Lectionary Commentaries for June 21, 2009
Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 4:35-41

Sharon H. Ringe

What really happened?

Did Jesus perform a miracle, controlling the forces of nature by a simple word? Or is this a simple story of a stormy day on the lake that the gospel writer inflated into a “fish tale” about Jesus’ power? In either case, what difference could it make to believers living in the twenty first century?

The second possibility of a simple story that grew in the retelling has been the explanation that many in the post-Enlightenment world have chosen. Lake Gennesaret (or the “Sea” of Galilee as Mark calls it, for reasons that this story will make clear) is a large, shallow body of water. As such, it is prone to sudden violent storms when wind hits it−storms that die down equally quickly when the wind stops. Pigeon Pass in the mountains west of the lake forms a funnel for the prevailing winds blowing in from the Mediterranean over the lake, as many fishers and boaters have learned to their dismay over the centuries. Perhaps that is what happened one day when Jesus was napping in the boat with some disciples, who woke him because it was getting dangerous. He reassured them, and the storm stopped. Coincidence of time was interpreted as cause, seen in the light of faith.

As Mark tells the story, though, it is more than a simple report of another wondrous deed attributed to Jesus. With Mark’s typically artful weaving of the story, he offers us two theological options that give this story pastoral power no matter our context. Details of the story’s place in the Gospel narrative and the specific language of the text provide the foundation for both emphases.

The first theological “spin,” if you will, is to show Jesus possessing the power to overcome evil and danger, coming on the heels of a collection of parables about God’s reign or empire (4:1-34). Then, Mark moves into a series of stories in which Jesus himself mediates that power to overcome the threatening chaos of the sea (4:35-41), demons (5:1-20), illness (5:24b-34), and even death (5:21-24a, 35-43). In each case, Jesus engages in a power struggle with forces that could destroy life. He “rebukes” the wind and orders the sea (4:39). He shouts at the demons (5:8).His “power” is engaged to cure the woman’s illness (5:30), and both the wind and the sea obey his commands (4:41).

In fact, the story of Jesus’ power over the storm is the trump-card of the collection of stories. By (mis)labeling the lake as the “sea” (thalassa), Mark evokes the memory of God’s power that liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea. Furthermore, as God delivered humankind from the threatening chaos symbolized by the sea (Psalm 65:7; 68:22; 89:9; 95:5; 104:7; 106:9; 107:23-29), so now does Jesus.

Though this story is set early in Jesus’ ministry, however, several details make it clear that this is a story about the risen Christ present in the daily life of the community of followers. This is the second theological affirmation that this story evokes. The best manuscripts of Mark contain no stories of Jesus appearing to his followers on Easter. Rather, the Gospel ends with the silence of the frightened women (16:8). This story, along with the account of the Transfiguration (9:2-8) and the second storm narrative (6:45-52), look back at moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry through the scrim of the resurrection.

What, then, shapes this story as a resurrection appearance story? The disciples−and only the disciples−are present, despite the mention of other boats also crossing the lake (the boat, it should be noted, is an ancient symbol for the church. as seen in the logo of the World Council of Churches). Jesus, though present in the boat, is asleep–a common metaphor for death–and is awakened. Life and death are at stake in the storm, and Jesus holds the key to both.

At issue also are faith (4:40) and fear (4:41). Six times in Mark, the disciples are said to be seized by the “fear” that blends terror and awe (phobos, or the verb phobeomai). Two are in the stories of the storms at sea (4:41; 6:50). Two others accompany passion predictions (9:32; 10:32). The others are at the Transfiguration (9:6) and the empty tomb (16:8). All of these moments place us unequivocally in the presence of God. They are epiphanies!

But what would Mark’s church have heard in such stories, and what can they be saying to us? As best we can discern, Mark’s church was living in the shadow of the traumatic war of the Jews against Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. If Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry were to be “good news” for the church, it would have to proclaim that message in the midst of the storms through which they were living (and in which many were dying). It would have to shine a light of hope in the nighttime of the life of the church, and not only proclaim the coming “day” of Christ’s longed-for return in power. This story affirms that still in that nighttime, when the long and perilous journey is in process, the cosmic authority of the crucified and risen Christ is with us. God is with us, and we are not alone.

The message for us is the same. Even when the seas threaten to engulf us and human imperial posturing threatens our home and the heart of our identity, the Risen One is always in the boat with us. Christ’s words, “Peace! Be still!” still promise to carry us safely through the night.

First Reading

Commentary on Job 38:1-11

John C. Holbert

I remember well the first time I read the speeches of God in the book of Job.

I had not been raised in the church, having gone only a few times in my childhood, and I had come to seminary in 1968 for reasons that could be considered less than religious.

I took Hebrew there, primarily because it looked so funny on the page, all squiggles and dots. But the language, and all that surrounded it, grabbed me like nothing else ever had. I took as many classes in the language as I could, and in those long-ago days, that amounted to seven full semesters. Two of those were given over to a study of Job.

The story seemed simple enough. Job is a righteous man, religious in every way, and rich. But due to a test, set for the Satan by God to discover whether or not Job’s piety is offered freely to God or for some reward, Job loses all. He ends up on a heap of ashes, scraping his foul sores with a broken piece of pottery.

Shortly, three friends of past acquaintance show up. They have supposedly come to comfort the sufferer. In fact, they are cruel antagonists whose first look at Job on his heap reveals to them he can be nothing less than a foul sinner. As they will say again and again, those who do evil deeds always receive their just rewards from God. They expect Job to die, as he deserves, and they squat in silence waiting.

But both they and we are surprised.

Far from acquiescing to his fate, Job begins to question its justice. The friends may have expected a silent death, but instead they receive the fury of a man convinced that God is not what they (and he) think.

Job thinks that God should be rewarding him for his proverbial piety; he cannot imagine why he has ended up with nothing on a dump. While the friends think he is on the heap precisely because he is evil, Job knows (and as we know from the first two chapters of the story) that he has done nothing worthy of such treatment. Something is definitely amiss in the neat world of reward and punishment, and Job refuses to be silent in the face of such obvious injustice.

Many scholars like to say that Job is so extreme in his claims about God and his life that he “almost” blasphemes. By any meaning of the word “blaspheme,” Job blasphemes forcefully again and again. The God he has been taught to put his faith and trust in, the God who always rewards and always punishes, has certainly made a mistake this time!

At 9:22-23, Job is constrained to shout, “God destroys both righteous and wicked,” and even “mocks at the calamity of the innocent.” He concludes (9:24) by announcing, “The earth has been handed over to the wicked; God covers the faces of the judges: if it is not God, then who is it?”

Blasphemy indeed! The God of Job is here called tyrant and sadist, mismanaging a chaotic universe.
The friends, and we, are rightly shocked. They do their best in their subsequent speeches to belittle, to accuse, and to obliterate Job. If they are not able to demonstrate that the upstart is the foulest sinner of all time, their understanding of God and the world will collapse.

The first two dialogues grow increasingly bitter and cruel, at times reduced to school yard taunts. They shout, “You are evil,” while he responds, “I am not, but you are cruel.” This goes on for many chapters.

The first time I read this back-and-forth exchange, I identified strongly with Job, as I think the author wanted his readers to do. The friends are plainly imposters and mountebanks, claiming to know all there is to know about God but in reality knowing very little. They are both failed theologians and failed counselors who would rather be narrowly right than helpful or sensitive to a man in pain.

But if they are thoroughly wrong about their claims, and their final disappearance from the drama makes that plain, then is Job right? What sort of theology can we glean from his ravings? Then God speaks, and I thought that I would get an answer to Job.

As I read chapter 38, I was furious! Job wants answers about the universe’s justice, or lack of it, and God blusters on about the creation: the sea, the dawn, the earth, etc. As the speech progresses, God speaks of the wild creatures of the world, even the ostrich, whose foolishness knows no bounds, but whose speed is wondrous.

What are we to make of all this? Job wants justice, and God says, “Have a look at the stupid but fast ostrich!” I just did not get it.

But over time, after multiple readings, and much prayer and reflection, something very important began to dawn.

Job and his friends were completely wrong about God. God is simply not in the business of rewarding and punishing human beings. God’s revelation to Job and to us is that the universe is far bigger, far stranger, and far more mysterious than we can imagine. A longer look at the ostrich and the sea and the eagle would help us to begin to see that.

We would also learn that we are not in creation’s center either. The world is not our oyster, but it is God’s oyster, the God who “brings rain on a land where no one lives, on a desert, empty of human life” (38:26). Why would God do this?

Because God is God, and we humans do not determine how God will act, nor are we always the reason for God’s actions. In the end, God is holy and other and fleet. The world is God’s, not ours.
Job needed that revelation, and so do we.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49

Ralph W. Klein

The lectionary’s desire to include the story of David and Goliath in the Sunday lessons is made difficult by the length of the story in the Bible.

The Septuagint itself does not contain verses 12-31, 41, 48b, part of 51, and 55-58. That shorter version is probably more original, although the omission of 41, 48b and part of 51 may be accidental.

This chapter seems to be unaware that David had been anointed by Samuel and presents David as a mere boy who could not function as a soldier. In contrast, in 16:18 and 21, he is called a man of war and was Saul’s weapon-carrier. Later, in 2 Samuel 21:19, we are told that Elhanan killed Goliath, perhaps indicating that this feat of a minor figure from Bethlehem was later ascribed to David (see also 1 Chronicles 20:5).

The idea that a combat between two champions could decide a battle is well known in ancient sources. Goliath was 9′ 9″ tall and extremely well armed (his armor would have weighed about 125 pounds). David shows up at the battle to bring provisions to his brothers. Eliab, David’s older brother, even scolds him for neglecting his duties with the sheep and for daring to take on Goliath.

David had been told that whoever defeated Goliath would be given the king’s daughter as a wife. When David is later offered Saul’s daughters Merab (1 Samuel 18:17-19) and Michal (1 Samuel 18:20-27), it is not as a reward for killing Goliath but as a ruse to catch him in a Philistine trap.

Eventually David is introduced to Saul, who also casts doubt on David’s ability to fight. David cited his earlier exploits against a lion or a bear that had threatened his flock. If he could handle lions and bears, he could also handle this blasphemous Philistine. David acknowledged that it was Yahweh who had given him those victories and would help him in the contest with Goliath.

Saul was convinced by David’s speech and outfitted David with his own light armor and weapons. However, these were too heavy for David and reflected Saul’s mistaken idea that Goliath could be defeated by mere human strength.

So David went out, relatively unarmed, accompanied only by a shepherd’s staff, a slingshot, and five smooth stones. A slingshot is a shepherd’s weapon but was also used by ancient armies with amazing accuracy (see Judges 20:16).

Goliath disdained David with all sorts of trash talk, but David put his trust in Yahweh of the heavenly armies (hosts), the God of the armies of Israel. It was Yahweh who would defeat Goliath, enabling David to cut off Goliath’s head and feed the dead Philistine soldiers to wild animals. The Bible consistently minimizes the importance of military weapons and emphasizes their relative uselessness in warfare. Yahweh laughs at enemies who put their trust in weapons (see Psalm 2:4).

With one excellent shot, David (with Yahweh’s help) found the weakness in Saul’s armor and sank a stone in his forehead.

The lectionary leaves out verses 50-51 which report that David grabbed Goliath’s sword (cf. 1 Samuel 21:9, where David picked up Goliath’s sword from the priests of Nob during his later battles with Saul) and cut off Goliath’s head. Still later, David took Goliath’s head to Jerusalem (1 Samuel 17:54) and took it in hand to show King Saul (1 Samuel 17:57).

The story of David and Goliath is a classic example of what can be accomplished through a person of faith. Ben Sira commented: “David played with lions as though they were young goats, and with bears as though they were lambs of the flock. In his youth did he not kill a giant, and take away the people’s disgrace, when he whirled the stone in the sling and struck down the boasting Goliath? For he called on the LORD, the Most High, and he gave strength to his right arm to strike down a mighty warrior and to exalt the power of his people” (Sirach 47:3-5).

The Gospel for this day, Mark 4:35-41, also places the emphasis on faith or trust. Jesus took a nap when a storm arose on the Sea of Galilee, but the terror-stricken disciples woke him up and asked, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” After stilling the storm, Jesus asked them [and us], “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

The promise to us, made in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, empowers us to do great deeds or to accept that promise in quiet trust, making us unafraid of giants, gigantic tasks, or the storms and other challenges of life.


Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

Matthew Stith

Psalm 107 opens with a typical call to praise.

All those who have been redeemed from trouble and exile by the Lord are summoned and called upon to give thanks for God’s steadfast love and unswerving faithfulness to the covenant and the covenant people. The key command, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever,” is also used in Psalms 118 and 136 as a congregational response or refrain. Thus, its use in the current text gives a liturgical flavor to the whole.

This opening call to praise is followed by four stanzas, each of which explores and illustrates the sort of steadfast redeeming love that the Lord exercises when the faithful find themselves in particularly dire predicaments.

The first stanza focuses on the experience of hunger and thirst in the desert, the second on the experience of captivity and forced labor, and the third on the experience of deathly illness. The fourth stanza (verses 23-32) is the text selected by the lectionary and focuses on the perils of journeying by sea.

At first glance, this stanza about storms at sea seems to be a bit of an oddball in the collection. After all, in ancient Israel, just about everyone could relate to the possibilities of starvation, capture or exile, and illness. These were all very real and present dangers of life.

But going down to the sea was a different matter. The Israelites were not, by and large, a seafaring people.

For those who are born and raised in a maritime culture, the everyday risks and terrors of life at sea are an ever-present reality, whether we have in mind an ancient Phoenician trader, an Elizabethan sea captain, or a contemporary New England fisherman.

For the people of the Psalmist, however, the whole undertaking was totally arcane, full of random and unanticipated risks and constantly on the edge of irresistible disaster. The average Israelite probably looked upon a ship voyage in much the same way that someone with a phobia about airplanes looks upon a transatlantic flight.

So why is the sea included as one of the four arenas of risk in which the Lord’s steadfast love is seen to operate? Exploration of some possible answers to this question also offers intriguing possibilities for the interpreter of the text.

First of all, the affirmation that God is both able and inclined to save God’s own from dangers that cannot be fully known should have particular value in contexts where there is anxiety or uncertainty about the future. Nothing, after all, could be any more uncertain than the situation of a ship at sea.

Second, there are particular symbolic and even mythological overtones to the choice of the sea.

In the ancient world, the turbulent, churning, unpredictable sea was closely associated with the shapeless, chaotic void that preceded creation. Thus, God’s demonstrated power to redeem from storm and shipwreck also reaffirms God’s cosmic, creative authority. The Lord’s calming of the sea in response to the cries of the mariners demonstrates that the very power that founded the universe is brought to bear to save God’s people.

Similarly, the sea is powerfully associated with death and the place of the dead. Such an association is vividly expressed in Jonah 2:5-6. Just as in that text, so here also the Lord’s rescuing people from the sea is tantamount to his rescuing them from death. Any Christian congregation should have ample interest in such a connection.

Finally, this segment of the Psalm offers a number of interesting textual connections that could be fruitfully explored. The alert reader will discover echoes of a number of passages, including:

  • The Priestly creation story in Genesis 1−The parallel between God’s subduing the storm in this Psalm and God’s subduing the primeval, chaotic waters in creation has been remarked on above, and would bear further consideration.
  • Psalm 29−Those congregations who follow the lectionary readings will have encountered this Psalm two weeks previous, and could profit by Psalm 107’s concrete example of what the Lord’s being “enthroned above the waters” might look like in practical terms.
  • Jonah, particularly the first two chapters−The interesting contrast of the God-fearing mariners and the fatalist Israelite Jonah make for an interesting discussion of who it is that benefits from God’s steadfast love. Which one looks more like the people God saves in Psalm 107?
  • The gospel narratives of Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4 and Luke 8) and walking on the water (Matthew 14, Mark 6, and John 6). Jesus’ demonstration of power over the water and the storm are clear testimonies to his divine stature. The Psalm text could help remind contemporary audiences how clearly this implication would have been seen by the gospels’ original readers.
  • God’s preservation of Paul from a shipwreck (Acts 27). In this instance, the faithful presence of one of God’s people in the midst of many who were not brings about the extension of the saving power extolled in Psalm 107.

Regardless of the direction taken by the interpreter in connecting this Psalm with the congregation, it will be worthwhile to circle back, as the Psalmist does, to the necessity of public praise and thanksgiving when God’s steadfast love is shown. Both the introductory sentences of verses 1 and 2 and the conclusion of the reading in verses 31 and 32 emphasize this point.

The experience of God’s saving power is not a private matter but rather is completed by sharing its good news in public. This insistence has implications not only for the congregation’s understanding of the Psalm but, more importantly, for its practices of corporate prayer and worship.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Elisabeth Johnson

Paul’s theme of reconciliation, begun in 5:11-21, continues in 6:1-13, as Paul appeals to the estranged Corinthian congregation to be reconciled to God and to himself.

In the ancient world, responsibility for initiating the mending of a ruptured relationship was understood to rest with the injuring party. In political contexts, this work was normally entrusted to an ambassador. Paul sees that in Christ, God completely overturns conventional expectations.

God, the injured party, takes the initiative to heal the ruptured relationship and reconcile the world to himself. Paul understands his own calling to be that of an ambassador for Christ, through whom God entreats the injuring party to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).

Reconciliation with God would naturally include reconciliation with Paul as God’s ambassador. Paul continues his appeal by quoting Isaiah 49:8, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” Then, applying it directly to the Corinthians, he writes: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). Paul urges the Corinthians to accept the reconciliation offered now, in this acceptable time, on behalf of Christ.

Against the critics who have leveled charges against Paul of being insincere or lacking in credentials, Paul insists that he has put “no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry” (6:3). As servants of God, he and his cohorts have commended themselves, not with impressive speech or displays of power, but with their great endurance for the sake of the gospel in the midst of all manner of suffering. They have endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger (6:4-5).

Paul is not portraying himself as a hero, but rather drawing attention to his sharing in the sufferings of Christ by enduring humiliation and shame. Sharing in Christ’s sufferings — and doing so with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, and truthful speech — shows his ministry to be authentically from God (6:6-7).

The antitheses that follow underscore once again the contrast between outward appearances — regarding someone “from a human point of view” (5:16) — and the greater reality that is hidden from view. Like Jesus himself, Paul and his cohorts “are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet we are known; as dying, and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (6:8-10; cf. 8:9).

Paul then appeals to the Corinthians once more, emphasizing how he has spoken frankly to them (literally, “our mouth has been open to you”) and with a wide open heart (6:11). There has been no holding back of affection on Paul’s part, but only on the part of the Corinthians. Paul urges them to reciprocate his love for them by opening wide their hearts (6:12-13).

It is evident throughout 2 Corinthians that Paul was deeply hurt by accusations and insults coming from people in a congregation he had labored long and hard to establish and nurture. More than that, he agonized over their spiritual well-being.

We can only imagine that Paul might have been tempted to wash his hands of those troublesome Corinthians, yet he did not. 2 Corinthians provides us with the poignant witness of an apostle for whom walking away was not an option.

Moved by the reconciling love of God in Christ−by Christ’s willingness to humble himself and become vulnerable, suffer and die−Paul firmly believed that he was called to be an agent of God’s reconciling work. Though wronged by the Corinthians (at least in Paul’s view, the only viewpoint preserved), he was willing to humble himself and make himself vulnerable, pleading with the Corinthians to be reconciled to God and to himself.

Once again, I am struck by how sorely Paul’s words are needed in the contemporary church.

Though we may talk a good game about forgiveness and reconciliation, we often balk at taking the risks inherent in truly living a ministry of reconciliation, even within the church. Often, both parties in a conflict feel they have been wronged by the other, and neither is willing to risk the vulnerability and potential humiliation of seeking reconciliation. We would much rather nurse our wounds and grudges than do the hard and humbling work of mending broken relationships.

We would do well to learn from Paul about speaking frankly and with an open heart. For Paul, it begins with what God has done for us in Christ. Even though we are clearly the injuring party, God takes the risk of vulnerability, humiliation, and suffering in order to reconcile us to himself.

As an ambassador for Christ entrusted with this message of reconciliation, Paul is compelled to take the same risk with those who have wronged him. He urges them — and us — to join him in the ministry of reconciliation to which all are called in Christ, beginning with our own sisters and brothers in Christ.

Engaging in this ministry within the church is necessary if we hope to bear compelling witness to God’s reconciling love for the world.