Lectionary Commentaries for February 25, 2018
Second Sunday in Lent
Commentary on Mark 8:31-38
C. Clifton Black
Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Genesis is a book about beginning: the beginning of humankind, the beginning of Israel, and the beginning of the relationship between God and a particular people.
Genesis 17 tells the story of the election of Abraham as the patriarch from whom many nations would descend, and who became the first father of three great faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It also tells the story of the selection of Sarah as the woman through whom Israel, the chosen people in their telling of their own story, will be born.
At the same time that Genesis focuses on one particular family it also draws connections between all the peoples of the world. The Torah and the rest of the scriptures will claim that while the God of Israel has a special relationship with Israel, the God of Israel is also the God of all the world.
In Abraham God chose a man many today would not choose for a religious leader, a man married to his sister (Genesis 20:12). Incest was apparently normative in his family of origin: Abraham’s brother Nahor married and had children with his niece Milcah, the daughter of their brother Haran. Bethuel, Laban, and Rebekah would come from that line descended from Milcah and her uncle. Eventually, Abraham will insist his son Isaac must marry a woman who is also their relative.
This context is important for two reasons, Abraham’s personal and family values were far from laudatory (he sold Sarah to a foreign king for sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels in Genesis 12:15), and because incest still occurs in religious communities, its presence in scripture is an opportunity to address it thoughtfully and pastorally.
Sarah too has serious character flaws. She forces her slave to marry and have sex with her husband to make a baby since God takes too long and she begins to doubt the promise, (Genesis 16:1-3). Though it is difficult to see when reading in English, the Hebrew text makes clear that Sarah abuses Hagar as violently as the Egyptians would later abuse the Israelites, using the same word for the abuse in Genesis 21:6 and Exodus 1:11. (The verb anah refers to both physical and sexual violence.)
Remembering that slavery was endemic in the biblical world does not negate its moral and ethical implications, and there is a distinction between recognizing and cataloging an ancient society’s social and cultural practices and normalizing them. God’s deliberate choice of deeply flawed human beings characterizes God’s relationship with humanity. And it provides an opportunity to remember that deeply flawed human beings are more than their worst actions past or present.
Abraham answered God’s call, trusting in a God he may not have previously known, one who was one of many in his Chaldean (pre-Babylonian) homeland in what would later become Iraq. The text makes clear that Sarah is not a silent partner in this venture. She has strong opinions and speaks her mind, and she chooses to accompany Abraham on the journey of a lifetime following the voice of God. She is a full partner in this endeavor.
Abraham is ninety-nine in this text and Sarah is ninety according to verse 17 omitted from today’s reading. In our world, some folk spend their entire lifetimes trying to figure out how to leave the hopes and hurts, dreams, and schemes of our past behind so we can live into who we are called to be. A person can spend a lifetime putting abuse and trauma behind her, unlearning destructive patterns, responses and behaviors, and relearning how to live and love as a whole and healthy person. Life lessons take a lifetime to accrue and perhaps Abraham needed seventy-five years before he could draw on that account and follow God’s voice to leave his ancestral home.
However, since Abraham lived to be one hundred and seventy-five according to the story, he had another hundred years, an entire lifetime to live into his fullest self, apply the lessons he learned, make mistakes along the way and try again. (I am not making a literal or historic claim here.) Perhaps one lesson we are to learn from the length of Abraham’s days is you’re never too old to leave behind that which will not bless you and start over. Sarah and Abraham are not the only folk who have needed to leave home to become fully who they were called to be. If we take this lesson to heart we too will leave ignorant, willfully ignorant, and harmful ethics and practices behind. Abraham’s patriarchal status was understood as beneficent.
We don’t have to normalize patriarchy to draw wisdom from this text. This story is about the interrelation of the peoples in Israel’s world, their common origin from one family and God’s unmerited blessing on them independent of their own actions. We can begin to talk about blessing all of the peoples of the earth when we understand them to be equally blessed, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and even those not on the radar of those composing this text.
Commentary on Psalm 22:23-31
Psalm 22 is a familiar psalm to most of us.1
It opens with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? — words uttered by Jesus on the cross in the gospel narratives. It continues in verse 18 with, “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” But the first twenty-two verses of the psalm are not the focus of the lectionary reading for the second Sunday in Lent. Those verses will have to wait until Good Friday.
Verses 23-31 of Psalm 22 are less familiar to the reader. They form a distinct section of the psalm, and yet they are firmly tied to the first twenty-two verses. To understand the connection between the two portions of the psalm, let us first examine its structure. Psalm 22 is categorized as an individual lament, in which the psalm singer cries out to God for deliverance from some life-threatening situation. Laments typically consist of five major elements:
- the invocation, in which the psalmist cries out to God to hear and listen
- the complaint, in which the psalmist tells God what is wrong
- the petition, in which the psalmist tells God what the psalmist wants God to do
- the expression of trust, in which the psalmist tells God why she or he knows that God can do what the psalmist asks
- the expression of praise and adoration, in which the psalmist celebrates the goodness and sovereignty of God
Psalm 22 may be analyzed as follows:
Verses 1-2: Invocation and complaint
Verses 3-5: Expression of trust
Verses 6-8: Complaint
Verses 9-10: Expression of trust
Verse 11: Petition
Verses 12-18: Complaint
Verses 19-21: Petition
Verses 22-31: Expression of praise and adoration
Thus we see that the passage for this lectionary reading comes entirely from the portion of the psalm categorized as praise and adoration. But we must not isolate the words from their larger context. The lament psalms embody a human process of dealing with the harsh realities of life. We are confronted by things seemingly beyond our control. We cry out to God, detailing the hurt, the bitterness, the fear. We express our heartfelt desire for retribution or deliverance.
In the process, we often have to remind ourselves why we even bother to come to God with our sorrows and pain. God has been there to deliver us or to help us find a way through the pain in the past, so we fervently believe that God can once again meet us where we are. And, finally, on the other side of the darkness, we find voice to praise God for all that God does for us.
But the praise and adoration of God does not come quickly or easily. The lament psalms depict not a moment in time, but a process in time. The singer of Psalm 22 says, “My God, my God . . . I am a worm . . . I am poured out like water, all my bones are out of joint . . . my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws . . . I can count all my bones” (verses 1, 6, 14, 15, 17). Words of complaint dominate the first half of the psalm.
Interestingly, though, expressions of trust are interwoven with the words of complaint. “In you our ancestors trusted . . . it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast . . . since my mother bore me you have been my God” (verses 4, 9, 10). In the darkest night of the soul, we often find consolation in remembering the goodness of God to us and to those around us. God has helped us in the past; God will do so again. Thus the psalmist offers words of petition in verses 11 and 19-21: “Do not be far from me . . . O my help, come quickly to my aid! . . . Save me from the mouth of the lion!”
Crying out to God, telling God what’s wrong, telling God what you want God to do, remembering God’s deliverance in the past, and then praising God for all God has done or will do. A morning’s or afternoon’s work? No. A long work of the inner being. But finally, in days, weeks, months, the light shines again and we find our words of praise to God.
Try to imagine what the singer of Psalm 22 was enduring. The vivid imagery — worms, mockers, bulls, lions, out-of-joint bones, dried up tongues, dogs — suggests a tormented human being. But, eventually, in the end, the psalm singer finds voice for praise. “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters (verse 21) . . . for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted (verse 24) . . . all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD” (verse 27).
The heart of the words of praise is found in verse 24: “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.” The word translated as “despise” comes from the Hebrew root bazah, and is the same word used in verse 6 to describe the plight of the psalm singer: “I am a worm, and not human, scorned by others, and despised (bazah) by the people.” The psalm singer praises God for not despising those who are afflicted, and, because of that, is able to lead the congregation — those who fear the LORD, the offspring of Jacob, the offspring of Israel, and all the ends of the earth, and all the families of the nations (verses 23, 27) — in worship.
A poignant element of Psalm 22 is verses 29-31. Not only will the living praise God, but all those “who sleep in the earth” (verse 29) and all future generations, “the yet to be born” (verse 31). The lament psalm is a powerful model for believers today; life confronts us with issues and happenings that sometimes feel unbearable. And so, we cry out to God; we tell God what is wrong; we tell God what we want God to do; we recall those past instances in our lives (or in the lives of those around us) when God has made a way for us to handle the situation; and, then, and only then, we can praise God for God’s goodness and tell others about it.
When Jesus uttered the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross, I think he was calling his hearers to remember the words of the whole psalm — “for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (verse 24). Thus, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD” (verse 27).
1 Commentary first published on this site on March 4, 2012.
Commentary on Romans 4:13-25
Jennifer Vija Pietz
Romans 1-3 indicates that God shows no partiality to humans. All have sinned, but God’s gift of righteousness is extended to all — both Jews and Gentiles — in Jesus Christ.
Paul uses Abraham’s story in Romans 4 to exemplify God’s initiative to set people in right relationship with God, and the appropriate human response being one of faith.
Genesis shows how God called Abraham and made amazing promises to him. Romans 4:1-12 argues that Abraham did not do anything to earn such divine favor, nor does it cite any intrinsic quality of Abraham that caused God to choose him in the first place. What makes Abraham special is that he trusted God and God’s promises: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3; see also Romans 4:22; Genesis 15:6).
Paul’s contrast between human works and faith in Romans 4:1-8 implies that Abraham’s faith is not to be seen as a work that earned him God’s favor. Rather, it is the appropriate response to God’s freely bestowed gift of righteousness — God acts to restore broken relationship with people (Romans 4:5-8; see also Romans 3:24-26).
The fact that Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised (Romans 4:9-11), and before God gave the law through Moses, shows him to be the ancestor not only of those who are circumcised or follow the law, but of all who follow Abraham’s example by trusting the God who justifies the ungodly (verse 5). This is the “righteousness of faith” Paul speaks of in 4:13.
The promise that Abraham would be “heir” (to kleronomon) of the world (verse 13) is not specifically given in Genesis, but seems to reflect an expanded understanding in Jewish tradition of God’s promises to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham, to make him the ancestor of many nations and innumerable descendants, and to give them a land of their own (Genesis 12:2-3; 13:14-17; 15:5, 7; 17:2-8; see also Sirach 44:21).1
Paul draws on this concept to indicate that the descendants of Abraham, who also inherit his promises, are all who share in his faith in God (Romans 4:11-12, 16). In fact, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the community of faith comes in fulfillment of God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations (verse 17).
Paul briefly refers to the function of the law in Romans 4:15, but this is not his focus in this passage (see Romans 7). Paul has already expressed the goodness of God’s law and its role in making people aware of sin (for example Romans 2:13-16; 3:20-21). He is, however, emphatic that God’s promises are a divine gift, and do not ultimately depend on one’s relationship to the law (Romans 4:14-15; see also 3:21-28). This extends God’s promises to all people, and makes trust the basis upon which humans are to relate to God (4:16).
Romans 4:17-25 expands on this theme. Even though Abraham was an old man and his wife, Sarah, was barren, Abraham believed that God would give him the descendants God had promised (verses 17-19). Although all evidence from a human perspective suggested the improbability of this occurring, Abraham trusted that God was powerful and faithful to do what God had said (verses 20-21). This trust makes Abraham upright before God (verse 22).
And it does the same for all who trust in the God who makes promises to sinful human beings and fulfills them (verses 23-25). God’s ultimate promise is that of a Messiah, and it is fulfilled in Jesus, “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (verses 24-25). The God of Abraham is the same God who has dealt decisively with the sin that alienates humans from God through the death of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. By also raising Jesus from the dead, God makes it possible for people to live new lives in restored relationship with God and others. This is pure gift; people are merely called to trust the faithful and merciful Giver.
Accepting that life and relationship with God is a gift, based on trust, can be hard in a world where career advancement, good grades in school, and so many other things depend on our ability to perform. And we’ve all experienced the pain of broken promises, or, of promises being made lightly, so that we are skeptical when people say things like, “just trust me.” Perhaps some feel that their own faith is not nearly as unwavering as Paul says Abraham’s was, so that they may wonder whether they might fall out of God’s favor.
But the hope that Romans 4:13-25 gives Christians ultimately lies not in Abraham’s faith, but in God’s character and faithfulness. If we look closely at Abraham’s story in Genesis, we see that he was not perfect (for example Genesis 12:10-20). Even after he laughed at the seeming impossibility of what God promised him (Genesis 17:15-17), God still fulfilled the promise. We too can be encouraged that living by faith for a lifetime does not mean we will never have moments of doubt.
Romans 4:13-25 also shows that God has been in the business all along of creating out of nothing, and of bringing life to where there is only barrenness and death. As we reflect during Lent on the brokenness in our own lives, our families, and in the world, we can find hope knowing that God works where we least expect it. We can take God at God’s Word, trusting the promises made in Scripture and in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
- For this view, see, for example, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans, AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 384-385.
Mark Twain worried, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Meet this Sunday’s lection. Jesus speaks “quite openly” (Mark 8:32a). There’s little in this teaching that requires deep-sea exegesis. It is plain, hard, and inescapable.
In Mark 8:29 Simon Peter has tumbled to the truth about his teacher: “You are the Messiah.” Whatever glorious aspirations the Twelve associated with that honorific, Jesus shuts them down (8:30): epitemesen, a verb used elsewhere in Mark for silencing unclean spirits and savage forces (1:23; 3:12; 4:39). In 8:31 Jesus shifts to what the Son of the Man must endure by the hands “the elders” (senior lay leaders), “the chief priests” (cultic officials), and “the scribes” (authorities on scriptural tradition). Their modern counterparts are the church’s own lay leaders, tall-steeple preachers, and biblical scholars. To what will the establishment subject Jesus? Rejection, suffering, and death. After the full measure of this fatal disgrace has been exacted, he will rise again after three days. None of this is accidental: the Son of Man must (dei) undergo it by God’s design.
Peter will have none of it (Mark 8:32b). Taking Jesus aside, Peter rebukes him: epitiman (“Shut up!”), the same harsh verb as in 8:30. Regarding all his disciples, Jesus lashes back (epitemesen) against Peter (8:33a). Jesus puts him and all followers back in their proper place: “Get behind me!” The stakes are so high that he addresses Peter as “Satan,” the tempter (1:12) and thief of the preached word (4:15). Peter is the only figure in Mark whom Jesus addresses so vehemently. Why? “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33b). Peter has arrogated to himself an authority that is not his to wield and is, in fact, devilish. This is no gentlemanly disagreement. Mark dramatizes a life-and-death clash between the divine and the diabolical.
Then Jesus opens his teaching beyond the Twelve to the overhearing crowd (including us): “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). Self-denial implies taking one’s stand “on the side of God, [not] of men” (Revised Standard Version [RSV]). To take up the cross is neither pious sentiment nor temporary disappointment. Crucifixion was the most humiliating, torturous execution the Romans could devise. Cicero decried it: “There is no fitting word that can possibly describe a deed so horrible” (Against Verres). The cross is Jesus’ destination (15:12-39). There his followers must follow him.
To render a gender-inclusive translation, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) generalizes Jesus’ blunt admonitions in Mark 8:35-38 into third-person plurals: “those,” “their,” “them.” More closely adherent to the Greek, the RSV sharpens the gravity of individual decisions: “For whoever would save his life [or ‘self’: psyche] will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (8:35). “For the sake of the gospel” is a crucial qualification. One may give one’s life for no good purpose. To give one’s life for the sake of the good news instantiated by Jesus is the valid reason for self-sacrifice. In the economy governed by the gospel, the only way to be made whole is to let go of everything society reckons most valuable. There is no benefit in gaining the entire world — values and aspirations as people define them — if in so doing one forfeits one’s deepest soul.
Ultimately nothing in this world is worth exchanging for one’s very center, the self that is claimed by the gospel and accountable to God (Mark 8:36-37). The only shame that should concern a true disciple is desertion of the Son of Man and his words “in this adulterous and sinful generation,” which is no arbiter of honor and shame as the gospel redefines them (8:38). The reverse is equally true: self-renunciation for the gospel’s sake is neither futile nor masochistic. The faithful disciple who transcends this generation’s wickedness and corruption may expect vindication, like that of the slain Son of Man after his resurrection.
The Twelve do not want to hear this. They continue to bumble (Mark 9:43-34; 10:35-41); Jesus repeats the message over and again (9:35-37; 10:42-45). Neither do we want to hear it. Every day all of us are tempted by worldly standards of prestige and reputation. At critical moments something punches us in the gut: attracted to “human things” (8:33), we know that they flout what God intends.
For preachers and congregants the most satanic of these desires come coated with a religious veneer. At Caesarea Philippi that was the trap Peter stepped into. Under pressure in the high priest’s courtyard (14:54), he collapsed like an empty wet sack. His last words in this Gospel: “I do not know this [Jesus] you are talking about” (14:71). Jesus predicted that (14:26-31) but never gave up on him, even at Easter (16:7).
Christian faith is not a life-style choice; it is a vocation to never-ending struggle. By lying about Jesus and the truth of the gospel, we deny the truth about ourselves. Rejecting the Son of Man, desperately trying to save our own lives, we lose ourselves — just as he assured us we would (8:35-37). Only by giving ourselves to others as Jesus gave himself for us (10:45) will we ever find ourselves.
While challenging us to consider the caliber of our discipleship, today’s Gospel lection invites us to pray both for ourselves and for Christians in parts of the world who have internalized this text and are paying dearly for their fidelity. Persecution of Christians because they are Christians did not end in the fourth century. North Korea, Somalia, and Afghanistan are only some of the countries where Christian worship is criminal today. Those arrested may be jailed, raped, sold into slavery, and murdered. They are this Sunday’s most credible witnesses: for Christ they have given up everything. In so doing they are totally free to receive God’s guardianship and peace, which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).