Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20+Psalm 19+Philippians 3:4b-14+Matthew 21:33-46
Beginning on Friday at sundown, our Jewish neighbors are in the midst of the festival known as Sukkot which takes place every year five days following Yom Kippur. It is named for the huts or temporary structures that the Israelites, wandering in the desert, constructed for shelter. There are specific instructions about using branches for the roof so that the inhabitants can see the sky. It is to be flimsy, temporary, because the people of Israel were on the move.
These same people have now arrived at Sinai in our journey through Exodus. And today, God makes a covenant with them, and the preamble to that covenant is what we know as the ten commandments. Up to now, the covenants that we have read about have been with Abraham and his descendants, but those descendants are now moving from slavery in Egypt to the land God has promised, and in order to live as a people, united and under God’s blessing, those expectations and stipulations need to be spelled out a bit more clearly.
The first four of these commandments are about God; the last six are about community; and I think that’s significant. If we get the God stuff right, the neighbor stuff should flow right out of that. To belong to God comes with certain responsibilities, but it comes at God’s invitation, not of our own initiative, and a big part of our responsibility is how we are to live in community with one another. And if you are a people wandering in the wilderness, not coveting or stealing or murdering are going to be really important.
In Jesus’s day, the people are still kind of trying to figure out how to live together, and this parable is a good example of how not to.
From the time of the prophet Isaiah, God has a vineyard. So when we hear a parable about a landowner and a vineyard, we immediately identify that landowner with God. And that works pretty well here. The landowner sends his slaves and then more slaves and finally is own son to collect what is owed from the harvest, and each time, that emissary is beaten and killed. It’s a terrible story, really, and foreshadows the crucifixion, which, by the way, will happen in just a few days in the timeline of our readings.
But remember, this is Matthew writing to a small community under persecution by the Jewish leadership, and it’s intended as an encouragement to them. Unlike the account of this in Mark and Luke, Matthew has this part:
Jesus asks what the landowner will do to the tenants when he comes.
And they respond. Jesus is not the one that answers the question. Matthew has the listeners, which in this case are the scribes and Pharisees in the temple that are keeping an eye on Jesus following his clearing out of the moneychangers. In saying that “those wretches” will be put to death, they are, in fact, condemning themselves. It is much like, a little later, they will say to Pilate, “His blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25). They are admitting their culpability in what happens to Jesus.
But again, I remind you, this is an inter-family fight. It may have been used through history to inflame anti-Semitism, but at the time Matthew’s gospel was written there was the Jewish leadership still reeling from the destruction of the temple and trying to shore up their community, and there were those pesky Jesus followers that needed to be excluded.
It is not God, it is not Jesus, who condemns those tenants. There is nothing to suggest that God loves them any less that God loves the ones sent to collect the rent. And Jesus, rather than saying to them, “Aha! You see! You are the wicked tenants,” quotes Psalm 118 and tells them that the blessing that is theirs will go to others. He doesn’t say they are outside of the bounds of God’s love. Not ever.
I don’t know how many of you have been to Jerusalem, but the Via Dolorosa, the Stations of the Cross, meander through the Old City leading to Calvary and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As you make your way into the church and up a staircase to what is held to be Golgotha, you come to the 12th Station of the Cross which is the Greek Orthodox high altar, and underneath that altar, there is a hole in the floor where you can reach down and touch the rock of Cavalry. This place of the crucifixion was the place where rejected building stones were piled – the rejected stones – outside the city walls, and this was where Jesus was crucified.
It is fitting, because Jesus stood with the rejects and the outcasts and those on the margins. The first thing he did after cleansing the temple was to heal the blind and the lame, those who were not permitted into the temple courts. The rejected ones, just as Jesus was rejected. Just as those sent by the landowner in our parable were rejected.
And yet. And yet. God is faithful. Just as God was faithful to the people of Israel wandering through the wilderness, God is faithful to those who rejected Jesus. God never gives up on us. No matter how many times we mess things up. No matter how many denials or failures.
Our lectionary compilers left out the last line of this part of the Exodus reading. After Moses tells the people not to be afraid, the text says, “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). Yes, God is in whatever thick darkness we are in, whether it is the political season or the pandemic or financial concerns or mental health or anything else. God is there. Don’t be afraid to go where God is.
This is how much God has promised to love us, without limit. There is nothing we can do to earn that kind of love. But from the very beginning, God showed us the way to belong, to be a community: love God, love neighbor. God will take care of the rest. Do not be afraid.