The Ten Commandments! - such a foreboding name. In fact, it's not a very good name for them. The Hebrew means: The Ten Words, The Decalogue. It is the revealed Word of God.
A little bit of context: the Israelites have been in the wilderness for three months after being freed from slavery in Egypt. During that time God has provided them with fresh drinking water, and sustained them with manna and quails to eat. Now on the day of the third month, God asks Moses to get everyone ready to encounter God at the foot of Mt Sinai. God will come in a cloud and speak to Moses so that everyone can hear and trust him.
We can understand from this context that the decalogue was addressed to the people as a whole psyche, and each individual is addressed as well. The community has responsibility as a whole, and the individual has responsibility. In fact, there is an ancient Jewish myth that these words were offered to the entire world at the same time and was interpreted into all languages of the earth. And that Israel is the only nation to accept it. This myth illustrates that the Words are universal in application.
So, in what way were these 10 Words offered and received?
The Lord has rescued the Israelites, had cared for them in the wilderness. This was the time that Israel gained its identity as a nation, that is as a nation of Liberation! Their God is the one who liberated them! And now they are joined forever in covenant with this God. It was an expression of love! Although we’re told the Israelites were fearful in the presence of the Lord, that was not their motivation of accepting the decalogue; instead they had a desire to conform to divine will.
Lets look at one Word where both communal and individual adherence is important, the Sabbath. Now in this form the term Sabbath is a verb, not a noun. It is something they did, and everyone did it. "You, your son or your daughter, you male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns." The Jewish Publication Society says that in the sabbath human autonomy is given limits and it "restores all nature to its original state of pristine freedom. Human liberty is immeasurably enhanced, human equality is strengthened, and the cause of social justice is promoted by legislating the inalienable right of every human being, irrespective of social class, and of draft animals as well, to 24hrs of complete rest every seven days."
In these 10 Words (and especially in the sabbath) social affairs become an expression of divine will. Social concern is rooted in religious consciousness. This is where it differs from other ancient near-east societies that had moral laws similar to those in the decalogue for social order, for they were not offenses against God.
As the Bible records the continued revelation of God to the human world, we can see how the decalogue evolves into the laws in Leviticus to help protect people from breaking these 10 Words. To our ears, they sound brutal and exclusive, but that was not the intention. It let them know that they were doing it "right." Leviticus and the rest of the Pentateuch - the Torah - continually offers ways for people to come back into relationship with God. It was freeing! If someone forgot to repent for something, they could make the appropriate sacrifice and return to relationship with God and carry on in joy.
From the gospels we understand that as history develops, Jewish religious leaders allowed the system to be abused and instead of inviting all of Israel to join in this joy - for the poor, the weak, the widows, and so on - it became a burden. So when the Word of God was once again revealed - this time in the person of Jesus Christ - those who were down trodden found their joy in the law again. They found healing and relationship.
We hear Jesus condemnation of the religious leaders in today's Gospel. A little earlier in the chapter (Matthew 21), Jesus cleanses the temple and then, still in the temple he heals the blind and lame. Today’s reading takes place the following day, back in the temple. The chief priests and elders have approached him directly and questioned his authority. This parable is part of his response to them.
Jesus brings their attention to their rejection of the Word of God by their denial of many prophets, including himself. They realise that they have condemned themselves in their judgement of the "Wicked tenants." Because this parable is in response to conflict caused by his healing in the temple, Jesus reinforces that the outcast are favoured by God.
Which leads us to Paul…
In the reading from Philippians, Paul describes his previous life: circumcised member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee; "as to righteousness under the law, blameless." We are to understand that all of this was cause of joy to Paul, even pride. As noted before, the Torah signifies joy! His own adherence of the Law (and indeed his enforcement of it) was a joy to him, not a burden. However, in the revelation of Jesus Christ, it all becomes a loss to him. Not because it was bad, but because of the exultant joy he finds in Jesus Christ. Everything else pales into insignificance. "Rejoice in the Lord," he tells the Philippians again and again.
Paul has seen a new way, a new prize in fact. Not just relationship with God here on earth, but relationship with God in heaven. So, he urges the Philippians not to look behind them, but to keep their eyes forward, keep focussed on the "prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."
And so, we are called to join together, and step by step, moment by moment, move in joyfulness towards God in Christ Jesus. Offer compassion and inclusion to all of creation, by paying attention to where God's word is being revealed to us. Just notice God’s word.
And together, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice."
by Elizabeth McConnell
Jo Inkpin, Penny Jones, Peter Jeffery, Ann Edwards, Elizabeth McConnell