Lectionary Commentaries for July 22, 2018
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Cláudio Carvalhaes

Many Christians don’t have a sense of what a spiritual life is. Is it prayer? Is it reading the Bible? Is it being guided spiritually by someone?

Since we don’t have much of an idea what a spiritual practice might be, Christians tend to have a very secular sense of the spirit and tend to correlate spiritual life with daily stuff we love, such as cooking, reading, walking the dog, and so on. Very few understand that spiritual disciplines actually entail painful processes of learning to listen and to deal with our desires and our death drive.

Some Christians think that spirituality is only about justice and they throw themselves into works of justice that will change the world and themselves.

The question for us here is: What spirit do we follow? The Spirit of God or the spirit of the world? The spiritual life is often marked by existential bifurcations: Are we enticed to serve the god of mammon or the Spirit of God? This is our ongoing struggle.

Jesus is attentive to the practices of his disciples and is aware of the pulling and pushing we all go through daily. We can easily fall into the cosmetic treatment of the spirit with spiritual lotions, smoky prayers and healing baths while announcing that this kind of caring for oneself is a political act. Surely a political act embellished in neoliberal sugarcoating grasped by the spirit of mammon.

But we can also fall into the trap of working hard for the cause of justice without attending to our souls and our spiritual and emotional needs. I think this latter group is the one Jesus is concerned with and talking to here — those who do not stop to think, to meditate, to ponder, to wonder, to pay attention, to pray. To those, Jesus says: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

In the desert, we can have a sense of ourselves again. No noise besides our noise and the wind, no presence besides our presence and the ghosts, no company besides the plants and animals.

In the desert, there is no peace if our heart has no peace. There is only fear in the desert if our hearts live in fear.

In the desert, we must control our minds not for the sake of controlling it but rather, to be able to free ourselves from the grips of anxiety, fear, and endless movement.

In the desert, we hear the words we speak, we hear the silence we produce, we attend to the movements of our body.

In the desert, we recover our hearts back again from our cellphones, our rushed lives. The desert is not a thing in itself but a corridor that functions as a way in and out of our constant work for justice. To know ourselves (the desert) is to know what we do better (the world). Thus, to know the work we do is to know ourselves.

The world is in such a precarious situation that we need this constant movement in and out of the desert that solid spiritual practices provide. These practices become important because our presence and work as Christians in the world are fundamental to the lives of those who are the least of these. We walk around and see those who are sick, beggars, homeless, the poor. We see immigrants, they are everywhere. We attend to their needs, we welcome them home, we talk at church about how to offer shelter, how to be present, how to undo policies of hatred and debunk feelings of xenophobia, fear, and anger.

Along with the poor, the earth is also on a path of brutal destruction. We are eliminating the basic structures of the earth because of our desires, greed, and entitlement. Companies are taking over water to make bottled water, sodas, and all kinds of drinks. Agribusinesses have taken the land and destroyed it to raise cattle and plant corn and soy, all to meet our ever-growing appetites.

The sea is loaded with plastic and garbage that result from our consumerism, and overfishing depletes seas and lakes. Forests are turned into deserts, not proper for habitation much less for spiritual development. The earth, like the poor, is rushing toward us, asking to be healed. Every tree is asking us for support, every lake is crying while being poisoned by excrements from industries, every fish is begging to survive, every bird is singing to remind us of our place in creation.

We have so much to do, as Jesus says. At times, even Jesus couldn’t stop. His heart was driven by deeper compassion. But — and this is important — Jesus knew he needed to stop. Nobody can run too much and do things without stopping or getting sick.

Our task is both to be attentive to all that is crying for our attention and demanding our care. Stricken, poor human beings from all places. The earth everywhere. As people of God, we are called to discern the spirit of our times and see where the Spirit of God lives and what the Spirit is asking us to do — the work of God.

In the same way, Jesus is telling us that we have to pause and pay attention to our hearts, to our movements and to how we are living our lives. Without a strong spiritual life, oriented by daily spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, of pause and loneliness, we cannot do all the work we need to do and we cannot be all that we are called to be. A heart without action is ineffective, and an action without a heart is empty. Jesus is calling us to have a compassionate heart and to do strong actions of justice. Both things! Together!


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6

Elaine James

Jeremiah’s critique of leaders is born from his compassion for the people.

“Woe!” This passage begins with the cry that marks an oracle of destruction. It is a hook that the audience can’t ignore.

Corrupt leadership

Jeremiah has his eye fixed in particular on the leaders: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1). The shepherd is a common ancient metaphor for leaders, and for kings in particular. That leaders bear more responsibility than their people for social fate and for social injustice is a view shared by the prophet Ezekiel, who employs this same metaphor to speak of the exile of Judah in Babylon (Ezekiel 34).

There is a persistent ethical thread throughout the Hebrew Bible: God requires the community to be ruled with justice and righteousness, which is manifested in the treatment of the alien, the orphan, and the widow (Jeremiah 22:3-4). But rulers who seek their own fortune, who expand their houses and enrich their coffers at the expense of the poor are in egregious violation of God’s covenant, and will be held accountable (Jeremiah 22:13-17).

In the contemporary context, political and religious leaders give us ample opportunity to consider how corruption at the highest levels leads to the increasing devastation of the poor and the marginalized. Recent White House policies aimed at deterring immigration are separating immigrant families at the United States borders. The trauma this poses for children and their families is an example of a breach of care for the alien and the poor.

In this passage, the social disintegration of the exile at the hands of the Babylonian empire is the responsibility of rulers: “It is you [shepherds] who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and have not attended to them” (Jeremiah 23:2). The prophet wrestles with the question of who is to blame for suffering and political trauma, and offers two answers: It is you [shepherds] who have driven them into exile (Jeremiah 23:2) and it is I [God] who have driven them into exile (Jeremiah 23:3). There is a poetic cadence to this repetition that on the one hand holds corrupt leadership accountable for their oppression of the poor, but also insists that it is God who is ultimately powerful. This is a tension that Jeremiah carefully holds.

The people are sheep

The prophet speaks with a sense of tenderness on behalf of the people. God is the shepherd who will ultimately redeem the people. There is a double-cast to the image; the corruption and failure of Judah’s political leaders is a foil for the compassion of God. The metaphor of shepherding has a tone of tenderness and care, evident in God’s insistent claims of personal possession: the people are “my pasture”, “my people”, “my flock.” The pacific quality echoes Psalm 23, the famous poem about the divine shepherd who is a source of comfort and life.

God will become their shepherd. While corrupt leadership has “scattered” the sheep, God will “gather the remnant of my flock,” emphasizing that God will act as the good shepherd, as a model of just rule and care. Jesus is described in these terms in this week’s lectionary passage from the Gospel Mark. Jesus sees that the crowd of people are “like sheep without a shepherd,” and has compassion on them. He begins to teach them, which suggests that he is taking up that role of shepherd (Mark 6:34).

God’s compassionate care for the exiled community of Judah is a promise of renewal and flourishing. The phrase “they shall be fruitful and multiply” echoes the Priestly blessing of creation in Genesis 1:28 (compare with Jeremiah 3:16; Ezekiel 36:11). God’s reign will bring an end to fear, and comes with a promise, “nor shall any be missing.” This sense is echoed in the New Testament parable of the shepherd who relentlessly seeks out even the one lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7). Every single sheep belongs in the fold of God, even those who are now scattered and given up for lost. This passage might be read as a vision of hope for those alienated from their homes, separated from their families, or experiencing social marginalization, especially immigrants, refugees, and aliens.

The righteous branch

With the exile (597 and 587 BCE) and the destruction of Jerusalem (587 BCE), a very real end had come for Judah. But not all hope is gone. How is it possible to live in hope in a time of devastation? For Jeremiah, this is possible by looking both backward and forward. Jeremiah looks back to the reign of David and the promise of relationship God makes through David’s line (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89). By looking backward, Jeremiah also looks forward: “The days are surely coming!” Honoring that traditional covenant, God will “raise up for David a righteous branch,” a new king whose reign will be marked by justice and righteousness.

This righteousness will be manifested not just by a lack of war, but will be palpable “in the land.” While the reclamation and resettlement of people is first in Jeremiah’s mind, there is simultaneously a vision that peace involves the more-than-human world. Jeremiah appeals to the land: “O land, land, land / hear the word of the Lord!” (Jeremiah 22:29), and his vision of restoration repeats the word “land” five times in four verses (Jeremiah 23:5-8). This causes the reader to ask how war and political trauma disrupt not just human lives, but the health of the larger ecological community. It should encourage contemporary audiences to seek restoration for people and land alike.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-14a

Gennifer Benjamin Brooks

This passage marks an important transition in the story of David and the institution of the Davidic monarchy.

David is at peace and secure in both his house and the kingdom. He considers it time to show his appreciation and make reparation to God. It seems appropriate that when the hand of God has been evident in one’s life, one should make a tangible expression of appreciation to God. That is David’s intent. Before beginning, David seeks the wisdom of the prophet Nathan and obtains his approval for a building project that honors God. So, God’s response to David’s proposition is puzzling and difficult to understand.

Although the sermon is not the best place for either a history lesson on the formation of the Davidic monarchy, nor on Old Testament interpretation, as one seeks to understand this text and apply it appropriately to the context of one’s congregation, it is important to understand the background of this historical and theological writing. Writing in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Bruce C. Birch notes: “This chapter is the most theological text in the books of Samuel and perhaps in the entire Deuteronomistic History.”1 His conclusion has to do with the application of this text to the formation of the Davidic dynasty.

In whatever way the text was redacted to fit the actuality of the Davidic line of kings, it speaks theologically in a way that locates God at the source and the center of our lives. One might even say God provides the formative direction of our efforts to do the will of God. So redirecting the focus from the building of David’s house that God promised, and moving beyond Israel to the present, there are lessons to be learned from a contextual reading of the text. These can be addressed through questions that seem to arise from this text that center on the relationship between God and human beings.

  1. Who can know the mind of the Lord?2 God created us — heart, mind, soul, and body. We are made in the image of God and God speaks into our hearts the things that God would have us do. In this way we can gain knowledge of what God requires of us, which is in essence the mind of God. Because of sin we no longer have the purity of the divine/human relationship that was ours in creation. In our humanness we have been separated from God, and our thoughts are clouded, preventing us from doing only that which honors God. Or is the message that, no one is allowed to step out and do anything in the name or for the sake of God unless one hears directly from God? One must verify that what one desires to do for God or for the people of God meets with God’s favor.
  2. Can anyone repay God? David’s desire is to repay God for all that God has done to bring him to the place and position in which he finds himself. The ultimate gift of God that has positioned all people to be brought back into oneness with God is, of course, the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As Christians, each of us may be able to point to specific things in our lives that we attribute to the hand of God, and we are also ongoing recipients of God’s grace that is free and cannot be repaid. In the church, our tithes are given in recognition and not as repayment for God’s blessings. No one can repay God and we need not try.
  3. Who speaks for God? It is said the prophet speaks for God, but is every preacher a prophet, and what makes one’s preaching prophetic? David appropriately approaches the prophet Nathan and receives his blessing for the plan that he has decided to implement. Did Nathan misunderstand God’s greater plan, or did he neglect to consult with God before giving David the go-ahead for his plan? The text does not tell us, but it reminds us that when we desire to speak on God’s behalf, it behooves us preachers and prophets to check in with God so that we are assured that our message is indeed what God wants to say to the people.
  4. Does God still speak to God’s prophets? God comes to Nathan by night and gives the prophet a message for David. The text does not say why God did not speak directly to David. But God chose the prophet as the recipient of God’s message to be God’s voice to David and all the people of Israel. And God still speaks to God’s prophet today, sending messages that are to be delivered for the good of the people. Being faithful in delivering the message is the responsibility of the prophet. God’s message must be delivered just as it has been received for the benefit of the people.
  5. Does God still care about the details of our lives enough to provide specific direction? When Nathan received the message, there were no gaps in the story of God’s plan for the future. Whether the text was developed to support the reality of the monarchy of Israel or is an accurate representation of the events that took place, is irrelevant to the fact that it speaks of God’s real presence in human endeavors. God cared about David and set a plan in order for his future. God cares about all of God’s children and has developed a plan for each one that offers a fruitful future. What we are called to do is listen for it. As preachers, listen to what God is saying for your life and for the lives of God’s people who are in your care. Then having received it, deliver the message to God’s people faithfully and let God do the work of bringing the future to fruition.

Notes:

  1. Bruce C. Birch. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume ll. 1&2 Samuel. (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 199, 1254.
  2. See Romans 11:34 and 1 Corinthians 2:16

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 23

James K. Mead

Well, here you are, wondering whether to take the leap of faith and make Psalm 23 the text for — or at least an important element of — proclamation for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost.1

You may be aware of Walter Brueggemann’s verdict, namely, that commenting on this psalm is “almost pretentious.”2 If Brueggemann feels that way about commenting on it, where does that leave us with preaching it?

But before we sell ourselves short, I want to persuade you that there are ways to share this beloved poem with your congregation so that they discover new insights for themselves. A psalm as treasured as this one deserves a bold homiletical move, something that takes us and our hearers outside the “comfort zone” of a typical sermon. This might mean something more interactive, creating space within the message for meditation, conversation, song, or prayer. It might mean a different homiletical style from your “bread and butter” outlines and stories: perhaps an imaginative, perspectival testimony on the ways you, as their shepherd, have been one of the “sheep of God’s hand” (Psalm 95:7); or a dialogue/round table with two or three members of the congregation (some newer and some longer-term members) who each comment on an element of the psalm. If those ideas make you nervous, then at least craft your points, illustrations, and applications to get at something new for them, perhaps along the lines of, “What you didn’t know about Psalm 23 that will make you love it even more!” Regardless of the homiletical path you choose, I’m persuaded that your preaching and the congregation’s response will be enhanced by discovering amazing aspects of the psalm’s literary, historical, and theological dimensions.

Literary artistry. The basic facts about the psalm preach an eloquent message by themselves. There are fifty-five Hebrew words in this psalm, and unlike many psalms there are almost no repetitions.3 Only the Hebrew words for “Lord” (verses 1, 6), “day” (verse 6, twice), and possibly “restore/return” (verses 3, 6, NRSV “dwell”)4 are repeated. It’s as if the poet were given a list of some fifty words and told to write the most memorable poem in human history. Moreover, a total of fifty-five words creates a precise center (the 28th word), namely, “you,” in reference to the Lord. Thus, the thought at the very center of the poem is the phrase, “you are with me” (verse 4).5 Combine that insight with the closure created by the use of “Lord” in the psalm’s opening and closing phrases, and we see the portrait of the divine shepherd who is there at the beginning, the middle, and the end of our journey. By virtue of its literary artistry alone, therefore, this psalm declares that God enfolds his people so that we all are part of the flock; and yet this shepherd intimately knows the sheep in all their distinction and difference. Each one of us is throughout his or her life a unique and precious possession of God.

Historical context. Scholars have done excellent work explaining the ancient Near Eastern context of the psalm. Still, this is not an idea that every commentary discusses, and it almost certainly is not on your parishioners’ radar. Nevertheless, it is important for grasping the psalm’s meaning in its original context to know that both Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures used the shepherd image for their kings, their gods, or both. The epilogue to the famous Code of Hammurabi has that king state: “I made the people lie down in safe pastures, I did not allow anyone to frighten them.”6 Or in regard to the image of the banquet (vv 5-6), there is the goddess Anat who “arranges seats for the warriors, arranges tables for the soldiers.”7 The biblical psalmist, being well aware of this broad cultural background, is thus making an affirmation of faith: The Lord — not a foreign god or king — is the only true shepherd of each and every Israelite. We now hear this psalm not merely as a message of comfort on life’s journey but a theological creed spoken in the midst of our own culture with all of its earthly leaders and “gods” that can never be the Shepherd-King of Psalm 23.8

Biblical theology. Finally, while many parishioners will connect this poem with the shepherd images elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34, John 10), few will identify the echoes of Israel’s national journey of deliverance, wilderness, and emergence in the land (see especially Psalm 78:52-55).9 This most precious of personal psalms is about both our individual journeys and the journey of the people of God. Finally, biblical theology finds echoes of prophetic themes — the NRSV accurately renders the KJV’s “paths of righteousness” as “right paths” (verse 3) — connecting this psalm to the covenantal standards of justice. And the poet’s sense of protection from the enemies (verse 5) moves toward a richer understanding of reconciliation through the good shepherd who tells us to love and forgive them (Matthew 5:44; Luke 22:34).10

In the end, whatever vehicle you choose to carry the message of Psalm 23, find ways to share insights that increase your flock’s appreciation of their favorite psalm. Far from domesticating it through a thousand and one analytical details, your careful preparation will open up new worlds of meaning for your congregation.


Notes:

1 Commentary first published on this site on July 19, 2015.

2 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 154.

3 I am counting the actual lexical units in Hebrew, not separating out the so-called inseparable prepositions and conjunctions.

4 A. E. Arterbury and W. H. Bellinger, “‘Returning’ to the Hospitality of the Lord: A Reconsideration of Psalm 23,5-6,” Biblica 86 (2008): 387-395.

5 This is a key focus in Rolf Jacobson’s commentary on the passage: “Psalm 23: You are with Me,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 238-246.

6 See the study by Beth Tanner, “King Yahweh as the Good Shepherd: Taking another look at the Image of God in Psalm 23,” in David and Zion: Biblical Studies in Honor of J.J.M. Roberts, eds. B Batto and K. Roberts (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004), 273-274.

7 Ibid, 281.

8 Jacobson calls this a “powerfully subversive element” (245).

9 For a discussion see Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 130.

10 See J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), IV:770.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22

Brian Peterson

Remembering how we got here is important.

I value old photographs of earlier generations of my family, people whom I never actually met, because those people are nonetheless part of my story. Who I am is intimately tied to their stories, and to the boundaries that they encountered and crossed.

Ephesians 2 calls its hearers to remember their own story, but to remember it in a particular way: not necessarily the way that they experienced it at the time, but from the perspective of their present experience of God’s welcoming grace. Only from that vantage point can they see that they had been “Gentiles” (which is certainly not how they would have described themselves at the time), separated, without hope, and (despite their probable previous polytheistic practices) without God (a-theists / atheoi, verse 12). For the early church, the question of how such Gentiles could be welcomed as part of God’s people was a wrenching debate, as is seen most clearly in Acts and Galatians. Jews and Gentiles were separated by a painful and often violent history, by divergent cultures and convictions, by mutual hostility and suspicion.

This is what sin does — it divides us from one another. But now they have been made part of a story which moves from exclusion, hostility, and deprivation to welcome, reconciliation, and God’s overflowing gift.

We may feel distant from the Gentile/Jew divisions that this text declares abolished. However, we must not forget the continuing painful relationship between church and synagogue. Over the centuries the church’s side of this relationship has often violated the reconciliation claimed in this text. We also need to recognize that, despite God’s reconciling peace toward us, we have allowed other social hostilities to divide us and to cloud our view of God’s mission. In our current context, those divisions seem to revolve with particular ferocity around political parties, perspectives, and policies, and these are woven together with insidious divisions of economics, gender, and ethnicity.

The terms in which this text describes that reality might strike us as startling current: it speaks of “aliens” and of a dividing, hostile wall (verses 12, 14). We can scarcely avoid the very concrete issues regarding whom we are willing to welcome, and whom we are eager to exclude.

Faced with such continuing tensions, it may seem that the writer of Ephesians has declared “peace” a bit prematurely. However, though it may still be promise and hope, we should not miss the crucial theological claim made here. Verse 13 turns to proclaiming the good news: “But now in Christ Jesus…” By Jesus’ death on the cross, the old cultural markers of worth and status, of being “in” or “out,” have been abolished. Sin’s power to divide the world has come to its end in Christ.

This means that a new community is being formed, based not on social merit or cultural capital, but on the utterly astounding grace of God toward the whole world. We confess that in Christ God draws both those who are “near” and those who are “far away,” and we are sent as carriers of that reconciliation for the sake of the world.

In this text, it is in particular the Torah as “the law of commandments in decrees” (NET) that was effective in dividing, and now has been rendered moot (verse 15). That hardly means that we cease to care about morality (note that we join the “saints / holy ones” in verse 19), or that we stop reading books like Exodus or Deuteronomy as God’s Word for us (note how 6:2-3 quotes one of the Exodus / Deuteronomy commandments). However, the Torah as centered on demands makes “others” into “outsiders,” and so cannot overcome the alienation that sin brings with it.

Verse 17 interprets what Jesus’ ministry was centrally about: “when he came, he proclaimed peace to you who were far away and to those who were near.” How did Jesus do that? He repeatedly crossed cultural, religious, and political boundaries to reach those on the other side (women, Samaritans, lepers, Gentiles, tax collectors, sinners) and to welcome them into fellowship with himself and thus into the Kingdom of God. Crossing over such boundaries to be with the “others” was (and still is) dangerous, and was part of what got Jesus crucified. “In his flesh” (verse 14), and by the crucifixion of that flesh, he embraced both insiders and outsiders and so made peace.

By raising Jesus from the dead, God declares that the Law’s pattern of alienation is not God’s goal for the world. The Law is “abolished” (NRSV, verse 15) as the way for the church to be God’s people not because sin no longer matters, but because it is Jesus himself who defeats all sin, hostility, and alienation. This is not the pax of the Empire, for whom the cross was a brutal tool of control and oppression; instead, this is the peace of persistent, unrelenting mercy for others, as Jesus loves us all the way to death. Because of that, the church will not be defined by differences in nationality, language, marital status, sexual orientation, ethnic identity, education, political affiliation, or any of the myriad ways in which culture is determined to divide, but will be defined by Jesus who welcomed those declared “aliens” by the Law.

One danger in hearing and preaching this text is that we tend to think of ourselves as the “insiders,” and so we fall into patterns of thinking about how those “others” need to come to us and become more like us. Ephesians is talking about something more startling: a “new humanity” (verse 15) formed around and through Christ. God is still forming us into the humanity that God desires.

The verb in verse 22 is present tense: “you are being built.” This is an ongoing construction project of the Spirit, and in this new community of the cross, everyone (thanks be to God!) is being changed. That is our story to remember, and to live out through reconciling love.