Hear the Spirit: Proper 21A

Readings and supplemental resources for Proper 21A in the RCL

September 27, 2020 | Pentecost ++17

From the Letter to the Philippians appointed for Proper 21A

Collect for Proper 21

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.~BCP 234

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32 NRSV

In the Hebrew scripture lesson the Lord insists that individuals are responsible for their own sins and that the people must now repent, no longer blaming their troubles on the sins of their parents

1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? 3 As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

25 Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26 When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 27 Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. 28 Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

Philippians 2:1-13 NRSV

Paul bids the new disciples to be of one mind in love, knowing how Christ Jesus accepted the condition of a servant and was obedient to the point of death. We now confess him as Lord and are called to an obedient working out of our faith.

1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Matthew 21:23-32 NRSV

In a response to a question about authority, Jesus tells a parable of two sons who obeyed their father differently, and he indicates that it is the same with those who are apparently obedient and disobedient in this age.

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Psalm 25:1-8BCP 614

Our Psalm Response is a prayer for forgiveness and guidance and an expression of trust in the Lord.

1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

2 Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

3 Show me your ways, O Lord, * and teach me your paths.

4 Lead me in your truth and teach me, * for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

5 Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.

6 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; * remember me according to your love
and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.

7 Gracious and upright is the Lord; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

8 He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.

Supplemental Material

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 2:6 NRSV

Two Prayer Responses to the text of Philippians

Eternal God, the light of the minds that know thee, the joy of the hearts that love thee, the strength of the wills that serve thee; grant us, so to know thee that we may truly love thee, so to love thee that we may freely serve thee, whose service is perfect freedom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Gelasian Sacramentary (7th century)

O gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive thee, intelligence to understand thee, diligence to seek thee, patience to wait for thee, eyes to behold thee, a heart to meditate upon thee and a life to proclaim thee: through the power of the spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Attributed to St Benedict (480–543)

Source: Christopher Herbert, Pocket Prayers: The Classic Collection
(Pocket Prayers Series). Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Commentary on Philippians2:1-13. A Pastoral Perspective.

By Gilberto Collazo, Vice President for Missional Development and Operations, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Indianapolis, Indiana

The celebrated pacifist Mohandas Gandhi is reported to have said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” He made this observation in the midst of his struggle for justice for a people in the face of the occupation of his native India.

We are called to be imitators of Christ, to live in a way that allows other people to see Christ in us. What is an imitator? There is a great difference between an impersonator and an imitator. Impersonators take great pains to make people believe they are who they are not. On the other hand, imitators are clearly aware that they strive to live up to the challenge of being a reflection of the person they look up to. It is so hard to walk in the footsteps of others. Many younger siblings for years wither in the shadow of an overachieving older sibling, who sets the standard so high that it is a constant frustration to try to be like him or her. We look up to those people in church whom we consider spiritual giants and wonder if we will ever be as spiritual as they appear. At work there is always that coworker who is the top salesperson, who makes us wonder if we really have what it takes to live up to those high standards, no matter how hard we try.

Deep down inside, many of us have the clear understanding that we will fall short of a perfect imitation. That is all right. Ultimately Paul’s admonition is not about impersonating Christ, but about adopting Christlike attitudes in all aspects of our life. When we try to live up to God’s standards on our own, we become impersonators. That is a tall order and an unrealistic expectation on our part, and it is not what God expects of us.

So then, what does it mean to be called a reflection of Christ? This is not a call to perfection but, rather, an invitation to be honest with ourselves and to understand that God is doing something unique and special in each and every one of us. This is God’s challenge for us to live in a manner that is counter-cultural. For example, when we face a national crisis such as a severe economic downturn, do we run around like Chicken Little screaming, “The sky is falling,” or do we reflect Christ by remaining calm and believing God’s promises of provision for our lives? When bad news reaches our ears, do we respond like those who live without faith, or do we reflect Christ by our reactions to the bad news?

For years as a pastor I accompanied many people through their death processes and then helped their families deal with grief and loss. Then it was my turn. I had just turned forty when I suffered my first significant loss. My father had terminal cancer and less than two months to live. The time for my test had come. Would I be a reflection of Christ and face this crisis with faith and peace, or would I give into the ranting, raving accusations against God that I had seen in so many of the individuals that I had accompanied through the loss process?

I did rant and rave. It is one thing to be on the outside looking in, and a completely different experience to find yourself directly impacted by the situation. In the midst of it all, I was able to recognize that God understood that I was human and was losing a father. Through the two final months of my father’s life, God worked in my life, as I allowed the divine presence to do so.

People saw my struggle. Even the members of my church understood I was working through something that was new and painful for me. I could have put on a happy face and hidden my sorrow, but that would have made me an impersonator of Christ. Rather, I admitted that I needed God’s presence in my life in a way I had not known before. I sought God’s presence in ways I had never done before. Some days, like Job, I sparred with God. Other days, I held a negotiation session. There were days when I had nothing to say, because I was so angry at a God who was taking my father, when there were so many others who really should have been called from this world. In the end, I was able to give my father over to God’s presence with tears in my eyes, but with peace in my heart. People would later comment on how I had been a source of comfort to them as they came to support my family and me.

Christian living is a process. God’s timeline for each one of us is unique, and only God knows what the final product is going to look like. We do not expect an instantaneous transformation of our life’s attitudes and actions, but rather an ongoing process of change that results from the ever-growing awareness of our need to be at a different place if we are to be true Christ followers. The process begins with our conscious decision to become reflections of Christ in our actions and reactions to life.

Can the world see Christ in us? Our imitation of him is not about being complacent and well behaved. As the United States deals with immigration issues, many churches have once again declared themselves to be sanctuaries for all who need a safe place. I see Christ in the actions of these faith communities. Allowing the world to see Christ in us means that we are willing to step up to our prophetic role in the world. Can people see Christ in you?

When times get difficult, when injustices are prevalent among the people, when a word of hope is needed, let us pray that all can see Christ in us—for that is our calling: to be imitators, and not impersonators, of Christ.

Source: Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).

Imitators, not Impersonators

1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:1-5)

From our Outline of the Faith

Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?

A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.

Q. What is the ministry of the laity?

A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.

Prayer for Vocation in Daily Work

Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. ~BCP 261

Source Material

View or Download the Proper 21A Study Handout

NRSV: Bible Gateway website

Book of Common Prayer (BCP): justus.anglican.org

Introductions to the Readings are from the book  Introducing the Lessons of the Church Year, 3rd Ed.  (Kindle Edition) by Frederick Borsch and George Woodward.

Image: Communications Resources

Hear the Spirit: Proper 20A

Readings and supplemental resources for Proper 20A in the RCL

September 20, 2020 | Pentecost +16

From the Gospel appointed for Proper 20A

Collect for Proper 20

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.~BCP 234

Jonah 3:10–4:11 NRSV

The Lord teaches Jonah a lesson when the prophet is angry because God is merciful to the repentant pagan city that Jonah has gone to great trouble to denounce.

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

6 The Lord God appointed a bush,and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Philippians 1:21-30 NRSV

In this reading Paul tells the Philippians that he would prefer to be with Christ beyond death, but he recognizes that he still has good work to do in his earthly life.

21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

27 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, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV

Our gospel is the story of the laborers in the vineyard, who are all paid the same wage despite their different hours of work.

[Jesus said to his disciples],1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Psalm 145:1-8 BCP 801

Our Psalm Response is a hymn of praise to the Lord, who is mighty in deeds yet tender and compassionate.

1 I will exalt you, O God my King, *
and bless your Name for ever and ever.

2 Every day will I bless you * and praise your Name for ever and ever.

3 Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
there is no end to his greatness.

4 One generation shall praise your works to another *
and shall declare your power.

5 I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty *
and all your marvelous works.

6 They shall speak of the might of your wondrous acts, *
and I will tell of your greatness.

7 They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
they shall sing of your righteous deeds.

8 The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.

Supplemental Material

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.”

MATTHEW 20:15-16

Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16. A theological perspective.

By Kathryn D. Blanchard, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Alma College, Alma, Michigan

Ancient theologians have read this passage allegorically, viewing those hired at different times of the day as representative of different generations of Israel, such as Adam, Moses, Abraham, and in the last hour, Gentiles. Others have interpreted the early workers as Christ’s original disciples (“Look, we have left everything and followed you,” Matt. 19:27) and the late comers as recent converts to Matthew’s congregation.1 In either case, what is primarily at issue is whether God behaves justly, particularly toward Israel and the (Gentile) church. Another theological question has to do with human potential to earn merit, typically addressed in terms of faith and works.

Matthew writes for a mixed congregation that includes both longtime Jewish Christians (who may have known Jesus personally) and others who have joined only recently, many of whom are Gentile converts. Regardless of the particularities of Matthew’s own congregation, he speaks to the abiding question of God’s relationship to Israel, as well as the perennial struggle between religious people who see themselves as doing the lion’s share of God’s work and those who do not seem to carry their weight. (The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11–32 expresses a similar conflict.) Hard-working, “good” people have always asked: what kind of God would offer the same reward to those have earned it and those who have not?

The tradition has consistently answered: a just God. For this to be true, however, the workers must recognize the opportunity to work in the vineyard (whether it represents Israel, individual virtue, the church, or the cause of justice in the world) as a gift in itself. There is no room for human pride, since one’s only choice is either to answer the call to work in God’s kingdom, or to stand idle and waste one’s life altogether. God does not will that anyone’s life should be wasted, so God extends the invitation indiscriminately and repeatedly, in order to gather as many as possible into the vineyard. God shows no partiality among persons (Rom. 2:11; Acts 10:34); all are equally deserving—or undeserving—of the opportunity to work, so the reward for all workers is equal as well.

Despite earthly appearances of inequality with regard to who has “earned” a greater or lesser reward (Jews/Gentiles, longtime workers/latecomers), this parable makes clear that there is radical equality before God. Reward comes not from each worker’s individual merit, not from the quantity or even quality of their labor, but rather from the gracious covenant offered by the one doing the hiring. God promises and delivers but one reward for all—represented by a single denarius (basically enough for one’s “daily bread,” Matt. 6:11).

The upshot is that God’s people are (ideally) those who work in God’s vineyard simply because it is the good thing to do, rather than because they hope to earn merit. The other lectionary texts designated for this week reveal that grumbling against God has been the pastime of God’s people from the beginning (Exod., Jonah), but the Scriptures have consistently called God’s people to readjust their lenses and view God’s mercy as a gift (Pss.) of which they should strive to be worthy (Phil.).

Calvin’s discussion of the second part of Christian freedom can shed some light here. Those who serve God only because they wish to avoid punishment or obtain payment do so in the manner of a servant; whereas those who see working in God’s vineyard as a gift labor without coercion, in the manner of offspring who love and wish to please the parent, and are dedicated to the parent’s work.2 Those workers who feel they deserve better must be reminded of the master’s generosity in letting them work at all.

The conclusion to this parable, that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (v. 16), echoes other parables (e.g., Luke 18:9–14) and foreshadows Jesus’ upcoming rant against holier-than-thou religious leaders in Matthew 23. The call here is to humility; it is an attempt to remind “those who now know the Gospel … who imagine they can teach and govern the whole world, and therefore imagine they are the nearest to God and have devoured the Holy Spirit, bones and feathers,” that their greatness is relative.3 Those who are first in the world’s eyes are not first in the eyes of God. Those who see themselves as the lowliest of all are the ones God will exalt on the last day (Matt. 23:12). Moreover, it is a reminder that all good things come from God, regardless of humans’ ability to earn them (God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” Matt. 5:45).

God’s people—both Israel and the new Israel—are those who work in the vineyards of justice from the moment they are called until the time for reward arrives. Some are specially blessed to hear the call early on; but if they experience this labor as a burden, the gift is lost on them. Others are blessed to hear the call just before it is too late; for them, the burden seems light and the reward comes before they grow weary. God’s standards of justice and value are consistently presented in both the OT and NT as alien to human standards, but God’s people are expected to behave according to these alien standards, neither demanding their rights nor begrudging others’ good fortunes. There is of course potential for abuse of such teachings, perhaps to uphold an unjust status quo in which oppressed persons are admonished to wait patiently for their reward, while those in power maintain their “first” status. It is clear that a responsible theological reading of this parable tends toward radical equality in the church, in which all are equally near to receiving God’s gracious reward.

SOURCE: Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 92–96.

1 Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 14–28, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament 1b (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 106–12.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 837 (3.19.5).

3 Martin Luther, “Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday,” in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 1.1–2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 111.

Assumptions

How easily we can relate to the grumbling of the laborers who assumed that because they went into the vineyard early in the day, they would be paid more. Such dangerous assumptions can be in our closest relationships, within our work settings, within our congregations, within our national thinking. There is a saying, “Assumptions are planned resentments.” Whenever we assume anything, we set ourselves up for possible disappointment or even worse, as we set the other person, place, or thing up as the object of our disappointment, anger, or resentment. …It would be wonderful if these were the only assumptions we made:

—God loves me and all of creation deeply and profoundly.

—I and all others are made in the image of God.

—God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imagination.

—There is nothing I can do to earn or deserve God’s generosity.

How different our lives would be if we lived from those assumptions.

SOURCE: Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, (Retired Executive Director, The Centers for Christian Studies, Cathedral of All Souls, Asheville, North Carolina) in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 94

Source Material

View or Download the Proper 20A Study Handout

NRSV: Bible Gateway website

Book of Common Prayer (BCP): justus.anglican.org

Introductions to the Readings are from the book  Introducing the Lessons of the Church Year, 3rd Ed.  (Kindle Edition) by Frederick Borsch and George Woodward.

Image: Communications Resources

Righteousness

On Sunday 10/2/11 our class discussion touched on Phil 3, ‘righteousness’ ‘from the law ‘or ‘through faith in Christ’, and we took ‘righteousness’ to be a matter of virtue and good behavior.
Marcus J. Borg in his book Speaking Christian treats of this conventional meaning of righteousness and then offers the following.

This meaning is frequent in the Bible. In Psalms and Proverbs, as well as elsewhere, the “righteous” and the “wicked”-those who do what is right and those who do the opposite-are often contrasted. In Proverbs especially, the righteous are promised rewards: they will prosper (e.g., 15:6). (The books of Job and Ecclesiastes challenge this claim. Sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Doing “what is right” does not guarantee a nice comfortable life. The prosperity gospel is wrong.) In contexts like the above,righteousness is a quality of individuals or groups who do the right thing.

Righteousness and Justice

Very importantly, there is another primary meaning of words commonly translated into English as righteousness and righteous. This meaning is social and political, not just individual. It refers to the way a society is put together-its political and economic structure, its distribution of power and wealth and their effects on society, from the microcosm of the family to the macrocosm of nations and empires.

In these contexts, righteousness would be better translated justice. Righteousness and justice are so closely related in the Bible that they are often synonyms. Consider a passage from the prophet Amos in the 700s BCE, two centuries after the establishment of a monarchy and aristocracy in Israel. The domination system Israel’s ancestors had known in Egypt now operated within Israel itself. The rich and powerful had created a social system that benefited themselves, and the result was a huge gulf between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The poor and powerless-most of the population-were virtually a slave class.

Speaking in the name of God and addressing the rich and powerful, Amos contrasts their worship of God with what God really wants.

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:21-24)

Note the last two lines. What God wants, what God is passionate about, is justice and righteousness. These lines illustrate a frequent feature of biblical language known as synonymous parallelism, in which a second line repeats in slightly different language what the first line says. “Let justice roll down like waters” and “righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” are synonymous phrases. Justice and righteousness are not two different things, but the same thing. Justice is righteousness, and righteousness is justice.

Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian, HarperCollins 2011, pp. 134-136

Is it just a happy accident?

On Sunday (9/18) we heard a story. “The kingdom of heaven is like . . . .” (Matthew 20:1-16) The parable ends with these words of Jesus: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The discussion within the Forum spoke to the issues of entitlement, love of neighbor, ego, pride, and placement in the Kingdom. Nothing was resolved; but, engagement with Jesus’ story and the unsettling wind of the Spirit around the table and within us was exhilarating.

With the words about the first and the last and the generosity of God commanding our attention we take a look at this Sunday’s readings (9/25)  and discover Paul’s admonition: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

Is it just a happy accident that these two readings occur on successive Sunday’s in our lectionary? Is it more? What is the Spirit saying to you and me about humility, about honesty, about graciously accepting God’s generosity without judging who should be first or last or wondering if someone is getting more than they deserve or more than we are getting? What is the Spirit saying to you as you take up Jesus’ parable, his story (read Philippians 2:5-11), and Paul’s admonition?

Leave a comment, continue the conversation. Hear what the Spirit is saying.