Lectionary Commentaries for October 18, 2015
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Mark 10:35-45
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman
Commentary on Isaiah 53:4-12
Whereas discussion of Israel’s role as God’s servant is one of several key themes in Isaiah 40-48, a new pattern emerges with chapter 49.
There Servant Israel himself is represented as speaking for the first time, reflecting on God’s call and his own internal struggles, and accepting God’s commission (compare, for instance, Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6). (For this passage’s context in the sixth century BCE and in Isaiah 40-55’s discussions of God’s servant, see my commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a on September 13, 2015.)
From that point on, attention alternates in Isaiah 49-54 between the servant, who in the context of chapters 40-48 continues to represent Israel, or at least the Israel the prophet believes the nation is called to become, and the city of Jerusalem, personified as Daughter Zion, who has suffered terrible devastation and is reassured by God of her coming transformation. With this alternating attention the prophet carefully weaves Jerusalem’s imagined redemption, and a role in Jerusalem for returning exiles. Although Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is the book’s final major “servant” passage, the next chapter concludes with mention, for the first time, of the “servants of the LORD” within Zion (v. 17). These plural servants, the actual faithful, reappear frequently in chapters 56-66.
Unlike the previous two servant passages, but like Isaiah 42 and 50:10-11, this passage doesn’t quote Servant Israel’s own speech, but rather discusses him in third person, describing in rather oblique terms certain aspects of his suffering and its evaluation by humans and God. The speaker represents a plural group, a “we” who are reassessing the servant, passing from disdain to admiration and awe. As before, the servant’s call is to wide justice, even reaching foreign nations (see Isaiah 42:1, 4; 49:6-7; 52:15). The plural witnesses beginning in 53:1 seem most clearly to represent the startled nations themselves.
Isaiah 53:4-12 presents careful exegetes a number of difficulties:
- Although 52:13-53:12 is a unit (cf. the annual Good Friday reading), for some reason the lectionary here begins with 53:4, commencing midway through the “we” speech.
- The passage is riddled with textual difficulties, translational dilemmas, and interpretive ambiguities, conferring on the poem both mystique and confusion.
- The passage’s clearest theme, theological exploration of the problem of vicarious suffering and God’s role in inflicting such suffering, is itself beset with moral and religious problems.
- Sadly, the passage’s history of interpretation exemplifies, or rather trumpets, the painful story of Christian persecution of Jews, especially in the middle ages, a history that betrays the passage’s own noble themes. Though it does not commend triumph against others, but faithfulness on others’ behalf, it has been wielded since the second century as a weapon of interfaith strife, “proof” that Jews who read Isaiah 53 non-Christologically are deaf to their own prophets.
- Although this passage was not composed for Christians any more than preachers today would occupy ourselves with the year 2600, the lectionary places it only in the context of Jesus’ crucifixion, reinforcing traditional Christian reading of Isaiah as herald of Christ. Even in ordinary time it is juxtaposed with Mark’s allusive declaration, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; cf. Isaiah 53:11).
Let’s parse these difficulties:
- The lectionary choice is indeed problematic. As the repetition of three thematic words in both verses 3 and 4 shows (mah’ov, “suffering”/“diseases”; holi, “infirmity”; hashav, “accounted, reckoned”), commencing with verse 4 breaks into the middle of the contrast between what the speakers had thought and what they have come to think. Preachers may choose either to read the whole passage or to offer a synopsis of what precedes.
- The seventeen textual notes appearing in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) for these nine verses only scratch the surface of translational dilemmas. Accomplished exegetes disagree on key points, such as whether the servant is portrayed as having died. Some of the passage’s mystique may be intentional, but the rest is simply too inscrutable for anyone to justify making dogma from Isaiah 53’s details. Yet we can perceive the broad outline.
- The problem of unjust suffering recurs in Scripture from the story of Abel onward. Its underlying theology is parsable, but not lightly resolved. On the one hand, the claim found in Exodus 20:5 (cf. 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9; passim) that God punishes children and grandchildren for their forebears’ sins meets justifiable outrage. But, on the other hand, the solution proposed by Jeremiah and Ezekiel that “it is only the person who sins that shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4; cf. Jeremiah 31:30) stands counter to lived experience, both ancient and modern.
The speakers’ initial assessment, dismissing the servant’s pain, shares assumptions promoted in 1-2 Kings and Proverbs that people suffer justly for their own sins. There’s truth there, of course. But other biblical literature, notably lament psalms and Job, drives a realistic wedge between guilt and suffering.
The speakers’ reassessment in Isaiah 53:7 takes the discussion several steps farther. It confers purpose and grace on the servant’s righteous suffering by drawing analogies to the sacrificial lamb, which in the temple system of atonement suffered punishment that rightly belonged to its human presenter. But unlike the unfortunate lamb, the servant voluntarily bears others’ sins, choosing not justice but costly compassion.
- While finding meaning and dignity in bearing others’ sins shows remarkable grace, Christian history has been badly marred by those inflicting suffering on others. We can hope the bad old days of inquisitions, antisemitic passion plays, and forced conversions are gone for good. Yet even — and sometimes especially — Christians have not yet finished afflicting people who look, live, or believe differently from ourselves. As sinners, we will inevitably both suffer and inflict suffering. But those who choose to bear others’ loads without judgment will be called peacemakers and children of God.
- It is virtually impossible for Christians to read the servant without seeing Jesus. Preachers can, however, choose how we associate Isaiah 53 with him. New Testament allusions to this passage abound, demonstrating its importance for first-century writers seeking to interpret Christ. The book of Romans is arguably a tour de force inspired by this passage and others, and much of the imagery of the Gospel passion narratives springs from Isaiah 53 alongside Psalm 22.
But the most direct allusions are found in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who reads this passage with Philip (Acts 8:27-39) and the exhortation to slaves in 1 Peter 2:18-25 to follow Jesus’ example. Both passages begin from the springboard of unjust existential suffering, whether of unnamed slaves or of a maimed and marred African official. Both passages seek to confer dignity on painful experience. In the last instance, Isaiah 53 is not about Jesus or Moses or even Israel: it’s about us, about how we too bear the sins of many and intercede for transgressors (v. 12). In an age of “me” and “my rights” this is not a popular idea, but in the calculus of inevitable human misdeeds it’s a necessary one. Not for preaching to others first, but for living ourselves.
If the prophet was setting forth a model of faithful Israelite service, then any Jew who sought to emulate that pattern would resemble this servant. Jesus is a Jew whose life and death model such integrity, and who for us gentiles offers a doorway into biblical faith. If we can seek to emulate the servant’s faithfulness, and that of Jesus himself, in choosing to bear others’ sins, we will be reading Isaiah 53 for all it is worth.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41]
Finally and dramatically, God responds to Job from a whirlwind.
This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Will Job get to lay out his case before God? Will God tell Job why all of these terrible things have happened? Will God restore Job’s reputation, vindicating him of any wrongdoing?
Not exactly. The God whom Job meets for this, the very first time is somewhat disappointing. This God doesn’t seem interested in Job’s situation or in providing answers to any of Job’s questions. Instead, this is a God who has questions for Job — nearly four chapters worth of them — and no apparent answers. “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me,” says this God.
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements — surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
and say to you, “Here we are”?
What is immediately striking about the divine speeches (which don’t conclude until the end of chapter 41) is that they are full of powerful images that are focused almost entirely on workings of the universe itself, on things which humans know little about and over which they have no control. When you put these chapters alongside the first creation story in Genesis 1 there is a significant overlap — God is the one calling creation into being and setting it in motion before humans even existed. This is a God who just has to say the word and the forces of nature obey.
How do these chapters, though, with question upon question, serve as an answer to Job? They are clearly not a response to Job on Job’s terms or to his particular concerns. In fact, God’s many questions seem to be a pretty straightforward way of showing, according to biblical scholar Carol Newsom in The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations, that “God is God, and Job is not.” But is this the only point that the biblical writer is making about the relationship between God and humanity in this book? Are God’s questions intended to batter Job further, showing him how insignificant he truly is in the scheme of things and that his concerns are irrelevant?
Scholars have long tried to ascertain whether or not God’s speeches in these chapters are as straightforward as they might first appear. Maybe not, Newsom and others suggest. There is likely far more to these divine speeches than meets the eye. If reading from the perspective of the of wisdom literature and traditions in the Bible (and the Ancient Near East more broadly), for example, then God’s response to Job highlights the notion that God is not an automaton, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Understanding divine/human relationship in this way was fairly in the ancient Israelite context, one which we see especially in the Deuteronomic writings. In the Book of Job, both Job and his friends hold this view, although they disagree about how it is functioning for Job. For Job, this system has worked for him — he’s been good and received reward — up until now. Now he wants to know why the system seems to have broken down and why God isn’t doing God’s job. On the other hand, Job’s friends argue that God hasn’t failed but that Job has erred.
What we see in the Book of Job and particularly in the divine speeches in this section is that this (Deuteronomic) understanding is false and that while personal piety and virtuous behavior may be worthwhile in and of themselves, they may not necessarily lead to personal gain or material success. This can certainly be disconcerting to readers — we want the good guy to win (and benefit) in the end. It can also be a relief, though, in that it is a very clear statement that victims — of tragedy, illness, violence, and poverty, among other things — are not necessarily to blame for their misfortunes. Sometimes bad things happen and there is no good reason.
Another lens that might be helpful in understanding the divine speeches is that of creation (which the imagery so strongly implies). Job’s catastrophe leads him to believe that maybe the world is, at its foundation, random and chaotic. Maybe no one really has the reigns and or is at the wheel after all. What is interesting about God’s response to Job is that through the many questions, God points to the deep order and structure in the universe. There is meaning. There is some underlying structure. There is some order.
In a universe created by God and in which humans live, the challenge is how to hold these two aspects together — 1) the world is orderly and 2) tragedy doesn’t always have a reason. In some ways, these two aspects show very different realities that exist simultaneously. The realities of Job and God collide in this section, and they are both true. The fact that God responds with questions, though different than Job’s, also suggests that the dialogue between them is ongoing, open and unfinished. This might be the best news of all. Job is not God but they are somehow connected to each other.
Commentary on Psalm 91:9-16
It is not surprising that Psalm 91 is often read, frequently set to music, and much-loved.
It offers the reader a straightforward and thorough expression of trust in the providence and protection of God, even and especially under trying or dangerous conditions, and does so using as rich and powerful a set of images as are found anywhere in the Bible. Most readers will have little difficulty apprehending and appreciating the gist of the text. Accordingly, the task of the interpreter of this psalm is not so much one of explanation as it is one of appreciation and application. Exposition should seek to lead the congregation to a deeper understanding of the evident good news offered in the text, and to help them steer clear of pitfalls that may, ironically, trap the reader even as the text celebrates the Lord’s protection against such snares.
In aid of the first part of the task, the interpreter might note the following:
- The reading as set forth in the Revised Common Lectionary includes the essential thrust of the opening movement of the psalm, with verses 9-10 serving as something of a summary of verses 1-8: Those who take refuge in the Lord are protected from evil. However, the omission of these opening verses robs the reader and the preacher of a wealth of imagery that far better illustrates the breadth, power, and above all, the tenderness of this protective care. For example, the image of the faithful being sheltered under God’s wings (verse 4) displays the warm, parental side of God’s defense of the people, and also offers a wide range of connections to other texts, including Ruth 2:12, Psalm 57:1, and Matthew 23:37/Luke 13:34, that employ the same image.
- Verses 14-16 move beyond the description of God’s care by the psalmist and report God’s own words, which validate the psalmist’s claims. It may be worthwhile to emphasize here that God promises deliverance, protection, answering, presence, honor, and salvation without any mention of prerequisites or merit, only specifying that those who know, love, and call upon God will receive these blessings.
The second part of the interpreter’s task, that of application, may, in the case of this psalm, partake more of warning against misapprehension than anything else. To wit:
- The psalm’s buoyant celebration of God’s protection certainly intends to instill confidence in the hearers. However, it is crucial that this confidence not be misplaced. As illustrated by the use of verses 11 and 12 by Satan in the story of Jesus’s temptation (Matthew 4:5-7, Luke 4:10-11), it is a very small step from confidence that God’s protection is extended under all conditions to confidence that God’s protection can be forced to operate at our beck and call. Jesus’s response in the gospels offers a sound principle for drawing the line: trust in God is not a license to test God. Put another way, our confidence in God’s protection does not give us license to assume God’s endorsement and support of our willfulness or reckless behavior.
- Related to this misplaced confidence, and perhaps even more dangerous in the long run, is a reading of the psalm that concludes that God’s protection will prevent any and all discomfort or misfortune from affecting God’s own, and that therefore the experience of misery and trouble in life must indicate that the sufferer is not, in fact, among God’s people. Against such misunderstanding the interpreter might note the overwhelming testimony of the Psalter as a whole, in which God’s people over and over again call out to God while suffering, and also might note that God’s validating speech in verses 14-16 specifically describes God’s actions for his people when they are calling out, “in trouble,” and in need of rescue. Such would hardly be the case if God’s people are never to be in those situations! The promise of the psalm is not that we will never suffer, but that trouble and trial will not conquer, and will not make an end of us.
- Less pernicious, but still to be guarded against, is possible overemphasis on the angels mentioned in verse 11. This passage, among others, has sometimes been cited in the development of elaborate hypothetical systems whereby individual angels are assigned guardianship of individual believers. In the current text, there is simply no such implication to be drawn. The angels mentioned here (always in the plural) are simply the heavenly host, the unseen agents of God’s power, through whom the text envisions God exercising the defense of God’s people. The chief value of the image is to demonstrate that however numerous the threats and challenges around us might be, our protection is not outnumbered or overmatched.
- Finally, the promise of verse 16, “with long life I will satisfy them,” must be handled carefully. We know, all too well, that God’s people do not always enjoy a long life as we reckon such things. In particular, those who are bereaved, and especially those who have seen a loved one die young, may find this claim difficult to credit. The interpreter should emphasize the parallel promise to “show them my salvation,” and remind the congregation that for God’s people, the span of days spent on earth is only a sliver of the life that is guaranteed by God’s saving providence.
Commentary on Hebrews 5:1-10
Amy L.B. Peeler
Hebrews 5:1 seems like one of those places where the chapter division might not be quite right.
The first four verses describe high priests in Israel’s sacrificial system, but the discussion of priesthood really began in 4:14 when the author arrived at the topic (first mentioned in 2:17) that would become his focus and his signature contribution to Christian thought. Having begun by asserting Jesus’ role as High Priest, in order to comfort the readers after a prolonged and intense warning (3:7-4:13), he now reminds his audience of important features of High Priests in general and Jesus in particular.
Other High Priests
Priests are, first, human. This statement may seem to be a painfully obvious point, but in light of his argument in chapter 2 that Jesus himself was fully human, it is an assertion worth making. Second, they serve a mediatorial role representing humans to God by offering gifts and sacrifices for sin. In both Jewish and Greco-Roman religious understandings of the time, correct relationship with the Deity was achieved through sacrifice. This is the priests’ unique function — to mend the relationship with God.
A good high priest not only maintains the vertical relationship but also acts graciously in his horizontal relationships. Hence, third, he can control his anger against his fellow humans who are ignorant or deceived because he, too, struggles with weakness. It is quite likely the author employs a subtle comparison here. Jesus suffers with (sumpatheo) his fellow humans (Hebrews 4:15). Other high priests are only able to regulate their anger against those they might consider as below them, as those not privy to the secret divine mysteries they are. Maybe, in fact, the restraint of anger rather than true sympathy is a feature of their weakness.
Finally, the author articulates an important distinction between these High Priests and Jesus. Jesus’ one difference from his fellow humans was that, while he suffered with all variety of temptations and trials, he did not succumb to sin (Hebrews 4:15). Not so with the other High Priests. These humans, like all others, are guilty of sins. Therefore, before they can offer sacrifices on behalf of others, they must perform a sacrifice for themselves, as the instructions for the Day of Atonement in the Levitical code demand (Leviticus 16:6 and 7).
If Hebrews 5:1 is a statement of fact and vss. 2-3 veer toward the negative, v. 4 is a more positive aspect of other High Priests. God called them to this role; they didn’t decide to take it up for themselves. The author appeals to the call of Aaron, Moses’ helpful brother (Exodus 28:1). Recalling this ancient process surely would serve to denigrate priests of more recent eras who through political intrigue, bribery, and war had secured the role for themselves.
Jesus the High Priest
Hebrews 5:5 begins the author’s discussion of Jesus’ priesthood. In a chiastic fashion, the author begins with his final point about other High Priests. Jesus too was called by God and did not seek to glorify himself by deciding to become a High Priest. The author’s proof for this assertion comes from Psalm 110, widely used by early Christian writers. He is the only author, however, to appeal to vs. 4 where God says to the heir of David that he is a priest. Interestingly, he appeals to God’s speech that Jesus would be his Son first (Psalm 2:7, quoted earlier in Hebrews 1:5). Jesus’ unique relationship to God as firstborn Son may very well be the fundamental factor that makes his priesthood different from all others.
The next paragraph could be read as a chart of comparisons between Jesus and the other High Priests (see chart below). As they are human (Hebrews 5:1) so too did Jesus share in flesh (5:7). Whereas they offered gifts and sacrifices (5:1), here the author focuses upon Jesus offering to God prayers and supplications (5:7). In so doing, he knows something important about God, namely that he is One who can save out of death. The author has represented the priests as a bit stoic, able to restrain their passion, but he depicts Jesus as very passionate, praying to God with great cries and tears. A modern audience might assume this indicates desperation and weakness, but to a Jewish audience, this would be seen as a sign of strength, namely the ability to pray honestly and passionately. At the first part of chapter 5, the author has said nothing about the effectiveness of the priests’ offerings, but he does say that Jesus’ offering of prayer was effective. God heard Jesus because of his reverence. He was not, as this audience is well aware, delivered before his death, but after it. He experienced what he knew was true about God’s ability to rescue out of death.
Finally, in contrast to the weak priests who succumb to sin, when Jesus suffered, he was obedient to God and through his obedience he became perfect. Most scholars believe that this odd assertion about Jesus (as God, wasn’t he already perfect?!) indicates that Jesus became fully prepared for his vocation, primarily as priest. He had to suffer death and then offer himself to God (as later chapters of the letter will draw out) to fulfill his priestly role of making an offering to God. Whereas the other priests offer sacrifices to God on behalf of others on a regular basis, Jesus’ priestly ministry not only maintains a relationship but achieves a new result. Those who follow this High Priest find eternal salvation, a different kind of relationship with God that will last forever.
The closing note indicates the author has more to say about this priesthood, for Jesus stands in the line of the enigmatic Old Testament figure Melchizedek, a subject to which he will return after another admonition and encouragement (Hebrews 5:11–6:20), but for his present point, the author has began his discussion of his insight that Jesus is a High Priest, but he is superior to any that have come before him.
Priestly Vocation: Represent humans to God
Priestly Vocation: Cause of eternal salvation
Offer gifts and sacrifices for sins
Offers prayers and supplications
Emotive state: Control anger
Emotive state: Great cries and tears
Beset with weakness
He was heard because of reverence
Offers for people
People follow him
Offers for self
Didn’t take honor for himself
Appointed by God
Called by God
Called by God
The lectionary has been running consecutively through Mark 9 and 10 the past four weeks, but it skips 10:32-34 just before today’s lesson.
I suspect these verses are omitted because they repeat what Jesus had already said in previous week’s lectionary readings of 8:31 and 9:31 where Jesus predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection. From a simple story perspective, only one of these three predictions is necessary to confirm Jesus’ awareness of what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. From a narrative perspective, however, the threefold pronouncements are a way of asserting its reliability and inevitability, and each one individually is important in providing a stark contrast to what precedes or follows it.
The first instance in 8:31 is sandwiched between Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah and Peter’s rebuke of Jesus for announcing his death. The second in 9:31 is immediately followed by the disciples’ argument about who was the greatest. We are prepared, therefore to expect some contrasting misunderstanding following Jesus’ statement in 10:33f.
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.
This time, it is James and John who follow Jesus’ pronouncement with a request that shows how little they have learned. Instead of acknowledging Jesus’ anticipation of suffering and death, they imagine a triumphant, regal scene with themselves sitting in positions of honor and power at King Jesus’ right and left. It is not a matter of leaping to an expectation of the glory of the post-resurrection Jesus. (According to Mark 9:10, they do not understand what a “rising from the dead” means.) They simply have not heard Jesus at all — or refused to hear the dire news — even though he has repeated the prediction three times.
Jesus replies, doubtless with considerable exasperation, that they don’t have a clue what they are asking for. Can they drink the same “cup” of suffering and death he must drink, a cup that he himself will later ask be removed if possible? (14:36) Can they be baptized with the same baptism Jesus is to endure? (Beyond a metaphorical symbol for suffering, Jesus’ reference to a “baptism” is unclear. Perhaps Mark’s audience would understand it in the same way that Paul talks about being baptized into Christ Jesus’ death in Romans 6:3f.) Still clueless, James and John affirm that they can, but, surprisingly, Jesus says that they will. (By the time that Mark is written, James will have been killed by Herod Agrippa I in 44 C.E. for his role as a leader in the Jerusalem church. The fate of John is uncertain, though traditionally it was reported that he lived into old age in Ephesus.) Nonetheless, positions of honor are not Jesus’ to give. James and John may have been thinking of something along the lines of being with Jesus in glory like Moses and Elijah were at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8), but in Mark, the only ones to be at Jesus’ left and right will be the bandits crucified with him when he is “enthroned” as “The King of the Jews.” (15:27)
Predictably, and rehashing the disciples’ dispute about greatness in 9:33-37, when the others hear what James and John did, they get angry. Jesus has to call them together and tries to describe how the dominion of God is different than the dominions of the world. He refers to those who are regarded as rulers in the pagan world of the Roman Empire. (The text specifically adds the “regarded as” modifier.) They “lord it over” their subjects, and the verb here uses the same root as is used to refer to the real “Lord.” Their great ones exercise authority as tyrants, an authority that stands in contrast to the edifying and restorative authority displayed by Jesus. (1:22, 27; 2:10)
Once again, Jesus tries to redefine what it means to be first and great. In 9:35 and 10:31 Jesus had said that to be first required being last and servant of all. In 9:36-37 and 10:13-16 he had demonstrated what this looks like in God’s dominion as he welcomed children. Here in 10:43-44 he repeats the concept. To be great is to be a servant (diakonos). That certainly challenges normal expectations, but even in antiquity, there was appreciation for rulers who provided public service. Jesus pushes matters to an extreme, however, when he goes on to say that to be first is to be a slave (doulos) of all. Slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder, and there was no honor or reward in working for others as a slave.
This concept is not simply a theoretical proposition, nor is it given as a command only to Jesus’ disciples. In 10:45 Jesus indicates what it means for himself. Like his disciples, he did not come to be served but to serve. But Jesus is more than an exemplary servant. He also came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” This phrase is important for thinking about how Jesus understood his ministry. It has often been read in comparison with the “servant” in Isaiah 53 and used to think of Jesus’ death in terms of a substitutionary atonement or as a guilt offering for the sins of the world. Perhaps, but there is nothing here about appeasing God or providing a sacrifice. Rather, it’s better to think of Jesus as one who takes the form of a slave himself and was obedient to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2.6-8!) thereby providing the ransom that frees us who were slaves of this world and captive to death.
Bob Dylan was right. “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” When Jesus gives his life as a ransom, he frees us not to become great as the world understands greatness, but to serve others as slaves of Christ. And that really is great for us!