Thursday, September 24, 2020

October 11, 2020 - 19th Sunday after Pentecost

                                              Biblical Words                           [681]

 Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14. 

The chosen people may commit great sin, but God’s purpose still prevails in spite of called ones who lose their chance. 

Exodus 32:1-14.  

The Torah reading presents the greatest sin the people of Israel could commit — idolatry. 

The people of Israel had just heard the Lord’s Ten Commandments from the mountain, and Moses had left them for forty days to get more instructions for their future life.  Becoming impatient, they yearned to have a religion of their own — immediately. 

The initiators in this drama are “the people.”  They call upon Aaron to give them religion. 

As presented here, Aaron is not the leader.  He is the technical expert.  If the people want religion, he has the know-how.  He can create a full-fledged religious establishment – as all the world has always known such things!  Through his artisanship the people can see their gods, make their offerings and sacrifices, and enjoy their ecstasies and devotions in festivals and dances. 

Following the people’s demands, Aaron collects their gold, crafts a golden calf as the great idol, gives it a sacred story by claiming that these are the gods that brought the people from Egypt, and builds an altar for their sacrifices to these gods.  The establishment is completed by appointing a time for a festival, and the feasting and revels fill the religious craving of the people. 

[Historically, the “golden calf” episode in Exodus is a deliberate perversion, by Judean writers, of the cultic establishment of the northern kingdom of Israel when that kingdom broke away from the Davidic (Zadokite) establishment of Jerusalem.  Jeroboam the First established (or re-established?), in about 931 BCE, such golden calves at Bethel (Aaron’s sanctuary) and Dan (Moses’ sanctuary), the southern and northern borders respectively of that kingdom.  In the earlier times, of course, these calves were not idolatrous; they were pedestals for the appearance of the High God, as was the Ark in the Jerusalem temple.  (Jeroboam the First’s religious establishment is described in I Kings 12:25-33; the Mosaic priesthood of Dan is referred to in Judges 18:30.)  The Jerusalem custodians of the traditions eventually made their arch rivals at the sanctuary of Bethel ironic practitioners of idolatry!]

Up on the mountain, the Lord interrupts the work with Moses to inform him that the people have already proven hopelessly disloyal to their real Lord.  God becomes angry and decides to wipe out this rabble from Egypt and start a new chosen people with Moses as the new father of the people.  “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (verse 10, NRSV).  Moses is offered the same promise that earlier started things off with Abraham — making of him a great nation. 

For the first time — but not the last — Moses places himself between the people and the wrath of the Lord. 

He argues against destroying the people.  First, God’s reputation is at stake.  Think what the Egyptians would say, that God took the people into the wilderness to kill them.  Secondly, remember the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob), the promises to take THIS people out of bondage and to a promised land. 

After Moses made these arguments for the defense, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on the people” (verse 14).  Moses has been the means of saving the disobedient people — and, incidentally, saving the original enterprise of the exodus. 

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23.  

The Psalm reading is selections from a long psalm that is a combination of praise of God and confession of sins, using as examples Israel’s repeated unfaithfulness from their time in Egypt, through their history in the land, right down to their captivity in foreign lands. 

The psalm is spoken by one who identifies himself with Israel’s sinfulness. 

Both we and our ancestors have sinned;

      we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly (verse 6, NRSV). 

The speaker also expects, however, that God will forgive, will restore the sinful people. 

Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people;

      help me when you deliver them (verse 4). 

In the second passage from the psalm we have a short poetic version of the golden calf sin at the holy mountain.  The people “exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox…”  And the role of Moses is also prominent: 

he said he would destroy them — had not Moses, his chosen one,

      stood in the breach before him,
      to turn away his wrath from destroying them (verse 23). 

Israel’s greatest sin did not prove entirely fatal — because there was a mediator who put his life on the line for the people. 

Philippians 4:1-9.  

The Epistle reading is a passage near the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, one of his dearest and most loyal churches in his mission field.  In this passage Paul urges certain leaders in the church to get along better, to iron out their differences. 

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.  (Verses 2-3, NRSV.) 

A kind of theme sentence follows.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (verse 5). 

Gentleness (Greek epieikes and epieikeia).  For our meditation on this reading, let’s explore this quality of gentleness as it appears in other passages. 

Titus is told to remind fellow Christians “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (Titus 3:1-2, NRSV). 

Timothy is told what the qualities of a church leader should be.  “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money” (I Timothy 3:2-3). 

The letter of James describes the gifts of wisdom.  “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17). 

Finally, Paul ascribes this quality supremely to Christ himself.  “I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” — he appeals that he not have to be other than gentle with the Corinthians when he next visits them (II Corinthians 10:1). 

The Philippians are urged to let such gentleness as this be known to all around, to show in their lives the gentleness of Christ. 

Matthew 22:1-14.  

In Jesus’ encounters with his opponents in Jerusalem in his last days, Matthew has him tell several parables.  Today’s reading is the third parable in a row about accepting and rejecting God’s coming kingdom. 

The coming kingdom has been represented as God’s vineyard, taken from the wicked tenants and given to new people who will produce righteousness (last week’s reading).  Now there is a parable about a wedding feast given by a king for his son.  As we have it before us, this parable is also a severe condemnation of the former privileged people of God’s favor and their displacement by other people. 

Early version.  However, this parable has been through some major reinterpretations on its way to its present form.  If Jesus actually told any such parable, it was like the story in Luke 14:16-24.  (This is one of the few episodes, found only in Matthew and Luke, that Matthew sets in Jerusalem.  It is presumably taken by both from the Sayings Source Q.) 

In the Luke version a great man invited noble guests to his banquet but they made trivial excuses and did not come.  The master then had his servants invite people off the streets and from the country roads to his banquet hall until it could be filled.  “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner” (Luke 14:24, NRSV). 

The meaning plainly is that those of the Judean establishment expecting to receive God’s great good time have missed it, and it will be enjoyed by “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” as well as people recruited from the highways (Luke 14:21).  

Such was the early parable about the Banquet at the time of God’s reign. 

In Matthew’s version, a Save-the-Date notice had already gone out to a prearranged list of honored guests.  The action that now takes place is when the time of the banquet has actually arrived (verse 3).  However, the privileged invitees have declined to come.  The king sends everyone a second more urgent summons saying the time is at hand, the food is fully prepared, and all things arranged.  The notables who had been invited, however, make trivial excuses and refuse to come (verses 4-5).  Eventually, the king tells his slaves, “those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (verses 8-9).  Thus far the Matthew and Luke versions of the parable are similar. 

However, Matthew’s story also has a jarring intrusion in the sending out of the slaves.  Some of the invited nobles “seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them” (verse 6).  This was certainly overkill (pun intended) on the part of the invited ones, going far beyond simply declining the invitation!  What could this excessive violence be about?  Matters are only made worse by the king’s reaction.  “The king was enraged.  He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city” (verse 7, NRSV). 

It is clear that something has derailed the original story, and a different agenda has been inserted here. 

The key is in the allegorical meanings of the parable.  In the allegorical code, the slaves sent to call the invitees were the Israelite prophets, perhaps including John the Baptist and Jesus.  Sent to the privileged Judean people, they were abused and killed, and the Judean leaders were punished by an army that came, slaughtered many, and burned their city, Jerusalem. 

This insertion into the parable knows of the outcome of the Jewish War of 66-73 CE, and interprets that great destruction and death as God’s punishment for rejecting the summons to them of John and Jesus to repent.  This insertion is not from Jesus, of course.  It is from the reciters of the Gospel in Galilee or Syria sometime after 70 CE.  The insertion was provided by someone who knew, perhaps through inspiration from the risen Lord, what fate was in store for Jerusalem and its leaders. 

And at the Banquet...  There is another major change in the original parable, also made in the light of later Christian experience.  In this parable, the final gathering of the people for the royal banquet includes all kinds of folks.  “These slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad” (verse 10). 

This leads to another very surprising turn.  The king visits the people who have been admitted to the banquet and finds one who has dishonored the event by not wearing a wedding robe (verse 11).  This person is severely condemned and banished to outer darkness (verse 13).  What a gross case of injustice is this to one who was simply brought in off the street! 

Once again, the original story is distorted for the sake of its allegorical meaning.  The guests who have been brought into the banquet are non-Judean (or at least non-Pharisaic) people, people who receive God’s invitation after the mainline Judean leaders have refused it.  Non-Judean people in the church have inherited, second-hand, the gift of the kingdom. 

The point of the wedding robe is that even the non-Judeans, the people of the nations, who have been brought in, must change their attire.  That is, even the former outcasts must change their lives to match the blessings of their new society. 

The Jesus followers of Galilee or Syria knew that acceptance into the church had its requirements.  The Messianic Banquet was an assembly of transformed people, dressed according to the conditions of the Society described in the Sermon on the Mount.  The wedding robe had to be put on, probably through baptism.  So Paul said to the Galatians:  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27, NRSV).   

This whole parable episode, elaborated over some decades, contains messages from Jesus’ own proclamation of the kingdom, through the later actions of God in recent history (destruction of Jerusalem), to the final recognition that the new life in Jesus the Messiah also has its new law (its proper wedding garment). 


Saturday, September 19, 2020

October 4, 2020 - 18th Sunday after Pentecost

                               Biblical Words                                                [514]

 Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46. 

The Law of God is an awesome revelation, but the divine patience is even more profound. 

Each of the readings for this Sunday focuses in some manner on God’s requirement — God’s Law.  Each passage then goes beyond that requirement in its own way — falling back from its awesomeness (Exodus), setting it in a cosmic and personal matrix (Psalm), contrasting it with God’s righteousness by faith (Epistle), and extending God’s patience with those who reject God’s requirements (Gospel). 

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20. 

The Torah reading is the most solemn moment in the whole Jewish Torah.  The last words of the reading (verses 18-20) emphasize that this is the one and only moment when God speaks in God’s own voice to the people of Israel.  All other speech of God is passed on by Moses. 

Here only, every Israelite hears God directly.  Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, this experience is terrifying and overwhelming to the Israelites, and they beg Moses to do the listening in all future encounters.  They promise to listen to Moses, but direct speech from God is too much.  “You [Moses] speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (verse 19, NRSV). 

What God says in this direct speech is the Ten Commandments.  (The verses of our reading are an abbreviated version of all ten.) 

These Commandments are addressed to each Israelite individually.  The pronouns are singular.  YOU (yourself) will have no other gods before me.  YOU (yourself) will not murder (verses 3 and 13).  Each son or daughter in Israel becomes personally responsible for obeying these “ten words” at the time of their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, the time when symbolically they take their stand at the foot of the mountain. 

Two of the commandments have special emphasis in the full text.  Down through the ages, Jewish identity among the goyyim — among the nations — will be marked especially by their avoidance of idolatry in all its forms (2nd Commandment) and Sabbath observance (4th Commandment).  In these most solemn of God’s words to Israel the people find their identity and their bond to the God who redeemed them from slavery. 

And out of the terrifying experience at the foot of the mountain, they commit themselves to hear the mediator of all other torah, Moses. 

Psalm 19. 

The Psalm reading places the glory and delight in God’s Torah at the center of human experience. 

The center — literally.  The psalm has three parts.  The first celebrates God’s glory in the heavens (verses 1-6), the second praises the perfection of God’s law (verses 7-11), and the third prays for help in the inner life, where “errors” and “hidden faults” threaten (verses 12-14). 

The psalmist describes a tremendous arc that moves from the vault of heaven and the glorious course of the Sun (who sees all under its light and heat), through a rhythmic eight-fold liturgy praising the Law (under several adoring synonyms), to the inner mystery of personal error and guilt.  Even from these inner threats, only the God manifested in the heavens and the Torah can deliver.  Thus the psalmist prays, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (verse 14, NRSV). 

The glory of the heavens and the perfection of the Law must finally come home to the inner life of the soul. 

Philippians 3:4b-14.  

The apostle, in his later years and while in prison because of his work for the gospel, speaks in the Epistle reading of his glory and eminence as an Israelite who fully observed the Law. 

It appears that some people had been boasting that their religious qualifications gave them higher status than others.  Some obeyed God’s Law more fully than others.  Some were circumcised while others were not.  Some had good Judean genealogies that others lacked.  The result was a ranking of Christians.  Some Christians were also observant Judeans, others were non-Judeans of the “uncircumcision.” 

Paul insists that in a boasting match with Judean Christians, he cannot be bested.  He has top qualifications.  He was circumcised on the eighth day — the day required in the Law.  He is an Israelite, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, trained in the Law as a Pharisee, and in his early days a zealous defender of that Law to the extent that he persecuted the early Jesus followers.  And “as to righteousness under the Law” — blameless!  (verses 5-6).  When measured by the Law, Paul had achieved the highest goals. 

However, the great good news of the gospel is that all that is of no value compared to “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus” as the Lord (verse 8, NRSV).  In his new life Paul no longer has “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (verse 9). 

In the new life available through the resurrection of Christ there are no rankings; no one is more Christian than another.  All are together in the union with Christ — equally sharing in this new righteousness of God, and equally sharing in the sufferings that come to those who seek to imitate Christ (verse 10). 

Matthew 21:33-46.  

In the Gospel reading, God’s requirement is what God expects of those to whom great favors have been shown in the affairs of the world. 

The reading is a parable that Jesus told in his controversies with the Judean leaders in Jerusalem in his last days.  The parable, commonly called “the wicked tenants,” is clearly an allegory, a deliberate variation on an allegory told by the prophet Isaiah seven hundred years earlier (Isaiah 5:1-7). 

The story.  The owner of the vineyard has made a full capital investment in a world-class vintage establishment and has turned it over to a group of corporate managers.  In time he expects proceeds from his investment, but the managers ignore, abuse, and lynch the representatives he sends to collect. 

(In the Isaiah version of the allegory, the proceeds looked for are righteousness and justice, Isaiah 5:7). 

After two batches of representatives have been beaten, abused, and killed, the owner decides to send his son, expecting the managers to respect this son.  Instead, the managers think that with the heir out of the way, they can take over full possession of the corporation.  Therefore, they throw the son out of the vineyard and have him assassinated. 

At this point the story teller asks, What do you think the owner is going to do when he comes back?  The people addressed answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (verse 41, NRSV).  This is the obvious answer expected to such a parable. 

The meaning of Jesus’ parable, especially in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, is transparent.  The powers that be in Jerusalem are the tenants of God’s vineyard.  They have repeatedly denied God the righteousness due from their prosperity.  (The messengers sent to collect are the Israelite prophets.)  Now these tenants are in the process of abusing and executing God’s son. 

Consequently, Jesus declares, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people [the word is actually “nation,” i.e., an ethnically distinct group] that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (verse 43).  The hearers are addressed as those who were heirs of the kingdom of God — but now they will lose that heritage, and it will be given to others more faithful to God’s requirement.  

(It may be important that this conclusion does not speak of destroying the vineyard, only of changing management — reflecting a time earlier than the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.) 

But, is there a reprieve?  As it stands, this passage states the Law.  Those who have sinned against God’s requirement will be punished. 

In the 1960’s, my teacher and colleague Marcus Barth used to talk about the resurrection as canceling the guilt of the wicked ones because it reverses the crime.  Some folks have been convicted because they murdered the son, but what happens if the son, by God’s action, is restored to life? 

Applying that here, we can see the real message of the gospel if we alter the outcome of the story slightly.  When the lord of the vineyard comes, instead of imposing rigorous judgment, he raises the son from the dead, so that the murder is cancelled.  The parable itself is still only judgment, still only about the human condition under God’s Law.  The parable is pre-resurrection theology! 

But the message of the resurrection radically transforms that situation of the tenants.  When the trial takes place in the divine court, the son not only is produced alive but himself pleads the case of the guilty ones.  (So Paul, at least, would have it.)  The charge of murder against the tenants must then be dismissed. 

Even these tenants are saved by the grace of God and may respond (as Paul did) by accepting the resurrected son as the Lord indeed, thus entering into God’s true righteousness by faith. 

The fulfillment of the Promise — and God’s grace — comes through the Law, not in spite of it.  


Monday, September 14, 2020

September 27, 2020 - 17th Sunday after Pentecost

 Biblical Words                                   [679] 

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Water from the rock validates Moses’ authority, and John’s baptism anticipates Jesus’ authority.

Exodus 17:1-7.  

Israel’s trials in the wilderness continue in this week’s Torah reading.  

Last week it was food; this week it is water.  The people in the wilderness come to a camp site where there is no water available.  The people again accuse Moses, challenging the goodness of the exodus.  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (verse 3, NRSV).  This time we hear Moses’ despairing appeal to God.  “What shall I do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me” (verse 4). 

Moses is told to bring several elders of the people as witnesses, to go to a great rock on Mount Horeb, and to strike the rock with his staff to bring water for the people.  This is a dramatic scene, often depicted by artists.  The Lord’s action to sustain the people is clear and powerful. 

"Moses Striking the Rock...," Francesco Bachiacca, Florence, 1494-1557.  
(The artist was more interested in the Renaissance dress of the people than in the actual Rock striking!)  
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library.  

The place is given symbolic names, Massah meaning Test, and Meribah meaning Quarrel (verse 7, NRSV with translators' footnotes).  The Israelites are to remember in the future the times when they did not trust the Lord, but put God to the test. 

At the very end of the episode, the text shows what the most basic issue was whenever someone tested God.  They “tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (verse 7b).  Challenging the very basis of the enterprise, asking whether this entire business is really God’s doing, was the ultimate form of putting God to the test.  Here — and in future times as well (see Deuteronomy 6:16 and 9:22) — to demand some proof of God’s presence was evidence of lack of faith, of unworthiness on the part of the chosen people.  

The hardships of the wilderness were trying times for Israelites in both body and soul. 

There is a significant feature of the “murmuring” episodes that says something important about the revelation at Sinai/Horeb:  When the Israelites murmur before Sinai they are scolded like pre-adolescent children, but nobody dies.  After Sinai when they complain against Moses and the exodus, somebody dies.  At Sinai/Horeb, something important has happened:  the people have become responsible for their conduct in a way they were not before.  Israel received his bar Mitzvah (or bath Mitzvah) at Sinai; each Israelite became a “son” or “daughter” of the Commandment. 

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16. 

This Psalm reading recalls how God saved the Israelites in the wilderness through mighty works in the deep waters.  First God “divided the sea and let them pass through it” (verse 13), thereby saving them from too much water.  Then God “split rocks open in the wilderness, / and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep” (verse 15, NRSV), thereby saving them from not enough water. 

Our reading carefully separates (1) the wondrous deeds of benefit from (2) the complaining of the Israelites, though the complaining is not included in our reading here.  The complaint immediately follows the celebrating of the good deed (verses 17-20).  This whole psalm presents a balance between God’s great saving deeds and the disciplining actions of God, which are the responses to Israel’s complaints and lack of faith.  Israel’s past contained a mixture of salvation and discipline, and the psalm meditates on this mixture of good and evil as a “parable” and as “dark sayings” (verse 2). 

But among the great things to be remembered with celebration was the time when God sent Moses to split the great rock giving water to the people. 

Philippians 2:1-13.  

The apostle Paul, in the Epistle reading, continues his exhortations to unity of purpose and humility of life. 

The Greek of this passage tends toward eloquence at the expense of clarity.  “Encouragement in Christ,” “consolation from love,” “any compassion and sympathy” are phrases that take flight in high-sounding associations instead of concrete meanings (verse 1, NRSV).  Concrete meanings here are elusive. 

Paul does produce one straightforward sentence, one that summarizes his appeal in the whole passage.  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (verse 3).  One heeds this summons to avoid selfish ambition by following the supreme model given in Christ.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (verse 5). 

To elaborate this Christ-model, Paul uses the lofty and solemn words of a hymn that confesses and praises the redeeming work of Jesus the Christ. 

Verses 6 through 11 are thought by Biblical scholars to contain such an early Christian hymn describing how the divine Christ emptied himself to become a slave, but was raised up and exalted by God over all oppressive powers in the universe.  The outcome, that “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” is the reality in which Christians find a new unity and blessing.  They are to live united in their service to this Lord and ever subordinate themselves to his rule, and his rule only.  They carry out that service by imitating Christ’s self-emptying life. 

Paul’s final summons to persist in that service is a profound challenge.  “Therefore, beloved, … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (verses 12-13).  What an awesome summons from the apostle! 

Matthew 21:23-32.  

The Lectionary selects the Gospel readings for our current period from the climactic stage of Jesus’ mission, that time near the end when he is publicly presenting his message at the center of power in the Judean world.  The actions of this period are set not only in Jerusalem but in the temple.  (On all these Gospel readings until Advent, see the Special Note in last week’s Biblical Words.)  

Jesus has just made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem — the event of Palm Sunday — which was a provocative act to the Jerusalem leadership, and now he is challenged by the various authorities and religious parties at the religious center. 

In this Sunday’s reading, the question of the authority for Jesus’ action is raised but left unresolved.  No direct answer to the question is given in the public discourse. 

The priests and elders put the question to him formally, but he answers them only conditionally.  If they will first answer a question he has for them, he will tell them by what authority he acts.  His question to them puts them on the spot, however, and they do not answer it.  Thus, Jesus also does not publicly answer the question of his authority. 

The question Jesus puts to the priests and elders ties Jesus’ activity to that of John the Baptist.  “The baptism of John, what was its source?  Was it from heaven or from humans?” (verse 25, my literal translation).  For their own reasons — theological and political — the leaders will not publicly declare themselves on this question.  The implication is that Jesus’ authority is the same as John’s.  The reasoning of Jesus’ tactic is this:  If the leaders accept John’s authority, they must — for public purposes, at least — accept his.  Or if they deny Jesus’ authority they must also deny John’s authority.  

Jesus uses this device to prevent his opponents from simply pigeon-holing him, from lining up current parties for or against him without attending to what he is saying.  His response tries to insure that his message will be listened to and responded to in its own terms. 

Jesus continues the dialogue, in Matthew’s account, with a parable — or a test example.  It is a curious parable that, like the question about authority, does not deal in direct answers. 

The underlying issue is still authority, or at least a claim to represent God’s will.  Jesus tells of a man with two sons.  He asks them both to go work in the vineyard.  One son says he will, but does not go.  The other son says he will not go work, but later changes his mind and does go and work.  Jesus’ question is, which one does the will of the father?  The difference is between talking the talk and walking the walk.  The son who does the work obviously does the will of the father. 

Then Jesus applies the parable to the current situation by identifying the religious authorities as those who talk the talk.  They are expert at defining God’s righteousness, but they do not do it (an accusation repeated against the Pharisees in 23:2-3).  There are also others, Jesus says, who say “No” to God’s demand for righteousness.  These are, preeminently though not exclusively, the tax collectors and the prostitutes.  And as in the question about authority, John the Baptist is the test case for the issue.  “For John came to you [authorities] in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (verse 32, NRSV). 

On this understanding of the parable, those who walk the walk are those who repent and change their lives in response to the judgment/gospel message — those who change their lives as much as tax collectors and prostitutes must change in order to live “in the way of righteousness.” 

Jesus’ personal authority comes from the same source as the prophet’s word of righteousness.  Jesus’ presence, like the prophet’s judgment talk, tends to reverse what people say about themselves and God’s righteousness.  Those who have been saying “Yes, Yes” (meaning we are righteous) are shown to be talkers only, and those who by their earlier lives were saying “No, No,” will turn and find themselves in fact doing God’s righteousness. 

The reality and power of these changed lives is the validation of Jesus’ authority. 

Saturday, September 5, 2020

September 20, 2020 - 16th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                    [678]  

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

God provides food to a doubting people, and a Generous Employer pays incommensurate wages. 

Exodus 16:2-15.  

The Torah reading for this Sunday is about food in the wilderness. 

After the Israelites get out of bondage in Egypt they are subject to the hardships of life in the wilderness.  These hardships are occasions for “trials” or “tests.” 

From God’s viewpoint, these are tests of the people’s faith in the enterprise God has launched under Moses.  From the people’s viewpoint, these are tests of whether God will really sustain them in hard times.  Moses — and sometimes Aaron with him — is always at the center of the trial, and the “complaint” of the people challenges the validity of Moses’ leadership — which means challenging the goodness of the exodus

The people’s opening complaint in our passage demonstrates these elements. 

If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you [masculine plural] have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger (verse 3, NRSV). 

Thus the exodus was a wicked plot by the leaders rather than the doing of the Lord. 

God’s response to the complaint is to supply food.  After telling Moses in detail what he is going to do, God brings quail in droves in the evening and in the morning the dew leaves behind a strange wafer-like substance which was a substitute for bread (verses 11-15). 

In the first place this response satisfied the people’s hunger.  The story does not elaborate the severity of the hunger, but hunger is the human need at the core of the story.  They were hungry and God supplied the food.  In the second place, the enterprise of the exodus is sustained.  God is saving the people, not leading them into worse and worse sufferings.  In the third place, their charges against Moses and Aaron are refuted.  Their leadership is vindicated in the saving enterprise that leads from bondage to the promised land. 

There is a final level of the story that is midrashic, that is, it spins out the piety of the Torah rather than simply providing instructions or narrative. 

This special bread is “daily bread.”  “Each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.  In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.  On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days” (verses 4-5, NRSV).  This bread is not only daily bread, it also observes the Sabbath.  The sixth day gives a double supply so no one needs to work gathering food on the seventh day. 

This final level of instruction sees the bread as an occasion of testing the people — whether they will live by the wisdom of the Lord who gives them the Sabbath, even though the Sabbath commandment is not given until Sinai. 

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45. 

The Psalm reading is a final selection from this great hymn to God’s mighty deeds in Israel’s early history that we have been hearing in recent weeks. 

After a long call to worship (verses 1-6), the psalm celebrated the covenant with Abraham, the providential care shown to Joseph, and the mighty deeds by which Egypt was subdued under Moses’ command.  Now, as the last stage of the saving work for Israel, it celebrates how Israel was brought from Egypt to the promised land.  The delivering deeds in the wilderness are only alluded to.  “They asked, and he brought quails, / and gave them food from heaven in abundance” (verse 40, NRSV). 

This psalm does not include Israel’s resistance to God’s or Moses’ leadership in the wilderness.  It’s mood is only celebrative.  Only the things good for Israel are included.  Other psalms dwell on the trouble Israel gave God in the wilderness and their resulting punishment (e.g., Psalms 78 and 106).  Here even the wilderness is only a place of good things. 

In this hymn, the wilderness deeds are done because “he remembered his holy promise, / and Abraham, his servant” (verse 42).  All the deeds in Israel’s sacred history are rooted in God’s original promise to Abraham. 

Philippians 1:21-30.  

After twelve Sundays of Epistle readings from the Letter to the Romans, we shift for the next four Sundays to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

Our reading skips the opening greetings and thanksgiving (1:1-11), in which Paul is grateful for the continuing loyalty of this earliest church founded by him in Europe.  Traditionally, this letter comes late in Paul’s career, many years after he started the assembly in Philippi.  There is no evidence that Paul ever had serious difficulties with this church — one of the few.  They not only had remained loyal to his version of the gospel, they had repeatedly sent him material support over the years (see 4:15-18). 

In our reading Paul views his life and missionary work as going on in a kind of wilderness period (like the Israelites, between deliverance and the Promised Land).  There is labor and hardship in the present — as he dictates, he is in prison for the gospel — but there is a great fulfillment that lies just ahead. 

He reflects on whether he will die — be executed — at this point in his work or whether he will be kept alive to work further with the churches.  “It is my eager expectation … that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (1:20, NRSV, immediately preceding our reading). 

Paul muses with his hearers on whether he would prefer to be killed now and go on to his union with Christ, or whether he would prefer to continue the missionary work with its suffering and its joys.  “I am hard pressed between the two:  my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better…” (verse 23).  Yet, before he finishes the sentence, he realizes that God’s will may be otherwise.  “…but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you …” and he concludes in confidence that he will survive his captivity and return to the Philippians (verses 25-26). 

This is no longer the earlier Paul who thought he would be around when Jesus came in his final glory (I Thessalonians 4:17); this is a Paul who has worked long with large results and who now allows for the possibility that missionary work may go on after he is gone.  But he urges the church to stand faithful to the gospel that has brought them this far in their journey of a new life:  “whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (verse 27). 

Paul’s word to the church in the wilderness of their world is “Keep the faith!” 

Matthew 20:1-16.  

[For a survey of the Gospel readings for the rest of this year, and their apparent "anti-Judaism," see the Special Note below.] 

The Gospel reading is the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.   

This parable is found only in Matthew, but even in Matthew it does not fit its immediate context.  It is surrounded by two forms of the “first shall be last” saying (verses 19:30 and 20:16), but the parable is in fact not an example of the reversal of fortunes of that saying.   The “first shall be last” saying refers to such reversals as those richest in this world will be poorest in the next world, and those who are ambitious for leadership in this world will be the lowest servants in the world to come.  Our parable does not illustrate that kind of reversal. 

In the first part of this parable the landowner is anxious to get as many workers for his vineyard as possible.  He seeks more workers at every period of the day, including the eleventh hour of a twelve-hour day. 

The latter part of the parable turns to the question of compensation.  The workers hired at the beginning of the day agreed to the standard daily pay — one denarius.  The rest are promised only “whatever is right.”  At the end of the day, the landowner has them paid in the reverse order of their hiring — this is the only “last shall be first” in the parable.  Every worker gets the same full day’s pay — that is the punch line of the story.  In a final dialogue of the landowner with the 12-hour workers, he emphasizes that their original bargain was kept and that he disposes of his wealth as he chooses. 

It is important to remember that the parable is about the kingdom of heaven, not about wages or work in the regular world.  Receiving the denarius is the admission to the kingdom of heaven.  Some get it after a full life of righteous living; others get it by grace at the last gasp.  So God disposes entrance to “life eternal” (19:16). 

As some commentators have pointed out, the thrust of this parable is like that of the Prodigal Son.  One loyal son stays home and serves the father throughout his life; the other son runs away and wastes his inheritance.  At the end, the father urges the older son to join the rejoicing when the younger son is accepted back with feasting.  In our parable, the 12-hour laborers are like the older son, and the eleventh-hour workers are like the lost son who returns finally to the house of the father. 

God’s grace does not promise equality in worldly terms, but a waiting and patient care for the return of the lost — to be united with the previous workers in a common household. 


Special Note.  Gospel Readings from Now to Advent – Separating from Judaism. 

[This is a low-key protest against “anti-Judaism” in this Gospel, first written in 2008, “Biblical Words,” for Protestants for the Common Good.]

The Gospel readings in the Lectionary for the coming ten weeks are as follows: 

(AP = After Pentecost, 2020.)

16th AP - Sept 20      Matt. 20:1-16      Parable of Workers in the Vineyard

                                                            or The Generous Employer

17th AP - Sept 27      Matt. 21:23-32    Authority of Jesus Questioned &

                                                            Parable of the Two Sons

18th AP - Oct 4         Matt. 21:33-46    Parable of the (“Wicked”) Tenants

19th AP - Oct 11       Matt. 22:1-14      Parable of the Wedding Banquet

20th AP - Oct 18       Matt. 22:15-22    Paying Taxes to Caesar

21st AP - Oct 25       Matt. 22:34-46    The Greatest Commandment &

                                                            The Question about David’s Son

22nd AP – Nov 1       Matt. 23:1-12      Denouncing Scribes & Pharisees

23rd AP - Nov 8        Matt. 25:1-13      Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

24th AP - Nov 15      Matt. 25:14-30    Parable of the Talents

25th AP - Nov 22      Matt. 25:31-46    The Judgment of the Nations

                                                            (“…to the Least of These…”) 

These readings in the late parts of the Gospel According to Matthew very much hang together and share an overall perspective which it may be useful to discuss as we enter this period.  [I follow New Testament terminology, using “Judean” instead of “Jew” and “Jewish,” except in quotes from other writers.]

·        These readings are almost all teachings of Jesus.  Most of their text is in red ink, in those Bibles that print Jesus’ words in red. 

·        These teachings of Jesus consist mainly of parables.  Six readings are identified as parables either directly or by such clauses as “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  (Workers in the Vineyard, the Two Sons, the Tenants, the Wedding Banquet, the Ten Bridesmaids, and the Talents).  A seventh, the Judgment of the Nations, is not identified as a parable but is commonly thought of as one.  The parables included here are among the more complex of the parables to interpret.  That is so because of the next two points. 

·        These readings present mostly controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem.  Besides the several parables that impugn the religious claims of the leaders, there are direct questions about the authority of John the Baptist, about paying Roman taxes, and about the titles of the Messiah (all hot button issues in Jesus’ time).  And one passage is a direct attack on the Scribes and Pharisees.  Some parables condemn Jesus’ opponents— that is, the current Judean authorities are portrayed as active enemies of Israel’s Lord. 

·        These readings exhibit the state of conflict as the Jesus movement, itself a Judean movement, was evolving into the Christian church.  This evolving church was explicitly separating from the Judaism of the Pharisees as they evolved toward the later forms of Rabbinic Judaism.  “Matthew presupposes Christians and Pharisees as two Jewish sects competing to offer the most authentic version of Jewish life and belief…. All Matthew’s threats and fulminations [in the readings listed above], culminating in an announcement that the kingdom of God will be taken away from this nation and given to another [Matthew 21:43], acknowledge that, in the end, his community’s future will lie among the Gentiles [the nations].  The parting is no less bitter for being inescapable.”  (Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting:  How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book, HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, p. 60.) 

A progressive perspective on this group of readings for the next ten weeks should recognize that the Gospel of Matthew embodies the evolution of religious movements over three generations (1, 2, and 3 below): 

(1-A) John the Baptist headed a Judgment Movement to restore Israel to God’s requirements. 

(1-B) Jesus, beginning as a disciple of John, came to recognize through his healing powers and other signs that the Kingdom was in fact beginning to appear in the lives of John’s followers.  He launched a Kingdom Movement in which, not baptism, but believing in and experiencing the secret reality of God’s Reign was the center piece.  (See the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12, and the answer to John in Matthew 11:1-6.)  Crucifixion of the leader did not destroy this Movement, but transformed it into an even wider one in the next generation. 

(2) After they experienced the Risen Jesus (I Corinthians 15:3-8, not the empty tomb stories), the first generation of disciples/apostles led a Jesus Movement, in which the special status of Jesus as the Messiah, Son of God, and (for some, at least) heavenly Son of Man was the inside secret about Jesus of Nazareth – the very Jesus who got crucified by the Romans.  It is important to recognize that the Jesus Movement (first generation) was a Judean movement.  It was a Judean movement, even in distant provinces, because it assumed (1) the Judean heritage of scriptures, (2) one only covenant God, (3) a divine moral code, (4) eschatological hope, and (5) a Judean prayer and worship life.  Even though it gradually accepted non-Judean people into communion without requiring them to become practicing Judeans, it remained a Judean movement throughout the first generation (even in Paul’s churches).  There was no separate “Christianity” until late in the second generation after Jesus’ death. 

(3) Finally, after the Son of Man did not come in glory during or following the Roman-Judean war of 66-73 CE, the second generation of disciples/apostles increasingly recognized that the Jesus-Movement-become-Church was here for the long haul, and in a fairly short time (between 70 and 100 CE) they wrote down the Gospels from the most authoritative reciters in their various metropolitan centers.  They also adopted leadership structures not subject to the near-anarchy of uninhibited charismatic movements, including methods for disciplining members, even to the point of exclusion from the group. 

In this second generation, the Jesus followers began to be rejected from the synagogues by a newly-consolidated Rabbinic Judaism, and some of the newly-aware “Christians” began to denigrate “Jews” as a group as they continued to shape their versions of the Jesus story for their own times. 

All these developments are reflected in the Gospel According to Matthew.  We see in this Gospel what the Jesus Movement(s), now becoming Christian churches, had become, perhaps in Galilee where the Rabbinic Movement was growing strong or, more likely, in Greek-speaking Syria, around the metropolitan center of Antioch.  (Matthew is not, like Luke, a Jerusalem-centered writing.) 

The Lections from here to Advent.  We will find in the Gospel readings of the Lectionary for this season traces of each stage of the evolution of the faith – from the unqualified good news of the Beatitudes to the condemning “Woes” on the scribes and Pharisees.  We will hear the second-generation Christian community reporting how they remember the teachings of Jesus, and in their remembering we see them at their best — but also at their worst. 

A progressive hearing of the scripture must sift the tradition. We seek to discern words for our times from the tradition’s own best expressions of the goodness and grace of God — recognizing that much that we find in the scripture is the deposit of unworthy motives in stressful and hostile human conditions. 

We must have the courage to deny that such unworthiness (“anti-Judaism”) is really part of the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We must insist that the Jesus who initiated the movement of God’s Kingdom was sometimes betrayed by his later followers’ zeal to condemn and exclude his opponents and enemies. 


Friday, August 28, 2020

September 13, 2020 - 15th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                             Biblical Words                                             [677] 

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35. 

Israelites sang God’s triumph over Pharaoh, and Jesus people were taught to forgive each other. 

Exodus 14:19-31. 

The reading from the Torah is the central event of God’s defeat of Pharaoh at the Red Sea (its name in Greek; its Hebrew name is Sea of Reeds).  

Strictly speaking, the exodus has already been achieved through the ten plagues and the night of Passover (Exodus 7-12).  The Israelites have left Egypt, taking Egyptian wealth with them (Exodus 12:33-36), the narrator’s summary of their stay in Egypt has been given (Exodus 12:40-42), and the standard features of the Wilderness stories have already been introduced – the guidance by pillars of cloud and fire (13:20-22) and the people complaining that the exodus was a bad thing (14:10-12). 

However, even though the Israelite narrators presented the triumph at the Sea as the beginning of the wilderness rather than the conclusion of the exodus, the later world has always regarded the Red Sea as the climax of Israel’s deliverance from slavery under Pharaoh. 

The Song came before the story.  The story given in our reading is a prose version of the victory celebrated in the Song of Moses / Miriam in Exodus 15:1-18.  That Song presents Yahweh’s victory over Pharaoh at the Reed Sea as the triumph of the storm god over Sea, the god of chaos in older Canaanite tradition. 

Pharaoh’s chariots and army he cast into the sea;

      his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. 

The floods covered them;

      they went down into the depths like a stone.

At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,

      the floods stood up in a heap;

      the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. 

                                          (Exodus 15:4-5, 8, NRSV)

The Song shares the language and imagery of other poetic presentations of Yahweh as the triumphant Storm God, passages such as Psalm 74:12-14; 18:13-15; 89:9-11; and 77:16-20, this last referring specifically to Moses and Aaron.  The Song presents the victory of the Lord over his archetypal enemy, who often appears as the Sea, here identifying Pharaoh as the earthly representative of the cosmic power of chaos. 

What the narrative does is turn the poetic language of the song into a prose story.  It turns the poetic images into literal details of the action.  Where the poem says the floods “stood up in a heap,” the story describes “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (14:22).  The “blast of your nostrils” that piled up the waters in the poem becomes a very strong east wind which God sent during the night to blow back the waters and dry out the sea bottom for the people to pass over (14:21). 

The wild dynamic language of the victory Song has become the prosaic machinery of an early Israelite rationalist.  Our narrative is the work of literalists let loose on the ecstatic liturgical language about the kingship of the Lord over all other gods and cosmic powers.  (The kingship of the Lord becomes explicit in the last line of the Song:  “The Lord will reign forever and ever,” 15:18.) 

Though not originally a part of the exodus narrative, in later generations this prose story of the triumph at the Red Sea came to stand for the greatest miracle of deliverance in the Israelite tradition. 

Psalm 114. 

The reading from the Psalms echoes in brief images the spirit of the Song of the Red Sea. 

The sea looked and fled;

      Jordan turned back. …

Why is it, O sea, that you flee?

      O Jordan, that you turn back?” (verses 3, 5, NRSV). 

Sea and “Jordan” together stand for the cosmic powers reduced to order by the overwhelming power of God, manifested on behalf of Judah and Israel, who have become God’s “sanctuary” and “dominion.” 

As the story of God splitting the Red Sea was the beginning of the wilderness story, the ecstatic song about Jordan turning back also got its prose rendering as the end of Israel’s wilderness story. 

The song celebrating God’s mastery of THE River (the Jordan) was given a narrative form in the story of the Ark dividing the waters of the Jordan to let the Israelites pass over.  The waters stood up in a “heap” (same word as in Exodus 15:9) to let the people cross on dry land, thus concluding the wilderness period for Israel (Joshua 3-4, especially 3:15-17). 

This psalm, used at the Passover observance, shows the ecstatic mood of celebration because of God’s archetypal acts of power at the beginning and the end of the wilderness period.  

Romans 14:1-12. 

The reading from the Epistle also reflects a tension between the freer (more poetic) and the stricter readings of past traditions.  Our reading is the first half of a longer passage (14:1-15:6) that deals with Christian freedom on one hand and considerate love on the other in the practical living of the church communities. 

This passage emphasizes that practices of the Christian life must be based in the deepest personal convictions of each believer.  Each is accountable to God, not to other people’s opinions or current fads.  “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds….  So then, each of us will be accountable to God [for our convictions about religious practices]” (verses 5 and 12, NRSV).  The most unfaithful condition is hypocrisy – in which our actions betray and corrupt our deepest convictions. 

Christians bring different baggage into the fellowship.  Paul refers here to people who feel it wrong to eat meat that may have been consecrated to foreign gods, as most meat available in the public markets had been.  (This is why Jews had their own butcher shops.)  These people feel strongly enough that they eat only vegetables.  Others, among whom Paul includes himself, do not believe that such meat any longer has religious power.  Christ has put an end to any powers behind such superstitious beliefs concerning foods.  The same thing applies to the observance of the Sabbath, which is the main issue behind the statement, “Some judge one day to be better than another…” (verse 5). 

The people whose consciences hold them to particular ritual practices – such as food laws, Sabbath observances, and rules about clean and unclean – are genuine Christians if they confess Jesus as the Christ of God.  They have equal place in the larger fellowship.  Paul calls them “weak in faith” (verse 1), which does not mean that they do not believe strongly.  It only means that their convictions lead them to hold on to past religious practices while entering the new life. 

These folks are the literalists of the Christian life; they want to continue to observe the traditions of the past along with their confession of Jesus Christ.  Paul insists that they belong to the community, “for God has welcomed them…. It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.  And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (verses 3-4). 

The whole community must encompass in mutual respect a variety of practices, and the current challenge is to find ways to live in harmony, given this diversity of backgrounds and convictions.  A little after our reading, Paul sums up this challenge in echoes of Jesus’ teaching:  “The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17). 

Matthew 18:21-35. 

The Gospel reading is the conclusion of Jesus’ discourse on the internal life of the church (chapter 18).  

In its earlier sections the discourse has already dealt with the need to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (18:1-5), with the great offense of putting a stumbling block in the way of “these little ones who believe in me” (18:6-9), the divine care for the one lost sheep (18:10-14), and the procedure for dispute resolution within the congregation (18:15-20, last week’s reading).  The rest of the discourse is about the essential practice necessary to achieve harmony in such a Christian congregation – Forgiveness. 

Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive his fellow Christian – as many as seven?  Jesus says, No not seven, but seventy-seven – which is tantamount to saying “without number.” 

It is likely that this exchange has the ancient claim of Lamech in view (Genesis 4:19-24).  Lamech was a descendant of Cain, before the flood.  After Cain was driven out of common society, God gave him a sign to protect him.  The sign meant that Cain’s clan would be protected by a seven-fold vengeance upon anyone molesting them.  For one Cainite killed, seven of the offending clan would be killed.  

(The name “Cain” means “metalworker,” and it is speculated that in ancient society the guild of metal-workers was very valuable to all tribes – so valuable that one of them was worth seven other men.)  

Lamech came a few generations after Cain, and boasting to his wives he said, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech [will be avenged] seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24, NRSV).  Jesus tells Peter that this ancient rule of most extreme vengeance is applied in reverse to Christian forgiveness!! 

Jesus expands on the importance of forgiveness by telling the story of the unforgiving servant. 

In this story a king is settling accounts with all his servants.  One owed him ten thousand talents.  This is a fabulous amount, showing that the servant, even if he were a vassal king, could never pay it.  (The annual revenue of Herod the Great’s kingdom at its greatest was around 900 talents.)  In the story, after the debtor pleads for time to pay, the king forgives the whole debt.  The servant, on the other hand, refuses to extend the time of a debt of 100 denarii owed to him by a fellow servant.  One hundred denarii was about three months’ pay for a day laborer.  This unforgiving servant was a world-class hypocrite! 

The message of Jesus’ story is:  God has forgiven humans such vast amounts that they can never forgive more than they have been forgiven. 

In view of God’s grace to individual Christians, their forgiveness of their neighbors will never be caught up.  Thus, the Christian community is a congregation of people who forgive each other, in Jesus’ name, without end!