Lectionary Commentaries for September 28, 2014
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32

Emerson Powery

What actually happened at the temple when Jesus entered Jerusalem? Why was the Jerusalem leadership so disturbed by Jesus’ actions and words? Was this the turning point in Jesus’ overall mission?

Many biblical scholars think this was the point in Jesus’ undertaking when the Temple leaders had sufficient evidence for the provocative nature of the prophet from Galilee, whose actions and words were, up until this point, unclear in terms of Jesus’ overall objective. His actions at the temple and the positive acknowledgement of the children, in particular, finally raised their ire. A lot becomes clearer in this account when the religious leadership questioned the origins of Jesus’ authority.

Prior to our passage, the narrative provided an important episode to help interpreters understand the rising, significant tension between Jesus and the Jerusalem leadership. In this prior scene, the day following Jesus’ activity in the temple area, Jesus cursed a fig tree (cf. 21:18-22). Even though Jesus turned this odd action into a lesson about faith for his disciples, the “fig tree” was understood as a significant symbol as well.

In fact, Mark sandwiched the temple event with the fig tree story (cf. Mark 11:12-14 and 11:20-26); Matthew omitted Mark’s narrative technique and only included the segment following Jesus’ temple action. Yet, Matthew’s narrative connection still seems clear. The cursing of the fig tree had something to do with Jesus’ actions in the temple precincts.

In the tradition, a cursed “fig tree” symbolized judgment on the people of Israel (cf. Jeremiah 8:13; 29:17; Hosea 2:12; 9:10). In the immediate narrative context, however, the critique appeared to be directed at the leaders of the temple specifically (cf. Matthew 21:15, 23), not against the people as a whole. In fact, the crowds encountered Jesus’ activity favorably, as the children attested (21:15).

It was the children’s song that caused the leadership to get angry, because their words (i.e., “Hosanna to the son of David”) linked messianic tunes to Jesus’ actions. This would cause alarm since the Jerusalem leadership would not want trouble from Rome. Also, Jesus parables, in response to the query about his authority, were directed at the “chief priests and the Pharisees” (cf. 21:45).

In addition, Jesus’ return to the temple to teach, on the following morning, suggested that neither his temple challenge nor the cursing of the fig tree intended to symbolize a destruction of the temple or its practices. Rather, Jesus desired to restore the temple to its proper function. [Some scholars would suggest that Matthew’s literary structure, when compared to Mark’s, may actually distance the association of the fig tree from the temple, its leadership, or the people Israel altogether.]

On the origins of Jesus’ authority, the central concern of our passage, the key to Jesus’ response was his association with John the Baptist (21:24-27). By using John’s baptism as a counter-question, Jesus indirectly correlated his “authority” with John’s own, something he had earlier alluded to as well (cf. 11:7-19).

Plus, Jesus participated directly in the baptizing program of John (cf. 3:1-17), despite John’s apparent reluctance (cf. 3:14-15). Their rejection of Jesus was simply an on-going denunciation of the prophetic tradition of John, of which Jesus was a central figure (cf. 21:32). But, since they did not answer his query directly, Jesus refused to answer theirs.

The issue of “authority” (verse 23) has been a theme in the Gospel of Matthew from the beginning (cf. 7:29; 9:6, 8) and acknowledgement of Jesus’ authority (from God) will be crucial for an effective discipleship follow-up program: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (28:18-19). A rejection of John’s and Jesus’s authority may also be a future sign for the general reaction of the discipleship program in Jesus’ name.

Jesus’ second (indirect?) response to the query of the temple leadership was to tell a parable, traditionally called the “Parable of the Two Sons” (Matthew 21:28-32). This story was unique to the first canonical Gospel. In this particular case, Jesus provided an allegorical equivalent for the two “sons”: the tax-collectors and prostitutes, on the one hand, and the chief priests and elders, on the other hand.

Jesus considered both groups of people God’s children. But their actions, not their words, determined the true children, that is, the ones most willing to participate in the father’s business. In the allegory, Jesus equated involvement in the father’s vineyard with recognition of John’s baptism as a sign of God’s authority. Finally, to do God’s will was to put a disciple in close association with Jesus (12:50; cf. 7:21).

One note about the “tax-collector” is in order. Culturally, they function more like toll-collectors at city gates or on prominent roadways collecting the “tax” of traders bringing external goods into the city. The general cultural antipathy (?) toward them was because these collectors provided this service on behalf of Rome, the foreign ruling authority. Even a sampling of the passages in Matthew will make clear a general cultural feeling toward them. Throughout the narrative, they were associated with “sinners” (cf. 9:10-11), “Gentiles” (cf. 18:17), and “prostitutes” (cf. 21:31-32). Yet, Jesus shared meals with them (cf. 9:10-11), even selecting one to be included in the Twelve (cf. 10:3).             

What’s the Spirit trying to say to us? Is there something about Jesus’ authority — and his hesitancy to express it — that is worth discussing? Are we more like the religious authorities in our attempts to “manage” any new activity “God” may be up to? How do we test the spirits?

Is there something special about the radical nature of those who accept God’s will? The “son” most expected to understand and do God’s will — the religious leadership — fail to appreciate God’s activity in the agents of John and Jesus, while the “son” least expected to understand and do God’s will — that is, the one most culturally despised by the rest of us — acknowledge God’s work in John’s baptism and message.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Margaret Odell

The word that comes to the prophet Ezekiel in today’s lesson is an argument between God and the exiles.

Having listened in on the exiles’ talk, God asks Ezekiel what their use of a proverb might mean: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The exiles are “proverbing a proverb,” either applying an existing saying to their present situation, or creating a new one. Its meaning is clear: children suffer from their parents’ mistakes.

As proverbs go, this one is memorable if only because it rings so true. Who has not mourned a parent’s limitations, or struggled against some lingering psychic injury from childhood? What the exiles mean by applying it to themselves is the problem. Not only does it allow them to blame others for their current plight, it also obscures the particulars of the current emergency.

While it is certainly true that the Babylonian exile is the end result of a long series of rebellions (as Ezekiel will argue elsewhere), it is the current rebellion that now jeopardizes the kingdom of Judah. One is reminded of David’s blasé remark on learning the news of Uriah’s death in battle: “Do not let this matter trouble you; the sword devours now one, then another” (2 Samuel 11:25).

According to David, Uriah has died because war happens, not because David has had anything to do with it. Similarly, by identifying with the children in the proverb, the exiles cast themselves as innocent victims, as if Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation had not singled out those responsible for the rebellion. In the course of the argument, God urges the exiles to acknowledge their own guilt, repent, and live. The question to consider is how rejecting the proverb is a necessary step.

Commentators often draw connections between this proverb and the ancient Israelite understanding of intergenerational responsibility for guilt (see Exodus 34:7), and suggest that Ezekiel 18 marks a breakthrough to a supposedly higher understanding of individual moral responsibility. Although there are good reasons to challenge that reading, personal responsibility is nevertheless a key theme of the chapter.

It is first articulated in God’s initial rejoinder to the proverb, which establishes a close connection between guilt and punishment: “it is only the person who sins that shall die” (18:4). This connection is developed in two stages. First, conventional assumptions about intergenerational guilt and punishment are carefully dismantled through the examination of the fates of the righteous father, the wicked son, and the righteous grandson. Neither guilt nor righteousness is carried from one generation to the next; only the wicked one dies (18:5-18).

In the second stage, the disputation examines the careers of righteous and wicked individuals. A righteous person can turn to wickedness and lose his life; conversely, a wicked person can turn to righteousness and live (18:19-24). Even within a single lifetime, then, one’s past doesn’t necessarily determine the future. If the generations are not bound to suffer because of the sins of the ancestors, neither does an individual’s past guilt condemn him to a life of punishment.

But if Ezekiel 18 is only about guilt and punishment, it’s worth asking why God emphatically declares ownership over all life “Know that all lives are mine; the live of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine” (18:4a). Is this declaration only for the sake of justifying God’s right to kill the wicked? This would seem not to be the case, since God emphatically repudiates any pleasure in the death of anyone, even sinners (verses 23, 32). Indeed, as the argument unfolds, the more pressing question is not who gets punished, but whether it is possible to imagine life after guilt. If God does not desire the death of anyone, not even the wicked (verse 32; cf. verse 23), then what are sinners to do?

They must let go of self-justifying but limiting ways of seeing themselves. In Ezekiel 18, this means letting go of the proverb. Remarkably, the exiles cling to it even after God establishes that only the wicked suffer for their sins (18:5-18). One would think this is good news; yet in v. 18 the exiles protest, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?”

Apparently identifying with the children of the proverb, the exiles would prefer to see themselves as victims than as moral agents capable of choosing their destiny. They object yet again when God declares that even the wicked may live by turning from their wickedness. They protest, “The way of the Lord doesn’t measure up” (CEB; compare NRSV: “the way of the Lord is unfair”). The translation in NRSV suggests that the protest revolves around questions of divine justice; the translation in CEB may be more accurate: the exiles protest God’s unfathomability — as if they prefer the tidiness of a self-limiting proverb to the mystery of God’s offer of new life.

The disputation makes God’s way perfectly clear. God values life above all else. Therefore God is open to human repentance and change. By contrast, the proverb relegates its users to an endless cycle of suffering by encouraging them to re-inscribe old patterns of guilt and blame. What God offers instead is life grounded in truth telling and responsibility. Mom and Dad may in fact have made a mess of things, but the children have eaten their fair share of sour grapes.

Somewhat paradoxically, accepting responsibility for guilt also makes it possible to let it go; this is conveyed quite literally in God’s challenge to the exiles to “cast away” their transgressions (verse 31). Repentance is not a matter of bearing guilt as a burden, neither is it the cultivation of remorse or regret. Instead, is the first step toward transformation — what Ezekiel calls getting a new heart and a new spirit. Repentance is an active, deliberate step in a new direction. It is a step into the future, into life itself.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Exodus 17:1-7 is a narrative that shares much in common with the complaint narratives that have preceded it.

Its structure is the same as the other stories: (1) the people encounter a potentially devastating threat to their well-being; (2) they then complain to their leadership; (3) their human leaders bring the complaint before God; and (4) God saves them by various means, in this case, by providing water. Even the content of their complaint is unremarkable. They ask for water to drink and then deliver a version of the now familiar refrain: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (v. 3) While they do not explicitly compare their circumstances in Egypt to their situation in the wilderness as they do elsewhere (16:3; cf. 14:11), the mere mention of Egypt in this context suggests that the people continue to regard their present state as much worse than their state as slaves in Egypt. With all of these similarities between these complaint narratives, it bears considering why it is that Moses later names the site of this narrative Massah, “Test,” and Meribah, “Quarrel” (v. 7).

The key seems to be that the word “complaint” has been replaced by the word “quarrel” (ryb). The Hebrew root often refers to legal disputes, but in non-legal contexts, it is translated as “strive” or “struggle,” which suggests open antagonism between Moses and the people. One cannot help but consider the hopeful words of 14:31: “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” In spite of divine help, the difficulty of the journey has eroded the people’s trust. Hostility has now replaced belief, and Moses is afraid for his life. He asks, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (v. 4). He is not in an enviable position out in the wilderness, stuck between the Almighty and a people quickly losing patience with privation and with their leaders who seem to keep taking them from one desperate situation to the next.

God’s response to this crisis is as forbearing and nurturing as it has been in the other complaint narratives in spite of the fact that the story is remembered as one in which the people questioned God’s presence with them: “the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (v. 7). The narrator does not characterize God as being in any way frustrated or angry at the people’s quarreling and testing. Indeed, God’s directions to Moses demonstrate an astute awareness of the nature of this specific crisis and provide an appropriate response to it. There are two components to the divine instruction:

  1. Moses is to take some of the elders with him and go ahead of the people. The miraculous act he will perform there is going to be in their sight (v. 6b), presumably so that they can go back to the people and serve as witnesses, which will certainly bolster the people’s confidence in the leadership of God and of Moses.
  2. Moses is to take the staff with which he struck the Nile — and, thus, rendered it undrinkable (7:20)–and strike a rock from which water will then flow. God’s own self will be physically manifested in some way on this rock (v. 6). Once again, the importance of the elders witnessing this divine act is key. Key, also, is the fact that Moses is using the staff which served as tool in the people’s redemption from slavery, the slavery about which the people seem to have developed a form of amnesia. The significance of the staff is clear: God used Moses, and the staff in that first plague to rescue the people; God, Moses, and the staff are no less powerful out in the wilderness. There is no need to despair and turn on Moses. God is still present, powerful, and working through Moses. (Although see the twin of this story in Numbers 20:2-13.)

The difficulty of life in the wilderness is clearly taking its toll on the people, and Moses is finding himself the focus of their ire, although the people are questioning God’s role in their present plight as well (see vs. 2c, 7c). The divine response to this crisis meets the obvious physical need for water, but it also serves to address the deep uncertainty the people are expressing that God is not with them and that Moses is an unreliable leader who does not have their best interests at heart. Although Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, has not yet met with him and advised him to share the load of leadership (18:17-23), it is clear that Moses and the people need a group of leaders drawn from the people who can act to reassure the community of Israel and to provide support for Moses as they make their way through the wilderness on the way to Mt. Sinai.

The people’s quarreling and testing is born of a stressful environment, and we would do well as preachers to be as compassionate in our treatment of the people’s plight as God is depicted as being. Indeed, a sermon might do well to focus on the wisdom of God’s response to the test the people set with their question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” At some point both communities and individuals will ask such a question, and those people who attest — as the elders of the people did — to the power and presence of God in our midst are tremendous sources of strength. It can be the case that professional clergy are associated with this role, but this story makes clear that the position of witness should not be limited to one individual. It is the task of all who have experienced God’s loving kindness to speak about it and, thus, offer to others reasons that we might trust in God in any circumstances.


Commentary on Psalm 25:1-9

Nancy Koester

Are we teachable? Can we change? Can we grow into the image of God in which we are created?

Each text for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost asks these questions. Psalm 25 puts them in the form of a prayer: “Lead me in your truth and teach me.”

In the first lesson (Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32) Israel argues with God, accusing God of unfairness. No, says Ezekiel; the problem is that Israel needs to “get a new heart and a new spirit!” Israel must become teachable. The second lesson (Philippians 2:1-13) is the famous hymn to Christ. It invites us to have this mind among yourselves. To learn from Christ. Not because we are good enough, or because having the mind of Christ is an achievement, but because Jesus has “humbled himself and became like a servant.”

It is God’s work and not our ability that changes us. In the Gospel, (Matthew 21:23-32) the chief priests and elders interrogate Jesus; showing themselves to be anything but teachable. Jesus tells them that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Why? Because these sinners were teachable: they believed John’s testimony. But as for the chief priests and elders, those know-it-alls did not change their minds when they heard John’s testimony about Jesus.

In all of these texts, God teaches us humility, trust and joy in the presence of God. Learning nice little moral lessons, or memorizing factoids about God is not the point. Instead God invites us to be changed by divine mercy and love. The work of Psalm 25 is to express receptivity, or even to make us receptive. The Psalm can be used as a refrain to support the other texts, as a theme for prayer, or the focus of an entire sermon.

Originally, this Psalm was a Hebrew acrostic; that is, it began with the first letter of the alphabet, and ended with the last. But this is more than a word game. It is about God’s A- Z mercy in your life, even when you feel abandoned. Taken as a whole, Psalm 25 is a prayer for help, growing more intense as it progresses: “I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins. Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me” (25:16-19). And the last petition is for the whole people of God: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.”

Through it all, Psalm 25 speaks of God’s character. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees” (25:10). The New Interpreter’s Bible finds the Psalm’s theological center here, in God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness.” Unfortunately the lectionary text for Pentecost 16 stops just short of verse 10, but this can easily be corrected by extending the text as it is read, or printed, or projected on a screen.

We now turn to verses 1-9, the portion of the Psalm appointed for Pentecost 16. The Psalm begins in an attitude of worship: “To you, Oh Lord, I lift up my soul.” Lifting up the hands is an ancient posture of prayer, expressing our dependence on God. This simple gesture opens a person to receive God’s blessing. So too, the worshipper ‘lifts up’ her soul to receive God’s love. God’s love takes many forms and in Psalm 25:1-9 these include instruction and wisdom.

Repeatedly the Psalmist asks to be taught God’s ways. “Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths” (verse 4). “Lead me in your truth, and teach me” (verse 5). “God instructs sinners in the way…and teaches the humble” (verses 5-6). To know about God is a starting point, but the Psalmist wants something more. The Psalmist wants to be with God, to walk in God’s path.

People want to be instantly gratified, but if we really need something we will wait for it. “For you I wait all day long” (verse 5). Waiting was hard for the Psalmist, who was in desperate need of help. Enemies were seeking to inflict harm. It seems that the enemies were external — the “wantonly treacherous ones” who put the Psalmist to shame (verses 2-3). Shame comes from outside and is inflicted by individuals or groups. But “enemies” may also be within us, for example, guilt or regret for the “sins of my youth or my transgressions” (verse 7). Pride can make us unteachable, but so can guilt and shame. Then we can’t move forward, can’t hear God’s voice of wisdom, or receive blessing and forgiveness.

And yet we may become most teachable when we are vulnerable, when our illusions of superiority and self-sufficiency have been stripped away (verses 16-19). So the Psalmist who implores God, “lead me in your truth and teach me.”

This is a relationship with God, a two-way communication in which the Psalmist both receives God’s teaching and dares to instruct God. The Psalmist tells God what to remember: steadfast love and mercy (verse 6). And the Psalmist tells God what to forget: “the sins of my youth” (verse 7).

My dog has the right idea. She takes the leash in her mouth when I take her for a walk, so that she can lead me. It is an endearing gesture and always makes me laugh. If this give and take happens between animals and humans, surely it happens between us and God. And as we live in that relationship, we wait, and receive, and lift our souls. We learn, change and grow more and more into the image of God in which we are created.

Hymn: ELW 798 Will You Come and Follow Me

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13

Christian A. Eberhart

The lectionary passage Philippians 2:1–13 continues Paul’s preceding recommendations on how followers of Jesus Christ should live (1:27–30).

Specifically, the apostle emphasizes the need for unity: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2 NRSV). His ideal for the congregation in Philippi is harmony and “to be one in intent and disposition” (Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991, p. 176). The achievement of such an ideal is valuable in and of itself. However, Paul states that, by following his advice, the congregation in Philippi would make his “joy complete.”

Paul’s exhortation is thus relational; it is borne out of a personal concern and shows how much he cares for his addressees. Moreover, Paul’s concern points to his emotional involvement. He would rejoice if unity of mind and the same love were to be found among the Philippians. “Joy” is, in fact, one of the key words of this letter. We need to bear in mind that Paul writes these lines during his imprisonment in Rome. What keeps him going is his apostolic mission on behalf of Jesus Christ.

On the one hand, he is proclaiming the gospel message to other prisoners and the imperial guard (1:12–14). On the other hand, he remembers those whom he previously visited during his travels and hopes that the gospel message stays alive among them so that his efforts as a missionary are not in vain (2:16). Despite his precarious circumstances, Paul’s joy is his mission for Jesus Christ, nothing else. He hopes his feelings are contagious: “ … in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me” (2:18 NRSV).

The state of harmony that Paul exhorts leads to peace, conveyed by the Hebrew word shalom. Such peace associates comprehensive and corporate well-being, wholeness, health, security, and salvation. It has a theological dimension. According to the Hebrew Bible, only God can grant real and lasting peace. The Aaronite blessing conveys in graphic fashion that it is the result of being in the presence of God, literally in front of the face of God (Numbers 6:24–27).

Just as such a blessing is contingent on the presence of God, so Paul conveys that God grants the state of harmony. “For it is God who works in you, enabling you both to will and to work according to his pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, translation C.E.). It would likewise be possible to translate “it is God who gives you energy;” the Greek term employed here is energeo, denoting power, action, and work.

Paradoxically, such “energy” or “power” is not about realization of one’s own potential or strength. It is, rather, directed at one’s neighbor. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4 NRSV). Paul proclaims “energy” that realizes the potential in others, and thus of a community.

What is this power that changes humans so they can live in harmony? We could venture to consider the influence of the Holy Spirit. Paul, however, gives a clear answer to this question: the example and role model to attain this power is Jesus. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5) is what he recommends. Therefore, the apostle inserts verses taken from a Christological hymn into his lengthy exhortation. This means that we encounter here a sample of the liturgical tradition of the early church. If Paul wrote his Letter to the Philippians between 61 and 63 C.E., then this hymn was probably composed just one or two decades after the death of Jesus.

In concise phrases, the hymn sketches the entire mission of Jesus Christ, starting with his preexistence (Philippians 2:6), continuing with his incarnation and life on earth (v. 7), highlighting his death on the cross (verse 8), and concluding with his exaltation and universal adoration (verses 9–11). This mission is the example par excellence for the attitude that Paul endorses, and thus for communal harmony. It displays how Jesus went from the summit of divine glory to the nadir of human suffering and death.

We need to remember that, in the ancient world, death by crucifixion was the worst that could happen to anyone. Crucifixion inflicted more than just excruciating pain and led to a slow and cruel death; it meant public display of such pain and death to invite the mockery of bystanders. Crucifixion hence meant hitting rock bottom; one could not possibly get any lower or be more shamed. For Jesus who had been one with the Father in the glory of heaven, the death on the cross showed the extreme of his humility.

Paul endorses humility in 2:3, and Jesus is his perfect example. In addition, Jesus died “for us,” as Christians have confessed over the centuries. It happened for the benefit of others; Jesus died to save us. This aspect thus illustrates that Jesus was looking “to the interests of others” (verse 4). Hence, those who commemorate the mission of Jesus learn a unique lesson for communal life in harmony.

Humility is considered an important virtue in the Christian Church (and in many other religions as well). However, it is necessary to point out that there may be limits to requesting such an attitude from others. For too long in history and in too many places of the world, godly virtues have unfortunately been imposed on people as a means of domination. I am thinking of, for instance, women, or members of certain social, cultural, and ethnic groups (often people in minority situations), or sometimes workers in unhealthy labor conditions (“workplace bullying”).

Humility and personal submission should not be forced upon individuals or groups of people in order to establish or perpetuate structures of domination or oppression. All humans have the right to question whether being humble and adopting a state of submission is the right thing to do under particular circumstances.

In recent history, movements courageously advocating for civil rights and liberation were successful in restoring status, freedom, and dignity to those who have been dominated and exploited. Many of these advocates also chose Jesus Christ as their example because his preferential option for the poor and oppressed was a characteristic feature of his mission.