Lectionary Commentaries for October 1, 2017
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32

Stanley Saunders

Matthew highlights Jesus’ authority as a central, albeit contested issue throughout the Gospel (for example, Matthew 7:28-29, 9:32-34, 12:24, 28:18).

Matthew is not content, however, with the simple claim that Jesus possesses divine power, nor even that his power surpasses that of worldly leaders. Matthew focuses instead on the nature, source, and consequences of Jesus’ power. He aims to demonstrate not only that Jesus is more powerful than his the world’s powers, but that his power is of a different kind, a power that produces healing and reconciliation rather than alienation and violence. From the moment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Matthew focuses ever more insistently on the assertion, demonstration, defense, and finally the affirmation, via the cross and resurrection, of Jesus’ authority.

The story of Jesus’ initial encounter with the most powerful leaders in Jerusalem follows soon after Jesus’ triumphal entry and his cleansing and occupation of the temple. As the second day of Jesus’ occupation begins, the various groups that oppose Jesus inaugurate a series of five challenges (Matthew 21:23-32, 22:15-22, 22:23-33, 22:34-40, and 22:41-46), all of which aim at undermining his authority, in order to dislodge him from the temple. Although we customarily break the story that begins in Matthew 21:23 into discrete units, this first challenge does not formally end until 22:14, making this by far the longest single controversy/challenge story in the Gospel. These stories are all “zero-sum” contests in which the winner gains honor — and power — at the loser’s expense. If Jesus were to lose any of these challenges, his occupation of the temple would cease, his challenge to the authorities in Jerusalem would end, and the leaders would regain control of the temple. If they win any of these challenges, there is no need to crucify him.

In this first, long challenge, Jesus’ adversaries are chief priests and elders of the people. The political legitimacy and authority of the priestly leaders in Jerusalem, who ruled at Rome’s pleasure, was itself widely questioned. Both the elders, who were wealthy elites, and the chief priests controlled large parcels of land in Judea and beyond, making them virtually identical with the rich, powerful landowners who are the frequent targets of Jesus’ parables, as in Matthew 21:33-46. “Elders of the people” is an ironic ascription; it soon becomes clear that the chief priests and elders do not represent the people; instead they both fear and seek to manipulate the crowds to carry out their will (21:26, 46; 26:3-5; 27:20). 

The challenge posed by the chief priests and elders focuses on two closely related, yet distinct questions: “By what authority (or what kind of authority) are you doing these things (i.e., cleansing and occupying the temple)?” and “Who gave you this authority?” The first question is about the nature of Jesus’ authority, the second about its source (see also Matthew 9:34, 12:24). Because Jesus currently occupies the temple, he has the upper hand, and can set the conditions for his reply. Before he will answer them, they must tell him about John’s baptism: was it from heaven or merely human? This question puts them in a bind. They know that a denial of the legitimacy of John’s baptism will not play well with the crowds, whose support they need. On the other hand, if they affirm that John’s baptism came from heaven, he will ask them why they did not submit themselves to it. Their answer — “we don’t know” — is only two words long in the Greek; we should imagine these words being delivered under their breath. They have lost.

With this exchange, the challenge itself is formally ended, but Jesus will continue to occupy the temple and to defend his authority to be there until he is ready to leave of his own accord (Matthew 24:1-2). Jesus, however, is not yet done with the chief priests and elders of the people. He extends his challenge to their authority by speaking in parables (21:28-22:14). The first of these is a version of the “two sons” tradition (similar to Luke’s parable of the prodigal and his older brother). The two sons tradition itself begins with Cain and Abel and includes Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Aaron and Moses, and David and his brothers — a tradition laden with motifs of envy and betrayal, struggles for power, and sometimes reconciliation. Because this parable is relatively short, we may miss the multiple points of resonance with Israel’s foundational stories. Jesus calls the sons in this parable “children,” just as Israel was often identified as God’s (sometimes rebellious) children. The vineyard is a stock symbol in Jewish tradition for Israel. Jesus is, therefore, not asking his adversaries to comment on random, fictitious brothers, but to locate themselves within Israel’s foundational and continuing stories.

The distinction between the two brothers turns on action versus word. Jesus and his adversaries agree that only one son does the will of the father, the son who says “no,” but goes nonetheless into the vineyard to work. Actions speak louder than words. Jesus uses this exchange to expose what the leaders really thought about John. The chief priests’ and elders’ failure to believe and respond to John reveals the truth about where they stood, and thus which brother they actually represent. Jesus’ authority, in contrast, is affirmed by the integrity of his words and actions, as well as by its outcomes: gathering and restoration, healing and cleansing, release from demonic powers, restored sight, table fellowship with sinners, and preservation of the least ones — all examples of the “fruit” of repentance.

Apparently, “believing” entails making a decision about what kind of power is legitimate, Jesus’ power or that of the Judean leaders. Only Jesus manifests a form of power that requires us to change our minds about the source, nature, and fruit of true power. Can we discern the nature and source of the powers that hold us in thrall? Can we distinguish the fruit of divine power in the midst of all that the powers of this world promise us?

First Reading

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

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

Two for one special! Ezekiel 18 not only gives us material for a sermon, it helps us to reflect on the process of preaching itself.

When I served as a parish pastor, I conducted “feed-forward” sessions, to elicit comments on how the members of the congregation (including youth) reacted to a passage of scripture that would become the basis for a sermon. In chapter 18 God seems to have conducted some kind of similar feed-forward session to understand how the people felt before speaking the sermon through Ezekiel. (I will allow you to use your own theory of inspiration for scripture and sermon writing. Did God conduct the feed forward session or did Ezekiel?)

In the feed forward sessions (or just because God knew) God discerns that the people assume the attack, defeat, and exile caused by the Babylonians had occurred as punishment for the sins of the previous generations. The people experiencing the exile hadn’t sinned had they?!

God and Ezekiel, working together on a sermon (the ideal situation, but hard to achieve), compose an extended illustration about a family. In the family, the grandfather practices the faith diligently, observing genuine worship, living ethically, and maintaining ritual purity. The grandfather knows the holiness codes, the Torah, and practices them. The son, however, does not absorb the faithfulness of the father. The son does not live ethically, oppressing the poor. He does not practice genuine worship, but engages in idolatry. The son rejects the faithfulness of the father. The grandson, however, returns to the ways of the grandfather.

This extended illustration (Ezekiel 18:5-20) makes the “point” that God can discern the sins of each generation of the family. The people experiencing exile cannot point their fingers either at the previous generations or at God. God has not treated them unfairly. God has not punished them for the sins of previous generations.

The sermon illustration, but more importantly the whole chapter, reveals the character of God (another reason why the chapter teaches us about the nature of preaching itself). The chapter reveals more than just the balance between God’s judgment and God’s forbearance, but the genuine anguish of God over the sin of the people.

The first part of the actual reading for this day serves to debunk the idea that God punishes for the sins of a previous generation. This affirmation serves an important purpose. Strands within the Pentateuch make the clear affirmation that God punishes subsequent generations for the sins of the people. Exodus 34:6-7 proclaim God’s love and mercy, but declare that God will visit iniquity on “the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

The rhetorical and theological purpose of these kinds of affirmation are to warn the first generation that the consequences of sin can linger stubbornly, causing grief and anguish for generations. The contemporary church can realize the conflicts and suffering that go back generations in American history. Contemporary Christians can see how the inexcusable behavior of previous generations has created problems that persist to today. That behavior does not excuse our sins or mitigate the responsibility we have now.

Ezekiel 18:1-4 want to make that point. The metaphor about setting one’s teeth on edge by eating sour grapes may not quite come through clearly, but the responsibility for sin is the main point. We might make a face when we eat sour grapes, but we don’t usually set our teeth on edge. Verse 4 states God’s claim on us, God’s sovereignty over us.

Ezekiel 18:25-32 present a heartfelt dialogue between God and the people. The speech of God, responding to the accusations of the people, reveals God’s genuine concern that the people understand God’s passion about their sins. God does not punish vindictively. God punishes because God experiences genuine anguish over the sins of the people. The message of the book, taken as a whole, is that God’s judgment and punishment become part of God’s overall intention to renew and restore. Verse 31 communicates that notion passionately and forcefully. God’s real desire is for the people to have a new heart (seat of the will) and a new spirit (vitality).

Even though the passage seems to read as a message to a collection of individuals, the thrust of the book concerns the identity of the community as the people of God. The sins of the people, the whole people, have led to the punishment of exile. Some individuals among the people likely practiced genuine worship and lived ethically. Yet, they too will experience the horror of exile.

We can see the contemporary analogies to Ezekiel’s message. Our ancestors in the United States practiced deeply racist policies. We continue to feel the effects of these policies. The sins of our ancestors do not excuse our participation in those sins or our current behavior. We practice the idolatry of worshipping success. Even individuals who seek to live ethical lives experience the consequences of past racism; the estrangement, the polarization. God desires life and wholeness in the community. God wants a new heart and spirit for us. Judgment can take at least two forms. God can directly judge and punish. On the other hand, judgment can come simply because our foolishness catches up to us.

As Ezekiel 18:4 affirms, God has a claim on us. God calls us to love our neighbors and to break down barriers. We can list easily the sins for which God feels passion:

  • Racism
  • Poisoning the environment
  • Human trafficking
  • A broken political system
  • Immature dialogue about social issues.

A sermon from this chapter can identify collective sins, for which we all bear some responsibility. It can affirm that we cannot point the finger at others, even from the past. We must face our own participation. It can communicate God’s deep passion about the people who are hurt by these issues. It can proclaim that God wishes for us to find our good heart and good spirit, and will help us achieve those.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7

Anathea Portier-Young

“Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). What proof and signs can persuade a thirsting, frightened people that God is with them and leads them in the wilderness?

If God is the God who saves, who gives and sustains life, then God in their midst and in their inmost parts must provide, at the very least, that which is necessary for survival.

One hundred hours. That’s the oft-cited statistic for how long a human body can typically survive at “average” temperatures without access to water. Today’s Sinai Peninsula averages 82° Fahrenheit in May and 91°F in June. For those same months, average high temperatures are 95°F and 104°F respectively.1 In such extreme heat and with exposure to sun, the timeline for survival shortens considerably. Claude Piantadosi writes: “At 90°F survival time with limited activity easily can be decreased by a factor of two.”2

Now we’re down to fifty hours. Exertion — such as walking long distances in the day time, carrying one’s belongings, tents, and small children, and wrangling livestock along the way (compare Exodus 17:3) — shortens the timeline further. Piantadosi offers this sobering calculation: “under extremely hot desert conditions of at least 49°C (120°F) … during forced marching … sustained high sweat rates can reduce estimated survival time without drinking water to as little as seven hours, or approximately the time it takes to walk twenty miles.”3 One long, day’s march on an unusually, but not impossibly, hot, June day was all it would take to finish God’s people. Because they had no water.

So if God is with them, in the midst of their inmost parts, the very organs, blood stream, and cells that require water for nutrition, metabolism, temperature regulation, waste removal, shock absorption and more — why is there no water?

This same question occupied many in the United States as they learned about the unfolding water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Would not God’s presence among us mean that providing for this most basic human need is our own first priority? I think the people of Israel were right to complain to, contend with, and test their leaders and their God. We would be, too.

Moses, the leader who bears the brunt of the people’s contention, fears the people will stone him, because the landscape has no edible plant life and no visible water, but it does have lots of rocks. Moses has exhausted the avenues that are familiar to him, and has no ideas for moving forward. In response to his desperate query, “What shall I do?” (Exodus 17:4), God instructs Moses to look to the very landscape that has engendered the people’s despair and his own mortal fear and tap the resources it does have to engineer a creative solution (Exodus 17:5).

Moses must be willing to put himself out in front: “go on ahead of the people” (Exodus 17:5). The Hebrew verb is ‘br, “to cross over”, followed by the preposition liphnê, literally “to or before the face of.” That is, Moses must cross in front of the people, and in so doing become vulnerable to their anger, fear, and insistence. In so doing he will also see the need that is written upon their bodies and in their faces, and he will have to confront and respond to the magnitude of their thirst.

Moses is not the solution himself, however. Lest he imagine himself as the sole agent of the people’s salvation, he is to take with him a group of people, elders from among the Israelites (Exodus 17:5-6). The elders carry with them their testimony to the past. They carry the trust and the hurt and the hopes of the people. In this new moment they will witness God’s presence and saving action in the present. They will participate through their own ministry of courageous presence.

Moses must also take with him his staff. It is the same staff God found in his hand when the two first met (Exodus 4:2). It’s an ordinary object: the support Moses used to keep his footing sure and his body upright, the weapon he could use to defend sheep — or himself — against attackers. God turned it into an object of power through which Moses would work wonders in Egypt and part the sea to lead God’s people to freedom (Exodus 14:16). With this staff a landscape could be transformed. The staff set in motion thunder, hail, fire, and wind (Exodus 9:23, Exodus 10:13). And on the day of Israel’s salvation it reconfigured the relation of water and dry land (Exodus 14:16). It could do the same once more.

The provision of water from the rock follows from the assurance that God is indeed present with this people: “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb” (Exodus 17:6). This place where God delivered Israel from their thirst is the same place where God first called Moses (Exodus 3:1, 4), appearing in flaming fire “from the midst” of a bush (Exodus 3:2). The people have thus returned to the sacred ground where Moses learned of the presence and power of God. God’s stance upon the rock (Exodus 17:6) is continuous with that first theophany to Moses that set in motion the people’s journey to freedom from slavery. God continues to ensure that this people will have what they need to live.

Who are those in your midst who thirst for water, who lack what they need to survive? What surprising resources will your landscape yield to meet their needs? On what rock is God standing in their midst?


1. This would be the time of year roughly corresponding to the narrative time-line in Exodus, which locates the arrival in Sin in the middle of the “second month” (16:1) and the arrival at Rephidim sometime thereafter, on a journey requiring multiple stops (17:1). Source for temperatures is Holiday Weather.com, “Sinai Peninsula: Annual Weather Averages,” http://www.holiday-weather.com/sinai_peninsula/averages/, accessed July 13, 2017.
2. Claude Piantadosi, The Biology of Human Survival: Life and Death in Extreme Environments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 52.
3. Piantadosi, 53


Commentary on Psalm 25:1-9

Paul O. Myhre

It never ceases to amaze me how a person’s capacity to review the contours of their life decisions can adjust how they perceive the past, understand the present, or discern how to make good decisions in the future.

In this Psalm, the writer engages in a poetic reverie punctuated by reflections on the nature of God and recognition of human nature. It is a prayer that starts with trust in God and an abiding hope in the capacity of God to impact one’s life for the better. It ends with an affirmation of God’s essence as being good and upright.

Threaded between the beginning and end is a dance of human living in the presence of God. Good decisions are mixed with bad. Trust lines and marks from a lack of trust flow back and forth across the text like a Giacometti drawing. It is sometimes difficult to see which line leads to which conclusion. How does a decision shape a future line that could either be in accordance with the will of God or counter to it? Yet, collectively they form the image of what has been or what is present.

The Psalmist’s prayer entreats God to be a teacher, guide, and instructor who can provide insight about what makes a life worth living. The prayer massages an enduring emotional legacy of guilt and shame for past misdeeds with words of comfort and hope. What the exact nature of the guilt or shame is left undefined and perhaps that aids the hearer or reader in empathizing with the writer. They fill in the story with their own story so that the Psalmist’s prayer can become their own.

The Psalmist’s poem also sounds like that of one pleading to find a way out of their dire predicament or from what may be occluding their vision of what makes for a good life. What the Psalmist was facing isn’t clear, but the emotional experience seems familiar. Those who have experience with the consequences of bad decisions know how they can impact the mind and emotional outlook on everything around them. Those who have looked at the possibilities and implications of difficult situations and decisions know from life experience that bad things can happen if a decision is made incorrectly, and bad things can just happen.

Those who have experience with driving a car know that car accidents happen. In my experience, they happen when you least expect them. For example, while driving our car on a tree-lined country road a deer sprinted directly across our path. My wife and I discovered quickly that our gentle Mother’s Day ride had developed into something quite different than we had expected. The same could be said for the deer. Sometimes layers of instruction and miles of experience cannot avoid a collision. Bad things can happen.

The writer’s poetry swirls through words like a dust devil picking up themes and ideas from one place to have them land in another. The desires of a student to learn are commingled with God as teacher who can provide that which is desired and will bring about a fullness of life. The impact of a teacher on one’s life cannot be overstated. People often state that the most influential persons in their life stories are a parent, sibling, or teacher. The writing suggests an awareness of the impact that good teaching can have on one’s life. The Psalmist is entreating God to be their teacher so that their life journey might be worth living.

Show me, teach me, and guide me are English translations of the Hebrew text. Great teaching has a capacity to do all three. In order to graphically show what it is that teachers want students to learn, contemporary classroom teachers frequently use concept maps in their lesson planning and in their teaching practice. They are visually graphic ways to illustrate what it is that they are trying to teach students to learn. They use them in classrooms to help students see the correlation of ideas better. They break down ideas and show students the various pieces of an overall argument so that they can better connect them to key concepts and ideas. They visually depict correlations between ideas so that the ideas themselves can be grasped better and linked to other ideas so as to create stickiness in the student’s learning process.

The teaching process then ties what is shown to the student so as to arrive at the desired goals of learning. This learning then can provide the foundation for subsequent learning of increasing complexity of concepts and ideas. In addition to the illustration of ideas and the process of instruction, teachers routinely engage in mentoring students toward greater depths of understanding. There is a guiding process that occurs along the way in concert with one’s education that helps cement the pieces of learning together so that they become part of the structure of one’s life and life decision-making.

The Psalmist regards God as teacher to be the only teacher who can guide him toward that which will bring about a good life. There are theological affirmations threaded throughout the Psalm that describe God as teacher who can be trusted, who has a capacity to stop powers that would undermine one’s life, who can illustrate the ways and paths that lead to a life worth living, and who is good and upright.

Perhaps at its foundation the Psalm writer is wrestling with a question of formation. What is it that leads to a life worth living? What are the things that would impede a life worth living? How can one be guided toward that which is worthy and away from that which would be less than helpful for living?

Here the writer’s answer seems to be one that sloshes back and forth between what denudes life and what helps a life to flourish. On one side there is treachery without cause, sin, and rebelliousness toward the ways and on the other side there is a cognizance of what God has already provided to the people of God. The Pentateuch has shown what God would regard as good and right for living and they are rooted in the law of God and the creator’s designs for the flourishing of life.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13

Troy Troftgruben

For many scripture readers, Philippians 2:5-11 is a favorite. But this Sunday we have the rare privilege of hearing it in its original context.

Paul does not write Philippians 2:5-11 apart from the appeals of verses 1-4 and 12-13. Often as Philippians 2:5-11 is mined for answers to questions of dogma, Paul’s rhetorical purpose is primarily to give a pattern of thinking and living for believers in Philippi — one grounded in the way of Jesus.

The appeal: unity and humility

Building on the primary appeal of the letter in Philippians 1:27-30 (“live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”), in 2:1-5 Paul narrows in to appeal for community unity and individual humility. He asks his hearers to “make [his] joy complete” by being “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). The emphasis on unity is hard to miss (compare to 1 Corinthians 1:10). In Greek, Paul’s language is more succinct (about 25% shorter), giving more rhetorical punch than is visible in English.

Along with unity, Paul appeals for humility. Believers are to be characterized not by “selfish ambition or conceit,” but by “humility” (Philippians 2:3). This entails esteeming others and their interests more highly than one’s own concerns. Contextually, this “humility” (tapeinophrosyne, “thinking lowly/ humbly”) is grounded in Christ’s “humbling” (etapeinosen) himself to the point of crucifixion (Philippians 2:8; compare to Philippians 3:21). What is more, it stands in stark contrast to the honor-seeking that prevailed among Roman aristocrats in society. Paul does not recommend a traditional cursus honorum (course of honor) — the way of upward mobility and aspiration — but a course of downward mobility: the way of relinquishment and honoring others, seen foremost in the life of Christ.1 In living out this counterintuitive course of life, Jesus is ultimately proclaimed “Lord” of all domains, a title superior to that of the highest Roman aristocrat (Caesar).

True humility

These realities contextualize the strong language of self-denial (for example “regard others as better than yourselves”). Paul’s aims are neither self-degradation nor the affirmation of power discrepancies, but to call out individualistic quests for societal status and honor as contrary to the spirit of Christ — and potentially harmful to community.

All of Philippians 2:1-4 reads as a long, singular sentence (in Greek), making Paul’s appeals to unity and to humility inseparable. In Paul’s mind, humility is a necessary ingredient for community unity. And true humility is measured, not by low self-evaluation, but by demonstrable concern for others.

The complementarity of these virtues (humility, unity) raises a question for us today, who live in predominately individualistic societies: If humility and community unity complement one another, does a lack of focus on intentional community (visible in various sectors today) itself imply a similar lack of true humility?

The way of Jesus

Verse five bridges Paul’s appeal (Philippians 2:1-4) to what follows: “have this mind among you that also was in Christ Jesus” (my translation). These words couch what follows as a mindset or way of thinking (touto phroneite, “Think this”), which for Paul plays a critical role in ethical behavior (see Romans 12:1-2; also Colossians 4:10-11; Ephesians 4:17, 23). Stated otherwise, how we think profoundly influences how we live.

For nearly a century, Philippians 2:6-11 has been known as a “Christ hymn” that may predate Paul. But whether it is pre-Pauline or a hymn are both uncertain. Clearly the passage matters to Paul, and here it issues a masterfully evocative contrast between the pattern of life and actual status of Jesus the Messiah:

  • the form of God vs. that of a slave (verses 6-7)
  • being equal to God vs. in human likeness (verses 6-7)
  • humbled vs. highly exalted (verses 8-9)
  • obedience vs. lordship (verses 8, 11)
  • death vs. eternal glory (verses 8-11)
  • earthly vs. heavenly realities (verses 8, 10-11)

The verses that follow only affirm further Paul’s primary rhetorical aim in Philippians 2:6-11 as encouraging obedience (verse 12) and constructive public witness (verses 14-16). The language “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (verse 12) is routinely troublesome for Protestants, who fear it implies a form of “works righteousness.” But Paul’s focus in Philippians 2:1-13 has nothing to do with salvation (how one is saved). Instead, Paul is concerned here with how “saved” (believing) people live out their salvation here and now in the world. And these are matters of obedience, humility, and public witness — “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure” (verse 13).

In conversation with the day’s other readings

Reading Philippians 2:1-13 alongside Exodus 17:1-7 and Matthew 21:23-32, preachers rightly reflect on the relationship between our patterns of thinking and patterns of living. For the wilderness wanderers in Exodus, the response of despair was more natural than faith; and for the Philippians, “selfish ambition” was perhaps more natural than humility. In both cases, certain patterns of thinking yielded certain patterns of living. But as Jesus’ parable points out (Matthew 21:28-32), affirmative responses alone are not praiseworthy as much as a life pattern that embodies them.

But that is not all. More than merely a moralistic lesson against hypocrisy, Philippians 2:1-13 invites hearers to reflect on Jesus Christ and to orient their lives around him. Not only is Christ an example, he embodies God’s will and work for humanity, and so deservedly is the object of our devotion (Philippians 2:10-11). The passage is not merely instructional — it is doxological. We believers not only learn from this Jesus Christ, but we join all creation in professing he “is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).



1. For more on this, see Joseph Hellerman, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum (Society of New Testament Studies Monograph Series 132; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).