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Proper 21 | Ordinary Time 26, Cycle B (2015)

Baptizing worldly wisdom. We can gain insight this Sunday into an awareness that our natural abilities and common sense are good gifts, but insufficient to lead to good lives, that the things of the world (including reason and the Ten Commandments) can only function to give life if they are used in the context of an awareness that God uses them to give life (Sin, Providence, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification).

Psalm 124
This is a Song of Ascent (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 as 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 has been traditionally credited to David. (The comments about Davidic authorship of the Psalms in the alternative Psalm of the Day that follows are relevant here.) It offers thanksgiving for a national deliverance, and so because Davidic association with the Psalm is intended to represent the inner the spiritual life of all his subjects (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521), this suggests that all the faithful are to offer such thanksgiving. Israel is said to have survived the assaults of its enemies only because God was on its side (literally “for us”) (vv. 1-5). The Lord is to be blessed, for the Creator is the help of all people. Our help is said to be in Yahweh’s name [shem] (vv. 6-8).

Application: A sermon on this Psalm will offer praise to God for being on the side of the faithful, for only because he is with us can the evil we encounter be overcome, not by our own ingenuity and worldly wisdom (Providence and Justification by Grace).


Psalm 19:7-14
As noted two weeks ago, this Psalm is a hymn to God as Creator of nature and giver of the law, traditionally attributed to David. Again we are reminded that it is unlikely that David is the author of the Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). Many scholars argue 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 and all creation are to praise God and seek to avoid sin. These verses may be a later addition to the Psalm, praising the revelation of God’s will in the Mosaic Law [torah]. The law is said to be perfect [tamin, whole or complete], reviving the soul [nephesh] and making wise the simple. It is clear, rejoices the heart, and is more to be desired than gold (especially vv. 7-10). In typical Hebraic fashion, observance of the law is construed not as a burden, but as a joy (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2). The law warns and reminds those who keep it (v. 11). This is compatible with a Christian understanding of God’s law. The psalmist prays to avoid sin, that God not let the insolent have dominion over him (vv. 12-13). He concludes with the reminder that only with God’s grace can we keep the law, as he states that only by God’s action will we be innocent/clean/free [naqah]. The Psalm concludes with the famous prayer that our words and meditation may be acceptable/pleasing to God (v. 14).

Application: Sermons on this lesson might begin with Hebraic common sense, which many Christians share, that God’s commandments are good things, that we can avoid sin by keeping them (Sin and pride). But the Psalm’s conclusion that only with God’s grace can we keep the law, only when our consciences are baptized by God’s love is it possible to do good, should have the final word (Justification by Grace).

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
The tale told in this book provides the historical basis for a non-Mosaic (and perhaps originally a pagan) festival, Purim. It commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from a planned massacre. Associated with rolling dice, it may have been borrowed from other cultures which cast lots to determine the fate of people for a coming year. The book recounts the courageous efforts of a woman, Esther, who was wife of the Persian King Ahauerus and her cousin Mordecai who persuade the king to spare the Jews. Positing such a leadership role for a woman in the ancient Near East was rather extraordinary. In its present form this book dates to the early Hellenistic period, shortly before 167 BC and the beginning of the Maccabean period. The book does not mention God and does not testify to typical Jewish moral commitments and Torah regulations, and so its canonicity has been challenged.

The story is told of Haman, the chief minister of Ahasuerus (who may have been Xerxes), who had planned to cut off all the Jews in the empire who accompanied the king to eat with Queen Esther. Esther asks that her life and that of her people, the Jews be spared (7:1-3). She notes that she and the Jews are victims of a plot to be destroyed and blames Haman. He becomes terrified at the accusation (7:4-6). Hearing this, the king commands Haman be hung on the very gallows Haman had planned to use to kill Esther’s cousin (7:9-10).

The lesson continues with an account of the inauguration of the Feast of Purim. Esther’s cousin Mordecai is said to have recorded the Jews’ destruction of their enemies (recounted in the first 19 verses of chapter 9). He writes all the Jews in the Persian provinces to observe a festival of the days on which Jews gained relief from their enemies, when their sorrow had been turned to gladness. The festival is to be days of feasting and gladness, sending food to one another and presents to the poor (9:20-22).

Application: This text enables sermons advocating for a wise Christian Social Ethic (church and state in tension), but in accord with what Esther models this best transpires when we draw upon reason and common sense (the natural law) in order to achieve God’s aims as best as we can discern them in our finite ways.


Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
The book is so named from the Latin translation titled Numeri, based primarily on the numbering or census of the people related in chapters 1-4. Like all five books of the Pentateuch, this book is probably the product of several distinct literary traditions. This one is just comprised of three strands: 1) J, a ninth /tenth-century BC source, so named for its use of the term Jahweh or Yahweh (translated “Lord”); 2) E, an eighth-century BC source named for its use of the divine name Elohim; and 3) P or Priestly source, dated from the sixth century BC. The lesson seems to be the work of the J source in retelling part of the wilderness story on the Exodus, directly connected with Exodus 16-18.

The story begins with the rabble among the people dissatisfied with the bread they had received from Yahweh, wanting meat and fish (vv. 4-6). Moses hears the people weeping and the Lord because angry. Moses asks him why he has been treated so badly. He cannot get them meat. He cannot carry all the people alone (vv. 10-14). Disgusted, he asks Yahweh to take his life (v. 15). Yahweh has Moses gather seventy elders of Israel and bring them to the tent of meeting (the tent in which Yahweh would come to dwell in the Ark of Covenant housed in the tent, as per Exodus 33:7-11) (v. 16). After receiving more instructions on how Yahweh would get the people meat (vv. 17-23), Moses goes and tells the people these words and gathers the elders (v. 24). Next Yahweh came down in a cloud and spoke to him and took some of the spirit [ruach] in him and put it in some of the elders so that they prophesied [naba] (v. 25). Then follows descriptions of others on whom the spirit rested, Eldad and Medad, who had not been present (v. 26). Joshua would have had Moses stop them, but he is not jealous, wishing that all the Lord’s people would be prophets [nabi] with the spirit put in them by Yahweh (vv. 28-29). In the verses that follow in the chapter, not part of the lesson, God feeds the people by sending them quails.

Application: This Complementary Version of the First Lesson suggests several possible directions related to the Theme of the Day. One possibility is to critique our seemingly natural desire to want what we were used to having (Sin, what motivates the Hebrews’ complaint in the text). But despite their sin, God uses apparently natural means, quails who are natural to the desert, to work the miracle of feeding them (Providence and Justification by Grace). And likewise God works this miracle through the use of something like the modern concept of shared leadership (Polity). A third possible sermon direction is to point out how unlike the Jewish heritage, Christianity is marked by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all, not just on certain leaders.

James 5:13-20
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 lesson offers the author’s reflections on prayer and healing.

Both those suffering and those cheerful are charged to pray or sing songs of praise (v. 13). Elders [presbuteros] are charged with anointing [aleipho] those who are sick. The prayer of faith will save them. Anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven [aphiemi, which entails “send off”] (vv. 14-15). Reference to anointing the sick with oil (v. 14) is the biblical roots for the Sacrament of Extreme Unction (Last Rites). Confession of sins to each other, prayer for each other, is exhorted in order for healing to transpire. The power and effectiveness of prayer of the righteous is noted (v. 16). Elijah’s prayers are cited as inspiration (vv. 17-18; cf. 1 Kings 17:1; 18:1). It is urged that efforts be made to bring back those who wander away (vv. 19-20).

Application: In line with the first alternative for the Psalm of the Day, a sermon on this text might teach the benefits of a Christian life devoted to a confession of sin and of God in prayer and praise (Sanctification). Other possibilities include reflection on the rites of Extreme Unction and/or Confession, as the lesson provides the biblical rites for these ceremonies.

Mark 9:38-50
As is well known, this book is likely the oldest of the Synoptic Gospels. 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 teachings by Jesus in preparation for the Passion.

The pericope begins with reflections on an unknown exorcist who had been casting out [ekballo] demons in Jesus’ name (v. 38). This story is only also taught in Luke (9:49-50). Invoking Jewish names was common among magicians of the era. Jesus urges the exorcist not be stopped, saying whoever does such deeds in his name will not be able to speak evil of him (v. 39). Whoever is not against Jesus and his followers is for them, he asserts (v. 40). Warnings of hell follow. One who puts a stumbling block before Jesus’ followers will greatly suffer (v. 42). The text in Luke stops at this point (17:1-2), but Matthew continues like Mark (18:6-9). Jesus proceeds to contend that if hands, feet, or an eye causes stumbling, they should be cut off or torn off (vv. 43-47). The text concludes with reference to salting his disciples with fire [pur] (v. 49). Only in Mark is this comment made. But all the Synoptics include the comment that salt is good, but if it has lost its saltiness it is no good (v. 50; Matthew 5:13; Luke 14:34). This may be an exhortation that the disciples keep alive the fire Jesus has given them.

Application: Several possibilities for sermons emerge from this lesson. One option is to condemn Sin (as we all are made to sin with our eyes, hands, feet, and so on) but have been “salted” with the fire of the Holy Spirit, made “tasty” to serve (Justification by Grace and Sanctification). Another possibility is that God uses all (even those outside the faith but wise in the things of the world) to do his work (Providence and Social Ethics).

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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