5 October 2014
Exodus 20 – The Ten Commandments
Matthew 21:33-46 – The Parable of the Tenants
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[As you will see, this morning I have pulled back the curtains behind the Altar – this is not by accident or by oversight but to reveal the stone plaques bearing the 10 commandments that are very much carved into the fabric of this church, as they are into many churches].
When Moses brought the ten commandments down from Mount Sinai, amidst the thunder and the lightning and the shaking of the mountain, it marked, in a very real way, the start of a new relationship between God and this band of wandering, freed, slaves who would go on to become the people of Israel.
The Hebrews had been enslaved in Egypt but as their treatment worsened Moses was called by God to free them and, after much tussling with Pharaoh and the affliction of Egypt by many plagues, the people fled across the parted Red Sea into the desert following Moses and bound, they hoped, for the promised land. But things did not go well in the desert – some people prefer well fed slavery to hungry freedom and some people, despite seeing God at work in powerful ways still disobeyed and complained against Moses and turned quickly to idolatry the moment Moses’ back was turned. I am sure you will all be familiar with the image of the golden calf.
These tribes in the desert were God’s chosen people, but it is clear that they were not chosen because of their natural perfection and God decided that the covenant between him and this people would have to be written in law and, indeed, carved into stone.
And so God gave Moses the ten commandments which we have just heard read for us and can see above the altar. Some people take the view that if the church would rediscover the ten commandments, would preach on them more regularly and follow them more closely then all would be right with the world once again. And there may be an element of truth in that but, you know me, I am not going to take the easy or the obvious route.
Of course that is not to denigrate the importance of the ten commandments – far from it – I have no doubt that anyone who took them to heart and lived them in practise at every moment would be far along the route of holiness, and next year’s lent course is going to be all about the ten commandments but that is not where I am going to do this morning.
And the reason is this: the law of Moses did not end with the 10 commandments. Far from it. The rest of the book of Exodus contains more laws about when and how to sacrifice, about the laws of owning slaves, about what happens in the event of being injured, the protection of property, social responsibility, what the priests are to wear and on the law goes into Leviticus which contains lots of dietary laws, purification following disease and illness, cleaning mildew from one’s tent, sexual relations, weights and measures and then even more laws in Deuteronomy.
I sometimes say to people that the bible is a book about relationships not a rule book but there is no getting away from the fact that there are chapters and chapters full of rules. Did you know that Leviticus 19:28 prohibits tattoos? I can tell you from recent personal that most people in Maidstone Leisure Centre haven’t heard of that one.
The Torah – the law – is said to consist not of ten commandments but of 613 – imagine now seeing those carved into the walls of the church – it would make quite a sight.
So God set out his relationship with his people in the Torah and then, after Moses died, the people finally entered into the promised land and they conquered and settled it and the land became theirs – God’s chosen people in the land promised and given to them by God. In many ways the Jewish people saw themselves as having a monopoly both on the land of Israel and upon God, arising from that unique God-given covenant. You could say that they saw themselves as owning the freehold of the land in which they lived and, perhaps, even a freehold on access to a relationship with God.
And then, many hundreds of years later a man called Jesus tells them a rather unsettling story – which we have also heard this morning.
In this story Jesus tells us of a landowner who planted a vineyard and then rented it out to some tenants. This is immediately unsettling because the whole concept of rental and tenancy implies a lack of permanency – certainly not a freehold.
And then the real freeholder, who is of course God, sent his servants back to the vineyard to collect the fruit. But the tenants have either been lazy and have not produced any fruit or they have forgotten who really owns the harvest and don’t want to hand over the fruit of their labour and one after the other they kill the servants. Jesus is doubtless talking here about the prophets who came after Moses and before himself, who sought to bring the people back to God. And then the owner of the vineyard finally sent his own son, who is of course Jesus, in a last ditch attempt to bring the tenants back into a proper relationship with himself. But, even though they are dealing with the son of the landowner the tenants do not change their ways and they kill the son. But the real denouement for his audience is this:
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and he will rent out the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Jesus is saying loud and clear that despite being the chosen people and living in the promised land that the Jewish people are not the freeholders and do not hold a monopoly either on the land or on their relationship with God. What counts in a real relationship with God is not inheritance or birthright but the bearing of real fruit and giving to God what is God’s.
And, of course, when we become followers of Jesus we become the new tenants of the vineyard. But, and here is the rub, as English Anglicans I wonder whether we sometimes think of ourselves as having a freehold on God and all his works. As wonderful as our ancient buildings are I wonder whether they give us too much of a sense of permanence and even entitlement. Because this church has been here for a thousand years and because Christianity has been part of this landscape for even longer do we perhaps feel that we are the chosen people and have perhaps become too complacent in our relationship with God?
If that could be true on any level then let us remember always that God wants us to bear fruit worthy of our calling and we should give thanks that we are here by his grace and not by any entitlement of our own.
And if you are worried about the 613 commandments, or perhaps if you have a tattoo, remember that Jesus also said something very important about the law of Moses,:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
If you can follow those two commands perfectly then you are already a saint, but if you are having any difficulties just keep coming back here with the rest of us and perhaps we can learn together how to be good and faithful tenants in God’s vineyard.