The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20 - 18 September 2011
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
St. Matthew 20:1-16
Background: Old Testament Parables
The form of a parable is not only found in the Gospels of the New Testament, but is also in evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Five are especially noted: 1) the neighbor’s lamb expropriated by a neighbor (II Samuel 12:1-4), used to confront David after his sexual exploitation of Bathsheba. 2) The wise woman of Tekamah (I Samuel 14:6-8) who convinces David to come to terms with his treasonous son, Absalom. 3) The prophet who cautions King Ahab about his decisions (I Kings 20:39-40). 4) The vineyard which despite its owners care, languishes, a parable against the behavior of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-6). 5) The efficient farmer (Isaiah 28:24-28, an example of God’s care and providence. There are many more such parables in the Talmud (a recording of rabbinic discussions about the Law, Jewish Ethics, and Casuistry) and in the Midrash (biblical interpretation and exegesis), along with several parables connected to the Legends of the Prophets.
The standard first reading for today is from the book of Jonah, which uses the closing segment as the reading. This book might as a whole be seen as a collection of parables, as well. There are several parabolic segments: a call, flight from God’s call, the great fish, the psalm of deliverance, the mission to Nineveh, and the results of Jonah’s mission activity. Discussions about the historicity of these events detracts from their sermon-like quality, for the message is not about the wonder of the events, but the quality of God’s word in Jonah’s mission. These symbols become quite plain and intelligible when viewed in this light.
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."
In this reading we see an example of what we discussed in last week’s commentary, namely the “murmuring” pattern in Exodus, specifically the wanderings in the wilderness. Here we have a murmur; “…you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill those whole assembly with hunger.” God quickly meets their complaint with two varieties of help. The first is “manna”, the leavings of a scale insect that infects the tamarisk plants that are common here. The secretions drop to the desert floor, and cooled by the night air; they can be picked up and collected. The rules, which God announces are a way of testing the people, were really quite practical since the secretions melt at a heat above 70º. Thus they needed to be both collected and consumed in the moment.
There is another offering by God, a sudden appearance of Quail. Quail appear on the Sinai Peninsula in either the fall (when they fly south to Africa from Scandinavia), and in the early summer when they return. Often, because of their flight over open water, then land in this region quite exhausted and are easily gathered. The manna and the quail each represent a separate tradition that is preserved here. St. John finds in the manna a “type of the Eucharist”, the bread from heaven.
Breaking open Exodus:
- Do you ever feel that you are owed more by the universe, by God?
- What would that be?
- What other “murmurs” do you have about God?
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 Confitemini Domino
Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.
Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
Search for the LORD and his strength; *
continually seek his face.
Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,
O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.
He led out his people with silver and gold; *
in all their tribes there was not one that stumbled.
Egypt was glad of their going, *
because they were afraid of them.
He spread out a cloud for a covering *
and a fire to give light in the night season.
They asked, and quails appeared, *
and he satisfied them with bread from heaven.
He opened the rock, and water flowed, *
so the river ran in the dry places.
For God remembered his holy word *
and Abraham his servant.
So he led forth his people with gladness, *
his chosen with shouts of joy.
He gave his people the lands of the nations, *
and they took the fruit of others' toil,
That they might keep his statutes *
and observe his laws.
|Moses and Israel at the Red Sea|
Here we have a historical psalm which gives thanks for God’s deeds associated with the Exodus from Egypt. Today’s reading includes the introduction (v. 1-5) and a verse about the patriarch Abraham (v. 6). The final verses (37-43) recount the exodus and the cloud, and specifically mention the quail, and other wonders; and verses 44-45 recount the offer of land, and the covenant. The reading is used here to connect with the subject matter of the first reading.
Breaking open Psalm 105
- What are the great moments in your life?
- How has God been a part of them?
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?"
The book of Jonah seems to be a sermon on the universal nature of God’s love (see the Background information above). In its several parabolic sections the role and mission of the prophet are closely examined as to whether they are true to the message they have been sent to announce. Jonah seems to fail at each of these, but seems a spectacularly successful preacher. He preaches gloom and doom to the Ninevites, and they repent. Rather than have joy at the turn-around, Jonah becomes angry and resentful. Jonah knows of God’s mercy, and the likelihood that God will redeem rather than condemn, and it is for this reason that he initially flees from the call. But here, where God’s mercy and its effect are so amply evident, Jonah cannot bear it. This is told in a delightful parable about the gourd that grows up to protect Jonah, and then is destroyed by a worm. God notes that Jonah has more compassion over the plant than the city.
This “sermon” would have its best audience in the post-exilic period, when the Hebrews would have been realizing what their experience among the Babylonians, and other nations, was all about. Was God a god only of Israel, or more? Jonah, the prophet in the sermon, through his misadventures and bad behaviors, delivers the message of God’s reconciling love. Jonah however finds it difficult.
Breaking open Jonah:
1. Have you ever delighted in someone else’s misfortune?
2. What was the situation, how did you resolve it spiritually?
3. Does God love your worst enemy?
Psalm 145:1-8 Exaltabo te, Deus
I will exalt you, O God my King, *
and bless your Name for ever and ever.
Every day will I bless you *
and praise your Name for ever and ever.
Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
there is no end to his greatness.
One generation shall praise your works to another *
and shall declare your power.
I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty *
and all your marvelous works.
They shall speak of the might of your wondrous acts, *
and I will tell of your greatness.
They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
|Jonah preaches at Nineveh|
The last five psalms of the collect we call The Psalms are all praise psalms, and all date from and are consonant with the attitudes and universalism of the post-exilic period. The psalm, then, is an excellent commentary on the Jonah sermon (see previous reading). This is not a commentary on the history of the event, but rather on the import of the event (sermon) in which the God of Israel takes under a wing those who were not of Israel. Thus God is described as one who is “slow to anger and of great kindness. Notice the change of person in verse 6, where the text transitions from the first person “Let me exalt you, my God the King” to the third person, “Let them say”. This is another example of the change of vision from the national to the universal.
Breaking open Psalm 119
1. How have you been God’s compassion in the world?
2. Has someone else been that for you?
3. How do you give thanks?
For 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.
|The theatre at Philippi|
Our continuing reading from Romans has ended, and now we begin a continuing reading from the Letter to the Philippians. Philippi was a small town founded by Augustus following the defeat there of Casius and Brutus by Mark Antony. After Mark Antony’s defeat by Octavian (Augustus) at Actium, Augustus established a colony of Roman military, Antonian partisans, and Jews at this location. Paul preached there on his second missionary journey, ca. 50 CE, and established his first European mission there. This mission recognized the value of Paul’s work and often sent him offerings so that he could continue his work. One of the purposes of this book is to thank the people of Philippi for their gifts.
Written while in prison, Paul wants to inform his readers of his condition. The first paragraph of our reading is the closing thought of that information. where he expands his own physical condition into a theological understanding of his spiritual condition. What follows this is a series of “Instructions for the Community”, the first of which is a commentary on “steadfastness. In it Paul speaks of one’s civil duties as being akin to one’s duties in the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, your values as a citizen are an example of what you must do to honor Christ. He uses himself as an example of steadfastness when he recalls his own steadfastness in spite of his current suffering.
Breaking open Philippians:
- How does Paul allude to his own situation in the first paragraph?
- What is his dilemma?
- What are his examples of steadfastness?
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."
|Tissot - The First and the Last|
In chapters 19 and 20, Jesus journeys to Jerusalem and to the fate that awaits him there. During this journey several themes are struck: A discussion on marriage and divorce (19:3-12), the blessing of the children (19:13-15), The rich young man (19:16-30), and finally, today’s reading, The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. It is peculiar to Matthew and to his Jewish readers. It lends itself to an allegorical interpretation, but to do so will miss the point of the parable. Some ideas to understand: 1. “who went out early to hire…” The landowners of this time would go to the marketplace to look for people willing to work. 2. “a denarius” (translated here as “the usual daily wage) was the subsistence level wage for a day. 3. “They grumbled” – connects with the reading in Exodus (alternative RCL reading), but contemporary readers need to understand that the landowner was truly the master in this situation. Their main discontent is that others received the same wage, although the others had worked only part of the day. It is here that Matthew drives us to understand the equality present in God’s grace. There is a quantum of grace, given equally to each who asks. The complaint of the workers and Jonah are one and the same thing.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Have you ever had to be last when you expected to be first?
- How did you feel?
- What does this mean to you in your relationship with others.
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
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.