Lectionary Commentaries for September 24, 2023
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16

John T. Carroll

A crowd gathered early in the morning seeking to be hired for the day, hoping to make enough money to buy food for the family: it is a regular sight in the city where I live. It is also the scene Jesus pictures in this parable about vineyard workers. As with so many of the parables in Matthew, this one shows readers something about the character of God’s reign.

But what is that something? The parable has been interpreted in very different ways. Does the parable highlight the generosity of the householder (landowner), who pays one-hour workers a full day’s wage? Or is it about the exploitation of vulnerable workers by a “union-busting” vineyard owner, who deliberately sets laborers against one another when he frustrates all-day workers’ expectation for a generous pay hike comparable to the generous wage they have witnessed one-hour workers receive? Or does this parable about economic relations emphasize the obligation of the well-resourced to provide opportunities for work and access to the resources needed for survival?¹ Or is it a defense of Jesus’ acceptance of religious outsiders who have responded to his mission and message? Or is it (at least in Matthew’s context, as distinct from that of Jesus within the narrative) about the full inclusion of gentiles, though they arrive late to Israel’s salvation stage? The parable has been read in such different ways, in part, because the diverse contexts of readers and reading communities matter. Where is God, and where is the reign of God, in this story?

In what follows, I won’t presume to offer a right or best interpretation, but offer what I hope are suggestive pointers. It is important, though, not to lose sight of the original setting of the story, which features the vulnerability and precarity of day laborers in an economic system that concentrated land and therefore wealth in a few hands. If we read the parable as an affirmation of the full inclusion of those (for example, gentiles) who come late to the party (to the faith community), we may risk missing the connection to the economic vulnerability of so many people today.

Literary analysis

How does the preceding narrative prepare readers for the parable? Matthew 19:13-30 highlights the inversion of status in God’s domain. Jesus declares that (low-status) children are the ones to whom heaven’s reign belongs (19:13-15). Then a wealthy—though morally earnest—man stumbles when Jesus charges him to renounce his wealth to benefit the impoverished (19:16-26). If Peter and the rest of the twelve disciples will share power in Israel, nevertheless the positions of first and last will be reversed in God’s realm (19:27-30). Power, wealth, and advantage don’t measure in God’s domain as they do in our world—even for the leading disciples! Indeed, as the parable proceeds in chapter 20, social and economic relations defy convention. The reversal of first and last figures within the parable when the workers are paid in inverse order (20:8) and is repeated again at the close of the passage (20:16). The world claimed by God’s rule turns things upside down; it may confront our expectations with surprise.

The pattern of the story reveals both repetition and meaningful variation. In part one (verses 1-7), a vineyard owner (the word for “vineyard” appears five times in the parable!) ventures to the marketplace five times throughout the day to hire workers. The first workers hired, at daybreak (verse 2), agree to the wage of a denarius for the day—sufficient to feed a family for perhaps three or four days. The nine o’clock hires are assured that they will be paid a fair—though unspecified—wage (verses 3-4), and the scenario repeats at noon and three o’clock (verse 5). Finally, just before closing time, the owner hires additional workers, and there is no mention of payment (verses 6-7). These details create suspense: hearers wonder how well, and equitably, the various groups of workers will be paid.

As the day progresses, later-hired workers are described in the New Revised Standard Version as standing “idle” (verses 3, 6), but the Greek phrase would be better—non-pejoratively—rendered “standing in the marketplace without work” (agora argous). The parable highlights the need for employment and the vineyard owner’s commitment to provide work, not the moral lack of the day laborers.

Part two turns from recruitment of laborers to their payment at day’s end (verses 8-15). Deliberately and provocatively, the owner instructs his manager to pay the one-hour workers first (verse 8). Everyone is surprised when each worker receives a full day’s wage (verse 9): this is a generous vineyard owner! Yet when the all-day workers step forward, they are paid the contracted wage, the same amount as the short-day laborers (verse 10): equal pay for unequal work! Understandably, they feel cheated and register their complaint (verses 11-12). In response, the vineyard owner reminds them that he has paid the agreed wage, explains that he has chosen to be generous to the short-day workers (literally, “Is your eye evil because I am good [or kind]?”), and dismisses the envious—and no doubt weary—workers (verses 13-15).

Weak hint of divine grace?

The parable presents a strange mix: contractual obligations for some, unexpected generosity for others. The owner’s treatment of the hired workers is such that everyone gets the opportunity to work, everyone receives enough to live—regardless of the quantity or quality of their work.² He is generous, to be sure, yet as Luise Schottroff comments, “The generosity of this landowner offers only a weak hint at what God’s generosity means.”³ Enough work for all of us in the vineyard—and resources sufficient to sustain life. Even in this “weak hint,” perhaps we may catch a glimpse of the extravagant grace of God—and it is for everyone. First, last: heaven’s reign may indeed turn our expectations upside down!


  1. Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 235-37.
  2. A similar rabbinic parable develops the point in just this way: the short-day worker is praised for his superior virtue and accomplishment, emblematic of a particular rabbi; see Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 229-30.
  3. Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 216.

First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:10—4:11

Lisa Wolfe

The opening verse of this passage challenges two key beliefs among contemporary Christian readers: First, that God is unchanging; second, that the “God of the Hebrew Bible” (as if that were a different God) is cruel and vengeful. 

I love when the Bible challenges our beliefs because it is an opportunity to re-evaluate our theology of the Bible. These spots in the Bible facilitate conversations with our ancestors in faith, whose views on the Holy One do not always align with the standard beliefs that have developed during two thousand years of Christian history. Such re-evaluation is healthy for the life of faith. What do we make of this idea of God who changes God’s mind for the sake of mercy? 

Notably, God does not change God’s mind willy-nilly. The point here is to extend a second chance to those who have turned from “evil.” Hiding within plain sight in Jonah 4:2 is the central message of the story, a quote from Exodus 34:6. In that fundamental passage, Moses had created a replacement set of stone tablets, and took them to the Holy One on Sinai. While there, he had a powerful experience of the LORD’s presence. It culminates with the revelation of an ancient creed in which God’s steadfast love outweighs divine punishment about two-hundred-fifty to one, according to a conservative calculation of Exodus 34:6-7. 

Lest we think that this assertion of lovingkindness represents a minority view in the collection of books we call the Hebrew Bible, we see it repeated in numerous other places: Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 4:31; 2 Chronicles 30:9; Nehemiah 9:17 and 31; Psalm 103:8; Jeremiah 32:18; Joel 2:13; Nahum 1:2-3; and 2 Esdras 7:132-136. These references jump out like a shining thread in the overall tapestry of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha/Deuterocanon, illustrating the well-known and thematic nature of this ancient creed; speaking loudly about the compassionate nature of God.

Of course, God’s merciful nature—a praiseworthy trait in other passages—is exactly what makes Jonah angry enough that he wants to die. Jonah’s fury starkly contrasts the revelation of divine character in Exodus 34:6-7, which includes the phrase “slow to anger.” This resounds in God’s repeated question to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4, 9)  

The passage poses yet a third challenge to contemporary Christian belief about God: That the Holy One is only and always serious. Here, among many other places in the book, we find sacred humor. Let this serve as a reminder to back up and read the whole book (it’s only four chapters!) just to notice what’s funny. For starters, the very name of the prophet suggests that this is comedy! The word Jonah can mean dove or pigeon, and in Hosea 7:11, this bird embodies a put-down meaning “silly” or “simple.” This prophet by the name of “Pigeon” behaves less like a prophet than anyone else in the history of prophecy. 

And this poor Pigeon cannot escape his God-given mission. The first time he tries to end his life to escape this task, his rescue takes the form of a huge fish (1:12, 17). One would think he could have ridden atop the fish to get to shore, but no, he gets swallowed by it! The most holy moment in the book is Jonah’s poetic prayer in chapter 2, which might seem more moving if he weren’t praying from inside a fish’s gut. His salvation culminates in a pile of vomit on the beach, at which point God sets him again to this abhorrent task. 

Once he reaches the huge city of Nineveh (it takes three days to walk across it, according to 3:2), he only once utters the message God has given him. With that attitude, it seems likely that he looks down and mumbles while speaking it! And yet all of Nineveh responds; even their livestock participate fully in the acts of repentance. Surely the idea of cows and sheep in sackcloth (3:8) elicits a giggle! Repeated talk of death (4:3, 8 [twice], 9) from someone who has recently been spared from just that fate also serves as hyperbolic humor. Finally, the book culminates with divine sarcasm in 4:11.

One part of the book that is not funny is the Assyrian Empire and their capital, Nineveh. Julia O’Brien’s and Thomas Bolin’s Bible Odyssey pieces on this city quickly demonstrate that this guy had every good reason to disobey God’s command to preach to them. The Assyrians were known for skinning their captives alive, impaling them on giant stakes, and marching them away tethered by nose-rings. In 722 BCE the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel; they went on to attack Jerusalem in 701. 

For better or worse, many contemporary Christians’ greatest familiarity with this story arises from the 2002 film “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie” (Big Idea Productions). While the film rightly depicts the story as humorous, it misses “the point,” despite the refrain of the “big musical production” at the end of the movie, which repeats “he did not get the point.” According to the film, the point of Jonah is about “compassion and mercy from me to you and you to me.” Yet divine compassion and mercy comprise the central focus of this little Bible story. Certainly, compassion and mercy among humans is an important message. But what really troubled the Pigeon Prophet was God’s compassion and mercy. Yes, it was good for Jonah, in that he died neither in the sea nor in the fish. But he was so angry about God’s compassion to a horrific enemy that he ultimately scorned that divine trait even for himself, ultimately claiming to prefer death. 

One challenge of this story is to relate to Jonah in realizing the abundance of God’s mercy even for our worst enemies. In taking this to heart we must think carefully about who those enemies truly are. The text challenges us to take evil seriously and grapple with a theology that allows for repentance and embrace by the “wideness of God’s mercy,” to quote a hymn. Perhaps a little humor helps us to endure those weighty theological ideas. 

About a century after the Assyrians terrorized the ancient Israelites, there arose a new enemy: Babylon. They exiled Jerusalem’s leaders in Babylon for about fifty years of captivity, until the Persian Empire let them return home. When that happened, the community engaged in heated debate about who belonged to the community and who did not. What about the “foreign wives” whom Israelites had married in Babylon? Weren’t they dangerous, based on certain other (in)famous foreign wives (1 Kings 21:25)? There was a movement—we could think of it as a political party—just after the exile that advocated sending away these foreign wives and their children (Ezra 10). Perhaps this story about a Pigeon Prophet and God’s exceeding mercy was from a political party opposed to Ezra’s view that God would exclude foreign wives and children. We can find echoes of that radically welcoming view elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible: the book of Ruth offers glowing rhetoric about a foreign wife; a passage late in Isaiah suggests a welcome for those who want to be part of the community (56:6-8).

Jonah teaches us that it is God’s prerogative to offer mercy everywhere, all the time, to everyone, even if we think it is unjust, inappropriate, or not for “those people.” This feature of the divine nature may simultaneously astonish and repulse us, depending on who will be its recipient. We tend to reject this mercy for our enemies but desire it for ourselves. That hypocrisy of human nature warrants plenty of self-deprecating, Jonah-esque humor!

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15

Anna Marsh

With the Song of the Sea still ringing in our ears, chapter 15 of the Book of Exodus ends with the first episode in a series of narratives where the people complain against Moses and God, what has come to be called “the murmuring tradition”. Chapter 16 features one of its most famous episodes. The people, now free but hungry, remember fondly what it was like to be well-fed, even if they were enslaved. They reminisce about “when we would sit by the fleshpots and eat our fill of bread.”1 It would have been better to die there! Who knows if this memory is accurate? It seems unlikely, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the contrast of their memory with their present reality uncovers doubt in their leaders and in God. Hunger and other kinds of physical discomfort certainly seem to be clouding their judgment but I think we still expect God’s wrath. Yet it does not come. God responds by feeding them (“I am making it rain bread from the heavens”). The response comes so quickly that Moses can’t even get an intercession in edgewise! God legitimates the complaint, caring for the people’s bodies in the form of meat that night, and bread each morning. This bread in particular, called “manna”, becomes the paradigmatic food of faith, proof that God sustains us daily. 

An irritated God?

Commentaries routinely call this complaint “needless”, or refer to God’s anger or judgment about the people’s ungratefulness. While these things are clearly the case with other iterations of this story (see Numbers 11:4-35; Psalm 78:9-31), here we see God respond quickly and abundantly, handling the complaint with compassion. It is Moses who deflects and seems irritated. In fact, God responds before Moses can even bring the complaint.2 Perhaps we are reading this story by analogy with the other manna texts.3 It is more likely that we are quick to assume the people are always wrong and that it is God’s lot to show undeserved compassion. There is certainly value in the theological assertion that even when human beings fail, God’s graciousness prevails. But we also do well to let the text speak rather than presuming we know what it will say. 

A God who feeds:

God’s identity as one who feeds is “lively and vibrant” in the biblical tradition, “formative in the religious imagination”.4 Fundamental to who God is, feeding is part of the work for which God is rightly to be praised (You bring forth food from the earth / …these all look to you to give them their food in due season, Psalm 104:14, 28). So vast is God’s power to provide food in the biblical literature that it almost disappears from the reader’s view—but it undergirds everything. It is the subject of the first words God speaks to human beings in both Genesis creation accounts (1:28-29; 2:16-17). And in the social reform laws governing a jubilee year (Leviticus 25:18-22), God’s power to bring food from the earth is so complete that, in order for Israel to observe this law, God simply makes the earth bring forth more food to help them prepare. 

“What is it?”

God had told the people that it would rain bread from heaven, lekhem min-ha-shamayim—as opposed to the norm of God bringing bread from the earth, lekhem min-ha-aretz (see above, Psalm 104:14). This curious promise is fulfilled via a kind of flaky substance that covers the ground in the morning. When the dew evaporated, the Israelites said to one another, man hu? (“what is it?”). It is described as having various colors and tastes (see also Exodus 16:31, Numbers 11:7-8). Clearly, calling this mysterious, miraculous food something that sounds like what-is-it is a kind of folk etymology. The description also involves a Hebrew word that appears only here (mekhuspas) but may be related to peeling, crackling, or being scaly—not a particularly appetizing way to describe food to our ears—but the primary association appears to be with frost, something white and delicate that appears only under certain conditions and melts in the sun. Attempts to locate a natural phenomenon in the region that served as a reference point for this tradition have been around since antiquity, but the point is clear that this was an act of miraculous provision. Thus, Moses and Aaron are commanded to keep a portion of manna in a jar as proof for future generations of God’s ability to provide (14:32-36). God is replacing their (false?) memories of luxurious food in the exploitative economy of Egypt with new (real!) memories of sufficient, equitable food in the wilderness.5 

Food and time:

Did you notice that our pericope begins with verse 2? Let’s back up. Verse 1 reads: 

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 

I know that many of us skim right past these sorts of verses as we read the Bible. But take a beat. Chapter 12 reports the exodus event began on the fourteenth day of the first month (12:18), which means that the people began to complain exactly one month later. It seems the provisions they took from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35-39) have run out. When our lectionary omits this verse, the story begins with, “Then the entire congregation of the Israelites complained …” I have a hunch that entering the narrative at that point means we are more likely to read from a place of judgment rather than one of empathy. 

Moreover, this text is deeply concerned with time (daily rhythms, 14:4; specific days, 14:5; times of the day, 14:6, 8, 12, 13). Marking time matters in this story, especially as it anticipates the observance of a day of rest (20:8-11), where God makes special provision so that the people need not worry about food. First daily and eventually weekly, they are reminded that their food does not come from their own toil, but from God. In his commentary on Exodus, J. Gerald Janzen argues that the people leave Egypt with a “deeply flawed relationship between food and time.”6 This story suggests that the meaning of “daily quota” (see also Exodus 5:13, 19; 16:4) has changed—now it signals how you are provided for. God is a different kind of sovereign than Pharaoh—one working to heal your pressured and productivity-focused relationship with time.

Sabbath rest in general presents a challenge for many of us, but let’s think about it particularly with respect to food. Our food is commodified, and industrialized in countless ways; grown and packaged and shipped to us in ways that are unhealthy, unsustainable, and which we would find immoral on any smaller scale—all of this to support a pace of life that is far from life-giving. Most of the ways we can opt out of this system are market-based. We can purchase what matters to us: health, sustainability, convenience—though probably not all at once. We would be hard-pressed to find non-monetized ways to align our food choices with our values, to disentangle ourselves from all the ways our food systems are harming us, other creatures, and the planet.7 Most of us are aware that these unwholesome truths are wrapped up right there between the plastic and styrofoam, but the budget is tight, we’re needed for a thousand other tasks, and someone has to get dinner on the table. The expectation of productivity is indeed oppressive. The pace and complexity of modern life seems to encourage us to be unreflective in our lives, including about our food. 

Given how these realities rub up against a conviction that food is a gift from God, how then shall we eat? One of my favorite thinkers on this question is the philosopher and theologian Norman Wirzba, who proposes reframing eating so we can see that food is God’s love made nutritious and delicious.8 No longer fuel or commodity, food is how we share in God’s blessing and embrace the reality that there is no release from our shared life with the rest of creation. It’s no mistake that God’s attempt to heal Israel’s relationship with time and productivity begins with care for the body. This strange bite reminds the people that the God who provides food is also the Lord of time. Imagine the possibilities of living out of this economy, this freedom, this reality. Because even when you look around and see barrenness, even when your sense of worth is distorted, God is already working a gracious and abundant response that can heal your sense of who you are and where you belong.


  1. Exodus 16:3, NRSV.
  2. The expected pattern can be seen in Exodus 15:25.
  3. For a contrast with Numbers 11 and Psalm 78, see Deuteronomy 8:1-10.
  4. L. Juliana M. Claassens, A God Who Provides: Biblical Images of Divine Nourishment (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 23.
  5. Fretheim, 187.
  6. J. Gerald Janzen, Exodus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 117.
  7. Wirzba, 59.
  8. Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 42.


Commentary on Psalm 145:1-8

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 145 occurs just before the five-psalm doxological close to the book of Psalms (Psalms 146-150) and is the last in a group of Psalms (Psalms 139-145) in Book Five that are identified in their superscriptions as psalms “of David.”¹

Some scholars suggest that the Psalter ended with Psalm 145 at some point in its transmission history and that Psalms 145-150 were added as a concluding expression of the words of Psalm 145:21: “My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”

Psalm 145 is classified as an individual hymn of praise (see Psalms 23, 87, 139); others maintain that it is a wisdom psalm, based mainly on its acrostic structure. In Psalm 145, each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, verse one begins with aleph, verse 2 with beyt, and so forth. The acrostic poem was a common “wisdom” form in ancient Israel (see, for instance, Psalms 34, 111, 112, 145, the book of Lamentations). They were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways.

Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public — individual and corporate — recitation; literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, from aleph to tav, from “A” to “Z.” Adele Berlin says this about Psalm 145, another alphabetic acrostic: “The poet praises God with everything from A to Z: his praise is all-inclusive. More than that, the entire alphabet, the source of all words, is marshaled in praise of God. One cannot actually use all of the words in a language, but by using the alphabet one uses all potential words.”

Psalm 145 is attributed, in its superscription, to David, the iconic king of ancient Israel. Within its twenty-one-verse acrostic structure, David leads the Israelites and all of creation in words of praise and thanksgiving to God as king. For those who accept that Psalter has a story-line and is not just a haphazard collection of songs of ancient Israel, Book 5, in which Psalm 145 occurs, tells the story of the Israelites in the postexilic period. They have been allowed to return from captivity in Babylon (Psalm 107); they are rebuilding their worship practices (Psalms 113-118; 119; 120-134); and they are searching for a source of identity as part of the vast Persian Empire in which they find themselves.

They have returned to their land; they have rebuilt their temple and resumed many of their worship practices; but they cannot have a king leading them. David appears prominently in Book Five (in psalmic superscriptions) and, in Psalm 145, leads the people in celebration of God, not a human like himself, as king over Israel. A human king to establish justice and peace, to create a center of identity, was not possible, but God as king could be just that.

Psalm 145 opens with celebratory words of David, declaring, “I will exalt you, my God the king and I will bless your name for all time” (my translation). While almost every English translation of verse 1 renders the first portion as “ … my God and king,” the Hebrew is clearly, “my God the king,” a significant statement placed on the lips of king David. God is not just king; God is the king.

David continues with the words, “I will bless your name.” “Name” was an important concept in the ancient Near East. Names reflected the natures and characters of the person who bore them and were conceptually equal to the essence of ones being. The name “Jacob” means “he usurps,’ because he grabs Esau’s heel at the birth, attempting to be the first-born twin (Genesis 25:26). He indeed usurps Esau later in life when he coerces Esau into selling to him his birthright and when he tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing. After wrestling at the Jabbok, God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel,” which means “he has struggled with God” (Genesis 32:28).

During Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses replies to God’s command to return to Egypt with a seemingly simple request: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them?” (3:13). Moses asks for God’s name in order to fully understand and then convey to the Israelites who this God was. In Exodus 20, God commanded the Israelites that they not “make wrongful use of” God’s name. And the book of Deuteronomy tells us that God’s name will dwell in the place of God’s choosing in the promised land (Deut 12:5; 14:23-24; 16:2).

In verses 3-8, the psalm singer enumerates a number of attributes of God. The Lord is great (verses 3, 6); good (verses 7, 9); and compassionate (verses 8 (merciful in NRSV), 9). Other words, such as “righteousness” (verse 7); “steadfast love” (hesed) (verse 8); and “works” (verses 4, 5) occur repeatedly in the verses.

The psalmist not only describes the attributes of God, but states a firm intention to proclaim them to others. In verse 4, “one generation to another” will “laud (make known)” God’s “mighty acts.” In verse 5, the psalm singer says, “I will meditate” on God’s majesty and works. The generations and the psalmist will “proclaim” and “declare” in verse 6; and they will “celebrate” and “sing aloud” in verse 7. The psalm singer and the generations will not only enunciate a description of their God; they will eagerly and joyously tell it to others.

The message of Psalm 145, placed on the lips of king David, is that the Lord is king over all generations of the Israelites and over all peoples. For ancient Israel, the words of Psalm 145 spoke powerfully and decisively a new world into being.

The message for the church today is simple and yet complex. In the midst of the turmoil and uncertainty in the world, praising God as sovereign is the solution. But what does that mean? We can speak the words, but how do we put them into action? God is indeed sovereign, but we must be the hands and feet of God in God’s world — what some call a “communitization” of kingship.

In the ancient Near East, the role of the king was to provide a safe place of habitation for humanity. That safety included dwelling places, farm land, drinking water, abundant harvests, increase of animals, and fertility within the family (see Psalms 72 and 107). In our twenty-first-century world, many people do not have the basic elements of safe habitation — whether as a result of poverty, societal violence, disease, or outright neglect. We must, in God’s name, provide for all what the kingship of God promises.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 21 2014.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30

Jane Lancaster Patterson

How can joy flow directly through the same veins as suffering? The many serious issues that confront people in our time put squarely before us the need for Christian practices that open up ways to experience joy that do not deny suffering, and ways to experience suffering that do not preclude a deep and gracious joy. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul speaks from a place where joy and suffering converge, not in abstract thought, but in a Roman prison where he awaits news of his sentencing, to life or to death. 

Paul knows he will find a hearing among the Philippians because they, too, have experiences of suffering, anxiety, and deprivation. Roughly a hundred years before this letter was written, Philippi was the site of the final battle of the Roman civil war. The town was taken by Antony and Octavian, subsequently colonized by Rome, and the tillable land seized from the local Greek-speaking populace and given to Roman veterans. Paul’s letter, written in Greek, is addressed to a community of people who have known and continue to experience economic precariousness and social ostracism.¹ The letter does more than create a bond through mutual suffering; the real point is to share the joy and confidence of solidarity in Christ, while maintaining clear-sighted awareness of their situation.

Elsa Tamez stresses the fact that this is not the letter of an “imprisoned criminal” written to close relations who are mainly concerned for the prisoner’s welfare and legal status. Rather, “This letter addresses a community of people who are members of the same targeted movement, meaning that when the letter is sent, the recipients run the same risk as the prisoner.”² To the Roman citizenry of Philippi, the Christ-believers were likely seen as politically provocative. This is the context in which Paul contemplates the poignant ramifications of his death or his release in the first half of today’s reading (Philippians 1:21-26). 

But Paul’s tender disclosure of his personal experience is also part of the ground he is laying for high-level persuasion. The second half of today’s reading, 1:27-30, is widely considered to be the thesis statement of the letter, and it would form a logical focus for a sermon, while keeping hearers aware of the vulnerability of both Paul and the Philippians.

Citizens of the Reign of God

While sharing Greek words isn’t something I usually recommend in a sermon, at least one key word here might be worth mentioning, politeuesthe, benignly translated, “live your life” (New Revised Standard Version), but meaning  something more like “conduct your citizenship.” It is an edgy term to use in writing to a group of people who are, in fact, non-citizens, and it isn’t until Philippians 3:20 that readers like us gain an understanding of exactly what Paul means—though we should assume that his original audience was quite familiar with his use of the term. At Philippians 3:20, Paul writes that, as opposed to those who live “as enemies of the cross of Christ, … our citizenship is in heaven.” The heavenly citizenship of the people Paul is addressing stands in stark opposition to the citizenship of their Roman neighbors, and is Paul’s way of talking about the practical consequences, the specific moral choices, that are consistent with fidelity to the kingdom of God (1:28). Acts’ description of the ministry of Paul and his companions as “turning the world upside down” (17:6) is reflected here in this upside-down/rightside-up view of true citizenship.

Our constitution: the Gospel of Christ

In terms of this passage, the “gospel of Christ” is a shorthand way to refer to the constitution of the kingdom of God, the specific terms of its citizenship. The moral pattern Paul will set out in Philippians 2:5-11 is the core of the “gospel of Christ” that he mentions here: the willingness to risk oneself entirely for God’s mission to raise up the most vulnerable, a move that appears both foolish and provocative within the cultural norms of Roman Philippi. In this upside-down world, the suffering that the Christ-believers are made to endure is actually evidence of their salvation and future glory, and good reason for rejoicing.

For some time now, writers on Philippians have spoken of the letter as containing a “hidden transcript,” a meaning that would have eluded Paul’s jailers while being transparent to his intended addressees.³ The insider language of Philippians 1:27-30 is a case in point: gospel of Christ, faith, salvation, grace. To outside readers these terms probably seemed opaque and meaningless. But to the intended hearers, they signaled complete devotion to the status-overturning mission of God. The fact that, in our time, these terms have been so relegated to a harmless religious sphere as to seem completely non-threatening to almost any political system at all is a measure of how much we have lost from Paul’s radical understanding of the requirements of our citizenship as a people “in Christ.”

Citizenship in context

The social and political context of anyone reading this commentary today is very different from that of Paul and the Philippians. I am writing from within the U.S., and as a U.S. citizen. Preachers would do well to recognize the pain for non-citizens when speaking even of metaphorical citizenship. Paul would likely be aghast at any move to try to “baptize” our actual citizenship, as is seen in some Christian movements. Rather, we are more like dual citizens, who live by the values of our homeland (God’s realm) wherever we find ourselves.

While Paul described the Philippian church’s citizenship as purely oppositional to their surrounding Roman culture, a citizen-preacher in the U.S. today, preaching to other citizens, must grapple with the particular opportunities and responsibilities that fall to citizens of a democracy. The problems we live among are our own. And in a time marked by destructive oppositionalism, preachers might help their people discern how to “conduct their citizenship” in a way that truly saves, telling the necessary truths in ways that channel the grace of God into a society nearly broken by political division.

This work is not easy, but God is in the midst of it. As Paul writes, “God has graced (empowered) you not only to believe in Christ but to suffer for him as well” (Philippians 1:29). This plural “you” is the supportive community whose risk-taking in Christ is powerful joy.


  1. Peter Oakes, “The Economic Situation of the Philippian Christians,” in The People Beside Paul The Philippian Assembly and History from Below, edited by Joseph. A. Marchal. Early Christianity and its Literature 17 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), 66.
  2. Elsa Tamez, “Philippians,” in Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. Wisdom Commentary Vol. 51 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017), 65.
  3. Angela Standhartinger, “Letter from Prison as Hidden Transcript: What it Tells Us about the People at Philippi,” in The People Beside Paul: The Philippian Assembly and History from Below, edited by Joseph A. Marchal. Early Christianity and Its Literature 17 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015), 107-40.