The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, 1 October 2017

Track One:
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Track Two:
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-8

Philippians 2:1-13
St. Matthew 21:23-32

Background: Authority

If there is one issue that troubled Israel from its release from servitude in Egypt to the first century CE (although it surely extends beyond that time), it is the issue of authority. The initial story of Moses at the burning bush wrestles with this issue. Who is it that sends Moses to Pharaoh? What is the name of the authority that sends him? In the stories that follow, Moses has his own troubles with authority. The Hebrew Scriptures see authority certainly in the David kingship, but also with judges, prophets, and foreign kings and suzerains. It is the issue that bedevils the Palestine at the time of Jesus’ ministry, as people wrestle with Roman collaboration, and with the authority of the Jewish elders. Indeed, in our own time religious authority has become an issue of contention.

Track One:

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?”

This pericope is an excellent example of the question of authority when it comes up against human need. It describes a “dispute” (Hebrew = riv) between the people and Moses. The reality of the riv will become a model for the later prophets who will describe a dispute between God and God’s people. Here it is not a theological dispute, but rather one of need. Moses sees this dispute from two viewpoints. The first is against him and his authority, questioning his motives in bringing them into the wilderness. The second is a testing of God’s motives and support.  In verse three, the collective dispute gives way to a more personal expression of the dispute. Moses is in distress and fears for his own life. God urges him to stand in front of the people as demonstration of God’s care for him. The staff and the water become signs of God’s true intent. The staff, which struck the Nile, now provides clear water to assuage the thirst of a troubled people.

Breaking open Exodus:
1.      What are your disappointments with God or with the Church?
2.      How do you deal with these?
3.      When has God given you “water from the rock”?

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 Attendite, popule

     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.

The opening line of this rather lengthy poem gives us a clue as to its probable use. The invitation to hear and to listen to teaching seems to indicate that this was a communal commemoration of national history. As such it traces the national history, highlighting the confrontation of Pharaoh with the plagues and in the scene at the Red Sea along with other events. The selection we are reading today telegraphs these emphases early on, and especially notes the first reading for this day, “He split the hard rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink from the great deep.”  

Breaking open Psalm 78:
1.     How has American history been described in theological terms?
2.     Has God been active in our history?
3.    What are the dangers here?


Track Two:

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.

This reading serves as an excellent sample of Ezekiel’s central theme and purpose. He has a dire view of the people and their relationship with God. It is not only broken but also seemingly damaged beyond repair. Nonetheless, the prophet sees hope for the people. It was written following the deportations of citizens from Jerusalem to Babylon. The trauma of the situation led to a profound study and meditation on the theological dilemma that the situation presented.

Other prophets saw the problem as communal – the people had failed God, and thus God’s judgment follows. Ezekiel, however, seems to talk from the viewpoint of the individual rather than the whole community. Despite the expressions in Exodus 34:7, and Leviticus 26:39-40, among others, Ezekiel does not see guilt accruing from generation to generation. Rather, he thinks, each generation is responsible for its own guilt and misdeeds. 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!He does hold out hope for repentance and renewal in verses 27 and 28. Indeed the final verse of the pericope offers the same hope, “Turn, then, and live.”

Breaking open Ezekiel:
1.     Do you feel any corporate guilt?
2.     How might you express that guilt?
3.    What individual sins trouble you.

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.
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.

This is one of nine acrostic poems in the collection of psalms, used to enable memorization of the material and for translating it to others. It is a profound poem in that it expresses itself as the meditations of the essential life of the speaker. We lose that sense in the word “soul” from the first line of the poem. The author is looking at both sides of the notion of shame. In the first verse he pleads with God that he not be humiliated (shamed), and in the second verse he expands the notion to all – “let none be shamed.” He does remember his own failures, however. In verse seven he pleads with God not to remember the sins of his youth, and thus the poem has a sense of supplication about it. Rather he hopes for a guide and a teacher who will bring him to the right way.

Breaking open the Psalm 25:
1.     How have you been shamed in your life?
2.     Have you shamed others?
3.    How have you been released from your shame?

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.

In his commentary on the Letter to the Philippians,[1] Gordon Fee describes the structure of this poem, which advocates for unity in the church. I have marked those sections, which fall, into our pericope with italic.

A)           Appeal to steadfastness and Unity (1:27-30)
B)            The appeal to unity in their common life in Christ (2:1-4)
C)           The appeal to Christ’s example (2:5-11)
B’)       The appeal again based on relationship (2:12-13)
A’)      Unity in the face of opposition (2:14-16)

What we can surmise is that the Philippians are being tested by those around them, and so Paul spends time talking about how to meet this trial, and at the same time be united with one another. The meat of this “sandwich” is part C in which Christ is the example of unity in suffering. This example then becomes a working model for people sharing unity with one another, just as they have with Paul, and just as they have in Christ. We have so often read the meat of this poem by itself, that we may have missed the purpose of Christ’s example as outlined by Paul.

Breaking open Philippians:
1.     Why is unity necessary for Christians?
2.     Where do you see that unity active today?
3.    What kind of unity is demonstrated in the verses from Philippians?

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.

On the previous day, Jesus had acted with authority in the temple, driving out the moneychangers and merchants. Now the priestly caste and “the elders” challenge Jesus. They want to know by what authority Jesus does what he does.  There is no good answer for Jesus, for either he will admit to no authority, or will commit blasphemy by noting that his authority comes from God. Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but poses his own – pointing to John the Baptist and asking them about the Baptist’s authority. Their answer is an admission that they don’t know. Jesus responds with a parable. In this parable we have a perfect example of Ezekiel’s hope for the individual, for one of the sons, who in spite of his initial refusal, repents of that decision and goes to work. Jesus then radicalizes this understanding with his comments about tax collectors and prostitutes. They are the examples of repentance.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What authority does Jesus have in your life?
2.     When have you been like the evil son?
3.    When like the good son?

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]  Fee, G. (1995) Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Kindle Edition, location 3864.


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