Lectionary Commentaries for January 25, 2009
Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 1:14-20

Stephen Hultgren

The text consists of two parts: a summary of Jesus’ preaching in 1:14-15; and a call story in 1:16-20.

These two parts are connected by the sense of urgency brought on via the proclamation of the reign of God.

Mark tells us that after John was “handed over” (paradothēnai), Jesus returned to Galilee and began to preach the gospel. The NRSV translates paradothēnai as “arrested,” however, the Greek verb has a much fuller sense. It includes an allusion to John’s death, for the verb paradidōmi is used in Mark and elsewhere in the New Testament to speak of Jesus’ being handed over to death (e.g., Mark 14:21; Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 11:23). Consider the evidence linking these two men’s deaths. Both men were prophets who offended the powers that be. Both died violent deaths. Moreover, Mark placed similar passages questioning the identity of Jesus before the account of John’s death (6:14-16), and before the first of the three passion predictions (8:27-30), which suggests that he saw a parallel between the two men’s deaths. As has been long observed, the cross of Jesus casts a long shadow over the Gospel of Mark. Thus, already in Mark 1:14 the mention of John’s being “handed over” raises the specter of Jesus’ death. For Mark, Jesus’ kingdom ministry takes place, from the very beginning, under the shadow of the cross.

In 1:15 there follows a summary of Jesus’ preaching. Such summaries are common throughout the synoptic gospels (cf. Matthew 4:23; 9:35). Mark appears to have constructed this summary on material from Jesus’ preaching. The very fact that Mark places this summary of Jesus’ preaching of the gospel after mention of John’s being “handed over” may be based on tradition containing Jesus’ view of history such as is recorded in Luke 16:16, namely, that “the law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed.” With the end of John’s ministry comes the end of one stage of history. Now, Jesus and his gospel come to center stage. Jesus’ ministry is the center of all history.

The reliance on traditional material is evident in the rest of 1:15. The proclamation that “the kingdom of God has come near” (ēggiken hē basileia tou theou) is found elsewhere in Jesus’ sayings (Matthew 10:7; Luke 10:9, 11). In addition, Jesus’ healings and exorcisms were particularly connected to the coming of the kingdom (Matthew 12:28, Luke 11:20; cf. Matthew 10:7-8, Luke 10:9). It is unnecessary to enter the old debate of whether Jesus meant that the kingdom of God had actually come (realized eschatology), or whether the kingdom of God was near but not yet here (future eschatology). It is possible that Jesus thought that both were true. Wherever he conducted his ministry, there God’s reign was actively coming into being, even if the kingdom might not come fully until the future.

The announcement that “the time (kairos) is fulfilled (peplērōtai)” also has the ring of tradition. Luke similarly begins his account of Jesus’ Galilean ministry with Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth about the “year of the Lord’s favor” that Isaiah had prophesied (Isaiah 61:2). Jesus then said, that time had been fulfilled (peplērōtai) in the people’s hearing that very day (Luke 4:19, 21).

Interestingly, Isaiah 60:22, coming just before the part of Isaiah quoted in Luke 4, speaks of the time (Greek: kairos) when God would bring about the restoration of Israel. Possibly this is the source of the statement about the kairos in Mark 1:15. It is likely that the latter half of Isaiah lies behind Jesus’ eschatological vision, and is the source of his understanding of the kingdom. Isaiah 61:1 characterizes the time of the Lord’s favor as a time of preaching the good news (Greek: euaggelizesthai). Isaiah 52:7 connects the preaching of good news with the proclamation of God’s reign. Thus, the good news of the kingdom of God is that the one true God, with his life and peace and truth, is about to establish his rule over the world. All other opposing powers–whether human powers or sin or evil or death–are destined to end their rule.

We have seen that the announcement that the kingdom of God is near also appears in Matthew 10:7 and Luke 10:9, 11. Closely connected with this announcement in the tradition known to Luke (a so-called Q tradition), was the call to repentance (Luke 10:13). Perhaps the juxtaposition of the announcement of the reign of God and the call to repentance in the summary of Mark 1:15 is rooted in similar traditional material. In any case, the theological basis for the juxtaposition is clear. Announcing that God’s reign is near has the consequence of an urgent call for repentance, that is, aligning one’s values and way of life with God’s ways. In today’s epistle reading (1 Corinthians 7:29-31) Paul similarly calls for an examination of our priorities in light of the kairos.

The second section (Mark 1:16-20) then illustrates what the urgent call of the kingdom looks like. Jesus, walking along the Sea of Galilee, sees the two brothers Simon and Andrew, fishermen, casting their nets in the sea. He calls them to follow, and immediately, in obedience, they leave their nets and follow him. The same happens with James and John. The kai euthys (“and immediately”) of 1:18 and 1:20, a favorite turn of phrase of Mark, gives expression to the urgency of the call. The time is here, God’s kingdom is near; there is no time to lose!

It is striking that these four men would drop everything to follow Jesus if they did not already know him. Indeed, some scholars have speculated that they actually knew Jesus, or knew about him, before he called them into discipleship (cf. John 1:35-40). Whatever the history of the relationship between Jesus and these four men may have been, however, the story gives effective expression to the urgency of the call to discipleship.

Consider also that Mark portrays Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom coming not only as a gift (“good news”), but also with a demand (“repent”). Writing as a Lutheran, I find this a salutary warning that we dare not limit the force of Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom by imposing upon it a rigid Law-Gospel grid. If we try to impose such a grid on his preaching and teaching, we will not understand them in their integrity. To be sure, the indicative (“the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near”) precedes the imperative (“repent and believe in the good news”). What humans do comes as a response to God’s prevenient action. Still, we must not overlook that the one who promises the kingdom to sinners is the same one who calls sinners to repentance and who calls disciples to give up all that they have to follow him. To put it in Pauline terms, Christ is my life (cf. Philippians 1:21); my life is a total gift from him. Therefore I must also be willing and prepared to forfeit everything for him (Philippians 3:7-8; cf. Mark 8:35). Since in Jesus everything is given to me, in Jesus everything is demanded of me. The four disciples’ willingness to throw in their lot completely with Jesus illustrates that attitude.

First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Beth L. Tanner

Today is the day to tell the story of Jonah, for this is its only appearance in the regular lectionary cycle.

Jonah is often thought of as a children’s story complete with a whale, but the real message of Jonah is an adult one with an opportunity to stretch our understanding of God and salvation. The focus text is of God’s second call to Jonah and his less than enthusiastic response. However, the story of Jonah is a whole piece and needs to be told from beginning to end.

One key to preaching Jonah is to not get wrapped up in historical concerns. If Jonah is a historical figure, the telling of his story is not for historical purposes. The story of Jonah is a moral tale, much like Aesop’s fables, and is designed to teach the audience something about themselves. Some background, however, is necessary for a modern audience to understand the conflict within Jonah’s heart and soul.

God’s instruction in both 1:1 and 3:1 is “to go to Nineveh, the great city.” To an Israelite like Jonah, this would be equivalent to announcing today, “Go to Osama Bin Laden’s compound.” Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the nation that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and held the southern kingdom of Judah as a vassal for almost one hundred years. Assyria was more than an enemy; it was a brutal occupying force that forever changed Israel’s fortunes. Jonah is called out by God to go and prophesy to the enemy. For the story to work as it is intended, we must look through Jonah’s eyes. We should not stand off on the sidelines and judge, but think of how we would feel in the same situation. I cannot imagine a worse position! Jonah is told to go into the enemy city and announce God’s judgment.

We are not told why Jonah runs. Maybe he feared for his life, or perhaps he thought the enemy did not deserve to be offered a chance. Either way, Jonah leaves town on the first boat out. We all know that Jonah ends up in the fish, and it is only here that Jonah finally does something. He calls out to God; however his words are ones of a psalm that does not exactly fit the situation. Even inside the fish, Jonah does not use his own words to speak to God! Deep irony for someone whose job it is to speak to others.

The lectionary text is God’s second command to go to Nineveh. But it appears that Jonah only learned a very small part of his lesson. He goes to Nineveh alright, but gives the wimpiest prophecy ever recorded. Again, instead of condemnation, we need to see the world through Jonah’s eyes. Would we be any more enthusiastic?  These folks are mortal enemies and the chance of instant death is great.

The response of the people, like the sailors in chapter 2, is hyperbolic. The king declares that everyone and every beast fast and be covered with sackcloth and ashes. Imagine the picture; all the people and all the cows and all the sheep fasting with sackcloth tied to their backs! The image of the enemy is transformed from one of fierce occupier to comic supplicant. Just as God has transformed their hearts, their appearance is markedly changed. Jonah should be ecstatic; he is the greatest prophet of all! With a couple of words, he turns a whole nation to God. He should be headed for the evangelism hall of fame.

The crux of Jonah’s story is in the fourth chapter, for the point of the narrative is not about the conversion of an entire enemy population. It is about Jonah’s reaction to that amazing conversion. He is not happy, and the reason is because God is being consistent to God’s own self. The NRSV plays down his anger with the words “this was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry” (4:1). The Hebrew reads roughly, “it was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and his anger burned.” The “it” of Jonah’s anger is the heart of the matter. He tells God why he ran, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). Jonah is angry at God for the very attributes that Israel has always depended on for its own salvation (Exodus 34:6-7)! God speaks to Jonah, trying to explain, but the book ends without resolution and Jonah goes away mad.

The Book of Jonah is read in the Jewish calendar on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews confess their sins against God and neighbor. Offering Jonah to the congregation yields the same type of contemplation on God’s attributes that we too depend on for salvation. How willing are we to let God be God? Salvation is pure gift and grace and Jonah’s story reminds us that we do not own that grace, nor is it ours to dole out as we wish. God will be forgiving because that is the very heart of God.

So the story of this old prophet is much more than a whale tale. Its message is meant for those mature enough to understand the ways of God, and to face the ways we try to lay claim to God and God’s gift of grace. My father always told me that if I did not believe that God would save the most foul of humans, then I did not really believe in God’s power to save my own soul. The book of Jonah puts Dad’s words into action and demands that everyone who hears it contemplate God’s attributes and the meaning and power of salvation.


Commentary on Psalm 62:5-12

Wendell Frerichs

Psalm 62 has elements of a Psalm of praise, thanksgiving, lament, and wisdom.

But it also lacks elements of each of these. Thus, I consider it a mixed-genre Psalm. In its outline, it is divided into three parts, which the occurrence of the word ‘selah’ does.

Who wrote the Psalm and when is impossible to say. Jeduthun, mentioned in the superscription (cf. 1 Chronicles 16:41-42), is more likely the forebear of a liturgical family credited with authoring specific melodies used to chant the Psalms.

The first strophe is essential to a proper understanding of Psalm 62.  True, the utter reliance on God voiced in verses 1-2 is virtually repeated in verses 5-6. The first word of the Psalm, translated variously as yes, yea, or truly, occurs six times, helping to tie the whole together. After seeking for other avenues to a safe foundation in life, this Psalmist has come to a remarkable conclusion: only Israel’s God, not any other, is utterly reliable.

Various words are used to describe this conclusion: salvation, rock, fortress, hope, help, shelter, refuge, power, grace. This person puts his mouth and his words where his heart and soul are. But it may not always have been so. Verses 3-4 make abundantly clear that, in the past, his friends, colleagues, or family members were also trusted and relied upon. Just what undermined this relationship is not stated. But it was a lesson not to be forgotten.

Why these folks turned on the Psalmist we do not know, but they did it in a devious way, pretending still to be friendly and supportive. The poet was caught off-guard and was devastated. Thus, if we cut out verses 3-4, which our lectionary suggests, we are left without a clue as to what led the author to the remarkable faith statements in the rest of the Psalm. Now, no one can reach him to destroy him. Once he may have been like a building about to collapse, which anyone could demolish. Not anymore!

Strophe two (verses 5-8) begins as did strophe one, with powerful words of confidence in God. It surely is remarkable, given the tenor of verses 3-4. God will not go behind one’s back, destroying those who rely upon him. In the final analysis all strength and power come, not from nourishment or physical exercise, but from God. We may need to reassure our souls of this repeatedly! Perhaps the poet, using the law of asylum, has experienced this personally by fleeing to the sanctuary and hanging onto the horns of the altar. In any case, the author is not vengeful or angry (verse 7), only at peace. Accordingly, this peace becomes the basis of a call to others to share in this great discovery (verse 8). In the ancient world a plethora of gods was available for help in time of need. But only the God of Israel’s assembled congregation is their refuge. So, says the author, do what I did: pray and call for help. You too will then become as confident as I am. Here we reach the high point of strophe two, if not of the whole Psalm. Remember this insight when troubles come, as they surely will.

Strophe three (verses 9-12) does not begin as the previous two did. Instead of reflecting the negative experience depicted in strophe one, the author now evaluates all humans as unable to provide security. Compared to God, humans are nothing. Even those who have amassed a fortune and those who exercise power cannot be relied upon. These are illusions which may quickly disappear. Further, how was this wealth or power accumulated? No doubt at someone else’s expense. Like the Wisdom Literature, these verses remind and warn those who rely on such things to beware.

God has often spoken of such matters (verse 11, cf. the Prophets). But not all have heeded. Thus, once again the people are told and God (verse 12) is finally addressed. Praise is not just advised for others, but given to the Faithful One, the gracious God of Israel. For centuries this was the central message of the Temple worship services. Sacred history, too, interpreted the past and present as the arena where God was active on their behalf.

All of us need friends, family, and community to rely on. But sometimes they let us down, hopefully not as absolutely as the Psalmist experienced. It can be disillusioning. One may be tempted to lash out, to give up hope. Here is a text which shows the way out of such a predicament. There is someone whom we can rely upon completely. Our Lord is reliable when others fail us. It may also be our IRA’s, or investments, which prove to be less than secure. What we have laid aside for the future may have eroded considerably. We lose confidence in capitalism, in CEOs. But should we also lose faith in God?

From experience and the Bible, we learn that this world and the people in it are unreliable. Yet our experience and the Bible also testify that God is a secure foundation upon whom to build. The sermon should be personal testimony to the congregation, as this Psalm is. It should  include God’s promises to us, as well as talk about God. Confident witness is not narrow-minded bigotry. People need help in living in the real world.

The last two lines, depending upon the translation, may be a problem for evangelical Christians. Are we rewarded according to our deeds? This author is not speaking about the afterlife or eternal salvation which we know is given by grace alone. Jesus Christ did die for our sins. That makes the witness of this Psalm even more profound.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Arland J. Hultgren

The Second Lesson prescribed for any given Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary does not usually cohere with the core message of the Gospel for the Day.

Except on special occasions, it is typically a passage that is part of a continuous reading within Acts, an epistle, or Revelation, and given attention over several weeks.

But there are fortuitous occasions when the Second Lesson does cohere thematically with the Gospel for the Day. This day is one of them. The lesson from 1 Corinthians, like the Gospel (Mark 1:14-20), has to do with time and the place of the believer within it.

In Mark 1:15, Jesus proclaims: “The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The moment is one of urgency, for God’s reign is breaking into human history. Our reading begins with similar urgency: “I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time (kairos) has grown short” (1 Corinthians 7:29). Paul expects the imminent arrival of Christ in his glory, when “the present form of this world” passes away (7:31), and that makes all the difference in the world as to how one should live.

The Greek term kairos carries several nuances within the New Testament. Among its most widely used meanings, the word can mean “significant time,” “appointed time” (a time determined by God), “critical time,” or even some combination of these. Within the two texts assigned for today, all of these meanings are present. The time is significant, appointed, and critical, whether it is the moment when the reign of God over all things dawns upon the earth, as proclaimed by Jesus, or the moment at the eve of Christ’s coming in glory, as proclaimed by Paul.

What Paul writes in 1 Corinthians is a response to questions from the community of believers at Corinth. Prior to the passage assigned for today, he has taken up a series of issues. He writes that the single life is better, but recommends marriage to help prevent sexual immorality (7:1-9). He urges that believers not divorce one another, although conceding that divorce might be necessary in some cases (7:10-16). And he counsels those who become Christians not to make changes. For example, slaves should not think that they must become free, but accept freedom if it is offered (7:11-24).

Now Paul turns again to the matter of singles and married couples. He recommends that they remain in their present state (7:25-28). The basis for his recommendation is: “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are” (7:26). In short, Paul’s imminent eschatology (his sense of the end of all things coming soon) governs all that is being said. It is the foundation for the way of life that he recommends.

This entire discussion leads us to the brief passage assigned for today. It is especially important to notice Paul’s use of the words “as though not” (hōs mē) five times over in these three verses. So, Paul says, one is to live “as though not” married, mourning, rejoicing, making purchases, and (in summation) dealing with the world in general.

Basic to his thinking is that one is to disengage from the world, for all is transitory. There is no point in becoming consumed or even entangled with the world and its concerns, for the “present form of this world is passing away.”

However, this approach is not the sum and substance of everything Paul has to say concerning life in this world. There is plenty more. In Romans 12:9-21, Paul provides a sustained discussion on Christian behavior within the community of believers (12:9-13) and in the larger community outside (12:14-21). In Romans 13:1-10, he urges that believers should be subject to the governing powers and should practice love for one another. In Philippians 4:8-9, he endorses and commends basic values and virtues as giving guidance for the Christian life. Twice in his letters, he sums up the Ten Commandments with the Love Commandment (Romans 13:9-10; Galatians 5:14).

Amidst these examples, it is helpful to put side-by-side two words: “disengagement” and “engagement.” In his ethical thinking, and in our passage for today, Paul calls upon persons of faith to disengage from the world and its ways of living. One should step back and see how being entangled with it can be a captivity preventing one from living the new life in Christ. But that is not the end of the matter, for we continue to live in this world and have to deal with it. In Paul’s way of thinking, disengagement is not an end in itself. Rather, being disengaged and set free, a person can engage the world from the perspective of being one who is “in Christ.” And Paul provides a lot of exhortation in his letters concerning that life, as mentioned above.

People who hear this passage read at worship will find it puzzling. They do not have a sense of the imminent coming of Christ, and they can hardly live day-to-day “as though not” having dealings with the world. It is important therefore, if this text is the basis for a sermon, to set it in the context of 1 Corinthians and within the larger framework of Paul’s ethical teaching, as done here.
In the end, the primary message of this text is that nothing in this world can compare to the eternal fellowship we have with God and Christ. Dealing with the world is inevitable and important  we need to deal with it well for the sake of our families, our nation, and ourselves. But we need to maintain an “eschatological reserve,” knowing that this is not all there is, for we look to the eternal beyond that which is passing away.  Still, we should remain invested in the world and its ongoing concerns. Indeed, those who pray for the kingdom and expect Christ to come in glory are bound to be engaged in the world and its struggles. Knowing the certainty of God’s ultimate reign beyond history, we work to align the present and future with it.