Lectionary Commentaries for January 22, 2023
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23

Jillian Engelhardt

Matthew’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the call of his first disciples is a tale of two kingdoms. Matthew 4:12-23 demonstrates the call for allegiance required to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven. This allegiance runs counter to Roman imperial claims to lives, labor, and land.

Galilee of the Gentiles

Matthew 4:12-13 reports that “Jesus heard that John [the Baptist] had been arrested.” John’s arrest, seemingly the catalyst for Jesus’ ministry, spurs Jesus to move from Nazareth to “Capernaum, by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Napthtali.” 

Zebulun and Naphtali, of course, were two of the sons of Jacob and therefore tribes of Israel. Zebulun was the youngest son of Leah while Naphtali was the younger son of Bilhah, the woman enslaved to Rachel. Their tribal territorial allotments in the Promised Land, outlined in Joshua 19:10-16 and 32-39, were to the west of the Sea of Galilee and, by Jesus’ time, included the region of Galilee. Thus, Jesus is “God with us” (1:23) in the Promised Land; and yet, that land is currently under Roman (in other words, Gentile) occupation.

Matthew underscores the occupation of the land by Gentiles by quoting Isaiah 9:1-2: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by these, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who have sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for this who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

In Isaiah’s time, the lands of Naphtali and Zebulun were under the dominion of another imperial power: the Assyrians who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 733-732 BCE. Isaiah’s prophecy was written in anticipation of a future king whose reign, the prophet hoped, would restore these lands and reunite the nations of Israel and Judah.1 While Isaiah was likely referring to King Hezekiah, the author of Matthew envisions the fulfillment of this prophecy with Jesus. 

After Jesus moves to Capernaum in “Galilee of the Gentiles,” he begins preaching repentance because the “kingdom of heaven has come near,” a theme fleshed out (quite literally in the person of Jesus) in the rest of the Gospel. For Matthew, there seems to be a connection between this vision of a restored Israel and repentance. 

Repentance is a prophetic call to return to God and follow God’s law. The pre-exilic prophets, like Isaiah, encouraged repentance. They subscribed to a theological paradigm scholars refer to as the Deutoronomism. This is a perspective that is prominent in the prophets as well as Deuteronomy, Judges, Joshua, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings. In this view, obedience to Torah results in blessings by God, while disobedience will result in penalties/punishments. 

While Deuteronomy through 2 Kings use this theological lens to understand their history, the pre-exilic prophets use this lens to encourage repentance in order to avoid future punishment. Jesus, taking a different approach, encourages repentance because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 

The Kingdom of Heaven has come near

By “has come near” Jesus could be referring to a temporal shift. That is, God’s rule is near in that it will soon begin so people should prepare themselves. It could also mean that Jesus understood himself to be the embodiment of God’s kingdom, thus the nearness is found in proximity to Jesus. Either way, Jesus’ message is clear: God is acting in the world. 

The language of “kingdom” sets up God’s rule in direct opposition to Rome’s rule, thus repentance could also be understood as a choosing of allegiances. The very thing that the two sets of brothers are asked to do when Jesus calls them in 4:18-22. 

When Jesus first sees the brothers Andrew and Simon Peter, they are fishing on the sea of Galilee. He says to them “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (4:19). He then sees two more brothers, James and John, in their boat with Zebedee, their father. They are mending their nets. Matthew 4:21 simply says “and he called them.” These brothers also immediately follow Jesus.

Some have wondered why Simon Peter and Andrew would walk away so quickly. Did they know Jesus beforehand? Were the sons of Zebedee more likely to follow Jesus because they saw the encounter with Simon Peter and Andrew? Were the men somehow disgruntled in their work? Were the sons of Zebedee disgruntled with their father?

While these are interesting questions, they cannot be answered by the text as we have it. Instead, by thinking about the call to repentance immediately preceding, the story indicates that the brothers chose their allegiance, even if we do not know why they did it so quickly. 

How is this choosing an allegiance, you ask? As fishermen, Warren Carter notes that these sets of brothers were likely under contract with the Roman Empire. “As brothers, and possibly members of a cooperative with James and John (4:21), they have purchased a lease or contract with Rome’s agents that allows them to fish and obligates them to supply a certain quality of fish.”2 Their actions in following Jesus were a disruption, even if small, to Rome’s economic interests. 

By choosing Jesus, the brothers choose God’s rule over Rome. They choose to “fish” their land and the people in it for God’s purposes rather than exploiting it for Rome’s gain. They choose to join Jesus’ ministry in the Promised Land rather than to align themselves with the interests of the occupiers. Rome wanted the men to catch fish to advance their imperialist expansion. Jesus wants them to catch people for God’s rule, which as Jesus will demonstrate throughout the rest of the Gospel, is a rule of mercy and justice and plenty.


  1.  Ackerman, Susan. Isaiah in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 970 n. 9:1-2.
  2. Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY (2000), 121.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4

Megan Fullerton Strollo

For all of the complexities and uncertainties surrounding these verses, the message is quite clear: trust that God’s work is liberating always, even in the midst of trouble and difficult circumstances. 

The Book of Isaiah is infamously a complex and composite text, meaning scholarship generally agrees that the complete book is the work of at least three—and likely more—authors and editors. Determining the primary historical context for any given portion is a challenge. At the same time, such multivalency lends itself to a reader or proclaimer today: Isaiah speaks of an enduring light that liberates us from the “dark” in all times and spaces. 

Regarding the complexities, the boundaries of the text require attention. Isaiah 9:1 (8:23 in the Hebrew Masoretic Text) is decidedly problematic, with scholars debating whether the verse belongs in chapter 8 or as the start of chapter 9. The Hebrew terms of “darkness” (Hebrew ḥashekhah), “gloom” (me‘uph), and “anguish” (tsuqah) in 8:20-22 are repeated in Isaiah 9:1, indicating that the verse concludes chapter 8. On the other hand, the shift in verb conjugation from imperfective (in other words, consecutive forms) to perfective in 9:1 may suggest that the verse is a prose introduction to the more poetic verses in chapter 9 (verses 2–7).

Adding complexity is this passage’s connection to the New Testament. The author of Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1–2a, associating it with Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee in 4:15–16. From this, we can assume that at least some early Christian interpreters associated 9:1 with the rest of chapter 9, rather than as a conclusion to chapter 8. 

As a sort of middle ground in the debate, many scholars regard Isaiah 9:1 as a later gloss, where it serves as a transition between chapters 8 and 9. The place names in 9:1 may be further evidence that the verse is a gloss, as they refer to annexed territories that Judah later sought to incorporate.1 In any case, chapters 8 and 9 likely relate to one another in more ways than one, and both chapters mark the end of a larger section of text that began in chapter 6. 

In its earliest historical context, Isaiah 1-12 is a distinct unit addressing the rise and fall of Assyrian imperial power. Chapters 6-9 specifically highlight the Syro-Ephraimite War and the anti-Assyrian coalition, formed by King Pekah of Israel (Ephraim) and King Resin of Syria (Aram). Thinking that they stood a better chance against Assyria with Judah’s alliance, Pekah and Resin sought to strong-arm Ahaz into joining their coalition. The conflict between these three sparks the Syro-Ephraimite conflict, and ultimately sets in motion the downfall of Israel by Assyria.

In the midst of this political conflict, Isaiah of Jerusalem brings his theological perspective: Ahaz need not choose merely between the anti-Assyrian coalition and Assyria itself, but should put his hope in God who promises a sign. The sign is a child who shall be called Immanuel, “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14). For Ahaz and the earliest recipients of Isaiah’s words, the birth announcement of another Judean king (likely Hezekiah) gave reason for hope. 

Multiple references to the “house of David” (Isaiah 7:2, 13; 9:7) in the larger context of chapters 6–9 highlight that one of the primary concerns for Judah in the 8th century and later (considering the re-situation of this passage for later audiences under threat from Babylon) was the Davidic dynasty. The concern for a successor was therefore paramount; the emphasis on a “child” would be picked up by these later editors and given the eschatological or messianic undertone that accompanies references to this passage at Advent in the Christian calendar. 

Considering this passage (and even its larger context) during Epiphany, however, calls us to focus not on any specific child, but on what the child signifies. In the midst of political instability, shaky alliances, uncertain futures, Isaiah reminds Ahaz (and all those who encounter the text), Immanuel—God is with us. What is more, God’s presence is a shining light, piercing whatever darkness we encounter. 

Isaiah 9:1–4 does not refer to Immanuel specifically; rather, the text gives evidence of God’s presence and the repetition of Hebrew khi (“for”) offers reasons that the people should have hope. As noted earlier, the use of perfective verbal forms in verses 2–4 also provide an enduring quality to the statements. The reversal of darkness in 9:2 has connections to 5:30, with darkness in that case signifying the Assyrian invasion. 

Verses 3 and 4 dip into the recesses of biblical imagery to connect hope and liberation with the enduring heritage of Israel. References to the multiplication of the “nation” (Hebrew goy) in verse 3 hearkens back to the promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:2; 15:5; 22:17; 26:4), and Deuteronomy 12 (verses 7, 12, 18) prescribes rejoicing during the harvest. Rejoicing “when dividing plunder” in verse 3 was a practice following victory in battle (Judges 5:30; 1 Samuel 30:16; see also Psalm 119:162). The “day of Midian” in verse 4 recalls Judges 6-7—the encounter with Gideon, the Israelites, and the Midianites—in which the angel of the LORD appears to Gideon, saying, “the LORD is with you” (6:12). For Isaiah, these references to Israel’s past serves as a hermeneutical key for their current troubles: God is—and always has been—with us. 

In the end, whether we read this as advice to a king, as a word of hope to survivors of Babylonian exile, as a call for inclusion of Gentiles in a specific region (per Matthew’s gospel) or some combination, Isaiah’s message of hope rings out. During the season of Epiphany, the message from Isaiah is this: a Light is piercing the darkness and always has been, that Light liberates us from oppressors in many times and places. Finally, in the context of Isaiah, and as a Epiphanic message, that Light is not only a foretold child—that Light is Immanuel. The message of Isaiah 9:1-4, for all of its complexity, is a reminder that God is with us always.


  1. These territories were part of Tiglath-pileser’s annexation of Israel following the invasion in 722 BCE: Duru or Dor (“the way of the sea”), Gal’azu or Gilead (“land beyond the Jordan”), and Magidu or Megiddo (“Galilee of the nations”).


Commentary on Psalm 27:1, 4-9

Jerome Creach

As much as any psalm in the Psalter, Psalm 27 expresses trust in the lord and claims absolute dependence on God.1

This is apparent in verse 1, which begins the lectionary reading: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

The psalm is a prayer for help. It presumes the psalmist is in some type of trouble (verses 7, 9, 12). Psalms of this type typically contain petition, complaint, and expressions of trust (see Psalm 13 as an example). Psalm 27 is unique in its heightened emphasis on trust.

The opening verse describes the Lord with language that suggests his presence is life-giving and protective. As James Luther Mays says, “The Lord is called ‘light’ because light drives darkness away.”2 Light is a basic category of order and stability that recalls the first act of creation (Gen 1:3; see Exodus 10:21). It is possible that the psalmist perceived and experienced God’s appearance and presence (God’s “face;” verse 8) via sunlight that shone into the temple and reflected off gold decorations (1 Kings 6:20). The reference to God as light (and to God’s face) thus makes the psalm particularly appropriate for the season of epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of God’s presence.

Israel knew God as “salvation” and celebrated that identity in the aftermath of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 15:2). “Stronghold” is a common description of God in the Psalms (Psalm 18:2). The metaphor derives from military situations in which a well-positioned fortress with strong walls provided safety from enemy assaults. These images suggest, therefore, that whatever trouble plagues the psalmist, the Lord’s protection is sufficient to protect the psalmist from it. In times of trouble the natural impulse is to flee to a place of safety (see Psalm 11:1-3 for an expression of that sentiment), but Psalm 27 declares the Lord is the “place.”

Verses 2-3 continue the statement of confidence that began in verse 1. The lectionary reading, however, skips to verse 4. The reason for omitting verses 2-3 is not clear, but verse 4 is certainly worthy of attention. It sums up the faith embedded in the psalm with the declaration, “One thing I asked of the lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the lord and to inquire in his temple.” Here the psalmist identifies the place of God’s protection and shelter as the central sanctuary in Jerusalem.

This identity is evident in the way verse 4 pairs the general expression, “house of the lord” (see also Psalm 23:6) with the specific term, “temple” (hekal). An additional expression “in his tent” here and in verse 6 has the same meaning. This is a poetic name for the temple that conjures images of both protection and intimacy. A tent does not have multiple rooms as permanent structures do. Therefore, the guest in the tent of another naturally participates in the life of those who dwell there (see Psalm 61:4).3

The terms “seek” and “inquire” suggest the presence of a prophet or other cultic official who gave oracles to worshippers who “sought” them. For the psalmist, this is no mere utilitarian practice; the word of God was not something sought simply to gain success in life (compare the kings seeking an oracle in 1 Kings 22:5, 7). Rather, the psalmist’s only desire is to be in God’s presence and to allow God’s word to direct his life.

This remarkable claim of singular desire for God’s presence is similar to the statement in Psalm 23:1b (“I shall not want”) to the effect that the lord’s guidance provides all that is needed for life. The psalm actually petitions God for more, namely for deliverance from an enemy’s false accusations (verse 12), but it suggests that such deliverance comes under the care of God’s sheltering protection. Psalm 27 thus invites the reader to live into such trust that is complete and comprehensive.

Verse 5 continues to express confidence in the Lord’s protection with further descriptions of the safety of the temple. The images continue and expand on the notion of God as stronghold. The psalmist speaks of safety in terms of being hidden, covered, and placed “high on a rock.” “Stronghold” (verse 1b), “shelter” (verse 5a), “cover of his tent” (verse 5a), and “rock” (verse 5b) are expressions related to the overarching notion of refuge that appears so often in the Psalms (Psalms 2:12; 16:1; 18:1-3[2-4]; 31:1[2]; 34:8[9]; 91:1-2; 142:5[6]). That is, the psalmist here and elsewhere speaks of God as a hiding place, a shelter from the storms of life. For other expressions of these images in the Psalms see especially Psalms 61:2b-4 and 63:7.

In verse 6 the psalmist declares the intention to worship with song and sacrifice in response to God’s salvation. But then the psalm turns to complaint and petition for the rest of the lectionary reading and for the rest of the psalm (verses 7-14). The sharp break between verses 6 and 7 has led some scholars to conclude that the two main portions of the psalm were originally separate psalms.

Nevertheless, verses 1-6 and 7-14 hold together around themes of salvation (verses 1, 9), enemies (verses 2-3, 12), trust (verses 3, 14) and seeking God (verses 4, 8).  The psalm closes with petitions that draw upon the language of trust earlier in the psalm: “seek his face” (verse 8 [see verse 4]); “O God of my salvation” (verse 9; see verse 1). Thus, as Mays points out, “the two parts of the psalm are one more way in which the Psalter teaches how closely related are trust and need.”4


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 22, 2017.
  2. James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 133.
  3. Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100 (Hermeneia; trans. Linda M. Maloney; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), p. 108.
  4. Mays, Psalms, p. 132.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Nancy Lammers Gross

Perhaps this is one of the greatest understatements in all of Christendom: there are quarrels among you. Quarrel is a quaint word for what evolved in the history of the church. Time and again, century after century, Christian movement after movement, Powers and Principalities wooed us, wormed their way into our consciousness, worked division and competition, and won wreckage over our feeble faith. There are quarrels among you.

Following are four themes developed last week for possible sermon series.

Called to be saints together

Be in agreement, with no divisions among you, united in the same mind and the same purpose. Experience tells us this is impossible. Was Paul naïve? Shaming us for our inability to be united with no divisions? Did he think we simply needed a bit more time in seminary, a touch of Christology (you were not baptized into the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas)? Perhaps Paul was not so much naïve or shaming or educating as unapologetically proclaiming the absolute sufficiency of Jesus Christ for each of us and all of us together. As suggested in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, Paul’s problem is not with Apollos or any other teacher of the faith. Paul’s problem is with the divisiveness that comes when our allegiance is to teacher and preacher, and not to Christ alone.

One would think that at a time when the Christian churches were in the minority, had no control in culture or commerce or politics or finance, when the odds seemed stacked against their survival, one would think they would band together. But that is not the way of human nature. The teacher or preacher through whom their lives were so dramatically changed held their loyalty. One had the gift of eloquence, another was the rock, another an important traveling evangelist. Their preacher had told them the word of truth. And they were proud.

Add then to their bickering over the relative importance of spiritual gifts, their squabbling over whose preacher was the best. The response of Paul to these reports is the antidote to thinking there is no narrative to follow when preaching from the Pauline corpus, or that Paul was a cold and detached, emotionless theologian. Paul is exasperated. He is confident God has given to the people of God every gift needed to do the work of Jesus until he comes again. Any form of division or competition is antithetical to this mission.

One must wonder if there is anything more damaging to the mission of the Christian Church today than its internal quarrels, its infighting, its competition within the body for followers, fame, and fortune. When prominence of preachers or competition among congregations, or survival of denomination or tradition becomes more important than the ministry of Jesus, we find ourselves in the same boat with those Corinthian followers of Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. 

Together we lack no spiritual gift

It is the gifts, the life experience, the social location, the cultural, national, denominational, racial, ethnic, gender identity and more of the people and leadership of the church that gives the most complete picture and witness of the body of Christ. It is all these and more that constitute the ways the gifts of the Holy Spirit are experienced and exercised. It is not an act of charity to reach out to those different from us or our way of being Christ’s person in the world, or who have been taught the faith differently. It is an act of faithfulness, an extension of the faith of Jesus, to seek communion with all those who call upon the name of Jesus.

In no New Testament list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit does one find loyalty to a preacher or cell in the body of Christ, or cultural way of life. In no New Testament list of gifts of the Holy Spirit does one find boasting in human capacity or success. Many years ago, during my graduate school days when I supplied pulpits during the summers, an old farmer in a rural NJ congregation proudly told me this was his church, and he would stay “if the devil himself was the minister.” I remember saying to him, “and it’s every minister’s job to make sure you know the difference between the devil ‘himself’ and the pastor who preaches Jesus Christ and him crucified so it never comes to that.” 

The cross of Christ is emptied of its power when the gifts of a few are celebrated as most or singularly important.  The cross of Christ is emptied of its power when our loyalty is to preacher, teacher, local congregation, nationality, or culture first, and not to the gospel message of the unearned, unmerited, undeserved love of God in Jesus Christ.

It’s not about you 

Paul quotes what he has heard from Chloe’s people, that the Christians in Corinth are claiming “‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’”  You can hear the pride as they claim their teacher or preacher, and you can hear the smugness as some pull out the “trump”1 card with “I belong to Christ.” It is not about who “you” think you belong to. Paul even trivializes any importance put on who conducted one’s baptism by pointing out he has baptized nearly no one, well, except for a few, or more, or oh well, who remembers?!  It is about Jesus Christ and him crucified, and he cannot be divided according to teacher or tradition. If we belong together to Christ, we must belong to one another.

God is faithful

We cannot count on our teachers, preachers, congregations, or ourselves to be faithful. Full stop. Allegiance to human authorities or structures is an invitation to the powers and principalities to take our focus off the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness of God is perfect, and extends to the least of us, those of us without intellectual prowess or eloquence so that the message of the crucified Christ is not confused with human ingenuity. 


  1. trump card: “(in bridge, whist, and similar card games) a playing card of the suit chosen to rank above the others, which can win a trick where a card of a different suit has been led.” Or, a valuable resource that can be used to gain advantage.  https://www.google.com/search?q=trump+card+meaning&rlz=1C1GCEA_enUS926US926&oq=trump+card&aqs=chrome.2.0i355i433i512j46i433i512j0i433i512j0i512l7.3827j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8