Lectionary Commentaries for September 12, 2021
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 8:27-38

C. Clifton Black

Brother, afar from your Savior today,
Risking your soul for the things that decay,
Oh, if today God should call you away,
What would you give in exchange for your soul?
– J. Berry / J. H. Carr (1936)

Mark 8:27–38 is this Gospel’s most verbally abusive passage. Three times Jesus or Peter tells the other to “shut up” (epitimaō): the same verb that stifles demons and a gale (1:25; 3:12; 4:39; 9:25). Its first occurrence is smothering the disciples’ correct ascription of messiahship to Jesus (see 1:1; 14:61-62). For the first and only time in Mark, Peter and peers recognize their teacher, but Jesus commands them to say nothing to anyone (8:30; see also 1:34; 3:12). After Jesus plainly explains to them all that the Son of Man must suffer, Peter shuts him up (8:3-32). “Turning and seeing his disciples, he shut up Peter: Get behind me, Satan. You’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33, my translation). Only here in Mark does Jesus address an adversary as Satan—and it’s the first of the Twelve whom he summoned (1:16).

The language grates, not just because the stakes are life and death, but because Jesus upends everything we expect a messiah to be and to do for us. First-century Jewish messianic hopes varied, but none of them expected a messiah crucified by elders (lay leaders), chief priests (tall-steeple preachers), and scribes (biblical scholars). Writings like 4 Ezra (11-12), 2 Baruch (40, 72), and Qumran’s Damascus Document (6.7-11) dreamt of idealized rulers who would judge the wicked and restore Israel’s righteous. None of these messiahs handed their followers a cross to be shouldered en route to their own Golgothas. In no Gospel does Jesus say, “It is my responsibility to die for you, while you applaud my heroism.” Instead: “The Son of Man is ordained by God to suffer, die, and be raised. And so are his followers. Are you coming?”

One of the ways modern Christians sashay around this question is to trivialize the cross. Crucifixion was an instrument designed for its victims’ utter degradation and excruciating torture: capital punishment so vile that it appalled even tough-minded politicos. “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime; to flog him, an abomination. To slay him is virtually an act of murder. To crucify him is—what? No fitting word can possibly describe a deed so horrible” (Cicero, Against Verres 2.66.170).

Fast-forward to Manhattan in 1993, when The New Yorker reported on Macy’s Cross Culture: a boutique, purveying “trend-type crosses.” Here you could shop for a fist-size cross covered with gold hobnails or “one with a cameo in the center surrounded by purple, green, blue, and pink semi precious stones … with an extra-long antiqued-silver chain, so it can be slung, shoulder to hip, bandolier style, which, by the way, happens to look great with a crushed-velvet catsuit and little biker boots.” A sales associate said, “Occasionally, people stop and say, ‘Where are the Stars of David? What about equal time?’ and I say I understand but also, hey, that’s not the fashion … We have one of the best selections in New York City, but, honestly, I’m a little low on crosses right now. They’re flying out the door.”

“For whoever would save her life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a person, to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s life? For what can a person give in return for one’s life?” (Mark 8:35-37 my translation). “Life” is an imperfect translation of the Greek term hē psychē: “the creature’s center; one’s inmost self.”

A thought experiment for this Sunday: in what ways do we pretend that Jesus didn’t mean this, or try to be our own messiahs and save ourselves? On what do we stake our lives? In what do we ultimately place our trust? Our bank accounts? (Luke 12:16–20.) Achievements? (See Matthew 7:21–23.) Prestige? (Mark 12:38–40.) Politicians? (Mark 12:13–17) Guns? (Matthew 26:51–52.) Run down the entire list of familiar evasions and remember how Jesus locks every escape hatch. Doctrinal confusion is not the Christian’s fundamental problem. Instead, it is disobedience: our refusal to accept Christ’s authority over our lives.

Lay your ear upon Mark’s page and listen for the wail of lament: the steep price paid for following Jesus. What you won’t hear is the yammering of prosperity televangelists who prostitute the Bible with bogus assurances of health and wealth if you’ll mail them a check every week.

Psychotherapists help clients sort out the many hues of shame. In Mark 8:38 the only guilt suffered by a true disciple is being ashamed of Christ: abandoning his way for the values of “this adulterous and sinful generation,” “setting one’s mind on this world’s things.” In the gospel’s light honor and shame are altogether redefined (Romans 1:16-17; Philippians 3:3-11).

We are privileged to know everyday folks who have so internalized this quality of discipleship that, in the critical moment, they know what to do. There’s Arland D. Williams, Jr., the passenger aboard Air Florida Flight 90 on January 13, 1982, which after take-off crashed into Washington’s 14th Street Bridge, then into the icy Potomac River. Fighting a lifelong fear of water, clinging to twisted wreckage, he handed over to the five other survivors one life-vest after another. When all but Williams had been pulled ashore, the helicopter returned to the site to save him. He was gone.

Most of us may never master such integral calculus of charity, but failure needn’t be the enemy of aspiration. We know the way. Other disciples walk it with us. Jesus remains in the lead.

More than the silver and gold of this earth,
More than all jewels the spirit is worth.
God the creator has given His word.
What would you give in exchange for your soul?
– F. J. Berry / J. H. Carr (1936)

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

Juliana Claassens

The third Servant Song in Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 50:4-9a) probably has received less attention than its more familiar counterparts in Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 52:13-53:12—especially the latter text featuring quite prominently during Holy Week.

Though in Isaiah 50:4-9a, one finds some important themes that align with the other so-called Servant Songs and that communicate a powerful message in today’s context, which more than ever before has seen a leadership crisis—both in the church and society.

The lectionary reading in Isaiah 50:4-9a is embedded within a context of judgment and destruction that serves as a description of the circumstances in which the servant is called. In contrast to elsewhere in Deutero-Isaiah in which the reversal of water in the wilderness has been the norm, in Isaiah 50:2, God is said to make “the rivers a desert” with the fish dying of thirst, “stink[ing] for lack of water.” Coupled with images of drought and wastelands, one also finds reference to darkness descending on the land as the heavens are clothed with blackness, being dressed in mourning clothes (verse 3) due to the devastation all around.

It is in such a grim context that the servant is called. Though it is precisely in these desperate times that the servant’s role is more significant than ever. This servant is characterized as a true prophet, one who is able to serve as a bridge between God and the people—being in touch with the people, “listening to those who are taught” (verse 4), but also being attuned to God, whose word the prophet proclaims as he “sustain[s] the weary with a word” (verse 4).

God furthermore is said to play a prominent role in the servant’s life. God is the one who helps him (verses 7 and 9), who vindicates him (verse 8), who protects him against those who want to declare him guilty (verse 9), and who saves him from shame and disgrace (verse 7). And God is the one who every morning “wakens [his] ear” (verse 4), helping him to be open and sensitive to the needs of the people he is called to serve.

A central characteristic of this servant is that he is called a Teacher. All the other Servant Songs contain an element of teaching by example as the figure of the servant, who increasingly emerges as the Suffering Servant, is held up as an example to be emulated by the rest of the community as they seek to uphold the values of justice, mercy, goodness propagated in this text. In Isaiah 50:4, though, the servant most explicitly is described as having “the tongue of a teacher,” (verse 4) proclaiming, or rather living, God’s word and God’s way. And the prophet’s message is specifically taught concerning the suffering that the servant, who represents the people, is said to endure. In Isaiah 50:6, we find painful descriptions of this suffering when it is revealed how the servant is struck, how his beard is pulled out, how he is insulted and spit at. Nevertheless, the servant endures, offering his back, his cheeks, as well his face to those who do him harm. Similar to Isaiah 42:3 in which the servant was characterized as “a bruised reed” and “a dimly burning wick,” who nevertheless will not be snapped nor snuffed out, the servant of Isaiah 50 will endure as well, strengthened by God who sustains him throughout his ordeal.

A central theme in this lectionary text is thus the notion of vicarious suffering. For a community that has seen the worst, it was important to consider the question regarding the meaning of this suffering, and in particular to address the concern that this suffering was not for nothing. Isaiah 50 forms part of the community’s ongoing efforts in seeking to understand and to make sense of the lingering wounds of the Babylonian invasion and exile.

The Servant Song in Isaiah 50, as part of a larger narrative in Deutero-Isaiah, wants to say that the suffering that the people experienced is not for nothing, that some good will come out of these terrible events that saw the destruction of the capital city Jerusalem, as well the exile of a number of prominent leaders and skilled workers. From a contemporary perspective, one could well say that this narrative of vicarious suffering informing Isaiah 50 is a dangerous narrative, which pops up every so often as people try to make sense of their own suffering. However, as a meaning-making exercise, one should acknowledge that this act of attaining meaning in suffering may be helpful for those who are finding themselves amid the deluge. But it is important as well, when one is not in crisis mode, to learn and teach others the skills of challenging such harmful trauma narratives for the dark days, when they come.

Finally, whenever there is discussion on the Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah, questions regarding the identity of the servant abound. Joseph Blenkinsopp1 argues that there is a distinct movement from the first part of Deutero-Isaiah in which hopes were still high that there would come a leader, even a foreign leader in the form of Cyrus, who would serve as God’s servant and do God’s work of transforming the community, to the second part of Isaiah in which despair and disappointment have set in. Increasingly, there is a movement toward the community, with individuals themselves, in a responsible, trustworthy, and humble way, acting as God’s servants. In a move that democratizes leadership, it seems that, in the absence of a “good” leader, the onus rests upon ordinary human beings and the community as a whole to do what is good—to cite Micah 6:8: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”2


  1. Joseph Blenkinsopp, “Second Isaiah – Prophet of Universalism,” JSOT 41 (1988), 83-103.
  2. Additional works consulted: L Juliana Claassens, “To the Captives Come Out and to Those in Darkness be Free…: Using the Book of Isaiah in (American) Politics?” Old Testament Essays 21/3 (2008), 618-634.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 1:20-33

Elaine T. James

The book of Proverbs features two loud women. Both of them stand in public places, making noise. Both of them are articulate and shrewd as they persuade and seduce passersby. Both of them are disruptive. Of course, these are not real women. They are personifications: “the strange woman” (5:3–14; 7:10–27; 9:13–18) and “woman wisdom” (1:20–33; 4:5–9; 8:1–11, 12–36; 9:1–6).

Because the book of Proverbs has a largely pedagogical setting, written by men, for young men, its rhetoric is aimed at formation. Repeatedly, the texts indicate their audience: “Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching” (1:8). “My child” is literally “my son” in Hebrew. These two women fit into the book’s overarching program of forming young men on the right path and not the wrong one (for example, 2:1–15; 4:10–27). These two personifications function as moral emblems of vice and foolishness, on the one hand, and virtue and wisdom, on the other.

Please be careful in your preaching not to perpetuate sexist stereotypes about women as either “pure” or “impure,” “virtuous” or “loose,” “wise” or “foolish.” The texts, with their ancient male audience in mind and their binary worldview, oversimplify for the sake of memorable clarity—a strategy often used in teaching children but not appropriate from the pulpit. One of the functions of the figures of these two women is to justify and valorize ancient patriarchal social arrangements.[1] We have no need to perpetuate them, and frank acknowledgement of this dimension could be beneficial for your audience. But there are other recoverable dimensions for preaching. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Wisdom is a woman speaking in public

Proverbs 1 is the first of Woman Wisdom’s several long speeches. Women’s voices have often been actively denied or suppressed. But here, wisdom comes from a woman who is a teacher, preacher, participating with God, and perhaps herself divine (8:22–31). Wisdom speaks in public:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks (Proverbs 1:20).

This could provide an opportunity to consider and celebrate how women’s voices have contributed to the wisdom and edification of your community. You could extend it beyond women to consider where historically marginalized voices still need to be sought out in your community. Perhaps you could publicly repent for specific moments in your community’s life when such voices have gone unheeded. Certainly, this text acknowledges that the refusal to listen to such wise voices can lead to harm. This would also be an appropriate time to examine the public roles of women and members of marginalized groups in liturgy and leadership.

  1. Wisdom is the foundation of creation

There is a close link between wisdom and creation. Take, for example, Proverbs 3:19–20:

The Lord by his wisdom founded the earth
by understanding he established the heavens
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.

It is through wisdom that the patterns of the natural world are founded and sustained. In Proverbs 8:22–31, the poet takes time to draw out a somewhat detailed evocation of wisdom at the creation of the world, including these lines:

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep… (verse 27).

The formation of the waters, the heavens, the mountains, and humans are all linked to the creator, who is delighted by wisdom, by the world, and by humans in particular (8:30–31).

In this broadened context, wisdom and insight are not merely individual acquisitions that can be used in service to personal piety, successes, wealth, and a hedge against disaster. Instead, to seek wisdom is to willingly choose to find one’s way and grounding as a creature among creatures in a creation sustained by God. It is to be infused with the “thoughts” and “words” that permeate the world with divine breath (1:23). To do so is to be “secure” and to “live at ease” (1:33). This is to participate in the pattern of the natural world, making choices to benefit the whole, not merely securing one’s own advantages.

  1. Ignoring wisdom has vast, ecological implications

The greater part of Proverbs 1 focuses on the consequences of ignoring wisdom. This is part of a pragmatic worldview that understands the links between cause and effect. A parallel might be drawn to the global ecological crisis. The proportions are vast, and we are indeed being struck with “storm” and “whirlwind” (verse 27), with more natural consequences to follow if we do not act. How long will we continue to ignore wisdom? How long will we refuse to listen to indigenous voices protesting new pipelines? How long will we shut down, ignore, or obscure the findings of environmental scientists? How long will we “hate knowledge” and “ignore counsel” and refuse to accept reproof for our anthropocentric solipsism? How long will we ignore wisdom, as we ignore the voices of the prophets? To listen is to fear God (verse 29).


  1. Carol A. Newsom, “Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom,” Reading Bibles, Writing Bodies, eds. Timothy K. Beal and David Gunn (London: Routledge, 1996). For a contemporary discussion of the functions of sexism and misogyny, see Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).


Commentary on Psalm 116:1-9

James K. Mead

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary 24B) is the only instance of Psalm 116:1-9 as a Sunday reading in the lectionary that provides opportunities to use most of its second half (verses 10-17) which are read on Maundy Thursday and Eastertide for Year A.1

If you make this selection the basis of your message, it will be tempting to dip into verses 10-19 for homiletical insight. Indeed, a strong case can be made for the structural coherence of Psalm 116 as a literary unit,2 but there are also reasons for treating verses 1-9 independently, as the Septuagint did by dividing the poem into two psalms.

As one of about a dozen Thanksgiving psalms, this passage is spoken from a post-crisis perspective, but the psalm offers no real clue as to the nature of the problem(s) that prompted the poet’s “supplications” (verse 1). It will probably be helpful, if not necessary, to call attention to the second half of the psalm simply because in the key features we can emphasize for the first half carry over into the second half.

Nevertheless, even on its own terms, these nine verses are by no means lacking in theological and spiritual resources for the life of faith, the church’s worship, and the mission of God’s people. Here are some of the aspects that strike me as being most fruitful for proclamation.

Flexibility of prayer-forms

We are indebted to the insights of form criticism for psalms research, mainly because thinking about the typical structure and elements of laments and praises helps us understand their message. Psalms scholars tell us that Psalm 116, however, does not follow the “traditional” order of elements in thanksgiving psalms, where we typically hear a narration of the poet’s crisis before learning about the deliverance or share in the act of thanksgiving.3 Rather, as one commentator notes, it alternates the “experience of deliverance” (3-4, 7-11, 15-16) with “outbursts of thanksgiving” (1-2, 12-14, 17-19).4 This gives certain energy to the prayer, what Derek Kidner described as “infectious delight and touching gratitude.”5 The takeaway from this observation is not only the assurance that our prayers need not conform to a rigid pattern; the psalm’s inclusion in the canon is further evidence that the faith community believed that God is pleased to hear this variety. Each believer’s faith experience and spiritual inclinations will be different, and this psalm can, as Kidner added, help others “to find words for [their] own public thanksgiving.”6

Contrast of living and dying

Whether the psalm is studied as a whole or in part, James Mays is correct that the theme word is “death”: it ensnares (verse 3); we need to be delivered from it (verse 8); and it comes to all God’s “faithful ones” (verse 15). Moreover, in keeping with a Hebraic mindset, the experience of death is equated with Sheol (verse 3)—the place of the dead—and thus it is “beyond any possible relation to God.”7 In Christian proclamation, of course, there are other scriptural resources that lift up “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” and we should in no way diminish the blessedness of this hope.

Nevertheless, I believe the Israelite acknowledgment of death’s reality meant that they “set maximum value upon the God-given resources of this life, and so upon God himself.”8 Furthermore, what is central to the New Testament (NT) hope—that God is gracious and righteous—is central to the message of the text; indeed, the phrase, “Gracious is the Lord,” occurs at the precise center of these nine verses. Thus, I do not think that what we might call “the Christian life” is all that different from the relationship our Hebraic faith-ancestors sought.

I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s exposition of this psalm, in which he explores the last sentence of our lection: “I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” The verb “to walk” is in the hithpael verb pattern, which in this case renders a sense of repetitiveness. By looking at other uses of this form (e.g., Genesis 3:8; 5:22, 24; 6:9; Job 1:7; Psalm 12:9), Peterson affirmed the idea that “spiritual formation cannot be done in a hurry; it cannot be forced into a schedule.”9

Communion of the saints

Several scholars mention how this psalm functions in Judaism — as one of the Hallel songs of Passover — and Christianity, on Maundy Thursday in particular and for the Lord’s Supper in general.10 But when I speak of the “communion of saints,” I am not thinking primarily of the sacrament but of the creedal affirmation, namely, that God’s people throughout all time and place experience a real fellowship through our union with Christ. Psalm 116 may originally have expressed the gratitude of one Israelite worshiper before the congregation at the temple, but it becomes our song through the unity of the church with the assembly of Israel. There is a reason that the Greek ekklesia was the NT writers’ choice to identify the “church,” because the Septuagint used that term to translate the Hebrew word for the ancient “assembly” (qahal).

And this is why I suggested at least referring to the last ten verses of the psalm. It is there that the poet introduces several references to sacrifices, vows, offerings, and public worship. “In the presence of all his people” occurs twice (verses 14, 18), inviting us to practice the same model of gratitude. It seems fitting that a service in which Psalm 116 is the sermon text would create the time and space for worshipers to offer testimony to answered prayer and to intercede for those who are still waiting for answers.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 13, 2015.
  2. For example, Michael L. Barré, “Psalm 116: Its Structure and its Enigmas” JBL 109 (1990): 61-79.
  3. J. Clinton McCann “The Book of Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996). IV, 1148.
  4. Willem VanGemeren, “Psalms” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5, 724.
  5. Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 TOTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 407.
  6. Kidner, 407.
  7. James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 370.
  8. Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, WBC (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 180.
  9. Eugene Peterson, “Land of the Living,” Ex Auditu 18 (2002): 180.
  10. Mays, Psalms, 371-372.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 3:1-12

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

For the last two weeks, the lectionary selections in James have highlighted the critical distance between the head and the heart, between the idea of Jesus and his radical care for the other and the actions born out of the idea once it roots in our soul.

In between the head and heart is a stumbling block lurking in the shadows: the tongue.

Rather than a collection of proverbial exhortation, this pericope stands on its own as an organized, clever essay about the dangers of our out-of-control speech.

Like many people, I journeyed through The Good Place for four glorious seasons. Don’t worry, I am not about to drop a spoiler (well, just a minor, early one). Continue at your own risk…

Early in the show we meet Buddhist monk Jianyu in the Good Place, along with other winners you’d expect to have made it into paradise: a philanthropist, an ethicist, an angel … good people. Jianyu, who has taken a vow of silence even in eternity, exists within each scene as one who is wise, peaceful, all-knowing. All without saying a word. It isn’t until the vow breaks and the tongue is unbridled that we realize we have another person altogether in the plot (Jason Mendoza, just another dirtbag like the rest of the crew), one very much without the wisdom of a Buddhist monk. How did he pull off the charade for so long? A completely bridled tongue.

How much wiser and more Christlike might we all be if we were to listen more and talk less?

This wisdom appears earlier in James (1:19) as a prelude to this essay on speech. How much harm is done by quick, inattentive, careless speech? As an enneagram 1, I can create a montage in a moment’s notice of all the times I let my unbridled tongue get me into trouble and embarrassment. I’ll spare you the details but perhaps, fellow preacher, you’ve been there too. Bridling the tongue is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage and a strong heart to listen in order to hear another, to tune into the Spirit’s whispers through them and in the space between people, rather than to listen only for a gap to insert yourself in an unbridled fashion.

Our American society hasn’t the faintest idea how to listen. So much of American Christianity is a shouting match. Foolishness abides. Fires are set, and what is the cost?

James does not have much hope that anyone will ever be holy enough to tame their tongue, to bridle their speech. Nevertheless, it seems he is passionately exhorting his community to at least try. Might we do the same?

As a White person trying to exorcise the demon of white supremacy from my being, I am aware of how the mouth can betray. The dilemma is named in verse 9, “ With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” Just as James earlier warned of double-mindedness, so too must we be aware of being double-tongued. All are made in the likeness of God. So beware of any preacher or Christian who praises the Lord on Sunday and spills forth ugly microaggressions, or worse, blatant hate speech on Monday. This double-mindedness or rather “double-tongue-edness” is sin. It is evil. It is brackish water. Hell on earth is enacted when the church is ruddered by loud, evil, unbridled tongues with platforms that reach millions and set the world on fire with hate.

Finally, this next section may not make it into the content of your sermon, but fellow preacher, I feel the need to highlight the particular caution James has for those of us who teach others on a regular basis. “We who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The words we speak from the pulpit, from our social media platforms, and in passing have great influence. Are we healing with them or harming? Words have the power to harm and to heal always, but all the more from the mouths of church leaders and authorities. To be called to preach is to play with fire, Holy Spirit fire and the sort of unholy fire James speaks of here.

Our speech moves the Body of Christ, toward more just and holy ways of being or into idolatry, what James calls friendship with the world. How can we approach this weekly task in ways that allow us to do so as our best selves, being quick to listen to the Word of God and for the Word of God and slow to allow the sermon to emerge from that spacious listening for the Holy Fire of God to lead us and light us up?