Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 9 October 2023.
• First Reading: Exodus 20: 1-16 (The Ten Commandments)
• Epistle: Philippians 3: 4-14 (Paul’s boasts – rejected. Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ)
• Gospel: Matthew 21: 33-46 (Parable: The landlord, the vineyard and the tenants. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone)
Most countries have a written constitution which sets out their system of government and which express their overall values and sense of identity.
The US has its declaration of independence and its constitution, modified with amendments as time and events have proceeded. Not that a written constitution is a guarantee of anything. A country can be unspeakably violent and corrupt and yet boast a constitution. Having a constitution does not itself guarantee the rule of law or the absence of dictatorship.
So it is intriguing that the 10 commandments set out in Exodus are the first document – albeit carved into stone – to provide the foundational laws of the People of Israel.
The rest of the law is founded on the 10 commandments and yet these were not the political contrivance of negotiations among the tribes of Israel. They were given at the dictation of God who had already delivered His people from Egypt.
In this sense, Israel was both a theocracy, presided over by its priests, and a tribal confederation led by its tribal leaders. When threatened they would gather together, what was in effect a territorial reserve to see off the threat.
Only later did they adopt a monarchy: that of Saul was a failure, that of David a success and that of Solomon resulted in the division of the land between Israel and Judah.
But the 10 commandments themselves start with God: this is without question or compromise. Duty to God comes before duty to family or to the community. Some of the commandments are themselves explained while others are short, simple and direct.
And the purpose of the 10 commandments was to unite and motivate the people. They would have a sense of identity and of direction for their lives.
And yes, God would come first.
Looking at Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, we find that things had become distorted.
The tenants were ready enough to accept the vineyard from the landowner, and it was already established and provided with a winepress and watchtower.
All they had to do was to work it and to provide the landlord with his share of the earnings.
Now the trouble started. Having charge of the vineyard was fine but yielding its fruit to the landowner was not. No evident grounds for complaint: just a persistent refusal to abide by the terms of the tenancy.
And at first the landlord was willing to be patient, sending messengers, who were routinely abused and some killed. All were rejected.
Finally he sent his son: his direct and personal representative. Surely they would recognize him? But no, they aggravated their own rejection of the landlord.
The parallel that Jesus draws is quite plain. God is the landlord, the vineyard is the promised land and the tenants are the high priests and their supporters.
And yes, He is the Son – the direct and personal representative of God. He was looking for justice and found legalism, evasion, compromise and expediency.
The lessons learned when they returned from exile in Babylon had been forgotten and the synagogues that had started as places to pray and study the law but had become power centres of high legalism and sanctified petty-mindedness.
And yet He also referred to Himself, not only as the Son of God but in expectation of being rejected and killed.
Yet within this there is an even more pressing point, centred on the person of Jesus. The rejected cornerstone.
It would define the dealings of God with His heritage. Many Jews did indeed receive and follow Jesus and the New Testament is a Jewish library.
But what had been closed to the nations of the world would be opened to them. There would be people to follow Jesus in every land where His message was proclaimed and where it was still honoured then there would be disciples.
For Paul, it was Jesus who was the One to define who he was and where he was going. All other social and cultural privileges were set aside in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There simply was nothing else around to rival or supersede it.
There was no other realm or doctrine in which the unearned gift of salvation was available or where forgiveness of sin was the common currency.
There was no other social form which had anything remotely comparable to the Body of Christ in all its richness or variety.
So why would he commit himself to the second and third best when the best was there to be received? Why hold to structures and social forms which would perish in death while the reality of the Kingdom of God was already experienced in this life and the best was still to come?
Why commit to the norms of compromise and expediency when in Jesus the perfect will of God was going to be there as a living and expanding glory and wonder, entered here and now yet flourishing and fruitful into eternity?