Bible Study: 17 Pentecost, Proper 22 (A)

October 5, 2014

Debra GoebelGeneral Theological Seminary

“Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matthew 21:43)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

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

The Decalogue begins with one of the most powerful statements in Scripture: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (verse 2).

Who was this mysterious voice, this unquenchable flame, this pillar of cloud? What force parted the vast sea, defeated the mighty Pharaoh and caused manna to fall from the sky like snow? It was not unusual weather phenomena or magic or any human endeavor that rescued the Israelites from a life that was more like death. It was the Lord, the creator and ruler of all the world who reveals herself to humankind through acts of power and grace. It was by these words that God gave to Moses on the mountaintop that she revealed to her people who she was and what she was all about.

What follows is traditionally viewed as a list of commandments, which the Israelites must obey in order to live fully into God’s covenant that she was establishing with her chosen people. This is certainly what is implied in the narrative. However, there may be another way to look at these “writings.”

Perhaps we can approach them from another angle. If God opens her proclamation with a description of who she is, why not read the commandments that follow as a description of who the Israelites were and who we are as their spiritual descendants?

We are the people who believe that it is God who rules the universe, not human beings nor anything we have created with our own hands. Not our institutions, not our technology, not the culture or opinions that we have constructed, but God rules over all.

We are the people who believe that God is sovereign; therefore, we do not use her name in an attempt to manipulate her to do our will. God is not magic, God cannot be coerced and God’s ultimate desire for her creation cannot be subverted.

We are the people who believe it is God’s desire that all her children have a time of rest from their labors, during which they may give thanks for her blessings and the goodness of her creation.

We are the people who honor those who made sacrifices for us in our youth, who have acted as parents and mentors, healers and guardians, equipping us to faithfully serve God.

We are the people who do not murder our neighbors. We believe that violence solves nothing.

We are the people who are faithful to those with whom we share vows of commitment for mutual love and support.

We are the people who do not take what belongs to our neighbor, whether it be possessions, relationships, freedom or hope.

We are the people who do not accuse our neighbors falsely for personal gain of any kind.

We are the people who are content with enough and do not look to our neighbor with jealousy or resentment.

The Israelites, wandering in the desert, surely experienced an identity crisis. They were no longer subjects of the Egyptian Pharaoh. They were no longer slaves. They were no longer city dwellers. Who were they? We all experience times like this in our lives. Social or economic upheaval leave us questioning our place in society, our world is turned upside down by natural disaster. We become spouses or partners or parents. We find ourselves suddenly thrust into positions of authority, or perhaps our intellectual or physical capacities become diminished. All these events can leave us questioning who we are.

Even desired events, such as the Israelites’ release from captivity or our advancement from college student to career seeker can leave us questioning our identity. Perhaps we can look at these Ten Commandments not so much as rules to obey, but our God-given identity into which we strive to live.

The final paragraph in our reading describes the people’s fear as the mountain on which God spoke to Moses was surrounded in thunder and lightning and smoke. They were afraid that God would speak to them and they would die. The people agreed to listen to whatever God said, if only she would not speak directly to them. Moses reassures them that God has no intention of bringing about their death, but only wishes to make them fully understand the importance of living fully into their new identity.

Reflect on the thoughts that come to your mind or the feelings that are triggered when you consider the phrases “rules to be obeyed” and “identity to be claimed.”

God encourages us to claim many identities. We are musicians, sons, accountants, mothers and teachers. By what do you define yourself? By your talents? Your career? Your relationships? What would happen if you could no longer be defined by these things? How would your definition of yourself change?

Experiment with rewriting the Ten Commandments in your own words, interpreting them in the context of your own life.

Psalm 19

This psalm opens with the heavens pouring forth a never-ending proclamation that all the world is the result of God’s creative activity. It echoes our reading in Exodus in which God declares that she, not idols made by human hands, is the architect of the universe. This message is broadcast from heaven not by words, but is plainly evident in creation itself.

The psalmist describes how God has placed a sun in the heavens, from where, like the glowing bridegroom, its light and warmth shine out to every corner of the earth.

The law, or fabric by which God sustains his creation and orders human interaction, lacks nothing. He has decreed his law to humans in order to make even the simple wise so that all have equal opportunity to live fully into their identity. God’s law is just and true and eternal. Obedience to it will bring enlightenment, clarity of vision and happiness. Because only God’s law can bring such happiness, it is to be considered more desirable and more valuable than anything else in his creation.

The law also serves as a reminder to the psalmist that God has promised good things to those who live by it. He restates that there are no errors in God’s law, though the insolent may attempt to convince him that there are loopholes. Finally, the psalmist expresses his hope that he is on the same page as God because God law is the foundation for his life.

It can be difficult sometimes to think of the multitude of laws we encounter every day as better than gold and more desirable than the most delicious food. Yet the psalmist understood the value of God’s law and rejoiced in it. Reflect on laws that have had a positive impact on your life and trace them back to their foundation in the Ten Commandments.

How does nature proclaim God’s law without words?

The psalmist wishes to be blameless. Do you believe this something we should pray for or hope to achieve? If not, what do you believe our prayer should be? What goal do you believe God has set for us?

Philippians 3:4-14

Paul and the Philippian church shared a great deal of affection for one another. It must have been a tremendous comfort to Paul to reflect on their friendship as he wrote this letter during his imprisonment. It appears the Philippian church was also experiencing their own challenges, although at this time it seems to have been internal rather than any kind of persecution.

Paul warns the Philippians, mostly if not all gentile, to beware of those who insist that gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised. He insists that circumcision will not provide them with any benefit, or “confidence in the flesh.” He reminds them that if anyone has cause to believe there is some benefit to circumcision it would be him! After all, he was born into a pious Hebrew family with an illustrious lineage. He had been circumcised as prescribed by the law, was well educated in the faith and in fact became a Pharisee. Paul describes himself as having been “righteous and blameless” with regard to Jewish law. He was so zealous for the Law that he persecuted his fellow Jews who had embraced the teachings of Jesus, who was, of course, a Jew himself. If anyone might attest to the importance of circumcision and insist on adherence to this practice, it would be Paul.

And yet, he claims that if there had been any advantage in it when it had been performed on him as an infant, those advantages have since become a loss, a wasted endeavor. Why? Because for Paul, the knowing Christ Jesus has made his circumcision obsolete. Not wrong, but unnecessary, particularly for gentiles.

Paul believes that it is through his faith in Christ that God will resurrect him, not by any symbolic action regarding the law. These actions cannot achieve resurrection. Paul believes that only in proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord will we be resurrected. It is perhaps like parachuting out of a plane and landing in the ocean. Hanging on to your swimming certificate, a symbol of your knowledge, will not save you! And knowing how to tread water or how to avoid sharks may keep you alive for a while, but you simply can’t rescue yourself. In this case it isn’t what you know that will save you, but who. You need to the captain of the rescue ship, who has a handle on your location and can throw you a floatation device. Paul claims that knowing Christ and sharing in his suffering offers the hope of resurrection; circumcision for gentiles is not a necessary stop on this path.

Paul believes that he had not yet achieved his goal. This statement is somewhat confusing, unless there was some question in the mind of the Philippians that his prison term had ended in execution and the letter was being written by the resurrected Paul! He tells the Philippians that Christ has enabled him to forge ahead, forgetting all that had come before (perhaps his persecution of the church) to answer the “call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Paul tells the Philippians that the symbolic ceremony of circumcision is unnecessary for their resurrection. In a world where degrees and resumes and certificates of achievement are essential for our advancement, can you identify with these gentiles who desire “evidence” of their faith? In the Episcopal Church we cannot be confirmed without evidence, in the form of a certificate, of our baptism. Reflect on the many kinds of “spiritual evidence” we possess, or desire to possess, regarding the “status” of our faith.

Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in death.” How might we become like Christ in death without actually becoming martyrs?

Paul gives us good advice when he says he will forget what he has done in the past and focus on path God has put before him. Think of the times you have been discouraged with your progress as you work to respond to God’s call. Reflecting on our missteps is helpful and necessary, but dwelling on our shortcomings can build a wall between us and God’s will for us. The next time you feel overwhelmed by your mistakes, imagine them written on the bricks of a wall, and simply imagine tearing that wall down!

Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus enters Jerusalem. He is very aware that this is the beginning of the end of his life on earth. He could count the hours he has left in which to teach the disciples, to admonish the Pharisees, to proclaim the coming of his Kingdom. The gospel writer recounts a parable that Jesus no doubt hoped would convince the Pharisees to give to God what was properly his.

Jesus tells the story of a landowner (a metaphor for God), who invests much effort into planting a vineyard (a metaphor for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was a visible representation of the Law). He has done everything possible to ensure that this endeavor will be successful. Upon completion, the landowner hires tenants to live on the land and harvest the vineyard. The arrangement (or covenant) would have been that the tenants give the landowner the profits (a metaphor for obedience) due him.

We learn, however, that the tenants are greedy and refuse to give the owner his due. They kill every messenger (prophet) that the landowner sends to collect his due. In time, the landowner sends his own son to come to terms with these tenants, but they murder him as well to prevent him from claiming his inheritance. Of course, the son is a metaphor for Jesus, who is foretelling his own death. Jesus then asks the Pharisees what justice might await these disobedient tenants. They reply the wicked tenants deserve a “miserable death” and that the vineyard should be given to those who will uphold the agreement made with the landowner.

Jesus tells the Pharisees and chief priests that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to others who will obey the covenant or “bear fruit.” The Temple Law was the proving ground, and the Pharisees were tripped up in it. Some suggest that the destruction of the Temple is alluded to in the phrase “and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” We cannot know for sure, however, we are told that at this point the Pharisees realize they are the “wicked tenants” in Jesus story. The Pharisees wanted to have Jesus arrested, but thought better of it when they realized how popular Jesus had become.

God had entrusted the Pharisees with interpreting the Law justly and with compassion and with the goal of building up God’s people. Instead, they used it to increase their own power. The responsibility of interpreting law is a very powerful thing. Law can be interpreted in such a way that it frees people from fear, from poverty, from ignorance. However even laws meant to help people can be interpreted in ways that enslave them, making the world a dangerous place for many, preventing them from prospering and keeping them in ignorance. Those who interpret law wield great power over others. Jesus tells the Pharisees that because they misused the power given to them by God, it would be taken from them and given to others who would use it justly. As powerful as the Pharisees and chief priests had made themselves, God was still sovereign and his Kingdom greater than any sphere of influence they might have carved out for themselves.

Have you ever been in a situation where others misused their power? Reflect on how this situation affected relationships and the ability to accomplish the job at hand.

Jesus said the Kingdom of God would be taken away from the chief priests and Pharisees and given to his followers. How can we, his followers today, prepare ourselves for the responsibility of cultivating God’s Kingdom? How can we guard against using this power to further our own ends?

Think about how you might retell this parable in a modern context, perhaps using a manager of a restaurant or a teacher at a university.

Speak Your Mind

*

Full names required. Read our Comment Policy. General comments and suggestions about the Episcopal Digital Network, or any site on the network, as well as reports of commenting misconduct, can be made here.


Se necesita el nombre completo. Lea nuestra política para los comentarios. Puede hacer aquí comentarios generales y sugerencias sobre Episcopal Digital Network, o de cualquier sitio en Episcopal Digital Network, así como también informes de comentarios sobre conducta inadecuada.