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    Buy Direct from CSS Publishing Company is a free website that provides brief yet probing exegetical commentary for:

  • Pastors who need inspiration and idea starters for their sermons
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  • Anyone who wants deeper insight into each week’s lectionary passages

These background notes cover every assigned text in the Revised Common Lectionary for each Sunday and major observance throughout the year.


Writer Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, Pastor, Theologian, AuthorMark Ellingsen, author of Lectionary Scripture Notes, is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated magna cum laude from Gettysburg College and has received four degrees from Yale University. He has authored many titles, most recently Lectionary Preaching Workbook for CSS Publishing Company….read more


Proper 20 | OT 25 | Pentecost 15, Cycle A

A love that never quits. The theme of the consistency of God’s love is a testimony to Justification by Grace.

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Paired with Psalm 106, this song of praise was composed for use at one of the major festivals and consists of a recital of the basic events that created the nation of Israel. It begins with a hymn-like introduction summoning the congregation to worship with thanks for the wonderful works/deeds [alilah] God has done (vv. 1-6). The story of the Exodus is next recounted (vv. 37-45). It is reported that the people, God’s chosen ones [bachir], were brought out with joy [sason]. They were given the lands of the nations in order that they might keep [natsar] the Lord’s statutes [choq] and observe his laws [torah].

Application: The Psalm affords an opportunity to celebrate the previous week’s theme of what God has done in setting Israel (and us) free (Justification by Grace). There is a reminder that God is consistent in his love for us. We are redeemed for service (Sanctification). Predestination is also implied by the acknowledgement that Israel is chosen.

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Psalm 145:1-8
This psalm of David is a hymn epitomizing the character of the God of Israel. We are reminded again that psalms attributed to David are not likely written by the king. In fact, many scholars have concluded that references to David in the psalms may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In this sense the song is a confession of faith about God that can be owned by all the faithful from generation to generation. Since it is not a lament, this Psalm is also probably not a part of the original collection of psalms of David (140-143) in Book V of the Psalms. This particular Psalm is acrostic, with each second verse beginning with the next successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It begins with praise [halal] of Yahweh Elohim and a promise to do so (vv. 1-3). His wonderful deeds [maaseh] are extolled. This is to be done from one generation to another (vv. 4-7). The Lord’s graciousness [channun] and mercy [chesed, or loving kindness] receive adulation (v. 8).

Application: Celebrating God’s wonderful deeds of the past in a chain from generation to generation of the faithful is a reminder that God’s love never quits (Justification by Grace).

Exodus 16:2-15
Again we read from the book of liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. It is good to be reminded that the book is a compilation of three distinct oral traditions. The lesson is about the miracle of receiving food in the wilderness. (Also see Numbers 11:1-9.) It is likely that it is the work of the ninth/tenth-century BC oral tradition called J for its use of the name Jahweh/Yahweh when speaking of God. The lesson beings with the congregation (now in the wilderness of sin, probably on the Sinaitic Peninsula [v. 1]) complaining, contending that at least in Egypt there had been food and now they were starving (vv. 2-3). Yahweh tells Moses “he is” [connoting the name Yahweh ("I am Who I am")] and that he will rain [matar] bread on the people and test them to see if they will follow his law on how to gather it (v. 4). On the sixth day when they prepare (set aside) what they bring in, there will be twice as much as they gather other days (v. 5). Moses and Aaron tell the people that Yahweh has heard their complaints (v. 9). Their complaints are not against them but against God. They prophesy that in the morning the people will see the glory of the Lord (which in Priestly oral traditions, which may also have contributed to this account, is associated with light or a pillar of cloud and fire which veils God but was often carried at the head of a marching army) (vv. 6-8; cf. 13:21-22).

Moses instructs Aaron to tell the congregation to draw near [qarab] to Yahweh, as he has heard the complaints (v. 9). The congregation sees the glory of Yahweh in the wilderness (v. 10). Then Yahweh instructs Moses to tell the people that at nightfall they will eat meat in the morning and have their fill. Then they will know that Yahweh is their God (vv. 11-12). In the evening quails covered the camp and in the morning there was dew [tal] around the camp. The dew lifts and there is a fine flaky substance (kephor, a grayish white frozen water, perhaps excrement) on the ground. Moses reports it is bread [lechem] (vv. 13-15). It is identified as manna [man] in verse 31.

Application: The text affords a chance to explore and condemn gluttony (our sinful greed that is never satisfied) and joyfully to proclaim the good news that faith and grace are received as gifts, even in surprising ways that seem at first glance repulsive (like the manna from heaven having origins in excrement and eternal life being given through a death on the Cross).


Jonah 3:10–4:11
This didactive narrative is the product of an author who lived after the end of the late sixth century BC Babylonian exile, combining traditional legends about an obscure Galilean prophet who counseled the eighth century BC King Jeroboam II with a concern to highlight Israel’s universal mission. It is a testimony to the breadth of God’s love. In this lesson at the conclusion of the book we learn of the conversion of the Ninevites and Jonah’s regret about it (3:10ff). Jonah explains to Yahweh his displeasure, noting that this is why he had originally fled from this mission. He cites the description of God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:6-7), which entails God to be gracious [channun] and merciful [rachum], a bit too abundant in grace (4:1-2). He asks the Lord to take his life (4:3). Yahweh challenges this (4:4).

Jonah leaves the city of Nineveh and sits under a booth to get shade (4:5). It seems that Yahweh Elohim appoints a bush [qiqayon] to provide shade. But the next day he appointed a worm to attack the bust (4:6-7). God then has the wind [ruach] beat on Jonah, so he is faint. And he wants to die (4:8). Elohim asks him why he would be angry about a bush. If he is concerned about a bush for which he did not labor and did not grow, God asks if it does not make sense that he would be concerned about Nineveh, where there are more than 120,000 who do not know their right hand from their left, and that this love even extends to animals.

Application: Several options emerge from this text. It is an opportunity to consider prejudice and racism (Sin) but along with the awareness that God does not give up on us and that prejudice cannot prevail for God loves all (Justification by Grace). This is also a lesson that testifies to God’s great love, for human beings and creatures, and so the ecological agenda might also be considered (Creation and Providence).

Philippians 1:21-30
The lesson is part of a letter written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia (present-day Greece). There is some debate about whether the epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters (as early theologian Polycarp [Philippians, 2.3] spoke of Paul’s letters to this church). Its immediate occasion was to thank the Philippians for their gifts, by way of the return of Epaphroditus to Philippi (2:25-30) who had brought these gifts to Paul. His main purpose is to urge persistence in faith in face of opposition. This lesson is part of Paul’s description of his present circumstances along with an exhortation and comfort for the Philippians. It is also a kind of last will and testament by Paul, offering the church a witness on living faithfully even when he is no longer present.

The apostle begins by claiming that for him living is Christ and dying [apothnesko] is gain [kerdos] (v. 21). In essence, his life is not his own. If he is to live in the flesh [sarx] that means fruitful labor, and so he does not know which he prefers (v. 22). Hard-pressed between the two he concludes that his desire is to die to be with Christ, but to remain in the flesh may be more necessary for the faithful (vv. 23-24). (The appeal to necessity here might reflect the presuppositions of Stoic philosophy.) Paul then claims that he will remain and continue with the faithful, sharing abundantly in their boasting in Christ Jesus when he sees them again (vv. 25-26). He exhorts readers to live their lives in a manner worthy [axios] of the gospel of Christ, so that whether he visits them again or not he may come to know that they are standing firm [steko] in one spirit [pneuma], striving side-by-side with one mind and in no way intimidated by opponents (vv. 27-28a). For opponents of faith this is evidence of the faithful’s salvation [soteria], and it is God’s doing (v. 28b). Paul claims that God has graciously granted the Philippians the privilege of believing in Christ but also of suffering for him since all have the same struggle [agona] (vv. 29-30). This last point may refer to the struggles of the athlete.

Application: The lesson is a celebration about how despite our continuous sinning God never abandons us and provides grace despite our faithlessness (Sin and Justification by Grace). Other options pertain to sermons on the Christian life and involving struggle making death sometimes look like a better prospect than life yet with the knowledge that our lives are not our own, and Christ keeps us faithful in unity (Sanctification and Church).

Matthew 20:1-16
We read again from the most Jewish-oriented of the gospels, an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). We consider this week Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Except for verse 16, the parable is unique to Matthew.

The account begins with Jesus claiming that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early to hire laborers [ergates] (v. 1). Those hired in this way in the Roman empire of the first century were usually poor. He agrees with laborers for the usual daily wage [a denarius], and they go to work (v. 2). Then he goes out at 9:00 and seeing others idle puts them to work, claiming he will pay them what is right. They agree and go to work (vv. 3-4). The same thing transpires at noon, 3:00, and 5:00 (vv. 5-7).

At evening the landowner tells the manager to summon all the laborers and to pay them beginning with the last (v. 8). Payment at the end of the day was mandated for Hebrews (Leviticus 19:13). Those hired at 5:00 received the usual daily wage (v. 9). When the first hired come, they expect to receive more. So when they receive just the usual daily wage they grumble, pointing out the apparent unfairness since they had borne the heat of the day (vv. 10-12). The landowner replies that he did nothing wrong since they had agreed to the usual daily wage (v. 13). He claims that he is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him, asking if the first-hired workers are envious of his generosity (vv. 14-15). The last [eschatos] will be first [protos] and the first will be last (v. 16).

Application: The text is about the paradoxical character of God’s love that grace violates the reason and the law (Justification by Grace), for nothing we do is worthy of merit (Sin). Likewise the least likely people (the poor and latecomers to faith) may be the very people God is counting on to advance his kingdom, for God never gives up on anyone (Providence and Justification by Grace).

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Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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