Lectionary Commentaries for February 8, 2009
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:29-39

James Boyce

Perhaps the special character of the stories in the New Testament lies in the fact that they are not told for themselves, that they are not only about other people, but that they are always about us.

They locate us in the very midst of the great story and plot of all time and space, and therefore relate us to the great dramatist and storyteller, God himself.1

The Sundays of Epiphany continue the sequential gospel readings from the opening of Mark. It would seem fairly impossible to escape the power of this season and these words to inspire us, lift us and draw us into the story of God’s good news in the story of Jesus. Amos Wilder reminds us that these stories do not only provide us with information about the past but promise to engage our present lives and shape our future as people of faith. The goal and task of the preacher is certainly not to fall short of that power in these stories. Instead, we are to preach with the conviction that these stories have the power to pick us up and place us in the very midst of the story of what God is doing in and through our lives today.

Though we now arrive at the fifth Sunday of Epiphany, we realize that we still have only reached verse 29 in the Gospel of Mark. A good first step for preparing to preach would be to read again from the beginning of the gospel to this point, to be reminded of the scope and pacing of Mark’s story. In just a few verses, we have been swept up into an exciting crescendo of activity. Hardly has the “good news” been announced when John the Baptist appears on the scene gathering crowds who respond to his persuasive preaching of the “forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:5). The promised “One who is coming” arrives and is baptized accompanied by splitting heavens and a voice announcing divine favor (Epiphany 1). Even when Jesus astonishingly announces that the “good news” of God’s reign has already arrived and calls hearers to repentance and faith, we might be just a little taken aback when a group of fisher folk suddenly abandon their former lives and follow Him (Epiphany 3). But there is no time to grab a breath. Immediately, Jesus leads them to a synagogue on the Sabbath where the crowds marvel at His authoritative teaching and power to exorcise demonic powers (Epiphany 4).

Even in today’s reading, there is no slacking of the pace. As the Sabbath ends, it might have been tempting for Jesus to bask in the successful exorcism, the accolades of his authoritative teaching and a reputation that has already spread “immediately” throughout all of Galilee” (Mark 1:28). But in this story there is no time for resting on laurels. Three times in succession, once in last Sunday’s verse, Mark 1:28, and now twice in the opening words of our lesson, we hear the word “immediately,” a word whose repetitive impact (fourteen times in Mark 1 and 2) many readers of Mark have noted. It needs to be allowed its effect in spite of the NRSV’s and other translators’ attempts to omit or soften it. With this word, the story fairly bursts through the synagogue doors and pushes towards the rest of Galilee — to the rest of the week, to the rest of our lives and to the place this story of Jesus will take us. The gospel for this day reminds us that the story of Jesus is always on the move and will not allow any of us hearers to remain who or where we are. Within a few short verses, the end of today’s lesson will invite us to join this Jesus whose “preaching” and healing of the demonic in life will take him “throughout the whole of Galilee” (Mark 1:29).

This mission has a grand sweep. It is also particular and close to home. It is at least of some interest, if not a bit puzzling, that we find those same four fishermen who answered Jesus’ call and “abandoned everything” (Mark 1:14-20) back at home and still concerned with the realities of day-to-day life.  For example, a mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Yet, Jesus’ power extends even here, and we get an anticipatory glimpse of just where this story and mission might lead us. Jesus took her by the hand and “lifted her up” (verse 31). The Greek literally reads “he raised her.” It is surely no accident that here for the first time our imaginations are teased with this promissory “good news” word which will follow this story of Jesus (eighteen times in the gospel) to its surprising, climactic resurrection ending.

Yet, even now, this anticipatory Epiphany promise fairly bursts upon the scene. From the healing of one person, the numbers in the story have a staggering effect that no attempt to discount them as mere hyperbole can undo. People bring “all” who are sick to Jesus; the “whole city” is at the door. He heals “many” who are sick with “all sorts” of diseases and casts out “many” demons. The success seems palpable and unstoppable. Jesus’ power is clear.

Except for the demons! Before he has exorcised them with only a word (Mark 1:21-28); now He is more forceful as He “casts them out” and will not permit them to speak (Mark 1:34). However, the final note “because they knew him” is a sobering reminder these demonic powers will not go quietly and so a premonition of where this battle will ultimately take this Jesus.

It is to that battle and its purpose that the rest of today’s story now directs us. In the morning Jesus is up early and once again “in the wilderness” to ponder His mission in prayer. God’s baptismal commission has brought Him to this place. There is a tug to remain for the “everyone” who is searching for Him. But Jesus’ words, “Let us go on,” speak to His clear sense of call and mission. “It is for this reason that I came — to preach to the cities that lie ahead” (Mark 1:38).

Jesus’ words address the clear sense of purpose and mission that are already part of Mark’s story. It breathes of the power of forgiveness and healing that God has in store for the whole world. Within a few verses that mission has taken us from the particular of one mother-in-law’s sick room to the whole of Galilee and, by implication, to the whole world.

In just this way, Mark’s story is inviting hearers into the new existence of faith. What if we were to be persuaded by the good news of such a new existence? What if our lives here and now were to be shaped by confidence in the One who invites us with such promise? The call and the task for the preacher will be to make clear that such promise is here for us, helping to locate us in the midst of this story, and to finally make clear that this story is not just about the Sabbath.  This story is not merely about the community at worship, but the story of Jesus which will engage all of our stories as it bursts beyond the synagogue and the place of worship, taking us into the rest of the week and the rest of the stories of our lives with its power.


1Amos N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1971), 57.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

The text this week holds two thoughts in tension.

The proclamation of what seems impossible to believe is held together with the truth of what is impossible to deny. The opening lines of Isaiah 40 announce what was surely impossible to believe. Exile had left the people in a land far from their own wondering silently, if not aloud, what had happened to Yahweh. What happened to the covenant promises? At their existential core the people were left in silence, bound by the certainty of an unknown future in the hands of a foreign people. These opening verses, however, break into such silence, shattering it with the announcement that “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed” (verse 5), that “the Lord GOD comes with might” (verse 10), in order to “gather the lambs in his arms” (verse 11).

In hymnic praise, the remainder of chapter 40 (verses 12-31) answers one key question: “Who is this God that will do such a thing?” What do we know of a God who will let His people fall at the hands of the Babylonians and their god, Marduk? What do we know of a God who appears to have fallen by the wayside in silence? Can such a God be trusted by a people who have grown weary and exhausted (Isaiah 40:29), too tired to even sing the psalms of Zion any longer (Psalm 137)?

The writer of Deutero-Isaiah answers with an emphatic declaration.  In verses 12-17 the writer draws attention to the creative capacity of Israel’s God, and it is this capacity exhibited from of old that remains fundamental to this new confession. Unlike other Ancient Near Eastern religions depicting a pantheon of gods in conjunction with the making of the created order, it was Israel’s God alone that “measured the waters in the hollow of his hand” and “marked off the heavens with a span.” The recent experience of Israel at the hands of the Babylonians might have led the Israelites to believe their deity was in some way an inferior deity when compared with Marduk, or at least that Yahweh was simply part of a pantheon of the gods in which earthly history played out among the gods at the cosmic realm. Yet, Deutero-Isaiah calls Israel to throw off all such ruminations. Deutero-Isaiah calls those who are weary and exhausted to shirk off attempts at reconciling their experience with what they know to be true of their God. And so the opening lines of this powerful hymn announce it is Yahweh alone that provides the hope because he is the one who creates and who continues creating.

The opening lines in the passage for this week begin with a series of four rhetorical questions. Such rhetorical questions in Hebrew can also have the force of an emphatic statement: “Surely you have known! Surely you have heard!” This is not new information provided by the prophet. But like a good prophet, he draws the people back to the confessions that stand as their identity. So how is it possible that the exiles could be delivered from Babylon? The prophet announces that the truth is impossible to deny. It has been told from the beginning. The NRSV translates verse 21 as “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” The Hebrew text, however, actually reads, “Have you not understood the foundations of the earth?” Thus the final rhetorical question is actually the climax in a short series of staccato lines: surely you know, surely you have heard, surely it has been told to you; surely you understand the foundations of the earth. And if you understand the foundations of the earth, how can you believe in the possibility of any other god at work in our world? This God, and this God alone, stands above the world, creating a place for those who are like grasshoppers (verse 22) to live. Yet this same God is intimately involved in the historical and political machinations of human life, “bringing princes to naught and making earthly rulers as nothing.”

The final section (verses 27-31) is perhaps the most well known in this week’s text, and arguably, the most prone to misinterpretation. Occasionally, the language of verse 30 concerning those who are weary and exhausted is isolated and used pastorally for all who are in difficult circumstances. And while there is little doubt that the God is concerned about all who are weary and exhausted, these verses have a more pointed focus. Verse 27 aids in our interpretation. There the poet quotes the lamenting people, asking why they say, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? The weary and exhausted are those who have felt abandoned by their God–and their circumstances do little to deny such a thought. The poet does not deny such weariness, but instead suggests that such weariness does not deny God. The God of Israel is the “everlasting God,” and the “Creator of the ends of the earth.” This God is the one who not only created, but creates; the One who not only brought nations into existence, but remains in control of world political affairs.

The promise of an end to exile and renewed strength seems impossible to believe because their current plight is so impossible to deny. And what seems irreconcilable is, in fact, not because of the identity of the One in whom they confess. While “His understanding is unsearchable,” His identity is undeniable. He is the Creator who recreates, shaping and reshaping the world and all who live in it.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

Wendell Frerichs

Psalm 147 is part of a group of Psalms (146-150) which close the Psalter.

One word, Hallelujah, a plural imperative meaning “Praise Yah,” is a crucial component, found three times in this Psalm and ten times in Psalm 150. All five are praise Psalms, including the elements of and the reasons for praise. In our text, these reasons alternate between the Lord’s special activity for His people who need help and compassion, and God’s more general care for nature and the cosmos. Both are always themes in Israel’s worship.

When and by whom was this Psalm composed? One may suppose it was by someone connected to the Jerusalem Temple and its many worship services. We find references to the restored Temple and city, as well as to returnees from exile. Therefore, it fits in the same era as III Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66), with some recollections of II Isaiah too. The three plus three happy meter suggests a time, probably Persian, when hopes were higher (cf. Psalm 33). Praises to gods for their activity in nature are known in both Egypt and Mesopotamia.1  In all periods of its history Israel lived in a world where its neighbors’ faiths were well known, and even tempting. Consequently, the Psalmist makes very sure that each strophe begins with specific references to Yahweh, and the Psalm ends on the same note.

Strophe 1 (verses 1-6) begins with a call to praise Israel’s rescuer most likely from defeat, exile, and national destruction. Verses 2-3 show a God full of compassion toward those who have endured much pain and humiliation. Thus, the promises of Isaiah chapters 40-55 are being fulfilled. Regarding the cosmos (verses 4-5), which exiles no doubt learned much about in Babylon from its astrologers and astronomers, they are considered the arena of Yahweh’s activity, not of the gods of Babylon. Without city lights to outshine them, the planets and many stars must have impressed ancient people. No one could count them, though Yahweh, who created them, could call them forth each evening by name. If God has such power and knowledge, surely he can handle Israel’s problems on earth. Indeed, God’s power and wisdom are much greater than the people could imagine.

Verse 6 returns to the theme of verses 1-3: God’s compassion for the least fortunate of society. But here is added God’s justice, which will punish those who have brought misfortune on “the downtrodden” for whom he has special concern. God is not only wise and powerful; He is also just and compassionate.

The second strophe (verses 7-11) begins as did the first, with a call to worship. One of the musical instruments, the lyre (a small stringed harp), is named. As it is today, worship singing was accompanied by skilled musicians. Next (verses 8-9), we are immediately informed of more reasons to praise God. The rainy seasons are Yahweh’s special gift. One must put this in context and see the centuries-long competition between Baal, the storm god of the Canaanites, and Yahweh, who was the God of Israel’s long history. The temptation was to worship the chief gods of the land as well as the God of the Exodus and Sinai. But this poet rules this tendency out.

Not only the people and the domestic livestock are cared for by Yahweh, but also the wild animals that need grass and even the young ravens in the nest. Ravens were noted for their craftiness, but their food is a gift from God. God not only hears with joy Israel’s songs, he also heeds the nestlings’ call for food.

Finally (verses 10-11) we learn what is and is not pleasing to God. War horses were impressive since they were owned by kings and warriors, in contrast to the donkeys used in agriculture. Even today, we are impressed with athletes’ prowess. However, God apparently looks inward and weighs people’s hearts. Those who fear Yahweh and hope in Him are the ones who impress Him. It hearkens back to the first law of Sinai and the deepest expectations of Israel. Who is ultimately reliable? Self? Neighbor? The King? The Psalmist knows and confesses it. This world knows only one security: God.

The third strophe (verses 12-20) is not included in our text, except for the final Hallelujah. One naturally asks, why? Does it then become too long a reading? Is there something in these verses we would rather not discuss? We can only guess, but it happens regularly, and not only with Psalm 119!

As with the other two, this strophe begins with a call to praise. Why? Because God blesses the city and Israel’s children with Shalom and excellent food for all. Here (verses 15, 18, 19) it is God’s word which carries out His intents. What we might not expect, since it was rare in their climate, is a reference to snow, frost, and hail. These too are God’s doing, as is his melting of them. But, as always, nature is only one of the fields of God’s activity. Israel was covenanted to Yahweh at Sinai, and thus knows His will. Utterly unique among all the peoples of the earth is Israel, in the way they were chosen, and in how they should respond to this choosing, that is, through obedience to Yahweh’s will. Jews and Christians might each be tempted to take pride in their special privileges as God’s people, saying we alone know the true God. All other gods are but deified natural forces, heavenly bodies, or graven images. But as this Psalm underscores, with privilege comes responsibility. God is not impressed with our accomplishments. What really count are obedience, faith, and hope. Today, obedience is scarcely noted in most churches.

The end of the Psalter is replete with calls to worship and praise. This is our calling, too. Choosing the right hymns and adding choirs and instruments will do what this Psalm challenges us to do. Then, people will leave the service uplifted and prepared to face life.


1J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, 1955), 366.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Karl Jacobson

Preach, or be damned – what would you choose?

Given that you are logged onto a preaching website, I imagine the answer is obvious. In the interest of your continued good will (and reading), I won’t ask you to consider how those who listen to your preaching might answer.

So, why the question? This dialectic – preach or be damned – arises from Paul’s self-reflection on his role as apostle. Paul is presenting his self-understanding, describing the manner in which he presents himself, and the ultimate motivation which drives him. Preach, or be damned.

To be fair Paul doesn’t actually say “damned.” Rather, he says “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). As with the Old Testament “woes” that one reads in numerous prophetic oracles (cf. Isaiah 45:9; Hosea 7:13; see also Matthew 23:13-36), this is serious business. This is not the “whoa” of amazement or surprise, but the “woe” of suffering and punishment. In effect, Paul is calling trouble down upon himself should he fail to preach the gospel. “Woe to me if I fail to proclaim the gospel! I must preach or be damned!” With this attitude, Paul sets the stage for a striking reflection on his own calling as apostle, and provides a refreshing resource for our reflection on what it means to be called, commissioned to serve God and our neighbor, and proclaim the gospel.

There is much in this passage that may be familiar, primarily Paul’s summary of the nature of his apostleship. One of Paul’s most oft-quoted phrases is found here, that he will be “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Among the Jews, Paul is a committed and observant Jew, as he proudly declares elsewhere (Philippians 3:4-6). To those under the law, Paul will conduct himself as one also under the law, even though he is not subject to that law (1 Corinthians 9:20). To those outside the law, he will appear and present himself as one also outside of the law, even though, in a potentially confusing turn-around, he is “not free from God’s law” (verse 21). To the weak, Paul will give himself as one who is weak, though he has reason to boast (verse 22).

This fourfold summary of “all things” is at heart a repetition of two things in an A-A-B-B pattern. The Jews and those under the law are best read as one and the same. Likewise, those outside the law, the Gentiles, are also the “weak.” Think of this as a Pauline version of “There are two kinds of people.” “And,” Paul says, “I am whatever they need me to be, a little A-ish or a little B-ish.” Though free in Christ Jesus, Paul submits himself, to the point of being a slave, to his neighbors, willing to be “all things to all people.”

As with most familiar things, one must be careful not to read “all things to all people” as though Paul is saying that “everything goes.” As noted above, Paul is talking less about “all things” than articulating a basic two-part distinction: those under the law, and those outside the law, which covers everyone. What Paul is driving at is not some pluralist vision of all things being equal. He is driven by the need to deliver the gospel to all people, not just the chosen people or the insiders. Outside of this text, Paul explicitly says that theological relativity and idolatry are not a part of the gospel (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). In other words, Paul is stressing that he has given up all claims to his own particularity; but not the particularity of the gospel; in order to “win more,” and “save some.” The question is, why?

Why is Paul willing to do this? Why be all things to all people? Why risk appearing a chameleon of compromise? Why give up freedom for servitude? Why? Preach or be damned. For Paul this is not a question, or a matter of choice. It is a matter of necessity, of compulsion, of apostolic imperative. It is the gospel that is for all people, the gospel that drives him to reach out both to Jew and to Gentile, to the one struggling under the burden of the law and the one blissfully ignorant of its demands. For Paul the gospel is needed by both kinds of people, it is the one thing that is for all people. This is why he does what he does.

And this brings us again to the remarkable way in which Paul describes the apostolic imperative which drives him, and what it means for us. At the beginning of this little passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul holds in tension a set of contradictory terms: boasting and obligation, reward and commission. The calling, the obligation to proclaim the gospel is not a cause for boasting or arrogance; neither is it a means to an end or a reward. For Paul the gospel, as a blessing to be shared (1 Corinthians 9:23; 10:17; 11:23-26), is both obligation and reward, commission and compensation. Paul does not talk here of his calling or his “Christian life” as something motivated by heavenly reward, or something in which to take pride. Paul, who is accustomed to the occasional pride filled boast, takes a different tack here. He is motivated by the joy from servitude to Christ, the reward of a slavish devotion to all his neighbors, both those under God’s law and those unaware of it.

So too it ought to be for us who share this blessing. 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 presents a model image of discipleship for preachers and for lay leaders, and indeed for all people. What is begged of us is, perhaps, not to answer the question “Preach or be damned?” Rather, we are asked what motivates us for the work that we share as co-workers with Paul in the proclamation of the gospel. Let it be the joy that is Paul’s, for the sake of the gospel, so that we may share all its blessings with all people.