Lectionary Commentaries for June 3, 2018
Second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 2:23—3:6

Matt Skinner

These two controversy scenes — one in the grainfields and one in a synagogue — are very important for understanding the Gospel of Mark as a whole.

They illuminate why some of Jesus’ contemporaries found him offensive to such a degree that they would eventually deem him a grave danger. When explored on the first Sunday of the lectionary’s return to Mark, the scenes play a crucial role in setting the stage for many sermons to come between now and November.

The theological convictions that run through Jesus’ controversies with Pharisees are difficult for some congregants to trace, given that so many Christians default to defective notions of first-century Judaism and unhelpful caricatures of Jesus’ outlook on the law. Preachers do well therefore, to explain some of this passage’s nuances.

What is lawful when someone hungers? (Mark 2:23-28)

The story begins with Jesus’ disciples literally making “a way” (hodos, Mark 2:23) through fields. They are not stealing grain as they journey (see also Deuteronomy 23:24-25). What concerns the Pharisees instead is the fact that they are traveling and gleaning on the sabbath. They should have stayed put and prepared their snacks on the previous day. To the Pharisees, this behavior appears to deliberately neglect the mandate to observe the sabbath and keep it holy (see Exodus 20:8; Deuteronomy 5:12).

Jesus disagrees, not because he regards the sabbath commandments as trivial but because he sees a larger picture, one that regards the sabbath in a different light. He turns to another piece of scripture (a story about David) to interpret scripture (the purpose of the sabbath). He roughly, but not precisely, summarizes 1 Samuel 21:1-6, a story about David taking consecrated bread that was supposed to be reserved for priests (see Leviticus 24:5-9).

David insisted on the bread because he was a fugitive, seeking allies and fleeing Saul, who had clearly declared his intentions to kill him. Jesus implies that the priest (whom Mark or Jesus misidentifies as Abiathar instead of Ahimelech) did nothing wrong in breaking the strict letter of the law concerning the bread. By remedying David’s hunger, the priest sustained the life of a weary traveler and contributed to David’s quest to live into his calling as the king anointed to replace Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).

Jesus therefore offers a legal opinion, one he derives from scripture itself. He contends that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values or meeting greater needs, especially when those greater needs promote a person’s well-being and facilitate the arrival of divine blessings.

It must be noted that Jesus’ argument was hardly novel and therefore not scandalous on its surface. In fact, when he notes that the purpose of the sabbath has always been to serve humankind (as opposed to making humankind serve some stern religious principle), he is essentially restating Deuteronomy 5:12-15, in which God institutes the sabbath so a people who once toiled in slavery can forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest. Rabbinic traditions dating to a century after Jesus if not earlier expressed opinions similar to his words in Mark 2:27, including: “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it” and “Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”1 The proper function of the sabbath is to promote life and extol God as a liberator. Everyone knew that.

The Pharisees understood the sabbath. Perhaps they did not appreciate that it was Jesus, by some appearances a new and uppity teacher, who was dispensing legal insights. Where Jesus definitely would have caught their attention was in his assumption that somehow he and his calling were comparable to David and David’s calling. Also, declaring himself the “lord” or “master” of the sabbath itself could be tantamount to claiming that the law’s ultimate purpose is to serve Jesus. The scandal resides here: he presents himself as no ordinary teacher.

What is lawful when someone suffers? (Mark 3:1-5)

The scene in the synagogue intensifies the conflict over Jesus’ authority, his values, and the urgency of his claims. For the Pharisees who lie in wait, watching, the issue is not whether Jesus has the power to heal the man’s hand, it is whether doing so on the sabbath demonstrates a willful disregard for the law of God — a law that was believed to give good order to life and to provide conditions for encountering God’s blessings and holiness.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees — “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” — indicates that he disagrees with the premise of their suspicions. By orchestrating the man’s healing, he does not disparage or break the law in any way (for nothing Jesus does here can be considered “work” that the sabbath prohibits). Rather, Mark casts Jesus as honoring the purpose of the sabbath commandment. It is as if Jesus is saying that the chief objective of the law, in general, is to save and preserve life (see also Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Indeed, therefore, what better day is there than the sabbath, a day meant to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, for the restoration of a man’s malformed hand?

Again, Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would not have found his basic perspective especially troublesome. “Saving life overrules the Sabbath,” according ancient rabbinic tradition.2

Admittedly, the man was not dying, but his hand was withered. Jesus’ determination illuminates the urgency of his life-giving work; after all, the reign of God is near (Mark 1:15) and so people are experiencing liberty. With the restoration of his hand, the man in the synagogue probably also receives back his ability to work in the Galilean economy. In receiving that ability, the man may recover his ability to provide for a family. In other words, we need to avoid seeing the miracle in an ableist vein as an act of merely “fixing” something that had gone “wrong” with the man. The event represents a restoration to wholeness and dignity. It means to promote life and human flourishing. Foretastes of resurrection cannot wait. They extend the sabbath’s joy and freedom to all aspects of life.

The beginning of the end (Mark 3:6)

Only 79 verses into this Gospel, and now the Pharisees and Herodians want to destroy Jesus. Even though those two groups are not mentioned at all in connection with Jesus’ arrest, prosecution, and execution at the end of Mark, still their partnership here, so early in the narrative, raises eyebrows. The name Herodians is ambiguous. No one knows exactly to whom Mark refers with that term. But the association with Herod — and with the ardent Hellenizing legacy of the Herodian family — makes them unlikely political allies for the Pharisees, who tended to resist Hellenistic influences. After not much time in ministry, Jesus has managed to offend two very different groups. Imagine the editorial staffs of both Mother Jones and National Review finding something or someone they both vehemently oppose.

This is the way toward the cross in Mark

In this pair of scenes, Jesus does not assail Judaism. He does not reject the law. He does not render the sabbath obsolete. He does not even call the Pharisees blind guides or a pack of dotards. A sermon on the passage should not do those things, either.

But a sermon should note the way in which disagreement about living within the law quickly escalates into hostility, a hostility that will eventually lead some — but certainly not all — of the most powerful religious authorities to seek Jesus’ debasement and death. Even as the passage emphasizes a commitment to life and vitality abiding at the heart of God’s reign, it also illustrates how religious commitments and values — any religious commitments and values — can ossify and turn oppressive in the hands of careless stewards. None are immune.

In many ways, the entire Gospel of Mark tells a story of recurring controversy. Passages like this one help us interpret the controversies and also, eventually, the events at the end of the narrative. As Donald Juel put it: “For us — as for Mark — the cross ought to be a sober reminder how easily the most noble motives can be perverted. It points out how quickly an institution can become an end in itself, stifling legitimate concerns of those outside that may seem to threaten stability. It illustrates how frequently insidious forces we scarcely notice can transform the best-educated, best-intentioned among us into insensitive leaders, desperately out of touch with what’s real.”3

Such insensitivity and brokenness move Jesus to grief in the synagogue when he considers the stony, Pharaoh-like hearts that regard something as more valuable than removing suffering and disadvantage before the sun sets. But Mark also has good news to announce. This story of the in-breaking reign of God will also tell of compassion and transformation. Jesus, like the God who instituted the sabbath, is committed to preserving life. His ministry will expose the oppressive and corrosive tyrannies of fear, imperial pretense, and religious hypocrisy, wherever they reside. But, finally, he will deliver us from them.


  1. See material quoted and discussed in Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (AB 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 245; Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 33.
  2. Marcus, Mark, 248.
  3. Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 175.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Vanessa Lovelace

The Sabbath is usually only associated with rest. However, the Sabbath also emphasizes freedom from enslavement.

Most young people living in the U.S. today have probably never lived in a community with “blue laws” or “Sunday laws.” Although blue laws vary from county to county, they usually ban or restrict conducting business on Sundays. These laws, which are intended to enforce the observation of the Sabbath Day, are based on the third commandment (or fourth depending on the religious tradition) among the Ten Commandments or Decalogue (Greek for “ten words”; see also Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4).1 God mandated that Moses should instruct the Israelites to keep the Sabbath as a day set apart for rest. Although what activities are considered permissible (worship only?) on the Sabbath, the statute decrees that its adherents should refrain from doing any work.

Law versus instructions or teachings

The Decalogue can be found in the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Torah or Written Torah is the first division of the Jewish Tanak, commonly referred to as the Hebrew Bible in academic circles. Christians refer to the Torah as the Pentateuch, a Greek word meaning “fivefold” volume. The translation of the Hebrew noun torah as “law” often leads to the term being misinterpreted, especially in Christian traditions, as a strict legal code and Judaism as a legalistic religion. However, the term is more accurately translated “instruction” or “teaching.” Therefore, torah is better understood as a collection consisting of both narratives and legal texts that comprise the core teachings for Jewish life and practice.

Although the Decalogue is included in the Torah, some Christians mistake the Decalogue for the Torah, and regard it as the core of God’s instructions. Despite differences of interpretation, many Jewish and Christian readers regard the Torah or Pentateuch as the law of Moses or Mosaic law because of the tradition that God revealed the law to Moses on Mount Sinai (also called Horeb). However, modern biblical scholarship has largely questioned the literary unity of the Torah and overall supports the theory that the Torah is a combination of material from different literary sources.

Different versions of the sabbath

There are two distinct versions of the Decalogue. The version most cited is Exodus 20:1-17, however Deuteronomy 5:6-21 is a lesser-known close parallel. Structurally, there is little difference between the two. Both open with the historical prologue giving the occasion for the covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6). Both offer a list of stipulations. However, they are at variance with each other regarding the Sabbath.

Of all the statutes in the Decalogue, the commandment to observe the Sabbath maintains a place of centrality in the lives of Jews and Christians. Scholars are unsure whether the Hebrew noun shabbat for Sabbath is related to the Hebrew verb shabat, “to rest,” “to cease.” Nevertheless, the earliest mention of a day set aside for rest in the Bible is found in the first creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:4a). The rationale for the sabbath in Genesis 1 is that after God finished speaking creation into existence over a six-day period, God rested (shabat) on the seventh day, blessed it and set it apart from the other days (Genesis 2:2-3). Likewise, humans in imitation of God (imitatio Dei), are expected to honor every seventh day as set apart from the others by divine fiat.2

“Once we were slaves in Egypt, now we are free people”

The differences between Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 initially appear to be insignificant. Exodus 20:8 states, “Remember (zakar) the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” In contrast, Deuteronomy 5:12 has “Observe (shamar) the sabbath day, and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.” The choice of the writer to use shamar, which also means “to keep,” is perhaps intentional given that “to remember” suggests naming or calling something to mind, while “to keep,” implies to habitually continue or cause to continue a course of action. However, the motive for keeping the Sabbath in Deuteronomy 5 is significantly different.

Both versions allot six days for laboring (Exodus 20:9; Deuteronomy 5:13). Yet, Deuteronomy 5:15 explains that the reason is because of God’s redemptive act on Israel’s behalf during the exodus experience rather than because God rested on the seventh day. The people are to keep the Sabbath in remembrance of their enslavement in Egypt. The Jewish prayer before and after the Sabbath meal expresses this viewpoint by including the words “Once we were slaves in Egypt, now we are free people.”

Both Exodus and Deuteronomy stipulate that rest from work is extended to everyone — male and female, free and slave, human and animal, citizen and alien (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14), a radical departure from common practice in the ancient world. However, Israel, in recalling its own labor under Egyptian taskmasters, demands rest for all creation. Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez conveys the importance of freedom in the Deuteronomic instruction by stating that, “We have to observe the Sabbath, to rest (and make sure that others also rest), and to acknowledge that God is the source of our existence (Deuteronomy 5:12). However, we must not forget the reason for this rule: the liberation from the slavery endured in Egypt (verse 15).”3


  1. The numeration of the ten words also differs depending on the faith tradition – Jewish tradition considers the prologue as the first word, while several Christian traditions, including Lutherans and Catholics regard the prohibition of worshiping other gods as the first command – yet Christians and Jews recognize ten words or commandments.
  2. Which day is considered the seventh or sabbath – Saturday or Sunday – differs between Jewish and Christian traditions and even among Christians.
  3. Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, trans. Colette Joly Dees (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 156.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

Valerie Bridgeman

Have you ever thought you heard someone call your name in a crowd; or turned around thinking you heard a voice, but no one was there?1

I have. So I have no problem believing a young Samuel learning how to serve God “heard” a voice. This passage in the Second Sunday after Epiphany calls us to consider what it means to be summoned into God’s presence; to know the prompting of divine voice, and to listen intently for directions for our work in the world.

Samuel arrives on stage in a peculiar time and in a peculiar way. The tribal city-states with clan leadership have devolved more and more. “Everyone does what is right in their own eyes,” (Judges 21:25). The reason things are out of control, we are told, is because “there is no king in Israel.” As a result, religious lethargy has left the times devoid of divine animation. Visions were few; rituals were steady, but only rarely provoked a divine encounter: “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Samuel is born in these tumultuous times. He was the child his mother longed for in order to be blessed. A wife among wives, she was barren. In the ancient world, a closed womb was cause for grief, and Hannah, his mother had much sorrow, so much that when she prayed for him the priest Eli thought she was drunk (1 Samuel 1:12-14). His birth made her sing, and she sang a prophetic song that leads me to believe she was as much prophet as Samuel would become. His birth song was revolutionary (1 Samuel 2:1-10), and though she had asked God for him, she listened to an internal prompting that said he belonged to the nation-state and to God.

The story of Samuel, then, does not start with this voice nor with Eli’s training, but rather with the mother who suckled him; who cooed over him; who prayed for him; who sang over him; and who weaned him from her breast so that he would be free to learn how to minister to God. This prequel to Samuel’s call ought to be considered as we ponder our own call. God called from the womb (Psalm 139:13-16). Samuel was known and knew God before he ever entered the birth canal. We also have been known beforehand — and we have been brought before God through a series of relationships. If not our parents or families, along the way pastors, friends, youth leaders, strangers have shepherded and nurtured us into a place where we may hear God’s call and have an encounter. Who have those people been for us? Who have our Hannahs been?

The second thing that strikes me is that Eli is old, can no longer see, but he still is in service. I don’t want to miss that Eli mentors Samuel into identifying God’s voice. Sure, it took three times of Samuel running into Eli’s room in the middle of that night before Eli had an “a ha” moment. But as Samuel lay on his bed in the temple at Shiloh, near the ark of God — the icon that symbolized God’s presence — he was in a position to hear.

Was it a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12-13)? Was it a shouted whisper? The exclamation points added in most translations may prompt readers to think God shouted his name. But there is nothing in the Hebrew text that supports this notion. Small, imperceptible, barely audible sounds more like it.

And though the word had been rare (“precious,” is the old English word of the King James Version), Eli knew at least how to attend to that voice. “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And, sure enough, the voice of God called “as before” (verse 10). God’s persistence and Eli’s mentoring work hand in hand. Though no ordinary, off-the-street person, Eli’s role in Samuel’s calling does remind us that we learn how to discern God’s voice and call in proximity to people who have come before us. They help attune our ears and heart to hear from God. Who mentors us to listen for the voice, what Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine” that’s in all of us?2 How do we prepare to hear it completely in order to respond to it fully? Who are the Elis in our lives?

Finally, what Samuel hears is brutal. Eli knows it is God because Eli has heard that voice. God promises “to fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end” (verse 12). Ominous words. There will be no guilt or sin offering that can stop it (verse 14; Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 5:14, 15). Imagine being a young child, mentored by someone since your mother weaned you, and now you must speak condemning words regarding his leadership and his children.

We read over these words glibly, but Samuel’s first message is no small task. Really, God? Couldn’t you have begun with something less threatening? Couldn’t you have made that first word, that first sermon, that first call to action something pleasant? Easier? Not for the first one who nurtured us? Growing up as I did in a holiness tradition, I grew accustomed to harsh words against the culture. But I still can’t imagine being called to condemn my pastor.

This prelude to a long career that will lead Samuel to crown the nation-state Israel’s first king ends by telling us that God continued to appear to Samuel as he grew; Samuel spoke with confidence as he learned to trust the “word of the Lord” that came to him; and people learned to trust Samuel as a prophet (verses 19-21). He gained favor with God and people (to borrow a phrase from Luke 2:40).

I grew up in a tradition in which people often used the phrase “the Lord said to me.” And, in full disclosure, I have used it often myself. But to become trustworthy in our calls mean we nurture our ability to hear and trust God in the community of faith, just as Samuel did as he continued to serve at Shiloh in God’s presence. There are no guarantees that we will serve our call in easy days; on the contrary, every era has its own peculiarities and God-filled silences. We hear the call to each of us — and I believe each of us is called to be a prophet. That call is to continue to listen for the Voice, and then to speak what we hear.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 14, 2018.

2 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/582881-there-is-something-in-every-one-of-you-that-waits.


Commentary on Psalm 81:1-10

Robert Hoch

Psalm 81 does not begin with a crisis but with a covenant memory, the memory of God’s faithfulness and a jubilant call to worship (verses 1-5).

And then, intruding into the middle of the fanfare of praise, the rude word of the prophet, speaking a jarring, discordant truth (verses 6-10), and God’s promise of faithfulness to those who call out to the God of salvation (verses 11-16).

What sort of psalm is this? Some call it a “liturgical sermon” while others will categorize it as a “prophetic psalm” — I would say it’s a both/and rather than an either/or. In the case of those who identify it as a liturgical sermon, they do so because the psalmic preacher situates the first part of the text, the sermonic introduction, in the cultic rites of Israel (verses 1-5). It serves as a familiar call to worship.

Alternatively, those who identify it as a prophetic psalm note the speaker’s plaintive tone, the psalmist’s recollection of God’s faithfulness through salvation history, and the warning of God’s judgment, characteristics found in the messages of the biblical prophets.

Perhaps neither category alone can do it complete justice — indeed, it’s the two together, the liturgical familiarity and the shock of prophetic truth-telling, that make this psalm what it is, namely, a reminder that our praise of God does not exist separate and apart from God’s compassion and justice for the poor, the needy, the oppressed, and the helpless.

Psalm 81 sits somewhere near the middle of Book III (Psalms 73-89) of the Book of Psalms. Historical events, namely, the Babylonian deportation and the destruction of the temple, form a backdrop for these prayers. However, as a rule, the Psalter does not occupy itself with specific historic events but instead the experience of those events.

According to Patrick D. Miller, the psalmist’s circumstantial ambiguity prevents us from “peering behind” the text but it also invites us to adapt the text to our own historical situation.1 As such, the cry of the psalmist is the cry of us all.

What sort of cry do we hear from Psalm 81? And could it be the cry for us all, even though we often ignore it? Perhaps it is a call to respond to the cries for justice and compassion in our own age, but especially, given its introduction, in our own houses of worship. This psalm is not addressed to those who are indifferent to God’s justice but to those who sing God’s praise.

And yet, apparently, this congregation does not hear or refuses to hear God’s voice.

According to J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Books I-III call out for a response from God’s people.2 Psalm 81 confirms this yearning: “I hear a voice I had not known” (verse 5c); “if you would but listen to me” (verse 8b); “my people did not listen to my voice” (verse 11); “O that my people would listen to me” (verse 13). Psalm 90 begins to answer the cry for response heard in Book III: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (verse 1).

Collectively, the psalmist gives us a worldview in which the whole creation sings God’s praise. Even so, this worldview exists within a context of opposition and suffering. McCann notes that in addition to the psalmist’s self-description as the righteous or the upright, the psalmist self-describes as the poor, the needy, the helpless, and the afflicted: “Not surprisingly … the dominant voice in the psalter is that of prayer.”3

Could it be that the North American church is tone deaf to the cry for justice? Is there any psalmic prayer in America’s praise songs of privilege?

Perhaps the truth-telling of Psalm 81 prevents our worship from turning into what Kraus calls “the intoxication of the cultic elements” 4— the intoxication of choirs, pianos, drums, harps, and trumpets, which can all but drown out the prayer of the dominant voice of the psalter, for example, the prayer of the poor, the humble, the needy, the helpless.

Rev. William Barber, leader of the recently revived Poor People’s Campaign, interprets scripture to those who claim the traditions of worship for themselves. He says there is no religious right or religious left, only the moral center of scripture, which insists that people of faith are on the side of the poor and the oppressed. And yet, seldom do we hear the prayers of the hurting and the persecuted in the praise songs of the privileged. How is that possible? Perhaps the prophetic voice is unwelcome under the “cover” of Sunday morning religion. According to Barber:

Slave master religion had a strange morality that somehow you could worship on Sunday and still have slaves on Monday. But as we would say today, those preachers were not practicing religion. They were practicing racism under the cover of religion. We still see some of that today.5

What if the partying of Sunday morning praise is deaf to the cry of the refugee? Is that the voice we hear speaking in a language that we, in our praise-privileged sanctuaries, do not understand, cannot comprehend or refuse, in the stubbornness of our hearts, to acknowledge?

On Sunday, our congregation sang, “Rejoice Ye Pure in Heart” — the choir processed in, our hearts rejoiced with praise, and perhaps for a moment, our hearts felt pure. But we live in Baltimore, a city with blood on its hands and in its streets. When we came to prayers, we heard the usual assortment of joys and concerns, thanks for healing, for good results, grieving for the loss of a loved one. But then there was this shockingly specific prayer … a raw complaint rising up amid our praise:

Please pray for those affected by the 152 mass shootings in the U.S. so far in 2018. Please pray not only for Jordan Deshields, 16, Arnold Patterson, 49, and Jawuan Pinkney, 1 (victims of gun violence in the previous week), but also for the 103 other gun homicides in Baltimore this year, for all those left behind to mourn, for all those who were shot and survived, and for those working to make peace in our world.

O Lord, in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.


  1. Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 8 quoted by J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 646.
  2. McCann, Jr., 660.
  3. McCann, Jr., 669
  4. Hans-Joachim Kraus, “Psalms 60-150” in A Continental Commentary, Harold C. Oswald, trans. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 152.
  5. Lauren Gambino, “‘Jesus Never Charged a Leper a Co-Pay’ — The Rise of the Religious Left” in The Guardian (21 May 2018), accessed on May 22, 2018 at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/21/christian-religious-left-william-barber-poor-peoples-campaign

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Lois Malcolm

This short cryptic passage presents us with a synopsis of what life in Jesus the Messiah looks like.

Even though it is part of Paul’s long “apology” — or personal defense — for his apostolic ministry against some detractors (in 2 Corinthians 2:14-6:10), it applies to the rest of us since Paul’s basis for defending himself is rooted in “God’s promises,” which are always for everyone (2 Corinthians 1:20; 7:1). What it depicts, with vivid imagery, is a brief phenomenology (a study of a phenomenon) of what being united with the death and life of Jesus the Messiah means for how we experience ourselves and others around us.

Proclaiming the Messiah as Lord and ourselves as your slaves

The passage begins with what could be described as its thesis statement. In the Messiah, what we announce or commend when we present ourselves to others is not our personal or collective egos — our achievements, what makes us special or important, or even the disclosure of some idiosyncratic personal or communal truth (regardless of how authentic it might be). Rather, what we announce is that the Messiah is Lord (the Greek kurios translates the Hebrew YHWH) and that announcement — if sincere — binds us to being slaves of others for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:5; see also Mark 8:27-9:1).

Where does this announcement come from, if it does not come from ourselves? Its source lies in God’s speaking creation into being: “Let light shine out of darkness” (see also Genesis 1:3). This “light” reverberates in the coming of a just and merciful Messiah (Isaiah 9:2) and in the righteous who conduct their affairs with justice and distribute their wealth freely to the poor (Psalm 112:4). And it shines in our hearts as well, giving us knowledge of the glory of God in “the face” — the personal presence — of Jesus the Messiah in our lives.

Treasure in clay jars

But we have this “treasure” only in “clay jars” — cheap and fragile earthenware. A metaphor for the vulnerability of our mortal existence, earthenware vessels were also used in the priestly service of temple sacrifice. They could easily be broken or contaminated (see Leviticus).

Why link this treasure with such inexpensive and easily broken vessels? So that it can be clear that this excess — this “hyperbole” — of power comes from God and not from us.

How is this “treasure” actually experienced in the “clay jars” of our vulnerable human lives? Paul portrays how “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Drawing on language found in the psalms, prophets, and wisdom literature (as well as probably ancient depictions of a sage’s hardships), Paul could also be appropriating traditions about Jesus’ life that would later influence the Gospels. Not only were Jesus and his disciples “persecuted,” but Jesus cries out at his crucifixion, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; see also Psalm 22:1).

Paul does not depict these extreme hardships in order to highlight his own strength amid adversity. Indeed, he will later parody such displays of prowess (see chapter 11). And he does not present them as an ideal of suffering to follow. Instead, his point is to stress that God’s “shining” through us occurs precisely as we — like the Messiah and the righteous of old — rely solely on God’s promises of justice and mercy in spite of what may happen to us.

Dying and living in Jesus

So “who” do we become as a result of all this? What marks our inexpressible core as individuals? And “what” now defines our identities over time? What identifies us as selves, in spite of what happens to us?

Paul’s response is stark. “Who” we become is now defined solely by carrying Jesus’ death around in our bodies. Only in this way can Jesus’ life be manifest (phaneroo) in those bodies. And “what” defines our identity over time is nothing other than being continually given up to death for Jesus’ sake and the reign of God he embodied. Only in this way is Jesus’ life manifest amid the exigencies of our finite flesh (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).

In other words, we no longer live to preserve our “identities,” whether they take an individual or collective form. Dying in Jesus, we now live solely for the one who died for all so that all might live. This now is what defines our inexpressible core as individuals. This now is what identifies us as selves, in spite of what happens to us. As Paul succinctly put it, “death in me, life for you” (2 Corinthians 4:12).

Of course, ancient and contemporary (so-called) “ministers of righteousness” and “apostles of the Messiah” have often manipulated the starkness of this language to get others to submit to their own agendas (see 2 Corinthians 10-13). Thus, we need to point out that this dying and living in Jesus is not about submitting to a human will, whether it be that of one’s own or another’s ego, or some collective expression of either. And it is not about conforming to an ideal of suffering at the expense of one’s own or anyone else’s humanity.

Rather, what Paul seems to be getting at is this: As all that distorts and spoils our created goodness dies in Jesus — whether we have created that dysfunction or others have imposed it on us — Jesus’ life is manifest as the flourishing of new creation in our lives. But that flourishing and renewal also entails sharing in the sufferings of Jesus — continually being put to death by all that goes against what this crucified Messiah, the Wisdom of God, embodied. In fact, it is precisely as we share in Jesus’ life and sufferings that the light of God’s glory shines — amid our fragile human existence — in the “face” of this crucified Messiah. This is how death in us becomes life-giving for others.