Based on Ex 20, Philip 3:4b-14, Mt 21:33-46
The “Code of Hammurapi” is one of the oldest existing set of laws (282 of them) and punishments yet discovered. It comes from a Babylonian king who ruled in 1200 BCE. The laws, set up in an “if – then” format, show a scaled punishment system where the rich give up more for a certain transgression than someone who is poor or a slave. The large stella on which the code is carved shows the king receiving the laws from the god of justice of the Babylonians. The reason given for these laws to have been not only declared to the people but also preserved for all time was (as written on the oblisk), “…to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, and to see that justice is done to widows and orphans….”
The Commandments that were given to Moses from God are equally old as the laws of Hammurapi. What started out as 10 Commandments, however, eventually bloomed into 613 mitzvot that an observant Jew needed to follow. These other rules and regs consisted of purity laws, food restrictions, guidelines for keeping kosher and other laws that made life together more predictable and even handed. The building blocks, however, were the initial 10 which were given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. These commands were laid down in stone and have come to us, some 3000 years later, in the same form that they were then. While other laws have come and gone (including those of King Hammurapi) these laws abide – that is they last forever. Let’s have a moment of pr
ayer before we delve further into this amazing truth.
The Apostle Paul is most of the way through his letter to the good people of Philippi. He is talking about how he came to know Jesus and what a difference it has made in his life. Note how the scripture reading begins today – he is listing his Jewish resume for all to know. He was born a Jew and grew up to be a Pharisee – one who was zealous in his pursuit of those who did not abide by the law of Moses. Saul (as he was known then) persecuted the people of “The Way” as the followers of Jesus were known – and we know that he oversaw at least one stoning (the death of Stephen in Acts 7). He states that he was indeed righteous, “…under the law, blameless….” (verse 6) Yet, his conversion experience and subsequent discipleship under Jesus has shown him that his days as a law abiding citizen and leader were reprehensible. He has discovered a righteousness based on faith in Jesus the Christ, rather than his former righteousness that came only from living under the law.
Jesus’ parable from Matthew this morning amplifies this understanding of interpreting the world through living under the law. Jesus continuing dialogue with the religious leaders and the crowds; a dialogue which will reach its climax in Chapter 23. In this parable, Jesus speaks allegorically of the land of Israel which was given to the people following the Exodus. It was a land “flowing with milk and honey” where they would plant vineyards and olive groves and harvest the bounty from God. Yet, the tenants (i.e., the Temple leadership and kings) have failed in their duty to give to God what belongs to God – and to share equitably with God’s people. They have kept all for themselves and have broken the backs of the average Israelites with Temple taxes and collusion with the occupying Romans. They will also kill the son of the vineyard owner – primarily because they do not recognize Jesus as that divine son. Note that this parable got under the skin of the Temple leadership, and they wanted to arrest him, but feared the reprisal of the crowds.
We have to look back, therefore, to where all of this began. Back before the Temple was even a remote vision…back to when the people of God were just a ragtag bunch wandering about in the Wilderness of Sinai – on their way to the Promised Land. Here, God has lead them to the foot of the holy mountain of Horeb. There, God has explained the 10 Commandments to Moses in all of their hearing. All are frightened by God’s thunder, lightning and sound of trumpets and smoking of the mountain. They could not take this and told Moses, “…You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die….” (verse 19) God has just laid out ten directives for their life together with each other and with God. The first four Commandments address how we are to be in relationship to God. The final six address how we are to be in right relationship with each other. This is all well and good, and might have been enough to live by – yet God spends the next 12 Chapters detailing many other aspects of life together and how to worship God appropriately. Including many details about the priesthood and the Tabernacle.
Being a law abiding follower of the One true God just got complicated. A class of priests from the whole tribe of Levi had just been created. A hierarchy of who can be in the presence of God was produced, and the types of sacrifices and how the altar needed to look was elucidated to Moses. I’m guessing that God thought the clearer the rules, the more likely that humans would follow along. Over time, however, sin crept in and corrupted what God had designed. Human avarice led the rulers of the people to look towards themselves more than they looked to the needs of the people; they had forgotten the Abrahamic teachings about hospitality towards the stranger, and caring for the needs of the widows and orphans. People got father and father removed from God through layers of prescribed religious leaders. They abdicated their personal relationship with God and trusted that the priests were looking out for them.
This is where we return to Paul. This is the teaching that lies within this section of this letter. Saul was a good and devout Jew and Temple leader. He did everything according to the law and thus was blameless “under the law” – yet he was persecuting and killing God’s chosen people for following God’s incarnate son. Just like the tenants in the parable, Saul lacked the ability to see that though he was following the Law of Moses, he wasn’t following God. He was being self-righteous and serving his own needs and the perceived needs of his class of people (i.e., Pharisees), rather than being justified and righteous in God’s view towards the people who were following the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.
This is what happens when we follow the letter of the law instead of the spirit. To what end were laws created in the first place? Look again to Hammurapi – they are designed so that the weak and marginalized are not oppressed and so that those who cannot fend for themselves will be taken care of by the larger community. No one is left out of the kingdom of God – just like no one is to be left out of our modern society. But we are like the tenants of the vineyard – we want to keep everything and share nothing. We want to deny that everything we have is a direct result of the great gifts we have been given by our loving and compassionate God. We want to bask in our self-righteousness that we are good people having broken no laws. While millions of people have no access to clean drinking water; 2.5 billion people (1/3 of the world’s population) live on less than $2/day; millions of children around the world are orphaned – in the U.S. that number is about 400,000, with 100,000 of those being eligible for adoption; there are more than 13 million widowed persons (mostly women) in the United States alone, and 800,000 are added to that number each year. Both the widows and the orphans could use some loving care from people like us, yet they most often go unaided.
How did things get so out of whack from the time of the Commandments until now? For one thing, we (the Church) abdicated our primary caregiving role to the government. Yet God, through the Commandments called us into community…to abide with and to care for each other just like we care for ourselves. Sharing our whole lives and resources so that all might have enough; and so none would be lonely or lost. It is not enough to be law abiding individuals – we have to follow the Spirit of the laws. God, through the witness of Jesus the Christ, calls us to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. I wonder how the lives of all those who live in Madison County could be transformed, if we unleashed that kind of love? I wonder how are we called to share the abiding love of God in new ways throughout our community? I wonder how you will respond as law abiding children of a loving and faithful God? Amen.