Lectionary Commentaries for June 24, 2018
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 4:35-41

Matt Skinner

Now we’re in a place where we can see what Jesus’ disciples are made of.

So far, Mark has done little to draw our attention to them. They have followed Jesus around and listened to him. He designated twelve of them to have a particular share in his ministry (Mark 3:14-15), but they won’t really try out their new authority until later (Mark 6:7-13). We know little about the rest of them, but clearly an even greater number of female and male disciples composed his entourage (Mark 4:10; 15:40-41). He has been explaining his teachings to this group privately (Mark 4:11, 34). Yet at this point in the narrative we don’t know what they think about him.

The lake-crossing scenes in Mark serve as opportunities for Jesus’ followers to reveal what they know or don’t know (see also Mark 6:45-52; 8:13-21). In those episodes we also see what their faith looks like or whether they have it at all.

Although Jesus performs an entirely astonishing act, demonstrating his power in the face of forces utterly beyond humanity’s control, all it inspires in his followers is confusion and terror.

Disciples at sea

A number of details in this brief account attract attention. A sermon can latch onto just a few of them to draw listeners into the drama.

Jesus gives no explanation for his desire to travel across the Sea of Galilee in the evening instead of waiting until morning, which would make for a safer voyage. There is no interruption between the description of his teaching from a boat (beginning in Mark 4:1 and a need anticipated in Mark 3:9) and his subsequent decision to sail and/or row eastward right away. All told, it looks like urgency or some kind of unshakeable determination on his part, for he goes “just as he was,” without any preparations.

A “great” (megas) storm materializes. It threatens to sink the boats. If the disciples who fished for a living think they are bound to perish in the tempest, we should trust their judgment. Nothing indicates they overreact; this is no common storm.

Yet Jesus sleeps on a pillow, declaring a placid confidence (see Mark 4:27; Psalm 4:8; Job 11:18-19).1 When his companions wake him, accusing him of indifference or negligence, they have lost hope; their words reveal that they have already figured out how the story must end.

Jesus doesn’t calm the storm as much as he overpowers it and brings it to heel. When he rebukes (epitimao) the violent wind and demands a still silence (phimoo) from the chaotic waters, it recalls him doing the same when he compelled unclean spirits (see the same verbs in Mark 1:25).

The whole scene transforms instantly. He speaks, and at once there is a “great” (again: megas) calm, although the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) prefers “dead calm.” There is no magical procedure that Jesus must follow here to defang the ferocity of the so-called natural world, just as there is none when he overwhelms unclean spirits (Mark 1:25; 3:12; 5:8, 13), potentially life-threatening illnesses (Mark 1:31), the damage done to bodies (Mark 1:41; 2:11; 3:5), and death (Mark 5:41). In all those situations he simply speaks or makes contact (or someone makes contact with him, as in Mark 5:27), and things that bring destruction or compound suffering lose their capacity to inflict additional harm.

Repeatedly in Mark Jesus engineers endings that people weren’t expecting. Over and over, he thwarts the outcomes that had appeared to be inescapable.2

Everyone in Jesus’ fleet of little boats probably can recall relevant Jewish traditions. Jesus’ authority over the waters mirrors God’s, according to various passages (including other lections assigned for today: Job 38:4-11; Psalm 107:23-30; see also Psalms 74:13-15; 89:8-9; 104:1-11; Isaiah 51:10; Jeremiah 5:22). The intertextual resonances alone do not necessarily mean that Jesus is God, as if the equation were so simple, but clearly he acts with God’s authority.

It is unclear whether the disciples’ concluding question, “Who then is this?” provides evidence of faulty perceptions, hardness of heart, or unwillingness to accept the awful implications of what Jesus has declared about himself (see Mark 6:51-52; 8:17-18). Coming on the heels of Jesus’ warnings about “those outside” and their inability to grasp the reign of God in their midst (Mark 4:10-12), there is good reason to worry about the disciples. Weren’t they supposed to be insiders?

At this point, they appear not to be. Jesus labels his friends “cowardly” (deilos) and reproaches them for their lack of faith in Mark 4:40. The narrator tells us they are consumed by “great (again: megas) fear.”3 Maybe Jesus’ solution was more terrifying than the storm and the initial prospect of dying at the bottom of the lake.

Or maybe the word that was planted in them has failed and will not bear fruit (see Mark 4:1-20, 26-29).

Other characters in Mark will demonstrate resolute trust (“faith”) in Jesus, even if what they express looks on the surface like desperation, when they are confronted by dangerous realities beyond their control. But sometimes, like here, those realities generate fear instead of commitment.

Mark’s depiction of the disciples and their shortcomings has a way of unsettling readers. If his closest companions, given all the advantages they enjoy from viewing and hearing Jesus up close, cannot put it all together, why should we expect ourselves to fare better? Mark urges us to beware of being too certain that we know what it takes to qualify as an insider in God’s reign.

Borderlines

The rhetoric of Jesus’ mastery over an unruly body of water does not necessarily mean that this scene narrates an exorcism of the natural world. Jesus’ contemporaries did not view every danger as a form of particular demonic mischief. But a god’s battles with the sea and its creatures are something of a staple in Ancient Near Eastern tales, and accordingly this scene from Mark is awash with symbolic potential.

Jesus likes to show up in liminal spaces in Mark — sites of transition or risk. He chooses to go to marginal spaces, away from life’s regular patterns: near a graveyard (Mark 5:2-3), at a deathbed (Mark 5:40), or hoisted atop Golgotha. He situates himself at geographical boundary-lands, like the wilderness (Mark 1:4-9, 35), mountaintops (Mark 3:13; 6:46; 9:2), Tyre (Mark 7:24), and Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27). He also goes to sociopolitical borderlands, politically charged locations like a tax collector’s home (Mark 2:14-15) and the land outside of Jerusalem during Passover (Mark 11:11, 19).

The Sea of Galilee was both kinds of places: geographically, it separated the peoples of one shore from those on the other side;4 sociopolitically, it provided sustenance to Galileans and generated resources that Rome could extract from those who depended on it to make a living. It kept populations distanced from each other, and it fed imperial appetites.

Life stands toe-to-toe with death at many of the borders in Mark. Some of the boundaries separate what’s holy from what defiles, and they keep outsiders away from insiders. That’s how dividing lines work: they allow us to keep what’s known on one side, and we banish whatever makes us fearful to the other side of the fence.

Either Jesus declares that those separations don’t work, or that if they do work he intends to tear them down.

In liminal places, Jesus conducts ministry, opens minds to new possibilities, and sets people free to enter into a new future in freedom and wholeness. He meddles with borders, not because he has a penchant for chaos, but because the reign of God extends divine holiness and a commitment to human well-being to places that we might have thought were beyond the limits. To him, no place is desolate. No one is abandoned.

So Jesus banishes harmful spirits, welcomes outsiders and disadvantaged people, restores community, exposes the lies that prop up counterfeit standards of greatness, and defeats death. Nothing will inhibit his desire to do ministry on “the other side.”

In the end, it does not matter what it is that threatens to keep him from crossing the lake. What’s more important is that he will not be deterred.

When Jesus gets to the other side in Mark 5:1 he will not abandon his faithless disciples on the shore. That’s good news. He has more for them to experience as they continue to witness deliverance — and also the fearfulness that his actions provoke — from their front-row seats throughout chapter 5.

As for them, they will keep getting into boats with Jesus. In other words, they continue to follow him, which is what he asked them to do in the first place (Mark 1:16-20; 2:14-15; 3:14). If they are to remain his followers for the long haul, they will need to know all the dimensions that his ministry of deliverance entails. They will also need to learn about the rejection that comes with the territory (compare to Mark 8:31-34).


Notes:

  1. Note also psalms that call on God to wake and provide assistance: Psalms 35:23; 44:23; 59:4.
  2. For more on this aspect of Mark, see my article, “Preaching Mark in Times of Strife.”
  3. The NRSV’s “they were filled with great awe” in Mark 4:41 is unhelpful. The New International Version’s “they were terrified” is better, for it is more attentive to context in its translation of ephobethesan phobon megan. Compare to Jonah 1:16 (LXX).
  4. There is something to the fact that “the other side of the sea” (Mark 5:1), the edge of the Decapolis, was inhabited predominantly by gentiles while the populations of the villages where Jesus’ conducts ministry in Mark 1-4 were mostly Jewish. But Mark gives little attention to the ethnic dimensions of the boundary Jesus is crossing in this passage. Jesus encounters rejection in the next scene and returns west, also he forbids the one person he liberates on “the other side” from joining him (Mark 5:1-20). A more decisive Jew-gentile boundary crossing occurs later, in Mark 7:24-8:21.

First Reading

Commentary on Job 38:1-11

Elaine James

God’s speech from the whirlwind is a long time coming.

Job and his friends have been engaged in an extended, exhausting poetic dialogue about the nature of Job’s suffering and God’s justice (or lack thereof), in which Job repeatedly expresses the desire to see God face to face and to put God on trial (Job 13:15, 20, 24; compare with Job 31:35-37). Job desired this encounter, but he also feared it:

If I summoned him to court and he answered me,
I do not believe he would listen to my voice.
Surely he will crush me with a whirlwind
And multiply my wounds without cause. (Job 9:16-17)

When God appears, it is in a whirlwind, as Job predicted. But is Job crushed? This appearance dignifies the dialogue and answers Job’s demand for a hearing. Job has provoked God into a revelation, which suggests that Job’s insistence on his own righteousness and accusation against God has been in some sense successful. Now it is the deity’s prerogative to offer a defense.

God’s defense

But it is a strange defense. Readers may find God blustering. This tone is a signature of the disputation form, which is marked by withering take-downs of the opponent and satirical questions such as the ones that emblazon this passage. In Job 38:2-3 we hear God’s opening challenge to Job: “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? / Gird up your loins like a man, / I will question you, and you shall declare to me.”

The Hebrew word for knowing (yada) is repeated four times in Job 28:2-5 in different forms, though the wordplay is not visible in English: “words without knowledge (daat)”, “You shall declare to me (wehodieni)”, “If you have understanding (yadata)”, “surely you know (teda).” This repetition ironically reiterates God’s main challenge to Job. Without a full understanding of God or of the workings of the world, how could Job’s case stand? The missing knowledge, though, is not an insufficient understanding of justice. Rather, God sidesteps Job’s questions about justice altogether in favor of imaginative descriptions that are cosmological and meteorological (and later in Job 38-42, they will be zoological as well).

The Divine Architect

The first description, of God as a builder (Job 38:4-7), contrasts Job’s limited understanding with the depth of God’s wisdom and skill. The poet draws on a familiar image of God setting the world’s foundations (for example Psalms 24:2, 89:11; Isaiah 48:13; Zechariah 12:1, etc.) and elaborates it with details that portray God as architect and builder of a great house: God measures, stretches the line, sinks the bases, and lays the cornerstone. All of the images work on the reader to imagine God acting with foresight and meticulous design, overseeing the plan with precision, and executing the construction with physical power. This world is imagined in a state of excavation, as in the preparatory stages of building a house, when the site is deconstructed in order to ensure a steady foundation.

The Divine Midwife

In the second description (Job 38:8-11), God will be imagined as a midwife. This imagery continues to emphasize that God’s creative work is beyond human knowledge, shifting here to God’s containment of the sea: “Or who shut in the sea with doors…?”

The sea is the traditional symbol of primordial chaos, a hostile force that the creator God must defeat (for example Psalm 74:13-14; 89:9-13; Isaiah 51:9-10) or circumscribe (Psalm 104:5-9; Proverbs 8:29; Jeremiah 5:22). One thinks of relentlessly lapping waves, the pulse of shifting tides, torrential rains and storms that flood, the visual magnitude of a body of water that stretches beyond sight to the apparent edge of the world. It is this seemingly insurmountable, capricious force that God subdues in order to make space for an orderly creation on the land (compare with Genesis 1:6-10). God orders these primal oceanic forces, sets for them bounds, bars, and doors, making them subject to divine ordinance.

But the poet surprises us, coupling this with imagery of birth: the sea is a baby. God is imagined as a midwife, helping the sea to be born (it “burst[s] out from the womb”). Birth, too, is a watery event of inexorable power. At birth, the midwife’s presence is a combination of comfort and advocacy.

The reader imagines God with the strong and supportive hands of an older woman, helping the mother bring her infant through the treacherous channels of birth. It is not the only time God is imagined as a midwife (for example Psalm 22:9-10). Then, perhaps with gentleness and compassion, God clothes the infant sea, swaddles it with clouds and darkness, and speaks to it in a tone of parental discipline: “Thus far you shall come, and no farther, / and here shall your proud waves be stopped” (Job 38:11). This is tenderness coupled with power, as any caregiver who has swaddled a screaming infant knows: soothing comes, but only after a mighty wrestling.

Poetry and imagination

Both of these images are creative treatments of traditional language, drawn out in surprising ways. The effect is disorienting: a clear answer to Job’s questions about justice is nowhere in sight. Indeed, humans and their concerns have no place in these speeches (unlike, for example Psalm 104). Instead, the reader must wrestle with dazzling, provocative images that reimagine God as an engineer of the cosmos and midwife to the elements. The poems do what good art can: reframe the conversation with arresting, alternatively imagined possibilities.

The poem models a stance toward the world: consider the creation, remember what you’ve heard from tradition. These descriptions of the natural world suggest that as the imagination engages the world, a new kind of knowledge or transcendence is reached. This radical reorientation asks for submission to a mysterious order that exceeds human concerns. The divine vantage exposes the limits of human knowledge and capacity, and provides a compelling reason for Job’s continued piety: Job — in wonder, or bewilderment, or perhaps both — ultimately retracts his case (40:3-5; 42:1-6).


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49

Alphonetta Wines

David is introduced to the reader in Ruth 4:17.

Mere mention of him as a descendent of Ruth alerts the reader that David is sure to be a force to be reckoned with, someone who stands out in the crowd. Noting that David is the last word in this short book (Ruth 4:22), the astute reader knows to expect great things.

As Israel’s story continues in 1 Samuel, one might expect David to appear early in 1 Samuel. Yet, David remains out of sight until the prophet Samuel secretly anoints him king at a private family gathering (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Was this the writer’s way of adding to the intrigue about this, thus far, illusive character?

Though Saul is still on the throne, David knows that he is Israel’s next king. When summoned to soothe anxious King Saul (1 Samuel 16:14-23), David knows that however many they may be, Saul’s days as king are numbered.

He has no idea what awaits him when, obedient to his father, he sets out to check on his brothers on the battlefield. However, when the opportunity presents itself to improve his family’s financial status and become part of the king’s family, David does not hesitate.

When David arrived, the grapevine was abuzz with the news that Saul was looking for someone to face the Philistine champion, Goliath. The reward would be great. How could anyone pass up wealth, relief from taxes, and marrying the king’s daughter? The job was risky, but the reward was more than worth any potential risk, even death at the hand of the Philistine.

The eldest brother, Eliab, couldn’t hide his jealousy or disdain for the future king. After all, he was the eldest of Jesse’s sons. Shouldn’t he have been anointed king? David had come to the battlefield on behalf of his three elder brothers. Yet, Eliab readily rebuked David when he inquired about the reward for defeating Goliath. David’s response in 1 Samuel 17:29, “What have I done now? It was only a question” makes it clear he has heard this type of insult from his brothers before. Undeterred, David volunteers for the job.

Forty days of Goliath’s taunts had done their work. None of the Israelite fighters wanted to take on Goliath. His mere height along with his battle gear made him a formidable opponent.

Susan Niditch explains that war was not just about troops fighting one another. She writes: “Taunting … [is] a form of combat in various traditional cultures … [with] the goal … to preserve prestige and avoid physical combat.”1 It was hoped that a match between two leaders would settle the matter.

Neither Goliath nor David held back. Like daggers, verbal taunts volleyed between the two. Goliath’s taunts that he “deserves to be met by his equal — a role the inexperienced David does not appear to suit.”2 David counters that he “has killed lions and bears and that Goliath will suffer a similar fate having dared to taunt the ranks of the living God.”3

Even when Goliath says in 1 Samuel 17:43 “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” David is unnerved. Goliath continues in 1 Samuel 17:44: “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.”

Goliath’s insults weren’t the blows that Goliath intended. David was used to insults. He heard them regularly from his brothers. David is confident that Goliath is no match for him. Although Goliath didn’t know it, he is a marked man. It simply is no contest. His life would end today.

Quick to reply, David turns Goliath’s words against him. Goliath’s threat to David as an individual becomes David’s threat to Goliath’s entire army in 1 Samuel 17:46-47:

I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.

One wonders, where did David get his confidence? For sure, it didn’t come from his family. No one, neither father nor brothers, called nor even considered David when Samuel visited his family looking for Israel’s next king. Jealous and ungrateful, his brothers considered him of no account when he brought them provisions.

Like a child who escapes into music and books to escape drama at home, David found solace in his responsibilities as a shepherd, keeper of the family’s sheep. With no companions except God and the sheep, he finds his confidence in God.

This is not just any battle. This is a battle for the life and soul of Israel, an obscure nation, one that was barely on the horizon. When David wins with only a slingshot, it is a victory not just for David, but for the fledging nation as well. It is confirmation that God is David’s silent partner in this fight.

Israel’s story would continue. David’s story would continue. Though there would be many twists and turns, for both David and Israel, the matter is settled. The connection between David and Israel would last for generations. In the biblical narrative, the connection would last through monarchy, Babylonian exile and return, rebuilding and Roman defeat. Even beyond the biblical narrative, the connection would remain.

Not only would the connection last, this story of David and Goliath would become part of the cultural landscape. The world loves the David and Goliath story and any victory when the longshot wins. What an awesome reminder that with God, we can be victorious, even in the most difficult situations.


Notes:

  1. Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible: A study in the Ethics of Violence (New York, Oxford University Press, 1993), 92.
  2. Niditch, 94.
  3. Niditch, 94.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 107 opens with the words:

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
And gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
From the north and from the south (or, sea). (Psalm 107:1-3)

It seems undoubtedly to have been placed at the beginning of Book Five as an answer to the closing words of Book Four:

Save us, O LORD our God,
and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.   (Psalm 106:47)

Psalm 107, a community hymn of praise, was most likely a liturgy of thanks offered by worshipers at a festival at the temple in Jerusalem. Four groups of people appear in its verses, together representing, perhaps, the four points of the compass and the “redeemed of the LORD” mentioned in verse 2. 

Verses 4-9 tell of a group of wanderers, lost in the desert, who finally arrive at their destination. East of Palestine lays a vast desert which separates it from the eastern side of the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia. Few travelers in the ancient Near East dared any attempt to traverse this terrain. 

Verses 10-16 tell the story of prisoners who are set free. The West is the place where the sun sets, the deathly place of darkness in which the sun dies every night as it makes its journey over the earthly realm. Like the ones wandering lost in the wilderness, the ones dwelling in darkness cry out to God, and God leads them out of darkness and the shadow of death and tears to pieces their bonds. 

Verses 17-22 tell of “sick” persons who are healed. The word translated “sick” actually means “foolish ones.” The people of the ancient Near East associated sickness with foolishness or sin and understood it as God’s punishment for sin (see Psalms 32:1-5 and 38:3, 5). In the books of the prophets, the North, the third direction mentioned in 107:3, was often depicted as the direction from which the punishment of God came to the ancient Israelites. 

The fourth and last vignette of Psalm 107, verses 23-32, tells the story of a group of sailors who are saved from shipwreck. It begins, in verse 23, “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters” and continues, in verse 26, “they mounted up to the heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity.”

The compass point connected with the fourth vignette is rendered in the majority of modern English translations as “the south” (verse 3). The Hebrew text of verse 3, though, clearly has “from the north and from the sea. The difference between the Hebrew text and the English translations seems to be a felt need to have the psalmist refer to the four compass directions.  In addition, the word for “south,” (that literally means “right” — “south” when one faces the sunrise) is an easy emendation from the Hebrew word for “sea.” 

The sea represented another real threat to those who lived in the ancient Near East. Merchant ships sailing out of the Phoenician ports across the Mediterranean Sea often encountered difficulties in its unpredictable waters (recall the treacherous journeys of Paul in the book of Acts and the story of Jonah). Verses 25-29 depict God as the ruler of the sea, able to command its waters to do his bidding (see also Psalms 29:34; 65:7; 89:9-10; 95:5). A storm on the waters (verses 25-27) leads the sailors to cry out to God (verse 28). God then calms the waters and give the sailors rest “in the haven of their pleasure” (verse 30). 

Each of the four vignettes of Psalm 107 follows a precise format:

a description of the distress (verses 4-5, 10-12, 17-18, 23-27)
a prayer to the Lord (verses 6, 13, 19, 28)
details of the delivery (verses 7, 14, 19-20, 29)
an expression of thanks (verses 8-9, 15-16, 21-22, 30-32)

In each vignette, the “prayer to the Lord” and the “expression of thanks” are identical:

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress (verses 6, 13, 19, 28)
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind (verses 8, 15, 21, 31)

The repetition of words in the vignettes provides further evidence that the psalm may have been used in a liturgical setting, as a liturgy of thanks, in which groups of worshipers recited the words of Psalm 107 antiphonally with presiding priests.

Are the four vignettes actual accounts of deliverance by the Lord sung in celebration at a festival? Or is the psalm purely a literary composition, with the four groups representing, in the words of James L. Mays, “all those who have experienced the redemption of the Lord”? Whatever the original Sitz im Leben of Psalm 107, its placement in the Psalter by the shaping community renders it as a hymn celebrating deliverance. 

We may never find ourselves literally wandering in a desert wasteland, forced to dwell in a place of deep darkness, sick to the point of death, or caught in a tumultuous storm at sea, but as James Mays points out, each of us have or will face those times when we need desperately the redeeming hand of God. Psalm 107 provides a model for how to handle those times — recognize the situation you are in; cry out to God and tell God what you need; accept the deliverance that God brings; and then give thanks to God.


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

David E. Fredrickson

Something big is happening between Paul and the church at Corinth in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13.

The roller coaster ride that was Paul’s life pictured in 2 Corinthians 5 points us in the direction of something emotional. In other words, Paul seems not to be dealing with doctrinal disagreements but something very personal, something to do with his relationship with the church at Corinth. His terms kardia and splagchna are particularly salient.

Although ancient medicine in the first century had already made the move to a brain-centered account of intellectual and emotional functions, language itself had not caught up with the doctors. Even today everyday speech associates the heart with emotions. But what about the innards (splagchna) which the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unhelpfully translates hearts. The splagchna are the organs and connective tissue between the clavicle and diaphragm. This would of course include the kardia (the heart), but also the liver, lungs, and spleen.

The reason I bring this up is this: ancient writers conceptualized what we call “emotion” as the heating and ultimately the melting of the splagchna. Not all ancient writers: philosophers thought that an emotion began as a (faulty) judgment concerning the good or evil of an event. Poets on the other hand thought of emotion as an event occurring bodily before or apart from rational thought. It was as if the splagchna housed another self or even other selves and emotions occurred independently of choices, whether rational or misguided, of a single “I.”

I assume that 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 is the rhetorical high point of chapters 1-7. This is a pretty safe move. The main evidence is that Paul addresses his readers by their collective name, Corinthians. Writing their name in this way, getting it out there in the open, they have nowhere to hide as he makes his big ask. He calls them out to acknowledge they have been addressed and to respond to the words he has written in the prior six chapters. In other words, the business that Paul has been trying to get done with his readers since 2 Corinthians 1:1 now, in an extremely condensed form, gets done in thirty-one (Greek) words. What the letter calls for on our part, then, is a review of Paul’s argument up to this point.

But that could easily prove deadly boring and certainly too large a project in this setting. I propose instead to focus on language (that is, specific words and phrases) rather than argumentation. For example, when Paul writes “mouth” how might this term have connected back to what he has just written in chapters 1-6? What we are after are the major themes of the letter.

My job is to point out connections between words and phrases that the first Greek readers likely would have noticed but now readers pass over unaware, since the connections have been obscured by translation, like the NRSV translating splagchna as hearts. Perhaps this thematic approach is no less boring than tracking down Paul’s argument, but at least it can be accomplished quicker. And maybe, just maybe, the passion of 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 won’t be entirely lost on us.

So, first the mouth (to stoma). Paul’s mouth seems to have gotten him into trouble, but not quite in the way you might expect. There are a number of ancient texts that employ the phrase open mouth as a synonym for free or frank speech (parresia), an interesting combination of pas (every) and word (rema). The latter term is related to the verb reo: to flow. Putting it all together, you have Paul claiming that every word flows out of him freely. No fear causes him to soften or censure his thoughts.

For the ancients, telling it like it is no matter whose feelings are hurt and no matter what the consequences are for the speaker is the most important trait of a public leader. And there’s the problem. Paul’s opponents in Corinth, the so-called “super-apostles,” have made a big stink about the inconsistency they perceive between Paul’s mildness, gentleness, and emphasis on grace (2 Corinthians 1:12) while he is present to the church and his obvious capacity for parresia when he writes to them safely from a distance (2 Corinthians 10:9-11).

They like the feelings-hurting-I-can-say-anything-I-want Paul, since that is their identity (2 Corinthians 11:12-21). But the gentle Paul they despise, since they think he is sugar-coating God’s word (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:3). And why wouldn’t they since they are nothing but hyper-moralists, representatives of the Hyper-Moralist they call God? Well, to their charges of sugar-coating Paul says: “We do too have parresia (2 Corinthians 3:12; 7:4),” although his actual argument (which we are avoiding) is more profound than that.

Paul also injured the feelings of the Corinthians with his parresia (2 Corinthians 7:2-13, especially verses 7-8). And he apparently induced the church to go overboard in its discipline of an unnamed offender who at the time of the apostle’s previous visit had injured Paul himself (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). So an open mouth can get you into trouble. And yet he persisted: “Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians.” What he says next is crucial, since he links his parresia not to his inner sense of freedom, as the super-apostles would like to see him do, but to his friendship, even his love (here expressed by the phrase widened heart, see also 2 Corinthians 3:1-3) for the Corinthians.

It must be said not all philosophers in the ancient world regarded parresia simply as proof of an independent and courageous mind. For example, Plutarch (see his wonderful essay How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend) said that parresia is “the natural language of friendship.” A true friend will tell you what you need to hear, even if it is hard to hear it. And that is the role Paul is creating for himself in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13: a friend who says tough things. It is another question entirely whether the Corinthians believed him. No one knows.