Exodus 201-20, Philip. 3:4-14, Mt. 21:33-46I have been reading a book called Speaking Christianity by Marcus Borg. And in it Borg points out that many of the words that we have from the Bible do not mean the same today as they meant when they were first written and don’t even mean the same as when they were translated into English 400 years ago in the King James Version of the Bible. We need but see how the word gay or the word bite has been changed in just the last 30 years and I won’t go into all words that have been co-opted by technology. But if we consider how much has changed in the past 5,700 years of Jewish history, we can begin to understand how difficult the whole issue of translation of the Bible is.
But I want to talk today about the meaning of just one word: MERCY. In today’s dictionary it is described as “forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power; also: lenient or compassionate treatment “
It implies that: 1. there is an unequal relationship between the one giving and one receiving mercy and 2. That there is some sort of misdeed that is being forgiven. Now the idea of tzadakah—or righteousness does not mean just being ‘right’ it means going beyond the law—being compassionate.
The word chesed in Hebrew is usually translated “loving-kindness” and the word mitzvoth is usually translated law. But neither of these words really catch the meaning. Today’s reading from Exodus set out the 10 Mitzvoth which we translate as “Commandments” but that too doesn’t quite get what it means either. It was the relationship that God had with the people of Israel that determined what law meant. Mitzvah is an act of kindness. And obeying the law was not out of the value of obedience, but out of being in relationship with the Holy One.
The best word then, for what is translated in our Bibles as Mercy is better translated as ‘compassion.’
Our adherence to the law and the random acts of kindness are part of being in relationship with God. They are not hard and fast rules to follow to maintain order. They are part of participating in the holiness of God by taking on the greatest quality of God—chesed—loving kindness. We do not do the things enumerated in the 10 commandments because they would damage our ability to understand the compassion of God.
In the parable we hear from Matthew we hear one of the strangest tales that Jesus tells. It is a story that is hard to hear because we know that Jesus is telling this story at the end of his ministry and he is telling a story about himself. It isn’t like some of the other ‘kingdom parables’ that he has told in recent weeks. This one has to do with all of the people of God and is foretells the destruction of the temple and all of Palestine by the Romans in 70 AD. Jesus is speaking like a prophet here, not just as rabbi—a teacher. It is a fierce condemnation of the people who have colluded with the rich and powerful to rob the lands of the poor.
I am teaching a class on the book of Amos at the moment and the same reasons that God brought the end of Israel some 700 years before are the same reasons that Jesus is outlining in this parable. Everyone who heard this parable knew that Jesus was talking about the Jewish people. Everyone knew that this had happened before. Jesus is not talking to a group of his followers. He is talking to the wealthy politicians and scribes of Jerusalem who have colluded with the Herodian and Roman governments to fleece the poor of the nation. They have been like the tenants in the parable who have tried to steal the land of God from the rightful owner. They have failed in their compassion and their following of the mitzvoth of God. They have misused the law of Moses to the benefit of themselves. And even though they had been shown mercy—shown compassion by the landowner repeatedly, they kill the son.
There is a little point here that I want to point out. Who pronounces judgment in this story?
“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? And it is the crowd—those who are trying to find fault with Jesus who condemn the tenants. It isn’t Jesus’ condemnation and it isn’t God’s condemnation. It is the people themselves who condemn themselves. They know what is to come because they have not followed the mitzvoth of God. They have coveted, slain, lied, failed to give honor to their own families, they have not lived out the compassion –the chesed of God simply because it was ‘good trade’ to lie, cheat and steal. It was good business to cheat others out of their inheritances. It was good politics to play one country off another. It was loan with high rates of interest and misuse the old and the weak than it was to work and honest day.
Jesus was not pronouncing dire consequences that were going to happen to the people of Jerusalem. He was observing what had already happened to Palestine society. He could not help but see in the great city of David what had happened when the people did not try to live within the compassion of God.
And if there is any parable in the Gospel that is more prophetic to our own generation, I don’t know of it. When government colludes with business to insure greed at every level, when dishonesty flows from the lips of every politician on either side of the aisle, when they dumb down education so that industry can make more, when they take from the poor and give to the rich, when gamesmanship and polls are more important that feeling the poor---we are not living the compassion of God. We are not following the 10 mitzvoth of God. And “when the Owner of the vineyard comes what will he do to those tenants?” Let they who have ears…Listen. AMEN