- Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9
God identifies God’s-Self to Moses as the same God known by prior wondrous acts of deliverance– the God “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” — is the same God who now delivers a gift of Commandments. The first four commandments protect any reference to this God; “for the Lord will acquit anyone who misuses his name.” The remaining commandments are concerned for the well-bring of the community: keep the Sabbath, honor parents, shun murder, adultery, stealing, “coveting” and bearing “false witness.” The occasion of the gift of these Commandments is surrounded by “thunder, lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking….” Those who “witnessed” this display kept their distance out of fear. They implored Moses to “speak to us,” because they believe that if “God speaks to us [directly]… we will die,” because “God has come only to test us.” This intimidating display serves the purpose of instilling respect and awe for the Commandments and the One who gave them, “so that you do not offend….”
- Psalm 19
To the psalmist, the whole creation speaks to God’s glory in each daily cycle, in “silence.” The commandments of this God are perfect, unblemished, steadfast pure, truthful. However, our “unwitting sins” require us to beg to be cleared.
- Isaiah 5: 1-7
Using a venerable metaphor, Isaiah likens God’s investment in Israel/Judah to the gardener of a vineyard. The gardener prepared the soil and planted the best stock of vines he could find. But when it came time to enjoy the harvest of his hard work, all he got was “wild grapes.” Now angry, the gardener tore down the protecting wall around the vineyard and allowed the garden to be overrun. To make certain that point of this story is not lost on his listeners, the text says that Isaiah identified the gardener as God and the garden as Israel/Judah. For all God’s labor, attention, skillful investment and nurturing, God expected justice, but instead got bloodshed; expected righteousness, but got cries of injustice!
- Psalm 80: 7-14
The psalmist also uses the gardener metaphor to describe God’s establishment of a “vine out of Egypt.” Why, the psalmist cries to God, did You allow it to be overrun?
- Philippians 3: 4b-14
Paul’s identity had been shaped as a Hebrew– Pharisee and passionate defender of Israel. Then he met the Resurrected Christ. All that had mattered so absolutely to him before is now meaningless, he writes. Paul has a new purpose, a new cause: “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may obtain the resurrection from the dead.”
- Matthew 21: 33-46
Jesus has just indicted his listeners for their failure to respond to John the Baptizer and shocked them by telling them that “tax collectors and prostitutes” will participate in God’s realm before any religious leaders will, (see last Sunday’s gospel, 21: 23-32). Now he adds insult to injury by telling another story, which is a thinly disguised reference to their failure to respond the him. This story is about a “landowner” who first sent his “slaves” to “collect the produce’ from his land.” But the “tenants” abused and killed them. He sent more “slaves,” who were also rejected. Finally, he sent his “son,” assuming they would now “repent.” But they immediately decided to “kill him and get his inheritance.” Jesus, in the classic manner of a rabbinic teacher, asks his listeners: what will the landowner do to these tenants? They respond that he will put them to “a miserable death” and “leave” the land to “other tenants.” Jesus quotes Scripture (Psalm 117: 22-23): “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone….” In case he has been too subtle, Jesus continues bluntly (only in Matthew’s version): “the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces fruits of the kingdom.” The religious authorities and leaders want to arrest Jesus on the spot, but “feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.”
Biblical narratives operate in three environments– God, us and the gap between.
When speaking about God or reporting God’s direct speech, the words used include true, trustworthy, rock, steadfast perfect, pure. The first four Commandments are meant to protect the respect due God’s name. The psalmist (19) knows God’s commandments only as pure and wholly trustworthy. In the story from the Book of Isaiah and the story Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel, God nurtures and protects and also demands a precise response. As Walter Brueggemann notes, “Yahweh is a God who commands (swh). The foremost mode by which Yahweh communicates to Israel is by commandment (miswah) and Israel’s crucial mode of engagement is by obedience (sm) He calls chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus God’s “primal command.” (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 181 ff) And when God speaks in biblical narratives, the occasion is frequently accentuated with lightning, fire, earthquake, violent wind.
When speaking of us, the biblical narratives are blunt, honest, probing. They describe human folly and failure in precise, knowing detail. In his seminal study of the Western imagination in Mimesis, Erich Auerbach contrasts classical treatment of human nature with the emerging Christian perspective [which is, of course, rooted in the Hebrew scriptures] this way: “the deep subsurface of layers [of how human beings understand themselves] which were static for the observers of classical antiquity, began to move” (p.45) Later he notes that St. Augustine is “outside the style of his age” because “he feels and directly presents human life and it lives before our eyes.” (p. 70) Later still, Auerbach finds in the writings of the Sixth Century Bishop of Tours, Gregory, further realism:
“this brutal life becomes a sensible object; to him who would describe it, it presents itself as devoid of order and difficult to order, but tangible, earthy, alive. Gregory was a Bishop–it was his duty to develop Christian ethical attitudes; his office was a practical and demanding one, in which the cure of souls might at any moment be combined with political and economic questions.” “Nothing human is foreign to Gregory.” (p. 91)
Auerbach’s observations led him to conclude: “Christianization is directly concerned with and concerns the individual person and the individual event.” (p. 92) Scripture exposes an intimate and blunt knowledge of our humanity.
What of the third environment in which the biblical texts operate– the gap between God and us? If God is pure and perfect and steadfast but we are unsteady and fickle and “unwitting sinners,” to borrow from the psalmist again, how do we respond to this gap? The biblical narratives describe three basic responses: indifference, active rejection and desire. Either the gap overwhelms and we give up, or we reject it, or it instills a passion to at least struggle and try to come as close as we can to God’s expectations. (In today’s readings and gospel: Isaiah describes indifference, the gospel depicts rejection, and the psalmist and Paul show passion.) God repeatedly reaches out to us across the gap and each person responds for himself or herself.
John Caputo finds in several postmodern writers, but in Derrida above all, a recapitulation of this passion in which the biblical texts live and work. Calling Derrida a “Jewish Augustinian, ” Caputo discovers in his work “a desire beyond desire, as a desire for God… a restless heart that desires we do not know [fully] quite what, where the name of God is the name of our desire even as it is the best name we have for what we do not know.” (Kevin Hart, ed, Counter-Expereince, p. 74) (Review today’s reading from Exodus.) We are, Caputo writes, left then with “a justice to come that denounces the injustice in what at present calls itself just or democratic.” We do not know [fully] what this justice is, but we do know “that nothing present can lay claim to it. Thus the effect of the call to come is not to predict anything coming but to intensify our desire.” (Ibid) “Our best words,” Caputo writes, “are empty intentions, promises that have not and cannot be kept, words that we cherish because they make but do not quite keep.” (p. 76)
The gap between God and us is staggering and tempestuous. In the biblical narratives God commands absolute justice, but then pleads, cajoles, woos us over and over when we do not do justice. We are preoccupied with ‘more important’ concerns or we outright reject God’s commands and God’s repeated reaching out to us. The biblical narratives describe in excruciating detail our flawed, inadequate responses. We can feign resignation to this gap, or it can become the source of passion for the impossible.
Just after considering the event described in today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, Kevin Hart considers the ‘gap’ we have been discussing this way:
“For God opens the space wherein love can be ventured, and the first step is always his (sic). As absolute subject, God never presents himself (sic) as object in any sense, and he (sic) comes to us not as experience: not as that which we can appropriate, render proper to consciousness, but rather as a mystery that passes through our lives, a disturbance that opens our ways of being, doing, and thinking…” (The Experience of God: A Postmodern Response, pp 80-81)
Today’s appointed gospel is a step-by-step account of the way God’s initiative (through Jesus, the Christ) was misread and rejected. It is a sad account. But, we know from what comes next in the story– the horrors of false arrest and execution– the extent to which God is willing to go to try again to bridge the gap between God and us. The next move is ours.