2nd Sunday of Lent
(Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps 22:23-31; Rom 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38)
God and Abraham are the parties to the second major covenant in the OT. Just as the covenant between God and Noah had a sign, the rainbow, here circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. Unlike the first covenant, however, the scope of the covenantal relationship has narrowed from all life and the earth to the life of Abraham and his progeny. He will become “the ancestor of many nations.” And although the covenant with Noah made no demands on Noah, here Abraham is charged to “walk with me [God] and be trustworthy.” (“To walk before/with God” is a metaphor for living a just and righteous life.)
Psalm 22: 27-28 affirms the importance of the nations. The poet highlights the reciprocal relationship between God and people. Whereas “Every family among all the nations will worship you [God],” “the Lord rules all nations.” God has chosen a particular lineage for a new covenantal relationship but, at the same time, God honors the importance of all people. Another writer puts it this way, “In you [Abraham] all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
Paul emphasizes the importance of Abraham as one who showed that “righteousness comes from faith” (Rom 4:13). His faith in God’s promise to him and Sarah was “credited to him as righteousness.” In that way, he was, to use the language of Gen 17, trustworthy and walking with God.
The lection in Mark seems unrelated to the texts involving Abraham, the nations, and the life of faith. Perhaps the key connection may be discerned when one observes that the word, “life,” appears four times in Mark 8:35-37. God had given new life to Abraham and Sarah in the form of their son Isaac. The gospel writer insists that new or real life is something that one can gain only after losing an earlier life and gaining a new one by becoming a follower of Jesus. Anyone who reads these verses confronts the two questions. The answer to the first one (v. 36) is probably “Nothing.” The answer to the second one ‘What will you give in exchange for your life?’ (v. 37) is less clear. How would you answer this question?
Earlier verses in the Marcan reading provide the basis for that new life: Jesus’ suffering, rejection, death, and rising. And it is to this plan that Peter objects—he doesn’t think it makes sense for the Son of Man to undergo such a fate. Jesus responds by telling Peter that he is speaking from a human perspective whereas Jesus is living out of a divine vantage point. To think about “human things” will lead to the losing or forfeiting of one’s life whereas to think about “divine things” will allow a person to find a full life as a follower of Jesus.
Before God began to create, there was water. Later, that same primordial water returns in the form of a destructive flood. After Noah, his family, and the animals survive the flood, God announces the creation of a covenant with that family, their descendants, and all animal life. God promises to all such life and even the earth that there will never be another flood designed to destroy all life and the earth. (Later apocalyptic writers will imagine a cataclysm fire.)
Just as there is a “sign” of the covenant made between God and Abraham—circumcision (Gen 17:11)—so too the covenant with Noah involves a sign, “my bow in the clouds.” This bow is almost certainly a rainbow, which Ezekiel knows as “the bow in a cloud on a rainy day” (Ezek 1:28)—a different sort of water. The word “bow” is regularly used in the Old Testament to refer to a military implement (e.g., Zech 9:10). Remarkably, the writer in Genesis has imagined the pacification of this weapon: from battle bow into rainbow. God has turned the strung bow into a diaphanous and multi-hued arc in the sky. God has turned away from destruction to peace. God the destroyer has become God the preserver. Such is the purport of this first biblical covenant.
As one moves to the New Testament lections, water remains important. These verses in Mark 1 recount the baptism of Jesus, an act now celebrated in the Christian sacrament of baptism. Mark’s account is striking when compared with those of Matthew and Luke. The latter gospels speak of the heaven(s) opening. Mark, in contrast, reports that “he (Jesus) saw the heavens torn apart.” The baptismal scene is no ordinary moment. The sky is ripped open, recalling the moment hoped for in the book of Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” (Isa 64:1). That time of cosmic disruption has now taken place with the baptism of Jesus. The power of the baptismal waters has triggered this response in the heavens.
The writer of 1 Peter reflects on the power of this baptismal water and relates it to the time of the flood. He writes that “eight persons [Noah and his family] were rescued through water.” The waters of the flood here become, in this Christian reflection on the flood story, a means of which salvation takes place. The author then moves to the practice of baptism, which he deems to have been “prefigured” by the salvation of those who survived the flood: “Baptism is like that. It saves you now.” Just as Noah was “rescued through water” (CEB), Christians are saved by means of baptismal waters. The primordial waters, which had once been a tool of destruction, have become a means of grace.
Readings for Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17/Isa 58:1-12;
2 Cor 5:20b-6:10;
With the exception of the reading from 2 Corinthians, the lections for Ash Wednesday in 2021 draw on the world of religious practices from both ancient Israel and the Greco-Roman world. They refer to the rituals of fasting, sacrifice, praying, almsgiving, mourning (tearing one’s clothes, wearing sackcloth, and sitting on ashes), and purification. Though it is difficult to generalize about such a wide variety of rituals, they are practices that, for the most part, could stand apart from the calendar-based rituals such as the Sabbath or feasts such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah. (To be sure, both prayers and sacrifice were part of practices on the Sabbath and fasting took place on the Day of Atonement.) One lamented when suffering from an illness, the death of a family member, or a terrible life experience. One fasted at times of national distress or catastrophe. One sought purification at moments when an individual had become ritually unclean. One could give money at any time to someone who was in need. There is therefore, a certain flexibility in such practice (though not so much for rites of sacrifice and purification, for which there were written rules).
The poems preserved in the books of Isaiah, Joel, and Psalms attest to striking creativity in thinking about these rituals. Isa 58:6-7, “Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice….to share your bread with the hungry…?” challenges those in the community to stop fasting while they are oppressing their fellow Israelites, (v. 3). When the Psalmist (51: 16-17) claims that God has no delight in sacrifice and affirms that “The sacrifice that is acceptable to God is a broken spirit//a broken and contrite heart…,” he is provoking deep reflection about the human heart and a plea for God to “create in me a clean heart.” When Joel (2:13) calls the people to return to God “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning,” he also tells them to “tear your hearts and not your clothing.” These writers are encouraging others in the community to think expansively about these rituals.
The gospel reading, written in prose, represents less of a rethinking about the rituals of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting than it does about a concern for the way they are practiced. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6), the Matthean Jesus affirms the practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, “whenever you…” (vv. 2, 5, 16). But he wants to make sure that those who enact them receive their “reward,” which comes from their Father, not from those in the community who might be watching them. These acts should be done quietly, without calling attention to the practitioner. God, who “sees in secret” (4, 6, 18) will then reward the worshiper, presumably in the form of “treasures in heaven” (v. 20).
David Petersen is Franklin N. Parker Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Emory University. While at Emory, he was also Academic Dean at the Candler School of Theology, where he received the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award.