Lectionary Commentaries for September 20, 2020
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16

Stanley Saunders

Matthew’s parable of the workers in the vineyard—or is it the gracious landowner, or maybe the union-busting landowner?—has most often been read as an allegory in which the landowner stands for God.1

In this reading, God is the gracious master who rewards all the workers equally (= salvation), thereby upsetting the workers who toiled all day (the Jews) by giving the latecomers (Gentiles) the same rewards.

We should always be deeply suspicious of allegorical readings that turn out to favor Christians at the expense of Israel. Jesus’ parables are meant to get us to think critically about the world we have constructed, free us from our cultural shackles and self-deceptions, and enable us to discern more clearly how God works in the world. Instead of allegory, we should read the story on its own terms, as a straightforward account of the interactions between a landowner and the day laborers who work for him.

We are tempted to see the landowner in God-like terms because he is powerful, he hires workers all day long and pays them all equally, and he declares his own goodness and justice. We should remember, however, that at the end of the day the workers are all as vulnerable and powerless as they were at the beginning of the day, except that, we will see, they have lost their dignity, and probably their unity. The injustices are intensified, not overturned. Day-laborers constituted a limitless and disposable fuel—bodies to be burned up—that made the ancient economy run. Our world is again full of such bodies, who make our clothes, produce our food, and assemble our electronic gizmos, yet never gain enough traction to be able to join the world of consumers. The parable thus pulls back the curtain on the ways our own world works, as it would have for Jesus’ audience.

It is true that, at one level, the landowner treats the workers with equality. He goes hunting for workers throughout the day, and they keep showing up until the very end. It is a landowner’s dream market. He pays everyone what they had agreed to be paid and, in the case of those hired at the end, even more than they might have expected.

All this apparent justice is, however, cast into question by the landowner’s actions and words from the point the payments begin to be made. He stipulates that those hired last will be paid first (Matthew 20:8). Why? This arrangement serves no evident purpose but to make his gesture of “equality” evident to those who worked all day. If the goal is really to create equality among the workers, the landowner could do so without making a public display. Apparently he intends to provoke a reaction. He uses his interaction with first-hired, last-paid workers to declare his own justness and goodness. After all, he is paying those who worked all day just what they had agreed to be paid (20:13). He is also only doing what is his right “with what belongs to me” (20:14). The implicit message in these words is that it all belongs to him, including the workers, with whom he can do what he pleases. He addresses one of them as “friend,” which sounds nice, but we should hear it pronounced with a sneer. In Matthew “friend” is consistently employed ironically: in Matthew 22:12 a king uses it to address a man he is about to have bound hand and foot and booted into outer darkness, because he had come improperly dressed to the wedding feast. Jesus himself calls Judas “friend” as he comes to betray Jesus in Gethsemane (26:50). The landowner’s apparent graciousness and justice are, in fact, viciousness in disguise—a pretty package with a bomb in it. He has been “generous,” but only with some and in a way that means to incite “envy” (20:15). We should hope that this is not the way God acts.

Why have so many readers in the history of the church wanted to make this landowner into a God-figure? Why do we so often think that the power figures—whether kings, landowners, or fathers—represent divine authority? Is God really like these? Or are they merely god-like in our mind’s eye? Why do so many of us still want to believe what the powerful people say, even when it flies in the face of reality? The parable teaches us to read our world critically.

We should also question a corresponding vilification of the workers. They might indeed have accepted their pay and gone home happy that everyone got what they needed to make it another day. But few of us would be happy in a system of this kind of so-called justice. We shape our identities and our sense of worth by constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. We want fairness and equality, when it serves our interest, but not if it means that we all get the same prize in the end. Where is the reward in that? Regardless of what they were paid, all the workers went home seeing more clearly the vast gulf that exists between the landowner and themselves. They have gotten paid, but the landowner has now taken their dignity and whatever vestiges of power they might once have possessed. They will be back in marketplace again tomorrow. Nothing has changed but the self-respect they have had wrenched away.

The parable in fact depicts a limited, and thus false, form of justice. We can tell it is false justice because it produces envy and division, rather than wholeness and healed relationships. Jesus’ disciples have and will soon again demonstrate their interest in securing places of status and prestige in the kingdom (Matthew 18:1, 19:27-30, 20:20-23). They, too, like the workers in the vineyard, will splinter and become alienated. The parable is meant for them. It is a harsh reminder that there is no justice, no kingdom of heaven, when we end up alone in the world.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 24, 2017.

First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:10—4:11

Christopher Davis

The foundational proposition and premise of the book of Jonah is that God is not a respecter of persons nor places.

Every person who chooses to repent and to walk and work in righteousness is invited into relationship with God. That’s because God is a God of relationship.

In fact, we have been divinely wired to participate in relationship. We have been created internally with the necessity of relationships. When one goes back to the beginning of time and looks at the when, why, what and how of creation, we see that both the focus and the function of creation were inextricably tied to relationship. That is, what God created next was created because of what God had created before it. Because what God created next would need what God created before it, in order for that created being to fully function in its providential purpose. Again, God was concerned about relationships. Thus, in creating humanity, God exhibited the same concern.

Perhaps this explains why the enemy uses relationships—our connection with people—as one of his strongest weapons in his effort to destroy our witness and steal our joy. Such was the case with Jonah. Jonah had no interest in being in relationship with the Ninevites. Their well-being was the least of his concerns.

Most readers of scripture immediately associate Jonah with being in the belly of a great fish following his failed attempt to run from God’s presence. However, the good thing for Jonah and the good thing for us is, although God does not manifest God’s presence everywhere, God is everywhere. Thus, as was the case with Jonah, we can walk out of God’s presence, but never out of God’s sight. So when Jonah tries to move out of God’s sight, he finds himself in the unusual and uncomfortable living arrangements of a fish’s belly.

Jonah’s issue is clear: he did not want to go to Nineveh. He says, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2). This reveals that Jonah was well acquainted with the heart and nature of God.

However, this knowledge did not create within Jonah a desire to strengthen his own relationship with God by aiding the Ninevites in strengthening theirs. Instead, this knowledge created a bitterness within Jonah’s heart and mind that caused him not only to long for Nineveh’s demise, but even for his own death. His desire to see Nineveh fall would place him in direct opposition to God. And, what we witness next are the consequences of a bad decision.

“Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5).

Jonah becomes the benefactor of the comfort and protection provided by this shady retreat, more specifically, the comfort and protection that has been provided by God. Rather than imputing unto the Ninevites the kindness he himself has benefited from, he opts to sit comfortably and wait to see the effects of God’s wrath on the Ninevites.

However, what the text reveals is that those unwilling to extend the benefits of relationship seldom get to continue to enjoy the benefits that come through relationship. It would not be long before the gourd would wither away, precisely at the time when he needed it most.

Ironically, this was a time in the life of the Ninevites when they needed God most. Yet, there is no indication that Jonah drew parallels between his own needs and those of the Ninevites.

Instead, he again requested his own death.

“God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” (Jonah 4:9-11).

How much more valuable is humanity, with our faults, failures, and flaws, than a weed? The text indicates that the Ninevites were able to see their wickedness and repent. Jonah never discerned the wickedness of his heart. He never questioned how he could find compassion for a plant, but not people.

However, with gentleness and patience, God demonstrates, through this exchange with Jonah, God’s continued focus on relationship. The destruction of the gourd was not to bring about harm, but instead to provide a teachable moment. God asks Jonah, “Should I not have pity?” Jesus repeats this argument in the Gospels: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).

Every station and every standard called for the elimination of Nineveh; that is, all but one. The law called for it; prudence called for it; morality called for it; political economy called for it; survival of the fittest called for it. But there was One who saw something different, something more, something far more precious—the God of relationship.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15

Michael J. Chan

Exodus 16 is the second stage of Israel’s wilderness journey, following the dramatic defeat of Pharaoh’s army at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14-15).

Departing from the oasis at Elim (Exodus 15:27), Israel arrives at the “Desert of Sin” on the way to Sinai. Exodus 16, in other words, sits in that uncomfortable space between departure and destination—or in the case of Exodus, between liberation and covenant. Chronology also matters. Verse 1 indicates that these events took place a month after Israel’s departure from Egypt (see also Numbers 33:3).

Long journeys in adverse conditions often bring out the worst in people. This was certainly the case for the newly liberated Israelites in Exodus 16: “The Israelites said to them [Moses and Aaron], ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death’” (Exodus 16:3). The compounding forces of time, environment, and uncertainty snuffed out the afterglow of victory. In the process, history and memory are rewritten as well. Forgotten are the years of domination, terror, and enslavement under Pharaoh. All the Israelite community can remember about Egypt is that they had full bellies at the end of the day. Nostalgic longing for a misremembered history is a powerful and dangerous force, especially in an environment of scarcity and adversity.

But God is patient and commits to offering the Israelites scheduled, regular rations for their journey: “I will rain down bread from heaven for you” (Exodus 16:4). The heavenly bread, however, must be gathered and prepared in a very particular manner, with special consideration for the demands of the Sabbath: “The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days” (verses 4-5; see also 21-26). According to verse 35, this “daily bread” was to be their staple until they finally reached Canaan.

God’s test of Israel is not so much a matter of determining whether they properly follow the instruction manual. More to the point is whether they will truly trust that the heavenly bread will also be daily bread. This point is underscored by the fact that the first reported violation is a case of hoarding: “However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:20). On the whole, the biblical texts are not opposed to wise preparation (see, for example, Proverbs 21:20; 30:25). In the context of Exodus 16, however, hoarding is a sign of distrust, because it demonstrates a refusal to believe that Yhwh is worthy of trust. Exodus 16, in other words, is less about “grumbling” and more about unbelief. The grumbling of the Israelites is a symptom of their lack of trust in their God.

There is another lesson that God seems intent upon teaching: the God of Israel hears prayers. The point is made several times throughout the text, beginning at verses 6-7: “So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you will know that it was the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?’” (emphasis mine). Verse 8, similarly, reads, “Moses also said, ‘You will know that it was the LORD when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him’” (emphasis mine). In verse 9, Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the LORD, for he has heard your grumbling.’” And finally, verse 11 reads: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’’” An important lesson from the wilderness is that Israel does not travel alone, and neither do we. The God of the desert is a gift-giving, life-sustaining, and prayer-hearing God. But in the wilderness, the most difficult test is to believe that these claims are true.

Zooming out for a moment, a similar point is made in the early chapters of Exodus. For instance, Exodus 2:23-24 reads: “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (emphasis mine). Exodus 3:7 is similar: “The LORD said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.’” Israel’s future identity as a covenant people depends upon their recognizing that Yhwh is a God who hears and answers prayers. When they pray, heaven responds. When they groan under the crushing weight of the world, that groan reaches the throne of God.

Moments of disruption and adversity often expose the stories that we tell about ourselves, our past, and our relationship with God. In Exodus 16, a narrative of distrust in God’s goodness feeds a distorted recollection of Israel’s past, and activates a nostalgic hunger for the fleshpots of Egypt. The compounding pressures of food scarcity, vulnerability, and a journey of uncertain length make these responses understandable. Like every single one of us, the Israelites are on a lengthy journey of trying to unlearn habits cultivated under Pharaoh’s whip and learn anew what it means to wander this world under the care of a loving God.


Commentary on Psalm 145:1-8

Paul O. Myhre

Remembering someone, remembering important events in life, and just the act of remembering has a way of bringing the past into the present.1

I close my eyes and remember an event and before I know it I am transported in my mind’s eye to that event as if it were in the present. I can feel the event and sense memories associated with it coursing through my body. I can hear the sounds that were present—deceased family member’s voices. I smell the fragrances permeating the space from flowers turned to dust decades ago. In my mind’s eye I see the colors and shapes of objects and living plants that have changed or disappeared over time. And I can sense the feel of textures running though my fingers and feel the earth beneath my feet, and almost taste the event as if it were in my present experience rather than something that happened long ago. The human mind can transport us to places where we once were for brief moments and we can experience that day, those indelible moments, all over again. It is a gift that accompanies being human.

In Psalm 145 the writer breathes an air that is dense like fog and bright as a welder’s torch. The poetry is thick with the unwritten experiences of the writer. It is the utterances of one who has experienced difficult life situations that reflect more keenly on the activity of God in the writer’s life. It is the one who has had close brushes with the threat of death who can witness to something greater than one’s own life or experiences of life. Those who are well acquainted with the trials of living know something that those who have not experienced them cannot quite comprehend or understand.

The depth of God’s activity in one’s life transcends the crisis of cancer, the trauma of physical and emotional violence, and the difficulties of living with physical maladies. The Psalmist reminds readers of what they may already know. God is ruler. God is worthy of praise because God has made all that is and will ever be. God has formed the molecules that make up the cells and systems of a human body. God has created the trillions of bacteria that live in human intestines and the microbes that travel over our skin and lick our eyes as we sleep.

The Psalm functions in part like a dance of poetry in motion. The theological ruminations of the writer swirl, leap, tap, and bend like trees in the wind. The movements at times are like a blurry image that sweeps past too quickly for one to make out the details. It is like an Indianapolis 500 racecar that flies past one’s viewing location at over 200 miles per hour. You know the car is there, but the details are difficult to discern. What is the measure of God’s greatness? No one can discern it. Yet something can be said about it since there are traces of it in history, creation, and human experience.

The power of the writer’s poetry is that it doesn’t define everything like a math equation or narrative prose. It leaves holes for the imagination to fill and provides mounds on which readers can stand to see further than they could by standing on flat ground. The phrase “one generation commends your works to another” carries with it a great crowd of comments. It evokes in my mind my grandparents’ generation of upper Midwestern farmers who were primarily second-generation Norwegian immigrants whose theology was steeped in the Lutheranism of the home country from which their parents emigrated. That generation’s reflections on the activity of God were passed on to my parents who then combined them with their own perceptions about the activities of God. I in turn took their amalgamation of theological musings and passed them on to my children. The string of stories weaves back and forth like a large tapestry shaped on the loom of experience. There is not one story that doesn’t touch another. Each one feels the threads and carries the traces of hands that wove them together. Indelible marks are made as God’s activity is discerned and they are carried forward in stories so that subsequent generations might weave them with their own.

The writer of Psalm 145 conveys a theology that is steeped in historic reflection and communal experience. It provides hearers and readers with a profile page of sorts about the nature of God who is worthy of praise. God’s greatness is beyond measure. God’s activity has been in favor of the people of God. God abounds in mercy and love. God works are forever worthy of meditation. This psalm’s poetry is like midnight water lapping at the edges of the lakeshores of something we know, but can’t quite make out. Yet we can discern something.

Artists are taught in their formal training to be attentive to everything and to the smallest of details. They are invited to think about the hundreds of insects, thousands of blades of grass, and millions of microbes in a single square foot of ground. To draw that one square foot takes patience and attention. It requires a willingness to reflect on what is there and what isn’t there. As one begins to see the patterns of growth, the movement of insects, and watch the ways by which the grass moves as wind flows across it, they can begin to discern how to draw that which is before them. Like an Andrew Wyeth painting the honing of a capacity to see carries with it more than just reproduction of what is there. It involves inner drawings that are crafted at the same time as that which is sketched on a page.

The practice of drawing can be an exercise of praise to God as one reflects on the one’s life stories, ponders the splendor of God’s created world, and considers the possibilities of God’s activity in the present. Every time I read the phrases of this psalm I am transported to places of reflection about the creative activity of the artist God who still creates today. This brings forth praise.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 24, 2017.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30

Ekaputra Tupamahu

The coronavirus surprised the United States at the beginning of 2020.

Within just a few months, it had spread throughout the vast nation, killing over 150,000 people by early August and no doubt infecting many beyond the almost five million confirmed cases. Not only illness and deaths have made this a challenging year for many people. That it is a highly infectious and primarily airborne disease has meant that most airlines, schools, and many businesses have closed, some never to reopen; the economy is floundering, and with millions of people unemployed, many cannot pay their rent, mortgage, food, and medical bills.

Though hardly surprised by it, in the midst of this horrific pandemic, the entire nation—and indeed world—was shocked into action by yet another brutal police killing, this time of George Floyd on the streets of Minnesota. That he was an African American and that the police were white is hardly a coincidence. Such discrimination is also evident in the disproportionate number of minorities that the coronavirus is affecting, both in terms of infection, job loss, and dangerous working conditions.Indeed, life is much harder for people at the margins. As Walter Benjamin states in his essay on the philosophy of history, for the oppressed “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.2

Seen from the perspective of the oppressed, Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:21-30 shows Paul wrestling with this issue of the tenacity of death and hardship. He writes that he is “pressed in between the two [life and death]” (1:23). This condition of in-between-ness, of liminality, is the reality of life for subjugated people. They are alive but the threat of death from the empire is immanent. Placing this text in a larger social context of his time, we recognize that both Paul and the Philippians are colonized subjects under the rule of the Roman Empire. Paul, on the one hand, is imprisoned by the Romans (1:13); the city of Philippi, on the other, is a Roman colony. They share the experience of living under the rule of the Roman Empire. Life at the margin of the empire is truly “a permanent struggle against an omnipresent death,” as Frantz Fanon puts it.3 It is like living at the edge of death, right at the threshold of life and death.

Surprisingly, however, Paul insists quite strongly in this letter that death is a net gain. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” he writes (1:21). It is gain because he can be with Christ (1:23), which is “far better” than living. This rhetoric of “reversal,” as Joseph Marchal describes it,4 can be somewhat confusing. Why did he say that? Why is dying far better than living? Perhaps Paul feels that such theological imagination can function as a strategy to cope with the present suffering of living in prison. Perhaps he wants to comfort the Philippians by saying that dying is not as horrific as they might have thought. Perhaps he is trying to convince himself that everything is going to be okay in spite of the reality that he is living in prison. In a way, he seems to use this rhetoric to convey a strong message that although the Roman imperial power that has imprisoned him can inflict pain on his body and kill it, his death will be a glorious moment of being with Christ. Perhaps this strategy alleviates his own horror of death.

Moreover, here Paul is dealing not only with the reality of death, but also putting life into a perspective. While dying is far better, living for Paul is “more necessary” (1:24). The necessity of life is grounded in a connection to the community. Even if he lives, Paul argues, his life is “for the sake of” (Greek: dia) the Philippians. He is not living for himself. He lives for others, for the community’s sake. “Since I am convinced of this, I will remain and continue with all of you for your joy in faith,” states Paul (1:25). But why does he need to say this? Paul’s next statement in 1:27-30 might be a clue for us. He seems to know that these people in Philippi are undergoing the same suffering (1:30). Scholars generally agree that Paul’s statement on suffering for Christ indicates that not only Paul himself is experiencing difficult life in prison: the people in Philippi are too.5 Paul states: “You are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (1:30). To be with the Philippians means to share their suffering.

Not only that, Paul describes what the Philippians are experiencing as “to suffer for Christ” (1:29). Their suffering has a Christological significance to it. The Greek expression to hyper autou paschein can be translated as “to suffer on behalf of Christ.” They are representing Christ in that suffering. To participate in the sufferings of the Philippians, therefore, means to take part in the body of Christ.

Paul reminds the Philippians that as followers of Christ, they have to be a citizen of Philippi worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27). The imperative politeuesthe in 1:27 is often translated “conduct oneself/yourself” (NIV, NASB, NET) or “live your life” (NRSV). This is a political term. It refers to the way one would live or conduct oneself as a citizen in a political community (a polis). To put it differently, Paul is telling them to get involved in politics. Politics is not a dirty word. To be a follower of Christ means to be political in a way that is worthy of the gospel of Christ.

What does this mean to us who live in the United States today? James Baldwin once said, “America … changes all the time, without ever changing at all.6 The reality of racial oppression is unchanging in spite of the fact that America keeps changing. When the death of George Floyd came to national attention in late May, it once again ripped open a deep historical wound caused by the systemic racism in the United States.

The way the policeman pressed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, even though he repeatedly told the officers that he couldn’t breathe, reminds us how hard it is for oppressed people to breathe. This agony, this groan, prompted people of all backgrounds to take to the streets to protest police brutality in solidarity with those who suffer. Such protest, such solidarity is a form of participation in the suffering of others, and thus, the suffering of Christ.


  1. “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 24, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html

  2. Walter Benjamin, “Selected Writings: Volume 4,” 1938-1940. http://cscs.res.in/dataarchive/textfiles/textfile.2010-11-02.7672177498/file

  3. Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 128.

  4. See Joseph A. Marchal, Hierarchy, Unity, and Imitation: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of Power Dynamics in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2006), 127.

  5. For a more detailed discussion on the centrality of the theme of suffering in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, see Peter Oaks, Philippians: From People to Letter, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 10 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), Chapter 3.

  6. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., “James Baldwin Insisted We Tell the Truth About This Country. The Truth Is, We’ve Been Here Before,” TIME, June 25, 2020. https://time.com/5859214/james-baldwin-racism/