Israel’s destiny is rooted in the self-disclosure of God. These commandments should be taken not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation of who God is and how God shall be “practiced” by this community of now-liberated slaves. For the Israelites, God and the Way of God is known as Torah; God’s nearness is expressed as righteousness. This version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus was probably written and edited in light of the exile in Babylon. The specific laws would have been selected from among the many social and moral laws over many generations. It is probable that they did not magically drop out of the sky but rather grew out of a people’s understanding of who God was.
The people are first reminded that God has already saved them before, bringing them out of slavery, bringing them into relationship with God. But you can’t help noticing that these commandments are formative of who one is before God and how one lives in response to God.
You will notice that the “commandments”, as we know them come in distinct groupings. The first three commandments are preoccupied with the awesome claims of God’s person—who God is, who God is for us, how we revere and respect God. The fourth commandment honors the majesty of God, but also prepares us for relationship with God and relationship with others. The other six commandments have to do with relationships with others—how we act in the world toward others. It is really very simple: You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (with all that you are, with every essence of your being) And…you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (But it’s interesting to note that there is some conflict in the way the commandments should be numbered. There are several different ways of presenting them between the Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Reformed Protestant traditions. So if that’s confusing, maybe you can just think of them as a call to loving God with all you are, with moving toward being wholly and completely the child of God that you were created to be.)
But God’s grace, as we are reminded, happened before any of these laws were laid down. It is expected, then, that in response to the salvific nature of God, the people will want to respond and stay in relationship with God. In Hebrew, these laws are known as the “ten words”, and for the most part are expressed in brief sentences. Tradition says that God gave these words directly to the people and then later Moses is summoned to receive the tablets on which they are written for posterity. (Exodus 24: 12-18)
Torah, or “law”, is really more about teaching and positive instruction rather than a list of rules, the way we would normally interpret “laws”. Think of it more like the law that we talk about when we say “natural laws” or “the laws of nature”. It is the way things are; it is the way order, rather than chaos and relationship, rather than separation ensues. It is the way that God draws us into God. The purpose of the “law”, then, is to choose life. From that standpoint, it’s probably not always helpful to go through the commandments one rule at a time as if they were a check list. We need to be clear that together they voice the larger and demanding vision of God that defines Biblical faith. (Notice that the second commandment brings into this vision all of Creation. Nothing in Creation is beyond God’s sovereign mystery.
In our modern-day society, there are those who have tried to make these words “law” in the judicial sense, simply by displaying them in courthouses or public buildings. But they are missing the fact that these are not laws to obey but the natural way that we are called to respond to the freedom of God. Rather than dictating what we should do, they depict who we are as a people of God.
It is a monstrous distortion of who and what [God] is to think that the self-revelation which took place on Sinai was nothing more than the proclamation of a legalistic code…
We Christians would do well to remember that the most joyous celebration in Judaism is the yearly feast of Simchat Torah, “the joy of Torah.” On this wild festival day, the Torah scroll is removed from the synagogue and in a long and exuberant parade through he streets of the city, is passed from hand to hand through the crowd. All the while, there is much singing and drinking and dancing. I was privileged some years ago to be in Tiberius, Israel on Simchat Torah. I will never forget the wild joy of the people as they danced through their streets to their holy cemetery, which contains the bodies of some of Judaism’s most revered figured, the great twelfth-century thinker Maimonides among them. After witnessing that energetic parade, and all the joyful faces streaked with sweat, I could never again think that the Torah was a burden for Jews. The Torah was a gift, that much was obvious to me that day. Similarly, the Ten Commandments are God’s gift, not only to the Jews, but to us who would claim that we have been rescued from our slavery, brought out of bondage by a mighty hand, and have been promised a new land. In that new land we are commanded by that God to live together in a community of justice and righteousness. The Ten are the foundation document for that new community…
Our age needs the Ten Commandments again, but not as sterile laws, hung on school room doors and court room walls. We need the living and vital Ten Commandments, all Ten, to remind us of the God who gave them and to remind us of what that God wants us finally to become. (Dr. John Holbert, The Ten Commandments: The Great Texts—A Preaching Commentary, p. 137-138)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What meaning for covenant do you see here?
- In what ways (if any) are these commandments formative for you?
- Which of these commandments or “groupings” is hardest for you—who God is, honoring Sabbath, or relating to others?
- Why do we often try to “legalize” the Ten Commandments?
- What would it mean to think of these Commandments as a “gift”?
NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 3: 4b-14
Some of the language in this passage is just odd for us. The idea of confidence or boasting is usually not looked upon as a positive thing. (I mean, what happened to that whole humility thing?) And boasting because of privileges of birth and circumstance is even more bizarre. But here, Paul is making the claim that where boasting in other circumstances separates us from others, boasting or being in Christ unites all who boast for him. In the realm of the Spirit, distinctions are abolished. No one is better than the next.
This passage begins with Paul boasting about his own life and his own self. In fact, he sort of presents his resume’, as if he is quashing any readers or onlookers who might consider themselves above him. And then, just as quickly, he deflates himself. He essentially now claims that whatever good (or bad) that he’s done in the past is nothing in terms of his knowing Christ. We need to understand that Paul is not tossing away his past. He still claims it—good and bad. It is part of who he is. But he uses it to put it all in perspective. For him, the things that he valued in the past are no longer as important to him. (And the things that he regretted in his past are no longer in his way either.)
Paul now realizes that whoever and whatever he claims to be is because of God through Christ. The promise of new life is what now urges him forward in his journey. He, admittedly, is not there but he sees his journey as one of faith and one of life with Christ. This also sort of disputes those who claim that the “prize”, the “goal”, the “reward”—whatever they choose to call it—is because of who they are or what they’ve done. According to Paul, it is nothing WE do; rather, it is something that God does for us. Our journey, then, is a journey of faithfulness in the hope that God has promised.
We need at least four terms in English—“faith”, “belief”, “trust”, and “faithfulness”—to convey all the meanings of one Greek noun, pistis. The word represents more of a “totality” of life than any one of our translations suggest. To trust in something means to rely on it and complete trust means that there is no need to rely on anything else. So if we put our whole trust in God, we must abandon all other props in our lives. Paul emphasizes that he has not yet reached his goal, but the “yet” shows his trust in reaching it. For Paul, the “prize” for which he is aiming is the realization of his own calling from God brought to fulfillment.
This is also a treatise on faith itself. Paul would claim that blindly following rules of the religion (or even commandments) is not what brings one closer to God. That would be a belief that loses perspective, that lets the rules and the understandings get in the way of one’s faith. Paul is not claiming that he is better than others because he is better-versed in the faith; if anything, he is disputing that very claim.
Paul would probably contend that we are called to strip ourselves of those things that get in the way of our faith, that impede us on our journey toward that oneness with God. Paul is reminding us that included in that is a call to let go of our past, let go of the “I” that we’ve built ourselves up to be, and let go of the understandings that frame how we view God. It is a call to open ourselves to God’s movement in our lives and God’s guidance on this journey that we call faith. We’re all in this together. We’re all the same, journeying toward God, guided by God, thirsting for God. Tony Campolo tells this story in one of his online sermons:
Where do you meet Jesus? Well, first of all I contend you meet Jesus in suffering people. If you look deeply into the eyes of suffering people, you will have this eerie awareness that the same Jesus that died on the cross is staring back at you. Mother Teresa learned that, and I’m learning that.
I was walking down the street in Philadelphia and a bum came towards me. I mean a dirty, filthy guy. He was covered with soot from head to toe. You couldn’t believe how messed up he was. He had this huge beard and there was rotted food stuck in the beard. As he approached me, he held out a cup of McDonald’s coffee and said, “Hey mister, want some of my coffee?” I looked at his dirty, filthy personhood and said, “Thanks, but that’s okay,” and I walked by him. The minute I passed him, I knew I was doing the wrong thing, so I turned around and said, “Excuse me. I would like some of your coffee.” I took some of the coffee and sipped it and gave it back to him. I said, “You’re being generous. How come you’re being so generous today?” And this bum looked at me and he said, “Because the coffee was especially delicious today and I think that when God gives you something good, you ought to share it with people.” I didn’t know how to handle that, so I said, “Can I give you anything?” I thought that he would hit me for five dollars. He said, “No.” Then he said, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve changed my mind, there is something you can give me. You can give me a hug.” As I looked at him, I was hoping for the five dollars! He put his arms around me and I put my arms around him. And as I in my establishment dress and he in his filthy garb hugged each other on the street, I had the strange awareness that I wasn’t hugging a bum, I was hugging Jesus. I found Jesus in that suffering man.
Whenever you meet a suffering person, you will find that Jesus is there waiting to be loved in that individual. That’s why Jesus said, “In as much as ye do it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me.” You cannot reach out to a person in need, you cannot embrace somebody who’s hurting, you cannot minister to somebody who is in desperate straits without having that eerie and wonderful awareness that Jesus is coming back at you right through that person. If there is anything that Mother Teresa would have taught us, that’s what she would have taught us. (Tony Campolo, “Knowing God”, 30 Good Minutes, October 26, 1997, available at http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/campolo_4104.htm, accessed 17 March, 2010).
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What relationship do you see in this to the Exodus passage?
- Are there things on your “resume’” that make faith a challenge for you?
- What happens to us and our relationships when we let things like that come into play?
GOSPEL: Matthew 21: 33-46
This passage continues from last week’s on the question of Jesus’ authority. Perhaps Jesus thought that if they didn’t get the first parable, he’d try another! It’s about a vineyard that has been carefully and lovingly planted by its owner. It is fertilized and watered; it is protected from harm; it is pruned and shaped, then it is tilled and aged to perfection. The vineyard has all of the necessary resources to produce a wonderfully rich harvest. It is the same story of God forming and reforming, of God breathing life into Creation, told a different way. And, again, the one who planted the vineyard entrusts its care to someone else.
But, the text claims, the harvest is not what was expected. Those responsible for the vineyard have not been good stewards. The harvest has fallen prey to greed and selfishness and a lack of trust between the workers and the owner. And so the owner sends his son, an extension and part of the owner’s own self. But the world rejects the son and, thereby rejects the owner. But the vineyard is not a vineyard like those to which the world is accustomed. And in a sweeping reversal, the owner takes that which has been rejected and makes it the thing most precious, the very foundation of the vineyard itself.
The tale is obviously meant to be read as an allegory, which means every word and image essentially means something else. So, don’t get too wrapped up in a literal understanding of it. In the first century understanding of it, the hearers would have remembered another tale of a vineyard from the writings that we attribute to the Prophet Isaiah. That writing depicts the vineyard as the people of Israel, the pleasant planting that had not turned out quite the way that God envisioned. But just as the understanding of God’s Creation becomes wider and more encompassing, the writer of Matthew’s version of the Gospel, takes this vineyard image and lays it out as a metaphor of the whole Kingdom of God, a sweeping reversal of powers and kingdoms to which we are accustomed, a Kingdom built with Christ as the head and cornerstone, the Christ that humanity once rejected. But even that rejection did not undo the vision that God holds. Instead God once again re-visioned the Kingdom and gathered us in. Once again, God invited us into God’s Creative activity. And that makes us, my friends, the laborers.
In the context in which it was written, the addressees are clearly the chief priests and Pharisees, the Jewish leadership, rather than the people as a whole. From that, the writer may be trying to claim that God will replace the false leadership with faithful leaders. But this understanding has through the years fueled anti-Semitism and implied that God has rejected Israel. I don’t think that’s really the intent. Lest we Christians become comfortable with the idea of Jesus rejecting those of the Jewish tradition on those grounds, we need to remember that we, too, are really good at laying out our rules and our understandings of who God is. We, too, are good at shutting people out of the kingdom and presenting a vision that is not in line with the one that God holds.
The focus here has more to do with the making of a new people (or a remaking of the “old people”), which would obviously call for new leadership. But the text claims that God’s people are now called to carry responsibility for enabling Israel, or God’s Kingdom, to bear fruit. The new people will now carry responsibility for tending the vineyard. The rejected stone and his people will assume leadership. The community is now in a position to learn and to celebrate the life of God in the vineyard. But the community is us.
It all but forces us to look at our lives, our specific attitudes and actions, in light of whether they represent an embrace or a rejection of the message of Jesus, the Son of God. As Christians we do well to focus not so much on what the passage has to say about Jewish leaders as what it implies about Christians. The “others” to whom the vineyard is given over in verse 41 are also responsible to the owner, charged with producing the fruits of the kingdom (v. 43).
What implications might this parable hold for how we are producing a harvest for God’s kingdom in our personal and public lives? What would this parable have to say to that troubling relationship we have with our child, our parent? What does it have to say to our inability to forgive ourselves? What does it have to say to us as we live, knowing that someone, whose opinion matters deeply to us, condemns us in some central way? What does this parable have to do with our reflection on the criminal justice system, the death penalty? What relevance might it have to our responsibility to help people in our society who, some would say, have brought their troubles upon themselves? The wicked tenants try God’s patience. So do we. We don’t know how they will respond next to the extended, undeserved mercy of God. How will we? (Alyce McKenzie, “Who are the Wicked Tenants?”, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Wicked-Tenants-Alyce-McKenzie-09-26-2011?offset=1&max=1, accessed 28 September, 2011.)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What is uncomfortable about this passage for you?
- How do you relate that to the Exodus passage?
- This Sunday is World Communion. What does that say about the vineyard?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
If indeed we love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, and strength, we are going to have to stretch our hearts, open our minds, and strengthen our souls, whether our years are three score and ten or not yet twenty. God cannot lodge in a narrow mind. God cannot lodge in a small heart. To accommodate God, they must be palatial. (William Sloane Coffin)
I want to beg you as much as I can…to be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…Do not now seek answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into answer.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letter to a Young Poet)
Christ became human that we might become divine. (Athanasius, 3rd century)
Here in this place new light is streaming, now is the darkness vanished away, see in this space our fears and our dreamings, brought here to you in the light of this day. Gather us in—the lost and forsaken, gather us in—the blind and the lame; call to us now and we shall awaken, we shall arise at the sound of our name.
We are the young—our lives are a mystery, we are the old—who yearn for your face, we have been sung throughout all of history, called to be light to the whole human race. Gather us in—the rich and the haughty, gather us in—the proud and the strong; give us a heart so meek and so lowly, give us the courage to enter the song.
Here we will take the wine and the water, here we will take the bread of new birth, here you shall call your sons and your daughters, call us anew to be salt for the earth. Give us to drink the wine of compassion, give us to eat the bread that is you; nourish us well, and teach us to fashion lives that are holy and hearts that are true.
Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven, light years away, but here in this place the new light is shining, now is the Kingdom, now is the day. Gather us in and hold us forever, gather us in and make us your own; gather us in—all peoples together, fire of love in our flesh and our bone. Amen.
(“Gather Us In”, by Marty Haugen, in The Faith We Sing # 2236)