Revised Common Lectionary Commentary

Ash Wednesday - February 22, 2023

Saint Dominic contemplating the Scriptures

Saint Dominic
contemplating the Scriptures

Comments have been prepared by Chris Haslam using reputable commentaries, and checked for accuracy by the Venerable Alan T Perry. While not intended to be exhaustive, they are an aid to reading the Scriptures with greater understanding.

Comments are best read with the lessons.

Feedback to is always welcome.

Lessons for this week from the Vanderbilt University web site

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The first verse tells us that this book is by Joel "son of Penuel". We do not know who this Joel is, for he is not mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament; however, the text does tell us something about him. First, he was a prophet. There are twelve prophetic books at the end of the Old Testament, of which Joel is one. Second, he has an appreciation of worship in the Temple. He mentions various officials, but never a king, so he probably lived after the return from exile. The earliest he could have written is then 515 BC, when the Temple was rebuilt. Sidon is mentioned. It was destroyed in 343 BC, so Joel wrote before that date. He starts by describing a locust plague and a drought, which he sees as God's punishment. The effects are catastrophic, like the day of the Lord. The people repent, and God restores their fortunes. Again God is in their midst. Israel recognizes God's saving presence and is vindicated, and other nations are (or will be, at the end of time) judged harshly.

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

After stating that his authority is from God ( 1:1), the prophet says that what he writes is to be told to future generations. He gives a highly realistic account of a plague of locusts. So great was the devastation that there were no grapes with which to make “sweet wine” ( 1:5) for celebrating a feast. The priests are to mourn, for no cereal offerings can be made in the Temple – all the crops have been destroyed. Even “joy withers away among the people” ( 1:12). This invasion, Joel says, is a foretaste of “the day of the Lord” ( 1:15); it is a punishment from God. The “pastures” ( 1:19) are as though burnt by “fire”. Blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, he says, to warn of the approach of the End! ( 2:1) Judah is under attack. So thick are the locusts that the sun is obscured – a sign also of the end times ( 2:2). The insects, like a conquering army on the move, are commanded by God. Can any survive the onslaught? ( 2:11) But there is still a chance: if a person repents and turns to God, perhaps he will be “gracious and merciful” ( 2:13).

Again Joel advises blowing the shofar ( 2:15): to summon the people to a fast. Put off your marriage! ( 2:16) Priests, intercede for the people: may God spare Judah from mockery by other nations, of being thought God-less ( 2:17). God does forgive; he has “pity on his people” ( 2:18). He returns fertility to the land, restores Judah to the place of honour among nations, and destroys the locusts. “Early rain” ( 2:23) softened earth parched by the summer heat; it made ploughing possible; “later rain”, in April/May, provided sustenance for summer crops. Trees again bear fruit ( 2:24). God will “repay” ( 2:25) for the destruction by the locusts (“hopper ... cutter” – stages in insect development) sent by him. He is still Judah’s God, “in the midst of Israel” ( 2:27), the only God. Judgement Day, “the day of the Lord”, will come “afterward” ( 2:28), much later. He will grant his power, his “spirit”, to all Judeans, to “sons ...” and even to “slaves” ( 2:29). Signs (“portents”, 2:30) will warn of the coming of the Day. Then the remnant faithful to God “shall be saved” ( 2:32), including those “whom the Lord calls”. Fortunes will be reversed ( 3:1-8): those nations who have oppressed Judah will be judged adversely.


This book can be divided into two (and possibly three) parts. Chapters 1 to 39 were written before the exile, from about 740 BC to about 700 BC. These were difficult times for the southern kingdom, Judah: a disastrous war was fought with Syria; the Assyrians conquered Israel, the northern kingdom, in 723 BC, and threatened Judah. Isaiah saw the cause of these events as social injustice, which he condemned, and against which he fought valiantly. Chapters 40 to 66 were written during and after the Exile in Babylon. They are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the Exile. Some scholars consider that Chapters 56 to 66 form a third part of the book, written after the return to the Promised Land. These chapters speak of hope and despair; they berate the people for their sin, for worshipping other gods. Like Second Isaiah, this part speaks of the hope that God will soon restore Jerusalem to its former glory and make a new home for all peoples.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Written after the Exile, this passage speaks of fasting, but its implications are wider: it encompasses the whole of the people’s attitude towards God. Through the prophet, God issues a legal summons to “my people” for “their rebellion”, for “their sins”. They go to the Temple daily (“seek me”, v. 2) and “delight” (in a sense) to know God’s ways – but their “righteousness” (keeping the Law and seeking godly judgements) are purely ritual, external.

Why, they ask, are you ignoring us, God? (v. 3a) He begins to explain in v. 3b: “you serve [only] your own interest” (delight yourselves, not me) and (as slave masters did in Egypt) “oppress all your workers”: there is a gulf between the rich and the poor. Because your lives outside the Temple are inconsistent with your worship (v. 4a), God will not hear your pleas. You kid yourselves if you think an insincere show of fasting is “acceptable” (v. 5). (“Sackcloth” was worn by mourners and the penitent.) God demands a proper relationship with others, one free from “injustice” (v. 6) and servitude (“yoke”), one in which the rich “share” (v. 7) with the “hungry”, forming one community, giving to the less fortunate. When you do this. God will hear you (“light”, v. 8) heal you (restore you to well-being), and protect you (both before and behind). He will be present with you.

Vv. 9-12 continue this theme, adding that contempt (“pointing of the finger”) and slander (“speaking of evil”) are unacceptable. God will be present with his people, guiding them, strengthening them when they find their trust in him waning, and making them a source of good/godliness for others (“a spring of water”, v. 11). From v. 12, we learn that Jerusalem is still not yet fully rebuilt: God will help them mend the “breach” in the walls, and restore their heritage.


Psalms is a collection of collections. The psalms were written over many centuries, stretching from the days of Solomon's temple (about 950 BC) to after the Exile (about 350 BC.) Psalms are of five types: hymns of praise, laments, thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms. Within the book, there are five "books"; there is a doxology ("Blessed be ... Amen and Amen") at the end of each book.

Psalm 51:1-17

Per the superscription, this psalm was written after Nathan had brought David to admit his guilt regarding Bathsheba, so when it speaks of rebuilding Jerusalem (v. 18) this may be a reference to public fence-mending David did then. The emphasis is on an individual’s sin, and prayers for personal pardon and restoration. The psalmist seeks cleansing from “iniquity” (v. 2) and “sins” (v. 9) He was sinful even before his birth (v. 5). In v. 6, he knows that God will seek truth in his very being; this is where he will receive understanding (“wisdom”). Perhaps v. 8b says he is ill – because of his sin. He even asks God to hide his “face from my sins” (v. 9), to be so gracious and compassionate as to turn a blind eye. May God restore him, bring him back to godliness, give him a clear conscience, a “clean heart” (v. 10) and a “new ... spirit”. Only God can purify. May God give him joy and sustenance, through his “holy spirit” (v. 11). Restored, he will proclaim God’s ways, for God wishes inner godliness, not sacrifices (vv. 13-17).


Psalms is a collection of collections. The psalms were written over many centuries, stretching from the days of Solomon's temple (about 950 BC) to after the Exile (about 350 BC.) Psalms are of five types: hymns of praise, laments, thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms. Within the book, there are five "books"; there is a doxology ("Blessed be ... Amen and Amen") at the end of each book.

Note: In The Anglican Church of Canada, Psalm 51 is used as part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Psalm 103 is also offered.
Psalm 103:8-18

The psalmist gives thanks to God for recovery from illness in vv. 1-5. He speaks to his very self (“soul”), reminding himself not to forget God’s healing power, both in curing diseases and in forgiving sin. God fills one’s life with godliness and gives renewed vigour. After recalling God’s care during the Exodus, he tells of God’s qualities in all times (v. 8), expanding on them in vv. 9-18. God is slow to anger and is only angry for a time (v. 9). He is lenient when we go against him (v. 10). He loves greatly those who hold him in awe (“fear”, v. 11). He is infinitely forgiving (v. 12); he is like a “father” (v. 13) in his mercy. The dry east “wind” (v. 16) devastated vegetation. Humans have finite lifetimes but God is everlasting, loving those who keep his Law (vv. 17-18). In vv. 19-22, the psalmist calls on heavenly beings and all whom God has created to praise God.

2 Corinthians

This is a letter, written in the style common in the first century AD. From the text, we know that Paul wrote it in Macedonia after leaving Ephesus, probably in the autumn of 57 AD. It gives us a picture of Paul the person: an affectionate man, hurt to the quick by misunderstandings and evil-doing of his beloved fellow Christians, yet happy when he can praise them. The letter's prime intent is to combat evils which have arisen in the Christian communities in the Achaian peninsula of Greece.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Paul has written of a “new creation” ( 5:17), probably meaning a new standard of evaluation set by Christ. He and his coworkers, Timothy and Apollos, are “ambassadors for Christ” ( 5:20a) urging (not compelling) the Christians at Corinth to seek for oneness with God. While Christ was sin-less, he did bear our sins, becoming our mediator with God ( 5:21). May the readers of this letter follow the ambassadors’ example, accepting God’s love productively rather than “in vain” ( 6:1). “Have” in 6:2 is prophetic, so by roughly quoting Isaiah 49:8, Paul tells the Corinthians that now is the time when God gives grace (undeserved love) to us; now we are being restored to union with God.

Paul and his coworkers, (“servants of God”, 6:4), are aiding “in every way” they can. They have shown themselves true agents of God in enduring physical and mental pressures (“afflictions”, 6:4-5) and “hardships” – unlike Paul’s critics – by using what the Spirit has given them (vv. 6, 7a and Galatians 5:22-23) including the whole offensive (“right hand”, 6:7) and defensive (“left”) arsenal that God provides, whether honoured or discredited (by their critics, who even call them “impostors”, 6:8, i.e. not true to God.) Seen as insignificant (as bad teachers), they are valued by true Christians, “dying” ( 6:9) to self-centeredness but alive in following Christ; “sorrowful” ( 6:10) that the Corinthian Christians feel hurt that he refused their aid (he did not need it), yet “rejoicing” that they are faithful; living in poverty, yet “making many rich” spiritually and “possessing everything” that matters.

Symbol of St Matthew


This gospel is the first in the New Testament, but it was probably the second to be written. Scholars recognize that it borrows material from Mark, and from a sayings source containing sayings of Jesus and known as Q (for Quelle, German for source). The author shows an understanding of Jewish culture and religion not found in the other gospels. It was probably written about 80 to 90 AD, possibly for a largely Jewish audience.

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Matthew tells us some of Jesus’ teachings that raised the ire of the Jewish religious authorities. Jesus presents his view of three major features of Jewish “piety” or righteousness, ways of seeking favour with God. In all three, he decries advertising one’s acts of piety, sounding a trumpet (v. 2) about them.

The “reward” (v. 1) the worthy receive from God, “your Father in heaven”, is not earned but is freely given by him. The “hypocrites” (v. 2) are people who do not genuinely follow God’s ways; they are shams. They ostentatiously stop in the “street” (v. 5) to pray many times each day; they are paid in full (“received their reward”, v. 2) by the praise of onlookers; they receive no heavenly reward. Alms are to be given quietly, “in secret” (v. 4). Almsgiving was the prime act of piety in Judaism.

While Jesus shared in public prayer, he warns against ostentatious private prayer in public (v. 6). V. 3 says: avoid all scheming to achieve public notice! Fasting is a valid form of self-discipline but should be done in a way not to attract attention to oneself. It should be directed only to God (vv. 16-18). Now for advice to the faithful community. Earthly treasures (v. 19) then were mostly costly clothes, prone to destruction by moths. Mud-brick houses were easy to break into. Place value on unity with God, not on earthly possessions.

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