Lectionary Commentaries for June 14, 2009
Second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 4:26-34

Sharon H. Ringe

If only Jesus had provided a blueprint, a constitution or at least a tourists’ brochure,

so  we could understand precisely what he meant by the kingdom, reign, rule, realm, or empire (basileia) of God! We know that it has to do with God’s sovereign authority, but when and where will it be found, and how can we be certain to be part of it? Instead of the straight descriptive answers we crave, we get oblique and even startling parables–what a young friend calls “sorta-like stories,” like the zebra in his new picture book that is “sorta like” the horse in its well-loved predecessor. Almost, but not quite.

Today’s Gospel reading features the final two stories pointing to the reign of God in the collection found in this chapter of Mark. One turns on the everyday mystery of growing seed (4:26-29), and the other about the mustard plant shrieks with exaggeration and incongruity (4:30-32). This chapter concludes with the statement that Jesus taught only in parables, but then “he explained everything in private to his disciples” (4:34).

Despite its simplicity and commonness, the first of these parables leaves us puzzling about the basileia. For those who would like to take things into their own hands, is the parable a reminder that the farmer is God, who both initiates the process and brings in the “harvest?” Yes, but the farmer in this parable appears clueless about how the process takes place, and that doesn’t work if God is the farmer.

Could this be a moral tale through which we disciples learn to be farmers and get about the business of sowing the seeds of God’s reign, then wait patiently for the process to unfold in God’s time and in God’s way? Yes, but tradition says that the “harvest” belongs to the risen Christ, not to us.

Maybe the farmer is Jesus, who set everything in motion and will return at the end to bring in the harvest. Okay, but where is Jesus the farmer now, between the sowing and the harvest, when our days are marked by struggle and suffering, and we long for evidence of his presence?

There may have been some in Mark’s community who wanted to hurry the coming of the kingdom along by taking up arms against the Romans. But they are reminded that the coming of God’s rule is “automatic” (“the earth produces of itself,” v. 28; automatē) and not of our doing. Or maybe they (and we!) are admonished to see the present against the affirmation of God’s future time of fulfillment whose calculation is not in our grasp (e.g., Mark 13:30-32). What is the lesson of this deceptively simple parable?

The fact is that this parable engages us in all of these ways. It does not explain the basileia of God. Rather, like a work of art, it confronts us with its power and implications and demands a response. The reign of God is not “like” the farmer, the seed, the process of growth, or the harvest, but it is “sorta like” each of them and all of them taken together. As Mark 4:9 puts it, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Any farmer in Jesus’ audience who puzzled at the deceptive simplicity of the first parable would be left shaking her head at the second (4:30-32). The basileia of God and mustard weeds simply don’t belong in the same sentence! Mustard is indeed an herb with medicinal properties and one that is useful for flavoring and preserving food. The mustard bush, though, is a garden pest. No one would sow it on purpose. It grows all too readily on its own, and once it appears, it takes over the field. The small size of the mustard seed may be proverbial (Matt. 17:20; Luke 17:6), but it is not the smallest seed, nor is the mustard bush the largest of all shrubs. Exaggeration follows absurdity. What is “sorta like” God’s reign in this story, and how could it be good news for Mark’s church and for us?

Both common sense and Israel’s Scriptures can provide starting points. Even though the superlatives are inaccurate, the contrast between a small seed and a large plant fits well as an image for the reign of God. It would have been good news to people aware of the small beginnings of Jesus’ ministry or of their own struggling community. The almost predatory ability of the mustard plant could crowd out the planned crops of the Romans, even sheltering birds that could be trusted to gobble up more of the carefully planted seeds, no doubt gave a chuckle to people delighted by subverting the economic enterprises supporting Rome’s imperial agenda. Good news: God’s empire has many ways to carry the day over powers bent on their own profit and power!

The image of the shrub that is so large birds can find shelter under its branches lifts this parable from garden satire to a vision of the end-time. In Ezekiel 17:22-24, God plants a tiny cedar twig on a high mountain of Israel and that twig becomes a large and fruitful tree under whose branches every kind of bird will find shelter.1  The birds there symbolize the nations that flock to Israel’s God on the glorious day of the Lord. This word-picture in both Ezekiel and Mark envisions the day when God’s sovereign and life-giving power will embrace the whole world–good news indeed!

There is no easy take-home message for us in these parables. They ask that we engage our imaginations to follow the possibilities and incongruities that we distinguish between a world where everything is planned, linear, and logical, to one filled with mysteries and surprises into which a sovereign God invites us. Like a child daring to learn about an unfamiliar world by testing out “sorta like” stories, we can enter this world and delight in the good news that business as usual can’t last forever.

1Mark’s parable differs from Matthew 13:31-32, where the shrub becomes a tree in whose branches birds can build nests. Matthew’s version leads us not to Ezekiel, but to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 4.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 17:22-24

John C. Holbert

Anytime a text from Ezekiel is thrown up by the lectionary, most preachers hope against hope that it is the “dry bones” passage from chapter 37.

At least there one can reflect on new life and new hope in the midst of exile, thus avoiding the complex and contentious scholarly battles about the actual location of and reasons for the prophet’s words and work.

Ezekiel too often has been examined as a man who is little less than psychotic. His peripatetic ramblings between Babylon and Jerusalem, either in reality or in his unstable mind, have caused many readers to experience whiplash, finding themselves spectators at a prophetic ping-pong match. And this is to say nothing of the downright crude allegories of chapters 16 and 23, writings more appropriate for a brown paper bag than a Bible!

I caricature but not by much. Ezekiel is a very long book and has not been heard from the pulpits of our churches very often, save those who would find, in its rich metaphors and allegories, magic keys to the world’s end. Such speculation is to me false, foolish, and dangerous.

Ezekiel was a man of God for his own time, surely at the beginning of and during the exile of Israel to Babylon in the early decades of the sixth century BCE. The scholarly debates have now settled, for the most part, on Ezekiel’s residence in Israel, with his “trips” to Babylon being flights of prophetic insight.

Thus, when we read his often difficult words, we are reading a prophet reacting to the end of Israel as he knows it, a land facing an uncertain future, its leaders trudging hundreds of miles eastward toward the world’s greatest city, mighty Babylon.

In the long allegory that precedes our text, Ezekiel offers two poems. They describe two great eagles, the first of which breaks off the topmost shoot of an enormous cedar tree — one of the fabled cedars of Lebanon — and flies with it to a “city of merchants.” That eagle then takes a seed and plants it in fertile soil where it sprouts as a “low-spreading vine,” rooted and fixed in that soil (Ezekiel 17:3-6).

In the second poem, another eagle sees that the spreading vine of the first eagle has turned toward him. It has, in fact, been transplanted into “good soil by abundant waters,” where the second eagle hopes it becomes a “noble vine,” bearing much fruit (Ezekiel 17:7-8).

God then asks a penetrating and ultimately devastating question: Will the vine prosper?
The answer is a resounding no. This so-called noble vine will be pulled up by its roots, its fruit will rot and wither. And the transplanted vine will also not thrive; it too will wither right at its place of transplantation (Ezekiel 17:9-10).

The prophet then helpfully explains the allegory for his readers (Ezekiel 17:11-21).
The historical background is clear: the king of Babylon (the first eagle) comes first to Lebanon (Jerusalem). He takes the top shoot of the cedar (Jehoiachin, king of Jerusalem) and brings him to “the land of trade” (Babylon).

Next, the king takes the “seed” of the land — Zedekiah, the last king of Israel and a Babylonian puppet — and places him in “fertile soil, near abundant waters” (Babylon). There, he becomes a “low spreading vine,” a vassal to the power of Babylon.

The second eagle (the pharaoh of Egypt) then redirects the vine of Israel toward his land, transplanting the vine to Egypt. He offers Israel military support against Babylon, again in “good soil by abundant waters,” this time the Nile.

This refers to Zedekiah’s revolt against his Babylonian masters with the connivance of Egypt early in the second decade of the sixth century BCE. The result is disaster.

Furious and eager for revenge against the traitorous vassal, Babylon returns to Jerusalem, destroys the city, and drags its leaders, including Zedekiah, off to exile in Babylon.

In a grisly touch, Nebuchadnezzar orders the sons of Zedekiah to be murdered in the presence of the Israelite king, just before Zedekiah is blinded. That way, the memory of his murdered sons will follow him vividly to his exilic grave.

Thus are history’s horrors couched in allegory.

But our text, in the face of such misery and death, offers another sort of allegory altogether. No longer are eagles (world leaders) the active agents; the Lord God will now act.

God will take another sprig from the topmost cedar and will plant the twig on a “high and lofty mountain, a mountain of Israel.” The twig itself will bear fruit and will grow into a mighty cedar. Under the shade of this huge tree and in its vast network of branches, “every kind of bird will live” and “winged creatures of every kind” will find their place of safety (Ezekiel 17:22-23).

Some have speculated that the history behind this poem may include Zerubbabel, a grandson of Jehoiachin, who some hoped would restore the fallen throne of David in Jerusalem. Zerubbabel does mean “seed/sprout of Babylon,” and the allegories have much to do with seeds and plantings. In a later messianic interpretation, both Matthew 1:12-13 and Luke 3:27 trace the ancestry of Jesus through Zerubbabel.

Allegories, by their very natures, do not always reveal their detailed meanings, especially when so many centuries separate their composition from our own time.

But in this case, I do not think we are bound completely to the exact history that may or may not lie below this imaginative prophecy.

The basic claim is clear in verse 24. Whatever eagles or great trees are to be found in the world are all under the rule and way of God. For it is finally God who “makes the high tree low and the low tree high,” who makes “green trees dry and dry trees flourish.” It is not finally pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar who has the final word, for “I the Lord have spoken; I will do it.”

Exile is not the last word, because God is still speaking.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13

Ralph W. Klein

In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel denounces King Saul for violating the rules of Holy War by sparing the king of the Amalekites and keeping booty from Israel’s war against them.

Samuel told Saul that his kingship would be turned over to his “neighbor,” who turns out to be David.

The main portion of this lesson deals with Samuel’s anointing of David, who is actually anointed three times in the Old Testament. The first anointing by Samuel, found in chapter 16, expresses Yahweh’s loyalty to David. The second and third are in 2 Samuel 2 and 5, expressing respectively the loyalty of Judah and the loyalty of the northern tribes toward David.

Samuel shows some reluctance in following Yahweh’s command to anoint a king in Bethlehem, since he knows this would be considered an act of treason by Saul. So, Yahweh provides a cover for Samuel by telling him to go to Bethlehem and make a sacrifice.

This is the truth, of course, but it does not disclose the whole purpose of the sacrifice. The elders in Bethlehem trembled when they saw Samuel, either out of respect for Samuel or because they recognized the controversial political implications of what he was about to do.

When Jesse brought his eldest son Eliab before Samuel, the prophet thought this must be the one to be anointed king because of Eliab’s good looks and his height.

However, Yahweh denied it was Eliab, since Yahweh does not judge by outward appearances but by the heart. Good looks and height were exactly the things that had made Saul stand out earlier (1 Samuel 9:2; 10:23). The heart is also cited as indication of one’s character in Jeremiah 17:10 and 20:12.

Having started with his first born, Jesse presents seven of his sons to David, only three by name, but in each case Samuel indicates that this is not the one Yahweh has chosen to be king.

Election in the Old Testament is primarily focused on a task that Yahweh wants done and has little to do with the quality of the person or persons chosen. For example:

  • In Deuteronomy 7:7-8, we learn that Yahweh chose Israel not because they were so numerous, but because Yahweh loved them and was keeping his promise to their ancestors.
  • In Deuteronomy 9:5, Israel is told it is not because of the uprightness of their hearts that they will occupy the land but because of the wickedness of the nations that Yahweh is dispossessing.
  • In Genesis, the mystery of election is expressed in that a younger son is often preferred over an elder son: Jacob over Esau; Perez over Zerah (Genesis 38:29-30); Judah over his elder brothers Reuben, Simeon, and Levi; and Ephraim over Manasseh among Joseph’s sons.

Jesse parades seven of his sons before David, and all of them are rejected. When Samuel asks if he has another son, Jesse mentions David, who was out tending the sheep. The word translated “youngest” in 1 Samuel 16:11 could also imply that David was the shortest. Kings in the Ancient Near East were often described as shepherds. Hence David’s chores with the flock may metaphorically symbolize his great royal future.

David’s good looks — despite what had been said in verse 7 — confirmed that he was Yahweh’s choice to be king. When Samuel anointed him, the spirit of Yahweh rushed upon him.

This spirit possession was also a sign of divine election. Saul too was given the spirit in 1 Samuel 10:6, 10; 11:6). Saul and David, in fact, are the only kings of Israel who have such a gift of the spirit. Isaiah 11:2 indicates that the messiah will once more possess the spirit, and Pentecost demonstrates that this spirit is now poured out on all whom God has chosen.

The theological point of this pericope is David was chosen by Yahweh to be king and anointed by no one less than the prophet Samuel. The anointing of David indicated Yahweh’s obligation to him and, by implication, Yahweh’s covenant with him.

Though the reputation of Samuel lent prestige to David, the choice itself was not Samuel’s. David was the youngest, perhaps the shortest, and was tending sheep while his brothers were doing “important things” with the prophet Samuel.

From now on, David was the divinely designated successor to Saul. The rest of 1 Samuel relates how this became true, as David contested with Saul in warfare and for the favor of the people. All David’s deeds of politics, guerrilla action and intrigue, marriages of convenience, and questionable service with the Philistines are trumped by a prior fact: already at the start Yahweh had anointed him to be Saul’s successor.

The doctrine of election has often been a point of controversy and even offense. Does God choose some and not others? What leads God to choose a certain person or a certain group of people?

The Bible pays very little attention to these questions. It is much more interested in the purpose for which God chooses people.

God chose Sarai and Abram so that through them, all the families of the earth would gain a blessing (Genesis 12:3). The New Testament concurs: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9).

Samuel was at first blinded by the good looks and imposing height of Eliab, Jesse’s firstborn. But it was the youngest and shortest, the eighth child, who was not even invited to the festivities involving Samuel that was Yahweh’s choice. Yahweh chose him to be ruler over his people, Israel.

When we wonder, why does God choose us or anyone else, we do well to ask, “What is the assignment that God would like me to carry out?”


Commentary on Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

Matthew Stith

The two portions of Psalm 92 chosen by the lectionary each offer interesting possibilities for interpretation and connection to the life of the church, and interpreters may find it useful to focus on one or the other.

However, there is also much to be gained by addressing the Psalm as a whole.

Verses 1-4
The opening verses of the text assert that the praise of the Lord is a positive good. This may seem self-evident, but it is worthwhile to reflect on further.

Far too often the worship of the church is carried out as if it were solely a matter of obligation. Perhaps you’ve been a part of a congregation in which the hymns are merely endured, in which the liturgy is something to be slogged through on the way to coffee hour, or in which the prayers of the church are more or less a sleep-inducing drone. For these congregations, the claim “it is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High!” (Psalm 92:1) can come as a much-needed shock to the system.

The claim here is that the worship of God’s people springs forth from the deep gladness brought on by a recognition of God’s mighty and manifold works. Praise that is rooted in this ground will be lively and flourishing.

Verses 12-15
These closing verses offer the rich image of the righteous person as a tree. At one level, the symbolism is fairly straightforward. Trees are symbolic of enduring life and fertility. They are long-lived, in contrast to the grasses and plants of the field. Fittingly then, this text declares that those who are right with God will enjoy a similar long and fruitful life.

The interpreter should not fail, however, to notice that the trees described by the Psalmist do not spring up just anywhere: “They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God” (Psalm 92:13).

These long-lived, fruitful trees are planted and cultivated. They are deliberately placed, nourished, and protected. Because of this care, they are able to flourish.

This observation leads to many possible avenues of exposition, touching on the sovereignty of God (who plants where he wills), God’s providence (who else is the source of water, nourishment, and protection?), or, finally, on the reasons for lively praise as recommended in the beginning of the Psalm.

Ultimately, it is because God does such things for God’s people that they ought to praise God with glad enthusiasm.

Psalm 92 as a whole
The above-mentioned segments that focus on praise and God’s providential care for the righteous are parts of a larger movement that runs throughout the Psalm.

As noted, the praise called for in verses 1-4 is based on the works of God. In the middle segment, the reader learns which aspect of God’s many works the Psalmist has in mind.

First, the reality is acknowledged that the wicked — those who oppose God, who do not give him praise and honor, and who prey upon his people — often seem to prosper. It should not be difficult for any congregation to draw connections here to their own observations and experiences. The question then arises, “If this is so, what grounds have we for praise?”

The answer, the central reality of the Psalm, comes quickly.

The prosperity of the wicked is like that of the grass: short-lived and ephemeral, without endurance. By contrast, the sovereign rule of God is eternal: “you, O Lord, are on high forever” (Psalm 92:8).

This is the pivot point, on which the Psalm and the questions it raises both turn. Because God reigns eternally, it is a given that eventually, all opposing God’s reign will be expunged. The enemies of God (and, not incidentally, of the Psalmist) will certainly not prevail, just as the grass will certainly wither and die once its season is over.

Such a reminder of God’s enduring rule, and its inevitable consequences for the wicked, adds depth and context to the Psalm’s closing observations about the righteous. The tree-like endurance and long, fruitful life they will enjoy under God’s providence stands in contrast to the cheap and flimsy present prosperity of the wicked, just as the mighty cedars of Lebanon stand in contrast to a clump of grass.

Clearly, these verses carry a strong eschatological dimension. The present prosperity of the wicked is much easier to see than the promised flourishing of the righteous.

Were it not for the fundamental conviction at the center of the Psalm, the message might well fail to engage people in the midst of crisis, whether economic, political, familial, or otherwise. But that conviction stands, literally and figuratively, at the center of everything for Psalm 92: the Lord reigns on high forever.

All praise in the present and all confidence in the future depend upon it.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Elisabeth Johnson

In much of 2 Corinthians, Paul is occupied with defending his ministry against critics who question his integrity, motives, and fitness for ministry.

Some are concerned by his lack of credentials or letters of recommendation (3:1-3). Some have apparently accused him of being a “peddler of God’s word” (2:17) or of practicing cunning and deceit (4:2). Some claim that while Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are bold and strong, his physical presence is weak and his speech unimpressive, even “contemptible” (10:1, 10).

A consistent theme of Paul’s defense is his insistence that his ministry is to be judged by God and not by human standards. Paul’s critics look at his physical weakness — his old (by first century standards), beat up, scarred body and his weak rhetorical skills — and they find no evidence of the glory of Christ he proclaims. Paul counters that we have the treasure of the gospel in clay jars, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (4:7).

It is helpful to note that in the ancient Hellenistic world, bodily scars from beatings and lashings were considered a sign of shame and dishonor. Yet Paul argues that these scars authenticate his ministry, for they are a sign of his participation in Christ’s suffering and death in order to bring life to others (4:10-12).

Paul goes on to draw a contrast between the outer nature that is wasting away and the inner nature that is being renewed daily, between temporary affliction and eternal glory. He emphasizes the importance of looking “not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (4:16-18).

Paul continues in this vein by contrasting the earthly tent under which we groan and the heavenly dwelling for which we long. Here he emphasizes that what is mortal will be “swallowed up by life” and God has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (5:1-5).

Looking at what cannot be seen means that “we walk by faith and not by sight” (5:7). When Paul says “while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord,” he does not mean that the Lord is not with us in this life. Rather, it is a presence experienced by faith and not by sight. We still await the time when we will be fully “at home with the Lord” (5:8).

Meanwhile we make it our aim to please the Lord, remembering that “each of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (5:9-10).

In other words, Paul reminds the Corinthians that human opinions of his person and ministry, based on external appearances and earthly standards, do not matter. It is Christ who will judge Paul and each of us according to what we have done (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

Paul goes on to defend the motivation of his ministry in saying that “the love of Christ urges us on” (5:14). Christ’s love is shown most clearly in his death on our behalf, for “he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (5:15). Paul sees his own ministry authenticated by his vulnerability, weakness, and suffering, for he is living not for himself but for Christ.

Christ’s death and resurrection have changed everything, so that “from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view” (5:16). Paul acknowledges that he once regarded Christ from a human point of view. Of course, Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but he met his followers.

From Paul’s human point of view, Jesus’ followers were heretics following a false Messiah, apostates who deserved to be thrown in prison or killed. All of that changed when the risen Christ encountered Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul learned in a dramatic way how completely wrong human judgment can be. In what seemed to be foolishness — God’s Messiah suffering a humiliating death — God was at work to reconcile the world to himself and to make all things new.

Just as Paul’s view of Christ was dramatically transformed, so his view of all people is transformed by the love of Christ. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17).

Paul’s language of new creation echoes the language of Isaiah (65:17; 66:22), where along with the restoration of God’s people, God promises a new heavens and a new earth. Paul goes on to speak of God reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself in Christ and entrusting us with the ministry of reconciliation (5:18-21; cf. Colossians 1:20).

Paul’s words have surely been needed in every time and culture, but it strikes me that they are especially needed in a time and culture such as ours.

We are obsessed with externals — with youth and beauty, accomplishments and credentials, productivity and profit. We are constantly tempted to judge our own worth and that of others according to “a human point of view.” We are tempted to view worldly success as a sign of God’s favor, and conversely, to view weakness and suffering as a sign of God’s absence or even God’s punishment.

Paul reminds us that human standards of judgment count for nothing in God’s eyes. The scandal of the cross is that God chooses vulnerability, weakness, suffering, and death in order to bring new life.

It is not that Paul is calling us to seek martyrdom. Rather, he claims that in our lives, God places the greatest value on our service to others, even when service means suffering and rejection.

Christ died for all, so that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised for us. In Christ we are a new creation, even in our weakness and vulnerability. We are reconciled to God and entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation as agents of God’s reconciling love for the world (5:17-21).