Lectionary Commentaries for September 21, 2008
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16

Ira Brent Driggers

Jesus certainly has an interesting definition of “fair wage.”

Imagine the corporate executive’s reaction to this parable: If reimbursement is not commensurate with hours worked, then how will I motivate my employees? And if I can’t motivate my employees, how will I sell my product, serve my clients, and turn my profit? Or imagine the committed worker who puts in the long hours. Well, we do not really need to imagine this since Jesus describes him for us: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” It’s just not fair. If that’s how it’s going to be, why shouldn’t we just dally all day long and punch in at four o’clock? Thus, Jesus undermines the great Protestant work ethic.

I liken the scandal here to what the older son experiences in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It is simply not fair for the father to lavish all his attention upon the younger son and treat him as the honored guest after he has brought immeasurable shame upon the family. If parents everywhere acted like this father, the world would quickly spin into chaos. So it is also with the landowner. With people like him running our businesses, nothing would get done. Both the father and the landowner appear to “enable” inappropriate behavior. They are strange models of parenting and of vineyard management. But in what way, exactly, are they “models?”

We must resist the temptation to extract universal principles of behavior from Jesus’ parables, forgetting the specific concern to which they are directed in the narrative. In this case, the attentive audience will have noticed that Jesus is never asked a question like, “How should I run my vineyard?” or “What kind of wage should I expect as a vineyard worker?” In fact, Jesus is never asked a question at all. He has been teaching about the kingdom of heaven for quite some time. And in describing the kingdom to his disciples, he must use human categories and analogies. It’s “like” this; and it’s “like” that. No single parable–not even all the parables–can fully capture the kingdom of heaven for us, but we can learn something about it if we listen carefully.

Since the parable speaks to the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, we must resist pushing the analogy too far. We mustn’t force it to fit into what we already know, or assume to know, about “the way the world works.” In fact, if the parable is about Jesus’ kingdom, then it is really not at all about “reimbursement” or “fair wages”–the principles we normally associate with hired labor. It is rather about a gracious and undeserving gift. It is about what Jesus brings to the world and how he transforms it. After all, who is Jesus, and what is his ministry, if not a gracious transformation, a divine reclamation, of the world?

Notice, for instance, that even the workers hired early in the morning, the ones who later complain about the owner’s fairness, roll out of bed un-employed. But the owner finds them and gives them work. I imagine they were, no less than the nine o’clock hires, “standing idle in the marketplace.” Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t working. There was no real livelihood prior to the owner seeking them out. But by the end of the day they seem to have forgotten this. Or maybe they never really understood. What is clear is that, come payment time, they are thinking only in terms of just reward. Pay must be commensurate with the hours worked−as if the work itself was not the real “reward.”

Our modern capitalist impulses will lead us to think that the laborers are providing a mutual service to the landowner. And it may be that Matthew’s first hearers were tempted, at least initially, to think the same. In our cynical moments (which we mistakenly term “realist”), we are prone to reduce human interactions to self-interest: if this is real economic exchange, then there’s something in it for the landowner as well. But Jesus’ parable is not about a landowner looking for help from others as much as it’s about a landowner who helps others. More to the point: it’s about a landowner who sweeps up idle (and therefore lost) people and gives them a purpose. Indeed, given that this is a parable about Jesus’ kingdom, what we’re talking about here is the purpose we’ve been looking for, or avoiding, all along: God’s purpose for us.

So there’s absolutely no room for questioning the landowner’s rationale for payment: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” It reminds me of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). How easy it is to forget over the course of the day that every good thing comes to us as a gracious gift from God, and God is not required or compelled to create us, much less pull us out of our estranged idleness. While it is true, then, that the parable isn’t intended specifically to model economic relations, your average corporate executive and hard-working employee still have every reason to be offended. Jesus’ kingdom will offend all of us who assume that the future, if it is to be good, must be earned and deserved.

Within the narrative, Jesus seems to be defending his inclusion of those traditionally deemed unworthy of the kingdom (e.g., tax collectors and sinners). Outside the narrative, Matthew may also be defending the recent influx of Gentile converts into a predominantly Jewish Christianity. In both cases, the point is that fewer hours clocked serving the Lord does not lessen one’s status as a laborer, either now or in eternity. These historical explanations are probably worth mentioning to a congregation, but one need not dwell on them. The logic of the workers’ complaint will be sure to surface anywhere God’s grace disrupts our sense of just recompense (e.g., new church members taking leadership positions too quickly, someone sulking over lack of sufficient recognition, failure to accept a repentant sinner, etc). Faced with God’s boundless love for the world, especially when it is lavished upon others, we reveal whether we view our own labor as a gift from God or as benefit to God, as the joyful fulfillment of our created purpose or as the mere endurance of scorching heat.

First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:10—4:11

Anathea Portier-Young

God commanded the prophet of Israel to preach repentance to a faraway city whose evil was so great it rose up heavenward like a stench.

Jonah’s vain efforts to refuse this mission and his bitter pain at its success have earned him the ridicule of commentators and preachers who call him petulant and small-minded, as though he hated the idea that God could care about Gentiles.

A closer look at what Jonah’s earliest readers knew tells a different story: Nineveh wasn’t just any evil city. It was the capital city of the ruthless empire that would obliterate the kingdom of Israel within decades of Jonah’s saving mission. God planned evil against them for their sins. But Jonah knew better: for Nineveh, God’s mercy would prevail over God’s justice. And mercy for Nineveh would one day spell destruction, death, and deportation for Jonah’s home and people.

Jonah wanted no part in God’s plan; he fought it with all his power. The fourth century CE poem Carmen de Iona et Ninive (“Song of Jonah and Nineveh”) gave voice to Jonah’s struggle, as he raged against such a costly mercy: “See! I am the storm! I am all the madness of the world. Against me the heavens rush and the sea rises. In me the earth is far, death is near, there is no hope of God!” Jonah was not small-minded. But neither could he see the good news that his mission would spell life for 120,000 people and unnumbered cattle. He carried the hope of God to a people that had seemed beyond hope.

On the heels of Jonah’s successful preaching and the Ninevites’ remarkable repentance, God relented of the evil God had planned to do to them, exchanging justice for mercy (3:10). Jonah was upset–the text literally says, “It was evil to him a great evil” (4:1). Jonah became angry, and he prayed to God, asking God to let him die. God responded instead with a question: “Is it good for you to be angry?” (4:4). Jonah’s refusal to answer invites us deeper into the struggle between justice and mercy, salvation and death, prophet and God.

Now we see Jonah exit the city, stationing himself on the east side, and setting up a booth, watching and waiting for something more to happen. The mission to Nineveh is over, but the crux of the book is here, in the lessons God hopes to teach the angry prophet.

God’s lessons begin with a plant. Its name, (in Hebrew) qiqayon, hints at a deeper meaning than we might at first suspect. This hapax legomenon (a word that occurs only once in the biblical corpus) plays with the sounds and letters of the verb qāya’, “to vomit,” which described the fish’s vomiting of Jonah in 2:11, and those of Jonah’s name, yônah. The living parable of the plant will teach Jonah not only about God’s concern for Nineveh, but also about Jonah.

Vomited from the fish, delivered from death, Jonah performed God’s work of salvation for Nineveh, saving them from their evil just as the plant was to “save” Jonah from his evil (lehatsîl lô mērā‛ātô  4:6). God needed this prophet who knew God’s merciful nature (“I knew that you are a gracious God” 4:2) to teach a people who not only did not know God’s nature but did not “know their right hand from their left” (4:11). So Jonah became the shading plant protecting Nineveh.

But now God appoints a little worm to smite the plant, and it withers–it does not bode well for Jonah. The scorching sun and wind beat on Jonah’s head, and he faints. Without the plant’s protection he cannot stand. He begs for death. God asks him now, “Is it good for you to be angry about the qiqayon-plant?” (4:9). And this time Jonah answers, “Yes, it is good for me to be angry, unto death” (4:9).

God is not put off by this answer: it is honest. Jonah has lost an unexpected good–the great joy śimhāh gedôlāh  he found in the plant. Now God compares the plant to Nineveh, “that great city,” posing a final question to Jonah: Jonah cared for the plant God made, and grieved when he lost it. He didn’t labor over it, didn’t raise it. It came one night and was gone the next. What about Nineveh? How should God feel about Nineveh, a city with 120,000 people who don’t know their right from their left–without Jonah’s preaching, they don’t know which way to go, and don’t know what is right–and so many innocent cattle? They are God’s creatures all–and if they are truly like Jonah’s plant, then their repentance has brought God great joy.

Should God also care about Nineveh? For Jonah, the question sounds like this: should God care about the cruel killers who will soon kill Jonah’s own people and destroy his homeland? Do they deserve mercy? Do they deserve to be saved? Does it even matter to God what they deserve? Does a good God dispense with justice, just because God cares about everyone, even the cattle? Where is the justice in God’s grace?

The story ends with this question, with Jonah still sitting outside the city, waiting to see what will happen. We are left wrestling with the goodness of God, a goodness that is not a respecter of persons or animals. We wrestle with the goodness of God that demands that we be God’s grace to our enemies, and to the innocent in their midst. This goodness hounds us, follows us into the belly of the boat and the beast, into every place where we try to escape our calling, and calls us out to speak the saving truth of repentance and mercy for all of God’s creatures.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Exodus 16 has many themes that speak to Christians today–grumbling by the people of God, good provision by God, and the importance of Sabbath rest.

Exodus 1:8 tells us that after the Israelites had lived in Egypt for some time in relative peace, “a new king [pharaoh] arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” That pharaoh oppressed the Israelites, and their cries for help reached the ears of God. We read in Exodus 2:24-25, “God heard their groanings, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” God called to Moses from the burning bush and sent him to demand that pharaoh allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. A series of confrontations between Moses and pharaoh, in which God demonstrated his power over the Egyptian gods, culminated in the death of all the Egyptian first-born. Afterward, the Israelites left Egypt and began their journey to the land God had promised to their ancestors (Exodus 6:7-8).

No sooner had the people left Egypt, however, than they began to grumble against Moses and God. When they reached the shores of the Reed Sea and saw that the Egyptian army was pursuing, they cried, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11). God intervened, allowing the Israelites to cross the Sea in safety. Exodus 15:1-21 records the people’s joyous celebration of their miraculous deliverance.

Only three days later, the people were thirsty, having found only bitter water and they grumbled again, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). God provided fresh water and they continued on their journey. On the fifteenth day of the second month, the people again found themselves in seemingly dismal circumstances, and they complained, “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” (Exodus 16:3).

“If only we had…” “If only I had . . .” Words of regret in the present, of fear for the future. “If only . . .” the Israelites cried out to God in their oppression under pharaoh. God sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead them out of their oppression. God guided them through the first perilous days of their journey to freedom. God provided water when they felt they could go no further. At every juncture, God was there. According to Exodus 13:21-22, “The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day . . . and in a pillar of fire by night . . . Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” 

Yet the grumblings, the “if only’s”, are a constant theme in the stories of the wilderness. Our text for this commentary marks a dramatic moment in the story. After the third episode of grumbling, God spoke to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you” (Exodus 16:4). But the “rain of bread” came with a condition. The people could gather the bread for six days each week and on the sixth day, God would give a double portion of the bread. The people were not to gather bread on the seventh day. Why? Why only gather bread for six days? In Exodus 16:6-7, Moses and Aaron said to the people, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, for he has heard your complaining against the LORD.”

Exodus 16 is a story about trusting in the provision of God, and it is a story about Sabbath rest. The root of the Hebrew word for sabbath means “to stop”–stop doing what you do during the other six days of the week. Our model for Sabbath rest (Sabbath stopping) comes from Genesis 2:2; when God finished the creative work, he “stopped” on the seventh day. Our instruction for Sabbath rest comes from Exodus 16. God commanded that humans stop, put aside their daily chore of gathering bread, and marvel at God’s provision for them. In the wilderness, God forged a relationship with the people that called them to trust God to provide for their every need, not just for today, but for tomorrow as well. 

Sabbath rest is a difficult concept in the twenty-first century world. How can we simply “stop”? What will happen to our jobs, our families, our sense of identity if we “stop” for Sabbath? And, what does it mean to “stop”? Stopping has to do with cessation, with taking time to contemplate our place within the created world. Stopping has to do with reflecting on the good provisions of God in our lives.

The manna was a gift to our ancestors in faith and it was a test. The gift was food for the journey; the test was of faith in God’s promise of good provisions. When our ancestors saw the manna for the first time, they asked “What is it?” (Exodus 16:15), in Hebrew “man-hu.” Thus, the name of the substance both commemorates the people’s wonder at God’s provision and reflects their lack of trust in the God who delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians. Manna from God, in whatever form it takes in our daily lives, is God’s promise to provide for us; it is up to us to gather the manna during the days it is given and to trust God to give us manna during the days of stopping–the days of Sabbath rest.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30

David E. Fredrickson

Modern interpreters agree: Philippians is the friendliest of Paul’s letters.

But how friendly? Throughout the letter, Paul casts his relationship with Christ in the language of ancient love poetry. For those readers with ears to hear, erotic motifs invented by the archaic Greek poets, echoing through Paul’s day and well into late antiquity, can be heard in Philippians. Philippians, it turns out, is a really friendly letter.

There was, in the ancient world, a permeable border between eros, agape, and philia, forms of love which for sixty years preachers have been admonished to keep apart. Agape and Eros by Anders Nygren, a book whose influence on sermons has far exceeded its scholarly merit, drove a wedge between agape, on one side, and eros and philia, on the other. To make his case, Nygren had to smuggle in a false characterization of ancient eros. But one needs only to breeze through the fragments of Sappho (7th century B. C. E) to realize there is something very wrong with Nygren’s view of eros as only other-consuming. Poets in antiquity reveal how terrifying and self-consuming eros was. Eros ate away the soul of the lover; it burned, wounded, and pierced the heart.  And agape, whose supposedly unique Christian status it has often been the preacher’s proud obligation to emphasize, turns out to be a pretty reliable synonym for eros after all. As for philia (friendship), it never was far removed from eros; Cicero, Seneca, and their many admirers in the Christian tradition thought of erotic love as friendship gone mad. We would say eros is friendship on steroids. Nygren’s tidy divisions don’t hold up.

We need to admit the poverty of our contemporary language. The common habit of narrowing erotic experience to just sex ignores a broad range of human emotions. Eros feels like a dirty word. But it need not. When classical scholars, for example, speak of eros they are referring to a reality larger than sex. At its heart, eros is about communion. Eros seeks connection, the sharing of lives, knowing and being known face to face. So if Paul intensifies his loving of Christ by expressing it in the diction of erotic poetry, we do ourselves an injustice by hearing sex when he says eros. We miss the depth of communion, the completeness of the sharing, and the perfection of the knowing and the being known.

Where in Philippians 1:21-30 does Paul speak erotically? Verse 23 has two phrases that fit the bill. Each is an amplification of Paul’s desire (epithumia), a term which is itself not far removed from the ancient discourse of love. The first thing Paul desires is to “dissolve.” Yet, it appears that, like Paul’s critics mentioned in Philippians, modern translations and even the King James Version won’t tolerate a Paul who melts for Christ. Neither would they be pleased with believers “suffering for Christ” in 1:29, if this experience is a matter of missing an absent loved one, as I think it was. In modern translations, the de-eroticized Paul desires to “depart” or to “be gone.” The Latin Vulgate, however, preserves Paul’s wish that his body be altered, not removed, since it correctly translates the Greek to analusai with dissolvi. The root of analusai is luw, the first verb many students of biblical Greek learn to conjugate. It means “to loose” or “to untie.”

Clearly, Paul did not wish to be taken somewhere else. He desired to melt away. This might not mean much to us, but to an ancient audience Paul has just alluded to the dire effects of love. Eros, it was claimed by Sappho and a host of poets after her, loosened the lover’s limbs. Eros was even named “Limb-loosener.” Sappho got this idea from Homer who had given the same name to Death and Sleep. The ambivalent feelings we have facing death (and to a far lesser degree, sleep) help us understand Sappho’s brilliant insight. Death and sleep offer relaxation and an unburdening but at a price: the loss of self. Similarly, the ancients often faced Love with very mixed feelings, as this fragment of Alcman (7th century B. C. E) suggests: “and with desire that loosens limbs, but more meltingly than sleep and death she looks me over…” (tr. Monica Silveira Cyrino, In Pandora’s Jar, 83).

So it is striking that Paul desires to be loosened. There must be more to Paul’s desire. Otherwise, he leaves himself at loose ends. (Is this the “destruction” the critics in 1:28 think takes place when Paul’s erotic spirituality spreads into the church?) Paul wishes to dissolve and “to be with Christ.” English speakers are familiar with the idiom “to be with” used of lovers’ presence to one another. The Greeks had the same idiom. In fact, the phrase points to that moment in the Greek wedding when the bride and groom were finally left alone to share with each other all that they are and all that they have.

Christian interpreters from John Chrysostom to Bernard of Clairvaux thought along the same lines: Paul was speaking of his impending marriage to Christ. Death is Paul’s escort to the bridal chamber, as Chrysostom remarked. William of St. Thierry (1085-1148) extends Paul’s spirituality to the entire church in his Exposition on the Song of Songs:

Christ the Bridegroom offered to his Bride the church, so to speak, a kiss from heaven, when the Word made flesh drew so near to her that he wedded her to himself; so wedded her that he united her to himself, in order that God might become man, and man might become God… [T]he Bride had received this kiss from him in a partial manner and had been set on fire with eagerness to attain its perfection and full sweetness… She wished to be dissolved and to be with Christ, thinking, after a taste of the highest Good, that it was no longer needful for her to abide still in the flesh. (tr. Mother Columba Hart, The Works of William of St. Thierry, 2.25-26)

No prude, William.