Bible Study

Bible Study: Proper 21 (A) – 2011

September 25, 2011


Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

This passage was written in an “in-between time,” after the first deportation of the Hebrews to Babylon in 598 but before the large exile and temple destruction in 587. Here it is God, not the prophet, who speaks in the first person. God sounds like an angry, disappointed, but ever-hopeful parent. God is tired of hearing this proverb repeated among the Hebrews: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” and instead gives a message that could be interpreted as liberating and burdensome. God emphasizes individual accountability and possibility, thus changing older Torah teachings about future generations being held accountable for their forbearers’ decisions.

Intuitively, we know that the feelings and decisions of those who have gone before us affect how we think, feel, and behave. In this reading God affirms, first to Hebrews facing life in exile and now to us, that new choices, new relationships, a “new heart and spirit” for the sake of life are possible.

  • How have you worked through situations where you feel your “teeth are set on edge” because of the action of another person? How can this reminder from God to “turn and live” liberate you from cycles of blame and shame?

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Feelings of fear and trust are woven together into this poem to God. The speaker is fearful of being shamed, humiliated, and overrun by enemies. And the speaker is afraid of God. Will God remember compassion and love? Will God remember and judge according to God’s love instead of according to the speaker’s past sins and transgressions? Yet we also read of profound hope and trust in God. God is a gracious teacher, and the speaker is a student willing, almost desperate to learn.

  • What are your spiritual reflexes like when you are afraid? Do you approach God with mixed emotions, like the speaker? Have you ever reminded God of your understanding of God’s character, as this poet does, and expected God to act accordingly? How do you allow God to be your teacher?

Philippians 2:1-13

In Philippians, Paul repeatedly encourages his readers to be joyful despite suffering from external persecution and internal disagreement. Paul suggests that humility is the primary virtue and praxis for this community. He tells them have the same “mind” as was in Christ Jesus and inspires them with a hymn recollecting both the flesh-and-blood person who suffered a horrible death and the majestic Lord who was equal with God before and after his suffering. By imposing their experience of suffering and their hope for resurrection onto Jesus, perhaps the Philippians were able to “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling.”

  • In a culture that seems hell-bent on avoiding suffering at all costs, is it possible for the church to proclaim a vision in which suffering, especially for the sake of another, is part of the pilgrim’s journey? Is it possible to proclaim and live into the joy that can accompany both suffering and the redemption from suffering?

Matthew 21:23-32

In this text, Matthew continues to build the tension between the Jerusalem Temple authorities and Jesus. They confront him by demanding to know why he dares to disrupt the temple’s “profit-center” and by what power he heals people who flock to him. Perhaps Jesus knows that whatever answer he gives, it will not be the answer the temple authorities want to hear. So rather than giving a direct answer, Jesus responds with a question about how they view another radical, John the Baptist. Matthew shows us the calculation that goes into their unimpressive response. Then Jesus then tells a parable, which reveals that his authority comes from the kingdom of God and casts judgment on those who have too much at stake in the current system to consider the call to repentance.

  • Imagine that you are one of the temple authorities. Can you remember when you have had too much at stake to answer a question directly? What or who were trying to protect? In retrospect, were you like Jesus – helping people to see truth more clearly ? Or like the Pharisees – purposefully evasive in service of self- or institution-interested power?

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Christopher Sikkema

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