The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, 27 September 2020
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Background: Ancient Vineyards
Wine has been a part of human culture for over nine thousand years (China), and in the ancient near east since 5,000 BCE (Iran). The effects of alcohol were long linked with religious experiences, and there were gods who were worshipped because of their attachment to wine. Ritual wines, other than libations that were poured out, but were consumed, were known in Jewish culture, and then in the Christian churches as well. Wine making seemed to accompany the movement from hunting-gathering to a more settled agricultural life. Wild grapes were found in Anatolia and in the region above the Black and Caspian Seas. The grapes vitis vinifera subsp. Sylvestris was the most common of the grapes used in early wines. This along with the invention of fired pottery made the development of wines not only as a household item, but as a product for the markets, possible and profitable. Wine production was first known in Armenia around 6100 BCE, and it quickly moved into the regions to the south.
First Reading: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
When we hear the word “Ten”, our religious minds immediately think on the Commandments. They are characterized in the Hebrew differently, with the word “word” or “words”. In the Hebrew, many of the commandments are merely three syllables – brief and concise. “Do not –“. This is a covenantal text, a pact between YHWH and God’s people. God announces that in the second verse of our pericope, when God speaks “these words:” “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Like any other ancient near eastern suzerain, God announces the authority that God has over the people who are making this pact with God. What follows then are the standards that enforce this agreement, this covenant. That these words have been parsed into ten is arbitrary. When I moved from the Lutheran Church to the Episcopal Church my numbering of the commandments changed. Lutherans and Romans share one system of numbering, while Anglicans and reformed share another. To comment on each one of the words would require more than intended in this blog. It is perhaps better for our purposes to look at the whole, and the way that the reading has been given us in the lectionary, the whole pericope concerning the decalogue, and a portion of the pericope following it from verse 18 and following, suggests to us to look at the whole context.
It might be helpful for preachers, for whom this is perhaps an all too familiar text, to look at a broader context, beginning in Chapter 19. There we arrive at Sinai, are witnesses to Moses hearing God’s intents for the Covenant and for the people, and a brief history of God’s acts for Israel. There is also preparation for witnessing the theophany, the cleansing, the shofar, and the waiting for the revelation. What follows the words is trembling and fear, and the reassurance of Moses, “Do not be afraid.” The implicit question, then, is “how do we live with this?” That is the grist for the preacher’s mill.
Breaking open Exodus:
1. Which of the commandments (words) are important to you?
2. Which are problematic?
3. How do you live with any difficulties the “words” present?
Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant
1 The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
2 One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
3 Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
4 Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
5 In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
6 It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
8 The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
11 By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13 Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Psalm 19 is composed of three sections: 1) (verses 1-7) The heavens declare the glory of God, 2) (verses 8-12) The Law of YHWH is perfect, and 3) (verses 13-15) Cleanse me from sin. In the Hebrew liturgy, this psalm is recited in the preparatory service in the morning on the Sabbath and at festivals. Some commentators see in the first verses (1-7) a repurposed hymn to the sun, and in the second and third sections (verses 8-15) a wisdom poem. What follows here in this psalm is a mirroring of the ancient near eastern culture which connected the notion justice (in our case here, the Torah) with the sun. The idea is that the traverse of the sun is seen especially in verse six as something that witnesses everything on the earth, the good and the evil. “It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again; nothing is hidden from its burning heat.” So the Law runs its course and sees all. Thus the final verses ask an import question and make an even more important request, “Who can detect trespasses? Cleanse me from my inadvertent sins.”
Breaking open Psalm 19:
1. Where do you see justice in the world?
2. Where do you find it lacking?
3. What might you do to restore justice in your world?
First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
The Jewish Study Bible calls this pericope “A Poem of Rebuke”. The entire pericope is composed of verses 1-30, and our reading, The Song of the Vineyard, is followed by “Oracles of Reproach” (verses 8-25), and then “Invasion” (verses 26-30). It is a parable, and for a similar parable and structure you might want to look at the prophet Nathan’s rebuke of David in II Samuel 12:1-12. Both revolve around a device of on-going revelation in which the audience eventually realizes that they are the subject of the rebuke. In our reading, it is Judah and Israel that are being rebuked, “For the vineyard of YHWH Sabaoth is the house of Israel, the people of Judah, (God’s) cherished plant.” God makes a case for all that was done for the people, but they, the vineyard yielded rotten grapes. The final verse (7) uses two very interesting puns in the Hebrew: “(God) waited for judgment (mishpat), but see, bloodshed (mispah)! For justice (tzedakah), but hark, the outcry (tze’akah). This reading sets the stage for Jesus’ parable in the Gospel for this day.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. What is worthy of rebuke in your world?
2. For what might you be rebuked?
3. How might this situation be reconciled?
Psalm 80:7-14 Qui regis Israel
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
8 You have brought a vine out of Egypt; *
you cast out the nations and planted it.
9 You prepared the ground for it; *
it took root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered by its shadow *
and the towering cedar trees by its boughs.
11 You stretched out its tendrils to the Sea *
and its branches to the River.
12 Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?
13 The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.
14 Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.
This psalm has three sections: 1) (verses 1-4), Introduction, and Lament for the Northern Kingdom), 2) (verses 5-8), Lament, and 3) (verses 9-20), Rehearsal of God’s relationship to the people (the vine), and a prayer for restoration. Our reading includes a portion from the second section, and a portion from the last section. We read part of the lament, and a part of God’s history with the people. Some commentators think that the first section was originally a psalm devoted to a commemoration of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (722 BCE). The mention of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh (all northern tribes) drive this conclusion. The psalm may have been reworked to include the destruction of Judah as well. There is a refrain that occurs at verses 4, 8 (our verses 7), and 20, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” The refrain indicates the theme of the psalm – prayer for restoration and forgiveness. The psalm matches the images and themes of the First Reading (Track Two), and the Gospel reading for today.
Breaking open Psalm 80:
1. How would you characterize your relationship with God?
2. Is there a need for restoration in your relationship?
3. What does salvation look like to you?
Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
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. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having 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. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow, I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul begins his argument with a characterization of himself – status in which he has a sense of pride: circumcised, Jewish, from the Tribe of Benjamin (Northern Kingdom), proper parentage, a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church, righteous in his observance of the law. This reading is important to us in our time in that it causes us to take account of our own sense of pride (an in this listing I will leave out a great many of you for reason I hope you will understand. We might see it thus: Male, Caucasian, American, Middle-Class, Episcopalian (or whatever your denomination, or religion might be), standing against those with whom I disagree, righteous in terms of how I view the law. We might question any of these as we do our assessment in light of the needs of our time, and the realization of the inadequacies of these supposed superiorities.
That we should give some of this up seems self-evident to me. To Paul, however, there is another reason and that is that his pride was no longer centered in the list of superiorities that he had, but rather in his inclusion in Christ. It’s a recognition of the gift, of the righteousness from God. He sees three things accruing to him in his life in Christ: suffering, death, and resurrection – all of them modeled by the life of Christ.
But he goes on – for this is not a static status that he sees, but rather a process that continues. It might be good to look at II Timothy 4:7, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” The image of the runner is alluded to in Philippians as well, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” That which must be given up, those things that we think bless us in this life, and make other people think well of us – these things must be given up. The status that washed over us in our Baptism is what matters now, and sets us up for the race, and the prize.
Breaking open Philippians:
1. What sets you apart in this world?
2. Is your status enjoyed at the expense of others?
3. What must you give up, and what must you take on?
The Gospel: St. Matthew 21:33-46
Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
This is a continuation of the reading that we had from last Sunday, the parable of the vineyard. It is followed by this parable today, and another in 22:1-14 (which we will read next Sunday) all of which are concerned with the nature of Jesus and how people are thinking about him. S
If there is concern in our time about “the absence of God,” it is certainly evident in this parable where the landowner builds a vineyard, and then leases it to tenants and leaves. All of the characters in these parables would have been recognized by the hearers – that was the whole point of Jesus telling them. The Landowner = God, the tenants = Israel, the servants (or slaves) = the prophets, the son = Jesus. The message is that the coming of the kingdom is not recognized – the role of Jesus is not recognized. Here is the point – “Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
Albright and Mann suggest that in order to understand Matthew’s intent to tie sayings and events into the Hebrew Scriptures, we might want to read Daniel 2:34. “A stone was hewn from a mounting without a hand being put to it.” King Nebuchadnezzar, disturbed by a dream of a large image of a man, requests that Daniel interpret it. The stone, innocuous and unbidden, smashes the giant image. Perhaps this is what Jesus/Matthew is alluding to in the saying regarding the cornerstone. Later in the chapter, Daniel says, “Another kingdom shall take your place.” That is Jesus’ point here – you (leaders of Israel) have not recognized the time of your visitation.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What are the fruits of the kingdom?
2. Are they found in your life?
3. Are they seen in your life by others?
General idea: Pride.
Examination 1: What is your status in this world? Does it come at the expense of others? (Philippians 3:5-6)
Examination 2: What might not be necessary in your life? What might you need to take on? (Philippians 3:7-11)
Examination 3: What race are you running, and what is the expected prize? (Philippians 3:12-14)
Proclamation: What are the Christian fruits of your life? (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller