Lectionary Commentaries for July 19, 2009
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman

This Gospel reading begins with an account of the disciples’ return after they had been previously sent out by Jesus in Mark 6:6-13, and follows the unpleasantness of John’s beheading described in Mark 6:14-29.

Verses 30-34 are the introduction to the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” account in Mark 6:35-44 and the incident when Jesus walked on the water in Mark 6:45-52. However, we skip over those two great stories. (I imagine these texts are omitted because they are included in Year A when Matthew 14:13-21 and 14:22-33 are read.)

Instead, we get verses 53-56 which provide a brief account of Jesus’ healing ministry, before the purity controversy begins in Mark 7:1. All in all, there is not much substance with which to work in these verses. Still, I found three points which interested me. You will have to find your own poem.

Give It a Rest
In a Gospel which is so fast-paced and where so many things happen “immediately,” it is a striking shift in verse 31 when Jesus tells the disciples to get away by themselves to rest. No doubt you could say something about the importance of rest and maybe even tie it into a Sabbath concept.

Unfortunately though, such messages often sound more like good advice than the Good News. Besides, we find out in verses 33-34 that Jesus and the disciples never get their little vacation. (For Jesus, after presumably three years of ministry, he would have to die to get three days of rest in the tomb!)

It may be a small point, but we do see that the success of the disciples in their ministry is not measured simply by how much they accomplish. Having been out on their own, now they are called back to Jesus. It is the same with the Gospel. It’s not a matter of how much we accomplish, but a matter of our relationship with the Lord.

What to Do for Sheep without a Shepherd
Mark 6:34 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It reads, “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

We’ve seen similar scenes in Mark. This time the large crowd impinges upon Jesus and the disciples’ plan for a little rest, but still Jesus has compassion. (The Greek used here is splagchnizomai, a great word denoting sympathy, mercy, and loving concern.)

Why does Jesus have compassion on them? “Because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” That is such a poignant and powerful image, and I suspect many of us often feel like we are in that position.

In chapter 10 of the Gospel of John, this image will be elaborated with the reflection on what it means for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. For John, it ties in with Jesus being the one who knows and is known by the sheep. Most importantly, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

If that is the case, then what would it look like for Jesus to show compassion to these “shepherdless” sheep in Mark? You might be anticipating something like how Jesus healed their sick and took the children into his arms. But that’s not what the text says here.

What does Jesus do? “And he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).

Okay, it’s true, my calling is to be a teacher in the Church, so you can see why I like this verse! But it really is a remarkable way of thinking about ministry. In fact, I’ve worked with Christian educators to help them understand education as an expression of compassionate evangelism.

Yes, there are all sorts of ways we can express compassion by attending to the pressing physical needs people have, but it is just as important for us to be educating them by clearly and faithfully speaking the Gospel. (By the way, I so like this verse that when we offered an evening worship service that focused on Bible study, we set the time for it at 6:34!)

Recognizing Jesus
In verse 53, Mark states that Jesus and the disciples landed at Gennesaret on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Lake of Gennesaret). It could well be that Jesus had previously passed through this area while travelling between Nazareth (twenty miles or so to the southwest) and Capernaum (a few miles further along the shoreline to the north). Still, this is the first mention of Gennesaret in Mark.

What happens after they step ashore? “People immediately recognized [Jesus]” (Mark 6:54).

How did they recognize him? Had he walked a few yards on the water while getting to shore? Had they seen pictures of him posted in the marketplace? Or is the scene more like that in Mark 1:16-20 when Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James, and John? Without any apparent previous knowledge of Jesus, they left everything immediately and followed him. What had they recognized in Jesus?

It is remarkable that none of the gospels provide a physical description of Jesus. We will never be able to pin him down by virtue of his appearance. Rather, we will always have to recognize Jesus for who he is and what he does.

It is more than the miracles and healings Jesus performed or the things he taught. It may actually take the gift of faith to recognize the one who died on the cross as the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

So, there are my three points. But if you do still want a poem, Marty Haugen’s wonderful song, “Healer of Our Every Ill” works well with this text. In the fourth verse, we sing, “You who know each thought and feeling, teach us all your way of healing; Spirit of compassion, fill each heart.”1

1Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #612.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6

Elna K. Solvang

The passage opens with an ominous tone: Woe! The voice is that of the prophet Jeremiah however the words are Yahweh’s.

The spotlight of judgment is focused on “the shepherds.” While actual shepherds were among the poor and lowly in ancient Near Eastern societies, “shepherd” was also a term used to refer to a king. It is kings — specifically the kings of Judah — who are the objects of judgment in Jeremiah 23:1.

Shepherds are responsible for protecting and providing sustenance for their flocks, keeping peace within the flock, defending against attackers, searching for sheep that have gone astray, and rescuing those who are in danger. The shepherd, and by analogy the king, is expected to act for the well-being of the sheep. Yet the opening verse of Jeremiah 23 accuses the shepherds of destroying and scattering God’s sheep!

God’s anger is aroused by the “evil doings” of the descendants of King David who ruled Judah. These shepherds likely include:

  • Shallum/Jehoahaz (ruled 3 months in 609 BCE; Jeremiah 22:11-12)
  • Jehoiakim (ruled 609-598 BCE; Jeremiah 22:18)
  • Coniah/Jehoiachin (ruled 3 months in 597 BCE; Jeremiah 22:24-30).
  • Zedekiah (ruled 597-587 BCE; Jeremiah 21:3-7)

Each king has failed in his duty to “execute justice in the morning and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed” (Jeremiah 21:12a). In contrast to King Josiah (640-609 BCE) who “judged the cause of the poor and the needy” (Jeremiah 22:16), the “eyes and heart” of Josiah’s heirs are set on “dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (Jeremiah 22:17).

God’s “Woe!” is out of compassion for the victims of these self-serving shepherds. God vows to attend to the shepherds who have failed to attend to God’s flock (Jeremiah 23:2). Injustice, inequity and oppression have become the way of the land and now shape the behavior of God’s people. Divine judgment is presented as a necessary response to an intolerable situation.

One would expect God’s condemnation of the shepherds to be followed by an announcement of consequences — some description of how God will “attend to” the current leadership — but none is mentioned. Instead, God vows to assume the role of shepherd personally and “gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them” (Jeremiah 23:3).

The driving away sounds like a description of the people of Judah being taken into exile in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar (597 and 587 BCE). Who is responsible for this driving away? Two interlocking answers are given:

  • The shepherds “have driven them away” (verse 2). The leaders are guilty of dereliction of duty.
  • God has dealt with the “evil doings” by driving the flock away (verses 2-3).

God’s claim to have driven them away to other lands (see also Jeremiah 29:14; 32:37) is set within a vow to “bring them back to their fold.” God’s dealing with “evil doings” is related to God creating a new habitation. Echoing Genesis 1:28, this new fold is described as a place where the fullness of human dignity is restored. It will be a community where conditions allow them to “be fruitful and multiply.”

The chaos of injustice under the shepherds who cared only for themselves will be removed. God will be their shepherd, and then God will raise up shepherds who will care for the people.

Under new leadership the people will no longer fear or be dismayed. (This encouragement also appears in Deuteronomy 1:21; 31:8; Joshua 8:1; 10:25). The attending (pqd; verse 2) that the people did not receive from the shepherds, whom God then had to attend to (pqd; v. 2), will no longer be missing (pqd; v. 4). The same Hebrew root (pqd) ties the failure, the judgment and the future hope together.

In these verses, through judgment and promise God announces “regime change” in Judah. The passage does not depict nor does it ponder the death, destruction and massive dislocation of the Exile. It attributes the Exile to royal malfeasance and to divine house-cleaning.

The Babylonian defeat of Judah is neither a tribute to Babylonian moral superiority nor a sign of divine abandonment. The judging of the leadership is tied to the work of shepherding: how have you provided for protection and sustenance, promoted peace, searched for and rescued the lost?

In verse 4, God promises to raise up new shepherds for the fold. Where will these leaders come from? Indeed, where will the shepherds come from in our own time? How will these shepherds be different from the former shepherds?

There is no special breed of human shepherd. It is ordinary men and women who must choose to be good shepherds. And it is up to ordinary men and women to flock to those shepherds whose attentiveness to justice, protection, mercy, and righteousness mirror God’s shepherding.

Jeremiah prophesied in the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reign of the final king, Zedekiah. While Zedekiah’s name means “my righteousness is the LORD,” his reign was far from righteous.

Judah’s experience with bad shepherding — as well as our own — can foster cynicism about leaders. God confronts despair, announcing that there will be a ruler rightly called “the LORD is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6).

This “righteous Branch” (Jeremiah 23:5, see also Jeremiah 33:14-16) is not identified. Elsewhere the “Branch” appears to be Zerubbabel, the Persian-appointed governor of Judah (Zechariah 3:8; 6:12).

It is important to recognize two dimensions of this promise. First, God promises to continue working through the ages to raise up shepherds who will “deal wisely and …execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5). And secondly, God promises a fullness of righteousness reigning through Jesus Christ, the good shepherd for us all.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-14a

Richard W. Nysse

The opening clause of 2 Samuel 7 sets up a tension that is explored throughout the chapter.

The king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies. We often read the second as the cause of the former, but theologically, it can be a slippery slope. What hinders one from employing “the Lord has given” for self-serving ends?

David has been an active agent in being “settled in his house.” Not every narrative of his rise to power can be naively described as the “Lord had given.”

For example, the transfer of the ark (2 Samuel 6) to Jerusalem finalizes the shift from tribal affiliations to centralized governance in the personal city of the king. The episodic governance through divinely selected judges is on its way to the presumed permanence of kingship. The core religious symbol of the old structures has been subsumed under the new monarchical structure. We can ask: Is David providing for God, or is it the other way around? 2 Samuel 7 extends the question and answers it with a twist that precludes a simple answer.

David’s residence, a “house of cedar” obtained with the help of a foreign king, is a far cry from anything that characterized the period of the judges. David’s conscience might be bothering him a bit. He has outfitted himself better than he has “outfitted” God.

On the other hand, a key feature of the ark has been mobility. God moves; the ark moves. Is David afraid of the potential mobility of the ark and God? Building something better than a tent could be appropriate considering all that the Lord has given him. Besides, any king in the ancient world that has a “house of cedar” would surely also have a shrine of like stature. A tent for God will not do when you live in a “house of cedar.”

The prophet Nathan appears to go along with David’s plan. He does not distinguish between David’s will and God’s will. He assumes that, because “the Lord has given” to David, the Lord will give to David. The agenda of the king (lower case) starts to merge into the agenda of the KING (upper case). How convenient for the king when everyone buys into the merger.

The word of the Lord that came to Nathan underscores the shift that is occurring in the life of Israel. The Lord has indeed been mobile. God has moved among the people from the time God brought them out of Egypt to the present day (2 Samuel 7:6). God’s mobility has been their protection. As they moved, so did God.

What has been true for the historic community’s experience has also been the case for David individually: “I have been with you wherever you went” (7:9). But there is a twist.

David’s musing with Nathan had not stated any concern for the people David was to be shepherding. In contrast, in God’s words to Nathan, there is a stated purpose for God’s journeying with Israel and with David. God is “planting” Israel. Israel is also to have peace, a place undisturbed by enemies, a place without affliction. Giving rest to David is giving rest to the people.

There is a danger in the overlapping agendas. Kings can too quickly collapse them into one, assuming that their agenda is in the self-interest of the people. Again, this is more susceptible to abuse when the people buy into the king’s collapsing the agendas.

God has taken a risk by selecting an intermediary form that seeks permanence. Kingship was an ambiguous concession. Now, God enters into the risk by committing to the offspring of David. David wants to build a building; God instead commits to a dynasty.

The building will be the work of David’s descendent. But that deferral is accompanied by an even deeper commitment on God’s part! The language reaches its highest intensity in verse 14 with the image of father (God) and son (Solomon). The confusion of king and KING noted above pales before this image.

2 Samuel 7, with its Father (God) and son (king) image, is at the core of the messianic hope in the Old Testament. At its best, it is reflected in Psalm 72. At its worst, it opens the door for the abuses of imperial power which the prophets denounce (beginning with Nathan indicting David in 2 Samuel 12). The dynasty of David has a long run, but it does end.

Psalm 89:1-37 reiterates the pledge of God in 2 Samuel 7, but then ponders the downfall of the Davidic dynasty (Psalm 89:38-45). The exilic community had to ask whether or not God’s commitment to David was enduring, and, if not, where did they stand in relationship to God. If David’s kingship was to ground them in an undisturbed place (2 Samuel 7:10), what were they to make of the disruption and displacement of the exile?

The startling claim in the affliction of the exile was that God intensified the relationship once more, this time pledging to the entire community what had been so tightly focused in David. The promise to David became a promise to the entire people (Isaiah 55:3).

The disruption and displacement that occurs in the exile is partially anticipated in the verses immediately after the lectionary text. 2 Samuel 7:14b-17 speaks of punishment and chastisement. Such words require us to look beyond self-serving appropriations of God’s pledge.

In response to this warning, David’s prayer in the remainder of the chapter assumes a humbler, more petitionary nature. As preachers, consider including the words of chastisement (primarily 2 Samuel 7:14b) in the reading or in your message. They should not be left out.

But neither should verses 15-17. After words of warning come words of assurance and comfort. God promises David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me” (2 Samuel 7:16).

So too for us. We can be confident that God will keep God’s promises to us, now and forever.


Commentary on Psalm 23

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 23 is classified as an Individual Psalm of Thanksgiving.

In this type of psalm, singers praise God for God’s goodness in delivering them from various life-threatening situations — illness, oppression, enemy attack, etc. In Psalm 23, the psalm singer praises God as the good shepherd who guides the psalmist — as shepherds might guide the flocks of sheep or goats in their charge — through a myriad of life situations.

The familiarity of the words of the psalm can hinder the reader from truly entering into the meaning and intent of its words. Thus the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson might be a helpful beginning point for its exegesis. He interprets Psalm 23 in the following way:

God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows;
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I’m not afraid when you walk by my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” Which words are correct, which are true? Both are. The words of Psalm 23 are those of an ancestor in our faith who was delivered, in some way, from danger and who praised God for help in the midst of that danger.

The psalm singer takes on the role of a sheep or goat, animals herded and cared for by shepherds. These are animals that, without the care of a shepherd, would be easy prey for other animals in the open grazing land.

In the psalm, the shepherd provides green pastures for grazing, still waters for drinking, and right paths for travel from one grazing place to another (verses 2-3). In troubled areas, the protection of the shepherd provides safe passage for the flock (verse 4). And even when trouble is nearby, the shepherd makes sure that the flock can feed and water in safety and can lie down for a night’s rest (verse 5). Therefore, the flock can count on continued existence because of the faithfulness of the shepherd (verse 6).

Descriptions of God such as those found in Psalm 23 abound in the book of Psalms. God cares for, provides for, and protects those who are faithful (see, for instance, Psalms 30, 66, 91, and 121). This message of Psalm 23 is clear.

But when we examine Psalm 23 in its canonical location within the book of Psalms, new insights into its meaning may emerge. Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22, a heartfelt lament, one connected with the passion of Jesus in the New Testament. The opening words of Psalm 22 are the words spoken by Jesus on the crucifixion cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Laments in the book of Psalms are structured in a movement of five elements:
1. Invocation: The psalmist calls on God to listen.
2. Lament: Next the psalm singer tells God the reason for crying out God.
3. Petition: Then the psalmist tells God what he/she wants God to do.
4. Words of Trust: The psalmist recounts why God should be trusted at all by remembering God’s faithfulness in the past.
5. Words of Praise: And finally, the psalmist offers words of praise to the Lord.

The structure of Psalm 22 exhibits an escalation, a piling up, of elements of the lament. In the first strophe words of lament (verse 1-2) are followed by words of trust (verses 3-5). The second strophe contains words of lament (verses 6-8), words of trust (verses 9-10), and words of petition (verse 11). The third strophe, however, moves directly from words of lament (verses 12-18) to words of petition (verses 19-21), with no words of trust intervening.

Might we be permitted to read Psalm 23, an individual hymn of thanksgiving, as the words of trust that are missing from the last strophe of Psalm 22?

The two psalms share vocabulary and concepts, thus strengthening an argument for connecting them. Psalm 23 expresses confidence in God as shepherd to the psalmist. In Psalm 22, however, the psalmist accuses God of being far away and not answering the psalmist’s cry for help; of being silent when those around mock and shake their heads; of paying no heed when bulls and lions and dogs and evildoers surround; and of ignoring the fact that the psalmist’s body is shriveled and emaciated.

Indeed, in Psalm 22, God lays the psalmist in “the dust of death” (verse 15), “because” (verse 16), “a band of evildoers surround” (verse 16). The singer cries out, “but you, O LORD, do not be far from me” (verses 11, 19), for “trouble is nearby” (verse 11).

In contrast, in Psalm 23, even while walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” (verse 4), the psalmist will fear no “evil” (verse 4), “because” (verse 4), “you are with me” (verse 4). In fact, God prepares a table for the psalmist “in front of my troublers” (verse 5).

Reading Psalm 23 as a word of trust in answer to the heartfelt lament of Psalm 22 may add a new dimension of understanding to both psalms. Connecting them does not diminish the individual poetic and theological character of either, but rather creates a powerful statement of trust in the Lord.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22

Arland J. Hultgren

On this Sunday, the text from Ephesians expresses some major affirmations concerning the church.

Many of the major studies on the church in the New Testament have given attention to what Ephesians has to say and what this passage says in particular.

In the opening portion (2:11-13), the author addresses his readers as “Gentiles by birth.” It appears throughout this letter that it was intended for readers who were Gentile Christians (3:1), perhaps located in Asia Minor. There is no indication that any were of Jewish heritage. This fact may have made it all the more important for the author to stress to his readers that the Christian church continues the heritage from Israel. The alternative: they would be considered “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” and of pagan heritage.

Written late in the first century, the letter reflects at this point a reality and a concern. As that century moved on toward its close, the church was becoming increasingly Gentile in composition, overwhelmingly so, and by all appearances it was among Gentiles that it would continue to grow. Proportionately, those of Jewish heritage were increasingly becoming a minority.

As a consequence, the Christian movement and certainly the Christian church could be perceived by uninformed persons in general as a religious movement and religious institution of pagan origins. Even some Christians might have thought in these terms, especially those who lived in predominantly Gentile areas where the church was advancing numerically.

Therefore, the author of Ephesians stresses that the Christian church has its origins within the history of the one people of God, the people of Israel. All that happened in the Old Testament story was a part of their own story and heritage. God did not make a fresh start with the birth of Christianity. Indeed, Christianity fulfills the story of the Old Testament.

In the next portion of our reading (2:14-18), the author speaks eloquently of the “peace” which God has brought into the world through Christ. In a famous verse, the author asserts that Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (2:14), referring to Gentiles and Jews who are believers in Christ.

The next verse (2:15) is striking in its sweep. In his coming to earth and through his death and resurrection, Christ “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.”

On first reading, that sounds astonishingly antinomian. But if one considers the word “law” to mean the Torah and its hundreds of commandments that characterize the Jewish way of life, the statement makes better sense. These commandments had often set up social boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. But Christ has torn down the wall, or boundary, that stands between Jews and Gentiles, creating one new humanity.

We are not told exactly how all are reconciled “through the cross” (2:16), but here the author relies on the common Christian tradition that claims the death of Christ was redemptive. In his death, he assumed the consequences of human sinfulness, and the results are forgiveness of sins (1:7; 4:32) and reconciliation to God (2:16). The result is peace for all believers and access to the Father.

In the last section (2:19-22), the author affirms that Gentile Christians are therefore “no longer strangers and aliens,” but are members of “the household of God.” This “household” is built upon “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (2:19-20).

The imagery of “the foundation” used here is important. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). But in Ephesians the apostolic foundation is broadened. The church’s foundation is the whole collection of apostles and prophets, giving that foundation breadth and depth, both catholicity and apostolicity.

Having its foundation upon the apostles and prophets, the church’s message is to be apostolic and prophetic. Still, we remember that Christ is the cornerstone.

A cornerstone was the first stone to be placed at a construction site when a building got under way. Its function was to set the pattern for the building as a whole. Christ is thus given priority and is the one who sets the standard for all who follow. Ephesians 2:21 affirms this by saying the entire structure is built upon him and joined together as one.

This text offers abundant opportunities for preaching. It provides the preacher with an occasion to speak of the church in reference to a good number of possible themes. One possibility is to develop a teaching sermon related to what we say in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” To unpack that line with reference to the Council of Nicea and the text from Ephesians could be beneficial.

The text speaks of the oneness of the church (2:15-16) and its apostolic foundation (2:20). Many, perhaps most, parishioners these days practice a “practical ecumenism” that goes well beyond the official dialogues. It can be good pastoral care for the preacher to assure them that their inclinations are rooted in the New Testament itself.

At the same time, it is good to remind all that the church is not just what we make of it. If it is true to itself, it knows it has apostolic foundations which guide its life.

Another possible theme for preaching on this text is to speak of Christ as the one who breaks down barriers (2:14), reconciling persons of all kinds, so that none are “strangers and aliens” (2:19).

It is a sad fact that, even though the world is shrinking and we have possibilities of communication like never before, the world is fragmented into so many different groups and camps. The church can model the barrier-free life that Christ has brought.

That is so on a global scale. It is also the case in the congregation. We are all family, and no one is to be treated as a stranger or alien. Differences in race, class, gender, economic condition, politics, and opinion exist, but they are not barriers to living in unity in Christ. The congregation is a laboratory for the kingdom of God.

The congregation as laboratory for the kingdom can also be a witness to the wider, secular society. Differences among persons exist, but community is possible when dividing walls, based on hostility, are broken down. The bonds of a common humanity tie us together for the good of all.