Lectionary Commentaries for October 12, 2008
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14

Ira Brent Driggers

This is one parable you won’t find in your child’s Sunday school curriculum.

It is intended for theologically mature audiences only. In fact, without proper attention to the narrative context, I’m not sure this parable is conducive to a Christian sermon at all.

The narrative context reveals that Jesus directs the parable to the chief priests and elders of Jerusalem (Matthew 21:23), the very people who will arrest Jesus and hand him over for execution (the Pharisees are also mentioned at Matthew 21:45). The preceding parable (Matthew 21:33-46) has already gone some way toward explaining their opposition to Jesus. Recall that the tenants (chief priests and elders) appointed by the landowner (God) to oversee his vineyard (Israel) attempted to usurp the vineyard itself, going even so far as to kill the landowner’s servants (the prophets) and, eventually, his own son (Jesus). The story ended, however, with the vindication of the son, the destruction of the tenants, and the handing over of the vineyard “to a nation that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43).

Thus last week’s parable served to explain how the authority of Israel’s traditional leaders was no longer valid in light of their rejection of Jesus. With their call to serve God poisoned by a sense of entitlement, they can no longer discern God’s will, even when it is presented by God’s own Son. Because this week’s parable is also directed “to them” (autois, v. 1), we must not make the mistake of reading into it a judgment against the nation of Israel a whole. As with all the Gospels, much of Israel has in fact been drawn to the Jesus. Here Jesus simply continues the indictment of his opponents, but now through the analogy of a wedding banquet.

For an ancient society predicated upon honor and shame, nothing could bestow more honor (to oneself and, by extension, to one’s family) than attending a royal wedding, particularly the wedding of the king’s own son. This is the kind of event for which you make room in your calendar. Circle the date. Don’t forget. Be there at all costs.

Conflict quickly surfaces; and it surfaces in two stages. The first stage is a simple summary: the king summons his guests via his servants, “but they would not come.” He’s snubbed by everyone. At this point the king already faces a tremendous amount of shame that, especially by ancient standards, must be remedied. In other words, he must find a way to save face. The disrespectful invitees face the likelihood of reciprocation or, depending on what kind of king this is, retribution.

Surprisingly, however, the king graciously extends a second summons, and with the specific instructions that his servants build up the event: ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” In other words, you don’t know what you’re missing. Please reconsider. While this isn’t a literal begging on one’s knees, it might be the royal equivalent. The king really wants these people at the party.

Then the conflict turns violent. Some invitees only “neglect” (amelesantes, v. 5) the king’s hospitality in favor of their own everyday concerns, “one to his farm, another to his business.” The rest, however, mistreat and kill the royal servants, thus eliciting the wrath of the king. His forbearance now expired; the king slaughters “those murderers” (now deemed “unworthy”) and fills his hall with whoever can be brought in off the streets, “both good and bad.”

Who are these people from the streets? There are two possible referents. Because they are presumably common people and numerous enough to fill the king’s hall, they could represent the many people targeted by Jesus’ ministry: “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6; 15:24). However, because the parable continues Jesus’ indictment against Israel’s leaders, they could also represent new leaders appointed by God, that is, the leaders of the church. This would be consistent with Matthew’s interest in the apostolic/Petrine foundation of the church (Matthew 10:2-4; 14:28-29; 16:16-19; 18:18, 21-22; 19:28) and with the parable’s subtle reference to the apostle Judas, the supposed “friend” (etaire, v. 12; see also Matthew 26:50) who proves to be a wrongly dressed infiltrator. Of course Matthew may not have envisioned a single referent, so these possibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Preachers will not be able to extract a “practical” lesson from this text. There are no nuggets of wisdom to be “applied” to a congregation. This is simply an unsettling parable of disobedience and divine retribution that seeks to explain an equally unsettling reality in the larger scriptural story, namely the rejection of Jesus by some (though hardly all) of his fellow Israelites (contrast the non-violent parallel of Luke 14:15-25, which targets a different audience and lacks the specific polemical thrust). The one heartening aspect of the parable is the analogy of the wedding banquet–the church is one big celebration of Jesus, with God as the host. But, one mustn’t twist the parable into a sermon of assurance that simply overlooks the theme of judgment. Any parishioner who actually listens to the text will be rightly suspicious of this.

At the same time, a sermon focused solely on God’s judgment upon Israel’s late first-century leadership will not prove particularly edifying (or challenging) to a twenty-first century congregation. Explaining the parable in these historical terms, however, can help parishioners see more clearly the important starting point of Matthew’s ecclesiology: the church is an extension of, and renewal of, the people of Israel. This is no minor clarification given that the parable, when extracted from its narrative and historical context, can easily be misread as supercessionist (the church replaces Israel). God’s faithfulness to Israel is central to Matthew’s Gospel, and the celebration of the Son marks the fullest expression of that faithfulness. Likewise the church is not a divine “do-over” but the very locus of that celebration.

While one cannot overlook the theme of judgment, then, one also cannot overlook the fact that the wedding banquet does occur. The king does not let a minor rebellion interfere with his love for the Son and his hospitality toward his subjects. If parishioners leave church understanding the logic of Matthew’s retributive tone, while seeing themselves as the undeserving objects of God’s hospitality toward Israel, then the sermon will have done justice to the parable.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 25:1-9

James K. Mead

Giving attention to the text and getting at tension in the text:

Sound biblical interpretation has always required careful attention to texts within their scriptural and historical contexts.  When I was in seminary, the primary goal of exegesis was to determine the single, major point of a biblical passage — this point became the theme of the sermon. One does not have to read a lot of the Bible, however, to realize that the more attention we give to many passages, the more difficult it becomes to identify one central theme. Thus, we often attend to one set of ideas over another, and such choices are part and parcel of preaching ministry.

Careful attention to the content of Isaiah 25 in its context uncovers more than just several themes; it also gets at tension — significant theological tension — within its verses. Consider the following: tension between the past tense praise (vv. 1b-5) and the future tense prophecy (vv. 6-9); between the “fear” expressed by the “strong/ruthless” (v. 3) and the “refuge” experienced by the “poor/needy” (v. 4); between the ruined “city” (v. 2) and the rich “mountain” (v. 6); between the finality of judgment upon “the palace of aliens” (v. 2b) and the ultimate blessing for “all peoples” (vv. 6-7); between the apparent universal rejoicing among all peoples/nations in the prophecy (vv.6-9) and the exclusion of the nation of Moab, mentioned immediately after our passage (vv. 10-12).  These images do not easily fit together, but that is the beauty and promise of tension in Isaiah’s theology. At the risk of marring that beauty and oversimplifying the tension, I offer these observations on our Old Testament lection.

First, it is tempting to resolve the tension simply by addressing the text’s literary genres or canonical location. Some scholars suggest that the thanksgiving psalm in vv. 1-5 and the apocalyptic vision in vv. 6-9 obviously represent different forms and authors, explaining the seeming ambiguity. Others propose that the book of Isaiah’s complex literary history accounts for the tensions, since one or both of the two sections (vv. 1-5 and 6-9) has been relocated here.

Regardless of the importance of literary history and form, the fact is that these sections have internal tensions of their own (e.g., the arch-typical “city” destroyed in v. 2; “ruthless” cities glorify God in v. 3). We must eventually reckon with the current canonical setting that places the two parts together, uniting them by repeated mention of “peoples” and “nations” throughout the nine verses as well as the inclusionary phrases: “Lord…my God…I will praise” (v. 1) and “this is our God…the Lord…let us be glad” (v. 9). Incidentally, I would  encourage including at least v. 10a with this lection (as the NRSV implies), since “this mountain” balances its occurrence in v. 6, thus enveloping the stanza.

Second, even if we could resolve the tension by moving or dividing up the passage, we would still have to deal with the thematic content. The fact is the whole book of Isaiah operates with a complex understanding of how God’s justice relates to God’s mercy and how Israel relates to the nations. For example, “the city” destined for ruin (v. 2) most likely represents “the world structures without reference to God,”1   but Isaiah also uplifts the city of Jerusalem when he speaks of “this mountain.” Moreover, what sounds like blatant xenophobia in v. 2 (“palace of aliens is a city no more”) is mitigated when one hears that God’s eschatological banquet is for “all peoples” (v. 6) and his resurrecting power is for “all nations” (vv. 7-8). And yet Moab’s exclusion (in vv. 10-12) stands as a reminder of God’s undiminished righteousness, much like the similar tension in the wedding banquet parable in today’s gospel reading (Matthew 22:1-14).

Thus, as Brevard Childs wisely notes, Isaiah does not proclaim “the modern ideology of religious universalism, characterized by unlimited inclusivity.”2  But whatever the nature and scope of God’s inclusivity, the universal spirit in Isaiah’s vision means that the theological tension persists for us.  In spite of all the atrocities and terror of our time, the prophecy places in us this heart-felt desire for all the nations ultimately to come to the rich banquet, a sentiment consistent with “the biblical witness…that no one will be truly satisfied until everyone is fed.”3

Third, even if we could resolve theological tensions in the text, we remain unable to resolve them in our lives. Although we may wish for quick and decisive resolution to our significant problems and needs, we know that such resolution is neither possible nor desirable. Even if we could assure positive outcomes for every crisis we face, would we seriously want to keep such contentment and provision all to ourselves? If we tried to resolve every person and nation’s competing claims to justice in our finite and fallen world, we would experience the same chaos Jim Carrey observed when he granted every human’s prayer requests in Bruce Almighty.  Only the exalted Lord of hosts can be trusted with such justice; only this God will mete it out in perfect consistency with “His salvation” (v. 9).

As I write this, my state of Iowa has been buffeted by tornadoes and floods. It is easy for despair to creep in, to feel a “shroud that is cast” over us. The theological tension in Isaiah 25:1-9 means that while we aren’t given an earthly means for overcoming all disasters and tragedies, we are given a glimpse of a world in which death is swallowed up forever and “God will wipe away the tears from all faces” (v. 8). Now that vision should get our attention!

1Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 208.
2Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 186.
3Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, “Bread of Heaven,” The Princeton Seminary Review ns 7 (1986): 24.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14

Karla Suomala

Tell me, whose side are you standing on? I’m standing on the Lord’s side. Whose side are you standing on? Standing on the Lord’s side. I stand, I stand, I stand, I stand…

Growing up, I sang this song in Sunday school and in Vacation Bible School. Even now, after all of these years, it’s still in my memory bank. I’ve come to wonder, however, about the worldview advocated by these words (as I have for many of the songs I sang, including “I’m in the Lord’s army, yessir!”).

Ours is a culture of taking sides, and regardless of the context, we’re constantly being challenged to take a stand. Are you on God’s side or not? Are you for or against the war in Iraq? Are you for Obama or McCain? Are you for or against capital punishment? The assumption behind every challenge is that there IS a right side–God’s side. Today’s reading from Exodus gives us pause to reevaluate the idea of being on God’s side and even what it means to be on God’s side.

Exodus 32 has two different scenes playing out simultaneously: in one, Moses is at the top of Mount Sinai where he is just about to conclude a period of forty days and forty nights which he has spent receiving instructions from God; and in the other, the Israelites are at the base of the mountain becoming restless, having begun to doubt that Moses will ever return.

The reading opens with the Israelites asking Aaron to make gods for them–visible, tangible figures that will lead them through the desert. Aaron, somewhat surprisingly, complies with this request. The people hand over all of their gold jewelry to Aaron who uses it to cast a golden calf. The people seem to be satisfied with this, and they begin celebrating early the next day.

In the scene on top of the mountain, God abruptly tells Moses to “go down at once,” indicating that the people have really messed up. In describing the actions of the Israelites at the base camp, God states that the Israelites “have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it”. After this litany of offenses, God then outlines God’s plans to destroy the people and start all over again, fresh, with Moses.

The stage has been set for the defining moment in Moses’ life and career. Should he choose God’s side and become the founder of a new, improved, nation or should he side with the Israelites? It hardly seems to be a difficult decision; after all, Moses hasn’t done anything wrong. He has done what God has asked, leading the people out of slavery, helping to establish a new covenant in the wilderness–enough for any successful career. The people, on the other hand, haven’t fared as well. God’s thunder and Moses’ voice is still echoing in their ears and they turn to Aaron to request new gods. Whose side are you standing on, Moses?

Astonishingly, Moses sides with the people. In the remainder of the passage, Moses mounts a case before God to save the Israelites, regardless of what they’ve done. “O Lord,” he says, “why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” The reason for God’s anger is clear to Moses. The people are worshiping idols and have apparently turned their back on God. In this rhetorical question, however, Moses makes an altogether different point: the people of Israel are not his people but God’s people. It was not Moses but God who brought them up out of Egypt. Moses is not going to let God off the hook easily here, allowing God to shove God’s chosen people aside the first time they get into trouble.

Now that Moses has refocused the conversation to examine God’s role rather than the people’s sin, he becomes even bolder, asking, “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?'” In other words, “Think about your international reputation, God. After seeing your ingenious Red Sea escape route, do you want the Egyptians to say you’re crazy?”

After making two excellent points, Moses reaches the pinnacle of his argument and does the unthinkable. He makes demands of God! He tells God to:

  • turn from his anger.
  • repent or change his mind about destroying the Israelites.
  • remember the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel (“I will multiply your descendents like the stars of heaven, and all this land… they shall inherit it forever”).

Moses meets God head-to-head in this confrontation, putting everything on the line for the people at the base of the mountain. He reminds God of the promises that God has made, and challenges God to keep his word.

Even more remarkable than Moses’ taking a stance for the people, even to the point of making demands of God, is that God listens! In Exodus 32:14 we learn that “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Only then did Moses turn and go down from the mountain.

Moses’ radical advocacy for the Israelites, his taking their side, is depicted positively by the biblical narrator. He has done the right thing. At the end of Deuteronomy, in a summing up of Moses’ life and career, we learn that “never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” This text provides some powerful guidelines for taking sides with the people, especially those who have no other defenders. God can take care of himself.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9

David E. Fredrickson

Were Euodia and Syntyche squabbling? Or, has Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:2 activated the sexist bias within the guild of New Testament scholars?

It is, I think, the latter. Scholars wrongly assume that because Paul asked the two women to agree they must have been disagreeing. This is partially an honest mistake based on unfamiliarity with the way Greco-Roman moral exhortation worked. People in antiquity were often encouraged to do what they were already doing; this was the polite way of moral direction. We see an example of this in Philippians 2:2 where Paul exhorts the whole community to “imagine the world in the same way” (a better translation is “to agree”). Since most scholars detect no conflict within the church at Philippi, something suspicious is going on when the same phrase spoken to two women suddenly becomes a sure sign they are arguing. Blatant sexism shows itself when commentators bolster their claim about Euodia and Syntyche by stating or implying that women in general, when left on their own, spat.

Let’s try a different approach to 4:2-3. Assume that Euodia and Syntyche are missionaries on an equal footing with Paul. Then these verses might be read as a miniature letter of recommendation by Paul to the church at Philippi on behalf of Euodia and Syntyche, something like his writing for Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. The help that he wishes the church will give to them has nothing to do with settling an argument. Rather, it is a matter of financial support. Is there evidence for this reconstruction?

Paul’s nickname for the church in 4:3, “genuine yokefellow,” is more than an endearing touch. The yoke in ancient literature was an important symbol of cooperative effort. Friends were yokefellows, as were married couples. In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul warns the community against accepting the leadership of Christian missionaries whom Paul disapproves; the church is not to be “misyoked.”

A brief detour into early Christian sociology helps explain the significance of the yoke. In the earliest days of the Christian movement, there was a tension between two groups of believers. One took seriously Jesus’ demand to be rid of possessions and follow him. These were the missionaries who travelled from city to city preaching the Kingdom of God while relying upon owners of houses for food, lodging, and other travel needs. Their authority came from a radical commitment to poverty and their freedom to travel from severed family ties, or the refusal to enter into marriage in the first place. Paul was this kind of Christian. The other group was composed of urban dwellers, some of whom owned houses and property, engaged in everyday business, and maintained families. Converted to the movement by the wandering missionaries, these urban dwellers could come in for criticism for their easier way of life and engagement with the world. The missionaries, on the other hand, were often accused of free-loading and religious huckstering.

The yoke became a symbol of reduced tension and cooperation between the two groups. The two are yoked together when the urban dwellers support the missionaries who in turn travel to spread the gospel. Paul has entered into this kind of relationship with the Philippians and reminds them of it when he addresses them as “genuine yokefellow.” He then folds Euodia and Syntyche into his own apostolic status; they are worthy of the same financial support he has received. He highlights their status as leaders in three ways.

First, he associates them with Clement, himself, and the rest of his co-workers−and to be clear, co-workers are not subordinates.

Second, he says that the two women have been “co-athletes” with him in the gospel. Unfortunately, the athletic imagery in 4:3 has disappeared from most translations since the time of the Latin Vulgate, which inexplicably used laborare to translate Paul’s sunathlein. We should think of Euodia and Syntyche running in the stadium with Paul, not working by his side. Though this is astounding. Why?

Athletics in ancient Greece was for males only. Only males competed. Only males watched. Naked they ran. And after a disquieting episode at Olympia in which a mother dressed up as a man and snuck into the stadium to watch her two sons compete, naked they watched. By calling Euodia and Syntyche his co-athletes, Paul does three things at once. He draws attention to their gender. He makes space for his readers to object “but it is the wrong gender for public leadership!” And, finally, he insists on their participation in the games.

Recall last week’s discussion of liminality. Beginning with Philippians 3:4, Paul narrates his own transition from one world to the next. Like a bride waiting for the wedding so that she might be united with the groom, Paul exists between two social worlds. One of the structures that Paul leaves behind is gender. He is the bride in this story, after all. In this in-between state, Paul cannot possibly base his confidence for public ministry on the status his gender grants him; rather, his confidence resides in hope of sharing all that belongs to the groom, Christ. This seems to be the meaning of Philippians 3:3. Note also how he claims to have exited the status-granting institutions of Judaism. Paul implies that these institutions were based on circumcision (3:5), an accent mark on the male body.

Might it be that Paul wrote Philippians 3:1-4:1 as an introduction to his request for the church at Philippi to assist Euodia and Syntyche in their ministry? This makes sense, because here Paul lays out reasons why he has confidence for ministry. And it is not his gender. In fact, Paul raises the stakes and slips in confessional phrases in 3:8 (“Christ Jesus my Lord”), 3:20 (“the Lord Jesus Christ”), and 4:1 (“stand in the Lord”). He implies that the Lordship of Jesus is at stake in the church’s support of Euodia’s and Syntyche’s ministry. To deny them status would be the same as denying their sharing all things with Christ. Since Christ’s lordship is his sharing all that he is and all that he has with humans (see Philippians 2:6-11), the church must affirm their ministry. To do otherwise, to base leadership on the structures that have traditionally organized human experience, gender included, is to proclaim that Jesus is less than Lord.