Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
The word ‘commandment’ has unfortunate connotations, and when ten commandments are stacked up in one liturgical reading people get nervous. Nobody likes limitations. Freedom is the highly vaunted human-right du jour; including freedom from oppressive deities. No wonder the monument of the Ten Commandments was removed from Judge Roy Moores courtroom in Alabama as if it were a heavy millstone tied around our necks from a bygone era (did you know it weighed a burdensome 5,280 lbs?!). Thomas Long (homelitics prof. @ Emory) comments, “In the popular consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens…most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-waving ‘Thou shalt not.'” If this is the current disposition toward the famous word of the LORD from Mount Sinai how can we hope to preach gospel freedom from this text of restrictive commandments?
Thankfully, the lectionary had the foresight to include the important preamble to the Ten Commandments, which reminds us that the Israelite’s primary experience of God up to this point was of one who “brought [them] out of the the land of Egypt, and out of the house of slavery.” The Israelites were living a theology of liberation (albeit, as it happened and happens, offering resistance at every turn). Perhaps this is why the Ten Commandments say nothing at all about how the people are to structure their human government–there is no sanction of a monarchy, there is no demanded obedience to human leaders. Instead, at the heart of the commandments, is the Shabbat (the ceasing) of all labor and forced work (note the reference to male and female slave), which is a law so important (linked here to God’s great act of creation) that it applies across the board to all and every (including the animals of the fields, and in Deuteronomy 5 the fields themselves!), and no ruling body (even a master) can offer veto. We are reminded that freedom is not found in productivity and work, the attainment of wealth and glory, and the chaotic scramble to achieve beyond that of another. The alternate vision offered by the Ten Commandments, that not found in Egypt, invites the Israelite people to develop a radical commitment to God, and compassion for their neighbor. The invitation of the Ten Commandments is to find freedom in community by binding the community to the God of freedom. Walter Brueggemann (O.T. prof. @ Columbia Theological Seminary) reminds us that the same God who powerfully declared “Let my people go…” followed with “…that they may serve me.” The freedom found in serving God is a turning away from a life of oppression, and a life of oppressing.
We also note that the Ten Commandments themselves are full of imaginative space and fall far short of the needs of a constitution. Their brevity ensures that the details of life in a God-fearing community be worked out by the careful discernment of community members in conversation with God’s ‘ten-words’ (the Decalogue).
God speaks to his creation both in natural revelation (in what we see and know of God as a result of being a part of God’s creation) and special revelation (what God has revealed to us through the oral or written word). Psalm 19 begins with natural revelation, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, ” and ends with special revelation, “The Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.” The move from natural revelation to special revelation is the path all of us take to come to know God more fully. Psalm 19’s praise of special revelation (as perfect, sure, right, clear, and true) offers a fitting response to the Hebrew Bible lection. Moreover the psalmist’s desire to be one who speaks acceptable words (vs. 14) indicates the trouble we should take over speaking our own words about God.
Paul was credentialed! According to his brief autobiography in Philippians 3 he was a zealous Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, of the sect of the Pharisees, and blameless according to the law. All of this meant that he was well placed within his people and circumstance to enjoy good favor, respect, and privilege. Yet Paul gave it all up as loss in order to know Christ, and then counted that loss as having the value of worthless rubbish. He became an anathema to his previous circles that he might not rely on his own righteousness, but on the righteousness that comes by faith in Christ. But it was not just Christ’s righteousness that Paul was after. There was also a desire on the part of Paul to share in Christ’s sufferings, and be united with Christ in death, so that Paul might also be united with Christ in the resurrection. This early impulse of the Christian community is often overlooked. Christ was not merely a ticket to heaven by providing a loop hole around perfect observance of the Law. Christ was a model of a life lived well, with love of God and neighbor as its central focus. The suffering of Christ was Christ’s participation in the divine life, and his death and resurrection was proof of God’s power over the forces of evil. Christ’s life was a moral influence that called Paul to have full interaction with gentiles and to seek equality for women and slaves (Galatians 3:28), and to be a champion for the poor and the oppressed, even when his advocacy for these very things caused Paul great personal harm.
Ever been set up? Be careful around Jesus, he is good at it. Coming on the heels of Jesus’ authority being questioned Jesus invites his audience to listen to the parable of the wicked tenants. The story is simple–a landowner plants a vineyard and takes care to protect it from harm (building a fence around it, and putting up a watch tower). He then leases the property to tenants and moves to another country. At the time of the harvest he sends his slaves to receive his share of the produce. The slaves are treated poorly, even murdered. He sends more slaves. The same things happen. Finally he sends his son, for the landowner thinks “They will respect my son.” Upon seeing the son the tenants become jealous. The son is the heir. So the tenants plot, “Let us kill him, and get his inheritance.” Before they kill him, they throw him out of the vineyard. This farm your daddy built is no longer your farm–we have taken it over.
At this point Jesus’ audience, the ones who have questioned his authority, the ones who are attempting to throw him out of the farm his daddy built, the ones who will call for his murder, are full of righteous anger at these wicked tenants, and their murderous ways. “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Jesus asks. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” they answer.
The punch line is brutal: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” God is like that, don’t try him. If you murder his servants, and throw his son off the farm, he will send you a prophet to tell you a story, and in the end you will be calling yourself ‘wretches’ and asking for your own death. It will all happen before you realize that the prophet was speaking of you. Your anger will burn hot against that prophet, but what can you do, for the crowd full of outcasts who never received an invitation to the harvest knows a prophet when they hear one. And they are in mass, and you fear them–so the prophet walks away, and you are left to stew in your anger.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the imaginative freedom found in the Ten Commandments! How is that freedom celebrated in our worship? How are the Ten Commandments upheld in our worship (read through each one)? The Ten Commandments are the farm that God built. The harvest of the Ten Commandments is to be a community of love of God and compassion for neighbor. How do we share this harvest with God and the world in our worship? Do we hold back, hoping to receive more for ourselves? Is there a prophet amongst us asking us to listen to a story?