“God’s Law of Love”
October 8th, 2023
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
It is good to be back in the pulpit. Good to be away, Good to be back. And for my first Sunday do I have a nice story of healing? No. Do I have a parable that leaves us feeling challenged but uplifted at the end—like the sower sowing seed? No. I come back to the parable of Matthew that is often called the “Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” Such is our life.
Just another word of context. This is the Sunday that the lectionary has a reading of the story of the 10 commandments. God’s law put into pithy statements of “Thou Shalt Not.” (If you want to read it on your own you can find it in Exodus 20:1-21). I decided to make a nod to the giving of the law by reading the Psalm for the day--which gives us a very positive view of the law.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
We know Jesus often grappled with how the law was being enforced. How it applied to some but not to others. How the wealthy and the powerful seemed to be able to skirt what it asked. How it seemed that the letter of the law was followed, when it was convenient, but the spirit of the law was often turned on its head. Sound familiar?
So, as I looked at the parable of the tenants, I had this feeling that God’s law was looking over my shoulder, poking me in my ribs, making itself known. Don’t forget about me, it was saying. Jesus would have had the law in the forefront of his mind, especially as he was having this heated conversation with the chief priests and elders of the people—you remember, the argument about authority. The gentle reminder that the faithful ones are the ones who do what “the father, Abba” asks, not those who just say they will, but don’t. Jesus doubles down with his next parable. This one is rated R. It contains beatings, killings, even a stoning. A gothic tale indeed.
But in the end, the landowner reasserts authority. The landowner has the last say. The landowner moves on to lease the vineyard to other tenants. Tenants who will do what they promise to do—toil in the vineyard, harvest the crop, and give the landowner the rightful share of the produce. What do we do with this unnerving story? What might it say to our lives?
There was a landowner There was someone in charge, someone who was the ultimate authority. And from the later discussion, we get the idea that this landowner could be seen as God. God the creator. God the one who actually has the ultimate authority over this world. God the one who asks us to care for the earth, to steward it. For we are the tenants. We do not own the land, as our indigenous brothers and sisters understood. This all belongs to God.
I was really taken by how Jesus describes the care that the landowner took in protecting the land. Our owner didn’t just plant a vineyard, this owner put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Are you getting the picture? This owner put in a luxury security system. Made sure pest control was there every month. Did everything to keep out invaders, to try to keep the crops safe, to try to protect the investment.
This piece of land was like a castle in medieval times. It was self-contained. It was a little world unto itself. Let’s call it Eden. And the owner leased it to tenants, let’s say placed humans in this fortified environment, to take care of the land, to till it, and to harvest, to take some of the bounty and to give back what was owed to the owner.
And so the landowner set the alarm to on, gave the security code to the tenants, and went away, sure that every possible protection was in place. But like every Halloween fright story: the call is coming from inside the house! Or to follow in our agricultural theme: there’s a fox in the henhouse! The danger is from within.
Think of what Jesus is saying in terms of the law. You see, the 10 commandments were God’s answer to the question, “How can we serve you? What do you want of us? How shall we live to stay on your good side?” Moses was sent up the mountain to talk to God (because the people were too afraid)—and the 10 commandments were the result.
And let’s not forget that the first time Moses comes down the mountain, he finds that Aaron, his own brother, has fashioned an idol, a golden calf, that they are worshipping—in other words, they are already breaking at least the first few commandments about worshipping God alone, about not making graven images (and who knows what else has been happening at the orgy that was taking place!). A second set of rock hewn commandments has to be fashioned (Moses smashes the first). Because we as humans often listen to the whispering of the snake in the garden. We listen to the egotistical dreams in our heads. We fall into the notion that we have ultimate authority; that we are the end all and be all; that we are the center of the universe; we make the world go round.
The law was God’s way of creating some boundaries. These are things that are out of order. They are common sense, they are courteous, and we sometimes just blow right through them! They were the moat—the hedge of protection that was supposed to put a stop to “out there,” to all the wildness and inhumanity and chaos that exists beyond God’s created world. They constructed a watchtower from which you could see wickedness approaching, you could warn those inside of peril, you could defend from above.
Let’s be honest. We are not a very good people of rule. We don’t like to be told what to do, and what not to do. We chaff at having to follow someone else’s drumbeat. We like to imagine that we can have total freedom, whatever that means. We don’t want to be contained in a box.
And we can see from Jesus’ assessment, that box (God’s law) was often misconstrued, or misrepresented, or mishandled. But as I was thinking about God’s law and this story, I was given a different image—that of the jazz musician. Now from the outside, it might seem like the great jazz musicians have total freedom. They play what they want, right? They just wail to their heart’s content. Out there. Nothing printed. Nothing containing them.
Except that most jazz musicians are not playing by themselves. There are other people playing too. Have you ever wondered how this doesn’t become a train wreck in slow motion? Have you ever heard people playing in different keys all at the same time? It isn’t pretty. So, how does jazz, with its improvisation, with its freedom, keep it all together?
Well, there is a rule. There are boundaries. There is a chord sequence that is agreed upon. And the soloist has freedom to do whatever comes to mind, but that soloist knows that the others on the stage are going to be playing a certain sequence, in a certain key, in a loop. Our soloist can go off into the stratosphere, but when it is time to come back to earth, there will be the well of sound that is the ground of that song, and our soloist will blend back into that ground before the end comes.
The Apostle Paul saw God’s law like the security system, like the others in the jazz ensemble, the rule, the boundaries that allow for our freedom. But our freedom does have a limit—and that limit is love. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 “’All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”
And that reminded me of how Jesus took the law, the 10 commandments, and the myriad laws that came from those 10 commandments, and condensed them down to two simple statements. Two commands that were already written on the hearts and the minds of the Jewish people. Two commands that echo through the Torah and the History and the Prophets. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength.” And “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love was the base, the cornerstone, the intent of what God wants from us, what God asks of us, what God yearns for us. God’s “law” is love. Love for God, Love for neighbor. Love for self. That is the rule we are to live by. That is the sequence of chords that plays under our everyday lives. That is what gives us the freedom to improvise our own, magnificent, rendering of life.
There is a sobering side to Jesus parable. It calls to account all those who have jettisoned the rule altogether. It imagines those who fall on the cornerstone will be broken, and those on whom the law of love falls will be crushed. The chief priests and the Pharisee heard the parables, and realized that he was speaking about them. But instead of repenting, turning their lives around, they gripped onto their power even more (a power based on fear), planning how they would finally get the upper hand.
This is a parable for our time, for us. It calls to account any of us within the vineyard who have fallen away from the rule of love. It asks us to point the accusing finger first at ourselves before we go after everyone else. It says that there are real consequences to choices that we make.
And that there will be a final accounting of how we have lived our lives. That God is a God of justice. And woe to those who think that they can make up their own rules, that love has no part in the equation. I am here to declare: It may not seem it, but love always wins. As Paul tells us, there are many great gifts that God has given us. And “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Jesus’ words are a prod to us to make sure we have the rule of love surrounding our decisions and our lives. Jesus’ words are a push to the church to make sure that we are standing up, and speaking out, and acting in accordance with God’s law of love. We cannot be silent and idle in a time when forces that do not have the rule of love at their core are gaining strength. We should not retreat, we should not be frightened, we should not think they will win. For the Owner of all, the Ruler of all, the Lover of all, is still in charge. And the law of love will never lead us astray.
Jesus’ words today are an invitation: to see the wonderful garden that God has created for us, to be proud of how God has left us to plant, and to tend, and to harvest, and to share God’s bounty. To feel secure in God’s bumpers in the lanes of our lives. To feel safe in the enclosure of God’s love. And to revel in the freedom that affords us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
UPC: I hope that we will be good tenants of God’s gifts.
I hope that we will share the abundance that God has given us.
I hope that we will strengthen the circles of love that exist in this place.
I hope that we will be willing to refine our unique voice.
I hope that we can figure out church after the pandemic,
I hope that we will treasure, always, the gift of God’s law of love.
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.