I can’t read these verses from Exodus without hearing my Hebrew professor from seminary tell us that we have mistranslated this text all along the way. “OK,” she admitted, “the words work, but they don’t really fit the flow. They don’t really fit the spirit of the Exodus event,” she argued.
Looking at our confused faces, she sighed in a bit of exasperation. “Look at the first verses,” she told us. We looked at the scratching that the Hebrew language made on our page and puzzled out the words. “God spoke these words,” it said. I’m the one who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery. The “commandments” begin with an act of redemption. The law begins with grace. So why, she asked us, would we assume these are heavy burdens laid on us with wagging fingers and furrowed brows? God isn’t commanding obedience; God is inviting us into a new way of being with these verses. We shouldn’t read them as commandments as much as descriptions.
God says, “I brought you out of slavery, out of bondage, so that you can be the people with no other God. Not the gods of the people around you, not the gods of your own making.” The one who rescued you is the one you can worship. The one who loved you into freedom is the one you can love, so that you can be the people who celebrate that name, who know that name won’t ever let them down. Because the name is the Presence, and the Presence will never leave you. And because I know that you will need help with these concepts, you can have a rhythm, you can have a pattern, and worship and rest will be woven into that pattern. The pattern will be there to help you be who you were created to be. The pattern will keep you close to the Presence, who is with you always.
And because you live in this Presence and follow this pattern, you honor those who give you life and who lead you. And you treasure all of life, knowing that it isn’t to be thrown away for any reason. You honor the covenants that you make between you, covenants of love, covenants of property, covenants of honesty, covenants of communion and community. Because of the Presence and the pattern, you live in peace with your neighbor, you give respect and honor. That is just who you are. That is who you were created to be.
This isn’t a law handed down to be slavishly obeyed under threat of punishment or exile. This is a description of how to fulfill the longings of our hearts. This is the freedom to be what is within us to be. This is a gift given to us by the one who loves us more than we can even imagine. This is us, these ten words. This defines us; this shapes us; this claims us, this Presence and this pattern.
This is who we are always becoming. That’s the reason for the vision, the reason for the planning. How can we better grow to fit the picture that God draws for us here in the book of Exodus? That’s why we continually ask, “How are we doing embracing the Presence and living into the pattern?” And because we struggled and we struggle with both, God sent the Son; God put on flesh and dwelt among us, the Presence in our midst and the pattern of living.
How can we embrace the Presence and follow the pattern for our own lives and in our own community? But also, how can we be the Presence for those who don’t know whose they are yet? How can we live outwardly the pattern so that others are caught up in the hope of being made new? Those are the questions we ask this Sunday. There is a world out there, the world that God so loved that he sent ... us. We need trumpets and smoke. Or do we? Maybe we just need the Presence and the pattern. Maybe we just need to live into the picture God draws in Exodus, chapter twenty. Maybe we need to be more like Jesus. Maybe.
Too wordy? Yeah, that happens to me all the time. Sorry. Trumpets and smoke. But behind it is a sincere desire to be the church of the Presence in a lonely world, to live the pattern in a lost world. God spoke all these words. Let’s live them.
What happens, however, if we don’t? If instead of seeing these words as a description of a way of living that is more whole, more fulfilling, and more connected, we see them as a burden. What happens then? Well, that’s what Jesus is talking about in the gospel text for this week. We are now in charge of the garden, at least that’s the thinking of the workers. “Let’s kill him and get his inheritance.” It’ll be ours. We won’t have to pay; we won’t owe anything. We’ll be in charge of our own world. Never mind that there are plenty of parables telling us we share in the inheritance, we want it for ourselves. We want to make the rules. We want to live by our own strength, by our own wisdom.
With a sigh, I am sure, Jesus asks them to finish his story. He doesn’t want to or doesn’t think he has to. “When the owner comes, what will he do?” They shouted the answer, named “those wretches” and the “miserable death” they deserved. I can’t help but wonder if that was really the end of the story. If Jesus had finished it himself, what would he have said? Would he have said that the owner would try again? Would he have gone on one more time to describe the amazing grace that is available to all of us? Even the wretches.
Or maybe not. Maybe the fact that he didn’t correct the crowd-sourced end to the story means that’s what he would have said too. But he lets it lie unspoken and instead goes on to an appeal. This has happened before, he claims, this is the human modus operandi —this rejecting of the very thing that is good for you, that is supporting you. You have this inclination to want to do everything on your own to be the captain of your own destiny. And you’ll most assuredly mess it up.
He goes on, it seems, to be as harsh as the bloodthirsty crowd a few verses earlier. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Pretty serious. Except, look again. He doesn’t seem to be describing judgment, but consequences. This isn’t an angry God who gets back at those who tried to steal the garden and kill the heir. This is a parent who wants you to know the consequences that come from attempting to navigate a complicated life without guidance, without direction and support. The cornerstone gives shape to the whole structure. The cornerstone holds it all together.
Jesus, like God and the ten words in Exodus, is trying to describe a life with and a life without the shape that God gives us. He hopes to warn us of the dangers ahead. But mostly, it seems, he wants us to be fruitful. That’s what this is all about—not obedience for obedience’s sake. But the law invites obedience in order to produce fruit, the fruit of the kingdom, the fruit that fulfills and sustains and creates community and produces hope and joy in abundance. This is the fruit for which we labor, the hope by which we live, the law that sustains and lifts up—the fruit of the kingdom.