Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46.
The Law of God is an awesome revelation, but the divine patience is even more profound.
Each of the readings for this Sunday focuses in some manner on God’s requirement — God’s Law. Each passage then goes beyond that requirement in its own way — falling back from its awesomeness (Exodus), setting it in a cosmic and personal matrix (Psalm), contrasting it with God’s righteousness by faith (Epistle), and extending God’s patience with those who reject God’s requirements (Gospel).
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20.
The Torah reading is the most solemn moment in the whole Jewish Torah. The last words of the reading (verses 18-20) emphasize that this is the one and only moment when God speaks in God’s own voice to the people of Israel. All other speech of God is passed on by Moses.
Here only, every Israelite hears God directly. Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, this experience is terrifying and overwhelming to the Israelites, and they beg Moses to do the listening in all future encounters. They promise to listen to Moses, but direct speech from God is too much. “You [Moses] speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (verse 19, NRSV).
What God says in this direct speech is the Ten Commandments. (The verses of our reading are an abbreviated version of all ten.)
These Commandments are addressed to each Israelite individually. The pronouns are singular. YOU (yourself) will have no other gods before me. YOU (yourself) will not murder (verses 3 and 13). Each son or daughter in Israel becomes personally responsible for obeying these “ten words” at the time of their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, the time when symbolically they take their stand at the foot of the mountain.
Two of the commandments have special emphasis in the full text. Down through the ages, Jewish identity among the goyyim — among the nations — will be marked especially by their avoidance of idolatry in all its forms (2nd Commandment) and Sabbath observance (4th Commandment). In these most solemn of God’s words to Israel the people find their identity and their bond to the God who redeemed them from slavery.
And out of the terrifying experience at the foot of the mountain, they commit themselves to hear the mediator of all other torah, Moses.
The Psalm reading places the glory and delight in God’s Torah at the center of human experience. The center — literally. The psalm has three parts. The first celebrates God’s glory in the heavens (verses 1-6), the second praises the perfection of God’s law (verses 7-11), and the third prays for help in the inner life, where “errors” and “hidden faults” threaten (verses 12-14).
The psalmist describes a tremendous arc that moves from the vault of heaven and the glorious course of the Sun (who sees all under its light and heat), through a rhythmic eight-fold liturgy praising the Law (under several adoring synonyms), to the inner mystery of personal error and guilt. Even from these inner threats, only the God manifested in the heavens and the Torah can deliver. Thus the psalmist prays, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (verse 14, NRSV).
The glory of the heavens and the perfection of the Law must finally come home to the inner life of the soul.
The apostle, in his later years and while in prison because of his work for the gospel, speaks in the Epistle reading of his glory and eminence as an Israelite who fully observed the Law.
It appears that some people had been boasting that their religious qualifications gave them higher status than others. Some obeyed God’s Law more fully than others. Some were circumcised while others were not. Some had good Jewish genealogies that others lacked. The result was a ranking of Christians. Some Christians were also observant Jews, others were non-Jews of the “uncircumcision.”
Paul insists that in a boasting match with Jewish Christians, he cannot be bested. He has top qualifications. He was circumcised on the eighth day — the day required in the Law. He is an Israelite, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, trained in the Law as a Pharisee, and in his early days a zealous defender of that Law to the extent that he persecuted the early Jesus followers. And “as to righteousness under the Law” — blameless! (verses 5-6). When measured by the Law, Paul had achieved the highest goals.
However, the great good news of the gospel is that all that is of no value compared to “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus” as the Lord (verse 8, NRSV). In his new life Paul no longer has “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (verse 9).
In the new life available through the resurrection of Christ there are no rankings; no one is more Christian than another. All are together in the union with Christ — equally sharing in this new righteousness of God, and equally sharing in the sufferings that come to those who seek to imitate Christ (verse 10).
In the Gospel reading, God’s requirement is what God expects of those to whom great favors have been shown in the affairs of the world.
The reading is a parable that Jesus told in his controversies with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem in his last days. The parable, commonly called “the wicked tenants,” is clearly an allegory, a deliberate variation on an allegory told by the prophet Isaiah seven hundred years earlier (Isaiah 5:1-7).
The story. The owner of the vineyard has made a full capital investment in a world-class vintage establishment and has turned it over to a group of corporate managers. In time he expects proceeds from his investment, but the managers ignore, abuse, and lynch the representatives he sends to collect. (In the Isaiah version of the allegory, the proceeds looked for are righteousness and justice, Isaiah 5:7). After two batches of representatives have been beaten, abused, and killed, the owner decides to send his son, expecting the managers to respect this son. Instead, the managers think that with the heir out of the way, they can take over full possession of the corporation. Therefore, they throw the son out of the vineyard and have him assassinated.
At this point the story teller asks, What do you think the owner is going to do when he comes back? The people addressed answer, “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” (verse 41, NRSV). The obvious answer expected to such a parable.
The meaning of Jesus’ parable, especially in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, is transparent. The powers that be in Jerusalem are the tenants of God’s vineyard. They have repeatedly denied God the righteousness due from their prosperity (the messengers sent to collect are the Israelite prophets), and now they are in the process of abusing and executing God’s son.
Consequently, Jesus declares, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people [the word is actually “nation,” i.e., an ethnically distinct group] that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (verse 43). The hearers are addressed as those who were heirs of the kingdom of God — but now they will lose that heritage, and it will be given to others more faithful to God’s requirement. (It may be important that this conclusion does not speak of destroying the vineyard, only of changing management — reflecting a time earlier than the destruction of Jerusalem.)
But, is there a reprieve? As it stands, this passage states the Law. Those who have sinned against God’s requirement will be punished. In the 1960’s, my teacher and colleague Marcus Barth used to talk about the resurrection as canceling the guilt of the wicked ones because it reverses the crime. Some have been convicted because they murdered the son, but what happens if the son, by God’s action, is restored to life?
Applying that here, we can see the real message of the gospel if we alter the outcome of the story slightly. When the lord of the vineyard comes, instead of imposing rigorous judgment, he raises the son from the dead, so that the murder is cancelled. The parable itself is still only judgment, still only about the human condition under God’s Law. The parable is pre-resurrection theology!
But the message of the resurrection radically transforms that situation of the tenants. When the trial takes place in the divine court, the son not only is produced alive but himself pleads the case of the guilty ones. (So Paul, at least, would have it.) The charge of murder against the tenants must then be dismissed.
Even these tenants are saved by the grace of God and may respond (as Paul did) by accepting the resurrected son as the Lord indeed, thus entering into God’s true righteousness by faith.
The fulfillment of the Promise — and God’s grace — comes through the Law, not in spite of it.