Lectionary Commentaries for June 28, 2009
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 5:21-43

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman

The text at hand is one of those two-for-one deals where one story is used to frame another, and they mutually interpret each other.

Look for both differences:

  • the socially and religiously prominent Jairus in contrast to the unnamed woman
  • one makes a formal request while the other sneaks a touch

and similarities:

  • the role of the crowd and of the disciples
  • the issues of fear and faith
  • a 12 year-old girl and a 12 year sickness

Now, let’s think about how these stories go together.

Prior to the events described, Jesus had been on the far side of the Sea of Galilee where he had encountered the Gerasene demoniac. Now back in Jewish territory, Jesus faces potentially dangerous situations again, both from being crushed by the crowds and being infected with ritual uncleanness.

I suppose a preacher has to say something about this uncleanness business. Safeguards are placed around such matters and given a ritual context involving priests and sacrifices, but it is also a matter of plain common sense. If a body is oozing, flaking, bleeding, or dead, you probably don’t want to touch it. Being unclean, therefore, is going to leave you socially isolated.

However, the situation is complicated. After all, the woman, clearly unclean by the standards of Leviticus 15:25-27, is mixed up in the press of the crowds around Jesus. The ‘dead’ girl is surrounded by family and friends.

I realize how tempting it is to focus on this story as an example of holistic, social healing which reintegrates a person into community and restores one to family. I also suspect we do so because we are quite hesitant to promise miracle cures and revivals from death.

Is there another way to preach this text other than the typical “Jesus-interacted-with-untouchables-and-restored-them-to-community-and-so-we-should-do-the-same-to-those-who-are-metaphorically-untouchable-today” sermon? It may be good practice but it can make for a yawner of a sermon.

Actually, today’s text is not a good model for authentic (pastoral?) care at all. In the central story, Jesus does not seek out and restore the woman. She’s the one who takes the extraordinary and prohibited initiative in touching Jesus.

English translations attempting to provide a clear and understandable story obscure the dramatic way the scene is described. In a more literal rendering, you should hear the string of participles that build up, finally culminating in the woman’s action: “And a woman–having been bleeding for twelve years, and having suffered greatly from many physicians, and having spent all she had, and having benefited not one bit but rather having gone from bad to worse, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd from behind–touched his cloak.” Jesus stops and makes a scene, while the disciples get testy with Jesus and his seemingly futile desire to know who touched him. [Note: Avoid bad allusion to “touching” speech in School of Rock movie.]

It reminds me of the scene in Genesis 3 after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and are hiding from God. God takes an evening stroll in the garden and calls out, “Where are you?” It’s not that God is unaware of their location. Rather, the question offers an opportunity for Adam and Eve to come forward and come clean. God will do a similar thing again in Genesis 4 when asking Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

In those cases, the truth comes out in nuanced parcels or is avoided altogether. In Mark 5:33, however, “The woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”

The whole truth! This seems to me to be a good preaching approach. What does it mean for this woman to tell the whole truth? Is she confessing something about her plan and her confidence in Jesus? Is she telling the truth about herself? I imagine her saying something like, “I was desperate, and you were my last hope.”

What are the consequences of this woman speaking the truth? Jesus responds with three affirmations:

  • “Your faith has saved/healed you.
  • Go in peace, and
  • be cured of your disease.” (Mark 5:34)

Tell the truth in your sermon and see what happens!

And now, the rest of the story: people come from Jairus’ house and tell him, “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the Teacher any longer?” Way to show compassion and sympathy for a grieving father! A little Stephen Ministry training would be helpful here, no?

But even Jesus, rather than compassionately sharing how he feels Jairus’ pain, basically tells him to buck up and keep the faith. Arriving at Jairus’ house and the distressed commotion of the grieving family and friends, Jesus tells them to knock it off, because the girl is only sleeping. [Note: Insert Monty Python’s Holy Grail “I’m not dead yet” joke.]

The distraught crowd promptly responds by laughing at Jesus. I’m not sure which stage of grief that reflects, but Jesus is surely the one still in denial.

Jesus’ next empathetic move is to kick them all out except for the parents and his chosen disciples. He takes the girl’s hand (remember, touching a corpse makes you “unclean”), and with a couple simple words restores her to life.

Other than telling the truth, how are you going to preach this text? Some ideas:

  • Look around! Are there miracles happening that we do not notice because of the crush of so many who press upon us?
  • Look ahead! Are we so sure of what we think are the facts that we laugh off the possibility of what God might actually be able to do?

You may have to think about what qualifies as a miracle today, but I think it counts if it displays Jesus and the power of the Gospel.

In any case, as Jesus says at the end, “Give them something to eat.” Or at least something to chew on!

First Reading

Commentary on Lamentations 3:22-33

John C. Holbert

The small poetic book of Lamentations was composed during the fall of Jerusalem to the invading Babylonian armies in the early years of the sixth century BCE.

Ongoing Jewish tradition enshrines this history by reading the book on the ninth of Ab (July/August), the day on which the final fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. is remembered. It is a solemn day, when hopes seem distant and God silent.

The first four chapters are acrostic poems. In other words, each succeeding line or series of lines begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. One can readily imagine that this device was an aid to memory, as the poems were chanted and sung in places of worship.

Still, this strikingly artificial literary strategy has yielded some powerful language and very memorable phrases. More than that, some important ideas about the nature of suffering and the role of God in that suffering also appear.

In its design, chapter three is a classic lament. Like many psalms (see Psalms 22 and 88 for examples), the poem begins with painful and heartfelt statements about the horrors of the author (Lamentations 3:1-20).

At first, the language sounds like the stock vocabulary of the lament psalms: darkness, pains, broken bones, desolation, arrows, etc. All of these may be found in the psalms of lament, the book of Job, and other poetic descriptions of agony throughout the Hebrew Bible.

However, when the poem is connected to the fall of Jerusalem and the apparent end of the nation of Israel, the language is more appropriate than first appears.

Note the use of “besieged,” “walled in,” a way “blocked with stones,” and “arrows shot into the vitals.” These are vivid descriptions of ancient siege warfare, culminating in the destruction of buildings and the slaughter of inhabitants. Such metaphors may be general ones, taking on a life beyond the context of battles. But, when a singer remembers the fall of Zion, such language resonates with stark reality and deepens the anguish of fear and lost hope.

The poem unashamedly ascribes the horrors directly to God.  It begins, “I am the warrior who has seen the woe by means of the anger of God’s rod” (Lamentations 3:1). God has brought Jerusalem’s disaster, and the succeeding nineteen verses find the subject of their actions to be God alone.

However, we modern believers adjudicate that ancient belief. Whether we believe God causes such pains or not, we can agree with the ancients that in life, chaos always threatens the order of things. Death is ever ready to swallow life.

These texts will not help us argue the origins of the world’s agonies, but they will help us reflect on what we can do to face them and live with their reality. This may be the most important lesson we need to learn.

When hopelessness seems complete, the singer cries, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord” (3:18).

But just three verses later, there is an astonishing transformation. “This I call to mind; and therefore I have hope” (3:21). What “this” is becomes the key to the rest of the poem. It stands as the first word of the line rather than the verb that usually begins sentences in Hebrew; therefore, “this” is emphasized.

Our passage for the day fills in the content with words that ring down the ages and provide crucial ideas for living with the agonies of life.

The first word of verse 22 is central. It is the plural form of the Hebrew chesed, a word notoriously difficult to translate. It might be read “unbreakable devotion to the promise.” Chesed best defines the basic nature of God, as that wonderful scene with Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus 34:6 makes plain.

But the fact that chesed is in the plural suggests it is not some generalized, unspecified good feeling, but rather actual deeds that reveal the realities of unbreakable devotion. Verse 22 reads, “The steadfast love (chesed) of the Lord never ceases,” although the Hebrew text might better be read “Ah, the steadfast deeds of the Lord! We will never be cut off!”

The parallel line of the verse 22 is: “God’s mercies never come to an end.” Remarkably, the word “mercy” is based on the Hebrew word for “womb.” When the poets reached for a word to best describe the astonishing mercy of God, they fastened on a woman’s womb, imagining God’s love to be like that unique love shared by a woman for her child.

In the midst of life’s certain pains, we must fix our minds on the unbreakable and active womb love of our God. Only in that love will we find hope in our hopelessness, the promise of joy in our sorrows.

Verse 23 reminds us that this unbreakable love, expressed in deeds of mercy, is “new every morning: great is your faithfulness.” The 1923 hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” beautifully captures the wonder of these convictions about God in stirring word and tune.

My hope is in God, because “the Lord is my portion,” sings verse 24. The poet’s history with God has convinced the singer that God is in fact fully present. Even in the deepest despair, faithful waiting is justified. Silence in the face of realities, however difficult, suggests that accepting the situation for what it is can be the first step to wholeness and renewed hope (verses 26-28).

“For the Lord will not reject forever” (verse 31). However dark the night, however deep the fear, however hopeless the situation, we rely on the steadfast love of God and give ourselves over to the One who is always the source of our hope.

Great is God’s faithfulness indeed!

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Ralph W. Klein

The second half of 1 Samuel recounts the contest between Saul and David.

Samuel anointed David in 1 Samuel 16, and throughout the rest of the book, all sorts of people endorse David as the coming king: the women who hail David’s victories; Saul’s son Jonathan and his daughter Michal; Abigail the erstwhile wife of Nabal; and finally even Saul himself.

David’s role, however, as king-in-waiting is hardly unambiguous. He travels around with a band of four hundred soldiers. His marriage to Abigail and the death of her husband, Nabal, happen under strange circumstances. David even consorts with the Philistines, Israel’s arch enemies. Meanwhile, Saul is increasingly portrayed as losing control and gaining in paranoia.

Saul tried to kill David on several occasions, and, finally and pathetically, he beseeches the medium at Endor to bring Samuel up from the dead, only to discover through Samuel that Saul himself will die the next day (1 Samuel 28). Saul takes the easy way out in his final battle, choosing suicide over any other option (1 Samuel 31). But, to his credit, Saul had also saved Israel from total defeat at the hand of the Philistines. His was an important first step toward freedom from foreign enemies and a stable government.

The old poem that forms the Old Testament reading for this Sunday expresses David’s deep grief over the death of Saul and Jonathan, and his undying love for Jonathan. He grieves over the man who tried to kill him, and with whom he had been involved in countless cat-and-mouse chases across Judah.

The poem offers another take on the last fifteen chapters of 1 Samuel, casting David as noble and broken by these tragic events, and yet worthy to be king himself. In this dirge, David addresses the mountains of Gilboa, the daughters of Israel, and Jonathan; interestingly not including an address to God.

This lament can express the grief all of us have experienced over the loss of a close friend or relative, those fallen in warfare, or a great leader (John F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King, Jr.). Sometimes our whole communities experience the trials of grief and loss (think of those who mourn the victims of September 11 or Hurricane Katrina).

The death of Saul marks the defeat of Israel (2 Samuel 1:19). David urges no one to tell the arch-enemy Philistines about what has happened. To experience their victorious gloating would be more than anyone could stand (1:20).

Saul had died on the Mountains of Gilboa. David offers a kind of curse on these mountains. He prays that they would experience no rain or other moisture to make the vegetation normal. All nature should express sorrow over the fallen Saul (1:21).

Jonathan and Saul had been fearless and relentless warriors (1:22). Swift and strong though they were, David ironically hails them as undivided soul mates in life and in death. Of course, Saul also tried to kill Jonathan, and Jonathan had been David’s best friend and ally. In reality, Saul and Jonathan were divided (1 Samuel 20:30-34; 22:8); still, they died together (2 Samuel 1:23). They were “beloved and lovely.” After reading 1 Samuel, one might see Jonathan that way, but hardly Saul.

David calls for the professional mourning women to shed many tears over Saul. Saul had helped their economy, even providing them with luxury items (1:24).

David’s deepest grief is for Jonathan, who had all but ceded the kingship, which was his by birthright, to David. David knew about the love of women, even many women. Were these liaisons ones of love or lust? Was love the primary emotion in those arranged marriages? Still, David had never experienced love like what Jonathan had for him (1:26). Jonathan’s love expressed itself in his surrender of any claim to the throne (1 Samuel 18:4).

The mighty had fallen in the midst of battle for the fatherland (2 Samuel 1:25). The mighty had fallen, and the weapons of war had proven to be unfaithful (1:27).

The Bible is full of mockery over the futility of armaments.  God sees them from heaven and laughs (Psalm 2:4). Whatever one might say about Holy War in the Old Testament, its whole point was that wars were fought only under Yahweh’s authority and permission. Numbers of soldiers and the size of weapons were irrelevant. The weapons of war have perished. Is that tragedy or good news? Surprise or what we ought to expect?

How does one preach on such a text? It is a celebration of friendship, an ode to the power and importance of political leadership. Is it also a confession by David that he had gone too far in his quest for power, more or less naïve about what this life and death struggle was all about?  Is it almost a confession of sins?

The God who calls us to follow also calls us to friendships, to live life amidst the ambiguities of life, perhaps even to sin boldly. But, in the following chapters and years, David still faces many temptations, succumbs to adultery, and uses murder to cover up that sin. Still, this is all in the future. For now, David reflects on the ambiguities of life, the loss of his best friend, and the loss of his greatest enemy.

How does one preach a God who is big enough to forgive a sinner, such as David, such as me?

The church should be a place where death can be faced realistically and our grief over loss can be safely expressed. David’s dirge keeps us from moving too quickly to joy and praise after serious loss.


Commentary on Psalm 30

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

For centuries, Christians have found the book of Psalms to be a powerful resource for all dimensions of life — the highs, the lows, and all the places in between.

The two dominant kinds of psalms are laments and psalms of praise, reflecting the lows and highs of life. Most of the psalms in the first part of the book are laments, but these prayers usually end on a hopeful note. That hope is sometimes expressed as a promise or vow of praise.

Psalm 30 is a fine example of a text that fulfills such a vow. It is a classic psalm of thanksgiving where the speaker declares or narrates to the congregation what God has done to deliver him/her from crisis. The Hebrew term for this kind of psalm is todah, a song that confesses how God has acted to deliver. In poetic form, the psalm tells a story of thanksgiving; it narrates the divine action of deliverance that has brought forth praise.

The structure of Psalm 30 tells the story:

  • Verses 1-5 state the intention to give praise and thanksgiving to God.
  • Verses 6-11 tell the story of the crisis (verses 6-7), the prayer (verses 8-10), and the deliverance (verse 11).
  • Verse 12 renews the promise of thanksgiving.
    Most likely, the crisis lying behind the psalm is one of sickness (verse 2). Consequently, worshipers in ancient Israel may have used this psalm in services offering prayers of thanksgiving for healing.

Verses 1-5

The opening of the psalm declares praise and thanksgiving for God’s rescue from the crisis at hand and from opponents who had made the crisis more difficult. The psalmist lifts up God just as God has lifted up the psalmist.

  • You have drawn me up
  • You have healed me
  • You brought me up
  • You restored me
    God has delivered the psalmist from the power of death and Sheol.

Sheol and the Pit (verse 3) indicate the realm of death or the underworld. The poetic imagery suggests being lifted up out of a well or cistern as a way of narrating God’s rescue from the power of death. God has delivered from the grip of the power of death and has brought this one back to full life. Central to the psalm is the confession that it is God who has given this new life.

Beginning in verse 4, the speaker addresses the congregation, the “faithful ones.” They are called to join in the thanksgiving to God. Verse 5 uses powerful poetic imagery to articulate the reason the congregation should give thanks: God’s anger and the resulting weeping are but a moment in the context of a life of joy and hope.

Another way to put this is that God’s ‘no’ to the faith community always comes in the context of God’s ‘yes.’ Night and day become symbols of God’s anger and favor. The striking reversal witnessed in verse 5 is characteristic of the poetic power of this psalm; other reversals are in verses 2, 7, and 11.

Verses 6-11

The body of the psalm tells the story of the crisis, the prayer, and the deliverance. All was well in the life of this person. Perhaps he or she had come to trust in human achievement rather than in God. Suddenly prosperity faltered and he/she cried out to God for help and mercy. The pleas are in verses 8 and 10.

The petitioner’s questions in verse 9 are part of this persuasive prayer to convince God to answer mercifully. Behind the questions lie the petitioner’s hopes to live and praise God, a life that is only possible with deliverance from death. In such praise, the speaker will bear witness to God’s involvement in the world and narrate the good news of God’s deliverance.

We again find powerful poetic imagery in verse 11 to describe the rescue. Grief changes to dancing and the customary sackcloth attire for grieving is turned in for joy. The thanksgiving is for God’s deliverance from the crisis and for a new perspective on life centered upon gratitude.

Verse 12

The psalm concludes with a renewed promise of praise and thanksgiving to God throughout life. With the new perspective of gratitude, the psalmist’s main vocation for life is the praise of God. Renewed life is a gift from God best enjoyed in thanksgiving.1

Towards a Sermon

Some contemporary preachers proclaim a health and wealth gospel that claims God showers prosperity upon all who are faithful. These preachers have found many followers in churches and in our society. However, Psalm 30 questions such a view of life and such a view of God.

Psalm 30 narrates a story that envisions God as present in joy and in trouble, that is, in all of life. The psalm proclaims a gospel of divine involvement in the world in all of life. It is a daring act of faith to see God in all the parts of life, and our psalm with powerful poetry helps us to imagine such a reality. The psalmist strongly holds to God’s providence in the midst of a crisis of life and death, and God did not leave the psalmist alone but came to deliver her/him from the crisis.

Psalm 30 is a poetic testimony. Giving testimony or bearing witness is an old tradition in Christian communities. Such words powerfully seek to draw listeners into the experience of thanksgiving so that God’s providence is not limited to the speaker, but becomes part of the life of the congregation. The poetry of Psalm 30 thus becomes a compelling way to express faith in terms of prayer and thanksgiving.

Life as praise or thanksgiving would be an appropriate response to the psalm. The goal of the divine deliverance narrated in the psalm reaches beyond the rescue itself to the response of gratitude as a completion of the prayer.

Walter Brueggemann has proposed reading the Psalms in a cycle of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.2  The narrative of Psalm 30 illustrates that cycle. Confidence in human achievement reflected the old orientation that gave way to trouble and disorientation. A new orientation of gratitude is found in divine deliverance and the psalmist’s thankful response.

1See Eugene Peterson’s rendering of verses 11-12 in The Message as a fine placing of the verses in contemporary language.
2Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), especially p. 127.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

David Tiede

As soon as they say, “It’s not about the money!” you know the money matters.

And surely as the summer media will continue to obsess on the economy, the Pauline lesson for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost will talk candidly in church about the money. People may squirm in discomfort from the heat or the topic, and preachers may skip the subject. Or worse, they may indulge their personal views on economic policy.

When the experts discuss “Supply Side” or “Keynesian Macroeconomics,” or the talking heads on CNN criticize “trickle down” or “voodoo economics,” only a tiny number of preachers might know enough to comment without simply irritating their people.

Even if a small cadre of such expertise could be found among the clergy, a sermon on “monetary theory” would almost certainly be as inane as when the rationalists of earlier centuries reduced the 23rd Psalm to instructions in sheep herding.

Yes, “Apostolic Economics” are about the money. However, they do not authorize naïve or self-righteous attacks on bankers, brokers, and economic stimulus policies. Preaching about money is challenging both because people have strong, often informed, economic views, and most people know they are about to be asked for contributions yet one more time.

In a global economy where people’s fears and hopes rise and fall with the market, “Working Preachers” can help liberate their congregations to live in the abundant freedom of the Gospel by teaching a lesson in “Apostolic Economics.” The Apostle Paul does not develop an economic theory. Rather, he invites people to understand the proper meaning and power of their money in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Paul’s second letter “to the church of God that is in Corinth” (1:1) is historically fascinating and theologically powerful for many reasons. Our lesson from chapter 8 is filled with the concepts of the Greco-Roman oeconomia, the “economy” of meaning and money of the dominant culture. This is often called the “honor-shame” culture where those in power were supremely confident of divine approval, as evident in their wealth.

Frederick W. Danker’s commentary on 2 Corinthians1  astutely demonstrates how Paul used and transformed the philanthropic rhetoric of the Hellenistic Benefactor from an abundance of privilege to an evangelical generosity of divine mercy. Yes, it still is about the money, but watch how Apostolic Economics put wealth in a new light.

The last verse of our text (8:15) shows Paul himself working from scripture. God’s distribution of the manna in the wilderness set the standard in Israel that “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Apostolic Economics are grounded in scriptural convictions about wealth: “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). Humans are empowered as managers of the abundance of God’s earth. Whether they gain wealth by skill or stealth, their stewardship has accountability. In verses 12-14, therefore, Paul gives scriptural meaning to parlance of the Hellenistic economy. What makes a gift “acceptable” (euprosdektos) and “fair” (isotes) is not merely a judgment by prevailing standards of benefaction. But how are these acts valued in the economy of God’s generosity?

Modern fiscal, legal, and tax economies are deeply protective of property rights. “Possession is nine points of the law!” We are now learning how powerful for good and ill these concepts are to the earth and its peoples. Financial advisors teach us to focus on wealth accumulation, and estate planning brings wisdom on inter-generational transfers.

Paul, however, redirects the entitlements of “rights” to the wisdom of stewarding God’s abundance. His lesson is for Christian disciples (learners) of Jesus’ reign, but even people who don’t believe in God can understand the mortal limits of ownership rights. A candid observer once stated, “Finally we are all 100% donors!”

Reading the first verses of our passage in the light of Paul’s scriptural convictions, we begin to grasp how profoundly Apostolic Economics transforms the world of money.

But before entering into the apostle’s joy, remember that in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul hit hard against the “prosperity gospel” of his opponents, the “super-apostles” or “false apostles” (11:5-15). Late-night media evangelists and prosperity preachers in Africa and Latin America still pull out verse 9 for the soul of their messages: “For your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (8:9).

Christian “get rich quick” schemes are the gospel of false apostles. They continue to dwell on our self-interest, turning God into our financial guarantor, and luring us into the illusion that our benevolence will begin when we have made it big in the market.

Human susceptibility to greed appears to be boundless as the wealthy get caught in Ponzi investment scams, and the poor are enticed to buy lottery tickets. The misery that follows those who made quick wealth from gambling is almost statistically certain. Preachers who bleed others financially in Jesus’ name may be the lowest scum of all.

This passage, however, is not a scold, but a joyful vision of God’s abundant love and an invitation into our freedom to be generous.

The logic tracks closely with the magnificent Christ hymn Paul recites in Philippians: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6-7). The Gospel of Apostolic Economics is still about “our Lord Jesus Christ:” “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9). This is the theology of the cross in economic language, leading not to human privilege to possess our wealth, but to Christian freedom to put the well-being of the neighbor ahead of our own interests.

The work of the preacher is to invite people into God’s generosity, balancing the accounts of the needs of others against the column of their own abundance (see verse 13).

On the spreadsheets of Apostolic Economics, “the gift is acceptable” (euprosdektos) as those who have more are able to give more. No one is in a lofty position as a big donor, certainly not compared with the generosity of Christ. But everyone is encouraged to join in the divine drama of giving.

Even “excellence” is now measured on God’s standard, or by the love the apostle has given to them, not by their own performance: “Now as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you — so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking” (2 Corinthians 8:7).

It’s about God’s love, and the money is a powerful way to get in on the action.

1Frederick W. Danker, II Corinthians: Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1989).