Proper 22A

October 2, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Reading 2: 
Psalm 19
Reading 3: 
Philippians 3:4b-14
Reading 4: 
Matthew 21:33-46
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the Texts

Exodus: 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

It is interesting that the lectionary omits verses 4-6, where the divine language has a very sharp edge: “I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents.” Other verses, 10-11, are left out with no apparent reason based on the text. If I were to preach on this text, I would use verses 1-20. There is no point in ignoring difficult parts of the Bible. In fact, addressing difficult texts can often bear more fruit than a non-problematic text.

It is important to keep in mind that the Exodus text is speaking to slaves. They were from the slave class owned by those in power in the Egyptian empire. The only value they had had been imposed on them by the status quo in Egypt. Like any slave class in any empire, that class has only instrumental value to the empire. Intrinsic worth has to be denied in order to “own” them and treat them as property. It might seem to some that slavery has been banished, and is no longer an issue, but the buying and selling of human beings, human trafficking, is still very much alive and well in today’s world.

The text is about the revaluation of a former slave class that has been freed from the empire and now stands before the God who liberated them; their future is unknown to them and fraught with new possibilities and fears. Freedom is not a choice to do your own thing in your own way. As Janice Joplin sang: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” That is not the nature of the freedom of the Hebrews. Their freedom is a choice between going back to Egypt, back to slavery, or committing themselves and their future to God.

The people have arrived at Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, the meeting place. People witnessed the horrible and frightening presence of God descending onto the mountain top. “When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance.” (vs 18) This is dramatic stage setting for the important meeting of Moses with God, while the people’s future hangs in the balance. It is hard not to notice and be distracted by the theatrics and stage setting of the text, but that would miss the point of the story. Freedom comes with ground rules, boundaries within which life can thrive. Without ground rules, there is only chaos. If only chaos then why not go back to Egypt? True freedom is found in loyalty and commitment to God. The commandments of God form the foundation of a new life. With freedom comes responsibility. Often people don’t want the responsibility for their own lives, which is an issue that comes up many times in Exodus as the people struggle in their new life of freedom. Going back to Egypt was attractive for many reasons, one of which was avoiding responsibility by going back to the empire and its promises of security and well-being, but at what cost?

Philippians: 3:4b-14

Today’s text is not far from the famous words of 2:5-11 about the emptying of Christ Jesus, who took “the form of a slave.” We are called to the same act of self-emptying. In the gospels we hear Jesus calling us to take up our cross as the form of discipleship. For example, in Matthew 16:24: “Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” What does it mean to deny one’s self? Other texts call us to die to self.

In the Philippians text, Paul gives his resume and why he has much to be proud of, but of course, that means nothing in comparison to the attainment of “knowing Christ.” In a sense, Paul emptied himself of the value the world places on self-worth, and affirms that such emptying leads to fulness of life.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous idea of the “will to power” involves a similar self-emptying, which he calls “self-overcoming.” In fact, that’s his definition of will to power: self-overcoming. The more one has to overcome--suffering, misunderstanding, sickness-- the more power one has. Health is seen as the capacity to overcome illness. In a similar way, Paul makes the point that knowing Christ involves the capacity to overcome self. We see this process of self-emptying, or self-overcoming, in Jesus and in Paul.

Paul’s point about self-emptying is that following Jesus’ path to death is the way to transformation. Without emptying, without dying to self, there is no power of transformation.

Matthew: 21:33-46

The last line of this text tells us that the parable of the Wicked Tenants was directed at the religious leaders. They were offended by the parable and wanted to arrest Jesus. This text comes after the so-called “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem. Then there is the story of the cleansing of the temple, the story of the fig tree, then Jesus’ authority is questioned, then the story of the two sons, then the story for today. The text must be taken with its context. Jesus is in direct conflict with the religious authorities, and of course we know that it is coming to a head and will end badly. There is a long lead up to the death and transformation of Jesus, which is a dramatic culmination of the gospel stories.

Process Theology and the Texts

One of the main themes of the Bible is the rhythm of going down in death and rising in transformed, new, life. This idea is very close to the process idea of becoming actual in the present moment and the becoming of the present moment is where creative transformation is active. The actual event arises, taking account of past events and, in choosing how to integrate that past with God’s aim for that integration, becomes a subject, then perishes and becomes an object for the becoming of new emerging events. Creative transformation is God’s action in the world.

Concerning the resurrection of Jesus, I prefer to use the word “transformation.” It more accurately describes the rhythm of death and new life. The word “resurrection” does not adequately imply movement from life, to death, to new life and it usually relates to special occasions which are dramatic, whereas transformation can be seen as present in every moment. Resurrection seems like a one-time event; transformation implies the ongoing nature of God’s power of creative transformation. We could even go so far as to say that through Jesus’ death and transformation, God transcended God’s self. God is also an actual entity and is therefore subject to the same process as any actual entity.

Preaching the Texts

If there is any theme that runs through these texts, it is the rhythm of going down and rising, whether it be leaving a “known” life and facing a new future (the exodus), or letting the present moment perish and become the past as we are always moving into an unknown future. The issue of fear or trust becomes important as a way of faithful living.

The Exodus texts contain a wealth of preaching ideas. It’s always best to let the story speak for itself. There are enough issues in the text that are still relevant today. Though we are not slaves, in the classic definition of slavery, our value to the empire in which we live is still instrumental and not intrinsic. A sermon could address the current forms of slavery and value and draw comparisons between now and the text. Freedom is an issue that is still dynamic. Is freedom just an option between consumer goods, or employment?

The Philippians text could be used to talk about what it means to self-empty, or overcome self, or die to self. Paul gives us a clue how he understands this. He empties himself of all the usual ways the world values us. The knowledge of being free of the world’s valuation system is good news.