b-7). Thus, these verses present the extreme negative side of James’ correlation between present human conduct and future divine decisions.

In 5:7a, the use of the expression “therefore beloved” (NRSV; literally “therefore brothers” which is one of the letter’s seventeen uses of the Greek word “adelphos” which for James helps cement his familial solidarity with the letter’s audience) marks a transition whereby James is once again directly addressing the letter’s true audience. They are the righteous ones who have been the victims of the oppressive practices by the rich (5:4,6; also see 2:6b). Instead of trying to curry favor with the rich while ignoring the poor (2:1-7), James’ audience needs to learn the negative and positive implications of the imminent “coming of the Lord” (literally “the Parousia of the Lord” in 5:7,8). 

On the negative side, they need to pay attention to the impending eschatological doom of the rich because of their current evil actions and avarice. On the positive side, Jesus’ impending coming both calls for and empowers their patience (stressed three times in 5:7-8a). In this way, the expression “until the coming of the Lord” marks not only the extent of their need to be patient but also the goal of their patience. To underscore this period of patience, James utilizes an agricultural illustration in verse 7b (paralleling his use of agricultural examples in 5:4-5). Their patience in anticipation of the Lord’s coming is comparable to the farmer who patiently waits for the ripening of his precious crops which are dependent on the rains at the beginning and culmination of the growing season. Indeed, in his Greek James drives home the applicability of this analogy by introducing it with an emphatic “Behold!” in verse 7 (captured nicely by the King James Version) and through the use of “You also be patient” in the opening of verse 8a.

The New Revised Standard Version translation of the imperative in verse 8b, “strengthen your heart” is a bit too ambiguous and does not fully capture James’ directive here. James is calling on his audience to firm up the commitment of their inner resolve to God and God’s ways akin to his directive in 4:8. The reason they are to firm up their inner resolve is precisely because the Lord’s Parousia has drawn near. The thrust of James’ language is not so much that the Lord will come but that the Lord is already in the process of coming. This sharpens and intensifies the so-called “already/not yet” theological outlook in James. Not only are they already living in the end times (in other words, the “last days” noted in 5:3), but Christ’s eschatological coming (replete with its ultimate condemnations against the rich and blessings for the stalwart) is now unfolding. No wonder James is calling for his audience to firm up their resolve and commitment to God.

The imminence of Christ is reinforced in verse 9a when James declares that the Judge is standing at the doors. Final judgment is at hand and about to break into the human realm. Recalling what was claimed in 1:10-11; in James 5:1-4, the eschatological condemnation of the rich for their avarice and exploitation is already a done deal. By not engaging in backbiting and squabbling with other members of the community (recalling and reinforcing James instructions on communal harmony in 3:13-18; 4:1-3,11-12), believers will not come under such condemnation (5:9a echoing 2:13). The implication is that our resolve and commitment to God in light of the divine future also promotes internal harmony in the present.

In 5:10, James offers the example of the prophets who suffered with patience because of their resolve to carry out their God-given vocation of speaking the Word of the Lord. In similar fashion, while James’ audience currently suffers under the oppressive hand of the rich (2:6; 5:4-6) they await the Lord’s coming in patient anticipation and commitment to their God-given vocation which James established throughout chapters 1-4. Though not in the lectionary’s boundaries, 5:11 adds perseverance to the important character traits needed amidst present hardships (using the example of Job’s endurance) as they look to the goal of God’s purposes and plans.

Through both his warnings and assurances regarding the certainty and imminence of God’s endgame, James seeks to move us toward the divine future with renewed patience, perseverance, and resolve. Because the future is in God’s hands, we live in its anticipation in our present.