Lectionary Commentaries for March 1, 2015
Second Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 8:31-38

Michael Rogness

We know that the ways of God are different from the ways of the world.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8,9).

The disciples learned this in what must have been for them the most shocking thing Jesus had ever told them up until now.

We are so accustomed to the message of Jesus’ crucifixion that it is easy to overlook how jarring that prospect would have been for the disciples. The great hope of the Israelite people at that time was freedom from the Roman overlords. Having seen Jesus’ miracles, experienced his magnetic personality as they followed him, and watched him draw enthusiastic crowds, it would have been totally natural for them to assume that Jesus would somehow challenge the servility they lived under with the Romans.

Everything they had seen Jesus do and heard him say until this time had been impressive and had no doubt spurred within them big hopes for the future.

But now this. Jesus astonished and dismayed them with the news that — contrary to all their hopes and expectations — he would undergo suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders and killed.

It was the worst possible thing Jesus could have said.

Peter — always the impetuous one — “rebuked” him. Mark doesn’t tell what Peter said, but we can surmise that it was something like, “We have seen what power you have and thought you would free us from the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel to its previous glory.” Jesus responded that such an opinion is a “human” way of thinking. It’s what we all would have thought had we been among those first disciples.

Jesus not only rebukes Peter, but then shocks them even more deeply by telling them that his way of the cross may well be their future too. Those who would follow him will “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” As if that’s not enough, Jesus continues with even more unexpected and totally unforeseen news: To save your life you must lose it. You may lose your lives for Jesus sake.

This news was so contrary to the disciple’s expectations and so difficult to comprehend that Jesus would have to repeat it twice more. The second time he spoke of his they still did not understand him, but “were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:31), probably for fear of being rebuked again.

When they were going to Jerusalem, Jesus told them yet a third time of his impending death, this time with an even more grim and graphic description, namely that he will be condemned, handed to the Gentiles, who will mock him, spit on him, flog him and kill him, but that he will rise again (Mark 10:33-34). Listening to Jesus predict this ending for him must have been the worst three days of the disciples’ time with Jesus.

It was Jesus’ way of helping them begin to understand that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” It was a bitter pill for the disciples to swallow! But it was necessary that they understand, otherwise they would miss the whole point of Jesus’ ministry, i.e., that he came to give his life for the salvation of them and us.

By our human nature we want to be prosperous, strong, successful and influential. Jesus has other priorities. He, on the other hand, came to serve, not to be served. His ways are not our ways, yet he invites us to follow him and his ways.

The Christian church at the time of the Renaissance was riding high. It dominated the personal, social and political lives of Europeans. The landscape was dotted with its magnificent cathedrals. The church could command armies to do its will. Its leaders lived like princes, surrounded by wealth and pomp.

In its return to the Bible, the Reformation rejected this “theology of glory” in favor of a “theology of the cross.” To follow Jesus is to live lives of service to others, to serve rather than to control and dominate. It means the opposite of being proud of station and status for ourselves at the expense of others.

The “theology of the cross” or “to deny oneself” does not mean a contrived kind of humility. We do not follow Jesus by demeaning ourselves. We are called upon to do the very best we can with the talents and abilities God has given us. To “deny oneself” means to keep one’s priorities in harmony with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” — love God and love your neighbor (Mark 12:28-31).

There was, to be sure, a ray of hope in what Jesus said that day, although the disciples may not have heard it. Jesus will be killed, but he will also rise again (Mark 8:31). Furthermore, those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel will save it (Mark 8:35). But at this time the disciples would not have known how those promises would come true.

Jesus gives us this hope for the future, but in this text we are called upon to follow him not just for this future, but in this life. Furthermore, to follow him now means a life “more abundant,” as he said (John 10:10). As one pastor said, “we follow Jesus not just to be saved or to go to heaven; we follow Jesus because it’s worth it.”

The psalm for today, Psalm 22 reflects the message of this gospel text. The first verse is quoted by Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Verse 24 speaks of suffering, but in the end, as in today’s gospel, there is restoration and deliverance (Verses 29-31).


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Cameron B.R. Howard

Last week’s Old Testament reading featured God’s covenant with Noah and “all flesh.”

This week’s reading looks at another iteration of covenant, this time God’s covenant with Abraham (who is called Abram until v.5). Throughout Genesis 17, “covenant” (Hebrew berit) serves as a Leitwort (“leading word” or “catchword”), appearing thirteen times in the chapter; that is, the word “covenant” here is a literary device that emphasizes the theme of the chapter and links all of its sections together.1 At first glance, God seems to establish this covenant with Abraham alone — “between me and you (singular)” (17:2). It becomes clear again, however, that God’s relationship with the one becomes a blessing for the many, the family of Abraham: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17:7).

God’s covenant with Noah was clearly unconditional: a promise. However, God’s covenant with Abraham as presented in Genesis 17 involves more action, though these commands appear to be more like human responses than actual conditions.2 The first imperative occurs with God’s initial address: “I am El Shaddai; walk before me and be blameless.” The vocabulary here — “walk” (Hebrew hithalek) and be “blameless” (Hebrew tamim) corresponds to the description of Noah at Genesis 6:9, providing further connection between these two covenantal moments: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”

The other human action mandated in Genesis 17 is circumcision, which seems to operate here as both condition and sign: Abraham must do it, yet the doing of it is the sign of the covenant (17:11). Though the language of “remembering” is not used here, a comparison with the rainbow, the sign of the Noachic covenant, may be helpful. When God sees the rainbow, God remembers the covenant. Creation is marked in a way that reminds God of God’s commitment to it. Similarly, Abraham’s family is marked to show its privileged relationship with God. God marked creation, while the men in Abraham’s family mark themselves; yet, no matter who makes the mark, the relationship with God remains.

God promises Abraham two things: descendants and land. (Although the lectionary does not include the promise of the land of Canaan [Genesis 17:8] in the appointed reading, I strongly recommend preachers consider adding that verse; structurally, it clearly belongs to the speech-unit that begins at v. 4, and in terms of content, it is a fundamental part of the promises to Abraham.) This two-pronged promise, which is repeated in Genesis 12, 15, and 17, sets up all the narrative drama that will follow until the Israelites enter the Promised Land.3 Over and over again the descendants of Abraham will face obstacles to the realization of one or both parts of the promise: barren women, the patriarchs’ migration out of Canaan, enslavement in Egypt, and desperation in the wilderness. This pattern adds both literary interest and theological poignancy to the story: will God — can God — keep these promises? It is a story that stretches not only across the Pentateuch, but also across the Bible as a whole. When Israel finds itself in exile in Babylon, it will ask again: has God kept these promises, or has God abandoned us?

Abraham and Sarah’s own childlessness provides one of the first moments of anxiety over the promise. They are old, and the prospect of parenthood for them is genuinely laughable. After God tells Abraham that Sarai, now Sarah, will have a son, Abraham “fell on his face and laughed.” To fall on one’s face in the Hebrew Bible is to take a posture of obedience or worshipfulness, as at Genesis 17:3, when Abraham’s falling appears there to be a sign of assent to the covenant. In v. 17, the falling is joined with laughter, and obedience mixes with incredulity.4 It is as if Abraham’s body knows what to do upon hearing this news, but his mind can’t quite catch up.

Although v. 17 falls just outside of the appointed lectionary passage, I think it is an especially fitting addition to the reading in the season of Lent. After all, the cross is, in the Christian narrative, the ultimate obstacle to realizing the promises of God. God has promised a redeemer, a newly anointed king of kings, a savior to deliver the nations from sin and suffering. But that redeemer will be executed by the empire, and who could really be raised from the dead? The prospect is as impossible as ninety-year-old woman having a child with a hundred-year-old man. When we hear the promise of the resurrection, we know to fall on our faces in reverence: God is speaking to us! Yet surely we must also laugh incredulously; this is a foolish promise.

Laughter may seem a little uncouth during Lent; after all, this is a season of spiritual practices, of discipline, forty somber days in which we pack up our Alleluias and put them in storage. Even so, we do well to remember every year that the promises of the Gospel are foolishness in the eyes of the world. Friday’s cross looms large over creation. Empires win every time, and no one ever comes back from the dead. Who could think otherwise? So we laugh, even as we fall to our knees in prayer and praise. We wait for Easter, when we witness the promises fulfilled, and our stubborn, doubt-filled laughter turns to the laughter of joy.


Notes:

1 Claus Westermann, Genesis 12-36 (trans. John J. Scullion; CC; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 256.

2 Cf. discussions in previous Working Preacher commentaries by Terence Fretheim and Elizabeth Webb.

3 Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Canon and Christian Imagination (2nd ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 65-73.

4 See Westermann, Genesis 12-36, 268.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 22:23-31

Joel LeMon

From the utter abandonment of its opening line to its exuberant, full-throated praise in its final strains, Psalm 22 is a study in contrasts.

It is a prayer of one who is utterly alone, at the brink of death, beset with fear, and in extreme pain. Yet, somehow, by the end of the psalm, the psalmist has found a voice amidst the great congregation, a song of praise, faith, and gratitude in which he calls the whole world to worship God. Though the first half of the psalm does not actually appear in the lectionary, we must read it and preach it as a whole to understand it as a witness of transformation from lament to praise.

The cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 1) resonates with all who suffer and wrestle with the question, “how can God care for me and still allow this pain?” To know God, to cling to God’s promises, and to suffer radically produces a sensation of extreme disorientation.

When faced with this disorientation, one often comes to the conclusion that one is profoundly alone, that God is gone. Indeed, extreme anxiety about God’s proximity appears throughout the psalm (vv. 1, 11, 19).

When God is absent, trouble is near. The psalmist characterizes this clear and present danger as a community of violent ones seeking to destroy the psalmist with both words and actions (vv. 7-9, 12-13, 16, 18).

The divine absence is made even more painful by the memory that it hasn’t always been this way. The opening plea makes this point clearly enough. “My God, My God!” is a direct claim to a personal relationship that now seems lost.

The psalmist also cites a relationship with a community of faithful ones, those who praise God for God’s delivering power (vv. 3-5). Yet, even as the psalmist tries to associate himself with this community, he realizes that under no circumstances could he be counted among them now. There’s no place for worms in the community of praise (v. 6).

The psalmist was not born as a worm, but a precious child of God. In v. 9, the psalmist pictures God as the midwife who delivered him from his mother’s womb, one whom God has protected and cared for since birth (v. 10). Given this past relationship, God’s faithfulness from the cradle, the psalmist pleads, “Oh God, Don’t be far from me now!” (v. 11).

The psalmist needs God to come and dispel the enemy forces who are depicted in protean imagery that progresses from bulls to lions (vv. 12-13) to dogs and finally evil people (in v. 16). This same pattern appears later in the lament, in exactly the opposite order. Beginning in v. 20 the psalmist pictures those human enemies as a sword-wielding foe. Then he casts his enemies collectively as the wild dog, then the lion, and then the bull. Between the reference to the lion and the bull, however, something seems to have happened. The NRSV renders the text of v. 21: “Save me from the mouth of the lion and from the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.”

The Hebrew text presents a sequence of imperative verbs in this portion of the psalm: “Don’t be far away! Come! Save! Deliver!” (vv. 19-20) Then, suddenly, in the middle of v. 21, a perfect verb appears: “you have rescued me.” It is critical to note at this point that Hebrew does not relay tense in verbs like English does. This perfect verb, translated “you have rescued me,” does not necessarily indicate that psalmist has actually been rescued at the moment he utters the word. Rather, the Hebrew indicates that the psalmist is viewing the activity of “rescuing” as a completed action that might come in the past, present, or future. The psalmist is describing it as a complete whole, confident in the reality of the rescue — even if the rescue has yet to happen.

Immediately after the psalmist utters his confident words, we see a reintroduction of the faithful community. “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (v. 22). The psalmist had sung of a faithful community earlier in the psalm, vv. 3-5. In those verses he lamented that the legacy of his ancestors is not consistent with the psalmist’s experiences of God. Yet at this point in the psalm, the isolation from the community has been transformed into sisterhood and brotherhood. The psalmist invokes his immediate community, that is, all of Jacob’s descendants, to sing (v. 23). The lament, a product of isolation and abandonment, is transformed into praise that takes place within a community of delivered ones.

Yet the community of praise is not limited to Jacob’s descendants. The community of praise extends beyond Israel’s borders. “All the nations … all the families of nations” worship before Yahweh (vv. 27-28). Just a few verses ago, we heard “all who see me mock me” (v. 7). Now we hear, “All nations will praise you.” Universal ridicule has been transformed into reverence.

The circle of praise spreads even wider, extends beyond time itself. For those who are dead are praising God and then those who are yet to be born are joining in with the psalmist, saying “The Lord has done it!” (v. 31).

How did the hope break through so powerfully? The turn to praise is locked within the very structure of the prayer (note again the chiastic presentation of the enemies in vv. 12-13, 16 and vv. 20-21). In the very act of crying out to God, one’s sorrow can be turned to joy, one’s petition to confidence, and one’s lament to praise.

This basic structure of transformation appears in the structures of our communities’ prayer and piety. The movement from petition and supplication to praise and adoration provides the foundation of the weekly Service of Word and Sacrament. It is the pattern of Lent and Easter, in the very passion of our Lord, from humiliation to glorification. Indeed, the Gospel writers saw the transformation of Psalm 22 realized and actualized in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Psalm 22 is an ancient prayer that invites the godforsaken to utter the seemingly unutterable words, that God is gone — to pray those words to God, and then see what happens. The outcome is that the psalmist moves from isolation to integration, from forsakenness to worship.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 4:13-25

Arland J. Hultgren

The text begins abruptly, about half way through chapter 4 of Romans.

Since the chapter carries on a discussion running throughout its twenty-five verses, the reader and listener are caught off guard. Starting at 4:13 is like walking into a room where an intense and detailed conversation has been going on for some time. Consequently, a consideration of its context in Romans is important.

Chapter 4 continues what has been said in 3:21-31, in which Paul (1) sets forth the gospel of justification by faith apart from works of the law and (2) maintains that, since that is so, no one can boast about being able to obtain justification by works of the law, and that applies to both Jew and Gentile believers. Then in chapter 4 itself Paul takes up the story of Abraham as a proof that justification is by faith, not works. After all, he says, the great patriarch Abraham was justified by faith, not by observing works of the law. He was justified while he was technically still a Gentile, since he was declared justified (Genesis 15:6) prior to being circumcised (Genesis 17:10-27). Moreover, the law of Moses was not given until many years (centuries, in fact) after Abraham was declared righteous, so he could not have been justified by doing works of the law.

By the time the text from Romans 4:13-25 is read, the congregation will already have heard something of Abraham in the First Lesson (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). There the Lord appears to Abram, changes his name from Abram (“Exalted Father”) to Abraham (“Father of a Multitude”), and promises that he will be the “father of a multitude of nations.” That promise, unilateral in its utterance and everlasting in its duration (Genesis 17:7), becomes the portion of the Abrahamic covenant that is of interest to the apostle Paul as the chapter in Romans unfolds.

First though, in Romans 4:13-15 Paul picks up an even earlier part of the story of Abraham, which is in Genesis 12:7. At that point God promises the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants; Paul modifies the story to say that God promised Abraham that he and his descendants would “inherit the world.” Paul takes liberty here, since the bundle of promises given to Abraham consist not only of land, but also posterity and a great name (Genesis 12:2-7). Clearly, Paul is not interested in cataloguing the gifts to be given; his interest is in how the promise came to Abraham and his descendants. The plain fact is that the law had not yet been given. Abraham received the promises “through the righteousness by faith,” not “through the law” (Romans 4:13). Paul could have simply written “through faith” but he wrote “through the righteousness of faith.” In other words, the very faith that justifies (or confers righteousness) was already operative in the case of Abraham, who accepted the divine promises by faith and was therefore declared righteous.

In Romans 4:16-22 we have Paul’s version of a portion of the career of Abraham. It could be called the spiritual biography of the patriarch, relating Abraham’s struggles of faith and their ultimate resolution. But of course that is not biography for biography’s sake. It is for the readers to hear as something that relates to them, as made clear in the last three verses of the paragraph (4:23-25), which will be taken up below.

The promise to Abraham, Paul declares, was and is valid to both “the adherents of the law” and “the adherents of the faith of Abraham” (NRSV: “those who share the faith of Abraham”). The first group are Jews (not Jewish Christians), and it becomes clear as the paragraph unfolds that the second group are those who believe in Christ, whether Jewish or Gentile. That is so because God promised to Abraham that he would be “the father of many nations” (not just Israel). The promise seemed impossible, given the age of Abraham and Sarah. But God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). Here is a subtle allusion to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But sticking with the story of Abraham, Paul describes the patriarch as having faith in the promises of God who can indeed bring life to the dead. Abraham was about a hundred years old, and Sarah was beyond child-bearing age; they were both as good as dead when it comes to having children. Nevertheless, Abraham believed the promise, and “his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness” (4:22). Righteousness in the biblical sense often has to do with right relationships. Abraham was rightly related to God through his faith, and so he was considered by God as righteous.

The relevance of the story is spelled out in Romans 4:23-25. Paul makes clear that there is a correspondence between Abraham as believer in the God who gives life to the dead and the believer in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Paul sets up a correlation by means of typology:

Old Testament Type                                        New Testament Antitype
Abraham believed                                           Christians believe
in God who                                                    in God who
gives life to the dead.                                     raised Jesus from the dead.

The result of this discussion is that those who believe in the resurrected Christ are heirs of the promises to Abraham; they belong to the elect people of God.

The final verse (Romans 4:25) appears to be a creedal statement. Jesus was handed over to death for our trespasses; he was raised for our justification. The death was atoning; he bore our sins, so that we are free of them. His resurrection, by the power of God, certifies that the atoning death was indeed effective; our faith in it is the means of our justification (being considered righteous).

Like so much in the letters of Paul, this passage is difficult to follow. It is filled with biblical allusions concerning the law of Moses, Abraham, and the promise given to him; and it contains the theological concept of righteousness. Yet it is a powerful passage, and it speaks eloquently to Christian faith. It prods the preacher to do a bit of Bible history and to make an important connection between the congregation and the biblical story. Abraham is considered the patriarch, the great ancestor, of the Jewish people. But according to what Paul writes, and based on how he interprets what is said in Genesis, Abraham is also the ancestor of all Christian believers as well. That is by spiritual, not physical, descent.

Is that important? It most certainly is. The beginnings of the Christian community are not to be found in sources outside the Bible, even though many sources outside the Bible have contributed to Christian theological and institutional developments over time. The community’s history reaches far back into the biblical story, beginning with Abraham. All that is included in the Old Testament is part of the Christian heritage. And the identity of the church is shaped by the biblical story. The church consists of a people called into being by God for communion with Christ and his followers and for the sake of the world. It does not replace the Jewish people as the people of God, but it is a larger community incorporated into that people. To be sure, it has an identity of its own apart from the Jewish community, but it coincides with the people of Israel in witness. It carries out the purpose of God to create a distinctive community of witness to proclaim the prophetic and evangelical messages coming out of the Scriptures.

But there is more to this passage for the preacher, particularly during the Season of Lent. The heart of what is said in Romans 3:21-4:25 (in which 4:13-25 has a major role) is that God has done something for us that we cannot do for ourselves. That is encapsulated in 4:25. God sent his Son to bear our sins, and through trust in the gospel, we have justification; that is to say, we are in a right relationship with God. We journey on in Lent with the cross in view, the means of our being set aright, purely by grace.