Lectionary Commentaries for October 14, 2012
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Mark 10:17-31
Commentary on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
David G. Garber, Jr.
“Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time” (Amos 5:13).
I never feel the temptation of this proverb more than I do in the midst of a political season. As I watch the social media accounts of my dear friends and family on either side of the political spectrum, I witness posts filled with sardonic humor, righteous indignation, and sometimes even downright cruelty aimed at those who happen to disagree with the one who posts it. While I as much as anyone acknowledge that the stakes are high and that our choice of policymakers and national leaders is vital, I almost always succumb to the temptation to stay out of the fray and keep silent in such a time as this.
Anyone who has read the book of Amos, however, knows that Amos showed himself to be the fool on many occasions, consistently decrying the opulence of the elite at the expense of the poor. Amos is a hard book with tough words. Throughout the book we repeatedly read about the wrath of a disappointed deity who will ultimately lash out against the oppressive Israelite culture. We read recitations of crimes that the upper class has perpetrated upon the poor. Most of all, Amos laments the lack of justice in the land and the disrespect for the word of the LORD. Rarely in the book do we experience a chance for repentance, much less words that offer a chance for redemption.
The lectionary passage for this week, however, envelopes more indictments with a faint glimpse of the hope for repentance. The opportunity to repent is only possible when the guilty parties recognize the magnitude of their violations. The words from Amos are not words of false hope, but words of realistic hope that rely on the response of the hearer.
Establishing Justice in the Gate
The charges against the Israelites are quite clear. After the general metaphorical indictment against those who would turn justice into rot, tossing righteousness on the ground (verse 7), we hear the more specific crimes. One of the most relevant indictments for our own era appears in verse 10: “They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.”
The “gate” in ancient Israel was often seen as the place where judgment occurred or legal and economic transactions took place. This is the venue where Boaz negotiated for the right to redeem Elimelech’s land and marry Naomi’s daughter-in-law, Ruth. The gate is also where Absalom stole the hearts and minds of Israel’s citizens from his father David by rendering judgment (incidentally, the Hebrew term mishpat, the same term used in Amos 5:7) and discerning disputes among the citizens (1 Samuel 15:1-6).
In thinking of making the move from reading this text in its ancient context to the preaching moment, one might ask what represents the city “gate” in our own culture. While an apparent analogy might be to correlate the “gate” with courtrooms or legislative sessions, I wonder if the activities at another “gate” deserve the thrashing of the prophetic word. If the literal gate of ancient cities represents the place of public discourse and decision-making in ancient Israel, could the “gate” of Western democracy be the very media outlets that provide information to the people who must render increasingly complex judgments on a wide variety of topics both during and beyond the political season?
With our direct access to information and media outlets, the court of public opinion has never had so much sway on the culture as it does now. Of course, one could simply set up the media as the scapegoat, but neither the reality of a ratings-driven media culture nor the prophetic tradition allows us to do that. The ancient prophetic tradition suggests that while ultimately the kings, priests, and nobility make the decisions that lead to the oppression of the poor, the whole community would suffer God’s judgments.
Even if God’s judgments might be harsher and more specific against an individual leader such as Amaziah (Amos 7:17), the whole house of Israel will ultimately bear the judgment (see Amos 2:6, 5:25-27, 7:8, 8:2 for only a few examples within the book).
In regards to the contemporary “gate” of Western culture, we know well enough that many of the media outlets are driven by ratings and revenue, just as politicians during an election year are often driven by public opinion polls. Might we be offering “bribes” to our media outlets by driving up their ratings when we simply choose to only view the reports that affirm our own political or social agendas?
Might we as American Christians be pushing aside the needy in the gate of our media outlets by feeding at the trough of celebrity scandals and salacious political affairs while ignoring the very difficult, but vital, information about poverty, civic unrest, or poverty in this nation and beyond?
The Wise Folly of Prophetic Preaching
And what does hope look like in this analogical reading of Amos 5? How would our parishioners “seek good and not evil, that [we] may live”? How might we establish justice at the gates of our public discourse? (5:14-15) Might we as responsible, and even prophetic, Christians demand more truth and less showmanship from the media coverage we consume?
Might Christians demand to be seen as more than just a voting block that can be won over with simplistic talking points or the abuse of biblical rhetoric that elected officials use to pander to us? Might we seek God and live by recognizing the complexity of the world’s problems and not falling prey to the absolutism of an entrenched and divided political fundamentalism?
Now that I think of it, the proverb in verse 13 is even more appealing. Perhaps it is prudent to keep silent in such a time. Yet, like the prophet Amos, perhaps the good news of this text is that God is calling the church to foolishly demand the restoration of justice and goodness in the gate that we might experience the graciousness of God.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker
Job sits on an ash heap, bereft of children and wealth, covered by painful sores and surrounded by three “friends” who tell him that it’s all his fault.
In a way, a lot has transpired between last week’s reading and this one. In another way, nothing much has changed. Job is still on the ash heap. The companions who sat in silence with Job for seven days (2:13) now can’t seem to get it through their thick heads that silence was the way to go. They have accused him of terrible things (chapter 22), their worldview threatened by his inexplicable suffering. They believe, after all, that suffering is always the result of sin, and so they try to find some hidden sin in this innocent man to protect themselves from the threat of the chaos that has engulfed him.
[We do the same thing, of course, though more subtly. When we hear of a tragedy, our gut reaction is often to reason to ourselves why it won’t happen to us: They built their house in a flood plain. He wasn’t watching his child closely enough. She lives in the wrong neighborhood. This instinct begins early. When my 8-year-old daughter heard of a 9-year-old child who had been shot, her first reaction was “But the child was a boy, right?”]
Through it all, Job holds to his integrity. He knows that he has done nothing to deserve this suffering: “Far be it from me to say that you are right; until I die I will not put away my integrity from me. I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days” (27:5-6). Suffering is not always the result of sin, claims Job, a radical assertion in his day, and an important one to affirm even today.
The speeches of Job and his “friends” are repetitive, sometimes tedious, to read. But it is important to note some moves that Job makes in these long chapters of dialogue. He begins the dialogue in chapter 3, for instance, with a curse on the day of his birth, wishing for death, wishing that he had never been born in the first place. That death wish surfaces again a few times in his speeches, but he eventually moves from wishing for death to wishing for justice. Today’s reading is a good example of this theme:
“Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge” (Job 23:3-7).
This desire for justice finds its fullest expression in Job’s last speech, which consists of a long oath of innocence and a call for God to answer him (31:35-37), a call that is met by the speeches of God at the end of the book (the topic of next week’s reading).
Another important move Job makes in the dialogue is the move from speaking only about God to speaking directly to God. That change begins in chapter 7:
“Am I the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me? ….
What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?” (Job 7:12, 17-19)
Job’s words are bitter, even despairing. He accuses God of terrible things, of watching him like a hawk, waiting for him to sin. In the reading for today, he despairs of ever getting a hearing with God: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (23:8-9). Even feeling God’s absence, though, Job continues to address God:
“Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands” (Job 14:13-15).
This move from speaking only about God to speaking directly to God is the move from theologizing to lament. It is a move that Job’s companions never make. They give Job ample advice about how he should respond to suffering; they claim to speak for God (13:7-12); but they never once intercede for their suffering friend, a failing for which they are chastised by God in the end (42:7-8).
It is a mistake that many people make in the face of tragedy, of course. “God needed your [mother, brother, child] in heaven.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God is testing you.”
Job will have none of it: “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay… See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face” (13:12, 15).1 Job speaks to God directly, honestly. He speaks in all his anger, pain, grief, and despair because he knows that God is big enough to handle it. He holds on to God with a fierce faith. He calls on God to answer him, to help him. He laments, in other words, and through that lament, something like hope is born.
Wendell Berry writes of the relationship between speech and hope: “The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope — and thus has hope, even if only a little.”2
In lament, the despairing person “says it aloud” to God, and thus holds on to God even in the depths of despair. And in that holding on, something like hope is made possible. Job dwells in the depths of despair, but in the midst of that despair he addresses God; he demands that God answer him; he holds on to God; and in that holding on, a fierce hope is indeed born:
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27a).
At the end of this week’s reading, we are still on the ash heap with Job, but we have learned from him how to lament. We have learned from him how to bring our anger, pain, grief and despair directly to God, even when we feel only God’s absence. We have learned from him how to have hope, even if only a little, holding on to God with a fierce faith, trusting that God is God, trusting that God will hear, trusting that God will answer. And that answer will come, not one that Job (or we) could ever imagine, but an answer nonetheless.
1The last verse can also be translated, “Though he kill me, yet I will hope in him. I will defend my ways to his face.” The difference in translation hinges on one word.
2Wendell Berry, “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” in What Are People For? (New York: North Point, 1990), 59.
Commentary on Psalm 90:12-17
J. Clinton McCann, Jr.
Psalm 90 has often been categorized as a wisdom psalm, which, like the book of Ecclesiastes (see 3:19-20; 7:2), is very much in touch with human finitude and the brevity of human life (see also Psalms 39:4-6; 49:10-12, 16-20).
While this interpretive approach is helpful, it has often overlooked the facts that Psalm 90 is consistently addressed to God, that it is the only psalm attributed to Moses, and that it opens Book IV of the Psalter.
These facts do not imply that Moses is the author of Psalm 90, but rather that the editors of the Psalter invite readers to hear Psalm 90 as a prayer offered by Moses on behalf of the people in response to the crisis of exile that is articulated in the concluding psalm of Book III (see Psalm 89:38-51). For instance, the plea for God to “Turn” (verse 13) recalls Moses’ request for God to “Turn” in Exodus 32:12 (note also that “compassion” in verse 13 represents the same Hebrew root as “change your mind” in Exodus 32:12). In short, as Moses interceded for the people in the face of God’s anger over their creation of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6), so Psalm 90 portrays Moses as intercessor in the face of God’s anger expressed in verses 7-11.
These two interpretive approaches are not mutually exclusive; and in fact, they can even be seen as complementary. In any case, Psalm 90 features the concept of time (see words or phrases related to time in verses 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16); and one of the most startling aspects of Moses’ life is that, in effect, he ran out of time — that is, he died before entering the land of promise, because God was angry with him (Deuteronomy 3:26). So, who better than Moses to offer a prayer about time, or more specifically, about the discouraging reality that our human lives are all too fragile and short? Of course, for the people, the exile was a stark reminder of the vulnerability and brevity of human life in general (see Psalm 89:45, 47-48; Isaiah 40:6-8).
Before our lection picks up at verse 12, the contrast between humanity’s limited time and God’s enduring time has been drawn very sharply (see verses 3-6). Moreover, human time unfolds in the shadow of God’s “anger” (verses 7, 11) and “wrath” (verses 7, 11; “wrath” in verse 9 is a different Hebrew word). Although the mention in verse 8 of “iniquities” and “secret sins” suggests that divine wrath is punishment for sin, God’s anger can be understood more broadly as “a linguistic symbol for the divine limits and pressure placed against human resistance to his sovereignty. . . . Death is the final and ultimate ‘no’ that cancels any pretension to autonomy from the human side.”1 In any case, even the longest human life “is only toil and trouble” (verse 10). Not a pretty picture! In fact, it is downright discouraging, depressing, and devoid of hope!
But Psalm 90 is not over at verse 10. Even though verse 11 repeats “anger” and “wrath” from verse 7, its mention of “the fear that is due you” hints at something more positive.
The possible wisdom orientation of Psalm 90 reminds us that, according to the sages, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10; see Proverbs 1:7; Job 28:28). Thus, verse 11 anticipates verse 12, which marks the transition from the thoroughly depressing verses 3-11 to the much more hopeful verses 13-17.
But what is it that constitutes a “wise heart”? The NRSV’s “to count our days” is an accurate literal translation; but what good would derive from simply keeping track of one toilsome, wrath-filled day after another? In this case, a more paraphrastic rendering is helpful. Following the lead of Martin Luther, James Limburg captures well the sense of verse 12: “Lord, teach us to make each day count, to reflect on the fact that we must die, and so become wise.”2
In other words, “a wise heart” involves the disavowal of autonomy; and it means the entrusting of life and future fully to God. Such “fear of the LORD” offers the courage and energy to live each day to the fullest, quite literally, for God’s sake!
Such disavowal of autonomy in favor of daily dependence upon God recalls another Mosaic connection — namely, Exodus 16 and God’s daily provision of manna in the wilderness. In this regard, it may not be coincidental that the three consonants in the Hebrew word for “count” are the same ones that compose the word “manna.”
In any case, daily dependence upon God is capable of transforming the human perception and experience of the passage of time. When we entrust life and future to God, then we can experience the passage of time as something other than an oppressive reality to be endured.
The concluding verses of Psalm 90 reinforce this conclusion. The “morning” can bring the fulfilling and joyful experience of God’s love (verse 14; compare verses 5-6 and Psalm 89:49). Our “days” and “years” can bring gladness (verse 15; compare verse 9), not merely “toil and trouble” (verse 11). Entrusted to God, even our human “work” (twice in verse 17) can endure, insofar as it contributes to God’s “work” (verse 16).
By way of God’s “compassion” (verse 13) and “steadfast love” (verse 14), human time partakes of eternity. In short, when life and future are entrusted to God, there is hope. Isaac Watts’s famous metrical version of Psalm 90 captures well the trajectory of verses 13-17: “O God, our help in ages past [see verses 1-2], our hope for years to come.”
For the psalmist, the recognition of human finitude and fallibility is not finally cause for despair, but rather an occasion for prayer. And in humble, honest, faithful prayer, the psalmist arrives at the good news that the hope of the world is grounded in God’s “compassion” and “steadfast love” (verses 13-14).
1James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 292.
2James Limburg, Psalms (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 310.
Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16
Hebrews 4:12-16 falls into two parts. Verses 12-13 in their context form a postscript to the argument of 3:7 – 4:11, providing extra motivation for the exhortation of 4:11.
However, they also make sense on their own, and verse 12 is widely quoted by itself. Verses 14-16 begin a section that spans all the way through chapter 10, focusing on Jesus as high priest. The verses here can well be termed a thesis for the larger section, presenting the key ideas about Jesus as high priest and stating the exhortation the author sees resulting from these ideas.
The phrase “the word of God” in verse 12 is not a direct reference to written scripture but refers to God’s active proclamation and revelation. God’s active speaking was an important part of the argument of Hebrews 3:7 – 4:11, and that active sense carries through to here. Scripture is certainly included in the reference, as the quote of Psalm 95 in chapter 3 indicates, but “the word of God” is not merely a designation for scripture.
God’s word here is not said to be read to provide guidance or instruction, but rather it pierces the human being like a sword, not for the purpose of slaying but to “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Verse 13 reinforces this sense of the word’s penetrating power. Before God we are “naked and laid bare.” The power of the word is such that we lie completely exposed to God’s scrutiny. Psalm 139 can well be used to expound on this: “You discern my thoughts from far away…Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”
The metaphor of God’s word as a sword is by no means unique to this passage, though it perhaps pushes the metaphor further than anywhere else. Ephesians 6:17 includes the “sword of the Spirit” as the word of God among the armor Christians are to wear. Revelation pictures the glorified Christ with a sword coming out of his mouth (1:16; 2:12; 19:15, 21), and the connection to judgment there is even stronger than it is in Hebrews. At the forefront of the image in our passage is the penetrating action of the sword, action making known to God the deepest parts of our beings. The combined imagery of this penetrating action and judgment is what makes the sword metaphor so apt for picturing God’s word.
Hebrews 2:17 first introduced the idea of Christ being a high priest, but it is here in 4:14 that this role begins to be explained. Our passage focuses on the implications of the high priest designation, its justification as a role not being given until chapter 5. The idea that Jesus as high priest has “passed through the heavens” may sound strange to many readers, but it is an essential component of Jesus’ high priestly identity.
It refers to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (the plural of “heavens” is typical in the Bible, denoting the idea of there being layers in the supernatural realm, seen in such places as 2 Corinthians 12:2), and it is only through these events that it was possible for Christ to have become a high priest. Jesus could not have been an earthly priest due to his Jewish tribal identity, as places like 7:14 and 8:4 make clear. It is by virtue of his exaltation to God’s right hand that he holds this role (see, e.g., 8:1), and the fact that he operates as high priest in heaven is what establishes his priesthood as superior to the earthly ones (8:5-6).
Hebrews 4:15 emphasizes Jesus’ ability to identify with human weakness, an ability resulting from his own human status. This ties in the argument of chapter 2 that it is Jesus’ human status, including his having experienced suffering and death, that enables him to save humankind. Thus while it is important that Jesus is at God’s right hand in heaven, it is equally important that Jesus is human. Since he has himself faced the full spectrum of temptations, he does not judge us harshly.
This is the conclusion drawn out in verse 16. We may approach him “with boldness,” expecting to receive mercy and grace. Indeed, his very throne is described as a “throne of grace.” Here we may tie in verses 12-13, for while our whole beings are exposed to God — we can hide nothing — this is cause not for despair but for hope.
The brief reference in verse 15 that Jesus was fully tempted, “yet without sin,” often strikes readers’ notice. This idea is often stated in the New Testament (see, e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Here it serves no major function in the point of the passage but puts a limit on the extent to which Jesus identifies with us. It is important in Hebrews, however, since Jesus could not have been the perfect heavenly high priest if he was tainted with sin; in other words, his sinlessness is yet another way in which we see his superiority compared to the earthly priests.
Thinking more broadly theologically, it is also important that Jesus’ status as a human did not necessarily entail a status of sin. Being human does not in itself imply being sinful, not in God’s original design. On the contrary, sin is a perversion of God’s intention for humanity. Thus when Hebrews speaks in 2:10 of Jesus bringing his brothers and sisters to glory, we can confidently have faith that our ultimate destiny is one without sin, too. While now we must struggle with sin (12:4), perfection is part of our end design, the fulfillment of God’s promises (11:39-40).
The ultimate encouragement we are to receive from all this is stated at the end of verse 14: “Let us hold fast to our confession.” There should be no greater encouragement to us as Christians than that of the mercy and grace God promises to us, mercy and grace that are based on Christ having loved us enough to identify with us to the point of suffering and death.
The story of Jesus and the rich man, presented variously in all three synoptic traditions, is notoriously challenging and has elicited any number of creative approaches to ameliorating what seems to most of us a ridiculously extreme demand.
From concocting a mythic entrance to Jerusalem that required a camel to unburden itself of all it was carrying to reading it as an intentionally impossible demand to drive us to Christ, interpreters over the centuries have been tempted to tone down this passage.
Which means we should read with care. Toward this end, I’d suggest attending to two elements of the text that will help us read and preach it with equal measures of integrity and creativity. The first is details. An author cannot tell us everything and the choices he or she therefore necessarily makes are clues to the narrative intention of a particular passage. While there are many revealing details in this passage, I will focus briefly on five.
In addition to paying attention to details, we also gain by exploring the gaps of any passage we are reading. Gaps are the elements of the story not told, the places we are invited to use our imagination and in this way enter into the story, even become invested in it. Gaps, therefore, invite questions that, depending on how we answer them, greatly shape our reading. I’ll name what I think are four such gaps, both offering some possibilities for exploring them while leaving them open for you to enter into in relation to your preaching context.
Any and all of these questions have a variety of possible answers, and how we both address and employ them will be shaped by our sense of the particular situation and needs of our context. One thing seems clear. This passage is about wealth and the challenges it presents and, simultaneously, it is about discipleship, the need to follow Jesus and to be aware and even concerned about those things that would keep us from following Jesus “on the way.”