Signpost for Sunday Oct 8, 2017: Exod 20:1-4,7-9,12-20; Ps 19; Phil 3:4b-14; Matt 21:33-46.
Last century, when I was at grammar school, our religious instruction lessons were called Divinity. Our Divinity teacher was a strange man who seemed to have two main interests in life: small boys and cakes. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those stories, and though he talked a lot about cakes, he never brought us any.
What he did do was make us learn chunks of the Bible for homework and then recite the set piece in class. Hence there was a time, I think it was a Tuesday in 1964, when I knew the Ten Commandments off by heart.
These days very few people, even if they are regular church goers, can get much further than: ‘You shall not kill.’ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ ‘You shall not steal.’ After that they start to lose the plot.
How on earth, then, were the Israelites ever supposed to remember the Ten Commandments and all the laws that follow? Our reading this week stops at verse 20, but YHWH hasn’t finished at verse 20. In verses 21-26 he gives Moses the Law of the Altar. He carries straight on with the Law Concerning Servants (Exod 21:1-11), the Law Concerning Violence (Exod 21:12-26), the Laws of Animal Control (Exod 21:28-36), rules about property (Exod 22:1-15), moral and ceremonial rules (Exod 22:16-31), rules to ensure justice (Exod 23:1-9), the Laws of the Sabbath (Exod 23:10-13), and a list of compulsory annual feasts (Exod 23:14-19).
But wait, there’s more. Moses comes down and tells everyone the rules, which he has thankfully written down. Moses then pops back up the mountain and receives even more instructions – they go on till Exodus 32.
All of which makes me think, is it really any wonder that people were inclined to think the rules that the Sadducees and later the Pharisees insisted they should live by were the rules they needed to follow?
Jesus’s public summary of the Law, though, is a heck of lot simpler (Mark 12:30-31; Matt 22:37-39). No wonder he was popular. Equally, when Jesus tells his third story in this section of Matthew, about the vineyard owner and the murderous servants, the chief priests and the Pharisees realize that he is talking about them. No wonder they sought to lay hands on him. No wonder the crowd regarded him as a prophet. No wonder the chief priests and the Pharisees were afraid of the crowd.
No wonder, as I said last week, a popular uprising looks imminent.