Lectionary Commentaries for October 8, 2017
Eighteenth 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?1

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.


1 Commentary first posted on this website on Oct. 5, 2014.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

Christopher B. Hays

It was one of the features of the genius of the Hebrew prophets to take an idea or a genre that was known to their hearers and put a different spin on it.

Here, the “love song” that the prophet introduces turns out to be something very different: A court proceeding in which the hearers are summoned to jury duty, to judge between God and his “vineyard” — the people of Judah. The motif of the divine court proceeding against his own people (Hosea 4:1; 12:2 [ET]; Micah 6:2) or other nations (Jeremiah 25:31) was a well-known prophetic trope modeled on human jurisprudential practice.

The case that the prophet presents is all about frustrated expectations. The text itself gives no particulars at all — it is entirely in the form of a parable, much like the story of Nathan accusing David of stealing Uriah’s wife Bathsheba with a parable about a stolen lamb (2 Samuel 12). This parable, too, is agricultural, told in images anyone from an ancient farming culture could understand: One puts so much labor and hope into a crop, and the frustration of not seeing the expected yields can be bitter.

For the prophet’s ancient hearers, this would have been even more true, since for most of them success in farming was a matter of survival, and because the land in most of Judah was challenging to farm. They did not live in the endless, fruited plains of middle America or the rich fields of the central valley of California. Their land was hilly and rocky, and watered mostly by rainfall alone. Even today, driving through Israel, one can see terraced fields on the hillsides, a testimony to back-breaking labor.

The farming imagery is only a metaphor, of course. In the background of this parable lies the entirely salvation history, the story of God’s saving grace towards his people: the Exodus, the Conquest, even creation itself (the removal of the protective hedge and wall are reminiscent of the removal of the boundaries for the heavenly waters that flooded the earth in Genesis 7:11; compare 1:6-10). This was a common form of reasoning on the part of ancient Near Eastern rulers.

Going back at least to the Bronze Age, in the period of the Hittite Empire, rulers would begin a treaty or covenant document with a recounting of their gracious deeds in support of the less powerful party to the agreement. In the case of the Bible, the book of Deuteronomy makes it clear that this was also how the ancient Israelites envisioned the Lord. This story was ingrained enough in the hearers that the metaphors alone would have done the work: the Lord gave them the land, cleared it for them, and made it fruitful.

Isaiah’s audience also knew all too well the wrath to which he alluded. The parable is addressed to the people of Jerusalem and Judah (Isaiah 5:3), some time in the late 8th century. The cataclysm of Zion’s destruction was still more than a century away (586 bce), but the fall of the northern kingdom and its capital Samaria in 721 was fresh in everyone’s mind.

The 8th century was a time of regional political unrest and instability that was quelled only by the onslaught of even larger and more aggressive empires, especially the Neo-Assyrians. Although most of the people of Judah were not involved in diplomacy and geopolitical machinations, they knew the existential consequences of bad decisions and bad leadership. Indeed, when Hezekiah angered the Assyrians and they campaigned to Judah in 701, Jerusalem survived, but the surrounding cities and towns were destroyed (Isaiah 36:1; 2 Kings 18:13).

The idea that the Lord worked his judgment through the agency of foreign nations was well established. As Isaiah says in 10:5-6, “Assyria is the rod of my anger — the club in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him.” The cyclical nature of Israel’s history — its apostasy leading to divine judgment was perceived by a historian who described the pattern in Judges 2:10-23, which reads in part, “They abandoned the LORD … So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them” (verses 13-14).

The final phrases of the “song” are artful poetry and point toward the message of this passage and the rest of the chapter. It says that God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; [expected] righteousness, but heard a cry!” The pairs of terms here sound nearly the same in Hebrew, differing by only a single letter in each case; the cleverness of this subversion of the divine will is reminiscent of the prophet’s enemies whom he describes as “wise in your own eyes and clever in your own sight” (Isaiah 5:21) and who “turn things upside down” (Isaiah 29:16).

The terms also unmistakably allude to the just and unjust treatment of humans by other humans: Instead of justice, the Judahites have been characterized by violence, greed, and deceit; the motif of “crying out” recurs in the Bible from the Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20; 19:13) to the Exodus (2:23-25; 3:7-9) to the origins of the monarchy (1 Samuel 9:16) to the social justice concerns of the Persian Period (Nehemiah 5:1). Time and time again, the Lord is said to hear the cries of his people and act.

In the case of Isaiah 5, the oppressors are not rapacious foreign empires but the very countrymen of the oppressed. The importance of justice in human society is fleshed out by the ensuing verses, which leave behind the agricultural metaphor and expand on the sins of the condemned people. Having been given everything they needed to flourish, the Judahite elite instead hoarded more than they need, forcing their neighbors out of their houses and off their land (5:8). Driven by unholy appetites, they overconsume and fall into debauchery (5:11-12).

Since the same transgressions are condemned by other eighth-century prophets (especially Amos and Micah), there appears to have been a genuine socio-economic crisis at the time. For this, the prophet says, the elites will not only lose the property they have unjustly seized (Isaiah 5:9-10, 17), but they will go, as it were, straight to hell — into the mouth of Sheol (5:14). This is one of the earliest instances of that image in the Bible.

For all its interpretive potential, the “song of the vineyard” has an elegant simplicity to it that prefigured some of Jesus’ parables, both in content (especially Matthew 21:33-41; Luke 13:6-9; compare 1 Corinthians 9:7) and in style. The British journalist Brian Redhead once charmingly commented that Jesus had been “brought up on Isaiah” — that is, that it had played a formative role in his childhood.1 If the account of Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue in Luke 4:16-21 reflects his sense of mission, then that may be true.


1. J. F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 4.

Alternate First Reading

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

Anathea Portier-Young

The words of the Decalogue are for many so familiar and even ingrained in memory that we can easily fool ourselves into thinking their meaning is transparent, a simple guide to life in communion with God and one another.

Yet the meaning of many of the “commandments” contained in these verses is ambiguous. Their simple imperative and apodictic formulations (“you shall” and “you shall not”) float above context, lacking the situational specificity of the case-laws found in the covenant code that follows in Exodus 20:19-23:33. Unlike biblical tort law, which frequently specifies procedures and amounts for reparation through restitution or compensation (Exodus 22:1-17), damages for injury (21:22-35), and punishment, including capital punishment, for criminal offenses (21:12-17), here no consequences are specified.

Instead, the case law and other instructions that follow the Decalogue elaborate the meaning of each commandment while also offering further guidance for life together. The book of Deuteronomy testifies that, in a later period, another body of legal and moral instruction took shape that revised, reinterpreted, and actualized these commandments and Israel’s covenant code for communities whose circumstances, ways of life, and interpretive principles differed from those of their forebears.

For these ten “words” (Exodus 20:1) to have enduring meaning for Christian communities, we must allow ourselves to be puzzled by their meaning, to dig into their context and complexity, and to own up to the interpretive lenses we use and moves we make in appropriating these words for our own faith and conduct. Only then can they challenge our complacency and invite us into shared discernment regarding what God asks of God’s people today.

In your preaching this week you might challenge your congregation to consider more fully some of the commandments whose ancient and contemporary meanings are not always so clear to us. I focus on the first commandment, but first examine the assertion of God’s identity that introduces and grounds the commandments that follow.

The identity God proclaims is relational and historical, tied to the people of Israel whom God led out of bondage (Exodus 20:2). This divine self-revelation is startlingly particular. It suggests that we who inherit this text cannot make any assertion about the identity and will of this God that does not begin with “Israel” and with “freedom from slavery.” The past here anchors present and future; knowledge of history conditions self-understanding and shapes group identity and conduct.

From this self-revelation follows the first imperative: “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Readers would do well to recognize that in its most ancient context, this verse presumes a polytheistic cultural environment. So far as we can tell, it even allows for belief in the existence of other deities and divine or semi-divine, supernatural beings that may exert agency and power in the world. Yet it mandates that for God’s people none of these other possible beings will be placed “before” God.

The meaning of that last short phrase, “before me,” is something of a puzzle. It literally means “against my face” or “beside my face”, possibly “toward my face”. What might this signify? Some have argued that, contrary to some interpretations of the next commandment, various references to the “face” of God in Psalms and other biblical texts belong to a body of evidence that suggests that early Israelites had a cult statue of YHWH.1

In this line of reasoning, God’s “face” before, against, or beside which there may be for God’s people no other deity would refer in part to the face of God’s cultic statue or similar symbolic representation of God in the sanctuary. The commandment would then prohibit reverence of other deities in the sanctuary spaces of Israel, including in the temple that would later be built in Jerusalem. This sanctuary was to be the fundamental point of orientation for God’s people. The house of God that is the temple contrasts with the “house of slavery” from which God freed the Israelites. They are thus called to turn aside from the powers and principalities that would endorse and even demand bondage and exploitation, and instead orient their common life toward one God alone: the God who frees slaves.

Language of “face” is also frequently used to signify the site of encounter and recognition that together make relationship and morality possible.2 The strong connection between encounter with God, identified as “seeing God’s face,” or meeting God “face to face,” and ethical relationship among humans is developed in Genesis 32 and 33 (see especially Genesis 32:30-31, 33:10) and in Moses’ reception of the law at Sinai (especially Exodus 33-34). With this symbolism in view, “before my face” takes on significance beyond simply orientation.

When Jacob met God “face to face,” he bore in his own body the wound of his encounter. But he was also blessed, and received a new name to signal the transformation he experienced (cf. the later transformation of Moses, whose “face to face” encounter with God will transform his own face, Exodus 33:11, 34:29-35). This encounter with God made possible his recognition of the personhood of his brother Esau, and from that recognition arose their reconciliation (Exodus 33:10).

The close linking in the Decalogue of relationship with God to the relationships among God’s people strengthens the possibility that this unusual prepositional phrase has a deeper significance. Allowing another deity or power to obscure or obstruct God’s face prevents encounter and recognition. It leads instead to misrecognition — falsely identifying God with powers that are not God, whether they be forces of nature, human inventions, temporal rulers, personified fears, or wish fulfillments. When these powers overtake the space between ourselves and our God, they prevent us from recognizing, encountering, and honoring one another.

As you prepare to preach this week, you might ask, is your congregation oriented toward the God who sets slaves free? What powers have crowded your sanctuary? How have other deities led us to misrecognize God and one another? Will we allow our encounter with God to transform our life in community?


1. See, e.g., Herbert Niehr, “In Search of Yahweh’s Cult Statue in the First Temple,” in Karel van der Toorn, The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 73-95.

2. Cf. the influential work of Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers and Duquesne University Press, 1969).


Commentary on Psalm 80:7-15

Paul O. Myhre

In the spring of the year, some farmers across America can be observed surveying their fields and considering how they will tackle the task of preparing the ground, planting the seeds, and nurturing the crop yet to be born.

Other farmers rely on computers with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology and a capacity to measure what the soil needs within a square meter. One ponders experience, while the other reflects on the numbers a computer generates. Each method can produce a harvest, but it seems to me that one has a higher degree of intimacy with the rhythms and cycles of nature than the other.

Maybe it is just nostalgic reverie for the days of my youth when I listened to farmers consider the decisions they would make about the processes of farming. Maybe it is an inner longing to join with the Amish in walking behind a plow horse guiding a plow over a patch of ground. And maybe it is something spiritual that inclines my mind and heart toward a tactile embrace of the soil and seeds — an olfactory longing to smell the humus of broken earth as I dig, plant, and trod over it. Whatever it is, there is something of an intimacy within the process of farming that doesn’t exist in the same way as in other professions.

Intimacy is something that develops over time. It doesn’t just appear. I have been married to my wife for over 35 years and we are closer now than when we were first dating. The trials of life — cancer, heart disease, miscarriage, death — coalesce with the triumphs of life — birth, daughters, first bicycle rides, graduations, accomplishments — and together the trials linked with the triumphs mark episodes or places where trust is tested, courage is measured, and hope’s depths are deepened. They represent moments in time where decisions are reached and memories are forged.

One of the curious things about marriage, in my experience, is that it gets better over time. The solace that emerges is unforced. It is something that grows like dandelions in the spring. It cannot be easily removed and everything around it can notice its presence.

In this Psalm the writer takes familiar images and weaves them together into a tapestry of reflections about the present state of the people of God and the seemingly absent God. The timelessness of the Psalm’s poetry lies in part for me in the efforts of the writers to somehow scratch words of truth born from life experience to speak about something that people collectively feel, but may not be able to fully articulate. The poetic flourishes hover over and burrow beneath the layers of experience people carry within them. They traverse spaces between spaces and suggest that the space is as important as the object that marks one end or the other.

Here is a writer faced with a conundrum. The God who is worshipped and adored is somehow missing in action. Where is the God who cared for the people of the past and made their ways clear, thwarted their enemies, and provided for them an abundance of the good things that life can experience? This God seems to be gone from the spaces of human experience. This God is touted as someone who acted in the past and may yet act in the future, but in the present this God is silent, invisible, and potentially impotent. The writer gives voice to what may have been a collective angst that permeated the culture in which the Psalm was written.

Too many hardships, too much anxiety, too many worries, and so on can tip the scales to cause people to wonder about the vitality and presence of God. The current war in Syria is one that can cause one to wonder about the presence of God. When innocent children are gassed with toxic chemicals by their own people a common cry can be discerned, “Where is God?” This refrain could be spoken in almost any global context of great tragedy. Even the small tragedies of life can push people to ponder the actuality of God’s presence and the apparent inactivity of God. One hardship is stacked on another, and they are stacked on yet others, and the person of faith might be driven to ask, “Is this all there is — one bad thing after another — and is God nowhere to be found?”

The Psalmist draws on the collective imagination of people well acquainted with the processes of agricultural life. They know the hard work involved, the hours of anxiety and concern meted toward a field yet to bear fruit. They are cognizant of various forces in nature that can undo the best laid plans and most carefully tended garden. With the smell of dirt in the air and feel of the air on their skin, the Psalmist invites reflection about the action of God as one who works as a vineyard farmer transplanting and nurturing vines to produce good fruit. Perhaps this metaphor works at a variety of levels and the poetry pushes hearers to consider some of those levels.

Farming as a vineyard, livestock, orchard, or row crop farmer isn’t something that requires the same amount of attention everyday. There are seasons for a high degree of activity and there are other seasons in which the vines receive the rain, spread their roots, give forth new shoots, and grow in the sun without contact from the farmer. The farmer is absent, yet the actions of the farmer are still evident. The vine is an apt metaphor for the people of God. The vine grows in relation the stimuli around it. It can be choked by unfavorable influences like weeds. It can be watered too heavily or too little and either rot or starve to death.

The directions at the outset of the Psalm indicate that this is to be sung to a particular tune — a tune that is unknown to us today. Singing the Psalm to your favorite song might be one way to bring the poetry to life. When words invite singing rather than speaking they have a capacity to take flight and soar in our minds like birds on the hot air currents of summer. Singing this Psalm in 4/4 time to the tune of your favorite song could bring a different type of engagement with its world perspectives and perhaps even a degree of intimacy with the ideas presented within it. They might viscerally connect with our own life questions and comingle to craft prayers to God for God to be an active presence in our life.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

Troy Troftgruben

In today’s reading Paul shares his own story as a paradigm. And readers today react to it in polarized ways.

Paul’s grounds for boasting (Philippians 3:4b-6)

Just beforehand, Paul asks the Philippians to beware of “those who mutilate the flesh” (this is advocate for circumcision as key to faithfulness), implying these opponents place undue confidence “in the flesh” (3:2-4a). In principle Paul’s churches place no significance on such externalities. But now Paul goes on to boast: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more” (verse 4b).

What follows are seven credentials, listed succinctly for rhetorical punch. Paul names many of these elsewhere (Romans 11:1; 1 Corinthians 15:9; 2 Corinthians 11:22; Galatians 1:13-14, 23; 1 Timothy 1:13). Most striking is the closing credential: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6). These words are situational, referring not to general “righteousness” before God (compare Romans 3:21-28; 7:7-25) but to Paul’s past Torah observance in line with Pharisaic interpretation. By this standard, Paul says his past record is spotless.

True credentials (Philippians 3:7-14)

Now Paul throws his past trophies out the window: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7). The words “gain” (kerde) and “loss” (zemia) conclude each respective Greek phrase, giving them emphasis. Paul then broadens the application: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (verse 8).

Paul deems these things “rubbish” (New Revised Standard Version), better translated “refuse” or “excrement” (skybala), since the strength of the word is hardly an accident (its only New Testament appearance). For hearers living in a world largely lacking effective sewage systems, real-life associations with this word came readily to mind.

Paul’s shift in perspective moves dramatically from a righteousness defined by the Torah toward “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (verses 8-9).

The virtue of striving?

At first read, Philippians 3:7-14 may seem to emphasize (Paul’s) human striving. But a closer look shows this idea mistaken.

  1. The verb “gain” (kerdaino) in verse 8 plays on earlier language (“gains,” kerde), not to emphasize human attainment, but to redefine true gain. An alternative translation is “regard Christ as gain.”
  2. Paul contrasts “a righteousness of my own” with “the righteousness from God based on faith” (verse 9), which is “through faith in Christ” (New Revised Standard Version, dia pisteos Christou). The last phrase may better be translated “[the] faith of Christ,” which places far greater emphasis on Christ’s faithfulness (so also in Romans 3:22, 26; Galatians 2:16, 20; 3:22).
  3. Many of the key verbs in Philippians 3:7-14 are passive, drawing attention to God’s work: “and be found in him” (verse 9), “becoming like him” (verse 10), “have already been made perfect” (verse 12, alternate New Revised Standard Version translation), and “I have been captured by Christ” (verse 12, my translation).
  4. Most of the verbs regarding Paul’s pursuits either are negated (verses 9, 12, 13), speak hypothetically (verses 8, 11), or convey merely cognitive and experiential acts (regarding: verses 7, 8, 13a; knowing verse 10; compare 13b). Just a few remaining verbs depict active striving on Paul’s part (verses 12-14) — activity that is ongoing and unfinished. These various verbs imply more about Paul’s shift of perspective (and subsequent energies) than his ability to achieve results.

In short, Philippians 3:4b-14 is not so much about human striving as it is about a radical shift in perspective, redefining what “true gain” is.

St. Paul the Arrogant?

Many find Paul’s extensive focus on his credentials and autobiography in this passage off-putting, if not arrogant. Why does he devote so much space to talking about himself? A few considerations help contextualize this.

First, Paul writes within the context of an established relationship. The Philippian believers likely appreciated the personal nature of Paul’s reflections, since it reminded them of their community founder — now at a distance. Modern readers, who lack this connection, naturally react differently.

Second, Paul writes about himself neither to inform nor to promote himself, but to instruct. Among Greco-Roman writers of this time, it was extremely common to refer to their lived examples as models for paraenesis (exhortation, encouraging others to action). Doing so not only gave concrete examples, it held authors accountable to persevering (see Pliny, Epistles 7.1.7). And so, to the Philippians, Paul’s self-reflections were far more culturally expected than cocky.

St. Paul the Passionate

In case you missed it, Paul writes passionately about his devotion to Christ. He uses rhetorical strategies to emphasize the “loss” (or “excrement”) of past trophies and “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8-9), names Christ by name often (verses 7, 8, 9, 14), speaks in personal terms about his relationship with Christ (verses 8, 12), describes the relationship using verbs at home in ancient romance literature (“pursue” dioko, “capture” katalambano, “have been made perfect,” teteleiomai), and longs passionately to “know” (here “experience”) Christ, his resurrection, and his sufferings — and thereby to be conformed with him in his death (verse 10). These are hardly reflections of an armchair theologian.

The passion and personal nature of Paul’s words reflect one who has known firsthand a complete life makeover and reorientation to a new Lord, for whose sake “all things” are now comparatively worthless. And so, Paul cannot but write fervently, personally, and lovingly about this new path and participation in Christ’s work — partially to instruct others, but no less to reflect authentically his own experience.

Paul’s words raise the natural question for us, as believers and church communities: What superficial “gains” has Christ shown to be “loss” for us?

In a world where the prevailing church culture may or may not look any different from prevailing business models or country club associations, where has knowing Christ compelled us to say “No” to cultural priorities in order to pursue relentlessly the things that truly matter?