Lectionary Commentaries for February 8, 2015
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:29-39

Matt Skinner

This passage continues the one assigned for last week.

As soon as Jesus and his few followers leave the Capernaum synagogue, they enter Simon’s house. There they encounter Simon’s mother-in-law, who lies ill with a fever.

Wide-ranging ministry

The exorcism occurred in a synagogue, a more public setting than this private home. The exorcism involved a man; now Jesus will deliver a woman. Mark does not suggest the woman’s ailment is demonic, but we shouldn’t underestimate the seriousness of a fever, either; in a world without antibiotics, her condition may prove fatal, depending on the circumstances.

Taken together, then, Jesus’ two deeds in Mark 1:21-31 stake out a range. Different kinds of settings involving different kinds of people suffering different kinds of problems — Mark implies that Jesus’ ministry of deliverance has widespread influence, with potential to benefit all kinds of people. Mark reiterates this wide scope as the current passage progresses, as Jesus heals and delivers everyone with a need in Capernaum and then sets out for other places across Galilee.

Service and gender

There’s something about Mark 1:31 that makes audiences bristle. Why is the healed woman’s first response to serve Jesus and his four disciples? When we learn that “serve” translates diakoneo, most likely indicating food service, and means she “waited on” them, it doesn’t help. Why didn’t Simon tell his mother-in-law to take it easy while he made sandwiches this time?

Yes, preachers explain in breathless attempts to explain away the discomfort, indeed that little detail matters. But it means only to indicate that the woman was fully healed at once. What a miracle — no recuperation period needed!

Or: yes, she served the men, but her service was a way of showing respect and gratitude to her healer. Maybe she was also serving God as a means of doing so. Jesus always commends humble service and describes himself as one who came to serve (diakoneo; 10:45) — what a faithful response!

Yes, the explanations continue, in that culture it would have been shameful for a woman in a household to neglect a guest. To feed Jesus would have honored him, but it would also have restored the woman’s own honor and dignity. Healed, she could do what her society expected her to do and what her fever had prevented her from doing. She was set free!

All of these responses are true, but they still exacerbate the frustration generated by this aspect of Mark 1:31. The woman’s appropriate response is to serve? Appropriate in whose eyes? Wouldn’t true healing and liberation allow her to take on other roles? After all, when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead in John 11, Lazarus doesn’t respond with service. He reclines at a dinner table in John 12:2 while his sister Martha “serves” (diakoneo). Jesus’ healing of the mother-in-law and the miracle’s outcome remain indelibly gendered, and gendered in ways that veer too close to the stereotypes we know to be tired and destructive.

Is more possible from this unnamed woman? Is more possible for her? That depends on how fertile a preacher’s imagination may be. It won’t do to castigate Mark or the ancient gender roles that made this story sound normal or appropriate to its original audiences (at least probably to most of the men in those audiences). A preacher might instead open up new horizons of opportunity and agency for Simon’s mother-in-law.

Those looking for possibilities in the biblical material itself might jump ahead to Mark 15:40-41. There, as Jesus’ corpse hangs from a Roman cross, Mark finally lets us in on the secret that the crowd of Jesus’ regular disciples includes more than twelve men. We learn there about a group of women who watched Jesus’ execution “from a distance” while all the rest of Jesus’ followers had fled at his arrest (14:50) and Simon was last seen weeping in a courtyard (14:72). Not all of these women are named, so we know little about them. Still, we learn that they “provided for [Jesus] when he was in Galilee.” The verb the NRSV translates as “provided for” in 15:41? It’s diakoneo. Maybe Simon’s mother-in-law is among the serving women who observe the crucifixion.

If she’s among them, then she’s more than a cook, waiter, and dishwasher. She’s also a follower.

If she’s a follower, and a follower who is willing to serve as she goes (unlike the oafish James and John in 10:35-45), then she’s also a disciple.

If she’s a disciple, then to her “has been given the secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11).

Proclaiming and enacting the reign of God

The verses at the end of this passage deserve attention, especially given the liturgical setting of Epiphany. How will Jesus become noticed? Through what means will he manifest himself to the world?

Mark presents us with a Jesus who chooses to remain remote but also seeks to stay on the move. He prays in an isolated place and eludes the crowds, but then he goes on to other areas, because he understands his purpose as “proclaiming.” Mark repeatedly indicates that “proclaiming” or “preaching” for Jesus goes beyond words and messages. It includes his exorcisms, healings, and legal controversies. It involves all the ways in which he makes God’s reign (or “kingdom,” as traditionally translated) known and observable. His preaching activity, the full range of his public ministry, is performative and effective: it demonstrates what God’s reign looks like, and it has real effects as it delivers people, heals people, restores people to community, forgives people, and speaks truth to power.

It is this preaching’s nature not to stay settled and rooted in a single place among a fixed audience but to seek new settings and opportunities to express itself.

The point is not that Jesus must fix everything or everyone in Galilee before he will be arrested. In Mark, he only heals those who present themselves to him. He never appears to go out in search of problems to remedy; they find him. This prompts the question of what exactly he intends to accomplish, before all is done.

As the gospel story progresses, he will be more than a healer. He will need to, for he seems unable to keep pace with the incredible demand that human need places upon him. So he will commission others to assist in his work. And he will travel. And he will persist. And, in the end, he will pay a price for his determination to inaugurate God’s reign.

Therefore, he also, like Simon’s mother-in-law, will be “lifted up” (cf. Mark 1:31 and 16:6).


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31

Christopher B. Hays

With its themes of comfort for the people and the transience of human powers by contrast with the enduring nature of God, Isaiah 40:21-31 is some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible.

There is no doubt that it is also part of a larger composition that is at least as extensive as the chapter. However, the lectionary verses also form a discrete subsection that follows the idol polemic of vv. 18-20.

The chapter opened with orders to proclaim the good news of the Lord (Isiah 40:3-5, 9), but v. 21 starts over with forceful rhetorical questions (“Have you not known? Have you not heard?”) that call into question whether the proclamation has been received. The theme of knowing and hearing runs through the entire book of Isaiah (1:3; 5:19; 6:9; 48:6-8, etc.), and this text assumes, like many others, that its hearers will struggle to comprehend its message.

Even a brief consideration of the state of the hearers makes clear why this good news would have been difficult to process. It is widely recognized that Isaiah 40 and following speaks to a different historical situation than chapters 1-39. It comes in the wake of the Babylonian exile, perhaps around the end of the exile, in the 530s BCE. It may be that different Judeans experienced exile differently — there were probably various groups in various places. Some, like those who were with the former king Jehoiachin in Babylon itself seem to have received rations from the royal court and may have eventually been treated reasonably well (2 Kings 25:27-30).1 Others, however, may have been located in what were essentially labor camps. Even in the best case, the homecoming and restoration in Judah would have been a very difficult mater, however. The land had been devastated and not rebuilt. Thus, although the return from exile is often imagined as joyous (e.g., Psalm 137:6), Nehemiah 11:1-2 reports that there was no crush of people begging to live in the destroyed city of Jerusalem. It was without a temple or effective walls; the comforts and protections that a city would normally have afforded in the ancient world were missing. In fact, the people had to cast lots to see who would live there, and they “blessed all those who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.” After fifty or more years in exile, most of those returning would have hardly known the place. Exile was hard, but returning was difficult, too.

God intervenes in this situation, not unlike his intervention at the Exodus (to which this return is compared in Isaiah 51:9–11). In a part of the world that had seen, over the preceding century, a succession of increasingly powerful emperors (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian), the prophet assert the incomparability of the rule of Israel’s God. Isaiah 40’s particular assertions of divine power are reminiscent of Job — particularly the references to the foundations (Job 38:4) and circle (Job 22:14) of the earth, and the stretching out of the heavens (Job 9:8). Certain shared Hebrew vocabulary could even suggest a literary relationship between Isaiah and Job. But unlike in Job, where the assertions of God’s superiority serve to crush the challenge to divine justice, here they uplift and heal: The Lord is the creator and kingmaker, but he shares his inexhaustible power with anyone who waits on him. Isaiah 40 bends the theme of God’s transcendence back toward immanence — they allow the hearer to understand the significance of God’s incomparable power for them. The Lord “does not faint or grow weary,” and “he gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”

One might perceive in the comforts of the final verses a special message for those for whom the long journey home would be hardest: the elderly. They were the only Judeans who would remember Judah by the end of the exile. The writer contrasts between those who rely on the Lord — who will “run and not be weary … walk and not faint” — with boys and men in their youthful prime, who will “faint” and “fall exhausted.” This message would not have been of much help to young men, but it was perhaps not aimed primarily at them. Ezra 3:12-13 recounts that when the foundations of the Second Temple were laid, “many old people, who had seen the first temple on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this temple, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.” The memories of the elderly were not merely nostalgia; they would have been useful to the returnees. Life in Mesopotamia would have been different, and so remembering how and where things had been done in Judah would have been a significant contribution. The cadence of the passages sequences of imperfect verbs — they shall renew, they shall rise, they shall run, they shall walk — seems meant to carry them along.

The closing metaphor, “they shall rise up with wings like eagles” is the poetic pinnacle of the passage, and evokes the Exodus again (see Exodus 19:4: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself”; also Deuteronomy 32:11). The biblical witness is that from age to age, God hears the cries of his people and empowers them — in exhaustion, in oppression, and in other moments of greatest need. In some ways, this Isaianic poetry goes beyond the Exodus accounts, in that God not only protects the people with his wings, he bestows on them wings of their own. Since wings are frequently described as a supernatural attribute (Psalm 17:8; Isaiah 6:2; 31:5; Jeremiah 48:40; Ezekiel 1:6ff., Malachi 4:2, etc.), they indicate an unusual gift of divine power. This exceptional poem appropriately marks one of the most significant events in the history of God and His people.


Notes:

1 A Neo-Babylonian ration list records fairly large quantities of oil given to the king of Judah and some of his subordinates: http://www.livius.org/ne-nn/nebuchadnezzar/anet308.html


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

Shauna Hannan

“Praise the Lord.” What more is there to say? “Praise the Lord.” Period.

The psalmist has offered five ways to proclaim praise to the Lord with the five Hallelujah Psalms that conclude the Psalter. Even within each of these five psalms, the psalmist offers myriad ways to say essentially the same thing: “Praise the Lord for the Lord is worthy to be praised.”

Isn’t this our task as preachers? We proclaim the gospel, the same enduring good news, week after week? This psalm offers homiletical possibilities regarding both content and form for saying the same thing in a number of ways. The former (content) helps us preach about the psalm and the latter (form) helps us preach like the psalmist.

Preaching about the psalm

The focus of Psalm 147 is on God as both the agent of creation and the ongoing active (very active!) agent in the healing of the world. This striking combination is worthy of exploration and emphasis. How amazing it is that the one who is the mighty and powerful creator (verse 5) is also the one who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (verse 3). The one who determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name (verse 4) is also the one who builds up Jerusalem and gathers the exiles of Israel (verse 2). This incarnational revelation that began at Christmas continues into this season of Epiphany.

Curiously, despite the creative power of this one (verses 8-9), God’s pleasure is not in the usual ways the world expresses power (verse 10). Instead, the Lord delights in those who fear him and who put their hope in his unfailing love (verse 11). Praise the one who possesses such an intriguing and life-giving combination of characteristics.

Another possible way to attend to the content of this psalm in the sermon is by imagining the psalmist’s proclamation in Psalm 147 as a response to Isaiah’s questions (Isaiah 40:21).

  • Have you not known the LORD who gathers the exiles of Israel?
  • Have you not heard that our Lord is great and mighty in power?
  • Has it not been told you that this one’s understanding has no limit?
  • Have you not understood that the Lord covers the sky and supplies the earth?

You too might consider offering a sermon that is a response to Isaiah’s questions. Psalm 147 serves as your guide.

Preaching like the psalmist

The psalmist is a master at using various literary and grammatical devices for saying similar things in multiple ways. For the week-to-week preacher, these are crucial skills to adopt. One literary device (contrast) was explored above. This section offers two additional devices: allusion and mood.

Literary Device: Allusion

An allusion offers a brief reference to something without dwelling on it or “over explaining” the connection. For example, a sermon might refer to the dark places of this world as “valleys of the shadow of death” into which the light of Christ shines so that we might “fear no evil.” Without even naming Psalm 23, most hearers would make the connection. In fact, referring explicitly to Psalm 23 might actually diminish the power of the allusion. The psalmist utilizes this device often. Before reading on, see how many allusions to other texts you identify in Psalm 147.

Compare your list with this one.

  1. The opening and closing “Praise the Lord” point me to the other five Hallel Psalms that close the Psalter. (Reading Psalm 146-150 as one unit might yield some insights.)
  2. The seemingly contrasting claim that God is both mighty creator (Psalm 147:4, 8-9, especially) and pays careful attention to the brokenhearted ( 3), for example, is reminiscent of Psalm 8:3-6.
  3. I cannot help but recall Psalm 133 when I hear: “How good and pleasant it is.” In fact, this phrase resonates with parts of scripture beyond the Psalter as well. Recall Jacob’s foretelling of the blessing of his son, Issachar, who “saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant” (Genesis 49:15). Remember from the Song of Songs 7:7 — “How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden!” Also, the word “good” alone hearkens back to the creation story itself (Genesis 1:1).
  4. Determining the number of the stars and calling them each by name reminds me again of the creation story (Genesis 1:16) as well as the Lord’s words to Abram accounted later in Genesis, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them … So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5).

So, beyond considering the content of the psalm, preachers might consider doing as the psalmist does and allude to the psalm or other parts of scripture in the sermon. The preacher might also consider alluding to experiences of the congregation in order to undergird the mandate to “Praise the Lord.”

Grammatical Device: Mood

Paying attention to mood can spark sermonic substance. Notice the absence of the interrogative and conditional in Psalm 147; there are no questions and there are no “what ifs.” This psalmist has something to shout out and does so convincingly. He is not asking for our opinion or expressing wishful thinking. He is not asking questions as Isaiah did; he is answering them! Using the indicative (“The Lord builds Jerusalem”) and imperative (“Sing to the Lord … make music to our God … ”) moods, the Psalmist is proclaiming God’s greatness and encouraging (demanding!) a response.

Review your sermon in terms of grammatical mood. Are you using (overusing?) interrogatives when a biblical text prompts more conviction in proclamation? Are you expressing wishful thinking of possibilities (conditional/subjunctive) when a biblical text urges indicatives that describe the way things are.

The challenge

Take a cue from Psalm 147 in order to preach like the psalmist by using literary and grammatical devices such as contrast, allusion and mood of verb tenses. This challenge may help you offer the worthiest challenge of all to your hearers: “Praise the Lord!”


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Frank L. Crouch

In 1 Corinthians, Paul undertakes to address a series of church conflicts, theological debates, and disputes over community practices.

These range from the nature and reality of Jesus’ resurrection (ch. 15) to the correct foods to bring to or eat at a church supper (ch. 8-10). This epistle stands as Exhibit A for anyone seeking to understand the complexities of ministry and congregational life.

Paul demonstrates a keen awareness of competing factions in his audience, balances the relational challenges of both honoring and seriously critiquing convictions deeply held by people he knows and loves, and serves as a first responder to first generation Christians. As he addresses this fractious community’s list of questions, he barely restrains his frustration then gets to their demand to know why they should pay him to do any of this.

After addressing that last question (1 Corinthians 9:1-15), Paul states a key element of his overarching approach to ministry: “I have become all things to all people” (9:22). Some interpreters treat that statement with skepticism and derision, as evidence for Paul’s over-inflated estimation of his abilities. They suggest it does more harm than good, that it is a claim undeserving of canonical status. To be sure, heads nod all around whenever someone reminds an individual or a group, “you can’t be all things to all people.” Those reminders are correct. We can’t.

At the same time, it is worth considering a brief defense of Paul against charges of an overly abundant self-esteem and unrealistic concept of his own abilities to relate to everybody. In first century Greco-Roman culture, leaders were expected to trumpet their virtues and proclaim all the reasons people should listen to them and follow their advice. Otherwise, in that culture, why should anyone believe or follow them?

In our day, pretty much no one except professional athletes is allowed to get away with that, and often, even for them, they get away with it only barely. Even politicians who campaign to convince the population that they are worthy of office must walk a line between recounting their successes and being considered arrogant braggarts. In contrast, Paul’s day took an approach more like Yosemite Sam from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. If leaders weren’t exactly expected to burst through the doors and exclaim, “I’m the hootinist, tootinist, shootinist bobtail wildcat in the west!” they were expected to come close.

Pauls’ statement in 1 Corinthians 9:22 is best understood in light of the argument that precedes it, beginning at 9:16. “Woe to me if I do not speak the gospel!” He speaks helpfully to a present day society that often approaches life — particularly church life — through the lens of a self-centered, self-protective sense of entitlement. It is easy to assume that God favors church people over “unchurched” people and to act as if church people do not need to think about how their own practices and attitudes might unhelpfully assure that those “unchurched” people will stay that way. Too often we give those outside of the faith no reason to feel invited or welcome to become insiders.

Paul hopes that others might share the benefits of relationship with Christ. His words suggest that people in relationship with Christ actually want to understand what matters to those who are not. They actually want to act toward others in ways that demonstrate respect for their status as human beings created and beloved by God — even before or apart from explicit relationship with God.

Paul does this not as a marketing tactic or evangelism strategy. He does it because “an obligation is laid upon me” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Mainline congregations have long been faulted — often appropriately — for losing sight of the fact that their primary obligation is not a building, a mortgage, deferred maintenance, or well-established, comfortable patterns of being a church. In contrast, Paul remembers the God who sought him and the people who showed him — not just told him — that God was seeking him, and, most importantly, was seeking him along with seeking everyone else on the planet. Paul understood that God’s desire to be in relationship with him was “about him,” but not only about him. Many congregations come together for their own sake in order to worship a God who they know cares about them. They are also vaguely certain that God cares about other people in their neighborhood, city, or region. A casual appreciation for God’s love for others removes from them any sense of urgency about those people; it lays no burden on them to meet those people, know their names, understand their lives.

In order for Paul to “become a Jew” (he already was one, but was seeking to connect with those of his own people who did not share his new understandings and practices) he had to care about a group of people who differed from him, care enough to meet them on their own terms. Whether Jew or Gentile, under the Law or outside the Law, under the gospel or outside the gospel, strong or weak, seeker of the things of Christ or seeker of the things of this world — in order to connect with them and guide them to the fullness of life in Christ, he at least had to know them, seek to understand them, try to see the world through their eyes, attempt to see the ways that they see their own stories before telling them of a larger gospel story.

We would help ourselves and our neighbors if we were to reflect on how well or poorly we embody Paul’s approach, as individuals and as communities of faith. Paul, in fact, by his own telling, was not all things to all people. He was run out of town, beaten by mobs, thrown in jail by people with whom he did not exactly fully connect. We will not be all things to everyone either. But, one quarter of the New Testament came from the hand of someone who lived a mission that mattered, treated everyone as if they mattered to him and to God, and sought to embody a still more excellent way.