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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 27 - Proper 22 - Year A
Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4(b)-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Alt – Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 27 - Proper 22 - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  A summary of these readings is 
     also included below.]


EXODUS 20:1-4,7-9,12-20  Of all passages in the Bible, this may be the 
most familiar.  Perhaps more surprising to us now is the scholarly opinion 
that these Ten Commandments were by no means original to the Israelites.  
Similar codes existed long before the Jewish tradition developed that this 
code was delivered by God to Moses and the Israelites on the sacred 
mountain of Sinai.  This Decalogue set forth the eternal covenant 
relationships between God and Israel, and between human beings in a 
relatively small community.  Yet the constitutions and laws of many modern 
nations are based on this ancient code, particularly the last six 
commandments.

 
PSALM 19                The creative power of God in nature and  God's 
sacred covenant with humanity expressed in the Torah became the 
centrepiece of Israel's religious heritage as set forth in this psalm.  
The two distinct parts of the psalm cause some to wonder if they were 
originally two separate compositions.  Even if so, the Hebrew sense of the 
majestic beauty of creation and the divinely ordered Torah make it easy to 
understand why they were united as one.  

 
ISAIAH 5:1-7            (Alternate)  These poetic lines express a moving 
sense of God’s disappointment with God’s chosen people.  The striking 
metaphor of Israel as God’s unfruitful vineyard is a profound message of 
judgment against them.


PSALM 80:7-15           (Alternate)  In another reference to Israel as 
God’s vine the psalmist laments that God has allowed it to languish and 
pleads that God restore it to favour once more.


PHILIPPIANS 3:4b-14	    Although as a Pharisee Paul was familiar with the 
Torah as were few other New Testament authors, he rested his spiritual 
authority on his experience of and obedience to Jesus Christ, not on his 
achievements in keeping the moral code of Israel.  Knowing and following 
Christ above all was his only goal, a purpose for which he had made great 
sacrifice.


MATTHEW 21:33-46        Jesus tells a devastatingly obvious parable 
against the religious authorities who so obstinately opposed him.  They 
fully realized what he was saying and made plans to destroy him as the 
ultimate threat to their authority.  The parable and the pointed 
accusation which followed would resonate with the members of Matthew's own 
community when Jewish Christians were being driven from the synagogues in 
the 80s.  The quotation about a cornerstone being rejected (vs. 42) comes 
from Psalm 118:22- 23.  As used there, it did not refer to the Messiah 
being rejected.  That was a new interpretation imposed on the reference by 
the early church.  Its appearance in three other New Testament books (Mark 
12:10-11, Acts 4:11 and 1 Peter 2:7) shows that it was an important part 
of early Christian preaching as the church struggled to understand why 
Jesus was crucified. 


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

EXODUS 20:1-4,7-9,12-20   Of all passages in the Bible, this may be the 
most familiar.  Perhaps more surprising to us now is the scholarly opinion 
that these Ten Commandments were by no means original to the Israelites.  
Similar codes existed long before the Jewish tradition developed that this 
code was delivered by God to Moses and the Israelites on the sacred 
mountain of Sinai.  It may also come as a surprise to many that there are 
variations in the way different religious communities enumerate them.  Nor 
do all Christians follow the same enumeration.  Jews, Roman Catholics and 
Lutherans treat worshiping other gods and making graven images as the 
first commandment, while Reformed and Orthodox Christians separate them 
into two.  Roman Catholics and Lutherans separate coveting into two 
prohibitions, as nine and ten: nine - the household; and ten - the 
remainder of the list.  
  
This Decalogue set forth the eternal covenant relationships between God 
and humanity and between human beings in a relatively small community.  
Yet the constitutions and laws of many modern nations are based on this 
ancient code, particularly the last six commandments.  Some interpreters 
would prefer to divide the Decalogue into four parts, as does Professor 
Emeritus Walter Harrelson, of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, in 
*The Oxford Companion to the Bible*: 
   
The first three demand the worship of God alone, prohibiting image-making 
and the use of God's name to do harm to others.  These not only stress 
God's exclusive claim over the lives of people, but also demand total 
commitment, thus preserving people from divided loyalties and protecting 
the community from misusing God's power.
  
The next two call for the observing of the seventh day as a day of rest 
and for honoring parents when they may no longer be of significant 
economic value within the community.  These institutions provide 
protection for some of the basic elements of society, in their emphasis on 
labor, rest from labor, and human dignity.
  
The following three commandments focus on the life of the individual or 
the family within the larger community.  They insist on the sanctity of 
human life, marriage and sexuality, and the necessity to maintain a 
community in which the extension of self one's into property is recognized 
and respected.  Women were then regarded as property too.  The last two 
deal more with social relationships, assuring that truth is the basis of 
justice and that community life is not corrupted by lust for another's 
goods or lives.
  
A recent cartoon depicted the giving of the Ten Commandments with a modern 
public relations twist.  A bewildered Moses stands looking up at a cloud 
through which the hand of God thrusts the tablets of stone toward him.  A 
voice sounds out of the cloud saying, “These are your talking points.” 
That is very much the way it has been throughout history.

As the remaining parts of the Pentateuch demonstrate, these were by no 
means the only commandments which the Israelites sought to obey.  Nor have 
Jewish communities through the centuries looked to the Torah (our 
Pentateuch) as the only source of law governing community and personal 
ethical behavior.  The long developing oral tradition written down in the 
Misnah and the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds during the first five 
centuries of the first millennium CE is also regarded as having equal 
authority.

It is likely that the Ten Commandments were used extensively for the 
instruction of the young in the dominant values of the community as well 
as in public worship.  It has been suggested that their number was limited 
to ten because they could be easily memorized and enumerated on the 
fingers of two hands.  Note too that they are all negative; “Thou shalt 
not ….” Jesus chose to summarize them in two very positive commandments: 
love for Go and for neighbor.


PSALM 19   The creative power of God in nature and God's sacred covenant 
with humanity expressed in Torah became the centrepiece of Israel's 
religious heritage as set forth in this psalm.  The two distinct parts of 
the psalm cause some to wonder if they were originally two separate 
compositions.  Even if so, the Hebrew sense of the majestic beauty of 
creation and the divinely ordered Torah make it easy to understand why 
they were united as one.  Vvs. 7-11 use the dominant euphemisms and 
phrases for Torah found in Wisdom literature.  From this one draws the 
conclusion that the present composition is of late post-exilic date.
  
In his unique paraphrasing of the Psalms, Jim Taylor, author of many books 
on religious topics and formerly a partner in Wood Lake Books, (*Everyday 
Psalms: The Power of the Psalms in Language and Images for Today*, Wood 
Lake Books, 1994) has given a different picture of what this poem now says 
to us.  He concentrates on "scientific study" of the universe and "the 
universal law of interdependence" as the main emphases of the psalm.  
Taylor also gives an interesting rendition of the final prayer (vs. 14): 
"Keep us always open to wonder, to beauty, and to mystery, oh greatest of 
mysteries."

With a similar objective of putting "the psalmists bold, free prayers ... 
in the words and phrases and looks of today," Leslie Brandt has lifted up 
the two dominant subjects of the psalm. (*Psalms/Now*. Concordia, 1973) 
Brandt identified these as the power and presence of God in the grandeur 
of nature and the ultimate value for humanity in the ordered purpose of 
Torah.  He sees Torah as "a path ... to walk in." Brandt prays with the 
psalmist that through our acceptance of and response to these, we may 
"realize anew the security and serenity of (God's) loving presence."

It is unfortunate that for many centuries, the Hebrew word *Torah* has 
been given the English connotation of "law".  The late Wilfred Cantwell 
Smith, Professor of Comparative History of Religion at Harvard University, 
wrote in his *What Is Scripture: A Comparative Approach* (Fortress Press, 
1993): "An argument can be mounted that for the Jewish case the term 
betrays a double misreading: from Hebrew *torah* into Greek *nomos* and 
later from Greek *nomos* into English "law" - as the two most 
consequential mistranslations in human history." Smith further noted that 
"the word *Torah* is from a verb signifying to instruct, to teach, to 
guide, and is so used in the Bible....  The verbal noun, *torah*, could be 
rendered either "instructing: or, less dynamically, "instruction"....  As 
a category in Jewish religious thought, the word *Torah*, meaning the 
divine Torah, may denote either the fact of God's mercifully guiding His 
people, or the guidance with which He has done so; or, eventually, the 
words in which the guidance is formulated; or again, the books in which 
those words are written....It would not be too far-fetched to say that 
*Torah* for Jews means revelation - whether this be taken as the term for 
a theological category, or for the content of the revelation: the fact or 
the act of revealing, or what is revealed, or both."


PHILIPPIANS 3:4b-14   Although as a Pharisee Paul was familiar with the 
Torah as were few other NT authors, he rested his spiritual authority on 
his experience of and obedience to Jesus Christ, not on his achievements 
in keeping the moral code of Israel.  Knowing and following Christ above 
all was his only goal, a purpose for which he had made great sacrifice.
  
We can never know exactly what Paul meant by wanting "to know Christ and 
the power of his resurrection" (vs. 10).  This undoubtedly had a close 
relationship to his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, when he 
had a vision of the risen Christ and heard Christ's call (Acts 9:1-19).  
It would appear that the initial vision came to him in a manner similar to 
a hallucination, a common psycho-spiritual reality in numerous conversions 
before and since.  This in no way denies the actual event of meeting the 
risen Christ as Paul frequently testified.  The intensity of the 
experience and the historically impressive mission resulting from it need 
no other explanation.  In other words, Paul gave himself to Christ and for 
the remainder of his life endured great suffering for his Lord.  His goal, 
however, was not merely to serve as long as his strength lasted, but to 
"attain the resurrection from the dead" (vs. 11).  That was his great hope 
and he urged all the congregations to which he ministered that this was 
the *sine quae non* of faith in Christ as Lord and Savior 9 (1 Cor.  
15:17-19).
  
As he wrote or, more likely, dictated this letter, he was facing imminent 
martyrdom.  Yet he did not feel that he had already obtained his goal.  
Was there still an element of doubt in his mind as he waited the verdict? 
Who on pondering the same circumstances - death by crucifixion, beheading, 
burned at the stake or the victim of wild animals in the arena, all of 
which known to be Nero's methods of execution - would not have wondered 
what lay beyond the veil no human vision has ever pierced? Who could fail 
to be agnostic about what really lies 'over there' unless one has faith?

Such faith rings true in the closing sentences of this passage.  Had Paul 
not heard over and over again the other apostles telling of the death of 
Christ as they had seen it, and then meeting him face to face, talking and 
eating with him before he vanished from their sight? However, it may have 
happened, he too had met Jesus Christ, and that long after the 
resurrection and ascension to which the apostles testified.  So, behind 
this ringing declaration of his very human desire to live lies Paul's own 
simple conviction that "as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be 
made alive." (1 Cor. 15:22)


MATTHEW 21:33-46   Jesus tells a devastatingly obvious parable against the 
religious authorities who so obstinately opposed him.  They fully realized 
what he was saying and made plans to destroy him as the ultimate threat to 
their authority.  One may well ask, however, whether this comes from the 
lips of Jesus himself or from Matthew writing to the apostolic community 
in the 80s CE.  At that time, Jewish Christians especially were undergoing 
rejection and banishment from their synagogues by their fellow Jews.  
Whatever its origins, the parable and the pointed accusation which 
followed in Matthew's narrative would resonate with the members of that 
community.
  
The quotation about a cornerstone being rejected (vs. 42) comes from Psalm 
118:22-23.  As used there, it did not refer to the Messiah being rejected.  
That was a new interpretation imposed on the reference by the early 
church.  It also appears in Mark 12:10-11, Acts 4:11 and 1 Peter 2:7.  
This shows that it was an important part of early Christian preaching as 
the church struggled to understand why Jesus was crucified. 

The practice of reading the Hebrew scriptures from a messianic perspective 
did not occur to the Jewish rabbis then or since.  This was a new creation 
by the apostolic church, perhaps initiated by Paul.  As a highly trained 
Pharisee, he had all the necessary intellectual skill to undertake such a 
task after his conversion.  One wonders if this could have been Paul's 
undertaking between the time of his conversion and early meeting with the 
apostles in Jerusalem and his return to Antioch from Tarsus at the biding 
of Barnabas. (Acts 9:26-30; 11:19-26; cf. Gal. 1:18-2:1) 

The didactic narrative of the resurrection appearance on the road to 
Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and Luke's comment in Acts 2:42 that the earliest 
Christian community "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" also 
points in the direction that such revisionist views of the Hebrew texts 
came from the early church.  Many scholars would attribute this to Jesus 
himself.  Yet even such a conservative scholar as Alan Richardson 
confessed that such didactic narratives "are doubtless founded upon fact, 
but the stories as we have them have been made into such superb parables, 
charged with profound theological teaching, that we cannot tell what could 
have been their original form." (*An Introduction to the Theology of The 
New Testament*, SCM Press, 1958, p. 194.) 

In his *The New Testament As Canon: An Introduction*, Brevard S. Childs
comments on Matthew's use of OT quotations. (Fortress Press, 1984, pp. 69-
71)  He deems it an error to simply deconstruct such references in the 
debate to discover their specific origins.  He allows that they are very 
different from the use made of the Hebrew Scriptures by other Jewish 
interpreters of the time such as the Essene community of Qumran.  He sees 
them instead as providing "the theological context with in the divine 
economy of God with Israel by which to understand and interpret the 
significance of Jesus' life and ministry....(and) a form of Christian 
proclamation....(They) serve as a means of actualizing the presence of the 
promised Christ who is now experienced as the resurrected and exalted 
Lord....  The hope for which the Jews wait is already being experienced by 
Christ's church."
 
Thus the parable, the quotation from Psalm 118, and the setting in the 
narrative for these had a significant place in Matthew's Gospel as a 
prelude to the Passion story.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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