Lectionary Commentaries for October 4, 2020
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46

Emerson Powery

What should proper care of a vineyard look like? What should tenant farmers who lease the land give back to the one who owns all of the land?1

Jesus used another parable with another landowner as one of the chief characters (cf. 10:25; 13:27, 52; 20:1, 11; 21:33; 24:43) who cared for another vineyard (cf. 20:1; 21:28) to make his point. Distinctive to this parable was Jesus’ clear allusion to Isaiah’s own parable about a love-song for a planted vineyard (cf. Isaiah 5). In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus tied together broader themes in order to critique the temple leadership responsible for proper care of the people of God, Israel.

This is the third response to the temple leadership’s query about the origins of Jesus’ authority for his temple activity (cf. 21:12-46). First, Jesus offered a counter-question on the authority of John’s baptism, which the leaders failed to answer directly because of their fear of John’s public reputation (cf. 21:23-27). Second, Jesus told a parable about “two sons,” an explanation that directly challenged this leadership’s understanding of God’s activity in the world (cf. 21:28-32). Third, Jesus recalled and re-interpreted Isaiah’s love-song about a vineyard (cf. 21:33-46).

The allusion to Isaiah was unmistakable (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7). The prophet made clear that the vineyard was a metaphor for the “house of Israel and the people of Judah” (cf. Isaiah 5:7). And, in Isaiah, God was the caretaker of this vineyard. Despite careful attention from the vinedresser (cf. Isaiah 5:4), the vineyard produced only “wild grapes.” The vineyard’s failure to produce better fruit forced the owner to remove his attentiveness (cf. Isaiah 5:5-6). If the land was unable to produce with proper care, what would it do without it?

In Jesus’ parable, the “produce” was fine, but the delivery system was malfunctioning. The problem was not with the vineyard’s production but with the tenants themselves. These were extremely violent tenant farmers, harming and slaughtering the various groups of slaves sent by the landowner. The rationale for their brutality and murderous ways was stated explicitly when the son visited: “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance” (21:38).

On the surface, the landowner’s decision to send his son in light of the tragedy of his servants seemed unwise (cf. 21:37). But, Jesus’ parable did not highlight this act as foolish; this was not the parable of the foolish landowner. Rather, in an honor and shame culture, the landowner’s decision to send his son as emissary was appropriate since he could expect proper respect for his appointed heir.

Culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience in the first century. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over (a portion of) the crop (cf. 21:34). Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary.

In reality, many in Jesus’ audience would have understood the experience of the farmers all too well. If they chose not to “pay” the landowner, as was the case in Jesus’ parable, the landowner would find new tenants (cf. 21:41) without doubt. So, Jesus’ story highlighted the landowner’s patience in this regard and, perhaps, a certain kind of naiveté.

In addition to Jesus’ parabolic twist on Isaiah’s vineyard, Jesus provided a citation from Psalm 118. His scriptural citation shifted the focus of the parable altogether, from a critique of the tenants/leadership (in the parable) to a statement about the son/stone (in the scripture citation). The story was no longer about the vineyard, the produce, or the tenant farmers. Now, Jesus turned attention toward the abused son: “they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (21:39).

For Matthew, this twist was a Christological one in which the abused son became “the stone that the builders rejected” (21:42), which, in turn, determined who was in or out (cf. 21:44). The son who was sent (21:37) must be an allegory for God’s son, Jesus (cf. 3:17; 17:5). The tenant farmers, who represented the temple leadership, would be replaced by other tenants (21:41). And, what looked like a landowner’s naiveté was really God’s plan: “this was the Lord’s doing” (21:42).

In Matthew’s account, the temple leadership realized the parables question their leadership abilities (cf. 21:45), over the vineyard (i.e., Israel, the kingdom of God; cf. 21:43). Yet, their inability to act, despite their anger, was due to the crowds again (cf. 21:46), as it was with their assessment of John’s role (cf. 21:26). In both instances, the leadership’s concern was that the crowd viewed both figures as prophets (cf. 21:26, 46).

One other note on the “landowner” is in order. The term may be translated, preferably, as “household master” (from oikodespotes) and was used a common analogy for God in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. It may reveal something about Matthew’s ancient setting. The Gospel of Mark never uses the analogy. To the contemporary reader, the analogy may cause concern, since many of these masters owned slaves in Jesus’ parables as in our parable here (e.g., 10:25; 13:27; 21:34; 24:45).

Within Jesus’ parables, household masters generally make wise decisions (e.g., 13:27-30), even if misunderstood (20:11-15). Why is God’s reign often compared to landowning activities? Is it simply Jesus’ theological belief that God “owns” all the land (cf. Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 24:1; Job 41:11)?

While this was a parable about the actions of evil tenant farmers, it was also a story about the abused son, especially once Jesus refocused the narrative with the attachment of a passage from Psalm 118.

Proper care and oversight of those people and things entrusted to us should receive fair hearing from this parable. We, too, are like those who wish to receive more credit for our labor, as if we “own” the “land.”

In Jesus’ teaching, there was a fundamental reminder that only the Creator owns everything and we, too, are simply tenants leasing out the talents God has granted to be used for the greater good in the kingdom.


  1. Commentary first posted on this website on Oct. 5, 2014.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

This intricate poem expresses the divine pain at the people’s failure to live out the relationship with their God.

The failure to create justice and righteousness has broken the divine heart. The poem expresses that heartbreak in song.

In the first two verses, the reader encounters a creative vignette. In contemporary terms, one can imagine a stage with a balladeer, speaking into the microphone, saying, “This one goes out to all of you who have ever had your heart broken. It was inspired by my friend, who lost what seemed like a true love.” The NRSV refers to the friend, to whom the singer dedicates the song, as “my beloved.” The singer considers God a beloved friend and dedicates this song about unrequited love to that friend.
One might think of the song “Lemon Tree,” written by Will Holt and recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, and Trini Lopez, among others. In that song, the flowers of the lemon tree look attractive, but the fruit tastes too bitter to consume. In Isaiah’s tearjerker, the beloved friend has worked carefully in the hopes of enjoying sweet grapes only to harvest small, hard, barely edible grapes.

Describing carefully all of the work of the beloved friend, the singer prepares the listener for the crushing shock that comes at harvest time. The friend selects fertile soil, painstakingly removes the stones, and then plants the highest grade of vine. The friend works in expectation of a long-term relationship, building a watchtower and a wine vat, both of which would serve over time. All of the work produces nothing but fruit that would have grown without cultivation.

Certainly, the metaphor breaks down. Where does the fault lie: with the soil, or the planted vines? A planted vine cannot choose to produce the wrong kind of fruit. Does the song compare the people of God to fruit that one consumes? The emphasis in the song lies in the disappointment of the friend. What should have created a delight came up empty.
At verse 3, the point of view changes when God speaks out directly, addressing Jerusalem. This part of the passage asks the people point blank if they think they have treated God fairly. God seeks vindication for the divine feelings of anger and hurt. In a sense, God wants the people to understand that anyone would feel the same way. God has done all anyone could expect. As suggested in the previous paragraph, the vineyard itself exercised no action in the event. Nevertheless, the passage insists that no one can blame God for the sense of disappointment in working hard for good grapes, only to harvest inferior grapes.

The punishment phase begins in verse 5. God will cause three kinds of consequences for the vineyard. The protective hedge will come down. This removal of the hedge will allow animals to wander into the vineyard, causing extensive damage and leaving the vineyard unusable. Within the vineyard, God will neglect care so that other unproductive plants will grow. Finally, God will withhold rain, so that the vineyard will lack the nourishment it needs to flourish.

In verse 7, the passage finally clearly identifies the vineyard as Israel and Judah. In verse 3, the inhabitants of Jerusalem had the task of judging whether God had the right to feel angry. Now the prophet points the finger at the people. The passage identifies the “wild grapes” as injustice and violence. In the prophetic literature of the Bible, justice refers to basic fairness within society. Justice demands economic and legal fairness. All people should have access to goods and enough to live on. Just after our pericope ends, verse 8 names some of the injustices that God’s people have allowed. The rich have seized property, leaving the poor vulnerable.

Verses 11-12 indict those who live indulgent lives while others do not have enough to survive. Righteousness connotes right relationships. God’s people should see the connections among all of the people in the community. God has heard the cry of those who suffer these injustices, who have been victimized by violence. God feels disappointed, sad, and angry because God cares about those who have been neglected, hurt, and pushed aside by the powerful. The wild grapes are the injustices that have oppressed the poor and marginalized.

In using this text for preaching, one might notice the connections between this passage and some other expressions of prophecy in the Old Testament. The prophet Hosea also writes of God’s hurt as well as anger at the people. Hosea, of course, writes in chapters 1-3 of God’s hurt over a betrayal by a spouse. Hosea 11 especially expresses God’s hurt as the pain of a parent rejected by a child. Isaiah writes of a disappointed farmer whose crops do not measure up, and turn out inexplicably wrong.

Isaiah 5 sings a song of a person who experiences great frustration before identifying the culprit. The prophet Nathan seems to take a similar strategy in approaching David about his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah: Nathan takes an indirect approach, setting David up to see himself as the culprit (2 Samuel 12).

Perhaps the contemporary preacher can begin with describing the injustices and the pain of victims before identifying the causes. God clearly feels anger in this passage, and threatens punishment. The preacher may wish to focus on God’s hurt, and the reasons for that divine pain caused by injustice. Such a strategy may prepare the people to hear God’s “side” of the story, that God’s people have neglected justice.

Alternate First Reading

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

Vanessa Lovelace

What does it mean to belong to a community? Does belonging come with certain rights and responsibilities?

The book of Exodus is about belonging. Summed up in The Decalogue, composed, in part, of Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, and 12-20, is the beginning of a new community and a new people. Those chosen to join would become God’s people and God would become their deity in covenant relationship. Collectively, the people would come to be known as the nation of Israel, a treasured possession and a priestly kingdom.

Belonging is at God’s gracious initiative

Exodus 20:1-17 is frequently referred to as The Ten Commandments or The Decalogue1 that comprises a list of stipulations. The Decalogue is largely regarded by some scholars as the preamble to a covenant (Hebrew: berit) or binding treaty between the Israelites and God. The preamble identifies the parties entering into the agreement, the purpose, the obligations, and usually the consequences of breaking the terms of agreement. The preamble is followed by 613 statutes and ordinances that comprise the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:1-23:19). Although the Book of the Covenant belongs to the genre of law code, the commandments found therein are instructions in how to live in right relationship with God and neighbor as the covenantal people of God.

The covenantal agreement between God and the Israelites established at Mount Sinai in Exodus 20 is initiated by God. God’s plan to make the Israelites God’s own people is revealed earlier in Exodus 19. Other scholars contend that Exodus 19:3-7 is actually the preamble to the covenant. Atop the mountain, God commences with the covenant by reminding the Israelites that they bore witness to God’s beneficence towards them when God delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians and provided for them on their wilderness journey (Exodus 19:4). God offers the covenant with the qualification that the people must hearken to God’s voice and obey the covenant, the details of which have yet to be revealed to them. If they accepted the stipulations, then the Israelites would become God’s treasured possession among all the peoples (19:5). Additionally, Israel would be a priestly nation consecrated unto God (19:6). Thus, God’s election of Israel as God’s own people with a special status among the other nations is an extension of God’s prerogative rather than any deed on the Israelites part.

Belonging comes with responsibilities

There are two types of covenants or treaties in the ancient Near Eastern world of the Hebrew Bible: parity and suzerainty. Parity treaties are between equal parties, such as the covenant between Abner and David (2 Samuel 3:12-13). Suzerainty treaties are between unequal parties, such as a king and vassal. God as a supreme being is superior to Israel; thus, the treaty or covenant represented by the relationship between God and Israel in Exodus 20:1-20 is understood as a suzerainty treaty (see also Deuteronomy 5:6-21). Many scholars regard The Decalogue more as a moral code than a legal code. Legal codes often contain a list of consequences or punishments for violating any of the statutes or codes in “if/then” or “casuistic” terms. However, The Decalogue does not impose such conditions on the Israelites because its religious and moral qualities take for granted that these are “apodictic” or beyond dispute.

Eight of the stipulations are in the form of prohibitions (Exodus 20:3, 4, 7, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17) and two are framed positively (Exodus 20:8, 20:12). Beginning with verse 2 or 3, depending on which faith tradition’s or denomination’s numbering system one follows, is the list of stipulations that the people in the position of vassal must follow. Exodus 20:1-4 (5-11) addresses the divine/human relationship between God and Israel. Exodus 20:3 does not deny their belief in the existence of other gods; rather, it emphasizes that God expects loyalty from the people of Israel in response to God’s lovingkindness (chesed) towards them by their exclusive worship of the Lord God. The people also must not invoke God’s name when making an oath, a curse, or any other misuse of the Lord God’s name (verse 7). Exodus 20:12-17 is geared towards familial and social obligations between humans, to include honoring parents and abstaining from theft, murder, false testimony, and adultery. The responsibility to uphold the covenantal obligations lies with the Israelites.

Belonging comes at the price of exclusion

Israel’s identity as the people of God also comes at the exclusion of others on the basis of gender, nationality, and social class. The term “Israelites” (literally “sons of Israel”) usually constitutes males and females. However, it is only the male members of the community who are instructed to avoid physical contact with the opposite sex before being consecrated in preparation to covenant with God (Exodus 19:14-15). Although women are addressed in The Decalogue, the injunction against adultery applies to men engaging in sexual relations with another man’s wife, not between a married man or woman and someone other than their spouse. We also cannot overlook the fact that from including male and female slaves in the command to rest on the seventh day (Exodus 20:10) to the prohibition against coveting one’s neighbor’s property (Exodus 20:17), The Decalogue reflects the interests of the elite class of society. Finally, other peoples and nations were excluded from the covenantal relationship.

The Decalogue should not be understood as a strict list of laws given by God to the people to follow in blind loyalty or out of fear of retribution if they disobeyed. Rather, it should be regarded as the exercise of God’s free will toward the Israelites and their acceptance of God’s gracious initiative to be in covenantal relationship with God as a new community—a community as the people of the Lord God.


  1. Literally “ten words” or “ten utterances” (Exodus 34:28; see also Deuteronomy 4:13).


Commentary on Psalm 80:7-15

Paul O. Myhre

In the spring of the year, some farmers across America can be observed surveying their fields and considering how they will tackle the task of preparing the ground, planting the seeds, and nurturing the crop yet to be born.1

Other farmers rely on computers with GPS technology and a capacity to measure what the soil needs within a square meter. One ponders experience, while the other reflects on the numbers a computer generates. Each method can produce a harvest, but it seems to me that one has a higher degree of intimacy with the rhythms and cycles of nature than the other.

Maybe it is just nostalgic reverie for the days of my youth when I listened to farmers consider the decisions they would make about the processes of farming. Maybe it is an inner longing to join with the Amish in walking behind a plow horse guiding a plow over a patch of ground. And maybe it is something spiritual that inclines my mind and heart toward a tactile embrace of the soil and seeds—an olfactory longing to smell the humus of broken earth as I dig, plant, and trod over it. Whatever it is, there is something of an intimacy within the process of farming that doesn’t exist in the same way as in other professions.

Intimacy is something that develops over time. It doesn’t just appear. I have been married to my wife for over 35 years and we are closer now than when we were first dating. The trials of life—cancer, heart disease, miscarriage, death—coalesce with the triumphs of life—birth, daughters, first bicycle rides, graduations, accomplishments—and together the trials linked with the triumphs mark episodes or places where trust is tested, courage is measured, and hope’s depths are deepened. They represent moments in time where decisions are reached and memories are forged.

One of the curious things about marriage, in my experience, is that it gets better over time. The solace that emerges is unforced. It is something that grows like dandelions in the spring. It cannot be easily removed and everything around it can notice its presence.

In this Psalm the writer takes familiar images and weaves them together into a tapestry of reflections about the present state of the people of God and the seemingly absent God. The timelessness of the Psalm’s poetry lies in part for me in the efforts of the writers to somehow scratch words of truth born from life experience to speak about something that people collectively feel, but may not be able to fully articulate. The poetic flourishes hover over and burrow beneath the layers of experience people carry within them. They traverse spaces between spaces and suggest that the space is as important as the object that marks one end or the other.

Here is a writer faced with a conundrum. The God who is worshiped and adored is somehow missing in action. Where is the God who cared for the people of the past and made their ways clear, thwarted their enemies, and provided for them an abundance of the good things that life can experience? This God seems to be gone from the spaces of human experience. This God is touted as someone who acted in the past and may yet act in the future, but in the present this God is silent, invisible, and potentially impotent. The writer gives voice to what may have been a collective angst that permeated the culture in which the Psalm was written.

Too many hardships, too much anxiety, too many worries, and so on can tip the scales to cause people to wonder about the vitality and presence of God. The current war in Syria is one that can cause one to wonder about the presence of God. When innocent children are gassed with toxic chemicals by their own people a common cry can be discerned, “Where is God?” This refrain could be spoken in almost any global context of great tragedy. Even the small tragedies of life can push people to ponder the actuality of God’s presence and the apparent inactivity of God. One hardship is stacked on another, and they are stacked on yet others, and the person of faith might be driven to ask, “Is this all there is—one bad thing after another—and is God nowhere to be found?”

The Psalmist draws on the collective imagination of people well acquainted with the processes of agricultural life. They know the hard work involved, the hours of anxiety and concern meted toward a field yet to bear fruit. They are cognizant of various forces in nature that can undo the best laid plans and most carefully tended garden. With the smell of dirt in the air and feel of the air on their skin, the Psalmist invites reflection about the action of God as one who works as a vineyard farmer transplanting and nurturing vines to produce good fruit. Perhaps this metaphor works at a variety of levels and the poetry pushes hearers to consider some of those levels.

Farming as a vineyard, livestock, orchard, or row crop farmer isn’t something that requires the same amount of attention everyday. There are seasons for a high degree of activity and there are other seasons in which the vines receive the rain, spread their roots, give forth new shoots, and grow in the sun without contact from the farmer. The farmer is absent, yet the actions of the farmer are still evident. The vine is an apt metaphor for the people of God. The vine grows in relation the stimuli around it. It can be choked by unfavorable influences like weeds. It can be watered too heavily or too little and either rot or starve to death.

The directions at the outset of the Psalm indicate that this is to be sung to a particular tune—a tune that is unknown to us today. Singing the Psalm to your favorite song might be one way to bring the poetry to life. When words invite singing rather than speaking they have a capacity to take flight and soar in our minds like birds on the hot air currents of summer. Singing this Psalm in 4/4 time to the tune of your favorite song could bring a different type of engagement with its world perspectives and perhaps even a degree of intimacy with the ideas presented within it. They might viscerally connect with our own life questions and commingle to craft prayers to God for God to be an active presence in our life.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 8, 2017.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

Ekaputra Tupamahu

In Summer 2019, my family moved from Nashville, Tennessee, all the way to Portland, Oregon.

After living for seven years in Nashville, this Music City really felt like home to us, particularly to our two children. We decided to do something that we had never done before: take a 2,500-mile cross-country road trip.

When I pressed down on the accelerator pedal of our Honda Odyssey to begin our trip westward, I had so many mixed emotions: sad, nervous, excited, and so on. We were beginning a new phase of our lives. We stopped in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. It was a long trip. Our seven-year-old son kept asking, “Are we there yet?” The “there” seemed too far away and quite unclear to him. All he was seeing was the journey, the roads, the trees, the other cars.

Looking back, this cross-country road trip reminds me that my family has been on the move for many years now. As an immigrant, I live an on-the-go, ever-moving, life. The near-absence of any sense of “arrival,” of getting “there,” can be difficult to process. Of course, I always long to have a stable life, to stop moving, to throw out the anchor. But an immigrant life will always be a journey marked by the absence of home, of stability. As Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva describes it, a foreigner is “a dreamer making love with absence.”1 That feeling of absence, or the strange enjoyment of absence, follows me everywhere I go.

Paul’s description of his relationship with Jesus Christ is also like an immigrant experience. After describing his background, Paul makes this curious statement: 

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12–14).

We see here that Paul considers himself to be living in a state of in-between-ness. He is trapped or suspended in the middle of a journey. The longing for arrival is strong, but what he has in front of him is the journey. He can only press on, stay the course.

The arche (beginning) of this journey biblical scholars have long understood as Paul’s Judaic background, and the telos (goal/aim/end) is his new Christian identity. The contrast between Judaism and Christianity, Petrine and Pauline traditions, was the main framework or lens from which scholars—particularly since the time of F.C. Baur and the Tübingen school2—interpret this letter to the Philippians and the situation behind it. The idea is that Paul abandons his particularistic Jewish background and consider it as “rubbish” for the sake of a universalist Christian identity. Mark D. Nanos is correct that this view is deeply problematic for being supersessionist.3

Paul clearly shows his deep embeddedness in a Jewish tradition. He is from a Benjamite tribe, a Pharisee, zealous about his Judaic identity, and so on (see verses 3:4b-6). He describes himself as the best of the best—a rhetorical habit that appears in many of his other letters, a habit Krister Stendahl describes as “annoying.”4 But he is proud of it. Abandoning this Jewish identity should be unthinkable to him. To be clear, it is not his Jewishness that he considers as “rubbish” (verse 8), but the “gains” that he mentions in verse 7. The idea that he is blameless, that he has achieved his goal, that he has arrived, is rubbish. It is not surprising that in verse 12 he says that he has not reached the goal of being perfect—the expression e ede teteleiomai in Greek can also be translated as “or I have already been perfect.” In other words, Paul argues that he has not achieved the telos, the goal, the end, the perfection.

So how do we understand his rhetoric here? Going back to my thoughts on journeying above, Paul seems to understand himself and his life as an ongoing process, a trace (to borrow a term from Jacques Derrida).5 His existence is in between “what lies behind” and “what lies ahead” (verse 13). Using a stairwell analogy to explain the reality of identity construction, Homi Bhabha describes identity as “liminal space.” Life in the liminal space, according to Bhabha, “prevents identities at either end of it [i.e., of the stairwell] from settling into primordial polarities.”6 In other words, every identity (religious identity, ethnic identity, racial identity, gender identity, and whatnot) is a play, a dance, in between this binary of arche (beginning) and telos (end/goal).

That being said, the moment someone declares that they have arrived at an end, such rhetoric can turn into a violent negation. That is precisely what Paul did. He was “a persecutor of the church” because he thought that he was “blameless” (verse 6). Again, retrospectively, he looks back and says that this behavior, this way of thinking, is rubbish.

To know Christ is to live in a liminal space. It is to realize that no one has arrived yet. Everyone is on a journey, in the process of making.


  1. Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 10.

  2. See Ferdinand Christian Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Works, His Epistles and Teachings (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003).

  3. Mark D. Nanos, “Paul’s Polemic in Philippians 3 as Jewish-Subgroup Vilification of Local Non-Jewish Cultic and Philosophical Alternatives,” Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 3, no. 1 (2013): 47–91.

  4. Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1976), 110.

  5. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

  6. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 5.