The Top Ten Reasons the Lectionary Sucks and Five Half-Assed Solutions

This one comes to us from Sarah Hinlicky Wilson: A lectionary is a collection of […]

Guest Contributor / 4.12.19

This one comes to us from Sarah Hinlicky Wilson:

A lectionary is a collection of readings for Sunday worship, ordered according to the seasons of the church year. The version most widely used by mainline Protestants is the Revised Common Lectionary, though others such as the earlier Common Lectionary and the Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass are pretty similar. Each Sunday gets an Old Testament reading (except when it doesn’t: see below), a Psalm, an Epistle or on rare occasions a reading from Revelation, and finally a Gospel reading. It runs on a three-year cycle, one year each devoted to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (No John—see below.)

In other words, the lectionary is the reason why, if you’re a preacher, you’re bored to tears, and if you’re a layperson, you have a sneaking suspicion you’ve heard this one before.

The idea of a lectionary is not a bad one at all and, moreover, has the rosy aura of being fairly ancient in origin. It’s supposed to prevent idiosyncratic selections by myopic preachers, expose hearers to a range of scriptural texts, and foster unity by having disparate congregations and even denominations listen to the same readings on the same day. What could be so bad about that?

The problem is not the idea of the lectionary. The problem is the lectionary itself:

1. It omits about three-quarters of the Bible.[1] Among others, that means no Leviticus except the same passage from ch. 19 twice; one reading from Judges; nothing from the Chronicles; one reading each from Nehemiah and Esther but no Ezra; modest portions of most but not all of the minor prophets; nothing in Acts after ch. 19; none of II or III John or Jude; and very little of Revelation. To say nothing of what’s omitted in the otherwise better represented books.

2. We hear virtually nothing in the genres of vengeance, lament, genealogy, census, and architectural design, implying that these genres are inadequate bearers of the divine word, their canonical status notwithstanding.

3. John doesn’t get his own year, only filling in the cracks in the Synoptic accounts… but then, when there is some John, you get five straight weeks of ch. 6, which is enough bread of life to make anyone choke.

4. The Old Testament lessons function by and large as prooftexts for the New Testament rather than as Holy Scripture in their own right with their own integrity, guaranteeing predictable typological sermons, assuming the preacher even bothers with the Old Testament reading at all.[2]

5. Acts displaces the Old Testament at Easter, as if to suggest the church displaces Israel. And you wondered why supercessionism was still a thing.[3]

6. The pride of place given to the Gospels means that Jesus’ actions during his life get disproportionate attention, while his last supper, betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and burial get telescoped into Holy Week. Accordingly, interpretation of the meaning of his death and resurrection are stuck in the second-rung “Second Lesson” position. And you wondered why WWJD and the moral-example theory of atonement were still a thing.

7. In Matthew year, the story about the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, of which Jesus said, “wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13), is omitted.[4]

8. Speaking of which, here are some other women whose stories are not told: Dinah, both Tamars, Rahab, Achsah, the daughters of Zelophehad, Jael,[5] Jephthah’s daughter, the Levite’s concubine, Rizpah, Abigail, Michal, Merab, the Shunammite woman, Huldah, Priscilla, Philip’s four prophetess daughters, Phoebe, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, and the elect lady of II John. And you wondered why… oh, never mind.

9. One claim often made in favor of the lectionary is that it promotes unity. Besides the fact that there are multiple lectionaries in use (both one-year and three-year, Common Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary, Narrative Lectionary, Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass, the African-American Lectionary, etc.), and plenty of churches that don’t use any lectionary at all, whatever unity thus achieved is built on all the aforementioned flaws.

10. The other claim is that the lectionary forces preachers to deal with texts they’d otherwise ignore. In practice, the lectionary only inspires tactical neglect of texts preachers would ignore anyway, or eisegesis when they can’t. You can’t fix a homiletical problem with a technical solution.

So what to do, other than picketing the next meeting of the Consultation on Common Texts or, alternately, becoming a sectarian individualist in a church and society already awash with sectarian individualists? Ecumenical conversation on these issues is a must, but to attend to the immediate spiritual crisis in our congregations, here are a few ideas.

1. Preach way beyond the boundaries of the given text, especially where the Old Testament is concerned. You don’t have to stick to just what’s printed in the bulletin. If you get only one shot at preaching Judges, then tell the whole story of Judges; its plot alone will be enough to keep people at the edge of their seats.

2. Take advantage of sequences of readings in the Old Testament and the Epistles—and here again, go beyond the actual text of the day (for example, your one chance to preach on Revelation in Easter season). This gives you the opportunity to build some momentum and give folks a feel for that specific book of the Bible.

3. Choose a different preaching text altogether. This is a rather incoherent strategy with long currency in European churches: the weekly readings are dutifully read, but then the pastor selects something else to preach on. It’s not great, but if other reasons mandate lectionary loyalty, it’s one venerable way of working in a wider range of texts.

4. Use a different lectionary for a while. Alternatives suffer the same limitations, but if you’ve been preaching on the same old three-year cycle for years now and just can’t do it again (or if like me you’re going to slit your throat if you have to hear one more smarmy sermon on Naaman the Syrian), a new lectionary at least gives you some other material to work with and a different trajectory for the whole biblical story.

5. But if I could make only one recommendation/plea/on-my-knees-groveling-at-your-feet supplication, it would be to reinstate the Old Testament lesson during Easter season. You can easily find recommended texts (the Church of England offers some here) and if necessary you can shift Acts to the second reading. There’s no gospel without the Old Testament, and no church without Israel; let’s never give our Christians any reason to think otherwise.

(For more on how to make use of the lectionary, see Mockingbird’s podcast “Same Old Song.”)

[1] See here for the canonical-order listing of what’s in, which shows thereby what’s not.

[2] Some versions of the lectionary offer alternatives for continuous readings through the Old Testament. Good in principle, in reality they still skip too much and tell too little to give any sense of the whole narrative movement of Israel’s story. For example, the Babylonian deportation is left out entirely! No wonder they had to leave out Ezra, too. But can Israel’s story be told adequately without the exile? (No.) For more on this catastrophe, see Brent A. Strawn, The Old Testament Is Dying.

[3] This is a really old tradition. Just like anti-Judaism is a really old tradition.

[4] OK, so it appears in Mark year, though only in the Palm/Passion Sunday reading, where it’s likely to be overwhelmed by other important stuff like, say, the crucifixion. But if this event was so important that Jesus himself said it should be told wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, shouldn’t it take priority over nearly everything else in this Gospel? And note that the Palm/Passion Sunday readings in Matthew year pick up at 26:14, the very next verse after Jesus’ declaration about this woman.

[5] Although Deborah makes an appearance in the sole Judges reading, it is only the part in 4:1–7, omitting Barak’s cowardice and Deborah’s victory.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is an Associate Pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church, where she preaches from the lectionary every week, making her among other things a consummate hypocrite. She also co-hosts with Paul R. Hinlicky the podcast “Queen of the Sciences: Conversations between a Theologian and Her Dad” and writes the quarterly e-newsletter Theology & a Recipe.