Text Study for Luke10:25-37 (Part Five)

At the end of all the interesting exegesis, preachers still gotta preach. Mikeal Parsons, in his workingpreacher.org commentary, invites us to revisit a Christological reading of the parable.  By that he means that we can and perhaps should read the parable as a way of understanding more fully Jesus’ person and work in the context of the Lukan account. Which character most clearly reflects Jesus in the story? Which actions look most like what Jesus would do (and is doing)?

Parsons points out that the word for “he had compassion” shows up three times in the Lukan account. In Luke 7:13, Jesus has compassion for the widow at Nain at the loss of her son. He tells her not to weep and then raises her son from the dead. In Luke 15:20, the father sees his wandering younger son from a far distance. He is filled with compassion, runs to the son, wraps his arms around him, and kisses him. The father character seems to represent God in the parable of the Lost Sons.

Photo by ATC Comm Photo on Pexels.com

“In other words,” Parsons suggests, “’showing compassion’ in the Lukan narrative is a divine prerogative and a divine action. Here is our first clue in the text of Luke itself that the Good Samaritan,” he continues, “when he shows compassion on the man in the ditch, is functioning figuratively as God’s agent.” I think it’s important to remember that Parsons and others do not impose this interpretive move on the text. Rather, he seeks clues in the text that call for this perspective.

At the other end of the parable, Parsons points to the lawyer’s description of the one who acted as neighbor to the man in the ditch. The neighbor was the one who treated the man with mercy. Parsons notes that both Jesus and the Lukan author allow this description to stand without comment or correction. He points out that nearly every instance of the word “mercy” in the Lukan account is connected with actions by God or God’s representative. “Within the immediate context of Luke’s Gospel,” Parsons writes, “the Good Samaritan, who ‘shows compassion’ and ‘does mercy,’ functions as a ‘Christ’ figure who ultimately acts as God’s agent.”

If we treat the parable, Parsons argues, primarily as an example story (“go and do likewise”), we are missing an important point. In spite of lots of interpretation to the contrary (including some of my own), the story is not really told from the perspective of the man who fell among the robbers. “Rather,” Parsons suggests, “Jesus’ admonition to the lawyer demands that the primary perspective be that of the Good Samaritan, whose example the lawyer is admonished to follow.”

Given the textual hints Parsons has collected, we may have not only permission but some pressure to read and proclaim this text Christologically. “Thus,” he concludes, “we have in its literary context a call by Jesus to imitate the compassionate Samaritan and in so doing to imitate the compassion of Jesus himself. Ethical admonition is grounded in a Christological basis.”

This Christological reading was Martin Luther’s favorite way to read and to preach our text. Mark Tranvik’s article reviews Luther’s reading and preaching and is worth discussing in this regard. “Luther does not see the good Samaritan as a model of Christian discipleship,” Tranvik writes. “Instead he picks up on a long tradition of allegorical interpretation that sees not the listener but Christ as the good Samaritan…this changes the focus of the parable and allows Luther to proclaim the good news of God’s radical grace in Christ while not losing the idea that this parable ‘relocates’ the Christian in the world” (page 253).

Tranvik reminds us that this Christological reading is related to but not the same as the allegorical reading of texts fostered in Alexandria, brought to fruition by St. Augustine, and carried to sometimes ridiculous extremes in the Medieval Church. In that perspective, the Parable of the Good Samaritan comes to represent and reproduce “the entire Christian drama from the creation and fall of humanity to its reconciliation in Christ” (page 254).

Luther believes that such an interpretation leaves the text behind and indulges the imagination of the interpreter. The unfortunate outcome is that while some metaphorical interpretation is good, more is perceived to be better (and better, and better). Luther waxes allegorical, but within the confines of the text. In our reading, Tranvik suggests, “the emphasis on the centrality of the neighbor is crucial for Luther. Christ is the true exemplar of the Christian life, which ought to direct love outward toward the neighbor—a decided contrast to the self-serving piety that Luther believes has infected the church of his day” (page 255).

In his preaching, Luther notes that the man is as good as dead. This is the condition of the sinner in relationship to God as well. Christ carries us to healing and salvation because we cannot make the journey on our own. “Having been healed totally by Christ,” Tranvik summarizes, “the victim is now restored and able to turn outward and truly fulfill the commandment of loving God and neighbor.”

Luther’s interpretation creates paths toward his polemical agendas in preaching. He hammers away at works righteousness by pointing out that all the actions are taken by the Samaritan and none by the nearly-dead man. He goes after those who are more concerned about proper religious practice than about works of compassion and mercy for those in need. He attacks those who think that making monuments and enduring pilgrimages are adequate substitutes for hands-on neighbor love.

While we don’t need to share Luther’s polemical concerns, I think we can still have sympathy with the spirit of his critiques. Life presents many candidates for such critiques in our time.

Luther’s Christological interpretation gets around to application, especially in terms of his understanding of Christian vocation, as Tranvik points out. Neighbor love begins with those closest to us – in our home and family, our work and play, our community and church. “Get about the business of being an attentive spouse, citizen, or worker,” Tranvik imagines Luther as saying, “There’s plenty to do and, if taken seriously, your calling will wound you. But then Christ will be there as well, fixing you up, and getting you back on the horse” (page 261).

If this Christological interpretation of the text has merit (and I think it does), then another consideration comes to the fore. Jesus identifies God (and himself) with the Samaritan. Jesus comes to us as One who knows what it means to be Other, to be excluded, to be ostracized, to be reviled, to be abandoned. We may indeed find ourselves lying in a ditch, naked and alone, nearly dead and devoid of hope. The One who comes to us is one who is familiar with our plight. The One who comes to us stands in solidarity with all who have fallen among robbers and are left for dead.

I think I might remind listeners of the wonderful words in Hebrews 2:14-18 (NRSV) here. “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood,” we read in verses 14 and 15, “he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Just as the Samaritan could knew intimately the pain of being alone and afraid, so Jesus knows intimately the terror of mortality, dying in a ditch.

This is why Luther talking about the “crucified God” and why Bonhoeffer wrote that “only a suffering God can help.” The writer of Hebrews concludes chapter 2 (verse 18, NRSV) with these words: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” I think this Christological solidarity in suffering may be the most important element of the parable for our preaching.

In that solidarity of suffering, all the masks fall away. All the pretending is past. The writer of Hebrews reminds of this reality in chapter 4. The power of the word of God is to pierce our pretensions and relieve us of our self-delusion. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (verses 12 and 13, NRSV).

We lie in the ditch of real life, laid bare and unable to move. In that moment of ultimate exposure, we are saved (and saved and saved and saved). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin,” the writer of Hebrews continues. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:15-16).

As we receive mercy and find grace, we are equipped to help others in time of need. That is the graceful and grateful vocation of a Jesus follower.

References and Resources

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Tranvik, Mark D. “The Good Samaritan as Good News: Martin Luther and the Recovery of the Gospel in Preaching.” Word & World 38, no. 3 (2018).

Text Study for Mark 12:28-34 (Pt. 2); October 31, 2021

Commanded to Love

What does it mean to say that we as Jesus followers are “commanded” to love God and neighbor? How can Jesus (or God or Scripture) “command” an emotion? I have heard that question many times over the years of my parish ministry. Framed this way, Jesus’ words seem to be nonsense to twenty-first century ears and minds.

How can loving be a commandment? It’s a post-Kantian, Romantic question – at least in terms of the history of Western ideas. Immanuel Kant taught us that morality is about the rules that we would be willing to universalize. While Kant’s rule-based understanding of ethics is not the only option, it is a highly influential one.

Combine that with the Romantic (as in the philosophical and literary school of thought called Romanticism) notion that emotions are the essential marks of our humanity and that love is the primary human emotion, and we have a problem.

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Of course, Jesus is not a Kantian moral philosopher. Nor is Jesus a Romantic poet. Our protests about rules and emotions are anachronistic at best. That means that we need to hear Jesus’ words in the Markan composition within something approaching an “original” framework if we want to make any sense of them at all.

Let’s think about the “commandments.” It’s not really helpful to understand the commandments are rules for living. It is more helpful to understand them as practices or disciplines or patterns of character-forming behaviors.

In modern Jewish usage, the word for commandment (“mitzvah”) often refers to a good deed or set of good deeds. That usage goes back to quite ancient documents, including the Jerusalem Talmud, which takes us back to within a century or so of the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Tzvi Freeman notes that the word may be related to an Aramaic verb meaning “to attach” or “to join.” The Aramaic word can mean companionship or personal attachment, Freeman observes. Thus, a mitzvah is not about a rule but rather about a relationship. “In this sense,” Freeman continues, “a mitzvah bundles up the person who is commanded and the Commander, creating a relationship and essential bond.”

Given this framework, Jesus’ reply to the scribe makes good sense. The foremost commandment (mitzvah) is about our relationship with God the Creator. The second most salient commandment is about our relationship with our neighbor. It is “like” the foremost commandment because both are about the relationships which define us as human beings.

I find the description of commandments as character-forming patterns of behavior to be the most helpful understanding of the term. When I think, for example, of the Ten Commandments (found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), I don’t think of these statements as ways in which God legislates the fun out of life. Instead, God gives commandments because they are good for us. I find it to be a rule of thumb in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that God wants from us what is good for us.

Keeping the commandments is a way to practice the habits that form our character in a particular way. I would argue that God’s commandments are intended to form us into the fully authentic and joyful human beings God created us to be from the beginning. Freeman quotes a commentary on the commandments from a thirteenth-century Jewish author in Spain. “A person’s attitudes,” the commentator wrote, “are molded by his behavior.”

If a preacher were to use our text on Reformation Sunday (as I am proposing), then some time meditating and reflecting on the nature of God’s law would be in order. Martin Luther is often caricatured as saying that the Law is uniformly bad and is the “opposite” of the Gospel. That cannot be right, of course. After all, Luther spends the majority of both his Small and Large Catechisms expounding the Ten Commandments. If the Law were bad, why waste all that ink on it?

Luther reminded the Western Church that the Law is the result of our relationship with God, not the road to that relationship. As he reads the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms, for example, he sees the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 as the “Introduction” to the Commandments. “I am the Lord your God,” we read in that verse, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It is only in light of that gracious act that the following commandments make any sense at all.

Therefore, Luther argues, it is faith that fulfills the commandments. By that he means that it is trust in that gracious relationship which God initiates which is the keeping of the Law. But even this trust in the relationship is not a “work,” something that we humans – in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves – can produce on our own.

Faith itself, the capacity to respond to God’s gracious gift, is also God’s gracious gift. “Thus, God’s promises give what the law demands,” Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian¸ “so that everything may belong to God alone, both the commands and their fulfillment” (page 496). Jesus roots the covenant connection with God in relationship, not rules. The scribe agrees with that assessment and is, therefore, “not far from the Kingdom of God.”

This faith relationship, according to Luther, is far more than a pleasant connection. He describes three “powers” of that faith in The Freedom of the Christian. First, the gift of faith forms us for our loving union with God. Second, the gift of faith equips us to treat God as God – as Jesus would put it, loving God with the wholeness of heart, soul, mind, and strength. Third, the gift of faith unites us with Christ (see pages 496ff.).

To illustrate this third power of faith, Luther uses the metaphor union between the “bride” (my “soul”) and the Bridegroom, Christ. The working of this union is what Luther describes in many places as the “Joyous Exchange.” He puts it this way in The Freedom of the Christian: “Accordingly, the faithful soul can both assume as its own whatever Christ has and glory in it, and whatever is the soul’s Christ claims for himself as his own” (page 500).

Our trusting relationship with God is not something already within us that Jesus uses to build us up into perfection. In the words of Tuomo Mannermaa, faith is the presence of Christ in us. “Christ gives his person to us through faith, Mannermaa writes. “’Faith’ means participation in Christ, in whom there is no sin, death, or curse” (Kindle Locations 321-322). To put it more simply, Mannermaa notes, “Salvation is participation in the person of Christ” (Kindle Location 319).

Faith – the presence of and participation in the person of Christ – forms us for works of love. And works of love then further form us for faith. Have you ever noticed that the real “virtues” are self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating? By that I mean that the best way to be more trusting is to practice trusting. The best way to have more hope is to practice hoping. The best way to be more loving it to practice loving. The practices themselves form us more fully into the Christ within us.

This sounds a great deal like the understanding of commandments with which I began this post. A person’s attitudes are molded by their behavior. And a person’s behavior molds their attitudes as well. While the Law cannot bring us into relationship with God in Christ, Luther asserts, it can help us to grow deeper in that relationship. The Law can guide us to discipline ourselves for living. And it can guide us into fruitful ways to love our neighbor.

Jesus notes that the “second” commandment is somehow connected to the foremost. We can and likely will examine that idea in more detail downstream. But for now, let’s think about it in terms of a kind of descent. The ancient principle is that “like begets like.” The second commandment is the “offspring” of the foremost. Love for neighbor as oneself is the natural progeny of the trust in God that produces love for God.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul writes in Romans 5:1 (NRSV). He concludes that sentence at the end of verse five by noting that we have this peace with God “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It won’t be a Reformation Day observance without some heavy-duty Paul-quoting, eh?

“God’s love” is a plenary genitive in this passage. It is both God’s love for us and our love for God. Not only has that love been poured into us through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is poured through us onto our neighbor. The second commandment is the offspring of the foremost commandment and is the expression of the presence of Christ in us – the clearest expression of our faith in Christ.

I’m not arguing that Jesus was a Lutheran and didn’t know it. I do hope, however, that Lutherans have a faithful way of talking about Jesus. That’s what theology is good for, after all – to bear witness to the Good News of God in Christ in ways that can make sense to people. Our love for neighbor is the result of our relationship with God in Christ.

Luther puts it this way in The Freedom of the Christian. “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ” (page 524, my emphasis).

In this time when the assertion of individual “rights” at the expense of the neighbor, the community, and Creation, has been raised to the level of an ultimate concern, a review of the Lutheran basis for love of neighbor might be a helpful thing. It should be clear that putting individual preference ahead of the needs of the neighbor cannot qualify as love for neighbor (or self, for that matter) according to Lutheran theological categories.

Luther’s “Golden Rule” is not “do unto others as you would have them to unto you.” Instead, Luther’s Golden Rule goes like this. In faith (that is, the presence of Christ in us) “in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us” (page 525, my emphasis).

That’s the real application of the “second” commandment in the life of the Jesus follower: do for your neighbor as Christ does for you.

References and Resources

Freeman, Tzvi. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1438516/jewish/Mitzvah.htm.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4.

Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Throwback Thursday Books — A Simple Way to Pray by Martin Luther

“How Not to Pray”

In his little book called A Simple Way to Pray, Martin Luther remembers an old joke about a pastor who was praying one thing but thinking another. Luther says the pastor’s prayer went something like this.

“O God, intend Your ear to me (Hired hand, have you lashed the horse to the wagon?).”

“Make haste to deliver me, O Lord (Young lady, go milk the cow).”

“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit (Get cracking, you rascal or the plague take you!).”

Luther notes that the pastor illustrates an old Latin proverb: “a person engaged in various pursuits, minds none of them well.” “A true prayer,” Luther concludes, “meditates on all the words and thoughts of the prayer from beginning to end” (Kindle Location 188).

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

Many people would define prayer as “talking to God.” That’s true, but it’s a very limited definition. Talking to God puts the emphasis on what I have to say. It puts me in charge of the conversation. Worst of all, prayer as talking to God leaves no room for listening! One of the problems with the prayers Jesus describes in Matthew six is that there is so much talking and so little listening.

Prayer that makes a difference is rooted in listening. Listening happens in silence. “Silence,” writes Kallistos Ware, “is not merely negative—a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech—but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening.” (The Power of the Name, Kindle Location 27).

Bishop Theophan the Recluse put it this way: “the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” To stand before God with the mind in the heart—that is a deep definition of prayer. That is what it means to store up treasures in heaven—to stand before God with the mind in the heart.

Prayer is not merely request. Prayer is relationship. “Prayer,” writes Anne Lamott, “means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.” (Help, Thanks, Wow, page 4).

Prayer does not begin with me. It begins with God. Prayer is not primarily something I do. Rather prayer is something God does in me and to me and through me. “True inner prayer,” Kallistos Ware concludes, “is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the action of God.”

Praying restores us to our full humanity. The function of prayer is to place us in the presence of God. This was God’s intention from the beginning. In the garden, God strolled with the humans in the cool of the evening. They were always in his presence and happy to be there. That is the way we are made. We are restless, irritable and discontent when we separate ourselves from God.

Is it any wonder that Jesus criticizes the actions of the religious leaders of his day? What they did were not bad things in and of themselves, Alms, prayer and fasting are helpful disciplines at any time, and especially during the Lenten season. But who is the focus of these actions? If it is me, I have already gotten what I want. If the focus is God, then that’s how I need to act.

Humility is the doorway to holiness. So there is no real prayer without humility. Anne Lamott reminds us of an old riddle. “What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.” Those who advertised their alms, prayers and fasting indeed got their rewards. What they wanted was public applause, and that’s what they got. Arrogance leads toward applause and away from God. Humility precedes holiness and leads us toward God.

Humility is the doorway to holiness. Holiness is the real goal of being human. We were made to stand in the presence of God, to walk with God as friends in the cool of the evening.

C. S. Lewis wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.” God already knows what we need better than we know ourselves.

Matthew 6 is the longest instruction Jesus gives about praying. So we should probably pay attention.  At the center of these texts is the confidence that God is our Father. We can approach God with confidence. We don’t have to prove our value in advance. Our Father sees our secret places and stays with us. So we can come to receive the ashes, knowing they are not the end. We go from the ashes to the altar. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Then we remember Jesus in his body and blood, given and shed for us and for the life of the world.

Your Father who is in the secret place–this is God is waiting in the hidden depths of our hearts to speak to us. Real prayer springs us from the trap of showing off before God and others. God knows who we are better than we know ourselves. So we can be honest. We can be real people. In prayer, we can be free to be who we truly are and who we truly are created to be. “Talk to God,” says Rowan Williams, “as if you are Jesus.” That’s a startling statement, but that’s exactly right.

We were prepared for that relationship by the words of the Prayer of the Day this past Sunday. We prayed that God will “transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity…” We can pray as if we are Jesus because that’s what God intends us to be–more and more like Jesus.

After some good listening, then perhaps we are better equipped to speak. One of the challenges is simply learning how to pray in a helpful way. In 1535 Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked Luther for some instructions and training on how to pray. Luther wrote a letter, which became a booklet, describing Luther’s personal prayer practice. I like to summarize that practice with the acronym “ITCH.”

“I” stands for Intercession — first lifting up the needs and concerns of our neighbors before God. “T” stands for Thanksgiving. God is the Giver of all good things and deserves our thanksgiving and praise for such grace, mercy and love. “C” stands for Confession. We come before God in our brokenness and lack of faith, and God heals us in the honesty of our self-disclosure. “H” stands for Help. Whoever we call on in life and in death, Luther notes in the Large Catechism, that one is our God. We are encouraged to call upon God in every time of need and to never be bashful in our requests.

Much of the book is specific examples of how Luther uses this and other methods to pray his way through the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed. But this little book also has nuggets that are precious to me. For example, Luther urges concentration in our prayer and suggests that we refrain from multi-tasking while we pray.

“Just as a good and diligent barber must keep his thoughts and eyes precisely on the razor and the hair and not forget where he is while cutting hair,” Luther writes to Besekendorf the barber, “even though he may be chatting a great deal, he will be concentrating carefully, so that he keeps a close eye on where the razor is so he doesn’t cut somebody’s nose, or mouth, or even slice somebody’s throat.” Perhaps Luther had some mixed experiences with barbers! But his concrete illustration makes the point.

Luther encourages us to regard prayer as a necessary form of spiritual nourishment. “To this day, I nurse on the Lord’s Prayer like a little child,” he writes, “and like an old man now, I eat and drink from it, but never get my fill.” Again, Luther’s imagery is earthy and precise — one of the many things I value about his writing.

I have taught and used Luther’s prayer method for years and rely on it whenever I find myself at a prayer road block. That is especially the case when I find myself, as Luther did, under some kind of spiritual assault. Luther was convinced that these moments of “Anfechtungen” were not times to have to make up prayers on the fly and off the cuff. Instead, at such moments a tried and true discipline can be useful to allow the Spirit to haul us out of the depths and into the light.

I look forward to re-engaging with this prayer discipline in the season of Lent 2021.

Text Study for 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; 2 Epiphany B

The freedom of Christians was a major issue for the Corinthian Christians. It is likely that a number of members of the congregation were slaves and former slaves. It may well be that some slaves and masters were members of the congregation together. This sociological reality by itself would raise some big questions for a Christian community (just read Paul’s Letter to Philemon for a window into that can of worms). Here Paul tries to resolve the tension between freedom in Christ and the obedience of faith.

As he thinks about freedom in Christ, Paul makes an analogy with the human body. He will return to this analogy in chapters 10 through 13, but his usage there will be a bit different.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

First, he briefly notes that just because we can eat anything we want doesn’t mean that we should eat everything we want. There is a right relationship between food and the stomach that defines freedom. It is not an exercise of freedom to eat until you make yourself sick. That’s an expression of an addiction to food. So freely adopting healthy boundaries is not a concession to law or works. Rather, it is a way of being more of who we are created to be in Christ.

Frank L. Crouch develops this in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “Soon, what I chose freely…can dominate my life.  I will no longer be free. The cosmos does not actually revolve around me.  God, by grace, can set us free from those dominations, but even though the power to be free is immediate, the way back to health will still be long and hard.  Paul cautions us to choose our paths carefully lest the things we freely choose become our undoing or become an imposition on our neighbors and, collectively, foster suffering or oppression.”

Paul quickly moves the analogy on to the dimensions of sexual freedom and obligation in a marriage. Remaining faithful within a marriage covenant is not a restriction of freedom. Rather, having sexual relations with a prostitute constitutes the bondage. Sexual relations create a bond with another person regardless of the assumed relationship or lack thereof. To treat those relations as of no consequence is to make oneself a slave to connections not of one’s choosing.

Melanie Howard puts it well in her workingpreacher.org commentary.

“We might better understand Paul’s analogy here by considering his teachings on the marriage union later in 1 Corinthians 7. In the context of that discussion, Paul emphasizes that a married individual cedes authority of their body to their spouse (7:4). The verb that Paul uses there is the same one from 6:12 where he quotes the Corinthians’ own words against them. Thus, a connection emerges between these two chapters. An individual becomes one flesh with their spouse (6:16) and thus grants authority to the spouse over that flesh (7:4). In the same way, one becomes one spirit with Christ (1:17) and thus grants authority to Christ over both flesh and spirit alike.”

Paul has chosen two body analogies that rely on the image of union with something “outside” of oneself. Food is consumed and becomes part of one’s body. Sexual relations are an exchange of bodily integrity, and the partners become part of one another’s bodies. These analogies help Paul make the point that the Holy Spirit enters the believer from outside and unites the believer, body and all, to the Lord.

So, on the one hand, the analogy allows Paul to use a couple of familiar and graphic images to help the Corinthian believers understand what he is saying. On the other hand, he can reverse the analogy to help the Corinthian believers understand that unhealthy relationships with sex and food will interfere with one’s freedom in Christ. Those unhealthy relationships may be “lawful” in the sense that Christians are not bound by the Mosaic law. But they are not helpful or useful to the individual believer or to the community.

Valerie Nicolet-Anderson puts it this way on her workingpreacher.org commentary. “For Paul, freedom is always oriented freedom; and for the Christ believers, this freedom depends on their lord, Christ. Through their baptism, the Christ believers now belong to Christ. For them the question is no longer what is permitted or not, or what is legal or not. Rather, they have to orient their freedom in order to embody their new life in Christ

Therefore, the misuse of God’s gifts can put us deeper in bondage. So, Paul says that in freedom in Christ he will not be “dominated” by anything.  The Greek word literally means to under the power of something or someone.

We should be clear that for Paul, the modern ideal of personal autonomy is not good news at all. If you belong to no one, you are completely on your own. When things go wrong, no one will help you. You have no way to know who you are. And you will wander isolated through a heartless world. Lest we think that Paul is hopelessly old-fashioned in this regard, let’s remember the pathological prevalence of loneliness in this culture that champions individual freedom from constricting connections.

Paul is sure that we will either belong to sin, death, and evil, or we will belong to Christ. Israel Kamudzandu offers this discussion on his workingpreacher.org commentary.

The point of “glorifying God,” individually or communally is Paul’s final message that human bodies belong to God. Theologically, Paul offers a new vision, one that builds the ecclesial community where individuals gather as the body of Christ. In a world where people are torn between rights and Spiritual faith, Paul calls believers to live a countercultural way of life — a life of discipline and discernment. The life being called for is one in which one ceases to be a free-range individual but one who submits to the authority of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Luther devotes one of his most important treatises to the topic of Christian freedom. “One thing and one thing alone is necessary for the Christian life, righteousness, and freedom,” Luther writes in The Freedom of the Christian, “and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ” (page 490). From his Small Catechism, we know that the Holy Spirit has called us into Christ through the Gospel. Therefore, the work of the Holy Spirit is the work that makes us free. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, no one can even say “Jesus is Lord,” except by the power of the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit calls us through the Gospel and creates in us the gift of faith, Luther says. That gift forms our souls for love for God and neighbor. That faith regards God as truthful and deserving of our absolute trust. And that faith “unites the soul with Christ, like a bride with a bridegroom” (page 499).

We find ourselves back in 1 Corinthians territory (although Luther most likely had the words of Ephesians 5 in mind here). This union brings about the “wonderful exchange” at the heart of Luther’s theology. “Accordingly,” he writes, “the faithful soul can both assume as its own whatever Christ has and glory in it, and whatever is the soul’s Christ claims for himself as his own” (page 500).

This wonderful exchange frees us from any need to placate or please God with our works, wealth or worry. We can therefore devote ourselves fully to loving service toward the neighbor. “In this life,” Luther writes, “a person’s own body must be ruled and be in relation with other human beings” (page 511). Like Paul, Luther understands freedom as a “oriented freedom” rather than mere autonomy. Freedom must serve a purpose, otherwise it lapses into bondage to the self.

The Christian ideal is not a detached personal autonomy but rather faith active in love. Just as Paul talks about the relationship between healthy boundaries and spiritual freedom, Luther makes the point. “The purpose of putting the body in subjection,” he writes, “is so that it can serve more genuinely and more freely” (page 520). Luther takes a couple of paragraphs to point out that this is the rational for keeping oneself healthy and fit, so that we “can protect and support those who are in need” (page 520).

We live in this way because the Holy Spirit fills us with the freeing power of Christ for lives of meaning and purpose. We are made for loving service, and living that way makes us most fully alive in Christ. “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor,” Luther writes, just as Christ offered himself to me [notice “to me” rather than “for me”!]. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary to me neighbor,” Luther concludes, “because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ” (page 524).

It’s not surprising that Paul brings a conclusion to this central section of the letter in chapter thirteen with his poem on love. Overflowing with all good things in Christ for the sake of the neighbor is how Luther defines and describes that love. And that loving service is the essence of what it means to live free in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

References and Resources


Crouch, Frank L. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-612-20

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Glaude, Eddie S. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.

Howard, Melanie. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-612-20-5

Kashdan, Todd. Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s Large Catechism. Bente and Dau, 2012.

Luther, Martin (Timothy Wengert). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Morris, Jerome. “Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth? Race, Class, and African American Schooling and Community in the Urban South and Midwest.” American Education Research Journal, Spring 2004.

Nicolet-Anderson, Valerie. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-612-20-3

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Ruge-Jones, Phil. The Word of the Cross and The Word of Glory. Minneapolis, Mn.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009.

Wengert, Timothy J. The Freedom of a Christian 1520 (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, Mn.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Wessel-McCoy, Colleen. https://kairoscenter.org/can-anything-good-come-nazareth-sermon-celebrating-martin-luther-king/

Text Study for Genesis 1:1-5; Baptism of Our Lord B

The Holy Spirit’s Landing Pad

I often wonder why the lectionary committee has selected, based on historical practice, this text for Jesus’ baptism. It certainly must be to connect the waters of baptism with the waters of Creation, swept by the same Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life.” The Creator “speaks” the cosmos into existence. Just last week we were reminded of the Word that is in the beginning with God and through whom all things are made. That Word is enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. At his baptism, he is spoken into his role as God’s beloved Son, the Messiah and Lord of all.

Baptism into Christ is not only rooted in the act of Creation. Baptism is (New) Creation. I want to take this opportunity to talk at greater length about baptism from our Lutheran perspective. In light of this first reading, we can think together about the relationship between God’s Word and the water. When God speaks, the waters of chaos are brought to order. It’s nothing in the water itself but is rather the creative power of God’s Word. So, Luther can write in the Small Catechism, “Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead,” he says, “it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s word.”

Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels.com

Kirsi Stjerne describes this as “heavenly water for the Holy Spirit’s landing.” This is one of the ways that our baptism is similar to and rooted in Jesus’ baptism. She notes that Luther insists that just as the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus in baptism, so that same Spirit comes to rest upon us as well. I would remind us that this is the Spirit that hovered over the face of the deep at Creation and brought light and life to the Cosmos.

Lois Tverberg connects some of these scriptural dots as she reflects on rabbinic methods of textual interpretation. The Spirit of God broods over the waters of chaos and Creation happens. In Genesis 8, we read that God causes a wind/spirit/breath to move over the earth and the flood waters subside. “More than one rabbi has noted that this replay of the first creation scene is telling us,” Tverberg writes, “how God was, in effect, creating the world anew after the flood” (Kindle Location 2594). At the Red Sea, God drives the waters back with a strong east wind (Exodus 14:21). And, of course, we see the Spirit descending on Jesus in the midst of the waters of the Jordan. Creation and New Creation are one thing.

Luther certainly makes this connection is his wonderful “Flood Prayer” which is incorporated into our ELW baptismal liturgy. “We give you thanks, O God,” the presider prays, “for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and by your Word you created the world, calling forth life in which you took delight” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 230). For Luther, the watery connections begin with Creation and extend through nearly every mention of water in the Hebrew scriptures.

That is especially the case with the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus. The Flood Prayer directly connects that crossing to both Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and his death and resurrection. So the Creation of out of nothing in Genesis 1, the rescue of the fleeing slaves, and our own participation in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism are the same act of Creation spoken by God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Flood Prayer concludes with a petition that the one who is baptized will receive that same gift of New Creation. “Pour out your Holy Spirit,” the presider prays, “the power of your living Word, that those who are washed in the waters of baptism may be given new life.” Creation, redemption, and sanctification are all the singular act of the one God who brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life out of death.

“Baptism, then, signifies two things – death and resurrection,” Luther writes in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, “that is, full and complete justification” (page 70). He refers us to Paul’s words on baptism in Romans 6, the passage that concludes with our walking “in newness of life.” The God who creates with the Word by the power of the Spirit redeems the dead sinner into new life and empowers that life for daily discipleship. “This death and resurrection,” Luther concludes, “we call the new creation, regeneration, and spiritual birth” (page 70).

Baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ demonstrates to us how Creation actually “works.” In baptism, for the sake of Jesus God fills us with the Holy Spirit. In this way we are growing into what God made us to be from the beginning. Just as God fills us with light and life, so God fills all of Creation with that same Spirit of life and light. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Psalm 29 is a celebration of the glory, power, and beauty of the Creator shining through the Creator’s work. This psalm might serve well as a call to worship at this service. It is a glimpse of the heavens torn open and the glory of the Lord revealed. The image of the Lord enthroned over the flood in verse 10 is especially potent in connection with the first reading from Genesis 1. And it is another touch point with Luther’s baptismal prayer.

Baptism shows us God’s heart and character in Creation. The finite is able by Divine mystery to encompass the infinite. We call that Incarnation. In baptism, we also become “containers” of the infinite Spirit of love in Christ. By analogy we can see the same thing happening in all of Creation. In many congregations on this day, worshippers will remember their own baptisms. It may be powerful to help them connect their individual washings with the Spirit that fills and animates the whole cosmos.

In the same way that this creative event was not visible to everyone at the baptism of Jesus, so for us the impact of baptism may have a certain hidden element. “A certain hiddenness remains with baptism and how it conveys God and God’s grace,” Stjerna writes. “We receive this grace invisibly,” she continues, “but this does not mean its fruits should remain invisible” (page 44). The fruits of the New Creation are acts of love for the neighbor.

The Holy Spirit gives the gift of faith by grace for the sake of Jesus. And we respond with acts of loving service that overflow our full hearts. “Is it possible,” Stjerna asks rhetorically, “that the fruits of lives transformed by such grace could remain hidden?” No, it is not. “For our whole life should be baptism,” Luther writes in the Captivity, “and the fulfilling of the sign or sacrament of baptism, since we have been set free from all else and given over to baptism alone, that is, to death and resurrection” (page 72).

References and Resources

Berge, Paul — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/17-1_Communion/17-1_Berge.pdf

Crouch, Frank L. — https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/baptism-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-acts-191-7

Hermann, Erik H. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Hultgren, Arland — https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/baptism-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-acts-191-7-2.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series).

Juel, Don, and Kiefer, Patrick — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/8-1_Spirituality/8-1_Juel-Keifert.pdf.

Lose, David — http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/

Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels  Kindle Edition.

Roberts, Alastair — https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-individual-mark-14-11/

Stjerne, Kirsi. No Greater Jewel: Thinking about Baptism with Luther. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress, 2009.

Tappert, Theodore, ed. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Vancouver, BC.: Regent College Publishing, 1960.

Lois Tverberg. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective can Transform Your Understanding. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2017.

Ulansey, David — http://www.mysterium.com/veil.html Volck, Brian — http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2015/01/assumed-and-healed/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=assumed-and-healed