Lectionary Commentaries for September 9, 2018
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 7:24-37

Elisabeth Johnson

In last week’s gospel text, Jesus took to task the Pharisees and scribes for their ideas of “purity” and their judgment of those who did not conform to their standards of piety. Now, as if to prove his point, Jesus heads off into “impure” territory, the gentile region of Tyre.

It seems that Jesus is exhausted and seeking some “down time,” as he “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice” (Mark 7:24). Even in this gentile region, it seems, word has spread about Jesus. He cannot escape demands for his healing power.

The woman who approaches Jesus breaks through every traditional barrier that should prevent her from doing so. She is “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26). In other words, she is implicitly impure, one who lives outside of the land of Israel and outside of the law of Moses, a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. She is also a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative, who initiates a conversation with a strange man — another taboo transgressed.

On top of all of this, her daughter is possessed by a demon. Although we are not told exactly how the demon affected her daughter, we can probably guess from other stories about demon-possessed people that it made her act in bizarre and anti-social ways. This woman and her daughter were not the kind of family most people would be likely to invite over for dinner.

Any way you look at it, this woman is an outsider. And what is more, Jesus actually has the nerve to say as much to her face. When the woman falls at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). The “children” in this statement are the children of Israel, the “little dogs” (kunaria) are understood to be all other peoples.

Jesus’ response is harsh. How could he say such a thing? He appears to be quoting a bit of Jewish folk wisdom, but that does not lessen its sting. Some interpreters propose that Jesus is testing the woman to tease out her affirmation of faith. Others propose that here we see we see the very human side of Jesus, exhausted and needing a break, or perhaps not yet understanding the scope of his own mission.

While we cannot know exactly what Jesus was thinking, it is clear that when approached by the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus’ immediate response is to appeal to the limits of his mission, his call to serve his own people. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus begins by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

When this tenacious mother comes back at him with her clever response, “Sir, even the little dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Markn7:28), Jesus can only agree. “For saying that, you may go, Jesus says. The demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29). Jesus can only agree that God’s love and healing power know no ethnic, political, or social boundaries. “So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone” (Mark 7:30).

From Tyre, Jesus heads off to the region of the Decapolis, also gentile territory. Perhaps he is still seeking to escape notice and to rest a bit, or perhaps he has a new vision of his mission beyond the borders of his home territory. In any case, once again escaping notice proves impossible. “They brought to him a deaf man who also had an impediment in his speech, and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).

Like the Syrophoenician woman, this man too is an outsider. He is cut off from the world by his inability to hear and communicate with others. This time Jesus does not hesitate to respond to a desperate request, though he does take the man aside, away from the crowd. In a very earthy scene, Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits, and touches the man’s tongue, and then says “Ephphatha!” which in Aramaic means, “Be opened!” Immediately, the narrator tells us, “the man’s ears were opened and his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (Mark 7:35). Suddenly this man is able to hear and communicate with those around him. Not only is he physically healed, he is also restored to his community.

This sequence of stories is perhaps especially appropriate for a Sunday which is likely to be the beginning of the program year for many congregations. The preacher might invite listeners to think about where the focus of their congregational life and activity is found. Spiritual nourishment for the faithful is of course essential, but the congregation’s mission cannot end there. Like Jesus himself, his disciples are continually called to a larger vision of mission — one that aims to embrace the outsider, the stranger, even the enemy.

Another angle the preacher might take is to reflect on these stories in light of the recent resurgence of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia in western culture — ideologies often promoted by those who claim to be Christians, but which are nevertheless totally antithetical to the Gospel.

I have had some interesting discussions about the story of the Syrophoenician woman with my students at the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Meiganga, Cameroon. They are troubled by this story because they have heard Muslims use this story — and particularly Jesus’ words in Matthew, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” — to tell people that the Christian faith is not really for Africans.

My response is that it is easy to take one verse out of context, but one has to read to the end of the story. At the end of the story, Jesus praises the woman’s faith, and her daughter is healed. She does receive the gift of salvation. We are all included in this gift, no matter what our nationality, ethnicity, or social status.

But then I realize that it is easy for me to say that, coming from a place of privilege as a white American. I sense that my students are not convinced that it is enough to have crumbs from the table. Materially speaking, that is pretty much all that they have ever had. They don’t want to be told that they should be satisfied with spiritual crumbs as well.

For those of us who are used to having a place at the table, perhaps we need to be reminded that none of us has any right or privilege whatsoever to claim with God. We all come as beggars to the table, and it is solely by God’s grace that we are fed. Perhaps we need also to be reminded that God’s table is immeasurably larger than we can imagine.

For those who identify more easily with the Syrophoenician woman begging for crumbs, it must be said that Jesus does not leave any of us in a state of beggarliness. He seats us at the table and claims us as God’s beloved children — children from every tribe and language and nation. Even crumbs from the table would be enough for our healing and salvation. But Jesus has given more than enough. He sets an abundant, life-giving feast for all.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 35:4-7a

Anathea Portier-Young

The oracle begins with a command to speak, to proclaim words that remedy weakness and conquer fear (Isaiah 35:4).1

Who needs to hear this word of strength and courage? The prophet names the audience for the sermon you will preach. In the NRSV they are “those who are of a fearful heart” (Isaiah 35:4). It’s not a bad translation, especially in light of the instruction “do not fear” later in the same verse.

But a more literal rendering of the Hebrew phrase nimharê leb yields, “ones whose hearts are racing.” Isaiah calls you to preach to people whose hearts are racing.

As you prepare your sermon, I ask you to attend to the vivid, bodily imagery of this phrase, and to notice that Isaiah’s oracle is in fact filled with vivid bodily imagery. We move too quickly to treat such imagery as metaphor, as mere poetic device. When we do, we fail to mark the reality it discloses. That reality beats in your own chest and pumps between the ribs of every person who waits for you to proclaim the word of God.

The heart races. We know something about this. A hormone we call adrenaline or epinephrine courses through the bloodstream. It stimulates muscles, directs blood-flow, and accelerates metabolism. At the same time, it causes the senses to close in — the field of vision narrows and the world becomes strangely quiet. It is a stress response. It might energize the body for battle, or to run away. Or it might mimic paralysis.

Attend, as you prepare your sermon this week, to the fact that you are preaching to people in bodies. Their bodies might be telling them to fight or to run. Another’s body might want to run, but feels inexplicably frozen in place. Theory has it that we evolved these responses for situations of acute danger. Yet for most of us the world we now live in bombards our nervous systems with stimuli, or stressors, almost constantly. The danger is not usually acute, but our bodies have a limited repertoire for dealing with stress. A response that may, in extreme danger, help save our lives, more often breaks us down.

Attend to the racing hearts in your congregation. This one fights with everyone who gets close. This one’s body now fights with itself. This one hasn’t stopped running in years. Another is so terrified that she cannot even speak. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Hearts race in hope.

At the center of this passage’s first verse is a word I do not much like: “vengeance” (naqam). Usually when I read through this lection I find myself skittering past that word as quickly as possible. But I trip and land squarely on it, and decide that I’m not likely to understand what is going on in this passage if I do not attend to why the word holds such a prominent place. For this is the promise that purports to drive out fear. We are supposed to show the people that their God is right here in this place, close enough to touch. And we are supposed to promise that vengeance will come. I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news. 

Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels has shown that the Hebrew word naqam, the one translated by NRSV in this verse as “vengeance” (NAB offers “vindication”; NJPS translates here “requital”), refers to retribution by a legitimate authority. In Isaiah 35:4 and similar texts, it has the further emphasis of “retribution that brings liberation to the oppressed[,] … freedom from a situation of need and the restoration of justice.”2 Its meaning is closer, then, to what we call “restorative justice” than to “vengeance.”

The word naqam is further modified and delimited in this verse by the appositive phrase, gemûl elohim, translated in the NRSV as “terrible recompense.” This is an artful rendering, but a more literal translation reveals a wider range of possible meanings for the phrase. The Hebrew word gemûl often means simply “dealing”; it could also be translated “response,” “benefit,” or “payment.” We might translate the phrase here as “God’s response” or “God’s dealing.”

Say to the people, God is here. Restorative justice is on its way. Hope now in God’s dealing. Expect God’s response.

And this promise of God’s response, the command to proclaim that God is here right now and is working to make things right, focuses our attention on the need, in this place at this very moment, for restoration, repair, healing and transformation. It focuses our attention once again on the beating, racing hearts of the real people in our churches and communities. It demands that we see what they are running from, what they are fighting, what has immobilized them and stolen their voices. And it demands that we see and name their hope.

To preach this passage, then, you will need to exegete not only text but also context. The oracle gives no sure clues as to its own originating context. The contexts it calls you to interpret are your own and those of the people who have called you to preach. You are called also to exegete embodied human life. Only then can you speak words of strength and courage to the ones whose hearts are racing.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 9, 2012.

2 Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

James Limburg

I remember Mickey.

I don’t recall her last name. She worked at the big iron pressing machine at the Pantorium Cleaners in my home town. It was my job at age 16 (with a new driver’s license) to deliver clothing all over town in a new Jeep station wagon with the company’s name painted on the side. Mickey was one of the hardest workers I’ve known. I always felt a bit sorry for her because I knew she was divorced with one small child and didn’t have family in the area. But she always seemed cheerful. And as she worked, with a small radio blaring, she sang along with a country-western song that I always liked. The refrain was,

I’ll sail my ship alone,
            with all the dreams I own.

That was Mickey. Sailing and singing, even through the heat of the dry cleaner’s shop, with no air conditioning, in the summer.

Aids to navigation: the structure of Proverbs

The book of Proverbs, we have noted, is something of a guide for steering the ship of your life, the ocean of life, when the sailing is smooth and when it is not. To avoid a fragmentary popcorn-like approach to these texts, we are continuing an introduction to the book as a whole.

  • Proverbs 1:1 — Title. As is often the case in biblical books, the first sentence stands as the title for the whole book (see also Ecclesiastes 1:1; Song of Solomon 1:1; Isaiah 1:1).
  • Proverbs 1:2-9:18 — Instructional Essays. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7) is the theme of this section, and of the entire book.
  • Proverbs 10:1- 22:16 — Proverbs Associated with Solomon (Proverbs 10:1)
  • Proverbs 22:17-24:22 — Words of the Wise. Many parallels to the Egyptian Instruction of Ameneope produced around 1000 BC and discovered in the 1920s.
  • Proverbs 25-29 — Proverbs of Solomon Collected by Hezekiah’s People
  • Proverbs 30 — Words of Lemuel in Proverbs 31:1-9 and 10-31. Note the acrostic on a good wife in Proverbs 31:10-31.

In sum, we note that there is organization in the book. For our purposes, we can agree with current opinion that these selections from Proverbs 22 are a collection of sayings (Proverbs 22:1-16) prefaced to materials paralleled in (and appropriated from?) an Egyptian source. The assignment for the preacher on this Sunday is to deal with Proverbs 22:1-2 and Proverbs 22:8-9, 22, 23.

The LORD is my Advocate (Proverbs 22:22-23)

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;

23 for the LORD pleads their cause (Hebrew, reebs their reeb)
and despoils of life those who despoil them.

These words are addressed to those who are not poor, but rich. They have been robbing the poor; or in parallel, crushing the afflicted. “The gate” is the place in ancient Israel where court was held. When they have been robbed, the LORD will take up their cause (Hebrew, “reeb their reeb”).

But if cheating goes on in the court — if the widow, the orphan, and poor are not treated fairly, there is Someone watching over them. This is the LORD, who will take up their cause (Hebrew, reeb), like an advocate in a courtroom.

This same language appears in Isaiah 3:

13 The LORD rises to argue his case (Hebrew, “to reeb” = make an accusation);
he stands to judge the peoples.

14 The LORD enters into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:

“It is you who have devoured the vineyard
the spoil of the poor is in your houses

15 What do you mean by crushing my people
by grinding the face of the poor?”
says the LORD God of hosts.

Here we see the LORD in action, taking up the cause of the LORDS’s people, acting as their Advocate. The theme of caring for the powerless, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger, the aged runs through the Bible. Here are a few samples:

The powerless

The themes of God’s care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, the aged, have something in common: they have no power in society. The widow has no husband, the orphan no parent, the poor no money, the aged has no strength. We begin with Amos: the prophet goes down the list of injustices:       

  • the righteous but needy person is sold as a slave (Amos 2:6b);
  • the poor person is not treated fairly in the courts (Amos 2:7a);
  • both father and son have improper sexual relationships with the same young woman (Amos 2:7b);
  • debts are not properly secured (Amos 2:8);
  • money paid in fines is being used for partying (Amos 2:8).

In sum, Amos calls for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

One can find further texts about the poor throughout the Bible: Proverbs 21:13, 22:9, 29:7, 14:21, 14:31, 31:20, 23:10-11; Amos 6:4-6; Isaiah 5:7; and Micah 6:6-8. For further examples see my book, The Prophets and the Powerless (John Knox 1977 and later).

Preaching about the powerless from Proverbs

Among the lectionary texts suggested for this Sunday is James 2:1-10. Here is the story of a well-dressed rich man who is given a best seat in the synagogue and a poor man who is not given a place at all. Here in the book of James we find the familiar triad of the powerless: the widow and orphan (James 1:26-27) and also the poor (James 2:1-10).

[Editor’s note: The author continues this series on Proverbs in the Semi-continuous First Readings for Sept. 16 and Sept. 23, 2018.]


Commentary on Psalm 146

Esther M. Menn

Psalm 146 opens a collection of five hallelujah psalms at the end of the book of Psalms (146-150).1

Each of these psalms begins and ends by encouraging everyone to “praise the LORD!” which is the meaning of the Hebrew phrase hallelu-yah. This joyful set of psalms is a fitting conclusion for the book of Psalms, which in Hebrew is known as “Praise Songs” (Tehillim).

Psalm 146 celebrates the good news that in the face of human frailty and mortality God remains trustworthy. What is more, God’s sovereignty from creation to eternity is dedicated to assisting those in deepest need and direst circumstances. Lifelong praise through bearing witness to God’s reign is the theme of Psalm 146.

The opening verses present an internal dialogue. An individual responds to the general call to “praise the LORD” by pledging herself to praise the LORD “as long as I live” and to sing God’s praises “all my life long” (vss. 1-2; compare Psalm 103:1). The human lifespan is introduced as ample time for expressing God’s goodness. (A contrasting emphasis on the brevity of human life appears in the critique of earthly rulers in vss. 3-4.)

An alternate translation of verse 2 identifies human life not only as the timeframe but also as the means through which to praise God: “I will praise the LORD though my life; I will sing God’s praises through my existence” (author’s translation). This translation suggests events in a person’s own life that illustrate God’s faithfulness. It also implies that the way one lives one’s life is itself an act of praise. Living out God’s values of truth, justice, and responsiveness to those in need described in vss. 5-9 acknowledges God’s goodness. This inspiring range of meanings is due to the scope of the Hebrew preposition in both phrases, which can mean “in, during, through, or by means of” (b).

The psalm suddenly shifts to the topic of human leaders or “nobles.” Even the best public officials, teachers, business leaders, and social change agents are limited in their efforts to help those in trouble, not because they are evil but because they are disappointing. Those who promise assistance are themselves mortal. Like the first “human being” (’adam) in Genesis, they die and return to the “earth” (’adamah, verse 4), and their plans fail on that day, a brief unit of time contrasting to the eternity of God’s reign. The stories of even the greatest of Israel and Judah’s leaders, such as Moses and David, demonstrate their fallibility. Contemporary examples of our leaders’ limitations are also easy to identify.

The rest of Psalm 146 gives a contrasting vision of God as an attentive and reliable sovereign. An opening beatitude highlights the good fortune of the person who trusts in the God of Jacob (verse 5). The ideology of ancient near eastern kingship as ensuring justice and as protecting the vulnerable lies behind the portrait of God as a helper in time of need that follows. (See Psalm 72 for an expression of this royal ideology.)

The qualities that make God praiseworthy are described through a series of wonderful verbs, all participles expressing habitual behaviors. Creation, restoration, and caregiving mark God’s character. God is always acting!

God is first of all the one who creates. The scope of God’s creative action is as large as the heavens, the earth, and the sea, as well as everything that inhabits them. The entire creation is undergirded by God’s eternal truth (verse 6).

God’s action quickly shifts from the panorama of creation to specific categories of vulnerable human beings. It is easy to identify people today who fall into the categories identified in Psalm 146:7-9 as the recipients of God’s special attention. Additional categories specific to local, national, or global contexts might be identified as well.

People who are exploited, experiencing hunger, and incarcerated are given top priority (verse 7).

God brings justice to those who have been economically, socially, or sexually abused for another’s advantage. The same Hebrew verb, “making” (‘oseh), is used to describe both God’s creating (‘oseh) of the entire world and God’s giving (‘oseh) of justice to those who have been oppressed. Creation and liberation are interrelated activities.

Providing food for the hungry follows as a parallel to God’s granting of justice. The help provided is not abstract, but real assistance in time of the body’s distress (see James 2:15-16). Food justice as an ongoing issue, exemplified by “food deserts” in some U.S. neighborhoods, might be lifted up in a sermon.

The third and final category in verse 7 includes those who are bound, whom God releases. The huge prison population in the United States springs to mind in this connection.

Healing of bodily and spiritual infirmities and restoration to wholeness follows (verse 8). Mark 7 contains parallels, with the Syrophoenician woman corresponding to the person bowed down who is raised up (Mark 7:25-26) and the man who is deaf and mute a variant of the blind person given sight (Mark 7:37; see also Isiah 35:5-6). Jesus ministry embodies God’s reign.

God’s love of the righteous belongs in this grouping, because the righteous commit themselves to reconciliation and to restoration of relationships.

The final categories of people for whom God advocates are those who are marginalized and powerless (verse 9). The resident alien (ger), the orphan, and the widow are three groups of vulnerable people whom God protects and expects Israel to protect (Exodus 22:20-23). No one who intends harm (the “wicked”) will ultimately succeed.

Psalm 146 portrays an amazing vision of healing, restoration, and wholeness. Living in a broken world where disappointment, anger, and injustice remain all too common, we are assured that God’s kingdom is different. We are emboldened to hope and to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The psalm concludes by acknowledging the eternal rule of Zion’s God, from generation to generation. With the divine help characteristic of God’s trustworthy governance in Psalm 146, the reasons for praising God are clear! Hallelujah!


1 Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 6, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

Margaret Aymer

James 2:1-17 invites believers to examine their relationships with one another, particularly along class lines, their understanding of the role of the Torah in the Christian life, and their willingness to put their faith into action. The text raises as least four important questions that preachers might pursue further.

The first of these concerns partiality. In Greek the word prosopolempsia literally means “taking face.” It derives from the words prosopon — face, and lambano — a verb which means “I take.” Here, James alludes to Leviticus 19:15, a scriptural injunction against partiality or “taking face”: “Do not be partial (lemepse prosopon) toward the destitute nor marvel at the face of the ruler.” (Leviticus 19:15b).

James makes his point using a hypothetical example: the entrance into the community gathering of a rich, gold-ringed man in shiny clothes and someone who is destitute in filthy clothes. If people of faith treat them differently, the former being given a seat of honor and the latter told to stand off to one side or to sit by (or more literally under) a footstool, James castigates this discrimination as evil (James 2:4).

For James, such behavior violates the scriptures, especially Leviticus 19: 18b, which he calls the “royal law” (James 2:8) and which Jesus famously held up as second only to the Shema as the most important scripture (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). James 2, invites reflection on what it means for us to love our neighbors, especially those of a lower economic class from us. James’ challenge applies further to invite examination of how we treat all classes of persons with less social power, such as refugees and immigrants, children, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people.

Second, James invites believers to consider questions of wealth, poverty, and justice. Particularly, James reveals the role of the wealthy in persecuting his audience, verbally, and judicially (James 2:6b-7). By contrast, James considers the poor as inheritors of the promised kingdom of God (2: 5-6a), possibly an allusion to the first beatitude in Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20. James’ assertion prompts self-examination, especially for those of us in the wealthy global north. What is our role in oppressing the poor, and to what kind of repentance might God be calling us?

Third, James 2 raises questions about the place and role of the Law of Moses within the Christian life. This argument takes various forms throughout the New Testament, from Paul’s argument that the Law served as our tutor until Jesus came (Galatians 3:24-25) to Matthew’s argument that not one letter stroke from the law will disappear until all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18). James takes Matthew’s part, especially in the optional verses for this lection. His conversation on law begins in verse 10, where he argues that whoever does not keep the whole law is a transgressor of it, an argument akin to that found in Galatians 3:10 and Deuteronomy 27:26.

However, unlike for Paul, James does not use this as an argument against following acts of the Law. To the contrary, he encourages his community to adhere to the Law, which he considers a Law of freedom (James 2:12). This Law does judge those who are merciless, but responds mercifully toward the merciful (James 2:13), an assertion that once again echoes the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7). This section of James may elicit meditations on the nature and purpose of the Law of Moses for Christians today. What of it is liberating, and how do we enact it mercifully?

The last four verses of today’s lection eclipse the rest of the letter of James for their familiarity and notoriety. They call James’ audience to an engaged and enacted faith, one that attends to the physical needs of fellow community members. At the same time, they seem to challenge the assertion in Ephesians and in the undisputed Pauline letters that Christians receive salvation through God’s grace rather than through any human action (Ephesians 2:8, compare with Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16).

The tension, although real, tends to be overblown. James admits that God saves the community of faith, giving birth to it through the word (James 1:18). Thus, James does not state that works alone bring salvation, rather than faithfulness. Rather, as he explains in 2:18b, one’s actions make one’s faithfulness apparent: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

This final section of today’s lection challenges us to consider by what actions we make our faith visible, to think through how we put our faithful words into action. Indeed, faith in action encapsulates this entire chapter of James, including 2:18-26, which the lectionary omits. James challenges us to consider how we will live out our faith together, in ways that reflect God’s mercy and benefit the marginalized.