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Wrestling with the Word, episode 40: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (September 27, 2009) September 15, 2009

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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Making human judgments is part of living together responsibly as a human community. God has given us the knowledge of God’s will and the gift of reason to make those necessary judgments. Yet, God takes a risk in giving us this responsibility because with it we can make judgments that actually limit God’s freedom to speak and act. On the one hand, the lessons for this Sunday extol the various ways God speaks in the world. On the other hand, they point to the dangers of our excluding others from doing the work of God because they do not fit the standards we impose. Doing God’s work is not limited to committed disciples, but disciples are committed to discipline.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 40: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B.


Psalm 19:7-14

The first six verses of this psalm actually comprise a separate psalm, and so our loss by their absence here is their praise of the universe (three-storied) that speaks the glory of God apart from words. Actually, that theme would serve well the teaching of the lesson from Numbers 11 and of Jesus in the Gospel lesson. Nevertheless, the selected verses for today comprise two parts. The first part, verses 7-10, is a powerful hymn in praise of the Torah. It extols the Torah of God as the highest value, because the law serves as God’s means of bestowing benefits on the people. The second part, verses 11-14, is a prayer in which the worshipper acknowledges sinfulness, even when it is not discernible. Only God can make such discernment and protect the psalmist from domination by insolence (or insolent ones). Yet because of the graciousness of God, the worshipper can plead for God’s forgiveness and for guidance. Finally, the prayer itself asks humbly that its words are acceptable to the Lord, “my rock and my redeemer.”


Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

In order to assist Moses in the pursuit of his difficult ministry, God inspired elders to prophesy among the people, even a few who were not among the designated group.


At 10:33, the Sinai stopover ended, and the people reconvened their journey through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. Picking up precisely where they left off in Exodus 16–17, the people complained about the journey, the so-called “murmuring motif.” Prior to the Sinai experience, that included making the golden calf, the murmuring centered on the lack of necessities for life. Following the Sinai narrative, the murmuring seems to be about the luxury of life.

Key Words

Vv. 4, 10, 13.  bākâ = “weep”:  the word provides the theme of this section of the pericope. Unlike some of the people’s murmuring, Moses recognizes a certain legitimacy about their weeping and turns to YHWH to provide.

V.  12.  he’ānōkî hārîtî ’et kol-hā‘ām hazze ’im-’ānōkî  yelidtîhû = “Did I conceive all this people?  Did I bear them?”:  The implication, of course, is that God gave birth to the people and God is responsible for feeding them (see Deut. 32:18; Isa. 49:14-15).

V. 14. lō’-’ûkal ’ānōkî lebaddî lāsē’t ’et-kol-hā‘ām hazzeh kî kābēd mimmennî = “Not able am I to carry alone all this people, for it is too heavy for me”: This stark reality of this complaint sounds like the laments of Jeremiah whose divinely ordained office led him to unbearable pain.

V. 25. wayyēred YHWH be‘ānān wayedabbēr ’ēlāyw = “and the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him”: YHWH had been guiding the people through the wilderness by a cloud during the day and by a torch during the night. Beyond the guiding function of the cloud, however, the cloud was a vehicle for divine travel in ancient mythology. That the Lord uses the cloud to “come down” (see Gen. 11:5, 7; Exod. 3:8) attests to God position in the heavens.

V. 25.  kenôach ‘alêhem hārûach wayyitnabbe’û = “and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied”:  For prophesy as a result of receiving the spirit, see also Isa. 61:1ff; Ezek. 37:1ff.; Joel 2:28-29; cf. John 20:22; Acts 2:17; 13:2.

V 28. “And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’” Joshua here plays the role of the adversary to the Lord’s generous spirit, expressing jealousy to protect Moses’ exclusive gift.

V. 29. ûmî yittēn kol-‘am YHWH nebî’îm kî-yittēn YHWH ’et-rûchô ‘alêhem = “Would that all the people of the Lord (were) prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”: The desire expressed by Moses here is unusual, but the prophecy about the Day of the Lord promises to pour out his spirit on men and women, old and young, slaves and free—indeed “all flesh” (Joel 2:28-29).


James 5:13-20

The power of prayer is affirmed by examples of its effectiveness in the lives of people, and so God invites prayer not only for ourselves in suffering but also for others that they might be saved.


These verses conclude the Epistle of James. Just prior to our reading, the author cites the example of suffering and patience “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10). Now the book moves to the need in the community of the church to care for one another through prayer and mutual (or public) confession.


Mark 9:38-50

Against attempts to exclude good deeds performed “in the name of Jesus” simply because they do not belong to “our group,” Jesus cautions against the church’s arrogance that insists only members can do God’s work in Jesus’ name, and he teaches that discipleship means living faithfully and with discipline.


Following upon the disciples’ quarreling about greatness in 9:33-37, Jesus warns against exclusiveness and explains true discipleship in terms of willingness to be vulnerable. In our pericope, verses 38-41 appear to intrude into discussion of the disciples as “little ones” that started in vss. 36-37.

Key Words

Vv. 38, 39, 41. “name”:  Picking up the “name” from the previous verse (v. 37), these verses demonstrate the centrality of “the name” in the church. The expression “in the name of” is not typically Greek but belongs to the Old Testament (“the name of the Lord” beginning at Gen. 4:26; see also 12:8; 13:4; 21:33 and too often to mention) and appears in the NT elsewhere at Mark 16:17; Luke 10:17; Acts 3:6; 4:7, 10; James 5:14.

V. 38.  kai ekōlyomen auton, hoti ouk ēkolouthei hymin = “and we tried to stop him, because he is not following us”:  John’s attempt to stop someone from exorcising demons in the name of the Lord recalls the attempt of Joshua to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying. The use of “follow” seems to be used in the technical sense of discipleship, and so John’s concern focuses on the exclusiveness of the group. See the interesting discussion on requirements for belonging by Eduard Schweizer, The Good News according to Mark (Atlanta:  John Knox, 1970), pp. 194f.

V. 42. ou mē apolesē ton misthon autou = “will not lose his reward”: This mention of “reward” is the only occurrence in Mark’s Gospel, and the same teaching occurs at Matt. 10:42. At Matt. 5:12, Jesus promises “reward in heaven” for those who are persecuted on Jesus’ account (also Luke 6:23). People can lose their reward from God by practicing false piety and hypocrisy (Matt. 6:1-2, 5, 16). The Apostle Paul uses the word for appropriate wages in the labor market (Rom. 4:4; 1 Cor. 3:8, 14). At 1 Cor. 9:17-18, Paul contrasts the reward of acting out of self-will with the reward of God’s commission (stewardship) which is proclaiming the gospel free of charge. (For other uses of “reward,” see 1 Tim. 5:8; 2 Pet. 2:13; 2 John 8; Jude 11; Rev. 11:18; 22:12.) “Reward” is, therefore, what God gives freely. Refusing the gift would mean losing the reward.

Vss. 42, 43, 45, 47. kai ean skandalizē se = “if … causes you scandal/to stumble/to sin”: The repetition of these words listing various sources for stumbling indicate a list to be memorized, probably for catechetical instruction. The first cause is an outsider. The remaining causes are our own body parts: hand, foot, eye. The teachings do not advocate self-mutilation, but warn disciples about the sources of temptation that could lead them to stumble from the faith.

VV. 43, 45, 47.  eiselthein eis tēn zōēn … eiselthein eis tēn zōēn … eiselthein eis tēn basileian tou theou = “enter the life … enter the life … enter the kingdom of God”:  The repetition of the phrases again points to a device for memorization. The interchangeability of these expressions shows that “the life” and “the kingdom of God” are one and the same. The interchangeability in Mark leads us to understand the use in John’s Gospel of “life” almost exclusively of “kingdom” (only John 3:3, 5; 18:36).

V. 48. “their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched”: Some ancient manuscripts repeat this verse as verses 44 and 46. The words quote Isaiah 66:24, the final verse of the Book of Isaiah. Strikingly, verses 22-23 promise that “all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord.” Then, another faction of ancient Judaism added the final verse, indicating that when the worshippers depart their worship in the temple on Mount Zion, they can look down into the Valley of Hinnom (Greek –  Gehenna; see Jer. 7:31-32; 19:2, 6; 32:35) to see the dead bodies of non-worshipers rotting in perpetuity. The universal eschatological expectation evident in the promise is dashed by the nationalistic, exclusive wishes of apocalyptists.

V. 50.  echete en heatois hala kai eir_neuete = “have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another”:  This expression about salt is odd, especially in comparison with Jesus teaching on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). But salt and fire have something to do with each other in various contexts—preserving food, preparation for sacrifice, adding flavor, etc. Clearer and emphatic is the exhortation to be “at peace with one another.”