Lectionary Commentaries for June 16, 2024
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 4:26-34

C. Clifton Black

Working Preacher published an essay of mine on humor in Mark’s parables, which I’m sure you’ll remember. It was published only thirteen years ago. That piece presented my approach to Mark 4:1–34, which you may want to reread. If you don’t like it, there’s no reason to suppose you’ll benefit from my comments this week.

What that previous study didn’t do, but what should be done here, is orient you to the architecture of Mark 4:1–34:

A. Introducing the parables (4:1–2)

B. A sower’s seeds (4:3–9)

C. Parables and perception (4:10–12)

D. The seeds’ reception (4:13–20)

C.’ Disclosure and reception (4:21–23 + 4:24–25)

B.’  Other sowers’ seeds (4:26–29 + 4:30–32)

A.’ Concluding the parables (4:33–34)

When teaching Sunday school I might offer this diagram to help folks appreciate Mark’s careful but easily unnoticed arrangement. For preaching Mark 4:26–34 I use it for my own preparation, to follow the evangelist’s lead.

This Sunday we focus on the last two parables in Mark 4 and the evangelist’s windup of this chapter’s long monologue by Jesus to a large crowd (verse 1) or only “those … around him along with the twelve” (verse 10, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition). To whom Jesus is speaking in verses 21, 26, and 30 is unclear but doesn’t much matter. He’s addressing us today.

The seed growing secretly (4:26–29) is absent from Matthew and Luke. Leave it to Mark to recount a parable that accents “the mystery [to mystērion] of the kingdom of God” (4:11, King James Version). Like the kingdom’s proclamation (4:14), seed is scattered, ignored, then “blasts off” (blastai) and “grows long” (mēkunētai). How? The sower has no idea (4:26–27). Night and day, day after day, the sower does nothing but sleep. “The earth bears fruit automatically” (automatatē), without human effort. Mark made this critical point in 4:11, 24–25: God’s kingdom is a pure gift. We do nothing to cajole it into being. It flourishes to fullness of itself (4:28). What a relief. 

But the gospel is a double-edged blade. When the grain has ripened for harvesting, “at once he sends in the sickle” (4:29, my translation): an image for final judgment (Joel 3:13; Revelation 14:14–20) that endures in the figure of the Grim Reaper. For this, too, Mark has prepared us. Satan can snatch the word from us (4:15). 

Momentarily we may respond with joy, only to slump under strain (4:16–17). This world’s anxieties, the seduction of wealth, and the passion for pleasures “choke the word, and so it produces nothing” (4:19, New Jerusalem Bible). God’s kingdom is a gift outright, but we can refuse it or lose it. “For to those who have, more will be given, and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (4:25, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition). “Pay attention to what you hear” (4:24a).

A final surprise: the minuscule mustard seed (4:30–32) that yields a massive plant. In Ezekiel (17:22–24; 31:1–9) and Daniel (4:1–27), God’s protection of the vulnerable is symbolized by lofty trees with broad, shady branches in which birds may build nests for their babies. Into this trope Mark injects a neat twist: unlike Matthew 13:32 and Luke 13:19, which perpetuate the clichéd contrast between smallest seed and towering tree, Mark subverts our expectation by comparing the tiniest of seeds with “the greatest of all the vegetables” (meizon pantōn tōn lachanōn, 3:32). That’s hilarious: God’s kingdom is like the smallest seed that grows up to become the greatest of—zucchini.

Speaking in parables “as they were able to hear” (Mark 4:33, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition) resolves nothing about his listeners’ degree of perception. That comment could suggest that the parables were told either to relieve or to intensify their misunderstanding (compare 4:11–12). Verse 34 aggravates the mystery: privately, Jesus “settled” (epeluen) everything with his disciples, though Mark never indicates they were the better for it. To the contrary: throughout this Gospel his followers’ incomprehension is incorrigible (4:13, 41; 5:31; 6:35, 52; 7:18; 8:4, 17, 21, 32; 9:32, 34; 10:13, 37; 14:10, 31, 37, 50; 16:8).

The greatest hazards presented by any preacher of the parables are moralizing and trying to explain too much. Both are born of our insecurity and the influence of crummy sermons we have heard. The persons and things in these parables are colorless and passive. They are hardly agents at all. Mark 4 is not interested in our religious or political projects, dependent on human initiative with achievement measured by mortal standards. 

Instead, Mark offers glimpses of God’s sovereign authority, which through Jesus’ words and deeds is erupting into our everyday world. If we enjoy even a shred of insight into his teaching, such comprehension is also God’s gift and not the product of his listeners’ education, industry, or cleverness. That may console some and offend others. It depends on your point of view.

For all their obscurity, one thing is clear from the parables in Mark 4: Jesus’ claim that God’s sovereignty undermines all human notions in the most preposterous manner. Seventy-five percent of a planter’s effort is wasted; the remaining 25 percent takes root and thrives with staggering prolificacy (verses 3–9). A seed explodes, its fruit matures, without the slightest cultivation. The smallest of seeds becomes the biggest of vegetables. Such images don’t clarify; they shock. Those receiving such instruction remain comically stumped. The kingdom of God does not operate in accordance with received opinion and the violence of this world’s principalities. At every point it upsets conventional wisdom, turns, and defies it again.

If only we will surrender ourselves to such a God, both preacher and congregation can unload the specious burdens of a perfect sermon, completely comprehended. Divine mystery cannot be solved. Our responsibility is to proclaim and to hold onto it. Someone plants. Another waters. God alone gives growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Immersing ourselves in the kingdom’s mystery is excellent tutelage in Easter’s disclosure of the crucified and risen Lord we are following.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 17:22-24

Julián Andrés González Holguín

The message of the book of Ezekiel is thoroughly informed by its initial vision. Words are not the things they describe; they are less of what they try to explain. The vision of the Lord is chaotic. It is a metaphor for God’s presence, telling what is indescribable. The Glory of the Lord dominates everything the prophet sees and experiences. The rest of the book will paint vivid images, using symbols, allegories, and parables to convey spiritual truths. One of the symbols is the cedar tree, a metaphor for God’s promise and restoration. 

Ezekiel 17 is set after one of the most troubling images Ezekiel uses to describe the people’s exile. It was a time when they grappled with loss and experienced the destruction of the city, the temple, and the monarchy. At the same time, it was the beginning of a longing for restoration, seeking hope during despair. Through the metaphor of the cedar, Ezekiel communicates God’s faithfulness to the ancient covenant and God’s intention to reestablish the community. 

In the first sentence of the lectionary passage, the Lord announces taking a sprig from a lofty cedar. God then plants it on a high mountain, exalting it. God’s care for the tender shoot speaks about God’s ability to bring life amid devastation from the most unlikely places. Ezekiel 17:22 repeats the word “myself” twice to emphasize the care God provides to the tiny stem. 

God takes the sprig of cedar from all the trees, whose imagery is significant in the Old Testament. This tree is a symbol of strength, resilience, and imposing stature. It serves as a reminder of God’s promise of restoration. Just as a tiny sprig can grow into a mighty and majestic cedar, the community can hope that salvation springs from desolation and misery. 

The Hebrew rak means soft and delicate, as in Leah’s eyes (Genesis 29:17) and the heart of David in 2 Samuel 3:39. God plants not the woody stems. Those are tough and rigid and have to be cut down and punished. Cuttings from small and pliable sprigs represent the malleable people ready to be restored.

God promises that the tender shoot will become a “noble cedar,” providing shelter to every kind of bird. The poem emphasizes that birds and winged creatures can nest under its branches. This statement represents the inclusivity of God’s restoration. Surprisingly, in Ezekiel, with its emphasis on purity as a norm for inclusion in God’s people, the imagery of Ezekiel 17 suggests that God’s promise of restoration also extends to all nations; the majesty of the cedar and the shelter it offers invite all people to dwell under the protective branches of God’s grace. It suggests the universality of God’s love and care for creation. 

The cedar provides more than shelter. God will cause it to “produce boughs and bear fruit” (verse 23). The abundance of new branches and food signifies the many blessings God bestows upon those who live in it. It is the material manifestation of God’s promises and a way to support life’s flourishing under divine care. The cedar tree is a holy, miraculous event of survival and renewal. 

The newly nested people in the branches of the tree will not be consumed with anxious thoughts of devastation. Instead, people will flourish in a safe and nurturing place among the aromatic branches of the cedar. God’s grace is generative and life-giving to all the earth, echoing the ancestral promise of Genesis 12:3, in which all nations are blessed through the Abrahamic covenant. 

Finally, “all the trees of the field” recognize God as Lord. God is the sovereign source of redemption and author of all that lives and dies. The final verse (17:24) focuses on the depiction of God as the divine power that gives and takes life, who builds up and tears down (echoing Jeremiah 1:10). God takes, sets, breaks off, plants, brings low, makes high, dries up, makes flourish, and accomplishes. God controls all the actions in this parable. The tree will grow and produce fruit, and the birds will nest and rest. Yet all actions are under divine activity, which carefully tends to the tree. 

God has a plan for how to replant a people. The project begins with a simple, small, and tender sprig. It will eventually become a towering cedar. From something small, God moves to create something meaningful. The smallness of the twig hides the greatness of divine power to save and restore. In other words, God’s power shows up in the reversals and upheavals of life, in the circumstances that upend all our expectations and assumptions about power and prestige. In personal or collective despair, the cedar tree reminds us of God’s enduring love when we feel cut off from hope and restoration.

The universality of bird life is striking in this passage. The gospel reading from Mark 4 picks up this theme. The point in the gospel is the size of the tree growing from such a tiny seed. But in Ezekiel, the cedar reminds Israel of her vocation—to be a light to the nations, as in the book of Isaiah—and that goes back to Abraham. Israel is to be blessed and to be a blessing because God’s kingdom is for all. The sprig symbolizes God’s power to recreate, and it is a statement that God indeed will do so with the people who suffered exile. 

The more people are ready for it, the better. Ezekiel’s community was in a place of suffering. So this passage seems appropriate to consider the hope that comes from a God who cares for little shoots and makes them majestic cedars. Hope and renewal start from small and insignificant stems; in the hands of the divine, they become a living place that nurtures and protects. 

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13

Beth E. Elness-Hanson

The verse that states that YHWH “was sorry that he made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:35) is complex! A careful reading helps to unpack this conundrum.

Textual horizons

In the books of 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is clearly seen in the analysis that started with German biblical scholar Martin Noth (1902–1968), who identified a red thread in these books. Noth states that the author lays out a theology that demonstrates the reason for the destruction of Israel (722/721 BCE), then Judah and Jerusalem (587/586 BCE), and the Babylonian exile. The author(s) sought to demonstrate that the reason for these calamities is fundamentally due to disobedience to the covenant with YHWH. This theological framework—based on the theology of the book of Deuteronomy—is called the Deuteronomistic History (which also includes Joshua and Judges).1

The author’s perspective of this Deuteronomistic worldview was demonstrated in the many dramatic turns of events in these narratives. Thus, the faithful and humble are raised up and blessed, while the disobedient and proud are humbled and suffer consequences. This reversal of fortune is first seen in Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1–10). Thus, the reversal of fortune is seen as a “theological prologue” that sets out this central motif for these four books (1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings)2 that revolve around the core concern of faithfulness to YHWH.

Now, enter King Saul at the time of the downward spiral in his reversal of fortune.

In the previous chapters, Saul’s disobedience is documented. Samuel passes the judgment of YHWH on to Saul—repeating the judgment—making it clear in a concentric structure. The beginning and the end of 1 Samuel 13:13–14 make it plain that his downfall is because Saul had “not kept what the LORD commanded you [him].” In a concentric structure, the central aspect is usually key. Here, the core concept is that “the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart” (verse 14).

This verse is often understood to say that YHWH chose David because he loved—had a heart for—YHWH. This is not accurate. While David loving YHWH is part of the understanding of David’s character as seen in other texts, it is not what is meant by “heart” here. So, “doing justice to the text” means not forcing meanings from other passages onto the text at hand. Rather, exegete those other texts for their inherent meanings.

It is important to realize that in this biblical Hebrew context the heart was not the seat of emotions. Rather, “the heart is the seat of the will”3—a sense of volition. Thus, this means that David was the person of YHWH’s choosing. It would have made it easier to understand why Saul was replaced by someone who loved YHWH. However, that is not the meaning of “heart” in either 1 Samuel 13:14 or 1 Samuel 16:7. The latter is our pericope, when Samuel is reviewing Jesse’s sons, which states, “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Instead of love, there is a different criterion for YHWH’s anointed: obedience. This is found in Samuel’s pithy summary just a few verses before the start of this reading: “Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22b).

The pericope ends with “The spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). The beginning and end are negative and positive bookends to a narrative that reinforces the Deuteronomist’s theological concern of covenantal faithfulness to YHWH.

Homiletic horizons

The dominant culture at that time would have assumed that the firstborn of Jesse’s sons would be the chosen one. However, David, though still handsome (verse 12), was a lowly shepherd boy who had a heart—in other words, a will—that aligned with doing things God’s way. The strange act of choosing the youngest son exemplifies the reversal of fortune that was so unexpected in this context. YHWH raises up the lowly faithful. This is a huge contrast to King Saul in this reversal of fortune, as the powerful who are disobedient are brought low.

The heart (pun intended) of this pericope is: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

What do mortals in your context today see and put their trust in? What does our culture focus on (see) that is actually in conflict with God’s volition and the ministry of the gospel?

YHWH’s heart (volitional will) looks for humble folk to raise up into leadership in the ministry of the gospel—people who have a heart (volitional will) to serve the will of God. The will of God, oversimplified, is loving God and loving others.

This text also includes a warning to leaders. God is calling leaders to faithful obedience—doing what the LORD commands.


  1. Sandra L. Richter, “Deuteronomistic History,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 219–30.
  2. Mark Throntveit, “Enter the Bible – Books: 1 Samuel,” n.d., http://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=29, (accessed February 1, 2020).
  3. Andrew Bowling, “1071 lavav,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 467.


Commentary on Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 92 is the only psalm with a superscription assigning it to the Sabbath.1

As such, it became important in the Sabbath temple liturgy. Other psalms have been designated for use on the other six days of the week, but not in the Hebrew Bible: Psalms 82, Tuesday; and 81, Thursday, in rabbinic sources and 24, Sunday; 48, Monday; 94, Wednesday; and 93, Friday, also in the Septuagint.

Several factors may have contributed to this unique designation. Chief among these would be a series of sevenfold repetitions which may point to the “seventh” day of creation, including the divine name YHWH (“LORD” in New Revised Standard Version); seven negative qualities of the wicked in verses 7–11; seven positive qualities of the righteous in verses 12–15; and seven verses preceding and following the poetic hinge in verse 8. In addition, God’s creative activity may be hinted at in “the work of your hands” (verse 4; cf. Psalm 8:3) and “works” (verse 5; cf. Psalm 104:24, 31).

Of greater significance for our work, however, is the shaping of the psalm as a canonical entity rather than its superscription or the abridgment suggested by the lectionary. Canonically speaking, Psalm 92 seems to combine several genres found in the Psalms, especially thanksgivings and hymns with didactic elements of the wisdom traditions thrown in for good measure. The psalm as a whole displays the following concentric structure:

A  Declaration of YHWH’s steadfast love (1–3)

B  YHWH causes me to rejoice (4–5)

C  The wicked are doomed (6–7)

X  Declaration of YHWH’s exaltation (8)

C’ The wicked will perish (9)

B’ YHWH causes the righteous to flourish (10–13)

A’ Declaration that YHWH is upright (14–15)

The framing stanzas A and A’ culminate in the same Hebrew word lehaggid (“declare,” verse 2; “showing,” verse 15, New Revised Standard Version). This declaration of the greatness of the Lord, as also seen in verse 8, is the main theme of the psalm and is at home in the hymns. B and B’ contain second-person masculine singular perfect (completed action) verbs, emphasizing YHWH’s redemptive activity on behalf of the psalmist: “You have made me glad” (verse 4) and “You have exalted my horn” (verse 10). These elements are strongly reminiscent of the thanksgiving testimony.

C and C’ share the phrase “all evildoers” (verses 7, 9) and the theme of their destruction common to the wisdom tradition. The central section, X (verse 8), explicitly states the main theme of the introduction and conclusion: the exaltation of YHWH. It should be noted that this verse stands without a parallel line, athnah, pause, or break, and that there are 52 Hebrew words preceding verse 8 and 52 Hebrew words following verse 8, literally indicating its central role in the psalm.

Taking the psalm as a whole provides us with the reasons for the psalmist’s praise of the Lord in the verses prescribed by the lectionary: the introduction and conclusion. Hymns of praise typically begin with an invitation to praise the Lord in some way, followed by specific reasons for doing so. This structure is evident in Psalm 92 as well:

1. Verses 1–3 invite others in the community to join in thanksgiving and praise by declaring God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. While, technically speaking, there is no specific word for “thanks/thanksgiving” in Hebrew, these verses make clear in the progression of their verbs what “thanksgiving is to look like. In the liturgical words familiar to those of my tradition, we are to “thank the Lord and sing his praise; tell everyone what he has done.” How does one say “thanks” to God? By singing God’s praises! And how does one do that? By telling everyone what God has done!

2. Verses 4–8 present the first set of reasons for joining the psalmist in thankful praise, in direct address recounting what God has done: “Because (ki) you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work.” Joy in the recognition of God’s activity is the first reason for the psalmist’s praise. The “dullard” of verse 6 is possessed of a brutish nature that prevents the reasoned recognition of divine activity. This inability forces the foolish to misread the vigorous, present blossoming of the wicked as a flourishing that will last … but they are wrong.

3. Following the dramatic restatement of the theme in verse 8, verses 9–15 present the second set of reasons for joining the psalmist in thankful praise, again in direct address, again recounting what God has done: “Because (ki) you have exalted my horn …” A recent experience of God’s deliverance morphs into further recognition that God is the source of that deliverance. Because of this divine favor, the righteous flourish like the palm tree and the cedar—images of lasting strength in contrast to the momentary thriving of the grass that so befuddled the foolish in verses 6–7.

“It is our duty and delight” to praise the Lord. We are familiar with praise motivated by a sense of duty or obligation. But this psalm seeks to energize our thanks and praise from the sheer delight of recognizing what God has done and that God is indeed in control.


  1. Commentary first published on this website June 17, 2012.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Lois Malcolm

What gives us the courage to do the right thing—to act on what our conscience calls us to do—when we know that we often will not be rewarded for it in this life?1

Can we boldly defend the common good in the face of powerful detractors concerned solely with their own interests and agendas? And when we do speak the truth about what needs to be done in specific circumstances, can we do so with the love and forgiveness needed to bring about the justice we are calling for? These are some of the larger questions Paul grapples with in 2 Corinthians that provide a context for interpreting this passage.

The logic of double-negation

In 2 Corinthians 5:6–10, Paul asserts that we can be confident in all circumstances, whether we are “at home” or “away” from either “the body” or “the Lord.” This theme resonates with his refrains in Philippians that “living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21) and that in any and all circumstances—whether in plenty or in need—we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us (Philippians 4:12–13).

There is a logic of double-negation at work in these verses that runs throughout Paul’s letters. This logic brings to the fore the point that God’s “yes”—God’s promise, which we receive in Jesus through the Spirit—is far greater than all our human distinctions and circumstances (2 Corinthians 1:18–22). In Galatians, for example, Paul states that through the Spirit we eagerly await the “hope of righteousness” because “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything”; all that counts is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:5–6). In 1 Corinthians, he makes clear that the foolishness and weakness of the cross of Christ embody the fact that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:18–25; my emphasis).

As depicted in the great hymn of Romans 8, Paul’s point with these negations is to affirm that nothingneither death nor life; not angels, rulers, or powers; not height or depth, nor anything else in all creation—can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38–39). The love of God encompasses everything in reality. Grounded in God’s love through Christ’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s communion, we can be what we have been called to be: an open statement of truth, commending ourselves with confidence to everyone’s conscience before God, regardless of our circumstances (2 Corinthians 4:2; 13:13).

Being at home or away from the body

Is Paul not introducing yet another dualism—another distinction—with his talk about being “at home” or “away” from “the body” or “the Lord”? We can gain some insight on this question by taking a look at his “fool’s speech” regarding the “super-apostles” who have defamed him and abused the Corinthians with their deceptive misuse of spiritual power.

In that speech Paul refers to “visions and revelations” he experienced 14 years prior, saying that he does not know whether they were “in the body or out of the body” (2 Corinthians 12:1–7). Paul himself has had such visions and revelations, which may indeed have been “out of the body” experiences. In these kinds of experiences we may have a powerful sense of union with God or sense of being “at home” with the Lord. Yet Paul is very clear: those experiences are no more sacred—no more weighted with authority—than others.

Why? Because the only power and authority we can ultimately rely on is the sufficiency of God’s grace. Through that grace, power is “made perfect [teleitai, better translated as “reaches full maturity”] in weakness.” Indeed, our ultimate criterion is the weakness of Jesus’ suffering body undergoing all of our vicissitudes, even to the point of death on a cross (2 Corinthians 12:8; cf. Philippians 2:8).

Walking by faith, not sight

In fact, all that we do in our bodies will be manifest (phanerothenai) before “the judgment seat of Christ”—the eschatological place and time where and when Christ will judge all the living and the dead (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 2:16, 14:9–10). This reference to Christ’s “judgment seat” is not a threat but a promise. Although we live in a world where technical savvy, wealth, and power seem continually to trump God’s steadfast love, justice, and righteousness, we can be confident that the latter—described as God’s mercies and consolation in 2 Corinthians—will prevail in the end (2 Corinthians 1:3; cf. Jeremiah 9:23–24).

Thus Paul’s phrase “we walk by faith, not sight” fleshes out his earlier discussion of “seeing” the glory of Christ and “being transformed” into the same image (2 Corinthians 3:18). Our “seeing” and “being transformed” into Christ’s image take place not in some ethereal experience but in every aspect of our lives where we need to rely on, or put our trust in, God’s grace. Wherever we are, we are accountable to God—and thus also to one another—for what we do in our bodies, whether good or evil. And God’s grace is sufficient to give us the power to please God in all circumstances.

So being in “ecstasy” (eksestemen, taken out of ourselves) before God does not immune us from being accountable for what we do with our bodies (2 Corinthians 5:13). Rather, knowing the fear of the Lord—that we are ultimately accountable to God and not to any other power—frees us to speak the truth and to persuade others to do the same. Well-known to God, we can confidently make ourselves known to others, even as we persuade them to reciprocate by living in the same confidence and sincerity (2 Corinthians 5:11–13).

Grounded in God’s love, we can speak truth to one another—we can risk sincerity—even when we disagree or might be wrong. God is reconciling the entire world through Christ, in spite of anything we or others have done (2 Corinthians 5:19): God’s promises are always a “yes.” Rooted in that “yes,” our lives can be an open statement of truth—regardless of where we find ourselves (2 Corinthians 1:20–22).


  1. Commentary first published on this website June 14, 2015.