A Reading from the Book of Exodus (20:1-4, 12-20)
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. 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. 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. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 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. 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, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 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.”
1 The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
2 One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
3 Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
4 Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
5 In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
6 It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent.
8 The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb.
11 By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13 Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation
of my heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians (3:4b-14)
I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: 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.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (21:33-46)
Jesus said, “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. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 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.” 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’? 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Along the east side of I-71, just a short distance north of the US 35 interchange, there are two large billboards standing in a farmer’s field. Together, they boldly list one form of the Ten Commandments or “Ten Words” as they are called in Hebrew.
I always find displays like this to be rather curious. They lead me to ask, “Why?” “Why did somebody post this here? What exactly is he or she trying to accomplish? Is a simple posting of a set of rules actually going to make anybody live any differently from the way that they do already?
I suspect that displays like this are an attempt to establish some sort of definitive, absolute, objective, and unchanging rules that everybody is required to follow, always and everywhere. But there are at least a few problems with that.
First, as I said, this is “one form of the Ten Commandments.” There are, in fact, multiple forms, each of which differs from the others. In the Bible alone, there are two different versions: the one we heard today from Exodus 20, and another in Deuteronomy 5. The versions that appear in prayer books and catechisms tend to blend the two of them and, therefore, to match neither of them.
Then there’s the numbering problem. Everybody agrees that there are ten, but Roman Catholics and Lutherans number them one way, and other denominations, like our own, number them another way.
But even if we were to agree on a particular form of these regulations, we Christians would be forced to deal with the fact that, from its earliest years, the church has not treated them as absolute and unchangeable, but instead has felt free to modify and reinterpret several of them. While one of them, for example, forbids the creating and worshipping of idols, the interpretation, even in biblical times, was that this included also the making of any images of human beings or other animals; that would rule out almost all religious art; of course the church long ago decided that those sorts of “graven images” were acceptable. The commandment about complete rest on the Sabbath day was modified by Christians even in the first century in two significant ways: first, believers decided not to follow it on Saturdays, but on Sundays, and, second, instead of this “new Sabbath” being a day of complete rest, it became the busiest workday of the entire week for churches. Then there’s the prohibition of what our translation terms “murder”; the Hebrew verb simply means “kill”; and it is used in the Bible for unintentional killing (and the need for a place of refuge to avoid revenge); it is also used in the Old Testament to refer to legal executions (i.e. capital punishment). I think you would be hard-pressed to find Christians who actually insist on upholding all of these commandments literally, on a consistent and unmodified basis.
So again, why do people try to absolutize particular forms of lists like these? Maybe the beginning of these “Ten Words” themselves offers us a clue and a warning. They begin, “I am the LORD your God…; you shall have no other gods before me.” The basic temptation in life, it seems, is to establish something other than God as the absolute. And, despite what people may say, isn’t that exactly what they are doing when they hold up a particular set of declarations, like the Ten Commandments or one of the Historical Documents of the church, as being absolute, unquestionable, unchanging, demanding everyone’s acquiescence for all time? Isn’t that exactly what people are doing when they try to make what they claim to be a completely objective and literal interpretation of the Bible (which just happens to be their interpretation) as the absolute rule of life? And there are many other things, both religious and non-religious, that people make absolutes as well.
Why do we do this? Why do we sometimes create other gods: other absolutes and try, not only to cling to them ourselves, but to impose them on other people as well?
Maybe one of the reasons is that they give us some set of standards which, although they may be challenging, are at least potentially attainable. They provide a set of minimum requirements, which we can at least hope to meet, thinking that, if we do, we are then “off the hook.” We’ve done what we need to do in life. And maybe, we’ve done what we need to do for eternal life.
But Jesus doesn’t provide us with a set of minimum requirements. Instead, he presents us with ultimate goals: goals that we are never going to attain in life. Those goals include not only the two so-called Great Commandments, taken from the book of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, complete love of God and of our neighbor, but even what has to rank as the ultimate, ultimate goal: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).
So how do we know that our actions, as a church and as individuals, are at least on the way to attaining that ultimate goal? Maybe Jesus’ words at the conclusion of today’s parable can provide a clue. In applying that parable to those who are testing him and who, in a few days, will be arresting him, he says that the kingdom of God will be “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” That image leaves us asking, in all that we do, “Are our actions, the way that we live, producing the fruits of the kingdom? Are they building up the kingdom, as Jesus describes it? Are they in accordance with the example that Jesus sets for us” And are they contributing to the remaking of the world to be what God intends it to be?”
Those are much tougher questions, and much less quantifiable, than questions about following a clear-cut set of rules. They force us to depend on the guidance of God’s Spirit and on the Spirit’s discernment by the entire community of faith, not just our own interpretation.
Along with St. Paul, speaking to the Philippians and to us in our second reading, we believe that we have been called by God and sent by God for that building up of the kingdom. But, as one New Testament scholar (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, p. 297) puts it, all the gifts that God has given us “are opportunities for life and response to God. The kingdom comes with limitless grace, but also with limitless demand.”