Writer Mark Ellingsen
Mark 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
Ash Wednesday, Cycle A
THEME OF THE DAY
Sorrow for sin and the way out. The occasion for the day and its assigned lessons serve to stimulate our awareness of sin as well as the need for repentance (its urgency, which relates to Sanctification and Realized Eschatology) and God’s forgiveness (Justification by Grace).
A lament Psalm for healing and moral renewal traditionally ascribed to David after being condemned by Nathan for sexual transgressions with Bathsheba. Of course as 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). In that sense this lament and plea for healing and renewal is our song.
The psalmist urges God to have mercy and cleanse our sin (vv. 1-4, 7, 9). Reference to being purged with hyssop in verse 7 suggests a ceremony of sprinkling such as those reported in Exodus 12:22 and Leviticus 14:51. God has no interest in sacrifice, as the psalmist notes (vv. 16-17). He adds that sin is only sin if committed against God (v. 4). Presumably ordinary guilt is not sin. A reference is made to being born in sin (suggesting the Christian doctrine of Original Sin) (v. 5) and also to being rejected by the Holy Spirit (v. 11). The psalmist proceeds to note that God desires inward truth and wisdom (v. 6). After reiterating the plea for deliverance and mercy (even from physical distress), the psalmist pleads for joy and gladness (vv. 7-9; cf. v. 12). This leads to hope for transformation that the forgiven sinner be given a new and right heart and a willing spirit. Reference to the Holy Spirit [ruach qodesh] given to the believer seems to be a reference even in this Old Testament context to God’s sustaining presence (vv. 10-11). Such a transformation will lead to evangelism (v. 13) and praise of God (vv. 15, 17).
Application: The lament invites at least two possible directions. One could focus on David’s life as a model for our own — despite the appearance of respectability he is a sinner, just like the flock (exploring our sinful sexual proclivities), and yet God used him to do great things for the kingdom and so we have the hope of doing great things (though perhaps not as great as David) for God (Sin and Sanctification). Other possibilities include helping the flock to recognize that mere guilt is not a consciousness of sin until we realize that what we have done to produce the guilt is an insult to God, and also focusing on the Holy Spirit (God’s presence), without whom forgiveness and the desire to do good, including evangelism (vv. 10-13), are worthless and will not happen (Pneumatology, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification).
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
The book reports on the ministry of a cultic prophet who did his work in the Jerusalem Temple, probably during the period of Persian domination after the return of the Babylonian exiles (539 BC–331 BC). (Some speculate that the concluding sections of the book [2:28ff] may be the work of an editor of the period of the Maccabees in the second century BC.) The book’s historical theme is the plague of locusts that had destructively descended on Israel (1:4). It is also characterized by apocalyptic/eschatological elements — references to the Day of the Lord (2:1-11, 28-32; 3:1-3, 9ff). There is an evolution in this concept from being a day of judgment, not one of salvation, to the suggestion that it is a theme of hope and salvation (3:1ff).
The text is a cry of alarm since the cataclysmic day of the Lord is coming. Reference to a great and powerful army and to the clouds of thick darkness is probably a way of talking about the plague of locusts ravaging the land (though they might just symbolize the eschatological cataclysm) (vv. 1-2). Yahweh even seems at the head of this plague in verse 11, but then the prophet abruptly changes to a more gentle tone. He proceeds to make a call to repentance by which the calamity might be averted (vv. 12-17). Fasting, weeping, mourning, and offerings in the temple are commended, but above all a repentance of the heart is exhorted (vv. 12-13, 15). Yahweh is said to be gracious and merciful (a phrase often attributed to the Lord as it is rooted in Israel’s ancient formulations of faith [Exodus 34:6; cf. Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:5]). An assembly to sanctify the people is called (vv. 15-16). These verses and the one continuing to the end of the lesson take the form of a traditional liturgy. Priests (also called “ministers [sharath] of the Lord”) are called on to weep for the people in the temple (especially in the inner court reserved for priests — between the vestibule and the altar) and urge God to spare the people, so that the truth of their commitment to Yahweh will no longer be questioned by Gentiles (v. 17).
Application: The text affords a good opportunity to call the congregation to repentance and to explain why confession of sins is part of worship, and why they both are driven by grace (the gracious and merciful God Joel describes) (Sin and Justification by Grace). There is an urgency in such repentance (Realized Eschatology).
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
This epistle was written by Paul to address relations with the Corinthian church that had further deteriorated during the period after 1 Corinthians had been written. Chapters 10-13 of the book are so different in style and tone from the first chapters (in which the lesson is located) as to lead scholars to conclude that they are the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4. In this text Paul is either responding to critics or writing part of a letter of reconciliation.
Paul begins the lesson by urging the Corinthians for Christ’s sake to be reconciled [katallasso, to be changed thoroughly] to God (5:20b); Christ, it is noted, became sin (assumed our sinful nature [Romans 8:3]) so that we might become the righteousness of God (5:21; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30). Justification and righteousness [dikaiosune] are here woven together. They have a similar Greek root, for justification [dikaioma] resembles the Greek equivalent for the term “righteousness.” You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.” There is much controversy in New Testament scholarship about what Paul means by “righteousness of God,” a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as not having to do with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). And so it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret God’s righteousness in terms of his faithfulness to his relationship with his people, and it is his righteousness which restores the relationship (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, p. 373). The concept of “reconciliation” in verse 20b as entailing, being thoroughly changed supports this idea. God’s righteousness, restoring our relationship with him, thoroughly changes the faithful. And even the Pauline idea of the righteousness of a righteous one being given to those who have fallen (a vicarious death) is itself a Hebrew concept; see 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 6:28; 17:22.
The apostle proceeds to urge that we not accept God’s grace in vain (6:1). Citing Isaiah 49:8 about God listening at an acceptable time, helping the faithful on the day of salvation, Paul notes that now is the moment to act (the end is near) (6:2). No obstacle will be put in the way of any believer, and so no one can rightly criticize his ministry (6:3). He accounts the suffering and persecution he has experienced in ministry (6:4-7). In antiquity, hardship and virtue were closely linked. The apostle concludes with seven antithetic clauses illustrating the hiddenness of the gospel — under dishonor, death, suffering, sorrow, and poverty (vv. 8-10).
Application: The text exhorts the faithful to appreciate the urgency of repenting, interpreted as God’s work in Christ (Realized Eschatology and Justification by Grace). Other possibilities include a sermon on the Atonement (on how Christ’s work on the Cross taking on our sin restores our relationship with God [thoroughly changes us]) or on how the Christian life is hidden (not a smooth life of prosperity, but one prone to ups and downs, to persecutions and hardships [Sanctification and Theological Method]).
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
This lesson reports another segment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, teaching practical piety. Most of the text is peculiar to Matthew and his efforts to address Jewish Christians in Antioch who were no longer in communion with the synagogue. Jesus begins with a warning against a hypocritical piety (especially doing merciful deeds; Matthew usually has the Pharisees in mind when referring to “hypocrisy”) that aims for others to notice one’s faith (v. 1). Likewise it is said to be better to give alms (gifts of charity in synagogues, the foremost act of piety in the eyes of first-century Jews) without fanfare, so that “the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing” (vv. 2-4). In a similar manner, it is said to be better to pray privately than ostentatiously in public (vv. 5-6).
After a critique of long public prayers (vv. 7-8), teaching the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9-13), and exhorting forgiveness (vv. 14-15), Jesus urges that fasting not be done ostentatiously so that only the Father knows (vv. 16-18). (In this era, pious Jews fasted twice a week.) Here we observe Matthew’s anti-Pharisaism coupled with a moral strategy. Jesus critiques trust in worldly goods, which are prone to destruction (vv. 19-20). In ancient times a large part of wealth consisted of costly garments liable to destruction by moths. Then Matthew has Jesus add that one’s treasure is indicative of one’s heart [kardia] (v. 21), i.e. one’s moral priorities (see 9:4; 12:34; Psalm 24:3-4).
Application: This lesson affords an opportunity to condemn the sin of hypocrisy and works righteousness that often infects the faithful. Opportunity is also given to critique the mad quest for wealth that characterizes American life (Sin and Social Ethics). By helping parishioners recognize their sin, they will be prepared for the call to repentance of the First Lesson and the word of forgiveness in the Second Lesson (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).
Lent 1, Cycle A
THEME OF THE DAY
The focus on Original Sin again makes us sense our own unworthiness and need for God’s forgiving grace (Justification by Grace). In some of the texts the consequences of this grace for daily life are also considered (Sanctification). These emphases emerge from the tradition of commemorating the First Sunday in Lent in relation to its roots as the beginning of a period of religious instruction preparing those who would be baptized on Easter to confess their faith.
A Psalm of thanksgiving for healing attributed to David. It is a Maskil Psalm, which is an artful or didactic song composed with artistic skills, though with didactic elements. Since it is unlikely that David wrote the Psalm or had a role in collecting Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it is difficult to determine the date of the lesson.
The psalmist begins by singing that those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered [kasha], are happy [ashar, which also connotes being blessed, for one cannot be happy apart from the things of God, see Psalm 1] (vv. 1-2). This concept of having sins covered is language most consistent with Pauline thinking, and also is present elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (Psalm 85:2; Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16) teaching that God’s righteousness covers our sin or at least makes salvation happen (Romans 3:21-26, 4:6-8, 5:18-19; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21). Healing seems to be involved in this happiness, as reference is made by the psalmist to his body wasting away and that the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him (vv. 3-4). Disease was commonly regarded as punishment for sin in Old Testament times. The Hebrew word Selah appearing in the text after verse 4 and other verses refers to the introduction of musical interludes at these points.
Following the acknowledgment of sin and forgiveness, it is noted that healing came (v. 5). The Psalm proceeds to observe that all who are faithful offer prayers at a time of distress and will be preserved, for the Lord is a hiding place (vv. 6-7). (The reference to “the rush of mighty waters” in v. 6 is a common Old Testament image for terrible distress that threatens to overwhelm the one suffering.) The Lord’s word is introduced and he assures us that he will teach us the way to go, always with his eye on us (v. 8). We are warned against being like a horse or mule without understanding, for steady love surrounds those who trust in the Lord (vv. 9-10). Consequently we (the righteous [tsaddiq], not just those who are good but those who are in right relation with the Lord [Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371]) are exhorted to be glad in Yahweh and rejoice (v. 11).
Application: The song affords an occasion to reflect on how sin seems to overwhelm us at times, putting us in the deepest distress. After exploring this kind of empathy with the congregation, the Psalm also encourages opportunities to proclaim the good news that God has forgiven us (Justification by Grace). But we also learn from the song of the happiness that follows from this awareness, for we are surrounded by God’s love (Sanctification). A sermon on the text could also be an occasion to explore how happiness is related to living with and among the things of God (a crucial theme of the book of Psalms) (Sanctification).
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Like all of the first five books of the Bible, Genesis is the product of several distinct oral traditions, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. This lesson is the account of the story of the fall into sin. This version is probably the work of a tenth/ninth-century BC strand called J because it refers to the Lord as Yahweh.
The story begins with the testimony that Yahweh Elohim gave man the Garden of Eden to keep and till, allowing man to eat of every tree in Eden except the tree of knowledge [ets daath] (2:15-17). It may be useful to consider the narrative parallel in 1:29, written by the priestly oral tradition composed in the sixth century BC. The serpent (nachash, a creature craftier than any wild animal God made) tempts the woman. The role of a serpent here is reminiscent of the snake in the ancient Mesopotamian story The Epic of Gilgamesh (11.287-289), who steals from Gilgamesh a plant conferring immortality. Returning to the Genesis account, the serpent then asks her if God forbade eating of any tree in the Garden, and she responds that only the tree in the middle of the Garden may not be touched (3:1-3). The serpent responds that she would not die, for God knew that eating of the tree’s fruit would open her eyes, and like God (or the gods, for the Hebrew term used in the account, elohim, is plural) she would know good and evil (3:4-5). So the woman seeing the tree a delight to the eyes and that the tree made one wise, ate of its fruit and gave some to her husband (3:6). The idea that eating from the tree would give wisdom links with the Hebraic Wisdom [chokmah] of the book of Proverbs (which seems to make that link in 3:18). Consequently it seems that the disobedience involved in eating of this tree not only involved trying to be like God but also that now behavior is no longer spontaneous obedience, but because of our exercise of freedom and self-reflection we must now be taught through wisdom, and we must be instructed by others (often by existing law and custom) in order to know what is good. Doing good no longer comes naturally.
The narrative continues. Eating from the tree, the eyes of both the woman and the man were opened, and they knew they were naked; then they covered themselves with loincloths — losing innocence (3:7). Sin also seems to make us ashamed of the body (see 2:25).
Application: Although the Jewish community does not read the text as Christians do, this is an excellent text for proclaiming and explaining Original Sin. Focus may be placed on sin as idolatry (trying to become like God or exercise the divine privileges) and how in our state of sin we are now no longer able to do good spontaneously (as the first human beings did), but now with our ability to choose and discern right from wrong, with all the behavioral options presented to us, doing good is hard work, a burden against which we rebel. Embarrassment about the body, resulting from self-awareness, which is really burdensome and the cause of much anxiety, might also be noted as a consequence of sin. Awareness of our unhappy state makes us more eager to hear the word that we are forgiven (as proclaimed in the Second Lesson below and the Psalm above), the gospel’s proclamation that Christ overcomes all temptations, fear, and death.
Continuing to write his letter of introduction to a church, which to date he had never visited, Paul offers in this text a contrast between Adam and Christ. Sin came into the world through one man, Paul contends, and death through sin spread to all because all sinned and were reckoned sinful by the law (vv. 12-13). Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam. Adam is said to be a type [tupos, that pattern or model] of Christ who is to come (v. 14). By contrast, Paul notes, the free gift is not like the trespass, for if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more will the grace of God in the gift of grace of the one man Jesus Christ abound for many (v. 15). The free gift is not like the effect of one man’s sin. The judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification (v. 16). If because of one man’s trespass [Adam] death exercises dominion [basileuo, reigns] through that one [Adam], so much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness [dikaiosune] exercise dominion in life through the one man Jesus (v. 17). As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification [dikaiosin] and life for all (v. 18). Just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience many were made righteous (v. 19).
Application: This is another text for helping people see how they are mired in Original Sin. Use insights from the application for the First Lesson. Also note the idea of how, because of Adam’s sin, death and so sin now reign in us, dominate in us. The law (commandments of God) now condemns us, for we need these commands to direct our behavior amidst all the choices, and it functions as a mirror now again and again to show us how far short we fall.
In articulating the free gift of forgiveness, it is important to sort out the role of Christ’s righteousness in saving us or justifying us. Both terms have a similar Greek root, for justification resembles the Greek equivalent of righteousness (see above). You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.”
We have previously noted the controversy in New Testament scholarship that exists about what Paul means by the righteousness of God and the righteousness of Christ, a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as having to do not with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). Therefore it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret God’s righteousness in terms of his faithfulness to his relationship with his people, that it is his righteousness which restores the relationship (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, p. 373).
God’s righteousness, restoring our relationship with him, thoroughly changes the faithful. And even the Pauline idea of the righteousness of a righteous one being given to those who have fallen (a vicarious death) is itself a Hebrew concept; see 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 6:28; 17:22. The righteous one, Christ, restores the relationship of the faithful with God by sharing with us the wholeness and healthiness (righteousness) of his relationship with us (Justification by Grace). The text also provides occasion to proclaim and teach Christ’s atonement. He breaks the dominion of death and of the consequences of Adam’s fall over us. But this in turn entails that the faithful are now under the dominion of Christ. We cannot but do his thing (live righteously in right relation with God) (Sanctification).
In a manner most consistent with Jewish expectations in the first century about the Messiah, the text reports Jesus’ temptations by the devil. (All the Synoptic Gospels include an account like this [Mark 1: 12-13; Luke 4:1-13].) The Jewish orientation of this gospel focuses again in the author’s efforts to root the events in Old Testament prophecies. It is reported that after Jesus’ baptism he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil [diabolos, tempter or accuser] (v. 1). He fasts forty days and was famished (v. 2). The forty days in the wilderness are another example of linking Jesus’ life to Old Testament precedents. Both Moses and the prophet Elijah spent forty days in a wilderness experience (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8). The tempter came and said to Jesus that if he is Son of God, he should command the stones to become loaves of bread (vv. 2-3). This temptation was a function of Jewish expectations in Jesus’ day, as they had come to expect the Messiah to repeat the miracles of the Jews’ time in the wilderness with Moses (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, pp. 58-60, 65-66). In accord with Matthean concerns to relate Jesus to Hebrew scripture, he is recorded as responding with Deuteronomy 8:3 and its teachings that one does not live by bread alone, but by the words of the Lord (v. 4; this citation also appears in Luke 4:4, but not in Mark).
The devil next took Jesus to the holy city [Jerusalem] and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, daring him if he is the Son of God to throw himself down. Jesus cited Psalm 91:11-12, which speaks of God commanding his angels (vv. 5-6). Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16, which speaks against putting the Lord to the test (v. 7). Finally the devil took Jesus to a high mountain, promising to give him all the nations that could be seen if he would worship him (vv. 8-9). Jesus responds that Satan should go away, citing Deuteronomy 6:13 that only the Lord God is to worshiped and served (v. 10; cf. Luke 4:8). Then the devil is reported to have left Jesus, and angels came to serve him (v. 11). Elijah was also served by angels at the end of his wilderness experience (1 Kings 19:5-8).
Application: The temptations endured by Jesus can be used to help clarify and enlighten the ones we face (Sin). References to the wilderness experiences of Moses and Elijah can aid in making these points.
Jesus overcomes the devil and evil indicates that because the faithful are in him, these realities cannot prevail over them (Justification by Grace).