Lectionary Commentaries for January 24, 2021
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:14-20

Osvaldo Vena

Exploring the text

Jesus begins his ministry “after John was arrested.” By whom? Why? That information is given in 6:17. It was King Herod who did it on account of John’s denunciation of his illicit marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife. Two possible scenarios for this are: under Jewish law only men could divorce their wives and Philip had not done it so Herodias was still legally married to him, or she had divorced Philip under Roman law but that was not recognized by Jewish law. In any case, in John’s view, the marriage was illegal and contravened the OT legislation (see Lev 18:16; 20:21).

Jesus’ ministry starts with the proclamation of the good news of God, that is, the gospel. The content of this message was that God’s kingdom was near, that is, fast approaching, almost here, and so people had to prepare for it by repenting and believing in the good news. God’s kingdom should be interpreted as God’s reign, for the word basileia refers more to a dominion, the power to reign, than to a specific place.

The word for “time” is kairos, signifying an opportune time and decisive moment because God is about to act. It has eschatological implications. The word for “fulfilled” is a verb in passive which conveys the idea that the implicit subject is God, who had caused this to happen.

Jesus recruits his first disciples. They will be “fishers of people.”1 This metaphor was used by missionaries all over the world to justify and legitimize the allegedly life-giving ministry of the Christian evangelist. And yet, it really is a metaphor of death: fish, when taken out of the water, die! But that has been interpreted as dying to the world, which results in life unto God, something the author of the Gospel clearly affirms in Mark 8:35. The metaphor can also be explained by saying that since in the Bible the sea represents the place of the primordial chaos, inhabited by God’s mythical enemies, the fishing of people can have the connotation of rescuing them from the snares of the devil.

Contextualizing the text

In my experience as a youth in Argentina, and through the preaching of U.S. missionaries, we understood being fishers of people in the two senses mentioned above. We heard the preaching of the Protestant version of the gospel as believers of the Roman Catholic faith, who already enjoyed a healthy relationship with God.

Ched Myers, in his book Binding the Strong Man, has alerted us to the fact that the metaphor of fishing is taken from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used to symbolize God’s disapproval of Israel. It is also used in Amos 4:2 and Ezekiel 29:4, where catching fish with hooks is used to represent the divine judgment upon the rich and the powerful, respectively. “Jesus,” Myers concludes, “is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.”2 This is quite a different interpretation from the one I received in my youth.

I would like to suggest then that the purpose of Jesus’ call to discipleship is not to take people out of a hostile world, promising them a better life in God’s heavenly kingdom. Instead, his purpose is to change the world in such a way that it will cease to be the hostile place it is, so that God’s reign can be established on earth. Doing this will require that we make a preferential option for the poor, the dispossessed, the excluded, and those who because of gender, sexual orientation, race, or class have been rendered invisible in our society. It will also require that we will courageously denounce the evils of our western culture and its arrogant project of globalization. In short, it will require that we change the romantic view of discipleship that we have inherited for one that, by addressing the socio-political realities of our world, may do more justice to Jesus’ original intent.


Notes

  1. Osvaldo D. Vena, “Fishers of People: Mark 1:16-20” in Opening the Door. Pastoral Resources for Re-Constructing the Culture of the Call, a resource produced by Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, 2001, 6-7.
  2. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 132.

First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Cory Driver

Jonah is a tale of what happens when God’s mercy is too much for some, and maybe not enough for others.

In reading this story, we are supposed to know several things. The first thing we should know is that Nineveh will eventually become the capital of the Assyrian Empire (but not until 17 years after the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell). The book of Jonah does not attempt to describe what Nineveh has done to have their wickedness come before God. The reader is supposed to already know. Thus, Nineveh should be understood as representing the wicked, bloodthirsty power of empire that would bring a particularly savage and cruel end to the Kingdom of Israel.

We are also meant to know that Jonah is a particular kind of prophet. Jonah the son of Amittai prophesied that even though sinful patterns of abuse, injustice, and idolatry continued unabated, the Northern Kingdom of Israel would become great again by recovering land and prestige that had been lost under previous kings (2 Kings 14:23-27). In other words, Jonah’s prophetic career, outside of the book that bears his name, is based entirely upon prophesying national greatness for an unrepentant country. As a prophet, Jonah was an unconditional Israelite nationalist.

And so it was Jonah, in God’s own sense of humor, who was picked to prophesy against Nineveh. Now, we would think that Jonah would love to say to citizens of any nation other than his own, “forty more days and you will be destroyed.” But he was more than a bit reluctant, as chapters one and two describe. Why? Because Jonah knows God’s character: “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah knew in advance that God would be much too merciful to Nineveh for Jonah’s tastes. Jonah only spent one day preaching to a city meant to take three days to cover, because Jonah knew of God’s great mercy (Jonah 3:3-4). That God loves and is merciful to Gentiles is not meant to be a surprise to the reader. It was certainly not a surprise to Jonah.

What was a surprise to some of the earliest readers of this book was how God had not been merciful to the Israelites. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was obliterated by the Assyrians, who stood out in a brutal period of history as especially wantonly violent. The Assyrians also waged war against the Southern Kingdom of Judah. But it was ultimately the Babylonians who triumphed over the Judahites over a century later. Nineveh had been destroyed by the Babylonians as their empire grew, but the city of Babylon was largely spared by the attacking Persians because they did not resist their own conquest. Judahite refugees returning to their destroyed cities must have wondered why God’s mercy was enough to save Babylon, but not Samaria or Jerusalem. After all, the prophets had been prophesying against Babylon for centuries, but it still stood, largely unscathed. God’s mercy had been plentiful for their oppressors, and not enough for them. The book of Jonah is an attempt to respond to the latter of those age-old, twin questions: why do bad things happen to good people, and why do good things happen to bad people?

It is in chapter three of Jonah that we have an attempted response to the challenge of why a city that was partly responsible for so much suffering was forgiven. In response to Jonah’s lackluster prophesying, the people of Nineveh responded with alacrity. The people, from the least to the greatest proclaimed a fast and everyone put on uncomfortable sackcloth. The verses that we do not read in the lectionary include the details that the king of Nineveh, upon hearing Jonah’s message, unnecessarily called a fast that his people were already observing. But then the fast was extended to animals, who were also dressed up in sackcloth as well. If you find the image of sheep and cows wearing sackcloth diapers funny—good! This is supposed to be a comical overdoing of repentance. The king of Nineveh imagined that if the fast were extreme enough, God may relent from divine anger. And that is exactly what God did.

The message for Israelites and Judahites who may have read this text was clear. National prestige and closeness to God will not be enough to save a people from the consequences of ongoing injustice and idolatry. Jonah was chosen for this adventure specifically to repudiate his prior prophetic career. Relying on God to preserve national greatness despite national patterns of sinfulness and abuse is so utterly stupid that even the Ninevites know not to try it! Instead, the Ninevites repented in sackcloth and ashes, and God was merciful to them.

The closing verse of our reading for this week is a word of hope, if we have ears to hear it. When God saw how the people of Nineveh turned from their evil ways, God also turned from the evil that God had planned. Even to those Assyrians who were primarily known throughout history for their abject cruelty and wanton violence, God sends messengers telling of consequences and inviting them to a better way. The book of Jonah proclaims that even a warlike people, such as the Assyrians, were able to repent. If bloodthirsty folks whose society is built on violence are able to passionately repent and move God’s heart, how much more should God’s beloved community, the people of God’s pasture, avail themselves of God’s abundant mercy by turning from evil ways that hurt and harm others?


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 62:5-12

Shauna Hannan

This Psalm is for the asylum seeker, those who seek refuge from adversaries, those who yearn for security and stability.1

Dare I say that this Psalm is for us all especially now?

The Psalmist’s experience of crisis prompts the big question of whether or not he (anyone?) can trust and take refuge in God in the face of enemies? The Psalmist’s undeniable answer is, “Yes!” Especially at such a time, the only thing that offers true refuge is God, the steadfast one.

There are multiple genres at work in this Psalm, which suggests the Psalmist does all it takes to declare his trust in God and instruct others to do the same. In Psalm 62 one finds lament, praise, thanksgiving, wisdom, exhortation. Most interesting is variation in parts of speech utilized by the Psalmist as he moves from testimony to exhortation to prayer. The second half of the Psalm (the lectionary selection) progresses like this:

Speaking about God (3rd person testimony)

Direct address to the people (2nd person exhortation)

Speaking about people in light of who God is (3rd person instruction)

Direct address to the people (2nd person exhortation)

Speaking about God (3rd person testimony)

Direct address to God (2nd person prayer)

Working our way through the form itself offers a possible effective form for a sermon.

There are a few intriguing elements in the Psalmist’s testimony in verses 5-7.

  1. The English translation covers up the emphatic and repetitive ‘ak that begins each of these verses. ‘Ak is translated as alone or only (“but a” in verse 9). “Only for God do I wait in silence. Only God is my rock and my salvation.” This important word occurs 7 times in the whole Psalm.
  2. Verses 5 and 6 are an exact repetition of verses 1 and 2 with only one exception; “Salvation” in verse 1 becomes “hope” in verse 5.
  3. The sequence of possessive nouns is powerful: my rock, my salvation, my fortress, my mighty rock, my refuge. The determined Psalmist claims God as his own and seems to create a verbal fortress with this series.

After this opening expression of trust, the Psalmist turns to others with unapologetic exhortation (verse 8). Clearly, the my does not give the Psalmist exclusive rights to this refuge. God can be your only as well. Trust in him! Lament (“pour out your heart”) before him. One of the most powerful turns is in verse 8b when the individual self-possession of God is transformed into a communal “God is a refuge for us!” The Psalmist’s experience of crisis turns into faithfulness in the only refuge, God, which then turns into exhortatory proclamation that others might trust only in this one, God.

Knowing that crises might lead some to depend on unfaithful means of hope and salvation (is he is speaking here from personal experience?), the Psalmist names those things that challenge the ‘ak; e.g., status in the world (interestingly, both high or low estates get in the way), extortion, robbery, riches.

Note elements of the wisdom tradition in vss. 9 and 11. Hebel (translated as “breath”) appears twice in verse 9 and reminds us of Qoheleth’s wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:2, etc. where hebel is translated as “vanity”). The numeric parallelism in verse 11, “Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this,” is akin to wisdom literature found in Proverbs (e.g., Proverbs 30:15-19).

So far, the Psalmist has gone from a personal expression of trust in God, to exhortation and instruction for the people to trust in God, before finally turning directly to God in prayer. It is the prayer’s affirmation of God’s hesed that solidly undergirds all that has come before; one could not exclaim God as one’s own without God’s hesed; one could not confirm God as rock or fortress or refuge without God’s hesed; one could not proclaim that God is the only refuge without God’s hesed; one could not exhort others to give up their delusional and vain dependencies without God’s hesed; one could not advocate reliance on God alone as refuge and hope and salvation without God’s hesed. It is the final prayer of praise and thanksgiving for hesed that gives this Psalmist both confidence and a restful soul.

Homiletical possibilities

Center of gravity

Draw out one or all of these psalm’s center of gravity possibilities. The first is the repeated verses 5-6 that serve as a refrain. The second is the outward turn from the Psalmist’s own claim that God is his refuge and hope, to the affirmation that God is our refuge and hope as well. The third is the emphasis on God’s steadfast love, hesed, that supports everything in the psalm. Which of these, or which combination of these, might drive your sermon?

Mirror the form

Would you consider opening the sermon with your own expression of trust in God that has arisen out of an experience of crises? Then, what instruction or wisdom, based on your experience, might you offer the congregation? Name those delusional and vain dependencies that we all rely on. While most do not resort to explicit extortion or robbery, we might certainly be apt to set our hearts on riches and/or status. For our own good, exhort us not to put our trust or find refuge in these things, but in God alone. And then lead us in prayer of praise and thanksgiving to the steadfast one.

Scripture interprets Scripture

While Jesus’ words in Mark are not to be read into this Psalm, Jesus himself is like the Psalmist when he proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Calling others to repent is emboldened by God’s steadfastness. It is that steadfast love that is both good news and sign of the kingdom coming near. How powerful it is that Mark’s account of the gospel begins at this point of trust in God’s steadfastness.

Whatever the preacher does with a sermon based on this Psalm, the bottom line is that it is in God alone that we place our trust and take refuge in times of crisis.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 25, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Melanie A. Howard

Though a brief passage, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 packs a punch.

In these few verses, the Apostle Paul encourages the Corinthians to pursue a radical reorganization of their priorities and perceptions of the current reality.

The context of 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

To understand the import of what Paul is communicating in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, it is important to view these verses in the context of what he has been exploring in the first part of 1 Corinthians 7. The chapter opens with Paul’s instructions regarding marriage (verses 1-16). Here, Paul explains the basic duty of spouses to one another and the reasons why one might either pursue or avoid marriage relationships. From there, Paul moves on to an encouragement for his Corinthian audience to accept their allotted station in life as a situation to which they have been called by God (verses 17-24). Finally, in the verses immediately preceding this text (verses 25-28), Paul considers the merits of a life of singleness. In short, Paul has spent most of the chapter providing instructions to govern present relationships.

While the adjacent admonitions in verses 25-28 prepare for his message in verses 29-31, it is worth observing the ways in which verses 29-31 nearly undermine the whole of what Paul has been discussing up to this point in chapter 7. That is, after spending significant time considering proper relationships, duties, and motivations for marriage, Paul essentially undoes everything he has been saying by pointing out that the “impending crisis” (verse 26) will reshape the whole of reality. Even the important marriage relationship that Paul has been at pains to explain well is irrelevant as those who have wives may as well behave as if they do not (verse 29). Paul’s apocalyptic worldview here relativizes all aspects of reality.

The shortening of time

Reality is changed because time itself is undergoing change. In verse 29, Paul speaks of the shortening of the appointed time. The particular word that Paul uses for “time” here (kairos) refers to time that is, in some way, special and distinct from normal time (chronos). The distinction between the two terms can be illustrated by two different uses of the same word “time” in English. If one were to ask for the time of day, the term chronos would be used. However, if one were to state that the time had come for a child to be born, kairos would be the appropriate term. In other words, for Paul to speak of time using kairos language here suggests that he is referring to a set season that is distinct, special, and set apart from quotidian life.

Beyond Paul’s choice of vocabulary here, the impact on this time is also of interest. Paul indicates that the time has grown short. The verb Paul uses shows up only here in the whole of the New Testament. However, its use in other ancient Greek literature is illustrative. It is used to describe the shortening of sails,1 the cowering of scared people,2 and the retrenching of armies.3 That is, the term carries a sense of being reduced, restricted, or contracted in upon oneself. There is a sense, then, that for Paul, it is not only that a particular notable eschatological event may be about to occur (though that seems to be part of what is in mind here) but rather that this special time itself is hunkering down and making preparations for a challenging obstacle.

With the contraction of time upon itself, all aspects of reality are affected. The marriage relationship is only one victim of this transformation. Emotional responses are not meaningful (verse 30a), economic transactions are worthless (verse 30b), and social engagement of any kind is pointless (verse 31a). In short, no area of life is left untouched by this apocalyptic view.

The form of the world passing away

Perhaps one of the reasons that Paul can speak so confidently about the relativization of nearly every aspect of current life is rooted in what seems to be an implicit belief that the present view of the world does not capture true reality. There appears to be a hint of this sentiment at the end of verse 31 as Paul indicates that the “form” of this world is passing away. Notably, Paul does not indicate that the world itself is passing away, merely its form.

To understand what Paul means by the “form” of the world, it is instructive to look at the only other place in Pauline literature where he uses the term: in the context of the “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2. In Philippians 2:7, Paul notes that Christ was found in human “form.” That is, although there was a time during which Christ appeared in the form of a human, this form did not fully encapsulate the whole of his identity. It may be that Paul has something similar in mind in speaking of the passing away of the “form” of this world. While the world’s current form may be all that can be currently seen, the world itself may be awaiting the apocalyptic revelation of its full reality.

Paul’s apocalyptic vision for today

In our own time, the “impending crisis” of Paul’s imagination does not exert a significant force. People continue marrying, buying, and socializing because the long expanse of history from Paul’s time to our own has diminished the urgency that Paul seemed to have felt. However, even if our present time does not share Paul’s view of an imminent apocalyptic event, Paul’s words continue to be relevant. His call to subsume all normal areas of life under the greater good of unencumbered devotion to the Lord (verse 35) is one that can continue to offer exhortation to audiences today. That is, Paul’s words call for a re-prioritization of values that, like Jesus’ own exhortation, encourage putting stock into heavenly treasures rather than earthly ones (see Matthew 6:19-21). Present social and economic systems may crumble, but for the individual who has devoted energies elsewhere, such temporal setbacks need not be of ultimate concern.


Notes

  1. Aristophanes, Frogs, 999.
  2. Euripides, Iphigeneia at Tauris, 295.
  3. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 8.4.