During Pentecost Season 2023, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two “tracks” of readings from the Hebrew Bible. Congregations may choose either track.
The first track of readings follows major stories and themes, read mostly continuously from week to week. The second track of readings thematically pairs the reading from the Hebrew Bible with the Gospel reading.
The readings from the Epistles are the same in both tracks.
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
18:1 The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
21:1 The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Genesis is the first book of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Torah also called the Pentateuch (“five books”) in Greek. Genesis covers the period from Creation to the deaths of Jacob and his 11th son, Joseph, in about 1650 BCE, if the accounts are historical.
The Book of Genesis (like the Torah as a whole) is an amalgam of religious traditions, some of which are dated to about 950 BCE and some of which were developed as late as 450 BCE. Since the late 19th Century, Biblical scholars have recognized four major “strands” or sources in the Torah called “J” (Yahwistic), “E” (Elohistic), “D” (Deuteronomic) and “P” (Priestly). These sources are identified (among other ways) by their different theological emphases, names for God, names for the holy mountain, and portrayals of God’s characteristics.
The first 11 Chapters of Genesis are called the “primeval history” which ends with the Tower of Babel story — an “etiology” (story of origins) relating to the scattering of humankind and the multiplicity of languages. The last chapter of the primeval history also traces Abram’s lineage back to Noah’s son, Shem (which means “name” in Hebrew and from which we get the word “Semites”).
Today’s reading jumps from Abram’s entry into the land of Canaan in last week’s reading (Ch. 12). In the intervening chapters, Abram passed off his beautiful wife (aged 70+) Sarai, as his sister and Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s palace so that riches were bestowed on Abram by Pharoah. But YHWH inflicted plagues on Pharaoh because of Sarai, and Pharaoh sent them both off. Then, Abram and Lot divided the lands and Lot chose the fertile lands east of the Jordan River. The LORD made another covenant with Abram (Ch.15) and Ishmael was born to Hagar, Sarai’s handmaiden, when Abram was 86 years old (Ch. 16). When Abram was 99, YHWH made another covenant with Abraham requiring him and his household to be circumcised; changed his name to Abraham (father of a multitude); changed Sarai’s name to Sarah (princess); and promised Abraham that Sarah would bear a son next year which made Abraham laugh (Ch. 17).
Today’s reading is prefaced (v.1) by the statement that the LORD appeared to Abraham at Mamre. It then shifted to an account of three “men” (v.2) who came to Abraham’s tent at Mamre (whose oaks/terebinths were regarded as oracles). The New Oxford Annotated Bible says that the motif of divine visitors is widespread in folklore. It observes that the account fluidly shifts from the LORD (v.1) to “three men” (v.2) to “they” (v.9) to “one” (v.10) to “the LORD” (v.13) to “I” and “he” (vv.14-15).
One of the “men” predicted that Sarah (who was over 90 years old by this time) would have a son in a year (v.10). Sarah laughed to herself (v.12) and this anticipated the name of her son, Isaac (which means “he laughs”).
Abraham’s hospitality to the three sacred figures was overwhelming: an entire calf and three “measures” of flour (about 63 quarts of flour). The Jewish Study Bible points out the contrast between Abraham’s self-deprecating language (vv.4-5 “a little water… a morsel of bread”) and the enormous quantities offered to his guests. The JSB also observes that Sarah did not believe she could conceive because Abraham was so old (v.12) but the LORD reversed her words to ask why she said she was so old (v.13).
This story is first part of Chapter 18 which shifted to YHWH’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s negotiation with YHWH to spare the cities if an ever-declining number of just persons resided there. In Chapter 19, the men of Sodom sought to sexually abuse Lot’s guests/angels. Lot refused and offered his two virgin daughters to the men. When the men tried to break in, the angels blinded them. This Chapter concluded with Lot, his wife and his two daughters escaping from the cities when they were destroyed, but Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back. Lot’s daughters were convinced there were no more men on the earth, so they got Lot drunk, had sex with him and conceived sons who were the forebears of Israel’s great enemies – the Moabites and the Ammonites. In Chapter 20, Abraham again passed off Sarah as his sister, this time to King Abimelech of Gerar. (In Chapter 26, Isaac also passed off his wife, Rebekah, as his sister to Abimelech.)
Today’s reading concludes with the fulfillment of God’s promise of a son to this aged couple. The JSB observes that there is a midrash (interpretation) that the LORD “dealt with” (NRSV) or “took note of” (JPS) Sarah (v.1) on Rosh Ha-Shanah and for this reason, Genesis 21 is the first Torah Reading on Rosh Ha-Shanah in synagogues today.
2 The Israelites had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3 Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. 8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.”
The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Bible and covers the period from the slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh (around 1250 BCE, if the account is historical), the Exodus itself, and the early months in the Wilderness.
Like Genesis, Exodus is an amalgam of religious traditions. Today’s reading is mostly from the Priestly writer – shown by the emphasis on precise dates. These events occurred “on the very day” of the third new moon after leaving Egypt (v.1), the day the Israelites reached Sinai. (The holy mountain is called “Horeb” by other writers even within Exodus – for example, in Ex. 3:1.) According to the accounts, the Israelites stayed at Sinai for about a year.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible says that these chapters “incorporate a wide diversity of traditions reflecting different understandings of God and the divine relationship with Israel.” This is shown by the reference to the people as both “the house of Jacob” and “the Israelites” (v.3) but the reference in v.6 only to the Israelites. It is also shown by the “E” language that Moses went up to “God” (Elohim) (v.3a) and the “P” language that YHWH called him from the mountain (v.3b).
The Jewish Study Bible describes the encounter with God at Sinai as “momentous” and as “the defining and seminal moment in Israel’s relationship with God.” The JSB observes that the account of the encounters at Sinai (Chapters 19 to 24) is “extraordinarily difficult to follow” because “it was transmitted in multiple versions that differed about the nature of the event and what God communicated to the people.” It notes that text in these chapters combined material from J,E, and P and that the Redactor included these multiple versions because he thought all of them were true, even though they are inconsistent with each other. The JSB concludes that “despite, or perhaps because of, these tensions, the narrative has great power expressing the multifaceted, ambiguous nature of revelation.”
In today’s reading, YHWH proposed a conditional covenant to Moses and the Israelites (“If you obey my voice” v.5), and all the people responded that they would do all that YHWH had spoken (v.8). In the Chapters that follow (20 to 23), the Law was given. This covenant is summarized by the statement that Israel shall be God’s “treasured possession,” “a priestly kingdom” (consecrated for service to God”) and “a holy nation” (set apart as belonging to the holy God) (vv.5-6). The JSB notes that the Hebrew word for “treasured” is segulah and denotes private property of a king as distinct from that used for public purposes.
The JSB notes that the covenant proposed here went beyond the ones established with Israel’s ancestors and was modeled on ancient royal covenants in which a citizenry accepted a king and also on suzerainty treaties in which a weaker king (a vassal) accepted a more powerful one as his suzerain.
In Rabbinic Judaism, the giving of the Law at Sinai became the theological basis for the Feast of Weeks/Pentecost, a feast that originally celebrated the spring barley harvest (Ex. 23.16) and occurred 50 days after Passover. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says, however, that some Jewish groups are recorded as connecting the giving of the Law with the Feast of Weeks as early as the 2nd century BCE.
1 Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was his longest, last, and most complex letter. It was written in the late 50s or early 60s (CE) (about 10 years before the earliest Gospel (Mark) was written) to a Jesus Follower community that Paul did not establish. Among many messages in the letter, Paul sought to encourage respectful and supportive relationships between the Gentile Jesus Followers and the Jewish Jesus Followers in Rome.
The “backstory” is that in 49 CE, Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome, including Jewish Jesus Followers. The next Emperor was Nero who reigned from 54 to 68 CE. Nero reversed his predecessor’s decree and allowed Jews to return to Rome. This return caused tensions within the Jesus Follower Community in which Gentiles had become prominent.
Paul died in 63 or 64 CE. Accordingly, the Temple in Jerusalem (which was destroyed in 70) was in full operation all during Paul’s life. As a Jew who was also a Jesus Follower, Paul saw the Jesus Follower Movement as part of a broader Judaism and continued to have expectations about the fullness of the Coming of the Messiah/the Christ. The term “Christian” had not been invented in his lifetime.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament observes that the Letter to the Romans is written as a diatribe, a rhetorical technique using questions and answers and changes in voice to represent different points of view. The use of this technique makes it difficult to distinguish whether we are encountering Paul’s views directly or those of others as presented by Paul. The JANT suggests that today’s reading is not a statement by Paul but the voice of a “Christ-following Gentile dialogue partner (“we” and “us”) who is commenting on what Paul has argued about their equal standing with Jews, or it is Paul speaking inclusively for them.” Seeing today’s reading as the “voice” of persons other than Paul gives additional insights into it.
In his epistles, Paul used a number of terms that need to be understood in context. “Justified” (v.1) is sometimes translated as “righteousness” – that is, being in right relationships with God and others. A “just” person is also a “righteous” person, and “justified” is used the same way that a page of type is “justified” – all the margins are straight and in order.
“Faith” (v.1) for Paul was not used the way it is now typically used — as an intellectual assent to one or more propositions. The Greek word for “faith” (pistis) has an active aspect and should be understood as “faithfulness” – actively and steadily living into one’s beliefs through grace and trust in God. Paul emphasized that “faith” is a matter of the heart — not the intellect — and that faithfulness leads to being “justified” or righteousness (v.1).
The New Oxford Annotated Bible suggests the phrase “we are justified by faith” (v.1) may, however, refer to the faith[fulness] of Jesus the Christ in his life. This is supported by Paul’s statement that “we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have now received reconciliation (v.11). The NAOB also understands the phrase “while we were still weak” (v.6) as meaning that “God’s grace preceded any human act that might constitute a claim to righteousness before God.”
All during Paul’s life, animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple (which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE) were a way Jews were reconciled to YHWH. It is therefore not surprising that Paul used “sacrifice” language to interpret the meaning of the Crucifixion: “Christ died for us” (v.8); and we are “justified by his blood” (v. 9).
35 Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
The Gospel of Matthew highlights Jesus’ origins and identity. Written around 85 CE by an anonymous author, the Gospel began Jesus’ genealogy with Abraham and depicted Jesus as a teacher of the Law like Moses. More than any other Gospel, Matthew quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures (using the Greek Septuagint translation) to illustrate that Jesus was the Messiah.
Because it was written after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Gospel reflected the controversies between the Jesus Followers and the Pharisees for control of Judaism going forward. Accordingly, the Gospel contains many harsh sayings about the Pharisees. The Gospel is aimed primarily at the late First Century Jewish Jesus Follower community.
The Gospel relied heavily on the Gospel of Mark and included all but 60 verses from Mark. Like Luke, Matthew also used a “Sayings Source” (called “Q” by scholars) which are stories and sayings found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark and John. There are also a substantial number of stories that are unique to Matthew: the Annunciation of Jesus’ conception was revealed to Joseph in a dream (rather than by an angel to Mary as in Luke); the Visit of the Magi; the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod; the Flight to Egypt; the Laborers in the Vineyard; and the earthquake on Easter Morning, among others.
Today’s reading is primarily about mission and reflects the use of hyperbole in much of scripture (“all the cities and villages” v.35a) and the growing split between Matthew’s community and Pharisaic Judaism in Matthew’s time (“teaching in their synagogues” v.35b). In Jesus’ lifetime, he would have been welcomed in synagogues, but by Matthew’s time (50 years later), there was growing tension within Judaism between the Jesus Followers and nascent Rabbinic Judaism. Similarly, the “prediction” that “they” would “hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues” reflects Matthew’s time, not the time of Jesus 50 years earlier.
The NAOB observes that vv.35-38 was a summation of Jesus’ activities and ministries over the last five chapters of this Gospel. Jesus was portrayed as a teacher, healer, and proclaimer of good news to all the people. The description of the people as “sheep without a shepherd” (v.36) is a traditional image from the Hebrew Bible. The quote about laborers being few (v.38) is from the Q-Source and is found in Luke 10:2.
Matthew’s list of the 12 “disciples” (v.1) – learners or students – who are also called “apostles” in v.2 – those who are sent – is slightly different from the lists in the other Synoptic Gospels. The “12” is seen as a symbolic representation of the 12 tribes of Israel. According to The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, only Matthew refers to the 12 as “apostles.”
Only in Matthew were the apostles instructed to go only to Israel and not to Gentiles or Samaria (v.5). This limitation began to change in Chapter 15 when the Canaanite woman asked that her daughter be healed and reminded Jesus that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (15:27). The restriction was fully abrogated in the post-Resurrection’s Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary observes that the sentence in verse 8b (“Your received without payment; give without payment”) is “surprisingly Pauline” citing Romans 3:24 and 2 Corinthians 11:7 and “the point of the statement is that the divine truths of salvation are so important for everyone that they must be taught without regard for the listeners ability to pay.”
The JANT notes that although the mission was expanded to the Gentiles, the mission to Israel was never abrogated. The JANT sees Matthew’s Gospel as one in which Gentiles were already included, for example, in Matthew’s genealogy (1:1-17) in which the four women who are mentioned are Gentiles.
The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (v.15) was the failure to express and hospitality, and its punishment would befall the places that “do not welcome you” (v.14).
Matthew, like Paul and Mark, believed the eschaton (the final judgment) was near (”you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”) (v.23).