Year B — Proper 20 (the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for September 23, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Proverbs 31:10-31
This text, so often proclaimed as “The Worth of a Noble Woman,” may sound a little patronizing to some ears. Should a woman’s value only be found in her ability to raise the reputation of her husband? Is her joy dependent merely on rearing a happy, healthy brood?

No, though the “utterance of King Lemuel” goes to the deep value of relationships and reflects on just what it is that has lasting value in a lifetime. Men, women, children, youth — we could all do with a healthy dose of this way to happiness and blessing. (v. 28)

Psalm 1
Ah, more of the “way of happiness!”

Psalm 1 presents the Hebrew Bible’s classic “two choices” — the way of the sinner, and the way of the righteous. Straightforward and no-nonsense, the choice is up to each of us.

The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. (v. 4)

Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22
One might wish to take a moment and consider one’s course when “lying in wait for a righteous” person. There are many plans that roll around in our heads that sound awfully good when we first conceive them. Later — well, not so much!

The human capacity to outthink ourselves is legendary; thanks to sin, we are, indeed, sometimes blinded by wickedness. Better to trust the “secret purposes of God.”

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Does God still reveal God’s will to individuals and congregations? Jeremiah claims that, “the Lord made it known to me, and I knew.”

There you have it. Perhaps easier said than done, to be sure; but, somehow God must direct those who have committed their cause to the Lord.

Psalm 54
The psalmist does not proclaim, “For the Lord has delivered me from some of my troubles.” Nope, it’s every trouble!

As Brother Jerry Clower was wont to say, “Ain’t God good!”

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
For James, wisdom and understanding are not a matter of “book learning” or cerebral intelligence. These traits issue forth in good deeds that are done with gentleness.

In other words, if you say you believe it — then do it!

Mark 9:30-37

I don’t know that this gospel story requires a Jesus that can hear every word we utter in secret or not; most likely, the disciples weren’t that stealthy as they walked along the road back to Capernaum, jostling over who was going to get the choicest assignments in God’s kingdom come.

At any rate, Jesus brings the party to a screeching halt with his question — “What were you arguing about?”

“Umm, not much Jesus. Why do you ask?”

“Last is first, service is greatness. Are you guys ever going to get this into your heads?”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I am a big fan of church signs. Traveling as much as I have over the past ten years, I see a lot of them. Across from Tennessee State University in Nashville there is a congregation that has the longest name I’ve ever seen on a church sign:

The House of the Lord, Which is the Church of the Living God, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Without Controversy, Incorporated.

Without controversy! Whoever heard of a church without controversy?

A church sign I saw in Decatur Georgia seems more accurate to me. This church said it was “Free For All Baptist Church” When I saw that sign I imagined elderly deacons in their Sunday suits engaged in an ecclesiastical version of a bar fight; throwing down their Bibles and wrestling each other to the floor in front of the altar.

The truth of the matter is, the people of God have always been and probably always will be a contentious lot, given to fussing with each other about all sorts of things, some of which matter and most of which don’t.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus finds his disciples arguing about one of those things that do not matter, not in the family of God, anyway. They have been fussing and fighting over which one is the greatest.

It is particularly ironic and disappointing that they are arguing about this right after Jesus has told them that as the messiah he will have to suffer and die for the world, and that as his followers they will need to “deny self and take up a cross” as well. He presents them with a model of complete helplessness and weakness and they respond by contending for positions of power and influence. In other words, they don’t get it.

In his commentary on Mark, N.T. Wright points out that not all Jews of the time believed that God would send a messiah and among those who did believe a messiah was coming; no one believed that the messiah would have to suffer, much less to die. Most believed that “the one” would come in power and might and strength. They believed the messiah would come as a military leader, smiting the Romans and their evil, pagan allies, conquering the world in the name of Truth, Justice and YHWH.

So Jesus disciples just didn’t get it when Jesus said in verse 31, “The son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” If they heard his words, they certainly didn’t hear his meaning. They had figured out he was the messiah so they were trying to sort out their positions of importance in the new regime.

Jesus overheard their arguing and called them on it, asking them “what were you talking about?” And the text says they were silent. They couldn’t answer him.  Could it be that in trying to formulate an answer to that question, it began to dawn on them just how wrong they were; just how far they had strayed from the path Jesus had called them to follow?

I imagine Jesus taking a deep breath, sighing and with a somewhat forced smile, saying, “Come here y’all, sit down, let’s talk. Let me see if I can find a better way to explain this to you.”
He proceeded to talk about how whoever wants to be first must be last and a servant of everyone. This “great reversal” is consistent with things Jesus says over and over throughout the Gospels about how in the Kingdom of God things are almost the mirror opposite of how they are in the world.

Then, Jesus did a monumentally important thing in the history of the church. There, on the spot, he invented the children’s sermon, complete with an actual child as the object in the object lesson.

Jesus and the disciples were in the ground floor room of a house, it had open windows and doorways, and a crowd had gathered to listen to him teach his disciples. Jesus reached into the crowd and pulled a child, probably a toddler, into the room. Then he said,  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”

With these words, Jesus proclaims his ultimate great reversal. In the ancient world, children were symbols of powerlessness. Outside of normal parental affection, children were, almost literally, nothing. Lutheran pastor Peter Marty, in the Lectionary Commentary, says that “in the Greco-Roman world a father could punish, sell, pawn off or even kill his own child.”

It is interesting to note that the Greek words for child and servant have the same root and that Jesus used both of these images; child and servant, as symbols of who the messiah is and who we, the followers of Jesus, are called to be in the world. Children and servants, powerless and defenseless ones, that’s us.

Our modern world, gives highest honor and respect to those with power and authority and importance. People in our world seek positions of strength from which they can control and manage others.

And the call of the Gospel to us today is the same as it was to those to whom Jesus spoke personally. It may be that way in the world, but it must not be that way among you my followers.

It may not be possible for the church to be the church and also be, as the sign said, “without controversy.” On the other hand, just because we have controversy, it is not necessary that we be a “free for all” either.

Through his teaching about the great reversal, the call to child-like-ness, to servant-hood, to powerlessness and humility, most of all though his own humiliation and death on the cross, Jesus has shown us the way forward though our disagreements and controversies.

Rather than aspiring to power and influence and control within the world and within the community of the faithful; our calling is seek to be servants of one another, actively loving each other in the name of the one who first loved us.

Amen and amen.

4 thoughts on “Year B — Proper 20 (the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

  1. "Then, Jesus did a monumentally important thing in the history of the church. There, on the spot, he invented the children's sermon, complete with an actual child as the object in the object lesson."Snarf! Thank you. I'm preaching from James (sorry about that, Delmer) but I'm so using this the next chance I get.

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