Proper 21

September 28, 2014
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 17.1-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16
Reading 3: 
Philippians 2.1-13
Reading 4: 
Matthew 21.23-32
By David J. Lull

Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are from the NRSV.
 

Today’s readings have a common theme: obedience, fidelity, faithfulness to God. 

Exodus 17.1-7

See Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), vol. 1:817-19.

After God led the Israelites out of Egypt, they wandered in the Sinai wilderness. The Hebrew name “Sin” has nothing to do with the English word “sin.” Nevertheless, this story is about the Israelites’ sin against God in the wilderness between their exodus from Egypt and entrance into “the promised land.”

Verse 1 sets up the narrative tension: The Israelites needed water to survive in the wilderness. What will they do? Trust God to provide water? Search for the oasis with twelve wells and seventy palms nearby in Elim (Exod 15.27; 16.1; Num 33.9)? Revolt against Moses? Curse God and return to Egypt?

They chose to “quarrel” with Moses (vv. 2-3). “Give us water to drink” is a natural, understandable request. The narrator calls it a “quarrel” first because that anticipates Moses’ counterchallenge (v. 2). In effect, Moses says, “Don’t blame me!” Then he turns their quarrel with him into a quarrel with God, thereby implying that he was God’s agent.

In addition, the situation escalates from the Israelites’ simple request to their charge of negligent homicide (v. 3)! On the one hand, their complaint is real: If they are to survive, they need water (as in last week’s reading, where they complained about the lack of meat and bread). Moreover, it would not look good if God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt only to let them die in the wilderness! Such a God would not be worthy of the Israelites’ fidelity, let alone the fidelity of people who already worshipped other gods.

On the other hand, the Israelites seemed to equate God’s presence pragmatically with the provision of their daily needs. They took the lack of water (or meat and bread) as a sign of God’s absence. As such, their complaint was an expression of a lack of faith, as in Moses’ counterchallenge.

Resolution of the narrative tension comes in a dialog between Moses and God (vv. 4-6). Moses initiates the dialog by turning their problem of survival into his personal problem—his own survival. He does not mention their demand for water. With that, Moses proves they were right in blaming him for their lack of water! If he really was God’s agent, he ought to have called on God to provide water. Instead, he cries out to God, “Save me from this murderous mob!”

The narrator, however, keeps the focus on God’s fidelity, in contrast both to the Israelites’ infidelity and to Moses’ incompetence. The narrator withholds details: Did the water flow from the rock? Did the people drink? If so, did they change their assessment of Moses? Did they praise and thank God? The narrator doesn’t say (compare and contrast Num 20.2-13). Instead, the narrator concludes the narrative by naming this story as a tale about Israel’s challenge to God’s fidelity (v. 7). It demonstrates Israel’s infidelity! God is faithful even when Israel is not. The Israelites “quarreled and tested” God by asking, “Is God among us or not?” which implies that God’s presence means nothing and is useless unless God provides what Israel needs to survive.

On the one hand, we might wonder whether modern Israel should have faith that God is “with Israel” because—and as long as—Israel is able to prosper and protect itself against its enemies. What if Israel’s present policies are actually threatening Israel’s future, as an increasing number of critics within and outside Israel are saying? Would that mean that God is not “with Israel”? Similarly, does the present plight of the Palestinians—which is likely to continue for many generations—mean that God is not “with” them?

On the other hand, is a God who cannot or will not provide people what they need to survive a God worthy of faith, trust, and fidelity? What does “God is with you” mean to people who experience nothing but poverty, hunger, thirst, disease, and utter deprivation? A God who feels the pain of those who suffer can be a comfort to those who suffer unjustly. A God whose preferential option is for the poor can give hope to those who feel hopeless. However, someone needs to take up God’s feelings for the world’s suffering people and God’s preferential option for the poor and turn them into actions. Moses “did so” in this story. May we also “do so.”

 

Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16

Today’s Psalm repeats many of the same themes contained in the Exodus reading for today (and previous Sundays). I cannot read about God’s “glorious deeds … and wonders” without thinking about the recent cycle of murder and revenge in modern Israel/occupied Palestinian territories: first two young Palestinian boys, then three young Israeli boys, then another young Palestinian boy, which has led to the brink of all-out war between Palestinians in Gaza and Israel.

It helps, somewhat, to remember the difference between the Hebrews, liberated from slavery, hungry and thirsty, and as yet without a land, on the one hand, and the modern state of Israel, with a military superior than most, if not all, of its neighbors, a relatively booming economy, and ever expanding land. I wonder if today’s Psalm is about a God who does “glorious deeds … and wonders” only for Israel, or only for Israel’s ancient ancestors when they were nomads in the wilderness? Should the remembrance of God’s “glorious deeds … and wonders” strengthen the nationalism of modern Israel now that it is a Middle Eastern superpower with a global superpower as its strongest ally? How might we reconcile today’s Psalm with Paul’s Jewish affirmation that, with God, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Rom 10.12)? Does it speak of a God who does “glorious deeds … and wonders” for the poor and powerless, whether they are Jews or Palestinians?

 

Philippians 2.1-13

Paul has written a friendly letter to the Philippians, his “beloved” (2.12 and 4.1). In his “thanksgiving,” Paul shares that he always prays “with joy in every one of my prayers for you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (1.4-5), and that he is confident “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (1.6). Not until chapter 3 do we find harsh tones, and Paul directs them to outsiders (3.2 and 18-19). Even when Paul is about to address an unidentified problem concerning Euodia and Syntyche, two women in the community who had competed alongside Paul on behalf of the gospel (4.2-3), Paul gushes over the Philippians, telling them that they are his “beloved” (twice!), his “joy and crown,” for whom he longs to see (4.1). We should think of his exhortations (1.27-2.5 and 2.12-18), therefore, not as criticisms, but as gentle reminders.

These reminders about how the Philippians should “continue to conduct their lives as citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1.27) bracket or frame a poem or “hymn” praising Christ Jesus (2.6-11). Like his contemporary moral philosophers, Paul used this poem to portray Jesus as a “hero” who exemplifies the “virtues” that Paul wanted the Philippians to imitate (1.27-2.5):

  • solidarity for the sake of the gospel,

  • not allowing opponents to intimidate them,

  • participation in the Spirit,

  • love, compassion, and sympathy,

  • humility instead of “selfish ambition and conceit,” and

  • being concerned about the interests of others instead of your own interests.

Traditional commentaries anachronistically superimpose on this poem later creedal statements about the two natures of Christ as the second “Person” of the Trinity. Paul had no interest in such issues. In fact, attention to them diverts us from what does interest Paul! “Have the same mind among yourselves that Christ Jesus had”; and “work out your own deliverance from your opponents with fear and trembling” (my paraphrase of 2.5 and 12). By the way, if this “deliverance” refers to their religious “salvation,” it would be difficult to reconcile 2.12-13 with Reformation theologies! We could come to Paul’s rescue by pointing out that he affirmed that God is “at work” in those who “work out” their “salvation.” It is better to interpret this secular “deliverance” in the light of Paul’s earlier encouragement not to be “intimidated” by their opponents (1.28) and his own belief that the Philippians’ prayers and “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” will result in Paul’s “deliverance” from his imperial prison (1.19).

I have never understood how this interpretive framework for the “Christ-hymn” fits with the later creeds, which make Jesus’ “nature” distinct from other humans. Furthermore, Paul described the Philippians and Jesus with the same terms. God was “at work,” not just in Christ Jesus (2.6), but also “in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2.13).

Another diversion is the debate over whether this poem begins with Christ prior to the incarnation or whether the poem is all about the “earthly Jesus.” At one level, it makes no difference. Paul’s interest is solely in Christ’s exemplification of the “virtues” that the Philippians should imitate. Besides, both the “pre-existent” Christ and the “earthly Jesus” are necessary players in this “morality” tale: The “kenosis” of the “pre-existent” Christ is incomplete until the “earthly Jesus” is obedient even to the point of death on a cross.

Nevertheless, this diversion intrigues me! How can the “pre-existent Christ” be a “pre-existent” Jesus and, at the same time, become incarnate in the “earthly Jesus”? Did Jesus “pre-exist” himself? If the “pre-existent Christ” is not Jesus, who is it? Perhaps we can get out of this mind-bending puzzle by proposing that originally this poem was about Wisdom (Sophia), who becomes incarnate in the earthly Jesus, and that Paul created confusion by connecting the poem, which begins with a relative pronoun (“who”), with “Christ Jesus” (v. 5). (Compare John 1.1-14, which is a poem about Wisdom, God’s “Logos,” who became incarnate in Jesus.)

Allow me one more attempt to wrestle this poem away from the dogmatic theologians who want to press it into the mold of later creeds. They want us to read the phrases “who was in the form of God” and “to be equal with God” in the light of the Trinity, as if the former phrase means that the fullness of God was in Christ, and the latter phrase means that Christ was God. The former is possible, but the latter is not: Verses 9-11 make a clear distinction between Christ, even in his exalted state as “Lord,” from God, who exalted him. In addition, all beings in the world “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” That makes sense only if Jesus Christ is not God.

The Philippians would not have had any clue that they should read this poem in these terms! A more credible “lens” is a story that Plato tells in his Republic, and which many others told across many centuries: One day Gyges, wandering in the wilderness, explored a cave, in which he found a dead giant wearing a ring. He took the ring and, to his surprise, as he spun it on his finger, he discovered it made him invisible, like the gods (compare Rom 1.20). He began to take advantage of his newfound ability to become invisible by stealing, including, in an elaborate plot, a king’s kingdom. At the end of this story, Plato introduces a dialog about whether people would praise or ridicule a person who had the ability to be “like a god” (Plato’s Greek phrase is identical to the Greek phrase in Phil 2.6), but refused to exploit it selfishly. The answer is that, publicly, they would praise such a person; however, privately, they would ridicule such a person. Similarly, Paul and the Philippians praise Jesus, because he refused to exploit his “divine nature,” which made him “like a God.” For the same reason, the Philippians’ opponents ridiculed him—and the Philippians—however, not just in private, but also publicly.

This poem portrays Jesus in part as a typical Greek or Roman “hero”: The divine nature was in him, so that he was “like a god.” Like a typical Greek or Roman “hero,” Jesus does not exploit being “like a god” for his self-interest; instead, for the sake of others, he was faithful to God to the point of death, even death on a cross. We could easily recast this poem so that it would be about a Greek or Roman “hero.” For example, Achilles and Hector, whom Homer made famous in his poem The Iliad, were heroes who died fighting for their respective people on opposite sides of the Trojan War; and Spartacus, who was a famous gladiator before he died as the legendary leader of a slave revolt against the mighty Roman army in the first century bce. However, the difference is that the “hero” in this poem was a Galilean whom the Romans executed in Judea, two territories that Rome had conquered and were still under Roman rule. This poem is not an ode to a soldier’s military victories!

To those in Philippi, an imperial colony, patriotically loyal to the Emperor (Nero), this poem praises an anti-hero. The claim that God had exalted Jesus to a status above all others, and that beings in all creation would proclaim him “Lord” would sound like a bad joke at best, and a dangerous act of disloyalty at worst. To Paul and his followers in Philippi, however, Jesus is Lord, even of Nero, the Roman Emperor. They willingly—if not also with “fear and trembling”—gave their ultimate loyalty to Jesus as their Lord. The Philippian patriots could not intimidate them, even if it meant that the Philippians would suffer like Paul and Jesus.

When we read this poem in the context of a contest between a patriotic, imperial faith and faith in Jesus as Lord, this poem is a relevant witness to us today. American Christians, especially, should examine whether they have sold out to worshipping the “American Empire,” by putting their faith in the power of the American military to secure their peace and prosperity. They should examine whether they have sold out to worshipping corporations and financial institutions, by putting their faith in them to secure their happiness through the creation of wealth. Paul has placed this poem about the faithfulness of Jesus as our Lord at the center of his reminder to the Philippians, and us, to “work out our deliverance with fear and trembling,” confident that God is present in us to enable us “to will and to work for God’s goodwill.”

 

Matthew 21.23-32

See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 1-2, 20, 25-33.

Today’s Gospel continues the theme of obedience, fidelity, faithfulness to God. It is in a series of passages in which Matthew’s Jesus pronounces God’s judgment against all of Israel’s leaders: the Temple authorities and the “scribes and Pharisees.”

  • It begins with Jesus’ four prophetic actions: his entry into Jerusalem (21.1-11), his so-called “cleansing” of the Temple (21.12-13), his healings in the Temple (21.14-17), and his cursing of the fig tree (21.18-22).

  • Then the Temple authorities’ question about Jesus’ authority to “do these things” turns into Jesus’ interrogation of them about the authority of John the Baptist (21.23-27). Jesus’ interrogation continues with a parable about two sons (21.28-32). This parable leads into the next two parables.

  • The first is a parable about a vineyard owner who deals harshly with disobedient tenants (21.33-46). The second is a parable comparing the “kingdom of heaven” to a story about a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son and, when some of the invited guests ignored the invitation and others murdered his slaves, the king destroyed them and their city (22.1-14). Both parables presuppose (or imply) that the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the failed Judean revolt against Roman occupation (66-70 ce) carried out God’s judgment against Israel’s leaders.

  • Jesus’ judgment against Israel’s leaders climaxes in chapters 23-25. That theme has been leading throughout this Gospel up to the “passion narrative” (chapters 26-27).

Let’s look more closely at the two segments of today’s Gospel.

 

21.23-27

Matthew returns Jesus to the Temple, where he will remain until he exits the Temple and predicts its downfall (24.1-2). The latter is a complement to the earlier story about Jesus’ so-called “cleansing of the Temple” (21.12-13). When the Temple authorities asked about the source of Jesus’ authority to do “these things” (21.23), the reference is to Jesus’ earlier prophetic actions (21.1-22). Jesus replied with a counterchallenge. Whereas they tried to interrogate him, he turned the tables and interrogated them by challenging them to render an opinion about whether John the Baptist’s authority came from God or human beings (21.24-25a). They tried to set a trap for Jesus, only to find themselves in a trap! No matter how they answered, they would lose in this contest of challenge and counterchallenge (21.25b-26). When they refused to enter Jesus’ trap (21.27a), Jesus refused to enter theirs (21.27b).

 

21.28-32

Matthew’s Jesus had the upper hand in his contest with the Temple authorities. He continued the contest by telling them a parable and asking them to render a judgment about the grape farmer’s two sons (see Jesus’ questions in vv. 28a and 31a). When the father told the first son to work in the vineyard, at first he refused but later “changed his mind” and did as his father commanded (21.28b-29). The Greek verb μεταμέλομαι, which is different from the verb for repent (μετανοέω), probably does not focus on remorse (BDAG μεταμέλομαι). The focus is on the contrast between what the son said and what he did.

When the father said the same thing to the other son, his answer is a bit odd (21.30). First, he answered with a simple “I” without a verb. Sometimes that serves as an affirmative, so that it means, “Yes, I will.” Secondly, he called his father “master” (κύριε, “sir” in the translations), which is the way a slave would address a slave owner, but which is an unusual way for a young boy (τέκνον) to address his father. It probably reflects the identification of the father with God or Christ. In any case, by leaving out that this son “changed his mind,” v. 30 confirms that the focus is on the contrast between the son’s words and his action.

When Jesus asked the Temple authorities to judge which son did his “father’s will,” they gave the correct answer, “the first” (21.31a-b). Their answer proved that actions matter more than words (compare Mt 7.24-27). The Temple authorities’ correct answer is supposed to bounce back as a judgment against them (21.31c-32). However, the logical connections are not clear. When and to whom did Israel’s leaders say “Yes” but then disobeyed? Did they violate the “Yes” in their vows to obey God when they refused to obey John the Baptist and/or Jesus, whose authority Matthew’s readers know came from God? The reality is that Israel’s leaders never said “Yes” to John the Baptist and/or Jesus. When they heard John and Jesus’ words, they said “No” and did not change their minds.

We could ask the same questions about the “tax collectors and prostitutes.” When and to whom did they originally say “No”? Was it when they chose ways of life that imply a “No” to God’s commandments for Israel? Where does it say that they changed their minds, gave up their disobedient ways of life, and began obeying God’s commandments for Israel? Was it when they “believed” John the Baptist and his “way of righteousness”? All that is possible, especially if “they believed him” implies a change of mind that results in changed behavior. We have to read all that between the lines. From the perspective of the history of the transmission of this parable, that means that 21.31c-32 are probably secondary additions to the parable. Both vv. 31c-32 and the parable stand better on their own!

In v. 31c (“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”), all translations of προάγουσιν ὑμᾶς have “go ahead of you” or “go before you.” Most commentaries interpret this either in a spatial sense (“go in front of you”) or in a temporal sense (“go at a time before you”). According to most commentaries, this phrase implies that Israel’s leaders will eventually enter “the kingdom of God.” Nevertheless, in the context of Matthew’s repeated denunciations, it implies that they will not enter “the kingdom of God.” Especially pertinent is v. 32, which implies that a proper response to John the Baptist is a necessary condition for entering “the kingdom of God.” On the one hand, vv. 31c-32 might have a hortatory function, aimed to make Israel’s leaders “change their mind” and believe in John (and Jesus). On the other hand, vv. 31c-32 seems to be descriptive of what has happened, is happening, or will happen. Matthew’s repeated denunciations, culminating in chapters 23-25, seem to leave little hope that Israel’s leaders would “change their mind” about John (and Jesus). Those who believe in John (and Jesus) will enter into “the kingdom of God.” Those who don’t, won’t.

At the time of Matthew’s Gospel, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, the priests, Sadducees, and Elders ceased to be leaders. The “scribes and Pharisees” were the only leaders of Israel left standing, so that they were the main target of Matthew’s rhetorical venom. Matthew’s rhetorical venom, directed to Israel’s leaders, raises two issues for us. (For the following, compare Russell Pregeant, Matthew, Chalice Commentaries for Today [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004], 160-64.)

The first is that Matthew’s rhetorical venom, directed to Israel’s leaders, has contributed to a history of Christian vitriolic denunciations of Jews and Judaism. We can take four approaches to this issue. (A fifth—approving the application of Matthew’s rhetoric to all Jews everywhere throughout all time—is not an option for “progressive Christians”!)

  • First, Matthew’s rhetoric has a limited application to Israel’s leaders from the time of Jesus to the time of Matthew’s Gospel. It is illegitimate to apply Matthew’s denunciations to Jewish leaders as a whole for all subsequent generations.

  • Second, Matthew’s Gospel is thoroughly Jewish and is unwavering in its affirmation of Israel as God’s “chosen people.” It belongs to the body of Jewish writings engaged in debates about the reformation of Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. It is, therefore, illegitimate to use Matthew’s Gospel as a source of anti-Judaism.

  • Third, Matthew also directs denunciations to members of Matthew’s church (e.g., see 13.24-43). Along the same lines, we should hold Christian leaders accountable for the same faults Matthew found in Israel’s leaders of that day. For some of them, like the second son in the parable, said “Yes” in their vows to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel but later, when they became disobedient, they did not believe John the Baptist’s (and Jesus’) proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3.2; compare 4.17 and Mk 1.15).

  • Fourth, we can point out that, by engaging in the common practice of portraying one’s opponents in the worst possible light, Matthew’s Gospel does not “live up to its ideal of love” (Pregeant, Matthew, 161). Matthew said “Yes” to Jesus’ commandments but did not obey the one that applies to Matthew’s rhetorical vitriol (5.43-48)!

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The second issue is about Matthew’s identification of empirical, historical events—the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple—with God’s judgment and wrath. It would be understandable if God felt deep sadness, and perhaps even strong anger, when Israel’s leaders collaborated with the Roman authorities in Judea in the crucifixion of Jesus. However, to conclude that God, with sadness and anger, avenged Jesus’ death by causing the Roman armies to crush the Judean revolt and destroy Jerusalem, its inhabitants, and its Temple makes God no better than the worst among human beings! That is not the God who “makes God’s sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Besides, many times the Romans demonstrated that they had the will and were quite able to deal ruthlessly with rebellions across their vast empire without help from God! The God whose love is “perfect” must have felt deep sadness, and perhaps strong anger, that so many Judeans lost their lives in an understandable but unwise revolt against the mighty Roman Empire, which cost them their beloved city and Temple.

We cannot simply identify God’s judgment and wrath with particular empirical, historical events. God expresses judgment and wrath in God’s evaluation of the contributions of past events to shaping the possibilities that God offers to future events. (In process philosophy categories, these are God’s “initial aims” for future occasions.) God’s perfect love guides God’s evaluation of the past and orders God’s aims for the future. God acts in history, not with unilateral, interventionist, coercive power, but with power more like persuasive wisdom and love!


David J. Lull, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, (Dubuque, IA), is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College (Mt. Pleasant, IA)a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX), and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA)An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, David taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School (New Haven, CT), and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, GA). As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (New York City), he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock), an interpretation of pneuma in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock)His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.