The readings for Sunday, September 21, are Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105, Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16. For more on Psalm 105, see On the Psalms up to September 21. As always you can see the full readings at The Lectionary Page, but here are some highlights.
We start with Philippians 1:21-30, because up to now the New Testament readings have been from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, also known simply as Romans. But this week we begin hearing from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, one of the first churches on the continent of Europe. See Epistle to the Philippians – Wikipedia:
The letter was written to the church at Philippi, one of the earliest churches to be founded in Europe. They were very attached to Paul, just as he was very fond of them. Of all the churches, their contributions (which Paul gratefully acknowledges) are among the only ones he accepts. (Acts 20:33–35; 2 Cor. 11:7–12; 2 Thess. 3:8). The generosity of the Philippians comes out very conspicuously [as noted in Philippians 4:15]…
Bible scholars generally agree this is one of several letters Paul wrote while in prison in Rome, and he began by saying, “living is Christ and dying is gain… I do not know which I prefer … my desire is to depart and be with Christ … but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”
In other words, this is one of those passages that could easily misconstrued as promoting “early death” – especially considering Paul’s being in prison – or as the International Bible Commentary (IBC) paraphrased, “Death, for the Christian, is to be ‘away from the body and at home with the Lord.'” But the IBC also noted that Paul’s meaning is entirely different:
In [his] disembodied state, [Paul’s] condition is one of consciousness, of freedom from sin and of completeness in holiness, and moreover of the joy to which earth has no equal, that of beholding Christ directly and of dwelling in His presence.
Which is another way of saying that life can be a pain, but that we’re all here – each of us – with a job to do. Unfortunately, like all jobs there are peaks and valleys, in that God “has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.”
On that note we return to the Old Testament reading, Exodus 16:2-15, filled with the Children of Israel moaning and complaining in the Wilderness, despite God’s miraculously rescuing them from their slavery in Egypt. But God heard their whining and provided them with food, though perhaps only in an effort to shut them up, even temporarily:
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”
This was literally “manna from heaven.” See Manna – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
Manna is from Heaven, according to the Bible, but the various identifications of manna are naturalistic. In the Mishnah, manna is treated as a natural but unique substance, “created during the twilight of the sixth day of Creation,” and ensured to be clean, before it arrives, by the sweeping of the ground by a northern wind and subsequent rains. According to classical rabbinical literature, manna was ground in a heavenly mill for the use of the righteous, but some of it was allocated to the wicked and left for them to grind themselves.
And finally, in Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus told the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, in which the workers who started late in the day – literally, “at the eleventh hour” – got paid as much as those who had started early and worked throughout the heat of the day. That led to some more considerable complaining (which seems to be a theme for these readings).
Despite the complaining of the “early-comers,” the owner of the vineyard told them, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'” And as one scholar wrote:
[T]he question inevitably arises: Who are the eleventh-hour workers in our day? We might want to name them, such as deathbed converts or persons who are typically despised by those who are longtime veterans and more fervent in their religious commitment. But it is best not to narrow the field too quickly. At a deeper level, we are all the eleventh-hour workers; to change the metaphor, we are all honored guests of God in the kingdom. It is not really necessary to decide who the eleventh-hour workers are. The point of the parable — both at the level of Jesus and the level of Matthew’s Gospel — is that God saves by grace, not by our worthiness. That applies to all of us.
Which is another way of saying that we all get “manna from heaven,” all of it both undeserved and a gift from God, to be received with thanks. Or as Paul said in First Corinthians 4:7:
What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if all you have is from God, why act as though you are so great, and as though you have accomplished something on your own?
The upper image – along with the quote, Who are the eleventh-hour workers in our day? – are courtesy of Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard – Wikipedia, the free …. The full caption for the painting shown in the article reads: “Painting of the parable, by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet, mid 17th century.” The caption-definition of “eleventh hour” is courtesy of eleventh hour – Wiktionary.
See also, at the eleventh hour – Idioms by The Free Dictionary, which defined the term as “at the last possible moment. (Just before the last clock hour, 12),” with the examples, “She always turned her term papers in at the eleventh hour,” and “We don’t worry about death until the eleventh hour.”
The quote from First Corinthians is from The Living Bible (TLB) translation.