Bible Study: 16 Pentecost, Proper 21 (A)

September 28, 2014

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

“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.” (Matthew 21:31-32)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Exodus 17:1-7

In this passage, the Israelites seem to be ungrateful to both God and to Moses for delivering them from slavery in Egypt. However, they are not mere petulant, complaining whiners. Lack of water in the Sinai Desert is no joke. They are in dire straits. It is interesting that it is Moses who reacts to the people with frustration, while God reacts by calming Moses and providing water for the people. The test seems to be as much of Moses’ leadership as of God’s presence among the people. God is indeed among us in dire straits, and offers guidance to fearful leaders as well as to the congregation. The God of this passage is present and compassionate.

There have more than likely been times in your life when you have been in great need and wondered if God is present. Have there been times when you have been in a leadership position and focused on the complaining and doubts of the people you are trying to lead or help as a challenge to your leadership? Would it have been more helpful to be compassionate and consider the validity of their concerns? Have there been times when God has helped you to lead more effectively?

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Psalm 78 is a “maskil” or teaching psalm attributed to Asaph, a singer at the Jerusalem temple during the time of David and Solomon. The opening verses present the psalmist’s intent, which is to recount the traditional tales of the Lord’s glorious deeds in the times of their ancestors. In verses 12-16, the psalmist reiterates the story of their salvation: deliverance from Egypt and the miracles in the desert, including the story of providing water from the rock that we read in today’s passage from Exodus. By stating in verse 2 that he is offering a parable, the psalmist makes it clear that he is not merely repeating the old tales, but presenting them as riddles that bear reflection. He asks the reader to seek out the spiritual truths behind the stories.

The psalmist refers to stories from the Hebrew Bible that were already ancient and mysterious (dark) in the days of David and Solomon. What might David and Solomon have learned from the old stories of God’s marvels? What might we learn about the journey of faith from these stories today?

Philippians 2:1-13

Today’s passage from Philippians is particularly rich. It opens with Paul’s affirmation of his joy in proclaiming the gospel, even in the imprisonment that he has acknowledged in his greeting in Chapter 1. Paul reminds the community at Philippi of the need for unity and humility in the fellowship they share in Christ. The beautiful Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 is both an aid to worship in community and a reminder that Christ, though equal with God, did not hesitate to take the form of a slave, an example of humility and service. The admonition to “work out your own salvation” continues the theme of community. Not only are the Philippians to work together in humility, they are to work with God for the salvation of all.

In your Bible study or prayer group, meditate on the Christ hymn as an opening for contemplative prayer or lectio divina. How do you use hymn singing as a form of devotion? What other devotional practices in community move or inspire you?

Matthew 21:23-32

This passage from Matthew follows the scene of Jesus driving out those who were buying and selling in the temple in Jerusalem and overturning the tables of the money changers. When the blind and lame come to the temple to be cured, the chief priests and elders become angry. This is the point where they question him: By whose authority are you doing these things? Jesus’ counter question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” implies divine authority and sends the priest and elders into fear, confusion, argument and a desire to save face.

Jesus continues his teaching with the parable of the two sons. The first son changes his mind, which might be seen as repentance, while the second son is shown to be a liar and a hypocrite. The implication is quite clear. Jesus affirms John the Baptist as righteous and from God, while the chief priests and elders are exposed as hypocrites who privilege human authority over divine authority.

The chief priests and elders exercise damage control when they hesitate to answer Jesus’ question. They fear the crowd’s opinion and they fear loss of power. How often do we see our own leaders doing this? Is there a time when you have done this yourself, holding on to power rather than giving an honest answer that might imply that you do not have control? Do you think that we privilege human authority over divine authority?

The first son in the parable changes his mind. While the term “flip-flopper” is a negative term in our political culture, Jesus suggests that change can be preferable to lies and hypocrisy. Can you think of any examples from politics? Can you think of any local or personal examples?

A theme of the passage is belief versus unbelief. Why do you think the chief priests and elders are reluctant to acknowledge the divine authority of John the Baptist and Jesus, while the tax collectors and the prostitutes believe?

What does repentance mean to you? Is it synonymous with change or does it have another meaning?

Comments

  1. CLYDE E. BANTZ says:

    Thanks for the ideas presented. They are helpful! For me repentance is more than feeling sorry for one’s sins but a complete turn around going tn the opposite direction. This is not easy to accomplish! God Bl+ess you in your ministrey!
    clyde

  2. clyde e. bantz says:

    sorry for typing errors

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