Lectionary Commentaries for June 7, 2015
Second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 3:20-35

James Boyce

It’s happening “again.”

This time Jesus is coming home. Our instincts and associations of home and family immediately shape our expectations as to how this event will unfold. Robert Frost summed it up well: “Home is the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in” (“The Death of the Hired Man”). But the cast of characters and the narrator of our gospel story had not read Frost. Of this that little word “again” that begins our reading is so important a pointer.

Hang on for the Journey

We are just beginning the long journey of Pentecost. We might be permitted to breathe deeply and hunker down for the long haul. But as many readers of Mark remind us the pace of the story will not let us relax. We seem only barely to have begun, yet in these first few chapters Jesus has whirled through Galilee — baptized at the Jordan, the Spirit alights on him and God’s benediction of choice is pronounced; his opening words announce the presence of God’s kingdom and call for a response to this good news; he walks by the sea and summons fisher folk to follow, and they fairly leap from their boats in obedient response; in a synagogue he teaches with an astounding authority, but a kind of secrecy enshrouds him which only the demonic seems to recognize; yet a secret power breathes from him that will not be contained, as witnessed by the numerous events of healing that mark his route. This is Jesus, God’s chosen, after all, and if the kingdom is indeed at hand, then we might well ask, “How is one supposed to act in the presence of God?”

And then He comes Home

So now Jesus comes home. We want to see how this story will play out in his hometown. Up to this point, even with all the excitement, the reports and the prospects have not been good. Even as Jesus continues to heal and to draw crowds and disciple followers, he has to skirt around in the border regions and escape to the mountains (3.1-19). The upshot has been that already only this far in the story the Pharisees and the Herodians conspire how they can destroy him (Mark 3:7). It is telling that the last named disciple Jesus calls is Judas Iscariot, “the one who betrayed him” — the past tense would seem to mark this already as essentially a done deal (Mark 3:19). So when at the beginning of today’s reading we join the crowds, packed together so tightly that they can’t even get their arms free to grab some food, we sense that somebody has to do something to restore some order.

A Mess of a Family Gathering

And for that his family is ready? Yes, they come ready with restraints to shackle his body and with charges to tame his outlandish speech: “he’s out of his mind; you don’t really need to listen to him.” And the scribes from Jerusalem add a religious stamp to the charges: “he is actually in league with the demonic powers.” That should take care of any mistaken assumptions and relegate to insignificance the clamoring crowds. Those in the know have the essential facts to discount his person and his credentials. Enough said about this Jesus. The threats to the ordering of society, family, and religion have been thwarted once again.

Just more Riddles

So what will Jesus answer to these charges? He seems to offer some help to alleviate the uproar when he picks up a theme with us from the beginning; the talk is about the “kingdom” and about who has authority and power. But as usual his words are always in riddles. But to those who have ears to hear, perhaps we hope especially to us, his riddles make sense. They call us to consider deeply just what is going on here — to rethink what the story of this Jesus might have to do with how we imagine our world and the ways of God with God’s creation. What is it that God is calling us to see and hear in this Jesus? Who is it that has the power to change our world, and how is that power going to be exercised in those of us who are called to journey along with this Jesus in this Pentecost Season?

The Risk of Blasphemy

The answers to these questions are not always so clear. They will call for a people who are aware of the risk of listening to the wrong sources, who are aware of the risk of joining in the wrong words whose error becomes so much blasphemy. In this Jesus the Spirit of God is at work. That much has been signed at the beginning, in the descent of God’s Spirit upon him at his baptism. God’s benediction on him has been pronounced; the promise is that in his journey among and with us God will be at work. To question or reject that presence and the signs of this kingdom is to risk missing out on the good news that God has in store for us in the person and message of this Jesus.

True Family and the Will of God

There are no guarantees in our hearing. Even those who have all the proper credentials — whose blood lines would seem to link them to this Jesus, or who claim status among the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem — are ultimately at risk for missing out on this journey. Jesus puts it very directly. It is not status but action in response to the call of God in the person of this Jesus that marks what it means to belong to his “family.” That would seem to sum it all up simple and to the point. Relationships in this family are dynamic; they flow from the encounter and response to this Jesus.

And yet, at this point in the journey, there remains a hiddenness or a mystery to it all. Relationships in this family are couched in terms of “doing the will of God.” But at this point in the story, just what that “will of God” entails is not specifically detailed. For those of us who thrive on lists, who need “things to do” to establish some comfort level, this story of Jesus will not comply with our wishes. We will have to be willing to come along for the journey. We will just have to trust this Jesus and the invitation to join him and to believe that in his company we will participate in the unfolding of the good news of God’s kingdom among us and in our world.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 3:8-15

Melinda Quivik

Reading the Genesis 3 text in light of Jesus’ confrontations with people who thought he was “out of his mind,” focuses our attention on expectations about the relationships between God and humans, and humans and creation.*

From the beginning of this scene — before we arrive at the articulated differences between God and the humans — we hear an astonishing aspect of their relationship. The first sentence tells us that the Lord God walks in the garden. God has come to the place where people are living. It is a pleasant scene in which God walks in the evening breeze without a hint of what seems a bitter denunciation to come. God seeking-out-creation governs the action.

The story then gives us a number of pithy theological questions to ponder. Since God seems not to know where the humans are, does this mean God is not omniscient? When the human explains he was afraid because of his nakedness, does he not know that God will find this strange? How did the human even know there is something to fear in being naked?

God asks the sensible question: How did you know you should hide? Not waiting for an answer, God drives immediately to the suspicion that the knowledge of good and evil has come into the human: “Have you eaten from the tree…?” 

This story is hard to hear without centuries of built-up prejudices ruling the interpretation. In order to let the gospel rise to the surface, we have to expunge the ideas that this story tells us the woman is inferior and the snake is despicable. How can we do that?

Rather than seeing this story as depicting necessary dualism between human and divine, human and nature, good and evil, knowledge (bad) and ignorance (bliss), we might notice the harm that comes from such simplistic readings. Seeing the story only through the structures of oppositions leads to divisive and untrue views of creation.

1)  Pointedly, the story does not say the woman is a vixen for suggesting that the fruit should be eaten nor is she inferior to the man. If we see the woman in Genesis 3 through the view of her creation as the “helper” (Genesis 2:18), and we define “helper” as a subordinate creature (i.e., he initiates; she obeys or follows), we ignore the more generous interpretation offered by the word “helper” when it is used to refer to God.1

2) We might note that this story shows us the possibility that truth does not come only from the divine but from what God has created: the snake, the tree, and the initiative — the daring — of the woman in taking a risk.2

3) Try shedding the notion that the “fall” story is about sin — especially sexual sin — and the shame of the naked body. Try on the notion that gaining the knowledge given by the forbidden tree allows the humans to differentiate themselves from the rest of nature. This self-image is necessary for stewardship and care of creation. It also opens the opportunity to know God’s goodness in clothing them (Genesis 3:21-22).3 “Once the human beings have shown themselves willing to transgress the boundaries of God, nakedness becomes frightening, since even the boundaries of their bodies no longer seem secure.”4 Blame is their response to fear of vulnerability rather than shame.

4) See what difference it makes to reinterpret the snake’s qualities. The Hebrew word for what NRSV calls “cunning” is arum which can also be crafty and prudent (Proverbs 12:16) and clever (Proverbs 12:23; 13:16; 14:8; and 22:3). We speak of cunning in negative terms while clever is positive. The snake did not simply cause disobedience but put an end to uncritical obeisance. Consider whether asking a question is evidence of evil, for that is what the snake, in fact, does. Asking what God really said is not the symbol of demonic powers but, rather, using one’s intelligence.5

5) This Genesis story sets the stage for the vocation of the faithful. In the garden, when confronted with their fear [of nakedness, of vulnerability, of non-differentiation from animals because they are not yet clothed], the humans seek to place blame on someone other than themselves. The adam (creature of dust) blames the woman, and the woman blames the snake. As a story depicting human reaction to threats, this scene is perfect. What, if not blame of others, do humans exercise when they are attacked? What, if not oppression of the foreigner, do nations initiate when scared? We have come a long distance from the beginning of this scene. No longer is creation simply a garden in which the creator walks in the evening breeze. Trouble has appeared.

Jesus’ way is markedly different from that of the humans in Genesis 3. Jesus re-defines kinship, saying that his family is neither based in biology nor comprised of people like himself: fellow rabbis and theologians. His family are those who do “the will of God.” He challenges the expected structures of relationship and of power, creating community out of relationships centered in God. The Old Adam and the New Adam stand in stark contrast. Jesus “refuses the idolatry of security.”6

It remains for us humans to acknowledge our fear and, clothed with the garments of God’s care for us, to see how we might respond with our weaknesses rather than by asserting power over others. How might such a posture alter our relationships with Earth (and even snakes!)?

1Cf. Hosea 13:9; Exod. 18:4; Deut 33:26; Pss. 146:5; 33:20; 115:9-11; 70:5.
2Robert Saler, “The Transformation of Reason in Genesis 2-3,” in Currents in Theology and Mission 36:4 (Aug 2009), 283-284.
3R.A. Oden, “Grace or Status, Yahweh’s Clothing of the First Humans,” in The Bible Without Theology (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 102-103.
4Scott Bayder-Saye, “Fear in the Garden: The State of Emergency and the Politics of Blessing,” in Ex Auditu 24 (2008), 5.
5Arthur Walker-Jones, “Eden for Cyborgs: Ecocriticism and Genesis 2-3,” in Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008), 263-293.
6Bayder-Saye, 11.

* This commentary was first published on this site on June 10, 2012.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 8:4-11 [12-15] 16-20; [11:14-15]

Roger Nam

Kingship was always initiated from the gods above, less one notable exception.

According to the Code of Hammurapi, the Near Eastern deity Marduk entrusts his law to the earthly king, Hammurapi who ruled over Babylonia for an astonishing 42 years (1692-1650 BC). When looking at the image of the code, most viewers mistakenly assume that Hammurapi is the one on the throne. The assumption is forgivable, after all, he was a great king and the stele is famously known as the “Code of Hammurabi.” But in fact, Hammurabi is not sitting on the throne, but he is the standing one, humbly receiving the scepter from the enthroned Marduk.

This image expresses the standard understanding of kingship in the ancient Near East. The gods created the institution of monarchy so that their will would be executed on earth through earthly rulers. Accordingly, the prologue to the Code of Hammurapi declares, “Anu and Bel (deity names) called by name me, Hammurapi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land.” In the ancient Near East, kingship was initiated by the gods and descended onto humankind.

But 1 Samuel 8 presents a radically different origin of kingship for Ancient Israel. Rather than “descending from above,” the biblical texts describe the origin to kingship as “rising from below.” During a period of transition brought on due to crisis (the aging of Samuel 8:1), the elders decide that the sons of Samuel are corrupt (v. 5), thus they request to have a “king to govern” so that they could “be like other nations” (v. 5).

Samuel reacts to the elders’ request out of sadness. Interestingly, the sadness does not arise from the accusation of his sons’ failures. Those accusations were true and they undoubtedly grieved Samuel. But the text bypasses Samuel’s reactions to the moral judgment on his sons.

Instead v. 6 states that Samuel was saddened because of the people’s request for a king. As Samuel knew that such a request indicated a lack of faith in God. Samuel responds in a prayer, presumably because he feels like a failure to God. He led a community of faith, but despite Samuel’s efforts, the people forsook YHWH and instead wanted to “be like the other nations.” God comforts Samuel by emphasizing that it was the people’s decision, implying their own autonomy to do right from wrong. The Hebrew changes the typical order to emphasize that “it is not you, they rejected, but me, they rejected” (v. 7).

We can pause and think about the issue of agency between Samuel and the people of Israel. Although Samuel was a divinely called leader, this leadership had limitations. Ultimately, God grants people agency — the freedom to make good and bad decisions. A few verses later, we see that God self-limits his own authority. Twice, he instructs Samuel “to listen to the voice of the people” (vv. 7, 9), a phrase, which could be better translated as, “to obey the people.”

But the freedom of choice necessitates an obligation to take consequences of such decisions. God lets go of his authority, but he delivers a stern message, reminding them of the ways in which God has provided in the past (v. 8), but more importantly, showing the people the repercussions of kingship on the nation of Israel in vv. 12-18. At this point, the reference to Samuel’s wayward sons is not just a contextual detail. I suspect that naming the circumstance of the prodigal sons of Samuel helps us to visualize the parent-child analogy to get a better sense of God’s experience, as he allows us our own agency and our own consequences. When parents give freedom to children, they understand that the children must bear the repercussions of their own decisions. Sometimes we forget that the parents must also share in some of those painful repercussions.

Two literary devices emerge at the end of this list that contrast the wisdom of God through Samuel and the folly of this decision of the people. In v.17, Samuel warns that this new king will force the people to become his slaves. This contrasts to the reminder in v. 8 that God was the one who actually liberated the people from slavery. And in v. 19, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel in contrast with God’s self-denial, as he limits his own authority.

And this begins the monarchy of Israel. Unlike her Near Eastern neighbors, Ancient Israel incorporated kingship in an effort to be like others, and fight their battles. This was not a case of divine initiative installing a royal line. Rather, elders of Israel had the opportunity for a true theocracy, or rule by God, but they foolishly chose something else. God’s response resembles a parent: warn them, let them make the decision, and leave them to face any consequences.

It turns out that most of the warnings come true in Solomon. But the monarchy endures, and despite its origins, God uses kingship to execute his will during the 400 years of Davidic reign. God limits power to allow for us to make decisions. But God also shows his power of grace, by allowing our poor decisions to be made great, in this case, in the form of a Davidic dynasty with a historical significance beyond measure.

For although Israelite kingship began from below, it would be redeemed from above many centuries later through the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.


Commentary on Psalm 130

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 130 is the eleventh of the fifteen Songs of Ascents in Book Five of the Psalter (Psalms 120-134).

These psalms are most likely songs that ancient Israelite pilgrims sang as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a number of annual religious festivals, including Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Jerusalem sits on a hill; so no matter where one comes from, one “goes up” to Jerusalem. Imagine traveling from your village home, meeting up with others, joyously anticipating the festive time that you would celebrate together in the city of God. And you, the travelers, would perhaps sing as you went along: well-loved, well-known traditional songs. And as one group met another, they mingled their voices and sang together.

A variety of psalm “types” occur in the Songs of Ascents: individual and community laments (Psalms 120, 123, 126, 130); individual hymns of thanksgiving (Psalms 121, 122, 131); community hymns (Psalms 124, 125,129, 134); wisdom psalms (Psalms 127,128, 133); and a royal psalm — about the person of the king (Psalm 132). The diversity within this collection has led some scholars to question its cohesion. If we understand the collection, though, as the mingled voices of pilgrims coming from all sorts of situations in life, its diversity is not hard to understand. Some travel with burdens that cry out for lamenting; others with stories of deliverance by God; others marveling at God’s goodness, wisdom, and provision.

Psalm 130 is a lament, specifically an individual lament, words spoken to God by an individual worshipper (pilgrim?). In verses 1-2, the lamenter addresses God directly, asking (petitioning) God to “hear” and “be attentive.” In verses 3-4, the lamenter expresses confidence that God will indeed “hear” and “be attentive,” because God does not “mark iniquities” and offers “forgiveness.” The word “iniquities” (‘avonoth) occurs over 200 times in the Old Testament and is the primary word used to describe human sin and guilt in the prophetic writings. The root meaning of the word is “to bend, curve, turn aside, or twist,” thus providing a concrete image for a definition of “iniquity” as “an act, or mistake, which is not right or unjust.” God provides forgiveness, and so, God is to “be revered” (NRSV). The Hebrew root of “revered” is yara’. A number of translations render the word as “feared” (KJV, NASB, NLT). “Fear” is a good translation of the word. But in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew root yirah encompasses a larger meaning of “awe, reverent respect, honor.” It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” (‘ahab, Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (dabaq, Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (’abad, Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will.

Verses 5-6 in Psalm 130 are a statement of hopeful expectation. The words “wait” and “watch” occur repeatedly. “Wait” is from the root qavah and conveys a sense of almost tense expectation, like pulling on two ends of a rope and waiting for it to snap. The psalmist waits, with more intense expectation “than those who watch for the morning.” Sentinels often stood guard on city walls, as did soldiers in camps during times of war, watching in the darkness for danger and waiting expectantly for the safety that daylight brought.

Thus far in Psalm 130, we have heard the voice of an individual singer, crying out to God, petitioning God, expressing confidence in God, and stating hopeful expectation of God’s presence. In verses 7-8, the psalmist turns attention to “Israel,” — in the context of the Songs of Ascents, perhaps to companion travelers. This singer has renewed confidence in God and calls on those traveling alongside to “hope.” The Hebrew word is yahal, which means “to wait expectantly.” The word is far less intense than the word translated “wait” in verses 5-6, but clearly ties the psalm singer’s statement to the admonition to “Israel” in verse 7. “Wait, expect, hope,” and in the end, God will deliver Israel from all of its “iniquities” [’avon], because, in the words of verse 3, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, LORD, who could stand.”

And so, once again, imagine it. Pilgrim travelers to Jerusalem; one village or family group meeting one another, exchanging greetings. The songs begin; first one voice, then another, and others join in. Many times a single voice breaks out in song — “Out of the depth I cry to you, O LORD . . . my soul waits for the LORD.” And that single voice invites all traveling companions to “hope” — expectantly hope as they approach Jerusalem together. For God, indeed, can redeem us from all of our “iniquities” — our twisted ideas of what is right and wrong, of what is just and unjust.

Psalm 130 is one of the seven penitential psalms in the Psalter (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), the Lenten liturgy of the medieval church. By order of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), the psalms were to be prayed while kneeling each day of the Lenten season, or at least every Friday. The penitential psalms remind the reciter of the great divide between the goodness of God and the iniquity of humanity, but they also remind the reciter that “with God” is “steadfast love” and “redemption.” Martin Luther called Psalm 130 “a proper master and doctor of Scripture.”

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1

Dirk G. Lange

These verses in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians bring into perspective significant characteristics of a life lived from faith.

Paul literally embodies what such a life looks like and what a participation in Christ means for the one who believes and he is not afraid to argue from his experience. These verses also highlight one of the ways Paul exegetically approaches the Old Testament and, in this case, the psalms.

In the opening verse of this passage, Paul cites Psalm 116:10. The whole verse from the Septuagint reads, “I believed, therefore I have spoken: but I was greatly afflicted.” Paul has again been arguing his right as an apostle and defending the authenticity of his call. The fact that he suffers, the reality of defeat and despair, his weakness (all summed up famously in the “but not’s” of the preceding verses, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed … ” 2 Corinthians 4:8-12), this affliction does not negate or invalidate his proclamation but in fact points to the very gospel he preaches.

Paul’s affliction is not a diminishment of the Gospel. Being able to speak in the midst of affliction is itself a critique of all the superficial criteria of success that rules in the church of Corinth (and in many others as well!). Perfection or success is not to be defined by the world (that will always define it culturally) but by the Spirit who works in and through clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:7), broken vessels.

What is more, the “witness” of these clay jars or broken vessels is found throughout Scripture. Paul turns to the psalms, to the cry of the believers found in the psalms. He turns to their dialogue and argument with God and finds in his own life, in his own experience of faith, “the same spirit of faith.” It is this solidarity, this mystery of a communion in the same spirit of faith that renders his preaching and proclamation authentic and spirit-filled.

In other words, Paul’s speaking is true because he is in the same spirit as the Scripture. The psalmist’s heart (the psalmist’s whole experience of faith) is not only shared but is the same now in Paul. The truthfulness of his preaching is in this “sameness.” The gospel that Paul proclaims is then not about himself, Paul, but points to the other. Preaching points not to the preacher but to Christ, to the same spirit of faith, and through Christ to the community and the neighbor.

Paul and the psalmists are participants in one faith. Whose faith? The faith of Christ! This is particularly significant. The one who grounds this unique participation in faith between Paul and the psalmist (between the preacher and the communion of saints) is God through Jesus Christ and in Christ’s Spirit, “the same spirit.” The faith that we know through Jesus Christ and in which we participate through the Holy Spirit is a faith not found in ourselves, or through our own effort. It is a faith outside of us, a faith that the Holy Spirit awakens, nourishes and strengthens within us. It is the faith of Christ, who himself was afflicted unto death, broken, despised and, in the eyes of the world, singularly unsuccessful.

Psalm 116 is read christologically and ecclesially. Paul understands that speaking is possible only because of this faith. It must be noted that the noun “faith” and the verb “to believe” have the same root in Greek — pistis. Speaking arises out of “faith-ing.” Proclamation is rooted in the faith of Christ, not in any particular ability or gift that the preacher might have, not in any superior virtue or success. As such, speaking (preaching) points not to my own faith, nor to an individual faith not even to an effort to believe, but only to the one who engenders this faith.

David Frederickson points out (Word and World, 11/2, 1991), “Paul grounds speech in belief rather than in social position or moral virtue.” Only faith — not who we are, not our successes or giftedness or influence or power — but only faith establishes this radical “freedom” of speech that can proclaim the Gospel in and out of season, despite all hindrances.

The reality of faith is communal. When Paul calls on the psalmist to witness to Paul’s own faith, Paul already acknowledges this communality. Nor does Paul exclude the community from the relationship. Through his preaching, the community at Corinth is also part of this faith. Faith extends to include all. The community too is being raised with Jesus, in the presence of one another despite the signs of “outer nature” that tend to burden the community, the inner nature is renewed in a deep hope, a hope communally shared with all believers.

A sign of this renewal is thanksgiving. As grace increases, as more and more participate in the same faith, so does thanksgiving increase. Paul traces in these few verses the whole journey of a community of believers. The journey with Christ, through descent to ascent, through death to life, marks or identifies the Christian community. In the midst of affliction, they still gather and give thanks. In fact the journey culminates in the thanksgiving of the meal, when the cup of salvation is lifted up (Psalm 116:13 — this psalm is used liturgically on Maundy Thursday.)

In the Genesis story coupled with this text from 2 Corinthians in the Revised Common Lectionary, we see the opposite movement. Adam and Eve hide from the presence of the Lord. Their disbelief has isolated them, taken them out of a communion with God. They cannot speak. But those that do the “will of God” (Mark 3:35), often without even knowing they are doing it, walk in the presence of the Lord. They live the gospel. They are mother, brother, sister — part of a new community, sharing the same faith.