Lectionary Commentaries for February 22, 2023
Ash Wednesday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ronald J. Allen

Many interpreters today acknowledge tension between Matthew’s congregation and some other Jewish communities. I write with the double conviction that Matthew polemicized against traditional Pharisees and that Matthew’s congregation was itself in the Pharisaic tradition. The key question between the two groups was: “Who is the authentic heir and interpreter of Judaism?” 

Matthew seeks to reinforce the congregation in its belief and practice that Jesus is an “apocalyptic rabbi” and that the time has come to strengthen its life and witness in the light of the dawning of the Realm of God through the continuing presence of Jesus and the future full and final expression at the apocalypse. Matthew seeks to discredit the authority of the traditional Pharisees and to present his own Gospel as the authoritative interpretation not only of Jesus but also of eschatological Pharisaism.

The contrast in today’s reading is not between “Jews” and “Christians” as distinct religious bodies but is more like a family disagreement over who best represents the identity and values of a family. 

From this wide-angle lens, the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is enigmatic. On the one hand, it sets a sober and self-reflective tone for Lent, so existentially important for the church in the chaotic early twenty-first century. On the other hand, the passage presumes the aforementioned picture of traditional Pharisaism so as to invoke some of the same criticisms upon Matthew that Matthew visits upon those Jewish leaders. 

Matthew 6:1 sets the theme for the readings. The disciples are to be wary of demonstrating their righteousness in ways that call attention to themselves (6:1). Matthew then presents three case studies that show how the theme plays out in practice: giving alms (Matthew 6:2–4), prayer (Matthew 6:5–6), and fasting (Matthew 6:16–18); the lectionary uses Matthew 6:19–21 as a summary of the consequences of faithful practice. Matthew’s interest here is not in the specific details of the cases but in portraying attitudes that come through the theme statement and the three cases. The congregation can then transfer these attitudes to other situations. This structure could easily provide a structure for a sermon: introduction (discussion of the main theme), three illustrations (almsgiving, prayer, fasting) and conclusion (the consequence of practicing righteousness, per Matthew 6:18–21).

The disciples are to practice righteousness (dikaiosunē), a motif that is important to the First Gospel (for example, Matthew 5:20). The righteous life is one that is “right” from the perspective of  embracing God’s grace and living according to God’s design for people to be together in mutually supportive, covenantal community. Indeed, the righteous life is one that manifests the qualities of the Realm of God

A key point: the practice of “righteousness” (Matthew 6:1) is essential to Judaism. Indeed, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are fundamental Jewish practices. Matthew does not object to these actions but wants the reader to believe that many Jewish leaders misuse them.

Judaism intends for almsgiving to make it possible for everyone in the community—including those on the economic margins—to participate fully in mutual support. Prayer, especially as illustrated in Matthew 6:9–16, is supposed to be prayer for cosmic transformation of the Realm of God to come about. Judaism intends the hunger of fasting to develop a hunger for the Realm of God. Developing the discipline to live with the hunger of fasting is designed to strengthen one’s discipline to live faithfully even in the face of challenge.

There are two significant tensions here. One tension has to do with the Matthean polemic. By the time Matthew wrote, the Romans had destroyed the temple. There was no opportunity for people to give alms accompanied by trumpet fanfare (and there is no historical record of people having done so). But Matthew designs this illustration and those about prayer and fasting to prompt the congregation to associate the Pharisees of his own day with the reprehensible behavior portrayed in the case studies. Matthew pictures the Pharisees as giving alms, praying, and fasting for the purpose of calling attention to themselves and hence to maintain their own power in the continuing structures of the old age. 

Many scholars point out that this portrait does not represent the best of Pharisaic intentions at the time of Matthew. Indeed, Pharisaism saw itself as a reform movement that sought to engender the faithful practice of Judaism in home and synagogue. Moreover, the Pharisees regathered Judaism out of the social chaos after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.

The other tension has to do with Matthew’s injunction to secrecy. Earlier Matthew admonished the community to let their good works (their faithful witness and practice) shine so that they would give glory to God in heaven (Matthew 5: 16-17). The First Gospel ends with the call to go and make disciples, which includes carrying out these practices in community as well as making public witness (Matthew 28:16–20). In a certain sense, Matthew uses the motif of secrecy in his public gospel to reinforce his own power and that of his congregation as chief interpreter of Jesus and the Realm.

I think Matthew’s concern is less for secrecy itself and more for integrity. The true test of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting is not the degree to which they are secret but the degree to which they enhance the community’s faithful witness. The disciples are to engage in almsgiving, prayer, fasting to serve the Realm and not to reinforce their own places of power in the church, as if the church is a creature of the old age.

While a preacher should be critical of the text’s polemic against the Pharisees, the text also invites a sober assessment of the degree to which contemporary ministers, churches, civic leaders, politicians and others use religion to reinforce their own interests more than to serve the Realm. Many individuals call attention to ourselves in order to gain recognition and to gather power while neglecting to serve the real good of the community.  

Ash Wednesday invites the church to repent of Matthew’s mischaracterization. Indeed, Ash Wednesday invites the church to repent of its continuing anti-Jewish attitudes that feed anti-Semitism and contributed to the Holocaust. Ash Wednesday invites the church to repent of the ways in which we misrepresent others and misuse power as if we are creatures of the old age.

First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Megan Fullerton Strollo

“Who knows? God may turn and change their mind, and leave behind a blessing….” (Joel 2:14a; translation mine)

For the past two(ish) years, churches have been faced with uncertainties on many fronts—uncertainty of whether to be open in-person or to be online due to continued effects of COVID-19; uncertainty about how the many social and political shifts in the world should be addressed in the pulpit; uncertainty about war, famine, and natural disaster. This and so much more has us asking: How should we remain faithful to God and community in such a tumultuous and uncertain world? 

This Ash Wednesday, Joel offers us a reflection on living life in uncertain times.

The specific date for the composition of the book is difficult to discern, but recent scholarship sets it primarily in the Persian period, circa 400 BCE. For one thing, Joel’s use of inner-biblical exegesis (in other words, interpretation of scripture, within scripture) indicates a later date. Like many other postexilic writers, Joel makes use of the Exodus and wilderness narratives, but also refers to other prophetic material.1 This implicit theological work marks Joel as particularly unique in the prophetic corpus. In fact, Joel differs from other prophetic material in a number of ways that are relevant to the notion of living with uncertainty. 

As with the date for the book, the historical context or specific circumstances are unclear. Chapters 1 and 2 both describe incursions of locusts, and scholarship has debated whether or not these should be read literally (in other words, pestilence) or figuratively (in other words, as an invading foreign enemy or even an eschatological army), and whether or not they are the same or separate events. An eschatological tone in Joel doesn’t really take hold until the 2:28, and the use of comparison 2:5 (“like a powerful army drawn up for battle”) suggests that there is not presently a military threat. Indeed, a biological threat in a largely agrarian economy could prove to be just as dangerous as an invading army—the imagery in the verses not read in this lectionary selection (2:3–11) make clear just how devastating such a threat can be. 

In any case, what is notable about the descriptions of the event(s) is that Joel does not seek to accuse anyone, either God or the people. The references to the “Day of YHWH” (2:1; 11) do not carry the eschatological fervor that is seen in other prophets; here, it indicates a time or occasion in which God will intervene in history. There is no blame named for the calamity, no mention of the people’s sins. Other prophets like Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel attempted to make sense of community traumas (for example, destruction and exile) by justifying the events as divine punishments for idolatry or social injustice. These issues of theodicy are of no concern for Joel. The devastation is not attributed to divine punishment, and Joel does not seem concerned with questions of “why?” 

Instead, Joel focuses attention on the “so what?”—What do we do when our community faces threats? To whom do we “turn”? The pivot from internal discernment to external action is seen in other postexilic biblical material, such as Ruth, Esther, and Daniel—the focus here is on living, on forward momentum, even in uncertain times. 

It is God first who speaks in 2:12–13a, calling the people to “turn” or “return,” followed by the prophet’s own call for “return” in verse 13b. In these instances, the Hebrew term shub does not speak to repentance from sin since no particular transgression has been mentioned. God and Joel call the people to turn to God in supplication, and to stand together in lament. 

The completeness of this “return” is made evident in the reference to the “heart,” which in Hebrew is not so much the seat of emotion as the place of thought and reflection. The “return” therefore is a conscious choice and action that humans take. Moreover, the invocation of the whole community speaks to the solemnity with which our “turning” should occur. Joel uses merisms to signify: elder and infant, bridegroom and bride, layperson and priest (verses 16–17a). This inclusivity is notable in light of other postexilic literature that favors certain groups over others, and this totality serves as a balance to the totality of the devastation itself. Finally, the call for fasting and prayer was believed to be a way in which humans could potentially influence the Deity through performance and petition (see also Jonah 3:5; Esther 4:1–3, 16; Judith 4:9–11).2

This call and these instructions imply that Joel is certain that human action matters, that humans can connect directly with God. Indeed, the recitation of divine characteristics in verse 13b adds to this suggestion. As a direct allusion to Exodus 34:6–7, this statement recurs throughout biblical material, notably in other postexilic texts (see also Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 145:8; Lamentations 3:22, 32; Nahum 1:3; Jonah 4:2), indicating that it had achieved some sort of authority as a creedal text. 

Yet even now, couched within these certainties, Joel leaves us with a burning question: “who knows?” The calls to return, to fast, to pray, are shaded by this uncertainty. This question is asked in other postexilic material as well (Jonah 3:9; Esther 4:14), and highlights the tumult and dynamism present in the ancient world. Such questions and theological reflections were occurring then, even as they are today. That in itself can be a comfort for modern readers, struggling with living faithful lives when doubts and questions arise. 

For Joel, though, the uncertainty isn’t the end of the story. The call for fasting, for gathering in lament comes in spite of any uncertainty. And yet, the question remains. This Ash Wednesday, may we enter into a space that allows for life amidst uncertainty, a space that doesn’t seek to explain or justify but simply gives the community a chance to gather, to lament, to turn, and to be with God.


  1. In the lectionary passage, the following inner-biblical allusions have been detected: Joel 2:2/Zephaniah 1:14–15; Joel 2:3/Isaiah 51:3/Ezekiel 36:35; Joel 2:13/Exodus 34:6/Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:14/Jonah 3:9/Esther 4:14; Joel 2:17/Psalm 79:10.
  2. On fasting as “performance” in prophetic material, see David Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity & The Interpretation of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Almost no historically trained biblical scholars conclude that David wrote any of the psalms.1

Rather, the superscriptions of the psalms were added late in the process of the formation of the Psalter; and as regards the thirteen psalms that identify a specific occasion in David’s life, the editors chose psalms that they thought fit a particular occasion. When it comes to Psalm 51, it seems to me that the editors of the Psalter were right on target. Or, as I like to put it, if David did not pray Psalm 51 at the conclusion of the episode described in 2 Samuel 11:1—12:15, he certainly should have!

In any case, it is helpful to hear Psalm 51 in the context of 2 Samuel 11:1—12:15, as the editors of the Psalter apparently intended (see especially 2 Samuel 12:13). One effect is to emphasize the monstrous nature of the sinful behavior on the part of David/the psalmist. After all, in the Bathsheba episode, David did not just break a minor commandment or two; he obliterated the Decalogue, as he engaged in coveting, stealing, adultery, false witness, and murder.

While one effect of hearing Psalm 51 in conversation with 2 Samuel 11-12 is to indicate the magnitude of sin, the really startling thing about the juxtaposition of the two texts is that David is forgiven! To be sure, there are the disastrous consequences narrated in the remainder of 2 Samuel; but David is not indicted, impeached, nor removed from office. The cynical side of us might say, “Well, of course not; powerful men can always get away with murder.” But that is not the conclusion that the editors of the Psalter were going for. Rather, the ultimate effect of hearing Psalm 51 in conversation with 2 Samuel 11:1—12:15 is to emphasize the magnitude of God’s amazing grace.

Not coincidentally in this regard, Psalm 51 starts with the vocabulary of grace in verse 1 before it mentions sin—“Have mercy,” “steadfast love,” abundant mercy.” By using “mercy” twice, the NRSV obscures the fact that three Hebrew roots are represented here; and they are three of the most important in the Old Testament, occurring together in Exodus 34:6 where they define God’s essential character (see “merciful,” “gracious,” and “steadfast love,” and see also Joel 2:13, part of the Old Testament lesson for the day). Exodus 34:6 concludes the Golden Calf episode in which, like David in 2 Samuel and the psalmist in Psalm 51, the entire people of God are forgiven after sinning grievously (see Exodus 32:1-14).

Of course, the vocabulary of sin figures prominently in Psalm 51, especially in verses 1-5 (see “transgression, which connotes willful rebellion, in verses 1,3; “iniquity”/ “guilty,” which represent the same Hebrew root, in verses 2, 5; “sin”/ “sinned”/ “sinner” in verses 2, 3, 4, 5; and “evil” in verse 4). The range of vocabulary and the sheer repetition communicate the pervasiveness of sin. But as the psalm proceeds, the psalmist’s pleas for forgiveness become dominant (see verses 6-9), and the vocabulary of sin recedes (see verse 9). By the time one gets to verse 13, while the vocabulary of sin is present, the focus has shifted dramatically. Here the psalmist anticipates being a teacher of “transgressors” and “sinners,” and the psalmist’s curriculum will certainly focus on divine grace.

The message is clear—that is, grace is powerfully transformative. Between the final two occurrences of “sin”/ “sinners” (verses 9, 13) lies the pivotal section, verses 10-12. The verb translated “create” in verse 10 occurs in the Old Testament only with God as its subject; and when it occurs with the three-fold mention of “spirit” in verses 10-12, there is at least a hint of Genesis 1 (see “created” in Genesis 1:1 and “wind,” which could also be translated “spirit,” in Genesis 1:2). The word “spirit” can also mean something like “animating force.”

In short, God’s willingness to forgive creates a new life for the psalmist (see “new” in verse 10). At this point, Psalm 51 anticipates the experience and the message of the Apostle Paul, who, like David, was a famous murderer. But “in Christ,” according to Paul, “there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This “new creation” is predicated upon forgiveness; and as is the case in Psalm 51, the forgiven sinner shares “the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

The transformative power of grace is marked too in Psalm 51 by the transition from petition (verses 6-14a) to praise (verses 14b-15). Every organ of speech is involved—“tongue,” “lips,” and “mouth”—and what the psalmist celebrates is “salvation” and “deliverance.” In short, the psalmist has moved from death to life. The word that NRSV translates “your deliverance” is more literally “your righteousness.” God has set things right, not by giving the psalmist what is deserved (see verse 4), but rather by forgiving. The psalmist, David or otherwise, is saved by grace. The appropriate response is praise, which is not only a liturgical act but also a way of life.

The shape of a praise-oriented life comes into focus in verses 16-17. Ordinarily a sacrifice of thanksgiving might be offered in response to God’s saving work (see Psalm 116:16-19). But here, as verse 16 indicates, gratitude is to be expressed differently. It is probably not coincidental that “spirit” and “heart” occur in verse 17, recalling the psalmist’s prayer in verse 12 where both words also appear.

The acceptable sacrifice is the psalmist’s transformed life, a life lived with gratitude and humble submission to God. Presumably, what the psalmist will teach others (verse 13) is that grace invites gratitude and humility. At this point, Psalm 51 anticipates again the Apostle Paul who, after proclaiming that sinners are saved by grace (Romans 1-11), appeals to his readers to offer their whole lives and selves “as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:2), thus demonstrating conformity not to the world but to the word of God. As the psalm for Ash Wednesday, Psalm 51 outlines the appropriate posture for the season of Lent—pervasive gratitude and the humble submission of life and self to God.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on March 6, 2019.