Adventurous Lectionary – October 5, 2014 – Pentecost 17
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Today’s readings speak of the ordering of the universe and the ordering of human life. Too often Christians have misinterpreted Paul’s letter to the Galatians by asserting that Jewish law is burdensome, onerous, and irrelevant to our lives. While Christians have freedom in relationship to any system of law and cultural mores, the laws of the universe and humankind can be reflections of grace rather than forms of imprisonment. They nurture creativity and freedom, enabling us to use our gifts in ways that enhance our own and others’ lives.
The reading from Exodus spotlights the Ten Commandments. As we read God’s commands to the children of Israel, we need to focus first on the preamble. The preamble begins with relationships and not rules. God proclaims his loving-kindness to the newly formed people. God loves them and delivers them from captivity. God establishes a positive relationship with the people that then becomes the basis for a positive relationship among the people. Apart from the admonition to honor God and place God above all other creatures, the commandments focus on our horizontal relationships with fellow humans and creation. When we love God rightly, we will love creation. Our love for one another is a way of honoring and loving God. God does not need to be honored for God’s sake – although our openness to God enables God to be more effective in the world; God is honored so that we can place our lives in a larger and healthier ethical and spiritual perspective.
Put simply, the commandments are about honoring the holiness of life, first by seeing all life as springing from God’s creative wisdom and liberating action, then setting apart times for rest and worship, and finally for having positive and life-affirming relationships with our fellow humans and implicitly with the non-human world. Following these commandments leads to personal and communal well-being.
The Psalm continues this understanding of divine and human law. The passage begins with a hymn to divine creativity reflected in the non-human world. God’s wisdom is proclaimed by all creation, human and non-human alike. God has ordered the galaxies and seasons; God’s wisdom creates the human body. God’s law is manifest in the non-human world, and also in human civilization. The Psalmist’s words remind me of Paul Tillich’s distinction among three kinds of law: heteronomy, law imposed from the outside; autonomy, law that reflects our individual or corporate decisions alone; and theonomy, law that reflects our alignment with God’s vision, our congruence with the dynamic order of the universe revealed in our own lives. The Psalmist’s theonomous vision brings joy to the human and non-human world. It invites us to explore what is best for ourselves and those around us, and encourages contemplation and self-awareness.
The Psalm concludes with the well-known passage, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and redeemed.” How we approach others shapes our relationship with God: we love the creatures by loving the creator and we love the creator by loving the creatures.
In the Philippians reading, Paul shares his own story as a zealous follower of the law, who has discovered a living relationship with the crucified and risen Jesus. Paul is not nullifying the law, but placing it where it belongs, and where Exodus places it, in the context of grace. God’s grace allows Paul to press ahead, looking forward, honoring the past as he aims toward God’s vision for his life.
The Gospel reading accents the grace of God and the consequences of turning from God. The “landowner” does everything possible to save his workers and to bring them back to a positive relationship. They scorn every attempt he makes, violently turning away from the owner’s grace, to the point of killing his own son. A price now must be paid. Their turning away from grace – and the positive laws of relationship – will lead to destruction. A graceful God cannot fully nullify the consequences of our behavior on body, mind, spirit, and social order. Opening to grace awakens new possibilities and energies, turning from grace limits what God can do in our lives. Perhaps, we even have the ability to say “no” decisively to God, making it almost impossible for God to break through our self-destructive orientation. Still, if God is omnipresent, even our opposition is countered by God’s ever-innovative and creative love.