Lectionary Commentaries for November 15, 2009
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 13:1-8

Henry Langknecht

In the current culture, it’s hard to gauge how people hear the predictions and imagery of apocalyptic literature.

The underlying message of apocalyptic prophecy is in the great final battle in the cosmic spiritual realm, God will prevail over the evil one. The effects of that victory will be manifest even in our material earthly realm as the residual powers and influences of the evil one lose their momentum and source of energy.

Those in our congregations who understand there to be a connection between the cosmic realm (where angels and demons dwell) and the material realm (where we mortals live our lives) will find these promises compelling because the same God is in action. The question is whether more existentialist and materially-minded Christians will dismiss apocalyptic as too quaint and mythic.

Jesus’ discourse in Mark 13 presents an interesting puzzle. Is Jesus speaking in Daniel-like terms of the cosmic final battle or of more near-term ends brought about by political and religious forces? A reading of the whole chapter leaves me perplexed and answering, “Yes, both/and.”

In some places, Jesus speaks of human-scale events. Within today’s assigned verses, Jesus uses a disciple’s awe at the temple as a prompt for reminding them that even these amazing edifices are temporary. Just beyond our reading, Jesus assumes that the people before him–Peter, James, John, and Andrew–will be alive to experience all the happenings. Mark 13:9ff, for example, speak of the disciples being handed over to councils and needing to bear witness; and both 13:2 and 13:14 are possible references to the historic destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E.

On the other hand, the language of verses 6-8 (especially in a lectionary context that includes a reading from Daniel 12) sounds a more cosmic note. The disciples ask for signs, dates and omens. Jesus’ response is to describe–though not with any specific predictions–classic signs of destruction beyond the merely local: wars, famines, earthquakes. Later in the chapter (verses 24-26), Jesus will broaden the scope and speak of the disintegration of the heavens and the coming of “the Son of Man.”

When I’m sitting in the congregation on November 15, I’d like to hear about the end. You, preacher, can decide how literal, spiritual, or metaphorical you want to be. My desire though is to be reminded that our faith is teleological–oriented toward fulfillment. Though our mundane lives are organized around various concentric and overlapping daily, weekly, and yearly cycles, the Christian faith is essentially a linear faith. God has a mission, God is fulfilling and perfecting, God is shaping the future toward an end. As I read and hear these scriptures about “the end,” I am challenged to know how to bring them into conversation with my experience of life.

Are we talking about the cosmic end of all things when the sun burns up billions of years from now (and whether there will even be humans left to see it)? Or are we speaking of the end of earth’s ability to sustain human life, whether through Armageddon, natural cataclysm, or human mismanagement? Or are we talking about the end of a certain cultural “way of life” (free-market capitalism, mainline denominationalism, or Western-style democracy)? Or are we talking about judgment day?

Mark 13–in its entirety for sure, but even in the eight verses of today’s pericope–has the potential to speak at many of these levels. In each case, I yearn to know what a faithful response looks like. Is there more to it than Jesus’ simple admonition in verse 7: “Do not be alarmed?”

If you do elect to address the cosmic realm of apocalyptic, please don’t make the work of Tim LaHaye or Hal Linsday your foil. At worst you will sound like a bully. At best, assuming you are charitable and are able to acknowledge the social woundedness and impotent anger that causes some people to turn to apocalyptic paraphrases, you will sound like a caring, patronizing bully.

Instead, let your foil be the reality of Evil. Although Satan remains a compelling mythic figure (even for materialists!), the reading from Mark suggests that evil is embodied more in the principalities, powers, and natural forces that lead toward war, famine, and uprising. Help me to flesh out what it means to stand in the faith!

Though I generally elect to respect and obey the lectionary, here is a case where I wish that verses 9-12 could be added to the reading. But even if they are not read, the sermon can use Jesus’ exhortations about testimony and the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit to flesh out his simple, “do not be alarmed,” in verse 7.

First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 12:1-3

Juliana Claassens

Our lectionary text for today considers a question that these days may be all too real for those of us beleaguered by the free-fall of the economy, unemployment, a life-threatening disease

— all realities that may leave us with little if any hope: How does one speak about hope when one is threatened from all sides — in the instance of Daniel 12 trapped by the violent actions of empires crushing the least of these, when there is a very real possibility that the faithful may not survive?

Daniel 12:1-3 faces these fears head-on, speaking of a time of anguish that has not been seen. But within this dire reality, this text also speaks of God’s presence and liberation, becoming one of the first Old Testament texts to formulate something of a resurrection hope.

Daniel 12:1-3 follows upon the retelling of history in chapter 10:20-11:45 in which one encounters a birds-eye view of one empire following upon another, with leaders abusing their power and acting as they please (11:36). Within these power struggles, the wise (maskilim) prove to be exceedingly vulnerable, succumbing to sword and flame, and suffering capture and ruin (11:33).

At first glance, it may look as if history is running its course with little or no intervention at all from God. However, it is important to note that this retelling of history is enclosed by references to God’s guardian angels (Daniel 10:20-11:1; 12:1) fighting on behalf of Israel. So God’s presence and liberation is mediated by means of the “protector of your people,” the celestial being Michael who first was introduced in Daniel 10:13 and 21 and now appears as the savior of those believers whose names are recorded in the book of life.

Even in the most devastating of times (perhaps triggered by the attacks of Antiochus IV Epiphanus on Jewish identity, e.g., abolishing the Sabbath and sacrificing pork in the temple), the author can remind his audience of God’s sovereign rule. The elevated role of angels who are employed as messengers and military officers fighting on God’s behalf in these texts actually point to an increasingly bureaucratic view of God’s rule that serves the purpose of countering the worldly power of any and every empire that threatens the faithful.

Daniel 12:3 maintains that in light of the grim reality that the wise ones may not only suffer, but may even be killed (11:33), the faithful who have persevered will be vindicated, shining like bright lights in the sky (cf. Matthew 13:43). For the believers who found themselves in extremely treacherous conditions where the threat of death is an imminent reality, it became very important to be able to hope in life after death.

This idea of many (not all) of those who sleep in the dust of the earth waking up to eternal life is a new development in the Old Testament that probably grew out the extreme duress that gave rise to the apocalyptic visions in Daniel 7-12. In a world where the growing perception was that the world lies in ruins, and where the lives of the faithful were not only threatened but taken away, the only hope for redemption or salvation would be in the sovereign God who got the whole world in his hands.

Earlier texts, such as Isaiah 26:19, that spoke about Israel’s dead living again and the vision of the dry bones coming back to life in Ezekiel 37 likely referred to the restoration of Israel as a people. However, it seems that Daniel 12:1-3 moves beyond this view of restoration to the resurrection of individuals who are judged based on their deeds “at that time” (verse 1) — which in terms of the apocalyptic genre would refer to the end of time.

For believers facing death, the belief in resurrection expresses their profound hope in a sovereign God who will triumph over the forces of death, restoring the believers to life. Spirituals like “I’ll fly away” with its words: “Some glad morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away; to a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away,” and “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home” capture this resurrection hope. Moreover, this belief in the resurrection would become increasingly important in New Testament texts that elaborated on the images preserved in these texts from Daniel based on the New Testament community’s experience in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 20).

Two other images in this text are worth exploring. First, the image of those who are found “written in the book” that will be described in Revelation 20:12, 15 as “the book of life” (cf. also Psalm 87:6; Isaiah 4:3; Malachi 3:16) constitutes a compelling image of the importance of being remembered. Reminiscent of the scores of photos and memorabilia of the Holocaust museum that witness to the existence of millions of Jewish men, women and children, the book of life becomes a powerful image of redemption; of the faithful that will not be forgotten by God but vindicated — even if their perpetrators try their best to erase their existence.

Finally, the image of the “maskilim” the ones who are wise and who are said to have led many to righteousness directs our focus to what this text says not only about the sweet hereafter, but also about this life. Much like the suffering servant in the servant songs (Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) the faithful are themselves skilled in justice, living a life of service rather than self-interest.

Thus, even in the most dire of circumstances, these faithful offer a model of looking beyond oneself to how one can be of service to others — a perspective that actually may be worth embracing in these days in which one quite often is astounded by the selfishness and the greed that has not only been the cause of the financial collapse but also stands in the way of the economy’s recovery.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:4-20

Ted A. Smith

The first chapter of 1 Samuel presents itself as a watershed moment in the history of Israel.

It draws upon memories from Judges that define Israel in a state of crisis. The rising strength of the Philistines has created a significant external threat. Even deeper threats come from a series of internal collapses. The diffuse and erratic nature of the judges’ political leadership has created a situation in which all the people do what is “right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In a related crisis, at least some of the priests have become corrupt. Hophni and Phinehas, sons of Eli who serve as priests of the LORD, are “scoundrels” who prey upon the people and treat “the offerings of the LORD with contempt” (I Samuel 2:12, 17). Political, moral, and religious leadership is in disarray. Israel might not survive this generation.

In the middle of this grim picture 1 Samuel finds a source of renewal. The household of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Penninah does not look promising at first. It looks instead like a figure for all Israel: Elkanah comes from a distinguished line, and he is pious according to the order of the day, but the household is marked by internal conflict. Penninah has children, but Hannah, whom Elkanah loves, has none. The LORD has “closed her womb.” For this Penninah “provoke[s] her severely,” year after year (5, 6). Like Israel, the household is torn by rivalry. And like Israel, its future — at least through Hannah — is in doubt.

In this crisis, Hannah models a faithful response. She weeps. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the sons of Eli. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. Hannah will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. She goes instead to present herself “before the LORD” (7-9).

Hannah weeps, prays, and makes a vow (11). She prays for God to see her. And she prays for God to remember her — as Israel might pray for God to remember the covenant. She prays within the frames of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.

Hannah’s prayer is heard by Eli, the aging priest who embodies whatever is left of the virtues of the old order. He rebukes her, thinking she is drunk — if Eli is not corrupt, like his sons, he still cannot quite recognize the new thing that is already emerging in Hannah’s prayer. But Hannah answers him sharply, “No, my lord…” (v. 15). No! And Eli hears her. He can still recognize Hannah’s faith. He blesses her and adds his endorsement to her prayer (v. 17). Hannah departs as if her prayer were already answered. She eats and drinks and shares the company of her husband. And, “in due time” — in God’s time — she conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel (18-20).

Samuel is the fruit of Hannah’s faithful refusal to be comforted by anything less than a gift from God. He serves as a bridge between the old and the new. He is a culmination of the old order: from a distinguished family, blessed by Eli, all but conceived at the cultic center of Shiloh, and dedicated as a nazirite. But the author of the books of Samuel also wants to stress that Samuel represents a new thing that God is doing. Samuel’s birth is clearly a work of God, a fresh kindling of the spark of Hannah’s faithfulness. God has remembered the covenant, just as Hannah prayed, but not simply reestablished the old religious and political orders. Samuel will go on to play the decisive role in legitimating the new order that will culminate in David’s kingship, the defeat of the Philistines, and the concentration of religious, political, and economic authority in Jerusalem.

That Samuel bridges the two eras is crucial. Samuel is the earthly mediator of whatever legitimacy the monarchy has. He provides both continuity with the past and connection to the will of God. He has the authority to anoint Saul king of Israel (10:1). Saul does not inherit the kingship. He does not establish himself by conquest or virtue. He is not directly ordained by God. God gives Samuel the power to make him king.

Samuel’s role hints at the ways God moves in, in spite of these power politics, without ever identifying completely with any party. For what Samuel confers, he can take away — and give to David in Saul’s place. Even more significantly, Samuel can warn the people of Israel against all kings (8:10-18). His warning hangs over even David’s reign, like a kind of permanent placeholder that prevents any king from claims to be self-made, or self-legitimating, or directly appointed by God. Samuel opens the gap the prophets will fill, and that prophetic witnesses in every age must enter to call political orders to accountability before God.1

While Samuel will come to play that role, 1 Samuel 1-2 is not his story. It is first of all the story of Hannah. She is the one who drives the action. It is her voice we hear more than any other. She is the subject of the key verbs. Hannah refuses comfort, waits, prays, insists on her prayers in the face of priestly rebuke, and ultimately conceives, bears, and even names her son. The Revised Common Lectionary chops the narrative at verse 20, as if Hannah’s work were done in the work of giving birth. But 1 Samuel goes on, describing Hannah’s active role in making a sacrifice (1:24-28), and then recalling her great song of praise (2:1-10).

As Brevard Childs noted, Hannah’s song becomes the “interpretive key” to the whole, bloody narrative. It reminds us to hear it as a story in which God is active, in and in spite of the horrors to come.2  The best sermons on this passage will remember not only Hannah’s child, but also her song. Hannah’s song might find new voice in musical or spoken settings on the days this text is read.

Hannah has always been more than the “type” of the righteous, barren woman who ultimately conceives a child. She is never less than a mother, but always more.3  She is a model for what it means to live faithfully in days that seem Godforsaken. She is a model for Israel and, Christian preachers might dare to say, for the church in our time.4

1See Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretaion, ed. James Luther Mays, et al. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 1-15.
2Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 273.
3Throughout this section I am indebted to Carol Meyers, “Hannah and Her Sacrifice: Reclaiming Female Agency,” in A Feminist Companion to Samuel and Kings, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 93-104.
4Thanks to Donna Giver Johnston for research assistance and valuable conversations in preparation for this essay.


Commentary on Psalm 16

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 16 is a very problematic psalm, and for a gaggle of reasons:

1. Most scholars consider this to be a Song of Confidence or Trust like Psalm 23, yet it begins with a very lament-like plea for help in verse 1. Recent scholarship, helpfully, sees this “plea” as a devout desire for continuing protection in general rather than a specific request.
2. The intractable verses 3-4 are among the most untranslatable verses in the book of Psalms, if not in the entire Old Testament. Some translations, like the New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible, take “holy ones in the land” and “nobles” as an orthodox community of saints towards whom the psalmist is positively disposed. Other translations, like the New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanak, take them as vile Canaanite deities that the psalmist rejects. It is impossible to decide which is correct. Regardless of ones decision in this matter, the psalmist is clearly opting for Yahweh over other gods.
3. Virtually everyone reads the first word of verse 2 as “I say” (some LXX witnesses, Syriac) despite its clear reading of “you have said” (amart) in the Masoretic Text. If the correct reading is “I say,” verses 2-4 must be read as a powerful confession of trust. If the correct reading is “you have said,” then verse 4 must be seen as the psalmist’s coldblooded rebuke of the spineless waffling between someone’s alleged trust in Yahweh in verse 2 and their pandering to other “gods” in verse 3. Again, there is no practical way to resolve this enigma.
4. Ever since Peter preached on this text at the first Pentecost (Acts 2), the church has read this psalm as a messianic prophecy of Christ’s resurrection. More on this later!
5. The psalm’s structure and progression of thought continue to baffle one and all with its obscurity. The following is tentatively offered as a barely possible structural presentation of the psalm that assumes:

  • “holy ones in the land” is a positive term (see #2, above),
  • I say” is the correct translation of the first word of verse 2 (see #3, above),
  • and separates the psalm into two parts (1-6, 7-11):

A Confession of trust in Yahweh (1-2)
B Yahweh’s holy ones favored (3)
B’ Those who choose another god rejected (4)
A’ Confession of trust in Yahweh (5-6)


  • A Yahweh as counseling teacher (7)
    Yahweh always before the psalmist (8a)
    Yahweh at the psalmist’s right hand (8b)
    B Inner joy of the “heart” (9a)
    Outer security of the body (9b)
    B’ Inner deliverance from Sheol (10a)
    Outer deliverance from the Pit/corruption of the grave (10b)
    A’ Yahweh as guiding teacher (11a)
    Psalmist before Yahweh (11b)
    Psalmist at Yahweh’s right hand (11c)

This view of the structure sees the psalm as essentially a Confession of Confidence or Trust, at least through the first six verses. The parallels between AA’ and BB’ strengthen this perception. The last half of the psalm becomes an extended reflection on the psalmist’s joy and security that comes from recognition of Yahweh as God, especially as that is seen in the divine instruction offered at every turn.

Recent attempts to understand this psalm have drawn attention to four terms in verses 5-6 associated with the distribution of the land among the tribes of Israel after the occupation of the land of Canaan, as recorded in the book of Joshua (chapters 13-17):

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage (Psalm 16:5-6)

This may mean the psalmist is trying to describe his joy at the goodness of his experience of life at the hand of the LORD in terms of God’s gracious gift of the land long promised to Abraham. Just as God had distributed each portion of the land by lot with boundary lines indicating the heritage of the tribes, so the psalmist has received only goodness in his “pleasant places” from God.

But now the second half of the psalm comes into play. The psalmist is not waxing eloquent upon his possession of the promised land in a woodenly literal way; rather, it is the teaching, counsel, guidance, and revelation of the LORD (7-8, 11) that call forth his praise. These expressions of gratitude in turn frame the psalmist’s declaration that his inner being (“my heart,” “my soul,” [kevodi sounds like kevedi “my liver” in Hebrew!], “me,” [literally, “my throat”]) will “be glad” and “rejoice,” while his external being (“my body”) will “rest secure” and not experience the “corruption” (LXX) of “the Pit” (9-10).

Be that as it may, the obvious reason for the inclusion of Psalm 16 as a response to this week’s First Reading from Daniel is found in verse 10 and its possible allusion to life beyond the grave. A similar promise is contained in Dan 12:2. Should the preacher “go there?” The psalmist, after all, has reinterpreted the traditional land/inheritance imagery of Joshua to sing of his own experience with God. Whether the preacher wants to “go there” in the sermon . . . (as Peter did!), try the psalmist’s own spiritualized re-telling of the occupation of the promised land, or stay with the more contextual reading offered here is strictly a matter of personal choice.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

Susan Eastman

Last week’s lesson from Hebrews 9:24-28 told us that the church is not a system of atonement;

this week’s lesson tells us what the church is — a new community of folks whose consciences have been cleansed by God, who are confident in God’s forgiveness and eager to encourage one another “to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). This brief passage brims with joy and certainty: “we have confidence”; “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith;” let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.”

“Confidence” is the keynote of this lesson. In Greek, the word connotes frankness, outspoken speech, openness to public scrutiny, courage, boldness, fearlessness, and joy. It is a characteristic of free citizens who may hold their heads up without shame or fear, looking others directly in the eye. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise such boldness; it belonged to the free members of the household.

In Hebrews, it characterizes members of the household of God (Hebrews 3:6; 10:21). Indeed, we ourselves are God’s house, God’s dwelling, God’s temple, over which Christ is the faithful overseer (3:2-6) and high priest (3:1; 10:21).

Such confidence is to characterize every aspect of our lives, from our relationship with God to relationships within and outside the Christian community. Fittingly, the fact that we are “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (4:13) correlates with our openness before God. God already sees our inmost thoughts and motives, so there is no reason not to be frank and outspoken in our prayers.

Furthermore, the God with whom we speak is known through Jesus Christ, who knows what it is to be tempted and can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). For this reason, we may confidently, “with boldness” (NRSV), bring all our concerns to God and “find grace to help in time of need” (4:16).

The basis of such joy and certainty lies outside ourselves, in what Christ has done to deal with our sin: “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). This means, in short, that confidence, assurance of God’s faithfulness and the freedom to come into God’s presence, are not our own creation. As preachers, we do not have to generate such confidence in our congregations, we do not have to do spiritual calisthenics or drum up courage. We need only rest in what God has done (cf., Hebrews 4:9-10) and share that good news.

The effect of this offering is the cleansing of our conscience (Hebrews 10:22; cf., 9:14; 10:2-3). This does not mean the absence of any conscience at all. Despite our cultural aversion to apologies, the capacity to recognize and name our own wrong-doing, and to ask forgiveness of one another, is essential to our humanity. Hebrews talks of this in terms of openness before God, who knows our inmost hearts (4:13) and completely forgives us, to the point of forgetting our misdeeds (10:17). Indeed, it is confidence in God’s forgiveness that gives us the freedom to be honest about our failures, coming freely before God and receiving the gift of God’s gracious acceptance.

This frank relationship with God spills over into frank relationships with one another in Christian fellowship. Today’s lesson tells us to encourage one another in love and service, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (10:25). The exhortation gives us the opportunity to ask what causes folks to stay away from fellowship.

Many, if not most issues, can be traced to failures of communication: unresolved conflicts; guilt and fear of being judged; inward isolation or a sense of playing a role. In such instances, caring, open communication is urgently necessary, yet only possible in the presence of the God who already knows our hearts, cleanses our consciences, and creates an arena of grace in which all are judged and all are forgiven. Our mutual openness is grounded in what Christ already has done, once-for-all dealing with sin on the cross.

Finally, anchored in God’s grace and strengthened through fellowship, the community is able to be confident in the face of opposition and hostility. Thus the third aspect of “confidence” in Hebrews is bold public witness. Hebrews 10:32-39 reminds the readers of the experience of suffering and public abuse that accompanied their first Christian witness. In particular, they maintained fellowship with their Christian brothers and sisters who were imprisoned and willingly allowed their possessions to be plundered (10:33-4).

Their courage was based in their future hope, their abiding dwelling in God’s house (10:34; cf., 10:21; 3:6), and their confidence that Christ will bring justice on earth (10:36). For all these reasons, Hebrews exhorts us: “Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward” (10:35).

An intimate and frank relationship with God, openness with one another, and bold public witness that perseveres in the fact of opposition — these are the characteristics of the confident community portrayed in today’s lesson. The text invites us to a frankness of speech that deals confidently with the barriers of guilt and shame that often divide communities, and with the barriers of timidity and fear that hinder our public witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Such boldness and confidence is grounded in what Christ has done, dealing with the condemning power of sin once-for-all, and what Christ will do, establishing justice on the earth.