INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE

Year A - PROPER 20†

 

EXODUS 16:2-15.†† After their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt by crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites pressed on into the wilderness.† When they complained to Moses that they would starve, further evidence of God's guidance and providence was given in flocks of quails and a flaky substance they called *manna* (Hebrew for "what is it?") in plentiful supply for their daily needs.


PSALM 105:1-6, 37-45.
††The story of God's providence to the Israelites in the wilderness is recalled in this hymn of thanksgiving. We have no clues as to the occasion which inspired this song. The great events of Israel's history seen from the perspective of faith form the theme of many other psalms. The events have been idealized, cleansed of such distractions as the people's waywardness and complaints. A profound theology of history comes through clearly nonetheless. In all of Israel's history, the psalmist is saying, God's hand has guided us and provided for us. The psalm must be read as a celebration of faith, not a statement of historical facts.


JONAH 3:10-4:11.†
†[Alternate] Far from either a factual account of a prophetís mission or a fantasy worthy of Hollywoodís best computer graphics, this little book is a parable about Godís infinite and universal grace.† This ending of the tale brings out the full impact of its message that Godís forgiving grace extends far beyond all the boundaries most religious folk like us might wish to set.

 

PSALM 145:1-8.† [Alternate] The psalmist praises God for Godís gracious and merciful help motivated by steadfast love.

 

PHILIPPIANS 1:21-30.† This was probably the last of Paul's letters written from prison in Rome. The apostle's triumphant faith in the face of his impending trial and death rings through every sentence. By no means certain of winning his freedom (vs. 19), his one aim in preparing for his imperial audience was to make a bold witness for Christ (vs. 20). This brought forth one of his noblest declarations of what it meant for him to live as a Christian in a world where all the power was totally marshaled against him: "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain."† (vs. 21).

 

MATTHEW 20:1-16.† To our materialistic minds, this is a very troublesome parable.† It

seems so grossly unfair. The last group of laborers were paid the same amount as the first even though they had worked only one hour, not the whole day long. From the point of view of work and wages, that appears to be a gross injustice. Was Jesus recommending a crude form of communism?† Or was he suggesting that we be ruthless exploiters taking every advantage of the workers?

 

The parable has nothing at all to do with the money paid for work done.† It is the kingdom of God - the absolute sovereignty of God's love - which is at issue. The currency of the kingdom is grace, not coinage. Grace comes to us as the gift of God totally unmerited in spite of all our worthy efforts.

 

 

A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

 

 

EXODUS 16:2-15.†† After their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt by crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites pressed on into the wilderness.† When they complained to Moses that they would starve, further evidence of God's guidance and providence was given in flocks of quails and a flaky substance they called *manna* (Hebrew for "what is it?") in plentiful supply for their daily needs.

 

We have in this ancient story an important part of the Passover and Exodus saga told from the point of view of the highly developed faith of later generations. Scholars have known, as the priests or scribes who committed this story to writing may also have known, that the manna and quails on which the Israelites fed were natural phenomena to be found in the wilderness of Sinai. Recent investigations suggest that manna is produced not by secretion of sap from the tamarisk bush as previously thought, but by insects which ingest the sap and excrete a honeydew rich in sugars and pectin thus creating a scale on the branches of the shrub. Quail are still found migrating along their natural flight path through the Sinai wilderness to and from their nesting grounds in Europe and wintering grounds in Africa.

 

Natural explanations do not deny what the Israelites saw as miraculous. Not what fed them, but that they were fed by the providence of Yahweh remained the great blessing which generations praised as in the following psalm.

 

This faith remained strong even in Jesus' time, as it still may be for our time. Jesus identified himself as "the true bread from heaven" come down to give life to the world. (John 6:30-35) So also now, faith in Jesus means faith in the providence of God, a tradition as old as Abraham and Moses. (Cf. Genesis 22:8) If Israel's faith extended nearly two millennia into the past through an oral tradition recounting the saga of their ancestors trek though the wilderness, does it not also extend two millennia forward to our time and place in history when the global economy is suffering such vast imbalances of riches and poverty?

 

But what does that faith mean in an age when the technologically developed nations have the means of producing far more food than needed but have problems marketing their surplus at prices which pay a fair return for the costs of production? What does it mean for the current controversies about government subsidies to agriculture, transportation, genetically altered foods? How do issues such as the migration of unemployed refugees from Asia, Africa, South and Central America† fit into this paradigm of divine providence for the needs of God's people? Are these not the struggles of our generation which must we must think through and share openly with the politically powerful who have responsibility for making decisions that will determine the fate of millions?

 

 

PSALM 105:1-6, 37-45.† The story of God's providence to the Israelites in the wilderness is recalled in this hymn of thanksgiving. We have no clues as to the occasion which inspired this song. The great events of Israel's history seen from the perspective of faith form the theme of many other psalms. The events have been idealized, cleansed of such distractions as the people's waywardness and complaints. A profound theology of history comes through clearly nonetheless. In all of Israel's history, the psalmist is saying, God's hand has guided us and provided for us. The psalm must be read as a celebration of faith, not a statement of historical facts.

 

It would not be far from truth to imagine this psalm as part of the Passover celebrations in the temple from the time of Israel's return from exile in Babylon or soon after until the time of Jesus. Vss. 1-15 of this psalm also appears as vss. 8-22 in 1 Chronicles 16. This would indicate that the psalm was in public use in some way during the period of the Second Temple, built circa 520-525 BCE, rebuilt by Herod the Great, and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Scholars believe that the psalm is the original which the compiler of the Books of Chronicles wove into his account of David bringing the ark to Jerusalem and establishing the Levitical singers. It was during the Passover that the Jews challenged Jesus about Moses giving them bread from heaven and of himself as that sacred food.

 

 

PHILIPPIANS 1:21-30.† This was probably the last of Paul's letters written from prison

in Rome. The apostle's triumphant faith in the face of his impending trial and death rings through every sentence. It would appear that he was awaiting his trial before Emperor Nero, the Caesar to whom he had appealed after being arrested in Jerusalem and tried before Roman governors Felix and† Festus, and King Agrippa. (Acts 25:11-12).

 

Paul was by no means certain of winning his freedom (vs. 19), His one aim in preparing for his imperial audience was to make a bold witness for Christ (vs. 20). This brought forth one of his noblest declarations of what it meant for him to live as a Christian in a world where all the power was totally marshalled against him: "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain" (vs. 21). He was even at a loss to know which he preferred. If he lived, it would be to go on with his mission to the Gentiles. In Romans 25:24, 28 he expressed a desire to go on to Spain after he had visited with the Christians in Rome. He probably did not achieve that goal. It is believed that he died a martyr during Nero's persecution of the Christians blamed for the destructive fire he had himself started so he could build an even more glorious city.

 

Nevertheless, in writing this letter Paul recognized his importance to the Gentile mission and paid special tribute to his loyal friends in Philippi, his first converts in Europe. He fervently believed he would see them again and enjoy their fellowship (vs. 24-26). So he urged them to live lives that are worthy of the gospel of Christ.† Their unity in the faith has special meaning for him, perhaps because they were unique among the congregations he had founded and where there was so much strife. The Corinthians and Galatians may well have been in his mind at this point.

 

The key to Christian witness, then as now, is faithfulness to Christ, not the subtleties of doctrine, theology, church politics or ritual practices. In Paul's time, that certainly meant persecution to the point of martyrdom. In our time, it may mean no more than being laughed at, treated as irrelevant or totally ignored and marginalized as a significant part of society. It may also mean being accused of not playing a part in the political power games around to economic and social issues.

 

Living as Christians was never easy.† Many whom we meet day by day will learn no more of Christ than they see in us.

 

 

MATTHEW 20:1-16.† To our materialistic minds, this is a very troublesome parable.† It

seems so grossly unfair. The last group of laborers were paid the same amount as the first even though they had worked only one hour, not the whole day long. From the point of view work and wages, that is a gross injustice.

 

So what does it mean?†† Was Jesus recommending a crude form of communism?† Or was he suggesting that we be ruthless exploiters taking every advantage of the workers?

 

The parable has nothing at all to do with the money paid or the amount of work done.† It is the kingdom of God - the absolute sovereignty of God's love - which is at issue. The currency of the kingdom is grace, not coinage. Grace comes to us as the gift of God totally unmerited in spite of all our worthy efforts.

 

Nor does the time clock or human chronology have anything to do with it. It is said that Roman Emperor Constantine waited until he was dying to be baptized because he had so much sin to be forgiven and was afraid that he would sin again. What he forfeited was not eternal life, but a mature life as a faithful Christian free of fear and able to contribute a full life to Christ's mission to bring the world under the reign of God's love.

 

In other words, we are all on an equal footing with God when we have received God's

forgiving grace. There can be no distinction made between anyone. Because of our salvation by grace alone, we are acceptable to God only because God loves us and Christ died for us, and for no other reason.

 

 

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