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These background notes cover every assigned text in the Revised Common Lectionary for each Sunday and major observance throughout the year.


Writer Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, Pastor, Theologian, AuthorMark Ellingsen, author of Lectionary Scripture Notes, is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated magna cum laude from Gettysburg College and has received four degrees from Yale University. He has authored many titles, most recently Lectionary Preaching Workbook for CSS Publishing Company….read more


Proper 18 | OT 23, Cycle B


God cares for the poor. The lessons lead to reflections on God’s care for the poor, a commitment which emerges from the awareness that God cares for us (Social Ethics, Providence, Justification by Grace).

Psalm 125
This is a Song of Ascents (or Pilgrim Psalms). Recall that such psalms are so-named for referring to the ascent of pilgrims to Jerusalem on the way to the temple, which required of them an ascent up a mountain. (Some instead claim that these psalms are so named because they have an ascending style of poetic form.) This particular Ascent Song is a prayer for deliverance from national enemies. It is likely a group lament. The Psalm expresses confidence that the Lord will surround his people and remove wickedness in the land (vv. 1-3). Prayer is offered that the Lord would do good to the good [tob] while those who turn aside be given over to evildoers (vv. 4-5). (Goodness in Old Testament usage refers to God, and so to be good is to be in God’s way, much like righteousness connotes this reality [see the exposition of the Psalm that follows.)

Application: Sermons on this text might explore the wickedness in our land in its various contemporary expressions (Sin). Preachers could then proclaim the confidence we have that God will deliver us, striking down the wickedness (Providence, Justification by Grace, Social Ethics).

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Psalm 146
This is a hymn praising God for his help. After uttering ritual cries of Hallelujah (Praise the Lord), vowing to do so all lifelong (vv. 1-2), the psalmist reminds us not to put our trust in anyone but God, for all human beings will lose their breath and return to the earth in death (vv. 3-4). Those whose help is in God are said to be happy [ashar, also connoting blessed] (v. 5). Over-against human inadequacy, God is said to be the one who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in it, who executes justice/judgment [mishpat] for the oppressed [ahaq], feeds the hungry, sets the prisoners free, loves the righteous [tsaddiq], and upholds orphans and widows (vv. 6-9). It is good to remind ourselves again that the concept of “righteousness” even in an Old Testament context is not to imply that the believer lives in faultless conformity to some moral law. It has to do with living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 370-371). We should also remember that God’s judgment in the Hebraic sense is a word of comfort, in the sense that it can cause positive outcomes and comfort in knowing that God’s just actions against the faithful have an end in sight (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 343, 358-359).

Application: This Psalm might provide several homiletical possibilities. We might reflect on the shortness of life and that only God deserves our trust (Sin and Sanctification). It also provides an occasion to explain the concept of righteousness, how we are worthy of God because he puts us in right relationship with him (Justification by Grace). More in line with the Theme of the Day, we could explore with parishioners how God’s judgment is on behalf of justice, how he is on the side of the poor and those in need (Social Ethics and Providence).


Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
This book is a compilation of several Wisdom sayings, aphorisms traditionally ascribed to Solomon, but some of which came from Gentile scriptures (chapters 30-31) that received final editing in the post-exilic period (sixth century BC and later). Some of these sayings are indebted to other ancient near-Eastern cultures (especially Egypt). Wisdom (sometimes personified as female) in the Hebraic context was the work of sages, generally equated with the way of righteousness. It was practical knowledge of life rooted in basic experience and in faith.

This lesson is a Proverb from an older collection of contrasting the way of Wisdom and the way of fools, with attention to the poor. A good name [shem] (good reputation) is said to be better than great riches (v. 1). Caring for the poor/oppressed [rush] is praised, for the way of injustice, it is said, will lead to calamity (vv. 8-9). They are not to be oppressed, for the Lord has made rich and poor (v. 2). The Lord is said to plead the cause for the poor (v. 23). This verse and the previous admonition not to rob the poor because they are poor or crush the afflicted in legal matters [at the gate where such matters were decided] (v. 22) have direct parallels in the ancient Egyptian book of wisdom (The Instruction of Amen-Em-Opet, p. 28).

Application: This lesson opens the way for sermons on Christian life (Sanctification) as well as about concern for the poor and justice, with some attention to how this relates to the biblical concept of wisdom and is rooted in God’s benevolence (Social Ethics, Providence, and Justification by Grace).


Isaiah 35:4-7a
It is well known that this book is actually the product of two or three distinct literary traditions. The first 39 chapters are the work of the historical prophet who proclaimed a message to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom of Judah from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period during which the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been annexed by the Assyrian empire. Chapters 40-66 emerged in a later period around the time of the fall of Babylon (in 539 BC). Our lesson is likely the result of the proclamation of the historical prophet, his proclamation that Zion will be restored. But it is also possible that the chapter could have belonged originally to chapters 40-66 and its more hopeful tone. The writer calls on an unnamed group to proclaim to those who are fearful that they be strong and not fear, for God will come with vengeance, with recompense, and save us. For the eyes of the blind shall be opened ears of the deaf unstopped the lame shall leap like dear, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy (vv. 5-6a). Waters shall break forth in the wilderness and the burning sand will be like a pool (vv. 6b-7a).

Application: This Complementary Version of the First Lesson also sets the stage for sermons communicating God’s concern for the oppressed (Social Ethics).


James 2:1-10 (11-13) 14-17

We note again that this book is probably a piece of Christian Wisdom literature with an epistolary greeting appended (1:1). Traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19; Acts 15:13; 21:18), the Greek seems too good to have been his work. It was only later accepted as a canonical book (not until the third century in the West, though accepted as scripture in Alexandria during the previous century).

This lesson deals with the respect due the poor, coupled with attention to the relation of faith and works. The author claims that it is not possible to reconcile faith in Jesus Christ with partiality toward the rich and warns against showing favoritism in the community (vv. 1-4). Such favoritism is regularly condemned in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:15; Psalm 82:2). In fact, God is said to have chosen [eklegos, to lay out] the poor [ptochos] to be rich in faith (v. 5). Note that the flock is being oppressed by the rich, and so their dishonoring the poor is all the more problematic (vv. 6-7). The text cites the “royal law” (taught in Leviticus 19:18) to love your neighbor as yourself. To show partiality is to sin (v. 9). It is added that whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point is accountable for the whole law [nomos] (v. 11). Judgment [krisis] will be without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. But it is also asserted that mercy [elios] triumphs over judgment (vv. 12-13). The lesson proceeds to reflect on the relationship between faith and works that faith does not save. It does no good to have faith if those naked and hungry are just told to wait for God to relieve their needs. Faith without works is dead (vv. 14-17).

Application: This lesson provides opportunities to proclaim our wanton disregard for the poor (Social Ethics) along with an awareness of how we can be empowered with forgiveness (Justification by Grace). Another possibility would be to preach on the need to practice the Christian life (Sanctification).

Mark 7:24-37
As is well known, this book is likely the oldest of the Synoptic Gospels. Although an anonymous work, the tradition of ascribing authorship to John Mark is largely accepted, but his identity is not always clear — whether this is the John Mark referred to as an associate of Paul (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37; Colossians 4:10) or as Peters scribe (1 Peter 5:13). There is an extra-biblical source (Eusebius of Caesarea, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2/1:115-116) which designates Mark as the apostle to Africa. Some speculate that the original audience was the church in Rome (especially Gentiles), as it presumes readers unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4, 31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians. This lesson reports several healings by Jesus. It is paralleled by Matthew 15:21-31.

The lesson begins with a report of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. The event takes place in the region of Tyre (far northeast of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean Sea) (v. 24a). Jesus tries to remain incognito, but the Syrophoenician woman (a Gentile) begs to have an unclean spirit exorcised from her daughter (vv. 24b-26). Jesus puts her off as a Gentile, claiming he has come to care for Jews (feeding the children, not the dogs [kunarion]) (v. 27). For Jews to call Gentiles “dogs” was not necessarily pejorative, as dogs were household pets in Jewish homes. The woman responds that even dogs eat children’s crumbs (v. 28). This moves Jesus to heal the daughter from a distance, as the mother finds her healthy after Jesus dismisses her to go home (vv. 29-30).

It is next reported that Jesus left Tyre, heading toward the Sea of Galilee. He is said to heal a deaf man who had a speech impediment (through Jesus putting fingers in the man’s ears and touching his tongue with Jesus’ own saliva) (vv. 31-35). This method of healing was common in ancient healing stories. Typical of the Markan emphasis on the messianic secret it was reportedly done in private. Only in Mark’s version of the miracle are these details given. Jesus seeks to maintain the messianic secret (v. 36). But instead what he has done is proclaimed (v. 37).

Application: This is a lesson for announcing that God’s unconditional love and care (Justification by Grace) is not bound by social class or our by our deafness (Sin).

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Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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