Lectionary Commentaries for July 12, 2015
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 6:14-29

C. Clifton Black

The preacher of this text for this Sunday’s sermon receives my congratulations for originality and guts.

Who preaches on the death of John the Baptist? Except for special occasions, who speaks of politics from the pulpit even when the Bible authorizes it?

Years ago, or only yesterday, The Washington Post quoted a lavishly paid lobbyist: “There are only two engines that drive Washington: One is greed, and the other is fear.” That’s a fine description of Herod’s birthday party. You recall Herod Antipas (ca. 21 B.C. — post-A.D. 39): tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, answerable to the Emperor Tiberius. Most historians remember him as maladroit and weak. When it comes to our governors, some things never change.

Mark tells of a three-sided triangle: Herod, his wife Herodias, and John the Baptist, whose arrest was the last we heard of him (Mark 1:14). Defying Torah (Leviticus 18:13-16; 20:21), Herod had married his sister-in-law. John had called them out (Mark 6:18). Believing him righteous and holy, Herod admired his accuser (6:20). Nursing a grudge, Herodias wanted John dead (6:19). Herod compromised: he arrested and jailed under protective custody the threatening preacher to whom he enjoyed listening (6:17, 20). His wife’s opportunity (literally, “a happy day”) came at a state dinner, at which her young daughter “danced and pleased Herod and his guests” (6:21-22). The lecherous fool promised her whatever she asked (6:22-23). After consulting her mother, the girl sprang the trap: “I want John’s head on a salver — right now” (6:24-25). Herod was caught. Saving face was an issue (6:26); worse, defaulting on an oath could be reckoned tantamount to taking God’s name in vain (Philo, On the Special Laws 2.9-10). Birthday morphed into deathday: John’s head was delivered to Mother by a ghoulish bucket brigade (Mark 6:27-28).

Ghastly though it be, this tale is told with masterly understatement. “It is Elijah” (6:15a): another prophet who collided with another weak king manipulated by another murderous wife (1 Kings 18–21). “A righteous and holy man” (Mark 6:20a): just like elderly Eleazar, refusing to compromise Jewish principles to avoid state-sanctioned death (2 Maccabees 6:18-31). “What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.” That’s the promise of King Hesperus to Queen Esther (Esther 5:3; 7:27). “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” (Mark 6:16): the dead has returned with awesome power (6:14), but haunted Herod has misidentified the Risen One (16:6). “The king was deeply grieved” (6:26): a fat lot of good that does John. Herod is so feckless that the executioner delivers the victim’s head, not to the king as ordered (6:27), but to the girl (6:28). What’s on her mind? She’s the one who demands the head “on a platter” (6:25). Without help, most congregations would miss these details. The larger issue, however, is how well Mark teaches us to tell a story. Hook listeners’ imaginations to fill in some blanks, and a sermon can come alive — because they have been invited to help you preach it.

But why does Mark tell this story: the longest of the Gospel’s anecdotes and its only flashback? Aside from the Golgotha plot (Mark 14:1-2 + 10-11) and discovery of the empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8), this is the only tale in which Jesus never appears. Its villains never reappear (cf. Luke 23:6-12). It’s a strange story about John in which the baptizer himself never appears. Even stranger: beneath this story of John is the story of Jesus. The flashback is a flashforward. Mark tips us off in 6:14-16: the confusion over agency for Jesus’ mighty works (cf. the identical refrain in 8:27-29). Herod foreshadows Pilate in the same way that John presages Jesus (1:1-15; 9:9-13; 11:27-33). The two prefects are nominally in charge. Like Antipas, Pilate is amazed (6:20; 15:5) by circumstances surrounding an innocent prisoner (6:17, 20; 15:1, 14a), swept up in events that fast spin out of his control (6:21-25; 15:6-13), and unable to back down after being publicly outmaneuvered (6:26-27; 15:15). Like John, Jesus is passive in his final hours (6:14-19; 15:1-39), faces with integrity his moment of truth (6:21: hemeras eukairou, “an opportunity came”; 12:2: to kairo, “the season came”), and is executed by hideous capital punishment (6:27-28; 15:24-27), dying to placate those he offends (6:19, 25; 15:10-14). John’s disciples give their teacher a proper burial (6:29). What will become of the twelve after Jesus’ death (14:27, 50-52; 15:40-47)? That’s a pertinent question: Mark has embedded 6:14-29 in the middle of their successful mission (6:7-13), about which they will offer Jesus a jolly report “of all they [have] done and taught” (6:30). Fatal intrigue casts a shadow over the routing of demons and healing of the sick (6:13).

Where’s the good news in Mark 6:14-29? There may be none. The drive shafts of corrupted politics torque this birthday party. Everywhere greed and fear whisper: in Herod’s ear, among Galilee’s high and mighty, behind the curtain between mother and daughter, in a dungeon prison. When repentance is preached to this world’s princes, do not expect them to relinquish their power, however conflicted some may be. The righteous die for reasons both valorous and vapid. “[A]s the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time” (Ecclesiastes 9:12 KJV). Mark is no more a fool than Qohelet.

Neither is the Evangelist cynical. Herod’s banquet is only the first of two in Mark 6. Jesus hosts the second, in the middle of nowhere for thousands of nobodies with nothing to offer save five loaves and two fish. At that feast greed and fear have no place. There all are fed to the full, with leftovers beyond comprehension (6:30-44).

In the high heat of summer, Mark 6:14-29 beckons you to preach the mystery of Good Friday before the Easter of 6:30-44 next Sunday. Do you have the guts to try?

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 7:7-15

Tyler Mayfield

Amos 7 as the First Reading on this Sunday in July complements the Gospel Reading from Mark 6:14-29.

Both passages concern prophetic figures — Amos and John the Baptist — who are confronted because of their condemning, prophetic message. Amos is asked to leave the land of Judah; John is beheaded. Yet, their messages carry on today to this very Sunday when we hear their prophetic voices again and ponder again their significance as we seek to find our prophetic voices.

Prophets do not seem to be much appreciated on this Sunday! Their announcements of judgment are not well-received. They are perceived as a threat to the leadership, whether it be the mighty Herod or the local priest of Bethel, Amaziah.

The passage selected for today from Amos actually begins in the middle of the story. Verses 7-9 present in fact the third of three visions of judgment against Israel. First, Amos sees locusts eating away the spring growth (7:1-3). Next, Amos sees a shower of fire consuming the land (7:4-6). Finally, Amos sees a wall built with a plumb line.1 This vision is slightly more elaborate than the other two in that God asks Amos: “What do you see?” Amos responds with the item right in front of him — the plumb line. But God has a different sort of plumb line in mind.

Like a good children’s sermon uses an object lesson to convey its point, God presents an object to Amos. It is a fairly common object with a clear purpose. The plumb line functions to keep the wall vertically straight during construction. The plumb line uses lead (Latin for lead is plumbum) at the end of a string to judge how the wall is measuring up. It helps maintain the integrity of the building by providing a vertical reference point.

God, however, has a different use for the plumb line. God is setting a religious and ethical plumb line in the midst of the kingdom of Israel to see how they stand. The people fail to measure up.

They are not upright. The plumb line demonstrates their tottering and wavering.

Therefore, God will destroy the high places of worship and rise violently against Jeroboam’s house. The punishment against the cultic places and the king may indeed highlight the exact elements within Israelite culture that do not measure up. Both the prophetic books of Amos and Hosea condemn these high places as improper locations for worship of God.

These three visions by Amos cause quite the response from Amaziah, the priest in Bethel. He sends a message to King Jeroboam that Amos is conspiring against the king. Additionally, in his message, Amaziah quotes Amos’ judgment against the king. He doesn’t quite get the prophet’s quotation correct (although Amos will indeed say such things by the end of the chapter!), but it’s basically on target in spirit: Amos is prophesying about the death of Jeroboam and the disastrous fate of Israel. Amaziah seems to be particularly upset about the prophecy against the king and his kingdom.

Then, Amaziah, without a response from the king, confronts Amos. Amos should leave Judah at once and never prophesy at Bethel again “for it is a king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom.” Again, Amaziah shows us his concern clearly. He is made nervous by Amos’ judgment against the king. The holy place at Bethel belongs to the king and his kingdom; Amaziah is supported by the king. This prophecy of Amos has direct and significance repercussions for this local priest.

We are always the most upset at our prophets when they seem to be questioning our way of life, not when they question the actions of those with whom we disagree.

Amos responds that he is not a professional prophet who can just pack up and move to the next city. In fact, he’s not from a line of prophets who receive their legitimacy through their prophetic ancestors. This is not a business or livelihood for Amos. Amos validates his prophetic words by noting that God called him while he was tending his flocks to prophesy to Israel. He says these words of judgment because God took him from his day job as a herdsman and sycamore tree dresser and made him a prophet.

Then, Amos delivers yet another prophetic judgment oracle in vv. 16-17, verses that are left out of the lectionary reading for this week. They are some of Amos’ most condemning and cruel words in the book.

In the book of Amos, the prophet is confronted by a priest, but his life is not taken away. He is able to continue to deliver his prophetic words to Israel. In the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist is killed because of his prophecy and his confrontation with Herod. To speak prophetically in these passages is to come up against resistance, resistance from those who have a stake in the power and system under prophetic attack.


1 Much scholarly discussion occurs about the exact meaning of the Hebrew word translated above and in the NRSV and NJPS as “plumb line.” It is legitimately not clear what precise object might be in mind here.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

David G. Garber, Jr.

If the last two weeks of the study of David’s consolidation of his reign are any indication, the new king certainly wore his emotions on his sleeves — well, when he was wearing sleeves, that is.

And David’s emotions certainly run the gamut in this text.

The passage recounts the transition of the Ark of the Covenant from its resting place at Baale-judah, in the house of Abinadab, to the newly captured City of David, Jerusalem. Abinadab’s sons, Uzzah and Ahio carried the Ark on a “new cart,” a fact that was repeated twice in 2 Samuel 6:3, perhaps to indicate the pride David felt in transporting the Ark to his new capital. The Israelites had not managed to utilize the Ark in religious practice since the sons of Eli — Hophni and Phineas — tried to manipulate its supernatural power in a battle against the Philistines (see the crazy tale of the Ark’s adventures in 1 Samuel 4-6).

As they paraded the Ark towards its destination, David and the Israelites “danced” before it, playing all sorts of musical instruments. The verb for dance here has a connotation of playfulness, sport, and reverie (2 Samuel 6:5). The lectionary assignment clearly emphasizes the joyfulness of this event.

But, again, the lectionary verses do not tell the whole story. In the midst of this celebratory parade, there is another tale of the Ark’s dangerous power. The events that surround this story also reveal a diverse range of David’s emotional responses to the situation, and even to God. As they were transporting the Ark, the ox rattled it, compelling Uzzah to reach out his hand and stabilize it, perhaps to keep it from tumbling on the ground (2 Samuel 6:6). The text reads that YHWH’s anger burned against Uzzah for touching the Ark, and God immediately struck him down (v. 7).

We could ask many theological questions about this part of the story, its inclusion in the canonical text, and its exclusion from the lectionary reading. Perhaps, like David, we are angry at God for killing Uzzah for no apparent reason (2 Samuel 6:8). Perhaps we think it a bit harsh or unfair that God would strike someone down for attempting to rescue the Ark from touching the ground. Perhaps we would rather just ignore this bit of the text and concentrate on David’s celebration that continues in verse 12. Or, perhaps, we would rather ignore this piece of the text because those of us in mainline Protestant traditions would rather focus on the approachability of God in worship than God’s dangerous otherness that we see in this and other texts related to the Ark of the Covenant.

The incident prevailed upon David, whose fear motivated him to question his own ability to care for Israel’s holy relic: “How can the ark of the LORD come into my care?” (2 Samuel 6:9). David moved from anger at God for striking Uzzah, to fear of God, to a period of self-doubt that lasted three months (v. 11). Only after David hears how YHWH blessed Obed-Edom, at whose house the Ark remained, does he resume its triumphant procession to Jerusalem.

His confidence revived, David performed several functions reserved primarily for priestly factions: the wearing of an ephod (and apparently the ephod alone, according to Michal in 2 Samuel 6:20), performing sacrifice, and constructing a tent to house the ark. Likewise, in ritual fashion, David blessed all the people of Israel (v. 18) and fed them (v. 19).

Like many of the strange stories of David’s first few years as king, this narrative plunges us into uncharted territory. On the one hand, we learn of David’s great joy and celebration of the gifts he believed God had bestowed upon him. On the other hand, this text reminds us of the dangerous volatility of Israel’s God, YHWH, a God whom David both scorned and feared after the death of Uzzah, whose intentions in reaching out to stabilize the ark we may never know.

As the reader, we also learn that David’s celebration did not please everyone in Israel. The text suggests that David’s wife, Michal, despised David for his actions, which she viewed as shameful (2 Samuel 6:16). Again in a verse that goes beyond the limits of the lectionary reading, Michal elaborates on her distaste for David’s show. While David meant for his parade to solidify his leadership as king, Michal suggests that he exposed himself as any mere commoner might do (v. 20).

In response to Michal’s rebuke, David reveals a self-awareness of his shadow side. While he intended his display to be in praise and response to God, he claims that he will also always seek the favor of his subjects. “I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.” I have always respected Michal for calling David on his antics. While everyone else around him lavished praise upon him, she saw the hints of his shortcomings. David, it appears, did not share my sentiment, and the last we hear of his relationship to Michal is that they never had a child. While the text never explicitly tells why, one could easily assume that their marriage remained a mere formality that would insure no rival from the line of Saul for David’s other sons.

In this text, we see a volatile God, a rebuking queen, and an emotional king. God’s anger at Uzzah is paradoxically puzzling but straightforward. Michal’s contempt for David rings crystal clear. David, for his part, has a variety of emotions: joy, anger, fear, renewed confidence, pride, and even contempt. While many of the details of this text may seem foreign to postmodern ears, these emotions can provide a touchstone for interpretation. We can relate to these emotions because they are all so recognizable in ourselves and in those with whom we interact. Even as we struggle to understand the actions of these three characters in the text, we wrestle in our relationships with one another and ourselves.


Commentary on Psalm 85:8-13

Jerome Creach

Psalm 85 is a communal prayer for help and verses 8-13 express confidence that the help prayed for will indeed come.

Thus, the lectionary reading comprises the portion of the psalm that announces and describes the coming of salvation. It is set within the larger context of complaint and petition. At the beginning of the psalm the community remembers how in the past God turned from his “hot anger” (v. 3) and restored their fortunes. Now they pray that the Lord will restore them again (v. 4). They petition God with the questions of whether God will persist in wrath toward them (v. 5) or revive them (v. 6). The petition uses language common to the Psalter: “show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation” (v. 7; see Psalms 106:1; 107:1).

The prayer for help the community offers in verses 1-7 is generic. It could apply to nearly any situation of trouble the community experienced. For example, the prophet Haggai used the same verb as Psalm 85:1a (“showed favor;” Hebrew ra?ah) when he complained about the people’s failure to rebuild the temple.1 As in Haggai’s time, the ones who pray Psalm 85 remember being restored, but they are currently languishing. The language of petition in the psalm, however, could fit any number of experiences in Israel’s history. What is most certain is that the salvation prayed for in verses 1-7 is promised in verses 8-13.

Verse 8 marks a transition from complaint (vv. 1-7) to assurance that God will save (vv. 9-13). This verse likely represents the voice of a priest or prophet who served as part of the personnel of the worship place. After the prayer for help uttered by worshippers, this worship leader invites the hearing of God’s word and reminds worshippers of God’s certain response to their prayer. The promise is that God will “speak peace.” Peace here translates the Hebrew term shalom. The word in some contexts means peace in the sense of absence of conflict or war (Joshua 9:15). In this verse, however, shalom seems to connote something like “welfare” or “prosperity” or perhaps simply “goodness.” What the Lord will speak will be good news because it will promise salvation (v. 9). The announcement of salvation is similar to that in Isaiah 40-55, which declares to the people who have experienced defeat and humiliation that God’s deliverance is at hand.

Verses 9-13 further promise and describe what God’s salvation will be like. Verse 9 may be read as a continuation of verse 8 in that it declares that salvation is coming. It begins with an emphatic particle (“Surely;” Hebrew ak) and the assurance that salvation is “at hand.” Salvation is available for “those who fear,” that is, those who humbly look to God for deliverance.

Salvation is portrayed as the work of four attributes of God’s presence, which James Luther Mays rightly refers to as “salvation powers.”2 The powers are “steadfast love,” “faithfulness,” righteousness,” and “peace.” The first of these is the covenant love and faithfulness God shows to God’s people (Hebrew hesed). Israel often cries for “steadfast love” in times of hardship and uncertainty (Psalms 89:49; 90:14). It is the ultimate sign of God’s favor and faithfulness, evidence that God is true to the promises he made to his people. “Faithfulness” (emet) is God’s reliability, which complements and defines further “steadfast love.” The love Israel knew in relationship with God was always faithful; they could rely on it.

The third and fourth terms form another pair that logically belongs together. “Righteousness” means more than simply “what is right.” It represents the essential character of God by which God created and maintains the world. Thus, Psalm 97:2 declares that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne,” and Psalm 5:8 asks to be led through trouble by God’s righteousness. “Peace” appeared in verse 8 as a label for what God would speak to the people in need of salvation. In verse 10, and paired with “steadfast love,” however, shalom seems to have the more common meaning of “wholeness” or “completeness.” Like steadfast love, shalom here represents the just order of the creation.

These “salvation powers” work together in dynamic fashion and have an impact on all realms of existence. The salvation they bring will be observed on the ground and in the sky (v. 11). It will be experienced as both a spiritual and physical realty. As a result of the Lord’s gift of “what is good” (v. 12), the earth will flourish and will yield food in abundance. The picture is one of complete harmony and fulfillment of what God intended the world to be (“righteousness and peace will kiss each other,” v. 10).

The salvation promised here is much more holistic than what many modern people envision. For many, salvation is experienced as inner contentment, as a spiritual reality. Psalm 85 suggests, however, that the salvation of human beings is part of God’s work to reconcile all of creation to God’s self. The full realization of such salvation can only be accomplished with the coming of God to bring the world to fruition. It is eschatological. It is not surprising therefore that the church has always seen the powers of salvation described here especially at work in Jesus Christ. The prologue to John’s gospel says it particularly well: “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Also, as the Apostle Paul declared, “in it (the gospel of Jesus Christ) the righteousness of God is revealed” (Romans 1:17).


1 J. Clinton McCann, Jr, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB, vol. 4, p. 1016.

2 Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 277.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Susan Hylen

The fact of human difference may no longer surprise us.

What may surprise us in this passage is that the author stops to thank God for the foresight and grace to plan this messy human diversity.

Ephesians is a letter about living together in the midst of human differences. The author writes as a Jew to a largely Gentile audience with the message that in Christ God has “made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14 NRSV). It is not easy living together as two groups who have previously been at odds with one another on religious grounds. The letter acknowledges that living with differences requires effort: it takes humility, gentleness, and patience (cf. Ephesians 4:2-3).

Before the author goes on to describe this situation and advise the recipients how to respond, he first stops to thank God for having placed us in this situation to begin with. Ephesians 1:3-14 is actually one long sentence extolling God’s action. The verbs in vv. 3-10 name God’s action, while vv. 11-14 use passive verbs to describe indirectly what God has done to or for humankind. Many of Paul’s letters open with thanksgiving for the faith or spiritual gifts of the recipient community (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:4-9). Ephesians includes both a thanksgiving for the community (1:15-23) and for God’s action (1:3-14).

God is praised in these verses for having chosen and adopted the church as God’s own people. Verse 4 states that “God chose us” to be holy and blameless, and verse 5 adds, “he destined us for adoption as his children.” The verb in verse 11 “we have obtained an inheritance” is difficult to translate but also carries the sense of having been appointed or chosen for this inheritance. The author pours out praise to God for having chosen us.

Adoption was not uncommon in antiquity. Among the elite it served the important function of allowing for an heir if one had no children, or if one’s children died. The adopted person (who could be a child or an adult) gained social status through association with the parent’s social status. In the same way a biological child would, the adopted child benefitted from the social and political connections of their parent. They also gained wealth through their inheritance. In return the adopted child honored the parent through taking the parent’s name and being loyal to them.

Similarly, adoption by God is a blessing for which the author praises God. It is an action planned by God (vv. 5, 9, 10, 11) and also pleasing to God (“according to the good pleasure of his will,” v. 5). It results in the praise of God (vv. 6, 14) by the adopted ones, who have a share in an inheritance from God (v. 14).

The adoption indicated here is unique in that it is not the adoption of an individual but of a people. The language echoes the stories of God choosing Israel (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:6; Psalm 135:4; Isaiah 41:8), and the purpose of being chosen for “redemption” (Ephesians 1:7, 14) evokes God’s release of Israel from slavery (e.g., Exodus 6:6). In addition, all of the relevant verbs and pronouns (we, us) in the passage are plural. The author is not so much concerned with God’s relationship to individual believers as with the claim that God has chosen a people for God’s self.

There is much about God’s choice that remains unexplained. Indeed, it is part of “the mystery of [God’s] will,” which remains difficult to understand even though God has made it known (Ephesians 1:9). The fact of God’s choosing has always been difficult to understand. The author does not try to explain the inner logic or ethical reasoning of God’s choice. Instead, he notes that it is a mystery, yet one for which we should give thanks.

This people God has chosen includes both Jews and Gentiles. At the end of the passage the author describes himself as part of one group that was “the first to set our hope on Christ” (Ephesians 1:2), alongside another group including the recipients of the letter “who also heard the word of truth…and believed in him” (v. 13). God graciously adopts not a single child or even a group with one ethnic or religious identity. Instead, God chooses and adopts a diverse group of people.

Although God is the primary actor who is praised in these verses, Christ appears throughout the passage as an important part of God’s plan for adoption. God chose us for adoption “through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). God gave grace “that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (v. 6). The letter will go on to describe Christ’s central role in the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles: “So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near … So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:17-19). God’s will is revealed through the death of Jesus (Ephesians 2:13, 16) as a choice of one people composed of two groups that previously were hostile to each other.

The adoption of God’s people is part of a larger plan that has been established in the past and has both present and future effects. Already God has gifted the community with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. This is not simply a promise of future gifts to be experienced in heaven, but a present gift of spiritual blessings. Similarly, in Ephesians 1:14 the Gentiles are described as having been sealed with the Holy Spirit, likely a reference to baptism. The experience of transformation by the Spirit is “a down payment of our inheritance” (v. 14). Believers participate now in something that is a preview of the gifts that will be realized fully in the age to come.