Lectionary Commentaries for November 8, 2009
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 12:38-44 

Henry Langknecht

This reading from the Gospel of Mark is a two-act drama with some intriguing and troubling connections.

In verses 38-40, in what could almost be a riff on Psalm 146:3 (“Put not your trust in rulers, in mortals in whom there is no help.”), Jesus warns about the self-serving scribes who will be condemned for their simultaneous love for “show” and cynical lack of mercy–specifically to widows.

Verse 40 always reminds me (in a way that is unfair both to the scribes and to Italian-Americans) of a closing scene in The Godfather: Michael Corleone is standing as… well… godfather for his infant niece at her baptism. During the four-minute scene, the audio track remains with the baptismal rite while the video track toggles back and forth from the scene in the church to scenes of hit men under Corleone’s command preparing to murder several rivals. The murders themselves coincide exactly with Corleone’s renunciation of Satan and all his works. Melodramatic for sure, but no less so than the image of simultaneity suggested by Jesus: “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

The second part of the reading (verses 41-44) tells of the poor widow who donates two small copper coins–all she has–into the treasury. While this widow bears some resemblance to the widow in 1 Kings 17 (both are poor and are in some relationship to God), she serves as a model of humble faithfulness rather than as a sign of God’s provision for the lowly (or for the prophet). The juxtaposition of verses 38-40 with the widow’s offering brings into stark relief the ambiguity of institutions and systems and the demands of faithfulness.

Jesus says that the widow “gives more” than the wealthy because what she gives is a higher proportion of her total worth–in this case it is her total worth. The text does not say that the rich “make a show” of putting in their large sums, but that notion lingers from our hearing of verses 38-39.

It might be useful to spend some time imagining the posture and overall demeanor of the widow as she approaches the treasury. Most sermons I’ve heard have her hiding humbly in the shadows until she builds up the nerve to approach the coffers. But the tragedy of the scene is highlighted differently if the widow approaches with faithful dignity because the ambiguity and tension come when we consider that the widow gives her all in spite of the fact that the institution (broadly speaking) to which she remains faithful devours poor widows’ houses! She may be a model of giving–but in such paradoxical circumstances!

When I’m sitting in the congregation on November 8, I’d be curious to hear a sermon that develops along one of these trajectories. First of all, depending on your context and the specific nature of the hypocrisy in the community you serve, it would be powerful to preach into the first part of the gospel lesson. We’d like to identify ourselves with the widow of verses 41-44, but most of us North American Christians are the scribes of verses 38-40. Even when we live simply, we enjoy products and infrastructures whose provision devours the lives of the poor in the world. And no length of prayers can hide us and our love of what we have and what we’ve accomplished.

Whether we live simply or not, we do like to be noticed by others… even if what we like to be noticed for is how hard we try not to be noticed. There is no way to untangle us from our complicity (certainly no simple way) but we can and must, in Christ, bear the “greater condemnation” of honest judgment and discernment. We’ve already heard from Jesus that salvation for the rich is only possible because of God (Mark 10:27).

A second trajectory might head directly into the guilt and ennui brought on by our affluence. Think of the common routes our meditations take when we contemplate the story of the widow’s offering. Mine go something like this: “What’s the point of my small acts of faithfulness? Why bother? Even if I liquidate all my assets and give them to the poor, I might provide enough for one small soup kitchen to feed one hundred homeless for a week. But if I don’t liquidate my assets, I fail to demonstrate my total trust in the provision of God.

“I sit in the food court in the mall and watch as bag after bag of trash (containing aluminum cans and plastic bottles) are loaded up and then taken to landfills; and I know that this scene is repeated daily in thousands of venues around the world. Why do I bother recycling my two six-packs per week of diet cola? What is the meaning of my measly individual action? How can the faithfulness of the widow be sustained in me?”

The story of the widow’s offering suggests that faithful giving (and faithful living) is not for the sake of recipient but rather for the sake of (or maybe it would be more accurate to say proceeds organically from) the life of the giver. If the ends are assured in the economy of God, then only the means remain.

A sermon I do not need to hear is the one that entreats me to be more like the faithful widow. If we must hear a sermon focused on her giving and her gift, let her be a Christ figure rather than a faithful disciple figure. What makes that connection appealing is the difficulty (but rightness) of the forced analogy between her worthless coins and Jesus’ life which leads to the paradox that this worthless gift brings about the salvation of the world (cf. Philippians 2!).

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16

Juliana Claassens

Sometimes God’s provision comes in the most unlikely of places and by means of the most unlikely of people.

Take the example of Elijah. In 1 Kings 17:1-7, the text right before the lectionary text for today (verses 8-16), we find Elijah in a precarious situation, caught in the divine judgment against Ahab that involves a severe drought and accompanying famine. Hiding from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah is said to go to an area far away removed from the capital of Samaria called Wadi Cherith. In this desolate place, God provides for Elijah by sending ravens to bring food — unlikely agents of God’s provision as ravens were considered scavengers and the meat they would have brought would be considered unclean. But desperate times call for desperate measures and Elijah survives. That is until the wadi, which had been providing Elijah with much needed water, ran dry.

Once more, though, God’s provision for Elijah continues. In this week’s lectionary text, God sends the prophet to the widow in Zarephath, a town between Tyre and Sidon. Again this scenario seems to be an unlikely choice for mediating God’s provision. Not only is Zarephath a Canaanite city in the outskirts of the land, but what provision would a widow be able to offer? Is it not typically widows who were in need of provision? After all in Deuteronomy 10:18, it is said that “God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (cf. also God’s provision of food for the young ravens in Psalm 147:9).

Nevertheless, with few other options, Elijah complies, only to find out that the widow is not a viable option for survival after all. Appealing to the laws of hospitality according to which a stranger was entitled to food and drink, Elijah asks the widow he encounters at the entrance of Zarephath for a drink of water and a bite to eat (verses 10-11).

However, the widow reveals that in these desperate times she has very little resources, merely a handful of flour and a little oil. Actually, she divulges something of her inner despair saying that she is finding firewood in order to prepare a meal for her and her son that she suspect will be their last (verse 12). Instead of food being the source of life, the widow’s desperation is evident in her assertion that she and her son will eat their last meal and then they will die. In the absence of food, the only logical conclusion is that death will soon follow.

But God is a God of life; a God who does provide food to widows and orphans. This God by means of God’s prophet speaks a life-giving word in a situation of famine and death: the flour will not fail (literally “come to an end”) and the oil will not be depleted (literally “lacking”). In verse 16, the same words are used again when Elijah’s promise has become a life-saving reality. This miraculous provision constitutes an interim measure until the day the drought and the resulting famine breaks — the day on which God will send rain once more. As in the instance of the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16), God’s provision of food in 1 Kings 17 proves to be sufficient and something that can be counted on daily — as verse 15 states, the widow, her household, and Elijah ate many days of the supplies that did not run out.

From this striking text, it is evident that the fate of Elijah and the widow is intrinsically connected. By helping Elijah, the widow is helping herself and her son. Moreover, this help extends into the next pericope (verses 17-24), for when the widow’s son dies, it is Elijah whom the widow has helped all along who becomes the instrument by means of which God gives life to her son.

So what does this ancient survival story have to do with us today? The other day on National Public Radio, I listened to a segment on the effect of the economic crisis on people’s career plans. The presenter had asked a group of one hundred or so people how many of them were, with regard to their career, still on their “Plan A.” Only one participant raised her hand — and she was twenty three!

Most of the others have learned the hard way that life takes you places that most definitely were not part of your plan A, B, C or even D. And sometimes it happens that one finds oneself in the outskirts and even in the midst of a prolonged drought or famine. The message that God provides in the most unlikely of places and by means of the most unlikely of people may help us to be receptive to God’s provision when (not if) it comes.

Moreover, a powerful theme that emerges from this story is the belief that our hospitality to the stranger may not only help the other, but actually be responsible for our own survival. The widow with her very limited resources first provided Elijah with food, before preparing food for her and her son. It is, moreover, ironic that the widow herself is considered a foreigner from an Israelite point of view. In Luke 4:24-26, Jesus uses the example of the widow of Zarephath to make the point that a prophet is not accepted in the prophet’s hometown.

Finally, this central role bestowed to this foreigner and widow who serves as the means through which the prophet survives may challenge us to look differently at those people in our midst whom we barely spare a second glance: the immigrant, the homeless, the person from a different religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, race, class, culture — or whatever barriers manage to divide us. Just as surprising as the widow of Zarephath’s intervention in the life of Elijah would have been, so we may find ourselves surprised and blessed by those whom we would least expect to serve as our source of survival.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Brent A. Strawn

After taking up Ruth 1:1-18 in the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, the lectionary now skips to 3:1-5 and 4:13-17.

Much has taken place in the pages of Ruth during this one week of liturgical time. First, Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, just in time for the barley harvest (1:19-22). In chapter two, we learn of Ruth’s first encounter with Boaz, who turns out to be a man of means as well as a kinsman related to Naomi’s husband and thus a possible “redeemer” (Hebrew: gōēl) who might rescue the two women from their unfortunate states (see 2:1, 20).

Ruth catches Boaz’s eye–or at least he has heard of her reputation (2:5, 11; cf. 2:19b)–and he provides for her sustenance (2:8-9, 14-16) along with blessing her in God’s name (2:12). This encounter with Boaz leads Naomi to bless him twice (2:19, 20) and to encourage Ruth to stay her present course, which was commended by Boaz himself (2:21-23).

The first paragraph in chapter three comprises the first part of this Sunday’s lection (3:1-5). Here, after approximately two months (the duration of the barley and wheat harvests; see 1:22 and 2:23), we find Naomi hatching a plan. She states that it is for Ruth’s own good (3:1), but if all goes well, Naomi, too, will benefit (see 2:18; 3:17; 4:9, 14-17). The plan is bold and not without a certain degree of sexual innuendo. Ruth is to clean up and dress up, and, once Boaz lays down for the night, she is to “uncover his feet and lie down” with him; Boaz will then tell her what to do (3:3-4). Ruth promises to execute the plan precisely (3:5).

She does just that–with one major exception: when Boaz wakes up in the night and finds a woman next to him, Ruth does not wait to be told what to do by Boaz, but instead tells Boaz what he should do (3:9)!

Preachers should know two things about what transpires at the threshing floor:
1. Reference to Boaz’s “feet” (3:4, 7-8) may be a euphemism for his genitalia (cf. Isaiah 6:2). If so, Naomi’s plan is bold indeed, and Ruth’s act even bolder. Much of the story makes sense in light of this euphemistic understanding of “feet” (e.g., 3:9, 14). That granted, it is not entirely clear that this euphemistic interpretation is correct, if only because the language used is not straightforward–it is, after all, euphemistic! Among other things, the language used here conceals as much as it reveals. Clearly there are sexual overtones, but “undertones” may actually be more accurate. If sex is the topic, that is, both Boaz and Ruth are modest about it and their language reflects that–so much so that we are not entirely sure, even to this day, about what, exactly, is going on at the threshing floor.
2. Ruth’s instruction to Boaz in 3:9 (“spread your cloak”) evokes Boaz’s initial blessing of Ruth in 2:12. The word for “wings” there is the same used for “cloak” here. There is something analogous, that is, between Boaz’s action and the Lord’s. Or, to relate the verses even more closely: one of the ways that Ruth is coming to find refuge under the Lord’s wings (2:12) is by finding refuge under Boaz’s wing (3:9). Moreover, it is significant that Boaz had wished blessings on Ruth in 2:12–which means he had prayed for her–and now he finds himself part of the answer to that very same prayer.

The lectionary leaves the entire threshing floor incident out (perhaps it is too racy?), jumping from 3:1-5 to 4:13-17. This jump also neglects the transaction that takes place between Boaz and the unnamed individual who is actually a closer relative to Naomi and therefore had the first right of redemption (to serve as a gōēl). Here we learn for the first time that Naomi has a parcel of land that is available for sale (4:3). One wonders, if Naomi owns real estate, why she is sending Ruth out to glean in the fields. Perhaps the women are not as destitute as we thought. Or, perhaps Boaz is a shrewd business man and the land deal is something of a ruse in order to achieve what he wants.

Either way, the other kinsman declines the land once he learns that taking on a widow is also involved (4:5-6). With this individual out of the way, Boaz can be the redeeming kinsman, acquiring “from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and….also…Ruth the Moabite” as his wife (4:9-10). The people at the gate witness this transaction and immediately pray that Ruth will become like Rachel and Leah (4:11-12).

That is exactly what happens in the second part of the lection (4:13-17). Ruth bears a son, Obed, who becomes the grandfather of king David. Several things should not be missed:

  • First, the remarkable fact that David’s great-grandmother is a Moabite, and not only that, but a Moabite who is worthy of comparison with the great matriarchs of old! The book of Ruth thus takes its place among other traditions in the Old Testament (e.g., Jonah) that present foreigners in a much more positive light than others (e.g., Ezra-Nehemiah). Xenophilia (the love of foreigners) is as much a mark of the Old Testament as xenophobia (the fear of foreigners).
  • Second, 4:13-17 narrows in on Naomi, much like the opening paragraph of the book did (see the essay on the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost). Despite the importance of Ruth and Boaz and what they have accomplished, the book is concerned to see the past misfortune of Naomi (1:1-5) undone with love, restoration, and new life (4:15b-17)–all of which is said to come from the Lord (4:14-15a), whom earlier Naomi was sure dealt with her only in terms of disaster (1:13, 20-21).

Of course, not all stories that begin with profound misery end in great joy. Even when they do, the later joy does not always cancel out the prior grief–at least not completely, nor, ever, easily. And of course, life doesn’t always work out as well as it does in Ruth, in this sort of clean, God-blessed sort of way. But sometimes it does! And when it does, that should be recognized and talked about; people should bless God for it (4:14).

It should be written down for posterity’s sake so that future people can also see it, talk about it, praise God for it, celebrate it, and hope for more of the same. So it is in this particular case, where alongside Naomi–despite the great distance between us and the book of Ruth–we still celebrate God’s goodness (4:14-15) and the weighty gifts that were to come then but that are known now (4:17b, 22; cf. Matthew 1:1, 5-6; Luke 3:31-32).


Commentary on Psalm 146

Mark Throntveit

Israel has long employed three groups of hymnic praise or “Hallels” in worship:

the “Egyptian Hallel” (Psalms 113-118) recited in the home as a part of Passover celebrations; the “Great Hallel” (Psalms 135-136) recited in the Temple during the slaughter of the lambs at Passover, Tabernacles, and Dedication or Hanukkah; and the “Daily Hallel” (Psalms 145-150) recited every day in the morning synagogue service, even today. In addition, Psalms 146-150–each of which begin and end with Hallelujah “Praise the Lord” form the concluding doxology to the book of Psalms.

Psalm 146 introduces this concluding doxology and thus belongs to the form critical category of Hymn of Praise characterized by an initial summons to praise, bless, thank, or worship the Lord (1b-2) and a reason for that praise (5-9). Of interest here is the way in which that reason comes to light. Instead of the more usual testimony of what God has done for the psalmist, as in Miriam’s exuberant cry following their deliverance at the sea (Exodus 15:21b), “Praise the Lord,”(summons to praise) “for he has triumphed gloriously, horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (reason for praise), the psalmist’s witness to God’s activity takes the multifaceted form of sapiential instruction (3), illustrative metaphor (4), beatitude (5), then, the expected “reasons” (6-9), and a concluding confession of faith (10a), with “Hallelujahs!” providing an inclusio around the whole (1a,10b).

Another aspect of witness or testimony emerges after a careful consideration of the possessive pronouns attached to “God” throughout the psalm. In verse 2, the psalmist declares his individual intention to praise “my God” throughout his life. The psalmist’s individual testimony subtly shifts to the third person in verse 5 where the happiness/blessedness of the “one” (NRSV uses the plural “those/they” for reasons of inclusivity) fortunate enough to have the God of Jacob as “his help” is linked to the one whose hope rests securely in “his God.” Finally, verse 10a announces the eternal rule of “your (2ms) God” in Zion.

The formal complexity of the psalm belies its coherent progression of thought and elegant structure:

A  Hallelujah! (1a)
B  Vow to praise Yahweh “my” God (1b-2)
C Human leaders are powerless and perishable (3-5)
D  Creator God (6a)
X Who keeps faith forever (6b)
D’ Sustainer God (7a)
C’ Yahweh’s works are powerful and imperishable (7b-9)
B’Confession of Yahweh “your” God (10a)
A’ Hallelujah! (10b)

In this kind of concentric structure we are encouraged to compare the paired sections. Thus, A and A’ re identical expressions of praise. B and B’ are linked by the words “Yahweh” and “God,” as well as the movement from vow to confession. C and C’ provide the contrast between powerless and perishable human leaders and the powerful, lasting works of Yahweh that forms the basic message of the psalm. The heart of the psalm proclaims that God, unlike human leaders, “keeps faith forever” (X) a majestic truth framed by the two modes of the divine faith-keeping as “Creator” and “Sustainer” both of which begin with identical participles (oseh) translated “who made” and “who executes” in the NRSV (D, D’).

The psalm, then, is framed with “hallelujahs.” In between, we are warned against placing our trust in any human being, either the noble ones (nedibim) or the common ones (ben adam) a merism that includes all humanity, and for a very practical reason: human beings eventually die and their thoughts, dreams, plans, and programs die with them. It is better to place our trust in God “who keeps faith forever” (6b). Unlike mere mortals who are powerless, and “in whom there is no salvation” (“help” in NRSV), God is the subject of eleven verbs that portray the divine ability to deliver the goods (6-9). The verbs have been arranged in three groups:

1. In verses 6-7, four participles with an unexpressed subject form the heart of the poem. Here, the proclamation of God’s “keeping faith forever” is flanked by descriptions of how this is accomplished: as creator of all that exists and as sustainer who executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.

2. In verses 8-9a, five participles introduced by Yahweh as the explicit subject provide a litany of divine compassion as Yahweh releases prisoners, restores sight, lifts up those bowed down, loves the righteous, and protects the stranger.

3. In verse 9b, two imperfect verbs with Yahweh as the implied subject depicts mercy toward the orphan and widow who are upheld and judgment against the wicked.

As to why this psalm was chosen as a response to the First Reading (Ruth 1:1-18), one need only point to this litany of Yahweh’s works and wonders in verses 6-9, especially as they are directed toward the support of strangers, orphans, and widows.

The psalm provides a much needed glimpse into God’s ultimate care for Naomi and Ruth whose situation looks quite bleak as the book opens with Ruth a non-Israelite stranger pledged to accompany her widowed mother-in-law Naomi. Verses 6-10a also serves to put some meat on Ruth’s memorable though skeletal confession of faith in Naomi’s God (Ruth 1:16-17).

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 9:24-28

Susan Eastman

The letter to the Hebrews paints a series of contrasts between Jesus, our great high priest, and the sacrificial system of atonement that pre-figured his redeeming work.

Today’s lesson sums up these contrasts with an image of Christ’s heavenly, final and effective intercession for us sinners, resulting in the tremendous good news of God’s complete and lasting forgiveness.

In order to get to this good news, we need to wrestle a bit with the author’s language of blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins (9:22, 25-26), of the earthly realm as a copy of heavenly realities (8:5; 9:23-24; 10:1), of the end of the age (9:26), and of the second coming of Christ (9:28). These ideas are not part of the currency of our everyday conversation. They assume an understanding of ancient Israel’s atonement ritual during the Exodus, even prior to the building of the Temple under David.

At that time, the place of worship was a tent with an inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:1-5; Exodus 25-30), where the high priest entered once a year to offer sacrifices for himself and for the sins of the people (Hebrews 9:6-10). Drawing on Exodus 25:40, the author of Hebrews says that this sanctuary, and the sacrificial system that went with it, was a copy of a heavenly reality (Hebrews 8:5); drawing on Greek Platonic philosophy, Hebrews adds that the copy was inferior to the reality towards which it points. That reality is Christ’s self-offering on our behalf (Hebrews 8:7), as the one who is both priest and sacrificial victim (Hebrews 9:23-24).

This vivid picture of the ultimate reality towards which the Jewish system of atonement points lies behind today’s text, which makes four points about Christ:

  • Christ has entered into heaven to intercede for all humanity through his own self-offering.
  • Christ’s action is “once-for-all,” unique, unrepeatable and fully effective.
  • Christ’s first appearance and self-offering signal “the end of the age.”
  • Christ will come a second time to save those who eagerly await him.

This may seem like a difficult text to preach, yet three elements of its imagery speak profoundly to our contemporary experience: Christ’s singular self-sacrifice, the contrast between imitation and reality, and the end of futile attempts to deal with guilt.

The idea of Christ’s bloody sacrifice is offensive to many modern sensibilities; we may feel that we have advanced culturally beyond such rituals. Yet a moment’s thought will illuminate the many ways in which we still sacrifice each other, using other people as scapegoats for our own wrong and guilt. This happens in families and communities, when one member or group becomes the outcast whose expulsion makes everyone else heave a sigh of relief.

For example, in Ian McEwan’s novel (later movie), Atonement, a young handy man bears the guilt for a rape committed by a member of the upper class.1  In Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, a helpless young African-American girl becomes the scapegoat of the family and the community.2  Our sacrificial systems are subtle, but nonetheless real and destructive. Christ’s final self-offering on the cross means we have place to put our guilt without sacrificing each other.

Secondly, in Hebrews 9:23-24 the earthly sanctuary is a copy of its heavenly model, the presence of God. In our virtual reality culture, with its proliferation of “reality” TV shows, we struggle with this distinction between imitation and reality. The difference between a copy and “the real deal” is that a copy has no lasting effects, whereas what is “real” does.

There are many examples of this difference; when children play-act grown up rituals such as marriage, they say imitation vows that mean nothing when the game is ended. But what would we think of an imitation “marriage” between adults, with imitation vows? What is real delivers on what it promises; imitations fall short.

We also encounter the contrast between imitation and reality in relationship to matters of faith. The popularity of books and movies such as The Da Vinci Code testify to a widespread fear of being “taken in” by religious beliefs, sold a bill of goods by the church. Hebrews tells us that it is crucial to distinguish rightly between imitation and reality, which means, ultimately, listening to the lonely night questions about what really matters. What really matters, says Hebrews, is what Christ does in the presence of God, reconciling us to the divine presence. Only God can really deliver on God’s promises. There is room here for both appropriate cynicism about human pretensions, and boundless faith in God.

Thirdly, Christ’s once-for-all redemption, contrasted with the repeated sacrifices of the old system of atonement, removes the church from the business of mediating between God and humanity. This means that the church is not a system of atonement. A human system of dealing with sin has to be repetitive because, as a mere imitation of divine reality, it cannot have any lasting effects. But since Christ has effected forgiveness once-for-all, such a system is now obsolete, superfluous and misleading.

Every time we — both clergy and laypeople — work off guilt by all that we do for the church, we make it a mechanism for atonement. Such a mechanism can create apparently successful churches. But the side effects can be lethal: a cold shoulder towards newcomers who haven’t “earned their way,” or even the scapegoating and expulsion of some members (including the clergy!). 

What a difference it makes to experience the church as a community of forgiven sinners, who don’t need to sacrifice each other, whose consciences are cleansed “from dead works to worship the living God” (9:14). When it comes to Christian community, this is the real deal.

1Ian McEwan, Atonement, New York: Anchor Books, 2007.
2Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, New York: Vintage, 2007.