Lectionary Commentaries for October 4, 2009
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Mark 10:2-16
Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24
The book of Genesis begins with two different but complementary stories of God’s creation of the world.
Two Creation Stories and Two Portrayals of God
In Genesis 1, God is portrayed as speaking from afar, bringing order out of chaos in a well planned and carefully structured progression of six days of creation. God repeatedly pronounces the results of the six days of creation as “good” and the whole creation in the end as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). God creates humans as a simultaneous community, male and female, both fully in the image of God. Genesis 1 teaches us that God’s intentions for creation will come to fruition in accord with God’s will and desire.
When we turn to the second creation story in Gen 2:4b-25, the portrait of God is somewhat different. God gets “down and dirty” with creation, forming the human (adam) from the land or clay (adamah). God performs CPR on the newly formed lump of clay, breathing into the dirt-creature’s nostrils “the breath of life.” Like the crazed doctor who brings to life the lifeless Frankenstein in the film Young Frankenstein, we can imagine God exclaiming, “He’s alive! He’s alive!”
The image of the garden of Eden as a laboratory with God as the chief scientist engaging in trial-and-error experiments captures something of the spirit of God’s portrayal in Genesis 2. Although God will finally and assuredly have God’s way with the world (Genesis 1), God will also encounter unexpected challenges and try new solutions in a give-and-take in interaction with creation and its creatures (so Genesis 2).
Being Lonely: Not Good!
In Genesis 1, God had repeatedly said that everything was “good.” In Genesis 2, God surveys his emerging horticultural experiment in Eden and senses something is “not good.” God observes, “It’s not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). God’s discovery highlights what is fundamental to human nature and human flourishing: humans are social creatures who thrive in close and intimate relationships with others. Thus, God resolves to make for the single human “a helper [Hebrew: ezer] as his partner.” A “helper” in the Old Testament is not a subordinate but one who may be an equal or sometimes even a superior to the one who is being helped. In fact, God is often called a “helper” to humans in need (Psalm 10:14; 54:4).
God’s first experimental attempt to resolve this deficit of community is to create an array of wild animals, birds, and domestic animals as possible soul mates for the human. God marches the colorful parade of diverse wild life before the human and invites him to give names to the various creatures (2:18-20). Elephant, condor, dog, cat, kangaroo, what have you. The act of naming in the ancient world was a means of defining and shaping the character and essence of the one named. By naming the animals, the human participates with God as a co-creation, but sadly this first experiment does not work. The animals are interesting, but none of the animals fully resolves the ache and void of human loneliness.
The Second Experiment: Success at Last!
So God embarks on another experiment. God assumes the role of chief surgeon and anesthetizes the man into a deep sleep. This new attempt at finding a “helper as his partner” will not involve human co-creation this time. It will all be God’s doing, a gift from God alone. God surgically removes a rib from the man’s side and lovingly shapes the rib into a second human being who is “like” the man but also “opposite” him, like two puzzle pieces that fit together. The animal-as-full-partner experiment had been a bust, but this time God gets it oh so right! The man awakes and instantly recognizes the fulfillment of his deep longing in the eyes of the new “other,” the woman.
For the first time in Scripture, the human speaks in the elevated language of poetic verse as a sign of the ecstasy and joy that accompanies this discovery:
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called Woman [Hebrew ishshah]
for out of Man [Hebrew ish] this one was taken.
“At last,” the search is over. The imagery of being “bone of my bones” and “flesh of my flesh” speaks of a bond between the man and woman so strong that to sever it would be as if to rip out a physical part of one’s own body. The man’s lyric response is the Bible’s first example of love poetry but not its last. The Bible’s other great celebration of human love and passion is the Old Testament book, the Song of Songs, a commentary and sequel to Genesis 2.
Love as a Fragile Gift
This marital bond is so intimate that the two “become one flesh”–naked, open to one another, vulnerable, trusting, passionate, loving, and “not ashamed” (2:24-25). This union of two lonely human beings yearning for community and finding it in one another is the great climax of the second creation story.
Unfortunately, the happy union is quickly strained and marred as the narrative suddenly and unexpectedly descends into the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and expulsion from the garden of Eden in Genesis 3. Mutual trust, partnership, support, freedom from shame, and equality of relationship are all threatened by human disobedience in Genesis 3. The Gospel lesson for this Sunday in Mark 10:2-16 takes up the issue of divorce, the severing of this relationship of a man and a woman in the real world of human pain and pleasure, the knowledge of good and evil, faithfulness and sin.
The reality and the mystery of human love is that sometimes it endures and sometimes it does not. Genesis 2 reminds us of God’s original intention and desire for humans–to find in at least one other person a bond of love that runs so deeply and so intimately that we never feel alone.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Job 1:1; 2:1-10
During the month of October (Pentecost 18-21), we are treated to a rare opportunity–a run through the book of Job, in shorthand.
Over these four Sundays, there are readings from the beginning, middle, and end of Job which provide a short synopsis of the book. We read about the heavenly wager that gets Job into his mess (2:1-10); we sample Job’s “bitter complaint” to (against?) God (23:1-9, 16-17); we hear some of God’s pointed response (38:1-7); and finally we witness Job’s restoration to health, wealth, family, and above all right relationship with God (42:1-6, 10-17).
Though there is nothing of Job’s dialogue with his friends (arguably the most missed part of Job), there is enough in these four disparate readings to come away with a good sense for the whole of the book. What’s more, there are, from week to week, connections between these passages that provide nice flow and coherence for preaching and worship.
This lectionary tour of Job provides a remarkably full exposure to the book as a whole. While not, perhaps, a substitute for a full reading of Job, this is an excellent opportunity to introduce our preaching and our hearers to the adversarial wisdom and tenacious faith of Job, and to the challenges it brings.
The Set Up
Following a glowing description of Job as “blameless, upright, God-fearing, and turning-away-from-evil” (1:1; 2:31), the word–or name–most likely to catch the interest of both preacher and preachee is, of course, Satan. This may seem like the perfect match-up: Satan vs. the Sweetie (II) in a grudge-style-cage-match showdown of Good vs. Evil. But this idea is somewhat misleading.
As is often pointed out, “satan” here is not so much a name as it is an office or function. In the Hebrew of Job, this is clear in that “satan” always includes a definite article, ha-satan, “the satan.” The fact that most English translations ignore this is either the result of reading too much of the Devil into the text, or misplaced fear of confusing the reader. Regardless, the meaning of the text is easily obscured. Maybe this will help put the whole “satan” thing in perspective: “the satan” in Job works in much the same way as the angel of the Lord who appears to Balaam’s donkey, blocking his way “as his adversary” (Numbers 22:22). “The satan” is one, usually an angel, who serves as an adversary or “prosecuting attorney” on God’s behalf.
What is often overlooked, but cannot be ignored, is that the Satan functions as the adversary on God’s behalf. After this introductory section of the book, the Satan never makes another appearance, is not mentioned, questioned or in any way signified. It is God who is questioned, represented, and significant. In other words it is God who is in control.
Later on in Job’s dialogue with his friends, he rejects the idea that God is not in some way culpable in his suffering, arguing that the animals and even the plants know that God is behind everything, and all of this (cf. 12:7-12). The implication is that only people–for Job his friends, and for we who read this passage as scripture potentially we ourselves–may be ignorant of God’s ultimate control.
“Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.” (12:9-10)
And, Job argues (believes, complains) that his life and breath, even in suffering and struggle, are in God’s hands too. Satan is not on the hook here, for Job; God is.
All of this suggests to me that if we get bogged down in our preaching (or allow those to whom we preach to be bogged down in their thinking and believing) with the wrong-headed juxtaposition of “the satan” and the Devil, we are likely to miss the primary concern of Job as a whole, and this early offering in particular.
What Job 2:1-10 does is set the stage for the critical issue that drives the book, an issue that is put into play in the question/question exchange of Job and his wife (2:9-10). As he mourns in ashes covered with “loathsome sores” which he itches at (like a dog licking a wound) with a piece of broken pottery, Job’s wife asks him, “Do you still persist in your integrity?” Job responds–after an admittedly snippy crack about his wife’s gender and foolishness (but don’t judge him too harshly, remember, his sores were loathsome)–“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In this exchange, the dilemma of faith is articulated. And in this exchange–more than an imagined struggle between the Devil and the believer, more than a heavenly gamble between the Satan and God–the set up for the book is made.
“Do you still persist in your integrity?”
Exactly what Job’s wife means by her question is open to interpretation. Perhaps she means that any God who would do such things, or allow such things, is not worth the integrity of relationship. Perhaps, like Job’s friends, she was trying to lay the blame for their troubles with Job–his integrity, then, is false. Regardless, her question begs the issue, how do we reconcile suffering and faith?
Bill Brown has summarized the force of Job’s argument as a rejection of the “orthodox theology of his day, one based on the practice of piety and the presumption of divine retribution.”2 In other words, piety does not equal protection. Job argues against a simplistic view of, say, Psalm 1, taking it to promise only good fruit in due season and wither-proof foliage. Job is more sober, more realistic about life than this.
But Job does more than just speak to his day. Job speaks as well to what is, if not an orthodox, then certainly a dominant piety in American evangelical Christianity–namely the so-called “prosperity gospel.” Job militates against this false “gospel,” good news turned bad, and our preaching can and I believe should follow suit.
The idea that God blesses the faithful, rewarding the righteous with what they deserve, and that the opposite, trials and tribulation, are signs of being out of sync with God–apparently the prosperity gospel is nothing new under the sun–is rejected outright by Job. It is rejected in the portrayal of the struggles of a genuinely “blameless and upright” man, and in Job’s response–both to his wife and to his situation.
“Shall we receive the good at the hand of the God, and not receive the bad?”
Job’s question is rhetorical. The implied answer is that, of course, one should. Perhaps because there is little else that one can do, after all God is God. In essence this is a reiteration of Job 1:21b, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.” While this may strike some as fatalistic, Job’s question is instructive. I take it to be a foreshadowing of his own struggle with suffering and faith, and an attempt to maintain faith in the midst of personal trial. One might hear in Job’s question an echo of the Good Friday lament–My God my God, why have you forsaken me? This is both an expression of faith, and a bald assertion that all is not right.
Job 2:1-10 is the set up for the faithful struggle and the struggles of faith that Job embodies, and to which we are invited. These struggles are not with Satan, or with our own righteousness, nor are they signs of sinfulness or faithlessness, rather they are offered as expressions of genuine and life-giving relationship with God.
Commentary on Psalm 8
A problem with our hearing of Psalm 8, as with so many other biblical texts, may be our affluence.
Most of us are so used to being more or less well off and more or less comfortable that we have difficulty hearing the text from the margin, from the perspective of the underdog or the endangered. The result is not only confusion, but potentially destructive misuse.
The issue in Psalm 8, as in Genesis 1 to which it refers, is the relationship between humanity (us!) and the rest of creation. The psalm sings the old creation story into the present, rejoicing again in being made “little less than divine” (NJPS), which means having “dominion” over the works of God’s hands, over all creation. Creation is not merely a one-time act “in the beginning,” but an ongoing work and gift of God that makes us realize ever anew “how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
The problem, as we have heard often, is that one generation’s “dominion” becomes a later generation’s exploitation, and woe to the earth and woe to us if we think the psalms gives us license to do whatever is now in our power to ravish the earth and use up its resources. If this creational dimension of the psalm becomes a part of our preaching, we need to make people hear as clearly as possible that exploitation is not the message of Genesis 1 and not that of Psalm 8.
We live in a different world from that of these texts. When singers of the psalm looked “at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established,” they saw not the many stars and galaxies light-years away that we know from our science classes, planetariums, and telescopes, with the earth a mere speck in a minor planetary system, but the stars and the moon as fixed points on a half-dome sky, surrounding an earth that was the center of the universe, indeed, that was the universe. Even so, they were overwhelmed by the grandeur! And we? We may be all the more awed by our expanded sense of universe, giving greater praise to God, or some of us might find the notion of God quaintly irrelevant given our “greater” understanding.
Similarly, when the psalmists rejoiced in their surprising ability, under God, to bring sustenance from an unwieldy planet, they lived in a time when such “dominion” was relatively new–the ability to domesticate animals and till the soil–and the alternative was a daily hunter-gatherer existence that gave little or no time for developing culture, civilization, or even communal worship. “Praise the Lord,” they sang, “for God has blessed our humble efforts and given us life!”
But we dare not say, “Praise the Lord, for God has blessed all the assaults on the earth of which we are now capable and given us bigger and better stuff.” We too rightly rejoice in God’s blessing of our works, but, to be blessed, such works must understand “dominion” in the sense of Psalm 72, where the purpose of royal dominion (Psalm 72:8) is to “defend the cause of the poor” (verse 4) and to bring “abundance” (verse 16), “righteousness” (verse 7), and “peace” (verse 7) to all. That work is worthy of praise!
There are many potential sermons on Psalm 8, of course, as with any text. One will be to rejoice in our exercise of the responsible dominion given us by God as creatures who are “little less than divine” (a better translation than NRSV’s “a little lower than God”). Amazing! We rejoice in the gift, even as we pray for humility to bear the responsibility of exercising anything resembling god-like power over the earth. We have power, to be sure, but God-like power will abuse nothing.
Another sermon derives simply from the poetic structure of the psalm. A modern, Western reading of the psalm tends to focus on the question “What are humans that you are mindful of them?” as an outburst of existential anxiety from an “I” alone in the midst of overwhelming vastness. There might be something in that, but the structure of the psalm puts the singer in a different place. Psalm 8 has a rather clear concentric structure:
A O Lord, our Sovereign… (verse 1a)
B You have set your glory… (verses 1b-2)
C When I look… (verses 3-4)
B’ Yet, you have made… (verses 5-8)
A’ O Lord, our Sovereign (verse 9)
The A/B/C/B’/A’ structure is, in part at least, grammatical or rhetorical, comprised of sections introduced by Lord/you/I/you/Lord.
The psalm begins and ends with the outburst of congregational praise of God’s majestic name (A/A’). Within those verses comes the praise of God’s particular works (overturning foes in B; blessing humans in B’), and, at the center, the wondering awe of the poet (C). Now, instead of an isolated “me,” viewing a distant universe in existential anxiety, “I” (C) stand surrounded by the gracious and protecting works of God (B/B’) and the congregation gathered to sing God’s praise (A/A’). (This structure of the psalm could be modeled for the congregation by reading or singing it in worship in three groups: A, B, and C, corresponding to the segments of the psalm.)
Now, the answer to the singer’s question “Who am I?” question is the surprised recognition that “I’m surrounded!”–which could well be the title of a sermon on this psalm. “I’m surrounded!”–surrounded by the gracious works of God and the gathered community of God’s people. It is a good and safe place to be; a place where I am not left to my own devices to figure out who I am, but am given a place in relation to God, to God’s world, and to God’s people; a place where my identity is given (not my own project) and where I am kept safe from whatever “foes” (verses 1b-2) stand in opposition to God’s good will for me and all God’s creatures.
Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Bryan J. Whitfield
In the city of Macon, Georgia, the Harriet Tubman African-American Museum honors the memory of the “Black Moses,” the best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad.
A runaway slave herself, Tubman returned again and again to the South to rescue her family members and other slaves. In her nineteen trips, she escorted more than three hundred slaves to freedom. At great personal risk, she blazed a trail to freedom for many. Her own journey made her a trustworthy and knowledgeable guide for others.1
This week’s lectionary reading from Hebrews pictures Jesus in similar terms, as a trailblazer who guides “many children” to freedom (2:10). That image of Jesus as our pioneer is all the more remarkable given the opening verses of Hebrews. In phrases of great rhetorical power, the writer celebrates the unique status of the Son by whom God has now spoken (1:1). These claims rush out at the beginning of his sermon like a great river tumbling down a waterfall.
- God has appointed the Son to be “heir of all things” (1:2); his future and his destiny are clear.
- The Son has also been the agent of creation, the one through whom God “created the worlds” (1:2).
- But his role with respect to creation continues; he also “sustains all things” (1:3). His activity with respect to creation spans past, present, and future.
- The Son also radiates God’s glory or brightness or splendor (1:3).
- He is the “exact imprint” or stamp or engraving of God’s essential being. Jesus is the clearest picture we have of God.
- Finally, he is our high priest. He has “made purification for sins” (1:3) through his sacrificial offering. Here the writer first introduces his unique focus on Jesus as high priest, a theme central to the development of his sermon. His enthronement at God’s right hand conveys his power and glory.
Thus these initial verses of Hebrews stress the exalted status of the Son. But the second part of the reading (2:5-12) focuses on the lowliness of the Son and his identification with us, his brothers and sisters (2:11). The opening prologue stresses that the name God gave to the Son is superior to the name given to the angels, while this new section underscores that God placed the Son, not the angels, in charge of the coming world.
To demonstrate his point, the writer turns to Psalm 8:4-6. Unfortunately, the NRSV’s translation of the psalm obscures both the writer’s Christological interpretation of these verses and his argument. The Greek version of the psalm that the writer uses does not speak of “human beings” or “mortals” in the plural, but of “man” and “the son of man” in the singular.
It is the reference to “the son of man” in Psalm 8:4b that is the key for the writer of Hebrews. The next verse of the psalm continues: “you have made him for a little while lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5; Hebrews 2:7). The author uses this text to show that Jesus was made lower than the angels, but that abasement was only temporary. It was for “a little while” (2:9).
The ultimate destiny of Jesus is not a status inferior to the angels. In the psalm, God crowns “the son of man” with glory and honor, placing everything in subjection to him (Psalm 8:5b-6a; Hebrews 2:7b-8a). The writer of Hebrews reads the psalm in light of Jesus’ incarnation and exaltation. Jesus is “the son of man” who was made lower than the angels but who was exalted after his suffering and death (2:9).
Here, like a road that reaches the top of a hill only to open onto a larger vista, the writer’s argument makes one more turn. He provides yet a deeper reading of the psalm. The pattern of abasement and exaltation does not apply to Jesus alone. He is not a solitary figure, but a “pioneer” or “captain” or “champion” of salvation who brings many to glory (2:10). His destiny is not his alone but belongs to all of us who are his brothers and sisters (2:11).
That we share not only in Christ’s humanity but also in his glory is a thought too amazing for me to grasp. Human destiny–our destiny–is to share in the radiance of our Captain who has gone before us into the very presence of God. That we are brought to glory, C. S. Lewis writes, means that there “are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”2
Our lives and the lives of our sisters and brothers are not ordinary lives because we follow in the steps of the Son who leads us to glory and claims us as his own kin. Reflecting on that path that lies ahead of us moves us to adoration and praise. We may sing anew the words of Charles Wesley:
“Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!”3
2C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1949), 15.
3Charles Wesley, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”
Mark’s original readers probably found Jesus’ uncompromising statements about divorce and remarriage as challenging and counter-cultural as we do today.
Divorce in the first century was a generally accepted part of life, both among Jews and perhaps more so within wider Greco-Roman culture. Some writers and public leaders spoke against divorce as bad for society, but for the most part people debated only details of its legal basis. Among Jewish legal experts, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was a key text, one that assumes divorce will occur and proscribes procedures for carrying it out. But other scriptures call the permissibility of divorce into question (see Malachi 2:13-16; Genesis 2:24).
The Pharisees who ask Jesus about divorce do so “to test” him. The scene, through 10:9, therefore proceeds as a confrontation in which Jesus shows the Pharisees to have misunderstood scripture. More precisely, they misunderstand God’s design and misuse scripture and interpretive traditions to justify their errors (compare 7:6-13). As for the Pharisees’ intentions, they might hope their question will expose Jesus as dangerous to families, in light of his scandalous comments in 3:31-35 (compare 10:29-30; 13:12-13).
Jesus turns the conversation with the Pharisees away from the legal foundation for divorce to God’s design for marriage. That is, he dismisses the law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) as a concession to human weakness and offers a different perspective rooted in creation (quoting Genesis 1:27; 2:24). His brief argument describes marriage as a strong and (literally) unifying bond between two people. It is because he sees marriage in such a way that he speaks against divorce as he does.
Technically speaking, Jesus implies that he disapproves of divorce. More plainly, he says that divorce contravenes God’s design as expressed in Genesis 1-2. Later, with his disciples, he reveals more specifics, saying that a person who initiates a divorce to marry another person commits adultery. In all this, Jesus radicalizes the demands of scripture to a point perhaps far beyond where any Pharisee would have taken it. To explore the meaning of this passage, we need to consider how Jesus makes his case and what he aims to accomplish by it.
Jesus does not say what he does because he has a thing against the Mosaic law. Far from it. Details of the text and the cultural context shed light on the purpose and assumptions of his argument.
These details highlight the cultural differences between us and the Gospels, to be sure. Certainly today, at least in industrialized cultures, marriage has changed greatly, being less about economics and more about people seeking mutual fulfillment. And while divorce still often leads people (especially women) into financial hardship, divorced women today do not always find themselves doomed to the same social jeopardy many of their ancient counterparts faced. But these points do not render this passage irrelevant. Rather, the cultural and textual particularities cast light on how Jesus’ teaching might protect women of his time from men who use divorce for their own benefit and so imperil women.
This is hardly the only place where Jesus says that God’s design means to provide wholeness and protection for those who are vulnerable (see 2:23-3:6). It is no coincidence that Mark next tells a story about Jesus blessing children (10:13-15). Children in the ancient world had few rights and essentially no social status. Therefore the disciples obstruct people who bring children to Jesus. Jesus blesses them, not because they conjure sweet images of cherubic innocence, but because he has concern for the vulnerable and scorned, for those ripe for exploitation.
Jesus describes marriage with utmost seriousness, as something that transcends contractual obligations and economic utility, as something rooted in human identity. This offers a sharp reproof to any who would construe marriage as a contract of convenience, casually formed and casually broken. It impels churches to promote and foster healthy marriages, and in the case of divorce and remarriage to extend compassion and facilitate healing.
Sermons must address Jesus’ words about divorce to help people gain a theological perspective on it. This does not mean that the passage launches games of exegetical “gotcha” in which people elevate certain sins over others or try to parse exactly where Jesus assigns blame. Since preaching is a form of pastoral care, and since divorce has touched nearly every family, preachers should think about how a sermon can promote healing while wrestling with the passage’s theological rationale concerning marriage and divorce.
While a single sermon should not aim to cover all the issues this passage raises, it might take account of certain points derived from our study of the text:
1Scholars are engaged in lively debates about the extent to which Jewish women in the first century could initiate divorce. Jesus may acknowledge this in 10:12, but ultimately solving the issue is not essential for interpreting this passage.