Lectionary Commentaries for July 18, 2021
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Emerson Powery

The disciples return from the mission (Mark 6:30-31)

Mark reported the re-gathering of Jesus’ “apostles” (6:30) from a successful mission (see Mark 6:7-13) after depicting the death and burial of John.1

As John’s mission came to an end, the apostles’ mission had just begun.  The only other time Mark used the term “apostles” for Jesus’ disciples was in 3:14.  (It could be argued that “disciples” was the term Mark used for the broader group of followers, which included the twelve; see Mark 4:10.)  While closely associating the two missions (John’s and Jesus’), Mark also clearly delineated between the two leaders and their bands in the story.  Jesus’ immediate reaction was to secure a private place for his disciples to rest.

The “wilderness,” which had provided Jesus with relief earlier (Mark 1:35), seemed like a logical choice (see Mark 1:3-4, 12-13, 35, 45; 6:31, 32, 35).  This is a place of “rest” and “restoration” in the Markan narrative (1:35; 6:31, 32), but is also a location on the periphery (1:45).  Locating a place to eat leisurely was becoming increasingly difficult (3:20).  The reference to food again expressed how Jesus’ mission was directly tied to basic economic realities.  Food and eating were two prominent themes of the narrative (Mark 1:6; 2:16, 26; 3:30; 5:43; 7:2-5, 28; 11:14; 14:12-24) and received specific attention in the two “feeding” narratives (6:34-44; 8:1-9).

While the success of Jesus’ “apostles” loomed large for the future of the mission, the death of John at the hands of Herod(ias) loomed larger.  The mission may not be completely defeated, but drastic persecutions would be part and parcel of the operation.  The message was clear: do not expect to take on the ruling authorities and not suffer the consequences.  That was the message for the Markan community.  That was the warning for all future followers.

One final note about the literary structure of this section is in order.  It is difficult to determine where this section breaks.  There is no clear division here, because verse 33 follows verse 32 neatly.  The New Revised Standard Version editors prefer a “significant” break between 6:29 and 6:30.  But this separation ignores Mark’s intercalation, disconnecting the disciples’ return (verse 30) from their departure in 6:7-13.

For Mark, 6:30-31 seemed to function as an inclusion with 6:7-13, whereas 6:32—and its repetitive language—apparently started the next section.  Overall, whatever literary structure was intended, the theme of constant “disturbance” on/of the mission continued.

“Sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:32-34)

This short summary showed just how large Jesus’ following had become.  Not only was the mission expanding—as the work of the apostles had shown (6:30)—but many regularly attempted to track down Jesus.  In this passage, Mark described them (“many” from polloi in 6:33) as running faster on foot than those traveling by boat.  They were intent on locating Jesus.  Yet, when Jesus saw them, he viewed them as “sheep without a shepherd,” an image of their vulnerability.  (“Compassion” [from splagchnizomai in 6:34] was one of Jesus’ more common emotions expressed in the Markan narrative [for example, Mark 8:2; 9:22; cf. some manuscripts at 1:41].)

All references to this phrase (“sheep without a shepherd”) in the Hebrew Bible support this idea: it was used in scenes in which God stands over against abusive shepherds who no longer care for their sheep (e.g., Ezekiel 34:2-5 and Zechariah 11:4-17); and, Moses requested that the people not be left as “sheep without a shepherd” in light of his own failing (Numbers 27:17), to which the Lord responds by suggesting Joshua “in whom is the spirit” (Numbers 27:18).

At this stage in the Markan narrative, Jesus’ reaction must be a critique of Herod in the previous scene.  Herod held feasts for the “leaders of Galilee,” but Jesus fed common people.  Mark’s juxtaposition of these two “shepherds” and their activities centered on issues of food and associations in the first century.  Here was one instance of how, for Mark, Jesus “shepherded” the “sheep” of Israel.  Jesus’ feeding was a reminder of how Moses provided food for the people of Israel in the ancient wilderness (cf Numbers 27). The importance of food and community cannot be overstated as a primary function of first century life in the Mediterranean life.

The constant presence of the crowds (Mark 6:53-56)

Summary statements, as in 6:53-56, were significant asides.  On the one hand, they provided transitions in the overall story.  On the other hand, the narrator often provided insight into the flow and development of the plot of the story in these narrative asides.  Repetition would have been a key feature in such summaries, because they reminded listeners (in an aural environment) of several key features of the overall story.  In a fine study on summary statements, Charles Hedrick concludes that summary statements generally “summarize some new aspect of the ministry of Jesus … and seem to function as narrative devices that broaden, expand and intensify the ministry of Jesus and its effect.”2

Such was the case in this instance.  In comparison to earlier summaries, 6:53-56 reminded its audience of the impossibility of Jesus entering towns unnoticed (6:54-55).  Also, this summary statement addresses the idea of touching Jesus again.  The desire to touch him, in an earlier summary statement (3:9-10), has now shifted to a desire to touch his garments (6:56).  In between these two summary statements, readers witnessed a successful healing story through only a touch of his garments (cf. 5:28-29).


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 22, 2012.
  2. “The Role of ‘Summary Statements’ in the Composition of the Gospel of Mark: A Dialog with Karl Schmidt and Norman Perrin” NovT 26 (1984), 289-311 [311].

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6

Julián Andrés González Holguín

With Jeremiah it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect an intentional literary order (see also Isaiah). The book as a whole reflects the fiercely troubled times of the early exilic period. This is the case with our text. If it connects in any way with its literary context it is by the themes of judgment and hope that run through chapters 21-25. Jeremiah 23:1-6 briefly addresses “judgment” in the initial three verses. They indict the shepherds for their responsibility in the scattering of God’s people. After the indictment, the text offers hints of hope.

After a long siege to Jerusalem, the city finally fell to the invading army. They destroyed the temple and the royal palace, deported the king and his family, and killed many of the ruling class. By the end of the invasion, life was drastically changed in the city. Not only were the elite killed and exiled, the poor also were displaced from their lands and homes. The economic catastrophe impacted the daily life of the people who remained around. This was a multilevel debacle. Most importantly, their survival as a community of YHWH’s followers was in doubt.

The visible signs of destruction were everywhere to be seen in physical infrastructure and its consequences on the political, economic, and religious life of the people. However, there were also less visible wounds in the aftermath of the destruction. The book of Jeremiah addresses a community who is trying to understand and deal with the spiritual, emotional, and material consequences of the disaster.

This is reflected in our text that incoherently describes two causes for the disaster. First, the reference to “shepherds” is directed to the monarchy who failed to protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Although the direct agent scattering the people was the Babylonian empire, the text states that the kings embody the urban establishment and are responsible for driving away the people. The kings are irresponsible and disobedient. The previous chapter clearly asserts that the trouble coming to the city is caused by the royal leadership.

Second, after the indictment against the kings (verse 2), the text also states that the scattering is the outcome of YHWH. God will gather the people who God drove away (verse 3). In relation to its broader context, these verses assert that God is doing something radical concerning the people in Judah and the city of Jerusalem. However, the divine intervention is marked by frightening discontinuity. God somehow is an agent of violence and destruction. God is as well an agent of restoration and blessing.

One can understand the text as the literary outcome of a community processing trauma. Therefore, the analysis of the situation is not a dispassionate narrative of facts and numbers. Its veracity does not depend on them. What makes the text truthful beyond any connection to a historical event is its lack of coherence, its combination of mythical and human agents in the destruction. If the community behind the text were able to describe the humiliating and painful experience in a clear and concise way, with all the facts and numbers in a consistent and sequential manner, I would doubt its veracity and power to help the people process their trauma.

Therefore, when a dispassionate narrative fails to account for trauma, the poetic and mythical evocation of disaster performs a healing function in the midst of the toxic and unbearable atmosphere of physical and emotional evil.

One may wonder what healing function a text performs that states God is responsible for the scattering of the people as the consequence of military invasion, destruction of cultural and religious identity, and economic catastrophe. Our first answer to this important question is the text itself as a witness to the destruction. The text reflects the capacity of speech to help people survive violence and the profound theological issues it raised. If despair prompts speech and reasoning, and above all if it results in writing, fraternity is established and hope is born.

The second connected notion is the function of evocative poetry to reframe violence, thus giving it meaning and order. Here, we can underline one incoherent element in our text. God drives away the people. This description is a summary of what the book of Jeremiah is about: a painful portrayal of a siege that lasted several years and the final destruction. However, the same God promises to bring them back. The mythical description of restoration uses the symbolism of people as a flock who return to their pasture and are again fruitful and increase in number (verse 3). The emphasis on hope thus reframes destruction, asserting that God will bring the people back, will restore the Davidic line, and most importantly as a direct statement to trauma, “they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord” (verse 4).

Finally, the healing function of the text relates to its personal character. It is the divine voice that speaks to the people, not the prophetic voice. God promises three things that relate to the experience of the people as chosen. From ancestral time (see the book of Joshua), the land is the material symbol of God’s connection and inheritance. The monarchy represents the unconditional promise that God will always be with the Davidic house regardless of their disobedience (see the book of Samuel). Finally, the words “justice and righteousness” constitute a major theme in the prophetic tradition calling on the ideal community where God’s torah, or teaching, will arbitrate social and political relationships. The two words are often paired in Jeremiah as well as in Isaiah. When they are joined by “and,” they form a hendiadys, or two words linked to form a single idea. The emphasis on both words may be related to what in modern terms we call “social justice.” (See Jeremiah 9:24; 22:3, 15; and 33:15).

In a few words, we can say that the hendiadys imagines a time when there will be fairness in the judicial system but also a time when laws themselves will be crafted to improve conditions of the poor. Therefore, in their broader sense “justice and righteousness” have implications in the political, social, theological, and legal dimensions of the community.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-14a

Valerie Bridgeman

At first reading, we might want to applaud David’s desire to build God a house as grand as the one into which he himself has settled. It seems pious and holy, at first glance. Why shouldn’t God, the King of Kings, be treated at least as well as the royal of the land? The king, after all, is God’s “son” (Psalm 2; 2 Samuel 7:14a). God, after all, is the reason for David’s successes (verses 8-9).

For a man who had no place to lay his head, who had been on the run, there is a sigh of relief reflected in the first verses here (“God had given him rest from his enemies”) is almost audible. And where David has landed is no tent on the countryside, tending sheep. This cedar-laden, sturdy palace is grand and speaks of someone with power, resources, and authority. But if the king is God’s “son,” then how is it that the son fares better than the divine Father? That seems to be the question on David’s mind.

And it is a tortured question. To this point, God has dwelt among the people in a moveable tabernacle. They have known God to show up in miracles and plagues, in clouds and in fire. This story of the on-the-move God is the one that has kept them, in the presence of their enemies. Theirs is a God who is “just a miracle encounter” away. This God is different from the gods of the surrounding countries; this God dwells in a temple and the people must ascend the heights to encounter God.

And so, we might appreciate the incongruity that confronts him: why should the presence of the Lord be huddled in a tent while David, a mere mortal, luxuriates in the aromatic house of kings? If David had proven his mettle as a warrior, the Lord had proven Godself as a God of power, a God capable of delivering David out of every adversity. It was time that God joined David in a more upscale way of life, a more dignified house where the Lord’s “arrival” on the world scene would be evident to all. And it would make ancient Israel “like the other nations,” which was the request of the people from the beginning of the first book of Samuel (see 1 Samuel 8). Though read as a rejection of God as the people’s only sovereign, since God yielded to the request, David—it would seem—wants to seal the deal with a grand “house” for God.

The preacher who has read thus far may note that what I’m pointing to is our human tendency to assume God wants what humans want, so we do for God what we would want. It is an inversion of Imago Dei. God is made in our image, not the other way around in this inversion. Even as I make note of this tendency, I must also note that God concedes to it, even after asking, “Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” (2 Samuel 7:7). It has never been God’s desire to have a house of cedar. In another place, the prophet declares that the earth is God’s footstool and that everything we see was created by God, indicating that we cannot build a house big enough to contain the Sovereign of all creation (Isaiah 66:1-2). In a season where people are missing the building where they worship, I wonder whether the preacher can find in this dissonance some comfort from the God of tents and remind people that God meets us in buildings but is not constrained in them or by them.

God, on the other hand, is providing something much more lasting and intangible than a house made of cedar. God promises David a dynastic lineage that will become great in the world. If we are Bible readers, we know that this promise is thwarted by the exile, as there are many reasons given, though mostly that the people become idolatrous. In the portion of 2 Samuel 7:14 that the lectionary leaves out, God says it is inevitable: “When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.” Not “if” he commits iniquity, but “when.” Humans are, as the hymn writer wrote, “prone to wander … prone to leave the God [we] love.”

What I would invite preachers to reflect on is at least two things, given the transient nature of wealth and health. One, what does it mean to thank God for “rest from our enemies” and wealth, while holding the possibility that trouble could descend on our lives? Would we only be thankful and worshipful if we can give to God as good as we get?  The writer of Ecclesiastes 1:13 asserts that life is full of “unhappy business” for humans. Life can be hard. David, and his lineage would experience as much. This passage is about the joy of settling into a home and making a home for God.

The second thing I invite preachers to consider is to remember that God likes camping among us, wherever we are. There is no place we can go from God’s presence, the psalmist declared (Psalm 139: 7-12). There may in fact be holy space, “thin places,” where we are imbued with the presence of God. But the story beyond this text of desire and promise reminds us that God is with us, regardless.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 23

James K. Mead

Well, here you are, wondering whether to take the leap of faith and make Psalm 23 the text for—or at least an important element of—proclamation for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost.1

You may be aware of Walter Brueggemann’s verdict, namely, that commenting on this psalm is “almost pretentious.”2 If Brueggemann feels that way about commenting on it, where does that leave us with preaching it?

But before we sell ourselves short, I want to persuade you that there are ways to share this beloved poem with your congregation so that they discover new insights for themselves. A psalm as treasured as this one deserves a bold homiletical move, something that takes us and our hearers outside the “comfort zone” of a typical sermon. This might mean something more interactive, creating space within the message for meditation, conversation, song, or prayer. It might mean a different homiletical style from your “bread and butter” outlines and stories: perhaps an imaginative, perspectival testimony on the ways you, as their shepherd, have been one of the “sheep of God’s hand” (Psalm 95:7); or a dialogue/round table with two or three members of the congregation (some newer and some longer-term members) who each comment on an element of the psalm. If those ideas make you nervous, then at least craft your points, illustrations, and applications to get at something new for them, perhaps along the lines of, “What you didn’t know about Psalm 23 that will make you love it even more!” Regardless of the homiletical path you choose, I’m persuaded that your preaching and the congregation’s response will be enhanced by discovering amazing aspects of the psalm’s literary, historical, and theological dimensions.

Literary artistry. The basic facts about the psalm preach an eloquent message by themselves. There are fifty-five Hebrew words in this psalm, and unlike many psalms there are almost no repetitions.3 Only the Hebrew words for “Lord” (verses 1, 6), “day” (verse 6, twice), and possibly “restore/return” (verses 3, 6, NRSV “dwell”)4 are repeated. It’s as if the poet were given a list of some fifty words and told to write the most memorable poem in human history. Moreover, a total of fifty-five words creates a precise center (the 28th word), namely, “you,” in reference to the Lord. Thus, the thought at the very center of the poem is the phrase, “you are with me” (verse 4).5 Combine that insight with the closure created by the use of “Lord” in the psalm’s opening and closing phrases, and we see the portrait of the divine shepherd who is there at the beginning, the middle, and the end of our journey. By virtue of its literary artistry alone, therefore, this psalm declares that God enfolds his people so that we all are part of the flock; and yet this shepherd intimately knows the sheep in all their distinction and difference. Each one of us is throughout his or her life a unique and precious possession of God.

Historical context. Scholars have done excellent work explaining the ancient Near Eastern context of the psalm. Still, this is not an idea that every commentary discusses, and it almost certainly is not on your parishioners’ radar. Nevertheless, it is important for grasping the psalm’s meaning in its original context to know that both Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures used the shepherd image for their kings, their gods, or both. The epilogue to the famous Code of Hammurabi has that king state: “I made the people lie down in safe pastures, I did not allow anyone to frighten them.”6 Or in regard to the image of the banquet (verses 5-6), there is the goddess Anat who “arranges seats for the warriors, arranges tables for the soldiers.”7 The biblical psalmist, being well aware of this broad cultural background, is thus making an affirmation of faith: The Lord—not a foreign god or king—is the only true shepherd of each and every Israelite. We now hear this psalm not merely as a message of comfort on life’s journey but a theological creed spoken in the midst of our own culture with all of its earthly leaders and “gods” that can never be the Shepherd-King of Psalm 23.8

Biblical theology. Finally, while many parishioners will connect this poem with the shepherd images elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34, John 10), few will identify the echoes of Israel’s national journey of deliverance, wilderness, and emergence in the land (see especially Psalm 78:52-55).9 This most precious of personal psalms is about both our individual journeys and the journey of the people of God. Finally, biblical theology finds echoes of prophetic themes—the NRSV accurately renders the KJV’s “paths of righteousness” as “right paths” (verse 3)—connecting this psalm to the covenantal standards of justice. And the poet’s sense of protection from the enemies (verse 5) moves toward a richer understanding of reconciliation through the good shepherd who tells us to love and forgive them (Matthew 5:44; Luke 22:34).10

In the end, whatever vehicle you choose to carry the message of Psalm 23, find ways to share insights that increase your flock’s appreciation of their favorite psalm. Far from domesticating it through a thousand and one analytical details, your careful preparation will open up new worlds of meaning for your congregation.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 19, 2015.
  2. Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 154.
  3. I am counting the actual lexical units in Hebrew, not separating out the so-called inseparable prepositions and conjunctions.
  4. A. E. Arterbury and W. H. Bellinger, “‘Returning’ to the Hospitality of the Lord: A Reconsideration of Psalm 23,5-6,” Biblica 86 (2008): 387-395.
  5. This is a key focus in Rolf Jacobson’s commentary on the passage: “Psalm 23: You are with Me,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 238-246.
  6. See the study by Beth Tanner, “King Yahweh as the Good Shepherd: Taking another look at the Image of God in Psalm 23,” in David and Zion: Biblical Studies in Honor of J.J.M. Roberts, eds. B Batto and K. Roberts (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004), 273-274.
  7. Tanner, 281.
  8. Jacobson calls this a “powerfully subversive element” (245).
  9. For a discussion see Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 130.
  10. See J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), IV:770.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22

Israel Kamudzandu

The 21st-century global church is facing a mammoth missional, spiritual, evangelical and theological uphill climb. Instead of being a global village, nations have decided to be isolated from each other. The gospel of America First, and Brexit has become a mantra and admiration of every other nation. Tragically the Church, whether Protestant, Pentecostal, or non-denominational, is also in the grip of redefining itself in relation to dogmas, liturgy, ordination questions, immigration, human sexuality, and a host of many social, political, economical, and cultural injustices. Lost in all these scenarios, is the message of the apostle Paul as we read in Ephesians 2: 11–22.

The message is simple, a celebration of unity in diversity as the heartbeat of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Psalmist calls on it and invites readers to think about the beauty and majesty of people who dream to live together in unity (Psalm 133: 1–3). The gospel, as Paul writes, is strong enough to bring nations, ethnic groups, tribes, races, male and female into a human relationship, where they can live together as a new eschatological community whose DNA is belief in God, faith in Jesus Christ, and unity in and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Like circumcision, capitalism and military power have come to define and draw the boundaries of separation. The church in the so-called first world countries, uses capitalism and technology to coerce less powerful nations into their own worldview, or else those poor Christian nations will not be part of the Global Church. Instead of heeding the message of Paul in Ephesians 2: 11–22, religious leaders and evangelists have failed to persuade all people to be brothers and sisters in Christ. In reality, the people who should be united in Christ, have come to be Jews and Gentiles in more challenging, if not tragic ways.

The message of unity in diversity is urgent in the 21st century, and pastors should realize that there is no resurrection and no Pentecost without the church becoming a diversified body of Jesus Christ. In Acts 2: 1–47 Luke the evangelist says, “When the day of Pentecost came, the disciples were all together in one place, united for a purpose, namely to evangelize, missionize and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” It would be appropriate for the church today to ask if the 21st century Church is ever united and focused on the task of social justice, evangelism, missionizing and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The apostle Paul uses the phrase “commonwealth of Israel,” as a metaphor signifying that Gentiles and Jews are now one family on the basis of Christ’s blood, who sacrificed his life for the entire human family (Ephesians 2: 12–14).

The creation of a new humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus made it possible for both Jews and Gentiles to live together in a relationship of peace and reconciliation. Hence, the hostility that once existed between Jews and Gentiles was destroyed by the events of the cross. Therefore the 21st century global church is summoned to reconsider ways they can live together without walls of hostility toward each other. In other words, reconciliation is the fulfillment of God’s Covenant with the children of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob.

The global Church, nations, ethnic groups, political and religious leaders should hear and implement the message of Ephesians 2: 11–22. While people seek to live a life of privilege, the call for unity and peace should be the agenda and mission of all humanity. In our 21st century worldview, we are experiencing a construction of walls of hostility and barriers of exclusion, leading to the resurfacing of racism, sexism, killing of innocent lives, and closing of borders. Immigrants from all over the world are experiencing rejection from their fellow human family, making the events of the cross meaningless.

Like the Mosaic law, faith communities are focused on church rules in a way that is deeply dehumanizing to others. Pastors, lay people, youth, children, and political leaders should be advocates of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The theological notion of Jesus as an embodiment of peace should invite Christians to be agents of peace, love, reconciliation and compassion. The entire Gospel message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is given meaning in Ephesians. In other words, Ephesians is a fulfillment of the Gospel message in the synoptic gospels, as well as in John’s gospel and John’s letters.

Therefore, the 21st-century global Church should use Ephesians as mirror and standard in assessing its life as the body of Christ. It is not enough to teach orthodoxy, but the church and her believers must advocate for orthopraxis, and live out the life of Jesus Christ. The Church must model a life of servanthood discipleship, as evidenced by the life of Jesus Christ in the four Gospels. Hence, pride, contempt, and intolerance toward other fellow human beings should be opposed and rejected at every level of human life. This is the warning of the apostle Paul, and it’s not just for Gentiles and Jews, but the entire human family.

The call of Ephesians 2: 11–22, is basically a summoning of all people to live together as children of one parent. If God is the parent of all humanity, polarization in all its forms should be avoided. In the face of racial tensions, the Church and its leaders as well as laity should seek to model hospitality. In other words, the Church with its mandate on building the Kingdom of God on earth, should choose to change human life by bringing love to places where hatred has become the norm. For the 21st century Church, the task of building a multicultural church is urgent, because in and around the world, we are experiencing institutional racism, hostility toward others, tribalism, and white supremacy resurfacing in ways never seen before. Hence, the message of integration and appreciation of diversity is urgently needed.

The events of the Cross brought in a new season, whereby humanity is called to reconcile with each other to live in harmony with others. While it is hard to live with many cultures, nationalities and ethnicities, the call of God on the church is summed up in one word: love. Love transcends everything in the world, and as such, the church should embody the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.