Lectionary Commentary

November 15, 2009
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 28

Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly

See also: [Year B Archive]

Samuel 1:4-20
Samuel 2:1-10
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Once again, the sensitive preacher is presented with challenges as she creatively and faithfully interprets today’s lectionary readings to a contemporary congregation. How shall we interpret Hannah’s religiosity in healthy and spiritually edifying ways?  How shall we understand Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf in ways that avoid divine child abuse?  How do we respond creatively to apocalyptic passages in scripture, especially: 1) if we believe don’t believe in a literal Second Coming and 2) if we see our actions as key to the future of human and non-human survival?

Hannah is childless and her situation has led to shame and rivalry within her family system. Hannah is Elkanah’s favorite wife and Peninnah, his other wife, knows it. But, Peninnah is one up on Hannah; she has several children, including males, while Hannah is childless. According to the reading, Elkanah loves Hannah best even though the “Lord had closed her womb.” Such passages can’t be read without homiletical interpretation by the pastor: first, they connect childlessness with divine decision-making; second, they present an unusual “family values” situation – Elkanah has two wives!  This may come as a surprise to those who see the scripture as presenting only one vision of love and marriage. While this is not the main theme of the passage, the reading from I Samuel provides an opportunity to suggest that those who believe that heterosexual monogamy is the only relational pathway are ignoring biblical evidence.

The passage portrays Hannah’s prayerful ardor. Bearing a child is so crucial for her that she is willing to bargain with God. In fact, her bargain leaves Samuel’s agency and vocational decision-making entirely out of the picture. “If you give me a child, I will insure that he becomes an ascetic priest,” she bargains with God. While Samuel eventually became a great spiritual leader, Hannah’s prayer is more about what she needs than the flourishing of the child to be. One wonders what Samuel felt about his mother’s demand that he fulfill a certain vocational role. While we appreciate Hannah’s economic and relational plight, Hannah’s “spiritual narcissism” (interpreted through the lens of 21st century sensibilities) opens the door to the question: How shall we pray and what should our goals be in our prayer lives?  Are we committing a form of “prayer mugging” (to quote physician Larry Dossey) when our prayers focus on our desires for another person rather than their deepest desires and unique giftedness?

Some lectionaries list I Samuel 2:1-10 as an alternative to the Psalm of the Day. The words of I Samuel 2 describe Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving. Hannah’s prayer glorifies God, but it also contains some problematic material. “The Lord kills and brings to life” implies that God is the author of death as well as life. While mortality is part of the human condition, can we attribute specific deaths to God’s hand?  Further, do we need others to lose – our adversaries, the wealthy, those who already have children – for us to win?  We don’t know, for example, what Peninnah’s side of the story might have been: though she had borne Elkanah children, fulfilling her role in that male-dominated, patriarchal culture, her husband still preferred Hannah. She was an imperfect, flesh and blood person and her pain needs to be acknowledged if we are to read this passage holistically. While the mighty may very well receive their just deserts in the economy of earthly and cosmic justice, we can also imagine a world in which there is creative community between the wealthy and those who were once poor. Grace must embrace the oppressor as well as the oppressed if God’s Shalom is truly to be embodied in our world.
Otherwise, the oppressed will be tempted to become the new oppressors when the roles are reversed.

Hannah’s prayer begs the questions: Does God’s quest for justice demand the destruction of the wealthy?  Does liberation from Egypt demand the death of innocent Egyptian first-born children?

The passage from Hebrews describes Jesus as the high priest whose sacrifice liberates us once and for all. Jesus’ sacrifice unites God and humankind in such a way that we now stand fully and everlastingly in God’s grace. Assured of grace, we can reach out to others, individually and in our communities. In light of God’s gift through Christ, we are to commit ourselves to Christian community.

This passage also invites us to ponder the nature of divine sacrifice and explore alternatives to the sacrificial atonement theories popular among many Christians. Sacrifice is essential to healthy living and is embodied in every healthy relationship, but sacrifice – even that of Jesus – needs to be freely given and not ordained by God or demanded to satisfy the needs of divine justice. The power of Jesus’ sacrifice through the ages is in his truly free and faithful decision to live out his vocation as God’s healer, teacher, and savior. (See Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock’s Saving Paradise for a creative alternative to traditional substitutionary atonement theories.)

The reading from Mark asks us to consider the future of our planet. Written in the shadow of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, Mark 13:1-8 speaks of human violence and natural upheaval as foreshadowing the coming of the Son of Man  Today’s congregants know much about war and rumors of war and have witnessed natural disasters, but seldom identify them with divine activity or the end of history. How shall we read these texts, if we personally reject a violent Second Coming of Christ or the first-century world view?  Is the future destruction and re-creation of our planet pre-ordained?  As we look at our own precarious future, what is our appropriate response – passivity before fate or active engagement in the context of a dangerous, but open future?

Apocalyptic forecasts still intrigue us. Just last week, I saw a movie trailer, describing an upcoming film “2012,” related to prophecies from the Mayan calendar. People still try to interpret Nostradamus and Revelation as textbooks for the final days of Planet Earth. While taking these texts too seriously may lead to despair and passivity, they remind us of our personal and planetary vulnerability. We always live between the twin and contrasting poles of security and vulnerability.

With the possibility of planetary destruction on the horizon, Mark counsels us to “not be alarmed.” Destruction is not the final word for us or the planet. This is a challenging word, since many of us fear what the future will bring and see ourselves helpless in relationship to forces beyond our control. Although we may not expect a Second Coming or a divine rescue operation when the going gets rough, the gospel affirms that we can trust that God is with us, energizing us and calling us to life-saving and planetary-transforming action in our own perilous time. We are part of a larger Divine Holy Adventure in which our actions shape the future of the planet and our own futures. (See Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living.)

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor with Kate Epperly of Disciples United Community Church, a progressive, process-oriented, open and affirming congregation in Lancaster, PA. Bruce is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (a spiritual alternative for group and personal spiritual formation to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life) and the trilogy on ministerial spirituality and faithful excellence, Feeding the Fire: Avoiding Clergy Burnout, Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness, and  Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.

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