Lectionary Commentaries for February 12, 2023
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37

Melanie A. Howard

Matthew 5:21-37 opens the section of the Sermon on Mount sometimes called the “Antitheses” (5:21-48). The title “Antitheses,” though, is not well-suited for describing the function of this portion of the text. As the preceding passage (5:17-20) illustrated, Jesus has the highest praise for the Mosaic law. Thus, for whatever else one might say about Matthew 5:21-37, it cannot be claimed that this text demonstrates Jesus’ abolition of the law.

The collection of teachings that spans today’s passage covers several topics: murder and judgment (5:21-26), adultery (5:27-30), divorce (5:31-32), and vow-making (5:33-37). This diverse collection of teachings could appear like a mismatched assortment of sayings that otherwise do not clearly seem to cohere. However, each of these individual teachings can be understood under a larger paradigm of upholding trust and compassion within human community.

The passage begins with the most egregious example of severed trust: the ending of another human’s life with murder. By starting with an example at which most members of his audience would not likely take offense, Jesus paves the way for his audience to follow him through a progression of increasingly smaller infractions against others within one’s community. In other words, Jesus’ rhetorical technique here is to create agreement with his audience on the easiest points first before moving to those points where it is less likely that there will be widespread agreement.

In each example that Jesus provides, Jesus notes the minimal requirement of the law before articulating an ethic that exceeds that most basic obligation. In each case, this ethic appears to be informed by the values of trust and compassion within community.


After beginning with murder (5:21-26) and then moving to adultery (5:27-30), Jesus’ introduction of a set of instructions regarding divorce (5:31-32) might seem like a strange move. That is, this could seem like a minor topic that does not deserve attention alongside the previous (and more serious) examples. 

However, the topic of divorce was a particularly fraught one in Jesus’ time. Two of the leading teachers of Jesus’ time, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, were famously divided over the issue of divorce. The school of Hillel favored a more permissive approach to divorce that allowed for divorce even in the case that a wife ruins her husband’s meal. The school of Shammai, however, upheld a much stricter view that only permitted divorce in the most extreme cases. In other words, the conflict over this particular issue was especially heated in Jesus’ time. Indeed, the fact that Matthew reports later in his Gospel that some Pharisees actually seek out Jesus’s opinion on the matter of divorce (19:1-12) points to prevalence (and divisiveness!) of the issue for many among Jesus’s earliest audiences.

Although there is no exact parallel in modern religious settings for how the issue of divorce functioned for Jesus and his contemporaries, any number of hot button issues today might compare: abortion access, LGBTQIA+ rights, or the church’s position in relation to political issues. Jesus’ response with the topic of divorce can offer a powerful example for Christian communities today who are navigating the politically and ideologically charged questions of our own day. That is, although Jesus does seem to side more closely with one school of thought over another, he ultimately upholds the values of trust and compassion within human community. In this case, by encouraging the continuity of marriage (except in those cases where trust has already been broken through infidelity), Jesus underscores the need for trust and compassion within human relations.

Making vows

Jesus’ teachings on divorce provide a helpful foundation for understanding the final instruction in this passage related to making vows. At first, Jesus’ teachings on the proper way to make vows (5:33-37) might seem like an odd candidate for an example of how he is promoting an ethic of trust and compassion within human relationships. However, when set within an ancient context where most dealings occurred orally rather than in writing, one’s word would have carried something like the wait of one’s signature on an affidavit today. That is, just as it seems nearly unimaginable to be able to engage in business today without signature, contracts, and piles of paperwork, so too would have the business practices of Jesus’s day been rendered nearly incomprehensible without the presence of verbal vows. The oral strengthening of these vows by attaching them to something of great importance (for example, by heaven or earth [5:34-35]) might have served a purpose not unlike the verification of a document by a notary today.

Again, though, Jesus is not satisfied to leave the matter at this. Rather, his suggestion to let one’s “yes” be “yes” (5:37) is essentially an encouragement to ensure that one’s spoken word is so authentic and so in line with one’s intentions that it is already above question just on its own, even without an additional strengthener. In other words, then, Jesus is calling for his audience to demonstrate the highest possible level of trustworthiness and integrity, not only in their dealings with other humans, but also in their dealings with God.

The specific examples of murder, divorce, and vow-making that Jesus provides in this passage may not seem like the most pertinent ones for audiences today. That is, in most cases, our congregations are not likely populated by hoards of murderers! However, this passage is nonetheless vital for Christian audiences today insofar as it demonstrates the ways in which Jesus upheld an ethic of trust and compassion that he expected to pervade the community of which he was a part. Regardless of the vast historical and cultural divides that separate us today from Jesus’ world, this ethic is a timeless one that can just as easily be applied in the twenty-first century as in the first. The encouragement to cultivate trust and compassion in community never goes out of style.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Juliana Claassens

Our lectionary text for this week is about the question of what makes life possible: life individually and also life together. In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, people are called to make a life-or-death decision. Thus, either one chooses a life of obedience, keeping God’s commandments as set out in the rest of the book of Deuteronomy, which is illustrated by the metaphor of walking in the way of the Lord that leads to life that represents happiness, success in all one’s endeavors and, also prosperity. Conversely, going astray, turning one’s heart away from God, not hearing, and hence failing to keep the commandment to worship God alone is to follow a road that leads to death that is also connected to suffering, disease, poverty, and failure. 

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 follows a long list of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28-29, and serves as a type of summary statement, in which one finds a direct causal link between sin and suffering, and obedience and prosperity, which inadvertently have fed into what is commonly understood as a Prosperity Gospel proclaimed in many churches today.

If one reads this text and its foregoing blessings/curses that offer a framework for the book Deuteronomy, but also much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, one finds that believing and keeping the commandments automatically leads to one having a prosperous life, which includes also riches, fertility, health, and happiness. Conversely, a failure to keep God’s commandments set out in the rest of Deuteronomy equates to death, disease, barrenness, and misery. These two ways are vividly illustrated in Psalm 1 with an image of the wicked being blown away like chaff in the wind (Psalm 1:4), while the steadfast is like a tree next to the water, yielding fruit (Psalm 1:3). 

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, one also finds this choose-life-and-not death proposition. For instance, throughout the Deuteronomistic history, kings are measured in terms of their ability to choose life or death. A good example is Manasseh, who is considered to be the worst of the worst in 2 Kings 21, shedding innocent blood (verse 16), committing unspeakable “abominations”“things more wicked than all that the Amorites did, who were before him,” and also leading the rest of Judah astray (verses 11-12). In contrast, Josiah is considered by the Deuteronomistic historian to be a good king who “did what was right in the sight of the LORD and walked in all the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left (2 Kings 22:2).

Also in the prophetic books, the prophets typically connected the looming disaster of being invaded by one empire after another to the people’s inability to live up to the call to choose life, as encapsulated in Deuteronomy 30:15-20. For instance, we read in Jeremiah 11:8 that because the people did not obey God or listen to God’s commandments, God proclaims that God now is “going to bring disaster upon them that they cannot escape.” And even though they cry out to God, God is resolute “not [to] listen to them” (Jeremiah 11:11). 

However, reading through the long list of blessings and curses that quite practically illustrate this choice between life and death, happiness and sorrow, one realizes that this Deuteronomistic theology, which has had such tremendous influence throughout the biblical traditions, and, moreover, till this day shapes many believers’ views regarding sin and suffering, might do more harm than good. 

Already in the Psalms of Lament, the book of Job, and Lamentations, one finds how people started to challenge the basic operating principles encapsulated in this text. Yes, it is true that to do good, work hard, and focus on God leads to life. But not always? Just as wicked people prosper, bad things happen more often than not to good people: The poor do not deserve to be poor. Infertile couples have done nothing to deserve the hardships of reproductive loss. Cells go haywire when people get cancer; accidents, and natural disasters due to human fault (or malice) happen. And to place blame then on people who already suffer due to whatever circumstances have robbed them of life is to add insult to injury, particularly if preachers tell them they deserve what they got.

Perhaps the charge in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 to choose a road that leads to life, or else find yourself on the road to certain death, could be taken in another way. The command to choose life could also be taken to work for what makes life possiblefor oneself and one’s immediate circle of concern, but also for others and the community as a whole. This question is particularly pertinent when one thinks of some of the burning ethical questions of the day. For instance, to name but one example: One should also be mindful that this conflation of land, blessing, prosperity, and possession highlighted in the promised land theology underlying this text has been detrimental to First Peoples in many communities all around the world. It is good to consider what blessing and prosperity of the self means if it comes at the expense of the other.

Finally, Deuteronomy 30:15-20 traditionally has been interpreted as a covenant lawsuit, in which heaven and earth are invoked as witnesses to the choice posed to people that will impact the generation to come. This text thus causes us to consider the numerous ways in which we, on a daily basis, can go about choosing life and not death so that our descendants, but also people around us, may also live. One, for instance, could explore the cosmic implications of our decisions today and how they affect our children and their children. For example, one might think of our decisions regarding climate change and what type of a world, if any, we leave behind for our children. Or how the ongoing violation of human rights of people today based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, may cause significant harm as tensions and divisions fester and erupt down the line.


Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

Joel LeMon

Most modern Christians find Psalm 119 rather difficult to engage.1

After all, at 176 verses, it is extraordinarily long. Moreover, mainline Christian theology might seem at odds with the central theme of Psalm 119. Christians today do not typically share the psalm’s unflagging insistence on (and celebration of) strict adherence to the “law” or torah.

Ancient readers, however, would have found this psalm utterly compelling because it makes bold claims about how to live a happy life and have a healthy heart.

Psalm 119 is an alphabetic acrostic poem, one of several poems of this type found in the Psalms and Lamentations. In these poems, each verse typically begins with a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, the first verse would begin with aleph and the second with beth, and so on, until the poet reached the end of the alphabet.

Psalm 119 is a singularly complex alphabetic acrostic in that every line in an entire stanza begins with the same letter. So not just one verse, but eight verses start with the letter aleph—the next eight with beth, and so on, all the way through the Hebrew alphabet.

So why would a poet bother to write a psalm this way?

The ancient Israelites had to learn their alphabet just like we all did. Reciting and writing the alphabet were fundamental aspects of one’s education. In fact, archaeologists have discovered numerous abecedaries—lists of letters in alphabetical order—from the ancient Near East. Abecedaries have been discovered on shards of pottery, carved into stone, and pressed into clay. Since learning the alphabet was a critical element in ancient education, students practiced writing the alphabet all the time.

For ancient Israelites, another critical aspect of one’s education was, of course, learning the law of God, the torah. Grammar and spelling lessons were as important as learning the law, because the written alphabet was the medium through which the law of God was transmitted. So learning the law and learning the written language of God’s law were bound together.

We should not be surprised, then, that the alphabet serves as an ordering element in this psalm celebrating God’s law and all the good that comes from keeping it. From aleph to tav (that is, from A to Z), Psalm 119 is a song about the law. Its complex alphabetic structure presents an orderly presentation of “order” itself—God’s law, God’s very word to Israel, extolled in a most orderly way.

This long poem begins with a double blessing, using the formula “Happy are those who” (verses 1-2), sometimes translated “blessed is the one who” (NIV, KJV). This same blessing formula appears a number of times in the Psalter (1:1-2; 34:8; 40:4; 41:1; 84:4; 106:3; 112:1) and Proverbs (3:13; 8:32; 14:21; 16:20; 29:18). It also forms the basis for the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Throughout the Bible, the phrase functions simultaneously to encourage the righteous and to call for those who are not living righteously to change their ways. Psalm 119 is no exception.

Verse 1 describes this blessed, happy person as one who “walks in the law.” This might sound odd to modern readers. One could certainly imagine what it means to “keep,” “read,” or “obey” the law, but the image of “walking in the law” prompts us to wonder just how such a walk would look. The psalmist is actually trying to prompt just such a reflection from the reader. And, indeed, the next 175 verses of the psalm aim to answer the question: “what does it mean to ‘walk in the law?’”

The metaphor of walking appears throughout the psalm to express the totality of one’s behavior and activities (cf. esp. verse 105). Thus, to “walk in the law” is a lyrical way of describing what it means to follow the law in every respect. According to Psalm 119, this type of walking—consistently choosing to follow the path that God has revealed through the law—leads inexorably to a happy, blessed life. However, walking contrary to the law only causes trouble and suffering (verses 6, 8; cf. Ps 1).

The first verses of this psalm also highlight the importance of a healthy heart. The happy ones are known by the way they walk and by the nature of their hearts.

A literal translation of verse 7a reads “I will praise you with straightness of heart when I learn your righteous laws.” This image also piques our imagination: what in the world does a straight heart look like? Again, this is just the type of question that the psalmist wants the reader to ask.

Moderns typically understand the heart to be the seat of one’s emotions, especially romantic love. But the ancient Israelite understanding of heart would be most similar to our concept of the mind: the seat of our will, convictions, and intellect. So we could understand verse 7 to mean that learning God’s law produces “straight minds.” These minds comprehend the word of God clearly and allow that law to direct their actions. By contrast, a crooked mind, like a crooked path, leads one into trouble.

The psalm also describes the heart of the righteous as “whole” (verse 2), which is to say, undivided. If someone were to have a divided heart, that person would have his or her focus and attention split between God’s law and something else. By contrast, Psalm 119 suggests that true happiness comes to those whose whole heart, or even better, whose whole mind is completely dedicated to understanding God’s word.

In the introductory stanza to this monumental hymn to the law, we find a crystallization of the psalm’s major themes. The psalmist exhorts readers to walk in the law, for this way of life is the key to happiness and blessedness. Walking the straight path of obedience to God’s law requires a straight heart even as it creates such a heart. The psalm proclaims that God’s word guides and sustains all those who attend to it carefully.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 14, 2014.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Sammy Alfaro

Local church division is a recurring theme in the Corinthian correspondence. The initial report of quarrels sent from Chloe’s house church makes evident that believers were splitting into factions along the lines of their favorite leaders or preachers (1 Corinthians 1:11-12). Today a church division at times could be recast, and even celebrated, as an “effective church plant.” In 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Paul diagnoses the root cause of the Corinthian divisions and provides an antidote for continued church disunity.

Overall, Paul writes to call out and correct the acts of disunity that are being practiced by people who are supposed to be characterized by the guidance of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:1a). Instead of experiencing genuine spiritual growth as “people of the Spirit” (pneumatikoi), Paul contrasts their identity as “people of the flesh” (sarkinoi) and “infants in Christ” (3:1b). Paul rebukes them for not living according to the Spirit, but rather following after the flesh (see also Romans 8:5; Galatians 5:16-18). Gordon D. Fee explains it like this: “the Corinthians are involved in a lot of behavior that runs counter to life in the Spirit.”1 They are deemed unspiritual not because the Holy Spirit is not in them, but rather because they opt to live out their lives in carnal conduct.

Furthermore, they are labeled as “baby believers” due to their lack of development in the life of faith. Using parental imagery, Paul reminds them that when he was with them (see 1 Corinthians 2:1; 3:1) he was unable to feed them the meat of Scripture and had to settle with nurturing them with spiritual milk (1 Corinthians 3:2, see also Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 2:2). Significantly, at the writing of the letter it had been some three to four years after his original visit recorded in Acts 18 (circa 49-51 CE). Paul’s annoyance with the immature Corinthians hinged on the fact that their years in the faith had not produced the maturity that should naturally come with time. Thus, he remarks emphatically “even now you are still not ready [for solid food], for you are still of the flesh (1 Corinthians 3:2-3).

The main proof Paul offers for their failure to mature in the faith is their incessant “jealousy and quarreling” (1 Corinthians 3:3), which is exhibited in their bickering about partisan belonging to either the party of Paul or that of Apollos (verse 4). For Paul, to act like this accords to behaving following the customs of mere humans who have not yet experienced life in the Spirit. Put another way, Paul wants them to stop waving the banners (“I belong to Paul” and “I belong to Apollos”) that broadcast their childish loyalties to mere men.

Interestingly, it seems the main reason for their partiality for either Paul or Apollos is not doctrinal exposition, but more an issue of the use of human wisdom or rhetorical style. This is the reason for the earlier descriptions Paul gives of his proclamation of the gospel among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2:1-5) where he downplays the use of “lofty words or wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:1). Acts 18:24 describes Apollos as “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.” Later in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, Paul quotes his critics’ perception of his writing and preaching when he states: “his letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10). What the Corinthians had done was place Apollos and Paul in competition, giving preference to their styles of rhetoric or display of human wisdom.

In opposition to this, Paul corrects their misplaced loyalties for himself and Apollos by reminding them they were both mere servants of the Lord fulfilling their call (1 Corinthians 3:5). Nothing marked either Paul or Apollos as extra special for who they were or what they did. Paul goes on to explain this succinctly by employing a farming metaphor: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (3:6). With this agricultural insight, Paul diffuses all talk of giving greater prominence to any of the Lord’s servants. Since neither planting nor watering on its own could bring forth fruit (3:7), it follows that similarly neither the initial evangelization nor the continued preaching or teaching is of greater value. Instead, since ultimately God is the one who produces the growth, God is the only one worthy of all admiration, glory, and praise. It was pure folly for the Corinthians to place either Paul or Apollos on a pedestal.

Alternatively, Paul gives the Corinthian church a vision for how leadership should work together in the cultivation of God’s field (3:9). As co-laborers, both “the one who plants and the one who waters” participate in the common task of building up God’s church (3:8). Instead of quarreling over who is the better leader or who preaches with greater eloquence, Paul invites his readers to rethink the nature of church ministry as a collaborative effort by all those who are called to be God’s servants (3:9). This is the beauty of the farming motif closely followed by Paul in this passage: laboring in the church is a group effort and, in the end, God gets all the credit.

Given the hyper individualism that pervades much of contemporary church leadership, this passage is a clarion call for ending partisan bickering and choosing to grow in maturity to serve the Lord of the Harvest. Today we struggle with the popularity of Christian leaders and churches who strive to grow their social media platforms. In addition, believers leap from church to church seeking the one that best suits their needs or satisfies their preferences. They jump on the bandwagon of another Christian celebrity because they posted something they agreed with on social media. And to make it worse, it is done in the name of spirituality. May God help us grow up and work together for God’s glory.


  1. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2014), 132.