Lectionary Commentaries for November 11, 2018
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 12:38-44 

Samuel Cruz

Over the ages, Jesus has been persistently inconvenient for the elite classes of his and our societies.

In this gospel lesson, Jesus once again demonstrates his masterful ability to see beyond the surface, look deeply through and unmask the conscious and unconscious intentions of the religious-political oppressive ideas of his day. His prophetic ability to read the signs of the times ultimately resulted in his assassination. What was taking place in this passage was an unmasking of the oppressive dominant discourse of that time and has relevance for unmasking that of our time.

However, in order to capture his profound analysis, we must move beyond some of our prejudices. We must rid ourselves of the prejudices that many Christians have had against the scribes and others like them (i.e., Pharisees) with whom Jesus or at least the gospel writers had antagonistic relationships. What Jesus sees in the behavior of the scribes is not unique to them, but a phenomenon that seems to be common among elites in many if not all cultures.

The wealthy and powerful in virtually every society have been arbitrarily “bestowed” with intelligence, wisdom, decency, and, in many cases as it was in Jesus’ day, as having been selectively blessed by God. One example of this can be seen when considering how we treat celebrities. Regardless of their educational status or areas of expertise, celebrities are treated as if they have knowledge to impart to us all simply because they are famous, powerful, and generally rich.

In fact, whether or not one is a celebrity, if a person is wealthy we tend to believe that they are in some ways superior to the poor and working class. Have you ever been to an affluent neighborhood and assumed that all is OK there for no other reason but that it looks pristine? Rarely do we assume that perhaps underlying all the glamour and beauty lies a moral uncleanliness that has been produced by ill-gotten wealth and power.

In Latin America the oligarchs and their families had beautiful homes with gardens, beautiful family dinners and gatherings while their henchmen were torturing, raping, exploiting and murdering the masses who fought for justice and equality. Sadly, many decent people see the external trappings and believe that the highest quality of culture is present. Apparently, Jesus saw beneath the regalia and grandeur; his insight uncovered the rotten values that lay there.

This gospel lesson is not about the individual behavior of one scribe, but about the misinformed and immoral ideology that informed such behavior. Jesus confronts the beliefs and values of his day that maintained an oppressive system in much more authentic and powerful ways than the Colonial Roman empire could: As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance saying long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40).

Can you imagine calling the oligarchs, bishops, and presidents exploiters and hypocrites seeking to be noticed and honored? Are the Supreme Court justices really pure and legitimate, because they wear black robes? Are these not the people blessed by God? Jesus declares that their condemnation/punishment will be greater than that of the poor, powerless sinner. He simply destroys the entire apparatus that maintains the system of oppression of his day.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably admit that there is a “soft” prosperity gospel influence in all of us. We quite often naturally make the assumption that those of the higher economic strata are automatically good people, good Christians, smart and honest. My experience over the last fifty years has been that the church community gives privilege to the economically well-off parishioners. In fact, we praised those who can give big sums of money to the church, while failing to recognize the average and more-humble contributions to our church treasury.

Maybe we need to be reminded that most of the philanthropy that takes place in our country is driven and given by the middle and working classes. Jesus is not persuaded by the deceptions of the scribes’ performances, which is evidenced when he says: “A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on’” (Mark 12:42-44). It is truly sad that the church has allowed itself to behave like the scribes who Jesus condemned, inadvertently uplifting wealth and power to prominence rather than exalting the generosity of spirit among the least of these.

Jesus was assassinated because he dared to unravel the ideology that maintained the elites in power. I can’t help but wonder what the consequences for the church might be if it, like Jesus, turned the values and ideologies of oppression upside down and elevated the values of the kingdom to prominence. If instead of preaching from the perspective of the upper strata of society, it began to reflect and preach from the perspective of the widow, the orphan, the migrant and the poor. Perhaps the church would no longer be asked to do invocations for political rallies, and maybe powerful politicians will no longer attend our gatherings. I would follow Jesus in exalting the spiritual riches of the widow while letting the rich and powerful keep their scraps.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16

Lisa Thompson

This week’s text is one in a series of miracle stories in the books of 1 Kings and 2 Kings, and one of several stories involving women and either Elijah or Elisha.

The climax of the story involves a “big ask” and a willing participant. How we are inclined to read the story influences our final interpretation of the resulting miracle.

A difficult directive

The ask that Elijah makes in this passage might be one of the most striking features of the text. Instead of a genuine ask, in terms of questions, it is more so a directive at times. And more significantly, the one of whom he makes his request is contradictory to the expectations of the circumstances named.

The story explains that Elijah is instructed by the Holy One to travel to Zarephath in the region of Sidon. Likewise, he is informed that a widow there will feed him. Widows are among those who should be taken care of by others, just as the orphans and those most in need. (Deuteronomy 14: 9) They are to be fed and clothed. And here, the widow is described as the one who will provide food and sustenance for Elijah. When he arrives at the town gate the unnamed woman, presumably the widow, is there gathering sticks. And to this woman he makes his request in verse 11,

…he called to her and said,
“Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.”

She complies with the initial request without a record of responding verbally. However, as she is on her way to get water, Elijah ups the ante of his request and adds, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” She is recorded as not responding verbally to the first request. However, at the request for bread she responds, that she has nothing baked and affirms the warrant of her claim in the living God.

But she said, “As the Lord your God lives,
I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug;”

Not only does she not have anything baked but it also becomes clear that her supplies for food and sustenance have run low. And she vouches for this scarcity by evoking the witness of the living God. She names an intention of “gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” After the intimate request to be fed from her hand and her naming a lack of food, Elijah increases the intensity of his request once more.

This time in verse 13 he tells her,

Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.

The directive reads as Elijah being insensitive towards the stated situation, or at minimum undeterred by the widow’s circumstances of scarcity considering his directive from the Lord. The way in which the story ends pushes the reader to sit with and listen through the directives of Elijah which may cause discomfort. We are pressed to ask what makes the nature of this ask for one’s last different than others that we may encounter in our world that lead to one’s literal last and ultimate demise. If we move beyond the answer of miracle and one directional obedience as in, “the widow was obedient to the word event” — other possibilities may emerge by probing the text.

Gaps in the Story

Elijah’s final directive is followed immediately by words attributed to the Lord the God of Israel in verse 14.

For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.

According to Elijah the promise is that the meal would not empty and the oil would not fail until the drought ends. And with this promise the widow proceeds to fulfill the requests of Elijah. As the story ends, it came to pass that the meal and oil did not run out just as the word from the Lord had promised. “She as well as he and her household ate for many days.” (verse 14) This particular cake of bread was not the last cake of bread for she or her son. The story ends with life instead of the death.

Considering the promise given and its final fulfillment — life not death — the gaps present in the plot of this story are intriguing. The words attributed to the Lord changed from the opening of this passage in verse 9 to the end of the passage in verse 14. When the initial message is given to Elijah the Lord says, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” (17:9) Elijah is then recorded as going to the region.

By the time Elijah shares what the Lord says, the description of God’s words has changed. The words have expanded to not only Elijah being fed by this widow, but also a promise that the provision for the widow would not run out until rain returned to land. At some point between his departure from the wadi and his encounter with this widow, the reader is to assume and trust that the prophet has received an expanded revelation.

The nature of scripture as once oral stories passed along before eventually being written down and recopied, makes it reasonable to believe that pieces of the narrative may have been dropped or added along the way. It follows the tradition of any good story passed down from person to person. Ironically, we often graciously forgive some details that are missing or contradictory and not others. In this instance, one might be quick to assume the “trustworthy knowledge of the prophet,” and in turn, the trustworthiness of his expanded revelation and push for this widow’s last. Considering the gaps in the prophet’s story and the presence of a revised revelation, it brings to question as to whether or not there are other gaps in the narrative that we do not readily probe or consider because of our biases and inclinations of reading.

Perspective shifts

What of this widow and her knowledge? Is it just as trustworthy as Elijah’s? We are obviously missing parts of the widow’s story. We do not know why she’s a widow, how she’s fending for herself and her son, nor who else might be living in the household with she and her son. Another point of curiosity in the widow’s story is the question as to whether or not she is the passive participant we often paint or interpret her to be in this story. It is plausible that she might have been aware of the upcoming exchange with Elijah — that would then result in a miracle as she offers her cake of bread.

In verse 8 when Elijah is told to go to Zarephath, the Lord says,

I have commanded a widow to feed you there.

The text seems a bit vague about whether this was a matter of one being “willed to feed” or “told to feed.” Either way, viewing the widow as not simply a docile participant but a mutually knowing agent brings to question if she had her own encounter with the Lord prior to Elijah arriving on the scene. And more specifically, an encounter in which the Lord commanded or told her to feed Elijah.

If we assume the widow had prior and trustworthy revelation before Elijah showed up at the town gate, this shifts our approach to their final exchange at the gate. Their encounter at the town gate might then be one of discerning the continuation of a word they both receive independent of this moment. And in this moment, the manifestation of the miracle is dependent on their showing up to participate in pulling forth that which provided sustenance for them and others. The miracle here relies on the mundane materials of oil and bread, mutual presence, trusting one’s knowing of God, and an ongoing discernment in the present moment.

The prophet’s forced dislocation and relocation after the wadi dries up does not seem coincidental. The location of this miracle is in the actual homeland region of Queen Jezebel, the one who is storied as putting Elijah to flight in the coming chapters. Plausibly, the prophet may need to remember this mundane miracle as the next leg of his journey continues. Elijah’s ministry will continue as he flees threats to his life, performs more miracles, and finds himself in need of more sustenance along the way. Here in this instance he has the aid of the least expected participant, an unnamed widow from Zarephath.

Considerations for preaching

There are often times when the places of silence or gaps in the text produce the greatest fodder for preaching. As readers, we benefit from dislocating ourselves from traditional readings alone. Our biases often continue to silence characters in a text who are skewed towards silence already or painted as lacking the capacity to play a vital role in the story at hand. And yet, we are prone to fill in imaginative gaps or give allowance to characters in a text who are foregrounded as major characters — such as Elijah.

A willingness to shift our perspective and read deeper or “at a slant,” opens up alternative possibilities for this miracle story. Namely, we push back on dangerous assumptions of sacrifice or one offering up their last in a world that is prone to take their last without return. And we open up the capacity for understanding the potential of the miraculous in the everyday stuff of life, as people show up together discerning and intuiting revelation of God together for the sake of something more. Ultimately, the miraculous seems to be participatory and that which continues life.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Cameron B.R. Howard

The book of Ruth’s gritty beginning eventually finds its way to a happy ending.

Naomi’s life moves from bitterness to pleasantness, living up to the meaning of her name (see Ruth 1:20). Ruth has found the security (see 1:9) of a settled home. The empty wombs of the two widows find fullness in the child Obed, whom Ruth bears and whom the women of the village set in Naomi’s arms, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi” (4:16).

The Moabite woman who seemed such a liability for Naomi at the beginning of their journey has become the means of her redemption. As Robert Williamson writes, “For Naomi, who has throughout the text identified security with attachment to a male, the women’s words serve as a reminder that it is ultimately Ruth’s commitment to her that has restored her life. This Moabite woman has given her more security than seven sons.”1

On God’s activity in the world

Naomi describes both the good and the bad events of her life as being from the hand of God. The narrator of the story, on the other hand, attributes only one action to God: “the LORD made [Ruth] conceive” (4:13). When Ruth finds herself gleaning in Boaz’s field, the narrator describes this specifically as chance or happenstance (2:3), while Naomi interprets it as God’s providence (2:20).2

If Naomi is convinced that God is responsible for her life’s experiences, she does not interpret her own role in securing her future to be passive; she doesn’t exactly “let go and let God.” In the verses from Ruth 3 appointed for this week, Naomi hatches a plan for Ruth to forge a relationship with Boaz — a plan that involves a covert sexual encounter — saying “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you” (3:1). So how do we, the readers, see God at work here?

God intersects with the characters of the book of Ruth the way many of us experience God today: not as a divine physical presence, not as a booming voice from heaven, not as a visible mover of events, but as the one to whom we attribute some amount of agency in our own circumstances, as well as those of the world at large. In this way the book can feel more accessible than other parts of Scripture, where God is portrayed speaking directly to the prophets, kings, and heroes.

In today’s world we may give thanks after making a touchdown or securing a job or escaping harm in an accident, understanding God’s hand to be at work in our good fortune. We are perhaps less quick to attribute our calamities, as Naomi does (1:21), to God’s agency. Then again, if we have escaped harm and others have not, or if we have food to eat and others do not, then acknowledging God’s work in the good implies God’s hand — or at least, the absence of such a hand — in the bad.

The question of God’s activity in the world is a classic and supremely difficult theological dilemma: how do we understand the relationship between human will and divine agency? Different Christian traditions address this question in different ways, and each preacher must offer the interpretations most appropriate for her or his community. Regardless, the book of Ruth pushes us to tackle such fundamental questions.

If a widowed and destitute woman proclaimed in your faith community that “the hand of the LORD has turned against me,” how would the community respond? Would it affirm her observation, or insist that God does not bring about ill? The narrator of Ruth knows how the story will end, whereas Naomi’s theological proclamations unfold in concert with her experiences; does hindsight change our understanding of God’s activity? The book of Ruth opens the way for sustained conversations about the fundamental questions of faith grounded in a compelling, entertaining narrative.

On belonging

The book of Ruth also invites us to ask what it means for us to belong: to God, to a community, to each other. “Belonging” in Christian tradition does not imply a crass sense of ownership, but rather of caretaking, safety, and affection. Naomi, Ruth, Orpah, and their husbands have formed a family across ethnic lines and traditional hostilities. When their husbands have died, Ruth is willing to give up the land and life she knows to maintain her relationship with Naomi. By bringing Ruth the Moabite with her, Naomi, too, risks the little status she might have upon her return to Bethlehem. Belonging requires mutual vulnerability. Yet, in their commitment to each other as individuals across their differences, the two women also find belonging in the community at large.

In contrast to the anti-foreign-women polemic found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, including in Ezra-Nehemiah and parts of the Deuteronomistic History, the book of Ruth highlights the heroic contributions of a Moabite woman to the well-being of Israel. The genealogy at the end of the book claims Ruth the Moabite is the great-grandmother of David, God’s chosen and favored king of Israel! Further, in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, Ruth — along with two other Canaanite women, Tamar and Rahab — is explicitly named as an ancestor of David and, thus, of Jesus.

The interpersonal negotiations around belonging described in Ruth have intergenerational and theological implications. The text pushes its readers to reassess our understandings of insiders and outsiders, to be open to difference, and to look for ways in which our faith communities might find belonging and blessing in new relationships.


  1. Robert Williamson, The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2018), 58-9.
  2. Williamson, The Forgotten Books of the Bible, 58.


Commentary on Psalm 146

Beth L. Tanner

Psalm 146 is structurally simple, yet theologically profound.1

Its genre is one of praise and it is part of the crescendo ending of the psalter. The psalm begins and ends with the same “Praise the LORD” or “Hallelujah,” providing an envelope called an “inclusio.” Inside this envelope are two doxologies surrounding two stanzas, giving a symmetrical shape to this prayer.

The first doxology is personal and enduring and better translated as “I will praise God with my whole self” instead of the standard “soul.” “Soul” provides a meaning of an inner devotion or that the “soul” is something other than the self. The prayer calls for us to involve our whole selves in the life-long act of praise to the LORD. It is a call to action.

In our world, praise has been difficult recently. News from our country and across the world is filled with religious wars, murder, slaughter of innocents, and massive refugee migrations. It is hard to “praise God with my whole self.” Yet, in most of the history of ancient Israel, their situation was similar. Here is the first lesson of this psalm. Praise of God is sometimes an act of discipline. Under the circumstances of war and destruction, praise is not the result of external happiness, but stubborn belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. Indeed praise is defiance of worldly powers. It shouts that despite the situation around me, God is still worthy of praise. The ancients knew that life-long praise can change the world by transforming and empowering individuals. Crying to God is an important cathartic, but praise can change our outlook. Praise provides power when we feel powerless.

The first stanza (Psalm 146:3-4) changes direction abruptly. The move from praise to “do not trust” is a harsh one. But the stanza is a reminder. We are not to place our trust in humans, even human leaders. Notice, the psalm makes no distinction as to the nature of the leader. The leader may be good or bad, his or her merits are not the point, rather their human condition is. Leaders, like all humans, will come and then go to the ground and all of their plans will go with them. Like the old sage, Qohelet, we are reminded of the fleeting nature of the humanity. Human plans are small and transitory. Life-long praise and trust are reserved for the LORD alone.

The next stanza (verses 5-9) returns focus to the one praying. It opens with the Hebrew ‘asher, often translated as “happy.” In the context of a praise psalm, this definition works as long as we remember it is not a passing or superficial happiness, but a deep abiding “contentment” with the human condition and one’s God. It is life as it is supposed to be and it is achieved by having God as one’s “help” and “hope.” This is the contrast to the stanza above. If happiness is elusive, contentment may even be more difficult. We live in a world where contentment is countercultural. Much of our economy is based on consumerism and a capital economy fueled by the desire to acquire more and more things. Yet true contentment is centered in God, not human made items and plans.

And what a God we serve! God is Creator of the heavens, the earth, and the seas (v 6). God is the Sustainer who keeps faith (in Hebrew the word also means “truth” and “firmness”) forever (v 6), and God is the Redeemer who rescues those who are oppressed and hungry (v 7). These attributes serve two purposes. The first is to remind us why God is to be praised for our whole lives and the other is to provide additional contrast to those human rulers. God and God alone is the reason for our creation and continued existence. The psalm adds five ways of the LORD, all centered on God’s justice (vv 8-9a). One can imagine that as each line is read or sung, it is followed by a resounding response of praise. The psalm concludes a final doxology celebrating God’s enduring presence in the world and a final shout of “Hallelujah.”

For preaching, this psalm offers an oasis; a cool, comfortable place where we can put aside the world and praise God for who God is. The prayer is designed to combat narcissism and consumerism. It is to lift our eyes above our day-to-day troubles and into the infinite realm of God. In a world gone crazy, this moment of perspective has been a shelter for centuries. As African-American churches have experienced threats, including the Charleston church shooting in June 2015, the people gathered to sing praises to God and these praises provide strength and sustenance. This is a tradition reaching back to slavery. Sunday morning praise allowed these folks to become fully human for a moment. What the ancient Israelites knew about the power of praise has and is being lived out in communities overshadowed by racist threats. Troubles still exist, but the worshippers are now better equipped to go forward. Praise, it seems, is the very definition of Sabbath rest in God.

Another preaching possibility is to use the contrasts in the psalms and parallel them with the contrasts in the Gospel lesson. This is a wisdom psalm and contrast is part of its structure. The contrast is between human plans and their inherent frailty juxtaposed with God’s justice plans and God’s eternity. The Mark text is a great example of human plans to impress others and God juxtaposed with the widow and her small mite. The summary of that story could easily be “the LORD upholds the widow and the orphan, but the way of the wicked he bends (verse 9).”


1 Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 8, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 9:24-28

Katherine A. Shaner

At a moment when antisemitism and anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim violence has become more visible and more vitriolic, Christian interpreters of scripture bear an even clearer ethical responsibility to proclaim Christ without the triumphalism of supersession.

Hebrews, unfortunately, has often been wielded as a text that demonstrates the superiority of Christian atonement theologies over (assumed) Jewish ritual sacrifices. For preachers who choose Hebrews as their text, this moment might be a good opportunity to teach some basics about the book itself.

It is worth noting for listeners, whether teaching for the first time or simply reminding them, that Hebrews is an ancient sermon based on the only scriptures available in the late 1st century CE. While often attributed to Paul and colloquially called a letter, Hebrews bears the markings of neither Pauline authorship nor correspondence. The text of Hebrews is a proclamation moment, meaning it does not seek to correct historical practices or theologies, nor does it lay out systematic doctrine. Rather the occasion for such proclamation was to build the community.

The writer or preacher’s voice in the text is anonymous. As such, we must hold open the possibility that this writer does not fit our usual assumptions about who writes New Testament texts. What is to prevent us from understanding this writer as a woman? Why not Prisca (as Cynthia Kittredge suggests)? Only our own (often unsupported) assumptions about women’s leadership in the early church (see also Romans 16:1-3; Luke 8:1-3) prevent us from affirming the possibility that the preacher in Hebrews is a woman.1

What difference would this possibility make for our interpretation? It might simply shake us out of our usual assumptions about the text. Hebrews 9:24-28 is often understood as a theological rejection of the sacrifices offered in the holy of holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple where only the high priest was allowed. Yet, we have little or no evidence that the temple was actually functioning or that the preacher in Hebrews knew how the historical temple functioned.

The preacher is, however, deeply steeped in her scriptures, especially in the text from Exodus that provide a literary description of the temple and its functions. The description of sacrifices in the text does not necessarily comment on the historical practices in the temple, but rather this description is an interpretation of ancient scripture. In other words, the preacher in Hebrews is doing the same thing that the gospel writers are doing that contemporary preachers are doing: working through scripture as a way of interpreting who this Jesus guy is, was, and will be.

Hebrews 9:24-28 paints a picture of temple practices that would have been quite familiar to anyone (Jewish, Roman, Greek, Egyptian, etc.) who lived within the legacy territories of Alexander the Great’s empire. Working within Platonic philosophical categories of images as copies of an ethereal perfect form, the preacher notes that images made with human hands are a copy of the true image of God (verse 24). The preacher doesn’t suggest that these images are without merit, but merely that Christ, as both the high priest and the sacrificial animal himself, has access to the real form of God’s temple.

If we have any doubt that in Christ we encounter the true, living, perfect form of the divine, the preacher in Hebrews hopes to negate as much. Christ draws us into a divine reality, a divine reality where suffering is neither requested nor required, particularly in a systematic, repeating sense. Rather than suggesting that temple sacrifices are bad and that the Jerusalem temple, in particular, was ineffective, the text suggests a necessity in God’s full presence for mercy.

Notice that the text says in verse 26 that “Christ appeared once for all…to remove sin.” I am struck by the NRSV translation of hamartia in the singular.2 Christ’s sacrifice was not for individual propitiation of our solitary deeds against God and one another. So often our society brushes off atrocities as the work of a few bad people. Sin, in this sense, is entirely individual. Yet the singular sense in these verses suggests a more collective concept of sin is at work here — the condition of sin in the community.

Christ’s sacrifice was to remove conditions and systems of sin. Even when verse 28 picks up the plural of hamartia, these conditions and systems belong to many (polloi), not just singular individuals. The promise of Christ in this text is not proper worship or anti-temple theology, but rather that God lifts conditions and systems of sin as a mercy against relentless, repeated suffering. This is a promise of hope that rejects violence against anyone in God’s beloved creation.


  1. Cynthia Kittredge, “Hebrews,” in Searching the Scriptures vol.2, edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroads, 1994) 430–44.
  2. For Greek enthusiasts, hamartias in both v. 26b and v. 28 could either be a genitive singular or an accusative plural. The NRSV and NIV both translate the genitive singular in v. 26b and the accusative plural in v. 28, a decision that is grammatically correct.