The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, 28 September 2014
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
St. Matthew 21:23-32
Background: Jesus and John the Baptist
The Gospel for today sparked this inquiry, which will be by no means complete. The question of what John followers did following his death is an intriguing one and made me think of Jayne Massyngbrede Ford’s commentary (Anchor Bible) on the book of Revelation in which she asserted that the core of the book, chapters 4-11, where a revelation to John the Baptist, and that chapters 12-22 were an addition by a disciple of John the Baptist. It’s an interesting proposal, but not one that caught the imaginations of biblical commentators. It does, however, lift up the issue of the ministry of John the Baptist, and those who followed him. We get glimpses (Acts 19:1-6)
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul traveled through the interior of the country and came (down) to Ephesus where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the holy Spirit when you became believers?” They answered him, “We have never even heard that there is a holy Spirit.” He said, “How were you baptized?” They replied, “With the baptism of John.” Paul then said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul laid [his] hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
Something and/or someone continued, and several of the New Testament authors try to give us an understanding of what happened. Here in Acts we see an incident involving “disciples” (where they of John the Baptist) which seems really just an excuse to discuss the necessity of the role of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and the comment by the disciples, “We never even heard that there is a holy Spirit”. The general assumption that John’s followers were gradually absorbed into the Christian movement may be a possibility, but knowing the fractionalized nature of Judaism/Christianity/Gnosticism during this period, there must have been a group that continued John’s traditions.
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?"
Immediately following the passing at the Red Sea, there is the first of a series of “murmurings” about life essentials. The first is about water (chapter 15), then of food (chapter 16), and then of water again (chapter 17). Additional the sense of murmuring and complaint is the notion of testing – a foreshadowing the forty years spent wandering the wilderness. But it would not only be a testing of the people, but of Moses as well. There is another pattern that is evident here, and that is the pattern of the riv or “dispute”. It is a pattern that will show itself not only in the so-called Books of Moses, but in later prophets as well. The disputation (and here we need to hear and envision a courtroom) is not just with Moses, but with God as well – and that is the power of these stories. The dispute will turn to a dispute that God has with God’s people. We are drawn into the personal nature of the dispute as a representative individual exclaims, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” The scene is quite vivid, for Moses fears for his life (as indeed are the thirsty people fearing for theirs as well.)
God “stand(s) there in front of (them.)” It is a shear display of God’s power, which is to be amplified in the coming miracle. Again it is Moses and his staff, and the power of water. At the Red Sea, the water was invited to give way, but here the water is invited to gush forth so that people can slake their thirst. To make certain that the characters in the story, and the people reading later understand the importance of this place, it is named Massah and Meribah – disputation and testing.
Breaking open Exodus:
- Do you have murmurings against God in your life?
- What matters do they involve?
- How has God provided when you have grumbled?
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 Attendite, popule
Hear my teaching, O my people; *
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; *
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children.
We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the LORD, *
and the wonderful works he has done.
He worked marvels in the sight of their forefathers, *
in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
He split open the sea and let them pass through; *
he made the waters stand up like walls.
He led them with a cloud by day, *
and all the night through with a glow of fire.
He split the hard rocks in the wilderness *
and gave them drink as from the great deep.
He brought streams out of the cliff, *
and the waters gushed out like rivers.
Again we have a psalm that lays out for the hearer the history of God’s acts with the people of Israel. The initial verses imply a singer who sits down to sing the story to those that will hear. Again it is the story that we have read about in the first reading. It begins with the actions at the Red Sea, and continues on to later events as well. Again, our verses deal with God’s power of the water, which at the Red Sea is “split open” and later “stand(ing) up like walls”. Later, as in Exodus 17, there are parallel words. Now it is the rocks that are split, and the water gushes forth from the split. The verse is quite poignant in its implicit imagery – “and gave them drink as from the great deep.” It is the same “great deep” that serves as an image of death, and the deep that God controls and governs. Here, all of these powerful images underscore the need to drink and be refreshed by water.
Breaking open Psalm 78:
- What is behind the grumbling of Israel?
- Does the psalmist identify with their dispute?
- What does God provide you in difficult moments?
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 we encounter a riv – a dispute (you may want to read the commentary on the Track 1 First Reading). The dispute revolves around a proverb that is being repeated by the people about the situation in Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” God sets up a choice for Israel: life or death, and God’s discussion around this choice explicates his argument in this dispute about the fate of Israel. The proverb that forms the ground of the dispute is also quoted by Jeremiah. The import seems to be that one generation learns from the other, and in this case it is learning faithlessness to God, or a general distrust of God. It’s stated quite clearly, “The way of YHWH is unfair.” Perhaps this is the general sense and meaning behind the sins of the fathers being visited upon the coming generations (Exodus 34:7). How long does bad behavior obtain? The argument here and in Exodus and Numbers seems to indicate that it is three generations. Is there hope in such a situation? Judgment comes first, and then repentance, and if not “iniquity will be your ruin.” God argues that the people need a “new heart and a new spirit.” God admits that there is no pleasure in the death of anyone. A short sentence ends the dispute, “Turn, then, and live.”
Breaking open the Ezekiel:
- What kinds of animosity have been nurtured in your generations?
- How do you move beyond that?
- How do you intend to “turn, then, and live?”
Psalm 25:1-8 Ad te, Domine, levavi
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.
Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.
Show me your ways, O LORD, *
and teach me your paths.
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.
Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.
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.
Gracious and upright is the LORD; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.
He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.
If we have in Ezekiel, the description of a general malady, one that asks for redemption on a wide and broad basis, this psalm seems to be in the same vein. The supplication here is not a critical incident that requires God’s acute attention, but rather a general malaise that requires instruction –“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.” There is bravery here, and courage, as the psalmist requests that God “remember, your compassion and love.” But it is a double remembrance, for the psalmist asks that God but aside any remembrance of “the sins of my youth and my transgressions.” The verbs about “sin” are all redolent with the idea of “missing the mark” – “He guides the humble in doing right, and teaches his way to the lowly. The word “humble” in our translation is translated by others as “offender”. Thus the notion that those who have strayed from the path are soon brought back to the way.
Breaking open the Psalm 25:
- In what ways have you missed the mark or stumbled from the path?
- Do you forgive yourself? How?
- What does God remember about you?
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.
Commentary on this reading may be found in the comments for Holy Cross Day, here.
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."
This pericope follows immediately after the triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and the Cleansing of the Temple. It makes sense that some would question the authority of the one who has come, like David, into the capital. Again we have a dispute, following the pattern of other readings on this day. Here there is question followed by question, in a pattern that would have been common during the Hellenistic and later rabbinic periods. Jesus seeks not to evade his questioners but rather to engage their sense of logic (as we hear in their sotto voce asides).
The pericope that follows in the reading is one of three parables: The Parable of the Two Sons, The Parable of the Vineyard, and The Parable of the Wedding Banquet. All of these are designed to enlighten the hearer/reader about the question of authority, and the role of Jesus over against the People of Israel. The question is, who is doing God’s will, and is that easily seen. Jesus proposes what Paul will later comment on. To the wise it seems like foolishness, and to those who seem outside of the Law and its community (tax collectors and prostitutes) it is self-evident. Thus he uses the image of John, and makes them wonder about John’s great appeal. The conclusion of the first parable is troubling – in spite of the evidence presented, “you did not change your minds and believe.”
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What questions might you have of Jesus?
- What answers would you anticipate hearing?
- What is appealing about John the Baptist’s message?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
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.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller