Lectionary Commentaries for October 29, 2023
Reformation Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Osvaldo Vena

These 6 verses are preceded and followed by the literary context in which the Johannine author has placed them. This context is 8:12-30 and 8:31-59. We disregard 8:1-11 for being most probably a late gloss. As in the rest of the gospel, the words “Pharisees” and “Jews” are synonyms, meaning Jewish, or Judean, authorities. Jesus is engaged in a Rabbinic type of discussion based on the Hebrew scriptures, specifically on the idea of God as Father and Abraham as the ancestor of the Israelites.

In verses 12-30 Jesus tries, unsuccessfully, to explain to the Pharisees that he does not need the two witnesses required by the Law in any testimony because he already has them: his own and the Father’s. Of course, this is historically impossible. No one could testify on his own behalf. That is why the Law, to ensure fairness and objectivity, required at least two witnesses. But let us not forget that the gospel is not necessarily historical but theological. We are reading the account of an early Jewish-Christian community (around 90 CE) engaged in heavy theological debate with the synagogue, a sort of family feud if you consider that everyone here is Jewish. So, we can use the word “Jewish”, as the author does, because by this time there was a Jewish identity in the making.

In verses 37-59 Jesus and the Pharisees/Jews hurl accusations at each other. He accuses them of being children of the devil, they accuse him of being demon-possessed and a Samaritan. One can hardly think of a worse situation. There was no communication whatsoever, no one was listening. It was a war of words. In the middle of this hostile piece of literature stands our text.

We are encouraged by the way the passage starts: “To the Jews who had believed in him,” but it is a problematic verse. It is probably a later gloss to make it agree with verse 30. Some suggest that it refers to Jews in the Johannine community who maintained Jewish religious practices. Their faith is inadequate and the debate that follows is meant to test it. Gail R. O’Day suggests this is an example of the theological arguments that Jews professing faith in Jesus would surely encounter. These verses show how the Christian claims could stand up to Jewish counterarguments.1

Abraham is presented as an example of belief in God’s truth. Jesus’ opponents, by not believing God’s truth embodied in Jesus, manifest a different origin from the one they claim (“Abraham is our father”). Verse 44 says it all: “You are from your father the devil.” This is an extremely dangerous text if taken out of context and has been used countless times as fuel for antisemitism.

The writer uses the word sperma for descendants and tekna for children, but fatherhood is only related to the second one. Yes, they have a father, but he is not Jesus’ Father. It is the devil, who is a liar in whom there is no truth. Truth can only be found in Jesus’ Father, and in Jesus. There is still another difference. Jesus has seen the Father’s presence (verse 38, eoraka), whereas the Pharisees are doing what they have heard (ekousate) from their father, the devil. Two different kinds of relationships. Jesus is a subject, the Pharisees only objects; they do what the devil wants them to do, he works through them, they have no autonomy. Therefore, despite the fact that they think they are Abraham’s children, and by extension, God’s children, and so they are free, they are not. They are slaves to sin, and to the Romans. That is why their proud affirmation in verses 33 about not being slaves of anyone is false and can only be explained as the author’s theological interpretation, not as historical facts. The Israelites had been enslaved by many powerful empires, including the present one, the Romans!

The Johannine writer skillfully weaves the dialogue in such a way as to provide Jesus with important clues for his final punch line in 8:58: “Before Abraham was, I am.” He talks about himself using the biblical way of referring to God: ego eimi. The immediate response from the Jews clearly shows that he is here making claims to divinity.

It is important to realize that the Gospel of John is a rhetorical fiction that attempts to convince the readers of the author’s understanding of a limited amount of Jesus’ works (see also verses 20:30-31; 21:25). When we do that, we avoid readings that are dogmatic, anachronistic and ethnocentric, the three no’s of any relevant and ethical interpretation. Placed in its first century context, in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, the document makes sense as the production of a minority community that believed it was being harassed by the religious authorities whom they call “the Jews.”


  1. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John. Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) vol. IX, 637.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

On this Reformation Sunday, we hear words of promise from the prophet Jeremiah, words about a new covenant and a renewed relationship between God and God’s people.1

The words are addressed to a people in exile, far from home and bereft of hope. The covenant between God and Israel, the covenant made so long ago at Sinai, is (or seems to be) broken. God has not protected Israel from harm and they have been taken into exile.

Into such a situation, the prophet speaks words of promise. But he frames those promises in terms of the very relationship in question. The prophet speaks of a covenant—like the one made at Sinai—between YHWH2 and Israel. “The days are surely coming, says YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31).

There is both continuity and discontinuity with what has come before. The continuity lies in the character of God and the love God continues to have for a wayward people. God will not abandon Israel forever. God will not forget God’s promises made so long ago at Sinai:

“I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God” (Exodus 29:45; cf. Exodus 6:7).

“And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12).

Just so, in this new covenant, God promises, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). The relationship is not new. Israel knows this God, and God knows this people. The promises Jeremiah speaks build on a long and shared history between YHWH and Israel, a history marked by wavering on the part of the people and by faithfulness on the part of YHWH. God continues to love this wayward people; they continue to be God’s treasured possession. In this new covenant there is indeed continuity with what has come before.

The discontinuity is, of course, implied with the term, “new.” This is a new covenant with Israel, not like the covenant at Sinai, “a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says YHWH” (Jeremiah 31:32). Still, what is new about this covenant is not so much its content, but the means by which God will bring it about.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says YHWH: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know YHWH,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says YHWH; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

The old covenant, written on stone tablets and scrolls, will be replaced by the new covenant, written on flesh. The first set of stone tablets was broken (Exodus 32:19), the second set written again (Exodus 34:1) and hidden away in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:5). The book of the law, containing the stipulations of the covenant, likewise was stored beside the Ark (Deuteronomy 31:24-26) and mostly forgotten until it was rediscovered in the reign of King Josiah (2 Kings 22), in the early days of Jeremiah’s prophetic career.

Unlike the old covenant, then, written on stone tablets that can be broken and scrolls that can be lost, the new covenant will be written within the people, on their very hearts. No need for remedial religious education, because everyone will know YHWH, from the king to the stable boy, from the oldest elder to the youngest child.

And it will all be YHWH’s doing. “I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sin no more.” The people have not demonstrated a great aptitude for faithfulness during the many years of the old covenant, so this time YHWH will do it differently. This time, the covenant relies solely on YHWH’s mercy, YHWH’s ever-present grace in forgiving a disobedient people and calling them back into relationship with him.

The themes of a new (or renewed) covenant and of God’s overwhelming grace are, of course, fitting for a celebration of Reformation Day. Martin Luther did not believe that he had discovered something radically new in Scripture when he found there the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. He rediscovered a treasure that the church of his day had largely lost. The movement he began was as much a restoration as a reformation—the rediscovery of God’s abundant grace in the new covenant established in and through Jesus Christ. Luther was restoring the church to a right understanding of that covenant.

There is, then, in Luther’s theology a deep continuity with what had come before. Luther knew that God’s nature does not change. God was, is, and will continue to be a God of great mercy, forgiveness, and love for a wayward people. It is that people’s (the church’s) understanding of God’s nature that had become clouded in Luther’s day. Like Jeremiah, then, Luther called the people of his day to a new understanding of God and a renewed emphasis on God’s grace and God’s abiding love even for a sinful people.

And it is all God’s doing. In and through Jesus Christ, the God of Jeremiah continues to forgive, renew, reform, and call God’s people into right relationship with him and with one another. God is faithful, even when we are not. That is the good news that both Jeremiah and Luther proclaimed, and it is news that can and should be celebrated on this Reformation Sunday, preferably with trumpets and always with great joy.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 30, 2011.
  2. I do not vocalize the divine name out of respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters, who do not traditionally speak that most holy name out loud.


Commentary on Psalm 46

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 46 is a community hymn that is more specifically classified as a “Song of Zion.”1

While it never specifically mentions the city of Jerusalem or Zion, its content and structure suggest that it may have been sung liturgically by the community of Israelites as a confirmation that God was enthroned in Jerusalem/Zion and would protect the city and the people from all threats. Zion theology did not intend to confine God to Zion, but it viewed Zion as God’s special place. In Psalm 46 and in other “Songs of Zion” (see Psalms 48, 76, and 87), “the city of God” is symbolic of God’s presence.

The psalm consists of three sections: verses 1-3; verses 4-7; and verses 8-11. The second and third sections each end with the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge (verses 7 and 11, NRSV).” The first section is missing the refrain, and because of the very well-formed structure of the psalm some scholars suggest inserting the refrain at the end of verse 3. The omitted refrain may be a rhetorical device, though, that moves the reader/hearer from the opening verses of the psalm into the heart of the psalm’s message in verses 4-5: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.”

The focus of verses 1-3 is God. In verse 1, the psalm singer characterizes God as a “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” God as “refuge” (mahseh) is a common designation for God in the Psalter, occurring twelve times (see, for example, Psalms 14:6; 62:9; and 94:22) and best understood as a physical place of safety. It is often paired with “strength” (‘oz, see Psalms 61:4 and 71:7 and especially Isaiah 25:4). Verses 2-3 provides assurance that there is no need to fear even if, as the Common English Bible says, “the world falls apart.” The shaking and trembling of the mountains most likely depicts an earthquake, a common but unsettling phenomenon for the inhabitants of ancient Syria and Palestine. Water, described as roaring and foaming, is a common metaphor for chaos in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.

The scene changes in verses 4-7, focusing on “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” The roaring and foaming waters of verse 3 are transformed in verse 4 to a river whose streams make the city of God glad. God dwells in the midst of the city, and the shaking and the trembling of the mountains have ceased. Even though the nations are in an uproar and kingdoms totter, God utters his voice and the earth melts. All of the geographic elements (the earth, mountains, and waters) and two of the verbs (mot—translated as “”shake” in verse 2, “move” in verse 5, and “totter” in verse 6 and hamah—translated as “roar” in verse 3 and “uproar” in verse 6) used in verses 1-3 are present in verses 4-7, but in the latter verses, the chaotic elements have been transformed to peaceful symbols of the presence of God.

The water imagery used in Psalm 46 may be compared with that used in Psalm 42. In Psalm 42, the singer begins with calm images of water—flowing streams of water and tears in verses 1-3—and moves to chaotic images—thundering cataracts, waves, and billows in verses 7-8. In Psalm 46, in contrast, the imagery moves in the opposite direction, from chaos—mountains shaking in the heart of the seas and roaring and foaming waters—to calm—a river with streams. In each instance, the presence of God signals calm and order, while God’s absence or distance from the psalmist elicits images of chaos.

The second section of Psalm 46 ends with the refrain in verse 7, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (verse 7). The phrase “the Lord of hosts” (yhwh seba’ot) occurs some 285 times in the Hebrew Bible, but only fifteen times in the Psalter (see, for instance, Psalms 24:10; 59:5; 80:7; and 89:8). “Hosts” is a word often connected with military undertakings, in both the human and cosmic realms. Many commentators understand the phrase “the LORD of hosts” as descriptive of the God who commands the heavenly army; others view it as an epithet for the God who rules over a heavenly council (see Job 1:6). Whatever its meaning, the phrase “LORD of hosts” most likely has its origin in the cultic life of Jerusalem, and refers to the God who sits enthroned upon the cherubim in the inner sanctuary of the temple.

The final section of Psalm 46, verses 8-11, is a call “Come, behold the works of the Lord’” (verse 8). The God who instills trust in the midst of the fear of earthquakes, floods, and a changing earth and who sits enthroned in the city of God will also cause wars to cease by breaking bows, shattering spears, and burning shields with fire. The words of the second half of verse 8—“see what desolations (sammah) he has brought on the earth”—are disturbing at first glance. One commentator writes, “The ‘desolations’ that God brings, in contrast to human efforts, involve the cessation of war and the destruction of all human implements of destruction.”2 The image of God as warrior provided the ancient Israelites with a powerful picture of protection and defense in the midst of the chaos of the natural and political world in which they lived.

Verse 10 issues a simple imperative: “Be still and know that I am God.” In the midst of the changing earth, the shaking and trembling mountains, and the roaring and foaming waters of the world in which we live, to heed the words of verse 10 is difficult. In the midst of campus shootings, houses of worship targeted for hate, the exploitation of the weak by those in power, the unimaginable neglect of the most vulnerable of our populations, sometimes we need to “Be still” and know that God is still there, in Zion, with “a river whose streams make the city glad.” Be still for a while, regain confidence in the goodness of God and then move back into the world to do what we can to stop the change, the shaking and trembling, and the roaring and foaming.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 27, 2019. Incidentally, Psalm 46 was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Luther wrote both the words and the music sometime between 1527 and 1529.
  2. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 866.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Richard Ascough

This text for Reformation Sunday is at the core of Protestant soteriology, yet it is part of a much longer argument in Romans whereby Paul outlines how salvation that comes through faith (1:16-17) is grounded in God’s response to the human condition, which sees all people in a state of sinfulness (1:18 – 3:31). It is clear in the early chapters of Romans that because of humanity’s refusal to recognize God in creation and its propensity for evil, everyone will stand condemned before God, since God judges each person according to his or her works (2:6-11). 

Today’s lectionary reading includes two verses that form the conclusion of the preceding rhetorical section in which Paul summarizes the accountability humans face before God because of their failure to keep the Mosaic law (verses 19-20). Paul is addressing Judeans who might think of themselves as exempt from God’s judgment. They are legally accountable before God since they have not met the requirements of the Mosaic law. Paul deploys a scriptural proof to this effect: “no human being will be justified in his sight” (verse 20 referencing Psalm 143:2, Septuagint 142:2). Gentiles, on the other hand, never had a chance as they are outside Mosaic law, so they too are legally accountable before God. Thus, the entire world is “under judgment” (hypodikos, a legal term in verse 19b). 

In the following verses, Paul takes on the Mosaic law directly, but it is critical to recall that he is not judging Judeans independently, although he recognizes their special status “under the law.” The law is inadequate not because the rules are broken but because there is no way to please God based solely on behavior. Whether sinning under the law (Judeans) or outside the law (Gentiles), all will be judged because, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (verse 23). The claim that “all have sinned” underscores there being no differentiation in Paul’s mind between Judeans and non-Judeans. This is a radical departure from the Jewish emphasis on the Mosaic law setting apart the Judeans as a people specially chosen by God, a position that Paul himself seems to have held until he revoked it upon his encounter with Christ (see also Philippians 3:4-11). 

Despite this condemnation, God’s righteousness has been “manifested apart from the law” through faith in/of Jesus Christ for all who believe (3:21-22). Those who believe are justified by the gift of grace, through redemption in Christ whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood (3:24-25). This justification occurs apart from the Mosaic law (3:28).

These verses are some of the most theologically dense in Paul’s writings and have led to much scholarly explication. One of the key issues focuses on grammar: what to make of the genitive construct in the Greek clause dia pisteos Iesou Christou, since this is the basis of the “righteousness of God” (verse 22). The Greek construction could be translated “through faith in Christ” (so New Revised Standard Version) or “through the faith/faithfulness (obedience”) of Christ.” There is a critical operational difference here in terms of soteriology. In the first instance, a person puts their faith in Christ so as to ensure their own salvation, grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Certainly this is the more traditional way of understanding this verse, and yet the action of “having” faith could itself be understood as a “work,” that is, action beginning with the person in order to effect salvation. In the second understanding—“through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”—the emphasis remains on salvation being effected outside of human will and action. It is the Christ event, Jesus’ willingness to undergo death and resurrection, that has brought about the necessary reconciliation between God and humans. This is a theological conundrum that cannot be solved grammatically. Yet, for the sake of the faithful, Paul’s overall point about the inability of all humans to find salvation directly through Christ and not through following rules, Mosaic law or otherwise, should not be lost in attempts to explain how this might be imagined as taking place. 

In verses 21-26 the character of God’s “righteousness” (dikaiosynē) is manifest outside of Mosaic law even though it is attested in the scripture (“the law and the prophets,” verse 21). This happens in three ways:

  • through the faith in/of Jesus (verse 22)
  • through God’s tolerance in overlooking sins committed (verse 25)
  • through God making just those who believe in Jesus (verse 26)

Inserted into these demonstrations, the emphasis in verses 24-25 centers on the restoration of the relationship between God and humanity with key words: justification; redemption; sacrifice; atonement. Expounding any of this legal terminology could be a sermon in and of itself. It starts in verse 19 when Paul declares that the world will be “accountable” or “under judgment” (hypodikos), a conviction that is overturned through being declared “not guilty” (dikaiosynē, “justified,” verse 24), liberated as if from slavery or a prison (apolytrōsis, “redeemed,” verse 24b), and no longer responsible through a “sacrifice of atonement.” There’s just a single word behind the translation “sacrifice of atonement”—hilastērion—which has created much theological head-scratching through the centuries. It is not clear whether Paul means that Christ’s death placates God’s wrath or whether his death removes the cause of the wrath from humanity. Either way, Christ’s death is effective, but how the metaphor works remains a mystery, although clearly for Paul it is a gift—“grace” (verse 24)—that restores this relationship. 

Overall, Paul here seems to be deploying substitutionary theology, and one cannot help but think of the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18). In the case of Jesus, however, the son who is not spared yet is at the same time the substitute for those whom God’s justice would require be sacrificed themselves. This, for Paul, is humbling (verses 27-28), for the salvation that believers claim is none of their own doing. 

Reformers such as Martin Luther saw in texts such as this one Paul’s repudiation of legalism, a consequence of which was a denigration of Jews who were seen to bear the brunt of Paul’s negative rhetoric. Such interpretations miss just how thoroughly Jewish is both the structure and argument of the passage (here and elsewhere in Romans) as Paul works out his theology using Jewish Christian forensic terms. Paul is trying to make sense of his experience of the Christ event—Jesus’ death and the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection—as filtered through his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish theology.