Lectionary Commentaries for October 4, 2015
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:2-16

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman

This day’s lesson actually consists of two pericopes.

One deals with divorce, the other with the blessing of little children. I suspect that the Revised Common Lectionary committee decided to put them together to help out the preacher who did not want to deal with the challenging divorce text. It is so much more pleasant to talk about little children.

Still, divorce was a significant and disputed issue in Jesus’ time, and doubtless there will be divorced persons in the pews who will pay special attention to this reading today. Divorce is not an easy sermon topic, and it was a complicated matter in the first century. There were differing perspectives between Jews and Romans and also within Judaism. Even within the New Testament there is not complete unanimity.

Here’s what you need to know. In general:

  • The ancient world was patriarchal, and wives were regarded as the property of their husbands. Among Jews, technically only the husband could divorce his wife. (This is the working assumption in Mark 10:2-9.) In Roman society, a wife could divorce her husband. (This possibility is included in the follow-up in 10:10-12.)
  • Marriages were not based on love between two persons but on property, status, and honor considerations between two families. Divorce, therefore, could be complicated. A whole tractate of the Mishnah (the rabbinic collection of Jewish oral law) is devoted to the topic.
  • Jews regarded Romans and other non-Jews as having weaker standards regarding marriage, marital fidelity, and divorce. The Herodian dynasty, however, provides an example of how strings of marriage and divorce could be used to manipulate political and status advantages even within Jewish circles.
  • The main biblical text for Jewish positions on divorce is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This is the text referred to in Mark 10:4 when the Pharisees note that Moses allowed a husband to divorce his wife. The Deuteronomy text, however, is most concerned that a woman not remarry her first husband after she has been married to a second man.

So why is the question posed by the Pharisees to Jesus regarding divorce a “test”? (10:2) Since Moses stated a “commandment” regarding divorce, there really wasn’t a question whether it was lawful or not. The real issue is what constituted appropriate grounds for divorce. The parallel passage in Matthew 19:3 poses the matter more precisely. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” It is the “for any cause” that was the problem, and it is related to a difficult phrase in the Hebrew of Deuteronomy 24:1 which speaks of the husband finding “something objectionable” (NRSV) in his wife. What does that mean? Is divorce permitted if the wife ruins the meal? (So said the ‘liberal’ school based on the teachings of the Rabbi Hillel.) Or does it entail a serious matter of immorality? (So said the ‘conservative’ school based on a contemporary rival of Hillel, Rabbi Shammai.) In Matthew, Jesus adopts the Shammai view, and this seems like such a daunting restriction to the disciples as to make them wonder whether one should marry at all (Matthew 19:10).

Here in Mark’s gospel, however, Jesus expresses an even more restrictive view. Divorce is simply a symptom of human failure that is contrary to God’s intentions in creation, so, Jesus says, “What God joined together, let no human separate.” Is this a blanket prohibition against divorce? What about the abusive or destructive relationships of which we are painfully aware? Should a corollary to Jesus’ pronouncement be just as true: What humans wrongly joined together, let God rightly separate?

As we should expect, God’s commands are not arbitrary but have a principle that motivates them. In a patriarchal Jewish society where only husbands had the prerogative of divorcing their wives, a prohibition of divorce provided a safeguard for women who could be left seriously disadvantaged after a divorce. Further, as Jesus spells out to the disciples in 10:10-12, in situations where either party could initiate a divorce, it’s the faithful partner that is harmed when his or her spouse divorces in order to marry someone else. Committing adultery is not an abstract, moral sin. It is a real, hurtful action against one’s God-joined partner.

This concern for those who are vulnerable carries over into verses 13-16 regarding the children brought to Jesus. We should first note that this section actually has a narrative function in connection to Mark 9:33-37. There the disciples had argued about who was the greatest, and Jesus asserted that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” By way of example, Jesus took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (9:37) When parents bring their children to Jesus a mere 25 verses later, the attentive reader knows that the proper response is indeed to welcome them. When the disciples, however, scold them, the reader can naturally become indignant, and when we are then told that Jesus became indignant (10:14), we discover that we have been guided into the proper, Jesus-like response of a true disciple.

The second thing to note, I would argue, is that experiencing the dominion of God is like welcoming a child, not becoming like a child. The NRSV renders verse 15 as: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child (paidion) will never enter it.” That paidion can be understood in two ways in the Greek. As a nominative case noun, it would mean, “Welcome the kingdom like a child welcomes it.” As such, this saying has often generated sentimental reflections on the importance of a simple, child-like faith. Really? In my experience, children are much better with “Why?” and “No!” than they are with quiet assent. If paidion is understood as an accusative case noun, however, then it means, “Welcome the kingdom like you would welcome a child.” This latter reading certainly fits the immediate context better, and it serves as a clear reiteration of what Jesus said in 9:37.

Why is this significant? In the culture of Jesus’ time where honor and shame were decisive factors in determining behavior, people would be very eager to welcome someone of high status whose company could increase one’s own honor. Children, however, were of very low status. There was no perceptible value in hosting a banquet for a child. (Birthday parties for children are a quite modern invention.) So when Jesus says that the reception of God’s dominion is like embracing a child, he is asserting again that God is not experienced in power but in weakness. Entering God’s dominion is not a way to become first or great but a way to identify with the least and to serve simply for Jesus’ sake.

For a selfish and self-centered person, it makes no sense to welcome children or remain faithful in a relationship when temptation beckons. From the very beginning, however, God has embraced us and remained faithful, and that’s good news.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24

Wil Gafney

Genesis is an origin story: a prosaic telling of how things came to be the way they are.

Genesis is poetry in prose, a theological accounting of how things that were seen, known, and imagined came to be. The text is replete with puns, double-entendres, and multiple readings. The adam, the earthling created from the earth, the human crafted from the humus, is a pluripotent being in rabbinic tradition. The final letter, mem, signals that plurality which is why the same term also means all of humanity. In Genesis 2:18 that plurality is contained in a single body which can (and perhaps should) be understood as including both genders. There is nuance in the relationship between grammatical and biological gender in Biblical Hebrew and as an origin story Genesis is not a biological or scientific text.

In Genesis, God is present, caring, attentive, thoughtful, actively nurturing. Assessing God’s singular creation God sees its need for companionship and addresses it immediately, making a statement about what it is to be human. Humankind individually and collectively need others of our kind — and not of our kind. (I commend to the reader James Weldon Johnson’s Creation for a powerful poetic take on this story.)

Generations of biblical scholars have observed that the language God uses for the companion, “helper” in many English translations is easily misread and misunderstood. “Helper” connotes “assistant,” someone less skilled than the person she is helping. However in Genesis and later biblical texts that help is very often divine, see Genesis 49:25; 1 Samuel 7:12; Isaiah 41:10-14 and many others. What is clearer is that this mighty helper corresponds in some way to the adam. That relationship is intended to be one of parity.

Each creature that is subsequently created is assessed and found to be lacking in that parity. For some readers, that the animals are created in this story as potential — but insufficient — partners for humanity places them in a subordinate, even utilitarian role. Others will see that animals and humans are formed in the same way from the same ground by the same God and see a deeper kinship. This creation exercise is presented as an experiment. The portrait of God is not omniscient here (the word itself is post-biblical). God created to see what would happen. God is apparently capable of being surprised. This is consistent with God’s portrait later in the story: Who told you that you were naked? And, is consistent with God coming down “in person” to see what is going on.

God finds what the ancestral human needs within it. Putting the earthling to sleep — was this a new experience? — God transforms it. The “deep sleep” appears in other parts of the scriptures as being from God, (2 Samuel 26:12; Isaiah 29:10) but in Proverbs 19:15 as laziness. The transformation God performs is akin to cellular mitosis; one is divided into two. God removes a “side” not a “rib” from the human creature who can be envisioned as undifferentiated, pluripotent or having both genders in one body. In the rest of the scripture, tzela is “side” or “hillside.” The rib story is an antiquated translation tradition that does not reflect the biblical use of the term, (see the construction of the sanctuary and its sides, Exodus 25-38, see also 2 Samuel 16:13; 1 Kings 6:5, etc.). This understanding is expressed in the lyric; This one this time is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh… for from man this one was taken. (“from,” not “out of”)

Finally, the text describes the man leaving his parents and “clinging” to his woman and arguably her family, living with them. Subsequent texts will not indicate that Israel practiced matrilocation as the dominant form of house-holding, but it does occur. While it has been traditional to read this passage as regarding marriage, the word does not occur here and is rarely used in the Hebrew Bible. Also, the same word means “man” and “husband” and, the same word means “woman” and “wife.” That the two become one flesh has echoes in the Christian Testament, that men who held power in that patriarchal context should no more mistreat their wives than themselves. That understanding accords well with the text in Genesis. Finally, it should also be noted that the Israelites did not understand this text to require monogamy and there is no divine rebuke in subsequent texts that frame relationships between women and men in very different terms.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 1:1; 2:1-10

Karla Suomala

The Book of Job tells a very un-American story.

Our national myths favor rags-to-riches, underdog-to-victor, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps storylines. But Job does not fall into any of these categories. In fact, his is a billionaire-to- beggar, top dog-to-underdog kind of story. What happens to Job is our worst nightmare. He is a good person who does all the right things and ends up losing everything — his family, friends, home, possessions, and even his health. It takes just 35 verses to catapult Job from his perfect life to an ash heap, covered in oozing sores, and completely alone.

And all of this has been set in motion by God for no other reason than to enter into a wager with his employee, the Accuser (ha-Satan in Hebrew). During what seems to be an employee check-in at which Satan is present, God asks Satan what he’s been up to, where he’s been. Satan responds, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” God then asks, “Have you considered my servant Job?” Maybe a clearer translation of this question would be, “Have you noticed or paid attention to my servant Job?” God is the one who mentions Job, who points him out to Satan, not the other way around. God wants to show the Accuser that God’s servant, Job, is righteous in every way and will put up with anything rather than sin or turn away from God.

God wins this bet — Job doesn’t turn away or curse God. But the story isn’t as straightforward as that. What follows are 39 chapters of poetry in which Job curses not God but the day he was born, attempts to put God on trial, and suffers through the speeches of his so-called friends who try to convince him that he’s done something wrong. Eventually God weighs in — but with questions — dozens of them — rather than answers. Finally, there is no happy ending, at least one that would appeal to most of us. In chapter 42 (which we’ll get to in a few weeks) the original story concludes with Job still in dust in ashes but with a new understanding of God. (To be perfectly fair, this ending bothered the ancients as well — so much so that later interpreters created a more palatable ending in which Job is restored to his former status and position, with even more wealth, and a brand new family.)

An American version would require some “action” on Job’s part. He wouldn’t just sit on the ash heap complaining, cursing the day he was born, and demanding a reason from God for what has happened. No, Job might start out in protest, but, being such a remarkable person he would “get over it” and “move on.” He might get a good lawyer to help him recoup some of his losses but he would focus on reinventing himself. He would get into a new line of work — one with more potential than land and cattle. He would find a new wife — someone more supportive and who understands him better and perhaps a therapist to help him deal with grief. He would get better friends since the old ones were of no help at all. He would work day and night. He would keep at it until he was on top again; in fact, he would emerge in a situation even better than before. His experience would have had a purpose — it would have taught him something. It would have been worth it in the end.

But that’s not the story we find in the Hebrew Bible. What ARE we supposed to do with this story of loss and divine abandonment? Where is good news or at least inspiration in our text? What do we make of a God behaving badly, a Satan-figure who’s not all bad, and a wife who tells her husband to curse God and die? It’s convenient to let God off the hook, to blame Satan or Job’s wife (or both), or to question — like his friends — whether he was really so good after all. Throughout history, biblical interpreters have resorted to these solutions as a way to avoid some of the very difficult questions that the text asks. Questions that make us uncomfortable but that we all wonder about, especially when things are difficult.

Perhaps the biggest question for people of faith is this: How can a God whom we believe to be good and just allow or even instigate what we see and experience as evil? Harold Kushner aptly described the dilemma in the title of his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which he wrote after the death of his young son. In it he works with the story of Job as he attempts to reconcile this tragic loss with his understanding of and faith in God.

This is a dilemma that, if we are honest, we know something about. We’ve seen it. We have lived it. This is the kind of thing that keeps us awake at night, that causes us to really wonder whether or not there is a God or whether God cares about us. It is also a dilemma that can push us away from God. The biblical writers were certainly aware of the danger in the story they were relating. It was dangerous then just as it’s dangerous now. Anytime when we ask hard questions, when we press for truth, when we don’t accept easy answers, there is the risk of danger. Maybe that’s why this story was included in the canon, though. The Book of Job invites hard questions, looks reality in the eye, and provides a model for getting at some kind of truth. And the good news might be that God can handle all of it — questions, reality, and difficult truths.


Commentary on Psalm 8

Matthew Stith

This psalm of praise is unique in the Psalter in that it is addressed directly to the Lord throughout.

With no asides to the congregation calling them to participate in the psalmist’s praise, no descriptive passages in the third person, nor even any inward conversation on the psalmist’s part (“O my soul”) as are seen in other psalms, Psalm 8 conveys a distinctive sense of intimacy and directness. We are here invited to listen in on and participate directly in the writer’s private prayer, and it is therefore the task of the interpreter to lead the congregation into that prayer as participants, taking up the psalmist’s meditations as their own.

The psalm opens and closes with a well-known evocation of God’s majesty: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” The transcendent glory of God is thus set forth as the defining context of the psalm, so that the other matters it raises must be considered in relationship to God’s overarching lordship. When we turn to the central subject matter of the psalm in verses 3-8, we will see why it is crucial to keep this context in mind.

The other major concern of Psalm 8 is the vocation of humankind in the creation. This vocation is described in terms of “dominion” over the rest of creation, given to human beings by God. There are, therefore, two relationships in view in the psalm, that between humankind and the rest of creation, and that between the Creator and his human creations. Each of these relationships could serve as a focal point for the interpreter of the psalm:

  • The language of dominion, coupled with the catalogue of creation over which this dominion is granted, will remind many readers of the creation narrative in Genesis 1, particularly verses 26-31. This connection opens the possibility of connecting human vocation in general, and our relationship to our fellow creatures in particular, with God’s creative intent. Throughout both texts, it is made clear that whatever dominant position humankind enjoys with respect to the creation, that position is owing to God’s decision, God’s purposes, and God’s actions. Interpretation could therefore focus on how our exercise of this vocation is or is not in harmony with God’s intent, and venture from there into the rich topic of stewardship.
  • While it may indeed have made sense for the newly-created, thus far sinless human beings, bearers of the unsullied image of God, to exercise the office of God’s stewards over creation, the same cannot necessarily be said of humankind after the Fall. Given what humanity has, by its own choice, become, the Psalmist might well wonder why on earth God still chooses to grant us dominion. The magnificence of the starry night sky demonstrates to the Psalmist’s satisfaction that the Creator certainly had other options — if God’s hand framed the very cosmos, there can be no question of God’s being stuck with unwanted stewards. The question “What are human beings that you are mindful of them” (verse 4) is left tantalizingly open for meditation on the nature of God’s mercy, grace, and care for his fallen people.

If the preacher wishes to follow the psalmist in drawing a connection between the two relationships in view in the psalm (Creator-human and human-creation), one possible approach is to suggest that the question of verse 4 must ultimately be answered by both looking back at our creation and looking forward to our final destiny. Human beings were created as bearers of the image of God, and even the very worst of accumulated human sin has not entirely effaced that image. God’s intention for us, in other words, is not to be thwarted by our disobedience. That said, our exercise of our vocation has clearly suffered from our corruption, and the dominion humankind has exercised over the creation has seldom looked like the loving stewardship that God ordained in Eden.

The solution to this conundrum, and therefore the answer to the question of Psalm 8:4, lies in the redeeming work of Christ. In him was revealed humankind as we were intended to be from the beginning, humankind untouched by sin. Thus, he is the pattern for the dominion we are called to exercise, a dominion marked by nurturing love rather than selfish exploitation. And if he is the pattern, he is also the means by which God has chosen to fit us to the pattern, to return us to our intended state and vocation. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” We are, through Jesus, the adopted children of the household; the objects of God’s grace, love, salvation, and sanctification; and ultimately, through him, the image-bearers and stewards of creation that we were created to be in the first place. This, according to the sovereign will of the one whose name is indeed majestic in all the earth.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Erik Heen

One might wonder at the selection of this text set in conversation with that of Job and the Markan text on divorce and “the little children.”

Though connections might be made through Psalm 8 (it is quoted in the Hebrews’ text), it is perhaps best simply to note that this is the first selection from Hebrews in the RCL Sunday readings of “Year B” that will continue for seven consecutive weeks, through Proper 28. This period represents the highest concentration of texts from Hebrews in the 3-year RCL. In Year C there is a 4-week run that oddly finishes out the reading of Epistle begun this year in next year’s Propers 14-17 (in late summer/early fall). If a parish were interested in spending some time with the Epistle to Hebrews in focused Bible study, the weeks ahead provide the natural time to do so. The first four verses of Hebrews also provide the second lesson for Christmas Day (III) for all three years of the RCL. Additional commentary may be found in the text study of that festive day of the church year.

In addition to the random introduction of Hebrews into the lectionary readings for this Sunday is a significant problem of translation which comes as a consequence of the NRSV’s laudable commitment to inclusive language. This is an important but complicated issue. I trust the preacher will find value in its exposition.

In Hebrews 2:5-8 (NRSV) Psalm 8 is cited as follows:

Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.

The sense seems to be that the text is talking about us — regular folk — human beings. Compare, however, the NET translation:

For he [God] did not put the world to come, about which we are speaking, under the control of angels. Instead someone testified somewhere: “What is man that you think of him or the son of man that you care for him?You made him lower than the angels for a little while. You crowned him with glory and honor. You put all things under his control.”

The NET text is about “the Son of Man,” a Christological title that refers to Jesus. This allusion simply cannot be discerned in the NRSV translation. What has happened? In the NRSV, the problem of the non-inclusive Greek “son of man” (huios anthropou) is solved by making the singular nouns plural. So “human being” (anthropos) becomes “human beings” and the “son of man” becomes “mortals.” This is justified by reference to the English translation of Hebrew text of Psalm 8, where the Hebrew constructions, though singular, can be properly understood to be collective nouns set in synonymous parallelism.

The problem with the translation, however, is that the author of Hebrews was not working with the Hebrew text, but the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX). There, the Hebrew is already translated as huios anthropou “son of man.” In short, the author of Hebrews — as did the early church in general — read Psalm 8 as revelatory of Christ, not about humanity in general.

The comparison of “the Son” with the angels is introduced in Hebrews 1:1:4. At the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God (a reference to Psalm 110:1; cf.; Hebrews 1:13), Jesus becomes “as much superior to angels as the name [kyrios, “Lord,” see Psalm 110:1; cf. Philippians 2:9] he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” Then follows a “chain” (catena) of Old Testament citations that compares the “Son” to “angels” to evidence the superiority of Jesus (Hebrews 1:5-14).

It is somewhat difficult for us, perhaps, to understand the necessity of such an involved midrash on the relationship between Jesus and the angels. What lies in the background, however, is the death of Jesus. The theological question being addressed is, “How can the earthly Jesus who was crucified by the Romans be ‘more excellent’ than angels, who — though created — are of the spiritual order? On the face of it, the claim seems foolish. Incorruptible spirit should trump weak and mortal flesh. The theological answer to this logical question of how Jesus is superior begins in Hebrews 2:9. Jesus dies “so that by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone.” Just outside of today’s text — part of next Sunday’s reading — we hear, the purpose of the Incarnation succinctly stated: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Why did the Son of Man, for a time, descend “lower than the angels?” The Son of God becomes vulnerable and weak flesh in order that the power of death might be destroyed.

It is sometimes said that the ancient and the modern Christological heresies are mirror images of one another. Moderns understand well that Jesus was human, but have a difficult time imagining how he might be God. The ancients, on the other hand, could well imagine that Jesus was divine, but struggled with his humanity. Hebrews speaks to those ancients who could not imagine divinity experiencing “sickness unto death” (cf. John 11:4). In fact, the Epistle’s unique use of the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek speaks precisely to this point. Melchizedek was immortal (Hebrews 7:3), yet Jesus dies. In the upside-down world of incarnational theology, it is the death of Jesus that reveals the grace of God, not the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek. Orthodox Christology, which I discern in Hebrews, confesses, in fact, that the Son is fully divine and fully human. This, of course, explains nothing. It simply functions to protect the mystery of the Incarnation from easy domestication.

The problems with the NRSV translation of this text might seem to provide a challenge for the preacher. Luckily, the text interprets itself at Hebrews 2:9: “ … Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, [is] now crowned with glory and honor.” Though the price of the Incarnation was high (and forever lies outside of our comprehension), it was for our benefit. Only by passing through death was death — and, therefore, the fear of death — destroyed. May we live in the assurance that this is most certainly true.