The Bach Experience

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Matthew 20: 1-16

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill on Matthew

Here at Marsh Chapel over the last decade we have endeavored to offer our listenership around the globe, and our congregation here in the flesh, a distinctive confluence of music and word, come Bach Sundays. By experiment and practice, we have tried to allow the preaching of the Gospel, God’s external word of grace in sermon, and the music of the church, the praise of God in voice and instrument, to dance together, to become a mutual enrichment, and a call to faith. Over time that has led us, Scott and me, to reform the service and sermon, upon these Sundays, into an antiphonal teaching, including a sermon in dialogue. To our current knowledge, what you hear, here, is sui generis, not like something or anything else, what we hope is a part of what across the oikoumene is distinctive, better and best about Marsh Chapel.

In preparation for the confessional humility of today’s cantata, we give ear to our Holy Scripture. In Matthew 20, in the vineyard, our parable represents the ‘undifferentiated rewards of the Kingdom of God’ as Bultmann put it. The parable affirms divine generosity, and inscrutable divine goodness and generosity. Its point: behold the divine generosity, do not begrudge the divine generosity.

Consider the parable (found only in Matthew). All the workers are paid the same. As in life, so here in Scripture, there is no sure, consistent justice. To be sure, the landowner has paid what he agreed to pay. To be sure, hour by hour, the workers have received what they agreed to receive. To be sure, the daily needs of all for the day to come are met, from each according to his stamina and to each according to his needs. To be sure, the added proverb, about last becoming first and first last fits the parable awkwardly if at all.   The parable acclaims God’s bounteous generosity, not God’s impartial justice.

When a job truly fit and meant for you goes to another, on a shaky or unjust premise or process, you know the feeling of the early workers. When an illness unearned and unexpected afflicts your loved one, you know the feeling of those working among the grapes and feeling the grapes of wrath. When a day begins and ends as an existential illustration of Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet, you know the resentment addressed in the story from Matthew 20:1-16.

Let us attend carefully for a moment to Matthew. In the vineyard, the undeniable difference between equality and justice faces us, as it did Jesus, Matthew, the Rabbis and others. Jesus, loving the amahaaretz, the poor of the land, may have been telling the Pharisees to broaden their embrace. Matthew, among Jews and Gentiles, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, may have been admonishing the former to honor the latter. The Rabbis, in the same period, used the same story, but added that the later workers did in two hours what took the earlier ones all day.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett on Bach  

Today’s cantata offers a similar version of the “Last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” For Bach, the Gospel text for Sunday, August 8, 1723, was the Luke story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, both praying in the Temple. You’ll recall with me that Jesus’s parable depicts the outwardly pious Pharisee praying ostentatiously, taking advantage of the presence of the tax collector to boost his own piety. By contrast the Tax Collector remained in the back of the temple, out of side, head bowed, beating his breast, in complete humility. Bach’s lesson is a heavy handed warning against the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and an injunction to all to align inner and outer attitudes of faith. Furthermore, our own depravity of sin weighs us down, and it is only by acknowledging our sin before God that we may attain God’s mercy and grace. So sit up straight this morning!

We have come to trace the message of these cantatas as a move, broadly speaking, from orthodoxy at the beginning to personal or pietist devotion in the arias back out to the corporate expression of lessons learned in the final chorale. Let’s consider the two arias from the central portion of the cantata first. Each is preceded by a recitative in which Bach’s librettist reminds the listener of the elements of the Luke parable. The tenor leads off by indicting today’s Christians as puffed up, outwardly righteous, and ultimately lacking an inner purity of faith. He sings a scathing aria likening these hypocrites to Apples of Sodom, a fruit that dissolves into ash and smoke once they are picked. Though they gleam on the outside, they are filled with Unflat—filth—and in case you hadn’t guesses it, none of this will hold up before God.

The next pairing of recit and aria brings this message home, a more immediate and personal call to true piety and faith. The bass reminds us that the only way to attain relief from this sinful state is to acknowledge our sins before God. Next comes the most beautiful aria in the cantata. Sung by soprano with two hunting oboes – the oboe da caccia, today played by two English horns – the message is a plangent and pious prayer for mercy. The interweaving oboe lines played over the pulsing continue line setup the soprano’s fervent plea for mercy. In the middle of the aria, she describes the depths of her sin as coming from within her bones, and that they drown her in a deep mire. Listen for the text painting throughout this aria used by Bach to depict the weight of sin.

Without any turn toward promised redemption, the cantata concludes with the expected four-part chorale setting. Here, ‘Ich armer Mensch’ continues the distressed state of the soprano by sustaining the emotion, and thereby, the congregation takes up the soprano’s prayer.

The cantata is decidedly didactic start to finish, with the moral of the story appearing right at the front as the text of the first movement: See that your fear of God is not a hypocrisy, and do not serve God with a false heart. Bach sets this opening movement in an older style of polyphonic writing, and as much as the text is a ‘rule’, he sets it as a fugue. But there’s one element that truly takes this form to heights only possible in the hands of Bach: the second entrance of the fugue is in complete inversion of the original subject, an exact mirror image. Bach’s fugue bears the same message on the outside as on the inside, a musical device to prove the enduring lesson of the Gospel.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill on Matthew

Listen again to the words in St. Matthew, a portion of his gospel that is all his own, unshared by Mark, unshared by Q, unshared in the rest of scripture. Our landowner, through Matthew’s rendering, is called an ‘OIKODESPOTES’, a person of some power. The allegory is clear. God is obliged to nobody. Further, the timing of God’s grace and generosity is God’s own affair, only without prejudice either to the early or to the late. In this way, Matthew concurs with Paul in 1 Thessalonians that the living will not precede the dead, in the hour of judgment.

Our parable does not rely on the famous passage from Exodus 16, read a moment ago. (This is a passage you should know and know about by the way.) Yet the acclamation of divine generosity in both is the same. Evening comes, and morning, and in the morning, there is a sweet hoar frost covering all the ground, a layer of dew under which is the ‘manna from heaven’. ‘The bread the Lord has given you to eat”.

We have again to ponder the labor at the heart of life and the labor at the heart of faith. Faith comes by hearing, but it is an active, ‘employed’ listening that allows for that hearing. Faith is a gift, but is a gift like any other that requires receipt, and response, and embrace, (and a thank you note, too). (If faith comes by hearing it will help if you are in earshot. You truly have nothing better to do for an hour on Sunday than worship.) Faith comes as a gift at the time of God’s choosing, but to labor and live in faith requires of us a steady, even fruitful, practice of faith.   Here is what Paul is driving at in his letters: live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

I wonder about you? and me? Has the unfailing light and love of divine generosity worked on us at all this week? Are we better people than we were last Sunday? Are we able to pray each day? Martin Luther, the 500th anniversary of whose reformation we remember this autumn, recommended morning prayer to include a recitation of the Ten Commandments, a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, morning by morning. Will the remembered humility of this parable in Matthew 20, and the powerful call to contrition today of this music, bring us to our knees, morning by morning? And, are we better, as a people, than we were last Sunday? Luther celebrated the external word—not just spirit and experience. The external word in preaching. The external word in sacrament. The external word in forgiveness (confession and absolution). Can we somehow find our way to church to hear and be fed and receive that external word?

Here too is John Calvin (for once) interpreting this parable: We may also gather that our whole life is useless and we are justly condemned of laziness until we frame our life to the command and calling of God. From this it follows that they labor in vain who thoughtlessly take up this or that kind of life and do not wait for God’s calling. Finally, we may also infer from Christ’s words that only they are pleasing to God who work for the advantage of their brethren. (loc cit 266)

Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’. He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’. He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name’. He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear

“Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear 

“Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear 

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music

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