Lectionary Commentaries for August 20, 2023
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Richard Ward

By the time we get to this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus finds himself in foreign territory, namely, the “district of Tyre and Sidon” (15:21). It marks a transition in the focus of Jesus’ ministry and is a signal to Matthew’s community that what follows will address one of their multiple concerns: “Who is Jesus’ mission and message for?” “What does that message ask of this community?” The broader question of course is: “Just how wide is God’s mercy?” This text culminates in a dramatic encounter between Jesus, his disciples, and a “foreigner,” an encounter that intensifies these questions for Matthew’s community. The backdrop for the encounter with the Canaanite woman is deep deliberation among insiders about the complex relationship between their religious traditions and practices and “God’s will”.

Scholarly consensus holds that Matthew’s community is predominantly Jewish, that is, it is made up of those who have been formed within the rich tradition of thought forms and practices that have shaped their understanding of God and “God’s will” for God’s people. Now, since God has given “all authority in heaven and on earth” to a resurrected Jesus (28:18) those traditions have come under scrutiny. 

One cannot help but think of those who faithfully show up online or in our sanctuaries to worship together. Rapid changes in our world have brought under scrutiny rich traditions and practices that have guided not only corporate worship but also the ways of keeping faith in the arena of everyday life. Those same traditions have shaped one’s perception of faithful practice but also one’s views of the “other”. Far too often our traditions train us to treat the “other” with fear and to regard “them” as “dirty” and “less than” who “we” are. Fearful tradition-keepers in any age are concerned that interaction with the “other” will pollute and confuse their understanding of who they are. 

Ironically, tradition keeping is also vulnerable to another attitude. One can judge that there is nothing of value in one’s tradition and, like some useless commodity, traditions can be thoughtlessly discarded. Both extreme attitudes can restrict faithful obedience to God. On the one hand a traditional practice can become ossified, robbing the tradition-keeper of the vitality of a living faith. On the other hand, impulsively discarding (or even forgetting) a tradition can rob one of the nurturing resources of collective wisdom. One needs a trustworthy, authoritative interpreter.

Matthew presents Jesus as such a one. Jesus for Matthew is a “new Moses” who has come “not to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill” (5:17). What does fulfillment of Torah look like? One moment of that fulfillment happens in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. There is nothing new in it at first. Jesus seems to be going by an old script for such interactions. To our ears, what follows is appalling but to the faithful in Matthew’s community, he reacts to the woman’s request as they would expect of a rabbi in those days. She represents Israel’s notorious ancient foe—the Canaanites! Traditional religious practices and prejudices, designed to guide Israel’s relationship with “outsiders” and “enemies”, would support Jesus’ brusque dismissal of her desperate concern for her daughter. First, he gives her the silent treatment. Then the disciples get into the act: “tell her to lower her voice!” “she’s being annoying!” Then Jesus says (in words that seem to shore up his rabbinic credentials) “I was sent only  to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (verse 24). It only gets worse! When she comes kneeling before him, Jesus insults her. She looks to him like a dog begging for crumbs under the table! It is ritualized humiliation. 

How long is the silence that ensues after she receives this treatment: Jesus’ shrugging dismissal, the disciples’ complaint that she annoys them, and now with this insulting declaration that the mission of God’s representative on earth does not include her or her daughter? One can almost feel “old wineskins” of religious tradition stretched to the breaking point in the presence of deep human need. 

This scene is admittedly a hard one to preach. One may want to get Jesus off the hook and preserve the generic “good guy” Jesus that drifts through tradition, even though this tradition is breaking open right before our eyes. This is who Matthew saw Jesus as being. He has been sent to the house of Israel to be the authoritative interpreter of tradition. The question is this: is Jesus, as the child of and bearer of traditional thought forms, capable of receiving “new wine” as the “new Moses” in his encounter with the “other”?

The tension in the encounter is released with a simple statement of faith. This Canaanite woman has named Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David,” but when she declares her utter dependence on God’s Grace, Jesus’ tradition-shaped heart breaks open. “Woman, great is your faith!” he declares. 

This is what faith and fulfillment look like, Matthew seems to tell us. It recognizes Jesus as God’s agent through whom God makes salvation and justice happen. It also recognizes that Jesus is of Israel, and represents a fulfillment of an ancient promise given to the prophet Isaiah for  Israel: “I chose you to bring justice, and am here at your side. I selected you and sent you to bring light and my promise of hope to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6 Common English Version).  

It is such a hope that has drawn this Canaanite woman to Jesus with her plea, and in so doing she transgresses boundaries imposed by religious tradition, practice, and prejudice. Faithful Israel was and continues to be a bearer of God’s promise to all nations. Preachers can look to this woman as an ancestor in faith: she calls upon God’s agents—Israel, Jesus, the Church—to act as God’s agents to “bring light” and to fulfill God’s promise to all the nations. In so doing, she becomes a light-bearer herself.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Amy G. Oden

Preaching this Isaiah text could take several tacks. Be sure to check out all the great commentaries on this passage in the Working Preacher archives. My focus here is on one theme, God’s welcome, ingathering “the outcasts of Israel.”

Doubling down on identity

First, remind your listeners of the context: Israel and its temple have been destroyed and the people taken into exile in Babylon. Now, many generations later, some faithful have returned to Jerusalem to rebuild. Are they still God’s people? Have decades with the Babylonians re-shaped their identity, values and worldview? They wonder, “who are we now? “

As they try to re-establish themselves, their very identity is at stake. If, indeed, God allowed them to be conquered because they did not obey the covenant, then now is the time to double-down on following the rules and proving they are truly God’s chosen people. So much so, that some voices insist that marriages to foreign wives must be dissolved, and those women sent away (Ezra 10:1-44, Nehemiah 13:23-31). Many argue that true identity could be found only in separating themselves from all things foreign. 

It’s easy to see how a vulnerable people who had been attacked and conquered would be suspicious about welcoming outsiders. Such welcome could be seen as a betrayal of their own struggle, their sense of community identity and integrity. 

Not warm and fuzzy 

This back story is important to establish for your listeners. Because when God shares the plan to bring foreigners to the holy mountain (verse 7), this is not a warm and fuzzy, let’s-all-get-along moment. When God “gathers the outcasts of Israel,” this is not a cozy gathering in harmonious fellowship. 

To be clear, there has been no cry from the Hebrew people to God, “Please, please let us gather in foreigners!” In fact, quite the opposite. They are circling the wagons to survive and maintain identity. No, this is completely God’s own idea and a major changing of the rules. Isaiah’s message challenged the people to their core.

Welcome disrupts

Today, we often expect welcoming the stranger to feel good, to be rewarding and connect us to one another. We have sentimentalized notions of warmth and ease with one another. We put out banners that say, “All Are Welcome!” with cozy visions of new members who fold in seamlessly into who we already are. We are surprised and disheartened when welcoming the stranger is disruptive, awkward or difficult. 

Most scriptural teaching on welcome teaches us this: strangers often bring God’s own message, coming in to disrupt and transform. Strangers bring strange practices, strange worldviews and strange expectations. We are often surprised that strangers are strange! 

What is God up to?

Yet this is precisely what God is up to. Isaiah brings the divine message that God’s dream for the world is much bigger than national identity, a vision bigger than our imaginations in a couple of ways.

First, God’s dream announces the deliverance of many, not just “our group.” God delivers the Israelites out of Babylon, but adds a twist. God says that “my holy mountain,” God’s dwelling place, will welcome “those who keep my Sabbath and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant” (verse 6), “these I will bring to my holy mountain” (verse 7). That means that community is no longer defined by doctrinal test or membership. Bloodline, pedigree, correct theology, institutional credentials, none of these are guaranteed doorways to deliverance. God makes clear that faithfulness, even of foreigners (!), will determine who is brought into “the house of prayer for all people” (verse 7). Deliverance is offered to those who walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk.

We can hear the grumbling: “What? Why bother being faithful if God can just pull rank and bring in non-members who have not been one of us all along?” Isaiah offers a widening of the circle that can rankle.

Second, God’s deliverance is not about conquering the enemy (verse 1). It doesn’t look like a delivered people might want or expect. Deliverance described here is not revenge on enemies or fame and fortune or assurances that nothing bad will ever happen again. Instead, this deliverance is revealed in terms of intimacy with God, in terms of prayer. Notice the verbs: God’s deliverance “will bring” and “will gather” these faithful ones “in my house” says the Lord (verse 7). Moreover, deliverance involves joy! “I will make them joyful” (verse 7). Deliverance looks like dwelling together in God’s own house with joy.

Invitation for belonging

Play with these powerful images of belonging: house, home, dwelling, ingathering, abiding. Isaiah 56 proclaims a compelling vision of our life with God as one of intimate belonging, both to God and to community. What does belonging look like in your community? What experiences of dwelling-with-God can your listeners imagine? How have you been delivered into a sure relationship with the Lord God, one of closeness and joy? And how might you extend that welcome beyond your circle?

How might your community be “a house of prayer for all peoples”? If we think of prayer not as a set of words we say, but as our lives intentionally lived in God’s presence, imagine what that might be like. An expansive notion of prayer helps us lay down our anxiety about “prayer performance” and inhabit a more organic, natural way of being ourselves with God. It’s not our building, but our common life itself that becomes “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Imagine that!

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15

Kimberly D. Russaw

The book of Genesis not only recounts the creation of the world, but also details the narrative arc of the early Israelites. After the primeval history (chapters 1-11), the rest of the book of Genesis may be understood as a series of successive narratives centered around the major patriarchs. The story of the Israelites unfolds with stories of Abraham (chapters 12-36), Isaac and Esau (chapters 25-37), and Jacob (chapters 37-50). 

Much of the Jacob narrative pivots on the story of his son, Joseph, who dreams a dream that upsets his brothers and ends with him serving as the vizier to the pharaoh during the time of famine. Indeed, Pharaoh appoints Joseph to manage Egypt’s grain rations in response to Joseph’s interpretation of his disturbing dreams of lean and fat cows and thin and plump ears of grain.   While the rest of the world suffers lack due to the famine, under Joseph’s direction, the grain storehouses of Egypt provide sustenance for those who could afford to pay. Most readers of Genesis 45 focus their attention on the relationship between Joseph and his brothers and understand this text to be about family, forgiveness, and providence. Mercy is, indeed, an important theme of this text; however, when modern readers interrogate this text with an eye towards Jacob and not towards Joseph and his brothers, this text becomes a story of God providing despite our shortcomings and missteps; despite all the things we would like to forget.  

Genesis 45 from Jacob’s perspective

In Genesis 45, the aging patriarch Jacob has sent his sons to find sustenance for the household during a prolonged famine in the land of Canaan. This same Jacob has experienced a life full of joys, wonder, and heartache. By this point in his narrative, Jacob has journeyed to find his wife. He immediately is smitten by Rachel, but is tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah. In order to earn the second daughter as a wife, he works some extra years for Laban. Jacob, Leah, Rachel, and their two respective maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah) expand their family and – between them – birth 12 sons and one daughter. For all of the joys that the family life may have brought Jacob, there are many instances that were not so joyful. 

Indeed, Jacob’s life is peppered with instances that, in his old age, he might want to forget. Jacob may want to forget how, when he was a foreigner in the land of Shechem, the prince of the city transgressed a social boundary by sexually violating his daughter, Dinah, and he took no immediate action to defend the family honor. Jacob may want to forget how his sons retaliate against the Shechemites in ways that make his continued presence there difficult, so he eventually relocates to Beer-Sheba. Jacob may want to forget how his beloved Rachel longed for a child and eventually died in childbirth. Certainly, Jacob may want to forget the day his sons returned home and told him that his favorite son, Joseph, had been killed by a wild animal. An aging Jacob would have survived the social disgrace of the violation of his daughter, Dinah, and also mourned the loss of Rachel and Joseph. Then a famine threatens the livelihood of those living in the land of Canaan and Jacob himself seemingly has no way to provide for his household which now consists of his remaining wife, Leah, the handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah, and his eleven sons and their families. Indeed, in his old age, Jacob might earnestly regret the choices he made in his lifetime.

In his old age, Jacob may have questioned choices he made as a young man: not honoring the place of his older brother and his birthright, not protecting his daughter, and not providing for his family. Jacob might earnestly have many regrets. Yet in Genesis 45 it seems God has decided to provide for Jacob and his family despite all the things Jacob may want to forget. Indeed, by positioning his son, Joseph, in a place of power and influence in Egypt, God ensures Jacob does not perish during the famine. Indeed, Jacob and his family migrate to Egypt and are given the best of the land of Egypt by the pharaoh (Genesis 45:18).

Lesson for modern readers

As humans, we forget. As mere mortals, we often do things we want others to forget. Furthermore, despite the command to “love thy neighbor,” we forget about others. But one lesson from Genesis 45 is that in all of our forgetting, God has not forgotten us. We should be encouraged because, when read with an eye towards Jacob, this passage reminds us that, as Israel Houghton and New Breed sing, we are not forgotten. Regardless of the obstacles created by systems and policies, God has not forgotten. Despite the death-dealing circumstances, God has not forgotten. When it seems as if there is nothing for us, nothing to sustain us, God is with us.  Moreover, God may have been working through all our obstacles, challenges, circumstances, and missteps. Perhaps we should view the obstacles as opportunities to think differently. Perhaps we should view our challenges as chances to build physical or moral muscles that might otherwise atrophy. Perhaps reflecting on our missteps will help us make better choices in the future. 


Commentary on Psalm 67:1-7

James K. Mead

This psalm is a favorite for several reasons.¹

Its repetitions and relative brevity make it memorable; its literary connections to other texts inform our biblical theology; and its aspirations for all nations and peoples to receive God’s blessings encourage a holistic understanding of God’s purposes on earth. Psalm 67 creatively integrates the priestly blessing of Israel and the ancestral promise of a blessing to the nations in order to project a renewed vision of the way things were meant to be from the beginning.

As clear as this thesis seems to be on the surface, the fact is that scholars have not agreed on matters as fundamental as the psalm’s translation and its setting and function. To be sure, these major issues do not sideline our attempt to incorporate Psalm 67 into Christian worship and preaching, but they can play into a more complete understanding of its powerful rhetoric. So, rather than separate my remarks into exegetical and homiletical comments, I instead will unpack the psalm’s message on three levels.

First, this psalm is aword of praise to God. Whatever we may think about the literary history and religious setting behind the final form of the psalm, we can derive insight and blessing from its “surface” message of praise. This is a community psalm of thanksgiving (or declarative praise) for a particularly abundant harvest with which God had blessed Israel (verse 6).2 And, of course, it is not merely Israel that praises God for a given harvest. “The peoples” are twice enjoined to praise the Lord in a refrain that surrounds (verses 3, 5) the central prayer of the psalm, which invites “the nations” joyfully to acknowledge God’s guidance and justice (verse 4).

Thus, whether it is Israel’s praise or the nations’ praise, they are “interwoven by means of the perspective of the world of the peoples.”3 Some scholars believe that this non-Israelite praise of God’s justice should be read in light of ancient Near Eastern traditions, where the sun god Shamash was known by the epithet, “the one who leads rightly.” But in Psalm 67, even Shamash’s devotees acknowledge that Israel’s God oversees the proceedings of creation and history.4 Although inspired by the bountiful produce of nature, this psalm depicts the whole world joining in the worship, not of nature itself, but of its sole creator.5

Second, as we look a bit deeper, we engage this psalm’s word of blessing on the world. Here we are reminded that the praise within the heart of the psalm is surrounded by prayers for blessing (verses 1, 7). At first glance, the blessing seems completely focused on Israel itself (“us” 3x in verse 1 and once in verse 7). Craig Broyles rightly calls verse 1 “an echo” of the beautiful Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24-27, which was spoken by the priests upon the people of Israel.6

However, verse 7 goes on to link God’s blessing on Israel with the hope that “all the ends of the earth [would] revere him.” It is difficult to miss the echo of Genesis 12:3, wherein the ancestral promises of land and descendants were associated with another promise, namely, that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This surprising theological conclusion is a game-changer for our interpretation of the psalm. Both the praise and the prayer speak to Israel’s vocation as the elect messengers of the divine covenant to all nations who, after all, share a common ancestry with the nations as children of Noah. We therefore realize that the biblical theme of election “does not mean that God has his favorites but simply that he has a chosen channel of blessing for all.”7

Finally, and perhaps most subtle of all, we are confronted by this psalm’s word of challenge to the church. This multi-faceted prayer comes home with surprising force by virtue of the “voice” in which it is spoken. What had always been a benediction spoken just by Aaron’s priestly descendants is here taken up by the people at large. Yes, they respectfully hint at the full language of the benediction, so as not to usurp the office of the priesthood; but what nevertheless comes across is a public theology challenging Israel’s inward focus.

And when proclaimed in Christian worship, this psalm speaks to the church’s need ever to be vigilant in presenting God’s desire for the world to join in praise with his people. Not only do these ancient words critique an ecclesiology severed from mission; they also remind us that mission is both universal in its geographic scope and also prophetic in its concern for a world “torn by racial, ethnic, and national exclusivism and strife.”8

What strikes me most about this psalm is the fact that its wonderful spirit was not representative of the Old Testament. Throughout the canon, mention of the nations and peoples was typically negative.9 To find it here reminds the church that those who influenced the canonization of the psalms insisted on this poem’s inclusion. As heirs of their bold vision, may we insist on putting its hopes and prayers into action.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on August 17, 2014.
  2. Some scholars avoid the traditional form category of “thanksgiving” and prefer the term “prayer,” based on the abundance of jussive forms (“may,” “let”). See Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1990), 155.
  3. Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2, Hermeneia, trans. L. M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 153.
  4. Ibid, 156.
  5. Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, Old Testament Library, trans. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 473.
  6. Craig C. Broyles, Psalms (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 278.
  7. Ibid, 280.
  8. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 941.
  9. An interesting way to connect this psalm with the other lectionary readings is to note how the gospel reading (Matthew 15: 21-28) tells of Jesus’ venture into the Gentile regions with a disturbing interaction.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Mary Hinkle Shore

I believe it was New Testament Scholar Pamela Eisenbaum, who described the problem of early Christianity as “Too few Jews, too many gentiles, and no end in sight.”¹

The apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Romans in the early 60s CE, earlier than there was something distinct from Judaism that could be called, “Christianity.” Still, the problem he addresses in Romans 9-11 is something like the one Eisenbaum names: gentiles are embracing Jesus as the God of Israel’s anointed one, raised from the dead, while Paul’s “kindred according to the flesh” (9:3) are failing to do so in the numbers Paul had expected and hoped. Two questions arise: “Why?” and “What next?” The lectionary’s brief reading from Romans 11 offers a snippet of Paul’s answers to both of these questions.²


Paul proposes and rejects a few explanations for why Israel as a whole is not recognizing Jesus as God’s messiah and welcoming the righteousness of faith.  These have to do with God’s action: 

  1. Has the word of God failed? (see also 9:6)
  2. “Is there injustice on God’s part?” (9:14).
  3. “Has God rejected his people?” (11:1)

Paul spurns all of these explanations for why Israel has not embraced Jesus. God has not failed God’s people, or turned away from them, or played favorites with the gentiles. God’s relationship with Israel, including God’s election of them as God’s own people, remains in place. In the words of this section, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). Whatever explains Israel’s response to Jesus, neither the explanation nor the result can be that God has rejected God’s people. 

Notice in Paul’s extended argument how many verbs point to the action of God. God is at work in the events Paul is trying to comprehend, acting decisively and with purpose. What is that purpose? God means to be merciful to all (see also 11:32). 

Paul’s argument on the way to this conclusion is filled with twists and turns. In short, he reasons that God has a larger purpose that is being served by Israel’s hesitation. Paul does not blame Israel for its rejection of Jesus. Paul assigns responsibility for that to God. Twice, he speaks of a hardening having come upon Israel (see also 11:7; 25), and he connects the action of God to this hardening: “God gave them a sluggish spirit …” (11:8) and “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32). Both times, Paul is quick to acknowledge that this action of God is mysterious. The apostle is working hard to make sense of something that may currently make sense only in the mind of God. Still, Paul perseveres. 

What next? 

In a part of the argument lacking from the Revised Common Lectionary, Paul states God’s end game beautifully. “Now if their [Israel’s] stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! … For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead!” (11:12, 15). The God who is redeeming all creation (see also Romans 8:19) through Christ will by no means leave Israel behind. In fact, the present circumstances are having the effect of an even wider reach for God’s mercy and Christ’s risen life.

“I am speaking to you Gentiles”

The other part of the argument left out of the lectionary gets at why 21st century Christians, who are overwhelmingly not of Jewish origin, should hear this scripture as addressed to them. In Romans 11, Paul offers one reason explicitly, and implies a second one. 

First, there is always the prospect that “the chosen” will become self-impressed. The Old Testament prophets warned God’s people about this temptation. In Romans 11, Paul says to gentile believers that they (we) should not boast at having been grafted into God’s own people. The human tendency to accept a gift and then claim superiority for oneself on the basis of the giver’s generosity is to be rejected. Anytime Christians feel just a little superior to others, we have forgotten that our status as children of God is a sheer gift, as is any capacity we have to live out that identity in love for God and neighbor. “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asks elsewhere (1 Corinthians 4:7). “And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” The proper responses to God’s gifts are gratitude and humility. 

The second reason for contemporary preachers and their congregations to care about Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 is the way that it rejects understandable–and therefore idolatrous–constructions of God. We believe that God makes God’s self and purposes known, certainly. But in the face of the question Paul struggles with in these chapters, and other questions concerning the providence of God, we also do well to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the Lord.” Paul himself, in the verses that end chapter 11 (and could be easily appended to the lectionary reading), exclaims, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” 

I am not arguing here for an easy retreat to the realm of “mystery” when theological thinking gets hard for the preacher or people. God is worthy of our best reading, thinking, preaching, and hearing. I am arguing that the wideness of God’s mercy, and the things God can redeem along the way to showing that mercy to all, are beyond our comprehension. This is true both when we conclude, “God could not love me,” and when we conclude, “God could not love that neighbor of mine.” Thanks be to God!


  1. I recall this vivid description from Peter Jennings, et al. directors, The Search for Paul (Koch Vision 2004), but given the difficulty of obtaining the DVD, I cannot confirm the source or the speaker.
  2. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “When in Romans … Consider Abraham,” 47-74 in When in Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), provides excellent company in a close reading of Romans 9-11. Gaventa observes, “the primary question Paul raises about Israel is a question about God” and further, “for Paul in Romans, Israel belongs to God as God’s creation. Israel is always and only God’s creation. And Israel will remain God’s creation, even in the eschaton” (page 49; emphasis in original).