Lectionary Commentaries for February 12, 2012
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 1:40-45

Sarah Henrich

In this short and apparently simple story Jesus is approached by a leper whom he heals.

Jesus sends the leper back to receive the certification of the priest as to his being made clean and able to re-enter his community. Like Peter’s mother-in-law in the previous story, this former leper becomes a disciple by “spreading the word” about Jesus, announcing what Jesus had done for him.

The problem with the man’s discipleship is that Jesus had commanded him to remain silent about what had happened. In his disobedience to Jesus’ command, whatever his motive may have been, the news he heralded made it impossible for Jesus to go openly into the towns of Galilee. As soon as Jesus appeared in these towns, the crowds became overwhelming. Jesus was eager to heal, but also to announce that God’s reign was coming near. He was in a hurry, on a mission (cf. 1:33-34, 36-38). These are the same settlements that Jesus had determined to visit to his own heralding of the coming reign of God (verse 38).

Let us begin with the seeming simplicity of this story. There are a number of problems with both text and translation of these few verses, probably because of the difficulties inherent in the story itself. First note that verse 40 includes the idea that the leper gets down on his knees although there is considerable doubt that the earliest texts of Mark contained this phrase. Second and more importantly, in some manuscripts of Mark’s gospel, the word translated in verse 41 as “moved by compassion” (see also Mark 6:34; 9:22) is in several manuscripts “moved by anger” (see also Mark 9:19, 23).

There is no manuscript doubt about the very strong language in verse 43 where Jesus is said to have “snorted” at the recently healed leper. The word embrimaomai expresses great distaste or anger. It is used in Mark only one other time (in 14:5) where the twelve scold the woman who had “wasted” money on anointing Jesus. Why would Jesus be angered at the leper? Many have wondered, many have speculated, and no one has a convincing conclusion. To add to the puzzle of translating this word in relation to Jesus, the verb in that sentence is “threw out, cast out,” the same verb used to describe the action of the Holy Spirit with Jesus in Mark 1:12 and the action Jesus takes with demons in other locations (see 2:34, 39). Jesus shakes his head in anger and throws the leper out, demanding that he tell no one how he came to be healed.

Had Jesus been doing an exorcism, this kind of reaction would have been expected. We also know that Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s “rebuke” of him in 8:33 is also harsh. Mark’s Jesus often surprises us with the intensity of his emotion, not least his negative emotion. In 8:33, Peter, though having made the right confession about Jesus is rebuked for trying to impose his own understanding of “messiah” on Jesus. There Peter’s misconception is linked to Satan, as are those demons whom Jesus “throws out” repeatedly.

My sense of this angry verse is that it is not so much connected to the leper personally, any more than Peter is personally attacked. Rather it is Jesus’ anger and determination vis-à-vis the powers that hold creation and its creatures in thrall. These powers are expressed in all sorts of ways — through illness, of course, but in the systems and manners and values that humans have developed to cope with a world subject to powers other than God. Surely no preacher lacks for illustrations of that kind of frustration, often expressed among us toward people who themselves have no control over oppressive powers.

Of considerable interest is the reversal that takes place within this story. The realities of the leper and Jesus are switched within five verses. The leper who ought not enter a community without being freed from his ailment returns to his village, his priest, and his role in life. Jesus is suddenly unable to enter a village and is kept from his role in life. Whether or not Jesus believed that he had come to heal folks, people needed him to do just that, trusted that he could, and managed to find him wherever he went (Mark 2:1-2). We know both from history and from the story of John the Baptist that the development of crowds around a central figure in the Galilee and in Jerusalem would be dangerous to that figure.

Whether people understood their leader as prophet, king, Messiah, teacher, or rabble rouser (it all depends whom you ask!), such crowds made the powers-that-be very nervous indeed. While no one has come up with a way to interpret consistently the “Messianic secret” passages in Mark’s gospel, two things seem clear: 1) Jesus wants to temper enthusiasm about the his own identity as the “Holy One of God” (1:24) until he has endured the cross; and 2) the presence of crowds is a threat to Jesus’ own mission as herald of God’s reign.

It is important for contemporary readers that not all types of discipleship seem to be appropriate in every time and place. When the Gadarene demoniac is healed in Mark 5:1-15, Jesus sends him home precisely to proclaim what the Lord has done for him. The preacher may be able to develop these stories with an eye to the quite distinctive calls to discipleship that shape the lives of those whom Jesus has healed.

As part of this reversal, notice the “if” clause in verse 40. This use of “if” in Greek suggests that the condition set up is very likely indeed to be true. One could almost translate it as “since.” The verb in the condition is best translated by “wish” or “choose” (New Revised Standard Version). The leper says something like, “If you want to (and you do), you are able to cleanse me. Jesus confirms his willingness with a simple. “I am willing.” This seems to me to be central to the passage and here’s why.

At this still early point in Mark we are learning about Jesus and what discipleship as one of Jesus’ followers might be. Mark has shown us a Jesus able and willing to heal all sorts of woes from illnesses to possession. These healings, it is very clear, are signs of what God’s reign means for human beings — a restoration to a condition of blessedness or thriving or flourishing. Humankind will no longer be oppressed by the powers of evil. We have seen Jesus’ intense interactions with the demons who know him. We have also heard Jesus insist that it is his calling to destroy these powers hostile to God’s reign even as he must go about announcing it so that all may have the opportunity to repent and trust God (cf. 1:15).

So Jesus must go where the people are. By the end of this story, Jesus has shown us what it costs to go where the people are and it is a cost he is “willing” to pay. He begins as the one free to wander and proclaim, urgent in his message and successful in gathering crowds. By the end of the story Jesus has traded places with the former leper who is now wandering freely, proclaiming what the Lord has done and creating widespread positive response, while Jesus has become isolated and lonely. There is an exchange of roles, an exchange of realities between Jesus and the man whom he has healed: this points long-range to the role that Jesus is willing to take for humanity itself, giving up his life of freedom for the loneliness of the one isolated on Golgotha, whose “willingness” is a proclamation in its own right. He will use the language of “willing” in 14:36, exchanging his own desires for what the Father “wills.”

First Reading

Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14

Steed Davidson

Healing seems to be the big take away from the story of Naaman.

The powerful soldier, stricken with a difficult disease, reluctantly follows the prophet’s instructions and finds his health restored. That his healing comes through his acceptance that the Jordan holds healing properties superior to the rivers of his native Syria, touches on the ethnocentricism that forms the heart of this passage. Concluding a direct connection between healing and belief in this passage remains a stretch, since it appears that access to the source of healing rather than faith in that source seems to be the critical component in the passage.

The context of military rivalry between Israel and the Arameans frames this passage. Naaman’s prominence in the text results from his military victories, the unnamed servant girl represents the spoils of war, the outrage of the king of Israel over the king of Aram’s letter reflects a state of tension between the two nations, and Naaman’s affront to Elisha’s request to dip in the Jordan belies a need to trump all things Israelite.

Evidently in this rivalry the Arameans hold the upper hand, given the capture of an Israelite girl as well as the anxieties of the king of Israel. This story, therefore, sets out to rhetorically reverse this dominance and provides propaganda for the supremacy of Israel. At the same time, the story falls within the cycle of Elisha narratives that detail his mystique.

The key elements in the undoing of the power of the Arameans are Naaman and the servants. Employing a David and Goliath motif, the texts pits the power of Naaman against the limited strengths of those who hold servile positions. In this passage, Naaman’s essence lies in his achievements and his possessions. The first verse packs the details on his life, focusing on his strength and manhood in twenty-three words. In the Hebrew, only one word is necessary to narrate his illness.

This one word coming after the powerfully descriptive phrase “mighty warrior” (literally a pile up of two adjective or noun intensifiers) frames a stark contrast. The word translated as “suffered from leprosy” stands out as the only passive verb form in the sentence. This otherwise muscular man becomes undone by illness. From here on the man who normally gives orders to others will stand on the receiving end of the directives of others.

In search for a cure Naaman follows the words of the Israelite servant girl (verse 4). While the text shows no interaction between the two, it makes clear that Naaman articulates the girl’s words exactly before the king. Later, it would be Naaman’s servants who talk him back from his refusal to follow Elisha’s orders. They repeat the words of Elijah to him and as before he acts according to the words of Elisha as mediated by the servants (verses 13-14).

The contrasts of power and resources in the passage also appear when Naaman stands alongside Elisha. Accustomed to the markers of power and influence, Naaman travels to Israel with sufficient wealth to pay for his healing (verse 5). The text provides no indication on what determines the contents of Naaman’s luggage. However, when it points to the fact that Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house with a retinue of horses and chariots (verse 9), it subtly juxtaposes Naaman’s expectations, his customary bearing, and the way his wealth constructs him with the simplicity of Elisha.

The plainness of Elisha’s prescriptions provides further divergence with Naaman’s elaborate expectations for his cure. In the end, Naaman finds healing in the act of dipping in the Jordan, the definitive waterway that marks critical moments in Israel’s history as a nation. The waters of the Jordan upstage the waters of Damascus, and importantly the God of Israel delivers a cure for Naaman unlike any other deity.

Elisha sits curiously in the background of this section of the story, essentially remaining invisible except through his speeches conveyed by messengers. This makes Elisha a passive presence in the story as compared with the activity of Naaman and the king of Aram. Elisha’s mystique proves successful in the undoing both of the sickness of the great warrior and the warrior himself. In describing the restoration of his flesh, the passage indicates that Naaman’s flesh resembles that of a “young boy.”

This description recalls the “young girl” in verse 2. As the young girl becomes captive to Naaman’s army, in Israel, Naaman becomes captive to the dominance of the prophet. Ironically his healing leads to his undoing since he becomes subject to the power of Israel’s God.

Ultimately, this passage underscores Elisha’s bona fides as a miracle worker and the extent of his reach beyond Israel. The scope of Elisha’s power and its effectiveness with Naaman indicate God’s validity in and out of Israel. Despite this, Elisha seems to be Israel’s best kept secret, given that the king is unaware of the presence of a prophet in Israel (verses 7-8), even though the young girl possesses this knowledge. The boundary lines of insider/outsider in the passage are so drawn as to invert the normal order things.
This passage appears several times in the lectionary cycle.

Despite this frequency, its pairing with gospel texts focused on leprosy may lead to it being overlooked. Preachers can despair about either not finding anything new or relevant from this passage. The discrepancies of power and access to resources of healing in the passage provide space to reflect upon health care services in modern societies. Knowledge of sources of healing, acceptance of healing protocols, even the strange ones, and understanding healing as transformation are other themes that arise in the passage.

The instinct to cheer the supremacy of Israel’s God notwithstanding, the clear ethnocentricism of the passage presents an opportunity to talk about particularity in the midst of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity. That such differences converge around the issue of healing resources opens the door to talk about the limits of God’s healing but more importantly the restrictions that humans can place upon God’s healing resources. In another direction, Elisha’s actions offer an example of sharing healing resources as a nonviolent solution to military conflict.


Commentary on Psalm 30

Rolf Jacobson

From Mourning to Morning

Psalm 30 may be the most beautiful lyric in the Psalter. The poetry here is balanced, emotional, picturesque, and expressive. The poem has some of the greatest lines in the whole Bible: God’s “anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. / / Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And, “You have taken off my sackcloth, and clothed me with joy!”

For me, this song captures the evangelical witness to the God of Israel as well as any passage in the Old Testament. It describes one sinner’s personal testimony. It says that the Lord meets us in our suffering — in the pit. And God does not leave us there, but moves us from mourning (“you have taken off my sackcloth”) to morning (“joy comes in the morning”).

I show up in worship on Sunday morning in the hopes that someone will tell me this good news, in the hopes that someone will tell me this promise.

The Psalm in Review

This song of thanksgiving moves through five tightly balanced stanzas of six lines a piece. Each stanza has its own setting in the psalmist’s story.

Stanza 1 (verses 1-3) — Typical of the song of thanksgiving, the psalm starts by describing how God delivered the psalmist from a crisis. The language is intentionally metaphorical — “you have drawn me up,” and “restored me to life” — so that any person who has walked through some dark valley can sing the song. Particularly worth noting is the language of “going down” and being “drawn up.”

Stanza 2 (verses 4-5) — Again, typical of the song of thanksgiving the psalm invites others to join in praise. If a person snipped these verses out of this song and let them stand alone as an independent psalm, we would call it a “hymn of praise” because it has all the elements of that genre: a call to praise (verse 4) and reasons for praise (verse 5). Why does the psalmist invite others to join him or her in praise? Because when you praise God in response to what God has done for me, it is a way of restoring me to the community. When a person goes through a crisis — an illness, the loss of a job, the death of a child, a divorce — it is easy for a person to become isolated from the community.

Here, the person returns to the community after the period of crisis and says, “Praise God with me, because God saw me through that difficult time.” When the community responds with a joyful “Amen,” it is the liturgical way of throwing our arms around the former sufferer and saying, “Welcome home.” And, as noted above, don’t miss the beautiful poetry: God’s “anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. / / Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” The second phrase can be translated as “in his favor there is life.” There is no need to choose between the two translations, both are equally possible and the poet likely intended a double entendre.

Stanza 3 (verses 6-7) — The psalmist looks back on life before the crisis. The psalmist remembers a time when everything seemed fine, when there was health, or wellness, or security, or prosperity. Nothing wrong with those things, to be sure! What was wrong, according to the psalmist, was his or her attitude. He or she just took it all for granted. And when it went away, “I was dismayed.”

Stanza 4 (verses 8-10) — In this stanza, the psalmist recalls the prayer for help that was prayed during the crisis. Similar to stanza 2, if these verses were excised and printed as an independent psalm, form critics would label it a “prayer for help.” In this context, the psalmist recites the prayer as part of the testimony about what God has done. Note the connection again to the recurring metaphor of going down, being brought up: “if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you?”

Stanza 5 (verses 11-12) — The final stanza is a poetic work of art. It is a soaring exclamation point to the psalmist’s testimony: “you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” Can a person literally be clothed in joy? Of course not. And yet, we all know what the psalmist means. A person can wear a frown, or a smile, or a grimace. And joy.

Life in the care of the savior is a life in which the garments of darkness, repentance, and sin are replaced with the clothing of salvation: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, humility, and the like. In the Christian faith, the newly baptized are often clothed in a white robe to symbolize the new creation, the new life of “putting on Christ.” This liturgical practice is more than just a ritual, however. It is a ritual that makes a promise. God meets sinners in their suffering. And God does not leave us there. God takes off our sackcloth and clothes us with joy.

1 A further issue that might be explored here is the idea that God sometimes causes calamity in order to bring about salvation. Luther wrote, “God’s ‘alien’ works are these: to judge, to condemn, and to punish those who are impenitent and do not believe. God is compelled to resort to such ‘alien’ works and to call them His own because of our pride. By manifesting these works He aims to humble us that we might regard Him as our Lord and obey His will” (LW 13:135). Luther emphasized, God’s alien work exists only for the purpose of accomplishing God’s proper work, which is to save, bless, and be gracious: “It is as if he were saying: ‘Although He is the God of life and salvation and this is His proper work, yet, in order to accomplish this, He kills and destroys. These works are alien to Him, but through them He accomplishes His proper work. For He kills our will that His may be established in us. He subdues the flesh and its lusts that the spirit and its desires may come to life” (LW 14:335).

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Eric Barreto

In a sports-obsessed culture, the meaning of these verses might seem self-evident.

From weekends spent at football games and tailgate parties at high schools, colleges, and professional stadiums alike, we seem to get what sports are all about: teamwork, determination, sacrifice.

Runners at any age training for 10Ks and marathons alike get what athletic training is all about: discipline, perseverance, fitness. Whether we enjoy sports from the comfort of our couches, the sidelines of a basketball court, or a solitary jogging trail, we turn to these verses with a plethora of experiences and emotions ready to interpret Paul’s athletic metaphors for the faith.

Perhaps, however, this is precisely where Paul loses us. He is imagining something analogous to our current sports culture but not something exactly the same.

Let’s review the text in brief. Verse 24 begins with a rhetorical question about the victor of a race. In Paul’s world, there are no medals for those who merely finish the race but only for the first to cross the finish line. In the exercise of our faith, we should strive to be like that victor. Notice though that the aim isn’t victory so much as a particular way of running the race. The comparison to our faith here is not the parallel of victory so much as the kind of effort and dedication victory requires.

The beginning of verse 25 confirms these parallels. It is not the runner’s victory nor the prize that really matters. Instead, Paul highlights how “athletes exercise self-control in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25). The victor’s wreath is actually a mere shadow, a pale imitation of the “imperishable” wreath towards which we strive. Self-control remains at the center of the image Paul is drawing as we move to verse 26. The Christian “athlete” trains with a purpose in mind not “aimlessly” or in vain as a boxer looking to strike empty air.

Instead, Paul exercises self-control: “…I punish my body and enslave it” (1 Corinthians 9:27). An ascetic ideal is not necessarily in view here but more likely a way of life that aligns all things toward one aim: the proclamation of the good news. We prepare ourselves for a life defined by sharing the gospel through self-control and discipline.

As I wrote about last week, these verses come at the end of a long reflection of Paul’s “rights” as a called proclaimer of the good news and how he chooses to divest himself of these rights for the sake others. He could preach a gospel with strings attached but chooses to “make the gospel free of charge” (verse 18) so that as many people as possible might hear the good news. This athletic imagery is meant to help the Corinthian believers understand why he leads life this way, why he becomes “all things to all people.”

In our culture today, we might be tempted to see the athletic metaphor here as an appeal to a rugged individualism in our faith, an exhortation to individual self-control and self-improvement. Paul here is not drawing our minds primarily to the lonely and long miles a marathon runner must complete in training or to the positive aspirations to become physically fit. Paul does not imagine primarily that moment of victory when speed and determination allow us to finish the race before anyone else and we stand alone and victorious on the medal stand.

Instead, the wider context of the letter is an exhortation towards unity (see 1 Corinthians 1:10). The athletic metaphor is not meant to highlight the athlete, her discipline, or her achievements so much as her aims and the motivating force behind her efforts. In this case, Paul does not run or box for the sake of his self-improvement or to enhance his body. The aim is proclaiming the good news to others (1 Corinthians 9:23). The motivating force is the unswerving call of God (1 Corinthians 9:17).

Moreover, none of these athletic endeavors are solitary. Even the long-distance runner relies on the aid of others to support her efforts; a whole team of people — from family willing to part with the runner for long hours on a Saturday to medical professionals who help maintain physical health — support her efforts. In the same way, the Christian life is not led as individuals alone but as individuals bound up in communities of faith brought together by God. In the end, the athlete in Paul’s metaphor does not strive for her own sake but for the sake of God’s call to God’s people.

So, leave your sweatbands and football helmets at home. They may not actually illustrate these verses particularly well. Instead, like Paul, exhort your congregation to proclaim the good news of Jesus, to share with others a taste of the kingdom of God right here and now. And, like Paul, remind your congregation that the radical path of faith is not easy but demands us to persevere, to endure, to push past our weariness as we approach the finish line. Like Paul, remind your congregations that the reward that awaits us is not a medal that is displayed one day and then sold on eBay the next. Our reward is eternal and intangible yet vividly present now.