Lectionary Commentaries for October 2, 2011
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46

Sharon H. Ringe

When people in authority challenged Jesus, he often responded to their challenges with a parable.

If those challenging him didn’t get the first parable, he’d give them a second one. Today’s Gospel lection is just such a second parable addressed to the challenge posed by the chief priests and elders about the source of Jesus’ authority (21:23-27).

The parable begins with a situation that was business as usual in Roman-occupied Palestine. A landowner established a vineyard complete with a fence, a winepress, and even a watchtower. He then became an absentee landowner, returning to his own country as often happened in the far-flung territories of the Roman Empire. Tenants were in charge of overseeing the productivity of the vineyard and paying their rent to the owner at harvest time, in the form of a share of the produce. So far, so good: business was working as usual. Then everything came apart!

When the owner’s slaves arrived to collect his share of the produce, the tenants attacked them, even beating one and killing another. The owner of the vineyard then simply sent another delegation of slaves to collect the rent. Hmm… this is not normal!

Those slaves were treated even worse than the first. Surely by now the owner would send in troops or some form of armed enforcement of his rights! But no, instead he sends his son, thinking by some logic that the thugs who have abused two delegations of slaves will respect the owner’s son and heir. How foolish! In parallel folly the tenants reason that if they kill the son, they will get his inheritance. Apparently unaware of how ridiculous their notion is, they kill the son.

Are you still playing along with the parable? I hope so, because the punch line is almost here. Jesus asks his audience (the chief priests and elders), “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The answer is obvious, and the tenants offer it: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (verse 41).

Whether the answer is given in a gloating voice or as a lament in fear and trembling depends on where those listening see themselves — us — in the story, and therein lays the catch. The chief priests and elders probably see themselves in the role of the landowner, caught in his own merciful response to those in his charge. They would be able to actually own land, and to have others manage it for them while they were busy with their administrative tasks in Jerusalem. They would see the servants as their subordinates and themselves as the real victims of the unscrupulous tenants, and they would be ready and even eager to pronounce judgment on them.

We who are Christians, on the other hand, have tended to read the parable seeing God as the landowner and the temple leaders as the thoroughly evil tenants who are defrauding God of the rightful fruits of God’s covenant with Israel. In this allegory, the groups of servants are Israel’s prophets and Jesus is the son.

We, in turn, are the “other tenants” to whom the “vineyard” will be given after it is taken from the Jerusalem leaders who have not managed it well (Isaiah 5:1-7). Seen as an allegory of salvation history from Matthew’s perspective, even to the point of depicting Jesus, who would be crucified outside of Jerusalem, as the son who is killed outside of the vineyard, this parable becomes an opening salvo from Jesus himself, justifying our claims against the Jewish leaders and even against Judaism as a whole.

Before we buy either of the traditional readings, though, we need to step back and look at it again. Perhaps neither allegory is the best way to approach this parable.

Our confusion about how to read this parable is built into its role and place in Matthew’s Gospel. This exchange between Jesus and the chief priests and elders is set in Jerusalem near the end of Jesus’ ministry. This final section of the Gospel before the passion narrative gazes stereo-optically at Jesus’ own life and ministry and at the church that will carry on his witness to God’s reign after Jesus’ approaching passion, death, and resurrection.

Jesus’ collision with the Jerusalem leadership is a thread running through the whole Gospel, just as the church would later be in conflict with the synagogue as both communities attempted to deal with the consequences of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple. The arguments between them were most often not about religious practices, but about the temple leaders’ collusion with exploitative economic and social policies of the Roman Empire, and later over different ways of negotiating life under that Empire in the church and the synagogue from which it was “called out” (ekklesia).

Jesus’ citation of Psalm 118:22-23 (verse 42) does not rebut the verdict the leaders have pronounced on the tenants, but rather it refocuses the discussion. The issue is no longer the old “vineyard,” but rather a totally new structure of which Jesus himself is the “cornerstone.” That structure is God’s reign or empire, which Jesus has been proclaiming from the beginning of his ministry and which the church will continue to proclaim in Jesus’ name.

This parable does not use the story to set forth the surprising nature and qualities of God’s reign, as do so many others in the Gospels. Its focus is rather on the futility of debates about, and maintenance programs for, the institutions of this age. Even the terms of God’s relationship to God’s own people are new. This puzzling parable pulls us forward toward that unknown future in which we will be both blessed and judged, and about which we know only that it is anchored in Jesus Christ.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

Mark S. Gignilliat

The song of the vineyard is a ditty turned tragic.

What begins as a simple, even simplistic, song about love gone wrong slides into a minor and discordant key. A harmless exercise in listening quickly turns painful as the audience is caught in a rhetorical trap.

Isaiah 5:1-7 introduces a series of woes leveled against Judah for their infidelity to Yahweh (5:8-30). In the canonical shape of the book, chapter five leads into chapter six where the prophet Isaiah is commissioned to his hard, prophetic work: “Go and say to this people, Keep on listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand…Then I said, “How long, O Lord? (Isaiah 6:9,11). The difficult message of the first half of Isaiah (despite where one divides the book, e.g., chapter 35 or 39) is as follows: If Yahweh’s people will not be his people, then they will not be a people at all.

The setting of this rhetorically charged text is a public forum where a bard sings a song. The one singing in Isaiah 5 is the prophet. The audience is described in verse three as “inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah.” But about whom is the prophet singing? Most texts translate the subject of the song as “Beloved.” This is a fair translation, though the term does not have to have sexual or romantic connotations. It could fairly translated as “my dear friend” or simply, “friend.” The ambiguity of the reference lends itself to the rhetorical force of the text. Who is the beloved or dear friend? The unassuming audience would not have thought Yahweh. So the listener is drawn in only to find the stunning conclusion that this song is about Yahweh and, more disconcertingly, themselves.

The first two verses reveal the lyrics of the song. “My beloved has a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it…” And so goes the song. What the lyrics reveal is the enormous amount of energy the “dear friend” put into his vineyard. He placed the vineyard on choice property, on the side of a fertile hill. Then he prepared the ground, which involved more than simple hoeing. Stones were removed and choice vines were planted (cf. Jeremiah 2:21). (As I’m writing these words, I’ve just come from my modest urban garden: my fingers are still sore from pulling weeds, wielding a hoe, and tending my heirloom tomatoes.) The “dear friend” placed so much hope in his vineyard’s production that he set up a tower for those who would protect the vineyard, not a mere hut.

More than this, he installs a winepress in full anticipation that this vineyard will yield quality grapes resulting in first-rate wine. Wrong. The care, attention, and hope the “dear friend” put into his vineyard made the disappointing outcome all the more tragic. The song ends, “He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild (or better, “diseased”) grapes.” Those of you who are gardeners may know this kind of disappointing sting.

But the sad ditty is more than this: a simple song eliciting empathetic yet detached groans from the audience. “Poor friend.” Verses three and four reveal the unfolding tension of the poetic trap. After singing the song, the prophet turns to the audience abruptly, “But now.” Then with a bait and switch tactic, he asks a series of rhetorical questions: What more could I have done? Why did this happen? These questions lure in the audience, disarming them for what is about to come.
The change of person in verses three and four is noteworthy. The distinction between the singer (the prophet) and owner of the vineyard (Yahweh) in verse one becomes opaque: my vineyard. Who is speaking? The prophet? Yahweh? The answer is, “Yes.”

The scene intensifies in verses five and six. In a moment of decisive action, the owner of the vineyard’s despair turns to wrath. “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard” (Isaiah 5:5). All the labor put into the “dear friend’s” vineyard is overturned: “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.” The necessary care a vineyard must have is dispensed with: “it will not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.” The scene is devastating, like a frustrated artist ripping canvas and splattering paint.

If we allow the text to have its intended rhetorical force, then the ending of verse six comes as a surprise. “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” This statement creates anticipation for what comes in the following verse. Who can command the rains to cease other than God? The inhabitants of Judah are now caught. This song is about Yahweh and them.
The final verse explains the allegorical nature of the song. Yahweh is the owner of the vineyard. The people of Judah are his choice plantings.

The prophet uses another literary device in verse seven for rhetorical effectiveness (paronomasia is the technical term). “He expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mishpach); righteousness (zedekah), but heard a cry (ze’akah).” Israel’s election was not only a privilege to be enjoyed but a responsibility to be performed. “I will be your God and you will be my people” brings with it obligations for covenant fidelity: a fidelity marked by justice and righteousness. If Judah would not be Yahweh’s people, then they would not be a people at all. The vineyard would be destroyed.

The image of the vineyard is picked up in several places in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 21:33-46). John 15:1-11 is a robustly Christological take on the vineyard motif. If we as the branches are connected with Jesus the vine, fruit will be produced. This is a classic expression of faith leading to works of justice and mercy. Our righteousness is a first a gift of grace received by faith that in turn enables and engenders righteous acts. The vineyard of Christ’s church produces fruit only when the church is in complete dependence on the vine.

It is a powerful image: God the Father before the cross with dead vines in his blistered hands. In the final analysis, God in a triune act of love destroyed his choicest vineyard — this is my beloved son — for the sake of planting a vineyard of love and grace in the whole world. Or as St. Paul said, “You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God” (Colossians 1:5-6).

Alternate First Reading

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

Amy Erickson

This week’s lectionary text is a bit daunting. The Ten Commandments!

One really cannot hope to out-do Charlton Heston, holding up the stone tablets with the wind blowing through his magnificent mane of hair. However, there are rich possibilities for preaching about the ways communities of God might imagine themselves in new and fresh terms.

The lectionary’s guidance on the verses to be read (all of the Ten Commandments, minus the extended justifications of the second and fifth commandments) encourages the preacher to think about the shape of Decalogue as a whole.

In the lectionary’s sustained attention to Exodus’s wilderness narrative, we have been following Moses, God, and the people on their journey. It has not been easy since they left the celebration on the banks of the Red Sea. The people have been quarreling with Moses and “testing” God, God has been working to keep up with the people’s basic needs for food and water, and Moses has about had it with being the leader of this not-so-merry band.

In the context of the larger narrative, the giving of the commandments can be understood as providing the people with a sense of purpose and identity and even a bit of security. Although God has brought them out of Egypt and performed a number of miracles, it is not until this point in the story that God tells the people about God’s intentions for them.

With God’s own terrifying voice, God tells the people what is expected of them. Already, in Exodus 19, God has told the people that if they agree to terms of the covenant, they will be for Yahweh a treasured possession, “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:5-6). What follows in Exodus 20 is the substance of the covenant that God has spoken of previously in abstract terms.

The commandments, however, are not simply a list of rules given to whip into shape a stiff-necked people; instead, they are better viewed as a means to form and nurture an alternative community, bound not by common goals of wealth and prestige, but rather by loyalty to a god who has chosen to redeem a group of slaves from a life of bondage. The commandments mean to sketch out a space where human beings can live fruitful, productive, and meaningful lives before God and with one another.

Within the frame of the text, which begins “I am Yahweh your god” and ends with “your neighbor,” it is revealed that life according to the commandments is fundamentally about radical commitment to God and compassion for the neighbor. The Commandments are intended to form the character of this community by cultivating a deep and enduring love for and loyalty to God, which then extends out to all creation.

The prologue to the commandments identifies God with the act of liberation they have already experienced, but it also recasts Egypt as the place from which they were liberated. With their anxieties about food and water, the people have been thinking of Egypt in rather nostalgic terms, dreaming of the cucumbers and hamburgers they enjoyed there.

With the order of the commandments, God makes it possible for the people to view their new lives, even in the wilderness, not as chaotic and terrifying, but as meaningful and potentially fruitful. As many scholars have noted, the Sabbath commandment at the center of the Decalogue, with its insistence on rest and restoration for every person, animal, and field, communicates that life is about more than productivity and work.

The commandments, as a whole, present an alternative vision to life in Egypt, a place where there was little interest in regeneration and rest and no freedom. The commandments have not traditionally been associated with freedom, and yet, the broad contours of the commandments insure that only the most basic and elemental ideals of this community are laid out. The details are to be worked out by individual communities in different times and places. This idea is supported by the presence of two different sets of statutes and ordinances, each of which follows the commandments in both Exodus and Deuteronomy.

In contrast to Egyptian custom, the commandments do not sanction a human king or a leader to assert power over or demand allegiance from the people. While there are certain societal hierarchies assumed in the commandments, the Decalogue does not command obedience to human leaders. Instead they demand loyalty and obedience to God alone.

The community will not be defined according to the whims of power-hungry human rulers. Rather the allegiance of each person and of the whole group is to God alone.
The commandments also serve to formalize the connection and the relationship between the realms of God and this particular people. As Patrick Miller eloquently expresses it: “…neither community, nor deity have separate existences once the covenant is established. Even though both experience real abandonment on the part of the other for a time, they are forever linked.”1

Significantly, all of this counter-cultural community building happens in the wilderness, and in reaction to the oppressive form of life modeled in Egypt.

If I may be so bold (since this is about preaching the Ten Commandments, perhaps a little brazenness is in order!), I’d like to think out-loud about how struggling, mainline churches might imagine themselves in the wilderness. I hear so much conversation that depicts the mainline church in the U.S. as dying, in part, because it no longer enjoys a privileged place in society.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, when churches don’t have the money to pay the grocery or water bill, they sometimes long for the way things used to be, for the fabulous food in Egypt. After all, journeying through the wilderness can be terrifying — all the securities and apparent guarantees of survival are gone — but the wilderness could also provide the church with an opportunity to re-define itself according to what matters most.

It strikes me that we might view the church as a community liberated from the bonds of Egypt (read: American consumer military culture), where success and value are enumerated according to the grain stored in silos and the height of the building projects. Many mainline churches have lost wealth and security — but perhaps that’s not entirely a bad thing.

What if we viewed that loss — that displacement from the center — as redemption or as liberation? Perhaps it is an opportunity to embrace the basic contours of the covenant that whittles us down to our essentials — to be a community that places loyalty to God and care for the other at the center of our lives. In the wilderness, maybe we can hear the voice of God more clearly — calling us to live into this covenant.

1The Way of the Lord (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 53.


Commentary on Psalm 80:7-15

Henry Langknecht

This portion of Psalm 80 responds to the first lesson from Isaiah 5 by employing the same metaphor of God’s people as a ruined, forsaken vine and vineyard.

In the first lesson, Isaiah argues God’s side: in spite of my loving viticulture, my grape people were a failure; there was nothing for it but to abandon them and the whole project. The psalm then argues the people’s side seeking God’s restoration to wholeness.

I’m a loyal fan of The Revised Common Lectionary but let me say that allowing verses 7, 14, and 15 to represent the gist of the people’s appeal takes some of the fun out of the juxtaposition of Psalm 80 with Isaiah 5 and Matthew 21. As the first reading and gospel reading make clear, God expects the vineyard to produce fruits of the Reign: justice and righteousness.

What’s striking about the people’s defense in Psalm 80 is the absence of mention of God’s vineyard mission. The psalm seems concerned only with the grandeur of the vine and the restoration of the special relationship once enjoyed between God and God’s own people. In verses 1-6, the people address God in unctuous tones, reminding God of the divine power to save and then appealing to God’s (or is it only the people’s) honor and reputation: “You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves” (verse 6). Then (following the appointed verses) in verse 16, the psalm calls not for mercy but rather for God’s vengeance to rain down upon the boars and beasts who have had their way with the vineyard.

The appointed verses begin with a simple request for restoration (verse 7). Then the psalmist hearkens back to Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, reminding God that the vineyard was God’s own project (verse 8). The description in verses 9-11 of the vineyard’s success deserves some attention from the preacher’s imagination. It is a picture of a grotesque grape vine that towers over cedar trees and mountains and stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan and beyond.

Sure, it’s only a metaphor celebrating God’s provision of the land promised to Abraham and Sarah. But the people’s pride in this uncanny vine provides an entry point for pointing out dissonance between their vision and God’s. Vineyards need protection because grape production involves the maintenance of tricky bio-chemical balances accompanied by a trust in ruthless discipline (one adage has it that the vintner must “cut the plants back as far as he or she can stand and then give the pruning saw to someone who hates wine”). Monster vines don’t need protection; nor are they likely to bear the best fruit.

The weakness of the people’s appeal is shown most vividly in the question posed in verse 12, “Why have you broken down its wall …?” God has never been bashful about chastising the chosen people nor about explaining to them exactly why (cf. today’s first reading!). God disciplines (prunes) so that the people may grow and bear fruits that befit God’s mission. God’s people here seem to want restoration of their prosperity, reputation, and “goodness with God” simply for their own sake.

When I’m sitting in worship on October 2 I want to hear you explore whether the people’s “case” in Psalm 80 (especially verses 8-11) bears any spiritual metaphorical relationship to the fretful handwringing of the mainline churches in North American (including, sadly, some in my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) over our “decline.” “We took root and once filled the land! The Appalachians and Rockies were covered by our shadow (though perhaps never the Cascades or Sierra Nevadas). Our boughs and tendrils towered over…”

Well, you get the idea. In what ways do our visions of our former or hoped-for grandeur make grotesque the metaphors into which we have been invited to live: servant, steward, lamb? And then, with the rich judgments of Isaiah 5 and Matthew 21 as background, proclaim as Gospel the confidence we have to pray, with the psalmist (verses 14-15), “Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted,” adding, “for the sake of your mission in the word.”

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

Susan Eastman

Crossing the Threshold
In an intense little book called Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom tells about a time during the Nazi occupation of Paris when he very nearly was caught by the Gestapo:

“During the German occupation of France I was in the resistance movement and, coming down into the Underground, I was caught by the police…. What took place at that moment was this: I had a past, I had a future, and I was moving out of one into the other by walking briskly down the steps. At a certain moment someone put a hand on my shoulder and said ‘Stop, give me your papers.’ At that moment . .. I realized that I had no past, because the real past I had was the thing for which I should be shot…. I found myself standing there like the lizard who had been caught by the tail and had run away leaving the tail somewhere behind, so that the lizard ended where the tail had been.”1

Something like this happens in the lesson for today. Paul had been walking briskly from his past into his future, so to speak, when God put a hand on his shoulder, and took him from a past and future that he thought he understood, to a previously unimaginable new life in Christ. The break is decisive. It is a matter of life and death, and having broken with his former identity, Paul doesn’t walk; he runs into the future that is his in union with Christ.

We, like Paul, live at the threshold between the past and the future. This threshold is cruciform, and it is both an exit and an entrance. We, like Paul, are no longer to find our life, our purpose, our worth, our identity, in the past, but only in the discovery of who we are in Christ. This is incredibly liberating good news. It also is scary, perhaps insulting, and certainly difficult to grasp and comprehend. God continually wrenches us from what is comfortable and familiar and tugs us into the glorious future of the children of God.

Paul narrates his past in terms of his family, nationality and faith, and in terms of his accomplishments. That is, his former identity was bound up in a set of given relationships, as well as personal achievements and failures. Indeed, his greatest achievement, perfection in relationship to the Law of Moses, accompanied his greatest failure, persecution of the church. In any case, having once considered his personal story as a kind of asset, now he considers it loss — even more, “garbage.” I wonder what his relatives would say about that value judgment!

We also have our personal stories, some of which we cherish, some of which we would gladly bury. In either case, we often feel that our identity is bound up in those stories; we want to tell them to each other, or at least parts of them. Like lizards, we trail our personal histories — our “tails”! — behind us. Becoming “tail-less” is a necessary part of being transformed in the image of Christ.

In practical terms, this means that we don’t own our past or our memories. Rather, access to the past is mediated by the judgment and mercy of God. This is part of what baptism signifies, and we see its effects in the profound freedom from the past in Paul’s personal narrative. He does not have amnesia. Rather, from the standpoint of the grace of God in Christ, he is no longer defined by that history, because only God can tell him who he is.

Unlike the past, therefore, Paul’s future is not primarily about him. It’s about God. Specifically, it’s about “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” That is, Jesus Christ is the threshold where our past and our future meet. Jesus is the one whose faithful obedience to death (Philippians 2:8) nullifies the power of our own history and liberates us for a new future. Paul puts it this way: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (3:8-9).

An alternative translation of verse 9 reads, “the faithfulness of Christ.” This divine faithfulness is the incarnate expression of God’s faithfulness throughout the history of Israel, now crystallized in Christ and decisively effective for the whole world. In other words, Christ himself makes us righteous and thereby brings us into the life-giving presence of God. When Paul yearns to “be found in” Christ, he is responding to the self-giving love of Christ who was “found in human form” (2:7).

Finally, Paul uses the image of a race to describe the Christian life. A runner who keeps glancing over his shoulder will not win the race. Rather, the one who keeps her “eyes on the prize” will stay on track. Similarly, the runner who mistakes the half-way marker for the goal and stops there, saying “I made it!” will drop out of the race.

So also, Paul says that he has not “already reached the goal” (3:12). The phrase is literally, “have already become perfect or mature.” Paul uses the same word in verse 15, when he says, “Let those of us who are mature be of the same mind.” Paradoxically, “mature thinking” means recognizing that we’re not yet mature! We’re not yet perfect, and if we think we are, we are deceiving ourselves. Rather, we are always in the midst of the race, carried forward from the past to the future in union with Christ.

1Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1970), 84.