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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 13 | OT 18 | Pentecost 8, Cycle A

The struggles of faith with an amazing God. These texts lead us to an examination of how tough the walk of faith can be (Sin and Sanctification) along with assurance that God’s amazing grace will overcome (Justification by Grace, Providence, and Predestination).

Psalm 17:1-7, 15
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies in the form of a lament. Traditionally the Psalm has been attributed to David. Again we are reminded that psalms attributed to David are not likely written by the king. In fact, many scholars have concluded that references to David in the Psalms may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In that sense this song is about trust in God in the face of hard times that all the faithful experience.

The Psalm begins with a cry for vindication from false accusers (vv. 1-2). A protestation of innocence follows. The psalmist claims not to transgress by his mouth and to have held fast to Yahweh’s paths [orach or "customary roads"] (vv. 3-5). He next turns to a prayer for God to show love/kindness [chesed] and grant refuge (vv. 6-7). The Psalm for the Day ends with an expression of confidence in God’s deliverance, beholding Yahweh’s face [anpin] in righteousness [tsedeq] (v. 15). We are again reminded that the concept of “righteousness” even in an Old Testament context is not to imply that the believer lives in faultless conformity to some moral norm. It has to do with living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 370-371). And so our confidence in God’s deliverance emerges when in right relationship with him, a relationship God establishes.

Application: The lesson affords the opportunity to examine who the real enemies of the faithful are and to understand Christian life as a struggle (Sin and Sanctification). Yet thanks to God’s justifying, saving work we are innocent, offering us a confidence that we can hold fast to God’s customary roads (Sanctification).

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Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
A hymn (traditionally attributed to David) epitomizing the character of the God of Israel. As we have previously noted, this Psalm is also probably not a part of the original collection of Psalms of David (140-143) in book 5 of the Psalms. See comments on the previous Psalm regarding what to make of references to David in the Psalms. The Psalm is acrostic, with each verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The reading begins with the extolling of the loving kindness [chesed] and compassion [rachum] of God on all (vv. 8-9). It draws on the ancient confession of faith in Exodus 34:6. God’s providential care is then praised. He is said to give food, be just in all his ways, be near to all who call, and fulfill the desires of all who fear/reverence [yare] him, and watch over all who love [aheb] him (vv. 14-20). The psalmist concludes by claiming to praise [halal] Yahweh and bless his holy name [shem] forever (v. 21).

Application: The Psalm provides an occasion to praise God’s loving kindness and compassion for all, his care for us in everyday life (Providence and Justification by Grace).

Genesis 32:22-31
We observe again that the first book of the Bible has its name in order to convey that it is about origins — the origins of life, of the Hebrew people, and of faith. This lesson is the story of Jacob wresting with God. Once again the source of this account (which of the four oral traditions that are the sources for the book gave rise to the story) is unclear. Planning for a reconciliation with his brother Esau (perhaps by winning Esau with expensive gifts [vv. 17-18, 20]), Jacob, his family, and the whole estate cross the ford of the Jabbok River (an eastern tributary of the Jordan) (vv. 22-23). But Jacob remained on the other side of the river, and he wrestled [abaq] with a man [ish] until daybreak (v. 24). Jacob was apparently a very strong man (29:10). When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket putting it out of joint (v. 25). Although the man wanted to depart since the day was breaking, Jacob refused to let him go without receiving a blessing [barak] (v. 26). Learning his name was Jacob, the man renamed him Israel, a name signifying that he had struggled with God and humans and prevailed (vv. 27-28). (In fact, the name Israel seems literally to mean “God rules.”) In antiquity it was believed that selfhood was expressed in the name given a person. Jacob asks the man (presumably God) for his name [shem] and is never informed (v. 29). This just adds to the mysterious character of the encounter. Jacob/Israel calls the place Peniel (literally “the face of God”), for he believes he had seen God face-to-face [panim, which also entails being in one's presence] and survived (v. 30; cf. 16:13). And the sun rose (v. 31).

Application: The text launches us into reflections on how Christian life is a kind of mysterious wrestling with the will of God (Sanctification). In that sense we are all part Jewish, part of Israel (note the name’s meaning above). This theme can then be related to the Second Lesson. It is significant that God can easily prevail over us (as he readily broke Jacob’s hip socket), but still gives Jacob and us the blessings we seek. God fights for us when he seems to fight with us (Justification by Grace). A related point might be to focus on the fact that in this encounter God was in human form. And it is only in that way (through the incarnation in a man) that we can encounter God face-to-face (Christology).


Isaiah 55:1-5
For the Complementary Version we turn again to a book of two or three distinct origins — a first section written by an eighth century BC prophet to Jerusalem and Judah, and a second section, from which this lesson is generated, written immediately before the fall of Babylon in 539 BC (and so during but in hopes of the end of the Babylonian captivity). This lesson is part of a hymn of joy and triumph, celebrating the approaching consummation of Israel’s restoration. The hymn begins with an invitation to come to a banquet which cannot be purchased. (Israel is thereby invited to accept God’s coming restoration of the nation.) Directions are given to eat what is good [tob]. There is no need for us to spend money on what does not satisfy (vv. 1-2). This is a theme reminiscent of wisdom’s invitation to a banquet (Proverbs 9:3-6). After another invitation to come, the everlasting covenant [berith] with David and God’s loving kindnesses [chesed, which can also mean "mercy"] for him are remembered (v. 3). David is said to have been made a witness [ed] to peoples (vv. 3-4). The nations [goi], it is proclaimed, will come to Israel, for the nation is glorified (v. 5). We observe here a messianic vision for Israel more than a Davidic focus.

Application: Interpreted messianically, the text can be proclaimed as testifying to God’s faithfulness to the Davidic covenant, fulfilling it through Jesus Christ who brings us to the great banquet that gives us what is good (Providence and Justification by Grace). This point is especially suggested in references to how all the nations (including Gentiles) are made part of the covenant. (This theme can be related to the Second Lesson and the banquet to which all are invited by the gospel.) The warning that we not use money to purchase what does not satisfy, but that what is good for us is at this banquet, is a testimony to Justification by Grace, not works and also an opportunity to condemn the sin we display in using our money on the latest trendy things that never ultimately satisfy.

Romans 9:1-5
Paul’s introduction to Christians in Rome (written between 54 and 58 AD) continues with a discourse on the problem of Israel’s unbelief. The apostle claims to be speaking the truth in Christ with a conscience [suneidesis, literally a knowing with oneself] embedded in the Holy Spirit (v. 1). He speaks of the great sorrow he has. He wishes he could be cut off [anathema, literally "cursed"] from Christ for the sake of his fellow Jews (vv. 2-3). He notes that to the Israelites belong the adoption [as God's children] [huiothesia], the covenants [diatheke], giving of the law [nomothesia], worship, and the promises [epaggelia]. To them also belong patriarchs and from them, according to the flesh [sarx], comes the Christ who is over all. Paul then concludes with a blessing of God (vv. 4-5).

Application: At least two possibilities emerge from this lesson. Most obviously, the text provides an opportunity to preach against anti-Semitism in all its forms, noting the roots of Christian faith in Judaism, that they are still the chosen people (in the sense that their faith continues to be a model for Christians and so for all humankind), and the tragedy that Jews and we do not remain in communion since we are still so united. (This word can also be made in conjunction with the Complementary Version of the First Lesson.) Another avenue might be to focus on Paul’s claim that his conscience (his self-knowledge) is fully embedded in the Holy Spirit. This is the nature of faith. Overwhelmed by the Spirit and the struggles of life, the tensions and ambiguities of life can be more effectively addressed with courage (Pneumatology, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification).

Matthew 14:13-21
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). In fact, the book may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. Yet there are some Hebraic and Aramaic influences, suggesting some dependence on the original apostles of Jesus, if not on Matthew himself. This account is the gospel’s version of the feeding of the 5,000, which is fairly consistent with parallels in Mark 6:32-44 and Luke 9:10-17.

The account begins with Jesus having learned of the death of John the Baptist and then withdrawing in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when crowds heard it they followed him on foot (v. 13). Then Jesus is reported as going ashore, seeing a great crowd, and having compassion [splagknidzomai, literally meaning "to have one's bowels moved"] for them, leading him to cure their sick (v. 14). At evening the disciples come to him and report that since it is late he should send the crowd away so they can go to the villages nearby and purchase food for themselves (v. 15). Jesus says they need not go away, for the disciples could give them something to eat (v. 16). The disciples note that they have nothing but five loaves and two fish (v. 17). Jesus directs them brought to him (v. 18). (There are suggestions here of Elisha feeding a crowd over the objections of his servants in 2 Kings 4:42-44.) He then orders the crowds to sit in the grass. Blessing the food and breaking the loves, he then feeds the crowd of 5,000 men and more women and children who were present and food is left over (vv. 19-21). This distinction of men from women and children was a function of separating women and children from men in ancient assemblies.

Application: The text provides an opportunity to focus on the fact that we are fed by Jesus (given the goods of the banquet promised in the Complementary Version of the First Lesson), even when it does not look like the resources are available. Jesus’ concern with the sick and hungry is a reminder that the gospel includes social dimensions (Social Ethics). Another direction is to focus on the disciples’ lack of faith, and then the story is about the good news that God in Christ does not let our weak faith get in the way of giving good (Justification by Grace).

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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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