Lectionary Commentaries for October 5, 2008
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46

Ira Brent Driggers

This parable continues Jesus’ response to the chief priests and elders who had questioned him about his protest in the temple (Matthew 21:12-17):

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23). The conversation began with Jesus posing a counter-question about the authority of John the Baptist, his opponents refusing to answer the counter-question, and Jesus therefore refusing to state directly the source of his authority (21:23-32). In this ensuing parable, however, Jesus does give them an indirect answer. And they get it. And they reject it.

Given the context of this narrative, it is somewhat misleading to call the parable, “the parable of the wicked tenants” as we often call it. The tenants, of course, play a major role, but the parable intends mainly to clarify who Jesus is, for those who listen. It is a synopsis of the entire Gospel story. So we might also call it “the parable of the rejected and vindicated son.” Not quite as catchy, but more to Matthew’s point.

Who is Jesus according to this parable? He is the Son who has come to reclaim what rightfully belongs to his Father. He is the Son whose mission is violently rejected by the Father’s own tenants. He is the Son whose rejection is vindicated by the Father. And he is the Son whose vindication prompts the final judgment of the unfaithful tenants. To avoid getting distracted by certain details in the parable which are merely stylistic (e.g., the Father having gone “to another country”), the preacher would do well to stay somewhere within this basic Christological plot. I will focus mainly on the Son’s mission and rejection.

In coming to reclaim what rightly belongs to his Father, the Son sets out to restore the world to its divinely created order. One need only look at Jesus’ ministry to see what this looks like: the sick are made well, sinners are restored, and God is praised (Matthew 9:8). In short, Jesus brings wholeness to a broken world, providing proleptic glimpses into what he elsewhere calls “the kingdom of heaven.” This is what God’s creation is supposed to look like. 

But the restoration of God’s creation meets opposition from those with a vested interest in the brokenness of the world. The tenants enter. It is easy to see that these represent Jesus’ own opponents in the narrative, the very chief priests and elders who are asking about his authority and who will soon seek his destruction (the Pharisees are also mentioned in 21:45). What is harder to see, however, is Jesus’ tacit acknowledgment that they have in fact been appointed by God. In the parable, they are hired by the landowner to protect and maintain the vineyard. They are not marauders tearing down the fence to plunder.

This makes their failure all the more tragic: they have broken the landowner’s trust. More specifically, they have presumptuously staked a claim to that which does not rightfully belong to them. Given the scriptural precedent of referring to Israel as God’s “vineyard” (e.g., Isaiah 3:14; 5:1-7; 27:2; Jeremiah 12:10), Jesus’ point seems to be that his opponents have mistaken their leadership over Israel for outright ownership of Israel. This clarifies who exactly Jesus was indicting in his temple protest on the previous day: “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you (Greek: plural humeis) are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13). Entrusted to oversee the house of God, they rebelliously rob God. The precise nature of this “robbery” is not Matthew’s main concern. His main concern is the simple fact that they are responsible for pointing Israel to God, yet they have instead pointed her to themselves. The indictment, then, is not against Israel per se, or even against the temple “institution,” but rather against God’s appointed leaders.

The tragedy lies not only in their selfish rebellion but in the blindness that rebellion produces.  This brings us to a very important exegetical point: the parable can trick us into thinking that the chief priests and elders recognize Jesus as God’s “Son.” All that they recognize, however, is that Jesus has claimed to be the Son. The parable serves to show how the temple leaders have been entrusted by God and how they have rebelled against God. It also prophesies their violent rejection of the Son. Jesus’ opponents understand all of this. They get the parable, but they reject its truth. “Yes, we are God’s tenants, but we are not those tenants; and you are certainly not God’s Son.”

Thus, my use of the word “blindness.” For those who cannot see Jesus’ transformative ministry as God’s will for the world, the Son will only seem a renegade and blasphemer (Matthew 26:63-68). In other words, the chief priests and elders do not knowingly reject God and God’s Son. What they do know is that God has appointed them as leaders, and that this Jesus has attacked their authority. They cannot see–or have lost sight of–what God’s will for the world really is. So, in their eyes, Jesus’ ministry can only be a scandal.

In my last posting, I wrote that we should avoid standing comfortably behind Jesus and waving our accusatory fingers at his opponents. Instead we should put ourselves in their shoes and risk being confronted by what Jesus has to say. As Matthew’s audience, it is easy to disparage the chief priests and elders; Matthew has made the truth of Jesus obvious to us who already believe. Yet when we step back from the Gospel and examine ourselves, we will inevitably find glimpses of the rebellious and self-serving tenants.

The issue is not fundamentally one of “leadership,” although the conflict takes that particular form in this week’s story. The issue is one of rendering to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21). For anyone called by God to a particular ministry–namely everyone–there is the temptation to claim ownership of that ministry, to confuse service with entitlement. These are Jesus’ own temptations in a nutshell (Matthew 4:1-11). For us, the moment a sense of entitlement creeps into “our” ministry is the moment we have closed ourselves off to what Jesus is doing in the world. In that scenario we no longer serve Jesus; we protect ourselves from him. In our blindness we proclaim, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance” (21: 38).

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

James K. Mead

Grape Expectations: Our experience with Isaiah 5:1-7 can be strangely similar to that of the characters in the passage itself.

The “vineyard” owner (vv. 1-2) and the “inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah” addressed by the song/parable (v. 3) have their expectations dashed by reality. Likewise, this deceptively attractive text leads preachers to expect a smoother interpretive journey than those we have had with other, more dense prophetic oracles. After all, it’s a relatively short passage, one that begins as a song and goes on to tell a story. We enjoy songs and stories.

But like the vineyard owner who did not receive his expected grapes, preachers will find that this text does not easily yield its homiletical fruit; and like the people of Jerusalem and Judah, preachers may experience the unexpected judgment of this passage falling on them before they have a chance to share it with others. In spite of these challenges, however, the theological content and literary features of Isaiah 5:1-7 offer us significant resources to prepare and deliver a pertinent and powerful message for God’s people.

We begin by expecting a clear word from God, for Isaiah explicitly identifies his purpose (to “sing . . . my love-song,” v. 1) and meaning (“the vineyard . . . is the house of Israel,” v. 7).  And even though the Hebrew text contains some unfamiliar agricultural vocabulary, the general point of the vineyard analogy still seems clear: God, the vineyard owner, has declared judgment on Israel, the vineyard, for failing to bear the fruit of righteousness and justice.

However, when we explore the variety and complexity of scholarship on the text’s original historical setting and literary form, we are tempted to lose our focus on the main point of the passage. Part of the problem is the indeterminacy of the text’s own imagery. For example, language in vv. 1-2 about a “love-song,” a “beloved,” and a “vineyard” might direct us toward the Song of Songs and the cultural role of the bridegroom’s friend or “best man.” The ensuing judicial language in vv. 3-6 then evokes legal charges brought against a spouse for adultery. All of this possibly formed some of the background for the prophet’s speech, but he doesn’t fully develop this connection in the passage itself.

One helpful approach is to work with the indeterminacy and accept that the text’s masterful poetical features and profound literary imagery will frustrate our interpretive expectations. This may be the prophet’s way of revealing the Lord’s own frustrated expectations concerning his people.1  To be sure, the preacher should probably avoid getting bogged down in the complexities of the poetry, lest that frustrate the congregation’s expectations! In the end, our journey should lead us and our hearers to the destination at which the prophet arrives in v. 7:  “[The Lord] expected justice (mišpāṭ), but saw bloodshed (miśpāḥ); righteousness (ṣĕdāqâ), but heard a cry (ṣĕ’āqâ)!” Like all effective word plays, this one points to the similar sound and appearance between one idea and another. The people may beautifully imitate righteousness and justice, but the divine judge can and will determine whether they have borne authentic fruit.

The passage also highlights God’s absolute claim upon his people. Consider the way the parable forces Isaiah’s hearers to draw the unavoidable conclusion that the vineyard, not its owner, is responsible for the poor harvest. In much of the book of Isaiah, responsibility for the nation’s demise is laid at the feet of the leaders (kings, priests, prophets, etc). One scholar has thus suggested that phrases such as “house of Israel” and “man (NRSV ‘people’) of Judah” refer exclusively to leaders.2  But even if we do not go that far, preachers know that the word they declare from the pulpit is empty if it is not first heard by the one in the pulpit. Those of us whose calling it is to care for the vineyard of God should be stung by the intensity of the vineyard owner’s personal care, as evidenced by the succession of six verbs in v. 2. The seventh verb in the verse (“yielded”) refers to the vineyard’s failed production. God’s outpouring of a variety of gifts upon preachers, teachers, and pastors leaves us without excuse as we exercise our ministry.

The issue that may cause us the greatest consternation in this passage is Israel’s election.  That nation had a strong and theologically sound doctrine of their election by Yahweh.  What was missing with them — and often with us — is the fruit God expects from his irrevocable calling. The exile did not mean Israel lost its elect status; it did mean that for several generations the people lost the blessings of that election. I cannot help but think how the North American church has lost what it means to live into the gracious expectations God has for us, to continue to bear fruit for the kingdom. Jesus’ words in the gospel lection for today are ominous: “the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43).

There is hope! This Old Testament reading falls on October 5, 2008, creating a providential connection with many churches’ celebration of World Communion Sunday.  Beyond the obvious imagery of grapes and wine, there is — regardless of different ecclesiastical and theological traditions — an expectation that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, a blessing from the One who supplies every good and perfect gift.  Christ is the vine; we are the branches (John 15); and each church is part of God’s vineyard. Today we may come to His table, humbly expecting the fruitful harvest God has graciously enabled us to bring forth. We will need the worldwide church to realize that goal.

1Gary R. Williams, “Frustrated Expectations in Isaiah V 1-7: A Literary Interpretation,” Vetus Testamentum 35 (1985): 459-465.
2Marvin L. Chaney, “Whose Sour Grapes? The Addressees of Isaiah 5:1-7 in the Light of Political Economy,” Semeia 87 (1999): 105-122.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Exodus 19:1 states that “on the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai.”

For the next two years (see Numbers 10:11), the foot of Sinai was home. The first order of business God undertook was to give the people instructions for how they were to live in the land that they were entering, the land that God had promised to their ancestors. In preparation, God reminded the people of all that God had done for them thus far in the journey (Exodus 19:4); admonished the people to keep the covenant (19:5); commanded that the people consecrate themselves and wash their clothes (19:10); and established limits around the base of Sinai that no one was to cross (19:12).

On the third day, God appeared on the mountain in a thick cloud, accompanied by thunder, lightning, the blast of a trumpet, fire and smoke, and earthquake. The Old Testament often describes the appearance of God (a theophany) with one or more of these phenomena, but the description of this particular appearance of God includes all of the elements of a theophany. The people would know in no uncertain terms that God was in their midst and that this was a solemn, holy occasion–perhaps the most holy in all of the life of Israel.

God prefaced the instructions to the people with a reminder of their history together: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). These are brief words, but words pregnant with meaning. “LORD” translates the word “Yahweh,” the personal name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14 before he is sent back to Egypt to demand the release of the Israelites. This “Yahweh” is “your God,” the God who demonstrated power greater than Pharaoh, the god of the Egyptians; the God who parted the Reed Sea and allowed you to stand for the first time in your lives on free ground; the God who has been leading you for the past three months in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; the God who has provided you with food and water. “I am the LORD your God.”

The instruction to the people begins in Exodus 20:3 with the Decalogue, called “apodictic law” and defined as “absolutely certain or necessary.” The remainder of the instructions found in the Pentateuch are called “casuistic law,” defined as “solving particular cases of right and wrong by applying general principles.” We may think of the Decalogue as the basic foundation upon which was built the more detailed instructions that follow in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy–613 detailed instructions, according to Rabbinic tradition (thus, the Jewish prayer shawl has 613 fringes).

The foundational instruction, absolutely necessary to the Israelites, includes two positive instructions and eight negative ones. The first instruction, according to the NRSV translation: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The verbal form of this instruction (and of the seven other negative instructions) is called in Hebrew an “absolute prohibition” and might better be rendered as: “You will not have any others gods before me.” The instructions are not requests from God, not suggestions, not general guidelines, but absolutes. God, in essence, is saying, “If you are going to be my covenant people, my priestly kingdom (see Exodus 19:5-6), then you will not have any other gods, you will not make graven images, you will not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord, you will not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet. There will be no exceptions, no excuses. You simply will not do these things.”

By the same token, the two positive instructions employ a verbal form called an “infinitive absolute.” The infinitive absolute is an ancient way to express a command in Hebrew, and is used most often in divine and prophetic speeches. Thus we may render the two positive instructions as “You will remember the Sabbath; you will honor your father and your mother–no excuses, no exceptions. (Note that in the parallel account of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, the Hebrew verbal forms of the instructions are the same.)

The absolute instructions from God to the Israelites at the foot of Sinai address two realms of life–the people’s relationship with God and their relationships with one another. The first four instructions have to do with relationship with God; the last six with human relationships. Both relationships are necessary for a healthy faith, but the order in which the instructions are given makes it clear that our relationship with humanity is predicated upon our relationship with God. Walter Brueggemann writes, “It is important to ‘get it right’ about Yahweh, in order to ‘get it right’ about neighbor” (NIB, vol. I, 839-40). The call to treat humanity−all humanity−with respect, dignity and compassion is a direct outgrowth of the very being and nature of God. If we truly call the God of Sinai “our LORD,” then we have no options, no excuses. We can and we must follow God’s instructions.

Jesus summed up the instructions of the Decalogue in answer to the Pharisees’ question about which is the greatest commandment. He replied to their question, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your mind . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself . . . on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

David E. Fredrickson

There was a popular scene on ancient Greek vases: a young man or god chasing a younger female (In rare instances, it was a goddess chasing a young male.)

The anxious, young woman runs away from her pursuer, but she throws a glance backwards that signals “yes” though her flight clearly says “no.” (Vase painters were all male, obviously). On the reverse side of some vases, a wedding scene is depicted. Less frequently the capture itself might be recorded; the young man gently holds the future bride’s wrist and leads her away.

Ancient poetry and romantic fiction painted the same scenes, only with words. The lover is forever chasing his beloved. What did it all mean? Anne Carson writes,

Pursuit and flight are a topos of Greek erotic poetry and iconography from the archaic period onward. It is noteworthy that, within such conventional scenes, the moment of ideal desire on which the vase-painters as well as poets are inclined to focus is not the moment of the coup de foudre, not the moment when the beloved’s arms open to the lover, not the moment when the two unite in happiness. What is pictured is the moment when the beloved turns and runs. The verbs pheugein (‘to flee’) and diôkein (‘to pursue’) are a fixed item in the technical erotic vocabulary of the poets, several of whom admit they prefer pursuit to capture. (Eros the Bittersweet, 19-20)

It should be noted that the Greek word for “capture” is katalambanein. With these terms for pursuing, fleeing, and capturing along with the scenes painted on vases, Philippians 3:12b reads far more erotically than one might expect of the Bible.

In its attempt to bring diôkein into English, the “press on” of many modern translations misleads readers. It turns 3:12 into a narrative of individual endeavor, as if the scene on the vase were that of a single person running. But diôkein was originally associated with the hunting of animals, and it never lost the connotation of hot pursuit. If 3:12 were pictured on a vase, then we would see Paul striding forward and Christ fleeing, though displaying that characteristic backward glance. Turning the vase around another scene might appear. With their roles reversed, the hunter becomes the hunted. Paul has been captured by Christ. Christ’s hand rests on Paul’s wrist, and they turn to walk away together.

Fantasy? Of course. But to fantasize about communion with Christ is the point of the third chapter of Philippians. Paul’s language leads readers into visions of Christ that could only have been expressed if an impossible union were soon to take place. In 3:12, Paul’s marriage to Christ is all but pronounced in teteleiômai (“I have been made perfect”) whose nuptial connotations modern translations have hidden from readers, unintentionally to be sure. They have replaced desire for union with Christ with individual effort towards moral improvement.

For the Greeks, the wedding was a rite, a perfection of human life, and so words with tel- as their root naturally were used to refer to it. The other perfection−also in the sense of completion−was death. The ancients were very serious about the goodness of other-relatedness. If a young woman died before marriage, she would be laid out for burial in full bridal attire. She became the bride of Hades, god of the underworld. No one should be denied the human perfection of relation to another, it was thought, even if the partner is the dismal god of death, who, by the way, was frequently said in funeral speeches to have “snatched” the girl from us.

Paul is quite clear in Philippians 3:12. The wedding has not yet taken place. His life has not yet been made complete by union with Christ. Paul exists in what anthropologists call a state of liminality. He is between two worlds having a foothold in neither−just memories of the one and anticipation of the other. Both “in order to gain Christ” (3:8) and “in order to be found in him” (3:9) point to the future union of bride and groom. Christ’s open and welcoming body is not yet present. But the structures that had organized human experience, like ethnicity, age, wealth, education, social status (see 3:4-6), and especially gender as we will soon see on the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, are no longer in force.

Christian mystics know in their bones the liminality the anthropologists theorize about. Jacopone da Todi writes,

Once I spoke, now I am mute;
I could see once, but now I am blind.
Oh, the depths of the abyss in which,
Though silent I speak; fleeing, I am bound;
Descending, I rise; holding, I am held;
Outside, I am within; I pursue and am pursued.
Love without limits, why do You drive me mad
And destroy me in this blazing furnace?
(tr. Serge and Elizabeth Hughes, Jacopone da Todi: the Lauds, 261)