Lectionary Commentaries for February 22, 2015
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:9-15

Matt Skinner

Just what’s going on out there in the wilderness, anyway?

It’s a fair question, because Mark devotes only two verses to the occasion. Congregations may be familiar with the three tests the devil puts before Jesus in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, but Mark’s version remains striking for its brevity and mystery.1

The Holy Spirit and the larger battle

Although today’s gospel reading includes Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:9-11, I won’t comment much on those verses since they were the focus just a few weeks ago, when churches observed the Baptism of the Lord. Because the Revised Common Lectionary always assigns a Testing in the Wilderness narrative to the first Sunday in Lent, I will spend most of my time with those verses.

Still, we should not miss the fact that it is the Holy Spirit who initiates the scene, putting Jesus into the setting where he must contend with Satan. The Spirit forcefully compels Jesus there, indicated with the verb (ekballo, “drove out” according to the NRSV in 1:12). The same verb appears elsewhere in Mark, when Jesus exorcises unclean spirits from harassed people. This Holy Spirit possesses Jesus, having entered “into him” at his baptism (the NRSV drops the ball by translating en as “on” in 1:10).

Jesus goes into the wilderness, then, as a player in a larger drama. His first role is to face a formidable adversary. Although later he will characterize his work as adversarial to Satan’s “kingdom” and as an effort to plunder Satan’s “house” (Mark 3:23-27), early on in Mark 1 we might be forgiven for mistaking Jesus as a weapon used in a war between other, superior forces or as a new recruit who still needs to prove his mettle.

The wild beasts and a promised transformation

Nevertheless, Mark’s account doesn’t explicitly indicate whether Jesus successfully passes his test, although the subsequent verses, in which he announces the advent of God’s “kingdom” (1:14-15), suggest he prevails. The other Synoptic Gospels concern themselves with Jesus’ faithfulness in the wilderness. Mark uses the occasion instead to provide intimations of what God will accomplish through this Spirit-endowed Jesus.

At least two details warrant our attention.

First, after only thirteen verses, we see that this gospel aims to paint Jesus’ ministry as confrontational. He has come to combat and perhaps defeat forces determined to counteract God’s intentions for human well-being. The first extensively narrated incident of his public ministry in Mark will be an exorcism (1:21-28, which the Revised Common Lectionary assigned three weeks ago). The narrative location of the parable about a thief “tying up the strong man” (3:27) suggests it serves as a mission statement for his entire ministry. The antagonists in Mark are not human ignorance and religio-political authority; they are spiritual forces, things that oppress human bodies and minds and defy human attempts to subdue them. The world Jesus inhabits is a dangerous place.

Second, something about Jesus’ experience in the wild, out in a boundary setting at the threshold between civilization and untamed places, is supposed to capture our imagination. Served or protected by angels, Jesus is “with the wild beasts” (Mark 1:13). Just what’s going on out there in the wilderness?

Our answer will depend on what other biblical texts we have in view.

One perspective says that Mark evokes hopes of a restored or new creation coming into being. If the wild beasts pose no threat to Jesus, if he sleeps with his head on a lion’s back and with a Komodo dragon alongside him for warmth, then creation — at least this outpost within it — has been transformed. It is (again?) at peace with itself. Through Jesus, as a result of victories he will win over powers of chaos and destruction, harmony will come to earth.

That reading of Mark 1:13 considers the verse alongside Hosea 2:18, in which God pledges to make a covenant with “wild animals” (theria in the LXX, the same term as in Mark 1:13) so Israel can “lie down in safety” and experience peace. Other “peaceable kingdom” texts, such as Isaiah 11:6-9, also support such an interpretation.

Another perspective interprets Mark 1:13 as demonstrating God’s provision for Jesus, reassuring readers that God will not leave God’s “Beloved Son” entirely vulnerable to the ravages of the world. In this reading, wild beasts have not been made safe; rather they are kept at bay so Jesus enjoys protection.

This reading of Mark 1:13 keeps an eye on Isaiah 35:8-10, which promises a highway (a holy “way”; cf. Mark 1:2-3) for God’s people to travel as they return from exile. God makes this way safe, for no dangerous animals are there (here, too, the LXX uses theria, in Isaiah 35:9). Another eye may be on Ezekiel 34:23-31, in which God raises up a new David as a shepherd-king and banishes the wild animals (theria in LXX Ezek 34:25, 28) from the land.

Mark 1:13 may tell about a transformed creation made harmonious, or it may hold out the promise of keeping at bay all the still-dangerous elements of creation. In either case, the imagery contains a sense of reconfigured boundaries. Old rules and expectations no longer apply in the same way when Jesus is present. Other passages will confirm this with respect to religious practices (e.g., Mark 2:18-22), and Jesus’ healings will repeatedly confound our sense of what’s possible. The empty tomb in Mark 16 will make this point even more forcefully.

The reign of God and a risky ministry

With Satan having been confronted and perhaps served noticed by the Spirit-possessed Jesus, with wild animals having been made unwilling or unable to prey on the vulnerable, and with John’s public ministry having been terminated by a reckless and arrogant puppet king, now the time is right.

At this time, beginning in Mark 1:14, Jesus begins to proclaim the in-breaking of God’s reign (or “kingdom”). To speak of a “reign” means to characterize Jesus’ ministry as announcing the realization of God’s intentions for humanity and all creation. Jesus’ focus is temporal, not spatial. That is, he announces the dawn of a new era and a new state of affairs, one in which God rules; with the expression kingdom of God he does not speak of taking people away to a new place in a far-off land. He tells those who listen that God is bringing new realities into existence; Jesus himself demonstrates what these realities look like through his actions and words.

This “reign” is about more than people’s spiritual existence. Jesus will call people to new understandings about what all of life is like. Family, society, political allegiances, economics, wellness, purity and acceptability — no facet of life remains unaddressed.

Perilous beings dwell also in places other than the wilderness. And the in-breaking reign of God does not curb them all at once. The time may be “fulfilled,” but it remains dangerous. As we will see by the time Lent concludes, and as we walk through Mark’s Gospel from now until November, Jesus’ way of living out his purpose is dangerous, too. The late theologian William Placher put it this way about Mark 1:14-15: “What Jesus is beginning is the transformation of this world. That is why those in charge of this world as it was ended up killing him.”2


Notes:

1 In all these scenes, “test” is probably a better translation of the Greek verb peirazo than “tempt.”

2 William C. Placher, Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 35.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17

Cameron B.R. Howard

The Old Testament readings for the first three Sundays in Lent give us glimpses of three covenants: God’s covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham, and God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai.

While each covenant is distinct from the others, taken together they testify to God’s ongoing desire to be in relationship with humanity.

In the ancient Near East, covenants were legal documents, cementing a relationship of mutual obligation, usually between a greater power and a lesser power. For example, a conquering kingdom might covenant not to destroy a losing kingdom, as long as the losers promised to fight against the conqueror’s enemies and to support the conqueror with troops and supplies.1 The obligations are indeed reciprocal, but the power dynamics are not often equal. The Sinai covenant looks remarkably like one of these ancient legal treaties, and the Decalogue, which is read on the third Sunday in Lent, functions as some of the stipulations of that covenant. The Noachic and Abrahamic covenants, though, seem to be of a somewhat different stripe.2

The first thing to notice about God’s covenant with Noah is that it is not, in fact, with Noah alone, nor with only his family, but rather with “every living creature” (Genesis 9:10), “all flesh” (v. 16). God commits God’s self not just to humanity, but to all of creation. The second extraordinary detail about this covenant is that it does not involve the legal reciprocities of a treaty. Instead, all of the obligations rest with God. As Terence Fretheim points out, because this covenant comes without condition, we might think of it as a “promise” rather than a treaty. God reaches out to the world, and God does all the heavy lifting.

For additional exegetical detail I commend to you the two excellent commentaries archived on this site for this text. I also recommend as a resource www.floodofnoah.com, which was created as a space for biblical scholars to engage Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film Noah. Here I will lift up a few possible directions for preaching this passage:

  • God as a God who is moved: God is portrayed in this story, as well as through much of the Old Testament, with characteristics that chafe against all the “omni-” categories we traditionally assign to God: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, or, in the words of the hymn, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes … ” These categories highlight the influence of Greek tradition on Christianity, which often characterizes God as Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.” Yet, in the flood story, God regrets (Genesis 6:6), God grieves (6:6), God remembers (8:1), and God sets God’s bow in the clouds so that God will remember (9:15). In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, God is the “Most Moved Mover.”3 It can be disconcerting to think of God’s needing a reminder of God’s promises, as if the rainbow were a string tied around God’s finger, or an alert from God’s Google calendar. Even so, during the season of Lent, the flood story reminds us that God has an “incarnational” side in the Old Testament, too; that is, God has always desired relationship with, and has been moved by the suffering of, humanity.
  • Covenant in our daily lives: In its most general meanings covenant is simply a sacred agreement. Particularly in church contexts, the word “covenant” can be used for almost any kind of relationship, from covenants governing behavior at church camps to celebrations of the covenant of marriage. But it is worthwhile to pause and consider the nuances of some of this language. The parallels between biblical covenants and ancient Near Eastern treaty forms emphasize the imbalance of power between the two signatories. Certainly this imbalance holds true whenever God is one of the parties of a biblical covenant, even if the other legal characteristics of covenant are absent (as in the covenants with Noah and Abraham). One hopes marriage, though, is not an unequal power relationship. The legal resonances of covenant also invite images of a quid pro quo connection; one’s own obligations are always dependent on the other’s fidelity to her or his obligations. Yet, in the Noachic covenant, promises are made freely by God and do not count on any reciprocity from creation. The promises made by a church community at a baptism, especially of an infant, are reminiscent of this unconditional covenant. The preacher might challenge the congregation: When do we make promises that we say are unconditional, and yet we end up expecting that we should receive equal “payment” for keeping up our end of the bargain?
  • Care for creation: The ecological implications of the flood story are significant. We receive God’s promise that God will never again destroy the earth by flood, yet human sin seems bent on the ruin of creation. As climate change warms the earth and melts the ice caps, the prospect of a flooded earth looms larger every day. Genesis 9 reminds us that God is in relationship not just with humanity, but with “all flesh”; our living on the earth is bound up with the flourishing of all creation, and especially non-human animals. As the Lenten season calls us to repentance, a sermon on the flood could provide a call to repentance from our corporate sins of environmental degradation, as well as a call to action for ecological justice.

Notes:

1 See, for example, “Treaty between Mursilis and Duppi-Teshub,” in Readings from the Ancient Near East: Primary Sources for Old Testament Study (ed. B. Arnold and B. Beyer; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 98-100.

2 For more on biblical covenants, see Marvin A. Sweeney, “Covenant in the Hebrew Bible,” n.p. [cited 4 Feb 2015]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/covenant-in-the-hebrew-bible

3 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

The psalms immediately preceding Psalm 25 form a collection that is arranged in a chiastic pattern as follows:

A Psalm 15: entrance liturgy
   B Psalm 16: psalm of assurance
     C Psalm 17: individual lament
       D Psalm 18: royal psalm
         E Psalm 19: torah psalm
       D’ Psalms 20-21: royal psalms
     C’ Psalm 22: individual lament
   B’ Psalm 23: psalm of assurance
A’ Psalm 24: entrance liturgy

Chiastic patterns highlight the peripheral and central elements — in this case, Psalms 15 and 24, along with Psalm 19. The question in Psalms 15 and 24 concerns who will enter the temple, or more symbolically, who will live in God’s presence. Psalm 19 offers a response –- namely, those who orient themselves to God’s life-giving torah, “instruction” (Psalm 19:7, NRSV “law”).

The question in Psalms 15 and 24 is, in effect, “Who belongs to God?” And Psalm 25 provides a perfect response, continuing the direction articulated in Psalm 19 –- that is, those who offer themselves to God and attend to God’s teaching are the ones who belong to God. Not surprisingly, the Hebrew root behind the noun “torah” (Psalm 19:7) occurs twice as a verb in Psalm 25 (“instructs” in verse 8 and “teach” in verse 12). Plus, there is a noticeable literary link between Psalms 24 and 25. Psalm 24 affirms that those who seek God’s presence will “not lift up their souls to what is false” (24:4). The opening line of Psalm 25 provides the positive contrast to this negative formulation: “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.” From the very beginning, the psalmist’s focus is on God. The psalmist emphatically asserts that she or he belongs to God (see also Psalms 86:4; 143:8).

Given that Psalms 15 and 24 probably functioned originally in the context of entering the temple, it may not be coincidental that the verb translated “lift up” is used for offering a sacrifice to God (see Psalm 96:8; Ezekiel 20:31). This dimension of meaning suggests a better translation of Psalm 25:1, “To you, O LORD, I offer my whole being,” or “I offer my life to you, LORD” (CEB). At this point, Psalm 25 anticipates Paul’s invitation in Romans 12:1 “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” As in Psalm 25, this offering or “sacrifice” involves orientation to God’s instruction — in Paul’s words, “so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2).

That belonging to God is manifest in the desire to do God’s will is indicated not only by the repetition of the verbal form of torah in Psalm 25:8, 12 (see above), but also by the appearance of other important words that belong to the vocabulary of teaching and learning:

  • the repetition of the Hebrew root translated “Make me to know” in verse 4 and “makes … known” in verse 14
  • the repetition of a Hebrew root translated “teach(es)” in verses 4, 5, and 9
  • the five-fold occurrence of a Hebrew root translated “way(s)” when it appears as a noun (verses 4, 8, 9) and “Lead(s)” when it appears as a verb (verses 5, 9): The two occurrences in verse 9 are especially interesting, because the root occurs as the first and last word in the verse. The rhetorical effect is to surround or encompass “the humble” with indications of God’s will. The NRSV’s “what is right” translates a single word that is more frequently translated as “justice,” and it often represents a sort of one-word summary of the will of God (see Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8).
  • the repetition of the noun translated “paths” in verses 4, 10

In short, the prevalence of the vocabulary of teaching and learning effectively and emphatically communicates the meaning of the psalmist’s choice to offer life to God. To live in God’s presence, to belong to God, means to desire fervently to know God’s will and to do faithfully what God wants done.

Even so, it is clear that the psalmist has not succeeded in doing consistently what God wants done (Psalm 25:7, 11, 18). Therefore, in the final analysis, the psalmist’s belongingness to God is a result not only of the psalmist’s choice to offer life to God, but also a result of God’s willingness to forgive.

The psalmist’s appeal for forgiveness is appropriately grounded in God’s fundamental character. The three-fold repetition of “remember” reinforces this aspect of the appeal. God is called upon to “remember [NRSV “Be mindful of”] your mercy . . . and your steadfast love” (verse 6), to “not remember the sins of my youth” (verse 7), and “according to your steadfast love remember me” (verse 7). The repetition of “steadfast love,” the appeal to “mercy,” and the mention of “sins” and “transgressions” recall Exodus 34:6-7, where God’s character is manifest in God’s willingness to forgive. In short, the psalmist is saved by grace, a reality that calls for “trust” (Psalm 25:2) and makes hope possible (Psalm 25:3, 5, 21 where NRSV “wait” could be translated “hope”).

We too are saved by grace, a reality that we remember and celebrate during the season of Lent. Because we trust that God is gracious, we dare to enter a season of confession and penitence, offering ourselves as a living sacrifice to God and pledging ourselves anew to discern and do God’s will.

On the surface, it may appear that Psalm 25:10 puts conditions on God’s love, limiting it to those who are faithful and obedient. But the psalmist was not entirely faithful and obedient, so the intent of verse 10 must lie elsewhere. Verse 10 suggests, it seems to me, that those who offer their lives to God will find themselves acting in conformity with God’s character; that is, they will increasingly be like God! Thus, the psalmist seems to anticipate Jesus’ invitation, which we might adopt as a Lenten discipline, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22

Judith Jones

I met a man today who is being threatened with deportation even though he has a Green Card.

Although he is a man of peace who participates in nonviolent protests, although he worked with Christian pastors in an effort to free the hostages held by Iran during the Carter era, although he has a prison ministry in the U.S., although he has converted to Christianity and would be hanged as an apostate if he were deported to Iran, Homeland Security has repeatedly accused him of plotting a suicide bombing. No evidence has ever been found to support the accusation. Nevertheless, for years he has suffered apparently random, prolonged interrogations by the authorities.

He reminds me of the people to whom 1 Peter was written. They, too, were being slandered and threatened. They had committed no crime, but their witness to Christ’s love and their determination to dedicate themselves to Christ’s service made them the constant targets of those who served the empire and hailed Caesar as Lord. Despite their innocence, they lived in fear of the authorities who controlled their world.

To this suffering community the author of 1 Peter writes, “Christ himself suffered because of evil acts, a just person suffering for unjust people, in order to bring you to God. The writer reminds Christians that though Christ was executed, and though in human terms it looked as if his story was over, God raised him to new life in the Holy Spirit. 1 Peter 3:18 is not saying that Christ’s body died but his soul was resurrected; it is saying that although from a human point of view he was put to death, he was given life in and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, in the realm where death has no dominion. Though it may appear that the religious and civil authorities won, the real victory belongs to God.

In the Spirit, Christ continued his triumphant journey, making a proclamation to the spirits who disobeyed God before the flood. It is likely that 1 Peter is alluding here to an interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 developed by Enoch and other apocryphal authors. These writers taught that the sons of God who intermarried with human women provoked humans to rebel against God and to attack each other. The violence unleashed by these evil powers prompted God to flood the world and imprison the rebellious angels. In 1 Peter, these disobedient angels are the imprisoned powers to whom Christ makes a proclamation. Does Christ proclaim judgment, or an opportunity to repent? The author does not say, turning instead to God’s concern for human beings.

Though the flood waters rose and overwhelmed the world, God rescued a faithful few in the ark. Just so, says 1 Peter, though violence threatens to overwhelm God’s people once more, God rescues the faithful through baptism. Baptism involves not a mere physical washing, but a pledge to maintain a clear conscience. Evidence from the early second century CE indicates that in the ancient Church eperotema (the word in v. 21 that NRSV translates as “appeal”) was the term for the pledge that baptismal candidates made to resist Satan and the evil forces that rebel against God. It is not that Christians are able, by their own strength, to escape from sin. No, it is Christ’s resurrection that frees Christians to serve God instead of bowing to evil. In Christ, we too are made alive.

The passage culminates with the assurance that the risen Christ now reigns at God’s right hand, and that the angels and authorities and powers have been subjected to him. As 1 Peter’s audience understood everyday life, the angels and authorities and powers were the supernatural forces that controlled the systems and structures of their world. If the Roman authorities and the local civil leaders persecuted Christians, it was because these human beings were agents of the supernatural powers. 1 Peter’s assurance that Christ reigns over every power was a word of great hope and comfort for Christians throughout the Roman world. Though it might appear that the evil powers still controlled their daily lives, the faithful could trust that evil was not ultimately in charge. Christ had already won the victory.

Although we do not live in a world dominated by Rome, we still know the feeling that our lives are subject to forces beyond our control. Many faithful Christians in the U.S. are stopped and searched simply because of their skin color or the way they are dressed, even though they have done nothing wrong. If those of us who do not experience such prejudice on a daily basis try to identify with the people in our society who live under a constant shadow of suspicion, we may end up being treated just as they are. If we protest against police brutality, we may be arrested. If we express our concern for human rights or for God’s creation by participating in non-violent protests, we may face legal consequences or find it difficult to get a job. Few among us live under the threat of death, but if we seek to live out our faith in the world, we may indeed encounter systems that oppose our witness and cause us to suffer.

For us, just as for the first-century Christians to whom the author of 1 Peter was writing, today’s passage speaks an important word. No government, corporation, or employer is ultimate. No oppressive system is greater than the power of God. If we suffer because we work for justice, if we are publicly shamed for doing what is right, we can be sure that our lives are in God’s hands, and God will have the last word. Christ walks with us in our suffering. Christ has already won the victory. Our task is to remain faithful and wait for God’s triumph to be revealed to the world.