Lectionary Commentaries for November 18, 2012
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 13:1-8

Micah D. Kiel

What do you do when you see someone standing on the sidewalk preaching about the end of the world, future destruction, or false messiahs?

Do you hail them as core to your religious beliefs, or do you casually cross to the other side of the street so as to avoid any interaction?

Mark 13 introduces to the reader a fully apocalyptic Jesus, providing content that today we might most appropriately look at askance. Yet, this is Mark’s Jesus, who pronounced from the very beginning the imminent reign of God, who grapples with demons and myriad challenges of other-worldly origin throughout, and who, in chapter 13, gives his longest discourse of the entire gospel in a fully apocalyptic mode.  

Two dynamics of the entire apocalyptic discourse in chapter 13 are immediately apparent here in its opening verses. First, the entire discourse begins through questions posed by the disciples. Initially they remark about how large the stones are, marveling over the ingenuity of its construction. Jesus is not impressed. They will all end up in a heap.  Peter, Andrew, and James privately offer a follow up question: When will this happen?  Jesus does not answer their question.

An answer is sort of provided in 13:32, when Jesus will finally admit that no one knows when. Jesus, however, uses their question as an opportunity to teach them. But about what? The content of Jesus’ teaching suggests that things are about to get really bad. Being led astray will be a danger, there will be war, earthquakes, famine. And, this will only be the beginning. Here our pericope ends, although Jesus will go on to flesh out some more of the details of this suffering. 

Much of what is stated here is apocalyptic boilerplate. Jewish apocalyptic literature had been working with such themes, imagery, and topoi for several centuries leading up to the time of Jesus and Mark in the first century. Conservative biblical literalists, who look for the specific fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies in our modern age, completely misunderstand this genre of literature. Many scholars have found Mark 13 as the best place to try to locate Mark’s gospel in a specific time and place. The reference to false messiahs in 13:5 and to a desolating sacrilege (13:14) seem to locate the gospel in the midst of the turmoil of the war between Jews and Rome in Judaea between 66-70 C.E. 

And, some of these specifics in Mark can be coordinated from events that can be verified outside of the New Testament in the historical record (especially in the Jewish historian Josephus). The idea behind this type of interpretation is that Mark has provided his readers enough of a clue as to when they should flee to the mountains (13:14-23). One wonders, then, why Jesus couldn’t just say that. Why is a full apocalyptic discourse necessary?

The fact that Jesus doesn’t answer their question should be taken more seriously. More to the point, when he does answer it, eventually, the answer is completely in the negative: nobody knows when this will happen. This leaves us to then ponder the rhetorical force of the discourse as a whole. Perhaps the disciples had asked the wrong question. When they ask: “When?” Jesus responds with a description of a world that has gone off the rails, replete with danger and betrayal, an upheaval of society.  

The operative word throughout the discourse is “Watch out.”  It starts the discourse in verse 5, and is repeated in verses 9, 23, and 33. The discourse ends with a parable about a man who leaves on a journey. Jesus’ charge to his disciples is the same to those in charge of the house while the man is away: wakefulness and watchfulness. The discourse closes with the charge: Stay awake!

What is the theological logic of such a discourse? Why, in Mark 13:1-8, does Jesus refuse to answer the disciples’ question? I’m not convinced that the main scholarly trajectory of interpreting this text is appropriate, that it provides an encoded blueprint for the Markan community to know when to flee at the worst point of the war. This would seem to contradict the more basic tenor of the discourse, which is marked by epistemological and temporal agnosticism. 

If not meant to provide such a blueprint, what other type of rhetorical force could such a discourse have? If directed at a complacent community, the discourse could become a powerful theological vehicle. It suggests that God is up to stuff that may be beyond human ken, and the community’s job is simply to stay awake for it. It functions like a rumble strip on the side of a highway, meant to jar the community awake as it nods off and drifts toward the ditch.

Theologically, the implication in 13:1-8 of Jesus’ non-sequitur answer to the disciples is that God’s activity is not limited to the human sphere. Mark 13, although much about human activity, is basically anti-anthropological in its theological orientation. It is like Jesus off praying when the disciples simply need to stay awake but cannot.

Apocalyptic eschatology is essentially about God working on behalf of humanity, and that is what is introduced in the beginning of this discourse. It leaves God alarmingly free and open to the future. God is not limited by temporal questions, such as the one the disciples ask. The community is supposed to watch, stay fast, and endure. 

First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 12:1-3

Amy Merrill Willis

Today’s reading from Daniel 12 consists of an apocalyptic scenario — an unveiling (which is the meaning of the Greek word apokalypsis from which our term “apocalyptic” comes) of the end of human history.

Daniel’s writers understand this end to be in the near future, an imminent event. In this scenario, God’s angelic agent, Michael, will intervene during a time of intense distress and bring deliverance to the faithful who are living, while some of the dead will be resurrected and judged.

Looking For the End

Even a cursory glance at American popular culture today reveals that apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are all the rage right now. These scenarios generally depict a future time of catastrophe that results in the end of the world as we know it. Some examples might be found in the movies 2012; The Children of Men; I am Legend; WALL·E; The Book of Eli; and The Hunger Games, just to name a few.

One can link this particular popular culture trend to various events — the end of the Mayan calendar (coming in December!), the catastrophic economic conditions of the last four years, the defining events of September 11th, Y2K and the turn of the millennium, the Cold War and the atomic bomb era, or any number of things really. In fact, Christians have been expecting the end in one way or another pretty regularly for 2000 years. Before them, Judaism, as the book of Daniel indicates, had its own interest in the end time.

Grappling with Confusion and Loss

A question that often comes up for readers of this literature is what motivates end time thinking? In the case of our popular culture depictions, it is not so difficult to spot their origins — the movies and books mentioned above all give voice to our culture’s anxiety about the fallout of environmental, biological, social, or technological meltdown. But apocalyptic literature such as one finds in Daniel and in the Book of Revelation often strikes readers as fantastic and detached from mundane concerns — their origins are not so obvious to us. Even so, these materials are struggling with important, not-so-esoteric human situations and theological questions.

In 167-164 BCE, when the foreign emperor Antiochus IV criminalized the practice of Judaism, desecrated the Jerusalem temple, and co-opted its leadership, a situation emerged in which important and once-cherished institutions ceased to function in ways that were meaningful to the population. The meltdown of these institutions, along with the threats to life and limb that came with the emperor’s decrees, caused profound confusion. How does one discern God’s presence and power in the face of such loss? How does one know what the path of faithfulness might be? Does it involve accommodating an unjust emperor, fighting the emperor, or resisting in other ways?

Gaining Perspective

As a way of gaining perspective on such disorder, apocalyptic literature uses rich symbols to imagine the end of human history. After all, when viewed from an endpoint, chaotic events no longer seem so chaotic but instead may be seen as part of a larger discernible pattern. In this passage, the time of the end promises to bring deliverance from distress, injustice, and untimely death through resurrection.

Interestingly, the passage does not say that all the dead will be resurrected and judged (as later Christian thinking came to affirm it), but only some who have died (verse 2). Presumably, it will be those who have died in conjunction with the final events involving the foreign king. Perhaps the passage has in mind those, both good and wicked, who did not receive a just reward before death, but who will finally receive just treatment after death.

Wisdom and Righteousness at the End

What the passage does affirm is that those who have sought knowledge and discernment of God’s power at work in the cosmos, a group called “the wise,” will be especially visible in the aftermath of judgment. The wise “will shine like the brightness of the sky” (verse 3) and become like the stars. Since the stars and other heavenly bodies were thought to be angels in God’s heavenly council, this verse imagines the exaltation of the wise to a place of privilege within the divine courts; a place close to the God who had seemed so distant during the catastrophe.

The wise can find a pattern to follow amidst the chaos by following the example of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:11, to whom they are likened. They both “lead the many to righteousness.” That is, the wise are lauded for the way in which they lead others to understand God’s plans and resist (apparently in a non-violent fashion) the unrighteousness of Antiochus IV and his supporters. Moreover, the wise and the servant of Isaiah both suffer in the connection to this task (see Daniel 11:33), but both will be exalted (Isaiah 52:13).

What Comes After?

One of the great ironies about the end of days as it is depicted in the Bible (and often in popular culture) is that it is never simply a portrayal of the end. It is inevitably a portrayal of a new beginning, a turning point in human reality that becomes “the end and after.” Daniel 12 does not imagine an elaborate “after” (in contrast to Revelation 21-22), but nevertheless, it begins to hope for a time and place when justice and righteousness regain the upper hand; a time in which the gap between humanity and the divine is overcome.

Such apocalyptic imaginings are never just descriptions of what is out there. Rather, portrayals of “the end and after” are always reflections of one’s deepest yearnings about God and the world. As such they have the power to turn human knowing into faithful action; to urge readers to discern righteousness and justice in this world instead of simply waiting for it in the next. Daniel invites us into the rich and fantastic world of the apocalyptic imagination and asks us, what do we imagine the “end and after” to look like? What are our deepest yearnings about God and the world?

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:4-20

Karla Suomala

Hannah: The woman who gives voice to suffering

When we think about the individuals in the biblical text who suffer, Jesus would likely top the list.  From the Garden of Gethsemane where an agitated Jesus tells his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death…”(Matthew 26:38), to his haunting words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (27:46).  Jesus suffers intensely and at many levels — physically, emotionally and even existentially.  With a broken body and a deep sense of abandonment, Jesus embodies what suffering is.

After Jesus, Job — the man who has come to be known as the “patient” sufferer — is a logical choice. There is David as Psalmist who eloquently expresses so many shades and textures of suffering and the suffering servant in the Book of Isaiah.  And then there is Elijah who, under the broom tree, utters, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life…” (1 Kings 19:4).

But even as the list grows, biblical women don’t generally make the cut (with the possible exception of Mary, the mother of Jesus).  Part of the problem has to do with the fact that there just aren’t as many women in the Bible to begin with, and those that do have roles aren’t generally associated with the complex, multi-layered suffering of their male counterparts. Instead, the suffering of women is confined almost exclusively to their reproductive capacities and the anxieties that arise from this state of affairs.

For the most part, this type of suffering is fairly easily resolved in the biblical text; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah, for example, all eventually give birth to baby boys when God decides to “open” their wombs.  The reality, however, is that while infertility is unquestionably a significant issue for many women, then and now, it has never been the only source of suffering for women and having babies does not solve all the problems that women face.

Turning to the passage in 1 Samuel, the opening verses of the first chapter inform us that Elkanah is from a distinguished family line and that he is a man of some means because he has two wives.  We know nothing about these wives, however, save their names and their respective reproductive statuses.  Peninah has children; Hannah does not.  From this brief sketch, we can deduce a number of things:  First, since barrenness (and it was always assumed that the problem was with the woman) was considered a source of disgrace in the ancient world, Hannah lived under a cloud of shame.  Those around her probably wondered what she had done to deserve such a punishment.  This seems to be the case with her co-wife Peninah, who “to make her miserable, would taunt her that the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Samuel 1:6).

Second, children, particularly sons were not just tiny humans to love and nurture.  They represented the future — life beyond the present generation — in a very real and concrete way.  Sometimes we forget that for ancient Israelites, the concept of life-after-death and heaven was nebulous, perhaps even non-existent.  Thus, during the time in which the Hebrew Bible was written, Israelites imagined “life-after-death” as unfolding in the lives of their descendants.  With this in mind, Elkanah’s future was assured through Peninah’s sons.  Hannah’s was not.

Finally, even though the text tells us that Hannah was Elkanah’s favorite and that he would give her a double-portion at the sacrifice at Shiloh, Hannah’s immediate future wasn’t secure either.  If Elkanah died suddenly, his sons through Peninah would have inherited everything, leaving Hannah dependent upon their goodwill (or lack of it).  She knew that without a child, and more specifically a son, she could end up on the street.  Hannah was dependent not only upon Elkanah’s kindness and generosity, but his life as well. 

As year after year passed, and Hannah would weep and refuse to eat during the family pilgrimage to the House of the Lord at Shiloh, we see Hannah’s ongoing suffering.  Given, the enormity of Hannah’s predicament, it should come as no surprise.  To add insult to injury, Hannah’s husband doesn’t get it either.  “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating?  Why are you so sad?” he would ask. 

While he might have been a “nice guy” who truly loved Hannah, he simply wasn’t paying attention to the reality of her life.  His love couldn’t remove either her shame or her vulnerability.  His obliviousness is clear when he asks, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” This statement says much more about him than it does about Hannah.  I would have been more reassured if he had said, “Hannah, YOU are more than ten sons to ME.” 

Hannah finally reaches the breaking point and decides to go to the sanctuary at Shiloh on her own to plead with God for a male child.  She is even further humiliated as she reaches out for help.  The priest Eli, however, assumes the worst and compounds her grief by saying, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!” But once she explains herself, Eli listens and tells her to go in peace, sending her away with a blessing. 

The story then follows the pattern that we might expect — Hannah goes home, conceives, has a child, dedicates him to the service of the Lord, and lives happily ever after.  But is this woman’s grief and suffering so easily resolved by having a son?  Is it that simple? 

I wonder if Hannah’s suffering is not perhaps more complicated, more profound than the surface of the story suggests.  She is enmeshed in an unjust system that seems at every turn to be working against her desire for a better, more abundant life.  From God and her taunting co-wife to her naïve husband and the accusing priest, Hannah would appear to have very little agency.  Her only recourse, her only option within this system, is to return to the God who closed her womb in the first place.  Do we hear echoes of Job in Hannah’s story?

Is the author of this text aware of the acute injustice of a woman’s circumstances at that time?  Is he giving voice through Hannah to the deep, systemic injustice that has caused untold suffering for women throughout history?  While it may be wishful thinking on my part, it is possible — especially when we look ahead to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2. 

As scholars have aptly noted, this just doesn’t sound like the simple prayer of thanks we might expect from a new mother.  This is a song of revolution where the bows of the mighty are broken and the poor are raised from the dust.  Hannah’s song penetrates the surface, pointing to the pillars of injustice that must be pulled down.  Some of those pillars may be the very ones that put her in such a desperate situation in the first place.


Commentary on Psalm 16

Hans Wiersma

If you are preaching on the Gospel text — and its doom and gloom End Times themes — then there might not be too much to back you up here in Psalm 16.

Indeed, it doesn’t matter if you are in the End Times or just plain ol’ Tough Times, Psalm 16 amounts to a confession of faith that God will bring about a good outcome no matter what.

Although Psalm 16:1 begins with a request (“Protect me, O God”), the other 10.5 verses declare supreme confidence in the fact that the Lord will not only protect but also give counsel, instruction, support, rest secure, the path of life, the fullness of joy, and “pleasures forevermore.”

Even more, there is here a somewhat counter-intuitive take on one’s dying day: “For you do not give me up to Sheol,” the psalmist claims, “or let your faithful one see the Pit.” Now that’s confidence. Or, at least, it’s wishful thinking in the face of facing one’s mortality. Or perhaps it’s just naked hope that this “faithful one” will not meet the same End as, oh, say, all other human beings that have ever lived.

Thanks to the very first sermon of the Christian movement — the sermon preached by Peter in Acts 2 — Psalm 16 has an explicit Jesus-connection. In his proclamation to those gathered around on that first Pentecost, Peter quoted the final three verses of Psalm 16, announcing that the words are about Jesus of Nazareth. “Fellow Israelites,” he explained, “I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.” This was Peter’s way of saying that David’s words about not letting “your faithful one see the Pit” could not have been autobiographical. In other words, since David was, at the time, pushing up daisies, the words of Psalm 16 couldn’t be about him, could they now? No.

“But David was a prophet,” Peter continued, throwing King David a bone. “David knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he [as opposed to David] was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body [as opposed to David’s body] see decay” (Acts 2:29-31).

Speaking of the realm of the dead (Sheol in verse 10), consider this text an invitation to address the subject of Heaven, Hell, and where people go after they die. Or don’t. But if you do, and if you decide to focus on the biblical foundations for the concept of Hell, well, good luck to you. In the meantime, here’s some information to keep in mind: In the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, the word sheol does not easily correspond with hell or, for that matter, with heaven. Instead, like Hades of Greek mythology, Sheol is the realm of all the dead. Indeed, the Septuagint translates Sheol as Hades. For some, Sheol is a place to rest in peace after death (e.g. Genesis 37:35 or Job 21:13). For others, it’s a place that swallows up the living as punishment for wickedness (e.g. Numbers 16:30-33). For the most part, Sheol’s residents are not awake or aware and, except for one verse that mentions fire (Deuteronomy 32:22), Sheol does not appear to have much in common with the Inferno of eternal suffering imagined by Dante.

In the Gospels, there are two Greek words — hades and gehenna — that have been translated as “hell.’ (A third word, tartarus, is employed once, in 2 Peter 2:4.) Only rarely (as in Luke 16:19-31) do Jesus’s descriptions of hades connote a place where a person endures prolonged suffering. And nowhere does Jesus use the word hades or gehenna in conjunction with a place where a person consciously suffers for eternity. Instead, while using the term gehenna, Jesus describes an unquenchable fire where the wicked are utterly consumed (as in Matthew 10:28). What the hell?!

In 2011, Rob Bell, an American Evangelical pastor, caused a stir by questioning the existence of a physical Hell. The brouhaha over Bell’s ideas helped inspire a TIME cover story that asked, “What If There’s No Hell?” (TIME, April 25, 2011). A January 31, 2000, U.S. News and World Report cover story also dealt with the subject of Hell and its growing absence in Christian sermons.

Department of Bible Trivia (that can nevertheless be turned into a preaching point).

Psalm 16 begins by announcing that it’s “A Miktam of David.” There’s not much scholarly agreement regarding what miktam means. In fact, what scholars do agree about is that the meaning of miktam is uncertain. It appears only six times in the Hebrew scriptures: here at the start of Psalm 16, as well as at the start of Psalms 56-60. If each of the psalms that are introduced by the phrase “A Miktam of David” had a common meter or pattern or theme, then one could come up with a decent guess about the meaning of miktam.

For now, miktam’s meaning remains hidden. Still, the word is part of Holy Scripture. Surely, there’s something you can say about how not everything that’s in the Bible has a clear, definitive meaning, can’t you?

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

Amy L.B. Peeler

The culmination of the author’s central argument grounds ecclesiology in eschatology.

“Are there any verses in the Bible that explicitly tell us to go to church?” Students have raised this question several times in my classroom, and rarely is there an occasion where the answer is so straightforward.

Hebrews 10:25 is just that verse: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The injunction is clear: do not neglect to meet together. This author will allow for no “bedside Baptists,” for no mentality that loves Jesus, but can live without His church.

But, why? Why can’t a believer, empowered by the Holy Spirit and fed on the Word of God and prayer, go it alone? That method would certainly be less complicated. The author of Hebrews’ belief in the necessity of Christian fellowship depends upon the eschatological reign of Jesus guaranteed by the identity of God.

When I teach Hebrews to undergraduates, I begin by asking them if they have heard Hebrews preached much in their home churches. I usually get responses from both ends of the spectrum. Some heard it preached often, usually coupled with preaching from the Old Testament. The others hardly ever heard it preached at all. I’ve found that this letter holds rich resources for proclamation of the gospel when the preacher invests in exploring the stories and systems of Israel, an investment particularly beneficial for this section of the letter.

This week’s text draws together the argument the author began six chapters ago, namely that Jesus is God’s final and ultimate High Priest. The author can point to the model of Israel’s priests to explain what Jesus does, but his priesthood differs in several fundamental respects. Beginning in verse 11 the author reiterates those differences once again.

First, the other priests stand, and Jesus sits. We might not think that creates much of a difference, or even that this difference makes Jesus seem lazy, but for the author of this sermon, Jesus’ position relative to the other priests conveys the status of his work in bodily form. Other priests stand because they offer the same sacrifices for sins daily over and over again.

According to the author, this indicates that the sacrifices do not remove sin and its tainting of the conscience (10:2). The offerings of the other priests cannot remove sin, because they only cleanse the external (9:10). They do not affect the heart, a critique he derives from Israel’s prophets. In contrast, Jesus sits because his sacrifice has brought perfection — complete forgiveness of sins. He sits because his work is done.

Moreover, Jesus doesn’t just sit down anywhere. He takes a seat at the right hand of God, the fulfillment of the promise to David’s heir found in Psalm 110:1 (first cited in Hebrews 1:14). His heavenly session allows those who claim him as their priest to go right into the holy place of God (10:19). His sacrifice, like those of other high priests, cleanses the body, but it also removes the consciousness of evil from the heart. It is this internal cleansing that makes Jesus’ sacrifice the harbinger of the New Covenant in which one’s sins are forgotten and one’s heart and mind prepared for the implantation of God’s law (10:16-17).

Then the author urges his audience to hold fast their confession without wavering. An exhortation to the audience after this bold proclamation of the work of Christ might seem odd. Has his sacrifice not brought perfection? Isn’t it the case that there is no more need for offerings for sin? Can they not approach the holiest throne of God? Hebrews maintains a delicate balance between these two truths. Christ’s death has brought perfection, but those who follow him are still being sanctified (10:14). In other words, they are members of God’s household, but they have not yet reached God’s house.

Hence, they all have need to remain together and to pay attention to each other, so that they can encourage one another toward love and good deeds. For the author, assembling together is even more pressing in light of the approaching day — surely a reference to the day of the Lord, the day in which God will mete out judgment for all people (See, for example, Isaiah 2:12; 13:6; Amos 5:18; Joel 1:15). On this day, the children of God will celebrate on God’s mountain while the enemies of Jesus will be placed under his feet, as is promised in Psalm 110:1. It is so important to stay together, because if you remove yourself from this family, you end up among the enemies of Christ. There are no distant relatives. You are either in the family or you aren’t.

But how can they trust that confessing Jesus will pay off? How do they know that the access they have to the throne of God in prayer and worship will come to fruition in eternal worship before God’s throne? How can they know that Jesus will reign supreme and all things will be subject to him? How can they be sure that following this priest will lead them into God’s eternal house?

As the author grounds his goal for church participation in the eschatology of Christ’s session, he grounds the guarantee of Christ’s session in the character of God. They can hold their confession without wavering, because the one who promised is faithful. As God made promises to Abraham (Hebrews 6:13), to Sarah (Hebrews 11:11), to all his people (Hebrews 8:8-9), so too did he make a promise to his Son Jesus Christ (Psalm 110:1; Hebrews 1:14).

Just as he brought the dreams of the prophets to reality in the sacrifice of Jesus, because he is faithful he can be trusted as well to bring this promise to his Son to fulfillment. Jesus’ enemies will be subjected to him, and his followers will be fully sanctified. Those who trust in him should remain together as they eagerly anticipate the coming day of the Lord to ensure that for them the day will not be a day of judgment but a day of celebration.