Lectionary Commentaries for September 25, 2011
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32

Karl Jacobson

Voltaire quipped that we ought to judge a person by his questions rather than his answers.

There is certainly wisdom in this, and when brought to the narrative arch of the Gospel of Matthew there is revelation as well. 

All sorts of folks ask Jesus questions in Matthew’s Gospel, and both their questions and Jesus’ answers are striking. There are many different kinds of questions asked of Jesus. Both the Baptizer and Pilate ask questions about Jesus’ identity; John asks if he is in fact the one they have been waiting for (11:2-3), and Pilate asks if he is the king of the Jews (27:11). The Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, chief priests and elders asked questions to try to trap Jesus; why the disciples break “the traditions of the elders” (15:1-2), for signs or proofs (12:38; 16:1), about divorce (19:2), taxes (22:15-17), resurrection (22:23-28), and the role of the commandments (22:24-26), by whose authority do you do the things you do (21:23).

The disciples asked him questions; who is the greatest among us (18:1), what good deed do we have to do to receive eternal life (19:16), for a sign concerning Jesus’ coming at the end of the age (24:3). And for every other question someone else following Jesus asked, Peter would ask another; “How often must I forgive?” (18:21), “We left everything for you, what do we get?”(19:27).

These questions are all revealing. With the exception of John and perhaps (ironically) Pilate, the questions are all self-serving. Those who ask Jesus questions want to trap him, or impress him, or get something from him. And to every pointed question Jesus offers an equally pointed answer, which reveals truth about the Kingdom, the King, and the Kingdom’s subjects.

Here in Matthew 21 Jesus responds to the question put to him with a question of his own, and a parable to illustrate it. 

The chief priests and elders ask Jesus where his authority comes from. His return-question is about John the Baptizer. He asks them if John’s baptism came from heaven, or from the human mind? His question reverses the trap which the chief priests and elders are trying to set for Jesus. His accusers take the fifth, refusing to answer Jesus lest it incriminate them in the eyes of the crowds. So Jesus, in turn, doesn’t answer their question about his authority either, but he does tell them a parable.

The parable sets up a comparison of two sons. One who says he will do what his father asks, but doesn’t, with one who says he won’t, but does. For every individual who hears this parable the comparison helps them (forces them) to ask the question, Which am I? Am I the son who presents himself as obedient while running around raising havoc, or am I the daughter who to all appearances is the “black sheep” but in the end does what is needed? Which am I? Which are you?

There is an accusation in the parable — some who claim to obey the Father and observe the requirements of the Law fail, in actuality, to do so. Is this who we are, as believers — as pastors, teachers, church council members and Sunday school teachers? Which am I? 

There is also (again) a reversal of expectations in the parable — those who are seen as the antithesis of the “good” believer, some who have failed to live in the right way, will be given entry to the kingdom of heaven first. Which are you?

Jesus returns, after telling this comparative parable, to John. He returns accusation for accusation, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” The one whose voice cried out in the wilderness, who was sent to prepare the way of the Lord, preaching repentance; went un-recognized and un-believed. They did not change their mind, Jesus tells us, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. Which am I? Which will you be?

We may not be the chief priests and elders of Jesus’ day, asking the Messiah accusing questions. Still, the parable may speak volumes to us. When heard by the individual, as one tries to make sense of Jesus’ parable for oneself and apply it to one’s own life, it has the ring of Romans 7:19; it may be a question of the good that we would do but don’t (or can’t) and the evil we don’t want to do, but still….

Jesus’ parable is, in the end, a challenge. It asks us how we will respond to the truth of the gospel — will we change our mind and believe, or not? Will we be the daughter who pretends obedience or the son who turns around and changes his mind?

In 2000 the band Sister Hazel has a hit with a song called “Change Your Mind.”1 I don’t know that the song has any overtly religious intent, but it speaks in a real way to the challenge of Jesus’ parable.

Did you ever think
There might be another way
To just feel better,
Just feel better about today

If you never want to have
To turn and go away
You might feel better,
Might feel better if you stay

I bet you haven’t heard
A word I’ve said
If you’ve had enough
Of all your tryin’
Just give up
The state of mind you’re in:

If you want to be somebody else,
If you’re tired of fighting battles with yourself
If you want to be somebody else
Change your mind…

Jesus’ question, and the answer he points us to in the parable of the two sons, pushes us to the point of reflection and decision. Which will we be? Which can we be? Will we change our mind, and believe?

1Fortress.  Universal, 2000. CD.

First Reading

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

Margaret Odell

“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

We may never have eaten a sour grape or know exactly what it means to have our teeth set on edge, but we get the gist of the proverb: children suffer the consequences of their parents’ actions. The proverb was probably used by the exiles to exonerate themselves of responsibility for their situation: they are not in exile through any fault of their own but rather are suffering for the sins of their ancestors.

Certainly Ezekiel has pointed to Israel’s long history of rebellion against God, beginning before they even left Egypt (Ezekiel 20). Yet through a long legal disputation that challenges Israelite conceptions of intergenerational guilt and punishment, Ezekiel argues that righteous children do not suffer for their parents’ wickedness; nor do wicked children benefit from their parent’s righteousness. Somewhat surprisingly, Ezekiel’s audience does not willingly give up their predictable calculus of guilt and punishment. The real riddle of this reading is why the people prefer their proverb, and not God’s offer of life.

In an earlier study of this text, I followed the lead of most commentators, who suggested that the problem was not the proverb but its use by the exiles to exonerate themselves of guilt. It’s hard to find fault with the truism that children usually do suffer from their parents’ mistakes. Ancient Israel embedded its own communal experience of intergenerational guilt and punishment in its understanding of God’s justice, which “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). Although we no longer attribute children’s suffering to the hand of God, we do recognize the impact of family violence on subsequent generations. After all, it’s the stuff of southern novels and the bread and butter of psychotherapists.

But when God rejects the proverb, the issue is not how it’s used, but that it’s used at all. Against the fated inevitability of inheriting and suffering from a parent’s guilt, God proposes an alternative understanding of the nature of justice by grounding it in his identity as the sovereign creator of life. Just how that conviction breaks the inevitable cycle of sin and punishment, however, remains an open question, since it remains tightly bound to a strict doctrine of retribution: “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die” (18:4).

Although 18:5-24 are omitted from the lectionary reading, these verses are an important stage in the argument leading to the final appeal of 18:25-32. In a series of legal rulings describing the deeds of a righteous father, his wicked son, and the righteous grandson, Ezekiel breaks the basic premise of the proverb. A wicked son does not benefit from his father’s righteousness, nor does he jeopardize his son’s chance at life.

As the argument proceeds, it becomes clear that God’s greater concern is the preservation of life, not the strict application of justice. If, for example, the righteous grandchild is free to change course once he sees and understands the consequences of his father’s wickedness, what about the wicked themselves? Are they doomed to suffer punishment for past wickedness? No, says Ezekiel: even the wicked may turn from their wickedness, change course, and live. Because all life belongs to God, even the lives of the wicked, the future remains open, not only for children of bad men, but also for the bad men themselves.

Somewhat surprisingly, the exiles protest: “The way of the Lord doesn’t add up!” (NRSV: unfair; 18:25). NRSV’s “unfair” partly conveys the notion of divine arbitrariness, but it does not do justice to the Hebrew verb, tkn, whose root meaning is to weigh, or measure (Job 28:25; Isaiah 40:12; 2 Kings 12:11). God “weighs” or measures human thoughts (Proverbs 16:2; 21:2; 24:12), but one cannot “weigh” or understand the spirit of God (Isaiah 40:13). What the exiles say about God’s way is, in a sense true, since the ways of God are always beyond human understanding. Certainly in the situation described here, in which God’s commitment to human life makes the future possible, there is an unaccountable mystery at work. Who could have known, at the darkest moments of exile, that God preferred life?

However, God’s reaction to the exiles’ remark shows that it was the wrong thing to say. God throws it back at them: is it not your ways that don’t measure up? By what calculus would human beings prefer a fixed destiny of suffering to the freedom of being able to repent, to change course, and thereby to gain life? Although the exiles don’t get to answer that question, we can guess that the argument in chapter 18 forces them to acknowledge their own culpability. They want to see themselves as innocents, children suffering for parents’ sins. If that perception gives them the freedom to remain victims of others’ actions, it also renders them helpless to move into new patterns of life.

But in Ezekiel’s case law, the child who suffers is not innocent, while the other, the righteous grandchild, does not suffer. This is a very strict theory of retribution, and while we might otherwise seek a little more leeway, its purpose here is to lead the exiles to acknowledge their own complicity in the events that have landed them in exile. Ezekiel’s argument should shatter their self-perception and lead them to repentance. That it does not; that they should choose a fatalistic proverb over life makes no sense at all. To God who delights in life, such a way is quite literally unfathomable.

Nevertheless, God’s offer of life stands. The chapter closes with the remarkably sweeping statement in God’s own voice: I do not take pleasure in the death of anyone! This declaration is stunning in its universalism, and we can imagine the author of Jonah playing with this idea as he pens the final verses of his book. “Should I not have pity on Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11). No, God does not desire the death of Babylonians or Assyrians, innocent or wicked.

Yet God leaves it up to human beings to choose the way of life over the way of death. Perhaps we can understand the final words, “Turn, then, and live!” as words that echo across the testaments, into Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and into our own time. Perhaps we do not express our fatalism in the same way that the exiles do. Ours is more advanced, because more scientific, rooted in what we know about the genetic code and environmental conditioning. But perhaps this scientific explanation of our destiny is no less a threat to our well-being. Why would we choose scientific explanations for our frailty and limitations over the indeterminate freedom of God’s grace? Why don’t we turn, and live?

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7

Amy Erickson

In this week’s text, we continue journeying with the Israelites in Exodus’ narrative of the wilderness trek.

As with last week’s Exodus text, we are presented with rich opportunities for thinking about who God is and how God responds to and provides for the people in a time of incredible anxiety and danger.

In turn, the story presents us with opportunities to give voice to our deepest fears (“Is Yahweh among us or not?” 17:7) and of imagining the ways our god responds to us when we are thirsty in the wilderness.

Setting the story of Water from the Rock in its larger context is important. This is not the first time the Israelites have lacked for water. The first time, they had been in the wilderness for three days (Exodus 15:22). When they arrived at Marah, they found the water there undrinkable on account of its bitterness.

After the people complained, Moses called out to God and God provided a piece of wood, which, when thrown into the water made it sweet and potable (15:23-25a). After this, God “put them to the test” (15:25b), saying that if the people would listen to God’s voice and keep all of God’s commandments and statutes, then God would not bring diseases on them as God did with the Egyptians, “for I am Yahweh who heals you” (15:26).

In Exodus 16, the people struggle to listen to God’s voice with regard to the gathering of manna, in particular to the command not to store it up (no one said enacting a cultural sea-change would be easy). However it seems that with Moses’ not-so-gentle guidance, they figure it out. Exodus 16 ends with the statement: “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to habitable land; they ate manna, until the came to the border of the land of Canaan” (16:35). Apparently, food providing and gathering comes to run smoothly.

However, when we get to Exodus 17, the Israelites hit another bump in the road. They have camped at Rephidim, but there is no water to drink. The complaining that was so prevalent in chapter 16 resurfaces, and this time, it is intensified with quarreling. They say to Moses, “Give us water to drink” (17:2). Apparently unfazed by the lack of water himself, Moses accuses the people of testing Yahweh: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test Yahweh?” (17:2).

Moses interprets the people’s demand for water to be test of Yahweh. Both parties, human and divine, both new to this relationship, appear to be testing one another. Previously God has devised tests for the people (15:25b; 16:4) and Moses has framed the people’s quarreling and requests for water as testing God. What precisely is being “tested”?

Perhaps the narrative is presenting us with a story of this divine-human relationship being worked out — after the honeymoon of the exodus event — and “tested” during the hard times.

The people’s continuing doubt seems both to be about who is in charge (they still identify Moses as the one who brought them up out of Egypt, rather than Yahweh) and why they have been chosen. In Egypt, they were chosen by the Pharaoh for work (Exodus 1:11) and ultimately, for death (Exodus 1:16). They suspect that this is Moses’/God’s intention for them as well, for they wonder if they have been brought into the wilderness to die, to be killed, along with their children (their futures) and their livestock (their security).

Based on their questions, they seem to assume that Yahweh has left Moses in charge and that Moses’ agenda mirrors that of the Pharaoh — to use the people: for labor and as a means to gain glory over an upstart god who dares challenge Pharaoh’s authority.
So Moses goes back to God again, complaining about the people: “What shall I do with this people?!” God tells Moses to take the staff he used at the Nile River and to meet God on the rock at Horeb, from which water will flow when Moses strikes it with his staff.

It strikes me (pun intended!) that God chooses to bring water — and the life it symbolizes and will impart — out of something that appears to be lifeless. This may be symbolic of God’s intentions to bring the people life, not death, as they suspect. Out of Egypt and out of the wilderness, God will find ways to make life flow in unexpected ways. But it will require a certain amount of trust from the people, a willingness to put faith in a god who seems not to do things in the typical way.

I wonder if all these tests Moses and God keep referencing are intended to teach the people radical trust in a god who is opposed to hoarding and yet who is also present and responsive to their needs. This display of divine power is far less dramatic than controlling the waters of the Red Sea and turning them into dry land, but it does seem to present that act, in which the sea became dry, in reverse. The dry rock here flows with water. God brings water — and with it, life — to the arid wilderness.

Ways in which God has acted to make life to flow from places of death would be an interesting angle to take up in a sermon. Further, the preacher might also call to mind ways people have quarreled with God and insisted that God act to sustain life. The people who will come to be known as Israel are not presented as meek and submissive. Their doubts and their “quarreling” are presented in the narrative as calling God to action.

God seems almost (dare I say?) to forget about the people’s needs but responds with creativity when the people loudly protest. The people keep pushing the question: “Are you another god like Pharaoh?” It may be that the people work to shape God’s character just as God works to shape that of the people. The mutual testing in the wilderness yields a people with a uniquely articulated faith, along with a unique, fundamentally counter-cultural god, both of whom have inspired countless generations of people to follow them.

We do not get to hear about the people’s reaction to this little miracle at Massah and Meribah. But Moses names the place, not after the miracle, but after the people’s doubting and testing: “Is Yahweh among us or not?” (17:7).

This name highlights the wildness and freedom of God, but it also memorializes the fears, questions, and doubts of people of faith. The question also reminds us that when faced with this question, God responded with and through flowing, life-giving water.


Commentary on Psalm 25:1-9

Henry Langknecht

The first lesson makes it clear that God will neither require children to pay for the sins of their parents nor allow them to rest satisfied in their parents’ goodness; rather, God will judge each person according to his or her own deeds: righteous or wicked.

Psalm 25 responds by voicing a prayer that might be on the lips of someone who has just been liberated from “family of origin theology” and seeks now to embrace God’s way for himself or herself. To those who have just heard the Ezekiel reading, verse 3, “Let none who look to you be put to shame; rather let those be put to shame who are treacherous,” especially will echo the theme of individual accountability.

The psalm is intimate and intensely personal, voiced in the first person singular and addressing God in the second person singular. And woven through this appointed portion of the psalm are four key themes: the psalmist’s total surrender to God and variations on three imperatives addressed to God: don’t let me be put to shame; show, teach, and lead me in your paths; and remember yourself and your character and forget me and mine.

The psalmist’s surrender is rendered most beautifully in the opening line, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.” Allow yourself to contemplate this offering of the deepest, truest part of the self to God. The act of submission is touching in its profound vulnerability and simultaneously strong in its volition (foreshadowing Jesus’ insistence in John 18 that “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”).

This theme of surrender reappears in verse 2, “I put my trust in you …” and again in verse 5, “in you have I trusted all day long.” A sermon that enters the psalm through this self-offering could remind Christians that the “path” toward which God finally “leads” us is the way of the cross. It should not be lost on us that the self-offering of a “lifted up soul” is a first action on that way.

The first imperative “Let me not be put to shame …” sets the tone for verses 2 and 3 and reveals the sliver of human fear and doubt that restrains the psalmist’s trust. (Some commentators prefer to translate this phrase as “Let me not be disappointed …”) The psalm is the testimony of one strong in faith: “Yes, you are God; yes, I trust you; yes, I am as sure as I can be that your ways are right.”

And yet then comes, “but please, please don’t disappoint me; please let me be right about you!” Here with the psalmist we come face-to-face with all that’s at stake when we surrender ourselves in faith — even when that surrender is to the God whose gracious mercy we know so well. The shadow side of trust is the yearning for that trust to be vindicated. The wonderful circular paradox is that the imperative that issues from that sliver of doubt is addressed to the one we’ve already been empowered to trust.

The second imperative, “show me your ways … teach me your paths,” plays on the iconic metaphor of “life as journey.” We can infer that the psalmist believes that many paths are available and that confusion among them is inevitable — thus the need for instruction and guidance. The psalmist asks God to be present and directive about the proper way to go (verses 4, 7, and 9). If only Garmin had a setting option for God’s voice.

The third imperative, in two parts, dominates verses 7-9 calling on God to remember God’s character (which is compassionate, loving, steadfast, faithful, gracious, and upright) and not to remember the psalmist’s character (which is sinful). Thinking back to the relationship of Psalm 25 to the first lesson, I feel drawn to this imperative and especially to verse 7. Ezekiel’s word from God was that children are released from any accountability for the sins of their parents; here the psalmist pushes further and asks for release from the sins of his or her own former self! Even as a Christian who embraces confession and begins each new day remembering the forgiveness offered in my baptism, I find the psalmist’s request daring, fresh, and hopeful.

My lived experience is of being haunted by past stupid and sinful choices. I am fortunate that the only consequence I face is to be merely haunted by them (though that can be paralyzing enough). But if God is willing to obey the imperative and to remember everlasting divine compassion and love and not our former sins, then there is amazing good news. When I’m sitting in the congregation on September 25, I want to hear more about how God’s gracious character makes it possible — even necessary, even inevitable — for God to set free those whose burden is to face daily such material consequences of their “former sins” as incarceration, injury, loneliness/exile, disinheritance, or compromised health.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13

Susan Eastman

God with Us
It would be difficult to find a more influential passage in all of Scripture than today’s epistle reading from Philippians.

Often called “the Christ Hymn,” on the supposition that Paul is quoting at least in part a very early hymn from the worship of the church, these verses have generated and shaped endless debates about the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, his saving work, and its relationship to the Christian life. So much can be — and has been — said about this passage.

One thing is needful. This is the drama of Christ’s redemptive incursion into the depths of our bondage and despair. This is the story of God with us, told from the standpoint of his incarnation as a slave. Last week’s lesson gave us a glorious picture of free citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, and of the boldness and freedom of Paul’s and the Philippians’ witness to the gospel.

Today we hear of Christ himself taking the form of a slave, humbling himself even to the point of death by crucifixion — the execution reserved for slaves and traitors in the Roman Empire. Paradoxically, our liberation comes from Christ’s voluntary bondage, which is his entry into our bondage. This movement by Christ is the heartbeat of the exhortation that begins and ends today’s passage. If we want to become like Christ, we begin by hearing how Christ became like us, and continues to come among us. Then, and only then, are we ready to hear about “the imitation of Christ.”

The movement in this drama is one of descent and ascent: First it tells of Christ’s descent from a position of being in the form of God and equal with God, to being in the form of a slave, in the likeness of human beings, in the appearance of a singular human being, obedient even to the point of death by crucifixion. Having been raised on a cross, Christ is exalted even higher by God, so that all creation will bow down and confess him as Lord.

This exaltation echoes in 3:20-21, where Christ the “Savior,” a name which Caesar Augustus took to himself, will subject all things to himself. This powerful Savior also will transform our body of humiliation to be conformed to his body of glory, so that we ourselves are caught up into the divine movement of humiliation and exaltation.

For this very reason, the story of Christ also moves from separation to solidarity, and from difference to likeness, as Christ moves into the most despairing depths of human experience. In the form of a slave, he mirrors back to us the reality of our own enslavement to sin and death. He comes very near, so near that he “gets under our skin.” This is the “kindness” of God, in that God becomes one of our kind, kin to us. This is the incarnation, and it is the source of the life-transforming power that animates Paul’s ethical teaching: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13).

A better translation might be, “God is the one working in you both the willing and the working.” The Greek word translated “work” is the source of our word, “energy” or “energize.” God gives us the desire and the energy to enact Christ’s compassion in the world. The “you” is plural, showing that God is among us, having come among us as a slave, as one who serves. This divine condescension and companionship thus is not only or even primarily an example for us in our dealings with one another, but the actual motivating power operating in and through those mutual relationships.

Similarly, the “salvation” we are to work out is not our private, individual destiny, but rather, the quality of our corporate life as it is lived under the rule of the Savior. Paul already has described this quality of life in terms of mutual love and affection, sharing in the Spirit, unity, humility, putting others first — and all of this “in Christ” (2:1-4). Here is real “quality of life!” And it is a public life, a public “politics.”

Just as last week’s lesson told us to let our manner of life, our “politics,” be worthy of the gospel so that it is a public demonstration of the meaning of salvation, so immediately following today’s lesson, Paul tells us we “shine as lights in the world”  (3:15). Echoing the story of God’s revelation on Mount Sinai, the “fear and trembling” (2:12) evoked by Christ’s incarnation, death and exaltation tell us we are in the presence of God. This is the language of theophany. God’s self-revelation issues in a transformed community that itself becomes a kind of theophany, a manifestation of God’s presence in the world.

Finally, the drama of salvation enacted by Christ (2:6-11) and embedded in exhortations to act in ways that mirror Christ’s humiliation, service and obedience (2:1-5, 12-13), is a kind of street theater that involves the audience in the action. This is not a television show or a movie; it is not virtual reality; it is God’s action in the flesh, invading our worlds, catching us up into the saving work of God, making us also participants, actors in the drama. No longer mere spectators, we are part of the “spectacle” of God (1 Corinthians 4:9).