Lectionary Commentaries for September 28, 2008
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32

Ira Brent Driggers

In my posting last week, I referred to Jesus’ ministry as “a gracious transformation, a divine reclamation, of the world.”

This week (and next week), we see more clearly how this ministry of transformation and reclamation offends those with a vested interest in reinforcing the status quo.

It all boils down to the question of authority. This is the question that encapsulates the governing conflict of Matthew’s narrative, in which traditional leaders struggle to come to terms with Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees have already failed to come to terms with the way Jesus breaks through the purported boundaries separating obedient from sinful, clean from unclean (Matthew 9:10-13; 12:1-14; 15:1-20). Now the chief priests and elders are struggling to come to terms with Jesus’ public demonstration in the temple (Matthew 21:12-17), a demonstration that included not only his protest against the absence of prayer in God’s house (Matthew 21:13) but also praise from the many people he heals there: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:15).

Jesus’ transformation of the world requires the self-examination of those heretofore in charge. Or, one can simply resist the transformation and challenge the authority of Jesus himself.

Thus, the question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21: 23) The chief priests and elders are apparently expecting the name of a teacher; a human association that will help them better understand Jesus’ actions. If you can identify someone’s teacher, then you can better grasp what they’re all about. More to the point, they are prepared to counter any and all claims to human authority with their own authority. At least as far as the local Jewish status quo is concerned, there is no claim to human authority that they cannot trump. They are the temple leaders.

The possibility they are not prepared to entertain is the possibility of Jesus wielding an authority “from heaven” (Greek: ex ouranou). This possibility is embedded within Jesus’ surprising counter-question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (21:25) It must be pointed out that while Jesus is being somewhat indirect, he is not being evasive. That is because the question of John’s authority is essentially the same as the question of his own authority. After all, it was John who prepared the world for Jesus (Matthew 3:1-17). Thus those who acknowledge the divine origin of John’s authority will likewise acknowledge the divine origin of Jesus’ authority, while those who fail to identify the authority of John will fail to identify the authority of Jesus. In this way Jesus’ counter-question is somewhat of a test− one the chief priests and elders have already failed! We might call this the pointless retest for the student who has not bothered to learn anything new.

This means that their response to Jesus’ question about John reveals their own stance towards Jesus. Sadly, the response is calculated toward saving face in the public sphere, and preserving their own perceived authority, more than it is open to the possibility of John (and therefore Jesus) wielding an authority “from heaven.” If we acknowledge John’s authority, they reason, it will make us hypocrites. But if we openly reject it, we will invite the scorn of the people. Thus what begins as an attack on Jesus quickly becomes an exercise in damage control. Having been trapped in their own self-interest, they can only feign ignorance: “We do not know.” (21:27)

When it comes to preaching these kinds of confrontations, it is all too easy for us to disparage the chief priests and elders, to seek protection behind Jesus and point our fingers at them. This does little to build up the church, however, and would likely result in a haughty confidence in our own authority–just like the chief priests and elders! It is therefore wiser to place ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ opponents, to risk being confronted with the question of Jesus’ authority over against our own claims to authority. Without a constant interrogation from Jesus himself, we are just as prone to reducing Jesus’ authority to human terms as the chief priests and elders, placing him on par with ourselves, and reinforcing the very status quo Jesus seeks to transform.

In this way the question of Jesus’ authority does not merely encapsulate the Gospel of Matthew. It encapsulates the Christian gospel as a whole. For the church, then and now, everything depends upon the source of Jesus’ authority. If it is ultimately “from humans” (Greek: ex anthrôpôn), then Jesus is really no different than the next charismatic leader (except for maybe his more pathetic death), and the church will be forced to define itself only as a human institution among other human institutions. In other words the church will be forced, like Jesus’ opponents, to compete against perceived rivals, reducing its mission to the quest for power, even if it purports to use that power for doing “good” in the world.

If, however, Jesus’ authority is “from heaven,” then his messianic claim is valid (Matthew 16:16-17, 20), and the church must stake claim to a unique mission, a mission that relinquishes power in bringing Christ to the world, just as Christ relinquished power in bringing himself to the world. The church living under Christ’s present, heavenly authority will embody Christ’s own ministry as “a gracious transformation, a divine reclamation, of the world.” For it is surely no coincidence that the Greek term for authority (exousia) surfaces next at the Great Commission that concludes Matthew’s Gospel: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-19).

The church’s mission is predicated on Jesus wielding “all authority.” This is not a sharing or granting of authority as much as it is a call to full submission and obedience. As the father of the next parable states simply: “Son, go and work in the vineyard today” (Matthew 21:28). This is the week for churches to reflect on the ways they compete for authority and power, and to envision prayerfully where the relinquishing of authority and power must take place. Whether we compete with fellow parishioners, our own pastors, “rival” churches, or non-church entities, such competition reflects our own obstinate rejection of Jesus’ absolute authority. Are we “making disciples” of Christ who embody Christ’s transformation and reclamation of the world, or are we “making disciples” of a merely human institution that fights for territory in the world?

First Reading

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

Anathea Portier-Young

“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:1).

It was a popular saying in Ezekiel’s time. It was also a dangerous saying. It was a proverb that would lead a people from sickness to death. These simple words had seduced them to surrender, to resignation, because in the face of horrible pain they could see no way out. Instead of asking what they could change, they told each other that they had no choice: suffering was the only option available. Someone else had seen to that long ago.

Ezekiel refutes the deadly proverb with logic that sounds harsh, but in fact holds out life-giving grace. Before we can understand what was at stake in refuting the proverb, we need to get behind it. What was this about? The text gives us our first clue: it concerns “the land of Israel.”

Imagine: We are in Babylonia, among the first wave of Judean exiles, before the fall of Jerusalem. This Jewish community in Babylonia was forcibly deported from Judah, from “the land of Israel.” After a violent and bloody siege, they had walked hundreds of miles as captives, humiliated on this journey only to be ruled in the land of their captors. The flood plain where they now settled was a far cry from the hills of Judah they had left behind. But their concern for the land of Israel extended beyond their humiliation, beyond their loss, beyond their longing: they had left loved ones behind. Their homeland was still in danger. The holy city and temple, once thought to be inviolate, would not withstand the great empire forever. Babylon had not finished with Judah, and Ezekiel promised them that Jerusalem’s hour was coming.

This was all too much. They could not have deserved what they had suffered. If God was as powerful as Ezekiel claimed, they reasoned that God must have willed these disasters. God had brought exile and destruction as punishment for sins, as promised by the prophets. But whose sins? The exiles in Babylonia were convinced that it wasn’t their fault: they were paying the price for the crimes of generations past.

This neat saying about sour grapes absolved Ezekiel’s contemporaries from any responsibility for their current situation. They could point the finger far into the past and moan about picking up the pieces after earlier generations had made a mess of things.

God cuts them short. “As I live,” says God, you won’t be reciting this proverb anymore (18:3). God’s speech grounds their responsibility in the fact that God is a living God, dynamic, engaged in the present life of the people just as much as God had been in their past. “All lives are mine,” says God. The parents, yes, and also the children. The life of this present generation is God’s, and what God brings into the present is for them and about them. They can stop looking back, and start looking around. This is their moment with God.

The lectionary text skips now from verse 4 to verse 25. The verses in between further underscore the responsibility of the present generation. Ezekiel undercuts any illusions that they are righteous children suffering for the crimes of unrighteous parents. If they suffer for crimes, the crimes are their own. But for precisely that reason there is always a way out, a way forward. The prophet now begins to point the way forward through repentance, the way out of death to life. The wicked can turn from sin and live. At the same time, the righteous can fall from virtue and die. Crimes and merits of the past will not weigh in the balance.

This can’t be right. “The way of the Lord is unfair!(lô yitâkçn)” (18:25). The base (qal) meaning of the verbal root used here, (tâkan) is “to determine according to size or weight.” The niphal (middle-passive) form that occurs in this passage means “to measure up, be in order, be correct.”1  The charge against God is that God is not dealing honestly. Shouldn’t all crimes and merits be weighed in the balance against one another? Instead, God’s focus on the present would throw out a lifetime of virtue, or a lifetime of sin, letting them count for nothing in the scales of judgment.

God’s answer is that God’s measures are certainly in order. It is the people of Israel who are using faulty measures. They are willing to throw away their own life, which is worth everything. God turns the charge around to show that it is not about fairness after all. It is about the ultimate value: life. God holds out life to the house of Israel. The one way to life is not by atoning for someone else’s sins: that is no kind of life, and it is not their responsibility. The way to life is simple: “Repent and turn” (18:30).

Ezekiel 18 has frequently been made to proclaim a gospel of individual responsibility that verges toward modern individualism. That interpretation doesn’t square with the text, where we repeatedly hear the address: “O house of Israel.” The life God wills is the life of the community. One challenge and gift of preaching this text is to re-embed the modern individual in this life.

As I approach this text for preaching, I ask myself how my community and my generation have abdicated responsibility for our collective choices, adopting a pretense of powerlessness. It is easier to imagine that we can’t do anything to change what appears to be broken. What a lack of faith! What a lack of imagination! God calls this church, this generation, this people to stop making excuses, and stop hiding behind other people’s mistakes. We are to turn our honest gaze on ourselves and repent now, making life our ultimate value.

1Koehler-Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Exodus 17 records the fourth occurrence of “complaining” by the Israelites in the early days after the exodus from Egypt.

Complaining, in fact, is a defining theme of the wilderness wandering story. In Exodus 14, when the Israelites reached the shores of the Reed Sea and saw the Egyptians in hot pursuit, they said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?…It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness,” (Exodus 14:11-12). God delivered the Israelites and allowed them to cross the Sea in safety.

Three days later, the people could find only bitter water to drink; they complained against Moses, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). God instructed Moses to place a piece of wood in the water, making it sweet to drink.

A few weeks later, the people were hungry and complained to Moses, “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). On this occasion, God provided manna for the people–a constant source of food until the people entered the Promised Land and ate the provisions of the land for the first time (Joshua 5:12).

The text for this day occurs when the Israelites arrived at a place called Rephadim and can find no water. The people “quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink!   Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?'” (Exodus 17:2-3). God instructed Moses to take the staff with which he had struck the Nile and some of the elders of Israel and to “go on ahead of the people” (Exodus 17:5). At a designated place, Moses was to strike a rock, making water come out of it, so that the people might drink. Moses did so and called the place two names: “Massah,” from the Hebrew root “nasah,” meaning “put to the test”; and “Meribah,” from the Hebrew root “rib,” meaning “quarrel, strive.”

Four times in the space of less than three months (according to Exodus 19:1, the Israelites arrived at Sinai on the third new moon after leaving Egypt), the Israelites complained and quarreled with Moses. Modern-day readers of the stories, for whom water is available at the turn of a faucet and food is abundant, marvel at the Israelites’ seeming lack of faith in God.

But take a step back and look behind the stories. What lessons can they teach? What can they tell us about God, humanity, and the relationship between God and humanity? The end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus tell the story of the descendants of Jacob living in Egypt. Life is good for a very long time. Then “a new king [pharaoh] arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), and, under his reign, the Israelites were oppressed and even threatened with extinction.

In the midst of these circumstances, a baby boy was preserved from death and taken into Pharaoh’s court. He was raised as an Egyptian, but was ever mindful of his roots. One day, he murdered an Egyptian for beating an Israelite and fled for his life. Forty years later. God called him to return to his people and demand that Pharaoh allow them to leave Egypt. Pharaoh’s initial reaction to Moses’ demand was to increase the peoples’ oppression, but after a series of “contests” in which God demonstrated power over the Egyptian gods, Pharaoh relented and allowed them to leave Egypt.

Thus, a weary and downtrodden people left a life of oppression–but a life of familiarity–and journeyed into the Sinai desert led by a man they hardly knew. They hoped to arrive safely in the land that had been promised to their ancestors, a land they had never seen. Each step took them further away from the known and deeper into the desert unknown–men, women, children, and livestock.

The Egyptians pursued; the water was too bitter to drink; food was scarce; the water ran out altogether. Doubt set in; fear overtook, and the people complained and quarreled. In each instance, God provided: deliverance, sweet water, food, water from the rock. These were the early days of the wilderness wanderings, and God persistently guided the people and provided for them.

In Exodus 19, the people arrived and camped at Sinai. There, God said to them, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). In Exodus 20-40; the book of Leviticus; and Numbers 1-10, God gave the Israelites their instructions for living as holy people in the Promised Land.

The people left Sinai in Numbers 10, and the complaining continued. But in the Numbers narratives, God was not as patient as in the Exodus stories. At Sinai, God had revealed Godself to the people in no uncertain terms; they no longer had a reason to wonder who this God was who had led them out of Egypt. Thus, in Numbers 11, God burned the perimeter of the camp when the Israelites complained and God caused a plague to come upon the people. In Numbers 14, God threatened to destroy the whole people and begin all over again with Moses. In Numbers 16, God opened the ground and swallowed up those who had threatened rebellion in the camp. And finally, in Numbers 20, even Moses is denied entry to the Promised Land because he did not obey God.

God cares deeply for each of us and helps move us from places of fear and doubt to places of trust. God provides for us and reveals Godself to us, and then God asks us to trust when the good provision doesn’t come as quickly or in quite the form as we would like. Look back, remember the provision of God in the past journey; it will come again in future journeys. For “I am the LORD your God.”

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13

David E. Fredrickson

Philippians 2:6 might be translated: “He did not regard snatching as worthy of a god.”

This revision of a hallowed text throws a monkey wrench into the inner workings of Christian theology. So, let’s do it.

Although scholars fret around the doctrinal edges of kenôsis (emptying), they agree that the customary translation of 2:6 (“he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped”) supports the exemplary condescension of the Second Person of the Trinity. Although Christ Jesus possessed all the properties that constitute divinity (“form of God” and “equal to God”), he did not grasp them for his own advantage (“thing to be grasped”). Instead, he limited his divine powers and privileges (“he emptied himself”). He lowered himself to human status (“he humbled himself”). As the New Adam, he demonstrated what is demanded of us: voluntary submission to the Father’s will (“form of a slave” and “obedient unto death”). In brief, the Son set aside the privileges of divinity and demonstrated humble obedience, even slavery, to the Father.

This way of telling Christ’s story obviously has appealed through the ages to those at the top of hierarchies. Speaking to monks about progress in faith, Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) illustrates how even a deeply spiritual person could be taken in.

Those who, in fear and trembling, have laid the good foundation stone of faith and hope in the hall of righteousness, who have planted their feet immovably on the rock of obedience to their spiritual father, who listen to his teachings as if they came from the mouth of God, those who with humble souls raise an unshakable edifice on this foundation of obedience, these will succeed immediately. It is they who succeed in that basic and all-important goal of self-renunciation. To do another’s will instead of one’s own leads not only to a denial of one’s own life, but even makes a man dead to the entire world. A man who contradicts his [spiritual] father makes the devils rejoice, but when a man humbles himself even to death, he makes the angels stand amazed. For this man performs the work of God by imitating the Son of God who was perfect in obedience to his own father, even to death, death on a cross. (tr. Paul McGuckin, Symeon the New Theologian, 48-49)

My tinkering with 2:6b interrupts this story of obedience to divine sovereignty. A new story emerges (underlined for clarity) that undermines the very idea that God’s Godness comes from God’s Sovereignty. Though in the form of God [Divine beings were thought by the Greeks to be extremely beautiful. Beauty was youthfulness. The gods were forever young and therefore could do whatever they wished, since death posed no obstacle for them], Christ Jesus did not regard snatching [The rare Greek word is harpagmos; it had a very specific meaning: erotic abduction. Stories of abduction conveyed the idea that humans are powerless and completely vulnerable to the gods’ intentions and whims.] to be worthy — or equal to — God, but having taken on the form of a slave [To whom was he a slave? Humanity, perhaps. If so, then this is an example of servitium amoris, the slavery of love, a widespread motif in Greek and Latin poetry expressing the complete dedication of the lover to the beloved.] he emptied himself [the phrase in Greek always refers to a bodily occurrence preceded by melting; liquefaction of the body and subsequent draining away of the once solid self was the poetic way of describing longing, the desire for union with an absent beloved.].

I said that this was a new story. That is not entirely true. Martin Luther asserted that Christ’s slavery was directed to humans; without it, there would be no “happy exchange,” no sharing of all things between Christ and believers. But Luther stole boldly from the tradition. Good for him. Paulinus of Nola (354-431) had written:

Out of love for that likeness, His son took on my limbs, was conceived and born of a virgin, bearing all the attributes of men, and though He is the Lord of all He became a servant to undertake in one body the burdens of all. He who dwelt on high took the likeness of a slave, though he was reigning as God with the likeness of God, in company with His regal Father. He took on the likeness of a slave, and destroyed that guilt by which man of old was a slave to punishment and death. Bearing the form of slave, the Lord became our flesh and restored His servant to freedom, so that through Christ’s plundering of the earthly Adam on the cross, my heavenly form might return to me. (tr. P. G. Walsh, The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola, 310-311)

But did tradition also teach that Christ jumped the gap between divinity and humanity out of his longing to be near us? Or was the incarnation and crucifixion an exercise in humility meant only to show us humans how to behave toward the sovereign Father? To this latter view a handful of Christian writers said no. Instead, they remembered Christ though love poetry. Amor militat omnia. Love conquers all – even God. So said Bernard of Clairvaux, Gilbert of Hoyland Nicholas Cabasilas, and Hadewijch. The Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi (first half of 13th century to about 1306) retold the story of Philippians 2:6-8 in this way:

You did not defend Yourself against that Love
that made You come down from heaven to earth;
Love, in trodding this earth
You humbled and humiliated Yourself,
Demanding neither dwelling place nor possessions
Taking on such poverty so that we might be enriched!
In Your life and in Your death You revealed
The infinite love that burned in your heart.

You went about the world as if you were drunk,
Led by Love as if You were a slave…

Wisdom, I see, hid herself,
Only Love could be seen.
Nor did You make a show of Your power —
A great Love it was
that poured itself out,
Love and Love alone, in act and desire,
Binding itself to the cross
And embracing Man

Thus, Jesus, if I am enamored
And drunk with sweetness,
If I lose my sense and mastery of self,
How can you reproach me?
I see that Love has so bound You
As to almost strip you of your greatness;
How, then, could I find the strength to resist,
To refuse to share in its madness?

For the same Love that makes me lose my senses
Seems to have stripped You of wisdom;
The love that makes me weak
Is the love that made You renounce all power.
I cannot delay, nor seek to —
Love’s captive, I make no resistance…
(tr. Serge and Elizabeth Hughes, Jacopone da Todi: the Lauds, 262-263)