Trinity 18 – Rules versus relationships
I often find that in the modern world of rapid communication it is often difficult to understand what was really meant. I have a delightful work colleague in the US who if you ever received an email from her, if you didn’t know her, you would think she was well frankly frightening. She knows this, but finds it hard to put across her requests in any other way.
I have stayed at various Air B&B’s recently too and it is easy to see all the signage – don’t do this, make sure you do that, in no circumstances allow x,y, & Z, as the result of a controlling personality, rather than helpful hints to make your stay and their property better and safer. In so many places you get told that not water could well be HOT, that slippery surfaces could be well slippery, and guess what it is a hot day so even though you may never have thought of it drink water. On the face of it all very sensible things, but all together it can quickly come to feel like the ‘authorities’ believe we are due to our own stupidity hardly capable of safely being outdoors.
The three readings today I think tell a very interesting story of how hard it is for humanity to understand what is the true and real purpose of God’s communications with us. In Exodus we get one of several versions of the laws given to Moses on Mt Sinai. In some ways this was the basic summary of the very least that ought to be expected of those who claim both to believe in God, and to seek to live a life worthy of that faith. They are the fundamentals for a peaceful co-existence with others, an ability to life happily as groups or in society, and the building blocks which can lead to spiritual and moral development. In these God reveals Himself as one, there is a single God, and moreover a God who wishes to be known and understood by His creation, because it was made in His image, and He desires it to behave and thrive by living as if that was true. We may not have carved idols which we worship, but without doubt we have other idols that distract us, like fame, and beauty, wealth and power. No blaspheming doesn’t always go so well either, and the Sabbath, well for better or worse that has largely gone by the board. We who take no rest moan the most about being stressed – irony or what?
Honoring parents, well again not a universal success, murder well mercifully still rare, never unknown, but on that one we probably on the whole do quite well. Adultery, well I don’t think I need mention that too much, it hasn’t been a strong suit for humanity in history. Stealing, I am sure we all feel that we don’t, but ask any employed how much stationery goes missing each year and you might find a different answer. Bearing false witness, again sure we don’t feel this is too hard, but how often do we let our pre-conceived ideas of others become not opinions, but the building blocks of facts. When we start a sentence ‘ well their kind of people do x’, how close are we to unwittingly is-representing at best, and quite possibly bearing false witness at worst? And coveting what others have, well it is almost a consequence of the endless drive to persuade us to acquire, to have more stuff, better stuff, bigger cars and houses and so on.
Now this precis of the law was over hundreds of years in OT times pondered upon by very clever and wise rabbis and teachers of the law, and they built up a huge corpus of which the first great collection was called the Mishnah. This sought, and still seeks as it is ongoing, to get to the very heart of what God was trying to communicate through the Torah or the law. In it the law is seen not simply as a long series of rules, but a way of seeing into the purposes of God, how these disciplines can free us live lives freer of the everyday, and more worthy of God and more helpful to our neighbors. And few knew this tradition, and were trained in its finer points than St Paul. Until his conversion on the Damascus road he lives the life of a learned pharisee, but as our epistle shows this morning he continued to use that tradition and sharp mind to understand the place of the law and the limitations of the law once one had accepted the Kingship of Jesus Christ. Before Paul’s training gave him a distinct confidence in his relationship with God, and his righteous standing before God. Once he started to follow Christ and build a relationship with Him, he came to see that the purpose of the law was fulfilled in Jesus, and that the task now was to come to know Him and what His works and deeds – not least His death and Resurrection, His service for others, His willingness to lay down His life, and ultimately how to share in His triumph, the resurrection to eternal life. Paul saw clearly that whilst the law would always be a part of understanding God, it was in truth not enough, which is why in sending His only Son to live as man, and be prepared to die so others might live, we get the best ever real insight into the very heart of what God is trying to tell us. As Paul memorably says ‘ forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ’.
And the parable in Matthew is in itself a precis of the story of the sending of God’s own Son. The landowner has prepared a great future prospect for the tenants, God has given us life in this world of beauty and plenty. But when the time comes for God to expect his share of the fruits, of the harvest, the tenants reject violently that claim upon them, to the end that they slay his Son. God expected those who received blessings to themselves bear fruits share of their excess, respond in kind to the one who first reached out to them with grace and blessing. And as they did not, and did such a dreadful thing, would not any landowner not wish them a dreadful death, surely that would be justice? No Jesus explains, that which earth rejected, the Son, is in fact the cornerstone on which the kingdom of God will be built, and it is amazing in our eyes. God offers grace to all, but those who do not respond in kind and bear fruit will have it taken away and given to others who understand and respond to God’s generous call. And those who heard especially the religious authorities knew he was criticizing them, and were angry and wished to arrest Him – they were only held back by the crowds, who saw Jesus for what He appeared to them to be, a great prophet.
Rules and their like take us so far, but even they need properly understanding and can’t or at least shouldn’t be applied without heart or context. Relationships, the closer we are to God, and to others will inform our life in a fuller way, giving us that context, making better sense of the purpose of God’s desire to have relationship with the creation. Perhaps it turns out that to an extent it isn’t the not doing which we find hardest, it is the doing, the being fruitful, forgiving, merciful and open minded and open hearted. At least I am quite sure that is the wisdom of these readings.