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Thursday, October 02, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 AND Psalm 19:1-14 OR Isaiah 5:1-7 AND Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46


There’s something in most of us (maybe even all of us) that seems to long to do what is right and live in a world where the people around us do what is right.  Despite the evidence that many of us miss the mark (maybe don’t even aim for it), I like to think that there is a divine impulse at work within us (individually and together) urging us toward what some call “righteousness.”


Problems begin to arise, however, when righteousness is expressed through the rigidity of law, when our interpretations of what is right differ and we try to impose our understandings on others, sometimes by force.  We even have a saying, “Might makes right.”  When we clash over our definitions of right and wrong, it is often the powerful who are able to force the weak to submit to their definitions.


Psalm 33 is not one of this week’s readings, but those readings did bring it to mind, so I include part of it here for whatever you want to make of it: “A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.  The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.  Truly the eye of the Lord is . . .  on those who hope in his steadfast love . . .”  (vss. 16-18)


While this week’s lectionary readings do not all directly and centrally address the definition of right and wrong, they can help us reflect on the nature of those definitions, their function, and how they come about.


The reading from Exodus 20 is one version of the Ten Commandments.  (See Deuteronomy 5 for the other prominent version.)  They are presented as God-given, but they are also understood by many as simple rules that are essential to the proper functioning of society as people who live in relationship with one another.  Societies don’t function very well if there are not a few rules about respect and mutual welfare.  Rules are seen as a matter of tribal survival.  Unfortunately fear has often been used to coerce obedience to the laws.  If you don’t obey these commandments you’re going to hell.  Even here we have verse 20:  “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”


Several of the readings use the image of God as owner and planter of a vineyard, his tribes being the vineyard.  It was cared for with deep love, but it didn’t behave as intended.  It didn’t follow the rules of good horticulture.  It yielded only wild grapes. (Isaiah 5:1-3)  God’s people have become wild and unruly.  “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”  (vs. 7)  The vineyard will be allowed to follow the natural path to destruction.


Perhaps it is not as much active punishment for disobedience to the law as it is recognition that total lawlessness and disorder cannot long persist.  We need some order in our lives and relationships if we are to live fruitfully.


Psalm 80 is a poetic expression of the same image.  “You brought a vine out of Egypt . . . You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”  (vss. 8-9)  Now the vineyard is facing destruction.  (vss. 12-13)  The reasons are not spelled out.  Instead the Psalmist cries out, “Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine.”  (vs. 14)


The Gospel lesson is a parable about a vineyard left in the care of tenants.  The owner, who lives in another country, sends slaves to collect from the tenants.  The tenants kill the first contingent of slaves; then, a second.  Finally the owner sends his son, whom they also kill.  (Matthew 21:33-39)  It is tempting to take the path of some theologians and read this as a story about Jesus (the son) being crucified, and many prophets (the slaves) before him.  The immediate application seems related to the specific occasion and audience.  “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Jesus asks.  The respondents assume that it is a parable about punishment for criminal behavior, and it is about consequences.


Jesus summarizes the meaning in verse 43:  “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruit of the kingdom.”  At this point the chief priests and Pharisees who have been listening to the parable “realized that he was speaking about them.”  (vs. 45)  Some have used this parable to suggest that Christians have superseded the Jews in God’s favor.  Rather the parable, I believe, is always speaking to the immediate hearers whoever they happened to be.  It is not any specific tribe that is God’s vineyard.  God’s call is for all to bear fruit, to live “righteously.”  There will always be people who rise to the challenge and others who fall short.  The laws that lead to life are given to inspire and guide all of us, not a rigidly woven straightjacket that defines who is in and who is out.


(As an aside, I note that it would be interesting to come at the parable from a different perspective.  What about the absentee landlord who sends “slaves” to perhaps take advantage of these hard-working tenants?  Did Jesus intend his hearers to notice such nuances in the story?  Worth exploring at another time, or on your own.)


I’ve mentioned before that my wife and I have been reading Rachel Held Evans’ book, Faith Unraveled.  She sometimes comes up with a truly inspiring paragraph or two.  A couple I’m including here are an appropriate part of our discussion of might and right.


“ . . . we all carry around false fundamentals.  We all have unexamined assumptions and lists of rules, both spoken and unspoken, that weigh down our faith.  We’ve all got little measuring sticks that help us determine who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out,’ and we’ve all got truths we don’t want to face because we’re afraid that our faith can’t stand change.  It’s not just conservative Christians.  Many of us who consider ourselves more progressive can be tolerant of everyone except the intolerant, judgmental toward those we deem judgmental, and unfairly critical of tradition or authority or doctrine or the establishment or whatever it is we’re in the process of deconstructing at the moment.  In a way, we’re all fundamentalists.  We all have pet theological systems, political positions, and standards of morality that are not essential to the gospel but that we cling to so tightly that we leave fingernail prints on the palms of our hands.

. . . .

“Taking on the yoke of Jesus is not about signing a doctrinal statement or making an intellectual commitment to a set of propositions.  It isn’t about being right or getting our facts straight.  It is about loving God and loving other people.  The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical: enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity.   The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all---the studied and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious.  Whether we like it or not, love is available to all people everywhere to be interpreted differently, applied differently, screwed up differently, and manifested differently.  Love is bigger than faith, and it’s bigger than works, for it inhabits and transcends both.”


In the epistle reading, Paul attests to the limits of tribal law and custom.  He has excelled in every way in the religion of his ancestors.  (Philippians 3:4b-6)  He counts all that as nothing compared to the life and hope he has found in Christ.  (vss. 7-11)  Most of all he emphasizes that he hasn’t finished the race of life yet.  “ . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (vs. 14—See also vss. 12-13)  Life is always about stretching beyond the limits of any particular codification into the future where God is still speaking.


Finally, Psalm 19, familiar to many, speaks of the Law, stressing its power to revive the soul and rejoice the heart.  (vss. 7-8)  It is “more to be desired . . . than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”  (vs. 10)  Law is not just rigid rules.  Law is a matter of the heart.  It is more than what is written on parchment.  If we are attuned to nature we may find the road to harmonious living.  (vss. 1-6)  Psalm 19 can perhaps be seen as giving us meditative guidance as we seek to move beyond the abuse of power and might to a law written on the heart. 

Some of us grew up using the final words of the Psalm as a unison benediction at the end of worship or heard them as words just before the sermon.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  (vs. 14)  May they be words kept in our hearts and minds as we daily seek to do what is right in personal living, in our relationships with one another, in our national and international dealing with the people of this world.  Hear again these words of Rachel Held Evans:  Whether we like it or not, love is available to all people everywhere to be interpreted differently, applied differently, screwed up differently, and manifested differently.  Love is bigger than faith, and it’s bigger than works, for it inhabits and transcends both.” In Isaiah we read that the owner of the vineyard “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”  There’s still lots of crying.  May the meditations of our hearts be attuned to those cries!


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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