Lectionary Commentaries for November 12, 2023
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13

Susan Hylen

The expectation of Christ’s return is central to Christian living.¹

Although many Christians today consign talk of the Last Day to the realm of eccentric individuals with cult-like followings, the message of this passage suggests otherwise. The lives of Jesus’ disciples are to be shaped by knowledge of his return.

Like the other Gospels, Matthew is clear that the timing of Christ’s return is unknown. Although Jesus speaks of signs of the end time (Matthew 24:3-35), he goes on to say that no one but God knows the day or hour of its arrival (Matthew 24:36; see also Mark 13:1-37). In this sense, the Gospel’s view differs strongly from that of modern sages who claim to predict Christ’s second coming. Matthew states clearly, “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).

The unknown timing of the Son’s return makes readiness essential. The parable of the ten bridesmaids is sandwiched between two passages that emphasize preparation for the master’s return. The prior passage, Matthew 24:45-51, contrasts the “faithful and wise slave” who is at work when his master comes (Matthew 24:45-46) with the self-indulgent slave who mistreats others and is surprised by the master’s return Matthew (24:48-50). The passage that follows this one, Matthew 25:14-30, is a parable in which the master entrusts his property to his slaves and expects their diligent investment of it. Both parables emphasize the actions of the slaves in the absence of the master. Their faithfulness is known through what they do when he is away.

The bridesmaids parable also points to the importance of readiness. Its last verse, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” points readers toward a message of watchfulness. It suggests that the foolish bridesmaids were not sufficiently prepared.

However, the point of the parable is not constant readiness. “Keep awake” does not imply that the disciples should never sleep, standing vigil through the ages for Christ’s imminent return. In fact, all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the shout announces the groom’s approach.

What is distinctive about this parable is its focus on the delayed return of the expected one. The passage does not simply call for right action in the groom’s absence. It calls for recognition that he may be delayed.

In this parable alone, the wise or prudent disciple is the one who prepares not only for the groom’s return, but also for his delay. If the groom was coming quickly there would be nothing wrong with taking one’s lamp full of oil to meet him. But the wise disciple packs a supply of oil, knowing that her wait may be unpredictable.

It is difficult for many of today’s disciples to be anything like the bridesmaids, wise or foolish, because we have stopped waiting. We give little thought to Christ’s return, let alone what we should do to prepare for it. If we were to contemplate ourselves in relation to the end time, it might be easier to imagine ourselves as the slaves who work diligently while the master is away than as the bridesmaids whose primary job is to await the groom’s return. This is not necessarily something for which modern Christians should be chastised—after the passage of two millennia, we have grown accustomed to the master’s absence. It’s a long time to wait expectantly. Nevertheless, there may be something we can gain from the parable’s perspective.

The parable asks us to imagine ourselves as those who wait for the groom’s return. When the groom comes, the wedding feast may begin! The age-old promise of the marriage between God and Israel (for example in Hosea 2:16) will come to pass. Speaking as one who has already realized the promises, the prophet Isaiah writes, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:10-11). The prophet sees a restored Israel, where human unfaithfulness has faded away, and is replaced by righteousness and praise.

This is the wedding the bridesmaids await. Another voice proclaims the promise this way: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). The bridesmaids await not only the groom but the removal of pain and suffering. The wedding feast initiates the reign of God’s justice and mercy, the realization of all the hopes of Israel.

To act as wise bridesmaids is to affirm our faith in the coming Christ. Doing so shows our trust that God is a God of justice and mercy. The eschaton encapsulates the ideals of God’s reign. It is the vision against which we judge our efforts in the meantime to live according to God’s principles. It is a vision of God’s ultimate justice and righteousness without which our world appears very bleak.

The wise bridesmaids keep the vision of Christ’s return, and all that it stands for, alive through their faithful waiting in the midst of delay. By preparing for the day, the timing of which no one knows but God, they proclaim that God’s promises are true. They act out their hope for that day when God will establish justice and righteousness and peace.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on November 12, 2017.

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 5:18-24

Carolyn J. Sharp

A brilliant ironist, Amos reverses his audience’s expectations at every turn in the book that bears his name.¹

The prophet shows the cherished traditions of Israel to be not causes for complacency but measures of Israel’s accountability to God. Here, Amos offers a potent challenge to his audience by ironizing three apparently disparate ideas: the Day of the LORD, cultic worship, and justice. Amos mocks his audience’s misguided hopes, rejects their liturgical expressions of faithfulness, and proclaims the terrifying advent of God’s own justice and righteousness.

Amos is the earliest biblical prophet to refer to the Day of the LORD. Later references, such as Ezekiel 30:1-4, Joel 2:1-2, and Zephaniah 1:14-18, make clear that the Day of the LORD is an eschatological time when God will punish the earth: “in the fire of His passion, the whole earth shall be consumed, for a full, a terrible end He will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (Zephaniah 1:18). Amos deplores the fact that his people seem to be rejoicing in the prospect of the Day of the LORD. This will be a day of darkness and destruction, not just for Israel’s enemies but for Israel itself. God will hold Israel accountable for sin along with the foreign nations. This echoes the stunning ironic move that we see in Amos 1-2. There the prophet invites his audience’s assent to stirring oracles of doom against foreign nations, only to entrap them by having Judah and Israel appear unexpectedly as the last “foreign nations” in the series (2:4-8).

Perhaps the people’s ritual offerings and sacrifices can save them. No, replies the God of Amos, and turns on the cult with ferocious anger. Amos 5:21-24 (“I hate, I despise your festivals…”) is one of the best-known passages in the prophetic corpus. It has been misused by Christians to argue the superiority of prophetic ethics over Judaism’s “legalistic” ritual practice. Such a polarizing view of ethics and ritual betrays a profound misunderstanding of the deep connection in ancient Israel between liturgy and justice.

The “festivals and solemn assemblies” of Israel’s worship articulate formative truths about who God has been to Israel. Their faithful observance is commanded by God (Exodus 23:14-17, Leviticus 23, Deuteronomy 16). The festival of Passover commemorates God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In the annual retelling of the old story, Israel teaches new generations about the joy of God’s redemption. The story is a source of blessed memory that offers hope to believers in current tribulations. The festival of Tabernacles celebrates the communal resilience that Israel showed in its forty-year pilgrimage through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Having once survived on manna and miraculous water from a rock, Israel is reminded that reliance on God and hospitality to the sojourner are essential for its ongoing spiritual journey. Other festivals celebrate the offering of the first fruits of the harvest and mature grain to God, showing Israel’s gratitude for God’s abundant gifts. Another festival crucially important to the Israelite cultural imagination is the Day of Atonement. This annual fast emphasizes awareness of sin in the Israelite community, promoting self-denial as an expression of the community’s earnest desire to “be clean before the LORD” (Leviticus 16:30).

Through these powerful rituals, a chastened and renewed Israel may approach the Holy One. But the God of Amos thunders that these observances are despicable. Neither does God find acceptable the daily and weekly offerings that sanctify Israel’s living as a holy people. Even songs of praise offend God. Why? Because God stands with the poor, and those who do not show compassion to the poor cannot possibly be worshiping God.

Israel cannot prosper through ritual offerings, feasts, and fasts alone. Israel must “seek God and live” (5:4, 6), and the God whom they seek is an uncompromising God of justice (5:14-15). The famous line, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24) is not a rousing call to believers to do good deeds. It is a roar of outrage. Because of the hypocrisy of the community of faith, God’s own justice will roll down like floodwaters, and God’s own righteousness like a perpetual torrent! “Ever-flowing stream” is far too gentle an image for the meaning of the Hebrew here. Amos’s point is this: because God’s people have not shown justice to the poor, God has no choice but to unleash God’s own justice and righteousness as punishment.

Israel has always known that ritual observance and compassion for the powerless should not be separated. The Holiness Code is quite clear about this (see Leviticus 19). God has formed Israel to be both holy and merciful. What God condemns, then, is ritualism without heart. Here it may be productive to reflect with your congregation on the particular kinds of ritualism that plague your own tradition. Worshippers who place a high premium on the preached word may be prone to idolize a charismatic preacher. The congregation that revels in the beauty of liturgy may become too focused on aesthetics and sacramentalism. What are the temptations for your own church?

Amos 5 offers the preacher a wonderful opportunity to articulate the relationship between worship and justice. How do we connect our hope for the eschatological future in Christ, our worship practices, and our ministry with the poor? Perhaps your congregation has a strong tradition of outreach but doesn’t relate that outreach to Eucharistic fellowship. Perhaps your parishioners enjoy transcendent worship on Sunday, but their ministry in the wider community is only sporadic and peripheral to the identity of the church. Your lay leader who mutters, “The church is not a social service agency,” your overly officious head acolyte, and your outreach volunteer who skips Sunday worship all need help integrating holiness and justice. Amos invites us to offer our lives and ministries as radical incarnational testimony both at the altar and in the public square. Dare your congregation to take that invitation seriously!


  1. Commentary first published on this site on November 9, 2008.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Bryan J. Whitfield

The book of Joshua concludes with two final speeches (23:1-16; 24:1-24). The second takes place at Shechem, where God had first appeared to Abram in Canaan to reaffirm the promise of land (Genesis 12:7). There Abram built an altar, as did his grandson Jacob (Genesis 33:20), who buried the foreign gods of his household under the sacred tree (Genesis 35:2-4). Joshua had also built an altar at Shechem and had read the words of the instruction scroll of Moses, leading the people to renew the covenant (8:30-35).

Joshua now calls the people to return to this ancient place of worship to renew their covenant with the Lord once more. He first reports God’s words, recounting all the Lord’s gracious deeds, from the ancestral period (24:2-4) to the escape from Egyptian oppression (24:5-7) and the occupation of the land (24:8-13). Here, as throughout scripture, the covenant always rests on grace, on what God has already done. The indicative grounds the imperative: God’s prior action precedes any human activity. For the Israelites and for us, the good news of God’s delivering and sustaining love comes first, calling forth our response.

The Israelites are to reverence and serve the Lord, putting away foreign gods, just as their ancestor Jacob had done (Genesis 35:2-4). In a series of exchanges with the people, Joshua sharpens their choice: if they do not consider it best to serve the Lord, they must resolve to follow other gods (24:14-15). Those gods might be ones their ancestors served when they lived east of the Euphrates, “in the region beyond the River” (24:15), or the gods of the Amorites. But Joshua’s own choice is clear: he and his household will serve the Lord.

The people immediately pledge to serve the Lord and affirm the central confession of the Great Commandment, the Shema, repeating “The Lord is our God” (Deuteronomy 6:4), an affirmation that frames their response (24:17-18). They summarize what the Lord has said (24:2-13): the Lord brought them and their ancestors out of Egypt, protected them, and gave them the land (24:16-18). They will join Joshua and his household and serve the Lord.

But Joshua does not readily accept this initial pledge: the stakes are higher than a quick response can satisfy. The ritualized exchanges that follow heighten the gravity of the people’s choice and deepen their commitment. First, Joshua warns the people, focusing their attention on the character of the Lord whom they are promising to serve. Their experience of God as the Gracious One does not exhaust God’s character, for the Lord is also “a holy God” (24:19). As such, the Lord is set apart, different, unlike human beings or the gods of Mesopotamia or Egypt. Those gods may appear superhuman, but in the end, they are projections of human ideals of beauty and strength. They are part of a polytheistic system, dividing the world among them, and so they remain partial and competing centers of influence. The Lord who has redeemed Israel is not the same. 

As a holy God, the Lord is also the Jealous One who passionately demands an unstinting loyalty, a steadfast devotion unmixed with other commitments. The covenant loyalty for which the Lord calls is absolute, admitting no competition. Israel’s choice is “either/or,” not “both/and.”

Despite Joshua’s warning, the people are not dissuaded. They respond a second time, emphasizing their resolve: “No, we will serve the Lord!” (24:21). Joshua then calls them as witnesses against themselves (24:22), a role the people willingly take up, reinforcing their commitment. In a final word of address, Joshua commands them to put away foreign gods, and for a third time the people pledge to serve the Lord (24:23-24). As a result, Joshua makes a covenant, writes the words in the book of the law, and sets up a memorial stone (24:25-27).

The experiences of the Israelites at Shechem may appear remote from ours. We do not gather by tribes for formal ceremonies. We do not shape our contracts on the patterns of ancient compacts between Hittite kings and their subjects. Yet we too are a people of choices, commitments, and covenants. We too must choose a focus that grounds our living. Too often we make that choice by default, without clear intention or reflection, but we make it nonetheless. Joshua’s words make that choice explicit, raising it to a level of conscious deliberation. What choices and commitments will shape our identities, our communities, and our destinies?

We may choose to center our lives on the power of the past, on family tradition or ancestral piety, longing for what once was. We may choose to shape our lives around the values of the prevailing consumer culture, trimming our horizons to the demands of market forces. Both choices ensnare us in the power of sin and death.

Or we may choose an identity not based on nostalgia or cultural accommodation but on the grace of a God of liberating love who leads us into a new era of freedom for life in community in a land of promise. The choice, as Joshua reminds us, is ours. 

Yet we must make a choice, not once for all time, but again and again. Like the ancient Israelites, we need times and places that remind us of the gracious acts of God and call us back to our confession. We need hours of decision when we stake our lives anew on what matters most as we renew our promise to love and serve the Lord. 

Effective preaching on this text will take its part as a service of worship that makes such a response possible. Preachers may easily find and develop resources for services of covenant renewal. The covenant service of John Wesley provides one example. So do services in the free church tradition where members covenant together and form congregations. Covenant and covenant renewal also lie at the heart of the celebration of baptism and communion that narrate the wonder of God’s grace that calls forth our response.


Commentary on Psalm 70

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

Psalm 70 is a prayer from an individual, almost a kind of sigh from this person of faith who seeks divine protection, perhaps manifested in the sanctuary.¹

The speaker is among those who consider themselves to be deeply devoted servants of God. Some would place the psalm among prayers from the post-exilic Israelite communities, but the prayer is difficult to date. The psalm is framed with repetitions in its first and last verses, phrases that speak of the urgent need for God’s help.

Psalm 70 also occurs with minor variations in Psalm 40:13-17. The verses come at the end of a psalm of thanksgiving in the first occurrence and stand alone as a prayer for help in Psalm 70. The repetition of the texts at different points in the Psalter shows that the prayers are adaptable for life. One of the variations between the texts is that the use of the divine name in Psalm 70:1, 4 is Elohim (“God”) while Psalm 40 uses YHWH (“Lord”) in the corresponding verses.

Psalm 70 is part of the Elohistic Psalter (Psalms 42-83) that prefers the use of the more generic term for the divine name. This collection begins with Book II of the Hebrew Psalter (Psalms 42-72) and continues into the third book with the Korahite and Asaphite collections. Overlapping collections as well as the repetition of psalms in different contexts reflects the editorial process by which the Psalter came into being. Psalm 70 is also closely related to Psalm 71, a psalm without a superscription. The connections are both verbal and thematic.

Perhaps the scribes who edited the Hebrew Psalter intended Psalms 70 and 71 to be read together, with Psalm 70 introducing the more extensive prayer that follows. The superscription to Psalm 70 ties the text to the Davidic hymnbook and gives instructions for use in worship. It includes a term the NRSV translates “for the memorial offering.” The psalm could be used along with the memorial portion of the sacrifice referred to in Leviticus 2; 5:11-13. Another possibility is that the term means “to cause to remember” as a way of characterizing the prayer as one that will bring God to remember to act as the covenant God who comes to deliver.

The prayer opens with a brief and urgent plea for God to deliver the petitioner and moves quickly to the enemies. The plea is that the opponents (those “who seek my life” and “desire to hurt me”) will experience the shame they desire for the petitioner. The prayer is for a divine act of justice, a reversal of fortunes in which the enemies’ evil intent will rebound upon their own heads: “Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor” (verse 2).

The prayer focuses on language of shame and dishonor as the humiliation the opponents seek for the petitioner. The speaker, in contrast, seeks to be counted among the faithful who are delivered and blessed by God and who enjoy fellowship with the community of faith. The basis of the prayer is the presence of two identifiable groups, the righteous and the wicked. The petitioner fervently asks to be included among the righteous whom God delivers.

The psalm’s last two verses focus upon the righteous, those who seek God. Those faithful to God will rejoice and praise God who is the great covenant God who comes to deliver. Such an encounter with God’s powerful salvation comes in the midst of life and need and determines a future of life or death. The psalm’s conclusion makes it clear that the outcome is completely dependent upon God. The plea is that God will deliver and that right early because the petitioner is poor and needy. The speaker is really reduced to this urgent plea as one in poverty and need pleading with the one who can make the difference and bring salvation and deliverance from the enemies. The brief prayer is an urgent plea for God’s help.

But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!

You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay! (verse 5)

Psalm 70 is a brief paradigm of an individual lament. God initiated a covenant relationship with ancient Israel, and the community nourishes the historical memory of God as the covenant God who comes to deliver. The petitioner in Psalm 70 is not enjoying the covenant blessings because of oppressive opponents. So the psalm’s language constitutes a covenant interchange; the petitioner prays that God will come to deliver and do so before it is too late and the enemies destroy the righteous.

The petition is that God will bring the covenant to reality for this petitioner who is both faithful and needy. The plea is for God to act as the covenant God of the faith tradition. The prayer is a covenant interaction with pastoral implications, and the context is trust that God will come and hear and respond, will embrace the petitioner’s pain and deliver.

The psalm is a brief but powerful plea as the offering of all the speaker has — a prayer. The speaker is in need and cannot bring salvation by way of self-help, but the covenant God can bring newness of life. The offering of an honest prayer in great need is a powerful thing. The psalm reminds hearers and readers that the living God who hear prayers for help still listens today.


Commentary first published on this site on November 9, 2014.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Kristofer Phan Coffman

There’s an important detail about 1 Thessalonians that every reader should keep in mind and it’s so important that I will repeat it at the beginning of each of my commentaries: 1 Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament. It is the first of the letters of Paul, written before any of his other letters and even before the Gospels. This letter gives us a glimpse into the concerns of one of the first communities outside of Syria-Palestine to receive the good news of Jesus Christ. It is an under-appreciated treasure.

As noted in the commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Paul does not write alone. This letter is not Paul’s personal opinion, but an expression of communal faith. In addition, Paul and his companions wrote their letters to address specific issues in the communities that they founded. In this pericope, the three authors (Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy) speak to a concern that the Thessalonians had regarding the believers in their community who had died. Put simply, they worry that dead believers will not get to share in the glory of Jesus’ second coming.  

The Thessalonians’ worry is the result of a problem faced by missionaries across the world, in other words, the tension between existing cultural categories and the message that the missionaries wish to get across. In this case, the Thessalonians seem to be operating under traditional Greek religious conceptions (the city of Thessaloniki is in modern day Greece). For many ancient Greeks, the dead were thought of as doomed to separation from the living in the underworld. They were shades of their former selves without thoughts or feelings. This separation from the living was not a punishment, but it was permanent. Though Greek myth contained stories of people who attempted to cheat this fate (for example Orpheus and Eurydice, Sisyphus), the conclusion of all of the stories was that it could not be avoided.

Put in conversation with Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy’s preaching about Jesus, the Thessalonians’ preexisting beliefs cause them headaches. They look forward to Jesus’ triumphant return, but many of them are grieving because they believe that death has permanently separated them from their loved ones. These are the people whom the senders of the letter describe as having no hope.

The trio then begin their work of introducing a new way of thinking about death to the Thessalonians. Their new way begins with their bedrock belief: Jesus died and rose again (4:14). Right away, this strikes at the heart of the Thessalonians’ understanding of death. Unlike Greek heroes, Jesus was not held down by the power of death. Unlike the Greek underworld, death has no permanence for those who die in Christ. Death and the world, though they seem eternal, will one day pass away.

Though the Thessalonians’ concern was specific to their culture and time, the issue of the resurrection of the dead pops up throughout history. Each time that it pops up, it reveals how a particular culture relates to what the first letter to the Corinthians called “the foolishness of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Put simply, people continually show discomfort at the idea that Jesus, God incarnate, died on the cross. 

In the early church, this discomfort showed up in a movement called Docetism. The Docetists were concerned with guarding the divinity of Christ. If Jesus was God, they argued, he could not die, thus he only seemed to die (the name docetism comes from the Greek word for “seems”). But the Docetists ran into a problem: all humans die, and if Jesus did not die, then he could not be a real human. In opposition to this stance, the Apostles Creed was formulated. Following the faith of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, this creed confesses that Jesus Christ “was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried. He descended to the dead.” The Apostles Creed shouts out: Jesus was a human, Jesus died, and don’t you forget it! 

The focus on Jesus’ death emerges out of a pastoral focus. After all, if Jesus does not die, then the resurrection is simply a magic show. And if Jesus does not die and rise again, then we continue to be held in the permanent grasp of death.

This discomfort with Jesus’ death and resurrection shows up in other places in history. The Quran makes the claim that Jesus only seemed to die; some branches of modern Christianity emphasize Jesus’ teachings to the point that his death and resurrection become mere footnotes to their theology. In each case, denying or deemphasizing Jesus’ death and resurrection leaves Christians in the same place as the Thessalonians: hopeless.

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy ground their faith in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection because they are fighting for hope. In the face of a cruel and desperate world, they preach the foolishness of the cross and proclaim that there is hope, even for those who have died. This Gospel goes out to all of those whose loved ones have died before their hope is fulfilled. It is a word meant for those who have lost children and siblings and spouses and even, elderly parents.  

God has not forgotten those who came before us. God has not abandoned them. God will raise them up and we will see them again. This is the scandal of the Gospel and the foolish hope that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy preach to the Thessalonians and it rings true two millenia later. As Jesus reminds his accusers in the Gospel of Mark, God is God of the living, not the dead (Mark 12:27). Life has the permanence that death only seems to hold. As the trio write to the Thessalonians, “Therefore encourage one another with these words!” (4:18).