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This Week's Commentary
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 7, 2014Exodus 12.1-14 | Psalm 149 | Romans 13.8-14 | Matthew 18.15-20 | Ezekiel 33.7-11 | Psalm 119.33-40
Unless otherwise noted, the biblical quotations are from the NRSV.
In your preparation for preaching on today’s readings, you might consider their different approaches and solutions to sin.
The Exodus reading and today’s psalm focus on God’s liberation of those who have been sinned against, and God’s fierce judgment against those who sin against others that leaves no room for repentance.
In the alternative Ezekiel reading, God’s threat of a death sentence as a motivation to repent is what God calls prophets to announce.
According to today’s alternative psalm, learning and obeying God’s commandments and fearing God will keep you from sin and lead to life.
In today’s Romans reading, Paul’s solution to sin is to “love one another” and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” which actually are the same thing, because Jesus Christ, in his faithfulness in life even to the point of death, fulfilled the law, which is summed up by the saying “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Today’s Gospel in Matthew outlines a community process that gives a “brother or sister who has sinned” an opportunity to repent, either in private or in front of the community, before the community bans them from participating in the community’s life.
In addition, you might consider how Rom 13.8-14, with its emphasis on loving one another through transformative union with “the Lord Jesus Christ,” might creatively interact with the other readings.
Why do we have the Passover text at this time of year? For Jews, Passover is not a movable festival! Christians, however, have appropriated the Passover narrative not only for Holy Week, but also for the Lord’s Supper, celebrated in many churches on the first Sunday of the month. In addition, a popular, mistaken assumption is that Passover is about God’s forgiveness of sinners. That would make it a fitting complement (or corrective!) to today’s Gospel. However, the Passover festival is not about forgiveness. The Passover lamb is not a sacrifice of atonement. It is the main course of a meal eaten in haste, under the extreme circumstances of escape from captivity as slaves in the Egyptian empire. The lamb’s blood is a sign on the houses of Hebrew slaves, signaling to God that they are not the objects of God’s fierce judgment. Apparently, God would not otherwise know which houses to destroy! God needed the Hebrew slaves to mark their houses, so that God would “pass over” them!
In other words, the Passover narrative is a reminder that God is a God who desires the liberation of victims of powerful empires. That theme has some resonance with Psalm 149. Tying it in with today’s Gospel reading is a challenge! Instead of complementing today’s Gospel, it seems to offer an alternative, anti-imperial, version of God’s rule in the world (“kingdom”).
It is too bad that this narrative conceives God’s desire for the liberation of Hebrew slaves as coming with the infliction of ten “plagues” on the Egyptians, the last of which is the slaughter of firstborn Egyptians and their livestock. Jesus’ birth narrative in Matthew similarly tells of God’s rescuing Jesus while allowing Herod to slaughter newborn Judeans. We should not tell these stories without challenging their barbaric visions of God! When we tell these stories, we need to make it clear that they do not warrant similar human actions. On the other hand, we can affirm the Passover narrative’s expression of God’s “preferential option” for the oppressed and of God’s strong judgment against the oppressive actions of powerful empires. No empire—ancient or modern, eastern or western—is beyond God’s fierce judgment, which sweeps all empires, in the end, into the waste heap of history, by excluding them from God’s vision for the future.
Ezekiel 33.7-11, the alternative reading, emphasizes God’s desire, not for punishment, but for the life that comes from repentance. The motivation for repentance is the threat a punitive death sentence. The threat of death is supposed to inspire the repentance that brings life. We might wish to focus on God’s desire for transformative repentance and, for example, the contrast between punitive and restorative justice as a biblical argument against the death penalty. However, the text focuses on God’s call to the prophet to be faithful and have courage to speak God’s warning to the people. It is a warning to those called to speak on behalf of God, but whose desire to play it safe, to please the congregation, and to be the beloved pastor makes them avoid difficult situations involving wrongdoing, which require speaking the truth with love.
This psalm mixes images of joyful worship in the temple and the violence of battle. Does the former sanctify the latter? That is an important question, because the psalm puts double-edged battle swords in the hands of those who sing “high praises to God.” Or, do the worship images undercut the potential literalism of the battle images? For example, as metaphors, the battle images signify God’s fierce judgment on “the nations,” their peoples, and their kings and elites. Nevertheless, the danger is that some people and nations will see in this psalm sanction for executing vengeance against one’s enemies. Another danger is that some people and nations will see in this psalm sanction for understanding one’s nation as specially favored by God among the world’s nations. Some of these themes connect this psalm and today’s Exodus reading.
Psalm 119.33-40, the alternative psalm, calls for a life-long commitment to living in conformity with God’s commandments. It is good to look to God for guidance! The danger, however, is that this psalm will reinforce our tendency to want to conform our lives to laws, and to craft one for every occasion, instead of conforming to a more fundamental life-orienting “fear of God”—that is, love, trust, and devotion toward God or, for Christians, clothing oneself in “the Lord Jesus Christ” (as in Rom 13.14).
See John B. Cobb, Jr., and David J. Lull, Romans, Chalice Commentaries for Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 172-75.
Preaching on this text might take up one or more of the following themes, corresponding to the sections of this passage:
Verses 8-10 establish the underlying principle of “the law”: namely, “love.” For good reasons, Paul does not call “love one another” and “love your neighbor as yourself” a “commandment” or “law.” For one thing, if these were formulations of a commandment or law, they would be just one more commandment or law alongside other commandments and laws. However, Paul, together with most if not all other Jews, believed that these sayings summed up the law and all its commandments. Paul selects some of the prohibitions in the so-called “Ten Commandments” to illustrate that their underlying principle is “love,” which does “no wrong to a neighbor.” Furthermore, “love” is not a commandment or law that must be obeyed, because “love” comes from the Spirit (Rom 5.5; 15.30; and Gal 5.22). Urging obedience to state laws requiring parents to care for their children is preferable to allowing potential neglect or abuse, but we would not call such obedience “love.” As mysterious as its divine source, the Spirit, “love” is beyond our control and often baffles our understanding! If commandments and laws serve loving one another, by all means obey them—not, however, as external requirements, but rather because in the concrete situation the Spirit’s urge to love your neighbor leads you in that direction. If there is an absolute here, it is the Spirit’s urge to love one another, not the specific ways that commandments and laws try to codify how we should love one another.
The term “neighbor” might tend to limit the application of this “love command.” For example, it might suggest that it applies only to members of “the household of faith” (Gal 6.10; compare “brothers and sisters” in today’s Gospel). The word “especially” in Gal 6.10 suggests that the Spirit urges us to love our “neighbors” beyond those in our communities of faith! A more extreme restriction would be to limit the “neighbor” to people more or less like us, whoever we are, or to citizens of our nation. In contrast to these tribalistic, nativistic limitations, we might point out that the term “neighbor” is sometimes equivalent to “human being.”
In addition, we might want to point out the limitations of “self-love” as the benchmark for loving others. “Self-love” does have its positive usefulness: for example, to do no harm (as in Rom 13.10). However, we can easily distort and abuse the idea of “self-love.” We are on more solid ground when we consider the love with which God loves everyone and, indeed, the whole creation: unconditionally and with grace. We might then consider the ways in which we might love others with the love with which God loves them. That is the love that the Spirit pours into our hearts (Rom 5.5). This is a “love divine, all loves excelling” (as in the Charles Wesley hymn). Loving God more fully through the “love of God” that the Spirit pours into our hearts would naturally lead to loving others more fully.
Verses 11-12a express the eschatological indicative underlying Paul’s general imperative at the end of this passage. “Wake up! Do you know what time it is?” Paul believed that “salvation is nearer to us now” than when he and his readers came to believe or to have faith, or first became faithful. Paul envisioned a time in the very near future when God would “save” the entire creation (Rom 8.18-23), and God would transform the dead and living “in the twinkling of an eye” when the final trumpet sounded (1 Cor 15.52). No such thing has happened—at least in observable history. However often we might “reset the clock,” it would not rescue Paul’s timetable. On the other hand, we might consider how Paul’s timetable is a metaphor for the immediacy of God’s saving action. Instead of waiting for a “sweet by and by,” we might consider how to take seriously the present moment in this life as the time when God offers “salvation”—healing from being sinned against, and God’s provision, through the Spirit, of transformative alternatives to ways we sin against God, the creation, and other people. Given the extent to which the current path set by nations, corporations, and financial institutions is leading us and our planet to economic and ecological catastrophe, preachers would do well to sound the warning, “Wake up! The time for seizing an alternative is now!”
Verses 12b-14 are Paul’s final, general exhortations. Paul contrasts living in the night honorably as in the day with ways of living dishonorably in the cover of the night. Notice again that Paul does not appeal to commandments or laws, but to “the armor of light.” That is the divine Spirit enlightening the human spirit, mind, and soul.
Paul thought that dishonorable ways of living came from sin dwelling in human “flesh.” That has led to the mistaken notion that Paul believed the “flesh” itself was evil and that human nature was “utterly depraved.” That mistaken view might be easier to grasp than his apocalyptic view of sin as a power that invaded the world and takes advantage of the weakness of the “flesh.” On the other hand, we know from experience that, although wealth and power are not in themselves evil, obscene wealth and power, whether in individual human beings or in empires, are evil powers embedded in our world to such an extent that we cannot escape their oppressive effects and their seductiveness. Lures to strive for wealth and power pervade our experience. “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Great Gatsby” are two films that depict the depth of the obscenities to which uncontrolled creation of wealth and power lead.
For Paul, the alternative to making “provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” is to “be clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ.” Whatever else that means, at the very least it involves making Jesus Christ, not the desires of the flesh, the “Lord” of one’s life. For Paul, that means, on the one hand, that Jesus Christ would replace the “lords and gods” that otherwise occupy the center of our lives. On the other hand, it means that love for God and God’s love for all creation, manifest in Jesus’ faithfulness even to the point of death, would become the organizing center of one’s life. Consistent with everything Paul has said in this passage—indeed, in the entire letter to the Romans—Paul’s solution to sin is not obedience to a commandment or law but encouragement to be so united with a person, Jesus Christ, that he and his faithfulness form the very core of one’s being.
Preaching on this text could simply focus on one or more of its themes. On the one hand, we might affirm the positive aspects of verses 15-17: holding one another in the community of faith accountable to shared standards of conduct, taking up such matters in private before bringing them before the community, and keeping this process restorative instead of punitive. On the other hand, we might face head on the tension between the expectation that, if the restorative process were to be unsuccessful, the community would ban a member from the community of faith, and the call to be forgiving (18.12-14 and 21-35).
Is there an understanding of forgiveness that would be compatible with banning a brother or sister from the community of faith? Is repentance a precondition for forgiveness? Does forgiveness makes sense in the absence of the recognition of wrongdoing?
In addition, we could bring today’s Gospel into dialog with Rom 13.8-14. What would “love one another” mean in this situation? Is there an understanding of “love your neighbor as yourself” that would be compatible with banning a brother or sister from the community of faith? For example, if a brother or sister’s decision not to repent is effectively a decision to withdraw from the community of faith, would love require the community to respect their decision by expecting that they would no longer participate in the community’s life? Are there times when love for the whole community (all your “neighbors”) requires banning one unrepentant brother or sister (a “neighbor”) from the community of faith? Absolutes in either direction are unhelpful. What each situation requires calls for careful deliberation.
The dialog between Peter and Jesus and the parable in 18.21-35 (next Sunday’s Gospel) call those who desire or experience God’s extravagant forgiveness to show the same extravagant forgiveness to others. Nevertheless, in the parable, the king in the end shows no mercy to the unforgiving slave. When the slave’s master hands the slave over to torturers “until he would pay his entire debt” (verse 34), the slave master’s fierceness effectively precludes any possibility of repentance and, therefore, forgiveness. The slave’s debt of “ten thousand talents” (verse 24) would have been equivalent to over 650 years’ wages! This use of hyperbole means that the slave would never “pay his entire debt.”
Tension exists among several dimensions of Matthew’s Gospel. On the one hand, Matthew’s Jesus repeatedly voices God’s fierce judgment, which is sometimes excessive and unjust (e.g., 18.34; 22.1-7 and 11-13). On the other hand, Matthew’s Jesus is a forgiver of sins (e.g., 9.2-8 and 26.28) and warns the community of faith against preempting his own prerogative to sort out the mixed community at “harvest time” (13.24-30). Matthew does not resolve this tension!
God’s fierce judgment is a common element in almost all of the readings for today. Ezek 33.7-11 tempers it somewhat by declaring God’s preference for the repentance that leads to life; nevertheless, it leaves a death threat hanging over the head of the wrongdoer and the disobedient prophet. In contrast to the other readings for today, Rom 13.8-14 lifts up loving one another as the fulfillment of the law. According to Rom 10.4, Christ fulfills the law and makes righteousness available to everyone who participates in Christ through faith. In Christ, God’s righteousness—which is the same as God’s justice—is shown to be a gracious gift to everyone who has sinned (Rom 3.21-26). Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of dying is a sign of God’s love toward all sinners—all without exception, and all without precondition. Today’s Romans reading authorizes—urges—us to proclaim that, instead of fierce divine judgment, it is the love of God in Christ Jesus, which is a “love divine, all loves excelling,” that is the sign and seal of God’s righteous justice! Paul issues an urgent call to embody that divine love in our individual lives and in our communities.
David J. Lull, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, (Dubuque, IA), is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College (Mt. Pleasant, IA), a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX), and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA). An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, David taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School (New Haven, CT), and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, GA). As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (New York City), he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock), an interpretation of pneuma in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.