Lectionary Commentaries for June 14, 2015
Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 4:26-34

James Boyce

The opening line of Mark’s gospel announces its theme about as directly as it gets: it’s about the “good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

But when the narrative turns to introducing this Jesus and his ministry, we discover that the story and its implications are not so simple. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth proclaim that the good news about God is that God’s kingdom has now drawn near and he calls for his hearers to “turn their lives around” and “live lives of trusting in the good news” (repent and believe, Mark 1:14-15). As Martin Luther well recognized in the first of his 95 Theses, the present tense of these two verbs indicates that this call is not about a one-time event, but points to an ongoing change of life that is constituted in the good news of the kingdom.

This talk about the kingdom doesn’t just begin the gospel; it is a major theme that breathes through all of Mark’s gospel (some 17 times at least, and mostly in these opening chapters), and in fact in all of the Synoptic Gospels. But as every careful reader of the New Testament knows, the kingdom is not about geography or some static place; it is about the dynamic reality of God’s presence and power within the creation and within the lives of God’s people. In its talk about the kingdom the gospel means to announce that in this Jesus and his ministry, God’s presence and rule have taken on a new dimension and power among us. In this coming kingdom other claimants to power, such as the power of Satan and the demonic, are being challenged, as the opening chapters of Mark — and last Sunday’s gospel, for example — have reminded us again and again.

Though not included in Mark’s gospel, Matthew and Luke both tell us that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in a way that acknowledged this presence of God, to pray “let your kingdom come,” a command of Jesus to which Christians down through the centuries have been more obedient than to any other. But as Martin Luther well recognized in his familiar explanation of this petition in the Small Catechism, when we pray for this kingdom to come, it is as much about us as about God. As Jesus promises at the beginning of Mark, the kingdom is already at hand. “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.”

Talk of the kingdom then has to do with how we will hear this Jesus and how his coming and presence among us will effect and shape our lives, if we would really hear his call to “follow” as his disciples and journey with him. Not surprising then that Mark, the earliest of the gospels, gathered what he saw to be some of the heart of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom. This collection takes up a good portion of chapter 4, of which our reading for this Sunday is the single opportunity to ponder in the course of our Pentecost journey with the lectionary.

Everything is in Parables

So if the message of Jesus and his talk about the kingdom of God are so important, Mark’s conclusion to the collection of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 4:1-34 and also the conclusion of today’s gospel reading come as a somewhat shocking announcement. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them … and he never spoke to them without using parables” (vv. 33-34). Apparently, there is something so important and so key to the understanding of this life of repentance and faith to which Jesus calls us that its character cannot be faced straight on, but can only be contained in the hidden or secret language of parable. So Jesus speaks of the kingdom as being like a sower who sows seed extravagantly and wastefully on different kinds of soil. When the disciples seem confused and ask about the parables, he responds by saying the parables have to do with the “secret” of the kingdom, which is being “given” to them in a special way (Mark 4:10-12). It is a kind of secret that has to do with “all the parables” (13). It is a kind of hiddenness that belongs to the message of the kingdom (22) and demands as well a special gift of hearing that enables us to comprehend its import for our lives.

To this world of hiddenness and secrecy belong the two parables of today’s reading. In the first parable we hear that “the kingdom is like scattering seed,” but then the seed grows secretly “he does not know how.” And yet the seed grows and the harvest surely comes (29)! It is a world in which we might be forgiven if we are just a bit uncomfortable. Do you really mean to say that the kingdom comes without our “doing” anything? Apparently, both Matthew and Luke are uncomfortable with this world as well; they omit this parable and in fact all of the hiddenness or secrecy language from their rendition of this parable material (see Matthew 13 and Luke 13). This should at least be a warning that we need to read Mark with some care here.

What remains clear in this view of the kingdom is that it is a marvelous thing and it is not really under our control. The parable of the mustard seed calls attention to the surprising contrast between the small size of its beginnings and the large shrub, which is the fruit of its growth (30-32).

What’s Not to Know?

The secrecy and hiddenness that accompany this message of the kingdom are not invitations to despair. On the one hand they do point to the crucial matter of our hearing. How will we hear and respond to this teaching and this promise of God’s presence and rule among us? At least four times in the collection (9, 20, 23, 33) Jesus calls attention to the importance of “hearing” as a key factor in the life of repentance and belief shaped by this good news of the kingdom. Apparently, disciples are called to trust that along with the message and presence of God in this Jesus, those who respond can trust they will need special ears to be able to comprehend the implications for their lives if they should follow this Jesus.

On other hand, along with the clear call for good ears, comes the promise that even here we rely on the gift of God in this Jesus. Earlier in the chapter Jesus promises his disciples, “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God” (11), and then he proceeds to interpret carefully the implications of the parable of the sower for them (13-20). In today’s reading we are told that he “explained everything in private to his disciples.”

We are not left without resources. We have the message of the kingdom. We have good ears. And we have the promise of Jesus that along with the call to repent and believe the good news, God in Jesus continues to equip and shape us as hearers who have all we need as God hears our prayer and the kingdom continues to take shape among us and in our world.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 17:22-24

Tyler Mayfield

Three seemingly random verses plucked from the middle of the book of Ezekiel.

They talk of springs and cedars, planting and bearing, bringing low and making high. Why does the lectionary provide this rather obtuse reading for us on this summer Sunday?

There is a method to this madness: the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, Mark 4:26-34, more than likely has in mind Ezekiel 17’s imagery of nesting birds on branches. So the shapers of the lectionary have chosen our brief Ezekiel reading to complement the Mark 4 reading.

Let’s see if this connection between Ezekiel 17 and Mark 4 brings forth some sermonic possibilities.

The fable in Ezekiel 17 concerns a cedar tree, an image already used earlier in the chapter but now expanded and adapted significantly. God will take a portion, a twig, from the top of a cedar tree and plant it on a high mountain. There it will grow mightily into a cedar, and birds will live in its branches. All the other trees in the surrounding field will know about this cedar and the God who planted it.

Of course, we are not talking about actual trees here as if God chooses to prune one specific ancient cedar, while raising up another particular cedar. We have a fable or allegory here in Ezekiel 17. Sort of like Jesus’ parables in Mark 4. We have left the realm of the literal to survey the realm of the story.

Parables can be adapted to fit multiple historical and social contexts.

The twig in Ezekiel 17 is often taken as a messianic figure (remember the branch imagery from the more familiar passage, Isaiah 11), who is planted on the high mountain of Zion. A messianic ruler in Jerusalem. This Davidic figure will bring protection and prosperity to the “birds” who live on his branches. And all the other trees around this noble tree will know that Adonai is God because of the figure. The parable then imagines a way forward for ancient Israel, a way that preserves some continuity with the old way of life — it is a twig from the top of a current tree. But a way that imagines something new as well. A new location. A new tree. New branches.

God’s direct intervention and initiative is well emphasized in this allegory. God takes, sets, breaks off, plants, brings low, makes high, dries up, and makes flourish. God controls the action in this parable. The tree will grow and produce fruit, but even these actions are under the watchful attention of God.

Given the exilic context of this promise, God’s provision is remarkable, as Zimmerli notes:

The saying of vv. 22-24 seeks to proclaim the faithfulness of God, in which [God] holds fast to [God’s] promises in [God’s] history. The old promise given through Nathan to David in the name of God in 2 Samuel 7, that God would give to the people Israel a king from the house of David, was not to be allowed to die out through the catastrophes which Israel had suffered as a consequence of the self-determined action of the contemporary descendant of David.1

God has a plan for how to start anew. This plan will involve a simple and small sprig but will become a lofty and towering cedar. It is not clear if the prophetic passage is playing around with this small-to-large theme, i.e., God starts with something small to create important movements. It may be that the smallness of the twig is because of the focus on an individual who is selected from the people of ancient Israel.

In Mark 4, Jesus relies on the image of branches as protection and shade as he tells the parable of the mustard seed. Instead of using the image of a mighty cedar, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as a small mustard seed that grows into a large bush with branches. This parable also takes up this notion of starting small—a seed or a twig — and growing larger — a bush or a tree — in order to provide nourishment and protection to “the birds of the air.” Here the emphasis does lie on the small seed to become a larger plant. As the contemporary Christian song reminds us: “It only takes a spark to get a fire goin’.”2

Mark’s small seed probably refers on some level with the suffering Markan community who awaits the end. In this way, the passage connections back to Ezekiel’s community who also found themselves in a place of suffering during exile. In those places and times of hardship, it seems appropriate to think about the newness and change and hope that comes when God takes twigs and makes cedars. But even if it doesn’t start small, renewal and hope are alive in our passage from Ezekiel.


1 Walter Zimmerli, Ezekiel 1 (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 368.

2 http://www.hymnary.org/text/it_only_takes_a_spark_to_get_a_fire_goin

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13

Roger Nam

“Samuel then went to Ramah” (1 Samuel 15:34; 16:13).

This simple narrative statement does a lot more then inform the reader where Samuel is physically going. The exact phrase frames this week’s text, repeating itself at the beginning and ending of the passage. The phenomenon has a fancy biblical studies term, a Wiederaufnahme, or a “repetitive resumption.” But despite its weird name, it is really a simple concept. By using a similar or even identical phrase at the beginning and ending of a passage (in this case, the phrase “Samuel then went to Ramah”), the narration is taking a brief pause to go into a tangent. This digression functions as sort of a parenthetical remark, like an excursus. The “repetitive resumption” may break the narrative flow, but only to provide a theological perspective or a side story to complement the primary story. This phenomenon occurs throughout the Hebrew Bible (other examples include Genesis 37:36 and Genesis 39:1). When you see it, you can imagine a story teller, pausing, with a side explanation or story. This week’s reading contains a bit of a pause from the main thread concerning the rise and fall of Saul.

God Grieves

And right away, we read a theologically difficult phrase, “And God regretted/was sorry/grieved” (v. 35). How does an omnipotent and omniscient God regret anything? You may know the typical answers, that the phrase is showing us an aspect of a divine God in human terms. Similar phrasing appears in other sections of the Bible such as the period before the flood (Genesis 6:7) and the Judges cycle of repentance and deliverance (Judges 2:18). These passages give us a better sense of the concept of God grieving –- that God truly weeps and has compassion over his people. At the same time, I believe that it is wise to declare some aspect of God’s grief as simply too profound and mysterious for us to understand.

God Comforts

Samuel is clearly distraught over the activities of Saul as king. Although he began as a strong and faithful king, during the course of his reign, Saul became increasingly paranoid, perhaps infatuated with his own sense of rule. God asks Samuel the question, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” (v. 1). Of course, this question can be read in a multitude of ways. Is God frustrated with Samuel? Is God angry? Or is God truly trying to comfort Samuel? I believe all of these are true, but in the preceding passages, God shows much compassion to Samuel, thus the most natural reading of the question is that God wants to comfort his leader.

The opening question of verse 1 is comforting, but God does not stop there. He assures Samuel that it was God who “rejected him as king.” Herein lies a reference to 1 Samuel 8 when God is rejected by the people. God is now rejecting the failing kingship.

God Promises

After comforting, God then promises a way to restore the kingship. By declaring that Saul was rejected, it presents a conundrum. Who is the next to lead this monarchy? In fact, God reveals the selection of a new king from the line of Jesse from Bethlehem (v. 1).

Interestingly, the promise of God is not one sided, but depends on obedience on the part of the recipient, Samuel, in order to receive the promise. Samuel prepares for proper worship (filling the horn, getting a heifer). He risks his life by entering dangerous territory. And he engages in a possible confrontation with a greater group as powerful elders emerge in fear.

God Surprises

In the ceremony, it is understood that the eldest son receives the anointing, natural for the Iron Age was a traditional time that favored the first-born male. But v. 6 delivers an enormous surprise when the eldest Eliab is rejected. In providing an explanation, 1 Samuel 16:7b gives this theological gem, “For the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

God’s ways are often confounding to us, but that should not be surprising consider how little we know compared to the Omniscient One. God defies cultural convention, expected norms, even when norms may have good reason.

Normally, the next eldest son steps in as crown prince, but God continues to go down the list rejecting the next available candidate and the next and the next until there is none left.

God Anoints

Samuel knows that something is off so he asks “Is there no one left (v.11)?” Already Samuel is confused since the first-born has already been rejected. Samuel knew that the promise was made and that God was faithful, but son after son has been rejected.

It turns out that the youngest son was not present despite the declaration that the king would be “among the sons” (v. 1). David was so much not even on the radar that he did not make the journey. But just as God rejects the expected, he then selects the most unexpected.

The “repetitive resumption” appears, and the narrative picks up with Saul. But now we see kingship in new light, that God is active and surprising and most importantly, behind the Israelite king. The Davidic line begins, and unlike the institution of kingship, which was a human institution, God has accepted this kingship, which will transcend earthly rule, to the point where God will again grieve, comfort, promise, surprise and anoint in the form of Jesus the Messiah.


Commentary on Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

Scott Shauf

The superscription for Psalm 92 declares it to be “a song for the Sabbath day.”

This may be puzzling to readers, for the Sabbath is not referenced anywhere in the rest of the psalm. It may be, however, that understanding the setting of the Sabbath is key for interpreting the entire work. This psalm warrants our careful theological consideration.

The Praise of God

The psalm opens with lines that no one faithful to God would doubt: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High.” This proclamation sets the positive tone for the whole psalm and is a worthy reminder of the value of worship. Verse 2 names the two chief qualities of God that become the basis of our thanksgiving and praise: God’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” “Steadfast love” is the NRSV’s translation of the single Hebrew word khesed. The Hebrew meaning is difficult to convey with any single English expression, and thus we see different English Bibles using a variety of translations in different contexts: steadfast love, lovingkindness, love, kindness, mercy, loyalty, favor, devotion, goodness, and still others. The range of translations gives a sense of the broad meaning of the word. God’s khesed and faithfulness (Hebrew emunah) are the two primary attributes of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, as expressed in the self-revelation of God given to Moses at Mt. Sinai: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

That God is to be praised both morning and night (v. 2) adds to the intensity of the worship. The significance is furthered still by the addition of musical instruments to the praise in v. 3: the lute, harp, and lyre. This suggests a formal setting of worship, as certainly few in ancient Israel would have had access to all three instruments — and certainly no one could play them all together! Corporate worship is not to be neglected. Verse 4 indicates that it is God’s “work” that provides the impetus for such praise. While the psalmist may have in mind especially the victory over enemies described in vv. 10-11, the expression here in v. 4, simply “your work … the works of your hands,” is general enough that different participants in worship will no doubt think of many different things that God may be praised for.

What’s Skipped

Verses 5-11 are omitted from the lectionary reading. In these the praise theme is continued, and two additional features, both common in the psalms, are added: God’s provision of victory over enemies, and a contrast between the wicked and the righteous (the latter more common yet in the wisdom literature). The discussion of the wicked sets up the discussion of the righteous that begins in v. 12.

The Righteous Flourish?

The second part of today’s reading begins with an assertion that the righteous flourish (v. 12), comparing their flourishing with that of two important trees of the area, the palm and the cedar of Lebanon. The latter is referred to frequently throughout the Old Testament as a symbol of strength. Verse 14 adds to the picture of the flourishing of the righteous, continuing with the tree symbolism, by asserting that they still produce fruit, even in old age, and that they are “always green and full of sap.” The comparison of those who follow God with thriving trees is a common one in scripture (e.g., Psalms 1:3; 52:8; 104:16).

Isn’t here where the text becomes problematic for us? Our own experience and our knowledge of history teach us that the righteous indeed do not always flourish, that in fact it is precisely the righteous who frequently suffer more than others. This is, of course, a common problem both in scripture and for theology more broadly. In this case, however, a solution is suggested by the psalm itself.

The key is v. 13. The depicted flourishing of the trees includes their location: “They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.” The combination of thriving flora and temple imagery, such as is seen here, is actually quite common. Such is the basis for the picture of paradise as a magnificent garden, filled with the divine presence, seen in both Genesis 1-3 and in Revelation 21-22 (Ezekiel 47:1-12 also presents a wonderful picture of this, specifically in connection with the Jerusalem temple). The flourishing of the righteous is thus rooted (pardon the pun) in the presence of God.

The Eschaton and the Sabbath

This fact invites us to think eschatologically about the psalm. If the flourishing of the righteous happens in the house of God, then we are not there yet. As Paul says, we still long “to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:2). We still live in a world where God’s presence is experienced, to be sure, but not in the fullest sense. For that we wait for the coming of God’s kingdom in power, for “the day of the Lord.” The depiction of the flourishing of the righteous in the psalm is something we look forward to, and for which we praise God in moments when we do experience it in this life.

Here is where the Sabbath connection of the psalm comes in. In Jewish tradition the Sabbath was understood as a symbol of the perfect rest to come. The Mishnah (the earliest collection of Jewish tradition) tells us that this particular psalm was sung by the Levites in the temple on the Sabbath (Tamid 7:4). The psalm is described as “a song for the world that is to come, for the day which is wholly Sabbath rest for eternity.”1 Hence there is a connection between eschatology and the Sabbath. The New Testament book of Hebrews picks up on this idea of the Sabbath as something to be fulfilled only in God’s kingdom (3:7-4:11). Proclaiming this psalm, then, is an act of faith — we declare God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, while we yet wait for its promise of the flourishing of the righteous to be fulfilled.


1 The Mishnah: A New Translation, trans. Jacob Neusner (Yale University Press, 1991), ad loc.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Lois Malcolm

What gives us the courage to do the right thing — to act on what our conscience calls us to do — when we know that we often will not be rewarded for it in this life?

Can we boldly defend the common good in the face of powerful detractors concerned solely with their own interests and agendas? And when we do speak the truth about what needs to be done in specific circumstances, can we do so with the love and forgiveness needed to bring about the justice we are calling for? These are some of the larger questions Paul grapples with in 2 Corinthians that provide a context for interpreting this passage.

The logic of double-negation

In 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Paul asserts that we can be confident in all circumstances, whether we are “at home” or “away” from either “the body” or “the Lord.” This theme resonates with his refrains in Philippians that “living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21) and that in any and all circumstances — whether in plenty or in need — we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:12-13).

There is a logic of double-negation at work in these verses that runs throughout Paul’s letters. This logic brings to the fore the point that God’s “yes” — God’s promise, which we receive in Jesus through the Spirit — is far greater than all our human distinctions and circumstances (2 Corinthians 1:18-22). In Galatians, for example, Paul states that through the Spirit we eagerly await the “hope of righteousness” because “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything”; all that counts is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:5-6). In 1 Corinthians, he makes clear that the foolishness and weakness of the cross of Christ embodies the fact that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) (my italics).

As depicted in the great hymn of Romans 8, Paul’s point with these negations is to affirm that nothing — neither death nor life; not angels, rulers, or powers; not height or depth, nor anything else in all creation — can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). The love of God encompasses everything in reality. Grounded in God’s love through Christ’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s communion, we can be what we have been called to be: an open statement of truth, commending ourselves with confidence to everyone’s conscience before God, regardless of our circumstances (2 Corinthians 4:2; 13:13).

Being at home or away from the body

Is Paul not introducing yet another dualism — another distinction — with his talk about being “at home” or “away” from “the body” or “the Lord”? We can gain some insight on this question by taking a look at his “fool’s speech” regarding the “super-apostles” who have defamed him and abused the Corinthians with their deceptive misuse of spiritual power.

In that speech Paul refers to “visions and revelations” he experienced fourteen years prior, saying that he does not know whether they were “in the body or out of the body” (2 Corinthians 12:1-7). Paul himself has had such visions and revelations, which may indeed have been “out of the body” experiences. In these kinds of experiences we may have a powerful sense of union with God or sense of being “at home” with the Lord. Yet Paul is very clear: those experiences are no more sacred — no more weighted with authority — than others.

Why? Because the only power and authority we can ultimately rely on is the sufficiency of God’s grace. Through that grace, power is “made perfect (teleitai, better translated as “reaches full maturity”) in weakness.” Indeed, our ultimate criterion is the weakness of Jesus’ suffering body undergoing all of our vicissitudes, even to the point of death on a cross (2 Corinthians 12:8; cf. Philipians 2:8).

Walking by faith not sight

In fact, all that we do in our bodies will be manifest (phanerothenai) before “the judgment seat of Christ” — the eschatological place and time where and when Christ will judge all the living and the dead (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 2:16, 14:9-10). This reference to Christ’s “judgment seat” is not a threat but a promise. Although we live in a world where technical savvy, wealth, and power seem continually to trump God’s steadfast love, justice, and righteousness, we can be confident that the latter — described as God’s mercies and consolation in 2 Corinthians — will prevail in the end (2 Corinthians 1:3; cf. Jeremiah 9:23-24).

Thus Paul’s phrase — “we walk by faith, not sight” — fleshes out his earlier discussion of “seeing” the glory of Christ and “being transformed” into the same image (2 Corinthians 3:18). Our “seeing” and “being transformed” into Christ’s image takes place not in some ethereal experience but in every aspect of our lives where we need to rely on, or put our trust in, God’s grace. Wherever we are, we are accountable to God — and thus also to one another — for what we do in our bodies, whether good or evil. And God’s grace is sufficient to give us the power to please God in all circumstances.

So being in “ecstasy” (eksestemen, taken out of ourselves) before God does not immune us from being accountable for what we do with our bodies (2 Corinthians 5:13). Rather, knowing the fear of the Lord — that we are ultimately accountable to God and not to any other power — frees us to speak to speak the truth and to persuade others to do the same. Well known to God, we can confidently make ourselves known to others, even as we persuade them to reciprocate by living in the same confidence and sincerity (2 Corinthians 5:11-13).

Grounded in God’s love, we can speak truth to one another — we can risk sincerity — even when we disagree or might be wrong. God is reconciling the entire world through Christ, in spite of anything we or others have done (2 Corinthians 5:19): God’s promises are always a “yes.” Rooted in that “yes,” our lives can be an open statement of truth — regardless of where we find ourselves (2 Corinthians 1:20-22).