Lectionary Commentaries for July 8, 2018
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 6:1-13

Cláudio Carvalhaes

[Editor’s note: The author has read this text from the perspective of an immigrant, pairing the events of the gospel reading with the events of our time, imagining the gospel taking into account our own social situation.]

Mark 6:1

He was named Jesús, a name his parents gave him when he was healed when he was a child. Jesús Jose Maria López. Everyone expected Jesús to go to El Norte (“the North”) and save them. El Norte was a mixed place filled with contradictions. Promises and nightmares filled both sides of the mouth of the people who ever dreamed of going there. The situation of his village, his pueblito, was such that people had to leave their homes to escape sheer brutality and economic hardships. Many of them went to El Norte because they had no choice and not because they were hoping for any richness. The most radical hope was to get to a place in the United States and work quietly, hoping to send some help back home.

Jesús was one among many people who were going to save this poor village. Jesús was hope not only for money but for a path — a way out. Pride and honor were also at stake. In a community destitute of everything, anything that could lift them up would be life changing. The expectations varied. Some would expect him to make miracles. Other wouldn’t wait for much, knowing that just the thought of trying to go was already an act of unspeakable bravery. They all knew that along the way there were coyotes (smugglers), la migra (border patrol), rape, and prisons in which inmates become profit for private business — and those north-bound travelers are stripped of their bare-minimum sense of humanity. Hatred was everywhere, evil eyes and brutal hands waiting to destroy what was once deeply loved back in the village.

Mark 6:2-3

Jesús managed to cross the desert, got a job, and sent money back. Until he was caught. In jail, he wrote his mother telling her the whole situation and asking her to forgive him. He also asked her what the villagers were saying about him. At first, she didn’t want to say anything but she had promised to be honest with him the day he left home. She then said that at first, people were asking, “Where did he get all this money? It is like a miracle.” But they doubted, thinking he was a robber or a con-man. When they found out he was detained, they started saying: “We knew it, he is no good for this village. He thought he was above everybody else but was caught by la migra. Stupid! He has no skills to survive as an immigrant.”

When Jesús read the letter his mother sent, he was caught by surprise. And he was devastated. He truly believed that people would be so proud of him for having tried, for having managed to cross the border and send some money home. And then he thought that the fact that he was caught would make people have mercy on him and cover him with prayers. None of that.

For the most part he had no honor in his own village anymore. Even at his house, his brothers were mocking him. He felt stuck — he couldn’t do anything. Only his mother loved him unconditionally. All his own people abandoned him and he realized that there was a thin line between honor and shame, and that line that could easily be flipped, depending on what the community needed or decided to feel about him. Allegiances and betrayals were the same side of their feelings for him.

Mark 6:6-13

Feeling utterly alone, Jesús mustered some strength to send a letter to his four kids. His wife was killed by the brutality of gangs and the acquiescence of the state, something neither him nor his kids were able to grieve completely. He didn’t know how long he was going to be in that immigrant prison and he decided to write a letter to his kids. He wrote:

Stephanie, Angel, Ana, y Dieguito, mis queridos ninõs, Perdóname! (my dear children, forgive me.) I had to leave you to find a way for you to eat, to live.

Stephanie and Angel wanted to come with me but I am glad they didn’t. La Migra is taking away kids from their parents as soon as they catch them crossing la frontera (the border). I write you from this jail, a place that looks like a cage for animals. I can hear mamas y papas crying day and night longing to be united with their children again. But nobody knows where they are. We hear the government is misplacing our kids and they have no idea where these beloved kids are.

I can’t imagine how these kids are feeling! So scared, so anxious, so desperate. My heart aches so much here that sometimes I think I will not be able to make it. This jail is like a cross where we die slowly of shame and violence. Our blood drops from our hearts every day, and every day a little of what we think of ourselves is lost. I don’t know what it will happen to me. Perhaps I will rise again in your heart.

But one thing I want you to listen to — and listen carefully! Never, under in any circumstance, go away on your own. You are four people and you should always go to places in groups of two. Never go anywhere alone, be it to buy bread or to sleep. Make sure that you care for your abuela (grandma), and love her and treat her well. I might not be able to talk to you again but I tell you don’t cross this border. There are merciless people here. I’ve heard there are good people, but they don’t raise their voices the way angry, patriotic people do and the feeling is that they are overwhelmingly larger, even if it is not true.

However, if you ever cross this border, bring only water, tortillas, and a crucifix. Nothing else! You might get lost. You might get raped. And if they get you, you will be in jail for a long time since there is an official “bed mandate” where la migra must fulfill a certain number of prisoners in order to make profit for private business. You might lose your mind. You will think they are possessed by demons because only people possessed by bad spirits can do such things. And the worst thing, as you stay with them for a while you will feel you are possessed too. You start to curse and say they are evil. In the name of Jesus cast away their demons but cast your demons away too!

And above all things, guard your hearts. God has given you fullness! In whatever situation, be grateful to the earth, to God and to the universe. Trust in yourself. Nothing and nobody can take away the dignity of your own life because you are a child of God, made in God’s own image! It is hard to say, but they are too. Ask for oil when you can, pray for their transformation and your own healing.

Try to keep your sanity. Life is over only when God takes you to eternity. Before that life is a struggle! Always! Get used to horrendous stories you will hear and keep on going! Never go alone! Keep company with someone! Love as much as you can! Pray all the time! Fight without ceasing! And above all: don’t give up! And know that I love you and I will always be with you.

Your father,


First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

One cannot really help this situation but preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) often leaves the pastor in an awkward situation.

We bear some similarity to a person who has arrived late for a play. The passage we read may form part of a larger story or scene, but the RCL has us begin in the middle. The situation matters here because as the scene opens in Ezekiel 2, Ezekiel has fallen on his face. That posture bears some reflection. Few things in our lives cause us to fall on our face. Does Ezekiel fall on his face as an act of worship? Does he feel a sense of awe because of the great vision he has seen of God’s glory? How does the sense of awe, of feeling overwhelmed, relate to worship? How do we communicate in a sermon the overpowering sensation that would cause us to fall on our face? Do we ever experience God’s presence, power, and glory in such a way that we might fall on our face?

Even though we might not imagine the posture of falling on our face, we can imagine the need for God to invite us to stand on our feet. We might feel “fallen,” not because we have had an experience of God’s power and glory, but because of the enormity of the world’s suffering, violence, and conflict. Even if we have fallen only emotionally, we may need God to lift us up.

The availability of the spirit to Ezekiel fits with some of the understandings of a call to prophecy in the Old Testament. We might not assume that Ezekiel would identify the “Holy Spirit,” but a spirit enters the prophet, offering courage, energy, and access to the divine message. Numbers 11:24-29 relates the spirit inspiring prophecy among the elders of Israel in the wilderness.

Micah 3:8 bears much similarity to this passage from Ezekiel, in that Micah seems to feel isolated from the people to whom he must speak. Micah needs courage from the spirit to speak the truth to the people. In the New Testament, the scene in John 20, where Jesus comes to the disciples hold up in fear in a room, communicates much the same situation as Ezekiel. In the midst of fear, Jesus offers peace and “breathes” on the disciples, sending them into a dangerous world (John 20:21-22).

The speaker (Ezekiel 1:28) sends Ezekiel on a mission with no promise of success. Perhaps the people will listen, but perhaps they will not. Ezekiel has the task of speaking the truth without regard to the response. The speaker labels the people “impudent and stubborn.” The Hebrew terms in Ezekiel 2:4 convey concrete images. The people are “brazen of face” and “tough-hearted” (compare to Ezekiel 3:7). We may imagine both the crowd that awaits Ezekiel and the opposition to God’s word of justice today. The image of glowering faces and the reality of closed hearts sets the context for ministry more starkly than the abstractions impudent and stubborn.

Some of the implications for ministry and preaching from this passage seem obvious. The spirit enables ministry even in difficult situations. Authentic ministry speaks the truth regardless of response. God calls us to faithfulness and obedience, not success.

An important question arises, however, concerning the stance of the preacher in connection to this passage. One can imagine sitting in a study alone reading this passage as an interpretation of courageous, faithful ministry. What does it mean for the pulpit? One can imagine a preacher using this text to alert a congregation that preachers do not necessarily speak what the people want to hear. The preacher might promise to seek the truth to the best of one’s ability and speak it, even at the risk of anger and resistance. Such a word to a congregation may acknowledge the hard edge of prophetic speech.

Aside from that use, how should the preacher understand and identify with this important text? If the preacher communicates the stance that he/she stands with God’s word against the congregation, that runs the risk of self-righteousness.

To avoid the temptation to self-righteousness, the preacher can make two moves. First, the preacher should acknowledge that God’s word of judgment confronts the preacher as well as the congregation. The preacher can become brazen faced and tough hearted as easily as the congregation.

The second move involves putting the congregation in the position of the prophet. The congregation, along with the preacher, accepts the ministry of speaking to the world the word of repentance and justice. Admittedly, Ezekiel’s call came to speak to insiders, to those who already understood themselves as God’s people.

God’s people had broken the relationship that they had previously accepted. The world to which the church speaks might not identify that way. Nevertheless, the most helpful stance of the preacher likely involves inviting the congregation to hear the word from God that first judges and then heals as preparation for its ministry in the world.

The passage offers to the church an experience of the glory and presence of God. This presence overwhelms, but also empowers. The church can endure rejection and the apathy of the world if it accepts the inspiration of the spirit and leaves the results to God. The promise to Ezekiel was that the people would at least know that a prophet had spoken to them.

Perhaps the promise to the church is that the world will recognize an authentic community that offers ministry in faithfulness. The church offers the world an authentic word without compromise. The church might not breach the hard-heartedness of the world, but the church cannot back down from the brazen faced resistance of the world. The church does its ministry not under its own power or claim to righteousness, but with the power of God’s glory and the inspiration of the spirit.

Alternate First Reading

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

Alphonetta Wines

Everyone loves a good story.

The intertwining of success and failure, victory and defeat make a story unforgettable. Biblical writers, literary geniuses that they were, knew how to keep their readers on the edge of their seats. The story of David takes up so much of the biblical text, it cannot be ignored.

The story of the beloved David takes its reader on a journey of intrigue that rivals even the best modern-day book turned movie. This passage, 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10, might be called David: A Tale of Two Cities.

Hebron and Jerusalem both have a huge role in the story and life of Israel. Even today, these two cities continue to have an impact that reaches around the world. Hebron on the West Bank and Jerusalem at its center are in the news so often, it is easy to forget that these two cities had an equally important role in the Bible and in the life of David.

The connections to Hebron date back to the life of Abraham. It was here that he settled when he came to the Promised Land. It was here that he purchased some land on which to bury his wife, Sarah. This purchase represents Israel’s first stake in Canaan, a land, promised by God, a land that was already occupied. Joshua defeated the Anakites and designated it a city of refuge. Caleb reclaimed it after it had reverted to the Anakites.

When David was on the run from Saul, he found refuge there. It must have had a special place in his heart for Samuel for it was there that Samuel privately anointed him king while Saul was still on the throne. With so many connections, it is not surprising that David chose Hebron as his capital when he reigned for seven years over two of Israel’s two southernmost family groups. It is here, after the death of Saul’s son, that the elders gathered to make David king of all Israel.

Jerusalem, formerly Salem, also dates back to the time of Abraham. It was here that Abraham presented his gift to king Melchizedek. It was here that Abraham offered his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The Jebusites controlled the site until David captured it and designated it as his capital.

It was a wise diplomatic move for the city was centrally located and easily accessible from north and south. It would become not only Israel’s political center, but also its religious and financial center as well. David would bring the ark to Jerusalem and lay out the plans for the temple which would be built by his son Solomon. Today the city is important to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Whereas Samuel’s anointing was a private family matter, one directed by God, this time his ascension to the throne is by public acclimation. With God’s favor and David’s success, it seems David could do no wrong. Perhaps, despite God’s warning, kingship isn’t such a bad thing after all. The reader knows, of course, Israel’s unity will be short-lived and the monarchy will come to an end with the Babylonian Exile.

In ancient times assassination and military coup were common. It is noteworthy that while David is a warrior, David’s ascension as Israel’s king involved no bloodshed. It is ironic that immediately prior in 2 Samuel 4, David orders the killing of the two men who killed Saul’s son Ish-bosheth who ruled for two years after Saul’s death.

David is a complicated man. His connection to these two cities illustrates just how complicated David is. Whereas Hebron is a city where David found refuge, Jerusalem is a city he conquered. On the one hand, David respects God’s anointed and refuses to lay a hand on Saul. Yet, he is quick to kill those who kill Saul and Ish-bosheth.

His successes and failures are many. When he succeeds, he succeeds big, for example unifying the twelve family groups, bringing the ark to Jerusalem, and organizing Israel’s worship. When he fails, he fails big, for example his rape/marriage to Bathsheba, his accumulation of wives and concubines, and conducting a census.

Too often his story is told in a way that ignores his failures. However, astute readers know the importance of telling, the whole story, the rest of the story. Even though his story is that of legend, as with all human beings, each story has a unique storyline, a unique combination of ups and downs.

Although legend may have painted a flawless picture, it seems David himself would have embraced all of his story — the good, the bad, and the ugly. From the moment of his anointing by Saul, he embraced the responsibility of kingship. Unlike Joseph who couldn’t keep it to himself, he never bragged about his anointing. Before Saul took note of him, he already knew that however many they were, Saul’s days were numbered. When he played his harp, he already knew. When he slew Goliath, he already knew.

David would know that God’s grace was present through it all. He would know that God is faithful, even when he is not. This combination of the best and the worst, not perfection it seems, is what made him “a man after God’s own heart.”

There are many lessons from the life of David. First, don’t let anyone talk you out of your own story. Embrace your own story, for that is where its power lies. Second, know that God will never leave you. God is with you through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Third, when you tell the biblical story, tell it all, even the difficult challenging unethical parts knowing that when we embrace the fullness of our own stories and of the biblical story our lives are enriched beyond measure.


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).1

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 worshipers 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.2 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.3 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.”4 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 Commentary first published on this site on July 5, 2015.

2 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.

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

4 Ibid.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

David E. Fredrickson

Paul is in a bit of a pickle.

He is competing with a rival group of missionaries for the respect of the Corinthian church. If Paul is to be believed — and in matters of his reputation and that of others with whom he struggles we should always be suspicious — the rival missionaries were violent, arrogant, moralistic, and power hungry. In 2 Corinthians 11:12-21 Paul paints their portrait. There in mock admiration he names them “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5).

One stream of Pauline scholarship has in recent years emphasized their similarity with the numerous but fairly uniform accounts of the Cynic philosophers in ancient literature. Cynics (the name refers to dogs) were noted for their hyper-moralism and their use of free speech to condemn the vices of others and to exhibit their own independence. They bark (warn) and they bite (sharply criticize). Many Cynics, not all to be sure, were downright nasty and mean.

That Paul draws upon popular stereotypes of Cynic philosophers to describe his opponents opens 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 to some interesting interpretive possibilities. Paul has gotten himself into a boasting contest in which he seeks to criticize his opponents’ boasting of strength by boasting of his own weakness. Now, you might question whether it is ever a good idea to fight fire with fire, that is, whether it was wise for Paul to boast at all.

Agreed, if you want to criticize your opponents for boasting it is not a good idea to start boasting yourself. Unless you boast not in your strength or power, as the rivals did, but in your weakness as Paul does. Furthermore, it is not quite accurate to say, as I just said, that Paul simply wanted to criticize his opponents. There is of course some of that going on, but I think the stakes are higher than that. The contrast he draws between his opponents’ power and his weakness is about Christ. That is, about his weakness and power.

I believe this whole passage depends on the way we conceptualize “weakness” (astheneia) and how Paul’s weakness dissolves what we usually take to be Christ’s power. The traditional interpretation is to think of weakness as the inability to do something, and that is certainly not an impossible reading of the word. But there is another interpretation that may be more relevant to Paul’s use of astheneia in this passage.

In reference to bodies (of all kinds, not just the human variety) the root sthen indicates a holding together or cohesion. To be strong means to be self-contained and self-identical, even as the world is falling apart around you. Astheneia, on the other hand, means coming undone. It frequently referred to sickness and disease, but it also points, in a more general sense, to what we know about but can’t quite define: “human weakness,” which might be thought of as the failure of resolve or the lack of fortitude in the face of despair.

It’s the weakness that resides in our mortality or in the weakness we feel in ourselves as we contemplate a beloved’s mortality. Or it is the weakness we experience when we remember an intimacy, perhaps never to be repeated, that is beyond words to express and in fact forbidden by love itself to express to anyone other than to the beloved (2 Corinthians 12:4). But that intimacy is locked in the past. To desire it again is to be weak.

So when Paul confesses in 2 Corinthians 12:5 that he only boasts in his weaknesses, he says what must have been puzzling to his readers and utterly unintelligible to the super-apostles had they ever gotten their hands on this text. He boasts in his coming undone.

And when “the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 12:9 replies to Paul’s prayer saying “for power (“my” is a possible but unlikely textual variant) is perfected in astheneia,” this response does not mean that the Lord demonstrates the Lord’s power by having the lowly and incapable Paul demonstrating vividly the huge gap between divine and human power. Rather, a new definition of “power” is in formation, one that prefers to believe that there is strength in falling apart, a strength without strength in the weakness that is non-self-identity — to express the idea in the terms of post-structuralist philosophy. Or to say it in way I can almost understand: power is made perfect in loving.

But what does loving another do to you? In what way does it entail weakness? Since the time of Sappho (7th century BCE) that is the question love poetry has asked. The answer has come in the form of goads, arrows, thorns, anything sharp enough to pierce the skin, infect the body with burning desire, and inflame the soul as we see in these lines from Musaeus’ magnificent and sorrowful poem of the 6th century CE, Hero and Leander:

But you, dread-suffering Leander, when you saw
the glorious girl,
You had no will to consume your heart with secret
But vanquished, all unlooked-for, by the fire-smitten

You had no will to live in loss of lovely Hero.
Under the glance of her eyes, love’s firebrand grew
And your heart seethed at the charge of indomitable
fire —
For the far-renowned beauty of woman without flaw

Comes to mortal men keener than a winged arrow… (lines 86-93; Loeb Classical Library)

Both medieval mystical writers (Marguerite Porete, for example) and commentators on Song of Songs (John of Ford, for example), though presumably never having read a line of Musaeus, just assumed Paul’s passion for Christ (and their own desire) was not so very different from what we read in Leander’s passion for Hero. John doesn’t think twice about identifying Paul’s thorn in the flesh with his frustrated and therefore enfeebling desire to draw close to the beloved. This, then, is Paul’s weakness, which is the perfection of power in Christ’s eyes, and the topic of his boasting. So who do you think won the boasting conquest?