Lectionary Commentaries for September 24, 2017
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16

Stanley Saunders

Matthew’s parable of the workers in the vineyard — or is it the gracious landowner, or maybe the union-busting landowner? — has most often been read as an allegory in which the landowner stands for God.

In this reading, God is the gracious master who rewards all the workers equally (= salvation), thereby upsetting the workers who toiled all day (the Jews) by giving the latecomers (Gentiles) the same rewards.

We should always be deeply suspicious of allegorical readings that turn out to favor Christians at the expense of Israel. Jesus’ parables are meant to get us to think critically about the world we have constructed, free us from our cultural shackles and self-deceptions, and enable us to discern more clearly how God works in the world. Instead of allegory, we should read the story on its own terms, as a straightforward account of the interactions between a landowner and the day laborers who work for him.

We are tempted to see the landowner in God-like terms because he is powerful, he hires workers all day long and pays them all equally, and he declares his own goodness and justice. We should remember, however, that at the end of the day the workers are all as vulnerable and powerless as they were at the beginning of the day, except that, we will see, they have lost their dignity, and probably their unity. The injustices are intensified, not overturned. Day-laborers constituted a limitless and disposable fuel — bodies to be burned up — that made the ancient economy run. Our world is again full of such bodies, who make our clothes, produce our food, and assemble our electronic gizmos, yet never gain enough traction to be able to join the world of consumers. The parable thus pulls back the curtain on the ways our own world works, as it would have for Jesus’ audience.

It is true that, at one level, the landowner treats the workers with equality. He goes hunting for workers throughout the day, and they keep showing up until the very end. It is a landowner’s dream market. He pays everyone what they had agreed to be paid and, in the case of those hired at the end, even more than they might have expected.

All this apparent justice is, however, cast into question by the landowner’s actions and words from the point the payments begin to be made. He stipulates that those hired last will be paid first (Matthew 20:8). Why? This arrangement serves no evident purpose but to make his gesture of “equality” evident to those who worked all day. If the goal is really to create equality among the workers, the landowner could do so without making a public display. Apparently he intends to provoke a reaction. He uses his interaction with first-hired, last-paid workers to declare his own justness and goodness. After all, he is paying those who worked all day just what they had agreed to be paid (20:13). He is also only doing what is his right “with what belongs to me” (20:14). The implicit message in these words is that it all belongs to him, including the workers, with whom he can do what he pleases. He addresses one of them as “friend,” which sounds nice, but we should hear it pronounced with a sneer. In Matthew “friend” is consistently employed ironically: in Matthew 22:12 a king uses it to address a man he is about to have bound hand and foot and booted into outer darkness, because he had come improperly dressed to the wedding feast. Jesus himself calls Judas “friend” as he comes to betray Jesus in Gethsemane (26:50). The landowner’s apparent graciousness and justice are, in fact, viciousness in disguise — a pretty package with a bomb in it. He has been “generous,” but only with some and in a way that means to incite “envy” (20:15). We should hope that this is not the way God acts.

Why have so many readers in the history of the church wanted to make this landowner into a God-figure? Why do we so often think that the power figures — whether kings, landowners, or fathers — represent divine authority? Is God really like these? Or are they merely god-like in our mind’s eye? Why do so many of us still want to believe what the powerful people say, even when it flies in the face of reality? The parable teaches us to read our world critically.

We should also question a corresponding vilification of the workers. They might indeed have accepted their pay and gone home happy that everyone got what they needed to make it another day. But few of us would be happy in a system of this kind of so-called justice. We shape our identities and our sense of worth by constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. We want fairness and equality, when it serves our interest, but not if it means that we all get the same prize in the end. Where is the reward in that? Regardless of what they were paid, all the workers went home seeing more clearly the vast gulf that exists between the landowner and themselves. They have gotten paid, but the landowner has now taken their dignity and whatever vestiges of power they might once have possessed. They will be back in marketplace again tomorrow. Nothing has changed but the self-respect they have had wrenched away.

The parable in fact depicts a limited, and thus false, form of justice. We can tell it is false justice because it produces envy and division, rather than wholeness and healed relationships. Jesus’ disciples have and will soon again demonstrate their interest in securing places of status and prestige in the kingdom (Matthew 18:1, 19:27-30, 20:20-23). They, too, like the workers in the vineyard, will splinter and become alienated. The parable is meant for them. It is a harsh reminder that there is no justice, no kingdom of heaven, when we end up alone in the world.

First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:10—4:11

Karla Suomala

Scholars have expended a lot of energy and paper trying to establish the genre of the Book of Jonah.

What kind of story is it? The Book of Jonah is completely unlike any of the prophetic texts in the Hebrew Bible, and Jonah himself is unlike any other prophet. In terms of the text itself, it is primarily narrative rather than poetry; the story features Jonah as a character rather than the narrator or God’s mouthpiece; the story is filled with the absurd — storms on demand, whales swallowing people, God-appointed worms — rather than warnings, judgment, and critique; and the story ends with actual resolution — God says he will act and he does — rather than the hope of resolution.

In addition, the main character, Jonah, is as un-prophetic as one can possibly be. In fact, I would call him an anti-prophet. It is almost as if God has skipped the vetting process entirely. Not only does Jonah lack the experience needed, he has no interest in, no passion for, and no demonstrated potential to be a prophet (at least from what we are told).

Nevertheless, the story has a prophetic flavor to it, beginning as many of the books of the prophets do, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh.’” Generally, we can expect that with these weighty opening words we are going to hear something from God through one of God’s prophets. But not with Jonah — he doesn’t even wait long enough to hear what he’s supposed to say to the Ninevites before he takes off running.

Occasionally the prophets will come up with excuses… “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” cries Jeremiah. The more persistent Moses states, “Who am I to go to the great Pharaoh in Egypt in order to rescue the Israelites?” Jonah, however, doesn’t even bother with excuses. Instead, he runs in the opposite direction, hopping aboard a Tarshish-bound ship and hoping to get as far away from both Nineveh and God as he can.

But God doesn’t let Jonah off so easily. God pulls out all the stops — a storm at sea, a whale, and miraculous survival — to make sure that Jonah does what he has been asked to do.

Once he finally arrives in Nineveh, Jonah follows God’s orders and begins his walk through the great city — a journey of three days from one end to the other — shouting, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The text indicates that Jonah makes it through only one-third of the city — one day’s walk — and the Ninevites put on sackcloth and ashes and begin to repent. He doesn’t even have to confront the king directly — the word spreads so quickly.

Once the king hears the message, he immediately sets out a decree of fasting and repentance for the entire city. Even the animals must put on sackcloth and fast.

This is unheard of. The people never listen to the prophets in biblical stories, at least not at first.

And then there’s Jonah, the anti-prophet — a day’s walk through Nineveh with an eight-word message and even the animals are fasting and wearing sackcloth. And God changes God’s mind, and doesn’t destroy Nineveh.

Yet Jonah isn’t satisfied. He’s ticked off. “I knew this would happen,” he says. “That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and easy with punishment.”

Every single prophet in the Bible hopes, prays, and dreams of the response of the Ninevites. Yet it never, ever happens this way. When they are worn out, chased, harassed, run down, and at their wit’s end, the prophets can only say, “Lord, it would be better for me to die.” Jonah, on the other hand, after the single biggest success story in the Bible — 120,000 people and countless animals change their ways in one day — goes on to say, “Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

God tries to ease Jonah’s pain in the wake of all this success, and appoints a bush to grow and provide shade, so that Jonah can take in the great miracle from his vantage point just outside the city. Overnight a worm comes to attack the bush and it withers and dies. Jonah wakes up to the hot sun and again begs to die. God asks Jonah not once but twice, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah never gives an inch, responding, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

The story ends with God asking Jonah a final question, “You are concerned about the bush, which you didn’t work for and which you did not grow … Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” I think we often read this question, assuming what Jonah’s response will finally be. But I don’t think Jonah would have given in. I think this story concludes with a truly perplexed God. A God who says, “I have pulled out all the stops, I have given you the prophet’s dream job — all of the people and even the animals in the biggest city on earth have changed their ways in one day’s time. And yet you are still angry, and you still want to die.”

The Book of Jonah pushes us to see how God often works with us in spite of ourselves! I think it’s amazing that God provides a shade bush so that Jonah can watch the unprecedented transformation of the city unfold before him in comfort, but he just can’t seem to enjoy it. It’s easy to blame Jonah for being petty, but we often do the same thing ourselves. Can we lift up our eyes from our own concerns, just for a second, to see God acting right in front of us?

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15

Anathea Portier-Young

Christians are often eager to follow John’s Gospel in typologically linking the “bread from heaven” of Exodus 16 with the incarnation of Christ and the Eucharistic meal (John 6:30-58). This week’s lectionary pairing moves in another direction.

This week’s lectionary pairing moves in another direction. In the gospel reading for this sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we hear no discourse about the “bread of life.” Instead, we are challenged by a parable that defies economic common sense, revealing the economy of God’s kingdom to be one guided by justice, grace, generosity, and the reversal of status hierarchies (Matthew 20:4, 12, 14-16). The pairing of Exodus 16:2-15 with Matthew 20:1-16 similarly challenges us to focus our attention on the social, political, and economic ramifications of liberation and divine generosity in the story of manna and quail in the wilderness.

The story’s social dimension is brought immediately to the fore in the subject of the first verse: “the whole congregation of the children of Israel” (Exodus 16:2). This congregation is first mentioned, four times, in Exodus 12, in the instructions for the first Passover meal (Exodus 12:3, 6, 19, 47). The next cluster of occurrences of the word “congregation” are in Exodus 16:1-17:1, where the word is repeated six times (16:1, 2, 9, 10, 22, 17:1). The word does not appear again in Exodus until 34:31, where it precedes the first public reiteration of the Sinai covenant (34:32). The third and final cluster of references to the “congregation” continues in chapters 35 and 38, with specific reference to Sabbath and the building and furnishing of the tabernacle (35:1, 4, 20, 38:25).

This pattern of clustering highlights three key moments in the constitution of Israel as a people: 1) communal preparation, enactment, and reenactment of God’s plan for liberation from slavery; 2) the provision and gathering of bread and quail in the wilderness; and 3) the gifts of the law and sacred time and the people’s participation in the construction of the sanctuary that would locate worship at the center of their common life.

It seems obvious that the first and third moments constitute Israel as God’s people. How, then, does the provision and gathering of bread and quail in the wilderness similarly shape and define God’s people as “congregation”? The people are shaped as congregation through God’s response to human lack. This responsive gift of provision requires human participation in a labor economy of sufficiency and equality, rather than accumulation and disparity, and establishes a rhythm of life that mirrors creation. 

The story begins with a complaint, a death-wish, and a stark assertion of lack (Exodus 16:2-3). The congregation has left the land of Egypt only to find itself in a dry and barren wilderness (16:2). They are united by insecurity, anxiety, and hunger. Their complaint soon emerges as a central motivator in the narrative: four times the congregation is told that God acted because God heard their complaint (16:7, 8, 9, 12).

God’s hearing also motivated God to liberate the Israelites from slavery. The groans and cries of an enslaved people caused God to remember the covenant God had made with their ancestors and to ransom them from their captors (Exodus 2:24, 3:7-8, 6:5-6). God’s hearing contrasts sharply with Pharaoh’s refusal and inability to hear (5:2, 7:4, 13, 16, 22, 8:11, 15, 9:12, 11:19). Hearing demands a response; Pharaoh would not hear so that he would not have to respond. Beneficiaries of political and social systems that are ordered toward the preservation and augmentation of wealth and power for one group at the expense of another are skilled at ignoring the realities they do not wish to acknowledge.

By contrast, God hears and acts. God acknowledges the insecurity and anxiety of the congregation and perceives its connection to their material, embodied needs. God’s response is concrete and “down to earth” and promises to re-form the once-enslaved people in the daily and weekly rhythms of provision, labor, satiety, and rest. These rhythms mirror the poetry of creation found in Genesis 1.

The rhythm of Genesis 1’s creation story is established first and foremost by the six-fold repetition of the phrase “and there was evening and there was morning” followed by the enumeration of days one through six (Genesis 1:5,8,13,19,23,31). The seventh day is set apart not through repetition, but through “ceasing” (2:2), which interrupts the pattern of making or doing with a time of rest from labor. In Exodus 16, the reference to the culmination of labor and a double-portion of bread “on the sixth day” hints at a connection to the creation narrative (Exodus 16:4-5). The subsequent four-fold alternation of evening and morning strengthens this connection as the promise of provision and instructions for the people’s labor are spelled out in further detail (16:6-7, 8, 12, 13).

The congregation will be shaped by the mundane, day-to-day work by which they respond to the divine gift that supplies their lack (16:4). They will be created and re-created in routines of contingency, dependence, trust, and generosity. They are promised that by observing this routine they will come to know God as the one who freed them from slavery and sustained them each day in the wilderness (16:6, 7, 12).

The lection does not tell us how the people respond to this charge. It leaves us instead with their puzzlement and with Moses’ assertion that this thin crust that coats the earth is their bread and a gift from their God (Exodus 16:15). Their response is yet to come, and so is ours.

It is noteworthy that the first issue to arise after the experience of liberation from slavery is the question of how to establish a sustainable economy in a place called wilderness. If you are preparing to preach on this passage, you might discern a connection to the food insecurity that still plagues hundreds of millions throughout the world, or to the modern hoarding of wealth and opportunity by privileged elites that more closely resembles Pharaoh’s economy of slavery than the new wilderness polity.

We can imitate Pharaoh, and refuse to hear, or we can imitate God, and acknowledge and respond to complaints that are borne of hunger, lack, and crippling anxiety. With these realities in view, ask, what are the daily practices and rhythms of life that will ensure food security, fair wages, equal opportunity, and rest for all members of your communities?


Commentary on Psalm 145:1-8

Paul O. Myhre

Remembering someone, remembering important events in life, and just the act of remembering has a way of bringing the past into the present.

I close my eyes and remember an event and before I know it I am transported in my mind’s eye to that event as if it were in the present. I can feel the event and sense memories associated with it coursing through my body. I can hear the sounds that were present — deceased family member’s voices. I smell the fragrances permeating the space from flowers turned to dust decades ago. In my mind’s eye I see the colors and shapes of objects and living plants that have changed or disappeared over time. And I can sense the feel of textures running though my fingers and feel the earth beneath my feet, and almost taste the event as if it were in my present experience rather than something that happened long ago. The human mind can transport us to places where we once were for brief moments and we can experience that day, those indelible moments, all over again. It is a gift that accompanies being human.

In Psalm 145 the writer breathes an air that is dense like fog and bright as a welder’s torch. The poetry is thick with the unwritten experiences of the writer. It is the utterances of one who has experienced difficult life situations that reflect more keenly on the activity of God in the writer’s life. It is the one who has had close brushes with the threat of death who can witness to something greater than one’s own life or experiences of life. Those who are well acquainted with the trials of living know something that those who have not experienced them cannot quite comprehend or understand.

The depth of God’s activity in one’s life transcends the crisis of cancer, the trauma of physical and emotional violence, and the difficulties of living with physical maladies. The Psalmist reminds readers of what they may already know. God is ruler. God is worthy of praise because God has made all that is and will ever be. God has formed the molecules that make up the cells and systems of a human body. God has created the trillions of bacteria that live in human intestines and the microbes that travel over our skin and lick our eyes as we sleep.

The Psalm functions in part like a dance of poetry in motion. The theological ruminations of the writer swirl, leap, tap, and bend like trees in the wind. The movements at times are like a blurry image that sweeps past too quickly for one to make out the details. It is like an Indianapolis 500 racecar that flies past one’s viewing location at over 200 miles per hour. You know the car is there, but the details are difficult to discern. What is the measure of God’s greatness? No one can discern it. Yet something can be said about it since there are traces of it in history, creation, and human experience.

The power of the writer’s poetry is that it doesn’t define everything like a math equation or narrative prose. It leaves holes for the imagination to fill and provides mounds on which readers can stand to see further than they could by standing on flat ground. The phrase “one generation commends your works to another” carries with it a great crowd of comments. It evokes in my mind my grandparents’ generation of upper Midwestern farmers who were primarily second-generation Norwegian immigrants whose theology was steeped in the Lutheranism of the home country from which their parents emigrated. That generation’s reflections on the activity of God were passed on to my parents who then combined them with their own perceptions about the activities of God. I in turn took their amalgamation of theological musings and passed them on to my children. The string of stories weaves back and forth like a large tapestry shaped on the loom of experience. There is not one story that doesn’t touch another. Each one feels the threads and carries the traces of hands that wove them together. Indelible marks are made as God’s activity is discerned and they are carried forward in stories so that subsequent generations might weave them with their own.

The writer of Psalm 145 conveys a theology that is steeped in historic reflection and communal experience. It provides hearers and readers with a profile page of sorts about the nature of God who is worthy of praise. God’s greatness is beyond measure. God’s activity has been in favor of the people of God. God abounds in mercy and love. God works are forever worthy of meditation. This psalm’s poetry is like midnight water lapping at the edges of the lakeshores of something we know, but can’t quite make out. Yet we can discern something.

Artists are taught in their formal training to be attentive to everything and to the smallest of details. They are invited to think about the hundreds of insects, thousands of blades of grass, and millions of microbes in a single square foot of ground. To draw that one square foot takes patience and attention. It requires a willingness to reflect on what is there and what isn’t there. As one begins to see the patterns of growth, the movement of insects, and watch the ways by which the grass moves as wind flows across it, they can begin to discern how to draw that which is before them. Like an Andrew Wyeth painting the honing of a capacity to see carries with it more than just reproduction of what is there. It involves inner drawings that are crafted at the same time as that which is sketched on a page.

The practice of drawing can be an exercise of praise to God as one reflects on the one’s life stories, ponders the splendor of God’s created world, and considers the possibilities of God’s activity in the present. Every time I read the phrases of this psalm I am transported to places of reflection about the creative activity of the artist God who still creates today. This brings forth praise.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30

Troy Troftgruben

“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” ~ Paul (author’s translation).

For us who read from a context of relative ease, these words are jarring. Paul writes from prison (Philippians 1:7, 13-14, 17), uncertain whether he will die (verses 19-20), hoping only that “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (verse 20). The circumstances have not dampened Paul’s joy (see 1:18; 3:1a; 4:4, 10). Perhaps they have even clarified his focus. Regardless, Paul’s words in this passage crystallize two of the greatest takeaways from Philippians.

Takeaway #1: The centrality of Christ (1:21-26)

In case you didn’t notice, Christ is a big deal for Paul. And Philippians showcases that. Christ is the one for whose sake Paul has deemed all past trophies and treasures “dung” (skybala, NRSV “rubbish,” 3:8). What is more, Christ exemplifies both the “mind” believers are to have (2:5) and the general pattern they are to live (2:1-4, 5-11).

Here in our passage, Paul attributes Christ with the significance of all living: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (NRSV). The verse’s brevity, alliteration, and assonance (in Greek) make for an emphatic point — one the original hearers would have noticed.

Later Paul professes a desire to depart “and be with Christ, for that is far better” (verse 23). Only the prospect of “fruitful labor,” invested in the Philippians’ progress and faith, keeps him contentedly present (1:22-26). Even so, between life and death, Paul confesses “I do not know which I prefer” and “I am hard pressed between the two” (verses 22-23).

However surprising (and potentially dangerous if taken out of context) Paul’s flippancy about death is, his rhetorical point is not about death but about Christ — and his power over death. Paul writes as one seasoned in life-threatening situations for Christ’s sake (2 Corinthians 11:23-29), making this instance nothing new. Over the course of these hardships, Paul has embraced the motto: “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (my translation; see also Romans 13:7-9).

Christ at the center

One of the most striking features of Philippians is how it places Christ at the center: at the center of worthy pursuits (3:4b-14), at the center of thinking (2:5), at the center of ethical reflection (2:1-11), at the center of life (1:21-26), and at the center of worship (2:9-11). Gordon Fee points out: “On anybody’s reading, Christ plays the absolutely central role in Paul’s life and thought, and nowhere is that more evident than in Philippians.”1

Whatever our reactions to Paul’s flippancy about death (Philippians 1:21-24), his rhetorical point is clear: to glorify Christ (1:18, 20) and credit him with the meaning of life. This relentless focus on Christ is worth our extensive meditation.

Takeaway #2: A life reflective of the Gospel (1:27-30)

Philippians 1:27 issues the letter’s primary appeal: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” After the initial greetings (1:1-2), thanksgiving (1:3-11), and circumstances (1:12-26), Paul here begins to direct hearers toward specific behavior (see 1 Thessalonians 2:12 for similar language).

The verb for “live” (politeuesthe) is not Paul’s typical word choice for patterns of living (see also peripateite, Galatians 5:16; Philippians 3:17, 18). It is the language of public citizenship or civic loyalty, with political overtones. Later Paul uses the same root to remind the Philippians “our citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven” (3:20). These word choices together issue a politically-laden charge to those in a city with strong Roman loyalties: “live in a way that honors the message of Christ” — a message that proudly calls him (not Caesar) “Lord” (1:2; 2:11; 3:8, 20; 4:5, 23).

Paul observes “you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:30). Given his circumstances, this must mean harassment at the hands of Roman authorities (see also 2:14-16; 3:2-4a). Elsewhere Paul reports “we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi” (1 Thessalonians 2:2), and Acts records experiences of this kind (16:19-40). To believers in this city, Paul encourages standing firm, trusting that suffering for Christ’s sake is finally a privilege (Philippians 1:27-29).

Suffering for Christ

Paul’s positive spin on the Philippians’ suffering does not condone suffering of all kinds — nor does it attribute it to God’s will. His goal in Philippians 1:28-29 is for distressed believers in Philippi to see their hardships for professing Christ as Lord as proof of the certainty of their future hope: salvation (see also 2:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). Paul depicts this suffering for Christ’s sake as a “privilege,” given to accompany faith (Philippians 2:12-13), probably because it fosters conformity to Christ, who himself suffered and was raised (Romans 6:1-6).

Many of us today do not often suffer for the gospel. But Paul’s charge to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” still stands. His appeal calls us to a faith that is public (vs. private), a witness that “strives side by side” with others for the gospel, and a devotion to Christ as Lord that governs all other loyalties — despite the consequences.

Preachers may compare Philippians 1:21-30 with Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16, where unanticipated hardships (or grace toward others) become testing grounds for thankfulness, faith, and loyalty. They also show how prone we are to respond ungraciously to hardships, despite God’s generosity. The call to honor God above all others shines through all readings, not because we are well able, but because God in Christ first graciously acts on our behalf.


1 Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 49.