Bible Study

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Bible Study: Proper 21 (A) – 2023

October 01, 2023

RCL: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Exodus 17:1-7

Once again, the Israelites are complaining to Moses about their circumstances. In spite of the 10 plagues; in spite of their deliverance on the shores of the Red Sea; in spite of the manna and quails that God had recently rained down from heaven, the people of Israel are convinced that Moses has brought “[them] out of Egypt, to kill [them].” For Moses, this is not just a challenge to his leadership but a direct test of God’s presence and surety; it is an unforgivable demonstration of doubt. Yet God exhibits great patience and demonstrates great power by providing the Israelites with a new source of water.

These Exodus stories from the wilderness of Sinai are a wonderful reminder of both the human instinct to stray and the divine instinct to forgive. One would think that after all that God had done for the Israelites, they would never doubt God’s love and steadfastness; similarly, after all of their missteps, one would understand if God had had enough with the Israelites. Yet here are the people of Israel forgetting that God provides and here is God, loving these people and taking care of their needs.

  • How might you fail to notice God’s love and care in your life?
  • What might be possible in your life if you took God’s forgiveness for granted?

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

This psalm selection was chosen to coincide with the Exodus reading because of its obvious symmetry with the Torah passage. Psalm 78 is a historical psalm—one part focused on Israel’s time in the wilderness and the other portion focused on the early years of the Israelites’ time in Canaan. This psalm is a wonderful reminder of the wide diversity found in the Book of Psalms – from praise to lament to triumph to teaching. The psalms are never just one thing and Psalm 78 is a perfect example of that.

  • How do you think the importance of the psalms to our worship might change the way we think about and interact with God? How does the inherent diversity of this book affect our religious understanding?

Philippians 2:1-13

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is one of his more good-natured letters; Paul is proud and happy with the community and how they have been carrying on. This passage presents us with some of the specific advice that Paul has to offer the community: Be humble and generous. Paul explicitly connects these virtues with Jesus, describing how Jesus “emptied himself,” even though he had every right to assert his divine dominance. Some scholars believe that verses 6-11 are actually quotations from a hymn that would have been familiar to both Paul and the Philippian church. In a world that continues to prize opulence, self-promotion, and expressions of power, this small passage is a valuable reminder of the virtues valued by the Early Church and how they were understood to be embodied in the story and life of Jesus.

  • What do you think it means for Jesus to “empty himself”? How might we, as Christians, emulate that?
  • What do you make of the paradox that by humbling himself, Jesus was exalted?

Matthew 21:23-32

This passage places us in Jerusalem in the days before Jesus’ arrest and execution. Jesus has already entered the city in triumph and cleansed the Temple of its money changers and animal vendors. The Jewish leaders are trying to catch Jesus in a trap and approach him with this seemingly innocent query: By whose authority did he heal and teach? Of course, Jesus is too clever for the chief priests and the elders and turns the question back on them, stumping them when asking the same question about John the Baptist.

Jesus then clarifies who his ministry is for by telling a parable about two sons sent out into the fields to work. As illustrated by this story, it does not matter what a person says but rather what their actions are. The leaders in Jerusalem might have more power and prestige, but their actions fall short of what is desirable; they can talk the talk but do not always follow through. Jesus contrasts this with the “tax collectors and prostitutes” who are marred on the exterior but recognize their shortcomings and take action by seeking repentance from John the Baptist and, eventually, Jesus. They know that they need God, and they actively pursue God’s love and care.

  • Does placing this story in the week before Jesus’ death change how you receive it?
  • When in your life are you more like the chief priests and the elders? When are you more like the tax collectors?

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Christopher Sikkema


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This page is available in: Español