The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 10 June 2018

Track One:
I Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)
Psalm 138

Track Two:
Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1
St. Mark 3:20-35

Background: Serpents

It is not surprising to find frequent mentions of serpents in the Hebrew Scriptures (see the Track Two First Reading). They were a common and ubiquitous part of the culture and mythology of the Ancient Near East. It was both a symbol of fertility (see the image of the snake eating itself but of evil and chaos as well. The name in Hebrew is nachasha word that is associated with divination. Serpents are surreptitious as well, and not just in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Gilgamesh Epic, the hero loses his immortality when it is stolen by a serpent. Images of serpents have been found at pre-Israelite sites in Palestine, and in Jewish settlements as well, most notably Shechem. If you are interested in delving into the various interpretations of the presence of the serpent in the Eden story, you may want to consult Gerhard von Rad’s commentary on Genesis[1], where he aligns the serpent’s presence with temptation rather the demonic power of Satan.

Track One:

First Reading: I Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)

All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also, they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So, Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; [and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.] He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day, you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

[Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” So, all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.]

The Lectionary sets us in the midst of an argument – shall there be a theocracy or a monarchy in Israel? The time of Judges is coming to an end. The first verses of the reading note that even the sons of the prophet are not meeting the test of serving God and people. This reading cuts a broad swath from this notice to the renewal of kingship in the last verses of the reading. You may want to read through the elided chapters 9,10, and 11:1-13. Once Samuel has succumbed to the argument that Israel needs a king, we meet Saul in these elided chapters. What Samuel does, however, prior to giving in, is to make certain that the people really understand what it is for which they are asking. Taxation, the corvée, other forms of slavery and service. This is especially seen in I Kings 5, where the corvée under Solomonis mentioned. It must have been a difficult conversation, with the people seeing what they concluded was the success of the monarchies that surrounded them. Kingship was the model in the Ancient Near East and Israel was outside of that culture. It is a good lesson to study as we continue into the life of Saul and David and all that follow them.

Breaking open I Samuel:
  1. What are the dangers of a theocracy?
  2. What are the dangers of a monarchy?
  3. How do the people of God best govern themselves?

Psalm 138 Confitebor tibi

     I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; *
before the gods I will sing your praise.
     I will bow down toward your holy temple
and praise your Name, *
because of your love and faithfulness;
     For you have glorified your Name *
and your word above all things.
     When I called, you answered me; *
you increased my strength within me.
     All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord, *
when they have heard the words of your mouth.
     They will sing of the ways of the Lord, *
that great is the glory of the Lord.
     Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.
     Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; *
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand shall save me.
     The Lord will make good his purpose for me; *
Lord, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.

The initial line of this psalm makes clear the cultural milieu in which Israel existed. Does the psalmist acknowledge the existence of other gods in the lands around them, or does he give thanks to YHWH in spite of the presence and influence of these other gods? Later in the psalm we realize (verse 8) that this is a psalm of thanksgiving, giving thanks for relief from enemies or unkindly people. God gives the gift of self-sufficiency, “you increased my strength within me.” In verse 5 there is a sudden shift from an individual’s life to a more cosmic view. Which is the correct prospect? Perhaps the psalmist wants us to understand the broad scope of God’s power and influence, from that of an individual’s difficulties to the problems of the world at large. This contrast is seen again in verse 8, where the God on high is concerned with the lowly. In the final verse, the implication in the Hebrew is that YHWH relaxes the hand that holds up the lowly psalmist – he is dropped. Thus, the plea that God continue to hold up “the works of your hands,” namely the one who is now offering God thanks.

Breaking open Psalm 138:
  1. Where in your life are you weak?
  2. How might God strengthen you?
  3. How might you strengthen others?


Track Two

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

The reading elides the initial verses of the pericope in which we meet the serpent, and his words that lure Even, and Adam into temptation. It is important to understand this conversation so that we can enter the scene of our reading – the consequences of their act. The two characters reaction is of hiding from what they have done and denying its consequence. It is a calm introduction, the quiet walk in the evening breezes, and yet there is lying beneath a fear of what is to come. There is finger pointing, the man to the woman, the woman to the serpent. What follows is a reversal of the finger-pointing. First the serpent is cursed, then the woman, then the man (although the latter two are left out of the reading). You may want to look at these cursesas well. What needs to be proclaimed here? Is the focus on the serpent, or should it be on the behavior of the man and the woman? Were we to focus only on the serpent we would have missed the opportunity to confront our own responsibility and sinfulness. That seems to be an attitude given in our time, of placing blame elsewhere and not acknowledging our own falling short.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. Whom have you pointed the finger at rather than examining yourself?
  2. How has the curse of Adam or of Eve been evident in your life?
  3. What do you blame on the Serpent?

Psalm 130 De profundis

     Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
     If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?
     For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.
     I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.
     My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.
     O Israel, wait for the Lord, *
for with the Lord there is mercy;
     With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

The psalter describes this as a psalm of ascents, but it is really a penitential psalm. It does describe an ascension from the depths to forgiveness. The depths symbolize to us the depths of the sea, in other words death – the death that results from our sinning. Here God is depicted as one who watches upon the wall – looking for the enemy. The psalmist moves from the individual sinner who might be noted by God to a more universal prospect, “O Lord, who could stand?” At this question, the psalmist moves to the opposite point – to the forgiveness which rests in God. Thus, we wait, just as the watcher on the wall waits (and just as God waits, looking upon the people God has called). In verse 6 we move from an individual penitence to a more general penitence, “O Israel, wait for the Lord.”There are reasons given for such a stance and patience, ‘for with the Lord there is mercy.” 

Breaking open Psalm 81:
  1. What depths have you known?
  2. How did you rise above them?
  3. What do you do when you confront them again?

Second Reading: IICorinthians 4:13-5:1

Just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So, we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Paul begins this pericope with a quotation from Psalm 116:10. Here we meet Paul as a sufferer, who sees in his own difficulties the sufferings for the Church, modelled by the Lord of the Church. There is the usual Pauline contrast, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” The final verses are echoes of what Paul writes in the eighth chapter of Romans, We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.Forin hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?The hope that Paul hints at is the resurrection of Christ that his own body will experience, and that is the hope that is given to all the church.

Breaking open Psalm II Corinthians:
  1. How are you suffering today?
  2. What kinds of suffering do you see around you?
  3. How does a suffering Christ challenge you?

The Gospel: St. Mark 3:20-35

The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

There are multiple images here. The first is interesting, although it is elided from the reading, “He came home.” We are so tied to the notion of a “homeless Jesus” that this passage makes us sit up. The notion of home brings with it so many other images, rest, comfort, shelter, and finally family. But the home that Mark describes here is not a restful place; it is so crowded that even the ordinary things of daily life, such as eating a meal, is not possible. So, against this scene of Jesus at home Mark paints the real contest. We have a family who think that Jesus is crazy, and scribes coming up from Jerusalem who think that Jesus is possessed by a demon. The stage is set for parabolic teaching and Jesus does not disappoint. Jesus paints mind images for those who cannot fathom what Jesus is. Is it a house divided against itself? That image plays two ways – the relatives who despise him, and the demon in Jesus seen by the Scribes as casting out demons. What the critics of Jesus want is to bind up Jesus. What Jesus implies is that Satan must be bound up, “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.” The charge that Jesus is “out of his mind” is a charge that is familiar to those who would be prophets. 

The saying of Jesus regarding “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is about the testimony that the Spirit brings, the witness that she makes. If one were not to believe this witness, then the possibility of separation from God becomes possible. If there is a possession on the part of Jesus, then it is a possession of him by the Holy Spirit – for that is the witness that he gives. The family and the scribes recognize a spirit, but they do not see that one as the Holy Spirit.

Who then lives in the house in which Jesus seeks rest? The final verses relate the visitation of “his mother and his brothers.” Their presence provides Jesus with a teaching about who belongs with him in his home. Conventional wisdom would award the comfort of that home to the family from which Jesus comes. Rather it is the family which Jesus calls, that is welcomed to that home and fellowship. In the scene they are already gathered, “And looking at those who sat around him.” With this, Mark’s parentheses close. The family and followers are gathered with their teacher and their Lord.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Who is your family?
  2. Are there outsiders in your family?
  3. How is Jesus a part of your family?

For Discussion:          What is the focus, when we talk about sin?

Possibility 1:               We look at the ‘serpent’, rather than ourselves. First Reading
Possibility 2:               We look at the “other”, rather than ourselves.First Reading
Possibility 3:               We don’t see in our hopes, that which might separate us from God. Second Reading
Possibility 4:               We don’t see the spirit in ourselves which blinds us to Jesus’ presence. (Gospel)
Possibility 5:               We are fearful of the Spirit who witnesses to us a different way of living. (Gospel)
Possibility 6:               We are blind to the other members of our family. (Gospel)

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Von Rad, G. (1973), Genesis: A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, p. 87-88.


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