Lectionary Commentaries for October 14, 2018
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:17-31 

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

The first thing to say about this text, and hopefully not the last thing to say, is that there’s pretty much nothing we can do but manage it.

Mark’s is a relentless Gospel, which seems not so much to invite to faith as to prove again and again the impossibility of faith. A few times that pattern is broken — we will all be really relieved to meet blind Bartimaeus in a few weeks’ time. But today’s pericope is killer. So we have to manage it.

Some time-honored strategies of management:

  • The rich young man didn’t actually keep the law, so that business about giving up his possessions was just a way of calling his bluff.
  • Nobody can actually keep the law, hence nobody can give up everything, either; it’s just a rhetorical device to call our bluff, and once we grasp that, we’re off the hook.
  • Giving up everything was a command to this particular rich young man, but only to him. It makes no claim on anyone else, being but an object lesson on acquisitiveness.
  • It was a real command, but it applies only to the rich. All of us can think of someone richer, so by contrast we don’t qualify.
  • Then again, the disciples infer just the opposite: everyone is rich (presumably because even the poor can think of someone poorer). Luckily, Jesus gives us the ultimate divine out: we can’t do it, but God can. Whew. Off to the mall.
  • Or, if we’re still in the game at this point in the story, we can point to our paltry efforts at discipleship like Peter did, at which point we get rewarded with a hundredfold of everything. As long as we somehow “give up” everything we’ve got (preferably in our hearts — you know, like, detachment from material things as an act of spiritual self-will) we’ll get something better in return. Invest a penny, earn a pound. Even those unnerving “persecutions” will lend us martyr/rock-star status. It’s a brilliant act of hermeneutical contortion to get Jesus to sound like a prosperity preacher.

It’s easy to criticize and dismiss these management strategies, but seriously, what else are you going to do? I found myself ruminating on this passage while walking through downtown Chicago. I passed by a beggar (maybe blind Bartimaeus, if not actually Jesus) and didn’t give him a dime, but I did reflect deeply on 1) my salutary Christian guilt over it and 2) every poverty activist who ever told me not to hand out cash to people on the street. Well managed, O Christian.

In some cases, texts like this one have inspired not management but amazing efforts to obey, like in the case of St. Anthony heading out into the desert. Such efforts have also produced amazing unintended side effects.

In the days of yore, some monastic orders would try to keep the price of their goods below that of other local producers so as not to earn a sinful profit. The result was destroying everyone else’s business, since consumers naturally preferred the monastery’s cheaper goods. (Contemporary monastic produce is very expensive, especially the beer, so they’ve apparently learned that lesson.) Or, as Peter Brown details in his aptly named Through the Eye of a Needle, pious wealthy Christians of the early church wished to launder their gains, ill-gotten or otherwise, by making huge donations to the church. Net result: an insanely wealthy church, with all the problems attendant thereon.

Who can argue with Jesus on this one? We know he’s right about the law and about the wealth. It’s the double-bind of our Christian formation: this lesson is so deeply internalized that it’s nearly impossible to hear it for the chasm in our lives of faith that it is.

What an odd advantage that rich young man had: being an attentive, devout, open-hearted keeper of a law that was intended to shield and uphold life, yet still ready to learn more from the Master. If only we were as ready and listened as well as he! He’s the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark singled out as being loved by Jesus. (In fact, the only other three uses of “love” in this Gospel appear in chapter 12 where Jesus quotes Leviticus and Deuteronomy in his summation of the law.) And this one dearly, uniquely loved person just walks away, “disheartened” and “sorrowful.” How terribly shocking to discover that, after all, you love your stuff more than you love eternal life. Mark seems to pause here in his relentless challenge to give a nod toward the tragedy that is the human being.

Is there any way to hear this text, and preach it, without management? Is there any way to resist the temptation to say, publicly or silently, “But Jesus doesn’t really mean that we should sell everything…”? Probably the only hope is to leave it as open-ended as Mark does.

We have no idea what became of the rich young man. He simply vanishes from the scene. Maybe he got more tight-fisted as he aged. Maybe he even gave up trying to keep the law since it was all rendered useless in the face of his greed. Or maybe he was in the crowd at the foot of the cross, or a hearer on the day of Pentecost; maybe he became an unsung evangelist.

We have no more idea what happened to him than to the women who fled in “trembling and astonishment” from the empty tomb. And yet — those women must have told somebody, finally, or we wouldn’t know about them at all. That ending is Mark’s invitation to us to confess despite fear, as the women ultimately did. In the same way, the unresolved ending of the rich young man may invite us all to obedience yet unknown.

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Bo Lim

“Your cancer is terminal, you have 6 months to live.” “The financial model for your organization is no longer sustainable; it will fold at the end of the year.”

How do people, whether as an individual or a collective respond to a death sentence? How are God’s people supposed to react to the prophetic announcement that exile is imminent and unavoidable? Certainly, people would respond to the bad news in a variety of ways: anger, resentment, denial, and resignation.

Biblical scholars have been puzzled over how to reconcile Amos’ announcements of certain doom with his exhortations to repent. Why repent when destruction is inevitable? Most often they explain these differing attitudes towards Israel’s future by dating the various texts to different periods in Israel and Judah’s history. That very well may have been the case. But regardless of its composition, the church today reads the entire book of Amos as the received word of God spoken to Israel and the church today.

The church today wrestles to make sense of how to theologically interpret these tensions. Biblical and theological interpretation is never done in abstraction; it is always contextual. So given the general audience of this resource, I will direct my comments to the church of the dominant culture in the West. This church, whether Catholic, Evangelical, or mainline Protestant, is dying. Its membership is shrinking or stagnant at best, its seminaries are closing, and its buildings are being sold. How should a dying church respond to the message of Amos 5:6-7, 10-15? In addition to these texts, I will address several key verses in Amos 5 that do not appear in the lectionary reading.

Amos 5 begins with a lamentation over the death of Israel, “Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up” (Amos 5:2, New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]). Lamentation is not a personal reaction of sorrow by the emotionally sensitive. This funeral dirge is a public, corporate response called forth by the leaders in the community. Lamentation requires the ability to be honest and to mourn. How is the church today to respond to the news of its demise? It is to publicly acknowledge and grieve its failure to fulfill its mission in our world.

The people of God are to receive the death sentence as an opportunity for reformation and renewal. This response is not the same as the terminally ill who resist their diagnosis out of denial. That posture is rooted in pride, whereas the former acts out of humility. The death sentence is to awaken the church to urgent action. Four times in Amos 5 the imperative verb “seek” appears (Amos 5:4, 5, 6, 14) and in three of the cases, the result of doing is that Israel will live (5:4, 6, 14).

Amos makes clear in 5:5 what it doesn’t mean to seek God, “But do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing” (NRSV). It is common for activists to employ the arts to reorient people’s imagination for religious and social change and Amos is certainly no exception. In verse 5 he employs the Hebrew alliteration haggilgal galoh yigleh (“Gilgal will surely go into exile”). Prophetic rhetoric fuels movements, and if the church today is to be renewed and reformed its leaders need to communicate in such a matter as to energize people for collective action.

The language of “seeking YHWH” (Amos 5:6) is a technical term to refer to cultic worship, yet Amos makes clear that the “seeking” God requires is not cultic worship. In 5:14 the prophet exhorts, “Seek good and not evil” and in 5:15 he goes on to say, “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” God’s desire is for people to work actively for a healthy society. When society makes a turn for the worse and the privileged can manipulate the systems of the public and private sector for their own selfish gain at the expense of the poor and marginalized, “seeking God” involves publically rejecting these forms of evil and working towards the establishment of justice.

Gowan offers the reminder, “To love can mean to choose (Proverbs 8:36; 12:1; Micah 3:2; 6:8; Zechariah 8:19), and to hate can mean to reject (Malachi 1:2-3), so the imperatives call for action and not merely attitude.”1 These words are particularly relevant in this current moment when Trump’s administration has pursued the very injustices Amos and the prophets denounce. Yet according to the Pew Research Center, the majority of white Evangelicals, white Mainline Protestants, and white Catholics continue to approve of him.

While the pursuit of justice is an important theme throughout Amos 5 and the book as a whole, it is not the central topic. Scholars observe that the book of Amos contains a tripartite division: Amos 1-2; 3-6; and 7-9. Of the middle section of the book, Amos 5:1-17 functions at its center, and this literary core of the book is organized according to the following structure:2

A. Lamentation (verses 1-3)

B. Exhortation to seek (verses 4-6)

C. Critique of injustice (verse 7)

D. Doxology extolling YHWH’s power (verses 8-9)

C’. Critique of injustice (verses 10-12 [13])

B’. Exhortation to seek (verses 14-15)

A’. Lamentation (verses 16-17)

The worship of Israel’s sovereign God stands at the heart of Amos’ message. As I have demonstrated, Amos expands this definition of worship to include the pursuit of justice and righteousness. What is never to be neglected, even in the breakdown of social justice, is that Yahweh, the sovereign creator, is to be worshiped and obeyed.

Will seeking justice and righteous save the church? Perhaps. That is Amos’ message in verse 15b, “Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph” (New International Version). Verse 15 contains the only occurrence of the word ?anan (“to be gracious, merciful, compassionate”) in the book. Should God’s people be saved it will require human repentance and divine grace.


1. Donald E. Gowan, “The Book of Amos: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), VII: 391.

2. Göran Eidevall, Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary; AYB 24G (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 152, see also 10-11.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 23:1-9, 16-17

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

The previous week’s lectionary reading recalled the introductory chapters in the book of Job, and in so doing, highlighted critical themes for the book.

Immediately after the opening chapters, Job issues a caustic lament regarding the day of his birth in chapter 3. The cycles of dialogues between Job and his friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) commence in chapters 4-27. In their various “speeches,” all four characters remain committed to a mechanistic worldview (that is those who act righteously can expect good things to happen and those who fail to act righteously can expect calamity) and its alleged explanatory power for understanding Job’s plight. Each of the friends contends that since Job has experienced calamity, he (or his family) must be guilty of some sin.

As evident in today’s text, Job, however, moves in a very different direction. He retains his commitment to a mechanistic worldview but unlike his friends, he is confident of his righteousness. Job remedies this cognitive dissonance by challenging the justice of God. Because God is not following the dictates of a mechanistic worldview, God must be held accountable. This thought is not new in the book. In earlier chapters (Job 9-10; 13; 16), Job envisioned placing God on trial in hopes of being vindicated.

In Job 23, the opening lines (verses 1-2) rehearse Job’s rationale for a trial. God has made his life “bitter” (following the Septuagint reading). The word recalls the lament uttered by Naomi whose similarly calamitous life led her to declare, “Call me Mara for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). Because of this bitterness, Job wants nothing more than to present his case before God (verse 4) and to learn of God’s accusations against him (verse 5). Job remains convinced that in such a setting, he would be acquitted (verse 7), a decision that would serve as a rebuke to the friends and a validation of his own view of the justice of God.

The challenge for Job, however, is the seeming remoteness of God (Job 23:8-9). How can he place on trial, much less confront, a God that is so elusive? The four movements (forward, backward, left, and right) provide a sweeping spatial image — regardless of direction, God is not to be found. Despite God’s apparent absence, however, Job remains certain that God is cognizant of “the way that I take” (Job 23:10a).

The metaphor “way” is a rich sapiential term used in the Hebrew Bible to call to mind life in all of its fullness (for example actions, behavior, inclinations). Even though it seems like God is hiding from Job, Job confesses that God is fully aware of his righteousness, and as a result, the only reasonable conclusion is that he will come out like pure gold when this test is complete. In contrast to the other uses of metallurgy metaphors associated with smelting (compare with Malachi 3:2b-3), the metaphor here does not imply that Job is being refined of impurities but instead suggests that pure gold will result because it has been pure from the very beginning (Job 23:10).

Job provides evidence of his faithfulness in Job 23:10-12. Job confesses that he has followed in God’s steps, kept God’s ways, and uttered his commandments. In verse 12b, the Hebrew reads literally, “more than my portion,” hence the New International Version (NIV). The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) follows the Septuagint and other Latin manuscripts with “in my bosom.” If the NRSV is retained, then the bodily imagery is suggestive. From his feet (verse 11a) to his lips (verse 12a), the law of God has been evident, and Job’s faithfulness is possible because he has treasured God’s ways deep within him (verse 12b), a claim that echoes that of Psalm 119:11.

In the final verses of chapter 23, Job’s heart grows faint as the Shaddai, the Almighty, terrifies him (verse 16). What follows in verse 17 proves critical to understanding the chapter. The NRSV understands verse 17 as a quiet, or not so quiet, resignation on the part of Job; Job’s only source of relief would be death, a theme voiced earlier by Job (3:11-24; 7:21).

The NIV, however, provides a better reading of the Hebrew text: “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.” Rather than a resignation to death, Job concludes the chapter with a voice of resistance. Job refuses to acquiesce to the claims of his friends or the apparent injustice of God. He will not be silenced. This reading accords better with the movement of the book and points towards Job’s final soliloquy concerning his innocence in Job 29-31.

Because Job 23 does not resolve the tensions inherent in the book of Job itself, any attempt to teach or preach this text in isolation will result in a skewed appropriation of this challenging text. Job is not “vindicated” and God is not justified; the chapter ends just as it began: in tension. But the text does suggest that the resolution to the tension will be found in relationship, a relationship expressed in presence. Yet as Job discovers in chapters 38-42, an encounter with the divine does not result in vindication, but rather in profundity.


Commentary on Psalm 90:12-17

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Psalm 90 has often been categorized as a wisdom psalm, which, like the book of Ecclesiastes (see 3:19-20; 7:2), is very much in touch with human finitude and the brevity of human life (see also Psalms 39:4-6; 49:10-12, 16-20).1

While this interpretive approach is helpful, it has often overlooked the facts that Psalm 90 is consistently addressed to God, that it is the only psalm attributed to Moses, and that it opens Book IV of the Psalter.

These facts do not imply that Moses is the author of Psalm 90, but rather that the editors of the Psalter invite readers to hear Psalm 90 as a prayer offered by Moses on behalf of the people in response to the crisis of exile that is articulated in the concluding psalm of Book III (see Psalm 89:38-51). For instance, the plea for God to “Turn” (verse 13) recalls Moses’ request for God to “Turn” in Exodus 32:12 (note also that “compassion” in verse 13 represents the same Hebrew root as “change your mind” in Exodus 32:12). In short, as Moses interceded for the people in the face of God’s anger over their creation of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6), so Psalm 90 portrays Moses as intercessor in the face of God’s anger expressed in verses 7-11.

These two interpretive approaches are not mutually exclusive; and in fact, they can even be seen as complementary. In any case, Psalm 90 features the concept of time (see words or phrases related to time in verses 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16); and one of the most startling aspects of Moses’ life is that, in effect, he ran out of time — that is, he died before entering the land of promise, because God was angry with him (Deuteronomy 3:26). So, who better than Moses to offer a prayer about time, or more specifically, about the discouraging reality that our human lives are all too fragile and short? Of course, for the people, the exile was a stark reminder of the vulnerability and brevity of human life in general (see Psalm 89:45, 47-48; Isaiah 40:6-8).

Before our lection picks up at verse 12, the contrast between humanity’s limited time and God’s enduring time has been drawn very sharply (see verses 3-6). Moreover, human time unfolds in the shadow of God’s “anger” (verses 7, 11) and “wrath” (verses 7, 11; “wrath” in verse 9 is a different Hebrew word). Although the mention in verse 8 of “iniquities” and “secret sins” suggests that divine wrath is punishment for sin, God’s anger can be understood more broadly as “a linguistic symbol for the divine limits and pressure placed against human resistance to his sovereignty. …  Death is the final and ultimate ‘no’ that cancels any pretension to autonomy from the human side.”2 In any case, even the longest human life “is only toil and trouble” (verse 10). Not a pretty picture! In fact, it is downright discouraging, depressing, and devoid of hope!

But Psalm 90 is not over at verse 10. Even though verse 11 repeats “anger” and “wrath” from verse 7, its mention of “the fear that is due you” hints at something more positive.

The possible wisdom orientation of Psalm 90 reminds us that, according to the sages, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10; see Proverbs 1:7; Job 28:28). Thus, verse 11 anticipates verse 12, which marks the transition from the thoroughly depressing verses 3-11 to the much more hopeful verses 13-17.

But what is it that constitutes a “wise heart”? The NRSV’s “to count our days” is an accurate literal translation; but what good would derive from simply keeping track of one toilsome, wrath-filled day after another? In this case, a more paraphrastic rendering is helpful. Following the lead of Martin Luther, James Limburg captures well the sense of verse 12: “Lord, teach us to make each day count, to reflect on the fact that we must die, and so become wise.”3

In other words, “a wise heart” involves the disavowal of autonomy; and it means the entrusting of life and future fully to God. Such “fear of the LORD” offers the courage and energy to live each day to the fullest, quite literally, for God’s sake!

Such disavowal of autonomy in favor of daily dependence upon God recalls another Mosaic connection — namely, Exodus 16 and God’s daily provision of manna in the wilderness. In this regard, it may not be coincidental that the three consonants in the Hebrew word for “count” are the same ones that compose the word “manna.”

In any case, daily dependence upon God is capable of transforming the human perception and experience of the passage of time. When we entrust life and future to God, then we can experience the passage of time as something other than an oppressive reality to be endured.

The concluding verses of Psalm 90 reinforce this conclusion. The “morning” can bring the fulfilling and joyful experience of God’s love (verse 14; compare verses 5-6 and Psalm 89:49). Our “days” and “years” can bring gladness (verse 15; compare verse 9), not merely “toil and trouble” (verse 11). Entrusted to God, even our human “work” (twice in verse 17) can endure, insofar as it contributes to God’s “work” (verse 16).

By way of God’s “compassion” (verse 13) and “steadfast love” (verse 14), human time partakes of eternity. In short, when life and future are entrusted to God, there is hope.  Isaac Watts’s famous metrical version of Psalm 90 captures well the trajectory of verses 13-17: “O God, our help in ages past [see verses 1-2], our hope for years to come.”

For the psalmist, the recognition of human finitude and fallibility is not finally cause for despair, but rather an occasion for prayer. And in humble, honest, faithful prayer, the psalmist arrives at the good news that the hope of the world is grounded in God’s “compassion” and “steadfast love” (verses 13-14).


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 14, 2012.
  2. James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 292.
  3. James Limburg, Psalms (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 310.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16

Craig R. Koester

This week’s reading from Hebrews continues to address the malaise that the writer’s community was experiencing.

Last week we explored that situation and saw that the writer began his sermon to the group with soaring lines about the God who speaks (Hebrews 1:1-4). This week again the writer gives vivid testimony to the dynamic power of God’s word. If the readers saw life mainly in depressing shades of gray, the language of this passage uses bold colors that are first unbearably intense and then abruptly shift to warm tones that encourage and uplift. If set to music the initial section about the relentless word of God would have rumbling tympani and sharp brass notes to disturb the hearers (Hebrews 4:12-13). Then after a dramatic pause, the section on Jesus as sympathetic high priest would be carried by gracious waves of sound from the strings (4:14-16).

For many modern readers the imagery used for God’s word in this section may seem strange (Hebrews 4:12-13). The writer pictures the word of God as a two-edged sword that is used like a scalpel on the human constitution. It is a precision instrument that seems able to cut along the fine lines between bones and marrow, soul and spirit, thoughts and intentions. How much more precisely can you cut things? And the imagery may be valuable to a preacher precisely because of its strangeness. It stimulates the imagination and challenges the listeners to picture themselves and their situation in new ways.

The passage recognizes that in ordinary life people go along with much that is hidden, like the internal workings of the body and mind beneath the skin. Thoughts and intentions are a private matter and most of us prefer to keep it that way until we choose to make our thoughts or intentions public — or inadvertently disclose them by what we say or do. We gauge what to disclose by what we assume others might think. People valued their reputations at the time Hebrews was written, and they still do today.

So what Hebrews says about the word of God is disturbing. It removes the option of concealment where God is concerned. And that presses for a heightened sense of candor about the selves we would prefer to keep hidden, the selves we would not want to be seen on social media. What would that mean for God to have access to all of the personal information? For God to see all of the dynamics that are operative within us? Could that ever be helpful or welcome?

If we look at the imagery in a physical sense, the activity of God’s words is like a form of precision surgery. The sharp instrument is used with skill in order to open things up in a manner that the surgeon can see. The goal of surgical treatment can be bringing things to light, in order that they can be treated and improve the life of the patient. And that is what the word of God is designed to do as well, according to Hebrews. God opens the human heart in order to treat it. The word calls readers to the recognition of their own vulnerability in order that they might receive what God offers them.

God’s gift is expressed in the second part of the passage (Hebrews 4:14-16). The writer depicts Jesus as a sympathetic high priest. The shift is remarkable given the surgical imagery of the previous section, but the element of sympathy is the essential counterpart to being exposed. The word “sympathy” in Greek as in English conveys the idea of “feeling with” someone. We might better translate it “compassion.” When people undergo surgery they want to know that the physician is with them and for them. They need to know that the procedure is ultimately aimed at their wellbeing.

That same aspect of sympathy is central to the passage’s depiction of Jesus as high priest. He understands human vulnerability, since he has experienced it. And Jesus’ response to human vulnerability is one of grace, which brings healing. That way of depicting a high priest is in a sense extraordinary.

In the ancient world, the Jewish community had a high priest whose primary roles involved offering sacrifice within the temple precincts and presiding at other public functions. Ministering to the vulnerable was not usually listed as a primary role on the job description. The same was true of high priests in Greek and Roman contexts. They too had priests that oversaw the offering of sacrifices, but again it was not commonly said that sympathy was a part of the role. Yet by focusing on that sympathetic aspect of Jesus’ character, the writer invites the kind of confident trust that he commends to the readers, which he understands to be truly life-giving.

The dynamics in this passage are enacted in Christian community through the practice of confession and absolution. Where confession is a response to God’s word opening up the heart (Hebrews 4:12-13), the sympathetic word of grace is the response that heals and restores (4:14-16). The two aspects function together, much as medical diagnosis is accompanied by treatment in physical healing. Theologically this involves the interplay of law and gospel.

The practice of confession may be done collectively in worship, and in such settings the statements made together by the congregation are necessarily broad. But a time of confession can also create space for each person to reflect on the dynamics that she or he might prefer to keep hidden. Although the Lenten season is typically regarded as a special time when confession receives emphasis, the need for opening up to God and receiving the word of grace knows no season. It is as appropriate during late Pentecost as in the weeks before Easter.

The reading for this week invites the possibility of making confession and absolution not only the topic of the sermon but special focus for the service itself. Hebrews is a text designed to engage readers in the practices that renew faith and community. Hearing the word but also enacting the word through our own liturgical words of confession and absolution are but one way of allowing Scripture to shape our life together under the priestly ministry of Jesus.