Lectionary Commentaries for September 2, 2012
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Matt Skinner

At least one part of this passage is straightforward, although disturbing: Jesus explains where evil comes from.

It comes from within all those people who bug you. But also from within you. Me, too.

Of course, it takes a while for Jesus to get to that basic point in this tongue-lashing delivered to a group of Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem. Their exchange begins with a question to Jesus about traditions, particular interpretations of laws given through Moses.

Following the Discussion

Jesus’ followers (Jews, all of them) didn’t adhere to the same purity practices. “Some” disciples did not wash their hands in particular ways prior to eating. This alone means little, as the wider Jewish population at that time didn’t exhibit strict consistency in such matters. The narrator’s comment in verse 3 about “all the Jews” overstates the case; different Jews followed different traditions.

Yet the scribes and Pharisees’ question in verse 5 implicitly criticizes those disciples. Even more, it indicts Jesus. Even though no Old Testament texts call for anyone to wash hands before eating (but see what priests do in Exodus 30:18-21; 40:31), by Jesus’ day certain practices had arisen among some Jews. Why don’t all of Jesus’ followers abide by these more recent customs? What kind of teacher leads his pupils to violate revered elders’ teachings, that is, the legal interpretations affirmed by at least these scribes and Pharisees?

In verses 6b-7 Jesus cites the Septuagint (Greek) version of Isaiah 29:13. He thus likens the “traditions of the elders” (verse 5; cf. verse 8) to mere “human precepts” (verse 7) that misconstrue God’s “commandment[s]” (verse 8). In no way does Jesus deny the validity of either the Mosaic law in general or its individual commandments; he rejects how certain interpretations — and thus, certain practices — may have deviated from or obscured the intent of laws meant to safeguard purity.

The reference to Isaiah 29:13 (LXX) also allows Jesus to redirect the conversation (which proceeds as a monologue, really) when the setting changes later, beginning in verse 14. The Isaiah passage introduces a contrast between the lips/mouth and the heart, and Jesus builds on this contrast to transform the issue into one about defilement and how a human body becomes polluted. Simply put, impurity is a matter of the heart, not the mouth.

And so the passage ends with a representative (not exhaustive) list of things capable of making a person impure (verses 21b-22). Some are deeds, others are character traits and attitudes. All originate, Jesus says, in “the human heart,” which for the ancients represented the seat of rationality and will. Defilement dwells deep within.

What Jesus Does Not Say

According to Mark’s commentary on Jesus’ speech, in verse 19b (which the lectionary omits, as does a parallel passage, Matthew 15:1-20), Jesus thus “declared all foods clean.”1 Yet, it’s not patently clear that Jesus’ words point exactly to this conclusion. Mark may be asserting that Jesus, in this moment, made all foods clean. (Compare “God has made clean” in Acts 10:15.) But this is hardly the main point of the passage, and the lectionary’s scalpel encourages preachers to keep more central matters in view.

Despite the radical nature of verse 15a, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” we have no evidence that Jesus himself disregarded the dietary laws. (Notice Peter’s practice according to Acts 10:14.) In any case, the parabolic nature of Jesus’ comments (see reference to “the parable” in verse 17) supports the conclusion that hand-washing and foods are not the main concern here. Instead, Mark 7:1-23 speaks much more plainly about the source of defilement: it’s more internal than external. It’s more about who you are than about the foods or filth you avoid.

To be clear, Jesus does not dismiss the issue of defilement as insignificant. He does not declare the Mosaic law unimportant. He disagrees with these scribes and Pharisees’ interpretations of certain laws. He reasserts the law’s basic concern to be about restraining evil and avoiding defilement. Yet here’s the problem for us human beings: evil and defilement stem from places rather deeply embedded within our very selves.

As any reader of the Old Testament knows, Jesus was hardly the first to propose such an idea. Further, not all of his contemporaries would have experienced offense over his disagreements with these scribes and Pharisees. So don’t preach about differences between Judaism and Christianity. Don’t extol the bacon cheeseburger as a sign of God’s benevolence. Preach about the evil output of the human heart. Tell people:

“We have met the enemy and [it] is us.”2

From Text to Sermon

I offer four comments about what such a sermon might include.

First, Jesus’ outlook on the human heart needs careful qualification. For example, he does not denounce the heart for producing only evil intentions. Believe in total depravity if you must, but I still think it’s worth underscoring that people are occasionally capable of great good and selfless compassion.

Second, remember: it’s not the scribes. Not the Pharisees. Not the law. What Jesus subjects to fiercest criticism in this passage is the human being. Joel Marcus notes the concentration of the word anthrōpos (“human being” or “person”) eleven times in the span of Mark 7:7–23 and says:

“The basic problem Christians should be concerned about, Mark seems to be saying through this striking pileup [of the word anthrōpos], is not how or what one should eat but the internal corruption of the anthrōpos. It is this malignancy that chokes the life out of tradition, turns it into an enemy of God, contorts it into a way of excusing injustice, and blinds those afflicted by it to their own culpability for the evils that trouble the world.”3

Third, Jesus’ comments propel us to keep our evils in the spotlight. Whatever Satan is in Mark’s Gospel, it is not the cause of wrongdoing. That job belongs to the human heart. Placing blame on a diabolical entity lurking in the shadows risks diverting attention from our own propensity to rebel and destroy. Truly “evil intentions” dwell, not only within society’s notorious figures, but within ourselves and those we love and trust most fervently.

We know enough about the human condition to say that evil is about more than an individual’s selfishness or bad decisions. It roams our collective existence, our social, economic, and familial systems. We are at once perpetrators and victims. And our victimization furthers our capacity to perpetrate. “The human heart,” or the human will, remains a complex thing. Our kin and culture usually keep us ingrained in patterns of defiling self-destructiveness and idolatry.

Fourth, the biblical text needs a preacher to make Jesus’ point personal, so we can see his generalizations made concrete within our particular experiences. The same goes for the solution we believe Jesus promises to this deeply rooted problem. Without soft-pedaling the passage’s negative focus, preachers and other worship leaders also must direct a congregation toward the love and mercy God nevertheless extends to each and every broken anthrōpos.


1This comment, considered alongside the generalized description of Pharisaic practices in verses 3–4, indicates Mark writes to a gentile audience or a mixed Jewish-gentile audience possibly debating the ongoing validity of dietary restrictions. If Mark understands the abandonment of dietary laws in Christian communities as the abolishment of a significant marker separating Jews and gentiles, then this passage sets an interesting context for next week’s Gospel lection, in which a gentile woman contends with a resistant Jesus to receive his help.
2I know nothing about the old comic strip Pogo, except for this line.
3Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 460–61.


First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Anathea Portier-Young

Moses will never enter the land of promise.

He will climb a mountain east of the Jordan, and from that height he will survey the wide and good land God is giving to Israel (Deuteronomy 3:27). And then he will die (4:22). He will never cross the river Jordan, and the children of the people who marched with him out of Egypt will bury his body in a valley in Moab. They will not mark his grave, or perhaps God will hide it, so that no one will be tempted to bring him into the land of Canaan (34:5-6). Moses belonged to the wilderness generation.

They were almost the land-of-promise generation, but in the wilderness their faith faltered. At Deuteronomy’s beginning Moses recalls for their children, now grown, the painful story of failure.

From Mount Horeb, where God had given the Israelites the gift of the law (elsewhere the Bible calls this place Mount Sinai), God led them to the edge of the beautiful land. God promised them victory (Deuteronomy 1:19-21). But at the edge of the beautiful land they doubted God’s word and refused to enter and claim the inheritance God had decreed for them (1:26-33).

Later, so the book of Numbers relates, even Moses’ faith faltered. God had instructed Moses in the power of the word: speak to the rock, and it will gush water to sustain this thirsty people. But in the face of his people’s thirst, Moses could not trust that a word would call forth living water. He struck the rock (Numbers 20:8-12).

Because their faith faltered at the moment of action, a generation of Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt were condemned to die in the wilderness and never enter the land God had prepared for them (Deuteronomy 1:34-40).

Forty years later a new generation of Israelites stands on the threshold of promise (Deuteronomy 1:1-3). They are poised to exit the desert, depart from the land of a king who seeks their death, and enter a land flowing with milk and honey, where rain falls from the sky (11:9-12). They will have blessings of life and love and children, and fertile soil yielding abundant grain, wine, and oil (7:13). They will be free from disease and victorious over their enemies (7:15-16). 

If. Every promise will be theirs if only they trust. But to trust is a difficult thing to do.
Moses has told the story of the wilderness generation to remind their children of faith’s fragility.
Now he must show them the source of its strength. He cannot cross with them into the land of promise, cannot carry them there, cannot believe for them. From this moment until the hour of his death he can only pray for them, teach them, and proclaim for them the statutes, ordinances, and commandments that God has given them.

Why should these commandments hold the key to life? How do they form the steel core of faith? 
The commandments are the heart of Deuteronomy and the heart of God’s teaching, or Torah, that defines Israel’s life in relationship with God, with one another, and with the nations around them.

They teach worship. They establish norms for political, prophetic, and religious leadership. They mandate communal holidays, festivals, and times of rest. They place limits on the practices of war and blood-vengeance. They ordain a just economy, communal care for the widow, orphan, and poor, and protection of those who are vulnerable. They sanctify labor, meals, and family life. In all of these ways and more the commandments instruct Israel in love (5:10, 6:5, 7:9, 7:13, 10:12, 10:15, 10:19, 11:1, 13:3, 30:6) and give them strength for the life God has called them to live (11:8).

The commandments are the path to life. They are God’s word. But this word does not take root in the minds and hearts of the people by infusion, osmosis, or induction. It is not enough for God to inscribe the commandments on tablets of stone and for the people to carefully guard the tablets in the ark they have made.

Moses — and the preachers that follow him — must proclaim the teaching again and again. Parents must repeat it to their children and their children’s children (4:9-10; 6:2.7.20-21; 11:19-21; cf. 31:12-13, 32:46). And so the book of Deuteronomy is full of repetitions and is itself a repetition, a second iteration of Israel’s story and the teaching God gave them.

Moses’ urgent hope is that the gathered people of Israel will hear, listen, and obey; that they will do what God teaches and calls them to do; and that in their hearing and doing they will form themselves, day by day, action by action, as people of faith. Then they will live and enter their inheritance.

In crafting a sermon on this or another passage, we have occasion to reflect on preaching as necessary repetition of the story and of the commandments that strengthen faith and lead to life. It is not necessary to find or invent new stories each week. Moses cautions the people against adding on to the word God has given. He also cautions against holding back, or subtracting, whether by conscious effort to trim off the parts we do not like or by quiet omission and neglect of the parts we do not understand.

We share Moses’ hope that our children will have the blessing of life. We want them to cross into a place where we will no longer carry them, where they will enter and claim the inheritance God has prepared for them. Our children stand at a threshold. We — preachers, parents, catechists, neighbors, priests, deacons, elders — are their teachers. We are entrusted with our people’s memory and testimony. May our preaching and our life together show to our children the wisdom and justice of God’s teaching, so they may trust in God’s promise and receive abundant life.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Wil Gafney

The Song of Songs is a celebration of erotic love,

not surprisingly its literal reading was quickly abandoned in favor of allegorical readings in much of Judaism and Christianity where it has been read as symbolizing the love of God or Christ for Israel or the Church. A literal reading requires coming to terms with the raw sexual desire and gratification called for by this woman to her man in the scriptures which many readers found — and find — incompatible with their notion of scripture in spite of the fact that these verses are enshrined and canonized in scripture.

In many readings that do celebrate the sexual love between the couple, their marriage is asserted in spite of the fact that the text does not state that they are married. The man does refer to the woman as his bride (4:8-12; 5:1 and sometimes as his sister) — but it is not clear whether they are betrothed or married, and if they are married why she spends so much time looking for him or they feel the need to sneak around, (see also 1:7; 3:1-4; 5:2-7; 6:1-2; 8:1-2, 14). The Song is attributed to Solomon who is mentioned in it; it is more likely that the Song is dedicated to him through these associations rather than that he is its author or subject.

The Song of Songs is unique in the scriptures for its passionate lyrics extolling the physical love between a woman and a man, and for the dominance of the woman — in voice and agency — in the composition. It can be difficult to distinguish the voices in English; in Hebrew nouns and pronouns and their adjectives and verbs are gendered and numbered for individual and collective women and men or mixed-gender groups, making it possible to identify the speaker and the addressee.

In addition to the two lovers there are at least two groups, the daughters of Jerusalem and a group of male voices (possibly two) who appear in the book; each group acts as a chorus. However in today’s lesson only the woman speaks, she does so quoting the man has spoken to her. For example, the woman says in verse 8, “my [male] beloved…” repeated in verses 9-10. She says that he says to her, “my [female] love…” in verses 10 and 13.

Today’s lesson, like the larger work celebrates human sexuality as part of God’s good creation; the garden setting may well be intended to evoke the Garden of Eden (as convincingly argued by Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality). In the Song, the woman and man are in harmony with one another and with the natural world; the brokenness of relationships between humans and between humans and the earth is healed.

The garden is a sustaining oasis nourishing its human, plant and animal occupants. The woman and man are in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical relationship. Yet the world of the Song is not paradise; there are threats: There is some degree of societal and familial disapproval of their love demonstrated by the attempts of some men to regulate the woman’s sexual expression, (5:7; 8:8-9).

In the unit assigned for this Sunday the lovers articulate their love for each other’s physical person. This text is a lovely reminder that our physical bodies are beautiful and beloved, and that loving relationships occur within and not in spite of human bodies. The lectionary portion begins with the woman extolling the way the man moves in verse 8. Then she exclaims over the way he stands still and looks out the window in verse 9; she is besotted with every little thing he does.

She repeats his words to her — it is unclear when he first spoke them. (The Song is a collection of poems with little underlying narrative or chronological ordering.) The man asks his love to run away with him; it does not appear that they are running away from anything or towards anything. They just want to be together. The natural beauty of the world around them reflects their love, blossoming flowers, fruit-laden trees, singing birds. It is paradise.

The natural world evokes all of the senses as does the love between the couple. The very physicality of this text as scripture is its gift. The woman, man, their love and their world are all God’s good, very good, creation. There is no division between body and soul.

The Greek philosophical tradition that will become so important to the Church Fathers as many of them reject and restrict sensuality, sexual love and bodiliness is unknown here. This text does not share the later dualism separating flesh and spirit inspired by Greek philosophy in which the body and its desires are regarded as being lower or lesser than spiritual things. Body and soul are one here, united in love.

As a part of the larger Christian canon, this passage is also available for an incarnational reading, focusing on the humanity in which Jesus of Nazareth was clothed. That humanity was not just miserable unredeemed flesh, but also joyful, loving, touching, sexually mature flesh.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 15

Henry Langknecht

1LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may abide upon your holy hill?

2Those who lead a blameless life and do what is right, who speak the truth from their heart;
3they do not slander with the tongue, they do no evil to their friends; they do not cast discredit upon a neighbor.
4In their sight the wicked are rejected, but they honor those who fear the LORD. They have sworn upon their health and do not take back their word.
5They do not give their money in hope of gain, nor do they take bribes against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be overthrown.

The first lesson is a portion of Moses’s final charge to the people as they stand to take possession of Canaan. The reading from Deuteronomy makes it clear that obedience to the law is a condition for successful and sustained occupying of the land. The result is that Israel will be seen as an exemplary nation attracting the attention of the world both because of its discerning wisdom and because it has a God who stays near.

Today’s psalmody is an apt response to the first lesson. It too connects obedience to God’s law with sustained occupation of a geographical place. The psalm approaches the question of obedience, though, from a more priestly or holiness angle; obedience renders a people “blameless” rather than “wise and discerning.”

The entire psalm has the feel of a liturgical call and response. It begins by posing to God a single rhetorical question expressed in parallel construction, “Who may dwell in your tabernacle, your holy hill?” The balance of the psalm constitutes God’s response. The middle verses (verses 2-5a) answer the opening question by describing specific elements of the necessary blameless life. The psalm then ends (verse 5b) with an emphatic final answer and promise: “those who do these thing shall never be overthrown.”

The elements of the blameless life can be clustered into four loose interwoven categories: (1) personal character — doing what is right, speaking the truth, keeping one’s word; (2) love of others — no slander, no evil done to friends, no discrediting of neighbors; (3) an attitude of holy piety — rejecting the wicked and honoring those who fear God; and (4) economic discretion — no risky investments and not allowing money to cloud one’s judgment.

In a sermon on this psalm, any of these characteristics of the “blameless life” could be developed, especially in conversation with the reading from Mark where Jesus speaks about distinguishing between outward behaviors and inward attitudes. And as noted, the psalm could also be an accompaniment to a sermon dealing with the Hebrews’ migration into the Promised Land. Or it may be that national or local circumstances (an egregious economic or political scandal, for example) would suggest treatment of just one element of the psalm’s exhortation.

Another option, and what I’d like to hear about when I’m in worship on September 2, is a sermon that considers deeply the psalm’s question-and-answer arc. The challenge here will be making judgments about how to refer the key elements of the psalm into or toward our world. What does it mean to abide on God’s “holy hill”; who even desires that life? To whom is the opportunity to dwell in God’s tabernacle available? And how do we understand the relationship between blameless life and sustainable inhabitation there?

To whom in our world might the offer of life in this relationship to God’s dwelling be made? The historical referent is the ancient Hebrews at some point in their history (probably pre-exile). Two aspects of the psalm suggest that the contemporary referent should be persons in covenant relationship with God (i.e., present-day people of faith, the church). First, the offer is to live with God in proximity to religious locations. Second, the psalmist feels no need to explain why dwelling there would be desirable. I don’t mean to preclude an invitation to a secular, cultural audience, only that the marketing language might have to be less sectarian.

Where is this place of abiding? Even in the psalm the terms “tabernacle” and “holy hill” likely refer metaphorically to a quality of life rather than to a narrow geographical location (though the gravitational pull of the first lesson reminds us that there were and are literal “holy hills” in Canaan). The cultic connotations of “tabernacle” and “holy hill” suggest that this quality of life is characterized by nearness to God through worship and a life lived faithfully in God’s instruction. A direct connection between holy obedience and communal security is cemented in the final promise “not be overthrown.”

So, an interesting first challenge for preaching here is to describe the life with God for which “tabernacle” and “holy hill” are compelling metaphorical pointers. A second challenge is determining what sustainable occupation of this “place” might mean. Here the preacher must negotiate the psalm’s lack of moral or spiritual grey zones. Is dwelling in God’s tabernacle an all or nothing proposition (as the first lesson and other scriptural narratives suggest) or do we enjoy less or more of that quality of life depending on our level of obedience (“holy hill” as time share?). The opportunity here is for a preacher to be “like Moses” in envisioning the personal and communal life desired for us by God.


Second Reading

Commentary on James 1:17-27

Sandra Hack Polaski

The book of James is something of an enigma in NT literature.

Is it from the very earliest stratum of the church — the Jewish Christians who looked to Jesus’ brother James as their leader, even before the Gentile mission — or a later, second- or third-generation group who struggled to keep the faith amid stress and persecution? Why does this material bear so many similarities to the teaching of Jesus, yet mention him by name only twice (1:1, 2:1)? Is it written in opposition to Paul’s teaching on faith, or does this author simply understand “faith” differently? Is the text a series of loosely connected teachings strung together, or is there an underlying structure? The preacher of James probably will not need to raise and answer all of these questions in the sermon, but will need to consider them as she or he decides how to interpret the text.

The first chapter of James, in particular, seems to move from topic to topic with little overarching structure. Yet commentators have noted that the major themes of the following chapters of James all appear in chapter one. In a sense, then, this chapter is the overture to James’s opera, the place where ideas are introduced that will be more fully developed only later.

James begins with a greeting to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” then promptly proceeds to establish that members of the readership are undergoing persecution, apparently difficult and prolonged, which they are encouraged to endure for the sake of the reward that awaits them. Neither should they think that God is behind their sufferings, for God gives only good gifts.

This theme — God’s goodness and perfection, and therefore the goodness and perfection of what God gives — is the starting place for the present passage (verse 17). (The phrase “shadow of turning,” familiar to many from the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” comes from the end of verse 17, although most modern translations use “shifting shadow” or “shadow due to change.”) Human beings, brought forth by this good God by means of a word of truth, are to reflect divine goodness and perfection in the world.

Then the author urges his readers to “Know this!”, and we anticipate a major point, perhaps the purpose for which God has made us “first fruits.” What follows, then, may surprise us: we are to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (19). Is this our purpose as Christians? Not going into the world and preaching the gospel? Not teaching and baptizing? We are far more accustomed to hearing that our task as Christians is to speak than that it is to listen. So this command is unexpected, and we need to pay close attention.

From this unexpected starting place James develops an argument that may make us uncomfortable. He creates a set of connections and oppositions that links “mere” hearing to quick, angry, and unprofitable speech, and ultimately to self-deception. On the other side are “doing” and meekness (and no mention of speech at all!), which lead to blessedness. Those of us whose work for God consists largely in crafting theological language and speaking it are beginning to squirm.

One of the notable features of James is the author’s use of vivid, concrete images that, parable-like, both illustrate the author’s points and leave enough ambiguity to tease our minds into active thought (recalling C.H. Dodd’s famous definition of the parable). Presumably the point of looking into a mirror (verses 23-24) is to tell us something about ourselves — our hair needs combing, our lipstick is on crooked — that we remember at least long enough to address the issue. Who checks her hair in a mirror and then forgets to comb it? (Granted, we may suspect this of our teenagers.) But the one who hears without doing, James implies, has what one of my students called “moral Alzheimer’s,” a kind of deep forgetfulness that leaves the religious self unable to function fully.

So this is what James tells us: that we are to be quick to “hear,” because not hearing enough leads us, apparently inevitably, to speech that is angry and unproductive. But hearing alone is not sufficient. We must also “do,” because failing to act is evidence of a fundamental failure to function as God’s first fruits in the world.

In what, then, does our religion consist? Perhaps the second startling turn in this passage is not so unexpected, after all, to those who have followed the argument leading up to it. Pure and undefiled religion, according to James, is this:

  • caring for orphans and widows in their distress
  • keeping oneself unstained from the world

That’s it. The care of “orphans and widows” is a synecdoche for actions taken on behalf of the less fortunate, since in the ancient world widows and orphans were the most vulnerable members of society, singled out for special consideration also in biblical law and prophetic pronouncements. And since such work would necessarily bring one into contact with unbelievers and with the seamier side of human existence, believers are supposed to be careful to avoid participation in practices contrary to their Christian ethic.

Certainly these are important facets of most Christians’ understanding of their religion. They would likely make many Christians’ “top ten.” But James challenges us to imagine a Christianity in which these are vital. What would such a faith and practice look like?

Perhaps, if we as Christians were to follow James’s precepts, we would do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. We would forswear anger and self-deception. We would measure our faith by our personal relationships, both in our habits of speech and our relationships with others in the community. Our primary expression of our religion would be in outreach to the poor and neglected. By such attitudes and actions, James tells us, we fulfill the divine purpose and become first fruits of all God’s creatures.