Lectionary Commentaries for February 7, 2021
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:29-39

Osvaldo Vena

Mark 1:21-39 sets up the framework of Jesus’ ministry in terms of casting out demons, healing, and preaching/teaching. We already saw his first exorcism in verses 21-28. Now we encounter his first healing.

Back from the synagogue, a public place for men, Jesus goes into a house, a private place for women. It belongs to Simon and Andrew, the two brothers who were the first recruits in Mark 1:16-18. He comes with a male entourage that includes two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John, and is told that Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. She is not named, which shows that she was an ordinary woman. Only women deemed important by the Gospel writer are mentioned by name in Mark (see Mark 6:17-29; 15:40; 16:1).

Jesus comes into the house and finds the sick woman. He takes her by the hand and lifts her up (see Mark 5:41). Apparently she is healed right away because she begins to serve them. The word for serving is diakoneo, which denotes not only providing them with food, but also service in general as women did in those days as part of Mediterranean hospitality.

The fact that the first person to be healed in the story is a woman is significant. It shows that from the very beginning Jesus sided with the least of society. But he was a first century Jew and could not escape the mores of his culture. He still expected women to serve him and his group of followers (Mark 15:41), as seen in this case. We should be careful not to make universal laws concerning the role of contemporary women and men based on passages such as this.

The positive message of this healing, and the other cures in Mark 1, is that they represent Jesus’ ideology of inclusion: those healed are incorporated back into society. Simon’s mother-in-law returns to her role as a woman in the society of the time (verse 31) and the leper is told to fulfill his responsibilities as a member of the covenant people (verse 44).

“That evening, at sunset,” in verse 32 has caused scholars of previous generations to accuse Mark of being redundant, and to doubt the role of the evangelist as an author in his own right, relegating him to the role of a mere collector of traditions. That is not the case anymore. Nowadays the majority of biblical scholars think that Mark was the first written gospel and that Matthew and Luke relied on him for most of their information. Therefore, this verse can be explained by saying that the people, by bringing the sick and the possessed at sunset—which marked the beginning of a new day—were respecting the Sabbath sacredness. 

As an expert storyteller, Mark makes use of many literary devices, among them hyperboles, as in verse 33: “The whole city was gathered around the door.” But when it comes to Jesus’ ministry, he is more measured and gives a more realistic picture. He says that Jesus cured “many,” not all, as in Matthew 8:16 and Luke 4:40, who obviously had a more exalted view of Jesus than Mark.

Again Jesus does not allow the demons to speak. First, as in 1:25, he does not want them to have power over him. Second, he was afraid that an early recognition of his messiahship would compromise his ministry. He avoided the enticement to popularity, verbalized by Satan in the other versions of the temptation story recorded in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13, and here by his minions.

Early in the morning, Jesus leaves the house of Simon and Andrew and withdraws to a deserted place to pray. In Mark, Jesus prays three times: here, in 6:41, and in 14:32-42. Prayer is part of Jesus’ profound spirituality and seems to point to moments of crisis in his ministry. When Simon and his companions finally find him (the Greek verb katadioko suggests an intense search), alleging that everyone is looking for him, he tells them that they need to move on to the surrounding towns in order to proclaim the message there too, and to continue his ministry of liberation.

Contextualizing the text

This text offers several considerations for our time:

  • We need to avoid the allure of popularity, the celebrity syndrome engraved so deeply in the U.S. culture as exemplified by the widespread use of social media. Jesus could have stayed in Capernaum and become a local hero, using people’s problems for the purpose of self-aggrandizing. But he decided to move on.
  • We should accept our limitations. Even Jesus could not heal everybody.
  • We need to find our “deserted place” in order to re-energize and charge our spiritual batteries. It is a vital part of our ministry and a good antidote for the cult of personality. 
  • We need to focus our ministry on those who will not be able to repay us. We should avoid the danger of using their needs as a way of self-aggrandizing. God’s preferential option for the poor is written all over the New Testament and our challenge is how to preach it without using it as a justification for our personal agendas.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31

Kristin J. Wendland

The chapters following Isaiah 40 address a tired and weary people who likely had some trouble imagining a new future. 

At the beginning of Isaiah 40, the call went out to comfort the people who have been exiled from their homeland and for a desert highway to be built for their return. Verses 21-31 proclaim God’s power that will make this vision a reality. Isaiah 40:21-31 both disputes any claim to divine power apart from the LORD and confesses the character of the LORD. Both are expressed through the lens of God’s creative abilities.

Verses 21-31 are part of a longer section beginning in verse 18. The passage may be broken into four sections, identified by repeated lines:

18-20: To whom will you liken God?
21-24: Have you not known? Have you not heard?
25-27: To whom will you liken me?
28-31: Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The LORD, the Creator of all

Verses 21-24 question how it is that the people do not recognize God’s creative power and then give examples of this power that would be difficult to miss. The first image in verse 22 is of a dome over the earth, with God sitting atop it. Meanwhile, below, the much tinier, much less powerful inhabitants go about their business, like insects in a terrarium. The dome, as the Israelites would have imagined it, acted as a solid boundary to protect the earth from the waters of chaos (Genesis 1:6-8). Windows would open to let in water in the form of rain and then close when the rains were complete. What kind of creator is this? One who sets life-giving boundaries. One who keeps the waters of chaos at bay.

The second image in verse 22 is of the LORD stretching out the heavens like a tent. The metaphor is common in the Hebrew Bible, as the action of stretching out animal skins or goat’s hair cloth over and around poles to create a tent would have been familiar. Whether one dwells in a tent of stretched skins or another type of habitation, the image of God preparing a home resonates across the generations. What kind of creator is this? One who makes a home for God’s creatures. One who provides and protects.

At first blush, the image in verse 23 of the LORD bringing “princes to naught” and making “the rulers of the earth like nothing” seems to have little to do with creation and to run counter to the above acts of provision and protection. In verse 23 the Hebrew word translated as “nothing” in the NRSV is the same word translated as “void” in Genesis 1:2 (tohu). One recalls that in Genesis it was into such a formless void that God spoke creation. God has power even over “nothingness.”

As for the princes, a good and orderly ruling of the world has much to do with the created order in the Hebrew Bible. Whatever void occurs from the loss of these rulers, God will fill this void with something new. Creation is not a one-time act but ongoing, sustaining activity that includes fostering societies that operate in life-giving ways. When that ruling is neither good nor orderly, God just might blow as one blows chaff, making room for a new creation. 

The LORD knows you

To whom will you compare me? In verses 18-20, just before the beginning of the pericope, the response to this question was negative: do not liken me to gods made with human hands. In verses 25-27, the dispute has more to do with the people of Israel accusing God of not seeing them, of passing them over (see NRSV “disregarded”; verse 27). Perhaps another God has their best interests at heart and will sustain them into the future?

Once more creation imagery serves as a way to address the concern. Look to the heavens with their host, the moon and the stars. Are any of them missing? Have they floated away? No. God has named them and claimed them. In the same way, God has named and claimed Israel.

The LORD recreates and strengthens

Verses 28-31 look toward the future. Throughout this section of Isaiah, God’s action of returning the Israelites—at least those who desired to go—to Jerusalem is understood as an act of creation. The same power used to make the heavens and the earth will be leveraged on behalf of the people to form them into a new creation. In verse 28, the statement that the Creator does not faint or grow weary suggests that there is more to come. God has not finished with Israel yet.

Part of this creative work will be renewing and strengthening the people as this work is accomplished. God may not be tired, but humans are. Imagining a new future, physical travel toward Jerusalem, and rebuilding a city still largely destroyed are activities that require energy. Those trusting in the incomparable LORD, however, will have the energy to move forward into the new creation that the LORD has in store.

Those who returned to Jerusalem would find their share of struggle and disappointment. The promise of new creation was not a promise of life outside of the world as they knew it. Yet the creative power of their God opened for them a way where before there had been no way.

Weariness, of course, is not unique to the Israelites. Moving forward with joy into a newly created future that one cannot yet imagine may require strength beyond what humans hold within themselves. This word might be welcome among people struggling to imagine what their own future holds. The promise of God’s continual creative work, with its mysterious yet life-giving power, continues to be a word of hope for God’s tired and weary people.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

Shauna Hannan

“Praise the Lord.” What more is there to say? “Praise the Lord.” Period.1

The psalmist has offered five ways to proclaim praise to the Lord with the five Hallelujah Psalms that conclude the Psalter. Even within each of these five psalms, the psalmist offers myriad ways to say essentially the same thing: “Praise the Lord for the Lord is worthy to be praised.”

Isn’t this our task as preachers? We proclaim the gospel, the same enduring good news, week after week? This psalm offers homiletical possibilities regarding both content and form for saying the same thing in a number of ways. The former (content) helps us preach about the psalm and the latter (form) helps us preach like the psalmist.

Preaching about the psalm

The focus of Psalm 147 is on God as both the agent of creation and the ongoing active (very active!) agent in the healing of the world. This striking combination is worthy of exploration and emphasis. How amazing it is that the one who is the mighty and powerful creator (verse 5) is also the one who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (verse 3). The one who determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name (verse 4) is also the one who builds up Jerusalem and gathers the exiles of Israel (verse 2). This incarnational revelation that began at Christmas continues into this season of Epiphany.

Curiously, despite the creative power of this one (verses 8-9), God’s pleasure is not in the usual ways the world expresses power (verse 10). Instead, the Lord delights in those who fear him and who put their hope in his unfailing love (verse 11). Praise the one who possesses such an intriguing and life-giving combination of characteristics.

Another possible way to attend to the content of this psalm in the sermon is by imagining the psalmist’s proclamation in Psalm 147 as a response to Isaiah’s questions (Isaiah 40:21).

  • Have you not known the LORD who gathers the exiles of Israel?
  • Have you not heard that our Lord is great and mighty in power?
  • Has it not been told you that this one’s understanding has no limit?
  • Have you not understood that the Lord covers the sky and supplies the earth?

You too might consider offering a sermon that is a response to Isaiah’s questions. Psalm 147 serves as your guide.

Preaching like the psalmist

The psalmist is a master at using various literary and grammatical devices for saying similar things in multiple ways. For the week-to-week preacher, these are crucial skills to adopt. One literary device (contrast) was explored above. This section offers two additional devices: allusion and mood.

Literary Device: Allusion

An allusion offers a brief reference to something without dwelling on it or “over explaining” the connection. For example, a sermon might refer to the dark places of this world as “valleys of the shadow of death” into which the light of Christ shines so that we might “fear no evil.” Without even naming Psalm 23, most hearers would make the connection. In fact, referring explicitly to Psalm 23 might actually diminish the power of the allusion. The psalmist utilizes this device often. Before reading on, see how many allusions to other texts you identify in Psalm 147.

Compare your list with this one.

  1. The opening and closing “Praise the Lord” point me to the other five Hallel Psalms that close the Psalter. (Reading Psalm 146-150 as one unit might yield some insights.)
  2. The seemingly contrasting claim that God is both mighty creator (Psalm 147:4, 8-9, especially) and pays careful attention to the brokenhearted ( 3), for example, is reminiscent of Psalm 8:3-6.
  3. I cannot help but recall Psalm 133 when I hear: “How good and pleasant it is.” In fact, this phrase resonates with parts of scripture beyond the Psalter as well. Recall Jacob’s foretelling of the blessing of his son, Issachar, who “saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant” (Genesis 49:15). Remember from the Song of Songs 7:7: “How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden!” Also, the word “good” alone hearkens back to the creation story itself (Genesis 1:1).
  4. Determining the number of the stars and calling them each by name reminds me again of the creation story (Genesis 1:16) as well as the Lord’s words to Abram accounted later in Genesis, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them … So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5).

So, beyond considering the content of the psalm, preachers might consider doing as the psalmist does and allude to the psalm or other parts of scripture in the sermon. The preacher might also consider alluding to experiences of the congregation in order to undergird the mandate to “Praise the Lord.”

Grammatical Device: Mood

Paying attention to mood can spark sermonic substance. Notice the absence of the interrogative and conditional in Psalm 147; there are no questions and there are no “what ifs.” This psalmist has something to shout out and does so convincingly. He is not asking for our opinion or expressing wishful thinking. He is not asking questions as Isaiah did; he is answering them! Using the indicative (“The Lord builds Jerusalem”) and imperative (“Sing to the Lord … make music to our God … ”) moods, the Psalmist is proclaiming God’s greatness and encouraging (demanding!) a response.

Review your sermon in terms of grammatical mood. Are you using (overusing?) interrogatives when a biblical text prompts more conviction in proclamation? Are you expressing wishful thinking of possibilities (conditional/subjunctive) when a biblical text urges indicatives that describe the way things are.

The challenge

Take a cue from Psalm 147 in order to preach like the psalmist by using literary and grammatical devices such as contrast, allusion and mood of verb tenses. This challenge may help you offer the worthiest challenge of all to your hearers: “Praise the Lord!”


Notes

  1. Commentary first posted on this site on Feb. 8, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Melanie A. Howard

The extended discussion in 1 Corinthians 9 points to the presence of potential concerns among the Corinthians about the work and compensation of apostles, including Paul.

While this issue will come to a head later in 2 Corinthians, here in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is only interested in providing an extended reflection on his work and rights as an apostle.

In the first part of the chapter, Paul suggests that apostles should be granted the same rights as other laborers to earn a living from their craft. He points to examples from military and agricultural settings (verse 7) to highlight the point that workers deserve fair compensation. Paul suggests that what is the case for other occupations likewise holds true for those who proclaim the gospel. Moreover, Paul asserts that this right of apostles to earn a living from their ministry was in fact commanded by the Lord (verse 14).

It is important to situate 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 within this context of what Paul develops in 9:1-15. That is, as Paul emphasizes the point that he has voluntarily waived his right to appropriate compensation, he does so only after assuring that the Corinthians understand that he would have been well within his rights to demand such compensation. In doing this, Paul uses himself as an illustration of the principle that he developed in chapter 8, namely that individual rights can be trumped by a higher good.

Paul’s evangelistic strategy

Having settled the issue that he would be within his right to demand remuneration and that he nonetheless waives this right, Paul turns to a discussion of his own evangelistic strategy. As he explains it in verses 19-22, his tactics involve adapting his approach and presentation to different contexts.

In elaborating on this stratagem, Paul makes the claim that he has become a slave to all (1 Corinthians 9:19). Although the rhetorical force of this statement is profound, Paul’s self-identification with the experience of the enslaved is problematic. As Angela Parker has highlighted, Paul himself is a free man who exploits the experience of socially marginalized and oppressed populations not in order to relate to them but in order to capitalize upon their pain for the sake of making a rhetorical point about his devotion to Christ. Parker observes that this strategy shows up both in Paul’s designations of himself as a “slave of Christ” (Galatians 1:10; Romans 1:1) and in his claims to bear the marks of Jesus in his body (Galatians 6:17).1

Although Parker does not explicitly address this passage in 1 Corinthians 9, her critique is relevant to this passage. One might wonder how enslaved populations in Corinth would have heard Paul’s words here. Would they have felt heartened that Paul was recognizing and identifying with their experience, or would they have been affronted by the claim of a free man to understand their particular oppression?

Erasing divisions in the gospel

Paul’s claims to have become both like those under the law (verse 20) and those outside of the law (verse 21) appear to be rather contradictory. Likewise, his declaration that he has become all things to all people (verse 22) could sound like he has traded his integrity for the sake of success. Paul, however, is unconcerned with this possibility. Rather, he suggests that his actions are justified by his motivation: the good of the gospel (verse 23). While he does not state it explicitly, there may be a hint here that Paul understands these seemingly clear divisions between Jew and Gentile or weak and strong as false dichotomies that are erased by the loftier reality of the gospel. Indeed, Paul says as much in Galatians 3:23 where he collapses typical identity markers into an identity in Christ.

In upholding the importance of the gospel, Paul relativizes these other earthly divisions. Although he recognizes the divisions that exist within the Corinthian community (1 Corinthians 1:12), Paul nonetheless expresses his hope that the Corinthians will achieve unity (1:10). In modern times, Christ’s followers continue to be dogged by divisive allegiances, including allegiances to political parties and ideologies, particular denominations and theologies, and even frivolous divisions among sports fans of rival teams. Paul’s message to the Corinthians rings as true now as it did in the first century. As important as such distinctions may seem, they are ultimately meaningless in light of the good of the gospel.

Preaching from a position of power

Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 arises out of his own privileged social location, a fact reinforced by the end of the lectionary’s selection. Verse 23 sums up much of what Paul has been discussing up to this point in chapter 9. That is, after Paul has made a case for the right of workers to be compensated (verses 1-14), expounded upon his own choice not to take advantage of that right (verses 15-18), and enumerated other ways in which he has labored for the sake of the gospel (verses 19-22), he finally describes the compensation that he accepts: partnership with the gospel itself. This aligns with his earlier statement that his reward is making the gospel free of charge (verse 18). His own position of privilege and power is thus underscored by his financial ability to decline compensation for his labor.

Paul’s words in this chapter are best preached with caution since he speaks from a position of power. He is a freeborn, educated, Jewish male. The society of his time affords him the position to be able to give up his privileges if he so chooses. However, many audiences both in his time and ours are not even granted the opportunity to enjoy such privileges, let alone be offered the ability to relinquish them. So, while a message encouraging some audiences to follow in Paul’s footsteps of voluntary self-abasement may be appropriate in some settings, it is not universally applicable and may, in fact, be harmful to marginalized or disempowered audiences.


Notes

  1. Angela N. Parker, “One Womanist’s View of Racial Reconciliation in Galatians,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 34, no. 2 (2018): 33-37.