Engaging the Word: Readings for 9/21/14 (15th Sunday after Pentecost)

By Barbara Klugh

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16. Go to www.lectionarypage.net for the weekly lectionary text.

In this week’s readings, the Israelites complain bitterly after God freed them from bondage, and God provides what they need; Paul is in prison and is grateful for another opportunity to spread the gospel; and Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who hires laborers to work in the vineyard.

Gathering of the Manna (c. 1460 - 1470). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Gathering of the Manna (c. 1460 – 1470). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Exodus: In last week’s reading, God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian captivity by parting the waters of the Red Sea. One would think that they would be overflowing with gratitude, but no. In this week’s lesson, we get a glimpse of the group personality of the Israelites. They were constant complainers. In retrospect, slavery—dying with full bellies in Egypt—looked better to them than to journey with God to the Promised Land as free people. I thought what a bunch of ingrates and kvetchers!

Growing up in New York City, I learned the word “kvetch” early on. It’s from the Yiddish, meaning to complain in a nagging or whining way. Michael Wex, a Canadian author of books on language and literature, wrote in Born to Kvetch, “Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism.” As descendents of Abraham, all of us have a tendency to kvetch at least some of the time. But those Israelites were world-class.

Despite all the complaining, God provided for his people. God sent the Israelites quail to eat in the evening and manna, a “fine flaky substance” in the morning. The word “manna” in Hebrew means, “What is it?” Commentators say it’s a honey-like excretion from scale insects, which feed on the sap from tamarisk trees in the desert. When it drops from the leaves, it becomes almost solid. It melts in the heat of the day, so it needs to be collected in the morning. God’s instruction for the Israelites was to collect just what they needed for the day, except for the sixth day, when they were to gather twice as much. This was so the people could keep the Sabbath by resting on the seventh day.

Psalm: We are reading again from Psalm 105, a hymn of praise to God for his saving acts in the history of Israel. Six weeks ago we read about Joseph, and three weeks ago about the family of Jacob in Egypt and the sending of Moses and Aaron. This week’s special portion tells about God’s protection and provision as the Israelites traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Saint Paul in Prison, by Rembrandt (1606 - 1669). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Saint Paul in Prison, by Rembrandt (1606 – 1669). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Philippians: This week we begin four readings from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, a prosperous Roman colony located in northern Greece. Paul wrote this letter from prison, in either Rome or Ephesus, but it’s a very upbeat letter, using the words joy and rejoice 16 times. Earlier in the letter, Paul writes that his imprisonment helped to spread the gospel, because it “has become known throughout the whole imperial guard.” What equanimity!

Our reading begins with Paul’s passionate declaration, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” Paul is torn between wanting to depart his earthly life so he would be united with Christ, and wanting to continue his ministry. Paul thought that he still had work to do and would remain in ministry for the sake of sharing the gospel and for loving and serving God’s people.

Paul encouraged his readers then and now. “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, 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, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.” Paul says this is God’s doing. “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.”

Matthew: In this week’s reading, Jesus tells the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, which is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel.

Workers in the Vineyard (1688 - 1689). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Workers in the Vineyard (1688 – 1689). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who hires laborers for his vineyard. He hires workers early in the morning and they agree on “the usual daily wage.” Then he hires more workers at nine, three, and five o’clock. When evening came, he told his manager to “give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”’ The workers who began early grumbled to the landowner that they should receive more than the workers who started late because they “have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The landowner reminds the workers that he has paid them what they agreed upon and it was his choice to give the last the same amount. He adds, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

As someone who said yes to Jesus when I was in my 50s, I was thrilled to be given the same grace and mercy as those who have been faithful all their lives. It’s still hard to grasp that God’s blessings are not contingent on what we do or don’t do, but are all about God’s boundless grace and wild generosity. And I’m still in awe of the great chain Christians who have been welcoming newcomers like me into the church for over 2,000 years. What amazing grace.

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