16th Sunday after Pentecost Year A

 Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16.  

God provides food to a doubting people, and a Generous Employer pays incommensurate wages.  

Exodus 16:2-15.   

The Torah reading for this Sunday is about food in the wilderness.  

After the Israelites get out of bondage in Egypt they are subject to the hardships of life in the wilderness.  These hardships are occasions for “trials” or “tests.”  From God’s viewpoint, these are tests of the people’s faith in the enterprise God has launched under Moses.  From the people’s viewpoint, these are tests of whether God will really sustain them in hard times.  Moses — and sometimes Aaron with him — is always at the center of the trial, and the “complaint” of the people challenges the validity of Moses’ leadership — which means challenging the goodness of the exodus.  

The people’s opening complaint in our passage demonstrates these elements.  

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 [masculine plural] have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger (verse 3, NRSV).  

Thus the exodus was a wicked plot by the leaders rather than the doing of the Lord.  

God’s response to the complaint is to supply food.  After telling Moses in detail what he is going to do, God brings quail in droves in the evening and in the morning the dew leaves behind a strange wafer-like substance which was a substitute for bread (verses 11-15).  

In the first place this response satisfied the people’s hunger.  The story does not elaborate the severity of the hunger, but hunger is the human need at the core of the story.  They were hungry and God supplied the food.  In the second place, the enterprise of the exodus is sustained.  God is saving the people, not leading them into worse and worse sufferings.  In the third place, their charges against Moses and Aaron are refuted.  Their leadership is vindicated in the saving enterprise that leads from bondage to the promised land.  

There is a final level of the story that is midrashic, that is, it spins out the piety of the Torah rather than simply providing instructions or narrative.  

This special bread is “daily bread.”  “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” (verses 4-5, NRSV).  This bread is not only daily bread, it also observes the Sabbath.  The sixth day gives a double supply so no one needs to work gathering food on the seventh day.  

This final level of instruction sees the bread as an occasion of testing the people — whether they will live by the wisdom of the Lord who gives them the Sabbath, even though the Sabbath commandment is not given until Sinai.  

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45.  

The Psalm reading is the conclusion of a great hymn to God’s mighty deeds in Israel’s early history.  After the long call to worship addressed to the children of Abraham and Israel (verses 1-6), the psalm has celebrated the covenant with Abraham, the providential care shown to Joseph, and the mighty deeds by which Egypt was subdued under Moses’ command.  Now, as the last stage of the saving work for Israel, it celebrates how Israel was brought from Egypt to the promised land.  The delivering deeds in the wilderness are only alluded to.  “They asked, and he brought quails, / and gave them food from heaven in abundance” (verse 40, NRSV).  

This psalm does not include Israel’s resistance to God’s or Moses’ leadership in the wilderness period.  It’s mood is only celebrative throughout.  Only the things good for Israel are included.  Other psalms dwell on the trouble Israel gave God in the wilderness and their resulting punishment (e.g., Psalms 78 and 106).  Here even the wilderness is only a place of good things.  

In this hymn, the wilderness deeds are done because “he remembered his holy promise, / and Abraham, his servant” (verse 42).  All the deeds in Israel’s sacred history are rooted in God’s original promise to Abraham.  

Philippians 1:21-30.   

After fourteen Sundays of Epistle readings from the Letter to the Romans, we shift for the next four Sundays to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  

Our readings skip the opening greetings and thanksgiving (1:1-11), in which Paul is grateful for the continuing loyalty of this earliest church founded by him in Europe.  Traditionally, this letter comes late in Paul’s career, many years after he started the assembly in Philippi.  There is no evidence that Paul ever had serious difficulties with this church — one of the few.  They not only had remained loyal to his version of the gospel, they had repeatedly sent him material support over the years (see 4:15-18).  

In our reading Paul views his life and missionary work as going on in a kind of wilderness period (like the Israelites, between deliverance and the Promised Land).  There is labor and hardship in the present — as he writes, he is in prison for the gospel — but there is a great fulfillment that lies just ahead.  He reflects on whether he will die — be executed — at this point in his work or whether he will be kept alive to work further with the churches.  “It is my eager expectation … that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (1:20, NRSV, immediately preceding our reading).  

Paul muses with his hearers on whether he would prefer to be killed now and go on to his union with Christ, or whether he would prefer to continue the missionary work with its suffering and its joys.  “I am hard pressed between the two:  my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better…” (verse 23).  Yet, before he finishes the sentence, he realizes that God’s will may be otherwise.  “…but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you …” and he concludes in confidence that he will survive his captivity and return to the Philippians (verses 25-26).  

This is no longer the earlier Paul who thought he would be around when Jesus came in his final glory (I Thessalonians 4:17); this is a Paul who has worked long with large results and who now allows for the possibility that missionary work may go on after he is gone.  But he urges the church to stand faithful to the gospel that has brought them this far in their journey of a new life:  “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” (verse 27).  

Paul’s word to the church in the wilderness of their world is “Keep the faith!”  

Matthew 20:1-16.   

The Gospel reading is the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  (For a survey of the Gospel readings for the rest of this year, and comments on the theme of separating from Judaism, see the Special Note below.)  

This parable is found only in Matthew, but even in Matthew it does not fit its immediate context.  It is surrounded by two forms of the “first shall be last” saying (verses 19:30 and 20:16), but the parable is in fact not an example of the reversal of fortunes of that saying.   The “first shall be last” saying refers to such reversals as those richest in this world will be poorest in the next world, and those who are ambitious for leadership in this world will be the lowest servants in the world to come.  Our parable does not illustrate that kind of reversal.  

In the first part of this parable the landowner is anxious to get as many workers for his vineyard as possible.  He seeks more workers at every period of the day, including the eleventh hour of a twelve-hour day.  

The latter part of the parable turns to the question of compensation.  The workers hired at the beginning of the day agreed to the standard daily pay — one denarius.  The rest are promised only “whatever is right.”  At the end of the day, the landowner has them paid in the reverse order of their hiring — this is the only “last shall be first” in the parable.  Every worker gets the same full day’s pay — that is the punch line of the story.  In a final dialogue of the landowner with the 12-hour workers, he emphasizes that their original bargain was kept and that he disposes of his wealth as he chooses.  

It is important to remember that the parable is about the kingdom of heaven, not about wages or work in the regular world.  Receiving the denarius is the admission to the kingdom of heaven.  Some get it after a full life of righteous living; others get it by grace at the last gasp.  So God disposes entrance to “life eternal” (19:16).  

As some commentators have pointed out, the thrust of this parable is like that of the Prodigal Son.  One loyal son stays home and serves the father throughout his life; the other son runs away and wastes his inheritance.  At the end, the father urges the older son to join the rejoicing when the younger son is accepted back with feasting.  In our parable, the 12-hour laborers are like the older son, and the eleventh-hour workers are like the lost son who returns finally to the house of the father.  

God’s grace does not promise equality in worldly terms, but a waiting and patient care for the return of the lost — to be united with the previous workers in a common household.  

 

Special Note.  Gospel Readings from Now to Advent – Separating from Judaism.  

The Gospel readings in the Lectionary for the coming ten weeks are as follows:  

(AP = After Pentecost, 2017) 

16th AP - Sept 24      Matt. 20:1-16      Parable of Workers in the Vineyard 

                                                            or The Generous Employer 

17th AP - Oct 1         Matt. 21:23-32    Authority of Jesus Questioned &

                                                            Parable of the Two Sons

18th AP - Oct 8         Matt. 21:33-46    Parable of the (“Wicked”) Tenants 

19th AP - Oct 15       Matt. 22:1-14      Parable of the Wedding Banquet 

20th AP - Oct 22       Matt. 22:15-22    Paying Taxes to Caesar 

21th AP - Oct 29       Matt. 22:34-46    The Greatest Commandment &

                                                            The Question about David’s Son

22st AP – Nov 5        Matt. 23:1-12      Denouncing Scribes & Pharisees 

23nd AP - Nov 12      Matt. 25:1-13      Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids 

24rd AP - Nov 19      Matt. 25:14-30    Parable of the Talents 

25th AP - Nov 26      Matt. 25:31-46    The Judgment of the Nations 

                                                            (“…to the Least of These…”)  

These readings in the late parts of the Gospel According to Matthew very much hang together and share an overall perspective which it may be useful to discuss as we enter this period.  

  • These readings are almost all teachings of Jesus.  Most of their text is in red ink, in those Bibles that print Jesus’ words in red.  
  • These teachings of Jesus consist mainly of parables.  Six readings are identified as parables either directly or by such clauses as “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  (Workers in the Vineyard, the Two Sons, the Tenants, the Wedding Banquet, the Ten Bridesmaids, and the Talents).  A seventh, the Judgment of the Nations, is not a parable but is parable-like.  The parables included here are among the more complex of the parables to interpret.  That is so because of the next two points.  
  • These readings present mostly controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem.  Besides the several parables that impugn the religious claims of the leaders, there are direct questions about the authority of John the Baptist, about paying Roman taxes, and about the titles of the Messiah (all hot button issues in Jesus’ time).  And one passage is a direct attack on the Scribes and Pharisees.  Some parables condemn Jesus’ opponents— that is, the current Judean authorities are portrayed as active enemies of Israel’s Lord. 
  • These readings exhibit the state of conflict as the Jesus movement, itself a Jewish movement, was evolving into the Christian church.  This evolving church was explicitly separating from the Judaism of the Pharisees as they evolved toward the later forms of Rabbinic Judaism.  “Matthew presupposes Christians and Pharisees as two Jewish sects competing to offer the most authentic version of Jewish life and belief…. All Matthew’s threats and fulminations [in the readings listed above], culminating in an announcement that the kingdom of God will be taken away from this nation and given to another [Matthew 21:43], acknowledge that, in the end, his community’s future will lie among the Gentiles [the nations].  The parting is no less bitter for being inescapable.”  (Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting:  How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book, HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, p. 60.) 

A progressive perspective on this group of readings for the next ten weeks should recognize that the Gospel of Matthew embodies the evolution of religious movements over three generations (1, 2, and 3 below): 

(1-A) John the Baptist headed a Judgment Movement to restore Israel to God’s requirements. 

(1-B) Jesus, beginning as a disciple of John, came to recognize through his healing powers and other signs that the Kingdom was in fact beginning to appear in the lives of John’s followers.  He launched a Kingdom Movement in which, not baptism, but believing in and experiencing the secret reality of God’s Reign was the center piece.  (See the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12, and the answer to John in Matthew 11:1-6.)  Crucifixion of the leader did not destroy this Movement, but transformed it into an even wider one in the next generation.  

(2) After they experienced the Risen Jesus (I Corinthians 15:3-8, not the empty tomb stories), the first generation of disciples/apostles led a Jesus Movement, in which the special status of Jesus as the Messiah, Son of God, and (for some, at least) heavenly Son of Man was the inside secret about Jesus of Nazareth – the very Jesus who got crucified by the Romans.  It is important to recognize that the Jesus Movement (first generation) was a Jewish movement.  It was a Jewish movement, even in distant provinces, because it assumed (1) the Jewish heritage of scriptures, (2) one only covenant God, (3) a divine moral code, (4) eschatological hope, and (5) a Jewish prayer and worship life.  Even though it gradually accepted non-Jewish people into communion without requiring them to become practicing Jews, it remained a Jewish movement throughout the first generation (even in Paul’s churches).  There was no separate “Christianity” until late in the second generation after Jesus’ death. 

(3) Finally, after the Son of Man did not come in glory during or following the Roman-Jewish war of 66-73 CE, the second generation of disciples/apostles increasingly recognized that the Jesus-Movement-become-Church was here for the long haul, and in a fairly short time (between 70 and 100 CE) they wrote down the Gospels from the most authoritative reciters in their various metropolitan centers.  They also adopted leadership structures not subject to the near-anarchy of uninhibited charismatic movements, including methods for disciplining members, even to the point of exclusion from the group. 

In this second generation, the Jesus followers began to be rejected from the synagogues by a newly-consolidated Rabbinic Judaism, and some of the newly-aware “Christians” began to denigrate “Jews” as a group as they continued to shape their versions of the Jesus story for their own times. 

All these developments are reflected in the Gospel According to Matthew.  We see in this Gospel what the Jesus Movement(s), now becoming Christian churches, had become, perhaps in Galilee where the Rabbinic Movement was growing strong or, more likely, in Greek-speaking Syria, around the metropolitan center of Antioch.  (Matthew is not, like Luke, a Jerusalem-centered writing.) 

The Lections from here to Advent.  We will find in the Gospel readings of the Lectionary for this season traces of each stage of the evolution of the faith – from the unqualified good news of the Beatitudes to the condemning “Woes” on the scribes and Pharisees.  We will hear the second-generation Christian community reporting how they remember the teachings of Jesus, and in their remembering we see them at their best — but also at their worst. 

A progressive hearing of the scripture must sift the tradition. We seek to discern words for our times from the tradition’s own best expressions of the goodness and grace of God — recognizing that much that we find in the scripture is the deposit of unworthy motives in stressful and hostile human conditions. 

We must have the courage to deny that such unworthiness (“anti-Judaism”) is really part of the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We must insist that the Jesus who initiated the movement of God’s Kingdom was sometimes betrayed by his later followers’ zeal to condemn and exclude his opponents and enemies.  

 

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