Pentecost 21B (21 October 2012)



  • Job 38:1-7, (34-41) and (or Isaiah 53:4-12 & Psalm 91:9-16
  • Hebrews 5:1-10
  • Mark 10:35-45


First Reading: God replies to Job

This week’s excerpt from Job takes us into the long-awaited divine response to Job’s complaint. The speech extends from 38:1 to 42:6, with Job having almost nothing to say in response to God:

  • 38:1-40:2 First divine speech
  • 40:3-5 Job’s first response
  • 40:6-41:34 Second divine speech
  • 42:1-6 Job’s second response

Job 38 is a fine example of the natural sciences in the late first millennium BCE. We are given a catalogue of cosmic processes and phenomena that were understood as signs of God’s unparalleled power over creation, and all creatures. This is not to be taken as a timeless benchmark for human knowledge of the natural world, but as a conscious drawing on the best current information for theology. The challenge for the contemporary theologian is to make similar use of our own best knowledge, rather than to fight yesterday’s battles in defence of empty castles.

The divine speech begins with a theophany: God answers out of a whirlwind. This is reminiscent of other biblical theophanies:

  • Exod 3 (Moses at the burning bush)
  • Exod 19 (giving of the Law at Sinai)
  • 1 Kings 19 (Elijah at the cave)
  • 2 Kings 2 (ascension of Elijah)
  • Ezek 1 (chariot vision)
  • Psalm 83, 97, 104, etc
  • Isa 29:6
  • Jer 23:19

Nahum 1:3-6 may reflect a similar tradition to what we find in Job 38:

The LORD is slow to anger but great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. 1:4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, and he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither, and the bloom of Lebanon fades. 1:5 The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. 1:6 Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces.

The divine speech does not directly address Job’s complaint. His troubles are never explained. It seems sufficient for the author that the clearer vision of God’s reality makes everything else fall into place. The awesome reality of God glimpsed in the splendor of the cosmos does not resolve human questions of meaning and justice. However, a vision (or even a glimpse) of the sacred Other may frame those questions with a sense of our own vulnerable and yet essential place in the web of life. That may suffice to allow us to continue living faithfully even if we never cease to wrestle for both meaning and justice.


Suffering Servant

The RC and ECUSA lectionaries both draw on Isaiah 53 with its famous description of the suffering servant of Yahweh. This theme will link well with both the reading from Hebrews (a son who learns obedience through suffering) and Mark (can you drink my cup or undergo my baptism?).

Isaiah 53 is one of a series of “songs” in the second half of the book that seem to describe the community of ancient Israel as a suffering servant, destined for great things and with a mission to illuminate the nations with the light of the sacred Torah.

There is some debate about the number and exact delineation of these servant songs, but the following passages seem to work with the theme of “servant” as a way to explore the meaning of Israel’s existence:

  • Isa 41:8-16
  • Isa 42:1-9
  • Isa 49:1-6
  • 50:4-11
  • 52:13-53:12
  • 61:1-4

The four passages underlined are those usually recognized as the Servant Songs of Isaiah.

Early Christians understood these texts are prophecies of Jesus. While it is not certain that Jesus himself drew on these texts to understand his mission, it is clear that his followers did so. The passage used this week seems closely connected to the Jewish tradition of the innocent victim that shaped the early telling of the passion narrative.

After many centuries, they continue to evoke the ideal of a non-violent mission to share the divine Torah with all humanity.



Second Reading: A high priest in the order of Melchizedek

The RCL moves to the distinctive representation of Jesus as a priest in Hebrews 5.

There is no historical basis for the way that this author has re-imagined Jesus in terms that were familiar and significant to himself and his community. Only in Luke’s infancy traditions do we get the slightest hint that Jesus was connected with priestly circles, and then only by inference since his supposed cousin, John the Baptist, was the son of a priest. The twin birth narratives of John and Jesus that we find in Luke 1-2 are clearly the creation of the author and do not provide any reliable information about the social status of Jesus’ family.

The priestly Jesus of Hebrews is just as much a creative fiction as the well-connected Jesus of Luke-Acts. In Hebrews, Jesus is not simply a priest, but a High Priest; and not merely a human High Priest, but a divine figure in the “order of Melchizedek.”

There are three passages in Hebrews that develop this link to Melchizedek:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek … [Heb 5:7-10]

This “King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him”; and to him Abraham apportioned “one-tenth of everything.” His name, in the first place, means “king of righteousness”; next he is also king of Salem, that is, “king of peace.” Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever … [Heb 7:1-3]

It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of him, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” [Heb 7:15-17]

The origins of this line of thought are to be found in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110:

And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.  He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth;  and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave give one tenth of everything. [Gen 14:18–20]

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.” [Ps 110:4]

This rudimentary tradition was elaborated in Jewish texts as diverse as the Qumran scrolls and Philo of Alexandria, extracts from which are available here: Melchizedek.

Gospel: Status in the kingdom

The Gospel reading from Mark continues the “master class” in discipleship that is found in Mark 8:31-10:52.

In this case, the disciples are portrayed as still failing to understand the character of Jesus and their own parts in the Kingdom. Their inability to see beyond opportunities for personal benefit serves as a teaching moment for the narrator.

Jesus has come with a destiny. He must drink the cup prepared for him, just as others will in their turn. And he must undergo the baptism that is reserved for him and for those who are his disciples.

The cup symbol will recur in the Last Supper (Mark 14:23-25) and in the solitary prayer vigil in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). The symbol of Jesus’ baptism (now understood in a metaphorical sense, rather than as an allusion to his baptism by John the Baptist) is less familiar, but presented Mark’s readers with the challenge to remain faithful to their suffering master as they went through their own personal and communal baptisms of suffering.

Mark then presents a classic text on servant leadership, with repeated use of the term “deacon” —

whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant [diakonos],
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave [doulos] of all.
For the Son of Man came not to be served [diakonethenai] but to serve [diakonesai],
and to give his life a ransom for many.


One of the recent signs of new life in the churches has been the recovery and revival of the diaconate as a distinctive and significant ministry. Despite the pious imagination of Hebrews, Jesus was not a priest. He is not even described in the NT as a bishop [episcopos], although he is called a shepherd. Is it possible that the authentic and distinctive Christian ministry role, is neither bishop nor priest, but deacon? This is a role without pretensions to status or power, being defined by its role in preparing for the meal of the gathered community. In the “kingdom of nobodies” that constitutes the empire of God, what better model for leadership?

Jesus Database


Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:


Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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