Lectionary Commentaries for October 25, 2015
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:46-52

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman

This account of the healing of Bartimaeus concludes a central section in the Gospel of Mark that began in 8:22 with the healing of another blind man and is followed in 11:1 by the entry into Jerusalem.

It focuses on establishing Jesus’ identity and mission, and blind Bartimaeus functions in the narrative as someone who truly “sees” Jesus.

As a healing story, the normal elements are present. Someone has a problem, there is some factor that complicates matters, Jesus effects the cure, the result is confirmed, and then there is some response to the miracle. Within this passage and elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, however, are indicators that he has other interests in mind. Mark 10:46-52 is not simply a healing story, but it is also a call story, and Bartimaeus is an example of a true disciple.

Mark has already reported the healing of a blind man in 8:22-26. Does the reader really need another story to confirm that Jesus can restore sight? In 8:22-26, however, there is the odd detail that after Jesus’ first attempt to heal the man, he sees imperfectly and Jesus needs to act again in order for him to see correctly. I don’t think the Bartimaeus story is told to let us know that Jesus has gotten better at performing sight restorations. Rather, it is a way of indicating that while gaining full sight is progressive, similarly, full insight about Jesus’ identity will also take some development. Peter becomes the example of imperfect vision in the account that immediately follows that first sight healing when he confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. Great! But then he goes on to rebuke Jesus for claiming that his messiahship follows a path of suffering and death. We shall see that Bartimaeus does understand what it means to follow Jesus.

The blind man in Mark 8:22-26 is quite passive, but Bartimaeus certainly is not. Though he cannot see, when he hears that it’s Jesus passing by, he begins crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is the first time that “Son of David” as a title is applied to Jesus. It clearly is a royal title hearkening back to King David, and this will become evident when Jesus soon enters into Jerusalem and is given a royal, Davidic greeting. (11:10) Further, Bartimaeus is displaying insight into Jesus’ identity that will become clearer to the reader in 12:35-37 when Jesus, invoking Psalm 110:1 asks, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?” For someone who understands and believes in Jesus, it all is perfectly clear. (By the way, Bartimaeus can claim Jesus’ blessing in John 20:29 for those who have not seen yet believed!)

Bartimaeus’ perceptiveness is further confirmed by comparing this story with the preceding one in Mark 10:35-45 (the reading for the previous Sunday in the lectionary). Jesus poses the same question to James and John as he does to Bartimaeus. “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:36, 51) Following as it does on Jesus’ declaration about his upcoming suffering and death (10:33-34), James and John unwisely and uncomprehendingly ask for positions of honor and glory. Bartimaeus, in contrast, asks for sight. Whether or not he’s asking to see for the first time or to see again, narratively the emphasis is on spiritual insight. (Note how the “seeing” theme, drawing upon Isaiah 6:9-10, is connected with understanding in Mark 4:12 and 8:18.)

What is the practical implication for Bartimaeus for acknowledging Jesus as he truly is and for believing in Jesus and his mercy? He gains his sight, and, more importantly, he follows Jesus. Here is where the call aspect of this story becomes clear. In the other call stories in Mark, “following” Jesus is crucial — crucial both in terms of being important and being cross-oriented. Simon, Andrew, James, and John are all called to follow Jesus (1:16-20) as is Levi the tax collector (2:14). The rich man in 10:17-21 is told to sell all and follow Jesus. Regarding true disciples, Jesus is explicit in Mark 8:34, “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Is Mark suggesting that Bartimaeus is taking Jesus’ instruction to heart when he includes the odd detail in 10:50 that he throws off his cloak which is perhaps the only property he has?) Most telling, at the end of this account, we do not find a typical reaction to a healing miracle where the person healed or the crowd witnessing the miracle respond with awe or praise. Instead, we are only told that, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus] on the way.” (10:50) And where is this way headed? In the very next passage we find Jesus entering Jerusalem and starting the chain of events that will end up at the cross. Bartimaeus truly exemplifies the disciple who sees where the way ahead leads and yet follows and believes Jesus.

That may be a tidy way to wrap things up, but there are some other details in Bartimaeus’ story that beg further consideration. What about the “many” who “rebuke” Bartimaeus for crying out to Jesus? (This “rebuke” is the same word – epitimao — used when Jesus rebukes demons and when Peter and Jesus rebuke each other in their testy exchange in 8:32-33.) Are they seeking to preserve Jesus’ honor? Are they trying to control access to Jesus like the disciples did when they stopped someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name? (9:38-39) Or are they embarrassed about Bartimaeus’ low status as a blind beggar? I fear that many in the church today function with the same good intentions when it comes to the ones whom we welcome. Still, Mark reports that Jesus does not call Bartimaeus directly, but instead, he has them call Bartimaeus, which they then encouragingly do. Is this story then not just about the calling of new disciples but the formation and instruction of existing ones? How do they / we respond when Jesus assumes the embarrassingly low status of the Crucified One?

Finally, in the other call stories, Jesus tells the person to come and / or follow him. He tells Bartimaeus to “Go!” Is “going” the same as “following” when it leads to the cross? It certainly can be when “following” Jesus to the cross becomes “going” and telling others what we have seen and experienced in the one who is the merciful Son of David, Jesus the Messiah.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-9

Anathea Portier-Young

Jeremiah’s oracle promises salvation for the scattered remnant of Israel, return from exile, and joyful homecoming.

When return seems impossible, the prophet sees a way home that will accommodate their different, but limited, human abilities and life stages. God makes it possible for all to walk a straight and smooth path. Finally, the oracle answers the pain of displacement, loss, and alienation with the intimacy of life as a family.

The prophet himself is not in exile, but in Judah, land of promise. His oracle thus speaks to multiple audiences. Most directly, he speaks to those who remain in Judah and Israel, whose children, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors, extended families, and neighboring tribes have been taken from them, first by Assyria over a century before and most recently by Babylon. He also speaks to those now in exile, the people of Israel and Judah who had been deported from their homeland against their will. Some, those deported from Judah in 597 BCE, could be traced to Babylonia. Others, the deported tribes of Israel or Ephraim, had been lost in place and time, and were connected now only in memory, tradition, and hope. The oracle focuses especially on this remnant of Israel, lost to their brothers and sisters in Judah and Samaria, scattered to the corners of the earth. Only God can know where they have been taken. Only God can bring them home.

As I consider how one might preach this passage, the first question that comes to my mind is, whom have we lost? Whom have the ravages of history stolen from us? Whom have the consequences of our own sin and that of our ancestors expelled from our faith community, our neighborhoods, or our land? The answer to this question might be different for each congregation. This passage can prompt reflection within your congregation: what is God’s vision for homecoming? Whom does God intend to bring home to you? What will your hope in God’s promise mean for the faith and actions of your community?

The first verse of this passage is a loud one. Jeremiah’s audience is breaking a silence imposed throughout the earlier chapters of the book. Earlier, the prophet had been told not to pray or cry out on behalf of the people (Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11). God refused to hear the laments of the people and promises to end the sound of their celebrations (7:16,29,31; 16:9; 25:10). The people too had been instructed to refrain from mourning their dead and from feasting in gladness (16:5-9; cf. 25:33). But Jeremiah and his people were not completely silent. Despite the injunction God placed on them, we hear repeated weeping, wailing, mourning, and lament (9:1,10; 13:17; 14:17). The command to keep silent is an impossible one. The people’s pain at their woundedness, the desolation of the land, and the loss of their kin kept breaking through the silence (31:9).

In a culture that so often commands silence, in communities that so often fail to hear, can you, the preacher, listen for the sounds that have broken through? Would you imagine that you have witnessed only a trickle that has escaped from a deep and closely guarded well of sorrow and lament? If the community could acknowledge this together, would it change the way the community celebrates together?

Now God wants the amplifier to be dialed up to eleven, and the song is one not of sorrow but of joy. The first word of the Lord’s speech is a command to the people: “shout joyfully” (Jeremiah 31:7). The verb is a favorite of the psalmists, and occurs many times in Isaiah. But it has not occurred in Jeremiah prior to this moment. The entire book has changed keys. The minor chords of chapters 1-29 gave voice to judgment, anger, exile, and death. Chapter 30 marked a shift: God would answer the sound of distress (30:4-7) with salvation (30:8-11), cure the incurable wound (30:12-17), and restore Jacob’s tents, city, children, and ruler (18-21). Chapter 31 continues in this new key, picking up strains of gladness foretold in 30:19.

The glad shouts here in 31:7 are for Jacob, in response to the good news of restoration and salvation for those who have been lost for so long. They are also to be shouted “for the chief of the nations” (New Revised Standard Version) or “at the head of the nations” (New American Bible). The exact meaning of this latter phrase is less obvious: it may paint a moment of triumph, when captives are finally free to look their captors in the eye and say, “you didn’t win, after all.” Gloating is dangerous, as the prophets so frequently remind us, but so is quiet acquiescence to empires and injustice. The other possible meaning of this phrase is to interpret the chief or head of the nations as referring to God. The passage culminates in the restoration of the familial relationship between God and Jacob; this journey home is a celebration for them both.

The company the Lord will gather from the North and from the corners of the earth includes the blind and the lame, pregnant women, and women in labor (Jeremiah 31:8). A multitude will return and they will walk on a straight path alongside brooks of water (31:8-9). None will stumble (31:9). God does not promise to change the bodies of blind and lame. Yet God ensures that the path home includes and accommodates them as they are. God does not ask the women among them to postpone their pregnancies or deliveries or postpone their travel so as not to slow down the pace of the company. This party will travel as slowly as it needs to, and they will have the water they need to sustain them at every step.

Those whom God intends to bring back to you will come to you at their own pace, and they will bring new life into your midst. They are the firstborn, returning to their ancestral home.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Karla Suomala

What can Job possibly say to God after hearing God finally speak?

Is a response in this situation even appropriate? Before the divine speech, Job was loaded and ready. He wanted the opportunity to make his case before God. He had hours and days and months of arguments at the tip of his tongue. Now God has responded, although not in the way that Job expected or hoped. Job was never able to bring God to trial to testify against God. He never received reasoned or reasonable answers to his “why me” questions. But God did speak and something happened to Job in the process.

In this final chapter, Job doesn’t say much (comparatively) but he chooses his closing words very carefully. Beginning with a statement of God’s power, Job states what has been clear to him from the beginning: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” This is, in fact, the reason that Job wanted to speak to God in the first place. As Robert Alter points out, Job never doubted God’s power; he questioned only God’s justice.1

The rest of Job’s statements are framed as responses to God’s questions and demands. To God’s earlier question — “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” — Job says, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Here, in contrast to Job’s first words where he talks about what he does know (that God can do anything), Job emphasizes his lack of both knowledge and understanding.

In Alter’s recent translation of the Book of Job, he renders this sentence somewhat differently: “Therefore I told but did not understand, wonders beyond me that I did not know.” Which things did Job say or tell that he did not understand? He said an awful lot, after all, to God, to his friends, even his wife. Does Job mean that although he was convinced he knew his God and communicated this image of God to his friends and family, he didn’t really understand God very well?

And the “wonders” that he did not know — what are they? In the Hebrew Bible this word has been variously translated as “miracles,” “wondrous works,” “marvels,” and even once as “monstrous things” (Daniel 11:36). The word almost always refers to acts that only God can perform or do and which humans can’t seem to explain or account for. In the divine speech that unfolds across the preceding chapters, this is precisely what God describes — the marvels, wonders, and even monstrous things (like the Leviathan in Job 41) that God creates and controls. God has painted word pictures of creation that Job has not ever been able to even imagine — wonders of which Job was wholly unaware.

Quoting God once again, “Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me,” Job finally hints at the fact that something powerful has happened to him in his encounter with God. Alter translates Job’s statement like this: “By the ear’s rumor I heard of You, and now my eye has seen You.” What is it that Job saw? He doesn’t, exactly. We only know from this that what Job knew before was based on hearsay, not experience. Job says, though, that because of what he has now “seen,” he recants (NRSV says “I despise myself” but “recant” is probably a better rendering) and repents in dust and ashes. Just as in the earlier verse where Job claims that he didn’t know or understand, we aren’t quite sure what the content of his recanting or repenting are. Is he withdrawing his entire case? His claims to innocence? His demands for justice?

I think it’s possible that Job is rejecting or renouncing his previous ideas about God — his entire sense that God simply functions as a machine that processes human behavior, rewarding and punishing accordingly. A case can be made for this reading, especially since the word “repent” is problematic. In a Christian context, this word is almost always connected to sin and occurs when someone recognizes his or her error and shows remorse. In Hebrew, though, the word can legitimately be understood as changing one’s mind and setting out on a new path. This word is even applied to God in Exodus 32 where God changes God’s mind about doing away with the Israelites after the golden calf incident. Read in this vein, we might say that Job, having seen God, rejected his previous view of God and changed his mind.

So what happens in this encounter between God and Job to so change Job?

Job’s universe has just exploded! He has been challenged to think differently about everything in his life and see anew what is around him. Author Michael Chabon asserts that good children’s literature, in fact all good literature, should blow the minds of its readers wide open.2 I would go further and say that this is true of any transformative experience. It happens, says Chabon, “when something you feared but knew to be impossible turns out to be true; when the world turns out to be far vaster, far more marvelous or malevolent than you ever dreamed; when you get proof that everything is connected to everything else, that everything you know is wrong, that you are both the center of the universe and a tiny speck sailing off its nethermost edge.” This is what happened to Job.

With Job still in dust and ashes, God turns to Job’s so-called friend, Eliphaz the Temenite, saying, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Job’s name has been cleared.

Job 42:10-17 challenges everything we’ve just talked about. It’s supposed to be a happy ending where Job gets everything back. The problem, though, is that this ending doesn’t work. Getting a new family to replace the old one? Anyone who has lost a family member — a child, a spouse, for example, knows perfectly well that a new spouse or child never replaces the one we have lost. We may love them deeply but the new family member does not erase the memory of what came before. What seems to be happening in this chapter is that these concluding verses were most likely tacked on to the original text at a later date. Subsequent editors, upset with an ending in which reward did not follow righteous behavior, decided to make it happen anyway. This is so much like what we all want to do in the face of the tragedy, loss, and grief of those around us — wrap it up and make it better. But is that the right thing to do? I much prefer to do what Job’s friends repeated failed to do throughout the book, to be present to Job in his time of grief, to listen to him, and to trust that what he said and experienced were true.


1 For this and subsequent references to Robert Alter’s work, see The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010).

2 Chabon, Michael, Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (New York, NY: Harper Collins, paperback edition, 2009), 81-82.


Commentary on Psalm 126

Matthew Stith

Psalm 126 is among the relatively small number of psalms for which historical context is both fairly certain and highly useful for interpretation.

The psalm’s opening line refers to a time “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” and verses 1-3 describe the people’s memory and experience of that time. Virtually all interpreters see here a reference to the return of Judahite exiles from Babylonia and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem during the latter half of the 6th century BCE, which is celebrated in the psalm as an occasion of joy so intense as to be dreamlike, and as an instance of God’s restorative power so impressive that even the surrounding nations took note of it.

This restoration of the people on a grand scale is the essential background of the psalm. All that the people have to say here is conditioned by their memory of this most stunning turn from a life of suffering and exile under the just punishment of God to a life of rejoicing in Zion under God’s favor. It is because the people remember that God has acted in this way in the past that they can pray, in verse 4, for a similar restoration in their own current situation. Translators differ on whether to construe verses 5-6 as a continuation of the people’s petition in verse 4 or as a statement anticipating the restoration for which they pray, but in either case, it is clear that the recollection of the dramatic events of the return from exile lend confidence to the people’s prayer.

The course to take in exposition of Psalm 126 will depend upon the interpreter’s assessment of the congregation’s particular situation:

  • If the congregation is undergoing significant difficulties, it may be helpful to rehearse the historical context of the psalm, and to emphasize that it is a confident prayer for help, founded on the evidence and memory of God’s restorative power in times of great crisis. Similar occasions of God’s intervention can be adduced, from Scripture and possibly from the life and history of the particular congregation, to encourage the people in prayer and in hope.
  • In less distressed congregational contexts, the interpreter might draw upon the psalm’s status as one of the “Songs of Ascent,” generally understood to be a collection of psalms sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem to observe major religious festivals in the Second Temple period. This context reminds the reader that prayers for God’s restoration are not only to be offered in times of crisis, but should be a part of the routine prayer life of God’s people, as the need for restoration and renewal is hardly limited to times of visible and flagrant suffering. Regular attention to this sort of prayer is important because even in the best of times, life needs regular doses of God’s renewing power, and because the best of times are, by definition, temporary.
  • It is also worth noting that the petition and following verses (4-6) do not seem to envision or even request the sort of world-shaking, nation-realigning intervention that brought about the joyful return of verses 1-3. Instead, the people’s anticipated experience of the restorative power of God is described as being like the flow of seasonal waterways in the arid Negev after the winter rains, or like the growth and harvesting of crops after the sowing of seed into a barren field — something that takes time, but can be confidently expected as a regular feature of life. Exploration of other such regular or even mundane instances of God’s renewal in the lives of the congregation and its members might yield additional grounds for both joy and thanksgiving in the present and confidence for the future.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 7:23-28

Amy L.B. Peeler

The author of Hebrews has a tendency to circle back around to content he has discussed before, but I find his manner neither repetitive nor laborious.

Not only would audiences listening to the text need to hear it several times to understand and remember it, but moreover he presents each repetition in a slightly different manner. The end of chapter 7 is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Here the author compares the priesthood of Jesus Christ with other priests just as he had done in 4:14-5:10, but in this instance the author focuses upon Christ’s superiority in the multiple dimensions of Christ’s perfection.

Priesthood 1.0

The author first asserts the Biblically unique idea of Jesus’ priesthood in Hebrews 2:17. In chapter 4-5, he shows how Christ resembles but also excels other priests. One key difference is the priestly order to which they belong. Jesus, through God’s calling, serves as a priest in the order of Melchizedek (5:10). The author has much to say about this topic (5:11), but in order to do so, he has to jolt his audience to attention with a severe exhortation and an equally powerful encouragement. He doubts they are ready to process such high level teaching (5:1-12); they might even be in danger of regressing to the point of falling away (6:4-8). Importantly, however, they have not crossed this line and so they must hold on to the hope they have in Christ.

At the beginning of Hebrews 7, then, the author can take up his teaching on Melchizedek. Ingenious and therefore its nuances highly debated, most scholars nevertheless would agree that the author of Hebrews utilizes the Old Testament stories about Melchizedek to show that there has existed an alternative and superior priestly order at least since the time of Abraham and more likely, since time eternal. If that is the case, then he can, without fear, articulate the failings of the Levitical priesthood, namely its inability to bring perfection and subsequent proximity to God (7:18-19).

Priesthood 2.0

The latter section of Hebrews 7 names those failings. First, the Levitical system has many priests involved. His point here seems not to be the many priests who serve throughout the temple, but the succession of High Priests. His point could be an example of the ancient preference for the “one” over the “many” or it could be more focused upon the reason for the succession of priests, namely that they all die. Jesus, in contrast, remains forever. Because God said so in his oath (“you are priest forever”) and because Jesus has defeated death (2:14; 5:7-9), he will never succumb to mortality. Consequently, his priesthood will be an unchanging one. Two issues are intimately related here: Jesus’ is a priesthood of life and therefore it is a consistent and trustworthy priesthood. If a contemporary Jewish audience would bemoan the flux in the history of the Jewish priesthood, an irreplaceable, trustworthy, and benevolent priest would be a welcome and powerful repose.

Salvation Then

Hebrews 7:25 moves the idea of his priesthood into the realm of application. Jesus’ living and eternal priesthood offers salvation. For the author salvation indicates rescue from death (5:7) — which Jesus has already experienced — but which is still future for the audience (1:14; 9:28). In case the audience did not fully understand, the author reiterates that this salvation from death is eternal. Not a prolonged life or a resuscitation, but life forever. Where else would life eternal reside than in the presence of God? What the Levitical priesthood could not achieve, that is access to the true presence of God in heaven, Jesus’ priesthood allows.

One reason that Jesus the High Priest can offer this eternal salvation is that he can focus his priestly work on intercession because he has already taken care of the problem of sin. Other priests are daily occupied with sin removal (Hebrews 7:27). Moreover, they can’t even devote their attention solely to the people they serve for they must also be concerned with the removal of their own sin. Jesus has taken care of all that. He has made one fully efficient sacrifice for sin and it never has to be repeated (see also 10:18). That offering was himself (a topic to which the author will return in 9:11-14 and 10:5-15).

Salvation Now

Salvation entails even more, though. Participating in the hope of salvation in the future indicates that they participate in it in the present in some way (Hebrews 6:9). Along the path to God’s presence, Jesus, the eternally abiding priest, intercedes for his people. There will never be a period of newness or transition with this priest. The one who knows them intimately (2:14) and sympathizes with them (4:14) will always be there vibrantly alive to aid them on their journey to the place where he now resides, in the very presence of God.

What a privileged place they hold! The author says that it was fitting for them to have such a High Priest who has been exalted even above the heavens. Why are they so important as to warrant an undefiled priest? It is because they are part of the group that is looking forward to inheriting salvation (Hebrews 1:14). If God determined to save forever his people, God provided such a priest to make this salvation available.

In the last verse of Hebrews 7 the author includes another tight comparison between Jesus and the other priests. The law appointed them, a law that had to do with genealogical descent (7:14). The law does not stand apart from God, but it certainly is not as direct as God’s oath concerning the priesthood spoken to Christ directly. Moreover, this oath has chronological superiority. It came after the law, which for our author indicates that God brought one system to an end and, though long planned, instituted a new one. Finally, the primary difference is what was instituted: men who were weak verses a Son who, though beset with the same weakness, moved through it to the point of perfection.

The author has prepared the ground for his next application. This priest will bring to fruition the long awaited hope for a New Covenant. From his vantage point as One living in the presence of the living God, he can affect a heart change that will allow humans to draw near to God as well. That is a priesthood worth discussing, over and over and over again.