Lectionary Commentaries for January 21, 2018
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:14-20

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

The opening weeks of the new year and the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday are the temporal context in the culture for the account of Jesus’ coming to Galilee, preaching the good news of God and enlisting four men to follow him.

This episode in Mark follows directly after the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. He goes to Galilee, and there he proclaims the “good news of God”, “gospel of God,” “evangelion of God.” Jesus’ first sermon is short, memorable, and direct. Time is at a crisis point. Events in the past have gathered to the point of culmination, and the “kingdom of God” is approaching. His words shed light backwards on the prophecy from Isaiah, the work of John the baptizer, and the divine voice and vision at Jesus’ baptism, and they shine forward to the deeds of Jesus in the rest of the gospel.

As John does, Jesus proclaims, “repent.” And he preaches “believe in,” or “have faith” in, the good news. The mysterious phrases, “kingdom of God” and the “good news,” introduced at the opening of the gospel, will be opened up and embodied in the story that follows. People whom Jesus encounters throughout the countryside will display different dimensions of “faith” (the friends of the paralyzed man, Jairus, the synagogue leader, the bleeding woman, the father of the epileptic son, and Bartimaeus, the blind beggar).

With brevity the text sets the scene and introduces the brothers, first Simon and Andrew, and then James and John, and their profession “for they were fishermen.” Jesus’ straightforward imperative, “follow me”” is finished with the odd formulation, “I will make you fish for people.” This narrative in Mark shows a story from the life of Jesus that is in the process of being “theologized” and becoming a symbolic story for the early believing communities.

“Fishing” is interpreted as another kind of drawing, catching, and harvesting, of people, followers, disciples, or members of a movement, in the language of mission. One kind of employment, fishing, will be transfigured into another, sharing the “good news,” and offer another kind of provision. Simon and Andrew respond in an instant without further conversation. They leave their nets, the sign of their former profession. Likewise, James and John, leave their father and the hired men, their fishing colleagues, to follow the preacher.

The words of the text do not describe the tone of Jesus’ words to the fishermen. It might be imagined as an authoritative command, a gentle invitation, or a prophetic call. Without question or delay the fishers obey. The gospel of Mark will demonstrate the work of exorcising, healing, feeding in which these disciples will join and will illustrate the deadly opposition to that ministry.

There will be many times after this day when their questions and doubts and failure to understand will be at the forefront of the gospel’s attention. When they answer Jesus by getting up and following, they join a movement that has been advanced by the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptizer, Elijah, Elisha, and Moses. They join a mission that has been renewed by the faithful in each generation, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his many colleagues in the movement for civil rights in the United States.

That all the protagonists in this story are male: Jesus, brothers, father, and hired men presents an interpretive challenge for those who preach in a congregation in which women are among the hearers and receivers of this word. The call of male disciples justified the exclusion of women from leadership in the church in many Christian bodies. The depictions of this story in art and its many, many retellings in the tradition celebrate the two sets of brothers as the classic portraits of Christian disciples. The well-known phrase “fishers of men” obscures the reality of women among the community sought by the Jesus movement. Women and others, who long to “hear themselves,” in such a paradigmatic story of discipleship, will exercise their own hermeneutical translation of these stories, but sometimes our effort does not overcome the alienating effects.

Please, preachers! “Update” and “expand” the preaching/proclamation of this story with all the deep clues and rich material in Mark’s gospel:

“There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him (“served” diakonein) when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” Mark 15:40-41

Some of these women may be hidden in the stories of women who demonstrate faith in Galilee and Tyre and Sidon: the woman in the crowd (Mark 5:34), the Syrophoenecian mother (Mark 7:24-34)), and the anointing one (Mark 14:3-9). There are likely those that the gospel does not tell, but that a preacher could. Like Bartimaeus who is called, rises, is healed, and follows (Mark 10:46-52), so too those who have been made well, will become disciples.

They will misunderstand and question and doubt. They will be opposed by violent power. They will suffer and lose their lives and those they love. These daughters, mothers, and sisters, whose following took them to the threshold of the tomb on Easter morning, can exemplify human “faith in the good news” as brilliantly as Simon, Andrew, James, and John.


First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Valerie Bridgeman

Jonah, the book, is a great story with fantastical imagery, from a great fish swallowing Jonah to cattle in sackcloth.

It’s a story told around campfires to make a point. Or recited in Sunday School to finalize a moral. The word “great” signals that this story may be a folktale or satire, built around an obscure prophet who prophesied during Jeroboam’s reign (1 Kings 14:23) as the people faced the Assyrian invasion (722 BCE). The book appears to be an effort to explain God’s inscrutable mercy toward Assyria, where Nineveh was capitol. In the book of Jonah, the protagonist is not called a prophet, but rather a “Hebrew,” referring to the pre-monarchic times of the nation-state.

Jonah is mentioned in the apocryphal books, first in 3 Maccabees 6:8-9, when the priest Eleazer prays using a litany of people God has delivered in distress before: “And Jonah, wasting away in the belly of a huge, sea-born monster, you, Father, watched over and restored unharmed to all his family. And now, you who hate insolence, all-merciful and protector of all, reveal yourself quickly to those of the nation of Israel — who are being outrageously treated by the abominable and lawless Gentiles.” The writer of 2 Esdras 1:39 lists Jonah among the patriarchal ancients and prophets after whom books are named. This story also lived on in Christian times, referred to by Jesus in Matthew 12:38-41 (see also Luke 11:29-30).

As a book, Jonah is a commentary on the ancient Israelite creed about God’s mercy found first in Exodus 34:6-7:

The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The LORD, the LORD,?
a God merciful and gracious,?
slow to anger,?
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,?
yet by no means clearing the guilty,?
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children?
and the children’s children,?
to the third and the fourth generation.”

The creed represents God’s self-understanding and the people repeated time and again, in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17, Psalms 86:17, 103:8, and 145:8, and the prophets Joel 2:14-3, Micah 7:18-19, and Nahum 1:2-3. It’s quoted in the Apocrypha, Sirach 5:4. But, the book of Jonah wants to know, just how wide is God’s mercy? And, what gets the guilty off the hook? Placed in the canon before Micah and Nahum, Jonah’s version focuses on the mercy, while Micah seems to limit the mercy to the people of Israel (Micah 7:18-20), wondering “who is like our God,” and proclaiming God’s “unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old.”

Nahum, following canonically on the heels of Micah and celebrating the downfall of Assyria, pretty much delights in them “getting what they deserve,” by focusing, not on the mercy of God, but on God’s jealousy for God’s people, Israel, and the fact that God will not clear the guilty: “A jealous and avenging God is the LORD, the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger but great in power,?and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty.”

Thus, our story of Jonah’s running from God and having to hear God say “a second time” go to Nineveh appears in this theological construct. Why wouldn’t he run in the opposite direction? Assyria, represented here by its capitol city, has been a thorn in Israel’s side, ransacking the northern kingdom and overthrowing it, followed soon by the complete devastation by Babylon who overtook Assyria. There is no reason to go to the “great city” to announce a “great” opportunity to repent. As their nearest enemy, their invasion ended Israel’s existence as a nation-state (1 Kings 17).

This background may help the preacher situate the story in its pathos. It’s a comic relief of a sorrowful tale. It’s an answer to a theodicy question. It’s the call to speak on behalf of all people, and to see even Ninevites as “chosen” if they repent. Who know; perhaps God will spare us if you call upon God’s name, the sailors declare (Jonah 1:6). Who knows, the king of Assyria asks. God may relent and change God’s mind (3:9; see also Micah 7:18-19). And that is the theological conundrum.

Who wants God to change God’s mind, especially when it means not destroying those whom we despise? Jonah becomes angry after preaching because he says, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and great to relent from punishing?” (Jonah 4:2). And Jonah sees God changing God’s mind as “greatly” displeasing. But changing God’s mind when people or nations repent also is a part of the divine character (see Jeremiah 18:7-8). But, Assyria, too, God?

And it also is why God has to call Jonah “a second time.” Because when he ran, he did not want to see Nineveh repent. He didn’t want that abounding grace to extend beyond his people, even though he KNEW, he just KNEW, it would. Jonah’s conversation with God in chapter 4 reads like a lament psalm, like “why do the wicked prosper.” And the people do repent. It’s a comical site: Jonah emerges from “a great fish” with seaweed wrapped around his head, and cries, “repent!” They have 40 days to do it, but the story is that they don’t hesitate like Jonah did. They respond immediately. The people of Nineveh are like the sailors who are not Hebrews; as soon as they know, they too repent (Jonah 2). That third chapter opening tells us pretty much all we need to know about human behavior in relation to other people and God as we understand God.

There are so many juicy parts to this “great” story. There is the drama of “who knows” what God will do. God is a radically free agent unbound by human theological expectations, and by the way, God revealed that about Godself a long time ago. And there are the religiously astute non-Hebrews. We get to see people who don’t have Jonah’s religious “training” or ability to “hear” from God, and yet, they respond with prayers and repentance. True, we have to be careful about blaming natural phenomena on God, but God IS responsible in Jonah’s tale. God is behind the “great storm.” In fact, Nahum says God’s ways are in the whirlwind and the storm (Nahum 1:3).

We learn, too, that repentance is not just an Israelite thing. And this reality has a couple of ramifications for us in our time. The first is that we do not know how God has already been among a people. Missionaries have used this text before, and I have noted in another place that they have used it often as a battering ram against non-Christian cultures.1 But this text suggests that God moves on people’s heart at the sound of truth. They fast and pray of their own initiative, because “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5). They do not need Jonah to tell them how to meet God.

It is quite possible that when we speak in other contexts, we are called to share with people who know God, and not to “convert” them. God has good reason for changing and accepting their repentance, after all. God’s final question in the book of Jonah is the one that hung in the midst of the story all along: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). Well, what do you say to that?


Notes:

  1. Valerie Bridgeman, “Jonah,” The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora, Hugh Page, gen. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 62:5-12

Shauna Hannan

This Psalm is for the asylum seeker, those who seek refuge from adversaries, those who yearn for security and stability.1

Dare I say that this Psalm is for us all especially now?

The Psalmist’s experience of crisis prompts the big question of whether or not he (anyone?) can trust and take refuge in God in the face of enemies? The Psalmist’s undeniable answer is, “Yes!” Especially at such a time, the only thing that offers true refuge is God, the steadfast one.

There are multiple genres at work in this Psalm, which suggests the Psalmist does all it takes to declare his trust in God and instruct others to do the same. In Psalm 62 one finds lament, praise, thanksgiving, wisdom, exhortation. Most interesting is variation in parts of speech utilized by the Psalmist as he moves from testimony to exhortation to prayer. The second half of the Psalm (the lectionary selection) progresses like this:

Speaking about God (3rd person testimony)

     Direct address to the people (2nd person exhortation)

          Speaking about people in light of who God is (3rd person instruction)

     Direct address to the people (2nd person exhortation)

Speaking about God (3rd person testimony)

      Direct address to God (2nd person prayer)

Working our way through the form itself offers a possible effective form for a sermon.

There are a few intriguing elements in the Psalmist’s testimony in verses 5-7.

1. The English translation covers up the emphatic and repetitive ‘ak that begins each of these verses. ‘Ak is translated as alone or only (“but a” in verse 9). “Only for God do I wait in silence. Only God is my rock and my salvation.” This important word occurs 7 times in the whole Psalm.

2. Verses 5 and 6 are an exact repetition of verses 1 and 2 with only one exception; “Salvation” in verse 1 becomes “hope” in verse 5.

3. The sequence of possessive nouns is powerful: my rock, my salvation, my fortress, my mighty rock, my refuge. The determined Psalmist claims God as his own and seems to create a verbal fortress with this series.

After this opening expression of trust, the Psalmist turns to others with unapologetic exhortation (verse 8). Clearly, the my does not give the Psalmist exclusive rights to this refuge. God can be your only as well. Trust in him! Lament (“pour out your heart”) before him. One of the most powerful turns is in verse 8b when the individual self-possession of God is transformed into a communal “God is a refuge for us!” The Psalmist’s experience of crisis turns into faithfulness in the only refuge, God, which then turns into exhortatory proclamation that others might trust only in this one, God.

Knowing that crises might lead some to depend on unfaithful means of hope and salvation (is he is speaking here from personal experience?), the Psalmist names those things that challenge the ‘ak; e.g., status in the world (interestingly, both high or low estates get in the way), extortion, robbery, riches.

Note elements of the wisdom tradition in verses 9 and 11. Hebel (translated as “breath”) appears twice in verse 9 and reminds us of Qoheleth’s wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:2, etc. where hebel is translated as “vanity”). The numeric parallelism in verse 11, “Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this,” is akin to wisdom literature found in Proverbs (e.g., Proverbs 30:15-19).

So far, the Psalmist has gone from a personal expression of trust in God, to exhortation and instruction for the people to trust in God, before finally turning directly to God in prayer. It is the prayer’s affirmation of God’s hesed that solidly undergirds all that has come before; one could not exclaim God as one’s own without God’s hesed; one could not confirm God as rock or fortress or refuge without God’s hesed; one could not proclaim that God is the only refuge without God’s hesed; one could not exhort others to give up their delusional and vain dependencies without God’s hesed; one could not advocate reliance on God alone as refuge and hope and salvation without God’s hesed. It is the final prayer of praise and thanksgiving for hesed that gives this Psalmist both confidence and a restful soul.

Homiletical possibilities

Center of gravity
Draw out one or all of these Psalm’s center of gravity possibilities. The first is the repeated verses 5-6 that serve as a refrain. The second is the outward turn from the Psalmist’s own claim that God is his refuge and hope, to the affirmation that God is our refuge and hope as well. The third is the emphasis on God’s steadfast love, hesed, that supports everything in the Psalm. Which of these, or which combination of these, might drive your sermon?

Mirror the form
Would you consider opening the sermon with your own expression of trust in God that has arisen out of an experience of crises? Then, what instruction or wisdom, based on your experience, might you offer the congregation? Name those delusional and vain dependencies that we all rely on. While most do not resort to explicit extortion or robbery, we might certainly be apt to set our hearts on riches and/or status. For our own good, exhort us not to put our trust or find refuge in these things, but in God alone. And then lead us in prayer of praise and thanksgiving to the steadfast one.

Scripture interprets Scripture
While Jesus’ words in Mark are not to be read into this Psalm, Jesus himself is like the Psalmist when he proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Calling others to repent is emboldened by God’s steadfastness. It is that steadfast love that is both good news and sign of the kingdom coming near. How powerful it is that Mark’s account of the gospel begins at this point of trust in God’s steadfastness.

Whatever the preacher does with a sermon based on this Psalm, the bottom line is that it is in God alone that we place our trust and take refuge in times of crisis.


 

Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 25, 2015.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Israel Kamudzandu

Although 21st-century Christians live as though they have a key to life, 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 has a cautious suggestion.

The hope of Christian life whether single or married is not anchored in the present but Paul reminds Christians in Corinth that life is short-lived — that is, temporal and evaporating. In some way, this passage is a clarion call to Christians to be mindful of the parousia or the second coming of Jesus to which all hope is fixed. The Gospel message of these two verses have their foundations in the eschatological message Paul has in 1 Corinthians 6-7, whose summary culminates in these words, “I mean brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…” (1 Corinthians 7:29).

The second coming of Jesus gives poignancy to the message of this passage. A careful spiritual, theological, and faith formation is called for, especially among Christians who are constantly focused on sexual gratification whether married or single. The central message Paul has in this passage is that the call of God on people’s lives should be the governing axiom. All peoples, nations, male and female are called to a life of service and that should be the main focus of our life in these borrowed times.

While many Christians choose to settle and find comfortable locations in life, Paul’s wisdom in the entire passage invites us to discern two crucial insights. First Corinthian Christians, and consequently us in the 21st century are called to anchor our hope and trust in God whose assurance of salvation was manifested in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In some poignant words, human beings are not authors of their salvation nor does their married status have an ounce of salvation but we depend on the mercy and justice of God — whose mission is to rescue all humanity.

Whether, married or single, the second theological insight is that our Christian identities are not determined by society or marriage affiliations but that our true identities are firmly grounded in Jesus Christ. Thus, grace beckons us to live graciously in the midst of cultural pressures to marry and in the storms of our changing hormones. It is crucial for readers to see how Paul has a balanced view of our divine giftedness and how we should celebrate the diversity of gifts in the body of Christ as we await the second coming of Jesus. If these are divine gifts, the implications are that, Christians are called to gracefully use these gifts not for self-gratification but rather in service to God (1 Corinthians 7:7).

The theological and economical language of Paul, especially in verses 1 Corinthians 7:29a are noteworthy. First, the apocalyptic sense of the message is clear in that Paul invites Christians to live with a sense of heightened expectation of the coming of Jesus. Thus, one’s way of life must be shaped and informed by an ever-present awareness of the coming of Jesus, and possibly the end of life here on earth.

Second, Christians are called to a life of spiritual investment instead of financial investment. Discipleship is a life of investing time, resources, talents, and energy in the building of God’s Kingdom, of which our final retirement homes are not earthly structures but heavenly ones. While marriage is a blessing, those in it must always be aware that there is another alternative worldview (1 Corinthians 13:10) and they are called to live a life of significance and purpose in ways that opens them to be ministered by others as well. Whether married or single, Christian life boils down to one thing — ministry. Human longing or yearning for eternal life is not found in marriage context or social structures, but it is firmly found in our walk with Jesus Christ.

The passage asks us to imagine our context in relation to our faith in Jesus Christ. Eschatologically, we are challenged not to detach ourselves from the things of this world but to find a healthy balance that continues to energize us in our discipleship. Thus, marriage and being single have a place in God’s ministry. Paul has all these practices in perspective because he sees them through the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

However, Paul’s favorable perspective is clear — the proclamation of the gospel of which he thought celibacy is the best practice because one is freed to focus full attention on evangelizing God’s word.

When all is said and done, Paul’s teaching in this passage is to invite the Church to constantly rethink theologically about issues of sex, marriage, and divorce as they are the most divisive topics in both ancient and postmodern Church.