Lectionary Commentaries for March 4, 2012
Second Sunday in Lent (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 8:31-38

Marilyn Salmon

Contradictions and perplexities dominate the gospel for the day.

Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah (8:29). We know he is right because the beginning of Mark informs us this is the good news of Jesus Messiah. But Peter receives no confirmation, only the command to silence. Jesus then teaches the disciples that the Son of Man will suffer, be rejected, killed, and three days later rise again. Peter understands the contradiction inherent between Messiah and Jesus’ words. Jesus rebukes Peter for focusing on human things as opposed to divine things. Then follows the paradox: One must lose one’s life in order to save it. To profit the whole world is to forfeit one’s life.

This is the first of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering, rejection, death and resurrection in the gospel of Mark. Each is followed by the disciples’ failure to relate Jesus’ self-understanding with their own perception of him and Jesus’ teaching on true discipleship (see 9:31-37; 10:32-45). In each of these passages, incongruities between common human expectations and Jesus’ teaching of true discipleship dominate the narrative. I wonder if most Christian readers or listeners are able to hear them.

If we miss them, it is because we read backwards, so to speak. From our perspective, the cross is the symbol of Christianity prominently displayed from churches to personal jewelry. Its meaning is far removed from its meaning for the earliest generations of Jesus’ followers. If we could imagine ourselves into the time of Jesus, or even the time of the followers three or four decades later, we could not miss the atrocity of a crucifixion. We would know the utter absurdity of a Messiah executed on a cross or of Jesus’ preposterous expectation that would-be followers must pick of their own cross.

Did Jesus know that he would suffer the shame of death by crucifixion, as he foretells here? Did he foretell his resurrection? We cannot know for certain what Jesus knew or understood about himself or his future. Bur as hearers of the gospel, we grasp clearly that Jesus’ discourses on discipleship are for us as much as for every generation of his followers. Jesus calls the crowd along with the twelve disciples and teaches them and us that his followers must “deny themselves and take up their cross” (verse 34). What follows is the most puzzling paradox of all: if you want to save your life you must lose it; those who lose it for the sake of the gospel will save it (verse 35). The literal meaning does not make sense, of course, but then what does it mean?

A Clash of Values1

According to Mark, Jesus defines discipleship as a contrast between human values and God’s values. Jesus’ teaching on true discipleship following the second and third predictions of the passion shows this most clearly. When the disciples argue who is greatest among them, Jesus instructs them to be like a servant and like a child, the least by the world’s standards, not the greatest (see 9:35-36). When James and John request places of honor and glory, Jesus invites them to drink his cup and share in his baptism, his suffering and death implied, and to embrace the role of servant. Jesus contrasts the life of discipleship with the ways of the gentiles, or the ways of the world. Jesus’ followers will emulate the Son of Man who gives his life for others (see 10:35-45). Likewise, in today’s gospel reading, Jesus contrasts the life of discipleship with the ways of the world. Jesus rebukes Peter for focusing on human values rather than God’s values (8:33).

According to human values, one’s own life comes first. We might be kind and generous and thoughtful toward others, yet cultural norms dictate the priority of our own safety or privilege or physical comfort. Jesus advocates risking your life for the sake of another. In other words be willing to lose your life for the sake of the gospel in order to save it.

According to Mark’s gospel, the disciples represent human values.2 They aspire to power and greatness and assume that Jesus shares these values. Jesus represents God’s values, best summed up by the willingness to risk one’s own life for the sake of others. Jesus does not encourage suffering for its own sake, nor does he recommend acceptance of forced servitude. 3 The key to meaning here is “for the sake of the gospel” and Jesus is the exemplary model. Jesus invites his disciples to follow his example, to be willing to risk our lives for the sake of others.

I can think of many heroes of the faith who lived and died for the sake of others; their names are well-known. My most memorable example of risking life for another, however, is of a man who was the lead news story for a couple days, including a guest appearance on late night television a few years ago. This courageous person whose name is long forgotten saw a man who had fallen on the subway tracks in the path of an oncoming train.

Realizing there was no time to get the doomed man to safety, the news-making hero threw himself on top of the stranger between the tracks while the train traveled over them and came to a stop. Both men survived. I do not know if the courageous man was a Christian or belonged to any faith community. But his risk for the sake of another represents God’s values. His action is so memorable because it contradicts a common human value of calculated risk.

Most of us will not face giving our own precious life for the sake of another, but we do have have opportunities daily to consider how we define failure or success, or to choose between self-preservation or life-giving for others. In the clash between human values and God’s values, what does it look like to lose our life for the sake of the gospel in order to save it?

1David Rhoads, “Losing Life for Others in the Face of Death,” Interpretation, October 1993, p.359
3Ibid., p.363.

First Reading

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

Elizabeth Webb

A name is a powerful thing.

A name identifies, describes, and presents us. One’s name may be the most intimate feature of one’s identity — of all identifiers, our names come the closest to naming who we really are. To a large extent, we are our names.

The significance of a name was far from lost on the communities, storytellers, and writers of the Bible. From the very beginning, names have meaning. The first creation narrative has God naming each thing as it is made, as if it’s not complete until it has a name. In the second creation narrative, the name God gives to the “earth creature” (adam) signifies humanity’s having come “from the earth” (adamah). Over and over in Scripture, God is said to know the names of God’s people (Isaiah 43:1 and 49:1; John 10:14-15; Philippians 4:3). God often changes people’s names, signifying a radical change in or emphasis on a person’s identity. So Jacob becomes Israel, and Saul becomes Paul. 

And so Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. These are the names by which these two, the mother and father of nations and kings, will be known for all time. These names redefine their identities, give them a calling, and reorient their lives. These names stick; they will never be lost. It is their names that identify Abraham and Sarah as righteous before God, their true identities that God has given them. As God did for Abraham and Sarah, God names each of us for who we truly are.

The narrative in chapter 17 is not the first time that God speaks words of promise to Abram. In chapter 12, God calls Abram to leave his country and go to the land that God will show him. God promises to make of Abram a great nation, so that he and those who are descended from his name will be known as a blessing to all nations. In chapter 15, God repeats these promises and makes a covenant with Abram, emphasizing that it will be Abram’s son, and not the son of some slave in Abram’s house, who will be his heir. 

Now in chapter 17, after Sarai sees to it that Abram fathers a child with her slave Hagar, the emphasis is on both Abram and Sarai as the parents of the heir to God’s promises. Both Abram and Sarai are essential to the generation of descendants; both of them are integral to the fulfillment of the promises.

Four times in chapter 17 emphases falls on the great numbers of Abram and Sarai’s descendants. Thus God gives to Abram a name that means “ancestor of multitudes.” Like the covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham is an everlasting covenant — for all time, all who are born to Abraham’s name will be God’s own. The “exceedingly numerous” nations that will come from Abraham’s line will belong to God, and God will be theirs. Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah, “princess,” a name indicating perhaps the line of kings that will be descended from her and Abraham. God also names their promised child Isaac, “laughter,” for the laughter that erupts from both Abraham and Sarah at the news.

Also like the covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham in chapter 17 is an unconditional covenant. This may seem a questionable claim, given that in verses 9-14 God requires circumcision of all males and their offspring; any male who is not circumcised will be cut off from the covenant. But note that the covenant itself is not broken by the failure to circumcise; the covenant that God makes remains eternally, and it is up to Abraham and each of his descendants whether they will remain within it. God will never revoke this covenant.

Circumcision also acts as a kind of “naming” in this text. Males are circumcised as “a sign of the covenant” (verse 11), a bodily mark that identifies each male as belonging to God. Indeed, the text says that “the covenant is in [their] flesh” (verse 13). God’s very words of promise are carved into their flesh, so that their deepest and truest identity is as God’s own people. This is a mark, a name that is hidden from sight, a sign visible only to the one who is marked, yet it is at the same time a proclamation of identity in God.

Christians are also marked, named in our flesh, as God’s own. Baptism is a physical sign, invisible apart from the moment that it takes place, of our true identities. Our names are stated at our baptism, and are written in the book of eternity. And how does God name us, all of us, each of us, who stand in the line of Abraham? According to some biblical passages in which God is said to know our names, God names us as creatures in whom God delights (62:4), as precious (Isaiah 43:4), as utterly known and loved (Isaiah 49:1; John 10:14-15).

Whoever we may think we are (dirty, shameful, broken), God knows who we really are, and frees and calls us to live into the name that God has given us. To know our true name is, as it was for Abraham and Sarah, to turn, to reorient ourselves according to that name, and to live it. Just as God’s naming of Abraham and Sarah was also a calling, in naming us God is calling us to discipleship, casting off the old names by which we’ve been known, and living into (and maybe “up to”) the name that God bestows. 


Commentary on Psalm 22:23-31

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 22 is a familiar psalm to most of us.

It opens with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? — words uttered by Jesus on the cross in the gospel narratives. It continues in verse 18 with, “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”  But the first twenty-two verses of the psalm are not the focus of the lectionary reading for the second Sunday in Lent.  Those verses will have to wait until Good Friday.  

Verses 23-31 of Psalm 22 are less familiar to the reader. They form a distinct section of the psalm, and yet they are firmly tied to the first twenty-two verses. To understand the connection between the two portions of the psalm, let us first examine its structure. Psalm 22 is categorized as an individual lament, in which the psalm singer cries out to God for deliverance from some life-threatening situation. Laments typically consist of five major elements:

  1. the invocation, in which the psalmist cries out to God to hear and listen
  2. the complaint, in which the psalmist tells God what is wrong
  3. the petition, in which the psalmist tells God what the psalmist wants God to do
  4. the expression of trust, in which the psalmist tells God why she or he knows that God can do what the psalmist asks
  5. the expression of praise and adoration, in which the psalmist celebrates the goodness and sovereignty of God

Psalm 22 may be analyzed as follows:

Verses 1-2: Invocation and complaint
Verses 3-5: Expression of trust
Verses 6-8: Complaint
Verses 9-10: Expression of trust
Verse 11: Petition
Verses 12-18: Complaint
Verses 19-21: Petition
Verses 22-31: Expression of praise and adoration

Thus we see that the passage for this lectionary reading comes entirely from the portion of the psalm categorized as praise and adoration. But we must not isolate the words from their larger context. The lament psalms embody a human process of dealing with the harsh realities of life.  We are confronted by things seemingly beyond our control. We cry out to God, detailing the hurt, the bitterness, the fear. We express our heartfelt desire for retribution or deliverance.

In the process, we often have to remind ourselves why we even bother to come to God with our sorrows and pain. God has been there to deliver us or to help us find a way through the pain in the past, so we fervently believe that God can once again meet us where we are. And, finally, on the other side of the darkness, we find voice to praise God for all that God does for us.  

But the praise and adoration of God does not come quickly or easily. The lament psalms depict not a moment in time, but a process in time. The singer of Psalm 22 says, “My God, my God . . . I am a worm . . . I am poured out like water, all my bones are out of joint . . . my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws . . . I can count all my bones” (verses 1, 6, 14, 15, 17). Words of complaint dominate the first half of the psalm.

Interestingly, though, expressions of trust are interwoven with the words of complaint. “In you our ancestors trusted . . . it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast . . . since my mother bore me you have been my God” (verses 4, 9, 10). In the darkest night of the soul, we often find consolation in remembering the goodness of God to us and to those around us. God has helped us in the past; God will do so again. Thus the psalmist offers words of petition in verses 11 and 19-21: “Do not be far from me . . . O my help, come quickly to my aid! . . . Save me from the mouth of the lion!”

Crying out to God, telling God what’s wrong, telling God what you want God to do, remembering God’s deliverance in the past, and then praising God for all God has done or will do. A morning’s or afternoon’s work? No. A long work of the inner being. But finally, in days, weeks, months, the light shines again and we find our words of praise to God.

Try to imagine what the singer of Psalm 22 was enduring. The vivid imagery — worms, mockers, bulls, lions, out-of-joint bones, dried up tongues, dogs — suggests a tormented human being. But, eventually, in the end, the psalm singer finds voice for praise. “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters (verse 21) . . . for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted (verse 24) . . . all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD” (verse 27).

The heart of the words of praise is found in verse 24:  “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.”  The word translated as “despise” comes from the Hebrew root bazah, and is the same word used in verse 6 to describe the plight of the psalm singer: “I am a worm, and not human, scorned by others, and despised (bazah) by the people.” The psalm singer praises God for not despising those who are afflicted, and, because of that, is able to lead the congregation — those who fear the LORD, the offspring of Jacob, the offspring of Israel, and all the ends of the earth, and all the families of the nations (verses 23, 27) — in worship. 

A poignant element of Psalm 22 is verses 29-31. Not only will the living praise God, but all those “who sleep in the earth” (verse 29) and all future generations, “the yet to be born” (verse 31). The lament psalm is a powerful model for believers today; life confronts us with issues and happenings that sometimes feel unbearable. And so, we cry out to God; we tell God what is wrong; we tell God what we want God to do; we recall those past instances in our lives (or in the lives of those around us) when God has made a way for us to handle the situation; and, then, and only then, we can praise God for God’s goodness and tell others about it.

When Jesus uttered the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross, I think he was calling his hearers to remember the words of the whole psalm — “for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (verse 24). Thus, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD” (verse 27).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 4:13-25

Daniel G. Deffenbaugh

There is a story told among Zen Buddhists about a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.

“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.” Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

It is a common human weakness, of course, to forsake what is beyond our spiritual grasp for that which lies much closer at hand. Perhaps this is the reason why idolatry — exalting what is passing and temporal in place of the eternal — is among the first prohibitions of the Decalogue. Not only does it dishonor God but it also prevents us from realizing our fullest humanity. As Paul attests so clearly throughout his epistle to the Romans, Christians are called to be a people of faith who are not misled by the forms their tradition has adopted over the centuries, whether it be circumcision or law.

Our model in this is the great patriarch Abraham, “our father according to the flesh” (4:1) as Paul states to his Jewish readers. But this description only serves as a rhetorical strategy for what ensues, for it is not Abraham’s flesh that is Paul’s concern, but rather the faith that Abraham was able to demonstrate, despite his ninety-year-old form. Abraham believed that he would become the father of a great nation and it was “reckoned to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:22).     

Paul makes it clear that this righteousness had nothing to do with a reliance on some of the common crutches with which his readers were familiar. It was not a matter of Abraham’s circumcision, for the man had not yet gone under the knife. Nor was it a function of his strict observance of the law, for the Sinai experience still lay in the distant future. Though necessary for the growth of faith, these covenantal blessings are only fingers pointing to the moon. As such they can become stumbling blocks for those of weaker constitutions. Righteousness, Paul insists, is a matter of faith, not form.

We can understand why form became so important to some many during the Second Temple period. As a repressed minority living perpetually under the control of foreign nations they found it necessary to build a kind of religious wall around themselves, lest they become culturally assimilated and surrender the promise made to Abraham all those years ago. Circumcision was emphasized as an outward sign of the faith. Intermarriage among Gentiles was prohibited, kosher foods were required. The result was a highly exclusive community whose rituals and customs became in many ways a source for their own salvation. Through such practices they could remind themselves that they were indeed the seed of Abraham “according to the flesh.”

Under such circumstances it was only a matter of time before form came to take precedence over faith. Paul himself had been one of the most zealous advocates of this brand of Judaism, until his Damascus road experience convicted him of a paramount insight: “the law brings wrath” (4:15).
Is it God’s wrath that Paul refers to here? It seems more likely that he is making reference to a psychological state of mind, a kind of deep despair that results when form is confused with faith.

The law has always been a means of pointing the way toward God, an instrument that helps us to know and do the divine will. As such it is meant to liberate. But when the means is mistaken for an end in itself, the consequence can be a state of spiritual confusion in which all hope is obscured. The moon slips behind the clouds and only an insufficient finger remains. We then grasp at straws, redefining our world in ever simpler terms — us and them, insiders and outsiders — until we eventually reach the depths of our own private hell. Here, as the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev observed, our self-absorption is so complete that “eternity is closed off and nothing but bad infinity is left.”

Paul was saved from the depths of his xenophobic despair by a blindingly simple revelation: that the God of creation, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17), could not be fully approached by relying on the exclusive tradition bequeathed to him by his ancestors. Therefore, God approached creation in the form of Christ, in whom we also are made righteous. In this way, Abraham is the spiritual father of both Gentile and Jew. The church is the seed of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but according to faith.

The season of Lent is a particularly appropriate time to reflect on the ways that we too often place our trust in inadequate earthly forms at the expense of a simple, liberating faith. While the former serve to perpetuate distinctions that divide the body of Christ and alienate members of other religious traditions, the latter has the potential, through the work of the Spirit, to open doors and invite creative dialogue. While one incites wrath, the other encourages reconciliation.

This is the essence of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, as relevant today as it was in the first century: to perceive the truth we must look beyond the forms that bind us to behold Christ, in whom we are reckoned righteous before God. Indeed, it is only in him, God’s incarnate Son, that faith and form ultimately become one.