The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, 20 September 2020
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Since the readings that form the Second Reading during Ordinary Time are usually a lectio continua from one of the Pauline epistles, in this case Philippians, it might be good for us to discover the city which preceded the Roman community that received Paul, and then to see its role in Roman history, and in the early development of the church as well.
It began as a settlement by Thasian colonists around 360 BCE at the foot of Mt. Orbelos at the head of the Aegean Sea. In 356 BCE King Philip II of Macedon renamed the city as Philippi, after his victory over the inhabitants. Under Philip it enjoyed a certain level of autonomy, having its own assembly and other institutions. Under Philip V (221-179 BCE) it was incorporated into the entirety of the kingdom.
Under the Romans (168 BCE), the city was no longer the capital, and was somewhat diminished. Remains from this period include the Macedonian walls, remains under the new Roman Forum, a Greek theater, and temples. The city becomes notable again in 43-42 BCE during the war that follows the assassination of Julius Caesar. Mark Antony and Octavian confronted the forces of the assassins at the Battle of Philippi. Following the battle some of the veterans of the XXVIII Legion are given lands there and encouraged to retire in Philippi. During his reign as emperor, Octavian, now Augustus, restructures the colony, and allows more settlers to establish themselves there. The new settlers are largely veterans, along with other Italians. The city was named Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensis. The city was lain out with a grid, a process called centuration, and a forum was built to the east of the Greek agora. It was governed by two military officers under Roman civil law.
First Reading: Exodus 16:2-15
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “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 have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and 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.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
It is in this pericope that we have an example of the riv pattern, a series of incidents in which the people of Israel “murmur” or have an argument with either Moses of God regarding their current situation. Here the rivis about hunger. “Egypt, where we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” We will see this pattern over and over again in the Book of Exodus, and also in Numbers. All of this, as it repeats itself in the History of Israel will become grist for the prophets’ mill – here for the consternation of Moses and Aaron. At first God doesn’t seem to be disturbed by the complaints of the people, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.” There is more than a simple gift, here. God’s intention is to test the people to see if they are heeding God’s instructions. Moses repeats the instructions, and notes that the people are murmuring against God, not Moses and Aaron. In the following chapter (17) though, it is God who will be tested – and so a pattern of disaffection is continued there.
In the third paragraph of our reading, Moses asks the people to “draw near to YHWH.” The verb here is the one one would use in asking people to approach a sanctuary, for that indeed is what it is in essence. “They looked toward the wilderness, and the gory of YHWH appeared in the cloud.” The promise of food will be kept and in that way the people will know that YHWH is their God. Complaint, intercession, promise, and fulfillment is the pattern here, and we shall see it repeated numerous times in Israel’s history
Breaking open Exodus:
1. What are your complaints against God?
2. How are they met?
3. How have you drawn close to God?
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 Confitemini Domino
1 Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.
2 Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.
3 Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
4 Search for the Lord and his strength; *
continually seek his face.
5 Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,
6 O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.
37 He led out his people with silver and gold; *
in all their tribes there was not one that stumbled.
38 Egypt was glad of their going, *
because they were afraid of them.
39 He spread out a cloud for a covering *
and a fire to give light in the night season.
40 They asked, and quails appeared, *
and he satisfied them with bread from heaven.
41 He opened the rock, and water flowed, *
so the river ran in the dry places.
42. For God remembered his holy word *
and Abraham his servant.
43 So he led forth his people with gladness, *
his chosen with shouts of joy.
44 He gave his people the lands of the nations, *
and they took the fruit of others' toil,
45 That they might keep his statutes *
and observe his laws.
This psalm which rejoices in God’s wondrous acts in liberating Israel from Egypt and the gift of the promised land, is probably a construct from the post exilic period when such a theme was popular. Similar patterns are seen in Psalms 78, 106, 135, and 136. It is made up of six sections, I (1-6), which celebrates God’s deeds, II (7-11) The covenant with Abraham, III (12-15) The wanderings of Israel, and God’s protection, IV (16-22) the story of Joseph, V (23-38) Israel in Egypt, and VI (39-45) Quail, manna, and water. Our reading this morning is made up of Sections I, parts of V, and all of VI. It is seen as a message to the exiles returning from Persian rule and lands to the land of promise, the gift of God. What the psalm leaves out are the difficulties that the people endure and exaggerate such as those in the first reading – hunger, thirst, and privation. In the Psalm, God is present to protect, lead, and to feed them. It was an ancient promise that was extended to the exiles as well.
Breaking open Psalm 105:
1. What are your agreements with God?
2. What is your covenant with God?
3. Where is your promised land?
First Reading: Jonah 3:10-4:11
When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so, Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
In the Track One first reading we meet an ancient pattern in the Pentateuch, that of grumbling and murmuring. It is called a riv pattern in which the community or individuals have a grievance against God. Here in this reading in the final chapter of Jonah, it is the prophet himself that has the riv. He has come to Nineveh to announce God’s judgement, and much to his surprise the city repents. However, this book is not about Nineveh. It is about the prophet and his or her call – how it is accepted and done, and how God truly judges. Jonah expects God to be like the God of Numbers 23:19, the God of Balaam,
nor a mortal, who feels regret.
Is God one to speak and not act,
to decree and not bring it to pass?”
In this text Balaam is asked to bless and he indeed does that – he blesses. Jonah finds it difficult to redeem. God cares for God’s creation, and the creations of humankind as well. “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Indeed, it is several aspects of creation that stand behind God and God’s judgments, the great fish, the plant, the hot east wind, the sun, and the worm. All of these elements stand where Jonah finds it difficult to stand. It is a text for our times, especially for this Creationtide.
Breaking open Jonah:
1. Can you identify with Jonah’s reaction to Nineveh?
2. Who or what is Nineveh for you?
3. Whom has God redeemed in spite of you?
Psalm 145:1-8 Exaltabo te, Deus
1 I will exalt you, O God my King, *
and bless your Name for ever and ever.
2 Every day will I bless you *
and praise your Name for ever and ever.
3 Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
there is no end to his greatness.
4 One generation shall praise your works to another *
and shall declare your power.
5 I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty *
and all your marvelous works.
6 They shall speak of the might of your wondrous acts, *
and I will tell of your greatness.
7 They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
8 The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
Psalms 145 – 150 form what is called the Daily Hallel which is recited every day in the Jewish morning service. Our psalm today introduces us to the collection with the word (in Hebrew) Hallelujah. The psalm is an alphabetic acrostic – only the letter nun is omitted. The narrative of the psalm transitions between language to God and about God. God’s generosity and protect are evidenced in the verses. In verse 20 we see a verse that Jonah might have depended upon, “YHWH watches over all who love (God); but all the wicked (God) destroys. Our verses, 1-8, focus on the grace and mercy of God, and on the on-going nature of God’s protection for the people. The final verse of our reading is a quotation from Exodus 34:6, “YHWH, YHWH, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity.”
Breaking open Psalm 145:
1. What can you say in joy about God?
2. What can you say in joy to God?
3. How does either grace or mercy abound in your life?
Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, 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, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God's doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well-- since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
This epistle is written in the context of Paul’s own suffering (see 1:12-18a) and from this situation he now addresses the future. Regardless of what happens, Paul sees it as a cause for joy, “To me, living is Christ, and dying is gain.” The pericope is made up of three parts (I – 1:18b-20, II – 1:21-24, and III – 1:25-26). The latter four verses come from his exhortation to steadfastness and unity (1:27-2:18).
The point for us and for Paul, and this is most telling in our times, is that regardless of what happens, we are still in Christ – alive! One commentator entitles this section as “The Desired Outcome – to be with Christ.” One can hear in his letter Paul’s sorrow at being separated from the Christians at Philippi, but one can also hear clearly his voice of faith. He goes on, however, from merely existing to living a life that has meaning, and that matters. He asks us to live our lives (with him) in a “manner worthy of the Gospel.” Paul sees in this lesson a unity that is evidenced in the Body of Christ’s standing together in the community with lives that give evidence of God’s grace and good will. It is, however, also a lesson is struggling – in realizing that God asks something of us. There is no running away, as Jonah did. There is only living in the situation, as Paul and Jesus did.
Breaking open Philippians:
1. What is your suffering?
2. Where do find joy in your life?
3. Where do you find meaning in the lives so others?
The Gospel: Saint Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So, they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Matthew sets up a certain sense of drama in his telling of this parable of the workers in the vineyard. Each of the segments or sequences is introduced by similar language – “he went out” and a time designation. There is a pattern here into which to put particular circumstances. At the first the landlord makes an agreement for “the usual daily wage.” When he goes out again, he offers to pay “whatever is right.” And finally, at the last when he goes out, he offers nothing. Thus, Matthew sets us up to wonder what the outcome might be, how this will be an indication of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The lesson begins to be learned with the order in which the laborers are paid – last to first. It is a hidden clue – we really don’t understand the significance of the order until the end of the parable. It is in verses 10-15 that we see the key to the telling. Here is the pattern:
10: The first come – thinking that they would receive more.
11: When they get the same, they grumble
12: They argue with the landowner
13: The landowner argues that he is not cheating them.
14: Go on – I can give what I wish to give
15: Are you envious?
It is interesting that the argument ends with the landowner’s statement about the last being first, etc. The complainers have nothing more to say, and the reader is left with the truth of the parable – “So, the last will be first, and the first last.” It is a radical lesson, especially in our own time of greed. But if we are tempted by the landowner’s statement to be an ethical point in modern day economics, we ought to be disappointed. This is not a lesson in business acumen, but rather a lesson on mercy and grace. The work does not make for the grace. The grace is given equally. Given that, however, we now have to decide how we will be just with others. The ball is placed squarely in our court. Here the Track One preachers have an advantage with a first reading that adds grist to this mill.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. With which of the laborers do you identify?
2. How do you identify with the landowner?
3. What is your lesson from this reading?
General Idea: An Argument of Grace
Example 1: Grumbling and the gift of bread (Track One: First Reading)
The Prophet’s complaint and God’s on-going grace (Track Two: First Reading)
Example 2: Suffering and yet living (Second Reading)
Example 3: Who is first and who is last? (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller
 Numbers 23:19, New American Bible (NAB)
 Exodus 34:6 NAB