Lectionary Commentaries for September 23, 2012
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Mark 9:30-37
Amy G. Oden
Commentary on Jeremiah 11:18-20
Terence E. Fretheim
The book of Jeremiah is filled with tears.
The devastating events relating to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE are the fundamental backdrop of this weeping and mourning.
Jeremiah 11-20 consists basically of a series of interwoven laments on the part of God, prophet, and people. God voices laments (12:7-13; 13:15-17, 20-27; 14:2-6, 17-18; 15:5-9; 18:13-17) as do the people (14:7-9, 19-22). Jeremiah’s laments fit into this lament-filled context. His first lament is 11:18-20, to which God responds in 11:21-23 (see also 12:1-4; 15:10, 15-18; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13, 14-18). These laments are voiced in response to threats to Jeremiah’s life from those opposed to his ministry. Though conventionally called “confessions,” they are neither confessions of sin nor confessions of faith. Their content and form is similar to many lament psalms and they are best interpreted in terms of that genre.
Announcements of judgment are woven within and around these laments. This linkage of laments and judgment oracles strongly suggests how the latter are to be interpreted. Whatever readers might think of the harsh indictments and judgments in Jeremiah, the text calls us into a context filled with weeping and mourning on the part of all involved, including God. In their common lamenting, God and prophet join together in one grand “liturgy” of mourning.
These laments are likely grounded in the personal prayers of the prophet and they reflect Jeremiah’s calling to be the spokesman of God to a people antagonistic to such a word. Jeremiah feels squeezed between an insistent God and a resistant people. As such, these prayers are blunt, intense, and uncompromising in their voicing of complaints to God regarding this calling from which he is not able to escape (see Jeremiah 20:7-18).
This text consists of a lament by the prophet (verses 18-20) and a response by God (verses 21-23). Verse 18 is difficult to translate, but its basic sense is this: Jeremiah recognizes that God (“you”) had revealed threats against his life. He considers himself to be like a “gentle lamb led to the slaughter,” that is, innocent of these plans to take his life, perhaps too trusting of his antagonists. This metaphor can be linked to other texts that speak of a sacrificial lamb (see Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29, 36); yet, Jeremiah claims no vicarious import for his suffering.
The plots against Jeremiah — a theme in chapters that follow (e.g., 18; 26; 36-38) — are made especially vivid through a quotation from the schemers plotting to kill Jeremiah. They will destroy the tree that is Jeremiah, not just diminish his life by removing the fruit which serves as his food. In so doing, they will erase his name from memory. Given that resurrection was not a belief at this point in Israel’s life, they are attempting to obliterate any memory of him in the community.
In response to this threat, Jeremiah pleads that God exercise proper justice against his pursuers (verse 20; a theme in Jeremiah’s laments, as in the lament psalms, e.g., Psalm 3:7; 6:10). Notably, Jeremiah himself does not take action against his enemies, or contemplate such activity. He hands the matter over to God. For God to bring “retribution” is for God to see to the moral order so that evildoers suffer the consequences of their actions (see 5:9, 29; 9:9).
God directly responds to Jeremiah’s lament (verses 21-23). This response identifies that Jeremiah’s antagonists are the people of Anathoth — his own family and neighbors! Their basic concern is to stop him from preaching judgment in the name of Yahweh. God pronounces judgments on those who have threatened to kill Jeremiah. God will “visit” (NRSV, “punish”) their own deeds upon their heads; verse 23 returns to the theme of “visitation” (NRSV, “punishment”). What goes around comes around!
A key question: of what value are these laments for an exilic audience? This exilic community has literally been through hell in the recent past. Their wounds are deep, the questions fierce, and their guilt and shame are openly displayed. What would be the best way to speak the word of God into such a situation?
The word of God for such a community needed to bring together both realism and honesty, but at the same time give voice to the pain and sorrow that God and prophet had suffered. Only through such an open expression of grief, combined with a word of hope, might there be a way through the gloom of great loss. These laments thus serve to confront readers with their own past and the profoundly negative effects their words and deeds have had on God and prophet.
These laments of Jeremiah reveal that the prophet is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Jeremiah lives in a pressure cooker. On the one hand, he has been called to speak the word of God, a strong word of indictment and an even harsher word of judgment. But he is never comfortable in doing so. He is despondent and despairing over the harsh message he is called to bring — even though it comes from God. Jeremiah feels the unending pressure from God to be true to his calling. He retains a capacity to react sharply to this extraordinarily difficult calling and his laments pour forth. Increasingly, he senses that he stands alone with God against his audience.
At the same time, Jeremiah is confronted with the opposition of the people at every turn. However much the word he speaks is like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:29), that word could be resisted and usually was. They not only resist the word of God, they resist the one who speaks that word. They not only reject the God whose word was being spoken, they bear down on the prophet himself. They apparently make no distinction between the word and the person. Jeremiah is rejected as much as is God. But, in every such case, Jeremiah provides a model in showing that no bearer of such a word can do so with integrity without deep personal discomfort and sorrow.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31
Amy G. Oden
This familiar passage tends to draw a strong response, either positively or negatively, but rarely neutral.
Read the WorkingPreacher.org commentary by Brent Strawn in 2009 for a solid treatment of the patriarchal layers in this passage that would have women “working everywhere…on everything…for everyone.”
We recognize in ancient texts the power dynamics that allow men to idealize female virtue in terms that benefit men and often harm women. Notice that this text cannot even imagine a virtuous woman who is unmarried, that is, who is not in relation to a male as wife.
We might expect contemporary audiences to bring resistance to the seeming perfectionism of these verses that sets women up to chronically fall short. Do not shy away from this critique of the text. It’s important to problematize for both men and women this depiction of “a capable wife.” Still, beyond this, what else can we say about and hear within this text?
Proverbs is part of wisdom literature. While the Bible includes narrative, law (torah), history and gospels, it also includes several books categorized as “wisdom literature”: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom and Sirach. These books address how to live a wise and faithful life, often in very practical terms, particularly in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
Proverbs puts much of this teaching about wisdom in the mouth of “Woman Wisdom,” the personification of wisdom in Hebrew Scripture as well as in much of the ancient world. She calls upon humans to walk in her ways and follow her path. Proverbs 31, then, is set in the larger context of wisdom literature, and the more immediate context of Woman Wisdom. In fact, some argue that the “capable wife” of verses 10-31 does not refer to any actual woman (she’s too good to be true!) but to the ideal of Woman Wisdom herself. Indeed, several verses are reminiscent of earlier depictions of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs.
What it Doesn’t Say
What else can we explore in this text for preaching? As a woman living in the 21st century, I am struck by an awful lot about women that Proverbs 31 doesn’t say, and that is worth noting, too.
First, it doesn’t say that a wife’s worth is derived from her husband’s. She is not a derivative being, as much of the later Christian tradition will argue, whose identity is a consequence of her husband’s, or whose status depends on his. Nor is there any claim that her virtue lies in her submission to her husband and his direction.
Her virtue and worth are a result of her own agency, her actions and choices. Just follow the verbs for this sense of agency and action. She leads her own life rather than following someone else’s. She pursues her own ends rather than obeying orders. There is no hint that her industry is not her own, that she is demure or deferential, or that her pursuits are directed by others. It is anachronistic to speak of “an independent woman” as no one in the ancient world thought in these individualistic terms. Nevertheless, this is a woman with full agency, in charge of herself. The writer praises her purposefulness, we might even say her headstrong ways.
Second, it doesn’t say anything about pregnancy or childbirth, often key credentials for womanhood in the ancient world, and still in our own in many quarters. It mentions children once in verse 28, “her children rise up and call her happy,” without referring to the mother-child relationship at all. There is a striking omission of mothering or motherhood as a state of being or source of identity or virtue in the entire passage. The passage does describe a lot of generativity, however. Again, if we follow the verbs throughout, she “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” “provides,” is creating and cultivating a lot.
Thirdly, it doesn’t say anything about her appearance or physical appeal. There is nothing about weight, shape, clothes, make-up or make-over, the sole topics of women’s worth if current popular culture in America were to be believed. Has she achieved “younger-looking skin?” Does she “bulge in the wrong places?” Does she know “what not to wear?” We’ll never know.
This passage offers a radical counter-cultural message in the profound silence about what she looks like. The closing verse reminds us that “beauty is vain,” not something women (or men) hear anywhere in the daily visual assault of airbrushed female bodies on billboards, magazine stands, and pop-up ads. The silence of Proverbs 31 on appearance is striking, and refreshing. She is praised for the content of her character and the excellence of her endeavors rather than the surface of her skin.
As a preacher you can proclaim the power of the good news of Jesus Christ into all three of these areas of contemporary life in America: the derivative status of women, the many forms of generativity, including childbearing, and the destructive tyranny of fake beauty. Proverbs 31: 10-31 offers an alternative starting place and ending place: “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.”
Many of you will conclude this text is too much a minefield and steer clear, with good reason. If you preach on it, and I hope some of you do, it may well be an opportunity to allow good news to speak into some of the most enduring and painful realities of our common life, as well as to evoke inspired portrayals of faithful living.
Commentary on Psalm 54
Perhaps you’ve heard the old saw, “Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh” (or something like that).
If making plans of our own (presumably in the face of God’s plans for us) is laughable, how about issuing commands to God, telling God the Divine’s own business in no uncertain terms? Who would dare to give God orders? Yet this is, in a sense, exactly what Psalm 54 does.
Our psalm begins with a four-fold plea: “save me…hear [me]…give ear [to me].” Each of these pleas — actually imperative verbs — and a fourth “vindicate me” (which in terms of tense is imperfect but in context clearly works like an imperative) quite literally command God’s attention, response, and action. These imperative clauses that form the introduction to the psalm demand God’s attention. And while some Hebrew language grammarians might call this particular use of the imperative a “jussive,” that is really just a delicate way of labeling the act of giving orders to someone who out-ranks you.
But enough grammar. Why is God’s attention and action commanded? Because the enemies of the psalmist, the insolent and the ruthless, have risen against him to tear him apart with their words.
At issue here in Psalm 54 is speech: speech directed to God in response to the vile slander of human beings. Notice the tension that is present in regards to the hearing of speech in the psalm. God is commanded to “give ear,” to listen, to pay attention to the psalmist’s words, and perhaps at the same time to the false witness of the psalmists enemies. It is almost as if the psalmist begs God, “Can you not hear the insolent and the ruthless as they lie about me?”
That the enemies actions are speech-based seems clear in that the enemies are said to be “rising against” him, a reference (most likely) to the actions of witnesses in the gate of the community (Isaiah 29:20-21: “For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off — those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit, who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate, and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right”; cf. Psalm 27:12, “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence”).
Notice also that the psalmist does not answer word-for-word those who falsely accuse him. Such a response is the fool’s move; implicit in the psalm is the sense that he-said-they-said doesn’t get a person anywhere. Instead, the psalmist “sets God” before him, appealing to God to judge on his behalf, to find for the defense if you will, and to reverse the judgment, pronouncing it against the psalmist’s enemies. Indeed, before offering a pledge of thanksgiving, the psalmist exults in this reverse judgment saying that God “will repay my enemies for their evil,” and that “my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.”
The psalm, which may strike us as an odd selection for reading/recitation during worship, actually couches the whole conflict very much in terms of the worship life of the community. This may be, at least in part, what is meant by the idea of “putting God” before oneself — which the psalmist does and his enemies do not (compare verses 2 and 3). It is only in the presence of God that the conflict will be appropriately resolved. In service of putting God before himself, and at the same time putting his pleas before God, the psalmist employs several terms which are worship-related and technical.
At the end of the psalm, coming in response to his (presumed? assumed? anticipated?) vindication the psalmist vows an act of thanksgiving for God’s judgment against his enemies. The author of the psalm says, “I will sacrifice,” presenting a “freewill offering,” in order to “give thanks” (verse 6). In worship, the psalmist will celebrate his deliverance.
The most important technical term used in the psalm comes towards the beginning of the psalm however, in verse 2. And this is also probably the most innocuous of the worship related terms in the psalm, at least at first blush: the psalmist offers a “prayer.” The psalmist calls his appeal a “prayer.” There are several different terms in the Old Testament for “prayer,” but the Hebrew word used here is by far the most common. What may be telling is that this word is probably related to the word which means “judge” (cf. Exodus 21:22). In a sense, then, prayer is in-and-of-itself an appeal to God as judge. The psalmist directs his speech (an appealing or intercessory prayer) to God the Judge, who will speak in response to the false accusations of the psalmist’s enemies, these “insolent” and “ruthless” ones who have risen against him.
Psalm 54 offers an intriguing and, for me at least, compelling image of the nature of prayer; one that will almost surely surprise many Christians pray-ers. Preaching the insights of the psalm can serve to inform both the nature and the appropriate direction of Christian speech. When confronted with false witness, with accusations meant to tear down and destroy — reputations, self-image, and, in due course, lives — the psalm turns us not to rebuttal or reprisal, but to prayer in worship. For Psalm 54 speech in the midst of conflict is to be directed to God, not simply thrown back at those who falsely accuse. Furthermore, this speech is imperative in nature; it commands God to serve as judge on our behalf. This is what prayer is.
One might ask well ask at this point, if any sinner (which all of us most surely are) could ever do such a thing as demand that God act as judge on our behalf. But because God has delivered us from every trouble (verse 7), and because God is our helper (verse 4), even the sinful man or woman can, in the face of evil, rely on God to be not just a judge, not just any judge, but their judge.
Commentary on James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a
Sandra Hack Polaski
After several chapters of warnings and vivid illustrations of the consequences of living contrary to the plan of God, James moves in this passage to describe the good life and give some positive guidance for pursuing it.
We see here some of the clearest parallels between James and other wisdom literature with which we are familiar, both in the Hebrew Bible (especially Proverbs) and the literature of other cultures worldwide, both ancient and modern.
In fact, James uses the language of “wisdom” in verses 13 through 17, contrasting true and false wisdom by means of catalogues of character traits that exhibit first false, then true, wisdom. As in much wisdom literature, the implied question the text addresses is, “How can I live the good life?” And, like much similar literature, the answer lies in the paradox that the good life cannot be found by seeking it directly; rather, when one seeks wisdom, the good life will follow.
While catalogues of vices and virtues were commonplace in ancient wisdom literature, and James’s lists bear many characteristics in common with other wisdom lists, it is worth looking more closely to see how James shapes his teaching on wisdom by means of his lists. False wisdom, James claims, comes from jealousy and selfish ambition, traits that lead people to believe that they are better than others and that they have nothing to learn from other people.
Those who imagine that they are above others are, according to James, actually below them, in that the “wisdom” they practice “does not come down from above, but is [in a downward crescendo!] earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (verse 15). Inappropriate actions cannot help but follow. True wisdom, by contrast, is open to others. It is “pure, … peaceable, gentle, willing to yield” (verse 16). Themes from earlier in the book underlie these lines of thinking: false wisdom talks incessantly, but true wisdom listens. False wisdom blathers on about faith, but true wisdom goes quietly about faithful acts.
James’s special emphasis, then, is that wisdom cannot be found unless it is pursued in a spirit of meekness. Meekness is necessary for wisdom, which in turn leads to the good life. What a countercultural message for our own day, in which so many seem to believe that “the good life” cannot be realized unless one is important, a recognized leader in one’s field or one’s community!
The saying in 3:18 does not completely belong with what precedes it, nor does it connect clearly with what follows. Too, the phrase “harvest of righteousness” is unusual in James’s vocabulary; we might have expected instead “harvest of wisdom.” It was probably at first an isolated saying, picked up by James here because it does a good job of summarizing the way of life he has been describing. Peace encompasses those who practice it; those who sow peace will reap its harvest, and they will be blessed with righteousness. It is, I think, appropriate to hear the echoes of the Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” — that is, the righteous ones who belong to God.
I have a button that says, “I can tolerate everything except intolerance.” I am reminded of that sentiment when, at the beginning of chapter 4, James seems to decide that he must deal contentiously with contentiousness. Even-handed language about the humble and peaceful pursuit of wisdom falls away as he briskly confronts those whom he perceives as behaving improperly toward others.
James makes use of an economic illustration. Scarcity of desired goods leads to an increase in demand, and increased demand leads to disregard of other persons, even to the extent of war. As any economist knows, one way to solve the problem is by increasing supply; but to seek to increase supply by asking God for what we need is futile until we remove ourselves from the economic way of thinking altogether. We receive what we need by no longer seeking it for our own benefit. We only gain when we give away.
So what is it, exactly, that we crave and cannot have and fight over, that we forget to ask for, or ask in vain because we ask selfishly? Cannily, and in keeping with the style of wisdom literature, James sidesteps the “what” to focus attention on the “how,” our attitudes and actions. Many groups of readers, in various eras and vastly different circumstances, can see themselves reflected in this portrait.
[James’s language grows even more intemperate in verse 4, when he uses the metaphor of an unfaithful wife to describe people’s disdain for God’s ways. The image is, of course, not foreign to Scripture, appearing as one of Hosea’s main tropes, and in Ezekiel and Isaiah as well. Still, there is plenty to preach here without involving ourselves in the difficulties of such an image.]
The final section of our passage consists of short, pithy sayings, a series of imperatives that, taken together, describe the Christian life. (The series continues through verse 10, but we can make a case for stopping after the first three statements.) The idea of “submission” is, of course, familiar in the NT; in various passages Christians are told to submit to one another and to the governing authorities, and some members of Christian households are told to submit to other members. Here, though, the demand for submission is to God alone. No other authority, human or divine, is in view.
Similarly, the ideas of resisting, fleeing, and drawing near are common in Scripture (the verb “draw near” here is the same as in the Gospels, “the Kingdom of God has drawn near“). Yet the ideas that the devil will flee when resisted, and that God will draw near to people who draw near to God, are James’ alone. Once again, James creates an imaginative word-picture, a mini-parable, that sets the human being between two opposing forces: God and the devil. Remarkably, James assigns movement between these two forces to human prerogative. There are two ways: the choice between them belongs to us.
First, I assume you will read the excellent commentary on this passage from workingpreacher.org 2009.
First, I assume you will read the excellent commentary on this passage from workingpreacher.org 2009.
First, I assume you will read the excellent commentary on this passage from workingpreacher.org 2009.
Context in Mark
Mark 9:30-37 occurs within the second major section of Mark (8:22-10:52), which contains a threefold pattern that appears three times. Jesus predicts his passion and resurrection (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34), the disciples don’t understand (8:32-33; 9:32; 10:35-41), and Jesus then gives the disciples further teachings (8:34-9:1; 9:33-50; 10:42-45).
In the narrative arc of Mark’s gospel, 9:30-37 furthers the revelation of Jesus’ identity, using the title “Son of Man” (Daniel 7:13) There can be no doubt by now in Mark’s gospel that Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. Yet still the disciples are confused.
Here it will help to remember that this entire section in Mark’s gospel is framed at the beginning and end by accounts of blind people who are given sight (8:22-26, 10:46-52). This stark image of going from blindness to sight is a big literary clue. As the blind man is given sight, however gradually, so the disciples, who are blind to Jesus’ mission and identity, are given sight, albeit gradually.
Knowing and not knowing, understanding and not understanding are woven throughout chapters 8 and 9 of Mark: from Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” (8:27) to the transfiguration (9:1-13) to Jesus explaining yet again what lies ahead for the Son of Man (9:31).
Focus on 9:32
Verses 30-37 are chock-full of sermons: Jesus revealing he will suffer, die and rise; disciples’ embarrassment at being caught in a power struggle; a child as the model for discipleship. I will focus on verse 32, the disciples’ lack of understanding, and unwillingness to ask Jesus questions.
This is not a new role for disciples. Throughout Mark, they are the knuckleheads who just don’t get it. The pattern is set early and often. Even in the face of the miracle feeding of the five thousand the disciples don’t get it (6:52). Jesus rebukes their lack of understanding several times (7:18, 8:16-21), and perhaps most poignantly, in 8:33 to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, for you think human thoughts, not the thoughts of God” which could be read as “Boy, you really don’t get it!” Even though they make up Jesus’ most private inner circle, the disciples seem to be the last to know that Jesus is Messiah, even denying this knowledge at the end (14:66-71).
By the time we get to verse 32, Jesus has just imparted a crucial teaching, telling them who he is, and not for the first time. The prospect of the Messiah being taken and killed just does not compute. When God comes in glory, it is surely to conquer his enemies, not to “be handed over into the hands of men, and they will kill him” (31). So, “they did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him” (verse 32).
It’s not just that they don’t understand some piece of information. It’s that they don’t understand this specific teaching, at the very heart of the Incarnation. How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die? And why should it happen?
The question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propels so many early Christian attempts to construct an intelligible, if misguided, Christology. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (Docetism) or maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched (Gnosticism). Early Christians struggle with what sort of deity lets her/himself get into a corner like that? They needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies. Underneath verses 31-32 are the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Such a self-demoting God could hardly be trustworthy.
Ask Hard Questions
So why don’t the disciples simply ask Jesus to explain? Probably because they don’t want to appear as confused as they are. Or, their distress at his teaching is so deep they fear addressing it. Besides, the closer we are to Jesus, the more we are supposed to know (about God, about prayer, about the Bible, about religious stuff), right?
In our own time, no one wants to look uninformed, confused, or clueless. We withhold our toughest questions, often within our own churches and within Christian fellowship. We pretend we don’t have hard questions. Yet the deepest mysteries of life do indeed elude us. Why do good people suffer? Why are humans so brutal to one another? Why does evil succeed? If God’s own Son is betrayed and killed, then no one is safe. Why did God set up a world like this?
Why ask our hard questions? Because we withhold these questions at our own peril.
Verse 34 reveals what happens to the disciples when they sidestep the real questions they are afraid to ask — they turn to arguing with each other, squabbling among themselves over petty issues of rank and status (verse 34). There is a direct line drawn from verse 32 to verse 34. When the disciples avoid asking hard questions, they focus on posturing about who is right.
We know this too well in the church. How would this story be different if the disciples had asked Jesus their questions? What kind of conversation might have ensued between Jesus and the disciples? What kind of relationship would it have engendered with each other?
How would our stories be different if we ask Jesus our questions? What kind of conversations might we pursue with Jesus? How would our life as disciples together be different as a result?
Interactive Strategy for your context
Stop and invite the congregation to brainstorm out loud a list of questions they think disciples might have wanted to ask Jesus at that point.
You know the forms these hard questions take for your congregation. As part of sermon preparation you can survey folks through a social media platform. Ask, “What questions are you afraid to ask God?” or “What questions do you wish you could ask at church?” and see what range of responses you get. These may be useful as you frame this part of the sermon.
The good news is that Jesus welcomes us even when we do not understand or do not know. This pericope closes with Jesus embracing a child, the ultimate symbol of not knowing, not understanding, immature and undeveloped. We need not fear our questions, our misunderstandings, our confusion or our curiosity in the presence of One whose “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).