Lectionary Commentaries for April 8, 2023
Vigil of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 28:1-10

Greg Carey

As a layperson who considers preaching part of my calling, I am deeply curious how full-time pastors approach Easter Sunday. I believe I have preached Easter Sunday only twice, so I wonder whether full-time preachers feel the pressure to be clever, to say something new every year. One pastor told me exactly that recently.

[Looking for commentary on John 20:1-18? See this commentary for Easter Sunday by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks.]

One part of me thinks the best news needs no cleverness. We do not need the people we love most to tell us so in novel ways: just say the words, and I’m fine. Likewise, when it comes to Easter, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” followed by a hearty, “Christ is risen indeed!” takes care of a whole lot. Give me a couple of classic Easter hymns, and I’m ready to bounce out the doors and head home.

The occasion sets some limits. Easter sermons usually can’t go too long due to unique liturgical circumstances. And traditionally, we preach to lots of people who are rarely present on Sunday mornings. It never hurts just to tell the good news that Jesus lives among us.

Yet Matthew offers its own distinctive take on the discovery of the empty tomb, as does each Gospel. Matthew opens a couple of questions: what signs mark Jesus’ resurrection, and how do we respond to that news?

Matthew goes big on the signs of Jesus’ resurrection. Among the Gospels, Matthew alone relates that the women experience an earthquake upon their arrival at Jesus’ tomb. Matthew attributes this earthquake to the arrival of an angel, who rolls back the stone and sits on it. Matthew’s wording suggests that angels make heavy landings. Apart from the simple fact that the tomb is empty, Matthew stands alone in attributing the stone’s removal to a miracle, at least explicitly. 

Preachers have some room for productive theological play with their congregations here. When it comes to Easter, imagination matters, and folks vary greatly in terms of how their spirituality relates to the dramatic. The resurrection constitutes a great miracle on its own. But what signs do we need for it? 

We might describe some listeners as rationalists. “Okay,” they might reason. “I can’t make any sense out of the idea of a resurrection. But I can relate to the sense that, even beyond the grave, Jesus still lives among us somehow.” That sensibility is not absent from Matthew, for whom Jesus is God with us (Matthew 1:23), present whenever two or more gather in his name (18:20), and abiding with the church as it continues his ministry (28:20). For these listeners, the earthquake and the angel function primarily as symbols relating to a deeper truth.

Some listeners will appreciate the earthquake and the angel as critical signs that God’s miraculous power has delivered Jesus from death. These hearers do not struggle with resurrection as a practical possibility but instead take strength in the signs that attest to it. This sensibility also runs through Matthew. For example, Matthew is fond of earthquake language. All three Synoptic Gospels refer to earthquakes among other eschatological portents (for Matthew, at 24:7). But Matthew alone uses earthquake language (seismos) to describe the “storm” on the sea, Matthew alone narrates an earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death (27:54), and Matthew alone tells us about the earthquake at the tomb (28:2). In Matthew’s telling all these events hold revelatory, we might say apocalyptic, significance. 

All the Synoptics mention angels in the plural. Matthew and Luke share appearances of an individual angel to direct and interpret the nativity story. But only Matthew and John place angels at the tomb, and only Matthew has the angel roll away the stone and speak to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. (In Mark and Luke, mysterious men address the women at the tomb.) It is fair to say that Matthew emphasizes the dramatic, otherworldly dimensions of Jesus’ resurrection in unique ways.

Our hearers will interpret these dramatic manifestations in a range of ways. We may also ask how they will respond. In Matthew the two Marys respond in at least three ways: fear, joy, and obedience. Fear is precisely how a good biblical character responds to angels and other divine manifestations. Fear is also how mortals respond when we are confronted with a new truth that will change our lives. In this sense fear and joy are not strangers. We experience them when we draw close to a friend, when we fall in love, when a baby is on the way, and when sickness and death draw near. Why should not fear and joy accompany us when we are called to live into God’s good news? 

Preachers will name, evoke, and walk alongside that fear in our hearers, even on Easter Sunday. Personally I find it easier to preach into that dynamic than I do joy. Recently the author George Saunders related how much easier it is to voice criticisms of someone’s writing than to offer detailed praise. I imagine something similar applies to preaching, where negative emotion is more accessible to us than a sublime experience like that of joy. But if we plumb those moments when joy and fear hold hands, perhaps we can reach our congregations with that reality. 

Remarkably, the combined experience of fear and joy propels the two Marys to run and tell the other disciples. On the way they encounter the risen Jesus, who commands them to do precisely what they were already about to do. Fear, on its own, provides poor motivation for obedience. But joy, properly guided, makes us run to tell the story.

Vigil Reading II

Commentary on Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13

Patricia Tull

The ancient story of Noah recounts a devastating flood—a flood that begins with problems very much like those in our world.1

It begins when God sees that violence has been spreading among humans, and tries to figure out what to do. It’s a story about God’s desire for a better world than humans were creating. A story about change. First God’s change, and then, over the centuries, a hope for human change.

The story begins with God seeing “that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). And God, grieved to the heart, regrets having made humans, and decides to get rid of them. So to start over, God warns Noah to build an ark to preserve his family and a few of every animal species. And it rains.

Midway through the narrative, God remembers Noah and all the animals, and the waters recede. Noah opens the window and sends out a raven, and then a dove, to see if they can find land. And when all finally step out of the ark, Noah sets the animals free, and worships. And God speaks again, recognizing that humans will still do evil, yet pledging never again to flood the earth. The people who emerge from the ark aren’t changed. Instead, it’s God who decides to do something different.

The story features some interesting problems with divine decision-making. One ethical problem is that God’s plan for doing away with the guilty destroys the innocent as well—infants too young to have done anything but cry, and animals who are accused of no wrongdoing. One strategic problem is that God decides to keep a sample so that no species goes extinct, including a sample of the humans who caused the trouble. So the flood didn’t solve the problem of evil.

To understand the ethical problem in its context, it helps to examine the story’s origin in history, in the literature of the surrounding world. Archaeologists have discovered and translated other flood stories, ancient stories from Sumeria and Mesopotamia, centuries older than the Genesis account. The best preserved version is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which features someone named Utnapishtim.

When the gods (plural) decide to destroy the land with a flood, a god who objects to this decision warns Utnapishtim to build a ship to preserve his family and some animals and grains. The flood lasts twelve days. As the waters recede, Utnapishtim sends out a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven. When he at last leaves the boat, he sets the animals free, and makes an offering to the gods who, it turns out, have differing opinions about the ethics of what just happened.

Scholars see the Genesis writers as having adopted and adapted this story, which was widely known at the time. As with all adaptations, the biblical writers introduce some changes in the plot. Genesis doesn’t presume a pantheon of gods, of course, but one God. So instead of an ethical dispute among the gods about divine actions, the story becomes a tale about what God does, and regrets doing, and ought to do, about human violence.

I read the flood narrative as being, at least for us, a “what if” tale, a thought experiment: What if God saw the mess humans made and decided to stop forgiving? What if God, grieved at human violence, tried one solution that turned out not to work either ethically or practically, and then tried something else, deciding never again to give up on humans, but instead to take a long, patient, forbearing path with us?

As a result of this choice, the story implies, divine grace surrounds us. It’s the air we breathe. We have never known a moment in which God did not forgive evil, sustaining us on pure grace; no moment when we weren’t, on some level, getting much better than we deserve. And we can’t take that for granted.

In the end God promises, twice, never again to destroy the earth with a flood. Some have suggested this means that God won’t let us destroy the world, by flood or fire or nuclear war or climate change or any other means. But it doesn’t say God will keep us from destroying. In fact, it tries to account for the fact that we can destroy one another and creation, and that even a grieving God doesn’t intervene to stop our madness. Individually and collectively, we—and nature, and future generations—do suffer the consequences of human actions.

But there is another lesson in God’s post-flood promises that is usually overlooked. Reading God’s words in chapter nine in full, down to verse 17, we see that the passage says six times that God’s promise of grace is not just for humans, but for everything living on earth.

First God specifies that the covenant is with “you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark” (Genesis 9:9-10). Then God repeats five more times that the covenant is with every living creature, repeating “the earth” four times, “all creatures” four times, and “all flesh” five times. Not once is the covenant with humans only. God’s covenant is with all. It’s as wide as the earth and as deep as all time.

When ancient scriptures were hand-lettered on parchment and hand copied from one scroll to the next, repeating something six times was very expensive, so when it happens, it must be important. This loving bond between God and humans, this gracious covenant of unmerited grace, is not just between humans and God. We are bound up in covenant with the whole living world. And if we are bound up in such a covenant, we are obliged to preserve all life as thoughtfully as God has preserved ours.

Scripture’s writers draw attention repeatedly to the natural world. They imagine human civilization not as separate from but living inside of nature. Psalm 147 intertwines the two, saying: “God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. God determines the number of the stars; and gives them their names.”

The sad, the sick and the stars are all God’s realm of concern. “God covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.” God hears human cries, God also hears the ravens’ cries. If we are bound in covenant with all that live on earth, we too are obliged to hear the ravens cry, just as the psalmist says God does.

The violence humans do to one another and the violence we do to the natural world come from the same place in the human heart. Scripture says that a good and wise God created us good. We’re capable of great evil, as the flood story says and as we know every day. But God means for us to be transformed, just as the flood transformed God’s intentions.

The story tells of a transformative decision long ago that bound us up in promise with all creation. If, as the psalm says, God hears the young ravens when they cry, if God can be imagined hearing that raven as it flew to and fro searching for land, we humans cannot do any less than listen too. God promised not to destroy the world. Now it’s our turn to promise the same.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on April 15, 2017.

Vigil Reading VI

Commentary on Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6

Megan Fullerton Strollo

In the darkest hours of the night, Wisdom’s call sounds!

This oddly divided reading of Proverbs 8–9 (8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6) is the sixth of 12 readings for the Easter Vigil service. In some Christian traditions, the Vigil of Easter is the most significant worship service of the year, taking place in the overnight hours between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The Vigil invites congregants to wait and to pray, to contemplate and to prepare for the joyous mystery of Easter.

Congregations that don’t typically mark in formal (or even informal) worship settings the events of Holy Week may wonder about the meaning of such a vigil. To them, I would contend: in this market-driven world, in which expeditiousness is sometimes lauded over diligence, there is “wisdom” in waiting, in holding the tension a little longer, in being called and drawn into truth, so that when the sun rises on Easter Sunday, the joy may overflow with a ready awareness of resurrection as part of God’s story for the world.

As noted, this reading of Proverbs is one of several choices of Old Testament readings for the moment. As a whole, the readings lead the worshiper through the story of God’s redemption of the world, known as Heilsgeschichte—God’s saving history. Amidst the narratives of creation (Genesis 1:1–2:4a), exodus (Exodus 14), and foretold redemption of the people after exile (Ezekiel 37:1–14), the call of Wisdom from these portions of Proverbs 8–9 invites us all to participate in God’s salvation story and to prepare our hearts, at least for Christians, for its culmination experienced in Jesus’ resurrection.

Though crafted in the context of an Easter Vigil reading, the following commentary may have broader implications, say, for the working preacher not operating in a lectionary-based setting, and who stumbles upon this piece in a scripture search. In any case, may Wisdom’s call invite you in!

Proverbs 8 opens with a bold invitation indeed. The syntax of the two rhetorical questions implies an affirmative answer. In both questions, moreover, the nouns “wisdom” and “understanding” take the emphatic position in relation to the corresponding verbs. The term “wisdom” in Hebrew is ḥokhmah. In the Old Testament, the concept of wisdom takes on a unique dynamic as compared to Greek philosophy. Hebrew ḥokhmah was not theoretical or speculative (in other words, virtues; principles of right and wrong), but took on a practical sense (in other words, moral character and ethical living). In ḥokhmah, God’s revealed will and covenant with the people blends perfectly with humanity’s agency to act and live out that covenant.

Likewise, “understanding” (Hebrew tᵉbunah) has more practical undertones. Related etymologically to a preposition meaning “between,” tᵉbunah connotes a knowledge beyond mere data-gathering—one that has discerned or weighed the options, so to speak. To have tᵉbunah is to know how to use the knowledge you have.

The places from which Wisdom calls are busy thoroughfares, public and important (even holy) meeting spaces where business, politics, and justice took place. The “heights” refers to natural hills or high places within a city, upon which palaces or temples might be built. “Crossroads” can be compared to busy intersections in our day—shopping centers, people spinning signs that advertise the nearest mattress store. The “gates” and “entrance of the portals” refers to the city gates. In the ancient world, the city’s gate was a large entrance. The traffic to and from a city passed through this gate, making it a great place—in an age before text messaging—to gather a needed quorum of elders (see also Ruth 4) or catch someone with whom you have a matter (economic or judicial) to settle (2 Samuel 18:24, 33) or even prophesy to the populace (Amos 5:12, 15).

As Michael Fox puts it, “Wisdom … delivers her message where the competition is fiercest, not competition from other orators but from the everyday distractions of business, politics, and disputes.”1 In the context of the Easter Vigil, Wisdom’s call draws our attention: listen to the stories and block out the distractions so that you move forward with ḥokhmah and tᵉbunah. Even outside of that particular calendrical setting, Wisdom’s calls at the beginning of chapter 8 sounds so that we may respond in kind. At the core of Hebrew wisdom is humanity’s answer to a divine call.

The reading is, as noted, divided in awkward ways. In its current division, the reader focuses on the call itself, her invitation for all people, and the truth inherent in her words.

Verses 4–5 offer a two-fold call, one that narrows from verse 4 to verse 5. All of humanity is called first, and then she turns specifically to those who have presumably rejected her, those who have not yet heeded her call or have ignored her advice. Preachers: be mindful here of how you discuss “simple ones,” “naive ones,” “those lacking intelligence,” “fools,” or “those without sense” (9:4b)—the reference is one who is deliberately ignoring the message, and not a condemnation of immaturity (of age) or intellectual disability in a broader sense.

Verses 6–8, and 19–21 attest to the validity of wisdom. Once again, the syntax of the Hebrew places emphasis on the message: words associated with wisdom—“truth,” “straight,” “righteous,” “upright”—take precedence before their opposites—“wickedness,” “twisted,” “abomination.” The economic imagery of verses 19–21 looks back to the spaces from which wisdom calls, the public centers of the city. This rhetorical strategy allows the recipient of the text (through reading or hearing) to focus first on the positive, to be drawn in to what wisdom desires, and to desire it for one’s self.

For any and all, 9:6 culminates in the call of wisdom. The verbs all have force of the imperative: abandon your simple-mindedness, live, and walk (literally, “go straight”). In Proverbs and wisdom literature more generally, “life” and “living” are more than the avoidance of death, these terms connote a vital condition of the human will to seek goodness, joy, and to make ethical choices.

In the context of the Vigil of Easter, Wisdom’s call prepares our hearts for the culmination of salvation in resurrection. The fact that this call comes from a female persona should also not be overlooked. In Proverbs, we are reminded that women bring truth, understanding, and a good news (or, gospel) message of life and joy. In the context of the Easter story, Wisdom’s call prefigures the apostolic women’s, who announce the resurrection to the disciples.


  1. Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1–9, Anchor Bible Commentary 18a (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 267.

New Testament Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:3-11

Bryan J. Whitfield

In Romans, Paul declares the good news that God restores and makes right people’s covenant relationships through Jesus Christ’s obedience (Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-26).1

In the middle section of the letter, he describes the shape of the new life that comes to those made righteous through Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 5:1-11). As he does so, he interweaves three stories: a story of tragedy, a story of triumph, and a story of choice.

The first story is that of Adam’s disobedience. Because of Adam’s actions, sin enters the world and spreads its control over all people (Romans 5:12-14), ruling the world and bringing punishment. In its exercise of power or lordship, sin enslaves humanity (Romans 6:16-23). Its rule ends in death (Romans 5:14, 21; 6:23).

In contrast to this tragic story, Paul sketches the story of Jesus Christ’s triumph over sin and its consequence, death. Unlike Adam, Christ proves faithful and obedient to God, and his actions lead to grace, justification, and life (Romans 5:15-21). His obedience brings the free gift of restored relationship and righteousness (Romans 5:16-18), making possible a new dominion of grace that leads to eternal life (Romans 5:21).

Paul imagines some people might object to this argument. He has claimed that where sin multiplied, “grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Would his focus on the restored relationship with God that comes as the free gift of grace encourage people to keep on sinning so that grace might also increase (Romans 6:1-2)? To that question, Paul responds with an unequivocal “no!” He lays out his reasons in the complex argument that follows (Romans 6:3-11).

Paul’s third story, a story of choice, unfolds as his explanation of his emphatic response. This final story reveals the conflict which the contrasting stories of Adam and Christ create. Between them, Adam and Christ map out two opposing dominions — a dominion of death and a dominion of life — that stake opposing claims to humanity (Romans 5:17-21). But this story is not only about Adam or Christ. It is a story about Paul and his readers who now face a choice between two masters. The personal nature of this third story comes into focus with Paul’s striking shift of pronouns to the first-person plural (we, us, ours). This story, in short, is about us.

Paul begins by reminding us of what we have experienced in our baptism into Christ Jesus. This ritual act unites us with Christ so that we are co-participants in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3). We now identify with Christ and become part of Christ’s dominion, acknowledging Christ as Lord (Romans 5:1, 11, 21). Baptism incorporates us into Christ’s rule as those who have died and been raised, just as Christ died and has been raised from the dead. Our baptism is the key moment of transition in which we leave behind our old lives when sin ruled over us. We begin a new life, the life that Christ experienced when God’s power raised him from the dead (Romans 6:4). We are people who can behave and conduct ourselves in a new way, no longer under sin’s control.

Baptism marks us as people of new life, because our old selves were crucified with Christ. Since we have died, our sinful body is powerless and inoperable (Romans 6:6). We are no longer sin’s slaves but are free from its control and claims over us (Romans 6:7).

Once Paul has explained the implications of our participation in Christ’s death, he turns his attention to his resurrection. Here the argument is more nuanced, because while our participation in resurrection is real, it is not yet complete. Even though we are now living a new life, we do not yet experience the fullness of resurrection. Paul’s contrasting tenses make that distinction clear. Our being united with Christ’s death is a completed action, while resurrection remains a future certainty (Romans 6:5).  We who have died with Christ “will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). We too will be raised. Our destiny is clear.

But our participation in Christ’s resurrection is not simply a future hope. It changes our present lives as well. To make this point, Paul again underscores what Christ’s resurrection means. As the Risen One, Christ is free from death’s dominion, so death no longer has any control over him (Romans 6:9). His death, once for all time, was a death to sin. But that is in the past. In the present, and for all time to come, Christ lives to God (Romans 6:10).

In the same way, we must reckon or consider that we are “dead to sin and alive to God” (Romans 6:11). That understanding constitutes a choice in the way we understand ourselves and the power that rules over us. That choice is the first step of our response to our ongoing struggle with sin’s power.

Paul will develop his discussion of that fight against sin’s control more fully in the balance of Romans 6-8. But his first step, taken in the words of Romans 6:3-11, is to make clear what God has done through Christ.

As is often the case with Paul, the indicative precedes the imperative. Paul first reminds us of what God in grace has done. Only then does he turn to encourage us to act in faith on the basis of God’s gift. Paul is no moralist who commands us to pull up our bootstraps. Rather he grounds what we must do in what God has already done, assured that God’s power is now available to us.

Here Paul reminds us of the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection. He assures us that baptism joins us to Christ in a profound and lasting way so that we are co-participants in that death and resurrection. Knowing that, in this Easter season, we too find our own identities transformed, our paths straightened, our lives new. Thanks be to God.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on April 20, 2019.