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Proper 20 | Ordinary Time 25, Cycle B (2015)


It takes God to get our relationships right. The texts for this Sunday invite emphasis on recognizing that all our relationships with each other (Sanctification, Church, and Social Ethics) are rooted in God’s grace (Justification by Grace).

Psalm 1
This is a Wisdom Psalm contrasting the fate of the righteous and the wicked. With Psalm 2 it serves as an introduction to the book as a whole and construed as a depiction of the way of the righteous.

The entire book and this lesson begin with a claim that those who delight (take pleasure) [chephets] in the law [torah] are happy/blessed [ashere] (v. 1). The law is indirectly praised (like Psalm 119), as righteousness [tsedeq] is associated with obedience to the law (v. 2). We should be reminded that in ancient Hebraic thinking the law is not merely a set of rules. It is regarded as the complete revelation of what God instructs us to do, the complete guide to life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2). And likewise the stress on righteousness might here as it can elsewhere be understood not just in legalistic terms, but in relation to God’s work (v. 6) in accord with the Easter word (see gospel, vv. 17, 19; Romans 3:21-26). The righteousness planted in God spontaneously bears good fruit (v. 3). 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). By contrast the wicked are said to be like chaff that the wind drives away, cannot stand in the judgment [mishpat] (vv. 4-6). Keep in mind that the Hebrew term for judgment can refer to a sense of comfort, not just punishment (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 343).

Application: Several sermon options emerge from this text. It opens the way to possibilities of relating the references to our righteousness and good works that follow from it to the work of God (Justification by Grace and the spontaneity of good works or Sanctification). Other options would be to preach on the pleasure and joy that come from living the Christian life and being instructed by God (Sanctification) or to appreciate the Jewish concept of law [torah] as a guide to life (the essence of Wisdom) and judgment [mishpat] as comfort.


Psalm 54
In this alternative Psalm we have a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies. Traditionally it has been attributed to David when the Ziphanites told Saul that David was hiding among them.

It is good to be reminded that many scholars that references to David in the psalms like this one may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In that sense this song is about how all the faithful may call out to God for deliverance in the trials they face.

 The Psalm beings with a cry for help, emerging from an awareness that the ruthless seek the

psalmist’s life (vv. 1-3). We should note again that the term Selah appearing after verse 3 is probably a liturgical direction indicating that an instrumental interlude should be played at this point in singing the Psalm. Following this interlude, God is said to be the psalmist’s helper [azar] and upholder of life (v. 4). He pledges a freewill offering to God, for the Lord has delivered the psalmist from trouble [tsarah, literally “distress”] (vv. 6-7).

Application: Like the alternative version of the Psalms, this text invites sermons reminding us that all our help and the thanks we offer are rooted in God (Justification by Grace and Sanctification). It is only he who can deliver us from the trials of life.

Proverbs 31:10-31
We note again that 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 an acrostic poem about the capable wife. Recall that such poems have each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This is an oracle said to have been taught to Lemuel (a king, generally supposed to be Samuel) by his mother. The first nine verses have so little to do with what follows in the lesson that scholars have hypothesized that this Proverb is really a combination of two distinct poems.

A capable wife/woman [ishahah] is said to be far more precious than jewels (v. 10). Her husband trusts her and gains much from the relationship (v. 11). Such a woman is a willing, hard, and thrifty worker, a wise businesswoman (vv. 12-16, 18, 24). She is strong [oz], both physically and morally, laughing at the uncertainties of the future (vv. 17, 25). She has wisdom [chokmah] and is kind (v. 26). She cares for the poor (v. 20). She is also well prepared for snowstorms (v. 21).

This husband of the capable wife is known in the city as one of the elders of the town (highly esteemed) (v. 23). Her children deem the capable wife happy and her husband praises her (v. 28). A particular subject of the proverb is praised (v. 29). Charm is said to be deceitful as well as beauty. The woman who fears [yare, literally” reverences”] the Lord is to be praised (v. 30). The husband is urged to share the wealth the woman has gained with her, for her works praise [hulal] her (v. 31).

Application: This text affords opportunity for sermons on the Christian family (Sanctification) as a gift of God (Justification by Grace).


Jeremiah 11:18-20
The book is a collection of prophecies of a late seventh or early sixth century BC prophet of Judah from the reigns of Josiah through the era of the Babylonian Captivity. He dictated these prophecies to his aide Baruch. Some of the prophet’s criticism of the house of David and the temple, giving more attention to the Sinai Covenant, may relate to his being an ancestor of one of David’s high priests, Abiathar, who lost control of the temple and was finally banished (1 Kings 2:26-27). Three sources of the book have been identified: 1) An authentic poetic strand; 2) Biographic prose; and 3) Deuteronomic redaction. The interplay of these strands suggests that the final editors say Jeremiah’s past prophecies are relevant in the new context.

This text is part of Jeremiah’s first personal lament, taking the form of a song. He claimed that Yahweh had made it known to him, and he had seen the evil deeds of the adversaries (v. 18). He learns that like a gentle lamb [kebes] he is the object of an assassination plot. Schemes have been devised against him, in hopes that his name will be remembered no more (v. 19). But the prophet cries to Yahweh that the Lord who judges/tries [bachan] righteously and tries the heart [leb] might visit retribution on the adversaries since Jeremiah has committed his cause to him (v. 20). Again we are reminded that the Hebrew term for judgment can refer to a sense of comfort, not just punishment (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 343, 358-359).

Application: Sermons on this text might help us see that we often share Jeremiah’s despair about society and human relations, but that in the end God’s judgment of evil will prevail (Providence and Social Ethics).


Wisdom of Solomon 1:16–2:1, 12-22
This alternative First Lesson is taken from a book of the Apochrypha. It is a work of the last first century BC, probably in Alexandria. It is clearly a work of Hellenistic culture but written in the poetic parallelism of the Hebrew Bible. The book seeks to make clear that the Jews have a true wisdom surpassing that of the Greeks. In this lesson the reasoning of the materialist or ungodly is examined.

The ungodly by words and deeds summon death, as they make covenant with it (1:16). They reason that life is short and sorrowful, and there is no remedy when it comes to an end for none return from Hades (2:1). The remaining verses of the lesson are based on the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah (52:13–53:12). The righteous man is inconvenient to the materialist, it is sung, for he opposes the materialist’s action and accuses him of sin (2:12). The righteous profess to know God and avoid the materialist (2:13-16). Such children of God must be tested, for if the righteous man is God’s child the Lord will help him (2:17-18). The materialist resolves to insult such persons, condemn them to a shameful death (2:19-20). The materialist reasons this way and is led astray by his wickedness, for he does not know the secret purposes of God and not hoped for holiness (2:21-22). Recall that the concept of “righteousness” in an Old Testament context does not 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).

Application: Sermons on this text will be primarily about the Christian life (Sanctification), how it puts the believer in tension with the materialism of the world (Sin). But it is only possible because the Christian is in right relationship with God, is a work of God (Justification by Grace).

James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a
We have noted 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 text is a continuation of the discussion of wisdom, in dialogue with its contrast to worldliness. Those with wisdom [sophia] should show that their works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. Those with bitter envy and selfish ambition have no business being boastful, for they live in falsehood (3:13-14). The “wisdom” of envy and ambition is not from God, but is earthly [epigeios ] and unspiritual, for this leads to disorder and wickedness (3:15-16). By contrast, the wisdom from above [anothen] [presumably it is given by God] is peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, and without partiality (3:17). (We can rightly ask if this text could be personifying Wisdom [see Proverbs 8:22-31].) A harvest of righteousness [dikaiosune] is sown in peace for those who make peace (3:18). Conflicts and disputes among the faithful are said to come from their cravings [hedonown, literally “passions” or “pleasures”] at war with the faithful. This dynamic explains murder and conflicts (4:1-2). The author exhorts in response that we submit ourselves to God, resisting the devil (4:7). If we draw near [eggizio] to God he will draw near to us (4:8a).

Application: This is a difficult text due to its legalistic orientation, especially evident in 4:8a. But sermons might focus either on how our cravings mar our relationships (Sin), and that if we are to live as the lesson exhorts (Sanctification) we need to be overcome by God who makes this happen (Justification by Grace).

Mark 9:30-37
As is well known, this book is likely the oldest of the Synoptic Gospels. It is perhaps based on oral traditions of the Passion narratives and accounts of Jesus’ teachings (the so-called Q-Source), it was probably written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. 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. In this lesson we read the second foretelling by Jesus of his Passion followed by a lesson on greatness, stories that appear in a similar mode in the other Synoptic Gospels.

Jesus offers his prophecy while passing through Galilee, after healing the epileptic child (vv. 14-30). The idea that the Son of Man would be “handed over” [paradidomi, is betrayed] suggests that God would be in control of these events. This title [huios tou anthropou] is characteristically used by Mark to refer to Jesus’ suffering. The disciples fail to understand and are afraid to ask (vv. 31-32). In a house in Capernaum (a town on the northern end of the western shore of the Sea of Galilee [over 100 miles north of Jerusalem]), Jesus overhears an argument among followers about who is the greatest (vv. 33-34). The report of this argument is unique to Mark’s version of this story, another example of his not always putting the disciples in the best light. Jesus responds that whoever wants to be first [protos, literally foremost] must be last [eschatos] — a servant [diakonas] of all (v. 35). Then embracing a child, Jesus claimed that whoever welcomes a child in his name (a deed undertaken for the sake of Jesus) welcomes the Father who sent him (vv. 36-37).

Application: Sermons on this text should condemn our sinful pride and ignorance, focusing on what overcoming such pride by grace looks like (Justification by Grace) — a life of service to others (Sanctification).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen