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Bible Study: Pentecost 17 (A) – September 24, 2023
September 24, 2023
At first glance, we might sympathize with the murmuring Israelites. After all, we need food to survive, and we have likely all been “hangry” once or twice. Yet the murmuring of the Israelites is not simply about their lack of food; it is also about their dissatisfaction with God. The Israelites expected deliverance from oppression to look more like leisurely provision and less like subsistence living. Therefore, in a startling reversal, Israel turns from God to look back longingly at their former lives in Egypt.
Having thus turned from God, it is noteworthy that, as Aaron speaks to them, the Israelites turn back toward the wilderness, where they behold the glory of God. The Hebrew word kavod, translated “glory,” also denotes richness and abundance; and so, the glory of God, coming to the Israelites from the wilderness, is indeed accompanied by an abundant provision of quails and of the wondrous, grain-like substance called manna.
The message to the Israelites is clear: having delivered them, God will not leave them to die. God’s glory manifests to them as abundance and generosity – even in the midst of the wilderness, even after their turning away from God. The message for us is similar. Our lives are marked by loss, uncertainty, and change. As we journey through these passing things, we are reminded that God remains with us always and everywhere, even in those times and places when God’s presence seems particularly far from us. Our goal, with God’s help, is to endure these passing hardships and keep our faces turned toward God who loves us and sustains us, even if that means turning from our personal places of comfort to seek God in the wilderness of life.
- Have you felt the presence of God in a particularly difficult time?
- How did you experience God’s presence and provision then? Now?
- What experiences of God help you in your journeys through life’s wilderness?
Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45
When reading the Bible, it is common to encounter the same story told in a different way – sometimes in stark contrast to a previous telling found in another book! The story of the manna from heaven, first related in Exodus 16, is thus encountered again in Psalm 105, where several key details of the story are either changed or omitted entirely.
The psalmist downplays the murmuring of the Israelites: “They asked, and quails appeared, / and he satisfied them with bread from heaven.” The phrase “they asked” feels rather far removed from the opposition and tension of the Exodus narrative! Yet Psalm 105 was likely composed sometime around the end of the Babylonian Exile, so it makes sense that the psalmist would choose to downplay the negative in celebration of God’s strong deliverance. Likewise, our own stories can morph and shift according to our mood and setting. A negative experience can later be seen as positive, and vice versa. The trick is to acknowledge when and why our stories might change, and to ask ourselves – are we telling our stories faithfully and knowingly, or are we bending the story to serve our interests?
- Is there a story that is important to you or to your church?
- What about that story stands out to you, or means the most to you?
- Would someone else tell that story differently? Would you? If so, how?
Paul believes that he will survive his present ordeal to see the Philippians again, but will that belief become a reality? That much remains unknown; and so, waiting to see whether he will live or die, the Philippians are caught in anxiety and uncertainty – a potential wilderness of the soul. What advice can Paul give to lead them through that wilderness?
Paul exhorts the Philippians to live “in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” In fact, the Greek text more literally means “live as citizens,” a phrase typically oriented toward Roman citizenship. Yet Paul does not mean Roman citizenry, but citizenry in the Kingdom of God. With this, Paul offers a subtle reminder to the Philippians that they are sojourners in this world – citizens of a Kingdom that they long for but do not yet see completely. Whatever happens to Paul, they know what to do: continue living as citizens of that Kingdom.
This is Paul’s advice to us as well, though we may never face imprisonment for our faith as he did. We know what it feels like to live in a state of anxious uncertainty, waiting to discover how things will unfold. Will we make it through the wilderness of our own experience? Yes, says Paul, because we also are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and we know that the light of resurrection and restoration lies just beyond the darkness of the tomb. Clinging to that faith, we can survive and strive together, whatever might come our way.
- Is there a time when you experienced anxiety and uncertainty?
- Did your faith help you through that time? If so, how? If not, why not?
- What advice would you give to a parishioner feeling anxious and uncertain?
Justice and generosity are major themes in today’s Gospel. In the parable, a landowner hires laborers to work his vineyard. At day’s end, the workers are paid. All is well until the first laborers realize that they have been paid the same amount as those hired later. The landowner’s response is baffling: he can do what he wants with what he owns, so the laborers should not be envious of his generosity. That may be true, but is it just? The laborers think not, but what if the landowner had acted justly according to the laborers? Those hired later (idle only because no one else had hired them) would have earned a lesser sum, presumably through no fault of their own. Is that justice? The parable suggests not.
The primary characteristic of the landowner is not justice per se, but generosity – the landlord is generous, and that generosity feels unjust to some. But what if the landowner’s generosity is justice? What if that generosity, shared with everyone, is a symbol of a new way of life – a way of love, even – and an invitation to walk that way? What if the laborers, quite unknowingly, have bought into a system that is itself unjust; a system which enacts oppression in the name of fairness and too often conflates our worth with our work?
If that is true, and if we take the landowner to be God (as the parable seems to imply), then perhaps God’s justice is rather like this extreme form of generosity that stubbornly resists the perpetuation of unjust systems. Perhaps it is our unjust world, built on the want of more and the fear of less, which has taught us that unwarranted generosity is unjust. This is likely little consolation for the offended laborers, or for those offended by this parable today; but perhaps, if we substitute “gracious” for “generous,” the picture will become clearer. God’s justice is God’s generosity, which is God’s grace – and it is that grace, given freely and equally to all without warrant or claim, which defines God’s Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.
- Do you think the landowner acted justly or unjustly? Why?
- Do you agree that God’s generosity defines God’s justice? Why or why not?
- What does the phrase, “The last will be first and the first will be last,” mean to you?
This Bible study was written by Justin Smith of Virginia Theological Seminary.
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