Lectionary Commentaries for October 5, 2014
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46

Emerson Powery

What should proper care of a vineyard look like? What should tenant farmers who lease the land give back to the one who owns all of the land?

Jesus used another parable with another landowner as one of the chief characters (cf. 10:25; 13:27, 52; 20:1, 11; 21:33; 24:43) who cared for another vineyard (cf. 20:1; 21:28) to make his point. Distinctive to this parable was Jesus’ clear allusion to Isaiah’s own parable about a love-song for a planted vineyard (cf. Isaiah 5). In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus tied together broader themes in order to critique the temple leadership responsible for proper care of the people of God, Israel.

This is the third response to the temple leadership’s query about the origins of Jesus’ authority for his temple activity (cf. 21:12-46). First, Jesus offered a counter-question on the authority of John’s baptism, which the leaders failed to answer directly because of their fear of John’s public reputation (cf. 21:23-27). Second, Jesus told a parable about “two sons,” an explanation that directly challenged this leadership’s understanding of God’s activity in the world (cf. 21:28-32). Third, Jesus recalled and re-interpreted Isaiah’s love-song about a vineyard (cf. 21:33-46).

The allusion to Isaiah was unmistakable (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7). The prophet made clear that the vineyard was a metaphor for the “house of Israel and the people of Judah” (cf. Isaiah 5:7). And, in Isaiah, God was the caretaker of this vineyard. Despite careful attention from the vinedresser (cf. Isaiah 5:4), the vineyard produced only “wild grapes.” The vineyard’s failure to produce better fruit forced the owner to remove his attentiveness (cf. Isaiah 5:5-6). If the land was unable to produce with proper care, what would it do without it?

In Jesus’ parable, the “produce” was fine, but the delivery system was malfunctioning. The problem was not with the vineyard’s production but with the tenants themselves. These were extremely violent tenant farmers, harming and slaughtering the various groups of slaves sent by the landowner. The rationale for their brutality and murderous ways was stated explicitly when the son visited: “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance” (21:38).

On the surface, the landowner’s decision to send his son in light of the tragedy of his servants seemed unwise (cf. 21:37). But, Jesus’ parable did not highlight this act as foolish; this was not the parable of the foolish landowner. Rather, in an honor and shame culture, the landowner’s decision to send his son as emissary was appropriate since he could expect proper respect for his appointed heir.

Culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience in the first century. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over (a portion of) the crop (cf. 21:34). Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary.

In reality, many in Jesus’ audience would have understood the experience of the farmers all too well. If they chose not to “pay” the landowner, as was the case in Jesus’ parable, the landowner would find new tenants (cf. 21:41) without doubt. So, Jesus’ story highlighted the landowner’s patience in this regard and, perhaps, a certain kind of naiveté.

In addition to Jesus’ parabolic twist on Isaiah’s vineyard, Jesus provided a citation from Psalm 118. His scriptural citation shifted the focus of the parable altogether, from a critique of the tenants/leadership (in the parable) to a statement about the son/stone (in the scripture citation). The story was no longer about the vineyard, the produce, or the tenant farmers. Now, Jesus turned attention toward the abused son: “they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (21:39).

For Matthew, this twist was a Christological one in which the abused son became “the stone that the builders rejected” (21:42), which, in turn, determined who was in or out (cf. 21:44). The son who was sent (21:37) must be an allegory for God’s son, Jesus (cf. 3:17; 17:5). The tenant farmers, who represented the temple leadership, would be replaced by other tenants (21:41). And, what looked like a landowner’s naiveté was really God’s plan: “this was the Lord’s doing” (21:42).

In Matthew’s account, the temple leadership realized the parables question their leadership abilities (cf. 21:45), over the vineyard (i.e., Israel, the kingdom of God; cf. 21:43). Yet, their inability to act, despite their anger, was due to the crowds again (cf. 21:46), as it was with their assessment of John’s role (cf. 21:26). In both instances, the leadership’s concern was that the crowd viewed both figures as prophets (cf. 21:26, 46).

One other note on the “landowner” is in order. The term may be translated, preferably, as “household master” (from oikodespotes) and was used a common analogy for God in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. It may reveal something about Matthew’s ancient setting. The Gospel of Mark never uses the analogy. To the contemporary reader, the analogy may cause concern, since many of these masters owned slaves in Jesus’ parables as in our parable here (e.g., 10:25; 13:27; 21:34; 24:45).

Within Jesus’ parables, household masters generally make wise decisions (e.g., 13:27-30), even if misunderstood (20:11-15). Why is God’s reign often compared to landowning activities? Is it simply Jesus’ theological belief that God “owns” all the land (cf. Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 24:1; Job 41:11)?

While this was a parable about the actions of evil tenant farmers, it was also a story about the abused son, especially once Jesus refocused the narrative with the attachment of a passage from Psalm 118.

Proper care and oversight of those people and things entrusted to us should receive fair hearing from this parable. We, too, are like those who wish to receive more credit for our labor, as if we “own” the “land.”

In Jesus’ teaching, there was a fundamental reminder that only the Creator owns everything and we, too, are simply tenants leasing out the talents God has granted to be used for the greater good in the kingdom.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

Terence E. Fretheim

The speaker is Isaiah (“my”; 5:1, 9); the prophet speaks in the first person for the first time.

The “beloved,” the owner of the vineyard, is God and the “vineyard” is Israel (5:7). After speaking 5:1-2, Isaiah quotes God in 5:3-6 and then returns to speak the balance of the chapter. For Isaiah to refer to God as “my beloved” is to identify himself as a representative of God’s beloved people Israel.


The image of a vineyard for Israel is used elsewhere (see 3:14; 27:2-6; Psalm 80:8-19); it is sometimes associated with the image of a bride with her beloved. This association is evident in the immediately prior book, where the loved one is likened to a vineyard (Song of Solomon 7:6-9; 8:11-12).


For Isaiah to use a vineyard image for the God, Israel relationship stands in that tradition; only now it is deeply ironic given the breakdown in Israel’s relationship with God. The love-song imagery sets up the audience to hear words of love, but words of judgment soon fill the room. It has been suggested that such a turn would be like singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” to the tune of “Let me call you sweetheart”!


Given this imagery, Isaiah 5:1-7 is best designated an allegory (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-6). But only in 5:7 are identities made clear and only then would the people see that the song is actually a harsh judgment on them. This strategic use of the love-song is to get them to recognize what they have done and to respond to God’s questions in 5:3-4 in a way that would be fair and just.


The beginning of the text is very positive. The vines are a high quality product. Israel is chosen by the beloved, with a high value as human beings. The land is fertile, with great possibilities for the development of the vines. The relationship between owner and vineyard is in good order. Indeed, the owner is very fond of his vineyard, works hard on its behalf, and has only the best intentions for its future.


The owner is God, the “beloved,” a word that carries high levels of intimacy. Love is basic to the identity of God and that remains intact through all the anger and judgment that follows. Wrathful judgment is a contingent divine response to developments within the relationship, not a perpetual divine frown.


The owner cares for the vines and contributes the best divine effort to their growth and development. This is backbreaking work. It includes planting, clearing, and making the best possible preparations for the expected harvest. One is invited to think through God’s activity on Israel’s behalf.


As with all farmers, God waits expectantly (and patiently!) for their development (two years at a minimum for a new vineyard). The building of a watchtower, hedge, and wall shows that the owner takes special precautions for the safety of the vineyard.


The owner has high expectations for the vines, that a great harvest will be forthcoming, that the grapes will yield wine to fill the prepared vat. This divine expectation carries the sense of eager anticipation and is emphasized by repetition (5:2, 4, 7).


The idea carries the sense that such a positive future for the people is not certain, even for God. Only with such an understanding of God can one speak of divine disappointment and frustration at the way things turn out (see 1:1-2).


What comes of this divine plan for the vineyard?


1. For all of the divine expectations, it is repeatedly stated (verses 2, 4) that the vines yield wild grapes or spoiled fruit, unfit for making good wine. In spite of the best divine efforts, things go wrong!


2. In view of these developments, God directly engages the vineyard regarding what has happened (verse 3). Apparently, God hopes that the people will discern what they have done and “judge,” that is, pronounce a verdict against themselves.


3. To this end, God asks two questions of the people (verse 4). These are not rhetorical questions or question-shaped accusations, but genuine questions, for both God and people. What more might God have done (see Hosea 6:4)? Why did this happen (see Jeremiah 2:29-32; 8:4-7), especially in view of massive divine effort? Such questions, with no readily available answer, even for God, constitute a divine lament that accompanies the following judgment.


4. God responds (verses 5-6) in language that anyone familiar with viticulture would recognize. The vine is useless if it does not produce and will be destroyed — typical for unproductive vineyards (see Ezekiel 15:1-8). The protective shields for the vineyard would be removed and all the forces that make for death and destruction (including marauders and weeds, referencing foreign armies in view of the larger context) would overrun the place, making it a waste (see Jeremiah 4:23-26).


But what do we make of God as the subject of these verbs of destruction? One, God works in and through historical agents who will “devour” and “trample down” (see Isaiah 7:23-25). These judgments are woven repeatedly into the verses that follow (see 5:9-10, 13-17, 24-30). Two, God mediates the natural effects of Israel’s wickedness.


The consequences are intrinsic to the deed, not newly introduced by God. At the same time, God remains the beloved of Israel. This destruction is not final, but a refining fire through which Israel must pass to enable a positive future.


5. Verse seven details the elements of the allegory: You (both Israel and Judah) are the vineyard! The issue for God becomes clear: an absence of justice (mishpat) toward the disadvantaged members of Israel’s society and a vacuum of righteousness (sedeqah) that neglects the word and deed of God in their treatment of others.


Israel’s injustice is particularized. The “bloodshed” refers to abusive practices that bleed the poor to death. The “cry” refers to their anguished response. These actions are “wild grapes” (detailed in 5:8, 11-12, 18-24). Notably, these texts link abuse of the neighbor to the neglect of God’s word and deed (see 5:12, 24).


6. This text may be profitably linked to New Testament texts that use agricultural images. An example: Jesus’ discourse regarding the vine and its branches, with expectations to bear fruit, and removing and burning those who do not (John 15:1-17). See also the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33-44).


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Callie Plunket-Brewton

The dramatic scene at Mt. Sinai signals the fulfillment of the promise made to Moses in his first encounter with God on this mountain back in Exodus 3.

“I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain” (3:12). That promise reaches its culmination in the revelation at Sinai, when God makes a covenant with the people and gives them the law to shape them into a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:6), a notion equivalent to the “kingdom of God” that we encounter in the New Testament.

The covenant at Sinai is made over the course of Exodus 19-24. Both the Decalogue and the so-called “Book of the Covenant” (20:22-23:33) are properly understood in the context of the covenant relationship between God and the people. Tradition places the divinely inscribed copy of the Decalogue (31:18; 32:16) within the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:1-5). Thus, the two tablets of the Ten Commandments are at the symbolic center of the people’s worship.

The laws are, in fact, symbols themselves. Their simple form does not lend itself to practical use. They are not case laws. There is no punishment attached to them, and they are not in the form “if X happens, then do Y.” When these laws do appear in such a format in other parts of the Old Testament, however, the punishment is death, which reflects the fact that transgressing the boundaries they establish was understood to be terribly destructive to the community’s health. Maintaining these boundaries was key to their identity and wellbeing.

While it may seem obvious that the Decalogue serves as a guide for the maintenance of communal wellbeing — stealing, murder, etc. are clearly not conducive to stability or growth — identity may seem to be outside of its purpose. They do, in fact, draw their identity from these laws and the covenant of which they form such an integral part. Consider the first four laws, which deal with cultic practices. These are based on their self-understanding that they are a people redeemed from slavery by their god (Exodus 20:2). Their practice of eschewing statues to represent God and limiting their worship to the adoration of YHWH is, in the context of the Hebrew Bible, of central importance to who they are. The people are to match God’s single-minded devotion to them with a single-minded devotion to God. Even the keeping of the Sabbath reflects their calling to mirror the character and actions of God. Unlike Deuteronomy 5:12, in which the basis for the Sabbath command is ethical, in Exodus 20 the observance of the Sabbath was to keep holy the day that God had consecrated at creation (v. 11, which is outside of the scope of the lectionary reading). Their actions were to correspond to God’s actions. Their character was to reflect God’s character.

The commands that govern divine-human relationships are linked to those that govern communal relationships in the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.” Many scholars note that the form — as well as the fact that the parental relationship often serves as a metaphor for the divine-human relationship (see Isaiah 1:2) — links the positively formulated first four commandments with those that follow. That is, the divine-human commandments are stated positively and the fifth commandment, which has to do with human relationships, is also stated positively. The commandments that follow are all stated in the form of a prohibition, “You shall not … ” It’s important, I think, to note that the structure of the Decalogue connects the laws that govern divine-human interactions with the laws that govern human relationships. Ethics thus find their grounding in the people’s religious experiences and vice versa.

The formal structure of the Decalogue, with the form of the fifth commandment clearly linking the two groups of laws, underscores the fact that the ethical laws governing human relationships within the community have the same overall purpose as the cultic laws: shaping the people’s identity and character so that they correspond with the identity and character of God. Each individual law — “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery” — is a means by which God will shape the people into a holy nation. God’s desire for justice forms the foundation for the laws that require the people to respect the lives and property of others.

It can be difficult to imagine how to preach from this story of the giving of the Decalogue so as not to sound as thunderous as God does here. I might suggest using a key word in the final verse of the reading as a starting point: “test.” At the conclusion of this reading, the people of Israel, overwhelmed by the awesome sights and sounds that accompany God’s delivery of the Decalogue, beg Moses to act as their intercessor. Moses responds: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” The theme of testing has become quite familiar to a reader of the narratives that track the journey of the people from their miraculous escape from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. It’s not a theme that we tend to associate with the Ten Commandments or the making of the covenant at Sinai.

There have been several other tests for the people as they’ve journeyed through the wilderness. They were tested at Marah, when God made bitter water sweet (Exodus 15:25-26), and they were tested in the wilderness of Sin, when they were given manna and quail to eat (Exodus 16:4; cf. 17:2). In each case, the test takes the form of instructions to be followed by the people. The exact nature of the instruction in Exodus 15 is unclear, but in Exodus 16 the test takes the form of directions for the gathering of manna. In both narratives, the tests enable the people and God to establish a closer connection with each other. The people learn from the test more of the nature of God — “for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exodus 15:26b); “you shall know it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 16:6) — and God learns more about the people: “In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not” (Exodus 16:4). It’s clear from these tests that obedience to the instructions of God is linked to the people’s reception of a blessing and the overall health of the community. This is not to say that there are strings attached to the blessings; rather, the blessings flow from obedience. The Decalogue, when viewed as a part of this series of tests that were to shape the people’s identity, is thus not only a series of laws but a fertile ground from which blessings and health and prosperity can grow from God.


Commentary on Psalm 80:7-15

Nancy Koester

Psalm 80 is a communal lament.

It seems have been written in response to a disaster, most likely the fall and exile of the Northern Kingdom.1 The lament is dire, yet full of hope. Repeatedly, it calls on God to “restore” and “save” (verses 2, 3, 7, 19) to “turn again” (verse 14) and “give us life” (verse 18). The Psalm opens with a plea to God, the “Shepherd of Israel” (verses 1-3) to restore the people. It names God’s anger as the problem, resulting in the suffering of the people (verses 4-6). There follows a plea for restoration (verses 7).

From there the Psalm blossoms into a parable of Israel as a vineyard planted by God (verses 8-16). In this retelling of Israel’s history, the vine flourished under God’s care and became a blessing to all around it. But something went wrong. God broke down the walls that protected the vineyard. Predators trampled the vines and ate the fruit (verses 12-16). The Psalm concludes with a prayer for Israel’s restoration (verses 17-19), asking that God may once more shine on the people and save them. The lectionary text includes both the plea for restoration (verse 7) and the parable of the vine (verses 7-15).

The theology of the Psalm is about God’s character. And here we meet a God unconstrained by the bonds of niceness. Here is a God of love who cares passionately how people respond to that love. Since God wants to be in relationship with Israel, it matters how Israel responds. Although God’s love (and not Israel’s response or our response) is fundamental, the human response still has consequences. As a lover, God has to “play the ball where it lies,” which is often amid the brambles and thorns.

At first God’s face shines like the sun, in life-giving warmth and holiness, giving the people life. That tender care is seen in God taking the vine out of Egypt; for no living thing is more vulnerable than an uprooted plant before it is transplanted into new soil. Such a plant is completely dependent on the gardener. So God cleared the ground for the vine and tended it. God’s blessing made the vine flourish and spread until it covered the land. This loving, tending, blessing God is what most people want to hear about.

Then the story takes a hard turn: God has broken down the walls of the vineyard, leaving the beloved vine to be ravaged by predators. What could be the cause of this sudden turn from the loving, protecting God to the angry God who breaks down the wall and turns away? Verse 12 asks why God has broken down the walls of the vineyard. Perhaps (as verse 18 hints) the garden is desolate because the people have sinned and turned away from God.

The preacher need not move too quickly to answer the “why” question. Part of the Psalm’s power, writes James Luther Mays, is its “anguish and bewilderment” over the “contradiction between what God began and what he has now done, leaving [the vineyard] exposed for strangers to gather the fruit of the vine and for wild animals to ravage the vine (verses 12-13).”

Put another way, if God is the problem, God must also be the solution. Thus “The prayer concentrates … on the one thing and one thing alone — the divine Thou.”The congregation must look beyond even its own repentance “to a kind of repentance of God — his turning away from wrath to grace.”2

One of the most intriguing things about this Psalm is in verse 14, where the Psalmist asks God to “turn again” or repent, and look with love on the people once more. For some the thought that God might change course, turn around, or repent, is disturbing. Yet the God of the Bible is emphatically a God in relationship.

And to be in relationship calls for continual adjustment, like sailing or gardening or parenting. If God cannot “turn” and “remember” us, then we are praying into empty space, changing our own minds perhaps but not communicating with anything or anyone beyond ourselves. There is hope in a prayer that asks God to “turn again.”

The image of God as gardener (vinedresser) and the people as the garden or vineyard is found in many places in the Bible, including two of the other lectionary texts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost. Isaiah 5:1-7 (often called “the song of the vineyard”) describes God’s relationship with Israel and Judah. This is reinterpreted in Matthew 21:36-46 (also Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19) in the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard.3

Psalm 80 may be used together with the first lesson and Gospel lesson as an enrichment to the biblical imagery of the vineyard. If used as the main text for preaching, Psalm 80 will easily support a three stage sermon:

1. Thanksgiving for God’s love in the past.
2. Naming our grief in times of loss or abandonment.
3. Confessing our hope that God God’s mercy will shine on us once more.

The message of Psalm 80 is expressed very well in a hymn from the Sacred Harp.4 The language is old, but the plea for renewal still rings true. In this hymn “plantation” means any farm or a planting and is not connected with southern slavery. Here each person and congregation is a plantation, in which the Gospel is planted.

Savior visit thy plantation, grant us Lord a gracious rain.
All will come to desolation unless Thou return again.
Lord revive us, Oh revive us. All our hope must come from Thee.
Lord revive us, Oh revive us. All our hope must come from Thee.

Keep no longer at a distance, shine upon us from on high
Lest for want of thine assistance, every plant should droop and die.
Lord revive us, Oh revive us. All our hope must come from Thee.
Lord revive us, Oh revive us. All our hope must come from Thee.


1 New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 998, 999.

2 James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 263.

3 New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 964.

4 The Sacred Harp, Denson Edition (Atlanta: Sacred Harp Publishing, 1991), 335.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

Christian A. Eberhart

During a recent tour of the Holy Land, Pope Francis was accompanied by Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud.

The three men embraced each other before the Wailing Wall (or Kotel, the remnant of the ancient wall that once surrounded the Herodian Temple). They had been working together to foster greater understanding between their religions. Their gesture at arguably the most sacred site of Judaism conveyed the message that peace between Jews, Christians, and Muslims is possible.

The message is much needed. We all know that tolerance or even friendship between different religions is not necessarily the norm today. That is why a text such as Philippians 3:4b–14, today’s lectionary passage, is no popular choice. It does not seem to display much respect toward Judaism. Indeed, too many people have too often read Paul’s words as an example of Christian superiority over Judaism. Yet this is no appropriate interpretation, as I will show.

However, let us first reflect on what Paul writes and provide some explanations. Our passage starts with autobiographical data about the apostle, who mentions his status and achievements within the Jewish tradition. In many cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world, one’s social status was determined by one’s honor.

Such honor could be ascribed honor, which refers to one’s status due to the reputation of family and ancestry. It is about who someone was by birth. People could obviously do little to improve their ascribed honor. On the other hand, honor could be acquired honor, which refers to the improvement of one’s social status through certain achievements.

Paul’s autobiographical data show that he was of enviable social status by either category. In terms of ascribed honor, Paul presents himself in Philippians 3:5 as literally an “eighth-day one” (Greek octa-hemeros) regarding circumcision. He is “of the people of Israel,” belongs to the tribe of Benjamin, and is “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” This means that, for those who cared about a person’s family and ancestry, there was no doubt Paul was a “pedigreed” Jew. As a true Israelite he was, for example, distinguished from Gentiles or God-fearers (non-Jewish sympathizers of, and proselytes to, Judaism).

In terms of acquired honor, Paul presents himself “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5–6). Pharisees were known for their affection of the Torah and strict law observance. Therefore, Paul had formerly persecuted the followers of Jesus (see Acts 9:1–2) because they, just as Jesus himself, propagated a somewhat liberal interpretation of certain commandments (see Mark 2:23–28; 3:1–6; 7:1–23; Acts 10, etc.).

Moreover, Paul had taken pride in his ethical blamelessness according to which he had gained righteousness. To summarize: “These seven characteristics of heredity and achievement reveal that Paul’s accepting Christ did not occur because he was marginally Jewish. He had not failed in his own religion” (Richard R. Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1991, p. 130).

In what follows, however, Paul states that he regards all attributes of ascribed and acquired honor as “loss” and even “rubbish” (NRSV, NIV; the Greek term skybalon can also mean “dung”). In the framework of the ancient Mediterranean world, the apostle was countercultural. He no longer strives for such “gain;” now his only gain could be Christ (Philippians 3:8).

In particular, Paul now rejects “righteousness of my own that comes from the law;” he hopes for the one “that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (verse 9). His new goal is the knowledge of Christ (verses 8, 10); knowing “the power of his resurrection” would help him achieve his own resurrection (10–11).

Paul concludes with another countercultural statement. According to his previous autobiographical data, he had clearly reached his goal, namely a respectable position of honor. Now, however, everything is different. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal … ” (verse 12; see also verses 13–14) is what he admits. He finds himself on the way, but that is no problem because the old order of honor and achievement no longer counts in the new eon of Christ.

However, does the stark contrast not amount to a denigration of Judaism? No, it does not. The reason is that we should refrain from seeing Paul as a representative of a different religion. Paul was a Jew who was hoping to bring a new vision to his own religion. His goal was reforming it, to some degree like many of the prophets before him had tried. His reform program followed that of Jesus of Nazareth. It is clear that several important parameters of Judaism, such as righteousness or Torah obedience, were being redefined or questioned along the way.

Yet these differences do not mean that Paul considered himself as the founder of a new religion. He stated that he was once a Pharisee. While this Jewish group believed in the resurrection of the dead, this idea was vigorously rejected by the Sadducees. Yet the Sadducees, who represented the upper economic echelon of Jewish society and oversaw the worship at the Second Temple in Jerusalem, were just as vigorously rejected by another group (perhaps Essenes) that withdrew to the Judean desert to live in a quasi-monastic community.

Now, did Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes cease to be Jews because of different opinions or life-styles? No. They all emphasized different aspects of the Jewish tradition. In the end, Judaism was surprisingly multifaceted (and still is today). The followers of Jesus belonged to the versatile phenomenon of Judaism in the first century C.E.; their attitudes, convictions, and practices should be interpreted in this context.

The fact that they recognized Jesus as their Messiah or gradually discontinued obeying traditional purity regulations means that they were scrutinized (and sometimes persecuted) by other Jewish groups. Despite such controversies, however, the followers of Jesus continued to belong to the diverse and complex religion of Judaism. We need to bear in mind that Christianity as a separate religion became manifest only towards the end of the first century C.E., well after the time of Paul.

The apostle’s personal reflections in Philippians 3:4b–14 would be misconstrued if understood as a general statement of disrespect of Judaism or conflict between two religions. Instead, they attest to the diversity within Judaism. Through his message of Jesus Christ and righteousness based on faith, Paul tried to challenge the traditional honor-based culture that dominated much of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Paul envisioned an inclusive society that was open to Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people, male and female alike; he endorsed a society that celebrated differences because all “are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The result was a passionate invitation not only to respect, but also to love and embrace others.