Lectionary Commentaries for September 6, 2009
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 7:24-37

Alyce M. McKenzie

In the next three weeks, we’ll look at three texts from Mark in which a person or a group comes to Jesus with a request or a demand.

The Syro-Phoenecian woman (7:24-37) wants her daughter to be healed. Peter (8:27-38) wants Jesus to change his sense of self and mission to fit Peter’s. The disciples (9:30-37) want the best seats in the house of the life to come.

Sometimes in the Gospels, Jesus is stationary and people come and go. For example, in the story in John 4 about the woman at the well, Jesus sits at the well the whole time while people come and go. In the Lord’s Supper accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus sits at the table in the Upper Room, offering his life for those who sit around it, while Judas leaves and Peter makes dramatic professions of undying support, and people come and go in the city around them.

But in Mark’s gospel, I get the sense of a Jesus who is on the move. People who want something from Jesus approach him on the road. He is on his way to the cross. Suffering is front and center. In Mark’s gospel, he’s coming by, but if you want something from him, you’d better work your way through the crowd and make your requests known.

One of the questions I find most helpful in approaching texts for preaching is the “What if?” question. What if Peter had kept his eyes on Jesus and made it all the way to him across the waves? What if God had answered Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane and taken the cup away from him? What if King Saul had not craved popularity so strongly? What if Jesus had turned the stones into bread as Satan tempted him to do in the wilderness?”

Over the next few weeks, I want to explore the theme of “What if?” It would make an interesting sermon series. Let’s take our text for today, Mark 7:24-37. Four “what if” questions come to my mind as I read it.
1. What if Jesus had been able to escape notice?
2. What if the woman had not had the courage to approach him?
3. What if he had immediately healed her daughter, with no verbal interchange?
4. What if he had refused to heal her daughter?

1. What if Jesus had been able to escape notice?
By the time we get to this story, Jesus seems to have been seeking quiet time for quite some time. Jesus said to the apostles “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (6:31) “After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.” (6:46)

The implication here is that he is seeking respite from the crowds outside by going inside. From a human perspective, Jesus yearned to escape notice at times. Because of his divine identity and power, he could not. If Jesus can escape our notice in our house today, it must be because we’re not alert to his presence; we’re not respectful of his power.

This brings us to our second “What if?” question.

2.  What if the woman had not had the courage to approach him?
She has several counts against her. She is the wrong gender, the wrong race and the wrong religion to approach Jesus. On top of that, she has a daughter who is demon possessed. That makes at least five excuses for not approaching Jesus. And yet she does. What is our excuse? Do we lack courage? Or do we lack compassion?

Perhaps her courage comes from the fact that she is approaching Jesus, not for her own sake, but for the sake of her child. When we approach Jesus, whether in petition or intercession, is the good of others in our minds and on our hearts? If so, it makes it harder to hang back, to not approach, especially when he is right here in your own house. What if she had not had the courage to approach Jesus? A little girl would still be writhing on her bed at home. We wouldn’t have this scene to help us exchange a zoom lens view of salvation for a wide-angle view.

3.  What if Jesus had immediately healed her daughter, with no verbal interchange?
A lot of commentators wish he had. They interpret the interchange between this woman and Jesus as the woman changing Jesus’ perspective. While I do believe we are to see her as a model of perseverance and faith, I see several factors that work against such an interpretation.

One is that the whole Gospel of Mark is written to a Gentile Christian audience and is concerned to confront Jewish particularism. Chapter 7 focuses in on this concern with Jesus’ blunt words about eating and defilement that attack the central assumptions of a purity-based religion, with its stipulations as to what one could and could not eat and with whom one could and could not associate. Another consideration is that Jesus chose to go to Tyre. If he had wanted to avoid Gentiles, why go to Tyre?

My sense is that Jesus spoke as he did, in the mode of rabbinic argumentation, to satirize the attitude of the Pharisees with whom he had just been arguing and to offer a lesson to those around him and the woman. We have no inkling of his facial expression or tone. We do have a record of his pattern of relating to supplicants, and it is with unfailing tenderness and poignancy.

4.  What if he had not healed her daughter?
The final “What if?’ question has an easy answer. Then he would be a Savior whose salvation is limited to those who are like him. In other words, no Savior at all.

I think our four “What ifs?” add up to something. If Jesus could escape notice, there would be no story. If the woman had not had enough desperate compassion to approach him, there would be no story. If he had not goaded her to help him verbalize the good news that salvation is to Jews as well as Gentiles, there would be no story. And if he had refused to heal her daughter, there would be no story.

Instead, there is your story and mine−that Jesus is in our house, with full power to heal; that we need to approach him with compassion and perseverance, praising God the sender of the Savior of all people, not just people like us.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 35:4-7a

Frank M. Yamada

In many of our churches, we tend to align salvation with God’s grace, themes that we then set over against divine judgment.

In the biblical witness, however, the salvation of the LORD is intimately connected to God’s judgment. In Isaiah 35, the LORD’s surprising mercy and terrifying justice converge and kiss. God’s coming is intimately tied to the return of the people from exile. In fact, the two events are seen as one, and both transform the wilderness into a well-watered garden of rejoicing. The created order is restored, and the weak and vulnerable in the social order are made whole when God visits God’s people.

Isaiah 35:4–7a begins with a brief instruction to exhort the people not to fear (verse 4). The lection emphasizes the great reversal that comes about through the LORD’s presence. Both the people and the desert land will be transformed (verses 5–7a). While this reading does capture some of the essence of the entire chapter, the oracle’s complete meaning becomes clear only in its broader context.

Isaiah 35:4–7a is a small selection from the larger vision found in 35:1–10. Chapter 35 can be divided into two sections:
1) The theophany of the LORD (verses 1–6a)
2) The return of the people (verses 6b–10)

Both units begin with descriptions of the desert changing from a dry and barren place into a land that is flourishing (verses 1–2a) with an abundance of water (verses 6b–7). The two sections also share the theme of joy, first at the coming of the LORD and then for the return of God’s elect. Most scholars assign Isaiah 35 to Deutero Isaiah, an exilic author, since the prophet uses the well-known theme of the LORD making a way or “highway” in the desert (cf. Isaiah 40:3; 43:19).

In its canonical context, Isaiah 35 serves as a thematic bridge between Chapters 1–39 and 40–55. Chapter 35 follows a series of judgments on the nations, especially Edom in Chapter 34; and, hence, the redemptive effects of the LORD’s “recompense” in Isaiah 35 provide a contrast with the devastating result of God’s judgment on the nations. The themes of a highway in the wilderness and the return of God’s people point forward to the opening vision of Deutero Isaiah in Chapter 40. Thus, Isaiah 35 both brings Isaiah 1–39 to a thematic conclusion and serves as an introduction to the oracles of hope that begin in Isaiah 40.

In verses 1-6a, the author draws heavily on the theme of the LORD’s coming (in Hebrew, bô’). God’s appearance in the created order, also known as a theophany, is the primary image within this first half of Chapter 35. The section begins in verses 1–2 with the wilderness rejoicing and blooming when it sees the “glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God” (verse 2). Thus, the barren ground responds and is transformed at the coming of the LORD.

Following this doxological response from nature, the people are encouraged to take heart and not to fear (verses 3–4). It is common within the biblical narrative for the people to respond in fear to the LORD’s appearance (cf. Exodus 20:18). Here, however, the writer provides assurance that God’s coming will result not in the people’s destruction but in their salvation (verse 4b). Moreover, just like the parched land, the weakest and most vulnerable in society will respond and be transformed–the blind shall see, the deaf shall hear, and the lame shall “leap like a deer” (verse 6a).

In verses 6b–10, the LORD’s coming parallels the homecoming of the exiles. The theophany in the first section has given way to the corresponding image of God’s people returning through the desert, a holy pilgrimage with Zion as its destination. Like the first section, this second unit of Chapter 35 begins with the transformation of the natural order. The desert becomes a well-watered land. The salvation of the LORD, whether depicted theologically through the appearance of God or anthropologically in the people’s joyful journey home, begins with the natural order’s transformation and response to the mighty acts of God. Rather than facing the harsh natural forces of the wilderness, the people return upon a well-watered highway. Instead of hostile terrain, the travelers encounter a flourishing path with “streams in the desert” (verse 6b).

The dangers that travelers would expect on such a journey are no longer present. The “lions” and wild animals are nowhere to be found, but “the redeemed shall walk there” (verse 9). This path through the wilderness, unlike other journeys in Israel’s narrative and creedal history, will not be paved with temptations or the fear of failure; rather, it will be a secure “way,” a road where no traveler can depart from God’s ways, not even the fools (verse 8).

This chapter, which began with the rejoicing in the desert (verses 1–2), ends appropriately with the returning exiles singing with joy as they return to their home (verse 10). The people’s grief and suffering, like the desert road on which they travel, has transformed. Their sorrow has become joy. Their mourning has turned into singing and rejoicing.

This passage emphasizes the radical nature of God’s work among humanity. When the LORD appears, strange and marvelous things happen. The wilderness becomes a flourishing path with streams of water flowing abundantly. Dangerous roads become secure paths upon which the redeemed can walk with assurance. The blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame not only walk but leap for joy. The exiles return home.

When God visits God’s people, there is only one appropriate response. All of creation and humanity are transformed at the appearance of their God, and all rejoice together and sing for joy. The LORD’s presence, whether characterized by a theophany or manifested through the mighty works done on behalf of God’s people, changes everything, quite literally.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

Tradition assigns authorship of three biblical books to Solomon.

The rabbis said that he wrote the Song of Solomon as an amorous youth, Proverbs as a middle-aged man, and Ecclesiastes as a (disillusioned) old man. While the superscription to the book of Proverbs (1:1) reflects that tradition, the book contains several collections of sayings (see 22:17; 30:1; 31:1). Some could very well go back to the time of Solomon, but it is impossible to ascertain authorship or dates of composition with any certainty.

Nevertheless, the book of Proverbs is the preeminent book of “Wisdom” in the Old Testament, and so is understandably associated with Solomon, the epitome of wisdom (see 1 Kings 4:29-34). The book is part of the Wisdom literature of the Bible, along with Job, Ecclesiastes, and (in the Apocrypha) Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon.

Wisdom literature seeks to teach its readers/hearers “wisdom;” that is, how to live well. This wisdom is handed down from parents to children (1:8) and is based not on revelation but on experience and observation. Nevertheless, it is grounded in a right relationship with God: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7; 9:10; 15:33).

The task of Wisdom literature, including Proverbs, is character formation. It seeks to train up young people in the way they should go (22:6). It upholds the virtues of honesty, hard work, self-control, and respect for those in authority, among other things. And it addresses issues of everyday life: economics, friends, family, work, sex, politics, etc. In the words of Ellen Davis, “The proverbs are spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour forth from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”1  Since that description encompasses most of those gathered in worship on a Sunday morning, it is appropriate to pay some attention to these “spiritual guides” in one’s preaching.

The proverbs assigned for this Sunday’s reading are a sample of the hundreds of such sayings in the book of Proverbs (found primarily in chapters 10-30). It is good that there are only six verses assigned, as these short sayings are meant to be understood individually. They do not, in general, build upon one another, though they may be grouped according to common words or common themes. If one tries to read many of them at once, the task quickly becomes tedious, and the various proverbs become muddled together in one’s memory. The proverbs are, instead, short poems that are best pondered one by one.

Let us consider the proverbs for this day, then, individually.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold (22:1).
The Hebrew says, in the second line, “good favor,” meaning a good reputation or high esteem. This is not celebrity or fame, with which our culture is so obsessed. It is not based on physical beauty or other ephemeral qualities. It cannot be “spun” by a good public relations person. A good name, a good reputation, is something earned over many years. It implies integrity, honesty, and responsibility. It cannot be bought. Indeed, it is worth more than all the riches in the world.

The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all (22:2).
The Hebrew literally says, “The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the maker of them all.” The NRSV translation, though, captures the sense of the proverb. (See similar statements in Proverbs 29:13 and Job 31:15.) Depending on one’s social position, this proverb inspires either humility or hope. We are not what we have. Our worth is not based on our bank account. We are, at the most basic level, creatures, fashioned alike by God, the creator of all. When we by chance “meet together”–the janitor and the CEO, the homeless man and the lawyer walking by, the hotel maid and the well-to-do vacationer–we can, if we have eyes to see, recognize in each other the face of our brother or sister.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail (22:8).
The proverb uses an agricultural image familiar to its original hearers. You reap what you sow. The one who sows injustice or iniquity will (eventually) receive a harvest of trouble. The one who sows foolishness will be caught in his folly. And the power of “his anger” (the Hebrew says) will just fizzle out. There are ample public examples, from Wall Street to Washington to Hollywood, to show that this proverb is as true now as it was in ancient Israel. It should serve as comfort to the afflicted, and as a warning to all.

Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor (22:9).
In contrast to the subject of the previous proverb, the person described here is generous, giving of what he or she has to the poor, and being blessed in return. Though no agricultural imagery is used here, one might talk about these two proverbs together; for in this proverb, too, you reap what you sow. In this case, however, the planting and the reaping involve things like generosity, blessing, and bread; things that make for life, for both giver and recipient.

Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them (22:22-23).
The specific words used in these verses imply a court setting. The gate was the center of legal and business activity in a town. In this case, God is both prosecuting attorney and judge. And the crime is robbing the poor “because they are poor.” The poor are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, both in ancient times and today. Think of the prevalence of predatory “payday lenders” in certain urban neighborhoods, charging exorbitant interest rates because their customers have nowhere else to turn. Robbing the poor “because they are poor” may seem to be an easy thing to do, but the proverb warns of the consequences: the LORD will take the life of those who prey on the life of the vulnerable.

These are just a few thoughts on the proverbs assigned for this week. The preacher, of course, can choose to reflect on others, as his or her context warrants. Whatever the preacher chooses to reflect on, he or she will be drawing on the accumulated wisdom of generations of faithful women and men who have sought to live lives of integrity, lives of “wisdom.” Their voices can continue to teach us today.

1Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), p. 12.


Commentary on Psalm 146

James K. Mead

As I have done with the previous three Psalm lections, I again tie the theme of worship with some other theme of the passage.

Worship is obviously an appropriate concept to anchor Psalm 146, the first of the concluding five “hallelujah” psalms and a fine example of the “hymn” genre,1  or what Claus Westermann refers to as “descriptive praise,” with a “transition to exhortation and instruction.”2 

The psalm connects its praise (verses 1-2) with the theme of God’s providence, especially in terms of God’s engagement with creation, history, and humankind. Scholars offer different structural arrangements of the psalm which suggest their own directions for preaching about these aspects of providence: Weiser identifies five sections (1-2/3-4/5-6/7-9/10); Leslie Allen sees two major blocks of material (3-6a/6b-9) surrounded by an introduction and conclusion; and the NRSV holds verses 5-7 together in the middle.3 

Preachers in American congregations, at least, will be mindful of the fact that this Sunday falls on Labor Day weekend. This psalm certainly creates an opportunity for prophetic witness to a workaholic society that tries not to depend on God’s provision. Lest this seem too topical of an approach, however, the other lectionary texts offer a prophetic intertextuality of their own, linking God’s provision for healing and creation’s renewal (Isaiah 35:4-7a) to Jesus’ healing in Gentile regions (Mark 7:24-37) and the early church’s call to a ministry of impartiality (James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17).

Providence and Praise

The call to praise is reinforced by the abundant references to the covenant name of the Lord throughout the psalm (Yahweh, eleven times; plus El/Elohim four times). The saturation of God’s name is itself a testament to the ubiquitous providence of God. While it is true that many psalms praise God for specific, miraculous acts of individual and national deliverance, the argument here is precisely that these divine acts are not special interventions, not extraordinary instances of divine compassion, but rather Israel’s characteristic language of Yahweh’s providential presence in the world.4 

Yahweh is the one “who made heaven and earth . . . who keeps faith forever . . .” (verse 6). Scholars are therefore correct to suggest some influence on this psalm from the biblical wisdom traditions, for they contributed to Israel’s theology of creation and providence.5  Hence, one can see why this psalm would become part of Judaism’s “daily morning prayers.”6

What should be emphasized with equal seriousness is that God’s characteristic involvement with creation and history has a certain focus in this psalm, namely the oppressed and hungry, the prisoners (verse 7), the blind, and those who are bowed down (verse 8), and the stranger, orphan, and widow (verse 9). Israel’s law and prophets called the nation to account for its treatment of the most vulnerable members of society, and a Christian reading of this psalm rightly sees a connection with Jesus’ programmatic Nazareth sermon (Luke 4:16-29).7  God’s providence is praised not only in Jesus’ miracles, which are the first fruits of the restoration; it is also profoundly united to our understanding of the incarnation and crucifixion, in Jesus’ complete identification with humankind and his complete self-giving. I think of the way the recent motion picture, Seven Pounds, vividly portrays Ben Thomas (Will Smith) as a Christ-figure who gives himself — literally — to create healing and restoration in others.

The Infinite King and Finite Princes

Psalm 146 provides energy to the theme of God’s providential involvement by linking it to God’s righteous rule from Zion (verse 10) and presenting a stark contrast between this king who “will reign forever” and “princes . . . mortals in whom there is no hope” (v. 3; see also Psalm 118:9). The Hebrew wordplay in verses 3-4 undermines any merely human source of deliverance, for ‘adam (“mortals”) must return to ‘adamah (“earth”), invoking the judgment of Genesis 3:19. Jewish intertestamental literature also drew on this ancient tradition, finding comfort in the fact that oppressive rulers would not remain forever: “Today they will be exalted, but tomorrow they will not be found, because they will have returned to the dust, and their plans will have perished” (1 Maccabees 2:63).8 

The title track of Coldplay’s recent CD, “Viva la Vida,” presents just such a fallen monarch who remembers, “I used to rule the world, seas would rise when I gave the word / now in the morning I sleep alone, sweep the streets I used to own.” Later he adds, “One minute I held the key, next the walls were closed on me / and I discovered that my castles stand, upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.”

“Princes” come under particular indictment because, as nobles, they were in a position to effect change for the poor and oppressed. The prophets often laid responsibility for Israel’s woes at the feet of its various leaders (Isaiah 3:14; Jeremiah 23; Ezekiel 34; Hosea 5:1). Yahweh’s royal office is highlighted, therefore, because he alone enacts true justice within history.

However, translating this judgment into our socio-political system, apart from a fully developed biblical theology of leadership, might lead to unwarranted applications. As James Mays wisely notes, “The hymn does not say that leaders are unnecessary or not useful. It does warn against trusting them for salvation.”9 Psalm 146 does not dwell very long on the inadequacy and transience of human leadership. To do so would have undermined the author’s purpose of exalting the Lord’s providential care for creation, especially for the most vulnerable members of society — Israel’s and our own.

1A. Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary (Westminster, 1962), 829.
2C. Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (John Knox, 1981), 122, 124.
3Weiser, 830; L. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Word, 1983), 302. J. Kselman suggests an interesting chiastic arrangement, with praise (1-2, 10) surrounding two wisdom sections (3-5, 8c-9), with a central theme of God as creator and redeemer (5-8b). See “Psalm 146 in its Context” CBQ 50 (1988): 591-592.
4On “characteristic speech” see W. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress, 1997), 122-126.
5L. Perdue, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History (WJK, 2007), 73-74.
6Weiser, 830.
7D. Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (InterVarsity Press, 1975), 484.
8NRSV; reference cited by W. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1991), 865.
9J. L. Mays, Psalms (John Knox, 1994), 440.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

Craig R. Koester

The second chapter of James offers a far-reaching treatment of the life of faith.

The passage begins with a question about what faith actually is (James 2:1). In reflecting on the first chapter of James last week, we noted that the author is concerned about an understanding of faith that is too small. People may want to reduce faith to a series of statements that people profess to believe, but for James, faith is what is operative in a person’s life. People act on the basis of what they believe to be true. So if people say one thing but do something else, James would say their actual faith is the faith that underlies their actions. People must believe in something if they are to act at all. The question is whether the faith that actually shapes their lives is faith in Jesus Christ or something else.

Social class is the issue that James uses to get at this question (2:1-7). He points out the common human tendency to show deference to those who show visible signs of wealth and disdain for those who seem to be lower class. The value in the illustration is that it is such a commonplace occurrence. Attention to social class was part of the world in which the epistle of James was written. Wealth and influence typically went together, and those who had wealth expected to be welcomed and to receive certain privileges. It was widely understood that lower class people did not deserve the same respect.

Christians in North America may not think of social class as a problem, yet it is worth asking how comfortable the people in our congregations are when encountering people who visibly belong to a different social class. Networks of friendships often run along the lines created by income levels, education, and, professional status. Perhaps we do not say to a poorly dressed person, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet” (2:3), but we may well leave them standing by saying nothing at all.

By asking whether character really follows class lines, James does his best to mess up the unspoken assumption that the wealthy person is good and the poor person is bad. His goal is not to create a simple role reversal in which poverty automatically means virtue and wealth inevitably means vice. But he does point out how quickly assumptions break down if one asks whether faith has a place among the poor. Assumptions break down even more quickly by asking about the behavior of the rich. Are the rich ever self-serving, controlling, or obsessed with lawsuits that are designed to work the system in their favor? James assumes that the answer is “yes.”

At this point, James calls readers back to a central teaching of the faith: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). There is nothing remarkable in this. The gospels and letters of Paul lift up the centrality of this same command (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14). What characterizes James’s use of the commandment is its practical application to ordinary life. He puts people in an uncomfortable position by pointing out that if you really believe in Jesus, you presumably believe that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is important. And if you believe that, then why would you be so solicitous toward those above you on the social scale and indifferent toward those below you?

James has a disconcerting way of pressing the question. He assumes that people can rationalize remaining comfortably within the confines of their social class. He assumes that people might think, “Well, ok, I see your point. But I do pretty well on the whole, so don’t bother me with this. I’ll try to keep most of the Ten Commandments and let the rest go.” James wonders, “So which commandments don’t count? Adultery is ok if you don’t commit murder?”

This brings him to the heart of the matter, which is a notion of faith that is too small (James 2:14-17). If faith is reduced to saying a few words like “I believe,” then the expression of faith can be reduced to a few words like telling a homeless person, “Have a nice day.” For James, faith begins with a word–the Word of God that gives us new life, as he said earlier (1:18). And if that Word from God gives people life, then those who live out that Word extend life to others. Faith is what is active in a person’s life, actively giving life to you and to those around you. If it is not active, it is not faith.

One might wonder, “Where is the good news in a passage like this one?” The passage is unrelenting in the way it goes after the question of what it means to live as a person of God, and it does not let people off the hook. One response is that James clearly spoke the good news in the previous chapter, where he spoke about the generous gifts of God (1:17-18). But another response is that James reframes the question. He wonders, “Where is the good news for your neighbor?” James wants the good news to be experienced–by each believer and through each believer to the many others who need a tangible expression of grace.