Lectionary Commentaries for September 19, 2021
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 9:30-37

C. Clifton Black

Last week’s Gospel lection, Mark 8:27-38, jabbed three sharp barbs:

  1. Jesus’ prediction of his suffering, murder, and resurrection (8:31)
  2. Peter’s repudiation of Jesus’ destiny (8:32)
  3. Jesus’ rebuttal of Peter and command that his followers take up their crosses (8:33-38).

This week the same pattern recurs:

  1. Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal, murder, and resurrection (9:31)
  2. The disciples’ incomprehension of their teacher’s teaching (9:32-34)
  3. Jesus’ correction of the Twelve with a surprising definition of discipleship (9:35-37).

In case Mark’s audience has failed as miserably as the Twelve to get the point, the same scheme unfolds in Chapter 10: prediction (verses 33-34), misunderstanding (verses 35-39a), readjustment (verses 39b-45).

Why this repetition? Two reasons. First: Discipleship in Mark is hard to accept. Second: In this Gospel Jesus’ closest followers are so dense that light bends around them. Both themes pervade Mark 9:30-37. This lection offers the preacher three options: dwell on one of these twinned subjects, or, as the Evangelist has done, creatively interlace them for your listeners.

Dopey disciples

“But they did not understand [Jesus’] saying [in 9:31], and they were afraid to ask him” (9:32). What’s not to understand? Jesus has already said much the same in 8:33-38. But the Twelve in Mark’s Gospel never understand Jesus (4:13; 6:52; 8:17, 21). In fact, the last words uttered by Peter, last of the twelve hangers-on, is, “I neither know nor understand what you mean” (14:66). This claim, asserted outside the house where Jesus is betrayed by his countrymen, is a chicken-hearted lie that captures the ironic truth. As for the disciples’ fear to ask (9:32), that too is true to form: throughout Mark they are scared spitless (4:40-41; 6:50; 9:6; 10:32; 16:8). Those with faith in Jesus have nothing to fear (4:40-41; 5:33-34, 36), but not once does Mark ever attribute faith to the Twelve (compare the usually nameless nobodies in 2:5; 5:34; 9:24; 10:52).

Immediately after Jesus has reminded them of his impending humiliation, his followers are shamed to silence: they’ve been quarreling over which of them is tops in their own pecking order (9:33-34). Given antiquity’s preoccupation with social status—not so very distant from our own—that debate is predictable. But in Mark’s context, it’s nonsensical, since Jesus is superior to them all. Disregarding the General, these foot soldiers bicker over their respective ranks. The picture is clear: those with the greatest benefit of Jesus’ instruction set for themselves low standards and consistently fail to achieve them.

The child embraced

Jesus’ teaching in 9:35-37 is as complex as it concise: an aphorism (verse 35b), followed by a pronouncement story in which the summons of a child (verse 36) sets up two punch lines, the second (verse 37b) an extension of the first (verse 37a). The hinge holding everything together is paidion, “little child” (verses 36, 37a), which in Greek has the double meaning of “immediate offspring” and “slave.” It is analogous to a “servant” (diakonos, verse 35b): an assistant who mediates for a superior. Jesus’ rejoinder to bickering over rank is a paradoxical assertion that parallels 8:35 (from last week’s lection) by turning social assumptions inside out: just as the saving of one’s life requires its sacrifice for the gospel’s sake, so too does primacy in discipleship demand taking a place last of all, as everyone’s servant (9:35). Matthew 20:16 and 23:11-12 drive home the same idea. (So did the rabbis, though their self-subjugation was to Torah: thus, the tractate Bava Netsia, 85b, in the Babylonian Talmud.)

Beware of sentimentalizing 9:36. A child epitomizes the most subservient human in ancient society, one with slightest status. In Jesus’ presence a little child literally has “standing” (estēsen, Mark 9:36a: obscured in the NRSV but clear in the NIV). Jesus’ embrace (verse 36b) recalls his compassion for another child’s father (9:14-29) and Jesus’ own standing, at the mount of transfiguration, as God’s beloved Son (9:7). Jesus’ embrace also captures a peculiar nuance in the doubled saying in 9:37, which reiterates the importance of dechomai: “receiving”/“welcoming”/ “approving one such child in my name” and, indeed, Jesus himself.

Like self-sacrifice for the gospel’s sake in 8:34-35, these qualifications for acceptance in 9:37 are important, steering interpretation away from sentimentality: the “last of all and servant of all” (verse 35) is received “in my name” as a disciple of Jesus who evinces the teacher’s own belittlement by betrayal (9:31). Welcoming such an ambassador of Jesus is tantamount to receiving Jesus, who himself is a mediating emissary of the one who has sent him (9:37; see also Matthew 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 12:44-45; 13:20).

Children will return in Mark as exemplary of discipleship (10:13-16), but the stress in 9:33-37 is different. Here Mark concentrates our attention, not on the child’s receptivity (compare 10:15), but on the necessity of a disciple’s welcoming other children in Jesus’ name. That’s the positive counterpoint of both Jesus’ rejection, emphasized in 9:31, and the Twelve’s aspersions cast on one another. In other words, the top-to-bottom reversal of rank in 9:35 realigns how listeners should receive those whom they have mistakenly regarded as beneath them (9:34, 36-37): a detail reiterated in 9:38-41 and developed in next Sunday’s Gospel lection.

This Sunday, whichever approach is taken with this lection, our work is cut out for us. Shall we consider with fellow followers our own stupid rejection of Jesus’ demonstrations of discipleship? Shall we reexamine the bogus bases of prestige that we or our communities confer on us? Neither prospect is appealing, but neither is surgery nor radiation nor chemotherapy when treating cancer. “The healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came to call, not the virtuous, but sinners” (2:17, my translation). If we can look without flinching at the X-ray scripture affords, we’ll find the doctor ready to stand us before him, before taking us in his arms.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 11:18-20

Megan Fullerton Strollo

While the use of a lectionary cycle provides preachers and pastors with prescribed scripture passages that adhere (to some degree) thematically to one another, and offers congregants each week a “sampling” of both Old and New Testament texts, there are some particular drawbacks to the lectionary cycle. Among them is the preference for thematic cohesion over literary or theological context. This is particularly evident with Jeremiah 11:18-20. Paying close attention to the context(s) of this brief text is a vitally important step for any preacher or pastor who chooses it for proclamation or as a complement to other texts in liturgical worship.

First, historical context. The general ethos surrounding the entire book of Jeremiah is exile, both the period leading up to it and its immediate aftermath. The early decades of the 6th century BCE mark a pivotal period in Israel’s history. The invasion of the Babylonians into southern Judah (reminiscent of the invasion of northern Israel only 150 years earlier), the ransacking of the temple, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, and the exile of many of its (elite) inhabitants, left the people not only worried for their own survival, but also questioning their relationship with God—God’s providence and the status of God’s covenant with them. Understanding and acknowledging this context gives the reader a sense of the emotional and theological weight of the text.

Second, literary context. Any preacher should give pause before preaching such a short selection of text. Indeed, there are concentric circles of literary context within which Jeremiah 11:18-20 should be interpreted.

Verses 18-20 relate most directly to verses 21-23. Jeremiah 11:18-23 is the first of Jeremiah’s “laments” (11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18). (As an aside, “confessions” is most certainly not an adequate description of these sections of text for there is neither confession of sin nor confession of faith apparent in them.) In verses 18-20, the prophet laments the knowledge of a plot to kill him and commits his case to God, seeking God’s help through vengeance. These verses are followed immediately by God’s response (verses 21-23), pronouncing specific judgments on those who have threatened to kill Jeremiah.

Expanding to the next contextual circle (11:18-20:18), we see this pattern of prophetic lament and divine response, coupled with the people’s and God’s own laments, repeated. Indeed, in this author’s opinion, it is within this larger context that the more immediate lectionary text has the most meaning.

Generally speaking, lament appears in biblical material as a way of giving voice to trauma, suffering, and loss. Lament is more than mere complaint, though. In biblical literature, lament is hope, or at least a grasping toward hope. Lament marks not an end to a relationship, but a striving for its continuance. Lament calls out, seeks out, and reaches out—to community and to God.

The laments gathered together in this larger section of Jeremiah (11:18-20:18) give voice to a covenant community—prophet, people, and God—who are reeling from events (see historical context described above) that evoked feelings of confusion, loss, suffering, and betrayal. Jeremiah’s status as prophet means that the laments can be read as a particular word from God—a word of God—for the people. The fact that the individual lament is coupled with the community’s and with God’s own lament provides a literary reminder that the covenant relationship remains intact, if damaged. Each party is working through their own grief. Jeremiah is survival literature—written by the survivors, and written for the survival of the covenant.

As the first within this section, then, 11:18-23 demonstrates the “working through” of lament. The prophet is pained, and yet conveys a continued trust in God as one who can help and provide justice. At the same time, Jeremiah does not shy away from admitting the wrongdoings of the people of God (for example, their rejection of God’s prophet). God’s response also reveals real and honest reflections of grief. On the one hand, God’s response reiterates for Jeremiah and for the reader that the covenant is not completely smashed and that God’s presence remains. Continuing into 12:1-17, on the other hand, the reader should note the pain evoked in God’s own lament.

Expanding the literary context one circle more, these laments in 11:18-20:18 make up much of the first half of the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah can be divided roughly into two parts: 1-25 rehearse the  breakdown of Judah’s land and people through destruction and exile; 26-51 begin to build Judah back up (for example, 31:4–5). The overall shape of the book of Jeremiah, then, has the reader first moving through lament before turning toward hope.

Finally—and in addition to the historical and literary context, considering the lectionary context is beneficial for preachers and pastors. Alongside the other readings—particularly Psalm 54 and Mark 9:30–37 for this cycle—the focus in Jeremiah 11:18-20 may tend toward the individual suffering of the prophet. In other words, a message of “righteous suffering” rises most predominantly. Such a reading reduces the full message of the laments in the larger literary context of Jeremiah, however.

Through the laments in Jeremiah, we can see that working through trauma requires honesty on all sides. The people’s lament is coupled with God’s own lament—a recognition that the covenant is two-sided, and that the damage done to the covenant is two-sided. For true transformation, then, we cannot and must not ignore our own pitfalls and unfaithfulness, nor can we pretend that the community is healthy and without fault.

In this time of social and historical reckoning, the laments of Jeremiah can model for us a “working through” grief, that takes into account all sides of the trauma, and does not shy away from necessary truths.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31

Elaine T. James

This poem is an acrostic, an a-b-c’s of a “good woman.” As I will suggest below, the poem valorizes daily life and the real economic contributions of women in the ancient world. This ideal woman does good “all the days of her life,” putting the focus, as wisdom literature often does, on the lived experiences of normal people. What is of value? Labor, diligence, skill, and provision.

But first, note that this text is tricky to preach on. Proverbs 31 has been used to perpetuate culturally specific gendered ideals, and to shore up purity culture, to the detriment of women (and people of all genders). There are several things to avoid:

  • Treating the text as though there is one, singular ideal of femininity
  • Using the imagery of hard work to perpetuate impossible standards of other-oriented labor
  • Or, using the imagery of hard work to say that success is always a result of effort, and poverty or lack of success are the result of individual, moral failure
  • Ignoring the myriad differences between ancient households and modern ones
  • Assuming women in the ancient world were universally oppressed, or that modern women are universally “liberated”
  • Not acknowledging that this is a text written from a male perspective.

The poem opens with a rhetorical question: “A capable wife who can find?” (Proverbs 31:10). The word translated “capable” here and “excellently” in verse 29 is Hebrew chayil, a word otherwise denoting strength and valor, especially in military contexts. She comports herself with fortitude, and “girds herself with strength” (literally “girds her loins,” a phrase used of men preparing for battle, verse 17). For such reasons, we might appropriately translate chayil “courage.”1

From the outset, then, the poem establishes and argues for a vision of virtue defined by active, powerful engagement in the world. The rhetorical question suggests that such a woman is rare, but the poem’s ending turns to address “you”: “Many women have done excellently / but you surpass them all” (verse 29). The ideal exists only in reference to the personal. The beloved is peerless.

While this opens as a poem about a person, the individual in many ways fades into the background. The thriving of the functioning—elite—household is the central value. The purpose of the virtuous person’s labor is economic, and it loops all members together into a stable social unit, in which the household is both the provisioner for and beneficiary of extended kin and children (verses 15, 21, 27, 28), husband (verses 11, 23, 28), servants (verse 15), and productive agricultural fields (verse 16).

The poem foregrounds the real economic contributions of a woman to her household. “She considers a field and buys it” (verse 16). She “works with willing hands” (verse 13). Her arms are strong (verse 17), and her hands are busy at spindle and distaff (weaving and textile production being crucial dimensions of women’s labor in ancient Israel; verse 19).2 Her hands are also open in generosity to the poor (verse 20). The final lines circle back again to her hands: “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, / and let her works praise her in the city gates” (verse 31). The emphasis on the woman’s arms and hands reminds the reader of the value and dignity of manual labor, often despised in the contemporary world.

To take this idea a step further, note that the poem emphasizes the quality of her work: “with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard” (verse 16), “she perceives that her merchandise is profitable” (verse 18), “her clothing is fine linen and purple” (verse 22). The final assessment, then, that “her works praise her in the city gates” suggests that what is made is happy to have been made. The made things—her works—praise her. There is a fusion of purpose and pleasure in the materials themselves that offers a counter-vision to a culture of waste in the modern West. Those of us in North America are the most prolific trash-makers on the planet, filling landfills and oceans with single-use plastics, fast fashion, and disposable consumer goods. Do these works praise us? You might preach about the virtue and dignity of human hands that produce well-made, durable goods that honor both their material and their maker and provide for a community’s survival and flourishing.


  1. Mmapula D. Kebaneilwe, This Courageous Woman: A Socio-Rhetorical Womanist Reading of Proverbs 31: 10-31. PhD thesis (2012), Murdoch University.
  2. Christine Roy Yoder, “The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10–31,” Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 427–447.


Commentary on Psalm 54

Karl Jacobson

Perhaps you’ve heard the old saw, “Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh” (or something like that).1

If making plans of our own (presumably in the face of God’s plans for us) is laughable, how about issuing commands to God, telling God the Divine’s own business in no uncertain terms? Who would dare to give God orders? Yet this is, in a sense, exactly what Psalm 54 does.

Our psalm begins with a four-fold plea: “save me…hear [me]…give ear [to me].” Each of these pleas—actually imperative verbs—and a fourth “vindicate me” (which in terms of tense is imperfect but in context clearly works like an imperative) quite literally command God’s attention, response, and action. These imperative clauses that form the introduction to the psalm demand God’s attention. And while some Hebrew language grammarians might call this particular use of the imperative a “jussive,” that is really just a delicate way of labeling the act of giving orders to someone who out-ranks you.

But enough grammar. Why is God’s attention and action commanded? Because the enemies of the psalmist, the insolent and the ruthless, have risen against him to tear him apart with their words.

At issue here in Psalm 54 is speech: speech directed to God in response to the vile slander of human beings. Notice the tension that is present in regards to the hearing of speech in the psalm. God is commanded to “give ear,” to listen, to pay attention to the psalmist’s words, and perhaps at the same time to the false witness of the psalmists enemies. It is almost as if the psalmist begs God, “Can you not hear the insolent and the ruthless as they lie about me?”

That the enemies actions are speech-based seems clear in that the enemies are said to be “rising against” him, a reference (most likely) to the actions of witnesses in the gate of the community  (Isaiah 29:20-21: “For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit, who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate, and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right”; cf. Psalm 27:12, “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence”).

Notice also that the psalmist does not answer word-for-word those who falsely accuse him. Such a response is the fool’s move; implicit in the psalm is the sense that he-said-they-said doesn’t get a person anywhere. Instead, the psalmist “sets God” before him, appealing to God to judge on his behalf, to find for the defense if you will, and to reverse the judgment, pronouncing it against the psalmist’s enemies. Indeed, before offering a pledge of thanksgiving, the psalmist exults in this reverse judgment saying that God “will repay my enemies for their evil,” and that “my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.”

The psalm, which may strike us as an odd selection for reading/recitation during worship, actually couches the whole conflict very much in terms of the worship life of the community. This may be, at least in part, what is meant by the idea of “putting God” before oneself—which the psalmist does and his enemies do not (compare verses 2 and 3). It is only in the presence of God that the conflict will be appropriately resolved. In service of putting God before himself, and at the same time putting his pleas before God, the psalmist employs several terms which are worship-related and technical.

At the end of the psalm, coming in response to his (presumed? assumed? anticipated?) vindication the psalmist vows an act of thanksgiving for God’s judgment against his enemies.  The author of the psalm says, “I will sacrifice,” presenting a “freewill offering,” in order to “give thanks” (verse 6).  In worship, the psalmist will celebrate his deliverance.

The most important technical term used in the psalm comes towards the beginning of the psalm however, in verse 2. And this is also probably the most innocuous of the worship related terms in the psalm, at least at first blush:  the psalmist offers a “prayer.” The psalmist calls his appeal a “prayer.” There are several different terms in the Old Testament for “prayer,” but the Hebrew word used here is by far the most common. What may be telling is that this word is probably related to the word which means “judge” (cf. Exodus 21:22). In a sense, then, prayer is in-and-of-itself an appeal to God as judge. The psalmist directs his speech (an appealing or intercessory prayer) to God the Judge, who will speak in response to the false accusations of the psalmist’s enemies, these “insolent” and “ruthless” ones who have risen against him.

Psalm 54 offers an intriguing and, for me at least, compelling image of the nature of prayer; one that will almost surely surprise many Christians pray-ers. Preaching the insights of the psalm can serve to inform both the nature and the appropriate direction of Christian speech. When confronted with false witness, with accusations meant to tear down and destroy—reputations, self-image, and, in due course, lives—the psalm turns us not to rebuttal or reprisal, but to prayer in worship. For Psalm 54 speech in the midst of conflict is to be directed to God, not simply thrown back at those who falsely accuse. Furthermore, this speech is imperative in nature; it commands God to serve as judge on our behalf. This is what prayer is.

One might ask well ask at this point, if any sinner (which all of us most surely are) could ever do such a thing as demand that God act as judge on our behalf. But because God has delivered us from every trouble (verse 7), and because God is our helper (verse 4), even the sinful man or woman can, in the face of evil, rely on God to be not just a judge, not just any judge, but their judge.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 23, 2012.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

Following Christ, being God’s friend, is not simply a matter of getting work done and being a busy bee for the Lord. Rather, following Christ holistically is a matter of with what posture and from what core your works emerge.

As my gym-loving partner often reminds me while I run around the house getting things done: lift from your core. Why? Because if you don’t you might throw your back out, leaving your whole body out of commission for days (yes, I know from experience).

Here we are again in James’ centering question with this pericope: Are you a friend of the world or a friend of God? In other words, are you lifting from your core, or elsewhere, which will lead to the body being thrown out of whack? Specifically, the ask from James this week is: Is the wisdom informing your action in the world from above, from God?

How do you know? It comes back to listening to your core and from your core. Etymologically, “core” is more than the center of the body where our physical strength lies. Core is derived from the Old French cor or Coeur meaning heart. Courage comes from the same place etymologically, that is the heart. Discernment begins with the courage to listen to and from your core for the whisper of God.

In your heart, what drives the choices you make? Envy, James asks? Then your wisdom is unspiritual, devilish. Selfish ambition? Your actions betray you as a friend of the world rather than a friend of God.

The damage done from these actions is not isolated to an individual. Remember, James’ ethic is profoundly horizontal as well as vertical. Wisdom is born from above in order to spread healthy and holy ways of being a community. James highlights in this letter the damage done to community when an individual takes action based on wisdom of the world. It throws the whole body out of whack. There will be disorder, wickedness, and even murder. If you covet, your cravings will lead you away from God as well as away from your neighbor. The warning is especially loud and clear in next week’s pericope from chapter 5.

“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (3:13b)

James offers us descriptions of the healing, holy wisdom that can give birth to our actions when we lift from our core. First James says, “Wisdom from above is pure.” But since few things in this world are pure, perhaps we can begin with the second attribute offered to us: Wisdom from above is gentle. As someone with a very loud and harsh inner critic, I can pause and consider an entire sermon on this attribute for God’s wisdom. Choices I make based on my inner critic rarely make for peace, creativity, or beauty. I picture my inner critic as a mean-faced coach with a whistle, blue shorts, white polo, and knee-high white socks—he’s hunkered down, red-faced and yelling at me to do better as I flail about, not lifting from my core. It’s a laugh, I know, but also a very real presence in my life. I think this coach is fueled by insecurity and scarcity, as if I am not doing enough or not taking the path of so and so, thus falling behind in a race for selfish ambition I never wanted to start. Hello, wisdom from below. I’d rather not act on your advice.

But wisdom from above is gentle. I picture a beloved spiritual director, nodding, listening, asking those self-awakening questions that help me to hear the wisdom of God in the core of my being. Gentle. Not coercive. Invitational, not manipulating and bullying. Hello, wisdom from above. Actions and choices prompted by you make for peace, beauty, joy, abundance.

Wisdom from above is also willing to yield. Goodness, how many people in our midst are up for yielding these days? In the words of Ted Lasso, “The wise Walt Whitman once said: ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’” Curiosity is a wise posture born of a willingness to yield. Judgment is not. It leads to defensiveness and may cause us to miss out on an invitation from God to try something new. But I also hear in this verse the idea that God has a willingness to yield to us rather than to love us by control and domination. I see Jesus overlooking Jerusalem, willing to move forward and to yield, lamenting “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37 NRSV)

Wisdom from above is full of mercy and good fruits. These are two ideas, but one can see how mercy allows for good fruit to grow in ourselves and so between one another. This fruit is perhaps the fruit of the Spirit as described in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control allow for societies God intends and imagines for us. I think it is interesting to consider how conflict or tension born of God’s wisdom in our dealings with one another can be different from conflict born of envy and selfish-ambition. Conflict that at times is willing to yield, be curious, or show mercy is full of good fruits that will nourish society.

Wisdom from above is without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. James already called out his community’s misbehavior, showing partiality for the rich, in chapter 2. How many boards, politicians, and decision makers need to be reminded of the challenge to not have a partiality that betrays our allegiance to God, made known in a poor, rural Jewish man who rubbed elbows with the marginalized? Whose best interests are at the heart of our choices, our actions or inaction as church? This is the challenge of James, then and now.

As you discern for and with your congregation, listen to James and draw near to God. God will draw near to you. Resist the Devil of Selfish Ambition, Envy, and Covetousness. When our actions, including preaching, are born from God’s wisdom, our inner and outer worlds become a friendlier, holier, more peaceable place. When we lift from our core, we find that we have the collective strength to lift what once seemed an impossibly heavy burden to bear.