Lectionary Commentaries for February 21, 2021
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:9-15

Osvaldo Vena

Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11)

It is problematic to compare Jesus’ baptism with that of the people coming to be baptized by John. This action betrays a relationship of superior to inferior, of teacher to disciple, which places Jesus in a subordinate relationship with John.

The other problem is the nature of the baptism as repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What did Jesus have to repent of? What sins did he have to confess? It has been suggested that the people coming to be baptized were simply expressing their readiness for the promised kingdom of God. Their repentance and confession pertain to social sins, not innate, personal ones, for which they had a recourse through the Temple rites. It was an admission that they had somehow participated in a system of oppression and that now they were ready to change in preparation for God’s reign.

The baptism, then, was a visible sign of that attitude. If that was the case, then it was natural for Jesus to identify with this popular movement and do the same.1 Granted that this makes some people uncomfortable, it is the only honest reading that the text affords.

Herman Waetjen has suggested that Jesus was baptized into the Jordan (eis), rather than in the Jordan (en), as happened to the people in verse 5.2 The Jews from Judea and Jerusalem were not submerged in the river; that is, they did not submit to the full depth of John’s baptism. But Jesus did. He completely renounced the old order3 and proved to be a more genuine disciple than the others.

The tearing of the heavens (sjizomenous) parallels the tearing of the veil in Mark 15. The Gospel writer is using it to show that the Spirit is available again. The heavens have been ripped open. In 15:38 it is the veil that separated the people from God’s presence which is torn apart (esjizthe). Now the way to God is open for everyone. The purpose of these two verses was to call attention to what was included between them: Jesus’ ministry. The first, 1:10, signals the beginning; the second, 15:38, its end.

In the baptism, the Spirit comes from above and goes into (eis) Jesus, filling him. That is why the Baptist says that the one coming after him “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:8). He is not a prophet temporarily anointed with the Spirit but rather one in which the Spirit lives permanently. That makes a huge difference between a traditional prophet and Jesus, something corroborated by the voice from heaven in verse 11.

In Mark’s narrative, the voice from heaven fulfills the purpose of identifying Jesus’ origin: he might come from Nazareth, a place of low honor, but he is God’s son. Jesus’ honor is ascribed; that is, granted by someone in a powerful and honorable position, in this case the God of Israel. The divine voice makes an astonishing affirmation: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” It is a composite citation from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, among other passages, and it comes for Jesus’ and the readers’ benefit, not for those witnessing the event (compare it with Matthew 3:17).

The expression “my Son, the Beloved” does not have a capital initial, as in most modern translations, since the original Greek was all written in capital letters. It denotes the translator’s bias, who believes Jesus to be the Son of God in an ontological sense. But the idea here is more relational. Jesus is the favorite son of God, the one God has chosen to accomplish the task that the evangelist is about to tell the reader. It shows God’s partiality and preference. It also shows some rivalry with his teacher John. It basically says that God has chosen the disciple over the teacher!

The Jewish people believed that prophecy had ceased with the last prophets but that it would be restored at the end-times (Malachi 4:5-6). The heavens had “closed,” as it were, and there was no direct communication from God to humankind anymore. That Mark says that the heavens were torn apart is a daring affirmation. That the Spirit descended and entered into Jesus is even more so. Here we have an absolutely revolutionary claim: the God of Israel is speaking again and has chosen to do it through a humble peasant from Galilee!

Jesus’ testing in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13)

Like Israel—God’s son in the past—Jesus is tested in the wilderness. The number 40 could be symbolic of the 40 years Israel spent in the Sinai desert or just indicate a long period of time. Given the citation from the Hebrew Bible in Mark 1:2-3, the first possibility is more plausible. His testing may have served as a preparation and empowerment for ministry. That Jesus was assisted by angels resembles a similar situation in the life of Elijah (see 1 Kings 19:5-8). The tradition behind Luke’s Gospel says that angels attended to him while praying at the Mount of Olives (see also Luke 22:43), where Jesus was tested in preparation for the final stage of his ministry.

Mark does not tell us the outcome of the testing, but it is clear that he understands it as the decisive encounter with Satan that will explain Jesus’ exorcisms in the rest of the Gospel: “the stronger one has confronted the prince of demons, and is plundering his house” (Mark 3:22-27).4

Contextualizing the text

God invites people to see the world from the margins of society. Every liberating movement has started like that, including the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the more recent ones such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

We should accept our responsibility in social sins such as racism, homophobia, classism, etc., from which we need to repent.

The relationship between prayer and praxis needs to be clarified. Prayer can never replace praxis nor can praxis replace prayer. They are two sides of the same coin. Jesus is the best example.

Notes

  1. Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 44.
  2. Herman Waetjen, A Re-ordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989), 68.
  3. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 129.
  4. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, 51.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17

Justin Michael Reed

As the conclusion to a story of God wiping out almost all life and right before Noah curses his innocent grandson, we find Genesis 9:8-17, God’s eternal covenant with all creatures. It is a beautiful covenant in which God unconditionally promises to withhold divine destruction, and God sets a sign—a (rain)bow—in the sky to assure humanity that we need not fear another cataclysm like that which is depicted in Genesis 6–8. 

This is a much loved passage by adults and one that we share with children from a very early age. But even as we draw out meanings from this passage that we would like to uphold, we must not ignore the terrible literary context in which our text is couched. If we are not careful, we may adopt this passage as a palliative that gives us a sense of comfort with the divinely orchestrated genocide inscribed in the story of the flood. It is only a small step from that to becoming desensitized to the genocide and massive disasters of our world today. 

If we are not careful, we are prone to treat the rainbow as a happy ending to the flood while paying no attention to the horrible historical consequences that have come out of how people read the verses that actually end Genesis 9. Those verses (Genesis 9:18-29) have consistently served as a crucial theological support for all kinds of oppression including, but not limited to, Christians persecuting Jews, Muslims enslaving non-Muslims, Christians enslaving people of African descent, and Hutu massacring Tutsi. Although most readers may denounce such atrocities today, the majority of readers still find ways to justify the curse of Canaan in the text, which leaves the passage charged with theological potential to be used for evil in generations to come.

It would be irresponsible to glibly profess love for the theological insights that one can draw out of Genesis 9:8-17 without offering a warning about the dangers embedded in its immediate literary context. Because I treat these ancient Israelite texts as life-giving scripture, I take great care with how I transmit these stories to communities of faith where we so often treat the Bible as our guide.

As we turn from the literary context to the socio-historical context of biblical authors, we can gain special insights from a basic understanding of what a covenant is. The biblical authors who write of God making covenants with humans are taking a specific type of binding arrangement between humans and imagining God entering into these social relationships. A key idea worth drawing out of covenants in their historical context is that they are predicated on relationships. The fact that God makes a covenant with “every living creature … for all future generations” (Genesis 9:12) implies that God maintains some ongoing relationship with every being, human and animal.

What does it mean to read the Bible as scripture written by ancient Israelites, but also hinting at a relationship between God and the rest of the world—a relationship never thoroughly depicted in the pages of our Bible? In rare instances we get a glimpse of this radical theological vision. At the other end of the flood story, Genesis 6:12 implies that all flesh, not just humans, can act in ways that are concerning to God. In Amos 9:7 God recounts having been the liberator for other peoples in the same way that God led the Israelites out of Egypt. As with these passages, God entering into a covenant in Genesis 9 implies God’s relationship with creation that extends beyond the limits of our parochial purview.

Another important way to contextualize this passage is in relation to the strikingly similar flood myths of their ancient Southwest Asian and Northeast African neighbors. By “myth” I mean a story set in primeval time that expresses some core beliefs about something significant and that is held onto tightly by the communities that pass on these stories. (It is not a claim about the truth or historicity of the story.) 

When one looks at the parallels between the biblical account of Noah and a popular Old Babylonian flood myth of Atrahasis, the many similarities are apparent, but the differences also provide a very fruitful space for thinking about why it is that we hold so tightly to the theology in the story passed down in the Bible. 

The Old Babylonian flood story explains why things are the way they are for the contemporary authors and audience in the ancient world. Before the flood, there is a problem of overpopulation that disturbs the gods to such an extent that they decide to wipe out people; only by following the advice of a wise god does Atrahasis build a vessel to withstand the catastrophe. In the aftermath of the flood, the gods replace catastrophes of epic proportion with the perennial tragedies their audience would recognize such as stillbirths and infant deaths. But the biblical authors, rather than use this flood tradition to explain the tragedies of contemporary circumstances, use the flood story to explain the blessings of life. The end of the flood marks a time when God’s world will carry on with predictable seasons—a sign of hope that things will turn around for the better even during the tough times (Genesis 8:22)—and a covenant of assurance that God will not destroy all life again (Genesis 9:11). One of the reasons that we hold onto the biblical flood story so tightly is because it reminds us to hope for the rainbow after the storm and to believe that, even in the midst of a tempest, a new tomorrow awaits us.

This message of hope seems especially poignant as we navigate the devastation of a global pandemic. The biblical authors certainly did not imagine the toll that COVID-19 would take on the world when they transcribed their own version of an ancient flood myth. Nevertheless, Christians have a rich history of drawing meaning from the Bible in order to speak life into the present moment. Certainly, this is a moment when we could benefit from God’s message of hope.

 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 25 is the reading for the First Sunday in Lent, the season in which Christians prepare themselves for the passion of Jesus.1

Jesus, this preacher, prophet, sage, and teacher, begins a journey to Jerusalem that will end in a life-changing event for all humanity. Before we examine Psalm 25, let us briefly explore the accompanying biblical passage for the First Sunday in Lent in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Genesis 9:8-17 is the concluding scene of the flood narrative. Noah, his family, and representatives of every living creature have been spared from the devastating waters. Noah emerges from the ark, offers sacrifices to God, and God makes a solemn promise, a covenant, with Noah, his family, and all living creatures: “I have set my bow in the clouds … the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:13, 15).

Mark 1:9-15 relates the story of John baptizing Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, a dove descended and a voice declared, “You are my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). First Peter 3:18-22 draws parallels between the Genesis flood and the rite of baptism.  According to the author, water is not just a means for the removal of dirt from the body, but “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).

What is the tie to Psalm 25? We find in its words no mention of floods or waters of baptism. Rather, its themes are words of trust, teaching and instruction, right paths, and covenants. How do we understand such words on this First Sunday in Lent?

Psalm 25 is classified as an Individual Lament. The psalm singer lifts up the very essence of her being, her nephesh (usually translated as “soul”), to God (verse 1), asking God not to put her to shame or let her enemies rejoice over her. She then requests that God teach her and all those who wait for God’s goodness the ways of God (verses 2-5). Verse 6 is, I think, the heart of Psalm 25. In it, the psalm singer implores God to remember God’s mercy (NRSV; translated in other verses in the NRSV as “compassion”) and steadfast love (NRSV; lovingkindness, KJV; love, NIV).

Mercy (raham) and steadfast love (hesed) are two of the words found in God’s self-revelatory words to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. Recall that these words were spoken by God to Moses on Mount Sinai after the Israelites had fashioned the Golden Calf and worshipped before it. When Moses came down from the mountain, he broke the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:19); in Exodus 34, he ascended the mountain again and God encountered him once again, this time not only giving Moses the Ten Commandments, but also a self-description that echoes throughout the pages of the Old Testament:

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful (raham) and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

The words are woven into many psalms (e.g., 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 145:8). The word raham (compassion or mercy) is derived from the Hebrew noun, rehem, which means “womb.” God’s compassion or mercy is tied closely to the concept of “womb love,” the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child.

Over and over, the psalmists remember and call upon God’s compassion, God’s “womb love”:  “Be mindful of your mercy (raham), O Lord, and of your steadfast love” (25:6); “Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy (raham), turn to me” (69:16); “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion (raham) is over all that he has made” (145:9). References to God from the verbal root raham occur no less than twenty-two times in the Psalter.

The word hesed is one of the most difficult Hebrew words to translate. It refers to the covenant love of God for God’s people. God makes covenants with humanity in a number of places in the Old Testament.  The first is in Genesis 9:13, “I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” God covenants never to destroy the earth by flood again. In Genesis 15, God covenants with Abraham that Abraham will have many descendants who will occupy the land of promise. In Exodus 20, God covenants with the children of Israel to be their God and that they would be God’s people. In 2 Samuel 7, God covenants with David that there would always be a king of the Davidic line to sit on the throne of Israel.

God’s hesed, God’s covenant love for his people, is a pervasive theme of the biblical text, in spite of humanity’s persistent disobedience of God. The ultimate act of hesed by God was the coming of Jesus, a dramatic reaching out of God in covenant love to humanity. As a result, John the Baptist was able to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).

The singer of Psalm 25 seeks to walk in the paths and ways that God desires, and acknowledges that only through diligent study and learning can we discover those paths (verses 4-5, 8-10). The coming of Jesus, prompted by God’s raham and hesed, gave humanity a new means for finding and walking the paths and ways of God. The flood waters, transformed by the waters of baptism, have become more than a means of cleansing, but a means of participating in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated (1 Peter 3:21).


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 26, 2012.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22

Yung Suk Kim

The author of 1 Peter addresses “the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood” (1 Peter 1:1-2). The exiles of the Dispersion are gentile Christians in Asia Minor who need encouragement and comfort in their harsh lives on the margins of the Roman Empire. The author assures them of the sustenance and success of Christian life rooted in Christly examples as well as God’s grace. 

In 1 Peter 3:18-22, the focus is Christ’s innocent suffering for the unrighteous and the importance of Christian life imitating him. Christ’s suffering results from his challenging the power/ideology of the world, demonstrating God’s love for the marginalized. That is, Jesus was faithful to God and did not spare his life in demonstrating God’s righteousness or justice to the world. He proved God’s love through his faithfulness and righteous suffering for the unrighteous (recalling the image of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:11). Now the unrighteous may have a new life and hope in God through the grace of Jesus. Those who are baptized in the name of Jesus must live with the spirit of Christ as well as with the power of the resurrection of Jesus (see also 1 Peter 1:18-2:25).

Once and for all, to bring you to God

Scholars believe that 1 Peter was written in Rome during the last quarter of the first century, a decade after Paul’s letter to the Romans. We may understand 1 Peter better through intertext with Paul’s undisputed letters, which may have influenced the former. As Paul’s letters are infused by the message and power of the cross (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 13:4; Romans 5:6-8; 8:3-4; Galatians 6:14-17), 1 Peter also talks about Christ’s suffering for sin, which is a matter of interpretation. 

Based on Romans 5:6-8 and 8:3-4, Christ’s suffering for sin may be understood as his price for demonstrating God’s love to the world. In Romans 5:6-8, Paul says: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Christ’s dying for “the ungodly” applies to all (“dying for us”). Jesus loved God and unfaithful people and advocated for them. Ironically, he was crucified by the hands of evil because of his love of God and the world. That is, he defended the rights of the poor and marginalized and cared for them. 

In Christ’s crucifixion are the grace of Jesus and the love of God. This idea is also found in Romans 8:3-4: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Jesus was treated like a sinner/criminal because he demonstrated God’s love and justice while challenging the wisdom of the world (see also 2 Corinthians 5:21). The above idea is conveyed in 1 Peter 3:18: “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,” which echoes 2 Corinthians 13:4: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” 

While his suffering for sins once and for all was a historical, salvific event, it does not exempt his followers from suffering for the gospel or risky journeys due to faith. This means people must turn to God as they repent. So, 1 Peter 3:18 says, Christ’s suffering is “to bring you to God.”  

1 Peter 3:19-20 as an extraneous passage?

From a critical perspective today, 1 Peter 3:19-20 is not only hard to understand but extraneous to the message of the cross and its relation to Christian life. In this passage, Christ’s proclamation to “the spirits in prison,” who were disobedient in the days of Noah, seems out of context. The author of 1 Peter may have thought that Christ is concerned with the salvation of the spirits or the dead even if the context is unclear. This thinking may be seen also in 1 Peter 4:6: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”  

Baptism and salvation

Now Christian baptism saves people for new life. Baptism is not a mere ritual that cleanses the dirt from the body, but a new birth to God through Christ. A baptism is an event where one dies with Christ and lives to God, renewing their mind and heart. Then, they may live a new life in Christ. 

Earlier in 1 Peter 2:4-10, the author reminds the exile Christians in Asia Minor that they are a special people of God. Therefore, they must behave differently from others. For example, 1 Peter 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Live as Servants of God.” Likewise, 1 Peter 3:8-9: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.”