Lectionary Commentaries for September 16, 2018
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 8:27-38

Elisabeth Johnson

Jesus’ disciples are undergoing a very intense apprenticeship with Jesus, and it is about to get far more intense as he begins his journey to Jerusalem. Before embarking on this journey south, Jesus pauses to check in with his disciples near the northern city of Caesarea Philippi.

“Who do people say that I am?” he asks (Mark 8:27). This is a relatively easy question. The disciples simply report on the buzz they have heard among the crowds. Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets. Jesus’ ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing has indeed born resemblance to that of the great prophets of Israel. The responses are not far off the mark, but they do not quite get to the heart of the matter.

Then Jesus asks his disciples a more pointed question: “And you, who do you say that I am?” Peter, so often the first to speak, responds, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). Of course, we who know the whole story know that Peter has given the right answer. Yet the answer Peter gives is not actually very logical. The title “Messiah” in Hebrew or “Christ” in Greek was associated in Jewish tradition with an anointed king, a royal figure from the line of David expected to come and free Israel from their Gentile oppressors, purify the people, and restore Israel’s independence and glory.

Nothing in Jesus’ career up to now has given any indication of claims to royalty or political ambitions. So far Jesus has made no claim to be the Messiah, and he certainly has shown no sign of taking on the Romans. Perhaps Peter hopes that when they go to Jerusalem, Jesus will finally take on this messianic role. Perhaps that is why Jesus tells his disciples to tell no one about him, because he knows that they are still so very far from understanding what he is all about.

As soon as Jesus begins to speak of what is to come in his career as Messiah — rejection, suffering, and death — Peter is quick to try to set him straight. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. We can imagine him saying, “No, no, Jesus, this is not the way it is supposed to go. The Messiah is supposed to conquer the Romans, not get killed by them. What good is a dead Messiah?”

Peter’s response is understandable in light of Jewish messianic expectations, which are perhaps not so very different from what we want in a Savior. We want someone who is strong and powerful, someone who will rescue us from our troubles and defeat our enemies. Too often in popular evangelism, Jesus is presented in this way — as a kind of superhero who solves every problem for us, as a guarantor of prosperity and success. Nothing could be further from what Jesus has in mind.

Jesus’ response to Peter is harsh: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). This is one of those moments in Scripture that highlights the vast distance between us and God. Though Jesus is God with us, we cannot tame him or make him over into our image. We would like a savior who is a winner, and one who makes us winners, but Jesus insists on identifying with the lowliest of losers. He will allow himself to be judged and condemned as a blasphemer by Jewish religious leaders. He will allow himself to be mocked, tortured, and executed as a criminal by the Romans.

And that’s not all. Jesus actually expects his disciples to follow him on this path of suffering and death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

Here I think it is important to be clear about what Jesus means by taking up the cross. He is not talking about the suffering that is simply part of life in a broken world — everything from annoying neighbors to serious illness to natural disasters. Neither is he telling us to seek out suffering or martyrdom. Jesus himself did not seek it, but he foresaw that it would be the inevitable outcome of his mission.

Jesus speaks of losing our lives for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel. Taking up our cross means being willing to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be. It means putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort or security. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others — using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.

How can we possibly do this? Our instinct for self-preservation fights it at every step. In this sense we are no different from the first disciples. They certainly tried to save their lives. Though Jesus tried to prepare them for what was to come in Jerusalem, they all deserted him. And Peter — that star student who had the right answer — he not only ran away, he denied three times that he ever knew the man named Jesus.

We might wish that things had happened differently, that Jesus had followed a more dignified, Messiah-like path, and that his disciples had been more heroic, but that is not the story we have before us. What we have before us is a story about a Messiah being tortured and killed by the powerful and abandoned by his closest companions.

Yet Mark has announced from the beginning that this story is good news (euangelion). How can this be? We need to read the whole story, to be sure. The whole story tells us that Jesus was faithful unto death, even while all around him proved faithless, and that God raised him to new life. Because of this, we know that God’s life-giving power is far stronger than the worst that humans hands can do. Because of this, we know that there is no sin or failure so great that it can finally separate us from the love of God in Christ.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

Michael L. Ruffin

The NBC family of networks has since 1989 carried a series of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) promoting values such as education, diversity, and civility.

The PSAs revolve around the tagline “The more you know.” The underlying idea is that the more you know, the better citizen — and person — you’ll become.

In this third of Second Isaiah’s servant songs, the servant talks about what happens when we grow in knowledge of the Lord’s ways. The more we learn, the more we’ll know. And the more we know, the more we’ll serve.

An instructed tongue (verse 4a)

The New Revised Standard Version’s (NRSV) translation of the first line of Isaiah 50:9 is probably less accurate and helpful than those of some other translations.1 Whereas NRSV has “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” the Hebrew text reads “the tongue of those who are taught” (see NRSV note). New American Standard Bible (NASB) has “the tongue of disciples,” New International Version (NIV) “a well-instructed tongue,” and Common English Bible (CEB) “an educated tongue”; all these readings better maintain the sense of the original.

On the other hand, a teacher’s tongue should express what the one talking has learned. In this case, the servant has learned from the Lord. The servant is a prophet who proclaims God’s word. The prophet can do this because the Lord has given it to him; perhaps it has come both through direct revelation and through the tradition of Isaiah of Jerusalem (assuming the scholarly consensus that Isaiah 40-55 come from a prophet who preached to the exiles in Babylon during the sixth century).

The instruction that the servant receives is not only for his good; it is also, and perhaps especially, for the good of others. The purpose of the servant’s instruction is to enable him to help others through his words. The proclaimed word offers hope and strength to those who hear it; it helps them to endure. The prophet receives the word to pass it on to others. Perhaps we can assume that the people who hear it have truly received it only when they pass it on as well.

In fact, we preachers can and should consider ourselves heirs of this same tradition, recipients of this same instruction, and proclaimers of this same word. We also have received the word of the Lord through Scripture, through tradition, through the Spirit, and through experience. And we have the same great responsibility to offer encouragement to God’s people to help them endure.

An open ear (verses 4b-5)

The Lord opens the servant’s ear to prepare him to learn and to speak. This is an ongoing process rather than a one-time experience; the Lord “wakens” the servant’s ear “morning by morning” (Isaiah 50:4b). In similar fashion, we preachers need to be alert to the ways that God speaks to us day by day. Preachers should be lifelong learners!

The emphasis thus far has been on the Lord’s gracious acts. God opens the servant’s ear and gives him words to share. But the servant chooses how he will react to the word. He is obedient to speak it (Isaiah 50:4a). Now he says he accepts and doesn’t run away from the Lord’s instruction. This implies that the word is challenging and even threatening. It is ironic that the word meant to encourage others when shared can be painful and dangerous for the messenger to receive.

A Willing Back (verse 6)

The servant’s embrace of the Lord’s difficult and dangerous instruction shows itself in his willingness to experience rejection and to endure persecution. It’s difficult to know if the servant is speaking literally or symbolically when he says, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard” (verse 6a). Either way (or both ways), he willingly accepts opposition to his sharing of the word of the Lord.

This does not mean that proclaimers of God’s word should go out of their way to provoke opposition. We should not seek persecution. Nor should we assume that opposition necessarily means that we are faithfully proclaiming God’s word. As the reading from James 3:1-12 reminds us, those who teach bear a special and demanding responsibility. As James makes clear, chief among a teacher’s obligations is to speak with integrity. But if we faithfully teach and preach with integrity, opposition will likely come. When we must pay a price for faithful speaking, we should pay it willingly.

A determined face (verses 7-9a)

The servant’s face has experienced pain (Isaiah 50:6b), but it still reflects his determined commitment — he “set[s]” it “like flint” (verse 7b). His determination is based on God’s helping and vindicating action. Because the Lord is with him to help him, he boldly stands up against his adversaries. Servants of God are steadfast in their determination to be faithful because they trust in God, not because they rely on their own strength.

Suffering servants

In its original context, the words of this servant song most likely refer to the experience of the prophet who proclaims them. As the early believers grew to understand the ways Jesus fulfilled his role as Messiah and Savior, they found guidance in Second Isaiah’s servant songs. As the embodiment of God’s word (John 1), Jesus suffered greatly for his speaking and living of it.

The prophet’s experience of willing witness that leads to suffering and rejection at the hands of people but ultimately to vindication through the power of God foreshadows Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Those who follow Jesus, whether clergy or laity, by faithfully proclaiming God’s word through attitudes, words, and actions, can expect to suffer for it too. Not only should we not run from the possibility — we should embrace it.

The preacher could consider relating this text to the Gospel text, Mark 8:27-38. In it, Jesus tells his disciples that he is a suffering servant. When Peter objects, Jesus not only rebukes Peter but tells both his disciples and the crowd that following him means taking up one’s cross and giving up one’s life. He ends by saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Isaiah 50:38). This brings us back to something the servant said: “The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (verse 5).

The more we listen, the more we’ll know. The more we know, the more we’ll serve. The more we serve, the more we’ll learn.


  1. See John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 116.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 1:20-33

James Limburg

Proverbs 1 contains the first of three longer speeches given by women.

This one is in the “I” form and is critical of the audience and is not well-received (Proverbs 1:20-33). The one by Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 9:1-6 is a call to “walk in the way of insight.” Proverbs 8 is the longest of these poems and ends on an upbeat, happy note when the writer speaks of creation (Proverbs 8:22-36).

Wisdom is not the exclusive property of men. For example, we hear of a wise woman of Tekoa, Amos’ home town (2 Samuel 14:2-16; 2 Samuel 20:16-19).

Advice from a wise woman (Proverbs 1:20-33)

We are to imagine here a street preacher, a woman speaking at the city gate which is the gathering place in the town. But no one pays attention to what she has to say (Proverbs 1:22-25). Because they pay no attention to her words, not choosing to fear the LORD, they will “eat the fruit of their way” that is, they have chosen the wrong way and will be punished for that choice. The people get some needed advice, but they do not follow it and are punished for such behavior. The desire to find wisdom continues. Those who find her will be happy (Proverbs 3:13-18), honored, and given a beautiful crown (Proverbs 4:5-9).

The wise person claims to have been present at creation (Proverbs 8:22-31). And the one who keeps the ship of his or her life on the right way, high and dry we could say (Proverbs 8:32), will find true happiness. That person will always be on the lookout for wisdom, watching and waiting by the city gates (Proverbs 8:32-34).

How do I find this wisdom that leads to happiness?

This is the question everyone asks. How can I find happiness?

The Book of Proverbs speaks about the art of navigation. Here is a sampling:

  • Start with God. The first step along the way to happiness is to get right with God. This right relationship is expressed in the notion of “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7 and throughout Proverbs, such as 1:29; 2:5; 3:7; 8:13; 9:10; 15:33; 19:23; 31:30).
  • Recognize God as Creator (Proverbs 8:22-31)
  • Fear the Lord. The sense of “fear” is not “to be afraid of” but to honor or respect. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” frames the first section of the book (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; see also 15:33). The expression runs through the entire collection of Proverbs like a pedal tone on a mighty organ, sounding the right attitude of the person seeking wisdom.
  • Recognize God as Guider and Sustainer. The Creator has not abandoned the creation to run on its own (deism). God is continually working out God’s purposes in, with, and under the events happening on earth. “The human mind plans the way but the LORD directs the steps,” says Proverbs 16:9; see also 16:3; 19:21; 20:24; 21:30-31.
  • Recognize God as the God of All Peoples. The materials in Proverbs are not directed only to Israel. Wisdom does not cry out in the temples or synagogues — but in the public squares, the city gates, the crossroads where people from all nations are gathered or are passing through (Proverbs 8:1-2). The wisdom teachers are open to good instructional materials from outside Israel; much of Proverbs 24:17-24:22 has been appropriated from classrooms in Egypt.
  • Live Responsibly under God. The major concern of the book is not to teach about God, but rather to teach how to live a responsible and happy life on earth. Though much of the book contains what might be called secular wisdom, that wisdom is always “under God.”

Listed in the following are some of the marks of a life lived responsibly under God:

  • Practicing friendship and neighborliness is one of the marks of a life lived under God. “A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17). Also Proverbs 14:20-21; 18:24; 19:4, 6; 25:17; 27:6, 10, 14.
  • “She [wisdom] is more precious than jewels and nothing you desire can compare to her” (Proverbs 3:15).
  • “Let another praise you and not your own mouth” (Proverbs 27:2; 16:5, 18-19).
  • Enjoying and appreciating marriage as God’s gift: “House and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the LORD” (Proverbs 19:14); also Proverbs 5:15-19. Appreciating one’s spouse is advised in the context of the alphabetical acrostic in Proverbs 31:10-31 (see commentary for September 23).
  • “My child, keep your father’s commandments and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 6:20). Also Proverbs 13:1 New Revised Standard Version footnote; Proverbs 15:5; 22:6; 23:22.
  • Helping the poor, the widow, the orphan, both as individuals (Proverbs 14:21; 21:13; 22:9; 22:22-23; 23:10-11; 28:27; 29:7; 31:20, among many more examples) and as individuals in government. Such help is understood as the special responsibility of those in positions of power. “If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever” (Proverbs 29:14). Also Proverbs 28:15; 31:8-9.
  • Sexual Fidelity. The consequences of promiscuous living are nothing less than death (Proverbs 7:27 as part of 7:6-27) and also Proverbs 5:1-14, 20-23.
  • Speaking and Silence. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Also Proverbs 11:13; 13:3; 14:7; 18:21; 21:23; 26:23; 29:11; 17:28; 18:2; 29:20; Sirach 20:5-8.
  • “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the lazy will be put to forced labor.” (Proverbs 12:24) Also Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4-5; 12:11; 20:13; 26:13-16.

Preaching from Proverbs

While these materials lend themselves to use in a classroom, preaching is more difficult. One would have to deal with longer sections (Proverbs 31:1-31) or segments with depth that invite reflection (Proverbs 30:18-19; or Proverbs 19:14). Both the 30 and 19 texts have served well for weddings. Most effective, I think, is simply reading through the book a chapter at a time and reflecting on texts that seem to hit you!

[Editor’s note: The author continues series on Proverbs in the Semi-continuous First Readings for Sept. 9 and Sept. 23, 2018.]


Commentary on Psalm 116:1-9

James K. Mead

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost is the only instance of Psalm 116:1-9 as a Sunday reading in the lectionary that provides opportunities to use most of its second half (verses 10-17) which are read on Maundy Thursday and Eastertide for Year A.1

If you make this selection the basis of your message, it will be tempting to dip into verses 10-19 for homiletical insight. Indeed, a strong case can be made for the structural coherence of Psalm 116 as a literary unit,2 but there are also reasons for treating verses 1-9 independently, as the Septuagint did by dividing the poem into two psalms. As one of about a dozen Thanksgiving psalms, this passage is spoken from a post-crisis perspective, but the psalm offers no real clue as to the nature of the problem(s) that prompted the poet’s “supplications” (verse 1). It will probably be helpful, if not necessary, to call attention to the second half of the psalm simply because in the key features we can emphasize for the first half carry over into the second half. Nevertheless, even on its own terms, these nine verses are by no means lacking in theological and spiritual resources for the life of faith, the church’s worship, and the mission of God’s people. Here are some of the aspects that strike me as being most fruitful for proclamation.

First, the flexibility of prayer-forms. We are indebted to the insights of form criticism for psalms research, mainly because thinking about the typical structure and elements of laments and praises helps us understand their message. Psalms scholars tell us that Psalm 116, however, does not follow the “traditional” order of elements in thanksgiving psalms, where we typically hear a narration of the poet’s crisis before learning about the deliverance or share in the act of thanksgiving.3 Rather, as one commentator notes, it alternates the “experience of deliverance” (3-4, 7-11, 15-16) with “outbursts of thanksgiving” (1-2, 12-14, 17-19).4 This gives certain energy to the prayer, what Derek Kidner described as “infectious delight and touching gratitude.”5 The takeaway from this observation is not only the assurance that our prayers need not conform to a rigid pattern; the psalm’s inclusion in the canon is further evidence that the faith community believed that God is pleased to hear this variety. Each believer’s faith experience and spiritual inclinations will be different, and this psalm can, as Kidner added, help others “to find words for [their] own public thanksgiving.”6

Second, the contrast of living and dying. Whether the psalm is studied as a whole or in part, James Mays is correct that the theme word is “death”: it ensnares (verse 3); we need to be delivered from it (verse 8); and it comes to all God’s “faithful ones” (verse 15). Moreover, in keeping with a Hebraic mindset, the experience of death is equated with Sheol (verse 3) — the place of the dead — and thus it is “beyond any possible relation to God.”7 In Christian proclamation, of course, there are other scriptural resources that lift up “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” and we should in no way diminish the blessedness of this hope. Nevertheless, I believe the Israelite acknowledgment of death’s reality meant that they “set maximum value upon the God-given resources of this life, and so upon God himself.”8 Furthermore, what is central to the New Testament (NT) hope — that God is gracious and righteous — is central to the message of the text; indeed, the phrase, “Gracious is the Lord,” occurs at the precise center of these nine verses. Thus, I do not think that what we might call “the Christian life” is all that different from the relationship our Hebraic faith-ancestors sought. I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s exposition of this psalm, in which he explores the last sentence of our lection: “I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” The verb “to walk” is in the hithpael verb pattern, which in this case renders a sense of repetitiveness. By looking at other uses of this form (e.g., Genesis 3:8; 5:22, 24; 6:9; Job 1:7; Psalm 12:9), Peterson affirmed the idea that “spiritual formation cannot be done in a hurry; it cannot be forced into a schedule.”9

Third, the communion of the saints. Several scholars mention how this psalm functions in Judaism — as one of the Hallel songs of Passover — and Christianity, on Maundy Thursday in particular and for the Lord’s Supper in general.10 But when I speak of the “communion of saints,” I am not thinking primarily of the sacrament but of the creedal affirmation, namely, that God’s people throughout all time and place experience a real fellowship through our union with Christ. Psalm 116 may originally have expressed the gratitude of one Israelite worshiper before the congregation at the temple, but it becomes our song through the unity of the church with the assembly of Israel. There is a reason that the Greek ekklesia was the NT writers’ choice to identify the “church,” because the Septuagint used that term to translate the Hebrew word for the ancient “assembly” (qahal). And this is why I suggested at least referring to the last ten verses of the psalm. It is there that the poet introduces several references to sacrifices, vows, offerings, and public worship. “In the presence of all his people” occurs twice (verses 14, 18), inviting us to practice the same model of gratitude. It seems fitting that a service in which Psalm 116 is the sermon text would create the time and space for worshipers to offer testimony to answered prayer and to intercede for those who are still waiting for answers.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 13, 2015.

2 For example, Michael L. Barré, “Psalm 116: Its Structure and its Enigmas” JBL 109 (1990): 61-79.

3 J. Clinton McCann “The Book of Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996). IV, 1148.

4 Willem VanGemeren, “Psalms” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5, 724.

5 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 TOTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 407.

6 Ibid.

7 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 370.

8 Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, WBC (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 180.

9 Eugene Peterson, “Land of the Living,” Ex Auditu 18 (2002): 180.

10 Mays, Psalms, 371-372.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 3:1-12

Margaret Aymer

Metaphors abound in James 3:1-12, and these can often obscure the point that James is trying to make in this passage, a point not about speech in general or even about teaching, despite the way he begins this chapter.

Rather, in James 3 the focus is on how faithful Christians speak about other human beings made in God’s own image (James 3:9), calling us to account for abusive language. However, to get to this argument, James begins with a meditation on human speech and on the potentially destructive power of the human tongue.

In the opening verses of chapter 3, James counsels the community that not many of them should become teachers. That same Greek sentence can read “do not become many teachers,” that is, do not turn into a community that thinks you all can or should teach. His rationale: teachers, himself included, will be judged more harshly than anyone else. Although James does not specify by whom teachers will be judged in 3:1, in other part of this letter, he intimates that God will judge the community (James 4:12; 5:9).

James’ warning concerns one specific aspect of teaching: how teachers speak, that is, the control teachers have over what they say (3:2). Teachers of James’ day gave public discourses to which students and other hearers gathered round. Imagine how easily someone might be led astray by a misplaced or unintended word within that discourse. Yet, who could imagine a teacher than never once misspoke, never once chose an unfortunate word or phrase! Today’s passage invites meditation on the singular importance of teachers in our lives, and particularly the impact of a teacher’s word on the life of those who hear her.

James continues his discussion by turning to two metaphors: a horse’s bit and a ship’s rudder (3:3-4). He makes a similar point for each of these. Rudders represent a very small portion of a ship, and bits are not much larger than a horse’s hoof. Yet, each of these small items controls the direction of the much bigger body to which they are attached. Here, too, James speaks about the tongue, in this instant as a driver that controls the direction of a person.

What does it mean to think of one’s tongue as that which controls one’s whole being? Or perhaps, in today’s vernacular, what does it mean to think of one’s entire being as controlled by what we post on social media? Preachers of this text might consider how our words, spoken or digital, affect our lives, both in the wider society and within the community of faith.

James shifts metaphors again, this time comparing the tongue to a flame that lights a forest on fire. Here, James even charges that through the tongue, the unjust world enters the faith community, that the tongue can set fire even to the cycle of nature itself until it is consumed in Gehenna. Throughout this letter, James registers serious concerns about the taint of “the world,” even warning that friendship with the world signals enmity of God (4:3).

Pure and undefiled religion, to James, remains unstained by the world (1:27). Thus, argues James, the tongue has the capability of destroying one’s religious practice and that of one’s community. Here, James invites meditation on destructive “speech,” more broadly defined. One might, for instance, think critically about racist speech, vitriol against immigrants, or the practice of “trolling” on social media.

In 3:7-12, James reaches the climax of this part of his letter. Why does James consider the tongue a “restless evil full of deadly poison” (3:8)? Consider, says James, how we the church speak. We bless God and with the same tongues we curse one another (3:9).

This behavior James compares to gathering olives from a fig tree, or brackish and sweet water from the same spring (3:11-12). James, here, invites consideration of how we speak to one another as members of the church. What kinds of output do our mouths produce? James invites a consideration of speaking to one another as informed by the ways we speak to God. For, as James reminds us, we are each made in God’s image (3:9). James also invites us to consider the importance of silence, silence not only as a means to listen for God but also as a spiritual practice of bridling our tongues.