The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, 27 September 2020
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Background: Early Christian hymns
Though they compiled Gospels, Narratives, Letters, and Collections of Sayings, the early Christians did not leave us any early hymnals. What we can see, however, such as the example in the Second Reading for this day, a bits and pieces, some large and some small. The hymns of Luke sung by Zacharias (the Benedictus), Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis), the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Magnificat), and the Gloria in Excelsis, sung by the angels in the Lucan Birth Narrative, are some of the early examples, but there are other bits and pieces scattered throughout the New Testament. Some are reflective of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures such as the Magnificat which seems to mirror the song of Hannah (I Samuel 2) or the Tersanctus which reflects in Revelation 4:8, a passage from Isaiah 6:3. Larger or sustained hymns can be seen in I Timothy 3:16:
“God was manifest in the flesh,
justified in the Spirit,
seen of angels,
preached unto the Gentiles,
believed on in the world,
received up into glory”
and another in I Peter 2:22-25, best seen in the form below:
“Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
who, when he was reviled, reviled not again;
when he suffered, he threatened not;”.
The supreme example, mentioned above is the quotation from Philippians 2:6-11:
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
First Reading: Exodus 17:1-7
From the wilderness of Sin, the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So, Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
In this reading we repeat a familiar pattern: want, grumbling, entreaty, miracle. It is a pattern that we spoke about last week, the riv, or dispute. Here the dispute is made with Moses. Moses, however, understands the real intent of the quarrel, “Why do you test YHWH?” The thirst, nevertheless, is real, and the need is felt. It is Moses who cries out to God, with a certain sense that he is being threatened by their anger. What follows will bring forth images from the immediate past, from their experience in Egypt and their liberation from it. This particular event with rod and water, the rod held over the rock before striking it, recalls the scene at the Reed Sea.
There is, beyond the symbolism of the miracle, an etiological event as well, giving reason for the place names of Massah (test), and Meribah (quarrel). We are reminded of the citation in Psalm 95:8f:
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
as on the day of Massah in the desert.
they tried me though they had seen my works.
The pattern of quarreling, dispute, and hardness of heart will be a theme that resounds well into the prophets and becomes an image of Israel’s nature as it relates to its relationship to YHWH. The other image is of a God who meets need with supply, slavery with freedom.
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 Attendite, popule
1 Hear my teaching, O my people; *
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable; *
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
3 That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children.
4 We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, *
and the wonderful works he has done.
12 He worked marvels in the sight of their forefathers, *
in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
13 He split open the sea and let them pass through; *
he made the waters stand up like walls.
14 He led them with a cloud by day, *
and all the night through with a glow of fire.
15 He split the hard rocks in the wilderness *
and gave them drink as from the great deep.
16 He brought streams out of the cliff, *
and the waters gushed out like rivers.
This is the second longest psalm in the Hebrew Scriptures, superseded only by Psalm 119. It is divided into three sections: I) verses 1-11, On remembering the Covenant, and then forgetting it, II) verses 12-39, Examples of the riv during the wanderings in the wilderness. III) verses 40-72, The testing of God, and God as shepherd. It is a didactic psalm, bring up past events to teach about the present relationship of Israel to God. The overall theme seems to be one of faithfulness in the face of the faithless behavior of the ancestors. Such a theme is presented magnificently in the selections for todays reading (or singing) of the psalm. You might want to read through the psalm in its entirety to see the wide scope of both its structure and its examples. The psalm seems to date from a period after the fall of the Northern Kingdom (722BCE) and has moments of praise for the Davidic kingship. It’s use of Exodus events and recollections may be one of reflection on the return from the Exile of Babylon being like the Exodus from Egypt.
First Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
Therefore, I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.
Here the prophet attempts to convince Israel that it was not their parents who disappointed God with their faithlessness, but rather it is their own responsibility. God says to Ezekiel, “For all life is mine: the life of the parent is like the life of the child, both are mine. Only the one who sins shall die!” This theme is introduced to us in the first section (verses 1-4) of our reading. Those who wish to see the entire pericope can read it here.
The second part of the reading (beginning at verse 25) introduces another theme, “You say, ‘The Lord’s way is not fair!” (If you wish to read other patterns of dissatisfaction on the part of Israel, read through Track One’s First Reading, above). The consequences of doing wrong are both the same, for the righteous, and for the wicked. God’s judgment is consistent. The call of the prophet and the call of God to the people is one of repentance, “Turn, turn back from all your crimes.” And then there is a stunning conclusion, “For I find no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies – oracle of the Lord God. Turn back and live!”
Psalm 25:1-8 Ad te, Domine, levavi
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.
2 Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.
3 Show me your ways, O Lord, *
and teach me your paths.
4 Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.
5 Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.
6 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
remember me according to your love
and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.
7 Gracious and upright is the Lord; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.
8 He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.
There are three sections to this psalm: I) verses 1-7, Teach me your paths, II) verses 8-15, God shows the way, III) verses 16-22, Redeem Israel, O God. Our reading is all of section I and a verse from section II. It is an acrostic psalm that reveals the lament and petition of an individual. There is a common petition in this psalm that we see in laments of this kind, the hope that the petitioner will not be shamed in front of his or her enemies. Thus, to do better, the petitioner asks instruction from God, and requests that God no longer remember the sins “of my youth.” The individualism of this psalm matches nicely with the intent of the reading from Ezekiel.
Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-13
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, 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.
Paul explores the notions of unity, here through humility. We get our clues as to Paul’s argument by looking back at the first chapter, verses 29-30: “ Paul looks to Christ, and indeed to himself as the examples of suffering that need to be emulated by the Philippians. The eye of any who would follow Christ must be looking beyond the self and to the example of Jesus.
Then follows the hymn with its verses of emptiness, humility, obedience, exaltation, the Name, the bending of the knee, and finally the confession – “Jesus Christ is Lord.” It is the supreme example seen in the story of Jesus, and in his experience.
What we see here, what Paul wants us to emulate is not just suffering, but obedience. The verse that follows our pericope is unfortunately not included in our reading. It matches so well with the themes of the other readings in both tracks – “Do everything without grumbling or questioning.” That we should be in this form, the humble and the obedient, just as Jesus was, is what we should be as the church. We’re adept at the church’s exaltation. Perhaps we need to be more of a suffering church, a humble church. The task should be one of working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
The Gospel: St. Matthew 21:23-32
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So, they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you; the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you 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.
Our reading is a combination of portions of two different pericopes: 1) The Questions about Authority (21:18-27) and 2) Three Parables (21:28-46). The question about authority is driven by the event that immediately precedes the first pericope, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (21:21-23) and from earlier verses in the entry into Jerusalem (21:9-11) when the crowds allude to Jesus’ connection to David, and his characterization as a prophet (see verse 11). What follows this is the question on the part of the chief priests and the elders. But it is more than they who are wondering. Matthew indicates that the entire city was asking, “Who is this?” Jesus expands the question by having them consider the authority of John the Baptist, and the authority of his call to repentance and baptism. They are caught between a theological understanding of John’s teaching and political realities. So, Jesus does not answer their request.
We then skip to a pericope of Three Parables, and will read the first about two sons who are asked to work in the vineyard. Again, Jesus catches them in a conundrum. Here we see two examples of obedience, one an example of dishonesty and subterfuge and the other an example of repentance (remember John?). The first and last here are more than the dishonest and the repentant son – Matthew calls our attention to Jesus saying about the tax collectors and prostitutes (the first and the last). Jesus wants the priests and elders to see the effect of John’s preaching – how he reached the last. It is not only the authority of God above, but of those who risk belief below.
General Idea: Learning Repentance
Example 1: Turning away from displeasure (Track One, First Reading)
Being responsible for your own behavior (Track Two, Second Reading)
Example 2: Not turning away from suffering and obedience (Second Reading)
Example 3: Learning from John again (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller