Lectionary Commentaries for February 26, 2023
First Sunday in Lent (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11

Ronald J. Allen

On one level the temptation is a story about Jesus similar to stories of other religious leaders in antiquity, who faced struggles early in their lives and prevailed. At Jesus’ immersion God confirmed him as the agent who would lead a movement towards apocalyptic transformation and the Realm of God. Jesus’ performance in the wilderness shows that he is trustworthy because, empowered by the Spirit, he faced the devil and remained faithful. 

The early twenty-first century is an age of untrustworthy leaders. The preacher might explore the kinds of leaders we can trust in our chaotic moment. Matthew implies criteria by which to make such judgments: trustworthy leaders point to values and practices similar to those of the Realm of God, while untrustworthy leaders advocate attitudes and behaviors that are similar to those of the broken old age.

On another level, Matthew narrates the story of the temptation as a paradigm for the church. Apocalyptic theologians, including Matthew, anticipated a period of intensified suffering in the last days when God and the devil would intensify their conflict. People would be tempted to relieve their uncertainty and suffering by turning away from the values and practices of the Realm of God, and turning to the devil, settling for the present broken state of the world. 

Matthew 4:1-11 is one of many signals in Matthew that the intense end-time suffering is happening. Jesus and the devil come face-to-face. The church must choose: the way of the Realm or the way of the devil. The church should take its model from Jesus and, in the power of the Spirit, live faithfully. Matthew uses the three temptations as models of points at which the church is tempted to turn away from the movement towards the Realm of God and to continue to live in the selfish, violent, self-destructive ways of the old age.

The Matthean Jesus responds to the devil three times by quoting from Deuteronomy, thus invoking the larger Deuteronomic world view. The Deuteronomists wrote in connection with the Babylonian exile to explain that the exile resulted from idolatry, injustice, and other acts of disobedience, and to encourage the community to avoid repeating that scenario by worshiping the living God, practicing justice and being otherwise obedient. The Matthean Jesus assumes similar themes but in an apocalyptic frame of reference: faithfulness leads to the Realm of God but unfaithfulness results in destruction.

Christians often misperceive the first temptation as a choice between the material, physical world, and its values (represented by bread) and the spiritual, nonphysical world and its values (represented by the word of God). However, everyone must have bread and other material goods to live. Jesus replies to the first temptation with Deuteronomy 8:3.

The issue from the standpoint of Deuteronomy is where the community turns for bread and other resources necessary for survival—to idols or to the living God. And the issue is not simply liturgical worship but to living in the ways authorized by the one worshiped. Does the community seek to secure its life by going along with the ways of the present broken age, or by living in the covenantal ways of the Realm?

The second temptation takes place on the pinnacle of the temple, a highly visible place. At issue is the path to the Realm: the movement to the Realm is not the way of dramatic public events designed to call attention to themselves but the way of faithfulness in the face of the devil and the powers of the old age. 

Jesus does perform miracles (noteworthy actions that arrest attention). However, they are not self-serving, nor do they represent God doing something arbitrary, such as sending the angels to pluck a falling Jesus out of the air. The miracles demonstrate the Realm. Matthew 4:7 cites Deuteronomy 6:16, which itself recollects Exodus 17:1–8, when the people did not trust God to provide water in the wilderness. Matthew implies an interpretive move similar to Deuteronomy 6:16; in its context Deuteronomy 6:1–25 warns the community against disobedience and promotes obedience. This means avoiding the cheap path of public exhibitionism and following the difficult way of Jesus towards the Realm. 

The preacher might comment on the importance of interpreting scripture appropriately. In his “On Eagles Wings,” Michael Joncas set the same passage to music that the devil cites, Psalm 91:11–12.1 Joncas intends to reinforce the singers’ confidence in God. Joncas’ hermeneutic is appropriate in contexts in which communities need reassurance. By contrast, the devil’s hermeneutic is inappropriate because it uses the Psalm to violate the purposes of God. 

The Roman Empire is in the background of the third temptation. The devil offers Jesus the leadership of a world whose social structure is a rigid social pyramid with the privileged controlling the resources while repressing the many people in the middle and at the bottom of the pyramid. Rome, like other empires, created idols in its own images to justify its controlling social power. 

The Matthean Jesus rebuffs the above scenario by citing Deuteronomy 6:13: worship God. The God of Deuteronomy is beyond human image and seeks a community whose structures engender mutuality so that “it may go well with you in the land.” Following the “other gods,” led to the defeat of Judah and to exile. The same will be true if the Matthean community compromises with the gods of the Romans and with the exploitative values and behaviors of the empire. 

For Matthew’s congregation, the temptation is to ease one of their tensions by just going along with the Empire and its idolatry and exploitative behaviors. This temptation is before every congregation in the United States—and other places—right now. Deuteronomy reminds the Matthean congregation that yielding to this temptation will set the community a path to destruction. In the day of Deuteronomy, that end was exile. Upping the ante, Matthew anticipated the destruction as an apocalyptic cataclysm. The Matthean Jesus invites the community to an alternative: worshiping God, which means living towards the Realm through love, peace, justice, and abundance for all.

This text sounds one of the major themes of Lent: reflecting on points at which the congregation and culture are moving in the direction of the Realm of God and points at which we are tempted to work against the values and practices of the Realm. When the latter come to consciousness, the traditional Lenten emphasis on repentance is only a prayer away.


  1.  https://hymnary.org/text/you_who_dwell_in_the_shelter_joncas (accessed September 30, 2022).

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Justin Michael Reed

“Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.”

These opening words to the second chapter in Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God1 frame the way that the protagonist sees her life and begins to recount her earliest memories of self-discovery. When I read these words, the trees in the garden of Eden spring to the forefront of my mind. In describing “her life like a great tree,” I immediately think of “the tree of life in the midst of the garden”; and the poetic merisms of “things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom” conjures the infamous contrast in “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9).

Noting these parallels, I can’t help but think about the fruitfulness (pun intended) of reading the origin story in Genesis 2–3 in dialogue with Hurston’s famous novel. Potential meanings for this Genesis passage abound, and other Working Preacher commentaries (Claassens, Olson, Wines) helpfully disabuse us of several common and sometimes historically dangerous misconceptions. A few (Howard, Lapsley, Yamada) offer very different reflections on how we can make this passage meaningful for preaching. By following the womanist interpretive practice of facilitating a dialogue between a rich artifact of Black women’s legacy and a potent biblical text, I hope we can see another.

In Janie’s contemplation on her own origins, she “decided that her conscious life had commenced” (10) in a new discovery of herself on a spring afternoon in her grandmother’s backyard. While sitting under a pear tree, Janie is “summoned to behold a revelation”: the flies and the flowers with the bees are all a-buzz with a frequency she longs for. She calls it marriage, “[w]ith kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world.” And her sixteen-year-old self, “bursting buds” like the pear tree, struggles as she asks, “Where were the singing bees for her?” (11).

In Genesis 2, the beginning of the world features “The Human” (the literal translation of haʾadam) similarly in a place full of life. Like young Janie, we might imagine the original earthling enraptured by the many trees described as “pleasant to the sight” (2:9) or focused on the central tree that is “a delight to the eyes” (3:6). God knows that this human should not be alone, but none of the animals that God brings forth are deemed a suitable partner (2:18-20). Through the lens of Janie’s longing, we might sit with the frustrations of “The Human” or any person in our congregation who is longing for companionship. The rich language of Janie’s frustration compels me to pause in the moment of unfulfilled partnership rather than immediately proceeding to verse 21 where God will swiftly rectify the situation. Whom might this story speak to if one takes the preaching moment to wrestle with loneliness one might feel in the midst of a multitude of unsuitable solutions?

Hurston describes Janie’s new discovery with the language of vision. Janie emerges from a state of “her former blindness” (11) to re-view a previously uninspiring fellow who now gleamed because “the golden dust of pollen [from the blossoms on the tree] had beglamored his rags and her eyes” (12). The new revelation that Janie underwent in her longing under the pear tree was an awakening to herself as a sexually charged being; and the next thing you know, Janie and this young person are kissing.

Readers of Genesis 2–3 witness no kissing. But many scholars have proposed that the tree of knowledge of good and evil symbolizes a full range of mature knowledge including sexual knowledge. After all, ydʿ, the Hebrew root behind the noun “knowledge,” is commonly employed as a euphemism for sex (Genesis 4:1, 17, 25; 19:5, 8; 24:16; 38:26; et cetera) (hence the English phrase “to know someone in the biblical sense”). When the original humans eat from this tree of knowledge, the first detail is that their eyes were opened so that they now see “that they were naked” and want to cover (3:7) that which originally brought them no feelings of shame (2:25). Like Janie, most of us can attest that our journey of maturation often includes an awakening into recognizing our bodies as sexual; unfortunately, as in the biblical text, this new revelation is too often burdened with shame.

In Hurston’s novel, that new awakening “was the end of her childhood” (12); and the aftermath includes Janie’s grandmother lamenting the oppressive world of adulthood (with racial and gender hierarchies) that she unfortunately must introduce to Janie (14-15). Similarly, the consequences for Adam and Eve are a harsh existence. Just beyond our lectionary verses, biblical authors describe the unsavory norms of painful birth, women desiring the very husbands that rule over them, and men laboring unto death in order to wrestle food from the ground (3:14-19). These troubles come with eating from the tree of knowledge, but also—like the serpent predicted (3:5)—God acknowledges that the humans have become “like one of us [divine beings]” (3:22). Eating from the tree, entering a new state of maturity, is not all bad; it includes some great new things.

Feminist biblical scholars like Lyn Bechtel2 and Ellen van Wolde3 have emphasized the theme of maturity in Genesis 2-3. Even if acquired through disobedience, this exciting and dangerous maturity is necessary for human thriving. Janie recognizes as much in her quest, throughout the rest of Hurston’s novel, to recapture the best of her revelation beneath that pear tree in spite of all the obstacles that come with living in our troubled world. Perhaps seeing Genesis 2-3 as a relatable story of human maturity (including sexual maturity) can open the door for us to engage in complex and formative conversations with both young people entering sexual awareness and adults seeking a fulfilling life. Our biblical text does not provide a roadmap to such difficult discussions, but it can invite us to have the courage to take such a journey.


  1. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1937).
  2. Lyn Bechtel, “Genesis 2:4b-3:24: A Myth About Human Maturation,” JSOT 67 (1995): 3–26.
  3. Ellen van Wolde, Words Become Worlds: Semantic Studies of Genesis 1-11 (Leiden: Brill, 1994).


Commentary on Psalm 32

Amanda Benckhuysen

We don’t like to talk about sin. Especially if it means talking about our own sin.1

We would much rather talk about injustice, or evil, or the ways in which another’s sin has contributed to our own brokenness. It’s easier to eschew our own agency and claim victimhood. Because talking about sin is hard. It is hard to acknowledge that there is something wrong with us of which we are the main authors and contributors. It is painful to feel the shame of not measuring up to what we know we should be. It is unsettling to recognize that our thoughts, actions, and behaviors hurt others and contribute to the brokenness of our world. Acknowledging where we have fallen short can be brutally disturbing.

According to the psalmist, however, the alternative is not an especially comfortable place either. To keep silent is to let our sin infest and infect our whole being, compromising the goodness and vitality with which we were created. It is to cede what God intended us to be to our sin and allow it to affect our ability to function and enjoy well-being in this world. The psalmist describes it with images of physical depletion, “my body wasted away … my strength was dried up” (verse 3a, 4b). Sin sucks the life out of the psalmist. The point is that silence about sin, according to the psalmist, can be deadly. It allows sin to fester and spread and ravage like a cancer coursing through the body and mind.

The antidote, the psalmist offers, is confession. Not silence. Not covering up. Not ignoring. But going to that uncomfortable place, facing our sin and shame, and admitting them to God. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verse 5). The point here, as the psalmist notes, is not for the confessor to wallow in their failure or feel the shame of their wrong-doing. Rather, it is in confessing our sin that we open ourselves up to the miracle of forgiveness. What is astonishing and remarkable in this psalm is not the confession of the psalmist, but the attentive ear of God who is ready and eager to forgive.

We see this exemplified in the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32. While the younger son struggles with how to go home, ashamed of what he has done and embarrassed to face his father again, the father runs out to greet his wayward son before the son says anything. So eager to be reconciled to his son, so ready to forgive, the father couldn’t wait for the son’s confession.

This eagerness to forgive is reflected in the language of the psalm as well. At the beginning of the psalm, the psalmist piles up term upon term to give expression to sin—transgression, sin, iniquity, deceit—four terms used eight different times in five verses. But more prominent than the terms for sin are the expansive and wide-ranging terms used to describe forgiveness.

The psalmist’s sin is forgiven, covered, and not counted against him. The force of these terms is not that the sin is ignored, but that the relational damage resulting from the sin is absorbed by God himself. God doesn’t hold sin against the psalmist and as a result, takes away the guilt and the accompanying shame of the wrong-doing. Restoration of the sinner to God is complete and total.

Some scholars have noted the parallels between Psalm 32 and Psalm 1. Both open with a wisdom saying, “Blessed is the one … ”offering counsel about how to live well in this world. Furthermore, both contrast the way of the righteous and the wicked (32:10-11). The effect of this connection is to put the two psalms in conversation with each other about what it is to be righteous.

In Psalm 1, to be righteous is to mediate on God’s law day and night. Psalm 32, however, adds the important insight that to be righteous is not to be perfect in adhering to that law, but to be forgiven of one’s failings, to open oneself up to God’s gift of forgiveness, to be made right with God, to be credited with righteousness apart from works, as Paul says (Romans 4:6). If to be righteous is to be forgiven our sin, then to be wicked is to remain in sin, to keep silent or hide one’s sin, to refuse to acknowledge one’s sin.

In other words, sin by itself does not necessarily determine one’s status before God. After all, according to Paul, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Instead, it is God’s willingness to forgive and our willingness to receive that forgiveness that makes us right before God.

Having received forgiveness himself, the psalmist directs his attention to his audience, instructing them to do the same. “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you … I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go … Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding … ” (verses 6a, 8a, 9a). In other words, the psalmist exhorts his audience—don’t be stubborn about this. Don’t think you can be happy without God. Don’t think you will thrive going your own way. Choose righteousness instead of wickedness. Choose confession and forgiveness over ignoring or hiding sin. Choose relationship with God over autonomy.

This is the ego-bruising work of Lent. Acknowledging that we are not all that God desires us to be, that we have indeed fallen short, that we too are the reason Christ was nailed to a cross. But it is also to rejoice in the truth that we are forgiven, that in Christ, our sins are covered. In Christ, we are a new creation. So, in the season of Lent, let us be counted among the righteous, those who know that yes, we are sinners, but that in Christ, we are forgiven.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on March 31, 2019.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:12-19

Orrey McFarland

Romans 5:12-21 is a fitting place to start in Lent. Paul reflects on the problem of sin and its answer in God’s grace. At the heart of this passage is Paul’s exploration of both the similarity and contrast between Adam and Christ. I encourage preachers not to run through the gift language, which can seem like rhetorical excess, but to see how Paul uses his terminology to underscore that God’s grace in Christ is given to unfitting recipients.

The problem (5:12-14)

Although there are important interpretive questions in verse 12, the gist is straightforward: every human is trapped by Adam’s sin; all move towards Adam’s fate. In verse 13, Paul introduces the Law: sin existed before the Law, yet God did not hold humans accountable until after the Law was given. Sin, therefore, exists before the Law; it affects those who seek obedience to the Law; and it cannot therefore be the solution to sin. Even before the giving of the Law, the sin-death relationship still held: “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (English Standard Version). In verse 14, Paul sets forth the defining relationship of his argument: Adam is “a type of the one who was to come.” In being the problem, Adam points to the solution. Adam and Christ bear a positive resemblance: both affect all of humanity, but to different ends.

Adam and Christ (5:15-19)

In this middle section, Paul explores the similarity-in-contrast between Adam and Christ: they are two figures, typologically related, who have different effects on humanity. The opening line of 5:15 should likely be read as a question: “But is the gift not like the trespass?” The implied answer is “yes, the two are not alike.” Most commentators agree that “trespass” refers to what Adam did. But the word “gift” (charisma) is a surprising parallel—one might expect a word referring to Christ’s obedience—but there is good reason to read this as a balanced comparison.. Paul’s similar comparisons in 5:18-19 can help to interpret 5:15: Christ’s righteous act, obediently dying on the cross, is his gift. Thus, we see here that the “gift” is like the “trespass” insofar as both refer to what Adam and Christ have done; but they are entirely unlike each other in their results. One brings condemnation and death; the other brings justification and life.

Gift language is plentiful in this passage. Paul speaks of the “free gift” (verses 15, 16), the “grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ” (verse 15); and the “abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (verse 17). But this is not mere rhetorical excess. For example, in verse 15 the “grace of God” speaks to God’s gift of Christ (see also Romans 8:32), while “the free gift by the grace” of Jesus refers to the gift of righteousness in Christ’s self-giving. The word translated as “free gift” gets further defined in verse 17 as “the free gift of righteousness.” Thus, righteousness is the gift given in the gift of Christ’s death and resurrection. 

There are, quite literally, gifts within gifts, and Paul is emphasizing the sheer abundance of God’s giving of Christ, Christ’s self-giving, and the life and righteousness found within this grace (see also 3:24). For Paul, God’s grace abounds because it is a gift given precisely to those who are not worthy of it. Verse 16 makes this clear: the judgment declared against Adam’s sin rightly brought condemnation; the verdict fit the crime. However, the “free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” Both judgment and gift come from God, but one comes as a fitting response, the other an incongruous response. Indeed, Paul proclaims, literally, that the gift came “from (ek) many transgressions”—“out of them.” The gift of Jesus is God’s response to sin; it unfolds in the midst of that sin to defeat it, and the gift is given despite its recipients’ unworthiness.

If verses 15-17 showed a similarity-in-contrast, verses 18-19 drive home the stark dissimilarity between Adam and Christ’s actions and effects: as all are condemned and made sinners in Adam, in Christ all are justified.

The reign of grace (5:20-21)

Although these verses are not included in the lectionary reading, they are worth including: they reintroduce earlier themes and drive the Adam-Christ distinction to its climax.

The Law dropped from the scene after verse 13. Paul here reintroduces the Law, declaring that it “slipped in” to “increase the trespass.” Sin came through Adam, but the Law aggravates that sin. For Paul the Law was not the antidote to sin: it gives knowledge of sin (3:20) and sin works death through the Law (7:5, 8-13), but it does not fix sin. What matters most to Paul is that the site of the Law’s aggravation of sin is the very place where “grace abounded all the more.” When Paul speaks of grace abounding in the past tense, he has in mind the death and resurrection of Christ. Adam sinned; all humans are trapped in and participate in sin; the Law intensifies sin; and this is the exact place where God’s grace breaks through to bring eternal life to dying sinners. The old king is displaced and a new regime installed: this King freely gives the gift of righteousness so that all who receive may have eternal life under his reign.

In Romans 5:12-21, Paul portrays the drama of salvation with two main actors. Adam’s disobedience brought sin and death into the world; Christ’s obedience gives righteousness and life to all caught in sin. The Law aggravates sin, setting the quality of God’s grace in stark relief. As already noted, the passage is full of gift-language, because Paul is trying to impress three big ideas on his readers: First, the gift is Christ and is found in Christ (righteousness). God’s grace is not abstract favor but the person and work of Christ for sinners. Second, humans do not receive God’s grace because they were worthy of it; indeed, the gift is entirely incongruous to its recipients, who receive it, because they are sinners in need (see also 5:16). Third, because all of this is true, Paul highlights how excessive the gift is: it must be a truly extravagant generosity that leads to eternal life.