Lectionary Commentaries for July 5, 2015
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 6:1-13

C. Clifton Black

This Sunday’s pairing of Mark 6:1-6 and 6:7-13 kindles the preacher’s imagination.

The first passage — “Where did this man get all this?” (6:2) — closes a section that began with Mark 4:35-41: “Who then is this?” (4:41). Likewise, 6:12 (“So they went out”) opens a door that isn’t shut until 6:30 (“The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught”). What happens when the interpreter listens only to the juxtaposition of Jesus’ return to his hometown with his sending of the twelve? We may hear each story rhyme with its mate.

1. The mission of the twelve parallels Jesus’ own mission. In Mark 3:13-15 Jesus assembled the twelve to extend his ministry of preaching and exorcism (1:21-28; 3:7-12). That extension occurs in 6:12-13, after Mark’s made it clear that “his disciples [have] followed him” (6:1). At 6:7a Jesus takes the initiative: “he called the twelve and began to send them out” in pairs (perhaps for safety and corroboration: Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; Acts 13:2-3). Their authority derives from Jesus’ power over unclean spirits (v. 7b). The implications for Mark’s listeners should be clear. Jesus’ disciples are not passive beneficiaries of their teacher; he gives them a mandate to witness and to heal, replicating his own public ministry (cf. 1:14-15; 6:5). Jesus’ adherents are not self-authorizing; they receive orders from their commander and can execute them because he has given them exousia — authoritative power — to do so.

2. The equipment for such ministry appears astonishingly meager. Some first-century street preachers carried at least a pair of shirts, a staff, and a beggar’s bag. In Mark 6:8-9 the twelve are forbidden the bag and change of tunics; they must live hand-to-mouth while on the road. In a way their paltry resources echo Jesus’s own, which so astound his listeners in Galilee. This hometown boy is only a tekton: a carpenter or stonemason (6:3a). (Celsus, Christianity’s second-century critic, mocked the religion’s founding by a blue-collar worker.) “Where did this man get all this” power to teach and to heal (6:2)? To scoff at the disciples’ — and our own — equipment for ministry is to take offense just as those in the synagogue did: literally, “they stumbled over him” (6:3b; cf. 4:14). Later, the twelve will be perplexed by the magnitude of human need compared with their paltry resources; yet, with our master’s blessing, it’s amazing how much you can do with so little (6:35-44).

3. Offers of ministry can be accepted or refused, and we see both responses in these twinned tales. Empowered by Jesus, traveling disciples cast out demons, anointed many and cured the sick (Mark 6:13; cf. James 5:14; Revelation 3:18). Even in hostile environs, Jesus laid his hands on a few sick and cured them (Mark 6:5b). Yet among his own kin he was dishonored, and that rejection short-circuited his ability to do a mighty deed among them (6:4-5a). So, too, for his disciples (6:11). Shaking dust off the feet appears to have been a prophetic demonstration: from those who repudiate the kingdom’s herald, nothing should be received — not even their dirt (see Nehemiah 5:13; Acts 13:51). No one, neither the Christ nor his followers, can ram the gospel down anyone’s throat. If people repent — turn their minds Godward — the conditions for healing are satisfied (Mark 6:13). If they refuse to entrust themselves to the good news, delivered by unlikely agents, then Jesus can do little but marvel at their faithlessness (6:6a). Those who expect nothing from Jesus are not disappointed (6:5b).

4. Rejecting Jesus and his faithful emissaries isolates; welcoming them creates community. It’s easy to miss, but this pair of stories in Mark illumines the social consequences of faith or unbelief in the good news. The aphorism about the prophet honored everywhere but at home recalls the saying in Mark 2:17b: Jesus calls, not the familiar righteous, but rather alien sinners. More than any other Evangelist (see Matthew 13:57b; Luke 4:24; John 4:44), Mark highlights the poignancy in 6:4: God’s prophet is dishonored in homeland, among kin, and in his own house. The last item is an explicit link with 3:25-27: the divided house, exemplified by Jesus’ own family who think him mad (3:21, 31-32). Another hint of division within Jesus’ family may underlie his description as “the son of Mary” (6:3). Unlike Matthew (1:16-24), Luke (3:24; 4:22), and John (1:45; 6:42), nowhere in Mark is Jesus called “the son of Joseph.” Does Mark 6 imply that had Joseph died? If Jesus was the eldest son of a widowed mother, then abdication of her support while he practiced itinerant ministry would have been scandalous, though consistent with his teaching elsewhere (Mark 10:29-30). Rejected at home in the synagogue (where Jews assemble for prayer: 1:21), Jesus directs his emissaries — those “appointed to be with him” (3:14) — to outsiders in surrounding villages (6:6b). For shelter Jesus’ deputies are instructed to stay in one house until leaving it for another (6:10), dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is a notable feature of early Christianity that so many of its adherents, ostracized by their kin (Mark 13:12; John 9:18-23), found support among surrogate families in house-churches (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2).

Mark has braided the two stories in 6:1-13 with common themes. Rather than cataloguing them, as I have done here, the Evangelist shows the attentive preacher how these tales may be twisted for today’s listeners. After days at sea and on the road Jesus astounds his hometown (Mark 6:1-2). Familiarity breeds contempt (6:3). Jesus expects that (6:4) but cannot do a thing for them (6:5a) save, incidentally, heal a few sick folk (6:5b). While such tales usually culminate in an audience’s astonishment (1:27; 2:12; 4:41; 5:20b; 5:42), now Jesus is the one flabbergasted — by an un-faith so impenetrable (6:6a). Rejection catalyzes fresh ministry (6:6b-7) by empty-pocketed dimwits (4:13, 35-41; 5:31; 6:8-11) who get the job done (6:12-13). In Mark there’s no stopping the good news (13:10) — but no telling how it breaks through (16:1-8).

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5

Tyler Mayfield

Stubborn. Impudent. Rebellious.

These are the adjectives God uses in this address to the prophet to describe the people of ancient Israel. The descriptors certainly do not cast Ezekiel’s audience in the best light. The labels neither tell the whole story of Israel’s behavior nor provide the ethical scope for a proper theological anthropology.

It’s a one-sided characterization.

So, we initially wouldn’t want to hover for too long over this unfortunate text from the lectionary (never mind that it’s Ezekiel too!). Yet, a number of homiletic possibilities spring forth from this short reading. Allow me to make three points.

First, the adjectives remind us of that side of humanity that finds it difficult to respond obediently to God’s call. This may not be the easiest notion to preach, but we are capable of stubbornness. The prophets did not wait until Lent to remind people of this capacity.

For Ezekiel’s context, words such as “stubborn” are particularly poignant given their occurrence within his call or commissioning near the beginning of this biblical book. Our lesson today from Ezekiel 2 comes immediately after the well-known chariot vision of Ezekiel in which the prophet sees “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God” (Ezekiel 1:28). Ezekiel has experienced an overwhelming divine vision and now hears a divine voice. If he is not already engulfed in the immensity of his prophetic call, our passage promises to create such a feeling. His call shall not involve preaching to a receptive audience ready for introspection and change. The prophet is called instead to a house of rebellion, a phrase unique to this biblical book.

Perhaps those of you who lead congregations (or deal with people in any capacity!) are nodding with recognition at this previous point. God’s call to Ezekiel, while including fantastic visions of the divine, also includes a realistic element: people may refuse to hear. People choose their response. And sometimes they choose to not heed the words of the prophet.

This rather pessimistic attitude toward ancient Israel is also a result of the exilic context of the book of Ezekiel. If God is not to blame for the exile (and Ezekiel surely affirms that theological notion), then the people must be to blame. This point, of course, highlights the danger of such name-calling. While it is true that we like ancient Israel can be a stubborn people at times, it is simply not true that many events — especially international events like the fall of nation-states, are the result of our rebellion. When attempting to make sense of their exilic situation, some prophets tended to emphasize Israel’s direct role in their demise, while ignoring the more likely political factors at play. We must be careful when speaking of rebellious houses to not misplace blame and shame. When bad things happen, it can be tempting to resort to blaming the victim.

Second, the call of God through the prophet implies that the people can respond. Although they are rebellious, they are not without hope. God holds out hope that the people will hear and respond. This implication is actually not emphasized much in this small passage from Ezekiel. Additionally, if you continuing reading into Ezekiel 3, you will find more name-calling (“the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart”) and little signal that God thinks Ezekiel’s prophecies will result in changed hearts.

Yet, the prophetic call for change still goes forth. And this prophetic message is written down and preserved. It is read and reread through the years and centuries until this very Sunday in Pentecost. The prophetic call goes forth not because there is no chance of a response. The call comes to us because we can and do respond.

Third, this passage from Ezekiel 2 connects to the Gospel reading for today, Mark 6:1-13. In the lesson from Mark, Jesus teaches in his hometown synagogue and receives a less than positive reception. In response to this rejection, he quotes a proverb: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown … ”

The two readings share the idea that a prophetic voice is not always heard. Jesus identifies himself as a prophet — standing in continuity with ancient Israel’s prophetic tradition — who, like those earlier prophets, does not find everywhere a receptive audience. There is risk inherent in speaking for and about God. Prophets take this risk. Some will hear and respond to the call; others will be more stubborn.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

David G. Garber, Jr.

Last week, David’s drama took center stage as he grieved over his mentor, Saul, and his friend, Jonathan, two figures who represented possible one-time rivals for legitimate rule.

David mourned the fallen shield of Saul, Israel’s protector, which no longer bore the anointing oil. In this week’s text, the people come to David looking for a new shield, a new protector, anointed by God.

While David would never malign his predecessor, the tribes of Israel reminded him that even while Saul was the official king over Israel, David was the functional king (2 Samuel 5:2). They recalled Samuel’s prophetic anointing of David (1 Samuel 16:13), and they claim him as their shepherd. The people make a covenant with David as king — much as YHWH will make a covenant with him in chapter 7 — and they anoint him, the people’s choice (2 Samuel 5:3). He begins his official reign at the age of 30, and the text proclaims his rule for the next forty years, first with Hebron as the capital, and then Jerusalem. The end of this passage declares that David occupied the holy city and renamed it after himself (v. 9).

The only theological claim in the story is that David increased because YHWH, the God of hosts, was with him (v.10). This title for YHWH is not insignificant. “God of hosts” is the title of the warrior God, the God who wages war against Israel’s enemies — and sometimes Israel itself — in the prophets, and the victorious God whom the Psalms praise. When we recall the people’s request for a king like all the other nations in 1 Samuel 8, they wanted a king who would lead them into battle, preferably a king who would protect them from the intruding Philistines and other neighbors. Despite the prophetic warnings of what the king will do — that he will enslave their children and take their lands — the people persist, desiring security and peace through force rather than trusting in YHWH as their king.

It is interesting, therefore, that the lectionary text for today omits the very story of how David comes to reign in Jerusalem. Perhaps this lectionary omission reveals more about how we want to sweep the dirty details under the rug of divine anointing than we like to admit. 2 Samuel 5:6-8 relay David’s conquest of Jerusalem. The Jebusites, who inhabited the city, mock the new king, so confident in Jerusalem’s fortification that they claimed even the blind and lame would turn back David’s forces (v. 6). David persists, with a quite shocking declaration from our perspective, commanding his soldiers to “attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates” (v. 8). The Hebrew meaning of this last phrase is quite ambiguous. It could refer to those whom David despises, as the NRSV translates. The Jewish Publication Society suggests, however, that it could refer to those who hate David. In either case, these are the enemies of David, though the text does not give any indication as to why this is the case.

In essence, the Jebusites controlled Jerusalem, a city David wanted to claim for his capital. This was a wise choice for the new king. Jerusalem was the northernmost fortified city in the tribal territory of Judah, which gave David the political base of his own tribe but also offered a central location to conduct business with the other tribes of Israel. Because the Jebusites occupied the city, no other Israelite tribe could lay claim to the territory, providing neutral ground to conduct political affairs. As the Jebusites point out in their mockery of David and his soldiers, it is also a well-fortified territory, providing a nice military advantage. In essence, by taking the city, David showed his political and military prowess. David had the strategic mind to rule.

Because of our pro-Davidic bias and the glorification of David as the man after God’s own heart (1 Kings 11:4), we tend to forget these baser aspects of his rule. We prefer to place David on the pedestal as the pious psalmist rather than think about the means he used to consolidate his rule. The omission in the lectionary text helps us do that. But David had been working behind the scenes even before this episode. In 2 Samuel 3, David reclaimed his former wife, Michal, taking her away from her husband Paltiel, insuring that there would be no Saulide rival to the throne from Michal’s womb, a factor that will play into next week’s lectionary text as well.

As this rehearsal of Israel’s game of thrones suggests, I am quite taken back by the mixture of theology, politics, and warfare that we witness in these texts. Prior to Saul’s death, the character of David seemed rather pristine, even though he was involved in military conflict throughout most of his exile from Saul’s house. After Saul’s and Jonathan’s death, however, David seems quite shrewd, so shrewd that it leads me to question his supposed humility in his ode to the fallen Saul and Jonathan.

The biblical text, however, does not share my discomfort. The text does not judge David for reclaiming Michal or dispossessing the Jebusites of their city. In fact, it almost blesses or condones these actions in proclaiming that David was both the people’s choice and God’s (2 Samuel 5:1-2). For me, this text serves as a reminder that even as we condemn other religious traditions of engaging in holy wars, we have our own heritage of holy war and glorification of theo-military leaders to examine. Perhaps it is time to stop idolizing David by reading the rest of his story.


Commentary on Psalm 123

Jerome Creach

Psalm 123 is the fourth psalm in the collection of psalms held together by the common designation “of Ascents” in their titles (Psalms 120-134).

These psalms were probably collected for use during pilgrimage to Jerusalem or to promote such pilgrimage. The term “ascents” comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to go up.” This word appears in the last line of the Chronicler’s history as part of the report that Cyrus of Persia, having conquered the Babylonians, would allow the exiled people of Judah to return to their homeland and to worship God in the soon-to-be-rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. The word to the exiles concerning anyone who would return to Jerusalem was, “Let him go up” (2 Chronicles 36:23). Thus, “ascents” in the title of Psalm 123 denotes ascent to Jerusalem and/or to the temple on Mount Zion.

The psalm has elements of the prayers for help known elsewhere in the Psalter (e.g. Psalm 13): complaint of trouble and petition for salvation (verses 3-4) and expression of trust (verses 1-2). These features most often appear in reverse order, with complaint and petition first, followed by a statement of trust, though the present order occurs in some other psalms such as Psalm 40. The two parts of Psalm 123 hold together well, with the statement of trust and confidence serving as the foundation for the complaint and petition. For example, references to mercy in verses 2 and 3 connect the two segments of the psalm. The petition for mercy in verse 3 is related to the recognition that it is God’s nature to give it.

The psalm opens with an individual speaking (“I lift up;” v. 1). In verse 2 the voice becomes plural (“our eyes look to the Lord”) and the community voice pervades the remainder of the psalm. This shift from first-person singular to first-person plural speech probably reflects the situation of worship in which an individual spoke on behalf of the worshippers gathered (see similarly-cast prayers in Psalms 129 and 131).

Psalm 123 begins with the declaration, “To you I lift my eyes” (Psalm 123:1), which is similar to the opening of Psalm 121 (“I lift up my eyes to the hills”) and may in fact be an adaptation of Psalm 121:1. “Lifting the eyes” is an expression of anxiety and helplessness.1 In Psalm 121 the psalmist lifts eyes to the hills in search of security and protection. The psalm suggests this is found in God’s presence as experienced in the Jerusalem temple. In Psalm 123:1, however, the eyes are not lifted to God’s dwelling place in the Jerusalem temple, but to God’s heavenly abode (“enthroned in heaven”). Though the psalm appears in a collection meant for pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it identifies God first and foremost as the one who dwells in the heavens. The worshippers who prayed this prayer lived in the period after the Babylonian exile. They had experienced the vulnerability of the temple in Jerusalem when they saw it destroyed and, as a result, they placed their trust in and conceived God primarily as the one who was enthroned in the temple that could not be destroyed by an enemy.

Verse 2 contains a double simile that expounds on the opening declaration. The worshipping community “lifts its eyes” as servants look to a master (v. 2a) or as female slaves look to their mistress (v. 2b). The images connote vulnerability, dependence, and obedience. As William Bellinger and Walter Brueggemann observe, this type of address is not politically correct, and it should not in any way suggest that servitude of one human to another is good or right. In a context in which such relationships were common, however, the simile makes sense. But even here the notion of the “master” is transformed. The psalmist who calls on the Lord as master knows no dread or fear, only mercy.2 This master is one exclusively sought out for salvation: “our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy on us” (v. 2).

The psalmist seeks mercy in the form of relief from the contempt and oppression of the enemy. The notion of being held in contempt by an enemy is a common theme in the Psalter. For example, the reference to being scorned by the proud suggests a situation akin to the psalmist’s description of enemies sarcastically asking “Where is your God?” in Psalm 42:3. The language here is particularly close to that in other passages that distinguish humankind as rich and poor, righteous and wicked. Those who are speaking scornfully are “at ease” (v. 4) and are identified thus as rich and wicked. Although the psalm does not identify the enemies further, this language appears in Amos 6 in reference to those who enjoy economic privilege and oppress the poor. Both Amos and the psalmist identify the poor as righteous (Amos 2:6; Psalm 34:4-10, 19-22). The division does not suggest that material wealth itself is a mark of wickedness or that lack of it is a sign of righteousness. Rather, the language is used this way to highlight the typical attitude of dependence and humility of the poor and the common lack thereof by the rich.

Bellinger and Brueggemann aptly describe Psalm 123 as “one of the loveliest prayers in all of Scripture, simple and direct, trusting and confident, spoken out of need and in much hope.”3 It captures as well as any psalm the essence of piety the Psalter identifies with the righteous, and it calls on God for mercy and grace so as to acknowledge the primary identity of the God in the Psalms and in the Old Testament (see Exodus 34:6).


1 Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150 (Hermeneia; translated by Linda M. Maloney; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), p. 349.

2 Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 531.

3 Ibid.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Lois Malcolm

What is the true spiritual power?

What constitutes true spiritual authority? How do we distinguish true from false teachers and prophets? Who should we allow to influence us and whose authority can we trust? And how do we respond when spiritual abuse is taking place? These questions set a stage for interpreting 2 Corinthians 12:2-10. They are as relevant in our time as they were in Paul’s day.

  1. Countering fools

Our passage is located within Paul’s ironic “fool’s speech,” where he speaks sarcastically as a “fool” as he criticizes the way certain “super-apostles” are manipulating the Corinthians with their special claims to authority. Disguising themselves as “ministers of righteousness,” these super-apostles were turning the Corinthians into their “slaves” — preying on and taking advantage of them, putting on airs around them, shaming them and perhaps even abusing them physically (2 Corinthians 11:12-21). Paul is frustrated with the Corinthians because they seem so ready to submit to these individuals.

By contrast, Paul describes apostolic ministry as a transparent disclosure of truth accessible to everyone’s conscience before God. The proclamation that “Christ is Lord” makes us “slaves” to one another “for Jesus’ sake”: it cannot be used — without enacting a contradiction — to deceive, control, or manipulate others (2 Corinthians 4:1-6).

  1. Credentials and hardships

In the rest of the speech, Paul addresses what probably were the ways these super-apostles sought to establish their authority. He begins by rejecting two common claims to authority in the ancient world: those based on having a particular religious, ethnic, or even “Christian” heritage (2 Corinthians 11:22-23) and those based on the mastery of adversity (2 Corinthians 11:22-29).

The one experience Paul does boast of is his experience in Damascus of being let down in a basket in order to evade persecution. What he boasts of here is not his prowess over suffering, but the help he has received from God — through others — in a time of weakness (2 Corinthians 11:32; Acts 9).

  1. Visions and revelations

In addition to their credentials and capacity to master adversity, the super-apostles were probably also using their spiritual experiences as a basis for claiming authority over the Corinthians. In the ancient world, attesting to spiritual journeys was a popular way of claiming divine validation for one’s authority.

Paul rooted his own call as an apostle not in a human source but in “a revelation of Jesus Christ” he had experienced fourteen years prior (Galatians 1:12; 2:12). In this passage he refers to his experience of having attained “the third heaven,” another way of speaking about Paradise. Yet Paul is not interested in boasting about these experiences. He does not even know — or care — whether they were “in the body” or “out of the body” experiences (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Earlier in the letter, he has already made clear that whether we are “at home with the body” or “at home with the Lord” our aim is simply “to please God” (2 Corinthians 5:9).

Paul grounds his authority in public, accessible truth: “what can be seen in me or heard from me” (2 Corinthians 12:6). He appeals to an authority far more trustworthy — and accessible to others — than his own fleeting experiences: “the one who raised the Lord Jesus,” who “will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14). And God’s grace cannot be contained but continually “extends to more and more people” (2 Corinthians 4:15).

  1. Power in weakness

So if claims based on lineage, the mastery of hardship, or having special visions and revelations do not count, then how do we discern true spiritual authority? Paul describes a “thorn in the flesh” he has been given — so that he will not have too high an opinion of himself — in order to explain what true spiritual power is all about.

We have no idea what this “thorn” actually was, but it probably was the kind of “slight momentary affliction” Paul refers to earlier in the letter (2 Corinthians 4:17). In chapter four, Paul draws on imagery from psalms of lament to describe his apostolic life: being afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Like the psalmists, Paul mentions these difficulties not to highlight his mastery over adversity — or to let others know how much he has suffered — but rather to stress that God is our source of rescue amid all that we experience.

Even though Paul has asked the Lord three times to take away his pain — his “thorn in the flesh” — the Lord’s only response has been: “My grace is sufficient for you.” The sufficiency of God’s grace is directly related to the point that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The word for “perfect” (teleitai) in this verse is perhaps better translated as “reaches full maturity.” We mature as we recognize our weaknesses — our limits — and learn to rely ever more deeply on the power of Christ dwelling in us.

Only by relying on Christ and not ourselves (or any other human authority for that matter) can we become “powerful” (dunatos) in the sense of being a source of succor for others (2 Corinthians 12:10). And this kind of spiritual power never seeks to dominate or control others, or claim superiority. Like a nursemaid or a parent, Paul’s goal as an apostle is simply to assist others as they stand in the truth of their own conscience before God — where they “test” and “examine” for themselves what it means to have Christ “in” their lives (2 Corinthians 13:5-8).

So what constitutes true spiritual power and authority? How do we distinguish true from false claims to authority? Our claim to authority has only one source: God’s rescuing us in our weakness in Jesus through the Spirit. Not only are appeals to that authority always public and accessible to everyone’s conscience, but they can only be used — without enacting a contradiction — for one purpose: building up one another so that we grow together, amid all that we experience, into the truth of our full maturity as human beings in Christ (2 Corinthians 10:8; 12:19; 13:10).