Lectionary Commentaries for February 5, 2012
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:29-39

Sarah Henrich

This passage is loaded with wonderful possibilities for the preacher.

As Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee he has called disciples. In the Capernaum synagogue he healed a man with an unclean spirit by “rebuking” the spirit and calling it out of him. The amazed local folks talk about this new teacher and exorcist everywhere. Meanwhile, after the healing in the synagogue, Jesus returns to Simon Peter’s house. There lies Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in the grip of a fever. This is no small matter in the ancient world. A fever was not only debilitating for a short while, but was often a symptom of a condition that would lead to death. We know nothing from Mark about this fever — its intensity, its duration, or its cause — but we do know a valued family member was unable to be up and about her work. Her calling had been taken from her by an illness. 

Jesus simply “raises her up.” In Mark’s direct and uncomplicated style he says, “…and the fever left her and she served them.” The verbs are interesting. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is raised up by Jesus, a word that takes on powerful meaning in Mark’s gospel and in subsequent Christian communities. In 16:6 the word is applied to Jesus himself. Mark uses egeiro in many healings (see, for example, 9:27). The word suggests that new strength is imparted to those laid low by illness, unclean spirits, or even death, so that they may again rise up to take their place in the world. That’s where the second interesting verb comes into play.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law “served” immediately after having been raised. The verb is diakoneo, the same verb Jesus uses to describe the essence of his own ministry in Mark 10:45. It is “to serve” rather than “to be served” that characterizes the Christ of God. It is also “to serve” that characterizes his disciples. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life. Rather she is the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship. (Side bar: it will be women who are described as having served Jesus in 15:41 as well. This is not a verb used of Jesus’ male disciples who famously do not quite “get it” within the gospel itself.) 

Needless to say, the second healing really got around among the people. All kinds of folks were brought to Jesus for help. Capernaum’s sick were laid before his door and he healed illnesses and cast out demons by the score. Please notice that these two activities were not identical. The ancients did not believe that all illnesses were demonically caused. They knew as well as we do that people get sick for all manner of reasons.

But please notice in addition, that illness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them. Peter’s mother-in-law is an excellent case in point. It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed. 

Jesus’ ministry involves restoration of those cut off from community to a full role in the community. Those who have been seriously ill in our own time will understand the joy of simply being back as a participant in the “ordinary” processes of community life. Truly, there is nothing ordinary about life in community. Jesus wields the power of God Almighty to bring about participation: it is God’s will for creation to be serving in community with others.

This discussion leads naturally to the end of the passage where suddenly Jesus seems to reject his call to heal and insists that he must proclaim throughout the villages and towns of Galilee the message he came to deliver. That proclamation, or announcement, continues to be in both word and deed as Jesus goes forward. In 1:15 we heard that message from Jesus: “the reign of God has come near. Repent and trust the good news.” We have seen in the story of the man possessed and of Peter’s mother-in-law how good that good news was: part of God’s reign is the casting out of demons and the turning aside of illnesses; it has to do with restoration of those oppressed to a full role in their communities; it has to do with creating a people raised up to serve each other. And people do come in numbers, trusting that Jesus will heal and restore.

Yet his calling at this point in Mark’s gospel is to share the in-breaking of God’s kingdom through healing and announcement. Jesus is the herald with the power to bring in a foretaste of the kingdom, even as he promises that it is continuing to “draw near.” As he goes throughout the Galilee he does not rely simply on words to make his point, but on the casting out of demons.

How vital it is to know that the coming of God’s kingdom is indeed good news? One could imagine God’s reign coming as a reign of terror. Humans have plenty of experience with powerful kings doing terrible things to those over whom they reign. Will God be like that? Will it be punishment and brutality for those who don’t get on board? No. Jesus shows over and over again, that God’s power serves the people. From the very beginning of his ministry Jesus casts out those spirits opposed to God’s people, those things which lay them low, as part of his heralding the kingdom. God comes to restore, to save and God’s power is sufficient to do it.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31

Steed Davidson

Given the choice between a source of relief that is distant and slow acting but guaranteed and one that is nearby but ineffective, most persons may tend to choose the relief close at hand.

While the immediate hardly translates into efficacy so too distance and timelessness more often yield better results.

Second Isaiah articulates these choices for the dispirited community of deportees in Babylon who neither understand the events of their present nor God’s presence in that history. Cast mostly as a book of hope, this section of Isaiah offers a compelling case for trust in the power of God over and against any other source of help.

The exuberance that marks Second Isaiah fits well in the Advent season where the theme of hope surfaces regularly. In other liturgical contexts the theme of hope poses challenges for preachers. All too easily sermons on this passage can dissolve into feel good motivational speeches. Paying attention to the lection and even the full chapter should help avoid the tempting familiarity of verse 31 that can produce a homiletical version of “I Believe I Can Fly.”

Attention to the entirety of this lection reveals forceful theological claims aimed at convincing the wavering, the skeptic, and perhaps the apostate of the ability of God to make a difference in the current circumstances. As such, the focus of the passage shines light upon the ability of God to deliver another movement in God’s ongoing history with the world.

Second Isaiah sets out to show the unrivaled supremacy of God as compared with Babylonian deities. The disputatious tone of the chapter lays out the challenges that God poses to these deities and invites readers to participate with God in the movement of history. Starting the lection at verse 18 makes for a more discrete section and sets the context of idol critique that runs through much of Second Isaiah.  The missing verses 18-20 provide the contrast with the claims of verses 21-24; other deities are created, God is the creator. The language of creation from the Psalms confirms this (Psalm 104:2).

The writer constructs his own creation images relating to time, “the foundation of the world” (cf. Psalm 104:13). Placing God in the midst of creation does more than simply construct a timeless deity. This move invests God with contemporary abilities that lead to the dismantling of empires. The conclusion of verse 23 speaks to the collapse of the Babylonian Empire and at the same time the divine control over earthly power. The metaphor of the destruction of vegetation in verse 24 emphasizes and returns to a previous image in verses 7-8 on the power of the breath of God.

The comparisons between God and other deities continue in verses 25-26, using the same rhetorical question as verse 18. While verse 18 invites a look at physical objects, verse 25 turns the focus to heavenly objects, most likely stars, sun, and moon. The claims here undercut those of the astral cults of Babylon that place these heavenly objects as divine beings. The use of the technical word for “create” bārā’, connects this passage with the creation accounts in Genesis, the only other text that uses this word.  Genesis 1:14-16 carefully subjects the moon and stars to the power of creation rather than the other way around. And like the Genesis accounts, this passage invokes the idea of creation through naming.

The distinctiveness of the creation accounts in the Bible support the answer to the question raised in verses 18 and 25, none other than God. Both Second Isaiah and Genesis seem to set apart God’s creative activity as distinct from any other action of creation or production. Joseph Blenkinsopp observes that Second Isaiah’s choice to talk about God as the “creator deity”1 marks a new theological turn that in its context seems like exaggeration. Precisely the distinctiveness of the historical moment suggests the need for this new theological turn.

The final section of the chapter introduces a direct address and confrontation with the presumed audience. The deportees who experienced Babylonian power but still cannot perceive the power of God in the new historical circumstances are now addressed. In connecting the previous theological claims with the current context the passage puts together creation and the present in one moment. The repeat of verse 21 in verse 28, with some modifications, moves the earlier discussion from the abstract to the concrete. The rhetorical force of the passage indicates that the creation motif not only underlines the claims of the supremacy of God but that it forms the foundation of faith for the weary and those who cannot understand the movement of history.

The temporal and spatial descriptions of God in verse 28, “the everlasting God” (literally “the God of forever”) and “creator of the ends of the earth,” indicate the limitless dimensions of the power and concern of God. As such, no historical moment stands outside of the power of God. The rest of verse 28 affirms this as it indicates that God’s capacity is endless as God’s reach is inexhaustible. The passage then translates these claims to real people in verses 29-31. While the passage starts with the contrast between God and other deities it grows to a climax with the contrast between God and the best of masculine virility in verse 30.

The verse stresses the inadequacy of human power for the long distances of history and the circumstances of life. This leads verse 31 to call on listeners to participate in God’s processes in order to experience transformation. The composite images of verse 31 (wings like eagles, unwearied feet, boundless stamina) invoke that of a winged animal with a human head from several ancient Near Eastern cultures. These hybrid creatures represent strength and power. The weak, the faint, the despairing, and the doubting get a do-over and perhaps also a makeover. God’s creating power can transform human ability to deal with the terrain of their new circumstances.

The creation affirmations in the passage ties past and present into the history of God’s actions. Newness is possible because God stands at creation. Transformation can happen because God is the only source of power as seen in creation. Life can take a new start because the one who keeps creation together acts in the events of history for good. In the midst of history, particular one marked by turmoil, change, and emerging events, Second Isaiah advocates waiting, not as a neutral activity2 but waiting with hope for optimistic results because God acts in history.


1Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Anchor Bible — Isaiah 40-55. (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 192.
2Blenkinsopp, 194.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

Rolf Jacobson

Praise the Lord!

Psalm 147 is the second of five “Alleluia” hymns that close the Psalter. Each of the last five psalms starts and ends with the imperative, “Praise the Lord!” (Hebrew, halelu; Greek, alleluia). Together, these psalms put a final exclamation point on the book that the Jewish community calls, “Praises” (tehillim). In other words, the Psalter closes with an extended call to praise that is directed at the Psalter’s audience.1 More on this call to praise below.

The psalm itself conforms to the standard pattern of the hymn of praise. The psalm has three stanzas (verses 1-6, 7-11, 12-20), each of which opens with a “call to praise” and then continues by recounting “reasons for praise.” The lectionary for this Sunday includes only the first two stanzas.

The call to praise is iterated four times in the psalm — once at the start of each stanza and once at the very end:

verse 1 “Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises . . . and a song of praise is fitting.”
verse 7 “Sing the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre.”
verse 12 “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion
verse 20c “Praise the Lord!”

What should be noted about the call to praise is that it, quite literally, calls for a response. The audience is called to open our mouths, lift up our voices, and join in the psalmist’s joyous song. The fact that the book of Psalms ends with five psalms that include calls to praise, and with a final psalm (150) that is nothing but an extended call to praise, means that the audience enjoined to take up the songs that we have learned from the Psalter, and to sing those songs out in the world.

In general, we tend to think of the purpose of singing in worship as something we do as part of our relationship with God, as something we do for God. But the direction of the call to praise at the end of the Psalter is a little different. We are enjoined here to come to worship, to learn the praise of God, and to go out into the world and sing these songs (these psalms) out there. And the praise that this psalm calls for has a specific content: it is testimony about God.

Speaking in a general sense, there are two types of praise — on the one hand, there is praise that sung to God; on the other hand, there is praise that is sung about God. Praise that is sung to God generally uses the second person. For example, “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord” (145:10). Praise that is sung about God generally uses the third person. For example, “The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground” (147:6).

Psalm 147 is exclusively praise of the second type — praise that is sung about God. The purpose of this type of praise is testimony. As Patrick Miller has written, “the purpose of praise [is] . . . to bear witness to all who hear that God is God.”2

The content of the testimony of Psalm 147 ranges between two poles — creation and redemption.
In terms of creation, the psalm bears witness to God as the creator and the sustainer:

He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. (verse 4)
He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. (verse 8)
He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry. (verse 9)
And so on. . . (see verses 15-18)

Focusing on God as creator, the psalm emphasizes both the initial act of creation, but also the ongoing, sustaining actions of the creator — providing food, sending rain, and so on.
In terms of redemption, the psalm bears witness to God’s acts of blessing and redemption in Israel’s history — especially to the act of restoring Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile (verses 2, 13).

Here, the psalm attends to the scandal of election. In the New Testament, the scandal of the good news is found in the proclamation of the incarnation of God in one human person (Jesus of Nazareth) who was crucified and died. In the Old Testament, a similar scandal is found in the proclamation that God chose one nation to be blessed as a blessing to all the other nations — Israel. The psalm calls for us to lift up our voices and sing of God’s history with that nation — rebuilding Jerusalem, healing the brokenhearted, strengthening the gates of the city, granting peace, declaring the divine word and commandments to Israel (verse 19). The scandal is summarized in verse 19: “He has not dealt thus with any other nation.”

But because God did choose Abraham and Sarah and their offspring, healing and reconciliation and blessing have flowed out through Israel to reach all of us.

Praise the Lord!


1See Beth Tanner, “Rethinking the Enterprise: What Must be Considered in Formulating a Theology of the Psalms,” in Rolf Jacobson, ed., Soundings in the Theology of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 139-150.
2Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 68.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Eric Barreto

What motivates us to proclaim the good news? What shapes our proclamation?

For Paul, the motivating force of his proclamation is a profound sense of call. For Paul, God’s call to him is shaped by a pair of powerful and interlaced forces: the God who called him and the people who would hear the good news. That is, for Paul, God and the people to whom God has sent him are tied together.

These verses from 1 Corinthians drop us in the middle of Paul’s larger argumentation about the nature of Christian community. The Corinthian Christians find themselves torn asunder by a number of internal forces which are threatening to sever their bonds. Paul thus writes to exhort them to remain one in Christ, to continue being bound together as a sign and result of their faith (see 1 Corinthians 1:10).

In chapter 8, Paul’s attention had turned to questions about whether Christians should consume meat sacrificed to idols. The Corinthian community had experienced division on this question, some deeming the consumption of such meat as adiaphora but others seeing it as a potentially destructive concession to pagan practice.

Paul ultimately argues that idols are nothing and thus meat sacrificed to them is nothing (see 1 Corinthians 8:4). But this is a wisdom held by the “strong” through the Spirit. The “weak” have not yet come to understand this. How ought Christian communities deal with this debate? Paul excludes the possibility of neglecting the ultimately baseless concerns of the weak, for it would break the bonds of Christian community even as it stands in truth. Paul instead exhorts the Corinthians to nurture the weak towards strength (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). Paul chooses this path as the way towards the preservation of community.

Paul illustrates these theological values in his life. He could demand something from the Christians of Corinth. In fact, Jesus himself required that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). But Paul goes even beyond this commandment of Jesus, not to undercut it but to hew to its spirit that much more (1 Corinthians 9:15). A thriving community of believers ought to support those called to proclaim because it binds the faithful that much closer together. Moreover, the aim of the community of faith ought to be the unified proclamation of the good news.

For Paul, the proclamation of the good news ought not only be rooted in a united community but also be “free of charge.” That is, the gospel he proclaims does not come with strings attached, with obligations to care for or cater to his needs. Instead, the reverse is true. Paul relinquishes his “rights in the gospel” (verse 18) for the sake of those he hopes to reach for the sake of the good news.

Paul has therefore submitted himself to the needs of others for the sake of the gospel. He has grounds upon which to demand much from those who have heard the good news through him and to require others to come to him to hear of the gift God has granted. But so that many might hear, Paul makes himself “a slave to all” (verse 19).

Illustrations of Paul’s servitude to all people are enumerated in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Paul details the different ways in which he reaches out to Jews, “to those under the law,” “to those outside the law,” and most shockingly “to the weak.” In each case, he chooses to enter their world for the sake of the gospel.

What Paul describes here is not the simple relativism or mere assimilation. Becoming “all things to all people” does not require losing one’s self. Instead, he describes a radical way of life in which he walks alongside all kinds of people in order to draw them to God. The weak do not yet understand that idols are powerless, that meat sacrificed to them ought not affect the believer. But Paul does not lord this knowledge over them but walks with them in their weakness “that I might by all means save some” (verse 22). Again, therefore, Paul returns to the central exhortation of 1 Corinthians: “…be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

How then do we turn to our contemporary congregations, who might themselves be struggling towards and yearning for this kind of unity of purpose and mission?

The challenge of preaching any part of Paul’s letters is rooting the sermon in the vibrant contexts of these ancient communiques. The temptation always present is to view these documents as abstractions, as universal theological lessons detached from human conditions, as rootless lessons belonging to any time and place. Such abstractions, however, miss the situational nature of Paul’s letters. Paul wrote in order to respond to particular moments in the lives of these early churches. While it is often difficult to reconstruct these situations since we only have one side of the correspondence (if we’re lucky; after all, we are missing parts of the Corinthian correspondence itself!), it remains vital to ground our proclamation of these texts in their first contexts.

In each case, the problems Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians center around the maintenance and nurture of Christian community. Paul’s admonitions are not primarily moralistic or ethical so much as they are occasional, contextual, and focused on the preservation of Corinthian unity. And above all else, Paul seeks to connect the gospel of Christ to a particular way of life in the community of faith. This way of life is a paradox of freedom and indebtedness, strength and weakness, boasting and humility, obligation and reward.

These are the difficult tensions to which these verses call us. Our freedom, treasured as it is, can never be absolute, for we are called to be in service to the other. Our strength is neither earned by ourselves or for our own sake; instead, real strength is drawing alongside the weak and walking with them.

In the end, Paul does not imagine the unity of Christians as an optional component of faith but a direct reflection of what God has done for us through Christ. No community of faith will ever match us with a group of people just like us. But in the midst of that difference, God is moving with us.