Based on Exodus 20:1-17, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46
It was the day after Christmas in 1989 and Romania was in a state of chaos. The previous day, long-time dictator and Soviet Union puppet, President Nicolae Ceausescu, had been tried and executed following a coup. After decades of totalitarian rule – no one, or more correctly – everyone, was in charge. Western reporters flooded into the country searching for someone who could speak English. Finally they found a woman, and in one sentence she summed up not only Romania’s situation, but also a common Christian conundrum: “We have freedom,” she said, “but we don’t know what to do with it.”
The world has long been divided into those who long for freedom, and those who have freedom but don’t know what to do with it; those who long for God to come and bring justice, and those who fear that God just might. Our scripture readings for today offer us teachings about how to understand and embrace our God-given freedom and the aforementioned tensions. They speak to those for whom this freedom is yet a dream, and to those who feel that freedom under God is an onerous reality.
The Israelites have made it to the foot of God’s mountain but are still in need of direction for how to be a free people under God. God decides to speak directly to the people and give them the commandments so that they will understand how to live lives free and fruitful with God. Jesus continues telling parables to the chief priests and elders. Today’s story is about wicked tenants who would not share the bounty of the vineyard according to the agreement they had with the owner. The Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Philippi about how in his life as Saul he had been without reproach as a Jewish leader. Yet, because of his encounter with Jesus, Saul now transformed into Paul, considered his past righteousness and power under the law to be worthless garbage. Before we proceed any further, let us go to God in prayer and thanksgiving that by following God’s commandments we can become truly free…
God begins speaking directly to the Israelites by reiterating why the people were gathered at the foot of a mountain in the wilderness. God said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;…” God has given them their freedom and has led them to this place in order to give them the structure they need to continue to mold themselves into a free people obedient to God. God goes on to speak to them about the 10 rules for them to develop and maintain right relationship with God and with each other. God begins by helping these people, who had worshipped enumerable Egyptian gods, understand that their freedom comes not from doing whatever they choose, but rather from the One God who answered their laments and delivered them from 400 years of slavery.
Jesus continues his dialogue with the chief priests and elders as he tells them another parable about how God assessed their behaviors and spiritual leadership. Jesus tells about a vineyard owner who not only plants vines but who puts in a large amount of effort (fencing, wine press, watch tower) to enhance the farm. The vintner then signs a contract with tenants to manage it. Once the fruit is harvested, the landowner sends slaves to collect what rightfully belongs to him. The tenants beat and kill the slaves and in turn the owner’s son. Jesus questions the leaders of the Temple about what the landowner will do to judge those wicked tenants who have not followed their contractual obligations.
The Apostle Paul is writing about his change in understanding of how to be free and in right relationship to God. In the past as Saul, as a loyal and zealous Jew and defender of the Law of Moses, he had prosecuted the followers of Jesus. Since his encounter with Jesus, Saul now Paul has had his understanding transformed such that he realizes that his former zeal of defending the law was misplaced. In fact whatever he gained in worldly accolades he now recognized as worthless garbage. Paul understands that his freedom comes not from following the letter of the law or doing whatever he wants, but from “the righteousness from God based on faith.”
I mentioned in the opening that the statement of the unknown Romanian woman, “we have freedom, but we don’t know what to do with it”, highlights the tension of being a follower of Jesus. The sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus has delivered us from our slavery to sin and to death, as our Holy Communion liturgy states, and yet we struggle to understand our freedom within that construct. We neglect the Ten Commandments – even when they are simplified into two overriding concepts of loving God with all that we have and all that we are and our neighbors as ourselves. We don’t like anything or anyone who limits what we can and cannot do with our lives. One only has to look at the reactions to current public health guidelines on mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding crowds and hand washing. We also don’t want to be told who or what to worship – even if those restrictions result in being freed from our slavery to false gods and idols.
Therefore, we search for alternatives to God which come with less restrictions and thus more perceived freedom. What alternatives have humans created to worshiping our emancipating God? One is to worship a different god. However, there is only one living God, who has the power to liberate us from slavery as God did once and for all times by revealing the gods of Egypt as impotent and ineffectual. A second is to make an idol. This is to worship something human made which is always more limited than God; to serve that which cannot liberate – in other words, to return to slavery. A third is to trivialize God by forgetting that God’s name is sacred, by using God’s very name to advance our own plans. The fourth is to make ourselves into gods, which is what both Jesus and Paul teach against. It is, in fact, what all of the prophetic witness and teachings of Jesus point out throughout the Bible.
Understanding freedom cannot come until we understand being free in God. Understanding our freedom in God comes when we understand that everything we have and everything we are comes only from God. At the end of the day, we become free when we realize that no amount of money, college degrees or certifications, job titles, acquisitions, political power, orthodoxy or anything else human-made will ever truly free us. We will only become more and more enslaved to that human creation we serve. Our freedom is assured when we discover what we have been gifted and called by God to do on behalf of God in the world. We truly understand our freedom in God when we can say like Paul, “…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….” Understanding our freedom comes from releasing our death-grip on worldly credentials and acquisitions and instead clinging to our faith in a God who is always loving, faithful and who provides us with the two elegantly simple commandments which free us. Thanks be to God! Amen.