Lectionary Commentaries for September 23, 2018
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 9:30-37

Elisabeth Johnson

Jesus keeps trying to escape notice.

In the Gospel text two weeks ago (Mark 7:24-37), he traveled to the region of Tyre and then to the Decapolis. In this week’s text, he is back in his home territory of Galilee, but “he did not want anyone to know it.” The reason he did not want anyone to know of his presence? He had some critical teaching to do with his disciples (Mark 9:30).

Some very important things have happened in the meantime. Jesus has begun teaching his disciples about what awaits him in Jerusalem and about the cost of following him (Mark 8:27-38). Jesus has been transfigured on a mountain before Peter, James, and John, appearing in dazzling white clothes conversing with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-8). Jesus has told his disciples that Elijah has already come, “and they did to him whatever they pleased,” referring to the death of John the Baptist and clearly implying that he himself is the One for whom Elijah has prepared the way (Mark 9:9-13). He has cast a demon out of a boy that his disciples were not able to cast out (Mark 9:14-29).

Now, passing through Galilee, Jesus tries to escape notice while he continues teaching his disciples. And oh, do his disciples need teaching! The obtuseness of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel is downright comical at the same time that it is deadly serious. In spite of all that they have witnessed and heard from Jesus, they still do not seem to have a clue what his mission is about.

Jesus announces once again, in a briefer form than in Mark 8:31, what is to happen to him in the near future: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31). Yet the disciples still do not understand, and what is more, they are afraid to ask any questions (Mark 9:32). Perhaps they do not want to understand this confusing message about a Messiah who suffers and dies. Or perhaps they are afraid to reveal their ignorance. Maybe they remember the rebuke Peter received at Caesarea Philippi and want to avoid similar humiliation. In any case, their fear of asking any questions means that they stay in their state of ignorance and confusion.

Instead of asking questions of Jesus, the disciples turn to arguing with each other. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what they were arguing about along the way. They are silent, too embarrassed to admit that they had been arguing with each other about who was the greatest among them. Jesus, of course, knows exactly what they have been discussing, and tries once again to teach them that the reign of God reverses the world’s ideas of “greatness.”

True greatness, Jesus says, is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. It is not to ascend the social ladder but rather descend it, taking the lowest place. It is not to seek the company of the powerful, but to welcome and care for those without status, such as the child that Jesus embraces and places before his disciples.

In any culture, children are vulnerable; they are dependent on others for their survival and well-being. In the ancient world, their vulnerability was magnified by the fact that they had no legal protection. A child had no status, no rights. A child certainly had nothing to offer anyone in terms of honor or status. But it is precisely these little ones with whom Jesus identifies. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

There are, of course, many possible trajectories for a preacher to take with this text. One might be to explore the questions that the disciples are afraid to ask. While we cannot know with any certainty what they would have asked, it seems likely, given what Jesus has just announced about his impending suffering and death, that they would have wanted to know why the Messiah must suffer and die. Not only was this idea completely foreign to Jewish messianic expectations, it was existentially threatening for those closest to Jesus.

Christian theology has attempted to provide explanations for the “why,” and certain of these explanations have been read back into the Gospel texts. But the fact is that Jesus does not explain the “why”. We can only deduce the “why” in reading the Gospel narrative.

In this narrative, Jesus arrives proclaiming that the reign of God has come near, calling for repentance, healing diseases and disabilities, and forgiving sins. Throughout his ministry, he associates with the last and the least in society — Gentile women (Mark 7:24-30), bleeding women (Mark 5:24-34), lepers (Mark 1:40-45), raging demoniacs (Mark 5:1-20), tax collectors and other notorious “sinners” (Mark 1:13-17). He even welcomes and makes time for little children, much to the disciples’ consternation (Mark 10:13-16).

For all of this, he is condemned as an outlaw and blasphemer by the religious authorities, who decide that he is too dangerous and must be eliminated. Here it is important to emphasize that Jesus does not die in order for God to be gracious and to forgive sins. Jesus dies because he declares the forgiveness of sins. Jesus dies because he associates with the impure and the worst of sinners. Jesus dies because the religious establishment cannot tolerate the radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives.

The radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives completely obliterates the world’s notions of greatness based on status, wealth, achievement, etc. Perhaps that is one reason we resist grace so much. It is much more appealing to be great on the world’s terms than on Jesus’ terms. Greatness on Jesus’ terms means being humble, lowly, and vulnerable as a child. Greatness on Jesus’ terms is risky; it can even get a person killed. But as Jesus teaches repeatedly, his way of greatness is also the path of life.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 11:18-20

Michael L. Ruffin

I moved back to my home territory in 2015 after being away for forty years.

Around the same time, I started writing a regular column for my hometown newspaper in which I address religion, politics, and life in general. My perspectives and opinions sometimes surprise people who knew me way back when but didn’t keep up with me over the last four decades. Some folks seem surprised that my stances don’t align with the ones I espoused when I was eighteen or with the ones they held back then — and still do. A few people have expressed support and a few others some level of opposition or disappointment to things I’ve said. No one, so far as I know, has wanted to silence me by doing away with me.

Writing words for my hometown folks to read is a helpful exercise for me in the same way that preaching in the local churches I served as pastor over the years was: it reminds me that all preaching, whether through writing or speaking, is, as the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said about politics, local. Preachers talk about matters that are national, global, and even cosmic in scope, but people near — and sometimes dear — to us hear and respond to them.

Jeremiah proclaimed a message with implications for all of Judah and for everyone in Jerusalem. Active during the last part of the seventh and early part of the sixth century BCE, he was witness to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. He proclaimed the coming Babylonian invasion of Judah as God’s judgment and encouraged the people to submit to it. He paid a high price for such preaching.

We need to read all of Jeremiah 11 to experience the full power of the assigned reading. The Lord tells Jeremiah to preach to the people of Judah and Jerusalem about the covenant that had been in force for six centuries. The people had repeatedly proven unfaithful throughout Israel’s history. Now, continuing unfaithfulness to the covenant meant that judgment was coming.

The lectionary text focuses on threats Jeremiah is receiving because of his proclamation of God’s impending judgment against Judah and Jerusalem. The matter the prophet addresses is thus very personal. He is under attack to the point that his very life is at risk. We will benefit in our reading, though, from remembering that the final shaping of the book of Jeremiah took place during the Babylonian exile, so the book offers a message for God’s people as well as for God’s prophet.

Revelation (verse 18)

Taken in the context of Jeremiah 11, this sentence at first seems to be a continuation of what God has been saying to Jeremiah throughout the chapter. The people’s rebellion against God has gotten so bad and the judgment has become so inevitable, the Lord has even barred Jeremiah from interceding on the people’s behalf (Jeremiah 11:14).

In the two verses immediately preceding the present one, God says to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, “The Lord once called you, ‘A green olive tree, fair with goodly fruit’; but with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. The Lord of hosts, who planted you, has pronounced evil against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking me to anger by making offerings to Baal” (verses 16-17).

So at first glance, when Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 11:18, “It was the Lord who made it known to me, and I knew; then you showed me their evil deeds,” it seems that “evil deeds” refers to the rebellion that God has addressed throughout the chapter to this point.

Realization (verse 19)

It turns out, though, that some of the people’s evil deeds are directed at Jeremiah personally. This news takes the prophet by surprise. His assertion that he “was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” seems to be explained by his further statement, “And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes…” Jeremiah emphasizes his unawareness of people’s plots against him. Earlier in the chapter, God told Jeremiah, “Conspiracy exists among the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 11:9).

The Lord goes on to describe that conspiracy as involving turning away from the covenant and to other gods. Now Jeremiah learns that people are also conspiring against him. The specific plot against the Lord’s prophet is part of the general conspiracy against the Lord.

The people’s plot against Jeremiah seeks a devastating outcome. “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!” implies a total elimination of Jeremiah’s life and legacy.

The truly shocking news that the Lord reveals to Jeremiah is that those out to get him are residents of his hometown of Anathoth (Jeremiah 11:21-23). Jesus was hardly the first prophet to find no honor in his hometown (Mark 6:4). Still, it is particularly painful to learn that those who have known you the longest are your harshest critics and most committed opponents.

Resolution (verse 20)

Jeremiah 11:18-20 contains one of Jeremiah’s many laments. We will profit from reading the others and from reading some of the laments in the Psalms. Interestingly, Leslie Allen points out that the text has elements of a psalm of thanksgiving;1 Jeremiah is grateful that God has let him know of the threat against him. But what God has notified him of is cause for lament.

This closing verse of our passage is typical of laments. Jeremiah has “committed [his] cause” to the Lord, and he asks God to bring justice to those who want to destroy him. It is important to note a couple of things. First, Jeremiah leaves judgment in God’s hands and doesn’t try to execute it himself.2 Second, keeping in mind the canonical shaping of the book of Jeremiah, this becomes a prayer of God’s people, who trust that God is working God’s purposes out and will do justice. We might keep in mind also that Jeremiah was certain he was in the right, and history has revealed that to be the case. We should take care in making such assumptions. But we can trust God to do true justice in the long run.


  1. Leslie C. Allen, Jeremiah, The Old Testament Library (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 146.
  2. Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 190.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31

James Limburg

It was a retired Rabbi in our town who gave me an insight into Proverbs 31:10-31.

He was a congenial presence around the town and also at the college where I taught. In this case, he was visiting my freshman religion class and we were talking about Jewish wedding and wedded customs. He gave me an insight into Proverbs 31 that I’ve appreciated ever since. “Each Sabbath evening,” he told us, “I recite the poem in Proverbs 31 to my wife. It begins ‘A good wife who can find…’ and ends with the husband addressing his wife directly, in a ‘you’ statement:

Many women have done excellently,
But you surpass them all (verse 29).

This meant that once a week, after reciting an alphabet full of statements about your good wife, you look her in the eyes and switch to a “you” statement saying, in effect, “There are lots of great women around. But baby, you’re the best of them all!” When I have performed weddings, I have cited this text — and suggested that it would be a good practice for each married person to praise a spouse, at least once a week!

Where did these materials originate and function?

These short sayings (the bulk of the material in Proverbs 10-30) originated as folk wisdom. This wisdom was generated, preserved, and passed on in the spheres of the clan and the family.

After this material was collected and organized, it seems to have been used in some sort of school. Several hints point in this direction. When the young David arrived at the court of Saul, he was described as already educated — “skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the LORD is with him” (1 Samuel 16:18).

It appears that the material in Proverbs also functioned as a part of an educational program at the royal court. Biblical wisdom materials are associated with King Solomon (Proverbs 1:1; 10:1; 25:1). His empire required a huge staff just to keep it functioning. There was no doubt some sort of “internship” program for young people being prepared to take positions in Jerusalem. Hints throughout Proverbs suggest that the material functioned in such a way (Proverbs 23:1-3).

Interpretive issues

  • Autobiographical stylization (Proverbs 24:30-34). Speakers often use this device to put themselves into a story: “A funny thing happened to me on the way to this meeting.” Note that the punch line in 33-34 must have been a saying which circulated independently, since it occurs in another setting (Proverbs 6:10-11). See also Psalm 37:25, 35-36 and Sirach 51:13-30.
  • “Better x than y” statements. Some of these forms were likely invented just for the sheer delight of composing them, much as one might enjoy composing limericks. Examples include Proverbs 16:8,19; 17:1, 12; 21:19; 22:1; 25:7, 24; 27:10b; also Sirach 40:18-27.
  • The instruction or imperative speeches in Proverbs 1-9 and 22:17-24:22 are dominated by the imperative mood, indicating that this material was designed to be used for providing instruction.
  • Numerical sayings in the form x, x+1 were likely also composed for the sheer fun of it. See Proverbs 6:16-19; 30:15b-16, 18-19, 21-23, 24-28, 29-31.
  • There are a few examples of riddles in biblical literature Again, the form is a playful one that lends itself to a pedagogical setting: See Proverbs 23:29 and note the answer in 23:30-35. See other examples of riddles in Judges 14:12-19 and 1 Kings 10:1. 1 Esdras 3 and 4 shows some royal bodyguards, on the job, passing the time with word games!
  • The Alphabetical Acrostic Poem. Proverbs 31 contains an alphabetical acrostic. The writers of the Old Testament apparently liked making acrostics, following the sequence of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Examples are Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 111, 112, 145, and (in a very high degree!) 119, when each letter of the Hebrew alphabet occurs in sequence eight times. One need only glance at Psalm 119 in the original Hebrew to see the acrostic arrangement. This of course is a device to aid in memorization. Testimony to its effectiveness is the fact that most persons of my generation can sing or recite from memory the words to the pop song, of the 40’s, “A, you’re adorable, B you’re so beautiful,” etc. Consideration of the alphabetical acrostic leads into today’s text.

The ABC’s of good wife (Proverbs 31:10-31)

Here is the Hebrew alphabet, starting with aleph in verse 10 and continuing through the last letter, tav, in verse 31.

The woman here described is in charge of managing the household. She gets up early and has prepared the tasks to be assigned to her staff (Proverbs 31:14-15). She deals in real estate (verse 16). Snow does not frighten her. She has prepared proper clothing to protect from the stormy weather. Her husband is a known and respected member of the community (verse 23). She has a well-tuned sense of humor, knowing when to laugh and when to be more reserved (verse 25). Finally, this good woman speaks words of wisdom, wisely (verse 26).

Note some of the characteristics of this woman: her value cannot be measured (verse 10) and she is totally supportive of her husband (verses 11-12). She is industrious, working into the night (verses 15, 18). She is concerned for the poor and the needy (verse 20) and of course, for her own family (verses 21-22, 27). She is a Godly woman, deserving of the praise of her children, her husband, and the community (verses 28-31).

To sum up: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord deserves to be praised” (verse 31).

One scholar described this portrait as “about as realistic as Snow White.” Preaching on this text will best follow the direction of the text itself, moving from speaking about the good wife (Proverbs 31:10-28, 30-31) to speaking to her (verse 29). She fears and praises the LORD; her works and her husband praise her. What could be better?

[Editor’s note: The author continues this series on Proverbs in the Semi-continuous First Readings for Sept. 16 and Sept. 9, 2018.]


Commentary on Psalm 54

Karl Jacobson

Perhaps you’ve heard the old saw, “Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh” (or something like that).1

If making plans of our own (presumably in the face of God’s plans for us) is laughable, how about issuing commands to God, telling God the Divine’s own business in no uncertain terms? Who would dare to give God orders? Yet this is, in a sense, exactly what Psalm 54 does.

Our psalm begins with a four-fold plea: “save me…hear [me]…give ear [to me].” Each of these pleas—actually imperative verbs—and a fourth “vindicate me” (which in terms of tense is imperfect but in context clearly works like an imperative) quite literally command God’s attention, response, and action. These imperative clauses that form the introduction to the psalm demand God’s attention. And while some Hebrew language grammarians might call this particular use of the imperative a “jussive,” that is really just a delicate way of labeling the act of giving orders to someone who out-ranks you.

But enough grammar. Why is God’s attention and action commanded? Because the enemies of the psalmist, the insolent and the ruthless, have risen against him to tear him apart with their words.

At issue here in Psalm 54 is speech: speech directed to God in response to the vile slander of human beings. Notice the tension that is present in regards to the hearing of speech in the psalm. God is commanded to “give ear,” to listen, to pay attention to the psalmist’s words, and perhaps at the same time to the false witness of the psalmists enemies. It is almost as if the psalmist begs God, “Can you not hear the insolent and the ruthless as they lie about me?”

That the enemies actions are speech-based seems clear in that the enemies are said to be “rising against” him, a reference (most likely) to the actions of witnesses in the gate of the community  (Isaiah 29:20-21: “For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit, who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate, and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right”; cf. Psalm 27:12, “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence”).

Notice also that the psalmist does not answer word-for-word those who falsely accuse him. Such a response is the fool’s move; implicit in the psalm is the sense that he-said-they-said doesn’t get a person anywhere. Instead, the psalmist “sets God” before him, appealing to God to judge on his behalf, to find for the defense if you will, and to reverse the judgment, pronouncing it against the psalmist’s enemies. Indeed, before offering a pledge of thanksgiving, the psalmist exults in this reverse judgment saying that God “will repay my enemies for their evil,” and that “my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.”

The psalm, which may strike us as an odd selection for reading/recitation during worship, actually couches the whole conflict very much in terms of the worship life of the community. This may be, at least in part, what is meant by the idea of “putting God” before oneself—which the psalmist does and his enemies do not (compare verses 2 and 3). It is only in the presence of God that the conflict will be appropriately resolved. In service of putting God before himself, and at the same time putting his pleas before God, the psalmist employs several terms which are worship-related and technical.

At the end of the psalm, coming in response to his (presumed? assumed? anticipated?) vindication the psalmist vows an act of thanksgiving for God’s judgment against his enemies.  The author of the psalm says, “I will sacrifice,” presenting a “freewill offering,” in order to “give thanks” (verse 6).  In worship, the psalmist will celebrate his deliverance.

The most important technical term used in the psalm comes towards the beginning of the psalm however, in verse 2. And this is also probably the most innocuous of the worship related terms in the psalm, at least at first blush:  the psalmist offers a “prayer.” The psalmist calls his appeal a “prayer.” There are several different terms in the Old Testament for “prayer,” but the Hebrew word used here is by far the most common. What may be telling is that this word is probably related to the word which means “judge” (cf. Exodus 21:22). In a sense, then, prayer is in-and-of-itself an appeal to God as judge. The psalmist directs his speech (an appealing or intercessory prayer) to God the Judge, who will speak in response to the false accusations of the psalmist’s enemies, these “insolent” and “ruthless” ones who have risen against him.

Psalm 54 offers an intriguing and, for me at least, compelling image of the nature of prayer; one that will almost surely surprise many Christians pray-ers. Preaching the insights of the psalm can serve to inform both the nature and the appropriate direction of Christian speech. When confronted with false witness, with accusations meant to tear down and destroy—reputations, self-image, and, in due course, lives—the psalm turns us not to rebuttal or reprisal, but to prayer in worship. For Psalm 54 speech in the midst of conflict is to be directed to God, not simply thrown back at those who falsely accuse. Furthermore, this speech is imperative in nature; it commands God to serve as judge on our behalf. This is what prayer is.

One might ask well ask at this point, if any sinner (which all of us most surely are) could ever do such a thing as demand that God act as judge on our behalf. But because God has delivered us from every trouble (verse 7), and because God is our helper (verse 4), even the sinful man or woman can, in the face of evil, rely on God to be not just a judge, not just any judge, but their judge.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 23, 2012.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a

Margaret Aymer

Today’s lection continues the discussion of teaching and wisdom that James begins in 3:1 and which ends in 4:12.

The entire section focuses on how people in the community of faith interact with each other. Last week’s portion of this section focused specifically on speech. In today’s lection, James turns toward the contrast between wise leadership and the behavior that can tear a faith community apart. However, today’s lection oddly omits James’ explanation of this contrast, his assertion that “friendship of the world constitutes enmity of God” (4:4). This contrast between “the world” and God underscores much of James, especially this passage.

The first iteration of James’ contrast between “the world” and God occurs in James 3:13-18. On its own, this portion of today’s lection may be understood as a meditation on the contrast between godly and worldly leadership. The attributes of a godly leader are laid out in James 3:13: evidence of works borne out of good conduct that are done in the gentleness of wisdom.

The description of the leader as “wise and understanding” echoes the description of the leaders of the tribes of Israel in who would take over from Moses (Deuteronomy 1:13, 15). It also describes the entire people of Israel, insofar as they observe the commandments of God (Deuteronomy 4:6). Since the works of such a leader are to be done in “the gentleness of wisdom” (James 3:13), James proceeds to describe the qualities of this heavenly wisdom, or “wisdom from above” (3:17): “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, reasonable, obedient, full of mercy and of good fruits, impartial, sincere.”

In short, according to James, godly leaders make peace (3:18). We may hear, in these words, Jesus’ teaching that those who make peace — or the peacemakers are called children of God (Matthew 5:9), even as both God (Isaiah 45:7) and Christ (Ephesians 2:15) make peace. Moreover, as part of their work, these godly leaders plant a fruit of dikaiosyne, a word translated as either justice or righteousness.

In Proverbs, this fruit of justice or righteousness grows into the tree of life (Proverbs 11:30). Thus, godly leaders led by heavenly wisdom restore even the heart of creation itself. James, here, invites meditation on godly leadership. How do we, as Christians, through prayer and attention to the will of God, exercise such leadership? How do we encourage such attributes in our leaders and future leaders?

In contrast to this leadership informed by holy wisdom, James describes a community that practices jealousy and resentment (3:14). These attributes lead to rebellion and ungodly actions (3:16). What’s more, they lead to conflicts among the community, conflicts that grow out of these internal and communal desires (4:1-2). A perceived lack underlies these emotions.

Although James does not specify, the community desires something it does not have, and this leads to conflict. James then begins to diagnose the problem. First, he says, you don’t have because you don’t ask. And then, as if to respond to rebuttal, he explains, “you ask but you do not receive because you ask for things wickedly” (4:2-3).

However, the set lection ends just before James’ diagnosis reaches its climax in 4:4 “Friendship of the world is enmity of God.” At the heart of this communal jealousy, resentment, rebellion, and conflict, James sees a desire to befriend the world, read as the world outside of the community — possibly the pagan, Gentile world in which his communities are dispersed (1:2). Understood in this way, James invites a reflection on worldliness and godliness.

Most of the time, Christians live both in the world and in the community of faith; this lection asks us to consider where our loyalties lie, and how we know. Here, musings on symbols of status and prestige, whether the latest smart device or footwear, might be apropos. So also might discussions about prayer: how and why we pray, and what we pray for.

James ends this passage with a series of recommendations for those caught up in worldly wisdom rather than godly wisdom. These begin where the lection ends: “Therefore, be subject to God; but resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you” (4:7-8a). Taken with 4:8b-13, these verses issue a call to repentance, to turning away from the jealousies and resentments of the world at large, toward the peaceful leadership of those full of godly wisdom. From what worldly so-called wisdom might James be calling the church to repent? What might it mean for the church, once more, to draw near to God?