The Works of God and the Way God Works: The Lectionary for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

The Works of God and the Way God Works: The Lectionary for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost October 4, 2015


Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek by Dieric Bouts the elder. Church of St. Peter, Leuven, Belgium. 1464-1467. Image in the public domain, via Wikipedia.
Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek by Dieric Bouts the elder. Church of St. Peter, Leuven, Belgium. 1464-1467. Image in the public domain, via Wikipedia.

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and/or Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

What It’s About: The Job text is about feeling lost, and the Amos text is about getting found–in a sense.

The Job text comes from the middle of the book, when Job’s despair and loneliness is at its worst. He feels abandoned by God (and it’s not an altogether incorrect feeling, either), and he doesn’t sense God’s presence anywhere he looks. Job resolves to stay faithful and steadfast, though–mostly in the omitted verses. This passage is about the feeling of being adrift in the world.

The Amos text is, in some ways, about God visiting judgement on the people. Here it is the people who have been hiding from God, and not the other way around. Here we have the prophet promising that iniquity and injustice will not go unpunished, and that those who seek a better path might be spared.

What It’s Really About: These are two different ways of thinking about how God works. In the Amos text, God is working on an international and geopolitical scale, as well as on a societal one. God knows the way a society treats its most vulnerable, and God passes judgement on that in the form of the movements of enemy armies’ advances. In the Job text, however, God is much more of a “retail” God; Job expects (but does not find) God’s presence available to him in his personal despair. These are two different ways of thinking about God, and it’s interesting to think about the circumstances and events that caused them to end up in the same book.

What It’s Not About: Job would want us to stop and consider that his despair is not absolute. The omitted verses (10-15) contain some affirmations on Job’s part that, even though he cannot see his way through to the end, he is holding onto the thread of faithfulness to God. And Amos would want us to remember that God’s judgement is not absolute. God judges nations, but individuals that do right can still find favor.

Maybe You Should Think About: Together, these two perspectives on God’s actions give us a broad sense of how God works, at least according to some biblical authors. But are these the only ways God works (in the bible or in our own experience)? Can we identify other patterns of people’s experiences with God? What are they?

Hebrews 4:12-16

What It’s About: This is kind of a grab-bag of theological ideas from the dawn of Christianity. It is a commentary on Christian scripture, but also on Jesus’ identity and divine omniscience and grace. This is one of the things that’s so marvelous about early Christian writings. In later systematic theologies, these ideas would be chapters or even volumes on their own, but here they are squeezed into five verses, and they are no less profound for it. There is an immediacy and a breathtaking urgency to this passage, and to others like it.

What It’s Really About: If you look at it in the broader context of the book, this part of Hebrews is really about setting up the argument about Melchizedek that is coming in chapter 5. As a meditation on the work of God, it sets up Melchizedek as a kind of type for Jesus. Again, this is the kind of thing I love about early Christian writings. This is vibrant exegesis. You can imagine the author/preacher in Rome in the late 1st or early 2nd century (most scholars think this was a sermon from Rome from around then, not a letter of Paul’s) digging into the Septuagint to try to figure out how to think about Jesus. The author of this particular text is really skilled at that, filling the book with references to heroes of the faith. But in Melchizedek, there is a possible type of Jesus, and this passage is setting it up–beginning with the comment on God’s “word,” which is an early and revealing way to talk about sacred writings.

What It’s Not About: In remarkable ways, this text presumes a Jewish audience, or at least an audience of gentiles that is thoroughly informed about Jewish ideas. How else could the references to a “high priest” and Melchizedek, not to mention the other figures from Jewish history found in the text, make sense? This is why the book got its title, and the title has been troublesome over the years. But there’s no doubt that there are Jewish sensibilities at play here. It’s not necessarily for what we often think of as the chief audience of the New Testament: gentiles.

Maybe You Should Think About: Does the “high priest” language still work for us? In a culture without much sense of what one of those is, is that a helpful way of describing Jesus? How can we explain or contextualize that language?


Mark 10:17-31

What It’s About: I wrote at length about this text (and its companion texts in the other synoptics) back in the spring, in the context of the Josh Duggar revelations (which have, unbelievably, gotten worse since). Click on that link in the sentence above to see my thoughts on the meaning of this story.

What It’s Really About: It’s really about the dangers of wealth. No really, it is.

What It’s Not About: Verses 24 and 25 have been subject to some of the most ingenious cartwheels in the history of exegesis. I assume that this because we are especially keen to explain away passages that indict us for our own sinfulness, and many (or most) modern exegetes hold positions of privilege. Among the most creative explanations I have heard is the “kneeling under the camel gate” story, which–although I have done no first-hand research on–I am 100% sure is false. I think Jesus meant what he said here: Rich people (and that means you, if you have a device to read this on and an internet connection to access it with) are in trouble when it comes to the Kingdom. We shouldn’t explain this away as a story about wealth requiring an extra dose of personal piety as balance; that’s not what it’s about. Let Jesus’ words stand, as difficult as they are.

Maybe You Should Think About: How can we be Christians in the wealthy West? Is it possible?


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