Lectionary Commentaries for March 8, 2009
Second Sunday in Lent (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 8:31-38

Sarah Henrich

With the power of brevity, Mark puts before us Jesus’ correction of Peter’s clear identification of Jesus as God’s anointed one.

This passage is located in a longer, dynamite unit. Beginning in 8:17, Jesus asks the twelve a series of questions revealing their incomprehension of who he is. In 8:21, Jesus’ final question is, “Do you not yet understand?” It is made even more poignant by the use of an imperfect verb describing his speech, a verb which might well be translated, “He kept on saying to them, “Do you not yet understand?” What a question for Christians in the 21st century, let alone for Christians in the second week of Lent!

It is that question, “Do you not yet understand?” that gives rise to 8:22-10:52. The central portion of Mark’s gospel, these chapters begin and end with stories of healing blind men. In 8:22-26 Jesus privately heals a man’s blindness, though it requires two steps to complete the process. In 10:46-52, Jesus publicly heals the blindness of Bartimaeus, the beggar, in one step. In between the stories of healing the blind come Jesus’ three predictions of his passion, of which Mark 8:31-38 is the first.

It is remarkable (pun intended!) with no apology, that after each of three passion predictions, there is a story making it clear the disciples still “do not understand.” In 9:33-41 there are two stories where the disciples radically misread their own context and Jesus’ ministry. In 10:35-45, the same holds true. In our passage, 8:31-38, we have the first example of Jesus’ prediction, followed by a story of misperception so strongly worded; it could not have been forgotten by anyone who had heard it.

In conversation with the twelve, Jesus inquires about the local buzz (8:27-28). What are they saying about me? Who do they say that I am? The answers are not inappropriate: Jesus has behaved very much as one of the ancient prophets, both in his deeds and in his words announcing the imminence of God’s kingdom. He also sounds like John the Baptist, as Mark characterized him earlier. Elijah is a hopeful guess; here is one whose presence was believed by some to herald the coming of God’s kingdom among humankind (see Malachi 4:5-6). If it were Elijah, the “great and terrible day of the Lord” would be right on the horizon.

Yet Peter knows a truth even more awesome than that. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s own anointed one.

Peter does not tell us what he means by “Christos.” After his “confession” of who Jesus is, Jesus “rebukes” him (it is the same word in 8:30, 32, 33, and is used for interactions with daemonic spirits in 1:25; 3:12; 9:25). In 8:30, the “rebuke” is not hostile, yet commanding nevertheless. Jesus’ insistence on silence is followed by his teaching of the twelve that he must suffer, die and rise again. In other words, Jesus defines “Christos” for them.

It is this definition that Peter wants to correct. Think of him as saying with great love, “Lord, don’t even go there.” But Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is a truly harsh correction. Peter has thought the matters of humankind, not of God. Better put, he has conceived Jesus’ identity and God’s realm in human terms, not in godly ones. Such misconception is the very stuff of Satan. It is dangerous business to limit God’s way of being in the world to what we desire.

In the stories following the passion predictions in Mark 9 and 10, we see that the twelve are unable to imagine one who comes to serve all rather than take a leading place. They cannot escape their own understanding of what is valuable and worthwhile, and are trapped into the blindness we all share of operating by invisible contemporary paradigms.

The terrible naming of Peter as Satan should have been a warning to the disciples, after the other two passion predictions, to think before speaking. That they went ahead, asked for bad things, and continued to think in the ways of man suggests not that they are evil or even obtuse. Rather, Mark forces us to see that even when we think we have grasped something of Jesus in one circumstance, we fail to see in another. Our blindness is not healed in one step, or even in two or three. Like the disciples, we learn from being corrected, even rebuked. And like them, we fail to apply the lesson we learned, for the fullness of its meaning is beyond us.

It is no surprise that struggles to see continue throughout Mark’s gospel. Jesus is not seen at the end of the story, and the call to follow him does not include an experience of his presence. The Resurrected One is even more outside our experience than God, the Serving One. How is it that new life in God’s realm calls us to attention to things that were beneath our notice or unable to be grasped when we imagined all of life in human categories? These will be the questions of the strange Easter stories of Mark’s gospel. But here we are still in Lent. The struggle of the disciples to make a good confession of who Jesus will be is the thread that makes Mark the edgy narrative it is. It is also a thread in our own lives. 

Let it be said, however, that Jesus continues to teach not simply for the sound of his own voice. And Mark has written this gospel not merely to get it in print. In 8:31, Jesus began to teach. He will and does continue. In 8:34 he teaches everyone. It is a tough message. To lose one’s life is to lose one’s whole way of thinking about the world, to revalue the whole experience we know as life−trusting that our valuing of life may be the blindness from which we need to be healed so that we can fully see and know the life that God gives us in God’s realm.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Terence E. Fretheim

God’s promises are the central feature of the Abrahamic story.

They occur in almost every chapter (Genesis 12-25). The promises are spoken by God in the first person, and most of them directly to Abraham (two of them are to Hagar). This appointed Genesis text is focused on promise, spoken regarding both Abraham (verses 1-7) and Sarah (verses 15-16).

These promises are at heart nothing new, given the promises in 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1, 4-5, 7, 13-16, 18-21; 16:10-12, but there are elements of freshness. Especially to be noted:

  • the language of “everlasting” and “kings”
  • the stress on “descendants” (repeated thirteen times)
  • a more global understanding of covenant (“a multitude of nations”)
  • a heightened sense of the centrality of the relationship between God and Abraham (“to be God to you”)
  • and new names for Abram, Sarai, and God (El Shaddai, either God of the mountains or breasts, not God Almighty, a translation from the Greek and Latin)

These differences suggest that these promises are a renewal of the covenant established by God in Genesis 15, only now in a somewhat different time and place (especially given what has taken place in chapter 16).

Perhaps the most striking point of newness is God’s promise to Sarah (17:15-16). Sarah is made a co-participant in the divine promise regarding a son and his descendants. She has a promise in her own right, not simply through Abraham. Up to this point in the narrative, Sarah had not been associated with the promises given to Abraham, at least by name. In fact, Sarah (with Abraham) understood that she need not be the birth-mother of the child that God promised Abraham. Accordingly, she proceeded with a customary way of gaining children in that culture  through her slave-girl Hagar (16:1-6; so also Jacob in Genesis 30:1-13).

There is nothing unfaithful about this move; in fact, 16:15-16 sounds very much like a fulfillment text. Indeed, at the beginning of our text in 17:1, Ishmael is already thirteen years old! Abraham must have thought that he was the fulfillment of God’s promise (see 17:18). But such is not to be, for reasons unknown, though Ishmael is showered with promises (see 16:10; 17:20; 21:13, 18). In fact, Isaac’s only unique promise is focused on the language of covenant (17:19, 21). Covenant here is understood as the formalization of already existing promises. A special relationship between God and Abraham already exists, and will be continued with Isaac.

The promises to Abraham and Sarah are unilaterally declared by God, with no prior conditions stipulated. However, to speak of unconditional promise is not to claim that the human response is irrelevant. While faith to so respond is a gift from God, the word from God is resistible. People may remove themselves from the sphere of promise, though God does not “roll over” at the first signs of resistance. The promises will never be made null and void as far as God is concerned, and are always available for the faithful to cling to or be drawn back into.

The reader might ask: does not Abraham have to do something for this covenant to be established (see the imperatives in 17:1, “walk before me and be blameless”)? Blameless is understood to be faithfulness, not sinlessness or perfection. These imperatives assume an already existing relationship; Abraham’s faith and righteousness have been unambiguously stated by the narrator (15:6). 

But does not Abraham have to do something for the covenant to be continued? Does not Genesis 17:9-14 (removed from the lectionary text!) claim that circumcision is a condition? Yet “covenant” is not to be identified with circumcision, despite what verse 10 suggests (see verse 4). As 17:11 states, circumcision is “a sign of the covenant between me and you.” This covenant shall be marked in the flesh (17:13); circumcision is an enfleshed sign of the covenant. Circumcision creates an external, but hidden mark of group identity that persists in the face of life’s exigencies.

Circumcision does not make the covenant conditional. It is a response to God’s establishment of the covenant, as a sign of an already existing relationship, not a means by which it is to be implemented. Human unfaithfulness can lead to severe consequences, namely, being cut off from the people or excommunication (17:14). This is an action by God, not a court, and relates to individuals not the community. The last clause in 17:14 (breaking covenant) is not causally related to the first clause (not being circumcised). Neglecting circumcision is a sign of unfaithfulness, which threatens the relationship between God and the individual involved.

Being faithful or unfaithful to God is the essence of the relationship with God and that is what may be at stake in neglecting circumcision. Abraham responds faithfully to God’s command regarding circumcision and is circumcised himself (17:23-27). On the other hand, circumcision can become an empty sign; circumcised ones may have an uncircumcised heart (Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25).

Circumcision is common among Israel’s neighbors. Strikingly, God does not create a rite that would separate Israel from its neighbors. Rather, God takes an already existing practice from the larger culture and “baptizes” it for use in the Israelite community; it is not a mark of distinctiveness from other peoples.

Note that although Ishmael is circumcised (17:23), that does not make him a member of the covenant community. At the same time, he is given many promises by God. Indeed, as the reference to Ishmael’s many descendants implies (17:20; 25:12-18), God’s promises to him are brought to a lively fulfillment in nations and kings. Abraham’s descendants will, finally, include not only the literal descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, but many spiritual descendants as well (the vast majority of Christians and Muslims are not physical descendants of Abraham).

Abraham and his family are surrounded with divine promises. They will not see the fulfillment of all of these promises in their lifetime (though a taste of fulfillment will be important, especially descendants). Faith will inevitably mean, for all of God’s followers, living with promises as promises, short of fulfillment.


Commentary on Psalm 22:23-31

Shauna Hannan

The final verses of Psalm 22 provide us with a wonderful hymn of praise.

The psalmist is inviting—no, compelling—the whole community to join her in standing in awe of the Lord. One wonders what type of occasion would call for such praise. We need not look any further than the hymn itself to discover the occasion. God “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted” (verse 24). God heard the cries of the psalmist, and for that God deserves great praise.

Although the assigned pericope can serve as a story in and of itself, God’s praiseworthiness is intensified when one looks at the entire psalm. But before doing so, it is valuable to attend to the given verses.

What we have before us is no ordinary description of who is invited to praise God. The psalmist’s expanded sense of time and space in relation to God’s worthiness to be praised is striking. First, the psalmist invites brothers and sisters in her presence to join both future generations and those yet unborn, challenging our ideas of time.

The psalmist also challenges our ideas of space. Remembering that she was not familiar with Google Earth, we note that her ability to broaden our sense of space is remarkable. All the ends of the earth, all the families of the nations, and all who sleep in the earth are summoned to respond to God’s greatness. Even those “who go down to the dust” (verse 29) shall bow before God.

This phrase in particular is worth your time and energy to explore. Is the psalmist suggesting that even those who have died have an opportunity to praise God? How do God and those who have died relate to one another? In other words, all people in all times and places will remember, turn to the Lord (repent), worship before the Lord, bow down, and live for the Lord. The psalmist is serious about the breadth and depth of the Lord’s praiseworthiness.

Though verses 23–31 of Psalm 22 would hardly suggest it, Psalm 22 is actually a lament psalm. The danger of moving too quickly to the whole psalm, particularly in the season of Lent, is the image rendered by the very first verse, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Immediately, we imagine our Lord crying out these words as he hangs from the cross. Not surprisingly, this image has the tendency to shape our entire interpretation of the psalm.

Just as it is important to temporarily resist looking at the whole psalm, it is important to temporarily resist exploring the entire psalm in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we are able to resist this, we encounter invaluable discoveries.

Considering the psalm as a whole, we discover one who is in great distress. Dogs are all around her, evildoers encircle her, her hands and feet are shriveled, her bones can be counted. Imagine this level of desolation and desperation. The self-deprecation in the psalm is also difficult to handle: “I am a worm, and not human” (verse 6). When taken in light of this heart-breaking beginning, the testimony and summons to praise at the end of the psalm are even more profound.

The breadth of the praise makes the lament all the more palpable. The depth of the lament makes the praise all the more stunning.

Surprisingly, the psalmist is connected to God even in the lament. The initial cries do not come from a lack of connection with God, but rather out of a knowledge of who God is, a conviction that God can help, and a desire to praise rather than disparage God. If the psalmist did not care about or recognize God, she would not bother to pray.

Even when the psalmist is declaring that God has forsaken her, there are the “yets.” “Yet, you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (verse 3). Although those around her mock and “make mouths” at her, yet, God kept her safe on her mother’s breast (verse 9). The confidence in God’s ability to save, help, and redeem is remarkable. These “yets” foreshadow the great hymn of praise at the end of the psalm. Where in our Lenten journey do we encounter the occasional “yet”?

As already mentioned, the preacher cannot completely avoid that Psalm 22 is a major resource appropriated by the gospel writers to interpret Jesus’ suffering on the cross. What the preacher can do, however, is consider what difference it would make to understand Jesus in terms of the psalm, rather than understanding the psalm in terms of what we know about Jesus. For example, we discover from Psalm 22 that:

  • lament includes hints of praise or, at the very least, some connection to hope.
  • praise is integrally connected to lament.
  • there is no limit to either God’s praiseworthiness or the invitation to join in the celebration of praising God.

Lent moves back and forth between petitioning and praising, realistically describing the situation of life and foreshadowing hope in God until, finally, there is a grand finale of praise by all people in all times and places.

Consider bringing these particular considerations into your exegesis of the Gospel text for this Sunday (Mark 8:31–38).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 4:13-25

Richard Carlson

The overarching focus of Paul’s letter to Christian communities in Rome is the multifaceted nature of faith.1

Paul’s apostolic call to bring about the obedience of faith literally bookends the letter (1:5; 16:26). Throughout Romans, Paul declares that the gospel is the power of God whose goal is salvation for all who have faith, Jew first and also Greek (1:16). The dynamics of a right relationship with God are revealed from God’s faithfulness in order to bring forth our response of faith (1:17a). To seal his claims Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 that “the one who is righteous will live from faith” (1:17b).

In 1:18-3:20, Paul goes to great lengths to establish how God remains a faithful and righteous covenant partner, even though all humanity is in bondage to sin and under divine wrath. Next, Paul speaks of the cross, at once the act of Christ’s faithfulness and the object of human faith, as the divine solution to humanity’s helpless and hopeless dilemma (3:21-31).

In Romans 4, Paul goes on to present Abraham as the human paradigm for living in a right covenant relationship (i.e., righteousness) with God because Abraham trusts (or believes) God will fulfill God’s promise (4:1-5). Indeed, Abraham is not just the human paradigm for faith and right relationships. Abraham is the forebearer for all (both circumcised and uncircumcised) who are to live in right covenant relationships with God because the key to such a relationship is faith (4:9-12).

Our text seeks to explain this fundamental and foundational claim regarding God’s promise and Abraham’s faith forming the contours of a right relationship. God’s promise to Abraham and Abraham’s inclusive descendants did not come through the law (4:13).2 Here, Paul builds on two prior points he has made regarding the law:

  • Knowledge of sin comes through the law (3:19-20) and therefore the realization of God’s wrath.
  • If Abraham’s relationship with God were founded on Abraham’s works than Abraham would be in a position to boast about what he had achieved! Instead, he trusted in the promise he had received (4:2-8).

Consequently any relationship with God which is grounded in and lives out of the law is not a right relationship. In that situation, humans receive divine wrath rather than divine promise (4:14-15). Hence, the right relationship is grounded in and lives by faith both for Abraham and all of Abraham’s descendants (4:16).

It should be noted that most English translations (e.g., NRSV, NIV, RSV) insert the word “guarantee” in 4:16, which actually undercuts Paul’s entire argument and could take the preacher down the wrong road. Paul is writing about how the promise is firm and reliable rather than guaranteed. Guarantees are matters of law, not promise. If a customer receives a guarantee on a purchase, they have entered into a contractual relationship with the seller. If the purchase does not live up to the terms of the guarantee, the seller is bound by law to provide a repair, a replacement, or a refund. If not, the purchaser can take the seller to small claims court precisely because there is a law-based relationship.

Paul is arguing the exact opposite point when it comes to Abraham’s relationship with God. It is not based on law, and so it is not a guarantee. It is based on God’s promise. For us, that means we cannot wave our baptismal certificates at the pearly gates and claim we have been guaranteed eternal life. For Abraham, God’s promise that he would be a father of many nations (4:17-18 echoing Genesis 17:5) was not a guarantee. In fact, the divine promise flew in the face of all outward evidence when Abraham considered how his own body was as good as dead and the deadness of Sarah’s womb (4:19). Abraham did not have a guarantee but a promise. When all evidence pointed to “can’t happen,” Abraham trusted that “God will” (4:20-21).

This is what a right relationship with God entailed for Abraham. It was not a matter of legal claims, obligations, or challenges. Such is the stuff of works by which Abraham would have received his rightful due. But throughout Romans 4, Paul has rejected that as the nature and quality of the relational dynamics between God and Abraham. Instead, their right relationship is grounded in a gracious God who makes an incredible and at times seemingly unfulfillable promise to which Abraham responds by trusting that what God promises, God will accomplish.

In 4:17 Paul presents a characterization of God which he directly connects to our own lives in 4:23-25. The God in whom Abraham trusted is a God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things which do not exist. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God enacted such a divine characterization. In bringing us into a right relationship based on faith God enacts such a divine characterization.

Justification by grace through faith flows from the divine initiative achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It entails God drawing us into intimate relationship not through our works but through divine grace. It involves our response of trust and faith in what God did, does, and will do for us through Jesus Christ. No guarantees but divine promises. Even when human sin and death make it appear that “can’t happen,” we as Abraham trust “God will.”

1It is important for the preacher to realize that in Greek there are not distinctive nouns for faith, trust, faithfulness, and fidelity, but that they are all part of the Greek noun pistis. Similarly in Greek there are not distinctive verbs to denote having faith, believing, being faithful, and trust, rather. they are all part of the Greek verb pisteuō. Thus when Paul talks about Abraham’s faith, he also implicitly focuses on Abraham’s trust and faithfulness.

2Indeed, in the Greek of 4:13, Paul places the phrase “not through the law” in an emphatic position to drive home this point.