Lectionary Commentaries for July 12, 2009
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 6:14-29

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman

Today’s text is probably one of the best known birthday party stories ever!

Maybe we should call it a b-day, however, so we can also recognize the beheading that occurs. Alas, I don’t think that preaching a beheading is your calling today.

So why would the committee that establishes the lectionary include such a text? Actually, a better question we want to consider is why Mark would include this account in his narrative. Here are some ways it functions:
1. This gruesome little interlude fills in the time between the sending of the disciples in Mark 6:7-13 and their return in 6:30.
2. It finally answers a question that has been holding the reader in suspense since 1:14 when, without any explanation, Mark had reported, “Now after John was arrested…”
3. It not only looks back to 1:14, it creates a new forward looking anticipation. If John was arrested and ended up killed, we can expect the same for Jesus.
4. It gives an opportunity to hear from Herod and others regarding whom they think Jesus is. Note the answers given: Elijah, a prophet, John the baptizer. These are going to be the same answers given in Mark 8:27-29. By hearing them now, we will understand their background, and we will appreciate the new insight when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah.
5. Framed as it is by the sending and returning of Jesus’ disciples, this text provides a way to compare John’s and Jesus’ disciples. At the end of today’s lesson, we hear that John’s disciples take the presumably risky step of claiming John’s body and providing a proper burial for it. What will Jesus’ disciples do after their master’s death?

Now those are all interesting enough observations. They explain how the story fits in Mark’s gospel, and maybe you’ll find some grist for a sermon among them. But, I’m not sure that you will find the Gospel to preach. After all, in this text, other than a passing reference at the beginning, Jesus never appears or speaks.

I think, therefore, that some degree of abstraction from the text will be needed to make it preach. Here are two possible suggestions.

Truth and Consequences
John the Baptist tells the truth, and this account tells the consequences. So, even while we affirm with Jesus that the truth will make you free (John 8:32), we also must recognize that it may get you arrested and killed. That’s a paradox, of course, along the lines of “No good deed goes unpunished.” Yet this kind of paradox is at the heart of the Gospel.

Worldly wisdom always suggests that you be cautious, reasonable, and look out for yourself. Keep your options open. Avoid commitments that may later get you stuck. Stay calm. Don’t lose your head. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist…)

John the baptizer, however, was uncompromising in speaking the word given to him. He had to have known that criticizing political authority was no way to get ahead (sorry again…) and could only turn out badly.

The same deal goes for us. Our affirmation of and allegiance to the truth of the Gospel cannot be a hedge position. It’s all or nothing, regardless of the consequences.

So what is the good news? It’s that the same goes for God in sending Jesus. It’s that the same goes for Jesus as he also spoke truth to power. God’s good deed for us in Christ does not go without punishment displayed in the crucifixion. Yet it is also in this moment that our bad deeds do not go unforgiven. Thanks be to God for the Truth and his consequences!

Synonyms: baffled, bedeviled, befuddled, bewildered, confounded, confused, discombobulated, dumbfounded, nonplussed, puzzled, stupefied, stumped.

You have to love the rich and evocative vocabulary we have to express being perplexed. Maybe it’s because we are so frequently familiar with this state of being.

I also love the observation in Mark 6:20 that Herod was “perplexed” by John. He liked to listen to John, but he didn’t know what to make of him. Then he gets perplexed again at his birthday party.

Whether it was customary or not, having his daughter dancing for him and his dinner guests just doesn’t sound right. Nor does it seem right that she so “pleased” Herod that he makes the exaggerated oaths to give her whatever she wants. She makes her request for John’s head, and Herod is conflicted between protecting John and keeping his word. The text says he was grieved, but I’m not having much sympathy for him.

Now, however, the reader may be a bit perplexed. Are we to commend Herod for keeping his word? Or are we to condemn him for taking the easy way out? Note that this account thus explores a dynamic that will be revisited later.

We were told that Herod regarded John to be a righteous and holy man and intended to protect him. After his brash promise and for the sake of his reputation, he concedes and orders John’s execution. In Mark 15:1-15, Pilate will be faced with a similar situation. He is recorded as acknowledging Jesus’ innocence. But, “wishing to satisfy the crowd,” he concedes and order’s Jesus’ execution.

Were these decisions by Herod and Pilate good or bad? Are you a bit baffled, befuddled, and bewildered? Thanks be to God for working through such perplexing situations to bring about such great good!

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 7:7-15

Elna K. Solvang

This brief passage consists of a vision (verses 7-9; the third of five visions in Amos), a report (verses 10-11), an eviction notice (verses 12-13), and a defense (verses 14-15).

In the vision, God calls upon Amos to identify something in God’s hand. “What do you see?” is a rhetorical question. The object Amos ventures to identify is translated into English as a “plumb line.”

This Hebrew word (‘anāk) has something to do with “tin,” and the location at which God takes a stand is described as a wall of ‘anāk. Since the wall and the item that God holds share a metallic feature, it is logical to connect them through the “plumb line” translation. In a vision in Zechariah 4:10, Zerubbabel, the governor of Jerusalem appointed by the Persians, is described as having laid the foundation of the temple. Then, the viewer is warned that Zerubbabel will hold “the plummet,” i.e., the stone of tin (hā’eben habbedil).

While the translation “plumb line” in Amos 7:7 fits the failure of the Israelites to measure up to their covenantal duties, the image of the plumb line does not capture the Lord’s steely resolve. The ‘anāk cuts the people off from God — permanently. The Lord adamantly declares, “I will never again pass them by” (Amos 7:8).

Here the English translation can be confusing since a commitment not to “pass by” could be interpreted as God promising to correct a prior lack of attention to the Israelites. However, the context in Amos 7:8 (and 8:2) is clearly negative.

The passing by is a form of the Hebrew verb ‘ābar. In Micah 7:18 and Proverbs 19:11,‘ābar refers to forgiving, literally “passing over” someone else’s transgression (pāsa’). The Jewish Publication Society adopts this meaning when translating God’s resolve in Amos 7:8 as “I will pardon them no more.” Since ‘ābar is also used in passages such as Isaiah 24:5 and Jeremiah 34:18 to speak of the people’s “overstepping” or “transgressing” God’s laws, Amos 7:8 may be drawing a link between these two meanings. Indeed, the Lord will no longer overlook the people’s overlooking of God.

The effect of God’s not “passing by” will be the total destruction of Israel’s worship sites and the complete end of its government (verse 9). While this may be the consequence of God’s choosing not to pardon, there is yet another use of the verb ‘ābar that could help in picturing what is happening in Amos 7.

In Exodus 33, ‘ābar appears with God as the subject. Moses asks God to regard the band of Israelites in the wilderness as God’s people (Exodus 33:13). God assures Moses “you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (Exodus 33:17), and promises to be gracious and show mercy (Exodus 33:19).

In these verses God draws near, not only in pledge but in person, as Moses witnesses the glory of the LORD “passing by” (‘ābar; Exodus 33:22). Here “passing by” signals the intimate presence of God as deliverer and provider. It is this presence that God cuts off by pledging never again to “pass by” in Amos 7:8. The absence of God is devastation and death.

The vision revealed in these verses is one of judgment. The announcement of destruction is unmistakable. Yet what is disclosed is not only what God will do, but what God has done. God has called them “my people” (verse 8) and revealed God’s self to them.

A sermon on this text should not pass over God’s intimate and persistent presence with the Israelites. The judgment Amos declares can awaken present-day hearers to God’s intimate and persistent presence in our lives. It also calls us to examine our willingness — or unwillingness — to live lives reflecting that deliverance and mercy.

The report in verses 10-11 is sent from Amaziah to King Jeroboam. He accuses Amos of conspiracy and alerts Jeroboam to the divine death sentence Amos has announced for the king and the kingdom. Though Amaziah denounces Amos, indirectly he acknowledges the words of Amos will come to bear in the land (verse 10).

The eviction notice in verses 12-13 is delivered by Amaziah to Amos. Interestingly, Amaziah does not challenge the content of Amos’ message, instead he challenges where Amos speaks. He commands Amos to leave Bethel, one of the chief sanctuary sites in the kingdom of Israel, and return to his homeland of Judah. Amaziah claims Bethel as “the king’s sanctuary” and “a temple of the kingdom,” though the very name Bethel means “house of God.”

Readers of Amos 7:12-13 can easily recognize the self-interest at work in Amaziah’s attempt to evict Amos from Bethel. But are we willing to examine where self-interest silences truthful critique of our own religious institutions and government?

The denial of Amos’s voice does not alter the truth. The judgment that Amos delivers against Israel cannot be separated from the injustices he names. The same charges and judgment will later be declared in the kingdom of Judah. There they will be met with a similar refusal to attend to the injustices and with similar attempts to silence the prophets for their critique.

In verses 14-15 Amos offers a defense of his presence in Bethel by denying any self-interest, family connections or personal gain related to his prophetic activity. Two things are interesting to note:

  • It was God’s need for a prophet to address injustice in Israel that sent Amos in a new direction and into a new calling. Amos calls upon the people in Israel to repair the injustices in their land. In what ways does the need for justice influence the direction and the deeds of our lives?
  • The authority for Amos’ work is rooted in God’s call, not Amos’ biography. Though the people of Bethel attempted to discredit him on the basis of his nationality, family and occupation, these factors did not disqualify him from divine service nor diminish the truth of his message.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

Richard W. Nysse

Over the next three weeks, we move from a “yes-but” narrative (2 Samuel 6) to a “YES!” narrative (2 Samuel 7) to a “NO!” narrative (2 Samuel 11).

In 2 Samuel 6, David moves the neglected ark to his new capital in order to place God back into the center of communal life. However, the same move is a shrewd consolidation of his political power. David has conquered a city that was not part of any tribe; Jerusalem can literally be termed the “city of David.”

The selected verses in the lectionary only tell half of the story and thus distort the overall story. 2 Samuel 6 is a fundamentally different story if the death of Uzzah (6:6-12a) and the rejection of Michal (6:20-23) are left out.

The ark had struck terror among the Philistines after they captured it from Israel (1 Samuel 5-6). Later some in the vicinity of Bethshemesh found it equally lethal (1 Samuel 6:19-21). It eventually was housed in Kiriath-jearim for at least twenty years under the care of Eleazar, son of Abinadab (1 Samuel 7:1). When David begins to move it, the sons of Abinadab, Uzzah and Ahio, guide the ox-drawn cart; Eleazar is not mentioned.

As 2 Samuel narrates the event, David started out with no acknowledgement of this fear-filled history. Why does he want to move it? His initial motive is not given, but, positioned after the events narrated in chapter five, one can wonder whether David is adding to the luster of his city.

After all, David changed the name of the Jebusite city to the “city of David” (5:9). He adds wives and concubines and fathered eleven more sons (5:13-16). A foreign king acknowledges him (5:11), and he once again defeats the Philistines, this time rather extensively (5:1-25). He becomes “greater and greater.”

Granted, the narrator repeatedly notes these accomplishments are part of the Lord’s presence with David (5:10, 12, 19, 24). Yet, when the Lord struck Uzzah down, David’s deepest anxiety is over his inability to take the ark into his care (6:9).

Interpreters have long sought to rationalize the death of Uzzah with speculation about what he did wrong. Granted, the ark was sacred and not to be treated with indifference or handled presumptuously. But did Uzzah’s individual culpability reach the level of Ananias and Sapphira (cf. Acts 5:1-11)?

Perhaps it is time to drag David into culpability as well. In this time of financial crisis, do we not know that the consequences of the failures of leaders are often visited upon those with less power? How is God’s judgment rendered in such a world?

There is a communal dimension to judgment that grates on our culture’s individualistic notions of guilt and judgment. David learns that as the Lord can burst out against the Philistines (5:20), so the Lord can burst out within Israel (6:8). In the short term, Uzzah pays most for the lesson.

2 Samuel 6 opens with an impressive number of people (thirty thousand). This is a hint that there will be extravagance in this chapter. Chapter 6 also finalizes the move from kinship to kingship. The episodic leadership of the judges gives way to permanent dynasty (cf. 2 Samuel 7). The joining together of north and south is underscored by the magnitude of the gathering. The allegiance to Saul is now over, and all factions are united around David.

1 & 2 Samuel have earlier made it clear that the Lord has chosen David and rejected Saul. But God’s choice is accompanied by human intrigue and conniving. David’s exuberance can be read as pure gratitude for what Lord has granted him, but it can also be interpreted as politically astute manipulation.

In other words, David’s motives are not pure and yet God is involved. Sin is real and faith is real; at times they are concurrent in one event and one character. The narrative leaves room for both readings. Perhaps it even insists on both readings, and thus depicts a world that has resonance with our own.

A refrain running through the narrative of 1-2 Samuel is that the Lord blessed David, but the narrative leaves many signs that David was also self-serving and contriving. The alert reader is not entirely surprised that, when the house of David starts to unravel in 2 Samuel 11, it starts with David himself. He is not all bad, nor is he all good.

The end of our passage states that all the people went home. But one person, Michal, had never left home. To end with verse 19 leaves unresolved the narrator’s statement that, as she observed David’s exuberant celebration, Michal despised David in her heart (6:16).

When David sharply rebukes her, stating that the Lord had chosen him over her father, the narrator added that Michal “had no child to the day of her death” (6:23). Many interpreters understand this data as a judgment on Michal and give reasons to justify it, assuming that the Lord had made her barren. But again, there is room for another reading.

David may never have treated her as a wife the rest of her life. Her barrenness is a death sentence and echoes the fate of Uzzah. Were she to have children, the specter of Saul’s line would remain. Her barrenness completes the choice of David and rejection of Saul. What other future might she have had? Would a different reaction to David have actually changed her future?

Before we judge Michal too harshly, we should remember that she earlier had loved David (1 Samuel 18:20, 28). Michal had even saved David’s life by informing him of Saul’s intent to kill him and letting David down through a window (1 Samuel 19:11-17).

David becomes a fugitive and never seems to plot to return to Michal until negotiating with Saul’s surviving general, Abner, and son, Ishbaal (2 Samuel 3:6-14). In the intervening years, David has wooed and married other women. 2 Samuel 3:2-5 reports six sons from six different wives. Then, 2 Samuel 5:13-16 mentions eleven more sons from additional unnamed wives and concubines. Bathsheba is yet to come.

We should be restrained in judging Michal and in celebrating David without ambiguity.


Commentary on Psalm 85:8-13

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

An interpretation of Psalm 85:8-13 needs first to find a context in the whole of Psalm 85.

The psalm is a prayer in the midst of crisis for the ancient faith community. They prayed for joy, joy that can come from God’s presence in the midst of the community. It is divided into three parts:

  • God’s previous restoration of the community (verses 1-3)
  • A plea for God to bring restoration in a new crisis (verses 4-7)
  • A message of assurance (verses 8-13)

Most commentators understand the first three verses in terms of liberation from exile. Accordingly, they place the psalm in a post-exilic setting in which the community is struggling after the return. We could think of the era of Ezra and Nehemiah and understand that the psalm looks back to the return from exile.

The phrase “restored the fortunes” in verse 1 is at times used to describe ancient Israel’s return from exile (for example, cf. Jeremiah 30-33), but the phrase is not limited to that context. Rather, it can be adapted, so both this phrase and the psalm are applicable to a variety of settings of trouble and woe. The plea is for God to restore the worshiping community in the way verses 1-3 remember. Our focus is the concluding verses of the psalm that offer hope in the midst of the current trouble.

The opening section of the psalm brings to mind a fond memory of a time when God restored the fortunes of Jacob/Israel and forgave them. God turned from wrath to forgiveness. In verses 4-7, the praying community pleads that this same God with whom they have a salvation history will again act to restore so that the community can praise and thank God. “Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation” (verse 7).

Verses 8-13

The third section of the psalm begins with a reference to the speaker who is revealing a word from God, a word of peace to the faithful. This word is not in the form of direct divine speech, but is in a style characteristic of the psalms and of announcements of salvation in the Old Testament.

Imagine the scene as the worship leader rises to proclaim a word of hope. The verses are filled with terms central to Old Testament faith. Verses 8-9 characterize the word as peace (wholeness or health) and salvation (wellness) for the community. God’s glory will again come to the land. In other words, God will again be present to bless the community and nurture it to fullness of life. And this gift is for the faithful, those whose lives are centered in relationship with God.

The images of God’s salvation delightfully pile up in verses 10-13. In verse 10, God’s unchanging love and trustworthiness come together to bring the community into right relationship with God and each other (i.e. righteousness). God’s righteousness brings peace. The personifications in verse 10 are worth quoting: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”

In addition, faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will come down from the heavens. This exuberant poetic picture is clearly in excess of any possible human achievement, and so is focused on God’s presence and activity for the faithful.

This proclamation of salvation is a strong word of encouragement and assurance in a community crisis. It is a word of hope, and the worship setting seeks to call the community to trust and faithfulness in the God who will bring about this salvation.

The conclusion of the psalm proclaims that God will bring increase to the land, alluding to the beginning of the psalm that remembers a time when God was “favorable to the land.” Even more, God acts to bring the community into righteousness (right relationship), in turn making a path for God to walk with this community of faith.


Our attempts to interpret Psalm 85 and appropriate its faith for proclamation need to attend to the text’s poetic sequence.

The psalm begins by remembering a past when God restored the community. Now the community is struggling again and prays that God will once more bring renewal. The pivot comes in verses 6-7 with the plea for renewal and a demonstration of God’s unchanging love.

The remarkable poetic images in verses 8-13 promise just such a renewal. The terms used in those verses (peace, salvation, glory, steadfast love, faithfulness, and righteousness) are terms central to ancient Israel’s faith tradition. They characterize God’s involvement in the world to bring this faith community to wholeness in life.

The picture of life in these verses far exceeds what today would be a clinical definition of life as avoiding death.  Here, life is portrayed as a full, complete, and healthy life lived to the fullest in relationship with God as part of a community of faith.  It is another way of describing peace — the Hebrew word is shalom.

Shalom is much more than the absence of war or conflict. It is a sense of well being. That kind of wholeness is centered on a life in the presence of God with which the psalm concludes.

Psalm 85 thus models for the community the act of prayer in a time of crisis and the celebration of salvation articulated in the promises of verses 8-13. Such salvation can only come from the God who is present to bless and who comes to deliver.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Arland J. Hultgren

The Second Lesson for this Sunday is the first in a series of readings from the Letter to the Ephesians extending over seven Sundays.

Of the total verses in Ephesians (155), nearly half (75 of them) will be read during these seven Sundays.

Reading Ephesians by way of the lectionary is necessarily selective. What is striking in reading through the assigned texts is that those chosen tend to be the most edifying in terms of theology, which can be expected. In addition, one finds the most general verses in terms of ethical admonitions, leaving aside some of the more specific instructions.

For example, the important and well-known passage on the church as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-16) is included on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18). But the “household code” (Ephesians 5:21-6:9) that lists the duties of wives, husbands, children, slaves, and masters is not included, and many a preacher will be glad for that.

Ephesians is generally regarded as deutero-Pauline — a letter associated with Paul (he is named as its author at Ephesians 1:1), but more likely the composition of a person who sought to impersonate Paul in a later situation. The arguments leading to this conclusion are well known and can be read in standard introductions to the New Testament and now even in study Bibles that are widely available to the public.

The lesson for this Sunday begins with a lofty doxological statement concerning God the Father (1:3-6). Next, we have a brief characterization of Jesus as the one in whom we have redemption (1:7). In 1:8-10, the author again speaks about God and of what God has done in Christ. Finally, in 1:11-14 the focus is once more upon Christ.

But even in these verses there is no clear-cut division. For example, within 1:11-14, primarily on Christ, there is a clear reference to God the Father in the long phrase at 1:11b: “the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.”

The passage is filled with assertions about God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. In its “God statements,” it sets forth an image of God as one who:

  • has chosen believers
  • has destined them for adoption as his children
  • continues to bless them
  • showers his grace upon them

He has revealed his will in the sending of Christ, and he seeks to “gather up all things” in both heaven and earth in Christ.

In its “Christ statements,” the passage portrays Jesus as one whose death is redemptive — in this case explicitly meaning the forgiveness of sins — and whose coming into the world is revelatory; he has made known “the mystery” of God’s will. In him we have gained an “inheritance” and have “the word of truth,” which is “the gospel of [our] salvation.”

Christ is therefore both the Redeemer and the Revealer. Of course, these are the two main functions of Christ throughout the New Testament.

Concerning the Spirit, it is the “promised” Spirit. Whether the author knows of the promise of the Spirit in the Gospel of John (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) or simply from the promise in Joel 2:28-29, one cannot tell. In any case, the view that the Spirit would be poured out and distributed among believers in the early days of the Christian church was widely held. Both Acts and the letters of the apostle Paul testify to it (Acts 2:1-36; Romans 5:5; 8:13-16; 1 Corinthians 12:3-11, etc.).

The experience of the Spirit is a “pledge” or “down payment” (the Greek word arrabōn can mean either) for the final and ultimate redemption that is to follow. Here is a case of the “already/not yet” dynamic that one finds in the New Testament. The gift of the Spirit is the “already” of the new age of redemption, but it is only a pledge of more to come, the “not yet.”

What is written about the Spirit in 1:13b-14 is similar to what Paul himself had written. He said that God has anointed us “by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment (arrabōn)” (2 Corinthians 1:22).

The entire passage is so highly compact that it is a challenge for both the preacher and the hearer. It has to do with a broad range of theological concepts, such as election, revelation, and more broadly, atonement. It even makes use of specific theological terms, such as “redemption” (1:7, 14) and “salvation” (1:13).

A sermon on this passage will have to be limited to a very few of these concepts at best. Moreover, in most parts of the country this text will be read on a rather warm, perhaps hot, day near the middle of July when hearers may not be very receptive to heavy theological terms.

The preacher who plans to preach on this text could do well to speak of Christ as Revealer and Redeemer, both in the New Testament and in the faith of the church through the ages.

One could refer to or summarize a narrative from the story of Jesus that illustrates how he was the one in whom we see God most clearly (revelation). That can be followed by rephrasing other parts of the passage that have to do with salvation (redemption). In his death upon the cross Christ bore the consequences of human sinfulness, so there is forgiveness. But he has been raised from the dead. Easter marks a new beginning for us and for the entire world.

Alternatively, one could the use of the phrase “all things” — found twice in this passage (1:10, 11).

The first time, “all things” refers to everything in God’s universe. All things are important to God and to Christ, so we look out upon the world with new “ecological eyes.”

The second time “all things” is used, it refers to God’s accomplishing all things according to his will in Christ’s resurrection and reign. Since God has done all things that are truly needful for us in Christ, we can therefore have a renewed hope, living for the praise of his glory, which is also expressed twice (1:12, 14).