Lectionary Commentaries for June 17, 2012
Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 4:26-34

Meda Stamper

Building on the parable of the sower that opens this parable chapter in Mark, this week’s reading offers two more agricultural parables of the kingdom of God,

which suggest that, like the parable form itself, the kingdom may be hidden from those unaware of its secret presence (4:11-12), but it is also destined to be revealed in its fullness (4:21-22) and produce a harvest. 

The fruit-bearing (4:28-29) in the first parable and the act of sowing (4:31-32) in the second echo vocabulary in the parable of the sower and suggest that we are learning more here about what it means to sow the word and that this sowing of the word is related to the kingdom — that the word the sower plants (4:14) is the seed of the kingdom itself.  

The first parable of the kingdom is again a story of sowing and harvesting. The sower sows and then sleeps and rises, night and day, as step by step the kingdom grows, invisibly at first and then in the form of a stalk, then a head, then the full grain in the head. The word for grain in 4:29 appears also in 4:7-8 where it is translated fruit (as also, for example, in John 15:1-17). So while this is about the natural progression of rising wheat, it is also, like the image in 4:29, an image of fruitfulness.

We know from the earlier parable that some seed will fall on deaf ears and into rocks and among thorns and will not be fruitful, but in this image as in the earlier one we are encouraged not to dwell too much on that. We cannot control what happens after the word is sown. We just sow it. Only that. The sower here does not even weed or water, just sows and waits in peaceful trust. 

Then the one who is over all sends in the sickle (the literal translation of the phrase translated goes in with his sickle in the NRSV) when the time is right. The harvest is a traditional image for judgment. (See Joel 3:13, in particular, and Revelation 14:14-20.) In Mark, it is usually God or Jesus who sends. The implication is that they will manage the kingdom harvest. If there is room for us to plant the seeds of the word, for the rest, we, along with the sower of the parable, can leave that to God.

Psalm 92, a lectionary reading for this Sunday, which compares the righteous to a tree still producing fruit in old age, always green and full of sap, may provide a complementary image for this one, as may an image from the feeding of the 5,000 in 6:40. There the crowds who have been taught by Jesus and then seated in groups on the green grass to be fed are described figuratively as garden plots (translated groups in the NRSV) — perhaps a glimpse of the kingdom word already bearing fruit in Jesus’ ministry.

Like the first parable, the second parable illustrates the growth of the kingdom from something hidden and minute to something fully visible, but it also hints at more features of God’s reign. The mustard plant presents the contrast between the smallness of the present kingdom and the relative largeness of it in its fullness. This kingdom will grow generously and abundantly from the smallest of all seeds to the largest of all shrubs. 

Unlike the image of the shrub that magically becomes a tree in Matthew and Luke, Mark’s mustard plant stays a mustard plant. The word for shrub is translated vegetable and herb elsewhere in the NRSV. The mustard plant, though a very big shrub, is not a giant thing like the cedar in the Old Testament passage for this Sunday, Ezekiel 17:22-24, where, as here, birds nest in its shade. Jesus chooses a common plant to describe how the kingdom could be working its way into something amazingly large from the tiniest whisper of a beginning.

But he doesn’t use an amazingly large object to make the point. He uses the image of a bird nesting in the shade of a shrub. It is an image of expansive gentleness but not of overwhelming, unmissable glory. The kingdom of God is described not in grandiose terms but in terms of ordinary, quiet beauty as an inviting place to call home.

The summary statement in 4:33-34 echoes the statements about parables earlier in the chapter.  Parables, we know from 4:11-12, leave outsiders mystified but are an opportunity for further teaching of Jesus’ own disciples to learn on their own (privately in the NRSV) with him — the word own is used twice here. All are included in Jesus’ teaching, but it is those who follow him who are given further insight. The next passage, the lectionary text for next week, like many others, suggests that this does not make Jesus’ disciples immune to terror and confusion. But they do have him close and can, like the birds, nest in safety in the kingdom.

The passage as a whole emphasizes the hiddenness and smallness of the quiet beginnings of the kingdom and also underscores the sense in which the sower does not make the kingdom happen by force of will; indeed the sower of the parable doesn’t even water or weed! The sower just sows and then sleeps and rises night and day, and the earth produces of itself, and the mustard plant puts forth its large branches. The kingdom grows organically. And inevitably, as day follows night, God’s hidden, mysterious work in the world and in us will be fruitful.

Meanwhile as the kingdom gestates and sprouts, proximity to Jesus and his way puts us in a position to learn more about the kingdom so that we don’t miss the quiet growth of the familiar mustard plant in our own garden or indeed the “garden plots” of hungry listeners already springing up around Jesus and nesting in the shade of his fruitful, abundant, sheltering grace.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 17:22-24

Fred Gaiser

In this text, Ezekiel gives us yet another of the Bible’s many images of God: God as tree planter and tree tender.

Even a cursory concordance search reveals that the Bible is rife with trees. In Genesis, we learn, intriguingly, that God made trees not first because of any utilitarian value, but simply because God likes trees. True, they are “good for food,” but before that they are “pleasant to the sight” (Genesis 2:9). Those who trust in the Lord are “like a green olive tree” in God’s house (Psalm 52:8), and the beauty and wonder of trees makes them surprisingly erotic images in the Song of Songs (2:3; 7:7-8).

Anyone who has stood in a redwood grove can understand why the ancients regarded such places as sacred and gathered there to worship their fertility deities — a form of worship condemned, of course, by God (Deuteronomy 16:21), even though Abraham had “baptized” the practice in earlier days (Genesis 21:33).

Trees are sufficiently majestic and attractive that God can say, “I am like an evergreen cypress” (Hosea 14:8 — in case you ever need a proof text for Christmas trees!). Yet trees are sufficiently strong and wild that they can become instruments of idolatry (Isaiah 44:14-17) and death (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). The Bible’s poetry of trees will allow Jesus to speak of the kingdom as a great tree that grows from a tiny seed (Mark 4:16-34).

This excursus (which could be extended at length) reminds us that in the Bible trees evoke poetic wonder — as they do in our text. This will remind us that our text, too, is poetry and should not be overexegeted. In the earlier part of chapter 17, Ezekiel also speaks in poetic riddles about trees, eagles, and vines (17:2-10). The reader finds the poetry intriguing, but the riddle remains baffling — perhaps all the more so when the prophet tries to explain it! (17:10-21).

In those earlier verses, God’s riddle was about judgment (like almost all of this section of Ezekiel), but then, in our text, we find a ray of hope: a new sprig, planted by God on God’s mountain, and destined to become a place of rest and shade for “every kind of bird.” Now, “all the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord.”

Happily, in my opinion, the prophet doesn’t try to explain this poem. Generally, to explain a poem is to kill it, and the preacher should not do that to this beautiful text — especially since the prophet did not. We must talk about the poem, no doubt, but we want to proclaim it rather than to explain it. The preacher will want to allow the congregation to bask in the beauty and wonder of the poem, perhaps even in its uncertainty, which more easily allows a present appropriation than the convoluted historical explanation of 17:11-21.

While the text’s poetry rightly allows a measure of imprecision, it is not merely a romantic idyll about lovely mountains and pretty trees — as lovely and as pretty as those divine creatures are. Those who have read the Bible will recognize God’s planting to be Israel and God’s “high and lofty mountain” to be Zion. They will recognize, in the poem’s invitation for all birds to nest here and for all trees to come to know God, Israel’s call to be a blessing to all peoples They will have confidence in the eventual certainty of this promise with the assurance that God has spoken: “I will accomplish it.”

The more careful reader will delight in the contrast between the “great eagle” working judgment in 17:2-6 by taking and transplanting a shoot and God’s comparable work in 17:22-23 that produces not judgment but life. Faithful readers will also realize they have heard before the great reversals of this text (bringing low the high, making high the low), knowing that kind of activity to be a fundamental and ongoing definition of God’s work in the Bible: freeing God’s people from the hands of oppressors and working in history from the bottom up.

The prophet’s lack of an application of our poem to a particular moment in Israel’s history will enable the preacher more freely to relate God’s work in the poem to God’s work praised by Mary in her Magnificat (“he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away”; Luke 1:46-55) and to Paul’s assertion that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). The point is not that Ezekiel here offers a prophecy of coming New Testament events, but that he describes the nature of God and God’s work throughout Israel’s history, allowing New Testament Christians (and us) to recognize in Mary and in Christ the work of the God proclaimed by the prophets.

The openness of the poetry will also allow present hearers to find themselves in the poem in appropriate ways (perhaps with the gentle encouragement of the preacher). Will I see myself as a low tree to be made high or a high tree to be made low (that is, will I hear the text as promise or as judgment) — or will I find myself in both places? Will I hear myself invited, as one new to this biblical story, to be one of those trees that comes to know the Lord and to rejoice in God’s gracious beauty, or will I, as a long-time Bible reader, be surprised anew that God wants not only me but “all the trees of the field” to join in God’s praise? Who is included in the “every kind of bird” that is invited to nest in God’s noble cedar? With whom can I share this inspiring poem in a way that might make them think about this God thing in a different way? God as tree tender? God as one who invites all to nest in God’s tree?

That is quite a different image than the images of God as harsh judge and as one interested only in the “righteous” that we sometimes hear about these days. The poem invites folks into a place where they can be transformed into a different kind of righteousness — a stance of trust and wonder that opens me to all that God wants to give and that enables me to be the servant to others that God wants me to be and that was modeled in our Lord Jesus.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13

Karla Suomala

While promise, covenant and anointing have become exalted terms in both Jewish and Christian traditions, ancient Israelites perhaps had a more realistic view of what they entailed.

Whether receiving a promise from, entering a covenant with or being anointed at the command of God, the people of God learned through hard experience that their relationship with their deity was no guarantee of security or success. In fact, the relationship to which these terms point was almost a guarantee of trouble ahead!  

For Abraham and Sarah, it meant leaving behind everyone and everything they knew in exchange for a land that was often ravaged by famine and a future that was uncertain. Later on, for Abraham’s descendants, it meant 400 years of slavery in Egypt, coupled with wandering in the wilderness and fighting against those who lived in the land that had been promised to them. David, on being anointed, was launched into an epic struggle for survival against a sitting king who single-mindedly worked to destroy him. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof sums up the situation well when he says to God, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

How did God choose these individuals, this nation? It’s never made entirely clear in the biblical texts, although 1 Samuel provides one interesting clue. We find it in the clustering of words that have “seeing” as part of their grammatical core (no less than eight times in this pericope). Beginning in 1 Samuel 16:1, when God tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse, the Hebrew literally reads, “I have seen among his sons a king for myself” (translation and italics mine).

Over and over again, the text, using wordplay, contrasts human-seeing with God-seeing. When Samuel sees David’s brother, Eliab, he thinks to himself, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before the Lord.” But God tells him, “Do not look upon his appearance or on the height of his stature,” an allusion to Saul’s qualities as well as to the deficiency of human-seeing. God elaborates on this idea further, indicating that “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 

The passage comes to a conclusion in 16:12, after six additional sons are brought before Samuel, and all are found wanting. Finally, David is called in from the field, and we learn that he is, literally, “good for seeing,” or translated more smoothly as “good to look upon.” God then tells Samuel, “Arise and anoint him; for this is the one” (italics mine).  

Samuel then “took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” God saw something in David that he didn’t see in the others, something important, and something that wasn’t visible to Samuel (or anyone else). Although we are never told what, precisely, God sees in David, the narrator, somewhat ironically, describes what would have been visible to humans — that David was ruddy and had beautiful eyes. At any rate, there is an alignment of God-seeing and human-seeing in the person of David. For both God and human, David was “good to look upon.”

Being anointed however, as was the case for David’s chosen and covenanted ancestors, did not entail anything so direct as a receiving a crown and moving into a palace. Instead, for David it meant entering a world of intrigue and danger. He had to dodge Saul’s spear, stay alert to Saul’s spying servants, and outwit and outrun Saul and his army who were intent on killing him. It meant life on the lam — a life marked by fighting and waiting — which would only end upon Saul’s death, years later.  

So living as God’s anointed, “gripped” by the spirit of God (Robert Alter’s reading), was probably more lonely and terrifying than anything David could have imagined.1 It was also a life thrust upon him rather than one he chose for himself. A life he couldn’t escape, even had he tried. This is not so unlike the judges upon whose spirit God settled or the prophets whom God called. Jonah, notably, attempted to evade this calling, but was famously unsuccessful! 

One wonders about other young leaders in history in whom God perhaps saw something, grasping them with a power that seemed to transcend their times and contexts. God-gripped and at risk, Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from the Birmingham Jail to the clergy of his time who were questioning whether or not his call for justice and equality for African Americans was perhaps premature. “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.” 

A century earlier, the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton was compelled to live out a dangerous calling on behalf of women. In the Seneca Fall Declaration of 1848, in the face of enormous opposition, she wrote, “Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation — in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.”

“The Lord does not see as mortals see…arise and anoint, for this is the one.” King David, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were each singled out for a particular task and thrust into the conflicts of his or her age. Unlikely candidates, they championed causes beyond themselves, doing what needed to be done. 

1Alter, Robert, The David Story:  A Translation With Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York/London:  W. W. Norton, 1999).


Commentary on Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 92 is the only psalm with a superscription assigning it to the Sabbath.

As such, it became important in the Sabbath temple liturgy. Other psalms have been designated for use on the other six days of the week, but not in the Hebrew Bible: Psalms 82, Tuesday; and 81, Thursday, in rabbinic sources and 24, Sunday; 48, Monday; 94, Wednesday; and 93, Friday, also in the Septuagint.

Several factors may have contributed to this unique designation. Chief among these would be a series of sevenfold repetitions which may point to the “seventh” day of creation, including the divine name YHWH (“LORD” in New Revised Standard Version); seven negative qualities of the wicked in verses 7–11; seven positive qualities of the righteous in verses 12–15; and seven verses preceding and following the poetic hinge in verse 8. In addition, God’s creative activity may be hinted at in “the work of your hands” (verse 4; cf. Psalm 8:3) and “works” (verse 5; cf. Psalm 104:24, 31).

Of greater significance for our work, however, is the shaping of the psalm as a canonical entity rather than its superscription or the abridgment suggested by the lectionary. Canonically speaking, Psalm 92 seems to combine several genres found in the Psalms, especially thanksgivings and hymns with didactic elements of the wisdom traditions thrown in for good measure. The psalm as a whole displays the following concentric structure:

A  Declaration of YHWH’s steadfast love (1–3)

B  YHWH causes me to rejoice (4–5)

C  The wicked are doomed (6–7)

X  Declaration of YHWH’s exaltation (8)

C’ The wicked will perish (9)

B’ YHWH causes the righteous to flourish (10–13)

A’ Declaration that YHWH is upright (14–15)

The framing stanzas A and A’ culminate in the same Hebrew word lehaggid (“declare,” verse 2; “showing,” verse 15, New Revised Standard Version). This declaration of the greatness of the Lord, as also seen in verse 8, is the main theme of the psalm and is at home in the hymns. B and B’ contain second-person masculine singular perfect (completed action) verbs, emphasizing YHWH’s redemptive activity on behalf of the psalmist: “You have made me glad” (verse 4) and “You have exalted my horn” (verse 10). These elements are strongly reminiscent of the thanksgiving testimony.

C and C’ share the phrase “all evildoers” (verses 7, 9) and the theme of their destruction common to the wisdom tradition. The central section, X (verse 8), explicitly states the main theme of the introduction and conclusion: the exaltation of YHWH. It should be noted that this verse stands without a parallel line, athnah, pause, or break, and that there are 52 Hebrew words preceding verse 8 and 52 Hebrew words following verse 8, literally indicating its central role in the psalm.

Taking the psalm as a whole provides us with the reasons for the psalmist’s praise of the Lord in the verses prescribed by the lectionary: the introduction and conclusion. Hymns of praise typically begin with an invitation to praise the Lord in some way, followed by specific reasons for doing so. This structure is evident in Psalm 92 as well:

1. Verses 1–3 invite others in the community to join in thanksgiving and praise by declaring God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. While, technically speaking, there is no specific word for “thanks/thanksgiving” in Hebrew, these verses make clear in the progression of their verbs what “thanksgiving is to look like. In the liturgical words familiar to those of my tradition, we are to “thank the Lord and sing his praise; tell everyone what he has done.” How does one say “thanks” to God? By singing God’s praises! And how does one do that? By telling everyone what God has done!

2. Verses 4–8 present the first set of reasons for joining the psalmist in thankful praise, in direct address recounting what God has done: “Because (ki) you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work.” Joy in the recognition of God’s activity is the first reason for the psalmist’s praise. The “dullard” of verse 6 is possessed of a brutish nature that prevents the reasoned recognition of divine activity. This inability forces the foolish to misread the vigorous, present blossoming of the wicked as a flourishing that will last … but they are wrong.

3. Following the dramatic restatement of the theme in verse 8, verses 9–15 present the second set of reasons for joining the psalmist in thankful praise, again in direct address, again recounting what God has done: “Because (ki) you have exalted my horn …” A recent experience of God’s deliverance morphs into further recognition that God is the source of that deliverance. Because of this divine favor, the righteous flourish like the palm tree and the cedar—images of lasting strength in contrast to the momentary thriving of the grass that so befuddled the foolish in verses 6–7.

“It is our duty and delight” to praise the Lord. We are familiar with praise motivated by a sense of duty or obligation. But this psalm seeks to energize our thanks and praise from the sheer delight of recognizing what God has done and that God is indeed in control.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Carla Works

God’s act of new creation completely changes the way Paul sees the world around him — including his perception of death.

In this passage, the apostle expresses hope in the promise of resurrection, but the passage itself is fraught with difficulty.  There are two interrelated dilemmas presented by this text:

(1) Paul’s longing to be away from the body and at home with the Lord could easily be misconstrued as a condemnation of bodily existence.

(2) Paul seems to be looking forward to being with the Lord immediately upon death instead of awaiting a future resurrection.  We will take up each of these points in turn.

Away from the Body

Regarding the first dilemma, does Paul denigrate the body?  In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, the two options of existence seem to be a bodily existence that is separated from the Lord and an existence that is “away from the body” and at home with the Lord.  According to 1 Corinthians 15:35-57, however, the resurrected person is not “away from the body,” but rather transformed into a new body that is free from its mortality.  The perishable body will be changed into an imperishable body. 

Paul does not believe in the immortality of the soul.  Bodily resurrection is central to Paul’s message.  “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, the our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).  The apostle believes that God will ultimately defeat death, and when that occurs mortality will no longer have dominion over the body.  Just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so also God will give us victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Has Paul somehow changed his perspective on the body in 2 Corinthians 5?  Both in 2 Corinthians and in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul acknowledges the frailty of the body.  In the context of 2 Corinthians 5, Paul has compared the body to a jar of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7) and an “earthly tent” (5:1).  Furthermore, in imagery reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, he refers to being clothed with immortality and the mortal being swallowed up by life (2 Corinthians 5:3-4).

Does being “away from the body” necessitate a non-bodily existence?  If Paul means to imply that some part of the body is immortal, then it is odd that he would talk about “new creation” (5:17) or the transformation into the Lord’s likeness by the Spirit that is at work within us (3:18).  The “heavenly building” is still a form, but a form from heaven — the very locus of the new age.

Taken in its context, the reference to being away from the body seems most naturally to refer to the body that suffers all the affliction of this present age, an age that is subject to sin and death.  This body has limitations.  This body will die.  Yet, Paul has abundant hope that God will raise this body.  The timeframe of this resurrection, however, stands in some tension with what Paul says elsewhere.

At Home with the Lord

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul expresses hope of being with the Lord immediately after death.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, though, the apostle has maintained hope in a future resurrection.  In 1 Corinthians 15, the time frame is carefully sketched with each event happening “in its own order” (15:23).  Paul refers to Christ’s resurrection as the first fruit and declares that at Christ’s second coming (parousia) “those who belong to Christ” will be raised (1 Corinthians 15:23).   After this comes “the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24).  This timeline seems to be assumed as well in texts like 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Romans 8.

Is Paul now revising his timeline?  Scholarship is certainly divided on the answer to this question.  While verses 6-8 seem to anticipate a more immediate hope, the context is not lacking references to the future.  The reference to judgment in 5:10 looks forward to a time when all will come before the “judgment seat of Christ.”  We find this same tension in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In Philippians 1:20-24, Paul implies that upon physical death he will be with the Lord, but later in the letter he talks of the hope of future resurrection and the reality of waiting (3:10-14, 20-21).

In 2 Corinthians 5, as in Philippians, Paul does not offer a timeline nor does he try to make sense of these events chronologically.  God’s new creation has disrupted time.  He does not attempt to explain the details of what happens between death and resurrection.  He merely leaves the Corinthians with the certainty that God is in the business of reconciliation, and this God, who is powerful enough to raise Jesus from the dead, can rescue them from death’s grips.  As Paul says in Romans 8, nothing can “separate us from the love of God” — including death! (Romans 8:38-39).

New Creation

The sign of the Spirit is indeed a marker of God’s new creation.  Those who are “in Christ” can already celebrate what God has done.  Paul can say that the old has passed away and that the new has already come. 

The invasion of the new age into the old has created a new way of knowing.  To regard in a human way is to see all the limitations and boundaries of human existence.  To see from the perspective of new creation, though, is to see neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free — but to see one’s identity in Christ (Galatians 3:28).  This perspective causes Paul to risk life and limb to bring God’s good news to all nations.

Though 2 Corinthians 5 has much hope to offer as believers grieve the loss of loved ones, it is much more a challenge to the church to live as God’s new creation now, to be ambassadors for Christ, and to bear witness to the good news of a God who is in the business of reconciliation.