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Proper 21 / Pentecost 16 / Ordinary Time 26, Cycle A

God takes charge of things. As the texts testify to the fact that nothing gets in the way of God’s aims we explore the doctrine of Sin and Justification by Grace.

Psalm 78:1-4
This is a Maskil of Asaph, that is, an artful song that is the work of a professional Levitical musician or his tradition (see 2 Chronicles 29:30). This set of Psalms was composed for use at major festivals. The poet addresses the congregation in the style of Wisdom writers. The Psalm as a whole recounts the story of God’s care of Israel. It begins with a reference to dark/hidden sayings [chidah, or riddles, in the sense of the riddle of how Israel could rebel against God; cf. Proverbs 1:6] from the ancestors. The reference to a parable connotes a didactic poem (vv. 1-3). These sayings regarding the glorious deeds of Yahweh and his might [ezuz] are not to be hidden (v. 4).

Application: The Psalm affords occasion to proclaim how God is in charge of the faithful despite the riddle of our sin. His might overcomes our rebelliousness (Justification by Grace).


Psalm 25:1-9
This is a lament prayer for deliverance from personal enemies. It is traditionally attributed to David. We need again to be reminded 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 that sense this song is about the expectation that all the faithful encounter trials and cry for deliverance.

The Psalm is acrostic. Every successive verse begins with another letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It begins with a cry for help that the psalmist not be put to shame [bosh] (vv. 1-3). It includes a confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness by Yahweh whose love [racham, compassion] and mercy [chesed] are extolled (vv. 6-7). The affirmation of Justification by Grace includes a concern with the practice of the religious life (Sanctification). It seems that the forgiven sinner is led by God. He is said to guide and make the meek/humble [anav] to what is right (vv. 4-5, 8-9).

Application: The text opens the way for sermons that explore what our real enemies in life are (Sin) with the good news that deliverance by a loving God is a sure thing (Justification by Grace). This is an opportunity to preach on the Christian life as something that follows from forgiveness, as we become humble in our awareness of sin.

Exodus 17:1-7
We have previously noted that like all of the first five books of the Old Testament, Exodus is the product of several distinct literary strands, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. The book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “These are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s Prologue. In this lesson we consider the story of water in the wilderness (which has a parallel version in Numbers 20:2-13), perhaps in the wilderness of Paran, which is just northeast of the wilderness of Sin. Sin was probably fifty miles west of Mount Sinai in modern-day Saudi Arabia. The lesson is again likely the work of the ninth/tenth-century BC oral tradition called J for its use of the name Jahweh/Yahweh when speaking of God.

Continuing to travel by stages (making various stops in the Exodus) (v. 1), camped in the wilderness the people had no water and quarreled with Moses to receive it (v. 2). They wonder why he had brought them out of Egypt to such suffering (v. 3). Moses is reported to have accused the people of testing [the Hebrew word nasah is more properly translated try, implying a court hearing for] the Lord (v. 2). He pleads with Yahweh, asking what he is to do with the people (v. 4). (They had complained earlier about the need for water and been delivered with both water and bread from heaven [15f:22ff].) The Lord replies that he is to take leaders with him along with the staff with which Moses had stuck the Nile (v. 5; 7:20). Unlike in the version in Numbers, this earlier literary strand tells the story without a reference to a shrine from which to seek divine counsel. The Lord promises to be standing in front of Moses on the rock at Horeb and commands Moses to strike the rock so the people would receive the drink (v. 6). Water lies below the limestone surface in the region of Sinai. The place was called Massah and Meribah (meaning “test” and “find fault” in Hebraic; see the preceding paragraph for more on the location of these wilderness areas), because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord (v. 7).

Application: The text makes clear that all things are in God’s hands (Providence and Creation) in the midst of our unfaithfulness (Sin). We are totally dependent on God, for God provides the good things of the earth even to those who deny him (Justification by Grace).


Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
The Complementary First Lesson appears in a book attributed to a sixth century BC prophet from a priestly family whose ministry was to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian captivity. Some oracles predate the fall of Jerusalem. This text, likely the words of the historical prophet, is a discourse on individual responsibility. The word of Yahweh comes to the prophet asking why he uses the proverb concerning Israel that the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge (vv. 1-2; cf. Jeremiah 31:27-30). It should no more be used, he directs. Only the person who sins dies (vv. 3-4). After illustrating this principle in detail (vv. 5-24), Yahweh responds to charges that his way is not fair. In fact, it is the ways of Israel that are not fair (vv. 25, 29). When the righteous [tsaddiq] turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it (v. 26). And when the wicked turn from wickedness [rishah] to do what is lawful they save their life (vv. 27-28). Yahweh says he will judge [shaphat, connoting a magistrate's judgment] the house of Israel according to their ways [derek]. He calls them to repent and turn from all their transgressions. They are to get themselves a new heart [leb] and a new spirit [ruach] (vv. 29-31). The idea of a new covenant (like Jeremiah 31:34) seems implied. God says he has no pleasure in the death of anyone (v. 32).

Application: The text affords opportunities to remind the flock of individual responsibility and Sanctification. But the behavioral expectations seem related to repentance and in particular to God transforming the faithful, providing them with a new heart and new spirit (Justification by Grace construed as Union with Christ, as per Galatians 2:19-20). Good works follow from this transformation, it seems. We might stress that it is a God of love portrayed here, one who takes no pleasure in the death of anyone.

Philippians 2:1-13
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. Paul is concerned to urge persistence in faith in the face of opposition. This lesson is a reflection and early Christian hymn on humility and the example of Christ.

Reference is first made to the consolation, love, sharing the Spirit, compassion, and sympathy encouraged (made to transpire) by Christ (v. 1). Paul says that this news will make joy complete. He would have the faithful be of the same mind, having love (v. 2). As a result, he urges the faithful to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility to regard others as better than themselves (v. 3). It is best, Paul claims, if each look not to his/her own interests but to the interests of others (v. 4). Then he urges the faithful to be of the same mind as Christ (v. 5). He illustrates this point by citing the ancient Christian hymn about Christ, who though in the form [morpse] of God is said not to have regarded it robbery to be equal to God but emptied [ekenose] himself in the form of a slave, born in human likeness, humbled himself, and became obedient to death on a cross (vv. 6-8). The hymn continues: God therefore exalted Christ highly and gave him a name [onoma] above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord (vv. 9-11)! With the hymn ended, Paul would have the faithful work out their own salvation [soteria] in fear and trembling (humbly and with constant dependence on God), just as they always obeyed the apostle in the past (v. 12). He claims it is God who is at work in the faithful, enabling them to work for his good pleasure [eudokias] (v. 13).

Application: Focusing on Jesus’ humble sacrifice reveals our pride and sin. It is not that we work out our own salvation alone, but only when in constant dependence on God (in fear and trembling) does salvation happen (Justification by Grace). Another option might be to preach on Christ’s atonement and sacrifice as the way salvation happens.

Matthew 21:23-32
Again we read 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]). The lesson describes challenges to Jesus’ authority and the parable of the two sons. The parable is unique to Matthew.

The lesson begins with Jesus returning to the temple where the chief priests and elders came to him as he was teaching. They ask by what authority he is proceeding (v. 23), and unlike the Markan version of the text (11:27), Matthew’s Jesus is challenged on his authority to teach in the Jerusalem Temple. (He had never been ordained as a rabbi.) Jesus poses a question for the interrogators first, asking whether John’s baptism was from heaven or of human origin (vv. 24-25a). This creates consternation among those questioning Jesus, for they do not want to concede the heavenly origin of the baptism and yet fear an uprising if they do not (vv. 25b-26). Finally the chief priests and elders claim not to know, and so Jesus refuses to tell them his authority (v. 27).

The parable follows, of one son refusing to work in the vineyard for his father but eventually doing so while the other promises to undertake this task but never does so (vv. 28-30). Jesus asks his followers which of the sons did the father’s bidding, and they answer the first. So Jesus claims that tax collectors and prostitutes (that is, moral and social outcasts) will enter the kingdom of God ahead of Jewish leaders (v. 31). This criticism of establishment Judaism nicely fits with the gospel author’s concern to address an original audience that was probably Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (see 24:20). John is said to have come to the Jews in the way of righteousness [hodow dikaiosunes] but was not believed, while the tax collectors and prostitutes believe him. But the Jewish leaders have not changed their minds (v. 32).

Application: This text offers an occasion to point out how, like the dishonest son in the parable, we talk big but often do not walk that walk (Sin). Yet God does not abandon us but gets to us working outside the box (Justification by Grace and God’s providential working through lowly, ordinary means). An alternative might be to note how often the leaders of community, the powerful and even rich have it wrong about God, but that those on the margins (society’s outcasts) are often more likely to be in line with the Lord’s plans (Social Ethics, a preferential option for the poor).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen