Words on the Word – Sunday 4th October 2020

Today’s Lectionary Readings:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9 , 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew: 21:33-46

You can read these Lectionary readings here.

Exodus 20

Have you ever joined a club, a society, a union – in fact almost any group of like-minded individuals? Do you remember the first days in a new school or class? Perhaps you have family conferences to discuss shared expectations? All of these come down to the ‘laying down of the law’ and the establishment of exactly what it is that defines the group in question. We love to do it. Even children, getting together to plot membership of their latest “Supergirls HQ” or “Unicorn Club”, will grab a piece of paper and scribble down an agreed list of DOs and DON’Ts. There’s an excitement and thrill of this shared understanding – a special code that unites its members. Sometimes the list of rules is short (like the necessarily punchy rules of Fight Club) and sometimes the list is long (like the 25-page FIDE official rules of Chess). Sometimes it gets silly, although the reported 26,911-word EU regulations on the sale of cabbages turns out to be a myth.

In this passage, God’s people are being re-shaped and re-moulded in their transition between slavery and Egypt and freedom in the Promised Land. What is going to make them special as God’s people? The answer to that, of course, lies in God’s Covenant to them “You will be my people and I will be your God”. The detail of this covenant is hammered out on the two stone tablets as The Ten Commandments. The ‘two-ness’ is important. Unlike the films and the pictures, where we usually see five commandments on each stone, a moment’s thought would reassure you that if God wanted to write down some rules, God would have found a stone tablet big enough to do so, or at least planned ahead enough to write small on the one Moses brought! The two-ness IS the Covenant. It’s the contract – one copy (on one tablet) for God, and the other copy (on the other tablet) for God’s people. The two-ness is even emphasised by the detail that the first set of tablets i broken and their are written out again. Repetition is a biblical theme that always shows us the absolute truth, in the divine sense, of what is happening. Truly, truly I say to you…

These Commandments, then, were all about making God’s people distinct from the neighbouring tribes who had their own belief systems. We see profoundly important details such as strict monotheism (to contrast with the polytheism of their neighbours) , a ban on idolatry (contrasting with the pagan systems which depended on idols), we see a ban on murder (contrasting with the human-sacrificial cultures of others) and a forceful compulsion to honour the marital bed (lineage and ancestry being utterly dependent on secure knowledge of one’s parentage).

Yet let us not get stuck on the Ten Commandments as a restriction of freedoms. They are not all “Thou shalt not” commands – unlike the rather ignorant popular caricatures – but rather a summary of how God and God’s people are going to live together in a distinctive and superior way to all others. God’s motivation is simply LOVE for all of God’s people, and it took all those years for Jesus to point out that actually those ten comandments can be summed up in the formula “Love God and love your neighbour”. As Christians we are not defined by the ten commandments in the same way as those wandering Israelites, again contrary to ignorant popular misceptions. Jesus has given us a new, and arguably much stronger commandment – “That you love one another as I have loved you”. That is surely what makes us, as Christians, distinctive.

Psalm 19

Die Himmel rühmen des Ewigen Ehre! If you have ever sung in a choir or choral society, you are likely to have belted out these fabulous words of Psalm 19 set by Beethoven in his Op. 48 No. 4. You may also know them as “The Heavens Are Telling” from Haydn’s Creation. Either way, we are reminded that this Psalm simply can not be read in a whisper!

The Psalmist here is expressing a delight for Creation in general, and particularly a delight for the mystery of the Sun in its apparent movement around the Earth. How Great Thou Art! we might sing something as well. Sing with me, how great is our God! This goes straight on into a song of praise for “The Law of the Lord”. Note the parallelisms we have mentoned in WOTW before, wherethe first part of a verse is repeated in a slightly different but parallel way to reinforce the point – classical Hebrew poetry. In this Psalm, however, the parallelisms are extended even further as a tumbling succession of verses seeks to put into new words the same basic idea.

When the Psalter was edited and compiled into its current form, it was decided that there would be 150 Psalms. They were arranged into five ‘Books’ – precisely to echo the five-fold structure of the Torah or ‘Law’ (the Pentateuch = the first five books of our Bible), ending respectively with Psalms 41, 72, 89, 106 and 150. In a sense, then, the whole Psalter is a ‘delight in the Law of the Lord’. This Psalm, Psalm 19, acts as a Prologue, a foretaste, to the greatest of all the Psalms, Psalm 119, which is of course placed to be exactly 100 Psalms away. As you read through this Psalm, you may well comes across particularly well-known verses – this has been a source for many songs, prayers and liturgical responses right through the centuries.

All the time, the Psalmist is rhapsodising on the Law of the Lord, not because it is restrictive, but because it binds – through the Law, through the Covenant, the Psalmist is reminded of that great intimacy with God, the Creator of the universe no less.

Philippians 3

Looking forwards and pressing on, not looking back. This is the famous ‘filthy rags’ speech by Paul, and let the reader understand that most translations use extremely euphemistic versions of what Paul actually says in the Greek…

As you know, a great deal of what I do involves working with the bereaved and doing funeral visits – they used to be in the home but more often now they are over Zoom. The hardest such visits are to those families who have no real links with the church themselves, but “Nan’s sister used to go to the Chapel” and they want to give the deceased the best chance of “going to heaven” by having a Christian funeral. As other ministers have pointed out, there are rarely any deathbed conversions to atheism!

I mention that, because I frequently have to listen to the same attempts at point scoring that Paul is parodying here. When asked to expand on the Christian faith of the deceased, the relatives are often left desperately clutching straws. “He was basically a nice person” “He didn’t drink, apart from a sherry at Christmas, and a glass of wine with the evening meal, and a pint with the lads at the weekend” “She loved animals”. Even church members – living ones! – seek to tell me how involved they have been at the church, how long they have been attending, how many roles they have had, how generous they have been in the collection plate, and even how involved their parents were. IT’S ALL FILTHY RAGS. IT’S ALL JUST RUBBISH. NONE OF IT MATTERS.

Really the only necessary statement of Christian faith is “She knew that Jesus loved her”.

In this passage Paul is telling the Philippians that he could have boasted of any number of “points” (which he lists) but ends it all by saying that the only thing of any value is his desire to know Christ more. Furthermore, this is for Paul the ONLY meaning and goal of his life, so Christian discipleship for him is just about ‘pressing on towards that goal’.

Knowing Christ. Not scoring points.

Matthew 21

Possibly the most gory and shocking of Jesus’ parables, this story of the tenants in the vineyard is still a hard read for us today. The reference to vines and vineyards is important though – it’s a well-established Old Testament theme, and the readings paired with this one in the ‘related’ version of the Lectionary readings for today are Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80, although there would have been many other passages that would have been just as suitable. It is well worth looking them up before re-reading the Gospel passage for today. (They can be found in the Lectionary Link at the top of the page.)

Jesus tells a story to highlight the shocking treatment of the prophets before him, and the appalling treatment he himself would endure, even as far as describing his own death outside the city walls (“threw him out of the vineyard and killed him”). God continually calls the people of God back into Covenant, but the people reject that call via the prophets time after time. Even when God incarnate in Jesus comes to speak to them, he too is killed.

Did you not understand the prophecy of the Cornerstone? asks Jesus. You are bringing the consequences upon yourselves. The kingdom of God is enjoyed by those who respond to Jesus, but for those who reject it, the kingdom of God is not part of them. How comfortable are we with the idea of the choice to reject the kingdom of God? Do we may a choice between “heaven” and “hell” or is it more subtly the distinction between living life to the full in the kingdom of God, and living a dminished life which ultimately leads to annihilation by our own choice?

Do post your thoughts in the Comments.

Grace and peace,

Stephen

1 thought on “Words on the Word – Sunday 4th October 2020

  1. Jenny Wilkes

    Hi Stephen Sorry to bother you, just wondered if there was a weekly circuit update note? I’ve not received an email yet. Many thanks Jenny (Streetly)

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