Pentecost 16 – September 24, 2017

Texts for the Day

Commentary and Reflection

Philippians – This week we begin a four-week series in Philippians.  As preparation, read the letter in its entirety sometime this week.  It will take you only about fifteen minutes.  Here is some background information to get you started.

Philippians was written by Paul from prison, sometime in the late 50s or early 60s.  (The exact time and location are unknown.  As with all the books of the Bible, the original manuscript is long gone and all we have to rely on is clues in the text itself.)  There are two key themes that are woven together in the book.

  • Paul’s possible impending death and his reflections on it.
  • Paul’s love for the Philippian community and his desire for them to live in harmony.

Keep an eye out for the famous “Christ Hymn” in verses 6-11 of chapter 2.

The Many Faces of Parables – Like many of Jesus’s parables, this parable of the laborers in the vineyard doesn’t mean just one thing.  It can be seen from many perspectives, each offering something different.  Here are a few to try out.

  • Literary setting – Read Matthew 19 to put the story in context. How do you see it differently this way?  Why might Matthew have put this story at the beginning of the Jerusalem ministry, shortly before his entry into that city?  Why does he pair it with the story of the rich young man?
  • Discipleship – What is Jesus saying about discipleship? The story seems to challenge conventional views of success and reward.  If we choose to follow Jesus, how will we be viewed by the world?
  • Connections to contemporary issues – The treatment of manual laborers is an issue in contemporary politics. For instance, consider the impending end of DACA (keeping in mind many day laborers are undocumented immigrants) or ongoing debates about the minimum wage.  Does the landowner’s generosity towards his workers tell us anything about how we should behave?
  • Old Testament links – Continuing this thought, read Deuteronomy 24:14-15. This is the law the landowner is following as he pays his workers.  What might a modern version of this law look like?
  • Interpretive history – In Adult Faith Formation last week, we focused on the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Does this parable tell you anything about this doctrine?  If so, is this in harmony with Matthew’s purpose or is it an imposition from future interpreters?

Which of these perspectives most appeal to you?  Which do you not like?  What others would you add?

Pentecost 15 – September 17, 2017

Texts for the Day

Commentary and Reflection

God and Violence – The crossing of the Red Sea is an inspiring story of the power of God to rescue his people from any situation, no matter how desperate.  But then the bodies of the Egyptians wash up on the shore and we realize that God has killed people to make this happen.  What are we to do with these situations?  How does a violent God coexist with our belief that God is love?

In fact, Exodus 14 is relatively tame.  If you dare, read Joshua 8, Isaiah 34, and Revelation 19.  Questions for reflection:

  • How do you react to these texts? Is there anything to be learned from them?  Do you feel comfortable disagreeing with the Bible?
  • What other Biblical texts would you suggest to challenge this violence? The Bible is in dialogue with itself, challenging and reinterpreting ideas about God through the centuries.  How must we view Biblical authority and inspiration in light of this dialogue?

Eating Meat – Romans 14 requires a bit of explanation.  One of the debates in the early church was whether eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols was allowed.  Some argued that since the pagan gods were not real, there was no problem.  Others, particularly those who still followed the Mosaic Law, regarded eating such meat as idolatry.  The lectionary omits Paul’s suggested solution, so finish his thought by reading though 15:13.  He blends his own belief that such acts are permissible with a desire to not cause offense and show contempt toward those who choose not partake.  Do you think the Romans took his advice?

If all this talk of first century paganism has you wondering how this text applies to today, try these two possible angles.

  • What does this tell us about our relationship to food? How does our culture view food and what can the Romans’ struggles teach us about it?
  • What issues does the church argue about today? In what ways can Paul challenge us to, “please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor, for Christ did not please himself.” (Romans 15:2-3)

Forgiveness – The conclusion to the Joseph story in the thematic text and the parable of the unforgiving servant both raise the issue of forgiveness.  The examples they propose are steep.  We say, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  What about being fooled seventy-seven times?  Ten thousand talents are an absurd amount of money, billions of today’s dollars and well in excess of any possible private debt.

This suggests some natural homework for this week.  Who in your life to do you need to forgive?  What is holding you back?

Pentecost 14 – September 10, 2017

Texts for the Day

Commentary and Reflection

Lamb of God – The story from Exodus this week contains an image that has been applied to Jesus since New Testament times.  Each week, when we sing, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” we identify Jesus as the Passover Lamb.

Read Revelation 5:6-14 for another instance of this image.  The Lamb returns in the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22.  What do you think of this?  Does it help you understand the Exodus story?  Or is it a distraction from the original purpose of the Passover?

Son of Man – The opening sentence from Ezekiel presents an interesting translation challenge.  The NRSV says, “mortal,” but the text literally says, “Son of Man.”  The translation is correct, as “Son of Man” is an idiomatic expression that can mean human being.  However, since the New Testament and later Christianity apply the title to Jesus, the translator has a difficulty.  By translating literally or not, the translator is offering an opinion to the reader about whether or not the passage refers to Jesus.  Take a look at a few other instances of this phrase in the Old Testament in as many translations as you have time for.

  • Daniel 7:13
  • Psalm 8:4
  • Numbers 23:19

What do you think of the choices the translators made?  Would you do any of them differently?

Difficult Passages – The lectionary plays a little trick on us, skipping some controversial verses between last week’s selection and today’s. Read Romans 13:1-7, where Paul urges obedience to civil authorities. These words do not appear to leave space for the democratic process and run counter to the idea of civil disobedience, a crucial concept in contemporary political and religious thought.

Questions for reflection:

  • What do you think Paul meant? What do they tell us now?
  • In a lectionary designed for public worship, is it appropriate to omit difficult or controversial passages? What about private Bible study?

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts for the Day

Bible reading plan: Galatians through Revelation.

Commentary and Reflection

Call Narratives – The story from Exodus this week is what is sometimes referred to as a call narrative.  It is a story in which a prophet encounters God and is given a mission of some sort.  These narratives have a number of typical elements which are often, but not always, present.

  • Confrontation – God interrupts the life of the (soon-to-be) prophet.
  • Introductory Word – God, or God’s messenger, gives a personal greeting.
  • Commission – God sends the prophet on a mission.
  • Objection – The prophet objects that he or she does not have the ability.
  • Reassurance – God promises that God will be present with the prophet.
  • Sign – God provides a sign that God’s words are true.

This model of a call narrative was introduced by Norman Habel a few decades ago and is widely used.  See if you can identify these elements in Exodus 3.  Then read some other call narratives in the Bible:  Judges 6:11-24, Isaiah 6:1-13, Jeremiah 1:4-19, Luke 1:26-38, Acts 9:1-19.

What do you think of these call narratives?  Do you find the Habel framework a useful way to understand them?  How do they relate to your own sense of call?

Works – Over the last few weeks, we have heard about how we are saved by faith and not by the law.  And yet here we have a list of things that Paul is asking us to do.  Is this a contradiction?  None of these things look unreasonable, but they sure look like law.  As you ponder your answer, read last week’s selection (Romans 12:1-8) and see if you can discern Paul’s answer to this question.

Persecution – From our position of relative comfort as American Christians, it is tempting to read today’s Gospel as a piece of abstract theology, where Jesus and Peter teach us facts about Jesus’s identity as the Messiah.  But underlying this story are real flesh and blood people on a dangerous mission.  It didn’t take a prophetic vision to see that Jesus and his disciples might not make it out of Jerusalem alive.  The story reads very differently when read by believers who face some of the same choices.

The Gospel of Matthew was written at a time when Christianity was still technically illegal and faced persecution.  He surely had this in mind when relating this story.  Persecution continues to be a reality for the church today, with Christians in certain parts of the world facing arrest and even death for practicing their faith.  Sadly, some Christians are also perpetrators of religious persecution, even within the United States.

Reread the passage with these ideas in mind.  What do you notice that you didn’t before?  How does this change your ideas about what the passage means?

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts for the Day

  • Semi-continuous: Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124
  • Thematic:  Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138
  • Romans 12:1-8
  • Matthew 16:13-20

Bible reading plan: John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians.

Commentary and Reflection

Exodus – This week begins a seven-week series on the story of Exodus which begins with the enslavement of the Israelites this week and finishing with the Ten Commandments on October 8.  The seven selections are reasonable choices, but they do not capture the full breadth of this complex story.  If you can make time, read this entire story (Exodus 1-20) in a single sitting.  What do you notice by reading the story in this way?  What does it say to you about the way God acts in the world?

Here are a couple things to think about in this week’s reading.

  • “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Can you identify with this feeling, whether something intimate like the arrival of a step-parent, challenging like the arrival of a new boss, or impersonal like a change of administration?  How does your own experience affect your reading of the story?
  • There is an inconsistency in this story that does not appear at first glance. Exodus 1:15 implies that there are only two Hebrew midwives.  Yet in Exodus 12:37, a large population of 600,000 men is given.  This is a clue that Exodus is a composite work, consisting of several independent traditions that were brought together into the book we have now.

Gods? – The first verse of Psalm 138 contains an interesting detail.  What are the “gods” of which this verse speaks?  Doesn’t the Bible consistently teach that there is only one God?  Here are couple of explanations that have been offered.

  • A traditional explanation is that the “gods” refer to members of the divine council. In this interpretation, God is imagined as king surrounded by his advisors in his throne room.
  • More recent scholars have claimed to detect a shift from polytheism to monotheism within the Bible itself. In this interpretation, this verse is a remnant of a prior period in Israel’s history where YHWH was one god among many.

Which of these explanations (or others you may have heard) do you feel drawn toward?

Romans – This week marks a transition in our reading of Romans.  Chapters 2-11, where we have been, contain the development of Paul’s theology.  Now, in chapters 12-15, we turn to day-to-day concerns.  What now?  How shall we live in light of the gift of grace that we have been given?  Over the next few weeks we will have a chance to hear Paul’s answer to these questions.

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts for the Day

  • Semi-continuous: Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133
  • Thematic: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67
  • Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
  • Matthew 15:10-28

Bible reading plan: Matthew, Mark, Luke.

Commentary and Reflection

Another Joseph – As we read the second of the lectionary’s two-part series on Joseph, remember that there is another Joseph in the Bible.  Read Matthew’s story of Jesus’s earthly father in Matthew 1:18-2:23. Matthew is clearly aware of parallels with the Joseph in Genesis and weaves them into his narrative.  Both stories prominently feature dreams, for instance.  Questions for reflection:

  • What other similarities do you notice? What differences do you notice?
  • What might have been Matthew’s purpose in telling the infancy narrative from Joseph’s point of view in this way?

The Inclusive Community – The selection from Isaiah skips a few verses.  Read Isaiah 56:1-8 as it appears in the Bible.  Why do you think this is an important message for returning exiles?  What do think it has to say about how the contemporary church conducts itself?  Do you find this passage comforting, threatening, or something else?

The Canaanite Woman – The words of Jesus in the second part of today’s Gospel reading are challenging and strange.  His actions in this story could be variously interpreted as racist, sexist, elitist, or just plain obnoxious and rude.  What are we to make of this?  Rather than tackle this weighty question head on, take a look at one curious detail that gives insight into what Matthew himself thought about Jesus’s behavior.

Matthew refers to the unnamed woman who asks for Jesus to cure her daughter as a “Canaanite.”  This is odd, as the people of this time and place had not been referred to as Canaanites for centuries.  Mark refers to the same person as a “Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.”  (Mark 7:26)

To give you an idea of what Matthew might have been up to, recall that the Canaanites were bitter enemies of Israel and are denounced frequently in the Old Testament.  For examples, read Deuteronomy 7:1-11 and Deuteronomy 20:10-18.  With this background, why do you think Matthew told the story the way he did?  What does it say about his interpretation of Jesus’s actions?  What do you agree with?  What do you disagree with?

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts for the Day

  • Semi-continuous: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
  • Thematic 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Psalm 85:8-13
  • Romans 10:5-15
  • Matthew 14:22-33

Bible reading plan: Ezekiel 25-48, Daniel, all minor prophets.

Commentary and Reflection

Joseph – The lectionary spends only two weeks on the story of Joseph.  This is a big story and the two selections, while good, do not really do it justice.  If you have time, read it in its entirety, Genesis 37 and 39-47.  Here are some things to think about.

  • Which characters do you like? Which ones do you dislike?  Who do you identify with the most?
  • What do you think of Joseph’s statement, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5) What does this say about the nature of God? Do you agree with it?
  • Why do you think this story is in the Bible? What purpose does it serve in Genesis and the Old Testament as a whole?

Progress Through Matthew – With the story of the feeding of the five thousand last week, we began reading the fourth of the five major sections of Matthew.  It is worth taking stock of where we are at.

  • The Gospel of Matthew begins with the Infancy Narrative and ends with the Passion and Resurrection. In between, the account of the ministry of Jesus is divided into five parts.  Each of the five sections begins with a series of stories and saying and ends with a long speech or discourse by Jesus.  Marking off each of the sections is the formula, “After he said these things…”
  • We have just begun the fourth of these sections, comprising chapters 14-18. The discourse in this section is known as the discourse on the Church.
  • Scholars generally agree that this division was intended by Matthew, but there is disagreement on what purpose it was intended to serve. One suggestion is that Matthew wanted to have five sections corresponding to the five books of Torah, highlighting Jesus’ identity as the new Moses.

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts for the Day

  • Semi-continuous: Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17:1-7, 15
  • Thematic: Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
  • Romans 9:1-5
  • Matthew 14:13-21

Bible reading plan: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel 1-24.

Commentary and Reflection

Third Isaiah – The thematic reading is the opening passage of what is sometimes called “Third Isaiah.”  Chapters 55-66 for one of the major divisions of the book, the first two being 1-39 and 40-54.  Critical scholars attribute these chapters not to the historical prophet Isaiah, but rather to an anonymous author writing in the late sixth century BCE.  This was during the time when the Israelites returned from exile.

Read as much of Third Isaiah as you have time for.  You may have read it last week if you are following the summer reading plan.  Why do you think this text was chosen for this week?  How does the meaning of the text change when it is put back in context?  Why do you think this would be a meaningful message for people returning from exile?

The Pain of Conflict – This week, take a break from the deep theology of Romans and consider Paul as a person. A common misconception is that Paul repudiated the law and his Jewish faith in favor of Christianity. The reality is more complex. While he was famously willing to fellowship with Gentiles, Paul continued to consider himself Jewish, even as his relationship with the Jewish religious authorities deteriorated beyond repair. In this reading, we get an expression of the personal pain this caused him.

Think of a time in your life where you made a controversial decision, one which your friends, family, church, or others close to you could not understand and would not accept. Do Paul’s words here speak to this situation? Can you identify with his wish “that I myself were accursed,” if that is what it took for those from whom he had been separated to see things his way? What do you want to say to Paul?

Abundance – The feeding of the five thousand is one of the few stories that appears in all four Gospels. It is an important example of the theme of abundance. This is a theme that appears throughout the Scriptures in which God provides in great abundance in the presence of scarcity, a situation in which there does not seem to be enough. Often there is a supernatural or miraculous element and the abundance described overflows far beyond any practical need. Here are some other examples to take a look at.

  • The wedding at Cana – John 2:1-11
  • The miraculous jug of oil – 1 Kings 16:8-16
  • Solomon’s wealth – 1 Kings 10:14-29

What examples from your own life would you like to add to this list? Have there been times when you have been blessed by unexpected abundance? Have there be other times where a scarcity mindset has been counterproductive?