Lectionary Commentaries for October 7, 2018
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:2-16

Philip Ruge-Jones

Beware this week.

As soon as you read the word “divorce” aloud, a whole sermon will appear in people’s heads. Some will hear early sermons that were launched at them or someone they loved when a divorced occurred. Pain will make it difficult to hear the words you actually speak. Others will conjure up their condemnation of others based on this single word. In both cases those jumping to their own conclusions may miss what it said unless you open up to them clearly the complexities of this exchange.

Still caring for the vulnerable

Our lectionary still has us in the section of Mark where Jesus is leading the disciples toward Jerusalem. He is also trying to help the disciples find their way into what God desires. Interestingly, he is not calling them to acts of spiritual prowess. Rather he is asking them to live well in their common human condition and in such mundane realities as family, wealth, and their gathered community.

Jesus has consistently asked them to use what they have in service of those who are most vulnerable: children, the poor, those denied status. Given the way divorce worked in the ancient world (and often still today), certain people were disproportionately hurt in a divorce, most likely women and the children they cared for. As the Pharisees test Jesus’ ability to respond to their question about divorce, we should remember the women and children who enter at the blessing portion of the text.

While they are named at the end of the assigned Sunday lesson, they must be there all along. In part, at least, Jesus’ commandment against divorce continues the theme of caring for those who are most vulnerable. Many commentators have noticed that within Judaism women did not have the right to initiate divorce, so Jesus’ suggestion that they could suggests that Jesus offers them agency not usually allowed them.

Statute and narrative

The Pharisees cite the rule Moses gave which allows for divorce to occur. But Jesus puts this allowance in tension with the narrative from the books of Moses that argues against it. Jesus recalls that God created humankind in God’s image.

Marriages, as well as relationships between adults and children or the rich and poor, are proposed as spheres where we can live toward the other in the promise of our divine image. Jesus relativizes the law of God in light of the story of God. Jesus argues that God’s creational desire for integrity in our relationships remains. While Moses might have made allowances in some cases, this does not nullify God’s original intent.

Actual divorce in Mark’s gospel

Interestingly, the only other story in this gospel that relates to divorce is that of Philip and Herodias. John the Baptist suffered death because he pointed out that Herodias had been divorced from her husband so that Herod could marry her. John’s prophetic stand led to his beheading. Perhaps the Pharisees’ “test” in this text is similar to their later questions about paying taxes to Caesar. They want a response from Jesus that will anger Rome’s officials. They may wish to see John’s fate repeated for the trouble-maker, Jesus. Or perhaps the narrator wants us to see how the harm done in divorce is an echo of the regular violence of Rome.

The story of a royally messed up family seeking the destruction of God’s prophet stands in contrast with today’s story which ends with the healing practice of Jesus toward those women and children who hovered at the edge of the conversation about divorce.1 Despite the disciples’ rebuke, Jesus lays his hands on the children. Elsewhere in Mark’s gospel the laying on of hands signifies healing. Jesus once again turns the older generation’s attention to the little ones in their midst. Women and children, those often hurt when divorce happens, are blessed by Jesus.

A difference in pronouns

Careful attention to the dialogue with the Pharisees reveals one more interesting detail. The Pharisees phrase their question in a general and abstract way, “if a man”. But Jesus responds with the suspicion that they are the ones wanting permission to divorce. He doesn’t respond, “What did Moses say about him?” but “What did Moses say to you?” Their response again moves to the abstract “allow him” but Jesus refers not to a hypothetical self’s heart, but to “your heart.”

Richard Swanson points out helpfully that often we avoid our own sexual issues by throwing the spot light on another we feel worthy of attack.2 I recall many such conversations when heterosexual, middle-aged men who never addressed their own sexuality publicly attack the sexuality of LGBTQ people. Jesus appears not to allow such attacks on the vulnerable, but finds ways to turn the question around to those seeking to disguise their own fragility. “What about your practice?” Jesus asks.

A final warning

Our relationships that have sexual dimensions inevitably get caught up in the sin within and around us. Sometimes that happens so profoundly that divorce seems the best of the options available to us. In some cases this saves lives of those who are vulnerable. Once the tragedy of divorce enters the life of someone we know, our role is not to refuse them access to Jesus. Instead, we broken people are invited to be healed by the hands of Jesus. Many people will testify that our loving God has healed their broken hearts after the trauma of divorce. So, let our speaking this Sunday not rend asunder the restored heart that God has brought together.


  1. Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005), 227.
  2. Swanson, 229.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24

Juliana Claassens

Genesis 2:18-24 is a fascinating text that throughout the centuries has done much harm.

For instance, over the years, the reference to the woman as man’s helpmate has been invoked to relegate women to a subservient position. Or worse, in the 15th century document Malleus Maleficarum that serves as a manual for dealing with women who have been accused of witchcraft offers the following shocking interpretation regarding the reference of woman being created from the rib of the man. In a section that outlines women as the “weaker sex” when it comes to intellect, and hence more susceptible to fall prey to the devil’s temptations, one finds the following description of women:

But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.1

This type of misguided interpretation that unabashedly demonizes women has been responsible for the persecution and murder of countless of women who were considered to be witches. However, less overt, but no less harmful is the ancient stereotypes that continue to this day to haunt women and mar the relationship between women and men: Women are unfaithful, women are not to be trusted; women are the pinnacle of all that is evil, corrupt, irrational, and weak.

This very dark interpretative trajectory of Genesis 2:18-24 should not prevent us though from finding ways to redeem this text in order to proclaim a word that is life-giving in nature. For instance, one should note that this text offers a wonderful portrayal of the importance of companionship. This is evident already in verses 18 when the God who in Genesis 1 repeatedly has described God’s creation as good, says that “it is not good that man,” and I would add woman, “be alone.” So God vows to provide the paradigmatic human with a helper and a partner, which as Phyllis Trible already in her landmark book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality has shown, should not be viewed in terms of subordination given the fact that God is also described as Israel’s helper (Psalms 115:9; 121:2).

We actually see in quite humorous fashion how God is creating from the same ground (adamah) from which humans (adam) have been created, make a whole array of animals, parading them in front of the human to find his ideal partner and helpmate. One could well imagine the man scoffing at the idea of the giraffe, the lion, the chimpanzee, and even man’s best friend, the dog, being this promised companion. When none of these animals suffice, God’s plan B is to take part of the man to “build” a woman which God brings to the man for his approval.

The man’s delight is evident when he recognizes this woman to be his partner and helpmate, but more importantly to be “bone of [his] bone and flesh of [his] flesh” (verse 23). Moreover, in the act of intercourse, they once more become the one flesh that they always have been (verse 24).

In a fascinating story on the notion of soulmates, in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells the story of how human beings originally were androgynous creatures with two faces, and four arms and legs. Threatened by the power of these humans, Zeus decided to weaken them by cutting them in two. These two halves were miserable, continuously longing for its other half. Love and companionship can thus be described as trying to get back to one’s original self:

Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature. Each of us, then, is a ‘matching half’ of a human whole…and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him.2

The beauty of this interpretation is that it opens up the idea that the “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh” can go beyond what traditionally has been described as the love between a man and a woman. Partners and companions can and do come in all shapes and forms. In this regard, Sean Burke has written beautifully about the value of Queer Biblical Interpretation that seeks to break open rigid sexual categories that confine people in narrowly defined boxes, “mak[ing] it possible for more bodies to matter — for more bodies to be recognized as fully human.”3 And I would add, to allow them to search for their other half that completes them.

Whoever this partner, one’s soulmate, ends up being, the final verse of this week’s lectionary reading offers a powerful perspective on what the nature of this relationship ought to be. In Genesis 2:24 we read that these two soulmates both were naked but not ashamed. This verse is such a powerful image of being able to be vulnerable in the presence of the other. Probably one of the most important aspects of a happy relationship/marriage is the ability to protect the vulnerability of the other. It is also this reference that features prominently in Phyllis Trible’s retelling of Genesis 2 what she describes as “the love story gone awry.” She views the portrayal of the intimate relationship in Song of Songs as a good illustration of what the love story as narrated in Genesis 2 is supposed to be:

Naked without shame and fear (see Genesis 2:25; 3:10), this couple treat each other with tenderness and respect. Neither escaping nor exploiting sex, they embrace and enjoy it. Their love is truly bone of bone and flesh of flesh, and this image of God male and female is indeed very good (see Genesis 1:27, 31).4


  1. James Sprenger and Henry Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum, Section1, Question VI (1486 CE) http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/mm/.
  2. Plato, Symposium, (360 BCE) http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html, 27.
  3. Sean Burke, “Queering Early Christian Discourse: Th e Ethiopian Eunuch,” in Bible Trouble, ed. Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 176.
  4. Trible, Phyllis, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 161.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 1:1; 2:1-10

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

Most readers come to the book of Job with the issue of theodicy at the fore; they desperately want nothing more than to understand why bad things happen to good people.

That is, after all, a question that continually plagues people. Yet for those seeking an answer to that question, they will find the book of Job unsettling, at best, because it does not provide the kinds of tidy answers we would hope to discover. Because we want the book to say something about the human condition, we come to the text with a thoroughly anthropocentric focus. Yet the book is not really about Job, per se, the book is about God. In other words, the book of Job is unashamedly theological in the strictest sense of the word. The book ponders the nature of this God and God’s ways in the world.

In considering God and God’s ways in the world, the writer of Job debunks the normative worldview of the day, “retribution theology.” Simply put, this mechanistic worldview understood the events of the world causally — those who act righteously can expect good things to happen and those who fail to act righteously can expect calamity. Job, his friends, and Elihu all seek to make sense of what happened to Job in light of this mechanistic worldview — and in the end, all of them fail. They fail because the book of Job is not about what Job did or didn’t do, but about God and who God is. Job only comes to this understanding after his encounter with God in Job 38-42.


The book of Job creates and then quickly dismantles an idyllic world inhabited by an idyllic character. With the book’s opening line, “There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job,” the reader is whisked into a faraway time and a faraway place where a righteous man prospered greatly only to lose it all.

Although the details surrounding the figure of Job are relatively lean, they are no less important — and arguably perform a significant rhetorical function in the narrative of the book. The location of Uz is not entirely known, although most would assign it to a region south of Israel in Edomite territory (compare with Lamentations 4:21). The name “Job” is not a typical Israelite name, although representative examples are scattered throughout the larger ancient Near East. The exotic “distance” created by both place and name serve to lift Job up as the paradigmatic human. The plight faced by Job is that of humanity writ large.

Other details surrounding the character of Job should not be overlooked: seven sons and three daughters; seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels; five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, along with a great many servants. Where numbers are provided, they total ten, signifying perfection and fullness. And lest we simply assume Job to be a man of material means alone, his piety is on full display in verse 5 where he even offers sacrifices to cover the sins of his family.

These details in the story are meant to confirm the characterization of Job in the opening verse of the book, that is, that Job was “blameless and upright,” and “one who feared God and turned away from evil.” All four descriptions affirm the righteousness of Job. The word “blameless” (tam) carries the sense of acting with integrity — Job’s actions mirrored his beliefs, a claim to which Job returns in his final speech (Job 29-31).

These depictions of Job function as a type of dramatic irony — whatever else the audience knows, the audience knows that the mechanistic worldview cannot adequately explain what will become of Job.

The satan and the question

Beginning in Job 1:6, the story shifts from the earthly realm to the heavenly realm, and in particular, the divine council where Yahweh engages the satan in a conversation about Job. Most Bible translations capitalize the satan, and thus conjure up associations with the Satan figure in the New Testament. Within the Old Testament, however, the word “satan” was used in reference to heavenly beings (Numbers 22:22; Zechariah 3:1) and humans (1 Samuel 29:4), whose primary role was to act as an accuser. In the Hebrew, the word includes the definite article (hassatan), thus accentuating the particular role of the figure (“the accuser”). Carol Newsom has suggested by the time of the post-exilic period the satan “had come to designate a particular being in the heavenly court, one whose specialized function was to seek out and accuse persons disloyal to God.”1

This question of loyalty is central to the question posed by the hassatan in Job 1:9 — “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Does Job fear God because he has been blessed beyond measure (Job 1:4) or would Job fear God if he had nothing at all? This is the question that animates the rest of the book. While such questions appear thoroughly anthropocentric, at their root they are theocentric. Are people only loyal to this God because of what he provides for humans (self-interested religion) or do humans fear God because of who God is? Or put more crassly, does God buy loyalty by affording humans a blessed life? What if there is no blessed life? Is this God still worthy of our loyalty and devotion?


In Job 2:10, Job boldly confesses, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” Some interpreters contend that the speeches of Job in chapters 3-41 appear to stand in considerable tension with this confession. Yet the confession in Job 2:10 is not blind fatalism, but rather an attempt to suggest that events are not arbitrary; that there is some type of order to the world. Understood this way, the speeches that follow do not stand in contradiction to this confession but instead represent Job’s attempt to understand this order — an order he understands in light of a mechanistic worldview. Although Job’s mechanistic worldview is dismantled by the end of the book, his loyalty to God is reaffirmed (Job 42:6).


  1. “Job,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 347.


Commentary on Psalm 8

Matthew Stith

This psalm of praise is unique in the Psalter in that it is addressed directly to the Lord throughout.1

With no asides to the congregation calling them to participate in the psalmist’s praise, no descriptive passages in the third person, nor even any inward conversation on the psalmist’s part (“O my soul”) as are seen in other psalms, Psalm 8 conveys a distinctive sense of intimacy and directness. We are here invited to listen in on and participate directly in the writer’s private prayer, and it is therefore the task of the interpreter to lead the congregation into that prayer as participants, taking up the psalmist’s meditations as their own.

The psalm opens and closes with a well-known evocation of God’s majesty: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” The transcendent glory of God is thus set forth as the defining context of the psalm, so that the other matters it raises must be considered in relationship to God’s overarching lordship. When we turn to the central subject matter of the psalm in verses 3-8, we will see why it is crucial to keep this context in mind.

The other major concern of Psalm 8 is the vocation of humankind in the creation. This vocation is described in terms of “dominion” over the rest of creation, given to human beings by God. There are, therefore, two relationships in view in the psalm, that between humankind and the rest of creation, and that between the Creator and his human creations. Each of these relationships could serve as a focal point for the interpreter of the psalm:

  • The language of dominion, coupled with the catalogue of creation over which this dominion is granted, will remind many readers of the creation narrative in Genesis 1, particularly verses 26-31. This connection opens the possibility of connecting human vocation in general, and our relationship to our fellow creatures in particular, with God’s creative intent. Throughout both texts, it is made clear that whatever dominant position humankind enjoys with respect to the creation, that position is owing to God’s decision, God’s purposes, and God’s actions. Interpretation could therefore focus on how our exercise of this vocation is or is not in harmony with God’s intent, and venture from there into the rich topic of stewardship.
  • While it may indeed have made sense for the newly-created, thus far sinless human beings, bearers of the unsullied image of God, to exercise the office of God’s stewards over creation, the same cannot necessarily be said of humankind after the Fall. Given what humanity has, by its own choice, become, the Psalmist might well wonder why on earth God still chooses to grant us dominion. The magnificence of the starry night sky demonstrates to the Psalmist’s satisfaction that the Creator certainly had other options — if God’s hand framed the very cosmos, there can be no question of God’s being stuck with unwanted stewards. The question “What are human beings that you are mindful of them” (verse 4) is left tantalizingly open for meditation on the nature of God’s mercy, grace, and care for his fallen people.

If the preacher wishes to follow the psalmist in drawing a connection between the two relationships in view in the psalm (Creator-human and human-creation), one possible approach is to suggest that the question of verse 4 must ultimately be answered by both looking back at our creation and looking forward to our final destiny. Human beings were created as bearers of the image of God, and even the very worst of accumulated human sin has not entirely effaced that image. God’s intention for us, in other words, is not to be thwarted by our disobedience. That said, our exercise of our vocation has clearly suffered from our corruption, and the dominion humankind has exercised over the creation has seldom looked like the loving stewardship that God ordained in Eden.

The solution to this conundrum, and therefore the answer to the question of Psalm 8:4, lies in the redeeming work of Christ. In him was revealed humankind as we were intended to be from the beginning, humankind untouched by sin. Thus, he is the pattern for the dominion we are called to exercise, a dominion marked by nurturing love rather than selfish exploitation. And if he is the pattern, he is also the means by which God has chosen to fit us to the pattern, to return us to our intended state and vocation. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” We are, through Jesus, the adopted children of the household; the objects of God’s grace, love, salvation, and sanctification; and ultimately, through him, the image-bearers and stewards of creation that we were created to be in the first place. This, according to the sovereign will of the one whose name is indeed majestic in all the earth.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 4, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Craig R. Koester

This week’s second lesson begins a series of readings from the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Preachers do well to recognize that Hebrews itself is not only a possible basis for a sermon. Hebrews actually is a sermon. To be sure, it is frequently called an epistle or letter because of the final verses of Hebrews 13. But the opening lines of Hebrews 1, which are part of this week’s reading, have little in common with the other New Testament letters.

Where ancient letters begin by identifying the author, intended recipients, and offering a greeting, Hebrews begins with eloquent and intricately woven lines that are designed to capture the imagination of the hearers. The author says nothing about his own identity, and no amount of scholarly research has been able to overcome the anonymity. As Origen said, the identity of the person who wrote Hebrews is known to God alone.

The opening lines focus instead on how God has spoken in the past through the prophets and again in a singular way through the Son. There are no initial humorous anecdotes or ruminations about the lectionary. Instead, listeners are brought directly to an encounter with the God who speaks. And that intense focus raises questions as to why the writer starts there. Why was that focus on the God who speaks so important for the listeners?

We get glimpses of the situation of the listeners from comments scattered throughout the book. In terms of a congregational profile, the group had apparently been a rather successful new mission start. At first they had received the gospel message with excitement. The work of the Spirit among them seemed unmistakable. Their worship and life together was full of vitality (Hebrews 2:3-4). Problems arose when that led to friction with people outside the community, who apparently found this enthusiastic group of worshipers too peculiar to fit into the conventional social order.

After all, there were plenty of traditional religious options in most ancient cities, and that made this new focus on Jesus a source of suspicion and controversy. There were threats against the Christian group and some of them were arrested, but the others remained supportive. So in the face of hardship the congregation rallied — at least for a while (Hebrews 10:32-34).

But over time a malaise set in. The real crisis was one of apathy. Some simply drifted away. When asked why they no longer came to worship, they replied that they simply forgot or did not feel like it. The writer describes it as “neglect” (Hebrews 10:25). The gospel seemed promising at one point, but over time the actual experience of life in Christian community seemed to fall far short of the kingdom of God. For many contemporary congregations that is also the case.

So how does Hebrews go about revitalization? The opening lines take listeners back to where it all began: to God’s message. The prose draws the hearers out of the grayness and into the radiance of the divine presence. The opening lines (Hebrews 1:1-4) have sometimes been described as a hymn because of the poetry, and that is actually very helpful for preaching.

When you think of the hymns that most inspire members of your congregation, what are they? How have the hymnwriters shaped their language to engage the imagination? How do the melodies that support the words touch the heart? Preachers who reflect on how a powerful hymn can inspire a congregation will have a good feel for where Hebrews begins.

In terms of content, the opening lines follow the kind of sweep that we find in the prologue to John’s gospel (John 1:1-18) or the Christ hymn in Philippians (Philippians 2:6-11). It identifies Christ as the one who bears the stamp of God’s very being, who is God’s agent of creation, who made purification for sins by his death, and is the one through whom God’s lordship is exercised. The language of the Nicene Creed continues to give these ideas expression in worship, and that too is helpful in understanding the function of Hebrews’ introduction. Like a hymn and like the creed, it brings to expression the faith of the community.

When the writer comes to Hebrews 2, he links this inspiring confession of faith to the rather uninspiring situation of the community. He does so on the basis of Psalm 8 (Hebrews 2:6-8a). The Psalm declares that God created people for glory and honor, making them little lower than the angels and entrusting them with responsibility for the world. But then the author acknowledges that at present we do not “see” things that way. God may intend people to have glory and honor, but you certainly wouldn’t know that by looking at the dispiriting situation of the Christian community. Their experiences of conflict and marginalization, along with the current malaise, seemed anything but glorious.

But then the author returns to the gospel message. The listeners have already heard the hymn about the lordship of Christ, but at the center of that is the fact that Christ’s pathway was one of dishonor and suffering (Hebrews 2:8b-12). It was not a triumphant move from glory to glory. The writer has people recall that Christ did not escape suffering but entered fully into the situation of those who suffer. And the goal was to make a way forward through suffering in the confidence that God’s will for them was ultimately life.

Hebrews pictures Christ as a pioneer, as one who charts the course through the difficult landscape in order that others may follow. The pioneer endures hardship for the sake of something far greater. Hebrews will repeatedly declare that God’s purposes remain clear and firm. God has created people for glory, not dishonor, for life and not suffering. And in Christ the listeners “see” how God continues to be at work bringing his purposes to fulfillment.

Like the people whom God delivered from slavery in Egypt, they are on a journey through a wilderness — in the case of the readers it is a social wilderness. But the promised land still beckons, and the conviction that God has a future for them gives courage to persevere, knowing that God is not done but is leading them toward that promised future.