Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
1 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “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.”
33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “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.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 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. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
When we arrive at this part of the Exodus story, it has been three months since the Israelites got out of Egypt by the skin of their teeth, walked miraculously on dry ground through the Red Sea, and watched Pharaoh’s army drown in the waves. Today, they are finally headed south into the vast Sinai Desert.
Along the way over those three months, the Israelites had learned how much God cared for them. When things looked absolutely hopeless, when the people were sure that Moses was leading them down a path to starvation and death, amazing things had happened.
A rock gushed forth water. Manna and quail dropped from heaven. Even as they grumbled and bumbled and yelled at Moses and threatened to go back to Egypt, God loved the people and provided for their well-being.
Now, the Israelites have reached Mt. Sinai where God’s care for them is about to be expressed in another way. God will give them the law, which spells out God’s intention for how the Israelites are to live in community.
What can be said about the Ten Commandments that you haven’t already heard?
What can we say about the Ten Commandments that hasn’t already been put into a movie, plastered on a bumper sticker, or debated in a state legislature?
Some people want to put the Ten Commandments on giant tablets in court rooms or school classrooms. Others would keep the Ten Commandments safely locked away in our churches and out of the public sphere altogether.
Some of us long to return to the day when the Ten Commandments were so much a part of the culture that we had Blue Laws to stop us from doing anything on Sunday. But many of us are grateful for the convenience of grocery shopping on Sunday because we’re so busy during the week.
Some of us wax nostalgic for a time when Sunday meant a quiet day of family devotions that began with worship on Sunday morning and often ended with Sunday evening worship as well. But some of us can’t wait to get home from church on Sunday afternoon and settle in front of our television sets for a day of NFL football or get going on raking leaves in the backyard.
The Ten Commandments can hardly be locked away in a church, because they are already a part of our culture. Many people who have never stepped foot into a church or a synagogue see the Ten Commandments as a list of rules we should follow in order to be good people.
And we sort of like the moral checklist quality of the Ten Commandments. Ten fingers, Ten Commandments, right? We can hold up our hands and look at them at the end of each day and count ‘em down.
“No other gods before me.” Yup, I’m a Christian.
“No graven images.” No problems there.
“Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” We can assure ourselves we did not curse today.
“Keep the Sabbath holy.” Well, we’re in church, right?
Once we get through the first table of our obligations to God, we can begin the second table.
“Honor your father and mother.” We tried our best.
“Do not kill.” Most of us can say we’ve never committed murder.
“Do not commit adultery.” Most of us, but maybe fewer of us, can get to the end of the day and say, “No problem there.”
Most of us, but perhaps even fewer, will have complied with “Do not steal.”
And, of course, by the time we get down to lying and coveting, we may be squirming a bit more than we did when we began.
But most of the time, we may feel that we have lived up to the commandments pretty well. We may even congratulate ourselves. Seen like this, the Ten Commandments may seem palatable, reasonable and not too hard to follow most days. The law seems a reasonable guide to a reasonable life and even if we envy our neighbor’s new car or wish we had gotten the promotion that went to someone else or fudged the truth, well… we try our best.
And thanks be to God, our sins are forgiven. So it’s all good, right?
That’s exactly what I was thinking when something jumped out at me about the Exodus text for today. You will noticthat the lectionary calls for reading only part of the text, leaving out verses 5 and 6.
Verses 5 and 6 read, “You shall not bow down to them and worship them, for I the Lord your God are a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and four generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Why did the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary choose to leave those lines out? Were they trying to protect preachers from having to handle this angry God thing in addition to fitting the Ten Commandments into a 15-minute sermon? Maybe.
Were they trying to protect innocent people in the pews from a jealous God who may not agree that we are doing a pretty good job following the Ten Commandments? That we might not be taking these rules as seriously as God takes them? Possibly.
Then I remembered a trick I learned in seminary from my preaching teacher. She said, when you’re reading scripture, underline everything in it that you think is important. Then go back and look at what you haven’t underlined and let those verses teach you what is important in the text.
And I realized that if I had been underlining Exodus 20:1-20, I might have also left out the part of a jealous and demanding God, just like the folks who put together the Lectionary.
Because, let’s face it. That demanding God is hard. Hard to hear. Hard to follow. Hard to obey.
Some early church folks thought that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament must be two different Gods, because the God of the Old Testament certainly doesn’t sound like Jesus.
And that demanding God is hard to preach, especially to our modern ears. I am not much of a “sinners in the hands of an angry God” kind of preacher, but that is exactly the kind of God we hear in the verses the lectionary left out.
I suspect that the jealous God isn’t much impressed by half-hearted human checklists. Especially when we begin to treat the Ten Commandments like just another idol that we can debate, manage, and rationalize. When we begin to worship the Ten Commandments themselves, and not the jealous, demanding God who gave it to us.
Maybe the law matters to God much more than it does to us. Maybe there is more at stake than a simple checklist or being a pretty good person.
The Hebrew word translated to describe God as, “jealous,” doesn’t mean quite what we think of in our modern minds. “Jealous” in this context does not mean God is a green-eyed monster, or that God envies something we have that God does not. In fact, when the Hebrew is translated literally it means “red in the face,” or “zealous.” The Hebrew adjective portrays a God who is not just jealous, but frighteningly passionate, completely unmanageable and very demanding.
This is a God who is interested in our whole lives and refuses to be relegated to the margins of our lives on a Sunday morning.
This is a crazy, red in the face God, who loves us so much that we are probably wise to feel fearful about including that crazy God in our lectionary reading on an ordinary October Sunday.
Before you reject the idea that God’s love is crazy and unreasonable, just listen to this. You want to know what’s really crazy? This parable that I just read from Matthew. This is a crazy story.
A landowner plants a vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a wine press, and builds a watchtower. Then the landowner hands over the whole operation to tenants and leaves the country. Already, we’re thinking, that’s the dumbest idea ever, right?
When it’s harvest time, the owner sends some servants to collect what is due to him. But the tenants who are minding the store beat, stone and kill the servants. Then the landowner sends some more servants, and the tenants do the same thing.
Clearly this landowner never heard the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.” Because he does it again, only this time, instead of servants, he sends his son and, not surprisingly, the tenants kill him as well.
And here’s where we see the tenants are not very bright, because apparently they are hoping that if there is no heir to the vineyard and the owner stays out of the country until he dies, they will inherit the vineyard. I mean, do the tenants really think they’re going to get away with this kind of behavior forever? Don’t they imagine that the owner will keep sending more servants and more servants? Who’s to say the owner doesn’t have another son, or that he will send a gang of thugs next time?
Can’t the tenants see that their plan is going to eventually unravel? The tenants are nuts thinking if they can just keep killing people and hold on long enough, they’ll get something for nothing.
But you know who is really crazy in this story? The land owner. Think about it. First, he sends servants. And they are beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sends more servants, and the same thing happens. Then he has the really bright idea to send his son – all alone. It’s absolutely crazy, right? Who would do such a thing? Nobody.
Except maybe a crazy landlord who is so desperate to be in relationship with the tenants that he will do anything, risk anything to reach out to them.
The land owner isn’t acting like a rational businessperson, but more like a desperate parent, willing to do — or say — or try anything to reach out to a beloved child. It’s crazy behavior, the kind of crazy that comes from being crazy in love.
When he’s finished telling this story, Jesus asks the Pharisees and the chief priests what they think the land owner will do when he finally goes back to the vineyard. And the Pharisees and chief priest think the way most of us think. All they can imagine is that the land owner will strike down the tenants, returning violence with violence.
But Jesus invites us to imagine a quite different answer. It is possible that the land owner will answer the offense against the tenants, not with violence, but with love. Because the land owner Jesus is talking about in this story sent his Son to all of us who have hoarded God’s blessings for ourselves, and not given God what is owed to God.
And what we owe to God is far beyond checklists. Or doctrine. Or creeds. What we owe to God is everything, our whole lives.
The vineyard has never been ours.
The vineyard has never been ours.
Even when we killed God’s Son, God raised him from the dead and sent him back to us, still bearing the message of God’s crazy, zealous, desperate love for us.
Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. For me, this has been one of those weeks.
The Pharisees and chief priests see the return of the land owner as a threat. Perhaps the compilers of the lectionary also heard the jealous God as a threat. We may even hear the Ten Commandments as a threat, as a series of “do this or else” statements.
But if we take a breath, step back, and listen to the voice of Jesus in this parable, we hear an invitation to accept the desperate crazy love of God offered not once, not twice, but a million times or more to all who will receive it. A God who never, ever gives up. A love that never, ever, ever quits.
That is love we need to hold onto like our lives depend upon it. Especially in this age of violence and rage, with wars and rumors of war. An age in which killing becomes so commonplace, it is easy to become numb and think this is just the way the world is and we have to get used to it.
Knowing we are loved and opening ourselves to receive the crazy love of God, changes everything.
Knowing we are loved, we will respond to the law, not only by not killing, but living in peace and gentleness, doing everything we can to support the goodness and fullness of life for all.
If we know we are loved, we will not only not steal, but we will be content with the blessings we receive, and seek to share them with everyone.
If we know we are loved, we will not only observe the Sabbath day, but seek out what is holy each day, even in our ordinary day, knowing God is in each moment.
If we know we are loved, we will speak boldly and courageously of God and God’s purposes.
We will not only honor our own parents, but reach out to all of those who are sick and lonely who need our time and our compassion.
We will not only be faithful to our spouses and children, but also work to live with integrity and honesty in all our relationships.
Instead of reaffirming what good people we are, the Ten Commandments directs us to God’s goodness. It is not a moral checklist, but a promise that we are made for love, and that God will never, ever, ever give up on us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.