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Proper 24 | Ordinary Time 29, Cycle B

Psalm 91:9-16

It is obvious that the people in ancient Israel among whom this psalm was developed and sung lived in situations in which life was a struggle for survival. They lived with “scourge near their tents,” “lions,” “adders,” “serpents,” “sharp stones,” and other constant threats to their existence. The inspired psalmist spoke and sang to assure them that because they have faith in the Lord God they will be delivered from the perils cited, protected from all manner of evil, and assured of long life. This was the hope provided for them in this psalm.

Within the daily struggles of our lives there are moments and sometimes days and months and years in which we suffer from illness and injury. Disease and death threaten us also at all times. Even though we believe in God and believe that God has been active in Jesus our Risen Lord and Savior, we are not shielded from all evil in this life. Nevertheless, it is our hope that ultimately God will rescue us and give us life eternally.

For us it is Jesus who is Lord, even as for the Israelites among whom this psalm was first sung it was the Lord God of Israel who was Lord for them. For the ancient Israelites, for Jews, for us, for Muslims, Hindus, and many other people, it is God who is beyond us and beyond our limitations to whom we turn for help, to God best known by us through Jesus the Risen Christ and in other ways by them.

In the explanatory stories (midrashim) in Matthew 4:6 and Luke 4:10-11 about how Jesus was tempted by “Satan” to try to help his fellow oppressed Jews in Galilee and in Judea by cooperating fully with the Romans who occupied the land and thereby perhaps reduce the Roman oppression, portions of Psalm 91 are said to have been quoted by “Satan. This should be a reminder to us that it was not Jesus to whom originally this psalm was spoken and that texts from our Scriptures can be and often are manipulated for nefarious purposes. Like every other text, Psalm 91:9-16 should be studied first in its own setting for its own sake. Then, after we have seen how the text has been used by people who believe in God in the past, we listen to and apply its message of hope for us. And that message of hope comes to us even though at the moment and for days and months and years we too may still suffer from pain and disease and will eventually experience death.

Isaiah 53:4-12

In this poetic climax and conclusion to the fourth “Servant Song” of the Isaiah tradition we see features that can be applied to various persons and groups. These features can be applied in part to the great Israelite prophets within a “larger than life composite figure” that was most likely the original intent, in part to the nation and people of Israel to which these features were later applied, and still later by followers of Jesus who perceived Jesus after his death as the one who suffered and died for us and for all people and who lives again. Perhaps we shall be true to this text and to God best if we see all of these features, all of these interpretations and applications, in it and do not try to limit its applications to any one of these three. It is said in the text that it was the will of the Lord that the “Servant” should suffer, but that it is through the suffering of the “Servant” that we have hope.

Hebrews 5:1-10

A priest who is selected to serve as the high priest can try to be non-judgmental while serving people who are sinful, since the high priest is also a sinner. Such a high priest must offer sacrifices, however, for the priest’s own sins in addition to offering sacrifices for the sins of other human beings. Jesus as the Risen Christ has been tested and tempted in every respect as we have been but, unlike other priests, without ever succumbing to sin (Hebrews 4:15). During the suffering that Jesus experienced in human form on the earth (Hebrews 5:8-10), Jesus became perfectly submissive to God’s will and, as the Christ, the source of eternal salvation to all who accept him as their ruler-priest, a ruler-priest similar to, but obviously greater than Melchizedek was said in Genesis 14:17-20 to have been. This is a portion of the argument made by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews to try to persuade Jewish background followers of Jesus to remain among followers of Jesus as the Christ and not return to their previous Jewish beliefs and practices.

Mark 10:35-45

The suffering to be endured is described in this text as “a cup to drink” and as “a baptism with which to be baptized.” This is to be experienced by James and John as well as by Jesus; each of them shall suffer and each of them shall die. The difference, however, is that Jesus’ suffering and death shall have redemptive significance in a way that the suffering and death of James and of John will not. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death, many will have hope. If Jesus as “the Son of man” came not to be served but to serve, how much more should Jesus’ followers serve if they wish to be great!

These four texts (Psalm 91:9-16, Isaiah 53:4-12, Hebrews 5:1-10, and Mark 10:35-45) provide a biblical basis for a most serious consideration of the subject of suffering, of what makes suffering redemptive, and of how God is perceived as providing hope through suffering and in spite of the suffering and death of people throughout history and in our own time. Although the suffering and death of Jesus provides the basic Christian model of redemptive suffering, perhaps we as Christians should also perceive that God has been and continues to be active and alive to provide hope through the suffering and death of other people as well. Our study of Psalm 91:9-16, Isaiah 53:10-12, and other texts should keep us open to that possibility.

Job 38:1-7 (34-41)

The long anticipated and long awaited response and answer of God to Job in this protracted Job drama finally comes for us in the voice of God speaking from the whirlwind in Job 38:1–42:6. Instead of expressing sympathy and empathy with Job whom God has made to suffer so greatly in order to prove to Satan, the adversary of God, that Job is a blameless and upright man, God points out in great detail how great God is and how inconsequential Job is in comparison to God. Therefore, we have in this Job drama the most profound and extensive theodicy that we see in our entire biblical tradition. How does this help us as Christians to appreciate and to praise God?

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

We have in these verses in Psalm 104 expressions of the greatness of God as the Creator of the heavens and of the earth that we see more extensively in Job 38:1–42:6, but with humans urged to bless God, to say good things about God, rather than with God stating as in the Job drama how inconsequential even the most blameless and upright humans are. Does this help us as Christians to appreciate and to praise God more than the Job text does, or less?

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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