Lectionary Commentaries for September 16, 2012
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 8:27-38

Matt Skinner

These verses are crucial for understanding the Gospel according to Mark as a whole and for fathoming what it means to be Christian.

The Passage in Context

Almost exactly at the book’s midpoint, this passage initiates a major shift in Mark’s plot. The word Christ has not appeared since the Gospel’s opening verse. We have had seven-plus chapters of Jesus’ ministry, questions asked about his true identity and authority, secrets told and disclosure promised, and demonic powers identifying Jesus as God’s Son. Readers have been given no indication that death awaits Jesus, although if you know the book’s ending maybe you see foreshadowing in his baptism (1:9-11), the opposition he encounters (3:6), and John’s execution (6:14-29).

Suddenly Jesus is near Caesarea Philippi, a very Roman setting and once the limit of ancient Israel’s northward extension. Here he pops the question: “Who do people say that I am?” Now he wants to discuss his reputation, here at this borderland?

Before the scene ends, Jesus announces, for the first of multiple times, his impending suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. He also — finally! — starts to tell his disciples and others just what he wants from them. Already he has beckoned some to follow and appointed apostles (3:13-19a), but now he describes what following means: it’s self-denial and cross-bearing. Now we see where this road of discipleship will lead: in losing one’s life, and ironically thus to save it. Following will also make a particular kind of statement, since crosses figure in the equation. It’s going to get messy.

“Who Do People Say That I Am?”

When people offer John, Elijah, or one of the prophets as responses to Jesus’ question, they give sensible answers. Much of Jesus’ ministry has clearly evoked these figures’ legacy through his calls to repentance, healings, and meals served in the wilderness.

Yet Peter’s claim, “You are the Christ,” makes an astounding statement. So far, Jesus hasn’t done anything that looks particularly “Christ”-like. The few intertestamental Jewish texts that mention “the Christ” paint a very different picture. This means Peter’s comment is anticipatory. Peter cannot be saying, “The stuff you’re doing, Jesus, reminds me of those obscure references we find in some writings about a uniquely anointed — that is, divinely authorized — deliverer.” No, by calling Jesus “the Christ,” at this point in the story, Peter declares, “I think you’re the one who will purify our society, reestablish Israel’s supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness. I’m expecting big things from you.”

No wonder Peter lays into Jesus in verse 32. Suffering? Rejection? Killed? Wasn’t Jesus paying attention when Peter said he was the Christ? Everything Jesus describes in verse 31 would appear to disqualify him from being that person. Good thing Peter is there to straighten him out and show him the path the Christ is supposed to follow.

Peter gets the title right, but the meaning wrong. His confession uses technically accurate language, but he cannot yet see what this language entails.

Not only does Jesus’ identity include his eventual death and resurrection; it will finally be defined by those things.

And so Jesus — just like the Gospel author — embarks on a project of recasting who “the Christ” is and what he will do. Jesus won’t wield power over others; instead, powerful and cynical people will have their way with him.

“If Any Want to Become My Followers…”

It’s precisely at this point, as Jesus speaks about his fate, when he starts making public statements about following him. In verse 34 he addresses “the crowd with his disciples,” and he invites “any” who want to follow him.

Whispered discussions about Jesus’ identity result in an open invitation to participate. Mark’s Jesus isn’t so much about gathering pupils or making sure everyone understands him. He calls followers. Want to see who he really is? Join him.

It is crucial to view Jesus’ invitation (verses 34-38) in connection with what he has just revealed about himself. The imperatives “let them deny themselves” and “let them take up their cross” risk becoming trite aphorisms if we forget they are about following this guy, the one who has just described his fate.1

Self-denial and cross-bearing describe what it means to follow Jesus. These important ideas could be the focus of a whole sermon. I have explored them elsewhere,
for those who desire more detail. Jesus’ portrait of discipleship is anything but attractive or easy.

Self-denial (a notion John Calvin said constitutes “the sum of the Christian life”2) is not primarily about squashing our desires or delaying gratification. Jesus calls us to separate ourselves from what defines us. A person in Jesus’ culture was defined by those to whom he belonged — usually household or kin. Jesus calls people to embrace new understandings of identity. Disciples join a community defined by association with Jesus (who himself denies conventional understandings of who he must be; see Mark 3:31-35); they enter a new family comprising all of Jesus’ followers. Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but complete redefinition.

Self-denial does not mean seeking or embracing abuse for its own sake, as if suffering itself is redemptive or a mark of virtue. Jesus has spent over seven chapters alleviating needless suffering or oppression whenever he encounters it; how could he be endorsing these things here? Do not allow this text to perpetuate or excuse victimization. The kind of suffering Jesus acknowledges as a reality in this passage (verse 35) is a particular kind: persecution resulting from following him. Self-denial and redefinition come with their risks.

Likewise, cross-bearing means much more than patience or obedience. It means death. It means the resignation of one’s reputation and life. Crosses imply rejection; those who bore crosses in the Roman imperial world were publicly declaring that their society or their leaders had denied them. Those who follow Jesus, associating with this vividly rejected Christ, take on an identity and a way of living that pose threats to the world’s corrosive ideologies and idolatries.

Christology and Discipleship

Say it exactly like this in a sermon and people may fall asleep, but it’s nevertheless true: Mark’s Gospel considers Christology and discipleship in an integrated fashion. That is, as Jesus discloses more and more about his identity and fate in this and subsequent passages, he also describes what it means to participate with him. Knowledge about Jesus’ identity is useless if it remains abstract; this Christ calls followers to journey with him. Following Jesus is not a wandering voyage; it points a particular direction, ending up at crucifixion and resurrection.

Want to learn who Jesus really is? Follow him. Remember, it’s a way open to “any.”

What’s the proper response to the truth that he is God’s Anointed? Following him.

What does it mean to follow him, to truly participate in the kingdom he proclaims and the work to which he calls us? It means to expect the same consequences he faced in life and in death. Mark’s view of discipleship is hardly rosy. Presumably Mark’s original readers understood the costs much better than you or I.

Mark’s view on Jesus and his followers also refuses to promise full clarity. Peter’s confusion about Jesus’ fate and authority reminds us of how difficult — how weird — it is to embrace a suffering Christ. We would rather define Jesus according to our own priorities. Following Jesus, with its self-denial and cross-bearing, becomes a lived, enfleshed means of orienting us to who Jesus is and how he becomes known.

Again, Mark 8:34-38 offers an extremely difficult description of what we call Christian discipleship. Mark’s Gospel seems aware of this. Remember, this book concludes with no one still following Jesus, at least in a literal sense. Everyone has fled him by then. But Jesus never denies his followers, even the would-be ones who are bedeviled by so many distractions and competing commitments.

1The plurals (“them,” etc.) in Jesus’ speech in verse 34 are attempts at gender-inclusive translation. In Greek, these are singular; that is, Jesus addresses each individual.
2Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 7.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

Anathea Portier-Young

“I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7 NRSV).

The preacher receives a place of honor during worship. Some of us sit on a special chair, on a raised platform, and when we stand to proclaim the word we step up higher still. We wear special garments that mark and separate us, some richly decorated with quilting, lace, or embroidery. And when we preach, despite our fears to the contrary, people listen, and their eyes look up at us in wonder and admiration. The more confidently we declaim, the more they praise our skill. Preachers are wealthy stakeholders in the economy of honor and shame.

Shame is not simply a personal response to feelings of guilt or impropriety. It is a cultural phenomenon. It is a mechanism of social control that shapes behaviors and inculcates values.

“I gave my back to those who struck me” (Isaiah 50:6 NRSV).

Beating someone’s back in public is a performance of domination. The audience sees the face of the one beating and the face of the one beaten. They see one person standing, head up, legs wide and steady, arm raised in power, beating. They see another person bent, restrained, body contracting and shivering, beaten. An act of public beating claims power, high status, and honor for the one who can inflict such pain, who can force another person to feel what they never want to feel, and to feel it publicly, irrefutably. It assigns low status to the one being beaten, aiming through public shame to deter this person and anyone who views the humiliation and pain from defying the will of those in power.

Sometimes acts of shaming are not so physically brutal. Physical pain is not the only form of power. Every community knows ways to attack a person without leaving visible scars on their bodies.

“… my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard” (Isaiah 50:6 NRSV).

In a culture where the currency of honor is closely tied to gender, such that masculinity is associated with honor and femininity with shame and dishonor, it is common to assail a man’s honor by denying or questioning his manhood (cf. Nahum 3:13: “look at your troops, they are women” NRSV). This can be accomplished by removing or marring visible signs that distinguish a man from a woman. One such sign is a beard.

Second Samuel relates a story in which David sent messengers to offer condolences to Hanun, a neighboring king, at the death of his father. Hanun doubted David’s sincerity; Hanun’s advisers suggested that the messengers were really spies. Hanun shamed David’s messengers by shaving off one side of their beards and cutting their garments at the hips before sending them back on the road to Jerusalem. They were disgraced (niklamim). When David learned of it, he told his messengers to get off the road and stay in Jericho until their beards had grown back (2 Samuel 10:1-5).

“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6 NRSV).

Most in the community will not have license to beat the back or pull the beard of one who has violated their norms or challenged their values. But they can open their mouths and let fly words and spit. These forms of shaming are easy to perform and easy to get away with. They direct verbal and physical expressions of rejection and disgust to the person who has violated social norms and values. Spit sticks. So do words. Being assaulted by these expressions of disgust and rejection can trigger the desire to hide, to become invisible.1

Beating, pulling the beard, insulting, and spitting cause shame when the person to whom these things are being done accepts that she or he has violated shared values and norms. But they are not the only values, and not the only norms. The prophet insists, “I have not been disgraced (niklamti)” (Isaiah 50:7 NRSV).

Many of us will never be beaten or spit at for preaching the gospel. But all of us inhabit a social economy of honor and shame. And not only shame but also honor can be a mechanism of social control.

In the court of honor and shame, those who are shamed are silenced or silence themselves.2 Those who receive honor appear to speak freely but do not — honor is a prize for conformity. Isaiah’s prophet stands and speaks in a different courtroom where the prophet is neither honored nor shamed. The prophet does not accept the values of the community or conform to social norms, not for the sake of status and not even for the sake of safety and health.

And so Isaiah’s prophet does not assume the high status of a teacher in the community (pace NRSV, 50:4). Instead God gives the prophet the tongue of students (limmudîm) and opens the prophet’s ear to listen like students (limmudîm) do. There is neither honor nor shame in possessing the faculties of a student. Instead, students know that they are still learning. They know that the mysteries of heaven and earth, our life with one another, and our life with God are still unfolding before them.

What will it mean for us to preach the word of God with the tongue of students, listen like students do, and still stand up to testify confident in God’s help? What would it mean for us to perceive, examine, and refuse the economy of honor and shame that operates even in our churches? Let us stand up together (50:8) and make the case.

1Michael Lewis, Shame: The Exposed Self (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 2.
2Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 41.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 1:20-33

Wil Gafney

Wisdom is introduced to the reader as a female character in Proverbs 1:20 and the following verses.

But her introduction is really in the opening lines of the book; the proverbs attributed to Solomon are for the purpose of learning about Wisdom. (The lack of capital letters in Hebrew leads to confusion about where to use the capital; I suggest that the opening verses are a prologue to the unit about Wisdom as an entity.)

Wisdom is simultaneously a characteristic or charism of/from God and a Divine One herself, part of and an extension of God. Proverbs is not a theological treatise on the nature of God but rather a poetic reflection on that nature with no need to clarify or even explain its claims and assumptions.

Wisdom is singing loudly, joyously, in the streets when we meet her; the verb in verse 20 (r-n-n) is distinct from the verb “to proclaim,” in verse 21 (q-r-‘). And when she calls out, it is not a genteel ladylike invitation; Wisdom is unacquainted with our stereotypes. Her shouting of a rather sharp invitation suggests the rhetoric of a prophet; proverbs, mishlei, are one genre of prophetic speech. She asks the young, naïve, uneducated how long they will choose to remain young, naïve and uneducated and even more sharply accuses them of being scoffers who hate knowledge in verse 21. The entire unit, verses 20-33, is her prophetic proverbial oracle, delivered in the first person.

Wisdom continues to command in verse 23: “Pay attention!” Her language is strong; “reproof” is synonymous with “rebuke” and “punish.” In a Pentecostal moment she pours out her spirit (not “thoughts” as in NRSV) in a gushing torrent, making her words known as the Torah was similarly made known on Sinai. Continuing to evoke the Exodus narrative, Wisdom stretched out her hand as God did against Pharaoh and against Egypt, (see Exodus 3:20; 7:5; 9:15), but her conversation partners ignored her, verse 25. She will laugh at those who reject her instruction — a hard image to be sure — in verse 26. Here distress and difficulty, “calamity,” is utterly avoidable had the young, naïve and uneducated chosen to listen to and learn from her. This blaming of the unfortunate is not a terribly useful or even pastoral response, but it is an understandable one for many, the need to say, “I told you so!”

Sadly, when the afflicted realized that (divine) Wisdom is what they needed all along in verse 28, she will not be found by them, perhaps evoking Is 55:6, “Seek the LORD while God may be found,” or Hosea 5:6, “…they shall seek the LORD but shall not find God for God has withdrawn from them.” Those who rejected, (“hated”), knowledge in verse 29 will be free of the blessings of wisdom and knowledge — intentionally lowercase here. Like Pharaoh of old, they will be given over to their hearts’ own destructive desires in verse 31. This is a common biblical motif, albeit one that does not translate easily to contemporary understandings.

In contrast to those who essentially bring hard times upon themselves by rejecting Wisdom — including Torah and the God of Torah and Wisdom, those who listen to Wisdom will live at ease and not fear evil, (“disaster” in NRSV), in verse 33. The text does not say what it means to “live at ease,” leaving room for interpretation. I suggest that we not read being at ease as not having any difficulty or distress — which would be unreasonably beyond human experience — but rather as being at ease no matter what comes. Secure in our relationship with Wisdom we are not insulated from disaster or evil, but perhaps we are inoculated; immune from fear and thereby enabled to endure, survive and thrive in (spite of) whatever life brings.


Commentary on Psalm 116:1-9

Karl Jacobson

Psalm 116 is a song of thanksgiving of an individual, a poem written after a difficult time of life has been endured, survived, or overcome.

It may seem strange, at times, to recite an individual’s song as a community in worship, but the individuals’ song was most likely written just for this purpose: that the whole congregation could hear what God has done for an individual. The individual bears witness to the group that God has been active in her life, and so encourages all who hear.

It is typical of the psalms of thanksgiving for the specifics of the psalmist’s trials to be largely ignored, leaving room for often effusive praise of God. This is precisely how Psalm 116 begins, with the psalmist saying that he loves God because…

  • verse 1  I love the Lord because (Hebrew Kî) he has heard my voice and my supplications.
    The psalmist then continues to list reasons why she loves God:
  • verse 2 … because (Hebrew Kî) God has inclined the ear to me…
  • verse 7 … for (Hebrew Kî) the Lord has dealt bountifully…
  • verse 8 … for (Hebrew Kî) God has delivered my soul…

The reasons for giving thanks, one of the primary elements of the song-of-thanksgiving-psalm, are reiterated throughout the psalm. The pattern of “I ‘x’ because God has ‘y’,” that is so central to the psalm might be an important and fruitful avenue of proclamation based on the psalm. 

Congregations and individuals do well to remember, and to bear witness publicly, to those ways in which they have felt God to have been active in their daily lives. Other Christians, other believers, and of course other spiritual seekers need to hear this. When we find ourselves in the midst of difficult times it is of utmost importance that we hear from others that these times can be endured, survived, and overcome, due to God’s care and provision.

The psalm itself serves not only as witness to what God has done but as the thanksgiving and praise that is due to God. Having prayed for help, and having experienced all the bounty of the Lord in response (cf. verse 12), the psalmist is now making good on the vow she made to sing God’s praises. Verses 12-14, not included in the selected reading in the lectionary, paint the picture of the psalmist’s sense of obligation in response to God’s grace:

What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD,
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.

A useful exercise might be for the preacher of this psalm to encourage the listener to first listen to the psalmist’s litany of “How do I love thee (O Lord) let me count the ways…” and then to beg the question for ourselves: Why do we love the Lord?
What do we owe our God in response for all that God has done for us — from the seminal act of creating us as individual living beings, to providing for us in our daily living (as Luther puts it, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil”1), to drawing us into the community of the redeemed through the Word.

For all of this, from life to faith, we owe God a song of thanksgiving and the witness to the world of all that God has done for us. Here again we might ask the question, “What might such a song of thanksgiving look like for us?” Is there an opportunity of/for confession, of bearing witness to God’s activity in the lives of our own people that might be explored?

One final note. Psalm 116, with its thanksgiving to God and the witness it bears, is set between two extremes, between two “existences” if you will: between Sheol — the land of the dead (verse 3), and the land of the living (verse 9). Sheol, which is literally the place where all who have died go in the ancient Israelite understanding of life and death, is often employed metaphorically in the psalms.

Sheol is not just a place — the land of the dead — but it is a state of being. The psalmist feels dead, and is lost, forlorn, troubled, while still very much alive. The benefits of God’s actions are that the psalmist is delivered from “death” and restored to a life that really feels like living. This produces not only “life,” but trust in God. With this in mind the preacher might consider adding (sic: keeping) verses 10-11, because with them in mind there is something of a chiastic structure to the psalm:

  • Verses 1-2     “I love the Lord”
  • Verse 3     Sheol/death
  • Verses 4-8     God answers, delivers, saves
  • Verse 9     Life
  • Verses 10-11     “I kept faith”

The witness that is the core of the psalm, that God delivers, is centered at first by these two extremes, the experience of a death-like state and the restoration to “the land of the living,” and second by the declaration of the psalmist that she loves the Lord (because the Lord delivers) and that she kept faith even in troubling times (because the Lord delivers).

Christians may be inclined to rush to the eternal salvation promised in Christ Jesus, and this is not altogether wrong. But there is something very this-worldy about the promise as well. The promise is that because of what God does — listening to our supplications, answering our prayers, promising us life out of death, this life is transformed as well. And is that not worthy of our thanks, and proclamation?

1Martin Luther, “The First Article,” in The Small Catechism, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).

Second Reading

Commentary on James 3:1-12

Sandra Hack Polaski

The preacher encountering this text might be forgiven for the sudden urge to suggest, in lieu of the sermon, that the congregation engage in a time of silent prayer.

This passage begins with a stern warning to those who teach and proceeds to a set of pronouncements, nearly a tirade, on how the human tongue is dangerous and evil, that inevitably it does more harm than good, and that our only hope is to some extent to keep it under control.

James casts his warning to those who teach in the first person plural, indicating clearly that he understands himself to be one of the teachers of the congregation. In any case, he makes it clear that, far from garnering special favor from God, the act of teaching earns one extra scrutiny from God, since the always-dangerous act of speaking is fraught with even greater peril when the speech is accorded authority. The observation that no human being is perfect may be commonplace, but James insightfully links authority to greater risk of harm stemming from imperfection in speech.

Much attention has been given to the three metaphors developed in verses 3-7. Each explores a different aspect of the tongue, which is itself a metaphor for the power of human speech. So James piles metaphor upon metaphor, yet the images he portrays are clear, so that we are able to follow his points.

The first metaphor, that of guiding a horse with a bridle, is the most simple and straightforward. The rider or chariot driver directs the strength, speed, and direction of a horse much larger than himself by means of a bit in the horse’s mouth — an implement which, incidentally, functions by pressing against the animal’s tongue. Quite literally, then, the one who is able to control the horse’s tongue with the bit in its mouth controls its whole body.

The metaphor of the ship’s rudder introduces additional aspects to the metaphor. The captain, rudder, and ship are analogous to the rider or driver, bit, and horse in the previous image. This time, however, we also consider the influence of outside forces: wind and waves that would take the ship on a different course or destroy it altogether. The captain who is able to keep control of the rudder, like the person able to keep control of one’s tongue, can weather difficult circumstances and emerge intact and on course.

The third metaphor develops in a distinctly different direction than the first two. After all, the bit and the rudder are simply tools. In James’s view, however, there is a sense in which the tongue is not simply a tool to be utilized but an agent independent of its possessor. The metaphor of the igniting flame, like those of the bit and the rudder, deals with small entities with large effects. Unlike the bit and the rudder, though, the flame is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and what it sets in motion is not purposeful but destructive. This aspect of the danger of uncontrolled speech is of particular importance to James, and he goes on at some length to describe its disruptive nature, upsetting the entire created order (verse 6, lit. “wheel of birth”). Ultimately, this fire has its source in the everlasting fires of Gehenna (“hell”), vividly imaged for those who lived in the vicinity of Jerusalem by the trash dump which smoldered continuously, fed by the city’s refuse.

James returns to a figure that recalls that of the bit in the horse’s mouth — but with a difference. The horse is tamed by human beings in order to be controlled by a bridle; likewise, other creatures of all species can be subdued by the human species. The tongue alone remains untamable, “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (verse 8).

Are we at this point to assume that James sees the tongue as inherently evil, controllable with effort but incapable of real change? Or should we read the other side of his metaphors, to recognize, for example, that the spark that starts the raging inferno can also light the home fire that cooks our food and warms our weary bones? Such is the nature of metaphorical language that we must make our own determination as to which way the images should turn. It seems, however, that if we do not allow these metaphors to be multivalent, the next section of the passage is unrelieved cynicism. If the tongue — that is, human speech — is inevitably evil, our attempts to do good in our speech are self-deception at best, at worst insults to God.

It does not seem likely that James intends the picture to remain so gloomy. Rather, verses 9-12 open up new possibilities in James’s metaphors, signaling a shift in perspective from what comes before, and may signal a major shift in the sermon as well. Despite our own experience that the tongue is unruly, that controlling our speech is a never-ending struggle, we can affirm other, quite different experiences.

We do, in fact, bless God with our voices, and we do so sincerely, without reservations or false motives. And if this is the case, then we begin to imagine a situation in which all the dire warnings James has issued about the tongue may not necessarily doom us. In fact, if we are able to bless God with our tongues (and we are), it should follow that we are not the kind of people whose tongues lead them astray — a point James immediately follows up, as before, with images drawn from nature. If we are fig trees, we cannot bear olives. If we are grapevines, we cannot bear figs. No more can we bless God and curse people made in the divine image.

Ultimately James calls on us to examine ourselves closely — an examination focusing largely on the words that come out of our mouths — and determine who we truly are. We will either be one or the other (a theme to be developed more fully in next week’s text). Perhaps we can control that unruly tongue, after all. But to do so will require constant attention to who we are and what God has made us to be.