Lectionary Commentaries for September 9, 2012
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 7:24-37

Matt Skinner

Now here’s a Gospel reading capable of kicking off a church’s new program year with gusto.

It reminds us that God’s reign is neither easily regulated nor decorously parceled out. The abundance this kingdom promises has a tendency to burst the seams. Moreover, the passage expands our understanding of what counts as real “faith.”

Tell your congregations to stay expectant; their persistence just might pay off and uncover grace flowing in new directions this autumn.

“Caught with His Compassion Down”1

As Gospel stories go, this one is odd. Why is Jesus in Tyre, of all places, so distant from rural Galilee in terms of mileage as well as culture? Why is he apparently alone and seeking to elude everyone’s notice? How did this woman learn about and find him?

Most important, why the palpable rudeness? Nowhere else does he refuse a direct request to heal someone. Nowhere else does he respond to a suppliant with a bald insult like this, calling her and her afflicted daughter “dogs.” Is he categorizing these people as unclean gentiles? (This would be especially shocking, given what the verses preceding this passage have just said about purity.) Are they “dogs” because they are wealthy? Because the Syrians and Phoenicians had historically not been Israel’s nicest neighbors? Is he lumping the mother and daughter together with other Tyrians who had recently oppressed the local Jewish population?

Although Jesus’ motives are not clear, the thrust of his refusal is. This entirely out of character with our usual image of a generously compassionate savior.2

The Interpretive Crux

Every interpreter must make at least one key decision about this story: Is the woman passing a test or winning an argument? Some argue that Jesus’ initial denial (verse 27) must be uttered with a playful gleam in his eye, that he’s giving the woman a chance to express the faith he knows dwells within her before he gladly heals her daughter. This would make the story rather unique within Mark, and the woman the only person who has to endure and own a derogatory slur before receiving Jesus’ mercy. In the end, I find little to commend the “passing the test” interpretations.

But perhaps Jesus means what he says and has no intention of expelling a demon from the Syrophoenician girl. Perhaps the mother argues Jesus into doing otherwise.

For one thing, in saying “Let the children be fed first,” Jesus implies that the time is not right. Blessings may come to gentiles, in time, but for now his work is on behalf of Jews. His answer is not “Absolutely not,” but “Not just yet.” This interpretation seems most in line with the story Mark tells. It’s the strange lack of compassion or imagination on Jesus’ part that makes many people resist such a reading. For others, it’s difficulty with believing that a divine Jesus might be persuaded to change his mind about something (see Numbers 23:19, but compare Genesis 18:16-33; Exodus 32:14; Jonah 3:9).

Notice, second, what Jesus says in verse 29: he expels the demon dia touton ton logon — “because of this reasoning” the woman puts forward. It’s because of her logos, her statement that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her argument. Her logic.

It’s not simply that she cleverly reconfigures Jesus’ metaphors of crumbs and canines to fit her desires. Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility. It appears she recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to. Go ahead, children, eat all you want. But what if your table can’t contain all the food Jesus brings? (Recall the leftovers when Jesus fed 5000, and perhaps more, in Mark 6:43.) The excess must therefore start spilling to the floor — even now.

The woman also recognizes the potency of this “food.” She doesn’t demand to be treated as one of the “children.” Look, Mister, I’m not asking for a seat at the table. My daughter is suffering. All I need from you is a crumb or two. I know that will do the job. But I’m going to need it right now. Parents of really sick children don’t wait around.

New Directions

It’s as if the anonymous woman inexplicably understands implications of what Jesus announced in Mark 7:14-23. Aren’t Jews and gentiles in the same boat, in terms of what makes all of them defiled? Then why should gentiles have to wait to participate in the blessings made possible through the reign of Israel’s God?

In any case, immediately after leaving Tyre, Jesus’ work goes a new way. He cures a man who cannot hear and can barely speak, then feeds 4000 people. Those events occur, apparently, in the Decapolis (Mark 7:31-8:10), a region populated chiefly by gentiles. Although Mark doesn’t call attention to the ethnic identity of these people, it seems Jesus takes the Syrophoenician mother’s wisdom to heart. The timeline has been accelerated; gentiles receive blessings, too, even now. The woman’s persistence benefits more than just one little girl.

Her persistence persuades Jesus to do new things in his ministry.

Desperate Resolve = Faith

Thanks be to God for this tenacious Syrophoenician theologian. But don’t lose track of the simplicity of her achievement. Her theology doesn’t originate in books and study; it’s an expression of painfully experienced need and fierce motherly love.

Jesus commends the woman’s logos (“reasoning”) but says nothing about pistis (“faith”) — strange, perhaps, in light of other Markan passages that connect faith to receiving blessings (2:5; 5:34, 36; 9:23-24; 10:52). For some interpreters, this makes the Syrophoenician mother mostly a model of determination or verbal dexterity rather than faith.

I disagree and have explained elsewhere why I’m convinced the woman does exemplify faith. In doing so, she makes us consider what “faith” even means. Notice, especially, her persistent efforts (refusing to go away until she gets what she came for), her hopeful insight (refusing to believe even a tiny speck of grace isn’t out of reach and knowing just a scrap can make the difference for her), and — in the end — her trusting acceptance (her willingness to take Jesus at his word and journey home alone to confirm her daughter’s healing).

Who says things like desperation and tenacity aren’t the same thing as faith, when that desperation and tenacity are brought to Jesus? In Mark, “faith” is hardly about getting Jesus’ name or titles right, nailing the right confession, or articulating proper doctrine. It’s about clinging to Jesus and expecting him to heal, to restore, to save. It’s about demanding he do what he says he came to do.

Look for the Syrophoenician woman in the back row of church this Sunday. Maybe she’s the one whose reputation discourages her from getting involved or the one who slips out during the last hymn to avoid having to mix with the churchy “insiders.” But she keeps coming back, fiercely convinced that if anything you preach week-in and week-out is true, then it’s got to be true for her, too.

Like Jacob (Genesis 32:26), she’s not letting go until she gets her blessing.

Let her faith compel all of us to recognize new implications in a truly abundant gospel.

1Sharon H. Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), 69.
2This passage includes a number of disturbing — and potentially empowering — dimensions in its portrait of Jesus and its implications for ethnicity and gender. For a fine discussion, see Sharon H. Ringe, A Gentile Woman’s Story, Revisited: Rereading Mark 7.24-31,” in A Feminist Companion to Mark, ed. Amy-Jill Levine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 79-100.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 35:4-7a

Anathea Portier-Young

The oracle begins with a command to speak, to proclaim words that remedy weakness and conquer fear (Isaiah 35:4).

Who needs to hear this word of strength and courage? The prophet names the audience for the sermon you will preach. In the NRSV they are “those who are of a fearful heart” (Isaiah 35:4). It’s not a bad translation, especially in light of the instruction “do not fear” later in the same verse.

But a more literal rendering of the Hebrew phrase nimharê lēb yields, “ones whose hearts are racing.” Isaiah calls you to preach to people whose hearts are racing.

As you prepare your sermon, I ask you to attend to the vivid, bodily imagery of this phrase, and to notice that Isaiah’s oracle is in fact filled with vivid bodily imagery. We move too quickly to treat such imagery as metaphor, as mere poetic device. When we do, we fail to mark the reality it discloses. That reality beats in your own chest and pumps between the ribs of every person who waits for you to proclaim the word of God.

The heart races. We know something about this. A hormone we call adrenaline or epinephrine courses through the bloodstream. It stimulates muscles, directs blood-flow, and accelerates metabolism. At the same time, it causes the senses to close in — the field of vision narrows and the world becomes strangely quiet. It is a stress response. It might energize the body for battle, or to run away. Or it might mimic paralysis.

Attend, as you prepare your sermon this week, to the fact that you are preaching to people in bodies. Their bodies might be telling them to fight or to run. Another’s body might want to run, but feels inexplicably frozen in place. Theory has it that we evolved these responses for situations of acute danger. Yet for most of us the world we now live in bombards our nervous systems with stimuli, or stressors, almost constantly. The danger is not usually acute, but our bodies have a limited repertoire for dealing with stress. A response that may, in extreme danger, help save our lives, more often breaks us down.

Attend to the racing hearts in your congregation. This one fights with everyone who gets close. This one’s body now fights with itself. This one hasn’t stopped running in years. Another is so terrified that she cannot even speak. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Hearts race in hope.

At the center of this passage’s first verse is a word I do not much like: “vengeance” (naqam). Usually when I read through this lection I find myself skittering past that word as quickly as possible. But I trip and land squarely on it, and decide that I’m not likely to understand what is going on in this passage if I do not attend to why the word holds such a prominent place. For this is the promise that purports to drive out fear. We are supposed to show the people that their God is right here in this place, close enough to touch. And we are supposed to promise that vengeance will come. I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news. 

Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels has shown that the Hebrew word naqam, the one translated by NRSV in this verse as “vengeance” (NAB offers “vindication”; NJPS translates here “requital”), refers to retribution by a legitimate authority. In Isaiah 35:4 and similar texts, it has the further emphasis of “retribution that brings liberation to the oppressed[,] … freedom from a situation of need and the restoration of justice.”1 Its meaning is closer, then, to what we call “restorative justice” than to “vengeance.”

The word naqam is further modified and delimited in this verse by the appositive phrase, gemûl elohim, translated in the NRSV as “terrible recompense.” This is an artful rendering, but a more literal translation reveals a wider range of possible meanings for the phrase. The Hebrew word gemûl often means simply “dealing”; it could also be translated “response,” “benefit,” or “payment.” We might translate the phrase here as “God’s response” or “God’s dealing.”

Say to the people, God is here. Restorative justice is on its way. Hope now in God’s dealing. Expect God’s response.

And this promise of God’s response, the command to proclaim that God is here right now and is working to make things right, focuses our attention on the need, in this place at this very moment, for restoration, repair, healing and transformation. It focuses our attention once again on the beating, racing hearts of the real people in our churches and communities. It demands that we see what they are running from, what they are fighting, what has immobilized them and stolen their voices. And it demands that we see and name their hope.

To preach this passage, then, you will need to exegete not only text but also context. The oracle gives no sure clues as to its own originating context. The contexts it calls you to interpret are your own and those of the people who have called you to preach. You are called also to exegete embodied human life. Only then can you speak words of strength and courage to the ones whose hearts are racing.

1Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Wil Gafney

The book of Proverbs includes a collection of folk wisdom sayings of various lengths so that in some chapters the individual verses are not actually related to each other.

Therefore Proverbs is the one biblical book where the lectionary practice of skipping verses is easily justified. Today’s lesson is a collection of verses that speak about the poor.

In verses 1-2 the poor are those who simply lack the resources of wealthier people. The word, ras, is rare, but popular in Proverbs. (Sixteen of its twenty-four uses are in the Proverbs. In other cases, David’s self-description in 1 Samuel 18:23 and Nathan’s description of the man in his parable whose lone lamb is stolen, 2 Samuel 12:1-3 use the word. It is noticeably lacking in the Prophets.) In verses 8-9 and 22-23, the poor are dal, a much more common word in the Torah and the Prophets, suggesting abject poverty and helplessness.

The first unit in today’s reading, verses 1-2, does not reject wealth or wealthy people, but it does value a person’s reputation, “name,” above their wealth. The second unit, verses 8-9, should probably be amended to include verse 7: “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” The rule of the rich over the poor and the (lack of) ethics between debtors and the indebted in verse 7 is related to the “injustice” of verse 8 — the Hebrew “iniquity” is stronger than indicated by the NRSV here. Verse 9 blesses the one who shares what they have (bread) with the poor, in opposition to the lending (implying also collecting interest) in verse 7.

The final unit begins with what should probably be read as a forceful command, “Do not rob the poor!” Why not? “Because they are [already] poor!” One might think that goes without saying, but apparently not. The helpless poor, dal, are linked with the oppressed poor, ‘oni; the word is used even more widely than dal in the Torah and Prophets. And, for those who might persist in asking “why not?” the answer is that the Lord prosecutes, (a legal term, riyv, “pleads” in NRSV) the legal cases of the poor, seizing the financial assets of the abusive, wealthy, defendants.

Verse 9 is the one that fuels my exegetical imagination. It blesses the generous who share what they have with the poor. The generous soul here is one with “a good eye,” (as opposed to an “evil” or “stingy” eye). The generous person sees and takes note of the needs of the poor; seeing is an intrinsic part of this generosity. Significantly, the text does not claim that one does not have to be wealthy to be generous. That the generous soul “shares” rather than “gives” may suggest that the generous person does not have an abundance of wealth from which to give charity.

And, this sharing suggests something else to me: I imagine a common meal, a table to which the poor is graciously welcome to share the bread of the generous soul who sees and meets the need, by inviting the poor to her or his own table, nourishing the dignity of the poor as well as meeting their basic needs. This is a different model of benevolence than simply writing a check.


Commentary on Psalm 146

Henry Langknecht

The first lesson addresses a fearful people with a prophetic promise that God will bring justice, salvation, and healing.

God’s redemptive action applies not only to humans but even extends to the hydration of the desiccated earth. The magnitude of the restoration (or the depth of the despair of the ailing — or both!) is suggested by the promise that when the great day comes the lame will not merely walk but dance, the mute not merely speak but sing.

Psalm 146 responds to the first lesson by giving us the lyrics of the song that they — and the whole restored creation — might sing! The psalm does not reveal the where or what of the specific event that elicits praise, though in the later verses we find echoes of the promises made in the first lesson.

Verse 1 is an exuberant first person reflexive imperative (the psalmist’s sticky-note reminder): “Praise the LORD, O my soul!” Verse 2 then broadens the scope; the psalmist declares to all who hear that God has acted in such a way that the resounding praise will last the psalmist’s whole life.

In verse 3 the psalmist begins to explain and describe why God is worthy of this endless praise. The dominant frame is the trustworthiness of God’s sovereignty in terms of both its duration (forever) and its salutary effects (justice, healing, etc.). In terms of structure, duration dominates insofar as it brackets the catalog of effects through a grand antithesis.

In verses 3 and 4 the psalmist reminds us of the fixed limitation of all human endeavor: mortality. We have here no negative commentary on human rule or activity, no lament about lack of human wisdom, morality, or will. The trouble is that humans die; their thoughts perish. The antithesis is completed in final verse (verse 10) with the word that God “reigns forever … throughout all generations.”

The interior verses have the feel of an extended beatitude introduced in verse 5 by “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help …” Verses 6-9 contain a mini-salvation history and catalogue of God’s beneficent activities, all of which are positive until the last. God creates, keeps promises, gives justice, feeds the hungry, sets captives free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up the lowly, loves the righteous, and cares for strangers, orphans, and widows. The only negative action mentioned is the relatively mild, “… but frustrates the way of the wicked.”

Psalms of praise present a challenge to preachers in that they often fail to provide clues as to the concrete or historical actions that elicit the praise — we have no “itch” or “scratch” but only the sigh of relief. In Psalm 146 we hear of the concrete actions of God and the troubles they overcome.

I’m composing this reflection in the late spring of a presidential election year and already I’m weary of the weariness I feel as I am asked to trust “mortals in whom there is no help.” When I’m in worship on September 9, eight weeks from election day I’d like to hear a sermon that grapples thoughtfully with the warnings in verses 3 and 4, “Put not your trust in rulers, … when they breathe their last … their thoughts perish.”

Even the historical psalmist lived as a citizen of some regime that provided some good. And certainly those of us who live in the developed or developing world enjoy many benefits of human governance — in spite of our cynicism. Help me take seriously the antithetical relationship the psalmist’s words reveal even as I seek to discern how God accomplishes God’s promises through human initiatives and governance.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

Sandra Hack Polaski

The second chapter of James opens with an illustration that is as relevant in the contemporary church as it must have been to James’s first readers.

I daresay nearly every one of us who sits on a platform or in a choir loft during the worship service has at some point seen a stranger entering the service late, and immediately, without meaning to do so, inferred from the stranger’s manner of dress and demeanor whether they are in search of a worship experience or seeking a handout. In James’s words, we have “become judges with evil thoughts” (verse 4). Ouch.

Of course, a middle-class contemporary reading of this text shows some points of sharp contrast from the experience of first-century readers. While there were the very rich (i.e., the emperor and his retinue) and the rich (i.e., landowners), the vast majority of folk, and almost certainly the vast majority if not the entirety of James’s readers, were what we would think of as “poor”: owning no land and few personal possessions, and spending all their income on life’s daily necessities.

By all rights they ought to identify with the destitute man who enters their congregation: he could be any one of them, denied a few days’ work by a bad harvest, injury, or just plain bad luck. Yet instead they cast their entire, almost desperate hope on this individual who appears to have what they lack (notice that he is not initially described as “rich,” only as sumptuously dressed). In their eagerness to curry favor with the well-off, they slight the one with whom they should be in solidarity.

It is also valuable to consider this story in canonical context, that is, as enriching and being enriched by the similar stories and illustrations that come from Jesus’ lips in the Gospels. The description of the rich man’s clothing and finery immediately calls to mind the similar description in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), a story that straightforwardly describes a reversal of fortunes after death, with the poor man being favored and the rich man suffering in agony.

The instructions to the visitors as to where to sit or stand recalls Jesus’ instructions to would-be banquet guests (Luke 14:7-11) and again stresses themes of reversal: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (verse 11). The intertextual echoes reinforce James’s warning against identifying with the rich, especially against one’s own best interests.

But this passage is disturbingly familiar to many first-world, middle-class congregations due to a meaning that would not have emerged for the original, first-century readers: by projecting social distance between the church members and the poor visitor, the story exposes the social situation in which we perceive ourselves. Most of us are not “the rich” by our own standards, either as individuals or as congregations. Our legal practices are far more evenhanded than those of the first century, but many of us still feel oppressed or manipulated by “the system.”

Some churches somewhere may have programs that are fully endowed, or members with deep pockets who fund whatever the congregation resolves to do, but most of our churches are supported financially by members who give sacrificially, and most of us find that church budgeting involves making difficult choices between important priorities. Indeed, those congregations that are most committed to aiding the poor and marginalized in their communities and around the world often find making these choices the most painful, as they struggle with the multiple demands of responsible Christian stewardship.

Yet most of us are not “the poor” either, and it is very easy for us to think of the truly poor as the “other,” those who are “in need,” with whom our relationship is strictly that of giver and receiver. James is speaking to many of us who are active in social justice when he indicts those attitudes that hold the recipients of our ministry at arm’s length. Actions that protect our privileged status as givers and fail to engage the humanity of those who receive our ministry are not, in truth, faithful works, but deeds that reinforce our attitudes of favoritism. James pulls no punches: he calls such behavior sin.

(The lectionary brackets the next three verses [11-13]. These may sound surprisingly like Paul to us, but Paul and James are far from alone among first-century Jewish authors in developing the theme that transgression against one aspect of the law is transgression against the entire law. The precise function of “law” in James’s argument is a topic that could take considerable development, and in my view the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary do well to leave this digression for another time.)

In verses 14-17, James clearly has in mind a person or group of people who place a great deal of emphasis on the verbal proclamation of their faith. (Later on James will have a good deal more to say about the untrustworthiness of the tongue, but that is a topic for another sermon.) Here, James pits himself firmly against the view that faith is primarily a matter of disposition or even of confession. It is not what we think or say but what we do that matters to James, and he has no trouble whatsoever speaking of the necessity of “works.”

The figure James uses in illustration of this point is, again, just as vivid, just as easy to imagine, in a contemporary context as in a first-century one. It may first be tempting to let ourselves off the hook by presuming that the believer who sends a needy person away with pious platitudes must be a hypocrite who means nothing that he says. But James’s portraits are more incisively drawn than this, and there is no evidence to support the idea that “Go in peace” (a phrase Jesus spoke frequently to those he healed) is intended here as a meaningless platitude.

No: James intends that we see ourselves here. Whenever we encounter a man or woman in need (James’s mention of a “brother or sister” [verse 15] likely reminds readers that women were often the neediest and least protected members of society) and pledge to add them to our prayer list, assuring them that God is powerful and will surely fulfill their needs, but we do not do what is in our power to meet their physical needs — we have failed. Our words about the sufficiency of divine power may, in fact, be true. But our faith, if it is expressed only by the words we speak, is a cold and worthless corpse.