Lectionary Commentaries for October 12, 2014
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14

Lance Pape

Matthew’s parable about a wedding banquet gone wrong is a challenge for preaching.

We are rightly mystified by the behavior of the characters in this bizarre little story. An initial invitation to come to a feast in honor of the king’s son is met with rejection (verse 3). That’s odd (nobody turns down a royal summons), but not deeply troubling. A second invitation sweetens the deal with descriptions of the elaborate preparations (verse 4) — it’s going to be delicious! Who wouldn’t come to this party? But those invited are apparently unimpressed, and return to business as usual (verse 5). Again, this is unusual behavior — but it’s the kind of strangeness we have learned to expect in a parable.

But then things go completely off the rails. We watch in horror as the servants sent by the king to announce the party are seized, abused, and murdered (verse 6). We didn’t see that coming! How did the stakes suddenly get so high? And the weirdness and violence are just getting started. In retaliation, the king goes to war against his own people. Enraged by their actions he unleashes an army. Before we know it, the murderers themselves are murdered, and a city (presumably the king’s own city!) is a pile of smoldering ash (verse 7).

But it gets weirder still. With our heads still spinning, we learn that the dinner is still on (verse 8)! Now the invitations go out again, this time to commoners on the “main streets” of the (destroyed?) city (verse 9). Apparently, while soldiers pillaged and slashed — all the while as great flames devoured the buildings outside the palace walls — little Sterno burners toiled away silently under the sumptuous dishes in the great hall, keeping the meal hot for the eventual guests!

In other words, this is not a realistic story, and my first suggestion for preaching it is to tell it in such a way that the hearers are invited to appreciate its absurdities. No doubt this is a disturbing story — inflammatory, even. But perhaps we can get some perspective and even a little hermeneutical leverage by coming clean about the ways it strains credibility — even the special credibility we reserve for parables. With the stakes of realism lowered a bit, we can start to answer some questions.

Why is the narrative so tortured in its twists of plot? Because it is being constructed by Matthew as an allegory of salvation history. At the end of the first century, Matthew’s community finds itself in conflict with the synagogue down the street, and this story is a tool for thinking about the meaning of that conflict.

Note that this is not a matter of “Christians vs. Jews” — that kind of thinking would come later — but an intramural conflict within Judaism. Surely Matthew and his community understood themselves as faithful Jews who had responded to God’s summons to the kingdom banquet offered in honor of God’s Messiah, Jesus. But others had inexplicably rejected the great invitation, ignoring or persecuting both the prophets of old, and the new missionaries of this good news.

In Matthew’s world, a burning city would have called to mind Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE, interpreted here as God’s judgment on those who rejected the new thing God was doing in Jesus. An unexpected invitation to commoners on the main streets points toward the surprising ways the invitation to God’s kingdom banquet is increasingly extended to and embraced by those once considered outsiders.

But before we decide that this is just Matthew working out some rhetorical violence against opponents, and assuring his own community that they are on the right side of salvation history, we should read the story to the end: a denouement is coming, and it’s a doozy.

With the party in full swing, the king enters the banquet hall and moves among the guests. To his dismay, he finds that one of them is not dressed properly. “Friend,” he says, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe” (verse 12)? And receiving no satisfactory answer, he has the poor guy bound and thrown out — not just outside the hall, but into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 13). With “friends” like that, who needs enemies?

Again, we find credulity strained to the breaking point: of course the guy isn’t dressed properly — he was pulled in off the street at the last minute! But again, allegory, and not realism, is calling the shots here. Matthew warns his community against self-satisfaction. This king is no pushover, and if the new guests are beneficiaries of an unexpectedly generous invitation, they must nevertheless be on guard against the complacency shown by the first invitees. The doors of the kingdom community are thrown wide open, and the invitation extends literally to all. But once you come in, there are standards. You can’t go on acting like you are not at an extraordinary party.

But even if appropriate clothing is a metaphor for the need for appropriate behavior in the new, inclusive community, the parable may be saying more here than anybody expected — and the surplus will preach. Maybe Matthew originally intended this as a stern warning to live up to the rigorous standards of a higher righteousness (5:20, 48), but the story, pushed down and contorted by allegorical demands for too long, rises at the last to assert its own delightful possibility.

Within the world of the story as told, the problem with this guy is not that he is not taking things seriously enough. No, his problem is a failure to party. The kingdom of heaven (verse 2) is a banquet, after all, and you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program. The kingdom music is playing, and it’s time to get up on the dance floor. Or, as the slightly more sober, but no less theologically astute Barth put the matter: “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”1


1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 588, quoted in Jarvis, Cynthia A., “Matthew 22:1-14: Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2, Chapters 14-28, WJK, 2013, 186. Emphasis mine.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 25:1-9

Patricia Tull

Isaiah 25 celebrates divine faithfulness in soaring, lofty words, words too lofty for everyday reality.

Yet they inspire hope. Hymns of thanksgiving stand on either side of a prophetic description of a universal banquet hosted by God “on this mountain,” that is, on Mount Zion, where the temple stood.

The chapter begins with a communal hymn of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance from tyrants. The hymn gathers themes and language well known from the rest of Isaiah. The wording “plans formed of old, faithful and sure” recalls the divine plan, a frequent theme in Isaiah (see for instance Isa 5:19; 14:26; 19:17; 28:29; 30:1): the prophet claims that God’s plans, not those of political humans, will come to fruition.

The hymn also recalls language of faithful steadfastness that is found especially in prophecies surrounding the international crises faced by Ahaz and Hezekiah (see 1:21, 26, 7:9, 11:5, 28:16). The term “tyrant” is repeated three times in three verses (3, 4, 5). In Isaiah 13:11 and 49:25, Babylon was the tyrant. Here the lack of specific referents conveys the cycle of threat and deliverance recurring frequently in history, though the players may change. Hope is expressed here of final, decisive deliverance from tyranny.

Another theme prominent in this hymn that is familiar from earlier parts of Isaiah is the imagery of refuge found in verses 4-5. Here God acts, as in the Psalms, as “shelter” and “refuge” for the poor and needy (Psalms 14:6; 27:1; 28:8; 37:9; 46:1, etc.).

In the previous chapter, Isaiah 24, God was seen inaugurating divine reign on Mount Zion, attended by elders who saw God’s glory. This image harked back to the tradition in Exodus 24, in which seventy elders were invited with Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons to see the God of Israel on Mount Sinai, and to eat and drink in God’s presence, just before the stone tablets containing the commandments were given to Moses.

The only major element missing from Isaiah 24:23 was the meal. But here in 25:6 it appears in detailed glory. It is no longer on Mount Sinai, but on “this mountain,” Mount Zion. God prepares this banquet not only for the leaders, not only for the chosen people, but for “all peoples” and “all nations” — the word “all” occurs five times in three verses.

Here it is God who plans and serves the menu, described as very rich food and wine: choice wines, strained clear; sumptuous meats. Food is rarely described at length in Scripture; in fact, in prophetic books, descriptions of foods and banquets often accompany criticism of debauchery. In Isaiah 24, the wine had all dried up, along with mirth and joy. But here food, drink, and delight return on God’s terms, not as an occasion for social oppression, but in a spirit of celebration and harmony hosted by the one who created all foods. Mourning clothes are no longer needed, since the people are comforted. As they eat, God “swallows” both the shrouds (verse 7) and death itself (verse 8). Victorious over that most persistent foe, God wipes tears from all faces.

This “swallowing” recalls the story of the Canaanite god Baal found in the Ras Shamra texts at Ugarit. There the underworld god Mot (“death”) either swallows Baal or threatens to swallow him (the text is unclear), but is defeated. Their battle recurs year after year in the seasonal alternation between drought and fertility. Distinct differences from the Baal story appear in this biblical poetry: it is God who swallows death rather than the reverse, and this victory is not subject to repetition, but is sustained forever.

This verse does not yet reflect belief in the resurrection of the dead, which will come many centuries later. However, Paul employs it in his description of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:54. It is also paraphrased in Revelation 21:3-4. The grateful hymn that follows in verses 9-10a echoes the vocabulary of numerous Psalms (see for instance Psalms 35:9; 130:5; and especially 118:24).

The vision of the eschatological banquet hosted by God articulates some of Judah’s highest and most inclusive hopes for sharing its theological insights and its dreams of peace. It presents no program for realizing these hopes. Yet such attempts to envision the future cultivate readers who may embrace these dreams and seek their fulfillment. Such poetry helps raise humans above the vindictiveness to which we are prone.

Lofty poetry does matter. It may even change the world. For instance, the words of the American Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” have been reutilized several times to envision equalities that lay well beyond the imagination of its original writers.

These words were invoked in 1848 by women’s rights advocates in Seneca Falls, New York, who paraphrased: “all men and women are created equal.” They were invoked at Gettysburg in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln shortly after he signed the proclamation emancipating slaves, and again a hundred years later by Martin Luther King, describing his dream that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, that all are created equal.”

Such words that soar above human reality can help fuel change. The picture of a banquet attended by all nations — like the earlier, and similar, “swords into plowshares” passage (Isaiah 2:1-4) — feeds hope for peace among the earth’s nations. Beyond the bounds of the lectionary reading, the banquet vision is followed in verses 10-12 by a far less generous vision, a vision of Moab’s demise. This is discouraging. Yet these verses serve as a sobering reminder of the sad social realities that give rise to our loftier dreams.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14

Callie Plunket-Brewton

The people’s idolatry in Exodus 32:1-14 is difficult to read just a week after the lectionary’s had us reading Ex 20, in which God makes a covenant with the people of Israel and gives them the Decalogue to serve as the heart of that covenant.

The Ten Commandments established a powerful ethical bond between the people and their God and between the members of the community. And the basis for their bond was God’s redemption of them from slavery: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery … ” (20:2).

Between the dramatic creation of the covenant in chapters 19-24 and the breaking of the covenant here in chapter 32, God gives Moses guidelines for the production of the tabernacle, the tent in which God “may dwell among them” (25:8b), a powerful promise of presence and protection. There is so much that is exciting and hopeful in these chapters, which makes the events of Ex 32:1-15 surprising as well as terribly sad.

The plot is well-known. Moses is on Mt. Sinai with God where he remains for forty days. The people turn to his brother, Aaron, and, speaking derisively of Moses, demand that he make them gods: “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (32:1). Missing from this speech is any mention of God or of the covenant. God’s absence grows even more striking in their response to the golden calf: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (v. 4b) Thus, Moses is dismissed as “this Moses,” and the people’s history and covenant with God is cast aside to make room for a statue.

The wording of the people’s pronouncement about their newly minted god(s) makes use of phrasing very familiar to any reader of Exodus, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” but with one striking difference: the use of the word “gods,” which underscores the disloyalty in their actions and speech. These gods had nothing to do with their miraculous escape from Egypt. Indeed, even Moses is not the one who brought them out of Egypt, although he is the one they credit for that act in v. 1. YHWH is not mentioned by the people, signaling that they have betrayed their god and broken the covenant even before the objects that symbolize it — the divinely inscribed tablets of the Decalogue — make their way down the mountain.1

The ending one might expect to this narrative is one in which the people’s rejection is matched by divine rejection. That almost happens, except for the intercession of Moses, who reminds God of the promises to the people’s ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 13) — and even appeals to the public image of YHWH: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent the he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?’” (v. 12a) The speech is successful. Where God spoke of destroying “this people” in v. 9 — reflecting the alienation and distance between them — in v. 14, the text reads: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (emphasis mine). The possessive pronoun before “people” serves to connote the renewal of YHWH’s sense of connection with the people, although the actual renewal of the covenant does not take place immediately, and there is a period of time in which God’s presence with the people is at some distance from the actual camp, much to the people’s and Moses’ dismay (see especially 33:12-17).

The fact that the people’s rejection of YHWH and the covenant is not the end of the story is a testimony to the ancient Israelites’ experience of the grace of God. When we read 32:1-15 as part of the larger unit of Ex 32-34, we see that the narrative affirms that grace is central to the character of YHWH. The lectionary, limited to 32:1-15, focuses on the initial sin of the people, and then Moses’ negotiations with God to save their lives. Beyond these fourteen verses, we read of Moses’ reaction to the people’s sin (vv. 15-34) and then of the terrible alienation between the people and God (32:35-33:6), followed by moments of profound intimacy between Moses and God (33:7-34:9). The final scene describes the renewal of the covenant (34:10-28), a scene which includes God’s inscription of the commandments on a second pair of tablets. As the people experience the consequences of their actions, they find that rejection, alienation — in short, sin — do not get the last word due to the tenacious leadership of Moses and the willingness of YHWH to reconsider the initial impulse to destroy the people for apostasy.

There are many avenues a preacher might travel in preaching this text. The wonder of God’s willingness to forgive is a theme that bears repeating from the pulpit. I am struck, however, by the role of Moses in this narrative, especially his insight into the character of God, demonstrated in the words of his speech. In vv. 11-13, he speaks to God of the divine promises to the ancestors of the people, thus implicitly urging God to be faithful to those promises. He also speaks of the terrible waste represented in bringing the people out of Egypt just to destroy them. Granted, he puts it in terms of being bad public relations, but I think it is clear that Moses is reminding God of the tremendous investment God has made in saving the people. Thus, Moses serves to remind YHWH of God’s own character, a character spelled out in 34:6-7: “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness … ” It strikes me that the role of Moses in this reading serves as a model for the Church: to bear witness to God’s faithful compassion and to urge others to seek reconciliation with God and each other.


1 Aaron does speak of YHWH when he declares that the following day there will be a festival to YHWH in v. 5. It is clear however, that he is associating YHWH with the golden calf he has created. Betrayal and confusion abound.


Commentary on Psalm 23

Nancy Koester

Every preacher needs at least two sermons on Psalm 23: one for funerals, and another for ordinary time. Because Psalm 23 is so familiar, we’ll look at it in the particular framework of the lectionary texts for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Each of these texts show God as the giver, and people responding. This theme can move in a major or minor key, depending on the situation. On the gentlest side of the spectrum is the Epistle lesson.

In Philippians 4:1-9, believers are told: “do not worry, but … let your requests be made known to God.” Paul encourages believers to respond to God’s mercy by dwelling on what is good and worthy of praise. We are invited to “sit with” the mercy of God. And as we do so, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Paul wants the faithful to let our hearts and minds be shaped by God’s goodness.

Moving one step over on the scale is Psalm 23. Here a feast is spread in the presence of enemies and death, evil and fear. The response of the Psalmist is trust.

Next comes Isaiah 25:1-9. Here too God spreads “a feast of rich food” for all people. God provides refuge, shelter and shade. But this mercy is shown to a people defeated by ruthless enemies. Death and tears are real but God wipes them away. The response is praise: “let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Today’s Gospel lesson sits at the most disturbing end of the spectrum. Jesus’ parable of the King’s wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14) includes murder, mayhem and vengeance. Just when it seems like the story is going to get better, a wedding guest is cast into the outer darkness for violating the King’s dress code. Yet this text also begins with a king who gives a feast, but people respond with contempt.

For preachers who choose to focus on Psalm 23 on this particular Sunday, the combination of texts suggests at least two things. First, that God gives peace in the midst of conflict, life in the shadow of death. Second, the shepherd calls us to follow in a world where God’s mercy is often scorned. Walking in paths of righteousness for the sake of God’s name will put us at odds with the rest of the world.

We now turn to Psalm 23. The first verse states the theme, and the rest of the Psalm unfolds it. As James Luther Mays notes, the opening line makes a positive statement about God: “the Lord is my shepherd”; and a negative statement “I shall not want” (I lack for nothing).1

That response — I shall not want — immediately puts us at odds with our culture, in which we are conditioned to be consumers who always lack something. If people lived by Psalm 23 (lacking nothing because the Lord is their shepherd) our economy would collapse. To live by Psalm 23 would mean ignoring the constant barrage of messages saying, “you are unhappy, you need more stuff.” Psalm 23 resets that consumer mentality.

It also resets the hyper-activity of our lives, for the shepherd “makes me lie down in green pastures.” We can stop running. Beside the still waters the shepherd “restores my soul.” As one commentator put it, he restores my soul means “he gives me back my life.2

On any given Sunday some people come to church to have their souls restored — to get their lives back. Even pastors might feel this way. And so the Psalm invites us to savor and enjoy God’s gifts: food for body and soul, and a good path in life (verse 3).

Central to the Psalm is “I fear no evil, for you are with me” (verse 4). Evil is real, but God’s presence remains with us even in “in the valley of the shadow of death.” (The NRSV translates this “the darkest valley” but “the valley of the shadow of death” is more poetic and more powerful, calling to mind Job 10:21-22). Concerning the “rod and staff” (verse 4) some may ask whether these are two separate tools of the shepherd, or one tool with two functions. It really doesn’t matter, since either way, the shepherd protects and leads.

In verse 5, the metaphor shifts from that of the shepherd to the generous host. But here too, what counts is that God is provides and protects. How surprising that the table spread in the presence of enemies! It is hard to relax and be fed in their presence. Yet God invites us to the table, come what may and come who may. The Psalm promises that God is with us, anointing our heads with oil. Only a highly honored guest would have been anointed with oil. And the overflowing cup signifies the abundance of God’s love.

In verse 6, goodness and mercy do not just “follow.” They pursue. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, the Hebrew verb…has the more active sense of “pursue.” God is coming after the psalmist. The bad news is, we have enemies. The good news is, God has our back. Ordinarily in the psalms, it is precisely the enemies who “pursue” the psalmist….Here the enemies are present but have been rendered harmless, while God is in active pursuit.”3

Finally we come to “the house of the Lord” (verse 6) where the intimate, personal experience of trust in God leads to the community of faith.

Hymn: ELW 782 “My Shepherd, You Supply My Need.”


1 James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 117.

2 Adapted from George A.F. Knight, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1982), 116.

3 New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 768-769.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9

Christian A. Eberhart

Today’s lectionary passage belongs to the last chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.

It features practical advice for a life centered in Christ. This means that, in terms of contents, the audience should not expect anything new.

What Paul writes here is both a recapitulation and application of what he has already stated in previous chapters of his letter, as the attentive reader will notice. It functions like a well-chosen sending hymn: It reminds the congregation what the worship including its sermon was all about and provides a practical edge. In my commentary, I will reflect on the most important themes of this passage.

Paul encourages his audience: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). This sentence alone captures two key topics of the letter, namely joy and theological focus. As for the first, Paul repeats almost verbatim what he stated earlier in 3:1, and already there he admitted to being a bit redundant.

Indeed, Paul opened his letter with remarks that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4); he goes on to mention “joy in faith” (1:25) and wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). In chapter 4:1, Paul calls the congregation in Philippi “my joy and crown,” thus employing the term as a metonymy for what causes him to be cheerful. The list shows that “joy” is a central concept for Paul in this letter.

Is such a reminder necessary? Is it not somewhat odd to urge people to be joyful? This is probably true; however, if we could measure the “degree” of joyfulness in our Christian congregations, then we would probably have to admit that advice for more joy rather than less might be quite expedient.

We are too often focused on sin instead of celebrating that we are forgiven. We complain too often about the lack of holiness instead of remembering what we are as children of God. We are too often frustrated by feelings of weakness instead of being delighted about the strength of the Holy Spirit working in us. Yes, we too probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”

Which brings us to the second key topic of Philippians: theological and Christological focus. It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us.

Specifically, this joy is not the same as “fun,” and following Jesus is certainly not always “fun.” Just as Jesus, so Paul was countercultural. This was manifest in the fact that he was persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned. In the end, his faith cost him his life, as it did for many who believed in Jesus. This was not fun. Those who know Jesus have made this experience for the past 2000 years.

So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God and saved. It has to do with where the focus of one’s life is or, to employ a famous phrase by Paul Tillich, with one’s “ultimate concern.” The Apostle Paul could rejoice because he did not fear death. A few years before penning his Letter to the Philippians, he wrote to the congregations in Rome: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35).

The knowledge that Christ has overcome death gave Paul this certainty. This is what Tillich had in mind when explaining: “Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. Only those statements are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of being or not-being for us” (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology vol. 1, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967, p. 12).

The focus on Christ, however, also has immediate ramifications for the here and now. Paul advises: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5). Paul expected that Christ’s return was imminent, and this would have consequences on how people who believed in him would behave. For instance, they would “not worry about anything” (verse 6a), referencing what Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25). Instead, trust in God leads to prayer (v. 6b).

In addition, the theological and Christological focus help to overcome human disagreements.

Previously Paul had asked his audience to strive “side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). We may assume that such advice was necessary because different opinions prevailed among his audience. In 4:2, we now read (according to NRSV): “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” (A brief comment on pronunciation: The Greek name of the first woman should be rendered “Euhodia;” it is composed of Greek eu –“well” and hodos — “way, road”; thus euhodoo means “to go well, succeed.”)

This is proof that tensions in congregations are no modern problem. The focus on God is the best remedy when no longer ultimate, but preliminary concerns start to dominate our agendas. It alone guarantees “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (4:7) — and hence empowers us to overcome human differences.