October 8, 2017

18th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 20:1-20
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15

Matthew 11:25-30


Story has it that before God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, the angel God had offered each of the commandments to other nations. The Egyptians were the first ones to be offered. But they asked the angel to first let them know what kind of commandment that he offered. “Well, it’s something like, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’,” said the angel. The Egyptians thought for a while and then responded, “We can’t accept it because that would ruin our weekends.”

The next stop was the Assyrians and they asked the same question that the Egyptians asked, “What kind of commandment are you offering?” “It’s something like, ‘Thou shall not murder or steal’,” said the angel. “No way!” said the Assyrians, “That kind of commandment would ruin our economy.”

Finally, the angel of God approached the Israelites. But instead of asking the same question that the Egyptians and the Assyrians asked, the people of Israel asked, “How much?” “It is free,” said the angel. They thought for a while and then they responded, “If it’s free, can we have TEN please?!”

Friends, the Ten Commandments were originally seen as a source of joy. This is in line with the Hebrew’s view of God’s law in general. For them, God’s law revitalized their life, not diminished it; God’s law brought gladness into their souls, not burden.

We hear this sentiment often in the book of Psalms, for example Psalm 19, which was used in our Call to Worship this morning. Let’s say the words responsively again:

“The law of God is perfect.

Reviving the soul.

The decrees of God are right.

Rejoicing the heart.

The commandments of God are clear.

Enlightening our spirits.

Here, we hear the adjectives reviving, rejoicing, and enlightening to the describe the law of God.

Our reading from Psalm 25 last Sunday also had the same sentiment. In it, the author sought God’s ways because he wanted to turn his life around. He longed for God’s instructions because they were the only one that could free him from the negative consequences of his sin in the past.

Therefore, for the Hebrews, God’s law was the source of life and freedom from bondage, not death or slavery. We can see this even today in the Jewish celebration of Simchat Torah. It is a festival to celebrate the Torah, the law of God that is believed to be given to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Bible or the Pentateuch. At the beginning of every week, a portion of the Pentateuch, or the books of Moses, is read, starting with Genesis in the beginning of the year and ending with Deuteronomy at the end of the year. Scrolls of the Torah are paraded around the Synagogue with music and dancing.

The event is held every year to celebrate the Torah as a tool of survival of the Jewish people.[1] God’s law has indeed guided generations of Jewish people to survive the persecutions by other nations or peoples.

This is beautifully depicted in the highly-acclaimed Oscar winning movie, Schindler’s List. The movie tells the dramatic story of Jewish survival during the holocaust in WWII.

The movie opens with a Jewish prayer in preparation for the Sabbath. The prayer is like a sacred warning of what is about to happen: the murder of millions of Jewish people, men, women, and children; young and old; healthy and sick; rich and poor; skilled and unskilled.

Close to the end of the movie, after we witness the atrocities being done to eradicate the Jews, we hear again Jewish prayer said in preparation for the Sabbath. By bracketing the movie with the prayer, Steven Spielberg – the director of the movie who he himself is a Jew - cleverly used the Sabbath as the defining moment that outlived the horror that the Jews had to endure. The NAZIs may kill millions of Jews, but they could not eradicate them and, at the end of the war, the commandment to observe the Sabbath remained. We may even say that the commandment was one thing that made the Jews survive the atrocities of the Holocaust.

To understand the Ten Commandments, therefore, we need to understand the context of how they were given. Failure to do so will result in our misunderstanding of the true nature of the commandments. If we read the Ten Commandments out of their context, they would sound as if they were intended to limit and not enrich life.

But the true intention of the Ten Commandments was to help the people of Israel truly live their new life as children not of slavery any longer, but freedom. The Ten Commandments were given to Israel so that life, not death, would flourish in their new land. The Ten Commandments, therefore, was the law of life that replaced the law of death in Egypt.

Martin Luther - the church theologian and reformer whose activism gave birth to the Protestant movement 500 years ago; a movement that the Uniting Church is a part of - said that for every negative commandment in the list of the Ten Commandments, there was a positive commandment behind it. For example, the commandment not to murder is actually the commandment to honour life.[2]

Indeed, at the heart of the Ten Commandments is the call to orientate one’s life to God. This was what Jesus said what he responded to a question raised by a Pharisee (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus was asked to choose the greatest commandment from the Ten Commandments. But, instead of picking one, he summarized all of them as the commandment to love God with everything that we have and everything that we are. For Jesus, this commandment was the core of the Ten Commandments. It was the foundation upon which all of the commandments must be built upon.

Jesus’ second commandment: to love one’s neighbor as oneself, cannot be separated from this first one. We are reminded by the first letter of John (4:20) one couldn’t love God, whom one couldn’t see, if one couldn’t love another person, whom one could see. To love other human beings, therefore, is the fundamental sign of our love to God.

This was particularly relevant in the time when the people of Israel had settled in their new land for many generations. The original event of the Exodus was far behind them and they had forgotten the standard of living that had been spelt out in the Ten Commandments.

We can see their failure being addressed by the prophet Isaiah in our reading today from Isaiah 5. Our passage this morning from Isiah sounds like a love song. But the words of the song actually condemned Israel because of their failure to become the people that God intended them to be.

Isaiah likened Israel to a vineyard that God owned and looked after. But instead of producing good grapes that the owner could use and sell, the vineyard produced sour grapes.

The vineyard owner was understandably disappointed and his disappointment is the metaphor of God’s disappointment of Israel. God had expected Israel to do good by caring for one another, yet they did violence and harmed one another instead. God expected them to be just to one another, yet all that God could hear were the cries of the victims of injustices from the land. The powerful preyed on the weak in complete disregard of God’s law.

Israel had truly abandoned God’s law and failed the covenant that God had made with them. By oppressing the weak and the poor amongst them, they had become like the Egyptians who oppressed them when they were still slaves in Egypt. They had become the very people that God had freed them from.

The same theme reoccurs in our reading today from the book of Psalm. The reading was written during the time when the warnings given by prophets like Isaiah had become a reality. The reading today from Psalm 80 laments the time when Israel had been once again put under chains by foreign power. The author of the psalm questioned God for letting such thing to happen to God’s own people.

Similar to the Prophet Isaiah, he likened the people of Israel to a grapevine that God took from the land of Egypt to be planted it in a new land. God took care of it and it grew strongly, covering the land where it was planted with its branches.

But then the author accused God of abandoning the grapevine and took away the protection that God once provided. The vine was now in such a poor state that wild animals trampled and fed on it, and strangers stole its fruits. The vine represented the people of Israel whose land and nation had been once again destroyed by foreign power.

But the author missed one significant factor in the tragedy: the state that the people of Israel had found themselves in was the consequence of their own doings. The destruction that they now experienced was the result of their own disobedience to God’s law. They had abandoned the law that gives life. As the result, death and desolation now ruled in the land.

So God gives God’s law to us not to diminish us, but so that we can live the best lives possible. God’s law is like the boundaries that God created during the time of creation to keep the power of chaos under control so that life on earth could appear and flourish. God’s law is like the rules that parents give to their children so that they can play and explore and grow safely.

Rita and I have to ‘argue’ with our eight-month-old son, Abia every time we have to put him into his car seat. He doesn’t like to be strapped into the seat. Like everyone else, he wants to be free.

But the restrain is there for his own good; to keep him out of danger. The restrain is necessary not to put him in bondage, but to keep him safe so that he can grow to become a healthy and strong boy.

In a similar fashion, God’s law is given to us not to limit our freedom, but so that we could live out our freedom truly and wisely. We need to learn to see God’s law like the yoke that Jesus offered in our reading from Matthew. God’s law will not make our souls tired by carrying heavy burden; God’s law will make our souls rest, knowing that we are heading in the right direction and becoming the very people that God wants us to be.

So today, let’s fashion our life to the standard that God has given to us because when we do that we will not die, but live. And we will live with joy and gladness in our hearts as we celebrate the freedom that God gives to us. Amen.

Toby Keva

[1] Rabbi Adam Morris in Seasons of the SpiritTM SeasonsFUSION Season of Creation - Pentecost 2 2017, Copyright Wood Lake Publishing, Inc. 2016 (P. 96)                

[2] Seasons of the SpiritTM SeasonsFUSION Season of Creation - Pentecost 2 2017, Copyright Wood Lake Publishing, Inc. 2016 (P. 92)