Lectionary Commentaries for September 2, 2018
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Elisabeth Johnson

In the Gospels, it seems that Jesus saves his sharpest words, his most pointed criticism, for the most religious.

It is not the tax collectors and other notorious sinners who are reproached by Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes, the experts in God’s law, the high achievers in religious piety. In the text before us, Jesus calls them hypocrites and says that they abandon the commandment of God for the sake of human tradition.

We have been taught to view the Pharisees and scribes as self-righteous hypocrites and to distance ourselves from them, and passages like this one tend to reinforce that perception. It will be important, I think, for the preacher to “debunk” the popular misconception that the Pharisees and scribes thought they were earning salvation by their obedience to the law. In fact, they understood that God’s choosing and calling of Israel was a gift. They also understood that God gave them the law as a gift, to order their lives as God’s people. Their observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them, to give glory to God.

In the book of Exodus, before the giving of the law, God tells the people of Israel that they are to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” in the midst of the nations around them (Exodus 19:6). The Pharisees took this calling to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests serving in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. As priests serving in the temple were required to wash their hands before entering the holy place or offering a sacrifice, the Pharisees believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law.

These “traditions of the elders” were seen as a way to “build a fence around the law,” to preserve the Jewish faith and way of life, especially in the midst of Roman occupation. The concern of the Pharisees and scribes when they saw Jesus’ disciples eating with unwashed hands was about something much more serious than proper hygiene. They suspected that the carelessness of Jesus and his disciples with regard to the traditions of the elders threatened to undermine respect for God’s law.

It seems that the scribes and Pharisees had legitimate concerns. Why, then, do they receive such a harsh response from Jesus? There is a clue in the verses Jesus quotes from Isaiah: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.

The problem with the Pharisees and scribes, according to Jesus, was that they had become so focused on the externals of faithfulness that they neglected to examine their own hearts. Their efforts to live faithfully were putting up walls of alienation instead of drawing them closer to God and to their neighbors. The rituals they observed created a spiritual hierarchy between the “clean” and the “unclean.” Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty or contaminated.

An important question the preacher might raise is this: Whom do we consider “unclean” today? From whom do we try to keep a safe distance?

We have been taught to distance ourselves from the Pharisees and scribes, yet perhaps we have more in common with them that we thought. We understand, like the Pharisees, that being called by God is a gift. In response to God’s grace, we want to live in the ways God would want us to live, and we try to discern what that means in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives. The problem is that as we are attempting to live faithfully, there is always the temptation to judge those who do not live in the same way, to set ourselves above others. Perhaps we are even tempted to believe that somehow we are more “deserving” of God’s love and grace than others.

But then we have lost the whole point of faithfulness. Jesus tells us to beware when piety gets in the way of fulfilling the heart of the law: loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. He warns us to beware when our piety separates us from others, for then it is also separating us from God.

Nothing outside of us can defile us by going in, Jesus says. (Our lectionary text delicately skips over Jesus’ graphic statement in verse 19 that what enters into the belly passes out into the sewer.) On the contrary, Jesus warns, what comes out of our hearts can defile our lives and do great harm to others — evil intentions, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly (Mark 7:20-23).

No law or tradition can protect us from the darkness that lurks within our own hearts. We can try to project a squeaky clean image, but one way or another, the evil within will find its way out. The highly edited version of ourselves, the façade that we present to the world, will crumble sooner or later.

This passage is certainly heavy on law, but there is gospel here too, at least implicitly in light of the larger story. This text shows us that Jesus sees clearly the ugliness of human hearts, yet he does not turn away. He sees right through our highly edited versions of ourselves, knows what lurks in our hearts, yet loves us still. In the larger story of the Gospel, he shows us what true faithfulness is by daring to touch those considered unclean, by daring to love those who are social outcasts, by loving and serving and giving his life for all people — tax collectors and sinners, lepers and demon-possessed, scribes and Pharisees, you and me.

This good news exerts a claim on our lives, a call to follow. Following Jesus is not about separating ourselves from those considered less holy or unclean. Following Jesus means that like him, we get our hands dirty serving others, caring especially for those whom the world has cast aside. True faithfulness is not about clean hands, but a heart cleansed and a life shaped by the radical, self-giving love of God in Christ.


First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Anathea Portier-Young

Moses will never enter the land of promise.1

He will climb a mountain east of the Jordan, and from that height he will survey the wide and good land God is giving to Israel (Deuteronomy 3:27). And then he will die (4:22). He will never cross the river Jordan, and the children of the people who marched with him out of Egypt will bury his body in a valley in Moab. They will not mark his grave, or perhaps God will hide it, so that no one will be tempted to bring him into the land of Canaan (34:5-6). Moses belonged to the wilderness generation.

They were almost the land-of-promise generation, but in the wilderness their faith faltered. At Deuteronomy’s beginning Moses recalls for their children, now grown, the painful story of failure.

From Mount Horeb, where God had given the Israelites the gift of the law (elsewhere the Bible calls this place Mount Sinai), God led them to the edge of the beautiful land. God promised them victory (Deuteronomy 1:19-21). But at the edge of the beautiful land they doubted God’s word and refused to enter and claim the inheritance God had decreed for them (1:26-33).

Later, so the book of Numbers relates, even Moses’ faith faltered. God had instructed Moses in the power of the word: speak to the rock, and it will gush water to sustain this thirsty people. But in the face of his people’s thirst, Moses could not trust that a word would call forth living water. He struck the rock (Numbers 20:8-12).

Because their faith faltered at the moment of action, a generation of Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt were condemned to die in the wilderness and never enter the land God had prepared for them (Deuteronomy 1:34-40).

Forty years later a new generation of Israelites stands on the threshold of promise (Deuteronomy 1:1-3). They are poised to exit the desert, depart from the land of a king who seeks their death, and enter a land flowing with milk and honey, where rain falls from the sky (11:9-12). They will have blessings of life and love and children, and fertile soil yielding abundant grain, wine, and oil (7:13). They will be free from disease and victorious over their enemies (7:15-16). 

If. Every promise will be theirs if only they trust. But to trust is a difficult thing to do.
Moses has told the story of the wilderness generation to remind their children of faith’s fragility.
Now he must show them the source of its strength. He cannot cross with them into the land of promise, cannot carry them there, cannot believe for them. From this moment until the hour of his death he can only pray for them, teach them, and proclaim for them the statutes, ordinances, and commandments that God has given them.

Why should these commandments hold the key to life? How do they form the steel core of faith? 
The commandments are the heart of Deuteronomy and the heart of God’s teaching, or Torah, that defines Israel’s life in relationship with God, with one another, and with the nations around them.

They teach worship. They establish norms for political, prophetic, and religious leadership. They mandate communal holidays, festivals, and times of rest. They place limits on the practices of war and blood-vengeance. They ordain a just economy, communal care for the widow, orphan, and poor, and protection of those who are vulnerable. They sanctify labor, meals, and family life. In all of these ways and more the commandments instruct Israel in love (5:10, 6:5, 7:9, 7:13, 10:12, 10:15, 10:19, 11:1, 13:3, 30:6) and give them strength for the life God has called them to live (11:8).

The commandments are the path to life. They are God’s word. But this word does not take root in the minds and hearts of the people by infusion, osmosis, or induction. It is not enough for God to inscribe the commandments on tablets of stone and for the people to carefully guard the tablets in the ark they have made.

Moses — and the preachers that follow him — must proclaim the teaching again and again. Parents must repeat it to their children and their children’s children (4:9-10; 6:2.7.20-21; 11:19-21; cf. 31:12-13, 32:46). And so the book of Deuteronomy is full of repetitions and is itself a repetition, a second iteration of Israel’s story and the teaching God gave them.

Moses’ urgent hope is that the gathered people of Israel will hear, listen, and obey; that they will do what God teaches and calls them to do; and that in their hearing and doing they will form themselves, day by day, action by action, as people of faith. Then they will live and enter their inheritance.

In crafting a sermon on this or another passage, we have occasion to reflect on preaching as necessary repetition of the story and of the commandments that strengthen faith and lead to life. It is not necessary to find or invent new stories each week. Moses cautions the people against adding on to the word God has given. He also cautions against holding back, or subtracting, whether by conscious effort to trim off the parts we do not like or by quiet omission and neglect of the parts we do not understand.

We share Moses’ hope that our children will have the blessing of life. We want them to cross into a place where we will no longer carry them, where they will enter and claim the inheritance God has prepared for them. Our children stand at a threshold. We — preachers, parents, catechists, neighbors, priests, deacons, elders — are their teachers. We are entrusted with our people’s memory and testimony. May our preaching and our life together show to our children the wisdom and justice of God’s teaching, so they may trust in God’s promise and receive abundant life.


Notes

1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 2, 2012.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Elaine James

What does it mean to love a landscape?

The Song of Songs has often been pitched in one of two ways: either it is an allegory about God’s love, or it is erotic poetry about human love. (As it is the only really sex-positive text in the Bible, by all means preach on that!) But to cast the debate as an either/or undervalues the complexity of the poetry. Rarely do people acknowledge the many other kinds of love that the Song encompasses. These include the love of land.

Song of Songs, not Song of Solomon

A brief side-note on the title of the text: I will be referring to this text as the “Song of Songs” (“the Song,” for short), which is the Hebrew title. “Song of Solomon,” is taken from the superscription, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” The latter suggests that the Song was associated with Solomon, or perhaps part of a larger collection of materials gathered under Solomon’s name. It does not mean Solomon wrote it.

Calling the text “The Song of Solomon” perpetuates the problem of rendering women in biblical texts invisible (even though this is what the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] and many other English translations do). This is a very woman-centered text, and women’s voices predominate. The entire lectionary text is cast in the voice of the woman. When the male lover speaks, it is reported to us in the woman’s words: “My beloved speaks and says to me…” In this way, the woman’s voice is the center of the poem’s action and meaning. This point should not be underestimated. The current upsurge of the #MeToo movement reminds us again of the deep need to listen to women’s voices.

A “green” text

Perhaps more than any other biblical text, the Song is filled with images relating to the natural world. It is an incredibly “green” text. The Song is marked by plentiful vineyards (Song of Songs 1:6, 14; 2:15; 7:13; 8:11, 12), fields (1:7-8; 2:7; 3:5; 7:12), and gardens (4:12-5:1; 6:2, 11; 8:13, 14). Twenty-four plant varieties are specifically named in the Song, from the native date palm to wildflowers to exotic spices like myrrh (for example 7:9; 2:1; 4:14). To read the Song, then, is to be invited to experience a lush and fertile landscape. It is also an invitation to look at the land around us, to see the larger world in springtime, and to understand its specificity and detail.

This is most obvious in the description of Song of Songs 2:10-13, at the heart of the passage. The lover calls to the young woman to come away with him, to enjoy their love in the fields:

“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance….”

This is quite a detailed description of the natural world, including climatological factors, attention to season and agricultural practices, the observation of blossoms and fruiting trees, and of course the vineyard. Vines were a quintessential local crop in ancient Israel, central to its agrarian economy. Their blossoming hints at the sensuality of wine. They are also a potent symbol for the young woman’s sexuality.

But pause for a moment with the description of plant-life. There is an ethical call here. People are losing knowledge of landscapes. This is a well-known phenomenon, and it is happening faster in wealthier, western nations than anywhere else in the world.1 Children are no longer able to identify native animals and plants, a kind of knowledge that was once taken for granted. We do not know the world around us. Perhaps the most alarming consequence of this is also the most basic: if we do not know the natural world, we will neither enjoy it nor protect it. With this loss come other losses, including widespread species extinction. The ramifications of such losses are not yet known.

Seeing the lover/ seeing the land

This poem sees with a kind of double-vision. Its metaphorical imagination sees the lovers not only in terms of plants, but also in terms of animal life: “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag” (Song of Songs 2:8-9; compare with 8:14; 1:9, 15; 2:14). The Song consistently blurs boundaries, making us wonder where people end and the earth begins.

The young man is imagined as a gazelle, and so when he approaches it is not clear whether she hears him speaking, or the sound of his hooves rustling the brush outside her window. The Hebrew word qol can mean either “voice” or “sound.” Similarly, the young woman is described as a dove, so when the young man says that her voice is sweet (2:14) is it the speaking voice of a human he describes, or the coo of a dove? The poetry self-consciously blurs boundaries between the landscape and the lovers, a technique that is used throughout the Song.

In this way, the Song models an ethical stance: to see the lover as a landscape. And again: to see the landscape as a lover. How could our ethics of land be shaped by taking seriously this radical vision?


Notes:

  1. See, for example Beth S. Robinson, Richard Inger, and Kevin J. Gaston, “A Rose by Any Other Name: Plant Identification Knowledge and Socio-Demographics (PLoS One. 2016; 11(5): e0156572) and the studies cited there.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 15

Esther M. Menn

What makes a good guest?1

At summer’s end, when many people are returning from visits with family and friends, this is a timely question. There is an old joke that says a visitor and a fish smell the same after three days. Both stink!

But there are also guests who bring so much joy and contribute so richly to our well-being that they never wear out their welcome. We look forward to their coming and wish they would stay forever!

There are also instances when visitors become permanent members of a household. In our current economy, these arrangements are more common. We are no strangers to the dynamics of living closely together as guests and hosts!

Psalm 15 asks who would make a good guest in God’s home. The divine dwelling is identified poetically as a “tent,” recalling the tabernacle of the wilderness wanderings, and also as a “holy hill,” evoking the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem: “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (15:1).

In sacred spaces as fragile as a cloth structure or as solid as a mountain, God stays with Israel through changing times. What is more, God welcomes guests!

Psalm 15 has been viewed as a liturgical entrance rite (see Psalm 24:3-6), but gate-keeping is not its purpose. Longer term arrangements are at stake. What kind of person may “abide” as a resident alien in God’s house? The verb “abide” is related to the Hebrew word for the landless stranger (ger), whom Israel is charged to protect (Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 10:18). In Psalm 15:1, we are asked to think of ourselves as immigrants seeking God’s protection.

The second verb in verse 1, “dwell” (shkn), is also rich, since it can refer both to people settling down peacefully and to God’s encampment in the wilderness tabernacle (mishkan, literally God’s “dwelling place”) and on Mt. Zion (Psalm 135:21). This word choice suggests cohabitation of a holy place by human and divine occupants.

After the first verse, the focus in Psalm 15 shifts abruptly to ordinary life. The rest of the psalm provides a thought-provoking answer to the question of who would make a good guest in God’s home (vss. 2-5).

A series of descriptive verbs paints a portrait of the long-term visitor who would gladden God’s heart. What one does defines the person, whether acting for good or refraining from harm.

The NRSV paraphrases the masculine singular verbs in Psalm 15 by using the plural pronoun “those.” This translation is helpful because it is gender inclusive; however, it obscures the emphasis on each individual’s discernment, behavior, and speech. Every person makes a big difference!

Psalm 15 has a teaching purpose. It encourages us to think about how we as individuals, families, and communities are invited to live in God’s presence with joy and integrity. All the lectionary readings for this Sunday teach about values and behaviors (see for example, Deuteronomy 4:9).

The portrait of an ideal guest opens with a three-part summary of positive traits. The best guests are:

“Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak truth from their heart” (verse 2, NRSV).

Additional nuances of this beautiful orientation to the life of faith are captured by an alternative paraphrase. The ideal guest would be:

“The person who walks with integrity, does what leads to reconciliation, and acknowledges truth when making decisions” (verse 2, author’s translation).

“Walking” suggests that all we do is a lifelong journey in God’s company. What is “right” refers to the quality of relationships fostered by our behavior. The “heart” in Hebrew anthropology is the organ of deliberation and commitment to future action. Integrity, good will, and honesty are hallmarks of daily life with God.

Psalm 15:2 is comparable to the memorable verse in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV).

The following verses develop the principles summarized in Psalm 15:2. In vss. 3-4 there is a special emphasis on speech (similar to James 1:19, 26). What we say matters! The lack of civility in politics, social media, and interpersonal exchanges makes this an enduring topic.

The ideal guest refrains from speaking ill of others and from spreading harmful gossip. Humiliating critiques are avoided (verse 3), since shaming can cause damage rather than constructive change. Preserving the reputation of others is important.

Positive speech about others should also be discerning. The guest portrayed in this psalm intentionally lifts up for public honor those “who fear the LORD,” who live according to God’s wisdom. By contrast, those with baser motivations are best avoided (verse 4).

Regarding another type of speech, the imagined guest keeps promises even when it is not in this person’s own self-interest (verse 4).

The final verse of Psalm 15 treats systemic economic and legal concerns (15:5). Not charging interest on loans means not profiting from the poverty of the most vulnerable members of society. A positive implication is that interest-free loans may assist a neighbor out of a crisis.

In the legal arena, rejecting bribes signals a commitment to fairness in the courts. The integrity of the legal system promotes justice for all.

The description of the ideal guest is not exhaustive, but it is enough to suggest a whole way of life. There is resilience and stability in being God’s guest. Like the firm mountain of Zion itself (Psalm 125:1), the person who stays close to God will not be moved. (See Deuteronomy 4:7 for another reference to nearness to God.)

This promise does not exclude challenges and profound experiences of loss. We only have to recall Jesus’ crucifixion and the 2015 church shooting of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other Charleston Nine. Our daily lives as God’s guests are the holy ground from which we will never be shaken, whether we live or whether we die.


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 30, 2015.


Second Reading

Commentary on James 1:17-27

Margaret Aymer

Lectionary editors do not always make the most helpful choices.

James 1:17-27 exemplifies this. Rather than a single argument, the passage contains at least three arguments, one of which begins far earlier than 1:17. Each of these arguments in James 1 introduces later portions of the letter of James. James 1 serves both as a precursor to the rest of the letter, and as a succinct exposition of what James calls “pure and undefiled religion.”

James begins by contrasting children of desire with children of God (James 1:12-18) an argument that ends with 1:17-18, the first two verses of this lection. This theme will recur at the end of James 3 and through most of James 4. Following this, he contrasts human sharp-tongued hot-headedness with God’s justice (James 1:19-21, 26), the focus of most of James 3. Finally, he differentiates between those who hear and those who do God’s word (James 1: 22-25), the primary subject of James 2.

Each section of today’s lectionary passage could become its own sermon. The first portion, when taken within its literary context (James 1:12-18), highlights the contrast between the gifts and acts of giving that come from God and the desires that lead to sin and death (1:14-17). Here, the author contrasts two birth narratives.

In the first, desire or craving (epithumia), gendered as a feminine noun in Greek, conceives and gives birth to sin (hamartia), who in turn conceives and gives birth to death (thanatos). By contrast, the gifts of God are good and complete (teleios), coming down from above (1:17). These come to us from the God who is at once figured as the “Father of lights” and as the one who has given birth to the community of faith through the word of truth, a remarkably feminine description (1:18). The community of faith represents the first fruits of God’s creatures, an allusion perhaps to the expected coming of Christ. The first portion of this lection suggests meditations on what it means to be children of God rather than children of desire.

The second portion of this lection focuses on communication, a topic of some currency in the contemporary climate. James, here, counsels the value of listening and of keeping a cool head (James 1:19), not only as ends in themselves but because their obverse does not produce God’s dikaiosune (1:20), God’s “justice” or “righteousness” depending on one’s understanding of that word. Note, here, that James does not warn against all speech or anger, but rather against a temperament that speaks too quickly and is easily angered. Instead of these attributes, James’ audience must turn from filthy and evil behavior to welcome God’s implanted word (1:21). This part of the lection invites an exploration of the connection between one’s communication, verbal or virtual, and one’s faithfulness to God.

The third part of the lection picks up a theme that will be repeated in next week’s reading also: the importance of faith-informed action. Faithful action, for James, means paying specific attention to “the law of liberty,” possibly a shorthand for Torah, especially the Ten Commandments (James 2:11) and Leviticus 19:18 (James 1:25). Believers should enact the law of liberty, rather than just listen to it, so that they not become like those who look into a mirror and then immediately forget their own reflection (1:24). Here, a contrast arises between those who look into the mirror and those who look into the law, a contrast, perhaps between seeing things as one wishes and seeing things as God wishes.

James 1:26-27 encapsulates the spirit of the entire chapter, by pointing out the primary characteristics of “true religion.” Here, all three themes merge. Pure religion, according to James, guards its speech (1:26, compare with 1:19-21). It acts out its faith by caring for society’s marginalized persons, here represented by “widows and orphans” (1:27, compare with 1:22-25). And, it keeps itself unstained from the world. This last corresponds to 1:17-18 obliquely, but begins a theme that James will continue throughout the letter: the contrast between God and the world that culminates in the pronouncement that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:3).

Throughout these verses, James invites the question: “What does it mean to live as a Christian?” James 1 suggests preliminary answers, answers that deepen as the James lections continue for the next few weeks.