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These background notes cover every assigned text in the Revised Common Lectionary for each Sunday and major observance throughout the year.


Writer Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, Pastor, Theologian, AuthorMark Ellingsen, author of Lectionary Scripture Notes, is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated magna cum laude from Gettysburg College and has received four degrees from Yale University. He has authored many titles, most recently Lectionary Preaching Workbook for CSS Publishing Company….read more


Proper 18, Ordinary Time 23, Pentecost 16, Cycle C (2016)

Devotion to God changes things. The texts assigned for this Sunday center on how what God has done for us changes us and life around us. Sanctification should be construed as springing from God’s Work (Justification by Grace and Providence).

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
This is a Prayer for Deliverance from personal enemies attributed to David. We have previously noted it is unlikely that David is the author of the Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). In fact some scholars conclude that references to David in the psalms may be a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects, and so of all the faithful (Ibid., p. 521).

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The psalmist notes that everything we have ever done or thought is known by God (vv. 1-6). He is active in each aspect of our lives (v. 5). Such knowledge is said to be wonderful [pili], too high to attain (v. 6). God is said to have known the psalmist since conception (vv. 13-16). His thoughts [sarappim] are weighty/precious to the psalmist. The wonder of it all is celebrated (vv. 17-18). All dimensions of life are said to come from God.

Application: Sermons on this psalm will focus on God being in control of all things (Providence). But that insight changes our outlook on life, makes it all the more wonderful and provides a sense of the holiness of life — even of our jobs (Sanctification).


Psalm 1
This is a Wisdom Psalm contrasting the fate of the righteous and the wicked. Avoiding the ways of sin, it is said, makes you happy/blessed [ashere] (v. 1). The law [torah] is indirectly praised (like Psalm 119) as righteousness is associated with obedience to the law (v. 2). It is good to remind ourselves again that the concept of “righteousness” even in an Old Testament context is not to imply that one lives in faultless conformity to some moral law. It has to do with living in right relationship with God and others (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 370-371).

The disastrous end of the wicked is described (vv. 4-5). This stress on righteousness can elsewhere be understood in relation to God’s work (v. 6), in accord with Justification by Grace (cf. Romans 3:21-26). The righteous [tsasddiq] are planted [shathal] by God and are said spontaneously to bear good fruit (v. 3). Yahweh is said to watch over the way of the righteous while the wicked perish (v. 6).

Application: Sermons on this alternative might focus on the Christian life as a way righteousness (living in right relationship with God) and how good works spring spontaneously from this relationship with God (Justification by Grace and the spontaneity of good works [Sanctification]).

Jeremiah 18:1-11
This book is a collection of prophecies of a late seventh or early sixth century BC prophet of Judah from the reigns of Josiah through the era of the Babylonian Captivity. He dictated these prophecies to his aide Baruch. Some of the prophet’s criticism of the house of David and the temple may relate to his having as an ancestor one of David’s high priests, Abiathar, who lost control of the temple and was finally banished (1 Kings 2:26-27). Three sources of the book have been identified; 1) An authentic poetic strand; 2) Biographic prose; and 3) Deuteronomic redaction (see analysis of Deuteronomy which follows). The interplay of these strands suggests that the final editors see Jeremiah’s prophecies as relevant in a new context.

This lesson is Jeremiah’s allegory of the potter. The prophet is instructed by Yahweh to go to a potter’s house in order to hear the Lord’s word [dabar] (vv. 1-2). It probably originates in the period of the Babylonian Exile. Jeremiah follows the instructions and finds a potter [yatsan] working at his wheel. The vessel being made was spoiled, and so he reworked it (vv. 3-4). Yahweh then speaks to the prophet saying he will do the same with Israel, for like the potter’s clay Israel is in the Lord’s hands (vv. 5-6). Thus at one moment he may declare its destruction, but if the nation turns from evil [ra] he may change his mind [nacham, repent] (vv. 7-8). Likewise plans to build and plant Israel could be changed if the people do evil (vv. 9-10). This image of God as a potter is a common biblical theme. See Genesis 2:7; Isaiah 29:16; 64:8; Romans 9:20-24. Jeremiah is instructed to tell the people of Judah and Jerusalem that the Lord is a potter shaping evil against them and devising a plan, so they must turn from their evil ways and amend their lives (v. 11).

Application: Sermons on this lesson can proclaim that who we are is all God’s doing and that all our work is his work (Justification by Grace and Sanctification with works as spontaneous, along with Predestination and Providence).


Deuteronomy 30:15-20
The Complementary First Lesson is taken from a book that is primarily the work of one of the four oral traditions comprising the Pentateuch — D, a strand rooted in the sweeping religious reform under King Josiah in the seventh century BC. This literary strand also influenced the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as 1 and 2 Kings. This book purports to be Moses’ Farewell Addresses to the people. It is really three addresses, this lesson being from the Third Address teaching that there are two ways to live — one of prosperity and the other to death (v. 15). Specifically in this chapter Moses is providing prescriptions for the renewal of the covenant.

The first way to live is obeying the commands [tsavah] of Yahweh. Such obedience will lead to Israel living and becoming numerous and blessed (v. 16). But if the people turn away their hearts [iebab] and are led astray, bowing down to other gods, they will perish and not live long in the Promised Land (vv. 17-18). Moses calls heaven and earth as witnesses that he has set before the people life and death, blessings and curses. Israel is to choose and love the Lord God, obeying him and that will mean life [chayim] and they may live in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (vv. 19-20). Life is not a mere extension of days for Hebraic culture. It is loving, obeying, and cleaving to the Lord.

Application: Sermons on this Complementary First Lesson can explore how life is better when you live it accord with God’s will (Sanctification), but also remind us that we fall short in keeping his commands (Sin).

Philemon 1-21
This lesson is drawn from a letter to a Christian living in Colossae (in modern Turkey), Philemon, written by Paul while imprisoned (vv. 1, 9-10, 13, 23). The apostle along with Timothy endeavors to request this slave owner to allow the slave Onesimus, who had not only served Paul but been converted to the faith, to remain with Paul and perhaps even to gain emancipation. As such it is a book devoted to Christian love.

The lesson begins with the Salutation, offering thanks as Paul claims to have heard of Philemon, Apphia (likely Philemon’s wife), and Archippus, who seems to have held church meetings in his home (vv. 1-2), because of their love for all the saints and faith toward Christ (v. 5). He prays that their sharing of faith may become effective when they perceive all the good we may do for Christ (v. 6). Joy and encouragement are also expressed on account of their love, as the hearts of saints are refreshed from this (v. 7). Paul decides not to command as a duty, but to appeal on the basis of love on behalf of one Paul calls his child [teknon], Onesimus (he claims to have become like a father to him during the apostle’s imprisonment) (vv. 8-10). Onesimus has not been useful (a standard description of a bad slave) to Philemon recently, but has been most useful to Paul, the apostle reports. Paul is sending Onesimus back to the letter’s recipient (vv. 11-12).

Paul wanted to keep Onesimus who could be of service to him (v. 13), but he preferred to do nothing without Philemon’s consent, so that the good done in letting Onesimus remain would be voluntary (vv. 13-14). Paul speaks of Onesimus having been separated from Philemon (presumably the result of his running away from his master). He suggests that this may have happened so Onesimus would be with Philemon forever, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother (vv. 15-16). Paul urges that if Philemon consider him his partner, he welcomes Onesimus as he would Paul. The apostle also requests that if Onesimus owes Philemon anything, the debt should be charged to Paul (vv. 17-18). Paul concludes, noting that what is written is written by him. He urges that Philemon would grant him the request, expressing confidence in the response (vv. 19-21).

Application: This lesson invites sermons that clarify how God has a way of getting us and our pride out of the way, to make us totally dependent on him, and to the benefit of his kingdom. Providence and the Priesthood of All Believers are relevant themes. Sanctification and Justification are implied by this focus on how God changes us.

Luke 14:25-33
Once again throughout this Church Year we return to the first installment of a two-part history of the Church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Along with Acts, the author’s intention was to stress the universal mission of the Church (Acts 1:8). This lesson reports Jesus’ teachings about discipleship, following teachings about the eschatological reality of the kingdom of God (vv. 15-24). There are some parallels to this text in Matthew 10:37-38.

Addressing large crowds, Jesus teaches that whoever comes to him and does not hate family, even life [psuche] itself, cannot be his disciple [mathetes] (vv. 25-26). It may be that reference to “hating” [misero] family in this text may be employed more in terms of one of the Old Testament meanings of “forsaking” [chadal] to make room for God’s purpose, as in Proverbs 9:6 (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke, p. 241). Whoever does not carry the cross [stauros] and follow Jesus cannot be his disciple, he claims (v. 27). No one planning to build a tower does not first estimate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it. If not, he will be ridiculed (vv. 28-30). Likewise no king wages war without considering the size of armies. If he does not have enough men he will seek peace (vv. 31-32). Likewise no one can be Jesus’ disciple if he does not give away all his possessions (v. 33). This is a lesson about the absolute loyalty disciples are to give Jesus.

Application: This is a lesson about helping us get our priorities right, focusing ourselves first on Christ and emptying ourselves so that all we cherish becomes an occasion for glorifying God. This focus on Sanctification again presupposes God’s forgiving grace, insights that seem to portray an Eschatological reality that is free from care.
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    Dean Feldmeyer
    Mulligan Theology
    Jeremiah 18:1-11; Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33

    To hear him tell it, Mr. David Mulligan, of Montreal, Canada, was one of the world’s greatest amateur golfers. Very early every morning he would play a round of golf by himself, and then upon returning to the clubhouse brag to his friends about what a great round he had just shot.
         Not quite believing him but not wanting to accuse him of lying outright, his friends decided to arrive early at the course one day and play a round of golf with David. On the first tee Mulligan sliced his drive deep into the woods, shook his head, and immediately teed up another ball. When his friends questioned him about it, he said simply: “Well, you don’t expect me to play that one, do you?” (This is, of course, only one version of the “mulligan” story. For others see the article and comments here.)
         Immediately a new word entered the golf lexicon: a “mulligan.” It’s a do-over, a free shot that you take because the first one didn’t turn out the way you wanted.
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    When Jeremiah told his story of the potter and the clay, he was making it clear that if God didn't like the way the people and their rulers were observing God's law, the Divine Potter could collapse the work in progress and start over. God expected the people to observe divine justice! And that meant justice for everyone: the rich and the poor, overseers and workers....more
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Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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