Lectionary Commentaries for September 21, 2014
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16

Emerson Powery

One traditional interpretation of the parable has been to focus on 20:16 (“the last will be first,” etc.) and to insist on understanding the parable as a statement about the gift of eternal life, as the ultimate equalizer, that will be granted to all “laborers in the vineyard.”

But Jesus’ parable seems to be more mundane than that and may require an alternative subtitle.

From our contemporary context, this parable brings to mind issues of immigration and daily laborers. What is “fair” for those who work among us as migrant workers or labor in the various service industries supporting Western financial institutions, the highly educated professional class and our technologically-driven economic complex? And, what is to us if the minimum wage rises to assist those workers on the lowest end of our economic system?

The “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” is unique to Matthew. The stories that surround this parable — the rich young man/Peter’s claim to have “left everything” and Jesus’ third prediction of his death/James & John’s request — were consecutive stories in Mark. Matthew’s inclusion of this parable interrupts that narrative flow. In Matthew’s narrative context, Jesus’ parable seems to be a story directly (connected) to discipleship issues, possessions, and authority.

Matthew’s placement was significant. In the larger narrative sequence, this “parable” was exemplified. For example, in the preceding story (cf. 19:23-29), Peter claimed, “we have left everything and followed you” (19:27). This kind of dedicated service to Jesus will reap a reward (cf. 19:28), but these rewards are not just for the immediate disciples but for all who have followed, since “many who are first will be last” (19:30). In like manner, in this week’s story, special privileges were downplayed.

The parable also played out in the story that followed the parable (21:17-28): Jesus predicted his death to the disciples for the third and final time (cf. Matthew 16:21; 17:12; 17:22-23). Right after this prediction, the mother of James and John requested special privilege for her sons (rather than a direct request from James and John themselves, as in Mark 10:35-45). They, too, “have borne the burden of the day” since they’ve been with Jesus from the beginning of his mission.

In this following story, we hear the concern — and, perhaps some of that “envious” spirit — from the other disciples. But, Jesus warned them as well: greatness comes through service (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). God’s generosity will not succumb to human jealousy. As Matthew’s Jesus preached earlier, God provides rain for the just and unjust alike (cf. Matthew 5:45).

Matthew 20:1-16 is a true-to-life parable. “Day laborers” would be readily available in the market place. But it would be unusual for a wealthy “landowner” to locate his own workers. Usually, the manager would have hired the laborers, just as he would have been responsible to pay wages (cf. 20:8). More than likely, the manager would not have returned to the market place to hire additional workers at the end of the day and offered the same wage. He would be fearful of his landowner’s reaction to such an unwise investment in labor.

The first-century workers union complaint (cf. 20:11-12) seems reasonable, even if misguided. Why wouldn’t those who have labored less receive less? But the landowner had a different conception of fairness. In the first-century economy, the master could choose to do what he pleased with his resources.

The landowner’s question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (verse 15), is the translation of a Greek idiom which literally translates as “Is your eye evil because I am good?” An “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggested a deeper problem than meets the eye. As Jesus taught earlier, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy (ophthalmos poneros; so, if you have the “evil eye”), your whole body will be full of darkness” (cf. 6:22-23). In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity (e.g., jealousy, greed, stinginess, etc.).

And, the “landowner” (or, preferably, “household master” from oikodespotes) is a common analogy for God in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. The Gospel of Mark never uses the analogy. So, it may reveal something about Matthew’s ancient setting. To the contemporary reader, the analogy may cause concern, since many of these masters owned slaves in Jesus’ parables (e.g., 10:25; 13:27; 21:34; 24:45). For this short discussion, why was God’s reign often compared to landowning activities? Was it simply Jesus’ theological belief that God “owned” all the land (cf. Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 24:1; Job 41:11)?

Within Jesus’ parables, household masters generally made wise decisions (e.g., 13:27-30), even if misunderstood (20:11-15). The possible exception to this pattern occurred in 21:33-41; here, the landowner’s patience cost him his son’s life because of evil (grumbling?) tenants who worked the land (cf. 21:33-41).

Perhaps, Jesus stressed the landowner’s active patience as a positive sign of God’s forbearance. To many interpreters, however, the inability to recognize the dangers from his servants’ experiences suggests a naiveté on the landowner’s part.

In our passage under discussion, the landowner was to be emulated (even if most of Jesus’ audience members would have been more culturally attuned to the experiences of the laborers). The so-called “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” should more aptly be called the “parable of the Landowner’s generosity.” As Jesus taught earlier, in Matthew’s parable chapter: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household (oikodespotes) who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (13:52). So, “scribes…trained for the kingdom” (i.e., Jesus’ disciples) are expected to be like the “landowners” (i.e., God), who generously provide for all of their “laborers.”

So, the parable is really not about the “laborers in the vineyard.” In fact, this is not even a story about the growth of the vineyard. Nor was there any significant attention on the activities of the workers. We hear the complaints of those who have toiled all day long, but the story was really not about them either.

Rather, Jesus’ parable highlights the generosity of God. As the ultimate “landowner,” God will use what has always belonged to the Creator for the good of all even if humans fail to view the world through God’s eyes. In Jesus earlier words: God’s perfection is exemplified in God’s rain on the just and the unjust (cf. 5:48). The landowner’s question in the parable is Jesus’ punchline for the story: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:10—4:11

Michael J. Chan

Not unlike the older brother of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31), Jonah resents the graciousness of Yhwh toward the repentant inhabitants of Nineveh:

He [Jonah] prayed to the LORD, saying, “O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” (Jonah 4:2-3 TNK)

Spitefully hurling a standard confessional formula in Yhwh’s1 face (see, e.g., Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 103:8, 17; 145:8; Jeremiah 32:18-19; Nahum 1:3), Jonah tells Yhwh that he would rather die than live to see the Assyrians receive Yhwh’s mercy. So deep was Jonah’s anger toward Israel’s imperial oppressors.

It’s easy to miss the irony and comedic intent in the exchange between Yhwh and Jonah, and in the book more generally. Typically, Israel’s prophets are fiercely obedient to the law, while their audiences are stubborn and recalcitrant sinners, who are quicker to kill the prophet than take seriously his message. Take Jeremiah, for instance: he is told that he will experience so much opposition that Judah’s most powerful officials (priests and kings) would oppose him, and that he would stand with Yhwh alone at his side (Jeremiah 1:17-19).

Unlike Jeremiah, however, who his typical of Israel’s prophetic tradition, Jonah is not only resistant to Yhwh’s will, he actually succeeds in winning over his audience, and he does so with a five word sermon: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). (And people say Lutheran sermons are short). What’s even more astonishing is that Jonah’s sermon doesn’t even mention the possibility of mercy! What kind of topsy turvy, whale-of-a-tale is this? A reluctant, bitter prophet and repentant sinners? Welcome to the world of Jonah, where idolatrous sinners repent and Israelite prophets resent their deity’s most fundamental attributes.

Despite its clearly humorous and ironical aspects, Jonah’s resentful response to Yhwh’s mercy actually echoes a sentiment present in the larger culture, namely, disdain for the Assyrian empire. This view is expressly and graphically depicted in the book of Nahum, which relishes in Yhwh’s destruction of Nineveh. Nahum was the oracle Jonah hoped to give.

But can we really blame Jonah for feeling this way? The Assyrians were responsible for destroying the Northern Kingdom of Israel, subjugating, taxing, and oppressing the Southern Kingdom, destroying the Judahite city of Lachish, and otherwise wreaking havoc across the ancient Near East.

If that weren’t enough, the Assyrian kings proudly boasted about and displayed their violent conquests of foreign lands. The scene below (see Figure 1), in fact, comes from Room XXXVI of Sennacherib’s royal palace at Nineveh. It depicts Assyrian soldiers (the guys with the pointed hats!) flaying naked Judahite men. Their thin, naked bodies are eerily similar to the horrific images that emerged during and after WWII. Sennacherib dedicated an entire room, in fact, to his destruction of Lachish. Could you forgive such a people?

Jonah is not alone in his anger toward the Assyrians. In fact, when Nineveh finally fell in 612 BCE, its conquerors (the Babylonians and the Elamites) purposefully damaged images of the Assyrian kings as an act of damnatio memoriae (see Figure 2.). Jonah, it would seem, was not alone in his anger toward the Assyrians.

Nineveh, it would seem, is not the only one in need of repentance. In order to win back the wayward Jonah, Yhwh creates a scenario that is intended to teach the reluctant prophet a lesson in divine mercy and compassion.

After preaching his message, Jonah left Nineveh and perched himself to the east of the city to see what would happen, no doubt hoping that Yhwh would blast the city to oblivion (Jonah 4:5). Instead of raining down destruction on Nineveh, however, Yhwh turns his attention to Jonah. Jonah is given a plant to provide him with shade; the following day, however, Yhwh sends a worm to smite the plant, along with a sultry east wind to “beat down on Jonah’s head” (Jonah 4:7-8). Taking advantage of Jonah’s acute discomfort, Yhwh steps in with a lesson:

Then God said to Jonah, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.” Then the LORD said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!” (Jonah 4:9-11 TNK)

Just as the giant fish is commissioned to place Jonah’s feat back on the path of the prophet, so the wind, the worm, and the weed are commissioned to place Jonah back on the path of compassion, and to remind him that Yhwh alone decides to whom he will give mercy. But the human heart clings to bitterness like a dog to a fleshy bone. It takes root so deeply within us that we would much rather die than forgive, cling to pride than embrace mercy. We never know, in fact, how Jonah responds to Yhwh’s question. The matter is left completely open-ended, without response and without resolve — and this may be purposeful.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear: the Ninevites are not the only ones pursued by Yhwh’s mercy. God stays with Jonah, the bitter and unforgiving prophet, extending mercy to the merciless and compassion to the one whose heart is set on wrath.


Figure 1: Two Judahite inhabitants of Lachish are flayed by Assyrian soldiers

Fig. 1: Two Judahite inhabitants of Lachish are flayed by Assyrian soldiers. ME 124909. © Trustees of the British Museum. Photo by Michael Chan.

Two Judahite inhabitants of Lachish are flayed by Assyrian soldiers. ME 124909. © Trustees of the British Museum. Photo by Michael Chan.

Figure 2: Sennacherib observes the siege of Lachish

Fig. 2. Sennacherib observes the siege of Lachish. Room XXXI of Sennacherib’s Southwest Palace at Nineveh. WA 124096. Photo: Michael Chan

Sennacherib observes the siege of Lachish. Room XXXI of Sennacherib’s Southwest Palace at Nineveh. WA 124096. Photo (with superimposed arrow) by Michael Chan.



Out of respect for our Jewish sisters and brothers, I do not vocalize the divine name.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15

Callie Plunket-Brewton

The narrative of Exodus 16:2-15 is powerful and rich with homiletical possibilities.

Divine testing, the function of God’s instruction (torah) in our lives, and the importance of complaint are just a few of the themes in this chapter on which a preacher might choose to focus. Each of these themes, however, is embedded in a story that almost tenderly describes the growing relationship between the children of Israel and their God.

The need for bread in this early stage of the journey out of Egypt provides both God and God’s people with an opportunity to understand and to trust the other. Throughout the narrative, the people struggle to trust and to follow God, and God struggles to know and to nurture this fledgling community of former slaves.

In the opening verses, the narrator establishes that it is the second month of the children of Israel’s journey out of Egypt, and the people are complaining (lit. “murmuring”) against Moses and Aaron because they are hungry. The complaint in this narrative is the third of its kind (see also Exodus 14:11; 15:24). Each complaint follows a certain pattern: (1) the people encounter a potentially devastating threat to their well-being — the pursuit of the pharaoh and his chariots, deadly dehydration, starvation; (2) they complain (literally “murmur”) against their leadership; (3) their human leaders bring the complaint before God; and (4) God saves them by various means — the miraculous crossing of the sea, providing drinkable water, and, in this narrative, providing bread from heaven.

The language of the complaint is strong. One might even say it is unfair. “The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’” (16:3). The harsh servitude the people endured in Egypt, described in the earlier chapters of Exodus, bears no resemblance to this description of the plenty they claim they enjoyed there.

Interestingly, the people make no mention of pharaoh and his unreasonable demands. In an indirect way, the people seem to blame God both for their current crisis in the wilderness as well as their enslavement: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt” (emphasis mine). Pharaoh was the one trying to kill them in Egypt. God rescued them! Their hunger leads them to what seems to be willful forgetfulness.

One might be tempted to regard the pattern of complaints in these chapters and the injustice in the wording of this particular complaint in a negative light, but, while Moses and Aaron appear to be frustrated with the people, the text portrays God as focused on the people and their needs rather than disturbed by their demands. Indeed, the complaint and the occasion that prompts it provides God with an opening to learn more about them by means of a test.

The test itself is multilayered. On the surface, the test enables God to know the people’s response to the gift of manna: will they follow God’s instruction and gather only what they need according to the day? Will they respect the Sabbath? The answers to these questions seem to be the overall purpose of the test according to 16:4, but the test also serves another, perhaps more important, purpose: the gathering of manna in the wilderness — with specific amounts brought in on certain days — creates a structure in the people’s lives that is a reliable constant in the turmoil of their wilderness wandering.

The people gather in the morning what they need for the day and no more, except on the day before the Sabbath when they gather enough for both days. There are no days on which the manna fails to appear. Although the reader is not yet aware that this journey to their new land will take forty years, the narrator notes that this provision of manna lasts the entirety of the trip (16:35). Order is thus established in the midst of chaos by means of this rhythm of divine provision.

The narrative of God’s provision of manna in the wilderness extends throughout this entire chapter of Exodus, and yet the reading for this Sunday concludes at v. 15. Sometimes I find this disrupts the story, but this is one case in which the excerpt serves to highlight a key aspect of the narrative by means of an inclusio: the story begins with the people complaining about the lack of food and longing for the false memory of the bread and stew of Egypt; v. 15 concludes with the declaration of Moses in response to the people’s wonder at this new and unexpected food-source. He says, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

In verses 2-3, the people claimed to long for Egypt and its bounty, but what Egypt really represented was a complete lack of rest with a pharaoh who cared nothing for their well-being or their needs. Here, bread and rest — on the Sabbath — are provided generously and reliably. The difference between the former reality of their lives in Egypt and their present reality in the hands of a trustworthy God, who provides for them even in the wilderness, is made clear when one compares the beginning of the narrative to the end of the reading at verse 15. As Terence Fretheim notes, the “idealized and unwarranted memories of Pharaoh’s food (verse 3) are to be replaced with the genuine memories of the bread from God.”1

The stress and chaos of life on the journey of the children of Israel through the wilderness is intense and debilitating, so much so that the people begin to long for their former lives as slaves in Egypt. As they long to go back, God’s grace pushes them forward by providing strength for the journey in the form of food and a structure to their days and weeks by the instructions regarding the keeping of the Sabbath.

In preaching this text, I couldn’t help but think of so many people in our congregations who experience upheaval and uncertainty. This story gives the wonderful promise of God’s provision, which is reassuring to all of us. It also might serve as a guide for when we’re in stressful times to let the rhythms of religious observance — daily prayer and weekly worship, for example — bring order to the chaos.


1 Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 187.


Commentary on Psalm 145:1-8

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 145 occurs just before the five-psalm doxological close to the book of Psalms (Psalms 146-150) and is the last in a group of Psalms (Psalms 139-145) in Book Five that are identified in their superscriptions as psalms “of David.”

Some scholars suggest that the Psalter ended with Psalm 145 at some point in its transmission history and that Psalms 145-150 were added as a concluding expression of the words of Psalm 145:21: “My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”

Psalm 145 is classified as an individual hymn of praise (see Psalms 23, 87, 139); others maintain that it is a wisdom psalm, based mainly on its acrostic structure. In Psalm 145, each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, verse one begins with aleph, verse 2 with beyt, and so forth. The acrostic poem was a common “wisdom” form in ancient Israel (see, for instance, Psalms 34, 111, 112, 145, the book of Lamentations). They were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways.

Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public — individual and corporate — recitation; literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, from aleph to tav, from “A” to “Z.” Adele Berlin says this about Psalm 145, another alphabetic acrostic: “The poet praises God with everything from A to Z: his praise is all-inclusive. More than that, the entire alphabet, the source of all words, is marshaled in praise of God. One cannot actually use all of the words in a language, but by using the alphabet one uses all potential words.”

Psalm 145 is attributed, in its superscription, to David, the iconic king of ancient Israel. Within its twenty-one-verse acrostic structure, David leads the Israelites and all of creation in words of praise and thanksgiving to God as king. For those who accept that Psalter has a story-line and is not just a haphazard collection of songs of ancient Israel, Book 5, in which Psalm 145 occurs, tells the story of the Israelites in the postexilic period. They have been allowed to return from captivity in Babylon (Psalm 107); they are rebuilding their worship practices (Psalms 113-118; 119; 120-134); and they are searching for a source of identity as part of the vast Persian Empire in which they find themselves.

They have returned to their land; they have rebuilt their temple and resumed many of their worship practices; but they cannot have a king leading them. David appears prominently in Book Five (in psalmic superscriptions) and, in Psalm 145, leads the people in celebration of God, not a human like himself, as king over Israel. A human king to establish justice and peace, to create a center of identity, was not possible, but God as king could be just that.

Psalm 145 opens with celebratory words of David, declaring, “I will exalt you, my God the king and I will bless your name for all time” (my translation). While almost every English translation of verse 1 renders the first portion as “ … my God and king,” the Hebrew is clearly, “my God the king,” a significant statement placed on the lips of king David. God is not just king; God is the king.

David continues with the words, “I will bless your name.” “Name” was an important concept in the ancient Near East. Names reflected the natures and characters of the person who bore them and were conceptually equal to the essence of ones being. The name “Jacob” means “he usurps,’ because he grabs Esau’s heel at the birth, attempting to be the first-born twin (Genesis 25:26). He indeed usurps Esau later in life when he coerces Esau into selling to him his birthright and when he tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing. After wrestling at the Jabbok, God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel,” which means “he has struggled with God” (Genesis 32:28).

During Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses replies to God’s command to return to Egypt with a seemingly simple request: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them?” (3:13). Moses asks for God’s name in order to fully understand and then convey to the Israelites who this God was. In Exodus 20, God commanded the Israelites that they not “make wrongful use of” God’s name. And the book of Deuteronomy tells us that God’s name will dwell in the place of God’s choosing in the promised land (Deut 12:5; 14:23-24; 16:2).

In verses 3-8, the psalm singer enumerates a number of attributes of God. The Lord is great (verses 3, 6); good (verses 7, 9); and compassionate (verses 8 (merciful in NRSV), 9). Other words, such as “righteousness” (verse 7); “steadfast love” (hesed) (verse 8); and “works” (verses 4, 5) occur repeatedly in the verses.

The psalmist not only describes the attributes of God, but states a firm intention to proclaim them to others. In verse 4, “one generation to another” will “laud (make known)” God’s “mighty acts.” In verse 5, the psalm singer says, “I will meditate” on God’s majesty and works. The generations and the psalmist will “proclaim” and “declare” in verse 6; and they will “celebrate” and “sing aloud” in verse 7. The psalm singer and the generations will not only enunciate a description of their God; they will eagerly and joyously tell it to others.

The message of Psalm 145, placed on the lips of king David, is that the Lord is king over all generations of the Israelites and over all peoples. For ancient Israel, the words of Psalm 145 spoke powerfully and decisively a new world into being.

The message for the church today is simple and yet complex. In the midst of the turmoil and uncertainty in the world, praising God as sovereign is the solution. But what does that mean? We can speak the words, but how do we put them into action? God is indeed sovereign, but we must be the hands and feet of God in God’s world — what some call a “communitization” of kingship.

In the ancient Near East, the role of the king was to provide a safe place of habitation for humanity. That safety included dwelling places, farm land, drinking water, abundant harvests, increase of animals, and fertility within the family (see Psalms 72 and 107). In our twenty-first-century world, many people do not have the basic elements of safe habitation — whether as a result of poverty, societal violence, disease, or outright neglect. We must, in God’s name, provide for all what the kingship of God promises.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30

Christian A. Eberhart

The lectionary passage Philippians 1:21–30 starts with an impressive statement about life and death.

The Apostle Paul wrote these lines during his imprisonment in Rome, probably some time between 61 and 63 C.E. This specific situation is important to understand our text. Most likely, Paul’s imprisonment was rather a situation of house arrest under military custody that would have allowed him certain privileges, for instance visits of Timothy with whom he penned this letter.

It is nevertheless clear that Paul’s theological reflections are a response to the imminence of death, which was a potential outcome of this predicament. (His death in Rome just a few years later is the topic of the 2nd century apocryphal writing called Martyrdom of Paul). In our pericope, Paul provides an impressive reevaluation of death (Philippians 1:21–26) that leads to an exhortation of the congregation to suffer for Christ (1:27–30). The passage is followed by the famous hymn celebrating Christ’s humility until death (2:6–11), the lectionary text of the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Our pericope starts with the following sentences: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:21–23, NRSV). When hearing such a statement, some might be impressed by Paul’s religious enthusiasm. Others may feel uncomfortable or might even want to accuse the apostle of boasting. I feel compelled to ask, “Are you sure, Paul, you don’t hang on to life more than that?” What kind of principle is “dying is gain” anyway?

Most of our modern culture is dominated by countless efforts of making life more gratifying and fulfilling while eliminating the threat and experience of death. We tend to admire people who succeed in life or who live their lives to the fullest. There are not many role models for the idea that “dying is gain.”

So how could the Apostle Paul make such a statement some 2,000 years ago? We find the answer first in his situation of imprisonment mentioned above. It came with the potential of death, and thus it was only appropriate for Paul to reflect on death instead of adopting a state of denial. We encounter the result of his reflections in verse 23: “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

Second, it is clear that Paul’s reflections hinge on the presence of Christ. Paul is absolutely certain that death is not a transition into a state of non-existence; hence, he is not afraid of it. Paul does not doubt at all that death can only be the moment when he will be united with Christ. This is a faith perspective the apostle has developed earlier: “ … we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NRSV).

The test of such faith comes in a situation of impending death, be it in the first century C.E. or more recently. In the spring of 1945, the last message written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer before his execution in a concentration camp in Nazi-Germany demonstrates a similar kind of confidence: “ … for me this is the end but also the beginning. With him (sc. the bishop of Chichester to whom this message was addressed) I believe in the principle of our Universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain.”

For our perspectives on death, the centeredness on the resurrected Christ can make a big difference. It turns typical human perspectives on life upside down. Attitudes of ‘living life to the fullest’ suddenly become questionable. The quest for more material possessions suddenly becomes vain. In the Letter to the Philippians, Paul turns his attention instead to the people who had gathered around him to hear the message of Christ. He wants to be their servant. He therefore makes a few recommendations on how followers of Christ should live (1:27–30). His words convey expectations of an endearing relationship between the members of the congregation in Philippi, who are to be “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (1:27).

Again, I am not certain whether everybody feels comfortable with such a statement. These are high ideals for communal life. Yet do we not all know how divided our church congregations are today? Divisions because of worship styles, dogmatic issues, dress codes, or matters of life style are ubiquitous, leaving the ‘body of Christ’ separated into different denominations and sub-groups. It might help to reflect on the fact that this situation in the Christian Church is not recent; it probably existed already during Paul’s time.

If he reminded the congregation in Philippi to be unified, did this not imply that there were divisions? Were not the opening chapters of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians also dealing with the problem that people there followed Christ but declared they belonged to Paul or Apollos or Cephas (1:12)?

In the end, the crucial question is whether essential or secondary aspects determine corporate church identities. There can never be enough of a focus on Jesus Christ, that is, on the story of his life, suffering, and death, and on the gospel of salvation through faith in him (see, for example, Philippians 2:6–11). Only when we hear this gospel time and again will we be able to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Those called “Christians” should always strive to learn more about the person after whom they are named.