Law Abiding Citizens? A Lectionary Meditation
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Law Abiding Citizens?
I know there are anarchists amongst us, who believe that we can live without rules and regulations and government. Even in this Tea Party era of minimal government, most people believe that society needs some kind of law and order. Might I assume that we accept the premise that we should be law-abiding citizens, even if we “occasionally” exceed the speed limit as we speed down the interstate?
In a perfect world perhaps laws and government wouldn’t be necessary, but in a less than perfect world laws and governments provide protection for those who lack power and might. Down through history we’ve seen all manner of society come and go – oligarchy, plutocracy, monarchy, and dictatorship. These forms of “government” continue to exist today in one form or another. There are places, like Somalia, where there is no government, and thus chaos is the rule of the day. In the time of Moses, Pharaoh set the rules and did so to his own benefit. In the time of Jesus and Paul, the Roman Emperor set the rules, and again, did so to his benefit. There were no checks and balances, with the one exception of a military coups, which was a continual threat, as most Roman emperors were former generals. They ruled their empires with a combination of a threat of violence, bread, and circuses. Living as I do in the United States of the 21st century, I am a citizen of a representative democracy with certain checks and balances built into the system to prevent tyranny from taking hold. Of course, there are ways of circumventing and controlling the system, so that a tyranny of the powerful can find ways of controlling even democratic institutions. Nonetheless, unless asked to act contrary to the ways of God, we assume that it is best to be a law abiding citizen.
There are three texts before us. In the first, Moses delivers the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. These laws provide define what it means to live in covenant relationship with Yahweh. In the Philippian letter, Paul declares that he has been a law abiding citizen, a Pharisee among Pharisees in his embrace of the Law. As for Jesus, he offers us a reminder of what it means to live as a citizen in God’s realm. God has planted a vineyard and invited us to tend to it, so the question is – will we be mindful of the one who entrusted it to our care or not? Is this not a question of good citizenship?
So, we start with the Law. Moses comes down from the Mountain of Sinai and gathers the people together at the foot of the mountain, and the Lord God delivers to them the Law, which we know as the Ten Commandments. Presumably it is through the voice of Moses that this word of God is delivered. There aren’t any Tablets yet, so it’s a matter of hearing words that outline a way of living in covenant with God. God declares to the people from the mountain: “I am the Lord. I brought you out of slavery and so you can’t have any other gods and you can’t make any idols. Don’t abuse my name by swearing upon it (could taking oaths by saying “so help me God” be an example of such abuse?). And keep the Sabbath. These are all laws that define, presumably, the relationship between Yahweh and the people. Based on these precepts, Moses then delivers some guidelines for living together as God’s people. Honor your parents, don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness (wow, we sure do a lot of that these days), and don’t covet the things that belong to your neighbor. Now, we moderns might have some problems with some of the elements of property listed in that last set of laws – are wives property? And slaves? Not something we would accept as an acceptable form of property. As the word is delivered it is accompanied by a terrifying display of divine power – thunder and lighting and trumpets and smoking mountains. The people are afraid and tell Moses – you talk to us and we’ll obey, just ask that this display end. In response Moses says – don’t be afraid, God is just doing this so you will fear God. Doesn’t that make sense don’t be afraid, just be afraid! The point is – be a law abiding citizen (don’t sin) and you’ll have nothing to fear!
As we look at these laws, especially the second set, the ones that define our relationship with another, it appears that they are designed not only to keep order in the land but to protect the other from violence, whether it is physical (murder and theft), verbal (dishonoring parents and bearing witness), or internal (coveting what belongs to the other). Note that this last of the laws, the one dealing with covetousness really sets up all the others, including the first set. To break the first set is to place one’s self in the position of God, doing violence to God’s place in our lives. As for the second set of laws, when we so desire what belongs to the other that we must have it, we often resort to violence of some sort to get that which we desire for ourselves!
In the Philippian letter Paul takes up the issue of being a law-abiding citizen in a somewhat different manner. Whereas, Moses cast the question of obedience to the law as a sign of one’s relationship to the covenant, Paul seems to have caught sight of our human tendency to turn what is good upside down. Instead of being a guide to living faithfully in covenant with God, it had become a competition. Who can be the best at keeping the law? And if that’s the criteria, Paul seems to believe that he has few if any peers. Indeed, “if anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.” Now, if anyone has ever had a strong ego, it was Paul. As to whether he was righteous according to the Law of Israel, he was blameless. He had accomplished what every Pharisee sought after – to keep the Law in its fullness. In spite of all of this, he considered this to be all for naught when compared to the richness of experiencing oneness with Christ and Christ’s resurrection. Yes, the one whom he had once resisted, and whose followers he had zealously persecuted, was now the one to whom he would devote his life. Anything else was rubbish, not worthy of his attention. And so rather than strive for perfection in keeping the Law he will now forget what lies behind him and press onward “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” It’s not as if, however, Paul is embracing anarchy or antinomianism (no law), but rather recognizing that all of our righteousness is wrapped up in pursuing this heavenly call of God.
The tenants in Jesus’ parable are hardly upstanding citizens. They agree to tend the vineyard planted by this landowner. One would assume that the tenants had agreed to an arrangement where they would tend to the vineyard and at the appropriate time provide the owner with the produce of the land. And so when the time came to bring in the harvest, the landowner sends representatives (slaves) to collect. The tenants react in a rather inappropriate way – they beat one, kill another, and stone still another (as to the fate of this third person, we’re not given full details as to whether he or she survived). When the landowner sends another set of representatives the same thing happens. Finally in desperation, assuming that this lawless group of tenants would at least respect his son, he sends this son to collect. But for some reason these tenants get the idea that if they kill the heir they’ll get the land. Now, where they might get such a far-fetched idea is beyond me. Why would tenants become the heir if they killed the heir? But, parables aren’t necessarily meant to make logical sense. Having told the parable, Jesus turns to his audience, which seems to be composed of priests and Pharisees, and asks them – what would the landowner do? The answer is obvious, the landowner will come and kill them and give their leases to others who will not only agree to the terms, but live up to them. And Jesus seems to nod in agreement, and then says, have you not read the scriptures that say that the stone the builders reject will become the cornerstone? So, here’s the deal – you had access to the kingdom of God, but that access will be taken from you and given to others. When they heard this, they realized that they were the target of this statement. They would have arrested him, but they were afraid of the people who regarded him as a prophet. So, if the religious leaders are the evil tenants who reject the envoys of the landowner (God), then who are the new tenants? Could it be the people, the ones without power, who will now have access to the kingdom?
We needn’t take this in an anti-Jewish direction so that God rejects the Jews in favor of Gentiles, though that interpretation has been proffered down through history. But it is a warning to those who would seek power over others, who would use religion and faith for their own good at the expense of the other.
So, what does it mean to be a law-abiding citizen when the rules seem to have changed, when there is no need to compete in the game of self-righteousness? When the definition of power is different than the one we’ve been taught? Ultimately we have to go back to Exodus, where God makes provision for living in covenant – love God and love neighbor -- that is the way to fulfill those commandments laid out at the foot of Sinai. It’s not a game or a competition. As both Paul and Jesus seem to suggest, this has something to do with how we live together in the presence of God.