Rodger really enjoys the beach so we have been to— oh, I don’t know— maybe a dozen or so different beaches in our 26 years of marriage. I’m not a fan of laying around in the sand and getting sand everywhere on me but I do like to walk along the water’s edge, watch children and sometimes adults building sandcastles with moats, and generally enjoy the festive atmosphere. Just about all of those beaches had a long set of rules beach-goers were to follow or risk being asked to leave. Rules like: your dog must be leashed at all times; do not go into the water if the red flag is up; do not go into the water if there is no lifeguard present; and do not leave your trash on the beach. How those rules were to be accomplished were not spelled out. That was left up to the visitors to decide.
When Rodger and I said our wedding vows to one another we promised to follow some rules: I promise, before God and these witnesses, to be your loving and faithful husband, or wife, in plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health; as long as we both shall live. We seek, as best as we can, to follow those rules for our marriage. Occasionally we slip up, of course. Yet, those rules allow us to know what to expect of each other- even when one of us is sick or sad, we are there to support each other. Those vows didn’t tell us how to do those things. We had to figure that out on our own as we went along.
The same could be said of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus. They teach us God’s rules. Now, I’m not real keen on the Ten Commandments in the sense that they are isolated from the hundreds of other commandments that follow them. True, they do happen to be the first ten listed and they likely are the most relatable of all the Exodus commandments from God. Therefore, for today’s sermon, I will talk about the first ten commandments.
Pastor Peter Igo, when preaching on these commandments explains, “in Judaism they are not called the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew term is aseret hadevarim which literally means ‘ten utterances’ or ‘ten statements’ because they are rooted in things that are meant to be in God’s” Realm on earth.
The Ten Commandments are not instructions on how to do or keep those mandates. Some other of the multitude of commandments Moses gave the people from God, if you keep reading them in Exodus, are pretty specific about how to keep them. However, the ten are rules to follow as we go along our faith journey figuring out how to follow them as individuals, or as couples or as a family. We may find guidance elsewhere in Scripture, especially in how Jesus interprets some of them; still, we have to seek those answers. These commandments say something about who we are as God’s people. They characterize us. We are not to be liars, steal, covet, or use God’s name in vain. How we go about not doing those things is up to us. It is not only our keeping of the commandments but an integral part of who we are as believers.
They also reveal that we are to be in awe of God. I’d rather say “awe” than “fear” often the scriptural translation because we are afraid of getting shot, of our spouse leaving us or dying, a tornado coming or terrorists attacking a place where we are. Awe of God reveals that we believe the Lord to be worthy of praise, worship and thanksgiving; that our Creator is so much grander than we are; that our great Teacher knows so much more than we do; and that our Redeemer is incredibly merciful and cares about us abundantly. The Ten Commandments teach us what to do or be, not how to accomplish those things. They enlighten us as to who we are meant to be in God’s eyes- a people who don’t covet, slander, or speak wrongly about someone–or we could say gossip or start rumors–along that line. We aren’t to desire what others have. And finally, the commandments bring us to a place of awe of the Lord.
When the Hebrew people, not yet called the Israelites, received these ten and a multitude of other God commandments, they had just been freed from slavery to the Egyptians. Might they then have thought, we just had to follow the Egyptians rules which were a great burden, now we have to follow all these rules? Was that another form of slavery? “When we bind ourselves to God through such a code of morality,” perhaps sometimes “going against our own opinions, do we lose freedom, or do we gain freedom?” We, as Christians, are said to be set “free” in Jesus Christ yet we still have a moral compass we are called to follow. Yes, we may interpret that morality differently from one another but we realize we are given these rules to work with throughout our lives.
Freedom actually can definitely be found when working within the rules to create a better self and nurture our relationship with God. We are then led to recognize our enslavement to money beyond what fulfills our basic needs, for example. We are then led to recognize that we do want what other people have instead of being content with what we do have. We are then led to recognize that at times we do lie and in the bigger picture of stealing, we do steal. Stealing is bigger here than a criminal going in to rob a bank or jewelry store. We can make a case of stealing from others when we use more energy in our homes than we actually need. An example of trying not to take more energy than we need is when Rodger and I turn off lights after leaving a room in our house. Except for the light over the kitchen sink in the evening, we only have lights on in the room where we are. We don’t need light in rooms where we aren’t. That practice is essentially freeing for us as it is our way to fulfill God’s command not to steal, as unpopular as that use of the word might be.
Before our Gospel reading, Jesus has been questioned by the religious authorities of his day about from where his authority comes. He answers with two parables. The first is the Parable of the Two Sons not to be confused with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
A father told his sons to work in the vineyard. One doesn’t want to and the other one says he will. The son who didn’t want to, changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard. The son who said he would, simply didn’t go and do what he promised to do. Jesus asks the others, “who followed their father’s command?” Well, evidently the people he was speaking to didn’t get what he was trying to teach them so he goes on to our parable. I’ll warn you right now that this parable is harsh. Jesus is trying to wake up these chef priests, or Pharisees, and elders of the Temple and he wants to be plainer now. This parable uses many analogies. The vineyard owner is God, the servants the owner sends out to collect from the tenants are the prophets, the tenants are here the religious authorities who teach the people, and the son is Jesus.
The servants were beaten, killed or stoned. This harkens back to the treatment of the Old Testament prophets. There are many similarities, according to some commentators on this parable, between how the servants in Jesus’ parable were treated and how the prophets were treated. In the book of Jeremiah we read that he was beaten and put in stocks at one point and stoned at another. Another prophet mentioned in that book was Uriah whom the king wanted to kill for speaking against him and Jerusalem. Since the servants were beaten, killed or stoned, the vineyard owner thought that surely his tenants would respect his one and only son (for no other sons are mentioned.) But, of course we know, they didn’t respect him. In fact, they killed him just as the religious authorities would plot to kill Jesus and succeed at it eventually. Quite unapologetically, Jesus asked what the vineyard owner would do when the owner went to the tenants. The chief priest and elders responded, “the owner 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.” Remember who the tenants were? The religious authorities were getting the point that he was referring to them and weren’t at all happy with him. So, what did they do? They plotted to kill him since they couldn’t arrest him because the people thought of him as a prophet.
When we don’t follow God’s and Jesus’ mandates for our lives there are consequences. Our actions have consequences as some lead us farther away from being the believers God wants us to be. We can just as easily be the tenants. No matter who the tenants are, if they live on a parcel of land long enough, they will begin to believe they are entitled to it and the fruits of labor that come from it.
There are three lessons we can draw from our discussion on these two scriptures, according to Rev. Jill Duffield. First lesson- From Psalm 24 we find out “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” We human beings, especially in western society but not only there, are very prone to think we own what we have. I’m sure most of us here do. As Christians, if we read, learn and hear preached the Word of God, we find out that God is the owner of the vineyard, the whole earth, in this case. God has entrusted us to take care of it. Some examples might be picking up trash that someone threw on the ground. I can’t tell you how much bizarre trash I’ve picked up around the church building. In your home or at your office or place of work, is there an attempt at conserving water? One way to do that is to shut off the water while brushing your teeth or washing your hands and turning back on to rinse. That may seem like a small thing but it adds up over the years. Recycling is certainly another way to care for God’s creation rather than dumping materials that can take centuries or even thousands of years to break down into landfills. I, along with many other people who do the same, cart Rodger’s and my recyclables to Indiana State University in Terre Haute once a month because they recycle more than what Union Street in Paris recycles, although that is a very viable option too.
Please hear this again: Jesus teaches us that we do not own the vineyard. That is a totally different way at looking at our lives. Scripturally speaking, we are only tenants in it; tenants who are to take care of God’s creation. There is great freedom in that mandate!
Lesson number two from Rev. Duffield- We too can mistreat the ones God sends. We aren’t always—or perhaps even often– keen on listening to the voices of those trying to teach us what God requires of us. Perhaps there are some here this morning who don’t want to hear this message. We aren’t all that great at welcoming God’s Word into our lives. I’ve used this example more than once but it bears repeating: It is vitally important to our faith journey that we attend Bible Study and/or Sunday School classes. Many churches, including ours, come up against the problem of poor attendance at those two learning opportunities. According to Jill Duffield, and I agree with her, when we consider ourselves religious, righteous insiders, we think we don’t need to learn more.
It is lamentable that today too many people don’t want to think through issues and what they learn for themselves. Too often what is desired instead of thinking for oneself is black and white answers, or a soundbite on the Internet, or a sentence or picture on Facebook or Twitter telling them how and what to think. If we aren’t willing to think about what we hear preached, or what we read or learn about together from the Bible then we are less likely to be the people God’s wants us to be. We are less likely to fully follow the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ mandates for our lives because we don’t think or are afraid to think too deeply about them. We are comfortable just the way we are, thank you very much, However, following God is simply not very comfortable. People of God, our Lord pushes us beyond what we simply accept or believe or what someone else tells us to believe. Our faith is a lifelong journey.
The final lesson Rev. Duffield gives from our scripture passages: God’s commands are to be followed. Followers of Jesus Christ are to have an expansive understanding of God’s mandates, not a diminished one. The evil tenants in Jesus’ parable don’t follow the owner’s commands. John Calvin is thought of as the “father of Presbyterianism and his reading of the Ten Commandments includes not only what the command commends or condemns, but also implications for those admonitions. Calvin writes: “For it is not enough for us to refrain from following all strange gods. … On the contrary, if we really want to keep this commandment, true religion must have first place in us.” In other words, not following other gods is making God are our first priority. Wow! These passages teach us that we are to remember that God is the owner of creation and we are the tenants called to take care of it. We must not mistreat the messengers teaching what God requires of us. And, we are to seek mightily and continually to understand the Word of God and follow it.
May God’s named be praised by the giving and hearing of these words. Amen.