Lectionary Commentaries for February 18, 2018
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:9-15

C. Clifton Black

This Sunday’s lection comprises three episodes: Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11), his temptation (1:12-13), and his inaugural preaching (1:14-15).

The preacher could justifiably dedicate a sermon to any of these. I suggest an alternative: so tightly has Mark stitched these episodes together that one could also preach a straight-line sermon that entwines all three. Mark offers us the organizing point (1:15a): “the kingdom of God has come near.”

As the preacher knows but congregants need reminding, “the kingdom of God” is the announcement in the Synoptics around which the rest of Jesus’ words and deeds revolve. In Mark “God’s kingdom” is mentioned fourteen times: its coming (1:15; 9:1; 14:25; 12:34; 15:43), its peculiarities (4:11, 26, 30), to whom it belongs (10:14-15), and impediments to its entry (9:47; 10:23-25). God’s kingdom — better, “kingship,” “reign,” “sovereignty” — is not a place but a power. It is God’s dynamic potency to put right all that is wrong in this world.

In all the Gospels this eschatological dominion, invading time and space, is active in Jesus himself. God has ruled (Psalms 93:1; 97:1; 99:1). In Jesus that rule is mysteriously irrupting (Matthew 10:7 = Luke 10:9; Matthew 12:28 = Luke 11:20). The resurrection, the dawn of a new age, warrants that God will rule (Luke 1:33; Acts 1:3; 1 Corinthians 15:24, 50; Revelation 11:15). In Mark 1:15 that kingdom “is at hand” (Revised Standard Version), “is upon you” (New English Bible), or “has come near” (New Revised Standard Version).

Mark 1:9-14 offers us clues to this kingdom’s character.

  • At Jesus’ baptism the kingdom’s end-time features are front and center. Emerging from the Jordan, Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart” (Mark 1:10). That is a classic apocalyptic image, signifying divine disclosure (15:38; see also Isaiah 64:1; Ezekiel 1:1; Acts 7:56; Revelation 4:1). The Spirit’s descent upon (literally, “into” [eis]) Jesus recalls the prophets’ promise that Israel would be reinfused by the Spirit in the last days (Isaiah 11:1-2; Joel 2:28-43; Acts 2:17-22). Jesus alone (Mark 1:11; see also Matthew 3:17) hears the heavenly voice addressing him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”: a scriptural embrace interweaving Psalm 2:7, Genesis 22:1, and Isaiah 42:1.
  • Flashes of God’s kingdom illuminate Jesus’ temptation, which Mark narrates more crisply (1:12-13) than either Matthew (4:1-11) or Luke (4:1-13). Unlike the other Gospels, in Mark the Spirit “immediately drove” (literally, “threw [Jesus] out” [ekballei]) into the wilderness for forty days of temptation (see also Exodus 24:28; 1 Kings 19:8). The desert is a place of arduous testing (1 Samuel 22:4; 23:9; 24:1, 22) and divine deliverance (Exodus 19–24; Hos 2:14-15). In Jewish apocalypticism by the time of Mark’s composition, Satan personifies evil as the demons’ ringleader. Mark will refer to Satan’s continuing battle against the heavenly kingdom Jesus advances (3:23-27; 4:14-15; 8:32-33); Jesus himself will attack Satan’s minions, the unclean spirits (1:21-28, 32-34, 39; 3:11; 7:24-30; 9:14-29). Angelic ministration during Jesus’ trial harmonizes with 1 Kings 19:5, 7, and Psalm 91:11-13. “The wild beasts” could be threats but might themselves be threatened: “The devil will flee from you; wild animals will be afraid of you; and the angels will stand by you” (Testament of Naphtali, written around 100 C.). The main point: under the Spirit’s aegis Jesus stands at the center of God’s in-breaking kingdom as both beneficiary (at his baptism) and wrestler (at his temptation).
  • “Now after John was arrested” (Mark 1:14a) is no throwaway clause. It casts a long shadow over John’s superior successor, Jesus (1:4-8), who will also be “betrayed” (3:19; 9:31; 14:10-11, 18, 21, 41, 42), “arrested” (14:44), and “handed over” (10:33; 15:1, 10, 15). All of these English words translate the same Greek verb (paradidomi) referring to the baptizer in 1:14a. Like John, Jesus, too, will die by the hand of a weak overlord who is outwitted by others’ schemes (6:14-29; 15:1-15). The kingdom proclaimed by Jesus clashes against mortal principalities and powers that do not gracefully yield to God’s governance (Ephesians 6:12).

If we pay close attention to it, Mark 1:9-15 has the potential to redraw the contours of the liturgical period that begins this Sunday. The time before Easter has long been associated with penitent self-abnegation. That befits Jesus’ preparation for his own sacrifice, to be detailed in coming Sundays. Along the way, however, the church has sometimes extended Passion Week into six weeks of mourning and has confused surrender with easy self-deprivation (“giving up chocolate for Lent”).

Mark points us in a different direction. “The time is fulfilled” (1:15a). This time is not chronos, measured by calendar or clock. It is kairos — a time of critical decision: not every day, but D-Day (Ezekiel 7:12; Dan 7:22; Gal 4:4; Ephesians 1:10; Revelation 1:3b). This kairos is filled to fullness: the cup has been topped up, its contents brimming to overflow. Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas: God has set the kingdom into motion, which will soon go into turbo-drive. As with Advent, so also with Lent: the suitable response is to “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15b).

“Repentance” is not feeling miserable over our sins or regretting that we haven’t been more religious. To repent (metanoein) is to turn our minds God-ward: a 180-degree swing-around from kingdoms of our own fabrication toward God’s rectifying power (Mark 8:33). “Belief” in Mark is not creedal or even particularly cognitive: pistis is trust, lying less in the head and more in the gut (2:5; 5:34, 36; 9:24; 10:52; 11:22-24). After unfurling our sails to catch the Spirit’s current, we rely on God’s ability to carry us beyond the squalls (4:35-41; 6:45-52; 13:9-13, 22-27). And God is able — to forgive our sins (2:1-12), to retrieve us from waywardness (2:15-17), to cast out diabolical powers we cannot control (5:1-20), to restore us from years of wretchedness (5:24b-34), to hold onto us tightly when we turn tail and run away (14:27-28; 16:1-8). As Jesus demonstrates, God’s power is propelled by mercy. That is good news: the best anyone could hope to hear. Lent is the season to ponder that.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17

Wil Gafney

God’s words to Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:9-10 are reasonably translated: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you…”

Buried in the “every living creature” but not specifically addressed with Noah and his sons is Noah’s wife and the wives of his three sons who are also on the ark (Genesis 7:13). Androcentric and patriarchal traditions of biblical interpretation have labeled the story of the flood the story of “Noah’s Ark.” That popular title excludes the women on the ark.

If we are to find a meaning in this story for our contemporary context, that does not include building a new ark — though we may not want to rule that out just yet. If the text speaks to us today, its relevance is not in ancient hierarchies. The covenant between God and all life is a commitment to protect and save the earth humans with which charged tending at the dawn of our creation. We all have a role to play.

Reading Genesis 9 on its own terms raises the question of humanity’s partnership with God in caring for and conserving the earth. What is our role? This text doesn’t provide specifics. Perhaps the Iron Age writers and their readers could not have imagined the state of the world in our times, nor would they have believed it. The covenant is striking in its inclusivity. The welfare of the earth is a matter for all of humanity.

The rainbow covenant represents radical inclusivity in the heart of a narrative shaped by gender bias and ethnocentrism. The covenant between God and all flesh is between God and every person for all time, including but not limited to those who can trace their ancestry to Noah and all of their descendants forever.

The covenant between God and all flesh is between God and every girl, woman, boy, man, and intersex person, every lesbian, gay man, bisexual and transgender person, every atheist, agnostic and religious person, every Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan and pagan person, every person of ability and perceived limitations, every person of any nationality, ethnicity or racial construction or category, and even includes those who defy and explode categories. For the religious reader, particularly womanist, feminist, and other liberation seeking readers, this radical inclusivity is part of what makes the religious texts of ancient Israel scripture for so many peoples beyond their culture, religion and borders.

At one level the story is also about the human need for divine reassurance. God’s commitment is never again to use her power to destroy the earth. (The claims of the Petrine epistle, 2 Peter 3:1-10, must be considered separately and secondarily. Notably, the author who has borrowed Peter’s name does not claim his vision of fire next time comes from God.)

The rainbow is a visual reminder of God’s faithfulness, no matter how terrible, how destructive the storms that batter us. At this point in human history when our storms are worsening because of what we have wreaked on this planet, that promise is comforting. Some may say that God’s promise means it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do. But the covenant is between God and all of us.

Biblical covenants are based on binding legal agreements in the ancient Afro-Asiatic world. The covenant to care for the earth is as binding on us as it is on God. Perhaps we need to think of the rainbow as a sign of our commitment to the earth and the wellbeing of all her creatures — all life on, above, and below the surface the earth, and in her air and waters.

Two final thoughts, the rainbow bears more significance in our world than it did in the world of this text. It represents the beauty and God-given goodness of the full spectrum of human sexuality. In as much as the biblical text is concerned with the wellbeing of “every living creature” and “all flesh,” no one is excluded.

Last, while it is not part of today’s reading, the story of the ark is not separable from the story of the flood and the deaths of countless women, men, and their children in the narrative. The power of this story is not in historicity. It is in its authority as scripture. Even though this story has been canonized, the casual acceptance of genocidal violence is not a value I wish to emulate or pass on, and certainly not as a children’s story, as the text is so often used.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

The psalms immediately preceding Psalm 25 form a collection that is arranged in a chiastic pattern as follows:1

A Psalm 15: entrance liturgy
   B Psalm 16: psalm of assurance
     C Psalm 17: individual lament
       D Psalm 18: royal psalm
         E Psalm 19: torah psalm
       D’ Psalms 20-21: royal psalms
     C’ Psalm 22: individual lament
   B’ Psalm 23: psalm of assurance
A’ Psalm 24: entrance liturgy

Chiastic patterns highlight the peripheral and central elements — in this case, Psalms 15 and 24, along with Psalm 19. The question in Psalms 15 and 24 concerns who will enter the temple, or more symbolically, who will live in God’s presence. Psalm 19 offers a response –- namely, those who orient themselves to God’s life-giving torah, “instruction” (Psalm 19:7, NRSV “law”).

The question in Psalms 15 and 24 is, in effect, “Who belongs to God?” And Psalm 25 provides a perfect response, continuing the direction articulated in Psalm 19 –- that is, those who offer themselves to God and attend to God’s teaching are the ones who belong to God. Not surprisingly, the Hebrew root behind the noun “torah” (Psalm 19:7) occurs twice as a verb in Psalm 25 (“instructs” in verse 8 and “teach” in verse 12). Plus, there is a noticeable literary link between Psalms 24 and 25. Psalm 24 affirms that those who seek God’s presence will “not lift up their souls to what is false” (24:4). The opening line of Psalm 25 provides the positive contrast to this negative formulation: “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.” From the very beginning, the psalmist’s focus is on God. The psalmist emphatically asserts that she or he belongs to God (see also Psalms 86:4; 143:8).

Given that Psalms 15 and 24 probably functioned originally in the context of entering the temple, it may not be coincidental that the verb translated “lift up” is used for offering a sacrifice to God (see Psalm 96:8; Ezekiel 20:31). This dimension of meaning suggests a better translation of Psalm 25:1, “To you, O LORD, I offer my whole being,” or “I offer my life to you, LORD” (CEB). At this point, Psalm 25 anticipates Paul’s invitation in Romans 12:1 “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” As in Psalm 25, this offering or “sacrifice” involves orientation to God’s instruction — in Paul’s words, “so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2).

That belonging to God is manifest in the desire to do God’s will is indicated not only by the repetition of the verbal form of torah in Psalm 25:8, 12 (see above), but also by the appearance of other important words that belong to the vocabulary of teaching and learning:

  • the repetition of the Hebrew root translated “Make me to know” in verse 4 and “makes … known” in verse 14
  • the repetition of a Hebrew root translated “teach(es)” in verses 4, 5, and 9
  • the five-fold occurrence of a Hebrew root translated “way(s)” when it appears as a noun (verses 4, 8, 9) and “Lead(s)” when it appears as a verb (verses 5, 9): The two occurrences in verse 9 are especially interesting, because the root occurs as the first and last word in the verse. The rhetorical effect is to surround or encompass “the humble” with indications of God’s will. The NRSV’s “what is right” translates a single word that is more frequently translated as “justice,” and it often represents a sort of one-word summary of the will of God (see Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8).
  • the repetition of the noun translated “paths” in verses 4, 10

In short, the prevalence of the vocabulary of teaching and learning effectively and emphatically communicates the meaning of the psalmist’s choice to offer life to God. To live in God’s presence, to belong to God, means to desire fervently to know God’s will and to do faithfully what God wants done.

Even so, it is clear that the psalmist has not succeeded in doing consistently what God wants done (Psalm 25:7, 11, 18). Therefore, in the final analysis, the psalmist’s belongingness to God is a result not only of the psalmist’s choice to offer life to God, but also a result of God’s willingness to forgive.

The psalmist’s appeal for forgiveness is appropriately grounded in God’s fundamental character. The three-fold repetition of “remember” reinforces this aspect of the appeal. God is called upon to “remember [NRSV “Be mindful of”] your mercy . . . and your steadfast love” (verse 6), to “not remember the sins of my youth” (verse 7), and “according to your steadfast love remember me” (verse 7). The repetition of “steadfast love,” the appeal to “mercy,” and the mention of “sins” and “transgressions” recall Exodus 34:6-7, where God’s character is manifest in God’s willingness to forgive. In short, the psalmist is saved by grace, a reality that calls for “trust” (Psalm 25:2) and makes hope possible (Psalm 25:3, 5, 21 where NRSV “wait” could be translated “hope”).

We too are saved by grace, a reality that we remember and celebrate during the season of Lent. Because we trust that God is gracious, we dare to enter a season of confession and penitence, offering ourselves as a living sacrifice to God and pledging ourselves anew to discern and do God’s will.

On the surface, it may appear that Psalm 25:10 puts conditions on God’s love, limiting it to those who are faithful and obedient. But the psalmist was not entirely faithful and obedient, so the intent of verse 10 must lie elsewhere. Verse 10 suggests, it seems to me, that those who offer their lives to God will find themselves acting in conformity with God’s character; that is, they will increasingly be like God! Thus, the psalmist seems to anticipate Jesus’ invitation, which we might adopt as a Lenten discipline, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 22, 2015.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22

Jennifer T. Kaalund

As is the case with much of the New Testament, when reading First Peter we find ourselves reading other people’s mail.

First Peter is a letter addressed to the “exiles of the dispersion.” It is not clear to what extent the audience is suffering — persecutions, physical or psychological, ongoing or sporadic. However, it is apparent that the audience is identified as outsiders of some sort. The writer sets out to affirm their identity as God’s people and to provide guidance for how to live during difficult times.

Given this framework, in 1 Peter 3 we find suggestions for how the assembly is expected to be in relationship with one another, beginning with husbands and wives and then extending to the entire community. It reads: “All of you have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). While these are all certainly admirable qualities for any community, some of the other directives appear to be an ancient form of the politics of respectability. Respectability politics is a strategy that is often employed so that marginalized groups are perceived as being socially aligned with the majority. As Brittney C. Cooper suggests, it enables such groups to minimize various threats and to “navigate a hostile public sphere.”1 The writer of this letter is advocating conformity to social norms; however, we do not know what prompted the letter or the communities’ response to it.

Perhaps to give meaning to the suffering that the community is experiencing, the writer reminds them that Christ suffered to bring all (the righteous and the unrighteous) to God. It is important to note that suffering is not to be glorified, but it is Christ who is glorified. At the end of 1 Peter 3, we see that Jesus’ death is not the end of his story. In fact the last four verses underscore three things: (1) the saving power of water, (2) the importance of a clear conscience and, (3) life after death.

Water saves

The story of Noah is invoked. During this time “eight persons were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:20). I have always read the story of the flood as one where God saves Noah and his family from not by the water. I did not see it as a narrative that demonstrates the salvific power of water and thusly prefigures baptism. My narrow vision focused only on these eight people, representative of humanity, and the destructive power of water. Yet, the floodwaters cleansed and prepared the earth for a redeemed humanity. The writer’s aside “not as a removal of dirt from the body,” proves instructive for this understanding.

If we consider how we emphasize cleaning our own hands, we may see this point more clearly. Yes, we wash our hands to remove dirt, but why are clean hands so important? It is not simply for the removal of dirt from our bodies, but this washing protects us from viruses, illnesses, and diseases. Washing hands literally saves lives. So if cleaning our hands, one of the most extreme parts of our bodies can have such a tremendous positive impact on our health, our life; then how much more should we be concerned about a clean heart or as this writer suggests a good conscience?

A clear conscience

In 1 Peter 3:16, the writer admonishes the community to keep their conscious clear so that slanderers will be shamed. Again in 1 Peter 3:21 a good conscious is associated with the ritual of baptism. If cleaning your hands can save your physical life, cleaning your inner “person” or having a clean heart can surely save your spiritual life.

Conscience, often described as an inner voice or a guide, enables us to make right choices, propels us to choose the good. If we are to let our conscience be our guide, then our conscience must be clear and good. For a community where suffering is ever-present, their (our) lives cannot be directed by their (our) fear. Their (our) decisions must be informed by the hope that is found in the resurrection of Jesus. This hope comes from the confession of their faith exemplified through the act of baptism, this inner cleaning.

Because He lives!

The act of baptism itself mirrors Jesus’ movement from death to descent to ascent. This text tells us that the resurrected Jesus, alive in the spirit, made a proclamation to imprisoned spirits. Beyond death, Jesus faithfully and fearlessly proclaimed the Good News. He lived his mission statement not until the end but beyond time itself.2 If Jesus preaches to imprisoned spirits after his death, how much more should we share the good news to those physically and spiritually in chains? After all, this is choosing the good; it is doing what is right. The gospel lives beyond space and time (because he lives).

During the season of Lent, I am often reminded of a song by the gospel singer John P. Kee, “Because of Calvary.” At the beginning he poses this question: What’s the most important thing — him being born or him dying? The title of the song affirms his answer — it is Jesus’ death. Yet, I do not think the response to his query is simple. Like life, there are few things that are black and white; such dichotomies do little to address the gray areas of life where we spend the overwhelming majority of our time. And so this question has led me to another: What if the most important thing was not Jesus being born or Jesus dying, what if the most important thing is how Jesus lived?

As we move through the season of Lent, a most holy time of the Christian calendar, a time when it is just and good to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus. Let us also be mindful of the example he gave and gives us about living — the good news transcends death and space and time and continues to bring us closer to God.


Notes:

  1. Brittany C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 3-4.
  2. I suggest that Jesus’ mission statement is found in Luke 4:18-19 when he publicly reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”