Lectionary Commentaries for October 31, 2021
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 12:28-34

Amanda Brobst-Renaud

Mark 12 sets the reader up for a continuation of the rhetorical sparring match among Jesus and the religious authorities that began in Mark 11:27. The Pharisees and Herodians have questioned Jesus about paying taxes, and the Sadducees have questioned Jesus about the resurrection. The “us vs. them” dynamics are palpable. These dynamics, however, lead many preachers to regard the scribe of Mark 12 as “another one of them,” doubting him before he speaks to Jesus. We too are quick to judge. We too are tempted by the “us versus them” dynamics.

This scribe embodies courage in the midst of what seems to be a conflict between Jesus and other Jews. The Gospels present Jesus as the protagonist and entice the reader to think of Jesus as the one who always makes sense. This scribe invites us to take a step back from our positions of privilege. We, who know how the story turns out, are often quick to determine the “us” and “them”—the protagonists and the antagonists—placing Jesus on one side of the conversation and those who question him on the other.  

Context matters here, both in terms of where this text is situated in Mark and in terms of the context of Judea-Palestine in the first century. The “us” and the “them” many preachers identify are not so far apart as one might imagine. Jesus’s answer to the scribe—the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)was the bedrock of Jewish faith and practice.1 While there was diversity in belief among first-century Jewish communities, the questions in Mark 12:13-28 are fundamental questions that marked Jewish identity and practice, especially at the time the Gospel of Mark was written, likely just before or just after the Jewish-Roman War (66-70 CE):

  • Should Jewish people pay taxes to Rome? (Mark 12:13-17; See Josephus A.J. 18.1-10)
  • What should one expect to happen in the resurrection? (Mark 12:18-27; See Josephus C. Ap. 2.218; Philo, Cher. 114)
  • What is the most important commandment? (Mark 12:28-34).

While Mark 12 presents the first question as a trap by the Pharisees and the Herodians and the second as a non-starter from the Sadducees, all of these questions are fundamental. They are particularly fundamental to those who are trying to figure out who this Jesus guy is, whose side he is on, and what his goal is. He has power, but how will he use it? Situating Jesus within these dynamics among the Jewish groups and in relationship to Rome is key to understanding who Jesus is.

The scribe frustrates the “us versus them” dynamics. He approaches Jesus not in order to test him, but because he saw that Jesus answered the others well (Mark 12:28). The scribe asks the question that strikes the core of what it means to be faithful to God and God’s commands: Which command is the most important? Jesus answers with the Shema and extends the conversation by supplying the second greatest commandment (Leviticus 19:18). 

The Text

Jesus’s response corresponds very closely to the Septuagint with a few slight additions and changes.2 My translation below maps on to some of the sound and word repetitions in Greek, designed to draw the audience’s attention to the repetitions in the text:

You shall love the LORD the God of you
With the whole heart of you
And the whole soul of you
And the whole strength of you

Jesus also supplies the second greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30, Leviticus 19:18). The connection between these commands draws together both the first and second tables of the Law, which relate to one’s relationship with God and one’s relationship with others, respectively. 

The understanding that these commands travel together appears elsewhere in Jewish literature. Philo, in his commentary on the Ten Commandments, argues that those who only love God or only love others are “half-perfect in virtue; for those only are perfect who have a good reputation in both points of loving God and humans” (Decal. 108-110). To follow only the “love God” commands is to only half-follow the Ten Commandments. In order to love God properly, one must properly love their neighbors, even the neighbors with whom one disagrees.

Jesus adds the second command, extending the exchange by going a step beyond the scribe’s question, and the scribe responds affirmatively:

To love him with the whole heart
And with the whole understanding
And with the whole strength
And to the neighbor as oneself
Are even more crucial than all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

The scribe extends the meaning of loving God with one’s mind to loving God with what one’s mind does. How and what do we think of our neighbors? How and what do we think of our neighbors who disagree with us? Just as loving our neighbors is part of loving God, I would argue that how—and what—we think about our neighbors shapes our relationship with God as well. Conforming our thoughts to the love of God and neighbor, in turn, shapes how we live as followers of Jesus.

Preaching Remarks

This week there is a particular invitation to focus on how our faith draws us into relationship with God and with each other. One might ask: What is fundamental to our faith, our relationship to God, and our relationship to others? We might also ask how Jesus shows up in the midst of our conflicts and our us-groups and them-groups; perhaps, as in Mark 12:28-34, in pursuing these questions, we are not far from the Kin-dom of God.


  1. See Adele Yarboro Collins, Mark, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 577.
  2. Mark’s Jesus adds the word “mind” (διανοίας/dianoias) and uses a synonym for the LXX’s word for strength (LXX: δυνάμεώς/dunameōs; Mark 12:30 uses ἰσχυός/ischuos). While the former has a more flexible definition in terms of physical, metaphorical, or spiritual properties, the latter also can also entail the same.

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Dora R. Mbuwayesango

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses sets out to instruct Israel on how they were to respond to God’s gracious gift of the land that had been promised to their ancestors and which they were soon going to occupy. In Deuteronomy 6:1-9, the portion selected as one of the scriptures for the 31st Sunday After Pentecost, Moses presents the posture that Israel was to have towards God’s statutes and ordinances, which in their totality are one commandment. 

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 is part of the narrative that interrupts the story of Israel’s movement from Egypt to Canaan, a land that their God had promised to their ancestors. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses recapitulates the events that have taken place between Egypt and the present time, with emphasis on the Instructions (Torah)—the commandments, statutes and ordinances—that were to guide Israel’s successful entrance into a fruitful and permanent occupation of the land. In our text today, Moses beautifully and emphatically highlights the importance of loyalty to God and the nature of the loyalty.  

Diligent observation of God’s commands would result in things going well with them in ways that sustain life, population growth and longevity in the land promised to their ancestors (Deuteronomy 6:1-3).  The Shema, which is often considered the most important portion of this chapter, sets forth the relationship between God and Israel and what that entails. Although verse 4 can be translated in different ways, as the footnote in the NRSV indicates1, perhaps the more appropriate translation is the one that points to the exclusive demand of this God to be the only God Israel acknowledges and worships (5:6 See also Exodus 20:2). This claim, based on God’s act of bringing Israel out of enslavement in Egypt, is also highlighted at the end of this chapter (6:20-25) where it is underscored that the demand for Israel to observe the commandments was subsequent to that. 

Israel’s response to God as presented in verse 5 is an extravagant love that involves conscience (heart), essence (soul), and vitality (might). These elements define the three essential characteristics of Israel as people of this specific God. First, Israel would be a community oriented toward morally right decision-making. Second, Israel would be a community with ethical values. And third, Israel would be a community full of energy for life.  

The commands in the rest of the section point to how Israel can achieve this extravagant love of God: These words are to be kept in communal conscience; passed on to the children and they should be everywhere, constantly (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). This requirement is because forgetting these words would result in death for Israel. Moses constantly reminds Israel, forgetting what God has done for them means forgetting these commands, and forgetting these commands means a national failure and death.  

As beautiful as these words of the Shema are, we should not forget their context and we should not gloss over the horror of the experiences of the people who will be at the receiving end of God’s promises and commandments—the Canaanites. We should refrain from identifying with Israel in this text in ways that desensitize us from the realities of atrocities that have been perpetrated in the name of God and religion. 

We should not gloss over the notice that these commands were to be observed after Israel had occupied other people’s land (6:1) and confiscated other people’s property (Deuteronomy 6:10-13). These words should not just be read in the context of Israel’s past suffering in Egypt but should be read in the context of Israel’s future (7:1-6; the book of Joshua). When nations, whose origins and wealth are results of oppression, subjugation, and enslavement, are teaching their children their past, they should not cherry pick or gloss over the atrocities of their ancestors. Proper reckoning with past and present injustices is never to whitewash, gloss over, or ignore them.


  1. Three variations on the translation of the Shema: The Lord, our GOD is one Lord; or, The Lord our GOD, the Lord is one; or, The Lord is our GOD, the Lord is one.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Ruth 1:1-18

Megan Fullerton Strollo

The book of Ruth is beloved by many, and preachers have a wonderful opportunity over the next two weeks to explore this little book of the Old Testament. Reappropriating a quote from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one might say this about the book of Ruth: “though she be but little, she is fierce.”

While the book is only four chapters long—approximately 80 verses—the book is packed with important avenues to explore, from sociocultural and justice-oriented issues like women’s rights and the rights and treatment of foreigners to theological considerations, such as how God is perceived and how divine providence might be operative in this text. 

Previous Working Preacher contributors have attended to some of these issues in past entries, and I would commend them to you. In hopes of adding to these various avenues of exploration, this week’s and next week’s commentaries will offer insight into the figure and role of Naomi in the narrative. 

The book may be called Ruth, and she is undoubtedly an important figure in the narrative, but the story is Naomi’s.

Supporting this, there are several key points: 

  1. Following the introduction of the family of Elimelech in verses 1–2, the point-of-view shifts to Naomi in verse 3: “But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons.”1 Her point-of-view remains prominent throughout chapter 1. Verse 22 reads, “Thus Naomi returned. And Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, returned with her….”
  2. Throughout chapters 2 and 3, much of the action belongs to Ruth. However, each chapter begins and ends with Naomi. The end of the book also maintains Naomi’s point-of-view as central. After Ruth has given birth to Obed, the women of the neighborhood say, “A son has been born to Naomi” (4:17; emphasis added). 
  3. Naomi speaks more than Ruth in the narrative, occupying 19 verses to Ruth’s 12 verses of speech. More notably, Naomi speaks about God more than anyone else in the narrative (1:8, 9, 13, 20–21; 2:20).
  4. Ruth’s declaration of commitment at the end of chapter 1 is more a commitment to Naomi than to anything else, and should not be read as a conversion experience. The Hebrew text highlights this by placing the 2nd person forms before the 1st person forms in all cases: “Where you go, I will go…” (v. 16; emphasis added). The statement at the end of verse 16—“your people will be my people, and your God will be my God”—certainly has similarities to the covenantal statements made by God throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Exod 6:7; Lev 26:12; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; 31:33; 32:38; Ezek 36:28; 37:27). However, the fact that Ruth makes this statement to Naomi signals how strong a bond between two people can be.

Reading the story as Naomi’s has important implications, both pastoral and theological. Next week’s commentary will discuss in more detail the theological significance of Naomi’s story in the book of Ruth. The remainder of this article will consider pastoral implications of the book as read from Naomi’s perspective. 

Lingering in grief: lessons in pastoral care

Naomi’s story is one marred by fear, displacement, struggle, and grief. To read the book of Ruth as Naomi’s story means we have to linger in her grief, to accept her anger and frustration, and to tarry with her and Ruth—silent, resigned, burdened—on the road to Bethlehem.

To read the book of Ruth as Naomi’s story is to read a story of grace that holds space for grief and doubt without condemnation, that doesn’t try to “fix” it. When we see grief and anger—particularly when that anger is directed towards God—we “cling” (Hebrew dabaq; 1:14) to the “you’ll be fine” and the “things will get better soon” dismissals. We try to extinguish the fiery rage of anger that grief brings—eager to put out the flames of the “unfairness” of it all. Naomi’s story doesn’t stifle the flame; it accepts the grief, the anger, the complaint. Naomi’s story holds those feelings even as it moves forward.

As the book progresses, Naomi’s perspective never changes. Even after Ruth’s commitment, Naomi’s silence on the road (1:18) and complaint to the women in Bethlehem (1:20–21) indicate that she still carries her grief and frustration. 

Her silence at the end of the narrative is most telling. We frequently encounter stories of struggle, loss, and redemption in the Bible. Those stories often end with the main characters repenting for their doubts, giving thanks, and praising God (for example, Job 42:1–6; Psalms 6; 13; 22). At the end of this story, Naomi remains silent. Naomi’s story is one that meets people where they are—in between grief and joy.

There is much uncertainty, grief, and frustration in our world today—an ever-waxing and waning pandemic, the divisions that arise because of mask and vaccine mandates, political traumas and deep-rooted conflicts, the fears and frustrations with regard to climate change and the grief of loss due to hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters …

The blessings at the end of the narrative do not overshadow or eliminate the grief experienced earlier. The good news of the book of Ruth is that blessings can still come even when we are in the midst of grief, in the throws of anger and frustration. Naomi’s story also teaches us that if we’re not ready to acknowledge those blessings, that’s ok. 

Those who are not ready to acknowledge blessing—those who are still struggling with the anger and angst of grief and struggle—can find solace these days in Naomi’s story.


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all English translations derive from the CEB translation. 


Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 119, the first eight verses of which is the appointed psalm for this Sunday, is the big dog of the psalter.1

But the gargantuan size of this massive prayer frequently casts a spell upon its would-be interpreters that results in a flood of trivia:

  • Longest chapter of the Bible by verse count (176 verses)
  • Longest psalm (over 100 verses longer than Psalm 78)
  • Longest acrostic (series of lines/verses whose initial letters form a word, phrase, or—as here—the alphabet)

This last point is usually expanded to further describe Psalm 119 as comprising twenty-two eight-verse stanzas (one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet), in which each of the eight verses in a stanza begins with the same letter. The comprehensive nature of this aspect of the acrostic matrix is said to give readers a feeling of totality and completion, especially as realized in the colossal proportions of Psalm 119. This sense of totality is augmented by the recognition that all but four of the 176 lines of the poem contain at least one of eight regularly recurring synonyms for God’s law/teaching/instruction: “law” (torah); “promise” (imrah); “word” (dabar); “statutes” (huqqim); “ordinances” (mishpatim); “commandments” (mitsvot); “decrees” (edot); and “precepts” (piqqudim).

One wonders why the number 8 enjoys such prominence. The sages responsible for the wisdom literature were much enamored of numerology, but recent scholarship has questioned the previous assumption that the sages were ultimately responsible for this consummate “torah” psalm since the understanding of Torah in the psalm differs from that of the wisdom traditions and is much closer to that of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History. In Chinese thought, the number eight represents the totality of the universe. In mathematics, 8 is the first cubed number (2x2x2). Biblically speaking, the command to circumcise Jewish males on the eighth day of life, or recognizing the eighth day as the beginning of a new week or cycle after the Sabbath or rest on the seventh or final day of the previous week or cycle, seems more plausible.

So far, so good. One of the rants, to which my unfortunate students are frequently subjected, has to do with the dissing of the acrostic passages of the Old Testament in general and Psalm 119 in particular that seems to go hand in glove with the above comments. This disparagement is far too common in the commentaries and studies that deride the acrostics as rather simplistic, artificial, tedious, unimaginative, or merely derivative exercises whose main purpose was didactic, to teach students a reverence for Torah as they struggled to learn the alphabet. Such shortsighted approaches miss the inner riches that these psalms offer to those that take the time to read past the scaffolding provided by their acrostic architecture. This is especially true in our text, the “aleph” segment of Psalm 119, as I hope a close reading of the Hebrew, with particular attention paid to matters of structure and repetition will demonstrate.

In terms of repetition, the first thing one notices in the Hebrew text is the inclusio around verses 1-3 formed by the repetition of “walk” (haholakim verse 1; halaku verse 3) and “way” (derek verse 1; bederakayv v.3); and the inclusio framing verses 4-8 formed by the repetition of “keep” [NRSV: “observe”] (lishmor verse 4; eshmor verse 8) and “a whole bunch” [NRSV: “diligently” and “utterly”] (meod verse 4; ad meod verse 8). The division into two sections, verses 1-3 and 4-8, provided by the inclusios, is confirmed in verses 1-3, where Yahweh is referred to in the third person (“the lord,” “his,” “him”) and in verses 4-8 where Yahweh is addressed in the second person (“you,” “your”). Taking the psalmist’s announcement regarding Yahweh’s command to diligently keep the precepts of the Lord in verse four and his prayer that he remain faithful in verse 5 as a pivot yields a paneled structure of three general observations about those in relationship with Yahweh (verses 1-3) balanced by three personal statements of the psalmist’s faithfulness (verses 6-8a) and a “kicker” (verse 8b), to which we shall return. An ABCB’C’A’ pattern of repeated key words in verses 2-7 further binds the unit together and emphasizes the response to God’s commandments:

A “heart” (lev, verse 2)
B “in his ways” (bidrakayv, verse 3)
C “you have commanded” (tsivitah, verse 4)
B’ “my ways” (dirakay, verse 5)
C’ “your commandments” (mitsvoteka, verse 6)
A’ “heart” (levav, verse 7)

Simplistic, artificial, tedious, unimaginative, or merely derivative? On the contrary, one can discern a rather intricate arrangement, carefully worked out apart from the strictures imposed by the acrostic form, that presents a discernible message entirely appropriate for the first stanza of a monumental tribute to God’s instruction. After observing that those who walk in God’s ways are blessed/fortunate/happy, indeed (verses 1-3) the psalmist acknowledges, in a personal address to God, that this is so because God has commanded it (verse 4). Then, following a fervent prayer that he might be counted among those fortunate ones (verse 5), the psalmist promises to be that faithful person (verses 6-8a).

And yet, lest we think that such devotion to the law is easily acquired, or even possible through our conscious decision to be obedient, the psalmist concludes with a marvelously poignant prayer that lays bare the truth of the matter: “do not utterly abandon me!” (verse 8b). Like the father of the boy with an unclean spirit in Mark’s gospel who prayed “I believe … help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) true faith comes with the recognition that we are completely dependent upon God’s grace.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 1, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 9:11-14

Madison N. Pierce

The broader section where this week’s reading is located, Hebrews 9, begins with a comparison of the earthly and heavenly spaces where cultic worship takes place. First, the author outlines the setup for the earthly tabernacle, starting with the setup of the tent itself, which the Israelites did each time they stopped during their time in the wilderness after they left Egypt. This is yet another way that the author draws his audience into that story. 

The miraculous departure from Egypt and the subsequent journey are paradigmatic. They illustrate God’s patterns of deliverance and care alongside the need for God’s people to continue on in faith. By extension, as the author of Hebrews highlights in 3:7–19, those stories demonstrate that even when God works mightily in our midst, we still might not persevere.

Here though, in Hebrews 9, the author highlights the worship experience in the desert. In 9:1–10, the author describes the earthly worship space—as well as its “furniture” and other elements. In a sense, these items could be considered decorations, but they are by no means merely ornamental. Each item in the tabernacle was a part of the plans that YHWH gave to Moses, and each item symbolized something important about God and his relationship with his people. 

Many interpreters come to different conclusions about what the author’s descriptions imply about the audience of Hebrews. Some think that the author’s level of detail implies that he is writing to an audience that does not know about the earthly tabernacle (and by extension the temple, which had various elements in common); while others interpret his relative selectiveness and brevity as an indication that his audience is not in need of an extended and/or systematic overview. (The latter seems more likely to me, but we cannot be certain!)

Either way, a thread among the elements featured is that they symbolize the work of God—and thus his presence—in the midst of the people. After walking through how each of these things is arranged, the author moves to a discussion of what took place in the tabernacle. The “ritual duties” that the priests carried out “continually” (9:6) likely refers to various activities, such as lighting the lamps, burning incense, and daily offerings on behalf of the people.1

 In this verse, the priests are the ones performing these actions in the outer space, but in the next verse (9:7), the author highlights the work of the single high priest. Though the high priest had many distinctive responsibilities, the author of Hebrews focuses here on his work on the Day of Atonement (see, especially Leviticus 16). Once a year, he entered the Most Holy Place and made an offering “for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally for the people” (9:7). That limited experience once a year for one person represents the need for a more effective offering (9:8–10). These offerings  were in place “until the time he comes to set things right” (9:10).

These verses that describe worship in the earthly tabernacle during the time of the first covenant (9:1–10) draw out what the author wants to contrast as he turns to the offering of Christ, “when [he came] as a high priest of the good things that have come” (9:11).  But what are these “good things”? Many interpreters will note the textual variant in this verse. The text might have read “good things to come” (in other words, future good things) rather than “good things that have come” (in other words, present good things). But since the NRSV, and most interpreters, think that the good things are here and now, this is the understanding that we will follow too. So again, what are these good things?

This likely refers to something related to the “eternal redemption” at the end of 9:12. One objection to this view might be that “eternal redemption” is singular, while “good things” is plural; however, “redemption” is a broad concept in Hebrews that includes many benefits listed throughout the letter. But either way, the focus within this passage is on the effective cleansing—purification—and forgiveness of Christ’s offering.

These good things came about after Christ entered the heavenly Most Holy Place (9:11). Unlike the former priests, he does not bring animal blood; instead, he is able to serve as the worshipper, priest, and the willing sacrifice (9:12).

Hebrews 9:13 is one of the key places in Hebrews to see that the author does not depict the sacrifice of Christ solely in terms of the Day of Atonement. He begins there with his reference to the blood of “bulls and goats,” but then he turns his attention to the “red heifer” ritual described in Numbers 19:1–10, another type of sin offering. These rituals, the author of Hebrews says, “sanctify” the “ceremonially unclean.” Let us pause here for a moment and note that this means they had a valid effect. They sanctified them so that they were “outwardly clean”; they were clean to the degree that they could continue to participate in the worship of YHWH.

But those sacrifices didn’t “stick,” so to speak. They had to be repeated, and they were not able to cleanse the conscience. But the blood of Christ was. His offering is made to God through the eternal Spirit, and it enables us to serve the living God. The word “serve” here (from latreuō) is a word often used in conjunction with priestly service. Though Christ made the offering on our behalf, our service and offering of “sacrifices of praise” (13:15) continue on and on.


  1. Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 379.