Lectionary Commentaries for October 8, 2023
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46

Yung Suk Kim

The parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46) is often focused on a Christology or ekklesia-driven allegory in which Jews/Judaism (the original tenants) are replaced with Christians (other tenants). This parable can be better understood in a context where Jesus responds to the chief priests and the elders who questioned his authority (21:23-32). Earlier, he answered them that what is more important is not who has the authority or by whose authority one does but whether one does the will of God. Likewise, in the parable of the Two Sons, he explained why doing the will of God is more important than knowing who God is. 

Along the same line, the parable of the Wicked Tenants is told in order to challenge vineyard workers to care for the vineyard with their responsibility. Otherwise, there will be a consequence (judgment) for their negligence. One of the crucial Matthean themes, which is to show God’s impartial love for all until the end, is seen in this parable as well as in other parables such as The Wheat and Weeds and Talents. The point of the parable is not judgment per se but a challenge to people so that they may love all, including enemies, until the end. Surely, judgment follows, but one’s moral drive toward loving all or caring for God’s world is not by punishment or judgment but by the love of God which they received.  

In the parable of the Wicked Tenants, Jesus used the imagery of a vineyard planted by the landowner and leased to tenants. The vineyard metaphor is familiar to Jews because it appears in Isaiah 5:1-7 where the vineyard refers to the house of Israel and the people of Judah (Isaiah 5:7). God planted choice vines, but the vineyard yielded wild grapes. Simply, God expected justice and righteousness from them, but they were engaged in bloodshed and injustices. The point of the judgment in Isaiah 5:1-7 is that people did not care for God’s world which must be full of justice and peace. Even though in the parable of the Wicked Tenants, the issue is not about the vineyard itself as opposed to Isaiah 5:1-7, tenants’ failure to take care of the vineyard corresponds to the failure of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. 

Otherwise, the parable is not explicit about the tenants’ work in the vineyard. Did they work hard to get more quality grapes only to take them all from the master’s hands? Or did they not work hard because they were just tenants? In whichever case, they were supposed to settle accounts with the landowner. But they decided to take the vineyard and all inheritance from the master and killed his servants and his son as well. Is this violence acceptable? How can we understand their violence? To explore these questions, we need to see Matthew’s redactional details in the parable as opposed to the same version in Mark 12:1-12 (see also, Luke 20: 9-19). 

First, in Mark 12:1-12, simply, a man planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants and went away. But in Matthew, he is called oikodespotes, which means “a master of a house.” While this term frequently appears in Matthew (10:25; 13:27, 52; 20:1, 11; 21:33; 24:43), it seems hard to understand this term from a modern-day context and sensibility because it reflects an abusive master-slave relationship in ancient settings. In Matthew, this term has a double entendre: an abusive hierarchical master in society and a God-like master or king in Matthew’s context. The kingdom of God is compared to a king, who forgives one an incalculable amount of debt (18:23) and invites the marginalized to the wedding banquet (22:2). 

Similarly, the kingdom of God is compared to a landowner (oikodespotes) in the parable of the Vineyard Laborers (20:1-16), who is atypical and cares for the unfortunate or weak who joined the vineyard late. He is concerned with full employment, with equitable, just wages promised. He sent all he could find in the labor market into the vineyard. While some scholars see him negatively as one who abused laborers without paying more to people who stayed in the vineyard longer, the point of the lesson is more likely to see the atypical character of this landowner to whom the kingdom of God is compared (20:1). 

In the interpretation of a parable, the most important factor is what is compared to the kingdom of God. Here, clearly, “the kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (20:1). He wants to secure economic justice for all employees. He paid the same to all because he promised the usual daily wage. He did so not to abuse laborers but to ensure that all are paid enough to live on a daily basis. The landowner says he is good (agathos)—not merely generous, as most English versions translate it that way—because he cares about distributive justice for all employees. All are given one denarius, which is the usual daily wage or whatever is right (20:4). Those who came early and worked the whole day were given the right pay as promised. Those who came late to the vineyard and worked fewer hours than others did not expect the same pay with them. But the landowner cared for them because they also needed daily provision. Indeed, they tried to find work earlier but no one hired them. In God’s vineyard, all are invited to work and get paid enough to sustain their daily lives. The landowner ensures that all live in justice and righteousness. That is the kingdom of God realized in the world. Likewise, the landowner in the parable of the Wicked Tenants may be compared to the same kind of landowner as in the vineyard laborers (20:1-16).

Second, Matthew says, “The harvest time had come” in 20:34 whereas Mark says, “The season came” (12:2). The Greek in Matthew for “the harvest time” is ho kairos tōn karpōn, which means the season or time for fruits. Mark simply says tō kairō, which means “at the time of the season.” This difference implies that Matthew emphasizes “the season for fruits,” which is a consistent Matthean theme that one must bear fruits until the end, in good or bad times. Matthew’s wisdom is to recognize that there is a time to work and there is a time for harvest. After the harvest, there is nothing you can do. 

Third, Matthew adds the following texts as in verse 43: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces its fruits.” The point here is not an allegory in that Judaism is futile and that the church takes over Israel, but a moral challenge to those who do not do the will of God, which is caring for God’s vineyard. Here again, the importance is in producing fruits. The kingdom of God is not a religion or knowledge, but it is a godly rule or God’s realm to which people must submit every will and every spirit.  

Hearing Jesus’ parable, the chief priests and the Pharisees realized that he was talking about them (21:45), but they did not change their minds. In sum, the parable of the Wicked Tenants teaches that God’s people must care for the world, people, and even enemies. As stewards of God’s vineyard, they should not judge others or use them for their benefit but embrace all as their brothers and sisters. 

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

Amy G. Oden

Isaiah tells of a beloved vineyard, lovingly tended yet gone horribly wrong. Even with devoted care, it yields only bad fruit. In the face of this tragic result, the owner of the vineyard turns against it, willfully uprooting and destroying it. 

What are we to make of this about-face? How do we receive this judgment?

The truth of bad fruit

The vineyard owner determines by the end of verse 2 that all the fruit is bad. There is no waffling here, no wiggle room. The fruit is declared outright to be “only bad” (verse 2). This stark truth is jarring, baffling after so much careful sowing. 

Even God seems stumped. How can it yield bad fruit? “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” (verse 4) The insistent drumbeat of disappointment leaves no doubt. The truth is clear: the Holy One who planted the vineyard “looked for justice but saw bloodshed; for righteousness but heard cries of distress” (verse 7). This truth-telling is the fulcrum upon which transformation rests. 

These truths may be hard to hear, yet set the foundation for the flourishing of all. Naming how things really are, not sugar-coating it or pretending maybe things are ok, is necessary.  Glossing over reality does not transform it but simply covers it up, making it unavailable for transformation. The vineyard owner is clear-eyed and unapologetic about speaking the truth. Truth-telling is the first, hard, powerful step toward change.

When God speaks truth to power and that power is us

But this truth is really hard to hear! We much prefer to be the ones speaking truth to power, power that is elsewhere. But what happens when we are the power? When God speaks truth to power and that power is us?

Many white Christians are in a time of reckoning with our power. There is an awakening to systemic power we have wielded blindly, the very hallmark of privilege. We all swim in this water, immersed in systems of privilege designed to be invisible. Many white Christians are in the continuing work of recognizing our complicity, our participation in systems so pervasive we don’t even see them. Each day brings new discoveries of our unconscious bias and its harmful consequences.

Bad fruit indeed. Fruit that poisons rather than nourishes. Not the fruit of justice and righteousness the vineyard owner intended when the vineyard was planted. 

Can we hear it? Do we, as Jesus says, “have ears to hear?” The insidious thing about privilege is that it prevents us from developing the very muscle we need to hear these hard words. Privilege makes us tone-deaf, seeing the current order as simply “the way things are”. 

But when we pause and allow these words from Isaiah to be planted in us, we can hear an invitation, a way forward, into possibility and hope. Learning to hear the truth, to recognize the bad fruit, to see the harmful reality and persistence of racism, can be a doorway into reconciliation. 

The invitation: truth and reconciliation 

Of course, we, the omniscient reader, know that Isaiah does not end with this devastating judgment. As we journey through Isaiah, there is hope and God will save and comfort all God’s people.

The invitation, however, is to not jump straight to the good feelings as we are prone to do. That will only produce more bad fruit, not “fruit that lasts”. Neither is the invitation to somehow prove that we are the “good” white people. This is a common strategy driven by fears of being called racist. This posture is more concerned about not appearing racist than about dismantling the reality of racism. 

Instead, Isaiah’s invitation is to truth-telling. This lesson was demonstrated powerfully in South Africa through the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” following the end of formal apartheid. The commitment here was to the practice of truth-telling as the path to reconciliation. The Commission invited both victims and perpetrators of apartheid crime and violence to give testimony. 

This is a hard and hopeful practice that requires sustained focus and work, not a quick fix. It is not a rote formula or magic wand, because it requires broken hearts and open ears. Unless these truths break our hearts, reconciliation will be shallow and perfunctory.   


Broken-heartedness can lead to broken-open-heartedness, a posture that tells the truth about present injustice and holds open the hope of reconciliation. Broken-open hearts have eyes to see and ears to hear, seeing what we had been unable or unwilling to see before. We are changed and, in turn, change the systems we are in. Our imaginations are activated, expanding the scope of future possibilities. Our hearts break open for the world God so loves.

The one I love

By the time we get to the end of these verses, it’s hard to remember the very first line. This song is declared for “the one I love,” God’s beloved. Admittedly, the shift from second to first person through the song makes it hard to determine just who is the “beloved”. But there is no doubt that the vineyard was lovingly prepared and planted.  

Can we know ourselves to be both God’s beloved and also the powerful to whom truth is spoken? The good news is: Yes! This is the hard and hopeful place of faith. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39).

Alternate First Reading

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

Matthew Schlimm

When it comes to the Ten Commandments, it’s easy to start with the first thing God commands the people to do (20:3). However, what comes before any commandment is crucial. God identifies who God is: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2). These words describe why God deserves our devotion. They explain that God is not the oppressive Pharaoh who wants to exploit them. This is the rescuing God who takes them out of the worst experiences of their lives. Why obey these commandments? Why do the right thing? Because God is one who saves and redeems. The New Testament gets at similar ideas when it says, “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19). 

No other gods (20:3)

Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions pair this commandment with the previous words, which is a good exegetical move regardless of one’s tradition: the only God we should ever have is the one who sets the captive free and rescues from oppression. How quickly people are willing to settle for something less! An executive once told me that he has one rule when it comes to hiring people: “Don’t settle”. If only people had the same rule when it comes to what they worship!

No idols (20:4)

The next verse prohibits the construction of idols. Traditionally, many interpret this verse alongside the preceding one, equating idolatry with the worship of other gods. However, it’s possible that this prohibition aims at not only the worship of other gods, but also using images to worship the one true God. 

Many Christian traditions allow artistic depictions of Jesus in worship. However, in recent years, it has become increasingly obvious that Jesus would not have resembled the pale-skinned, blond-haired, and blue-eyed figure on many stained-glass windows. These images renew questions about whether any depiction of Jesus is problematic. 

Raising questions about stained glass windows might work better in small group discussions than in sermons, which do not afford laity the same opportunities to express their reactions. One can still faithfully challenge churchgoers by thinking of this commandment as Paul does, who equates idolatry with greed (Colossians 3:5).

Name in vain (20:7)

This commandment prohibits not only disrespectfully using God’s name, but also using religion to harm others or for personal gain. A key biblical concern is leveling false accusations against others—swearing in God’s name that the accusations are true—while harming the innocent (see also Leviticus 19:2). This commandment prohibits such behavior, as will one of the last commandments (20:16). 

More generally, this commandment prohibits any use of God’s name for worthless, selfish, or harmful purposes. When politicians say “God bless America” to garner more votes, they use God’s name wrongfully. When parents use religious guilt to make their children do what they want, they use God’s name wrongfully. When Christians make a show of their religion, they use God’s name wrongfully. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re not using God’s name wrongfully: it will make you more loving and sacrificial instead of leading to personal gain.

Remembering the Sabbath (20:8–9)

The next commandment is pure gift. Unlike Pharaoh, who worked the Israelites to death, God both practices and requires rest. The Hebrew word for “Sabbath” simply means “Stop”. The Sabbath day is an invitation to stop all work. Preachers and theologians have a sad habit of making the day just about worship. The commandment actually says nothing about worship. It insists that people stop their anxious striving and resist busyness. It’s a deathblow to the assumption that we are only what we accomplish. It’s an invitation to sleep in, take naps, and experience renewal.

Honoring parents (20:12)

The most important thing I’ve ever read about this commandment comes from an anonymous interpreter: 

No text has done more damage to abused children than the words, “Honor your father and your mother.” … I know that those words tormented me as a child, and I believe they have tormented others…. From my…work with the Hebrew of Exodus 20, two facts are clear to me: the first is that honor is not a synonym for obedience and the second is that the Decalogue is not addressed to children.¹

To honor someone is to consider them significant, important, and weighty. It does not necessarily entail obedience. Because this commandment is not addressed to children, it should be seen first and foremost as directing people to care for elderly parents. 

Murder, adultery, theft, and coveting (20:13–15, 17)

It’s common for Christians to interpret commandments about murder and adultery in light of Jesus’ warnings against hatred and lust (Matthew 5:21–30). These words of Jesus do not replace Old Testament law, but rather bring out its fullest sense (Matthew 5:17–20). In warning against hatred and lust, Jesus engages in the Jewish practice of setting up a fence around the law.² Rather than allowing people to walk right up to the very edge of disobedience, he encourages people to run the other direction. It’s exactly what the last commandment about coveting does with theft: it causes people to focus not only on exterior actions, but also inner drivers of behavior.

False witness (20:16)

This commandment is often mentioned in connection with the need to be honest. However, it deals with the most insidious use of lies: falsely accusing others and thereby using human legal systems to harm the innocent. Deuteronomy 19:16–20 expounds on this commandment, saying that the false accuser’s desired punishment should be leveled against the false accuser. This crime is described elsewhere as an abomination hated by God (Proverbs 6:16–20).

Conclusion (20:18–20)

Many parts of the Bible underscore the importance of the Ten Commandments (called the “Ten Words” in Hebrew; Exodus 31:18, 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13, 9:10, 10:1–5). Exodus 20:18–20 suggests that God spoke these words directly to the people, whereas other legal materials were mediated through Moses (see also Exodus 20:1; Deuteronomy 5:22–33).


  1. Anonymous source quoted in Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 168.
  2. Jordan J. Ryan, The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), 168.


Commentary on Psalm 80:7-15

Nancy Koester

Psalm 80 is a communal lament.1

It seems have been written in response to a disaster, most likely the fall and exile of the Northern Kingdom.2 The lament is dire, yet full of hope. Repeatedly, it calls on God to “restore” and “save” (verses 2, 3, 7, 19) to “turn again” (verse 14) and “give us life” (verse 18). The Psalm opens with a plea to God, the “Shepherd of Israel” (verses 1-3) to restore the people. It names God’s anger as the problem, resulting in the suffering of the people (verses 4-6). There follows a plea for restoration (verses 7).

From there the Psalm blossoms into a parable of Israel as a vineyard planted by God (verses 8-16). In this retelling of Israel’s history, the vine flourished under God’s care and became a blessing to all around it. But something went wrong. God broke down the walls that protected the vineyard. Predators trampled the vines and ate the fruit (verses 12-16). The Psalm concludes with a prayer for Israel’s restoration (verses 17-19), asking that God may once more shine on the people and save them. The lectionary text includes both the plea for restoration (verse 7) and the parable of the vine (verses 7-15).

The theology of the Psalm is about God’s character. And here we meet a God unconstrained by the bonds of niceness. Here is a God of love who cares passionately how people respond to that love. Since God wants to be in relationship with Israel, it matters how Israel responds. Although God’s love (and not Israel’s response or our response) is fundamental, the human response still has consequences. As a lover, God has to “play the ball where it lies,” which is often amid the brambles and thorns.

At first God’s face shines like the sun, in life-giving warmth and holiness, giving the people life. That tender care is seen in God taking the vine out of Egypt; for no living thing is more vulnerable than an uprooted plant before it is transplanted into new soil. Such a plant is completely dependent on the gardener. So God cleared the ground for the vine and tended it. God’s blessing made the vine flourish and spread until it covered the land. This loving, tending, blessing God is what most people want to hear about.

Then the story takes a hard turn: God has broken down the walls of the vineyard, leaving the beloved vine to be ravaged by predators. What could be the cause of this sudden turn from the loving, protecting God to the angry God who breaks down the wall and turns away? Verse 12 asks why God has broken down the walls of the vineyard. Perhaps (as verse 18 hints) the garden is desolate because the people have sinned and turned away from God.

The preacher need not move too quickly to answer the “why” question. Part of the Psalm’s power, writes James Luther Mays, is its “anguish and bewilderment” over the “contradiction between what God began and what he has now done, leaving [the vineyard] exposed for strangers to gather the fruit of the vine and for wild animals to ravage the vine (verses 12-13).”

Put another way, if God is the problem, God must also be the solution. Thus “The prayer concentrates … on the one thing and one thing alone—the divine Thou.” The congregation must look beyond even its own repentance “to a kind of repentance of God—his turning away from wrath to grace.”3

One of the most intriguing things about this Psalm is in verse 14, where the Psalmist asks God to “turn again” or repent, and look with love on the people once more. For some the thought that God might change course, turn around, or repent, is disturbing. Yet the God of the Bible is emphatically a God in relationship.

And to be in relationship calls for continual adjustment, like sailing or gardening or parenting. If God cannot “turn” and “remember” us, then we are praying into empty space, changing our own minds perhaps but not communicating with anything or anyone beyond ourselves. There is hope in a prayer that asks God to “turn again.”

The image of God as gardener (vinedresser) and the people as the garden or vineyard is found in many places in the Bible, including two of the other lectionary texts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. Isaiah 5:1-7 (often called “the song of the vineyard”) describes God’s relationship with Israel and Judah. This is reinterpreted in Matthew 21:36-46 (also Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19) in the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard.4

Psalm 80 may be used together with the first lesson and Gospel lesson as an enrichment to the biblical imagery of the vineyard. If used as the main text for preaching, Psalm 80 will easily support a three-stage sermon:

1. Thanksgiving for God’s love in the past.
2. Naming our grief in times of loss or abandonment.
3. Confessing our hope that God God’s mercy will shine on us once more.

The message of Psalm 80 is expressed very well in a hymn from the Sacred Harp.5 The language is old, but the plea for renewal still rings true. In this hymn “plantation” means any farm or a planting and is not connected with southern slavery. Here each person and congregation is a plantation, in which the Gospel is planted.

Savior visit thy plantation, grant us Lord a gracious rain.
All will come to desolation unless Thou return again.
Lord revive us, Oh revive us. All our hope must come from Thee.
Lord revive us, Oh revive us. All our hope must come from Thee.

Keep no longer at a distance, shine upon us from on high
Lest for want of thine assistance, every plant should droop and die.
Lord revive us, Oh revive us. All our hope must come from Thee.
Lord revive us, Oh revive us. All our hope must come from Thee.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 5, 2014.
  2. New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 998, 999.
  3. James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 263.
  4. New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 964.
  5. The Sacred Harp, Denson Edition (Atlanta: Sacred Harp Publishing, 1991), 335.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

Jane Lancaster Patterson

Today’s reading follows Paul’s heated condemnation of evangelists who had been insisting that Gentile believers in Christ must be circumcised and become Jews, in order to be brought into right relationship with God. Paul’s argument against Gentile circumcision, while not an issue for Christians today, is actually the driving purpose behind everything he says in this passage. The reward for the preacher is a chance to challenge longstanding anti-Jewish interpretations of Philippians 3 and also to convey Paul’s radical vision of God’s power to reconcile all humankind to God and to one another through the cross of Christ.

3: 4b-6, “As to righteousness under the law, blameless”

Philippians 3 is one of two passages where Paul gives an overview of his life as a zealous student of Torah, and the sudden expansion of his understanding of God’s providence through a revelation of Christ “in” him (Galatians 1:16). The following points walk you through a way of seeing Paul’s ministry appropriately within his self-concept as a Jew.

  • In the similarly autobiographical Galatians passage (Galatians 1:13-17), Paul alludes to Jeremiah’s call, which he sees as a model for his own calling: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations”(Jeremiah 1:5).
  • Understanding how deeply Paul took on Jeremiah’s call as his own is crucial for understanding his mission as a Jew and a believer in the power of God revealed in Christ.
  • Paul saw himself as one called to prophesy at a true turning of the ages, in which God had made the final, definitive move to bring Gentiles into right relationship with the divine and with one another.
  • Paul’s use of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) imagery to describe the power of the cross (Rom 3:21-26) explains how God freely chose to accept the entirely unjust crucifixion of the Messiah as the pivot point for the beginning of a new age of righted relationships for all people, opening up paths for Jews and Gentiles to be in relationship with God and to welcome one another deeply, precisely as Jew and as Gentile (Romans 15:7).
  • Circumcision is the sign by which Jews and Gentiles are distinguished from one another. When, in Paul’s churches, Jews and Gentiles—the circumcised and the uncircumcised—eat together, interpret the Torah and the prophets together, discuss how to live as witnesses to God’s holiness and mercy together, then they are living signs of the new age ushered in by the cross and resurrection of God’s Messiah. Their distinction-in-relationship is the sacramental sign of the power of the cross.
  • Paul did not “convert” from being a Jew to becoming a believer in Christ. He understood himself to be the Jewish prophet of a wholeness and reconciliation long imagined and hoped for by God’s people: “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:8-9).
  • For the Jewish community, God is fulfilling the promise of bringing the nations into God’s fold; for Gentiles, God is welcoming them with undiluted mercy.

In the opening lines of this lection (Philippians 3:4b-6), Paul makes it clear that he continues to value the pillars of his Jewish faithfulness: circumcision, deep belonging within the community, devotion to God’s Word, willingness to risk himself for the things of God. His final point is especially important for present-day interpreters to pay attention to:  “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul was not a person burdened by the Torah and his inability to keep it—quite the opposite. He took deep pride in keeping it, as a way of life.

3:7-11, Gaining clarity about what matters most

High regard for Jewish fidelity is the grounding for the turn Paul makes in verses 7-8: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” It is the obvious value of what Paul is now calling a “loss” that gives power to his new estimation of things. All the riches of Paul’s previous religious experiences are “loss” and “rubbish” (New Revised Standard Version; the Greek word is earthier, more like “dung,” “excrement”) compared to the magnitude of what God is doing through Christ for the healing of the whole world.

The salvation of the Jews is not at stake here; what is at stake is the inclusion of the Gentiles, previously considered (by Jews) to be so under the power of unjust systems and powers—Sin with a capital S—that they were not free to be in right relationship with a just God. In Paul’s view, Sin dominated the Mediterranean world, the whole world that Paul knows, through powerful Gentile rulers completely out of relationship with Israel’s God and God’s justice. God’s act of reconciliation through the cross is the unmerited opening up of salvation, peace, justice, holiness for the nations, the critical move in the release of all people from the suffering wrought by Sin.

Besides the theme of loss and gain, this part of the reading is structured by the focus on faith (Greek, pistis) as the way in which people align themselves with the power of God in Christ. Paul uses the word faith twice in verse 9: “… not having my own justice from the law, but that [justice] through Christ’s faith (pistis Christou), the justice of God [founded] upon faith. Because believers are baptized into the body of Christ, they have access to the power of Christ’s own faith and faithfulness as they open themselves up to faith in him and faithfulness to his self-offering way of life. Faith is a channel of salvation for Gentiles and a channel of revelation for Jews, as they see the magnitude of God’s power to save all. Their shared faith makes it possible for Jews and Gentiles to respect each other in community, while they may maintain some distinct practices.

3:12-14, A prisoner’s defiance

In order to grasp the power of the final verses, it is important to remember that Paul was in prison, a state that he refers to four times in Philippians, likely literally, as being “in chains” (1:7; 13 twice, 1:17). He also says that he has been “laid” there (1:16) for the offense of defending the counter-cultural Gospel of Christ. But despite his physical bonds and extreme vulnerability, verses 12 -14 are a beautiful blend of Paul’s subjectivity to God’s claim on him (“Christ Jesus has made me his own; “the heavenly call of God”) and his inner activity, courage, determination, and agency (“I press on,” “straining forward,” “I press on”).

The fuel for all of the intensity of Philippians 3:4b-14 is Paul’s commitment to his call to spread the Gospel of God’s reconciliation of all people to God and to one another through the cross and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus. Cross and resurrection, grasped together, are the sign that the time of dividing people from each other is over, and the era of reconciling grace is here. Paul’s insistence that Gentiles be accepted as they are is an invitation to present-day preachers to lift up models of gracious, merciful, courageous reconciliation.