Tough Gig

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20Matthew 21:33-46

The Ten Commandments is often seen as the end all and be all of moral law: if we just follow those rules, then we'll be OK. If society would just show our allegiance to them, then we wouldn't have any of the problems plaguing us these days.

I would agree that the Ten Commandments do offer a set of moral guidelines. However, I'm not convinced that it is morality that is at its heart: instead, the Ten Commandments offer a grounding in theological focus. The first four are completely focused on God: they consider God's uniqueness, charge us not to fall prey to false idols, not to offer empty prayers or take God's name lightly, and as we honor the Sabbath, as we set aside time in our lives for worship and devotion, this provides the bridge to the rest of the Commandments.

The final six flow from this start: honor your ancestors; don't murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or be jealous. If God is at the center of our lives, then our life has moral grounding. This is not a question of priorities (i.e. we put God first, then family, work, etc.), but rather perspective. If God is creator, then of course we don't murder, for all are created in God's image. If God is the generous source of all, then of course there is no theft or jealousy, because we recognize that we have enough.

In other words, we can have the final six commandments, about how to be in relationship with one another, without the first four. But to do so is to treat them like cut flowers. They are beautiful, and they may last a while. But cut off from their source, they will eventually wither.

Jesus' parable is addressed to those who have let themselves be cut off from that theological source. The New Testament lesson takes place in that final week of Jesus' life. He has already entered Jerusalem with the Hosannas of Palm Sunday; he has cleansed the Temple, directly challenging the religious leaders of the day; and he continues to teach in the open, with those same leaders within the crowds who come to hear him.

The parable, like all of Jesus' parables, is set in that first century context. It is the story of a landowner who planted a vineyard and protected it with fences and a watchtower, not to mention a winepress, a sure statement of hope that there would be a rich harvest. He leases the land to tenants, whose job is to take care of the harvest and to turn over a percentage of the fruit to the landowner. When he sends his servants (or slaves - same word in the original) to collect the rent, the tenants mistreat them - beating, stoning, even killing them. So he sends more servants, who meet the same fate. In the end, he decides to send his own son. And instead of respecting him, these same tenants kill the son, with the thought that the land will become their inheritance.

The parable is, for the most part, a straightforward allegory, where each thing or character is a stand-in for God's reign. God is the landowner (Lord in Greek). The servant are the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and also probably those like John the Baptist. The Son is Christ. The vineyard is ancient Israel, God's covenant people. And the tenants are those religious leaders whom Jesus is confronting.

These leaders have, no doubt, fulfilled that moral and ritual law to the nth degree. But that theological perspective is no longer at the heart of it. In short, they have forgotten that they are tenants and have begun to act like owners.

A word of explanation here, courtesy of Kenneth Bailey: there was a midrashic understanding at the time that if a land were to be untended for three years, such tenant farmers would indeed take ownership of the land. The murder of the son is one way to fend off those three years. But here is the surprising part, given the context: when the landowner's son is killed, it is fully within his rights to send in an armed force to seize the tenants and re-take his land. No one would have questioned him. Instead, though, he sends his son. He withholds the hand of judgment and punishment in favor of mercy and grace. If the tenants accept this offer, then, it is implied, they will receive amnesty for what they have done before. They don't, of course, and the parallels with the crucifixion are intentional and clear.

A real life example of such staying of the heavy hand is told of King Hussein, the late leader of Jordan. In the early 1980s, he learned of a plot being hatched by seventy-five of his army officers to overthrow him in a coup. Those loyal to him asked him to draw up battle plans to quench the uprising. Instead, Hussein asked for a small helicopter. He flew it to the building where the coup was being plotted, and told the pilot, "If you hear shots, fly away."

Hussein entered the room where they were plotting and said, "I understand you want to overthrow me. That, you know, will mean a civil war. Thousands of innocent people will lose their lives. If it is me you want, kill me now. I am here. But do not do this to our people." The officers, as a whole, begged forgiveness. Stability was restored.

Our own faith story has a very different ending. The Son is killed. But we learn something, most importantly, about God's nature in this lesson. God's nature is merciful. And, at the same time, God's nature is judging. The two are inextricably linked. It is the crucifixion which brings the two most clearly together, where the Son is offered mercifully on behalf of our sins which have been judged. And the end result is the hope of salvation.

Friends, we are getting close to our Stewardship season this year. Our theme is "Practicing Generosity, Building Community." The Session is in the process of setting budget. And as we do so, I am well aware of the rub: the church continues to trust on your generosity at a time when the economy is at its most uncertain point in recent history. There is a clear irony in this moment, of course. And before I say more, I offer this important caveat: stewardship is not limited to what we donate to the community of faith to which we belong. God's theological law has a claim not only on the 10%, but also on the other 90, that we would use our resources in ways that serve God's purposes. And, of course, stewardship goes far beyond money to our time and abilities.

That being said, I invite you to this table today, where we are invited into the vineyard to share in its harvest. Let us remember that our moral actions, our ability to do and be good, extends from the theological trust we put in God. We, all of us, yes, even us religious leaders, are mere tenants in the vineyard. No matter what we do, we will never own it. And yet, the table continues to overflow; the vineyard continues to produce fruit; we continue to receive mercy upon mercy upon mercy.