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8th October 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
5 October 2017

Readings

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Writing of today’s reading Maurice Andrew notes that contemporary New Zealanders still see the Decalogue as manageable and concise without apprehending the intricate creative framework that surrounds the law’. His most telling comment about contemporary Kiwis suggests people who keep saying, ‘I was poor, but I did this all by myself, and you can too’ are not liberated but even as atheists are worshiping other gods because they are ignoring the real basis of all life in the world. [1]

That statement recognises our interconnectedness through creation.

It is also in sympathy with the reality that we are a communal species and that is recognised in a statement by the father of the man who, from time to time, is the richest man in the world.

Bill Gates Senior maintains ‘Society has an enormous claim upon the fortunes of the wealthy.  This is grounded not only in most religious traditions, but also in an honest accounting of society’s substantial investment in creating the fertile ground for wealth-creation’.[2]

Matthew 21:33-46

This second parable in chapter 21 repeats the condemnation of the religious elite that was evident in the previous vineyard parable. 

This parable suggests that if those who are ‘the proper religious authority’ do not fulfil God’s call others will be called to the tasks God wishes to accomplish in that time and place.

According to Carter the first century setting of this parable announces judgement on the unfaithful leaders and interprets the defeat of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 C.E. as punishment of them.  The vineyard, Israel, is not destroyed but is given new tenants to care for it. [3]

Francis Wright Beare suggests a different perspective by seeing the parable as Matthew records it looking back on the death of Jesus and understanding the parable in terms of the early church and its continuing conflict with Judaism.[4]

The parable also reflects Matthew’s sub-theme of Jesus as a new Moses forming a new people of God.

The Judaism of the time is therefore being rejected and Matthew’s community are the new tenants of the vineyard.

Sermon

Writing about our Exodus text Maurice Andrew quotes a comment from Bob Edlin in the Listener of the 7th of October 1989.  Edlin suggest that if the Ten Commandments had been written in the language of the crimes bill being debated at that time Moses would have needed enough stone tablets to rebuild Mount Eden prison.  

However what we refer to as the Ten Commandments is actually called the Decalogue, which means ten words. 

The Decalogue is the ten words that expound the benefits of recognising and worshiping the one God who is creator of the universe and parent of all humanity. 

In that understanding people don’t worship other gods, particularly gods of their own making.  If people recognise that there is only one God then worshiping an idol of human construction is daft.  In recognising God as creator of everything all people are family and therefore people will not normally rip each other off, murder or mistreat their family members.  The Decalogue is a positive statement about a world that recognises and worships the one true God.  When people set out to express the meaning of the Decalogue in prohibitive regulations it is just as well they had discovered alternative writing techniques because it took parts of Exodus, the entire books of Leviticus and Numbers and still needed continual amendments and updates, much like our crimes bill.  If all those rules were carved in stone several prisons could be built and concepts like rehabilitation or parole may never have been thought of.

In understanding the Decalogue as a statement about humanity’s relationship to God and to other people helps us understand Gate’s seniors’ statement about an honest accounting of society’s substantial investment in creating the fertile ground for wealth-creation’[5]

We live in community together and not even the deputy prime minster achieved her rise from solo parenthood on her own.  She at least owed her ability to survive as a solo parent to a previous government of a different political persuasion. 

The political tension in our society is between those who see the task of government as creating the fertile ground for wealth-creation and those who believe that government has a responsibility for the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens.

That tension is alive and well in most Western democracies and it could certainly be argued that one of the prophetic roles of the church is to mediate those opposing views.

The problem is that what we call a tension between left and right also exists within the church.  Therefore the prophetic voice is often silenced in the interest of preserving the ecclesiastical organisation. 

In such circumstances Jesus’ words speak as loudly to the contemporary church as they did to the chief priests and the scribes that today’s parable was addressed to.

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. (Matthew 21:43)  

It is important to understand that the kingdom of God is not the church.  But it is the church’s task to follow Jesus’ example and proclaim the reality that the kingdom of God is at hand.  It is the church’s task to encourage people to live, not by just obeying the Ten Commandments, but by living a life so connected with God that the Decalogue becomes a proclamation of the benefits of such a life, rather than a list of prohibitions. 

Like the chief priests and the elders it is the church’s task to encourage people to live a life that creates a community that encourages talented people to prosper but also allows those less fortunate to find fulfilment. 

When questioned about the most important law Jesus responded by saying: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-38)

Reading the story of Jesus’ ministry in the gospels we could easily gain the impression that, from his point of view, loving God with all your heart and all your soul involved loving your neighbour as yourself.  Jesus’ example is that we love God by loving our neighbour and neighbour means the total family of all humanity.

The task of both religious leaders and religious people is to encourage others to live that way and Jesus’ issue with the chief priests and the elders was that they were not fulfilling that role.  Today’s parable and the one that preceded it we read last week make that clear.

The parable is set in a time when the community was organised through a political system called feudalism. Understanding the context when Jesus told the parable helps us peal back the layers of the parable and see how the first audience would have heard the story. 

When we come to read about Saul and David we are given a good explanation of the way feudalism began.  As people moved from a nomadic lifestyle to settled agriculture they were continually raided at harvest time by other groups who hadn’t fully made that transition.  Some groups had even specialised in raiding the crops of others rather that growing their own.  What Saul provided as king was the authority to bring loosely related tribes together as a defensive force when needed.  David added to that arrangement by maintaining a standing army which was not only always ready to defend the farmers but could take the fight to the raiding nations and discourage them from further attacks.  Such protection is not cheap and the original arrangement was that surplus crops were given to the evolving warrior class as protection money.  As generations passed the warrior class became the ruling class and saw themselves as owners of the land rather than security contractors.  The original farming families then became tenants.  Fiefdoms amalgamated into nations by negotiation and force of arms.  Some even became multinational empires.  Those who ruled such empires quickly began to see themselves as more important than the people who just milked cows.  Therefore they demanded multimillion dollar salaries. 

Back on the farm the natives got restless and in Palestine they unsucessfully revolted against Rome and both Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed.  That revolution was brewing when Jesus told these two parables against the chief priests and the elders who where effectively middle management for the Roman Empire.   

Matthew relates this parable from a post resurrection perspective and clearly suggests that Jesus is the murdered son.  But that may not have been part of the original parable. 

Part of the sting for the listening chief priests and elders would have been the hint of a peasant revolt. The parable also suggests that their loyalty was to Rome rather than God’s people they were supposedly serving. 

The suggestion that ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom (Matthew 21:43) clearly hints that those who grow the grapes deserve the fruits of their labour rather than the absentee landlord. 

However the original structure of the parable can only be speculation.  Matthew wrote from a community that was part of the evolution of the church and order within that community is part of Matthew’s agenda.  

Therefore rather than the Roman emperor the absentee landlord becomes God and the murdered son becomes Jesus.  The crime or sin becomes religious rather than socio-political.  The religious leaders are more focused on retaining the religious organisation and their own positions within it.  That indeed is a deadly sin of both church and church leaders throughout history. 

As part of a church movement committed to unity this parable reminds us that many of the divisions within the universal church began when the Spirit took the metaphorical vineyard away from the church of a particular time and place and gave it to those inspired believers who gave the church’s produce to God.  The development of the Methodist church is a classic case where the Church of England failed to minister to displaced and exploited workers, or colonial settlements in North America.  

When the gospel writers went to such lengths to weave the story of Jesus into the Exodus saga of freed slaves becoming the people of God it is hard to imagine that an established church could support slavery and the exploitation of workers.  From that time comes the first verse of our closing hymn that weaves the lives and dignity of ordinary working people into a spiritual experience of the divine realm.  

Forth in your name, O Lord, I go,

my daily labour to pursue,

you, Lord, alone resolved to know

in all I think, or speak, or do.

Looking back to when Charles Wesley penned those words it is easy to see the Spirit taking away the vineyard from the existing church and giving it to an emerging church that produced the fruits of the kingdom.  However church history shows that the more established any branch of the church becomes, the more inclined it is to turn inward and focus on preserving its structure rather than bringing the fruits of the divine realm into the world.

Our challenge therefore as a church and as individuals is to live a life that clearly shows that the Decalogue is a declaration of the freedom available in the divine realm.  The fruits of the kingdom are not formed by legal codes but by living as sisters and brothers with the family of all humanity.

Our calling, as followers of Christ, is to make such fruit real in our world.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999)pp.108-114

[2] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the American Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (Oxford: Lion Hudson plc 2005)p.268

[3]Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.427.

[4] Francis Wright Beare The Gospel According to Matthew (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1981) p.428

[5] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the American Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (Oxford: Lion Hudson plc 2005)p.268

 

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