The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, 5 October 2014

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-14

Philippians 3:4b-14
St. Matthew 21:33-46

Background: The Decalogue
It is odd that those things that seem to be universally shared by Christians are often not so.  Here I am speaking especially of the Our Father, which seems to have several different translations and endings, and the Ten Commandments, which has a variety of numbering systems and interpretations.  There are two versions that have come down to us, Exodus 20:1-17 and another version in Deuteronomy 5:4-21. In the main, the numbering systems in the West are a divide between the Augustinian system, which is followed by the Romans and the Lutherans (with the elimination of the “graven images” section, and the Reformed (oddly used by the Anglicans as well).  The Eastern Church uses the system in the Septuagint, which parses the commandment on coveting differently than the other two systems.  The use of the commandments in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer is striking, in that there was a constant reminder to the faithful of the “Ten Words” that God had laid upon the people.
Lutherans have been formed in the commandments by Luther’s Small Catechism, which most everyone had to memorize at one time or another.

Track 1:

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 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."

Even in our word “Decalogue” we hint at brevity.  Some commentators wonder if the lengthier traditions of the commandments aren’t really scribal glosses, written to make the injunction more understandable.  In Hebrew, the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments consist of only two words.  A detailed commentary here, in this blog, over reaches its intent, so some small comments will be entertained here: The First Commandment, “I am the Lord” uses the formal court language of the ancient near east to begin these injunctions.  The Second Commandment allows for no other gods (unlike some of the psalms) and imagines God seated alone, with no other images or presence beside God. No images from “heaven above, or earth beneath, or in the water” are indications of God as creator and ruler of Creation. The use of the Name is clear.  It is not to be used in magic or solemn oaths (probably the votive oaths made in the temples of the Canaanite gods).  The Third Commandment regarding the Sabbath Day also reconnects us with the Creation story.  The Fifth Commandment is not about killing, but rather murder.  The final commandments in all the systems concern the act of coveting – other translations of this word might be, “lusting after”, “desiring, or yearning for”, or “wanting”.  All of us, whether, lector, priest, or worshipper, will have to listen to these words carefully, perhaps read them again before or after worship in a different translation or commentary.  These words are so layered with tradition and misunderstanding, that a bit of an adventure will have to be considered.

People interested in exploring the Declaogue in a new way may want to explore Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski’s excellent film series The Decalogue. Provocative and hard-hitting, it will bring up excellent discussions of each of the commandments.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. What do the commandments mean to you?
  2. Do you live life by them?  How?
  3. What might you add to them?

Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant

The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.

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.

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.

The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.

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.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

If the Decalogue is inextricably connected to the Creation story, then this psalm is an example of such a connection as well.  You might want to compare these verses with those of Psalm 8 that have a similar flavor.  The beauty of creation becomes something new with each passing moment, “One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another.” The beauty is unspeakable, it cannot be contained in words – and thus we are led into the realm of God’s injunctions or words.  Following a paean to the sun, an example of the circuit of the day that displays God’s creative work, we move to the words of God, the teachings.  Now it is not creation that captures the psalmist’s imagination, but the very words themselves, “more desired than gold, and sweeter than honey.” These words of God are the “honey of honeys”.  None-the-less, the psalmist realizes that even with their beauty and taste, these teachings are impossible to keep, “keep your servant from presumptuous sins.” Thus the closing prayer that has introduced more than one sermon or student devotion “Let the words of my mouth…”

Breaking open Psalm 19:
  1. What connections do you see in the Ten Commandments and the Creation Story?
  2. What do you think that the psalmist means when he describes God’s word as being the “honey of honeys”?
  3. How does God’s Word come to you?
Track 2:

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!

There is an implicit structure to this parable, and it is perhaps useful to review it in order to understand it more completely. 

I.               Introduction (verse 1a – b)
II.             Stanza One (verses 1c – 2)
III.           Stanza Two (verses 3 – 4)
IV.          Stanza Three (verses 5 – 6)
V.            Interpretation (verse 7)

In the past weeks we have talked about the riv or dispute.  Here we have a rather formal dispute, structured in the stanzas of the poem.  Thus the first stanza sets up the situation in a description by the prophet, the second, spoken by the one who had planted the vineyard asks for a judgment of the people regarding the actions that the planter made concerning the vineyard. Stanza three, spoken either by the prophet, or by his friend who had planted the vineyard, suggests what he might do to rectify the situation with his vineyard.  In short, what am I to do with these wild grapes? 

In the final verses all of the characters are exposed and revealed.  Israel is the vineyard, and YHWH is the planter and maintainer of the vineyard. We must take careful steps here and not stray into allegory’s field.  This idea of the faithless Israel depicted in another character is also seen in Hosea, or in Jeremiah. The reader bears a heavy burden in this reading, for it is up to us to make judgment, and perhaps to associate it with our own sacred community and its behaviors and relationship with God. 

Breaking open the Isaiah:
  1. As you think of the idea of the vine, what images of the church come to mind?
  2. Do you have “wild grapes” in your life?  Describe them.
  3. What do you with “wild grapes?”

Psalm 80:7-14 Qui regis Israel

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

You have brought a vine out of Egypt; *
you cast out the nations and planted it.

You prepared the ground for it; *
it took root and filled the land.

The mountains were covered by its shadow *
and the towering cedar trees by its boughs.

You stretched out its tendrils to the Sea *
and its branches to the River.

Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?

The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.

Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.

This psalm is called an eduth (“precept”, “treaty obligation”, or “contract”. What follows is not written in that style, and perhaps we are only bidden to frame what follows with an understanding of a covenant with God.  The references to Joseph, Ephraim, and Benjamin (in the initial verses) indicate that the focus of this psalm is on the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and perhaps on its coming problems with the Assyrians.  The prayer is in earnest, “Restore us, O God of hosts.” With the following verse we understand why this psalm was chosen to accompany the Isaiah pericope, “You carried a vine out of Egypt.” God takes careful measures with this vine, clearing a place (casting out nations), preparing the soil, and observing its growth.  The geographical references to the Sea (the Mediterranean) and the River (the Euphrates) indicate the greatness of this planning. It is not only great, but it is compassionate as well, shading creation.  Now the poet/prophet asks the question that is gnawing at all of its hearers, “Why have you broken down its walls?” No longer protected, creation now turns on the vine.  Abruptly the pericope ends with a prayer requesting preservation and care.

Breaking open the Psalm 80:
  1. Has God transplanted you into a new place?  When and where?
  2. How did God support you in your new situation?
  3. How did you return thanks?

Philippians 3:4b-14

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 material that immediately precedes this pericope outlines Paul’s concern about theological threats that are making Christian life difficult for the members of the church in Philippi.  Indeed this whole section (3:2-21) may be one of two or three other insertions into the received text of Philippians.  Here Paul wrestles with what he sees as influence from Judaizers and Gnostics.  This helps us to understand his opening comments in the pericope, namely his credentials as a Jew.  Circumcision is mentioned, along with being a member of the tribe of Benjamin. He doesn’t lay aside the embarrassing parts of his career, namely his Phariseeism, nor his persecution of the church.

In the next paragraph he names what he listed earlier as “a loss because of Christ.” Indeed, he regards all as loss in the face of all that Christ gives.  The issue here is one of righteousness, and Paul questions the traditional understanding of that term.  Before it was about blood (circumcision and birth) but now he sees that status as a result of his relationship with Christ.  There is an athletic metaphor in these passages, about “pressing on” and winning the “prize.” It is interesting that as he makes his argument about the limited nature of a prior understanding of righteousness in Judaism, he uses Gentile metaphors to make his point.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. What do others require of you as a Christian?
  2. Are these requirements consistent with the Gospel?
  3. How do you decide what to do and what not to do?

St. 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.

This Sunday we continue on with the second of the Three Parables that began with last Sunday’s Gospel.  The careful reader will see in the opening of this parable a reference to Isaiah’s story of the vineyard (see the Track 2 First Reading, above). In both the image for Israel is the vine, and again we will tread carefully, being aware of the temptation of allegory.  It seems clear however, that the “slaves” that are sent to the tenants, are images of the prophets, who like the prophets are rebuked, stoned, and killed.  So what is the “fruit” that the slaves are sent to collect? Here we must understand the ancient near eastern treaty (i.e., covenant) and what was due God (and humankind) under the terms of the covenant. The role and person of the “son” and “heir” is clear, and indeed some of the details regarding his treatment are informed by the treatment of Jesus at his crucifixion: the action happens “out of the vineyard”, as the placement of Golgotha outside the city walls. 

Just like the preceding parable, read last Sunday, the hearers answer the questions that Jesus poses to them, “what will he do to those tenants?” Again, they condemn themselves in the answer that they provide. Jesus wonders if they have understood their own Scriptures and quotes from Psalm 118:22-23.  You might want to read the entirety of the psalm in order to understand the context of God’s victory in a difficult situation.  The paragraph that begins, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God…” may indeed be an inserted commentary so that the hearer might understand Jesus’ point.  The chief priests and Pharisees understood, but again, their fear of the crow delays their action. Through these parables we can understand Jesus’ perception of his own people’s judgment of him.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How do you confront those who have done something wrong?
  2. Have you ever followed this procedure outlined in Matthew?  Why not?
  3. How do you confront your own wrong-doings?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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