Lectionary Commentaries for July 30, 2023
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

John T. Carroll

Parables revealing the character of God’s reign flow freely throughout this lection from Matthew. Five parables open with the tag “heaven’s realm is like” (my translation), and the point of comparison in each case is very down-to-earth (and sea). What do a mustard seed, yeast, buried treasure, a pearl, and a net full of fish have in common? Each shows us something of what it means that God is sovereign, and what it means for us who would participate in God’s domain. Jesus addresses the first two (mustard seed and yeast) to the crowd, along with the disciples. He tells the last three (treasure, pearl, and fish) just to the disciples.

Tiny seed

The mustard plant known to Jesus’ listeners grew rapidly, to a height of a dozen feet or so, yet its seed was proverbially small. The rendition in Mark 4:31-32 culminates in a bird-sheltering bush, while Luke 13:19 with exaggeration pictures a mustard tree. Matthew fuses the two images, offering “the greatest of shrubs” that “becomes a tree” (13:32). Maybe not a tree, but it certainly functions like one, as it provides shelter and residence for birds—this in addition to the curative properties of mustard, not named in the story.1 Matthew is fond of intertextual links to the Hebrew Bible, and the image of a tree hosting birds recalls passages like Ezekiel 31:6 and Daniel 4:12, where the image symbolizes empire.

So this is an empire too—but what an improbable one! God’s reign starts small, and even in its effective operation it is no majestic, towering tree. Yet it gets the job done, bringing life and help and hope to all manner of people. The church, whatever its size and resources, is still given this world-transforming mission.


Speaking of transformation, that lies at the heart—or rather, in the dough—of the next parable about God’s reign. Jesus offers a woman baking bread as an image of the reigning presence of God in the world (13:33). She “hid” (enekrypsen) yeast in three measures of flour, an amount sufficient to bake forty or more loaves.2 The New Revised Standard Version says the woman mixes the yeast with the flour, but the image of concealment is important here. Hidden and unseen within the bread lies the source of its inevitable transformation. 

To be sure, yeast or leaven was sometimes a negative symbol (for example, 1 Corinthians 5:6-7), but that does not seem to be the point here. As with the mustard seed, a small amount of yeast produces dramatic, transformational change. If it is not evident at first, the change is nevertheless coming. The parable intimates that the world is being re-made, God’s reign at work, even when it doesn’t appear to be so. It is up to the church today to bear witness to that work of God, and itself to embody the transformation in its own life and practices.


With the three parables about God’s reign in verses 44-50, Jesus pivots from large crowds to speak directly to the disciples. What does their commitment as participants in God’s reigning presence in the world mean? 

Now inside the house with his followers, Jesus picks up the image of hiddenness from the yeast parable. God’s reign is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone finds and then hides again so as to lay claim to the parcel of land and thus also the treasure (verse 44). The details are obscure: who buried the treasure, and why? Is there something wrong about the actions taken by the finder? This brief story, like the buried treasure itself, conceals much. If we are to hear the parable’s message, it is wise to notice what it tells us and not place emphasis on what it does not say.

The plot unfolds swiftly: unexpected discovery, concealment, joy, total divestment of resources, and purchase of the field. The story’s protagonist does something radical and extreme. He sells everything to take the risk of possessing a treasure he never expected to find. Can it be that the reigning presence of God in the world is like that? Is it worth everything? The parable challenges listeners to embrace whole-hearted commitment to this cause. As with the following parable (pearl), the question posed to listeners is not an easy one: Are you all in? Where does your ultimate concern lie?3


The images of finding and then selling all to possess something of great value reappear in the parable about a merchant and a pearl (verses 45-46). This merchant is on the lookout for beautiful pearls and chances upon an extraordinary one. Intent on obtaining that pearl, the merchant sells everything he has so that he can purchase the one-of-a-kind pearl. Like disciples who left their fishing business to become Jesus’ companions, this merchant abandons his business—and everything else!—to lay claim to a beautiful object. This is an impractical life choice: the pearl may be beautiful and expensive, but how useful is it? As with the field treasure, the exaggerated plot delivers the punch line: if the reigning presence of God in the world is like this, are you all in? What is your ultimate concern?

Fish tale

The imagery in the final parable in Matthew 13 returns the imagination of listening disciples to the lakeshore (see also 13:1-2). The details differ, but the point of the fish net is much the same as in the parable about wheat and weeds. (See the discussion of that parable at Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.) Field and sea alike—the whole earth—hold the good and the bad all mixed up together. The reign of God is pressing into the world, laying claim to it, transforming it, though it takes bold and imaginative vision to see it. Jesus and the disciples carry out their mission in a world that includes a whole lot of bad. Yet even though God’s reigning presence will not swiftly cancel and eliminate the brutality of Roman armies (to name one example), people of faith can trust the future to the holy justice of God. The parable in 13:47-50 summons readers today to the same courageous trust.


  1. Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 181.
  2. Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 407.
  3. Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 139-64.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12

Vanessa Lovelace

1 Kings 3:5–12 is bracketed by the death of David, Israel’s greatest king and the reign of his successor, Solomon (1 Kings 1–11). Despite positive characterizations of Solomon in our pericope and the western world for his wisdom and wealth, there are nevertheless subtle clues in the passage that alert the reader that the golden era of his reign was tainted. Thus, we should be careful not to put too much confidence in political leaders as role models but rather trust in God’s example and guidance.

1 Kings 3:5–12 both provides divine sanction for Solomon’s reign and also presents him as a pious and wise ruler, despite his youth and lack of military experience. We know that he is considered pious because he previously presented a thousand burnt offerings to God at Gibeon (3:4) which exceeded expectations. Gibeon was a hill country located northwest of Jerusalem. At first, the reader might not find Solomon’s choice of worship site as a subject of concern. However, it was the largest among several sacred sites where the people of Israel worshiped that were prohibited by God. The narrator is aware of the impropriety of Solomon sacrificing at Gibeon and defends it by explaining that the people sacrificed at these shrines before the construction of the Temple (3:2). 

The text does not specify how long Solomon was at Gibeon, however he was at least on the hill overnight. God appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in the form of a dream as he slept and told Solomon to ask God, “what should I give you?” (3:5). Dreams were a common form of communication between deities and humans in the ancient world. Reasons why God might have visited Solomon range from God’s response to Solomon’s piety to God’s desire to help this inexperienced king, based on God’s offer to give Solomon whatever he asked. Solomon’s response is in the form of a prayer speech.

Solomon speaks of the great and “steadfast love” (Hebrew chesed) or “lovingkindness” God showed his father David for walking in faithfulness (literally “in truth”), in righteousness (Hebrew tzedaqah, also “honesty”), and in the uprightness of heart towards God (3:6). The concept of God’s steadfast love is one of a deity sitting high and coming down from heaven to look after creation. Solomon presumes that his place on the throne is an extension of God’s great and steadfast love for David. Solomon’s awareness of the relationship between God and David is evident in his prayer. However, some scholars question Solomon’s relationship with God. Does he walk in obedience before God like his father?

Solomon uses deferential terms and concepts to denote his inexperience and humility before God. He referred to David as “your servant” (3:6) and himself as “your servant” before God three times (3:7–9). The term “servant” or “slave” (Hebrew ebed) from the Hebrew verb for “to work” (abad) can refer to persons subject to involuntary servitude, persons in subordinate positions, especially regarding the king and his higher officials, and a term for oneself when showing deference for persons of higher status. The people of Israel, the patriarchs, and even kings, to include David and Solomon, were referred to figuratively as the “slaves” or “servants of God.” Solomon’s use here is figurative as a show of humility. 

Solomon also refers to himself as young and inexperienced militarily when God placed him on the throne to replace David. Solomon said that he was “only a little child” (see also Jeremiah 1:7) although he was at least twenty years old (3:7) and that he didn’t know how to lead troops, the meaning of “to go out or come in.” Both characterizations by Solomon are self-deprecating expressions of his modesty. 

The second part of Solomon’s prayer speech introduces Solomon’s ask. Following his acknowledgement that God has continued to reward David’s faithfulness before God by making Solomon king among God’s people, Solomon appears to realize the enormity of the responsibility before him. Solomon’s reference to the chosenness of God’s people who are too numerous to count may allude to 2 Samuel 7 where David refers to Israel as God’s very own people and God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 15:5 to give him descendants too numerous to count. Nonetheless, Solomon requests an “understanding mind” translated literally as “listening heart” (Hebrew lev shome’a) to judge the people and to discern between good and evil (3:9). As king, Solomon was expected to administer justice for the people.

The narrator, who appears to have intimate knowledge of God’s thoughts by reporting that God was pleased with Solomon’s response, evaluates Solomon positively (3:10). God tells Solomon that because “you asked for” (2 times) and “you did not ask for” (3 times), a literary device that builds the reader’s expectation by delaying the response, God will grant his petition. Solomon didn’t ask for riches, longevity, or retribution against his enemies but rather for an understanding mind or discernment to render justice (3:11). The relationship between an upright heart (3:6) or a listening heart (3:9, 12) and the ability to rule with justice is made evident in God’s response to Solomon’s request. To listen to one’s heart in 1 Kings 3:5–12, as opposed to the popular idea of trusting one’s emotions rather than reason, is to walk upright before God. God is pleased and does as Solomon asked. God declared that there hasn’t been anyone like Solomon before and there would never be again (3:12). 

Solomon is often held up as a model of wisdom and piety. The writer portrays him as a young, inexperienced, new leader of Israel who was humble enough to know the right thing to ask God for. Although Solomon receives what he asks for and more, either because of his wealth and honor or despite it, eventually, he doesn’t obey God with his heart and mind the way his father did. We should try to follow Solomon only in asking God for wisdom and discernment, not his behavior.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28

Valerie Bridgeman

This week’s lesson continues the saga of the ancestors of ancient Israel: how they became the nation that God promised, through human struggle, deceit, and disappointment. This part of the story continues the Jacob part of the saga, after we have learned that Jacob, the trickster, got a blessing in a deceitful way that his father and apparently God honored. That blessing made him have to leave his home. His mother did not want him to marry anyone that was not from family and sent him to her brother to escape the rage that he knew his brother Esau felt from his trickery (Genesis 27:46-28:1). If the preacher has been following this saga in her preaching, this story continues last week’s encounter Jacob had with God, on the way to follow his mother’s instruction. The goal was to keep Jacob from marrying a Canaanite woman, which likely is anachronistic as the Deuteronomic History would later insist that the problem among the ancient Israelites was losing fidelity to YHWH because of intermarriage. An astute reader will note the patriarchal misogyny in such a notion.

In this text, which begins after the first encounter Jacob and Rachel have at the well, the preacher might find the need for the backstory, to bring the listener up to speed. More than “the lesson” for the day, perhaps helping listeners imagine a world like the one of ancient Israel, will help the listeners “travel back in time,” and not make the mistake of trying to make ancient practices of marriage customs “fit” for our day. There might be some other lessons here, however, such as “what happens when two siblings are pitted against each other?” as Rachel and Leah are by Jacob’s choice. What happens when the trickster is tricked? We might refer to the Sanskrit notion of “karma,” in other words, that a person’s moral character is shaped by their actions. Or, the Christian text that is similar to this notion, “you reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7-9). In any event Rachel and Leah are caught between the desires of Jacob and the will of their father, Laban. They are pawns.

Though Jacob showed up to his uncle’s land to get married, it was a month before the subject was broached. He worked for his uncle who insisted he should not work for free. In answer, the text reveals that Jacob “loved” Rachel (29:18). How did he come to love her? What took him a month? Was he observing Rachel and Leah? He had encountered Rachel at the well, where he watered his uncle’s sheep and kissed her and told her he was her kin (29:9-11). She was the one to introduce him to her father and brother. But what we do not know is whether either Rachel or Leah would have a say in the matter, as their mother-in-law Rebekah had a say in marrying Isaac (Genesis 24:58). We don’t know whether Jacob and Rachel had a courtship over those seven years while he worked for his uncle anticipating his marriage night, though even those words are imposing our understanding of relationships onto the text. What we have is a story about the continuing saga of how the covenant will happen. How will God provide land and progeny for Jacob? 

As the story continues, Laban gives Leah instead of Rachel at the end of the seven-year service. If the rule was that the younger could not marry before the older daughter, why had Laban not made it known before Jacob began the work? The trickster is being tricked. There are a number of questions this text raises and the questions might matter for the preacher. How does Jacob not know he is sleeping with Leah? After seven years, did he not know the difference between the two women? Was he drunk for the festivities? Did Laban hope to give only one of his daughters to Jacob? Was Leah complicit? Did Rachel know, either about the promise her father had made to Jacob that she would be his wife, or that her older sister would go into the tent in her stead if she did know? The complications of relationships begin to surface if we ask the questions. Leah would experience herself as being unloved in the coming days, we know, as the text would say that God “saw” that Leah was not loved and opened her womb (29:31). The rivalry between the sisters shows up in their childbearing, as Rachel is barren, the biblical trope most used among women characters. Leah and Rachel, with their enslaved servants, Bilhah and Zilpah, bear Jacob the sons that would become the tribes of Israel, the promise God made. 

God’s promises through the saga of human history are messy. Sibling rivalry, heartbreak, births, child losses, barrenness, and more are contained with the narratives. In her commentary, Esther Menn notes, “The competition between the two sisters for the affection of their husband and for children parallels the earlier sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob for the birthright and blessing (Genesis 25:29-34; 27:1-40). Rachel’s boast that she has wrestled mightily with her sister and has prevailed (Genesis 30:8) foreshadows her husband Jacob’s wrestling with the divine being before being renamed ‘Israel,’ the one who strives with God and with humans and prevails (Genesis 32:28).” In other words, the cycle repeats and that may be a point for the preacher to interrogate. How do we disrupt unhealthy relational behaviors?

As the preacher tries to think through how these stories meet us in our time, perhaps we might look at our distorted notions of love and fidelity, of fairness and care for all those among us. Jacob could only see his desire for Rachel, so much so that he could not see Leah, even when she was in his bed. I wonder whether there are situations and relationships in which we are unaware of our own selfishness and we use people, and people get wounded, as Leah was. I wonder whether we have dismissed or sanctified our own treachery so much so that we discount people? I think we might also be guilty of overlooking the other women in these texts, in other words, the enslaved women Zilpah and Bilhah. It allows the preacher to think about sexual exploitation and human trafficking. It might also give us an opportunity to think about wages, given that Laban negotiates Jacob’s “pay” with the marriage of his daughters. In other words, there is a wealth of possibilities for the preacher to follow.


Commentary on Psalm 119:129-136

Jason Byassee

There is an ancient and venerable teaching in the church on the word of God.¹

It has three forms. The first in importance (though not in time) is the word of God enfleshed. Protestants tend to forget this, thinking first of the word of God in the Bible. But that is the second and derivative form of the word of God. Ours is a biblical faith, but it is only insofar as the bible bears witness to the word in Mary’s womb. Third, and this is most staggering of all, the word of God is the word of the preacher.

Now sit under the weight of that for a moment. We may think we just dashed off a Saturday night special, caught between too much to do and not enough creativity. We’re keenly aware of the folks who just barely got there that morning who wonder why they did, of those staying as far away as possible, and those whom God adores but who would never come near the door of the church. It may feel limp or even dead as it leaves our lips. But that’s the very word of God — the same word fleshed in Jesus and attested in scripture. It always looks and feels foolish. Actually it’s the hinge of history and the heart of the world.

Psalm 119 luxuriates in the word, the decrees, the ordinances, and the law of God. It is not a psalm of half measures or cool reserve. The psalmist longs for God like a ferociously thirsty dog pants for water — slobber everywhere, heavy breathing, sucking the bowl dry (verse 131). The psalmist laments other people’s sins, and of course also her own (verse 136). Sin is not an occasion for blame or shame or gossip, but for tears. They are, as the Orthodox Church has long taught, like a second baptism, a cleansing — there’s a reason you feel better after a good cry. The psalmist asks for God’s face to shine on her the way Aaron asks for God’s face to shine on those whom he blesses in the famous passage Numbers 6:22-27. The shining face of God is what calls all things from non-existence to existence, from selfish sin to abundant and self-giving life.

The powerful images keep rolling over us readers and pray-ers. As a preaching professor I teach students to choose one image and let it carry the freight of the sermon. Wise teachers like Paul Scott Wilson have shown that the human ears can only hear one image at a time.2 Pile them up and they become a train wreck. But scripture doesn’t get the memo. They rain down in quick succession. “Unfold” your word God — when we teach, God is actually unpacking treasures, laying them out for display, delighting in the onlookers’ oohs and aahs (verse 130). “Turn” to us the psalmist asks (verse 132), in perhaps her boldest request. The desire is for God’s full presence, the very light of God’s face.

God had made clear to Moses that none of us could see God’s face. Moses seeing God’s backside makes his face shine so brightly the people demand a cover — don’t irradiate us God, we can’t stand the full voltage of your presence.3 And yet the psalmist here asks for full blast dosage. The Sinai covenant, in one way, isn’t forefronted in Psalm 119. In another way, it is implicitly present throughout this section, verses 129-136. The details of the Torah are not spelled out in this massive psalm — which had ink enough to spare if it wanted to go into the details of the law. Rather the law is delighted in.

This is the God whose women celebrated a triumph at the side of the Sea (Exodus 15), the God who liberates from slavery (verses 133-134). Too much of our faith seems dutiful, joyless, desiccated and anemic. Psalm 119 shows us a faith that is about delight, with blood and water pumping through to overflowing, full of saliva and tears, shining faces and redeemed slaves.

The psalm portion concludes with several mentions of slavery. We know who God is — the one who sets people free. This is not about long past history — activists have shown that tens of millions of people live in slavery in our world today, bound by an economic system that prizes low prices above all and petty tyrants who physically restrain and economically shackle. It often looks like slaveholders have nothing to fear. If there is no God, that is. God, Robert Jenson says, is whoever raised Israel from Egypt and Jesus from the dead. You know the presence of this God by broken shackles and rolled away stones. And you know this God’s servants by the wrists and ankles formerly rubbed raw suddenly liberated.

Jon Levenson is one of our finest Hebrew Bible scholars. He wrote an essay on the Exodus some decades ago that quibbled with liberation theology, which was then in an early ascent.4 Exodus is often drawn upon as the key image of liberation. He pointed out that the Lord liberates Israel from slavery to Pharaoh not in order to make them free, masterless, self-governing. No, God liberates Israel to make them slaves…to Yahweh. We have to serve somebody, as Bob Dylan once crooned. The Lord who asks us to serve and will not make us do so against our will has a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. Jesus learned such language from places like Psalm 119, which describes the law in similar terms. Sure, it’s a burden, it’s not convenient, it’s not what we would have designed if we were God.

But it is the lightest yoke there is.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 30, 2017.
  2. The Four Pages of a Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999).
  3. For real — look it up, Exodus 33:18-34:9.
  4. Jon Levenson The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:26-39

Anna M. V. Bowden

From theological platitudes to doctrines of predestination, this passage is full of verses that make a good pastor squirm. As you read and reflect on Romans 8:26-39 this week, it is possible that you will find yourself asking the exact same question as the apostle Paul, “What then are we to say about these things?” (verse 31).

The key to interpreting Romans 8 is to recognize that Paul is writing to a collective community. He repeatedly refers to the first-person plural (we and us) and to “those (plural) who” love God. In a culture that tends to read Romans as a roadmap for individual salvation, we must remember that Paul’s letter does not address the faith or belief of single believers; it addresses a faithful, corporate body of Jesus-followers—God’s beloved in Rome (1:7). 

In 8:18-39 Paul emphasizes that God will end the present age marked with suffering and establish God’s good purposes on earth. Paul assures the Romans that their present realities, such as hardship, distress, persecution, famine, impoverishment, peril, and war (verse 35), will cease when the full glory of God is revealed (verse 18).

In this time of present suffering, the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (verse 26). This image of the Spirit groaning recalls for me the image of Jesus greatly moved by the sight of Mary and the Jews weeping over Lazarus’ death in John’s gospel (11:33). Just as we suffer with Christ (verse 17), the Spirit of Christ joins us in our suffering (verse 26). Paul assures the Romans that God is on their side. Despite how things seem, they are not alone. 

Amid America’s gun violence epidemic, a continued rise in Christian nationalism, and an increase in laws that seek to limit the rights of those who live outside the boundaries of socially constructed norms, we too might feel like we have reached the breaking point, unable to see an end to the present sufferings of the world. We might even feel helpless and at a loss for words, unsure about what or how to pray. In this moment, Paul assures us—God is listening. 

Verse 28 continues Paul’s reassurance. He tells the Romans that despite their present circumstances, all things are good. He writes, “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purposes.” 

Paul’s reassurance should not be mistaken for a theology in which one’s positive actions result in positive life outcomes. Nor should we hear in Paul’s words that all things that happen in life are good in and of themselves. A promotion at work is not the result of diligent prayer. And a personal tragedy is not a gift from God. On the contrary, this verse explains to the Romans that God is presently at work in the world transforming it for God’s good purposes. 

Paul elaborates. The following two verses detail this good activity in the world (verses 29-30). Five verbs describe the actions God is taking to redeem the world:

  1. Foreknew—God knew beforehand that God would save the world. 
  2. Predestined—God foresaw (proorizō) that Jesus would lead God’s people through his image. 
  3. Called—God called God’s people to follow, or imitate, Jesus. 
  4. Justified—God restored God’s people to right relationship with God, creation, and one another. 
  5. Glorified—God declared this work good. 

These verses demonstrate that God is in control and is already at work in setting things right. Paul assures the Romans that even though the world seems unmanageable at times, God is faithfully at work in the world making it good. Paul promises them a better world is on the way. 

Hidden at the end of verse 28 is a helpful reminder—we are called according to God’s purpose. The work is not God’s alone. We are called to join God in the work of making the world good. What does this work look like? It looks like walking in the way of the Spirit (verse 4); it looks like modeling our lives according to the image of Christ (verse 29). 

In Romans 4, Paul appeals to Abraham as a model of faith. He emphasizes Abraham’s obedience and his lived faithfulness to God’s good purposes: “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13). Faith, then, requires activity. It is not a passive belief, but a life dedicated to active participation in making the world good. 

Verse 32 evokes Paul’s prior linking of the faith of Abraham and Jesus in Romans 4. This link with Abraham in verse 32, then, is less about sacrifice and more about faith. We have nothing to worry about, Paul argues, God is as faithful to us as Abraham was to God. 

One final image brings us back to where we began. God intercedes. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. This bold conviction gives the reason for Paul’s confidence in the previous verses (31-37). He knows that God is on our side because “neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (verses 38-39). 

I offer one final thought. Given our role in bringing about God’s good purposes, what happens if we turn Paul’s powerful question around? Paul strings together a list of questions in verses 31-35 that all anticipate the same answer—nothing! But instead of asking “Who or what can separate us from the love of God?” what if we asked, “What does the love of God separate us from?” Would the answer be the same? I suspect Paul would list the things in the second half of verse 35: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword. It seems we still have a lot of work to do. 

Paul’s audience, in the end, is not singular persons of faith, but his message is singular in scope—God, he affirms, is at work in the world. It is a message of hope for all who are loved by, encouraged by, supported by, equipped by, and empowered by God. Thanks be to God.