Lectionary Commentaries for October 11, 2015
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Mark 10:17-31
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman
Commentary on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Integrating life and liturgy has been a practice for Christian churches.
There are few that aim to do it, and even fewer are able to achieve it. A divide separates those who think of the Christian life as a way of being versus those who find virtue in the way of doing. These tensions appear with those who see ministry as prophetic versus those who think of it as a priestly function. The book of Amos tends to be mined for ammunition for these battles or, hopefully, dialogues. While the book expresses an open animosity towards the cult center at Bethel, several questions remain to be answered as to whether the sentiments here reflect Amos’ position, that of a broader prophetic disposition, or even a view that comes from a later time. Regardless of the resolution of these questions, the book in its current form employs the language of cult practice for the purposes of justice.
The book of Amos presents the modern reader with several ironic challenges. Chapter 5 takes the form of a funeral dirge yet contains within it calls for reformation. If the destruction is inevitable (v. 2), why then ask for a change of behavior? This burial song also pivots to a creation hymn (vv. 8-9) providing a stark contrast between beginning and ending. Has the end come for those to whom this word was directed or is it a chance for a new start? The answers to these and other questions are not readily apparent in the pericope selected for this lection. Reading the entire chapter neither offers more illumination on these issues. Preachers will need to decide whether they expect that they are reading the words of the historical prophet, or whether they are privy to later additions to the original prophetic words directed to another historical context. Failure to engage these challenges presented by this passage can result in the misapplication of these words not only to an unsuitable context in the past but also to the present.
The lection opens with the immediate challenge to “seek the LORD.” The Hebrew word, darash, translated here as “seek,” evokes not simply a search for information about something but rather details about its nature. In the prophetic literature, “seek the LORD” occurs as an expression that points to the LORD as the subject of enquiry. This theological formulation appears quite often in contexts where knowledge of the divine will becomes necessary. Therefore, the popularity of the term among the prophets who were skilled in accessing the divine makes sense. The book of Amos uses it at least four times in this chapter. As a term that occurs in the context of crises (see 2 Kings 8:7-15, Jeremiah 21:1-10), the action of seeking the LORD points to the prophets’ role in mediating an understanding of God’s will in the midst of crisis. Presumably, prophets undertake this role with a view to arriving at a salutary outcome regarding the presenting crisis. The word darash finds greater use in cultic and theological language. Not exclusively the function of the prophet, the action of seeking in a theological sense revolves around various forms of liturgical and cult activities performed in keeping with the divine will. Communal practices of worship around laments (Isaiah 58:2, Psalm 78:34), confession of guilt (Zechariah 7:3), and regular worship events (Isaiah 65:1, Jeremiah 8:2) describe these practices as “seeking.”
The prevalence of this single word in Amos 5 indicates a familiarity with the language of the Bethel cult. The chapter, though, sets up an immediate polemic against the Bethel cult in the call not to seek Bethel (v. 5). This word places a prohibition upon Bethel as a site where any legitimate theological, liturgical, and devotional activity can take place. Rather than Bethel, Amos calls for the LORD as the suitable object of theological desire. This polemic of place against deity or what some would see as institutional versus organic religion may be present within the text but distracts from broader insights that can be found in this passage. The insufficiency of Bethel as a cult site is clear in the book of Amos (4:4; 5:21-23). What is not clear is whether this view holds for every cultic site then and now. Bethel’s insufficiency leads to the call to express theological desire “through a reformation of behavior towards others.”1 The pressing demands of communal justice cannot wait upon liturgical reformation. And at the same time communal justice does not become an issue simply because of liturgy failure. The book directs its audience to seek the LORD as the basis for communal justice. This redirection does not suggest that the cult is no longer necessary or that communal justice is at a higher premium than any other action of devotion. In the context of a chapter that indicts the cult for its failure to lead to socially acceptable behavior, readers should hear the divine pain over the failure of worship to support the production of this vision of community.
The passage provides evidence of the failures of communal justice (Amos 5:10-12). Rather than a list of things that need to be done, these verses point to what has not been done. Reading them this way will avoid the idea that the book proposes a check list for the amelioration of the community’s distress or even its fate. The resonances of several of these issues — income inequality, judicial malpractice, mistreatment and neglect of the poor, opulent lifestyles — with contemporary concerns make it all too tempting to simply apply this description as the recipe for contemporary communal justice. This easy application falls into step with the admission that not much has changed from the time of this ancient text. Taking this path may only prove temporarily satisfactory as the demands of preaching require the preacher to dig deeper into contemporary forms of communal fracture. Preachers will need to spend time examining the distances between the different forms of desire for God. How does/does not worship prepare and enliven participants to be more engaged in achieving the divine vision of community? Where are the places of communal fracture and injustice that can be healed by “seeking good and not evil” (v. 14)?
Using the language of the cult, the passage asks its audience to employ liturgical action in pursuit of justice. “Seek good” (v. 14) takes up the fervor and needs expressed in attending to the devotion of a cult place and desire for God and places them at the disposal of changed behavior as the means for communal transformation. This action of seeking good does not replace other liturgical actions and devotions. Rather it calls upon the audience to live out the devotion of the cult in the active promotion of the choice made when presented with an option between good and evil. The text implies that the audience has already made the choice for good and now presses home the demand to actively pursue good with the level of fidelity and devotion of liturgical practice. The passage offers no details on how this can be done except the broad challenge to “establish justice in the gate” (v. 15). This general statement may apply to those members of the leadership council who dispensed justice at the city gate. Even more, this challenge presents everyone who lives in the city to make justice the character of their city, a character clearly marked at the entrance to the city. The passage holds out a vision of a city transformed by justice because its residents have learned how to make their devotion to its holy place serve the demands of communal justice. This is an appealing vision, no doubt, but one that comes without the enabling mechanisms that many persons would desire. Amos offers no silver bullet or even any single prescription that can help churches to heal the chasm between worship and mission. Such a gap saves the preacher for advocating for a single policy and instead frees the preacher to follow the path of the prophet. The prophet calls the people back to devotion to the LORD and to the fervent expression of that devotion in multiple forms of worship and mission.
1 John Barton, The Theology of the Book of Amos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 93.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Most of the Book of Job is fly-over territory.
While there are 42 chapters in all, it’s usually the first two chapters and sometimes part of the last on that seem to catch our interest. Fortunately (or unfortunately), we aren’t alone in this tendency. Biblical readers throughout history have focused on this envelope or outer layer of Job, leaving the vast middle of the book untouched. This isn’t accidental or due to laziness; instead it has a lot to do with the fact that these intervening chapters are almost exclusively poetry rather than prose and they consist of long and often complex speeches given by either Job or his friends. In other words, they don’t make for easy reading and they are hard to break up into smaller units that make sense. The structure of the book poses a challenge to scholars as well in that they aren’t quite sure how this long poetic middle section is connected to its short narrative bookends. Are the two forms by the same author, they wonder, and if not, which part came first?
While poetry is as ancient as humanity itself, it is somehow intimidating to many of us. In college, I tried to get out of taking a required poetry course in my major, telling my advisor that reading poems wasn’t really my thing. Novels and stories, on the other hand, that’s where the action was! No luck — I ended up taking the class. I can’t say that I began to love poetry, but I did learn how to appreciate it or at least not to fear it. At the time I didn’t know that I would become an Old Testament scholar and, as it turns out, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled poetry. The Psalms, perhaps most notably, but also the prophets and wisdom literature like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. There are also hymns and songs scattered throughout narrative texts as well — victory songs, prayers, hymns of praise, blessings, etc. And we are missing out when we take detours to get around them. Sometimes it is in these very texts, these poetic, fly-over portions, that some of the most profound insights in the Bible appear.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander, in a conversation with Krista Tippett on the NPR program “On Being,” suggested that reading and writing poetry are ways to get at hard and true things that other forms of language and literature can’t quite do, especially in ways that allows both poet and reader to formulate and ask questions. Perhaps this is the reason that poetry is the primary vehicle of communication in the Book of Job, which is essentially about tackling ultimate questions, from all kinds of angles and perspectives.
As chapter 23 begins, we discover that Job is still destitute. “Today also my complaint is bitter; His [God’s] hand is heavy despite my groaning,” he says in vs. 2. It’s been 20 chapters and nothing has changed in his situation. A few verses later he says,
If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
By the end of the chapter, with no relief in sight, Job adds that
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!
Job has looked everywhere and has found no one to comfort him or relieve his despair. In fact, God has not responded in any way to Job’s demand for answers. But Job is still at it, asking and searching; maybe because if he stops, then he’ll have nothing left to live for.
When I’ve thought about the character of Job, sometimes I find myself wondering why Job doesn’t give up or just “curse God and die” as his wife earlier suggested. What is it that makes him persist in his quest for a divine response? Alexander provides some insight into this as well when she describes “the act of asking real questions in poems as a kind of spiritual practice.” Job seems to be engaging in precisely this kind of practice as he continues to talk to God in the shape of poems as a way of maintaining a connection, even when he doesn’t feel one. Statements and declarations are fundamentally one-sided in a way that questions are not. Questions always leave open the possibility for a dialogue.
There is also something important about the questions themselves that emerge in Job’s poetic reflections. Alexander continues her discussion, noting,
I ask questions relatively often in poems and I ask them because I don’t know the answer. And I ask them because I think that poems are fantastic spaces with which to arrive at real conundrum-y kinds of questions, to go as far down the road as you can of understanding something and then sometimes that road ends with a real question.
So what does Job want from God, what are the questions that he works to articulate? He wants to know what all of us want to know at certain points in our lives: Where is God in all of this?
O that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
For Job, though, finding God would just be the beginning. He wants to bring his case against God to court and he wants a divine answer (Job 23:4-5). What is the case that Job wants to unfold before his creator? He wants a reasoned answer to his question: Why has all of this happened to me? Or more precisely, why have YOU done this to me? After all, I played by the rules, I did the right things, I have been a good person. You, God, have not played fair. What’s going on up there? I need to know!!
What an incredible model tucked deeply into our sacred text! Job shows us that saying hard and true things and asking real questions is part of being in relationship to God. They are not simply tolerated; they keep the lines of communication open when every other avenue is closed off.
Commentary on Psalm 90:12-17
If, on occasion, the Revised Common Lectionary may be said to do the interpreter no favors in its delineation of the boundaries of a text, the reading before us from Psalm 90 surely presents such an occasion.
Reading only from verse 12 onward, it is difficult to avoid the impression of a congregation seeking to wheedle as many good things as they can think of out of God, in an almost childlike, “praying for candy” tone. Were it not for the anomalous “So” that begins verse 12 and the hints of some darker reality lurking in the background found in the “Turn, O Lord! How long?” of verse 13 and the “as many days as you have afflicted us” of verse 15, the interpreter might be led to think this a fairly uninteresting piece.
The conjunctive force of that “So” turns the reader’s attention to the preceding verses of the psalm by framing the petitions of the selected reading as the result of what has gone before. When the entire psalm is considered, the hints of darkness acquire substance, and the petitions may be seen and understood more fully in context. Thus, the interpreter should, at minimum, attend to the whole psalm, if it is not possible to have the entirety read in worship.
Taken as a whole, Psalm 90 presents a sequence of three observations or contentions, followed by a set of petitions deriving from them. The three observations, in brief, are as follows:
- God is eternal, and God’s reign extends beyond even the lifespan of the creation itself. God’s role as the “dwelling place” of God’s people is similarly without end (verses 1-2).
- Human lives, by contrast, and even the longest spans of time that human beings can contemplate (“a thousand years”) are, by comparison, ephemeral. All return to the dust within what doesn’t even amount to the blink of an eye in God’s frame of reference (verses 3-6).
- Even the oh-so-brief span of a human life, seventy or perhaps eighty years at best, is beset with constant toil and suffering, and this toil and suffering are the expression of God’s judgment and wrath against human sin. The best that can be hoped for is that knowledge of the brevity of human existence will somehow grant wisdom (verses 7-12).
The weight and meaning of the petitions in verses 13-17 are now much clearer. The cry “Turn, O Lord!” is a plea that God might turn away from the judgment and wrath that have long shaped human existence and toward compassion and mercy for his covenant people. The question “How long?” reflects the conviction that, in the grander scope of God’s eternal sovereignty, the era of his wrath and therefore of human misery and toil is only of limited duration. When the psalmist prays that the years of gladness will be as many as the years of affliction, that prayer represents nothing less than a call for a change of era, a new dispensation in God’s dealings with the people. In this context, the final petition of the psalm, that God might prosper the work of the people’s hands is no longer a mere request for prosperity, but rather a request that in the new era, it may be the work of God’s servants, and, through them, the work of God himself, that is the sign of the times, replacing the sins of God’s servants and their suffering under his wrath.
Understanding of the logic of the full psalm allows for richer and more responsible exposition of the text. The interpreter could explore the phenomenon of prayers for God’s mercy and steadfast love that arise from a location of suffering and finitude, reflecting on the theological convictions that must be in place for such prayers to be meaningful. Such reflection might encompass not only the eternity and sovereignty of God, as highlighted in this psalm, but also the enduring mercy and forgiveness that are extolled elsewhere in both the Old and New Testaments. In particular, some congregations may be receptive to an exposition that looks at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the ultimate and decisive “turn” from judgment to compassion. There is ample testimony in the Bible and in the teaching of the church that Jesus’s life on earth represented the turning point between eras, and that the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah made a decisive difference in the calculus of God’s wrath and God’s forgiveness. The preacher must, however, be careful not to imply that these two characteristics are mutually exclusive, or that either is entirely absent from the character and activity of God, before or after the Incarnation. To do so would be to introduce a far more grave distortion of the psalm’s meaning than that brought about by omitting the first eleven verses!
Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16
Amy L.B. Peeler
The Epistle to the Hebrews is often a study in contrasts, and Hebrews 4:12-16 is no exception.
In a passage that sets a chilling warning immediately before a great comfort, it is God and the audience’s relationship with him that unites the disparate sections. He, ever judge, can also be experienced as the giver of grace.
The terrifying word
Hebrews 4:12 and 13 are the culmination of the warning the author has been articulating since the third chapter of this sermon (3:7ff). He desires that his listeners do not replicate the lack of trust displayed by the generation of Israelites who had to wander in the wilderness. God still holds out a place of rest (4:9) if the contemporary descendants of Abraham (2:16) will only keep their hearts tender and free from sin.
Whereas vs. 12 is so easily quotable and applicable to all of Scripture, studying its setting in Hebrews reminds the reader of the verse’s seriousness. Here the author compares the word of God to a sword with a sharp blade on each side capable of cutting through bone. Even more terrifying, as it cuts through physical bodies, it can also cut through the human spirit exposing the inner workings of the heart. Just as the animal prepared for sacrifice has its neck stretched back before the point of the blade (4:13), so is everything in creation exposed before the eyes of God.
We, he reminds his audience, are a part of this creation, so we are poised under God’s searching word. We will have to give an account of our lives and our hearts. The author has created a multifaceted picture with his use of the term logos. The “word” of God is living and active — terrifying, in fact — and to this logos, all creation, including the author and his congregation, will have to render a logos, an account.
Hence, the author of Hebrews seems not to be employing a Johannine Logos. He never, in fact, personifies the logos as equated with Christ. Instead, most often, logos is that which God speaks (Hebrews 2:2; 4:2; 5:13; 7:28; 12:19; 13:7, 17) and here the speech of God is so active that it is able to expose and see all things. He intends his discussion of the word of God to create sobriety. God is speaking to us (1:2); therefore are we ready to stand before his exacting and exposing word? What is the state of our hearts? Are they free from sin? Are they ready to trust in God fully? I can’t help but think his imagery is meant to scare here. Based on other things he says about the audience (5:12), my sense is that this audience may not have had great confidence at this point.
The sympathetic priest
Therefore, the author throws them a rope. Grasp this, he says: our confession. What have they confessed? That Jesus, the man born into the tribe of Judah (7:14) is in fact the Son of God. He is also the great high priest who serves God in heaven itself.
The author proceeds to draw out a vital implication of this confession. This mighty high priest who stands before the face of God is at the same time the high priest who can completely understand the weaknesses of the audience. If they were nervous or ashamed at the prospect of their hearts being laid bare before God, they now hear that One who is God’s own Son understands their weaknesses. His level of understanding, moreover, is not simply academic. He experiences the difficulties that weakness brings because he, too, has experienced temptation and testing in all ways as they have. The author’s language is rather broad and inclusive here. Whatever weakness, whatever secret sin of the heart, whatever lack of trust the word exposed, Jesus, too, has faced.
Nevertheless, his participation in weakness is similar to theirs, not the same. His encounter with temptation is homoi, not homo, for he, in his struggle with all variety of weakness, never succumbed to sin. That is how he is able to have passed through the heavens and serve as priest in the very presence of God.
He is exactly the kind of priest they need in the situation in which they find themselves. Standing before a God who has spoken to them, whose speech revealed their whole being, who is awaiting a response, the members of the audience who can say nothing in defense of themselves proclaim allegiance to and dependence upon the mediator who sits at God’s right hand. The author wants them to grasp this idea: “Jesus is sympathetic to my situation, but he is not stuck in it. He understands why I made the decisions that I did, but he did not make them.” Their confession of him transforms their stance before God. Whereas fear would be expected, now they can come in boldness. They approach the same living and active God, but now they also know his throne is one of grace. The God who knows all about them, who could demand their lives, gives mercy, favor, and help right when it is needed.
Two experiences, one God
It would be tempting to turn this warning and comfort into a good cop/bad cop narrative. God is about to punish you, but nice Jesus steps in and convinces him otherwise. This bifurcation, however, does not fit the text for several reasons. First, Jesus is, as the author states, the Son of God, and though the nuances are as precisely articulated as they will be in later centuries, the author has gone to great lengths to proclaim the divinity of Jesus in the first chapter. The Father and the Son are different persons, but they are both God and therefore are never at cross-purposes with one another.
Second, it follows that both Father and Son speak the word that exposes the heart and both Father and Son sit on the throne that offers grace and help. The shift occurs because the Father sent the Son to be the great high priest. The details of why this shift can occur have yet to be worked out in the sermon, but this passage provides an important fulcrum. God knows the hearts of all. The question remains for his readers: Are you holding fast to the God-priest who not only knows those hearts, but has done something to cleanse them forever?
This lesson includes two stories connected by the theme of the real cost — including a financial one — of becoming a disciple of Jesus.
For the full narrative effect of the account, we need to set aside what we already know about this story and attend to the sequence of details as they are related to us readers.
The story begins with a notice that Jesus is on the “way.” Both John the Baptizer’s preparing “the way of the Lord” (1:2f.) and the designation for early Christians as those belonging to “the Way” (Acts 9:2) point to the use of this term as an indication that discipleship is under consideration.
At this point in Mark, we are only told that someone runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. We do not know anything else about him, though the Greek indicates he is a male. Because he kneels, we can surmise that he is genuinely respectful to Jesus, and his address to Jesus as “good teacher” is similarly sincere. His question — “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” — is not a test for Jesus. He truly wants to know Jesus’ answer, and we as readers should probably be just as interested.
But Jesus surprises the man (and the readers) by responding with, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (10:18) We hold that thought for only a moment, before Jesus immediately launches into a recitation of the commandments. Note, however, that these commands are all from the “second table” related to human interactions. Omitted are the commands related to human-divine interaction.
The man now replies by simply calling Jesus “Teacher,” and it’s understandable for a Jew to do so given Jesus’ earlier comment on the goodness of God alone. But do the readers regard him less highly for not calling Jesus good? We need to ponder whether the man was right the first time. If we believe Jesus to be a “good teacher,” then it becomes an implicit faith statement about the divine identity of Jesus. This is a subtle Markan narrative technique used to help us readers come to an accurate confession.
The man continues by claiming he had observed all those commands from his youth. Is he lying? Self-deceived? Or does he believe he is really telling the truth? Jesus does not challenge his claim, so I think we need to accept it as true, probably in the same way that Paul claimed to be blameless with respect to righteousness under the law. (Philippians 3:6) Again we must pause to evaluate what we think of the man. The narrative also pauses for a moment by noting that Jesus gazed at him … and then reports that Jesus loved him! If the reader wants to be like Jesus, then the reader needs to love him too, but has the man’s initial question been answered?
Jesus says he lacks one thing. (Is it his failure to keep that first table of the commandments related to God?) He is to sell what he has and give it to the poor in order to obtain treasure in heaven. Further, he is to “follow” Jesus, a typical characterization of discipleship in Mark. (Is this what a proper relationship with God looks like?)
What will this man whom Jesus loves do? The text says he became dismayed, and he went away (the opposite of following) grieving. Doubtless Jesus commanded a hard thing, but why this overly sad reaction? Only now are we told, “For he was having many possessions.” (If we had been told this detail from the outset, would it have skewed our perceptions of him?)
Verses 23-31 expand upon the implications of Jesus’ statement. The first observation Jesus makes pertains to the difficulty that those with wealth have in entering God’s dominion. The disciples — who were among the lower class and whose perspective had been shaped by a culture that associated wealth with honor, status, and divine favor — are confused. If those who appear most blessed have more difficulty getting into the kingdom than a camel going through the eye of a needle, then, as they ask, “Who can be saved?”
It’s a question we — who most likely are among the world’s most privileged — must also ask. Wealth is clearly a problem. The case of the well-behaved, socially-responsible, apparently-blessed rich man demonstrates how possessions can interfere with the more important need to follow Jesus as a disciple along the way that will lead to a cross. With respect to salvation, however, the rich only have a bigger challenge than that faced by anyone else. Note the general declaration Jesus makes in v. 24: “Children, how difficult it is to enter into the dominion of God!”
Ultimately we all have the same problem of earning our way into salvation. It can’t be done. What, then, is the answer? Gazing at his disciples, just as he gazed at the rich man, and loving them just as much, Jesus says, “With humans it is impossible but not with God, for everything is possible with God.” (v. 27) This is not a cheap grace solution that allows us to carry on with business as usual. Something still has to change for God’s impossible possibility to be realized.
Let’s go back to the rich man’s question that initiated this whole incident: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” His question already hints at a deeper answer. What can anyone do in order to inherit anything? Inheritance is more about belonging to a family than earning something, and this explains what is going on in vv. 28-30. Leaving everything and following Jesus, as Peter says the disciples have done, brings them into a new family. This household of God is an incredibly rich present reality, but one that is marked with persecutions. It is also a future reality characterized by fullness of life where first and last will no longer have any relevance.
Finally, keep in mind that for an inheritance to be given and experienced, someone has to die. How can this be? Thanks be to Jesus, the good teacher, that all things are possible with God!